AM I WRONG
“Rob,” I asked the driver who had just picked me up off the highway outside of Crossroads, California, “have you ever been to Portland?”
“Sure,” he said. “Nice town.”
I studied his face for signs of insincerity. And in fact, he had a wild look in his eyes, though he dressed in a conservative suit that contrasted nicely with his dark skin. When I’d climbed into the car I noticed a guitar case on the back seat. Maybe all musicians are liars.
“Did you notice much gang activity there?” I kept my voice as casual as I could.
“How about over by the, um, train station?” I looked out the window as I spoke, then turned to him, as if my gaze could draw the answer I wanted out of him.
“I know that area. Brick sidewalks, and those funny four-part water fountains. They’ve really spruced the place up.” Rob drove one-handed, the other tapping restlessly on the frame of the open window.
“Did anyone ever shoot at you in Portland?” I looked at his eyes. He took his gaze off the road long enough to look back. Wild eyes, for sure.
“Why would somebody in Portland shoot at me?”
We conversed little more in the hours it took to get there. Rob handed me a case of CDs, telling me to play what I liked on the car stereo. I put in Jimmy Reed.
“You play blues?” I asked him, gesturing at the guitar in the back.
“Yes ma’am,’ he said with an exaggerated drawl.
“You any good?”
“Better than some,” was all he would say.
Rob dropped me off in front of the Chinatown gate. “Come see me tonight,” he called through the driver side window. “Got a gig at RJ’s.”
Hands deep in my coat pockets, I trudged away from the dragon graphics and faux-Chinese signs. I scanned the buildings around me, looking for a hotel. I spotted the Embassy Suites a couple blocks away, and pointed my feet in that direction.
Later I would wonder how things might have been different if I’d made it to the door. If the doorman had let me pass, if I’d checked in, entered a room, locked the door behind me, tested the bed for firmness or the lack thereof, checked out the mini-bar, admired the phony marble counter in the bathroom, and gazed out the unopenable window of the climate-controlled room far above the street. If I’d done those things, I could’ve spent one night and then gone on home. Yes, I might’ve gone home.
But I was still a block away, I couldn’t even see the doorman yet, I hadn’t even made up my mind about going to hear Rob play that night, when I was suddenly obliged to lie face down on the sidewalk, in order to avoid the bullets zinging through the air above me.
While I was down there, I observed a larger quantity of cigarette butts than you would expect in a crunchy granola city like Portland. There were also bits of broken glass and all other manner of debris, the tiny litter you ignore or step around on your way to work, or to the store, or the bank, or to your home. And before I got up, I had to come to grips with a fact. A hard truth I didn’t like one bit.
On our ill-fated train trip six months earlier, Bill Foster hadn’t lied to me after all. Nobody was shooting at him in Portland.
They were shooting at me.