Last Chance Road

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Dec 11, 2013 (3 years and 8 months ago)

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In progress manuscript for evaluation only.

Please do not distribute without the author's permission.





Last Chance Road


A novel of suspense.






By D. H. Cope






Length @80,000 words



2

1.


About three miles down Last Chance Road you’ll find an old geodesic dome made of rotting
wood and standing on several rock pillars. A dirt driveway leads from the
washboard

roadway
to a one
-
car parking space some twenty yards

from the house. You get to thi
s house
by
wal
k
ing a ways and then carefully negotiating a narrow wood bridge supported by ground
on one end and the dome on the other. Precarious all the way.


I couldn’t imagine the owner of this place walking this plank without breaking through the
rotting boards
and
falling to the forest floor below. Maybe ten feet down from where I now
stood. Not necessarily enough to kill you. More like making you wish you w
ere dead.


At the end of the bridge, a door stood open letting the smell of pine and the occasional beam
of light inside.
Under other circumstances I would find this quaint. Currently I found it an
unnecessary
risk given the nature of the man

I’d come to
se
e. The iconic Norquist Channing.

A

famed writer who’d aimed for Hemmingway but had hit
somewhere between Spillane and
Chandler.
But he’d hit pay dirt as well, and his novels were still selling well
. A
nd in many
circles had become legends of a particular
era.


Rumors had it that Channing

now lay on his death
bed inside this dome. My paper, a bastion
of
local lore, had sent me to get a final interview. A story they felt might go national if their
hopes of his impending death proved true.
Now I figured it wa
s my impending death they
were after. But I made it to the small platform outside the open door
safely
and tried to see
inside.
No go. Too dark.


I knocked on the doorframe, now noticing that there was no door at all. Just an open
doorway.
The only sound I heard in response was the occasional bee bussing around my head,
mistaking me no doubt for a
local flora from which to gather pollen.


I knocked again. This time something moved on the other side of the door. Dark outside
from the shade o
f the tall pines. Pitch black inside.
For a second I imagined the old man with
a pitchfork ready to slice its prongs into unwanted visitors.
I backed off a couple of steps. Not
enough to put me back on the bridge, but far enough to maneuver quickly if I ne
eded to.


“Channing?” I said softly into the darkness. “We had an appointment I think. I’m
Bill Weston
from the local rag. To do an interview?”


For that I got a quick
grunt. Basso profundo. Which for some reason I interpreted as an
invitation to enter. S
o I did.


A window covered with some kind of shredded wallpaper gave a dim pallor to the place. I
stood still for a minute letting my eyes adjust more fully to the movement from dark to
darker.


“Channing?”


“Here,” he said. A mighty gruff voice that sou
nded like Hemmingway might have, if I’d ever
heard him speak. I turned and c
ould vaguely make out the imag
e of a large man lying in a
bed with his upper torso leaning upward toward a sitting position.
He looked like a half
-

3

covered lion, hair and beard spro
uting free in all directions
,

and a mouth nearly as big as his
head.


I walked a little closer. He was big.
All over.
Not in a heavy way, but a muscular one. His face,
from what I could see of it, resemble
d

a prune left far to
o

long in the sun.
One of his

arms
projecting

from under the covers looked like a
three
-
sizes too large ham
bone. No flab. But
not ready to split wood either.


“May I come in?”


“Looks like you already did
.”


“Is this a good time?”


“Did
n’t

I tell you it was?”


“I don't know. We
didn’t talk. My publisher told me you said it was.”


“Sit down. Make

me nervous standing there.”


And then he let out a horrendous cough. Enough to shake the bed and, I thought, make the
rafters creak in the roof. Of course, geodesics don’t really have roofs. Or maybe they’re all
roof.


“Sit!”


And I did. He sounded

like he could be dying. I pegged hi
s age between sixty and ninety but
I still could
be
off by a decade or
two. His hair had
streaks of gre
y as did his wild untrimmed
beard. But it was his eyes that got me. Steely gray marbles set deep in his skull. Staring at me.
Or rather through me. As if

he had other things on his mind at the moment.


I realized that I should have spent more time preparing for this moment. I had no idea when
he’d been born or much about his life. I’d tried to read one of his early novels and had been
immediately convince
d he didn’t know anything about writing. It had a rough kind of
originality to it, but now much else. It rambled as a bad storyteller might
. Half drunk and
getting drunker as he went along.


“Let’s make this quick. I’ve got things to do.”


‘What things?’
I thought.
And then noticed a large bottle of Jim Beam on a small table by his
side. Mostly empty. And a glass dirtied by many uncleaned reuses next to it. Half filled. No
water or other beverage to cut its effect.


“When were you born,” I asked him for l
ack of any other ideas about where to begin.


He wheezed once, a great long deep wheeze. I waited.


“Don’t know. Don’t care. Is this why you're here
?

To compile statistics. Look me up in the
library. Now get out of here!”


Shit. Now what my editor wanted.

I had to get serious.


4


“Great. But I have more important questions to ask.”


“So get
on
with

it
.”


Not going to
o

well.

Think fast.


“Why not tell me what you want, and I’ll ask you questions about that?”


“Jesus. What i
s this? Your first time out? They
send me a rookie? Get the fuck out of here!”


He’d said it so demandingly that I stood up. Ready to leave. Maybe I could make it up from
library stuff as he said.


“Oh shit,” he said, “sit back down. Maybe this is perfect. I don’t have to answer questions
.

I can
just tell
you what I want and you’re stuck

with it.”


I sat back down.
It couldn’t hurt. I got out my notebook and a couple of pencils and waited.


“No tape recorder or whatever you guys use?”


“Make
s

people nervous. Don’t use them.”


He smiled
then. Or at least I think he did. He showed some teeth. Yellow. Sorry he had. And it
could have been a sneer. The b
e
ard covered too much of his face to tell.


“Ready then?”


“Anytime.”


And then he went silent. Thinking I hoped, and not dying. I’d hate to

sit here watching
someone die and then have to m
ake my way across the damn gang
plank to my car.


As we waited, I noticed an old Remington sculpture on a desk on the other side of the single
room. Probably a fake. Too dark to tell.
No toilet in the place.

Probably just did it out the
door. The
dome

did have a sink I could now see. Rusted in places where the enamel had
peeled away. Nothing else but that desk and the Remington.
Where he worked, no doubt.
Now it was bare except for the sculpture.
As was the f
loor. No papers. No books anywhere.
Everything looked dusty and hardly used.


Maybe he’d laid in bed here for weeks. Waiting to die. His body covered in bedsores and God
knew what kind of lice and other vermin from forests beyond. Though had I been t
h
em
,

I
’d
have kept clean away from this grizzly.


Suddenly he began talking in a kind of monotone voice. A kind of misty look of long ago
memories gave his voice a distant quality.



5

2
.


“Once
I was about halfway between Kayenta and Teec Nos Pos in northeastern

Arizona on my
way to Kansas when my gas ran out. Hell of a place for it to happen. Not many other cars, and
none seemed interested in helping me out. No cell phone signal. Mid
-
day and getting hot. I
swore at myself for not checking the gas gauge as I shou
ld have. I found a place in the shade
of my car, sat down, and leaned up against the driver’s side rear tire. Nothing much better to
do.


I looked north toward Monument Valley and imagined I could see some of the great rocks
there. The Mittens, the various

spires the wind carved from the stone, and the cave
-
like
natural bridges. I really couldn’t see any of these, but thinking I could made the time go
faster.


Finally, after what seemed like a decade, I saw a white utility truck slow as it passed. It pulle
d
off the road and I figured I was saved. The sign on the side of the truck read “Navajo
Telephone and Telegraph.” It was then I noticed the telephone lines following the road into
the distance.


The driver got out of the truck slowly, closed the door, wa
ved at me, and began a slow but
deliberate walk in my direction. I suppose I should have gotten up and met him halfway, but
I was just too tired and the shade felt so good I couldn’t do it.


When he got to where I was sitting, he nodded toward my car, smil
ed, and asked, “Broke
down?”


“Nope, out of gas.”


“Bad place for that. Too hot.”


I nodded my head.


I hoped then that he might offer me some of his gas, but he didn’t. Instead, he looked my car
over, and then gave me a look over as well. “I should call

this in,” he said. “Get somebody out
here with some gas.”


Nearly as good, I thought, and smiled my thanks. He stood there for a minute or so and then
walked back to his truck. He opened the rear doors, pulled out a lineman’s belt, put it on, and
then wal
ked to the nearest pole paralleling the road. While he took his time walking, once on
the pole he was up it in no time.


Even though he seemed small way up on the pole like that, I could see him attach some
device to one of the lines and then talk into so
me other device he had wrapped around his
head. I couldn’t hear what he said, but it took awhile before he unclipped the device and
began his quick descent to the desert beside the road.


“Two hours,” he told me when he finally got back to where I was sit
ting.


“Long time,” I said.


6


“Yep. I thought so too.” With that said, he walked over next to me, sat down in the shade of
my car, and leaned against the back passenger seat door. We were old friends now apparently.
About to spend two hours in the shade on a hot summer’s day.


I looke
d over at him. He had an aged but somehow timeless look about him. Kind but
quixotic, I thought. Dark skin, wrinkles, but eyes that twinkled like a teenager’s might. My
savior. A telephone lineman who’d seen just about everything it seemed to me. There was

nothing not to like about him. But I was probably biased a bit, considering him stopping for
me and all.


After maybe a half hour or so had passed, he decided to tell me a story. Nothing I’d asked for,
mind you, but welcome all the same. I think I got mo
st of it right, even though I didn’t write
it down. It went something like this.


An old man named Yazzie lived all his life on the Navajo Nation. He and his wife, his parents,
and his grandparents had lived in a hogan there. Since his wife had passed thos
e years ago, he
alone now called it home. Alone but not lonely, for he had lots of friends on the land
surrounding his home. The birds, the deer, the parched corn, and the dry dirt.


Old Man Yazzie lived off this land, mostly from his cornfield. Half his c
rop he kept to make
fry bread, mash, and some he ate off the cob. The other half he gave to his chickens that
provided him eggs. He occasionally ate pine nuts and other assorted food he collected from
the land around his hogan. For water he had a well that

he pumped every day, a well that had
given him cold and clear water all his life. He had survived even during droughts and when
winters were bad. He believed that he belonged to the land, the sky, the day, the night, and
to every other being as well.


Old

Man Yazzie had no idea how old he was. He’d long ago stopped counting the years. No
reason to. He was alive and would stay that way until he died. Since he had no idea when that
dying would come, knowing his age seemed unimportant. He had counted the wint
ers since
his wife had died though, and that had been ten. She had seemed old to him then, and since
they were close in age, he figured he was very old by now. But no matter. He’d only been sick
a few times in his life. Nothing that a few days rest hadn’t
cured. He had a few broken bones,
but with simple splints they’d mostly healed well. All but one crooked finger and a hip that
gave him some pain once in a while.


Old Man Yazzie spent most of his time sleeping, watching the sky and the birds, or tending
to
his small field of corn. In winter he kept a fire burning in his hogan to keep warm, and he
enjoyed listening to it bristle and crackle as the dried logs caught fire. He had few visitors,
but he didn’t really need them. He seemed very comfortable with h
imself and the world
around him. No need for gossip or speculations on the future.


Old Man Yazzie followed the old ways, but not all of them. The doorway of his hogan facing
east, the fact that he didn’t own anything, that he didn’t need to drive a car or

have
electricity. Those were important. But he was also his own man. Skeptical about the so
-
called
chindi, the ghost left behind by a dead person, and the various ceremonies like the Enemy
Way that went on for days with people singing and dancing until th
ey could barely stand up.
These seemed more like bad habits that the people had gotten used to doing rather than
anything productive. So he picked and chose what things he felt were sensible, and left the
rest for others to tend to.


7


Old Man Yazzie follow
ed little of the new ways, however. Never much interested in taking
the Jesus Road as many called it. Christ had seemed like a good man to him too, but he was
not going to get too worked up about it. To him, the gods were everywhere. In the rocks, the
wate
r, in living things on the desert around him, and the skies full of stars at night. No need
to pick one out of all of those to favor.


Old Man Yazzie was shocked at what he heard when he visited the chapter house. People
there would inform him of all sort
s of things. So and so had gone to jail. And so and so had
gotten drunk. And so and so was leaving the reservation for the city. Everything was pretty
much the same everywhere he would tell them. The temptations might be different, but
when all was said an
d done, he’d rather be here than with all the offerings a city could give
him.


Old Man Yazzie had good neighbors. They kept their distance, but joined together for
ceremonies. Like most Navajos, none of them could see his or any other hogan from their
ow
n.


Old Man Yazzie had attended a government boarding school. At least as much as he could
take of it. There they taught him to speak English and to sing Anglo songs. But all he wanted
was to return to the land he loved so much. The land taught him more t
han any school. It was
still teaching him.


Old Man Yazzie owned a mirror, but never looked in it. He had no need to look. He could feel
the wrinkles in his face and knew his hair hung long around his head. He couldn’t grow a real
beard, so no reason to sh
ave. He knew his skin was dark. He imagined that he looked pretty
much as any other ancient Navajo man looked. Bony, rugged, and calm, as if at peace with the
world as he knew he was. He liked the way he must look. Not so much out of arrogance, but
simply
out of a pride for having had the good luck of living so long.


Old Man Yazzie could read if he had to, but there was little reason to put that skill to work.
He had never truly learned the written language some used to represent Navajo, so all he
could r
ead was English. Not much of that going around these parts. He hadn’t read a
newspaper or so much as heard a radio since he could remember, maybe before he and his
wife had met. As ignorant as some would certainly view him he felt wise. Wise in the ways of

the land, in the ways that meant something to him. He could start fires with no more than a
single piece of dry wood. He could find water where none was to be found. He had ways to
predict the weather that confounded his neighbors. And he could tend to an
imals fairly well.
From birthing to broken legs. He liked to practice doing these things whenever he got the
chance.


Old Man Yazzie belonged to the Silver Water Clan. These people lived slightly north of him
in the higher ground near the mountains south of Teec Nos Pos. Occasionally his relatives
would come and visit him and bring pine nuts or peaches as gifts. Once they

brought some
kind of social worker along who was taking a survey. Yazzie could barely keep from laughing
as the man kept denouncing stereotypes


a word Yazzie had not heard before but
understood after an explanation


and then proceeding to ask questions

that did nothing
but reinforce stereotypes.


Old Man Yazzie recollected all of these things in front of the fire he’d built that night in the
center of his hogan. A great fire. The current drought was terrible. Many sheep had died and

8

the corn plants wer
e small and brittle. He could not remember the wood drier than this, or
the flames leaping higher. The crackling and popping could probably be heard for miles
around, he thought. What a perfect night. The smoke from the fire sucked up through the
flue in t
he center of the roof of the hogan and could probably be seen for miles around. He
worried about the spectacle he’d made, but so be it. He’d not planned for this to happen. It
just had.


Old Man Yazzie kept the fire burning as long as he dared, and then pr
epared for bed. He
washed what few teeth he had left with spring water. Then he put on some heavier clothes to
protect him from the cold that seeped into the hogan early in the morning before dawn. He
finally settled into his bed, still warm from the fire’
s heat. The old man had little trouble
sleeping because he never tried to sleep. He just lay down and listened to the sounds of the
night. Hoped he wouldn’t fall asleep because he enjoyed these sounds. And before he knew it
he would be asleep. The Beauty W
ay.


Old Man Yazzie had not lain there in bed for five minutes this night before he heard the owl.
Four hoots. Not evenly spaced. He found this unusual. Not so much that an owl would hoot at
night, but that it would hoot so loud and that it would hoot four

times rather than the usual
two. He listened for it to hoot again. But that was all the owl had to say. Four hoots. It seemed
a bit strange. Four was an important number for him and for Navajos. The four mountains
that staked out the corners of the Diné.
The four levels of the creation story. These things
crossed his mind as he listened.


Old Man Yazzie believed in connections between events. Nothing happens by chance. Of
course, he didn’t pretend that he knew what these connections were, only that they ex
isted.
The owl might know why he hooted four times that night. He might be signaling his mate of
his location. Or he might have heard something potentially dangerous and had warned other
owls away from here. Or he may have just done it for no reason known
to him, but
nonetheless for a reason. Just because he and Yazzie didn’t know that reason didn’t mean that
there wasn’t one.


Old Man Yazzie continued to listen for some sign that would have provoked the owl’s hoot
that night. A rattlesnake? A coyote? A mo
untain lion chased down from the mountains for
lack of water or food? To attempt a feast of an owl perchance? He heard small vermin in the
brush scattering this way and that. Nocturnal animals somehow equally disturbed by what
had disturbed the owl? But he

heard nothing big walking around. His ears were still very
good. He could hear the pats of the paws of mountain lions no matter their stealth. Patience.
That’s all it took. And Yazzie was nothing if not patient. Nothing tonight.


Then, Old Man Yazzie hear
d what had disturbed the owl and the vermin. The slight sound of
thunder in the distance. A storm on its way. Yazzie looked toward the door of his hogan. He
could see the occasional flashes that came from the lightning. This was all good. His cornfield
nee
ded water. The mountains needed water. He hoped the lightning and thunder would
bring lots of rain with it this night. He was sorry to miss the show, but his hogan had no
windows and he was too tired to get up and step outside. Besides, he’d seen many a sh
ow
before, and even though this one sounded like a big one, he’d have to miss it. He thanked the
owl for telling him about it. He didn’t thank the vermin, though, for he was tired of them
eating his corn at night.


And then, Old Man Yazzie fell asleep. He

must have heard the thunder, but did not wake. The
storm roared around his hogan. The rain poured into his cornfield. The lightning struck all

9

around him, and yet he slept on. But as it always did, the storm passed and before long the
sky cleared and the
stars returned. The storm stomped away toward the mountains to the
north.


When Old Man Yazzie woke the next morning, the fire was out and the air smelled clean and
fresh, like he
'
d never smelled it before. When he walked out the door of his hogan, Yazzie

sensed a special moment in the works. One of those moments that you remember for years to
come. His cornfield had indeed been refreshed. The high desert around him looked new, as if
he had never truly seen it before. Everything was alive. The birds, the p
lants, the spiders, had
all come alive with the rain. He felt blessed.


As Old Man Yazzie took in his fresh surroundings, he realized that he had not yet dressed.
And so he returned to his hogan to prepare for another day. What he found in his hogan,
howev
er, was not what he expected. Someone was sleeping in his bed. How this person had
gotten in without Yazzie seeing him confused him, but he obviously had. Maybe a neighbor
or relative up north had come by, said hello to Yazzie, and then Yazzie had not hear
d him.
Hard to figure out how, but he
'd

obviously done it, or else how had he gotten in here.


The man Old Man Yazzie saw lying in his bed looked familiar. Yet Yazzie couldn
't

quite
figure out why. The man was wearing the same clothes as Yazzie would have

worn were he
dressed. Maybe that was it. The man was obviously Diné. At least as far as Yazzie could make
out. He did not want some social worker claiming he was stereotyping anyone.


Then Old Man Yazzie walked closer to the man in his bed to see if he w
as all right. As he did
so, he noticed that the man was very old. Incredibly old. As old it seemed as the hogan itself.
The man breathed, but barely so. As if he were just clinging to life by a thread.


Then Old Man Yazzie looked over toward his old coffe
e pot sitting near what was left of the
fire. He didn’t drink the stuff anymore, didn’t even like it much anymore, but maybe it would
do this stranger some good. Wake him up at least. But then he realized he didn’t have any
coffee grounds to make the coffe
e. He looked around for something else that might be of use.
Water might be good, he thought. He shuffled over to the small wood barrel in which he kept
his water, grabbed the ladle, scooped up some water, and brought it back to the stranger.


As Old Man
Yazzie noticed that the man’s breathing had gotten even more labored, he knew
he must try and save him somehow. How could he get him to drink the water? He hadn’t
thought of that. And so he emptied the ladle into the dwindling coals of the fire and laid it

on the table next to his bed where the stranger lay. He looked again at that ancient face.
What was there about it that made him so familiar? The clothes? The peaceful look on the
man’s face? How could he help the stranger if he wasn’t awake?


Then, Old
Man Yazzie began to faintly recognize the man. Something about the face. The
slight scar on his nose. A crooked finger. A notch in his ear. He reached up and felt his own
ear. He had forgotten the wound from a fight in his youth. All of this struck Yazzie
as very
strange. None of his relatives looked this much like what he imagined he himself looked like.
And then, although he had never seen this man before, he somehow realized that he was
looking at himself. As if in the mirror into which he never looked.


As he listened to the man
's

shallow

breathing, Yazzie realized that this man was dying right
before his eyes. One breath, another, and then none. It hardly seemed like death to him. The
man
's

face seemed peaceful in a way. So natural. Yes. That was it. Na
tural. A good word for it.


10


But if that
man is

dead, he thought, and it’s me, then I’m dead. Somehow as dreadful as that
word seemed, it didn
't

bother him. What bothered him was realizing that he had become a
chindi, something in which he did not believe.

A skinwalker. But here he was, looking down
at his dead self, sticking around after passing to haunt those who came near him. He didn’t
want to do that. He didn’t want to haunt anyone at all.


But as he thought these thoughts, he began to feel very tired
. Incredibly tired. So tired that
he couldn’t help himself falling asleep. Even standing up as he was. And so he did fall asleep.
Right there in his hogan. In the beauty of the morning after a rain. Where the owl had
hooted four times in the night.


The ol
d man looked at me as he spoke these last words of his story. I didn’t know what to
make of it really. An old man named Yazzie had died and become a ghost or not become a
ghost. He told it in a spellbinding way all right, but what did it mean?


Just as I
thought these things, a pickup truck with a sign on its side that read Yazzie’s Garage
and Tow pulled off the road and up behind my car. I thought this strange, but I got up and
went over to the truck. The driver was younger than my visitor. But not by muc
h. I asked
him if he carried spare gasoline and he said yes. I followed him to the back of his truck and
watched as he carefully filled my tank.


As he did so I turned back to ask the old man whether the Yazzie named on the truck was a
relative of the Yaz
zie he had told me about, but he was gone. He’d somehow gotten up,
walked over to his truck, and driven off.


I wanted to ask the man filling my tank with gas about the old man and the story he told me,
about the name on the side of his truck, but the
words wouldn’t come. No matter how hard I
tried to force them out. And before I knew it I was back on my way east toward Kansas with
Yazzie’s Garage and Tow truck slowly disappearing in my rearview mirror.



11

3
.


He stopped then. And looked at me. To see if

I was still listening and was taking notes. He
caught me halfway there. I was listening. But not taking notes. I picked up my pencil and
scribbled some nonsense on the first sheet. He didn’t buy it.


“Not interested in this stuff?”


“Quite the contrary,”
I told him. “But I have a good memory. Anyway, when I take notes I
don’t listen as well.” That was actually the truth and he bought it. Or seemed to.


“Any use?”


“What?”


“My memories? These are what interest me. Think anyone else would be interested?”


“Absolutely,” I told him. Not believing a word of it.
I couldn’t tell him I maybe have a five
hundred work limit and we’d covered that a lot more besides. But what the hell.


“Want more?”


“Sure.” But did I? It was an interesting story, but what was he do
ing here. Reciting a book of
short stories and expecting me to edit it? His last great book?


Before I had a chance to figure this out, he began again.


“Once
I was standing alongside a deserted road somewhere between Kansas City and Denver,
probably som
eplace in eastern Colorado, but I couldn’t be sure. The sun was setting behind
me and a cold wind had come up and chilled me to the bone. Going to be a long night, I
thought, and yanked a sweater from my bag and pulled it down over my head.


I wasn’t alon
e. The dog that had befriended me a few days ago sat beside me on the shoulder
of the road with its tongue hanging listlessly out of its mouth and to one side. I called the
dog Dog. The name fit. A Mongrel of the first order. Scruffy, no name tag, some kin
d of mix
between one breed and another breed, which ones I couldn’t figure.


The road was lonely. One car or pickup truck every half hour or so. The fields around me lay
flat and fallow, not a sign of this year’s crop or if there’d even been one this year
. No
farmhouses around in any direction. No mountains visible to the west. Not a place to be stuck
without a ride for too long in October as night approached.


The sky at least was clear of clouds and any sense of rain or snow. The wind would probably
die

down in the dark after the heat of the day and the cold of the night had stopped battling
over control. Why my last ride had left me here was a no brainer. The guy was a certified
nutcase. I had asked to be let out of his pickup. A crazy farmer without cr
ops this year, with
nothing better to do than get himself loaded in a bar and try to keep his car on the road long
enough to get home.



12

The night’s stars had begun to poke their lights out of the darkening sky to the east. I wished
that I had studied more

astronomy in my youth so I could identify some of these stars. After
all, one or more of them could be planets. Maybe all of them were planets since planets were
closer to us than the stars and thus brighter. But I didn’t know one from the other. However,

I
could still dream about them and pretend other people were looking back at me while
hitchhiking somewhere on the planets where they lived. But it would have been a lot better
had I been able to call these people Martians, or Jupiterians, or Venusians, o
r whatever people
from those planets would be called or called themselves.


Dog didn’t really care. He just sat there staring at a bunch of nothing as far as I could see, and
let his tongue dangle out the side of his mouth. Why Dog had hitched a ride with

me I had no
idea. Maybe he just saw in me a kindred spirit. No home. Nowhere to go but somewhere else.
I fed him the occasional leftovers I had whenever I ate anything. But he seemed fine.
Probably getting his fill from his private jaunts into the barren
fields alongside the road.
Why he didn’t bring me his leftovers confused me. But maybe that was too much for his Dog
brain to handle.


Then I saw the two headlights appear in the distance from the north. Approaching very
slowly it seemed to me, but approa
ching nonetheless and that was a good thing. I couldn’t
yet hear the motor or any other sound from it. But it was clearly coming my way. The sun
was just dipping below the horizon, so the light was still good enough for me to make out its
being a car and n
ot a pickup.


“Dog,” I said aloud. “Give it your best smile and maybe luck will smile down on us just this
once.” Dog pulled in his tongue and looked at me in that way dogs have of looking at people
sometimes. Confused, apprehensive in a good way, like wa
iting for a sudden dog treat or
something. But then he yawned, a big air
-
gulping yawn that contained a kind of squeaky
sound along with it. Maybe that summed up his attitude about all of this.


We waited together for the car to arrive. I gave it my best p
leasant smile and put out my
thumb the way hitchhikers have done for decades and waited. Not much else to do. Dog’s
previous owner must have had a similar profession to mine since he didn’t seem surprised at
my actions and even looked down the road at the
oncoming lights and wagged his tail
slightly, sweeping the dirt back and forth behind him on the road shoulder as he did so.


As the car approached, it slowed. Of course, most cars did that, worried, I suppose, that they
might run me over otherwise. Or th
at Dog might suddenly leap up and try to cross the road
in front of it. But this car kept on slowing down. A good sign. Usually if they’re not going to
stop, they slow to a certain speed and then keep that speed as they passed on by.


Not this one. This one kept slowing down and finally came to a full stop not more than a few
feet to our left, me and Dog’s left that is. Probably wanted to look us over in its headlights to
make up their mind. I hoped that wasn’t the case, because I would
n’t have picked us up
looking the way we did.


The driver kept staring at us out the window. Actually I couldn’t see the driver the lights
being so bright and all, but that’s what I imagined he did. Then he honked the horn as if to
say, “Come on in, have
a seat, let’s take a ride together.” Of course, I was making that up as
well. But it sure seemed like it to me.



13

Both Dog and I began walking toward the car and as we did the driver or passenger, I
couldn’t see which, opened the car door on the off road s
ide as further invitation. This was a
real break. The last thing I expected to happen on this lonely road in the middle of nowhere.
But we, me and Dog, would take it, even if the driver was a nutcase and sopped to the gills
and trying to stay on the road u
ntil he got wherever he was going.


When we reached the car, I looked inside where the overhead light shown brightly and saw
an angel. Well, not really an angel, but a woman, the only person in the car, sitting behind the
wheel, and looking very much like

what I had always thought an angel might look like.


I was speechless and Dog was barkless. She wore no makeup that I could see but had beautiful
features. Long black well
-
combed hair, flawless complexion, what appeared to be an
appropriate shapely body,

and wearing a not too revealing but nonetheless slightly non
-
angel
-
like dress that exposed just enough to make you want to see more.


Without a word, she yanked her head slightly up and to her left to indicate we should enter
the car. I asked her if it w
as okay to include my dog, that he was clean no matter his looks,
and that he wouldn’t do any damage to her seats. She nodded her assent, and I ushered Dog
into the back seat after pushing the front seat forward to make the room. Dog took the cue
immediate
ly, jumped in, and promptly curled into a ball on the back seat and went to sleep.


I pushed the passenger seat back into place and pulled myself in and closed the door. The
sudden darkness engulfed her and us, but before I could get myself used to it, we

were off
and running. Towards where, I had no idea. Especially since I didn’t know where we were in
the first place.


For the first few minutes we let the car do the talking. Accelerating as it was, it made plenty
of noise to cover our voices even if we
had decided to talk. After a while, though, the silence
between us became uncomfortable, at least for me, so I said, “Thank you for picking us up.
Getting cold out there.” She nodded her head slightly at that but otherwise kept her distance.
I didn’t blame

her much.


I could see her face in the darkness colorfully lit by the dashboard lights. No matter, though,
she was just as beautiful in that guise as she had been when I first saw her. There was
something incredibly compelling about that face, something
that without a word gave her a
look of self
-
confidence. To pick me and Dog off the road in the middle of nowhere would
take that kind of confidence. As I said, I would have driven by and never given me a second
thought.


“My name is Steve Matson,” I finall
y said, loud enough to be heard above the engine roar but
not loud enough to sound offensive. Again, she nodded her head but continued to stare at the
broken white lines dividing the two lanes of the highway in front of her. I could now see
those same line
s reflected in the windshield pass quickly by as she didn’t talk.


I looked back at Dog, but he was oblivious to all of this, snoring away I could now hear. I
could smell both him and me competing with whatever perfume she had decided to wear
that day. Th
e combination did not bear scrutiny.


“Where are you headed,” I asked her, half expecting no answer.


“Denver,” she replied, so softly I could barely hear her.


14


“Great,” I said, “my destination too. I’m so thankful for your picking us up. I would’ve had
to
wear Dog here to keep me warm out there.”


“Dog?” she said. “You call your dog Dog?”


“Not really my dog, just someone I bumped into a couple of days ago. He decided he’d trot
along beside me for a bit. Didn’t know what else to call him.”


Again, she just nodded in a barely noticeable way and continued to stare at the road as if it
might disappear or a car would suddenly appear out of the dark coming directly toward us.


Dog gave a grunt from the backseat, no doubt engrossed in a dream chas
ing a rabbit or some
other critter dogs normally love to chase. Sounded like he was having fun. Maybe I should
just sit back and join him, I thought. I could dream about having a rifle and then shoot the
Dog’s rabbit and he could then chase it down and bri
ng it to me, making him and me both
happy.


Then, out of the blue, she asked me, “What are you doing out here anyway, besides hitching a
ride?”


This took me by such surprise that I was initially stumped for an answer. After all, what was I
doing out her
e in the middle of nowhere besides hitching a ride?


“Well, my last ride was a drunk. I didn’t know that when he picked me up, but when I found
out I asked to be let out right then and there. He was on his way home. A farmer going out of
business and sore

about it too, I guess. He’d had plenty enough of the stuff, so I hope he made
it all the way.”


She let that rest for a while. I think she had meant more than that with her question, though.
Like, what’s a schmuck like you doing anywhere? But I hoped she
wouldn’t pursue this line of
questioning. If she did, I didn’t have much for her. My life, such as it was, had been one small
disaster after another. Not much for looks and with less talent and skills, it was truly a
wonder I’d survived as long as I had. N
o reason to share that with others, though. As sad as it
was.


We drove for another while in silence, listening to the car move along and Dog snore away in
the backseat. Maybe we should ask Dog what he was doing out here. My guess would be that
he’d had a
more productive life than me.


“Why Denver?” she asked.


“Always wanted to see Denver,” I said. “Right there up against the mountains and all. The
Rockies. Great place, I hear.”


“Yes, there is that,” she said.


“And you?” I asked.



15

I saw her wince sl
ightly at my question, but it was in passing and I couldn’t be sure I’d seen it
at all. Then she went all quiet again, as if even just asking the question had depressed her or
something.


We rode along like that for a time, while she thought things over,
or maybe just dismissed
them entirely, and I started to nod off to sleep, not the least bit reluctant to join Dog’s dream
if I could find it somewhere.


“My life’s a damn mess,” she said out of nowhere. I thought I saw a tiny tear in her eye in the
reflection from the dashboard, but it was too hard to see and wasn’t sure.


“A mess?” I asked, with nothing much else to say about it. At least for the moment.


Then she rode along in silence again, measuring her words carefully I guessed.


“You wouldn’t understand,” she added finally. I guessed she was probably right about that.
After all, she had this car, her looks, and a life. Already that was too much to f
athom for me.
And all of that was a mess for her. That put me beyond redemption.


So I just let it go. Tried my own hand at the silent treatment.


“He left me, if you must know,” she said, as if I had asked a question to prompt that answer.


Still havin
g nothing to say, I let that one drift away as well.


Apparently not through with this bit of discussion with herself, she added, “For no reason
either. Just left me. Like that. Without any explanation. One day here. One day gone. I know I
didn’t do anyth
ing to deserve that kind of treatment.”


Well, that clarified everything. A guy left her, probably for somebody else. Hard to imagine
for me and, I guess, for her. But he’d done it and now her life was a mess. Give me a car, good
looks, and a life, and any
body who wanted to could walk out of it and it’d make little
difference.


“What do you think?” she asked me.


I didn’t know that I thought. But she was sad about it, and she was my ride. I’d better say
something to pay her back a little for what she’s do
ne for me.


“Sounds like you got a raw deal,” I said.


That seemed to make her a little less sad. Not happy. But a little less sad. I could read it in the
small smile she showed the road ahead. Not to me, mind you, but to the road ahead. I’d take it
anyw
ay.


“You think so,” she added.


“Yes, I do.”


“Have you ever walked out on a woman?” she asked.



16

Not ever having had a woman, at least not in the sense that she meant it, I didn’t have a clue.
She was a classy dame. The few girls I ran with in the earlier days of my life were not the
type to care one way or the other about whether I ran out on them. T
hey were just thankful
to be alive and able to share a minute or two with someone about their age.


“No,” I said, trying to keep it clean and simple. I knew enough about women, even of her
type, that such questions were basically landmines waiting to expl
ode in your face. I needed
this ride, if for no other reason than to keep warm for a few hours. I didn’t need to have the
one person who had given me a ride, dump me into the night again.


I heard Dog in the back seat give another groan, agreeing with me,

I imagined.


“Good,” she said. “It’s a rotten thing to do. After being together for two years, mind you. Two
years of my life wasted on the son of a bitch. Can you imagine?”


I couldn’t, but I was sure that it was due to many things I didn’t know about h
er, and was
hoping not to know about her. I had no delusions of grandeur. I understood my place in the
universe. At the bottom. No matter what, this dame was a ride and that was it. No amount of
good answers or sweet talk was going to make any difference i
n that.


“No,” I said, and reminded myself that these one
-
word answers were doing pretty good. I
would stick to them for as long as I could.


“Well, he’s living in Denver now I hear. Moved there after he left me, or so his friends tell me.
Actually not m
e, but the private detective I hired to find him. The friends of his told him and
not me. He told me.”


I think I got that the first time through, but making sure, I guess, wasn’t such a bad idea for
her.


“What are you going to do in Denver once we get t
here?” she asked.


“As I said, just enjoy the mountains. I hear they’re pretty special this time of year. Snow
coming on and all.”


“Could be,” she said, “I wouldn’t know. Never having been there.”


That settled that, I thought. Dog agreed, with another
small snort from the backseat.


We had settled that apparently, and she returned to staring out at the pavement, while I
thought some more about her life and my life and Dog’s life, and how interesting it was that
we’d somehow become entwined in the middl
e of nowhere simply because her boyfriend had
left her to go to Denver for no known reason.


“I wish I’d shot him when I had the chance,” she said.


I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right. It came out of left field. Shot him? My God, lady, I thought,
now I know why he left you all right. Shot him? Out of my league entirely.


Then she looked directly at me. For the first time. Half her head in darkness, the

other half in
the strange light from the dashboard.


17


“What do you think?” she asked me before turning back to look at the road ahead.


What? What do I think? Christ, lady, sure I think you should’ve shot him. Killed him right
there. What do you think? I
’m a pacifist?


But she was clearly waiting for an answer from me. One word would no longer work. Yes? No?
C’mon.


“I think that might have been a bit harsh,” I said, “but I can certainly imagine that you’d
think that way, given the circumstances as you’ve

described them to me.”


I hoped that my night of hitching had not come to an end again with that answer to her
question.


“Well, it would have served him right, I tell you.”


I had passed that test apparently. Dog snored his approval from the backseat.


“Did you ever feel that way about any of the women that you’ve been with?” she asked me.


“You mean that I should’ve shot them?” I asked.


“Yes,” she answered.


“Well, it never actually occurred to me. I never had a gun. Never even fired one. So it never
occurred to me.”


“No, but you know what I mean. A knife, a karate chop, a push out the window, something
similar to shooting them?”


“You mean did I ever consider killing someone I was having a relationship with?”


“Yes,” she said, and then added, “did you?”


This reminded me of the lawyer’s trick of asking defendants ’when did you kill your wife?”
rather then ‘did you kill your wife?’ This was getting real tricky here. Quicksand Dog, I
thought to him in my mind. Bu
t he didn’t reply.


“I suppose I might have done so, maybe once,” I said somewhat equivocally.


“So you know what I mean?”


I didn’t. Not really. But I was a chicken in a cage with a wolf at the door. “Sure,” I said, even
though I really had no idea at al
l.


“Good. I knew I wasn’t the only one.”


Well, I was sure she was right about that. Even though I didn’t relate, I knew just from
reading the papers that many others had had the same idea.



18

What was she telling me though? Was she going to Denver to sho
ot her former boyfriend?
Was that what this was all about?


“It would’ve saved me a lot of grief, I can tell you that,” she added. Then, “God, some men are
real schmucks, you know?”


I imagined she was right about that.


“Yes,” I said, “that’s certainly t
rue.”


I think she may have glanced at me then, trying to see if I was telling the truth about it, or
just saying what I wanted her to hear. I tried my best to look serious about it.


She turned back to driving. I watched her watch the road. She was still

as beautiful as ever.
Nothing could change that about her except a train wreck. I couldn’t help myself. What kind
of schmuck was this guy anyway? No matter what a bitch she might have been, what did it
matter if you woke beside her in bed with you every m
orning?


I noticed then that she seemed to be crying a little. From shooting the guy in absentia to
crying over their failed relationship. What a ride. Maybe I’d a lot rather be lying somewhere
out in the open with Dog as my blanket, than sitting through this bit o
f business, no matter
how beautiful she was.


That’s when she pulled the string.


“I don’t deserve to live,” she said.


She was more of a certified nutcase than my previous lift. From shooting him, to killing
herself, or at least that’s how I read it. W
hat now?


“How can you say that?” I asked her. “You must know that you’re beautiful, and this car you’re
driving says you probably have some dough. It can’t be all that bad.”


She looked at the road ahead of us some more.


“You could never understand,” sh
e finally said.


“This guy can’t be worth all of this,” I said.


“It’s not just ‘this guy’ don’t you see?”


I didn’t, but what did I know. She was distraught. Not making any sense. But then again, who
does?


“What do you mean?” I asked, with a little trep
idation.


“Being beautiful is a curse.”


Right. If being beautiful is a curse, then what isn’t a curse? But there was going to be no
reasoning with her this night. But I gave it a try anyway.



19

“How?” One word at a time.


“You know,” she said, “every

guy wa
nts you, which is great
I suppose, but they want you for
just one reason, you know?”


Probably true up to a point, but certainly not true of every man, at least not for just one
reason. I just liked to look at her.


“What about the guy in Denver,” I asked, sorry for it the minute the words escaped my
mouth.


“What? That shit. He just took what he wanted and then left me. What are you talking about?”


“But two years,” I said.


“He wanted two years of it, and then he l
eft. What’s makes him any different?”


I had no answer for that. Besides, I was in over my head.


“They’re all alike,” she said then.


I had no idea who ‘they’ were exactly, but I had a notion that I was indirectly included in the
‘they.’ ‘Men,’ she had
wanted to say, but out of respect for me being present in her front seat,
she had used ‘they.’


“I can’t seem to stop being beautiful,” she said, like she really had tried and failed. I thought
of the train wreck then, but figured mentioning it would just

hasten her suicide talk.


“Listen,” I said, “I can think of a lot of things worse than being beautiful.”


“Like what?” she asked, now completely engaged in our conversation. It felt exciting talking
with such a beautiful woman. And then I realized that i
n a way she had been right about us
men. A fatal curse.


“Like being ugly. I’m maybe not so ugly, but I’m far from beautiful.”


“You’re lucky,” she said. “If a woman were to fall with you, you’d know it would have to be
for love. There’d be no other reaso
n. Don’t you see? With me it’s entirely different. There’s no
man I can really trust. With me there’s always that one thing.”


She kind of had me there.


“I do see, but wouldn’t you rather be like you are than the alternative. A woman with a horse
face,
for example. How would that be?”


Holy crap, I thought, what are you getting into here. A woman with a horse face?


“It would be easier,” she said. “With a horse face I’d be more like you. Whatever man came
along that said he loved me I could probably trus
t. But not with this face. Not with this body.
That’s all they’re after, like moths to a flame. Don’t you see?”



20

Well, there you are, I thought. Everyone has problems. I’d a lot rather have her problem.
Looks. Money. A good car. My problems were just about

the opposite of hers.


“All I ever wanted was a simple life, a loving husband, some good kids, and a great marriage.”


You and a hundred thousand million other folks down through history babe. It’s not just your
problem.


“I’d like that, too,” I said, h
oping to join her misery and take her mind off of whatever it was
she was convincing herself to do. Murder or suicide.


For a minute I thought we were through. She went back to counting the broken white lines
in the road and looking like Dog did when he f
elt forlorn, or at least that’s what I thought he
looked like when he got that way.


“Listen, I know that it looks bad for you right now, but things will change. There’s someone
out there for everyone, I heard someone say that onetime. You’ll find that so
meone. You’ll
get those kids and a happy home. It just takes time. You’ll see.”


Suddenly she took on an entirely different persona. I hadn’t seen it coming.


“What the hell do you know about this?” she yelled at me and turned away from the road and
glare
d in my direction. Her mouth was set tight and even though she still looked beautiful,
she also looked dangerous. I had hit a nerve. I hadn’t meant too, of course, but I had done it
and now I had to pay the price.


“Probably nothing,” I said, when I had g
athered my wits.


She turned back to the road and waited for more. I wasn’t going to go along with that. More
words would only mean more pain for me, and anger for her. I just let those words settle her
down if they were going to.


“Maybe you’re right,” s
he said, more relaxed now. “Just maybe you’re right.”


About what I had no idea. But things were back to normal, or at least as normal as they were
going to get with her. So I kept my yap shut.


“I should just drive into Denver and blow his damn head off his shoulders.”


I had been right about that? I hadn’t even thought that, no less said it. Where did she come up
with that? This was nuts.


“Well,” I started to respond.


“Doesn’t matter though,
” she interrupted me. “He’s just one of a million others that’d do the
same thing. I can’t kill ‘em all.”


She was right about that.


“I should just kill myself and get it over with.”



21

Whoa. Back to that again. I couldn’t seem to get her mind off death.
If I kept on talking I’d
probably get myself included in her logic of which she had none.


In the back seat, Dog had woken up and had begun panting again in the heat, no doubt
generated by the car heater. She had set it high and he was panting and I was s
weating. When
I looked back into his eyes it seemed I was looking into a long river of patience, a river that
all dogs everywhere seem to share. As if they’d somehow learned it from one another
through generations.


“Maybe I should just end it all right h
ere and now,” she finally said.


It was then that I noticed that she held something in her right hand, the one closest to me. It
looked like a removed cigarette lighter with some kind of button on the end above which her
thumb was poised to push. A wire r
an loosely from the other end of the device and down into
her clothes someplace. I couldn’t see exactly where in the dark.


My God, I thought, was she a suicide bomber like you read about in the papers. Did she have a
waistband full of explosives ready to

blow her and me and Dog up together at the push of a
button? Jesus, what had I gotten myself into this time?


“What’s that,” I asked as calmly as I could, pointing to her right hand.


“I’ve got this button here wired to a stack of dynamite loaded into t
he trunk. I push this
button and ‘whoosh,’ up goes the car and you and me both. Just like that. The dynamite’s
sitting on the gas tank, you see. We’ll all go up in smoke as quick as blinking your eyes.”


I hadn’t seen that coming. Had no idea. She looked l
ike such a darling, so beautiful and all,
picking me up out of nowhere to take me to Denver. I didn’t really even care about the
Denver part. I just wanted me and Dog to be warm. That’s it. Not this. Certainly not this.


“Don’t you think this is being a bit drastic?” I asked her as calmly as I could muster. What I
really wanted to say was, “Put the damned button down, you dumb bitch, and let me off this
hell train as quick as possible,” but I thought that might hasten her
pushing her thumb and
then blowing us into oblivion. I didn’t want that. Lying in the dirt with Dog draped over me
for a bit of warmth seemed tame in comparison to that.


“I don’t care,” she said. I just don’t care anymore. I’ve thought and thought about
this and I
just don’t care anymore.”


I could see that she had thought about this and that she didn’t care anymore. But as horrible
as she imagined her life at the moment, I wanted no part of her solution. My life, such as it
was, couldn’t be as bad as her
s. After all, I wanted to live, no matter the low status of my
existence. There’s always hope. And so that’s what I told her.


“There’s always hope,” I said.


She worried that around in her head for a couple of minutes and moved her thumb away from
the tr
igger of the device she held. Even Dog looked relieved I thought.



22

“You know,” I said, “maybe I’m not helping you any, not having any similar experience as
you in my life. Maybe you could just leave me and Dog off along here someplace and we’ll
make do on

our own.”


She hadn’t heard me. I could tell. She just stared ahead at the road and looked lost. I looked
back at Dog again and he turned his head slightly as dogs do when they seemed confused. I
raised both my hands in equal confusion. And they say that
man and beast can’t communicate
with one another.


Then she seemed to snap out of it and turned her head toward me and smiled. “Yes,” she said,
“that might be a good idea after all.” So she
had

heard me.


And the car began slowing down. Slowly at first, m
ostly from her foot off the gas. But then
she applied the brakes and we pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. As soon as the car
came to a stop I grabbed my small suitcase full of mostly clothes, opened the door, and got
out. Dog didn’t wait for an in
vitation. He leapt over the back of the seat where I had sat and
out of the car as fast as he could. No dummy, that Dog.


With us both back on terra firma, I looked back at her, now sitting in the full light of the
overhead bulbs. She was still more beaut
iful than any woman I had ever seen before. I didn’t
know exactly what a swoon was, but whatever it was, I probably did it just then.


“Thank you for the ride,” I said. “It’s been a great pleasure for Dog and me both.” What a lie, I
thought, but it was th
e right thing to say. She smiled then. A wonderful light
-
up
-
the
-
sky
kind of smile. Her cheeks dimpled and her perfect teeth almost blinded me with their
brilliance.


And then, she reached across and closed the passenger
-
side door and was gone into the dar
k
night. All Dog and I could see were her disappearing rear red lights as they finally vanished
over the flat plane of ground where we stood. No other cars in sight. None expected. Not this
time of night. Or morning. Whatever it was. I didn’t own a watch.


“Jesus, Dog,” I said, “we’re out of there. What a nightmare.” Dog agreed by raking his tail over
the rocks where he now sat. “It’s going to get cold, buddy, but we can keep ourselves warm
and it’ll soon be morning. We’ll get a ride and be in Denver by nig
htfall.


Of course, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to Denver anymore. She might find me there and
shoot me on the spot for a reason that she figured was good and that I wouldn’t begin to
understand.


I walked Dog over to what looked like a good place to li
e down. He seemed to approve, and I
began to prepare the space for my clothes to act as a bed and him to lie over me as we’d done
before, helping to keep ourselves warm.


As we prepared for sleep in our makeshift campsite, the whole place lit up like a flash bulb
had gone off. I quickly scanned the sky for a sign of a UFO, but there was nothing above me.
Then I turned toward the south and saw that the sudden burst of light
had come from there.
As soon as I did, I heard the sound. Sound travels a lot slower than light I remembered from
my abbreviated career in high school.



23

Of course, it didn’t take me long to figure out what had happened. She’d done it all right.
She’d push
ed the button on her little makeshift device and ignited the dynamite in the trunk
of her car above the gas tank, and now pieces of her car and herself were plastered all over
the unsown pastures back from the road on both sides.


The sound rumbled away i
nto the night and the light disappeared. How long it would take
for someone to report the mess and for the cops to get out here to take care of it was beyond
me. But Dog and I decided it might be a good idea to find another place to rest for the night.
Awa
y from the road. Far enough that we couldn’t be seen in daylight. After all, I didn’t want
to spend a day talking to the coppers about something I couldn’t understand myself.


Even in the dim light of the stars we found a field that had dirt rows in it ho
rizontal to the
road, and we lay down in between two of those rows, in the fairly deep trench there, and
pretended we were invisible. Actually, we probably were invisible given how little we meant
to the world. Of course, that was okay by me. Living was wh
at life’s about.


And we were still alive.


And that was a good thing.


Dog agreed

with me
.



24

4
.


He looked at me then. Same steely gray eyes. Same wrinkled face. At least what I could see of
it behind his mashed hair and wild beard.


“Get that?”


“Got i
t.”


“You remember it?”


“Yes. I assure you it won’t be a problem.”


“But not the exact words. Just the story.”


“I have a photographic memory,” I lied.


He stared at me some more. Waiting for one of us to blink. He blinked first and turned back
to
staring at the ceiling.


“Okay, here’s an even better one.”


And before I knew it we were back into his
stories
.



I caught the nonstop flight from Kennedy to LAX around two o’clock in the afternoon. It
was one of those fast jobs that guaranteed a four
-
hou
r trip. That meant I’d arrive in LA
around three o’clock and have time to see an agent I knew and pitch my manuscript. I’d
written a novel of sorts and was hoping to get a nod to finish it for publication. The chances
were probably slim, but I knew that a
personal meeting was far superior to a manuscript in
the mail, whether you knew the agent or not.


This was one of those find your own seat jobs and I was near the head of the line. So I found
myself a nice quiet window seat hoping that my neighbor would
let me go over my book one
more time before I got to the city of
angles
. No such luck though. The guy who found the
seat next to me began talking before his ass hit plastic, and off he went on a verbal tour of
whatever happened to come to his mind. I buckl
ed down, hoping we’d crash before I went
nuts.


While the attendants went through their pre
-
flight drills, my seat mate kept the patter
going. His wife this, his kids that, his boss whatever. I tried to tune him out, but he had one of
those kinds of voice
s that gets on your nerves. Brutal. A little kid sat next to him on the isle,
so no hope that he’d turn his attention that way. He droned on. I looked around for another
vacant seat, saw the plane was full, and tried to relax for the long haul. No movies o
n this
flight, or I could have put on a headset and pretended to watch. Or listen, if there’d been a set
of radio stations. Oh well.


As we began taxiing down the runway, I heard my neighbor say two words that very much
interested me: book publisher. Mayb
e this wasn’t a lost cause after all. I raised my hand and
caught his bicep for a second and asked him to repeat what he’d last said. He told me then

25

that he worked for one of the largest book publishing firms in the Big Apple. As what? I
asked him. As an
editor, he said. And suddenly the flight was no longer a lost cause. Fate had
been kind to me for once. Maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to sucker this guy into taking a peek
at my manuscript and publishing it.


As we took off into the smog for LA, and yes
NY has as much of the stuff as LA does, it’s just
that it’s more concentrated in one place and not scattered all over tarnation, he asked me for
a synopsis. Here was my chance. I had someone all ears. Or so I thought. And off we went into
the skies. And of
f I went into my soliloquy on The Tender Days of Hell, the temporary title
for my book. He rolled his eyes at that, and I told him it was a hurried decision because I
knew that publishers like to title books themselves. After all, I buggered up to him,
pub
lishers and their editors know a lot more about such things than simple
-
minded authors
like me. He seemed to buy that and off I went.


I began by telling him about my main characters. Before I had finished my first sentence,
though, he already began askin
g questions.


“What person?” he asked.


“First,” I said.


“Good. What type of book?”


“Type?”


“You know, mystery, horror, romance, western. That type of thing.”


“Mystery,” I told him. And then I waited for his next question. After all, he’d turned the
tables on me before I’d gotten launched. But he just said “Go on,” and so I did. Or at least I
tried to.


I began by describing the handsome private eye and the bea
utiful damsel in distress that
comes to his office in a low cut number. He stopped me there.


“Stereotypes,” he said. “Your characters already sound like a million other characters in
books. You’ll need to make them a little more interesting than that if
you want to get
published.”


I told him I would definitely look into that. Maybe the detective was more a Bogey type. You
know, Maltese Falcon, Big Sleep, and so on. And the girl maybe a little less buxom. More like
Bacall maybe. He said that would go a lo
ng way and let me continue. Or so I thought.


I glanced out the window to my left and saw snow. We were passing over Philly already, and I
hadn’t even begun telling this guy my story. So I hauled right into it. The dame is in trouble,
I told him. Her sist
er had gotten into a mss in some Latin American country and . . .”


“Which one?” he asked me.


“Does it matter?”


“Sure it does. Columbia’s one thing. Brazil quite another. And Peru, well that’s a horse of an

26

entirely different color. I can’t even begin t
o visualize the story if I don’t have some idea of
the politics, culture, and so on, of the country where her sister’s gone missing.”


Okay, I thought, that makes sense.


“Columbia,” I told him.


“No good,” he said. “Too many books and films about there.
Romancing the Stone, for
example. You can’t compete with stuff like that, especially in your first novel. You’ll have to
do better than that.”


“Okay,” I told him, “then how about Chile?”


“The long thin country on the west coast?” he asked.


“Yeah,” I said.


“Okay. Nobody knows much about the place except that it’s kind of tame compared to the
rest of them. Democracy and all that. I can’t off hand think of a single book that takes place
there. Probably a good reason for that, but Chile it is.



We were apparently over that hurdle.


“Anyway, her sister’s been kidnapped . . .”


“Good God, kidnapped? Everybody and his uncle is kidnapped in mysteries. You probably
need to make it more believable. After all who’s sister gets kidnapped in Chile any
way? Why
not make it her husband who’s an archeologist and has made a big find down there and is on
the lam?”


“Indiana Jones?” I reminded him.


Unflappable, he noted that just because one example of these things exist doesn’t mean
another couldn’t as wel
l.


“Okay,” I tried to continue, “her husband, an archeologist, has made a big find in Chile and
the local bad guys are in pursuit.”


“What kind of a find?” he asked me.


“Ah,” I stammered for a second, trying to think of something that might be valuable
in the
world of archeology. “A large gold statue,” I said off the top of my head.


“Might work, though it’s been done pretty much to death. Why not try some kind of doorway
into another dimension?”


“My book’s a mystery, not science fiction,” I reminded
him.


“Okay then, how about he finds an ancient tribe of Indians who’ve got a mine full of jewels
just ready for the picking.”



27

“Like King Solomon’s Mines?” I asked him.


“Sort of, but in South America, not Africa.” He hadn’t got the hint, so I let it stand.


“Okay, so she’s got a hus . . .”


He interrupted me. “Why not try a guy whose brother is an archeologist?”


“A guy?”


“Yeah. Then he can find a beautiful damsel in di
stress down there when he goes to Chile to
find this guy’s brother. Latin babes are really hitting the big time these days. It would be a
perfect fit for your archeologist, don’t you think?”


I had no idea what to say then.
My

archeologist? It was
his

archeologist for Christ’s sake. But
he was the publisher, I let him have a few up front. None of this stuff was that germane to my
book after all. It’s the plot that counts, not the details.


“Okay, so now the private dick has a guy in his office whose br
other has been grabbed in
Chile after he’s found a cache of jewels of a hitherto unknown tribe of Indians. How do you
like it so far?”


“Promising,” he said. “Quite promising. So what happens next?”


Hell, I had no idea what happens next. I took a quick lo
ok out the window for help and saw we
were now crossing the great plains. Could those help? I tried to take what we now had and
graft it onto my story. It worked. Sort of.


“And so he goes down there.”


“Where?”


“To Chile. To find the guy’s brother.”


“R
ight,” he said, as if he’d lost the thread of his own narrative.


“And then he meets the girl.”


“Too soon. Way too soon. He doesn’t find the girl, his love interest, until he discovers the
Indian tribe. She’s one of them. A beautiful native. That’s where

we’ll have her scantily
dressed, and make the men in the audience grow a third leg.”


Grow a third leg?


“You talk like this is going to be a movie,” I said.


“Hell, that’s the ticket. We don’t publish books that don’t have a chance to become a film. It
doesn’t matter whether it does or not, just that somebody buys it. It’s a property you know.
That’s what we call it. Your book.”


“A property?”


28


“Yeah. These days properties sell for all kinds of reasons. Mostly its just one studio buying a
book’s rights
because they don’t want some other studio to have them. Then the book
typically sits on a shlf somewhere and grows feathers and then disappears after a while.
Probably when the room gets too filled with them. But boy does it make for good royalties.
Hell,
if we depended on the sales of books alone, we’d be belly up.”


“Okay, so he meets her after he finds the Indian tribe and . . .”


“And how does he find this tribe?”


“Maybe his brother left him a note or something.”


“Too obvious,” he said. “Just too damn

obvious. He needs to be chased. You know some action.
That’s what good books are all about these days. Doesn’t really matter what the action is, just
that there’s action.”


“Okay, so he’s down there in chile looking for his brother and some guys figure h
im for a
tourist and try to rip him off. In a bar someplace. With some dancing girls. And then the guys
shoot some people, but miss my guy, and he escapes. Somewhere along in there he finds
someone who knows his brother and sets him on to the lost tribe of

Indians where he meets
the love interest.”


“Not bad,” he said. “A little too cut and dried, but we can punch it up with some snappy
dialog and make it work alright.”


Snappy dialog. Okay.


“And a car chase. You know, like they make in Frisco, with the c
ars flying off the hills and just
missing head on collisions. Jeez, I can see it now. Maybe with machine guns blazing. You’ve
got to make sure that your main character is familiar with all of this hardware. Maybe he was
in the army or something. Oh, and by

the way, consider ‘The Private Dick’ as your title.”


What? It’s not a porn flick. It’s supposed to be a mystery. But I let that pass as well.



“So when he finds the tribe, he meets the chick and then it really gets down and dirty. A
great love scene with just enough flesh to make it seem real, but not so much to give it an X
rating.”


Maybe it
was

a porn flick. Soft porn.


He was on a roll now,

so I just let him continue right on.


“So she tells him about the cave where the jewels are and where she last saw the brother of his
client who’s still back in the states and they go on the search. They’ll meet with plenty of
natural disasters, of cours
e. Volcanic stuff. Maybe a tornado or two. Vicious tribes of natives.
Maybe they pick up some other people along the way. You’ll have to figure out the language
problem, but that’s usually pretty easy. We can help you with that.


A glance out the window a
nd I thought I saw Denver off to the left and the Rocky Mountains
up ahead.


29


“How does it end?” he asked me. “Not something trite, I hope. After all, you’ve got a pretty
good start on this thing. I’d hate to see it ruined by one of those canned endings.”


“No canned ending,” I told him. And then he told me an ending.


I think they find the brother and the jewels, but a local war keeps them from recovering
them. That’ll leave room for a sequel. He takes the brother and his new
-
found love back to
the good
old US of A, and were home free. God,” he said, “you’ve got the makings of a good
book there. You know that?”


I nodded as the snowed capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains passed by the window
on the other side of the plane.


“Of course, I think it
would play better overall if you changed the characters slightly and it
took place in Florida. Maybe your private eye is the manager of a minor league women’s
hockey team searching for a magic winning formula. Nothing like that out there. He could
fall for

his goalie who only speaks French and they travel to Omaha where he discovers the
recipe for getting to the championship. But then he gets amnesia and she has to find a way to
make him remember. Something like that.”


A minor league women’s hockey team?


“Do you have it with you?” he asked me.


“What with me?”


“The book we’ve been discussing. I’ll call my boss and read a few passages to him. I think
you’ve really got something here. A real barn burner. Do you have anyone in mind for the
lead character?
Harrison Ford maybe. No, he’s getting old. Maybe Will Smith? Better yet, this
sounds like a perfect vehicle for Johnny Depp, don’t you think? And then there’s the girl
goalie to cast. How about . . .”


That’s when I tuned out. I didn’t have his novel with
me. I had my novel with me. Trouble
was, his novel was better than mine. A lot better. Or so he thought at least. The Private Dick.
Maybe not so private after all.


We landed at LAX without problems. Except, of course, my dead book, the one about the guy
whose brother gets lost in Chile with the treasure and the exotic and erotic native lady
getting it on with my lead dick. And then, don’t forget all the action scenes. Write it down
fast and dirty, publish it, sell it to a film company, and watch the world

come begging at your
door.


“You promise me you’ll send me the book when you’ve made the few changes we discussed?”
he said as he passed me his business card and disappeared into the crowd on the ground at
LAX. I promised him. And then I went directly to

a travel agent and made my return
reservations for the last flight out of LA to NYC. I had already made up my mind about
becoming a teacher by then. I had learned a lot on the cross
-
country flight. I wanted to share
it with some folks. If only at a junior

college. Enlighten them to the ways of the world of
books. After all, they too may have ideas about writing a mystery and would need to kn
ow
how to do it like I now did.”

30


5
.


As he finished I noticed he grimaced. True story? No idea. Maybe they all were.

I’d no doubt
never know the truth.


“Okay so far? This one more to your likely?”


“They all are.” Truth be known, they were.


He took the dirty glass and filled it with bourbon from the mostly empty bottle next to his
bed. Before noon no less. And the t
hen almost emptied the glass.


“Bet me another, will you. Under the desk there.”


I found a new bottle in a case sitting on two other unopened cases of Beam. No wonder this
guy’s in bed. Waiting to die, if the stories about him were right. He’d begun agai
n before I
even had a chance to get back to my chair.




A friend of mine and I spend two or three weeks every summer camping in the eastern
Sierras of California. We fish
ed
, backpack
ed
, hike
d
, and drive all over, trying to cover as much
ground as possible
. We typically spend at least two nights near a ghost town known as Bodie,
about fifteen miles northeast of Mono Lake, which is itself just a few miles east of the
entrance to Yosemite National Park. Bodie is an old abandoned mining town consisting of
seve
ral small buildings, outhouses, fenced but gone
-
to
-
seed yards, and a cemetery. Why we
spend time near and in Bodie is a mystery to me, but it wouldn’t seem like a camping trip
without our stay there.


This year we caught up with Bodie during the last week

in August, when the temperatures
ranged from about freezing in the predawn hours to near eighty degrees in late afternoon.
We set up camp where we always do, underneath a tall lonely pine tree on the north side of a
hill south of Bodie, which itself resid
es in a kind of cup
-
shaped otherwise barren valley. Why
we set up camp there I had no idea either. Let’s call it tradition. Around us lay the strewn
remnants of mine shafts dug deep to retrieve the gold that was said to be had in these parts.


Actually, Bodie once had upwards of ten thousand residents, mostly miners, and supposedly
had more than sixty saloons. You couldn’t tell that by looking at it now. Founded by a man
named William S. Bodey


who apparently couldn’t spell his own name


aroun
d 1860, the
town grew quickly and with the spread of the word ‘gold’ it reached its heyday in the 1880s,
dying almost as fast as it had grown when prospectors learned that the promise of great
wealth had been highly overestimated.


The view of Bodie’s bui
ldings, mostly tinder
-
wood clapboards by now, more than hinted that
it’s rip
-
roaring past had indeed passed. Money, gold, and alcohol fueled miners and cowpokes
to kill at least one person a day according to some records, possibly helping to lead to its
re
latively quick demise. Apparently, the undertakers were the last to leave town. But we
enjoyed looking down upon Bodie in the early evening and exploring the old buildings
during the day. We imagined all manner of events that might have taken place during
its
short
-
lived existence.


31


This night, my friend had fallen asleep and left me with the view. As always, one high electric
lamp shown on Bodie’s main street. Why this lamp burned from sundown to sunup was a
mystery. But it did. And who changed the bulbs
when they burned out? Another mystery.
But there it stood, at the top of an otherwise unused telephone pole, throwing its light on
downtown with no one but me to see it. The occasional suicidal moth would enter the lighted
area and slowly, and to me painfu
lly, get sucked to its death by the heat of the lonely bulb.
Other than that, Bodie lay silently as it had for over a hundred years, the echoes of its past
ghostly resonating through the streets and the holes in the rotting wood of its buildings. Sad.


Un
able to sleep or even feel sleepy, I decided to let my snoring friend rest in peace and climb
my way down the hill to stand in the solo light and see Bodie at night up close. For the first
time. Neither of us had ever visited downtown in the dark before. I

figured if that wouldn’t
make me tired, nothing would. I carried a small flashlight to help me avoid tripping in
prairie dog holes and made my way down to the outer limits of the town. Reaching one of
the side roads, I now noticed the remaining buckboard
tracks in the dirt, the shadows my
flashlight carved turning the small mounds into grotesque mountainous figures. Well, at
least small grotesque mountainous figures.


As I strode onto main street Bodie, I suddenly and inexplicably got a chill up my spine.
The
shadows cast by the light down the road gave the buildings an eerie and ominous presence
I’d not felt before during the day. But it was a quiet night, the moonless sky shining brightly
with the pinpricks of stars overhead. The Milky Way gave off a welc
ome glow that quickly
replaced any fears I’d had with a sense of familiarity, and I decided to stay a few minutes and
not run back up to camp like a scared rabbit.


As I slowly walked down the center of the main drag, the vacant buildings to either side o
f
me seemed to beckon me to enter. As if they still had life. As if when I stepped inside the
music would begin playing and the booze flowing. I could almost hear the voices shouting,
the glasses clinking, and the cards being cut and dealt. I could see a p
art of a sign, now lying
on the ground beneath the steps upon which it had once advertised the wanton surprises that
one would encounter upon entering. The sign, at least the part of the sign that remained,
read “Bodie’s Finest Sa . . .” Further along was
a two
-
story affair with a balcony that wouldn’t
now hold the weight of a cockroach. The boardwalk below looked equally suspicious.


As I approached the lone streetlight, the heaven and hell for moths, I suddenly had the
strange sensation that I was being
watched. One of those intuitive feelings that you can’t
really explain. Things just felt weird. I looked around for verification but didn’t see anything
looking in my direction. In fact, nothing had changed at all. Still friendly sky of stars, still
quiet
ghost town, still rutted road. Everything having a place and everything still in that
place.


I waited for a second, barely moving. But I heard nothing. Nothing to verify my intuitions.
Nothing to indicate that I was in fact being watched. I got the sudde
n urge to bolt as one is
wont to do in these kinds of situations, but caught myself, chalked it up to being alone at
night in a ghost town, turned, and slowly made my way back the way I had come.


I made it back to camp in one piece, but was now way to hy
ped to sleep. My friend continued
to snore away as if nothing had happened. Of course, nothing had happened. Nothing except
a strange feeling of being watched. What would he know about that? Here I was, watching
him as he slept. He didn’t care a whit.


32


I
grabbed my binoculars, and pinned them to the light on Main Street, watching closely for
any sign that what I had imagined was actually there. Nothing moved. Nothing. Quiet. Too
quiet? Naw. Normal. I was creating something from nothing. In some ways, that
was great.
Makes for exciting times. Makes for being cautious. Once in awhile, such intuitions can save
your life. Good things to have. Intuitions.


Then I saw it. Motion. In a blink of an eye, something had moved. Had I imagined it? No. Was
it a moth? No
, too big. What was it? I couldn’t tell. But, something had moved. In and out of
my vision. Just for a second.


I continued to stare through my binoculars for at least a half hour before giving it up.
Nothing more had moved. It could have been my imaginat