And now, kiddies, I'd like to share with you what was my very first published short story, which appeared originally in the Autumn, 1992 edition of South Dakota Review. It may seem a tad dated, but I am still quite fond of it, and since it's never appeared online before...
Lisa's face is buried in the thin material of the blouse she is pulling up over her head. Her words come out muffled. "Thanks for picking me up back there. I hope you don't mind if I change. Had this thing on two days straight."
Peter looks over at her, catching a glimpse of her breasts before they disappear under the fresh cotton replacement. He flashes back to his youth, when girls he hardly knew would sometimes change clothes in front of him. Not in a provocative way. More like he wasn't there. He always felt caught in the middle. Make a move or play it cool? Lisa is young enough to be his daughter. Play it cool. "You should be a little more careful around strangers. You never know who you're getting in with."
"I know," she says, oblivious to his meaning. "The guy I was just riding with was drunk. I told him I had to pee, so when he stopped I said there wasn't no way I was getting back in that car. You came along about five minutes later." She peers out the window of Peter's Buick sedan, as the cacti and late spring wildflowers claiming squatters rights to scattered patches of desert whiz by. A highway sign says US 93. Another one states Kingman is 85 miles ahead. "So you said you're a writer," she says. "The way you look, I'd have said you're a businessman. Salesman or something. What do you write about, anyway?"
"Magazine articles mostly. Factual stuff. Right now I'm working on a computer book."
"Oh," she says, mildly disappointed. "I like fiction."
They approach a yellow Volkswagen sitting on the shoulder of the road, nearly in the ditch. Its occupant is slumped over the wheel, passed out or dead--Peter can't tell which.
"It's him," Lisa says. "That's Hans."
Peter reduces his speed. "Shouldn't we check on him?"
"Hell no. He'll be all right after he sleeps it off. Besides, that guy's too weird for me."
Peter shrugs, steps on the gas, and they are once again racing the desert sun toward the horizon.
"So what waits for you in Vegas?" she asks. "A handle with your name on it?"
"I'm not much of a gambler. I drive up sometimes just to get away from Tucson for a while. Change of atmosphere seems to clear my head." He steals furtive glances at her long, pale-gold hair, which he thinks of as a waterfall spilling over her shoulders, cascading freely down to the small of her back.
"I got godawful bored with school in Louisiana last year. Since then I've been doing me some traveling." Her eyes sparkle. "I'm gonna be the next singing sensation on The Strip. Either that or get a waitress job, whichever comes first." She retrieves her guitar from its dusty black case perched on the back seat, tunes it, and breaks into an old Tammy Wynette song called "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." Her voice resonating sweet and clear, she is a veritable chanteuse with a country twang.
There is something very familiar about her, Peter now realizes. Familiar, yet elusive. Like a small, annoying gnat that repeatedly alights on one's face, the thought begins to nag at him until, like the persistent insect, he brushes it aside.
Approaching the turnoff to Burro Creek, the late afternoon sky is a Neapolitan ice cream swirl of color. "We're not in any hurry are we?" she says. "Let's chill out here for a while and catch the sunset."
He is game. This trip would have been predictable without her, like so much of life now. And so what if he is beginning to feel like her chauffeur?
As they pull into the campground, she says, "Jesus, this place is nearly deserted."
"I've been here before," he says. "Not many people choose to stay overnight when it gets close to summer. It's kind of in the middle of nowhere, and they're anxious to get where they're going."
Peter spreads a blanket on the ground and they wolf sandwiches and beer they've picked up along the way. The shrinking daylight fades to black.
"So, don't you ever write any stories? she asks.
"Nope. No stories. The money's in nonfiction these days." Somewhere in the distance a donkey brays forlornly. Peter opens another beer, and the sound the pop-top makes seems to reverberate all through the steep walls of Burro Canyon.
"This is incredible," she says, gazing up at the celestial display. "I've never seen so many stars at one time in my entire life. They look like tiny lanterns lighting the heavens.'
Suddenly, a meteor dashes across the sky, its fiery silver trail already a memory by the time she turns to him and whispers, "Did you make a wish?"
"Whoa, it's only been a second" he says. Then, as though he'd nearly considered the unforgivable, adds, "Besides, that's for dreamers. And people who write stories.'
"Hey, man, you grew up in the sixties, right?"
"Guess you've got me pegged."
"So what happened to you? I thought the sixties was a time of wild imagination, a time of-"
"Sex, drugs, and rock n roll. Peace and love." He takes a swig from his beer. "The sixties are dead," he says with finality. "They're like this place...beautiful, but a long ways from anywhere."
"I've always wished I could have lived back then," she says in a near whisper. "To have that kind of freedom..." She is on her feet, eyes closed, swaying to a rhythm only she can hear. She twirls, tresses streaming into a weightless orbit around her face. "Sometimes I feel like I could soar--I want to dance through graveyards, hug strangers on the street, run naked in the rain!" She crash-lands next to him on the blanket. She says, "Somebody once called me an anak...anakra-"
"Anachronism. It means you should have been born in another time."
"Yeah, that's it. What was it like, growing up back then?"
All at once Peter feels an ache rising from somewhere deep inside, and he wants this night to never end. He envisions driving right through Vegas--saying to hell with it, the two of them on the road to nowhere and anywhere, as Lisa slinks in and out of her clothes in the car. Would she think of him as a father figure and nothing more? He looks at the ground. "I don't like dredging up the past. Anyway, your life has probably been more interesting than mine."
"Come on, man."
"No, really. Tell me about your family back in Louisiana."
"I don't have a family." She squints, peering into the small opening of her empty beer can as though it were a portal through which see could see into another world. She clears her throat.
"One night when I was ten years old I woke up and heard my parents fighting downstairs. My dad used to beat my mother up a lot. When they fought, it tore me up inside. I sneaked downstairs just as he started hitting her. Most of the time he's just smack her around, but this time he was drunk and he used fists. He struck her in the face and she went sprawling across the room. She was lying on the floor, crying, as he stood over her, yelling and threatening to give her more of 'what she deserved.' I can't tell you for sure what happened at that moment, except something inside me snapped. I knew where my father kept his gun hidden because I'd seen him get it once when he thought somebody was prowling around the back yard. I ran and grabbed it...then went into the living room where he stood over my mother and screamed, 'Stop it daddy, stop it right now!' He called me a little bitch and lunged toward me. There was only a second to decide--about the time it takes to wish on a falling star." She pauses, searching Peter's eyes. "I pulled the trigger and shot him once in the stomach.'
"Jesus," Peter says softly.
"They didn't really do anything to me. I spent the next few years in a foster home. My father, the bastard, recovered. My mother divorced him shortly after that. Two years later, he wrapped his car around a tree and was killed instantly. He was drunk again, of course."
"Listen, kid, I'm sorry. That's a terrible thing for a child-"
"Don't worry about it," she says dispassionately. "I made it up.'
"The hell you did."
"Maybe I did...maybe I didn't."
"What's the matter? Were you getting caught up in th-"
A flashlight beam stabs through the darkness, momentarily blinding them. They hadn't noticed the yellow Volkswagen pull in at the other end of the campground. The inebriated voice behind the light grunts, "We're all of to see the wizard. Can you spare a fellow traveler a drink?"
"It's that A-hole, Hans," Lisa whispers. "How'd he find us here?"
"I'll give him a beer and send him on his way," says Peter.
Hans kills the light and lurches over to their spot, easing his body down next to Lisa on the blanket. He smells of liquor and sweat. "Lisa and me are ol' buddies," he says, belching loudly. "Only she ain't too crazy about my driving." He emits a shrill, staccato laugh.
In the darkness, Peter can discern only the interloper's thin build and nearly bald shaved head. He appears to be close to Lisa's age. He hands him a beer.
Hans says, "Don' lemme interrupt you guys, go on with your conservation...uh, conversation."
Lisa is silent, looking straight ahead, inching closer to Peter.
Peter says, "We were just discussing history."
Hans sends him a long, glazed stare and finally says, "Hey, man, were you in the war?"
"No, I wasn't in the war. Not exactly."
Hans tilts his head back, surveying the speckled void. His fingers drum out a slow, deliberate beat on the top of the can he holds between his legs. "I can hear the drums now," he says, sounding more lucid than before. "There's another war coming...this one will be fought in the streets."
Lisa turns as if to ask him a question, but it is too late--Hans has rolled over onto his side, fast asleep. She looks at Peter, and with that earnest expression serious performers get on their faces, begins singing a few bars of an old Patsy Cline tune called "Crazy." She say, "Let's get out of here before he wakes up."
It is past midnight on Las Vegas Boulevard. Lisa says, "You can drop me off anywhere along here."
"Do you have a place to stay?" Peter asks.
"I have a girlfriend from school who lives around here. I'm going to look her up."
He feels awkward. Caught in the middle. "Listen, I'll be staying at The Dunes for the rest of the week...if you need anything."
"Hey, well, you never know."
He pulls onto a side street and stops the car. Lisa straps on her backpack and slides the guitar case out of the back seat. She walks around to the driver's window and gives him a peck on the cheek. "Thanks a lot for the ride, man." She waits a moment for the reply that doesn't come. She turns and walks back toward the Strip. His eyes follow her.
Suddenly, it is 1968 and she is Anna, the girl he knew in college. The girl who marched by his side in righteous indignation through the streets of Chicago. The girl who lay by his side through endless. dreamlike nights of passion in Haight-Ashbury--nights he thought would last forever. The girl with hair like a waterfall. He calls out, "Anna!" but she has turned the corner and disappeared into the crowd. The water wells up in his eyes, and through his tears the lights of Las Vegas look like thousands of shifting, shimmering stars.