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Stephen Conley

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newmexico.jpg
Art by Eleanor Leonne Bennett 2012

Once Upon a Time in New Mexico

 

Stephen Conley

 

Sit in the parking lot with the .38 and wait. That's what Chris said after I ran from the diner. And if I saw Bruce, get out. Run like hell. Bruce was the record executive. The one who ruined it all. The one with the basement.

          It's a strange day, it's been a quiet one. It's hot and disgusting outside. This is one of those summers where God hides the rain away for another time. They warn you not to burn anything. Big red signs up by the highway. “Extreme Wildfire Warning” or “Burn Ban Still In Effect”. Who’s burning things in all this heat? That’s what I want to know. I'm glad the sun's dimming now. I need Chris to be here, though, he always made the right decision.

           The diner never really smelled like anything specific. All the aromas just swirled around together from the kitchen. I never ate there, I just poured things into cups and scribbled down orders and looked pretty. It's a blast. Really it is.

           I was waiting on a pot of coffee to finish brewing because if I poured it, the coffee would drip on the hot plate and sizzle and Curtis hates the sizzle. He says it’s bad for business. Nobody was looking at the coffee pot, though, they were all looking at my ass cause I was leaned over the counter. If I turned around I'd see awkward looks and flitting eyes. I always wondered if any of them knew who I was. Do they know I once sang in front of 25,000 people in a Thailand arena? Probably not. I’m really popular in Japan though.

          I could see their warped reflections in the coffee pot. Mine too. I didn’t do too much to myself this morning. The reflection didn’t make me look much uglier though. I wondered about all these people drinking coffee in the afternoon when the sun’s high and the heat index is pushing 120 degrees. I was never a weather girl though.

          The bell on the door jingled its song so I stood and turned a look at it. There was a man with hair thinning and he was short with a jacket in the heat and he was looking right at me. I’m used to it but this guy’s look unsettled me a little bit. Time for my greeting.

          “Welcome. Sit where you please,” with one hand on my hip and one hand held out all Vanna White-like. 

          He smirked and slid nearby into a booth. I turned and pulled the coffee off of the burner and the coffee dripped and fizzed on it with a tiny trail of steam. Curtis shouted from the kitchen slot and I swerved my way to the empty coffee cups. It was this guy and his wife and a daughter. The wife’s face was buried in her sticky menu and the guy smiled his crooked perverted filthy teeth at my boobs and I smiled my winning smile and splashed coffee in his cup. I wish I was still touring and singing. I wish I wasn’t stuck there pretending to be something I’m not. 

          “How is your patty melt?” with his southern accent and I hated it but I love tips so I played dumb.

          “What’s that? Is it like grilled cheese?” and I used my own southern accent.

          “No it’s this,” and he turned the menu at me a little bit and pointed to the fucking patty melt.

          I leaned in as close as his stunted and oblivious wife would allow and smiled and said “Oh that. Yes that’s good. It’s nice and greasy. You’ll need a LOT of napkins.” That was when I saw Mr. Thin Hair still eying me.

          I thumped the coffee pot on their table and the daughter kept scribbling and the wife finally looked up. My little shit order book in hand, I gave my hips a shimmy while I “waited”. I was trying to focus on this pervert and his bored family but the thin-haired guy was looking at me, I could feel him. I was barely listening as I abbreviated their orders and thought of better times. It’s never enough though.

          Mr. Thin Hair was still staring needles through me when I brought the coffee to his table. He had a smart phone. I’ve never seen a smart phone in this town. He looked up at me with a curiosity I didn’t feel right about.

          “Coffee?” And I held the pot up a little.

          He pointed to the coffee cup so I poured.

          “Blonde, is it?”

          “Yes. We have more fun, it’s true,” and there was my smile again.

           “And your name is…” he leaned in and looked at my nametag, “Susan.”

          “Yes, sweety. What might your name be?”

          “I’m Edgar but that’s not important.”

          “Do you need a minute?” hiding my frown.

          He did this hand motion like “Go away” so I turned with the pot and went back to the counter. Curtis was stooped over still glaring at me through the kitchen slot. I smiled and shrugged and he disdainfully shook his head and took the order from my hand. I like Curtis but he is a pill sometimes.

          Down the counter was Carla in her spaghetti strap dress. It was pretty and just wrinkled enough, much like Carla. These two younger guys, one had ears that stick out at the top like a troll and the other was tan with a marker-drawn mustache, were leaning by Carla. She looked right at me and I gave a wave with just my fingers and she smiled and turned to Troll-boy. Carla is actually Carl. It’s so obvious to me but I’ve had a lot more exposure to the human form than this entire small town population put together most likely. I mean, I had a music video. Carla/Carl was really good at his/her routine.

          Then there was Rhett. He's a musician but he'd never tell me his full name or what band he was in. He'd just sit and drink coffee and eat grits and eggs and talk to me about the most interesting things, his hair haphazard across his face half the time. Rhett was there today in an apricot shirt, making me feel more like the star I once was. I always felt like he knew my pop singer alter ego. Maybe because he's a singer himself. While he was on a phone, he wrote on a napkin that I looked like a drunken angel today and I smiled and went back to Edgar.

          Not looking at me, just his phone, Edgar said “Bruce would like for you to call him at your earliest convenience. You are still under a contract,” and he slid a business card I recognized. Everything felt silent.

          I didn’t move. The business card leered up at me. It hadn’t changed a bit. I’m sure Bruce hadn’t changed a bit either. How did he find me? I didn’t tell anyone. I’m in New Mexico. I knew it wasn’t far enough away, I told Chris that.

          Edgar stood slowly up and dropped down one dollar and another and slipped his hands into pockets. He was looking at me then.

          “You have a good day, Arianna.”

          When he walked off I stared at the dollars until they blurred. I snatched up the business card when I heard the door jingle again. Then it was past the pervert with the teeth and Curtis in the kitchen and Rhett on his phone and Carla/Carl and her boyfriends. This would be my silent goodbye. I grabbed my purse in the back and pulled out the .38, the one I never thought I'd use. 

          Outside, Edgar was backing out in an older car, I didn't know the model. There, in the bright sun out in front of a country town, I squeezed the trigger right at his face through the windshield and fired bullets over and over until it clicked. I shot sunglasses off of his face and holes across his car and it kept rolling backwards until it slammed into the dumpster across the way. My heart stopped and started again and burned inside.

          When I looked back at the diner, there was Rhett and Carla and her hands were across her face. 

          She took them down and looked at me and said "Girl, go," so I did. I went.

 

I’d been in this town less than a year and I knew more back roads than probably the cops. I pushed that Civic over corners and behind yards, leaned up to the steering wheel like I could will that piece of shit car to get to the ranch faster. I had to practice my breathing exercises the whole time. If I saw a cop I’d probably die of heart failure.

          I had to stop, I had to hear from Chris. At a payphone I fidgeted quarters out of my apron and slid my fingers across warm buttons and after a click, the other line rang. He picked up on the first ring like he always did.

           “Arianna,” and my real name made me cringe that time.

           “Chris.”

          “What’s wrong?”

          “He came. I mean it wasn’t him but it was him.”

          “Slow down. Who did he send?”

          “Edgar. Edgar,” with a deep breath.

          “Edgar,” his voice seemed so far away, “Ok. Edgar. Listen, don’t cry.”

          “I’m not,” I was.

          "Did you do what I said?"

          "Yes. Please come get me. I don't want to be at the ranch."

           "You can't be there."

          So here I am in the station wagon parked out of town. I left my car at the ranch and grabbed the wagon out of the barn. It started right away, like Chris said it would. Then I split. As soon as you leave town, all you see are motels and truck stops. Chris told me to choose and I blurted out "Motel" and he said to sit and wait with the .38 I never thought I'd use.

          I was a star. Almost. Chris was my manager, he said I had talent that exceeded the heavens and I believed him. I was on the way up, I was signing contracts. Then Chris found out the truth about Bruce. Where he really came from, what he was really involved in. He found Bruce's basement with the pictures of those girls and strange pieces of flesh pickling in jars. I never trusted his accent in the first place. Chris watched over me like any good lover so we ran away at his urging. I didn't know much about Bruce but Chris always told me if I ever saw him to run and if I ever saw any of Bruce's associates, to "Shoot him in the fucking face."

          I'm hunched down under the motel neon in the wagon and all I hear is the infrequent hush of a car passing. None of them have been Chris or the cops and I don't want to be here anymore. The sun is fading into twilight and a blue tint lays down over everything. I don’t want it to get dark.

 

The passenger door opens and Bruce’s smoky cologne fills the car before he does. That door was locked, I know it was. But there’s Bruce’s shiny perfect hair and his smile that hinted at fangs. My blood is running cold and my hand is frozen on the .38 in my lap. He’s not looking at me, at least. He’s staring bored at the motel.

 

“You’re looking lovely…” but he’s interrupted by a small explosion that shoves his head forward into the dash with a smack.

The car fills with sharp gunpowder aroma and I don’t know what’s going on but I think I’m crying.

"Arianna," from the back seat and my blood stops cold and I clench the gun this time. Chris's face appears in the rear view.

I think I said his name but there’s a confusing ring humming through my head. I push my palms into my eyes until lights appear and things outside my head fade into silence. We need to leave.

“We need to leave. I shot Bruce,” he says and for the first time ever, I hear his voice shake.

“Chris, I just wanted to sing.”

“I know. I’m sorry I did this to us. We have to go.”

“How did he find us?” but I don’t really want an answer.

A truck rattles by on the road behind us and Chris turns and looks. It too fades into silence. I hand the .38 back to him. There’s no story on his face, no real expression. That must be what fear looks like because I’ve never seen him afraid before. He looks right in my eyes in the rear view and maybe he sees my distress matches his. Bruce’s corpse smokes and drips on the dash.

 

“Cheer up, babe. A face like yours shouldn’t look that way.”

“Where to now?”

“Don’t know. How about Japan.”

“They love me there.”

 

Stephen Conley's single claim to fame is interviewing crime master James Ellroy, which is set to be published in a 2012 collection. His work can be seen at Pulp Metal Magazine, Thunderdome: The Writers Collective, and in the benefit anthology Stories for Sendai. When he's not writing or drinking fancy beers, he can be found watching Peep Show on BBC or on a boat somewhere.

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