Chapter 5 – Into the Desert

The sun hovered around noon and drove the temperature to about eighty. Each truck shooting by at seventy brought its own dust storm. I was now heading south out of Las Vegas standing next to Hwy 93 and felt relief when a brown sedan pulled over.

“Get in.” The driver handed me his business card, it said, Harvey Pinkerton, Sales Manager, Fletcher’s Portable Buildings, Las Vegas. Harvey appeared middle-aged, overweight, wearing a brown dress shirt, brown slacks and loafers. He’d blend into any average crowd.

As we ended our small talk about the heat, I shut-up. Listening had become my primary method of defense and gave me a chance to gauge each driver’s mental state.

“I was born in Sicily,” Harvey said. “You know… the old country.”

I nodded.

“My mother died havin’ me. How’s that for a shithouse way to start?”

“Sorry to hear that,” I tried to sound empathetic, but felt it was odd that, of all the things to say, he started by revealing that.

“What the hell,” he said. “We’re all gonna die.” He took his watery eyes off the road and looked at me. “There’s worse ways to go then bringin’ a life into the world.”

I nodded again, but continued my silence.

“As a kid my old man and me moved to the Bronx. That was okay, but a few years later he was driving truck and got shot and died.” He sat up taller, raising his voice. “But I’m still here.”

Harvey’s wife had divorced him, and he missed his young daughter. Her picture sat in a small gold frame on the dash where she smiled out between apple cheeks. Glued next to her stood a figurine of the Virgin Mary.

Harvey glanced left and blurted, “We gotta pick those up!”.

I looked across the freeway, toward the north-bound lanes, and saw two hitchhikers, teenage girls.

Since we weren’t driving north, the thought of this middle-aged man reversing our direction just to pick up teenage hitchhikers made me feel uneasy.

Harvey pulled an immediate uie by driving down the wide dirt median and up the other side. The back tires sprayed gravel, and by the time we emerged from our dust cloud the girls were gone. We pulled another median duster and again headed south.

After a few minutes he pulled a half-empty bottle of vodka from under the seat, took a pull, and offered the booze to me. Aside from the abrupt u-turn, his driving was controlled and smooth, so I didn’t worry that he’d suddenly become a dangerous drunk, and figured a swig or two might make the time pass more easily.

Watching him suck from the bottle brought visions of my mother. She’d chug on gin when she thought no one was looking. Each time left me feeling a mix of disgust and disappointment, betrayal. After a while that became my normal.

As I raised the vodka and tipped my head back to suck down the harsh comfort, I realized my hypocrisy. Was I any better than my mother? But this was different. At least I wasn’t hiding the bottle, and besides, this is social drinking—my rationalizations worked. After several exchanges I drained the last drops. “That’s it.”

“There’ll be more, kid.”

As the miles passed and the vodka soaked in, he mentioned how he’d been in prison at the Cummins Unit Prison Farm in Arkansas. “They laid me on the ground and whipped me so hard when they yanked back it rolled me over.” Harvey shook his head. “The fuckin’ guard made me call him uncle.”

I remembered the “Cummins Unit” from many media reports starting in the late sixties. The reports were about federal investigators digging up multiple sets of mens’ remains on the prison grounds. Harvey would have been there then. Over the years guards had been saying men were somehow escaping. The evidence ruled that the prisoners had been tortured to death.

“So, what were you in for?”

“Nothin’. But I got a ninety-nine year sentence for killing a guy while I was in the joint.” His tone came across as if the killing were an aside. “But I got a good lawyer.”

It became impossible to tell how much rang true, how much rang vodka. He let out a slow sigh. “My wife, she’s a saint.” He spoke wistfully, as if they were still married. “But she couldn’t take the family business.” I was ready to make a pretty sure bet the family business wasn’t Fletcher’s Portable Buildings.

The time came to buy another bottle, and we stopped at a bar in the tiny town of Kingman, Arizona. He bought me dinner. We had a couple more drinks and shot some pool. As we played, he gave me a piece of advice. “As you setup in a new town and find yourself a hooker to get regular with, start eating pickled eggs.” Leaning over the table, ready to take his next shot, he craned his head up, “like those,” and pointed with his eyes, “the ones in that jar behind the bar.” He pushed his shot. “They make you harder and spending the money seems more worthwhile.”

I thought of parting ways with Harvey after the pool game. He came across saw-blade rough, but seemed okay company and his stories were unique, plus, I’d become half crocked. Riding with a self-confessed murderer had me questioning my morals, and common sense, but he seemed tame enough that day. My rationalization also included that he was driving to Phoenix, a good long ride. Even without a destination, speed and distance became addictions as I raced away from myself. Harvey drove that day’s racecar.

The sun now hung at early dusk, and we got back on the road with a new bottle hidden. The next town, Wikieup, lay over 50 miles away; nothing but empty road played out ahead of us. This part of Highway 93 is called the Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona, but I didn’t see any trees: didn’t see any homes, barns, fields or even a derelict shack, just raw desert.

The geology included deep canyons, rusty hills and flats—extreme, expansive, and nothing, all at the same time. We passed the sneeze of a village that was Wikieup. To reach the next town, Wickenburg, meant passing over another 75 miles of land inhabited only by night. As time stretched by I started doubting we were still on Earth. I’m not afraid of open spaces, but fear began creeping in, driven by empty distance and stark exposure to the universe.

As the world darkened, I became anonymous. The dash lights cast mottled shadows across Harvey’s face and his eyes blackened to desolate holes. I probably appeared to him as nothing more than a silhouette.

“Ya know that card I gave ya? It’s a phony.” He smiled faintly, appearing satisfied he’d fooled another person.

“Then what do you do?” I didn’t much care to know his real name.

His voice lowered. “I take care of problems.”

Tires hummed away the silence, and their drone made me woozier. “What do you mean… problems?”

He took a breath with resolve. “Hits.Then he made and exaggerated swing of his head my way, and with an edged voice, said, “when The Family needs a hit they call me.”

I swallowed hard, because I believed him. Not knowing how to respond, I drunkenly blurted, “It’s a living.”

“If you don’t care how you live!” He glared with black eyes.

As a voyeur to murder, I felt compelled to ask, “So how do you do it?… I mean?… With a gun?”

“I’ll get a call and get the mark’s name and his town, maybe an address.” Harvey paused, and seemed to be considering if he should go on. In silence he reached for a pack of cigarettes in his sports jacket, and I vulcanized in time until he lit up and took a drag. “Once I find him, I’ll spend a few days to scope out his routines, you know, to figure a good time and place. Then I’ll walk up, look him in the eyes, say ‘hi,’ and shoot at least three times.

“Then I drop the gun. You know, right there.” He flipped an open hand toward the floor. “It ain’t like fuckin’ stupid TV.” He jerked his head, probably clearing double vision. “You gotta be up close, otherwise you might miss.” In the late night his words trudged. “I keep it the same every time, because it always works.”

Harvey then reached under the seat, I thought to pull out the bottle, but came up holding a black pistol. Swinging his straightened arm toward me he held the barrel six inches from my temple. “I’ll kill you with a smile on my face or without. It don’t matter to me.”

I felt a jolt to recoil, but there was nowhere to go. I froze, tensed/ready to strike.

Without warning, and in no hurry, a calm swept over me, as though I’d been filled with a windless sky. The sensation brought a deep understanding that I shouldn’t strike out. I became positive that I wouldn’t die that day if I didn’t flinch. The sensation felt vaguely familiar; a powerful atmosphere of proven assurance, but still, one I could choose to ignore. At first, remaining motionless didn’t seem rational. Harvey was blazing drunk and shooting me would have been easy: we were in the middle of nowhere; no witnesses; no one knew we were even together. Thoughts of trying to slap the gun away evaporated. Accepting the quiet presence, I slowly turned to face him directly. The hollow barrel mimicked the tomb of his eyes. The hollow barrel mimicked the same waiting tomb of his eyes.

His voice rang in my head, “Gotta be up close.…” But I kept facing him, and let my expression hang slack. I wanted to show Harvey I wasn’t afraid. He might respect that. I thought of nothing, filled only with the understanding he wouldn’t shoot if I didn’t move.

After several seconds, Harvey slipped the gun back next to the bottle. There was no, “I’m just kidding,” or “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Our headlights ate up the road as we sat in silence. I thought about asking him to stop, but felt we were too far from anything, and it seemed the worst had passed. I tried to imagine the life he lived, drinking to poison feelings of remorse and disgust.

Ahead of us the back of a state trooper’s cruiser came into view, and we drove behind him for awhile. I couldn’t believe it, but Harvey started tailgating him, and then decided to pass. Once we passed, the inside of the car strobed with red light. I thought Harvey might jam on the gas, raging down a blind highway drunk, but he slowed to pull over. I exhaled and my shoulders loosened.

The trooper gave Harvey a field sobriety test. He failed. Cuffed, and directed into the back seat, Harvey kept shouting, “I’ve got a good lawyer!”

The trooper ignored me while he filled out paperwork. I stood within the glow of his taillights, but looked to the unending dark. When I turned and peered at Harvey, the single rotating beacon pulsed red explosions into my sight.

The trooper walked back. “What’s the deal here?” He sounded genuinely baffled. With my frizzled hair, overalls and backpack it didn’t take much to convince him I was just hitchhiking.

“He’s a boozer,” I said. Then my mind replayed the image of the barrel in my face, and Harvey’s flat tone as he spoke. I didn’t mention anything about the gun under the seat. To this day I wish I had, but with only one road, and no control of when I’d leave it, I didn’t need Harvey looking for me.

The trooper asked if I wanted a ride back to town. But after standing outside, the desert didn’t seem as formidable, or abstract, just infinite silence. I felt like decompressing, alone. “No thanks, I’ll stay here.”

His voice popped up an octave. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” but I wasn’t.

I asked for water, and half laughing, the trooper watched while I filled my plastic bottle from a jug in his trunk. As his taillights drifted into the darkness, carrying Harvey to Phoenix, I took a deep, deep breath, and walked into the desert.

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