The sandstone cliff face cracks, and chips rain down off the rim through light and brutal heat into the canyon. They crash onto the paved parking lot of a café—the only sign of humanity—for hundreds of miles of rocky mountain desert. A group of oversized ravens briefly scatter from the commotion before regrouping. A cloud of dust appears on the horizon a visually indeterminate distance away. Minutes pass as the dust stirs up through the waving lines of heat, getting closer, but the ravens are undisturbed. More time passes, and finally, the birds move again, hopping a few feet away, as a little electric blue Mini Cooper pulls in front of the Outlaw Café.
Penny steps out, putting on his sunglasses and furrowing his eyes at the birds.
“It’s too bright, is what it is,” he says to the ravens, it seems. They regard him in reply.
Walking past and into the café, he cringes, surprised, from the din of the restaurant. He takes his sunglasses off.
Loud, over some unseen speaker system, plays the music of Glen Campbell, while a pretty, leathered waitress of middle age attends to a handful of chatty tables with her shaky hands.
“Seat yourself, gun,” the waitress says, angling her head to one booth in particular. The café is styled, it must be said, by a particular hand losing its grip on sanity in a particular way. Guns, of every kind, from every era, from the lever-action Winchesters that won the American West to the automated rifles of suburban boat salesmen, to oversized novelty sheriff’s pistols, hang on the walls. They hang next to iron animal yokes, above well-cared-for desert fronds, by inspirational posters extolling self-sufficiency and a short fuse for tyranny. Everywhere, always, guns, guns, guns.
Penny sidles into a booth with a poster of American Hero John Wayne hanging on the wall just above the table. It has a little quote by American President Ronald Reagan: “There was never a man like him, and he will be missed.”
“What can I get you, gun,” the waitress asks.
“Sorry?,” Penny replies.
“What can I get you, gun?”
“Oh, ah, weird. OK.” He glances at the menu. The first option is two home-made biscuits covered in sausage gravy. A diner classic. It’s called “The Gun Fight.”
“I guess I’ll have a The Gun Fight. Is that alright?” Penny asks.
“Fine by me. Give me ten minutes.”
Seven minutes later, she returns with a glistening plate of Southern comfort. The smell of the food more than makes up for the décor, he thinks. The waitress stands by the table for the quick moment it takes Penny to leave the plate empty.
“Didn’t like it at all, did you?”
Before he has time to answer, she fires another question at him.
“You going out towards Canyonlands, gun? Can’t think of another reason anyone like you would be out this way,” she says.
“Yup. Driving out there for a few days for some qua-li-ty time. The great outdoors and all that, right.”
She gives him a wide and lopsided grin.
“Oh, yea. All that. Well, if you’re going that way, why don’t you take the road down by the river? That highway out there’s all bookcase cliffs, nothing but cliffs, and more of ’em. But it splits off and goes down to Scola. Us locals we call it the Scola exit, but I guess we can’t anymore. Not with everything going on in this country. Here, let me show you,” and the waitress sits down next to Penny without so much as a respectful look at him.
She pulls her phone up and opens some alternative to Google Maps he’s never seen before. Her location settings, which are off, mean she has to type in the address for the Outlaw Café in the Start box. She notices him notice and announces: “Can’t ever be too careful with these companies. You know these apps all track you nowadays.”
A murmur of agreement comes from some nearby patrons, who absorbed her last comment seemingly through osmosis.
“You never know, I guess,” Penny mumbles in reply.