Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police. I had managed to scrape with the law in Kalispell over several bad checks—which is a prison crime in Montana. And I knew Edna was already looking at her cards and thinking about a move, since it wasn’t the first time I’d been in law scrapes in my life. She herself had already had her own troubles, losing her kids and keeping her ex-husband, Danny, from breaking in her house and stealing her things while she was at work, which was really why I had moved in in the first place, that and needing to give my little daughter, Cheryl, a better shake in things.
I don’t know what was between Edna and me, just beached by the same tides when you got down to it. Though love has been built on frailer ground than that, as I well know.
And when I came in the house that afternoon, I just asked her if she wanted to go to Florida with me, leave things where they sat, and she said, “Why not? My datebook’s not that full.”
Edna and I had been a pair eight months, more or less man and wife, some of which time I had been out of work, and some when I’d worked at the dog track as a lead-out and could help with the rent and talk sense to Danny when he came around. Danny was afraid of me because Edna had told him I’d been in prison in Florida for killing a man, though that wasn’t true. I had once been in jail in Tallahassee for stealing tires and had gotten into a fight on the county farm where a man had lost his eye. But I hadn’t done the hurting, and Edna just wanted the story worse than it was so Danny wouldn’t act crazy and make her have to take her kids back, since she had made a good adjustment to not having them, and I already had Cheryl with me. I’m not a violent person and would never put a man’s eye out, much less kill someone. My former wife, Helen, would come all the way from Waikiki Beach to testify to that. We never had violence, and I believe in crossing the street to stay out of trouble’s way. Though Danny didn’t know that.
But we were half down through Wyoming, going toward 1-80 and feeling good about things, when the oil light flashed on in the car I’d stolen, a sign I knew to be a bad one.
I’d gotten us a good car, a cranberry Mercedes I’d stolen out of an ophthalmologist’s lot in Whitefish, Montana. I stole it because I thought it would be comfortable over a long haul, because I thought it got good mileage, which it didn’t, and because I’d never had a good car in my life, just old Chevy junkers and used trucks back from when I was a kid swamping citrus with Cubans.
The car made us all high that day. I ran the windows up and down, and Edna told us some jokes and made faces. She could be lively. Her features would light up like a beacon and you could see her beauty, which wasn’t ordinary. It all made me giddy, and I drove clear down to Bozeman, then straight on through the park to Jackson Hole. I rented us the bridal suite in the Quality Court in Jackson and left Cheryl and her little dog, Duke, sleeping while Edna and I drove to a rib barn and drank beer and laughed till after midnight.
It felt like a whole new beginning for us, bad memories left behind and a new horizon to build on. I got so worked up, I had a tattoo done on my arm that said FAMOUS TIMES, and Edna bought a Bailey hat with an Indian feather band and a little turquoise-and-silver bracelet for Cheryl, and we made love on the seat of the car in the Quality Court parking lot just as the sun was burning up on the Snake River, and everything seemed then like the end of the rainbow.
It was that very enthusiasm, in fact, that made me keep the car one day longer instead of driving it into the river and stealing another one, like I should’ve done and had done before.
Where the car went bad there wasn’t a town in sight or even a house, just some low mountains maybe fifty miles away or maybe a hundred, a barbed-wire fence in both directions, hardpan prairie, and some hawks riding the evening air seizing insects.
I got out to look at the motor, and Edna got out with Cheryl and the dog to let them have a pee by the car. I checked the water and checked the oil stick, and both of them said perfect.
“What’s that light mean, Earl?” Edna said. She had come and stood by the car with her hat on. She was just sizing things up for herself.
“We shouldn’t run it,” I said. “Something’s not right in the oil.”
She looked around at Cheryl and Little Duke, who were peeing on the hardtop side-by-side like two little dolls, then out at the mountains, which were becoming black and lost in the distance. “What’re we doing?” she said. She wasn’t worried yet, but she wanted to know what I was thinking about.
“Let me try it again.”
“That’s a good idea,” she said, and we all got back in the car.
When I turned the motor over, it started right away and the red light stayed off and there weren’t any noises to make you think something was wrong. I let it idle a minute, then pushed the accelerator down and watched the red bulb. But there wasn’t any light on, and I started wondering if maybe I hadn’t dreamed I saw it, or that it had been the sun catching an angle off the window chrome, or maybe I was scared of something and didn’t know it.
“What’s the matter with it, Daddy?” Cheryl said from the backseat. I looked back at her, and she had on her turquoise bracelet and Edna’s hat set back on the back of her head and that little black-and-white Heinz dog on her lap. She looked like a little cowgirl in the movies.
“Nothing, honey, everything’s fine now,” I said.
“Little Duke tinkled where I tinkled,” Cheryl said, and laughed.
“You’re two of a kind,” Edna said, not looking back. Edna was usually good with Cheryl, but I knew she was tired now. We hadn’t had much sleep, and she had a tendency to get cranky when she didn’t sleep. “We oughta ditch this damn car first chance we get,” she said.
“What’s the first chance we got?” I asked, because I knew she’d been at the map.
“Rock Springs, Wyoming,” Edna said with conviction. “Thirty miles down this road.” She pointed out ahead.
I had wanted all along to drive the car into Florida like a big success story. But I knew Edna was right about it, that we shouldn’t take crazy chances. I had kept thinking of it as my car and not the ophthalmologist’s, and that was how you got caught in these things.
“Then my belief is we ought to go to Rock Springs and negotiate ourselves a new car,” I said. I wanted to stay upbeat, like everything was panning out right.
“That’s a great idea,” Edna said, and she leaned over and kissed me hard on the mouth.
“That’s a great idea,” Cheryl said. “Let’s pull on out of here right now.”
The sunset that day I remember as being the prettiest I’d ever seen. Just as it touched the rim of the horizon, it all at once fired the air into jewels and red sequins the precise likes of which I had never seen before and haven’t seen since. The West has it all over everywhere for sunsets, even Florida, where it’s supposedly flat but where half the time trees block your view.
“It’s cocktail hour,” Edna said after we’d driven awhile. “We ought to have a drink and celebrate something.” She felt better thinking we were going to get rid of the car. It certainly had dark troubles and was something you’d want to put behind you.
Edna had out a whiskey bottle and some plastic cups and was measuring levels on the glove-box lid. She liked drinking, and she liked drinking in the car, which was something you got used to in Montana, where it wasn’t against the law, but where, strangely enough, a bad check would land you in Deer Lodge Prison for a year.
“Did I ever tell you I once had a monkey?” Edna said, setting my drink on the dashboard where I could reach it when I was ready. Her spirits were already picked up. She was like that, up one minute and down the next.
“I don’t think you ever did tell me that,” I said. “Where were you then?”
“Missoula,” she said. She put her bare feet on the dash and rested the cup on her breasts. “I was waitressing at the Am Vets. This was before I met you. Some guy came in one day with a monkey. A spider monkey. And I said, just to be joking, ‘I’ll roll you for that monkey.’ And the guy said, ‘Just one roll?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ He put the monkey down on the bar, picked up the cup, and rolled out boxcars. I picked it up and rolled out three fives. And I just stood there looking at the guy. He was just some guy passing through, I guess a vet. He got a strange look on his face—I’m sure not as strange as the one I had—but he looked kind of sad and surprised and satisfied all at once. I said, We can roll again.’ But he said, ‘No, I never roll twice for anything.’ And he sat and drank a beer and talked about one thing and another for a while, about nuclear war and building a stronghold somewhere up in the Bitterroot, whatever it was, while I just watched the monkey, wondering what I was going to do with it when the guy left. And pretty soon he got up and said, ‘Well, good-bye, Chipper’—that was this monkey’s name, of course. And then he left before I could say anything. And the monkey just sat on the bar all that night. I don’t know what made me think of that, Earl. Just something weird. I’m letting my mind wander.”
“That’s perfectly fine,” I said. I took a drink of my drink. “I’d never own a monkey,” I said after a minute. “They’re too nasty. I’m sure Cheryl would like a monkey, though, wouldn’t you, honey?” Cheryl was down on the seat playing with Little Duke. She used to talk about monkeys all the time then. “What’d you ever do with that monkey?” I said, watching the speedometer. We were having to go slower now because the red light kept fluttering on. And all I could do to keep it off was go slower. We were going maybe thirty-five and it was an hour before dark, and I was hoping Rock Springs wasn’t far away.
“You really want to know?” Edna said. She gave me a quick glance, then looked back at the empty desert as if she was brooding over it.
“Sure,” I said. I was still upbeat. I figured I could worry about breaking down and let other people be happy for a change.
“I kept it a week.” And she seemed gloomy all of a sudden, as if she saw some aspect of the story she had never seen before. “I took it home and back and forth to the Am Vets on my shifts. And it didn’t cause any trouble. I fixed a chair up for it to sit on, back of the bar, and people liked it. It made a nice little clicking noise. We changed its name to Mary because the bartender figured out it was a girl. Though I was never really comfortable with it at home. I felt like it watched me too much. Then one day a guy came in, some guy who’d been in Vietnam, still wore a fatigue coat. And he said to me, ‘Don’t you know that a monkey’ll kill you? It’s got more strength in its fingers than you got in your whole body.’ He said people had been killed in Vietnam by monkeys, bunches of them marauding while you were asleep, killing you and covering you with leaves. I didn’t believe a word of it, except that when I got home and got undressed I started looking over across the room at Mary on her chair in the dark watching me. And I got the creeps. And after a while I got up and went out to the car, got a length of clothesline wire, and came back in and wired her to the doorknob through her little silver collar, then went back and tried to sleep. And I guess I must’ve slept the sleep of the dead—though I don’t remember it—because when I got up I found Mary had tipped off her chair-back and hanged herself on the wire line. I’d made it too short.”
Edna seemed badly affected by that story and slid low in the seat so she couldn’t see out over the dash. “Isn’t that a shameful story, Earl, what happened to that poor little monkey?”
“I see a town! I see a town!” Cheryl started yelling from the back seat, and right up Little Duke started yapping and the whole car fell into a racket. And sure enough she had seen something I hadn’t, which was Rock Springs, Wyoming, at the bottom of a long hill, a little glowing jewel in the desert with 1-80 running on the north side and the black desert spread out behind.
“That’s it, honey,” I said. “That’s where we’re going. You saw it first.”
“We’re hungry,” Cheryl said. “Little Duke wants some fish, and I want spaghetti.” She put her arms around my neck and hugged me.
“Then you’ll just get it,” I said. “You can have anything you want. And so can Edna and so can Little Duke.” I looked over at Edna, smiling, but she was staring at me with eyes that were fierce with anger. “What’s wrong?” I said.
“Don’t you care anything about that awful thing that happened to me?” Her mouth was drawn tight, and her eyes kept cutting back at Cheryl and Little Duke, as if they had been tormenting her.
“Of course I do,” I said. “I thought that was an awful thing.” I didn’t want her to be unhappy. We were almost there, and pretty soon we could sit down and have a real meal without thinking somebody might be hurting us.
“You want to know what I did with that monkey?” Edna said.
“Sure I do,” I said.
“I put her in a green garbage bag, put it in the trunk of my car, drove to the dump, and threw her in the trash.” She was staring at me darkly, as if the story meant something to her that was real important but that only she could see and that the rest of the world was a fool for.
“Well, that’s horrible,” I said. “But I don’t see what else you could do. You didn’t mean to kill it. You’d have done it differently if you had. And then you had to get rid of it, and I don’t know what else you could have done. Throwing it away might seem unsympathetic to somebody, probably, but not to me. Sometimes that’s all you can do, and you can’t worry about what somebody else thinks.” I tried to smile at her, but the red light was staying on if I pushed the accelerator at all, and I was trying to gauge if we could coast to Rock Springs before the car gave out completely. I looked at Edna again. “What else can I say?” I said.
“Nothing,” she said, and stared back at the dark highway. “I should’ve known that’s what you’d think. You’ve got a character that leaves something out, Earl. I’ve known that a long time.”
“And yet here you are,” I said. “And you’re not doing so bad. Things could be a lot worse. At least we’re all together here.”
“Things could always be worse,” Edna said. “You could go to the electric chair tomorrow.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And somewhere somebody probably will. Only it won’t be you.”
“I’m hungry,” said Cheryl. “When’re we gonna eat? Let’s find a motel. I’m tired of this. Little Duke’s tired of it too.”
Where the car stopped rolling was some distance from the town, though you could see the clear outline of the interstate in the dark with Rock Springs lighting up the sky behind. You could hear the big tractors hitting the spacers in the overpass, revving up for the climb to the mountains.
I shut off the lights.
“What’re we going to do now?” Edna said irritably, giving me a bitter look.
“I’m figuring it,” I said. “It won’t be hard, whatever it is. You won’t have to do anything.”
“I’d hope not,” she said and looked the other way.
Across the road and across a dry wash a hundred yards was what looked like a huge mobile-home town, with a factory or a refinery of some kind lit up behind it and in full swing. There were lights on in a lot of the mobile homes, and there were cars moving along an access road that ended near the freeway overpass a mile the other way. The lights in the mobile homes seemed friendly to me, and I knew right then what I should do.
“Get out,” I said, opening my door.
“Are we walking?” Edna said.
“I’m not pushing.” Edna reached up and locked her door.
“All right,” I said. “Then you just steer.”
“You’re pushing us to Rock Springs, are you, Earl? It doesn’t look like it’s more than about three miles.”
“I’ll push,” Cheryl said from the back.
“No, hon. Daddy11 push. You just get out with Little Duke and move out of the way.”
Edna gave me a threatening look, just as if I’d tried to hit her. But when I got out she slid into my seat and took the wheel, staring angrily ahead straight into the cottonwood scrub.
“Edna can’t drive that car,” Cheryl said from out in the dark. “She’ll run it in the ditch.”
“Yes, she can, hon. Edna can drive it as good as I can. Probably better.”
“No she can’t,” Cheryl said. “No she can’t either.” And I thought she was about to cry, but she didn’t.
I told Edna to keep the ignition on so it wouldn’t lock up and to steer into the cottonwoods with the parking lights on so she could see. And when I started, she steered it straight off into the trees, and I kept pushing until we were twenty yards into the cover and the tires sank in the soft sand and nothing at all could be seen from the road.
“Now where are we?” she said, sitting at the wheel. Her voice was tired and hard, and I knew she could have put a good meal to use. She had a sweet nature, and I recognized that this wasn’t her fault but mine. Only I wished she could be more hopeful.
“You stay right here, and I’ll go over to that trailer park and call us a cab,” I said.
“What cab?” Edna said, her mouth wrinkled as if she’d never heard anything like that in her life.
“There’ll be cabs,” I said, and tried to smile at her. “There’s cabs everywhere.”
“What’re you going to tell him when he gets here? Our stolen car broke down and we need a ride to where we can steal another one? That’ll be a big hit, Earl.”
“I’ll talk,” I said. “You just listen to the radio for ten minutes and then walk on out to the shoulder like nothing was suspicious. And you and Cheryl act nice. She doesn’t need to know about this car.”
“Like we’re not suspicious enough already, right?” Edna looked up at me out of the lighted car. “You don’t think right, did you know that, Earl? You think the world’s stupid and you’re smart. But that’s not how it is. I feel sorry for you. You might’ve been something, but things just went crazy someplace.”
I had a thought about poor Danny. He was a vet and crazy as a shit-house mouse, and I was glad he wasn’t in for all this. “Just get the baby in the car,” I said, trying to be patient. “I’m hungry like you are.”
“I’m tired of this,” Edna said. “I wish I’d stayed in Montana.”
“Then you can go back in the morning,” I said. “I’ll buy the ticket and put you on the bus. But not till then.”
“Just get on with it, Earl.” She slumped down in the seat, turning off the parking lights with one foot and the radio on with the other.
The mobile-home community was as big as any I’d ever seen. It was attached in some way to the plant that was lighted up behind it, because I could see a car once in a while leave one of the trailer streets, turn in the direction of the plant, then go slowly into it. Everything in the plant was white, and you could see that all the trailers were painted white and looked exactly alike. A deep hum came out of the plant, and I thought as I got closer that it wouldn’t be a location I’d ever want to work in.
I went right to the first trailer where there was a light, and knocked on the metal door. Kids’ toys were lying in the gravel around the little wood steps, and I could hear talking on TV that suddenly went off. I heard a woman’s voice talking, and then the door opened wide.
A large Negro woman with a wide, friendly face stood in the doorway. She smiled at me and moved forward as if she was going to come out, but she stopped at the top step. There was a little Negro boy behind her peeping out from behind her legs, watching me with his eyes half closed. The trailer had that feeling that no one else was inside, which was a feeling I knew something about.
“I’m sorry to intrude,” I said. “But I’ve run up on a little bad luck tonight. My name’s Earl Middleton.”
The woman looked at me, then out into the night toward the freeway as if what I had said was something she was going to be able to see. “What kind of bad luck?” she said, looking down at me again.
“My car broke down out on the highway,” I said. “I can’t fix it myself, and I wondered if I could use your phone to call for help.”
The woman smiled down at me knowingly. “We can’t live without cars, can we?”
“That’s the honest truth,” I said.
“They’re like our hearts,” she said, her face shining in the little bulb light that burned beside the door. “Where’s your car situated?”
I turned and looked over into the dark, but I couldn’t see anything because of where we’d put it. “It’s over there,” I said. “You can’t see it in the dark.”
“Who all’s with you now?” the woman said. “Have you got your wife with you?”
“She’s with my little girl and our dog in the car,” I said. “My daughter’s asleep or I would have brought them.”
“They shouldn’t be left in the dark by themselves,” the woman said and frowned. “There’s too much unsavoriness out there.”
“The best I can do is hurry back.” I tried to look sincere, since everything except Cheryl being asleep and Edna being my wife was the truth. The truth is meant to serve you if you’ll let it, and I wanted it to serve me. “I’ll pay for the phone call,” I said. “If you’ll bring the phone to the door I’ll call from right here.”
The woman looked at me again as if she was searching for a truth of her own, then back out into the night. She was maybe in her sixties, but I couldn’t say for sure. “You’re not going to rob me, are you, Mr. Middleton?” She smiled like it was a joke between us.
“Not tonight,” I said, and smiled a genuine smile. “I’m not up to it tonight. Maybe another time.”
“Then I guess Terrel and I can let you use our phone with Daddy not here, can’t we, Terrel? This is my grandson, Terrel Junior, Mr. Middleton.” She put her hand on the boy’s head and looked down at him. “Terrel won’t talk. Though if he did he’d tell you to use our phone. He’s a sweet boy.” She opened the screen for me to come in.
The trailer was a big one with a new rug and a new couch and a living room that expanded to give the space of a real house. Something good and sweet was cooking in the kitchen, and the trailer felt like it was somebody’s comfortable new home instead of just temporary. I’ve lived in trailers, but they were just snailbacks with one room and no toilet, and they always felt cramped and unhappy—though I’ve thought maybe it might’ve been me that was unhappy in them.
There was a big Sony TV and a lot of kids’ toys scattered on the floor. I recognized a Greyhound bus I’d gotten for Cheryl. The phone was beside a new leather recliner, and the Negro woman pointed for me to sit down and call and gave me the phone book. Terrel began fingering his toys and the woman sat on the couch while I called, watching me and smiling.
There were three listings for cab companies, all with one number different. I called the numbers in order and didn’t get an answer until the last one, which answered with the name of the second company. I said I was on the highway beyond the interstate and that my wife and family needed to be taken to town and I would arrange for a tow later. While I was giving the location, I looked up the name of a tow service to tell the driver in case he asked.
When I hung up, the Negro woman was sitting looking at me with the same look she had been staring with into the dark, a look that seemed to want truth. She was smiling, though. Something pleased her and I reminded her of it.
“This is a very nice home,” I said, resting in the recliner, which felt like the driver’s seat of the Mercedes, and where I’d have been happy to stay.
“This isn’t our house, Mr. Middleton,” the Negro woman said. “The company owns these. They give them to us for nothing. We have our own home in Rockford, Illinois.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said.
“It’s never wonderful when you have to be away from home, Mr. Middleton, though we’re only here three months, and it’ll be easier when Terrel Junior begins his special school. You see, our son was killed in the war, and his wife ran off without Terrel Junior. Though you shouldn’t worry. He can’t understand us. His little feelings can’t be hurt.” The woman folded her hands in her lap and smiled in a satisfied way. She was an attractive woman, and had on a blue-and-pink floral dress that made her seem bigger than she could’ve been, just the right woman to sit on the couch she was sitting on. She was good nature’s picture, and I was glad she could be, with her little brain-damaged boy, living in a place where no one in his right mind would want to live a minute. “Where do you live, Mr. Middleton?” she said politely, smiling in the same sympathetic way.
“My family and I are in transit,” I said. “I’m an ophthalmologist, and we’re moving back to Florida, where I’m from. I’m setting up practice in some little town where it’s warm year-round. I haven’t decided where.”
“Florida’s a wonderful place,” the woman said. “I think Terrel would like it there.”
“Could I ask you something?” I said.
“You certainly may,” the woman said. Terrel had begun pushing his Greyhound across the front of the TV screen, making a scratch that no one watching the set could miss. “Stop that, Terrel Junior,” the woman said quietly. But Terrel kept pushing his bus on the glass, and she smiled at me again as if we both understood something sad. Except I knew Cheryl would never damage a television set. She had respect for nice things, and I was sorry for the lady that Terrel didn’t. “What did you want to ask?” the woman said.
“What goes on in that plant or whatever it is back there beyond these trailers, where all the lights are on?”
“Gold,” the woman said and smiled.
“It’s what?” I said.
“Gold,” the Negro woman said, smiling as she had for almost all the time I’d been there. “It’s a gold mine.”
“They’re mining gold back there?” I said, pointing.
“Every night and every day.” She smiled in a pleased way.
“Does your husband work there?” I said.
“He’s the assayer,” she said. “He controls the quality. He works three months a year, and we live the rest of the time at home in Rockford. We’ve waited a long time for this. We’ve been happy to have our grandson, but I won’t say I’ll be sorry to have him go. We’re ready to start our lives over.” She smiled broadly at me and then at Terrel, who was giving her a spiteful look from the floor. “You said you had a daughter,” the Negro woman said. “And what’s her name?”
“Irma Cheryl,” I said. “She’s named for my mother.”
“That’s nice. And she’s healthy, too. I can see it in your face.” She looked at Terrel Junior with pity.
“I guess I’m lucky,” I said.
“So far you are. But children bring you grief, the same way they bring you joy. We were unhappy for a long time before my husband got his job in the gold mine. Now, when Terrel starts to school, we’ll be kids again.” She stood up. “You might miss your cab, Mr. Middleton,” she said, walking toward the door, though not to be forcing me out. She was too polite. “If we can’t see your car, the cab surely won’t be able to.”
“That’s true.” I got up off the recliner, where I’d been so comfortable. “None of us have eaten yet, and your food makes me know how hungry we probably all are.”
“There are fine restaurants in town, and you’ll find them,” the Negro woman said. “I’m sorry you didn’t meet my husband. He’s a wonderful man. He’s everything to me.”
“Tell him I appreciate the phone,” I said. “You saved me.”
“You weren’t hard to save,” the woman said. “Saving people is what we were all put on earth to do. I just passed you on to whatever’s coming to you.”
“Let’s hope it’s good,” I said, stepping back into the dark.
“I’ll be hoping, Mr. Middleton. Terrel and I will both be hoping.”
I waved to her as I walked out into the darkness toward the car where it was hidden in the night.
The cab had already arrived when I got there. I could see its little red-and-green roof lights all the way across the dry wash, and it made me worry that Edna was already saying something to get us in trouble, something about the car or where we’d come from, something that would cast suspicion on us. I thought, then, how I never planned things well enough. There was always a gap between my plan and what happened, and I only responded to things as they came along and hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble. I was an offender in the law’s eyes. But I always thought differently, as if I weren’t an offender and had no intention of being one, which was the truth. But as I read on a napkin once, between the idea and the act a whole kingdom lies. And I had a hard time with my acts, which were oftentimes offender’s acts, and my ideas, which were as good as the gold they mined there where the bright lights were blazing.
“We’re waiting for you, Daddy,” Cheryl said when I crossed the road. “The taxicab’s already here.”
“I see, hon,” I said, and gave Cheryl a big hug. The cabdriver was sitting in the driver’s seat having a smoke with the lights on inside. Edna was leaning against the back of the cab between the taillights, wearing her Bailey hat. “What’d you tell him?” I said when I got close.
“Nothing,” she said. “What’s there to tell?”
“Did he see the car?”
She glanced over in the direction of the trees where we had hid the Mercedes. Nothing was visible in the darkness, though I could hear Little Duke combing around in the underbrush tracking something, his little collar tinkling. “Where’re we going?” she said. “I’m so hungry I could pass out.”
“Edna’s in a terrible mood,” Cheryl said. “She already snapped at me.”
“We’re tired, honey,” I said. “So try to be nicer.”
“She’s never nice,” Cheryl said.
“Run go get Little Duke,” I said. “And hurry back.”
“I guess my questions come last here, right?” Edna said.
I put my arm around her. “That’s not true.”
“Did you find somebody over there in the trailers you’d rather stay with? You were gone long enough.”
“That’s not a thing to say,” I said. “I was just trying to make things look right, so we don’t get put in jail.”
“So you don’t, you mean.” Edna laughed a little laugh I didn’t like hearing.
“That’s right. So I don’t,” I said. “I’d be the one in Dutch.” I stared out at the big, lighted assemblage of white buildings and white lights beyond the trailer community, plumes of white smoke escaping up into the heartless Wyoming sky, the whole company of buildings looking like some unbelievable castle, humming away in a distorted dream. “You know what all those buildings are there?” I said to Edna, who hadn’t moved and who didn’t really seem to care if she ever moved anymore ever.
“No. But I can’t say it matters, because it isn’t a motel and it isn’t a restaurant.”
“It’s a gold mine,” I said, staring at the gold mine, which, I knew now, was a greater distance from us than it seemed, though it seemed huge and near, up against the cold sky. I thought there should’ve been a wall around it with guards instead of just the lights and no fence. It seemed as if anyone could go in and take what they wanted, just the way I had gone up to that woman’s trailer and used the telephone, though that obviously wasn’t true.
Edna began to laugh then. Not the mean laugh I didn’t like, but a laugh that had something caring behind it, a full laugh that enjoyed a joke, a laugh she was laughing the first time I laid eyes on her, in Missoula in the East Gate Bar in 1979, a laugh we used to laugh together when Cheryl was still with her mother and I was working steady at the track and not stealing cars or passing bogus checks to merchants. A better time all around. And for some reason it made me laugh just hearing her, and we both stood there behind the cab in the dark, laughing at the gold mine in the desert, me with my arm around her and Cheryl out rustling up Little Duke and the cabdriver smoking in the cab and our stolen Mercedes-Benz, which I’d had such hopes for in Florida, stuck up to its axle in sand, where I’d never get to see it again.
“I always wondered what a gold mine would look like when I saw it,” Edna said, still laughing, wiping a tear from her eye.
“Me too,” I said. “I was always curious about it.”
“We’re a couple of fools, aren’t we, Earl?” she said, unable to quit laughing completely.
“We’re two of a kind.”
“It might be a good sign, though,” I said.
“How could it be? It’s not our gold mine. There aren’t any drive-up windows.” She was still laughing.
“We’ve seen it,” I said, pointing. “That’s it right there. It may mean we’re getting closer. Some people never see it at all.”
“In a pig’s eye, Earl,” she said. “You and me see it in a pig’s eye.”
And she turned and got in the cab to go.
The cabdriver didn’t ask anything about our car or where it was, to mean he’d noticed something queer. All of which made me feel like we had made a clean break from the car and couldn’t be connected with it until it was too late, if ever. The driver told us a lot about Rock Springs while he drove, that because of the gold mine a lot of people had moved there in just six months, people from all over, including New York, and that most of them lived out in the trailers. Prostitutes from New York City, who he called “B-girls,” had come into town, he said, on the prosperity tide, and Cadillacs with New York plates cruised the little streets every night, full of Negroes with big hats who ran the women. He told us that everybody who got in his cab now wanted to know where the women were, and when he got our call he almost didn’t come because some of the trailers were brothels operated by the mine for engineers and computer people away from home. He said he got tired of running back and forth out there just for vile business. He said that 60 Minutes had even done a program about Rock Springs and that a blow-up had resulted in Cheyenne, though nothing could be done unless the boom left town. “It’s prosperity’s fruit,” the driver said. “I’d rather be poor, which is lucky for me.”
He said all the motels were sky-high, but since we were a family he could show us a nice one that was affordable. But I told him we wanted a first-rate place where they took animals, and the money didn’t matter because we had had a hard day and wanted to finish on a high note. I also knew that it was in the little nowhere places that the police look for you and find you. People I’d known were always being arrested in cheap hotels and tourist courts with names you’d never heard of before. Never in Holiday Inns or TraveLodges.
I asked him to drive us to the middle of town and back out again so Cheryl could see the train station, and while we were there I saw a pink Cadillac with New York plates and a TV aerial being driven slowly by a Negro in a big hat down a narrow street where there were just bars and a Chinese restaurant. It was an odd sight, nothing you could ever expect.
“There’s your pure criminal element,” the cabdriver said and seemed sad. “I’m sorry for people like you to see a thing like that. We’ve got a nice town here, but there’re some that want to ruin it for everybody. There used to be a way to deal with trash and criminals, but those days are gone forever.”
“You said it,” Edna said.
“You shouldn’t let it get you down,” I said to him. “There’s more of you than them. And there always will be. You’re the best advertisement this town has. I know Cheryl will remember you and not that man, won’t you, honey?” But Cheryl was alseep by then, holding Little Duke in her arms on the taxi seat.
The driver took us to the Ramada Inn on the interstate, not far from where we’d broken down. I had a small pain of regret as we drove under the Ramada awning that we hadn’t driven up in a cranberry-colored Mercedes but instead in a beat-up old Chrysler taxi driven by an old man full of complaints. Though I knew it was for the best. We were better off without that car; better, really, in any other car but that one, where the signs had turned bad.
I registered under another name and paid for the room in cash so there wouldn’t be any questions. On the line where it said “representing” I wrote “Ophthalmologist” and put “M.D.” after the name. It had a nice look to it, even though it wasn’t my name.
When we got to the room, which was in the back where I’d asked for it, I put Cheryl on one of the beds and Little Duke beside her so they’d sleep. She’d missed dinner, but it only meant she’d be hungry in the morning, when she could have anything she wanted. A few missed meals don’t make a kid bad. I’d missed a lot of them myself and haven’t turned out completely bad.
“Let’s have some fried chicken,” I said to Edna when she came out of the bathroom. “They have good fried chicken at Ramadas, and I noticed the buffet was still up. Cheryl can stay right here, where it’s safe, till we’re back.”
“I guess I’m not hungry anymore,” Edna said. She stood at the window staring out into the dark. I could see out the window past her some yellowish foggy glow in the sky. For a moment I thought it was the gold mine out in the distance lighting the night, though it was only the interstate.
“We could order up,” I said. “Whatever you want. There’s a menu on the phone book. You could just have a salad.”
“You go ahead,” she said. “I’ve lost my hungry spirit.” She sat on the bed beside Cheryl and Little Duke and looked at them in a sweet way and put her hand on Cheryl’s cheek just as if she’d had a fever. “Sweet little girl,” she said. “Everybody loves you.”
“What do you want to do?” I said. “I’d like to eat. Maybe I’ll order up some chicken.”
“Why don’t you do that?” she said. “It’s your favorite.” And she smiled at me from the bed.
I sat on the other bed and dialed room service. I asked for chicken, garden salad, potato and a roll, plus a piece of hot apple pie and iced tea. I realized I hadn’t eaten all day. When I put down the phone I saw that Edna was watching me, not in a hateful way or a loving way, just in a way that seemed to say she didn’t understand something and was going to ask me about it.
“When did watching me get so entertaining?” I said and smiled at her. I was trying to be friendly. I knew how tired she must be. It was after nine o’clock.
“I was just thinking how much I hated being in a motel without a car that was mine to drive. Isn’t that funny? I started feeling like that last night when that purple car wasn’t mine. That purple car just gave me the willies, I guess, Earl.”
“One of those cars outside is yours,” I said. “Just stand right there and pick it out.”
“I know,” she said. “But that’s different, isn’t it?” She reached and got her blue Bailey hat, put it on her head, and set it way back like Dale Evans. She looked sweet. “I used to like to go to motels, you know,” she said. “There’s something secret about them and free—I was never paying, of course. But you felt safe from everything and free to do what you wanted because you’d made the decision to be there and paid that price, and all the rest was the good part. Fucking and everything, you know.” She smiled at me in a good-natured way.
“Isn’t that the way this is?” I was sitting on the bed, watching her, not knowing what to expect her to say next.
“I don’t guess it is, Earl,” she said and stared out the window. “I’m thirty-two and I’m going to have to give up on motels. I can’t keep that fantasy going anymore.”
“Don’t you like this place?” I said and looked around at the room. I appreciated the modern paintings and the lowboy bureau and the big TV. It seemed like a plenty nice enough place to me, considering where we’d been.
“No, I don’t,” Edna said with real conviction. “There’s no use in my getting mad at you about it. It isn’t your fault. You do the best you can for everybody. But every trip teaches you something. And I’ve learned I need to give up on motels before some bad thing happens to me. I’m sorry.”
“What does that mean?” I said, because I really didn’t know what she had in mind to do, though I should’ve guessed.
“I guess I’ll take that ticket you mentioned,” she said, and got up and faced the window. “Tomorrow’s soon enough. We haven’t got a car to take me anyhow.”
“Well, that’s a fine thing,” I said, sitting on the bed, feeling like I was in shock. I wanted to say something to her, to argue with her, but I couldn’t think what to say that seemed right. I didn’t want to be mad at her, but it made me mad.
“You’ve got a right to be mad at me, Earl,” she said, “but I don’t think you can really blame me.” She turned around and faced me and sat on the windowsill, her hands on her knees. Someone knocked on the door, and I just yelled for them to set the tray down and put it on the bill.
“I guess I do blame you,” I said, and I was angry. I thought about how I could’ve disappeared into that trailer community and hadn’t, had come back to keep things going, had tried to take control of things for everybody when they looked bad.
“Don’t. I wish you wouldn’t,” Edna said and smiled at me like she wanted me to hug her.
“Anybody ought to have their choice in things if they can. Don’t you believe that, Earl? Here I am out here in the desert where I don’t know anything, in a stolen car, in a motel room under an assumed name, with no money of my own, a kid that’s not mine, and the law after me. And I have a choice to get out of all of it by getting on a bus. What would you do? I know exactly what you’d do.”
“You think you do,” I said. But I didn’t want to get into an argument about it and tell her all I could’ve done and didn’t do. Because it wouldn’t have done any good. When you get to the point of arguing, you’re past the point of changing anybody’s mind, even though it’s supposed to be the other way, and maybe for some classes of people it is, just never mine.
Edna smiled at me and came across the room and put her arms around me where I was sitting on the bed. Cheryl rolled over and looked at us and smiled, then closed her eyes, and the room was quiet. I was beginning to think of Rock Springs in a way I knew I would always think of it, a lowdown city full of crimes and whores and disappointments, a place where a woman left me, instead of a place where I got things on the straight track once and for all, a place I saw a gold mine.
“Eat your chicken, Earl,” Edna said. “Then we can go to bed. I’m tired, but I’d like to make love to you anyway. None of this is a matter of not loving you, you know that.”
Sometime late in the night, after Edna was asleep, I got up and walked outside into the parking lot. It could’ve been anytime because there was still the light from the interstate frosting the low sky and the big red Ramada sign humming motionlessly in the night and no light at all in the east to indicate it might be morning. The lot was full of cars all nosed in, a couple of them with suitcases strapped to their roofs and their trunks weighed down with belongings the people were taking someplace, to a new home or a vacation resort in the mountains. I had laid in bed a long time after Edna was asleep, watching the Atlanta Braves on television, trying to get my mind off how I’d feel when I saw that bus pull away the next day, and how I’d feel when I turned around and there stood Cheryl and Little Duke and no one to see about them but me alone, and that the first thing I had to do was get hold of some automobile and get the plates switched, then get them some breakfast and get us all on the road to Florida, all in the space of probably two hours, since that Mercedes would certainly look less hid in the daytime than the night, and word travels fast. I’ve always taken care of Cheryl myself as long as I’ve had her with me. None of the women ever did. Most of them didn’t even seem to like her, though they took care of me in a way so that I could take care of her. And I knew that once Edna left, all that was going to get harder. Though what I wanted most to do was not think about it just for a little while, try to let my mind go limp so it could be strong for the rest of what there was. I thought that the difference between a successful life and an unsuccessful one, between me at that moment and all the people who owned the cars that were nosed into their proper places in the lot, maybe between me and that woman out in the trailers by the gold mine, was how well you were able to put things like this out of your mind and not be bothered by them, and maybe, too, by how many troubles like this one you had to face in a lifetime. Through luck or design they had all faced fewer troubles, and by their own characters, they forgot them faster. And that’s what I wanted for me. Fewer troubles, fewer memories of trouble.
I walked over to a car, a Pontiac with Ohio tags, one of the ones with bundles and suitcases strapped to the top and a lot more in the trunk, by the way it was riding. I looked inside the driver’s window. There were maps and paperback books and sunglasses and the little plastic holders for cans that hang on the window wells. And in the back there were kids’ toys and some pillows and a cat box with a cat sitting in it staring up at me like I was the face of the moon. It all looked familiar to me, the very same things I would have in my car if I had a car. Nothing seemed surprising, nothing different. Though I had a funny sensation at that moment and turned and looked up at the windows along the back of the motel. All were dark except two. Mine and another one. And I wondered, because it seemed funny, what would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn? Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him? Would you think he had a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?