In West Texas there are ghost towns, where lone trucks drive toward no apparent destination. The trucks, the people, the sounds and rattlesnakes all seem to be ghosts themselves. Many of the towns we drove through had no name.
We stopped in one of the last small towns on the border. It was very quiet that afternoon. Except for the rattlesnakes. Ghosts. I saw an old man at the other end of the intersection, sitting on an old wooden crate reading the newspaper. He was a dark-skinned man with long silver hair and a green bandanna. He looked up at us when we got out of the car. His eyes followed me until we reached the cafe entrance.
It was very quiet inside. The patrons were sitting by themselves in tables scattered throughout the bar. There were no parties. The waitress was very young and very beautiful. Her name was Kathleen. She spoke timidly, almost in a whisper. Her eyes were light blue. Almost clear. Cal tried to flirt with her. She smiled at him. She brought us cheeseburgers which ended up being the best I’d ever had.
“Hey man, it’s Texas,” said Cal, grinning with ketchup all over his face. He took a swig of beer.
Alone and at the other end of the bar, in the beam of sunlight coming in from the window, sat a man in a red jean jacket and a black cowboy hat. For some reason, I felt like he’d been staring our way the entire time.
Suddenly he approached. I knew right away he was not ordinary. He stared at us for a moment. Studying us. His eyes were contemplative. Then he smiled and spoke in a deep, thundering tone.
“You boys ain’t from ‘round here, are you?” he asked.
“I don’t think many people are from around here, mister,” said Cal. “Not in these parts.”
“That’s true. This town’s like some kinda beacon. People are always on there way some place. Usually just passing through.”
“Well my name is Cal Corso and I’m on my way to be an actor. This here is Jude Moonlight. He’s on his way to an epiphany.”
“Well I don’t know,” I said. “We just graduated and we–well maybe just me–I’m just trying to figure out what’s next.”
“Moonlight. That’s a hell of a name.”
“My dad gave it to himself when he was a boy,” I said. “That’s the truth. ‘Moonlight.’ Right on my birth certificate. Think it was inspired by a song.”
“Well, have you actually seen your birth certificate?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well then who are you really, Jude Moonlight?”
“He’s a singer,” said Cal proudly. “And a gee-tar player like the young Bobby Dylan. He even writes his own stuff, you ought to read it. You ought to hear it.”
“Well lately I’ve been pretending to be some kind of a musician. I like to write too, but I…well I’m just a pre-law student, I guess”
“We’re all students Mr. Moonlight. Hmm, that’s a good name. You know, some people are born in the wrong places, but they’re also born with the wrong names. Not you. You’ll realize that once you get to where you’re supposed to be.”
“You think I was born in the wrong place?”
“Why, cause I can’t figure out what to do?”
“I see it in your eyes son. It’s got nothing to do with the things you’ve told me, other than what your own eyes have told me. You got the look of a man trying to find his way home. I did a little writing too in my time. So you see, I know the look.”
“And what’s your name, cowboy?” asked Cal.
“Columbus is my name.”
“You were born with that name?”
He lit his cigarette and smiled again. “Ah, now you’re asking the right questions.” He looked back to me. “So you’re writing songs now, huh?”
“Well I haven’t written that much.”
“So what have you written a little about?”
“Well…War. Poverty. Desperation. Love. Youth.”
“Mmmhmm. And how about you Cal, what do you want to act about? What do you want to sing about?”
Cal wiped the ketchup off his face and pondered a moment before looking back at Columbus and shrugging his shoulders.
“Well tell me this then, Cal Corso, why did you want to become an actor in the first place?”
Cal answered slowly. “Ah well…the truth is I did it to impress a girl. The first woman I ever loved. You see, she was an actress too.”
“Yea. She wore all sorts of masks.”
“Did she ever go for it?”
“No. It was never enough for her. Plus her father hated me. I was only nine years old. Anyways I’m still trying to win her heart. Whoever she may be.”
“Anyways, what do you do, Columbus?”
He said that he was a truck driver and that he had his own company, Colombus Properties, based out of Philadelphia. For the next hour he shared his stories from the road. I stayed quiet mostly, thinking suddenly of my father, who himself had been a truck driver. I realized that I hadn’t thought of him in a long time. At least not consciously. Not at graduation. Not with the guitar playing. I couldn’t remember the last time.
Anyways Cal asked most of the questions as Colombus talked about the women he’d loved and the journeys he’d taken down to Mexico; the hikes he’d made as far up as Alaska, camping with wild bears and gambling with the runaway criminals up there.
We asked him if he was on a job now and he said ‘no’, that he was driving home, back in rural Pennsylvania where he had himself a cabin.
“Speaking of which I guess it’s about time I get back home.”
“Home,” I asked him?
He looked at me and smiled once more. “Well I’m an older man now, Moonlight. I got my wife back home. And so I’m going back there now. I’m going back home, back home and to my woman.”
“Well cheers to you, Colombus,” said Cal as he raised his glass. I raised mine as well.
“If you boys ever make it back someday, back to the east coast, and you need a place to stay, look me up.”
We said ok and thanked him and we shook his hand. He reached the door, turned back around, and looked at us one more time.
“You know, if you’re in California long, I would recommend Big Sur.”
“Never heard of it,” I said.
“Well, when you get there, you’ll thank me. I was born there, see. Strange kind of place. There’s something about Big Sur that attracts us all.” He looked back outside again, staring out in the desert as if recalling some distant memory. “Anyways, you boys take care and maybe I’ll see you around.”
He walked out the door, got into his white truck and drove off. I had a feeling suddenly that he’d left something behind though I couldn’t tell what it was, only that we’d been entrusted with it’s safekeeping.