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Dating : On the Flats

h2>Dating : On the Flats

A. P. Land

“Hey, hey, you with me? C’mon, man!” Roy’s voice screeched in vibrato, clashing with Nyall’s own internal jazz fest. Nyall shook his head, peeled his lids open best he could — damned things just wouldn’t move — and stared into murky darkness through thin slits.

“Holy shit — I thought you were a goner,” Roy recovered his steady baritone and sighed. “One last run, man — our joyride to Baja and you had to blow it, Ny.” Nyall pushed himself upright, sliding his body against cold metal.

Roy was right — all this was his fault. The two of them have been running substances of creative legality and respective bags of cash in and out of California for months now. It was a steady gig and paid well, but they both knew that the money they got were mere scraps to satisfy them working dogs so they didn’t bite. That didn’t sit quite right with either, so they figured they’d grab the last cash delivery and haul ass to Baja — “ride off into the sunset,” Roy called it.

Things were really looking great. They fueled up Nyall’s ’98 Taco, cranked up “The Eye of the Tiger,” and hit the old Route-66 out of Barstow. The plan was to take the long way through the desert and so they took the straight down Amboy to Sheephole.

The desert shone an endless rose gold in the setting sun, melting into blue mountains ahead. They cruised down cracked pavement; dust rolled off the road’s edge. Nyall should have known then that this desolate calm before them was the last they’d have in a while. He’s been down this road before, stopping once to gawk at the emerald canals up the road. Nothing else was there — just salt and flat, dry earth. Nothing — until now.

“When’d they get a watering hole here in no-man’s land?” Roy leaned into the windshield and pointed. A red neon arrow cut into the rose gold: “Dine-in!”

“Been a while since my last time at the flats,” Nyall shrugged. “Stop here instead of Twenty-nine Palms?”

Roy nodded, rising his eyebrows and curling his lower lip in appreciative approval — he also did this when drinking a good draft — “Good as any, Ny.”

They parked on the gravel and got out — thudunk.

“Hey — they got meatloaf! Homemade!” Roy slapped a handwritten sign and grinned, clasping the handle of a black duffel on his shoulder. Nyall cared little about the meatloaf.

Yes, meatloaf — that’s how his face felt now. Nyall groaned, “The hell are we?”

“Desert.”

“Shit. It’s dark here.”

“Yeah — grabbed this handy flashlight from the cabin while you were out,” Roy flashed incandescent halos at him. “Man, my head got one hot ‘good boy’ pat, but you — bro, they sure did a fucking number on you. What’d you do over there?”

Over there. Over there was more than meatloaf. Over there, picking spilled toothpicks from the floor when Nyall and Roy stepped inside, was Mary. She crouched over the spillage in a yellow ball, grabbing the toothpicks with her index finger and thumb and dropping them into a white plastic bag — one at a time. Hair hung over her face in rusty strands. She flopped it overhead with her forearm and nodded at the newcomers, “Welcome. Grab a seat.”

There were plenty of seats to grab. Roy stomped past her to a bar stool at the counter, “Says out there you’ve got meatloaf.”

“Sure do!” Mary, still crouching, twisted her knees toward Nyall, “Want a plate, too?”

Nyall nodded.

He hated meatloaf. He loved many things: his old trusty Taco, a cold draft in July, the way Mary’s blush lips wrapped around the “oo” right then. Meatloaf he hated since he was five and his mother fed platefuls to him for days as punishment for complaining about dinner — “Repent, you demon, repent!” He did not repent.

He agreed to Mary’s meatloaf nonetheless.

He never ate it.

He regretted not eating it now — his stomach clung to his gallbladder and wailed.

Back when he still had a chance to eat the meatloaf, Roy — having swallowed his — left “to regard the diner’s amenities” out back. Nyall quickly found himself closely regarding other types of amenities — Mary’s.

She sat on Roy’s empty bar stool, letting her feet dangle, clutching paper napkins, and leaned toward Nyall, whispering, “I hate meatloaf, too.” Then, pointing at her tag, “I’m Mary.”

Nyall nodded.

There were things he’d usually say: “You’re a hot dish — are you on the menu?”

There were things he should have said: “Hey, I’m Nyall.”

Instead, he turned away from her and stared at the damned meatloaf. “It’s fine.”

Mary giggled, reached her arm toward him, and rubbed his earlobe with her fingers — soft and cool, “You’re alright.” Then, sliding her hand to the back of his head and pulling him firmly toward her, she flooded him with the scent of pecan pie. He liked pecan pie. He had pecan pie for his birthday every year. Maybe it was his birthday and he had just forgotten.

Something thundered and ripped him away from her. Nyall flew in a long pass across the diner and hit a wall. He didn’t remember much after that — just the taste of blood and a rubber sole on his face. It was not his birthday.

Roy sighed, “Duffel’s missing. And, man, you’re not going to like this — come look.”

Nyall clambered from the bed after Roy and circled the truck. Roy’s flashlight sliced the desert floor, stabbing Nyall with every spotlight: tires limp; seats in tatters, baring yellow foam; headlights smashed; windshield glass on the cabin floor; holes in the gas tank, gasoline long sacrificed to the thirsty desert.

Nyall nodded at Taco’s scars, “Let’s pull up her skirt and see if she’ll still purr with some duct tape.” He opened the hood, grabbed Roy’s flashlight, and dove under.

“Fuck.” Then, “Shit!” Then, “Son of a –”

Roy peered into the engine bay over Nyall’s shoulder. There, a wild hammer stampede bludgeoned everything in sight: piping, wiring, the fuse box. Roy stared at the shattered fuse box — a large gaping hole blazoned Nietzschean abyss beside it. The battery was gone. Nyall fingered the empty space, strumming a silent lament. Then, he slumped over the truck’s guts, shaking, as if trying to spill himself into the empty cavity. For a brief moment, Roy feared that Nyall would really meld with the Tacoma and tear through the desert in savage fury. He grabbed Nyall’s shoulder and squeezed.

They stood like this — Nyall slumped and shaking, Roy gripping his friend’s shoulder — until Nyall pushed away and retreated toward the truck bed. He climbed in, reached into his left shoe, and pulled out a key. It was cold and light in his hands, small teeth nipped his fingers. It opened the tool box he’s just installed in the bed before their dash for freedom. There, in that box, were his treasured brass and walnut large loop Mare’s Leg and a green tarpaulin pack of granola bars, water bottles, and boxes of forty-five Colt rounds.

Roy watched his friend unload himself from the truck bed — the pack on his back and the gun in his hands — and frowned, “So, what — the plan is to go gunslinging now across the desert?”

“No, just to the fucking diner.”

“To what end? You’re going to get us killed.”

“We’re dead anyway if we stay here. I want my battery back. I want my cash back. I want the fucking bastards to eat the desert dirt.”

Roy humphed, “And how do you propose we get there?” He drew a wide circle with his hands, “We’re in the middle of the fucking saltscape, bro, and I see no roads to follow.” In the bleak light, he looked pale and aged — a dry salt sculpture shaped and cemented in place by decade-long winds.

Nyall pointed at the sky, “We’ll follow the stars –” then threw light into the desert, “– and the tire tracks. There’s a machete behind the seat. Grab it.”

The desert rubbed them in dry, inert brine. Other parts of the Mojave teem with life: rattlers, geckos, exuberant roadrunners. Omnipotent cats toil through the desert in search of prey; coyotes gossip not far behind and pick up scraps. Stalwart chaparral dots the landscape and, among it, toothy Joshua trees raise their jagged arms for the sky, praying for rain. The stretch between Amboy and Sheephole, however, is a desolate part of the desert — flat, dusty, and very salty. Roy and Nyall were very much alone in one of Mojave’s loneliest parts.

Roy followed Nyall as he crouched every few paces, palming through the faint tire tracks. They took short breaks to drink water from Nyall’s pack and, once, to crunch granola bars. At daybreak, they reached the old utility poles along Amboy Road, leaning every which way in a petrified dance, and the diner’s red neon arrow, still cutting into the desert.

They leaned against the back wall of the diner.

“What now, McQueen?”

Nyall looked down at the tips of his sneakers, dusty and quiet, resting in the dirt. He felt painfully tired, hungry, and sore. He also felt excruciating emptiness gnawing at his intestines and regurgitating them into acidic vomit. He dropped, crushing his knees, and spilled his stomach contents onto the desert floor.

Roy reached for him, “Damn, Ny.”

Nyall shook his head, waving Roy off. He pushed up, wobbled, dropped his pack, then slid down — his back against the wall. Roy reached into the pack in search of water. Inside, just like out there on the flats, there was none.

“Shit. You stay here — I’ll go scavenge.”

“No,” Nyall clasped Roy’s arm. “We’re going in,” his voice was hoarse and shallow — Roy bent toward him, straining to hear. “Help me up.”

Roy swung the tarpaulin pack over his shoulder, cradled the machete in his left elbow — he’s been clutching it in his hand since they left the Tacoma out there in the salty dirt — and grabbed Nyall’s unwieldy mass, pulling him up. He’s heard somewhere before that the dead are heavy — heavier than the living — and a momentary thought that he was lugging around a corpse jabbed him in the knees. He stumbled, but regained his balance and, with it, a foothold on reality. Nyall looked like shit — dirty, pallid, eyes bloodshot — but he was still breathing and still furiously clutching his gun.

They rounded the corner and approached the entryway, Nyall trudging along now unassisted.

Meatloaf was still on the menu and still homemade — the handwritten sign rustled, as Roy palmed it, pushing the diner door open. Nyall checked his gun’s chamber for rounds — clack — found it loaded and snapped it back. He stepped inside following Roy — his right hand wrapped around the walnut stock, reaching for the trigger; the left stretched in front, supporting the barrel. His legs felt like stacks of cotton balls and he began to worry that he’d go down without firing a shot. His father went down without firing a shot. They were in a different part of the Mojave then, by Rosamond, out to shoot cans with Nyall’s spanking new Mare’s Leg — just like Steve McQueen’s in those old black-and-white reruns, big loop and all. He was twelve and his father was just about to cream him — again. Then, he just dropped, gun in his hands, eyes glassy and wide — ¡adios, amigos! — right there, into the Mojave dust (“Smoked to death,” the family doctor said of him later).

Inside the diner, Mary slid a rag across the counter, rusty strands reaching for the water streaks the rag left behind, in a weak attempt to cover the tracks. At the counter, two gray shirts in blue jeans and yellow work boots protested in unison, “What the fuck, Mare?”

Mary looked up and curled her lips in a scowl. Then, glancing past them, she found Nyall at the door, gun in his hands, looking every bit like a dehydrated version of the rag in hers. She looked back down at the counter and began vigorously rubbing an old stain in small circles.

“Which of you — Tweedledum or Tweedledee — took our cash, mutilated the Taco, and painted my face a deep purple?” Nyall spoke slowly and evenly, straining to hear his own voice past the thumping in his temples and the memory of him as that twelve-year-old boy yelling, begging, crying alone in the desert, with just his father’s corpse for company.

Watching Nyall breathe through his words, Roy realized his machete was still suckling at his elbow. He grabbed it by the handle with his right hand and set it at attention — swoosh. He felt quite proud of the swoosh — he thought it rather menacing.

Gray shirts rose from their bar stools and turned — together — eyebrows furrowed, eyes landing on the intruders.

“What?” said the right shirt.

“This jackass called us –”

“Shut up, idiot.” Then, “Ah, yes, the mop. I remember wiping that corner with you. Had to toss you out, see — you left streaks behind. My girl here had to wash the floor after.”

“I want the duffel and the battery,” Nyall gripped his gun tighter, finger on the trigger. Roy squeezed the handle of his machete, sweat grazing his jaw.

Right shirt leaped forward and pushed against the gun’s barrel, leaning his face into Nyall’s, “Fuck you, mop.”

Bang, swoosh.

Thud, splatter.

Nyall clacked the empty shell and snapped the gun back, firing again.

Left shirt flopped backwards onto his bar stool, eyes round, hands palming his leaking stomach, yelling, “Hey, man! What the fuck?”

Nyall didn’t hear him. He only heard his thumping temples and that twelve-year-old wailing in the desert. He lost himself again like he did then — screaming and shooting and snapping empty shells until there were none, discharging four more times. He dropped to his knees, tossing his gun aside, wrapped his head in his hands, and pulled his forehead to the floor.

Roy backed himself toward the door, drawing his head into his shoulders, shaking, still holding the machete dripping from its bloody swoosh. He never killed anyone before. He killed a skunk once — ran over it with his mother’s car at night — and carried its aroma with him for weeks. Never a person. Something dug into his left kidney as he hit the door frame — a box of extra rounds in the tarpaulin pack still hanging off his shoulder. His fingers unraveled and the machete clanked down onto the floor. Nyall remained a wailing ball through the metal racket.

Roy dropped the pack and sat, splaying his legs on the diner’s linoleum. It was that odd beige color with dark brown spots — the type that’s seen its fair share, but was not old enough to replace. His mother had the same kind in her kitchen. The time he hit the skunk, she crinkled her nose and laughed, throwing her head back, holding her right hand over her chest — as if keeping her heart from ejecting — spilling rice all over that linoleum. He missed his mother. Would she laugh now? Roy shook his head. The stench of dead skunk wore off after a few weeks. He doubted human death wore off as easily.

Diner was quiet now. Mary peered over the counter, eyes sharp and wide, lips tight.

Roy exhaled, his head up against the door frame, studying the solo ceiling fan.

Nyall rested his forehead on the floor, his eyes closed.

Thump. Cling.

“Duffel. Their truck — like yours. Leave.” She towered above them, hair flaming, face cold.

They left.

They left, abandoning the gun and the pack and the bloody machete.

They left, shirking the bloody mess and all the death in that damned diner.

They left silently for Mexicali, taking their new ’98 Tacoma the long way through the desert, dust rolling off the sides of the road into Mojave’s rose gold.

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