|Jan/Feb 2006 Fiction|
It was close to dusk when Reckless pulled into the gravel parking lot of Wilma's Diner. Trish, the young Reno hooker who'd hitched a ride, stirred awake and sat up, looking dazed. She stared at him as if she'd forgotten who he was. "Oh, yeah," she said, yawning. "Winnemucca." He could tell she was used to being disappointed when she woke up. He'd seen that look many times; he would have seen it on his own face if he'd woke up looking in a mirror. He asked her if she was hungry. She said she could use some orange juice, maybe a muffin.
He picked one of the worn red vinyl booths where he had a view of the highway. There was a Thanksgiving candle burning on the table, and the jukebox was playing redneck Christmas music. While she was on the phone calling for a tow truck, he ordered the miner's special for him and a wheat-berry muffin for her. She came back with a look of disgust on her face. "I'm in the wrong business," she said. "They want me to pay them to fuck me!" The background voices quieted. "Scuse me," she said, smoothing down her black leather miniskirt as she swiveled around. A teenage boy at the counter laughed out loud, and his girlfriend elbowed him. Trish cleared her throat and sat down, blushing like the sweet, innocent Mormon girl she must have been, or maybe still was underneath her whore crust.
"How much?" he asked.
"More than I can afford." She took a big, toothy bite of the muffin.
"I'll cover it." He reached in his pocket and pulled a few hundreds out of his wallet.
"Oh, wow. You're feeling generous," she said. "No wonder your nickname is Reckless. So like, what do you expect in return?" Her brown eyes had gotten bigger, but they weren't giving anything away.
"I want you to pledge your eternal undying love."
She rolled her eyes. "Too late. I already did that in the second grade. All he did was steal my candy. Come on, I'm not in the mood."
"No strings. I'm so loaded, I burn money for pleasure. Here, I'll show you." He took one of the hundreds and lit it with the Thanksgiving candle.
"Hey, don't do that!" She grabbed the flaming bill and dunked it in her water glass. "This isn't counterfeit, is it?"
He grinned. "No, it's a real Benjamin, Trish. You're a Mormon girl aren't you?"
She made a face and stuck the wet, partly-burned bill in her pocket. "Sure, I'm Marie Osmond's little sister. Why?"
He shrugged and took a sip of bad coffee. "I have a habit of trying to figure people out. It's saved my life a few times."
"You'd be dead if you'd bet on me."
"You have nice teeth. You remind me of Molly Ringwald. You even got the freckles."
She rolled her eyes. "I get that a lot. I paid enough for 'em."
"You paid for freckles?"
"No, goofball, these." She tapped her top front teeth with her pinkie.
"A girl your age with fake choppers?"
"Half and half." She ran her tongue along the inside of her lip. "If you were any good at figuring people out, you'd already know I used to be a tweaker."
She made a sour face and nodded.
"That's a very unhealthy habit, I hear."
"It's suicide is what it is. I damaged my heart, the doctor said. I haven't been home since I been clean. Six months now. Three years I rode the rollercoaster." She rolled her eyes. "Anyway, who cares?"
"You never know."
"Are you married? I don't see a ring."
"I don't wear rings. I was married. To a Mormon girl."
"What happened? You fuck around?"
"Not exactly. My wife had serious mental problems. She tried to kill me a couple of times. The last time she almost succeeded."
"I never kid, kid. I got a knife scar on my shoulder that says I love you."
"In cursive, right? So, no kids, right?"
He smiled and shook his head.
"Where is she... your wife?"
"She's dead. My wife is dead. As of two weeks ago Thursday. Car wreck on the way to Lake Tahoe." He didn't mention that she was drunk out of her mind and smashed head-on into a minivan with a family of six, all but the mother killed instantly. He had been to the hospital to visit the mother, but she couldn't have visits except for family and there was no family around left to visit. So he left the flowers and then he went to the morgue to visit his wife for the first time in two years. Half of her head was cut off. The part that wasn't cut off was still beautiful.
"I'm sorry, you know? I mean, fuck."
He looked away from the girl's voluminous gaze, out into the shadowy desert and up to where the spectral moon had peeked out from between a ragged wave of clouds. A chance of rain, the radio said.
The coughing middle-aged waitress brought his miner's special. On the large plate decorated with gobbling turkeys, there was a dark rubbery slab of something that was supposed to be steak, some make-believe mashed potatoes, and green beans that looked regurgitated. He took a single bite of each and then set down his fork. "I think I've lost my appetite."
"I can make better muffins than this. The secret is to use real butter, not cheap shit margarine. My mom used to buy homemade butter from a woman in the country. God, that was so good."
"I bet it was good. I'm definitely a butter man."
"So where are you, like, headed, butter man?"
"Like I told you, darlin', when I picked you up looking so broke down and forlorn. North."
"Stop being cute. I hate cute. Where north?"
"My cuteness is purely unintentional. Coeur d'Alene. Promised my wife a long time ago I'd dump her ashes in the lake if I outlived her—I think she knew that was almost a certainty. We went there on our honeymoon and on our tenth anniversary."
"Sweet," she said. "It's beautiful up there. I never been, though." Then she lit up. "Hey, you're probably goin' right through Grangeville."
"Don't you want to wait for your car to be towed in?"
"Why? I can't afford to get it fixed."
"I'll cover that, too. It's just a water pump." He only had six hundred dollars left in his wallet, enough to make it to Coeur d'Alene. After that, who knew?
"Well, that's great, mister Reckless, but I have to be home tomorrow, you know? I promised. I can't break my promise. Not this time. What is it you want from me, anyway? As if I didn't know. I've heard that no strings shit a hundred times before."
"Not from me you haven't."
Her gaze narrowed. "I don't work on holidays," she said. "I'm already in holiday mode. Time to hug the family. Look at old pictures when life was good. Stuff myself with turkey and dressing. Family crap. Giving thanks and shit."
"I'm a day early, I guess," he said. "I'm a natural thanks and shit giver."
"Hmph. What have you got to be thankful for?"
"Peace, love, and understanding, I guess."
"And I'm thankful for your charitable contribution to my favorite cause."
"Right," he said, rubbing his tired eyes. "As far as I'm concerned, you could be one of Jerry's Kids."
She giggled with delight. "Maybe I'll have a miraculous recovery and rock your world." She tried to read his reaction. He didn't even blink. "Anyway, I was thinking, I could ride with you all the way to Grangeville. Show my gratitude."
"To a fellow pilgrim?"
For some reason she thought that was hilarious. She cackled and had to cover her mouth to keep from spitting out the last crumbs of the muffin. Then, still grinning, she took a drink from her water, made murky by the burnt edges of the hundred.
When he paid the bill, he told the dour looking man at the cash register it was the worst food he'd ever tasted. "Aw, hell, you ain't supposed to taste it," the man said, giving him a nasty smirk. "You're just supposed to eat it."
"Why don't you eat this?" Reckless said, quietly. He leaned forward and let go a violent punch that stopped with his closed fist within an inch of the man's face. The man flinched and went pale staring at his oversized and scarred knuckles. With a grin, Reckless opened his hand and lightly slapped him.
The girl calmly picked up a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and winked at the stunned cashier. When they were in the car, the girl giggled and said. "Are you some kind of tough guy or somethin'?"
He put on his driving glasses. "Do I look like a tough guy?"
"Hell, yeah. Even Superman wore glasses."
"Uh huh, but I'm not in disguise. I used to box, that's all. And I don't appreciate that kind of disrespectful treatment."
"Ever fight Muhammad Ali?"
He grunted. "Hell, no, thank you, Jesus. I sparred a few rounds with the Bayonne Bleeder one time, though. Chuck Wepner. Fucking madman. I would have beat him on points if they would have kept score. Ali fought the guy one time, turned his face to hamburger, and the guy still didn't quit. He was the inspiration for the Rocky movies that little hump Stallone made. Me, I was strictly in it for the ride. I had potential, but I was undisciplined and wild."
"My life story."
"That was a long time ago. I still go to the gym sometimes. Nowadays I'm mostly civilized."
"Old, in other words."
Temporarily revived by the five cups of 30 weight coffee, Reckless held up his end of a conversation until after they crossed the Idaho border, when he started seeing stars blazing not in the sky but on the highway and realized it was time to find a place to stretch out and snuff out all the lights that sought to blind him. They found a seedy motel in Homedale, the only one in town with a vacancy. "I'll get you to Grangeville tomorrow in time to peel potatoes," he said to her when he pulled into the Saddleback Inn. She didn't seem disappointed at all. She looked as exhausted as he was.
The next morning he awoke to the beep alarm on his watch. Outside it was spitting rain again. The motel room was dank and dingy, smelling of long-ago smoked cigarettes, sour linen, and bad dreams. The heater rattled and blew out air rank enough to have come from deep underground. Trish said her whole family would be there, except for her dad who had died of a heart attack, and maybe he would show up, too. She was going to help her mama and little sister cook their feast. She seemed genuinely excited about it.
He glanced at his watch. Another hour or so until the levee broke and sunlight flooded the Idaho sagebrush. He threw the thin covers off and sat up on the side of the twin bed. His stiff joints ached, especially his right shoulder. Fucking arthritis. He wondered how many punches he had left in it. Better not waste any more just to freak out some small-time grease pimp.
Through isolated smears in the window grime, he had a good view of the almost empty parking lot. The motel's Vacancy sign flashed on and off. The girl was still asleep. She was asleep last night when he got out of the shower, curled in a ball with the covers pulled up over her eyes like she was scared of the boogeyman. He was no boogeyman, although Laurie had thought so during many of her alcohol-induced psychotic episodes. He watched her sleep for a while. He wondered what it would be like to have a daughter.
"Wake up, sleepyhead," he said, yawning. "Time to go to Disneyland." His voice was full of phlegm. He cleared his throat and tried again. She didn't stir. "Jesus," he said. He got up and gently shook her shoulder. "Hey, kid!"
He turned on the bedside lamp. He reached over and touched her cheek with his rough knuckles. He sat back down. He turned off the lamp. Then he turned it on again. He held his head in his hands. TKO.
There was thunder in the distance. He thought about Laurie, his love, his life. Once upon a time she was a lot like this young hooker was once upon a time: sassy, naïve, fearless, flush and fettled with the vigor of unconditional love from a good home, ready to set forth with him as her companion on an expedition to wherever fate and fancy led them. She didn't realize you could fall off the edge of the world. Neither did he.
Now Laurie and Trish were exactly alike. The way everyone was alike at the end. He didn't need his world rocked; it had been rocked enough. He wanted to deliver her to her family's doorstep. He wanted to see the smiling faces of her family as they came out to greet her. He wanted to be a part of it though he knew he could not.
He had slept well. The best sleep in ages. No dreams. Now it was almost dawn, and he welcomed the coming of the light. Even the barren desert looked good in the morning, whether it be rain spattered or sun beaten.
"Don't worry, little darlin'," he said. "One way or another, we'll be home soon."