Arizona Part Two
Your weekend bonus fiction continues
Well, reader, I was of course all aflutter, choosing clothes, reading up on Portal, cramming in a pedicure at the last minute. But by the time I hit the road on Thursday, cruising south on I-25, my spirits were lifting higher than the impossibly blue New Mexico sky. I amused myself listening to NPR, as far as I could, and playing an old car game Charlie loved as kid, giving names to the shapes of the clouds: elephant ears, a giant tortoise, a pair of plump female lips. The landscape was otherworldly to me, rimmed by distant violet mountains, bordered by endless tracts of sparse desert vegetation with plant life I’d never seen before. I stopped and stretched and bought burritos in Socorro, dropping into a sweet little church since I seemed to be way ahead of schedule. I still had not adjusted to New Mexico, and maybe I never would, but the whole excursion was starting to feel like a vacation, the first I’d had in years, the first by myself in decades.
Thomas was waiting for me outside the tiny general store on the main drag, sitting astride a motorcycle, wearing shorts and a yellow T-shirt, a do-rag, and ridiculous bug-eyed reflective sunglasses. I couldn’t help grinning. This boy did love his toys. He motioned me to follow and soon pulled off onto a dirt road, which unfolded for about half a mile until we came to a stone house shaded by tall pines and cottonwoods. He stopped just short of a long porch and held up his hand. I braked and rolled down the window. “Is it safe for me to get out?” I asked, hoping for levity.
“No, it is not,” he said sternly and pointed to what looked like a curving dark line in the sandy drive. “Wait there, please.” He clambered onto the porch, grabbed a shovel and returned to the driveway. In one swift and graceful motion, he brought the edge of the shovel downward, severing the line, neatly slicing off what I now recognized as the head of a snake, which raised its rattles briefly and then fell still.
“Holy smokes,” I mouthed silently, blinking rapidly.
Thomas approached the car, grinning hugely. “Okay. Now you can get out. I want you to take a closer look and be on the watch for these critters, should you decide to go for a walk. We’ve had a lot of rattlesnakes around here this summer. This is no joke.”
I got out of the car and approached cautiously, cartoony images of the severed head baring its fangs, even in death. Its skin was an intricate brocade of gray and black and tan diamonds, and I felt a nanosecond of sorrow that such a creature possessed lethal powers.
“Maybe you’d like to take it home for a souvenir? Want me to skin it and you can have a wallet made out of it?”
“You can do that?” I asked in a little-girl voice.
“Nah, my skills with a knife don’t extend that far.” He peeled off his do-rag and used it to wipe his brow. There was that gorgeous platinum hair again. It seemed unfair for a man to be blessed with such a stunning natural color. “You’ve got a bag?”
“Yes—” I started to open the hatchback and he leaped forward to collect my little wheelie suitcase.
The wide front porch led directly into a living room, also of stone, and I quickly surveyed the premises. A loveseat, covered in purple fabric, vaguely 19th century, a couple of rocking chairs, patterned rugs in subdued colors. It didn’t seem like a guy kind of place. Bookshelves, holding mostly volumes on travel and birds, and in the center a framed photo of what looked to be a smashed and bloody rabbit. I peered at it more closely. It was artfully done, in sepia tones with bursts of deep-red blood.
“Cool, huh? A friend of mine specializes in photos of roadkill. She does pretty well in the Santa Fe galleries.”
I stroked my throat, choking on a strangled laugh.
“You’d probably like a shower after all that driving, yes?” He wheeled my suitcase down a hallway and into a bedroom that held a queen-size bed with ivory-colored sheets and no blanket. I wondered if that room was to be mine, but then realized from the man’s shirts hanging on a doorknob that perhaps that was not to be the case. We had never discussed “accommodations.” Jesus. It had been years and years since I’d ventured into a single man’s domain. I never even thought to ask. He opened the door to an adjacent bathroom. “I’ll let you make yourself at home and get started on dinner. I hope you like roast chicken.”
“Oh, yes. Wait!” I knelt down to unzip my suitcase and pulled out a bottle of Hendricks gin, which he’d requested because it wasn’t available locally.
“Thanks!” He hoisted the ebony-colored bottle aloft in a mock toast. And I realized then that he’d never taken off his sunglasses. “There’s a robe for you on the back of the door.”
When he was gone, I sat on the edge of the bed. Well, okay, there were some strange omens here, a dead rattlesnake, a bloody rabbit, the bug-eyed mirrored glasses. Maybe there was a chainsaw in the closet. I concentrated on taking steady breaths, looking out the window at the foothills of the mountain range whose name I couldn’t pronounce. Ridiculous. Everything would be fine.
The shower was unexpectedly luxurious, a big walk-in glass-sided hexagonal tube with Mexican tiles and a granite floor. One of those overhead showerheads like I remembered from visits to Atlantic City as a kid, and off to the side were jets that seemed to offer the option sluicing yourself without using the main event. I tried the taps and was rewarded with pulsing sprays of warm water.
I pulled my hair into a scrunchie and entered the steamy capsule. I was deliberating between choosing a bar of amber-colored soap and squirting liquid from a dispenser built into the wall when the door opened behind me and Thomas grabbed me around the waist from behind. “Here. The bar soap is better.” Arms encircling me, he worked the stuff into a lather and went for my breasts. I was gasping, plucking at his hands uselessly, but he was far stronger, and after a time, as he worked his way down my legs, while lightly biting the back of my neck, I began to feel as subdued as a kitten snatched between the mother cat’s jaws.
How do I describe, in retrospect, what followed? How did we make it to the bed, stumbling, slipping? I don’t remember protesting much as a huge bath towel encircled us both and I ended up on my back, on the bed, pushing at his chest, but not with much conviction. And then my legs were up and around him, and we found a rough rhythm and God help me I was moaning. And then trying to push him off again, ineffectually, as he grunted, “Come on, you like this. You know you do.” And then good little Victorian scholar that I was I just decided to lie back and think of England.
At that I did giggle.
Which truly pissed him off, so that he went at it jackhammer-style as I tried to summon up the nice cloud shapes from the drive down because what else was I supposed to do? Scream? In the middle of nowhere?
“You’re loving this? Aren’t you bitch? Huh?”
I snorted, something between a laugh and a scoff.
“You laugh too much, you know that?”
I raised my fist to my mouth because I was scared of what another noise might provoke.
When it was over, when he heaved himself dramatically to the side and lay gasping on his back, I pulled the damp towel around myself and stayed as still as possible. And then a short time later, he very calmly rose to to his feet, plucked the terry robe from the hook, and announced, “You might want another shower. I’ll get started on dinner.”
Blinking at the knots in the log beams of the ceiling, I considered my options. Get dressed, wheel my suitcase out to the car, and take off in the gathering dusk. Drive three hours or so to the nearest motel. Or pull on the pretty silk robe I’d brought and see if I could find a way to salvage this situation.
I opted for the latter.
Thomas was outside on the patio, cooking the chicken in some contraption that looked like a giant bread box on top of a gas grill. He had a cocktail shaker in his large paw and rattled the ice inside. “Bet you’d like a martini, right?”
I simply nodded and demurely took a seat at the long wrought-iron table.
He deftly poured into an elegant, stemmed glass. “No olives, sorry. That’s not the kind of thing you find in our corner bodega.”
He raised his own glass, already half empty, in a toast. “Here’s mud in your eye.”
And then for the next two hours we gorged on chicken, grilled asparagus, and garlic mashed potatoes as if this were the most normal thing in the world, as if we were a middle-aged post-coital married couple, a little dreamily chowing down before bedtime. I let myself be waited on as Thomas heaped more potatoes on my plate and refilled our wine glasses with an excellent Pinot Noir. He did most of the talking, chatting about birding in the Southwest, about the many conferences he had to attend. Of how he thought he should move closer to an airport but loved it here. And with the candles flickering and the mountains gently brooding in the distance and then the stars popping out as if on cue, it was a gorgeous movie-perfect evening.
I was in a spell, and still in a spell when he announced after polishing off a decaf espresso that he was dead tired and needed to “hit the hay” before a Zoom meeting in the morning.