Perry was just another scrubby desert town tucked behind a minor highway — to us it was a highway; to the state it was a tired dirt road that had been paved in an election year and forgotten. The mountains ringed the town, framing a shiftless blue sky that after too many summer days dug deep and hard into your bones until you were crazy with its steadiness. At night the mountains corralled the stars into a herd and marched them off the horizon. Maybe an outsider would find Perry beautiful, but living there made us careless. We let the town fill up with prefab houses, junk cars, litter, dried-up cactuses, gangly power lines, and any other spiteful ugliness we could imagine. You thought nothing of tossing an empty beer bottle, of deliberately smashing it on the pavement and watching the broken pieces glitter at your feet.
It was what you did, what we all did. It was just a town, a place that bored us on Friday and Saturday nights, and every other night as well.
So we drove into Phoenix. It was a long, hard drive, one to make our parents worry, pace, and curse, which was what we wanted. You let boys, and sometimes men, drive you into the city to spend their paychecks on you and your whims, both parties aware of the unspoken agenda, the overall plan to get laid that night, or maybe on the next date, the next weekend, eventually.
From Phoenix, the drive home was divided into three segments. The first part stretched out so deceptively flat you brushed over it, tires barely touching, the radio blaring romance. No one spoke and not even a glance was shared.
The second part started at the turnoff for Florence, where the median shrank into a trickle of dust between two straight yellow lines and the road edged up the Superstition Mountains — a slow incline you didn’t notice until the car started to grind and buck a bit, complaining, and the romance on the radio blurred with static. This was when he gave you what was meant to be a secret, sly look, measuring you and his chances, adding up how much money he’d spent.
The third part was the branch at Superior, the abrupt switch onto 77, a road that intruded like an ellipsis in a sentence — a vague trailing away. This was where the mountains turned gleefully cruel, and each jag of the road became a bargain with God, or whatever you happened to be believing in that night, especially if the night was two shades darker than dark or it was raining or you only had one headlight or your boyfriend of the moment was drunk and angry and starting to remember he was sitting on an empty wallet. Slashing along a ledge so narrow you could have held a wet paint brush out your window and scrawled a path along the rock wall, you didn’t worry about your current status with God so much as the condition of the brakes. God would always give you a second chance, but if your brakes were shot — end of story.
That was when you made your decision: yes or no, yes or no, certain he could hear the metronome of your thoughts, or at least sense it, the way an animal would.
Then you passed through San Carlos — a ragtag collection of people who couldn’t make it around the hairpin turn and were sucked in to stay. That’s the joke you always made. He’d probably already heard it. Maybe you had even told it on the way to Phoenix — hell, you couldn’t remember; you were just filling time — but he laughed a bit, hoping maybe that would be what nudged you over into yes. He didn’t know that you had already decided, that nothing he said mattered one way or the other.
With San Carlos behind you, the next landmark was the Silver Spur, a rough-tough tin building held together by rusty nails and the sheer need for a place where people could go on weekends in the middle of that awful emptiness. The Spur opened Fridays at noon and didn’t close until Sunday midnight, and there were plenty of regulars who kept the same schedule. It was our favorite place; for one thing, they’d serve anyone, even minors. A twelve-year-old could buy a beer. The reasoning was: if you’re asking for it, you probably need it.
The parking lot of the Spur was where you spoke your last words of the night: yes or no. You had to say then.
Sometimes you’d walk home, or catch a ride with a carload of girls, or a lone girl who’d come with a carload. Sometimes you wouldn’t make it home until just before dawn, when the morning sun sent shivers up the backbone of the sky, and something had been drained out of your blood and bones during the night. You were weak and tired, and maybe you found yourself wondering, Was it worth it this time? And you spent your remaining energy convincing yourself, before crawling into bed under the quilt your grandmother had made, that yes, it was; it always, always was. Or at least that’s what you told yourself.