In the thick of Desert Hills – a redneck, American small town north of Phoenix – I was house sitting for my parents. The dogs were fine other than their usual dog problems of elbow sores and anxiety. I fed them and let them out, then I napped and did it all again.
I had seen The Road Runner restaurant and saloon many times throughout my youth.
It sat on the side of the freeway, in New River – one of the deepest cuts of Phoenix ruralism, second only to Black Canyon City. Something piqued my interest, now that I’m old enough, to finally go and enjoy this cultural monument.
Groggy, I drove through the winding horse-lands of Desert Hills, listening to Animal Collective with the wind blasting through my open car, until I reached my destination. The saloon was what you’d expect from a good, southwestern American town such as New River: Old timey, wooden flooring, cowboy décor – a steer head on the wall, stirrups on the shelves, dart boards in the dining rooms – people in camouflage hats and Monster shirts, men and women in cowboy boots. I sat up at the bar and had myself a beer.
An older gentleman was next to me, and some darker skinned folks were next to him. We talked.
The folks were a man and a lady, both of which were Navajo, hitchhiking their way up to Flag, then Cheyenne, then wherever else. “Exploring,” the lady said, when I asked her what she was doing in Phoenix. The older gentlemen joked that he couldn’t get a straight answer out of them, then left his seat for more comprehensible conversation.
The native man was recently released from prison after three and a half years – I didn’t ask why, out of politeness – and the woman was from Alaska…But also worked in Wyoming or something. She was inebriated and a bit hard to understand at times. Her past was confusing.
She pointed out the book I brought, written by a Russian, because her father was a Russian
(Rushin’ to get outta here, am I right? – the man would remark).
“The Russians raped my grandparents!” she exclaimed in her inebriation, giving me her family history in a slurred soliloquy.
“Yeah…That’s why I’m half Russian. During the early 1900s they had my grandparents and so many of them just went around and raped and that’s where my dad came from! My mom, though, she was born Native, on the reservation. But then! The god damn white man came and forced her to Seattle. They beat her, I tell you! They beat her because she couldn’t speak English and they made her get an education. How could they do that to her? How could they take her away from her home, and then punish her for not being up to their standards? Some of us migrated up north to Alaska, because Alaska is close enough to Seattle – that’s why there are so many of us up there…We tried to escape this terrible torture.”
She sucked on her beer. I’m sure it was good and I’m sure it was what she needed. Her nephew smiled and looked off and looked back and listened, then went to the restroom. It was just her and I now.
“It’s nothing against the white man, no! I’m not racist or anything…It’s really not like that, no, I tell you. But, but…They make me ashamed. God damn it! I’m ashamed of the color of my skin! I’m ashamed to be native. I’m ashamed of who I am and my background and the white man makes me feel these things! They say ‘Why don’t you go back to where you came from?’ and I say – excuse my French – ‘To fucking where? To here? This is where I’m from!’ And no one respects me! God damn, I’m ashamed…You know! I wish I was born white. I really do. I wish I was born white…”
She put her head down. She was on the verge of tears. So was I. Her nephew sat back down next to her.
“Well…It’s really about how you present yourself. That’s all, auntie…”
“Well you know what! I’m a failure, and I’m awful, how can I present myself well? I hate the color of my skin. I’ll amount to nothing and I’m looking after you right after you get out of prison…”
I looked off and drank my beer. There wasn’t much to say. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the nephew touch his aunt in a certain way.
“No! Stop it, you sick fuck! I tell you, us Navajo and incest!”
She looked at me, “They have sex with their cousins who are their aunts who are their sisters! No!”
The man laughed.
“It’s gross!” the woman said. “You’re sick in the head! How can you do that?”
“Heeyy all I know is after I get outta here I’m gonna fuck my sister haha!” he said.
“Gross! Fuck you! I’m ashamed of my people! How could they do this? You see what I mean? This is why the white man does not respect us. This is why we’re treated poorly!”
I asked “So is this just sort of your family kind of thing? Or a Navajo thing?”
The man laughed again and the woman responded
“No, it’s a common thing. We’re sick.”
I drank my beer and it went down well. Some cowgirls had walked up to the bar and, feeling more confident with my liquid courage, I said hi and smiled at them. I later found out that they were nice, God-fearing Christian gals. Most of the folks were.
At this time I excused myself from the Navajos (they would later get the police called on them) and ventured outside into the sticky, summery air. There I had a PBR. It wasn’t bad. Children played in the mud by the benches. Like cattle, the people moseyed over to the bull riding rink where the first round of practices were about to begin.
Music was playing over the loudspeakers. Songs included: Black Betty, Highway to Hell, Great Balls of Fire, Eye of the Tiger, Summer Loving, Another One Bites the Dust, Uptown Funk, Good Times Bad Times, Pinball Wizard, random nu-metal songs I didn’t recognize. In the mugginess the bugs circled around the bright flood lights. The rink was mud soaked. The announcer had a sultry country twang and announced each rider with conviction and familiarity.
First up was a first timer – a kid not older than 10 or 11 years old, decked out in all sorts of protective gear – helmet, shoulder pads, kneepads, ball cup. They opened the gate and the child fell right off. “Give ’em a big hand!” the announcer boomed. The crowd clapped. In between riders there was a lot of waiting. Families and friends were chatting and tapping their feet to the tunes. Next to me a mother kissed her baby affectionately on the forehead. She seemed like a good gal. It made me want a wife. It made me want a baby.
Up next was a birthday boy named Drew.
“Folks,” the announcer started. “It’s this man’s 60th birthday, and he’s decided to ride a bull for the first time in his life! How’s that for a bucket list?”
The people cheered, but unfortunately he didn’t last long either and landed flat on his back. Not many lasted long; the longest being about eight or so seconds.
I sipped on my beer and waited for more contestants. Somebody farted and the odor floated away into the open air, not staying long. The bugs were thick as clouds around the flood lights now, swarming with a mob mentality. I eyed a pretty woman in a black dress far across the other side of the ring. She was alone, which meant she was with someone. Ignoring this forewarning, I walked up to her, said hi, asked her who she was here to see, and she responded “This young man” and the man, with stirrups and American flag attire, was a rider and he embraced her and kissed her. I looked off. A horny toad hopped along the ring, probably just as concerned with finding a potential partner in this humid Phoenix weather. Poor fellow.
I made my way back to the bar to have another beer. A couple men sat. One of them, stout, bald and sunburnt, with a body tattoo of a monster that extended to his groin, asked,
“What the fuck did you bring a book to a bar for?”
I laughed. “I don’t know…In case conversation was boring, I guess.”
They passed my book around, reading the back. We eventually got to talking about work. A young, blonde woman walked up and Ken, the miner, offered her a seat. She declined, but stayed to drink her beers anyway. She had a tight figure: Small ass, narrow waist, yet plump, perky breasts. The men were practiced wingmen and they talked me up, saying things like “He’s a real nice fella” and “He’s smart, too” and “Sophisticated, this one!” and “You should marry him, I’m tellin’ ya”.
Drew – the 60-year old, Trump supporting, first-time bullrider – ended up at our corner. He asked if Christina and I were married. I grabbed her around the waist, pulled her toward me, kissed her on the cheek and said “No, but we’re engaged” and her face was a Christmas tree for all the men to admire. She was showered with compliments.
“Really! You’re the prettiest damn girl in the whole bar (‘except my mother’ she would reply). I just hit 60! I know a fine woman when I see one! This fella oughtta marry ya for sure. He’d be a fool not to!”
Her and I bought him a beer and a shot. The world needs more Drews and Kens and Freds, and Drews and Kens and Freds need more beer.
I got to talking to her mom. “She’s a good gal” Ken would later remark and I agreed – a really standup woman who knows how to raise her kids right.
“So,” I started, “Is it weird to you? To have your daughter here and men are fawning over her and…”
“No, not at all,” and she smiled sweetly, serenely, motherly. “I started taking my girls out to bars before they could drink, and the first thing I taught them was bar bullshit.”
“Oh, you know what I mean! Like when men come up to you and say ‘You know, I don’t say this often, but you’re the prettiest damn girl in this whole bar’ and you do this:”
And she made that face. You know the one. Her eyes twinkled, her nose scrunched up, and her cheeks had wrinkles from the most genuine, heart melting smile you’ve ever seen. The kind of face that warms a man, gives a man purpose…Gentlemen! I’ve solved it! One of the many mysteries of ladies has finally been uncovered! Women really can make this shining apperance on command, whenever they damn well please. How often is it really our doing? How often is it a sincere reaction to what we say? Then again, how often does it really matter?
“Ha! Well…That’s a bit, uhm, manipulative.”
“Yeah, yeah. A little bit.”
“Then again, men are a bit dumb.”
She smiled and agreed. She told me that she was lucky her daughters grew up with a good sense of self worth – they didn’t seek validation from barflies. Some of their friends did – but not her girls. They could talk to a man an entire night and not care if they go home with him or not. They were good that way. She had raised them that way.
“It was a little hard at first,” she said. “They would puff up like bulldogs, come sit next to me and a man, and say ‘Hey. This is my mom. Watch out. She’s married.’ and I would say ‘Honey, we know. We’re just talking. He’s married, too. We’re talking about our kids. It’s fine.’ But they figured it out pretty quick. They’re good girls, really.”
And they were. Her daughter asked for my number, so I obliged. Later that night I got a text from a person claiming to be John Cena – I think that was her girl. It didn’t go anywhere.
After this, the band had started playing some country tunes. The people line danced. I had never seen a line dance before, but it seemed like the hip thing at the time. The lead singer was a lanky, dark haired woman with too much eye shadow and a nice twang to her voice that she picked up somewhere – she wasn’t sure where, she told me at the bartop. They played some classics – Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Hank Wilson the first, the second, Patsy Cline – and some newer ones I was unfamiliar with. The band was tight. The percussion section was as put together as a jigsaw and the guitarist’s Stratocaster soared with flawless phrasing, hitting every peak and valley just as high and low as needed.
The night dwindled. I sat next to a blonde woman that was with her friend, a brunette woman. We had smiled at each other before, a few times throughout the night. We started talking.
“You okay?” she asked, seemingly concerned.
“Yes. I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just, you brought this book to this bar, and that’s rather odd…”
“Oh, yeah, yeah. Oh well!”
She introduced herself as Nikki and I gave her my name in return.
“You have Jesus in your heart, don’t you?” She asked.
I turned up the corners of my mouth and tilted my head over my palm, fingers on my hair, “Why do you say that?”
“I saw you talk to those drunk, hitchhiking Navajos for at least an hour. I was so confused. You must have the love of Jesus in your heart and soul. Why would you show them such compassion otherwise?”
I couldn’t stop smiling, “Well, I go to church every Sunday, but I’m not a believer.”
She cocked her head with absurd perplexity. She couldn’t believe me. She pried,
“How? How is that possible?”
“Well, it’s a job, really…I work sound and I play bass and I collect my paycheck. It’s a good gig.”
“But you must believe!”
“I do often find myself asking ‘What would Jesus do?’ if that counts.”
“But you don’t believe?”
“He’s a figure, a character. I can still believe in his teachings, regardless of whether I believe in his existence.”
I kept smiling as warm as I possibly could – a trick I picked up from customer service. Her friend came up to her and mentioned that they – the group of girls – wanted to leave.
“So what about these people?” She asked me.
“What do you mean?”
She waved to the barfolk, “These people. Do you care about them?”
“I don’t know what you mean…”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘I don’t know what you mean’.”
We looked at each other for a little bit. I noticed just how square her jaw was, and that she had a ring on her finger.
“Well…I don’t care about them as much as my friends and family. But they’re good, wholesome, American people.”
“Will you see them again?”
“I don’t know. I don’t live around here. I’m sure I’ll go my way and live my life and they’ll go their ways and live their lives. That’s just how it goes.”
“But you like them?”
“Yes. I like all people. Everyone is interesting and beautiful in their own way.”
“So why don’t you believe?…In Him?”
“Well, I was raised Mormon, but I just kind of fell out of it, then thought about it, then decided I didn’t agree with any of it.”
“But He is the one true God. The giver of all. The ultimate love. How can you be so kind and not believe?”
“Well, that’s what they all say, right? Listen, Nikki – It was Nikki, right? – Christians say it, Muslims say it, Hindi say it, Mormons say it. Everyone thinks they’re right. Everyone thinks they have the one true answer and that they’re going to heaven when they die. You don’t need a book to know how to be a good person. Let me ask you this: Do you think I’m going to hell? For not being a believer?”
She thought about it, “No, no. I don’t think that. I think Jesus loves you.”
“And I think he loves you, too. And I think you know that, and I’m glad you do.”
Her eyes twinkled, eying my own. Left, right, left, right, in rapid, rapid succession, her mouth slightly open.
“I’m going to need four more beers before I can figure you out…”
“I wish we could…But you gotta go. Your friend is over there by the exit, staring at us.”
“You want me to leave, don’t you?”
“No, but your friends do.”
We exchanged facebook names. She hugged me like the world was going to come crashing down on top of us and she whispered into my ear “You’re a beautiful soul.” With that, we parted. I left the bar soon after.
The Road Runner is a slice of America that’s been driven underground, into the rural clutches of horseland and dirt roads, far from the eyes of the mainstream people. The Road Runner is a place where men can be men and women can be women and everyone is okay with both of those things being just the way they are – maybe the way they should be. Jesus lives there, as he does in all places where other genuine people live. Road Runner! I’ll be back again some day, and I’ll feel your warmth and vitality like a shower on my spirit!