Joel Smith



My fiancée had moved to the outer steppes to study with bonesetters, after winning a fellowship in ethnomedicine. She wanted me to come, but I couldn't. The food truck boom had started. This was before I drove the ambulance.
     "Why don't you stick to the inner steppes," I texted her. It cost a dollar-fifty. She was one ocean plus two seas away, depending on your map projection. She never texted back, so I bought a calling card and left voicemails until my money ran out.
     Maps are crucial in mobile food services. When you're in the black, you're on the move. Customers are everywhere. When you're in the red, you're on the move, looking for better lands, once-promising strip malls, 24/7 laundromats. Sometimes it's dead and you have to pull over just to stop hemorrhaging gas. This gives you more time to read maps in the honey bucket.
     I was the sole proprietor of Sush y Push, the city's number one stop for Osakajaran popsicle fare. At the food truck roundup, I'd park my truck next to DJ Octavius, which was okay. Everyone liked his deep-fried mascarpone balls, or the smell anyway. I routinely made four hundo a night, gross. That's how Octavius told me to count my money, by the hundo. Things were pretty good for a while.
     Once the new transit system came in, people started selling mochi on the light rail, tamales in the underground. Octavius blamed me for ruining his business, and kicked me out of the roundup. He said we were mortal enemies now. I took his word for it, even though a great poet told me once, "you can't have enemies if you keep saying yes." That was a lifetime ago. Now the city's commissioned a sculpture of the great poet's head for a new light rail stop.
     The day after my exile from the roundup, I bought a Star Map, and drove around to the childhood homes of famous people. To me it was more important to see where they came from than where they ended up. The birthplace of something like greatness. A few weeks later, I woke up in the old Sush y Push truck—I'd been evicted from the apartment I'd shared with my still off-bonesetting fiancée—to discover a giant tag covering one side of my truck: OCTAV FLAV—Take an €-¥-£ Bath, Swine! Shoot, I thought, economics truly is the dismal science.
     I drove straightaway to the drive-thru car wash, which was the only place I could sit and think and take stock of my life. The graffiti didn't rinse off, and I caused $2300 additional damage to the roof of my truck, not having read the clearance sign. But I'd come up with a plan. By the time my fiancée returned from the outer steppes, I'd prove my worth to her. I just had to be ready. As I drove away from the car wash, it started to rain.

Over the next week, I converted my food truck into a guerrilla ambulance. I gathered my maps and headed out to save lives. First, I provided cover from the rain to some census takers. They said they were hungry and asked if I was open. I told them I didn't do that anymore. I agreed to take them to the food truck roundup, which I knew was stationed by this freeway underpass carved out of the hillside. The roundup wasn't like it used to be, but Octavius was there with his mascarpone balls.
     When the rain showed no sign of letting up, I offered the census takers shelter in my ambulance. It wasn't a life-saving act, but it was a start. Right after, the hill gave way, and a mudslide trapped us all, burying Octavius' food truck and my ambulance and the rest of us under 20 feet of terra infirma. Thanks to the city's new transit system and the glut of other food options, I figured it would be days before anyone noticed we were missing.
     Right before the mud killed all signal, Octavius texted me from inside his truck: "This is your fault. We're donezo."
     "Not if we burrow tunnels to each other," I texted back.
     So we did, and ate his food and drank my ethanol and distilled water. The census takers kept track of inventory, and after a month, the mud subsided. As Octavius sped away, he pelted me with a mascarpone ball and yelled out, "this doesn't change anything."
     I ignored him and checked my phone. Full bars, for the first time since the mudslide. There was just one unread text: my fiancée. It had been nearly a year since I'd heard from her. "I'm flying home from the outer steppes," her text read. "I'm sorry for everything. I want to hate the people you hate again."
     The next day, I picked her up from the airport. She took one look at my ambulance, the scraped roof, the mud, the graffiti, and said I'd changed. She said I had that man skin now.





A year or two ago, while editing for Spork, I published a story by Aleah Goldin, who was off bone-setting in Mongolia at the time. I'm interested in ethnography and making the familiar strange, so I took that detail and built a story around it, built a city around it. Or maybe I was just working through my own recent engagement.