“People Will Disappoint You”

Fiction by William S. Rohn

The abandoned carport at the end of Ray Howell’s long, snaking driveway was hard to miss. Beneath the flimsy canvas roof, the overgrown grass between the two dirt tire ruts stood waist high, bending in the high desert breeze like a Mohawk haircut gone wrong. 

Ray was sitting nearby on the porch, idly watching a small dust devil swirling its way up the worn path. His kid sister, Carly, running late again, whacked the screen door open and bounded past. As she skittered toward his old, sun-baked pickup truck parked alongside the carport, she called behind without stopping.

“Why you let the grass grow there like that? Truck should be in the shade.” 

It wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned it, but it was the first time stubborn Ray put an answer to it. 

“I keep it that way as a reminder of your ex, sort of like a phantom limb. Daddy always said, people will disappoint you.” 

Still on the move, Carly hollered back matter-of-factly, “Biff’s not my ex, we was lawfully wedded, and still is.”

More like lawfully crazy, thought Ray. But though he’d pretty much written off wild Biff ever coming back, he had to admit that for all of Biff’s shortcomings, he’d always had a strange knack for making Carly happy. 

Ray watched the dust fly as she peeled off, barreling toward her six-to-last-call shift down at the No Pity Cafe in Cerrillos, an old New Mexico mining town 20 miles north. 

Ever since Ray took her in, on account of she couldn’t make rent on her place in town, Carly had been doing what she could to pitch in. It wasn’t much, but like always, Ray was fixed to look after her, come what may.

While he watched the late afternoon sun sink behind a distant, rim-lit peak, the wind shifted so that Ray could now hear the faint sound of a voice, coming from the answering machine through a screened window of the kitchen. 

He couldn’t make out the words, but the cadence sounded familiar. One step into the kitchen, the call ended and the machine reset. He stared at the red “1” flashing on the message counter like a relentless, blinking eye. Finally, he pressed the playback button. 

“Big Ray, it’s Biff. Listen, I only got three quarters left, so I gotta make this quick. I know I was supposed to return your Skylark by the end of the long weekend, but the thing is, I flipped it. Big ol’ jackrabbit hops across Route 501, just south of Los Alamos, and I swear I thought it was a kangaroo, just missed it swerving hard left and down the gully I go, ass over, and right soon, I’m wearing the Skylark for a hat.” 

“I got banged up enough, figured I’d survive but the car felt kinda pancakey on account of the convertible soft top, and I could tell it was totaled even while hanging there upside down like a fruit bat. Then I see that jackrabbit wandering just ahead in the gully, and if I could have reached my Mossberg in the back seat, that bad boy would have ended up in worse shape than your car, which, by the way, had a cracked manifold, according to the guy at the Phillips station. He said she’d be a goner sooner than later, though who coulda guessed how soon, right?”

“Anyway, a state trooper stops, I’m looking at his upside-down leather kickers, and he bends real low, asks for ID, and after some fishing, I manage to sling it his way. He takes a look, then tells me I’m under arrest. I say what for and he says I’m over the limit, and I say where’s the Breathalyzer and he says no need, he knows when somebody’s over the limit and that’s me. Then he fishes me out and hauls me straight off to jail.”

“A few days go by on the inside, wasn’t like any jail I’d ever seen, and that’s cuz it turns out it wasn’t no jail at all. Turns out this trooper is working with the Aztláns, some movement out of Northern Mexico that’s aiming to reconquer the southwestern U.S. and form a new Aztec nation, a República del Norte or some such. Anyway, I figure the trooper got one look at my ID, and sees that I’m an Oppenheimer, pretty big name in New Mexico, and so the Aztláns are ransoming my butt for half a million bucks. But my side of the Oppenheimer line didn’t have anything to do with the Manhattan Project, and I’m dead sure nobody I run with can scare up that sort of scratch.”

“So we end up in Brawley in the Sonoran Desert just south of the Salton Sea, quite a skip from Los Alamos. These guys were training me to join their movement when I got sprung by the Anza-Borrego Motorcycle Club. Turns out one guy from the Sonoran 500 race was lost, so I jumped on his bike and off we went.”

“I pretty much figured that was the end of me and the Aztláns, but have you ever heard of the Stockholm syndrome? Me neither. But after a spell of running guns in Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, and Baja California Norte, I got the feeling I was all in with the Aztláns again. I did some reading, Patty Hearst bios and the like, and concluded that trying to steal four states right out from under the nose of Uncle Sam was pretty much a dead end line of work. So I skipped out one night, snuck across the border in a cement mixer, then began hitching back toward Los Alamos.”

“What I’m trying to say, Big Ray, is I’m sorry, I should have told you about the Skylark sooner, and not let eight months get away. But if it makes you feel any better, I only crossed the border yesterday, and just now made Las Cruces, about 80 klicks north of El Paso, and this was the first phone my ride was willing to stop for. And before that, south of the border, it was mostly guns on the run, not a lot of chances to call.”

“But we should catch up. What kind of car are you driving these days? Oh, and I could use a small favor, amigo. There’s this guy I gotta go see, he’s in good with the Jicarilla Apache Nation, they’re the gentler ones case you was wonderin’ and they’re angling for a casino not too far from the Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Spa, which is only a small stretch north of your way, and if I could just borrow your rig for a quick round trip, five hours tops, that would be huge for me. Well, my ride’s pulling out now, said he’d drop me off in Magdalena before heading west, that’s about halfway upstate, and from there, I’ll keep thumbing my way north. Anyway, Big Ray, tell Carly I said hey and I’ll try you again after my next drop, okay? Uh, later.”

The answering machine clacked to a halt. With a wary smile, Ray turned to the kitchen window. He scanned the desert floor, darkening under the pink twilight. The dim vastness stretched all the way to the southern horizon, and now he braced for what lay beyond it, heading his way. He still had hours to go before Carly would be back so he could tell her the good news.

William Stevenson Rohn is a game developer who spends his summers in East Hampton.