Here's an encore presentation of one of my previously published-in-print stories. (Originally appeared in the Spring, 1993 edition of Mind In Motion.) I presented it here for the first time back in 2010. You may have read it then. Probably didn't. If you're like me, you can't remember that far back. So read it again...for the first time!
Steve glanced into his rearview mirror, convinced that the woman in the white car was following him. She'd first drawn his attention about twenty miles outside of Vegas, where the solemn expanse of the Great Basin begins. Several other northbound vehicles had blown past his Camry, but the woman hung back doggedly, even when he'd deliberately slowed to about 50 to let her go by.
He'd passed up the chance to return to Mexico, choosing to avoid the beaches that would be choked by hordes of fellow students on spring break. It was looking like a good decision. He felt hot--like there was cash out there waiting for him--but after one night on the Strip, something told him Lady Luck would turn up in Reno. Now, with some mysterious female shadowing him, his luck might take another turn.
Coasting through Tonopah, he was struck by the odd layout of the town--a hodge-podge of modern buildings and storefronts, dilapidated shacks, and the rusted hulks of old mining machinery scattered haphazardly about the surrounding hillsides. He spotted a sign that said Billie's Bar and Cafe, and sensed it was time for the showdown. The Camry swerved into Billie's dirt and gravel parking lot and lurched to a halt.
He rushed inside and headed for a booth where he could sit facing the door, rubbing by a wizened cowboy whose boots, ripe with the smell of horse shit, intermingled their rancid perfume with the smoky aroma of burgers being scorched to blackened lumps of charcoal on the grill.
The white car pulled up next to the window. Adrenalin charged through Steve's body. The woman stepped out, revealing her features clearly for the first time. She looked slightly older than him--late twenties maybe--wearing a white top and shorts that set off her smooth olive skin. Entering the cafe, she avoided his gaze and moved to a small far-corner table. He ordered a beer from the waitress, a hard looking gal whose face softened when she said, "What'll it be, hon?"
The woman was playing it cool, he told himself, eyeing her from across the room. Increasingly, he sensed his role changing from that of the prey to the hunter. He would have to cross the desert that lay between them and make his strike.
"The road kills," he said, smiling broadly. Still absorbed in her menu, the woman looked up in mild surprise. "Hi, I'm Steve. I'm the guy you've been...uh, following."
"I beg your pardon, I have not been following you," she said.
"Oh, I didn't really mean following. I just meant--well, you were behind me for a long time, and then, this place..."
She gave him a blank look, smoothing dark pixie hair from her eyes. "How do I know you weren't following me? Just because you were in front--you could be a psychic or something, knowing every move I was going to make in advance."
Feeling suddenly on the defensive, he said, "Coincidence, I guess...mind if I join you?" She made a sweeping one-handed gesture toward the empty chair.
The woman ordered a drink. The waitress sent Steve a knowing wink as she turned and headed back to the bar. He was quiet for a few moments, then said, "Guess I assumed too much."
"Don't worry about it; coincidence is a funny thing," she said, smiling at last. "Did you know that if you toss a coin into the air, there's always a fifty-fifty chance that it will turn up heads or tails...and yet, repeated often enough, at some point it will come up heads maybe twenty or more times in a row."
"And why is that?"
"Because it's a random universe and anything can happen."
"You sound like a physics student."
"No, but I do read a lot." She looked down at her hands. "And it's what I believe as well."
"Still, you can't go wrong playing the percentages," he said. "That's what I figure." Through the window he watched dust and debris from the parking lot, seized by a sudden wind gust, pitching and tossing about in the air.
"In the thirties," she continued, "there was a criminal who survived the electric chair. Sat right up in his coffin. On the same day, there's a guy out strolling on a golf course somewhere, just as carefree as can be. A storm comes up--he's struck by lightning and killed instantly. It's like this great cosmic glitch occurs, and for a while all the percentages are thrown totally out of whack. Then, like a man who's stumbled over a curb and lost his balance, things right themselves again and the world goes on as usual."
He was mesmerized by her words, and for a moment felt lost in the dark wells of her eyes. "I--I'd call that fate--destiny...or maybe a miracle," he said finally.
She smiled wistfully. "Not me. Anyway, that's why I'm off to Reno. Got a job as change girl in a casino at Lake Tahoe. It's a start--and when the universe decides to short-circuit again, I'm thinking it might be a good place to be. Besides, there's something about gamblers I like. Are you a gambler, Steve?"
"That's why I came here."
Steve couldn't sleep. He paced restlessly over the short stretch from the bathroom to the front door. His room at the Silver Spur Motel was like most of the cheap places he'd stayed in. There was a dresser, chair, nightstand and lamp with a weak bulb. Over the bed hung a painting of two hunters crouched in a duck blind, shotguns poised, ready to blow anything with wings to smithereens.
She'd said her name was Elena. He liked the sound of it. But now he was kicking himself for not giving her his number in Tucson. He'd let her drive off with a "nice meeting you" and a "really enjoyed our talk." He had started out strong, but somehow lost it down the stretch. True, she was Reno bound, but what were the chances of finding her there?
It was the beer, he decided. How many did he have? Feeling fatigued and groggy from the driving and the alcohol, a place to hole up and rest for the night sounded like the ticket. Then his mind started playing twenty questions, and he was awake again.
He went into the bathroom and confronted himself, scowling, in the mirror. Robotically, he pulled the face of the medicine cabinet back to inspect the shelves inside--the little mystery that no traveler can resist. It was empty. But on the reverse side of the mirror, a predecessor wielding a bright red lipstick had scrawled: This place is totally screwed, but I did get some damn good screwing done here.
The commotion outside brought him back from the edge of a shallow, dreamless sleep. Still fully dressed, he stumbled to the window, parted the drapes slightly, and tried to make sense of the scene before him.
A fistfight was taking place in the street. A long-haired blond kid of about eighteen was getting the worst of it from some big dude with a beer gut. Curious spectators stood in a semicircle, urging them on. Country music blared from someone's pickup truck. Steve squinted at his watch in the dim light filtering in from the street. It was just past midnight.
"Jesus Christ," he muttered. So this is the social whirl in Tonopah on a Saturday night."
At first, he didn't hear the knock. The second time it was louder. He pulled the safety chain and cracked the door.
She looked like a ghost in the moonlight.
"I couldn't sleep with all the racket," Elena said as she stepped inside, cradling a six-pack of beer in one arm and a plastic motel ice bucket in the other. She set them down on the dresser and said, "I like my beer over ice, don't you?"
Steve shook his head in disbelief. "Holy crap. I thought you'd be in Reno by now!"
"I got a few miles out of town and said why push it, you know. Drove back in and found this motel. After I'd checked in I noticed your car sitting outside--now isn't that a coincidence?"
He tried to keep a straight face, certain now that she was playing some kind of game with him. A game that seemed to be going his way.
They were each on their second beer--Steve propped up on pillows and Elena sitting cross-legged at the foot of the bed. The tumult outside had died down, the crowd slowly drifting away, leaving a languid calm to reclaim the night.
"I was thinking about things you told me at the cafe today," he said. "I know you don't believe in them, but it must be some kind of minor miracle that we're sitting here together--the way it's come about."
"Proximity," she said.
"Proximity. It sounds obvious, but most people don't really think about it."
Steve took a long swallow of his beer. "I must be missing something."
"Let's say there's someone in a far corner of the world right now who's a perfect match for you or me. Well, it doesn't matter because we're never going to meet that person. We hook up with people who live in our own space. At work, school, the supermarket...or some little joint called Billies."
He watched a small spider move erratically along the opposite wall, a black dot navigating a sea of white. "Proximity...coincidence...kind of takes all the magic out of it."
"It's very freeing, actually," she said, shaking the hair from her eyes, "when you have no more illusions."
She wore that faraway look again, and spoke as though she were in a dream. "Once I was engaged to be married. His name was Rob. He was older, and everything I wanted. Dashing--that's how I saw him. A few weeks before the wedding, he got a chance to visit a good friend who lived on the South Carolina coast. He'd been there a couple of days when the gale warnings went up. His friend decided to throw a party and ride out the storm. The guy was crazy, but he talked Rob into staying. He convinced some other people to stay in the house with them too. Well, the storm hit with a vengeance. They were pinned down, cut off from the outside world with this monster hurricane trying to do them in. The storm finally blew itself out, but Rob said later that there was a time when they all thought they were going to die--just be swept away and that would be the end of it. The house was severely damaged but intact, and everyone came through it alive, though most of them had accepted Jesus as their savior before it was done."
"Christ." Steve said.
"After he told me all of this, he said that there had been a girl named Lila with them. He said he was sorry...but he'd fallen in love with her. Said it had been this tremendous bonding experience between the two of them. His words left me numb. I was in shock, as if I'd experienced a trauma myself. That's when I learned that destinies can be changed by the favors of the wind. "
Steve held her gaze for a long moment, then she said, "Do you have any protection?"
"No," he said.
Deftly, she removed her blouse, pulling it over her head, disregarding the mess it made of her hair.
His eyes fell upon her breasts, small and firm, the nipples swelling. She slid out of her shorts, then stood before him in the dim lamplight to allow him to take in the entirety of her.
She said, "I don't either, but you look like an man who's good with his hands."
Cold morning light sliced through a narrow break in the drapes. Steve woke and looked around the room. He was alone again. He remembered her lying beside him when he drifted off. Panic overtook him as he dressed and bolted into the glaring sunlight.
Her car was gone.
As he turned to re-enter the room, the white slip of paper tucked under the wiper on his Camry caught his attention. He grabbed the note and hastily unfolded it, detecting the faint, sweet trace of her perfume. The message said: Had to get an early start. Don't know what you want to make of this, if anything. It won't do you much good to try to figure it--or me-out. So just toss a penny into the air and if it turns up heads, tear down that highway and catch up with me before I make Reno. Otherwise, you're on your own. Either way, there's no regrets because it was out of our hands.
He stood there shaking his head, mumbling into his chest. Then he looked away at the pavement stretching before him--first to the left, then to the right. Hell, he thought, a true gambler would take the plunge. He felt lightheaded. Digging inside his jeans' pocket, he cursed. For an instant he thought of taking the car.
Then Steve ran. First to the office. The door was locked. He checked his watch. It was about six-thirty. He sprinted along the road, forcing early morning motorists to swerve into the outer lane. He ran until he reached a diner that appeared to be open. Only after he burst inside did he realize that it was Billie's. About to ask the bleary-eyed young woman at the counter for change, he saw the dish with a hand-lettered sign that read: Give a penny--take a penny. A shiny one on top stood out. He grabbed it, leaving her dumbfounded as he charged back through the door, shouting "thanks" as it slammed shut behind him.
In the parking lot he stood quiet for a moment, feeling the cool solidity of the metal between his fingers. Then, with a spirited thrust, his arm propelled the gleaming bit of copper skyward.
A maverick blast of wind swept in from the north, seizing leaves and dust and twigs, sending them aloft in a frenzied, chaotic maelstrom.
The penny danced in the air.
"How long had you been following me, anyway?" she asked.
"Oh, a few miles," he said. "I thought you were going to run off the road when you finally looked in your mirror and saw it was me." They lay stretched on the bed in a Reno motel room. A colorful print of a harbor scene hung on the opposite wall. As Steve glanced at it he said, "Ever been on a sailboat?"
"I have one."
"Actually, it was my dad's, but I've kind of laid claim to it lately. It's a little twenty-three foot sloop--pretty cozy for two. Maybe someday I'll talk you into coming down to Mexico with me and we'll take her out."
"Maybe...someday," she said coyly.
He fell silent for a moment, lost in his thoughts. Maybe someday he would tell her of how he had cheated--letting the penny drop into the dirt back at Billie's, refusing to look at it.
After all, any sailor will tell you it's a low percentage bet when you gamble against the wind.