Henry watched the river bubble along below them.
He wondered when they planned to uncircle the wagons and make for the trail. It had to be past midday already, and he was beginning to suspect there were Injuns in them thar hills. This was dangerous territory. Time was wasting.
Alice was the perfect blend of cute and smart, but she also packed some serious heat. She was getting too close too fast, asking all the right questions, and stroking him in all the right ways. It was becoming clear that she could get him talking with a simple blink of those kryptonite eyes. It was time to put some distance between them.
Besides, it was Sunday afternoon. He had an appointment with a barstool.
With that thought came a sweet pulse of joy! He remembered it didn’t matter what day it was. Not anymore. Every day was Barstool Sunday from now on. He was a free man aga—
“So, what’s your plan, there, Superman?”
Henry looked at Nancy, who was lighting up another cigarette.
“What do you mean?” Henry asked him, “What plan?”
Nancy took a deep hit, savored it a moment, then sent the smoke swirling poetically across the table. He was one of those guys who made smoking look organic, like it was a natural biological process. He made it look delicious.
“Hm,” Nancy said, like he really had to think about it, “I thought I’d stated it fairly concisely, even for a man of your… stature. Well, not to worry. I’ll simply pose it again without those complicated contractions. What. Is. Your. Plan?”
Henry had the sudden urge to slap the man stupid. The mascara. The frosted hair with intentionally neglected roots. The half-assed beard and Sinbad the Sailor earrings. Gold chains hanging over the tits he shouldn’t have. Yeah, that face was just crying to be slapped. And slapped. And slapped.
Instead, he lifted his coffee mug but stopped short of his mouth. “I suspect it’s exactly what you’re hoping it’ll be,” he said, “I’m heading back out to the road. As soon as possible.” He took a slug from his coffee. He wished like hell it had some fuel in it.
Nancy tucked the cigarette back in his mouth and smiled around it. “Perfection,” he said as he stirred the crackling bacon, “Seems we’re in complete agreement, then. Don’t you just adore synergy?”
“How far is it to the interstate?” Henry said, glancing sidelong at him.
“Not far,” Nancy said as he studied his cooking, “Interstate Ten’s maybe a hundred miles.”
Henry felt the earth open beneath him. “Did you say a hundred miles?”
“Yeah, could be a wee bit less. It’s directly north on NM one-eighty.”
“Well,” Henry said, regrouping, “How far to one-eighty, then?” Sounded like a highway. How hard could it be to thumb a highway?
Nancy slipped the cigarette from his mouth. He stroked a hand back through his thinning hair and gazed thoughtfully up into the blue sky. His movements were too delicate. He reminded Henry of a ballerina. A fat, hairy ballerina with breasts and a penis.
“If you’ll be kind enough to turn your attention to the gravel road?” Nancy said, gesturing like a game show hostess, “I believe you’ll find the starting line immediately behind the van.”
Henry looked back. Heat ghosts were already shimmering across the distant wasteland. The road ran back from the van for a quarter mile before disappearing into the curve of another giant pile of rocks.
“That’s the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy,” Nancy said, “It’ll take you straight to Oz. Follow that glimmering lane and you’ll hit one-eighty lickety split. Of course, the time will pass much faster if you sing and dance your way there.” He laughed around the cigarette still propped in his mouth. A few ashes flittered to their death in the bacon grease. “Oops,” he added, giggling.
“How far is it?” Henry pressed.
“Oh, not more than eight or nine miles,” Nancy said, squinting through the smoke.
“Eight or nine miles? Are you kidding?”
“Dear, dear Henry. If you were going to be here long enough, you’d learn that I don’t kid. Anyway, it’s only a three-hour walk. Two and a half if you press it really, really hard. Two if you resort to jogging. But I wouldn’t recommend that, you’re likely to get all sweaty and ruin your clean shirt.”
Nancy laughed. “I thought you were in a hurry?”
“Well, yeah. But can’t I get a ride back with you?”
Nancy parked the cigarette on the edge of the table and resumed tending his bacon. “Sure you can. Except we’re not leaving until tomorrow, and I’m fairly certain you don’t have the patience to wait that long. You look like you’ve got the dogs on your trail.”
Henry felt sick to his stomach. He’d rather bite off his own foot than ask the favor, but what choice did he have? So, he braced himself and commenced chewing. “Nancy, would you consider giving me a ride out? Just to the road, I mean?”
“My name is Francis.”
Henry just looked at him. For some reason, the words didn’t connect. “I’m sorry?” he said.
“Francis. Only my family calls me Nancy.”
“I see,” Henry said, nodding. It was the best news of the day. “Well, then, Francis. Would you consider giving me a ride out to the highway?”
“Don’t call me Francis. I detest the name Francis. So holy sounding.”
Henry steadied himself. Then he said very carefully, “Okay, I give. What exactly do you want me to call you?”
“You can call me Frank.”
“Frank.” Henry resisted a laugh. Frank. It was too good. Frank the fat, hairy ballerina and his dancing penis.
“Don’t you think I look more like a Frank than a Francis?”
Henry looked at him posing flamboyantly with his spatula. “Oh, you bet,” he said after a beat, “Frank is perfect on you. Seriously. Perfect.”
“So, Frank, do you think you could give me a ride?”
“Well, Henry,” Frank said as he flipped a few strips of the cooked bacon onto the fold of newspaper, “There’s nothing on the whole of this Green Earth I’d rather do than watch your taillights fading into the sunset. But as you can sadly see, we’ve already set camp.”
Henry followed the gesturing spatula back to Fort Drift. They sat just beyond the edge of a huge awning stretching out from the full length of the van. Odd paper lamps of various colors dangled happily on a wire rope above them. The lawn chairs were decked out at the perimeter, the cooler in place on a folding table beside the door. It looked as homey as a bad postcard delivered fifty years too late.
He turned back to the table. He wanted a drink like it was his dying wish.
“Dear, dear Henry,” Frank said, “It’s a three hour tour. Pretend you’re Gilligan and just hit the road. It’ll be over before you know it.”
Henry thought about the two-track to the hot springs. That’d been bad enough, but nine miles down a gravel road in the middle of nowhere? Alone? Then again, he knew he wouldn’t be alone. There were probably hosts of snakes, and coyotes, and who knew what else just dying to keep him company.
He dropped his face into his hands, and sighed.
“You’re looking a little pale,” Frank said like he couldn’t possibly have cared less, “Are you all right?”
“How do you want your eggs cooked?”
“Well, Frank, I’m thinking scrambled today. Seems fairly apropos, if you take my meaning.”
Frank broke an egg into the pan. The grease erupted and perfectly splattered his pristine wifebeater. “Son of a bitch!” Frank practically shrieked, “I just put this shirt on! Now I’m going to have to change it. Shit! Shit! Shit!”
And with those words, Henry found Jesus.
Frank blotted the hideous wifebeater with a wad of paper towels. He looked good and pissed. Before long, he threw the greasy towels down on the table. “Damn it to hell!” he said, “This will never come out. It’s perfectly ruined.”
Henry took a slug from his coffee and tried not to laugh.
Frank scowled down at him. “I suggest you eat well, Henry. You’ll need the energy for your walk. If you leave right after breakfast you can probably make US Ten by midnight.”
Henry put his mug down. Everything felt hopeless again, like he’d run out of gas in the middle of the night, far, far from help.
“I’ve got some socks you can have,” Frank said as he punished another egg, “It’s a long walk in dress shoes. I’d be simply mortified if you developed blisters on my account.”
Henry suddenly felt very tired. He wanted to crawl back into bed and sleep for a month. And just when his Epic Outing had been rolling along so splendidly, too. It was a shame, really. Now it was just as ruined as Frank’s white wifebeater.
Frank picked up his cigarette, but it was cooked all the way down to the butt. He scowled and flipped it toward the fire pit. “I’ll pack you some nourishment for the trip,” he said, “I’ve got some bottled water you can take. I’d feel just awful if you failed to make it home because of dehydration.”
“You’re a saint, Francis.”
Frank threw him a scowl. “It’s better this way, really.” He put the spatula down and broke a fresh cigarette from the pack. “You wouldn’t be comfortable staying here, anyway.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
Frank poked the cigarette into his mouth and held the lighter up. He paused before igniting. “The truth, if I may be so bold?
“Oh, please. Knock yourself out.”
“Well… the truth is you’re not really our kind of people. No offense intended.” He smiled at Henry for a moment, then clicked the lighter to life.
“Well, thanks for the heads up,” Henry said, “Because, you know, I was damned near starting to feel like family. I appreciate your transparency, Frank.”
Frank blew the smoke up into the sky. “I just don’t want to you to develop any unfortunate misunderstandings,” he said, “We’re liberal do-gooders by nature. I mean, why on earth would we have helped you otherwise, right? But, sadly, all things come to an end, and now it’s time for you to be on about your merry way. It’d be unfair to lead you on, lest you think we’re like, you know, buddies or anything. We’re just not from the same neighborhoods, if you get my drift.”
Henry looked up at Frank who smiled back sweetly. It was suddenly all he could do to keep himself in his seat. Who did this little piss ant think he was? In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to separate that face from its front teeth.
But he resisted his cruder impulses. For once, he was actually glad he was sober. He couldn’t just bomb the bastard out of existence; this had to be a surgical strike. It was time to feed his darkness.
“What say we just put it all out on the table, Frank?” he said carefully, “The truth, I mean.”
“Henry,” Frank said with a little laugh, “I thought that was exactly what I was doing.”
“Is that what you think?”
“Then you’re a dishonest man, Frank. And I have to say, I’m feeling a little disappointed in learning that.”
Frank looked at Henry like he had three eyes. “What did you say?”
Henry leaned into the table and stared up at Frank. “You know good and well what this is all about, Francis,” he said, “It has nothing to do with your people versus my people, so what say we just stop all this tedious pretending, hm?”
“Whatever are you talking about?”
“It’s about Alice, you fat little shit.”
Frank stopped stirring the eggs.
“Oh,” Henry said, feigning horror, “Color Frank surprised.”
“I don’t think I like your tone.”
“I didn’t ask.”
Frank flushed at that. For a several beats, he just stared at Henry with a look of surprise poorly masked by indignation. “It’s not about Alice,” he said as he recovered, “That’s crap. You just don’t—”
“I’ve known a million guys like you, Frank. Guys who can’t measure up to anyone else’s standards even though no one expects them to. Guys who’re perpetually afraid of life, who compensate with a ridiculous dollop of pomp and arrogance.”
Frank looked more confused than offended. “I… I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re not a very good person, Frank. I imagine you were the kind of boy who got beat up on the playground for playing with the girls too much. You probably spent a lot of your childhood pulling the wings from flies, didn’t you?”
Frank threw a fist to his hip. “Now just you hold on there. Who in the hell do you—”
Henry slammed the table. “Shut up, Frank!”
Frank froze. He looked like he was just one hard glare away from crying.
“I want you to listen to me very carefully,” Henry said, “I don’t have any designs on your sister, so you can climb down off your high horse. Alice and I are friends, that’s it. We’re not lovers, we’re not bosom buddies, we’re just friends. And I have about as much interest in pushing it further as I do in bending you over the table and fucking you blue.”
Frank’s face was beet-red. “You… you think I believe you?” he said as he broke another egg, “I’ve heard that same crap a thousand times before.”
“I think you better try to believe it.”
“Bullshit!” Frank hissed back, “You’re just like all the rest, just a dick looking for a place to park. You’re just like that randy little bastard rooting Bridget in the van.”
“Damn, Frank. What the hell? That’s your sister.”
“You don’t fool me, Henry. You’re just another wannabe, so I wouldn’t advise getting all puffed up like you’re someone special. You’re just another in a long line of flavors of the day. Do you get it yet, Henry? Alice doesn’t buy, she just likes to sample.”
“May I be frank, Frank?”
“Oh, that’s hilarious. Never heard that one before.”
“I don’t have the energy for the good brother, bad boyfriend shtick, so I’m just going to shoot it straight. Do you think you can handle that without crying or wetting yourself?”
“Bring it on, dear boy.”
“Alice is a prize. I’ve only known her a few hours, and I can already see that. She’s the whole picture. She’s pretty and witty and gay, if you take my meaning. And I bet every man who meets her falls in love with her on the spot. Am I close?”
Frank drew a hit from his cigarette. His face was getting red again, but to his credit, the asshole didn’t speak.
“You need to relax, Frank. I’m not every man. I’m not here for a drive-by. I’m not interested in courting Alice, and I don’t want to bed her. Hell, I don’t even want her phone number, because she deserves a hell of a lot better than me. But I do like her, and I think we could be friends. At least for the short run. At least for the few miserable minutes I’m stuck in this Twilight Zone version of the happy family sitcom.”
Frank drew another hit, then he sent his beady eyes out over the river. After a short breather, he looked back at Henry again. “How do I know you’re not just full of shit, Henry?”
Frank flipped his unfinished cigarette off into the fire pit. He dragged his hand across his mouth. “Is that the truth, Henry?” he said, finally, “Is that all you want? To be Alice’s friend?”
“Hell no, that’s not all.” Henry lifted his coffee and looked out at the river. “I want to go home, and I’d prefer not to leave any bodies in my wake.”