Livin' on the road, my friend
Townes van Zandt, "Pancho and Lefty," sung by Emmylou Harris, Luxury Liner, 1977
Blackie and Whitey bought tickets for the overnight to Qandahar and were carried out of the vineyards around Herat and into the afternoon desert, where the sun and the dust dried their faces like raisins. The passengers were mostly local men, with a leavening of tourists that is, travelers, as they defined themselves to provide the entertainment. A few black-shrouded women huddled against the windows, protected or imprisoned by their men, occasionally touching their children if they were small girls or boys too young to walk; by puberty, girls were women, it seemed, and shut away, and males were men when they could hold themselves erect (so to speak). The hard-faced boys did not cry. They learned the life their fathers knew. Like lions, they left their mothers' breasts to assume the mantle of king. For this they took a terrible punishment, but they did not know it. Where life is hard, hard is simply life. Complaint was less than pointless; it was inconceivable.
Cushioned from some of the world's harder edges by the soft detritus of the tea-time number, Whitey sat in the middle seat of a three-person bench between the axles, not-moving, not-thinking, not-being, not-trying to float into a transcendent state of not-presence. On his left, a graybeard of unguessable antiquity 35? 75? a man of lines and superb carriage who offered no conventional western clues to his age; a man, 'tis enough sat straight, silent and immobile, hands clasped in front of his jaw in what might have been seen as a Christian attitude of prayer had they not been propped on the end of an ancient Birmingham-made rifle that could have been taken as booty in the Khyber Pass by his father, or grandfather, or conceivably by the man himself. By the window, Blackie was staring into the distance, at the brown and dusty hills, or were they mountains, that slowly shifted in perspective as the shadows began to grow and the bus rattled further (you could even say furthur) and again, shaking its passengers like Bond's unstirred martini, or Mick's maracas as he didn't fade away.
Blackie pulled out a cigarette and offered them down the line. Whitey took one but their benchmate declined, patting his heart with his right hand by way of apology for his rudeness at declining the hospitality. The two of them smoked in silence (the ambient industrial noise fading to background soundtrack, as the minds kicked in to filter it out), Whitey not-focusing on the turban two feet in front of his head, and Blackie not-seeing the landscape outside, shimmering and slowly dissolving like an ephemeral movie set in an unexpected rain, as the lighting began to disappear and the colors were drained from the backdrop, so slowly that you barely noticed as each of them took their leave and bid adieu, yet quickly enough that if you looked away and back the scene was always different, and yet the same, but somehow strange. Was he part of the landscape, or was it part of him?
"Does Oxford stop at this train?" Blackie mused aloud.
This drew a response from Whitey: He moved his head a one-sixteenth turn to the right and sent his eyes ahead with the silent question.
"Relativity, man, relativity."
The eyes didn't have it and so signified.
"It's an old story, and I think it's true," pontificated Blackie, an unlikely candidate for the college of Cardinals but a preacher as to the miter born. "This professor of physics was at Paddington and he called out to a porter, 'Does Oxford stop at this train?' The porter probably thought he was just a professor and let it slide but some undergraduates heard him and told everyone he'd gone gaga ..."
"Yeah?" interposed Whitey, rising a little from the depths of slumber. Blackie's riffs were often just background sounds he was only an intellectual and given to jabbering about useless crap but he made an entertaining noise; it was kinda cute, though that wasn't one of Whitey's adjectives but this one seemed to have some potential.
"Right. Only they spread the story and it got back to the professor and he started to use it in his own lectures."
Whitey's left eyebrow lifted. It was a neat trick, not really spoiled by the fact that his right one went down a little at the same time. Blackie's smile responded to the medium, his words to the message.
"He meant it, man. I mean, he spaced out putting it that way to the guy on the platform, but it doesn't make any fucking difference which one's going where. It's all just relative, just like here. Look at that mountain, it's moving."
They did. It was.
"Perspective, man. You can't tell how big it is, either."
They tried. They couldn't.
"You got the air, it's dead clean, except for this dust the bus kicks up, and it's drier than a witches tit, you could see for fucking miles here."
"How do you know?"
"That's the point, man, I don't. I'm just taking it on faith. I read it, it's logical, it makes sense, I believe it."
"You fucker, you always ask the good questions."
"Gimme good answer, then."
"Right," responded Blackie, cranking the old left brain into gear. Freed from the coaches of college, it liked a work-out every now and zen. "Parallax." He began to sketch with his forefinger on the back of the seat in front, resolutely refusing to be distracted by the fact that the medium of his art was dust on vinyl. "We go from here to here, and the mountain's here, so the angle off to the right changes from this to that and the angle up to the top of the peak changes in the same kind of way, and if we know how far we've gone, that's this line, call it A, and we measure these angles b and c, then we can calculate by trigonometry the distance B, which is going to be pretty close to C ..."
"But the mountain's moving."
"Fuck you, we're on a bus." The subtle riposte is a hallmark of the natural academic. "Anyway, it doesn't matter, the maths is about the same both ways."
"Maybe the bus is on us."
"Trouble with you goddam freaks is you expect us to mean what we say." Blackie cackled as he said this. Near as he could recall, it was a direct quote from a triumph of his college days, when he'd twisted his tutor into an uncharacteristic loss of equilibrium. Yeah, he'd replied, it'd be too much for you to say what you mean.
Whitey was on an inquisitive roll.
"It's all empty anyway, right?"
"Right, man, that's right. All these atoms are just bunches of electrical emptiness, that's right. Sorta like the solar system."
"So how come if we're in the bus, we're not in the bus? Know what I mean?"
"You mean, how come we don't get all mixed up with it and mushed together?"
"Beats me, man. I had to hang around with the social scientists. I never figured out how anyone who wasn't into acid could grok that shit about atoms being empty."
"Been there," Whitey grinned.
"I'll take your word for it, man," laughed Blackie. "Yeah, it's heavy shit. Those cats are weird, you know, the physicists. My lot were much more boring. Actually, they were a right loada pricks. Gave me a social disease."
The other groaned silently.
Whitey adopted his best Puerto-Rican-main-man hard-face and they started to snap their fingers in classic West Side Story style. Not too many Jets were tangle-haired hirsute redheads but Blackie figured he made up for it by having the bit about fancying Natalie Wood down cold.
The two of them were in a bubble, isolated by language and culture and possibly inclination from the Afghans in the seats around them, and by their neighbors from the potential comrades a few rows away. This was cool, even appropriate, but as they grew silly they found curiosity permeating the invisible membrane. Even granddad next door looked over, stonefaced still but not necessarily disapproving. These boys were large, he seemed to notice, but they acted like children. If this offended his sense of the natural order, he showed no particular sign, simply observing the unusual reality on his right. Blackie caught his eye and hammed up the finger-clicks, but still managed to provoke no clear response; perhaps a glint of amusement? Or was it contempt? Either, of course, would do. As Blackie caught himself watching the old man observing them watching him looking at ... the old relativity mind-games and the infinite mirror regressions came back, like Escher stairs leading him around and up to himself and away and back up again, and he began to laugh, first self-consciously and then with a fine disregard for all that crap, a huge and beautiful humor that was so obviously joyous that the ancient himself deigned to smile.
A hand snaked between the seats and tapped Blackie on the left shoulder. It held a short, fat, hand-rolled, good lord ... could it be? Blackie blinked in mild disbelief. This, after all, was a public omnibus, a transport of delight perhaps but not a rolling opium den. The smell was interesting, though. It must be. He took the proffered doobie in his right hand and raised the end that wasn't on fire towards his lips, only to be distracted by a gentle tap on his shoulder that nearly pushed him through the window.
The philanthropist behind was looking horrified, as though Blackie had failed to belch at the end of dinner. In formal British terms, the solecism so narrowly averted was of the order of passing the port counter-clockwise or mopping up gravy by unwrapping Ma Rainey's breadroll. Fortunately, this Afghan Emile Post was committed to promoting education and understanding among the infidels. He recovered the number in question and demonstrated proper technique by inserting it between the middle and ring fingers of his left hand, then making a loose fist, covered at the bottom by the right hand and raising the two-handed structure to his lips, which touched only his own flesh, where the left forefinger curled round, and remained decorously (and presumably salubriously) separate from the object to be circulated. With a smile that was probably meant to be gracious but came across wicked, he passed the joint over again.
Blackie followed protocol this time and drew a hit that elevated him clear through the roof and landed him in the middle of the luggage and freeloaders on top of the omnibus. The black smoke curled his toes and straightened the little hairs at the base of his spine. Only years of training saved him from the humiliation of coughing half of it straight back out. The chillum technique for it was devised long before the invention of Zig-zags, Rizlas and the like, to accommodate the sharing of little clay funnel-shaped pipes was stunningly efficient at providing an optimal admixture of oxygen, incinerated tobacco by-products and miscellaneous lightly processed (and, in this case, remarkably high-octane) opiates. Look on it as fuel injection for the psycho-active engine. Zero to eight miles high in 1.7 seconds.
Whitey took his turn with characteristic aplomb. He wasn't really trying, but no one could take him at the impassive game, not when he was alerted and ready to play. He put hand to mouth, double-clutched gently to stoke the flame, and fumigated his lungs, nose, guts, limbs, brain, eyes ... until he could see the whipped and eviscerated light gray tendrils escaping through his epidermis and staggering, lost and somewhat confused, through the elegant folds of his alabaster finery. Motion clearly being dangerous, he avoided it as far as possible, merely offering the agent along to his left.
The ancient had been patiently not-staring and accepted the reefer with aplomb. Not for him, however, the newfangled two-handed backhand; the vast fingers of his left hand were quite adequate to the task of blocking the unnecessary airholes without calling on the assistance of a second team. His right hand rested nonchalantly on his gun as he raised the other and extracted, without apparent effort, an extraordinary quantity of the gaseous products of combustion. As rock-steady and surely quite as blasted as his occidental neighbor, he passed the now-shrunken joint back to the row behind.
Two of the occupants passed, so the generous donor took his hit and recirculated the remainder. Blackie got another good one but Whitey felt the acrid taste of the last effective blast and, to general consent, killed the roach. Reciprocal smiles were as much conversation as any of them felt like managing, so they burned the end of the daylight in unfocused meditation as the bus's shape in gradually distorting silhouette slid eastward across the desert.
Following the shadow deep into the unknown.
Something was hidden there.
Something relatively important.
Or some important relative.
Probably not Emmylou, though, worse luck.