Westward Flow

I got here by thumb. From Port Arthur in a cold rain. I worked there six weeks as a security guard. Before that, Dallas, stacking crates. Before that, Tallahassee. But I’m not running from anybody, if that’s what you’re thinking.

By “here,” I mean a wide spot in the road in northern New Mexico—gas station, diner, 7-Eleven. Blistering during the day, freeze your ass at night.

One of the best things about this place is that I can walk a mile out of town and stand on the continental divide. I stand there, look east, and breathe easier. For me, the east is finally over. Now I have the sage and the scrub—the kind of land where the horizon is the only thing that matters.

I work as a short-order cook in the local diner. Three waitresses, all smarter than me. I hear them tear off an order in Spanish like its hot metal, then translate for me in perfect English. I say, “Si” and they laugh.

The waitresses call me Roberto because they say it sounds better than Bobby. Fine. Call me what you like.

“Roberto, you don’t look very happy,” says Maria, a churchgoer who sometimes brings me Bible pamphlets. I’m having a cigarette out back. She says this as she carries a bin of cardboard to the dumpster. On the way back, she asks to take a drag.

“But you go to church,” I say.

She winks. “Church people aren’t perfect people, Roberto. Why do you think they go to church?”

She takes one long drag, then blows it into the wind. This is a woman who knows her way around a cigarette.

“Why do you say I’m not happy?” I try not to show too much interest.

She holds the bin to her chest to help cut the wind.

“You look like one of them old coyotes from when I was a kid. Me and my brother would come across them out in the desert at night. All alone.”

I laugh. She studies me. She’s younger than I thought. Also, prettier.

“So that’s why you bring me that Jesus stuff. You think I’m an old loner about to die. You’re gonna save me, Maria?”

“I’m not the one who does the saving, Roberto.” She smiles, then gives my shoulder a little nudge as she walks back in.

Ok, maybe they flirt with me. I’ve suffered from that at times in my life. And now, maybe the white whiskers make me look distinguished.

I also know the waitresses talk about me. They can’t figure me out. Which makes me wonder what stories they’ve concocted. That I was in prison? Or a drug dealer? Or I packed my wife into a suitcase?

Which is just fine. They can think what they want to. Free country.

Which, by the way, is one of the best parts of this job. Nobody tells me what to think or what to say. I don’t have to lie. I don’t have to coil-up my life to keep some guilty bastard from hearing the truth.

I think about this a lot. Especially at night when it is pitch black and silent. When I close up, usually around 2 a.m., I switch off the diner lights, then the neon sign, then the overheads in the parking lot.

Then I watch the stars appear. Silent and steady. All I feel is the cold desert air.

One night, a Friday, I’m locking up, walking to the parking lot, and I hear a scuffle. Just around the corner of the building. And I see this guy with Maria, rolling around against the side of a car.

I think fine. If she wants to screw a guy in the middle of a parking lot, that’s okay with me. Though I’ll say it surprised me. She’s very proper at work.

But then it becomes clear this isn’t a friendly little sex romp. He’s pushing her against the car, and she lets out a scream. So I start yelling and running toward them, which makes him turn toward me and gives her a chance to kick him in the balls.

He falls hard to the ground and, lightning fast, she kicks him in the head.

“You bastard! You bastard!”

I pull her back from the guy, who is just lying there, moaning and bleeding, and I tell her I’m going to call the cops. But she jumps into her car, shouts “You saved my life, Roberto!” and throws a cloud of gravel as she roars out of the parking lot.

Many things have been said about me. Mostly not so flattering. But here I am, in the desert, under the stars, and somebody thinks I saved their life.

I look at this guy who is moaning, blood oozing from his nose. He’s clenched in the fetal position. He finally notices me and says, “Give me a hand.”

I just study him. Light a cigarette. Watch the wind whip the smoke. He finally sits up.

“But for the grace of God, that damn woman would’ve killed me.” He looks up at me. Like it has finally dawned on him what has happened.

I inhale the smoke and just look at him for a minute. He tries to smile through the blood—maybe he thinks we’re friends.

I say to him, as I grind the cigarette under my boot, “You come around here anymore, buddy, and I will cut you up into little pieces and pack you into a suitcase.”


Photography Credit: Dennis Haritou

Ronald Geigle is a writer and poet living in Arlington, Virginia. His work has been published in The New Mexico Review, Banyan Review, and Tilted House Review, as well as forthcoming in Alternating Current. He is the author of The Woods, a novel set in the Pacific Northwest during the waning years of the Great Depression. ronaldgeigle.com