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  • That it was a warning, not a ticket, brought me to her eyes.

    Officer Matt Donovan pulled me over seconds after I dropped into town. Engine grinding in low gear, I rounded the final hairpin turn which wound itself around a junkyard overflowing with decaying machinery, saw the SPEEDLIMIT 25 sign, saw the flashing blue and red, and pulled to a halt.

    He asked how I was doing, I answered and returned the question.

    “I’m wonderful,” he said, and it seemed he really meant it. Welcome to Austin.

    I was only eleven over and because he hadn’t booked me, I said I was going to get a bite to eat. “Well,” he said. “If you want food poisoning, go to the International Café. Otherwise, go to the Toiyabe Café”

    It was a pale yellow building just across the street. A large sign hung above it: HAMBURGERS CHICKEN [picture of vanilla soft-serve ice cream]. I didn’t want food poisoning so I (carefully) pulled back into the road and eased into a parking space.

    It was the middle of the afternoon and hot. The kind of cruel heat that rushes at your throat after hours of air conditioning. An immense woman in a pink shirt was leaning over the open hood of a green van. Her pale belly spilled over her pants like an obscene slab of vanilla. A fat man and a little boy sat in white plastic chairs behind her and watched.

    Inside, the air was dark but hot. A life-sized plastic Dracula greeted me with a sign saying “Please Seat Yourself.” His canine teeth hung over his lower lip, though he seemed to smile. Next to him was a fake plant. In the front corner, at the only table with people, a group of beefy men sat with crumpled wrappers in front of them. Two truly enormous people stood looking up at the chalkboard menu above cash register. Their daughter stood next to them, young and already extremely fat. All three wore full-brimmed nylon sun hats and hiking shorts. Their calves bulged before pinching at the ankles, like rice caught in the sink drain, soft, white, and bloated. Ready to dissolve.

    I too was looking at the chalkboard menu when she appeared.

    Tall, skinny, soft blond hair. Black shirt, tight. Grey jeans. Our eyes met. Hers were grey, haunting, beautiful. I was transfixed. She was carrying more food to the table of fat men and I watched her go, wondering.

    I walked to the bathroom, peed. A sign behind the toilet: “Our aim is to keep the bathroom clean. Your aim will help.” The sink was old and a single swollen drip hung from the faucet. The floor was linoleum, white with bluegrey floral patterns, and peeling in the back corner. I went back out and stood by the counter.

    She walked back into the kitchen and our eyes met again. They were soft, they whispered something that was lost in the stillness before she disappeared, narrow hips swaying, stirring the air.



    The light was dingy, weak, and the yellow light bulbs glowed pathetically against the blinding light from the front windows. It was too bright outside for it ever to be light in here and I knew her hair would glow in the sun.

    Behind the counter a tired woman with a dirty apron was slowly making a milkshake. There were now six of us at the counter but she was unhurried, holding a cup as soft-serve slid slowly from a humming machine. In the back of the kitchen a woman with streaky grey hair was leaning on the stainless steel counter drinking a beer. Not surreptitiously, just standing drinking. All the kitchen was stainless steel, old but sterile. There was giant tub of something on a counter. Just as the soft-serve machine began to cough and rattle, the woman clicked it off and slowly began to stir in bits of candy. We all watched her.

    She finished and handed it to the fat man. She looked at me. Can I have an Oreo milkshake please? Sure. Thankyou. She walked away from the counter and began the slow process anew. I waited. The fat people began consuming their milkshake where they stood. Above a wide griddle next to the soft-serve machine, a little wooden sign said, “Lord make my words sweet. I may have to eat them tomorrow.”

    I saw her one last time as she emerged from the kitchen. Maybe she was carrying something, I don’t know. Our eyes met, stayed connected. And those eyes held on so tight that I couldn’t even make myself smile. I ached to just take one step, and I knew I’d never speak to her, and then she was gone.

    When I replay it, she breaks her stride just a little as she goes by and our eyes linger for that much longer and I feel something that isn’t love but it isn’t so different either.

    I took the milkshake. It was $4.02. I gave the woman a twenty and she took two pennies from a translucent green plastic cup that held a few bills and a pile of coins. She gave me a ten, a five, and a one. I put the one in the cup, tore the white paper off the straw, took the milkshake outside, and sat in one of the white plastic chairs and was sad. I imagined her here all afternoon, all summer, all forever, lonely eyes wide in the darkness, hair not glowing.

    I could see the next basin, dead flat like all the rest, beyond it blue mountains, hot, and somehow wrinkled but featureless, shimmering under the empty sky. The road leading one hundred and eleven miles on to Fallon or seventy miles back to Eureka. She was nowhere, could go nowhere. I saw her next to me in the car. Our hands touched. We weren’t talking; just watching the greasewood and sagebrush flicker by. The road flanked by telephone poles, desiccated trees like waiting crucifixes strung together with thin black cord, feeble veins connecting unseen towns. Barbed wire: It’s cattle country, but we haven’t seen a cow for miles. The fences seem instead like an attempt to control the yawning space, confine and define it, reduce it to human terms. I’m driving but I feel her eyes on me, hear their quiet yearning. In them is all that I imagine they will never see.

    An old rancher from town talked to me as I sat. He gave me his card, which is still in my wallet. The milkshake was gone, and I left her behind. Officer Matt Donovan had already pulled over someone else.
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