I took I-10 east and was amazed to find the mountains coming into view as I cleared the city and the sky lightened. It was impossible to tell how far away the mountains were or how big. For once I had no traffic and I sped along. As the sun was rising, I stared at something I could not figure out what it was until I got closer. It was an expanse of huge white wind turbines that I eventually drove straight through. They made me feel like I was in a science fiction movie.
I drove through San Bernadino and wondered if I’d be hitting any of the other places mentioned in that song about Route 66. But no, Barstow (which I always heard as “Barstool”) and the old track of Route 66 went north from there, while I-10 went more directly east, toward Joshua Tree National Park. There’s a U2 reference there. I don’t know why they called the album “The Joshua Tree.” Maybe someday I’ll find out.
I think I’ve been remiss in telling you about Remo’s SUV, which he called a “truck” and Jonathan called a “Jeep.” Technically it was made by Jeep, but I thought of Jeeps as looking a certain way and this was something else. Which was probably why Remo called it a truck. It was a thing called a Wagoneer, and I call it an SUV now, but at the time that term wasn’t really in vogue yet except among car manufacturers. Anyway, the important things about it were it was taller than a regular car, so when you were sitting in traffic you could see further ahead, and when you were driving through the desert you could imagine you were on some kind of a safari adventure.
Yeah, I admit, I had fantasies of kidnapping him and disappearing into Mexico together. Blame the truck.
The other thing about the truck, Jeep, whatever, it had a huge gas tank. I was getting close to the place when I happened to glance down at the gas gauge. Not a moment too soon, as the needle was lagging below the E. I pulled off the highway and as I saw a gas station a few hundred yards ahead, the engine died. Apparently I really should have looked at that sooner. I rolled as far as it would go until I came to a stop at the curb.
I walked the rest of the way under blazing morning sun. I-10 basically runs along a wide, flat valley between mountains. It’s not Death Valley, but it makes you think of it, if, like me, you’re from the East Coast and never walked anywhere in 100-degree heat. This was hotter than that day in Arizona when Marty and I had walked to find breakfast. That was like a balmy spring day compared to this. By the time I got to the gas station I was wearing my denim jacket over my head because although that was hot, it hurt less than the intensity of the direct sun. The sun made the sunglasses on my face so hot they felt like they were burning the bridge of my nose.
The inside of the gas station was like a little oasis. I stood there in relief to be out of the heat. The clerk looked to be about my age, tall and skinny, unruly blond hair shoved under a baseball cap.
“I ran out of gas up the road,” I told him, pointing.
“Oh. Um. I guess you can buy some,” he said, looking kind of unsure of himself.
I was expecting him to be a little more helpful than that. “Uh, sure.” We stood there facing each other. “How?” My brain started to work a little now that I was in a temperature I could stand. “Can I borrow a gas can or something?”
“Hang on.” The kid went and stuck his head through a doorway into the garage portion of the station and talked to someone I couldn’t see. He pulled the door shut behind him as he came back to talk to me. “Uh, I don’t have a can you can borrow. You can buy a gallon of washer fluid, though, and dump it out, and then put some gas in that.”
“Seriously? You don’t have like an empty jar or something I could just carry a little gas back to it, enough to drive it up here?”
“Um.” He made a furtive “one second” gesture and opened the door again and stuck his head through. Then he backed up suddenly as an old man came barreling through. He was bent over, which made him shorter than me.
“Okay, let me see him!” He got about two feet from me and squinted, like he still couldn’t really make out my face. “You Indian?” he demanded.
“He’s fine, grandpa,” the kid said.
“You thirsty?” grandpa asked in the same demanding tone.
“A little?” I answered, not sure why he was asking.
“Sell him a Coke, Jimmy. He can put some gas in there after he drinks it.” Then he went back into the garage, a bit more slowly than he’d come, feeling for the knob on the door.
When it was shut, the kid, who looked terrified about the whole thing now, stammered, “Sorry about that. Being almost blind’s made him kind of bitter.”
Was being blind what made him crazy? I thought, but I didn’t say anything. At that point I was just trying to get out of there. I bought a can of Coke from the fridge, drank it in more or less one go, which proved how thirsty I was, and then bought something like 27 cents of gas to put in the can, including what I spilled on the ground trying to pump into the can. I carried it in one of the windshield wipe paper towels they had in a dispenser by the pump.
The walk back to the car seemed even longer. The whole way there I was playing the weird scene over again in my mind and it sank in that the old guy was trying to figure out if I was white or not. “He’s fine” must’ve meant yes, right? I didn’t look like some kind of criminal trying to rip them off? That just made me even angrier. I spilled half the gas down the side of the vehicle trying to get it into the tank and hoped that wasn’t a hazard of some kind. Getting in the car, I could still smell the gasoline on my hands.
The engine started, hallelujah, and then I realized there was a gas station down a little ways and across the street from the place I’d been. I decided to go there. It couldn’t be worse, right?
It wasn’t. Inside were two guys who might have been of Mexican descent, or maybe Indian, with black hair and wide smiles. I think they were brothers. They told me I was lucky I hadn’t run out of gas out on the highway somewhere. I told them about the weird guy at the gas station across the street.
“Shit, man, you shoulda come in here first. We woulda just pushed you over here,” one of them said.
“Or lent him a gas can. Crazy.”
They filled up the tank and wiped up the spill and let me wash my hands in their restroom. I washed my face, too, and tossed my hair back, and for the first time it occurred to me to wonder whether I should have played the rock star card back at the other place. Except, no, I didn’t actually want to give them my business even if they did magically start kissing my ass or something. Bleah.
Meanwhile the guys on this side of the street I wouldn’t have minded if they knew, except why make things weird? They were perfectly nice to me without knowing who I was, or without caring. I liked it better that way. They even gave me some lemonade to drink when I came out. I sucked it down and still felt thirsty, but I figure it would take a while for it and the Coke to soak in. I thanked them.
I got on the road again. I probably had thirty miles or so still to go. The gas shenanigans had cost me a good half hour to forty five minutes.
I spent the next half hour while driving trying to come up with the words I was going to say to Ziggy. At first I was trying to figure out how to boil down what had happened with BNC. But after I turned off the highway and was making my way there through the streets of Rancho Mirage, I switched to trying to figure out how to get him to come with me. I didn’t know where I’d take him. Maybe he’d want to be dropped off at Digger’s office. Maybe he’d come back with me to Remo’s and then I’d figure out something. I mean, things with me and Jonathan had definitely changed in the past few weeks, but one thing I was sure hadn’t changed was that Jonathan knew how fucking important Ziggy was to me.
I really hadn’t come up with anything that sounded all that good in my own ears by the time I pulled up to the place. There were signs to it from the highway. I parked in a parking lot near what looked a lot like the lobby entrance of a hotel, but was actually the entrance to the center.
The one thing I had not expected to see upon walking in the door was Digger. His face was flushed and he was shouting at a blond woman who had the expression of someone who was unfazed by being shouted at, her lips curled in a professional smile but her eyes stony.
What stopped me in my tracks was what he was shouting.
“What do you mean ‘left?’ How could he leave?”
“As I’ve been trying to explain, sir, he checked already this morning. He had been cleared to leave.”
“Well, where the fuck did he go?”
“I do not know that, sir.”
“I mean, I’ve been here since last night! Someone could have told me! How could you just let him walk like that?”
“Sir, I’ve been trying to explain, we had no orders to keep him. He was cleared to leave under his own–”
Digger cut her off with a frustrated gesture. “Let me borrow a phone. I’ve got to call my answering service.”
“Of course, sir.” Every time she said “sir” it sounded more and more ironic to me. I’m sure in her mind she was replacing “sir” with “asshole.”
She eyed me like I better not start up next. I folded my hands and tried to look like I wasn’t trouble. She had handed a phone handset to Digger who punched in a series of numbers and listened. He still hadn’t seen me. I gestured to the clerk that I was going to wait outside. She gave me a friendlier smile and a shrug while Digger started haranguing the operator at his service.
I ducked out. When I looked back a minute or two later, I didn’t see him, but he hadn’t come out the door. Well, now was my chance.
I went up to the woman. Her nametag read “Sheeri.”
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Sheeri, you probably can,” I said.
“Hey, you got my name right, that’s amazing. Most people call me Sherri.”
“I’ve got a friend named She-REE,” I said, thinking of Louis’s ex-wife. “People are always getting hers wrong, too. I’m Daron.”
Her eyebrow went up in recognition. “And what can I do for you?”
“Sounds like there’s been a little confusion about Ziggy’s discharge. Do you happen to know what time he left?”
“Had to be at like six in the morning,” she said.
“He couldn’t have just… walked out, though?” I asked. “My worry is he’s sitting at a Circle K somewhere, dehydrated and in need of a ride. That sun is brutal. I ran out of gas on the way here and had to walk to get some. Or I would have been here earlier.”
I did not outright lie, but I let her think maybe I was supposed to be here at six a.m.
She appeared to be considering something. Her lips pursed.
“Don’t tell me anything that would, you know, break confidentiality rules or anything,” I said. “I just need to figure out what to do. And I’m worried.”
She came to a decision. “He got in a cab,” she told me. “So you don’t have to worry he’s expired of heat stroke somewhere down the road.”
A cab. “Was he alone?”
She hesitated. “I can’t tell you that.”
I took that to mean he wasn’t. “Thank you very much for your help. Last question. Where’d the guy you were just talking to go?”
“I believe he’s in the men’s room.” She pointed to a door across the foyer.
“Thank you. Really.”
Her smile was real. “Good luck.”
(We used this song in a liner note last summer, so sue me. Still a favorite, for being a great song and also for the Dave Navarro/Perry Farrell kiss at 1:03. -daron)