He walked along the side of the road leading straight out of Shreveport. The sun was high up, a hot white disk surrounded by cotton clouds on a bright blue celestial canvas.
It was close to noon, and traffic had mellowed since the morning, which meant there were fewer cars for Him to pick a ride from. The 80 had seemed like a good and less crowded way into Minden earlier that day, but the 7am bumper-to-bumper from Red Chute had almost swayed Him into taking an alternative route – the 20, which was wider but also made His presence on the side of the road more open to interactions with police; He wasn’t fond of authority figures.
However, high noon was a different sight altogether, as the road stretched ahead in hot tar and concrete and old, dented signs pointing towards Fillmore – a couple of miles away, followed by Dixie Inn and Minden.
As dozens of cars rushed past Him, different passing music snippets from their stereos swished by His ears – mostly country music and the occasional mellow pop. A different sound captured His attention, coming from behind at about 40mph.
Que Sera Sera, by Doris Day.
He turned his head and lifted His thumb, signalling the navy-blue Ford pick-up to stop and, hopefully, give Him a ride into Minden. It was the source of Ms Day’s dreamy song, making that particular vehicle His choice of transport towards the final stop on His list – which wasn’t Minden, by the way, but the end of the world.
The pick-up pulled over, surprisingly. The passenger-side window rolled down, and the driver – mid 40’s in a chequered red shirt that matched his tan looked at him.
‘You lost there, buddy?’, the man asked on top of Ms Day.
Not at all. I know which way I’m going, I just need a ride to get there, He answered.
‘Well, I’m on my way to Minden, if that helps?’
It sure does, I can catch a Grey Hound from there.
‘Hop in, then!’
The passenger door clicked and opened, and He got in, dropping His duffel bag at his feet. He smiled at the driver.
Thank you very much, sir, you’re very kind.
The driver smiled and got back on the road, as Ms Day’s song ended and a Sinatra classic came on instead. It seemed to bring serenity to the man’s features – deep lines at the corners of his green eyes smoothed over, and his thin mouth bent upwards in a half-smile. Life seemed good.
‘I’m Calvin, by the way. I hope you don’t mind the music.’
Not at all. I like Sinatra. We share a first name, He replied, looking at the way in which his fingers clutched the black leather wheel.
‘Hah, nice to meet you, Frank. Where are you off to, then?’
‘Yeah, I got that part,’ Calvin chuckled. ‘I mean from Minden. Where are you going from there?’
Ah… New York.
‘Wow, that’s a long way to go on a bus, Frank. Why don’t you hop on a plane, man?’
The sweet Southern notes in his speech made Him smile as He watched the road ahead. Lonely trees lined the 80 on both sides, with the occasional hut selling local produce and gas station sprinkled along the way.
People, little bio-computers made of bone, flesh and capillary systems, had learned to grow vegetables on their own thousands of years earlier, but it still felt like yesterday for Him – the morning He saw one of these creatures abandon the nomadic lifestyle of gathering food in order to settle down, build a home and plough the land.
I’m tired of being above everything all the time. I’m on a road trip of sorts…
‘Ah, doing a little bit of soul-searching, then?’
You could say that, yes. What about you?
‘What about me?’
Where are you going now?
‘I run a little farm just south of Shreveport, and I do a supply run every couple of days. I get my seeds and tools from this little place in Minden, they sell them to me for a good discount… I’m a loyal customer, it’s worth the drive,’ Calvin replied, his eyes on the road.
The song ended abruptly in a string of scratchy FX radio sounds introducing the twelve o’clock news segment. The announcer’s voice was just as strident, and the Southern accent somehow made it worse – as opposed to Calvin’s pleasant inflexions.
The voice spoke of President Trump and his inflammatory speech against China’s leadership, following their demand for a formal apology after a botched diplomatic visit back in May. It then went on to talk about the dollar’s declining value, and the voter suppression scandals in North Carolina.
Calvin sucked in a quick breath and cursed, shaking his head as they crossed the Clarke Bayou stream.
‘I swear, I thought 2016 was bad for this country, but 2017 is putting up some serious competition…’
He looked at Calvin, suddenly curious.
What do you mean?
‘You don’t think it’s been a mess with this whole election thing? Do things look bright and pretty for ya’?’
Not necessarily, but I was just wondering how you felt about it all…
Calvin sighed and took a sip from his cold coffee paper cup, nestled in a holder mounted on the dashboard, just above the radio.
‘I think we’re in for a rough ride, Frank. I don’t know who you voted for, but I actually voted for a woman for the first time in my life and now I’ve got an orange clown as a president. Every time I turn on the news, it just gets worse and worse, too.’
Worse than an orange clown in the White House? What could be worse?
Calvin laughed lightly.
‘Well, the way the media’s treating all of this, for starters. Callin’ them “alt-right” instead of “neo-Nazi” just because they’ve been lurking in the pits of America since before Hitler came to power… like now’s the perfect time to be historically accurate… Instead of addressing the real issue, which is what these pricks stand for. What that Hitler prick stood for. And others before him, for that matter. They’re Nazis, man, and somehow, we’ve given them a voice because the white males of America don’t like losing their jobs to more competent, non-male, non-white people… It’s a joke, man, a big nasty joke.’
You think that’s the issue, the real issue, Calvin?
‘No. I mean, it’s not the only issue. But it’s troubling. I was born and raised in Shreveport, Frank. I don’t know how much you know about Louisiana but let me tell you something – “progressive” was never a term we used to describe our folk. And yet, in the 21st century, most of us are able to understand that skin colour should never be a marker of competence. Or humanity, for that matter. It took us how many years to figure that one out, Frank? How many innocent people have we killed and maimed and tortured and treated like shit just because we felt superior as… as whites?’
I’ve lost count, to be honest.
‘Exactly. So, it’s 2017, and the new President of the United States of America ran a campaign based on lies, empty promises, racism and wilful ignorance, and got himself into the top suite in Washington. You know, I argued with friends and family over this. My cousins won’t even talk to me anymore. They’re sayin’ I bought into the liberal media’s bullshit,’ Calvin laughs, bitterness oozing from his tone. ‘That’s their answer to everything. The liberal media is corrupt! Clinton should be in jail! Obama ruined America! They’re tellin’ ME that I’ve been suckered by the propaganda, but when I give them facts they scoff and tell me I’m full of shit.’
That sounds… Well, that sounds sad.
A moment went by in silence as Calvin drank more coffee and took a deep breath. A nicotine patch peaked on his right arm, from beneath the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt.
‘Who’d you vote for, Frank?’
I didn’t vote.
Calvin looked at Him with eyes wide open and instant anger bubbling in a little vein on his temple.
‘What do you mean you didn’t vote? Why the hell didn’t you vote?!’
Eyes on the road, Calvin.
The driver did as he was told, while chewing on his bottom lip and probably thinking of kicking Him out of the car and leaving them in the middle of nowhere.
I didn’t vote because I’m not American, Calvin.
‘Oh! Sorry, man… But you sound American…’
I don’t blame you for assuming that. It’s fine.
I guess. Yes, Canadian.
‘But you’ve been watching the election, right? I mean, what… What do you think of all of this?’, Calvin asked and took another sip of his cold coffee.
I’m surprised at how a country chooses to ignore the proven facts, the undeniable truth and common sense, in favour of something loud, scandalous and, well, colourful, because it’s “different” and it resonates with their personal frustrations, somehow. Tens of millions of people were distracted by the shiny and noisy toy, while a handful of suits won the seat of power of a nation that has such influence on the rest of the world. It’s a plot twist I honestly hoped I wouldn’t see coming. But I’ve lost control of this story a long time ago…
‘So, you think Trump’s bad, too!’
I don’t think anything of him. I’m more of an analytical entity, Calvin. I don’t have patience for feelings anymore – I should, but I just don’t. Right now, I’m simply wondering whether I should end it all, or not.
‘What do you mean by that, Frank?’
I’m just talking about a change of scenery, so to speak.
‘But you’re Canadian. I hear you guys are doing well over there,’ Calvin replied.
You could say that, yes. I haven’t been there in while, though. But I hear nice things, mostly.
A silence settled between them as they passed Shootout Lane – a little side road that led to a gun shop and a shootout range.
As the pick-up rumbled down the 80, Calvin changed the radio station, looking for some more ‘big band’ tunes. His passenger, on the other hand, was quite pleased with His choice of driver.
It was only when they passed the road leading up to Bayou Dorcheat Correction Center that the conversation sparked back to life. It was due to something that Calvin had been thinking about over the last ten minutes.
‘Tell me, Frank, what do you think of America?’
The same I think of all the countries I’ve seen so far, and I’ve seen all of them. I’m trying to figure out whether you’re worth all the trouble or not.
‘Trouble?’, Calvin laughed lightly. ‘Oh, come on, we’re not that bad. Sure, there are good people and bad people everywhere, you can’t judge an entire country by just one side of it, can you?’
Think about it this way. You’re holding an apple, Calvin. And it’s red and shiny and perfect as you look at it, as you prepare to dig your teeth in and feel the sweetness on your tongue. But then you turn it around and you see a little dent in it, a little bit of rot that you don’t want in your mouth because it will taste bad and it will make you sick. What do you do?
‘You’re trying to reason with the farmer in me, huh?’, Calvin smiled and finished his coffee, placing the empty cup back in its holder. ‘But to answer your question… I’ll take out my knife and cut off the little rotten part. The rest of that apple, hell, most of that apple is good to eat!’
Alright. That makes sense. Now imagine that little chunk of rot represents a hundred thousand people who think they’re superior to other people who have a different skin colour, a different religion, a different sexual orientation, a different lifestyle altogether – they’re malignant, and they’re teaching other people along with their children that their way of thinking and doing things is righteous. A hundred thousand people who distort the truth and spread lies just so they can have a good excuse to hurt other people because they simply don’t like them, they don’t understand them, they can’t accept them as human beings. You’re comfortable with cutting them out?
‘I see what you’re trying to get at, Frank. But what do you mean by cutting them out? You mean killing them? That would be barbaric.’
Absolutely. Perhaps you’re too compassionate to go down that particular avenue of logic with me, He smiled and took out a little pad and pencil from His jacket pocket. But you do agree that in this particular scenario, the good outweighs the bad. That the apple is worth eating if you just remove the little rotten part.
‘Yes, I do.’
And if you leave the little rotting part there, it will spread. And then the entire apple will go bad. Will anyone eat it?
‘Not even pigs will touch that,’ Calvin chuckled.
Pigs are more discerning than you give them credit for, Calvin. So how do you fix the rotting hundred thousand individuals? Do you overpower them?
‘I’m a little bit confused, Frank. What are you trying to say?’, Calvin said as a deep line formed between his dark eyebrows.
If you ignore the rot, it will spread. Soon enough, it will be sixty million. Half an apple – gone.
‘But America’s population is much bigger, Frank. That’s not half of an apple.’
No, but the tens of millions who were eligible to vote but couldn’t be bothered to vote are just as foul because they allowed the rot to win. They sat back and let it happen. You can’t argue with that, can you?
Calvin thought about it for a second and shook his head, a tinge of sadness dropping the corners of his mouth.
You ignored the little rotten part for decades, Calvin. You didn’t try to oppose it. You just figured it wasn’t enough of a threat. Maybe you thought you could eat your way around it when the time came, so that you wouldn’t get the bad taste in your mouth. But now, you’re looking at the apple, and more than half of it is rotten. You can’t do much with it, can you?
Calvin shook his head once more.
You can’t even toss it into a pie, can you?
This time, Calvin didn’t bother to answer. He stared at the road ahead and let a long sigh roll out of his chest.
This is what I’m trying to figure out with this road trip, Calvin. Whether the apple is worth it or not, He said, and scribbled down in His little notepad. They passed through Dixie Inn with an even heavier silence hanging in the air.
As the pick-up continued up the 80, the lush bayou vegetation burst out on both sides of the road, in full green crowns above the water patches. Calvin looked out the rolled-down window and smiled.
‘Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe we can reverse the rot,’ he said slowly.
The mellow music was interrupted by commercials – Bud Light beer, fantastic discounts on Virgin Airlines and a new album by a local Country music legend.
What are you ready to do about it, Calvin?
‘I don’t know. I voted. I don’t know what else I could do… What would you do, Frank?’
He looked out the window as they drove past a sign: “Welcome to Minden”. Rusty letters on an old, faded, once white-washed metal board.
It’s not my place to tell you what to do, Calvin. I don’t have the right answer. I’m looking for answers myself, He replied – a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
‘Maybe I’ll volunteer somewhere. Maybe some grassroots thing is looking for volunteers? I wouldn’t mind. Maybe I’ll start doing something locally,’ he said, then laughed lightly. ‘Heck, half of my family won’t even talk to me anymore and the other half is dead. If I can do something, I might as well start with them.’
Good luck with that, Calvin. But the real question is: do you know what the problem actually is? Do you know what is causing the rot, in the first place?
‘I think so…’
Which means you don’t, not really. You probably have an idea. An inkling. So maybe the first step is to educate yourself, before you try educating others, don’t you think?
‘You’re right, Frank. You’re absolutely right!’
I don’t like being right, believe me. Every time I’m right, I end up with a blank slate and a full trashcan. But I do hope you prove me wrong. I really do.
Calvin nodded as he pulled over in front of the Grey Hound bus stop.
‘Here we are, Frank. The bus stop.’
Thank you, Calvin. You’re a decent human being, He smiled, shook his hand, and got out of the pick-up truck.
‘Yeah, not bad for a liberal, huh? You’re lucky I picked you up!’, Calvin laughed lightly.
Why DID you pick me up?
‘You looked like you needed help… I’d have driven you to Minden even if you were a republican, just so you know!’, he grinned.
Maybe you could start by removing the labels off the people altogether, if you want real change. Republicans, liberals, independents. You all bleed the same. You all respond to loud and flashy messages – true or false. You all have the traits and tools you need to be good or bad people. Maybe start there. Lose the labels, and look at the people instead, He said gently, and put His duffel bag on His shoulder.
Calvin smiled and nodded.
‘Maybe I should, Frank. Maybe I should.’
Thank you once again, Calvin, He said and closed the passenger door. The window rolled down.
‘You’re welcome, Frank. You have a safe trip now!’
They waved each other goodbye, and as the pick-up truck drove away and back onto the main road into town, Calvin shouted:
‘And remember, Frank. America’s not an apple!’
He could hear the man laugh as the truck got smaller in the distance and vanished into the main road traffic.
You’re right, He said slowly as he wrote something in his little notepad. It’s not an apple. But it’s still rotting…
He wasn’t convinced. He’d seen these people before, in different circumstances, in different countries and in different centuries. The behaviour was almost automated, bouncing from one extreme to another as the terms of human interaction changed.
Greed and blood had built and demolished civilisations before. And yet they seemed to have a hard time learning from it all, as a collective.
He’d gotten bored with it.
The same old story. The same old murderous story. Destroying people and freedoms for the profits of a handful who claimed to be somehow superior to the rest of His Creation.
The Petri dish was getting out of control.
Maybe put a stop to it? Maybe not yet?
The first score was negative in his notepad, as the wrote it down: Yes – 1, No – 0.
He’d have to dig a little deeper.