The car was still there, along with all my gear. The tires still full of air, tray heavily laden with quarters. Comforted my things were in order, I got out and scanned around for the old vet but found no sign of him. I leaned against the passenger door, thoughts heavy, waiting.
I went back inside to check the bathrooms. No one beyond the cashier but an old farmer waiting for his youngster to finish drinking from a water fountain. We exchanged nods. I must have seemed a little thrown.
I walked back outside and around the station, sat back down in my car. I took five slow breaths and closed my eyes. He was gone. Had he even been real?
An attendant knocked on my passenger window. “Is everything alright? You can’t just leave your car parked next to the pump.”
“Sorry, I was just waiting on a friend.”
Minutes later, I was back on the freeway heading west. Finally alone, thoughts shifted to the road ahead. A radio voice talked on about war.
Twenty miles later, I started seeing signs for Buffalo Rock State Park. Stretching out my legs on the ground was preferable to sleeping bunched up in the backseat. I found a site and had better luck finding firewood than the night before. I had flames up, licking the sky before long. I sat a burrito on the rocks to warm while tipping back a beer.
I must have gotten into some fairly heavy thinking. At a certain point, I remember making a pledge to myself: “Despite all the madness in the world, I plan on having as much fun as possible and will try not to take life too seriously.”
Reclined back, head resting on a log, I took in the quiet contrast of this small patch of woods, compared to the blur of billboards, and traffic around Chicago a few hours ago. The burritos were better than expected. One was a little cold in the middle, but I ate it anyway. I drank a third beer while setting up the tent. Realizing I had no way of keeping the rest of the bottles cold, I drank the fourth, feeling light. A few days ago, I’d set out from home—driven by a need to be set free. Free from what? Spending the next 30 years teaching the same old shit to class after class until becoming a relic of an age that didn’t stand up in time to do anything against the injustices I could see clearly in my youth, but that had faded largely with age? Yes, something like that.
“Your generation had it right when they said don’t trust anyone over 30,” I’d told Pappy the night before.
He looked at me like an elephant tolerating a fly. “Guess that means I shouldn’t trust you,” I’d said.
I laughed, but he didn’t. Had that been when he’d decided to move on?
Darkness descended. I thought about hunting for more wood but turned in early instead. Gathering my garbage into a plastic bag, I sat it down on the floor of the backseat, retrieved Pappy’s book and the revolver, and curled up in my sleeping bag with a flashlight. “Inside Creature From Jekyll Island,” I scanned the table of contents, skimmed a few random pages—too tipsy to remember what they said—and eventually fell asleep.
• • • • •
The Situation Room
The Secretary of Defense’s face was made of stone. When his eye blinked, it was like a cobra snapping. When his mouth finally moved, a fissure opened in the middle of the desert. As soon as the meeting room filled, he stood without pleasantries. “We’ve got to do Iraq on this,” he said. “We need to prove that we’ll not be pushed around by these kinds of attacks.”
The General-cum-Secretary of State leveled his eyes. “Intelligence indicates that Iraq had little, if nothing, to do with what happened last week.”
The Secretary of Defense shrugged his shoulders. Many believed that he had once hired the Iraqi President as a CIA-sponsored assassin. They’d seen the photographs of the two grinning and shaking hands. This had to be far more complicated than he was letting on.
Without another word, the Secretary of Defense looked over at the President—the man whose father waged war against the same mustachioed foreign dictator. The President looked at the bald man beside him. War was business for the bald man, as he continued to accept a deferred salary as CEO of one of the biggest multi-national conglomerates specializing in war, from before he’d become Vice President. Ever since the American military began out-sourcing vital functions—like cooking, laundry, putting out oil fires, etc.—the bald man’s company was there, greasing the cogs of destruction. The revolving door had existed for years. In one room, a man births a reckless, preemptive war. Across town, his company rakes in obscene wealth cleaning up the mess.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.