Choke was hauling melons from Nogales when he saw the female flagger. He groaned. Road work was down time. Had this been near a decent truck stop he could have jumped out, bought some smokes or doughnuts, but it was outside Hard, population 6, and that was being generous. There was a battered mini-mart and a single pump. Two old silver trailers rested behind them.
He braked, reaching his hand out to stop the melons on the seat from tumbling to the floor. He carried a few melons in the cab as gifts for a young lot lizard, who frequented a truck stop near Benson when he was doing the Las Cruces run. He wasn’t interested in the hooker but she had a couple of stringy-limbed kids scrabbling around the gas pumps. They reminded Choke of himself as a kid. The melons were for them.
As he drew even with the flagger, Choke lowered his window, saw her eye his shirtless chest and back up, thin lips set in a grim line. “Air’s busted,” he said. “I’ve got jeans on."
A mind reader, huh?”
“You could say that.”
“I’ve been keeping score. One out of thirty of you cowboys drives buck-naked.” She wasn’t wearing lipstick; her skin was leathery and her arms strong. She was attractive in a natural way that Choke liked. Gussied-up barflies with their duck-ass yellow hair, red lips, made him nervous.
He climbed out of the cab and stood beside her. “Long wait?”
“Not too bad—this time. It’s a big renovation project though. You’ll be seeing a lot of me.”
“Don’t know that I’ll mind that.”
“Name’s Nina.” She swung out a hand. He took it. She had a firm grip with a callused palm, cracked fingernails. She knew hard work.
“Norman, but I go by Choke.”
“So what’s the deal with the naked guys? It’s not that hot yet. Barely spring.”
Choke told her they were mostly gay. It was a system to check each other out. The one passing could get a quick view. If they liked what they saw they met up at the next stop.
“Or sometimes they know there’s a male buffalo at the next stop—“
“CB for male prostitute.”
“Think I could have gone the rest of my life not knowing that, but thanks!”
She was as tall as he was. Her big laugh didn't quite meet the uneasy shine in her brown eyes. He suspected she’d learned to laugh off disappointment and hard times.
He asked if she liked dogs.
“Better than I like most people.”
During the eleven minutes they waited, Choke told her about Tug, a pit bull he’d found starving to death. Tug never left his side for twelve years. Rode in the front seat until the final ride. Tug died outside Yuma last winter. Choke said he’d brought Tug back to Nogales where he had an acre of land and a doublewide and buried him under a Palo Verde.
Her walkie-talkie squawked. "All clear," she said. “Enjoyed the chat.”
"I’ll wave on the way back."
"Wave? Heck. Stop and visit.” She gave that big laugh again. “And, bring me a melon.”
Although the stopping point changed a few miles each time, Nina was there all during the melon season, then the squash and cucumber runs. Sometimes if Choke could see from way off that a line hadn't formed, he'd park on the shoulder until he saw Nina swing the stop sign. Then he'd pull out and be first in line. He always had a bag of produce from the storage shed for her.
“You’re getting to be like a mama. Making sure I get my fruits and veggies.”
“Sorry they’re not the cream of the crop.”
“Doesn’t matter. I like ‘em. You’re a real caretaker, aren’t you?”
“Try to be.”
“Just so you know, I can take care of myself—have for a long time.”
“If I get out of hand you’ll probably toss me over your shoulder, throw me down and stomp me good.”
She laughed. “I sure will.”
By then Nina knew how he’d gotten his nickname. As a kid coming up to bat with the bases loaded, he’d struck out. His team lost. The name, as well as a lifelong dislike of baseball, stayed with him.
He went on to tell her about Rosalie, his one love in life—a gal who’d never been north of Nogales. He had thought she loved him. They were planning to marry. He talked her into going on a squash/gourd run with him one fall. Big mistake. He took a side trip through Vegas thinking they’d stop at a chapel. But once she saw Vegas—the bright lights, the action—she didn’t want to leave. He saw the neon reflected in her eyes, knew he’d lost her. Dust and cactus couldn’t compete with that.
“She probably just needed more growing-up to do.”
He nodded, then shook his head to get rid of the image of Rosalie’s pouty lips and that smooth, round body.
Over the months he learned Nina had been married twice. Lost a baby. Lived alone. Was originally from Missouri. “My Daddy moved all three of us kids out here after Mom died. He worked a gas station and hunted for gold during his time off. Never found any, just whiskey and women.” She gave him a square-eyed look. “You’re not a drinker, are you?”
“A beer now and then.” After Rosalie ran off, he swam with Jim Beam for a bit, then yanked his life together. He skipped telling Nina that part.
“You from around here?” he asked. “You in one of those trailers back there?” He nodded toward Hard, which was now behind the stopping point a good 80 or 90 miles.
She laughed. “No. Too citified for me. Although the folks were nice about letting me use their shower. I’m a desert rat. I’m living over there now.” She pointed to an area that was thick with chollas, prickly pears and saguaros.
“You roosting in a saguaro?”
"Would if I could. There's a half-mile of paved road—somebody must have had some dream that crumbled because the road stops in a clearing. There’s some adobe lying around, bits of a chimney. I’ve got a small place there—put it up myself. You could say I live at the end of the trail." Then she added that she wasn't afraid of dying anymore because she figured she already lived in Hell. Did he know that's what this area had been named long ago?
Her walkie-talkie sputtered but nothing distinct came through. Traffic was still coming in heavy from the other direction. She turned her attention back to Choke.
Choke said Arizona had lots of Hells here and there, forgotten or renamed. His grandpa had had a cattle ranch in Fry before Fort Huachuca requisitioned it. Now Fry was called Sierra Vista.
“That’s beautification for you.”
“Fry. Hell. Like those names. To me they say welcome to Arizona.”
“My favorites are Monkey’s Eyebrow and Why,” Nina said. “I’ve been saving my pennies. I plan to get me a place in Why someday.”
“Don’t know that one.”
“Junction of 85 and 86. I don’t know why I’ve done most of the things I’ve done. Might as well live in Why. Maybe I’ll figure some things out.”
A thermos bottle came past—the driver, Humberto, a friend of Choke’s, yelled, “Es tu novia?”
“What’d he say?”
“Asked if you were my girlfriend. I said maybe.” Choke grinned at her. “Hope you don’t mind.”
A light punch on an air horn made them both jump. “Clock’s ticking,” the guy shouted from the trailer-set behind Choke’s semi. “Cut the gabbing!” Cars were behind that as well as a flatbed and some doubles, a k-whopper and a reefer.
“Crap, I’d better watch it,” Nina said. “Don’t want to lose my job.”
Choke waved an apology, leaned in to whisper to Nina. “Nekkid. Watch out!” She smelled salty and a little like Creosote. Creosote bush. Nothing better suited for the desert. Tough, strong. A familiar smell. One he liked—especially after it rained.
Humberto was on the CB as soon as Choke got going. Razzed him about the flagger. “She up for grabs?” Humberto asked.
Choke thought for a moment. “Not unless you want me to toss a match at your tanker. Not unless you want to be drinking your tamales through a straw.”
“Oooh, I’m scared, amigo.”
“Better be.” Choke laughed.
“I seen you cold cock that guy in Benson’s pickle park after he slapped la puta. Not tangling with you.”
Before he signed off, Humberto warned him that there was a bear in the air around the second bend up ahead and signed off.
Choke had figured as much. The wait, the time lost, money lost caused many of the guys to go all out once they passed the construction zone. Since it was rugged country, the law often got into their planes.
In October, outside San Diego after a pumpkin run, Choke was deadheading back to Nogales when he saw a mangy black and white dog hunkered down by the freeway. He couldn't just keep going. It took some doing. Pumping brakes, stopping. He jumped out and walked toward her, talking softly. The traffic whizzed past.
The dog knew a savior when she saw one and slunk over to him. He picked her up in his arms and once inside the cab shared his thermos of bean and rice soup. He named her Gertie after a long dead foster mother. Soon Gertie had her head in his lap, her big eyes watching him.
Wait ‘til Nina sees you, Choke thought. He’d found himself looking forward to seeing Nina more each trip. Choke rubbed Gertie’s head. Told her there was someone he wanted her to meet up ahead and to be friendly.
Nina wasn't the flagger. He was so surprised it took a minute for it to register. Instead some orange-haired kid, riddled like buckshot with acne and wearing a red bandanna backwards stood there. He told Choke when he asked, that she hadn’t shown up for three days.
Choke found the paved road. It was narrow, with missing chunks, and sat next to a wide, sandy wash. Choke let the truck idle and studied the road. He could get stuck. It would mean hours wasted. A load was waiting back at Nogales. Maybe she was just sick with some female complaint. Rosalie and her cramps came to mind. Maybe she was a drunk. Maybe, inspite of what she’d said, she was holed up with some guy. He sat undecided.
Ya going to fuck up? Wuss-out? Choke. Lose everything?
He rubbed his tired eyes, confused, undecided.
You like this woman, right? What if she broke something? Is lying there helpless?
The safest bet was to back in. It took some doing, but that way he stood less of a chance of getting stuck. He found himself wondering what the heck she drove. He’d never thought to ask.
When he got to the end of the pavement, he told Gertie to stay and got out. He threw a glance up to the sky, which was turning a bright pink and light shades of purple. Night was coming fast.
Her house was little more than a lean-to. Further back from that there was just a tall board. He imagined a hole in the ground lay behind it. Her version of outdoor plumbing. There were single tire tracks leading into a clump of thick shrubs. Question answered. She rode a motorcycle.
He couldn’t see or hear anything of the outside world. No lights, no traffic, nothing was around here except desert until it bumped into foothills with the huge purple mountains behind them. Most females would be scared to be so isolated. That he and Nina were two loners looking for empty spaces occurred to him.
About a hundred yards away from the lean-to was a fire-pit—surrounded by big stones. Someone had—Nina, he guessed—fashioned a metal bar across them. A blackened kettle hung from it. Just the effort of living here. He was seeing similarities from the stories he’d been told by his grandpa. The old West was still alive. This was hard scrabble living.
He knocked at what passed for a door—a row of sticks with two bigger pieces of lumber nailed across them. He shouted her name. Nothing. When he put his shoulder to the door, it gave easily. Nina was inside, lying on a blue couch. It was getting so dark it was hard to see her clearly. He looked around for a lamp and realized there was no electricity. He finally found a candle stuck to a plate and lit it. Jesus!
Her comforts were nothing like his. His trailer had indoor plumbing, a soft double bed, two leather recliners and a forty-five inch TV. She had a couch, a single chair and a table. Choke went over to the couch and gently touched her arm, then her shoulder, saying her name so as not to scare her.
When she opened her eyes they were hot with fever. “Sick,” she muttered.
She smelled burned-hot, pee-like. She looked half-dead. There was a knocked-over chair as if she’d used it to steady herself and fallen.
Her long hair clung to her face and neck. He found some bottled water on a shelf, opened it and lifted her head and helped her drink. She couldn’t remember when she’d last eaten. There were unopened cans of soup high on a shelf, some cans of beans, more bottled water. The bread on the counter was blue-green.
“You’re sick. You need some help.”
Between hacking coughs, she said not to worry. She’d be okay or she’d die. One way or the other didn’t matter much.
“It matters, dammit.”
“I’ve done life.”
“You been to Vegas?”
“Didn’t....” She coughed, a rough, ugly cough, gasped for breath. Choke helped her upright, patted her back and gave her sips of water. “Didn’t you lose someone there?”
“Right. Skip Vegas.”
“What do you want to do?”
She was stubborn—weak as she was—she argued. It was like seeing himself wedged in a female body.
Finally she whispered, “Disneyland. Like to see that.”
“Let me take you with me. After you’re well, we’ll go to Disneyland. No strings. Then if you want me to, I’ll bring you right back here. No strings.”
“Okay. Sounds good.” She closed her eyes, whispered. “My Yamaha—“
“I’ll stick it in the truck.”
When he came back from shoving empty pallets around and getting the Yamaha up the ramp into the back of the truck; he was sweating even though the evening was dipping down into the low 40s.
As he bent to help her up, she said. “Been saving my money. It’s buried under the rocks…fire-pit.”
“Okey-doke.” He got the big emergency flashlight from the truck as well as a shovel. Gertie let out a long, lonely howl from the cab’s window. There was money all right—in three small burlap sacks—like pirate treasures.
He carried Nina out to the truck. He couldn’t tell who stunk the most, her or him. It took some doing to get Gertie to move over so he could place Nina in the narrow bed behind the front seat. He put the sacks of her hard earned money close by where she could touch them and know they were safe.