At the truck stop they were all told there were
showers inside and that it was a law in America that people shower every day. Their driver
said he had been ignoring that law and he was sorry about it, sorry that hed forced
them into lawlessness when they didnt even know the laws yet. "Thing is,"
he went on, "its one of those things thats so natural you hardly think
about the law."
He said it with his big mustache quivering and the man
Scuttles at his side seeming to give him elbow taps in the ribs.
Someone in the group said he was relieved to hear it
was a law because he knew these people, these Americans, were a little beside themselves
about their cleanliness. It was good to know they werent simply crazy and obsessed
with lice and dander and a smudge or two on the neck, that they were only doing what God,
through the written mandate of hard law, had said was necessary.
Su-Tea decided the only strain she saw was the one on
the truth as it emerged from beneath that quivering mustache, the same truth as when the
driver had come up to her in the brushy place where they were stretching and eating cold
food, and hed said to Su-Tea it was a law that he must collect a urine sample from
"What law?" she had asked. "We are not
even by law within this country."
Nevertheless, shed squatted and peed beneath his
imperious stare and that quivering mustache, knowing full well that none of the men had
been asked to do this so the driver was only being what his testicles demanded that he be:
impolite, perhaps something slightly degenerate. It was maybe a thousand miles later, too,
when she realized there had been no cup, no glass, no collection at all of her pee, only
the watching, and so shed marked him right then as a man who would be offering her
sweet chocolates or hot coffee in exchange for her attending to those personal things that
came from deep within his mind and his muscles. Such men were usually various in their
Su-Tea resolved that she would regard his words the
way you regard One Million Times Fire Sauce, even though, right now, he was telling her
she needed to stay with the truck people for this showering, that he could not risk losing
the only woman in the shipment and so she could goddamn well shower with the men.
"There wont be no foolin
around," he said, "because Ill be in there watching over things."
Su-Tea wasnt surprised by this, by what he
wanted to see of her or that he would have her shower with the boys. At forty, and still
lovely as she was always told, she knew all about the rattles that echoed within empty
men. She was only surprised that he didnt come right out and say what he wanted,
that he wasnt clear with her so that choices could be made and, if necessary,
various trade agreements worked out. Su-Tea cared little anymore for the truthnot three days had she been in this country, far too soon to know
what was trueand wanted only that the stories, lies if such
they be, be of a consistent fabric, the stitching in a straight line even if the garment
turned out to be a meaningless thing.
Since it was three in the morning, the shower room was
empty of everyone except Su-Tea and the rest of the U-Haul people, most of whom were
hardly more than boys, healthy boys who could handle a trip that sometimes took eight or
ten weeks, who could vomit on the sea and freeze in the mountains and sweat true grains of
salt in the desert and still talk about the work ahead and how they would send back home
aspirin and paper towels and Levis 505 jeans.
One of the boys said he was going to be part of the
Olympic teama running boy, Su-Tea thought (which, in a sense,
described all of them), a child of stamina and dreams he couldnt get to quickly
enoughto give his skills to the red, white, and "What is
the other color?" It was then that the driver, who was nearby, walked over and hit
him, a blow with the back of the hand to the boys nose that made him cry. It was the
only time this contractor had been violent toward them.
"We let you live here, okay?" the driver
said. "Dont go thinking youre gonna get your picture on no cereal
That made no sense to any of them.
Su-Tea knew one of the boys wanted to become a marine
soldier if he got all his papers in a time when he was still young enough, though the boy
(wisely, Su-Tea thought) said nothing at that time. The incident was more embarrassing
than anything else, and Su-Tea was sure the man was not as mean a man as he wanted to
appear. She decided he was just a practical man who had no time for the hopes of
When they got to the room outside of the showers
Su-Tea said out loud that "Mr. Yall" (the best she could do with U-Haul),
"wants this so youd best think of me as your mother. Who will wash my
She was, certainly, old enough to be mother to most of
them, her own motherhood showing in her dark nipples and the belly that the Distinguished
Purveyor of Distances had said would feed her well on inky nights when others were chewing
the wax from each others ears. Her children, though, not often in her thoughts, a
boy and girl, had been caught with Mass cards sometime during the One Hundred and Fifth
Delicious Uprising and had been brained.
Hardly anyone had thought Su-Tea would live through
that. Shed pounded her body with heavy sticks and recited prayers backward.
Shed eaten coal, and one day tried to tear off her genitals inside a shop that sold
ironwear. Ancient lore filled her desperation, and she called upon old spirits to stop
savaging these pathetic remains of her person. A doctor was finally brought in, and Su-Tea
had been put to sleep for a month. When she woke, the memories in her mind and heart were
still there, but her body would no longer cry or try to bend itself into the many shapes
of agony. Time, finally, put her children in a quieter place so that she could think about
So Su-Tea was motherly without being a mother, and her
husband had only said, "Go, go," once hed stolen the money for her trip.
Hed said it would take about two weeks for them to connect him to the theft, and by
that time hed be sucking yak teats in a yurt somewhere in one of the Stans.
They both knew theyd never see each other again.
They also knew Su-Tea had been working hard trying to respect her husband and had
regularly failed. He was average, he told her, and always would be, a marker on the human
median without her facility for languages (Su-Tea was fluent in six) or her eye for color
or her patience with children. Her husband fixed small gasoline engines and loved to do
it, and although he didnt think there would be many small gasoline engines out in
the wilderness, he did know that wherever there was human life there was always steel and
rubber and wires and nuts and bolts. He also said he would never divorce her, but if she
wanted to marry again in the Americas he wouldnt mind, he would understand.
With her sick-grief finally gone, Su-Tea was still
saddened by all of it, by a life that should have been simple, enriched only by good work
and the growth of children and the things that a peppy mind could do as it grew older.
Yet, here she was, naked with boys. Promises had been
made, arrangements concluded. Soon these children would be carving the earth or cleaning
toilets or walking American dogs. They would be food men or chicken killers or spend whole
days lifting shovelfuls of the garbage from products that hadnt even been invented
when Su-Tea was a girl. One boy was good with numbers, and there were no places in the
world where such a skill wasnt valued. Another could play many musical instruments,
including some of the electrical ones that put permanent vermin in the ears of the elders,
and she hoped someone would soon see that this one, right here, with what looked like a
nose broken by a gentle lover, that someone would see he was an actor, that he was
terribly funny with voices and impersonations in most
importantlyan American way. He could wrinkle his face and
become Mr. Harrison Ford, or sneer like a mockingbird and be Mr. Sean Penny.
She, however, what could she say about herself? She
was with a cash-only American man washing her back (which she didnt mind, his hands
being soft and not at all impertinent), and trying to figure out how he could get her
alone somewhere to bask in her wisdom and to soak in the soothing streams of her
temperament. His thoughts, his needs, were hardly unique since Su-Tea could see six, maybe
eight, of the boys stumbling around the shower trying to wash and hide their erections at
the same time.
I must be astonishing, she thought, better than
pictures, although we have come such a very long way in such a very long time these boys
would probably try to penetrate a poppy if they didnt think it would fall apart on
them. Truthfully, she wondered about the tantalizing secrets her own flesh still hid from
her, though her wish at the moment was for nothing more than to feel someone behind her,
to feel arms encircling her and holding her so tight she had to bend forward ever so
slightly. Such very small conveniences.
It was one of those times when Su-Tea ("as an
intellectual," she thought, the entirety of her womanhood not necessarily up for
barter) wished it were acceptable for her to offer her loins only so that life would be
better for these boys, their lonely futures not half so lonely as they would have been
back home where they would have faced all the questions of high value and happy worth that
various daughters would have directed at them. Liars, they would have become, whereas at
this moment they were immersed in truth, human truth, all the muscular verities of the
buttocks and genitals and silent satisfactions.
Su-Tea noticed, off in the corner of the shower, two
of the boys relieving each other with their hands, certainly the loneliest of all possible
praises, and there, over against the wall, by himself, was the man who had owned ten
newspapers, his hand just then writing only the story of his body, a story told using
words of distance and all the phrases in the pornographic picture books that meant, Hello,
How Are You?, Is Everything All Right?
She pulled away from the man who was washing her, the
man not unclothed so she supposed he obeyed the law elsewhere, his hand with the ring on
one finger slippery with soap and making her rump jiggle. Su-Tea began to sing then, her
silky lilt like silver strings in the heavy steam of the shower room, a voice of
gentleness and integrity that mitigated the sad imperative of all this solitary
She sang childrens songs about frolicking
animals and hefty giants whose cheeks shone with gold dust. Newts and fishers scuttled
around on the slippery floor in lyrics the boys all knew, glass-like harmonies from their
own mothers. Su-Tea squawked like a macaw and hissed like an ice beetle. She had everyone
smiling and even an American truckman, surprised at first by this strange group in the
shower, a woman in the group no less, and who couldnt begin to guess at
Su-Teas words, laughed, as did the boys, whose laughter became more precious as it
took them back to places of fine shadows or brilliant suns or the hissing whisper of spray
coming off the chop on a lake. They were not the common smiles that had been with them for
weeks and weeks, the smiles over anothers misfortune, over Mr. Yalls
difficulties, the smiles over a great tragedy the Americans suffered while Su-Teas
group had barely had time to dirty their feet on American soil (some port, it had been, in
a warm place that had need of business, a clean port where it had struck Su-Tea that most
of the workers were longshorewomen). They had smiled in that place not out of joy for the
recent unspeakable committed by those Arab boys, but because for once they knew a horror
that touched none of them at all. No secret burials, no sudden disappearance of an uncle
or a sister or a cousin would become, over this, an unspoken history. So theyd
smiled to a grief unvisited and hoped the Americans knew that sadness was a fat puppy that
always scurried away. Yet none of that smiling had been as it was here and now, songs of a
nursery, delicacies, Su-Tea thought, for these travelers whod had to open food tins
with their teeth and walk off a ship with rags over their eyes as if blindedso long had it been since theyd seen the sun.
The actor boy came over to her as she began her third
song and he sang with her, his face wet, perhaps from the shower, though it could have
been tears. Yes, she was sure it was tears even as she heard Mr. Yall behind her saying,
"Well, Ill be goddamned."
Su-Tea didnt think he would be. Hed had to
be stern, breaking his own laws just as other men had to be stern in enforcing them. They
all played this kind of game, a very serious game, because all the leaders wanted to
pretend that no game was being played. You had to satisfy the leaders, no question there.
Shed seen that when the Pimple Boy had misplaced
something in Guatemala, a very dear something, a cat hed been hiding in his
undershorts. One of the Paid Men had seen him retrieve the cat and place it back inside
his clothing. Then the Paid Man had beat the cat, had killed it bloody while it was still
in the boys pants and had badly injured the privacies of the Pimple Boy. The Pimple
Boy had stopped talking then, and in a short time he stopped eating. Theyd left his
body in a parked car somewhere in Mexico. It was their only loss although theyd been
told there could be many, that it could be all of them and that you didnt get
insurance on this kind of trip. The only family the Distinguished Purveyor of Distances
knew of whod requested a refund (their daughter, the family said, left to starve to
death on a mountain even the satellites had yet to map), well, that family had been
outright killed so youd best know the stakes of this freedom game. It might not be
what you think.
When the showers were over, Mr. Yall and Buddy gave
them new clothes, although they were only T-shirts in a size XXX-Large, shirts that had a
funny Jordan Rules printed on the front, that and a black mans face.
Their truck was at the rear of the building then, and
Mr. Yall led them out a back door. Far away over the flat land a piece of dawn had been
laid on the horizon, a mere sliver of another day.
Mr. Yall, though, said, "Not you," to
Su-Tea, as he took her by the arm and they walked away from the truck and down into the
dark valleys of all the other trucks whose engines were rumbling out protection and sleep
to the drivers.
They stopped and Su-Tea expected her new shirt would
be pulled from her, that she would be looked at and smelled and arranged and penetrated,
things that would not exactly be unwelcome since it was time for her whole world to turn
and groan and give birth to a new world where all the old things, but especially The
Status Of Being Perfect (as the women at home understood it), would be overturned and give
rise to change so heartbreakingly swift she knew shed have to change her name. One
of her schoolteachers from when she was a little girl, a reader of many foreign things,
had suggested Tiffany, which had a lazy, greasy sound to it, not the sort of person Su-Tea
thought shed want to be. Her husband, though, whod bought a telephone
directory from a place called Fort Worth, had said he liked Ethel. Su-Tea thought she
might go with that if only because her husband had also said, "If I have to begin
speaking of you as though you are dead, I would feel comfortable with that. Yes, I
Mr. Yall, however, did not remove Su-Teas shirt.
As she looked up at him expecting that he would either kiss her or beat her, she was
shocked to see that he had tears on his face, true tears and not shower-maybe tears. She
knew American men were not fond of crying, so she concluded she had done a terrible thing,
an error atop the great mountain of this mans being. She wondered if she should
quickly say she wanted to be buried as Ethel so that her husband could remember a truth.
Mr. Yall did not hit her, though. He did not remove
her shirt and begin to make preparations for manly use. He whispered to her (shed
never noticed how deep his voice was, as though hed run fearfully into a cave and
was now beginning to panic in the dark) that she was a beautiful woman, that her beauty
came from a kind of history hed never be smart enough to studyold
bones, he suspected, castles and ruins riven by warthat she
was like a woman in a movie, a dazzling presence the size of all the surrounding darkness,
and would she marry him, would she do that? She didnt have to, it wasnt part
of the deal, but if she did hed do different things with his life so that she would
be comfortable and feel pride in him.
Su-Tea, her bare feet hurting on the stones of the
parking lot, and not at all naļve about a mans infatuation with a woman who had no
home, no possessions, no money, hardly any clothes, told him she could do that if he
really needed for her to do it, that her husband weeks and weeks ago had given her
permission to open up yet another life to see what would stay put and what would choose to
fly away with the hawks on the merest of breezes. Yes, she decided, it would be better
than cleaning hotel toilets, or going to yet another school to learn how to do things that
might no longer need to be done by the time she learned how to do them; but she
wasnt sure, she said to him finally, what a wife in this country was supposed to do,
that it must be complicated from what shed heard.
"I dont even know," she began, looking
down at her shirt, "these Rules of Jordan."
He laughed then and said, "Oh, I think you do. I
honestly think you do."
Su-Tea was happy for herself then, a feeling
shed put aside what seemed a thousand years ago, and even happy that she could now
ride in the front of the truck sitting on cushions between Mr. Yall and the man called