Thanks so much for the ride, she said throwing her bags on the floor of the orange pickup truck.
No problem, Mateo said accelerating onto the 805 Freeway, where you headed?
Trying to get to San Francisco. How far you going?
Going to Fresno. Gonna visit my mother up there, he lied.
At the mention of his mother any concern the woman had about this mustached man who had pulled to the side of the road after only twenty minutes of thumbing dissolved.
Cool. Well, if I could hitch with you til then that’d be great.
No problem, he said and with this took his first real glance at the woman out the side of his thick-framed eyeglasses. She was skinny, scrawny even, stringy blonde hair pulled into a tight ponytail, no makeup. White trash, Mateo thought as he took in the details of her dirty white sneakers and pale skin.
Since we’ll be together for the next six hours I guess I should catch your name, the woman said noticing the man hadn’t offered it up.
Richard, Mateo said. He considered for a moment that the woman might not believe this lie. He thought if she hesitated, looked at him too closely, if he could read doubt on her face he would pull over and let her out. He would simply leave her on the side of the road and keep driving. He believed in signs. His half Yaqui grandmother warned her children and grandchildren to heed the sometimes-subtle signs the spirits put in their paths as a warning or a guidepost to go left or right, to jump ahead or turn back.
Well, hi Richard. I’m Diane. Nice to meet you. She pushed out her open palm for a handshake.
Mateo understood her gesture as a sign in his favor. He noticed the boney bulge at her wrist before taking her hand and giving it a firm shake. He felt the weakness in her hand and arm, thought how easy it would be to grip the narrow bone and snap it back. His mind lingered on the unnatural angle her broken wrist might make in his palm as he said, nice to meet you, Diane.
At about twenty miles in Diane took off her shoes and rolled down her window, closed her eyes and said, I sure am lucky to have found you so quickly. I thought I might be out there all day.
Mateo kept both hands on the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. He didn’t hear Diane call herself lucky because he was trying to decide which exit off the freeway to take. He understood getting off would most likely cause Diane to question the detour so he had to choose carefully. He had just passed an off ramp that was a sharp loop to the right—too risky because their weight would shift in the cab, bringing attention to a new direction. Another exit was a tourist trap with lanes of drive-through restaurants and packed gas stations. This exit would likely elicit the least amount of resistance but gave no privacy whatsoever and would not do. His gripped tightened on the dirty gray Naugahyde steering wheel and Diane sighed into sleep.
A loud crack and thud awoke them both from their dreams.
Oh shit, Mateo yelled letting the truck weave out of his lane and regaining control.
What the hell was that, Diane said.
A bird. I think we hit a big ass bird.
A single crack in the windshield ran vertical along Diane’s side, a smear of bird blood and unknown bird wetness remained on the glass.
Diane laughed brushing off the initial shock and fear of the noise, turned around to see flopping white bird feathers in the middle of the lane behind them.
It’s not fuckin’ funny, Mateo said shaken by the surprise of the oncoming and now dead bird, but more so by the weight of this surely bad sign. He’d never seen a pelican or a seagull or any other type of huge white bird flying along this freeway and he’d driven this freeway most of his adult life. Yes, it was bad luck and its metallic taste coated his mouth. His eyes watered and he tightened his abdomen to stop from gagging on the nickel-flavored omen. He should turn around now. He should pull over and let the white trash out on the side of the freeway. He should reach over, fling open the door and kick the skinny woman out with the heel of his steel-toed boot.
For the first time that day Mateo thought of his wife, Beatriz, at home round and swollen with their second child. They had fought that morning about money, about not having enough of it to buy Beatriz a new washing machine she said she’d need when the new baby came. Veteran’s benefits aren’t enough, Beatriz had said. Mateo said nothing. Why didn’t he bother finding another job to bring in more, she dug further. Mateo sat at the dining room table and said nothing. Her coarse black hair was a halo of curls, wild from a restless night of sleep, a baby’s knee or elbow lodged somewhere near her ribcage all night. Enduring this pain throughout the night made her brave enough the following morning to say to her husband, I should have never married you. With this, Beatriz finally struck at something solid and ungiving. Mateo rose from his seat at the table and without a word grabbed a hold of both her wrists, boney and weak just like the piece of cheap white meat sitting next to him now. He’d flung Beatriz, seven-month belly and all, on their second hand sofa, hard.
Oh come on, Richard. A little bird guts never hurt nobody, Diane said stifling her laugh, looking back again on the receding dead white bird. She reached over and touched his knee in an attempt to ease the tension building up in the small cab of the truck.
It was just an accident, she said recoiling her hand, her mood flattened from the moment before. The man Diane knew as Richard had pupil-less, tar black eyes that locked with hers for an instant. The pale blue color of her eyes were no match against the strength of his black stare. It was empty, nothing in front or behind it, one days later, Diane would describe as soulless, not tethered to the man’s body. She would recognize this moment as a revelation of the stranger’s character, a disclosure she ignored.
It was true. When the woman placed her pale hand on Mateo’s knee a piece of him succumbed to her touch so that he dared to look, really look, into her eyes. He hadn’t expected it, hadn’t prepared for her small hand on his Levi’s, so was caught off guard. Her laugh at the impact of bird flesh to windshield, of cracked glass that would need costly repair made him angry. But the fear that he had not listened to a warning placed so prominently in his field of view that it nearly made him drive off the road and wreck his truck was larger than his anger for the woman. He nearly decided to ditch the girl when she reached over and touched his knee—confirmation that he did not repulse her. Her thin fingers distracted him from his more rational thoughts of abandoning his crude plan to take her into the desert. Instead her quick touch incited him, made her a compliant participant in her fate.
And so he looked her in the eyes and knew he revealed something he was trying to conceal. His intentions betrayed his confidence and made themselves known to the woman.
In the moment Diane would later define as the point she knew she was in trouble, Mateo gave her a thin smile and took the next freeway off ramp.
He had no weapon. Just bare hands and clean manicured nails, his bulk from playing high school football, his precision in movements from flying helicopters in Vietnam, his failure. These all coalesced onto Diane Browers pinned down in the bed of a pickup truck in the middle of the desert just west of the Salton Sea. A moonscape, Diane would later recall, muted bone, faded cardboard colored mountains far off in the dusty horizon. The sun made its way down, the moon already up in the left side of her field of view. Her screams and the odd lapping of water on a distant shore sliced the deep silence of the landscape. The sounds of water in the desert disturbed her; the air heavy with minerals and pollution smelled sulfurous. Was she dreaming of this place?
Diane Bowers tried to reason with Richard, you don’t have to do this, and then she begged, no, no, no you cannot do this, please, and then she fought. Thin nails tore at his flesh, fingertips attempted to gouge eye sockets because she had once seen on TV that this move would always work.
Then that odd moment of surrender.
The patter of desert animals at their dusk routine was loud in her ears—senses heightened when her will was rendered powerless. Gave in because she tasted blood in her mouth, and there was an ache in both her wrists and she knew they were at least seriously sprained if not broken. Then the pain of penetration, dry, forceful, tearing. Diane was a Christian and in that moment of surrender she believed in her God. She was spared from living the moment fully, absolved of experiencing the true pain it brought to her body and mind, pardoned, floating somewhere above the bed of the truck tucked into a beautiful corner of eastern San Diego County.
It was easier than he anticipated.
Richard, why are you getting off the freeway?
He did not reply. In fact, he did not hear the question. He did not know exactly where he would go, but he trusted he would know the place when he came upon it.
Where are you going? Where are you going?
This time he only registered the higher pitch of her voice, like a teakettle rattling on the stove, it irritated him and he wanted it to cease. Perhaps it was his silence that triggered her. She began to scratch and claw at his arms, his neck, the door panel as if she would open the passenger door while the truck was in motion. As he got closer to the place he had to manage her lanky limbs with his right hand while driving fast enough with his leftso that she would not jump out of the car. He wished he’d brought a rope or duct tape, anything to control her movements—he nearly crashed into a giant boulder on the side of the dirt road. Another missed sign. She was stronger than she looked.
Finally, he parked and forced her out the passenger door using the heel of his boot and a tight grip on her stringy blonde ponytail. He followed her out the passenger door not letting loose of her hair. He felt blood rush to the tips of his extremities when she fell in a billow of dirt and tried to scramble to her feet, screaming. With two hands, two feet and the privacy this corner of untouched flat desert land afforded he regained his composure and control. With one swift scoop and lift he slammed her body into the bed of the truck. The back of her head thudded on the rusted metal and again there was the high-pitched squeal he barely registered—perhaps it was words.
It did not matter because to Mateo, Diane was only a weak bundle of muscles that provided just enough resistance to awaken the blood vessels in his genitals. The more she clawed and scratched at his flesh the weaker she became and the waning of her strength was an aphrodisiac like one he’d never experienced before. So in the moment when the ringing of her voice and the flailing of her arms finally stopped and she went slack beneath his weight he finally confided in her who he really was.
Naked from the waist down and still breathing, Mateo collected her limp and filthy body from the back of the truck and carefully placed it in the cab. He deliberately avoided the woman’s pale blue eyes. Like a sleeping child, she did not resist.
He drove once more, ignoring the drumming of an ancient Indian song booming in his skull. To its cadence he drove into the falling night of orange and red and polluted California air. Just before the sun completely dipped away from the day a signpost on the side of the thin road presented itself—Rock Mountain Quarry. At first he drove along the shallow shore of the cavernous quarry calculating how much pressure was required to pinch the woman’s breath off completely. Not much, he told himself, even with his already tired hands.
The thing next to him stirred.
He considered taking her again, but the spent nature of her constitution on the passenger seat did not entice him—her fight did and clearly there was none of that left. He drove further into the rich copper and clay red steps of the quarry.
The beautiful striations of rock distracted him just long enough so he wasn’t able to see Diane Brower’s last bit of fight open the passenger door and fling herself onto the road.
He had not expected this. Although he should have.
In the moment Mateo heard the dull plop of flesh and bone hit earth, the white bird sent by the spirits as a warning came to him on the rhythm of native drums pounding from two generations away. He had not listened. He had not paid attention and foolishly believed he could outwit what was prescribed. He hesitated, then pulled over to the side of the road and considered picking it back up to finish what he intended.
Mateo Flores left Diane Browers in the Rock Mountain Quarry, but not before she memorized his license plate number as the orange truck sped off into the cool summer dark.
About the author: Candace Eros Diaz (@candaceerosdiaz) is a San Francisco Writer’s Grotto Fellow and a VONA/Voices alum. She is the Admissions and Student Services Coordinator for the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California where she also received her MFA in both creative nonfiction and fiction. She is a recipient of a Vermont Studio Center residency and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in MARY: A Journal of New Writing and Huizache. She lives in Oakland, CA.
Artwork: Justin Schapker is a photographer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.