So there she was, just standing there by the asphalt, wearing these cut-off jeans and a blouse tied across her belly and sandals, and her purse looking like a backpack leaning against her leg. Well, I see her from a good half-mile off, and I watch her get easy on the eye as I come closer. I thrown the pickup out of gear when I first seen her, and one look at those long legs and that naked tummy, I start tapping my brakes.
It was around seven p.m. Pacific Standard Time and she's got that thumb up like "Come 'n' get me." I don't care what she says. It don't get dark outside of Tonopah at seven p.m. even in winter. And it was light enough for me to get a good look at her, wasn't it? Else, why'd I stop? I don't pick up every hitcher on the road, even in Nevada. If they're dumb enough to be out walking in the desert, let somebody else rescue them.
So I pull over for this one. I overshot her, maybe a hundred feet, and she come running the moment I hit the shoulder and roll to a stop. I guess she figured nobody would play road tag with a looker like her.
Road tag is where you pull over, looking like you're going to stop, but you overshoot by a lot. Then you don't come to a full stop too quick, like you had to think about it but now you made up your mind. When they start running toward you, you let her roll a little more than you need to, but not so much that they catch on. A real hopeful one, you can run him a couple hundred yards before he gives up and you pull out.
So I lean over and pop the door on her side, and she gets in, making a big, sweet smile like she knows me and thanking me in advance for the ride. She hauls that big purse in and stows it under the seat behind her legs.
She says, "I'm headed for Las Vegas."
I say, "Road don't go anywhere else," and she smiles again, like I promised to take her all the way.
I drive. She says, "My name's Terry."
So it's not her name. How'm I supposed to know that? You want t' know why she give me a wrong name, I guess you better ask her.
She says, "I been hitching and walking all day."
I say, "That's pretty dangerous."
She says, "I got to get to Las Vegas by tomorrow morning for an audition."
I drive. She asks if she can turn on the radio, and I shrug. She turns on some rock 'n' roll shitexcuse my language, but it sure sounds like shit would sound if shit made noise. Then she says, "Is that OK?" and I say "Sure."
She turns it down some. I drive.
She says, "It sure is hot in Nevada. Even in wintertime."
I say, "Well, you're dressed for it," and I glance at her legs. Those cutoffs were any shorter, I'd've seen hair. Her legs are kind of bulging along the edge of the shorts. Not fat, I mean, just soft, like a woman's legs ought to be.
She looks out her window. It's getting grey out, dark. It's a good four hours to Las Vegas. That's if I don't stop.
She says, "I got an audition in the floor show at the Riviera."
I say, "As one of those dancers?" and she says "Yeah."
I say, "It beats working."
She says, "Dancing's hard work. It's still work, even if you like what you're doing."
I glance in my rearview mirror. Cars coming, I should see their lights now. There's nobody coming, not in front, not behind.
She says, "I really appreciate you stopping for me. A lot of people are afraid of picking up hitchhikers."
I say, "If you had a gun, where would you hide it?" and she says, "In my purse," like she didn't get it.
I always have a thermos of coffee with me, and some Snickers in the glove box, except they get pretty soft. I ask her if she wants coffee and a candy bar.
She says, "Thanks. I haven't eaten since breakfast."
I reach across to pop the glove box so she can see the candy bars, and she helps herself. I pull my thermos from under my seat, and she looks around, like this is a restaurant and where's her coffee cup.
"You have to use mine," I say. She takes the lid and swills some coffee in it to kill my germs and rolls down her window and throws it out. Then she gets her some coffee. And she eats two of my Snickers. I watch her eat in the mirror, but I don't say nothing.
She says, "I have a little money. I can buy a couple of gallons of gas in Las Vegas. I really appreciate your giving me a ride."
Gas to Las Vegas run me fifteen, twenty bucks, more if I'm hauling firewood. Depending on what I got in back. Hauling firewood, one time, I got to stop twice for gas.
The radio announcer starts talking about flooding in Las Vegas. They got this year's rain last night, and the highrollers ruined their Italian shoes getting in and out of the casinos this morning. Tough deal. He talks about the rain. He tells me how I ought to cash my paycheck at the Fremont Palace and get one free pull at the monster slot, and then the music starts again.
She starts singing the song. It's one where you can understand the words.
"You ever been to Vegas?" I ask her. She says "No."
"Where you from?" I ask her.
"Denver. But I've been at the U," she says. Then she says, "The University of Utah." Maybe I'm too dumb to guess which U.
"The one in Salt Lake," I say, like maybe there's more than one. She didn't get it.
She says, "I was a dance major."
"I figured it wasn't Home Ec," I say, but she doesn't get it. I look at her. "You got all your things in that purse?" It's a real big purse.
"No, I have friends in Las Vegas; my girlfriend is going to drive me back up to Salt Lake this weekend."
I wonder if she means "girlfriend." What a waste, I think.
"I suppose a girl like you can make pretty good money in Las Vegas," I say. "A dancer, I mean."
She says, "Nobody gets rich in Las Vegas."
I say, "It depends on how good a dancer you are. I'll bet you're real good."
She says "Thank you." I look at her again, and all I can see is those long legs and that little bit of blue and that skin below the blouse.
"I bet you can dance up a storm," I say, making a joke. She smiles.
"I specialize in Modern," she says. She doesn't say Modern what.
"I saw you standing there, the sun going down behind you, and I thought, That's a woman can dance."
"What made you think that?"
"The shape of your legs. The way you walked when you run up to the truck. No fat on you. Except in the right places."
She looks out the window. I look at her, I can see her reflection almost as good as her now. She's got that brown hair, women call it blonde but it ain't yellow, it's more like honey-color. And it's all styledcurly and shiny, and bouncing like a commercial when she moves her head too fast.
"Your boyfriend know you're hitching across the most dangerous state in America?" I say.
She don't say nothing for a long time, just look at me. Then she says, "I don't have a boyfriend."
"Your girlfriend, then," I say.
"Marcia? Yeah, she said to be careful. I should've waited for a ride, but the audition is tomorrow and nobody was coming down till the weekend."
"How come a beautiful girl like you's got no boyfriend?" I ask. "You don't like boys?"
"Boys." She says it like it means pigs, real disgusted. So she's got me really wondering.
"How about men, then?"
"My last boyfriend was five years older'n me," she says. "Boys don't change; they just get older." She puts a foot on the dash. She doesn't ask is it all right? I guess she figures this old beat-up truck, no need to ask. That's when I see the sandals. I can smell her.
The Tonopah-Vegas road is laid out like a razor cut. Daytime, you might not see a car, depending on what color; at night, you see those headlights ten miles away. There wasn't nobody on that road.
"How far is it to Las Vegas?" she says. I tell her one-hundred-sixty miles. That's just a guess, but I don't say so, like I know every mile of this road and where I am every minute.
"I love the desert," she says.
"It's real quiet," I say. "Private."
"Private," she says. "Yeah, like it has secrets." That's not what I meant, but never mind. "The moon is wonderful!" she says, looking up at it. It's full, almost. It has that face on it, like a woman shouting real loud and angry.
"You can see it better if I stop," I say.
She doesn't say nothing, like she doesn't care what I do. So I stop. I say, "Get out; take a look."
She says, "That's OK," meaning she doesn't want to.
"Get on out," I say. "I got some private business to tend."
She looks real nervous, like her lovely desert isn't so lovely if you get left standing beside the road under the big white moon. I open my door, and I pull my keys and step out.
When she gets what I'm going to do, she gets out and turns away to not watch, just listen. I don't turn my back, but you can't see nothing with a truck between us, and besides she already turned away, right? I hear a coyote.
"Is that a coyote?" she says; and I say "Sure."
She says, "Are they dangerous?" and I say, "I guess if they're hungry and you're alone." She looks scared. They don't have coyotes in Denver, I guess. I almost say that, but I figure she wouldn't get it.
She says, "I want to get back in the truck." The overhead comes on for a second when she opens her door. I zip up while she's shutting her door. I get in, put in the key, and kick her over.
"It'd be a bad place to get stranded," I say, not meaning anything. I'm not in any hurry, so I just kind of roll forward on the idle, looking around. It's like a black-and-white movie outside: real bright but no color.
She says, "I'm cold," and she unties her blouse. For a second I think that's all's holding it together, but she had two buttons buttoned too, and it stays together. She buttons the rest; it reaches clear into her lap.
She says, "Is something wrong with the truck?" I guess because I'm not barreling along at fifty-five miles an hour. I'm just rolling along real gentle like. Someone could run alongside.
I say, "I'm just thinking what a wild land we got, here in Nevada." I like that. I say, "wild land" again.
She says, "What do you mean?"
"I mean, you take a rich city kid, put him out here with his credit cards and no car, and he'd be shagging rides in ten minutes, and not caring what they cost."
She says, real smart, "It's the same in the city. Put a Utah farm kid in the wrong suburb of Los Angeles, and he'll be just as lost."
"That's different," I say.
I can see her eyes in the dark. She looks scared of something. Like the coyotes could get her right here in my truck. I speed up a little. There's still no lights in front; but somebody's coming from behind. He's coming up fast, and I keep to the side, but I speed up to about forty-five so he won't think I need help or something. I can see the lights of Rhyolite off ahead. He passes me; it's one of those poor-man sports cars, a Camaro. I ease off the gas after he's gone by. Give him a charge, like he's going faster than he really is.
"How come you're going from Salt Lake to Las Vegas by Tonopah?" I say.
"I had an audition in Reno. It didn't pan out."
"Las Vegas is a lot faster," I say. "I been there a lot," I tell her. "I dunno about Reno, but Las Vegas, they're going to make you take your clothes off. You have to take your clothes off in Reno?"
"It's no big deal," she says, and she looks out the window or maybe at her reflection. I can't tell. She says, "It's just bodies."
"Some places in Las Vegas you have to do more than undress," I say.
She just keeps looking out the window like that don't bother her either.
"Lots more," I say, and she still don't say nothing. So I drive.
She is looking ahead, to Rhyolite. Beatty, actually, just before Rhyolite, but I like the name Rhyolite better, so I tell her "Rhyolite" when she says, "What's that up ahead?"
I push her back up to fifty-five and we pass through Beatty at fifty-five. After Beatty is behind us, I start singing "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" kind of soft, like I don't know I'm doing it.
"You think of it," I say, "This is a pretty big favor I'm doing you. You know, you'd be standing back there, twenty-some miles out of Tonopah, in the dark."
"Somebody would've stopped," she says.
"Somebody did," I say. But she doesn't get it.
I drive. It's some twenty miles to Amargosa Valley, and thirty more to Indian Springs. I tell her. Then I say, "Only seen one car." Like, maybe you could be riding in that poor-man's sports car with some college boy on his way to get his butt kicked in Las Vegas. We're climbing a hill.
She says, "I don't have any money. Just a little. To help with the gas."
I say, "I sure don't want your money. I'm just doing a kindness. A favor."
"Are you married?" she says, like why would she care.
"Not me," I say. "And you neither." We're at the top of the hill, and I coast over the top and pull into the gravel. I like the view here a lot.
I get out of the truck, taking my keys, and walk out a ways. Then I come back, and she's sitting on her side with her window open. I'm thinking, leaving her alone in the truck is not smart. It's pretty level, but if she popped it out of gear, it might roll. I come around to her side.
She smiles, not like she meant it.
I say, "It's real pretty, but I always wonder what's out there in the dark."
"Don't," she says, but she don't say what.
I go to my side. I get in the truck. She is just sitting there.
"I had my share of girls," I say, which is true. She don't say nothing. "I think there's two kind of girls. You know what they are?"
"No," she says. And this time it's like she does mean it.
"I been to the Chicken Ranch once. You know the whorehouses are on this road. They don't allow whorehouses inside Las Vegas. Like fun." I made that up about the Chicken Ranch, just a joke.
She don't say nothing. She looks cold.
"Rhyolite is back there fifteen miles," I say. It might've been less. "This here's one of the prettiest places in Nevada," I say, looking at her. But she doesn't get it. She thinks I mean this hill, and she looks surprised. I guess she figures I haven't seen much.
"What do you want?" she says, like I wanted something but was too scared to ask.
"Nothing," I say. I wonder if she thought of the gear shift. There's still no cars, not coming, not going.
"What do you want?" she says, like she didn't already say that one time already. I don't say "Nothing" again.
"I want to rest up a bit and get my strength back. It's still three hours to Las Vegas."
"I can drive," she says, like I'm that big a fool.
I say, "We'n just sit a while. You don't have to be anywheres till tomorrow."
"I'm cold," she says.
"I don't wonder," I say, like it was a compliment.
"Can't we go?"
"Hold your horses," I say. "You ever ride a horse?" She nods. "You'd get scraped raw," I say.
"Please," she says. "Can we go?"
"Pretty soon," I say. She says she's cold, but I bet my hands was a lot colder than her leg. "You know those two kind of girls?" I say.
"Yes?" she says, like I should tell her.
"My brother made it up. There's girls who spit and girls who swallow."
I never did nothing to her, if she says I did.
Can I have a cigarette now?