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Chapter Eight: Bullhead City

Agustín would never get used to American coffee. It was pallid, tasteless stuff, or else horribly overcooked from sitting on the burner all day. Were it not for Eloy's espresso habit, beans ordered online and shipped from far away, Agustín would have despaired at ever again tasting an acceptable cup. The waitress at Coffee Ern's topped off his cup with more pale, metallic-tasting brown water.

"Tell me again why you're taking him in, Cora."

"Where else would he go?"

Agustín sipped at the scalding coffee. He shuddered.

Ernesto shook his head. A strand of his long, thinning black hair fell out of the leather band in back, dropped down across his face. "You're not running a homeless shelter out there. What if the guy's a lunatic? What if he's dangerous? You don't know what you're getting yourself into. You have to stop taking in these strays." He tensed, looked briefly at Agustín. "No offense, Agustín. You know what I mean."

Agustín smirked faintly. "Estrayes, estrellitas, extranjeros. Soy un gato perdido, my friend." He sipped at his coffee again, shuddered again.

"How dangerous could he be with a broken thigh?"

"Look, I just don't like it, is all. You sure this can't wait until Eloy gets back from Sedona, keep an eye on him for you?" Ernesto chuckled. "I guess Eloy speaks his language anyway."

Cora looked at Ernesto, quizzical.

"They didn't tell you? The docs said he's not talking to them. He seems lucid, but he's not saying anything. You might have another quiet one on your hands."

Cora shook her head. "This one talks."

"He talked to you, huh?"

"Well, not exactly to me. I was in the room reading when he finally came around a few days back. I heard him start to murmur, so I put my book down and watched him. He took a while to fade all the way in; looked sort of bleary at the window and at the lights in the ceiling for a few seconds, looked at me after that — I smiled at him, asked him how he felt. He looked down at himself, bandages and drains and traction gear and all, and then it was like he came back all at once, like he was suddenly really all there, and that's when he talked."

"So what'd he say?"

"'Fuck.' He looked at himself up and down, it seemed like he realized where he was, and he said 'Fuck.'"

"Well there's a pellucid assessment. Did he say anything else?"

"That was it."

"OK, well, I dunno. I guess you know what you're doing. If you don't I can't stop you anyway. Anyhow, the stakebed's out back, half a tank, don't forget what I said about making sure the slats are locked in before you do your usual desert driving. Those are stainless steel gateposts, Cora, and I can’t afford to be replacing them every time you bounce them out of the bed out in the outback."

"Strictly pavement this time, Ern."

"Yeah, well, you never colored inside the lines either." He slid the truck keys across the formica. Cora put her hand atop his, patted it. "Thanks, Ernesto."

Ernesto looked at his belly for a moment, cleared his throat. "Hey, well, you're family, you know? Or almost. I mean… you know what I mean."

"Yeah. I know."

"So you talk to Selma up in Bullhead, she knows you're coming. She's been wanting to meet you anyway. I guess Willson stopped in her place last month."

There was that name, again. Cora tensed. Nonchalance, now, she told herself. You don't care. "Yeah? How's he doing these days?"

I guess he's OK. He hasn't talked to me since he left: a Christmas card or two. What's it, eight years now? He's got no use for his cousins anymore, I guess. Anyway, Selma said he was in there with his son for a few minutes, they'd been doing some business next door or something and he saw her through the window."

"His son." The bottom fell out of her.

"Yeah, that was news to me, too. Talking almost, but still in diapers. Don't say anything to my mother if you see her. I haven't told her. She'd be hurt that he hasn't brought the kid down to meet Auntie."

"Yeah, you wanna avoid giving people upsetting news when you can. Hey, we'd better get north. Agustín, pay the man for our breakfast." Agustín pulled a handful of bills from his pocket.

Ernesto shook his head. "Now you know I'm not taking your money for toast and coffee. Put that back." He handed Agustín a thermos. "Some coffee for the road. It's a long way to Bullhead." Agustín swallowed hard, nodded. "Thank you, Ernesto."

The sun was not yet risen. The parking lot behind Coffee Ern's smelled of rotting food, irrigated alfalfa, and diesel from the trucks idling next to the tribe-owned motel. Cora strode to Ernesto's truck, Agustín a good twenty feet behind and trying to keep up. A son. He had a son. Why should that bother her? Ernesto was right: it had been eight years. Eight years, three months and what was it? Ten days. The bastard. Her hand on the driver's side latch. Her foot on the running board. The bastard. What was he supposed to wait for?

She looked up through the driver's side window. Agustín hadn't gotten in the truck yet either: he was discreetly pouring coffee from a thermos onto the soil at the base of a parking lot palm. She'd told Willson she wouldn't be coming back. She'd ignored the letters, the emails. Every six months they came, for a while, and she'd feel her stomach lining dissolve for a week, then for a few days, then for a few hours. Eventually he stopped writing. Eventually the days where she woke thinking of calling him, fighting the urge to call him, listing reasons not to call him, eventually those days became fewer. His birthday. When she sold her house. When that breakfast place they liked closed down. When someone asked her how she was.

A creak from the far side of the stakebed: Agustín yanked the door open against its rusted hinges, climbed up onto the passenger seat, closed his eyes, crossed himself, his lips moving silently. Cora got in, fumbled briefly with the keys, cranked it. The engine needed tuning. She watched the sudden pulse of dark, caustic exhaust smoke dissipate in the rearview, put it in reverse, backed crazily into the oncoming traffic on Arizona 95. Fortunately, that traffic consisted of one car. It swerved to avoid the stakebed, its horn an angry klaxon.

"Half a tank, hell! The needle's sitting on the peg! Fucking Ernesto."

Agustín opened his eyes and felt for his wallet. "I have your gas card still from yesterday." She pulled into the Circle K.

The pump nozzle wouldn't lock open; Agustín held the lever as the tank filled, 35 gallons at a trickle. He dreaded the trip. How many Immigration checkpoints were there between Parker and Bullhead? He didn't remember. At least one. The green card Cora had got for him looked official enough. At least he guessed it did. He hadn't seen a real one. And how many miles of sun-blasted desert, just to load a bed in the truck and drive back? Sitting in the right hand seat like a child? And now she had turned sharp and sullen. His hand smelled like gasolina. He shrugged. Better that than Ernesto's coffee.

Cora's eyes shone as he got back into the cab. "¿Estamos listos?" He nodded once. "Más que un coyote."

"Ah, leave him out of it. That pendejo has all the luck anyway."

North of Parker in the gathering morning, road flirted with river. Here running close enough that Agustín could smell the water even over the gasoline reek filling the cab, there veering away coyly into the hills. Mountains, Agustín corrected himself. Evil-looking mountains, worse than any he'd seen in the course of his jornada. Dark black lava in spires cloaked in impossibly steep talus slopes, tortuous arroyos carved by flash floods, miles and miles with no level spot large enough to build a house. Directly across the river in California a peak rose like an obelisk, though it was far too large to have been carved by human hands. A monument to suffering built by an uncaring creation. If the devil found these mountains in hell, he would plant bougainvillea to soften them. A few minutes and the road sloped back down toward the river, a green-grass park just coming into view, and Agustín realized he had been near holding his breath. He sighed heavily in relief at regaining civilization.

"I know," said Cora. "I feel the same way. It hurts to come around that bend and see this sprawling shit. We still have plenty of desert before Lake Havasu, though."

His hand tensed on the armrest. Cora glanced over at him. He was looking straight ahead, tendons taut in his neck, jaw working. The left corner of her mouth creaked up a notch, a hidden smirk.

"Hey Agustín?"

"Yes?"

"En Lake Havasu hay espresso."

He flinched, then chuckled softly. "Good." He pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes, shut them against further assault from the landscape.

At Parker Dam the road turned abruptly eastward. "Right across the river there is the easternmost point in California," Cora explained. "It's the only place in California where saguaros grow." Agustín said nothing. She turned: head tilted back, jaw slack, he had fended off the desert by falling asleep.

A desert river, the Bill Williams, once joined the Colorado here. The dam builders had drowned the confluence. The road swung southeast, climbing a cliff face above the submerged lower three miles of the Bill Williams. At last the slackwater ended: egrets stalked among the tules on the south bank side of the little tributary. Five seconds across the bridge and the road swung back northwestward, roller-coastering 15 miles into and out of broad washes until the terracotta roof tiles of Lake Havasu City's two-SUV garages hove into view.

The espresso place was part of a national chain. Agustín found this reassuring, if a little surprising. "We're going to Jonah's coffee?" "It's what's here," shrugged Cora. The truck engine rattled for ten or fifteen seconds after Cora pulled the key out of the ignition.

They sat outside, Agustín grateful for the misters spraying gallons of precious water each hour into the air beneath the awning. Cora moved her chair into the sun. When he relaxes, she thought, when he drops his guard just a little bit, he looks… she couldn't place it at first. Caravaggio's Christ? In denim and straw hat? Except maybe a little sadder. There was a look of release in his eyes sometimes, she thought, times like this, when he's focused on his four shots of espresso, or when she'd watched him worry out a rusted bolt on a long-unused piece of machinery, lost in thought and porous to the world around. An acceptance, but of a sort removed from the self-help book fairytale closure variety.

She heard herself speaking without intending to. "You don't have to tell me anything, Agustín. You don't."

His eyes opened wide, staring at her.

"You don't. Not if you don't want to."

"I don't... what do you mean? Tell you what?"

"Anything I don't need to know. Anything you don't want me to know."

He stared into his little paper cup. Well, there goes that release, she thought. He's tensed all the way back up.

"Listen, Agustín. All I'm saying is, the doctor told me you must have had more education than you've told me about, because of how you splinted Flash Flood Man's leg. I know there are things about yourself you haven't told me. I don't need to know if you don't want me to.

He looked up at her. "Even if I killed somebody?"

"Yeah, except you didn't, did you."

"No." He crumpled his empty cup in his left hand, aimed for the trash, missed.

They got back in the truck.

North of Lake Havasu City the road headed long and gradually toward a low pass — a wash flowing through the mountain, really — then descended on the other side just as gradually. Ten miles on Agustín saw the glint of 18-wheelers on Interstate 40. They rode in silence past the truck stop at the on-ramp, headed west toward the river again. Agustín cleared his throat.

"Cora Colfax."

"Yes?"

"Thank you."

"You are welcome."

A few more minutes down the road, Needle Mountain appeared to their left: a nest of forbidding rock spires stained red with desert varnish. When they reached the mountains, hard up against the Colorado River, Cora exited the highway. But to Agustín's intense and silent relief they headed north. He watched the needles receding in the side view mirrors. Another threat avoided, he thought, and… oh.

"Do we pass by an immigration checkpoint today?"

"You slept through it."

"They did not ask about me?"

"The Migra agent was a local boy. He knows me."

"Ah. Muy profesional, La Migra."

They rode in silence the rest of the way to Bullhead City, winding at first past the marsh that fringes the Colorado River, then following the road on a straight line past mile after mile of dispersed sprawl on the Fort Mohave Reservation. Check cashing stores, cell phone purveyors, mattress sales, truck tires clearance cheap we finance, more check cashing stores, Basha's supermarket, rent to own quality furniture. At Bullhead City Cora pulled into a parking lot, which seemed to Agustín indistinguishable from those they'd been passing for the last fifteen minutes, and they looked for a moment at a cluster of improbable shining high-rises across the river. "Laughlin," Cora explained. "Nevada. Gambling." On a rise behind the casinos, an immense pink stack belched black smoke, ash and steam from coal mined on Navajo land, piped 273 miles in a slurry of Hopi groundwater to generate power for Los Angeles' fitness treadmills.

They walked toward the low-slung buildings at the back of the parking lot. "Avikwame Convalescent Supplies," said Cora, pointing.

A young man in the warehouse greeted Cora, saying that Selma had run up to Searchlight with a delivery. She was surprised at the relief she felt. He and Agustín wrestled a hospital bed onto the truck as Cora filled out paperwork. In almost less time than it had taken her to find the place, they were done and headed back home.

Odd winds picked up as they drove back down through Topock, past the marshes north of Needle Mountain. Sudden gusts spent themselves against the stakebed, rocking it an inch or so side to side. Little whirlwinds traced cloudy trails of soil across the road. "'Dust devils,'" explained Cora. "They're updrafts that form when there's no real wind. The earth gets too hot. All that heat has to go somewhere. If the wind doesn't cool the surface of the earth, the heat suddenly bursts out and spirals up into the sky, taking the dust with it."

Agustín nodded, a short hum of agreement. Cora turned onto the Interstate, headed east. Agustín saw it a mile down the road: a vortex fully thirty feet across at the base, the dust in it so thick the truckers drove through it with their lights on. It wandered from the westbound lanes onto the wide median, raising even more dust in the process. It seemed to gain strength as they approached it. Cora's did not so much as ease up on the gas pedal. Before he could say anything, the whirlwind was in front of them, blocking both eastbound lanes of the freeway, opaque with exaltated soil. Agustín clawed at the armrest again.

"If we die," said Cora, "just know that I loved you." Agustín stared at her wide-eyed. There was a moment, and then Cora laughed loud and teasing and they were through the torment and out the other side with hardly a shudder, and she hit the wiper arm to wash the dust off the windshield. Little rills of mud and soap ran down the passenger side of the windshield, blown sideways by the speed limit wind. Agustín watched them trickle toward the edge: one after another, they were wrested from the glass and leapt out into the godforsaken desert.