My Fresh Hell
Life in Scribbletown.

Truckee

2006-07-20

Here's the original story that "Cherry Pie" was taken from. This was published in a freebie newspaper/lit magazine years ago. The contest asked for stories that included a $10 bill and a hat in them. Mine won. I present it to you now.


Truckee

They stopped outside of Truckee close to 10 a.m. so Frances could get some coffee. It was too hot already and she was tired of the winding road, the yellow, bald mountains, and even the snow on the highest dark peaks like confectioner’s sugar on cones of plum pudding. Light-headed from the elevation, her body swayed as she climbed out of the passenger seat like it was the Tilt-A-Whirl at the state fair.

The coffee shop, the only building at the crude tarred-over pull-off, and the only sign of civilization for miles, was pale green and stood up on stilts, three stories high, for no reason she could ascertain; there wasn’t an ocean for hundreds of miles in any direction. Pools of ancient oil and antifreeze stained the packed dirt parking lot. Frances walked up the wobbly stairs, leaving Son-of-A-Bitch in his car to stew. She pulled her blue velvet hat down over her ears and adjusted the edge of her underwear through her jeans. She was wearing the ones that read “Saturday,” even though it wasn’t.

The first thing to greet her as she entered the restaurant was a large velveteen rug hanging on the wall illustrating, in garish yellows and reds, the Last Supper. An actor’s head (Al Pacino or Robert De Niro? Was there a difference?) from a glossy movie magazine was taped over Jesus’ face. Framing the rug were the moth-eaten mounted heads of a moose, a boar and a deer. They wore dusty pink plastic leis around their severed necks. The dust had a greasy patina to it, as dust did in joints like this. Large windows encircled the restaurant like an observation deck. Frances went to the counter to ask for a cup of coffee but found no one behind it. A man with a bad cough and unkempt, slept-on blonde hair at the far end table pointed to the pot.

“Help yourself. It’s a special chicory blend from New Orleans.”
Frances gazed at him and searched for a waitress. They were alone. She was the only customer in the place.

“Go ahead. I own the place. Really.”

Frances poured herself a cup of coffee the color and thickness of high-test motor oil.

Son-of-a-Bitch was gunning his engine down below. He’d worn out the horn so this was his signal for her to come on. Frances added cream one dollop at a time, followed by two packets of sugar and sat down at a table. The engine pulsed insistently outside. Through the windows of the restaurant she could see clouds of dense exhaust rise and eclipse two bleached mountains speckled with dark redwood and firs.

“Want anything to eat? I make a mean Western omelet,” the coughing owner asked. He had moved behind the counter to establish his claim as proprietor. His face was round and mole-ish; the eyes and mouth drew in close to his nose like chicks to a hen. He wiped his idle hands down the front of his soiled Hawaiian shirt.

“No. I’m not hungry.”

“There’s a paper over there if you want something to read,” he motioned to a small corner table crowded with half-empty ketchup bottles and stacks of single-ply napkins awaiting their stainless steel housings.

“No thanks. I won’t be here long. Is it always this busy?”

“Huh?” Then he caught her joke and laughed, once, like it hurt, “Yeah. It’s kinda nice, though. You visiting?”

“With my boy—friend,” the word hiccuped out of her mouth, “We’re going to Reno to see his kid.”

“Where’re you from?”

“East Coast, originally.”

“I been there.”

Frances gazed absently out the window imagining she was a forest ranger in a tower, ever watchful for fires. A large black bird perched on the windowsill and began to preen. Startled, Frances touched her hand to her hat.

The bird slid its mahogany beak deep down into its feathers, chewed, and then carefully slid it back out. She watched it swallow, a tiny lump in its glossy throat, a tiny nod of its head. The sun glinted off the bird’s feathers as it worked, flashing an S.O.S., and then flew off abruptly to perch in a scruffy, dry olive tree.

There was a sudden absence of noise that Frances noticed with the sudden absence of the bird, like central air shutting off. SOB had turned off his motor.

She heard—or rather, felt—heavy footsteps on the stairs.

“Are you ready or what?” He stood in the doorway, hands on his hips, and tossed his long hair over his shoulders like a rock star; consciously unaware of the impression he was making on his ever-present invisible fans.

Frances touched her hat and tilted her cup at him.

“Get it to go. We gotta meet Rebecca at the Hilton at two.”

“You’ve got plenty of time. Sit down.”

“Been sitting down for 400 miles. I’d rather stand if it’s all the same to you.”

“Suit yourself.” Frances ran her hand across the plastic, turquoise seat cover of the chair beside her. It still retained the impression of large, long ago buttocks.

SOB hitched up his jeans by the belt loops and sighed noisily. He looked over at the owner, sized him up as irrelevant, and turned his head back to Frances.

“Do you have enough gas?” she asked.
SOB snorted, “Come on.”

“I think I’d rather stay here. You can celebrate Paul’s birthday without me”

SOB stared out the windows and beyond the mountains as if on idle. Frances watched his jaw tighten and his eyes turn a shade greener. She could almost hear the gears shifting. No, gear—in the singular—spinning without the benefit of tension or friction to cause a spark of thought.

“Yeah, right,” he snorted again.
Frances thought of horses.

“Pick me up here on your way back, if you feel so inclined. I think I’m going to stay and read the paper.”

“Dammit, Frances! I’m sick of this crap! Every damn time! Let’s go! Rebecca will think I’m an asshole leaving you out here in this dump. Wherever we are.”

“Truckee. Or almost,” wheezed the owner. He grinned at SOB and then, as if sensing his mistake, turned away and began wiping spots off the forks that were piled next to him.

“Goddamn, girl!”

“Rebecca won’t think any differently of you. She already knows you’re an asshole. That’s why she divorced you. If you don’t want to come back and get me, I’m sure…” she motioned towards the owner.

“Lester. Lester Grimes,” the owner volunteered, expressionless, unsure.

“I’m sure Mr. Grimes here can get me into Truckee proper so I can rent a car.”

“Sure I can,” he offered and tried his smile again until SOB glared him down.

“You certainly will not, Frances. Don’t try to ruin this trip for me anymore than you already have. You’re coming with me to Paul’s birthday party and that’s that.”

“No, that’s not that. You got the wrong number this time, pal. I’m staying.”

“Fine. Thanks for screwing everything up as usual. You owe me for a tank of gas.” SOB ran his hands through his blonde hair and, looking at his reflection in the window, struck a pose.

“I take my hat off to you, Mr. Generosity.” She carefully lifted off her prized beret, dug around in her back pocket and found a ten-dollar bill. She placed it in the upturned hat and offered it up to him like a crown jewel resting on the royal velvet pillow. A present for the prince.

“Here, you son-of-a-bitch. Tell Rebecca hello for me.”

SOB stood, almost catatonic, in his frayed Pizza King t-shirt for a long minute until his brain gear spun in space again and his eye registered the money. He blinked and pocketed the bill.

“You’ll regret this.”

“Soon and for the rest of my life?” Frances looked at him and saw nothing. She replaced the hat on her head, pulling it down hard over her ears.

SOB slammed the screen door behind him as he left, letting in a large blue bottle fly that settled on the rim of her coffee cup. It pedaled its legs over its body, preening.

With a flick of her finger, she smacked the fly into her cup. It swam ceaselessly, in a circle, with its uninjured legs. She dumped it and the coffee dregs into the saucer, refilled the cup without bothering to wipe it out and drank it straight.

She heard the car start, something heavy hit the ground, and tires peal out as the car shifted from reverse to drive. She listened until the engine was nothing but a whiny fly buzz—so insignificant she wouldn’t have noticed it if she hadn’t known it was there.

Frances paid Lester Grimes and walked back down the stairs. SOB’s car had left a trailing plume of dust behind it, just like in the movies. Her suitcase rested on the ground in a pool of antifreeze. She picked it up and started walking west, towards the mountains, towards the California-Nevada border, back to where she hadn’t been.

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6:18 p.m. ::
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