She doesn’t look like much, Jesus sometimes mused, but she gets us through.
Under his baby’s dented hood roared a Chevy 350 V8 capable of zero to sixty in a blistering twenty seconds, provided you pointed her down a steep hill before you hit the gas. Inside the onboard kitchen, the exhaust fan hacked and wheezed louder than a lifetime smoker running a marathon. But the electrical system kept the fridges under the prep counter running without a hitch, and the griddle could fry up pork and chicken like a champ, and that was good enough for Jesus.
Today’s lunch spot: a mall parking lot in scenic Duke County, Kansas. As he propped open the taco truck’s customer window, Jesus scanned the storefronts, half of which stood empty and boarded up. The big blue box store to his left spat out customers every few minutes, their arms heavy with plastic bags. No fast-food establishments in sight meant more hungry patrons meant more money for fuel and food—enough to get his crew to the next state, at least.
Beside Jesus, Luis knelt and fiddled with the valve of a fresh 20-pound propane tank, their second this week. Business had been good: the retail workers and idle kids who populated this winding stretch of subdivisions and strip malls loved their tacos.
In the front seats, the third partner in this little entrepreneurial venture, Raoul, spun the dial on the ancient dashboard radio. Every station blared a repeat of the Orange One’s three-hour State of the Union address. “This puta is everywhere,” he called out.
“It’s the law,” Jesus said. “They have to play the whole thing.”
Through the crackling speakers, the Orange One launched into the most controversial part of last night’s speech, something about dropping a nuke on The New York Times for releasing his tax returns. Jesus wasn’t sure what bothered him more: the President threatening a newspaper with a missile, or the President comparing that missile to his manhood every few minutes.
“His pene is really like a little Cheeto,” Luis laughed. “The color, the size…”
“Stop it,” Jesus said. “What did Cheetos ever do to you?” He leaned out of the customer window, checking that the chalkboard pinned to the side of the truck had all the day’s specials written on it. When they had started out a month ago, in New Orleans, they had no problem finding catfish and crab, and Jesus and Luis cooked up seafood tacos every day. This far inland, Jesus had a hard time trusting that anything with fins was fresh enough to meet his demanding standards. Their headliner special today: sizzling pork tacos with finely chopped onions and oregano.
Raoul had no opinion on the specials. In fact, Jesus had a hard time picturing Raoul on a prep line, or cooking meat without burning it to charcoal. Raoul’s skills lay in other areas.
The Orange One’s latest rant sputtered to its conclusion, replaced by regular programming. With a feral yelp, Raoul worked the dial until he landed on a station thundering drums and guitar, a solid backbeat for Luis and Jesus slicing and shoveling mounds of peppers and onions and pig. The music blasted the asphalt amphitheater of the parking lot, signaling that the truck was officially open for business.
The first customers drifted toward them. Give me your hungry, your nearly broke, your masses yearning for lunchtime deliciousness, Jesus thought as he wiped his hands on his apron and prepared to meet the first of the lunch rush. And I’ll give you two tacos for three dollars.
One of the first customers to the window was a teenage girl with neon-red hair pinned beneath a black baseball cap, dressed in a pair of paint-stained white overalls. She had enough steel studs in her face to set off a metal detector. “Two pork,” she said, slapping three soft dollar bills on the counter.
“Sure,” Jesus said, and threw a pair of tortillas on the griddle to heat.
“Where you guys from?” she asked.
“Miami,” he said. “We’re headed to Los Angeles. Little cross-country food tour.”
Luis shot him a dark look.
“Haven’t had Mexican in a long time,” the girl said, her eyes drifting. “Even fake Mexican. There was one place, but it…”
“It what?” Jesus asked, flipping the warm tortillas onto his workstation.
“Burned,” she said, staring at the pavement. “After the election.”
Jesus tried to keep his tone friendly. “Accident?”
She shrugged. “You know.”
“Idiots.” She glanced around the parking lot. “I’m cool, okay? But a lot of folks here are not.”
Jesus pursed his lips as he handed over the steaming tacos. “Sure, you’re cool,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered, before darting away with her food.
As he pocketed her money, Jesus turned toward Raoul, who slouched low in the passenger seat. Raoul had slid his sunglasses over his eyes, but Jesus could still read his thoughts in the twist of his mouth. He had overheard the girl’s every word.
The crowd thinned out, and they had a few minutes without customers. Luis took the opportunity to jab his steaming spatula at Jesus. “Why did you tell her?”
“We’re not going to California,” Jesus said.
“Not that part. What’s with the ‘food tour’ crap?”
“We’re on a mission,” Luis said, shaking his head. “Remember what the lieutenant used to tell us? Operational security. It means not sharing details, even fake ones.”
Jesus jutted his chin toward the parking lot. “Watch it.”
In the distance, a mini-van shimmered into view on the access road that traced the perimeter of the mall. It was an older model, its blue paint mottled like a lizard’s skin, creeping along at walking pace. When it disappeared behind the box store, Jesus allowed himself a little bit of hope. There was a loading dock back there, where you could load televisions or appliances directly into your car. Maybe inside the vehicle was a happy family out for a deal on a washer-dryer combo.
When the mini-van reappeared on the far side of the store, its engine roaring in mechanical fury, Jesus groaned. Optimism these days, he thought, is just a lack of information. Raoul took his feet off the dashboard and straightened up, unzipping his military-surplus jacket. Luis braced his hands against the counter, as if expecting a collision.
Instead of ramming them, the mini-van drifted hard to the left, its undercarriage spewing gray smoke. The daredevil behind the wheel must have stood on the brakes, because the back wheels rose in the air for a moment before thumping down, hard, with a tortured creak of old shocks. The mini-van bumped to a stop behind the taco truck, boxing it in.
Raoul scooted into the driver’s seat, his hand on the keys in the ignition.
Jesus took a deep breath, held it for a three-count, exhaled. Keep cool, he told himself. You’ve seen this before.
The mini-van’s doors banged open, disgorging three men who looked like suburban dads gone to seed. They were balding, and out of shape, but their eyes burned with high-octane rage. For a moment they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, thick arms crossed over their chests, and the image almost made Jesus bark with laughter. Hey, he wanted to yell, it’s the world’s softest gangsters. Want some tacos?
Out of the corner of his eye, he noted Luis gripping a long-bladed knife in his left hand, just out of sight beneath the counter. Jesus raised an eyebrow. Not now.
Raoul sat rigid in his seat, watching in the side mirror as the men strode for the customer window. The one in the lead, a portly gentleman with a graying widow’s peak, wore a faded ‘Trump That Bitch’ t-shirt. Fast on his heels was an even beefier dude in a red polo shirt, with the ruddy cheeks and broad shoulders of a high-school football champion well past his prime. A runt with a scraggly excuse for a beard brought up the rear.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” Jesus asked, keeping his smile fixed wide.
“Yeah, um, can I get six tacos? Three pork, three beef?” asked Polo Shirt.
“Sure.” Jesus cast a glance at the other two. “Is that all you want?”
They shook their heads. The runt stared at the sombrero painted on the side of the truck with sullen eyes. He had a bulge at his waistband that his shirt barely covered. The outline looked like a pistol grip.
While Luis spread out a couple servings of diced pork on the griddle, Jesus prepped boxes and napkins.
“You boys legal?” Polo Shirt asked.
“Born and raised in the U.S. of A,” Raoul shouted from the driver’s seat, loud enough to make everyone jump.
Jesus had done five years in the Marines, where he learned that tension was more than something you felt in your body. It was also something in the air, clear as a radio signal, that made your heart accelerate and your palms sweat. He sensed it now, beaming from the men as they paced in tight circles alongside the truck. The rest of the parking lot was empty as the lunch rush cycled down.
“What you doing here?” asked the one in the t-shirt.
“Food tour,” Jesus said, patting Luis on the back. “Going from city to city, selling tacos. We started out in Atlanta. There’s a lot of hatred and division in this country, you know, so we figured we’d go around, spread a little love.”
Polo Shirt spat on the asphalt.
“You know what my Mama taught me,” Jesus continued, his smile making his cheeks ache. “Way to someone’s heart, it’s right through their stomach. People can break bread together, they start to feel a little better about each other, you know?”
“I don’t know about that,” Polo Shirt said. “But I do know, you’re not welcome here, you hear?”
“What do you call a redneck bursting into flames?” Raoul announced from his seat. “A firecracker.”
The man in the t-shirt spun on his heel, fists balled. “You racist…”
Jesus raised his hands, palms out. “Gentlemen, please.” Lowering his arms, he took three cardboard trays of tacos and set them on the counter outside the customer window, along with napkins. “Ignore my friend. There’s only love here.”
Polo Shirt took one of the trays, stepped back, and dropped it between his feet. Pork, vegetables, and sauce left a brightly colored splatter. Wiping his hands with theatrical flourish, he turned and headed for the mini-van without looking back. In other cities, that sort of thing had signaled the end of it: a flash of anger that might have stayed bottled up in a different time, followed by a screech of tires as the offenders headed for the nearest exit.
Only the runt had other ideas. Unzipping his fly, he yanked out his acorn of a puta and proceeded to unleash a fragrant stream of piss on the side of the truck, swirling his hips as he did so. It reminded Jesus of a dog marking territory. When the yellow stream slackened, he stuffed himself back in his pants and trotted toward the van, where his buddies already waited in their seats.
Luis snatched up a blade and stomped for the rear doors of the truck, his hand on the handle before Jesus managed to grab his elbow. “No,” Jesus said. “Not like this.”
Swiping away his hand, Luis turned, his eyes wet. “They started it,” he snapped, loud, over the growl of the mini-van pulling away.
Jesus stepped back, shaking his head. “Not like this.”
“Amigos,” Raoul called from the front. “We got company.”
Jesus ducked his head through the customer window, expecting to see the mini-van circling back for round two. Instead it was the girl in the overalls, hands clapped to her cheeks as she ran up to the counter. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry. We weren’t like this before.”
“Who are those guys?” Luis asked.
“Just guys.” She shrugged. “What can I say?”
With a loud sigh, Jesus pushed the two remaining trays of tacos in her direction. “Want some free food?”
They left the parking lot at dusk. Following their usual plan meant sticking to secondary roads, followed by an overnight at any truck stop that would give them service. As their mobile kitchen wobbled its way to forty miles an hour, Jesus finished counting up the supplies and the cash from the afternoon. A hundred-fifty bucks from the pre-dinner rush. At this rate, they would have a nice little pile of money when they reached the safe haven of Chicago.
Luis drove, sticking to the speed limit in case any cops wanted to make their ticket quota for the month. “Should have let me take them,” he shouted over the rattling dashboard.
“Little one had a gun,” Jesus said. “And you know our rule…”
“No starting shit unless someone starts shit first,” Luis sang, enthused as a fifth grader in detention.
Jesus placed the cash in the lock-box on the top shelf, stepping over Raoul, who knelt to hook his fingers around a seam in the flooring. A lid hinged back, revealing a shadowy compartment beneath.
“Amigos,” Luis called out, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder.
Leaping to the rear doors, Jesus peered through the milky porthole at the mini-van a couple car-lengths behind them. The truck shuddered as Luis lead-footed the gas pedal, buying a little distance, and the mini-van responded by flashing its lights and swerving into the oncoming lane. Jesus bet they would try to pass the truck, maybe try to run them off the road, and that wouldn’t do at all.
“They starting shit?” Raoul asked from the floor, elbow-deep in the compartment.
“Maybe,” Jesus said.
The mini-van’s front passenger window hissed down, and an arm emerged. Jesus recognized Polo Shirt’s red cuff. The thick hand at the end of the arm held a pistol, which flashed and boomed. They heard the bullet skip like a stone along the truck’s left side.
“Yes,” Jesus said, “they’re starting shit.”
Luis cursed, but Raoul flashed Jesus a genuine grin. You were supposed to tolerate bigots. Turn the other cheek, as the Savior once said. But when they tried to kill you—and so many of them did, these days—well, all bets were off.
With a nod from Raoul, Jesus flipped the lock, braced his foot against the rear door, and pushed as hard as he could. The door flopped open wide enough for the howling slipstream to hold it in place, and Jesus stepped back so Raoul could have an unobstructed view of the target. The driver—it was the runt—had maybe a quarter-second to recognize the high-powered assault rifle in Raoul’s hand before a full clip of armor-piercing rounds burst through the windshield, turning the interior into a mess of torn plastic, shattered glass, and premium ground long-pig.
Out of control, the mini-van swerved off the side of the road, leaving a plume of pale dust as it crashed down the weedy, littered slope.
Luis swerved the truck onto the shoulder. Reaching into the floor compartment, Jesus retrieved a shotgun and leapt out the rear door, following Raoul down the incline.
The impact had crumpled the van like an empty can of Coke. Jesus knelt and peeked inside, counting three dead men. A small doll of the Orange One, stuck to the dashboard with a suction cup, offered the destruction two hearty thumbs up.
Standing again, Jesus reached into his apron pocket and retrieved a small black notebook with a pen clipped to the front cover. On the latest page, he made three small marks, adding to the hundred and four on the preceding pages.
It was a long way from New Orleans to Chicago. A lot of territory to cover. A lot of love to spread, one way or another. It was too bad there couldn’t be a taco truck like theirs on every corner, but Jesus liked to think they were doing their part to make America great again.
Bio: Nick Kolakowski is the author of the new short-story collection “Finest Sh*t!” His other works include “Boise Longpig Hunting Club” (Down & Out Books) and the “Love & Bullets” novella trilogy (Shotgun Honey). He lives and writes in New York City.