“Debbie’s Ranch” by Scott Kauffman

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Eddie McCoy was an hour’s drive out of Battle Mountain, Nevada, heading north on U.S. 95 for the Oregon border, when he slowed his Ford pickup and eased it onto the shoulder. He cut the engine, and the cylinders misfired and rattled on for a few seconds more before a final, smoky cough belched from the exhaust pipe. Eddie opened the door and stepped down into the sand, leaving his keys in the ignition. He limped around the truck bed and on out into the desert, his head down, his hands clasped behind his back, the look about him of a man who had reached the end of something.

A hundred yards from the truck Eddie came upon a shoulder-high boulder. He pulled himself up and sat, his legs dangling over the edge. A crimson fan of light was unfolding before the Rockies as the sun came up, blood red and as squat as a knifed-out heart somebody had put his boot to. Eddie reached into a shirt pocket for his Winstons and shook one out. He was edging a thumbnail under the matchbook cover when he noticed her. Eddie took out his cigarette. Pointed at him from the midnight-blue cover was a bent over, thonged bottom. Looking around from in front of the bottom smiled a woman with shoulder-length hair the color of dirty snow, “Debbie’s Ranch” etched above her head in an arc of pink script.

He shook his head. “Now, who in Hell ever heard of a cathouse advertising themselves with matchbooks? Like they was a bar or a restaurant. Some filling station a dad might consider stopping by for a Pepsi with his kids.”

Eddie rubbed a callused thumb over the woman’s bottom, shapely as any in a cowboy dream. “Well, I guess there’s a somebody out there who’s thought of everything you ain’t and are unlikely to ever will.”

He had gotten off I-80 a mile south of Battle Mountain the evening before, so dazed from the day’s driving he almost missed the exit. Twenty-four hours earlier, the clerk behind the desk in a Motel Six on the other side of Cheyenne had asked him when he checked in if he cared to reserve the room for a second night. The Weather Service was calling for a freak summer snowstorm to hit before the next nightfall.

“Room’s will be gone before you know it.” The clerk nodded at Eddie’s feet. “Hellfire, son. We’ll have folks sleeping where you’re standing.”

Eddie showered, and after he came out he sat on the bed wrapped in the towel and considered waiting out the storm in his room, catch up on some sleep. One turn through the channels on the chained-to-the-wall television settled his decision for him otherwise. Re-runs of sitcoms with no plots he thought dumb and had refused to watch the first time they’d been on. Mindless game shows with mindless contestants. People jawing about their problems who wouldn’t know a real one if it came up and kicked them in their rumps grown wide from sitting around jawing about their problems. He was up and on the road before dawn.

His truck had no air conditioning, and by evening Eddie was dehydrated from driving first
through the mountains and then the high desert. He hadn’t eaten anything since the jelly
doughnut he’d scarfed down in the motel lobby when he was checking out, and now he could hear his stomach growling even with the wind blasting through both rolled-down windows. The gas gauge needle was riding on “E” and had been for fifteen minutes. There were no cars before him and none behind, and with his bum leg, unless somebody stopped, he’d be crow bait before he limped into the next town.

Five days before, Eddie had blinked his eyes open at 4:44. The same time as he did every
morning. No alarm clock needed. He reached for Lisa, but because he was sleeping on the couch, his hand found only air.

Eddie unwound the sheet he had wrapped himself into during the night and swung his legs to the carpet and went into the quarter-bath off the kitchen. When he came out, he switched on the overhead stove light and from a cupboard took out a can of Fancy Feast. He stooped and divided it between Satchmoe and Sophie. The kitties were sitting by their respective bowls, in no hurry to get at their food and instead watching him, their ears perked, judging by his voice, his stroke of their coats, whether they would spend the day napping on their sun nook or hiding out in closet corners. On his way to the sink, Eddie emptied their water bowls in the one potted fern out of a dozen he’d not managed to kill. He filled the bowls and returned them and walked back to the bedroom.

He opened the closet door and with his toe poked at the pile of clothes heaped on the floor. He bent over and picked out a blue-denim shirt, and before he reached his arms into its sleeves he held it to his nose. As Eddie buttoned up the front, he sucked in the Rolling-Rock belly he’d been working on. He pulled on his gray canvas trousers, abraded and threadbare at the knees, and reached for his steel-toed boots. Before lacing up the left, he reached in a finger and traced the scar slicing his Achilles tendon.

“You ain’t dreamed of doin’ nothing since the day you bought this.” He took out his finger and knotted the laces. “Maybe it’s time you started.”

Eddie returned to the kitchen and scooped uncooked oatmeal into a bowl and poured over it last week’s milk. He walked out to the picture window in the living room and, as he ate, watched a full moon set over the duck pond across the street.

At the midmorning break, Eddie shut down his arc weld and walked into the supervisor’s office, his work cap in hand behind his back and asked for a couple of weeks off.

“Surprised you hadn’t asked for any before now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You came in the day after the funeral.”

Eddie shifted his cap to his other hand. He looked at the office door window, its smoky, pebbled glass opaque. “I like to stay busy. Keeps me from wandering where I shouldn’t.”

After his shift let out, Eddie gassed up the truck and from a rack of roadmaps took one for the eastern half of the country. He’d have gotten one for the western states too, but the attendant said there wasn’t sufficient demand for the station to justify stocking them.

When he got home, Eddie walked next door to Jude and Christina Hardy’s. In their mailbox he laid a note with feeding instructions for the kitties and dropped his key on top of the note and crossed back across their lawns. Eddie put a TV dinner in the oven and went into the bedroom and packed a duffle bag and his toilet kit. At his dresser, Eddie studied her photograph, twisting his wedding band back and forth on his finger as if it were a lock whose combination he couldn’t quite get. He took it off and laid it before the frame, a thumb resting for a moment on the gold rim. Ten minutes later Eddie had eaten his half cooked supper and was in the truck, his Thermos of black coffee on the seat beside him, headed up Route 7 toward the Turnpike.

* * *

At the Battle Mountain exit, Eddie turned right and followed the sign pointing to town and
stopped at the first filling station he came to. He pulled up to one of eight rows of pumps and turned off the ignition and sat back in his seat. He looked at the gas gauge and tapped it with a knuckle. The needle didn’t so much as flicker.

He got out of his truck and walked around to a pump and studied the prices before he crossed the cement concourse and pushed open the door to the station. Behind the counter were two teenage boys, one slouched against the cash register, the other, his arms raised like a prize fighter, jabbing into the air with quick left stabs as he recounted a street fight he had witnessed the night before. The two wore identical sky-blue shirts with “Earl” stitched above the breast pocket of one and “Sam” above that of the other. Out of each ink-stained pocket protruded an air gauge and half a dozen pens. All twenty of their fingernails were broken and jagged and grease filled. They wore khaki-colored baseball caps, which bore above the bill a red and yellow “Sanderson’s Shell” decal. Out from under the caps spilled their oily, collar-length hair. Earl was cultivating a wispy mustache, and both were badly pimpled from a filling station fare of Cokes and Snickers and Lays, their faces red-budded like cactus flowers ready to pop.

Sam, the boy behind the cash register, straightened when Eddie came in. “Yes, sir?”

Eddie reached into a back pocket for his wallet and took out two fives and a ten and lay the bills on the counter. “Twenty on number thirteen pump.”

Sam reached for the money with one hand and rang up the purchase with the other. “Yes, sir. Twenty on lucky thirteen.”

Eddie turned to go, but halfway to the door he stopped and looked out the plate glass window.

The boys watched him.

“Will there be anything else?” Sam asked.

Eddie didn’t answer. He was studying his truck, which had taken on an odd hue under the
florescent lights, as though by some magic of desert air its paint had turned translucent and beneath it his truck glowed, softly, like a lanterned candle.

“I hope he ain’t going to get weird on us,” Earl whispered. He reached up and took down the restroom key that was hanging behind them and slid it under the counter. He looked out at Eddie’s truck. “Fornicate hisself all over our head like that one dude done last week.”
Eddie turned to the boys. “There some place abouts I can grab a bite to eat?”

A smile slowly spread across Earl’s face. He jostled Sam with his elbow. “Notice them plates?”

Sam nodded.

“Go ahead,” Earl hissed. “Tell him.”

“There’s Debbie’s.”

“Good place to eat?”

“None better,” Sam said. “Ask them about their desserts they serve with whipped cream
delight.”

Earl raised a hand to the other boy’s shoulder and turned his back. He seemed to have caught something in his throat.

“Which way is it?” Eddie asked.

Sam pointed out the window. “Go left when you pull back on the highway. ‘Bout two mile down the road. Big red sign out front right before their turnoff. Can’t miss it.”

Earl hacked all the harder.

“Thanks,” Eddie said and went out.

As he filled his gas tank, Eddie cleaned the dirt and the smashed, sun-baked bugs from the windshield. He went to the dispenser and grabbed a handful of paper towels. When he turned around, he took one step back toward his truck and stopped. A set of yellow eyes were pointing at him from behind the front grill. Eddie let go the towels, and the evening wind that had begun to rise at sunset scattered them across concourse and out into the desert.

He walked to the front of his truck and stooped and reached up under his bumper with the
handle of the window squeegee and pried out the carcass of the jackrabbit he’d thumped a mile this side of the Nevada line. Eddie grabbed the fur on the back of its neck and walked it to the trash container and dropped the rabbit in, pushing on its hindquarters with the squeegee handle to get it down the hole. “Let the dead bury the dead.”

He climbed back into his truck and pulled up to the road and stopped. At first the boys weren’t certain if he would go left, but he did.

“Think he’ll come back pissed?” Sam said.

“How long have you been pumping gas here?”

“Be a year in December.”

“So far, any of ‘em ever come back? Even that minister with his wife and kids in tow?”

Sam shook his head. He drummed his fingers on top of the register and looked down the road, the glow of Eddie’s taillights already swallowed by the coming of night, the red desert dust filling the air.

“Miss Debbie ought to be aputting us on commission for all the business we’re sending her way,” Earl said. “At least let us take it out in trade now and again with one of them big-titted girls of hers.”

Sam grinned. “You are one horned-up toad tonight.”

“No different than any other.”

When he saw the twenty-foot-tall billboard, Eddie took his foot from the gas pedal and touched his brakes. The lower row of bulbs had either not yet come on or burned out and not been replaced. The top row was lit, though, and beneath the lights “Debbie’s Ranch” was written in script.

A hundred feet beyond the sign he came to a gravel drive and stopped. He leaned over and
cranked open his passenger window. He saw no buildings, no window lights, just a blue neon “D” that hovered in the dark. Eddie shifted into first and followed the drive to a parking lot where the only other vehicle was a dust-covered Ram Charger. He switched off his headlights.

Outside his windshield, heat lightning flashed above the desert floor, illuminating within tall,
Telarian skeins hundreds of cacti, T-shaped like graveyard crosses. Along the horizon, he could make out the silhouette of the western most Rocky Mountains he had come out of late that morning as the snow had started to spit on his windshield.

When he climbed down from his pickup, the sand carried in the wind stung his eyes almost shut.

He lowered his head and limped as quickly as he could across the lot to the front door. Inside, Eddie took out his bandana and wiped the grit from his face, and he stood there a moment, his eyes graying a dark lit by brass lanterns hung from overhead beams.

The room had about it a queer odor, something similar to an alchemy of cow manure and
Channel Number 5. The sides of the adobe building swayed and had two-inch cracks running from floor to ceiling, and its walls were buttressed with piers not all a part of the original Spanish architecture. Hung on the walls were oil paintings framed in black patina as finely cracked as old enamel glazing. Portraits of formally dressed men and women who stood out in front of the premises, a woman in one holding a Winchester .30-.30 carbine in the crook of her arms.

Beneath the prints a collection of pioneer antiques. A foot-pedaled Singer sewing machine. An ancient stereopticon.

At a table near the bar sat a pot-bellied, wide-butted rancher, maybe ten years older than
Eddie, outfitted in too-tight jeans and ostrich-leather cowboy boots. He wore a snap-button
shirt made of red-checkered gingham, and an inch-thick dewlap of fat rolled over his neck collar he had drawn tight with a black string tie. A woman with orange-dyed hair and dressed in a rainbow-colored robe and matching turban sat dealing him cards, five times larger in size than cards from an ordinary deck and oddly printed. No spades or clubs. No hearts. The only card Eddie could make out had on it a hooded skeleton holding a scythe.

On the other side of the room sat two women, smiling at him with a casual carnality. One,
looking at him from over her shoulder, wore a pink, long-sleeved evening gown, similar to one he had seen on television when he managed to stay awake for the Academy Awards, except this woman’s dress was cut so low in the back the crack of her bottom showed. The other wore something like a one-piece bathing suit. Banana yellow, frilly and lacy, the woman’s enormous breasts all but spilling like cantaloupes out onto the table. The two kept on talking even as they appraised him from head to toe but mostly in the middle, eating him with their predacious eyes, and for the first time in months Eddie felt a swelling inside his trousers.

A white-haired man with a Colonel Sanders’ goatee stood behind a polished counter cut from birds-eye-maple. Eddie walked over to him and sat on a stool upholstered in rawhide and ran a hand through his hair.

“What’ll it be?”

Eddie didn’t look at him. He was trying to keep his focus on a square foot of wood-planked floor halfway between him and the two women. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the turbaned woman studying the cards before her, shaking her head as though what she saw met with her disapproval. He told the barman to bring him a Rolling Rock.

The fat man sitting at the table with the turbaned woman twisted around and smirked. The
barman arched his white eyebrows. He studied Eddie’s washed out, button-down shirt and
craned his neck over the counter and nodded at his boots. “Shoot. I could tell you was an
Eastern dude soon as you come through my door.”

“A what?”

“Ain’t no Rock served west of Omaha, son.”

“No?”

“Hardly any served west of St. Louis.”

Eddie nodded thoughtfully, as though the barman had graced him with one of life’s smaller
epiphanies. “I guess I hadn’t been paying all that much attention. Last few days I’ve been tryin’ some of the brews I can’t ordinarily get.”

Eddie scanned the backbar, studying the signs advertising Budweiser and Blue Ribbon and Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco. “Just give me whatever you got on draught.”

“We only carry about ten.”

Eddie leaned forward and squinted at the tap handles.

“How ‘bout a nice cold Mich?” the barman said. “You got the look of about you of one of them Reno-high-rollers.”

Eddie grinned. “In that case . . .”

“Tall Michelob comin’ at you.”

The barman walked down the counter and crouched. Out of a freezer beneath the bar he took a frosted, fishbowl mug so large it took him both hands to hold. He stood and put mug beneath a tap, whistling as he drew the beer.

Along the backbar hung plastic-bagged snacks of peanuts and cashews. A raunchy Penthouse calendar. At one end, stood a tall jar with a rattlesnake coiled inside, the alcohol evaporated down so the tip of its tail had rotted white and a bit of its spine showed. Above the row of beer taps midway to the ceiling hung a chrome-plated reading light and beneath it a sign:

Our Pleasure Menu
Appetizers
Sensual Breast Massage
Lingerie Show
Power Shower for Two
Very Naughty Dancing
Entrees
Straight Lay
½ and ½
Reverse ½ and ½
Bondage for You or Me

The barman set the foaming mug before him. “That’ll be two-fifty.”

Eddie swallowed, his eyes locked on the Pleasure Menu.

“Two dollars and fifty cents,” the barman repeated, slowly and raising his voice, holding onto the mug by its stem.

The fat man at the table looked up to the ceiling and shook his head.

“Sorry,” Eddie said and reached for his wallet and put down a five-dollar bill.

The barman let go the mug and picked up the bill. “That’s okay, son. His first time here, our
menu has a way of sucking a man’s wind out right down to his gonads.”

Eddie looked back to the menu. “Boy, you got that right.”

The barman went to the register. When he came back, he lay down Eddie’s change and went to the sink at the other end and began to wash out the glasses he’d left soaping. Eddie lifted the fishbowl with both hands and emptied half of it. Across the room, Eddie could hear the whispers of the two women, but not the words. Their eyes never strayed from him. When he tried to get a better look, the women in pink gave him a pout, and with her hand parted the slit in the gown running along her thigh.

Eddie took another long drink of beer and stood and walked over to the old-time Wurlitzer
setting against the wall opposite from the two women and reached into his jeans’ pocket.

“It’s unplugged,” the barman called over to him.

Eddie turned around.

The barman was holding a glass up to a lantern, twisting it in the waxen light. He huffed on the glass and wiped at it some more with his cloth. “Got us a live orcheestra coming on in a bit.”

“You got a band?”

“No, an orchestra. One with violins and a cello and the whole shebang.”

“Shebanged before you get banged,” said the fat man at the table.

Eddie pushed the quarter back into his pocket. Above the jukebox hung a row of pencil
sketches. One of empty train tracks, a thin spire of smoke rising into the air far in the distance, the mountains in the background resembling those he’d seen from out in the parking lot. One of what looked like a portrait of the goateed barman. Pretty good likeness too. Another of a car plunging over a cliff into nothingness, a girl behind the wheel, an older woman behind her in the back seat holding up a bottle, the mouth of the girl open, her hair coming out in her hands like bunches of charred straw. A voice behind Eddie spoke.

“See anything you like?”

Eddie McCoy was an hour’s drive out of Battle Mountain, Nevada, heading north on U.S.
95 for the Oregon border, when he slowed his Ford pickup and eased it onto the
shoulder. He cut the engine, and the cylinders misfired and rattled on for a few seconds
more before a final, smoky cough belched from the exhaust pipe. Eddie opened the door
and stepped down into the sand, leaving his keys in the ignition. He limped around the
truck bed and on out into the desert, his head down, his hands clasped behind his back,
the look about him of a man who had reached the end of something.

A hundred yards from the truck Eddie came upon a shoulder-high boulder. He pulled
himself up and sat, his legs dangling over the edge. A crimson fan of light was unfolding
before the Rockies as the sun came up, blood red and as squat as a knifed-out heart
somebody had put his boot to.

Eddie reached into a shirt pocket for his Winstons and shook one out. He was edging a
thumbnail under the matchbook cover when he noticed her. Eddie took out his cigarette.
Pointed at him from the midnight-blue cover was a bent over, thonged bottom. Looking
around from in front of the bottom smiled a woman with shoulder-length hair the color of
dirty snow, Debbie’s Ranch etched above her head in an arc of pink script.

He shook his head. “Now, who in Hell ever heard of a cathouse advertising themselves
with matchbooks? Like they was a bar or a restaurant. Some filling station a dad might
consider stopping by for a Pepsi with his kids.”

Eddie rubbed a callused thumb over the woman’s bottom, shapely as any in a cowboy
dream. “Well, I guess there’s a somebody out there who’s thought of everything you ain’t
and are unlikely to ever will.”

He had gotten off I-80 a mile south of Battle Mountain the evening before, so dazed from
the day’s driving he almost missed the exit. Twenty-four hours earlier, the clerk behind
the desk in a Motel Six on the other side of Cheyenne had asked him when he checked in
if he cared to reserve the room for a second night. The Weather Service was calling for a
freak summer snowstorm to hit before the next nightfall.

“Room’s will be gone before you know it.” The clerk nodded at Eddie’s feet. “Hellfire, son.
We’ll have folks sleeping where you’re standing.”

Eddie showered, and after he came out he sat on the bed wrapped in the towel and
considered waiting out the storm in his room, catch up on some sleep. One turn through
the channels on the chained-to-the-wall television settled his decision for him otherwise.
Re-runs of sitcoms with no plots he thought dumb and had refused to watch the first
time they’d been on. Mindless game shows with mindless contestants. People jawing
about their problems who wouldn’t know a real one if it came up and kicked them in their
rumps grown wide from sitting around jawing about their problems. He was up and on the
road before dawn.

His truck had no air conditioning, and by evening Eddie was dehydrated from driving first
through the mountains and then the high desert. He hadn’t eaten anything since the jelly
doughnut he’d scarfed down in the motel lobby when he was checking out, and now he
could hear his stomach growling even with the wind blasting through both rolled-down
windows. The gas gauge needle was riding on “E” and had been for fifteen minutes. There
were no cars before him and none behind, and with his bum leg, unless somebody
stopped, he’d be crow bait before he limped into the next town.

Five days before, Eddie had blinked his eyes open at 4:44. The same time as he did every
morning. No alarm clock needed. He reached for Lisa, but because he was sleeping on the
couch, his hand found only air.

Eddie unwound the sheet he had wrapped himself into during the night and swung his
legs to the carpet and went into the quarter-bath off the kitchen. When he came out, he
switched on the overhead stove light and from a cupboard took out a can of Fancy Feast.
He stooped and divided it between Satchmoe and Sophie. The kitties were sitting by their
respective bowls, in no hurry to get at their food and instead watching him, their ears
perked, judging by his voice, his stroke of their coats, whether they would spend the day
napping on their sun nook or hiding out in closet corners. On his way to the sink, Eddie
emptied their water bowls in the one potted fern out of a dozen he’d not managed to kill.
He filled the bowls and returned them and walked back to the bedroom.

He opened the closet door and with his toe poked at the pile of clothes heaped on the
floor. He bent over and picked out a blue-denim shirt, and before he reached his arms into
its sleeves he held it to his nose. As Eddie buttoned up the front, he sucked in the Rolling-
Rock belly he’d been working on. He pulled on his gray canvas trousers, abraded and
threadbare at the knees, and reached for his steel-toed boots. Before lacing up the left,
he reached in a finger and traced the scar slicing his Achilles tendon.

“You ain’t dreamed of doin’ nothing since the day you bought this.” He took out his finger
and knotted the laces. “Maybe it’s time you started.”

Eddie returned to the kitchen and scooped uncooked oatmeal into a bowl and poured over
it last week’s milk. He walked out to the picture window in the living room and, as he ate,
watched a full moon set over the duck pond across the street.

At the midmorning break, Eddie shut down his arc weld and walked into the supervisor’s
office, his work cap in hand behind his back and asked for a couple of weeks off.

“Surprised you hadn’t asked for any before now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You came in the day after the funeral.”

Eddie shifted his cap to his other hand. He looked at the office door window, its smoky,
pebbled glass opaque. “I like to stay busy. Keeps me from wandering where I shouldn’t.”

After his shift let out, Eddie gassed up the truck and from a rack of roadmaps took one
for the eastern half of the country. He’d have gotten one for the western states too, but
the attendant said there wasn’t sufficient demand for the station to justify stocking them.

When he got home, Eddie walked next door to Jude and Christina Hardy’s. In their
mailbox he laid a note with feeding instructions for the kitties and dropped his key on top
of the note and crossed back across their lawns. Eddie put a TV dinner in the oven and
went into the bedroom and packed a duffel bag and his toilet kit. At his dresser, Eddie
studied her photograph, twisting his wedding band back and forth on his finger as if it
were a lock whose combination he couldn’t quite get. He took it off and laid it before the
frame, a thumb resting for a moment on the gold rim. Ten minutes later Eddie had eaten
his half cooked supper and was in the truck, his Thermos of black coffee on the seat
beside him, headed up Route 7 toward the Turnpike.

* * *

At the Battle Mountain exit, Eddie turned right and followed the sign pointing to town and
stopped at the first filling station he came to. He pulled up to one of eight rows of pumps
and turned off the ignition and sat back in his seat. He looked at the gas gauge and
tapped it with a knuckle. The needle didn’t so much as flicker.

He got out of his truck and walked around to a pump and studied the prices before he
crossed the cement concourse and pushed open the door to the station. Behind the
counter were two teenage boys, one slouched against the cash register, the other, his
arms raised like a prize fighter, jabbing into the air with quick left stabs as he recounted a
street fight he had witnessed the night before. The two wore identical sky-blue shirts with
“Earl” stitched above the breast pocket of one and “Sam” above that of the other. Out of
each ink-stained pocket protruded an air gauge and half a dozen pens. All twenty of their
fingernails were broken and jagged and greasefilled.
They wore khaki-colored baseball caps, which bore above the bill a red and yellow
Sanderson’s Shell decal. Out from under the caps spilled their oily, collar-length hair. Earl
was cultivating a wispy mustache, and both were badly pimpled from a filling station fare
of Cokes and Snickers and Lays, their faces red-budded like cactus flowers ready to pop.

Sam, the boy behind the cash register, straightened when Eddie came in. “Yes, sir?”

Eddie reached into a back pocket for his wallet and took out two fives and a ten
and lay the bills on the counter. “Twenty on number thirteen pump.”

Sam reached for the money with one hand and rang up the purchase with the
other. “Yes, sir. Twenty on lucky thirteen.”

Eddie turned to go, but halfway to the door he stopped and looked out the plate
glass window. The boys watched him.

“Will there be anything else?” Sam asked.

Eddie didn’t answer. He was studying his truck, which had taken on an odd hue
under the florescent lights, as though by some magic of desert air its paint had
turned translucent and beneath it his truck glowed, softly, like a lanterned candle.

“I hope he ain’t going to get weird on us,” Earl whispered. He reached up and
took down the restroom key that was hanging behind them and slid it under the
counter. He looked out at Eddie’s truck. “Fornicate hisself all over our head like
that one dude done last week.”

Eddie turned to the boys. “There some place abouts I can grab a bite to eat?”

A smile slowly spread across Earl’s face. He jostled Sam with his elbow. “Notice
them plates?”

Sam nodded.

“Go ahead,” Earl hissed. “Tell him.”

“There’s Debbie’s.”

“Good place to eat?”

“None better,” Sam said. “Ask them about their desserts they serve with whipped
cream delight.”

Earl raised a hand to the other boy’s shoulder and turned his back. He seemed to
have caught something in his throat.

“Which way is it?” Eddie asked.

Sam pointed out the window. “Go left when you pull back on the highway. ‘Bout
two mile down the road. Big red sign out front right before their turnoff. Can’t
miss it.”

Earl hacked all the harder.

“Thanks,” Eddie said and went out.

As he filled his gas tank, Eddie cleaned the dirt and the smashed, sun-baked
bugs from the windshield. He went to the dispenser and grabbed a handful of
paper towels. When he turned around, he took one step back toward his truck
and stopped. A set of yellow eyes were pointing at him from behind the front grill.
Eddie let go the towels, and the evening wind that had begun to rise at sunset
scattered them across concourse and out into the desert.

He walked to the front of his truck and stooped and reached up under his
bumper with the handle of the window squeegee and pried out the carcass of the
jackrabbit he’d thumped a mile this side of the Nevada line. Eddie grabbed the fur
on the back of its neck and walked it to the trash container and dropped the
rabbit in, pushing on its hindquarters with the squeegee handle to get it down
the hole. “Let the dead bury the dead.”

He climbed back into his truck and pulled up to the road and stopped. At first the
boys weren’t certain if he would go left, but he did.

“Think he’ll come back pissed?” Sam said.

“How long have you been pumping gas here?”

“Be a year in December.”

“So far, any of ‘em ever come back? Even that minister with his wife and kids in
tow?”

Sam shook his head. He drummed his fingers on top of the register and looked
down the road, the glow of Eddie’s taillights already swallowed by the coming of
night, the red desert dust filling the air.

“Miss Debbie ought to be aputting us on commission for all the business we’re
sending her way,” Earl said. “At least let us take it out in trade now and again
with one of them big-titted girls of hers.”

Sam grinned. “You are one horned-up toad tonight.”

“No different than any other.”

When he saw the twenty-foot-tall billboard, Eddie took his foot from the gas
pedal and touched his brakes. The lower row of bulbs had either not yet come on
or burned out and not been replaced. The top row was lit, though, and beneath
the lights Debbie’s Ranch was written in script.

A hundred feet beyond the sign he came to a gravel drive and stopped. He leaned
over and cranked open his passenger window. He saw no buildings, no window
lights, just a blue neon “D” that hovered in the dark. Eddie shifted into first and
followed the drive to a parking lot where the only other vehicle was a dust-
covered Ram Charger. He switched off his headlights. Outside his windshield, heat
lightning flashed above the desert floor, illuminating within tall, Telarian skeins
hundreds of cacti, T-shaped like graveyard crosses. Along the horizon, he could
make out the silhouette of the western most Rocky Mountains he had come out
of late that morning as the snow had started to spit on his windshield.

When he climbed down from his pickup, the sand carried in the wind stung his
eyes almost shut. He lowered his head and limped as quickly as he could across
the lot to the front door. Inside, Eddie took out his bandana and wiped the grit
from his face, and he stood there a moment, his eyes graying a dark lit by brass
lanterns hung from overhead beams.

The room had about it a queer odor, something similar to an alchemy of cow
manure and Channel Number 5. The sides of the adobe building swayed and had
two-inch cracks running from floor to ceiling, and its walls were buttressed with
piers not all a part of the original Spanish architecture. Hung on the walls were oil
paintings framed in black patina as finely cracked as old enamel glazing. Portraits
of formally dressed men and women who stood out in front of the premises, a
woman in one holding a Winchester .30-.30 carbine in the crook of her arms.

Beneath the prints a collection of pioneer antiques. A foot-pedaled Singer sewing
machine. An ancient stereopticon.

At a table near the bar sat a pot-bellied, wide-butted rancher, maybe ten years
older than Eddie, outfitted in too-tight jeans and ostrich-leather cowboy boots.

He wore a snap-button shirt made of red-checkered gingham, and an inch-thick
dewlap of fat rolled over his neck collar he had drawn tight with a black string tie.

A woman with orange-dyed hair and dressed in a rainbow-colored robe and
matching turban sat dealing him cards, five times larger in size than cards from
an ordinary deck and oddly printed. No spades or clubs. No hearts. The only card
Eddie could make out had on it a hooded skeleton holding a scythe.

On the other side of the room sat two women, smiling at him with a casual
carnality. One, looking at him from over her shoulder, wore a pink, long-sleeved
evening gown, similar to one he had seen on television when he managed to stay
awake for the Academy Awards, except this woman’s dress was cut so low in the
back the crack of her bottom showed. The other wore something like a one-piece
bathing suit. Banana yellow, frilly and lacy, the woman’s enormous breasts all but
spilling like cantaloupes out onto the table. The two kept on talking even as they
appraised him from head to toe but mostly in the middle, eating him with their
predacious eyes, and for the first time in months Eddie felt a welling inside his
trousers.

A white-haired man with a Colonel Sanders’ goatee stood behind a polished
counter cut from birds-eye-maple. Eddie walked over to him and sat on a stool
upholstered in rawhide and ran a hand through his hair.

“What’ll it be?”

Eddie didn’t look at him. He was trying to keep his focus on a square foot of
wood-planked floor halfway between him and the two women. Out of the corner
of his eye he saw the turbaned woman studying the cards before her, shaking
her head as though what she saw met with her disapproval. He told the barman
to bring him a Rolling Rock.

The fat man sitting at the table with the turbaned woman twisted around and
smirked. The barman arched his white eyebrows. He studied Eddie’s washed out,
button-down shirt and craned his neck over the counter and nodded at his
boots. “Shoot. I could tell you was an Eastern dude soon as you come through
my door.”

“A what?”

“Ain’t no Rock served west of Omaha, son.”

“No?”

“Hardly any served west of St. Louis.”

Eddie nodded thoughtfully, as though the barman had graced him with one of life’
s smaller epiphanies. “I guess I hadn’t been paying all that much attention. Last
few days I’ve been tryin’ some of the brews I can’t ordinarily get.”

Eddie scanned the back bar, studying the signs advertising Budweiser and Blue
Ribbon and Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco. “Just give me whatever you got on
draught.”

“We only carry about ten.”

Eddie leaned forward and squinted at the tap handles.

“How ‘bout a nice cold Mich?” the barman said. “You got the look of about you of
one of them Reno-high-rollers.”

Eddie grinned. “In that case . . .”

“Tall Michelob comin’ at you.”

The barman walked down the counter and crouched. Out of a freezer beneath the
bar he took a frosted, fishbowl mug so large it took him both hands to hold. He
stood and put mug beneath a tap, whistling as he drew the beer.

Along the backbar hung plastic-bagged snacks of peanuts and cashews. A
raunchy Penthouse calendar. At one end, stood a tall jar with a rattlesnake coiled
inside, the alcohol evaporated down so the tip of its tail had rotted white and a
bit of its spine showed. Above the row of beer taps midway to the ceiling hung a
chrome-plated reading light and beneath it a sign:

Our Pleasure Menu
Appetizers
Sensual Breast Massage
Lingerie Show
Power Shower for Two
Very Naughty Dancing
Entrees
Straight Lay
½ and ½
Reverse ½ and ½
Bondage for You or Me

The barman set the foaming mug before him. “That’ll be two-fifty.”

Eddie swallowed, his eyes locked on the Pleasure Menu.

“Two dollars and fifty cents,” the barman repeated, slowly and raising his voice,
holding onto the mug by its stem.

The fat man at the table looked up to the ceiling and shook his head.

“Sorry,” Eddie said and reached for his wallet and put down a five-dollar bill.

The barman let go the mug and picked up the bill. “That’s okay, son. His first time
here, our menu has a way of sucking a man’s wind out right down to his gonads.”
Eddie looked back to the menu. “Boy, you got that right.”

The barman went to the register. When he came back, he lay down Eddie’s
change and went to the sink at the other end and began to wash out the glasses
he’d left soaping. Eddie lifted the fishbowl with both hands and emptied half of it.

Across the room, Eddie could hear the whispers of the two women, but not the
words. Their eyes never strayed from him. When he tried to get a better look,
the women in pink gave him a pout, and with her hand parted the slit in the gown
running along her thigh.

Eddie took another long drink of beer and stood and walked over to the old-time
Wurlitzer setting against the wall opposite from the two women and reached into
his jeans’ pocket.

“It’s unplugged,” the barman called over to him.

Eddie turned around.

The barman was holding a glass up to a lantern, twisting it in the waxen light. He
huffed on the glass and wiped at it some more with his cloth. “Got us a live
orcheestra coming on in a bit.”

“You got a band?”

“No, an orcheestra. One with violins and a cello and the whole shebang.”

“Shebanged before you get banged,” said the fat man at the table.

Eddie pushed the quarter back into his pocket. Above the jukebox hung a row of
pencil sketches. One of empty train tracks, a thin spire of smoke rising into the
air far in the distance, the mountains in the background resembling those he’d
seen from out in the parking lot. One of what looked like a portrait of the goateed
barman. Pretty good likeness too. Another of a car plunging over a cliff into
nothingness, a girl behind the wheel, an older woman behind her in the back seat
holding up a bottle, the mouth of the girl open, her hair coming out in her hands
like bunches of charred straw. A voice behind Eddie spoke.

“See anything you like?”

Eddie turned around. She looked to be maybe twenty, tall for a girl even
accounting for her three-inch stiletto pumps. She wore a loose-fitting, black linen
dress that fell half way down her cheerleader-muscled thighs. The dress was
short-sleeved to her elbows, and not low cut across the bust that showed off all
the more her brickhouse figure. When she turned her head, the girl’s dangling
earrings winked in the lantern lights. Her eyes were a forget-me-not blue, shiny,
like those of a small-town girl the first time she thinks a boy likes her. She had
the prettiest smile Eddie had ever seen, yet impish, as though she was about to
have some fun, not with any malice, but only to see if he caught her sense of
humor. She had highlighted her sparrow-brown hair with hints of henna and
permed it into ringlet curls that fell to her neck and gleamed as though she had
wandered in from the rain.

Eddie’s eyes darted across the room to the two women. He looked back to the
girl. “Miss?”

She nodded at the wall behind the jukebox. “See anything you like?”

He turned and looked again at the drawings. “They’re all good.”

“Thank you.”

Eddie tapped a thumb knuckle against his chin. “Very good.”

“I drew them.”

He turned back to her. “No fooling?”

She smiled and cocked her head toward the bar. “Buy a lady a drink?”

The barman had a napkin on the counter next to Eddie’s beer and stood waiting.

“Your usual, sweet pea?”

“Yes, easy on the ice for the first one.”

“As always.” The barman turned to Eddie. “Another fishbowl for you, pardner?”

“I would, thank you,” Eddie said, and reached for his wallet and brought out a
twenty and lay it before him. “In case you’ll be wanting a re-fill,” he said.

A television set was turned on in a room behind the backbar. God talks to us in
Genesis about Adam and Eve. He doesn’t say anything about Adam and Steve.
Not in Genesis and not anywhere else.

The girl giggled. “Debbie loves Jerry Falwell.”

“Really?”

“Sunday mornings he’s on too early. So she videotapes his sermons and watches
the show in the evening.”

The barman set down their drinks.

“Debbie says preachers make the best lays.”

“I’d never heard that.”

The girl twisted around on the stool and with her painted eyes looked about the
bar. She sipped on her straw. “You’d be surprised what you can learn here about
people.”

She set her drink on the bar and rotated the stool so the outside of her knees
touched the inside of his. “So what’s your name, sweetie?”

He told her. “Yours?”

The girl looked up at the lantern above them. She twisted a ringlet of hair about
her forefinger. “Have you ever read Moby Dick?”

Eddie glanced down at his steel-toed boots, dusty and grease stained. He shook
his head. “Never been much of a reader.”

The girl smiled. She took her hand from her hair and put two fingers over the
inside of her wrist as if she’d some blemish to conceal. “Call me Isabella.”

Eddie whispered her name half aloud. “I ain’t never met no Isabella before.”

“Or Izzy if you like.”

He considered her suggestion, slightly rocking his head from side to side. “All
right. Izzy suits me fine.”

“Where you headed to?”

“Portland.”

“As in Oregon? Or the other direction, as in Maine?”

“No, Oregon,” Eddie said. “My buddy, George, works on a paper up there. When I
get to his place he’s fixing to take a few days off to take me fishin’.”

Izzy leaned and sipped at her drink, a tall concoction of various colored liquids
layered one atop the other. She looked at the turbaned woman, and when she
straightened from her drink she sighed. “You have to admire someone who will
cheat at tarot, don’t you think?”

“Excuse me?”

“Of course, it will do her no good. Your fate is your fate. Ahab will tell you as
much.”

Eddie looked down the bar to the cash register. “He the bartender?”

The girl shook her head. A woman came in through the back door, hips swaying
to her own drummer, and Izzy called out. “Now, there’s a real honey.”

The woman put a hand to her peroxide scalded hair. “There’s a real honey,
herself.”

The girl stirred her drink. “Where you from?”

When he told her, Izzy’s eyes lit up. “Me too.”

“Really?”

“Athens. You know where that is?”

“Not exactly.” Eddie emptied his fishbowl and to the bartender pointed two
fingers at their glasses.

“Wasn’t born there,” Izzy said.

“Where was it you was born?”

“Germany. Frankfurt.”

“How’d you come to be born there?”

“My dad was in the Army.”

The barman brought their drinks. She raised her glass to Eddie. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

“It can be,” Izzy said. She put her plum shaded lips to the straw and winked.
Eddie’s face reddened, and Izzy laughed and laid her hand on his forearm. “Just
kidding. Debbie doesn’t pressure us to get down to business. If a guy wants to
come in and talk, what she loses in tricks she makes up on the drinks they buy
us.”

She took back her hand. “I don’t normally start out with a guy by giving up my
life story. Not even a little of it.”

“How come you did with me?”

The girl put her fingertips to the rim of her glass and twisted it back and forth as
she might the channel dial on a car radio. “Because you’re from home.”

“Your mom and dad still there?”

“Her and my step-dad.”

“Step-dad?”

“Mom left my real dad a couple of months after I came along.”

Through the door adjacent the back bar came three young men, striding almost
in a parade march, clean cut, their faces as solemn as door-to-door Jehovah’s
Witnesses, instrument valises in hand and dressed in black tuxedos and white
bow ties and scarlet cummerbunds. They crossed the room to a redwood dais in
the far corner and uncased their instruments. Eddie watched as they tightened
and tuned the strings. After a while he asked Izzy what kind of band they were.

“Chamber orchestra.”

“I can’t recollect ever hearing one of them.

“The blond kid is Debbie’s nephew. He’ll be a senior at UNLV come fall. She pays
his tuition. Makes him come up here on his breaks. Says it gives the place some
class. Entice some of those high rollers from Reno to come our way before they
head back to Tahoe and San Francisco.”

She finished her drink. The bartender set before her another. They watched the
musicians. “What kind of tunes is it they play?” Eddie said.

“Lots of Bach. Some Teleman. Debbie prefers baroque to classical, the German
composers to the Italian, seeing how she was brought up Lutheran, but she’ll
allow them to play some Mozart now and again.”

“Charlie Daniels most likely is out of the question?”

“Oh, they could, but they wouldn’t get past the first chord before Debbie would
be out here, cussing them red, Reverend Jerry on Sunday be damned.”

The musicians raised their instruments. “They’re really very good.”

The cello player slowly drew his bow across the strings. Izzy closed her eyes and
smiled like a woman just kissed. “I love the cello.”

As they listened, the girl’s long, unringed fingers moved gently to the music like
they were brushing away smoke.

“Too bad about your folks divorcing when you was so young and all.”

“Better than when I got older. One less person I don’t have to forget.”

“Was your mom expecting when she got married?”

Izzy stirred her drink.

“Sorry. I’ve picked up a bad habit of nosing where I shouldn’t be.”

“She was an orphan.”

“I see,” Eddie said, and nodded, as though her mother being an orphan explained
how it was her daughter had ended up selling herself.

“Mom’s father died of a heart attack before she was born. Her mother when she
was five. Breast cancer. She and Aunt Mary and Uncle Ralph were raised by Aunt
Iris. My great-aunt.”

The musicians had come to the end of the first piece and were leafing through
their sheets of music, quietly debating among themselves what next to play. Izzy
slipped off her stool and crossed to the dais and said something to Debbie’s
nephew. He spoke to the others who again raised their instruments. The girl
returned to the bar.

“It’s an allegro,” Izzy said. “By Vivaldi.”

Eddie lowered his head. It sounded similar to church music only with more joy. He
told her it was very pretty.

“On the day I’m married, this will be my recessional.”

Izzy leaned back and rested both her elbows on the bar behind her so that she
faced the musicians. “On New Year’s Eve, when Iris was at her Saint Patrick’s
bingo extravaganza, Mom snuck out with her cronies and drove to a bar down in
Parkersburg. That’s where she met my dad.”

“Short courtship?”

“Goodness no. Mom’s not cheap. They dated for more than a month. Got married
on Valentine’s Day.”

“Love at first sight?”

Izzy shook her head. “Mom wanted to get away from Iris is all, and she met a
man horned up enough to take her on, warts and all. When I came along, she
was a year younger than I am now. After she dumped him and came home, she
dumped me on Iris. Moved up to Columbus, and from what Iris told me it was
party central.”

“How old was you when she remarried?”

“Almost six.”

“You go to live with them?”

“Yeah. Didn’t want to.”

“I can see why not,” Eddie said.

“She scared me. Before Mom remarried, on the days she could recover from her
hangover and bother herself to drive down, she had a temper that was all match
and no fuse. Sometimes I hid out under the porch until she left.”

Since Eddie had come in, the wind had steadily picked up, and now it whistled
through the cracks that fissured the adobe, swinging the lanterns. The candle
flame in the lamp above them flickered as it healed in a circle around the glass.

“She only got worse,” the girl said.

The orchestra came to the end of the music that some day would usher Izzy into her
new life. The musicians turned the pages.

“After I flunked sophomore chemistry this spring, she told me to get the fuck out of
her house. Her exact words.”

She laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“Not only did I get the fuck out of her house, I got out of her house fucking.”

Izzy rolled up her right sleeve. “Let me show you. Better than any Reno-Front-Street-
tattoo.”

She shifted around on the stool and held out her arm so that the light illuminating the
Pleasure Menu shone upon it. Below the shoulder, her arm concaved in, a third of the
deltoid muscle carved away, the skin wrinkled and discolored to a deep purple, like an
eggplant someone had set in the oven to bake and forgotten.

Eddie started to reach out to touch her shoulder, but stopped. He emptied his beer.

When the barman brought him another, Eddie asked for a shooter of Old Granddad.

“I ain’t even gonna ask how you managed that one.”

The barman brought the shooter. Eddie downed it before the barman could leave and
handed back the glass and asked him to bring another.

“I was sitting at the kitchen table, working on a sketch of Aunt Iris for art class. Mom
was at the stove, frying cod and drinking wine. Too much wine. Maybe her third or
fourth glass. Like always, mad as hell about something, muttering goddamnit this and
fuck that.”

Izzy raised her glass as if to drink, but set it back on the bar. “Mom lifted the skillet,
like she was going to drain the grease in the sink, holding it on her side between us.

As she passed, I twisted my drawing around to show her, but she was already staring
at it, her hand holding the skillet handle quivering, the grease in the pan swishing
around the rim.

“She tipped the skillet, and the grease splattered over my shoulder. Cooked it like one
more piece of cod. When she ripped off my sweater, she took with it every stitch of
skin right down to the elbow. I must have passed out because the next thing I
remember is waking up in intensive care.”

The barman brought his shooter. Eddied took the drink and downed it, nodding as he
handed back the glass.

“After the social worker allowed me to go home, I had to bathe my arm three and four
times a day because of the puzzy seepage. The odor reminded me of dead fish with
their plucked out eyes that wash up on the beach that I could smell before I saw
them. That was me. You could smell me before you saw me. Know exactly what room
I was in before you came in. Or didn’t come in.

“In the summer, a quack surgeon Mom found in Columbus did the skin grafts. I read
in the paper a while ago he lost his license for over-billing insurance companies and
kicking back half to the patients.”

Izzy fingered the stubble on her shoulder, the hair as thick and fine as that on a
shaved cat. “He took the grafts from my lower abdomen. I hadn’t yet reached
puberty, and in a year or so when I did, not only did I have an ugly scar, but surprise!
I had an ugly scar that grew pussy hair. One I get to shave once a week just like I do
my legs.”

She pulled down her sleeve and smoothed out the material. “She missed my face only
because she was drunk. If she hadn’t, I’d be a star attraction with Barnum & Bailey
rather than in a whorehouse. Come see the girl who grows cunt hair on her face.

“When she told me to get out, I went to Iris. She bought me ‘Hector,’ that yellow
Plymouth parked in back. The next week I headed for California. Got as far as Battle
Mountain before my money ran out.”

She twisted around on the stool, her eyes sweeping over the bar. “I couldn’t have
ended up in a nicer place. I like the guys that come in. Got some regulars going now.”

Eddie emptied the shot glass the barman had set before him. He washed it down with
a good portion of the fishbowl. “Guess you’re glad to be clear of her.”

The girl shook her head. “There’s a dream I started having not long after I got here. I’
ll be driving Hector car west on I-80. My back seat stacked high and my trunk filled full
with everything I own. The sun is shining and a cloudless sky gleams turquoise blue.

The wind is blowing through the rolled-down window and whips my hair so that it
flows out like the tail of a mare at full gallop, and when me and Hector cross the state
line into Indiana, I let go with my best, cheerleader-touchdown whoop.

“As we cross the country, oceans of corn surround us, and I’m the intrepid voyager,
an Ishmael of the Mid-west, finally set free on my life’s journey. I sing along to every
song that plays on the radio, even the country western tunes when I have trouble
picking up rock stations west of the Mississippi, and I sing these all the louder
because Mom hated them so much, and for the first time in a long while I am happy.

“When we climb into the Rockies, Hector struggles up the steep grades. I keep
watching his engine temperature, and as the needle gets close to the red “H” I drop
our speed, sometimes down to 20 miles an hour. Steam smokes out of the radiator. I
hold my breath and ask God to please see us through to California. Please. If He will, I
would never ask for anything more. Oh, please, please, please.

“I pray and pray and pray until a sign tells me that we have crested the Continental
Divide. As Hector and me start our decent to the Pacific, the temperature gauge
drops. I begin to sing California Here We Come, repeating the verses over and over
until in the mirror I see my mother in the back seat, holding up a bottle of Drano, my
possessions strewn across the Interstate behind us.

“She scolds me not to be a nitwit. To watch the road. I do. In the mirror I am
watching her too. As she twists off the bottle cap, my fingers feel glued to the
steering wheel, and I want with all my heart to let go. Bottle in hand, she reaches
over the seat, smiling, her gleaming white teeth pointed, sharp as a she wolf’s, and
pours the Drano over my head, like a priest blessing me into a new life might
administer a baptismal, burning into my scalp, eating away my skin, blinding my eyes.

I finally let go the steering wheel and reach up and my hair comes out in handfuls.
Hector careens off the road and crashes through the guardrail. As we’re falling, my
mother leans over the seat and whispers in my ear, asking me if I really believed
escaping her would be all that easy. Asking me why I was so silly to believe it even
possible.”

Izzy emptied her glass. She raised it to the barman, but his back was to her, pouring
a drink for the fat man who had left the tarot cards and now stood at the far end of
the counter. When he saw the girl, he puckered his thick lips at her. She shrugged.

She lowered her glass to the bar and turned to Eddie, who sat staring into his cupped
hands. Izzy reached over and took his left into both of hers. She rubbed a thumb
over his ring finger. “You’re not married, sweetie?”

Eddie didn’t answer.

“Divorced?”

When he still did not answer, Izzy reached up and jostled his shoulder. “Hey, anybody
home?”

Eddie shook his head.

“I hope you’re not queer. One wonders in every now and again. Why I don’t know.”
She squinted at him with one eye. “You don’t look like a pillow biter.”

Eddie lifted his fishbowl. “No. Not yet, leastwise.”

She ran her fingertips through his hair above his ear. “Good looking guy like you
never been married?”

“Yeah. I was.”

“Long ago?”

“Long enough.”

Izzy raised her glass to the barman again who this time saw her. They sat. When the
orchestra began an adagio, Izzy asked if he cared to slow dance, and Eddie told her
about his gimpy leg.

“You sure you just don’t know how? I can teach you.”

Eddie lifted his boot and rested its heel on his knee. He loosened the laces and pulled
his foot part way out and rolled down his sock. She bent forward and ran her finger
from the outside ball of his anklebone to the inside ball along the jagged scar that
sliced his Achilles tendon.

“Nice,” she said.

“Not as nice as yours.”

“At least I can dance. Girl who can’t dance doesn’t stand a chance in her life.”

“Her life,” Eddie repeated.

“What about it?”

He looked at the girl’s neck. Her breasts. Her eyes. “You know what a Y-scar is?”
“It’s what you get when you’ve been autopsied.”

Eddie pulled his sock up. As he re-laced his boot, a kid came in, his black Stetson
cocked back a little, grinning crookedly as though to the punch line of a randy joke he
didn’t quite get. When he spotted the two women who had been eyeing Eddie, he
walked over to their table and said something. He waved to the barman and made a
circling motion around the table with his finger, and told the barman to bring him a
Coors.

The bar had been filling, and a girl who didn’t look old enough to drive was waiting the
tables. After the barman poured the drinks the kid had ordered, he placed them on a
tray and pushed it toward the girl, who carried the tray over to the table. As she bent
to serve the drinks, the girl knocked over the kid’s beer. The kid grinned all the more
and said something. The women laughed, and the girl hurried back to the bar.

“What is it, Sylvia?” the bartender said.

The girl’s eyes were wet. “He said my tits were too big.”

“He said what?”

“That hick sonofabitch said the reason I knocked over his stupid beer was on account
of my tits being too big.”

The barman tried not to smile. He walked to the end of the bar. He seemed to be
studying the tall jar holding the rattlesnake. When he came back, the barman told
Sylvia to see if any of the girls needed help getting dressed. “I can handle the tables
for a while until you collect yourself.”

“All right.”

“Don’t be too long.”

After the girl left, Izzy said that Sylvia had just gotten into town. “Hitchhiked in from
Montana. Sheep ranch twenty miles outside of Billings. Been here not quite a week.

Hasn’t got used to the guys having their fun. Teasing her and such.”

“Who’s the cowboy?”

Izzy looked over at the table. “Oh, that’s Hanky.”

“Hanky?”

“My Sunday sweetie.”

Eddie grinned. “You got one for every day of the week?”

“Not yet. He’s one of my regulars, though. Comes in to see me after his wife’s gone
off to prayer meeting.”

“Kindly taking his life into his own hands, ain’t he?”

Izzy shook her head. “Closest Baptist church holding Sunday evening services is the
one way over in Reno. Be close to midnight before she’s home. Later, if she stops to
play the slots. It’s early, and he’s a bit quick on the draw so he’ll be home and tucked
in long before she’s back.”

“I thought maybe he was interested in one of them two at the table,” Eddie said.

“No, he’s just flirting with Delores and Sweet Sally, trying to get me jealous, see if I’ll
give him a Sunday special. He’ll be over directly.”

The orchestra began again.

“Bach,” Izzy said, and smiled. Joy.

They listened. When the barman came by, he picked up her empty glass, leaving
behind on the wood a circle of damp breath. She watched as it waned inward from the
edges until it disappeared altogether. “You know, sweetie, you’re not going to find
her in here.”

Eddie fingered the threads fraying from a sleeve of the shirt she had bought for him
on his last birthday, his and her interlinked initials sewn into the cuffs.

“You don’t seem like the type to even try to.”

“Didn’t know where I was until I came in.”

Izzy grinned. “I’ll bet you stopped at the Shell station.”

“How’d you know?”

“Sanderson’s brats are always sending some unsuspecting soul this way. They must
have got wind about Debbie’s thing for preachers because a month back they sent
one over, him wearing a white collar. He and his wife and a half dozen, snot-nosed-
bastard brats. The oldest even pinched my butt while Debbie was trying to talk his
parents into a threesome.”

The musicians played. As the bar filled with men, women came in by the back door.
Some wore little more than fancy underwear beneath see-throughs. Others could
have been Cinderella stopping by on her way to the ball. One woman wore a black
satin blouse and a tight, blue leather skirt with a whip looped around her belt and
boots that reached halfway up her thighs. There was no formality about them, and
they and the men seemed as well acquainted as Elks at a lodge meeting.

The bartender came up to Izzy. “I hate to ask you this, darlin’, but you being the
newbie and all.”

“That’s ok.”

“We’ve gotten too busy for me both to be waiting tables and working the bar.”

Izzy got down from the stool.

“It’ll just be for another minute ‘til Sylvia collects herself.” He looked at Eddie. “Let me
get you another on the house until she comes back on.”

Eddie raised his hand.

Izzy smiled. “I think my friend might be finished for the night.”

Eddie nodded. He reached for his wallet and lay a ten-dollar bill on top of the change
pile and twisted his stool around toward the door. As he started to rise, Izzy placed
two fingers on the inside of his wrist. “Thank you for not asking me why I became a
whore.” Her eyes swept the room. “For some men, my loving isn’t enough. They have
to have my soul too.”

He took her fingers from his wrist, and holding both her hands in his looked into the
girl’s eyes where he saw his reflected self dropping down a well with no bottom to it.

“Didn’t see the need.”

He gave her hands a squeeze. “You take care, sweetie.”

“You too.”

Eddie started for the door. He stopped and turned back. “I hope you get what you’re
after. Whatever it is.”

Izzy looked over to the table where the kid still stood. She looked at Eddie. “When
you get back, go see my mom. Let her know where I ended up. Maybe then I’ll be
ready to move on.” She gave him a wink. “And you never know who it might be with.”

Eddie smiled. “Couldn’t get that lucky.”

“You better sleep off the beers and shots in your truck before you head out. I’d let
you use my trailer out back, but you know . . . .”

“Gotta take care of business.”

“Girl’s got to pay the rent.”

Eddie raised his hand and turned and limped out into the night. Izzy went to where
the bartender had a tray waiting. “Got away from you, did he?” the bartender said.

“Had me confused with somebody else.”

* * *

When Eddie woke in the early morning dark, he pushed himself up from the truck seat
and looked out his windshield. Dust clouds boiling off the desert rolled across the
parking lot, distorting the air so that the world looked as though he were seeing it
through the bottom of a beer glass. A black-clothed woman may have gone out the
back door and into a trailer. He lay back down. When Eddie woke again, he was
shivering from the cold and his mouth tasted of barf. He slowly sat up and looked at
his watch.

“Ought to be a place opening up soon where I can get some breakfast.”

He started up the truck and followed the drive out to the road and stopped. From the
glove box he took a roadmap. He reached up and switched on the dome light and
unfolded the map and studied it. “Maybe I should stick to the back roads and stay out
of the fast lane.”

Eddie put his truck in gear and turned the other way from the Interstate. He drove
for about an hour until he pulled off the road and limped out into the desert.

When he came back to his truck, he walked up to the fender by the front tire. He
listened. No coming traffic. Nothing, not even a bird cackle. He unzipped, and when he
finished urinating he wiped his hands on the thighs of his jeans and climbed back into
the truck and continued on up U.S. 95.

 

 

Scott Kauffman graduated summa cum laude from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and in the upper ten percent of his class from the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, where he was a member of the Environmental Law Review. Following graduation, Scott tried dozens of criminal cases, first as an assistant state prosecutor and then as an assistant public defender in a rural Ohio community. His first novel, In Deepest Consequences, was published by Medallion Press in 2006. Scott resides in Newport Beach, California where he maintains an active law practice. He is currently at work on a second novel and a collection of short stories. When not working or writing, Scott gardens, reads, and listens to baroque music.

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