Chapter Two: The Mustang Room.
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Clay Baldwin spent the better part of an hour in the bank, watching the bureaucratic fidget wheels slowly turn. It was like Twin Wells had never seen a traveler’s check before. Now that the commotion with Joe Newby had passed, Alexander Johnson III commanded the bank lobby in his shirtsleeves, pacing back and forth on the worn floorboards as if they were the foredeck of some war-bound frigate. He demanded that various forms be signed in triplicate, that Baldwin’s driver’s license be photocopied and filed away. Baldwin kept his cool. He had never liked men with numbers in their names; those Roman numerals made them move through the world with a sense of entitlement. Baldwin counted his cash on the counter, gave the pretty cashier a glimmer of a smile, then burst from the bank into the pale, dead heat of the afternoon.
He returned to the garage and, seeing that his car was now in a work bay, retrieved a rucksack from behind the passenger seat. The mechanic and the tow driver were nowhere in sight. He continued on in the direction of the Lone Star Motel—a dun-brown, low-slung affair that seemed to have grown out of the earth itself. He walked into the front office, where a gritty old woman sat watching a small TV. She continued to watch her show but raised a hand to Baldwin, as if to pause whatever business he wished to transact. The curtains were drawn, and her sallow, hard features were worsened by the chrome light of daytime television. She reminded Baldwin of portraits he’d seen of Dust Bowl widows, women whose faces had been ravaged by weather and regret and boredom without end. A cigarette fumed from an overflowing ashtray, and the room’s decor—a vinyl couch, some framed prints of hunting cabins set back in the woods—had been smoke-dyed over the years to mustard-brown and nicotine-yellow. Baldwin had given up smoking a few months earlier, after nights of feverish coughing and blasphemy, and now he felt the weight of the room press into his lungs.
“Do you know the capital of Honduras?”
“No, ma’am. I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Me neither. Now, if they’d asked for a state capital, then I would be in fine shape. But they like to go foreign.”
“I was wonderin’ about a room.”
“Thirty-seven plus tax up-front. The continental is included.”
Baldwin nodded, picturing a plate of sorry doughnuts and a pot of tepid coffee. “That’ll be just fine,” he said. He put two $20 bills on the counter. “Not sure how long I’ll be stoppin’. Maybe a night or two.”
“We ain’t busy,” the woman said. She stood, paid out his change, and turned to a corkboard where two dozen keys hung in rows. Each key was attached to a hand-carved animal figurine, miniature wooden totems of wolves and bears and bobcats. She handed Baldwin a key with a horse attached.
“You’ll be in Mustang. It’s just been aired out, and the showerhead could strip paint.”
“What number is that?”
“Just look for the silhouette on the door. It’s at the end of the breezeway.”
Baldwin nodded and swung his rucksack onto his shoulder, eager to get out into the fresh air. He found the Mustang Room and opened the door to find a miniature cowboy museum—galloping paints on the tilting lamp shade, a horseshoe toilet paper holder, a lasso on the back of the door, even a Mexican saddle hanging on one wall. He washed his face over the sink and dried off with a hand towel trimmed in bucking colts. He took off his jeans, set them over a chair, and collapsed onto the bed.
About two hours later he was jolted awake by the foghorn blast of a freight train. Cursing and grumbling, he heaved himself out of the bed and looked at the clock. It was almost dinnertime, and he needed a shower. He went into the bathroom, laid a ranch-inspired towel across the back of the toilet, and turned on the hot water. The old woman was right: The showerhead opened out like a burst water main.
Baldwin emerged into the dusky pall, face stinging with aftershave, hair slicked back, and a hunger he could feel in his bones. He headed up the street until he found a beer joint, where he took a stool at the bar and ordered a roast beef sandwich and a Lone Star. The dingy barroom had a spotted bass and the head of a five-point stag on the wall. An ancient pool table listed slightly, its flaking and mottled green surface like the pelt of some animal washed up on a desolate shore. The only other customer was a man slumped at the end of the bar, a procession of drained shot glasses in front of him, his face hangdog and half in shadow.
“Where is everyone?” Baldwin asked the wiry barkeep. “This place is a ghost town.”
“Last night of the two-bit fair outside of town—strongmen and tin can shooting alleys and Shetland ponies led around by carny boys while little Jimmy rides bareback.” The bartender shifted his weight from one foot to the other, wincing under the light of a neon Budweiser sign. “Folks are so bored around here that it passes for entertainment.”
Baldwin drained his Lone Star and nodded to the man for another. He felt a slight hum in his chest. His roast beef sandwich floated through a kitchen portal at the end of a tattooed, hairy arm; it came on burnt toast with a side of horseradish. He washed it down with the second beer. A television was suspended from the ceiling, and a montage of a police car chase played out on some distant city’s freeway system. Baldwin found himself rooting for the getaway.
Sometime during his third beer, the man at the other end of the bar roused himself, stood, and wobbled in Baldwin’s direction.
“Well, boys, I’m off to the fair myself. I need to win my boy a stuffed monkey or see a man thrown from a bull. One or the goddamned other.” He stopped and looked into Baldwin’s eyes with the swaggering stare of a noonday drunk. It was Joe Newby, the man who had shoved past him in the bank.
“Maybe I can catch a ride out there with you,” Baldwin said. “Nothing else doin’ here.”
“Sure,” Newby said. “But I may make a quick stop to shoot Alex Johnson in his sleep.”
The bartender laughed and said, “You couldn’t shoot a horse if it was layin’ down.”
Baldwin stared at Newby for a moment, trying to gauge the amount of irony—or whiskey—in his threat. Newby shrugged at the bartender’s comment, doffed an imaginary hat, and shuffled for the door. Baldwin threw some money on the bar and followed him out into the night.
Chapter Three, by David Searcy, in which Baldwin visits a carnival and draws a line in the sand.