The rental car’s radio faded to static right as the interview started to get interesting. Of course, Nadine thought. The way inspiration had eluded her lately, she would expect nothing less.
Then as she hunted for the off button with her fingertips, the irony of her disappointment hit her; such background noise was exactly what she’d come to the desert to escape. She could listen to that same pretentious name-dropping competition anytime she wanted to back in Seattle, but she never did because she hated it. Right now, a dramatic play of light and shadow was unfolding over juniper-speckled hills. She lowered the window. A sheep-sized tumbleweed scurried across the highway, and above it flew a perfect V-shaped platoon of migrating birds.
Growing up in the American Southwest, you take certain things for granted. Rippling red mountains, flowering cacti, unspoiled grasslands that roll out beyond infinity. You get used to night skies so clear you can see the Andromeda galaxy with your naked eye. And you think rain is something that comes in brief intense electrical storms, forcefully cleansing and waking up the landscape.
A lifelong passion for art had started on these roads. Nadine began exploring them in high school, taking pictures with the 35-millimeter camera her parents would later regret buying her. The most compelling sights didn’t come from nature alone; peppered within these rainbow-colored canyons, there were dilapidated motels with sunflowers sprouting from empty swimming pools. There were rusty overturned tractors with sprigs of lavender rising through their wheels. There were rodent-chewed couches – poised on the edges of dried up riverbeds – perfectly positioned for a night of UFO-watching.
A single-digit mile marker announced Crumble Creek’s increasing nearness. A good 20 years had passed since she last set foot in that one-way town only an hour’s drive from the one she grew up in. Its energy drew and repelled her at the same time, like competing smells of roasting coffee and green chilis.
The same old sign still beckoned visitors to Moreno’s Fuel Stop; a wooden cutout of a pistol and the charming slogan: “Fastest gas in the west”. It apparently hadn’t seen a paintbrush in about a decade.
Perfect rural decay – the kind Nadine would always pull over to photograph – gave the onlooker a moment of existential transcendence. It forced you to witness the ephemeral nature of your humanness, then soothed your angst with testaments to nature’s enduring force.
But it was different when you knew the place. It was different when you’d seen it in its youth – in your youth – your prime far too recent to have its paint chipped already.
She made the turn just as a storm cloud darkened the road, removing her sunglasses in time for what she’d half hoped not to find there; the abandoned tavern, its windows boarded, broken furniture littering the yard, the old neon sign long drained of electric juices.
She’d told and retold the story of that day, and now she would have to add an amendment; Looks abandoned now; maybe the place really was haunted after all.
Running out of gas seemed a comfortably remote possibility these days, but the teenage Nadine had faced the mishap often, with near purposefulness, as if riding out the gas tank’s last drops were an extreme sport. “I betcha we can make it,” she would tease her nervous passengers. “I’m gonna let it ride.”
But the breakdown on that Thanksgiving Day in 1996 was not planned. At least not consciously. Home on her first break from the University of Washington, she had gone for a drive to Crumble Creek on the pretext of taking pictures— the true motive was to escape her parents, though. She couldn’t stand one more lecture on the frivolous impracticality of her aspired-to art degree.
It was just before this spot where the car had taken its final gasp. Within seconds a silver pickup had appeared and a scraggly long-haired character of about thirty had gotten out, tossing his cigarette butt aside as he approached. In the truck there sat another, just like him but with a shaved head and goatee. Such was her impervious delusion of immortality in those days that she’d felt no hesitation whatsoever in getting in the car with these grungy saviors, who said their family owned a gas station up the road.
It’s surprising how much you can learn about people in a five-minute car trip. Randy and Wayne Moreno told Nadine their life story in competing bursts, like eager schoolboys. The spiraling flurries of the blizzard outside intensified their rant’s discord and made it hard to keep track of who was saying what.
“Every family has a black sheep; our mom got a two-for-one special.”
“Almost killed all three of us when I came into the world. Had that umbilical cord wrapped around my neck and—”
“You always take credit. Mom said it was me.”
“Okay, we were fighting over it then. Whatever. Anyway–”
“My motto is ‘life’s too short to play by the rules.’”
“My motto is ‘between two evils, I’ll take the one I haven’t tried.’”
About a mile before Nadine’s unmoving vehicle, Randy slammed on the brakes. “There it is,” he said to no one in particular, pointing in the direction of a construction site.
The Moreno boys were in the process of restoring this old tavern, they told her. A former house of ill repute, its legendary status had inspired them to bring back its glory days. As if the building knew it was the subject of conversation it spontaneously shuddered, and a mass of packed snow fell at its plastic-sheeted entrance.
“There goes ol’ Blue Bill,” Randy said.
Apparently, back in the 1800s, a guy named Bill had won the deed to the place in a poker game. Before he could collect, the owner shot him in the back.
“They say he haunts the property to this day. He doesn’t want anyone else to own it, see. That’s why we got it so cheap.”
“What are you gonna call it?” Nadine asked.
“Dead Man’s Hand.”
Looking back now, Nadine regretted the way she’d related that whole adventure to her friends back in Seattle. “I kept one hand on the door latch the whole time,” she’d told her audience. Though in truth she had liked Randy and Wayne, had even promised she’d come have a beer at Dead Man’s Hand as soon as she turned 21.
But she’d never made it.
Now she pulled into the dusty lot and shut off the engine, imagining what it might be like to see them again. They’d be proud of her. She’d made a long career out of advancing the cause of outcasts and misfits like them. It started when she curated a show for a local graffiti artist in 1999.
The show was a huge success, and it made the artist a rich celebrity— a rich celebrity who now complained that the commissioned murals he did for the city lacked the urgency of his earlier works.
After that, she’d gotten a job at an auction house and met Doug. Doug now spent 10 hours a day chatting online with the other members of his support group for internet gaming addicts.
On second thought, maybe a reunion wasn’t necessary.
She grabbed her camera bag and got out, arching her back and inhaling the pine-scented air. A loud bang frightened her; There goes ol’ Blue Bill, she thought, but it was a massive chunk of hail hitting a tin bucket. She didn’t get back in the car right away; first she angled her face upward and let the prickly ice balls sting her cheeks. In a single lightning flash, she saw the outline of a spooked horse rearing up against the night sky.
This was what she’d missed, she thought. The electricity in the air. The Northwest lacked thunderstorms and hail. You needed an unusually unstable air mass to have them, she’d read once. A severe contrast between ground and cloud temperatures. Positive and negative charges colliding violently… or something like that.
She returned to the car and cranked the engine, and as she glanced at the console a panic set in; she could have sworn she had half a tank five minutes ago, now it had dried up. This place’s energy defied physics. Did ghosts know how to siphon gas tanks? She’d never heard of such a thing. She tapped the pedal and began forging ahead slowly, holding her breath as if that would help.
Just past the outline of a downed telephone pole, she glimpsed a red halo of light. If memory served, Moreno’s Fuel Stop should be right around that corner.
But Moreno’s was gone. Of course.
In its place, there stood a very recognizable arrow insignia; it was the fourth GoMart she had passed today. Corporate franchises were poisoning the American landscape with their sterile uniformity, she bristled.
But at least you knew what to expect with them. The air inside the store smelled strongly of a comforting familiarity, like warm towels fresh from the dryer. It had a flat ceiling of fluorescent squares arranged in a pleasing argyle pattern. In the center stood a massive island of various coffee and soda dispensers, cups stacked ambitiously high like museum columns. Bright cardboard flags hung from the ceiling, ceremonious in their glorification of lottery tickets and fast snack combo deals.
After paying for her gas, Nadine bought a carton of microwave nachos and a mechanically constituted cappuccino.
A certain adrenaline kicks in when you survive a brush with death. A fire comes into your chest, giving you courage to stand and watch the sparks of your world enkindle. To brave the extreme temperature disparities. To absorb the violent electrical charges.
Or, sometimes even more dauntingly, to return to the places that lack them.
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