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Authors: Richard Ford

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BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
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She looked up at him hopefully.

“So how'd you end up married?” he said.

She drummed her fingers on his leg. “Cause they cramped us up in St. Dominic's Hospital on account of a flash flood in the mountains.” She puckered her lips and didn't say anything for a time. “Put all them people in the hospital, and I had to share a room with a man. And that turned out to be Larry. He had his hernia operated on from carrying bricks. And quick as he got out, he started bringing flowers, and we started going one place and another when I got out, and we just sorta caught on. Ain't that romantic?” She smiled.

“How long did all that take?” he said.

“Two months, give a week,” she said, “portal to portal.”

“That ain't too long,” he said.

“Life rushes,” she said, and eased her hand up and unzipped his pants. “I'm tired of talking,” she said, watching her hand tour around in his trousers as if it were after something that wouldn't keep still.

5

Curvo was off the highway ten miles on a gravel track that made a giant curve east and then north again and marooned the town, which was only a red clapboard building, two glass-bulb pumps, and a file of butchered outbuildings, with the desert open all around to every direction. He could see that all the outbuildings were cages of various sorts, patched in with coiled chicken wire to permit inspection from the outside. The largest coop, a square weathered shed built of sawed two-by-fours with the door removed and fresh chicken wire basted over the opening, had a newly stenciled sign that said zoo.

He stopped between the pumps and the building and looked out the woman's window waiting for someone to come out. The building appeared to be a store, and the plate window was flocked with red fishing bobbers and plaquettes of leader line, and a pair of split cane fishing poles crossed corner to corner. A rooster crowed from down among the cages, and he heard it flap its wings as though it was trying to get away from something.

“Where is everybody?” the woman said, lifting her hair off the back of her neck. “Some kid works here—I seen his old flat-bed last week. Beep the horn.” She grabbed at the wheel, but he caught her.

“I'll get out,” he said, taking a look back at the cages. “What's your name?” he said.

“Jimmye,” she said.

“Jimmye what?”

“What's yours?” she said, aiming her chin at him.

“Robard.”

“What is it?” she said.

“Robard.”

“That's a damn poor name.”

“You're real sweet,” he said, shoving the door to.

He walked down the row of cages, looking in each one to see if someone was squatting inside tending to whatever was locked up. In the zoo pen there was nothing but a few scraps of wrinkled cellophane and a gamy smell like something had just died inside. The second cage was a high four-poster frame built of creosote posts, covered with chicken wire and full of raccoons, two fat ones and eight or nine little ones piled into one corner. All the raccoons stopped and stood looking at him, then all at once went back to climbing the cage. In the third cage a maroon, black, and gold rooster had removed himself to the top branch of a fresno bole that had been dragged in from outside and gouged in the ground on the side farthest from the raccoons. It looked to him as if the coons were avid to get at the rooster, and were only waiting to find some tiny fault in the mesh that would turn the tide in their favor once and for all. The rooster was eying everything guardedly, his beaky head snapping from one little coon face to the next, in case one came squeezing through the wires, when he'd have a whole new set of worries.

The woman all of a sudden honked the horn and held it a long time so that the quiet in the yard was exploded. He grabbed a piece of dirt and flung it at the truck.

“What-in-the-shit!” the woman yelled inside the cab, her head erupting out the side, her mouth broke open. “Who's bombing me?”

“Cut out that blowing. You ain't helping nothin.”

“I'm hot as shit!” she yelled.

“We're all hot,” he said, frowning and feeling desolated.

She ducked her head back in the truck and disappeared below the back window.

A latch snapped at the end of the row and a little girl in jeans let herself out of the last cage and walked up squinting in the sunlight, as if he were someone she was accustomed to. She drew her hair away from her ears, catching it high up with a rubber band, making her face look perfectly round.

“You got a mechanic?” he said, looking behind her to see if anyone else was coming up out of the cage. The girl was wearing
a shirt with arrow pockets and mother-of-pearl buttons that belonged to someone bigger than she was.

“What's the matter?” she said, her face arranging itself into a little frown.

“I don't know,” he said, looking back at the truck, hoping the woman wouldn't lay down on the horn again. “These here your animals?”

The girl surveyed down the row of cages as if she were trying to make up her mind. “Yes,” she said.

“They're nice,” he said, taking another uneasy look at the truck and trying to think how to bring up getting her Buick worked on.

“You want to see Leo?” The girl cocked her head into the sunlight so that she could see him with one eye only.

“I seen him if that's him,” he said, pointing at the rooster.

“That ain't him,” she said, smiling slyly. “He's back yonder.” She motioned behind her.

She walked back to the cage she had just come out of, past two box pens that were empty, and stopped outside the last one and pointed in at a big rufous-colored bobcat lounging in the dust, staring at nothing. The girl looked at the bobcat and then at him as if she was expecting a compliment. He studied the bobcat a minute, feeling a little cold commotion inside that had to do with wild animals and the suspicion of what one could do to you before you got turned around. At the bottom of the cage, almost at his feet, there was a big long-boned jack rabbit resting on its haunches, eying the cat quietly, its skinny ribs shoved against the wire so that tufts of fur gouged through in tiny hexagons.

He looked at the girl, waiting for her to say something that explained.

Leo began panting, and strings of thick clear spittle slid off his tongue into the dust. He seemed unconcerned with the rabbit, though the jack seemed intensely concerned with him, and stared at him, its skinny ears flicking around nervously and its nose testing the air as if it were gauging the seriousness of its predicament.

He stood back and stared at the rabbit, and didn't say anything,
though after a minute he noticed something about Leo he hadn't seen before. The right back paw was missing at the low joint, the stub matted with thick reddish hair and sprawled behind the other one as if it contained the same big padded paw.

“What come of his leg?” he said, catching his knees and staring at the cat's empty leg.

“Borned bad,” the girl said, looking at Leo the way he'd seen a salesman look at used cars. “Hillbilly give him to my dad in Missouri. Found him in a hollow log, starving.” She wrinkled her nose as if there were something nasty about it. She squatted on her heels and wiggled her fingers through the wires and called the cat, who rolled over onto his back and squirmed in the dust and stretched his forelegs straight up in the air. “C'mere, Leo,” she said, and the cat relaxed and looked at her with his head upside down, eyes half open and gleaming. The rabbit looked at her intently and squeezed back into the corner where she was.

“He thinks I'm calling him.” She giggled. “Don't he wish.”

“I wouldn't doubt it,” he said.

The rabbit went back to measuring the distance.

“You see my coons?” she said, standing and walking up the row to where the coons were decorating the wires.

“I saw 'em,” he said.

He looked back at the rabbit and had an impulse to kick the gate open, but the cat bothered him, lounging in the dust, half awake, waiting for somebody to make just such a move. He followed the girl back up the row.

“Got the two old ones,” she said, “and the rest just come by themselves.” She looked at him as if she were waiting to see what he would say. “I'll sell you one for sixty cents.”

He could smell foulness drifting out of the first cage. “Don't think so,” he said.

“Yes I will,” she said, looking at him professionally.

“I'll buy that rabbit,” he said.

“Ain't for sale,” she said, and looked out across the empty road and slowly bent her line of vision toward the truck sitting in the dead sunlight. “That your truck?”

He studied the truck. It looked like it had been dropped out of a passing airplane. “Yeah,” he said.

“Can't you fix your own truck?”

“Lady's car needs fixin. Ain't the truck.”

“Lonnie won't be back here before tonight,” she said. “But he won't work on nothing. Be too dark. He won't have the right light.”

“Who else is there?” he said, feeling put off.

“Nobody,” she said. “He's in Tucumcari. Be roaring drunk when he comes back. Won't work on nothin.”

He looked at the sun, cerise and perfectly round, pushing a porous shadow from the raccoon cages over the tips of his toes, and thought it might be two-thirty.

“Is that the woman in the truck?” the girl said.

The back of the woman's head was visible in the oval window. She was working on her face in the rear-view.

“That's her,” he said.

“You'll have to spend the night then, or go to Tucumcari,” the girl said, turning back to the cages. “There ain't no mechanic from here to there. There ain't nothing up that way.” She pointed up the road into the desert. “Lonnie'll be good in the morning. He'll fix it. He ain't but twenty-two, but he ain't a fool.”

“Where's your daddy?” he said, looking up at the desolated back side of the house. A white tub washer was set outside in the dirt with one leg bent up.

“Gone,” she said, and pursed her lips.

“Are they dead?” he said.

“They gone to Las Vegas. They ain't come back.”

“Do you expect them?”

“I guess,” she said, and looked at him indifferently.

He was getting nervous. “What time is it?” he said.

The girl consulted her wrist watch, a thin silver strippet with a face as small as her shirt buttons. “Three o'clock,” she said. “We got a room. Got a fan in it if Lonnie ain't sold it.”

A breeze lifted off the desert and passed through the cages and carried the raccoon foulness back in his nostrils.

“I got to clean that empty cage,” the girl said, wrinkling her nose to let him know she could smell it.

“What was in there?” he said.

“That there rabbit,” she said, moving a strand of her yellow hair from across her temple where the breeze had left it.

He looked back at the rabbit hied up against the wire, studying the bobcat strangely. A tiny vein of panic opened inside him. “Lemme buy that rabbit,” he said quickly.

She frowned. “Leo gets hungry when it gets cool,” she said. “That rabbit don't know that, though.”

“I bet he's figured it,” he said.

She giggled and let him know it didn't make any difference what a rabbit knew. The breeze worried the stray short hairs above her forehead and made her look grown.

“What's your name?” he said.

“Mona Nell,” she said, wagging her shoulders and forcing her hands down inside her pants pockets. “What's that woman's name?”

“I believe she said Jimmye.”

“That's my daddy's name,” the girl said, and laughed.

He looked at the truck and the woman sitting high up in the seat, her back facing him, teasing her hair in the mirror. He felt like he ought to get away, and at the same time felt helpless to maneuver a way to go about it.

The girl giggled again and squatted and began teasing the raccoons, who were piled up against the chicken wire.

He walked back to the truck feeling as if the girl had applied pressures on him that he couldn't quite put his finger on, but that had him whipped.

“Where the hell is everybody?” the woman said, scowling out the window, her hair plumped up and her eyes purple as a bruise.

“Gone,” he said softly. “Won't be back till night.” He leaned on the window sill and looked back at the girl, squatting in the dust.

“That's the shits,” the woman said. “What the hell am I
supposed to do if I got to get Larry at six?” She fattened the corners of her mouth.

“Looks like two things,” he said, staring at the ground. “Ride to Tucumcari. That kid said there's mechanics there. Or stay put and call somebody. You can get Larry to come get you.”

She frowned at him as if she didn't like hearing him say the name. Her eyes got small. “They got a telephone?”

He looked at the eave of the house and saw a trunk line strung to the road. “I guess,” he said.

She looked at the wire. Perspiration had formed in the roots of her hair. “Son-of-a-bitch, Larry Crystal,” she said.

It occurred to him that she had just said her last name.

“He'll be off with his piss-ant brother drinking beer quick as he sees I ain't coming. That's the trash he is.” She lowered her brow as if she could see all that was coming.

The first truck to pass the station hissed through the curves and ground out into the road—a tandem hauling diesel smoke into the desert. There was large writing on the sides through dust and coagulated grease, WHACK MY OLD DOODLE, and below that, TAKE ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE OF MY HEART, as though one line followed on the other and made good sense. He looked at the writing and scratched the back of his neck and wondered what that meant. He thought about asking her to have a look at it, but she looked mean and he decided against it.

BOOK: A Piece of My Heart
10.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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