The Hundred Dollar Drink: A True Story of the Desert
Wayne Larson spent his service to the nation flying backwards into combat against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Much later in life he would learn to question the cosmic origins of his habitually bad timing and judgment. He joined the Marines in 1940 and was on a weekend pass to San Francisco when the meatball nation rained bombs on Pearl Harbor. He knew nothing about the attack at all, and when he returned to camp he was greeted by a humorless MP at the gate who asked: “Where the fuck have you been?”
Larson became a gunner on the Grumman Avenger, a position that required him to face the rear of the aircraft while white-knuckling a .30 caliber machine gun. He had no way of knowing if the pilot had been killed so that every dive into combat action, which included otherwise stunning views of the Pacific sky decorated with tracer fire and smoke, was potentially terminal. So it was really no surprise that the post war years saw him nurturing an aversion to fast driving, carnival rides, and noise of any kind. His ex-wife named these traits as irreconcilable faults in court documents seeking dissolution, in addition to sleep deprivation due to his harrowing night terrors that interrupted her continual prayers. Her conversion to a radical strain of Seventh Day Adventism, which required a life of celibacy, tithing, and militant vegetarianism, was attributed to his post-war refusal to swear allegiance to the baby Jesus and various biblical miracles. She was driven away from the ranch in a triumphant caravan of short-sleeved and severe churchgoers–his mother’s silver mysteriously spirited into the trunk of the deacon’s car.
In the decades following his one and only attempt at matrimony, Wayne focused exclusively on the success of his well-watered ranch in the moonscape badlands of northern Nevada. His timing and luck with women did not improve as he focused on rain, grass, and barbed wire, though he did allow himself an annual spring soiree at the Shady Lady Ranch south of Tonopah. Those episodes, merely transactional, had done nothing to enhance his understanding of the dynamic forces at work in the female heart, a failure of preparation and strategy which undoubtedly led, in the meandering way of fate, to his present situation– which found him standing in the upstairs hallway of his house flanked by his two hired men and with an enraged Mexican woman toppling bedroom furniture on the other side of the guest room door.
Rosa was hired as a cook and the relationship was entirely platonic, so Wayne was mystified by her decision to suddenly barricade. Things had been going fine. But now they weren’t. He was unwilling to concede the high ground in this contest, the mere fact of home ownership and the employer-employee dynamic guiding his attempts at de-escalation through the door in a very crude ranch Spanish. He worried about fire, and it was also true that Jake, his top hand and a Modoc halfbreed, once mentioned his belief that Rosa had taken to peeing in the guest room closet.
Wayne had been mortified by that news and thoroughly unprepared to confront it, though lately he caught himself sniffing the air while walking past her bedroom door.
And so it was that shortly after breakfast, on an otherwise bluebird morning, that Rosa had started up an accusatory harangue at Wayne, Jake, and Francisco. Francisco had once raised chickens in Mexico until an avian flu wiped out his birds to the last rooster and, post bankruptcy, his wife ran off with a tour guide who specialized in Aztec pyramids. Francisco, who came across the border in 1983 with five dollars in pesos, worn-out huaraches, and a plastic jug full of water, sat watching very intently and finally told Wayne that in his considered opinion Rosa was a Chihuahua-born witch and was casting spells on them. And so they sat on the bench seats at the kitchen table watching her unravel like bewildered schoolboys at a puppet show. When she finally stormed out of the kitchen Jake followed her up the stairs, then came down and offered, in his notoriously laconic manner: “Boss, she’s way up in there like a treed cat.”
Wayne had hired Rosa on the recommendation of Matt Lowry, which was yet another mistake of timing and judgment, coming on the heels of Matt’s tremendous fall from local grace. Until recently Matt had been a respected cattleman and County Commissioner, an admitted fondness for dwarf porn and a mortal fear of all bodies of water notwithstanding. Matt had lost his right thumb in a calf-roping accident, which accelerated his transition from ranchman to restaurateur when he opened the Champion Steakhouse in Republic, Nevada. Sitting his horse and watching his right thumb float down Pig Creek with no hope of retrieval had soured Matt’s previously unshakable belief in his own destiny–despite his recently minted status as Nevada’s Angus Breeder of the Year.
The restaurant and bar were attached to a cinderblock hotel and crowned by a pink neon sign blinking “EAT” and “SLEEP” in tremulous counterpoise on desert nights. Matt’s partner in this new business was his wife Liz who, as the first woman in Republic to have a breast augmentation, commanded a great deal of respect among the cowboys, gypsum miners, and desert nitwits who composed the bulk of their daily patronage. Her move from an A cup to a DD fueled the whirlwind of rumors about Matt and Liz’s progressive boudoir activities and cocaine consumption, and what followed was a series of wife-swapping accusations running like cholera through the outlying Mormon and Mennonite hay ranchers. The rumors, which neither Matt nor Liz would confirm nor deny, culminated in a bare-knuckled brawl between furious alfalfa farmers during the annual locals-only fiesta prior to Burning Man on the nearby Black Rock playa.
After the riot Matt stopped coming to town in the daylight hours, and Wayne, who had judiciously reserved judgment, yielded to suspicion after he drove out to Matt and Liz’s ranch to return a portable welder. Matt answered the door wearing only his enormous handlebar mustache, a King Ropes baseball cap, and weightlifting gloves. Wayne observed with some consternation that Matt’s nipples were pierced and his toenails were painted pink and this, combined with the unmistakable squeak of a mechanical advantage contraption being vigorously exercised somewhere inside the house, once again presented Wayne with the issue of his own timing. “I should have called ahead,” he said, though Matt, naked, grinning, and glistening, graciously downplayed the intrusion by inviting Wayne inside for a “stiff bracer.”
Matt’s final spectacular collapse came when state investigators from Carson City were tipped to salacious behavior in Republic, a town largely insulated from the eyes of law enforcement due to its moorings in the precise middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, investigators were sufficiently spooked by the notion of unregulated sexual behavior on the American outback to send an undercover agent into the Champion Steakhouse with directions to order the “Hundred Dollar Drink.” The undercover agent, a semi-disgraced former Air Marshall who had been wrung through the judicial ringer after brandishing his pistol during a fight over a parking stall at JFK International Airport, strode into the Champion Steakhouse wearing a denim jacket fitted with a button camera and a wire. His pig-kicker boots, too-short jeans, and ridiculous hat immediately exposed him to the locals as a western fraud or worse, a dude, but he had rehearsed his cover story while slamming beta-blockers and watching Tim Roth’s turn as Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs, so that he sailed brilliantly through Matt’s less-than rigorous inquiry into his bonafides. The agent claimed he was a location scout for Paramount Pictures, which explained the bizarre get-up to anyone listening, which they all were, and soon enough he was served a highball in a tall glass with a room key drowning at the bottom. The agent, who strayed from policy by slamming the bourbon, carried the key like the nuclear football through a crowd of back-slapping and congratulatory cowboys at the rear of the bar, then mounted the stairs to the Chief Winnemucca Suite where he found Liz poised on the sleep number mattress in a cat mask and a pair of pink leather hip-boots.
But celebrations in the halls of justice were dampened when the case came down and Matt’s Reno based attorney, who was also his gay nephew, revealed during discovery that Matt was in possession of no less than 12 terabytes of secret video showing various public officials, including a state senator, a judge, a popular television anchor from Reno who specialized in “Nevada Stories”, and several scholarship members of the University of Nevada football team enjoying the fruits of Republic’s most famous cocktail.
Matt Lowry, as it turned out, without the advantages of an Ivy League education, was merely country, not dumb, and the eventual plea agreement found Matt and Liz on unsupervised probation with a sternly issued warning from the judge to obey all laws and respect “Nevada’s well established habits of decency and restraint.” The adjudication of the case received no publicity but it did cast an embarrassing pall over the annual Basque Heritage sheep parade through Republic, and was damaging enough that Matt was forced to quit Rotary and to add tri-tip catering to his portfolio of business pursuits.
Which is how Rosa wound up barricaded in Wayne’s guest bedroom. He had hired her out of the restaurant when Matt was floundering in full collapse and Rosa was going to be forced into whoring, which was a particularly bad ending on that empty desert. That night, when he offered her the job with Francisco translating, she cried on his neck with relief. So, in his first unselfish act in nearly forty years, Wayne brought her out to the ranch to cook for him and the boys, gave her a room and a decent wage, and left her mostly alone before this sudden and inexplicable turn of gravity and the cosmos.
Which was still more proof, Wayne thought, as he deliberated his next move outside the bedroom door, that since 1865, and particularly in the sage and bitterbrush west of the Humboldt River, no good turn had ever really been left unpunished.