The first time it happens, you’re doing 85 down that stretch of 30 where every other billboard is for an ambulance chaser or a casino.
Four in the morning or thereabouts; of course, you’re fried. At the distribution center, yours is manual labor, not altogether physical—dishonest, sort of. You reckon it suits you. Yet you can tell your nights there are already numbered. It’s when you’re making a point of not obsessing over the inevitable that the ancient pickup nearly plows into your lane.
You wrench toward the shoulder, rage rising in your throat, brakes griping. In the rust bucket’s bed, hardly muffled by the plastic blue flap of tarp, an impossible green screeches. Not parrot; not exactly Martian either. A toxic-ooze, laundry-detergent-aisle, live-wire green. But—and maybe it’s just your adrenaline draining—you know those associations don’t radiate quite right.
You’re late on your horn. The relic and its pilot have sped away, trailing black exhaust and busted taillights. You don’t remember flipping on your hazards, aggravating their arthritic “tock, tock, tock, tock.”
What you wouldn’t give if, just once, they ticked.
By the time of your second encounter, you’ve hooked up with the backpack vacuum cleaner crew at a 24-hour data center in Farmers Branch. This is your new commute: intersections timing out to the rhythm of blinking yellows. As always, you’re headed south. The little Fiat is heading east, its back seat and cargo area on fire with the color.
Your lips feel spicy. You pursue, fully aware that you’ve got no clue how pursuit is supposed to work. A red light finally cooperates. You inch up in tailgating position. You want to spit but you wipe instead, the air conditioning too precious to make lowering your window worth it. The driver is obscured by the car’s freaky payload, but you can almost recognize the spacing between the bass notes of whatever’s blasting on its stereo.
The green is a mass of masses—tumors, growths, an embarrassment of them, crawling with bulges and veins. Each specimen is about as big as a tennis ball, or a mutant grapefruit. That’s it. You wipe your mouth. An arm, sleeved in denim, emerges from the Fiat. You know this fruit. You’ve hefted your share before, handled how heavy its yield is for its size. You’ve scored bull’s-eyes—falling fence, neighborhood watch warning sign, cousin—with its thudding uselessness.
But this harvest must have some value, enough to be muled around in the dead of night. The driver’s hand is gloved. No, even as contraband, this plentifulness lays up no sugar, no stickiness, no smacking appetite in your imagination. Only globby omens of August.
The driver makes a fist, unmakes it. How is it you can see something like you’ve never seen before when you’ve been looking at it your whole life? You wipe your mouth again, smearing your chin with flowery aphasia.
You’ve been bumper-to-bumper too long. Now the driver is waving, giving the universal signal to go around. You do as commanded, punching it, zipping up to the next break in the traffic island. You execute an impressively illegal U-turn. The Fiat is long gone, having left you to face the stark prospect of retracing your steps.
You take another graveyard shift. Your new employer prints funeral programs and only funeral programs. Bad news: tonight you overloaded the pallet jack, upsetting dozens of boxes. Good news: nobody else witnessed the spill of high-gloss faces—the woman with the wolfish eyes and Coke-can-red wig, the newborn with the toothless laugh, the uniformed cop, the eventual broken neck in the starched pearl-snap blinged with horseshoe collar tips.
Again, a truck. An F-150, white as toothpaste. You’re about to pull away from the QuikTrip when it rumbles over to the free air station. Heaped in the back, that green, naked now, jostles all over itself. You kill your headlights and slip from the pump. A yellow diamond promises that your parking spot is a SAFE PLACE, the A in PLACE storied like a tiny house. You pitch your side-view mirror, nearly periscoping it, watch to see who or what emerges from the truck. But there’s no movement, unless you count the insomnia that’s pretending to do your thinking for you.
Does it surprise you that devouring is the antidote to being devoured? It’s not that you covet the green’s flesh; rather, its name, or whatever secret thorniness is glitching your memory raw. Your mouth is dry. That this fruit is inedible is no temptation. That it might be poison is. You picture your teeth breaking its density, rind to core. You will let its sap soak you with its worst. You will let its geography suffocate you. You will salvage the seeds, scatter them, tend to the branching and canopying overloaded inside them, keeping them earthbound—a tending you can repeat.
You unlock your phone. You have 63 LinkedIn notifications, 427 unread emails. You start texting yourself: SQUARE THE SPIRAL. You backspace over that, tap out JUST STOP IT, give that message the thumbs-up. You unclick your seatbelt. You are going to cross the concrete and ask the driver of that truck, straight up: “What’s it called?” Failing that, you’ll plead out, concede to the relief of admitting what’s been weighing on the tip of your tongue.
You wobble at first, settling into your intent as you wade through the last ebb of yesterday’s heat. Approaching, the finer details of your private hell start to bleed, losing their resolution. It has to be the same truck. It sports the same monster Bridgestones, the same windows tinted to ticketable excess. But the bed, the same one, is barren. Above the evidence of the green’s ghosting, on the same back windshield, a rectangle you’re positive wasn’t plastered there before flares its orange. It swears to the truck’s abandonment—and yours, too.
Joe Milazzo is the author of the novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie and two collections of poetry: The Habiliments and Of All Places in This Place of All Places. He is an associate editor for Southwest Review, a contributing editor at Entropy, and the proprietor of Imipolex Press. He lives and works in Dallas, where he was born and raised.