THE GHOSTS OF PINOS ALTOS
A novel ~ Synopsis
An underperforming college junior is terrified of his employment prospects as the 2008 Great Recession begins. Graduation is a year off, but this fear causes him to reevaluate his half-hearted drive toward a general science degree. His friends and classmates are embarking on summer internships, and he assumes this is his answer. However, no doors have opened except an opportunity in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1,100 miles away from his small town in Illinois.
CYRUS LARSON is taking a chance and embarking on an adventure in my novel, THE GHOSTS OF PINOS ALTOS. His internship becomes an opportunity to be a personal assistant for HENRY BLATT, a retired music store owner writing a novel. Cyrus juggles mundane chores and helping Henry write a book, two things he knows nothing about.
Quickly, Cyrus becomes entangled in Henry's filmmaking past and a current production filming in Santa Fe, "The Ghost of Pinos Altos." The star of the movie is a famous screen veteran, KAT DIXON, who was engaged to Henry on another western film set forty years prior, but they were separated due to a practical joke gone wrong.
THE GHOSTS OF PINOS ALTOS is general fiction and has 103,003 words. The characters were influenced by P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster, with a modern twist within the world of personal assistants.
"Maybe he's dead?"
A stranger's voice stirred me from my makeshift bed along Highway 25 Northbound to Santa Fe. Was the voice talking about me? Was I dead? It could be true. I might have perished laying on weeds and rocks, sleeping late into the afternoon, and now my soul was floating near enough to eavesdrop. Yet, my body felt heavy, and my muscles were strained. I kept still, eyes closed.
"No, I don't really think he is dead, but he won't wake up either. I'd have called 911 if he wasn't breathing," the voice said reassuringly.
I flexed the muscles in my right hand and reached out to my side, grasping until my fingertips touched the warm fabric. My backpack was in the exact place where I had dropkicked it a few hours prior, right before I had succumbed to exhaustion and dehydration along the road. Now, I pried my dry eyelids open and wiped away a crusty film along the rim of my eyes. At the same time, multiple circles of colored lights rotated over my line of vision. I cupped my right hand over my face, then arched my neck upward, quietly and gently. Straight across from my vertical body, a few feet from the tip of my tennis shoe, a thin figure bounced in front of mountains.
When I say bounce, I mean it. No other description fits. The figure toggled back and forth on his feet, twirled, and created a circle in the dirt with his boot. It reminded me of all the times my sister practiced ballet in our parent's basement 1,000 miles back in Illinois. Distracted by his dance moves and the phone call, he didn't notice a miracle had occurred. I rose and spit dust into the dry, mint-green grass.
"Okay, I'll call 911," he said.
"No need," I spoke through a yawn. "I'm not dead."
The stranger startled and stopped moving. He spoke softly into the receiver, "I'll call you back." Then, he flipped the top down, and we took a serious look at each other.
Was I still sleeping, and this was a dream? I was groggy and unsure as I looked at the stranger who had found me in these dire circumstances, yet, my imagination had never been this vivid. We were roughly about the same age, early 20s, and like me, he was tall and thin. That was all we had in common. He moved with grace and control and gave off a sleek vibe — youthful sophistication. He dressed as if he came from a different generation, wearing a mishmash of styles: a vintage vest with polished silver buttons, a stiff collared shirt, a bow tie, boots, and worn jeans. His hair was the color of charcoal, and he wore a cap over it that looked like something we had found buried in my grandfather's closet. He fiddled with a pocket watch in his right hand while the cell phone remained in his left.
In comparison, I was dressed in an oversized Northern Illinois University basketball T-shirt and knew the origin story of every stain. I hadn't shaved because I barely ever needed it, except for small, inconvenient patches around the jaw. I wore silver glasses and had a large, black watch on my left wrist. My jeans were several years old and unwashed for six days. That morning a new rip occurred above the knee, right after I climbed out of an open window at 4 a.m. and escaped past an unruly prickly pear cactus.
"I'm fine," I brushed dirt from my hair and shirt. "Just sleeping."
"I yelled and poked you with a stick," he said.
"I sleep through everything." This was true. Ask my family.
I rotated my shoulders in a few quick circles, then stretched out my arms toward the sky. I took a deep breath, which turned into a yawn. For a quick moment, I looked past the stranger on the road, noticed other cars pass us, and the mountain range beyond. It was my first time traveling west of the Mississippi and the first time ever seeing a real mountain; I felt a pang of regret that I wouldn't get to see them up close. This trip was a waste of time and money. I was a fool.
"Did your car break down?" He shoved the watch in his back pocket.
"I didn't have a car."
"So, how'd you —"
"Don't ask," I said, feeling guarded. "I'm going to Santa Fe."
"Do you know someone there?"
"You don't seem like a local." He had me pegged.
"Santa Fe is the only place I know by name." I rubbed my eyes and slapped my face gently to get the blood flowing again. I had never been in these circumstances before and hoped that I would never again, so I wasn't sure how much I should say or keep to myself. I was not an adventurous sort typically and preferred the simple life in my hometown Galena, Illinois. "I've never been to New Mexico until now."
"Well, I'm going to Santa Fe," he said and gestured toward a 1974 grass-green Ford Galaxie parked along the road. "I can take you the rest of the way, but we have to hurry. I'm already late for a party."
Quickly, I collected my stray belongings spread throughout the grass and dirt. I dug my basketball out from under a tree and then dusted my jacket off after it served as a makeshift pillow during my mid-day nap. Then, I slung the backpack over my shoulder, and felt the acute soreness of the tender area around my neck, at the baseline of my t-shirt and lower arms. Last, I reached for my phone, nestled within the barbed limbs of a small cactus with thick, reddish blooms. I held up the black screen so that this stranger could see it.
"The battery's dead. I need to go somewhere that has an outlet." I coughed, and my throat felt dry. "McDonald's."
"I can take you to McDonald's." The young man looked at me carefully as we walked toward his Ford Galaxie. "I'm Syngen, by the way."
"Excuse me?" I had never heard that name before.
"Sin - Jen," he sounded it out and then spelled it. I got the idea this was a regular part of his introduction. "What's your name?"
"Cyrus Larson, but people call me Cy."
I traipsed after Syngen and noticed that my fingers were fat and swollen from excessive exercise and heat. My calf muscles trembled. If he hadn't found me, I wasn't sure how long it would have taken me to walk the rest of the way to Santa Fe.
Syngen opened the back passenger door, and I tossed the basketball in, letting it roll onto the floor. I dumped my backpack and jacket, then slid into the front seat as he walked around to the driver's side. I pulled the seatbelt over my chest, as a slow ache crept through my frontal lobe and my stomach sloshed and twisted. Why hadn't I paid more attention last semester in my health sciences class, when the professor discussed heat stroke? All I could recall now was Molly Peter's red hair pulled up in a pink band, revealing her creamy-colored neck. She was like a mirage in this desert. I leaned my shoulder against the door.
Syngen turned on the Galaxie's engine, looked over his shoulder, and carefully pulled back onto the highway. He tapped on his steering wheel in a rhythmic pattern and kept his eyes on the road. A semi passed us on the left, and on the right, we passed many more trees and wild vegetation.
"You don't know anyone here?" He asked again.
"My family is in Galena, Illinois. So, no."
"Galena? Never heard of it."
"On the Mississippi River — many, many miles away," I said.
"What are you doing here?" He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his sandy hair. "Sightseeing? Road-tripping?"
"No," I laughed. "I had an internship. I guess you can say I gave my notice."
I opened my eyes and examined my burned face in the side view mirror. I was the color of a cherry Popsicle®, one of the items I could have sold to school children if I went back to Illinois and drove the ice-cream truck another summer. My desire for that job was as strong as the desire for this epic sunburn, and I chalked it up to the ongoing facts that proved I had drawn the short straw in life. I placed my hand against my cheek and felt heat radiate from my swollen skin.
"I feel a little car sick," I said.
"You need water." Syngen glanced at me quickly. A second later, he pulled into a rest stop and shut off the engine. "Don't go anywhere."
I bent over and held my face in my hands. Even with a few hours of sleep on the road, I felt weak and tired. I took a deep breath and patiently waited for Syngen to return. Then I sat up again and looked at my face a second time. My family's Norwegian and Swedish ancestry made sure I would never tan, and my freckles dominated my complexion. I worried about skin cancer for a few minutes and then remembered my mother had told me to get a haircut before I left Illinois. My bangs were long, and I brushed them behind my red ears. They held for a second, then popped out, dangling into my blue eyes. My mother had been right, I thought. She also had begged me not to go to New Mexico and instead spend the summer in Galena, again, driving the ice-cream truck. I ignored the omens, and now, here I was.
I groaned and put my hand against my stomach. A few minutes later, Syngen returned with two styrofoam cups. One had water, which he gave to me and told me to drink slowly. The second contained coffee.
"This is for me," he said. "This rest stop always has free coffee."
"Thanks." I took a sip of water and rested back against the seat.
Syngen put his cup between his knees and got back on the highway. When he had merged safely into the right lane, he picked it up and downed it.
"When we are in a new place," Syngen spoke like one of my professors deep-diving into a favorite subject, "our brains are busy taking in all of this information. We can't process it very fast. Since you are new, you probably feel more tired than normal. Also, add in the elevation and the fact you were out in the sun all day. I don't think you have heat stroke, but you need food and water. You are probably very dehydrated but will come out of it. Do you think you can eat? Open the glove compartment, I'm pretty sure I stashed some granola bars in there."
He was right, and I helped myself.
"You are in a unique situation, Cy," he said, tapping his long fingers against the wheel. "The way I see it, you have a few options. I could take you to a shelter…"
I squirmed in my seat.
"Or call the police."
"That's not necessary," I grumbled, with a mouth full of granola.
"Or you can come with me to this dinner party tonight. No one will care, and most of the people coming don't know each other, either. Then, you can charge your phone, have some water, make some calls. Do what you need to do, then I can take you to the bus station, or whatever, afterward."
Was this was a normal thing in New Mexico? Did people commonly pick up hitchhikers and take them to a party? I didn't have a lot of options, correct, but I had the Midwest independence gene. Even when we needed help, we were reluctant to take it.
"McDonald's is fine," I said. "Besides, I really like fries."
As we approached Santa Fe, the entire city spread out in perfect view, surrounded by a mountain range. The only other time that I remembered seeing such a far distance was in Dubuque when I rode the Fenelon Place Elevator up to the side of a large hill. From the observation deck, I had seen Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin simultaneously, as well as the Mississippi River. To see the breadth of Santa Fe, Syngen and I only needed to drive north on Highway 25.
Again, I felt regret that I had come all this way just to be found a fool, with this one fleeting second of beauty as a reward. Here was a war between my mind and heart, both of which I preferred to ignore. One chastised me, and the other, blindly, hoped that this was not all. Maybe I would go into the mountains, for real? Maybe, I could still find an internship. It would be difficult, but it was not impossible. I closed my eyes and listened to the soft chug of the engine. In a few seconds, I fell asleep with my head against the door of Syngen's Ford Galaxie.