Chapter 13

“A safe bet on the
surface may net myriad
hazards deeper down.”

          “I want it back.”

          “Sure, I totally understand where you’re coming from. It’s just a basic surface manifestation of what you perceive to be her impertinence and ingratitude, but…”

          “But nothing, tell that little bitch to spin on it.  I want my belt buckle!”

          Back then, this had proved to be a drab, Bloody Mary of a Lovelock morning early on, the first indication of which lay at the throwaway Bud-strewn doorstep of neighboring 5B.  Right off, Sydney had attempted to break the deafening gloom by japing that she was washing her hands of me for her own damn good.  Western Nevada’s rugged highway landscape soon degenerated into a slough of pre-fab tracts, sprawling trailer parks and auto graveyards, a sud-African township sort of wasteland a series road signs had designated Sparks.

          Shadowing all that was Reno, its high-rise hotel towers disappearing against the mountainous overcast like stacked coinage alongside some nickel slots, muting the lurid everglow of reinforced concrete strongboxes emblazoned Sahara, Circus-Circus and Sierra Sal’s. Bonanza III sized up as the fattest come-on breakfast spread in the Grand canyon of downtown casinos—even though it displayed notices warning patrons to duck under the blackjack tables, out of the line of gunfire, in the event sudden disagreements broke out.  Two-dollar Eggs Benedict hastily washed down, Sydney and I emerged from B-III’s blazing, carnival-lit foyer to find a not dissimilarly hostile wager had been placed by this rudely familiar van.

          “Knew I’d catch up with you jerk-offs before long,” raged the HVAC contractor, Raider’s cap sailing, butt crack galore. He had wedged his van behind the squareback on a nearby side street of chili parlors and pawnshops, in front of a mid-block parking lot filled with rent-a-cars, fleet loaners and San Joaquin Valley excursion buses. “My buckle…now!”

          “Hey, what about my sunglasses?”  She menaced the contractor with a plastic cow’s-head creamer she had lifted from the Bonanza buffet table, as was her compulsion. “And what about my honor?!”

          “Yah, you gonna stick up for the little lady or what?”  Bed rolled against the parking lot’s chainlink fencing were four hole cards and a queen kicker—a mere token of Reno’s discards, migrant gamblers who had thumbed in from Vegas with the odds at their backs, but stalled flat when the warm Ripple and incorrigible casino advantage slapped them down to sprinklings of tent encampments all about town.

          “No buckle, no shades,” the Raider fan sneered, twisting her Vuarnet frames to the cracking point. “Psychobabble this…”

          “Look, you’ve got your position; she’s got her position,” I sputtered, still flustered from the night before. I guided Syd briskly into the car, wherein she wasted little time downing the passenger window.  “So let’s all of us cool off and discuss this like rational human beings, shall we—find ourselves a measure of common ground?”

          “Don’t give me rational, pussy face,” the contractor lurched toward the car and me. “Just give me the goddamn buckle.”

          “Shit, let’s kick his sorry ass back to Oakland,” said the tallest, bulkiest of the brood, hurling away shared piles of heisted table clothes and hotel blankets, revealing a flush of stained double-knits and shredded shirtjacs, as he and his fellow rounders rose groggily to the occasion.

          “There you go, Sir Galahad,” Syd pounded the door with her creamer. “Now you’re talking’”

          “You bet, sweetheart,” the wildest card moved on the contractor with a gaping, tobacco-stained grin, spitting yellow phlegm and chunky wine, hotel toiletries and place settings jangling from the patch pockets of a grimy beige leisure suit.  His partners shored up his flanks in a bum’s rush of Bally’s caps and tangled, rabidly toothless glares.  The queen mother just stayed hunkered down to crop in loose change and casino chips day-touring bettors tossed into her trashed roulette wheel.

          “Awright, quit fuckin’ around and gimme my…” The contractor screamed, stopping cold as the low-rollers swarmed him.

          “My pleasure,” Syd pulled the gleaming Super Bowl XI souvenir buckle from her purse, tossing it to the rag lady, who proceeded to stash it under her gyroscoping wheel.  “There, rationalize that.”

          “OK for you, honey” the Black Holey Raider spit, cornered five feet from his open van door, snapping her sunglasses at the nose bridge.  “I’ll be measuring your asses down the road…”

          “Christ, what were you thinking,” I retreated around into the squareback altogether, cranking it over amid the dust of sudden scuffling. “First Denver just cheated his team out of the NFL playoffs with a goal-line fumble, now this.  Talk about Orange Crushed—he’ll ambush us, I just know…”

          “That’s what I’ve got you to protect me for, isn’t it,” she asked, motioning me to tail the taxi idling in front of us out into traffic. “Like, maybe you can understand him to death.”

          “It’s called conflict management, all right?  Was just trying to defuse the situation.” I sped past pink and white instant wedding chapels named Cupid’s Nest and Blushing Bride, then even quicker off-the-rack divorce dens. “Trouble is, I haven’t exactly come across anything that unmanageable in Boulder.”

          “Welcome to the real world, flash.”  Syd drifted off into long blocks of dime casinos and honeymoon motels, towered over by mega-billboards for Don Rickles, Flip Wilson, and the John Davidson Revue. “That’s the kind of people you’ll run into everywhere out here…’cause you’re not in namby-pamby academia anymore.”

          “Well, I know one thing.”  I merged the squareback fitfully onto I-80 West, paring through a dense spread of liquor shacks, truck stops, trailer courts and low-rent casinos engulfing greater Reno’s environs.  Its all-hours squalor gradually played out across westernmost Nevada’s drab gray hills, to a scattering of hermitic strongholds bedizened with longhorn skulls, mortar-crusted range rocks and skeletal metal sculpture contorted into grotesquely personal gestalten. “We don’t need to be buying off lowlifes to get you back home in one piece…”

          “Tell it to my Vuarnets,” she shook her plastic Holstein at me to press her case.  “Really…I resent the sexist implications of your sudden macho attitude. Especially when you weren’t all that macho to begin with.”

          “Maybe I resent the implications of your harum-scarum act,” I floored the wagon up I-80’s Sierra backside toward Verdi, wincing at the windshield slush from a passing Mercedes SEL, wiping non-dairy spray from my chin as a sapphire blue Jaguar saloon cut us off.  “The truth is, I can’t stomach derelicts like that.”

          “Hah!  But wait a minute, you’re a sociologist.  I thought people like you were supposed to help derelicts like that!” Syd squinted through lifting cloud cover to the promise of snow white and evergreen foothills, the Truckee River surging in alongside.  “No wonder everybody says social science is the pits of academia. But at least you should try to be good at it!”

          “What?  I can’t help it, all right? I hate their filth, their binges—their rotting goddamn mouths. Jeez, why the hell would you want to encourage them,” my voice raised, the Volks already struggling, as a platinum Turbo Carrera blew too closely by. “Believe me, I’ve got no plans to get tangled up with such lost-cause grimeballs in any way, shape or form.”

          With that, she tossed her creamer and sleeping bag against the tailgate door, then flipped the Silver State a singular goodbye. “Good lord, I’ve got to get you to San Francisco.”

Care for more?  

Chapter 14. Climbing the summit,
cruising through the valley, they
find things accelerating as they
coast clear to the coast…