Wilde River by Sean Ford
Patterson was starting to wonder if his passenger was some sort of homosexual.
The man had met him at the truck stop–a notorious hangout for queers, apparently–and seeing the truck driver get out to refuel, asked which direction he was headed. Patterson had told him, though he immediately regretted it. Clearly this guy was a hitchhiker or a deadbeat, and Patterson liked them almost as little as he liked faggots.
But the man, Zachary by name, had told him that his little town was just off I-80 twenty miles west, and if Patterson would be so kind as to take him there, he’d pay for the whole tank of gas.
So Patterson accepted. It was the middle of the afternoon, he was going west anyway, and gas isn’t cheap. Besides, he was in no hurry.
Zachary climbed in, thanked Patterson, and they got on the road. By the time they hit the freeway, the truck driver’s suspicions were growing. A fairly-decent Country song started up, and the passenger mentioned that he liked the George Michael version better.
Patterson had turned the radio off and concentrated on the sound of his engine, the tires on the asphalt, and the wind blowing around them. He loved the feel of the road, and hoped to be on his own again before the sun went down.
They’d driven another mile or two when Patterson asked what the man’s town was called. He told him it was Wilde River.
“Oh, like that Kevin Bacon movie,” Patterson had said.
“Yes, except that was called The River Wild. Meryl Streep was in it.”
Zachary was thin and clean-cut. He wore tight acid-wash Levi’s and an unnecessary jean jacket over a Hawaiian shirt. He explained that the “wild” in Wilde River had an e at the end, and that it was a little town built up against a stream only twenty or thirty years before. He’d moved there in 2006, and it sure was a nice place to live.
“Good place to raise your kids?” Patterson asked. A loaded question, certainly, but one that didn’t sound out of the ordinary.
“Oh, I don’t have children,” Zachary said. “How about you?”
“No,” Patterson said. Then quickly, “Not yet, anyway.” He wondered if he should be even more clear.
He looked over at his passenger. He didn’t have a bag or a backpack. There was something inside his jacket, and Patterson wondered if it was a flask. “You hitchhiking?”
“Sort of.” He flashed a row of shiny, flawless teeth. “I have a car, a little Saab. But it’s being worked on.”
A Saab. You couldn’t get much gayer.
“I sure appreciate you picking me up, though, mister.”
“Next exit will do it,” Zachary said.
Patterson was fine with that. He didn’t know what it was about his passenger, exactly, but he was pretty much convinced the man was a butt-pirate. Maybe it was the sideburns. They went more than halfway down the ear, probably three-quarters.
Well, there it was, strike three.
Wilde River was an oasis in the desert. It was seven miles–seven grumbling miles–from the freeway, with barren hills, undeveloped lots of yellowing grass, and a junkyard as scenery, and then, like an oasis in the desert, it appeared . . . like a fairy village.
A minute later, the sun low in the sky but still up there, they entered the town. It was picture-perfect. A little community with picket fences and cutesy window shutters and red fire hydrants and lawn gnomes and lots of flowers. Even the town was gay.
“First left here, please.”
Patterson slowed his truck, turned onto the street, and stayed in second gear. “I gotta ask you something,” he said.
There was a contented look on his face. “Ask away.”
“You . . . you a queer, Zachary?”
The young man looked at him and blinked overdramatically. “Are you interested?”
“Me? Oh, hell no. I just thought you–” He stopped, cleared his throat, shifted his grip on the wheel. “Let’s get something straight. I ain’t no faggot. I hate ‘em.”
“Hmm. Worse than, say, Mexicans?” Clearly, the passenger thought this was all in fun.
“Oh yeah,” the truck driver said. “Worse even, than Jews.”
“Well, I’m no Jew, so put your mind at ease,” Zachary said. Then, “And I’m not Mexican either.”
“But are you a faggot?”
“Down the block, straight ahead,” he said, then shifted in the seat. “I think I’ll ask you a question. If you were in prison, would you rather be stabbed or raped?”
“What the hell kind of question is that?”
“Well, you asked me a personal question, so I’m asking you one.”
Suddenly, a big black Mercedes pulled into the street in front of Patterson’s truck, blocking the road. Patterson hit the brakes, and the truck lurched to a stop. He struck his horn, but the Mercedes didn’t move.
“What is this shit?” he mumbled.
He honked again, and the driver of the Mercedes rolled down his window. It was a black man. With a bald head. And a moustache.
Patterson looked at the side mirror, and saw a souped-up green Cadillac driving up behind. It stopped right behind the truck, essentially boxing him in.
Zachary reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out what he was carrying. It was a switchblade, and he brandished it at Patterson. “You want to ask your question again, mister?”
“What? What’s going on?”
“No, no, the one about whether I was queer or not.”
The Mercedes’ driver stepped out of his car. He had construction gear on. In his right hand was a baseball bat.
Patterson was sweating now. “Look, I didn’t mean nothing by that.”
“Of course you didn’t. And yes, I am of the homosexual persuasion. That’s why I love it here in Wilde River.” There was a look in this guy’s eyes. It reminded Patterson of his ex-wife, when she spied some dark chocolate. “We’re all gay here. All of us. And not just gay, but rather . . . rapacious about it.”
Patterson didn’t know what that word meant, but he sure didn’t like the sound of it. “Look, I gave you a ride. I don’t want no trouble.”
“Thanks again,” Zachary said. In the side mirror, Patterson could see the doors of the Cadillac open. Three men got out, approaching the truck. They were armed. Two were dressed as sailors. One was dressed as a cowboy. In assless chaps.
“I think I’ll ask my question again also, mister,” Zachary said, grinning. “Would you rather be stabbed, or raped?”
Before Patterson could answer, his passenger reached over and turned the engine off.