by: Chris Thompson
They didn’t need a story. They just needed the real world. Until eventually, they became the story.
Hermes was like shaking hands with a hurricane I thought as his iron chariot flew us down the wind-swept back country roads, the truck throwing up a billowing cloud of dust as the miles fell quickly away. Or maybe he was like trying to argue with someone in a language you did not speak. Just misunderstanding and frustration, all bombastic and fervent and wrapped up in semantics slamming up against an impenetrable wall of comprehension.
But whatever he was I thought, I had never felt so alive. It was as if Hermes had ignited something in me. Had drenched my soul in gasoline and touched a match to the mossy fathoms of my brain, replacing my heart with a thundering grenade blast. There was an infectious nature to his brand of reality and it had gotten in deep, achieving in me a certain level of harmony with the world. And as I huddled in the back of the truck, my good friends pressed in close, our bodies awash in an endless stream of newfangled experiences, the effect was exhilarating.
I could see that same exhilaration replicated in the eyes and smiles of the faces encircling me too. In Simmons as he lightheartedly talked the ear off his smiling uncle. In Manny as he perched confidently upon a faded red Thermos cooler, beaming with the satisfaction of knowing he was part of this adventure, the flamboyant colors of his tropical shirt as it ruffled in the breeze likening him to a bird engrossed in an elaborate courtship display. In Tyler as his fingers moved wildly in front of him, the bass riff to Violent Femmes ‘Add it Up’ or Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ running circles in his head. In Kimmell sitting atop a ragged tarp concealing some amorphous detritus of Hermes’s existence, fumbling expectantly with one of his intricate gadgets. In Cough with his eternal pained expressions to his face, the sour, disapproving looks he flashed the world dissolving momentarily into smiles as I spied him in the side mirror. And in Erica? I didn’t know enough about her yet to speculate on her headspace but I could tell by the way she carried herself that she was riding high.
The first time our hands had touched her skin had felt electrified, like a static charge was building up, poised to discharge its stored energy at any moment. I could sense that charge was growing still as we drew closer to the lake, the delicate hairs of my forearm rising to meet her each time our bodies drifted close. Each one of us had drunk from the same bottomless well of adventure and the farther we voyaged from home, the more we felt alive. It was a strange feeling, becoming more like yourself, all the thoughts and sensations long since dormant awakening from their slumber. I was out from under the spectre of my father’s menacing reign, shifting away from the browns and greys of melancholy to the rich and vibrant yellows and reds, greens and blues of cheerfulness and I let it wash over me in waves.
We had just passed through Redwood City, pushing out into Lakewood, leaving the ordered arrangement of weathered clapboard houses and white picket fences that defined the surrounding towns for the wide-open country, when the conversation drifted to what our adventure names would be. My thoughts were miles away, soaring high above the clouds and I had to quickly reel in its line, stowing away my reflections for another time. I turned my head from the blurred spectrum of roadside colors to face my closely gathered companions. Manny, leaning into the group, his eyes alight with excitement was looking in my direction as he spoke.
“So how about it Fawcett? You heard Hermes. We all need to come up with an adventure name. It’s the price for his services. You pick one out yet?” He said to me, a wry grin spreading across his dirt streaked face. I could tell he was poised to fling an insult my way, Manny was easy to read like that, and the flicking of his tongue across his dry lips was his tell. “What’s your name going to be, huh? Jabba the Hutt?” Manny snickered, gazing at the surrounding faces as he let his joke fly.
“No Manny. That one’s already taken.” I replied quickly.
That one got the group good. Manny was an easy target like that. I hated to do it to him but he so often left himself open for ridicule. He was his own worst enemy. Tyler burst out in laughter, breaking with the focused intensity of his silent bass jam and Erica and Kimmell looked goofily at each other, giggling under their breath.
“Shut up Fawcett! I’m not fat, I just big boned!” Manny shouted, almost falling off his perch as the truck suddenly swerved to avoid a pothole.
“Sorry!” Hermes yelled through the open window.
“Mom says I come from a proud line of husky De La Vega’s.” Manny said, pausing as he scrambled to reposition himself on the shifted cooler. I could tell he was working on a way to win us back to his side as he glanced about quickly several times, lingering momentarily in Erica’s direction. “Do you know that on the moon I’d only weigh twenty-six pounds? Manny finally blurted out. “It’s a fact. I read it in a book.”
“We’re not on the moon Manny,” Tyler replied. “We’re crowded into the back of this flatbed truck, cruising down a dusty back-country road that’s a million miles away.”
“I’m just sayin’ fellas. Weight’s all a matter of perspective!”
“And so’s your attempts at humor Manny,” I replied. “Maybe you should go tell your jokes on the moon.”
“I’ve got a name!” Simmons blurted out abruptly, turning around in the front seat to face us as he poked his head out the trucks back window. Manny, grateful for the attention to be off him at least temporarily, leaned back and sulked, nursing his wounded pride as Simmons continued on.
“Call me Douglas Fir,” Simmons said, stretching his long arms out in the cramped quarters of the trucks cabin. Hermes swerved the truck a bit as he struggled to see through his nephews long fingers. “It’s one of the tallest species of trees in America, ya’ know that?” Simmons continued keenly. “My grandpa was a forestry ranger and he told me all about it. He told me all sorts of interesting facts about them. Did you know they’ve got roots that go down like hundreds of feet and cling right to the bedrock? Well that’s me right now, only I’m anchoring myself to this truck so it doesn’t throw me off and break my ass whenever we hit a bump.”
“Nice to meet you Douglas,” I said, reaching out across the flatbed to high-five him through the open window. The action was repeated around the trucks back as each of us welcomed Simmons’s new persona to the group, even a sullen-looking Manny partaking of the camaraderie.
“I’m next,” Erica called out excitedly. I barely knew anything about her but the sound of her voice was captivating. The movement of her hands as she spoke mesmerized me and I hung on her every word, my mind speculating on a million names she would choose, as she paused for dramatic effect before speaking. I was desperate for more information about her, some insight into her personality and I saw this as a perfect opportunity. “You can call me Leia. Leia Falcon,” she said, giving our group a slight bow from her seated position as she spoke. “Leia because I’m just as smart and beautiful as Princess Leia and Falcon because I’m as fast as the Millennium Falcon. Faster even. You should see me run track. I’m a dangerous combination boys, the best of both worlds; quick and beautiful.”
“Alright! Leia Falcon! Welcome to the gang Princess.” Tyler yelled out as he reached over to smack her hand loudly.
Erica had me. I was in love all over again. Star Wars had become one of my all time favorite movies. I had watched George Lucas’s Episode IV so many times on my family’s VCR that I had worn the tape out. This was too good to be true. When her hand went to mine I felt another dose of that electricity flow through me. “Nice to meet you Leia.” I said, envisioning crimson and blue sparks flying powerfully from our fingertips as we high-fived.
“OK, who’s next?” Erica asked, her eyes scanning our group. “Manny how about you? You’ve been oddly quiet the last few minutes. How about laying it on us?”
“Don Juan del Fuego!” Manny blurted out, barely able to hold it in. It was like he had known the name all along, had kept it secreted in his back pocket and was now excitedly sharing it with the world. It made sense of course, that Manny had an alter ego. He probably walked around his bedroom at night draped in blankets fashioned as robes and pretended he was the mythical Don Juan. “Don Juan because I’m a lover,” Manny explained, looking in Erica’s direction as he held his plump hand over his heart “and del Fuego because I burn so hot.”
“Aww jeez.” Erica groaned.
“Barf me with a stick!” Kimmell wailed.
“Wha?” Manny questioned. He obviously had no shame.
“I’m not calling you that Manny.” Erica bemoaned.
“You have to!” Manny implored. “It’s my name. I chose it.”
“How about I just call you DJ or Fuego? Is that OK Manny?” Erica asked. She was obviously trying to be understanding, to meet him halfway.
“I guess so,” Manny conceded. “But the rest of you guys have to call me Don Juan.”
“Fine,” the remainder of us said in unison, desperate to move on.
“Welcome to the group DJ Fuego.” Kimmell said mockingly, almost knocking Manny off the cooler again with a firm smack to his shoulder.
“Lemme get in on this fun,” Tyler said, playfully elbowing Manny back in his seat. “Oh ‘scuse me DJ Fuego. Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to put out your fire.”
“Hah, hah. Real funny Tyler. I really thought you guys would like my name.”
“Like it? It’s hilarious Manny. It fits you perfectly. It’s just the mental image that your name suggests we’re, ah, having a hard time matching up to you.”
“Relax Manny. There’s plenty of time to test your new name out at The Lake. I’m sure all the girls there will just fall over with desire upon hearing you say it.” I said to Manny, hoping to soothe his wounded pride.
“Hello? I believe we were talking about me?” Tyler interrupted.
“Oh yeah. Sorry. Go ahead Tyler.”
“Mines easy,” he said. “A real no brainer. It’s someone who’s been with me for a long time now. You can call me Dirk Cheap.”
“Dirk Cheap?” We all said in unison, looks of confusion orbiting our varied faces.
“Who’s that?” I asked. I had never heard Tyler speak the name before.
“Dirk Cheap? He’s my alter ego. The wily star of all the detective short stories I write. He posses the wit of both the Hardy Boys combined, the cunning of Sherlock Holmes and the gadgetry of Inspector Gadget. It’s about time I got to step into his shoes and live out one of his adventures.”
“Ok! So Dirk Cheap it is fellas!” Erica called out, clasping her hands together excitedly. “Looks like the gang is starting to come together nicely.”
“Ho Dirk!” Simmons yelled out to Tyler from inside the truck.
“Ho Douglas!” Tyler called out to Simmons, their hands high-fiving loudly above Manny’s head.
“And I’m Rider Haggard.” Kimmell interjected, thumping his chest proudly.
“Oh no,” Erica said, a crestfallen look crossing her face.” I was worried this would happen.”
“What?” Kimmell asked, a slow smirk spreading across his freckled face.
“You know what ‘cuz.” Erica said.
‘What’s the problem?” Manny asked imploringly, always on the hunt for quality gossip.
“Rider Haggard is the name of the imaginary friend me and Kimmell came up with when we were little kids playing in his backyard. We imagined Rider lived in the boathouse next to his parents dock and he kept his magical pirate ship stored there. I remember Rider was quite the character. What did he have Kimmell? A peg leg and a peg arm and a parrot with two little peg wings and an eyepatch who sat on his shoulder?”
“Yeah something like that. But what I liked about him was that he was always on the hunt for buried treasure. Remember when we found that giant box kite half buried in the sand by the river, and we convinced ourselves that Rider Haggard had left it for us?”
“Oh yeah! I had forgotten about that. And your dad fixed it up for us and we flew it in the fields all summer long, it traveling so high that we thought it would touch the sun? And we thought that if we held on just tight enough that it would lift us both into space? Remember that? But then one day the kite string just broke and it was gone forever.”
“Exactly. And I was crushed. So I’m Rider Haggard,” Kimmell said, “And I’m on the eternal hunt for my lost wooden box kite.”
“Well I hope you find it Rider.” I said, throwing my arm around Kimmell “It’s always good to have a proper scallywag on board.”
“So that just leaves you and Cough, Fawcett,” Manny said. “Hey Cough!” he called out into the wind. “Cough, you gotta name picked out yet?”
Cough turned around and looked at us through the back window, his stark white teeth flashing us a pained smile in the darkness of the trucks interior. He looked like had just gotten off a roller coaster and had then become carsick. It was a truly unique convergence of expressions.
“Better let him be Manny,” I said. “I’m sure Cough will tell us his name when he’s good and ready.”
“If he ever does,” Manny replied sarcastically. “Well that just leaves you Fawcett. Let’s have it then big guy.”
“Yeah Danny. What’ve you come up with?” Erica chimed in. “I’m dyyying to know.” she said, flashing me the subtlest of winks.
“Charles America.” I said flatly.
“Charles America?” Erica said questioningly. “How’d you come up with that one?”
“Yeah Fawcett,” Manny added, “Charles America isn’t as exciting as Don Juan del Fuego or Dirk Cheap. In fact it’s pretty mundane.”
“I like it.” Erica said.
“Me…me too I mean.” Manny replied quickly. “I think it’s extraordinary.”
“Ho Extraordinary America!” Tyler yelled out, jumping up quickly in the back of the truck, announcing to the oncoming winds the final member of our posse, throwing his fists wildly up into the air in an act of youthful rebellion.
“Extraordinary America!” we all yelled out in unison, rising up on our shaky legs, each one helping the other to steady ourselves against the random movements of the trucks flatbed. Erica stood adjacent to me, holding onto the worn denim of my jean jacket as we vibrated in the summer wind. “I really like your name Charles,” she said to me, leaning in close to whisper it in my ear. The wind was howling at my temples and I felt dizzy with excitement.
“I like yours too Leia,” I whispered back to her, the warm skin of my lips brushing delicately against the soft folds of her ear. And as I pulled back my head she kissed me fleetingly on the cheek, the firm press of her lips imparting a radiating sensation of warmth that grew to fill my head. Suddenly the truck shifted and she was in my arms, a smile upon her face. Uncle Hermes began to honk the trucks horn prolifically as we flew down the road, the five of us steadfast and unyielding in the onslaught of the rushing wind as it tore at our clothing and buffeted our skin.
And as we crested a slight rise in the road, our adventure names comfortably encompassing us like suits of armour, we spied the first glimpses of the blue-green waters of The Lake. It’s shimmering elegance like diamonds reflecting the tranquility of the pop-art blue summer sky.
We had made it…
Read Part V of Extraordinary America here!