As I walked behind Alice and her cowboy friend, the brighter lights of the store fronts on the sidewalk ahead illuminated the fabric in the big cowboy hat. It made his tiny head inside look like a gnome’s. A laugh slipped out making Greg look back at me with hate in his eyes. With the gorilla groping Alice’s ass and my goofing, he was ready to blow. I wiped the grin off my face and looked away. Why risk it. Little men sometimes had big knives or guns on them.
Cowboy Greg stops at a beat up green and white Ford F-250 pickup. It’s one of the Club Cab type bodies. You know- behind the front seat, two tiny fold down seats faced each other for kids to sit in? One of those kind. As the door is opened, Alice folds the bench seat forward and puts down a jump seat on the passenger side. They both stare at me. I’m the kid. I climb inside and shove over a pile of dirty clothes and a torn saddle blanket covered with hairs of all colors and sizes. As soon as I sit down, a snarling muzzle slams into the glass separating the back of the cab from the bed. A mid-sized mutt with long hair is snarling and barking at me totally out of control. Cowboy Greg shouts at the dog to quiet down. It only makes the animal go even crazier. Swell. I hoped he trained horses better then he did dogs.
After closing Alice’s door, Greg climbs behind the wheel. He’s so short, he has the front seat all the way forward, so I have plenty of room. A nice surprise. Alice asks him to stop at a nearby market for some beers and whatever. Trapped in the back seat of the truck while Alice ran inside, I can feel the hatred emanating from Greg. He kept looking at me in the window rear view mirror to mad dog me with mean looks. I closed my eyes and waited for Alice to return.
We jump on the freeway and head North. Alice gives Greg a beer then hands one back to me. Greg, once again, gave me a hard look over his shoulder. I wanted to go home.
It was a quiet ride. Usually I can talk for hours. I kept silent. With the moron driving singing along to country western crap, I stared out the window hoping things would get better. Alice seemed deep in thought, so why say anything. Why toss pearls before swine? Witty banter was the last thing the situation called for.
As we swung off to the right onto the 14 freeway off the 5, I perked up a bit. At least we were heading into areas I was familiar with. Father Garret’s ‘home for wayward boys’ was just up the highway off of Soledad Canyon. I spent almost a year there when 15 years old. I guess it didn’t take since I was still wayward. My background sheet, as I was entered into the facility, had in its notations that I was a known biter so I didn’t have to worry too much about Father Garret singling me out in the showers like some of the other new fish.
The overhead signs said Palmdale and Lancaster. Being that the 14 freeway was fairly new, most of the people driving it were owners of the thousands of track homes sprouting up like crazy quilts in every direction. Buying a home they could afford was the main item on most agendas. Checking out the surrounding areas came later. The rat race of commuting, then, making house payments soon kept most in a daily grind. They would never see anything but the freeway exits or the inside of some Home Depot for years to come. Maybe it was for the best. Lots of rough folks surrounded these safety zones of cookie cutter homes and phoney, ‘gated’ communities.
As a kid, the only way out to the high desert had been Soledad Canyon Road, Sierra Highway or rough roads off of the back way to Vegas off the 138. I always tried to stay off the 138. Too many cops and too many head-ons from people fed up with following an 18-wheeler after five drinks and in a hurry to gamble. Hell, in all these years, it’s just as bad. Maybe worse.
Of course, the ‘suicide’ lane on old Sierra Highway had its own charm. Three lanes. Anyone could pass using the middle lane from either direction. What a great idea! After a head-on between a school bus and a big rig killed a bunch of kids, it was finally taken out.
We take another exit that said, ‘Pearblossom’. Not good. I had a lot of people mad at me in Pearblossom. Mainly from stealing fruit from the stands that dot the highway all through town. On our minibikes, we would wait until a vendor was busy, then fly by and grab at will before zooming off. Ditto for shop lifting the local markets and thrift shops. I hoped we wouldn’t actually be going there. There was still a lot of open desert so I wasn’t too worried. Yet…
Littlerock and Pearblossom. You couldn’t tell when one ended and the other began out in the dark of the night. Only the headlights of Greg’s pickup gave you a narrow glimpse of the vast desert beyond. Miles and miles of rolling tumbleweeds and dry dusty stretches of open desert, here and there dotted with a far off porch light or an oncoming vehicle. The thought of my last trip to Littlerock made me smile to myself. I brought a dumb blonde I’d met while putting her phone in off of Barham in the ‘actors’ colony. The studio heads would park guys and gals in these thousands of apartments in complexes differentiated by letters. ‘A’ building then, ‘B’ building. All the way to ‘Z’. Huge. Just down the street was Burbank Studios to the right and Universal Studios and CBS to the left off of Cahuenga. Until banged, dropped or on a sitcom, they were home to a lot of hopefuls with stars in their eyes.
This gal wanted to see some ghost towns and do some treasure hunting. Being out of the running for gorgeous, built babes most of the time I took a shot and promised I knew of one. That Saturday I took her out to Llano, a failed 1930’s pre-hippie colony of communists. The only thing left standing are the stone chimneys of their town hall and store buildings. I borrowed a really shitty metal detector from a buddy at work. Hey, we found an old stove leg and some bottles. They put me over the top with blondie. Alas, I was dumped again after a talent agent got the hots for her and it was adios phone man, hello stardom.
From the back seat I knew we were close to Llano but it was too dark to see the stone columns. I ask Alice for another beer. Nope. Cowboy Greg had guzzled the rest. I wonder about taking a piss. Alice informs me we’re almost at our destination. She suggests I pinch my earlobe with my fingernails. Hey! It actually worked! The pain makes you not have to take a leak for awhile. We make a right at a half fallen over sign that says a barely readable, ‘Sand and Gravel Two miles’. We head where the faded red arrow pointed.
I knew enough about the area to keep quiet about needing a toilet stop. All the roads to the right dead ended sooner or later into some really rough mountains with no roads into them. I also knew there was a cutoff road well before ‘Four Corners’ that would have saved us twenty minutes of driving. I realize Cowboy Greg and Alice don’t know the area very well. I file it away. About a mile off the main highway, we make a left onto a badly rutted washboard dirt road. In between the deep washboards are stretches of sand that make Greg’s truck drift around. He has a two-fisted lock on the steering wheel as the truck lurches to the left and right in the deeper sand. Some Cowboy. We get lost.
I suggest we backtrack and go a bit slower. I end up getting out to help Greg turn around. I finally take a piss. We go back a ways, find the correct turn and end up almost tipping over entering a badly marked circular drive bordered by jagged chunks of volcanic rock about the size of footballs. Backing off the embankment, I stay calm while Alice and Greg freak out. We finally reach our destination. The truck headlights show us a beat up porch and a tiny one-story wood frame house behind it.
Before setting his brake and shutting off the head lights I take in as much as I can. To the left of the old ranch house I can just make out a fairly large cinder block barn type structure. As Cowboy Greg opened his door, a blast of dirt and dust filled the cab. A wind storm was kicking in big time. It was also getting colder. A typical night in the desert. It’s common to have a temperature drop from a sweltering high of 106 suddenly plunging into the thirties not too long after sundown.
Death Valley, three hours away, is even worse. One of the main reasons I moved to Hollywood. Too tough a commute on a cycle. And not a cool Harley either. Usually some piece of crap Honda or Yamaha that barely ran. The wind would blow me all over the place. Your best shot was to suck in behind a Semi and draft his bulk out of the driving wind blasts. Oh, later on if you like Harley Fat Boys? Get ready to eat shit when blasting winds off the side of the desert hit those cool looking SOLID RIMS. Oh man, you haven’t lived until that happens to you. Your blown into oncoming traffic and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. If you survive you slow down and get next to a larger vehicle.
Cowboy Greg stands at the back of the truck to light a smoke. I climb over the front seat, go around the front of the truck and start to help Alice out. I end up denting Greg’s hood to escape his snarling dog that tried to bite a hole in my thigh. He only tore the inside of my 501s, just missing some skin. While I get in a shouting match with Greg over his dog, Alice jumped back into the truck while ordering a still shouting Greg to put his lights back on. She was worried about stepping on a scorpion or a rattlesnake. I started to make a my usual joke to city people about the snakes having to wear sweaters but kept it to myself. Alice was cursing under her breath. I wasn’t in front of a very good crowd. Her voice had that edge I was learning to quell, not bring into flame. The cowboy already hated my guts, so, I jumped off the hood after the dog was put back in the camper and made my way towards the porch, now well lit by the headlights.
As soon as the porch light came on, Alice was out of the truck and inside the front door like an arrow off a bow. As I stepped off the top of the three cement steps, the wooden porch floor felt like I was going to go right through it. I stepped a bit lighter and followed Alice’s lead. Inside the small beat-up front room, Alice was parked in front of a small kerosene heater. I looked around for a place to sit while taking in the room and wondering where the inhabitants were. The place was a dump. Not an abandoned wreck. Just a dump. Whomever lived there was a stinking pig in their living habits. It wasn’t the fault of the little house. It still had all its windows and doors, so it had that going for it. Plus, that little oil heater. Small, but efficient. I had to be happy with a small spot off the side of it. Alice hogged the entire front and wasn’t budging. I would try and get closer as she spun around to warm a different area but was thwarted every time. We went into a little dance like the bees do to tell other bees where the good flowers are. Except this bee in the high heels could care less. Bees are really interesting but most fall asleep as I recount info on them so lets move along with this story.
While trying to stay warm, I ask Alice what we were doing out in the middle of nowhere. She informs me with a quick frown that it’s just for a couple of hours. Some other associates of hers will be meeting us. Once again, I nod my head like the village idiot in agreement. I then ask Alice in a low voice after Cowboy Greg had gone through the living room past us, “What the hell do you need me for?” Alls she said in reply was, “You’re the only man I trust. Don’t screw me over. You’ll make at least five hundred bucks tonight if you keep your big mouth shut and let me run this deal!” I make the closing a zipper move across my lips then toss away the invisible key.
Even with the heater on full, the living room was freezing five feet from the stove. Not Alice. She had pulled a folding chair over from against a wall, put a cushion on it from the beat up sofa across from us then put a jacket hanging on a peg next to the front door over it for a nice padded seat back in front of the heater. She started to file her long nails slowly and effortlessly while ignoring me completely. I stepped from side to side and froze. If I took my hands out of my pockets they got so cold they hurt.
Where in the hell had Cowboy Greg gone? I moved across the room and looked out a couple of the front room windows. Pitch black out. With only the one small lamp on next to the sofa on a beat up crate, I opted to try finding him in the rooms past us. The orb of a lightning bug made me turn my head. The glint of light from a lantern outside the kitchen door had faked me out. The man with the light walked on past the lit back porch light out of my line of sight. I then hear some steps coming back onto the back porch landing. It wasn’t Greg. Into the room stepped a big Indian looking fellow. Not an American Indian like the cowboys fight in the oaters on TV. He was one of those South American ones that look like head hunters when they take their shirts off to play soccer.
This guy stops and gives me a look that said, “You better belong here mister!” Taking a look past me into the front room and seeing Alice in front of the stove smiling at him, he lightened up a bit. I was a bit taller than him, but he was twice as wide as me. I gave him a smile and a nod. He smiled back. All of his front teeth were solid gold. Not a couple. All of them. Later on I was to learn it was a status symbol in his culture. It also meant he had killed a lot of people. Live and learn.
I put out my hand to shake. He seems shocked, then shakes it. He says something over his shoulder to Alice in rapid fire Spanish. She replies just as fast. Huh? Alice is fluent in Spanish? She was full of all kinds of surprises. As the Indian lets go of my hand he goes past Alice to shut off the oil flow to the heater. Squatted down next to Alice he runs his hand up the inside of her tight pants and gives her pussy a caress. I step back and pretend I’m not there. Alice informs me a few minutes later that we’re leaving. Before stepping out the front door back into the howling wind, Alice gives me my instructions. “Drive the pickup to the Hollywood Bowl parking lot. Someone will be waiting for you. You can then walk or take a taxi from there!” Before I can say anything, she puts some money into my hand while she pulls me close to whisper, “There’s two hundred. You’ll get the rest tomorrow!” I tell her a hissed back, “You said five hundred!” Alice jerked away from me to hiss back, “Look you fucking asshole I don’t have it right now. You’re not getting shorted. I don’t have all of Juan here’s money either, you think I’m going to short him too?” I nod and head for the truck.
Since the headlights were still on, I wondered about the battery starting it. Nope. It fired right up. I check the gas gauge first. I’d need some gas. I pulled up next to Alice waiting in the driveway for someone. She looked like she was freezing. I put down my window and asked her what kind of gas Greg put in his truck. She gave me a hard look then said, “I don’t know anyone named Greg!”
I rolled up my window to follow our original tire tracks back out to the highway. Don’t mention Greg again. Hmm. As I turned my attention back to the dirt road I swerve to miss running over a dead dog laying half way into the rutted road. I go around it and look down the wide open expanse of desert to the here and there glow of headlights showing the highway a few miles away. The lights looked like tiny white dots slowly fading out of sight. I get to the Hollywood Bowl around three a.m. I could have made better time but I stopped at a coffee shop off the five for a Denny’s grand slam and some coffee. I hate the taste of coffee. I only drink it when tired and worn out. Like I was at the moment…