A Chance Taken
The girl talked funny. She had flagged him down just outside of Dilkon in the middle of the Navajo reservation. Her clapped out Camaro was on the dirt shoulder of Hwy 87 pointed north, trunk and hood up. Dale pulled his Bronco over and checked her out. She was sure different than any girls he knew. A short skirt that looked like rawhide, long legs and all kinds of colors in her big pile of hair, pretty too. The snakeskin boots looked expensive. So did her shearling winter coat. She started talking before he climbed down.
“It’s a piece of shit, this thing, absolute rubbish! I nicked it off some old wanker in Texas who was keen on marrying me. A bit of slap and tickle and the prat thinks he owns me! So, I sorted him and now I’m legging it. Seemed like a brilliant idea at the time.”
Dale had to ask. “Where are you from?” She answered, “U.K.”
That didn’t help. Dale tried again.
“What country then?”
She let rip with a deep, plummy laugh and said,
“Brixton, which is in Lambeth, which is in London, which is in England, which is in the United Kingdom. Will that do?”
Dale chewed on that for a bit until he figured out what she meant. A foreigner like he thought.
“Oh, okay, got it.”
She took a long look from his boots up to his black felt Stetson.
“What’s your name luv?”
“Pleased to know you, Dale, I’m Syl, that’s short for Sylvia, are you going to fix my car?
So that’s how it started. Local boy meets foreign girl on the vast, mainly empty Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona on a cold clear day. Dale had a few tools in the Bronco but nothing fancy.
“Will it start?” he asked.
She slid behind the wheel showing so much bare thigh Dale had to look away.
“I’ll give it a go, but mind yourself, it might explode.”
It turned over then blew out a huge backfire and settled into an idle that would wake the dead.
“Okay, you can shut it off.”
There was a hole in the tailpipe just north of the muffler probably.
“Can you fix it Dale? It’s too bloody loud to drive.”
“I’ll try, have you got a jack?”
She got out. This time Dale didn’t look away and looked her in the eyes. They were green with icy flecks of blue that matched the streaks in her hair.
“I haven’t a clue, let’s look in the boot.”
They stood at the open trunk. Dale caught a whiff of her scent. It was just like the lady from Pakistan who worked at the video store in Winslow, warm, like some kind of spice maybe. The trunk was crammed with stuff. Mostly empty beer cans, baseball bats, balls, canvas bases, batting helmets and equipment bags.
“Is all this yours?
“Don’t be daft, it’s not my car.”
Syl was grabbing stuff and tossing it off to the side. A few balls rolled away into the ditch.
Dale said, “The jack is sometimes underneath in the well with a spare tire.”
Syl lifted a heavy looking canvas bag with a drawstring top and set it on the ground next to the passenger door and came back to reach deeper into the trunk. Dale watched the bag slowly tip over. The wind caught something poking out and blew it up and away. To Dale it looked an awful lot like a hundred-dollar bill. Was the bag stuffed full of dead presidents? That was none of Dale’s business, at least not yet. Syl stood up holding one of those fancy silver aluminum suitcases.
“No jack, no spare, just me luggage. I think my fags are in here. Do you fancy one?”
Dale had never been asked that before.
“Probably not, I guess.”
She threw her head back and let out that sexy laugh again.
“It’s just a ciggie, do you smoke or not?”
He reached into the back pocket of his jeans for his tin of Skoal.
“I don’t smoke, I just dip.”
Syl watched while he put a pinch inside his lower lip.
“Well, I won’t be snoggin’you, will I? That’s bloody disgusting.!”
She popped open her suitcase, dug through a pile of frilly underpants, plucked out a small square box and tossed it to Dale.
“Players Navy Cut, the finest fag there is.”
It had a picture on it, a guy with a beard and funny hat and two ships.
“Alright Dale, would you be a proper gent and give me a light?”
Dale handed the box back to her. “I don’t have a match.”
Syl lifted a pack from the box and scolded him.
“Well, you should always be prepared for a situation like this. I’m a damsel in distress unless you hadn’t noticed.”
He struck a match and cupped it from the wind. After she lit her smoke, she looked up at Dale’s face, blew smoke from the corner of her mouth and asked, “What are you worried about Dale? He shrugged. “Nothing.”
He wasn’t worried, he was distracted, hoping he could find the bill that had caught the wind. It could be stuck on the barbed wire across the ditch with other bits of paper trash. Syl offered an impish smile and a soft push to his shoulder. Her fingernails were the same blue as some of her hair.
“Alright then now that we’re both sorted what about my car?
“Sure, let me see what’s in my truck.”
She was making him nervous. Not just because she was real pretty, but she seemed like someone who invited trouble and Dale had enough of his own. He was three payments behind on the Bronco and he couldn’t hide it from the repo man much longer. Being a part-time handyman on the high desert where everyone was dirt poor made things worse. At least there was nothing owed on his tiny adobe house in Winslow by the railroad tracks. It was all his mother left him when she passed. He had spent the summer adding a room that he could rent out, but it was nowhere near finished. November was right around the corner. He would have to nail up tarps soon before the snow came. He wished he’d just taken off, but then if he got her back on the road he could follow and see where she went with all that money. All he had in the truck was a concrete block, a couple lengths of split rails for a fence he never fixed, some empty cans of Coors and some baling wire. That would do it.
The block and fence rails made a half-assed ramp in front of the rear wheel and after two slow tries Dale got the Camaro lifted just enough to slide underneath. The sun was straight overhead making the sky look white instead of blue and the wind was picking up. Syl watched from the passenger seat of the Bronco to keep warm. He kept the keys in his pocket. You just can’t tell what some people might do. Hell, she could grab the bag, start his truck and get a head start before he got out from under the Camaro. He stretched out, shimmied under the car and found a poker chip sized hole in the rusted exhaust pipe just like he thought. He walked back to the Bronco for the baling wire and a beer can. Syl slid over to the driver’s window and poked her head out. She had untied her hair and let it loose. It was much longer than Dale thought it would be, longer than some of the Hopi girls up on Second Mesa. Theirs was dark as coal but hers looked like colored streamers from a kid’s birthday party.
“Can you fix it then?”
“I’m going to try.”
He pulled the buck knife from the sheath on his belt and went to work on the can, cutting the ends off and slicing it right down the middle. Then he stomped it flat on the road. Her cigarette smoke caught the wind and slid past him. It didn’t smell half bad. Back under the car he wrapped the can around the pipe twice, right over the hole as tight as he could. Then he cinched it tighter with the wire. Maybe it would hold, maybe it wouldn’t. At least the whole car hadn’t come down on him. He heard horse’s hooves clopping on the road as he shoved clear and stood up. A boy sat on a tan and white Paint horse right next to the Bronco. Syl was stroking its muzzle from the open window. Dale knew the kid but couldn’t remember his name at first, a grandson of Phil and Hilda Honami in Shungopovi who ran the Hopi Trading Post and snack bar on Second Mesa. The boy smiled as Dale approached.
“Does your Grandmother know you’re way out here?”
The boy smiled even wider and shook his head no. His dusty engineers cap with the Santa Fe Railroad patch above the bill gave his name away.
“Well, Lionel, do you remember me?” Dale asked.
Lionel turned his horse and answered, “Yes, I saw your truck. I have to go now.”
He snapped the reins, gave his pony some boot heel to the belly and they took off.
Like lots of Hopi kids Lionel was on the chubby side, but he sure could handle a horse. Bareback even.
For the first time that day, Syl wasn’t talking, just looking thoughtfully at Dale like she was glad to be there. He turned away and spat a stream of tobacco juice onto the road. Lionel and his horse were just a small dot headed west, trailed by a twirling puff of dust.
Syl climbed down from the Bronco as a gust of wind tossed her hair straight back over her shoulders. She turned up the collar of her coat, stepping close to Dale. He backed up a little.
“No, don’t move, block the wind for me, I’m cold.”
Right then she looked like a movie star, but he had no idea which one. Syl looked up and examined his face slowly like she was committing every detail to memory. Dale noticed for the first time that she wore earrings. Tiny doves, one red, one blue. She was right about it getting cold. Syl touched his arm and asked,
“Do you have kids of your own, Dale?”
“No, I sure don’t.”
She squeezed his arm just a little.
“Well, I think you probably should.”
Dale wasn’t used to sharing personal stuff with just anyone, especially a pretty woman from a foreign country. He would have to be careful. He stepped away from Syl, got in the Camaro and turned the key. It was still loud but no more than most vehicles on the res. He left it idling and loaded the block and rails into his truck.
“Well, I guess I owe you one Dale, that was champion!”
Dale figured she was happy and ready to move on. She wasn’t. She gave him a friendly punch to the shoulder and said, “I could do with a proper meal, what about you, my treat?”
Dale decided to go along and see where it went.
“Well, okay, thanks. The only place around is Phil and Hilda’s up on Second Mesa, and they do make a good hamburger.”
Syl climbed into the Camaro.
“Then Bob’s your uncle, luv. You lead and I’ll follow.”
Shungopovi was only about three miles by horse or ATV but closer to six by partly paved roads. Dale took it slow, giving him time to think. What if she just took off? Would he chase her? Where was she headed? He was supposed to be in Tuba City to bid on a roofing job at a Childcare Center run by the Hopi school system. Being on time was not going to be an issue. They hadn’t even showed up for his first attempt. He would likely have to come back anyway. Besides that bag of money was way more than he could earn patching a roof. He looked in the rearview and saw Syl was right behind him, wearing big aviator shades and tapping those long blue nails on the wheel.
Would she offer to pay Dale for his trouble? He could use a lot more than a free lunch. What if he just took the whole thing? He knew plenty of places she’d never find. If he did it, it would have to be soon. He glanced at her in the mirror again and realized her sunglasses were tinted blue. Damn she was pretty. Sassy and sweet at the same time. He could get used to that. Now, would she call the police to say she was robbed? Not if she was driving a stolen Camaro. He needed to convince her to ditch the car. Then it would be just the two of them in the Bronco with a big bag of money.
Dale slowed for the unmarked turn onto the long dirt rise that led past a few low, unpainted cinderblock houses here and there. In wet weather even his Bronco would have a hard time getting to Shongopovi in all the mud. Six or seven dusty dogs trotted alongside, a mix of mutts, large and small. The road stopped at the top of the mesa near a crumbling concrete basketball court with a tilting off center pole holding up a bare rim. For folks who were rather short, the Hopi sure loved their B-ball. Dale made a u-turn and parked pointing downhill at the side of the trading post and motioned for Syl to do the same. Most of the dogs went for the yellow Camaro, a car they had never seen before, hoping for something to eat. Tails wagging, ribs showing, they nipped at each other but didn’t whine or bark. The big Shepard mix with one eye had been top dog for years and sat calmly waiting for Syl to get out. She rolled down the window a few inches and called to Dale.
“This is a rough lot, do you think they fancy me for lunch?”
The door to the snack bar was only twenty feet away.
“I don’t know, how fast can you run?”
Dale stepped over to the Camaro and clapped his hands with a loud smack, and the dogs skulked off.
“Only kidding, come on out, just don’t pet any of them.”
The sign above the door that Dale had painted years ago had faded and was barely legible. He would have to come by and touch it up sometime. He checked to make sure the dogs had lost interest and opened the door for Syl.
“Welcome to Phil and Hil’s Emporium.”
Hilda was behind the small grill and came around to greet Dale, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Been a long time Dale, where you been keeping?”
“Construction job down in Phoenix.”
“Is this your friend with all the pretty hair?” she asked with a big wink at Syl. “I heard all about her.”
Lionel peeked around the end of the booth by the window still wearing his Santa Fe engineers cap. Syl had to laugh. “So, it’s you again is it, telling tales, I should have known.”
Dale and Syl sat across from Lionel while Hilda made their burgers. He had turned shy all of a sudden, gripping a stubby pencil and lowering his head to a school book of math problems. Dale had his own problems to figure out. Mainly what to do about Syl and her bag of money. Was she going somewhere to meet someone? Was she headed for Hollywood? Did she even have a plan? He needed to know. He could picture her sitting at his kitchen table in Winslow with a cold bottle of beer and a big grin as the sunset turned the room to gold and the freight train rumbled past. If she was really on the run from the Texas law a smart man would say goodbye and just let her go, but Dale wasn’t feeling that smart. He was beginning to like her, crazy hair and all. She was a fish out of water flopping around in a strange dry land. His gut was telling him to do the right thing, whatever that was. Hilda brought their burgers on heavy china plates from the old dining car days. Few people traveled west by train now. Years ago, high-rollers from Eastern cities would stop at the big Harvey House hotels along the way but the railways didn’t carry people anymore, just all kinds of consumer goods.
The burgers were big and fat, sitting against a pile of crispy home-fries.
Syl let out a low whistle.
“Now this is wicked, I could do with a pint as well!”
So could I, Dale thought, but knew his ulcer wouldn’t care much for it. The pleasure wasn’t worth the pain.
“You won’t find any beer here, but the ’85 Fanta is a good year.”
As if on cue, Lionel slid out of the booth and returned with two slender bottles of chilled bright orange soda.
Syl hadn’t said a word while she ate. The dogs were pacing just outside the window. She slowly lowered her half - eaten burger and looked down at the dogs, then back at her plate and back to the dogs. Dale knew what she was thinking.
“Don’t worry, it’s 100% beef from Safeway.”
“Then why are you smiling, Dale?”
“Well maybe 75%.”
“Oh just bugger off, you!”
The blast of a trucks air horn scattered the dogs and a Hopi Tribal Police pick-up nosed right up to the window. Syl slumped down muttering quietly, “Oh shit.” Dale had no time to ask her why as the officer walked right in. It was Duwayne Honahni, Hilda’s nephew. He stood at the counter, his back to Dale and Syl. Lionel seemed to have vanished into thin air.
“Aunty Hill, you got a burger for me?”
Duwayne was known to be pushy, especially when on duty, and some people claimed he was wired most of the time and he likely was. It was hard to tell with his eyes covered by mirrored shades. Hilda responded, “I have some frozen, but Dale here got the last two fresh ones.” Duwayne spun around like a gunslinger ready to draw down and Syl flinched, knocking Dale’s leg under the table. Duwayne just stood there grinning.
“What the hell Dale, that was supposed to be my lunch, man.”
Syl was trying not to be noticed and Dale wondered why.
“Sorry, man, didn’t know you were coming.”
Duwayne looked at Syl and held it for a long time.
“Who’s your friend with the pretty hair?”
Syl looked up at Duwayne with a completely blank face and said, “Julie, my name’s Julie.”
Duwayne leaned back against the drink cooler and said, I bet that’s your Camaro, Julie from Texas.” Syl didn’t move an inch or even blink.
“It is now, I got it in my divorce a week ago.”
Duwayne looked toward the window and whistled through his teeth.
“Well, it ain’t exactly cherry. I hope you got more than that.”
Syl answered with one raised eyebrow and a short “maybe.”
Why had she lied? “Julie?” and a “divorce?” Dale thought she was one of those people who lied to cops out of habit. Or maybe her real name was Julie and the rest was bullshit. No way would he walk now, especially with goddamn Duwayne nosing around. He hoped it wouldn’t turn bad. The next sound in the tiny snack bar was the crackle and pop from the radio in Duwayne’s cop truck. He straightened up trying to look professional and barked at Hilda as he walked out.
“Tell Uncle Phil I want my Skillsaw back.”
With the roof rack lights spinning and wheels throwing gravel, he fishtailed down the hill and out of sight. Syl was not happy.
“What a pillock! He’s a poxy excuse for a copper, do you really know him?”
“I do, and he is, but why did he make you nervous?”
“Nervous? Ha, that’s a laugh, I just don’t care for some people.”
Dale spotted Hilda reaching to turn up the volume on her small radio by the cash register so not to hear their conversation. A polite gesture for sure.
Dale stood up and gathered their plates.
“Time to go.”
Syl, produced a twenty from her coat and handed it to Hilda. She looked up at Syl and smiled. “Come back soon and bring Dale with you.”
Back outside the dogs slept in the dirt as the sky smeared from pink to deep rose. It would be a cold night there on the mesa. They stood between the two cars. Syl lit a cigarette and looked up as the first stars began to show, then turned slowly to see the distant horizon in every direction.
“Absolutely stunning, all this. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Big and empty”, Dale added.
“Oh no, Dale. Empty is living in a cheap flat and seeing a brick wall out your window.”
Syl stubbed out her cigarette with the toe of her boot.
“Where do you live, Dale?”
“A little town forty miles south of here, Winslow.”
Syl moved closer to see his face in the fading light.
“Winslow? Like the song about the girl and the guy and the truck?
“Yup, that’s the one.”
Everyone knew that damn Eagles song. Syl moved in close. It felt nice but Dale needed some answers. It was now or never.
“Besides the car and the baseball equipment, how much did you steal?”
“I haven’t had time to count it.”
“Where were you headed, anyway?”
“Anywhere but Texas, luv.”
“Good choice, I’d say.”
A coyote yipped somewhere close by and the dogs didn’t even budge.
“Another fella might have robbed me blind, left me on the road, or something even worse.
“Well, now you’ve ruined my plan.”
“That’s not funny, Dale.”
“That was a bad joke, Syl. Even if I had a reason to lie I wouldn’t because I’m no good at it.”
Dale leaned down to look at the back plate on the Camaro.
“I’m surprised you got this far, these tags expired over a year ago. Might be a good idea to get rid of this car.”
“Oh, right, and walk the rest of the way?
“You could buy a new one, couldn’t you?”
Better yet, Dale thought, she could dip into that bag of dead presidents and pay what’s owed on the Bronco too.
“Alright Dale, who never lies, what else are you good at besides cars?”
Dale stepped over to the Bronco and dropped the tailgate.
“One thing at a time. Hilda’s going to lock up and go home so let’s take care of this now. Take everything you want and put it in my truck.”
Syl hauled out the canvas money bag, her sunglasses, and the suitcase. It took less than a minute to load her stuff. For a split second he saw himself taking off and leaving her alone on the mesa. But he knew what he had to do.
“Follow me, go slow and stay close.”
Just before the dirt became asphalt, Dale slowed the Bronco to a crawl, signaled a left turn, stopped, and got out. They were at the top of a rise with a steep drop into the dark wash below. He walked back into the Camaro’s headlights.
“ Okay, I want you to pull in front of me real slow and stop when I flash my lights.” Syl nodded and said, “Well, Dale knows his onions, doesn’t he?”
Dale had to smile. She said the damnedest things. Syl drove forward a bit waiting for Dale to give the sign to stop. Finally, he did.
“Leave it in second gear, kill the lights, kill the engine and get in the truck with me.”
As soon as she did, Dale moved right up to the bumper of the Camaro and stopped when they touched.
“Say goodbye to Texas.”
Dale gave the Bronco some gas to get the Camaro rolling but then it stopped. He goosed the throttle harder this time, gave it a good bump and watched it pick up speed and escape the Bronco’s headlights. Syl leaned forward, elbows on the dash, peering hard through the windshield.
“It’s black as pitch out there, where’s it going then?”
Dale held his hand up for quiet. “Just wait and listen.”
Nothing. Then a groan, a metallic scraping and a dull boom echoed up the hill. Then nothing again. Satisfied that the car had hit its mark, Dale locked the rear differential, dropped into first gear and urged the Bronco slowly back up the way they came. Syl leaned back against the passenger door watching Dale silently until he finally turned to her and asked, “What?”
“Are you some kind of outlaw, Dale?”
He would have to think about that one for a while. He might be better off if he was. The bouncing springs and sound of rattling gravel stopped as they pulled up to an empty Highway 87. Over Dales left shoulder a buttery full moon stood up above the pines of the Coconino Forest. Dale knew that after a while, the cold moonlight would blanket the bottom of the dry wash where husks of burned and rusted cars lay heaped against one another, welcoming a stranger whose yellow paint and bright chrome would not last long. The lack of sound in the high desert made a kind of noise of its own. Dale was used to it. By the dash light he could see that Syl was either deep in thought, or about to cry.
“You’re a long way from home, aren’t you Syl?”
She didn’t answer but looked at him with soft eyes that suddenly seemed much younger.
“Right now, we have two choices, head north and end up in Utah where the Mormons live.”
“Yeah, but I doubt you all would hit it off so well.”
“And number two?”
Dale took a chance he wouldn’t have made twelve hours ago.
“We could head south to Winslow. My place is small and kind of under construction but at least it’s warm.”
Syl lit a cigarette and wound her hair onto the top of her head in a knot. It looked classy, but she hadn’t answered him. Just stared straight ahead. Had he said the wrong thing? She turned quickly to him.
“What are you waiting for Dale? Fuck the Mormons.”
That was a good enough answer, he didn’t care much for Mormons either. He turned south towards Winslow and tried to remember the last time a woman was in his house. A couple of years at least. Maybe things were looking up. Syl was quiet for the next half hour and Dale could see she had nodded off. Dallas was over nine hundred miles away. No wonder she was snoring. Dale pulled right up to the door of his house, half carried Syl inside and lay her on the quilt covering his double bed. He went back out for the bag of money and her suitcase and heard the Union Pacific freight slowing for the crossing. By noon it would be cooling down in the massive train yard in Los Angeles. Dale laid the canvas bag next to Syl and lit the gas wall heater. Some of the night trains pulled over eighty cars and made all kinds of sounds as they rumbled past. To Dale each car passing sounded like the clang and hiss of steel jack hammers slowed to an easy, lazy rhythm. As slow as it was, his tiny house did shake just a bit. He sat on the old plaid sofa and watched Syl until the freight was out of sight and sound. She hadn’t moved a muscle or batted an eye. Things were looking up for sure. Dale kicked off his boots and stretched out. He slept and had a dream. It was a summer day and Syl was painting the newly finished extra room, rolling on a pale blue that matched the softest streaks in her hair.