Bob the Great by Jason Emde

The main thing is I have this gigantic fucking Peter the Great presentation in my Russian History class this afternoon and, because of our little tiff last night, our little whatchamacallit, contretemps, which started out as a mildly amusing disagreement about the precise meaning of oblong, which let’s face it neither of us was too sure about, and escalated until some pretty choice insults were exchanged—including one about my teeth, which I’m sensitive about, for obvious reasons—Charlie has clearly and with malice aforethought driven off to the college without me, which means I’m going to have to hitch. After I clean up the argument wreckage, of which there is precious little. Actually none. But still. 

Oh, Charlie. What the fuck was that all about? A nice quiet evening in, and then pow, contention. One day, Bob, you’ll grow up and understand all this, you said. Among other things. And I said some things too. None as good as that, though. That was a good one. I’ll be sure to inscribe it in my little mental book of resentment and acrimony.

I putter around muttering free-range, high-resolution anti-Charlie complaints and washing the dishes and putting things where they belong and tidying my desk and getting dressed and prepped and coffee’d and so on. I brush my teeth quickly and well, uneasy eye on the calendar, uneasy eye on the clock. Big-deal presentation. Peter the Great. Born 9 June 1672, etc. Practically built the Russian Navy with his bare hands, etc etc. Thanks a fucking lot, Charlie. Thanks a ton

Oh, Charlie. Oh, dear girl. Oh, you fucking Charlie. Not her real name, of course. Her real name’s Isis, which she felt it was best to, you know, keep quiet—on the down-low, as some goon in my Russian History class says all the time, keep it on the down-low, man—in light of the bullshit being perpetrated under that name way over there, not in Russia. I always thought Isis was a fantastic name, a very sexy name, and was even more impressed when she told me—first conversation, not first date, but the first time we ever talked, me on my second of three beers, she looped, at the college pub in our first year, what do the Americans call it, I can never remember, our junior year?—that her dad had named her after the Bob Dylan song, which happens to be my third-favourite Dylan song, off Desire, my fourth favourite Dylan album, released 5 January 1976. Great song. And also Isis/Charlie was and is beautiful, like double-take beautiful, long hair, a charming triangle of moles on her throat, large, sensual lips, large, sensual eyes, great body, and great teeth, it must be said. Plus she’s smart and funny and generous. A good student, too. A good student in the science program, but nobody’s perfect. 

Freshman, I think it is, probably. Should look that up and remember it. 

And I don’t mind hitching; I’ve done it before and it’s never not worked out. I just dislike the disruption in my schedule. I resent the unexpected glitch. I had a plan and Charlie wrecked it by driving off and leaving me here, still asleep, dreaming about blueprints and Lego. And that comment about my teeth. That was pretty low. Pretty down-low. Did I deserve it? I sometimes do. One day I won’t, though. 

And that guy, the down-low guy, he’s always asking me if I want to smoke a joint on the down-low before our Russian History class and it doesn’t matter how many times I tell him I don’t like to smoke before class, that I get way too paranoid and unrelaxed and itchy and it’s no fun and the class is a write-off and if and when I smoke dope I like to lie in bed, alone or with Charlie, and listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 on headphones. I’m quite firm and specific about all that and he keeps asking me anyway. Why do people never listen when you tell them things? And Charlie has the effrontery, whatchamacallit, the unmitigated gall to call me judgemental. Her deal is I’m judgemental. That’s what she told me. I denied it, of course. I just don’t like people who don’t remember simple shit and keep trying to fuck with my understanding and enjoyment of Russian History. 

Oh, Charlie. Did you know I had this presentation? You did, didn’t you? And you know I need to do well on it to keep my GPA what it is, right? And that my scholarship depends on my GPA? And our apartment depends on my scholarship? Dah. And you don’t really think I’m judgemental, do you? Just because I’m tired of people starting sentences with So all the time? Really fucking tired?

And that down-low guy isn’t even the worst, the worst is that jughead in my American Novel class, the guy who won’t stop talking about his uncle’s shit diary. His uncle keeps a little notebook next to the toilet and writes down the date and size and shape and consistency of all his bowel movements, every last one. Each time the guy goes over to his uncle’s house he always sneaks a peek at the diary and then when he sees me at school he gleefully tells me all about it. “Friday, October 21: one long unbroken turd. Two wipes.” You can admire the uncle’s dedication and discipline but who wants to hear about long unbroken turds? Especially when right afterwards you have to talk about John Dos Passos for three hours?

Revolt of the Streltsy, 1682. Peter’s height: 203 centimetres. Possible epilepsy. Facial tics. 

All right. Notes, wallet, phone, keys, smokes, lighter, portable ashtray, Peter Massie’s biography of Peter the Great, which is great, even if Peter himself wasn’t, if you ask me. Why? Unfocused disruption. Obsession with the new. Enormous drunkenness and confusion. Up all night. Sloppy. Errant. What’s so great about that? Would Charlie go for a guy like that? I bet she would, actually. More fun than me. Drunker, anyway. But there’s that potential epilepsy to consider.

I check my phone. No messages. Don’t bare your judgemental teeth at me, is what Charlie said, last night. Which, like, jesus. 

I check that the stove and the heaters and all the lights are off, let myself out, lock the door, check the door, and hump up the driveway to Pleasant Valley Crescent, which, like, spare me, name-wise. Jump the tumbledown fence and cross the field, which is covered in something short and brown and dry, straw or clover or I don’t know what. Hay? But thank goodness it’s short and all bent down. Otherwise I’d be nervous about ticks, which are the worst, which are the fucking pits, trust me. But that’s nature for you. 

Almost to the highway, and then a smoke, a quick hitch to college, and my big presentation, 25% of my final grade. Not yet cutting it close, time-wise, but getting there. St Petersburg, carved out of a northern swamp. Peter the Great’s gang of dwarves that he took around with him all the time, and when he went to where was it, Prussia or Vienna, on the Grand Embassy, the Emperor there had a gang of giants. If I could go back in time I think I’d want—

And I almost step right on it. I almost put my foot right into its guts. A dead dog. Roadkill, and I guess whoever hit it was going fast enough that the dog flew right off the highway, right into the clover or straw or hay or whatever this stuff is. But ok. A very dead dog. German Shepherd, looks like, though it’s sort of hard to tell. The thing’s at least half puddle now. Don’t think I’ve ever seen anything this big dead before. This is unexplored territory. I bend down to get a closer look. Dah, the smell. And there’s a maggot gala going on in this dog’s guts and no mistake. They’re going nuts in there. Good grief. But again: what do you expect? This is what the natural world is like.

I’ve got Peter the Great to worry about. I circle around the dog, climb the fence, scramble up the embankment, cross the highway, put down my bag, and light a cigarette with my Zippo, a present from Charlie, dammit. It’s the least I can do after getting you to start smoking, she said, and laughed her huge, uninhibited laugh, head back, hair hanging down. I never laugh like that. My teeth, and everything.

Grand Embassy to Europe, 1697-8. Allowed his own son to be tortured to death, 1718. Another excellent reason not to swallow the historical hype. Great, my royal red ass.

Usually, when you light a cigarette while hitchhiking, a car will stop for you immediately. It’s practically guaranteed. And then you pretty much have to ditch the smoke, as a matter of hitchhiking politeness. But the first thing I do, when somebody pulls over and I climb in, is to check for an active ashtray. Smoking takes some of the power out of the awkwardness of talking to a stranger with a car. Plus it’s something to talk about: brands, the fucking tax, the government, whatever. So I stand there smoking, trusting in cigarette magic. But this time it doesn’t work. Nobody stops. I finish the first smoke and immediately light another, relishing, as always, the perfect click of the Zippo’s lid closing. And still no luck. I stand there smoking and muttering and worrying and cursing Charlie and feeling sorry for myself and looking at my watch and checking my phone and waving my thumb around, like a chump.

Until now I thought she liked my teeth. She said she did, and she likes to lick them when we’re fucking. She gets her tongue right up there. Nobody else has ever done that and it kind of spooked me the first time, frankly. Who likes crooked teeth? Who likes to lick crooked teeth? But that’s Charlie for you. When I asked her why, that first time, she said Because I felt like it. Where would I ever find another girl like that? Why did I argue with a girl like that over what oblong means?

Died 1725, aged 52, his bladder infected with gangrene. My bladder? Completely gangrene-free. 

And that dog. Knocked off the highway and now sort of melted. Will the maggots eat everything, eventually, but the bones? How long will it take? Is it fast? Is it over fast? 

I’m busy worrying Charlie’s going to dump me because I’m uptight and judgemental when a ramshackle and dubious looking car comes to an action-packed, dust-sprawling stop on the shoulder. Only a certain kind of person tends to pick up hitchhikers, and that certain kind of person tends to have a certain kind of dubious car, so I’m used to that. But that stunt stop? I don’t want an adventure, I want to get to school and get up in front of the neat rows of desks and do my presentation and get an A and maintain my GPA and keep my scholarship and keep living with Charlie.

I run up to the door and open it and, even before I see the driver’s face or anything else, I confirm that there’s an active ashtray. A hyper-active ashtray: it’s practically overflowing. Which means a heavy smoker. Good. Great. 

“Thanks a lot,” I say, getting in. That’s what I always say. I turn and look at the driver. He’s looking at me.

“Thought you were a chick,” he says, and stomps on the gas.

I make a non-committal, conciliatory noise. I have long hair, it’s true. Another one of Charlie’s suggestions. That way I can pretend you’re a girl, sometimes, she said, laughing her big brazen laugh.

“Wouldn’t’ve picked you up if I knew you were a dude. Ha! Just joshin.’ Hippy motherfucker. Where you headed, man?”

“To the college,” I say, trying to put on a non-existent seatbelt. He’s driving very fast. Very.

“Never went to fuckin’ college. Don’t need that shit for driving truck.”

“You’re a truck driver?” Uniform: flannel shirt, jeans, baseball cap, proto-mullet, little red eyes. A type. A deplorable type. Just another small-minded, bubble-headed bozo who won’t understand my life and situation with sufficient exactitude to say anything useful or interesting about it. Member of a different tribe. A zillion dollars says he says It is what it is at least once sometime in the next five minutes.

“Occasionally, bro. Not right now, evidently. Hur hur hur. Want a smoke?”

“I’ve got some,” I say, reaching into my pocket and pulling out my Players Light and Zippo.

“Naw, fuck! A smoke, bro!” And with an oddly elegant flourish he pulls a plastic container out of his shirt pocket, flips the lid open, and shakes a perfectly rolled, oil-heavy joint into his mouth. “Fuckin’ Players Light. Ha!”

I take a closer look at the ashtray, which I now see is overflowing with roaches. And there’s the smell, of course, finally getting through.

He lights the joint and takes an exuberant drag and passes it to me. “What’s your name, kid?” he says in that bottled-up voice people use when their lungs are full of smoke. He also does that little jerky thing with the joint, like, hurry up, take it

“Bob,” I say, taking the reefer and thinking fast. This is a delicate matter. Having accepted a ride, I am, to a great extent, bound by the driver’s rules and style. It’s a matter of manners and tradition. In exchange for a ride you agree to be pleasantly conversational, non-irritating, undogmatic, and just interesting enough to justify the pick-up, but not too interesting, because, most of the time, people who pick up hitchhikers are bored and just want to talk at somebody. So you sit there and try to be as blandly cordial as possible. Refusing the joint, therefore, will be seen as a rejection of his generosity and a vast and unheroic failure of nerve and flair on my part, if the chaotic ashtray is any indication. Having accepted the ride the joint is pretty much compulsory. Rebuff, now, will ensure bad vibes and even, possibly, ejection. And I’ve got to get to school and do my presentation. Time, time, time. Time is now an enemy. My enemy. Look what you’ve got me into, Charlie. Thanks a fucking ton. One day I’ll forgive you for this. Probably. But maybe not. 

Peter the Great: legendary carouser. His so-called All-Joking, All-Drunken Holy Synod was the debauched heart of Moscow. Vodka until everybody passed out, night after night. Precious little reefer madness, though, I’ll bet. 

I decide to take a quick, polite toke, pass the joint back, immediately light a cigarette, and use that as a kind of buffer against the joint, if I can. It’s a pretty flimsy plan but it’s the best I can do at present. 

“Bob! Ha! That’s my name too! Well, Robbie, actually. Fuckin’ how about that, eh?” He laughs. “Spell that shit backwards, it’s the same motherfuckin’ shit.”

The first drag is apocalyptic and beautiful and I am instantly and outrageously high. Ohhhhh, dear me. Oh, shit. I feel squawking paranoia dig icicle talons into my shoulders. My teeth start pulsing and I get that weird, awful sensation where you feel like your throat is sliding down your throat every time you swallow. The road underneath my feet is suddenly under my feet, rushing. Charlie!

“Mmmmmmmm,” says Robbie, taking a noisy drag on the joint and humming and squinting.

It’s sunny and there’s a ceaseless glinting all over. Points on the lake, heaving in its bed of mud, to the left and down. Roadside signs, oncoming cars, guardrails, Robbie’s hood ornament, all glinting like crazy. Too much. Too bright. To the right, and reaching to the no-colour hills: fields full of ticks. And the road’s white line, all the lines, blurring. I need to say something.

“I saw my first dead dog today,” I say.

“Oh, fuck. Dead fuckin’ dogs. True story. You ready? Mmmmmm. One time, there I am, yeah? Hitchin,’ just like you. Down by the border. I was coming back from South America actually. So I’m coming back, and I get over the border, nearly fuckin’ home at long fuckin’ last, and buddy picks me up, eh? And he’s loaded, he’s fuckin’ shitfaced, he’s driving all over the fuckin’ road like this—” and, agonizingly, he shows me, crosses two lanes of traffic, rocks back, jerks the wheel, swerves, lunges, hunches to pass, honks the horn, laughs maniacally, looks over at me, and laughs some more. Footwell garbage, disrupted by the zigzagging, settles in new clumps around my feet. “You alright there, Bob? Fuckin’ hell! That’s how I felt! That fucker was a menace. And I’ve got my dog in my backpack, yeah? Little guy, a terrier. This is like three fuckin’ dogs back. Rasputin. Good fuckin’ dog. Got him—well, wherever. But Raspy’s in my bag, and this yahoo’s all over the road”—and here he nudges the wheel, just to remind me—“and no fuckin’ kiddin,’ in order to avoid crashin’ into the fuckin’ thing in the middle, the what the fuck do you call it—”

“The oblong?” I say.

“Yeah! No! Oblong! What the fuck, Bob! The fuckin’ thing in the middle of the road. So he swerves, right, and he’s goin’ way too fast and the whole fuckin’ car flips over, wham, right onto the fuckin’ roof, and slidin’ and shit, and there’s carnage everywhere, and we crawl out and the fuckin’ cops are there in no time and they’re givin’ me all kinds of shit and I wasn’t even drivin’ and my dog is fuckin’ dead, there’s fuckin’ blood and gore all over the place and Raspy is dead. And I’m like, fuck. Ha!”

I’m having trouble following this. I’m having trouble, generally. Is he talking about the dog I just saw? About death? Dead dogs? Why is he talking about death and laughing? Ohhhh, dear me. Oh, fuck. And one day I will get old and die. Or, thanks to this lunatic, maybe today. Maybe today’s the day. Time, time, time, getting smaller. Robbie passes the joint back and before I realize what I’m doing I take another drag. The smoke roils out of me in billowing shrouds. 

The lake, the fields, the road, the sky. Lots of clouds, scudding. We’re moving fast, Robbie’s really rolling, and that means I am too, in the dubious car.

Roil? Is that the right word? Is that the word I want?

“Ah, Raspy. Good old fuckin’ Rasputin. Took me a long time to get over him but, you know, I fuckin’ did. Know how? Huh?”

I make a strangled noise I hope sounds like relaxed and casual interest.

 “Audaciousness. Fuckin’ boldness, Bob! Genius! Magic! Power!”

The supreme, the Herculean effort even just to think about getting my notebook out, and getting a pen too, and writing down what Robbie is saying about genius and magic and power. Useful information? Might be. Audacity. Boldness. But it’s hard to think. Time, time, time. And god, it’s hot and smokey. It’s a jungle in here. 

Peter the Great born in. Watched the whatchamacallit, the Streltsy hack his family to pieces. Mother’s name: Sophie? Sophia? Old Believers. Tax on beards. War with Sweden. King whatsisface. Charles. Charles the second? Third? Epilepsy. Gangrene. Azoz: that Turkish fort in the Crimea or wherever.

“They eat them,” I hear myself saying, “in Korea. Dogs.”

“Fuckin’ A. China too. To each his own, eh? Didn’t bother trying myself. Ha!” I look at him; he’s floating radiant in the middle of endless flashing glints. He looks back at me, eyes impossibly wide. “Hey, fuck, Bob College, you ever hear of a fuckin’ writer called Vladimir Mayakovsky? He’s the fuckin’ reason I went to Russia in the first place. ‘Stupid crybaby, get some sense!’ That’s from “About St Petersburg” or that other one, I can never fuckin’ remember which.”

The lake, glinting on the left, and fields, full of rocks, to the right, and behind both the lake and the fields, stretching back and up, bigger and bigger hills and then mountains, low and dark and covered in trees. 

One day I’ll do something vast and heroic and bold, I think. One day I’ll get control. One day I’ll be Bob the Great

There’s a huge, horrific noise and an explosion and dust and carnage and then we’re stopped. Stupefied, I look out the window. We’re at the access road to the college. Dust from the shoulder is free falling all around the car, and the light through it, and the quiet, and everything. 

“Here you go, Bob. Safe and sound. Unless you wanna keep goin’? Huh? No? Ha! But here, wait, wait.” And he takes the container out of his shirt pocket again and shakes two joints out and puts them in my breast pocket. “For later, dude. Ease your fuckin’ mind after class.” The oil on the joints seeps through my shirt in long, thin, joint-shaped lines. 

He looks at me, red-eyed, smiling a great crooked happy reefer smile. I see that his upper teeth, the whatchamacallit, molars or incisors, are crooked, just like mine. Maybe worse than mine. Incisors, I’m pretty sure.

“Go easy, Bob,” he says.

I try to thank him but too many things are happening and I have too much to worry about just now, my bag and the door and boldness and getting out and the dust and Robbie waving and car sounds and more dust and he’s gone. He’s fuckin’ gone. And here I am, here I am, weak-kneed in the middle of things. Stoned out of my whatchamacallit, what is it, gourd? What is a gourd, anyway? What shape? Oblong?

Up the road the college makes college sounds. Unable to think of anything better to do I start trudging towards them.

I wonder where Robbie was going. All the way?

Through the lower parking lot, around the library, into the central quad area. Must be almost one, students everywhere, everybody moving their arms and legs, science students, hacky-sack guys, teachers, custodial staff, the education students with their ukuleles. Life’s rich pageant. One o’clock: Russian History. I stand indecisive, immobile, wide-eyed, happy, one foot on the grass, the other on the walkway, staring. People go by. The world is full of people. People and light and air and sound. And there’s Down Low, waving. Bet he’d enjoy one of these joints. All the way.

Median, it’s called, Robbie. The median. And I owe you a zillion dollars, don’t I?

Here comes Charlie. She comes right up.

“Hi Bob,” she says. And then she says more, like how her car’s in the shop, as planned, as previously arranged, for the next week, the muffler, remember, the goddamn muffler? And she got a ride this morning with Gabrielle in her class, how did I get here? Did I hitch? Am I ready for my Peter the Great thing? And she leans in close and licks my right earlobe, once, fast, and then pulls back and looks at me and smiles, the moles on her throat making their perfect Charlie triangle, and the light on her teeth, and her eyes, her eyes.

One day I will know what to say. I will know all the perfect words. One day. Yes.

Jason Emde is a teacher, writer, undefeated amateur boxer, the author of My Hand’s Tired & My Heart Aches (Kalamalka Press, 2005), the creator and host of the Writers Read Their Early Sh*t podcast, and MFA Creative Writing Program candidate at UBC.. He lives in Japan.