Battle Mountain

(George Simhoni - Gallery Stock - )
By Walter Kirn
Sunday, February 10, 2008

If you're a gentleman, you stop the car, but you don't let her get out and walk no matter what she says, particularly if night is coming on and the nearest town is Elko, Nev., that final frontier of gruesome Western freedom, where brothels operate next to family restaurants, mug shots are legal IDs in liquor stores, and a young woman alone beside the highway may as well do the state patrol a favor by stuffing her underwear in a plastic bag along with her dental records and driver's license and wrapping herself in yellow crime scene tape. In that luckless strip of sagebrush between Winnemucca and the Utah line, what my father called "the rule of law" is as weak as a cellphone signal in the desert or a free margarita in a casino. Unarmed is forewarned in northern Nevada. I know because I lived there once, working in a Battle Mountain gold mine after I dropped out of junior college. The money was good, especially with overtime, but the strippers, the slot machines and the sawed-off shotguns made it hard to hang on to my paychecks and dangerous to try. I only felt safe in Elko when I was broke.

"Pull over," my girlfriend said. "I mean it. Now. I'm so completely over this it hurts."

"Let's take two more of whatever we took in Reno and talk this out."

"Just stop the car. I'm gone."

"And I'll be the main suspect once you are."

"I'll gouge out your eyes with a nail file."

"No, you won't."

"You'll stop me how?"

"Let's quit talking hypotheticals. That's our big problem. We're always talking crap."

The fact was I'd already started slowing down, but the landscape's emptiness and darkness offered Holly no way to judge our speed. Plus, she'd removed her contact lenses before all her bawling could wash them down her cheeks. They lay snug in their plastic holder in her left fist, on whose ring finger was a $2,000 diamond, which supposedly appraised for 5 but that I'd bought for 1 by paying cash and throwing in an unused stolen phone card good for three solid hours of chat with Panama. If I granted her wish, dropped her off and drove away, the long-haul trucker on parole who'd surely be by in the next 10 minutes or so would pawn the thing by dawn. I might be able to buy it back for nothing, but the better alternative would be for Holly to let me drive her 200 miles east to Salt Lake City and give back the ring when I dropped her at her girlfriend's house and then pushed on to Denver or wherever. Our wedding, which we'd never officially scheduled, had been off since I'd caught her with Jason at Halloween, so, ethically speaking, the diamond was mine again. Why were we still together? Mysterious. After a year of talking marriage and kids but not how to pay for them or why we wanted them other than that we'd run out of other daydreams, admitting that our love had no future had freed us somehow.

A honeymoon in reverse was what it felt like, especially during our last drive through Oregon, when we sailboarded in the Columbia River Gorge and toured a winery on magic mushrooms. A friend of mine who flipped houses for a living had convinced us to sell our small condo down in Phoenix, where he'd told us that the boom was over, and fix up a bungalow he'd bought in Portland, where he'd told us the boom would never end. Forty percent of the profit was the deal, but the deep, X-shaped cracks in the bungalow's foundation suggested that the sale wouldn't come soon, and neither Holly nor I are patient people. We both grew up traveling, children of the military, and the longest we'd ever spent in one location was our two years in Whitefish, Mont., where we'd lived parallel lives as river guides and, briefly, as the spouses of two rich cousins whose parents were partners in a local ski resort. That's where we'd met, at the bar in the chalet, where our family connections allowed us endless tabs but also guaranteed that we'd be caught. We took the good with the bad -- no option, really. We were drunk, we were both better-looking than our mates, and nature made the big decisions for us.

"There," I said. "We're stopped. Let's take those pills. Then, once we're calm, I'll turn the radio down and you and I will have a conversation about finally cutting up the credit cards, improving our diets and living off the grid, the way we both said we wanted to that month when we got the huge electric bill."

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