WEST TEXAS JOB SEARCH
by Brian Haycock
I drove into Flatiron, ten in the morning. I had an interview at the prison that afternoon. Barsman Correctional, the one everyone calls Bars. I’d applied for a spot as a guard a few months back and my name finally came up. The interview was at one. I thought I’d get ready by having a couple drinks. That would loosen me up. Boost my confidence.
Prison towns have the best bars. The guards are all heavy drinkers and the people coming in for visits generally need a good buzz going in and a better one coming out. It makes for an interesting mix. I pulled into something called the Rattlesnake Hole. It looked like a gas station with a tin shack built on the side. I sat in the lot for a minute and watched the dry dirt cloud up in the desert air. Then I went in.
I took a seat at the bar and told the man I’d take a whiskey, straight up. It was too dark to see much. There were some Mexicans at the tables, an old man who looked like a cowboy down the bar. He had a hat on that looked like it had been there a while. I threw the drink down and waved for another. I didn’t know how many drinks it would take to loosen me up to where I needed to be. I figured I’d know when I got there.
When I had the second whiskey in front of me a man slid onto the next stool. “Hey,” he said. I looked at him in the bar mirror. Skinny guy, pale, looked like he lived in the bar. “You looking to score?”
I might. I figured he had crystal. West Texas, it’s like drinking coffee. I thought a little crystal would get me up for the interview. Get me talking. I don’t usually say much. That doesn’t help in interviews.
“I got whatever you want. Crystal, Xanax, smack. Got PCP. Friend of mine fixes it up right out in the desert.”
That would be good. Some crystal to get me up for the interview, some Xanax to help me relax. PCP for the hell of it. I’d pass on the smack.
“Can I get a taste?” I didn’t have any money. I hadn’t been working for a few months. The oil wells were running out and there wasn’t much else going on in West Texas. Oil and prisons. That was about it. I figured I’d get what I could off him for free, then roll him for the rest. I threw down the drink.
“Sure. We can go around back. I thought you might be interested. Place like this, this hour, people don’t usually just want to drink. Know what I mean?” He giggled.
I grunted, dropped a few bills on the bar. I got up and went outside, walked around the back. He followed. He was talking, but I wasn’t listening. There were stacks of kegs back there. A couple busted pinball machines. A dumpster. That and dirt.
“What did you want to try?” he asked.
“Start with the meth.”
He pulled a square of foil out of his shirt pocket, started talking prices while he put out a line on the cracked glass of a pinball machine. I had eight-fifty and I didn’t have enough gas in the truck to get home. “I’m Flick,” he said. He handed me a straw and stepped back.
I hit the line and stood up. Gave it a few seconds. West Texas looked a little less ugly. Not much, but it helped. “Let’s see the pills.”
He held up two vials. I squinted at them. I didn’t remember what Xanax looked like. PCP could look like anything. I opened one, popped a couple, then opened the other, popped a couple of those.
Flick said, “Jesus, you don’t fuck around.”
“I got a job interview. I gotta get ready.” Then I smacked Flick in the face. He went down and rolled around a little. I grabbed him by the neck and fished the square of foil with the meth out of his pocket. I pocketed that with the pills. “This’ll help,” I said.
I left him there and went around the front. I thought I could use another drink. I went back inside and sat at the bar, waved for the drink.
There were a couple of girls at a table over by the windows. I let my eyes adjust to the darkness and checked them out. One was a brunette, skinny. The other was Mexican, a little round for my taste. The Mexicans were standing around their table. There were about eight of them. I picked up the glass and went over.
I shouldered my way through the crowd of Mexicans and pulled out a chair. I sat down. “What brings you ladies out to this hellhole?”
The brunette said, “Visiting day. Our husbands are up in Barsman.” She looked like she was strung out on smack. Her hands shook when she picked up her glass and threw it back. It was something clear, probably gin. The other one looked bored.
“That’s tough,” I said. “You must get pretty lonely. You get conjugal visits?”
“No, he’s in for manslaughter, and they don’t allow conjugals for that.”
“Like I said. You must get pretty lonely.” I grinned at her.
Someone behind me said, “Hey, pindejo, we were talking to them.”
“Now you’re not. Take a hike. So listen,” I said to the brunette. “There’s a nice motel here in town. Well, not nice, but you know, it’s a motel. It’s got beds and all. We could get together later. Maybe you could forget about your husband for a while.”
She looked me over. “It could happen,” she said.
I heard the same voice behind me. “Hey, pindejo, you want, we could step out in the lot, see if you’re as tough as you think you are.”
I stood up, turned around. Looked down. He had the tough guy look down, but he only came up to the middle of my chest. “I don’t think that will be necessary,” I said. I brought my knee up into his balls and slammed my elbow into his mouth. He went down. There was silence as everyone in the bar watched him try to crawl away across the floor.
“Anyone else?” I asked.
All of them. I went on automatic for a while. The next thing I knew there were three of the Mexicans on the floor and the others were heading for the door. The ones on the floor didn’t look real good. There was a broken chair and a couple tables knocked over. The bartender was holding a wicked-looking sawed-off, pointing it at me.
“Hey,” I told him. “They started it. Shoot them.”
“I might do that,” he said. “I might start with you, though.”
“Tell you what. Get me another drink of that whiskey. I think I lost a little of my buzz.”
“Get the hell out of my bar and don’t come back here. Ever.”
I took my time getting out of there. Partly I wanted to piss off the bartender. Partly I wanted to wait until the Mexicans cleared out of the yard. I looked through the window, saw them piling into three work trucks. I turned to the girls. I looked at the brunette. “How about we get together later. Around three. I could meet you in the lot outside.”
She looked scared. Husband up for manslaughter, she had to be hard to scare. “I don’t think so. I get out of there, I have to get back. I have to work tonight.”
I said to the other one, “How about you?” She just glared at me.
When I got outside the Mexicans were gone. Flick was sitting on a stack of pallets on the edge of the lot. He was rubbing his jaw. I went over to my truck and looked at my reflection in the side window. It looked like someone had landed a couple lucky punches. There was blood down my cheek. My lip seemed to be swelling up. My shirt was torn, a couple buttons missing.
On the plus side, I could feel the PCP kicking in. I felt light, like I was flowing through all this. I thought if the Xanax came on soon I could do a few more lines. I thought I’d do a few more lines anyway when I got in the truck. Why the hell not?
I opened the door and started to get in when a couple bikes pulled into the lot and headed for Flick. Low, heavy Harleys. Louder than nukes. I watched Flick point to me and they turned and started over.
I thought about facing them right there in the lot, but I wasn’t quite wasted enough for that. I got the key in and started the engine. I ran it hard in reverse, then slammed it into first and headed straight at them. I clipped the back wheel of one bike and he went down hard. The other one pulled a long-barreled pistol out of his saddlebag and held it up. It looked big enough to do some damage. I gunned the truck out into the dirt behind the bar.
I wasn’t getting the traction I wanted. The dirt was too soft for speed. There were clumps of dead grass scattered around and the truck bounced every time I hit one. A couple hundred yards out I wanted to puke. I looked in the rear view. The guy on the bike was following, but he was alone. He was having trouble with the grass, too. He was slaloming and throwing up clouds of dirt, but he wasn’t giving up. I thought if I kept going I could outrun him, but it would take a while.
Then a bullet came through the back window and went out the windshield. Another dinged off the tailgate. I was impressed. The guy could shoot. I couldn’t outrun the bullets, so I needed a new plan. Another bullet came through. I turned the wheel hard and the truck started to spin. I panicked for a moment when it felt like the truck was going to roll, but it stayed down. It wound up facing backward. I gunned it straight at the guy on the bike as he came up. He went down in front of me. The bike hit the front of the truck and bounced away. The guy went by on the side, cartwheeling. His eyes looked like saucers as he went past.
I stopped and got out, took a look at the truck. The left side of the front end was mashed. The headlight was gone. I walked back to where the biker was lying in the dirt. He’d rolled some after he landed and he was lying on his side. One arm was twisted up, broken in two or three places. There was a gash on his forehead and blood flowing out. He didn’t have the gun. His eyes were darting around, looking for it, but I didn’t think he could move anything else.
Now that I was out of the truck the heat hit me in waves. It had to be one-twenty out there in the sun. The air burned in my lungs. Flames rose from the desert around me. The whole scene was whiting out on me. I jammed my eyes shut and watched the vapor trails behind my eyelids flash. There was humming in my ears, throbbing all over my body. I had to calm down. I had to calm down. I told myself that. I had to calm down.
I opened my eyes and the biker had moved. He was pulling himself across the dirt with his one good arm. I looked where he was looking. The gun was lying in the dirt, fifteen feet away. It looked like it would take him an hour to get there, but he was trying.
I walked over and picked up the gun. It was a beauty. Silver, with black grips. I studied it. Then I put it on the biker.
“You got a problem with what I did to Flick?” I asked him.
He grunted. It was more like a growl.
“You think it’s worth dying over?”
He just stared at me.
I threw the gun out farther in the desert. I went back to the truck, got in and started it. The other guy could be coming soon. The one I’d put down in the parking lot. I didn’t think he could fix the bike, but he could come on foot. Or call some people. I didn’t want to be there for that. I drove across the desert for a while, slower this time. There were pieces of the front of the truck falling off. I had no idea which way the road was. I figured I’d come to something, but this was West Texas, there wasn’t much around. I stopped, pulled out the foil, did a couple more hits on the meth. That got me going.
Everything out there was shimmering and jumping around. It was all smoke and hard glare. After a while something dark started to form in the desert ahead of me. It looked like a fort from one of those old cowboy movies. Lookout towers and wide walls. Fort Shithole. I thought maybe I’d traveled back in time. I’d heard meth could do that.
It was the prison.
I looked at my watch. The numbers jumped around on me, but it looked like twelve something. The interview was at one. I drove straight for it. When I got closer I could make out the rows of chain link fence and razor wire surrounding it. There was a guy in one of the guard towers aiming a rifle at me. I turned right, looking for a way in. I circled. It took a while, but I came to a road leading up to the main gate. There was a row of old vans and work trucks there. Visitors. I pulled in the line. While I waited I did a few more lines. Then I popped another tab of PCP, thinking it would kick in about the time I got out of there. Then I remembered that I didn’t know which pills were which, so I popped one of the others, then another, then one of the first.
I felt pretty good.
The guard at the gate looked over my truck, then stared at me. He put his hand on the gun in the holster on his belt. He said, “You know you have bullet holes in your windshield?”
I just said, “I’m here for a job.” I handed him a piece of paper with the name of the man I was supposed to see. Mervin Wassman. He sounded like a fun guy. Mervin. I was looking forward to meeting him.
The guard pointed over to a lot by what might have been a wing of offices. “You park over there. I’ll have someone come out and bring you inside. After you show me some ID.”
I showed him the license and drove over to the lot, parked close to what looked like the front door. I got out and felt the blood draining from my head. Everything went dark for a minute. Everything. Then I opened my eyes and stared up at a white sky with a brutal sun. I started to work my way to my feet.
There was a guard standing there. I wondered how long he’d been there, but I didn’t think too hard about it. He didn’t help me up. When I got up I leaned against the truckbed and swayed. I thought I might go down again. Then my head cleared. More or less.
“Are you all right?” he asked. He was a short guy. Bald. The sun glinted off his head.
“Yeah. Just slipped coming out. My leg fell asleep.” I felt like I needed some more of the meth. A lot more.
“All right. Come with me.” He said his name and I forgot it. “You’re not armed, are you?”
I tried to remember. “I don’t think so.”
We went inside. It was dark in there. It took a while to get used to that. I felt my way along the wall. It looked like a funhouse. Moving furniture. Waves moving across the floor. Something flew through the air, grazed my head. Something with wings and claws. It might have been the PCP kicking in. I didn’t care about any of it. That was the Xanax.
He left me in a room with a steel table bolted to the floor. I tried sitting, didn’t like it. I wanted to move. I walked around the table a couple times. I thought I’d do a couple lines, but the meth was in the truck. Then I started to wonder: was this a trap? Were they going to let me out of here? Hell, I thought, they try anything, I’ll just fight my way out. I thought, just for the hell of it, I’d try to pull the table out of the floor. That didn’t work out, but it kept the blood moving.
The door opened and a man in a uniform stood in the doorway. He stared at me. That would be Mervin. He was a skinny guy, tall. He looked like he’d have trouble standing up in a wind. He looked like a Mervin Wassman.
“You the guy driving that truck outside? The one with the bullet holes?”
“You know how it is. Shit happens.” There was something behind him. Something big. Bright. It had feathers. It was moving. He didn’t see it.
“And you look like you got in a couple fights on the way over here.”
“Like I said, shit happens.” I moved toward him. Slow. I knew I could get this job. I knew how. I could stop the thing behind him before it devoured him. It was like a giant bird. Too big to fly. Too ugly to live. I couldn’t see the wings, but they were back there somewhere. I could see the claws. They were coming up. It was ready to strike.
Mervin stepped into the room and moved a little to the side. “You’re what, six-four? I’m guessing two-forty?”
“I used to be.” I gathered myself. It was a blinding orange, wide as a truck. A black, ugly head. I sprang. Two steps, then bam! I took it waist-high, drove it back. We went out the door, hit the wall and bounced. We landed on the floor. The thing was going wild. So was I. It was trying to get its claws into me. I slammed my forehead into its beak. It screeched and pounded me into the wall. I held on and we rolled across the floor. I got a hand on its throat and squeezed.
I heard a whistle. Loud. It was right in my ear. I thought it was the bird, screaming. I squeezed harder, to shut it up. It wasn’t the bird. I looked up to see Mervin looking down at me. I loosened my grip and the thing rolled away. I knew I had done some damage. I hoped Mervin would be impressed.
“That’s convict number 3038974,” he said. “Better known as Freezer. Because of his being so big. And what he’s in here for. He’s a trustie. You did pretty well with him, but he’s here to help me out. You know, run errands. Keep the inmates from killing me.”
“Oh. Okay. I thought he was going to hurt you.” I looked over at Freezer. He looked more human now, but not that much more. He stared at me and growled.
Marvin said, “That’s all right. I’ve seen all I need to. You’ll fit right in back in the yard. Can you start Monday?”