I wake in time to flip off the sunrise.
Vonda’s asleep next to me on the van’s floor. She’s got the whole of our mutual blanket wrapped around her, but because I’ve woken dope-sick and hungry I decide to let it go. A man has to choose his battles.
First battle of the day: find some dope.
This is how bad I’ve gotten. I know there isn’t any in the van because I’ve checked from one rust-spotted corner to the other, several times. The way only a junkie can check. And still, I crawl over to the pile of stolen crap we’ve got heaped against the back doors.
Vonda stirs as I’m rummaging. “You at it again?”
“I think I saw some Xanax back there, a couple days ago.”
I push aside a folded-up wheelchair and a box of Hummel figurines. The only pills I can find are Lipitor, heart medications, and some high-fiber laxatives. No pain-killers. And no Xanax, either, because I’d already scored that.
“I’m going out,” I tell her, and slide open the side door.
We’re parked at a rest stop a couple hundred feet up in some hills. Vonda’s idea of a “vacation.” I walk across the empty lot to a concrete picnic table overlooking the ravine below. The drop’s steep enough that if someone leapt off, he’d either snap his neck or impale himself on one of the cottonwood trees at the bottom.
I’m considering that option when the rumble of an engine breaks my thoughts.
The largest RV I’ve ever seen in my life comes chugging into the lot.
To understand my feelings at this moment, you’d have to understand the line of work Vonda and I’ve settled into. We rip off old people. Specifically, we pose as home health care workers and steal everything we can. It’s a growth industry.
Sound awful? Here’s how I rationalize it: those fuckers got the best of everything. Came up in the Forties and Fifties, before this country went into decline. Smoked, drank, guzzled gas and generally didn’t give a shit about the future, because they knew they could rely on the next generation having to wipe their collective ass.
Me, what am I going to get? There isn’t going to be any Social Security by the time I nuzzle up to the trough. The whole planet will be eco-fucked anyways. Soylent Green is looking like a best-case scenario. So if I want to take something from a senior, yeah, I take it. They’re vampires. They’ve already taken everything.
And right now, watching that huge RV rumble closer, I’m feeling like Captain Kid or Bluebeard, or some other famous pirate fuck, watching a Spanish galleon heavy with gold.
I race for the van, throw open the side-door and vault inside, hoping whoever’s driving didn’t see me. Vonda’s up, the blanket falling from her three-thousand dollar tits. Which aren’t that great, you see them out in the open.
“What’s going on?” she says.
I peel some foil from a window. “Look.”
She peers out. Speechless, for once.
Back in high school I had to read this book--George and Lennie, I think. It’s about two guys living on the road. One’s big and dumb and the other smart, and the smart guy strings the dumb one along. That’s the relationship Vonda and I have. She’s not big, but she’s pretty goddamn dim. I keep her going with these fantasies I come up with. Fantasy Number One is that we somehow get our hands on a luxury RV and cruise the whole U.S. before the country runs out of gas.
In the book, Lennie fantasizes about living on a farm with rabbits. I just can’t get behind that.
“Where’s your tube top?” I ask.
She goes digging through a pile of clothes. I find my yellow golf shirt – it’s got a salsa stain on the front, but what the hell – and slip into that, plus khaki shorts and a respectable pair of shoes. I remove the studs from my lips and tongue.
A glance shows the RV pulling in three spaces down. I can see the driver through the front window’s tinting. An old dude, wearing a striped shirt and oversized sunglasses.
The RV casts a long shadow over the van.
I swear it’s fifteen feet tall. A Sky Streamer with beige siding and a satellite dish cocked on top. The old guy’s already come out. He’s kneeling by the driver’s side front tire, his back to me.
I hobble towards him. My crutches make skritch-skritch noises on the pavement, but he doesn’t turn.
You need a sympathy angle when you approach old people, because they’re so fucking suspicious. Hence the crutches. Vonda and I used to use dogs for the same purpose. We had this little Chihuahua named Taco Bella who’d yip and make eyes and the next thing you know people were inviting us into their homes. But she’d also shit all over the van, so after awhile it was adios Bella.
Vonda and I had even talked about having a baby. Trust me, nothing drops an old person’s guard like a baby. Vonda had nixed the idea, though, on account that pregnancy would ruin her three-thousand dollar tits.
I get within spitting distance of the guy and clear my throat. He gives me a sort of peripheral glance, like maybe I’ll go away if he concentrates hard enough on that tire. When I don’t, he slides a pressure gauge into his shirt pocket and stands up. Unlike most seniors we contend with, he’s in pretty good shape. Wiry, with thick white hair that comes all the way down to his eyebrows in a ‘V.’
I smile, nodding at the vehicle. “Quite a monster you got there.”
He doesn’t respond. Just looks at me. With the sunglasses on, I can’t read his face.
“Does it get good mileage?” I say.
He folds his arms across his chest. “Lousy.”
We regard each other as the wind blows across the lot. Christ, I’d kill for a dog or a baby right now. I hear Vonda coming up behind me. The old guy’s head swivels to track her. His glasses cant down, and from the angle and Vonda’s relative height I’ve got a pretty good idea what he’s looking at.
“Hi,” she says, using the shy voice I’ve taught her.
The guy’s face becomes animated, despite the sunglasses, and he pumps both our hands.
While he’s doing that, the RV door opens and an old woman in a green terrycloth robe comes tottering out. She looks addled for a second, like she’s just appeared on stage. But her eyes sharpen when she sees the two of us. “I’m Fran,” she says, giving a second round of handshakes.
Time hasn’t been as nice to this one. Fran’s neck has turkey-wattles deep enough to lose a quarter in, and when she pauses to smile benign oldness at Vonda and me, the bottom part of her lipstick-stained dentures don’t quite line up with the top.
“We’re the McAllisters,” I say, trying for a good white-bread name. “Ray and Vonda. Your neighbors from a couple spaces down.”
Fran glances over my shoulder at the van. Her jaw tightens.
“That’s our, ah, old vehicle,” I say. “The other one’s being fixed. I got into a wreck, which is why I’m sort of crippled-up right now.”
“A drunk driver hit him,” Vonda adds.
“Terrible,” Fran says, shaking her head. That’s when I notice her eyes. Her pupils are the size of pin-pricks. We’re all standing in the RV’s shadow, so it can’t be the sunlight. And hadn’t she winced a little, coming down that last step? Probably arthritis. Arthritis means pain, and pain plus an old person equals medication. The good kind.
“Are you staying here long?” she says.
“The afternoon at least,” I say, ignoring the tremor in my hands. “We thought about watching the sun go down, because the view up here’s so nice.”
“Frank and I were thinking the same thing. How about you come over for dinner this evening? We can eat barbecue and watch the sunset together. Can’t we, Frank?”
“I insist,” he says. His mirrored lenses reflect Vonda’s top.
We spend the afternoon waiting in the van. I keep peeling the foil back from the window and staring at the Promised Land three spaces away. Knowing Fran’s got medication stashed in there just makes it worse. No other vehicles pull into the lot, and the isolation’s giving me wild ideas. We’ve never done anything violent to old people before, but we’ve never had an opportunity plunked down like this, either.
“Did you see him looking at me?” Vonda says, out of breath because she’s doing leg-lifts. Sometimes I envy her stupidity. It’d be nice to unplug with a little mindless exercise, instead of hovering around the window and waiting for the fucking sun to set.
“I’m not blowing him, okay?”
“Never say never.”
I squat down next to her. “You know what we’re going to do, once we get that RV? We’ll turn it south. Head straight for Old Mexico. Fuck the U.S. Maybe we’ll head to Baja and cruise the beaches all day, like those Corona commercials.”
Her eyes moisten. I remember the big guy, Lennie, from the book, and how his face got when George started talking about rabbits. She wraps sweaty arms around me.
“Baby” she says into my shoulder, “they’re not going to just give us the RV.”
Evening finally drags around. Vonda and I hurry to the rest stop’s bathroom to take a “shower” from the battered sink. It’s been awhile since my last wipe-down. I want to change into a clean shirt for dinner, but the polo’s still my best contender.
“We’re supposed to bring something,” Vonda says, as I’m dabbing at the salsa-stain.
“Wine or dessert, I think.”
Back at the van, the only thing we can find are some hot dogs floating in four inches of water. The cooler had been full of ice a couple days ago. I fish them out and wrap them in a plastic baggie. The dogs look bloated, like drowning victims.
Fran’s waiting for us by the RV’s door. Her hair, which had been a pale ginger this morning, glows dye-red in the failing sunlight. She’s changed her robe for a purple sequined shirt and stretch pants.
I hand her the soggy wieners wrapped in plastic. She manages to take them with a smile. We’re led up the steps into the RV--a challenge for me on crutches. Hobbling inside is like crossing a magical barrier into affluence. The air’s thick with new-car smell. Soft jazz dribbles from hidden speakers. There’s leather couches, track lighting, granite countertops, and a six-foot saltwater tank, all tucked into a living space that should feel crammed but instead comes off as cozy and secure. I have to sit down and let it register.
“Cost us half a million,” Fran says, unable to keep the pride from her voice.
It occurs to me these fuckers are already living in the afterlife. They just purchased it earlier.
“You said Frank’s cooking?” I ask, glancing at the galley kitchen. “Where is he?”
Fran points at the ceiling.
“He’s on the roof?”
“The deck. I’ll show you.”
She leads us behind a bulkhead, where a column of spokes and metal plates reach up to the ceiling. It takes a second for me to figure out it’s a spiral staircase.
“That’s going to be rough for you, honey,” Fran says.
I hand the crutches to Vonda and push myself up by bracing my arms against the stair’s sides. There’s an open trap door at the top. We pass through onto the “deck,” a little patio area enclosed by aluminum railing. Frank’s sitting in a folding chair, sans sunglasses, fanning black smoke from a hibachi. An open bottle of Southern Comfort and a half-dozen empty microbrews lay by his feet.
Fran guides Vonda and me to adjacent chairs. After I plop down, she slides a flute of pale wine into my hand.
“That’s funny,” Frank says, nodding at my crutches.
“This morning you were limping on your right foot. Just now it was your left. That must’ve been a strange accident.”
I gulp wine and give him a bullshit explanation about both my feet getting hurt. Details have always been a problem for me. But if Frank thinks I’m lying, he doesn’t push it. He lets his attention wander back to his favorite subject. Vonda’s low-cut blouse shows a generous scoop of her left breast and the red underwire holding that puppy back.
The meat, when it’s finished, is amazing. Porterhouse with black pepper. I wolf it down as the sky darkens and Fran refills my flute.
Frank tells dirty jokes, leering at Vonda during the graphic parts.
I could spend the whole evening like this. A nice buzz going. Semi-pleasant company. But the truth is, unless I do something I’ll be waking up in the van tomorrow.
I ask Fran about the bathroom and have Vonda help me wobble downstairs.
“What’re we doing?” she whispers, when we’re out of earshot.
“I’m going to search the RV for a gun. Frank looks like the kind of asshole that’d have several.”
“And then what?”
She thrusts her thumbnail in her mouth.
“Just go back up there,” I say. “Keep them talking.”
She goes. I neglected to tell her I’d be searching for Fran’s medications first, because there’s no way I’m killing two people without getting high.
I head straight to the bathroom. It looks like something out of a millionaire’s Vegas suite. Mirrored tile in the shower, gleaming brass fittings, and oh yes – giant medicine cabinet. I yank it open. There’s a near-full bottle of Percocet on the third shelf. My hands convulse as I tear off the cap. Tabs go spilling into the sink, little pieces of Nirvana, and I grab up a handful. Swallow. Nothing but raw pill-taste guiding those suckers down.
I settle onto the toilet.
Putting the medications back, I notice the dosage reads quite high. Even by my standards. Which gives me pause. How many did I just take?
Urgency kicks in and I get back up.
The front cab has two enormous leather chairs, a GPS system, and a Blaupunkt. But no guns. Not even a permit. I check the main room, then the galley. The Percocet starts filling my head with gentle static. I find several black-handled knives sticking out of an oaken block and pull one. Eight inches of serrated steel, which would definitely do the job on our hosts.
Footsteps scrape down the staircase. I figure it’s Vonda, coming to tell me I’m taking too long.
“Ray? You alright?”
I shove the knife into my back pocket. The edge’s so sharp it cuts an ass-cheek. Wincing, I hustle into the main room where I left my crutches leaning against the sofa. I manage to slide them under my armpits just as Fran comes swaying in. She’s got a gleam in her rheumy eyes. Drunk?
“I thought something had happened to you,” she says.
“Just taking it slow.”
“Well, since we’re both alone I’d like to talk. Why don’t you sit down?” She pats the couch next to us.
I sit, wondering where this is going. The knife’s handle presses against my back. Fran squats so close she’s practically on my lap.
“You need to know something about Frank and I,” she says. “We . . . like young people. Couples especially. Understand? Frank really likes Vonda, and I’ve taken a fancy to you, honey. The four of us could finish this evening real nice.”
She reaches up and adjusts her top set of dentures. With a deft motion of her thumb she pulls the whole plate out, trailing spit, so that her upper lip curls around empty gums. Her voice is smooshy and rapid as she talks. “Don’t let that scare you. That’s just age. Age means experience, and I know a lot about making love. Do you know what kind of pleasure a woman can give, without teeth in the way? I bet you’d like to find out. I bet you would.”
My hand’s already crept halfway for the knife. But it’s no use. The prospect of jabbing a blade inside her feels as alien as what she’s trying to goad me into doing. Maybe it’s the Percocet. All that medication, smoothing me out. Maybe it’s because I’m not a killer. You’d think it’d be easy, but with the beady-eyed prospect sitting next to you, leaning so close you can smell her mentholated skin-cream, I realize it’s not.
RV dreams go flicking by in a futile slideshow.
How long we sit like that, Fran giving me a phone-sex routine as she runs bony hands up and down my shorts, I can’t tell. The opiates steal my will to fight her off. For awhile I can hear Frank and Vonda barking laughter on the deck above, but that stops and it gets eerily quiet. Only the bubble of the saltwater tank and Fran’s hot breathing.
Someone’s feet thump the stairs.
Frank comes in, moving fast, his hands flying to his back pocket while we shuffle upright on the couch. “Babe,” Fran says with half her teeth, “I was just telling Ray how we could all get together—”
“Save it,” he says.
By this time the dope’s reached its zenith, and my perception’s working on a different level. Sort of lazy, picking out the odd details. Not acting like it should. For example, it takes a couple seconds to notice Frank is pointing a silver object at me, and then a couple seconds more to realize it’s the automatic pistol I knew he had. But my attention doesn’t stay focused on the barrel. It drifts up to Frank’s face. The ‘V’ of his hairline has tiny sweat-beads glistening along its length. They’re starting to drip down past his eyebrows, into his eyes, and I’m thinking about rain filling an empty pool in someone’s backyard, because that’s how empty his eyes are.
“You don’t know how long I’ve waited,” he tells me.
And then he turns the gun on Fran.
Her head snaps back against the couch the same time I hear the pop. Something warm peppers my cheek. All I can think is the blood's really going to fuck up the couch's upholstery, and pop--there's a pressure in my chest like a tiny fist just punched me. Which should be painful, I suppose.
Okay, now it hurts.
Vonda's voice brings me around. Someone's got a hold of my ankles and there's a sliding feeling underneath my back.
I'd stopped breathing. In order to resume, I've got to send a message to my chest: breathe. It takes real effort. Pain shudders through the Percocet, and I figure I won't be doing this whole respiration thing much longer.
I crack my eyelids.
Vonda's dragging me. She takes me down the RV's steps. Three bumps, which I barely feel. Then gritty pavement slams the back of my head. It's still night outside, and Frank's voice echoes from someplace in front of us. Breathing might be a bitch, but I can hear him just fine.
"What's so funny?" Vonda says.
"Upgrades. The RV's got them all. Granite countertops, deluxe suspension, even copper pipes in the bathroom. But you know what? There was still an upgrade the dealer couldn't sell me."
"That's sweet, Frank."
We reach the guardrails at the edge of the ravine. Strong hands seize my armpits from behind.
"First thing I'm going to do," he says, "when we get to Mexico, I'm taking a long look at those titties."
"They cost three thousand dollars."
A swing back and forth and then I'm over, air rushing past me as the cottonwoods spear upwards.