I wake up stiff in West Texas—backache from the tiny stones, the sun-baked cracks and ruts. Silhouettes of hawks drift overhead, lazing on the thermals. Eyebrights swim a barren sky’s mirage, a stark blue void above one’s life: rocks and dust and nothingness for miles.
My partner and I bend the rickety braces, un-pop the supports, and fold the two-man pup-tent that we shared. By “partner” I mean compañero, none of this funny talk people back East have for girlfriend, boyfriend, lover, mate. Even the married ones use it there, as if they wanted to confuse the issue of where they put their peter. My partner—business partner, Lester Brown—and I have a date to arrive in LA to deliver this car to an Avis dealer tonight. That puts our schedule this morning exactly: way behind. We’ll need to make up serious ground.
Some rich fool had paid to cruise an orange sports car one-way across the country, and now it’s our job to haul-ass back. The Avis contract specifies we lose our money—all of it—if we don’t pull in the lot by closing time, which is midnight Pacific time, and we’ve already borrowed against the money we’ll earn just paying for the gas to get out this far. So, yeah, we have a date and the fairy’s told us we’ll turn to pumpkins if we don’t make it. Now, Lester and I, we hit a couple-few bars in New Orleans and tried to get back on track by taking shifts, each sleeping in the backseat. But a dust-devil cropped up outside Sweetwater, a real smokescreen, so we pulled over to hunker on the roadside. We cracked some six-packs until things blew over. Night fell, and we pitched a tent; kept on chugging the hard stuff we had left. We scavenged for sticks and tender. We got a fire going. The rest, I dunno. The evening spun into the usual wormhole. Night’s delirium and a spill of star-stuff—the dark lapse that memory can’t hold to.
We stash the tent in the trunk, leave the empties in the bluff, and lumber into the Corvette. By noon the heat blurs above the asphalt, summer’s shimmer along the long grey crumble of the road, a watery blur beyond the margin. The sun burns down the day in the vast depression of godforsaken plains between the far-out jutting outlines. Pump-jacks and wind farms cycle and chug. The little tiki hula-dancer I stuck on the dash toggles like a metronome over the lumps and bumps. She gyrates to static and a low slur of Spanish sportscasters over the radio. Its better just to have some garbled gibberish playing, plugging up the holes that eat away our time. Gnarled scrub stipples the middle distance; further off, the circumference is bound in by a broken line of ochre buttes and mesas.
Hey. Why don’t we stop in Vegas? We can hit up the slots—check out the Strip?
Naw man, Lester says, what money I gots for that shit?
Stick a twenty down a toilet, pull the lever, and watch it flush. Be the same goddamn thing.
I drop the offer. The landscape flatlines, shreds and short-circuits in the dazzle of noonday’s laserbeam. A coyote slinks about the scraggle a few feet from the shoulder, and I swerve a little just because. I only pass maybe four-five semis on the drive in an hour, a truck or two, nary a car. Ravaged arroyos, vacant sediment-layers exposed and splayed. We’re running low on gas, and I’m getting hungry. A film of scum has hardened on my skin, brittle and itchy. My face twitches with sweat. We pass the first sign for near a hundred miles.
We’re getting close to El Paso. We’ll stop there, Lester says.
Lester sounds almost jaunty, half cocking a grin. But he pinches his thick lips as he takes a drag on his cigarette, and plays it cool with his stubbly, nonchalant poker face.
You wanna, what, remember the Alamo or something? A long pause as Lester twists a sidelong sneer.
Alamo’s in San Anton’. A puff of smoke marbles the car’s interior. I hesitate.
Yeah. Alamo’s another rental car company.
My comeback sounded witty in my head, but as I hear it hang in the air now it seems lame, juvenile, dead. Of all the rundown cities, I think, why the hell make a pit-stop in El Paso? Another outsized boomtown gone bust, littered with fool’s gold and disappointed ghosts, I bet: rum-runners, gamblers, prospectors, prostitutes—now just a bunch of straight-laced ranch-hands and hard-up migrant workers, drug-runners and border-crossers. What does Lester want, some refried beans? You can buy Old El Paso mix in any supermarket. Hell, his bean might just be refried. Something tells me this ain’t an argument, though. The road glares at me like a crooked mirror.
A billboard announces some off-brand gas station. When we arrive, Lester takes the pump while I go inside to piss and grab some grub: a honeybun, beef jerky strips, a pack of cigs, and a tall boy of Schlitz. There’s a little kitchenette with a few stools inside where two showy cowboy-types, bolo ties and polished dingo boots, sit around nursing mugs. They squint at me under their hat brims, as if sizing me up in case it came to a fight. These aren’t real cowboys, though; real cowboys smell like horseshit. These are goddamn good-for-nothing wanna-be’s, cocky half-pint oil-barons’ pizza-faced kids playing dress-up. Rodeo clowns. They seem to specialize in bar fights since everyone knows they’re too pussy to wrangle cattle. I look away before they catch me with their stink-eye. A big faded US flag’s slung up behind the register. Something looks off about it, almost too symmetrical, until I realize it’s a leftover relic with 48-stars.
In the bathroom snot-curds creep up the wall like floodmarks. A bumper sticker gums up the stall-door, the same sticker which is stuck on half the pick-ups out here: Welcome to America. Now speak English! Except some patriotic smart-ass has cross-out “English” and written “Amarican” under it on the wall in magic marker. Then another joker scribbled “Tex’n” in pen over that. Finally, someone else commented: “This Is El Paso. We Don’t Do Texting.” Yeah, I think, not much cell phone service out in these parts.
I zip up and go to the sink. The spigot spurts out brownish swamp gunk. No soap, so I just pick up my items and exit. Before I reach the cashier, a gawky acne-faced kid with oversized broken wireframes who must be all of fifteen, I make to put the honeybun back on the rack, fighting against my instinctual sweet-tooth.
Nope. You gotta buy it—store policy—whatever you take in the bathroom with you, man.
I grab it again and throw it on the counter with the rest.
He rings it all up, punching each price on an oversized solar-powered calculator.
He must have seen our plates. Damn orange car, it’s a flashy eyesore, an overgrown banana making us look like a pair of yokels, Yankee pinkos. I don’t say anything, sensing the fake cowboys might be listening in. Of course they’re rental plates, but I can’t explain it—it would make me look like I’m trying to pass one over, deny where I’m from, as if I was fleeing the sense of who I am.
I always wanted to go to Jersey, y’know, like on TV. Jersey Shore? Do you live near the beach? Eight seventy-five, sir.
I hand him a soiled ten, the old-fashioned cash register clanking out its drawer—cha-ping!—and then the kid punches the calculator again. He hits a wrong button; everything’s lost to a string of incomprehensible digits. He scrunches his face. Sorry, I’ll need to see your—. He points to my bag.
Shit. Just forget it, son. Keep the change.
Thanks, mister. Y’all have a good day now. Enjoy Texas!
I stalk off to the car, glancing back to see him drop my ten-spot in a coffee can he’s labeled “Scholarship Fund.” The two rodeo clowns smirk at each other.
Lester and I don’t say nothing for an hour. We’re getting close. There’s a clusterfuck of billboards before coming into town advertising the likes of BYOB Gentlemen’s Clubs, Judgment Day Churches, Local Politicos, Towing Services, or Wet n’ Wild, which, contrary to what the phrase might suggest, is a giant water park for kids. The slurry of low-rise chains and pawn shops that straddle the highway thicken and clot for a mile. We pass the Tigua reservation and its defunct casino, valleys filled with tarpaper tinroof shanties, some coral-colored baroque Spanish mission, then—bam!—suddenly we’re smack dab in the middle of downtown. It’s one o’clock on a Sunday, late July. The streets are deserted. We park under the far-flung shadows of the Wells Fargo building. The canyons of the city’s blocks are empty, abandoned.
Grab your passport, just in case, Lester says.
I open the glove box, pretending to rustle around in it. I already put my documents in the pocket of my cargo shorts. I tap the hula-dancer, her grass-skirt jiggling too fast, as if she were possessed. When we step out into the sun, it crashes down and smacks us. I realize I’m shaking a little. I crack the Schlitz and gulp it. I follow Lester as I try to keep inside the liquescent shade of office buildings, which pour a slantwise gulf of coolness across the city’s grid. A razor’s edge divides the glare from darkness, a line which slowly pivots with the afternoon. The heat screws with your head—screws it down. I stumble like a zombie. Lester weaves through the streets, streamlined and lilting; he knows where he’s going. A thin skin of dust has coated everything here, which the sun detonates. Effulgence hurtles off each office window; my eyes recover from the shockfire. Lester hustles on, flicks his butt and lights up another cigarette, turning a corner.
By the sun, I can tell I’m heading south. Boxcars hunker in a rail-yard to my right: graffiti’s everywhere, and most of it’s in Spanish. Somewhere a truck backfires; roosters crow. There’s suddenly more life, houseflies sizzling the air, and people to-and-froing in the outskirts. I make out Lester in the distance, maneuvering quickly, a block away. His jeans crease tight against his legs with each long stride. I have to shuffle-jog to catch up as he slips in line at the border station.
Lester doesn’t look up, just tilts his chin and half blinks in acknowledgment. The line moves briskly. The guard nods us through. I don’t even need to show ID. I click through a turnstile. I pat my pants and realize my passport must be in the glovebox after all.
Photo by Adam Simmons