“It’s a long way to Vegas,” the old man said.
He was ancient, with a weather beaten, deeply creviced face. His dark skin and his eyes spoke to his Native American ancestry. He was also poor. He wore oily blue jeans and an oily blue shirt and a battered straw cowboy hat to shield his squinting eyes from the hot sun. He squinted constantly and spoke with a serious tone to his voice, as though revealing some important truth, as though the answers to all of life’s questions could be fathomed in the fact that it was a long way from there to Las Vegas.
“Yep,” agreed the second man, who wore a John Deere cap and whose face and clothes were just as ragged. He stared Billy Cox in the eyes and pronounced gravely a well known truth: “it’s a long way Vegas.”
I was a hot. The sun beat down on the top of Billy’s head like the backbeat from Pearl Jam song blaring out of his boy’s stereo. He could not remember it ever being this hot in the foothills of Van Winkle County, where 110 degrees is not uncommon in the summer. This must be some kind of record, 120 or more. He hated the heat. In fact, he hated Pearl Jam, but he had to listen to it because his son listened to it and Billy couldn’t escape it. Besides, he supposed that his father had hated the Rolling Stones just as much. But right now it wasn’t just Pearl Jam Billy hated. Right now Billy hated everything. He hated the heat and he hated these two old men and he hated his job, because right now he should be in his cutoff shorts and a tank top, sitting in his living-room with a cold beer in one hand and the remote in the other and the air conditioning cranked up full, watching his big-screen TV, instead of being out here in his starched uniform in this Goddamn California heat. But that was his job, and he took the job seriously. With power comes responsibility, and Billy had a lot of both. There is nothing so much like God on this Earth as a ship captain at sea or the sheriff of Van Winkle County.
Van Winkle County was the road kill capital of the world. Someone once wrote that if it lives in Van Winkle County there is one lying dead by the side of the road somewhere. On his way over here Billy had passed two dead dogs, four dead raccoons, a crushed rattle snake and a departed deer. But the poof of the statement was lying a hundred feet away in a pool of her own blood.
She had probably been pretty. That was Billy’s thought when he first examined the body, that she had probably been pretty, but it was hard to tell with part of her jaw blown off. She had a nice body though, that was for sure. She fit a specific type of girl you found in California: big blond hair, big heels, big breasts, and lots of money that may or may not have been hers. The car certainly fit the stereotype. It was a late model Porsche 911 Turbo, black like her tight little dress, all sex and speed: a $100,000 car to go with her $100,000 body, hot like her, but right now too hot to touch. The heat waves radiating off the Porsche’s black roof turned the distant buttes into a Salvador Dali landscape. The surface of the car was probably 150 degrees.
The body was lying between the car and the gas pumps. The filling hose was still stuck in the fill spout. She had put in seven and three tenths gallons before the pump had stopped. Her purse was on the passenger seat of the car. There was an empty soda bottle lying next to her, its contents spilled on the pavement by her head, mixing with her blood.
What she had been doing here Billy couldn’t imagine. Nobody came here any more. This filling station was far off the beaten path. Once upon a time there had been a hotel across the street with concrete wig-wams for rooms and a twenty foot concrete Indian out front. Next to that hotel had been another with a sixty-foot dinosaur, and next to that a diner in an old air-conditioned railroad car. The Nation had owned the hotel once upon a time, playing to the white-man’s stereotypes of their people—his people. The stupid grinning concrete chief was still there, but absent his nose and several toes which a group of boys had broken off with a sledge hammer.
This place was prosperous a long time ago, but the old highway had been abandoned. The state had built a new six-lane freeway down in the valley, and like a river that had changed its course it had left this little corner of Van Winkle County high and dry. Nobody came down this road anymore. The Porsche had probably been the only car out here all day. The only thing left was this old filling station with it’s rusty pumps and broken windows and two old men who continued running it because they had nowhere else to go. Well, they could go back to the Rancheria. The rest of the nation had moved back onto the Rancheria, farther up in the hills, where a shiny new casino had replaced the tacky hotel as their main source of income. They could go there where the nation would take care of them and they’d live a comfortable life on all the money they were stealing back from the white-man: but they were too damn stubborn for that. Instead they stayed out here, on this desolate old road across from that damned concrete Indian, because this was their land and they refused to give it up. He hated them more than anything, just like he hated himself. They were the past he couldn’t escape. They were his family, and he hated being one of them.
“Tell me again, dad,” Billy said to the man in the straw cowboy hat, leveling upon him the eyeless gaze he normally gave drunken motorists, his face hidden behind mirrored sunglasses.
“Rolled in here about two o’clock,” his uncle Earl, interjected, “pretty little thing. Nice car too. Said she was going to Vegas”
“Long way to Vegas,” Billy’s dad said again.
“Did she ask directions?” Billy inquired.
“Nope,” his father answered, “she asked how far it was to Vegas.”
“Told her,” Earl said, “Long way.”
“Then what happened?”
“Well,” his father continued, “she bought a soda and paid for her gas. She was filling her tank when the motorcycle pulled up.”
“Jap-bike,” said Uncle Earl, “one of those rice burning crotch-rockets.”
“He pulled out a great big pistol and shot her in the face. Then he just rode off. Must have been some sort of mob thing.”
“Like The Sopranos,” Earl volunteered.
“Did he peel out?” Billy asked.
“Nope,” said Earl.
“Just drove away,” said Billy’s father. These two had been completing each other’s thoughts since before the Burmashave signs came down.
“Could you describe the motorcyclist?”
“Nope,” said his father.
“Didn’t see his face,” said his uncle, “he had one of those full face helmets with a black face screen.”
“Face screen,” Billie repeated.
“Full suit of riding leathers,” his dad went on.
“Black, like his helmet.”
“And the bike.”
“What kind of pistol?” Billy inquired.
“Maybe a .45.”
They were so annoying.
“Which way did he ride off after he left?” Billy continued.
“South,” said his father, “Probably in Bakersfield by now.”
“Or Vegas,” continued Uncle Earl.
“Nope,” Billy’s father corrected him. “ Too far. It’s a long way to Vegas.”
“Humph,” Billy grunted, and he walked away.
Bakersfield. Or Vegas. It was a long way to Vegas, and nobody came through here to get there. They’d either have to go over Heidelberg Pass or south through Wilfred Heights and out 15. Or through Death Valley, which in this heat made even less sense.
“Was she going to go south?” He asked absently.
“Nope,” said his dad, “Through the pass.”
“It’s open till October” his uncle said, as if the Sheriff wouldn’t know that.
The motor cyclist had gone south. He could have been heading for Vegas too. If the motorcyclist had crossed the state line into Nevada, which meant the F.B.I. would have to get involved. They’d come around, crawling all over the place, messing up his county, and they wouldn’t solve a damn thing. He’d like to leave it to them but he couldn’t. Feds were useless. They’d never see it. Billy had never met a fed who could find his rear-end with both hands and a flashlight. But it was right there in front of Billy, as plain as the nose on his face, and it was up to him to do something about it. It was his county, his responsibility. He checked the woman’s purse just to be sure. He found fifteen dollars and no credit cards.
“Stand up, dad,” he said, “You too Uncle Earl.”
And then he cuffed them.
They couldn’t believe it. He was family and he was arresting them—worse, condemning them. They’d get the needle for sure. And it was Billy sending them to their doom. They couldn’t understand how he could do it. They didn’t say a word. They just stared at him dumbly as he read them their rights.
He searched the station (he didn’t need a warrant, it had been in his family or years). He found the girl’s credit cards in the till, along with seven hundred thirty five dollars and his father’s old colt .45, which he knew without ballistics would turn out to be the gun that had killed her, just as he knew that nobody could survive in this God-awful heat in black leathers and a full faced helmet.
Mike Cramer lives in Broolyn, where he is an actor, professor, filmmaker, and writer. He is the author or A CONFEDERACY OF WHORES: MEDIA AND POLITICS IN GEORGE W. BUSH'S AMERICA and MEDIEVAL FANTASY AS PERFORMANCE. He grew up in California and spent his summers in a place very much like the fictional Van Winkle County.