Laura A. Zink
Near the edge of Rawlins, Wyoming, Semper Fred sits in a bar. Sipping a Golden Iguana, he pages through 18 Wheel Singles. He watches the bartender, a stale man with grim wrinkles and thyroid eyes. The bartender wipes the counter in slow, listless circles.
Something stirs at the edge of the room. Fred looks up and sees a woman standing in the doorway. She’s young, almost pretty.
“May I sit here?” she asks.
Fred nods and slides the magazine off the counter. Skirting the edges of a paper napkin around with his index fingers, he watches her from the corner of his eye. She tries to get the bartender’s attention, muttering a soft, “Excuse me,” once, twice, but to no avail.
“You need a little help?” Fred asks.
She says she does.
“What you drinkin’?”
“I’ll have what you’re having.” She smiles.
Fred points down to his drink and holds up two fingers. He introduces himself and asks her name.
“Haley,” she says. “You know, like the comet?”
“The comet, huh?”
“Yeah, I was born the last year it came by. My dad’s a scientist, so…”
Fred nods as she speaks, thinking about how she was only a child when he enlisted. He was nineteen then. Trekking through the desert. Hiding in holes. Oil fires erupting into the sky. He shakes off the memory.
“So. What brought you to Rawlins?” he asks.
Road trip. Graduate school. Anthropology. Fred continues to nod through her explanations. She talks about her dreams, and he mentions a few of his memories. Three Golden Iguanas later, they rise from their stools, and Fred follows Haley into the night.
They cross the last street in Rawlins to the abandoned hotel where his 2010 Mack Pinnacle semi-truck is parked. Sitting on the flatbed smoking a joint, they stare out at the hills.
“There’s wild horses out there,” he says. “Real ones.”
He looks over at her. She keeps her gaze on the hills.
“I read there is a frontier prison out there,” she says. “First one in the west.”
He shrugs. “Maybe so.” He looks at his feet dangling over the flatbed’s edge.
“What are you hauling here, Fred?”
“Valley Gold Vein Marble.” He lifts the tarp and places a hand on one of the stone slabs, caressing it slightly. “There’s real gold in it, too.”
“Where?” She leans over to inspect the marble. He looks down her back, stopping at her hips, thinking…
“There’s gold all over these,” he says. He runs his lighter over the surface of the marble. “See, right here.”
“It’s so faint,” she says. “Who wants gold in their marble anyway?”
“Rich people in big houses. Maybe some guy with a bossy wife.” He looks at her to see if she is smiling at the idea. She isn’t. “It’s dangerous to haul,” he adds. “The weight is so much that it would crush me if I had to stop short.”
“These rich people, do they know you could die?”
He looks out to the hills. “Don’t know.”
“You could die,” she says. “They wouldn’t even know.”
A cold breeze picks up off the prairie. He shivers and wraps his arms around his knees.
“It’s not right, Fred,” she continues. “It’s like…you’re a real person.”
Real. He laughs a little and peeks up at the stars. They sparkle in isolated clusters across the dark.
“See, that’s why I feel so conflicted about school, you know? I just want to be out in the world sometimes. With real people.”
“The world has plenty of real people,” he says. “I wish I got to know some of them better myself. I never got married…”
Fred stops, but he wants her to know more. He wants her to know he keeps his truck clean. He wants to show her he has a little refrigerator in the sleeper cab. He paid off the truck last month, so he is a homeowner, in a way.
“Gimme your fire, Fred,” she says, fumbling through her purse. She pulls out a cigarette.
As he lights it, she cups his hand. Her hands are soft and young.
“Want to see inside?” he says. “See how a real person lives?”
She says she does.
They hop off the flatbed and head to the passenger door. He climbs the side steps and opens it for her. Arm lifted and hand open, he presents the cabin. She tosses her cigarette, its red ember trailing down until it hits the gravel. She takes his hand and holds it as she ascends the steps.
He stalls at the top step, watching her crawl over to the driver’s seat. She wants a real person, he thinks. Her hands are on the steering wheel. What does real mean to her? She laughs and looks out the window. Is this real to her? He leans in, his figure casting a shadow over her.
She turns. Fred tells himself to go on, that there is nothing to be afraid of. But she leans against the driver’s window, chin pulling into her chest, shoulder rising to her cheek. He tries to tell himself that he is a real person, that she wants real, that real is why she came with him, that real is something between them, something in space, somehow tangible, something that he can now grasp, some thing, somehow tender and un-waiting and un-alone. But the word feels strange in his mind. And his hand is between them – reaching, grim, work-worn. And his years, that battle, this truck, this is what is real to him. Could he assume that this is what she meant? And who was he to even ask?
He pulls back, his shadow receding. He descends the steps and waits for her. His eyes search the gravel around his feet.
He walks her back to the bar in silence. As he heads back to his truck, he tries not to wonder if he scared her. Alone in the sleeper cab, he tries not to wonder this with all his might.
As the last of the stars fade behind the rays of the late morning sun, Fred returns to the bar and stands at the edge of its parking lot, wondering if she will come by again. He shakes his head, and he retreats. Lifting himself onto the driver’s seat, he thinks of the heavy load he will carry on his flatbed to some rich couple’s palace in the hills. As he starts his engine, he briefly wonders what will become of him if he has to stop short.
Laura A. Zink lives in Oakland, California and is the Curator Liaison for Oakland’s literary festival, Beast Crawl. Her work has been published or is upcoming in Broad River Review, Maximum Rocknroll, Oakland Review, sPARKLE + bLINK, and Poetic Diversity: The Poetry Zine of Los Angeles.
Originally published in Broad River Review