Truth in the BadlandsJune 1, 2015
With one hand, Johnny Dimes steered his off-white El Camino through a loping curve in the highway. With the other hand, he raised his dark square sunglasses and squinted at the town sprawled just ahead; it was a checkerboard of beige buildings set dead-center in a landscape that Johnny could only think of as a badlands. Sprawled sure was a generous word. Sprinkled, maybe. That fit the scene a little better. Along the roadside, Johnny spotted a line of white signs splashed with red lettering—the unfortunate work of an uneven hand.
The first sign said, ‘All men are Gods.’
Well, Johnny would take that sonofabitch to the bank. He grunted and checked the rearview mirror. He saw empty highway and dim mountains flushed purple in the distance. He brought his eyes back to the road as the El Camino whipped past the next sign.
The second sign said, ‘Who speak with honesty.’
Johnny lowered the sunglasses back across his eyes. That ain’t gonna happen, he thought. Not in this life or the next.
The third sign said, ‘Tell me a true story.’
Johnny scratched his beard and groaned. The El Camino groaned with him, its engine under strain from the high heat and unending miles.
The last sign said, ‘And I’ll give you a free tank of gas.’
All this about true stories and honesty didn’t say much to Johnny. But the free tank of gas, that’d be alright. He could do with that.
“Nice ride, that El Camino,” the old man said. He patted the gray patch of hair atop his weathered head and grinned. His dentures gleamed in the sunlight charging through a large glass window along the service station’s front.
Johnny Dimes shoved a hand into his waistband and—behind the sunglasses—tossed his lazy gaze around the place. “Smells like jerky in here,” Johnny said. “You got any deer jerky? Or just that stuff they ship everywhere?”
A hollow laugh breeched the old man’s throat. “I got rattlesnake jerky,” he said. “You ever have that kind?” He slapped the counter with a flat palm. “Listen: I was out in Carrizo with my oldest grandson, the one with the dune buggy, and we came across a rattler out there. I swear, I about blew my top—biggest snake I ever saw. Thirty-two years I been living out here and I never saw one like this. Reed, that’s my grandson, he gets out and pulls that old thirty-eight he’s got—it ain’t legal, but I got no right to tell him what’s what—and he shoots the sonofabitch. Pow! like that, see.” The old man lifted a hand and mimed firing a pistol. “Painted that canyon with rattler blood. Anyhow, we skinned it and left it in the smoker quite awhile. Came out pretty good, if I don’t say so myself. I’ll be sure to use mesquite next time, give the meat a little more spice.” He raised his eyebrows.
Johnny said, “I guess I’ll have some of that. I’ll get me a free tank of gas too. If you don’t mind, like all those signs say it coming into town.” He shoved his other hand into his waistband and waited for the old man’s reply.
“You got a story to tell,” the old man said. He ran a finger along his chin and then shoved it into an ear and scratched. “Should’ve known it, the way you walk in like you own the place. I guess I could do with a story. Long as it’s true.”
“It happened like this,” Johnny said. “I lost three hundred twenty-seven dollars in a Poker game last night. Or, I guess it might’ve been this morning. Not much money unless it’s all you got. There’s a slick dealer out in New Mexico—goes by the name Seahorse Candy. She starts laughin’ about how I ain’t got a pot to piss in nor a dollar to burn. I’ll be the first to say: I had me a bad run out there and the cards weren’t all to blame. Seahorse, she starts telling me how her ex-husband won a Mack semi-truck in a game down near Santa Fe, like I need to hear that? Story goes he had a pair of jacks and nothing else. Baited a local Deputy into layin’ his sister’s husband’s rig on the line. Imagine that, losing your truck in a Poker game you didn’t even know was on. Point is, I didn’t need to hear all that mess about the Mack truck.” Johnny lifted his sunglasses from his eyes and hung them from his blue button-down shirt with pointed seams and stiff collar. “It pissed me off is what it did. I walked across the highway and borrowed another few hundred from the 7/11 store, if you get me on that.” Johnny paused.
The old man patted his gray tuft of hair again and cocked his head. “I hear you.”
“Turns out I lost that dough, too. Like I told you, it was a bad run. But then Seahorse starts asking me do I want to come out and play tomorrow, like I got more money to waste in a small-fry poker game. ‘No, go to hell,’ I says. ‘You go to hell, you dumb bastard,’ she says. Like I’m not even there, alright?”
The old man nodded. His jaw clenched and his eyebrows arched in toward his nose, formed an inverted spade on his face.
“That’s when I pulled the knife,” Johnny said. He pulled his right hand from his waistband. Tucked between his thumb and index finger was a maple-handled pocket knife. Johnny flipped it open one-handed and matched the blade’s grin with his own. “Nobody moved, at least not right then,” he said. “I got me a bag and packed all the money inside. One thousand ninety-seven dollars. Not a bad haul, but then that Seahorse Candy, she just can’t shut up. ‘My brothers’ll come for you,’ she says, ‘and you ain’t gonna like what happens.’ I says to her, ‘shut up Seahorse, don’t make me more pissed off tonight.’ But she won’t shut up. You don’t know Seahorse, but she can be a real pain—I mean she can dig at you. What I did, what I ended up doing, it was just to get her to shut up. You know what I mean? Can’t you see that’s true—that I had no choice about the thing?”
The old man lifted his chin. His eyes darted to the service station’s large front window. Outside, the El Camino sat hunched over the hot pavement, its headlights glaring like eyes.
“Can’t you see it? Tell me you see it—that I had no choice. It’s true.”
“Let me get you some of that rattlesnake jerky,” the old man said. “It’ll make a hell of a snack for the road.”
Johnny pressed his boot hard against the El Camino’s gas pedal. The engine hummed. It was full with gas and guzzling like a beast. In the rearview mirror, he watched the beige outline of the boxy service station recede into the stark white backdrop of the badlands. His eyes darted to the passenger seat. Enough jerky for a long ride and enough money for a day or two in Vegas.
Not bad, Johnny Dimes. Not bad one bit.
Johnny looked up in time to see another line of white signs lettered with red paint. Here it comes again, he thought.
The first sign said, ‘All men are Gods.’
Amen to that. Preach it. Johnny let a grin slip wide over his teeth.
The second sign said, ‘Who do good work.’
Johnny’s grin vanished. Sonofabitch. The El Camino whipped past the last sign and a groan roared from deep in Johnny’s belly. He ran his eyes over the sign’s lettering and whispered its message to himself, “In the service of truth.”