Art Truck

Short Story

Turning the corner onto L street makes my ass lips purk, a rusty van with all four occupants on their knees now wet with grime, they use the trash and overgrowth blooming from the cracks as a cushion against the cement. Their fingers laced behind their heads, they all stare at the M16A2 rifle barrel trained on them. The cop pointing the weapon is protecting his and his partner’s bicycles while his ripping up the interior of the van looking for food, money, whatever they can claim. That’s what driving around in a gas engine will get you, if you got gas or money for gas, you’re doing something illegal.   

Logging into someone else's wifi will get you sold for twenty years in a chinese work prison. The broadband rationing, net holes, the crash all of it was the same thing. Only 10% of the population has internet. Computers are still everywhere but they don’t go online, unless you want to go to a closed dot Gov site to read and watch the resurgence of America shitted out by the propaganda machine.

If you’re thinking, “why do they call it a crash?” Let me drop some knowledge on you. All job applications are done online, did you just think, “Oh, I’ll go to the public library and fill some out there.” No you won’t. There are private libraries you can go to if you can afford the membership fee and if you can get to the rich side of town, there are no public works, no bus, not even a fucking rickshaw, and taxis come nowhere near these parts. Landline phones are for government officials, corporations and hospitals for power emergencies, the streets are a grass, ass and cash bar only, no credit, debit and EBT trucks here. Which makes for a pretty fucked up environment for anybody.

I only know it’s 22nd and L, because of The Daily Sun Newspaper building, most street lamps been knocked down and used for scrap and the wooden power poles cut down for firewood. A shotty collective of young adults and children have reclaimed the space, simple survival their motto. The garage lifts, Myrna and her crew jump down, their shoeless feet smack the cement and exposed brick.

 I park my van sideways and exit the passenger side.

“Yo Unc, you showed up at the best possible time.”

“You guys broke.”

“We’re always broke, we ain’t got shit to read. You got work right?”

“I did come for the intellectual discourse but we can work first.”

“I got jokes too you shinehead bitch. What we need to set up first?”

“Where’s Ollie?”

A shirtless, dirty, smelly, sickly 13 year old boy parts through the crew.

“Good to see you, you remember how to connect the cable and fly the drone?” He nods weakly. “Let’s get to it.”

I open the sliding door and unhook the top latch allowing the door to convert into a table, Ollie is unlatching the flood board to remove the drone. The crew surrounds the van. Anita snakes an arm pass Ollie to hit the button splitting and spinning the roof into solar panels. She hits another button extending a pod from the tailgate within the frame of the vehicle that houses the printers, 3-D, novel printing and binding, canvas spray prints, photography printing and a oven to heat certain prints, small legs kick out to stable and level the van. Anita and Scott are at the back pulling down the tailgate which converts to a table, they pull the legs out of the frame and adjust them to correct height. At the hood Philip pulls out the sink and spins the mini fridge around. He hang the sign that reads, “One free gallon per family, one grab back per family,” the word, “honor system” highlighted. Myrna and a kid I don’t know remove driver and passenger side door they kick out the leg stands roll up the windows and convert the windows into purchasing touchscreens.

“Don’t forget the pads so people can surf the internet.” I shout at Myrna. “They’re in a box behind the driver seat.”   

I watch Ollie connect the cord to the correct charges of the van and locks it into place on the drone, he walks back puts on the control gloves, gravel and dust plume when the high pitch whirring of the drone’s jets activate, Ollie rolls his fingers elevating the drone to the top of the building. He turns his palms upward I faintly hear the gears of the drone’s wings flipping into solar-panels.

“You got the flyers?” Myrna asks.

“You get your team bikes?”

“We got skateboards. Chains are good for all kinds of shit, the frame and tires recycle into pipes, makeshift guns and tubes. It’s better scrap than a bike.”

“Get some bikes and I’ll pay you more.”

“We’ll see what we can do.” 

The crew on skateboards kick push around this wound called an American city to hand out flyers that the Art Truck is in town. Cities never worked in my humble opinion yet people claimed they broke over time. With not even a finger to place the blame, immigrants, the rich, the gays, the blacks, drugs, trickle down economics, whatever. None of them were a reason or a scapegoat, shit just stopped.

“Hey, don’t put paper in the printers until the customer shows up.” I shout. “Who’s the new guy Myrna?”

“Sorry, Ronald died of gangrene two days ago, numbnuts next to him is supposed to be training her.” She turns to her crew. “This shit cost more than our lives, unless you want to turn tricks for food both of you pay attention.” She turns to me. “Where did you just come from Unc?”

“Chopped it up with old friends in Montag, Illinois.”

“They got some good shit?”

“Everyone there is an intellectual of extreme calibur...yeah, they got good shit.”

“Hey, be careful with the ink barrels. I swear.”

Myrna jogs over to the two boys carrying the barrel, she smacks them both upside their heads. While I have a minute to myself I take out the letter Anna gave me before I left. I keep the photo inside the envelope.

Punk Unc,

We mourn the loss of Marjorie Whiles, our town librarian. During the beginning years of the crash she kept the community together when all the public art was melted down, recycled, destroyed, burned for warmth and power and when the libraries closed. She made it her mission to refill those places with local art. She inspired a town to create, to be themselves and we never got to thank her for it.

“Yo, Unc. We got our first customers coming.”

“Have you even done test prints yet?”

“Oh shit, we’ll get right on that.”

“I’ll stall.”

I fold the letter back into the envelope and stuff it into my pocket. A damn good line is coming toward us.

“I have twenty three movies, forty pieces of art, sixty albums, fifteen games, 9 stand-up comedians and one book.”

“Just one book, what’s that about?”

“This book is fire, kid, trust. When you finish reading this book you’ll use your other books for stuffing and toilet paper. All sellers, please form a line by the tailgate.”

“You got Killer Squad 4?” the black kid makes the number with his fingers too.

“I don’t do bootlegs, I deal art.”

“You already doing illegal shit, what’s one more thing?”

“You like reading and watching state sanctioned media?”

“No, it sucks shit.”

“Right, if you want that real shit come to me. If not go stand in the government lines.”  

“What you got then?”

“Scroll through the inventory and see.” 

“Excuse me, I’d like to buy two copies of PDF 451.”

“Paper or hardcover?”

“Two paperbacks.”

“$12.”

She holds up a bag of miscellaneous change.

“Ollie, counting time. If you wait for my associate to verify your change, we’ll get started on your books.”

“Unc, I’m looking for something to put up in my living room. The flatscreen was funny for a while, no t.v. and all, the blue screen is nice when you’re loaded but I need something to stimulate me.”

“Control F Mountain Top.” 

Their eyes sway like windshield wipers, their neck jerks back when they see the image.

“Damn, that’s some powerful shit, but where the fuck is the mountain?”

“That’s the point of art, ask your friends when you hang it up.”

“You right, print that bitch.”

“Do you want canvas or glossy?”

“Glossy, can’t spring for the canvas.”

“Once the roll is switched from canvas to glossy activate the printer. Myrna, what’s his name?”

“She is named Lori.”

“Did you hear what I said Lori?” She keeps eye contact even when she nods. “Watch her.” I stare at Myrna.

“60.” I say to the woman buying the painting.

“A damn steal.”

She proudly hands me the money.

“The count’s right.” Ollie says.

“Miss, we’ll have those books for you in no time.”

 Customers standing in line merge their purchases, one buys the novel if the other will buy the record which will get them the poster at a discount and one can burn the record later. An elderly man works a deal to buy a book for a young man if he puts up his painting. Orders are piling in, movies, games, statues, the whirling machinations of gears and precise sprays of ink and plastic resurrect this printing floor. Each printer hums a different melody, the oven sounds like a strained hot breath. 

I watch Lori roll the painting while it’s printing, she palms it softly, places it into the tube, it spins filling it while she caps it.

“Great job Lori. Yo.” I shake the tube. She jogs to me, she grabs the tube, I don’t let go. “this is art, make yourself a frame out of scrap wood or get someone to do it for you.

“Alright.”

I let go of the tube.

The local bookstore bought twenty copies, I cut her a deal, slid her some paintings and records since I only have one book. I ask for her address, that way I can drop off the misprints. People who’ve already bought items are returning to buy more. The day isn’t even over and I’m close to 9 grand.

“Myrna, watch the register I’m going to do some buying.”

An older woman standing at the tailgate table hands me a USB.

“It’s a novel, I take a little bit of what happened to my family doing the crash, but when I was writing it I realized this happened to everyone’s family.”

I plug in the usb. I check the word count, it got the length.

“I’ll buy it for 200, take it back to my people, they’ll throw some notes on it, I’ll bring it back to you, see what you do with it and if we like your respond to criticism we’ll bring you on.”

“Yes, yes, oh thank you.”

We shake. I save her novel to the hard drive, unplug the USB, hand it back to her. She leaves, the next artist sits down. 

“I have a collection of poems.” She says.

“Good, I’ve run into many communities that are begging for poems.” I peer at the table of contents, “Thirty poems, how’s 5 dollars a poem?”

“Can we make it an even 200?”

I play with my chin hair. “Sure, I like your gumption.” 

We shake hands. 

“What can I do for you?”

“I have an acoustic album.”

“It’s a flat rate, 60 alright with you? Unless you’re in a band then it’s 60 a member.”

“I do guitar and I use a buddy’s equipment.”

“One twenty a piece, sound fair?”

“Thank you.” the young man says. He’s missing teeth one on top, two on the bottom.

The last stragglers get to the van, bumping the pot up to 18 grand and some change. This should do Montag some good. The skateboarders return. Myrna’s crew starts to collapse the van. Ollie puts on the control gloves flips the solar panels on the drone, flies it back down, checks the van to make sure it’s off, unplugs the cords, stores it all in the floor compartment. Myrna’s crew has assembled the van back together.

“Look” I take a roll of money out of my pocket. “This is two thousand dollars, if you have a problem with your cut, talk to Myrna, you can have what’s left in the fridge and fill up your water jugs until the tank is out, it replenishes while I drive, don’t be shy.” I hand Myrna the money.

“Thanks for that.”

“Pay them proper and you wouldn’t have a problem.”

“How long you staying?”

“Just for a bit. I won’t leave without saying good-bye and I have some stuff for the crew.”

“Dope, I’m going to pay these jackals.” 

As the crew surrounds Myrna I remove the letter and the photo out of my pocket reading the rest of the letter.

She said she never got to thank you either. Here’s a photo she kept on her desk of the two of you. She say you’re a great teacher back when colleges were a thing, she hoped you’d get a chance to do it again. It was nice meeting you, drive safe, see you soon. Sincerely Anna King. I put the letter and photo in the glovebox.

“Myrna, tighten this crew up. I like coming here, your team does a damn fine job. I got to hit the other side of town, you kids stay up. Lori, Ollie, come and get these books.”

The two grab a box of books I printed before I arrived, the classics, some technical manuals, sustainable living books, how to draw and art appreciation books, whatever I think they need. I climb into the van, press the button to power solar engine, drive out of The Sun’s lot waving at the crew. I drive toward the setting sun.