Thayer drove. Joroff would not take the wheel. He said the sun bothered him on bright days, and his vision at night made him unsteady and fearful. Thayer would do all the driving. He didn’t mind. He liked the feeling of control.
It was outside Vermillion on highway 50 when they spotted the first sign, a few feet away from a “Vote Ford/Dole 1976” poster that somehow hadn’t been removed after the election months earlier. They were traveling together on a government project, on their way to Pierre for appointments and interviews. The sign was not a standard billboard set back from the road far above eye level. It was much smaller, supported on narrow, decaying stilts of unpainted wood low to the ground only a few feet back from a gully that ran along the dirt shoulder. It had an unusual geometric shape, the top and bottom parallel, the sides slanted. “A cyclic quadrilateral” Joroff muttered softly in that irritating way he had of swallowing his words, as if he were talking only to himself.
“Didn’t catch that,” Thayer said.
“A cyclic quadrilateral,” Joroff repeated. “Not a perfect square. Still, more square than rectangle. Like a trapezoid.” He had an ability to observe things closely and describe them with deliberate academic erudition and elevated vocabulary. The sign promised a shopper’s dream, food, clothing, goods, equipment and entertainment out there on the road far ahead of them. A mecca for weary travelers in the middle of the South Dakota plains in a place they imagined as brown, and dusty, something to anticipate beyond the unceasing fields of wheat. They had heard of Wall Drug, but didn’t know any more than its name. They planned to stop there after Pierre, just for the novelty. It would break up the long drive to Cheyenne.
Cyclic quadrilateral my ass, Thayer thought. Show-off.
They were an odd pair, Joroff and Thayer, out of sync right from the start. Joroff, who when pressed by Thayer would say only that he “worked for the government,” directed the project. He was fifty, twice Thayer’s age, his curly gray hair unable to mask a receding hairline, a growing paunch overflowing a belt one notch too tight. His tie was always slightly askew. People generally thought him messy and unkempt. Joroff didn’t care, he was oblivious to his appearance. A physics major turned social scientist, he was single-minded in his focus on the work. His interviewing technique was undisciplined and rambling. This grated on Thayer, just out of business school and in his first job as a research associate from the firm under contract with Joroff to conduct the project. Thayer did not deal well with ambiguity. He had a deeply felt need for order, organization and data. At six feet he was several inches taller than Joroff. His closely fitted suit jacket emphasized rather than hid his lean athletic build and the strength in his upper body. He prided himself on the crisp pleats in his pants, the flat ironed cuffs. You might detect a subtle lisp if you listened closely when he spoke.
When Thayer told his partner Kenneth he would be traveling an entire week with Joroff, Kenneth had buzzed with questions. “Tell me about him. Do you get along? What’s he look like? Will you be sharing a room every night?” Thayer just laughed. “Really? You can’t be jealous. I barely know him. He’s a stodgy older guy, academic type. Kind of short and out of shape. Married man. Come here, I’ll massage your shoulders.” He couldn’t tell if Kenneth was mollified.
In truth, Thayer was glad he and Joroff didn’t have to share a room. He didn’t want to know about Joroff’s personal habits; whether he hummed as he brushed his teeth, talked to himself in the shower, used a straight razor or electric shaver. What he wore, if anything, to bed. Was Joroff fastidious about his clothing, shirts and suit carefully hung in the narrow hotel closets, toiletries laid out carefully on the counters of the cramped bathroom vanities? Doubtful, considering Joroff’s consistently sloppy look. More likely, Joroff’s housekeeping habits matched Thayer’s still adolescent tendencies, clothes strewn, towels tossed carelessly into a corner of the bedroom where at home Kenneth, who obsessed about neatness, constantly picked up after him. Still, Thayer took great pride in his personal appearance and emerged for breakfast with Joroff each morning looking like a well-groomed fashion model. He valued his privacy.
In Pierre they encountered a predictable variety of responses: raised eyebrows, wry smiles, hands waved dismissively. Thayer’s crisp suit and stylish, shined shoes were a dead giveaway. Wherever they went, Thayer felt awkward and out of place, vaguely embarrassed. “A study?” people asked. “Like from one of those Washington think tanks?”
“Yes,” Joroff would answer in an eager, beseeching tone. “The government wants to know if citizens across the country are aware of the new health care law Congress passed last year. How it might affect you.” He made it clear by his demeanor that he was the one in charge. Thayer stayed back, deferential, taking notes. He wondered why in every interview Joroff would go off subject. “Let’s take a break,” Joroff would usually say, but after a few “tell me about yourself” questions he would always ask something about the Army or the Air Force and whether the interviewee knew where the nearby missile silos were located. Thayer began to suspect that these casual, conversational questions revealed a hidden purpose. He guessed that the focus on health care was just camouflage. He knew that the intelligence agencies would work that way. Still, he said nothing to Joroff. He was just glad to be getting paid. He didn’t plan to stay in the job long. He sensed the firm wanted genuine commitment from him, but he could muster only indifference. Joroff had already scolded him about his visible lack of enthusiasm half a dozen times in the first two days of their trip. It didn’t matter to Thayer. The job was only a stepping stone. Though to what, he didn’t know.
They left Pierre at midday. Joroff immediately busied himself fumbling with the roadmaps Thayer had brought. The noise he made folding and unfolding the crisp heavy paper was surprisingly loud inside the car and annoyed Thayer. Thayer had highlighted their route, several hundred miles west through the Black Hills into Wyoming and then south. They would not reach Cheyenne until well after midnight. “It’s a long straight shot all the way to the Black Hills,” Thayer chided impatiently. “We don’t need the maps until much later.” Joroff put them aside.
The landscape was flat and monotonous. It had been like that all the way from Vermillion, stick-straight roads for endless hypnotic stretches. Thayer wondered, idly, if Dust Bowl conditions had ever savaged this area of South Dakota. He had heard of the black blizzards rolling across the landscape, the tidal waves of dust, suffocating and voracious. He did not voice the question to Joroff. It would only be an invitation for another patronizing lecture. Joroff the éminence grise, Thayer the unworldly dilettante. He doubted they would ever become friends. He hated Joroff’s unruly salt-and-pepper mustache. Joroff, for his part, didn’t care much for the way Thayer constantly fussed with his shirt collar and shot his cuffs. He wanted to grab the oily comb Thayer used to slick back his hair each time they stepped out of the car and snap it in half.
They didn’t speak for most of the next hour, as if they both knew that their conversation would inevitably end in friction and sap their energy in the rising heat of the afternoon. The car’s windows were rolled down and open to the hot July air. Joroff was thirsty and forced a cough to try to produce saliva, something to lubricate his dry irritated throat. They hadn’t thought to carry water.
When they took the turnoff into the Badlands, Joroff said, “There’s something I meant to tell you. When I felt completely burned out last year I quit my job, and my wife and I went to Europe for six months. In London she insisted we consult a psychic in a tiny storefront in an alley off Piccadilly Circus to ask about our future. A young woman, deep Cockney accent, low sultry voice and a no-nonsense attitude that surprised me.
“She wanted a piece of metal from each of us. Ellen’s watch. My diabetes bracelet. She rubbed them against her palms and touched them to her cheeks and then she made three predictions. A family tragedy. How Ellen would encounter a long-lost friend in Paris on the last stop of our trip. I laughed when she looked me directly in the eye and told me, “Next year, a younger man will drive you across the state of South Dakota.” I thought it was outrageous nonsense. Pure British bumf. But now all the predictions have come true. How can you explain that?”
Thayer fought to swallow his skepticism. There was no reason to joust about the impossibly lucky ramblings of some drugged-out fortune teller having a lark at the expense of gullible travelers. More likely, Thayer thought, Joroff had just made up the whole story to spook him. “Listen,” he said, “we both knew we would have the rest of today to enjoy a long drive and sightsee. Let’s just relax and try to get along.”
The afternoon settled into an uneasy truce. The Badlands stunned Thayer, the otherworldly rock formations, their yellow and orange and gray and crimson striations, the many scenic overlooks. Joroff was in his element describing the eons of geologic processes in excruciating scientific detail despite Thayer’s obvious disinterest. At Wall Drug, Joroff acquired a set of yellow deerskin gloves, Thayer an expensive pair of alligator boots. “I’ll wear them the rest of the trip and fit right in out here.” Joroff bit his tongue.
They barely paused at Mount Rushmore. Thayer had never driven mountain roads. The drive through the switchbacks and the precipitous narrow stretches over the Black Hills at dusk and into the encroaching darkness badly unnerved him. Despite the cooling temperatures, he was bathed in sweat by the time they crossed the Wyoming border and the road straightened out again. His hands were cramping, and his shoulders ached from holding a death grip on the steering wheel. It was nine hours since they had left Pierre. They were both short-tempered from hunger when a garish pink and green neon sign announcing Pearl and Bill’s Wyomin’ Saloon loomed up. The sign’s low continuous electrical hiss seemed to snarl at them when they stepped out of the car. The exterior of the building was dark, but they could see shapes moving behind the windows in the murky interior. Something made Thayer hesitate.
“It’s here or nowhere,” Joroff said, studying the map. “Four hours of emptiness before we reach Cheyenne.” The swinging entrance doors were heavy and squeaked loudly when they pushed them open, as if to deliberately call attention to the arrival of strangers. Every head in the place turned to look at them, Thayer in his dark business suit and brightly polished shoes, Joroff a rumpled nebbish, his tie loosened and his shirt untucked on one side. The combination of startled glances and open stares unsettled them even before the buzz of animated new conversations started up, indistinct but punctuated with frequent laughter. The jukebox in the back corner played an upbeat country and western song, the lyrics lost in the overall din.
The lighting at the long elaborately carved and polished mahogany bar and in the adjacent nearly empty dining room was dim. Three low shelves behind the bar stocked hard liquor: whiskey, gin, scotch, bourbon. Liqueurs were nowhere in sight. The bar sat twelve. Every seat was taken, ten men and two women. There were a few standees as well. It was clear from their easy camaraderie that they were all regulars. The wall-length mirror behind the bar reflected the leathery men’s faces, deeply tanned, most with beards or mustaches, thick bushy walruses and a couple of clichéd waxed handlebars straight out of the old silent movie westerns. Ranchers, Thayer guessed, working long hours outside. Or oilmen, though he had no idea whether they were in oil country. Everyone was clothed in dark western wear, flannel shirts, scruffy well-travelled jeans. Several of the men wore Stetsons, grimy and faded gray from long days in the harsh summer sunlight. They were all picaresque caricatures of exactly the kind of locals Thayer had hoped to meet on this trip.
A loud exchange had just erupted at the far end of the bar. Randy Wadkins, a hulking man large enough to be a guard or tackle in the NFL, beer-bellied, red-faced, belligerent, was unhappy. “How ‘bout we get some service down this end Charlene?” Randy’s speech was slurred and he stumbled briefly when he moved off his barstool to accost the stocky blond waitress who was the target of his short temper, as if that would somehow establish his authority. “Where’s our dinners at? Get your dumb bitch ass over here!”
“Shut up, Waddy. I’ll get there in a minute! Gonna seat these fellas first.”
“That girl sure got a big mouth on her,” Waddy bellowed to the entire bar when he sat back down. “Charlene, you got a big mouth on you tonight!” he shouted.
Charlene turned to Thayer and Joroff, her face set more in a frown than a smile. She looked them up and down, taking in their clothing, sensing their unease. “You boys a little far from home?” There was no need to wait for an answer. “Come on in. Sit anywhere you like.” She handed them well-worn menus. “Food closes in ten minutes. Order quick. Rib-eye’s on special. Beers and liquor ‘til midnight. Grab your drinks from Bill at the bar. He owns the place. Don’t ask nothin’‘bout Pearl. She’s dead and gone two years.” She had a warm smile, Thayer thought, but her eyes seemed tired and her nose and mouth looked as if they had been ironed in place, pressed flat against her face. It was clear she was harried. They sat in a corner away from the only two tables still occupied.
Charlene brought them water. She rested a hand on the table for a moment and leaned down toward Joroff with her back to the bar while she wrote up their order. “The guy on the far left in that checkered brown flannel shirt who shouted at me,” she whispered through tightly compressed lips. “Waddy. He’s a mean drunk, which he sure is right now. Mind your business, don’t mess with him. There’s nights I swear he’d fight a rattler and give up the first bite.” She winked at them both, conspiratorial, serious. “He don’t like strangers much. All those guys there are thick as thieves.”
Thayer stood up. “I’ll get the tab tonight. Your usual bourbon?” He approached the bar at the end where Waddy was seated. Bill was toweling down the counter. “Your waitress said you’re the owner,” Thayer said. “Glad we stopped. Great atmosphere.” His praise seemed overly eager, his smile forced.
Bill’s expression was neutral. “Just our local bar. Nothin’ much for anyone to admire. What’s your pleasure?”
“How about a Maker’s Mark neat and a Drambuie?” When he thrust his arm out between Waddy and Ray with a twenty dollar bill, he accidentally brushed Waddy’s shoulder. Waddy swatted hard at the arm and swiveled around, glaring at Thayer.
“Drambuie,” he smirked without taking his eyes off Thayer, his demeanor sullen and vaguely threatening. “Pussy drink. What’s a’ matter, can’t hold the hard stuff? Bill, you even got that Drambuie in your bar?”
“Nope, don’t keep it,” Bill said. “Something else I can get you?”
“Sure, just make it a beer. Coors.” And to Waddy, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to touch you. Waddy, is it?” He held out his hand, looking to shake.
“What’d you call me?” Waddy said, grabbing Thayer’s wrist. “That’s the name my friends use. Not you. Where you and your pal over there from, anyway? Not around here, that’s for sure. You stand out like a cow with three tits and a dick.”
“Waddy, lay off,” Bill said. “Ease up on these fellas. Don’t be spoilin’ for anything.” Waddy loosened his grip. Thayer took the drinks and waved away the change. “Buy my new friend Waddy here and his buddy their next round,” he said.
In a flashWaddy lurched off the barstool and planted himself in front of Thayer, trapping him at the bar. “I asked you where you’re from,” he growled. “You didn’t answer. Your mama teach you to be rude? You from San Francisco I bet. Struttin’ in here wearin’ them suits. That it?”
“Chicago, actually,” Thayer lied. He envisioned the apartment in Chelsea, the free-wheeling all-night block parties. He twisted free of Waddy and headed back to the table where Joroff had quietly watched the goings-on. Waddy took a deep breath and sat back down. He kept staring at Thayer’s reflection in the mirror. The slow burn building in him was accelerating. Restraint was not Waddy’s strong suit. This would not be the first time Ray and the others would have to reel him in.
“Fucking redneck,” Thayer muttered to Joroff when he reached their table. Charlene had brought their salads. Thayer was too agitated to eat. He pushed his food away and said, “Lost my appetite. Let’s get going. I don’t like the tension in here.”
“Redneck’s for southern hicks,” Joroff said. “Hayseed’s the insult you want.” They barely had time to share a smile when they heard a sudden commotion at the bar.
“No, Waddy,” one of the women said forcefully. “Just leave them alone.”
“Jo-Ellen, c’mon, let’s do it,” Waddy said. Jo-Ellen giggled once and said, “Okay, okay, sure.” Waddy yanked her off her stool and dragged her over to Thayer and Joroff’s table. He loomed over Thayer, swaying back and forth as if he might fall sideways any second. The woman, Jo-Ellen, was pretty in a plain sort of way, her blue eyes glassy from drink, tight blond curls falling over her forehead, an incongruous ponytail halfway down her back. She wore no lipstick. She shrugged a lopsided grin at Thayer, then threw her arms around his neck and bounced awkwardly onto his lap, pressing her weight into his thighs.
“Hey, c’mon,” Thayer said. “Get off me.” His eyes jerked around the room, looking at the line of drinkers at the bar all watching this scene unfold, trying to gauge just how much trouble he and Joroff might have walked themselves into. He realized they were in a place they knew nothing about, foreigners among a group of people he worried might be capable of hostility or outright violence. He thought of the naïve, citified vacationers in that film he had seen a few years earlier, Deliverance, how they had been ambushed and savagely attacked and brutalized while canoeing in a place as desolate and alien to them as this seemingly civilized place was to him right now.
“You boys look to me like you might be queers,” Waddy slurred. “Home. Oh. Sex. You. Ulls.” He spit out the five syllables with unmistakable disdain. “You from San Francisco? You are, I can just tell. I bet you’re a, what’s-his-name, Harvey Milk. You a Harvey Milk? I heard all about him out there demonstratin’ for the queers.” He stopped then and looked back to his barmates for approval. Several goaded him on loudly, fueling his aggression. He turned back to Thayer. “You a milquetoast? How about it? You queers? Gay blades havin’ a swing through God’s country?”
“Married fifteen years,” Joroff said. He remained seated. “My friend here can speak for himself.” Thayer stayed silent.
Joroff saw Bill step out from behind the bar and start toward them. He held up his hand as if to signal they could handle Waddy on their own. “Waddy!” Bill shouted. “That’s enough!” The mood at the bar was openly unruly and menacing, and Waddy took the undercurrent there for encouragement. “How about it, friend,” Waddy said to Thayer. “You go for the cowhands? Cuz otherwise Jo-Ellen here told me she likes what she sees and she wants to take you out back and get to know you better. Ain’t that right, Jo-Ellen?”
“Sure is, Waddy.” She squirmed in Thayer’s lap and thrust her breasts brazenly back and forth across his chin. “How about it, big boy? You ready to take a ride around the world with me?” There was a cascade of sniggering laughter from the bar. Thayer raised his hands towards Joroff to plead for help.
Waddy looked at Thayer and sneered. “Your buddy here and I can have a drink or two together while you and Jo-Ellen go off and enjoy yourselves.” He turned toward Joroff. “That gonna work – ”
Waddy never finished his question. In the last few seconds Joroff had reached into his inside suit pocket and in his left hand now raised high above his head he held a sleek black leather credential holder, his photo on one side, a silver U.S. Marshall badge on the other. Of more immediate interest to Waddy was the small handgun Joroff was tapping on the table edge with his right hand, its dull repetitive thuds a not-so-subtle warning. The drinkers at the bar quieted.
Waddy froze. Jo-Ellen stopped talking and carefully slid off Thayer. Joroff stood up and called for Charlene to bring their tab. “Your hospitality needs some work,” he told Bill, pocketing his credentials but keeping the gun in plain sight. He threw three twenties on the table. “That’s for Charlene. We won’t be staying for dinner.” He turned to Thayer. “Let’s go.”
Waddy started to bluster until Bill grabbed his arm. “Shut up now, Waddy,” he said. “Step away.” He turned his attention to the bar. “Boys, that’s it. Get back to your own business or go home. We’re closin’ down early.” He nodded to Joroff and Thayer. It was as close as he would come to an apology. He watched them walk to their rental car, standing at the doors as if to block off Waddy or anyone else in an angry mood who might think to come after them.
Thayer gunned the car out of the parking lot and headed south. No one followed. “Easy” was all Joroff said. “Easy.” Thayer leaned forward on the steering wheel and held it tightly with both hands, his knuckles straining white. He hyperventilated several times. Neither he nor Joroff spoke until he braked after a few miles and pulled to the side of the road. He let the engine idle. He kept looking behind them, wild with the thought that if he turned the car off and it failed to start again, they would never see the morning.
“You’re a U.S. Marshall?”
Joroff raised his eyebrows. “When it suits my purpose,” he said cryptically. Thayer knew better than to press the issue.
“And the handgun? You’ve been carrying the entire time?”
“The psychic in London,” Joroff said. “She told me to be prepared on the drive across South Dakota. ‘You will encounter danger,’ she said. I decided to take her warning seriously when the trip became real. Don’t ask me to explain it.”
In any other circumstance, Thayer might have laughed himself into a wheezing fit at how preposterous that sounded. Instead he asked, “Is it loaded? Would you have actually used it in there? Do you even know how?” Joroff cocked his head sideways but said nothing.
Thayer’s breath was shallow and ragged. He stared straight ahead at the roadway far beyond the reach of their headlights where there was only darkness that seemed to go on forever. Finally, Joroff said, “Get out of the car and come around. I’ll drive.” Thayer sank back into the passenger seat gratefully. “Roll down the windows,” Joroff said. “I need to keep cold and awake.”
Soon Pearl and Bill’s was far behind them and there was nothing out there but the brilliant stars of the planetarium sky. They drove fifty miles with just a single stray house off in a field and a barely perceptible lamp inside the only sign of its presence. The constant humming of their tires on the roadway droned loudly through the open windows while they hurtled south toward Cheyenne. More than once, a family of mule deer surprised them, the fawns standing so close to the side of the road that their heads were no more than a foot or two from the car, their eyes shining as they reflected the headlights, unmoving even as Thayer and Joroff flew by them at ninety miles per hour. They could see the lights of the few cars coming toward them from so far off that it was often ten minutes or longer before the cars passed each other. From time to time, Joroff reached over and placed his hand on Thayer’s shoulder as if to steady him. He drove for two hours until his knees ached and he stopped so they could stretch their legs.
They stood together at the front of the car in the cool night air, awestruck by the vast dark emptiness that surrounded them, the complete absence of ambient light other than starshine. The moon, low to the east, was a pale sliver. When the engine stopped ticking, the only sound they could hear was their own quiet breathing. For a few minutes they said nothing, as if they sensed by unspoken agreement that conversation would sully this shared moment in a place where they would never be again.
Thayer broke the silence. “I don’t know you at all, do I?” he said. The words felt like a confession. Joroff only shrugged. “There’s time.” Nothing more was said. When they were ready to resume the drive, Joroff handed Thayer the keys.
Joroff quickly fell asleep. The vast black emptiness of the drive unsettled Thayer so much that for more than an hour he worked the radio dial off and on searching for a signal in the constant static as if seeking assurance that they were indeed still anchored to civilization. He finally pulled in the beginning of an eerie mystery broadcast that reached them inexplicably from a station in Oregon. The ghostly opening theme music gave way to the announcer’s sinister plea, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” The signal soon faded and disappeared, but the announcer’s dramatic question lingered. Thayer’s mind was a kaleidoscope of thoughts as images of what had happened earlier that evening flashed through his head. His weakness in not standing up for himself shamed him. Anger for his inability to be heroic in the face of confrontation, for needing to be rescued by another man, wracked his self-esteem.
He knew that he did not understand people very well. He saw what was right there on the surface but little else. He did not have a discerning mind, or any semblance of street smarts, and this disappointed him. Take Joroff, for instance. He had seen only the short, overweight, intellectually smug bureaucrat who still somehow put faith in the musings of a sybil. He had no clue about the courage Joroff had shown or the allegiance he demonstrated with his willingness to come to Thayer’s defense. Did he know anything about the moral code by which Joroff actually lived his life? He realized again how hard it is to truly know people, their deeper secrets, their strengths in crisis, the carefully shielded soft spots of disgrace or inadequacy or ignorance hidden in the deepest recesses of the psyche that might give way at any moment. And what could he possibly have known or even guessed about Waddy and the others that might have made any difference?
He wondered at that moment what begat cruelty and fanned the flames of bigotry in the human heart. Kenneth often told him that he was naïve about the ways of the world. What could explain crucifixion, the iron maiden, genocidal murder, lynch mobs, rage-filled homophobia, the ceaseless river of inhuman physical and psychological pain that people inflict on each other? Do we all share an irresistible urge to blend in with a jeering, bloodthirsty crowd or blindly follow a psychopathic leader despite every instinct that tells us we should know better? What could explain all that if not an intrinsic flaw in the human genome that leads inescapably to evil?
As Joroff slept, Thayer fought to clear these thoughts out of his mind and keep his eyes on the roadway. The drive was an unending stretch of darkness and static and exhaustion through tiny places like Lusk and Jay Em and Lingle, virtual ghost towns long since shut down for the night and gone in a flash. The lights of Cheyenne, still far to the south, eventually began to glimmer faintly in the atmosphere. The pitch-black sky slowly gave way to a leaden gray and it seemed as if the car would soon be enveloped by a brooding, swirling fog. Thayer thought about the seer Joroff had met in London and about Waddy and Jo-Ellen and Charlene and the few moments of the radio broadcast, the announcer’s urgent question. His awareness of the universe and what might or might not be true about space and time and the world was changing, a pathway to unrealized possibilities revealing itself to him. When a heavy gust of wind struck the car from the side, he wondered if they were about to be lifted into a mysterious blue heaven somehow irising open to receive them. His body pulsed with energy, as if a fiery electric current had supercharged all of his senses. He felt ascendant.