Big Country Little Car Tour II, Day 17: Elko, NV to Rock Springs, WY
There are two kinds of women in the world: the kind who are like, "Sam Elliott? He's a pretty good actor, I liked him in that Cher movie," and the kind who would knock you the fuck out and step over you without looking down for five minutes in that mustache. This will be important later.
I got up with the sun, hoping to beat it across Utah before it got really hot. I didn't have a super-long drive, but it only took crossing those flats with the sun directly overhead once to teach me I shouldn't do it the same way again, so I wiped the dew off Campbell and rolled out with a sweater on, thrilled that I'd remembered that drive-through Starbucks on the way out of town.
Prairie dogs sat on the shoulder and watched me pass, and down I went into Utah and across the flats; I got a picture of that random tree-like sculpture this time, though I still don't know what it is, and despite hitting Salt Lake City at lunchtime again, it didn't feel as much like soapbox derby under a broiler as it did last week. I think I caught it on Friday last time, and I've begun to notice that Friday driving is just as annoying as Sunday driving, if not more — erratic, unpredictable, hostile. Today, everybody had a midday job to do and did it, no weaving and no texting.
I came into the Mountain Time Zone and found my Days Inn baking in the sun on Elk Street. It was sort of a series of lodges, and the front-desk girl put me down at the edge of the property, in a building that looked like a converted dorm, same as the previous motel. The microwave was jammed in under the sink, an in-wall job with the old-style dial timer; the room smelled faintly like a boathouse.
I was unpacking the car when a silver fox with no shirt on rolled up to ask about her. The curiosity about Campbell was nothing new, but the Lonesome Dove mustache and merchant-marine tats put a twist on it. Didn't take much notice of the fox at first, though; we shot the breeze for a few minutes, we introduced ourselves, I went inside to sort laundry.
Five minutes later I went back out with a pair of tweezers to try to coax the seventeen pounds of change jammed between the driver's seat carriage and the chassis out 25 cents at a time. I can tell you now that it's never coming out without the loan of a research-grade magnet, but it seemed like a promising plan at first, and then I took two cuticles off my left hand and gave up. As I dusted myself off, here came the silver fox, "Jay," again to apologize for not offering me a hand in with my luggage. "Should have taken care of that for you, Sarah." I told him I hadn't thought a thing of it and he shouldn't either, but I also thought a few other things, like "it's 2011" and "I don't pack light, buddy, so it's just as well for your back," and also that I almost never hear my given name; it's always "Sar" or "Sars," or the other pronunciation of "Sars," or "Bunting" or "Buntsy" or "miss"/"ma'am," something else. And it's never pronounced like that, either: "Surrah." There's the southern style, which is almost "Sayrah," and the Jersey/Brooklyn style, "Saaaa-rah" with the first "a" rhyming with "hat," and how I say it, "Sairah." This whisky-filtered version was different. It reminded me of something.
Jay mentioned that they were drinking beer "over in 75," and gestured at a door standing open in the next building; I should stick my head in if I wanted a cold one. I did — I'd crossed some nasty terrain twice in a week's time, and it was hot out — but I had laundry to do, so I said I might do, but I didn't plan on it.
Laundry room. I'd gone through every pocket and up into every cranny of my bag, and I could just get one load done plus vending detergent with the quarters I h– GODDAMMIT why does one of you Georges always have to roll under the machine and fuck me up, now I have to go buy a Diet Coke to get the right change, can't I just put the wash in and read my damn book! Slam! Clank! Stompety stomp stomp stomp. Finally I had the required coins, a cold drink, and a counter to lean on with my paperback, but I hadn't gotten through a paragraph when some horse's ass started whaling on the laundry-room door. From outside: "GODDAMMIT why do I always have to forget my room key and fuck myself up." I trundled over to open the door for this foolio, and obviously it was Jay, beer in one hand, bedsheet full of socks in the other. I snorted and whipped the door open.
"You following me now?"
"Well, I see you're using my favorite machine, so if anybody's stalking anybody here…it's you."
"You have a favorite machine."
"Good ol' number two."
"But I'm not stalking you."
"You want that beer?"
Well, his favorite machine takes for damn ever, just like all the other ones, so we sat around on the steps outside the laundry room and drank beer and talked about everything. Laundry. George Jones. His ex-wife, and his job hauling sand, and his other ex-wife. My old black Jetta. How he smarted off to the barber his first day in the Navy and they shaved exactly half the mustache off to wise him up. He reminded me of someone, and also he reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend Mags, back in the day. We'd got snowed in at Campus Club, and we sat around the whole day with our shoes in front of the fireplace, drinking tea and smoking Camel Filters and talking about a guy she'd gotten tangled up with in spite of knowing better. She had a beautiful North Carolina accent herself, and a Aesop way of putting things, and she said Entanglement Guy was a barn-cat type — he knew your voice, he'd rub up on you, even sit in your lap on the porch sometimes in the afternoon. He wasn't wild, but he wasn't made for indoors, either. He'd always stay close; he'd never stay in. "Should've known better'n thinking he'd sit on my windowsill all year."
"You got a favorite dryer too?"
"No, Sarah, I don't have a favorite dryer. …Aw, that one? But I love that one."
"Hey, Jay: fuck off."
"Check that lint trap real well, you wouldn't believe the shit people leave in there."
I went down to my room to make a call, and when I came back up, there was a red studded thong on my dryer.
"Told you to check the lint trap, Sarah."
"Right. That's obviously yours, you hussy!"
"Oh, sure, my mistake."
"…I don't own a thong."
"I was kidding."
"Purple or otherwise."
"I was kid-ding!"
"So we're clear."
"Oh, we're clear, Cheeks."
"And I wasn't hitting on you."
"Got it. …Wait, what?"
I mean, he was hitting on me, and if I hadn't figured it out before, the assertion that that's totally not what's going on generally means that that's exactly what's going on, but they're getting worried about creeping you out, so they're backing away from it to give you room to mention your boyfriend or whatever. It's not all that elegant as solutions go, but it does indicate that the guy in question actually cares whether you're into it or not, and a woman on the road by herself has every arm hair tuned up to every situation and all the possible offenses or mistakes. I assess rooms and interactions constantly, every gas station, restaurant, hotel elevator. Friendly wave to the baby, or eyes front? Okay to curse here or say "eff it" instead? Roll the shorts cuffs down a couple turns? Sunny "how ya doin'?" or curt "small coffee"? Go to dinner with the retired barrel-racer who was already in the service when I was born, or invent a chore in my room and move the TV up against the door?
Don't misunderstand: Jay is tough. Cowboy, long-haul, filterless-Camel tough. Hands like slingshots. But it was dinnertime, and he was pretty open about thinking I was cute but not expecting anything from me, and I figured if he were a serial killer, he'd have shaved off that sweet 'stache to avoid identification. Right? Right. Or I'd skipped lunch and two beers made me stupid. Guess we'd find out.
I was tidying up when Jay showed up at my door with a pair of my underwear. Obviously.
"I told you to check the lint trap."
"Check your own lint trap — that is my underwear, Jay. People will say we're in love!"
"You can take 'em, or I can stand here with 'em all night."
I took 'em. I closed the door and stood there with 'em in my hand and stared at them, and then a corner of the ceiling, for a full minute. I went to the little pad on the desk and scribbled, "Sam Elliott just handed me my own underpants. The fuck?"
And then we went to dinner at this sports bar…good God, this place. I live in New York City, I've lived there a long time, I've seen some fights, I'm big, I like to think I can handle myself. Usually, I probably can. This place, no. I tripped in the parking lot…over a shotgun shell, not that I knew what it was until Jay told me. Jay also told me they have six bouncers on weekend nights, but I don't see why; everybody's strapped in here, so unless the door guys have rocket launchers, what's the point. Vatos Locos t-shirts all around, drunk truckers, a betting window in the back, and these huge men detouring past the table to take a look, figure out if Jay is my dad. Jay kept seeing meat in my food and sending it back, and I kept whisper-screaming "it's fine it's just chicken don't make trouble." A 400-pound dude with a Sturgis tat cruised the table for the second time, and Jay put his hand on the back of my stool to mark me off and leaned in close: "Wait 'til karaoke starts."
To my delight, a big curly-haired guy got up and killed REO Speedwagon, which is not easy to do, and then beelined over to the table while Jay was in the men's to fish for compliments, which I happily gave, because the dude really did rock it. Then he asked if my uncle was in the bathroom or what, and I was like, I push my luck any further and it's going to snap.
We walked through an empty parking lot and back to the motel buildings. The place has regulars, of a sort, like Jay, stopping over between hauls, and most of them had their doors open. I could see a row of TVs and corresponding feet on tables. It was windy. "I'm glad you came here today, Sarah."
That voice. To follow it in and close the door and hear that I was as pretty as a star…that's for the movies, where I could be tough anywhere.
Right before I turned the lights off in my own room (suitcase against the door; you never can tell), I got a text.
"Think I left my glasses in the bar, you seen 'em?"
"Did you check the lint trap?"
Tags: Big Country Little Car Tour Campbell Cher friends Sam Elliott