Raw skin and burning dirt.


I heard him yelling at her, calling her a cunt.  I heard him tell her that he was coming back for me.  From the corner of the curtain I watched them out there.  I was not afraid to fight him but I knew he would take me because he was right.  I started getting ready for it.  She took off running, and he looked to the room and stalled.  He was on her heels in no time.  Then they were gone.  I coasted my bike out and opened the van, threw it in with the rest of my things and got the hell out of there.  I found a rest stop about 45 miles up the freeway and pulled over and slept.

The Sun found a slit in the curtains and sent two yellow arrows directly into my forehead.  I opened my eyes.  My chest was heavy.  I was sweating.  I was lying in an oven.  I unlatched the backdoors and crawled out.  Out there it was hot.  The men were walking shirtless next to their wives and kids.  It was refreshing to me, almost cold.  My skin rose then fell back across my bones.  My eyes were burning with sweat.  I looked around the desert.

I drove into Flagstaff and ordered a soda.  I thought about her.  I thought about her selfishness.  That big flank of live meat could have killed me, and he would have.  All she saw was new skin, vanity.  I wondered why I hadn’t told the cops that he was in the bathroom.  I decided cops were worse than women.

The mountains of Flagstaff were clean and cool.  I parked at an overlook and waited off my fever.  On the couch in back I fell asleep with the windows opened.  I awoke to see the sunset.  It was brighter than usual, and colder, because it was a sunrise.  I had slept for nearly a day.  I drove back to the same place and read the map.  Albuquerque looked decent.  A young and vicious college girl came into the diner and sat in a booth across from mine.  She smiled.  I got up and left.

I stopped inside of New Mexico.  Never had I seen such a disgusting, dirty, wormed over town.  It was horrible.  It was a deceased Tijuana in the middle of nowhere.  At a gas station I found a drinking fountain that turned out a copper arc.  I bought a small bottle of water and a coffee.

The city took forever.  I didn’t like the look it had.  I found a byway going south, and I drove through the Southwest, the impossible mesas, the red plateaus painted far back atop a beautiful brown, deadly, lazy scheme.  For the first time in weeks I felt peace.  I drove on, listening to an old country station, the songs taking me back to the coffee table of my childhood, to my father drinking coffee and smoking, talking to my mother before the Sun came out and he had to leave to roof houses.  I was six or seven years old.  My mother would sometimes stand behind him in her bathrobe and pop the heat blisters across his back.  I remembered his tattoos.  He had done time.  The ink was deep green.  He explained to me then it was India ink, the kind they had in prison.  One on his forearm was an unfinished dagger, another was my mother’s name across his knuckles.  I never thought he’d come to blows with me the way he did when I was seventeen, or that I would knock him on his back at nineteen, but then I never thought I would be nineteen and driving aimlessly across the desert, my mother in her coffin, my father completely wasted, a junkie dying away to dust on the streets of west Phoenix.

I drove on for a few hours, cutting through back roads and access roads.  For the sheer hell of it, I turned around and took the same roads north, going further up state.  I had no plan.  I was flying in youth, totally free.  A mile outside of a town called Farmington the van died.  I jumped out and checked the oil.  It was fine.  I tried to start it again and it kicked over, made it a few more blocks then started smoking.  It rattled and bucked into a gas station on the outskirts.  The Sun was fading early.  I parked on the side of the station and popped the hood.  I was as much a mechanic as I was a jet pilot.

An old Navajo walked out of the station eating an orange.  I nodded to him and smiled.  He said nothing.  He stood next to me under the hood,

“What is it?”  His voice was angered, aggravated and aggravating.

“I don’t know.”

“What happened?”

I told him.  He walked away slowly and came back with another.  He got behind the wheel and cranked it.  His buddy stayed under the hood.  I walked inside the station and bought a drink.

They were standing over the engine, laughing.  His buddy had one tooth in his head.  I asked the first one what was wrong with it.  He wiped his hands down his shirt and shook his head, smiling,

“It’s very bad.”

I stared at his friend.  He nodded and smiled.  I looked at his tooth,

“How bad?”

The other one answered.  He was the boss.

“Head gasket’s blown.  Much money.”

“How much money?”

“We’ll do it for nine hundred.”

I only had six hundred on me.  I told him.

“Nope.  Fix it here or we tow it to the junkyard.”

I had the extra key in my wallet.

“Alright.  Fix it here.”

I asked him how long it would take.  One solid day.  I took my bike out and rode into town, into that place.

The car lots there were useless.  They either had nothing I could afford or anything I would trust.  I rode back.  They had the van on the lift in the garage.  I found the boss again,

“Listen.  I really only have six hundred dollars.  Can’t we do something here, I mean, we’re both people.”

He scowled,

“You’re not my people.  Nine hundred dollars.  That’s a good deal. Somewhere else you’d pay twice as much.”

“Well, I don’t have it.”

He looked me up and down,

“Where do you live?”

I shook my head.  He smiled,

“Maybe you can work here for the money.”


He laughed,

“I’ll make the call.  Job’s hard.  Very hard.  Maybe you’ll quit.”

I asked him what it was.  He uttered one word: digging.  He told me I could sleep in the van until I paid it off, but that he would charge me a little extra for rent.  I thought quickly about catching a bus, but there was nowhere I wanted to go.  I couldn’t hitch a ride out with my bike and my things.  Arizona was not an option.  I told him to make the call.

I slept in the van that night in the garage.  It was still dark when one of the Indians banged on the door,

“Get up! Time for work!”

I had the sheet of paper with directions and set out on my bike.  It was a four mile ride through the dusty roads and paths.  I saw the site.  A long, long line of Indians on their knees with narrow shovels trenching into the ground, a truck going slowly in reverse with a giant spool of cable they laid carefully into the trench.  They were shirtless and moving quickly, and the foremen screamed at them.  They were an endless line ripping a tear in the desert, the line of dark red backs and elbows moving like a long machine.  I was my soul after death and I was standing at the gates of Hell.

I found the lead foreman and told him who I was.

He yelled,


I tried to explain.  He threw a shovel in my hands,

“Three feet deep and two wide.  NOW!”

I squeezed in between two big Indians.  The foreman ran up and nudged me with his boot,

“NO! You bring up the FRONT!”

He walked me up to the front of the line.  It was a long walk.  The Navajos peered at me with my shovel, and they jeered me.  At the front of the line the foreman pushed me to the lead.  I’d had it with him.  I turned and held my shovel as to swing at him.  He jumped back and pulled out a long blade.  I yelled at him,


The line burst into laughter.  The foreman laughed with them,

“Just dig, white boy.  You’ll quit before an hour.”

He put the knife back in his boot and walked away.  I dropped to one knee and saw the ditch.  I would work the day then sneak out with the van before the Indians came back to the shop.  I began digging.  The other workers laughed.  Their laughter made me angry.  I dug furiously for an hour.  I made sure to stay in front of them, to beat them with a widening gap.  One of them yelled at me to slow down.  I heard his friend,

“Don’t worry.  He’ll get tired.”

I thought of all the things that sickened me.  I found a reservoir of hatred inside my arms.  I dug on.  Three or so hours passed.  It was time for everyone to drink.

It was a long wait for the water ladle.  There was a huge steel trough and we all lined up to drink from that ladle.  When my turn came I took two or three gulps then another foreman grabbed it,

“That’s too much, white boy.”

Everybody laughed.  They still had ten minutes.  They found corners of shade by the trailer and sat.  I walked back to the ditch and kept at it.  They yelled at me to take a break.  The foremen told them to keep quiet, that they were disgusted that a white boy was making them look so bad.  I kept digging.  I was yards out from them.  They had to cut their break short.  They were moving as fast as they could, but I had plenty of hatred in me.  At one point a foreman blew his whistle and we stopped.  He ran over with his tape measure and stuck it in their part of the ditch,

“Too damn shallow!”

A big worker stood up and looked at me.  He ran his finger under his throat.  I asked him if he was tired, and the line howled.  I kept going, faster and faster, delirious from the heat.  My skin was burnt.

After the next hour everybody hated me.  I didn’t care.  I would never see them again.  We worked until dusk.  At the trailer where I had my bike chained the tires were knifed, and they were watching me.  I paid them no mind, picked up my bike and carried it on my shoulder up over the hill where they could not see me.  Then I set it down and collapsed.  I watched the hot and dead sky turn circles over my body, and I remembered the pier in California.  But mostly I remembered nothing, and it was supposed to be dusk but the sky wouldn’t budge.  I heard the rumbling of tires coming behind me.  I picked up my bike and kept going.  They blew by, yelling, hooting, flipping me the bird, leaving me in a cloud of dust.  I set it down and walked it.  A mile before the station the two mechanics pulled up in an old car.  The boss nodded at me,

“We fixed your van.”

I stared ahead and nodded.  I felt him look at his buddy and smile, then look back to me,

“See you in the morning.”

I nodded ahead.  They wouldn’t see me in the morning.  They wouldn’t see me again.

The van wasn’t in the garage windows.  I walked around back and dug the key from my wallet.  I threw my bike in the side door and sat behind the wheel.  I could see the last traces of sunlight crashing into the desert.  Then it was dark.  I turned the key.  It purred.  They had done a good job.  I crawled in back and laid on the couch.  The van had no wheels, they had it set upon jacks.


-Excerpt from Hit Break Bleed, available in paperback and on Kindle and Nook.

About Jeff Stewart

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