There was a table in the corner of the room near three windows. Daylight filled the room with a glow. Two of the windows were open and the breeze was as fresh as an Albuquerque night beat. The windows looked out upon a landscape of rolling hills the color of straw. There were no trees or greenery. It looked like the Sahara out there but there was no sand. It was all lost and unknown like how Earth is in the universe.
There was a book on the table and the cover had strange symbols on it. They were not the letters known to man, but shapes of various design. The man in the red jacket sat down in the chair and looked down at the book for a moment. He opened it and inside was a glittering violet keypad of strange numeric symbols. He held his hand over it and thought about what he should press and what might the consequences be. He was suddenly hungry for a salted cucumber wedge. He turned his head and looked out the window at the faux Sahara.
Someone was in the air, and they whispered to him: “You can be whoever you want to be. You can go wherever you want to go.”
“Is this the chamber gate to Heaven?” the man asked the air.
“Press a button and find out,” the voice replied. “Find out. Find out.”
The man in the red jacket pressed the button. The next thing he knew, he was standing at a salad bar built into an old western wagon. The restaurant was quiet, dimly lit. There were only a handful of other people, now tucked away in various corners and crevices talking softly among themselves. They were all older people—older people who liked quiet restaurants with a salad bar built into an old western wagon. There was country music playing at low volume, cowboy ghost songs leaking through the ceiling.
The man in the red jacket looked down at the white plate he was holding. It shined and smelled of bleach. He looked over the selections on the salad bar and he was pleased to see it all appeared fresh and clean. Fresh and clean and even hip like an Albuquerque soap shop on Central Avenue.
A short waitress with a perky smile came near him. “Everything okay, sir?” Her ponytail whipped around like a pony’s tail.
“You’ve been standing there for a long time.” She laughed. “I guess the selection is a bit overwhelming, huh?”
“But then isn’t that life… Always so gosh darn overwhelming.”
“Where am I?” the man asked, his voice putting out an odd tone.
She looked at him as if he were overly strange. “Where are you?”
“Yes. Easy question.”
She took offense, and before walking away, said, “You’re at J-Bob’s in Raton, New Mexico.”
The man in the red jacket was Albom Riff and he sat alone at a square table eating a pile of salad in the center of a mostly empty and dimly lit J-Bob’s restaurant in Raton, New Mexico.
The short waitress with the ponytail came to the table with a refill of lemon-lime soda and the check. “You can just pay that up front when you’re done,” she said coldly. “I hope you have a nice rest of your day.”
“Wait,” Albom said. “Where exactly is Raton, New Mexico?”
The waitress held out her left palm and made a straight motion with her right pointer finger across it. “This line here is the southern border of Colorado… We’re right here, just below it on the other side and at the bottom of the pass. How’s that for GPS with a personal touch.”
“Thanks… What’s your name?”
“I never said. And get this… My nametag fell off in the bathroom earlier and went straight into the turlet. I wasn’t about to fish it out.So, I guess you could say I could tell you any name I wanted to, and you’d have to believe me.”
“Maybe. But you could be anybody you want to be,” Albom egged her on. “Don’t care what I think.”
“Well, in that case. Just call me Hollywood Helen on Wheels.” She laughed at her own cleverness.
“Okay, Hollywood Helen on Wheels… Maybe we can go grab a drink later?”
“Oh my… Someone hittin’ on their waitress. How very original.”
“I’m just saying. I never heard of Raton, New Mexico so there can’t be too much to do. I’m sure you get bored and lonely.”
“How do you know I’m not married?”
“I don’t see a ring.”
“Maybe it fell off.”
“Maybe you ain’t married.”
She let the volley end by allowing the ball of playful flirting to go out of bounds. She scribbled something on her order pad, tore off the sheet and handed it to him. “Just in case I change my mind later.”
“You might get thirsty, right?”
Albom walked down a bleak road heading south. A few cars stretched by like motorized taffy on his left on their way to where the interstate connects back up. There was a sad looking strip mall on the other side of the road. They had a Walmart, of course. There was some trash dancing in the wind. He felt stoned and wondered if J-Bob’s had slipped some high-grade legal Colorado weed in on the salad bar. The taste of pickled beets and macaroni salad lingered in his mouth. He fed himself a cigarette.
The land around Albom Riff was somewhat flat, like a floor at the bottom of a cliff. There were a few yellow humps of pinon-dotted hills, green clusters of pine, streaks of red rock, dark and dormant volcanic cones rising in the distance. Behind him the infamous Raton Pass lurched upward into Colorado and that’s where the land grew teeth, and the teeth were called mountains, and some of the teeth were capped with snow.
The city itself seemed old and bent and dusty. He came upon an antique roadside motel called the Robin Hood. It looked like a white metal complex of loneliness against the landscape. There were a few playful arrows and stripes of yellow, green, and red in the motif. There was a gravely lot. There were closed doors with numbers, curtains drawn. A handful of road-weary cars were spaced out in the parking lot.
He went into the lobby and there was an older woman standing behind the counter and she was staring into an aquarium and every three or four seconds she let out a loud chuckle. She paid him not attention until he tapped the little silver bell. She jumped. “Oh, Jesus!” she hollered. “My apologies, sir. I was in a silly little ol’ meditative state. What can I do fer ya?”
“I’d like a single room if you have one.”
“All right then,” she said. She had a whacked-out face, skin stretched, pocked, a few missing teeth, a tangle of gray hair atop her head. She tried to make small talk as she hunted and pecked on a computer keyboard. “Where ya from?”
“I just came from the salad bar at J-Bob’s.”
She stopped what she was doing and turned to look at him. “The salad bar at J-Bob’s?”
“That’s right. It was pretty good.”
“Oh… Do you have a driver’s license, hon?”
Albom retrieved it from his wallet and put it down on the counter.
She snatched it up and looked it over. “I didn’t realize you were a local.”
He snatched it back and looked it over: Albom Riff, 114 Red Cliff Drive, Raton, NM 87740. “Neither did I,” he said.
“Sir?… You still want a room?”
TO BE CONTINUED
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