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Empty seat tells bad jokes

Matt Zalaznick

“I probably could’ve made it all the way to Las Vegas tonight, but I was exhausted,” says a man who is suddenly standing across from Dapple at the motel counter. He is folding and unfolding one of the hotel’s brochures. “So I’m in Burrow Junction, eh? Unusual name.”Of course this man is not in Burrow Junction because almost the entire stretch of Spinnaker Drive is outside the city limits. If the Cozy Cowboy Lodge was in Burrow Junction, Dapple Del Toboso probably wouldn’t have wound up dating Deputy Hambrick Pumice, the rising star of the Winger County Sheriff’s Office, because a crime or a disturbance at the Cozy Cowboy Lodge belongs to Winger County Sheriff Hex Oxenburg and his deputies, not the Burrow Junction police. So it was Deputy “Brick” Pumice who showed up one night almost a year ago when Dapple Del Toboso called 911 about the guest going berserk all the way from the pool to the vending machines to his room. Deputy Pumice arrived to find dozens of road maps floating in the pool, road flares spewing smoke from the slot of the Coke machine. The guy had melted his telephone with some kind of blowtorch. He’d also stripped his bed of its sheets and spread his collection of driver’s licenses from thirteen different states out on the bare mattress. He’d smashed his window and thrown his complimentary Gideon’s Bible into the parking lot of the Trollbridge Tavern next door. “He busted the window with the word of God?” Dapple laughed. “A Bible couldn’t break a window,” said Deputy Pumice seriously, informing Dapple that the Sheriff’s Office took property damage quite seriously, especially when it was done by outsiders who’d spit in the face of the town’s hospitality. He stood across the counter from her with one arm resting on the butt of his firearm, the other resting on the top of his radio, his hands clasped at his belt buckle and his legs spread apart his standard law enforcement pose.And Dapple was impressed, even aroused, by the way Brick had taken control of the guest’s nervous breakdown. How this little dent in the universe seemed smoothed out by his commanding character, how the disturbance cooled under his imperturbable desire to keep the peace. This was a vigorous man who could take care of things and maybe even take care of her, she’d thought. But she’d been disillusioned soon after they’d started dating when she saw him standing the same way at the supermarket, trying to select steaks for the Sheriff’s Picnic. He’d frowned down at the T-bones and porterhouses as if the cuts of meat were up to no good, as if the slabs of flesh were conspiring to come back to life and go on a destructive, malicious stampede. She’d heard him talking, in the same stern voice, to the lady at the meat counter as if she were the mastermind behind the diabolical reanimation, the goal of which was some kind of countywide coup d’etat. Not on my watch, his rock-hard eyes said. Dapple had been standing a few feet away, trying not to laugh. A few days later, Brick for the first time caught her getting high. He’d let himself into her dad’s house, frowned and assembled himself into his standard pose one hand resting on radio, the other resting on firearm, fingers clasped at his belt buckle. She’d thought immediately that it would be no big deal. She’d been certain he’d realize it was just pot, not heroin or speed or prostitution or something really nasty. But he hadn’t seen it that way. Not at all. He’d said if he caught her doing it again he’d have to do his sworn duty. Which meant he wouldn’t break up with her, he’d said, oh, they could still sleep together, he’d assured her, and, not to worry, she could still cook his dinner but after she’d bailed herself out of jail. She’d kicked him out of her dad’s house when he’d asked if he could stay the night. “I’m on my way to Las Vegas? But I’m driving alone, y’know, I couldn’t make it straight through,” the man at the counter says, reminding Dapple that she’s heard there’s plenty of work in Las Vegas. She suddenly thinks she could just as easily move to Las Vegas as California and deal blackjack or spin the roulette wheel or at least work at the counter of one of the casino’s hotels. She was beginning to get quite excited by the idea. “The empty passenger seat isn’t much of a conversationalist,” the man laughs in an attempt to anchor the girl’s distracted expression. Dapple Del Toboso doesn’t laugh at the self-effacing joke but thinks: This man is handsome, really handsome – movie star handsome. And like a movie star, Dapple has the sudden intense feeling, he hadn’t had to stop in Junktown. He could’ve kept going, he could’ve turned south and sped right past the Junktown exit sign, sped on toward Vegas had the spirit moved him. Or, he could’ve stayed on I-90 and driven all the way to Montana, Idaho, Washington, at any point along the way free to turn to Canada, because – it was clear to Dapple Del Toboso – nothing was holding this man back. But then again, nothing was holding Dapple back either.”That empty seat tells some real lousy jokes,” he chuckles again. Vail, Colorado

This is the fourth part of the serialization of Matt Zalaznick’s short story, “Junktown.” The Vail Daily is serializing short stories and novels written by locals. To submit a piece, contact the Vail Daily Editor Matt Zalaznick at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.


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