Friday, December 5, 2014

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Three: Jingly Thunder

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Jingly Thunder

He flushes the ATM receipt down the toilet and spends the night staring at television shows. At six he gives up, takes a shower, packs his bags and walks to the registration desk. His room has already been paid for.

The driver’s-side door of his truck has been locked into place since June. He opens the passenger door, kneels backward on the bench seat, closes the door then spins into place behind the wheel. The interior is just as clean as the body; they must have detailed it.

Mono Lake is a drab-looking place, but the desolation lends itself to morning light. Skye wanders a spiderweb of dirt roads before stumbling onto a visitors center and finding that he is on the wrong side of the lake. A few miles south, he turns onto a long gravel road and follows it to the tufa formations, ghostly figures built from fresh water bubbling into salt water and depositing layers of minerals. The formations are not awe-inspiring in the way of a Crater Lake or Grand Canyon, but an excellent example of nature’s sense of humor. The trail ends at the shore, where the largest formations rise from the lake like phantom ships. He takes out his vidcam and catches a group of kayakers drifting past on the flat, still water.

He’s about to repeat the kneel-spin when the hood of his truck catches his eye. Twenty-six summers had baked the burnt orange paint to a murky brown and created pockmarks like acne scars. Gone. They repainted it! And did a damn good job of matching the color.

He fills up at Tioga Junction, a little unsettled by the chaos of tourists prepping for the drive into Yosemite. This is not what he wants. Finding an oversized map next to the restrooms, he decides to return to the north side of the lake and head east into the wild nothingness of Nevada.

The landscape past Mono is thrilling: spreads of raw red and brown, as if someone has torn the skin right off the planet. He climbs a barren ridge, driving into the sun. It’s eleven o’clock, already 95 degrees, and he’s got no air conditioning. Whose brilliant idea was this? The downslope reveals water. When he reaches it – Walker Lake – he pulls over, takes off his shirt and tries to vibe a breeze off the mountains hugging the westward shore. He coaches himself: Don’t worry. It’s worth it. You’re seeing a thing you’ve never seen before.

The day that the driver’s-side handle came off in Skye’s hand, he also managed to get his seatbelt stuck in the door. It still reaches far enough for function, but once in a while he tries to open the door in order to free it up, and curses himself for his forgetfulness. This time, the door opens. He sits there, stunned, then gets out to inspect his shiny new handle. The kneel-spin is history.

A half-hour later, Skye rounds the tip of the lake and enters the Walker River Indian Reservation. He is no longer heading into the sun, but it continues to beat on the roof, and his brain is turning into a Denver omelet. He is forced to consider the Conundrum of the Fan. Turn on the fan and you get immediate relief. Followed, a minute later, by the realization that the wind on your face is the same hot air that’s baking you alive.

But it’s not like he has anything better to do. He hits the switch, feels momentarily better, and waits for the air to heat up. But it doesn’t. Which can only mean one thing: Skye’s ’86 Toyota pickup, purchased from his father two years before, a vehicle that has never previously had air conditioning, now has air conditioning. He rolls up the windows and drives north, composing hymns of praise to Sarge McCollum.

His northward route, Highway 95, is a straight shot through nondescript scrublands, though something called the Carson Sink has left a residue of white across the pan. Soon enough, he reaches 80 and heads east, next to a long shelf of hay-colored mountains. He feels the current under his wheels, the pull of an interstate that ends at the Atlantic Ocean.

He enters Winnemucca, and remembers how much he likes Winnemucca. How much he likes to say “Winnemucca.” He passes beneath an overpass, hits the main strip of fast food and gas stations, spots a cemetery on a southward rise. The casinos show up at the east side of town, adjacent to a high hill bearing a W assembled with painted rocks.

The casino that he likes best is Winners, barely changed from its ‘70s origins. A glitzy yellow marquee arcs over the parking entrance, announcing $6.99 sirloin and a Led Zeppelin tribute band. The interior seems unchanged, as well, a broad field of slots and tables. The audio, however, is vastly different. On his first visit in the late eighties, the soundtrack was metallic, the jingly thunder of quarters smacking steel pans. Now it’s all digital, the whirring and beeping of a thousand different songs, an electronic aviary.

He scopes the aisles like a punt returner, looking for a lane, a story. It’s not enough to risk money and maybe win money. He needs a narrative something whimsical, unexpected. His favorite is Lobstermania, where the bonus round brings a boatman with a New England accent, providing a running commentary as he pulls point-valued lobsters from their traps (“wicked lahge one theah!”).

He settles on Big Kahuna, which features various surfer-movie types: goofy blond surfer, studly Hawaiian lifeguard, daffy redhead beach bunny, the fat guy who runs the snack bar. When you line up three big waves, you get to choose from three Tiki gods and get a certain number of bonus spins, which play out in a high-speed autopilot. The surf-music soundtrack helps (Jan and Dean, The Ventures), and also the fact that he’s winning. (Now that he doesn’t need it, he’s winning.)

Skye glances around for a waitress and is caught by an unusual sight. A red poker chip wheels around the corner, dips into a spiral and settles at his feet. A woman in a red floral dress trots the aisle, chewing on a finger as she mutters “Oh, oh, oh, oh.”


She stops.

“Red chip?”

She nods.

He bends down and holds up the escaped prisoner. She scampers over, places her hand on the chip and leaves it there. For Skye, the visual information is coming fast. Pale blue eyes. Plump lips in a natural pout. Plentiful dairy-white cleavage. She’s the hottest deaf-mute he’s ever met.

“Thank you I don’t know what’s wrong with me I’m a Mormon and I shouldn’t be gambling in the first place but at least you would think I could hold on to a stinking chip. That’s a cute machine you’ve got there.”

He waits to make sure she’s finished. “Yeah. It’s fun. Generous, too.”

“I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii.” She twirls the chip in her fingers. “I was playing blackjack.” She pushes the chip into her bra. “I’m Lindsy.”

“I’m Skye.”

“Skye? That is so cool what a great name were your parents hippies?”

“My dad was a pilot and my mom liked Guys ‘n’ Dolls.”

Lindsy seems to switch off for a second, then she bursts into laughter. “Skye Masterson! He’s the one who makes a bet that he can screw that religious lady that sounds kinda like a good idea.”

She takes his hand and gives him a look that is dreamy but also glazed-over.

“Mormon girl?”


“Been drinking?”

She shakes her hair, a thick pile of sandy blonde, touch of strawberry. “Those James Bond things.”


“Shaky, not stirred. Haha! The waitress kept offering, I kept… They’re free, you know.”

Skye hits the cash-out button and takes his voucher. “Buy you some dinner?”

She smiles, a flash of white that disappears into anxiety. “I could pay for mine. My husband hasn’t turned off my card yet.”

Skye holds up the voucher. “This one’s on the Big Kahuna.”


He folds his fingers into hers and walks her to the casino restaurant. Skye spots them in a mirrored wall, looking oddly like a married couple.

Lindsy is an impressive eater: sirloin, baked potato (all the trimmings), a side salad and a slice of lemon meringue pie. Toward the end of her meal, she seems to have returned to something near sobriety.

“I grew up in Salt Lake City as a Methodist, a perfectly lovely upbringing. I fell for a Mormon boy. After a year, he proposed. I said yes. We were married at the temple. My family was not allowed to attend. What followed was a polite, slow-moving mudflow of patriarchal fucking bullshit. Geez, I’m sorry. My language gets worse and worse.”

“It’s all right,” says Skye. “You’re angry. Swearing gets the anger out.”

She gives a pert smile. “Thank you. Still, I’ll try to save it for special occasions. It’s not that Thad was a bad husband. And his parents were nice enough. But the whole church had this creepy air of obedience about it, everybody trying oh-so-hard not to put a crack in the façade. And what a façade! I snuck out to a library computer and dug into it. The entire creation of the church was clearly a scam that exceeded all expectations. They gave up polygamy only so Utah could win statehood. It took them till the 1970s to allow a black priest. And they shipped forty million bucks of our tithe money to California to fight gay marriage. I hadn’t really thought of it before, but if you’re against gay marriage, then don’t have one!”

She takes a last bite of pie and tries to re-track her story.

“Being a Methodist was like having a weekly checkup with God. ‘How’m I doing? Am I being Christ-like? Cool.’ With Mormons, it’s all-encompassing, and the women are always on you, talking about babies. When are you having babies? How many babies do you want? Do you want girl babies or boy babies? You and Thad would have such beautiful babies babies babies babies BABIES!”

Lindsy manages to startle herself, then smiles when she realizes they’re the only customers left in the restaurant.

“And it wasn’t working. I was not getting pregnant. Thad began to develop this edge, like a parent talking to a child who’s come home with a bad report card. He asked if we should visit a fertility clinic. We’re still young, I said. Give God a little more time to bless us.”

The waitress comes by, and Lindsy orders a coffee. Skye tries not to say anything. When it arrives, she gives him an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry. It’s been so long. What would you recommend in the way of condiments?”

“Do you like bitter foods?”

“Not really.”

“Try two packs of sugar, and I’ll handle the cream.”

He gives it a stir and slides it over, feeling like a pusher.

“Mmm. Yes. A little bitter. I used to drink it all the time at the Methodist church. Hell, coffee was our religion. So. A couple days ago, I happened to express a little sympathy for the gays. Thad was tight-lipped, in that lovely passive-aggressive fashion of his. That happened also to be the day he took my car to the garage, which was down the block from his office. Sometime during this transaction, he looked into a compartment behind the driver’s seat and discovered my birth control pills.”

Lindsy widens her eyes, because she knows what a devastating plot twist she has just dropped. Skye dutifully slaps the table and says, “Holy shit.”

“I could have handled the big Italian fight. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. What I got was the entire female population of my church, assembled at my home to conduct an intervention. I walked right past them, packed my suitcase and hit the road. Because, because…” She sings the word, a prelude to her summation. “I may have been stupid enough to marry into that wacko religion, but I was smart enough not to have children in that wacko religion, and I certainly wasn’t going to apologize for it. God, I really like this coffee.”

Skye sips from his beer, a good hoppy microbrew. “How’d you end up so far away?”

Lindsy freshens her lip gloss and smiles. “I always heard that Mormons who want to bend the rules – Jack Mormons, we call them – drive the salt flats to Ely, Nevada, just across the state line. But then, when I got there, I realized I was still surrounded by Mormons! So I kept going. How did you end up here?”

“Family vacation.”

“Ha! So where’s the family?”

“I took a vacation from the family vacation. I’ll tell you the story as soon as I figure it out myself.”

“Okay.” She places her elbows on the table and cups her doll-like face with her hands. “So how does this work? Do we go to some room and have wild animal sex?”

Skye gives the question some thought. “Can I take you to a movie first?”

Lindsy bats her eyes. “What’re ya, chicken?”

He grabs her hand and kisses it. “Allow me the luxury of being a gentlemen.”

Lindsy winces. “Damn! That is so not fair, you being all charming and shit.”

He takes her to a theater he spotted on the way in and they see a British film about a teenage girl corrupted by an older man. Perhaps not a good choice, but he indulges, nonetheless, in the romantic choreography – holding hands, increasingly forward kisses – that he missed in the rush of Andorra. Also popcorn, which he loves with a passion.

He gets them a room at Winners – a room with two beds. Lindsy sits on hers, wired on coffee and Coke, and pouts.

“Why don’t you want to fuck me? I’m on the pill.”

“Why do you want to fuck me?”

“Because you’re a sexy hot man.”

“Wrong! Try again.”

“Because I’m a nymphomaniac.”


“Birds do it. Bees do it.”


“Because I hate my fucking husband!”


“You know, most men would…”

“I am not most men. Also, I’m exhausted.”

“Well I’m not. Damn devil caffeine.”

“Here. Watch something.”

He tosses the remote and turns over. Minutes later, he’s riding big waves with the daffy redhead beach bunny.

Photo by MJV

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