You can’t ask that of me, we’ve only just met

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Listener – You Were A House On Fire

A little over a year ago I drove up I-5 from Los Angeles to Seattle with the cruise control set at 75. I cranked the music up over the road noise. The incessant vibration and blaring radio jarred me into near senselessness.

I stumbled out of my Civic at a rest stop somewhere in the middle of Oregon and blinked a few times. A happy homeless man bounded up to me.

“Hi, I’m Keith. Can you spare any change? I’ve got to buy a sack of hot dogs for my wife and dogs.” He gestured to a lady chatting to the owners of a van a few spots down the parking lot and at two large dogs tied to the wall near the bathroom.

“Today’s your lucky day,” I said, and dumped well over $5 worth of quarters (a roommate’s idea of a joke in payment for a minor debt) into his outstretched hands. Our fingers brushed; his skin was rough and scarred.

But his face was bright, soft, grinning dumbly like one of his mutts.

“Where ya headed?” he asked.
“Up to Seattle. I’m moving from Cali.”
“You should keep on driving right on up to Everett, get a job with Boeing. That’s what I did after the war. Pays real great and with the benefits.”
“You were in the war?” I asked.
“Yeah, Nam. Me and my buddy Robbie were there before we came here. We camped just across the freeway down there.” He pointed over the highway to a dirt road that led around a hill. “He’s not around anymore.”
“Hey, listen, we can keep talking, but I’ve got to piss something serious.” I usually don’t pull over unless I have to get gas or am about to piss my pants.
“Oh, of course, by all means. You can enjoy my music too. Go right ahead.”

Keith had the male restroom door propped open with a jukebox which blared AC/DC. I kicked it aside to let the door close, filling the bathroom with tinny guitars and thin vocals as I held my dick in my hand and peed into a toilet millions of men had peed into before.

I propped the door back open and went to see the two dogs. They sniffed and licked my hand; their fur was gorgeous and lush, not the fur of a homeless man’s dog. I think they were half Boxer.

“What are their names?” I asked when Keith came over.
“The mom, this one, she’s Nance. This one’s named Robbie. I was going to give my friend Robbie one, but I can’t, so I named it after him instead. He died on that highway right out there. Little Robbie’s the only one of the litter left.”
“Oh yeah? How many did you have?”

Keith told me a convoluted story about how the policeman who came around the rest stop had threatened to take his dogs away, but eventually Keith had talked the officer into buying one for his niece. Keith seemed especially proud of that one.

We slowly meandered back to my car, chatting. He sometimes spit chunks out when he talked, and I could see the back of his mouth. It dawned on me that Keith wasn’t completely there, but he seemed good natured enough. I asked him where he was headed that night.

“Oh me and the wife are camped out across the highway, same place me and Robbie found a while back. Robbie, he was my best friend. He saved my life, you know. We were in Nam, and I got shot in the ass. They got me right here,” he turned around and pointed to his butt cheek. “But Robbie, he carried me out of there. Slung me right on over his shoulder and carried my ass to safety. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.

“He died right over there. We were headed back to camp after dark, and I made it across alright, but Robbie didn’t make it. A car hit him wham! and then drove off. And he was dead. Robbie, he saved my life, but I couldn’t save his.” Keith was openly weeping now, all tears and spit and distorted face. “I cut back across the highway and I dragged him to the shoulder, but he was already dead, man. Nam couldn’t get him, but a minivan did.”

I wiped some snot off my upper lip. I could see it: the pitch black, Keith – driven half insane by war and menial jobs and America – holding his only friend in his arms, as Robbie’s body cooled and stiffened with death.

Keith quickly moved on, telling me the story about the cop and the puppy again. I smiled, and put my hand on his shoulder and said it was nice to meet him, but I had to get going, a life was calling up north. And I drove on off up the freeway where Robbie died.

[Wooden Heart.]

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