The Tallest Building in Hell
By Sarah Noell
Petey woke up with an etched sense of déjà vu furrowed on his forehead and a little bit of cocaine on his upper lip. He pulled at his face with a dry hand, thumb and forefinger rubbing down his eyes, a deep inhale through the nose to catch whatever coke was left to wake him up. He put his hands on his steering wheel, stretching his shoulders back. The desert was warming up. Shelly was splayed out on the passenger seat, pantsless and limp like someone had rung her out over a sink. The car was getting hot. Petey leaned over Shelly to roll down the crank window, extending his arm, neck stretched. She had the rest of the coke in a baggie in the waistband of her loose panties.
A low growl let loose from Shelly’s sternum, and Petey was glad she was breathing. Her hair was brown and stringy, dirty from the desert, but Petey leaned down to touch his lips to it anyways. Gently. He leaned back in his seat, slightly reclined, as far as the cab of the truck would let him. He punched the button to reveal the time on the truck: 9:07. He closed his eyes and took in a breath of stuffy air, wondering if his Jack was still in the bed of the truck. It was about time to start work. He opened his eyes and rolled his head over to look at Shelly.
“Shellaaaayyy,” he sang in monotone. Louder. “Shellfish.”
He lifted his wide hand and rubbed hard on the top of her head, mussing her hair, jolting her awake.
“Goddamn, Petey. I’m back from the dead.” Her eyes weren’t open, but she curled her legs up to her chest, stretching her large t-shirt over her knees.
“Softshell, we gotta get out of this hot truck. I’ll get your folding chair.”
“And my umbrella?” Her eyes were still stuck shut.
“Righto, we can’t have a burnt Shell.”
Petey unlatched the driver’s door and kicked it open with his boot. It creaked from desert dust. He stepped out and lunged into a stretch, cursing the sun whimsically. He took the thin tarp that covered the bed and pulled it off on to the ground. He donned his fisherman’s cap that he hit on the side of the truck a few times to clean. It was too small, but he liked it anyways. He grabbed Shelly’s sandy blue folding chair, his umbrella, and some duct tape. He stepped over the pickup’s hitch, anchored to the “Carlos Tacos” taco truck.
He set Shelly’s chair in her usual spot, next to the taco truck’s back door. She couldn’t be scaring away passersby out front. Her bony knees and squinty eyes made her seem rabid at times, ready to pounce. He also wouldn’t subject her to the roadside manners most Texans found endearing. She had been hit by too many beer cans last week.
Kneeling down he duct taped his umbrella to the side of her chair. He stood up, brushing his hands on his ripped khaki shorts that he bought at the Savers when he realized he had lost at least twenty pounds since he moved down to the desert outside of Del Rio.
He took his keys from the loop of his shorts and stepped up onto the metal lip of the truck, hanging on to the handle, opening its tiny door. He swung it open and ducked inside. The grills had to be started, the lettuce and tomatoes prepped. The meat defrosted. The cheese heated up.
He slid open the front windows, removing the wooden plank that acted as a jimmied lock. Shelly was flopping her way from the passenger seat of the truck around back. Her shorts hanging from her pinky finger, her long legs stretching up to a high hip, her large T-shirt not long enough to cover her completely.
“Hey Shell-o, put those shorts on before Carlos comes around. You know how he gets when you don’t wear pants around his food.” Without looking at him she swung her shorts around her pinky above her head, a loose attempt at a lasso quip. Her cut-off jean shorts were sandy, stiff from dry heat, and she didn’t like the way they felt between her thighs. She figured most people would rather see her ass anyways.
Petey found his Jack Daniels in the freezer with the ground beef. He took a paper cup, filled it half with whiskey, half with ice, and popped the plastic top on, a little straw sticking out. He adjusted his hat and leaned against the cooler underneath the window, heels together, steel toes pointing out. Assuming his position, staring at the endless desert horizon, wondering who would pass by twenty miles out of Del Rio, thirty miles from Mexico, looking for a taco.
Shelly popped up and ducked into the truck, shorts on, looking for her cigarettes. Petey pointed to the shelf with assorted knives and spatulas, where her Camels sat soggy from dishwasher steam. She reached, grabbing the box, tapping it twice, lifting a damp one up to her mouth and then searching for the stove lighter. Her search required a small squat and a point which Petey interpreted, reaching to the other side of the stove, handing the long gas lighter over. She struggled to light it. Her fingertips hurt, burnt by the sand, by the stove top. She winced. She wasn’t a very good cook, she was slow, usually stoned, but she knew Petey needed her out here. She didn’t mind rambling for a few months, even if it meant bandaged hands and shorts that chafed.
“Hey, smoke outside, Sheldon.”
“I have to wait. I think I saw a Desert King,” Shelly exhaled out the door, but the cigarette was burning bright in the small truck. She rubbed at her thigh.
“This is why you need steel toes.” Petey looked down at her flip-flops, her sandy feet. “So you can kill those snake kings that want our tacos.”
Petey had had his fair share of snake run ins working out in the desert. He had a shotgun in his pickup for that reason. Kill the king. He had shot some snake heads clear off. Shelly psyched out on desert flower drugs, dancing in the bed of the pick up, terrified, up near El Paso. He and Shelly moved the taco truck up and down the Texas border, encountering more desert folk and drug trafficking than he thought he would when he applied to do take out at Carlos Tacos in San Antonio. But he liked shooting snakes. He also liked how cold the desert got at night. How it went from a furious yellow to a moody blue. He liked how he could sit on the bed of his truck with his guitar and sing to Shelly like the cowboys would have. Maybe light a fire, though that required effort. Plus, Shelly would probably have a heyday, dancing naked around it crying at the moon because of some new mushroom Carlos had brought her. Petey would probably just drink himself into thinking too much about tacos, how Carlos was probably running a drug ring, and his buddy Tiggs who shot himself that May.
He was doing that already, drinking himself dry, before noon again. He couldn’t help himself. He’d been to rehab. At twenty-three he thought it was a joke. He sang to the nurses, sober, eyes shut, his curly brown hair pulled and pushed back by his anxious hands. They loved him up there. New York was so green. He had been caught with Shelly’s weed, drunk driving in the desert again. Shelly wasn’t there; she had left him with all of her paraphernalia when she went up to visit her other boyfriend in Austin. It was his third strike. He would sing off key about heartbreak and cowboys and how to make tacos and his best friend, the folk hero, Tiggs. The younger nurses would come in, ask him to sing the one about the airplane, Petey would feign nerves, big brown eyes cast down. He played and was sure he broke some hearts when he left.
But he liked his solitary life with Shelly. Their amicable arrangement, their years of physical debt, long time loves who had mellowed out after years of furiously fucking at seventeen. He wouldn’t go back to New York. The people there were cold, assuming, very breakable. Now twenty-seven, he had spent the last few years cooking, working at the Carlos Tacos Texas chain. It was only recently he decided to kick it curbside and manage his own truck. An indefinite escape from sympathetic eyes, from the apartment he had shared with his lost friend. He got Shelly this gig so they could ride around together. So he wouldn’t be alone. The two of them, too dirty, too thin, shared the taco truck like twins shared a womb. Feeding each other broken up burrito pieces, touching just to make contact, knowing blindly someone else was in there with them, keeping the other alive.
They made enough cash for gas and Jack, free drugs thanks to Carlos who had a heart for white junkies. They squatted outside the cities, lonely lepers in a drier Jerusalem. Petey didn’t like the rush of city corners. It felt forced, driving him to quicker conclusions, a creeping anxiety that didn’t mix well with his substances. A fear he would spend the day doing double-takes for Tiggs. A worry Shelly would go out for more napkins, get caught up with an ex and not come back. The desert was slow and constant. If he could, Petey would stay in the desert forever. Not many people could find him, and he liked that. He didn’t like most people these days. Not many people got to him like the desert did. Got to him like Shelly did at sunset when she was getting stoned.
The desert could always get to him. Carlos would come around on pay day, pass out their paychecks in cash, and let Petey and Shelly sample the new stuff he was carrying around. They had taken tabs of acid one evening last week after Carlos left. They were so excited they had the energy to start a small fire with the brush they collected in the bed of the pickup. Shelly had laughed loudly, into an echoing desert, jumping him like they were teens again. She put on her bikini, started up the taco truck at two a.m., and made the best burrito Petey had ever eaten in his life. The desert got quiet. Petey wandered. Shelly’s screams at the emptiness were dulled, turned slow. He saw someone far off.
Tiggs had walked toward him, slowly, sauntering like only Tiggs would.
“Hiya, Petey Petersen.” Tiggs was the only one who called him by his full and belabored name.
“Tiggs, I, I missed you.” Petey cried, held his arms out to a shadow who looked and sounded like his friend. After he had finished crying, he laid down in the desert sand where he could see his pickup and see the colored lights of the Carlos Tacos. He felt like Tiggs was holding him. He then felt strange about Tiggs holding him.
“How’s Hell, Tiggs?” Petey had asked the empty desert.
“There are buildings everywhere, I live in the tallest one. It has a great view. I can almost see everyone I ever loved.”
Petey looked toward the fire. Shelly looked like a giantess, illuminated by the small flames, dancing slow, twirling to a fall on the rocky desert surface. Her eyes closed, figuring out how the world worked, always moving. He hoped she would never tell him her secrets and stay with him always.
A spirit in transit, she had been aware he was looking to her from a distance. His cheek on the sand, crumpled like he had seen a ghost. Shelly had watched him mourn, driving too fast on route ninety, bandaging her burnt hands with careful affection, letting his own burns swell and pop. She laid next to the fire, flames illuminating Petey far off in small flickers. She watched someone get up and walk away. Long, shadow legs languidly crossing the blue desert. The moon hanging low, slung in a rocky jaw. They lay apart, exposed in the expanse. Shelly wanted to go to him, let him know she had seen it too. But it was a just a flash, lost to her by the time the sun rose and she awoke with her head propped on Petey’s soft knee.
But the sun was hot on this particular morning, there were no shadows of lost friends who lost themselves in their own losing, and Carlos’s white Range Rover was kicking up dirt about a mile away. Petey had gotten lost in the horizon, sipping on his whiskey like a child with a grape soda. Shelly was outside now, lounging in her shaded chair, long legs sprawled in the sun. The Carlos Tacos hummed from the heaters, the stove top warming.
“Shelluride, Carlos is coming, look cute,” Petey smiled at her from the door. One of those lifted chin smiles, lots of teeth, squinty eyes. Buzzed. Shelly found him so easily loveable. Since high school when he played guitar in his Modest Mouse cover band at a talent show where Jimmy L. gave her her first hit off an opioid joint. She was hooked.
The far off desert was wavy with heat, Carlos still a dusty dot on the horizon.
“What do’ya think his poison is today?” Shelly asked, squinting at Petey, who was hanging off the Carlos Tacos, arm and leg out like a starfish, swinging, ice in his cup shaking.
“Couldn’t guess, bombshell. Maybe some true desert extract. Something to make this desert flood and cool us the hell down,” Petey mused, thinking about New York rivers. Shelly sighed and curled her legs up so they were under the shade of the umbrella. She had felt shifty since the acid. Picking at the blister on her hand in a fidgety way she wasn’t used to, she looked to Petey attempting to see past his buzzed sweetness, his silly fisherman’s hat. She squinted at him. “Either way, I’m burnt out this morning. The desert has told me too much, and it does not lie.”
Petey cleared his throat in agreement, swinging himself into the truck to refill his cup. He wouldn’t tell her, but he also felt burnt. He also had heard truths in the quiet that maybe some time in the city could drown out. Carlos was getting closer. Petey leaned on the cooler, sipping, trying not to space out, looking out the two-by-eight window at the road and the desert beyond. He had found brief respite in desert scenes, in close kept quarters with Shelly, but Tiggs had come to him regardless. The Range Rover kicked up a dust cloud that grew bigger to look like a small hill, and for the first time Petey wanted to climb something to find any kind of perspective. Maybe he could see to bustling Del Rio, scan his eyes over the mountains of Mexico, peek far enough and wide enough to catch another glimpse of Tiggs wandering. That would do him no good. The lonely flat desert had always worked to deceive him for the better. Allowed him to disguise his despair long enough for him to make a life out of tacos and his truck, long enough for him to feel something shaped like love, long enough for him to avoid the descent and instead remain a smiling silhouette drunk in the desert dust.