Issue 126, Spring 1993
The girl’s scalp looked as though it had been singed by fire —strands of thatchy red hair snaked away from her face, then settled against her skin, pasted there by sweat and sunscreen and the blown grit and dust of travel. For a while her thin hair had remained as light and clean as the down of a newborn chick, but it was getting hotter as they drove west, heading into a summer-long drought that scorched the landscape, that withered the grass and melted the black tar between expansion joints in the road and bloated like balloons the bodies of raccoon and deer and dog and made everything on the highway ahead ripple like a mirage through waves of rising heat. Since leaving Fargo, it had been too hot to wear the wig, and it now lay on the seat between them, still holding within its webbing the shape of her head. Next to it, a bag of orange candy —smiles, she called them — spilled across the vinyl. Sugar crystalsran into the dirty stitching and stuck to her thigh. Gum wrappers and greasy white bags littered the floor, and on the dash,amid a flotsam of plastic cups, pennies and matchbooks, a bumper sticker curled in the heat. EXPECT A MIRACLE, it read.
The girl cradled a black Bible in her lap, the leather covers as worn and ragged as old tennis shoes. The inner leaf contained a family tree dating back to 1827, names tightly scrawled in black against yellowing parchment, a genealogy as ponderous as those kept in Genesis, the book of the generations of Adam.
The list of ancestors on the inner leaf was meaningless ancient history to the man, whose name was Jones, but the girl said her family had carried that same Bible with them wherever they went, for one hundred and fifty years, and that she wanted it with her too. “That’s me,” the girl had said, showing Jones her name, the newest of all, penned in generous loops of Bic blue. She’d written it in herself along the margin of the page.b. 1960-. The girl read different passages aloud as they drove,invoking a mix of epic beauty and bad memories, of Exodus and the leather belt her stepfather used to beat her when she broke a commandment —one of the original ten or one of his additions. Jones wasn’t sure what faith she placed in the austere Christianity of her forefathers, but reading aloud seemed to cast a spell over her. She had a beautiful church-trained voice that lifted each verse into a soothing melody, a song whose tune of succor rose and fell somewhere beyond the harsh demands of faith. Only minutes before she’d read herself to sleep with a passage from Jeremiah.
Now, as if she felt Jones staring, the girl stirred.
“You were looking at me,” she said. “You were thinking something.”
Her face was shapeless, soft and pale as warm putty.
“I could feel it,” she said. “Where are we?”
They hadn’t gone more than a mile since she’d dozed off.She reached for the candy on the seat.
“You hungry? You want a smile Jones?”
“No, none for me,” Jones said.
“A Life Saver?” She held the unraveled package out.
“Nothing, thanks. ”
“Me eating candy, and my teeth falling out.” The girl licked the sugar off a smile and asked, “How far to Las Vegas?”
Jones jammed a tape in the eight-track. He was driving a 1967 Belvedere he’d bought for seven hundred dollars cash in Newport News, and it had come with a bulky eight-track, like an atavistic organ, bolted beneath the glove box. He’d found two tapes in the trunk, and now, after fifteen thousand miles,he was fairly sick of both Tom Jones and Steppenwolf. But he preferred the low-fidelity noise of either tape to the sound of himself lying.
“Why don’t you come with me little girl,” he sang along,in a high, mocking falsetto, “on a magic-carpet ride.”
“How far?” the girl asked.
Jones adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. “Another day,maybe.”
She seemed to fall asleep again, her dry-lidded eyes shut like a lizard’s, her parched, flaking lips parted, her frail body given over to the car’s gentle rocking. Jones turned his attention back to the road, a hypnotic black line snaking through waves of yellow grass. It seemed to Jones that they’d been traveling through eastern Montana forever, that the same two or three trees, the same two or three farmhouses and grain silos were rushing past like scenery in an old movie, only suggesting movement. Endless fields, afire in the bright sun, were occasionally broken by stands of dark cottonwood or the gutted chassis of a rusting car. Collapsing barns leaned over in the
grass, giving in to the hot wind and the insistent flatness, as if passively accepting the laws of a world whose only landmark,as far as Jones could see, was the level horizon.
“He’s out there,” the girl said. “I can feel him out there when I close my eyes. He knows where we are.”
“I doubt that very much,” Jones said.
The girl struggled to turn, gripping the headrest. She looked through the rear window at the warp of the road as it narrowed to a pinprick on the pale edge of the world they’d left behind:it was out of the vanishing point that her father would come.
“I expect he’ll be caught up soon,” she said. “He’s got a sense. One time he predicted an earthquake.”
“It’s a big country,” Jones said. “We could’ve gone a million other ways. Maybe if you think real hard about Florida that’ll foul up his super-duper predicting equipment.”
“Prayer,” the girl said. “He prays. Nothing fancy. We’re like Jonah sneaking on that boat in Tarshish; they found him out.”
The girl closed her eyes; she splashed water on her face and chest.
“It’s so hot,” she said. “Tell me some more about the Eskimos.”
“I’m running out of things to say about Eskimos,” Jones said. “I only read that one book.”
“Say old stuff, I don’t care.”
He searched his memory for what he remembered of Knud Rasmussen.
“Nothing’s wasted,” Jones said. “They use everything. The Inuit can make a sled out of a slain dog. They kill the dog and skin it, then cut the hide into two strips.”
“I’m burning alive,” the girl said.
“They roll up the hide and freeze the strips in water to make the runners. Then they join the runners together with the dog’s rib bones.” Jones nibbled the corner of an orange smile.
“One minute the dog’s pulling the sled, the next minute he is the sled.” He saw that the girl was asleep. “That’s irony,” he said and then repeated the word. “Irony.” It sounded weak,inadequate; it described nothing; he drove silently on. Out through the windshield he saw a landscape too wide for the eye to measure — the crushing breadth of the burnt fields and the thin black thread of road vanishing into a vast blue sky as if the clouds massed on the horizon were distant cities, and they were going to them.
She’d been working the pumps and the register at a cross-roads station in southern Illinois, a rail-thin girl with stiff red hair the color of rust, worried, chipped nails and green eyes without luster. She wore gray coveralls that ballooned over her body like a clown’s outfit, the long legs and sleeves rolled into thick cuffs. “I’ve never seen the ocean,” she’d said, pointing to the remains of a peeling bumper sticker on Jones’s car. . . .BE SAILING, it read. She stood on the pump island while Jones filled his tank. The hooded blue lights above them pulsed in sync to the hovering sound of cicadas, and both were a comforting close presence in the black land spreading out around the station. Jones wanted to tell the girl to look around her, right now: this flat patch of nothing was as good as an ocean. Instead, making conversation, Jones said, “I just got out of the navy.”
“You from around here?” she asked.
“Nope,” Jones said.
He topped off his tank and reached into the car where he kept his money clipped to the sun visor.
“I knew that,” she said. “I seen your plates.”
Jones handed her a twenty from his roll of muster pay. The money represented for him his final six months in the navy,half a year in which he hadn’t once set foot on land. Tired of the sea, knowing he’d never make a career out of it, on his last tour Jones had refused the temptations of shore leave, hoping to hit land with enough of a stake to last him a year. Now, as he looked at the dwindling roll, he was torn between exhaustion and a renewed desire to move on before he went broke.
“Where in Virginia you from?”
“I’m not,” Jones said. “I bought the car in Newport News.
Those are just old plates.”
“That’s too bad,” the girl said. “I like the name. Virginia.Don’t you?”
“I guess it’s not special to me one way or the other,” Jones said.
The girl folded the twenty in half and ran her thin fingers back and forth over the crease. That she worked in a gas station in the middle of nowhere struck Jones as sexy, and now he looked at her closely, trying to decide whether or not he wanted to stop a night or two in Carbondale. Except for the strange texture and tint of her red hair, he thought she looked good,and the huge coveralls, rippling in the breeze, made her seem sweet and lost, somehow innocent and alone in a way that gave Jones the sudden confidence that he could pick her up without much trouble.
“You gonna break that?” Jones asked, nodding at the bill.
Her arm vanished entirely as she reached into the deep pocket of her coveralls and pulled out a roll of bills stained black with grease and oil. Jones took the change, then looked off, around the station. In the east a dome of light rose above Carbondale, a pale yellow pressing out against the night sky. The road running in front of the station was empty except fora spotlight that shone on a green dinosaur and a Sinclair sign that spun on a pole above it.
“Don’t get scared, working out here?” he asked.
“Nah,” she said. “Hardly anyone comes out this way, ’less they’re like you, ’less they’re going somewhere. Had a man from Vernal gas here the other night. That’s in Utah.”
“Some nights I wouldn’t care if I got robbed.”
Jones took his toilet kit —a plastic sack that contained a thin, curved bone-like bar of soap, a dull razor and a balding toothbrush —out of the glove box. “You mind if I wash up?”
“Washroom’s around back,” she said. “By the propane tanks.”
In the bathroom, he took off his T-shirt and washed himself with a wetted towel, watching his reflection in the mirror above the sink as though it were someone else, someone from his past. Gray eyes, a sharp sculpted jaw, ears that jutted absurdly from his close-cropped head: a navy face. Six months of ship-board isolation had left him with little sense of himself outside of his duties as an officer. In that time, held in the chrysalis of his berth, he’d forgotten not only what he looked like, but what other people might see when they looked at him. Now he was a civilian. He decided to shave, lathering up with the bar of soap. The mustache came off in four or five painful strokes.
For a moment the warm breeze was bracing against his cleanly shaven face. He stood in the lot, a little stiff, at attention, and when the girl waved to him from the cashier’s widow,Jones saluted.
“See you later,” he said.
“Okay,” she said.