For Joe R. Lansdale
The sign had leaned up against the fence since at least 1988. The sign was painted black letters on a whitewashed piece of a broken door. The fence was an unstained and unpainted split-rail that served no purpose other than to look rustic and to be something to lean things against.
Rodney had sat next to the sign most days starting at noon as long as there had been a sign. Rodney’s duties on the little homestead he called The Ranch were few. Help Irma stock the display table up near the house, then put out the sign, set up his sun umbrella, lean back in his chair, look pleasant, and wave.
Sometimes when his bum leg bothered him, he’d prop it up on another chair. Other times on hot days he’d take a break by the house or Irma would bring him some iced tea. But he was always back under the umbrella, on his chair, before dusk.
There were almost never any cars in the morning. Around noon they’d start trickling through, 3 or 4 an hour. Late afternoon they’d slow again, 1or 2 an hour. But by early evening, 5, 6 o’clock, they’d pick up again, until just before dark they’d trickle off, then stop. After years of watching and waving, Rodney knew there would be no more than 56 a day, usually under 50. Mid-day was locals, what there was of them. Late day was late travelers, business folks on their way to Amarillo, wanting to get to their hotel for a meeting the next day, using Route 9 through Hard Water as a short cut.
That’s what they’d always say when they stopped to ask for directions. They never bought nothin’. Locals were the buyers and they didn’t buy much. Business folk stopped just long enough to make sure they weren’t getting deeper into Nowhere, and usually their GPS wasn’t much help.
“Going to Amarillo?” Rodney would say. He’d say it every time. They always were. “It’s pretty this time of year.”
He’d always say that, too. He didn’t know if it was pretty or not. He’d never been. He’d seen Austin and Dallas and after that he’d seen enough. Too many people, and not much of interest to him. Whatever was in Amarillo or Houston or Frisco or San Antonio could stay there, he’d stay here.
Irma’s daddy was an oil man of sorts. Worked in oil. Drilled for it on his property across the road. Found none. His biggest achievement was seeing Irma married and happy before he died of a heart attack at 50.
Rodney’s daddy set out to be a farmer, realized he was better at gardening. He died at 55, leaving Rodney and Irma in a house with a garden in the back and an unbroken view of flat, dry nothin’ in front with a road down the middle. It was a quiet life.
Irma brought Rodney a fresh glass of tea, saw his leg stretched out on the chair.
“How’s the leg?”
“Fair. Hurts some.”
“Want to come inside?”
“Not yet. Maybe after a while.”
She stroked his head. “I need you to run the grinder when you’re done today. I’m out of mulch for the garden.”
An hour later, the 37th, then the 38th car passed. Rodney waved and smiled and took a break.
The 49th car came around 7 o’clock, as the sun got low and gold and the sky turned pink in the West and grey in the East.
At 7:45 as the first stars twinkled, car 50 came. A newer Cadillac sedan, possibly a rental, with a lone male driver. Mr. Businessman.
Rodney knew he wouldn’t stop, just as much as he knew it would be the last car of the day. He smiled and waved anyway, because that was his job.
The driver lifted his fingers briefly from steering wheel in a minimalist salute and Rodney kept on waving and smiling. When the car passed him, he reached behind the whitewashed sign, found his rifle, and lifted it to his shoulder. He sighted in on the back of the driver’s head and gently squeezed the trigger.
The driver died instantly. His car, without the driver to guide it, kept on for a good 120 feet before running off into the ditch on the left side of the road. Only about half of the record of 200 feet from a few years ago.
Rodney rose from his chair, rubbing his right hip. He’d learned the hard way not to shoot until after they passed. An oncoming car with a dead driver could hit you, and one time it did. A glancing blow, but not one he’d like again.
Bringing his rifle, he went back to the barn to get the wrecker and tow the car from the ditch. Tonight the drive would make a fine mulch for the garden. The cash in his wallet would cover at least one of the The Ranch’s bills. And tomorrow the scrap yard would pay for his car.
Rodney’s duties on The Ranch were few: Help Irma stock the display by the house; put out the sign; sit in his chair, look pleasant, and wave. Then at the end of the day, when it needed doing, pick off the last car of the day, run the wrecker, and make the mulch.
Gene Lass has been a professional writer and editor for more than 20 years. He served as the Managing Editor for KSquare Magazine for most of its run, and is still working on projects with some of KSquare‘s contributors. His fiction has appeared in Electric Velocipede, KSquare, and The Albatross, and his first poetry collection, Like a Moth on a Pin, made in collaboration with photographer Dawn Zellner, was releaed in 2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.