It has been more than two weeks since the last installment, my apologies. As my understanding of the Cowachunga plot has deepened, I have spent considerable time filling in the gaps. I also realized that I need to up the ante by creating an original structure to match my vision.
Why do I take this seriously? Partly because people I respect have characterized my writing as worthwhile. As an intern for my literary agent, Josey (now a HarperCollins editor) said she thought Arisugawa Park was a book that could comfortably inhabit book shelves for years. The caliber of her editing on two passes meant that I listened very carefully to what she said. And I gained confidence that, somehow, I had an original voice.
I learned a lot about structuring, pacing, and dialogue through the process of writing the first novel. Even without any interest from the publishing world or online readers (dare you to read any popular serial story on Wattpad) I cannot laugh this off as a half-assed exercise in genre-busting flash fiction. I never will be one of the crowd. This must be something I am proud of, even if it gains few readers. I agree with Thomas Pynchon that entropy is a key element in the development of an interesting oeuvre. Thought is evolution, dissolution, fragmentation, putting back together.
Out beyond the last white line, the needle reached a point where being stranded was less a possibility than an expected outcome. Kyle swiped on his cell phone––the signal, having hovered between one bar and extended coverage for the past hour, was gone. He felt oddly indifferent about his predicament––it was like heading for shore through surf and heavy currents, having wiped out in a barrel. He was not gravely injured, he still had full use of his arms and legs––he would make it somehow. Kyle had seen two trucks pass in the past hour––there was regular traffic. Worse case scenario they would pull off to the side, flag down a ride in the morning, find a gas station. A night spent in bucket seats with half a liter of water and some trail mix was not ideal, but they would make it out alright.
Steeling himself for that final sputter of exhaust, Kyle made out a persistent smudge of light in the distance. It seemed too fixed to be headlights, too bright for a home. The road settled into an easy descent and Kyle was able to coast the last three miles––acutely aware that his foot on the pedal no longer generated any thrust. It was as if the diner had been positioned with the petrol-deprived in mind––he rolled to a stop in front of a well-lit sign that read FOOD GAS KENO, a single gas tank plastered with fading decals. Dylan shielded his eyes and groaned “Where the fuck are we?” Kyle was already out of the car, “Not sure. Let’s see if we can buy some gas––we’ve been coasting on fumes for the past hour.” They entered an establishment not far removed from the decaying buildings in Beattie. A diner with ancient black-and-white tile floor, rough hewn wood chairs and tables.
The scene inside did not conform to any era of America close to the present. An older couple in dungarees and boots sat at the nearest table, hats propped on the condiment tray. Another couple in similarly Western attire, halfway through dessert. At the far window a younger pair, silhouetted against deepening night. The man had a dark goatee and lineup of tattoos that extended from t-shirt to wrist. The woman wore black eyeliner, a faded Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt, and a red Swatch. He was halfway through his hamburger. She ignored her food and purposefully chewed gum. A wiry Native American leaned on the jukebox, beer in hand, giving the new entrants his unblinking attention. His grey hair was loosely tied in a pony tail, checkered shirt connected to jeans via belt with a silver buckle inlaid in a skull design.
The proprietor stood in the center of it all, poised and in control. She was an older woman, hair in a bun, apron around her waist––a model of certitude, with enough strands of hair hanging down her neck to convey a sense of ease. Looking across the counter she preempted Kyle’s parched words “You need gas, hun? Our cook’s on break for half an hour––he doubles as gas attendant and he’s got the key to the pump. In the meantime, why not have something to drink? I can fix anything off the menu.”
It was a numbers game Kyle thought, even in the furthest expanses of the West. You build it and they will fall in, hungry and mad from the sheer emptiness of it all. The proprietor leaned forward over the wood counter. “I understand, you’re in a hurry to get back on the road. Why don’t you take a seat, I’ll get you some ice water at least.” She busied herself scooping ice into large glasses, which she filled from the tap. Noticing Dylan’s look, “We get our water from underground springs … it’s the purest water you’ll find. We also have Tecate”––raising her voice so the entire room could hear––“Four dollar happy hour is in effect until Billy comes back.” She held her smile firm as Kyle glanced at Dylan and shrugged. “Let’s have a couple beers and take a look at the menu.” As they planted themselves at the counter, a sense of relief entered––somehow, against the odds, they had stumbled upon a haven where burgers and Willie Nelson––now on the jukebox crooning Sunny Side of the Street––reigned supreme.
A pair of menus under her arm, the proprietor set lime-wedged bottles on coasters. “I’m Lynn.” She placed the laminated menus on the table, excavation-worthy layers of price stickers accentuating each item. “Before you start examining our burgers, I should mention that we are known for our chili––a blue-ribbon award winner at last year’s Tonopah Country Fair. We serve it with toasted baguette and salad. I know it’s a little pricey but…” before she had finished, both friends were nodding. “Yeah, we’ll take that.” Lynn went through the ritual of taking an order, pulling pencil from behind her ear and a pad of paper from her apron. Giving them an easy smile, she swiveled her feet and passed into the kitchen, the door swinging on its hinges.
The chili came out in five minutes flat. Kyle tossed a pinch of grated cheddar into the still bubbling concoction. A medley of flavors burst on the tongue, jalapeño and blackened serrano peppers providing just the right burn. Whatever meat there was took a back seat to the black beans and aching piquancy of tomatillo––chayote providing a crisp counterpart. Reaching a point of general satiation halfway through the bowl, Kyle took a long draught of Tecate. He looked around––something was off… the other patrons were still engaged in ordinary conversation, yet there was an unsettling sense of being watched. He shrugged––not so odd really that attention would be on the travelers with exotic accents. He stole a glance at the proprietor. Busy wiping down a Falstaff mirror behind the counter, she alone seemed indifferent to his presence.
Noting the direction Kyle’s gaze, Dylan said in a loud voice, “It’s very good. The chili.” Lynn glanced into the mirror and flashed them a smile. “It’s an old family recipe, revisited and embellished. Folks here tell me it’s the only reason I’m still in business.” Turning around and slinging the damp towel over her wrist. “Of course the real reason is they have nowhere else to go. Isn’t that right, Stan?” The old man fidgeted uncomfortably, lifting his hat slightly, refusing to acknowledge that he had been listening in. Lynn leaned her arms on the counter, giving Kyle an appraising look, “Heading to Vegas?
“Yes. I reckon we’ve got what—another three or four hours on the road?"
“Sounds about right, if you follow the speed limit. Which I recommend you do, at least within a 30 mile radius of Pernsville. Officers sit around all day waiting for tourists to blast through. It’s how they pay for their salaries, library services, and municipal pickup. You’ll be in Vegas around midnight, I suppose. Got a place booked?”
“Yeah. We’re staying at a hostel, near the Elvis wedding chapel. We’ll see how it goes for a few nights.”
“Vegas is a hell of a city,” she said, giving a low whistle. “Hold onto your wallets.”
“Actually, you should talk to my friend about that…” Dylan motioned toward Kyle. “He’s planning to risk his savings on a few poker tournaments. Me, I never seem to pay for anything––perks of being a DJ.” Kyle looked carefully at Dylan––in impresario mode, had he just given the proprietor a wink?
Lynn turned her attention to the older couple, who were putting on their hats. The man gave her a rheumy-eyed look. “The pecan pie was delicious, as always. Tells those British fellas over there to try a piece––with ice cream, if they can handle it.” His gaze did not quite reach the two travelers. Lynn gave an easy smile, “You take care now, Stan. Drive safe.” Opening the door, he gave a tilt of the hat in Kyle and Dylan’s direction. His wife rolled her eyes, “It remains to be seen if he can drive in a straight line. Half the skid marks off the highway are ours.” Stan waited a heartbeat before replying, “Just testing out the suspension--lucky there’s nothing to hit out here.”