On our way to the yearly party Yahlie’s friends throw, we encounter a woman and
her baby. The drive is one day from Santa Fe to Amarillo, one to Austin. Maybe
Yahlie and I will do it in less, with our feet up on the dash and Styrofoam cups of
soda in the cup holders. She and I felt the need to get out of town. In our house,
the stereo is broken, and we can’t find the cable to hook up the VCR we found.
Texas feels like a step down from where we’ve come from, devilish and mean. Her
friend Kirsten, who Yahlie says is belligerent and doesn’t listen, said we could stay
for a while, which we might. We have $220 between us.
We’re out in the open. It’s hot in the car, Yahlie’s shrunken white car. It has a whole assortment of stuff in the back. A basketball, an enormous foam hand that fits over one’s own hand, guitar strings, pennies. She’s driving. It’s her turn. We have the windows down, and the air is coming in, filching our oxygen. Out here it’s more yellow than gold, and nothing at all is green, and everywhere unidentifiable objects are supplanting the landscape. A roly–poly silver mechanism, mounted on a flatbed trailer, the size of a jet engine. A silo with a roof too big for its shaft. Where we have come from, one state over, is softer, redder. Out here seems unkind. But I love the road. I love it like a lost pet. The plan is to find better work when we get back, better than two banquet jobs. We’d been doing this thing where we’d try to get scheduled for the same shifts, and one of us would sneak out after a while and work waitressing at the Cowgirl, shifts we bilked from our friend who had a boyfriend she got free rent from. I’d say, “Yahlie’s in the back slicing lemons.” “Kate’s out back having a cigarette,” Yahlie’d say. It was getting three paychecks for two jobs. In honor of this, we’d sometimes order three plates of huevos for the two of us.
“I hear Ambrose Bierce is buried somewhere out here,” she says.
“That must be true,” I say. I stare through the windshield and its pockmarks, about to nod out.
“Where Kirsten lives is nothing like this,” she says. “They have trees and lots of friends.”
She gets this wistful look on her face. She and I have been sharing a tiny casita that we moved into after we met in a weird rooming house that was formerly a school for the deaf. We’d discovered we both dropped out of college at the same time, on opposite coasts. When we met she had seemed very scared, and I had felt somewhat assured. Since then, that had ebbed and flowed so many times that I was sometimes confused by who we were. The year before, she’d been in Israel on a farm. The year before, I’d been at a prestigious East Coast architecture school, faking it. I’d left only a few credits shy of finishing. Sometimes she talked on the pay phone at the Cowgirl in Hebrew to her sisters, who were in Michigan.
A ways outside Austin we stop and get sandwiches in a town with a carved wooden Indian at nearly every doorway and four shops selling the same things. The restaurant has a checkered tablecloth and no lights on, only the sunlight through the window. As we eat, mayonnaise expands in my mouth, the lettuce bruises as I touch it. We drink two glasses of soda so cold it leaves a ringing in my ears. We hear the air conditioning, like a combine running. Yahlie eats in enormous bites, steals fries off my plate with her slim hands. The waitresses sit at the table near the window, staring out.
“You eat so slowly. When I eat with you it takes all day,” she says.
“It does not. And what else have you got to do, anyway, besides eat with me?”
When we get inside air conditioning, our conversations return to our usual, a little like Franz Liszt playing the piano, a little like prison inmates. She waits for me to finish the BLT.
We pay the woman and thank her. Outside, the heat is a force field. One cloud has appeared from somewhere to cover the sun. Sky’s a hollowed-out bone.
Yahlie says, “Why does one have to go so far from the city, even a small city, to find a place where the values of mass production have not infiltrated the food? Why do we still eat everything out of a can? Instead of those delicious sandwiches?”
“Because we’re broke,” I say. “And you don’t know how to cook.”
She laughs her snorting laugh. “My belly hurts,” she says. “I need to walk around.”
I can tell she’s writing an economic white paper in her head as we walk off the food, belching. She twists one piece of hair between two fingers.
“We either have too much food or not enough,” she says.
Except I could have eaten three more of those sandwiches. It wasn’t too much. In our house we eat instant soup and apples that I cut open on my desk, shuffling my papers out of the way, because the kitchen has no room for a table, or pintos and cheese from Felipe’s, loaded up with the free parsley and green chile, dented cans of beer from the squalid bar in town, or the assortment of leftovers from the caterer. Twenty cold shrimp rolls. Half a tray of cut fruit, all the strawberries gone. A sleeve of melba toast.
We walk across the wooden walkways they’ve built around the town square— the kind that if we wore cowboy boots, we’d thump across ominously, spurs jangling—a dry fountain with a couple trees in the center. A guy in a gleaming red pickup screams past. I can hear the metal thrumming from his stereo through the closed windows. Then we pass one little store, a vintage store. I can see someone behind the counter.
“Let’s go in here,” Yahlie says.
Inside it’s cold, dusty, with painted floorboards, a welcome mat. For sale is a Formica table, a carpeted couch, a velvet Elvis, a twelve-string guitar mounted in a frame, a restored Radio Flyer, stuff rich New Yorkers might dispatch staff to Texas to acquire. Country-swing records, high-waisted Jordache jeans with gold stitching, Walter Mondale campaign buttons in a teacup on the counter. Gem of a store. The kind of place Yahlie and I could kill two hours in.
A woman stands behind the glass counter, a sack of price tags emptied out in front of her. She has a look on her face like she’d been dreaming something sweet, or randy. Perched on a stool next to her is a bassinet holding a gurgly baby. I smell stinking diaper.
“I wonder if all this stuff has been here since the forties,” Yahlie says, “and they just put up a sign that says Vintage.” She finds an entire rack of plaid shirts in absurd color schemes, each with three buttons on the cuffs, arrows stitched on the breast pockets.
“Oh yeah,” she says and picks one in khaki and AstroTurf green, tries it on behind a curtain in the back. She comes out, and it’s not quite too small. “You look like Patsy Cline,” I say.
“All I need,” she says, “are some white patent-leather cowboy boots and a blond wig and I’d be Dolly Parton. I’m buying it.”
While she’s changing I wander back, pull back a brocade curtain hiding another room lit by a plastic chandelier, the walls wooden panels painted white, the ceiling shining tin. Every surface holding an object. Tea cups, old suitcases, a yellowing needlepoint in a frame. I can barely move, feel I might knock something over and ruin it. Like being inside a Christmas tree. I find a wooden chair. It’s the green of a nickel at the bottom of a fountain, all chipped and crackling. Several others sit nearby, part of a set. But this one, it’s more rough than all the others. I look at it and hear some far-off jukebox reverb, see the sun go down over a bluff, dancers shuffling, a woman singing into a microphone in a hall lit by strings of lights. This was the one its owner sat in. Every night, till it had to be given up. The tag says $60.
“You ready?” Yahlie says. She looks at the chair. “Whoa, sixty bucks.”
We go to the counter to pay, and the woman has the baby against her shoulder, a white towel on its skull like a nun, and she holds it as she rings Yahlie up, one-handed. She has on one of the plaid shirts also, two yellows. She kneels slowly under the counter and retrieves a plastic bag, struggles to open the crinkly cellophane with the tips of her fingers. She shakes it with her one free hand. She can’t be more than ten years older than we are. But still she seems young to have a baby.
Yahlie asks, “How old is your baby?”
“Oh, she’s seven months.”
“She’s adorable,” Yahlie says. “What’s her name?”
“Her name’s Pearl,” the woman says and smiles like she has a secret or that same randy, sweet dream still on her mind.
It’s a name I’ve only imagined people having, women who waved to ships with handkerchiefs.
“That’s a great name,” Yahlie says.
The woman finally has the shirt in the bag and slides it across the counter.
“Thanks,” she says. “And look.”
With her free hand she untucks the yellow plaid shirt, and on her stomach is a tattoo, the word Pearl in a script I’ve never seen, a sweet, buttery flower of a thing.
Yahlie makes a little gasping noise. “That’s amazing!” she says.
“She’s the person I always wished I was,” the woman says as she smooths down her shirt. “She’s the chance I never had, so I gave her the name I always wished I had. We couldn’t get any store space in Austin so we’re out here, just us and our antiques. All the shops in Austin are picked over, nothing good left. I think I got all the Bakelite jewelry in Texas right here. You can buy these shirts in Austin shops, but they’re all from the eighties, John Travolta era. These are the real deal. You can tell from the tight weave, the heavy fabric, and the extra button on the cuff. You all should go out dancing.”
She strokes the baby’s back, taking the towel down, finally done talking. Her hair lies in a sandy-colored curl around her face, spilling down around the baby’s head, which is smattered with fuzz in the same color. She rocks from heel to heel, and Pearl burbles.
“What did she say?” Yahlie says. “Cue ball? Did she say cue ball?”
“She says all kinds of things,” the woman says. “Sometimes in her little talking, I hear the weirdest words. I can’t wait till she starts talking real; she’ll say the most amazing things.”
I stand there waiting, and Yahlie coos over the baby some more. I’ve never heard her do this in all the time we’ve been kicking around like two birds in the same cage. Who are you, talking in a voice with this lilting, whiny swirl? You can light four cigarettes with one match, and you drink six cups of coffee a day, and you fall asleep with the door to our house unlocked.
“We have dancing here in the veterans’ hall, and every Sunday there’s barbecue. Stop by, I’ll take you if you’re back by. My name’s Beverly. Bev.”
“That’s a nice name too,” Yahlie says.
The woman shrugs. “I don’t know, it doesn’t mean anything. It sounds made up.”
Something about the way Yahlie is standing with her shoulder to me makes me go to the back room and pick up that chair and bring it to the counter.
“Think I’ll buy this too.”
I take out my wallet. There are seventy-four dollars in there.
“Great!” Bev says, ringing it up. “This is such a nice piece.”
Yahlie is looking at me with that squinched, judgmental stare.
“What?” I say.
“You don’t want the other ones too? Whole set back there,” Bev says.
“I’ll take just the one.”
She rings me up, taking my cash. I’m ready to leave and edge toward the door with the chair. “It was so nice to meet you, Pearl!” Yahlie says, giving a little wave.
Then Bev says, “You all got a car running out there?”
I can’t tell if she means a car with the key in the ignition or a car that is not a complete piece of shit.
“Yeah,” Yahlie says. “We’re driving my car.”
“Hate to impose if you got somewhere to be, but I thought I’d ask if you might give me a ride someplace. Somebody owes me money, and I think I can get it today if I could just get over there.”
Yahlie and I look at each other.
“That is, I mean the two of us,” Bev says.
Somewhere in the store is a ticking clock. The baby makes a noise. Yahlie’s eyes are open wider than usual. Bev seems impossibly big and curvy standing behind the counter. I feel small and scrawny. The sun looks unreasonably bright through the shaded windows. Bev has squinted eyes, a deep, bloodless laugh line. Yahlie and I are staring each other down. Sometimes, I’ll think I know what thing she wants to do and instead she does another. I think she wants to leave, and she keeps us sitting at the bar talking to two yahoos from Colorado Springs.
Before I have a chance to say anything, she decides for us.
“Sure!” she says, like we’ve been invited to the moon.
“Well, thanks. Sure appreciate it,” Bev says, wandering off to some back room. “Just lemme get Pearl’s stuff,” she calls.
Now Yahlie’s smiling. “What about the party?” I say, mumbling so Bev can’t hear.
“We’ll get there,” she says. “This is exactly what we need.”
“Why?” I say. “Why is this what we need?”
“Why’d you buy that?” she says. “Why do you need that chair?”
“You don’t like it?”
“I do like it; I do like it.”
Bev comes back with a lumpy bag over one shoulder and a wad of keys in one hand, and with the other she scoops up Pearl in her bassinet.
“Still your turn to drive,” I say to Yahlie.
“All right!” she says.
Bev locks the store, and we walk outside on the wooden planks, back around to where the car is parked.
“Can’t thank y’all enough for this,” Bev says, standing at my elbow.
“Sure,” I mumble.
Yahlie opens the car doors, an oven inside. “Wait,” I say. “This chair won’t fit in here with all of us.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Bev says. “We can come back for it.” Then she puts the bassinet on the roof of the car, takes the chair, Pearl baking, and scurries to the store, unlocks it, and sort of bumps the chair through the door.
“Okay,” I say. We get in the car, Bev in the back with the bassinet beside her.
The diaper smell swirls, like something wafting up from a sewer, with fried funnel cake, and for a second I think I might barf. Yahlie’s face is twisted, her nose crumpled into a sneer. She pushes the buttons in her arm rest, and the automatic windows roll slowly down.
“She need a seat or something?” I say.
“No,” Bev says. “Y’all remember how to get on Route 1?”
“Where we headed?” Yahlie asks.
“Past Roundtop. We’re not going far. I’ll tell you when to turn off.”
Except I forget what “far” means out here, and we drive twenty miles on Route 1 to another town altogether, where street signs appear on the sides of the road with names like sons and daughters, Gretchen and Randolph and MacKenzie, and the asphalt is fossilized. In the back, Bev talks.
“I got a couple of cousins out this way, and they tell me there’s a great place to get some pie around here. Can’t thank y’all enough. I just got my car back from the shop last week and didn’t drive it but two days before whatever they said they fixed wasn’t fixed and left me stuck at my store all night. Fuckin’ assholes, I’m going to give them hell till they give me all my money back. Plus I got this ex, he owes me money. Y’all know anything about computers? Somebody gave us one, and I’m still trying to figure out how to turn it on.”
Yahlie puts on the tape we were listening to, two guys singing over some reggae. The street signs roll past, and the names change to German, Hauptstrasse and Augsburg. Bev bites one fingernail.
Bev and I speak at the same time.
“So who owes you money again?” I say.
“Where you two got to go after this?” she says.
I turn around, and we wait for each other to talk. Yahlie answers before either of us. “We’re going to Austin,” she says. “See some friends.”
Pearl starts to moan, but not really a moan, more like a hum, a hum with a skip.
“What’s wrong, sweet pea?” Bev says.
After another couple of short hills, Bev says, “That’s it,” and Yahlie has to hit the brakes. The tires burr. We turn past a mailbox propped on a crooked piece of rebar jutting out of the ground. At the end of a driveway lined with a few cratered trees and pieces of things—a stained mattress, a tricycle, a pile of skinny PVC pipes, cinder blocks—is a dented trailer. We’re in a haze of dust. Yahlie stops the car.
“Actually it’s right back there,” Bev says, pointing, her finger between the front seats.
Yahlie inches the car forward on the road past the trailer until I see there is another house, adobe like our casita, cracked and sinking into the ground. “That’s it,” Bev says. On the walls of the house, on the outside, is a faded poster with cars and someone’s face. A screen door with a hole in it. Yahlie stops; Bev climbs out.
“Could you hold her?” Bev says to me. She’s holding Pearl out at me like she might shove her through the window, and I smell the smell again.
“Could I what?”
“Just hold her for one second while I run up there?”
She has a rolled-up piece of paper in one hand, like it materialized from nothing, tucked under her thumb as she holds Pearl, and if I don’t take her, she’ll just drop her there in the dirt and split, so I open the door, and next thing, Pearl is in my hands. Bev gives me a punch on the shoulder with two fingers, like she’s my crazy aunt, and says, “Thanks, doll,” and walks fast through the dirt toward the house. I have my hands under Pearl’s armpits, and she’s making the same noise, hum, hum. She’s heavy, like a full gallon jug.
Or a dictionary. The dictionary my parents owned and I flipped through, looking at all the tiny illustrations. If the dictionary were her and had a beating heart.
“What the hell is this lady doing?” I say.
“Dunno,” Yahlie says. She giggles a little and shuts off the car.
Bev pounds on the casita door. She lifts a fist and beats, her arm like a mace, and yells. Between strokes she stands there, arms loose at her sides. She yells when she pounds so we can’t hear what she’s saying. She grabs the doorknob with both hands and pushes with her foot.
“What kind of a scam do you suppose this is?” Yahlie says, laughing, thumping the gas pedal with her foot.
“I think this is what’s known as the breaking-and-entering scam,” I say. “I tried to ask her, but you didn’t let me. Goddamn, the baby needs a diaper change.”
“Okay, okay,” she says. “We’ll go right after this. You’re not comfortable with other people’s discourses.”
I never know what to say when she says stuff like that. Why use such a word? I feel like a flock of birds has flown into the cage.
After a minute Pearl mumbles again. Yahlie says, “One of her eyes is smaller than the other.”
So it is. One an almond, one a skipping stone. Pearl twists her head back and forth, from my face to the house. I sit there with the door open, one foot in the dirt.
“And she’s fatter than you are,” Yahlie says.
She is fatter than me. She’s like I imagine an elf would be. I am a skeleton compared to her.
Bev is still whacking at the door.
“Why isn’t she crying?” I ask. “You’d think she would be crying, since her diaper’s all shitty.”
“Dunno,” Yahlie says. “Poor baby with a shitty diaper.”
“I think she must be used to this.”
“Used to what? Being all poopy?” Yahlie laughs her sniveling laugh, the one she has when she knows I’m not going to laugh at her joke.
“No, being left with strangers. This lady’s leaving her with us? She’s not thinking straight. And I don’t think that door’s going to open.”
Pearl squirms. I have her held away from me. I should hold her to my chest, but I can’t. She seems to weigh more now. Pearl looks right at me, and I can see the way she’ll be when she’s older and looks at someone and says what she wants most in the world, and I think, I’ve got a person’s whole body in my hands. A wedge of fear rises up into my ribcage. I can see myself in the rearview mirror, the back of Pearl’s head below my chin. The two of us reflected together. Under my eyes are gray half-moons, like bruises.
Yahlie says, “You want me to hold her?”
“No,” I say. And it has that edge that happens without my meaning to; I am shutting the door on her, that blister that rises up between us. “I can do it,” I say.
“Okay,” she says. “Fine.”
Bev is at the house looking through the window, her hands around her eyes. I get a twinge in my chest, and my arms are tired. Yahlie is sulking, leaning on the windowsill. I get the feeling like something is coming, and I want to get the hell out of here. And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s Yahlie sulking.
“Okay,” I say. “You hold her.”
I give Pearl to Yahlie. She says, “That’s right, sweet pea.” I get out. Bev turns away from the house and takes a couple steps, like she’s about to give up, then she sees me and stops. The scabbed yard between me and her seems like a long way. I should just let her give up. The place is a trap about to close. I walk across the dust, and as I get closer, I see her eyes, creases circling them, a wrinkle in her skin that isn’t going anywhere.
“I can’t get the door open,” she says.
“I can see that,” I say.
“You got an idea about how to do it?”
“You sure you don’t want to come back later? Maybe whoever it is will be back then. Somebody could see us.”
“Nobody’s going to see us.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I did it once before,” she says.
She leans on the post holding up the awning built out over the roof. I put a foot up on the crusty patch of adobe that is serving as a porch. Bev isn’t a bit scared, like it’s all the same to her, breaking and entering, bobbling the baby on her knee. I want her to see that I am scared, but I realize, then, that I am not. The collar of her shirt is rumpled.
“How’d you do it that time?”
“It was open,” she says. “I thought the door would be open.”
I go to the door, rattle the doorknob. It gives a little, and I’m thinking there must not be any deadbolt. A weak lock.
I’ll admit to one thing about this happening: Up until right then, I had only watched this sort of thing on television, and I didn’t believe that I was strong enough to do it. But I know about doors, about roofs, and windows, chimneys. Soffit, fascia, rake, slope. From my father, who could build everything. From my failure at architecture. Yahlie doesn’t know this about me, that I know anything besides where to buy tacos and how to pump my own gas.
I knew where to kick.
“You have to be fast, though,” I say.
I stand back and kick the door with the heel of my boot. The sound is hollow. It doesn’t open. I kick again, then it cracks open and hits something inside. I have to stop myself from saying, Yes! The door doesn’t swing; I was expecting it to swing. The doorjamb is barely broken.
The foyer is dark, and it smells of a thousand burned breakfasts and vinegary coffee and fertilizer, and daylight comes in from somewhere in the back. Bev stomps past me and tramples a pair of work boots on the floor. To the right is a dining room with a table full of papers and jars, a tarnished chandelier hanging. I can hear Bev thumping around, opening drawers. I squint outside past the drapes and can barely see the car, can’t see Yahlie. The papers are all faded newspapers; the jars are all half-filled with liquid, something stewed and putrid. The smell knocks me away.
To one side is a dim bedroom, and to the other, through a cramped arch, is the kitchen. Dishes sit scattered everywhere, the counters lined with soda cans. All Mountain Dew. Some are bottles, all dusty. Another arch has an enormous chunk knocked out of it so it seems to droop. It leads to a room carpeted in brown shag, dark except for a flickering TV, set to the news with the sound down. Bev is against a wall lined with dressers, ruffling her hands through some drawers.
I say, “So what the hell are you looking for? Wanna find it quicker?”
“My ex owes me money,” she says. She slams a drawer and walks toward where the daylight is coming from, what I suppose is another bedroom. She stops and stares, her arms hanging.
The light streams through a sliding glass door, and in the bedroom is a man in a wheelchair.
“You didn’t hear me knocking?” she says in some twangy accent that wasn’t there before.
His chair takes up almost the entire room. Another TV sits against one wall, a neatly made bed on the other. He is staring at us, frozen, frowning. Between his eyes—a green that seems to be almost yellow—between two dark eyebrows is a line that looks as though it were drawn with charcoal. A plastic tube snakes downward from somewhere behind his neck. One hand is on the wheelchair’s joystick, about to push it. He has a mustache and two-day stubble. Mountain Dew cans in here too. His other hand rests on a tiny tray attached to the chair’s arm. Tied to the chair’s other arm is a piece of black cloth with some design on it I can’t see, maybe a flag. He looks strong. A shakiness begins around my knees, and I want out of there. Any second, a guy in a truck will roll up and see the busted door. Yahlie is out in the car.
“Arman been here today?” Bev asks. I can’t understand what name she says. Armand? Herman? The man doesn’t answer. His lips seem to be moving, closed, churning underneath the mustache.
“Arman taking real good care of you as usual, right?” she says in a voice all sarcasm.
“Look,” I say, “we’ve got to go.”
She ignores me. She seems to be awaiting an explanation of some kind. On the wood-paneled wall, I see a shelf with a stereo and a lamp, some magazines, another Mountain Dew bottle. Outside are two squares of concrete. He has an okay view—the land slopes slightly away from the house, must catch the sunset.
“Bev, let’s go,” I say, hoping he won’t hear me.
“Just a sec,” she says, a horse’s bite to her voice. To him she says, “You can tell him I was here, that I came looking for what he owes me. He can figure it out for himself whether I found it or not.”
The line between the man’s eyes seems to stiffen, and he is not looking at Bev but at me, and I can see that he will tell anybody whatever the hell he wants.
Then she stalks off, like she’s made her point and that’s that. I try not to look at the man as I follow her, but I do anyway, and his eyes are shifted as far in their sockets as possible, watching me. I don’t say one thing to him. The shallowest thought pops into my head—can he move his neck.
Bev goes to the kitchen, starts opening cabinets, yanking on drawers.
“Okay,” I say to her. “Now we really have to go. You didn’t say anyone was here.”
“I didn’t know he was here.”
“The dude’s in a wheelchair,” I say. “How could he not be here?”
“You don’t know anything,” she says. “Quit getting in the way so I can find it, okay?” She looks up at me, her iceberg of a jaw jutting away from her face.
She yanks on one more drawer. Inside is mismatched silverware—she pushes it around, finds an envelope. She flips it open, and inside is a wad of what looks like tens and ones. She lets out a long sigh.
“See?” she says. “All done.” She walks out the open door, crossing the long distance to the car. I could fix it, fix the door just like it was. There are no cars out front but Yahlie’s. She’s in the front seat with the baby. I leave the door, follow Bev out. She jumps in the backseat.
“Oh,” she says. “Sorry.” She laughs nervously. She stands up, twitters around to the front, and lifts Pearl out of Yahlie’s hands.
“Were you a good girl?” she says.
“Yes, she’s a good girl,” Yahlie says.
“Can we go?” I say, and Yahlie gives me a mean look.
Yahlie turns the car around in its wind-up-toy way. As we go back on the main road, Yahlie driving cautiously, a rickety pickup blows past in the other direction, breaking the sound barrier, someone with his bare arm hanging out the window.
In the rearview I see Bev whip her head around.
“What color was that?” she says. “What color? Blue? Blue?”
“Keep driving,” I say.
“I am,” Yahlie says.
“I know you are. I didn’t mean it like that. Jesus.”
The road spools back the way it came. A string of unimportant questions forms in my head: Can he talk? Does he watch TV? How does he take a shit? I try to push the feeling away. Yahlie doesn’t turn the tape on. The two of them in the back seem to creep over my shoulder, and I have to look out the window at the road’s white line.
Bev sits in the back and starts singing to Pearl, sounding like June Carter as she holds Pearl’s hands, teaching her to clap, singing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round.” But then in the middle, she seems to forget that Pearl is on her lap, and she looks out the window, starting another song.
“I do believe, in all the things you see.”
The return drive seems to take seconds, a drive Bev might do every day. Maybe this is what she does every time she runs out of cash, and this is like going to the supermarket. We leave her at the shop. As she gets out, setting the bassinet on the ground to put Pearl inside, Yahlie asks, “Got a ride home?”
“Oh, sure. My friend picks me up when she gets done at the restaurant. But y’all did me a special favor, taking me out that way.”
“What about the chair?” I say.
“Oh, right,” she says, and we all get out of the car. She walks bumping the bassinet against her hip, sets it down again. She unlocks the store. She doesn’t let me in. She skitters the chair out on the concrete, its legs screeching.
“Y’all enjoy.” The chair sits like a throne, ruined. The store is dark and she’s gone and it’s all over. Yahlie sucks air in and blows it out.
“Good thing you bought that,” she says.
She is a cruel person sometimes. I think of just leaving it there. But it’s mine, I bought it. I look at it, and I can’t leave it. Separated from all the others. I pick it up and wrench it into the backseat.
“Dipshit,” I say. “It was your idea to drive out there to begin with, and you’re going to give me a bunch of shit for buying a chair? What are we doing? It’s like what, three thirty? And we’re how far from the interstate? You’re the one who wants to go to Kirsten’s party.”
“You are so impossible to be around,” she says.
Both of us stand on the wooden sidewalk waiting for the other.
“You drive,“ Yahlie says.
The car whirs, and we can’t go without keeping the windows down. The sky, now a preposterous blue.
We drive for a while, and I contemplate how to suggest that we skip the party, but it seems impossible, now that we’ve driven all this way. We stop at a casino gas station once it gets dark. Yahlie goes inside, frowning, counting how much money she has left. I stay behind.
Another time, we were at a rodeo with some guys. She hated it, the ropes, the shrieking; she thought the horses were frightened. I thought of it right then, sitting on the back of the car in the waning heat. She had sat hunched on the wooden bench and kept saying, “It’s just so awful.” I said, “You want to leave?” And she was so upset that she couldn’t even shake her head no. I wasn’t thinking about the horses, or her. I was enjoying the feeling of tapping someone’s back in comfort. I wasn’t being true. She sat there, her tan face turning the color of cantaloupe. My tapping her back seemed to do nothing. So I stopped, and I watched the calf roping. I had to leave her sitting there. Why did I do that? Why did I leave her there like that, staring at her feet while I watched calves being lassoed and tied?
I sit on the back of the car, clammy, with the lights flashing and the sense that a wasp is hovering nearby and must be shooed away.
When she returns, she says, “I’ll drive,” even though it’s still my turn.
When we get to Kirsten’s ranch house, paper lanterns rise up, lighting the whole house. There are fifteen or so people under the carport with lawn chairs. Through the windows I see a lamp turned on.
We park, and as we get out, somebody shouts, “What took you so long?” like they’ve known us forever and have thrown this party just for us.
A girl with black hair and skin like a china saucer comes up and says, “Hey!” As we walk up the dying lawn, something returns to Yahlie, that lightness of hers.
“We thought you were Todd coming back with the beer,” the woman says. She hugs Yahlie.
“This is Kirsten,” Yahlie says to me.
“You guys,” Kirsten says, “later you should check out the installation in the carport. So glad you guys could participate.”
I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. Kirsten shows us inside. Two brocade couches and a plastic shelf full of books, two desks, one with two computers on it.
“Kirsten is writing her dissertation,” Yahlie says.
“Yep,” Kirsten says. “Write my dissertation, then get fucked up. That is my plan.”
“Good plan,” Yahlie says.
I knock my foot on an amp and pass a guy, a weedy stallion of a guy, with a petulant lip, a Grand Canyon dimple, an entire sleeve of tattoos, all tinted green.
“Cheers,” he says.
I nod at the guy.
“Hi,” says Yahlie.
“How are you, dollface?” says Kirsten and kisses him on the cheek. Whatever languid game exists between women, with men as the spoils, she will be the winner. I look at Yahlie, since this is usually the type of thing we agree on exactly without having to say a word, but I can’t catch her eye.
Yahlie goes off with Kirsten, and I try to handle the chatter. I stand in the kitchen for a while, find a beer, and drink under the light of the stove. The guy with the tattoos comes up and stands near me, his arm on their funk-brown refrigerator.
He says to me, “So what’s your story?”
I run through some possible answers.
“We’re from New Mexico. Except I’m not originally. I’m from the suburbs.”
“Cool,” he says. He nods, a marionette head.
“What’s your story?” I ask.
“I’m getting my doctorate in Latin American studies.”
“Oh. I’m an architect. Except not right now, I mean. Or I will be. Maybe.”
He nods his head, scratches a green tattoo. I open my mouth to say one other thing, but only air comes out. He looks at me from the corner of his eye.
“You have a nice laugh,” he says. “Just the right amount of nervous. I like it.”
Someone gets his attention. “Danny,” they say, and he wanders off.
I stand there for a moment in the swirl of people in the kitchen, empties lining the countertops, and the smell of that man’s house returns, and I feel I want to run away.
I go to the bathroom and pull down my jeans. I look at my stomach, flat as a crushed tumbleweed. In the crotch of my underwear is a smear of blood. In the front of my stomach, I feel a roiling. I piss and it feels cold. I try to think about what my laugh sounds like. I think of that man looking out the sliding glass door at the same wicked sun, rising every day.
In the chattering room I can’t see Yahlie. I search for another beer and go outside to the carport. The art consists of ancient science movies on 16 mm projected onto the wall. No one around. I sit on a lawn chair. The film is of black string, twitching. It reaches a picture of a mountain, then returns to the string. The same thing over and over, it must be broken. String, mountain. The audio still runs, stuff about moving glaciers, the extraction of oil from the earth. After a while Yahlie comes out. “These people aren’t anything like I remember,” she says. She sips her beer. The light from the projector hits underneath her chin. She says, “I loved that lady’s tattoo. She’s alone in the desert with that baby, and she was so happy.”
“She didn’t seem so happy,” I say.
“You didn’t ask me about the baby.”
I try to think how to explain what was in that house.
“I’m sorry I called you a dipshit,” I say. “I’m sorry I didn’t ask. How was the baby?”
“It’s okay,” she says. “You were talking about yourself when you said that.”
She pauses and looks out into the driveway.
“The baby didn’t make a sound,” she says, “just stared at the door the whole time.”
“Jesus,” I say.
“I wanted to take the baby with us,” she says. “Either of us would be better than that lady.”
I look at her. “Not sure about me,” I say. “But you would. You would be.”
I catch her eye and it says, Thank you.
“Listen,” I say. “I might be hungover tomorrow.”
“That’s right,” she says. “Shit faced again!”
“Great,” I say. “Then you can drive.”
She turns, and the light disappears from her chin. “I want you to drive,” she says.
“Why?” I say.
“Because I drove all day. So,” she says, lifting her hand in a lilting way, as though presenting me with some small object, “you should quit drinking now so you’ll be sober when I’m drunk.”
“Okay,” I say. “Done. Herewith, my last evening beer.”
She says, “Look, I can fix this.” She gets up and fiddles with the projector. “Was the house creepy?”
“Yeah. It was. There were soda cans everywhere. It was creepy. It was.”
She twists a knob, and the projector starts winding. “Look at that,” she says. “I got it.”
She looks at the projector like it’s a statue she just carved. The tape winds neatly, and once that mountain appears, the picture continues, a pan across valleys, a distant forest. The light from the party makes her cheeks yellow. I stand up and stick my hand in a crevice in the projector, its light shining on my fingers.
“You want to go back inside?” she says.
“I’m thinking about it,” I say.
The audio tape beeps and now says stuff about molecules. The paper lanterns above us swing. A breeze has appeared from nowhere. I feel like for a second it might be winter. I walk behind the carport, look up at the roof of the house and the clean, golden line it makes in the sky, wander back. I feel the urge to go for a long walk in the dark and look for lights in the windows of other people’s houses.
I sit back down and she is still there.
“You know what?” I say.
“What?” she says.
“You know what?”
“What?!” she says, and begins to laugh. That laugh.
I am tempted to tell her all of it from the beginning. Or the end. The man in his wheelchair. How he looked at me with that look that said, Everything is wrong.
“It’s just that—”
“It’s just what?” she says. “Stop fucking around.”
“It’s just that I wonder if I’ll ever be pregnant again.”
She has been twisting her hair and stops.
“That’s all,” I say.
She sits very still, and I can see that it has ebbed again so that now I am the one who’s afraid.
“Why do you say that?” she says.
I couldn’t talk for a second. I had to wipe my face because I was crying. I was thinking about my laugh, and how it sounds compared to hers. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about. Also, his look said, Things will be right. Then one of the lanterns sways in the breeze again and begins gently hitting the carport wall, ticking. A cicada clicks in the trees behind the house.
“It just might not be in the cards for me,” I say.
What I don’t say is, Because if I ever sat still I might die. Because I don’t believe I’ll ever be lucky, because I think I’m a slum. Because right here, it’s enough.
“Yes, it is,” she says, softly, her eyes ringed in gold.
The certainty of it! It felt like a gift. I wondered if this was the moment when a door might open, when this feeling would become something I could just pass through the window, or sell to someone for a high price, or just abandon on a wooden sidewalk.
Anne Ray has worked as a waitress, a gardener, an English teacher, and a fishmonger. Her work has appeared in Conduit, Cut Bank, Gulf Coast, Opium, and LIT and won the 2014 StoryQuarterly fiction prize. She is the author of the libretto for ‘'Symposium," a ten-minute opera, a collaboration with composer Oliver Caplan. She was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and she works on the eighteenth floor of an office building in lower Manhattan.
Weekend Trip appears in our Summer 2016 issue.