It wasn’t long after sunset when the old

It wasn’t long after sunset when the old man said to me, “We’d better stop here.”

We walked off the broken road a ways, just on the other side of a little dune that blocked the wind. I found a dead tree, sun-bleached white, like driftwood, and broke off most of its branches. The old man unslung his guitar case and set it carefully in the sand before rummaging through my pack. I knew what he would find. There were only two cans left.

By the time I had something of a fire going, he had pried the top off one of the cans. There were no spoons. There had been no spoons for a long time. I watched him eat, taking two fingers and scooping the beans out, sucking them off, careful not to cut his fingers on the can’s sharp edge. “They’re my picking fingers,” he would say. “Got to take care of them.”

All the light faded except for our fire, which sent its sparks flying up to join the stars. The old man handed me the can of beans. I noticed that he hadn’t eaten his full share, left more than half, and said so, but he only shook his head and wiped his fingers on the knee of his jeans. “Not that hungry tonight,” he said. “Take it.” I argued that he had to be hungry—that both of us were nothing but hungry, balls of hungry propped up on bones and wrapped ‘round with skin. He ignored me, though, and took his guitar out of its case, propped it on his knee, and played a soundtrack to the popping and cracking of the fire, just an idle tune that sounded like fire itself.

I sat back, defeated, and ate the rest of the beans. My hands were full of sand. Everything was full of sand, out here, and as I ate I could feel the grains get into my teeth. “Every man,” the old man had once told me, “eats a peck of dirt by the time he dies.” Well, I had answered back, we ought to be above quota by now.

Before I was quite done eating, his tune changed. I heard an actual song emerging from the random strings of notes. And then the old man opened his mouth and began to sing.

Come black water, keep on rolling,
Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shining on—
Come black water, keep on rolling,
Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shining on—
Come black water, keep on rolling,
Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shining on me…

I had never heard the old man sing before. His voice wasn’t the singing kind, nothing so good as his playing, but with the dark all around us and the idle stars above us and his face all lit from below by the firelight, it was absolutely beautiful. I told him so when the song was done.

“I keep telling you,” he said, “I’ll teach you to play, if you want. You could play as good as me. Better.”

I didn’t want to learn how to play, I said. I just thought it was beautiful.

He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

He started another song then, though there was no more singing. He was only half-way through when we heard the harsh brappa-brappa-brappa out across the desert, and his hand clapped down on the strings. We were out of sight of the road, but there’s no point in taking chances, so I kicked sand over the driftwood-branches until the fire went out. The light was gone, leaving only the stars, which lit up the sky but left everything on the ground black and silhouetted.

The engine roar came up the road, and under it we heard other sounds. Loud hooting and hollering. There was the smack-tinkle of a bottle hitting the pitted asphalt.

It grew louder and louder from our left, and then fainter from our right, and we knew they had passed. Still, neither of us moved until the desert was silent again.

“No point in lighting the fire again, eh?” I heard him say from the shadows. “Might as well drop off where we are.”

Might as well, I agreed.

“Good night, then.”

I lay back in the sand, which wasn’t as comfortable as one would think. Overhead were stars. I could see the constellations—the three constellations the old man had pointed out to me, the only three he knew—and other things too. Planets. Galaxies. The passing wink-wink-wink of a satellite.

What is a mississippi moon? I asked.

The old man stirred. “What?”

In your song, I said. You sang of a mississippi moon.”

“Oh. Mississippi’s a place. Somewhere to the east, and south, where the ocean is. There used to be this big river running through it.”

With black water? I asked.

“Well, I suppose it looked black, at times, but that’s just the lighting. Like how the ocean looks blue, but it ain’t, it’s all brown and clear and full of sand.”

I said nothing. The Mississippi and its black-looking river seemed as foreign a concept as the ocean, which I had only heard of. The old man had seen the ocean once, if what he said was true, but from where I was it seemed as far away as the stars themselves.

Good night then, I said.

Copyright Chris Russo © 2006.  No stealie!  This is the newest story I’m working on.


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