Nearing Reno on the snow-slick Interstate I could almost feel the seething of dazed gamblers. Snow snapped around the Dodge in tight wind gusts. A collected yearning drew me like a magnet.
My self-appointed mission was to criss-cross the country. I wanted to check in with Miss Crimson in DC and then get back to Los Angeles to see if I could get my agency up and running while fulfilling my promise to assist the benefactor.
I exited the interstate on the outskirts. I like to check out the backwaters, a habit I picked from selling The Process. We would get good hits from out of the way places. The sides of the road were sheathed in a thin white coating, hardscrabble evergreens severe against the fresh white ground dusting.
I came upon a old gas station and cafe. Several big rigs were parked in its large lot. I guessed that whatever the specialty of the old place was, truckers knew all about it. Follow truckers to the good chow - one of those unwritten rules of the road. Guys who jangle their guts over hundreds of miles a day appreciate good pie, chicken-fried steak, crisped hash-browns and the like.
The place had a small neon EATS sign with Two Roses Cafe painted in faded red and white over the clapboard above a full glass door. The restaurant had a frozen-in-time feel on the edge of what must have been a main highway at one time. To complete the effect there was a rusted late 60s van parked by the side of the road.
“About time you stopped,” a voice, Fritz’s voice, said from the rear seat.
“Ok, Ok, if this is a leftover bullshit from The Process then bring it all on,” I said aloud. “I can take this. I liked Fritz. He was a great dog, so if you want to fuck with me in his voice go right ahead. My pleasure.”
“No, it is me.”
Holy shit! I had parked the Dodge next to the old van. I looked into my backseat. Fritz was dog-curled in the middle of the seat. I felt his limp fur. On seeing him I recalled a fleeting shadow near the car when I outcopped the no-necks on the side of the Cabrillo Highway.
“You were tangling with that brute dog back at the shack. I thought you killed each other. I didn’t hear anything when me and the girl broke out.”
“First off, you don’t have to talk out loud. Don’t want to sound like a nut do you? The reason you didn’t hear nothing is because by the time you ran out, me and that sweet girl were having a little fun.”
“Fun?” I thought.
“Dogs do it too, you know.”
“What! The two of you were locked in a death battle.”
“I spoke to her just like I’m talking to you. We dogs are not just about smells and sounds. Loyalty’s a big deal. She wasn’t happy that the blond left her partner at the house. Not at that particular moment in a lady dog’s life, if you get my drift.”
“You pronged the Presa?”
“We call it mating.”
Is this really necessary?
I held the car door open. The black dog labored to get to the ground. He disappeared behind the van. “Get me something to eat. I’m worn out from this fighting and... well, other things.”
“Where’s the girl dog?”
“She stiffened up and played dead when the spiked-hair goons came over the hill. I flat booked. Ran through the shadows and zipped into the car while you played that alpha dog number on the fuzz. Helps to be black. I’ve been passed out since then.”
“What about Wendy?” I asked aloud.
“Who? Wendy? What?” said a voice, not Fritz’s. A man emerged from the rear of the old van. He wore a denim cap, dirty jacket and denim overalls. Greasy hair curled from under the cap and surrounded a face obscured by bushy eyebrows and beard. Hollow needlepoint eyes scanned the lot finally settling on me.
“Oh, nothing. Just thinking out loud.” I said as Fritz rustled into the car. “I’ll tell you later,” the dog whispered.
“Knew a couple of Wendys in the Big Sur back in ‘68 or so. Beautiful gals, both of ‘em. Can you spot me a meal, friend. The Roses whip up the best chow in the Sierras. Good toast.”
“Why not, captain. Toast sounds good.” I was in a light mood and with his denim cap he sort of looked like a railroad gandy dancer captain.
“Yes, I’m Captain Billy. Were you in the Sur too?”
“No, sir,” I said to the round fellow. He eased from the van. We walked to the cafe. Bells on the door joined the tinkle of slot machines. Two women wearing red scarves stood behind a center counter. They wore red-lettered white plastic name tags pinned to plump bosoms: Rose Ellen and Rose Marie. The two Roses I presumed. The woman were of similar short stature and wore matching less-than-eager-to-please expressions. The restaurant had a little old-time charm like one of those pie and coffee joints in a Depression movie. There were a few trucker customers but no snappy repartee, no music; just the sad clicking and dinging of the slots. The customers were zoned into the machines that were at each table, booth and along the front counter.
I ordered two rose-plate specials and a rare burger patty for the dog. “You got a dog out there with you?” one of the Roses growled. “Because we sell dog chow. Don’t begin to say it, Billy. Lots of the guys bring their dogs with them on the road, so we carry bags of it.”
“Throw one on the bill, Rosie,” I said.
“Careful now,” Captain Billy muttered, “no telling what those girls will do to our food. Don’t get smart with the Roses.” The Captain and I were ensconced on high-backed wooden spinners at the counter. I watched the broad shouldered cooks as they worked in tandem and in a rhythm that would be envied by a synchronized swimming team.
Steaming plates of food and reasonably clean silverware appeared in front of us at dazzling speed. A Rose stood watch poised with a ready pot of the hot brown elixir of the road. The Captain plied me with stories about his juice-harp playing days with jug bands up and down the Coast. As the tales rolled on I became more interested in the slot machine. When I made a slight gesture with a ten dollar bill a Rose popped down a roll of quarters.
It started there. Billy and I yanked slots and slurped java for two or three hours. I ran through $150.00 - oh, those cherries were so close, so many times. Somewhere in the middle of the fever I ran the patty and dog chow out to Fritz. He lounged in the now sunny afternoon beside the Aspen.
“You guys should go on into town, to the casinos if you want to gamble. We close at 5:00,” a Rose said. The cafe had emptied. Most of the big trucks were gone from the lot. The other Rose mopped the floor, the disinfectant folding into the burnt grease smell.
Back in the Aspen, with Fritz and Billy aboard, I chugged down Virginia Street under the Reno Arch into downtown.
We parked near the Cal Neva. I left Fritz sleeping in the back.
“Leave a hunnert under the seat,” Captain Billy advised. “You never know. You might need it for gas and chow.” The thought sent a chill. But like chilled millions before me I shrugged off the worry. The fever told me I would be the exception. I didn’t even stop to wonder how Captain Billy knew I had a hundred much less ten of them.
The Cal Neva swirled like a cliched Friday night sawdust shitkick cowboy saloon. Every sense was overwhelmed upon entering. A taco bar was arrayed near the door. The Captain hit that like a mad bull on a daydreaming toreador. The collected smell of tightly packed cologned humans mixed with a wall of cigarette smoke. There was a din of raised voices, spinning machines and scraps of honky-tonk music. The air vibed with a sense of impending surprise - bells rang as slot machines spilled coins into plastic cups for smiling players. I slipped a c-note to Billy among the napkin wrapped taco stuffed pockets of his ratty jacket.
I dove into the main casino floor. I shied from the gaming tables - too much human contact. I found a quarter slot and began to lose. Two cheroots into it a maiden appeared, beaming, inviting. She recurred bringing frosty libations and rolls of quarters, ten at a time. They say they pump oxygen in those places to keep the players awake and digging for cash, but just one beam from her was enough for this clown. The quarters kept coming.
Captain Billy appeared to be doing quite well as he kept materializing with babes on each arm - they were not there for the tacos. The Captain was wowing them at the blackjack table from what he burbled; seems he was close to the big jackpot - just a few more bucks, buddy. The fever was such a pure release from the California terror that I didn’t mind giving him my cash.
When a new beaming waitress arrived with tray propped I guessed ten or twelve hours had passed. I was down to a hand full of quarters. No cash. Wiped-out. I left the remaining coins on a table near the machines. I felt an ache of faded excitement; the thrill was definitely gone. I figured I would push on to Salt Lake City with the hundred back in the car and then have some cash wired.
In the cool now sunlit afternoon I checked Virginia Street for the Aspen. Fritz would be anxious. A woman toddled on high heels; she was dressed for the evening - last evening. Others on the block shared a look of shocked disappointment as they straggled back to whatever shelter they had left. My shelter had the big black expectant head of Fritz in its window. I took the beast for a little stroll.
I started the car and let it warm. There was an 8-track, Waiting for Columbus, sitting on the seat in an odd placement. I moved the 8-track; on the seat was a shining silver dollar. I reached for the hundred knowing that it would not be there.
“He came back with a female.” Fritz said.
I had left the window cracked for the dog. Billy being a man of the streets would have been able to get inside with little effort.
“Tell me he at least fronted you a taco.”
“Yes he did. Some water would be nice.”
“I’ll let you out when we get back to The Two Roses.”
Inside the cafe the same disinfectant and grease smell. Each booth and table was occupied by a single trucker. The truckers held forks poised over slices of pie - apple, cherry. lemon meringue, etc.
Rose Ellen and Rose Ann framed a silver dollar slot machine in the center of the counter.
“Marie has the day off,” the Rose on the left spat.
“Thanks, I can sleep tonight,” I snapped to the gruff grunts of the truckers.
Starting from the back of the cafe the truckers spoke one word in turn:
“Yeah,” I said, “ he owes me..”
“Yeah, he stole it from...”
“You see,” the Rose on the right said, “Billy gave you the fever. You’re not his first fool. You won’t be the last.” The pie boys mumbled assent.
“You want a final shot?” Rose Ann said. She gestured to the silver dollar machine. The women brandished silver pie cutters held over the slot.
Why let them down, I thought. Laugh your ass, here goes my last silver dollar, warm the dishwasher. A growling cheer erupted from the boys and girls as the spinners stopped on - one, two, three and then four roses (of course).
The machine spewed round dollars onto the Formica. The faces of the Roses went grim. The truckers ceased cheering.
Silver has a musical sound unlike any other metal. Silver made Nevada. The dollars rained as Rose Ellen spoke, “How are you going to get this money out of here?”
“Good question, Rose.” I answered bravely. I surveyed the room. The pie cutters and forks came into immediate focus. I figured I could scoop enough to fill my pockets. Maybe hold about fifty or so in my hands, but I wouldn’t get close to what was now spilling onto the floor and rolling under the tables of the pie-eaters. Rose didn’t have to tell me that was all I could expect. There would be no traipsing back and forth to the Aspen with sacks of silver - we were fragile moments away from a serious shark-feed and I was the chum.
“I suppose you have an idea, Rose?”
Both of the ladies smiled. They each held two 50$ bills. Some of the truckers had moved from their seats. They were crouched, scooping coins with dead beams on me. The silver dollars continued to roll out like the murmurred Hail Marys of an old nun at her rosary.
I took the bills from the women and backed out of the cafe.
I sprinted to the Aspen. Fritz hustled in with me. There was one stop for gas, water and beer. We drove through the night and did not make another stop until the Welcome to Utah sign came into view.