Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A Loss for Words Pts. 29 & 30

(CONTINUED) Twenty-Nine

I fell asleep for a few hours just before dawn and when I awoke the sun was well up but the house was quiet. I lay in bed and listened for awhile, but heard nothing, so I got up and put on some clothes and went downstairs. When I entered the kitchen I was surprised to see both Mary and Julie sitting silently at the table drinking coffee. I could feel the tension in the room. No one said anything as I went to the coffee pot and poured myself a cup. Then there was nothing to do but join them at the table. I pulled out a chair and as soon as I sat down I realized why no one was speaking; there were no words worth saying, nothing that could be easily expressed that would befit our situation. Silence was the only appropriate choice and so I drank my coffee and kept my own council and some of my thoughts were no doubt similar to those of the two women sitting next to me and some necessarily different; none were like any I had known until recently, even though I had written stories full of violence and pain, love and uncertainty, difficult decisions and death. But now that I finally knew the difference between literature and flesh-and-blood life I doubted whether many of the characters I’d created could’ve survived in the real world for very long. I began to wonder how much of myself was of my own creation and figured that the less that was down to me the better were my own odds of survival.

We each finished our coffee and then Mary finally said that we better get going and we all went out to the garage and Julie and I got in the Jag. Mary waited until I’d backed into the driveway and then she closed the garage door and got into the passenger seat. “Let’s go to First National Trust,” she said. “It’s down by the convention center.”

It was a busy Monday morning in downtown Santa Fe. Groups of pedestrians were gathered at the crosswalks and it took us longer than usual to get the few blocks from Canyon Road to W. Marcy Ave. I kept watching for anyone that might be following us, but there were a lot of cars on the road and it was difficult to keep track of them. We drove around the block a few times looking for an empty meter, then gave up and pulled into the municipal lot. I waited in the car while Mary and Julie went inside. I looked around and watched the cars and people and nothing seemed suspicious and everything seemed suspicious. I was driving a car with the wrong plates on it and shotguns in the trunk. I was a fugitive from justice and on my way to Tucson to try to rescue a drug addict from drug dealers. Sitting there in that parking lot, I started to feel nervous.

After a few minutes, Mary and Julie came out of the bank holding a canvas bag. They got back into the car and Mary told me to go to the Bank of America near the interstate exit. Again I watched my mirrors, keeping to the speed limit or slightly below. I didn’t notice anything. I waited in the car while they went into the bank. Ten minutes later they came back out with a bag.

We repeated this routine at five more banks. Nobody had an account at the last two—Mary and Julie just went inside and stood in the lobby—but we figured if we were being tailed it would appear like we were rounding up every last penny available. Including the gallery money, we had $31,094.00. Then we went to Julie’s apartment so she could pick up some clothes. I was afraid someone might have been to her place over the last two days--they might even still be there--so I went with Julie and Mary stayed in the car. But Julie said her apartment was just as she’d left it and if anyone had been in they hadn’t left the slightest trace. She checked her messages, but other than a couple calls from friends wanting to get a drink or dinner there was nothing. She quickly packed an overnight bag and we went back to the car. As we were heading back to Canyon Road I turned off Alameda and noticed a beige Land Rover slow behind me. In my rearview mirror I could see the driver, a man in his mid-thirties with two day’s worth of stubble, look at the Jag. He was wearing sunglasses, so I couldn’t follow his eyes, but it seemed like he had noticed something. However, he didn’t make the turn, but sped up again and continued straight ahead. We might’ve attracted his attention for several reasons and nothing good could come from most of them. I glanced at Julie and Mary but they were absorbed in their own thoughts and didn’t seem aware of much else.

We got back to Mary’s and I pulled the Jag into the garage. No one had eaten anything yet and Mary said she’d make us all brunch. I would just as soon have gotten on the road, but we needed something in our stomachs. Mary made us blueberry pancakes and put out a bowl of fruit. Julie only picked at her food but I told her she should eat and so she finished what was on her plate. Afterwards I packed a small bag, put the .50 caliber on top of my clothes, and strapped the 9 mm over my shoulder. Then I put on one of Dane’s suit coats that Mary had given me; Dane had been bigger than I and there was no visible bulge from the holster. The .38 was still in the living room where Julie had left it and I picked it up and put it in my bag with the .50 caliber. Then all three of us stood by the garage door for a couple minutes.

“We weren’t being followed, were we?” Julie finally asked. “Maybe we should just go to the police.”

I thought of that Land Rover but didn’t mention it. Instead, I said, “I think it might be risky.”

Mary nodded and Julie seemed about to cry again. “Then what are we going to do?” she asked.

“You’ll know what to do when you get there,” Mary replied. She seemed to mean it.

Mary and Julie embraced and then I thanked Mary and gave her a hug and she wished us luck and told us to call when we could, though she wouldn’t expect to hear from us until everything was over. Then she opened the garage door and Julie and I got in the Jag and drove back out into the cloudless blue noon and down Canyon Road. That payphone in Tucson was 600 miles away.


We merged onto I-25 south out of Santa Fe and continued down to Albuquerque on the busiest stretch of road in the state of New Mexico. But it was the middle of the day and traffic was light. Julie looked out the window at the desert passing by--the dry gullies, blown-out trailer homes, and sprawling gas stations--but as we got closer to Albuquerque even the remnants of the desert gave way to strip malls and car dealerships. We made good time through the northern part of the city and picked up I-40 west. Soon Albuquerque was behind us and the desert reared up again as the buildings fell away. The sky loomed turquoise overhead, the sun flashed off semi trailers stacked fifteen and twenty deep in the next lane. We had yet to speak a word.

We’d been on the road for over two hours when I stopped in Sky City to get gas and something to drink. As I pulled off the highway, I noticed a beige Land Rover in the rearview mirror, but it continued west on the interstate. I could not be certain, but I thought it might be the same one I saw in Santa Fe. I began to suspect we were being followed. We wound down the frontage road, the suddenly bumper-to-bumper traffic creeping along. On the left was a massive gas station, the pumps and concrete apron spread out like an airport runway, a couple dozen semis parked along the far side. On the right was a casino, and a constant stream of RV’s and pick-up’s pulled in and out of the parking lot, which was separated from the road with orange pylons and presided over by an Indian directing vehicles with a pink flag. We had to wait in line to get to the pumps and I asked Julie if she wanted anything. She said that she’d come inside and I figured that was a good sign.

Finally, we got to a pump and I told Julie that I’d lost my credit card and she’d have to pay for the gas. In a way it was true; I’d cut my card up into little pieces back in Santa Fe. Somebody would’ve been watching for those numbers, I’d felt sure of that. Now I was almost out of cash. She gave me her card and went into the station. A couple minutes later I went in to buy a soda and two ice cream sandwiches. I didn’t see Julie inside and figured she was in the restroom. There was a copy of USA Today at the newspaper stand and I thought about picking it up, but didn’t. There was nothing I needed to know. I went back out to the car and waited for Julie. I’d finished my ice cream sandwich and was starting to get a little nervous when Julie finally came through the door of the station with a USA Today in her hand. She tossed the paper in the back seat before getting into the car. She had also purchased a bottle of water, but nothing else. I handed her the other ice cream sandwich, which was starting to melt a little. I was surprised when she took it and said, “Thank you”; I hadn’t really expected that she’d want it.

“I’ve always loved ice cream,” I said, as I pulled out of the gas station and turned back toward the interstate.

“Me too,” she replied. “There’s a place in Santa Fe that makes their own and they’ve got flavors I’ve never seen anywhere else, like sour apple and grape bubblegum.”

And so began an hour-long conversation on ice cream. We talked about our favorite flavors, the best ice cream shops we’d ever been to, and our cone preferences. We discussed consistency and sweetness, texture and cream content. When the conversation lagged we racked our brains to come up with details, no matter how trivial, to keep us talking and keep time moving. We were just west of Gallup when we dropped down a slight rise and I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the beige Land Rover at the top of the hill several cars back. Julie was telling me about some handmade ice cream she’d once had at a festival in Colorado when I interrupted her: “I think we’re being followed,” I said. She looked at me but didn’t turn around. “There’s a Land Rover a few cars back. I saw it in Santa Fe this morning and it passed us back at Sky City. Now it’s behind us again.”

“Are you sure it’s the same one?”

“No. But I don’t like the idea that someone might be tailing us. Who knows what they have in mind?”

A few minutes later we crossed the New Mexico state line. On the other side of the road was the spot where Ruben’s truck had broken down. A sign ahead indicated the turn-off for south U.S. Highway 191. I eased up the exit ramp and the Land Rover dropped back. As I crossed over the bridge that spanned the interstate I saw that the Rover had also exited and was following at a distance behind us. On the other side of the interstate 191 dropped away in front of us, straight as an arrow and nearly flat as a pancake. I didn’t see a single car in the twenty-five or thirty miles that was visible up ahead. “See that?” I said, pointing at the ribbon of empty highway in front of us. “That’s good. We can’t afford to get pulled-over.” I knew Julie was frightened, but she didn’t ask what I was going to do.

I waited until we were about five miles from the interstate then downshifted and pushed the accelerator to the floor. I could feel the Jag grab the road and in an instant Julie and I were pressed back in our seats. Behind us the Land Rover also began to gain speed. We were in the Painted Cliffs and the landscape was desolate, barren scrub desert on either side as far as the eye could see. Ahead of us, rangeland spread out to the south, broken only by rotten fences and battered windmills. In less than a minute we were doing over 120 mph and the Land Rover was falling behind. Julie gripped the dashboard in front of her and looked straight ahead. We blew past an empty concrete block tavern with Witch Well, AZ painted on the side in huge red letters. There wasn’t another building around that wasn’t in utter ruin, destroyed by the very land on which it was built. I could still see the Land Rover in the mirror and so I know he could see us. Then the road began to rise and fall a little and after a series of dips I could no longer see anything behind us. We could have picked up Highway 61 at St. John’s, but I decided to continue south, to the resort community of Eagar. There we could choose from any number of back roads and, even if the driver of the Rover didn’t decide to exit at 61, there was little chance he’d catch us. But I kept the pedal down all the way to St. John’s and then hit it again until we were into the mountains outside of Eagar.

It was not warm inside the car, but by the time we were clear of Eagar my shirt was wet and my eyes stung. The gun in its holster felt heavy against my side. Julie turned to look behind us and, since she didn’t say anything, I figured she didn’t see whoever had been back there. We started to climb higher into the mountains and the scenery was epic. Pine forests dropped away below us at every turn, revealing endless vistas of rock and tree and sun and sky. However, the road would no longer permit us to outrun even the slowest vehicle and I could only hope with everything in me that we wouldn’t have another run-in with the Land Rover.

Julie looked out her window, toward the slowly sinking sun in the west, and said, “They’re going to know about us now. That guy—whoever he was—is going to tell them what just happened.”

“I know,” I said. “But I don’t think we had much of a choice. We don’t know what that guy planned to do. Maybe run us off the road. Or follow us to our motel. Maybe he would’ve just shot us and taken the money as soon as he had a chance.”

Julie was quiet for a moment then said, “But if that’s the case, then we don’t stand a chance against these people. Jimmy might already be dead.”

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “We’ve still got the money.”

Julie turned from the window and looked at me. “No, we don’t. We have some money.”

She was right. Maybe we didn’t stand a chance.

We followed 191 as it wound its way through the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. We were not making good time and I began to expect the Land Rover around every turn, but as we neared Clifton we were still alone. I took a little detour at Clifton and picked up Highway 75 heading back toward the New Mexico border. It was early evening and I told Julie I didn’t want to get to I-10 before dark, when we’d have some cover from our pursuer, who might be scouring the highway for us at that very moment. Yet I was pretty sure I really only wanted to prolong our time in the Peloncillo Mountains, the saguaros creeping up every boulder-strewn mountainside, the tops of the peaks tinged with purple as darkness advanced, before we had to head toward Tucson. In the mountains it seemed impossible to believe that we could ever be in any danger greater than that nature had conjured all on her own, a landscape apparently hostile to every form of life, though it really was not. Out here some things did survive, and this gave me hope that Julie and Jimmy and I could too. Finally, the sky went blue-black and the sun sank behind the cactus-flecked mountains.

It was pitch dark when we doubled-back west on U.S. 70. At Safford we got gas, then dropped straight south on 191 and hit the interstate. Unless the Land Rover had pulled up right next to us, it seemed impossible that he could’ve identified us at night. I kept the Jag at 80 mph and, while I’d like to have gone faster, I didn’t dare risk it. It took us a little over an hour to get to Tucson and by then my adrenaline was gone and I was bleary-eyed and exhausted. We’d been on the road for over 11 hours.

We stopped at a motel just west of town, off the interstate. I guessed we were about fifteen minutes from the payphone. The motel sat at the end of a frontage road and it was ringed by a high fence topped with barbed wire. The bottom of the fence was covered with plastic bags and newspapers and anything else that could catch the desert wind. The parking lot was cut-off from all traffic but that destined for the motel. Julie and I walked into the lobby.

“How long have you guys been on the road?” asked the Mexican girl behind the front desk.

“That obvious?” I replied.

She smiled.

“Something over eleven hours,” I said, as Julie signed the credit card receipt. “At least I think so. I kinda lost track.”

She smiled again and handed Julie the room key and I went outside and pulled the car up in front of our door. There were pick-up trucks on either side of us and a number more scattered throughout the lot. Some of the plates were Mexican and I imagined that many of the people staying there were contractors, migrant workers, illegal aliens, anyone that needed to keep moving if they were going to survive. Like us.

We went into the room and I put the sack of money on a shelf in the closet and then tried to shut the closet door but it was off its rail and just hung from the ceiling so I let it go. I’d decided to leave the shotguns in the car. Julie put our other bags on the floor and then we each sat on a bed and while I wished I could just go to sleep I couldn’t tell whether I was dizzy from fatigue or hunger or fear or some combination. In any case, I didn’t feel well. Down the frontage road, within walking distance, was a restaurant. “I need to eat,” I told Julie. “And you should eat too.” She nodded and we got up and stepped outside. I locked the door and as we started walking my legs felt weak, like rubber. I realized my hands were shaking. I looked to see if Julie had noticed but she’d begun to cry. I put my arm around her and pulled her off to the side of the road. She began to cry harder. I held her. I began to shake harder. I wondered if this would be my last night alive. Suddenly car headlights hit us, huge and blinding. I pulled Julie close to me, believing it would be the Land Rover, but then a male voice yelled, “Get a room!” and there was laughter as the car went on and darkness settled back upon us. Julie looked at me and said, “But we’ve got a room.” She seemed so earnest that I laughed and she sniffed and smiled. I took her hand in mine and we continued on to the restaurant. (CONTINUED)

All photos were taken in the Painted Desert & Petrified Forest, Arizona, USA. And then there were two more posts.

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