I hold a B.A. and M.A. in Linguistics and have studied the craft of writing at Gotham Writers' Workshop. Writing and traveling are passions that go hand in hand, and I look for inspiration in people and places. The inspiration for this story came with a visit to Marfa, Texas, where the legend of the Giant cast in the Paisano Hotel lives on. I live with my husband in the California Sierras and have often passed through the highway intersection where James Dean met his end with that infamous Ford.
A Drive and a Drink with James Dean
Beau found her at the kitchen sink with a glass of water raised halfway to her mouth, her attention toward the window and a banging that came from the direction of the tractor barn. He leaned against the door jamb and watched her. Mercy Earle, in all her four-inch-heel glory, fifty next month and a magnet for every eye in any room. He lit a cigarette and asked, “What’re you looking at?”
She started at his voice. “Where have you been?”
“Around. Everyone’s gone. You can get out of the widow’s weeds now.”
She frowned at him over her shoulder, and an auburn lock escaped the bun she had devised for the funeral. The black silk rippled with currents of iridescence. “Give me a break. I really am sorry he’s dead.” Mascara tears laid tracks of black through her makeup.
“Shedding a few for show?”
“Go to hell.” She turned back to the window and the banging. “There’s a loose shutter on the barn. Tell Agustin to fix it.”
“Tell him yourself. You’re the big boss now.”
Her shoulders fell, and she brushed the lock of hair behind her ear with one hand. With the other she drank the water and put the glass on the counter. Her lips had pressed a crimson crescent onto it. “Why are you mad at me? I didn’t have anything to do with it. He had a stupid accident. He was never careful with the machinery.”
“You always thought everything about him was stupid.”
“Sonny wasn’t a smart man, Beau. Kind, but not smart.”
“And wasn’t that great for you. You could boss him around like a puppy.”
“And what about you? You took advantage of him. Don’t even try to deny it.”
“I loved him.”
“You love the money.”
“And you don’t? Isn’t that why you married him? Wasn’t that the deal with Lon? You’d ride herd on Sonny and live like a queen?”
She whipped around in a silken shimmer. “I married him to give you a better life.”
“All right, and me. How would you have liked it, growing up in the back of Dad’s gas station? You could have been a grease monkey. Think that would have made you happier than your sports car and your closet full of clothes?”
“Thanks for sacrificing yourself to a man you couldn’t stand. But, you’re wrong, I did love him.”
She wiped a hand across her eyes, smearing the mascara over her cheek. The rock in her wedding ring winked at him. “I’m sorry, I know you did.” Her fingertips flashed red. During the past three days of sorrow, she found the time for a manicure.
“How the hell do you do it?”
“Stand by your husband’s grave in July and not even break a sweat.” He wet his fingertips with spit and doused the cigarette, then threw it in the trash can. “Lon wants to talk to us. In the study. Dividing up the spoils would be my guess.”
“Try to be nice. He’s devastated.” She turned back to the window. “And tell Agustin to fix that damned shutter before the wind blows it off.”
He left her to her black dress, her fake tears, and her sanctimony. He made his way through the cavernous living room littered with napkins and plates of half-eaten food and empty whiskey glasses. They had toasted Sonny with phrases of praise for a man none of them respected. Someone had spilled a plate of cake on one of the leather sofas. Crumbs dripped onto the oak floorboards.
In the study Lon slumped in his wheelchair under a blanket of grief for his dead son. He still wore the black suit, but he had unknotted the tie. Real tears crept through the crevices of his face. “Have a seat, Beau. Where’s Mercy?” His voice, no longer the bellow that cowed friends and enemies, wrapped around words with difficulty.
“Is she getting everything?”
“We’ll talk about it, when she’s here.”
“She’s been running the ranch since your stroke. Who else is there?”
Lon’s palpable fatigue filled the room. Beau spent a childhood in awe of the swaggering legend who dominated his chunk of West Texas. The shrunken remnant in the wheelchair was a stranger. Lon coughed into a palsied hand and said, “What do you want to know? How much you’re getting?”
“Why would I get anything? I’m not his son.”
“Right you are. But that’s not the reason.”
“So I’m not getting anything.”
“No, you’re not. Because you’d run through it and have nothing to show for it.”
Beau backed out of the study, the truth of it confirmed. Sonny loved him, embraced him as his own child, and now all that love had vaporized, as if it never existed.
He met his mother on her way to Lon. She had wiped away the traces of weeping. She caught his arm. “Where are you going? I thought Lon wanted to talk.”
“I’m getting nothing from the only father I ever had, and it’s Lon’s doing. Sonny would have left me something, but Lon wouldn’t let him. Enjoy your inheritance.”
“Don’t leave. We’ll talk. I’ll take care of you, you know I will.”
He shook her hand off his arm.
The Porsche barreled down the ranch road at seventy, its engine thrumming and muffling the racket in his head. He tried to imagine the force of the crash, when that other Porsche slammed into the Ford. Did he have a second’s awareness of the impact, or did it come at him too fast? Beau pressed the accelerator as he neared the highway, but hit the brake in time to fishtail through the turn to Marfa. Dusk painted the desert with shadows that jumped and danced in the headlights. He was twenty-four, when he died, Beau’s age. What would it feel like, to die now, when he had hardly lived?
How fast did the Porsche go on the highway from Bakersfield? Officials said eighty-five, but others estimated much faster. Beau preferred to believe the latter and had settled on one-thirty as a speed worthy of a race driver. He watched his speedometer needle clear one-ten, then one-fifteen. The cactus, billboards, and barbed wire along the highway coalesced into a blur. He hurtled through a funnel with only the headlight beams, the engine’s thunder, the wind beating his face, his sweat on the steering wheel, the resistance of the accelerator. At one-twenty his foot retreated from the pedal, and he pounded the wheel. He couldn’t do it. He could never do it.
He parked on the curb in front of the Paisano, repaired the wind damage with a comb, and spritzed his hair with the pocket hair spray he carried in the glove box. When he sauntered into the hotel, the air conditioning fought with the desert at the entrance. Fingers of heat chased him into the lobby until the current from the ceiling vents won. His boot heels clicked across the mosaic of floor tile.
The movie poster demanded a moment of reverence, and he always paid it. They gazed down at him from the stucco. Rock Hudson, Liz Taylor, and James Dean, framed under glass. He peeked at the plaque, the improbable tale of their residence in the hotel, while they filmed Giant in the desert near Marfa. Sometimes in the grip of nighttime delusion he feared it might be a fantasy, but they walked these tiles he walked, they drank in the bar where he would drink. The lobby was empty, so he leaned in on Dean and studied the swoop of his hair, the eyes squinting sideways at the lens, that half glare of contempt, that smirk, the impertinence.
He ducked into the men’s room to compare his swoop, his sideways glare, his smirk to Dean’s. James Dean squinted at him from the mirror. The dress shirt, a soft cream Calvin Klein, flattered him even with jeans. He shucked the suit and tie as soon as the parade of limos returned to the ranch. Sonny wouldn’t take offense. Sonny preferred jeans for all occasions.
In Jett’s Grill the central table facing the door waited for him.
“Sorry about Sonny, terrible thing,” the waitress said.
“Yeah, it was. Bring me a bottle of Patron Silver and a bowl of limes.”
“Sure you want to do that, Beau?”
“Just bring it, Wanda. No lectures.”
She poured the first shot and left him with the bottle. He lit a cigarette and waited. They often came this time of year, summer tourist season, on their way up from Big Bend. They wandered off the main highways to find the Reata on a patch of desert outside Marfa, but when they discovered the ranch house had been a shell of a movie set now reduced to a few scraps of lumber, Jett’s Grill was their consolation prize.
After his third shot, two girls with sweaty ponytails and sunburns walked into the grill in hiking boots, shorts, and Big Bend tees. At a nearby table, they ordered margaritas and began to sneak glances at him. The brunette whispered to the blonde, and both stared, trying to reach a conclusion, an answer to the question. Their respectful hesitance and admiration charged his senses like cocaine.
The brunette made the first advance. She stood across the table from him and said, “You look like him. People must tell you that all the time.” He lowered his head and rewarded her with a smirk. “James Dean, I mean.”
He gestured toward a chair. “Y’all have a seat.”
She waved to the blonde, who brought their margaritas.
“You must be related to him,” the blonde said.
“Yeah,” he said with the diffidence of Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. “He was my grandfather.”
“I knew it,” she said to the brunette. “Didn’t I tell you he must be related?” Her blue eyes took in the swoop of his hair, his smirk, his impertinence. “Are you visiting, seeing where he made the movie?”
“I live here, on a ranch near town.” He sucked a lime wedge, followed with another shot of tequila. “My family’s always lived on the ranch, for generations.”
“And your family knew him?”
“They had the whole cast out to the ranch several times. My grandmother and Dean had an affair.”
“Did you know him?”
Beau fired a glare at her, but she missed the contempt. “Way before my time. He died in 1955.”
“A car wreck, wasn’t it?”
He nodded at her with a sideways squint. “He was driving to a race in Salinas. Crashed his Porsche into a Ford west of Bakersfield.”
He poured another shot and offered tequila to the women. They shook their heads, and signaled Wanda to bring them more margaritas. After two hours and enough Patron to mellow his memory of the day, he was entertaining a group of seven tourists with the stories he’d fabricated for their amusement.
“Y’all know he was a race car driver, right? Loved racing, loved the speed.” Wind on his face, sweat on the wheel. “Didn’t like acting much, racing was it for him. Yeah, it killed him, but he went out guns blazin’. He was doing at least one-thirty down that hill. Probably never saw it coming.” Down the long hill out of Bakersfield, through the funnel of hot wind, engine thunder, his foot holding on the accelerator, never surrendering, riding it to the end. Beau toasted the air and drank another shot. His tongue balked. Like old Lon after his stroke. He laughed at the tourists and their distorted faces that adored him from within a fog. “A Ford. Can you believe it? Killed by a damn Ford.”
He felt her hand on his shoulder. “It’s time to go,” she said.
He looked past the tourists and caught Wanda’s eye. He telegraphed a glare of contempt she couldn’t miss, but she offered no signal of apology for the phone call.
“Guess the management thinks I’m too drunk to make it home. Ladies and gentlemen, meet my mother, the recently widowed Mercedes Earle.”
The brunette said, “Then you’re his daughter.”
“No. Come on, Beau. Let’s go home.”
He poured a shot of tequila and drank it, slopping half over the rim, and used the tabletop to push onto his feet. He leaned on her for stability into the lobby, then waved her away and stumbled across the tile, past the poster, and through the front entrance into the desert’s night. They finished filming in September, two weeks before the crash. James Dean, two weeks from death, stood on this sidewalk, the heat radiating into his soles, the scorch searing his face.
“Wonder how he liked summer in the desert.”
She led him to her pickup and told him to get in.
“What about my car?”
“We’ll get it tomorrow.”
Beau pulled himself into the pickup and caught a glimpse of him in the side mirror.
Behind the wheel she sat with her hands in her lap and fidgeted with the key. “Why do you do this? You’re not his grandson.”
“Spittin’ image. They all say so.”
“It’s not true, and you know it. Mom and Dad didn’t live here then.”
“I can feel it when I look at his picture. I look at him, and I see me. I see me.”
“Because you want to.”
“Those people in there see him when they look at me.”
“Because they want to. They see a passing resemblance and run with it.”
All the anguish of the day ballooned inside him, until the pain lodged in the back of his throat near explosion. “I don’t have anything now. Sonny was all I had. He loved me. You and Lon think I’m worthless, Sonny was the only one. Those people in the bar, they look at me like I’m somebody. Can’t you let me have that?”
“But it’s not real, Beau. Be yourself. You can be somebody real.”
“Who can I be?”
She dismissed him with a shake of her head and turned the key in the ignition. The pickup pulled away from the curb, and through the window and a hot wind he saw the Paisano’s Spanish façade, as James Dean would have seen it, when he left for a day on the set. The hotel slipped away, and he watched the face in the side mirror until his eyes closed.