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The Ranger (short story)

April 2, 2015

Clark Truss walked with a stiff gate as if he were careful not to spill a full cup of hot coffee. It helped alleviate the pain in his back. He reached the Ford Ranger and fumbed the keys before he could put them in the door. Then, he squatted down, still stiff, and pinched them with two fingers. Used the side mirror to help pull himself up, and opened the heavy metal door. 

He fought a grimace as he reached over to the glove box and pulled out a small piece of scrap paper with the code written in it. Then he reached his hand out the window and punched the code in, let out something between a grunt and a sigh as the gate slid open, and he drove slowly through the opening. The car rocked over the uneven gravel and stopped down the middle line of storage units. Clark killed the motor, stepped out, and crouched down in front of the door as he turned the key. He grunted under the sound of the heavy door. It rested above his head and he took an uneasy step in through a cloud of dust. The unit was filled with tall piles of boxes, an old treadmill, and other miscilaneauos pieces of old furniture. He started with the pile furthest from him, tearing open the box and tossing its contents to the side. He did this one after another until he finally pulled out an old wooden box. He opened it, grabbed a thin wad of cash and tossed the box aside. As he turned to leave, a small picture frame caught his eye. He picked it up and studied the picture for a moment through the crack in the protective glass, then turned and slowly stepped through all the junk tossed about, climbed into the Ranger and drove off. 

It felt good to be on the open road. It was something he hadn’t experienced in years.  Everything in his wallet was outdated and according to the sticker on the windshield, the Ranger was past due for an oil change and who knew what else. But it rumbled on over the on-ramp to the interstate. He took it slow and steady, careful to stay below sixty. Several cars honked at him as they zoomed impatiently by. All he could do was smile, or at least portray his version of a smile. His mouth hardly tilted upward, but his eyes glimmered and his lips pursed slightly more together.  

Hours later, grey clouds oozed over the sky and the air was thick with the anticipation of moisture. Clark turned the radio on, flipped through some stations. He rested briefly on the first full signal playing classic rock, then continued surfing the dial before the song had a chance to end. He did this with every station until eventually, he turned the radio off and drove in silence. He turned on his wipers and focused on the sound of their gliding across the glass – the rain drops tapping the metal of the car around him – the tires swishing along the wet road. It was all music to his ears.

The air felt much cooler and thinner in Wyoming. He pulled into the first gas station in Laramie and stepped outside to fill the tank. A soft flurry of snowflakes whipped around him. Clark watched the traffic intermitently zoom by. He looked toward the convenience store. A small girl walked out holding a large styrofoam cup in her mittons. She was sipping through a straw nearly big enough to reach the ground. She sat down on the curb outside the door and started happily kicking her feet in front of her as if kicking a balloon into the air repeatedly. Her joy was interrupted when she dropped the cup and red slush splattered over the pavement. She began to cry. The gas station attendant swung the door open and began to yell. He pointed his finger as if to shew her away. 

“Get outta here!” he yelled. “If you’re gunna steal from me, at least don’ make a mess ya little brat!”

She ran off down the street, bawling. The attendant looked at Clark and shook his head, then picked up the cup and tossed it in the trash. Went around to the side of the building and came out with a hose.

Once the tank was full, Clark put the nozzle back and closed the fuel door. Climbed back in the Ranger and turned the key. It sputtered, and coughed, and refused to turn over. He waited a moment, tried again, and again the same. 

“There a tow I can call or shop nearby?” he asked the attendant who was now behind the counter inside the station. 

“Just down the street and around the corner,” the attendant said, pointing. “They should still be open.”

The man gave Clark directions and Clark thanked him with a nod and headed out the door. The shop was small with two garage doors and a parking lot not much bigger than the allyway it was next to. Clark walked around to the side of the building and stepped through the adjacent wall. Their heads snapped to look at him in unison. The man at the counter tossed a rag aside and approached Clark while the other turned back to his work, singing along with the loud country music.

“Al,” the man said and shook his hand. “What can I do ya for?”

After Clark explained to him what had happened and the condition of the vehicle Al folded his arms in thought. 

“Could be a number of things. Probably a bad belt.” Al said. “Well, let’s go take a look. You wanna ride with me, or walk?”

“Suppose I’ll ride,” Clark said.

They climbed in the cab of the flatbed tow truck parked on the street outside. 

“Where ya comin from?” Al asked.

“Hmm?” Clark grunted. “Denver.”

Al smiled. “Broncos fan?”

Clark shook his head.

“Not into sports, huh?”

Clark looked out the passenger window and pointed at the Ranger at the gas station just up ahead. 

“That one,” he said.

“Right,” said Al. “Almost not even worth towing. Could’a just push it from here. Oh well. Not worth it now. We’re here as we are, aren’t we? You got the keys?”

“They’re in the ignition.”

“Okay then. You can hang out here if you’d like. I’ve done this enough times I can handle it. Look like you could use a rest.”

Clark watched through the side mirror as Al pulled the truck into position and hopped out the cab. He walked to the side and used the joy sticks to lower the bed, moved the chains into place, and hooked the Ranger with the end. He opened the Ranger door and leaned in to put it in neutral, went back to the joy sticks and the chains slowly pulled the Ranger onto the truck.

Al seemed like an honest guy, kinda guy who probably grew up here and never left. Clark respected that. It’s a rare thing to be content enough with where you’re at to stay put for good. It was something Clark was never good at. He was always a restless soul. Drove Cindy crazy. Probably played a part in what landed him in the clink. Twenty-five years seemed like a seperate lifetime. He thought of her. He always did. He was sorry for what he’d done. That’s all he wanted to tell her. Then he’d be on his way, go off and die somewhere else, maybe just wander off into the forest like those Indians did. Didn’t expect any good from seeing her. Didn’t even want to do it for her sake as much as his own. She had moved on last he’d heard from a letter years ago. Livin’ with some guy out in Northern California. He wouldn’t have to treat her all that well to treat her better than Clark did. He was probably a saint comparatively. Good. Clark hoped so. For her sake, not his own. 

The slam of the cab door brought Clark back to the moment. He hadn’t realized they’d driven back to the garage. He stepped out as Al lowered the Ranger into the garage. Once everything seemed to be in order, Al led Clark to the office.

“You got a number I can reach you at?” Al said.

“No,” Clark said. “Don’t own a phone.”

“You just passin through? Where you headin anyway?” 

“California.”

“Nice and warm there.”

“Northern California.”

Al shifted his posture. He studied Clark for a moment.

“Anyway, I can recomment a cheap hotel, or a nice hotel nearby for ya, depending on what you’d prefer.”

“Cheap’s good,” Clark said.

“Alright,” All said and gave some simple directions.

Clark said, “Easy enough. What time should I come by tomorrow to check the damage?”

“Come by around ten or so. We should have an assessment for ya by then. And we can talk about where to go from there.”

Clark shook Al’s hand and headed out the door and followed Al’s directions. He spotted a liquer store down the street, so he took a detour. There was a line of people at the counter. He knelt at the whiskey aisle and pulled a bottle from the shelf. Carefully snuck out with a bottle of Jim Beam. 

– – –

Clark was drunk before he got to the hotel. He got distracted by the bottle. It had been twenty-five years since he had a drink and his tolerance wasn’t what it was way back. He tried his best to disguise his state as we talked to the woman at the counter.

“Single room?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am. I only got cash.”

“Well, that’s just not gunna work, sir. We can only accept Mastercard, or Visa.”

“I’ll pay double,” he said. “Up front.”

That made her think. She sized him up.

“You smell like booze.”

“I just had my first drink in quarter-century, ma’am. If you give me a room, all I’m gunna do is lock the door and pass out. You won’t even notice I’m here. Hardly have to clean the room.”

Her brows furrowed in thought. She looked over her shoulder as if her boss would magically appear behind her, if she wasn’t the boss herself. 

“Where you from?” she asked.

“Drivin’ from Denver. Grew up in New Mexico though. Small town you’ve probably never heard of.”

“Why are you here?”

“Just passin’ through. My car broke down at the gas station just inside town. It’s gettin’ looked at as we speak.”

“I need something of yours.”

“Sorry?”

“If I let you stay here, I’ll need you to give me something of yours. Sort of a ransom. I’ll give it back when you check out.”

“I’m giving you all the money,” he said.

“And I appreciate that, but this way I’ll have an easier time trusting you. You could be a murderer for all know, or a bank robber. Or just a drunk.”

He sighed. Didn’t see the point. Thought about argueing, but decided against it. He didn’t have much on him.

“Here,” he said, handing her the Jim Beam. “Now you can trust me. I’m drunk enough for the night.”

“This all you drink?” she said, her voice raised. There wasn’t a whole lot missing from the bottle. Probably three shots worth.

“I told you,” he said. “It’s been twenty-five years. And I’m not a big guy.”

“Alright. You seem mostly harmless,” she said with hesitation. “If you cause any problems though, you’re outta here. The Chief of Police is a good friend of mine. I won’t hesitate to call him.”

“Okay,” he said, and she handed him the key. “Still usin’ keys, huh?” he joked.

“You’re in Wyoming. We don’t move like the rest of the country here. At least most of us,” she added.

He limped down the hall. His leg was sore, but the whiskey helped. His room was the first door on the right. Closest to the front desk. 

“Figures,” he muttered. He opened up. It was clean, but ugly and outdated. Vinyl walls, orange and red patterned bed, and a small TV. At least it would’ve been cheap had he paid the normal price.

He sat down on the bed and looked at his watch. It was only four thirty in the afternoon. He thought about taking a nap, but knew if he did that, he’d be out for the night and then wake up too early the next morning with nothing to do but watch infomercials. He stood up and quietly left the room. Went out the hallway exit and started down the street to find a bar.

His wallet was thinning out already. He was screwed and he knew it. If the Ranger cost anymore than two hundred, he wasn’t going anywhere without winning the lottery. He was sure that was probably the case. Only thing he could do though, was either push his pennies and starve, or find a hot meal and a cold beer and squeeze what life he could outta what he had left. 

There was a small bar just down the street that didn’t look crowded. He walked in and sat in the middle of the bar. There were only a few people there sitting in one of the booths, looked like college-aged. 

“Hi stranger,” the bartender said. She was way too good looking to be working here, he thought. Her deep v-neck suggested she was not ignorant of the fact.

“Well, hello there,” he said, his voice shaky. He hadn’t talked to an attractive woman in so long, might as well have the first time. 

“What do you want?”

“Right to the point, huh?” he said.

“It’s kinda my job,” she said, with a smile.

“You got any burgers?”

“That’s about all we got here,” she said.

“Give me whatever’s best and a Coors.”

“You got it.”

He sat and watched her punch in the order in the computer screen. He caught himself staring. She was looking at him. He looked away sheepishly. He was back in the third grade. 

“Where you from?” she asked, probably out of obligation. She sensed a good tip, but he didn’t care. The attention made him feel something he hadn’t since his first life.

“I’m from anywhere you want me to be,” he said. It was clear she didn’t know how to respond. Then she cocked her head back and cackled.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” she said. “I have a boyfriend that could kick your ass.”

“Figured as much.”

“Seriously though,” she said leaning in on the bar.

“Spent my childhood in New Mexico. Bit of a nomad since though,” he lied.

“Where all you been?”

“Everywhere.”

“The world, or the states?”

“Both.”

“What’s your favorite?”

“Right here in this bar stool,” said and winked.

She was not amused. “Seriously.”

“Costa Rica,” he said. It was the first country that popped into his mind. He had no idea why. He knew nothing about Costa Rica.

“And why’s that?”

“The people.”

“What about the people?”

“You’ll just have to go there sometime and see for yourself,” he said. “They know how to live, I’ll tell ya that.” Winked again.

An old cowboy came in and sat a few stools down from Clark. She took the cowboy’s order, but kept the conversation going as she poured his whiskey.

“What do you do?” she asked.

“Journalist,” he said. He had always wanted to be a journalist, since he was a kid. Worked in the mines instead, before the clink, where he spent his time dreaming of what could’ve been. He was just the right amount of drunk to turn those dreams into a reality. At least for this conversation.

“You don’t look like a journalist. What kind?”

“Free-lance. I work with various magazines and journals. Go wherever I need to to get work.”

He could see the cowboy study him from the corner of his eye. Size him up like potential foe for a gunfight.

“I just got done with an assignment in Mexico. Cartel stuff. Almost got killed.”

She looked at him, impressed. 

“Oh my God. What happened?”

Clark began to ramble. He didn’t know if he was making any sense, but she seemed to be following, so he continued until the bar was too busy for her to listen any longer. When he finished, he stood up and his three beers and shot of whiskey slammed over his head like an anvil. He sat back down as the bar began to spin. He took a couple deep breaths and things began to steady out, but his sight was blurry. 

The cowboy looked at him and his thick mustache raised in a smile. He raised the tail of his jacket and pulled out a pistol. Pointed it at Clark. Clark jumped from his stool and yelled, “I’m unarmed!” He found himself on the floor, a crowd around him. The bartender appeared above him and helped him up. In a haze, he was led out of the bar. He lied on the icy curb and watched the ground spin around him.

He drifted in and out of conscoiusness, waking between sounds of war and gunfire. He was in a large field and saw a man on a horse charge at him and fire his rifle above his head and the sound of people dying was all around him so he ducked his head and covered his deafened ears; then the cold pavement against his cheek, the wind beating against him like ocean waves, his body immobile, his head throbbing; then her face appeared, beaten to a bloody pulp, lying face-up and motionless on the ground, and there were spots of blood around her on the hardwood floor and it was difficult to tell if she was breathing or not while everything else seemed so still and large, until the EMT’s arrived bursting through the door, and they crowded around her and doctered her wounds barking directions at one another, and then they placed her carefully on a stretcher and led her out the door, but one of them turned to him and approached Clark and covered Clark’s eyes with his right hand where Clark felt the moist drip of blood from the man’s hand and he knew it was blood by the feel, and the man muttered something in what sounded like some sort of hidden language, and he did this for what could’ve been an hour while Clark stood motionless in acceptance only breathing, and he began to feel warm and he felt okay for what he’d done as terrible as it was and difficult as it was to accept, but he felt peace and calm and he didn’t feel resltess because he was okay with where he was and what was around him and didn’t want to be anywhere else, until the EMT stole his hand back and looked at him in the eyes and said go and be alive, worry about nothing; then Clark awoke in a snap.

“You’re in sorry shape, friend,” a voice said from above him. The hands attached to the voice grabbed Clark by the arms and lifted him up to his feet. “I don’t know what that was back in there,” he said. It was the cowboy from the bar. “What drugs are you on?”

Clark shook his head, disoriented and confused. The man helped him lean against the wall behind them, so Clark could support himself. 

“Been in the clink,” Clark said quietly. The cowboy leaned in, pointing his ear at him.

“Been in the clink,” Clark repeated. “Long time since I had a drink.”

“Awh,” the cowboy said. “You need help getting to where you need to be then?”

“Uh, got a room,” was all Clark could spit out, still disoriented and confused as a newborn baby.

“Okay,” the cowboy said. “That’s a start. Can you give me any more than that?”

“It’s Brown and somethin Inn,” Clark remember. “I can’t remember the rest.”

“Brown and Gold Inn. I know it. Let me help you to my truck here,” he said and helped support Clark, leading him around the corner to the parking lot. 

The next thing Clark remembered was the pounding on the door that woke him up. His eyes took a while to adjust. As they opened, they let in a terrible headache. The door burst open and the lady from the day before came in yelling hell-fire. He couldn’t even make out what she was saying. She looked like a ghost. She grabbed his arm and forced him to stand and dress, then led him outside.

“I’ve been in the clink,” he muttered. “Everything’s different.” 

She was gone before she could hear that he said anything. He looked right, then left. The sun was blinding, the wind was frozen. He started limping down the sidewalk, covering his eyes so he could only see through the cracks in his fingers. As he walked, he began to feel peace and contentment again. He let his hands down to his side and his eyes adjusted to the sunlight, despite his aching headache. But he’d had worse. He remembered. 

A few blocks down, he noticed a coffee shop. He stopped and dug in his pockets and pulled out his wallet from one, some cash from another. There was an allyway just behind the coffee shop. He walked into the ally and stopped at the large blue dumpster and dug through his wallet. Pulled out his expired ID, his social security card, and his expired credit card. Lifted the lid and dropped them in. Then he counted his cash. 

“Three hundred and sixty-three bucks of life left,” he muttered. “Hopefully it buys me a coffee,” he looked to the side and smiled as if there were someone there the hear, then he went around and through the door of the coffee shop. It was busy with no place to sit. He stood in line. The man and woman in front of him turned and looked at him. They both curled their noses in disgust, turned back, and whispered into each other’s ears. 

“Secrets,” he said. He laughed. “You may have ’em, but no one else cares.” 

When it was his turn to order, the barista smiled. He felt its warmth like the sun breaking through a clouded sky.

“I’ve got sunshine, on a cloudy day,” he smiled and sang.

She laughed. “Can I get you something?”

“Coffee,” he said. “And something warm to munch.”

“What kind of coffee?”

“What do you mean?”

“We have light roast, dark roast and decaff, which is also a light roast.”

“Light, dark…huh?” he grunted.

“I’ll just get you a light roast,” she smiled. “And we have a few different kinds of breakfast sandwhiches and a really good spinache quiche.”

“Surprise me,” he said and handed her a ten dollar bill. “I want meat though.”

“You know, I don’t want to preach, but going meatless is better for the environment,” she suggested.

“What? No meat?”

“Absolutely.”

“What’s the environment got to do with it? I got sunshine, on a cloudy day.”

She handed him his change. He put it all in the tip jar and she thanked him. He sat down at the stool along the side counter that had opened up. A few minutes later, a barista from the back handed him his coffee and his sandwhich in a brown bag.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he said. “People are complaining.”

“Bout what?”

The barista looked at him, embarrased. “You smell,” he said.

Clark raised his arm to his nose and sniffed. Maybe he was just used to it. It didn’t smell great, but it wasn’t that strong, he thought. Regardless, he obeyed and quietly limped out the door. He sat on the wire table just outside and ate his sandwhich and drank his coffee. 

“Gunna need gloves,” he said to the crow hopping on the sidewalk.

He peered through the glass into the coffee shop. A little girl with a tiara was looking at him. He tapped his finger on the glass, smiled, and waved. The mother looked at him and scowled. She scolded the girl and the girl moved her back to Clark and played on her mother’s phone. 

When the sandwhich was gone, he left the paper back on the wire table and walked down the street to an outdoor shop. It was warm in the room. He saw a small toy guitar hanging on the wall to his left. Picked it up and plucked the strings. Smiled to himself at the noise. 

“Can I help you with anything?” the man said from the counter across the room. It startled Clark and he almost dropped the guitar. He hung it back on the wall.

“Lookin for a good pair of gloves,” he said.

The man pointed to his right at the rack with various sorts of gloves. Clark examined the shelf. Picked out a pair of wool gloves. 

“Thirty bucks,” the man said when Clark put them on the counter.

“You’re kidding. Whoooweee,” said Clark. “Man, prices have gone up in twenty-five years.”

“Oh?” the man said. “You been outta the country?”

“The clink,” said Clark. “Don’t worry though. I escaped legally.”

The man nodded and took the cash from Clark, gave him the change. 

“Long as you can pay. You from here?”

Clark, surprised in the man’s decision to keep the conversation going, turned and laughed.

“Okay,” he said whimsically. “No. I’m not from anywhere.”

“What brings you to Laramie then?”

“A piece a shit Ford Ranger,” Clark answered. “Broke down right when I got into town.”

“You’ll need those gloves then. Take care, friend,” the man said.

“Sure.”

Clark walked back to the hotel. He didn’t get his Jim Beam back. He walked in the office and no one was at the counter. He leaned his elbow on the surface and waited. Studied the old black and white pictures of town. They were from 1923. Not much had changed since then, just the number of buildings. Guess that’s about all that does change anymore, he thought. Numbers. There was a picture of an old cowboy. He leaned in closer to look at the tag underneath. “Butch Cassidy.”

“Hullo,” a voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Hi there,” he said. A younger, thick-set woman stood in front of him. 

“I believe you have something of mine. Part of my agreement from last night.”

“Agreement?” the woman said.

“Is there a bottle of Jim Beam back there?” he said.

She bent down and looked underneath the counter. “Let me check the back,” she said and came back only a moment later with the bottle he’d left. 

“Hot damn!” he jumped with glee. “You just made an old, lonely man very happy, ma’am.”

“Hold on, now,” she said. “I can’t just give this to you blindly. Let me call my supervisor.”

Clark rolled his eyes. He waited with dim expectations as the woman called on her cell phone. 

“Yeah, there’s a man here wanting the bottle of Jim Beam from the back,” the woman said into her device. She hung up and looked back at Clark.

“Here you go, sir,” she said.

“Just like that, huh?” Clark said with a grin wide as his teeth. 

The woman looked at him. He could see sympathy and worry on her face as she handed him the bottle. He took it, shook a little, and looked at the brown liquid like it was the last thing he’d ever see. Looked back at her. She still had the same look on her face.

“You wouldn’t do an old lonely man a favor, would ya?” he said. “Probably a crap-shoot. But hell, I ain’t got nothin to lose but this bottle again.”

She raised her right eyebrow, as if to say she was all ears. Nodded.

“You’re cleaning lady have a shower she hasn’t got to yet? Didn’t get a chance to clean up before I got the boot.”

The woman’s face wrinkled in thought. She was going to say no. Didn’t have to say anything. He turned around, still happy to have his Jim Beam in his hand and headed for the door. 

“Sure,” she said as he touched the door. “If you’re quick. She won’t be back till this evening. No offense, but you smell like roadkill.”

“Hot damn, you’re an angel!” he said. 

“Leave the Jim Beam with me though,” she said. “Until your stay is actually finished.”

He happily handed her the bottle and she put it underneath the counter. Grabbed a key and led him down the hall and opened a room at the end. 

“Hope you don’t mind the used soap.”

“Soap is soap,” he said. He hadn’t moved so fast in years as he ran into the bathroom and jumped out of his clothes like a young boy skinny dipping for the first time. He started the water and felt it warm his fingers. He pulled the lever and watched the water come down from the nozzle above. Slowly stepped in and let the water pour over his head. He felt so overwhelmed by the warmth, he forgot to breath for a moment. He took a deep breath and began to laugh. It felt like ages that he stood there. He could have stood in that water for hours, but in respect for the woman at the counter and against all instinct, he shut the water off and dried himself before quickly dressing again. His clothes still smelled, but he felt good as new underneath.

“How was it?” the woman said when he came out. 

“Better than a manage et toi,” he said.

She held out the bottle for him.

“Glad to hear it,” she said.

He dug into his pocket and pulled out a twenty. Set it on the counter.

“Nope. Put that back in your pocket,” she scolded.

“You better take it,” he said. “Cause I ain’t gunna.” He grabbed the bottle and headed for the door.

“You’re an angel,” he said as he opened the door. “You must know your creator well.”

“I don’t believe in God,” she said. 

“Suit yourself,” Clark shrugged. He stepped outside and looked from side to side, wondering where to go next. He rose the bottle, smiled at it, and removed the cap and took a pull. He had nothing left to hide.

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