Posted on September 3rd, 2019

The Soft Core of the Earth – Eavesdropping

Marco Esquandoles is taking this month off, so enjoy the prose of guest columnist, Riff Raff. Mr. Raff is a vagabond who has traveled all over the world, mostly getting kicked out of bars – and sometimes cities (a country or two as well). He is a self-proclaimed ne’er-do-well, generally not tolerated by polite society, but all in all is frequently embroiled in interesting life experiences. He appreciates a good map, but a better story. Below is from one of his latest journeys, and one of his favorite things to do, eavesdropping – at the bar.

I was looking for somewhere off the grid, way out on the outskirts of society, with at least being close enough access to food and a watering hole. You see, I’ve never been a great cook, and beef jerky and canned beans can only get you so far. Plus, sometimes I like to eat vegetables, and those are just hard to carry around in a truck with no refrigeration. I drive a 1979 Winnebago – a “Minnie Winnie” to be exact – but not much works in there, certainly not the fridge, and neither does the toilet, much to my chagrin. I guess that’s why I’m thankful for that hole in the wall to take a leak out of, though the varmints get in pretty easily when they want to: when it’s cold and wet; when they smell my dinner; or when they’re just feeling feisty. Well, on the bright side of things they help to keep things interesting. I’d like to think I do the same for them, too. You see, eventually they’ll stop coming in, I figure. I’ve got enough of them taxidermized that it should be like seeing a ghost. Maybe one of these days they’ll all gang up on me and eat me alive. I’m pretty certain I’d give them bad indigestion.

Anyways, I’d just worn out my welcome in Wall, South Dakota, home to Wall Drug, and like I said, I was looking to go off grid anyhow – can’t do too much of that in a tourist trap like Wall. I was there working for a spell – had to stack up some cash so I could live unimpeded for a while; that’s what I like to do – and well, the boss didn’t too much care for the way I handled the customers. You might say that I don’t have a way with people. He also didn’t like that I stole from him either. He could never prove it, I was pretty slick, and it wasn’t nothing like money or nice things, but I made sure I ate well. You see, when you live like I do, eating well don’t happen often. You need to take advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves. I’m kind of like a coyote, just a scavenger that nobody wants around.

I don’t need to end up on this. I’m outta here!

I guess I’m making myself out to sound pretty lonely, huh? Well, I got traveling partner, an old Maine coon cat that I picked up – yeah, you guessed it – in Florida, a while back. He’s pretty happy in the camper, but every time we set up camp and stop for a while, he goes and does what he does. Mostly terrorizing and killing other living things, I figure, and probably some mating, too. I don’t figure he’s too picky – I sure ain’t – but we make a good team. He also helps with the whole critter invasion thing when that happens, so I figure I owe him a little hospitality. Wish the little bugger would quit crappin’ in my boot, but that’s the least of my worries. For now.

I imagine you might be wondering where I came from and how I got to where I am – which is nowhere – right? Well, I was born on a Greyhound bus, a true hobo if there ever was one. My mom was a drifter, just like me, and my dad was a petty criminal, always in and out of jail. That’s the sort of the lifestyle I fell into when I was old enough, about six, in and out of one facility or another, and always on to the next, eventually. I never got much schoolin’ or supervisin’ from my folks; hell, I ain’t seen my paw since I was 9 or 10 – I wouldn’t doubt it if he was dead; wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to rob me, neither. My maw, well, she always meant well and tried hard, but drifters don’t make the best parents, and she at least lived up to that, and I see her every now and again, but few and far between, and it never is the way you’d imagine. That’s okay, though, I got what I need from both of them and am doing alright.

I’ve had decent jobs, at times; I’ve had decent lovers, at times. But more often than not I’ve just got myself – and my cat, Porkrind – and that’s all I need now. As long as I can keep the camper runnin’ and food in my belly – booze, too – I’ll be just fine. Until I die. Then I’ll probably be better than fine.

I’ll save the rest of the background if I ever get invited back to writing for this never-read periodical, but that should be enough to get you started – to whet your appetite, so to speak. Now I’m going to tell you about one of my latest tales from eavesdropping; it’s mostly true. At least I think it is – I was pretty drunk for most of the time when I heard it. Either way, if you wanted to, there’s facts to be found on the internet to verify what I say here, and even if I’m off the mark a bit, don’t matter, hopefully you’ll at least have enjoyed yourself. So, grab a 6er or a bottle of your favorite liquor and sit back while I tell this tale.

The mosquitoes were horrible. That’s the first thing I remembered about that town. It’s also the first thing I didn’t want to mess with ever again when I left. Now, don’t go thinkin’ I’m a little soft – that just ain’t the case – but those things were the size of bats and as ferocious as any honey badger out there. I learned the hard way to cover up, and I retired my pissflap on my vehicle for the entire time I was there; had to resort to a gallon jug in the “wee” (pun intended) moments of the night. Well, skeeters be damned, I needed a drink, and I was feelin’ like getting’ a little company, too. Now, company for me ain’t got nothin’ to do with talkin’ or getting’ close to people most times – that’s in my past – these days it’s all about listenin’ in on other folks’ stories, eavesdropping as they call it. Sometimes it’s quite helpful to learn the lay of the land, where I should go, who I should watch out for. When you’re on your own and carry everything you got with ya, it pays to be vigilant – and distrustful.

As luck would have it, they only really had one proper bar in the town. Sure, a few restaurants carried beers and had (mostly) full bars, but this was the only in town that catered to drunks outright. Now, I ain’t sayin’ I’m a drunk, but I do like my booze. Sometimes it’s all there is to get you through whatever you gotta get through – life, for me. I walked in and mean-mugged every last sucker in there; wasn’t many of ‘em, maybe 4-5 when I sauntered up to the bar, a few others came in later. The town was tiny, less than 200; the county not much more than 6,000 accounted-for residents, so there was a lot of land and not a lot of people; like I said, kinda what I was lookin’ for. Well, I’d heard a little about the town before I arrived, but I didn’t pay much attention to it; I like to figger things out on my own, mostly. Lot a learnin’ the hard way with that tactic, but hey, I got nothing else but time, and bruises heal.

The first thing I seen when I walked into the saloon (if you could call it that; a little too boojee for me, but some of the cast would try to prove their worth, eventually) was a “missing” poster for a pretty young gal, late 20s, a mom, looked like some kind of hippie-type. It was almost three years to the day of my arrival that she had disappeared. I didn’t make too much of it at first, but it was a little odd for such a small town. Well, about four hours into my sit, a couple of dudes down at the end of the bar mentioned some guy by the name of Catfish and how he’d stashed the body of that poor gal under his porch for about six months. I’d chalked it up to somebody just runnin’ their mouth at first, and I went on about my business: listenin’ to theirs. A few more squawks about nothin’ much and I headed to bed, but I couldn’t shake the story of this young lady.

Next day I’m back at the bar, getting comfortable with the town, the bar, and the skeeters – imagine that, and someone mentioned how the Fox affiliate from a kind-of-nearby larger city was there, snoopin’ around “again” about that missin’ momma. I pulled out my phone – one of those flip kinds on a no-contract plan, but it still gets the internet when I’m in a place with Wi-Fi, and I started searching online about this gal; found a lot of stuff, too, right away. Learned a little about the town as well. As I did, I doublechecked to make sure my pistol was in its holster and my blade was in my boot. Last thing I need is some fool tryin’ to jack me ‘cause they think I’m getting’ in their business. They can think that alright, but they ain’t gonna jack me. I got notches on my wall about fellas who tried that. Believe me…

Anyhow, appears that town was known for some new-age hippie-dippy spiritual kind of stuff, so a bunch of affluent “pilgrims” came there often – and they came with their money to spend on trinkets and knickknacks and all other kinds of mumbo-jumbo. They also ate in town (and drank), and that explained a little bit about why this rinky-dink town had so many restaurants (but only one bar). Well, there also was a pretty dirty drug culture around the area, too, meth and heroin littered the landscape like the old trailers folks had left behind over the decades. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like to party, but some of that stuff is a little dicey; the people that imbibe upon it even more so. Most of the folks around these parts didn’t go by their real names either. I know, I know: neither do I, but that ain’t my point. My point is, I’m a scoundrel; even scoundrels don’t want to be immersed in their own kind. It’s creepy.

Well, turns out the poor gal was assaulted a few days before she disappeared, and she tried to tell some folks, but it’s a little hazy on what came of that. Anyways, she was at a full moon drum circle the night she vanished, but she may not have been reported missing for a few days. Well, this Catfish guy was pinpointed pretty early on, so it seems, but like I said, this place was a barrel of filthy fish and don’t sound like none of them was much open to cooperation. Thick as thieves, so they say. Being that county was so sparsely populated, and there wasn’t enough law to go around – I never once saw a cop the entire time I was there – there wasn’t much money or manpower to invest in this case, so things went cold, as they say. Well, some of the local media outlets picked up the story, as did a podcast, so over the past three years the little town got more attention than they wanted for something they surely didn’t want to be known for. Also made it hard for the folks around there who wanted to be off the grid to be so – can’t do it when you got meddlers, no sir.

Well, I went back to the bar the next night, and some old drunk coot started runnin’ off at the mouth – like they always do – and he mentioned some other gal who died there about a year after the first one disappeared. It was ruled a suicide, but apparently there ain’t a whole lotta belief in that. The second one had too many similarities to the first, and she was in with the same crowds and the same drugs – and Catfish hadn’t left yet. Two young ladies up and disappear or die in a year’s span in the same town of less than 200? Seems sketchy, don’t it?

Next night finds me at, yup, you guessed it, the bar, and another fella mentions how he was hanging out at some abandoned mineshaft and his dog started freakin’ out. Turns out this guy’s dog was once cared for by the first gal, briefly, and he was certain it meant she was stashed in the bottom of that old hole in the ground. Another guy picks up on that idea and says that the aforementioned TV station had gone and inspected a number of wells with just that hunch six months or so earlier. Appears all of them are supposed to be sealed, most aren’t, and they inspected as many as they could. Well, allegedly, the news anchor gained access with the help of professional spelunkers to all of them that weren’t sealed up but that one. And get this: that one, where the dog freaked out, well, an eerie shadow that looked like a cross between an angel and a demon was seen hovering over it; apparently it gave chills to everyone that knew her. And now this, damn near three years to the day. Well, I finished my drink, shook off the cold chills and prickly hairs on my neck and got ready to walk back to my camper to plan my exit the following day. Right as I walked out, I greeted a man walking in, but didn’t think nothing of it. It was quite outside that night, always is down there, but even after the door had slammed shut, I could hear a voice from inside say, “Hey! Catfish! What are you doing back here? We were just talking about you…”

I walked into the darkness, pistol in one hand, knife in the other, and the skeeters landed on me in mass, worse than they’d been all week. It was pitch black, they should have been dormant, but I felt them pick at my skin like sewing needles, and the blood ran down my neck and arms. I hustled to the camper and turned on the light inside to wipe it off. The blood, though, left some pretty indelible stains on each arm: one looked like an angel, and the other looked like the devil. I washed off the devil first, quickly, and the wind howled. I washed off the angel and the camper shook in the wind. I went to my mirror and looked at my neck, and the blood had formed a ring around, as if I had been decapitated and my head was sitting on my torso like a stump. I wiped it off hurriedly and reached for the first thing near me to get the blood off my hands, an old white rag, smudged from years of neglect and not enough times around the washing machine. I smudged my hands together on it and then unfolded it, happy to be rid of the stain of whatever bad shit went on in this town. When I looked down in the rag, the initials of that first gal were there. Shaken, I looked out the window of the camper – I had parked near the bar – and I saw Catfish laughing, making a shoveling motion with his hands and then turn his glare outside, staring directly at me. I know he couldn’t see me, but I felt it, I know I did. I left that night, on to the next town…

Riff Raff
Traveling Salesman

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