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  • Going across Jordan
  • James Lee Burke (bio)

Who would believe somebody could drive a car across the bottom of an ancient glacial lake at night, the high beams tunneling in electrified shafts of yellow smoke under the surface, but I stood on the bank and saw it, my head still throbbing from a couple of licks I took when I was on the ground and couldn't protect myself. The sky was bursting with stars, the fir trees shaggy and full of shadows on the hillsides, the cherry trees down by the lake thrashing in the wind. Most of the people we picked cherries for lived in stone houses on the lakeshore, and after sunset you could see their lights come on and reflect on the water, but tonight the houses were dark and the only light on the lake was the glow of the high beams spearing across the lake bottom, the ginks that had chased us through the timber with chains afraid of what their eyes told them.

Flathead Lake was a magical place back in those days, all twenty-eight miles of it, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, so beautiful that when you stood on the shore at sunrise it was like day one of creation and you thought you might see a mastodon with big tusks coming down out of the high country, snow caked and steaming on its hide.

We called ourselves people on the drift, not migrants. Migrants have a destination. Buddy Elgin wasn't going anywhere except to a location in his head, call it a dream if you like. He was the noun and I was the adverb. We never filed an income tax form and our only ID was a city library card. Like Cisco Houston used to say, we rode free on that old SP. Tell me there's anything better than the sound of the wheels clicking on the tracks and a boxcar rocking back and forth under you while you sleep. Buddy was like a big brother to me. Even though he was a water-walker and took big risks, he always looked out for his pals.

We worked beets in northern Colorado and bucked bales in the Big Horns during the haying season. I can still see Buddy picking up the bale by the twine and flinging it up on the flatbed, the bale as light as air in his hands, the muscles of his upper arms swollen like cantaloupes, a big Swedish girl in the baler not able to take her eyes off him. Buddy was on the square with women and never spoke crudely [End Page 311] in front of them or about them, so any trouble we got into was political and never had female origins. Not until we got mixed up with a hootchy-kootchy girl who could rag-pop your boots and leave you with a shine and a male condition that made it hard for you to climb down from the chair, pardon me if I'm too frank.

I loved the life we led and would not have changed it if you hit me upside the head with an iron skillet. I told this to Buddy while we were gazing out the open door of a flat-wheeler, the Big Horns slipping behind us under a turquoise sky and a slice of moon that was as hard and cold as a scythe blade.

He wore a gray flop hat that had darkened with sweat high above the band, one knee pulled up in front of him, the neck of his Stella twelve-string guitar propped against it. The locomotive was slowing on a long curve that wound through hills that were round and smooth and reddish brown against the sun and made me think of women's breasts.

"What are you studying on?" he asked.

"I was wondering why most men get in trouble over a reasonable issue like money or women or cards or alcohol, not because they cain't keep their mouths shut."

Buddy tried to roll a cigarette out of a ten-cent bag of Bull Durham, but a flat-wheeler doesn't have...


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