Every morning he remembered, then put the name on like a pair of pants. Strange that he’d come to stay in Hesperia at age 50, a transitory town that flashed by when driving on I-15 between Barstow and San Bernardino. The kind he’d thanked his lucky stars he never had to live in.
Not a hellish place, but set in California’s high country, the Mojave Desert encompassing it. Sparse trees allowed a constant wind to blow hot and dusty much of the year. And when a reprieve came from the blistering heat, winter nights at 3,000 feet elevation turned bitter cold. To Hesperia’s immediate north lay Victorville, while beyond city limits to the south, the Cajon Summit plunged for miles and miles toward sea level. A void. The end of the world. A grinding, twisting five-lane highway canyoning downward, testing truck brakes and drivers’ concentration.
Brad needed a job that paid in cash, off the books. He started at Belden’s Tires.
“You learning the ropes, at your age, Holmes?” Victor asked.
The young guys tightening lugs and patching up holes regarded Brad with suspicion. They taught him anyway, delighted to have someone else hose down the garage at closing and roll bald or gashed tires to the dumpster out back — for giant annual tire fires that perfumed the high flatland with burning rubber smoke.
“Are you on the run, boss?” Carlos wondered. They called everyone boss, except Jake, their actual manager. Jake was 60 going on 70, staring bug-eyed at the office computer as he sipped coffee spiked with whiskey.
“I worked for a company in a building, wearing a suit,” Brad replied. “I got sick of it. Needed a change.”
“To this?” Carlos spit. “That’s crazy. If any of us had a college degree we’d fight for a job like that.” He gazed at Victor and Cesar. “No way. You done some white collar crime shit, embezzlement, counterfeiting.” The others laughed, but didn’t socialize with Brad beyond work.
Three months into working at Belden’s, Jake told Brad, “Let’s get a cocktail at Jericho Tavern, on Main Street.” A dimly lit spot, with neon beer signs, a scarred pool table, and a working payphone. Brad’s father had wasted away in dive bars. Waiting rooms where eventually, after last call, came the final call — when an ambulance carted you off.
But now, Brad recognized Jericho as a refuge, an oasis in the desert of modern American culture. A place to dream and lose yourself among past decades. Regulars stared into their drinks, not at their smartphones. And no social scientist had proven one choice was wiser than the other.
“Jim Beam on the rocks, Ruby,” Jake said.
Ruby served as afternoon bartender. Brad guessed late-20s, and she had that pretty but plain thing going on. Female bartenders who worked around admiring and sometimes leering men adopted a similar look, a certain stance. Minimal makeup, hair flat and tied back, no flirtatious smiles or winks. More a taut face set with the grim determination to get through each day without hassle.
“How can someone under 30 be named Ruby?” Brad wondered aloud.
Jake didn’t reply. “Let me be honest,” he told Brad while nursing his bourbon. “You’ve got no future in tires.” In the background, Starship rattled the old jukebox, building their city on rock and roll.
“I know. I’m ready to move on.”
“You can do better.” Jake waved to a man drooped forward at the bend of the bar. “Dixon manages Sheet Metal Heaven,” he said as Dixon shuffled over.
“Hey, Jake.” Dixon lifted his baseball cap — hair matted, forehead sweaty — then pressed it down farther.
“I’ve got a guy for you,” Jake said. “Learns quick. Has outgrown my garage.”
Dixon sneezed onto his shirt sleeve and turned to Brad. “You dream of sheet metal?”
“No, not really.”
“But you could imagine going to an office, selling it?”
“Yeah, sure. Definitely.”
Dixon shook Brad’s hand. “See you tomorrow at nine.” He raised his drink in toast. “To Ruby, Queen of Hesperia.” Cheers sounded. She stared at the ground while Dixon ambled back to his perch.
Brad finished his draft beer among the jukebox throb, TV football swagger, and grill smoke issuing from a rear kitchen. “Easy as that?”
“Easy as that.” Jake set $70 in day wages by Brad and loped splay-legged toward Jericho’s open door.
Ruby gripped Brad’s empty glass. “You done?” At 6 p.m. she vanished out the back way. Her evening replacement, Clete, resembled a top-heavy, former linebacker, who if he fell on you, that would be it. Game over.
* * *
Brad learned more than anyone should ever know about sheet metal. The different brands, their thickness, resistance, weight, appearance. He made it sound sexy over the phone and also chaperoned local customers through the showroom to “feel the steel.” Three months in he was bored silly.
“You dreaming about sheet metal yet?” Dixon asked.
“Every night.” Brad wasn’t lying, but they came more as dull nightmares of a future trapped in limbo.
Their main supplier, Johnny Cortez, said, “Damn, you look good, bro. I mean you were in Aerosmith for what, 50 years, right?”
“That’s Brad Whitford. I’m Walford.”
Brad rented a room with a mini-kitchen at a former DoubleTree Inn that offered weekly rates for $275. It sat a mere four blocks from Jericho Tavern.
* * *
An incident occurred one evening near the 7-Eleven on Main Street, situated between I-15 to the west and Jericho to the east. Deciding to avoid the brethren at the bar, Brad bought beef jerky and Hot Pockets, the Bacardi bottle a holdover from a more cultured past.
Afterward, he hesitated outside. A pink-and-orange twilight hung over Hesperia, and for a brief time the landscape seemed softer, a desirable part of California, not a dislodged chunk of Arizona or Nevada plunked down on the flight path to L.A.
Brad noticed a teenage girl, all grown-up but likely underage. She loitered in a mini-mall parking lot talking to two men in a Toyota pickup. A Latino with a dark mustache and a white dude with a two-tone haircut and a neck gaiter. Right or wrong, Brad assumed that neck gaiters signaled a pro-assault rifle stance and extremist beliefs.
The men were laughing while she flirted with them, flexing her budding powers. She wore high-waisted blue jean shorts and a low-cut top. None of Brad’s business so he began heading home. Then he heard a high-pitched voice.
“Let go. I don’t want a ride.”
The white guy pressed her toward the pickup’s cab; the other man held the driver door opened. Both appeared to be mid-30s, their bare arms showing from muscle shirts.
Brad was no hero, usually indifferent, but she looked his older daughter’s age. He had not chosen this street to be the hill he would die on, but as he hustled toward them, everything slowed down. Brad huffing and puffing, the men curious yet unfazed, the teenager confused.
“Yo, turn around,” the gaiter guy said. “It’s none of your business.”
Brad continued. “Leave her alone. She’s a kid.” The girl frowned at what she took for an insult. Cars whizzed by but no one stopped.
“Walk away,” the guy said. “Aren’t you a little old for this shit? She wants to come with us.” His hand still clutched the teen, now pale and confused. He opened a jackknife revealing a short, blunt blade and frowned. “Give me my baseball bat, Luis.”
Luis sat frozen with a quivery smile. “You left it at the park.”
Brad broke his Bacardi bottle on a back corner of the truck, the precious rum sloshing into the truck-bed.
“Shit, this fool’s nuts.” The dude thrust his knife. It tore the shoulder of Brad’s flannel shirt but barely scraped his skin. Brad lunged forward and the jagged glass ripped open the guy’s top.
The thug laughed for a moment then twitched. “Damn, I’m bleeding.” He gripped at his stomach.
It was a minor cut, but messy enough, red staining white fabric.
While Luis revved the engine, the guy climbed to the truck’s passenger seat. “We’re coming back to kill you,” he shouted. Followed in a softer tone by, “Hey, wait for us, baby.”
As they roared off, Brad photographed their plates with his phone and called the cops. Described the truck. Good thing he didn’t expect gratitude.
“You asshole,” the young woman said. “I wanted a ride with Kyle, just not Kyle and Luis. You ruined my whole night.”
“Those guys are in their 30s and you’re what, 16, 17?”
“I’m 17,” she insisted, “next December.” She pouted. “What right do you have— ”
“Where are your parents right now?”
“Can you text them to pick you up?”
“They confiscated my phone yesterday. I’m dying without it.”
Brad didn’t want her to use his. He squinted and noticed Ruby smoking a cigarette outdoors. “You’re going to march down to that lady and call your folks on Jericho Tavern’s payphone.” He handed her three quarters. “Do I have to walk you over myself?”
“Get lost, you creep.” She went cursing and stamping off. “I hate you!”
Drivers whistled or yelled out to her from cars. The only thing worse than growing old in a spit-bucket town would be enduring it as a teenage girl. He stayed to make sure she didn’t cut and run, or hop in another truck. She and Ruby eventually pushed through Jericho’s door.
Brad tramped back to his hotel amid the cloud-speckled, blood-honey sky like a knight returning from a battle he wasn’t called to, clutching the junk food spoils of his crusade. He stood in the dark room just waiting for the brute vibrations of fear and anger to subside within.
* * *
The next week, Brad missed Ruby’s shifts. Vince, a hulking Christian, saw no conflict in bartending at an alcoholics bar, nor in throwing back bourbon shots. On a night with few customers, Vince asked Brad, “Have you allowed our savior Jesus into your life?”
“I haven’t even allowed him into my refrigerator.”
Jericho regulars included Dr. Bud, Carter, and Phil. Lost older males marooned in a century that gave them the finger every waking morning.
Phil sidled up. “Tired of dreaming about sheet metal yet?”
Brad laughed in affirmation.
“Ready to come work for me at Mesa Construction Rentals?”
“Over by Double Eagle Transportation?”
“Yup.” Phil dabbed his forehead with a cocktail napkin. “Heard you’re good with walk-in customers.” He paused. “We need a people person.”
“I like to be paid off the books. Cash preferred.”
“You got problems with the IRS, son?”
“No, I’m just old-fashioned.”
“Positively prehistoric.” Phil frowned and moved his mouth around. “Your cash pay would be less.” He offered a salary a bit higher than Sheet Metal Heaven. “And after three, four months I’d have to put you on the books.”
“Okay then,” Brad replied. He planned to be tucked back into his previous life by then.
The job transition occurred on Monday so he hit Jericho early to avoid encountering Dixon — sore about Brad’s quitting without notice. Besides Dr. Bud in the distance, his was the only other ass warming a barstool.
Ruby rushed over. “What you did for that teenager, that was fantastic.”
Brad felt stunned. “She told you?”
Ruby smiled and her face lit up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. “She cursed you every which way in hell, but I got the truth before her parents came. Thought I saw you outside.” Ruby slid a tap beer over the bar top. “On the house.”
Brad tasted it and winced.
“Sorry it’s not cold.” Ruby touched his hand. “Power failure earlier.”
“I love warm flat beer.”
While she laughed, he drank in her features, the cathedral domed forehead, her long slender nose out of a Byzantine fresco.
They spoke throughout that week, and on Friday Ruby said, “Doing anything Saturday? Sometimes I like to go to the city and dance, or dine out.”
Did she mean Los Angeles? “City?”
“Oh. I mean, yeah, sure.” He paused. “You do know I’m older than you?”
“Well, obviously.” She snorted then lowered her voice. “You’re sort of a mystery man.” Ruby leaned across the bar until her nose nearly touched his. “I can see that you were once … kind of attractive.”
Brad nodded. At 50, why question the vagaries of a compliment? “You want me to drive?”
“Yes I do.” She wrote down her address and hurried off to wait on the regulars.
After their date in Barstow, his inept line dancing, and supper at an Italian restaurant, they began seeing each other. Brad acted aloof at Jericho though. Ruby mentioned it was frowned on for her to date customers.
A month in, they met for a picnic dinner near the southern edge of Summit Terrace where Joshua trees stood sentry over the Mojave. The wind had mercifully calmed, and for once Hesperia didn’t feel transitory, the weather something to endure. With red wine in plastic cups, they nestled together watching the color-streaked dusk fade to the west until the moon and stars glowed up high.
Ruby pointed abstractly. “Do you ever wish you could go out there, see what space is like?”
“Why? I have everything I need right here.”
While she snuggled closer, Brad experienced a déjà vu. Had he said the same thing to Kathy, and to Susan before that? It annoyed him, even if he did mean it now.
Brad sensed Ruby shrouded in a private sadness. “Someone as special as you must have been married before. Right?” he asked.
“I was.” She struggled to form words. “I lost him in Afghanistan.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Brad said. “The Army sent his, uh, back home?”
“No.” Her head sank forward. “I guess he’s still there, somewhere.”
“Missing in action, assumed dead? Terrible.” Brad gazed at her, then away. “Some relatives are still searching for soldiers lost in Vietnam.”
“I’m not looking anymore.” Ruby’s voice shook. “I turn 30 this month. Have to get on with my life.”
The mesa had grown colder and she shivered against Brad. They finished the wine bottle in silence.
“You’ve been married too,” Ruby finally said, poking his biceps with a finger.
“You googled me?” Walford wasn’t his real last name.
“No. But I’d guess once in your 20s and again in your 30s. Am I close?”
“Practically clairvoyant.” He stood. “It’s warmer inside my car.” On their way, he asked, “Where would you go if you could leave Hesperia?”
“Well, if we left. Where would you suggest?”
She embraced him, impeding his walking. “You mean move in together, play house?” The wine had made her sad one moment, giggly the next. “Around Flagstaff,” she said. “They have pine-covered mountains and lakes. It never gets hot as here in the summer.” She kissed Brad open-mouthed and a thin line of saliva descended from her lower lip. “That’s where.” Then Ruby stumbled and he helped her back into the car.
Brad took her to Hesperia Lake Park, the zoo; they ate at Flavors of India, and at Golden Gate, the Chinese restaurant. She described their future Arizona cabin on a hill overlooking a valley, enough property for a roving dog. To avoid gossip and banishment, Brad only frequented Jericho after her shifts.
Nonetheless, Dr. Bud ushered him over to a rear booth away from the bar noise. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with our Ruby.” His expression was stern.
“Well, I — ”
“You’re new here, but she has other men interested in her. They been waiting patient till she got over losing her husband.”
Brad inhaled Bud’s force-field of Old Spice. No one knew what he held a Ph.D. in, but being around 65 with a Biblical beard, people respected him.
“Does Ruby have any choice in this matter?”
Bud scowled. “You don’t want to be a claim jumper, cause trouble in a small town.”
“No I don’t.” Brad understood Bud. A man too old, too drunk to ever have a relationship with a Ruby, but protective, a parent figure who felt they should have a say, some determination in who did or didn’t get to date a beloved bartender. Brad would become that in ten years. It was miraculous Ruby had any interest in him now.
“Thanks for your concern,” Brad said. “Not to worry. I won’t be in Hesperia forever.”
“Good.” Bud seemed satisfied, then soured. “Don’t you go breaking Ruby’s heart.”
* * *
Time soon came to check in to his old life at Glendale, see if Kathy was amenable to reconciliation. His wife had cheated on him, then Brad cheated on her. But while his office fling ended fast — along with his job — Kathy’s affair took root and lingered. At that point, she asked if he would move out, rent a place nearby. Outraged, Brad abandoned her and his daughters, drove 75 miles away to nowhere, and began a new life. He eventually created another identity online, with the pretense of having attended Kathy’s college to friend her on Facebook.
Kathy’s most recent Facebook posts hinted she’d split from “Dave” and regretted that relationship choice. Perfect timing to visit Glendale. Sunday night, Brad told Ruby of a job interview in San Bernardino to explain his haircut and new suit.
“You thinking of moving?”
“No, I’d commute.” He smiled but Ruby seemed shaken.
“Let’s just leave for the mountains now, Brad.”
“Really? And not tell Jericho?”
Her face took on a tragic cast. “You’re right. I guess I’m trapped.”
“We’ll talk about it soon. I’ll be back before you know it.”
Brad parked by his former home on Monday morning. Glendale looked the same: ugly buildings sprouting alongside the highway, palm trees and tall pines, the Verdugo Mountains looming. He skirted the house, remembering the sliding glass doors to the back patio were left unlocked by day, due to the neighborhood’s safety. He slid one panel open and walked the central hallway.
“Hello, it’s Dad. Kathy? It’s Bradley.” He entered the living room holding flowers.
His 17-year-old daughter, Olivia, stood frozen in the connecting kitchen.
“You bastard,” she shouted, then threw a coffee mug at him. It shattered on the fireplace mantle. “You ran out on us. You suck.” She Frisbeed a bread plate that struck his temple.
“Stop that.” Brad rubbed his head. “Where’s your mother?”
“She’s at work, obviously. To pay for the house, for our schools.” Olivia began hurling silverware and he danced and weaved.
Brad noticed his 13-year-old daughter teary-eyed in the corner. “Becky,” he tried. “Why aren’t you at school?”
“We’re on vacation, and she goes by Becca now.” Olivia held up her iPhone. “I’m calling the police.”
“Dial your Mom first.”
“She hired a divorce lawyer.” Olivia’s face became red and sweaty. “Get out!”
Brad retreated. He slipped an envelope with $500 cash for the girls under Kathy’s bedroom door and then darted back toward his car. Neighbors who’d heard the commotion were in their gardens pointing at him as if Frankenstein’s monster had run amok. Brad drove to Hesperia, cranked up the hotel room AC, and lay on his bed shivering in the cold dark for the entire afternoon.
* * *
On Tuesday, Brad returned to work after his “day off.” As he donned a hard hat to patrol the vehicle rental yard, Phil grumbled past him.
“Everything okay, Phil?”
“I need you official, on the books. State’s coming down on me.”
Instead of yes, Brad said, “I understand.”
Plan A had failed, so time for Plan B. However, Ruby didn’t reply to his texts on Tuesday or Wednesday. Brad dropped by Jericho Tavern on Thursday. “Where’s Ruby?”
“She took three days off, was feeling sick.” Clete yanked Brad halfway over the bar. “You didn’t knock her up, did you?”
Brad broke free. “No.”
“Management says you’re eighty-sixed.” Clete gestured toward the door. Behind him, Dr. Bud, Dixon, and other regulars glowered at Brad as if he’d caused Ruby’s absence.
* * *
Late Friday at Mesa Rentals, Brad confided his plan to Nestor. A two-man job.
“You’re nuts,” Nestor said. “But throw me $20 and I’m in.”
Brad went to his hotel room, changed into the Glendale suit, wrapped a dozen roses he’d bought earlier, and found the zirconium ring. It was ridiculous, a place-holder. Marriage impossible until a divorce from Kathy could be finalized, but an open-ended engagement sounded perfect. Caught himself whistling. His father did that, never him.
Brad met Nestor at the closed vehicle rental lot while the sun died to the west. They keyed-up a knuckle boom lift and drove the truck north to Ruby’s apartment complex.
She lived on the third floor, so in the parking lot, Brad climbed into the lift bucket and Nestor worked the levers to extend the crane on the truck bed upward. How could Ruby not laugh, not melt at this proposal?
The beeping and ratcheting caused neighbors to gaze startled from their apartments, but seeing Brad in a suit, hair slicked back, and clutching a dozen roses somehow stopped them from calling the cops. He knocked on her darkened window, squinting. Maybe Ruby was sick and sleeping-in. No response. Brad pried the swing-away window open and clambered inside.
Deserted. A few discarded pieces of furniture haunted ghost rooms. Brad switched on an overhead light; a handwritten note lay atop the living room coffee table.
Brad, or whoever you are, maybe you returned to where you came from. If you’re reading this, I’ve left. I lost my husband in Afghanistan, but he didn’t die. Just dead to me after five years. Jason finally came back. I’m meeting him near San Diego. Don’t come looking for me. Ruby was my grandmother’s name. The Sheryl Crow tune on Jericho’s jukebox, “My Favorite Mistake.” That was our song.
Brad’s shoulders trembled, his eyes watered — realization brutal. Ruby had been Plan A all along, but he’d been her Plan B. Nestor’s voice called from outside. He crumpled the note, maneuvered into the bucket, and descended. More tenants stared agog.
“You look terrible, half-dead,” Nestor said inside the truck’s cab. “She say no?”
“Already gone.” Brad tossed the flowers onto the pavement.
* * *
He slept and drank the weekend away in his hotel room. At Mesa Rentals on Monday, Nestor told Brad that Phil left a message. “Boss said this was your last day.”
“Something about you not being legit, not giving your social security number.”
Late afternoon, Nestor came to Brad’s desk in a panic. “Two dudes are waiting in the lot. One’s got a baseball bat. Said they spent a night in jail ’cause of you. They look like tweakers, bro.”
Karma. The guys he’d tussled with. “No problem.” Brad put on a hard hat and took the rear office door to a chained-off section of the rental lot, inaccessible to customers.
His college roommate, Billy-Dog, a 23-year-old freshman, had recommended making your final day on the job memorable, so they’d never forget you. Brad turned the ignition on an earth grader and rumbled it along. With its odd shape and massive snout it seemed like a cubist metallic dinosaur. He snapped the lot chain with ease and then aimed for the familiar parked Toyota pickup. Brad rammed the back bed hard and its tailgate caved-in.
The gaiter guy shouted something beneath the churning engine noise. He thwacked the earth grader with his baseball bat until the bat snapped in two.
Brad forced the pickup truck forward, wedging it into the metal dumpster by the security fence with a demolition derby steel crunch and windshield crackle. Then he drove out toward the highway.
His father had counseled him: “Find that one true thing in life, son.”
“But what if I don’t recognize it when I do?”
“Likely won’t,” his father said. “Most of us only see it in the rearview mirror after it’s gone.”
Kathy once called him a wrecking ball, forever leaving destruction in his wake. Now Brad felt like an impacted building, gutted and hollowed out, his foundation infirm. He soldiered on regardless. Above and ahead to the north, beyond a few scudding clouds, the sky-blue sky stretched forever — ceiling unlimited. Traffic boiled up behind his slow-moving vehicle on I-15 and sirens began wailing. If he got out of this alive, a cabin in the mountains near Flagstaff sounded pretty damn good.
Hell, Hesperia would never forget Brad Walford.
* * *
Somewhere outside San Diego, a still young woman woke in a motel bed next to the snoring stranger who was her husband. She could take this ride, try to make it work, and if not, move on. Maybe Hawaii. She thought of her dead Aunt Debbie. As good a name to use as any.
Featured Image: Shutterstock
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