“Can I have the keys?” I ask. “Where’d you park it?”
He ignores me, humming along to the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” which this bar has on loop apparently for no reason other than the fact that Arizona is mentioned once in it.
I shouldn’t be buying this truck from him. I know there’s going to be something wrong with it; it’s older than I am. But this is the only one I can afford, and I have to get out of here. I have to get out of this town.
“Another one,” he says stubbornly, trying to flag down Amy, the bartender, who is doing her absolute best to deny his miserable existence. She and I have talked about this before—it’s hard to look at him. His teeth got bad over the years, and his cheeks sag so low they’re practically hanging like wattles against his neck. He’s only forty-five, but he already looks like the after photo of a meth addict—the mug shot of the killer on one of those crime TV shows they’re always rerunning. His breath alone is like a punch to the face.
I used to like Hutch a lot. He got to know my dad when he dropped off fresh produce at the restaurant. Now it’s like…I don’t know how to explain it so it makes sense. It’s like he’s a cautionary tale, only one you know you’re speeding toward without brakes. A glimpse of the future, or whatever. I just look at him and I know that if I don’t get out of this place, I’m going to be this old man who’s not even old, but smells like he pisses himself on a regular basis. The guy who spins and spins and spins on his barstool, like he’s riding the old carousel at the fairgrounds.
Hutch slides the key out of his pocket but slams his hand down over it when I reach for it. His other hand traps mine, and then he’s looking at me with these wet, feverish eyes. “I loved your daddy so much, Gabe, and I know he wouldn’t want this for you.”
“He tapped out, which means he doesn’t get a vote,” I said, ripping my hand free. “I paid you. Now tell me where you parked it.”
For a second, I’m sure he’s going to tell me he parked it at the mall, and I’m going to have to walk my ass up the highway for an hour to get there. Instead, he shrugs and says finally, “On the north end of Wheeler Park. On Birch.”
I slide down from my stool, finishing off the pint I just paid fifteen bucks for. Hutch is still watching me with these eyes like I can’t describe. He pauses, then says, “But I’m telling you now, you ever find someone who likes the job, you better goddamn run the other way because you’re looking at the real monster. You’re looking right at him.”
I take my time walking to downtown—excuse me, “Historic Downtown,” they call it, like it needs that distinction because there’s another, more important downtown in Flagstaff, with skyscrapers. I take my time because the sun is out and it’s a beautiful blue-sky morning—the kind that usually makes everything beneath the sky seem that much shittier in comparison, but not today.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the old train station where my dad and I used to lay pennies to be mauled on the tracks. For the first time in years, I consider crossing the street to sit on one of the benches, just because I know I’ll never do it again. I don’t know how I’d pass the time besides sit, though—what few trains are still running don’t take this route anymore. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Sitting around, doing nothing, thinking about work but not finding it. I think that’s the problem, all that sitting; it leads to thinking about all this bullshit, about the parks they had to turn into graveyards, about Dad’s restaurant’s still being empty after all these years, about the fact that we had to move to a new trailer because we couldn’t get the blood off the walls of the old one.
Damn Hutch, I think. The only thing Dad wanted was an out.
I head past the boarded-up shops. When I was a kid—I use that phrase a lot, when I was a kid. That was, what? Fifteen years ago? Are you still a kid when you’re ten? I guess it doesn’t matter, but it was right around then that this part of town was done up nice for the tourists. The buildings are practically ancient by Arizona standards. Dad told me most of them, including the red brick one with the white turrets, used to be old hotels. Now they’re bead shops, or they sell mystic crystal bullshit from Sedona or fake petrified wood. Those are the shops that survived the economy’s face-plant.
There’s no one out wandering around that morning, and little traffic. That’s the only reason I can hear the chanting three blocks from where the “protest” is taking place. I think about cutting up a block and going the long way, but the city commissioned this horrible memorial wall mural there that makes my skin crawl every time I pass it. In it, there are these five kids all running around this flower field. One of them is on a swing hanging from a cloud. It’s called Their Playground Is Heaven, if you ever make the trek up to Flagstaff and are in the mood to hate humanity that much more.
The mom squad is out in full force in front of City Hall. Of course. It’s a day that ends with y. Back a few years ago, I thought they might accomplish something just by the sheer number of bake sale goods they were producing and selling to raise money for the BRING THEM HOME fund. Now it’s obvious that was never the point.
I keep my head down and my hat pulled low, ignoring the squatty woman who rushes up in her too-tight mom jeans and bright yellow MOTHERS AGAINST CAMPS shirt, shoving her clipboard in my path.
“Have you signed the petition to Bring Them Home?”
Not really, lady.
“Would you like to sign the petition?”
As much as I’d like to swallow a bowl of broken glass.
Because I’m not super into the idea of having a couple thousand little freaks running around the country blowing shit up.
I take the clipboard and squiggle on one of the empty boxes, hoping it’s enough to get her to leave me alone. What’s really amazing to me is that despite the fact that they managed to grow their numbers, it seems like they’re doing less. Even with the addition of the spin-off group, Dads Against Camps, I know for a fact they haven’t gotten any information out of the government.
They have to know how pathetic they all look, right? They stubbornly gather here like cat hair to a black sweater, but there aren’t any politicians in City Hall these days—they just bus folks up from Phoenix every once in a while to make sure the town hasn’t dissolved into chaos or to barricade it off if it has. The parents just can’t bring themselves to break the pattern. Every day it’s the same scene of them standing around and talking to each other, hugging and crying and cupping ragged-edged photos of their freaks between their hands. These people—the “real adults,” my mom calls them—they sit around looking for forgiveness from the guilty. But if they really wanted to accomplish something, they’d be down in Phoenix. They’d be in D.C. or New York, trying to find whatever hole President Gray dug for himself, to make him answer for what he’s done.