This is book three of The Delivery. Use chapters at the top to navigate. Chapter names can be used as bookmarks.
-- Tom Jennings, copyright 2022
Continued from book 2.
Dan unlocks the trunk, the lid rises and bounces at the limits of the worn hinges. With bags weighing down one shoulder Dan pokes his phone, holds it to his face, after a delay speaks briefly.
“We’re here! OK cya.”
Stacy extracts the cable from her bike, glances at Dan for help. He sets his bags near the door and walks back to lift the rear of the bike. As they set it on the ground, a loud scraping honk makes them both jump. A figure backlit in the open doorway raises a hand in greeting.
“Joseph! Hey, long time. Nice to see you.”
Joseph nods, turns sideways to let them pass. “It’s good to see you too. Come on in, you are probably tired from all that driving.”
Dan strains, lifting their bags, hands half of the straps to Stacy who slings them over one shoulder. Joseph steps out to hold open the door, Stacy walks her bike in.
Their small sounds fill a cavernous emptiness to their right, followed by the screech-slam of the door and the click of Joseph’s key in the lock behind them. They survey the dim space in the few seconds it takes Joseph to catch up. An island of display cases occupies the center of a linoleum-tiled floor, spindly chromed metal clothing racks line the back wall, disused, chromium dulled by dust. Floor to ceiling glass windows are papered over, backlit brown by parking lot lights. The far wall, invisible in near dark, echo-locates by the diminishing door-slam and Joseph’s foot steps.
To Stacy, Joseph says “We’re upstairs. Best to bring your bike up,” then heads straight back, alongside ancient nested shopping carts nosing into the diminishing wedge under a long, tall stairwell.
They follow Joseph, turn left 180 and climb awkward grooved black and metal steps, poorly spaced, that require an extra half-step each, delayed recognition of an inert escalator. Stacy slides her hand up the smooth cold black rubber, her fingers finding the far edge, recalling the impulse to lift the rubber banister, now impossibly stiff with age, and too tired to try.
They slow as they heave to the top. Stacy lifts/bumps her bike over the sawtooth steps, her bag on a shoulder, red-faced, exhausted by the unergonomic design, unwanted exertion after a long day. Dan pauses before the top, panting. Joseph has disappeared ahead somewhere.
At the top Stacy sets her bike down hard, Dan drops his bags, just beyond the rattling metal landing at the top of the antique escalator. They find themselves at the edge of a carpeted forest, a thrift-store assortment of office and home furniture, a dull riot of mauves and beiges and grays, colors too lifeless to compete with the stained suspended ceiling lighting. Dan recalls San Francisco’s long-gone Valencia Street corridor of used furniture stores, and the tempestuous teapot of queer anarchist politics of the community thrift there, differences and similarities here are both disorienting and familiar, and recalls the particular sensation of the sort of cheap luxurious paddedness one sinks into and can barely climb out of. He manages to resist the seduction.
“This way,” Joseph is off to their left, behind them now, a hallway back along the stairs, further into the building. Dan turns to follow but Stacy is slightly startled from her reverie studying this new, alien space.
“You got rooms to yourselfs, here,” Joseph’s sharp eyes meet theirs with a frugal but earnest smile, waves to open doors in a side hall. “Take your pick. Bathroom is there,” pointing to the last door, “You can put your bike anywhere up here. Come find me when you’re ready, I’ll be out there,” Joseph raises his arm, slightly towards the direction they just came, “I want to talk to you a minute, then you can go to sleep.”
“Sure. We’ll be out in a couple minutes.”
The rooms are the barest construct of studs and sheetrock occupying a corner of another retail sales floor, dark behind. Permanently temporary, tract housing bedrooms without the house. Small, barely but neatly furnished; a mattress on the floor with sheets and cheap yellow foamy blankets, a folding chair, a milk carton table and unsteady lamp so flimsy the cord wants to tip it over. Stacy leans her bike on a wall, tosses her bag on the bed, stands for a moment, exits the room, closing the hollow door behind her, Dan doing the same.
Stacy follows Dan back the way they came, they spot Joseph enveloped by a florid threadbare sofa, ceramic mug of steaming beverage on a blonde coffee table in front of him.
“Welcome! Coffee and tea and some leftovers over there if you want a snack,” nodding towards an incongruously modern office-kitchen setup along the back wall. Stacy returns with pastry and hot liquid, sits next to Dan on the sofa opposite Joseph’s coffee table.
“So how was the drive? I hear you had some trouble down south.” Joseph gives Stacy a brief, piercing look. She defensively sits up straight, is somewhat consternated at her reaction to this man, and almost imperceptibly sets her jaw.
“You heard about that. Yeah, it was fucked up.”
Joseph sits back in his chair, sips from the cup, looks at Dan. “Sounds like maybe you fucked up,” at this Stacy looks at Dan, blank-faced.
“Yeah... I guess… I underestimated things,” Stacy realizes now that Dan has been tense, probably anticipating this meeting.
Dan does not notice Joseph glance at Stacy, then, calmly, “I suppose so. You should discuss this with Natasha, tomorrow”. Joseph leans forward, takes a sip, leans back, “It will help her understand some of the problems we face here.”
Turning to Stacy, he continues, “So you, Stacy. Dan tells me that you have built a very nice water system back home. And that you were recently in the California desert. You don’t look like desert folk,” his flashed smile indicating humor.
“Yeah, no, I live in Los Angeles. With Dan and our crew. Desert is new to me. Yeah, Essex, in California, in the Mojave. I was gonna help build a water processing system there.”
“Essex. That’s the town with the big highway department, and their solar power system.”
“Yes, but the PV plant is part of my friends’ project.”
Joseph pauses, looks puzzled, asks “The big one, across the street from the highway building?”
“That’s a CalTrans depot. They work the autotruck road mostly. And yeah, my friends got it from some old mine, going out of business or something.”
Joseph leans back in his chair, after another pause, “What do they do with all that power?”
“Dunno. I was only there one day, but they also have a solar glass furnace or something, and a mobile power project that uses modified car battery packs, I don’t know, various projects.” Stacy crosses her arms and withdraws momentarily, conjuring recent memory.
“Oh... Where do they buy their water. From Needles?”
“No, there’s a well. That’s why they’re there.”
“Well that is very interesting. I learned something new today, thank you.”
Joseph and Stacy both sip their drinks, Stacy finishes her stale pastry. After an awkward interval, Joseph says “I am being rude keeping you up. I will see you in the morning, I will be here somewhere,” gesturing towards the cavernous space behind them, “Dan knows our habits fairly well. Good night.” Joseph stands, slowly, they both rise and head to the rooms, leaving Joseph.
Dan shuffles out to the big room, still exhausted and feeling something akin to hangover, thinking, must be stress, dry air, altitude.
Stacy is sitting on the sofa from the night before, coffee cup in hand. Across from her is Joseph and a large young man, maybe twenty five, with curly black hair, wearing a vintage black-metal t-shirt twice his age, cartoonish images of dismemberment silk-screened on back and sleeves, rendered in thick paint cracked to illegibility. Black metal, Dan seems to recall. A stretchy band of cheap fluorescent fabric holds his hair off his forehead, the clash of fashion incongruous to Dan.
To Joseph and this new person, “Good morning,” to Stacy, “Morning. You’re up early.”
Moving closer, “Hi, I’m Dan,” lowers his hand, the kid rises sufficiently for a handshake and says “Niguel, Nicetameetcha,” sinks back into the sofa.
“Niguel’s a programmer here, there’s a lot of cool shit going on,” Stacy says, uncharacteristically chatty, “He’s gonna give me a tour.”
“Nice! Hey I need to go eat ... anyone wanna go across the street? Stacy?”
Stacy says “Nahh, I’m good,” nods to a pastry crumbling on the low table, Joseph makes a tiny negating wave with his fingers.
“OK then I’ll be back,” Dan nods to each, turning to head towards the inert escalator.
Joseph interrupts, “Hey, before you go, can you give us the radio unit the agent in LA gave you? Niguel will take it to production to be looked at.”
“Oh! Sure. Will do.”
Stacy scrunches her face, looking from Joseph to Dan. As Dan waves and continues to the escalator Stacy rises saying “I’ll help you unload the trunk.”
“Thanks, but I got it.”
“Seriously?” Stacy hesitates as Dan waves dismissively and his footsteps clatter down the escalator, sits again, looking consternated.
He returns a few minutes later with a gray plastic box, ribbed with stubby cables attached. Niguel rises, Dan hands it to him, mumbles thanks, sits back down and sets it on the coffee table in front of them.
“Hey! How’d you get that out so fast? It took that guy fifteen minutes of laying in the dusty trunk on his back to install it.”
“Oh right. I may have neglected to tell him that the tray slides out. See ya,” Dan smiles and waves and heads down the ersatz stairs.
Joseph is sitting at a table deep within the furniture cave, talking to his phone, as Dan climbs the old department store’s escalator. The morning sun, just now rising to its full glory and endless task of subduing the furniture in the room, blinds him.
Dan shields his face and stumbles through the padded maze towards Joseph. Through his sunlight-induced dazzle Dan sees Joseph gesture with his phone, rotate slightly, return his attention to his hand.
Dan pauses his advance. Stacy must be off with Niguel, the sofa now unoccupied. Dan works up interest in the artwork on the walls as vision returns, surprised at the prices inked on tiny white stickers. He wanders over to the table when he sees Joseph off the phone.
“Good morning! How was breakfast? How is Bernice?”
“Pretty good as always. Heavy of course. Some gringo tourists complained that the food wasn’t quote authentic like it is back east. Bernice had fun with that.”
“How’s the old gas car?”
“Pretty good, no troubles. I stay one step ahead, parts are trouble to find now.”
“Oh I can imagine. We don’t see those here anymore except some old guys with trucks.”
Joseph gestures towards the table, and abruptly asks, “Hey so tell me, what happened in Flag yesterday?” Joseph leans back in his chair, arm on the table.
Dan, still standing, nervously, pulls a rolling chair up to the table, sits, looks towards the blue sky square window, exhales.
“Oh it was so stupid. The situation in the south is moving north, into Flagstaff. I got thrown off schedule by stopping overnight in California, Essex, it was getting late and I just fucked up.”
“Monique’s crew told me you drove on Interstate forty, then highway 89. We see your car of course.”
“Huh? Right, yeah. Forty is the bottleneck. There’s no other road east west. To this part of Arizona, at least.”
“I would have to look on a map, I don’t drive much.”
“Yeah, you can’t get from Hualapai to the Nation, to here, the big mountain and the Canyon is in the way. The only safe route now is up through Utah, but then I miss a lot of Arizona places I need to go through. And the Nation.”
“Well one day we will have to talk about this business. But tell me what happened at Gray Mountain.”
“We stopped for fuel at an old gas station off forty. In Flag. Mostly out of state tourists, I figured it was safer. Stacy got picked on by a religious nut, no big deal. Then a good old boy in a pick’em’up was watching us. Ambushed us on 89, up past Sunset Crater. Same guy. I guess just short of Gray’s Mountain, yeah.”
Joseph nods, Dan shifts in his seat, uncomfortable, then continues, “Some friend of his was there, standing in the road. In daylight! Damn. I don’t know how long we were standing there, when this…” Dan pauses, looks away, raises one finger, “umm, ahh, drunk guy, like out of an old movie -- hold on a sec! -- comes from the north, pulls his pickup off the road, sort of stumbles into the road, now I’m thinking they’re gonna murder him first then us -- this guy turns fucking ninja badass -- pardon my French -- I almost can’t remember, it happened so fast, out of nowhere the two cowboys trucks taken out, Mister Ninja tells us to leave, we do so as fast as humanly possible.”
“Shot! A gun! Bang! Then bang! Both trucks. Loud, ears ringing. Still, I think. Loud, like rifle-loud. Didn’t see them, maybe a flash. I assume from the back of the ninja guy’s pickup? No idea.”
Joseph had been leaning forward, listening intently, takes a big breath, sits back, exhales, and smiles broadly.
“That was Jimmy. He works for us sometimes. Libyan War vet, him and some friends avoided getting sick over there. I know his family. He is very good. He is very, what is the word… theatrical.”
“You have no idea. I take that back, maybe you do.”
Joseph sits upright, arms on the table. “This is not good. We will have to make some changes I guess.”
Dan rolls closer to the table, lays his forearms on the table, then crosses them on his chest. “I know, it’s bad. I’m sorry I fucked up here. I want to keep driving for you guys.”
“I know you do. Look, we live here. We see the changes down south. You were probably seen driving before, but with her in the car with you, that crossed a line for them. Something would have happened eventually. So forget about it for now. This is not your doing, those are bad people. We will work something out. We will continue to talk.”
Dan realizes that he has not been breathing, much, and makes a conscious effort to relax in the chair. “OK good, I mean this is a good deal for me, but I really like you, everyone I’ve met up here, and what you are doing. Ha! As far as I know what that is. But that’s fine too.”
Joseph relaxes, signaling a shift in their conversation.
“Well you are OK and that’s what matters. This Stacy, what’s her story. She seems sharp.”
“Yeah she is. Long ago, a bunch of us had a group punk warehouse in San Francisco, long before the century. Valerie dragged home this bratty homeless teenager, annoying but basically OK and ended up being a decent roommate. I had a small network business, early on. I hired her as a shitworker, surprisingly reliable, bugged us for more. Had her write tedious little housekeeping scripts. She was good at it. Ended up a programmer, then a very good one. We only parted when I moved to Los Angeles.”
Dan nods, and continues, “When San Fran went to shit that first time, she moved in that first wave to LA. We were all still working then, you know, jobs inside buildings. My partner and I had bought this old derelict property, super cheap, before the boom. We crossed paths again, we welcomed her in, all grown up now. Then the pandemic, then the war. Then the collapse... by then we were a compound, survived that way. We already had chickens and water sort-of for fun, so we were a step ahead of many. Then the nationalization fad, UBI, then the current shit. Stacy ended up being really good at a lot of things, like water tech.”
“California did better than we did here.”
Dan squirms, looks at Joseph, “Yes, it did. We did.”
Joseph then turns, looks distracted, and changes direction. “You’re always alone. Why is she here now.”
“Ahh. I was giving her a ride to Essex. She had some work lined up there, from some online group. That crew she mentioned. The night we arrived the water system failed, the collective or whatever they are, fell apart, leaving Stacy in a bad spot, probably stranded if she stayed. Turns out the project was fucked up all along, no surprise. So I told her she could come with me.”
Joseph shifts in his seat, looks towards the framed wall of blue sky, back at Dan, silent decision made.
“Well you are here now. Natasha will talk to you more about the work you do for us. By the way, we like Stacy. She’s with Niguel, at the data center in town. So this may all turn out well.”
“Oh? Well that would be good. I’m not surprised you like her. She’s competent as hell. The Essex folk want her, but personally I think it’s too small-potatoes for her, but I get it.”
Joseph stands up, “I got things to do this morning, but we can all go to lunch together if you want. What will you do this morning?”
“Don’t know yet. Yes, let’s do lunch. So Stacy is with Niguel? I might do a little local shopping then. Leave for home in the morning I guess.”
“I expect Stacy will get the full tour and eat lunch over at the new place. Ask her though. I will be here all day I think. It would be great to talk more.”
“OK thanks. Well it was good to talk to you. I will see you at noon then.” Dan watches Joseph get up and walk to a table of older women and men along a back wall, low talk interrupted by welcomes, and the scrape of a chair. Dan pecks out a message to Stacy, then heads down the stairs and out the door.
The outside door scrapes open, the assault of sunlight blinds him before he can notice the heat, already forming wavy lines on the cracked parking lot surface. Dan makes his way to the car, squinting, thinking about sunglasses baking somewhere inside.
His car has different company now, pickups and small indifferent sedans, colors sunbleached and dusted, all facing the same way, in front of the adjacent regional health clinic. Windows all open; closed, heat damage certainty deemed worse than potential theft.
“Damn,” as he unlocks the door, opens, stands to one side to avoid the blast, rolls down the window, standing on one foot to flap the gas pedal, reaches in to insert the key and start. Reaches in again to grab dark plastic glasses sitting under the glass. A hurried pause, standing in the sun, waving the sunglasses to cool them off, assessing the oven-car vs. sunburn tradeoff, he climbs into the oven.
Dan drives east along the river, road name changing at some intersections, becomes Main Street then Highway 516. Twenty minutes later the telltale tall comm tower sticking up from the lot of his destination appears. The customary but illegal left turn across a highway unsure if it is rural or urban, into the lot of Azteca Auto Parts.
The building is yet another featureless late 20th prefab, with an incongruously modern glass retail door, cylindrical roll-down security shutter above, surrounded by a tall opaque fence of the same beige ribbed steel as the building.
Inside, a squat, gruff mustachioed man, a wool hat on his head, sits at a stool behind the long counter, staring at Dan.
“Hey Manuel what’s up.”
“Dan? Hey, long time! Up from LA huh? Delivering guns for the cartel again, eh?” then smiles for the first time. They shake hands.
“Oh yeah, lots of guns. What you looking for?” A minor variation on the ritual Dan needs to take part in a few times a year at most.
“Oh nothing, we got more than enough.” Manuel slumps forward alarmingly; Dan realizes he’s reaching both arms to a shelf below the counter.
“Nahh, I don’t need to see that shit!” Dan laughs.
Manuel straightens up, still smiling, “So what can I do you for? Ramblers right?”
“Yes sir! As always. Get anything new?”
“Maybe. Cleaned out some old guys' barn, some antique muscle car shit even. Maybe as old as you! Haha. Made a lot off that.” Manuel stands, “Come on, I’ll walk with you out there,” lifts up the far end of the counter and opens the side lot door. “We got some great stuff for you”. Dan follows.
The dirt path takes them between rows of dust-colored automobiles sorted roughly by brand and type, heat radiating from all sides. Impossibly cheap consumer complexity, automobiles bereft of decoration, skin and color, three feet off the dirt on improvised stanchions of welded steel wheels, for access to innards and underneath. Everything sprinkled in ubiquitous red brown grit. Dan thinks, I love junkyards, a calm beauty that arises from capitalist reality laid bare and honest. Automobiles, the final stronghold of twentieth-century modernism, mythical promise of perfection and performance, exterior gloss over internal imperfection and failure, made visible at last, only here, as close to Truth as matter can propel one. Finding useful or interesting items in the rotting corpses is like finding diamonds hidden in the mouth of a corpse.
Back in the office exists a filthy, ancient binder, a literal book of the dead; by law, a life history of every vehicle to have passed through the property in the last seven years. Each vehicle has a page, the paper form itself nearly illegible after decades of photocopy mutation. On each page is a generic outline of an automobile. Every part removed is indicated on the form, outlined like a child’s coloring book, and the date recorded; when the cartoon car outline is fully marked, or the trickle of harvesters like Dan slows, the car is moved to the back row, the final stop before the grinder that reduces them to product-meal pellets for the recyclers.
Manuel stops at the last row, points and says “There and there. Tell me what you want I’ll send someone to fetch it. Don’t forget the number.” Manuel heads back to the office before he finishes talking.
Mumbling to himself, ritual mocking with no enmity, “We got some useless crap for you”. Resigned to a sparse and dwindling harvest, Dan walks to the end of the row, expecting nothing. With hood, fenders, grille, bumper and other brand styling cues removed, all cars look the same, corpses on a battlefield. But a familiar engine has its round airbox in place, and upon removing the wing nut, finds a shockingly shiny carburetor beneath, a wrinkled paper sticker declaring REMANUFACTURED in faded blue letters. “Bingo!” Dan says out loud, reinstalls the air box and wing nut. With sudden optimism he steps to the driver’s door and peers in the open or missing window, hope dashed by the blackened remains of an electrical fire. Noting the digits in greasy yellow crayon on the cowl below the shattered windshield, Dan heads back to the office, suddenly needing to escape the sun.
“Eighty eighty six, I want the carb and air cleaner. Wing nut too. Tell ‘em to not break the phenolic base.”
“You got it. Wanna wait? Or come back.”
“The boys are at lunch. An hour should do it.”
“I’ll come back. Money now?”
“Nahh, you will be back,” Manuel says, leaning back, his slow ironic nod channeling some forgotten movie.
Dan forces a smile, nods, “Thanks. Be back before you close.”
Manuel glances in acknowledgement, already talking to the next customer, a young kid in greasy green long sleeved work shirt with a name in a white rectangle, possibly his own.
Back in his car, door open dumping heat, Dan checks his phone. Message from Stacy, busy for lunch, as Joseph predicted. Feeling unexpected disappointment anyway, he starts the drive back.
Dan jerks the steering wheel, jarred from his reverie by an antique siren blast -- an incoming voice call. Dan touches the phone, says “Damn, you scared the shit out of me.”
Stacy replies “Yeah sorry. Hey come on over here! It’s fucken amazing!”
“Humongous badass production place. I’ll send you the address. Eat yet? There’s food here. Joseph said to tell you.”
“Not yet. OK. I’m almost back to American.”
“OK cool. It’s close. See ya. Hey wait.”
“What do you mean, what’s American?”
“The building. Why’s it called that?”
“Huh? Oh… it used to be American Furniture Company or something. Someone took down the letters. They were close to the ground, probably for scrap.”
“That’s weird. Don’t they have a name for it?”
It is Dan’s turn to be puzzled. “Huh, no idea. I never asked.”
After a pause Stacy says “Well I think that’s weird. OK see you soon.”
Seconds later a message arrives, Dan touches the phone. The route takes him past American, to the south, out of town, crossing the bridge over the San Juan River. The terrain turns immediately industrial; gravel yards, contractor supply lots, ten-wheeled human-driven trucks churning dust into the air, a sketchy RV park tucked in along the river proper. The highway heads into open desert. Directions indicate left onto a dusty rutted road, no signs or light poles. Dan hesitates, eliciting a honk from behind. He takes the left, which curls around a berm blocking view of whatever is down the road.
The dirt road winds up a grade, towards another ubiquitous throw-up steel prefab. At the top of the mesa Dan involuntarily lifts his foot off the gas pedal, unsure of scale: though it appears to be the usual beige corrugated steel, sheer size and scope renders the building other-worldly.
Tires go suddenly silent on new pasty-gray road surface, IR-reflective stuff he’d only read about. This new road circles around the complex, left, through desert dotted with yellow-green creosote. From a brief concrete bridge, brown iron-oxide mounds of ancient automobile carcasses teeter into a wash below.
Dan slows, still unsure of scale; a standard shop door on the side somehow comical, like a kitchen mouse-hole in an old cartoon, against corrugations high enough to put the roof line out of sight of the windshield. I think this is the east side, Dan thinks, but noon generates no useful shadows for him to navigate.
The phone bleeps arrival as he pulls to the concrete pad the building sits on. Featureless, sign-less, Dan sees vehicles parked on the pad, drives towards them instinctively. A door proximate, Dan takes as hint, parks, gets out.
The door opens, and a pair of teenagers in plaid shirts and jeans exit, chatting, heading to a bike rack under an awning along the building. In a minute they are mounted, pedaling his way. They wave as they pass.
Baffled and frustrated, Dan returns Stacy’s voice call.
“Hey, I’m outside. I think. What the hell.”
Frustrated, “How would I know! No signs, no nothing. There’s... a bike rack, two kids just left. The door nearest the road, I guess.”
Silence for tens of seconds, as Dan is looking at his phone deciding what to do, the door opens and a human speck appears, yells his name questioningly.
“Hi. I’m here,” he waves, heads for the door.
The door is held open by the foot of another teenager, standing outside. As they approach she removes a tiny bright yellow object from each ear, connected with a green cord, screechy loud voices chatter into the hot air. To the right of the opening is a security-access box with glowing red text. The girl, round faced, smiling but shy, says “Hello, you Dan?”
“Yes. I’m a friend of Stacy’s. And Joseph’s.”
The kid pushes the door open for Dan, says “Yeah, they are waiting for you,” steps in behind him.
Cool, humid, dim, relative to the parking lot, the white noise roar of swamp coolers, Dan thinks that would put me to sleep if I had to work in here.
The door closing generates a subsonic boom that echoes for seconds. Dan follows the girl following yellow stripes on the glossy gray floor. Distant beeps of fork trucks, buried in a canyon forest of shelves blocking views of the roof above, their footsteps and the whine of servomotors reverberate in the vast space.
“Wow, so this is the new production place?”
“Yes sir. About a year now. You parked on the south side, the main entrance is on the back side.”
“Oh sorry, stupid phone sent me there.”
“Oh no problem sir. We just cut through here.”
One canyon contains the source of an increasing whine: a car-sized fluorescent green rectilinear spider, dangling loops of cable, transferring forklift pallets of objects and containers between floor stacks and shelf cubbies, too quickly. Yellow chains and red and white danger signs politely block the aisle. Dan is mildly nauseous after seeing, he realizes, not the velocity, which is threatening enough, but the alien motion, an uncanny valley populated by non-human automatons. It takes Dan a few seconds to even notice the blinding strobe lights surrounding the area.
The girl sees Dan's alarm, “Yeah, scary spider, huh? We still use a lot of props and physical stuff, she finds them for us, and puts them away.”
“Damn. It’s just so strange to look at.”
“Haha yeah it takes a while to get used to. No worries, if you walk in there she sees you and stops, and sets off an alarm.”
“I’ll take your word for that,” the whine now behind them, Dan changes the subject.
“Cool necklace. What’s on those?” Dan points to the teenager’s necklace, pinky-tip-sized oblongs, each different; toys, animals, cold brushed metal with ancient logos, a finger, a cartoonish door key, each with the same silvery metal end. The bright colors mixing with the silkscreened graphics of her black T-shirt, the word PIPELINE below.
The kid looks puzzled, lifts a tiny yellow banana, “On? Oh yeah, these are some kind of old computer memory? Or something like that.”
“Yeah, I used to use those. Like that. They were high tech once!”
“Haha yeah I guess. Almost there.”
The forest of racks ends at a glade, the yellow lines turn left and right in front of a substantial prefabricated building, a twin next to it, reaching two thirds of the way to the remote ceiling.
Human specks appear around the corner of one of the buildings. The girl waves and leads Dan towards them. He notices again the endless reverberation, this place has its own sound physics or something, he thinks.
*** Stacy, Niguel, Dan, Joseph, Monique, Natasha
Ahead, Stacy, a young man presumably Niguel, Joseph, and two older people, women, one short and stocky and Latina-looking he has met in previous visits, though he had forgotten her name, and a striking, tall, very black woman with very short hair, speaking in a confident animated voice.
Stacy is uncharacteristically smiling, Dan is not sure if he should be alarmed or happy for her.
The tall woman says “You must be Dan! I’m Natasha, I am new here, and new to this team. This is Monique, she coordinates regional communications here in the four corners area.”
Handshakes and introductions ensue. Natasha continues, “I hear you had a run-in with some of our troublesome neighbors to the south. I’m so sorry for you. I had intended to meet with you to hear your experience as one of our most experienced couriers, but I also want to hear about this recent trouble, it will help me understand the issues you, we all, face.”
“Sure, of course. I’m sorry I screwed things up, I hope there’s no lasting damage.”
“Dan, this was not your fault. Nothing you did was unreasonable. Those people, those two, were criminals performing a criminal act. Joseph gave me a quick summary. I am truly glad you are OK and please, do not worry about it further. Let’s talk about this later today if that is OK with you.”
“Yes, of course.”
Something reassuring about her manner settles Dan in a way he wasn’t aware he needed. Natasha continues, “I was just about to show off of the new production studio, would you like to see it? Then we can go to lunch.”
“Sure, I’d love to.” Standing within the yellow outline around one of the inner buildings, Natasha points to a green light over the door, steps over to a normal sized door adjacent to a huge barn door, opens it wide, beckoning everyone inside.
The just-opened door is a portal between the approximately familiar industrial environment they stand in, to a dimensionless, featureless, unnaturally even and bright green so singular and intense that to Dan it feels like falling.
As they step inside the world disappears; walls impossible to locate without corners or boundaries. Looking up, the discrete edges and detail of electrical infrastructure, rails, cables and fixtures, orients Dan in physical space. There is no light when light is everywhere.
“Oh man, this is hard to take,” Dan looks at Stacy, mouth open, shielding her eyes with a hand. Stacy is ecstatic in the disorienting fog of green. “Wow!”
“This is studio two, not quite ready. That’s why we can be in here.” Natasha gestures them towards what might be the center of the room. “Camera arrays and mics are on booms that come down from the ceiling. Cluster drones do most of the capture though.”
“With cameras and drones up in everyone’s faces, how are they not in the video?” Stacy asks.
Monique answers. “Each drone’s camera captures other drones, and booms and all that, in every frame it records, each from a different angle. So post-capture there’s an edit pass that deletes all the drones from the frames and fills in background and shadows.”
Stacy nods smiling, while Dan listens, looking at his feet, then the door. Joseph taps Natasha on the shoulder, suggests, “Hey let’s go get some lunch.”
Back outside, “Everything’s purple”, Stacy observes, Niguel corrects “Magenta,” Stacy makes a funny face, mock-punches Niguel, saying “Purple!” eliciting “Whatever!” and exaggerated kung fu block. Stacy catches herself, says “I’m starving,” as they follow stripes along the three inner studio buildings.
A few minutes later they arrive at a cavernous loading dock. Joseph says “since there’s so many of us and this is an official tour”, which causes Dan to frown questioningly at Stacy in a private aside, “let’s take a cart”.
They climb into a golf cart with a somehow incongruous red and white striped surrey roof. Stacy, Niguel and Dan occupy the rear, Joseph driving, Monique shotgun, Natasha between them. “We have a kitchen here, but we’ll go to the casino for the buffet.”
The guide girl presses buttons on the gray box next to the big rollup door, and closes it after them. They roll over gritty pebbles on the concrete, then silent gray paving, then a graded dirt path to the casino, passing under crackling tall transmission line towers. Though shaded, the heat suppresses conversation, the bumpy ride silent but for the muffled whine beneath the seats and the crackling buzz overhead.
They reach the outer limits of the Northern Edge Casino and a final bounce from dirt onto the gray parking lot. Joseph guides the cart in a straight line to the front of the casino’s large covered entrance area where a bright blue van offloads brittle, mostly ancient mostly gringo tourists, and pulls into a reserved spot, turns and removes a key.
The entrance gapes, belching damp cold air, impressing guests with that particular feature of old world Americana, profligate energy waste. Stacy wonders not for the first time how cheap shiny brass color had come to signal wealth and opulence.
Joseph leads them inside, and gestures to Natasha, who moves aside to talk to the others. Joseph puts an arm around Dan, smiling, sensing what he guesses to be Dan’s insecurity in his place here in the expanding enterprise.
“Do you gamble?”
“Not really. Gambling floors are fascinating, the sound, it’s hypnotic. When I was twenty I won a fifty dollar jackpot in Reno, with a roll of nickels, bought a Coors. That paid for two day’s driving. A security guy let me finish the beer before he escorted me out for being under age. Might have been the last time I gambled. No wait, I bought a lottery ticket once at a grocery. Didn’t win. Obviously.”
“Well the food is pretty good here. Production crew and talent stay here, very convenient for everyone.”
“Talent? I guess I assumed that’s what comes up from LA? I mean, however that works... screenwriting, casting, all that.”
“Yeah well... they like to think so. No, that’s the old way… They rob everyone blind. It’s motion capture and synthetic characters these days, and you saw our new place. Hold on a minute.”
Joseph pauses to extract a laminated badge from his grotesquely overstuffed wallet, beams a smile at the woman behind the monstrous reception desk as he waves it towards her. She glances at a display only she can see then waves them into the dining room, left.
A man in uncomfortable polyester guides them to tables with a view of the parking lot, sprawling desert beauty filtered through a wall of glass, with low, rectangular bluffs at the horizon, edged in green. Birds of paradise and ocotillos manicured into ordered beauty just beyond the glass. The dining room is huge, and though late for lunch, many tables are occupied.
“It’s self-serve here, that’s our deal with them. Trays, plates and all that are up there. I’ll go first and tell ‘em you’re with me.” They all follow Joseph, Monique taking up the rear.
Dan follows Joseph back to the table, tray in hand, feeling slightly left out. Stacy is talking to Niguel, Natasha gestures to a seat opposite, Dan and Joseph comply.
Dan asks, “So how long has this been going on?”
Joseph answers, “The casino? Oh, the production facility? Not long. It will take a while before folks back in LA really notice. Then it will be too late for them.”
“So... not so much need for me soon.”
Natasha jumps in, “Huh? Oh no no no. Maybe you misunderstand how much we value what you do for us. We still need distribution to folks all over, that effort is still on, and your finesse in traveling through so many different social and cultural spaces out here is very much appreciated.”
“Oh, I just assumed it was mostly big stuff, you know, from LA to here. Besides the regular bookmobile stuff.”
“Oh no not for some time. That's all changed. The scale and scope of things has changed. The old people still like the old shows, but young people participate on a scale that is hard to imagine if you are not directly involved. Our output here is starting to hurt them back there. Those old corps have had so much money for so long they think they’re the world. Not any more.”
Joseph takes a sip of his coffee while looking at Dan, glances at Natasha, then continues, “No, these days, and I can tell you this now, what you are doing mostly is moving content while you are on the road. The old idea of the… big payload from Hollywood, I guess, is going away, but the Hollywood folk haven’t caught on yet.”
“Damn,” then Dan eats in silence, processing. Stacy watches him carefully, unsure which new datum he’s scowling about, leaves him alone.
“Whatcha get?” Dan finally asks Stacy.
“The Native Special. Mutton and a green chile on frybread. It’s fucken great. Burger, eh?”
“Yeah, too many choices, looked like it was all for Midwesterners. Didn’t see that.”
“Sad for you.”
“My food choice?”
“That too,” Stacy makes an oversized smirk and leans away from Dan’s mock punch.
“Yeah haha. Hey I’m so glad I came, thanks for bringing me. I’m sorry about the shit back in Flag. But it’s worked out well. Probably for you too. We can talk later.”
“What? OK.” Dan shrugs and eats.
Joseph makes a large done-eating gesture. “OK you all ready?” a flurry of nods and assent, they rise and walk back to the garish entrance. Stacy openly smiles, seems at home and relaxed.
“OK I get it now, better anyway. I always thought these places were just gross malls, but this is OK shit. The redistribution of wealth or something.”
Outside under the roofed entrance, still enveloped in the cold of the cavernous casino, gusts of scorching hot jar them back to local reality as they mount the striped cart.
The ride back is like being shoveled into a pizza oven as the remaining dampness momentarily chills them through accelerated evaporation, followed by panic-level hot. The contrast fades, afternoon heat merely hot again.
Five minutes later they are back inside, corrugated door dropping, chopping off outside heat, industrial lighting soothing after sunlight.
Disembarking, Monique says “It was great to see again you Dan. I was hoping we would have the time to talk about your car, and that new hotspot, but we’ll have to talk later. Maybe tonight at dinner?”
“Sure,” Dan glances about as Natasha says “Let’s all have dinner tonight, how about. Seven or so. Meet back in town?”
“Sounds good to me.” Monique shakes hands with everyone and adds “I’ll give these two a ride back,” exchanging glances with Stacy and Niguel.
“OK see you,” the three of them wave and walk off.
Natasha says to Dan “OK let’s go sit down and talk somewhere.” A customary debriefing takes place every drive to Farmington, but Dan has been dreading this one, and realizes he’s now anxious to get it over with, however it goes. “Yeah, let’s.”
They walk back the way they came, then left, then a series of turns through open warehouse to quiet carpeted office space, new walls white and devoid of human occupancy, smelling of volatile organics and curing latex.
Natasha breaks the silence as they walk down a featureless hallway, “So how long have you been coming out here?”
“Oh… forty years or so.”
“What? Oh of course… I meant how long have you been driving for us?”
“Ten years I guess…”
“Right from the beginning then. That is impressive.”
“Funny how it doesn’t feel that way, I just like driving out here.”
They stop in front of a large door, different from adjacent office doors, a larger security pad and camera intentionally obvious on the wall beside them. Natasha fiddles with the pad, the wall emits muffled sounds, Natasha gestures Dan inside.
Dan asks, “So you are here from... Tokyo? What brought you out here?”
The door closes behind them silently, enveloping them in near silence.
The room is a generous oblong of white, dominated by a shiny black table of inscrutable material, a dozen padded rolling chairs around it, wrinkled film still enclosing bright fabric. One end of the room is typically flat and rectangular, but the other is hard to see at all -- Dan realizes that it is curved, blending into walls and ceiling, only the rectangle of gray carpet delineating the floor. The two other walls have very conventional framed paintings of cookie-cutter New Mexico and native land scenes. Dan realizes that without the paintings, and the table, he might lose his balance.
“What the... media room?”
Natasha points at him, says “You got it,” points at the ceiling, “Not only, meet-you spherical projection and cameras and virtual sound. Cutting edge. One in Huizhou, one in Tokyo, this one. That’s it.”
“That’s it?” pointing to the black object on the ceiling, two shiny-black hemispheres protruding, “That little thing?”
“That little thing, attached to a quantum cluster over our heads here, you don’t want to know what it costs.”
She indicates a seat on one side of the table, as she sits opposite.
Natasha replies “So I coordinated distributed media production out of Tokyo for what you would call artier niches, and we’d occasionally get these stories of amazing creativity from this unique and frankly poor part of the US. Only production quality was lacking, and that was a matter of resources.”
“Wait… is this … opera hunts and those nonsense song lyrics and all that?”
“Haha, yes, some of that indeed. They are silly, and fun, and serious and important. There is world-making going on. But that is some of it, for sure.
“What makes this venture different is that it isn't classic production and consumption, it’s not even two-way, it is a laterally shared project, in some ways unique to this part of the world, for now anyway.”
“I truly had no idea.”
“Well it’s not well known here, in the US. Are you surprised? It wasn’t taken seriously, it was too small-fry for the corporate players with their legacy IP.”
“Huh, no not surprised at all. Corporations are probably the worst human invention ever. So how did you end up here?”
“As you might guess, I was a bit of a freak in Tokyo. I took that job knowing that would be the case, because frankly, I wasn’t exactly quote insider material here, and my skill set, a poor kid obsessed with japanese culture and anime and cosplay and fan sites -- it all looks so free and open there! Haha -- I got into art school debt in San Diego, did some trans-pacific realtime academic art from there, bounced around in an industry that claimed to want me but didn’t really -- when I applied for a particular job in at a university in Tokyo -- and my poor japanese skills gave me the edge I needed -- I was able to parlay that into coordinating small scale media -- we called it real-time then, how quaint now. After repeatedly stumbling on work from this tiny amateurish collective here in Farmington, I started seeking it out, it was rough but wow, such engaging originality. Eventually my japanese student cohort and I graduated and shifted our work to commercial. But I grew tired of being gaijin all the time, and they were focusing on work from here, Farmington, without me, so I thought what the hell -- I poked around, contacted Joseph, who said they were feeling a need for outside vision and I was perfect for them. I feel the same way. So here I am, city girl out in the desert.”
“Well I can’t imagine many places more different than Tokyo than here!”
“No kidding! Some of it is a shock, and will take a while to get used to. But underneath it all, what makes it worth the effort, is the community and acceptance. I’m a freak here too, in some obvious ways -- there’s not a lot of black folk in Farmington! -- but everyone is happy with that. Difference is enjoyed here.”
Natasha pauses a beat, then says, “Well up here, at least. Tell me about what happened to you in Flagstaff. I got the basics from Joseph and Monique. I’m so sorry that happened to you. My interest, here, isn’t in the logistics but getting a better understanding of the social angle. I know that race is a factor here. But, no offense intended, you present as a white man, they were white men, why do you think they singled you out?”
“I can’t know for sure of course, but first off, the California license plate. In the dipshit semiotics of these racist nationalists, California is their Sodom and Gomorra, queers and money and immigrants and big government and rich people. And there’s a class part that gets overlooked.”
“But you present as, no offense meant! quote an old white guy in an old car. Wouldn’t that make you quote one of them, or close enough to get by?”
“It does, or did, I guess, going by the fact this hasn’t happened before. But I think things are worse for them, there, now, just generally, I don’t know. Stacy in the car, it’s probably that. Once it happened I felt so terrible, I should have known. But she’s my friend, I don’t see her as they see her. I wasn’t vigilant.”
“What do you think will happen now? Will you do things differently next time out?”
“Hell yes. Might have to change routes, but I’ll coordinate with Joseph, or someone, before I leave for ... a sort of traffic report, before I head out.”
“One other thing, Natasha -- I think the first guy, the white pickup, was latino or whatever, a brown skinned guy. I don’t get it either.”
“Right. This isn’t all that rare, personal relationships still matter. It is ironic somehow that those who try to collate by race make these exceptions.”
“Yeah, it’s all crazy.”
“So Dan, let’s talk about Stacy for a moment. Everyone here loves her. They, we, want her to work for us in some capacity, and also support her, and possibly her friends, back in Essex.”
“Ahh... that’s wonderful. Really,” Dan pauses, thinking about ramifications, and a flash of regret in there somewhere, “have you talked to her about moving here?”
“That’s not necessary. Visit a couple times a year, maybe. She can be wherever she wants probably. What is that little town she was in, Essex? We might help her there.”
“Seriously? It looked like a hippy project to me.”
“For us Essex is a very good strategic location, Stacy’s friends there seem quite competent, at least. And with Stacy there... We have been looking for something in California that is beholden to no one. It’s close to the border. Steady traffic on an important corridor. Right on the rail line. Also, water. And what is it, a restaurant?”
“Huh, that’s all true... Stacy will shit bluebirds.”
“Stacy’s will be very, very happy.”
Smiling broadly, Natasha stands and says, “I hope so. I hope she will be willing to work with us. I’ve got to get going. I can walk you back to your car.”
“Thanks, I’d be stuck in this maze without a guide.”
Ten minutes later, Natasha shakes Dan’s hand, a dozen feet from the door, “Things are fine. A pleasure working with you as always. See you at dinner.”
“Seven, got it. Thanks and bye!”
At the door the girl with the earphones is there, sitting at a small desk beside the door. “Hey, thanks for coming. See you later.” He waves and pushes out the door into the afternoon heat.
Dan closes the door, winds down the window. The extraordinary sauna induces a paradoxical shiver down his spine, at heat beyond survivable without infrastructure yet so ordinary. He starts the car, and with forward motion the influx of hot air has a cooling effect. The engine almost stalls once, so hot that the automatic choke has turned itself off.
Dan turns the chromed knob on the built-in AM radio, a relic when procured a decade ago. A sound like rushing water fills the windshield glass. A press of a worn black rectangle produces a ka-chunk, and the static becomes music-like. Adjustment of the other knob reveals classic hip hop embedded in the noise.
I never liked hip hop, Dan guiltily mumbles to himself, indulging the habits of a lone driver. Crossing the bridge, the song ends, and after a slightly awkward interval the quiet hiss of silence becomes the chopped fluidity of spoken Navajo interspersed with english: numbers and place names and animals. Ahh, sports.
In the parking lot of American he turns the key, silencing all but ticking cast iron. Dan exits, winds windows mostly up, scans for thief-attractant objects out of habit and locks up.
The eastern wall still radiates heat, after hours in shadow. He tugs the door open, it scrapes, makes its final closed-sound as he nears the still escalator.
Dan pauses at the top, slightly winded, and scans the office area. A young woman spots him looking out of place, says, “Howdy! Can I help you?” Short, her long hair pulled back from her round, smiling face, wearing a vintage cotton dress. She slowly rises from a desk overlooking the parking lot. She must have watched me come in, Dan thinks.
Dan mutters, unconfidently, “Hi, I’m Dan, I ...”
“Oh so you are Dan. Welcome. We haven’t met. I’m Dora. I do data collection for Joseph. You brought us quite a collection this trip.”
“Oh? Oh right, that new thing from Los Angeles.”
“Huh, I don’t know about Los Angeles. I mean, from our kids from down south.”
“The Mesas, Kayenta, Tuba City? Many Farms? Peach Springs too.”
“Oh. Huh. Interesting. But no, we came up from Flagstaff. Well, we stopped for dinner in Tuba City, that’s all. Last night. Maybe an hour?”
“Oh really. Well kids make a lot of stuff in their bedrooms these days. Haha that sounds dirty, I mean with their phones, videos and all that. Maybe it was just timing. Usually someone local brings it up.”
Dan pauses at the antiquated word, and feels a little out of sync. “Videos? Yes, it seems like that’s all they do sometimes. And those rhymey songs.”
“Oh yes, we make those here. Opera hunts. They’re very popular.”
Dan conjures monochrome images of large old white people in flowing gowns, exaggerated ponderous singing in high quavering voices. And for some reason, cream pies.
Dora looks at Dan, puzzled, but continues smiling, “I thought they were popular in Los Angeles? You know, those ongoing series, synth characters telling stories, singing -- you know -- adventures of all kinds. We edit and produce the characters and materials fans come up with, into episodes and such.”
“I’ve seen it, mainly heard it, never paid much attention to it. Networks don’t like it though, right?”
Dora straightens imperceptibly, says, “You don’t work for a network, do you?”
“What? Oh no! I’m what they used to call retired, but I work for Joseph. Only Joseph.”
“Oh, good! Haha well they are actually pretty clever, and useful. A lot of critically important information moves with it, that’s… I thought you knew that. Since you were…” now it is Dora’s turn to look uncomfortable.
Dan says quickly, “Oh no, I have a decent idea of what you, we I guess, are doing. I guess I’m just sort of unconnected to it back at home, and I don’t understand it. I’m out here once a month or so. Sorry if I seem clueless. I mainly like the driving.”
Dora moves a little closer, smiles, “Oh no, no problem, sorry, I’m here all the time so I suppose I think this is all obvious when it isn’t, at all. I admit I was a little surprised though, since you’re one of our most important agents. And the oldest, I mean, longest.”
“Ha! Yes to both. Are there a lot? Of agents?”
Dora assesses Dan, says, “You should ask Joseph about that. But few travel as far as you,” with this, she smiles broadly, and adds, “and none of them drives a gas car.”
Three young men lost in animated discussion arrive from the stepped well, Dora touches Dan’s arm, guiding him away from the landing, and says, “Look at us standing here! I didn’t mean to keep you so long. How can I help you!”
“Oh no! It’s fine, it was a pleasure talking to you, really, and I’m glad to learn more about what’s going on. Like I said I do feel a bit disconnected from things here, but I am happy helping out. Really,” and returns a broad smile.
He continues, “I just came back from the new facilities, there’s a dinner at seven -- will you be there? -- and I thought I’d take a nap or something until then. Unless there’s something I should be doing?”
“Oh no, that’s fine. Oh, you’re staying in the rooms here?” she makes a vague gesture in the direction of the hall of rooms.
The young men have moved deeper into the large room, settling at a long table, and seem to be waiting for something, which from Dora’s shift in attention, seems to be her.
“OK great. I’m still working, but yes, I’m going to dinner with y’all. I’ll see you then? If you need anything, just ask!”
“OK, thank you! And it was great to meet you... Dora.” Dan, suddenly tired, heads to his room.
* * *
Stacy knocks on Dan’s room’s door, which rattles in its frame, opens it two inches and says, “Hey.”
Dan emits a series of noises, then rustling sounds that Stacy interprets as up-getting. She says “OK,” leaves the door ajar and heads back to the office area.
A few minutes later Dan walks past the escalator pit to see a half dozen people milling about, backlit by the dimming eastern glow of the wall of glass. With some mental effort to shake off the nap Dan sleepily greets Joseph, takes a deep breath, then Stacy and Niguel and a man Dan judges to not be local based on his expensive-looking clothing, a jacket with a liquid sheen, the three of them engaged in animated discussion. Dan nods and smiles at Dora, then heads towards the wall of glass where the crowd is thinner.
Dan faces the glass wall and parking lot below, and considers this arbitrary view of ordinariness. Having now experienced this excessive and badly placed window glass, so I thought, in night’s darkness, morning assault, afternoon wane, and now dusk, a sort-of anti-sunset, I think I get it, Dan thinks. Even the parking lot, ringed with stark nearly leafless trees, has beauty here. Remnants of the day’s heat continue to warm the glass.
Dan turns from the window to be startled by Stacy standing close, facing him with one of her patented ear to ear smirks. “Damn! Scared me. What’s up?”
“Oh not much. Hey! I met that guy who saved our asses back there. He’s wild!”
“Yeah, Jimmy. Sit with us at dinner, I’ll introduce you.”
“OK, cool. Gonna walk with Niguel, see you there,” Stacy flashes a broad smile, then turns and leaves. Dan cannot remember seeing Stacy so happy for such an extended period of time.
Now fully awake and in sync, Dan seeks out Joseph, finds him back at his big table as before, with Natasha and two older women who rise, smile and exit as he arrives.
“My reputation precedes me?” Dan reaches out to shake Natasha’s hand as they sit down.
Joseph spins in his office chair, leans back onto the table, smiling, and says “No, no… we just wrapped up a long meeting, they want to go home, not get stuck talking to a bunch of old people. Sit down!”
Dan pulls out the same chair as last time, sits. “I fell asleep. Did I miss anything?”
Joseph and Natasha exchange glances, Joseph says “I don’t think so. That Stacy… she is older than she looks. Interesting. Does she have native family?”
“I don’t know. She doesn’t talk about her family, her past. At all. That’s probably why we get along,” Dan smiles.
“She is well liked here. Mary and Ella,” Joseph smiles and waves goodbye to the two women, now headed towards the escalator, “they run research. They were very impressed.”
“This is all great, though I admit I will be sad when she leaves LA.”
“I see. You will still see her, I think, on your drives out here. There may be changes too.”
Dan examines both Joseph and Natasha for clues, but Joseph continues, “Yes, we will talk about this at dinner, with the others. We may ask you to stop regularly in Essex. And we can work on, here or later, new routes. Will stopping in Essex be a burden in any way?”
“Hmm… I don’t know, probably not for me. They were having issues with some crew they were working with, distasteful but nothing dangerous…”
Natasha and Joseph exchange confident nods, “We think that will be resolved shortly.”
“Huh… Well then, we should be good to go. Stacy’s friends there seemed solid, so yeah, sounds good. Routes… well you know I’m a sucker for maps.”
Joseph stands, Natasha follows, then Dan, and Joseph says, “Looks like everyone is here, I think we are ready to go.” Joseph looks around, inhales, with his hand indicating the exit.
Now numbering about ten, when the others see Joseph, Natasha, and Dan rise, the group marches down the escalator, resonant metallic footsteps in the cavernous space.
“Where are we eating this time?” Dan asks over his shoulder.
“Bernice’s. She’s expecting us.”
“Crap, it’s hot out here.” Sixty seconds out the door, the final vestiges of cooling dampness of the building wafts away, finding himself walking across the stark, pocked black parking lot now reradiating a day’s collection of infrared, and invoking some ancient urge to flee in Dan’s brain.
Joseph arches an eyebrow, looks askance at Dan. “This cannot be news to you. I never heard you complain about the heat before.”
Dan inhales, and sighs, as a heat shudder runs down his spine, the second time in one day. “Nahh, just grousing. Low blood sugar.”
They cut through the landscaped island, feet crunching gravel, politely not seeing the tent of the gate watcher. They pause to gather near the sidewalk oblongs at the intersection, thick layers of unofficial paint and flyers and stickers, padlocked and buzzing. One of them clicks as the traffic light color changes.
The group hesitates, assessing the movements of a pickup truck turning the corner, visceral response to the unspoken threat of happy hour.
Bernice’s Fine Dining is late-twentieth-century southwest vernacular, a rectangular cuboid, set on a sea of cracked asphalt. Bernice’s is distinguished by a long wall covered in a tight regular pattern of what looks like the inside of an egg carton painted bright blue. Two vehicles, a diminutive plastic runabout and a hulking antique pickup sniff the egg carton. Two trees tuck into a thin gap of desiccated dirt along the wall, heroic plants that manage a dense green in spite of carvings and cuts in their trunks, probably thriving on unthinkably old plumbing beneath the building.
Back at the sidewalk Dan had thought the restaurant all but deserted but patrons fill booths by the windows in the unlit interior. Around the corner bicycles are cabled to the egg carton.
Dan, Joseph and Natasha walk in last, the door held by a young woman, who smiles and exits.
Four tables have been pushed in a line near the far wall, wood-grain wainscotting below, white paint above, lined with kid’s sports achievement mementos, photographs, posters, framed graphic T-shirts.
They mill about, hands on chairs, chatting, solving the four-color problem of social seating. They end up sitting in approximately the order in which they arrived, Dan at the closest corner, and Stacy opposite; Niguel, Monique, Jimmy, Dora, Joseph, Natasha, and Dan occupy the end of the long rectangle, Natasha at the dominant end.
Dan, facing the wall, sees Stacy’s attention drawn to something behind him and turns to see Bernice herself appear to greet the table of regulars.
Bernice is short, very heavy, round face and all curves, permanent smile creases and wise skeptical eyes, moves with the strength and agility of a professional wrestler mom. She smiles, welcomes, scans, and nods to familiar faces, flags one of the waiter kids with exaggerated come-hither finger, already on his way over with menus, a theater of attention for favored customers.
When Bernice gets around to addressing Stacy’s gawking at her she says “Well who’s this pretty little girl?” Dan cringes, expecting Stacy to lash out at this insult, but instead responds with an open smile and, “Stacy ma’m.” Dan is shocked.
Bernice cocks her head to one side, momentarily. “Where you from, girl?”
“Los Angeles,” glancing at Dan, still smiling. Dan wonders if Stacy has been damaged, or drugged.
“You working for these old folks now? We gonna see you around?”
Stacy smiles somehow more broadly, “Looks like it. Maybe.”
“Well I hope ta see you around then!”
Stacy smiles, lips shut, and only nods. Dan watches, puzzled, Stacy smiles at him a moment then says “Oh hey, this is Jimmy! He’s the ninja badass that saved our asses from those rednecks.” When Jimmy doesn’t respond, Stacy taps his arm.
“What? Well hello there, Dan right? Good to meet you under more auspicious circumstances, right? Haha”, then Jimmy extends a hand, arches one eyebrow, then compacts six come-hither expressions into one brief gesture towards Dan, rotates his hand as if expecting Dan to kiss it. Dan responds with his own cocked eye, up and down look, a firm hand held a half-second too long, and a breathy “Charmed”, and now it is Stacy’s turn to look alarmed, not ever once having the faintest clue that Dan was capable of such conventional, old-fashioned queerness.
Dan and Jimmy glance at Stacy’s wide-eyed look, then laugh, sit back in their seats. Jimmy flips his hair back with one hand, tossing his head and rolls his eyes, generating a second round of laughter, this time Stacy included.
“That was you back there? Holy crap man, I honestly thought they were going to kill us. Thank you so much for that intervention.”
“You’re welcome. Monique here,” Jimmy nods in her direction, who is deep in conversation with Joseph, next to her, “called me that afternoon. We watch out for friends and family.”
“Oh shit. Was I that predictable? I feel really terrible and stupid that I walked into that mess.”
“Oh, don’t. It was bound to happen eventually. The AZ Republic has been moving north for a while now, people are fleeing Phoenix as it dries up. There is a regional effort building to push them back south of forty again. Or to behave, but that seems less likely.”
“Huh. That would be good, but it kinda screws me in the short term.”
“We have some ideas about that. At some point we,” here he pauses to nod towards Joseph, “will talk about this, in fact.” Jimmy pauses, then shifts the subject with “But enough about work!”
With a broad grin, Jimmy signals the waiter, who hands him a menu, a single sheet of paper, laminated in curling transparent plastic.
From behind hers, Stacy says “What’s good?”
“It’s Bernice! It’s all good!” Jimmy peers over the top of his menu at Dan, but addressing Stacy, over the tops of black-framed eyeglasses suddenly attached to his face, “And I am not saying that merely because I am afraid of her, but because her cooking is very, very, good. She was a sous chef in more than one high-end restaurant in Denver, before that place gave out. You have no idea.”
“I usually go for local stuff,” to which Jimmy cocks an eyebrow and figurative gun at Dan, and winks.
“Indian tacos?”, from Stacy.
“Good choice. Mutton, here. And Bernice knows how to use spices.”
The table quiets as the waiter kid retrieves their menus and takes orders.
“Jimmy, what do you do for Joseph?” Dan takes a long sip from his sweating, weak iced tea.
“Well, by day I’m a fixer, I solve the sort of problems where thinking and action come together, such as your situation. Though those are usually not so… kinetic. I’m part of the regional futures planning team.”
“You have a lot of highway robbery? Isn’t that a dangerous job?”
“Oh, fairly rare so far… I’m called in for creative resolution to physical problems. Though that one required both a bit of theatrics and firepower, both.”
“What’s your background? How’d you get into this work?”
“Daddy tried to butch me up and made me take martial arts classes as a teen. Turns out, that one time, I actually liked it. But then I moved to New York City before… and went to theater school. Turns out the two were not incompatible. On graduating I took a teaching job in Denver and then...”, and shrugs.
“So let me ask… was there someone in the back of your truck? With a rifle?”
“Oh no. Rifle robot. When I pulled over and parked at that funny angle, I was poking around with the interface setting up the shots. It’s not very intelligent so my gestures had to be rather flamboyant,” he waves an arm overhead, “and everything was positioned all in line, just so, my truck facing them. The real theater was all behind the scenes, as it were.”
“What was that in your hand? At first I thought it was an old phone, but I forgot all about it when the… festivities started.”
“You saw that? Oh my. No matter. The boys saw a drunk in-jun, as intended, they were not too attentive to details.”
“You were alone? Wow. What if things didn’t go right?”
“Well, that contingency is actually the thing’s main purpose, isn’t it?” Jimmy looks up, to Dan’s left.
“I assume those are very illegal.”
“Good evening everyone”, says Joseph, standing up from his chair at the head of the long table. “Before the food comes let me tell you a few things. Some of you know these things but let me put it all together.”
In the moment’s pause Dan looks behind him, and is surprised to find the restaurant empty but for their table. “Bernice closes early for us,” Monique says.
“I think you have all met Stacy by now. She is joining us, and will work with Niguel on communications.” Joseph pauses, smiling, as folks around the table voice quiet assents. Dan gives Stacy an ‘I knew it’ nod and smile, she beams in return.
“She will not be moving here, unfortunately for us,” smiling at Stacy, “She will go back to California and will visit us now and then,” with a glance to Dan, “and will pursue a relationship with folks we do not yet know but have indicated a willingness to work with us.”
“Woah,” Dan sits up straight, looks at Stacy then Joseph, “Essex? Interesting,” and furrows his brows, irrationally feeling left out; conflicted between baseless disappointment and happiness for Stacy, decides to run with the latter, “congratulations!”
Joseph continues, “Welcome Stacy! I am sure I speak for everyone here when I say I look forward to your contributions,” raises his iced tea from its puddle on the plastic-covered tablecloth, Dan counts three more drips, as Joseph sits.
“All right!” and other cheers rise, as the waiter kid brings white oval steaming plates, waiting for Joseph to complete his oration.
“Wow, so you’re working for Joseph, I mean Monique? And going back to Essex? Did you talk to what’s her -- Ana?”
“Yup. These guys”, imperceptibly indicating left and right, “have been looking for an outpost in California but it’s never worked out. But Ana’s setup is new, and they have power and water. We had a conference call in the fancy media room with Ana and Bruce -- turns out that guy is super smart -- and they’re open to the idea, so we’ll see.”
“We will provide them with a water tank”, Joseph says, “Stacy told us what happened. We will work with them to have one of their choosing installed as soon as possible.”
“Wow, this all sounds great! So I guess I’m dropping you off there on the way back?”
Stacy crosses her arms, leaning back as her food arrives, a brief smile to the waiter, “Sure, if that’s OK.”
“Sure, no problem, of course.”
A hell of a day, Dan thinks, suddenly famished.
The non-stairs of the escalator are exhausting, again, this time due to a heavy dinner and a bottle of beer; the long haul up to the cast aluminum landing leaves Dan winded and ancient-feeling, exhausted, but content. It rattles as he steps off to make room for Joseph and Natasha, and is somehow smug to see that they are further behind him than he thought.
After a glacial minute Joseph is standing on the grooved plate, chatting quietly with Natasha. The three of them venture into the velour forest, Dan unreservedly anticipates sinking into the worn foam.
Natasha asks the two, both now sunk into habitual spots, “I’m getting some tea. Do you two want anything?”
Joseph turns to Dan, across the coffee table. “When Natasha returns we should talk some about routes.” He pauses, and his attention appears to drift far away, but his eyes snap back to Dan as he says, “That technology that Stacy has found is very interesting. Did you know of it?”
Dan stares blankly for a second, assimilating, doesn’t like the result. “No, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Ahh. I suspected as much. Well I’m sure she will tell you on the ride home.”
“What are we talking about, exactly?”
“A rare find, a mobile communication device,” Joseph pauses, looks far away, returns, “Law enforcement technology. Unusual circumstances rendered it inert, it seems.”
Fear and dread erases sleepiness. “Oh for fuck’s sake. I don’t believe this. Does it… fly? There has not once ever been one taken without the finder disappearing. And finders friends. Shit shit shit…” Dan starts to rise.
“Please, listen. I should be more clear. Stacy did not endanger herself or you. Or your household. She saw it crash in a remote place and did not go near it. She simply kept track of its location and that is what she gave us. You are in no danger.”
Dan’s heart is pounding, he realizes as he sinks back in the seat, still alert. “Well then tell me what you know before I talk to her.”
“I am sorry I alarmed you. She saw two of these devices hit each other during a swarm, as happens now and then. But one of them fell out of the sky and broke, landing in a tree or some sort of debris. She thought no more of it, she shares your... respect for the danger. But she had reason to be in the same area some weeks later, and saw it still lodged there. The authorities never recovered it. And then some time later, last week, now, it was still there.”
Natasha arrives with a thrift-store-looking glazed green teapot, four stringed tags siphoning water onto the carpet, and now the coffee table. Three definitely-thrift-store mugs clink, dangling from her fingers as she sets the mess down onto the table.
“I am telling Dan about Stacy’s find.”
“Oh yes! Amazing luck.”
Joseph watches Natasha fill their cups, brow furrowing at tea on the table, looks at Dan and continues the story.
“So anyways, Stacy told us this during our discussions this afternoon, while you were out, and we arranged for a specialist to retrieve it. It is already on its way out of California.”
“Damn, Joseph, is that a good idea? I assume this is a cop drone. They’re tracked, redundant, failsafe, boobytrapped. They emit micro-energy beacons you can’t sniff even on top of them. No one has ever got one who didn’t get caught.”
“We realize that. This circumstance is unusual. We think it is a combination of electrical and physical failures that rendered it truly silent. It went directly into a metal box, and will spend time in more than one quarantine before it gets to where it is going.”
“This makes me very uncomfortable. Who knows this?”
“Us two, Monique, now you. That is all.”
“‘Two people can keep a secret if one of ‘ems dead’.”
“What is that?”
“An old Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang maxim. Well I guess it’s done, man, I don’t like it. Where is it going?”
“Not here. I do not know.”
Dan lifts his cup, now cool, drips tea on a vintage print magazine, further curling a corner. He is surprised by a grassy green tea of a kind not tasted since visiting Japan as a tourist, decades ago.
“So let’s discuss routes. Will you bring Stacy to Essex on your way home? Or are you continuing to Santa Fe?”
“Not this time, headed home. Yes, I’ll take Stacy. Obviously I will not be driving through Flagstaff.”
“Of course. We are hoping you could take a small detour for us.”
“Just south and west of here. Very close, and our own people go there regularly. But since you are leaving in the morning, and now have such high capacity, it would be a boon to have you pass through there.”
“Of course. Will I need to stop to unload?”
“If you stop for lunch in Chinle it would work out well.”
“Consider it done. So I’m getting that new box back?”
“Yes. Monique’s crew made some changes. They found that it was reporting back home. It still does that, but now it tells our friends what we want.”
“Oh jeez, did I screw up again? Sorry.”
“No! Oh no. No, everything is fine, it was the ordinary spying of business partners. It did not compromise you, or us really. And we are not countering them, just harmonizing our relationship with them. They will never know, and probably expected us to find it.”
“Oh, OK. So business as usual.”
“For those old white folks, yes. No offense, of course.”
“None taken, believe me. So what about next time out?”
Natasha continues, “Well, the details we can communicate in the usual way when it’s time. Expect some changes. But let’s talk about the bigger picture. The Republic is surrounded, pressured by Mexico, California, us and our neighbors. The LDS, New Mexico, and now the Sikh Brotherhood, we are all united in this. Nothing physical, unless called for like yesterday. We are all interested in peace and trade and free movement. We think the Republic is looking for a weak spot, and we think they think that is us. They of course read our moves wrong.”
“That makes sense but I hadn’t put it together. The Sikhs, huh? Ahhh… is my competition Sikh truck drivers?”
“What? You know I can’t talk about other agents. But no, there is no competition.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. I was mostly joking. But the Punjabis have a hell of a network along the big roads, gerdwaras all along 40. And good food. And they don’t seem to worry about the Republic.”
Joseph sits up straight, drips tea in his lap as he sips. “It’s gurudwara. Think of it as two words. They are good neighbors. I don’t know how they deal with trouble, but such things are not new to them.”
“Right. LDS too, but such things are new to them. I don’t think the Mormons are used to being shot at.”
“Who is? No, the Republic will be squeezed out. Starved out, really. They don’t know how to cooperate with their neighbors. So many lines they draw. With us, Sikhs, or even Californians. Their demise will be from their own actions, not ours.”
“In the meantime they commit highway robbery.”
Joseph shrugs. “Well yes. Let’s get back to routes. After Chinle, you are free to choose any route, though with that new thing in your automobile you might help out some folks around the border towns. Will you drive out 64?”
“Yes. And of course. I plan on avoiding Forty in ay zee as much as possible. So 264 through Hopi land, then down to 64. I admit that it freaks me out to have to drive back near there.”
“If you would like to take the big road, west of Williams where 64 ends, you are free to do so. It seems your experience caused a backlash, out of Flagstaff no less. It solidified a regional effort to keep the interstate open to all. It may not last, but it is safe for now.”
“Wow, that’s good news. I’m probably not in that kind of hurry, but it’s nice to have a choice.”
“Indeed. Well enough business. How are you going to manage things back home with Stacy gone?”
“We talked about it a little. I guess I was hoping she would be back and forth, LA and Essex. But now I don’t know. I guess I didn’t think Essex would be real, but now…”
“I see. Yes, that sounds difficult.”
Dan shifts on the sofa, “We have this kid Aaron, he’s pretty smart, when he pays attention. He’s avoided the bad choices available in LA, so far. Between the two of us and the rest we should be OK.”
Dan and Joseph sink back, at once, tea raised to lips, outward synchronicity reflecting the state of things, for once. Dan notices his sleepy reverie only when Joseph says “Well, I’m up early, so I will leave you here. Breakfast?”
Dan attempts to unslump from the enfolding chair, and fails, succeeding only in slopping cold tea. “Sure, yes, sounds great. Here? Seven?”
Joseph is standing now, smiles and nods, and heads down the metallic stairs.
Nodding off for a second time, jerked awake by the jolt of adrenaline from the spilling cup in hand, Dan takes a deep breath and makes the excruciating effort to rise out of the chair threatening to absorb him.
Dan mumbles a rhetorical ‘Where the fuck is Stacy?’, decides his intent isn’t entirely rhetorical, compromises by deciding to search only this floor. Hears before seeing a huddle of younger folks settled into the high density furniture storage area at the far reaches of the room.
Dan’s slow progress zigzagging through the clutter of furniture serves as warning to the meeting underway, a change in their conversation’s cadence as he approaches.
A young man and a young woman, on either side of Stacy lean back, framing her with their suspended attention, Stacy glowing in a way she would not admit to in a million years.
“Hey,” Dan works up an earnest smile, hellos to those he knows, a few casual introductions to others, his attention returns to Stacy.
“Hey, I’m nodding off… I’ll see you in the morning I guess. I’ll be up early for breakfast with Joseph. We should leave after that. You OK?”
“Oh yeah, things are great. We’re gonna hang out here for a while I guess,” Stacy looks around at her new friends tentatively, a sufficient number of them assent, she looks back at Dan. “Yeah, I’ll see you when you get up? What’s a good time?”
“Eight or nine.”
“No problemo. See you then. Here, right?”
“Sounds good. Hey, nice to meet you all,” pleasantries exchanged, Dan heads off to his room and bed.
“Hi Monique! Niguel!”
Stacy and a slightly younger woman sit close, occupying one the pair of sofas nearest the escalator, the customary place to await the arrival of others, announced by the rattle of cast aluminum panels underfoot.
Stacy starts to rise, but Monique gently waves and sits, instead shifts body intimacy from personal to public as they all sit. The young woman smiles as she arranges a clear spot on the coffee table between them. Niguel positions a shiny new black plastic case with a handle, the molded kind used for expensive tools, into the clearing.
“Hello Lola, how are you?” Lola politely detaches from Stacy’s side and shifts over a bit on the sofa.
“Fine Monique, how are you today? Niguel?”
Stacy is calm and composed, like a cat getting everything it could want. She looks between Niguel smiling at her and the shiny case.
“Good morning! This is what we talked about yesterday. It is ready to go.”
“Can I look at it?”
“Of course, please do. I’ll show you the ports.”
Niguel opens the case, which faces Stacy across from him. Stacy presses fingers between oblong and foam and lifts,
faltering at first, underestimating its mass. The case lifts with it, then falls back to the table. There are other objects in small recesses in the foam but this is clearly the center of attraction.
The front edge of the device is a display the size of a thin phone, a slow procession of text and numbers, and the single fixed word in a large face, SLEEPING. The rear edge is sharp on her fingers; turning it over she says “Are those… heat sinks?”
Monique, typically reticent, interjects, “Turn it around and look…”
“Is that... a fan?” Doubt crosses Stacy’s face, thinking this might be a prank or joke.
“Yes, a fan. Haha no not retro-chic. This is a very fast and large machine. It can get very hot at times. World class quantum cloud interface stuff. Don’t lose it, haha. Seriously, keep this out of sight, on the road and even when you are home.”
“Wow! So this is for Essex, right?”
“Yes. This, I wanted you or Dan to transport personally. The rest of it will be delivered later. Once networking is in place we can bring it up all the way.”
Stacy openly fondles the crisp dense cabinet, aluminum with a grainy texture as if brushed, and wrinkly black like twentieth-century enamel exposed to solvents; intricate convolutions, a caricature of dried animal skin.
“Is it held together with… bolts? Screws? Damn.” Stacy feels the circular depressions containing flush socket head screws, mirror-finished, recessed in the textured black. “Man this is beautiful”.
Lola, sensing an exit from what will become a discussion she has no interest in, says “Stacy, it was great to meet you! Let’s hook up next time you are in town.”
“Yeah, I had a great time. Thanks for showing me around town last night.”
“Oh no problem, that was fun! See you!” Lola puts her hand on Stacy’s, leans in and kisses her, lingering just shy of the duration that would make the others uncomfortable.
“See you later!”
“Bye Lola, I’ll see you back in the shop.”
They pause for a fraction, Niguel looking almost hurt by the distraction, continues, “Umm, glad you like it. Yeah, I’m really into ninety’s shit,”. He beams at Stacy’s excitement, “Inside is the carbon brick, connected to one one of our cloud machines and that display.”
“It’s not running now, right?” Stacy looks puzzled for a moment.
“No, well, some of the network stuff is on and the panel. These bricks aren’t meant to be mobile of course. It’s on, just running super slow, it’s never really fully off.”
“What sensors does it have?”
Niguel is puzzled, sits up, looks at Monique, not sure what to make of the question. Monique smiles, “See? This is why we work with Stacy and Dan.”
Monique turns to Stacy with a glance at Niguel. “The panel is a full feature phone, repackaged. It seemed wasteful to engineer a new interface for this, and the bonus is it has everything a phone has, microphone, GPX, altimeter, rad meter, all the rest. Not sure if it can see? Maybe not.”
“OK now I understand what you said yesterday. Got it. Huh… I have to talk to Dan about this. So basically it’s like you’re in the room with us. Even unpowered?”
“Yes, it is self-contained, it’s conversational. It will determine from context what is going on about as good as a smart dog. The box itself is silent, but you’ll see it on your phone, you can tell it to do things for you.”
Stacy reverently fits the device back into its nest, notices the mouse warren of holes in the foam. “What are...?” manipulating the other objects in their textured recesses.
“Power and net hardware. Big stuff for when you install it later. If you ask it lots of questions it may ask you to plug it into the car. Sleeping, it doesn’t need much.”
Stacy hears Dan and Joseph stump up the escalator while Monique is talking, watches the two exchange words and gestures then walk towards the sofas. Dan stops, Joseph continues elsewhere.
“Hey. Morning, Monique, Niguel. What’s up?” the last in response to the object of concern between them, the shiniest object in the well-worn room.
“Oh right. That’s it?” Dan leans down to tilt the cover open, past the ninety degrees at which it is perched. “So small! Nice.”
“The freaking thing has a fan!”
“Wow. So this is the machine for Essex that Joseph told me about?”
“Yes it is.”
Dan nods, appreciatively. “Looks expensive, we’ll bury it in the trunk.”
Dan shifts gears and says, “Hey I know this was a too-fast visit, but thanks so much for everything, your hospitality. And I am very happy that Stacy has a part in this now.” Dan looks at Stacy who raises her eyebrows as a question.
“You ready to go? We still have to load up. You saw how much fun it was to drive at night.”
“Yeah no shit.” She looks at Monique, Niguel, stands up, and for once, formally shakes their hands in turn. “I am really, really, glad to be able to work with you guys.”
“Yeah, have a good trip back. Call me when you get to Essex so we can get that thing turned on.”
“Will do. Monique, thank you for everything. I’m really excited to work with you and Niguel and for this, your, community or whatever.”
“Yours too, I hope.”
“Yeah, well, I hope so too,” looking at Dan who is, for once, not impatient and scowling. He nods in agreement.
To Stacy Dan says, “Ready? I loaded most of my stuff on the way out for breakfast. Let’s get your shit down, then we can come back up to say goodbye.”
Niguel says, “I can help if you want.” Stacy shrugs, the three of them get everything from her room to the parking lot in one trip.
Niguel and Stacy lift her bike onto the roof carrier, bungie it down, while Dan buries the black case under their collected trunk junk.
“Ready?” Stacy replies “Yup”, Dan closes the trunk lid.
“Let’s go say goodbye”, the three of them head back upstairs.
Joseph, Monique, Niguel, and Dora await them at the top of the escalator, smiling. As hugs and handshakes and goodbyes wind down, Joseph goes to the coffee table nearest, picks up a brown bag and hands it to Stacy.
“This is from Bernice, we asked her to put together some things to eat on your trip.”
“Aww, wow, thanks! Tell her I said thank you!”
“Of course I will. You two have a good drive home.”
Dan says, “Thank you Joseph, all of you, this ended up being a very good visit.”
They climb into the car, already gathering heat, wind windows down, engine idling and ready.
“Nope, I know the way from here.”
Dan pulls around and out the way they first came, and waves absent-mindedly towards the unoccupied chair under the tree, left and down the highway, west.
*** end book3