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Authors: Richard Ford

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BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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He thought again that to see Beuna as an obstacle was only one narrow-minded way of looking at her. And not the only way. Since another was to think that he was not finished with this part of his life yet, wife or no wife, this part left with Beuna, and with women in general, and that there was still this much left, this much of an opportunity to do with the way he wanted, and that thirty-four was still young, inasmuch as you only got to live one time and this was his time right now.

4

He drove down into Arizona and slept in the afternoon behind a motel in Flagstaff. He got up at four o'clock and drove straight until dark, and slept on the truck seat outside Bluewater, New
Mexico, and woke up in the high sunshine and drove into Grants to eat breakfast. At Grants he stepped out in the breeze, between the highway and the Santa Fe yards, and watched cattle cars being switched onto the main line from south Texas, the cattle asleep on their feet in the cool tinted air. He watched the train get made up and disappear out to the east, then drove to Albuquerque and up again across the purple lip of the Manzanos back into the desert.

Out of Santa Rosa a Buick convertible was pulled down off the road and a blond woman in white pants was standing beside it in the sun, shielding her eyes with one hand and waving the other hand lazily as though she were signaling someone up the road. The Buick had had its left taillight bent in, and the warning signal was flashing dimly in the sunlight. He looked up the highway to see if someone was standing back up on the shoulder, but there was no one, only the black imprint of Santa Rosa quavering on the low table of the desert.

When he stopped, the woman quit waving and rested her hand on her hip, but kept her eyes shielded with her fingers. He got out and walked along the car, looked down in the back seat and saw it strewn with beer cans, some with beer spilling out.

“Sun's real bad for your features, know that?” the woman said indifferently, removing her hand so he could see her small face.

“What'd you do to it?” He motioned at the car.

“He says the pump's busted, but I don't know nothin about it. I know it stopped.” She pinched up a piece of her blouse and pulled it away from the skin.

“So where's he gone?” he said.

“Variadero, building a hamburger palace.” She shaded her eyes again and studied him as if she had heard something she hadn't liked. He slid in and waggled the key.

“It wouldn't do
me
no good to go turning nothin.” She stepped up into the shade of the car and plumped at her hair.

He tried the key. The motor turned over nicely, but quit short of starting. He held the accelerator down and twiddled the key back and forth trying to spark it, but it wouldn't fire, and he finally
stopped and squinted at her standing outside in the heat. She looked a lot like a lot of women he'd passed up, little blue-star ear studs, hot skin that made her look older than she was. It made him just want to slide away.

She stiffened her mouth. “Half them's Larry's,” she said, flicking her eyes away, “He drinks his breakfast on the way to work, I drink mine on the way home.” She laughed. “I don't pick up no hitchikers, though.”

“Nobody said you did,” he said, staring at the big chrome dashboard trying to figure if one of the gauges was measuring what was wrong with the engine.

“I don't, either,” she said.

“That's good,” he said, and climbed out. “Look here, I can't get your boat fired up.” He flicked the sweat off his chin.

“What the hell am I supposed to do?” she said, glaring out at him.

“I'll take you down the road,” he said.

“Curvo,” she said, raveling her mouth into a smirk.

“How far is it?”

“What difference does it make if you're going that direction?” she said.

“None,” he said, and started back toward the truck.

She reached inside, yanked up a split package of beer, and came behind him. “I got my valuables out,” she said, and laughed.

“You going to leave it blinking?” he said, looking unhappily at the beer.

“Hell with it,” she said, and climbed in the truck.

She sat high up on the seat, her hand flounced out the window letting the breeze flit between her fingers. She was different the first moment she got in the truck, a little more fragile a framework, he thought, than she had been standing outside beside the car. She had a small round bruise underneath her ear which she worried with her fingers, and every time the wind stripped her hair back against her temples, he got another look at it.

“Air temp makes a difference,” she said, watching the hot air through her fingers. “They put 'em in trucks.”

“Is that right?”

She looked at him, then turned her face into the breeze.

“What is it your husband does?” he said.

She cranked the window up and gave him a stern look. “Hod carrier. He's eight years younger than I am.” She reached forward, ripped the package of beer a little more and set a can on the glove box door. “California's the other way, ain't it?” she said, pulling the top.

“Is that right?”

“You done stole something, ain't you?” she said, letting her head roll against the window frame.

“Off.”

“You ain't stole
nothin
, then. I steal
off
every day, but it don't get me anyplace.” She laughed. “You think I look old?”

He looked at her short neck, and he tried to make out he was estimating. “How old are you?” he said.

“That ain't the point,” she said, having another drink of the beer and setting the can on the armrest. “That ain't the goddamned point. Point is, how old do I
look
? Old? You think I look old?” She watched him carefully to see if he was thinking over telling a lie.

“No,” he said.

She raised her head slightly and widened her eyes. “I'm thirty-one. Do I look like it?”

“No,” he said, thinking that if he had one guess out of a hundred possible ages, thirty-one would've been second after forty-one. “That means the old man's twenty-three.”

She gave him a surprised look. “I ain't worried about that,” she said.

“Nobody said so.”

She took another drink of her beer. “I take him to work in the morning and come get him in the evening. Them little town bitches come wherever he's at and switch their asses in his face, but they know I'll be pulling up there in my white Buick at six o'clock holding a sack of beer in one hand and something better in the other, so he don't have to go nowhere to have fun but with me. I'm the goddamn fun,” she said.

“Where is it you live?” he said, snuffing his cigarette.

“Rag-land.” She pointed off into the desert, where he could see the gauzy pancake hills in the south.

“How far you drive every day?”

“Seventy there, sixty back,” she said. “I mix it up.”

He started figuring miles and looked at her and added it up again, and looked forlornly down the highway. She took a last long gulp of beer and let the can drop between her legs, pinching her mouth in a hard little pucker, as if she had just decided something.

“That's a hell of a ways,” he said. “I'd let them switch their ass if it was me.”

“You worry about you,” she said. “I own the Buick. If I want to drive it to the moon, I will.”

She turned away and stared at the desert. He figured he'd just get out of it while he had the chance and make a supreme effort to keep his mouth shut.

“I just don't want to lose him,” she said slowly, speaking so softly he had to look at her to see if she was talking to him. “I've had about as much trouble as I can stand,” she said. “I'd just like to have things easier, you know?”

“Yeah,” he said.

She pulled another beer out of the package and peeled off the top. “We ain't been married but four months,” she said, taking a tiny sip and rotating the rim against her lip. “I had a husband to
die
on me seven months ago. TB of the brain.” She looked at him appraisingly. “We knew he had it, but didn't figure it would kill him quick as it did.” She smacked her lips, looked at him again, and wrinkled her nose. “Flesh started falling, and I had him in the ground in a month.”

She gradually seemed to be taking on appeals she hadn't had, and he decided just to let it go.

“In Salt Lake, see?” She was getting engrossed and tapping her beer against the window post. “We was in the LDS, you know?”

He nodded.

“I was the picture, you know, the whole time we was married.” Her face got stony. “And after he died they all came around and
brought me food and cakes and fruit and first one thing, you know. But when I tried to get a little loan to buy me a car so I could go to work, they all started acting like somebody was callin them to supper. And I had been the picture of what you're supposed to be. I let 'em have their meetings right in my house.” She drew her mouth up tight. “Raymond was born one—see? But I was raised on a horse farm outside of Logan.”

She took another sip of beer and held it in front of her teeth and stared at the desert. It was past midday. The sun had turned the desert pasty all the way to where the mountains stuck up. He watched her while she looked away, watched her breasts rise and fall, and maneuvered so as to see the white luff of fabric between her blouse and her shoulder showing the curve of her breast, and it made him feel a little shabby and a little bad and he disliked himself.

The woman let her breath out slowly. “I had a friend that had that Buick, just sitting in his garage.” She kept looking at the desert. “I told him if he'd let me pay it off a little bit every month, I'd buy it. I always wanted a Buick, and it never seemed like I'd get one. It's queer to have to get down before all your dreams start coming true.” She looked at him and her nostrils got wide. “Anyway, I quit the LDS right there,” she said, “and got the hell out of that Salt Lake City. Let me just tell you, don't be fooled by them. They're cheap-ass, I swear to God.”

He looked at her blouse again to see in the little space, but she had swiveled sideways of him and the space was gone, and he let his eyes wander on back to the road.

She tapped the can against her teeth. “I think I'm better now,” she said. “Less quick to judge. It ain't easy to have a window on yourself.” She slid back in the seat with her arms folded across her stomach as if she felt better. “Where you going?”

“Arkansas,” he said.

“Where's your wife at? Did you leave her home to take care of your babies?”

“I didn't say I was married,” he said, feeling itchy.

“I know it.” She sighed. “You ain't hid
nothin
, have you?
You're right up on top with everything.” She smiled.

“I guess not,” he said.

“I ain't getting after you,” she said.

“Ain't nothing to get after,” he said. “How come you to get married again so quick?”

“Bad luck,” she said, and laughed and made her shoulders jerk. “Why don't you drink a beer? I'd feel better if you drank one.”

He took a look in the mirror and saw nothing but the markers flashing back. “I'm fine,” he said.

She pushed a ring top out the ventilator. “Let me slide over—don't nobody know me at Curvo anyway.”

She shoved across the seat and socked her head against his shoulder and put her heels on the dashboard. She let the can of beer, a soft tuft of foam pushing up through the tap, rest on her stomach, and arced her fingers around his thigh. And all he could think was that he wasn't going to do anything to stop it.

She held the half-warm beer can up to his face and rolled it back and forth. “Larry likes that,” she said, smiling. “It makes him relax.”

He looked at her hiding up under his shoulder, her green eyes with the tiny black centers peeping at him, and reached around her so that her face was drawn up against his chest.

“Do I look thirty-two?” she said, her eyes mounting with tears.

“God, no,” he said. “You think I look thirty-four?”

“You're married,” she said.

“So are you.”

“That's right,” she said. “Let's don't talk about that now.” One of the tears broke and wobbled onto her lip.

“I want to know how you got married again,” he said, holding the truck to the road.

She hugged him so the tear got wiped off, and got her arms around his stomach. “Oh, I went to Albuquerque with my car and moved out to Alameda. You know where that is?”

“I ain't been there but twice,” he said, feeling warm inside.

“It ain't far,” she said. “I took a little house by myself and drove to work every night at Howard's. I call it Howard's.” She drew one fingernail up his leg and made the back of his neck cold. “So
I was driving my car one night along this road where there wasn't any light, drinking Ezra Brooks. And got off the pavement somehow and hit this guy straight on and killed him, just mowed him like a weed. He never even knew what hit him. He just went down
boom
.” She flopped her hand upside down on his thigh. “Just like that. I didn't even have time to honk. I stopped and went back and seen he wasn't moving, and felt of his heart, and it wasn't even fluttering, and I figured it didn't take a nurse to know he was dead. But there wasn't a drop of blood on him nowhere. He was clean as when he'd put that suit on. So I walked off down the road to the Amoco to get one of them boys to call the police. And thank God I had thrown my Ezra in the ditch, cause when I was walking up the road some drunk slowed down and tried to pull up behind me, and instead of getting beside me, the bastard hit me, and knocked me in the ditch and broke my leg. Son-of-a-bitch just kept going, with me all broke to pieces. It wasn't until the police came along and found
my
car and the guy I hit that they saw me in the ditch up the road bawling my head off.”

BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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