Chapter 23

“If you’re bound to hit 
          the road, don’t be surprised
          if it hits you back.”

 

  “If’n you ask me, I’m guessin’ $90 parts and labor, at least…” 

   CLICK, CRACKLE…“Your two minutes are up, please signal when…”

  “Crap, I’m tapped outta change, operator, can we reverse the charges?”

    “I’ll accept, operator…Kenny, what in God’s name is going on? Where are you?”

    “Uh, Wells, Nevada—blew my damn…”

    “Could be maybe the pressure pump, mac…”

   “Thanks, fuel pressure…whatever. The mechanic here says he thinks it’s shot. Can’t be my fuel pump, just replaced that sucker on the way out,” I shouted over power wrenches and fill-up lane bells into a pay phone way too near this service station’s open bays. “Gonna need more money, Moon, for bus fare and the repair.”

    “Bus fare, what’s that…”

    “It’s a long story. Just wire it, OK, to…”

   “But we ain’t even got no import parts like that around here, mac,” said the mechanic, scribbling up a work sheet at his gasket and plug cluttered service counter. “Maybe Elko does. Mize well send it over to the Commercial Hotel there.”

“Got that, Moon? And go do it right now…”

“Tsk, you’re asking mission impossible, you know…”

“This wasn’t my idea, remember? And I’m freezin’ my buns off out here!”

Signs could have pointed more promisingly. But come morning, my squareback was rife with disco dance club and assorted psychic flyers, two overpark/underpay SFPD tickets and a 24-hour tow-away notice of vehicle abandonment. And then there was that business with the tire. Flat as a Salt Lake beachball, the right front Firestone, jammed up against the curb—a yellow truck zone as it turned out, hence the double citations, time stamped Monday, 8 a.m. I scissors jack changed if for a cord-bare spare that made the flat look like a steel-belted Michelin.  Soon was on my way out, by way of four ten-dollar bills Moon had advised me last night she’d rolled up in a Coach Light Inn napkin and stuffed deep into the door pocket prior to my leaving Boulder: Just in case.

Before then, after a combo pizza and pleasantries, Sydney and I had spent the remainder of Sunday evening at her place, keeping safe, uneasy distance. She unpacked her travel bags to Heart and Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ accompaniment on the KMEL Album Caravan. I refluxed anchovies and otherwise idled in the living room, listening to Diana do a Sondheim medley on her piano—‘West Side Story’ to ‘Pacific Overtures’ to ‘A Little Night Music’. Between numbers, I side eyed Edie as she watched ‘Rhoda’ and ‘Alice’, sandwiching in a top-of-the-hour TV news tease, ‘Cronyism and discord in the ranks: The mayor, Chief Gain, and how he was rainbowing San Francisco’s Police Department’.

Crack of dawn, I had once again crawled out of the broom closet, bid Sydney adieu and some gratitude through her liberally ajar bedroom door. She was gracious, in a sleepy, oblique sort of way—handing me a Ghirardelli souvenir bag of cold pizza and day-old sourdough, warning of cold and storm fronts, against nodding off behind the wheel, sending along her best to dear Melissa while relaxing the on-road debt for now. Thanks again, flash, she yawned, rolling off her down comforter to contort into some après-sunrise stretches, somewhere between the lotus and perfect posture. Take your sweet time, she added, think about what you’re all about—you’re the only one who can.

With that, I closed her door taking one long, last and lasting appraisal. Edie sent me off with a ‘Tell her hi, be strong’ to Melissa, whom she had be-sistered though Moon’s series of phone calls; then I beat a circumspect retreat downstairs. No dramatics, no excess of gallantry—I just felt like I had left her there, safe and comfy, like a frontier scout his squaw. Ah, but maybe it was all for the best, a couple of quick spins and it was over, nothing serious, nobody was hurt, nobody got burned. Job well done, simply doing a good friend a favor, showing a friend’s best friend a little friendly hospitality…where it stood, what it was.

And I was riding off into the wilds all Eastwood and Gary Cooper, leaving with rhinestones on my saddle and lodestars in her eyes. Trouble was, tall-in-the-saddle was no match for the rust-frozen lug nuts that had left me flat sore and swearing to high heaven on that yellow truck zone curb.

St. Brenda’s steeple bells had struck high noon before I could chug through the Broadway Tunnel on my way around Embarcadero Freeway’s downtown double-decker, up to the Union 76 clock tower and Bay Bridge approach. I craned and pined all the way across the transbay span, bemoaning another gloriously spring-like day and the radiant mini Manhattan skyline so worldly rich in excitement and promise. Hang dogging halfway out my car window, I took in the cool sea breezes and svelte, stately profile of the Golden Gate Bridge, the blue Pacific beyond. I couldn’t get enough of it all, gazing over my shoulder, nearly sideswiping a cement truck while scanning North Bay hills for Sausalito’s promenade and a skyline I couldn’t shake.

Figured, I’d brooded, sucking in a busload of diesel fumes and some granulated debris from a dump truck dead ahead: I came into San Francisco on the high road, the sunny upper deck of this silver span, with The City and bay unfolding center lane. On the way out, I got the low road, the bargain basement bottom level with all the gas tankers, garbage haulers, then an eyewash of cargo cranes and decaying, drydocked freighters, not to mention downtown Oakland. To the vanquished went the spoiled: that ate at me clear past the Carquinez Strait’s ghost ships, where I could no longer find even the faintest trace of Bay Area bounty in my rearview mirror. Radio tuning into the Dead’s ‘U.S. Blues‘ scarcely eased the separation anxiety.

   “Fine, just be sure you return to Boulder in time for the appointment, Kenny,” Melissa had said the night before, a long-distance operator re-clicking through the call. “At least it’s something solid, and I went out on a limb setting this up…”

“I know that, Moon, I know,” I’d lowered my voice, turning my back to Sydney, who was whistling while she unfolded her designer rags. “And I really appreciate it, believe me…”

“It’s your interview, Kenny, you’ve got to take it from here. Just make it back in time to prepare, OK? It might be good for us. Besides, the cabin heater sounds terminal and Seamus is driving me batty.”   

“Doing what I can to get back soon as I can,” I’d whispered. “See you soon—yeah, me too…bye…”

Still, Berkeley’s KRE-FM signal had faded in undue course, so I gave up trying to re-dial some bootleg Tower of Power, and tuned into AM oldies, midway through ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. I gunned the Volks up Interstate 80 toward Vallejo—yeah, like I was in a big rush to get back for, like, some HR trainee slot at a corrugated carton scoring/folding company, direct mailer division.

That chewed my colon well beyond Fairfield and the exit for Vacaville prison; here it was so green and balmy, and Moon was hung up on burned-out furnaces. Well, best to bask in the intriguing memories and precocious moments out on ocean’s edge, for from here on, the mainland and all its speedbumps would be expeditiously closing in. A patchwork triple play, Seekers to Weavers to ‘Moondance’, provided little melodic diversion. However, a top-of-the-hour teaser spot trumpeted a second installment of the TV news series on unrest in San Francisco’s diversifying police department, and Supervisor White’s heated reaction—representing as he was the auld sod neighborhoods.

Right out of the gate, this drive was breezy, fast-lane California to Sacramento; from there on, it would be hell on wheels. Good for us, for our own good, for my own good—the general good for everybody concerned? Looking out for a loved one or two: that was Moon’s role to play as she saw it. Look at it through her eyes, I allowed, cruising as best I could at a sunny, San Joaquin Valley clip, self sacrifice gave dear Melissa her sense of self. Better that than little Ms. Matisse, probably back in The City climbing her dreamy white sandbox walls this very minute, stroking up a creative storm with her pencil sketches and Grumbachers—no sacrifice or unfinished business there—no contest, nothing but a high-speed hemorrhoid in goose down and cashmere.

An even harsher revelation had hit somewhere near Auburn Dam, that being Hendrix Law, to wit: The higher the climb, the deeper the dive. So if it was 65-degrees and sunny at Citrus Heights and 35-degrees and gloomy at Clipper Gap, where be you? Halfway to winter land and well into the blustery stages of a reality check. For starters, I ass-ended a wind sock of filibuster velocity and volubility about 3,800’ up I-80 outgunning my intake system, which called for a piss and coffee break at some truck stop/tourist trap tucked behind a pine-clogged outcropping on the western brink of Tahoe National Forest.

“Got chains,” asked an over-the-road driver one counter stool down. “It’s nasty up past Emigrant Gap.”                   I-80 East

“Chains? No, not even snow tires,” I said, after he passed me the sugar and creamer—one I wasn’t so certain Syd had yet added to her collection.

          “Suit yourself. But I wouldn’t be caught dead heading up without ‘em. The CHP might tag you, if the monkeys don’t stick it to you good.”

“Monkeys,” I stirred and sucked down some lukewarm swill. “I’ll keep an eye out…”

Besides this sage advice, the westbound trucker had picked up my raspberry twist and joe. Sad to say, it turned out to be right on the money, semi-heavy snows whipped by grizzly cross gusts that made Interstate lanes slicker than a glazed dipped in polysaturated, high-fructose donut oil. Then darkness befell, mercury and barometric pressure dropped over any lingering bright spots. Taken together, this was too much for a caffeinated, sun-kissed neophyte fresh out of the palm trees—even one with a pocketed Yosemite Sam creamer. But, damn, what it was doing to the squareback.

I had either dodged the manic chain monkeys or was deemed a lost cause not worth their time, also finding CHP cruisers too busy with bigger game. Could have used a set of those triple-studded titanium babies from those self-styled highway traction engineers. My tires spun and slipslid through Soda Springs, amid snow laden pine woodlands, then the full-throttle creep over Donner Summit, which is where the squareback showed first signs of misfire sputtering.

A skied-out gasrat outside Truckee wanted about $10 a running minute to rig some fuel filter bypass, a sawbuck more once he saw we were actually dealing with VW injection. Piss on it, I closed up the rear engine lid, Reno was all downhill from there, but then so were the proper authorities. Twelve miles short of the Nevada line, a highway patrolman sirened me over to the shoulder, trooper hat and badge gleaming in his flashing red lights, black calf-high boots squeaking, crunching under his every step.

“Pretty rough sledding over the summit,” he asked, as I cranked down my window with shivering hands. “Where’s your chains, son, did you see the alert?”

“No…uh, sorry, officer…from out of state…” Just the thought of that summit made me avalanche phobic, bracing for a white-out wipe-out with drifts piling up over the mileage markers, hungrier than Sarah Graves at the snowshoe party.

“They don’t have snow there in Colorado?” He sniffed around the car, then circled back to my driver’s side door. “And what about that right tail light? Let’s see your license and registration…”

“Sure…tail light, huh? Bulb musta blown…gotta get that fixed…” I cranked up my window, watching him in my rearview, cooking my heels as he radio checked me in his cruiser, then marched on back, tapping my glass.

This citation for the light and tires ought to give you some motivation,” he handed me back my paperwork and tore off a (warning) ticket from his pad. “Can’t run so slack here in California, son, better high tail it back to the Rockies.”

Roadside larceny, I crabbed, Golden State Gestapo: the CHP followed me from Bocal near to Verdi, sending me off with a blink of his headlights. The whole affair blinded me rage-wise on the way toward ‘the Biggest Little City’, that and snow the slushy smear of my worn out windshield wipers. There was no appreciating the pure white Tahoe hills, the crystalline flow of the Truckee River.

I kept rather thinking about all the railroad wrecks in those ancient wood framed train shed roadbeds along Sierra ridges, the orderly cease and desist of California splendor where Nevada’s craggy scrub brush began. A gentle decline and clearing blacktop were little compensation for a 12-degree windchill, the squareback’s accelerating dyspepsia—something with the pipes, the heap seemed to be bucking and farting.

Those hot lights of Reno’s skyline and promise of cheap casino food had led me to Roulette Row, and a little side street Squeeze Inn hole that served up thick, thunderous chili over franks, burgers, fried chicken and minute steaks, on cottage cheese casseroles and custard cups—atop flapjacks, waffles and hash browns for the played out, morning after casino crowd. Chili everywhere, caked on the floor by the jukeboxette where two played out blackjack junkies had collided with their Super Bowls. I went with a ‘Mad Dog w/Velveeta’ and coffee, tapping on the counter to a Glen Campbell-cum-Vic Damone beat, all gassed up and topping off for the road, lubed right down to the crankcase and bowels, citation and belt buckle-free.

sr dingbats

 So I had shot out of Reno like recooked beans and chuck, past fringe gambling houses, while-u-wait wedding chapels and divorce mills. The Volks seemed to have adjusted to relatively lower, flatter elevations, humming right along. Cranked up on a big gulp cola, I coaxed what I could out of the rusty heater vents, dialed in a Reno classic rock station and hit I-80 East full throttle. An Allman Brothers past blast carried me through a neon-fed Sparks tangle, leaving greater Reno’s casino hotels, motels and garish, widespread luminescence in a puff of sandy snow.

Yep, giddyup, head ‘em out, like the truckers slinging road muck at my windshield as they passed on by. Less piercing, more manageable were the lodging marquees and gasmat signs casting a rosy glow over Fernly’s cheesebox tract houses and nearby Virginia Mountains, Allmans’ ‘Trouble No More’ putting it all in free lane, 60 m.p.h. perspective.

Off in the northern distance, I could even spot the Trinity Mountains, Seven Through’s lava beds and Black Rock Desert under a clearing ¾ moon and shooting stars, wondering what could ever come of all that desolation in America’s driest state. Snow-dusted Humboldt hills and Brother Greg’s Sweet ‘Melissa’ helped me turn a blind eye through the hot sheet motels of Lovelock, not least that gripping interlude at the Rodeo Arms. Yet I couldn’t help but flash on the sweet bouquet of Syd’s cheeks and thighs, pressing my lips and nostrils like a full-bodied apertif.

Hmph, really smooth—she must be relieved to have washed her hands of me by now. A real trooper—no, forget trooper, a regular Joan of Arc the way she dealt with my distress call and quick split decision after treating me to a weekend like that. Whoa, Kenworth flatbed breakdown up near Rye Patch: I focused, eyes on the miles upon miles of flat, winding road, rearview mirroring the gaudy neon and odds-on eyesores, tunin’ into Dickey Betts’ ‘Blue Sky’, you’re my sunny day. From there on, the surface of Mars—nothing to see or hear here.

Save for the cowboy country ranchland and snow fences; Syd’s motherly East Humboldt hills had soon given ground to new barbed wire, trailer courts, auto graveyards, self-serve gas marts and toxic disposal sites that lined frontage roads into Winnemucca. Everywhere grub and gaming, glittery lights like Shoshone smoke signals on the wide-open central Nevada horizon: fuel gauge holding steady, Allmans’ ‘Win, Lose Or Draw’ fading with the AM signal, I barely paused at the Dirty Bird casino/grill for a warming pit stop and take-out coffee to thaw my hands.

On the edge of town, I offered to pick up a roadside hitchhiker on the way out—if only for a little friendly relief—and he looked to be a local slots slave drained of quarters, roughly my age. Yet the longhair peered in through my steamed up windows and gave me a thumbs down, as though he knew all about lemons when he saw them. Pulling away, I thought I’d heard a pistol shot, then a whizzing scrape across my car roof, but wrote it off as only more fuel injected backfire.

For the best, I had rationalized his snub, wiping the windshield with some of Dirty Bird’s paper napkins, my squareback having all it could handle load-wise as it was. The wagon sputtered onto I-80 East once more, a interminable two-lane stretch along the Humboldt sink, stuttered up over Galconda Summit at a 40 mph clip, despite my goosing the gas pedal like a tapdancing midget on Beat the Clock. It coughed and bucked, gagged and wheezed through the parched, dusty ranges of Battle Mountain, long dormant gold country on the brink of a new open-pit mining rush that promised to get this barren side of The Silver State booming again, poisonous mercury waste and cones of depression, or no.

Could have used the riches for gloves and thermals, rolling on and off the shoulder as semi-trailers and sedans horned around me, buttoning my sheepskin up to the collar, blowing into my hands to keep them from freezing to the steering wheel.

Damn, maybe they should use some of any bullion bonanza to finishing off the Nevada length of this Interstate, had to be the only narrow, winding bottlenecks left in 80, coast to coast. A little four-lane, a lot of two, in haphazardly contracting segments: Add punishing crosswinds over Emigrant Pass, ill-timed blasts of sagebrush and tumbleweed ripping like high, hard fastballs across my bow, nuclear mutant gophers, prairie dogs, coyotes and God knows kamikazing toward those wobbly tires. Third gear, down to second and counting, pedal to my rust pocked floorboard—the gustier the wind, the colder it got, feet numbing frigid, with no heartwarming radio beyond static C&W to be hea

  “Hell, by the looks of it, I’da never left Frisco,” continued the aforementioned garage mechanic in the immediate here and now.

   “Who says I’m from San Francisco?” I held up my end of the engine lid.

  “Sez so on that souvenir candy bag in your rear seat there. Anyhow, if I was you, I’da stood out there, or at least had this thing looked at in Reno…”

 “It didn’t peter out in Reno, it petered out here…”

  “I dunno, engine back here under a station wagon floor,” asked the mechanic.  “And fuel injection on her yet…how old’s this foreign heap, anyway?” 

“Uh, Sixties, late Sixties…” I checked out a fresh ding in the squareback’s roof.

“Whew, wouldn’t know where to start, mac. I mean, if you just had a fuel pump like regular people, I might be better able to help get you goin’ again…”                                                                       Raley's Gas & Garage, on warmer days

Got so I had all but pulled over to an emergency turn-out in fuel rejected, backfiring defeat, resigned to taking a screwdriver to the butterfly valve, a ball-peen hammer to the pump and gas-fouled plugs. Flipping off an inbound trucker who had airhorned me onto the shoulder, I shielded my eyes from hi-beam headlights hitting me from either direction for mile upon moonlight mile, revving in hopes of somehow clearing the injectors, not to mention my lower body circulation. Yet downroad, just short of Dunphy and the shadowy Tuscarora Mountains, my Volks seemed to rally, fuel was feeding and firing in top-dead-center order again.

I had idled awhile against a falling gas gauge, flashers on, waving the latest line of accelerating drivers who’d edged around me like a funeral procession for some vindictive uncle who’d left it all to Pat Robertson’s new university, for Christsake. Swigging more Coke, swimming in the fumes of unspent gasoline, I re-entered the eastbound lane with new-found confidence, coasting smoothly into Carlin, tunneling through the Independence range, ready to roll the dice on a bare-bones Elko fill-up in preparation for an all-nighter to Salt Lake City. A couple of ballsy Cash and Jennings tracks on KELK Country-AM further fed my gambling streak.

Still, given the crappy shellacking taken on the way out here, I had no stomach for revisiting the Commercial Hotel on the way back. Elko’s main drag was blinking neon ablaze, from the Hotel Pequop to Buckskin Billy’s Cowpoke Poetry Bar to Stockmen’s, ‘Where Players Are Winners’. Tell that to my billfold, I thought, blinders on, past the Plaza Game Room, Dairy Queen, Motor-Vu drive in, Elite Tune and Tire.

Against my fears and better judgment, I even blew by the local Volkswagen dealer, closed and penny ante as it was, doubling down on this heap and the odds on making it to Salt Lake City, maybe shoot the wad, come up acey-ducey all the way to the Pearl Street Mall. A little more gas, a lot more take-out joe, and I was blowing by the Elko County Seat like a Pony Express rider with trust deeds in his saddlebags and firewater in his veins.

Sure enough, the squareback had responded with fuel-injected horsepower the little four-banger hadn’t mustered since before its odometer turned over. I was inhaling devil’s food cupcakes, washing them down with powdered creamy coffee, tuning in to Merle Haggard and Charlie Pride on the dashbox, card counting my blessings out of town. Nothing but broccoli-top scrub, range fences and white triangular cattle guards on the comparatively straight arrow leg to Halleck, Willup and beyond—sweet as my Ho-Ho’s and Sno-balls, smooth as the creamer glaze settled at the bottom of my cup.

At least until I-80’s next rise and the East Humboldt mountains came into view, gradiently proving to be the Deeth of me, in the virtual shadow of the 11,300’ Hole In The Mountain Peak. From there on, my Volks reverted to its gagging, bucking ways, dying altogether—last gasp, fierce final throes, under a railroad viaduct on the outskirts of Wells, freewheeling on fumes here along Business 80 into Raley’s Gas & Garage—coming up to closing time, just around the bend.

“But I s’pose you could always go check it out directly with the VW dealer in Elko when you go get the part,” said Raley Jorgen, proprietor and mechanic in residence. “They’d probably know what’s up for sure…”

“Thanks, I’ve actually gone that route once before. Then again, what choice do I have now?”

 “Next bus west comes in the morning, 7:45…stops over at the Ranchero Hotel…don’t miss it, only one each way a day,” Raley said, wiping his hands with a Gunk rag. “Oh, and I’d keep a look out for the highwaymen—and I don’t mean them folk singer types. It’s the Wild West out here, fella.”

“OK leaving my car here?”

  “Fine by me, clunker ain’t goin’ nowhere, and we got wide-open spaces in these parts,” Raley moved the greasy globules between his fingers into his palms for easier wiping, nails looking to not have been cleaned out since Ethyl turned to Super and tires blew away their tubes.

“Yeah, who cares, out here in the middle of nowhere…”

“Let’s just push it over next to the Gremlin with the Illinois plates…dunno when they’re coming back for that job. Guess I can always sell it for scrap,” Raley tossed his rag into a grease bin. “And we might be the boonies, but at least no Californy earthquake’s knockin’ buildings over in Wells, Nevada…” Would that it were forever so…

“Ranchero,” I slid past both territorial jabs, but filed away his scrap part. “Cheap rooms or…”

“Middlin’…decent grub in the coffee shop though…downright neighborly slots. ”

“You sure the bus stops there?”

 “Just hang close, mac, she just sometimes runs a little behind,” said Raley, handing me his business card. “And keep in touch, real close like…”

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              Wells itself was a crusted skillet of a town set against the rolling, snow-peaked Humboldts and shallow nearby lakes, just another Nevada gas hop and pit stop with gambler motels up and down its old Route 40 main street. Reno or Elko, it surely wasn’t, but wasn’t exactly one-sorrow-mare Willup either. Wells had its lodging chains, had its Western Tires, payoff country stores and casino/pharmacies—but no import car garages to speak of, much less grease gunners who gave a hoot about a broken down foreign job like mine.

So Raley’s plan, it was; I locked the squareback, buttoned up, grabbed a couple of things, then hiked it a half mile or so down strip, taking one frigid step at a time. Just beyond some modular storage sheds and a bucket slots saloon, El Ranchero stood in all its brickface, two-story glory—including Wells’ sole official bus stop: Ranchero’s casino/coffee shop.

I settled in for a cheeseburger, no fries, served up with a crooked smile by a pink-aproned cowgirl with .45 caliber eyes, warming my extremities and carefully tallying my shriveled bankroll over a couple of machine-brewed refills, not that the caffeine took this time. After greasing Annie Oakley’s trigger fingers, I collapsed into a cold vinyl lounge chair over in the adjacent Ranchero Hotel’s lobby, in which I nodded off, one drowsy eye on a Peterbilt cattle truck idling out the picture window, where signs said that bus was scheduled to load.

Train whistles, traffic noise, howling coyotes, money-losing cowboy drunks: I slept through it all, awakened only by the morning’s last Trailways call. Springing for a one-way ticket at the hotel counter, I wondered why the night clerk let me be there in the lobby Stratolounger, concluding El Ranchero was already holding a full house, what with a man camp of wildcat ropers roving through town.

Water under the overpass, I thought, as the half-empty motorcoach pull away from El Ranchero’s sizzling red neon signs. The driver honked to several craggy old cowpokes bowleg shuffling past spare, saggy brickfaced storefronts, a low-rent Virginia City, into the coffee shop for over-easys, a rasher and steaming decanter of joe. One long, perplexing look at my crippled Volks, and I pressed back deeply into the bus seat, nibbling at combo pizza and sourdough with my litterbox breath. Elko was in my crosshairs, nothing much else to focus on enroute besides a ribbon of two-lane tedium, 100-car coal trains and a vastly tiered, overcast winter sky.

So I just sorted and counted roadside billboards, realizing how everything was virguled in Nevada: hotel/casinos, restaurant/casinos, druggist/casinos, bakery/casinos, hardware/casinos, gun shop/casinos, pawnshop/casinos, taxidermy/casinos, chiropractor/casinos, laundromat/ casinos, realty/casinos, city hall/casinos, gambling den/casinos, bailbond/casinos, jailhouse/casinos, funeral parlor/casinos…all bets covered, day-to-day life on the come.

Nevada really was one big smoke-filled seduction, one long fling with disaster: They welcomed you at Wendover, won you over at Wells, wowed you at Winnemucca, licked you at Lovelock, reamed you at Reno, vomited you out at Verdi. Couple of quick stops, and before I knew it, the Elko all those ad signs trumpeted appeared on a drab, Independence Mountain hemmed horizon.

Bingo. I coaxed the driver to drop me off at the VW dealer on the edge of town, gearing up for double shot of my baby’s love. First stop, the service desk, describing my misifiring squareback like a caller into Click and Clack: No dice, a fuel pump was one thing, but they couldn’t tell what else failed without doing an electro-diagnostic on the entire fuel injection system. And they wouldn’t stock such arcane parts for that outdated model in any case, backorders taking at least five working days. Try the bigger Volks outfits in Reno or Salt Lake City; pick your Mae West, fella. Didn’t know what to make of that, so I grabbed a root beer breakfast float at the Dairy Queen next door, then trudged dubitably through the hoarfrost to stop number two, boxcars in my eyes.

       sr dingbats

   “Here yet?’

  “Not yeeeett…”

“You’ll call it out when…”

  “Do a bear dump in the woods? I’ll call you, I’ll call you.”

   The Commercial Hotel was Elko’s Alladin, Sahara, Tropicana and Caeser’s Palace all rolled into one pile of chips, with a monumental polar bear standing two stories tall over its red neon entrance. It also housed Trailways’ bus stop, and even more importantly a Western Union desk, within an ever clamoring, quarter slot-filled lobby. This was where I was pacing, in no mood for the clerk’s smarmy, catbird smiles. She stood reading the ticker as it ticked off some losing streaker deadbeat’s Moneygram lifeline, just not my own. Overlooking her was that backwall rogue’s gallery of western legends and rapscallions—not to mention some wayward, down-cycle celebrities, fringe rat packer rejects from the Reno-Tahoe lounges.

  I’d burned some clock studying the framed wild mustang herds, and bio profile on White King, that monster polar bear out front, and how it had been bagged in Alaska, stuffed in Seattle, ultimately propped up all 10’4” high in a clear glass-aluminum cage, like a King-Kong albino with a blackjack jones.

   Of no less fascination was the taxidermed wolverine in a Plexiglas box over her shoulder, antler racks hanging everywhere, but I couldn’t help fixing on that telegraph clerk herself. I studied moves and mannerisms as she ripped and read tickertape, pasting it sickly yellow Western Union forms. How she sighed loudly with boredom in her violet velour sweater, taking a hit of her soda, a drag on her butt, oblivious to us desperate, tapped-out stiffs hanging on her every call.

When anxiety and anticipation started flushing over me, I ran for the tables—just looking, thanks, but no thanks. Lining the smazed casino were row upon row of Bally three-eyed bandits, all-day sucker zombies of every demographic sub stratum draining their paper jackpot cups, nursing rum colas and slot-machine elbows, hanging on to the chrome arms for five-line pays and a wholly misspent life. Center room, cards, craps, Monte Carlo and 21 bars ruled the floor over a thick mat of played-out Keno slips.

Once burned with/by Sydney, I stayed away from the sinkhole wheels and bones, avoiding Commercial’s dealers, rumrunners and at-large moneychangers, yet checking out its scanty panty waitresses with the cowgirl hats and fishnets, sliding tips and numbers into their fringed, black bustier-style leather vests. Before long, the piped-in calliope Muzak got to me, as did the bells, buzzers and sirens of spinning, flashing slots like the inside of a pinball machine; the barkers calling out 4 and 6-spot pays, house bouncers lassoing inept card counters, cottontops chewing their Keno crayolas in frustration, watching soaps on 21-inch screens until their bladders burst—the whoops of victory and howls of defeat, the entire fruit roll, green felt, Bloody Mary-stained carpet spectacle—finally drove me back empty-handed to the lobby. That’s about when Madame Moneygram gave me the call.                   Downtown Elko

From there on, it could have gone either way. Cash in hand, I rubbed my scrubby growth, mulled it over with a chuckwagon-deluxe burger basket in Commercial’s all-hours Coffee Corral: Westward to Reno for a car-part gambol or Salt Lake City eastward with the whole damn heap. By Trailways’ measure, the first, best choice was its red-eye Denver-bound bus—either that or another lounge chair night in a hotel lobby—this one, cold gold naugahyde and likely less hospitable. Better off towing to SLC than throwing the dice with Reno, I doodled on my napkin over a coffee refill, but there was only one cost-effective way for the Utah choice to go off without a hitch. That was to go with a hitch, more specifically a trailer hitch, realizing full well where that led.

“Gotta light?”

“Sorry, don’t…” I stopped there, noting that this guy leaning over along the black Formica counter looked hauntingly like that bearded hitchhiker packing more than matches and coffin nails out of Winnemucca.

“Was worth a shot,” he said, not tipping his hand if he recognized me outside my steaming wheels. “Just killin’ time until the bus. You headin’ east?”

“Hard to say,” I said evasively, second thinking that maybe I should at least be aiming Reno way.

Care for more?

Chapter 24. Digging deep, weathering 
chain reactions: matters tighten up, relationships
get more complicated, things get a little out of hand…