IT BEGAN with a dead man.
No, that’s not right. It began before that for Jimmy Dorsett, who was very much alive and alone in a wide, empty desert, listening to his Ford clatter and groan and wondering how much farther it would take him. He would rather have listened to the radio, but it was already busted when he bought the car. So was the AC, which was why he was driving at night. One of the reasons, anyway.
He knew if he slowed down, the car might last a few more miles, but he kept his foot heavy on the pedal. He told himself it was because he’d been guzzling coffee to stay awake and now he had to piss. But the fact was, he always drove fast even when he had nowhere to be.
He could have pulled over and watered a Joshua tree but decided to hold it awhile longer. He needed more coffee too, and the gas gauge hovered not far above the red E.
He saw the lights from miles away, and as he drew closer, he realized he was nearing a tiny town. Not much of a place. A few houses, small and close to the highway, but somebody lived in them, and those somebodies had more than he did. A couple of buildings contained businesses of some kind, but Jimmy couldn’t tell in the darkness whether they were closed for the night or closed forever. Two enormous gas stations sat across from one another, each with a convenience store and plenty of room for semis to pull in and turn around. The bright lighting was cold and hard and did nothing to warm the desert night.
Jimmy turned into the station on his right.
He went inside to use the can before he did anything else. The clerk was a big guy with a scruffy beard, and he eyed Jimmy carefully. Jimmy imagined the guy’s hands rested close to a gun, just in case.
The bathroom was dirty, but he’d seen worse. Much worse. At least the sink worked, so he washed his hands and splashed cold water on his face. There was no mirror, which was just as well.
When he was done, he picked up a bag of chips and a king-size Snickers bar and filled their largest paper cup with coffee. He took his purchases to the counter. “And thirty bucks of regular,” he said. Gas prices had gone down lately, allowing him to get a lot farther than he used to, but still his little stash of bills was pitifully thin.
The cashier rang him up, took the money, and handed him change and a receipt. Didn’t say anything, not even Thanks or Have a nice night. So Jimmy smiled at him and said, “Thank you. Hope you have a good day.”
The man didn’t respond.
Jimmy gassed up the Ford, listening to the fuel line hum, thinking about nothing much. He could do that—shut off his mind and wait for whatever came next.
Then he was back in his car with the motor running and bad coffee burning his tongue. He had a decision to make. The town was at a crossroads, so assuming he didn’t want to retrace his journey, he could travel in any one of three directions. He drove to the edge of the parking lot and idled for a moment. North, west, east. None of them looked any more or less promising than the others. The pavement all looked the same.
And then he noticed the old man.
He stood near the gas station across the street, his back against a thick metal light pole, a backpack lying at his feet. He was bearded, grizzled, and wore a stocking cap pulled low on his head and a jean jacket faded almost to white. The jacket wasn’t heavy enough for a desert night, and the man shivered. He wasn’t looking at Jimmy’s car or the two semis idling nearby. He looked like a man who’d given up on waiting a long time ago.
Jimmy had been that man more than once over the years. No bed, no money, no hope. Hell, once the Ford finally croaked and he ran though the last few dollars in his wallet, Jimmy would be that man again.
But at the moment he had a car that ran, and he had a little food and a little cash. So he drove across the empty highway and stopped in front of the old man. He opened his door slightly—the window was stuck—and asked, “Need a ride?”
The guy didn’t even pause to assess him. He just picked up his pack, which looked heavy, and threw it in the backseat before sitting in the front. He and Jimmy closed their doors.
“Where you heading?” Jimmy asked.
Jimmy shook his head. “Never heard of it.”
“’S up north, on Highway 49. Gold rush country.” He had a voice like a truck driving through deep gravel, bumpy and broken. “You headin’ that way?”
“Sure. If the car makes it that far.”
Looked like Jimmy had a destination after all.
THE MAN’S name was Tom, and he reeked of cigarettes, booze, and the type of old dirt that’s been building up a long time. Of course, Jimmy had been sleeping in the Ford lately, and he probably didn’t smell his best either. They put up with each other’s stink without complaint.
Tom could have been any age from fifty to eighty. His eyes were watery and his hands shook. He coughed often, a thick sound, and he turned down Jimmy’s offer of chips and candy. “Ain’t hungry.”
“When did you eat last?”
“Dunno. But I ain’t hungry.”
Well, you couldn’t force a man to eat. But Jimmy saved some of the Snickers bar, just in case.
Maybe Tom would have slept. But the road was long and empty, and Jimmy hadn’t had a conversation with anyone in ages. “Were you waiting for a ride for a long time?” he asked.
Tom grunted. “Since sunset. Trucker took me there all the way from Flagstaff, but he was turnin’ down to Santa Clarita. Nobody stopped for me since then.” For the first time, he took a good look at Jimmy. “Why’d you stop?”
“You looked cold.”
“Where you goin’? I know it ain’t Rattlesnake.”
Jimmy shrugged. “Didn’t have anywhere specific in mind.”
“You runnin’ from something?”
“Nope. Just… driving. How about you? What’s in Rattlesnake?”
Tom paused a long time before answering. “Used to live there. Long time ago. Thought maybe—” He stopped to hack up half a lung, and when the coughing ended, he didn’t finish his thought. He turned his head away from Jimmy to stare out his window at nothing while Jimmy stared straight ahead at not much more than nothing.
The silence grew too loud. “Have you ever been to Minden, Nebraska?” Jimmy didn’t wait to see if Tom would answer. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, except it’s not too far off I-80. I stayed awhile there, a few years back. There’s a tourist attraction—Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village. It’s sort of a collection of collections. Like everyone in Nebraska emptied out their attics, garages, and barns and dumped the contents there in Minden.” He’d spent a summer working the snack bar there, flipping burgers and dumping fries into hot grease. It had paid just enough for him to rent a room from an old couple who lived nearby. Hadn’t been a bad gig.
“Never been,” Tom said.
“Well, it’s worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.” He remembered the oppressive heat of a Nebraska summer, the way the plains seemed as endless as the sky, and the fireflies that danced in the evenings.
He shifted slightly in his seat. The springs were shot. “They have all these cars. Starting from horse-and-buggy days, actually. Then they have a steam car, some Fords even older than this piece of crap… all the way through the years. But it’s not the biggest collection of cars I’ve seen. I worked for a few weeks once on a farm in Missouri, helping build new fences. My boss there, he had a couple of huge barns completely full of cars. Hundreds of ’em. He was addicted to car auctions, I guess. None of them ran. They were dusty, full of spiders and bugs and mice. But he kept on buying more.”
His passenger didn’t reply. Didn’t even cough. Jimmy swallowed some of his coffee, which had cooled to bitter sludge. “One time I was riding a Greyhound bus to…. Shit. Don’t remember where to. I remember it was raining, though, and you couldn’t see through the windows ’cause they were all fogged up. There was a lady sitting a couple rows up from me. She wasn’t hardly more than a girl, really. She was on the bus already when I boarded, and she looked real scared when I walked by, like maybe I was gonna hurt her or something.” Jimmy got that look often. He wasn’t huge, but he was big enough when he carried some weight, and he figured there was a toughness to his face. Mostly he didn’t mind if people were a little scared of him—it meant they were less likely to try to fuck with him. But sometimes it made him sad and lonely, and that day on the bus had been one of those times.
“So there we were, bumping along in that bus, on our way to somewhere. There weren’t many passengers. And the girl, she made this funny sound. Sort of a muffled scream? I got out of my seat and asked her if she was all right, and she looked up at me with the biggest eyes I ever saw. ‘I’m having a baby,’ she said. And she sure as hell was. Driver pulled over and called for paramedics, but that baby was in a hurry. He was born right there on the Greyhound, with the driver and me and a soldier helping out. I got to be one of the first human beings that little boy ever saw. I wonder how he’s turned out. He’d be near twenty now. Almost as old as I was then.
“That baby looked up at everyone with astonishment clear in his eyes, and he squalled loud enough to wake the dead. It’s supposed to be a good thing when a newborn cries so strongly, I know that. But still, I always wondered if that kid hadn’t been damned disappointed with the life he’d been born into.”
After ten or fifteen quiet minutes, Tom cleared his throat. “You got people somewhere? Family?”
That was a simple question with a complicated answer. Jimmy said, “Not really.”
“Me either. Not no more. Used to, though. How old are you?”
Jimmy had to calculate a bit in his head to answer precisely. “I turned forty-three last month.” He hadn’t celebrated it—nobody to celebrate with. Fuck, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d known anyone well enough for them to wish him a happy birthday.
“Then you still got time.”
“Time for what?”
Tom coughed some more before answering. “Listen to me, Jimmy. Someday you’re gonna be an old bastard like me, and you’re gonna regret shit, and you ain’t gonna be able to do nothin’ about it. Don’t wait. You got stuff in your life needs fixin’, you gotta fix it now, while you can.”
Trying to ignore the sharpness in his chest, Jimmy shook his head. “I’m fine. I’ve just got itchy feet is all. I can’t stay anywhere very long before I have the urge to move on. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Tom snorted. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it long as you’re happy. Are you happy?”
Jimmy didn’t reply.
A few miles later, Tom removed a paper from his pocket. It crackled a bit when he handled it. Out of the corner of his eye, Jimmy saw him unfold it and stare at it awhile even though the car was too dark for him to read. Then Tom folded it again and tucked it away.
“I had a son,” Tom said very quietly. “Back in Rattlesnake. I loved that boy. But I guess I loved the bottle more. Left him and his mama when he was just little, and I ain’t seen him since.”
If Jimmy hadn’t been driving, he’d have closed his eyes tight. Instead he narrowed them and kept his gaze forward, where the road had begun to rise a little toward Tehachapi Pass. “How old is he now?” he asked, tight-throated.
“Dunno.” Tom coughed a minute. “Grown.”
“So why are you going to Rattlesnake now?”
“Got sick. I think it was all that fucking regret sitting in my belly, growing like cancer. I wrote him a letter. I was gonna mail it, but I don’t know his address. Don’t know if he’s even there anymore. Maybe he moved on years ago. But I couldn’t just throw the damn letter away. Tried to, but couldn’t. So I decided to try to deliver it myself. If he’s still there.”
Wishes were like poison, Jimmy thought. When you made them, they were all bright and shiny, sweet as candy. But they lingered and languished and didn’t come true, and so they curdled and went bad. Became toxic. That’s why he never made them to begin with.
“I hope you find him,” Jimmy said.
The response came as a sigh. “Yeah. It’d sure be nice to see him, even if he hates my guts. I don’t care if he yells and calls me names. I just wanna see him.” And he moved his seat back a little—Jimmy was surprised it could still recline—and closed his eyes.
Jimmy took another swig of coffee.
THE FORD grew louder as it climbed the mountain, until it was grumbling and clanking alarmingly. Jimmy eased up on the gas and hoped the car would be happier once he began to descend. But it wasn’t. If anything, its complaints grew louder as he coasted down into farmland, rolled through the sleeping city of Bakersfield, and headed north on Highway 99.
Normally he wouldn’t have worried about the car—if it died, it died. It had happened to him with other cars. He could hitch a ride, or he could stay put long enough to earn money for a bus ride or another junker car. He wouldn’t even have been bothered by the very early hour, because the temperature here was tolerable and big rigs plentiful. But for once he actually had a destination in mind. And he had a passenger. He truly wanted to get Tom to Rattlesnake.
As he drove on, the sky to his right began to lighten although the sun hadn’t yet appeared over the Sierras. The car made noises like a bad concert, he decided. One with too much percussion and with guitarists who couldn’t agree on which song they were playing. He made up lyrics in his head to keep himself awake. This is it, for my piece of shit, car that’s gonna up and quit. It’s not fine, to lose what’s mine, here on fuckin’ Ninety-nine. Yeah, well, he’d never claimed to be a musician.
Despite the din from the engine compartment and inside his head, Jimmy’s eyelids grew heavy. They still had another two or three hours before they reached Rattlesnake. The car might make it, but it didn’t look like he would. At least not without a nap. He was relieved when he came upon a rest area at the southern outskirts of Fresno, and he took the exit gratefully. “Just need a little shut-eye. Thirty minutes.”
Tom didn’t answer.
The parking lot was empty except for a handful of trucks clustered at one end and a beat-up old van near the bathrooms. The big overhead lights had switched off, but the morning light was still tentative and dim. Jimmy piloted the car to a spot far from the other vehicles and cut the engine, which stopped with a final clatter and a tired sigh.
Before he got too comfortable, his bladder reminded him how much coffee he’d drunk. “Fuck. Be right back,” he said to Tom, who still snoozed away. Jimmy pulled the keys from the ignition and turned to give Tom a good poke. “I’ll be right back,” he repeated more loudly.
And that’s when Jimmy realized Tom wasn’t sleeping.
“Fuck!” he yelled as he scrambled for his door handle. Once he got the door open, he nearly fell out of the car. He stood there breathing hard, staring at his passenger.
Tom didn’t look much worse than he had in life. His eyes were closed, his mouth hung slightly open, and his skin had taken on a waxy pallor. But there was no sign of distress on his face, and if he’d made any sound when he died, it had been too quiet to hear over the racket of the car.
Although Jimmy had witnessed only one person entering the world, he’d seen several people shortly after they’d left. Overdoses. Accidents. Once he’d seen a bunch of cops clustered around a lonely corpse at the side of a highway. Someone had covered the body with a blanket, but its bare feet stuck out. And for a few sticky summer months in a southern town he couldn’t now name, he’d worked as a cemetery groundskeeper—mowing the lawns, trimming the trees, getting rid of faded flowers. He hadn’t actually seen any dead people then, just their caskets and their freshly filled graves. But death wasn’t new to him by any means. It just didn’t usually ride shotgun.
He calmed rather quickly, then considered what to do next. His first thought was to keep driving all the way to Rattlesnake, find Tom’s son, and hand over the body. Except Jimmy didn’t like the idea of driving with a dead man, and it would be a hard thing to explain to the cops if he got pulled over. Or if his car followed Tom’s lead and died too.
He could dump the body somewhere and take off. But that was sneaky. And poor Tom didn’t deserve to be treated like a sack of litter. Besides, in today’s Big Brother world, there were apt to be surveillance cameras somewhere, and then once again the problem of explaining himself would arise.
His best option, he finally decided, was to get the cops involved right away. Yes, he’d still have to explain—no getting around that—but he wouldn’t look nearly so suspicious.
Fuck. Cops made him… itchy.
Jimmy decided that his bladder was a bigger emergency than Tom, seeing as Tom was already dead. He hurried across the lot to the dank bathroom, pissed like a racehorse, and washed his hands. When he emerged from the smelly little building, he looked for a public telephone. He found one all right, but it was busted. The handset was cracked into pieces, the bottom half still hanging from the cord.
He considered trying the van but vetoed that idea and loped to the big rigs instead. He pounded on the driver’s door of the first one he came to. Crete Carrier, said the neatly painted lettering on the cab. Lincoln, Nebraska.
He had to pound a second time before the driver appeared at the window to glare at him. “Whaddya want?” the guy yelled. His wispy gray hair stuck almost straight up in a case of bedhead that might have been funny under other circumstances.
“I need you to call the cops!” Jimmy shouted back.
“I got a dead guy in my car!”
Well, that got the driver’s attention. He blinked at Jimmy in astonishment before disappearing. He must have been calling or radioing his buddies, because within moments all the trucks disgorged men who looked as if they’d woken suddenly from a deep sleep.
“Show me,” said the Crete Carrier guy.
They silently followed Jimmy across the lot, looking like a baseball-cap-wearing funeral procession. When they reached Jimmy’s Ford—with the driver’s door still wide open—they clustered around and gaped.
“Yeah, he’s dead all right,” concluded one of the truckers, a man with a big belly and a bushy beard.
“Who is he?” asked another. “Your daddy?”
Jimmy shook his head. “A hitchhiker. I picked him up in the desert. I thought he was sleeping.”
“Well, that’s fucked up.”
Jimmy had to agree with that assessment.
Eventually someone got around to calling the police, and two cars arrived ten minutes later, sirens wailing. An ambulance trailed behind. The truckers backed away a little when the cops came near, but Jimmy stood his ground. Tom had apparently become his problem.
While most of the emergency personnel concentrated on Tom, one cop drew Jimmy aside. He was Officer R. Ramirez, according to his name tag, and if Jimmy had been into men in uniform, this man would have been his wet dream. He was tall and buff, with short dark hair, big brown eyes that crinkled at the corners, and a square chin. He looked Jimmy up and down carefully, and if he was displeased by what he saw, at least he managed to keep a neutral expression.
“Can I see your driver’s license please, sir?” Ramirez asked.
Jimmy pulled the license from his wallet. It had been issued in South Carolina eight years earlier, but it was still valid. He handed it to Ramirez, who peered at it closely. “Is this address correct?” he asked.
Ramirez handed back the license and pulled out a small notebook and pencil. “Do you currently live in South Carolina, sir?” He’d probably already noticed that the Ford’s plates were from Oklahoma.
“Not anymore,” Jimmy answered.
“What is your current residence?”
Jimmy squirmed uncomfortably. “I, uh, don’t exactly have one. I’m… in transit.”
“In transit to where?”
“Sacramento. I might have a job there.”
“I see. Please tell me what happened, Mr. Dorsett.”
At least he was being polite and not condescending. And he stayed that way as Jimmy told his story. Ramirez asked some questions but only to supplement his notes. He didn’t seem to be trying to trip Jimmy up.
“Okay,” he said when Jimmy was done. “Just wait here, all right?”
Jimmy nodded. Where else was he going to go? He spent a long time fidgeting as Ramirez talked to the other cops and the EMTs. The truckers eventually grew bored and wandered back to their rigs. Jimmy was thankful he’d peed before the cops arrived, but fuck, he was dog tired. Pretty soon he was going to collapse.
The EMTs loaded Tom into the ambulance and drove away without lights or siren. The cops remained, and after a few more minutes, Ramirez briskly rejoined Jimmy. The officer didn’t look happy.
“Mr. Dorsett, do you know anybody in the Fresno area?”
“Not a soul.”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to stick around while we investigate.”
Shit. “Investigate? He was old and sick and he died.”
“I know. And I don’t have any reason to doubt what you’ve told me. But we can’t just take your word for it. I’m sorry.” To his credit, he looked as if he meant it.
“Two or three days. We’ll need an autopsy, maybe some preliminary lab reports. And we’re going to have to impound your car as evidence.”
Jimmy moaned. “My car! Look, it’s all—”
“I know. We’ll get it done as quickly as possible—I’ll see to that personally. But again, it’s going to be a couple of days.” His expression turned stern. “When we search the vehicle, are we going to find any narcotics?”
“I don’t know what’s in Tom’s backpack, but you won’t find drugs anywhere else.” Jimmy had used when he was younger. Occasionally he’d used heavily. But he’d come to realize that drugs were the most toxic form of hope, lasting only a short while before leaving you worse off than before. He still drank now and then, but not often and usually not much.
After another assessing look, Ramirez nodded. “All right. Do you have enough money for a few nights at a motel? If not, there’s a men’s shelter downtown. Or the jail, but I don’t think that’s a good option.”
Jimmy tried to remember how much cash he had left. “How cheaply can I get a room?”
“Thirty-five a night, if you’re not picky.”
He had to chuckle at that. “I’m not. And I guess I can afford a night or two at that rate.”
“Good. I’ll give you a ride.”
“Yeah, fine.” Jimmy rubbed his face. “Can I have my bag at least?” His duffel bag contained all his worldly possessions other than the Ford: a few changes of clothing, a pair of decent work boots, an old knit hat, basic toiletries, a blanket and towel, and a couple of battered paperbacks he’d picked up somewhere.
“Sorry, no. But you can take a few things to get you through.”
So Jimmy had to endure the indignity of having the cops watch as he extracted underwear, socks, T-shirts, the plastic bag of toiletries, and a book. He watched as the duffel bag and trunk were shut up tight. At least Ramirez found him a larger plastic bag to carry his stuff. That was nice.
Jimmy had never before ridden in the front of a cop car. It was a crowded place, with a laptop and lots of buttons and dials for equipment he couldn’t identify. He controlled the impulse to poke things at random. He was lucky to be heading for a motel instead of the jail, and he really didn’t want to push his luck.
Ramirez took the driver’s seat and smiled at Jimmy before pulling away. “I appreciate your cooperation, sir. I know this is an inconvenience.”
“I guess I’ll survive.” Unlike poor Tom. “Will you contact his son?”
“We’ll do our best to find his next of kin.”
“What will happen to the body?”
“That depends. If we can find family, we’ll release the deceased to them. If not, we’ll see if he has any resources to pay for a burial.”
Jimmy snorted. “And when you find out he doesn’t?”
“Cremation, and storage for a time.”
After a short drive, Ramirez pulled off the freeway and onto what had once been the main highway, lined with motels apparently in decline since the fifties. The Comet Motel was a motor court whose faded neon sign sported a spaceship-shaped appendage with remnants of weathered paint. A pair of hookers waiting near the driveway waved at Ramirez, who waved back.
“Not exactly the Ritz,” Ramirez said as he stopped in front of the office. “But better than the shelter or the jail.”
At this point Jimmy would have slept anywhere. “Okay. Thanks for the ride.”
“Here’s my card. Call if you need anything or have any questions. You’ll hear back from me as soon as possible. I can phone you here. Just don’t skip town, all right?”
“I won’t.” Jimmy took the card and slid it into his pocket. Clutching his plastic bag, he climbed out of the car.
But before Jimmy could shut the door, Ramirez leaned over, hand outstretched. “Thank you again, Mr. Dorsett.”
Christ, this cop was a good-looking man. Under very different circumstances, Jimmy might have flirted with him. But all he did was give Ramirez’s hand a quick shake, then slam the door and walk away.