Monday, October 8, 2012

Settling the Tab

It was a land of dust and scrubgrass, sand and rock, punished by the sun, forgotten by God, maybe it was Texas, by the time you made it down this busted up road it was hard to remember what country you were in, then Sally’s Airstream Diner appeared like a mirage out of the desert, shining like a massive silver bullet.

But it was real.

The old man pulled his Lincoln into the dirt lot and parked next to a lonely Toyota Tercel.  The car engine made angry noises and the air conditioning was just a weak, warm coughing.  The old man savored it before turning off the ignition.  He picked up the pistol and a Stetson hat off the cracked leather passenger seat and stepped into the oven of a day.

The early sun, red and molten and low on the horizon seemed close enough to walk to.  The old man was still getting used to the sight of it.  For thirty years he had only seen the sun when it had risen above the prison walls that surrounded him.  The American southwest where a man could see the horizon in every direction was overwhelming and disorienting in its vastness.

A rattling air conditioner kept the inside of the trailer under a hundred.  A tired waitress observed the old man walk slowly to the counter and sit.  He put his hat on the stool next to him.

“Howdy,” she said.

“Howdy,” he replied.

He was not from these parts.  Lucky him.  His ‘howdy’ did not ring true and his skin was too pale, like he’d been trapped in a basement for six months, maybe longer.

“Start you with a coffee?” she said.  “Menu’s on the board.”

The thought of a hot coffee made him perspire, but he nodded.

“You Sally?” he asked.

She grinned, shook her head, poured his coffee.

The old man nodded as if the last thing had fallen into place.  “When’s Salvador due in?”

“I expect him directly.”

If she was surprised by the old man’s knowledge of her boss’ real name, she didn’t show it.

The old man used his napkin to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

The rumble of an engine, tires crunching gravel outside.

“That’d be him,” she said.

“Why don’t you take a smoke break?”

“I quit twenty tears ago.”

Twenty years ago, the old man had just started to get old.  The young lions in the pen had turned on him, as was natural, and his anger had burned even brighter.  At the man who had put him there.

“Good time to take it up again,” the old man told her.

The woman waited a beat, then left through the kitchen.  The old man heard the slap of a screen door.

Salvador’s tan skin was like leather, his hair like lamb’s wool.  He sighed when he saw the old man.

“Hey, Sal.”


“You’re a hard man to find.”

Sal shrugged.

The old man pulled the revolver out of his pants and placed it on the counter.

“I’ve often wondered how this would go down,” Sal said.

“Just like this,” the old man said.


The woman stood outside, feeling the temperature rise with the sun.

“A man will come some day,” Sal had said.  “Let him do what he has to do.”

Even though she expected it, the gunshot made her jump.  And the second.  And the third.

The old man stepped outside and put his hat on.  He handed her an envelope, tipped his hat.  “For the coffee,” he said.

She waited until the old man’s car was out of sight before she went back inside.