“Quiet and the Darkness” by Matt Phillips

When you live way out here, there’s all these sounds you hear. I can’t do nothing for you but tell you what they are: The yipping coyote. His howls. The mountain lions growling in the canyons. Them trucks out on the highway. Big tires and chains dragging beneath tractor trailers. Old hoot owl hidden deep in the creosote. Shotgun blasts in the distance. An old Chevy running on seven cylinders. Idle chatter around a campfire.

Those are the things you hear. If you can hear.

Me, I lost my hearing—all the way now—about three months ago.

I’m not looking for pity. Not looking for nothing. All I want is my desert and the silence that comes along with it. I like empty places.

And empty places like me.

Sometimes I wake up and look at myself in the mirror. The gray beard that hangs like chicken wire. The blue eyes dusted with gray flecks. The cheeks all red with winter. My big scabbed ears. I see myself like I’m looking through somebody’s eyes. And not mine. Used to be I could say something funny, make a crude joke or sing a line from some damn country song. And I’d know right then who I was, what I was. Now, I can’t hear a goddamn thing.

Best I can do is feel a word curled up inside my throat, a small word bunched like a beetle down in his hole. And I can feel my own breath puff over my lips. Sure I can. But I don’t know word one from another.

I don’t hear a god no more.

All I got is quiet. And the darkness in my head.

***

I used to run on up to Barstow for a guy named Jimmy Snags.

I picked up the man’s powder for him. You know what I’m saying.

My old Harley did pretty good on these desert roads. A few times, I even ran from the sheriff. Got one rookie to flip his squad car on a sharp turn out near Giant Rock. The weekly paper had them some fun with that one: “Rook rolls car on rocky pursuit.” Or some damn headline like that. I got away—they wrote that down too. Maybe so the mayor could read it.

Point is, I ran drugs for about fifteen years.

Me and Jimmy Snags weren’t close—not to play a game of pool or nothing—but we did know each other. I did for him and he always paid me in full.

Until this past January.

I did the normal run, a high-speed ball-clencher along Highway 147 out to the Interstate 15. After that, you dip and weave through tourists who can’t wait to get to Vegas and piss away their paychecks. I picked up the powder—like normal, alright?—and ran it back to the desert. By the time I pulled onto Jimmy’s property it was near dark, that desert sun going down behind a blush of pink and scattered blue. I throttled my bike along the soft dirt road, pulled up to Jimmy’s little house. It was a trashy looking place with boards over the windows and an old Airstream trailer rusted to shit along one side. Jimmy had a team of shit heads cutting drugs in the house—he slept, shit, and ate in the trailer.

I left my bike a good hundred feet from the house—safe distance for sporadic explosions—because I knew Jimmy had himself a meth cook or two. I knocked on the trailer door, the brick of powder heavy under my arm. “Jimmy, it’s me—it’s Bubba.”

The door swung open and Jimmy said, “Get your ass in here.”

As I moved past him I smelled bottom shelf bourbon, cigarette smoke, and a hint of dried sweat. His eyes shot past me, darted back and forth across the darkening desert. He slammed the door shut and pointed at the trailer’s small couch. “Have a seat, Bubba. Get you a beer?”

“Sounds good,” I said and slammed the brick onto the table. I sat down and dug my hands into the pockets of my leather jacket. “Two, if you got enough.” I sneezed once and cleared my throat.

Jimmy opened the fridge, pulled four bottles of beer out, set them on the table and began picking at them with an old wine opener. As he yanked the caps, he said, “Goddamn Feds is onto me, Bubba.”

“Like hell they are,” I said as I grabbed a beer and sipped.

Jimmy finished with the beer caps, sank down on the small kitchen’s stained floor. He sat there on his haunches, like an old timer talking shit about a shop supervisor. Like what you do around buddies. He sipped his beer and licked his lips. Jimmy had a big head of white hair and he swept it back across his scalp like a giant combing an ocean wave. His face was scarred by teenage acne and one eye shot off into the sky. He said it got that way after a bareknuckle brawl outside a Chevron in Pahrump, Nevada. He called it his good eye.

He drank half a beer before he said, “Way I have it from the Angels, there’s a CI talking shit to a DEA man this side of the state line.”

“The hell there is,” I said.

Jimmy pointed a finger gun at me. “Angels say it’s somebody works for me. Angels say it’s one of my people. Someone been with me since—”

“Like hell,” I said. “Like fucking hell.”

Jimmy shook his head. His hair jumped and shook. “I had a load picked up out in Colton. Right off the motherfucking freeway.”

“Who did the run?”

“Marmie Shifton.”

“Fuck me,” I said. Marmie Shifton ran dope for the Hell’s Angels and used to play muscle for any Zetas who needed a white boy to do murder. Man’s hands were red as goddamn beets. “You mean Marmie’s going to the big house?”

“Got his bed all made,” Jimmy said.

“If there’s a runner who can keep his mouth shut, I swear to hell it’s—”

“Marmie ain’t say shit. But he got done like they’re trying to do me. The Feds walked right up to him at that hot dog stand he likes—”

“Philly’s Dog House?”

“Yes, sir. That’s it. Walked right up to him and asked for the keys to his bike. Even offered to pay for the man’s lunch. Because, you know, he got all inconvenienced and what-not.”

“Christ Jesus,” I said.

“If he’s a pal of yours.”

“Always has been,” I said and scooped up my second beer. I left the empty on the table and scrunched my nose at the trailer’s smell. Reminded me of the pound. Where all the dogs wait in their cells. “You got a guess who it is that’s—”

“It ain’t you, is it?”

I almost spit up my beer. “Fuck no, it’s not—Christ Almighty, I swear to fucking God that—”

Jimmy spit between my feet. It was a big, oil-colored loogie. I stared at it with my mouth open.

Jimmy said, “I thought you were pals with JC. You go and speak the man’s name in vain whenever you get mad?”

“Like hell,” I said. “I just can’t believe you think it’s me.” I took my hands off my beer and started for my belt. I had a small dagger there tucked on one hip. Legal as a college girl, but sharp enough to gut a goose.

Jimmy stood up with a grunt. “I know it ain’t you, Bubba. You’re too dumb to deal with the DEA.”

I stopped going for the knife and said, “I might be dumb, but I ain’t stupid. The hell I want with a DEA deal, Jimmy? Shit, I been running—”

“Shut your prayer trap.” Jimmy squinted at me. “Go on and get out of here. I’ll call you when we got another run.”

“What about my money?”

Jimmy stared at me with obsidian eyes. “What about it?”

“I want it—two grand.”

“I’ll hold it for you. Until this thing with the DEA is—”

“I want my fucking money, Jimmy.”

“Want in one hand, shit in the other,” Jimmy said. “Get the fuck out.”

I started for the door, but I just couldn’t leave. It might have been the money, but it might have been something else. Maybe it was getting done wrong by a man I knew. Hell, it’s tough to know. I left Jimmy’s trailer ten minutes later. And when I did, I had myself five grand bundled in a paper shopping sack.

Jimmy was dead asleep. Quiet as a nun.

And forever.

***

They caught me out on the highway. Four riders on 1200cc hogs.

Sportsters.

It was dark already and the desert looked glassy and forbidden in the moonlight. All the creosote and Joshua trees looked like drawings from a kid’s book. I heard the roar behind me and knew I wouldn’t get away. Not without rubbing myself out on a stretch of black tar pavement. I’d ridden a few hundred miles already. And I was tired. I pulled onto the sandy shoulder, switched off my bike and sat there waiting. They circled me on the dark highway, shut off their bikes after one loud roar of throttle and gasoline. Like sounds of war. With the bikes shut down, I heard that damn yipping coyote and all his brothers howling in the night.

They were big men. All of them.

Guys I knew from way back. Guys that knew me.

Not enough to play a game of pool or nothing, but we did know each other.

The first one grabbed me and, after I hit that black tar pavement, I don’t remember much else. Maybe a steel-toed boot in my ears, a hard stomp or two on the back of my head. But mostly I remember darkness and quiet. A few flutters of movement in the gloom. When I woke up, the doctor started talking.

And bless me God, I couldn’t hear word one of what he fucking said.

Like I said before: I don’t hear a god no more.

All I got is quiet. And the darkness in my head.


Matt Phillips lives in San Diego. His books include Know Me from Smoke, Accidental Outlaws, Three Kinds of Fool, Bad Luck City, and Redbone. His short fiction has been published in Tough Crime, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Yellow Mama, Manslaughter Review, and Near to the Knuckle. More information at www.mattphillipswriter.com


Image courtesy of Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.

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