It was supposed to have been so grand, Las Vegas. Oh, it was nice, but they'd spent four days and nights between the draw poker and blackjack tables and the snack bars and drinks, and there hadn't been a touch of class to their visit at all. Oh well, they'd caught Vic Damone and Lee Meriweather, older now, doing an interview in the Tropicana Gardens, and took some snaps of each other with Vic and Lee in the background. They'd be great to pull out in a bar somewhere to tell about the time they were in Vegas with Vic and Lee. You had to keep dancing.
The motel they stayed at was off the Strip, nothing special, but then who needed special? They were in the room only for brief periods: for sex, a siesta, a shower, a change of clothes. In fact, the day they left, at 6 a.m. after an all-night gambling and grumbling session, he was so mad they didn't even bother going back to the motel. They'd already thrown their few bits of clothing into his carry-on and tossed it into the back seat.
"I told you, Joey," she whined about his losing, but he just glared at her. She could feel his fingers around her neck so that was her final word on the subject. She still didn't know how much she could trust him. They'd met only a week ago, back east. When she thought of it now, it seemed like ages. She'd been drinking alone in a Northampton neighborhood bar where she was known, had had about three vodkas and was beginning to feel good when he came up to her. She'd noticed him earlier, a stranger, a new face, alone. She liked his rugged good looks, the devil-may-care glint in his eyes.
"Hey, Jan, how'd you like to pull a robbery and go away for a week or two?" he'd asked her, with a smile on his face that would allow him to turn it into a joke. She drew back and smiled at him. She knew he'd heard the bartender call her by name. Slick. "That's a new one."
"No, I'm serious."
Undecided if he was or not, she said, "Okay, who do we hit?"
He laughed. "I knew I was right about you," he said. "I like a girl who'll take a chance...C'mon!" And he had her by the hand and was leading her out, allowing her a moment to gulp down the last of her drink and grab her coat. February was no time to be coatless.
"See you later, Ray," she called to the bartender who was looking at them with a frown, and the guy chimed in, "Right, Ray, later," laughing as he put his arm around her. They drove to the outskirts of Springfield to a late-night liquor store where you might expect to get either a few hundred bucks or a shotgun blast in the face. But he wasn't worried, and his eyes were still laughing as he instructed her to keep the engine running and to take off once he arrived on the fly. She was a good driver, and it seemed simple enough.
He went in fast, and she had just enough time to review her instructions when he was back, crashing into the seat beside her, laughing.
"Get going, baby!" he shouted.
She was already tramping on the gas and the car was up to eighty before he cautioned her.
"Let's not draw any attention."
"How much did you get?" she asked.
"Enough. We'll count it later."
Once they hit the Mass Turnpike, she pulled over and stopped, and they hugged and kissed delightedly. She felt a thrill she'd never felt before, and she looked closely at him to see if he was something special. He was busy twisting the wire top off the bottle of vodka he'd grabbed on the way out. With his tongue in the corner of his mouth, he looked like a little boy.
They had a couple of drinks, and then, with him at the wheel, they headed east. They thought about the Portland airport then decided that Logan was bigger and safer. At Logan, he parked the car in one of the long-term lots. They both climbed into the back seat and opened the bag.
"It's good," he said. "Gotta be about two grand."
"Oh? I thought it'd be more."
"Hey, kid, that's good. It's a liquor store, not a bank."
"Okay," she said.
"We got some business first," he said, shoving the bag aside, reaching for her. She came into his arms, and they made violent, frantic, messy love, clothes being pulled and yanked until it was over. They clung together briefly, and then she said, "Let's see how much."
It came to $2,165. He hadn't bothered with the change trays, not wanting the extra weight.
"It seemed so easy," she said.
"It was -- this time."
"How will we spend it?"
"Well...what about Vegas?"
"Ooooh, Joey!" she said. "Would you?"
"You're on," he said.
He stuffed eight hundred in his own pocket and gave her two hundred. The rest he wrapped in the clothing in the carry-on.
"Buy yourself a new dress when we get there," he said.
They had to wait two hours for a Delta flight to Los Angeles to connect with a Western Airways flight back to Phoenix. He told her he had a brother in Phoenix who would lend them a car. He then spent fifteen minutes on the phone talking to the brother.
"All set," he said, smiling, when he returned.
"You were so long I thought he was saying no."
"No problem -- just catching up."
"What about your own car?" She nodded vaguely in the direction of the parking lot. He gave her the Groucho eyebrows. "Whose car?"
She hit him on the chest. "You devil!"
The flight west was uneventful and after a couple of drinks, they slept. In Los Angeles the air was soft and warm. They took the bus to the Western terminal and caught the connecting flight to Phoenix. He had phoned his brother again before leaving LA, and he was waiting for them, all smiles. He was younger than Joey, a construction worker. He put them up for the night in his bachelor pad in his own king-size bed in which, it appeared, he was seldom alone, if one could believe the banter that passed between them. She smiled throughout it all, a good sport, letting Joey do all the leading, speaking only when spoken to. Joey told his brother he'd had a big win in a poker game. He introduced Jan as "an old friend."
They talked about the next morning, about the routes to Vegas. Pete had the maps all marked and was lending them his car, a '92 Ford. When it was all settled, they went to bed. In the darkness she was glad of the chance to let herself sag in relief, to stop trying. They made love, but it didn't come off well; she was too nervous, trying to keep the noise down so that the brother wouldn't hear them in the small apartment.
Now, it was all over, and regrets, as Old Blue Eyes would say, she had a few but then again too few to mention. Joey was all right, but he wasn't overly generous and she hated a mean man. She appreciated the sunshine, but she wouldn't be sorry to go home. This had been an adventure, nothing more. She still had a few dollars left, plus her return ticket to Boston. Her problem now was how to get the rest of her share and unhitch from Joey.
Outside Vegas, they stopped to eat at the Railroad Pass Casino, bacon and eggs, the breakfast of gamblers. On the way out the door they got rid of their remaining small change, even the nickels, in the available machines.
"Easy come, easy go," Joey said.
"Thank God I was able to get away with my new dress," she poor-mouthed. "I don't even have as much as a goddam toothbrush."
He said nothing, and she realized the time for discussion was not yet. They watched without enthusiasm as the sun came up on a new day, then took off south on 95, the Ford rolling easily along, gobbling up the miles. Far to the southwest, the heavy Sacramento Mountains loomed, scraping against the sky, their tops hazy and indistinct in the unusually warm late-February heat.
They passed through Searchlight, nothing much.
"How come the name, Joey?" she asked just to hear a voice. They hadn't spoken since they'd turned south. "Searchlight. A funny name."
He chewed on a toothpick for twenty seconds before answering.
"During the war," he said, "there used to be hundreds of Air Force planes around here. They couldn't have searchlights all over the place so they put one big one here and the planes used it to find their position. The town just grew around it."
"Is that true?" she asked.
He laughed. "Nah, I just made it up. Sounds good though, don't it?" An hour's drive took them to I-40, and they turned left. Farther back, they'd crossed the Nevada line into California and were now chopping off the corner along the Colorado River before crossing into Arizona.
Needles was a cluster of bungalows, a nest of trailers, a line of faded wash, a couple of service stations winding along the river bank.
"Needles?" she said. "How--?"
He was ahead of her. "You know all the needles that get lost in haystacks?" he said. "Well, this is where they make them."
She studied him to see if he would laugh, but he was staring straight ahead. "I'm not really that stupid," she said. "You don't get to be a cashier in a bottle collection agency if you're stupid."
"Of course not," he said. "It's a joke."
"I knew that," she said. There was a pause, and then she added, "I thought it was the haystacks that were made special for the needles, not the other way around."
He glanced sharply at her but now it was her turn to study the road. "Smart ass!" he said and gave her a love tap on the arm that really hurt. And he knew it. She rubbed the arm. "You don't have to get violent," she said. He sucked back on the beer he had been nestling in his crotch and lit another cigarette. He didn't even look at her.
Then they were out the other side of Needles, crossing the river and the state line at Topock, continuing on I-40 to pick up 95 South again down past Lake Havasu City.
"Let's stop to see London Bridge," she said.
"Fuck London Bridge!"
A few miles on, at Parker, he stopped at a place called "Coffee Ern's."
"The food is good here," he said. It was the first inkling she had that he might have been this way before.
He was right, though: the food was good. They both had chicken and fries, and the helpings were generous. He left a buck tip from the roll of bills still in his pocket. Outside, they walked up and down the road for a bit of exercise. She thought it was time to get off the merry-go-round. There was a motel just up the road.
"I think I'll stay here for a couple of days," she said. "Let me have my share of what's left."
"Your share!" He laughed.
"Yes, my share! I worked for it."
"A driver's share is only about twenty percent."
"Fine. Give me twenty per cent of what's left."
"We'll talk about it," he said.
"No -- now!" she said, halting.
"Get in the car," he said, grabbing her arm, using his strength to steer her towards the car, hurting her. "We'll talk about it."
"You don't have to get rough," she said, jerking her arm free, going along, him letting it go, laughing, seeing she had capitulated.
They continued south on 95. "You'll like this," he said, humoring her, sliding in the Hank Williams cassette he'd lifted in Vegas, and she sat back and savored the hurting from the man who invented it.
She followed their progress on the map. About ten miles north of Quartzsite he swung off to the left on a narrow dirt road.
"Why?" she asked.
"Target practice," he said and laughed.
After about a mile, they passed an RV parked about a hundred yards off the road with a man in a kitchen chair out front cleaning a rifle. The man waved and she waved back. The dust kicked up behind them. About two miles farther on he pulled off to the left into the weeds and cactus. A few yards in, a dry wash ran parallel to the road, invisible unless someone knew it was there.
He opened the trunk and rooted around until he uncovered a well-wrapped .22 target pistol. He strapped on the holster and knotted the tie-downs. He eased the sleek metal in and out of the leather a few times, caressing it. He pulled a ten-gallon hat from the trunk and jammed it on his head.
"Pete's gear," he said.
He stood back from the car, arms loose, and "slapped leather" several times. His serious face relaxed in a grin; it was as if she were not there. "Not bad, Tex," she drawled. "Not bad at all."
He ignored her and placed several empty cans and two boxes of shells on top of the cooler and carried it a few yards along the wash. She followed.
He snapped open a can of suds and took a greedy draught, setting the half-empty can on top of the cooler while he walked off with a few empties. He set them up waist-high on bushes about twenty feet away, walked back, and finished the beer in another lengthy drink, opening a second one immediately.
Here, among the scrub brush and cacti, the breeze was negligible, the sun merciless. Insects sang around them, an odd bird flitted past, chirruping in question at this invasion of privacy. Air Force planes were constantly overhead, and higher, jets in patterns in and out of Phoenix. At one point, they saw the Goodyear dirigible, heading east, drowsily following the I-10.
During all this time he just sat by the cooler drinking beer, the pistol and boxes of shells on its top, saying nothing, looking steadily at her. She sat on the ground a few feet away, silent.
After a time he loaded the .22 with six shells. He cocked, aimed carelessly, and squeezed the trigger. There was a sharp spitting crack and a bush beside her split. She jumped.
"Hey," she shouted. "Stop that."
He made a slight adjustment to the weapon, turned to the cans, sighted, and, taking his time, slowly squeezed off the remaining five shots. Each shot sent a can flying. He replaced the cans and reloaded, this time putting the gun in the holster. He squared the Stetson on his head and turned his back to the bush, crouching.
He wheeled suddenly, the gun appearing in his fist, dropping to one knee, getting off the six shots in a staccato crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack! that was more one long sound than six separate ones. Four cans were blown off the bushes.
"Not bad, Wyatt," she said, her voice loud in the after-noise stillness. He continued practicing, using up the ammunition, hitting more cans than he missed.
"Wanna try it?" he said.
She took the gun, and he was all over her trying to help. If only he would get away, give her more room.
She fired, both eyes shut each time she pulled the trigger. She hit nothing. He laughed, and she joined in.
"I'll never make the SWAT team," she said. He slapped his knee, laughing, re-loading, passing her the weapon. She stepped back two paces.
"Get away from me," she snapped, all good humor gone from her face, pointing the revolver at him.
"What?" he said. The beer had slowed him.
"Get away from me," she repeated.
"Come on!" he said, shuffling closer.
"No! Stop! Right there! Give me the keys of the car."
His eyes narrowed. "You're serious?"
"Give me the keys and my half of what's left."
He laughed and took the keys and the roll of bills from his pocket. He peeled off several, wrapped them around the keys, and threw them toward her. The keys landed at her feet, the bills fluttering to the ground about mid-way between them.
"Don't move," she said.
She stooped and searched with her hand until shze found the keys. The money was different; she had to take her eyes off him for an instant to locate it and in that moment he stepped in and grasped the barrel of the revolver with one big hand. He pulled and twisted but not quickly enough, and the gun went off. He grabbed his stomach, sinking slowly to the ground. She gazed at him, horrified, then dropped the gun, scooped up the money, and turned and ran brokenly towards the car.
"Oh God, what'd I do?" she gasped, her heels giving her trouble in the dry earth, her hands sweaty, shoving the money in her pocket, trying to sort out the keys.
She fumbled at the door, muttering, "C'mon, c'mon, sweet Jesus, come on!" The goddam door was stuck! "Come on, you bastard, open!" she screamed.
She yanked the handle and the door jerked open, throwing her off balance, knocking her to her knees. She recovered quickly, put one foot inside the car, and, over its top, turned for one last look at Joey, aware of him prone on the ground, the pain registering on his face, the gun steadying, and she gazed mesmerized into the long tunnel of the barrel, with time only for her heart to leap into her mouth before the bullet took her smack between the eyes.