A RIDE TO EL PASO
It was early morning, and already the hitchhikers were tramping along the side of the road like the shabby remnants of a retreating Army. It was too soon for company, so Stanley continued in his used '62 Karmann Ghia, watching winsome smiles turn sour through the hazy film on his bug-splattered windshield. Besides, he hadn't had much luck in choosing compatible riders.
There was the marine in Delaware who bragged about wars he was never in, the sleeping salesman in Georgia, and the long-haired kid in Birmingham who chain smoked and whined for 200 miles. If their conversations were dull and disappointing, they at least had a story for being on the road, and Stanley wanted his own reason for stuffing his possessions into a little car and leaving a job and friends. He wanted a tale he could tell, something dark and malevolent to explain his rootless longings. He wanted to say he was beaten as a child; or molested, or abandoned. He wanted a hard luck story of his early teen years, of being forced into delinquency or cut in a knife fight or unjustly jailed. And though none of these traumas even came close to happening in his life, he felt he been somehow wounded and resented not having any scars to show for it.
But now, rolling across the flat emptiness of South Texas where the browns and beiges seemed so oppressive that even the plants struggled to maintain color, he was feeling the need for company and began perusing the available stock.
No. Not this one, too much luggage; certainly not the guy in leather with the psycho smile, nor the old man looking like road kill arisen.
Here's one. Brown suede jacket over clean dungarees, a small bag and a pleasant smile. He looked in his mid-twenties and Stanley thought he might do better talking with someone his own age.
"How far you going?" the man asked as he flopped into the bucket seat of the old convertible that smelled of mildew and damp floor mats.
"Oh, that's great. Going to El Paso for my daughter's first birthday. Came all the way down from Missouri. Crazy, eh?"
"Nothing's crazy these days." Stanley smiled, always pleased to hear a reasonable story why a man would be thumbing on the interstate. The story also helped to explain the rectangular bulge in the canvas bag tucked between the man's feet.
"Ray Miller - pleased to meet you, Stan," the man sang with the confident warmth of practiced introductions. "It's a relief to finally get a ride with someone my own age. This old farmer picked me up outside of Joplin," he added, with a glint of amusement brightening his eyes. "Man, I learned enough about manure and animal droppings to destroy dinner conversations well into the next decade..."
Stanley kept his eyes on the road, smiling and nodding and looking forward to telling his tale of the long-haired kid and others he picked up along the way.
They reached El Paso around four in the afternoon and were still having a laugh about one thing or another. Since Stanley wasn't expected at any particular time, he decided to drop Ray off a the Blue Lady Lounge where Ray's ex-wife worked.
"Let me at least buy you a beer," Ray said after looking over his shoulder at the neon beer signs in the windows. "You said yourself you're in no hurry. Las Cruces is only thirty miles down the road."
"Thirty miles," Stanley pished. "Child's play."
"There ya go."
The Blue Lady Lounge was just a barroom with six booths and two pool tables. A few men sat at the bar, while off duty GI's, conspicuous by their uniform haircuts and crumpled civilian clothes, occupied three of the booths.
Around the bar lingered traces of the holiday season: a smear of artificial snow on the mirror, a box of balled string lights in the corner and torn crepe paper caught beneath tacks just out of reach of the barmaid.
"Hi, fellas. What can I get you?" a woman asked while toweling off the bar with enough bounce to create a pleasing jiggle beneath her red T-shirt.
Ray took on the grim look of disapproval. "What time does Charlotte start?"
"Charlotte, eh? Who wants to know?"
The smile left the barmaid's face and all her spunky energy funneled into the serious business of gum chewing. "Five o'clock. You want a drink."
"Whatever you have on tap, honey," Ray said, then turned to Stanley with a grin that showed signs of a quick recovery. "Is that all right with you, Stan?"
Ray walked over to a pool table and ran his hand along the green felt. "You play?"
"A little," Stanley called back as he grabbed two mugs off the bar.
"Maybe we can suck a couple of these guys into a game," Ray winked and whispered. "Get ourselves some free beers."
"I'm not that good."
"You don't have to be," Ray said, taking a cue stick from the wall rack and making a show of chalking the tip.
It didn't take long before two of the soldiers came swaggering toward them, looking at the pool table like it was a curiosity.
"Play for beers?" Ray asked, amused by their attempt to feign innocence.
The two men shrugged at each other. "Yeah, why not," one of them said. "We'll give it a try."
The GI's played well and Stanley did better than he thought he would, but Ray was dominating. He floated around the table like an automaton, leaning in and out of shots with the fluid accuracy of programmed machinery. Soon, Stanley was sitting out, sipping free beer and watching Ray play individually for twenty dollars a game.
To ease the sting inflicted on his opponents, Ray's concentration included a self-effacing sense of humor that was disrupted only when the front door opened or when he went to the bar to check on the time.
"So you're Charlotte's ex," the barmaid said, her gum snapping like a small whip.
"When's she coming in?"
"You said that an hour ago."
"She's not coming in at all, is she?"
A stocky man sitting at the end of the bar lifted his head from his newspaper. "Is there a problem, Cindy?" he asked as he started walking toward Ray.
"Just asking the lady a question," Ray said.
"Yeah? What kind of question?"
"Nothing you'd be interested in."
"Try me. I'm an interested guy." The man rolled his tongue behind his lower lip.
Stanley was watching from across the room and clenched a pool stick when a quirky smile twisted up Ray's face. He mentally located his car and calculated the time required to unlock and start it. He looked over at the GI's Ray had taken money from and sized them up. He thought of the two thousand miles he traveled without incident. He thought of fights, police, fines and pain. It wasn't his fault that Ray's ex-wife didn't show. It wasn't his fault that Ray came this far for his daughter's birthday and was playing pool and drinking beer. He felt trapped, betrayed, angry and frightened.
All that must have crossed Stanley's face the moment Ray glanced at him. Ray's quirky smile softened and he lowered his eyes. "I'm trying to get a hold of Charlotte. It's my daughter's first birthday."
"It's little Dee-dee's birthday?" The man's round face lit up, then he looked sharply at the barmaid. "Charlotte called out sick about half an hour ago."
Cindy popped a bubble as she drifted away to serve another customer.
Stanley puffed up as Ray came around the pool table. "Man, I thought we were gonna have ourselves a little action," he said, cocking his head.
"Yeah, almost," Ray replied with a short laugh that trailed into a kindly smile.
Stanley suddenly felt ashamed and exposed. He realized his panic showed and, although it was Ray who apologized for the situation and thanked him for the ride and for his company, it was Stanley who felt indebted for not having his bluff called.
"...the bouncer gave me Charlotte's address," Ray said, extending his hand. "I'm going to take a run over to her place. So, thanks again."
"What do you mean," Stanley said, refusing the handshake. "You still need a ride."
"No. You done enough already."
Stanley looked around the barroom as if it had been the scene of some ceremonial initiation. "What the hell, Ray," he said, "I came this far."
They drove to a trailer park that was only ten minutes away. It was dark and Stanley got out of the car and sat on the fender as Ray went up a gravel driveway carrying his gym bag. When he came to the first lamppost and the overhead light illuminated him, a door to one of the trailers flew open and a woman came bounding out. Her quick movement toward Ray implied that he should come no further and so he froze, dropping his gym bag onto the ground.
Stanley stood up for a better look as she came into the light. Her sandy hair was teased and stiff looking, her make-up, though artfully applied, was overdone and showy. She was dressed like a woman who had put her evening on hold; sloppy jeans and old sneaks with an orange silk blouse that cast a glow onto her face when she folded her arms in front of her. As the couple paused to glare at each other, the scent of some mongrelized flower drifted down the driveway.
Stanley couldn't hear much of what they said; he started to feel embarrassed that he might. While Ray's voice hummed in a low, constant tone, the woman's pitch rose and fell with emotion, allowing certain words to escape the mumble of their conversation. 'No' was the easiest one. Long, drawn out 'no's', emphatic and final. 'I told you', was another phrase that came through, sometimes threatening, but mostly scolding and unforgiving.
Ray orchestrated his side of the story with slight hand gestures, imploring and punctuating, explaining and pleading, until finally his arms dangled limp at his sides. He slouched back against the lamppost and his head rotated skyward as if to find an acceptable answer in the stars. Then, for a brief moment, he looked back toward Stanley and, in that instant, the woman started walking away, her footsteps crunching loudly on the gravel.
"Charlotte! Wait!" Ray called out, grabbing for his gym bag. He held out a rectangular package with one corner pushed in and a strip of torn gift paper flapping over the side. Ray leaned forward without leaving the circle of the overhead light as Charlotte started back. She shook her head as she took the tattered package from his hand then abruptly turned and walked back to her trailer, carrying the gift like an empty box en route to the trash can.
Ray waited under the light for a couple of minutes before backing into the darkness of the driveway.
"Let's go," was all he said as he brushed pass Stanley.
The road between El Paso and Las Cruces was an empty, two lane strip of tar that disappeared beyond the glare of the headlights.
Ray had asked Stanley to drop him off at route 70, which intersected Las Cruces, so he could start making his way home. Stanley was happy to oblige, since it seemed that driving the car was all he could do. He tried searching for words that were wise or consoling, but found nothing to say and hated the oafish dullness of drawing a blank.
He knew there would be no warm reunion, no child's outstretched arms, no tearful embraces. He figured Ray would just visit for awhile and sit and make friends with his daughter. He didn't expect to see the origin of someone's personal pain; to witness the kind of wounding that's meant to be done in private and only deepened by the presence of an observer. Though he knew it to be just a notion, Stanley couldn't shake the guilty feelings of a conspirator.
The music on the radio sounded tinny and irrelevant and a race around the dial only emphasized the embarrassing need to find some diversion. Stanley finally turned the radio off but the silence quickly stagnated and, on the urging of a desperate whim, he reached for the dashboard and flicked off the car's headlights.
Instead of the hoots and yahoo's Stanley hoped to gain from his antic, the two men sat quietly staring through the windshield.
The desert rolled away like a vast, pale sea; its waves frozen in motion by a celestial storm gathered overhead. The roadway had a dim, phosphorescent glow and as they glided along, the tick of the engine sounded muffled and far off; a repetitious whisper as detached as was the sensation of hydroplaning over star-lit swells.
Stanley cleared his throat to find a suitable voice for the eerie mood.
"I'm not sure of the accommodations my friends have," he said, "but, maybe we can find you a couch to sleep on tonight."
"Nah," Ray said. "I need to get back. There's a job I've been ducking that might not be there much longer. Salesman. Yeah," he laughed to himself, "I'm one hell of a talker."
A black hill passed on the horizon like a giant serpent sneaking by in the night.
"So, what about you, Stan? Still planning to go to L.A.?"
"I don't know," Stanley said. "I think L.A. was just a place I told people I was going. It's not a destination." He rolled the window down a crack, letting the cold air rush over his forehead. "Maybe I'll hang around here for a while," he added, surprising himself with the comfort that thought gave him.
When Stanley saw the glow of the city he turned his headlights back on. He dropped Ray off at route 70, shook his hand, then watched as Ray made his way over to the highway. Ray turned for one last wave just as a big rig went rumbling through, its fat wheels whining, its billboard lighting whisking by like a celebration. Then, with the quickness of a snuffed candle, Ray was in the darkness, a shadowy figure tramping on the shoulder of the road.