|HER REAL NAME
by Charles D'Ambrosio
for P. L. A.
THE GIRL'S SCALP looked as though it had been singed by fire -- strands
of thatchy red hair snaked away from her face, then settled against her skin, pasted there
by sweat and sunscreen and the blown grit and dust of travel. For a while her thin hair
had remained as light and clean as the down of a newborn chick, but it was getting hotter
as they drove west, heading into a summer-long drought that scorched the landscape, that
withered the grass and melted the black tar between expansion joints in the road and
bloated like balloons the bodies of raccoon and deer and dog and made everything on the
highway ahead ripple like a mirage through waves of rising heat. Since leaving Fargo, it
had been too hot to wear the wig, and it now lay on the seat between them, still holding
within its webbing the shape of her head. Next to it, a bag of orange candy -- smiles, she
called them -- spilled across the vinyl. Sugar crystals ran into the dirty stitching and
stuck to her thigh. Gum wrappers and greasy white bags littered the floor, and on the
dash, amid a flotsam of plastic cups, pennies, and matchbooks, a bumper sticker curled in
the heat. EXPECT A MIRACLE, it read.
The girl cradled a black Bible in her lap, the leather
covers as worn and ragged as old tennis shoes. The inner leaf contained a family tree
dating back to 1827, names tightly scrawled in black against yellowing parchment, a
genealogy as ponderous as those kept in Genesis, the book of the generations of Adam. The
list of ancestors on the inner leaf was meaningless ancient history to the man, whose name
was Jones, but the girl said her family had carried that same Bible with them wherever
they went, for one hundred and fifty years, and that she wanted it with her too.
"That's me," the girl had said, showing Jones her name, the newest of all,
penned in generous loops of Bic blue. She'd written it in herself along the margin of the
page. b. 1960-. The girl read different passages aloud as they drove, invoking a
mix of epic beauty and bad memories, of Exodus and the leather belt her stepfather used to
beat her when she broke a commandment -- one of the original ten or one of his additions.
Jones wasn't sure what faith she placed in the austere Christianity of her forefathers,
but reading aloud seemed to cast a spell over her. She had a beautiful church-trained
voice that lifted each verse into a soothing melody, a song whose tune of succor rose and
fell somewhere beyond the harsh demands of faith. Only minutes before she'd read herself
to sleep with a passage from Jeremiah.
Now, as if she felt Jones staring, the girl stirred.
"You were looking at me," she said.
"You were thinking something."
Her face was shapeless, soft and pale as warm putty
"I could feel it," she said. "Where are
They hadn't gone more than a mile since she'd dozed
off. She reached for the candy on the seat.
"You hungry? You want a smile, Jones?"
"No, none for me," Jones said.
"A Life Saver?" She held the unraveled
"Me eating candy, and my teeth falling out."
The girl licked the sugar off a smile and asked, "How far to Las Vegas?"
Jones jammed a tape in the eight-track. He was driving
a 1967 Belvedere he'd bought for seven hundred dollars cash in Newport News, and it had
come with a bulky eight-track, like an atavistic organ, bolted beneath the glove box. He'd
found two tapes in the trunk, and now, after fifteen thousand miles, he was fairly sick of
both Tom Jones and Steppenwolf. But he preferred the low-fidelity noise of either tape to
the sound of himself lying.
"Why don't you come with me, little girl,"
he sang along, in a high, mocking falsetto, "on a magic carpet ride."
"How far?" the girl asked.
Jones adjusted his grip on the steering wheel.
"Another day, maybe."
She seemed to fall asleep again, her dry-lidded eyes
shut like a lizard's, her parched, flaking lips parted, her frail body given over to the
car's gentle rocking. Jones turned his attention back to the road, a hypnotic black line
snaking through waves of yellow grass. It seemed to Jones that they'd been traveling
through eastern Montana forever, that the same two or three trees, the same two or three
farmhouses and grain silos were rushing past like scenery in an old movie, only suggesting
movement. Endless fields, afire in the bright sun, were occasionally broken by stands of
dark cottonwood or the gutted chassis of a rusting car. Collapsing barns leaned over in
the grass, giving in to the hot wind and the insistent flatness, as if passively accepting
the laws of a world whose only landmark, as far as Jones could see, was the level horizon.
"He's out there," the girl said. "I can
feel him out there when I close my eyes. He knows where we are."
"I doubt that very much," Jones said.
The girl struggled to turn, gripping the headrest. She
looked through the rear window at the warp of the road as it narrowed to a pinprick on the
pale edge of the world they'd left behind: it was out of the vanishing point that her
father would come.
"I expect he'll be caught up soon," she
said. "He's got a sense. One time he predicted an earthquake."
"It's a big country," Jones said. "We
could've gone a million other ways. Maybe if you think real hard about Florida that'll
foul up his super-duper predicting equipment."
"Prayer," the girl said. "He prays.
Nothing fancy. We're like Jonah sneaking on that boat in Tarshish; they found him
The girl closed her eyes; she splashed water on her
face and chest.
"It's so hot," she said. "Tell me some
more about the Eskimos."
"I'm running out of things to say about
Eskimos," Jones said. "I only read that one book."
"Say old stuff, I don't care.
He searched his memory for what he remembered of Knud
"Nothing's wasted," Jones said. "They
use everything. The Inuit can make a sled out of a slain dog. They kill the dog and skin
it, then cut the hide into two strips."
"I'm burning alive," the girl said.
"They roll up the hide and freeze the strips in
water to make the runners. Then they join the runners together with the dog's rib bones.
" Jones nibbled the corner of an orange smile. "One minute the dog's pulling the
sled, the next minute he is the sled." He saw that the girl was asleep. "That's
irony," he said and then repeated the word. "Irony." It sounded weak,
inadequate; it described nothing; he drove silently on. Out through the windshield he saw
a landscape too wide for the eye to measure -- the crushing breadth of the burnt fields
and the thin black thread of road vanishing into a vast blue sky as if the clouds massed
on the horizon were distant cities, and they were going to them.
She'd been working the pumps and the register at a crossroads station in
southern Illinois, a rail-thin girl with stiff red hair the color of rust, worried,
chipped nails, and green eyes without luster. She wore gray coveralls that ballooned over
her body like a clown's outfit, the long legs and sleeves rolled into thick cuffs.
"I've never seen the ocean," she'd said, pointing to the remains of a peeling
bumper sticker on Jones's car. . . . BE SAILING, it read. She stood on the pump island
while Jones filled his tank. The hooded blue lights above them pulsed in sync to the
hovering sound of cicadas, and both were a comforting close presence in the black land
spreading out around the station. Jones wanted to tell the girl to look around her, right
now: this flat patch of nothing was as good as an ocean. Instead, making conversation,
Jones said, "I just got out of the navy."
"You from around here?" she asked.
"Nope," Jones said.
He topped off his tank and reached into the car where
he kept his money clipped to the sun visor.
"I knew that," she said. "I seen your
Jones handed her a twenty from his roll of muster pay.
The money represented for him his final six months in the navy, half a year in which he
hadn't once set foot on land. Tired of the sea, knowing he'd never make a career out of
it, on his last tour Jones had refused the temptations of shore leave, hoping to hit land
with enough of a stake to last him a year. Now, as he looked at the dwindling roll, he was
torn between exhaustion and a renewed desire to move on before he went broke.
"Where in Virginia you from?"
"I'm not," Jones said. "I bought the
car in Newport News. Those are just old plates."
"That's too bad," the girl said. "I
like the name. Virginia. Don't you?"
"I guess it's not special to me one way or the
other," Jones said.
The girl folded the twenty in half and ran her thin
fingers back and forth over the crease. That she worked in a gas station in the middle of
nowhere struck Jones as sexy, and now he looked at her closely, trying to decide whether
or not he wanted to stop a night or two in Carbondale. Except for the strange texture and
tint of her red hair, he thought she looked good, and the huge coveralls, rippling in the
breeze, made her seem sweet and lost, somehow innocent and alone in a way that gave Jones
the sudden confidence that he could pick her up without much trouble.
"You gonna break that?" Jones asked, nodding
at the bill.
Her arm vanished entirely as she reached into the deep
pocket of her coveralls and pulled out a roll of bills stained black with grease and oil.
Jones took the change, then looked off, around the station. In the east a dome of light
rose above Carbondale, a pale yellow pressing out against the night sky. The road running
in front of the station was empty except for a spotlight that shone on a green dinosaur
and a Sinclair sign that spun on a pole above it.
"Don't get scared, working out here?" he
"Nah," she said. "Hardly anyone comes
out this way, 'less they're like you, 'less they're going somewhere. Had a man from Vernal
gas here the other night. That's in Utah."
"Some nights I wouldn't care if I got
Jones took his toilet kit - a plastic sack that
contained a thin, curved bonelike bar of soap, a dull razor, and a balding toothbrush -
out of the glove box. "You mind if I wash up?"
"Washroom's around back," she said. "By
the propane tanks."
In the bathroom, he took off his T-shirt and washed
himself with a wetted towel, watching his reflection in the mirror above the sink as
though it were someone else, someone from his past. Gray eyes, a sharp sculpted jaw, ears
that jutted absurdly from his close-cropped head: a navy face. Six months of shipboard
isolation had left him with little sense of himself outside of his duties as an officer.
In that time, held in the chrysalis of his berth, he'd forgotten not only what he looked
like, but what other people might see when they looked at him. Now he was a civilian. He
decided to shave, lathering up with the bar of soap. The mustache came off in four or five
For a moment the warm breeze was bracing against his
cleanly shaven face. He stood in the lot, a little stiff, at attention, and when the girl
waved to him from the cashier's window, Jones saluted.
"See you later," he said.
"Okay," she said.
Jones drove away, stopping at a convenience store
about a mile down the road. He grabbed two six-packs, a cheap Styrofoam cooler, and a bag
of ice and wandered down the aisle where the toys were kept. He selected a pink gun that
fired rubber suction darts. He returned to the station and parked his car in the shadow of
the dinosaur. He waited. The girl sat in the glass booth behind a rack of road atlases,
suddenly the sweetheart of every town he'd traveled through in the last few months. To be
with someone who knew his name, to hear another voice would be enough for tonight. Jones
twisted open a beer and loaded the dart gun. He licked the suction tip, took aim and
"Hey," the girl shouted.
"Wanna go somewhere?" Jones asked.
They'd crossed the Mississippi three weeks ago and driven north
through Iowa, staying in motels and eating in restaurants, enjoying high times until his
money began to run out. Then they started sleeping in the car, parked at rest stops or in
empty lots, arms and legs braided together in the backseat of the Belvedere. One morning
Jones had gone to a bake shop and bought a loaf of day-old sourdough bread for thirty-five
cents. It was the cool blue hour before dawn, but already, as he crossed the parking lot,
the sky was growing pale, and the patches of tar were softening beneath his shoes, and in
the sultry air the last weak light of the street lamps threw off dull coronas of yellow
and pink. Only one other car was parked in the empty lot, and its windows had been smashed
out, a spray of glass scattered like seeds across the asphalt. As Jones approached the
Belvedere, he saw the girl slowly lift the hair away from her head. It was as if he were
witness to some miracle of revelation set in reverse, as if the rising sun and the new day
had not bestowed but instead stripped the world of vision, exposed and left it bare. Her
skull was blue, a hidden thing not meant for the light. Jones opened her door. She held
the wig of curly red hair in her lap.
"Damn," he said. He paced off a small circle
in the parking lot.
The girl combed her fingers calmly through the hair on
her lap. She'd understood when she removed the wig that revealing herself to Jones would
tip fate irrevocably. She felt that in this moment she would know Jones and know him
forever. She waited for Jones to spend his shock and anger, afraid that when he cooled
down she might be on her way back to Carbondale, to the gas station and her stepfather and
the church and the prayers for miraculous intercession. When Jones asked what was wrong
with her, and she told him, he punted the loaf of sourdough across the empty lot.
"Why haven't you said anything?"
"What was I supposed to say, Jones?"
"The truth might've made a good start."
"Seems to me you've been having yourself a fine
time without it," she said. "Hasn't been all that crucial so far."
"Besides, I wouldn't be here now if I'd told you.
You'd have been long gone.
Jones denied it. "You don't know me from
Adam," he said.
"Maybe not," she said. She set the wig on
her head. "I'll keep it on if you think I'm ugly." The girl swung her legs out
of the car and walked across the lot. She picked up the bread and brought it back.
"These things drag out," she said.
She brushed pebbles and dirt and splinters of glass
from the crust and then cracked the loaf in half.
"You didn't get any orange juice, did you?"
she asked. "This old bread needs orange juice."
She reached inside and tore a hunk of clean white
bread from the core and passed the loaf to Jones. He ate a piece and calmed down.
"Who knows how long I've got?" she said.
When they headed out again that morning, going west
seemed inevitable -- driving into the sun was too much to bear, and having it at their
backs in the quiet and vacant dawn gave them the feeling, however brief, that they could
outrace it. It was 1977, it was August, it was the season when the rolling fields were
feverish with sunflowers turning on withered stalks to reach the light, facing them in the
east as they drove off at dawn, gazing after them in the west as the sun set and they
searched the highway ahead for the softly glowing neon strip, for the revolving signs and
lighted windows and the melancholy trickle of small-town traffic that would bloom brightly
on the horizon and mean food and a place to stop for the night. If Jones wasn't too tired,
he pushed on, preferring the solitude of night driving, when actual distances collapsed
unseen, and the car seemed to float unmoored through limitless space, the reassuring hum
of tires rolling beneath him, the lights of towns hovering across the darkened land like
constellations in a warm universe. By day, he stopped only when the girl wanted to see a
natural wonder, a landmark, a point of historical interest. Early this morning they'd
visited the valley of the Little Bighorn. Silence held sway over the sight, a silence that
touched the history of a century ago and then reached beyond it, running back to the burnt
ridges and bluffs and to a time when the flat golden plain in the West had not yet felt
the weight of footprints. Jones watched the girl search among the huddled white markers,
looking for the blackened stone where Custer fell. She'd climbed over the wrought-iron
fence to stand beside the stone, and a bull snake cooling in the shadow slithered off
through the yellow grass. She seemed okay, not really sick, only a little odd and alien
when she took off the wig. Now and then Jones would look at the girl and think, You're
dying, but the unvarying heat hammered the days into a dull sameness, and driving
induced a kind of amnesia, and for the most part Jones had shoved the idea out of his mind
until this morning when they'd discussed their next move.
"We could drive to Nevada," she'd said.
"Seems we're headed that direction, anyhow."
"Maybe," Jones had said.
"It only takes an hour to get married," the
girl said, "and they rent you the works. A veil, flowers. We'll gamble. I've never
done that. Have you? Roulette - what do you think, Jones?"
"I said maybe."
"Jones," she said. "I'm not into
"I don't know," Jones said." I haven't
thought it out."
"What's to think?" the girl said.
"You'd be a widower in no time."
Jones squeezed the girl's knee, knobby and hard like a
foal's. "Jesus," he said.
"It's not a big commitment I'm asking for."
"Okay, all right," Jones had said.
"Don't get morbid."
Night fell, and the highway rose into the mountains. With the
continental divide coming up, Jones couldn't decide whether or not to wake the girl. She
didn't like to miss a landmark or border or any attraction advertised on a billboard.
They'd stopped for the Parade of Presidents, America's Heritage in Wax, and to see
alligators and prairie dogs and an ostrich and the bleached white bones of dinosaurs, and
by now the back of the car was covered with bumper stickers and decals, and the trunk was
full of souvenirs she'd bought, snow-filled baubles, bob ties, beaded Indian belts,
engraved bracelets, pennants. Wall Drug, Mount Rushmore, the Little Bighorn, and a bare
rutted patch of dirt in the sweet grass that, according to a bullet-riddled placard, was
the Lewis and Clark Trail - she'd stocked up on hokey junk and sentimental trinkets, and
the stuff now commemorated a wandering path across state lines, over rivers, up mountains,
into empty fields where battles had been fought and decided and down the streets of dirty,
forgotten towns where once, long ago, something important had happened.
Jones gave her a shake.
"Jones?" She was disoriented, a child
spooked on waking in unfamiliar surroundings. "I'm not feeling too good."
"You want to lie down?"
"I could use a beer," the girl said.
"Something to kill this."
Jones eased the car over the breakdown line. The
mountains cut a crown of darkness out of the night sky, and a row of telephone poles,
silhouetted in the starlight, seemed like crosses planted along the highway. He arranged
the backseat, shoving his duffle to the floor and unrolling the sleeping bag. The car
shook as a semi passed, spraying a phalanx of gravel in its wake.
"Let's get there soon," the girl said.
"Get in back," Jones said.
"I'm praying," she said.
"That's good," he said. Jones ran his hand
over the girl's head. Wispy strands of hair pulled loose and stuck to his palm.
"We'll stop in the next town."
Back on the road, the wind dried his T-shirt, and the
sweat-soaked cotton turned stiff as cardboard. Beneath him the worn tires rolled over the
warm asphalt like the murmur of a river. On the move once more, he felt only relief, a
sense of his body freed from its strict place in time, drifting through the huddled blue
lights of towns named after Indians and cavalrymen and battles, after blind expectations
and the comforts of the known past, after the sustaining beliefs and fears of pioneers.
Outlook, Savage, Plentywood. Going west, names changed, became deposits of utopian
history, places named Hope and Endwell, Wisdom and Independence and Loveland. Whenever the
road signs flashed by, luminous for an instant, Jones felt as though he were journeying
through a forgotten allegory.
The girl asked, "When do you think we'll be
"We're not going to Las Vegas," Jones said.
He had not known his decision until he spoke and heard the words aloud.
"I'm taking you to a hospital."
"They'll send me home," the girl said.
"Dad'll say you abducted me."
"You know that's not the deal."
"Don't matter," the girl said. "He'll
say you're working for Satan and his demonic forces, even if you don't know it. He says
just about everybody is."
"Well, I'm not," Jones said.
"You might be without you knowing it, " the
They were crossing the Bitterroot. Jones lost radio
reception, and so he listened to the girl's prayers, words coming to him in fragments, Jesus
and savior and amen, the music of her voice carried away by the wind,
choked off whenever she dry-heaved in the seat behind him. Somewhere in western Idaho she
fell asleep, and for the next few hours Jones listened to the car tires sing. Outside
Spokane, on an illuminated billboard set back in a wheat field, a figure of Jesus walked
on water, holding a staff. Jones considered the odd concession to realism: a man walking
on water would hardly need to support himself with a crutch. The thought was gone as soon
as the billboard vanished behind him. No others took its place. Bored, he searched the
radio dial for voices but for long empty stretches pulled in nothing but the sizzle of
static, a strange surging cackle filling the car as if suddenly he'd lost contact with
A red neon vacancy sign sputtered ambiguously, the "No"
weakly charged and half-lit. Behind the motel and across the railroad tracks, the Columbia
River snaked through Wenatchee, flowing wide and quiet, a serene blue vein dividing the
town from the apple orchards. The low brown hills were splotched with squares of green,
patches of garden carved out of burnt land, and beyond them to the west, rising up, etched
into the blue sky, a snowcapped mountain range rimmed the horizon like teeth set in some
"We're here," Jones said. "Where?"
"Wen-a-tchee," he said.
"Wena-tchee," he tried again.
"Just a place," he said, finally.
"Let's get upstairs."
In their room, Jones set the girl on the bed. He
spritzed the sheets with tap water, cooling them, and opened the window. A hot breeze
pushed the brown burlap curtains into the room. The gray, dusty leaves of an apple tree
spread outside the window, and beneath the tree the unnatural blue of a swimming pool
shimmered without revealing any depth in the morning sun. A slight breeze rippled the
water, and an inflated lifesaver floated aimlessly across the surface.
The girl was kneeling at the foot of the bed, her
hands folded and her head bowed in prayer. She was naked; her body a dull, white votary
candle, the snuffed flame of her hair a dying red ember.
"Kneel here with me," she said.
"You go ahead," Jones said. He sat on the
edge of the bed and pulled off his boots.
"It wouldn't hurt you," she said, "to
get on your knees."
"We had this discussion before," he said.
"I believe it was a miracle," the girl said.
She was referring to the remission of her cancer, the answered prayers. Her stepfather
belonged to an evangelical sect that believed the literal rapture of Judgment Day was near
at hand. Several dates he'd predicted for the end of time had already come and gone. Two
months ago, he'd taken her out of medical treatment, refusing science in favor of prayer.
Her illness bloomed with metaphoric possibilities and large portents for the congregation
of the Church of the Redeemer in Carbondale and was used as a kind of augury, variously
read as a sign of God's covenant, or as proof of Man's fallenness, his wickedness and sin.
For a while she'd been in remission, and news of her cure had brought a host of desperate
seekers to the church.
At a display in South Dakota, against the evidence of
bones before them, the girl had said dinosaurs didn't die sixty million years ago.
"It was about ten thousand years ago," she had insisted. Her stepfather believed
they'd been on the boat with Noah.
"Some big-ass boat," Jones had said. Jones
no longer had any interest in arguing. But he said, "And now that you're sick again,
"It's what the Lord wants."
"There's no talking to you," Jones said.
"We're all just here to bear witness," she
"Have your prayers ever been answered?"
"The night you came by the station, I asked for
that. I prayed, and you came.
"I was hungry. I wanted a candy bar."
"That's what you think," the girl said.
"But you don't know. You don't really know why you stopped, or what the plan is or
anything. Who made you hungry? Huh? Think about that."
The rush of words seemed to exhaust her. She wrapped a
corner of the sheet around her finger and repeated, "Who made you hungry?"
"So you prayed for me, and I came," Jones
said. "Me, in particular? Or just someone, anyone?" He stripped off his shirt,
wadded it up, and wiped the sweat from his armpits. "Your illness doesn't mean
anything. You're just sick, that's all."
Jones cranked the hot water and stayed in the shower,
his first in days, until it scalded his skin a splotchy pink. Finished, he toweled off,
standing over the girl. She was choking down cries.
"Why don't you take a shower?" Jones said.
"Maybe I should go back home."
"Maybe you should just stand out there on the
road and let your old dad's radar find you." Then Jones said, "If that's what
you want, I'll get you a bus ticket. You can be on your way tomorrow.
The girl shook her head. "It's no place to
me," she said.
"The Eskimos don't have homes, either,"
Jones said. "They don't have a word for it. They can't even ask each other, Hey,
where do you live?"
Dr. McKillop sat on an apple crate and pulled a flask from his
coat pocket. The afternoon heat was bad, but the harsh light was worse; he squinted
uphill, vaguely wishing he were sober. It was too late, though, and with a sense of
anticipation, of happy fatality, he drank, and the sun-warmed scotch bit hard at the back
of his throat. MeKillop felt the alcoholic's secret pleasure at submitting to something
greater than himself, a realignment with destiny: he took another drink. Swimming in the
reflection of the silver flask, he noticed a young white man. He was tall and thin, his
cheekbones sharp and high, and in the glare his deep eye sockets seemed empty, pools of
cool blue shadow. When the man finally approached, McKillop offered him the flask.
"I was told in town I could find you here,"
MeKillop nodded. "You must be desperate."
The doctor wiped dust and sweat from his neck with a
sun-bleached bandana. One of the day pickers had fallen from a tree and broken his arm,
and MeKillop had been called to reset it. He was no longer a doctor, not legally, not
since six months ago when he'd been caught prescribing cocaine to himself. The
probationary status of his medical license didn't matter to the migrants who worked the
apple orchards, and McKillop was glad for the work. It kept trouble at a distance.
"Let me guess," McKillop said. "You
don't have any money? Or you're looking for pharmaceuticals?"
"The bartender at Yakima Suzie's gave me your
name," Jones said.
"You can get drunk, you can smoke cigars and
gamble in a bar. You can find plenty in a bar. I know I have." MeKillop pressed a dry
brown apple blossom between his fingers, then sniffed beneath his nails. "But a
doctor, a doctor you probably shouldn't find in a bar." He looked up at Jones and
said, "I've been defrocked."
"I'm not looking for a priest," Jones said.
The doctor's stentorian voice and overblown statements were starting to annoy him. The
doctor wore huaraches with tire-tread soles, and his toes were caked with dirt, and the
long curled nails looked yellow and unhealthy. He knotted his long raggedy hair in a
Jones remained silent while a flatbed full of migrants
rumbled by, jouncing over a worn two-track of gray dust and chuckholes. The green of the
garden, of the orchards he'd seen from the valley, was an illusion; the trail of rising
dust blew through the trees and settled and bleached the branches and leaves. A
grasshopper spit brown juice on Jones's hand; he flicked it away and said, "I've got
a girl in pain."
"Well, a girl in pain." MeKillop capped his
flask and wiped his neck again. He spat in the dust, a dry glob rolling up thick and hard
at his feet. He crushed it away with the rubber heel of his sandal. He looked up into the
lattice of leaves, the sun filtered through; many of the apples with a western exposure
were still green on the branch. MeKillop stood and plucked one of the unripe apples and
put it in his pocket. "For later," he said.
The room smelled like rotting mayonnaise. Her body glistened with
a yellow liquid. She'd vomited on herself, on the pillows, on the floor. Facedown, she
clutched the sheets and tore them from the bed. She rolled over on her back, kicking the
mattress and arching herself off the bed, lifting her body, twisting as though she were a
wrestler attempting to escape a hold.
Jones pinned her arms against the bed while she
bucked, trying to free herself. Her teeth were clenched, then she gasped, gulping for air.
Her upper lip held a delicate dew of sweat in a mustache of faint blond hair. She made
fists of her thin, skeletal hands, and then opened them, clawing Jones with her yellowed
McKillop drew morphine from a glass vial and found a
blue vein running in the girl's arm. A drop of blood beaded where the needle punctured her
skin. McKillop dabbed the blood away with the bedsheet and pressed a Band-Aid over the
The girl's body relaxed, as if she were suddenly
Windblown dust clouded the window. Jones slid it open
along runners clogged with dirt and desiccated flies and looked down into the motel pool.
Lit by underwater lights, it glowed like a jewel. A lawn chair lay on its side near the
bottom, gently wavering in an invisible current.
"She needs a doctor," McKillop said.
"That's you," Jones said. "You're the
McKillop shook his head.
"Don't leave," the girl said. Only her index
finger flickered, lifting slightly off the bed, as if all her struggle had been reduced to
a tiny spasm.
"Wait outside," Jones said to the doctor.
When he'd gone, Jones turned on the television, a
broken color set that bathed the room in a blue glow; he searched for a clear channel, but
the screen remained a sea of pulsing static behind which vague figures swam in surreal
distortion, auras without source. He stripped the bed and wetted a thin, rough towel with
warm water and began to wipe the vomit off the girl's face, off her hard, shallow chest,
off her stomach as it rose and fell with each breath. "Feels good," she said.
Jones rinsed the towel and continued the ablution, working down her stick-thin legs and
then turning her onto her stomach, massaging the tepid towel over her back and buttocks,
along her thighs. The curtains fluttered, parting like wings and rising into the room. It
was early, but the sun was setting in the valley, the brown rim of hills holding a halo of
bright light, an emphatic, contoured seam of gold, and different sounds -the screeching of
tires, the jangling of keys, a dog barking - began to carry clearly, sounds so ordinary
and near they seemed to have a source, not within the room, not out in the world, but in
When the girl sank into sleep, Jones slipped out into
"Your wife?" MeKillop asked.
"Just a girl I picked up."
"Jesus, man." With forced jocularity, the
doctor slapped Jones on the back. "You know how to pick them."
Out on the street dusk settled, a moment of
suspension. The sky was still deep blue with a weak edge of white draining away in the
west. An Indian crouched on the curb outside the motel, his face brown and puckered like a
windfall apple in autumn.
Jones and McKillop entered a bar next door.
"I'm taking her to a hospital," Jones said.
"There's precious little a hospital can do,"
the doctor said. "Let's have a drink here," he called out. "They'll start a
morphine drip. It'll keep her euphoric until she dies."
"Then I'll send her home," Jones said. In
the navy he'd learned one thing, and for Jones it amounted to a philosophy: there was no
real reason to go forward, but enormous penalties were paid by those who refused. He'd
learned this lesson rubbing Brasso into his belt buckle and spit shining his boots for
inspections that never came. "I could leave right now," he said. "I could
"Why don't you," the doctor said. "Turn
tail, that's what I'd do." He ordered boilermakers and drank his by dumping the shot
of bourbon into the schooner of beer. He polished off his first drink and called for
"Deep down," McKillop said, "I'm really
Jones said, "I had this feeling if I kept driving
everything would be okay."
"The healing, recuperative powers of the
West,"the doctor said. "Teddy Roosevelt and all that. The West was a necessary
invention of the Civil War, a place of harmony and union. From the body politic to the
Jones only half listened. He found himself resisting
the doctor's glib reductions.
"I'd like to hit the road," MeKillop was
saying. The phrase had an antiquated sound. Even in the cool of the bar, McKillop was
sweating. He pressed a fat finger down on a bread crumb, then flicked it away.
"You looked bad when you saw her," Jones
"I'll be all right," McKillop said. He
downed his drink. "I'm feeling better now. You'll need help, but I'm not your
McKillop bought a roll of quarters and made a few
sloppy calls to friends in Seattle, waking them, demanding favors for the sake of old
times, invoking old obligations, twice being told to fuck off and finally getting through
to an old resident friend at Mercy Hospital, who said he'd look at the girl if nothing
else could be done.
"We'll take care of her," McKillop said to
Jones. They walked down to the section of windowless warehouses and blank-faced
cold-storage buildings, walked along cobbled streets softly pearled with blue lamplight,
apple crates stacked up twenty, thirty feet high against the brick. Beyond the train
tracks, the Columbia flowed quietly; a path of cold moonlight stretched across the water
like a bridge in a dream, the first step always there, at Jones's feet. Through crate
slats Jones saw eyes staring, men slumped in the boxes for the night, out of the wind,
behind a chin king of newspaper, cardboard, fluttering plastic. Jones stopped. A canvas
awning above a loading dock snapped in the breeze like a doused jib sail.
"Don't you worry, Jonesy boy," the doctor
said. "We'll get her squared away. Tomorrow, in Seattle." He reached into his
bag and handed Jones a vial and a syringe. "If it gets too much, the pain, you know,
give her this. Only half, four or five milligrams. You can do it, right? Just find a
A fire burned on the banks of the river. A circle of
light breathed out and the shadows of stone-still men danced hilariously. A woman walked
through the grass outside the circle; her legs were shackled by her own pants, blue jeans
dropped down around her ankles; she stumbled, stood, stumbled, struggled. "I know
what you want," she shouted back at the circle of men. "I know what you
want." She fell, laughing hideously.
The doctor was clutching Jones's hand, squeezing and
shaking it, and Jones got the idea that the doctor might never let go.
Outside the motel, the same wrecked Indian stood and
approached Jones. His left cowboy boot was so worn down around the heel that the bare shoe
tacks gave a sharp metallic click on the cement with each crippled step. He blinked and
thrust a hand at Jones.
"My eyes hurt when I open 'em," he said.
"And they hurt when I close 'em. All night I don't know what to do. I keep opening
and closing my eyes.
Jones reached into his pocket and pulled a rumpled
dollar loose from his wad of muster pay.
"I swear," the Indian said. "Somebody's
making my eyes go black."
Jones gave him the bone. He tried to see in the man
the facial lines of an Eskimo, but his skin was weathered, the lines eroded.
"SoHappy," he said.
"Me too," Jones said.
"No," the Indian said, thumping his chest.
"So-Happy. Johnny SoHappy, that's me. Fucking me."
He blinked and backed away, wandering off alone, shoe
tacks roughly clawing the sidewalk.
The girl was awake, shrouded in white sheets, staring at the ceiling,
her breathing shallow but regular. Jones lay in the bed beside her, suffering a mild case
of the spins. The walls turned, soft and summery, like the last revolution of a carousel
wobbling to a stop. He looked out the window. Under the moonlight each leaf on the apple
tree was a spoonful of milk.
Jones felt the girl's dry, thin fingers wrap around
his wrist like a bird clutching at a perch.
"I love you," she whispered. Her voice was
hoarse and frightening.
Jones shut his eyes against the spinning room. The
movement crept beneath his closed lids, and Jones opened his eyes, to no effect. The room
continued to spin.
"How about you, Jones? You could just say it, I
wouldn't care if it wasn't the truth. Not anymore."
Jones pressed her hand lightly.
"Where are we, Jones?" she asked. "I
mean, really. What's the name of this place?"
They were a long way from Carbondale, from the home
he'd seen the night they left. An oak tree hiding the collapsing remains of a childhood
fort, a frayed rope with knotted footholds dangling from the hatch, a sprinkler turning
slowly over the grass, a lounge chair beneath a sun shade, a paper plate weighted against
the wind by an empty cocktail glass.
"I'm hot," she said.
Jones lifted her out of bed. She was hot, but she
wasn't sweating. Against his fingers, her skin felt dry and powdery, friable, as if the
next breeze might blow it all away, and he'd be left holding a skeleton. He wrapped her in
a white sheet. She hooked her arms around his neck, and Jones carried her, airy as balsa,
into the aqueous green light of the hallway and down the steps.
"Where we going?" she asked.
The surface of the pool shimmered, smooth as a
turquoise stone. Jones unwrapped the sheet and let it fall. The girl was naked underneath.
"Hold on," Jones said.
He walked down the steps at the shallow end, the water
washing up around his ankles, his knees, his waist, and then he gently lowered the girl
until her back floated on the surface.
"Don't let go," she said, flinching as she
touched water. In panic, she gasped for air.
"I won't," Jones said. "Just
Her skin seemed to soak in water, drink it up like a
dehydrated sponge, and she felt heavier, more substantial. Her arms and legs grew supple,
rising and falling in rhythm to the water. He steered her around the shallow end.
"Except in songs on the radio," she said,
"nobody's ever said they love me."
Her eyes were wide and vacant, staring up through the
leaves of the apple tree, out past them into the night sky, the moon, the vault of stars.
"You think anybody's watching us?" the girl
asked. Jones looked up at the rows of darkened rooms surrounding the pool. Here and there
a night-light glowed. Air conditioners droned.
"I doubt it," he said.
She let her arms spread wide and float on the surface
as Jones eased her toward the edge of the pool. He lifted her out and set her down on the
sheet. At the deep end of the pool, below the diving board, he saw the lounge chair, its
yellow webbing and chrome arms shining in the beams of underwater light. He took a deep
breath and dove in. The water was as warm as the air, easing the descent from one element
to the next. Jones crept along the bottom until he found the chair. Pressure rang in his
ears, and a dizziness spread through him as he dragged it along the length of the pool.
For a moment he wanted to stop, to stay on the bottom and let everything go black; he held
himself until every cell in his blood screamed and the involuntary instincts of his body
craving air drove him back up and he surfaced, his last breath exploding out of him. He
set the chair against the apple tree.
They sat beneath the tree while Jones caught his
breath. A hot wind dried their skin.
"I liked Little Bighorn the best," the girl
"It was okay." Jones watched a leaf float
across the pool. "You really think he's looking for you?"
"I know he is," she said. "He's got all
his buddies on the police force that are saved - you know, born again."
"You want to go back there?"
The girl was quiet, then she said, "Weekends Dad
and them hunt around under bridges by rivers, looking for graffiti with satanic messages.
For devil worship you need the four elements. You need earth, wind, fire, and water.
That's what he says. So they look by rivers, and maybe they see some graffiti, or they
find an old chicken bone, and they think they really got themselves something."
It seemed an answer, wired through biblical circuitry.
"Tomorrow you're going to a hospital," Jones
said. "The doctor arranged it. Everything's set."
He carried the girl upstairs and placed her on the
bed. In five weeks she'd gone from a girl he'd picked up in the heartland to an old woman,
her body retreating from the world, shrunken and curled and lighter by the hour, it
seemed. Her hair had never grown back, and the ulcerations from early chemo treatments had
so weakened her gums that a tooth had come loose, falling out, leaving a black gap in a
smile that should have been seductive to the young boys back in Carbondale. The whites of
her eyes had turned scarlet red. Her limbs were skeletal, fleshless and starved. She'd
said she was eighteen, but now she could have passed for eighty.
"You think I'll go to hell?"
"Well, why do you talk like that?"
"I don't know." She clutched the sheet
around her neck. "When I open my mouth these things just come out. They're the only
words I have."
"One of my tours," Jones said, "we were
on maneuvers in the Mediterranean." A boiler exploded, he said, and a man caught fire
in a pool of burning oil. Crazed, aflame, engulfed, the man ran in erratic circles on the
deck, a bright, whirling light in the darkness, shooting back and forth like an errant
Roman candle, while other men chased him, half-afraid to tackle the man and catch fire
themselves. Finally, beyond all hope, out of his mind, the man jumped over the deck
railing, into the sea. "You could hear the flames whipping in the wind as he
fell," Jones said. "Then he was gone. It was the sorriest thing I ever
witnessed." Afterwards, he'd helped extinguish the fire, and for doing his duty he'd
been awarded a dime-sized decoration for heroism.
"Everywhere we go," she said, and there was
a long pause as her breath gurgled up through lungs full of fluid, "there's never any
Jones held her hand, a bone. He thought she coughed
this time, but again she was only trying to breathe. Suddenly he did not want to be in bed
beside her. But he couldn't move.
"The Eskimos live in ice huts," he said.
"Sounds nice right now."
"It's very cold," Jones continued.
"I wish we were going there."
The girl coughed, and then curled into a fetal ball.
"It's like hot knives stabbing me from inside," she said.
Jones lifted himself from the bed. He turned on the
bedside lamp and took the morphine and the syringe from his shirt pocket. "The first
explorers thought Eskimos roamed from place to place because they were poor," he
said. "They thought the Eskimos were bums." He ripped the cellophane wrapper
from the syringe and pushed the needle into the vial, slowly drawing the plunger back
until half the clear liquid had been sucked into the barrel. "They were always on the
move," he said. The girl bit into the pillow until her gums bled and left an imprint
of her mouth on the case. Her body had an alertness, a tension that Jones sensed in the
tortured angles she held her arms at, the faint weak flex of her atrophied muscles. She
raised her head and opened her mouth wide, her startled red eyes searching the room as if
to see where all the air had gone. "But when you think about it, you understand that
it's efficient. " Jones pushed the air bubbles out of the syringe until a drop of
morphine beaded like dew at the tip of the needle. "Movement is the only way for them
to survive in the cold. Even their morality is based on the cold, on movement." Jones
now continued speaking only to dispel the silence and the lone sound of the girl's labored
breathing. He unclenched her hand from the sheets and bent her arm back, flat against the
bed. "They don't have police," he said, "and they don't have lawyers or
judges. The worst punishment for an Eskimo is to be left behind, to be left in the
cold." Inspecting her arm, he found the widest vein possible and imagined it flowing
all the way to her heart and drove the needle in.
McKillop had taken the girl's purse and dumped the contents on the
bed. He rummaged through it, and found a blue gumball, safety pins, pennies, a shopping
list, and several pamphlets from which he read. "Listen," he said. " 'For
centuries lovers of God and of righteousness have been praying: Let your kingdom come. But
what is that kingdom that Jesus Christ taught us to pray for? Use your Bible to learn the
who, what, when, why, and where of the Kingdom.' " He laughed. "Ironic,
"We don't know, do we?" Jones said.
"Oh come on," the doctor said. He took up a
scrap of notepaper. "Blush. Lipstick - Toffee, Ruby Red. Two pair white cotton socks.
"Stay out of her stuff," Jones said.
"I was looking for ID," he said.
"What's her name?"
Jones thought for a moment and then said, "It's
better that you don't know."
"You didn't OD her, did you?"
"No," Jones said. Once last night he'd woken
to the sound of the girl's voice, calling out. She spoke to someone who was not in the
room and began to pick invisible things out of the air. Watching her struggle with these
phantoms had made Jones feel horribly alone. Delirious, she ended by singing the refrain
of a hymn. He said to the doctor, "I thought about it though."
"You could tell the truth. It's rather unsavory,
but it's always an option."
Jones looked at the doctor. "It's too late,"
"I've tried the truth myself, and it doesn't work
that well anyway. Half the time, maybe, but no more. What good is that? The world's a
broke-dick operation. The big question is, who's going to care?"
"Her family," Jones said. "Born-again
"I was raised a Catholic." MeKillop pulled a
silver chain from around his neck and showed Jones a tarnished cross. "It was my
mother's religion. I don't believe, but it still spooks me."
"This is against the law."
"If you sent her home, there'd be
"There'll be questions anyway," Jones said.
"Her stepdad's a fanatic. He'll be looking for me. He believes in what he's doing,
"I vaguely remember believing "
"Not everything has to do with you," Jones
said. He felt the sadness of language, the solitude of it. The doctor had no faith beyond
a system of small ironies; it was like trying to keep the rain off by calling to mind the
memory of an umbrella.
The doctor had dispensed with the nicety of a flask
and now drank straight from the bottle.
"Never made it home last night," McKillop
"You look it," Jones said.
"I got lucky," McKillop said. "Sort
of." He wiped his lips and said, "I wish I had a doughnut." He pulled a
green apple from his pocket, buffing it on the lapel of his wrinkled jacket. He offered
the bottle to Jones. Jones shook his head. "I'd watched this woman for a long time,
desired her from afar, and then suddenly there I was, in bed with her, touching her,
smelling her, tasting her. But I couldn't get it up."
"Maybe you should stop drinking."
"I like drinking."
"It's not practical," Jones said.
"Quitting's a drastic measure," MeKillop
said. He took a bite of the apple. "For a man who gets lucky as little as I do."
"I'll see you," Jones said.
By afternoon he had crossed the bridge at Deception Pass and
driven south and caught a ferry to Port Townsend. He drove west along 101 and then veered
north, hugging the shoreline of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, passing through Pysht and
Sekiu, driving until he hit Neah Bay and the Makah Reservation, when finally there was no
more road. It had remained hot all the way west, and now a wildfire burned across the
crown of a mountain rising against the western verge of the reservation. The sky turned
yellow under a pall of black smoke. Flecks of ash sifted like snow through the air. White
shacks lined either side of the street, staggering forward on legs of leaning cinder
block, and a few barefoot children played in the dirt yards, chasing dust devils. Several
girls in dresses as sheer and delicate as cobwebs stood shielding their eyes and staring
at the fire. Sunlight spread through the thin fabric, skirts flickering in the wind, so
that each of the young girls seemed to be going up in flames.
Jones moved slowly through town, raising a trail of
white dust, which mingled with the black ash and settled over the children, the shacks, a
scattering of wrecked cars, and then along the foot of the mountain he followed an eroded
logging road until it too vanished. A yellow mobile home sat on a bluff, and behind it,
hidden by a brake of wind-crippled cedar, was the ocean. Jones heard the surf and caught
the smell of rough-churned sea. A man in overalls came out of the mobile home - to Jones,
he looked like an Eskimo. Jones switched off the ignition. The car rocked dead, but for a
moment he felt the pressure of the entire country he'd crossed at his back, the vibration
of the road still working up through the steering column, into his hands and along his
arms, becoming an ache in his shoulders, a numbness traveling down his spine. Then the
vibrations stopped, and he felt his body settle into the present.
Jones got out of the car. The man hooked a thumb in
his breast pocket, the ghost habit of a smoker. Behind cracked lips, his teeth were
rotten. He watched a retrofit bomber sweep out over the ocean, bank high and round, and
circle back over the hill, spraying clouds of retardant. The chemicals fell away in a
rust-red curtain that closed over the line of fire.
"How'd it start?" Jones asked.
"Tiny bit of broken bottle will start a fire, sun
hits it right." The man lit a cigarette. "Been a dry summer. They logged that
hill off mostly, and don't nobody burn the slash. Where you headed?"
Jones said he was just driving.
"Used to be a love colony down there," the
man said. He pointed vaguely toward the ocean. "You get the hippies coming back now
and again, looking for the old path down. But the trails all growed over." The man
ran his tongue over the black gum between missing front teeth. "I thought maybe you
was one of them."
"No," Jones said. "Never been here
"You can park, you want," he said.
"There's a game trail runs partways down."
"You'll see the old Zellerbach mill."
He found the abandoned mill in ruin, a twisted heap of
metal. He sat on a rusted flume and pulled a patch of burnt weeds from the foundation.
With a stick he chipped at the hard, dry ground and dug out three scoops of loose dirt,
wrapping them in one of the girl's shirts. When he finished, he sat against a stump,
counting the growth rings with his finger until near heartwood he'd numbered two hundred
A clamshell chime chattered like cold teeth beneath
the awning of a bait shop. Inside the breakwater, boats pulled at their moorings. Jones
walked up and down the docks of the marina until he found a Livingston slung by davits to
the deck of a cabin cruiser. The windows of the cruiser were all dark, canvas had been
stretched across the wheelhouse, and the home port stenciled across the stern was Akutan.
He lowered the lifeboat into the water, pushed off, and let himself drift quietly away
from the marina.
When he'd rowed out into the shipping lane, Jones
pull-started the twenty-horse Evinrude, and followed a flashing red beacon out around the
tip of Cape Flattery to the ocean. He kept just outside the line of breaking waves,
hugging the shore, the boat tossed high enough at times along the crest of a swell to see
a beach wracked with bone gray driftwood. Jones pulled the motor and rode the surf until
the hull scraped sand. He loaded the girl into the boat, up front for ballast.
He poled himself off the sand with the oar and then
rowed. Each incoming wave rejected his effort, angling the bow high and pushing the boat
back in a froth of crushed white foam. Finally he managed to cradle the boat in the trough
between breaking waves. The motor kicked out of the water with a high-rev whine, and Jones
steered for open sea, heading due west. Beyond the edge of the shelf, the rough surface
chop gave way to rolling swells, and Jones knew he was in deep water. He'd forgotten how
black a night at sea was, how even the coldest, dying star seemed near and bright in the
dark. He became afraid and drew the world in like a timid child, trembling with
unreasonable fears -- the terrible life below him, the girl's stepfather and his fanatic
pursuit, his own fugitive life in flight from this moment. If it became history he would
be judged and found guilty. Spindrift raked over the bow, splashing his face. The sea
heaved in a sleepy rhythm. He crossed the black stern of a containership at anchor, four
or five stories of high wall, and when he throttled back to a dead drift he heard voices
from the deck top, human voices speaking in a language he did not understand.
He ran another mile and cut the engine. The round
world was seamless with the night sky, undivided, the horizon liquid and invisible except
for a spray of stars that flashed like phosphorescence, rising out of the water. A cool
breeze whispered over the surface. August was over. He'd piled the sleeping bag with beach
rocks, and then he'd cleaned the car of evidence, collected the souvenirs, the trinkets,
the orange smiles, the wig, and stuffed them down into the foot of the bag, knotting it
shut with nylon rope. He'd taken the Bible, opened it to the genealogy, and scratched the
month and year into the margins. Jones considered the possibility, as he rocked in the
trough of a swell, that all this would one day break free from its deep hold in the sea,
wash to the surface, the bumper stickers from Indian battles and decals commemorating the
footpaths and wagon trails of explorers and pioneers, the resting places of men and women
who'd left their names to towns and maps. And then the girl herself, identified by her
remains, a story told by teeth and bones, interpreted.
Jones looped a rope tether around the handle of his
flashlight and tied the other end to the sleeping bag. He checked the beam, which shone
solidly in the darkness, a wide swath of white light carved out of the air. He unpackaged
the soil he'd collected from the collapsed mill and sprinkled it across the sleeping bag,
spreading earth from head to foot. It seemed a paltry ritual - the dirt, the light - but
he was determined to observe ceremony. With his tongue he licked away a coating of salt
from the rim of his lips. His hands were growing cold and stiff. He hoisted the head end
of the bag over the port side and then pivoted the girl's feet around until the whole bag
pitched overboard. Jones held it up a final instant, clutching the flashlight, allowing
the air bubbles to escape, and then let go. Down she swirled, a trail of light spinning
through a sea that showed green in the weakening beam and then went black. In silence
Jones let himself drift until, borne away by the current, he could no longer know for
certain where she'd gone down.
Back within the breakwater, Jones tied the lifeboat
with a slack line to a wooden cleat. The mountain had vanished from view, swallowed by
darkness, but a prevailing westerly had blown the wildfire across its crown, and a flare
of red yellow flame swept into the sky. An old Makah trudged up the road, dragging a stick
through the dust, leaning on it when he stopped to watch the hieroglyphic write itself in
fire on the edge of the reservation. Jones sat on the dock, dangling his legs. Flakes of
feathery black ash drifted through the air and fanned lightly against his face. Spume
crusted and stung his lips, and he was thirsty. He listened to the rhythm of the water as
it played an icy cool music in the cadenced clinking of ropes and pulleys and bell buoys.
Out beyond the breakwater the red and green running lights of a sailboat appeared,
straggling into port. The wind lifted the voices of the sailors and carried them across
the water like a song. One of the sailors shouted, "There it is." He stood on
the foredeck and pointed toward the banner of flames rising in the sky.