Flying east down the empty highway, he smells oak. A comforting odor, but one he has forgotten—for five winters, it was the fragrance of burning pinyon that characterized habitation. In the gaining light, he can make out the houses, solitary, and in small groups, and the trees that stand around them—tall ones, real trees.
East. What was it that drew him back? He intended to take 25 up to Denver, to visit some cousins he hadn't seen since he was a kid—but at the last second, he hooked a sharp right onto 84, and then took 40, east bound. He recalled the fly-back he used to play with, smacking the rubber ball harder and harder, trying to snap the elastic cord and launch the ball across the yard, until he'd miss and the ball would come flying back at his face.
Now, down a long hill. The bridge at the bottom is obscured by mist, but as he approaches he makes out the broad, lazy creek. An aluminum row boat, upturned on the bank, reflects a glint of sun. Here are ponds, lakes, rivers. Water—so languid, so undeliberate. Eastward, back east.
He is somewhere in Oklahoma, approaching the Arkansas line. Not like that blistering stretch that runs out toward the panhandle—that stretch he rode on his Harley almost six years ago, bare-chested, roasting even at ninety miles an hour—until he rose up the slopes of the Sangre de Cristos, into the shade of the pondersosas, on his way to Chimayo.
Now he's running the other way. He had to get out—the cigarette was the last straw. In fact, the whole blasted thing started with a cigarette, that evening he stopped off in a Santa Fe bar on the way home from work, with a perfectly clear idea how long and how much he could drink before catching hell from Marcella. But there she was, two stools over, slitting open a pack of Newports with a long, cherry red fingernail.
The recollection triggers a craving. First, for a smoke—and then, for the sensation of those painted nails raking his back. It stirs him. “She could draw blood,” he says to no one—the first sounds he utters in 24 hours.
His truck hauls the incline beyond the creek. When it crests, the new sun meets the windshield with palpable force. Its light refracts off the dust and spattered insects, dazzling the cab. Eastward again.
When he pulls into the gravel lot, the sun is still well above the Jemez Mountains—so bright, that when he enters the building, he can barely make out the bar. He bumps a barrel of peanuts next to the door. Beside it there is a scoop and a stack of paper bowls, but he just dips his helmet into the barrel and pulls out a full load. Then he selects a stool in the middle of the nearly silent bar.
As his eyes adjust, he takes in the surroundings. The bar itself is a solid slab of ponderosa pine with an unfinished edge. The walls of the building are adobe, and the floor is a concrete slab. Along the front wall is a series rough plywood panels, filling openings that once housed overhead doors. Opposite the entrance, some young men in black jeans and tee shirts are setting up microphones and amplifiers.
People trickle in. Daylight invades whenever the door opens, and the few people already at the bar and tables—almost all men—turn to see who arrives. From an alcove at the back comes the occasional clatter of billiard balls. A roady taps on a mike, and plays a clumsy riff on a guitar. Someone at a table hoots at him, and the roady looks up and stops playing. Voices and laughter begin to fill the room, echoing off the hard surfaces.
He's already on his second beer, and a pile of empty shells is accumulating on the floor beside his stool. He didn't notice when she walked in, but she's there, an empty stool between them. In a moment, she is joined by another man and woman, who sit on either side of her. They greet one another and begin to chatter.
Sitting closest to his is the man, who wears dusty, battered work clothes. The other woman, sitting opposite wears braids and skirt that drapes over the tops of her wellingtons.
She—Red Nails— is in crisp slacks and a shimmery blouse Her lipstick matches her nails, and her hair is a brilliant auburn. She gestures as she speaks, and everything she says seems to induce laughter in her companions.
He is already thinking about calling for the check when she pulls the pack of Newports from her purse...
The sun is high now. Billboards advertise restaurants; a sensation flows up from his gut. Yesterday, he withdrew a hundred and twenty dollars from the account, leaving her enough for the payment on the trailer house and some groceries until she got her next check. He scraped up nearly twenty more in loose bills and change. But sixty dollars was already shot on gas, and three more on dinner in Amarillo. A so-called burrito—what Texans have the balls to call chili is pathetic. In his head he runs through the numbers, a thousand more miles, sixty more in gas. If he spends another night in the cab, he can afford breakfast.
Between conclusion and commitment, a promising exit at Morrilton sails past. He nearly misses the next one, but at the last second he swerves onto the road to Plumerville. The duffle in the passenger seat tumbles into his shoulder, and the surprise sends him across the center line. A horn blares, and he yanks the truck back into its lane. He can't be that tired—after all, he and that woman—what was her name—had once driven to the coast in fifty two hours. Crazy Sue, that's it. Collins' wife. Doing ninety most of the way, in that beat up VW. When they arrived and he noticed the treads worn through to the cords, he knew just how crazy she really was.
Sweeney's Family Diner is on the right. The are only two cars in the lot—a jacked up Trans Am, and another marked Conway County Sheriff, but he pulls in anyway, right beside the sheriff. Some of his bigger tools didn't fit in the crossover box, and lay loose in the bed, so maybe the proximity to the law might give a thief a moment's pause.
He enters and takes a table by the front window, so he can keep an eye on the truck. In his reflection in the glass, he notices how wild his hair and beard have become. Two men in tan uniforms are straddling stools at the counter. The projecting butts of their service revolvers remind him of the shotgun laying in his rifle rack. It's legal in New Mexico—but in Arkansas? Too late anyway, too late to get up and just leave, without attracting attention.
“Coffee?” The waitress startles him.
“Yes, Ma'am. And two eggs, sunnyside, please.”
“Breakfast is over at ten.”
“Sorry, I didn't realize how late it is.”
The two officers look over their shoulders, and take a moment before turning back around. Across the room, an enormous man in a black stetson looks up, fork frozen before an open mouth.
“I got a hamburger, cheeseburger, BLT, and catfish. They all come with fries.”
Again he thinks about excusing himself and leaving, but the fullness in his bladder causes him to reconsider.
“Thank you, I'll have the catfish,” he replies.
As soon as the waitress leaves, he walks as calmly as he can to the restroom. When he returns, a mug of tepid coffee is at his place.
She would have walked out, without so much as a thanks anyway or an excuse me. Maybe she got something out of being slighted or insulted—a chance to fight, to fight back. And then he'd fall for it, take the bait, and then his blood was up, too, and there was no stopping until it got ugly...
But that evening at that Santa Fe road house, those smiling eyes, that natural laugh, arrests him. How carefully she removes the cellophane, picks open the foil, and raps the pack against the heel of her thumb three times to produce some filters; how she neatly extracts the proudest one with her painted lips. All so perfectly unconscious, never missing a beat of her conversation.
He gropes in his pocket for a match, but she—not noticing—has already thumbed open a zippo and struck a flame. As she tilts her chin up to apply the flame, she gives her head a shake that tussles her over her shoulders.
The bartender gestures toward his empty bottle; he replies with a nod. A strum on an electric guitar hushes the room. Heads turn toward the sound. The man between them gets up and heads for the rest room. She draws on her cigarette and exhales. As the band tunes up and starts their patter, he gazes at her profile in the mirror behind the bar.
The smoke drifts back past him; the odor stimulates a sensation that runs up the inside of his arms. As she turns back to use the ash tray, her eyes meet his eyes in the mirror. She does not smile or look away, until he lowers his eyes. Then she swivels her stool directly at him.
“Is there something you want?” she asks.
She glances down at the helmet still half full of peanuts. At first it looks like she smiles, but he can see her jaw muscle tensing and releasing.
“I'm sorry for staring,” he says.
“It's nothing. No offense taken.” He searches her eyes for assurance but can find none. She takes another drag and starts to turn away.
He says, “You know, there is something I'd like—I mean, if you don't mind me asking.”
She turns back languidly. “Oh, and what is that?”
“This is going to sound dumb...”
“Just spit it out,” she interrupts.
“Well, even though I pretty much quit smoking, I still enjoy it once in a while. But if I buy a pack, then I start smoking again like crazy. So, if you give me one of yours, I'd buy you a whole new pack.”
“Is that all you want—a cigarette?”
He nods, silently. Her stony aspect dissolves, and she issues a surprisingly loud laugh from deep in her chest. The woman sitting next to her tries to gain a view of the discussion. She—Red Nails—grabs the pack from the bar and reaches across the empty stool to offer him one. He holds up his hand and says, “No, wait, let me get another pack for you first—there's got to be a machine here somewhere.”
“Never mind that, I got plenty,” she replies. “But you could buy me another drink.”
As she begins to move to the closer stool, the man returns, headed for the same seat. She shifts to stand in front of him, blocking him from the stool. She is nearly as tall as him—and he is every bit of six feet. Confused, he stops before them.
“George,” she says to him, “This man is in need of a cigarette, and I offered to help him out.”
The man replies to them both, “Joan is all about charity—and temperance, and chastity. Right, Joan?”
“Right, you smart ass,” she says to the man. “You just got the order backwards. So why don't you be charitable and go sit down?” The man complies. She slips onto the stool and says, “Now, where were we? Yes, you're going to buy me a seven and seven. And I must pay the price.”
He summons the bartender. She takes out a cigarette for him and puts it in her own mouth, and ignites the zippo. As she lights it, he notices a logo engraved in the lighter. She holds the cigarette up to his mouth, and he receives it with his lips.
“Thank you,” he says. “What's that marking on the lighter? Can I see it?”
She passes him the lighter. On one side is the image of a prancing animal with curling horns. On the reverse is the Marine Corps emblem, and the words, “Semper Fi—Jason.”
“My little brother gave it to me, after he came home from Viet Nam,” she says.
“Wow, he made it through OK?”
“Oh yeah. I think so. He doesn't talk about it, though. He's a teacher now, fourth and fifth graders. Can you believe that?”
“I guess so, why not?” He turns the lighter back around. “What's with the goat?”
She laughs that deep laugh again. “It's a ram, dummy. He's an Aries. Get it?”
“No, what do you mean?”
“Aries. Aries is ruled by Mars, and he's a warrior. A Marine.”
“Give me a break. You don't really believe in that stuff, do you?”
“Maybe I do, and maybe I don't. But wouldn't you like to believe that there was something that explains who we really are? Some way to figure out who we should be with?”
“Well, sure, but I don't believe that some planet or star has anything to do with it. What about your upbringing, your mother, your father?”
“If you had a father like we did, you wouldn't want to be under his influence. You'd be glad for some stars, if he was your old man. Bastard had big hands, and he liked to use them. On all of us—even my mother.”
They both fall silent for a moment. The bartender delivers her seven and seven.
“Forget it. So anyway, what's your sign?” She takes a sip of the drink.
“Jeezus,” he says, his voice trailing off. He shakes his head.
“Out with it,” she demands.
He sighs. “I'm not really sure. It's either Libra or Scorpio. I'm sort of in between.”
“What's your birthday?”
“Of course—you're right on the cusp,” she says. Then her eyes widen and she gasps, “Oh my god! My birthday is February 21. I’m on the cusp between Aquarius and Pisces. We're in perfect trine!”
“What in heaven and earth does that mean?” he asks.
“It means you're coming home with me, honey. I’ll explain it all to you later.”
It’s a struggle to keep eyelids apart, since darkness obscured the rolling hills, farms, and wooded valleys. Now, however, the exits are more frequent, and the lights and billboards of yet another city—Knoxville—compel him to continue, far enough beyond that city, to find another rest stop or deserted side road, where he can pull over and catch a few hours of sleep.
What if? What if he had paid his tab and gone back to Chimayo instead? To her studied severity and unapologetic frumpiness, her stringy hair, her featureless body. To her makeshift household, the mattress on the floor, the bookshelves of sagging one by tens stacked on cinder blocks. To her disdain—for his smoking and his diet, for the dirt and grease impacted in his knuckles, for his fumbling calloused hands. Yet also, to her willingness—to accept him every night, no matter how dull and routine it had become. To accept his mediocrity, his absence of productive ambition. To the opportunity she offered for his own redemption.
No, he traded it all for this, that one night, that one night that should have been no more than one night, if it ever should have been at all. The headlamps part the darkness like the bow of a ship, leaving behind a wake of shadows, as the truck continues, rolling, plunging and surging—eastward.
[TO BE CONTINUED]