Once, a traveler failed to heed all the warnings and found himself driving deep into a canyon clotted with half-melted snow and scabs of stunted oak. The agreeable woman of the cell phone insisted he make a U-turn, but finally she succumbed and directed him to proceed as he had wished all along. He was to continue forty-six miles, then turn left on Rural Route 62.
The sun lowered. The canyon walls narrowed in, steeper and higher. The road twisted and climbed. But the pavement was well maintained and dry. There was no traffic at all until headlights appeared too close behind him. Some sort of old car with those skinny tires. He slowed to let a pale yellow Dodge Dart struggle past.
This traveler was a careful man who had come of age when airplanes regularly fell from the sky, when low-speed auto accidents killed you, when no one survived cancer. He shivered recalling the stupidity he had once exhibited driving cars like that Dodge Dart even sixty miles an hour. A light confetti of snow streaked through his headlights. The road would get slick. He asked the cell phone, how far to the next turn. The agreeable woman told him to proceed forty-six miles then turn left onRural Route 62.
“Aw, come on, that’s what you said a half hour ago. How far to the next turn, really?”
He was about to pick up the cell phone, peer at its tiny map, but years of learning from stupid mistakes like that saved him. He had his head up to see the Dart, stopped too far out into the road. Someone waved from the shoulder next to the vehicle’s opened hood.
He was no fool.
He slowed to let his lights linger on the car and a trim sort of western woman. Well-cut jeans. A dark, quilted jacket. Of course, she could have a firearm or a boyfriend with hands like clubs, but something about the forlorn slouch of the car, the barren road, and the rules of rural community made him ease up to her, slide open the passenger window.
“Looks like you could use some help.”
“I could use a lift to the next town.”
“What’s the next town?”
There was a distinct beep. The cell phone lit up and answered with its bright, woman’s voice, “The next town is Mesquite in fifty-three miles, Alan.”
She leaned down to look in, a cascade of dark Grecian curls streaked with gray and caught with a jewelry of snowflakes. “That’s your name? She always interrupt like that, your cell phone?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes it answers the wrong question. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. It keeps saying the next turn is in forty-six miles. Do we need to call someone to tow your car?”
“No. Thanks. Won’t help. Got no money to tow it.” She stood and called out, “Raphael! We got a ride!”
Uh-oh. Here it comes. You dumb-ass, old fart. A boyfriend hiding in the trees. But a flop-eared little dog with the black-and-white face of a cartoon character flung itself up from the ditch, shook its left rear leg and bounced up chest out, grinning with a little pink tongue.
“You mind having my dog in your car?”
“He doesn’t smoke or anything, does he?”
“He’s welcome, then.”
The little dog sat next to her on the heated passenger seat where it watched him with good humor and interest, then yawned, little white teeth in a mouth too big for his face and a wild eye cocked up into the air.
“You call him Raphael?”
“Yep. My husband’s idea. Now I’m stuck with it. He got work up in North Dakota. Oil shale.” She had the clean smell of soap, or maybe it was the dog, who had already given up on the conversation and put its head down.
“Is that where you’re going?”
“Yep. He got himself a girlfriend up there, too.”
“Sure. How do you know?”
“He quit calling me Sweetheart on the phone and started calling me Honey. You can call me Cybil, if you want to know.”
“You know, if you need some money to tow that car, I’ll give it to you.”
She went still.
“I mean. I don’t mean anything more. I don’t want anything back.”
“No. No. It’s not like that. It’s his old car. I might just leave it up here and move on. You’re a nice guy, aren’t you? There are nice guys out there, aren’t there, Raphael? Dickhead’s a nice guy, but he’s got that girlfriend and I know it. Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“So if a guy could have anything, any three things he wanted, what would he choose—because I know Dickhead, he might say something else, but what he really wants is beer and sports on a big screen TV and someplace warm to park his dick when he gets the itch. Is that about it for guys?”
“I guess.” The snow was heavier and wetter. Alan turned on the wipers. “At least a lot of guys.”
“OK. How about you? Say I could grant you three wishes here and now—and you didn’t have to care what I think. Not give a shit—three wishes because you’re a good guy and you did me a favor and then offered me money on top of it.”
“Naw. That never works.”
“You give a guy three wishes, so he says, I’d like to go home again, and it’s been knocked down and turned into a mall. Or, I’d like to get over this disease, and he gets hit by a truck. No more disease. Or I’d like to have my wife back, and she turns out to have been your mother all along. You know.”
“So you want to go home, you want to get healthy, and you want your wife back. That’s not so bad, Alan. It’s better than beer, the 49ers, and strange pussy. You know what I’d want? I’d like for once to have a little magic in my life. You know, like the perfect birthday present you never knew you wanted. It’s starting to snow for real, isn’t it?”
Winter driving. Just what he feared, going downhill on an iced-over, twisting road. “Look. You want wishes? Let’s try this. Cell phone, I want the snow to stop.”
A musical dink-dink, a perky illumination, and the agreeable woman piped, “OK, Alan, the music’s stopped.”
They laughed. Raphael panted and nodded.
The snow stopped.
The snow stopped, the moon rose over the mountaintops to cast down upon a meadow of high, pale grasses. Alongside, a lacework of bare cottonwoods stood over a glittering creek, and all the stars came down close, icy clean, and clear.
“That’s some cell phone you got there, Alan. The snow—it quit just like that. I wonder if we get more than three wishes.”
“You never get more than three wishes, never. And they always turn out bad.”
Raphael put his face up to the passenger window, a little whine.
“Raphael wants to pee. We should stop.”
“See what I mean? We stop, Raphael gets out, and there will be a mountain lion or something. Hungry. Or he’ll fall in the creek. Or the car will slide off the side of the road.”
The dog moaned.
“He might pee in your car.”
Alan slowed very carefully, brought the car to a halt in the middle of a road so black it seemed invisible inside its moon-bright shoulders. The little dog tumbled out, sniffed at the clutches of grass standing up out of the thin snow. The air was cool, sweet from the creek chattering past.
Alan looked up. Blinked. “Have you ever seen the stars out so bright, with a moon this big? Have you ever seen a sky like this?”
“Western skies.” Cybil kicked at the gravel on the shoulder. “You city people never get out from under your streetlights.”
“I bet that husband of yours is looking at the same moon; I bet he misses you. I wasn’t always a city person.”
“I could tell.” They watched Raphael stick his leg up and teeter around to let out a weak little stream, off-balance. He ran back to them, his floppy ears streaming, stopped at Alan’s feet, wiggled and looked up with his eager, happy face. Alan squatted down, whisked his hand through the smooth fur of the dog’s back, warm and live with pleasure.
Alan stood up a little too fast. The night around him narrowed down too near—something hollow in his chest, the familiar taste of copper. He put his hand out on the car, steadied, took in a deep breath. He closed his eyes for a moment, opened them. The same pale and gentle grasses waited under the cottonwood branches, the same clean stars clattered on the ripples of the creek. And something—the air or the little dog or the woman—made him peacefully content.
Cybil stood holding the dog, both of them attentive, watching him.
She opened the car door. “Raphael’s OK, now. We can go.”