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About the Author
Di Filippo is also a highly regarded critic and reviewer, appearing regularly in Asimov’s Science Fiction and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A recent publication, coedited with Damien Broderick, is Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010.
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By Paul Di Filippo
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Paul Di Filippo
All rights reserved.
The fat geezer in the suv ditched me in the middle of nowhere.
"Sorry, kid, this is as far as I'm going." He jerked his thumb left at a long shady gravel driveway with a fat plastic mailbox staked at its edge. "My place is about a mile down there. Brand-new vacation home on a sweet little lake. More glass than walls, two fireplaces, sleeps ten." He got a nervous look, like he'd said too much. "I put in real good security, since I'm only there on the weekends. Motion sensors and an automatic dialup to the local cops. And my brother and his family are due along soon."
What a fucking jerk, sitting there in his Casual Friday office drone clothes, too stupid to know that his rugby shirt and Dockers were just a different day's uniform. All panicked that I was gonna follow him maybe on foot after he abandoned me, and rip him off. Like he had anything I wanted.
I already had the front passenger door of the suv half open, the straps of my pack in one hand, but I paused just long enough to make sweat break out on his forehead, despite the suv's air-conditioning going at full blast.
"Yeah, thanks for hauling my ass all those miles. Golly, was it ten or twelve? Want any money for gas?"
He must've been totally deaf to sarcasm, because he actually took me seriously. "No, no, that's quite all right." He squirmed around in his seat like a dog with worms, then said, "Well, good luck getting wherever you're going. Do you need directions?"
I stepped out, keeping the door ajar for my comeback. "Don't go to any extra trouble." Lame. What else could I say to make him squirm? I rummaged around and came up with something that just made me sound like a drifting loser. "I can't get lost anyhow, because I don't know where I'm going." Then I slammed the door as hard as I could.
He didn't bother to answer me, but just drove off. His hopefully–roll-over-primed tires kicked up a roostertail of pebbles, and I noticed a "Free Tibet" sticker on his bumper. Yeah, right, like he even gave a fuck.
I looked around. Nothing but trees as far as I could see, more trees than I had ever personally experienced before. Hot narrow ribbon of asphalt without even a yellow stripe for variety, stretching off to faraway unknown places. But the weather was pleasant, pure summertime, and the sun was still pretty high. Lunch still sat nice and solid in my stomach, a couple of burgers, some onion rings and a large Coke. I started walking in the direction me and Droneboy had been driving.
I was really gonna have to work on my ironic tone of voice.
My pack wasn't all that heavy. Or so I had thought when I first shouldered it on the way out the door of my folks' house. All I had in it was a couple of paperbacks, my iPod, and my best Skechers. I was wearing my second-best pair. Plus a few clothes, like an extra pair of jeans and three tee shirts, some boxers and socks. But by seven o'clock that night the straps of the pack were cutting into my shoulders like two dull knives. My feet ached, my legs throbbed and I smelled pretty ripe, like a crate of cabbages in a dumpster. My throat seemed to be made out of the crudded-out cardboard of a day-old pizza box. Pizza. That was really something I could enjoy right about now. Just a hot, greasy slice or three and a tall icy soda.
But this landscape was about as far away from civilized things like pizza as I could imagine. How many miles had I walked in the past five hours? At least a hundred, probably. And still there was only forest, forest, forest. Not a single car had passed me in either direction. Why had anyone ever bothered to build a road through this fucking wilderness anyhow? All I had seen since I started walking was two or three driveways leading, I had no doubt, to other exclusive asshole hideaways. Where did these people go when they wanted to rent a dvd?
At last I admitted to myself that I wasn't going to find any supper tonight or a good place to crash, like a bus station or an all-night diner. So I started thinking about calling a halt to this sweaty marching and curling up under some tree. I figured that maybe I could make some kind of Boy Scout shelter out of twigs to stay warm.
After about another ten dozen miles, I scoped out my best bet so far. This tree was huge, standing all by itself, and its curving branches came down to about the height of my head, like an umbrella half opened. It was set back a dozen yards or more from the road in a field, so I'd be less likely to attract attention or get woken up all night by the nonexistent traffic.
I left the road and cut across a strip of land where the grass and wildflowers practically came up to my waist. As I got closer to the tree, the grass and flowers gave way to clear ground packed soft with about a million years' worth of dead leaves. Nice mattress, I thought.
With the sun sinking and the living leaves on the tree's branches thick as discarded scratch tickets on a sidewalk, the space under the tree's canopy seemed dark as a janitor's broomcloset to my eyes. I got a little spooked and slowed down. What kind of animals lived out here? Bears? Cougars? Did they like to hang out under trees?
I stepped forward, past the first branches, and waited for my eyes to adjust.
I jumped back like I was yanked on a string. Maybe I would have run if I wasn't so tired. Looking back on things, maybe I should have. But I didn't. Instead, once I felt like my voice wouldn't shake, I spoke right back
"Just a bone-weary fellow traveler like yourself, pardner. Come on in."
I hung back a minute longer, letting my eyes get used to the gloom. A gentle sunset breeze was making the leaves whisper and breathe in a soothing way, and the air caught close beneath the branches smelled nice. Suddenly, for no real good reason, I felt peaceful and relaxed. That feeling, plus my tiredness, won out over any fear or caution, and I stepped forward.
Now I could see the guy who had called out to me.
He sat crosslegged and loose-limbed at the very base of the big trunk, his butt nestled in a knot of roots. He was a slim, wiry, tough-looking older guy. I couldn't really guess how old. Once people get past twenty-five or so, they all start to look the same age to me.
He was dressed nothing special. Jeans cuffed up above some ratty hiking boots, belt with a big buckle, denim shirt. His hair was a little on the longish side, and slicked back with some kind of gel or mousse. Or maybe it just hadn't been washed lately. His face was the most startling thing about him. Pockmarked with old zit scars and craters, nose a messy sprawl, lips kinda blubbery. Patchy gingery whiskers sprouted here and there across his lean cheeks and chin, like weeds in a deserted lot. A little scary looking, overall. But his eyes, as far as I could read them in the evening shade, were lively and friendly.
He didn't get up right away, and for a minute I had this wild idea that he was glued to the tree, or part of it, or something else crazy like that. But the next minute he unfolded himself easily and stood up. He stuck out his hand and said, "I'm Sid."
We shook hands. "I, uh, I'd like to remain anonymous for now."
Sid cracked this wide rade grin. "Anonymous, huh? Okay if I call you Anon? Of maybe you'd prefer Kid A?"
Maybe withholding my name was stupid. But I wouldn't go back now on my impulsive decision, and I wouldn't let him get a rise out of me. "Whatever."
Sid stepped back and looked me up and down. "How old are you, Kid A?"
Sid snorted like a cop's horse with its nose in the feedbag. "You come from some planet where they use a different numbering system? That mustache you're cultivating has about six hairs in it."
That pissed me off. "So what? Your own beard looks like you started to get electrolysis and then changed your mind halfway."
"You got me there, Kid A. But that doesn't change your age. I say you're sixteen, tops."
"What if I am?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all. I just don't like to be lied to. Why hide what you are?"
Maybe he had a point. "Okay, you're right. I am sixteen. And a half."
Sid clapped one rough hand on my shoulder. Usually I hated when people did that, because it always felt phony. But for some reason this time, I didn't mind.
"Okay. Now we've got a basis for communication."
"How old are you?"
"Fifty-two." He took away his hand and slapped his own tight gut. "Looking pretty decent for an elderly guy, huh? Still got basically the same waistline I had when I was not much older'n you."
"I guess that's cool."
Neither one of us said anything for a minute. I waited for Sid to ask me the most obvious questions. What was I doing on the road? Where was I heading? Had I run away from home? But he never did.
"Thinking of camping under the tree for the night?"
"Well, yeah. Unless you need the whole space here, or just wanna be alone."
"Far from it. Company is good. You thirsty?"
"There's a creek a few yards in that direction. Need a cup?"
Sid moved to the base of the tree. I hadn't seen his pack in the shadows till then. He went to it now and opened it up. It was some kind of retro-looking army-surplus pack, green canvas with a built-in metal frame, lots of grommets and side pockets and rope ties and cracked leather straps. He dug out a plastic cup and tossed it to me.
"Oh, and one other thing."
A roll of toilet paper came flying through the air.
"Just don't shit too close to where we both have to drink. One of the prime tenets of civilization."
I smiled for the first time since I had met Sid.
"Hell, can't argue with that," I said.
When I got back from the stream, Sid had moved around to the far side of the big tree and was kneeling down. He was busy arranging rocks in a circle around a patch of ground cleared of leaves down to the dirt. Beside his boots rested a decent-sized pile of twigs and branches, snapped to short lengths.
"We can have a small fire over on this side, and there's less chance anyone'll spot it from the road. No sense drawing busybodies who'll sic the authorities on us. If it's one thing I hate, it's being hassled by the cops."
"They looking for you?"
"Hell, no! Do I appear to be some kind of wild-eyed fugitive to you? I'm clean as a virgin's panties. But I don't own a home, I don't pay taxes, and I don't drive a car. So of course I'm instantly an object of suspicion. You too, for that matter."
I needed to wrap my mind around that concept for a minute. Just by stepping away from my old life, I was considered a potential criminal? Leaving behind the things I didn't want anymore, the people who didn't want me, made me a menace to society? Even without doing anything illegal? Where was the justice in that? Finally I managed to think like a cop and see myself from their point of view. But I didn't like it any better.
"Okay, I bow to your superior experience. Secrecy rules."
Sid constructed a smaller circle of stones inside the bigger one. Then he got the fire going with absolute efficiency. I got a kick out of watching him layer the tinder and twigs and branches. It was like watching a DJ scratching or someone drawing a beautiful chalk picture on the sidewalk. No wasted moves, artistic. He lit the pyramid of wood with a disposable lighter, then sat back on his heels.
"I got a can of beans and a can of Chef Boyardee in my pack. I intend to mix 'em all together, heat 'em up and dish 'em out. Any objections?"
My mouth was already watering. "No sir!"
Sid rousted the cans out of his pack, along with two plastic margarine tubs with lids and some plastic spoons. The cans came open raggedly under an attachment of his pocket knife. He fetched out a battered aluminum pan and filled it with beans and spaghetti.
"Go fill these empties halfway each with creek water."
I did as I was told. The last drips of light were being squeezed out of the sky, and I had to really watch my footing coming back across the rough ground.
Sid sloshed the water around to get all the residue out of each can, then poured the water into the pan. He rested the pan on the inner ring of rocks, and before too long the makeshift stew was bubbling away.
My gut rumbled, and I could practically taste the food.
Sid tucked the cans away in his knapsack. "Pack it in, pack it out. Another good rule to live by."
I felt easy enough to make a joke. "You related to Smokey the Bear?
Sid glowered at me, and I thought I had overstepped some kind of boundary of politeness. But then I read his scowl as a put-on, and his next words confirmed it.
"Smokey? I fathered that hairy bastard!"
We both had a good laugh. His was loud and deep down in his chest. Pretty soon the stew was ready. Sid used his shirt tails for a potholder, and poured some for each of us.
I had never tasted anything so good.
"When'd you eat last, Kid A?"
"Lunch. But that was about a hundred hours ago."
"Been walking all day?"
"Naw, just since early afternoon."
"Long enough. Sorry there's no cheesecake or pumpkin pie for dessert. But this should hold us till the morning. We'll take it from there. Something'll turn up. You got any money?"
I stiffened right up. "Um, a few bucks ..."
The dancing firelight made Sid's face waver. But there was no mistaking his expression of sad disgust. And this time he wasn't faking any emotions.
"Kid, if I had wanted to rob you, I would have coldcocked you the first time you turned your back on me, and you never would've even seen it coming. Let me tell you my rule for dealing with people. It's really simple, and I've never known it to let me down. I start out friendly, and see how the other guy responds. After that, based on what he does, I follow tit for tat. So I give you supper and expect at least some plain old respect back. But things can go down from here any way you want. If you don't trust me, you can take off and find some other place to hole up in for the night. Or I'll do the same. Your call."
I swallowed whatever was in my throat, while I tried to figure out what to say. I realized I had been acting just like the geezer in the suv, frightened for no real reason. Worried about someone who looked a little weird. At last I got out an apology.
"I'm sorry, Sid. It's just that I'm new at this kind of life. You wouldn't want me to act like some kind of sucker about things, would you?"
"Not a sucker, no. But not fearful and cynical and always expecting the worst. That's a sure recipe for getting exactly what you least want."
"Okay. Now I know."
Sid stuck out his hand. "No hard feelings, then? Shake."
We did. Sid said, "Give me your bowl and spoon. I'm gonna go wash 'em out."
At the edge of the firelight he stopped. He turned back to me and, with a big grin, said, "If you want to rummage through my pack for severed ears or the loot from an armored-car robbery, feel free. Just put everything back where you found it."
Sid tossed the last of the wood onto the flames. Sparks showered upward. "When this dies down to coals, I'm hitting the sack, Kid A."
"Me too, I guess. Hey, wanna hear some music?"
I dug out my iPod. Sid looked leery.
"Whatta you got? Got any Mingus? Parker?"
"Uh, no, I'm not sure ..."
"Sorry, I don't listen to the classics. Here, try this."
I dialed up some Rage Against the Machine, then handed it off to Sid. He inserted the earbuds clumsily, then tried to start the track. I showed him how.
The expression on his face made him look like he had just bit down on a pus burrito. He hung in for about thirty more seconds, then jerked the buds out.
"Man, that is some truly wretched noise! These guys some amateurs from your neighborhood?"
I took back the iPod. Sid's words were hurtful, and I could've been hurtful right back, using his stupid tit-for-tat strategy. But instead I bit my tongue and tried to wise him up him instead.
"Of course not! These dudes earn millions. Or did, before they broke up."
"They broke up? Thank God!"
"So what, they've still got tons of fans. They were the best at what they did."
"Maybe so. But should they ever have been doing it in the first place?"
I put the Discman away. I wasn't going to argue music with some guy who had stopped listening to new stuff 'way back around, I don't know, nineteen-eighty-nine.
"Maybe I'll read a little," I said.
Sid perked up. "You got some books?"
"Just the two best books ever written."
"Oh, yeah? Haul 'em out."
I laid my hands on the paperback first. I pulled it out and handed it over.
Sid chuckled like water running over gravel. "I should have guessed. Good ol' Jack. This is potent stuff. Inhale it in small doses, and always check whatever Jack says against your own experiences, instead of just taking him at his word. How'd you come across this?"
Excerpted from Roadside Bodhisattva by Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2010 Paul Di Filippo. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)Based both on the way it starts and on the reputation of its publisher, I kept eagerly waiting during the first half of Paul Di Filippo's Roadside Bodhisattva for the book to reveal itself as the bitter, witty parody of terrible undergraduate-quality Jack Kerouac ripoffs that I thought it was; but then as the book kept continuing and continuing, I sadly came to realize that it's not a parody at all, but rather actually is a terrible undergraduate-quality Jack Kerouac ripoff, almost not worth describing because of its cliche-ridden storyline being fairly easily guessed on your own. (Young dissatisfied vagabond teams up with wizened road hippie; the two end up at a small-town diner where their manual labor and interactions with the members of White Trash Central Casting teach them lessons about life more valuable than anything the "squares" could "grok" from their "button-down Madison Avenue lives, maaaaannn." Seriously, that's it; that's the entire story, told without even the slightest hint of self-aware irony.) Thoroughly not recommended, and a real disappointment from the usually great PS Publishing.Out of 10: 2.6