Ben’s late-night breakfast remained untouched, cold and disappointing. Pushing the plate aside, he made room for the numerous items that passed through his hands, waiting to be autographed. Ever the charmer, he smiled and looked enthused as he greeted and took photographs with no less than fifteen people, including Tracy, who insisted that his meal was “on the house” despite the fact that he hadn’t been able to take a single bite of it yet.
During this pocket of time, the cowboy approached the booth, squeezed past the two women who were waiting to take a picture with Ben, and said with great confidence, “Come on, man, I thought we were leaving ten minutes ago. I’ve got to get my cousins home. It’s past ten.”
Ben looked at him blankly before realizing that the guy was fabricating a bullshit story in order to liberate him from the chaos. Goddamn brilliant. Immediately taking on the role of dimwit, Ben said, “Shit, I’m sorry. I guess I lost track of time.” Grabbing his coat and scarf, he stood up, said “Excuse me” to those still crowding his table, and made his way to the front of the restaurant.
The cowboy was already exiting through the front door, bundled in a beige Sherpa-lined suede coat, a straw cowboy hat perched on the top of his head. Ben stopped for one more photograph with someone at the door, remaining cordial, but upon stepping outside, found himself alone, no cowboy, no cousins in sight. He’d hoped to at least extend his gratitude for the clever shuck-and-jive he’d been given.
Deciding to head back to his hotel, he slid into his parka and wrapped the scarf around his neck and chin. His stomach growled and his head ached as he started down the sidewalk. A brisk wind picked up, swirling fresh tufts of snow into his face, and he bent his head, moving along as quickly as possible, wanting to return to the hotel and fall into bed as soon as possible. The resonant shrill of a car horn startled him, and he stopped in his tracks. A 1997 blue Dodge Ram pickup truck pulled to the curb beside him, and the cowboy inside gestured to the passenger-side door. As Ben pulled it open, a blast of warm air hit his tired face. “Hop in,” the man said. “I’ll give you a lift.” The two teenage girls were sitting together in the back seat, staring at Ben with wide eyes, giggling. “Don’t worry,” the cowboy assured him, an arm draped across the front seat as he leaned in closer. “They won’t bite.”
Ben hesitated, but only for a moment. Oddly, getting into that Dodge seemed like the best idea of the night. He quickly hoisted himself up inside the cab and shut the door.
“I really do need to get these girls home,” the man stated, shifting into drive. “Mind if we do that first?”
“Sure,” Ben agreed, sliding on his seatbelt. “Thanks for the lift.”
As it turned out, Carla and Stella really were the cowboy’s cousins, who lived outside of Aspen and had a curfew dangerously close to being missed. The twin sisters adored Ben and an earlier independent film he’d starred in about a busker musician living in Portland. Conversation surrounding the topic expanded excitedly for a good five miles before Travis, the cowboy, finally ordered them to be quiet, which they immediately obeyed. The remainder of the drive was filled with an appreciated silence, only the slight hum of the engine and The Allman Brothers coming faintly from the stereo. The lights of Aspen disappeared, and for a while they drove across a half-deserted highway.
The motion of the truck and the lateness of the hour began to take its toll on Ben, and he found himself drifting off to sleep despite an inner struggle to stay awake. When he opened his eyes again, they had pulled into a large driveway and stopped. Travis opened his door, the cab light flickered on brighter than sunshine in Ben’s tired eyes, and Carla and Stella hopped out and down to the ground. “Bye, Ben!” they crooned to him simultaneously with a wave.
Ben returned a courteous wave. “Nice to meet you.”
Travis accompanied the girls to the front porch of a small wood-shingled house, but before they could retrieve keys, the front door swung open and a husky, partially-balding man in t-shirt and sweatpants stepped out. With a frown, he ushered the girls past him and spoke briefly yet harshly to Travis, who hung his head as if being reprimanded. The door was swiftly slammed shut and the porch light turned off, and Travis was left in the shadows. He sauntered back to the truck with his hands deep in his coat pockets, his breath puffing out like smoke in the cold night air, his blonde hair glowing dimly in the moonlight. Somberly, he slid back behind the wheel, started the engine and turned out of the driveway.
Ben sensed his agitation. Travis didn’t speak again until they’d returned to the main road leading back to Aspen. “That’s my uncle,” he explained. “Edward Fucking Dickhead.”
“Ah, well.” Ben shrugged. “Uncles can be like that.”
Travis grinned at the remark. “You have one, too?”
Ben sighed. His words had been spoken through a cloud of fatigue. Shifting in his seat, he ran a hand down his face and groaned, “I think I’m really fucking tired.”
“From what I witnessed at the restaurant, probably really hungry, too.”
Quietly, Ben laughed. “You have no idea…”
* * * *
The bar easily fell into the category of local dive. Located just off the main highway somewhere in the darkness between Basalt and Aspen, it was a destination that apparently no one went out of their way to visit; the parking lot was devoid of cars and littered with potholes of ice and loose gravel. A neon Pabst Blue Ribbon sign blinked in the front window like a beacon of welcome to non-existent patrons. A plastic banner announcing two-for-one happy hour drink specials hung across the clapboard wall, just barely noticeable under the illumination of an exterior light. The establishment was small, unassuming and empty.
Travis maneuvered the Dodge across the pot-holed terrain, pulling into a spot to the left of the building. “Come on,” he said, opening his door. “I’ll buy you a beer. And a bag of chips or something.”
Warm, stale air greeted the two men as they entered, along with a nod and greeting from the bartender, who was a husky woman with nicotine-wrecked vocal cords and bleached blonde hair. “Take a seat anywhere, boys,” she announced above the ZZ Top song playing overhead. “Place is yours.”
The floor was sticky and covered in peanut shells that crunched beneath the soles of Ben’s boots. The stench of the room was a mixture of old beer and dirty urinals. As the two men slid into a dark faux leather booth and removed their coats, the bartender appeared and set cardboard coasters before them. “What’s your pleasure tonight?” she inquired.
“Coors,” Travis replied.
Ben glanced over to the bar, wondering what might be available on draft, but decided not to inquire. Chances were high that he would be disappointed with the answer. “I’ll have the same,” he answered.
“Don’t suppose your kitchen’s still open?” Travis asked.
“Afraid not,” she replied.
“Anything besides peanuts to munch on?”
“I could round up some chips and salsa.”
Travis gave her a disarming smile, dimples popping through the whiskers of his goatee. “That would be great, thanks.”
The woman returned the smile and walked away. A slight limp impeded her strut, but she made a point to sway her hips as though to let them know she wasn’t all rough and tumble. The rear pockets of her blue jeans sparkled with rhinestones in the shape of horse shoes.
When the beers and chips arrived, Travis leaned across the table to tap his bottle against Ben’s. “Here’s hoping your night ends better than it started.”
Ben ruminated over the words briefly – the sentiment, the slight grin on Travis’ face as he’d spoken them – but the implication rolled from his mind as soon as he sat back against the vinyl cushion and popped a tortilla chip into his mouth. The salsa was spicy, full of green chiles, and the corn chips were crispy and surprisingly good. Within minutes, he had consumed almost the entire basket.
Travis peeled open a peanut shell from the bowl on the table, emptied its contents into his mouth, tossed the empty casing to the floor. “So how long are you in Aspen?” he asked.
“A few more days,” Ben replied.
“Supposed to be. But my friend busted his knee on Ajax a couple of days ago, so I haven’t been out since. It’s not how I envisioned this vacation to be.”
“Why not hit the slopes alone?”
Ben looked at him. Brought the beer bottle to his lips and took a swig before answering. A low belch escaped his lips. “That’s a goddamn good question. I really don’t have an answer.”
They ordered a second round. The bartender proffered another basket of tortilla chips, and Ben thanked her. “You’re welcome, sweetheart,” she crooned through pink-painted lips. Her recognition of him was non-existent. Not even a hint. Between the dim lighting, the lateness of the hour and the company of the cowboy, the camouflage was effective. Travis broke open several more peanut shells. Leaned his head back to consume the contents inside.
“Do you live around here?” Ben asked.
“Buena Vista,” he replied through crunching. “About 60 miles northeast.”
“Wow. That’s not too close. How come you’re here?”
“My cousins,” he replied. “My dickhead uncle. I visit sometimes.”
“Of course.” Ben paused. Studied the man for a moment. In the dim light, his facial scar was almost imperceptible. Was it from an accident, a fight, a fall off a horse? Curiosity always pushed Ben to seek answers. “Are you really a goddamn cowboy?” he asked instead.
A grin spread across Travis’ face. He took a swig of his beer and responded, “You could say that.”
“Fascinating.” Ben absently picked at the label on his beer bottle until it peeled off in his fingers. Tiny flecks of paper fell to the table top, joining the splintered remnants of peanut shells.
“How is it fascinating?” Travis asked. He seemed amused.
“I don’t know… I wasn’t expecting to see a cowboy in Aspen.”
“This is Colorado,” he quipped. “Plenty of us around.”
“Sure, I suppose so. Do you ranch?”
“My family’s been ranching for more than a hundred years. Homesteaders.”
“And a few horses. Boarding and breeding.”
Ben smiled. “That’s cool.”
“Where do I live? L.A.”
“I assumed so,” Travis said. “But where?”
Travis leaned back in the booth. “I’ve heard of it. Family property?”
“No, my own,” Ben replied. “I bought a house in the Hills last year.”
“Congratulations on that.” Travis raised his bottle in salute. The distance between them diminished a fraction, and for a few minutes, their surroundings became a chamber of echoing sounds that lulled them into a quiet reverie. Each was content to sit and simply ponder the presence of the other through a connected gaze until the front door of the small, dank establishment opened. Two middle-aged men dressed in faded blue jeans, work boots and thick flannel coats entered in, cat-calling the bartender by name and sauntering up to the bar like a couple of regulars. The bartender draped a towel over her shoulder and smiled wanly, tossing coasters onto the bar top.
“Should we vacate?” Travis suggested, reaching into his front pants pocket to retrieve a handful of bills.
“Yeah, sure.” Ben pulled out his wallet and proffered his own money, but Travis held up a hand and insisted, “It’s on me.”
“Thanks.” Ben slid out from the booth, pulled on his coat, and surveyed the room one final time, taking in the scene, breathing in the stench, wanting to imprint the dankness of the place to memory. This Rocky Mountain dive bar, in all of its uncomplicated glory somewhere on the road between Basalt and Aspen, was a pivotal point in time for Ben – inner anxieties forcing their way to the surface through the dim lights and the discordant crooning of George Thoroughgood overhead.
Outside, the night mountain air was fresh and crisp. Ben sucked it into his lungs. Zipped up his parka, wrapped the scarf around his neck, and followed Travis to his Dodge, careful not to slip on patches of ice along the way.
Entering the city limits of Aspen half an hour later, Travis drove through the empty streets with ease, as though he knew each one like the back of his hand. The bustling night life of the town had subsided; only a few pedestrians wrapped in coats and scarves still wandered the frozen sidewalks. Ben gave Travis directions to his hotel, and as they pulled into the expansive circular front drive, Travis whistled and said, “The Little Nell, huh? That’s fancy shit.”
Ben had hardly thought twice about his accommodations; it was the typical destination for him whenever he visited Aspen/Snowmass. He wondered now how Travis must have perceived it, this cliché of a cowboy dressed in his Sherpa-lined suede coat. Toby Conroy’s reaction would have been to scoff at the pretentiousness. “Who the hell needs all this shit anyway?” Toby would have demanded. Most likely, Travis held the same opinion.
The front doorman, with his burgundy great coat and matching cap, approached the truck and pulled Ben’s door open. “Welcome back, sir,” he said, standing at full attention, awaiting his descent from the cab.
Ben unclipped his seat belt, sat forward and looked over at Travis, who was lightly tapping the steering wheel with his fingers as though keeping beat to a silent song, gazing out of the windshield toward a line of potted fir trees strung up with golden lights like tiny stars. The man’s profile was goddamn riveting. “Are you heading back to Buena Vista tonight?” Ben asked.
“Nah,” Travis replied, still peering ahead. “I’ve got a buddy in Glenwood Springs I crash with.”
With a hand on the door, Ben moved to jump down out of the truck, but something sparked in his head, like an electric current or small firecracker exploding, strengthening his resolve. Suddenly, he felt wide awake, anxious, ready to take on the night. Wanted someone to ride the wave with him. “Why don’t you crash here?” he suggested, speaking words that betrayed his better judgment. “My fancy-shit suite has a fancy-shit sofa you can sleep on. And there’s 24-hour fancy-shit room service, too.”
Travis looked at him with a grin, as though he considered the suggestion a joke.
“Come on,” Ben insisted. “I’m sure they’ve restocked my fancy-shit bar by now.”
Travis’ laughter was throaty and deep in response. He shook his head but hesitated for only a second, a mere second, before leaving the keys in the ignition for the valet.
“Good night, gentlemen,” the doorman said to them as they passed, palming the twenty dollar bill Ben placed into his hand, touching the brim of his hat in farewell as the two men pushed through the front rotating glass door together.