The rattle repeated itself every few seconds, sounding like some beast with scarred lungs exhaling in its sleep. Carl opened his sticky eyes, pushed himself up on an elbow, and peeled back the sodden sheet. Across the sunlit room, a window-mounted swamp cooler churned out sultry air. He sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the nightstand, at an old-style colorized postcard showing a row of cracker-box motel rooms below a red neon sign that screamed “Blythe Motor Lodge.”
Carl scrubbed at his face. His beard felt at least two days old. Naked and sweat-covered, he shuffled to the wall mirror next to an ancient console TV. Somebody had shaved off his gray chest hair and painted his front a sickly mustard yellow. A plastic band with a barcode encircled his left wrist. He tore it off and looked for the TV remote, but couldn’t find it. Carl hated searching for lost things, although he didn’t know why.
Definitely low rent he thought as he pulled back the shower curtain and turned the rust-stained porcelain knobs. Brownish water spurted from the showerhead then cleared. He stepped into the tepid stream and let it wash over him, scrubbing at his chest with a bar of Sweetheart soap. Afterward, he stood dripping in front of the swamp cooler and let its breeze dry him. His arms ached and he massaged the veins on the inside of his elbows, the skin an ugly yellowish-green.
The closet held nothing but wooden hangers. The dressers stood empty except for a Gideon Bible. Carl found a white plastic bag under the bed. It contained his wrinkled clothes, including his wallet, wristwatch and shoes. Dressing quickly he moved to the window and pulled back the gauzy curtains. Palm trees leaned in a stiff wind. A dusty highway ran through the town toward parched hills on the horizon. Traffic was light. What looked like antique gravel trucks rumbled past.
Carl had been in Blythe only once before, on a summer hitchhiking trek across the Mojave Desert in 1967. He’d been running away with Carolyn, running from the damn War, and arguing with her about where to go. She wanted to return home to Albany, to her classes at the University, her West Coast Summer of Love over and done. He wanted to cross the desert to Phoenix, to Dallas, then get lost with her in the slow crazyness of The Big Easy.
Carl gazed out the motel window and wondered why he’d returned and how he’d got there. Blythe hadn’t changed much in five decades: the same thrashing palms, the same coffee shop across the street, its parking lot packed. He stared loose-jawed at the cars, round-backed or slab-sided models from the 50s and 60s, canvas water bags slung over front bumper posts, dust-covered. It must be some sort of classic car convention.
He found a comb on the dresser, tore open its cellophane wrapper and dragged it through his thin gray hair. He opened the motel room door. The wind and heat blasted him and he retreated, searched the plastic bag, and retrieved his sunglasses. Outside, he scanned the parking lot but couldn’t spot his Camry. His heart raced at the thought of being marooned in this desert outpost. He stood in the meager shade of a palm and waited for calm to return.
His stomach rumbled, and he moved toward the coffee shop across the highway. Checking his wallet, he found it empty of cash and his credit cards gone, except for a Gulf Oil card that he couldn’t remember ever using. Ravens circled above the deserted streets, their raucous calls sounding almost human. The air smelled of dirt and sage. He walked eastward, the highway disappearing into brown fields and desert. The hot wind attacked his eyes and mouth. The ground heat burned through his soles.
In the distance a figure stood alongside the road, appearing then disappearing in the wiggling heat waves. Carl wiped his eyes on his shirtsleeve but couldn’t clear his vision. At a Sinclair gas station at the edge of town he gulped metallic-tasting water from the hose then doused his head and face. The attendant ignored him and didn’t leave the office. Carl continued eastward into the wavering heat. Slowly the figure came into focus, a young woman wearing a long hippie dress and standing in the shadow of a highway sign that read “Quartzsite 25 Phoenix 150.” As he approached, she stuck out her thumb.
“Where ya goin’, mister?” she asked.
“I’m…I’m not sure.”
“Yeah, I hear that a lot.”
He stood in the shade next to her. “How about you?”
She grinned, showing perfect white teeth in a face burnt the color of almonds. “New York, upstate.”
“That’s one hell of a trip. You feel safe out here?”
“I can take care of myself. What about you, an old guy without even a hat?”
“I’m not sure I’m really here.”
“What did you do, drop some bad acid? And you’ve got some mean-looking track marks.” She pointed to his arms.
“I can’t remember how I got those. I have images in my head of lying on a bed and someone jabbing me….”
“Yeah, well the desert’s a great place to remember, to find answers. A couple of hours standing in this wind and it’ll all come back…or disappear forever.”
“I know. I’ve been here before.”
“Hey, there’s one answer already. But we’d better cover your head or you’ll be hurting later on.”
The girl knelt, opened her knapsack, and pulled out a tie-dyed bandana. She gently wrapped it around his scalp, covering his ears, and tied it in back like a pirate. The howl of the wind and of trucks rumbling past softened. Carl leaned against the signpost and closed his eyes, breathing in the scent of diesel exhaust and sun-baked creosote bush. The heat scorched his hands and he shoved them into his pants pockets.
“So tell me about the last time?” the girl asked.
“The last time what?”
“The last time you were here?”
“It was a long time ago…when I was about your age.”
“Yeah, so why this highway, this route?”
“My…my friend wanted to hitch to Albany and I came along to….”
“Try and talk her out of it.”
“Was she your girlfriend?”
“I wanted her to be…and we spent one hell of a night at that crappy motel back in Blythe. But she had other ideas.”
“Yeah, that happens. You’re probably out here trying to find her, right?”
Carl stared openmouthed at the girl, at the smirk on her lips. “Not likely. She died years ago and nobody hitchhikes anymore.”
“But you’re still looking, right?”
“I don’t know. I still think about her.”
“So you were one of those guys that had a roll in the hay and then thought you owned her.”
Carl frowned. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The girl smiled and played with her thick blonde braid, chewing on its tip, her eyes laughing. “Sure you do. You look like the clingy type.”
“And you’re an expert?” Carl growled.
“Damn straight. Why do you think a foxy chick like me is out here by herself? Guys try to control me, to latch on. They get pissed when I tell them to bug off.”
Carl smiled and lowered his head. “Well you’re certainly pretty enough to attract them. You can’t blame ’em for trying.”
“Yes I can. We’re not property, ya know.”
“No, you’re surely not that.”
“So when are you gonna make your move?”
“My what? I’m old enough to be your grandfather.” Carl glared at the girl, mad at her for exposing his old-fogey lust, for destroying his recurring dream of finding Carolyn.
“Come on, mister. Why else would you walk out here?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Sure you do.”
The girl moved in front of Carl and put a hand on his shoulder and stepped close, her full lips parted, green eyes staring him down, mocking his sincerity. He didn’t care. He tore off his sunglasses, closed his eyes, and leaned forward to kiss her. A strong medicinal smell enveloped him. When he failed to make contact he opened his eyes. The girl stood several paces away, laughing. He’d heard that laugh before, on that same highway. He glared at her and moved forward. Her smile vanished as he advanced. She turned to run and cut loose with a muffled scream. He slid an arm around her neck in a chokehold before she could escape. Old clunker cars zipped by but didn’t slow. She stomped on his feet, elbowed his ribs, then reached behind her head and clawed at his face. But he maintained a steady pressure, a pressure that seemed to match the one in his chest. He heard a voice shouting numbers: 120, 110, 90, 82, 75, 60. Green-clad figures moved behind his eyes, ghostly shadows that gained speed as they went.
The girl hung limp in his arms. He dragged her to the highway sign and leaned her against one of its posts. She sat staring unblinking into the desert. Carl backed away, turned and hobbled toward town. A black Cadillac limousine with window curtains passed him going the other way. He twisted around and watched it stop near the road sign. A black man wearing a chauffeur’s cap and a dark suit got out.
Carl turned and hustled toward Blythe. But the town stayed frozen in the distance and he made no progress. He stopped, breathing hard. Voices echoed in his head, shouting orders that made no sense – “Clear…Go again…Clear…Go again…Clear…Call it.” He turned eastward toward the far hills shimmering in the summer heat. The limo driver stood at attention next to the car’s open rear door, one hand waving at him to come forward. A sharp ringing pierced Carl’s skull. It stopped abruptly. He moved toward the Cadillac with a steady stride. At the car he ducked into the seat, then froze. The driver closed the door behind him with a solid thunk. He stared open-mouthed at the girl sitting quietly next to him, her breath a soft sweet whisper, her golden hair flowing over pale shoulders and catching the sun’s rays through the window.
Carl turned around, pushed the curtain aside, and gazed through the limo’s rear window. The ruby-red lights of an old squad car flashed slowly. Two Highway Patrol officers stood next to the road sign, hands on hips, their caps pushed back on their heads. At their feet lay the body of a girl, her long hippie dress billowing in the wind.
The limo’s air conditioning chilled him and he wrapped his arms around his sweating body and shivered deliciously. The driver climbed behind the wheel and turned toward the couple.
“Where to?” he drawled.
The girl smiled at Carl and replied, “Albany.”
He sank into the soft leather seats and half-closed his eyes. The Cadillac gained speed, rushing forward into the bright desert light.
# # #
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. His short stories have been accepted by more than 240 literary journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and Conclave: A Journal of Character. He was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize for his stories “The Sweeper,” and “The Garage.” Terry is an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.
Photo credit: Terri Malone