Dry popcorn snow whirled in hypnotizing patterns on the frozen asphalt.

The edges of the winter landscape furred in shades of grey: sky, adobe buildings, light poles, trash, electric wires, the concrete on-ramp. Headlights of on coming trucks and cars floated in the grey blue haze of blowing snow. The kneeling bundle on the side of the onramp rubbed his gloved hands together, pressing them between his thighs. The snow stung his nose and eyes, the only skin exposed, as the dry crystals caught in his trim beard. He stood and stomped his boots to wake up his frozen feet. His jeans, pressed with a sharp crease, felt frozen against his thighs and he pulled the collar of the caramel colored down parka up against his ears. Clayton heard the signature putting of a Volkswagen van’s engine and turned to see headlights. The van was crunching slowly up the on ramp and he waved a confident hand and gestured with his thumb hopefully. The van passed and then slowed as the road leveled. He lurched against the wind and pulled at the handle. It took two hard tugs to get the frozen door open and then he jumped in and pulled it shut with a hollow bang. “Thanks man,” Clayton rubbed his gloved hands on his thighs. “I’m headed towards Phoenix. That suit you?” the driver was a young man with a carefree grin, and he bounced a bit in his seat tapping the steering wheel. Leo had just been thinking what a long boring drive he had ahead when he saw the man at the top of the

onramp. “Perfect. I appreciate you stopping and giving me a lift.” Clayton took in the young man’s shoulder length black curls, swinging under a knit cap with the momentum of his tapping, silver bracelets jangling and his small frame gypsy wrapped in layers of flannel and wool. Leo had the appearance of a twelve-year-old in wire rim glasses. Only the wisps of mustache and beard that patched his cheeks kept him from being carded at Zia’s bar when he had beers with his fellow UNM grad students. Clayton tapped down his contempt. His years of military school were long behind him, but the discipline was deeply engrained. His clothes were always clean and pressed, his boots shined, his shirt tucked in. Even during his daily exercise ritual, he kept his t-shirt tucked in. His beard and letting his thinning hair graze his collar were his only outward flaunting of protocol, and both were meticulously groomed. Clayton scorned overeducated trust fund hippies, but he was desperate to disappear and felt this kid would prove an unreliable witness if questioned later. Leo pulled back onto the freeway, slowly shifting back up to third gear. The blue Volkswagen slowly dissolved into the storm. “Rough day for travel. There’s a thermos of coffee right at your feet there. Help yourself.” “That’ll work,” Clayton sighed as he reached for the

thermos. He poured a cap full of black coffee and held it in his gloved hand. “I can help with gas and pick up supper for your trouble.” Leo raised his eyebrows. “That’ll work,” he parroted and grinned. Clayton grimaced into the cap of coffee and grunted, sealing the contract. Before the van’s headlights had given Clayton a small hope of being rescued from the freezing wind of the on-ramp, he had wondered briefly if this was how he would end up. That his frozen body would be found on the I-40 on-ramp leading from the Albuquerque airport to points West. It was pure survival instinct that led him to start walking from the rental car return desk toward the freeway and not toward the Frontier Airlines terminal where a plane was waiting with two seats that would ultimately not be filled. His plans had derailed when he reached into the interior side pocket of his leather satchel to get the cash to pay for the rental car and his fingertips grazed a loose .38 cartridge. He startled and felt a ice hot surge in his stomach. Where was the holster? At the motel that morning, Clayton had become irritated with Ben, who had insisted that they count the cash for the third time. They were pressed for time and he was worried about missing their flight back to Phoenix. The .38 was his favorite, lovely with a pearl handle. He had meant to return the zippered

holster to it’s hiding place in one of his prized kangaroo skin boots, below the form. But had he? Was it now nestled in the boot bag and sitting safely in their suitcase waiting to be loaded into the belly of the plane? The boots were custom made and they were beauties. Too flashy for everyday, but commanding respect during business deals. He had visited the old Mexican in the boot factory in Juarez and had his feet cast, a ceramic form had been made. He hand selected the cuts of leather from piles in a cinderblock building that smelled of tanning solvents and thread color and heel size. They fit his feet like they had grown there. Standing outside the rental car office he closed his eyes, knowing he’d left the holster in their carryon duffle with his dop kit. Knowing that Ben was now probably in police custody after taking the duffle through security. The fear and anger blended in his bloodstream and with no plan he headed for the freeway on ramp. The intensity of the cold didn’t register at first, his face was pinched in rage and his determination to be swallowed into an anonymous westbound vehicle pushed him up the curb and over the guardrail. Snow was not yet accumulating and no ice had formed so he was able to walk up the ramp easily, but he didn’t want to call attention to himself and alert the cops so he stayed on the top of the ramp and waited. Standing with his back to the wind and his grey felt hat pulled low on his forehead his pulse

began to slow and the cold asphalt began to leach the warmth from his body from the souls of his boots. These were also custom made from the forms in Mexico, but everyday calf, more cozy than houseslippers, one of a half dozen pair that Clayton polished and buffed each week. But they were not meant to catch the eye. The jewels in the suitcase were special and the ache Clayton felt at loosing them sparked a new warmth in his belly. Now both the boots and his gun were possibly gone forever and he was freezing his ass off on the side of the freeway. The landscape west of Albuquerque could be called beautiful by some, in a painting or photographed at dawn or dusk. Looking out the Volkswagen’s snow smeared windshield one couldn’t tell if it were noon or twilight. There was nothing but grey blue and no edges to anything. The van had a CB and an 8 track player. Leo was partial to the Doobie Brothers which did not improve Clayton’s mood. “Do you mind if I browse your tape library?” Clayton asked, trying to sound curious not judgmental. “There’s a shoe box under your seat. Got Waylon, Willie, Creedence, Cash and I think my brother’s Stones tapes in there too. You can be DJ.” “Great.” Clayton reached under his seat and pulled the box onto his lap. “You wear Hush Puppies?” Clayton smirked.

“Ha! Right! Naw, I grabbed that box outta my old man’s garage.” Leo continued to giggle. “Ah! Here’s something. This is great.” Clayton ejected the Doobie Brothers tape and inserted a Van Morrison tape. “Much better.” “Okay, Mr. Morrison it is. Next gas stop should be in about an hour. I suppose we should get a hot meal about then.” Clayton had covered this route countless times and knew every exit and what it offered. He was a regular at a few spots and mentally settled on a Mexican café in Gallup called La Cucaracha. He longed for their homemade tamales and a cold Dos Equis. “We can stop in Gallup and like I said, it’s on me, I do so appreciate you keeping my ass from freezing out there.” Clayton looked out to the moonscape of the frozen desert and considered for a moment what Ben was having for lunch. If he was in a holding cell, if he’d been given a phone call, and who he would possibly think to call. “Aw now I’m getting hungry. Change the subject – quick! I can’t drive an hour with my stomach churning.” Clayton tried to think of a subject he wanting to talk

about with the kid as his senses became dulled by Van Morrison, the putting Volkswagen engine, the slow hiss of tires on snow and the occasional lazy swipe of the windshield wipers against the teasing snow. “You don’t need to feel shy about telling me that it’s none of my business, but I am curious what put you in the mind to hitchhike in this weather.” There was a long pause as Clayton began to limber his mind to meet this challenge. Clayton had never told a completely true personal narrative in his life. He wouldn’t know how. “I had what you might call a breach of confidence. Someone I thought was trustworthy, ya know, in my corner? Turned out he wasn’t the man I thought he was. He set me up but before he could lower the net, I saw him for what he was. Unfortunately it left me with no option but to get out of Dodge. I was unable to make proper travel arrangements.” Clayton enjoyed how that sounded. He was impressed with his talent for crafting his story with just a peppering of the facts to keep the structure sound. Leo nodded and smiled at the evasive answer. “Fine, have it your way. Don’t tell me. But I”ll bet there’s a woman.” Clayton laughed out loud, “Well, hell. There’s always a woman.” And he smiled at Leo for the first

time, a seductive ‘you’re alright’ smile of male bonding. Leo liked having a companion on his long drives but was not unaware of the dangers of picking up hitchhikers. He felt lucky that he had never run into a problem doing it. Everyone had stories and in the end everyone was the same. People all have the same needs and desires, when you get down to it. Plus he had nothing worth stealing, and a rider was always willing to help with gas or buy coffee. Leo was beginning to warm up to Clayton and was very eager to hear his story. The men listened to Van Morrison and Clayton talked easily about women who had been too demanding or too bossy. Each had a woman who had left them scarred and several they had accidentally forgotten to call the next day or any day. Leo felt that their stories and laughter had dissolved any trace of unfamiliarity and at one point Leo asked Clayton a question whose answer made Leo wish he hadn’t of asked. “What’s the worse thing you have ever done to a lady friend? I’ll confess mine: I slept with my lady’s younger sister. Stupid. She was trouble, the younger one. So that was the end of that. What about you? Every completely misstep?” “I’d be lying if I said no.” Clayton smiled a sad smile. “I think I need the comfort of a full stomach before I get into the details on my worse misdeed when it comes to women.”

“We got about 30 miles before Gallup. So, do you have kids? That’s one thing I look forward to but later, like maybe ten years or so.” “Yeah. That’s part of my story though, I don’t want to ruin the punch line.” Billboards began appearing in the darkening grey haze, mostly torn and partial advertisements for food and shelter with the remnants of the former business underneath. Leo eased the van off the highway into the first filling station on the access road. Under the fluorescent lights of the gas pumps Clayton looked older, his face more angular and lined. “I got this,” he said and walked quickly up to the window to pay. The attendant turned on the pump and Leo filled the tank while Clayton took the restroom key and leaned into the wind as he made his way toward the side of the building. Inside the men’s room he locked the door and then took off his felt hat. He washed his face and hands with the icy tap and dried them and then took his hat and peeled back the satin lining near the brim. He removed four fifty dollar bills and replaced the lining. He combed the water through his thinning hair and put the hat back on and put three bills into his wallet and one in his front pocket. His thumbnail caught on a thread from his pocket and took out his knife and clipped the nail, then rubbed the nail smooth. He took the key back to the attendant and then paid for the gas. Back in the van the men drove slowly down the access road until Clayton pointed to a side street and

told Leo to turn. Two blocks down was the Mexican café, La Cucaracha, above the door was a red neon sign outlining a dancing cockroach in a sombrero. Inside the men claimed a booth and an older Mexican woman brought them sticky plastic menus and water in red plastic cups. Her name was etched in a red plastic badge: JOSIE. The table was covered in bright oilcloth still damp from being wiped down. Both men ordered coffee and quietly studied their menus. The clack of billiard balls could be heard from the bar in the back. “I recommend the tamales. They’re small so you should get the half dozen. I prefer the green chile but the pork’s their best seller.” Clayton raised his hand at Josie and mouthed “Tecate” and she nodded and turned back towards the kitchen. Josie recognized Clayton but didn’t know his name. He came through regularly, ordered the same each time, always tipped well, always the wolf mask smile. A dangerous hungry smile. Always alone. “I’m hungry and if you’re paying I might as well splurge. How’s the chimichanga?” Leo had a twinkley smile that Clayton hadn’t noticed when they were sitting side by side in the van. “Well, what isn’t good that’s deep fried? I prefer the enchilada plate if I’m going’ for a full meal. Oh great.” Clayton smiled flirtatiously at Josie as she put the can of Tecate down and a small dish of lime wedges.

“You ready to order?” she smiled back, a neutral waitress smile. The men ordered tamales to split, the chimichanga and the enchilada dinners and Josie took their menus and headed back to the kitchen. Josie clipped the order slip to the wheel then ducked behind the soda dispenser to spy on the men She was worried for this young man with the wolf. Leo was ready for Clayton to resume his story. “So you have a child and you wronged a woman? Now for the details. What’s your story?” Clayton hung his hat on the hook provided behind the booth. What hair he still had was pressed in a tight ring where the hat had been. He smoothed it back with his manicured hands and reached for a lime wedge. He rubbed the lime wedge on the rim of the Tecate can and squeezed the rest into the can. He then reached for the salt checker. “well, it starts out simple enough. Then it gets complicated. That’s where I am now, the complicated part.”

Clayton took two long swallows of the beer, savoring the lime and salt. “I married under duress. I was enjoying life as a drunk frat boy and wham” Clayton slapped his palm on the table, “suddenly I’m at the altar with a shotgun at my back.” He licked the salt from his mustache, holding Leo’s gaze. Josie came by and dropped off a plastic basket of warm tortilla chips and a fake lava bowl of salsa. “do

you have a chipotle or a tomatillo salsa? Something muy caliente?” asked Clayton with his Tecate smile. “si,” she said and returned again to the kitchen. “I guess you were out of the frat?” asked Leo. “Technically, sure. I still went to a lot of the festivities and helped with pledges. I was pretty involved. But yeah, I was not officially a member and had to move out of the house.” Clayton scowled at the memory and took several more gulps of beer. Josie made another trip to the men’s table with the salsas and put them next to the chips. One was dark brown and the other light green. She smiled and pointed to each, “Chipotle. Tomatillo. You want another Tecate?” Josie knew what his answer would be. “Por Favor.” Clayton smiled. “So off to manhood, fatherhood and the daily grind of life in an office, suit and tie, ‘yes, sir’ to the boss. I was happy to do business trips and client lunches and the trips became longer and more frequent. Fast forward eight years and I have a regular schedule with my out of town clients, hotels and restaurants in those towns. In each town I have a routine with bartenders, desk clerks and waitresses. They remember my name, treat me with respect and I remember them at Christmas.” Almost none of this was true. Clayton stayed on the road as much as possible, but kept to himself when

not showing new designs to a purchase manager. He had spiral notebook with crib notes on each client, with the name of the secretary and her description, family members names and kids ages, schools, any relevant information including physical description. Leo was listening and testing each salsa. The chipotle was too smokey but he liked the citrus flavor of the tomatillo. He was sweating and nodding, “not friends or family but important.” “Exactly. Except in one town, at one bar. A lounge singer became more than a ‘friend’. She was happy with the arrangement we had because she was studying to be a nurse and she didn’t have time to be anybody’s full time girl friend. She didn’t make demands of me and was fun. I never gave her any personal information about my home life and she never asked. Everything was perfect.” Josie arrived with a huge tray balanced on one shoulder and a tray stand in her free hand. She set up the tray and began arranging the platters of food. “Hot plate.” She warned as she set the oval plate of red sauce and cheese in front of Clayton. She repeated the warning to Leo and set the tamales in the center between them. She replaced the empty Tecate with a new full can and asked, “anything else?” and then, “ Enjoy.” and turned and headed for her hiding place behind the soda dispenser before either could answer. The men tested the heat on their platters and started unwrapping the tamales. Steam rose from their

table and the men were quiet while they navigated their food. Leo nudged Clayton back to his story, “perfect except you were married and had a child at home.” “Wrong!” challenged Clayton, “Perfect until I come into the bar one night and she wasn’t there. ‘She’s taking a break,’ the bartender said. I figure she’s in finals or started an internship at the hospital. She’s mentioned that being a concern, not getting paid for a while so she can intern. I have a hell of a time getting her number from the bartender. When I call, she’s living with her mother. She had moved out of her apartment so I’m thinkin’ that’s gonna put a cramp in our relationship. I always went to her place. I just felt more comfortable having my motel room be just for me, ya know?” Clayton started in on his enchiladas. He thought longingly of his motor home parked in the desert. He only started staying in motels again when he and Ben had started their business venture. His motor home was sanctuary for him and he never let anyone else sleep there. Clayton paused in eating to wash down a mouthful of enchilada with the last of his beer, which Josie replaced without his asking. Leo nodded. He was enjoying Clayton’s story, and feeling thankful that his own life was more simple, and a little sad for Clayton’s wife and child even though he didn’t know them. “she says we should get dinner out, doesn’t want me

to come pick her up. Says she’ll meet me at this restaurant I don’t know. I should have known that was a bad sign. So we meet at the restaurant some Italian place near the mall – and she doesn’t even let me get a drink first before she hits me. ‘I’m pregnant’. I don’t need to tell you this is not good news for either of us.” Clayton is finishing his enchilada platter, using pieces of tamale to soak up the extra sauce and slurps the fresh beer. He signals Josie with a spent lime, a request for another. The waitress hurries over with a new dish of limes and clears his empty plate. Leo shakes his head at her when she offers to take his. He is slowly finishing his meal and eager to learn the rest of Clayton’s story. “that is a drag,’ Leo says. “bummer” “yeah, tell me. I’m thinking, OK, she could be lying, or maybe she wants money. Or maybe she’s gonna threaten to tell my wife and want a lot of money. I haven’t even told her I’m married – I don’t wear a ring – so maybe she found out and got pregnant on purpose. Man, my head is spinning and I’m not making any sense to myself. I should tell her I’m going to the men’s room and take off. She couldn’t track me down. I’d switch territories with another rep and never come back to this town again. I’m looking for an escape hatch. Then she says, “I’m not getting rid of it. I’m keeping it. My momma will help me with the baby until I’m finished with school. I just thought it was right to tell you. You can be involved or not, but don’t say you want to and then

go and flake out later. You need to decide now.” Clayton is leaning in studying Leo’s reaction. Where he takes the story next depends on the audience. A real man will see how clearly in the right Clayton is. Leo pushes his platter to the side and turns to look for Josie. He catches her eye and mouths ‘coffee’ and she nods. “that is quite a situation you have there.” A safe neutral response. Clayton can see he has to bring Leo more forcefully to his position. Explain a man’s perspective by example. Josie is quick with the coffee and clears the rest of the dishes off the table. She leaves the hand written check face down on a black plastic tray with two peppermints. “take your time.” Clayton is smiling in his wolfish way, “oh you have no idea. So she’s having my kid, , and I’m welcome to take on the responsibility of being ‘Daddy’, but she cuts me out of her life and I get to live in fear of my wife and family learning of this bastard child. She’s always got this to hang over me. It’s a potential nightmare scenario, right? So I figure, she can’t hurt me with this if I beat her to the punch. So, I had a frat buddy of mine open a new checking account in his name for me to put some money away, I rent an apartment in Flagstaff and set up house. Then I go home and come clean with the wife, who understandably wants me out. I let her file for divorce and that, my friend is the worst thing I ever

did.” “You win.” Leo laughs nervously, and Clayton joins him laughing loud and with relief. Clayton palms the check and glances at it then pulls a fifty from his pocket and walks up to the cashier. He tips Josie generously as she expects, and returns to the booth for his hat and coat. “gonna use the john before we hit the road.” And he walks to the hallway. Leo is lost in thought. He doesn’t know Clayton at all and he is not sure he respects a man who is so cavalier with his children, even if they both came into his life serendipitously. He remembers his thermos and asks Josie to fill it with coffee and hands her a five. She waves the cash away and takes the thermos with a smile, this time genuine. In the men’s room, Clayton washes his hands with the bar of rough lava soap provided and then splashes water on his face. He hadn’t meant to go into so much personal detail in his story and hopes Leo isn’t appalled. Most men who travel have affairs, and the women know what they’re getting in to. He dries his face and hands and puts on his hat and parka. ‘fuck it.’ He thinks, ‘No charge for the education, son.’ The men meet up at the cashier as the full thermos is returned to Leo. Clayton takes a toothpick from the dispenser and puts it in his mouth. Both men stand in the alcove zipping their parkas and raising their

collars before they brave the blowing snow and jog quickly to the van. “next stop Winslow!” Leo announced as he started the van. He forced Clayton’s sordid tale out of his thoughts. He set the coffee filled thermos on the floor and nosed out of the deserted gravel parking lot. He began to sing: “Standin’ on a corner in Winslow Arizona, hey, find the Eagles tape. Let’s listen to that one.” “Eagles. Okay.” Clayton ejected the tape and then fumbled in the Hush Puppies shoe box then inserted the Eagles and hit rewind. The whiny screech filled the van. It was dark, early evening and the headlights showed there was nothing on the road. Leo didn’t seem upset with him. He was feeling relieved, full and the beers helped his thoughts settle on that morning’s fiasco. The salsa in his gut began to smolder as he relived his anger at Ben. Ben was surely incarcerated at this moment back in Albuquerque. They had worked this simple deal many times with no hitches. It was a no brainer - he had the supplier – Ben had the clients and it was fast. Easy money. Everybody wins. Clayton had met Ben through his kid. They had kids the same age and they were in a summer tumbling class together at ASU. Waiting for the class to be over, they struck up a conversation based on the tshirt the partner was wearing. It was a Grateful Dead skull in a New Mexico zia. Clayton wasn’t a deadhead but he liked the design, thought it clever.

Ben had worked as a local stage crew on that tour and made money on the side selling weed to the crew. He had volunteered this information, without lowering his voice as if he’d been a sno-cone vendor. Clayton bought from a guy who was always trying to recruit him into selling, because he said he looked so ‘straight’ no body would suspect. By the end of the summer Clayton and Ben had organized a business plan to make drops at rock shows in Albuquerque through Ben’s roadie crew contacts. He had never had any need to carry a gun, but for some reason he felt any self respecting dealer would have one. He bought the pearl handled pistol in a pawnshop on Guadalupe street before their first deal. Ben had laughed hysterically when he saw it. “what was that line, man, from Patton? ‘Only a pimp in a cheap whorehouse in New Orleans would carry a pearl handled pistol’ or was it the piano player? Man you are not going to need that. Just be cool. Crazy bastard.” Ben shook his head in disbelief. He’d been right. He’d never needed it and it was a liability. Now he’d forgotten to put it back in his boot bag and Ben had unknowingly taken it through security in their carryon. Shit.

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