The Stuntman and the Story of the Grapes: Late Summer, 1982
by Matt Basiliere
“So the thing about Cat People,” the stuntman said, talking about the last movie he had worked on in L.A. before coming back to Utah, “is that I didn’t really have much to do. But still got the paycheck.” He laughed. “And that’s the thing with my line of work. It’s hard to get in. But once you’re in, you’re in. And that’s the kind of gig you need, my man. Something you can drop in and out of and that won’t hold you down that lets you—”
It had been two weeks since the hitchhiker had met the stuntman, and he was in a good routine. At night, he slept by himself in the trailer that sat like an oversized tin can in the scrub surrounding the house that the stuntman was building outside Provo. During the day he helped the stuntman in whatever way he could. He had already learned to hang drywall and lay tile, and he was less afraid of the stuntman than when they had met at the gas station in Littlefield, Arizona as the stuntman, filling his bike, eavesdropped on the hitchhiker as he approached a slim, thin-lipped, suited man filling up his car and asked if he could get a ride.
“I don’t do that sort of thing,” the man had said, terse, no eye contact. Hanging up his pump handle, the man opened the door of his station wagon and locked it. He glanced toward the hitchhiker, tested the car door to make sure it was locked, and walked into the station to pay, quick steps clacking on the pavement. When he came out, walking briskly to the car with his keys in his hand, he avoided the hitchhiker’s eyes. And as the station wagon pulled out and away from the gas station, the hitchhiker and the stuntman both read its bumper sticker. “Get U.S. Working, Vote Reagan”.
“Never any point asking Mormons for rides,” the stuntman said in the hitchhiker’s direction, his eyes still on the station wagon moving down the road. Smiling, he turned to face the hitchhiker directly. “But lucky for you, I ain’t no God damned Mormon.”
The hitchhiker had thanked the stuntman but said he couldn’t, pointing at his backpack propped against the wall near the entrance to the filling station’s restroom. “That’s not a problem,” the stuntman had said. “I’ve done it before. Just make sure everything’s tied down before you get on. A flap blows up with the pack on your shoulders, you’re not going to stay on the bike. And worse,” he laughed, “I might not either.”
Before they set out, the two men exchanged names and a minimum of information beside the entrance to the bathroom. The hitchhiker said that he was heading north, as far as he could go. He said he would be happy to go as far as the stuntman could take him. And as they shared a thin, misshapen joint that the stuntman took from his wallet, he mentioned how tough it had been to get through Southern California, out of Barstow and then out of Las Vegas. When the stuntman nodded in agreement and asked for details, the hitchhiker hesitated, trying to think of how to explain it. How to convey fear and isolation and shame and a sense of abandonment and desperation without seeming pitiful and weak. Without making himself a target. Taking a hit, holding it and exhaling up into the wide blue sky, one foot on the wall, his leg bent before his body as he leaned back on the wall, he told the stuntman the story of the plumber and the couple with the grapes.
He told how he’d been picked up by a plumber outside Barstow after what had happened to him there and had ridden all the way back to the plumber’s house talking and sharing cigarettes. He told the stuntman that the plumber had a picture of his wife in lingerie and on roller skates taped to the rearview mirror, and that she was posed like Linda Ronstadt.
“Nothing wrong with that,” the stuntman said, toking.
“Not the way his wife looked, though,” the hitchhiker said, shaking his head, happy that he made the stuntman cough smoke from his nose in half-suppressed chortles. And as the hitchhiker got more and more high—the sky above him and the pavement at his feet turning into a cardboard diorama of the great American West, the filling station and piercing desert light fusing in his mind with his associations with those things, and the occasional breeze making him think, ‘I am feeling a breeze moving slowly over my skin’—the words of his story poured out, no longer his own, as if he were describing a character he might want to be. He described the plumber stopping for coffee and gas. Going in to the station to pay as the hitchhiker pumped. He told the stuntman about stopping at a package store and watching the plumber come out with a liter of blackberry brandy. And as he spoke and the stuntman nodded along, grunting or grimacing at the appropriate moments, the hitchhiker couldn’t tell if the stuntman believed him. He couldn’t tell if his story seemed outrageous or mundane, since he was leaving out everything that seemed most important to him—the backstory of Barstow that made the story of the plumber and the couple with the grapes feel the way they felt to him: the threat behind every action making each moment terrible and fraught, but also unimportant, destined to be forgotten unless a tragedy, a murder or rape, took place.
“After we got into Vegas—and you could see the strip and everything—we drive out into this neighborhood in the desert. Like a development. Every house looked the same. And it was like we were driving forever though this desert-black night. And I had no idea where I was. Everything was a sprawl, went on forever, but the streets weren’t laid out on a grid, so you couldn’t tell where you were. And there weren’t any landmarks except the horizon. Just desert everywhere you looked. And the neighborhood was out beyond a low rise of rocks, like, low hills, so you couldn’t even see the strip, recognize those lights.” The hitchhiker, his story causing him to imagine spotlights—first in the sky like spotlights on clouds drawing in crowds for a carnival or car sale, then like follow spots on a vaudeville stage circling a performer in brightness—did a pantomime soft shoe and laughed. Realizing that his words wouldn’t call up in the imagination of the stuntman the image he was picturing, the hitchhiker went on with his story.
He told the stuntman that when they pulled into the plumber’s driveway, the lawn was a pristine sheet of deeply shadowed grass, the white from the porchlight a pie slice into the manicured, dark greensward. “It was picture perfect,” he said. “And the house looked new and unlived in.” Pulling his wallet from his back pocket, the stuntman loosed and lit another misshapen, thin joint. “And not to say anything bad,” said the hitchhiker, “but the plumber looked like a plumber, you know. And the house looked like a banker lived there.” And the hitchhiker told the stuntman that when they went inside—everything pristine, fresh flowers in a vase on the windowsill, three pictures over the staircase in a diagonal rise, smiling blond faces looking out 1, 2, 3—the plumber told him he was going to check on his wife. “She must be laying down,” the plumber said. “You should get yourself cleaned up.” The plumber pointed to a bathroom down a narrow hall off the kitchen and told the hitchhiker to take his time. “Do what you need to do,” he said, handing the hitchhiker a plush, clean-smelling, baby blue towel, its pile high, as if it had never been used. “Seems like maybe it’s been a while since you had a shower. I’ll go explain things to the old lady,”
“And when I was in there,” the hitchhiker said, “I turned on the water, but I didn’t get in. Just sort of stood by the door. And I’m hearing talking, but only the plumber. No other voice, just his.” He told the stuntman that when he opened the door, peered thought the crack, he saw the plumber with the phone by his ear. “’Yeah, maybe 16, 17,’ he was saying. ‘Brown. Curly, maybe wavy you’d call it. I think we’d be fine. I don’t think anyone would know.’”
And before the hitchhiker could finish his story, lie about how he’d walked right out, skipping over the fact that even though he thought he’d be raped or abducted he’d taken a shower because he’d wanted one so badly. Was willing to take his chances for warm water and a bar of soap. Was still in some way dreaming of meeting the plumber’s saggy wife and having himself filmed. Not yet having had a chance to describe to the stuntman how clean and still wet, afraid to fully dry with the new-feeling towel, he’d snuck out the window and walked all night through the neighborhood, his head cleared of the brandy and cigarettes by adrenaline and night air, until in the darkness he’d heard a sound like a rushing river that after a time he recognized as the highway. And how he’d stumbled toward it through backyards, over fences and swing sets, barking dogs and sprinkler heads, banging his shins and scraping his arms on brambles and plantings, falling hands first to the watered lawns, dreaming of creeping through a window into one of those homes he was so close to, finding a woman in bed who would welcome his coming, his smooth and taught flesh, until amidst all those fantasies he’d once again found an on ramp behind a tall fence and a small path of desert and leaving the suburban dreamscape had planted himself, sleepless and hysterical, like a gay-porn advertisement, his thumb out and his body posed for all to see. Before he could get into any of that, the stuntman interrupted.
“So you been on a bike before?” the stuntman asked, intruding on the hitchhiker’s thoughts and the pause he now realized he had slipped into unforeseen. The hitchhiker looked around at the bright desert sunlight and filling station, like a memory he’d almost forgotten. He looked at the stuntman, a threat, older than him, joint dangling from his lip. “Yes,” the hitchhiker lied. “I’ve been on a bike before. Sure. Why?”
Riding stoned and sleep deprived, a little gakked up on the last of the meth that he’d taken from the plumber, his rear end bouncing like a jackrabbit’s ass on the back of the stuntman’s ’72 Bultaco Metralla MK2, was as close as the hitchhiker had so far come to feeling as if he’d left his real life behind and entered into a movie. The bike, he would later learn from the stuntman, had been upgraded to a four stroke engine and still was just over two hundred pounds. And with an upright frame and street racer design that forced the rider to bend into curves, the hitchhiker was sure that he would be bounced off. Against his instincts his hands wrapped around the stuntman’s stomach as the bike went airborne off the miniscule ridge of paint in the center line as they whipped around corners and swerved off their curves.
On his knee, the hitchhiker felt the pressure of the stuntman’s thigh, pressing out as if to flip him off the bike. He saw the stuntman’s head turn toward him, cutting the wind that was sending tears from his eyes and down the sides of his face. “--!” The hitchhiker knew the stuntman was yelling, he just didn’t know what, as the bike once again flattened out left against the road into a wide turn, the hitchhiker’s body staying upright like a counter-weight, trying to keep the bike from going down. He shimmied his hips back as the bike came upright again pulling out of the turn, the stuntman’s head turning forward in front of him once again. Looking up at the fat clouds far out on the horizon, the hitchhiker thought that this was how he’d die. “--!” the stuntman yelled again as the bike now flattened right, the hitchhiker aware that if he reached his right hand out the skin of his hand would shave down to meat and then raw bone on the fast flying pavement moving inches from his face. Opening his mouth to laugh at the closeness, thrill and horror of the speed with which his body was hurtling along the road, the hitchhiker’s cheeks puffed out. Tucking his head behind the stuntman’s back, finding the calm in the wind shear of the stuntman’s shoulders, the hitchhiker struggled against the pull of the pack on his back, acting like a sail dragging his body backwards. Rocketing forward against the expanse of the stuntman’s back and realizing his body was once again fully upright, the hitchhiker looked up and realized that the throb of the engine in his ears had lessened and the wind had let up. The stuntman had braked and downshifted the bike.
“Lean!” the stuntman screamed behind him. “Lean with the curves!” he said, tapping his thigh against the hitchhiker’s knee to show what he meant, what direction the hitchhiker had to move to keep the bike steady for the stuntman. “Fucking lean when I tell you or I can’t make the turns!” the stuntman shouted. “I thought you’d said you’d fucking ridden before, you lying fuck!” the stuntman laughed. “I’m too old to be working this hard to give some would be hippie a ride!”
“OK,” the hitchhiker said, quiet, embarrassed. “All right!” he then yelled, hitting the stuntman’s shoulders and letting out a scream. “All! Fucking! Right! I’m a lying hippie fuck!”
And with that, the stuntman gunned the bike, knocking the hitchhiker’s whole body back as if he’d been hit in the chest with a poleax as the individual pebbles of the pavement beneath his feet melted into a wash of color and scary hard texture—a white-gray blur buzzing close enough to flay both their bodies and shatter their unprotected skulls. Diving into a straightaway that shot along a stretch of highway bordered by layered rock formations rising on either side, their flanks washed smooth by eons of erosion from long lost water and untraceable winds, the stuntman leaned back and tilted his head. The hitchhiker leaned his head forward, the rush of speed clearing his head of the daze of the pot, and for the sake of safety he reminded himself that despite that lack of daze he was still unbelievably stoned. Just go with this, he told himself, you are free, on a bike, out there and stoned. Be safe but go with this. This is just like being alive. This, he told himself, is what you wanted. You are not the story of what happened in a plumber’s bathroom in Barstow, California. Not now. Right now you are not even here. This is not even 1982. This is 1979. The place you wanted to go. The place I want to be. Before this new story started. Because time moves backwards and so do I, and I like smoking lightning. You, he told himself, thinking of the image of his body seen from above, are beautiful and free. And nothing. Nothing can touch you.
Over the upshifting wail of the Bultaco’s tight engine and the forces of wind and torque pushing the hitchhiker closer to the rear of the seat, his stomach straining and his ass scooching forward, his eyes again streaming tears from the air stream, the hitchhiker once more heard the stuntman’s voice, yelling but calm, as if it were inside the hitchhiker’s skull.
“The grapes!” the stuntman called out in the fast-rushing wind. “You never told me about the grapes!” And as the hitchhiker struggled to parse what the stuntman was saying, an image overtook his mind. Of the couple in the pickup who’d taken him out of Las Vegas the next morning after he’d escaped, clean, from the plumber’s house. How they’d never asked him where he was going or tried to bully him or match wits. How they never even paused to look, not even a brief turn. Even when they steered their beat up old pickup over to where he stood, thumb out, on the side of the highway, their wheels slowing to a halt as his body ran to catch up with them, they hadn’t turned their heads. But as he’d slouched in the bed of their pickup as it wound slowly north in the cool morning, the city fading behind like a bad memory or cheap movie still, the old woman in the passenger’s seat had reached behind her and handed him a bunch of red grapes nested in a gas station napkin. Her face was lined beneath a straw cowboy hat that was just as worn and dirty as the hat that her husband wore. As the hitchhiker nodded, trying to say thank you, he rushed a handful of grapes into his mouth, rolling them like soft, cool marbles against his tongue and palette, felt their sweet explosion of juice when he bit down, and knew with certainty that he’d been handed something greater than redemption—more immediate and needed and infinitely more sweet.
“Fuck the grapes,” the hitchhiker yelled into the stuntman’s turned ear, knowing the story wouldn’t matter to the stuntman, that it wouldn’t sound like anything other than the thing that it was—some old lady handing him a few pennies worth of grapes. The glory of the moment as he experienced it wouldn’t come across; his words and thoughts would fail his feelings, unable to capture the beauty he was shown when through the slider window in the pickup’s cab the old lady’s hand, wrinkled and slow, handed him that cluster of fruit. “Let me tell you about Darlene,” the hitchhiker yelled, a smile on his face and adrenaline pumping his confidence, his body becoming accustomed to the pull, tug and jar of the Spanish-made machine rocketing him though the beautiful and rising, wide landscape. “That’s a better story anyway. She’s who I’m headed to see. She’s the woman I love. She’s a college girl back east,” he said, knowing that the story of the grapes would just fade away, wouldn’t matter in days to come any more than the plumber, or all the freaks in Barstow, California, or that moment in the shower when the fear of violation was overcome by the promise of an unused towel on his newly clean, wet skin. All of it no more or less important than that Mormon at the filling station with the bumper sticker and no lips. “And she’s coming out to meet me in Montana. And I’ll tell you,” he shouted over the bike’s loud throb and jerking roll. “She just loves to ride my rock hard fucking cock! That’s what I’m talking about!” he yelled, smiling. “That’s what—.” The bike dipped, and the hitchhiker’s body leaned with it. “Man! You know what I mean?”
Matt Basiliere’s stories are forthcoming or have appeared in Eclectica, Verdad, Pindeldyboz, The Heat City Review, The Fifth Street Review, and other publications. His poetry has appeared in Ghazals for Foley, an Hinchas Press publication celebrating the spirit, life, and work of conflict journalist James Foley. Matt is a graduate of Hunter College in New York City and holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he was awarded the Slosberg Memorial Award for Substantial and Worthy Achievement in Prose.