Except for the first day of the journey, when the windshield wipers quit during a rainstorm in western Kentucky, the car ran smoothly. I felt vindicated since the Petrini Brothers had laughed when I brought the car to their dark garage for a tune-up. I was 19, moving back to California from Washington, D.C., and my father worried. “It’s not you, it’s the other drivers,” he said. With a thorough going over, I assumed the 1970 Plymouth Grand Fury good for the 3000-mile trip.
I trusted the car, purchased from our neighbor with $600 earned at ice cream and cookie shops. The neighbor and his mother lived behind thick drapes and their house needed paint. I paid him cash and he shook my hand. I loved the flawless tan interior and the big knobs on the radio. When I accelerated suddenly, the needle on the gas gauge quivered.
The car even had air conditioning. I turned it to maximum now. I was returning to my grandmother’s in Las Vegas after visiting my great aunt at her ranch outside Cedar City, Utah, taking a detour before assuming the responsibilities of school and work in the next state over. Drying sweat chilled my skin. The desert shifted from sand to purple. Yellow rabbit brush bloomed. Tumbleweed sauntered over the cracked earth. Sage scented the outside air, but all I could smell were cinnamon rolls.
In the back seat crowded twenty-four cinnamon rolls; two rolls squeezed into each pastel-colored lunch bag. Their sweet, yeasty smells pushed through the grease-thinned bags. I reached back and brought one out to eat. I didn’t have enough money to stop for a snack on the road and just enough gas to make it the last 100 miles.
I had arrived that morning as my aunt stood at the counter rolling the dough. She baked the rolls for a cafe in town. She used the “pin money” to buy the few things she needed around the house and the occasional chambray shirt and blue jeans for herself or my great uncle George. They grew a garden and ate the sheep and chickens they raised. Most things could be bartered for with wool or mutton.
Mary ground the nutmeg fresh and used cream from her cows for her rolls. The order was due the next morning. After a last cup of coffee we stood in the driveway saying good-bye. Then she headed back to the kitchen and bagged up the rolls. I told her thank you, but that we couldn’t eat more than a few. My grandmother lived alone in a subdivision and did not know her neighbors very well. I had already eaten three rolls at Mary’s table.
“You like them,” she said. “Besides, you’ll find someone to share them.”
Now, winding through the Virgin River gorge, I wiped my hands on my shorts. I ran my tongue over my teeth. I was thirsty. My water bottle felt light and I planned to stop at the rest stop on the Nevada side. Then the car slowed. I pressed the accelerator pedal. The car slowed more, and I let it coast to the narrow shoulder and turned the key to off. The road snaked by on the left and the river on the right. I rolled down the window to feel hot air cross my face. When I turned the key I got only a click. I popped open the hood and peered into the engine. That’s what you do. Leaning in the open window, I checked the instrument panel. Then I left the hood up and sat on a rock like a lizard, still.
Waiting and watching as the river changed from jade to jet. A jackrabbit darted from a bush and several mice scampered across a nearby boulder into holes. I ate another roll, chewing each bite 50 times to generate saliva. A car came along, but didn’t stop.
At dusk a black Dodge Ram with a blue Nevada license plate pulled off behind my car. A small man walked toward me. He wore a denim jacket, snug jeans, a baseball cap advertising a casino and steel-toed work boots. I stayed put.
“Trouble?” he asked.
I nodded. He threw down his cigarette and walked to the open hood. He poked around then looked at me.
“I can’t say what the problem is, but I can take you somewhere. Where are you headed?” He slammed the hood shut.
“Vegas. My grandmother’s house.”
“I’m going that way. Get your things and lock the car.”
The sun lay low. I could not see the man’s shadowed face. I bit the cuticle around my thumb. The walls of the canyon had darkened to create a cave.
“Okay,” I said.
I walked around the back of the car to the driver’s side and grabbed my backpack. The man appeared beside me. He took a long breath like someone preparing to dive under water.
“Those cinnamon rolls. They smell like the ones at the cafe over to Cedar.”
I turned to see the man’s sun-creased face. “They are. My aunt makes them.”
“Those rolls are tremendous,” he said without smiling, just stating a hard fact.
I gathered the lunch bags in my arms. “No sense in leaving them here,” I said.
The man knew the road and drove fast. We listened to the wind leaking through windows’ gaskets, arriving in east Las Vegas as the first street lights flickered on. He stopped in front of a flat pink house with a cockeyed swing set out front. He waved me in, dipping his chin to light a cigarette. Several children sat on the floor in front of the television and turned their blonde heads as he entered. A woman scrubbed dishes in the kitchenette. From the living room I could see through the screened back door to a cinder block fence. A brown dog lay on the end of a long chain as close to the door as it could reach.
The woman greeted me with a “How do you do?” then raised her eyebrows at the man. He shrugged and gestured to the wall phone. The cord tangled around a plant stand and I could not move far. The man opened the refrigerator and helped himself to a beer.
Night dropped into coolness. The couple sat with me on the concrete step. When I spotted my grandmother’s car at the head of the street I hopped up, retrieved my backpack from the man’s truck and carried the bags of rolls past the couple into the house. The woman followed me saying, “We can’t eat more than a few.” The children watched us alert as squirrels. Round smells of butter and cinnamon filled the little kitchen making waves of sweetness. I nodded at the kids and walked out, shook the man’s hand with a “thank you.”
In the car, where she had waited, my grandmother asked, “Mary send rolls?”
I shrugged and she didn’t say more. She smiled. “Look at the Strip coming alive,” she exclaimed pointing to neon lights rivaling the sky’s stars.