Her voice screeched like metal against my ears, and I twisted up the volume on the radio to drown her. Reno was a barren enough drive as it was, and Jilly’s voice wasn’t going to make the desert slide by any quicker.
I gulped a jolt of the Royal Salute, and the fire burned its way up from my stomach to my brain. I passed the bottle back and the amber liquid and amber city lights almost erased my hate as quickly as it came. I threw my head back into the sky and the radio sang about drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll. It’s not the amount of years in your life m’boy, I thought to Bush, but the amount of life in your years.
I must have said it out loud because Jilly, who had been quiet for awhile, sat up and screwed on the bottle cap.
“What?” she repeated, leaning close so I could taste her breath. “What’d you say, hubby?”
Surprisingly I felt no nausea, but at this point I didn’t really care anymore. I pulled her toward me, until a jarring honk quickly jolted us apart.
I have a story for driving through the open desert, and it goes like this:
Once there was a man driving through the open desert. He was unaware of birds that flew above and monitored his progress. He drove and drove, and the horizon never moved. Until one day he suddenly glared up and saw the birds, dark croaking buzzards, flocking above him, and seeing him seeing them they spirilled down, spinning around dizzy, until the whole world spun and no one knew who was the bird and who was the man.
I swerved over to the side of the road. Cars zipped by us, blowing huffs of wind against the Chevy. I gulped another long pull from the open bottle, and then I blinked and we were in Reno. I smacked Jilly a hard shot to the head that caused her to roll her head up.
“What are we doing here?” she said. “What happened?”
I snickered. I didn’t know if she remembered me; I didn’t care. “We’re finding the music.” I said.
All my life I’ve wanted to find the exact same situation as Luke Skywalker’s famous encounter with Darth Vader in Star Wars. This, I thought, was finally it. It was perfect. I swallowed another drink and the buildings whizzed by. She curled up in my lap and began to nod off again. I realized I didn’t want her to sleep, and smacked her again. The sharp pain of her teeth digging into my thigh made me snarl.
We pulled into a dingy one-story chapel lit with cheap neon lights. Blackish-white paint hung limply off the walls, and the whole image reeked of shoddy desperation. What a dump, I thought. She’ll have to pull out … there’s no way she could handle the reality of this forlorn shack.
Birds circled outside my vision as I parked and turned off the engine. I took another hearty gulp of the Salute, and she grabbed onto my hand … the queasiness returned in full vengeance. It seemed to blossom, spreading outward until it encircled my entire body. With effort I managed to fight it off and ignore it.
I have always admired Nevada. If Nevada were a dessert … well, it would definitely be an admirable one. There exists an alien feel to its blatant sins that improvises an atmosphere of uncertainty. If gambling and prostitution are so out in the open here, why they must be okay … but these thoughts flew away as she got out of the car and stood up.
Katherine Hepburn was put to shame by her slinking, swooshing saunter toward the chapel. She probably began when she was five years old and imitating Betty Boop. The bright lights of the chapel erased her into a black outline, a movie scene on a poster. Black Sabbath cut the air from the radio, and the spinning night suddenly slowed to a halt. All the dimensions halted briefly in their tracks, looked at each other for a second, and then agreed to continue on their merry way. I fought against the encroaching darkness by focusing on the shadow in front of me. That woman, I panted, for all her heavy posturing is walking into the chapel right now … no, she’s racing inside, a swirl of prostitute ads and empty cigarette boxes floating up in her wake. Marilyn Monroe left the same wake when she pranced along the Great Wall of China.
The chapel’s mouth gaped wider and wider, grinning a fascinating toothless smirk. Inside, Beelzebub beamed and indicated me to stand next to Jilly. I took the last swig of the Salute and handed the empty bottle to the frocked Beelzebub. The lights were blinding inside, and I just wanted to be outside and let the birds pick at my ruminating corpse.
Her open hand flashing across my line of sight made me blink, and then I was contemplating the arched, unpainted ceiling and enjoying the throb of her palm against my cheek. For the first time I thought, this marriage just might work.
On the ride home I sprawled in the backseat, and the pressure of the bottle around the finger next to my pinky left a white ring around it. I pulled my finger out and watched the birds hovering ominously above. But they didn’t dare touch a married man. Not tonight. I watched the sky, and the desert flew by, and sometimes the stars flew by and the desert remained in the same place. Past Orion a dog chased its tail, and then lay down to sleep.
Note: This was written in 2005, shortly after Hunter Thompson’s death.