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REAL MEN TRAVEL ON THE GROUND

by

Peter Relic



Ned called to say he'd made it back from Mazatlan. "I did it on two dollars and 35 cents." He sounded far away, like under the Hollywood freeway. "I bought three burritos wrapped in salad for a dollar. Then I tricked a guy into selling me a hotdog for less than some pesos. Then I got a bottle of cheap water and it held me." I pictured Ned holding the black receiver, the night lights from the Cahuenga Motor Inn pool bathing his face, an oily curl of orange hair flopped across the sunburn scars on his scalp. "A woman at Spike's office asked what the bus ticket cost and told me she could've gotten a plane ticket for that much, but she doesn't understand. Real men travel on the ground." I heard him spit. "I'm blue, Joe. Just some poor Shakespeare kid trying to make a buck in this huge unfriendly city. If I had an agent I could raid his fridge." Ned sounded far away, and was far away, but that's not why he sounded that way. I told him that when I got in to work I would send him a box of his favorite pens, EnerGels with needle tips. "Kenny Rogers Honey Glazed Thighs! Can you imagine being the person who first put those words together, Joe?" Ned talked a lot about food, the fast cheap kind. I told him my dinner was burning and he said that was okay, he had to go anyway.

One time four years ago my mother called me. "Joseph, do you have a friend named Ned Mix?" The question made me a little anxious. "He phoned today. He said he was in the District and that you had told him he was welcome to stay at our house. I don't know who he is, so I told him he could not come stay at our house, but that if he met me tomorrow at the Portrait Gallery after my docent tour I would take him to lunch. Does that sound fair to you?" Does what sound fair, her telling Ned he couldn't stay, her offer to take him to lunch, the fact that in a moment of stoned beneficence I had given Ned my parents' phone number and then forgotten to tell them he might call? And what kind of odds would I have given on Ned making it from LA to DC? He was a master at traveling cheap and rolling his own smokes. "Keep the sleep. Caffeine and nicotine is all I need." Ned was street smart, but that couldn't keep him off the street. About a week later, my mom wrote to say she had bought Ned lunch at the Air cafeteria where he had told her he was a neglected genius like Dostoyevsky and that there was no room in the world anymore for literary purity. She told him he needed to take a hard look in the mirror. When he said he was broke but hoped to "light out for Boston in the morning" she had loaned him sixty bucks and wished him luck. That Christmas when I went home for my father's funeral, my mom told me she had found dad lying in the front hall where the mail had been pushed through the slot and landed on top of him, and that in the mail pile had been a note from Ned with sixty bucks clipped to it, and that she was so surprised, she'd almost had a heart attack. A strange choice of words, considering. But I was surprised Ned repaid her too.

I was living in a Los Feliz bungalow with a pretty Mexican girl named Linda. This was seven years ago. I wanted to marry her but my cousin Rudy told me not to, that marrying a Mexican girl is the same as giving her a free pass to get fat. One morning Linda left for work before dawn. I was still in bed when Ned came over. I heard the screen door bang and found him in the kitchen taking a thick-bottle Coke from the fridge. Ned had not slept; he was wearing a t-shirt that said I LOVE MY CAR. He's never owned one, and anyway never learned to drive. He had an overinflated pink party balloon in his hand. He passed me a Coke and we traded off riding my skateboard down to Sunset Boulevard. Morning traffic was in its usual trapped and choking aspect. Ned was jubilant; he began singing Clash songs, and turning cartwheels on the sidewalk with the balloon in his teeth. Some people waiting for the #219 bus pretended not to see him. We stopped in front of the Hospice Center and its facade paneled with convex mirrors. Ned polished his lilac balloon on his t-shirt tucked under the rainbow belt of his dirty khaki slacks. After a minute or two, Ned turned to me. "I only ever look at myself in the mirror by accident," he said.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Relic decided to write after reading Natalie Babbit's The Search For Delicious as an impressionable youth. Although a faith-based man, the Cleveland resident doubts the Indians will win a World Series in his lifetime. He works best on an Olivetti portable typewriter.




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