When Joaquin Comes
by Ed Lynskey
Punching the gas, Ron Yarrow blew through a red traffic light. “Zack, what’s the time?”
“Nineteen-hundred hours,” replied Zack. “We’re way early, Dad.”
“Joaquin said eight,” said Mr. Yarrow. “We’ll grab a bite to eat and kill some time.”
“If some Blacksburg cop doesn’t pull us over before then, sure.”
Hearing that, Mr. Yarrow eased off the lead foot. “Yeah. No sense inviting trouble. I’m a little over-anxious, I guess.”
They rode in silence. “Is this such a smart idea, Dad?” asked Zack. “My going AWOL seems radical.”
“Different war, same lies,” said Mr. Yarrow.
Confused again, Zack took a moment to see the parallelism. He couldn’t. “Times were different back then,” he said.
Making a disgruntled noise, Mr. Yarrow set his lean jaw in a knot. “Not so damn different,” he said. “Our government is corrupt. Look, my kid son isn’t shipping out to fight and die in Big Oil’s war. If your mother were here, she’d agree. Right?”
“Right . . .”
As they sailed by an illuminated sign to a Virginia Tech exit ramp, Zack tried to picture himself inside a dorm room studying. He failed to conjure up even a fuzzy image of himself there so switched his focus. Zack carried in his wallet an old photo of his dad as a young man. The trouble came when putting himself in the same picture. Zack didn’t fit. Frowning, he gave his father an oblique glance. “How long did you hang out in Montreal?”
“Ten years,” said Mr. Yarrow. “Don’t worry. Your stay won’t last near that long.”
“But suppose a future Carter never gets elected?” asked Zack.
“Ah, I remember it well. January 21, 1977.” Distracted, Mr. Yarrow braked to slow for a minivan turning into a Kroger’s parking lot. “Jimmy Carter’s pardon underscored that everything we stood for was noble and true.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” said Zack.
“I’ve every faith this nation will come to its senses again,” said Mr. Yarrow. “Don’t tell me now you’re getting cold feet.”
“I’m going to meet Joaquin, right? That’s our game plan.”
“Atta boy,” said Mr. Yarrow. “Stick to your guns.”
The two-lane highway veered up at a gradual ascent. Off to their immediate right, the mountain’s stony facade loomed. Rattling down the car window, Zack let the crisp, autumnal air bat him full in the face. The fresh piney tang tingled in his nostrils. Live here your whole short life, he mused, and you took every detail about the place for granted. Once the moment came to leave it all behind, the simplest riches became the most cherished. His right now was breathing in another gulp of the turpentine aroma to the slash pines. If only tomorrow morning he could wake up, grab his scoped .22, and tramp out to go squirrel hunting.
“Yep, stick to your guns,” Mr. Yarrow said again.
“You know, Dad, I did sign a contract with the Army,” said Zack.
Waving a dismissive wrist, Mr. Yarrow grunted in sour derision. “So what? A contract is only as valid as both sides honoring their part of it,” he said.
Still riding against the wind, Zack paused to digest that idea, then gave up. Any attempt to track his dad’s logic twisted his own like a honeysuckle vine snaked around a sassafras trunk over too many years. The resulting corkscrew shape ruined any hope to set his own thoughts straight.
“I’m so damn proud of you, son.” Nodding, Mr. Yarrow thumbed on the blinker to turn into the small truck stop seven miles south of Riner, Virginia.
Zack eyeing the phalanx of big rigs didn’t bother to respond at once. Seeing sawn pulp pine logs stacked on flatbeds reminded him of the last summer he’d held a civilian job. He’d learned to relish the muscle-sore toil of a logging crew. His dad hadn’t seen much future in it. Mr. Yarrow urged his son to enlist in the volunteer Army. No war had raged in over a decade. “Do your twenty, then retire. No fuss, no muss,” Mr. Yarrow had said. Finding out how wrong he’d been when the Iraq war flared up had been a heart-stopping shock. He took steps to fix his screw up.
“We’ll hang out on the dark side of the lot,” said Mr. Yarrow. “Then poke into the diner. You hungry? I’m famished.”
“Uh Dad, bad idea. We can’t,” said Zack. “Witnesses are in the diner. We’re outlaws.”
“Right, right,” Mr. Yarrow said. He backed them into a remote berth behind a Dumpster, doused the headlights, and switched off the engine. “My head isn’t screwed on too tight. It’s been a stretch since I last did this. 1967, to be precise.”
“Did you enjoy your exile up north?” After undoing the shoulder-and-lap belt, Zack moved the bucket seat back. He winked at the older man. “Lots of bright lights, fast cars, and wild mamas, eh?”
“Hey!” Mr. Yarrow barked in a metallic, irate voice. “Watch your tongue, bub. I met and married your mother in Montreal.
“I know, I know,” said Zack, shrugging in deference. “Sorry. Bad joke.”
“The irreverence is fine. Your smart-alecky tone is what galled me.”
Sighing under his breath, Zack changed the topic. “Joaquin still lives in Montreal?”
“Yeah, damn lucky for us he still does,” replied Mr. Yarrow. “He’s a lawyer whose ideals never wavered in thirty-odd years. Amazing.
“I assume Joaquin is an alias,” said Zack. “Not his real name -- ”
Just then, a set of high, harsh headlights angled off the highway and pointed straight on at them. Caught in the blinding laser glare through the windshield, both men tensed in their seats. The big rig kept chugging, its brakes hissing to draw alongside a diesel fuel island.
Swaddled in darkness again, Mr. Yarrow said, “Man, that was too close for comfort. But about your question, yeah, that’s what everybody calls him. Joaquin. Champion of every so-called ‘draft dodger.’ Renaissance man.”
“Sounds Portuguese to me,” said Zack. “So: he’s got this drill down pat?”
“Absolutely. I paid Joaquin good money. You’ll breeze across the border like shit through a goose. Forged papers and the works. You’re not alone. More do it every day.”
“We should take my bags out of the trunk. Stash them in the back seat,” Zack said. “The transfer will go faster that way.”
“What, are you in a big hurry?” asked Mr. Yarrow.
Not sure if his father was ribbing him or not, Zack played it cool. “Of course I’ll miss you,” he said. “ And visiting here at home. Especially the mountains.”
“Hell, Canada has mountains out the yin-yang,” said Mr. Yarrow. “Some even resemble our hogback ridges. You’ll see.”
Yeah and I’ll freeze off my balls, thought Zack. Or maybe not. The shape to a plan emerged from the suffocating mist in his mind. First, he needed an edge to make it work. “Man, that damn coffee is a real kick in the kidneys,” he said suggestively.
Cocking his head, Mr. Yarrow snorted out a rough laugh. “You must’ve read my mind. Stand guard and I’ll go first.”
“Sure,” said Zack. “If any more headlights show, I’ll shoot them out.”
“Just hollering will be fine,” said Mr. Yarrow, reaching up to flip off the dome light before ranging out into the chilly night.
Squinting, Zack tracked his father’s progress in the rearview mirror. His hands fumbled to undo the latch to the glove box. A hasty frisk inside it revealed the .357 wasn’t in its customary nook. “Did Dad loose his paranoia and sell it?” Zack wondered in a disgusted mutter.
Once his father had climbed back inside the car, Zack declined his turn, pleading a false alarm. “Yeah, making this trip excited the piss out of me, too,” said Mr. Yarrow.
“Oh-oh, see those headlights?” Wide-eyed, Zack pointed at the oncoming illumination exposing them. “Is that Joaquin?”
“Uh, it must be. Yep. Three flashes, that’s our cue. All right the, hop out. I left the unlocked trunk open a crack. Grab your stuff and blast off.”
“Good luck, son. Keep the faith. Always. Now, scram before I burst out sobbing like some goddamn drunk who broke his bottle.”
Without further fanfare, Zack rolled out the door and hustled around the car. He tossed up the trunk lid. A scoop snatched up his two pieces of luggage. The other vehicle, its color indistinct in this shabby light, eased to stop where he stood.
The driver’s window powered down. A head-shape spoke in a raspy baritone. “Mud in your eye.”
“Remember the Alamo,” said Zack, in turn.
“Groovy. I’m Joaquin. Hop in.”
Zack complied. The car’s interior, even the dashboard, appeared blacked out. They glided from the truck stop and sped up the two-lane highway. Inside of a minute, they hit seventy. Leaving his father behind, Zack felt a flood of relief.
“Doing this, I feel like Charon,” said Joaquin. “You know, the ferryman transporting souls over the River Styx to Hell’s shore. But Hell is far better than fighting in an unjust, insane war, believe me.”
“I sort of like the sticks where I am right now,” said Zack.
“Yeah well you’d better crawl in back and get some sleep,” said Joaquin. “We’ll switch off driving at 2 a.m. Canada and freedom are eleven long hours away.”
“Nope, I don’t think so,” said Zack. “We aren’t going to Canada. Or at least I’m not.”
Eyes aglitter, Joaquin grunted. “Huh? Are you stoned, son?”
“Hardly. Don’t give me any guff about it. When you reach Roanoke, peel off the interstate,” said Zack. “Drop me at the Greyhound station. Hear?”
“Is this a sick joke? What the hell is going on here?”
“Nobody’s laughing, sir. Keep all the money my father paid you. I don’t care about it.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m catching a bus back to my base.”
“The devil you say. You’re shipping over there?” asked the driver, incredulous.
Pale and breaking out in a prickly sweat, Zack nodded. “I’m drop-dead serious. Look, I’m not bucking for any medals. But I can’t go along with my dad on this one. This ain’t 1967. There’s no guarantee my future in Canada will pan out with the same rosy results that his did.”
“You’ll come home in a body bag with a pocketful of desert sand,” said Joaquin. “Or the VA docs will fit you with a new asshole.”
“Yeah you’re probably right,” said Zack. “If you don’t mind, I’d just as soon not to talk about it.”
Scraping his chin, the older man kept a stealthy pace over cold, black slab. They passed between the leafy gap to burly mountains watching over them like some Deistic god. “Yeah sure, if that’s the way you want it, son. Either way, the pay is the same for me.”
“First off, I’m not your son,” said Zack. “Second, yeah, that’s the way I want it. Just drive. Don’t talk.”
Ed Lynskey lives and works near Washington, DC. His work has appeared in Mississippi Review Online, 3 AM Magazine, and Full Unit Hookup.