Authors: Richard Ford
“What time is it?” she said.
“Something till,” he said.
The girl was down at the far end of the row of cages and was cooing to the bobcat, saying his name over and over in a sweet voice.
“Let's get out of here,” she said.
“Where we going?” he said.
“A tourist court up at Conchas. You and me is staying in it. Let's git.”
He looked at her to let her know he was considering it. “What about the car?”
The car ain't going nowhere.”
He rested his forehead against his wrists and stared at the dirt,
trying to think about what to do. “I thought you
worried about it,” he said.
“Let's get out of here, all right?” she said. “Worry about that tomorrow.”
“What about . . .?”
“What about shit!” she said. “Leave my business to me. If I need any advice, I'll ask your little cunt you're so hot about.”
“I ain't hot,” he said, keeping his head sealed against his wrist and spitting in the dust.
She got quiet, and he decided to let things be quiet awhile.
“I'm waitin,” she said.
“What're you waitin on?” he said.
She glared, and her eyes darkened in the middle, and he understood it was the way she looked when she wanted to seem angry.
She sat staring straight out at the long curve in the road, breathing deeply. The breeze switched and came up from behind the building. The girl sat on her haunches, making a high-pitched hooting noise like a dove. He figured the woman needed time to figure out he wasn't going to have himself ruled by somebody that didn't mean anything to him, no matter what the reward was, or even if it meant giving up the reward.
“Ain't no need being mad,” he said into the hollow of his arm.
She looked away.
“Ain't no need to go somewhere else.”
“I'm past the point of carin,” she said, letting her shoulders relax.
“They got a room right here,” he said.
She looked at the long red building, then at him and back down the road.
“The boy can look after the car in the morning,” he said, feeling things sliding away from him.
She caught a corner of her lip between her teeth and drummed her fingers. “They got a air temp?” she said.
“Fan,” he said.
Her pale face seemed to pale more while he looked at her, like coarse cloth held to the sun.
“Might as well,” she said, looking out in the desert toward the hazy cactus figures pinpointing the horizon, and sighing. “We can't dance in this heat.”
The girl led them inside the house, where it was murky and cool, and stood behind a store counter before an old ledger book. The room was lit by whatever light could angle through the flocked window, and by a mint-colored bulb in the cold case at the back of the store. He had to get near the page to see to sign, and when she pointed the place, he looked at the book for a moment and signed “Mr. & Mrs. S. Tim Winder,” using the ballpoint chained to the ledger. The only other registry on the page was at the top, written in square penciled letters that said “RAMONA ANELIDA WHEAT, THE QUEEN.”
The girl led them between two steepled rows of Vienna sausages and Wheat Chex, through a green portiere and up two flights of stairs to where it was quiet and hotter, and where it smelled to him like an icebox that had been locked up and left in the heat. Sunlight illumined a square of green linoleum, and the room drew together inside like a kiln. There was a brown metal bed, a serpentine bureau with a doily, a chair, and a string-pull ceiling fan with one blade removed.
“You better open a window,” the girl said, blinking in the heat and holding her ponytail up to let off the hot air. “It'll cool off when the sun moves. You'll be hollerin for a blanket.”
“Ain't there no toilet?” Jimmye said, looking desperate in the heat.
“That fan works.” The girl reached on her toes and yanked the string. The motor hummed as if it were straining against resistance, and the blades stayed still. “Pot's downstairs,” she said. “We got two.”
He went to the window, pried it up, and stood back to allow in the breeze, but there was no moving air. The truck looked
abandoned in the lot, sunshine gleaming off the hood. He tried to think about what had gotten him up this far, up into this room when he should have been on the highway halfway to somewhere, and he couldn't figure it at all.
“Ain't there no sinks?” the woman said.
“In the pot,” the girl said. “I'll put a glass in there. Lonnie'll be back tonight. You'll hear him cause it'll be a noise when he does. He gets drunk as cooter brown.”
“I can't wait,” the woman said, flouncing on the bed. “What else does he do?”
“Nothin,” the girl said, and let her jaw fall open and shift back and forth while she stared at the woman. “Check-out's eight-thirty. You get charged another day.” She threw the key at the dresser and slammed the door before the woman could speak.
“A.M. or P.M.?” she yelled, but the words got slammed in the door. “Little split-ass. A kid pimpâain't that the shits,” she said.
He stood staring down at the truck.
“I know you,” she said, laughing and bouncing lightly on the bed. “You got the eye for that little twat.”
He walked across and stood in front of the bureau and looked at her and sighed, his hands in his pockets, wondering whether it would do just to leave her sitting, go off for a Grapette, and never show back.
“What're you lookin at?” she said, and slumped on the side of the bed, watching him meanly.
He shook his head.
“What're you shaking your ugly head at?”
“Not anything,” he said, trying to quit thinking.
“You think you're some hot young stuff, don't you?” she said.
“I hadn't thought about it,” he said.
“Oh, yes, you
,” she said. “You thought you were too good to screw me, but I got some bad news for youâyou weren't.” Her eyes had gotten round again and she looked frightened. “You're right to my level. It may of took you a while to get here, but you're here, by God.” She retired to her elbows.
“Where'd you get that colored mark on your neck?” he said.
“He give it to me,” she said proudly. “It ain't a
. Don't you know what a hickey is, Robert? Did you think somebody'd been beatin up on me?”
“I didn't think about it,” he said.
“I guess not.” She poked around after the mark, as if she thought she could feel it.
The fan had begun circling. He picked up the chair and brought it to the side of the bed. He sat with his elbows on his knees and his face collapsed in his hands. She smiled at him and he knew she knew everything.
“You gonna stay mad at me?” he asked quietly.
“I ain't mad,” she said. “You ain't nobody.”
“That's right.” He listened to his breath escaping between his fingers.
“You ain't hidin
âare you, Robert?”
“No,” he said.
Her smile sweetened and flesh collected in a little pouch under her chin.
“How come you're up here with me? I'm a married woman,” she said. “Ain't you married?”
“I guess,” he said.
“Ain't you got no sense of right?”
“I guess not,” he said.
“This here's adultery, boy,” she said, smiling keenly. “Who's it paying the bill?”
“Whoever wakes up second, I reckon,” he said.
She pressed in his direction, letting her legs scissor a fraction. “You going to strand me, are you, Robert?” She let her calves rub his knees, her pants pushing above her ankles.
“What's-his-name'll be to get you,” he said.
“Sure will,” she said. “You better hope he don't find you here, or there'll be shit to fly.”
She kept smiling, and he had the impulse to get out the door and not stop until he had reached the line to Texas.
“He won't find nobody but you,” he said.
She pushed off her elbows and straddled him, her pants
squeezed up on her knees, her eyes wide. He set his hands along her calves and wedged them inside the material, and felt the cords in her thighs. She lay on the spread, breathing evenly and letting her head wag side to side.
“He won't find me,” he said. His throat was dried up.
She hummed in her throat and turned her face so that she stared at the metal uprights above the foot of the bed.
He unbuttoned her pants and slid them around her thighs. Her skin was bluish. She hissed through her teeth as though it were a pain commencing. He laid her pants over the chair back and pushed his hands up her legs. She bridged her neck and sank her elbows in the ticking.
“Robert?” she said, her arms laid out, her hands made into fists.
“Do you think I look thirtyâI mean, with you looking at me?”
The linoleum buckled. He tried to get himself onto the bed and pay attention to what she was saying all at the same time.
“No, sweet,” he said softly.
She drew her legs up and eased his hand, faced down the bedspread and smiled.
“You don't look twenty where I'm at,” he said.
“I ain't mad at you no more,” she said, her voice lost inside her throat.
“That's sweet,” he said. “Now that's real sweet.”
At seven o'clock it had turned gray down in the east. The coons were against the wires, staring at the sun sagging by degrees. Leo lay quietly, eying the rabbit, who had dozed as the day cooled and was not awake, the breeze pushing back lightly against the hatch of his fur, laying bare a smooth white undercoat.
He lay beside the woman in the brown light feeling the breeze draw through the room, pulling the curtains and plucking the
flesh on his arms. The screen slammed and he could hear the girl move out in the yard, cooing at the raccoons. The woman shuddered and he looked at her expecting her eyes to open, but she lay still, breathing as if she were barely alive. He could smell the sage on the breeze, a faint burning aroma in his nostrils, and he could hear the raccoon claws clamber down the wires to the child.
“You make me feel kinder towards the world,” she had said, and he couldn't figure out why, and lay with his chin in the pillow, listening.
“Don't you feel that way all the time?”
“No.” Her lips were to his ear. “I get contrary, get people in trouble.”
“Don't he make you feel good?”
“Larry does. Sometimes.”
“How come you want to foul up with me?”
She turned on her side and crossed her arms beneath her chin. “I don't trust him,” she said, as if it were something she always knew, but had just realized.
“You're up there every day,” he said. “What ain't there to trust?”
up there, he'd be humpin some bar bitch like he is right now.”
up there,” he said.
“And there's a lot of tonk bars between Rag-land and Variadero, tooâsee?” she said.
He graveled his chin in the pillow and tried to figure that out. “Looks like you got him jumpin the creek.”
“You're sweet,” she said, and gave him a kiss on the shoulder. “I love him. But I can't trust him not to wipe me out.”
“So what does that mean?” he said.
“I got to cheat on him so he don't have a chance to leave me like I was in Salt Lake.”
“That don't make sense,” he said.
She smiled. “If I cheat on him a
, and he knows I'm liable to anytime, then it balances meâsee? He can't feel like he's put nothin on me, cause he knows I'm probably putting something
on him already. It gets dangerous when you feel like you can fool the other one anytime you get ready and not pay for it. Everything starts splitting. You got to stay balanced.”
She ran her fingers through the hair on his belly. “I want you,” she said in a queer high voice.
“Wait now,” he said, picturing Larry laying bricks in Variadero and wondering where his wife was while the sun was going and whether or not she was liable to show up, or whether she was stopping over in some tonk bar and not making it in until tomorrow. “Does he know that's how you're playing it?”
“Let's don't us talk,” she said, grabbing him up in her tight little fist and rolling her eyes back. “I need it right now, understand?”
“But wait a minute,” he said.
“No waits,” she said. “No waits.”
When she had gone to sleep he lay and stared at the ceiling, spattered with the gold tinsel of water seepage. He understood that when it rained, it rained until the boards soaked and the water shot the walls and set the house floating like an ark. He dozed and felt himself drawn to a powerful commotion as though the sky were driving through the cages, drowning animals, filling the truck bed, and buoying him inside until it was necessary to hold the bed staves to be saved from drowning. There were lights in the yard, flashing through the panes across the wall in his room, revolving rectangles of light across the wall, and he had sat up startled and faced them and heard the groan of someone's pickup and two doors slamming and the soft lilt of voices in the yard. He walked out on the low plank porch and stood where his mother was watching the two men angrily while they talked one at a time in quick low tones, trying to avoid her eyes and get the story told and get gone. They stood silhouetted in the truck lights that fanned the grassy spiderwebs, and for a while his mother stared at them while they talked, watching them intently, snapping her eyes over one and to the other, holding them unmovable until they finally talked so fast the words ran together into gibberish.
And after a while she just stared past them into the headlights, and they finished and left. The way the woman told it, his father had gone up into the hills early in the evening to attend a service, and took the woman with him in his car. And three-quarters of the way up the long grade, full of roots and chuck holes, winding up the Bostons toward the top of Mount Skylight, where the tent was supposedly staked on a high knob, the old car had failed where they forded a creek, a ribbon of spring water squirreling down the mountain toward the Illinois River. The woman said she got out and went into the bushes while his father stayed and monkeyed with the dashboard wires, trying to get the car going before it got night. And when the woman came back from the bushes, it had begun to rain, “an unimaginable rain,” she said, that smacked the sides of the car like a lanyard, and the water rose over the bottoms of the doors and swirled and shot past the car so that a strong man couldn't have walked through it without falling. And she said she could see him inside humped over the dashboard studying the wires and fuses, unaware, she guessed, that the creek was up or that it might not do to be out in it. She herself, a plump, slope-eyed woman from Tonitown, said she never imagined what the outcome would be, and went up and squatted underneath a plum bush to wait for the rain to stop and the creek to subside so they could go on to the church, which turned out to be accessible by some other road. And as she sat, the water got dark and creamy, and rose, and pieces of split-off pine timber came down the chute, and she got wringing wet watching the limbs batter the car and the water rise to the door locks. She said she believed Mr. Hewes did sense something was not right, because he opened the window and said something to her that she couldn't hear and tried to open the door, but the water was against it and the other side was busted from before she knew him. And she said that he closed the window and looked out, laughing and grinning and making funny little signals with his hands, signals she said she couldn't make out any better than what he'd said. She said for a long time, maybe ten minutes, the two of them sat and looked at each other, she on the bank under
the plum bush, wet, and he shut inside the car with the ugly water raging around, smiling and making signals, perfectly dry. Until, she said, the water seemed to wash over the car all at once, without a wave or a tree limb to hit it, or any inkling that it was losing purchase, and just suddenly, rolling, it rolled over and the water over it and it out of sight into the darkness.