When the crescent moon began to rise over the horizon my stomach growled loud enough to make Reggie jump out of his seat, and I realized that it was time to find something to eat. We stopped off the highway at a place called “Alfonso’s,” and I added another bad meal to my list. I bought Reggie’s. He tried to protest, but I insisted that he shouldn’t have to pay for microwaved enchiladas and day-old beans. When we came out, he was distracted by a stray dog playing in the street. It was fascinating to watch him become so enthralled by this mutt, tossing a filthy tennis ball, rolling around on the ground with him. It was hard for me to relax and watch it. He appeared younger than my own son, and I felt somehow responsible for him. Who knew whether that dog would snap at any minute? But before long my attention was stolen by someone pulling on the sleeve of my shirt. I turned around.
She was slender, and probably about twenty. She had blonde hair, but it looked like it came from a bottle. It was done up in the crunchy, fragile, over-producted kind of curls that just made her look fried. Though she was thin and not particularly well endowed, she wore a low cut top that made me keep looking for cleavage that wasn’t there. Her mascara was overdone, and looked as though she had put it on in the rearview mirror of a pickup truck. She played with her gold necklace with her left hand while continuing to tug at my sleeve even after she’d gotten my attention. She began speaking so fast I felt the need to take deep breaths on her account.
“Hi! I’m sorry, I’m so glad I got your attention sweetie can you help us out? My boyfriend is over there,” she jerked her right thumb back behind her shoulder, indicating a young man about her age in blue jeans and a white tee-shirt. He was bent over the tailgate of a pickup with his back to us, examining a map. “He says he knows exactly where we are but I think he’s got us totally lost. We passed one town and then another and I kept saying we should go back or we should ask for directions, but he just kept on going.” She emphasized these last three words by sawing the air with her right hand, pointing straight out in front of her. She giggled. I was amazed she had the lung capacity to keep going.
“This is like the time last summer when we were going to Disneyland with my sister’s kids and he somehow took us to Rocky Point, y’know, in Mexico? I still think that was on purpose. I mean it wasn’t a total waste, I got this tattoo here.” She bent over and showed me a color image of the Virgin Mary beneath her right butt cheek, just visible under her Daisy Duke style cut-offs. “Anyway I’m getting off track.” She giggled again. “Are we near Albuquerque?”
“Well, you’re not too far, but you’re a little out of your way. Where are you from?”
“Well, I grew up in Idaho, but Connor, that’s my boyfriend’s name, Connor. And I’m Donna, by the way. Anyway he was an army brat and he lived all over—”
“I mean, where did you start your trip?”
“Oh!” More giggling. “Phoenix.”
“Oh, my. Yes, you’re way off your route. Let me take a look at that map.”
I went over to the pickup, determined to show young Connor the right way back to Albuquerque, but when he opened his mouth to start talking to me, I couldn’t understand a word that came out. He had a thick, Eastern European accent and spoke in a language I didn’t recognize. I turned to Donna.
“I thought you said he was an army brat.”
“Well, yeah,” she tittered. “His dad was in the Latvian Army. He lived all over Latvia.”
“But, I don’t speak Latvian.”
To my surprise, Donna started speaking fluently to Connor in his own tongue. I wondered whether Connor was a Latvian name, but the thought soon passed. I showed them the right direction and the right roads to get on, even though Connor argued with me a few times and insisted he needed to keep heading East. He and Donna were still arguing after she’d thanked me and I’d turned to go. Halfway back to the truck, I stopped, felt my back pocket, and realized I must have left my wallet in the diner.
I turned around and looked for Reggie, to tell him I needed to go back inside, but he was talking to Donna and Connor.
“C’mon, guys, I saw you take it, just give it back and there won’t be trouble,” he was saying.
“Hey, Reggie!” I called out. “I have to go back into the restaurant, I left my—”
“No, you didn’t,” Reggie said. “This ‘nice couple’ has it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your wallet. C’mon, give it up, guys, before my friend here gets mad. He’s been nice about it so far.”
“Well, I don’t —” I began, trying to get a grip on the situation.
“Okay, okay, Sam,” he said, extending his hand to me, palm out. “Just calm down, I think I can handle this.”
“I’m perfectly calm, I—”
“I know,” Reggie said, “I know. But you’re getting that tone again. We don’t want to send anyone else to the hospital like last time.”
“Now, hang on,” I began again, losing my patience, “there was no—”
“Okay, okay,” Connor said, in suddenly unaccented English. “Here.”
He handed me back my wallet.
“Keys, too,” Reggie said. Donna snarled and handed them over.
“Amateurs,” Reggie laughed as we got back in the truck.
“What happened back there?” I asked.
“They saw you come out of the diner, they thought you looked like a mark, and they got your wallet and keys. They’d’ve had the truck and everything in it if you’d gone back in to look for your things. It works like this: the ditzy blonde gets you distracted, and concentrating on giving her boyfriend directions. You were so busy thinking about how close she was to you, you weren’t concentrating on how close she was to you. She got your wallet and passed it off to the guy, then grabbed your keys from your jacket. Can’t believe they went through all that for them, though. I’ve known solo pickpockets who could have gotten your keys, wallet, and watch, and then tied your shoelaces together with less effort.”
“You know a lot of these types?” I asked.
“I used to run with a bad crowd, actually.” Reggie said. “They did get one thing, right, though.” He moistened his lips with his tongue.
“Oh,” I said. “What was that?”
“You really do look like a mark.”
Reggie laughed, and I couldn’t help but laugh with him.
“You’ve got quite the knack for spotting things,” I said. “Maybe you really are Sherlock Holmes.”
“I told you, Psycho,” he grinned, “there’s no such thing.”
* * *
It was by chance that I ran into Reggie again three weeks later. I’d dropped him off at a hotel in Santa Fe after he convinced me to drive through the night, rather than stopping in Santa Rosa as I’d intended. I had occupied myself over the last three weeks with the business of moving into my new home, an adobe storefront near the Plaza, with living space upstairs. I was next door to a fancy hair salon on one side and an independent used book store on the other. I planned to open up the downstairs as a gallery once I had enough art to sell. I’d told myself that once I was done arranging furniture, I could buy a new pair of sunglasses. A really nice pair, at one of the boutiques that fill the cluttered Plaza area of Santa Fe.
The hard part was that every time I thought I had the furniture just the way I wanted it, I could hear Carla’s voice.
Now, Sammy, don’t you think that the chairs at the dining room table should match?
Do you really want to block the view from the window there with the TV?
Maybe the couch should face the fireplace.
Carla had been an expert in many subjects, from architecture to zoology. This included home décor. Her spatial genius had been one of the many things I’d loved about her and depended upon. Arranging a house without her was a nightmare. I rearranged the whole place three times, threw out the television, and headed into Albuquerque to visit that Swedish furniture chain where we’d bought our son’s college dorm furnishings.