She had stopped to gas up in Winnemucca, stretch her legs, and take a pull or two on a one-armed bandit. She didn’t play the slots because she was a gambler – she preferred to think of herself as a late-season adventurer – but because she liked watching the cherries, oranges, lemons and lucky sevens spin behind the little windows, and the way the three whirling wheels would, without warning, without decelerating, each come to it’s own certain, sudden halt: thunk, thunk, thunk. Expected, yet random, independent. She had no fantasies of jackpots, or of coins spilling out of the bandit’s mouth like so much glittering, jingling vomit. She would spend five dollars, then, unlike the other little old ladies glued to their stools in the big casinos, get up, walk away, get back in her little camper and drive east to Moab and the Canyonlands, then on to Aspen or Telluride for a music festival; or north, up to Sun Valley, Stanley, the Bitterroots, Flathead Lake and ultimately Many Glacier Hotel, where the servers sang to the guests as they dined on pan fried trout and drank Grey Riesling. But she had never turned south. Not until that day in Winnemucca.
A warm breeze blew wisps of dyed golden hair into the space between her eyes and her glasses as she walked through the gas pumps and across the pavement to the ramshackle garage and mini-mart, where there would be two slot machines next to the magazine rack. She had crossed Nevada every year since losing her husband –how many years? When did I buy the camper? She knew better than to expect progress, improvements: potholes repaired, boarded buildings torn down, replaced with glass, concrete, green grass and fountains – signs of life and renewal. Aside from the freeway bypass, Winnemucca appeared to be fixed in time, petrified by the dry desert wind, a terminus for tumbleweeds, a morgue for memories awaiting a proper burial.
She shuddered briefly; suddenly chill in the desiccated desert air. She took off her glasses, brushed her hair out of her face and held it against her ear, replaced her glasses and continued, head bowed low out of the wind, eyes on the dry, cracked pavement. The setting sun threw violet shadows from the pebbles and rocks, and she thought that they looked like an inverted meteor shower, each dark stone with a violet tail streaking across a white sky. She stopped and studied the pavement at her feet, then followed her own long shadow stretching to a whitewashed wall, where it broke at her waist and stared back at her, one hand holding her hair to her head and the other wrapped around the Peruvian haversack that hung against her hip. For a moment she thought the shadow couldn’t possibly be hers; in place of the tall, shoulders-back and chin-up woman she knew herself to be stood a stooped, hunched over figure: the epitome of a little old lady. So she threw her shoulders back, thrust her chest forward, opened the door of the mini-mart with a loud “bong” and made a beeline for the slots.
Behind the counter, a tattooed, skeletal old man with a slick, greasy pile of gun-metal grey hair sat on a stool, an unlit cigarette in his mouth and a magazine spread out before him. He did not look up as she passed, but she knew he was the same guy that had been behind the counter when she first stopped at Jimbo’s Gas & Service in 1970, on her way from college in Boulder to home in San Francisco. Over the course of the next 40 years she had stopped at Jimbo’s more times than she could remember, and the skinny guy had always been behind the counter in the same stained red vest with cigarette and magazine. If they had ever made eye contact, she couldn’t remember it. She wasn’t entirely certain that she had ever bought anything in the mini-mart; not cigarettes, not beer, not soda, not candy, not a Slim Jim or a package of Twinkies. The smell of the place–oil, grease, stale tobacco and the perfumed Vitalis he used to slick his hair back–had only become more pungent as the years passed, and, judging by the stature of the cashier, was a powerful appetite suppressant. As far as she was concerned, she was of a different species than the man behind the counter. She was always passing through, passing him by, leaving him in his red vest behind the counter with his magazine while she roamed the highways, living the scenes he might have been reading about.
She dumped five bucks in quarters in a half hour, pausing once to use the restroom. Every few pulls the machine would spit out a couple of quarters, but she dutifully plugged them back in until they were all gone. Game over, she rose to leave.
“Excuse me, Grace,” said the voice behind the counter. She had noticed him watching while she played. In the polished chrome of the slot machine she saw him raise his eyes from the magazine without moving his head. “I’m wonderin’ if you might be able to do me a favor.”
She jerked her head up, feeling violated, exposed and suddenly very vulnerable. “How do you know my name?”
He grinned and pointed at the woven croaky attached to her glasses: a green and yellow monogrammed lanyard she had bought from a Huichol child in Sayulita, where she and her husband vacationed almost yearly when their kids were little. She swooned. How stupid! How careless!
He wanted to tell her that, truthfully, he had known her name from the very first time she had stopped at Jimbo’s Gas & Service back in 1970. He wanted to tell her how her name reminded him of Grace Slick and “White Rabbit,” his platoon leader’s anthem on his first tour of Southeast Asia in 1967. One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small… But if her name reminded him of Grace Slick, her looks reminded him more of Joni Mitchell, perhaps crossed with Joan Baez. A bleached-out squaw with flowers in her hair.
But he kept those thoughts to himself. “Anyways, I was wonderin’ which way you was headed this evening.”
“Excuse me?” she said.
“I could use a lift,” he said. With a jerk of his arm, he was suddenly rolling around the side of the counter in a battery-powered wheelchair. Grace tried to keep her jaw from dropping. All these years, and she had never noticed that the man behind the counter at Jimbo’s Gas and Service was disabled.
“A lift? Why are you asking me?” Grace asked. “Can’t your partner, the mechanic that’s making all that racket in the garage, give you a lift?” She wanted to add, besides, do I really look like the type that would invite a greasy gas station attendant into her car?
“Well, I…” the cashier began. Then a voice boomed from the garage.
“Forget it, Ray. I told you she wouldn’t do it. I think you’re gonna have to ask one of the local gals.”
Grace cocked an eye toward the garage. “That must be Jimbo,” she observed. “And you must be Ray.”
“Yes ma’am. Now, about that ride…”
“You could always try Uber,” the mechanic shouted from the garage.
“Right, Jimmy. As if I can afford to pay for an eight-hour taxi ride,” Ray shouted back.
“Where are you going?” Grace asked automatically.
“Down south, to Mesquite on the Arizona border.”
“Ah, well, I’m going north. Sorry I can’t help you,” Grace said, feeling relieved that there was a reason besides her own snap judgment for not giving him a ride.
She turned to leave, suddenly smothered with fear. She had travelled the west for decades, the last ten years on her own, and had never felt so defenseless. Blood rushed to her face as she pushed through the door and out into the fading desert dusk, heat radiating up from the pavement through her sandals and under her long skirts. She took long strides, interrupted by short skips as if she might break into a dead run. She leapt into the camper’s cab, and slammed the door on the hem of her skirts. Hurriedly she pulled her skirts into the cab, shut the door, then began frantically searching her haversack for her keys. When she didn’t find them instantly, she dumped the contents of her bag onto the passenger seat: a bone-handled hairbrush in need of cleaning, a makeup compact, a squeeze bottle of hand lotion and another of disinfectant, a tattered wallet of the same Peruvian design as her woven haversack, sunglasses, dog-eared, pocket-sized copies of Wherever You Go, There You Are and the meditations of Tchit Nhat Hanh, several packets of Kleenex, a tin of colored pencils, a worn leather-bound diary, and her phone. But no keys. She wracked her brain. Did I leave my bag on the floor when I went to the rest room? She closed her eyes, cradled her forehead in both hands and gently tapped it on the top of the steering wheel, muttering, “Think, Grace. Think!”
The passenger door suddenly swung open. Ray, the cashier, was trying to lift his bony frame into the seat, one matchstick arm pushing against a metal crutch while the other crutch swung free from the circular brace on his forearm, clattering against the door frame. She wanted to scream, but instead of pushing the crippled man out the door back into his wheelchair she jumped out of the cab, thinking she should call for help but unable to summon her voice from her pounding chest.
Before he was fully situated on the seat, Ray reached into the pocket of his red vest, pulled out a small revolver and pointed it at her, his crutch jutting awkwardly against his side.
“I tried asking nicely. Now, if you just cooperate nobody’ll get hurt,” he said softly, his tenor almost boyish. She stood frozen, one hand on the driver’s side door handle, staring into the muzzle of the handgun. She could not remember having ever seen a real handgun, aside from those that hung from the belts of policeman. She didn’t think she had never seen one out of its holster, and knew that she had never seen one pointed at her.
“You forgot something,” Ray said, reaching into his other vest pocket and brandishing her keys. She looked at the keys, then back to the muzzle of the revolver still pointed at her. “Okay, don’t worry, Grace. I don’t plan on shooting you. Just get in and drive. Once we’re clear of town I’ll explain.”
The roar of a diesel big rig on interstate 80 overhead rattled the fluorescent lights in the rain canopy above the pumps, and it made her want to run. The station was surrounded by inky darkness now, save for the illuminated entrance ramp to I-80 East. Even the hulking shapes of the treeless mountains were hard to distinguish from the sky. Where would I run to? Just out there, into the sagebrush? Then she remembered Jimmy, the mechanic. He wasn’t crippled. She searched the windows of the mini-mart, through the doorway into the garage, but there was no sign of him.
“C’mon,” Ray said. “I need your help.” She studied his skeletal face in the fluorescent lights: the deep, cavernous eye sockets under the thick overhang of his bushy brow, the high, severe cheekbones and jutting, angular jaw, the deep cleft in his chin, the wattle below.
“What do you want?” she finally managed to ask. “Money? You can have it.”
“Just get in,” he sighed, waving the pistol at her. “I told you, I’ll explain everything once we get going.”
“What? I don’t get it,” she said, a little of her missing confidence creeping into her voice.
“Goddamnit Grace don’t make me use this thing!” Ray suddenly screamed, straightening his arm and aiming the revolver.
She wanted to scream, again. Perhaps if she ran to the I-80 onramp and onto the freeway she could flag somebody down. But she didn’t listen to her flight instincts–she would be so easy to pick off if she ran for the onramp–and instead gathered up her skirts, climbed into the driver’s seat, shut the door behind her and held out her hand for her keys.
“Okay, Ray,” she said, the sound of her own voice suddenly unfamiliar– so cool, relaxed, and resigned–in the silent cab. “Which way to Mesquite?”
Ray kept the revolver pointed at her until they had left the lights of Winnemucca and were headed east on the open road. Then he reached into the console, picked up her phone, and put both the gun and the phone in the glove compartment. “There,” Ray said, snapping it shut. “Feel better?” She thought she could see his lips pulled back into a wide grin, stained teeth reflecting the blue of the dashboard lights. But she couldn’t look directly at him, so she let him sit silently in his stained red vest, his aluminum crutches on either side of him, his black trousers riding up just far enough for her to see the prosthetic legs jutting from the attached black Rockports.
Now that the gun wasn’t pointed at her forehead, Grace’s breathing began to return to normal. She wondered if she could pull over, dive out of the camper and run out of range before he could get the gun, get his crutches situated and take aim. She hadn’t attempted to run in years, and never in her long hippie skirts.
“I know what you’re thinking, Grace.” Ray finally said after another half-hour of tense silence.
“Stop calling me Grace!” she blurted, without intending to. Ray cocked an eyebrow and studied her fraught expression in the dashboard light. Earlier, when he saw her get out of her camper, he thought it wasn’t her, so much work had been done to nip and tuck the years from her face. But once she was inside the mini-mart it was obvious: her skin had the look of canvas on stretcher bars; taught, perhaps, but also strained, pulled, yanked and shaped into a mask that wasn’t meant to be. Now, in the driver’s seat, her face seemed even more of a mask than it was before.
“That’s your name, isn’t it?” he said, feeling suddenly sheepish.
“Yes, but you have no right to call me by my name!”
“Well, for chrissakes, Grace. We’ve known each other for over 40 years. Hell if you can’t call somebody by their first name after 40 years, what the hell do you call them?”
Grace let up on the gas, then slowly turned to face her passenger. “What are you talking about?” she asked, looking him over from head to foot before turning her attention back to the highway.
“Oh Grace, just ‘cuz you’ve had a little work done doesn’t mean I don’t recognize you. Jesus. When was the first time you stopped at our station? 1970?” Ray stopped and looked out the passenger window at the boulders and sagebrush flying by in the headlights. “Yep, musta been. That was the year you started college in Boulder, ain’t that right?”
Grace shrunk into herself, folding years over years and tucking them into the darkest recesses of her being. She felt so exposed, as if she had been under government surveillance. How long has he been tracking me? 40 years?
“Yep, I’m pretty certain. August, 1970. You were headed for college, and your little brother was along for the ride.”
She remembered, but she didn’t want to. If her little brother hadn’t been along for the ride, she might have forgot about that first visit, back when I-80 was just a two-lane blacktop through Winnemucca, and Jimbo’s Gas and Service was right on the road, shiny and new. She remembered her brother walking up to the slots like he owned the place, even though he was only 17, and she remembered young Ray, a slicked up greaser behind the counter, just leaving the two underage gamblers be, periodically glancing up from his magazine, a cigarette burning between his lips, just the slightest hint of a smile over the deep cleft in his chin.
“I can picture it like it was yesterday,” Ray continued, still watching the roadside shadows fly by. She saw his reflection in the passenger window as he spoke, his voice just as soft and melodic as Jim Nabors on Gomer Pyle, without the trademark Alabama twang. For some reason she hadn’t noticed his glasses, which were thick on the sides like the glasses geriatrics wear, and his eyes were now rheumy and full, as if he was about to cry.
“You and your little brother were one damn good lookin’ pair o’ hippies. Hell, I think you might’ve even had a flower in your hair. Or maybe he did. Ha Ha!”
When he laughed she thought she might drive off the road. His laugh was almost identical to her late husband’s: a shrill hyena-like yip-yip-yip that had in turn made her laugh, which then made him laugh even harder until the two of them were in tears.
But she didn’t want to think about any of this. Not about her late husband, or her late brothers, or all the times she had stopped to gas up and play the slots at Jimbo’s Gas and Service in Winnemucca. “What’s in Mesquite, Ray?”
“We’re going to pay my old mama a little visit,” Ray said.
She wanted to say What? You kidnapped me at gunpoint so I could give you a lift to your mother’s house for a little visit? But to repeat what was so obviously ludicrous would have only made her feel more foolish about her role in this strange high desert drama. This is ridiculous.
“I know what you’re thinkin’, Grace.” He stopped himself. “Uh, is it okay if I call you that? Would you prefer Mrs. Aldrich? Or how about just ‘ma’am’. Or ‘senora.’ That’s popular around these parts.”
Finally, she had to chuckle, partially at the pure absurdity of the situation, and partially at the incongruity of the two of them side by side: the flower child and the grease monkey, escaped from the rest home. “Oh for God’s sake. Call me whatever you like…Ray.” She said his name like she was introducing him on the Johnny Carson show, as in “heeeerrre’s RrrrrrrAY!” Then they both started laughing, his “yip-yipping” making her laugh all the harder. Then Ray started to cough, and cough, and cough until his glasses fell to his lap and his face turned blue. Without hesitation, Grace slowed, then pulled onto the gravel shoulder and started pounding him on the back of his red vest with the fist of her right hand. On and on he coughed, until, after fishing a greasy rag from his back pocket, he hocked up a glob of sticky blood. Or at least it smelled like blood to Grace, who wasn’t about to investigate the contents of the rag.
“Okay, okay. It’s over,” Ray gasped after several minutes. “Let’s go.” Then, doubling over, he let out a long low moan that sounded like the final blast of a foghorn going out of commission. Grace shut her eyes, briefly, and wished she was back at her little home on the Pacific, where she often fell asleep to the drone of foghorns.
When Ray let out another groan she snapped back to the present. “Seems to me we ought to get you to an emergency room, Ray,” she said, surrendering to her mothballed mothering abilities by rubbing her open palm in circles across the ridges of his heaving scapula. Once his breathing had settled, she put the camper in drive and pointed it east down the empty highway, still feeling like she was in the midst of making her biggest mistake ever, but no longer afraid for her life. Or at least not afraid of Ray.
She let him sit, doubled over and groaning so softly it was hard to distinguish him from the hum of the camper’s heavy duty tires on the roadway. Eventually he straightened up, took a deep breath, and said, “No emergency room. There’s nothing they can do for me there that they ain’t done already.”
She was glad that he didn’t want to go, for she had seen more than her fair share of emergency rooms in the years leading up to the death of her little brother, her mother, her father, and then her husband. She had spent the last ten years trying to erase those memories, trying to shut it all off and reinvent herself, trying to move on. She wasn’t about to hunker down at some assisted living facility with all her old friends, play bridge, date potbellied golfers and pine the lost men in her life. No way. As long as she had her driver’s license she was going to keep moving. Now, with Ray recalling each one of her visits to Jimbo’s Gas & Service, she was kicking herself. She should have known that stopping there was an invitation, though a very faint and distant invitation, to take a walk down memory lane. Instead, memory lane was now sitting in the passenger seat of her camper, dying, perhaps, and going to bid his mother adieu. His mother? She must be 110 years old if she’s a day.
“Okay. No emergency room. How are you feeling now?” The normal ashen color had returned to his face, and he was now tending to his Vitalis-soaked locks with a dirty pocket comb and the palm of his hand. Underneath his tired, tobacco drawn complexion she could see that he had probably been a very handsome man. A shrunken Gregory Peck, almost.
“Mesquite is on I-15. You familiar with that stretch of road?” Ray asked.
“No. Your mother lives in Mesquite, I take it?” Grace asked.
“Sort of near there. Last I checked,” Ray replied.
Oh great, thought Grace. He doesn’t even know if she’s still alive, most likely. If there even is a mother. She glanced sidelong at his profile, an unlit cigarette now dangling between his lips, and felt a chill so strong that she began to shiver.
“You cold?” Ray asked, reaching for the temperature controls on the dash.
“No, no, it’s not that,” Grace whispered through chattering teeth. “I need to know what this is all about. I need to know why you need me, Grace, to drive you to your mother’s place. Why not Jimmy?”
Ray let out a long, wheezing sigh, then took the cigarette from his mouth and put it into his vest pocket. “You’ll see why,” he said. “Jimmy’s part of the reason I got to see my mama one last time. You’ll see.”
“Tell me, Ray, goddamnit!” Grace shouted, trying to shock herself out of her nightmarish shivers. “If you don’t tell me right now, I’m going to pull over, drag you out of that seat and into a ditch, so help me…” she stopped herself. She had almost said, “so help me, God,” but, like her past, summoning divine help was over and done with.
“Jeez, Grace! Stop worryin’ and calm down, fer chrissakes! I told you I ain’t gonna hurt you and I ain’t!”
Grace shook her head so hard her long faux-golden locks whipped across her face. “No, no, no!” she cried. “This isn’t making any sense! You’re not robbing me, your not kidnapping me, your not murdering me and I strongly doubt that you intend to rape me…so, what exactly are you doing besides wasting my time? What, exactly, do you want me to do, besides drive you to your supposed mother’s place?”
Before Ray could answer a jackrabbit darted out from the median and made a suicide run for the camper’s front tires. Grace took her sandaled foot off the gas and rested it tentatively on the brake, hoping the rabbit would stop, consider, then rush back to the median. Instead, the rabbit stopped and froze in her headlights. Grace softly hit the brake and swerved, throwing most of the contents of the cab besides herself onto Ray, who was now pasted to the passenger door, his glasses thrown to the floor. They both felt the truck go up on its right wheels and heard the plastic dishes and cups flying out of their cupboards back in the kitchen, and the loud thudding of bigger items shifting to and fro, then the cacophonous crash of Grace’s guitar. Ray braced himself as best he could, grabbing onto his crutch handles and pressing the rubber tips against the floorboards with all his strength, fully expecting to feel the truck go all the way over and the fiery sting of the pavement scraping the flesh off of his back. But instead of rolling all the way over to its side, the truck came back down on all four wheels with a short screech, and everything in the back sounded like it went back to where it was before.
Slowly, Grace steered onto the gravel shoulder, feeling as if she might break down in tears or throw up, or both. Once stopped, she shut off the engine and, for a moment, rested her forehead on the steering wheel. Ray stared forward to where the headlights faded into darkness, his jaw muscles flexing as he clenched his teeth in anger and disgust. He wanted to shout You stupid, ignorant bitch! What the hell was that all about? Ain’t you seen all the roadkill in these parts? Hell, if everybody around here tried to avoid hittin’ jackrabbits there’d be cars and trucks piled up on the roadside full of dead bodies!
But, even though he knew it was the truth, he didn’t say it. He shook his head, suddenly full of contempt for the stupid West Coast hippie, this mystery traveler that he had become so foolishly enamored with, that would risk their lives to save a fucking jackrabbit. You just don’t do that out here, he thought. But as bitter as his words were, he swallowed them whole. She still didn’t know what she was in for, and if he lost his temper it would just screw things up. “Well,” he finally said, “that was exciting.”
After what felt like hours but was really only minutes, she reached in her haversack for a little packet of Kleenex, blew her nose, and, her voice cracking, said “I’m sorry.”
“Aww, it’s okay…” he began.
“No, no it’s not. I overreacted. It’s just hard for me to…” she trailed off, looking out the driver’s side window across the darkened flats to the where the hulking desert mountains met the stars, hoping the jackrabbit was hopping home.
“I know, Grace. Nobody wants to run over some poor critter just ‘cuz they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He wanted to continue, to say it just comes with the territory out here… But again, he held his tongue. She didn’t need a lecture.
“You know, when you get tired we can pull off just about anywhere and hunker down ‘til morning. How’s that sound?”
She lifted her forehead from the steering wheel and turned to face him, feeling the same sense of vertigo she felt when her camper was up on two wheels going 80.
“Hunker down?” she asked, probably reading more into what Ray had proposed than was actually there. “Oh no. No, Ray. There won’t be any hunkerin’ down ‘til I get rid of you once and for all. How much longer to Mesquite?”
Ray chuckled, “Oh, prolly another five, six hours or so.”
“Fine. No problem. I’ll just drop you at your Mom’s place and be on my way.”
Ray paused, wondering if he should let her in on his grand design. It wasn’t going to work if they arrived at three a.m., or at least it wasn’t going to work like he had hoped. But by the time they got to Austin, Grace could barely keep her eyes open. After Ray had poked her several times to keep her from nodding off, he couldn’t keep his eyes open either. So just a few miles outside of town they pulled onto a one-lane dirt track until they found a turnout in the sagebrush littered with beer cans scattered around a big circular fire pit. There was even a stack of dry mesquite logs. Grace thought if she lit a fire in the pre-dawn light while Ray slept, the smoke might arouse the curiosity of local law enforcement. But now her 65 year-old body was begging for sleep.
She cut the engine and the headlights, then turned on the cab light. “I have an extra blanket in the back, but no pillow, I’m afraid,” she said, noticing that Ray had hiked his trousers above the knee and was unscrewing his prosthetics. He arranged the two fake legs on the floor of the passenger seat while Grace opened the driver’s side door, pulled her skirts around and slipped off the seat onto the ground. The dry desert cold permeated her thin sweater instantly, and she wished she hadn’t left her woolen mittens in the camper. She closed the door behind her, wrapped her arms over her chest and tucked her chin down into the folds of her neck, amazed at how the baked daytime air had given way to such a biting chill.
A minute later she was back with the blanket, a thick, wool Pendleton of Stewart plaid. With the cab light on, Ray laid across the bench seat, his vest folded under his head and the revolver between his body and the seatback. After adjusting the blanket, he reached up, flipped off the cab light and said, “Good night, Grace. Don’t try any funny stuff, please. Okay?”
Grace briefly surveyed the cab and the supine amputee, who fit comfortably across the seat, the blanket folded double over him. It had been ten years since a man had slept anywhere near her. I think Ray is the first man that’s ever been in my camper. “Okay,” she finally said. Then she climbed into the camper and up the ladder to the sleep compartment over the cab, laid down on the foam pad, pulled her down blanket over her still fully-clothed body and, even though she had been kidnapped at gunpoint by a crippled, geriatric gas station attendant, almost rolled her camper going 80 mph, and had no idea what her abductor had in mind - after all that, much to her own surprise, she was asleep before her head even hit the pillow.
"So, Ray, you don't have to answer this question if it makes you uncomfortable," Grace said after they were back on the road the next morning.
“I can’t think of anything you could ask me that would make me uncomfortable, Grace,” Ray said. The day was co clear and the sky such a deep, bottomless cobalt blue behind the tawny desert ridges that she thought one might have to try very hard to be uncomfortable.
“What happened to your legs?”
“What legs?” Ray replied without hesitation, as if his response to the question had been scripted long ago. “I misplaced them back in Khe Sahn and ain’t been able to find ‘em since.” The name of the infamous Vietnamese city almost knocked the wind out of her. It seemed like half of the guys she knew from the class of ‘68 had been lost in Khe Sahn.
“If it wasn’t for Jimmy the rest of me woulda been lost, too.”
Grace struggled for words. It had been a long time since any of her contemporaries had mentioned Khe Sahn or anything about Vietnam, except those that had recently traveled there. Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria, all just as senseless, had eclipsed her generation’s war. The Boomer’s war. The jungle war. Ray & Jimmy’s war. Her brother’s war. She felt herself slipping into the memories she had been trying to so hard to avoid; images of her older brother, lost in the battle of An Loc, and of her younger brother, lost in the detritus, the flotsam of her generation, the junk of the Haight. The memories made her squeamish, and she was more determined than ever not to go there.
“I’m sorry,” she said, then quickly added, “Hey, if you’ll hand me my phone we can listen to an audiobook, or some music if you prefer.” But now Ray was looking out the window, across one of the rare green pastures of the Great Basin, dotted with the sienna shapes of cattle grazing.
“You ever see that movie, Forrest Gump?” Ray asked without turning. “Sure you have. Everybody has. Well, you know how Forrest rescues Lieutenant Dan, even though the Lieutenant don’t want to be rescued? Well, that’s what Jimmy done for me, more or less.”
Grace recalled how Forrest and Lieutenant Dan went on to start their “s’rimpin’ bidness,” and realized that Ray and Jimmy had done the same thing with Jimbo’s Gas and Service, though without the fairy book results.
“I’ve always thought it was mighty nice of Mr. Spielberg to tell our story in that movie. Makes it so we don’t have to ‘splain so much of it ourselves,” Ray added with a slight chuckle. Then, without waiting for Grace to respond, he reached over, flipped on the radio, quickly dialed into a classic rock station, and closed his eyes. Within minutes he was wheezing like a blacksmith's bellows, his white whiskered chin resting on his chest, his glasses barely perched on the tip of his long, ossified nose and a couple of long greasy locks hanging like sticky soldering noodles over his fuzzy old man ears.
Grace nibbled on Lara Bars, drank Kombucha and drove east, past the green pastures into a moonscape of boulders strewn across white salt flats, void of greenery, that gradually sloped up into rocky mountainsides that might as well have been on Mars. She wondered if Ray and Jimmy had known each other in Winnemucca before getting drafted and shipped off to Nam, and if they actually lived together in town, or if Jimmy had family on the Shoshone reservation that he stayed with, leaving Ray to fend for himself in his perpetual immobility.
Turning south, Grace wondered about everything and anything that might block memories of her own past. She wondered how it was possible that Ray had a living mother, or father, when he must've been at least 68 or even 70. So she made the stereotypical assumption that ranching girls of the high deserts were often teenage mothers. What else was there do in such desolate country? Fucking, drinking, snorting meth, gambling, riding, shooting, pitching a bail of hay, sitting down to a Sunday supper of steak and potatoes, reading the Bible – Grace piled stereotype on stereotype to keep the noise of her own past at bay, until she found herself hoping that Ray would wake up soon and keep her company.
Then, with a start and almost in a panic, he did wake up. After frantically surveying the landscape as if he were still dreaming, he bent down, head in between his knobby knees, gripped his prosthetics and groaned.
“Hey,” Grace said, looking over at her hunched-over passenger, concerned that he might be preparing to throw up. “Are you okay? Are you gonna be sick? Should I pull over?”
“No, no, I’m fine. Just a bad dream.” He paused, looked around, and checked his watch. “The turnoff is gonna be just beyond that sign at the top of this hill.”
“The turnoff? I thought we had to hook up with I-15 to get to Mesquite.” Grace exclaimed, her heart suddenly jumping into her throat. She had almost forgotten that the scraggy bag of bones in the seat next to her had abducted her for a reason. She had almost forgotten that she had been abducted at all, and now wondered, what with all her opportunities to escape, why she had let it come this far.
“She lives on the outskirts,” Ray said, searching the landscape.
On the other side of the hill, nestled in a rocky draw around a spring-fed stream, stood a dozen doublewide trailers. Several scrawny cottonwoods and a few willows waving hysterically in the desert gale hugged the streambed and shaded the doublewides, which looked to have been settled there for a very long time.
Had Grace not been so anxious, she might have wondered why there were so many cars and trucks in the parking lot outside the gated entrance to the trailer park, since there were at least twice as many cars as there were trailers. She might have wondered what all the owners of the various cars and trucks, mostly trucks, were doing out here in the middle of nowhere on a Tuesday afternoon in a windstorm. And she might have noticed that some of the trailers had been divided up into two or three different units. Instead, she pulled onto the side of the gravel road about 500 yards from the colony, shut off the engine, then turned to Ray and said, “Well. Here we are! Now what?”
Ray, it appeared, was so lost in thought that he didn’t hear the question. He studied the cars and trucks in the parking lot, then, craning his neck, seemed to carefully assess each of the trailers one by one.
“You’d best drive on down and park next to them trucks down there. Folks are gonna get suspicious if we stay up here. They’ll think we’re casin’ the place. They’re probably already wonderin’ what an old…uh, I mean mature…woman is doin’ here. This place don’t cater to women.” Ray looked over at Grace, who, completely baffled, was staring down at the little trailer park colony as if it were a minefield. Ray chuckled. “It’s a brothel, Grace.”
“A brothel?” she asked, incredulous. “A whore house? But…”
“Yeah, we call them brothels. They’re legal in Nevada, in case you forgot.”
Grace had forgotten.
“My mama was the madam of the place for years, though I don’t know how much prostitutin’ she did herself. When she got too old to run the place, they just let her stay on. It’s the last place I saw my mama,” Ray said quietly as Grace put the camper in gear and rolled down the hill into the rocky parking lot. She pulled into a parking spot between two jacked-up desert trucks and cut the engine. “That was almost ten years ago,” Ray continued. “That’s when she told me she never wanted to see me no more.”
An involuntary sob leapt from Grace’s throat. Grace’s own children, now grown and with families of their own, had caused her no end of heartache and suffering, but she always took them back, even without apology, she took them back. What mother, even if she was a hooker, would turn her back on her child?
“She thinks that, since I ain’t never been married or had a regular girlfriend, I must be gay.” Ray said. “That’s why.”
“What? She’s disowned you because she thinks your gay? Oh for God’s sake! And in this day and age!” Grace shouted. Within seconds she was pacing the parking lot, her processed hair flying off her skull like a gas flare in an oil refinery.
Finally Ray rolled down the window and called out, “Grace, come on. Get back in. I promise that once we get cleaned up this won’t take but ten minutes. If mama’s still alive, that is. Even if she’s alive, it ain’t likely she’ll be all there. She wasn’t quite all there last time I saw her, and she wasn’t even 75 yet.”
Grace got in and shut the door. A couple of burly, swarthy middle-aged men with thick, black beards clattered through the gate, holding their cowboy hats onto their heads with both hands, and scraped through the parking lot to a shiny black Dodge Ram pickup, so new its plates had yet to arrive. Meanwhile another pickup came barreling over the ridge, wind scattering plumes of white dust against the cobalt sky.
“I shoulda explained all this sooner. But now we’re here, so let’s get it over with.”
“Get WHAT over with, Ray?” Grace cried. “What other jaw-dropping surprises do you have up your sleeve?”
“Nothin’. This is gonna be so easy, you’re gonna wish a dozen other guys like me would ask you to do the same thing. First, there’s this. Open your right hand. Like this.” Ray demonstrated with his open palm, Ray pulled his wallet from his jeans, opened it, and counted out ten 100 bills, laying each into Grace’s hand. “Okay, now the other hand,” he said without smiling. Once Grace’s hands were full with $2,000 in $100 bills, Ray said, “Now, when you go back to get cleaned up, put that in a secure spot. Like a safe, if you have one.”
Grace was speechless. She wanted to tell Ray that she didn’t need the money. Didn’t want the money. Or would rather invest it in some concentrated brainwashing for his bigoted mother. But Ray wasn’t about to be interrupted.
“Now, here’s the deal. As I said, my mother thinks me n’ Jimmy have been shackin’ up since high school, and after we both got drafted and shipped out in the same company, she was convinced. Then I get my legs shot off, and who comes to the rescue? Jimmy, of course.”
“Where’s your Dad in all this?” Grace blurted out.
Ray rolled his eyes and chuckled, then gestured to the trailer park colony. “Who knows? Some cowboy or miner that came through here in 1952 and knocked up a hooker. I ain’t never seen him, of course. Don’t even know his name.”
“And your mom kept the baby because…?” Grace asked.
“Because, because. I can’t tell you how many times she told me that wished she’d sold me to a traveling circus.”
Grace turned her head and brushed away a tear. Had Ray told her his story back at Jimbo’s Gas & Service, he wouldn’t have needed a gun to get her to taxi him just about anywhere her little camper could take them. That’s what the Dalai Lama would have me do.
“Well?” she interjected before he could get started again, raising both her eyebrows, smiling somewhat mischievously, “Are you, or aren’t you?”
Ray was tempted to say, “I guess you’ll have to ask my hairdresser, because only my hairdresser knows for sure.” He knew Grace would get the joke, being the perfect age to remember the famous Clairol hair color commercials. He didn’t say it, but he began to chuckle anyway.
“What’s so funny?” Grace asked, chucking him in the shoulder. Then he began to shake with laughter, and, as before, his high-pitched “yip, yip, yips” got Grace going, and soon they were both in hysterics. Ray’s little barks kept pouring more fuel onto their exploding, peeling guffaws until, as before, Ray started to cough. As before, Grace hammered on his back with her fist, then both fists, until, with a gut-wrenching hiccup, he began to choke. In seconds she was dragging him out the passenger door and heimliching him from behind, throwing every ounce of energy into her jerking, squeezing, and lifting so that his prostheses hung limp every time she pulled his wasted body skyward. He was so light and frail, she thought she heard ribs cracking as she pumped his diaphragm.
When Ray’s face changed from blue to violet to purple, she began screaming for help in between squeezes. The wind carried her voice carried to the trailers, and the man that had just gotten out of his truck was the first to hear. As he ran through the blowing dust toward them, shouting his location to the 911 dispatcher, Ray suddenly let out a loud yelp and ejected a glob of his insides onto the passenger window of Grace’s camper, where it stuck like a dirty snowball and slowly, in pieces, started sliding down the glass. Then, with a long, groaning sigh, he passed out in her arms.
Sitting at his bedside in the Mesa View Hospital emergency room, Grace had more questions than Ray would ever be able to answer, even if he had lived for a month. She wanted to ask him what was so goddamned funny back in the brothel parking lot. She wanted to ask him why he had waited so long to introduce himself, especially since both he and Jimmy had known her older brother, Randall, the field medic that saved Ray, then died later at An Loc. But most of all, she wanted to know why she had been chosen to be his surrogate wife.
"Why me, Ray? I imagine there are plenty of older women in Winnemucca who would be happy to pose as your wife in for twenty minutes, especially for $2000 bucks.”
Ray looked up from the hospital bed, connected to bags of fluids coming out of both arms, as if he couldn’t understand the question. If he was going to fake his marriage, even if it was only to convince his mother that he wasn’t the man she supposed him to be, he was going to do it with Grace Aldrich, who as far as he was concerned was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Ray thought that her name tattooed across his forearm made it obvious enough. But if she had noticed, she hadn’t said anything. Maybe she thought he was religious.
“Well, Grace, I guess that’s for me to know and for you to find out,” he whispered with great effort. “Though you might give yourself a little credit, ya know.”
“Come on, Ray. If you’re gay, why would it have made any difference what woman you chose for the role?”
Ray rolled his eyes and smiled. “ I ain’t a homosexual. I guess if I was sexual at all, I would be a heterosexual. At least I was before Khe Sahn.” He paused to catch what little breath he had left. “Ever since my legs got blown off I ain’t been any kinda sexual, period. But mama just couldn’t buy that, ‘specially since the girls that worked for her were plenty doped up and made a living off of sex. So she don’t understand how a man’s sex drive can get dulled by drugs, and especially pain drugs. Drug addicts don’t give a damn about sex. Only thing that matters to a drug addict are the drugs. You ever hear of phantom pain, Grace?”
Grace looked over to where Ray’s prosthetics stood in the corner, the black Rockport shoes attached as if they belonged to real feet. She had heard of people that felt pain in limbs they no longer had, and wondered how pain medications could alleviate pain in body parts that didn’t exist. Then, uninvited, she heard her late husband’s laughter in her head. Her heart lurched. Phantom pain. Pain, caused by people who no longer exist, except in memory.
Just then an orderly poked his head around the curtain. “Raymond Culver? You have visitors. May I bring them in?” Ray signaled with a slight nod and twitch of his hand that it was okay, then looked up at Grace with a weak smile.
Jimmy was taller than Grace remembered him, even with his slight stoop, and the sienna skin across his forehead and high cheekbones seemed more wrinkled than on the previous morning, but his long ponytail was still as pure and black as ebony. A cerulean turquoise nugget surrounded by hammered silver hung in a bolo tie against his denim shirt, and he held a broad brimmed black felt cowboy hat with a solitary red feather in the snakeskin band. In his other hand he held the tiny, bony claw of a very old woman, who though twice as stooped as he was, stood as tall as she could in blue jeans, a bright blue western shirt to match Jimmy’s bolo stone, and a thin pile of orange gossamer thread meticulously coiffed and curled atop her pink and mottled skull. And the palest blue eyes Grace had ever seen.
“I flew down as soon as I heard, rented a car at the airstrip and picked up your Mom out at the ranch,” Jimmy said. Grace saw that Ray was having a hard time seeing his visitors, so she found the hospital bed controls and slowly elevated the back. Then she laid her hand across Ray’s and twined her fingers between his.
“Mama,” Ray croaked, then with a weak smile added, “Please excuse me for not getting up.”
The old woman’s jaw began to work against her pursed lips, like she was chewing on something. Then her mouth opened and she whispered in the stutter of someone very old: “Who...who...is this?” Slowly, she raised her trembling pencil-thin arm waved it in Grace’s direction. Grace stood up and took the woman’s hand while it hung there, quivering like an aspen leaf in a light breeze.
“Hello Ms. Culver. My name is Grace, formerly Aldrich. I’ve been married to your son for...oh...help me out, honey. How long has it been?”
“This...is your wi..wi...wife, Raymond?” Ms. Culver interrupted. “Why did...didn’t you te..tell me you...you...we... were mar...married?”
Both Jimmy and Grace could tell that Ray was fading fast, and in no condition to talk. His eyes rolled back in their sockets and the light pressure he returned to Grace’s fingers intertwined with his gradually diminished.
“Would you like to sit down, Ms. Culver?” Jimmy asked, pulling an armless plastic chair from the corner of the curtained cubicle. Grace took her by the armpit of her right shoulder while Jimmy did the same with her left, and together they slowly lowered her into the chair. Then they gently slid her around to the head of the bed so she could be as close to her son as possible. Then, shaking her head, she shoved at Jimmy in what looked like an effort to push him away.
“Wha...why did...didn’t you te...tell me Raymond was ma...ma...married all this...this time, Jimmy?” Her aqueous powder blue eyes peered up at the tall Shoshone with as much contempt as she could muster, and it was suddenly and painfully clear to Grace that Ray’s mother actually blamed her son’s business partner, his battlefield savior, his caregiver and, as she had believed for over 40 years, lover, for everything: his disability, his advancing age, his lung cancer, and now for not sharing that her son was not homosexual after all.
Jimmy shook his head and, chuckling, gave Ray a gentle chuck on the shoulder. “Hey pal, this is your show, remember?” But Grace could see that it was all too much for Ray, so she stepped in.
“Ms. Culver, that’s exactly what Ray and I drove all this way to tell you. We’re sorry that it took so long to get around to it.”
Finally, the aged madam looked directly at Grace across the bed. A slow, meager smile formed over her thin, pink painted lips. “Ca...call me...call me Raylene. Raylene Culver. That...that’s me.”
Grace reached across the bed, over the apparently sleeping Ray, and took the old woman’s wavering hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you after all this time, Raylene. Your son has always spoken very highly of you.”
At this, Ms. Culver dropped Grace’s hand, lowered her head, looked over the rims of her glasses, and, her complexion darkening, very softly said: “That’s swe…sweet of you dear, but let’s cu…cut the bullshit.”
Jimmy laughed and gently patted Ms. Culver on the back as if they were ancient adversaries that had grown too old and tired to fight. Then a couple of orderlies pulled the curtains back, signaled that the airlift was ready, and began preparing the rolling bed for transport.
“I’m afraid we can’t take any passengers on this trip, but don’t worry, Mr. Culver will be in capable hands and settled in the ICU within a couple of hours. Will y’all be driving back tonight?”
Jimmy looked at his wristwatch, then over at Grace. “I suppose I’ll be dropping Raylene off at the Ranch, then flying back tonight,” he said. It dawned on Grace that once Jimmy had dropped the old woman off, she would be free to go where she pleased: east to Aspen and Telluride, or north to Jackson Hole and perhaps the last summer weekend at Many Glacier Hotel. Then she noticed Ray’s prosthetics standing against the wall by the bed.
“My husband will be needing these, won’t he?” she asked, knowing that the likelihood of Ray ever getting out of bed again was slim at best. The orderlies shot quizzical looks at each other, clearly at a loss for words.
“I...I’ll ta...take them,” Raylene declared in a voice as strong as she could muster, holding out her trembling arms. Jimmy immediately reached over to take them from Grace, but she stepped back, cradling the metal bars with the attached shoes to her chest.
“But Raylene, I thought you were…,” Grace began.
“Go...going wi...with you. Driving ba...back to Winnemucca, tomorrow morning. Ba...back to Hum…Humboldt Gen…General,” she said, her voice breaking. “With my...my...daughter-in-la...law.”
It didn’t take long for Grace to see that Raylene Culver knew that her marriage to her son was just a ruse. Had Grace known Ray for more than 24 hours, she would have known that, before Khe Sahn, he was a teen rodeo sensation across the mountain west. She would have known that, after Khe Sahn, Ray was a popular cowboy singer that had performed at casinos from Wendover to Reno. Had Grace known Ray for more than 24 hours, she would have known that he had outrun lung cancer and lived three times longer than the doctors said he would because he was as stubborn as a mule. But as obvious as their masquerade was, Raylene never let on. “The mem…memory is what counts,” she had whispered on Ray’s last day. “Now I…I know he tri…tried.”
After Ray’s funeral, Grace gassed up at Jimbo’s Gas and Service, then, sifting through her bag, thought she might invest what change she had in the antique one armed bandit that had finally gotten her mixed up with the old greaser that had been watching her all these years. Now there was a young Shoshone woman behind the counter – a relative of Jimmy’s, no doubt – texting away without the faintest acknowledgement of Grace’s presence. Nothing about the mini-mart had changed, but everything had changed. She sat before the slot machine, a quarter in her hand, ready to set the wheels spinning. The cherry, the apple, the orange, the lemon, the lucky seven. Thunk, thunk, thunk. What stopped the wheels from spinning? What random mechanism? She inserted the quarter, and lights on the machine started to flash. Pull the lever, it said. Set the wheels in motion. Round and round and round they go, where they stop nobody knows. She looked at the three little windows – lemon, orange, cherry – seemingly content in their stillness. Then she picked up her bag and hurried out. Maybe some other weary traveler will hit the jackpot on my quarter.
She drove east to Wells and the junction with Highway 93, as she had originally planned a week prior. There she paused. She could take 93 north through the Canadian Rockies clear up to the Trans-Canada Highway, or she could turn south and take 93 all the way to Wickenburg, AZ. She had been the northern route, but not the southern. Conflicted, she thought to consult her big paper map of the Western States, where she could see all of her choices without scrolling around on the iPhone.
After unsuccessfully searching the town for a Starbucks, she sat in the cab of her little camper outside MacDonald’s with a cup of their famously scalding coffee in the cup holder, and reached across the passenger seat to the glove compartment, thinking I wonder how long it’s been since people actually stored gloves in here. She clicked open the latch but before she could reach in something dark and heavy fell to the floor below the passenger seat: Ray’s revolver.
“Oh!” she gasped. Afraid that she might accidentally fire it and shoot herself, she got out of the cab, walked around the back of the camper, opened the passenger side door and, quickly scanning the parking lot, slid the pistol into her haversack and returned to the driver’s seat. She wondered if it was safe to examine the piece there in the McDonald’s parking lot, as if it were some sort of contraband, so rather than taking it out of her haversack, she turned on the interior light, then opened her bag and looked down upon it. Now her heart was pounding in her throat as if Ray were sitting in the passenger seat with the damn thing pointed right at her. But then she noticed something odd about it: the cylinder of the revolver was molded to the body, and the hammer was just a piece of black plastic, also molded in place. “What?” she cried aloud. Her mind went careening back to her high school years and her short tenure on the track team, before she discovered the pills that the other “Grace” had referred to in that song from the same era. She recognized this gun, which she now realized wasn’t really a gun at all. It was a starter’s pistol, and the only danger it posed was that, if she held it up to her ear and fired it a dozen times in quick succession, she might go deaf.
She lifted the starter’s pistol out of her bag and briefly considered dropping it the nearby trash bin behind the restaurant. Instead, she turned out the cab light and, with the fake revolver sitting on the passenger seat, started the engine and drove to a deserted corner of the McDonald’s parking lot. There, she cut the engine, picked up the starter’s pistol and held it to her nose, picking up the smell of stale tobacco, Vitalis, and the unmistakable scent of the dying man’s hands. Ray’s hands. Then, for no good reason she could think of, tears started rolling down her rouged cheeks and over her subtle lipstick, across her upper lip, then around her mouth and down her chin where they soundlessly dripped onto her jeans. After what felt like a very long time, she looked west, back toward Winnemucca, beyond which lay the Sierra Nevada, the gold country, the Sacramento Valley and River Delta, Mt. Tamalpais and finally her adopted hometown of Bolinas. She pictured her modest hillside cabin overlooking the vast Pacific and the sparkling days of Indian summer. She imagined her grown children and her grandchildren, gathered for the celebrations of autumn and the holiday season, and she thought how much Ray, or a cleaned-up version of him, would have enjoyed the joyous laughter and pointless arguments around the dinner table. Then, her vision returning to the present, she stared west across the tawny desert flats, over the sagebrush, creosote and tumbleweeds to where a range of low violet mountains met the deepening purple of the coming night. Any minute now, the first star of evening would appear and, rising in the western sky, would most certainly show her the way back home.
Read Learning to Limbo, a riotous corporate satire and romantic tragicomedy, now online, and free!