This is book two of The Delivery. Use chapters at the top to navigate. Chapter names can be used as bookmarks.
-- Tom Jennings, copyright 2022
Continued from book 1.
Car packed, Stacy tugs at her bike on the roof one last time, tosses her bag on the floor. Dan starts the engine, mounts his phone, it beeps three times.
Dan pokes his phone, a map appears, he pinches and squeezes pastel abstractions. A blip of the gas pedal slows the idle, two sweeps of the windshield wiper smears overnight dust and condensation, a gritty arc suggesting the rings of Saturn.
“The drive from here out is different. You should probably get more familiar with where we’re going, and the maps. Hey, that snob Mario installed new overlays, see if you can find ‘em.”
“OK will do.”
“And we’re leaving California.”
“No, I mean we’re entering ay-zee republic land. Mostly I know how to avoid them, and they’re not exactly welcome up in indian country. But...”
“Yeah I know about Arizona. So?”
“So you’re not their kind of person,” deciding bluntness is a virtue here, “You’re too brown.”
Dan backs into the empty highway then heads east, past Essex Road they arrived on, then left onto Fenner Road at the barricades blocking off abandoned highway 66.
“So what’s next?”
“Oh right. Fenner’s right up here, old store and gas station. Then Goffs. Then 95 north, 163 over the mountains. Nevada, no trouble there. Then Laughlin on the river, retirees gamble their health away in freezing casinos. Sometimes I make a stop there. Not this trip.”
“OK at some point you have to tell me what the FUCK you are doing out here. Your stories are bullshit,” said with a smirk and sideways glance.
Dan is silent for some seconds, then “Yeah... I’m delivering stuff for people. To and from LA. And along the way.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“There’s a radio in the car and a shitload of data.”
“The hotspot, yeah I know.”
“Well yeah, there are those free libraries and music and videos, and I do deliver them. People want the old shows, especially out here. But that’s not the real deal. There’s a second, and now maybe a third, umm thing.”
“What kind of thing?”
“I don’t know.”
“I knew it! So how do you not get busted for this other wifi hotspot?”
“It’s not wifi. It’s broadband spread spectrum. Probably military surplus. I hope. Not exactly not legal, but tech-wise it’s pretty out there. The best thing about it is that it’s not detectable. Easily anyway.”
“Oh... so some well-meaning old white guy driving an old crappy car with a dipshit do-gooder bookmobile driving around to all these poor brown folks...”
“You got it.”
“That’s fucked up,” Stacy slouches in her seat, earnestly smiling for the first time in two days, smug in her inside knowledge, “OK that’s cool.”
A minute later, “So what’s in there?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“Huh? Really? That doesn’t sound too smart.”
Dan gives a weak shrug, says, “At some point you gotta trust somebody.”
Stacy has her phone out. “Tell me those roads again. Farmington, right?”
“Yeah but that’s a long way off. 95 is up next, then 163, then 68, then Kingman. We can eat and fuel up in Kingman, but first we gotta drive through Golden Valley. They still think Trump was the good old days.”
Stacy hunches over her phone, poking and pinching for the hour it takes to climb the final rise of the Newberry Mountains, the highway briefly running along the crest, north, before the descent to Laughlin and the river.
Suddenly upright, “OK now I see where we are. Everything’s so spread out! At one point the screen was blank white, I thought it crashed.”
“Google’s got nothing to sell you out here.”
Monique sets her morning coffee on their desk, logs into her computer. After perusing messages and routine project status, she clicks the regional map, yesterday’s reminder pops up. The California agent is on the road again. Dan something. Interesting -- someone is in the car with him. I thought he traveled alone. Wonders who it is. No big deal.
163 meanders over the Newberry Mountains, no visible reason for the road’s existence, the hydrological complexity defining fate of this region is clustered along the thin river ahead and below. With the windows down they weave between weathered peaks and through dynamited passes of raw red-streaked gray rock. Archetypal twentieth-century roadway engineering, simultaneously arrogant and insignificant. An unthinkable construct today, like the Egyptian pyramids, Dan thinks, this road always looks just like this, comforting in its monotony and physical beauty, the essence of a road trip.
The walls of the last roadcut fall away as they begin the descent, old but smooth pavement, bright new stripes, down the middle of the bajada, winding towards the river.
The silvered high-rise casinos of Laughlin line the river south, glaring in reflected sunlight. Soon enough the edge of town manifests as manicured concrete, occasional orange construction cones, recently-washed automobiles. Not until the final grade is the river itself visible, jarring here in the desert, like augmented vision. In seconds the bridge and river are beneath then behind them. They halt at an incongruous traffic light.
Left onto Arizona 68, eastbound. Without Nevada’s laxness and luxury, recreation on the Arizona side of the river has withered, tethered to the last century’s profligate energy use. Decrepit motel franchises, a functioning unbubbled charging park with gritty pocked lot. Sporadic rectangles of concrete line the road, oddly and widely spaced, the remains of derelict buildings bulldozed to the slab.
AZ 68 rises eastward through the low Black Mountains, civilization behind them, the road peaks then descends again. To Dan this is all very familiar, even tedious, but Stacy studies intently, silent.
“Wow, this is beautiful. But holy crap it’s hot.”
“Yeah, it's low land, along the river. A beautiful place to pass through. But here comes Golden Valley.”
“What’s the deal with Golden Valley?”
“Old white folks moved here at the start of the century to escape the united states. They got played by some developer that did a lot of angry red white blue marketing. Other than the state prison there’s no jobs for 100 miles. Pizza shops run by retirees selling pizza to retirees, social security checks evaporating in the heat. Property crimes and vandalism. Water is trucked in. Lots of flags and angry men. Guns as popular as pizza, counting the shops. If anyone gives you a funny look, don’t see it. If you have to see it, nod, grit your teeth. Really, really don’t want to stop here.”
“Uhuh,” Stacy gestures with her phone, held flat, to Dan, “This is weird. There’s really no other roads east west into Arizona? Just interstate forty or all the way down to Phoenix? Are we on the moon, or what?”
“The Grand Canyon is fucking grand. There’s 20,000 square miles east of here with no east-west highways. Gotta drive around it, not through it.”
“Wow. Until this I never looked so closely. I mean why would I? Must have been weird back when people just flew over all this.”
They drive the laser-straight road to a broad valley lined each side with distant mountains. Prefab steel buildings dot the valley in featureless whites and pastels, spread out like escaped packing peanuts.
Stacy emerges from her phone, puzzled. “The satellite map shows road grids, orderly north south crazy-person orderly, but from here it looks like junk tossed around. And why do you think it’s all set so far away from the road?”
“Never thought of that... dunno. Maybe a man just needs his space,” one eyebrow raised, and says slowly for effect, “You know.”
“No, I don’t. Don’t wanna. So what exactly is the problem with interstate forty? I can see it loops down, it’s longer, but wouldn’t it be faster?”
“Well, yeah. But there’s state inspection stops on both sides of the border, and if they don’t like your looks, they can make life very difficult. Then the militias hang out on each side of those, scouting for their own reasons. Then there’s thieves in rest stops. And rest stop begging is depressing.”
“Huh. But we can just drive around it like this?”
“Yup. Too little traffic on this road for the state bureaucracies to set up shop. Cost benefit analysis something something I’m sure. The AZ types, well, this is home.”
The once-distant mountains ahead resolve as the land becomes commercial district, identifiable by drab steel prefabs being closer together, though still not close enough to walk between, a few with lit franchise signs. Most have a dusty parking lot, not much more than desert scraped flat, containing none-to-few pickup trucks, each with personal-space issues.
Stops at red lights every mile or so encourage peering into adjacent vehicles, and cause Dan to tense, but Stacy has somehow decoded the locals’ signaling system, glaring back at large bearded men glaring at her from their trucks, then nodding; they nod back in some insider’s code. Presumably they assume she is male.
Signs for Las Vegas and Phoenix, I-40 and I-11 appear. The roadway rises, curves through bermed desert, becomes the old cracked Interstate 11 onramp, passing Arizona Port of Entry’s razor-wired welcome center. In a familiar roadway gesture they merge into the stream of trucks and autotrucks bombing down 11 from Las Vegas.
“So what’s with Kingman? And what’s with New Kingman? Does the old one smell bad or something?”
“New Kingman is just a bubble stop on the freeway. Charging stations and corporate food. Gas cars not allowed inside. I can’t afford membership anyway. There’s one every hundred miles or so. There’s one close to Essex, just east of Fenner, actually, at Water Road.”
“OK then so what’s with old Kingman.”
“It's an old rail town, the old roads converge here. The parts near the freeway rely on tourists and travellers for income, so fucking with tourists is generally frowned upon.”
“What about the rest.”
“Oh, white people with guns mostly.”
“There’s that old white guy thing again.”
“So you’re OK with this?”
“Well it’s complicated isn’t it. I mean ethically. I’m not sure what I could do differently. Knowing, I think, who I’m working for.”
“What. Isn’t it just rich fucks back in LA?”
“Huh? Oh no. No, not at all. Oh I’m sure they benefit, when don’t they? But no, I’m not working for anyone in LA.”
“Then the fuck, who?”
“See for yourself when we get there. It’s complicated.”
Dan shrugs, drives on in silence.
“We’re on 66 again, this runs through a hipsterized antique downtown, then up through so-called indian country. I want another coffee. Want anything?”
“Huh. Good question. My schedule is off. Too soon for me … you good for an hour or two?”
“Fine. I could use another coffee too.”
Five minutes later they roll down the Beale Street exit, past the vacant shells of old bypassed Highway 93 trucker and tourist oversize-everything restaurants, derelict motels, asphalt lots cracked and dusty, the larger lots now trailer and equipment storage.
They pass under the Interstate, past a fake old-fashioned gasoline filling station marking the western edge of old-town Kingman, city-planner’s nostalgia authenticated by actually being an old western town, economically injected with bropubs, dormant in the day’s bright heat. They pass a large park devoted to ancient rail tech, irrelevant cast iron monsters under a protective awning, adorned with clinging children, old folks sitting under a mister in the shade of old trees.
A few blocks further, Dan pulls into the one busy parking lot of the district, in front of a standalone cafe, and turns off the car.
“Leave the window down a bit, I’ll lock up.”
Car locked, they waste no time in the sun, push through the doors into the cool, humid interior.
The combination of the cafe’s contemporary trendy-trope-tortured name, regional tech college students, and international tourists forms a permeable membrane that renders the cafe invisible to reactionary locals. Tables are occupied by students, turbaned truckers, community college girls in hijabs, parents with kids, tourists seeking authenticity.
Stacy says, simply, “Nice,” but looks genuinely relieved.
“Yeah, food’s just OK but who cares. Look, Kingman has punks!”
Stacy heads to the bathroom as Dan gets in line, orders two coffees and sits at a table with a view of the car.
When Stacy returns Dan asks, “Hey, can you look up gas? New gas. We’re heading up 66. Towards Peach Springs.” She nods, Dan heads to the bathroom. When he returns Stacy has a donut on a sheet of paper.
“I’m a sucker for a good donut.”
Twenty minutes later they are air-frying in the pre-heated car, windows down exchanging hot for broil. Small signs along Beale Street are subtitled Old Route 66. The highway turns momentarily rural rounding a hill bristling with towers like high-tech cacti, then passes under the shadow of Interstate forty/eleven.
They drive through a standard-issue late-20th-century western commercial district, fraying at the edges: six lanes, divided, close-spaced traffic lights and complicated faded white lines outlining permissible vehicular dance moves. The street both sides lined with the customary interlocking ecosystem of corporate food and services, punctuated by an occasional local business.
At Stacy’s gesture Dan pulls into the Flying Tao franchise near the end of the strip and up to the pump under the huge awning overhead. Stacy says “Be right back. Need anything?” Dan heads to the back of the car to buy and dispense fuel, “Nope.”
A few minutes later Dan climbs in the car, wafting hydrocarbons. Stacy is wearing an uncomfortable-looking corporate logo mesh hat, a stiffer and brighter copy of Ana’s.
Stacy pushes out her lower lip, nods straight ahead with a slight smile, as Dan pulls onto the highway.
“So they’re all like this I bet”, Stacy says.
“These towns. All stupid flat straight roads. Piles of junk at each end. Dead cars and trucks.”
“Yeah, pretty much. The straight road thing must have been some sort of engineering brag. But even the neanderthals left trash piles. They’re the only persistent evidence of civilization.”
They ride the now-two-lane road through rising foothills, low outcroppings of worn rock and dirt, scrubby bushes, birds circling for mammalian lunch; these occupy the lower quarter of the visual field. Above is dominated by endless blue sky, altitude lessening the intensity of the color while somehow emphasizing its sheer depth to outer space.
Every few miles is an evidence cluster of human activity: structures intact or collapsing, vehicles moveable or not, the difference sometimes indiscernible. In front of some are shiny rented motorcycles, attracted to disingenuous nostalgic artifacts decorating the properties, but most are sub-modest ranch residences, barns and sheds, alive or long deceased.
A half hour later these peter out, the only sign of human occupation, other than the road under them, is sporadic range infrastructure: endless fence twenty feet off the roadway, occasional punctuation of dirt pull-outs to a padlocked gate.
Stacy drifts in and out of her phone, already accustomed to the novelty and beauty of the terrain, glancing up as they pass scattered signs of mostly-past civilization. The broad plain narrows, distant mountains form a faint canyon, the rail sporadically visible in the distance is now alongside.
Some primordial urge tells us to avoid large open spaces, Stacy thinks as they enter a place of grassy and treed low hills. Off to one side neat roads branch off, hosting small, well-kept nearly identical houses, the usual human habits of driveways and vehicles and kids toys in the yard and piles of stuff.
Green municipal place signs and a third lane in the road signals the approach to another small town, but something is off here.
A sidewalk? Undulating through tended green trees and shrubs? An image of west-coastal college towns arises, incongruous. There is little trash and no dust. OK there’s dust but not covering everything.
Puzzled, as Stacy turns to ask Dan he is already smiling at her, smirking really, and before she can speak, says “Something’s funny, right?”
“Yeah, no shit.”
Signs slow them to a fast walk, still, they arrive in the de facto center of the town quickly.
“Whuh…” is all that Stacy can manage.
“Twenty years ago it started raining more in the nations. This whole area is surrounded by mountains, Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Colorado, Santa Fe, south. Went from nothing to not nothing. It’s not super obvious but it’s kind of a big deal.”
“Yeah no shit,” Stacy says distractedly, looking around.
The Walapai Market is large and bright, its red sign sun-bleached, the wavy sidewalk runs through a mini-forest of sparsely leafed desert trees crowding a micro-plaza at the store’s entrance, a few patrons at tables dappled with shade.
Across the road from the market is a low white concrete building with tiny windows. An ancient automobile service station, garage door open, interior stacked with colorful tchotchkes ogled by bright-white t-shirt tourists. By the road an unrealistic garden of multi-vintage metal signs announce its resurrection as tourist attraction. The building would be canonical early-20th but for one of the corners exaggerated outwards with an arch, a short section of concrete roadway running through it. Strategically-placed planters bookend it as pedestrian only. Huddling under the arch are two upright sarcophagi, each with a finger in an ear, intended to accommodate modern automobilists driving into the future, the net effect an artfully awkward incorporation of motion and ‘progress’, presaging modern bubble charging station/food enclaves, a prototype in concrete and hand sawn lumber.
On the more prosaic left end of the building is parked a rental sportabout sprouting expensive bicycles and strappy recreational gear, a garish logo/advertisement logo on the door. Two excessively-fit thirty-nothing men, in logo’d skin-tight aggressively subtle active-environment suits exit the tiny vehicle. The driver, hobbled by some sort of specialized shoe, extracts a cable from apparatus affixed to the old building, attaches it to the vehicle, then the two of them walk up the street. Stacy watches this unfold, scowling, as they pass by at a crawl.
“Is this some sort of rich people’s resort?”
“Not really. A hiking trail-head and recreational stuff. Standard procedure, locals fleecing the tourists. Hipsters train in from Vegas or Albuquerque.”
“That explains the fluorescent spandex.”
“Yup. Hey, you hungry? It’s one now, there’s decent food here, and not much up ahead.”
The center of town seems to be the four corners produced by a tiny street crossing 66, the two north quadrants occupied by the Walapai Market, a park of sparse trees and tables, a blocky municipal building. South, the tourist service station and coming up on their right, a long low blue-roofed combination lodge and restaurant, in front, an asphalt lot absorbing and reflecting infrared.
Dan’s arm is out the window as they approach the Walapai Market corner, a periodic bass note encroaching on their consciousness. A half dozen kids occupy a bench alongside the market, under a small shady tree.
Window-shaking bass and kick emits from a shiny red plastic square laying in the dirt before them, each boom producing a blur of dust at each edge.
“Holy shit, where are we?” Stacy is nodding semi-consciously to the music.
“Beautiful downtown Peach Springs.”
Local round-faced teenagers, and two probable children-of-tourists remind Dan of 1990’s rave-punk crossed with twenty-teens’ Chengdu hip hop: baggy black t-shirts with photorealistic images, tall black socks, fluorescent flip flops. All wearing identical oversized dark glasses with ugly thick frames. Two of them reach up, pause, simultaneously tap the glasses’ temple, shout “yeah!” in unison. The song shifts into a new downbeat framing a chipmunky chorus:
“Outhouse fixture, yodel curry passport,
Outhouse fixture, yodel curry passport,
Blacklisted savior, do me a favor...”
Dan observes, “What’s with the nonsense lyrics?”
Stacy replies, “It’s not nonsense. You’re just old.”
Deflated, Dan continues, “Anyways, we’ve found the future. Or the present, or at least the recent past. Who the fuck knows.”
The kids see Dan and Stacy looking, coolly nod and wave, they wave back, Stacy raising a fist out her window as they pass.
One of the girl teenagers asks “Is that a gas car?”, Dan thumbs-up, the girl turns back before hearing Dan’s reply.
Slouched at his desk, Niguel hunches over his laptop, picking through system logs, looking for a minor but chronic and intermittent network slowness, a task he uses as distraction and diversion from more important work.
An alert pops onto his screen; hovering over it, informs him that content producers in a neighboring res have content crawling towards Farmington, slowly, over the commercial net, and there is a delivery agent passing through town: /honor request that agent persist in the vicinity to accommodate extended uploads yes-no/. Niguel absent-mindedly clicks yes and goes back to grepping logs.
Half a minute later Dan pulls into the asphalt lot, between painted lines, in the partial shade of the motel building. Vehicles occupy randomly spaced parking spots along the front of the motel. Windows rolled car locked, stretching, they make their way to the restaurant entrance when Dan hears a faint clamor from the street. Turning, two old men, sitting on a bench across the street in the shade of the park’s trees, one has an arm up, waving.
Dan waves, saunters to the sidewalk, yells back across the street, “Hey, how you guys doing?”
Waving man says “Oh the usual, you know. Hey that’s a nice car. Is that a Corvair?”
“Nope. Made in Wisconsin,” and to head off the inevitable next question, “1968.”
“No kidding! I was born in 1968!” His bench companion cups his hands over his mouth to yell towards Dan, “But his car is in better shape!”, waving man exaggerates a shove of his friend, and they all laugh loudly.
“Hey,” Dan asks when the laughter subsides, “What’s good today?” head and a shoulder tilting in the direction of the restaurant.
“The hualapai taco. Get the hualapai taco, man, it’s the best.”
“Great! I’ll do that! Thanks! You guys stay out of trouble!”, raising his hand again, smiling at the ritualized greetings.
“See you guys later!” The men wave and lean back into their discussion as Dan turns, where Stacy impatiently waits in the rectangular shadow of the tall stucco sign, the highest object in town, announcing HUALAPAI LODGE, below a daylight-bright display, lurid graphics advertising local businesses, the time, and temperature, in a style that screams high school student art class.
“For no good reason I like to enter through the lodge,” Dan heads to the anodized brown double glass door. “You get a big blast of cold air.”
Nodding in reference to the old guys across the street, Dan says knowingly, “They say that same thing every time I’m through here.”
“You probably do too.”
Snubbed, Dan pulls the big brass bar on the front door to the lodge, releasing a pulse of freezing air into the parking lot.
The door scrapes closed behind them, leaving them momentarily bewildered in the dark Y-shaped lobby of the combination restaurant-hotel. A thrill of chill runs up his neck. Dan smiles and waves at a young woman behind the registration desk in the crotch of the Y, seeing them head into the restaurant she returns attention to a phone not very discreetly out of sight on the desk.
The restaurant is a cavernous low space with an excess of tables and chairs, too much chrome tubing, reminding Dan of last-century Las Vegas trucker decor. They pause, first in bewilderment then to scout for someone to seat them, when the young woman from the registration desk appears with two menus and begins walking deeper into the space, expecting them to follow. She is wearing a conservative navy blue skirt, in a style abandoned by banks and insurance offices decades ago. Dan and Stacy look at each other then follow.
The woman wades through the sea of tables; Dan points, with a smile and raised eyebrows, towards the windows. A forced smile belies the scowl in her eyes; they detour, she places the menus on the table. Finally she speaks.
“There you go! Someone will be with you in a few minutes,” and she is gone. They sit next to the coated windows that dim the relentless sunlight to a disagreeable gray.
“That’s what happens to you when you wear clothes like that,” Stacy mutters. They pick up menus but scan the hall as if for predators.
“Ahh… There,” Dan indicates a table near the kitchen swinging doors, where a young man in a stiff-looking white shirt and black slacks is making eyes at the woman, whose return path takes her close to him.
“Didn’t want us to see her flirting on the job.”
Stacy scowls and buries her face in the menu. “I hate straight people.”
“How is that a straight-people thing?”
“It just is.”
Dan decides to drop it and looks at the menu. Then drops the menu onto the table, remembering he’s already decided.
“I’m getting the hualapai taco.”
A few minutes later their waitress saunters over, smiling and professional, the skin around her eyes fascinatingly wrinkled, as is much of her brown face.
“WelcometoHualapaiLodgecanItakeyourorderhoney?” A true professional, she sizes up Dan, earnestly but flatteringly.
Dan says “Two hualapai tacos, two iced teas,” looks at Stacy.
“Why you’re very welcome. I’ll be right back with your order.” She performs a notation ritual on her pad, smiles and heads to the kitchen.
Dan then extracts his phone, glances at it, lays it on the table in front of him.
“Take your time. We’ll be here for a while.”
Stacy stares, puzzled, relaxes and says “Oh, right. I guess.”
“Or pickup, or both,” anticipating Stacy’s next question, “half hour, probably. Phone will beep.”
Stacy shrugs, returns to her phone. Dan picks his up as they wait for lunch.
Stepping out of the dim refrigerated lodge into full afternoon sun makes Stacy reel and curse involuntarily. She fumbles for sunglasses in a pocket somewhere. Dan, walks, squinting, hat brim tilted to the ground, having steeled himself before exiting, enjoying the contrast.
The ritual sequence of car unlocked, doors opened, standing while executing the tradeoff of oven-heat car interior vs. UV and IR from the reactor in the sky gives Dan time to turn around and scan for the park guys, to thank them for the recommendation. Not seeing them, he gives a vague wave in case they are out of sight.
Minutes out of town the land reverts to ranch fence and occasional gate, the highway undulating through rolling high desert, the placelessness of repetitive beauty and open range. Periodically a pickup truck appears, gets larger, drivers exchange raised palms, then disappear in the mirror.
Most of an hour later the size and density of power poles increases, more and larger beige steel prefabs line the highway; humanity’s overhead. Side roads, shiny chain link, DOT signage, then the beginnings of tourist kitsch mark the outskirts of Seligman.
Seligman, living simulacra of a dead town, is busy. Seligman has its own Interstate exits a mile south, and many who use them head to the Road Kill Cafe, which occupies this western end of the brief strip they now tread upon. The cafe’s parking lot is lined with a dozen decades of fussified Western debris and locals’ gas pickups, rented minivans and ubiquitous shiny rental Harleys.
Stacy asks “Ugh. Is it as bad as it looks?”
“Stopped there once, the proprietors are fine, but I felt like some of the locals couldn’t decide where in the desert they might bury my body.”
They drive through six blocks of curated old-west kitsch as the Interstate inches closer off to the right. At the eastern edge of town, the curled protective arm of an interstate ramp system encircles a pair of eternally-competing hotel chains, one open-roofed charging station and one decrepit old-style motor-fuel stop slash minimart. The entire area is protected from nature by a magic circle of tall thin silver poles topped with unreasonably-bright lamps of odd spectra.
Avoiding the big road as much as possible, Dan has stayed on the final remaining segment of the old highway, through or past the enticing but invisible village of Crookton, the Interstate getting closer on their right, inevitable concurrency approaching.
As the old highway becomes Interstate 40 on-ramp, Stacy looks up from her phone. “So what next? 66 ends here, right? So it’s Interstate forty?”
“Yeah... Flagstaff makes me nervous. It’s another six hours to Farmington, and I really wanted to get there before dark. It’s an awkward distance.”
“Well, Farm is too far from LA for me to do in one shot, so I usually motel it near Flag or camp at Sunset Crater just north, but Flag gets rougher every year, the secessionists keep moving north. If things don’t improve I might have to go through Utah, that’s a big deal on the return side, since most of the small deliveries are in native lands.”
“It’s what...”, Stacy consults her phone, “64? goes north, around Flagstaff.”
“Ah, you’ve been geeking out on maps. Cool. 64 is a great road, but it adds an hour or more depending on the number of tourists, and you gotta pay. It’s the main road to the Grand Canyon. It’s really beautiful, ever been?”
“I wish we had time. Maybe on the way back. Let’s bomb it through Flag. I’ll get gas near the freeway, costs more, but faster.”
“I’ll look for gas...”
“OK thanks. There’s a bunch of old gas stops at the two main exits, we can wing it when we get there.”
Joe thinks of his job as a sort of silent shepherd of travelers on the paved pastures around Flagstaff, those of interest to the folks he works for up in Farmington. Mostly he sits around, drinking coffee in parking lots, or visiting friends in town. His friends know he is working when they see the little gadget protruding from an ear.
A half hour back the gadget whispered to him to check on a recent arrival, heading east and then probably north up 89. The icon passed him on his phone, as he was heading west at the time, so he drove to the next exit and changed direction.
Joe was surprised by how quickly he caught up with the antique white car. A gas car, a long way from California. In fact he had to make an effort to fall back and not be seen, opposite of the usual problem of keeping up with speeding foreigners.
Joe hangs behind a dirty white pickup, equally slow, as buffer between him and his target, and in a few minutes realizes that the white pickup is matching the antique’s low rate of travel.
Curious, Joe zooms his phone in on the truck’s rear, scans the plate number, and pecks off a message to Farmington. The automated reply alarms him: the truck is owned by a member of a local militia, one of the bigot separatist groups slowly creeping north from the dying big city to the south.
Joe turns down an offramp and pauses at the stop sign at the cross road, adjusts the thing in his ear and taps his phone to make a voice call. When he hears someone answer he pulls across and returns to the interstate, the delay increasing the distance to the white pickup.
The altitude has been slowly rising since Kingman, not quite evident until the intersection with Interstate forty. The terrain is increasingly mountainous, hence the merger of roads concentrating traffic through this technologically-challenging east-west interstate highway.
The Interstate winds upward through granite-walled roadcuts, the once-distant mountains now steep grades under the tires. A third lane repeatedly appears and fades away, occupied by the ubiquitous autotrucks. Occasional human-driven trucks add to the drama as they attempt to maintain speed, leap-frogging the lumbering autotrucks. Dan’s car strains, unhelped by the new gas, and dodging speeding minivanned tourists is a game with no winners.
The forest gives way to bent conifers. The road plateaus, through cool, flat pasture, bounded by pine forest. Pastures that held shallow rain pools in winter and fall, increasingly contain strip malls or tract housing, overflow of Flagstaff’s exurbia.
Flagstaff’s clusterfuck of old freeway exits appears as they top the mesa. At Stacy’s gesture Dan takes the Butler Ave exit, to a rundown old-style filling station and minimart surrounded by chain link fence and tall thin aluminum light poles.
Monique’s phone rings announcing a voice call. That’s odd, she thinks, extracts phone, turns on the speaker, sets it on the desk, distracted by the computer screen in front of her.
“Hey Joe what’s up.”
“Sorry to bother you, but there’s a delivery guy in from California. He pulled onto 40 not long ago, I caught up with them, you know, routine. He’s being tailed by one of the Prescott militia guys. Thought you should know ASAP so I called. I sent you the info I got.”
Monique picks her phone off the desk, turns off the speaker.
“Damn. You sure?”
“A white pickup, looked it up, see what I sent you. The delivery guy is slow as shit, so everything not an autotruck passes him, except this white pickup. I’m behind them a ways... wait, looks like we’re all getting off at Butler. Think he’s heading up 89 next? That would make the most sense.”
“Probably. Wasn’t there a hijacking by those guys on 89 last week?”
“Yes, not one of ours, but similar MO. A slow out of state truck.”
“OK then I’m going to escalate this. I’ll get this guy an escort. Stay on it, I’ll talk to folks here, but let’s assume this is serious. And thank you. Call if anything changes.”
Monique abruptly adds, “Oh hey, is he alone?”
“Who? You mean in the old car? No, he’s got a passenger.”
“Interesting. OK thanks.”
Monique stands up, adjusts, sits again. Looks on her computer to see who is signed in, sees Jimmy is on call today, and sends him a message, high priority. She looks at her phone then makes a voice call.
Jimmy is holding court at his usual table in an old brew pub’s courtyard. Jimmy no longer drinks, and though he tends to nurse hot coffee or iced tea for hours at a time, depending on the weather, the pub doesn’t mind; Jimmy and his occasional entourage brings life to a slow afternoon. And Jimmy tips well for the privilege. Jimmy thinks of it as his Flagstaff office.
This is a work day, and Jimmy’s job sometimes requires rapid deployment to arbitrary places in the Flagstaff area. This particular pub is in an unconvincingly eclectic complex designed around a courtyard meant to be attractive to the town’s many college students, but its location, nestled between roaring freeway interchanges, states otherwise. It is however ideal for Jimmy’s purposes, with ready access to roads he works from, I-40, old 66, 180, native lands east, 89 north.
Sitting at Jimmy’s table is a young, attractive man from one of the nearby technical shops, who, after an end-of-shift meal, had moved over to talk. The attraction seemed mutual, flirty but casual. They were discussing camping in the area with a college-age woman, leaning towards them from the next table over when the silverware on his expanded-metal table top vibrates. Jimmy looks at the suddenly-awake screen, and still smiling, picks it up.
A moment later, “Well it was great talking to you again Jose, and … what was your name again?”
“Yes, sorry! It’s a lovely place, and quite cool this time of year. You should go! But I’m on call today, and it looks like I’m needed elsewhere. Excuse me a second.”
Jimmy unlocks his phone and pecks a reply.
Mary asks, “Oh what sort of work do you do?”
“Oh various things, often roadside help to my employer’s traveling employees and such.”
Jose says, “Tech work?”
“Sometimes,” a sudden stern look at his phone, more pecking, “Yes, I have to leave. Sorry folks! Sorry Jose. Do you eat here often?”
“Once in a while, maybe more often now,” with a look that brings a wide smile from Jimmy.
“Wonderful! Maybe tomorrow? I’m sorry to run off on no notice, but I really have to go. Maybe I’ll see you here again Mary”, gets up to leave.
Phone in hand, Jimmy pauses at the waiter’s station on his way to the parking lot. His truck is an ancient post-war-two pickup, blue color worn through to gray primer and orange rust, but set on a more-modern chassis, this particular combination a relic of the petro past. It suits Jimmy’s needs just fine.
Leaning against the shady side of his truck he replies to Monique that he will be on the road in minutes.
Jimmy walks to the back of the truck, looks around to see that he is more or less alone, opens the rickety door of the camper occupying the back of the truck. Then unlocks a heavy alloy inner door with a code, steps inside and tends to some equipment up near the cab.
He exits the truck, closing inner and outer doors, a bulky black rectangle in his hand, unlocks the door, shoulders into the seat against the accumulated heat, closes the door, cranks the window down, and waits.
Dan decides that a cluster of Grand Canyon tourist minivans at the eMobil station provides decent cover, and loops around to the back of the line.
Dan pulls up to a pump freed by an exiting minivan, gets out to fuel up. “Looks like whatever,” Stacy mumbles, slumped in her seat with the window down, pretends to be lost in her phone. A tourist family from a place without sunlight pass by the car, wearing souvenir T-shirts and clunky AR advertisement gimme sunglasses from the minimart. A breeze carries sunscreen volatiles in Stacy’s window.
A middle-aged woman, her teenage girls bickering over purchased sugar treats and heading to their white minivan, fans herself with a fistful of brochures. Taking Stacy’s glance as license, the woman tractor-beams an ingratiating smile at her, brochure held out as defensive weapon, and approaches the car as the offspring climb into the minivan. Stacy glares at her, then at the full-color image on the handout under her nose: a blonde long-haired white man in robes surrounded by blonde white children, GOD’S CHOSEN PEOPLE above, stylized sword and creepy symbols below.
“Hi! Har yeeoo today? Hot here ain’ it?” She pauses just long enough to exaggerate her smile further but before Stacy can do more than glare at her she continues, “Can I tell you about our mission to repopulate God’s America with --”
“Young lady if indeed that is what you are there’s no need to be rude --”
Stacy drops her phone on the seat, lurches an arm and her face out the window, and in a hoarsely threatening voice, “Get that shit away from me, stupid breeder. Babies aren’t miracles, rats do it. It’s what happens when you don’t use a rubber, you racist piece of shit! Fuck off!”
Dan, hearing the commotion, finishes pumping, rises from behind the car in time to see a man begin exiting the white minivan. Dan heads to Stacy’s side of the car, assesses the situation, and addressing the man and brochure lady, says “Leave. Take your poisonous shit elsewhere.”
The woman seems primed to make a scene there in the parking lot, other drivers trying to avoid the confrontation, but when Dan advances a step and Stacy pulls her head in and opens the door, the man cries out, “Honey, get in the car, let’s go. NOW.”
The woman menaces with a look but says nothing, heads to the passenger side, climbs in, crescendo of argument within cut off by the man winding his window up, doors slamming, and pulling out into the road.
Dan takes his place behind the wheel. “Playing with the tourists?”
Stacy’s face rapidly cools from furious anger to smug satisfaction, replies “She asked for it.”
“They usually do.”
“Do I look like the breeding type? What the fuck.”
“Oh she knew she was playing with fire. Makes them feel righteous. Ready?”
Dan starts the car, looking around before driving off. A large white four-wheel-drive pickup is parked near the exit of the station’s lot, idling. Gas truck. Dried red mud decorates the fenders behind each mud-packed wheel. The driver, sun-baked edemic face, glares at them as dark aviator glasses disappear behind rising blacked-out window.
“Shit,” Dan mutters, “How long was he there?”
“What. Something to worry about?”
“I hope not. Some guy staring at us from that muddy pickup. Did you see him?” Dan asks, reluctant to ask more.
“No, I was busy with the bigot family.”
“Damn. Fuck. Well let’s get out of here.”
“The family that hates together, stays together.”
Dan pulls through, noses onto Butler, past the muddy pickup parked along the edge of the station’s lot, and onto the Interstate ramp eastbound. As soon as they are up to speed, the 89 North sign appears, they exit, loop under the freeway then northbound. Right turn onto six lanes through the commercial outskirts of Flagstaff. The road narrows, the land widens, and after a final flurry of shopping malls, reverts to rural two lane highway.
Back at the filling station, a white, muddy pickup pulls onto the interstate, and soon slows for the first exit north.
Monique touches the phone in her hand the instant it makes a sound.
“Hey. California Dan and Rodrigues behind him just headed up 89 north. I don’t have the driving range to follow them. I sent you some location estimates for what it’s worth.”
“Thanks, don’t worry about it. Jimmy has them in sight already. And thank you for being on top of things, you’ve been very helpful.”
“Of course. I will go charge. I’ll be in Flag. Call me if you need me.”
Dan relaxes but remains vigilant as they sail through the pines of the high volcanic desert, north.
“I didn’t like the looks of that town,” Stacy offers as they settle back into road mode, “Bad vibe.”
“You sound like an old hippy. I used to get off at the west-most exit and take 66 through downtown, then either up 89 here or back to 40. Food and all that in town.”
“So what happened.”
“Well I used to think it just got more and more built out like everyone thinks everything does, you know, developers tract houses and malls and all that. But then some years ago I had some reason to go look at old satellite maps, back to the 1990s, and Flagstaff has not changed that much, maybe only doubled over 50 years, which was a surprise to me. So what I thought was obviously true is obviously wrong. So I have no fucking idea except that the AZ secessionists suck.”
“Whatever. Hey I’m hungry again,” Stacy is back in her phone, tapping furiously. “There’s Moenkopi and Tuba City up on 160 or something, what, an hour?”
Dan gives Stacy an irritated glance, says “Sure.”
Joseph has just wrapped up a meeting in this cavernous second story space, a comforting jumble of thrift store and discount-office-supply furniture, a wall of glass overlooking the parking lot.
Today Joseph feels old, is old. Long gray hair in an unruly ponytail, weathered wrinkled face, one of his many vintage westerns shirts, baggy jeans and cowboy boots. Turquoise and silver on one wrist, and an ancient, crumbling hat decorated with faded pins and feathers. He thinks of himself as an old hippy.
In this free moment Joseph takes another bite from the sandwich, and recalls again the memory of the time his mother took him to this very building, AMERICAN FURNITURE, when he was very young, to buy their new kitchen table after his father got a good job. The city seemed vast, roads paved, pickup trucks and automobiles city clean and ranch muddy, brightly colored buildings lining the streets, so much clean glass.
This building was probably stuffy and old even then, though that is not how he remembers it. The young people in the meeting, mostly local artist and graffiti kids, and some of the tech crew from the new building complex across the river where Monique has moved to, snicker about having to sit in these cast-off slouchy sofas, and would not be impressed with his old-days stories. He has learned to refrain from telling them. The move to the new complex, near the big casino, could not happen faster for them. How times change.
Joseph had taken a second bite, sunk back in the old sofa, when his phone rings. He leans forward and sets his sandwich on the coffee table again and slouches to extract the object from a pants pocket. He glances at it, pokes it, holds to his head.
“Hello Monique, how are you doing?”
“Sorry to bother you, but we have trouble down south. Your California driver is being tailed by an AZ militia type. It just escalated to a probable roadside robbery. There was one last week on 89, so I’m assuming the worst. Our friend Jimmy is on his way to intercept them.”
“How did this happen?”
“Don’t know. Your guy, Dan, is behaving a little off normal. He's got someone in the car with him. He drove through Flagstaff. He spent the night in the California desert, which is no big deal, but a lot of little things are odd. We don’t know if it is this new person attracting attention. Or just Dan. Or no reason at all. Unless you can think of a reason.”
Joseph contemplates his sandwich languishing on the table.
“This is not good. What do we know so far? Who is this other person.”
“The passenger is a woman, she lives with Dan. They spent the night in the eastern California desert. Some restaurant off the interstate. And some sort of agriculture project, it looks foolish, run by some city types. So maybe they have friends there.”
“That doesn’t sound like much.”
“No it doesn’t. But the desert place is funny. There is a big solar furnace setup of some kind. Also a big PV power plant that wasn’t there a year ago, going by the satellite maps, probably the highway department but that has been there for years. So that would be funny too.”
“But is there any reason to think this means anything to us now?”
“No, nothing so far. It is just odd information, at an odd time.”
“True enough. OK well keep me in the loop. Thank you Monique.”
Joseph picks up his sandwich, thinking, I better eat, but this business is too urgent. He puts it down again, rises from the sofa, putting on his hat.
Twenty minutes later Dan spies a vehicle in the mirror, rapidly gaining on them, reluctant to voice his discomfort. It indeed proves to be a pickup truck, common enough, but not the one they feared.
The truck pulls out to pass them. Once blue, sun-chalked to near gray with washes of white, brown surface rust on horizontal surfaces, the color of old flagstone. Somehow more ancient than Dan’s Rambler, all rounded bubbles and curves, white-edged glass. The driver is a man younger than Dan, upright in the seat, dark skin creased, long straight hair pulled back. He stares at Dan for a full second with an animated smile, then waves, and pulls ahead. An intimate act, disconcerting, out here where personal space is measured in acres, where passing another person in a vehicle requires a nod and wave, but no more for fear of seeming solicitous.
Dan earnestly smiles and waves back, out of relief and mis-placed LA habit, and wonders if they’ve met somewhere before? No matter, the truck is out of sight ahead in a minute.
Joseph’s phone rings again.
“Jimmy heard Rodrigues radio another person to set up an ambush. They gave a location. They still use those old radios we have the security key for. Jimmy has that new toy of his in the truck and will be there in time. Radio silence until it’s over.”
“I hope Jimmy will be OK. Give him anything he needs of course. I will back you all up. I will let others here know what is going on.”
“OK. On it. I can add you to the chat channel if you want.”
“Yes, thank you, please do. So a Rodrigues, hanging out with the white nationalist crowd. How does this make sense.”
“He’s a hot-head. Probably works twice as hard to prove himself.”
“I am sure you are right. OK, I will let you go. Stay in touch. Good luck.”
Ahead on the roadway, right, appears the telltale dusty fan of tire dirt tracked onto the highway from a ranch road emerging out a small stand of conifers. Sunlight flashes off glass as they pass, too quick for Dan to see.
Minutes later, in the mirror, the nose of a vehicle becomes visible, cresting a rise at the limits of vision. Another crest and trough and the vehicle, now closer, is a rectangle of dirty chromed plastic and white, dark glass above.
“Aw crap, look behind us, your eyes are better than mine.”
Stacy unbelts, slides close to Dan to peer in the mirror, then scrunches on the seat to fully turn, waits for the road to straighten.
“Shit,” unwinds back to her seat, jaw set, stares straight ahead. “Think it’s the same one?” The white pickup is now close enough to read the brand name on the muddy grille. Stacy faces forward, rebelts, slouches as if to disappear. “So now what do we do.”
“Nothing. Hopefully they’ll zoom by, I’ll do the nod and wave thing, he wins, etc. I’m going a steady 60, trying not to freak out.”
The white pickup pulls out to pass, accelerating rapidly, then parallels them in the left lane, window down, the bearded driver inspecting them, scowling. After a terrifying full second the pickup zooms ahead with a roar.
“Fucking A, dammit what a mistake,” Dan pounds the steering wheel with his fist. “Fuck.”
Stacy is visibly frightened. “So what are we gonna do? Should we turn around?” She looks back at the empty road behind.
“Flagstaff isn’t good, I don’t think a second helping is a good idea. That might be it, asshole left, and soon we’ll be in native land, those guys not welcome there.”
Specks become visible on the highway shoulders ahead, open range to each side. Dan and Stacy, already tense, approach panic as the specks become discernibly two pickups, one on each side of the highway. The left is the mud over white pickup, the driver leaning against his truck facing the wrong way, knee bent, foot on the door. On their side of the road is a bigger truck with dualies, a work truck of indiscernible earthen color. As they approach, this man moves slowly into the road, stands abreast the yellow stripe, blocking the road.
“FUCK!” Stacy yells, once, visibly fuming, stiffly erect, shaken. “We’re in the middle of fucking nowhere.”
Dan slows to a crawl, a hundred yards from the man in the road, then creeps towards him at walking speed, then stops, the car now parallel and between both trucks. In front of him, brown beard, plaid shirt, red mesh hat, faded dirty jeans, mud-colored work boots. Large, pot-bellied, his face pocked and grim. A black rectangle on his hip, a large handgun in its holster on his right side.
Dan rolls down his window. Without taking his eyes off gun guy, Dan takes a breath and says calmly to driver guy, on his left, “Can I help you with something?”
Driver man says, “California, huh?”
“Where you going.”
“Friends, Santa Fe.”
“Why aren’t you on forty?”
“Right. Whatever. You, and whatever the fuck is in the car with you, don’t belong here.”
“We’re just passing through.”
For the first time in minutes, Dan glances at Stacy, realizing he was avoiding looking at her as if she might somehow be invisible. She returns a deadpan blink, continues to look nowhere at all, ahead.
Dan turns off the car, extracts the keys. They open doors, get out, doors left open. He thinks of the sun now warming his scalp, standing in the road next to the car.
The driver drops his foot to the ground, stomps his feet twice, looks at Dan, both ways up the highway and takes a step, then pauses as another pickup approaches from the north. Gun guy takes a step to one side to let the new truck pass.
The ancient chalky truck has returned, wandering over the yellow stripe, and moving at less than highway speed it takes an agonizing, silent minute to reach them. Instead of passing, the truck halts, halfway on the dirt shoulder, two tires in the lane, coming to a stop a few car lengths away, at an awkward angle facing the scene.
Driver guy and gun guy look at each other, then Dan, then all attention is on the ancient truck at the sound of a slammed door. The driver of the chalky old truck exits, stumbles towards them, erratically.
“Hey, can I axe you guys a question,” yells the interloper, over wind sound Dan hadn’t noticed until now. The old guy is wearing a western shirt the same faded blue as his truck, jeans and cowboy boots, long unruly hair. He appears to be staggering drunk.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” says driver guy roughly. “Go home, chief, you’re drunk.”
Gun guy, with added hostility, “Hey asshole, get the fuck out of here, this is none of your business.”
The drunk man and his truck cast long shadows over the road. Dan sees the old guy, long potbellied torso and short stout legs, his face creased and sunburned, handsome under the drunkenness, squint at a black object in his hand, like an oversized mobile phone, a puzzling moment of focus for a drunk, who then repeats “Hey you guys, I just wanna ask you...”
His words cut off by gun guy, “Get the fuck out now,” turns to advance towards the drunken man, who has now stumbled into the middle of the road.
Dan’s anxiety level skyrockets with this new stimulus and complication, and the two highway robbers tense with this interruption of their performance.
The fluid transformation of the new visitor is so rapid and thorough that driver guy and gun guy freeze, and step back as if from a blow.
Suddenly upright, body erect, legs settled into a steady fighting stance as if he had been there like that the whole time, calmly waiting to be noticed. Raising his outspread arms in a broad vee, fingers up, with volume and clarity declares, “HEY ASSHOLES. LISTEN TO ME.”
He drops his left hand towards the big duallie truck: an ear-splitting crack, a loud thump, a shudder from the grille of the truck, then silence, tinkle of glass, and a second later, the sound of liquids pouring on asphalt, each sound distinct, separate, each sound unfolding in the time necessary for clarity, somehow all fitting neatly into that second’s panic.
Before gun guy can formulate a response, and before Dan finishes that thought, the old man lowers his right hand. There is another crack, thump, a complex of clattering sounds of an engine suddenly, violently silenced. Ears ring.
Dan recalls later, almost an afterthought, a flash over the roof of the chalky old truck, he surmises from someone hidden in the camper-thing behind. He and Stacy remain frozen, though focus no longer seems to be on them.
After the shock of the moment subsides, driver guy reaches for his truck door, and gun guy is tugging at his holstered gun.
“Stop! If my arms fall for any reason, you will be shot dead. Understand? Put that back now”, gesturing at them awkwardly with his right fingers, as if chiding school children.
Gun guy freezes, looks around, drops gun into holster.
“Close that door,” to driver guy. He does so, standing in the dirt.
“What the fuck you think you’re doing, chief? Your ass is dead.”
“Shut up. Both of you, move in front of your trucks where I can see you. Now,” stepping slowly in their direction, retaining his raised-hands gestures.
The two men comply, begrudgingly and tauntingly slowly. “Hurry up, I’m old, my arms get tired.”
They each move towards their trucks, gun guy starts to look at the damage, mumbling.
“Hey! Face me. You will have plenty of time for that later.”
The visitor slowly moves his arms outward, straight out, folds them at his elbows, puts hands on hips, exaggeratedly slow. “OK now, you two,” acknowledging Dan and Stacy for the first time with a nod of his chin, “Go. Now.”
With no hesitation Dan climbs into the Rambler, slams the door, a second after Stacy. Fumbles the key, twice, starts the engine, grinds the starter, grinds into gear, lurches forward, unable to process Stacy’s expletives, nor spare even one brain cell to tell her to shut up. First gear, slow, past the visitor, a late nod and shaky wave, Dan regains some composure, force of habit returns and then they are doing 75.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck...”
Stacy pounds the instrument panel with both hands, “Holy crap what just happened? Who was that guy? What is going on?”
Neither of them can sit still and they begin chattering at once.
“My ears are still ringing. More than usual.”
“Mine too.” Stacy continues, “So who was that guy that just saved our ass!? Was that just a coincidence?”
“I have no fucking idea. Holy shit. No, he passed us, remember?”
The resonant roar of the roadside margin rumble strip causes Dan to jerk the car back in the lane, their attention glued to the road behind.
“I didn’t really look. Damn.”
They pass Gray Mountain, then in the traffic circle in Cameron, twenty minutes later Stacy says, “I’m fucking starving.”
Jimmy waits for the old car to disappear into silence behind him, lost in the wind noise, still facing two angry men on each side of the road.
“I remind you that you are still in danger,” Jimmy tilts his head back to the implied threat within his truck bed, “Stay put until you see the back of my truck. I would give you advice to not mess with people you don’t know but I know you won’t listen.”
Gun guy says simply, “Fuck you.”
“Not very likely.”
Jimmy side-walks slowly and calmly to his truck, still idling, puts it into reverse, and scanning between mirror and windshield at the two men and the damaged trucks, drives backwards until he is a hundred yards north, out of handgun range. He slows to a stop, puts it in drive, and rapidly U-turns north. The scene reduces to specks in the mirror as he heads to the trading post, halfway to Cameron.
He pulls into Hank’s Trading Post’s dusty lot, staying near the road for visibility behind, composes and sends a message to Monique, before waving towards the trading post and getting back on the road.
Monique’s anxiety spikes when her phone beeps, but she exhales seeing Jimmy’s name, and relaxes further on reading the message, and the moment makes her realize, with a pang of guilt, that she was resenting having to stay at work longer than usual.
She slumps slightly in the chair, picks up the phone and calls Joseph.
“Hi. So I guess you saw Jimmy’s message.”
“Yes I did. A relief. It is always a worry, no matter how confident Jimmy is.”
“Indeed. Well I’m heading home now, unless you think there’s something I should do.”
“No, no, go home. We will talk tomorrow.”
“Tuba City,” Dan blurts out, once again on open road and through treeless range. Behind the car the low sun casts orange light around long shadows, the road both sides lined with white-tipped T-posts strung with barbed wire. Pasture is marginally more lush here, clipped short by ungulates, yellow-beige patches undulate in the wind. Tall gray power transmission towers march alongside the highway, then veer over the horizon. “About five miles.”
As he speaks they approach a green highway sign on the right, obliterated by colored circles and rectangles applied by local youths.
“Huh? Oh, right. Funny name. ... Says here it was originally Tuuvi or something but white people couldn’t bother to say it right.”
“What a surprise. I should be hungry but I’m still freaked out. Getting late, let’s eat.”
Right onto 160, the debris of civilization begins afresh; power poles, corrugated prefabs dusted beige over beige, dusty paddocks, houses with pickup trucks and dogs, set far back from the highway, some framed by layered sedimentary mesas of weathering red sandstone, sprinkled with scrub, green from recent rain.
“Is it just me? Or does it seem humid here?” Dan waves his hand out the window.
“Just seems hot, but this is all new to me. Seems dry to me.”
“Yeah, it’s not like home, but my lips aren’t fucked up like they usually are.”
Leaning forward in her seat, as they pull up to the first traffic light since Flagstaff, Stacy says “Huh. I thought it would be right here, but I don’t see anything that looks like town,” Stacy retrieves her phone from where it had fallen on the floor.
“This isn’t town, just highway travel shit. Towns are built away from the highway,” Dan turns left when the light changes.
“Huh? That’s not very capitalist of them.”
“There’s a local restaurant cal--”
Stacy interrupts, “Home? I’m way ahead of ya.”
Home is an excess of woodgrain laminate, family kitsch, art and photographs by and of patrons and employees, the food mostly heart-attack fried; coziness constructed from castoff corporate chain furnishings, bright with excessive ceiling lighting.
“Skip the burgers. Check out the Navajo stuff,” pointing to a small section in the middle of the peeling laminate menu.
A shy round-faced high school age girl arrives, says “M’alp you,” has difficulty taking their order, distracted by Stacy, fear or fascination indeterminate. Takes their order and places the ticket behind the grille, with much conspiratorial head-turning with the cook. She eventually returns with two large sweating ice teas.
“So what the fuck happened back there? I thought we were dead until that guy -- guys? -- showed. Who the hell was that? That was no accident.”
“I don’t know. Those two didn’t seem organized, they seemed to be winging it. Homegrown bigots or something.”
“Seriously, what’s the difference.”
“Well the militias have --”
Stacy cuts him off with “That’s not what I meant.” Stacy turns angry, at the bigots, and Dan, herself. “You knew this could happen, right? I mean you were talking about going around Flagstaff. So what’s the story here.”
Behind them, kitchen conversation rises as the waitress points a sticky remote at the screen up high behind the cash register. The cook, who could be the waitress's sister, comes out of the kitchen to watch something new on the screen.
Dan is silent, sips tea, watches the girls gossip behind the counter. “I guess I underestimated things.”
“No shit. So tell me, what about from here to Farmington. What about the trip back home.”
“We’re fine through here. The racists aren’t welcome up here. I mean, they get hurt if they come up here. Bad history with the locals, from before the crash. From around Cameron back at that roundabout, it’s all indian country.”
“OK fine. So how do we get home then.”
“Up and over, Utah, or that Grand Canyon road, 64. I’ll just pay the toll.”
“Yes, you will. Damn man we almost got killed.”
“I don’t know what their plan was, if they had one.”
“And I don’t care. You’re the old white guy. I am not.”
They finished eating in silence. Dan left american cash money, a generous tip, without waiting for the bill.
They drive back down through the light into the Tuuvi Travel Stop, pull around and park at the lonely new-gas pump.
“Last fuel before Farmington I’m gonna top off. It will be dark soon. If you need to buy anything, this might be the last chance.”
Dan fills the fuel tank as the waning sun tilts the heat equation, causing the wind to pick up dust and plastic bits, blowing them in Dan’s eyes down squatting the ground, an ear to the filler neck. Dust and grit colors the sky. The asphalt radiates afternoon heat into the cooling air; Dan thinks, not for the first time, you can tell time by the temperature difference of air vs asphalt. The moment spent crouched at the rear of the car a respite from the tension between them.
Dan starts the car and U-turns to the highway they came in on. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t think it out.”
“OK fine. Thanks. Yeah that was stupid.” Stacy stuffs objects into her ears and disappears into her phone, slouching in the seat. They drive in silence, two lane highway rolling through red rock and sand, weathered sandstone mesas and hills pocked with mesquite, in shadows and orange, the sky filled with daunting clouds hinting at storm ahead, east, sky fading to orange behind them.
By Kayenta the warm gale in the windows contains an edge of chill. Stopped for a pee stop, the air is still, without solar heat, silent but for the occasional rise and fall sound of vehicles. A brief but vast moment of desert sundown, the animal night shift arrives with chirps, squeaks and fleeting motions on the earth. Though brief, it mellows the tenor of conversation in the car.
“Wow, it’s just beautiful here. It’s amazing. Essex was pretty cool, harsher. That desert was all chopped up like a truck stop. This is... beautiful.”
“Yeah, it is. When I’m driving, I don’t want to stop, the road beckons or some shit. But once outside I just wanna stand there forever. But then I get back in the car.”
“We’re going slower than the phone says.”
“Yeah, the car’s slower, I’m slower. And now that it’s dark, even slower.”
“No, lucky me. Animals. In the road. Mostly cows. If we hit one it’s all over. People die from that shit. Never mind the stupid cow.”
“WHAT? Aren’t they in barns or whatever?”
“Have you seen a barn anywhere? This is all range land. See that fence? Pretty much every highway has one, both sides. But there’s gates, and broken fencing, whatever, and out here, sometimes no fence. Just cattle traps. Sometimes it’s open range, no fence.”
“Oh. Those grills in the road? I was wondering what they were for. I was thinking they’d piss off large animals.”
“If you can help watch for animals, I’d appreciate it. Just yell. Seriously, yell, loud, you can’t see the black cattle at all. The dumb fucks stand on the road for the warmth or something.”
The road is a monotonous video game of mile markers, cast-off tires, plastic bags adorning shrubs, dead canines domestic and otherwise, disposable diapers, illuminated by the dim triangle of light produced by the headlights, visibility limited to twenty feet on each side of the car. Dennehotso is a momentary green sign. The land beyond might as well be moonscape.
“These are the dimmest headlights ever. How can you drive?”
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to upgrade to LEDs.”
“What are you talking about? What are they? NO! They don’t have… wire filaments!” Stacy laughs, amused, then appalled, “How… you’re crazy.”
Dan shrugs. “I have a lot of spare parts… they last longer than you’d think.”
“So what? It’s like candles out there. No wonder you can’t see the goddamned cows.” Stacy sits erect, folds her arms, looks consternated. She thinks, what am I doing out here with him in this death trap?
“Well, I should scrounge a junkyard radar unit, for the cows. They’re all tangled into the ECU though, I don't know enough to extract them.”
“For fuck’s sake man, I can help you with that,” Stacy relaxes, abandons herself to the situation, more absurd than she imagined possible.
“There’s no reason to drive around blind.”
“Really, I never drive out here at night. Radar or not, it sucks. I haven’t driven at night in the desert in years. It’s just more dangerous in general, and experiencing the land is why I drive.”
“OK. When we get back.”
Dark red sandstone rises up on each side to nearly roof level, then subsides, the road inclines downward, a shallow river channel, sudden dense lush small trees aside the road, no visible water, then past and incline up. Then a cluster of one-story municipal buildings, a school and yard, a ranch or two, dim yellow rectangles of occupation, rapid bluish flickering in an adjacent window.
The road returns to moonscape. At an intersection of a highway north and south, a sparse cluster of BIA housing, shabby and uninviting by design, ancient and crumbling, glowing windows, more municipal construction.
“I’m nodding off.”
“Me too. Let’s take a break.” A few minutes later Dan pulls into a red dirt triangle, access to a road or ranch, turns the car off.
They head to the front and rear of the car, respectively, to return some water to the dry soil. Stacy returns stretching, stomping and exaggerated deep breaths.
“OK! That’s better. I’m not tired, but somehow can’t stay awake.”
“Another reason to hate driving at night. It’s hypnotic. Probably another hour to go.”
An hour later, the glow of terrestrial power consumption glows ahead, then fills the windshield. The approach to Shiprock is marked by increasing density of roadside poles, overhead wires, vine clogged chain link, dusty vehicles asleep in dusty lots. The big regional high school surrounded by bright security lights inside its fence. The dirt shoulders of the highway widen, daytime rights of way for farm implements to travel to and from repair and storage, an accommodation peculiar to farm towns. A sprawling supermarket, closed and dark, set behind a big parking lot.
Ahead a cluster of standard-issue American fast food franchises occupy their customary positions along a commercial strip, an excess of photons visible from outer space.
“Hey pull in to one of these corporate shit-vendors, I want a coffee and high fructose snack,” Stacy points to a cluster of garish yellow branding on the right.
“Drive through OK?”
Dan pulls into the lot, empty but for an ancient econo car, a red yellow green graphic obscuring the back window, the half moon of a smashed wheel cover, dust-once-mud on each fender. Dan crawls the Rambler through the lot and around behind the building, the drive-thru empty.
Dan stops in front of the glowing hieroglyphic menu, every possible combination of items with a gushing name and lurid drawing, the overall impression of being made by someone who had ingested too much low-quality ecstasy. Or to be appealing to such a person. An intentional noise emits from the pattern of small holes in the center of the giant menu sign.
“SSSSSCHHHHK M’alp you SSSSSCHHHHK.”
“Two medium coffee black two apple pie.”
“SSSSSCHHHHK Zatall SSSSSCHHHHK”
“SSSSSCHHHHK Payatthewindow SSSSSCHHHHK.”
The lighting at the pickup window ahead is wrong, somehow. As Dan pulls up to the opening in the building blinding artificial daylight pours in from his left, both of them release involuntary grunts.
What is presumably music screeches from the phone in a teenager’s hand, unintelligible. Sullen, paper uniform hat too small for his oily head, faded uniform shirt two sizes large, begrudgingly lifts attention from the phone towards the temporary distraction outside, and mumbles in Dan’s direction.
“What? Hey what’s with this light? I can’t see a damn thing, turn it down, will you?”
“Can’t. Security. Too many robberies. Mumble...” without lifting eyes from phone.
“What? Here.” Dan hands the boy paper money.
A louder mumble sounds like “Sorry sir no cash.”
“Oh for fucks sake,” Dan squirms in the seat to free a pocket, rummages for his thin wallet, extracts a plastic rectangle, thrusts it out the window. The boy is already back at his phone, requires prodding: “Here.” Eyes flicker up, hand points to a serpentine logo. Dan presses the card to the logo.
For a fraction of a second the boy looks out the window, his eyes light up and with a pimply smile asks, “Hey, is that a gas car?”
Before Dan can answer Stacy crowds Dan, head to window, replies, “Yes it’s a gas car, can we have our stuff?”
Hurt, the boy withdraws, hands Dan a sagging paper mache tray, and with transaction completed, devotes his full attention to the thing in his lap,
avalanche radish, overtime tibia,
avalanche radish, overtime …
As the window closes.
Passing the floppy tray to Stacy, Dan says “Holy fuck I’m blind, I gotta park,” inches the car slow enough for unseeable victims to move to safety, and pulls into the first legible white-striped rectangle.
“OK you gotta tell me, what’s with all these nonsense lyrics. Aaron won’t tell me,” Dan squints and blinks to see around the green spots in his vision.
“Passcodes to a game or something. It’s been around a long time now. Like so-called special codes for discounts, only it gets you the next game section or something.”
“But it’s open and public. What good does that do?”
“Oh right, well, you gotta do it in order, and before it expires, then there’s stuff you gotta do in each game segment that unlocks information you need to use the latest passcodes. Plus there’s lots of them, lots of games and sites. And each person has their own secret codes that go with it somehow. It’s all insider bullshit knowledge.”
“Hmm. I’ve already lost interest. Thanks though.”
Vision restored, sugar and caffeine ingested, they return to the road. In daylight Dan knows this stretch of highway between Shiprock and Farmington to be lively but sprawling retail and farming, but in the dark it reverts to a video game background of power poles and road-side distractions.
Twenty minutes later Stacy, sitting upright with her eyes closed, slowly leans forward, mouth open, snaps suddenly upright. “Damn!” Shakes her head and rubs her eyes.
Urban light pollution causes the air beyond the road to glow like a threatening fog; this is new rain territory.
“Oh right, I forgot.”
“It’s the new rain. The humidity. Climate change fucked everything, but somehow it brought a little rain to this side of the mountain ranges of Colorado. It rains in the Nation now, like it did 200 years ago. Just enough to farm again.”
“So that’s here? I read about it in Dry Ag a lot. Cool.”
“Yeah, there’s irrigation at night. That’s that humidity.”
“Huh. The native folk on Dry Ag say it’s because they’ve been protecting the land the whole time.”
“Well then they’d be the only ones… but yeah. And part of why things are looking up around here. As opposed to south.”
“Hey, we’re close. Nav us there? Address is there. Been here before, but not at night.”
Stacy swivels Dan’s phone holder towards her, pokes at it.
/in three miles bear right at the fork then turn right onto bypass road/
“That’s probably all I need. Make that thing shut up, just remind me when it’s the next light.”
Their destination has its own traffic light, legacy of its shopping mall heritage. As Dan turns right into the lot his headlights sweep a bushy tree under a tall sign of horizontal brown boards with unreadable white lettering. A man sitting on a chair in the dark begins to rise until Dan slows to a crawl, addresses him with a gesture that causes the man to relax back in his chair. Stacy surmises a paid guard, a homeless man with benefits.
The brief lane becomes a parking lot of a mall that might not have seen better days. A hideous brown and beige building aligned 90 degrees from the entrance, indifferent to visitors. Dan drives to the front, on the left side, Stacy looks slightly befuddled.
In the actual front of the mall is an even huger parking lot, the mall apparently facing a side street, and not the boulevard they were on. Though the storefronts appear disused, the entire site is neat and free of debris, headlights reflect off clean plate glass. The distant perimeter is lit by tall poles, needlessly bright, as if some event had recently ended.
“I’ve never seen a shopping mall not facing the road.”
“People around here like building openings to face east.”
A dozen or more vehicles doze at the far end of the lot, close to the last retail entrance. Dan parks a space away from the motley mix of cars and vans and turns off the car. They exit the car, stretching in the silence. Bats swoop at insects in random orbits around each pole light, the only sounds distant traffic, wind in the trees, and the heat ticking of the cooling engine.
“This is not what I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
*** end book1