As the afternoon wore on and long shadows fell over us, the novelty of the puzzle began to wear off. The hitch that would connect the ‘73 VW Westphalia Camper to the rental truck seemed to be designed by someone with severe psychosis. The device looked more like something to restrain a large animal, sort of like the hobbles we put on milk cows when I was a kid to prevent being kicked while hand milking into a pail. The hitch was a tangled mess of chains and clamps, and it came without instructions.
Dan, a friend from RT school, had traveled from Washington State to Topeka, Kansas to help me move to Oregon, and he was running out of patience. We’d expected to be out of town with my belongs stuffed into the truck and bus around noon, but we were still screwing around with the hitch problem. My neighbors had gathered around to give suggestions earlier, but they’d lost interest hours ago. Plus they’d also become offended at our cursing and use of obscene language as if words would somehow magically cause our problem to be solved.
But it was sort of a miracle when suddenly it became obvious how the attachment worked. Clank, rattle, click—and the bus was hooked up to the truck. After a short break to wash the rust, dirt, grease and blood off our hands, we climbed into the truck and headed west on I-70 toward Denver.
Except for the hills and valleys, on the east edge of Kansas where the topography is formed by the Missouri River, the landscape of the state is monotonous, flat as a billiards table. The only relief to the mind-dulling view is an occasional town where there are always three objects that stick out of the prairie: the steeple of a Catholic church, a grain elevator, and a water tower. So riding along a highway while staring into the late afternoon light with nothing along the road other than corn or soybeans is less than exhilarating. But, what are friends for?
The sun had just about disappeared below the line between the flat dirt of Kansas and the hot, white sky when we pulled off the Interstate to stop for the night. The motel was one of the ubiquitous chains that spring up out of nowhere next to a highway interchange. It was at that point that I noticed that the rental truck had two ignition keys, but they were on a small fob with a metal cable that would not allow a key to be removed. [Actually, I’ve noticed that all rental vehicles are like this. They come with two keys that can’t be separated. What is the point?] I became a little nervous. What if I lost the key and there was no spare?
After checking into the motel, we walked to a nearby restaurant that had a sign that promised “authentic, homemade Mexican food.” We were pleased to find a cuisine that we appreciated and entered the place with expectations of hot tamales and retried beans. The place seemed dark after facing the sun for so many hours, and the air conditioning was obviously on its highest setting. A young woman who looked as if she might have a Mexican heritage led us to a booth near the bar. There were neon signs that had Tecate, Modelo and, of course, Bud Light. The woman told us, in a definite non-HIspanic English, that our server would be with us soon.
It turned out that the restaurant was owned by a Pakistani family, and while the food was homemade and hot, it lacked the authenticity that was advertised outside. The retried beans were coarse and the picante sauce had a little taste of curry. The beer, at least, was cold and Mexican.
I was hungry and wolfed my food down while Dan drank his beer and ordered another. He stared at me and shook his head, his plate hardly touched.
“What?” I asked, wiping the strange, brown hot sauce from my lips.
“How can you eat that shit?” he asked with a frown of disgust on his face.
“I was hungry,” I righteously explained. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
He said nothing, but ordered another beer.
Dan has standards.
We finished our beers and I paid at the counter.
It was dark when we exited the restaurant and walked toward the motel. But first we stopped at the truck to get our packs out of the cab. When I reached into my pants pocket I found some coins and a screw, but no keys. My other pockets revealed a billfold, more change, a pocket knife, a filthy handkerchief but no keys. I looked foolishly, but with hope toward Dan.
He looked back at me, blankly, and then it hit him.
“You’ve lost the god damn keys, haven’t you? I saw you looking at them when we got out, and I knew it. You might have just said right then, ‘I’m going to lose these keys.’”
I had to admit it. He had a point, and I’d only had two beers.
We peered into the cab, trying to see if the keys were in the ignition. It was dark, but it didn’t look as if they were there. They weren’t on the seat, but we couldn’t see the floor. We went into the motel room and searched around the beds and in the bathroom. No keys
I was now convinced that the keys were on the floor of the truck and went back into the parking lot to look for a stone or something to break the side window of the rental. But Dan, being of the sounder mind, suggested that we retrace our steps on the chance that the keys dropped out of my pocket.
The glow from the street lights of the parking lot gave enough light so that we could see as we slowly went back toward the restaurant. I was temporarily elated when I found something that looked like keys, but it turned out to be a woman’s hair clasp that had been run over several times.
Dan sighed and said he was going to have another beer, and after a moment I followed. I decided that I was going to have several beers.
We stood for a few minutes, getting used to the dark light, then we headed straight for the bar. As we passed the cashier’s counter I happened to glance at a small bowl filled with matches. Nestled among the booklets I spied something other than matches. It was the key fob.