She watched as the jury came in, watched with that dream detachment that sometimes comes to people when they are in the midst of life-changing moments whether they know it or not. She watched them take their seats, and in what almost seemed a rehearsed way, they all wore the same bland emotionless expression, if anything a bit drained was all, and sat as motionless as statues for the judge to call upon them for their verdict. The Bailiff moved like a somnolent troll and slowly, again like a figure in a dream, made the transfer. Then the judge took the paper and opened it, slowly, so that it made an audible rasping sound, and that was just what it was, too, a slip of paper with a word written on it, probably in pencil of either one or two words, that was the only balance, the only possible difference for the fate of the man who sat before her.
And she watched the man who was her father as he half rose and was half lifted from his chair. He stood there, his hands at his sides, wearing the orange coveralls of the convict already. When the judge spoke, his mouth seemed to speak in slow motion, and the only thing in the string of his phrases which she heard was the word, Guilty. The man turned then, and again, as though he too had been rehearsed, his face showed no expression, nothing to reveal what he might have felt, and she remembered then that this was indeed a moment rehearsed for he had said to her, and more than once, never show your true emotions for that would give someone power over you. So she naturally wondered, as he began to move forward and turned just slightly her way, enough to allow one of his eyes to meet hers in a long lingering moment during which if anything she may have detected a smile, just what expression did her own face reveal?
Riding home in the bus she was aware of the loss of time. Moments, even in the brief span of time from the moment at which she left the courthouse to the moment she got on the bus, were passing around her and through her, rich, complicated symphonies of individual faces and wind and changes in the thin horsetail clouds up above in the sky, conversations, radio voices and music coming from cars, engine drones and laughter, of which for long segments she was not even aware. And there was no getting them back and no way of knowing just what had been lost.
The bus was a swelter of heat, stench of exhaust and foul body odor. There were many people on the bus, but everyone was seated. One man lay on a bench reeking of urine and alcohol. The bus rumbled through the city streets and the dust plumed behind it. The sun was low, orange and burning fierce and veiled in heat waves and smoky air, descending over the low hills and the black etched cutout of homes, through palm trees that glowed like wild alien forms. And gradually the people got off, as she rode on, and she watched passively as the homes became smaller and the yards more wild and the streets more filthy and scarred with neglect. The man asleep on the bench then rose up, and his face was a mask of anger and bewilderment, with many days’ growth of beard and hair like black-matted and grease-clumped feathers. She did not engage his glance as the bus came to her stop, but she felt he was watching her as she descended the steps to the street, and his was the only form left, looking down at her through the window as the bus pulled away.
She walked the short distance to her home and large trucks swept past her sending up their rooster tails of dirt, for they lived on a road that had once been the main road through town but which now led directly to nothing but poor little neighborhoods as it paralleled the city but never entered, yet it was still a heavily used thoroughfare since it had no stoplights or stop signs for thirty-three miles. She passed the dirt yards where dogs slept on porches before screen doors behind which televisions glowed and sent up their phantom auroras. She passed the old man watering his patio who stood shirtless and bloat-bellied and leering with a cigar stub ground into his mouth. She passed through the little chain link gate and up onto the porch of her own home, unlocked the door and went in.
Inside, the air was hot and still and silent. They owned very little and little was left. Her father had pawned whatever he could to buy the lawyer he had, who was expensive but in the end little better than the court appointed kind. There were no photographs, no mementos of any kind, nothing certainly of her mother. They had owned the house, but now the state would confiscate it, as they do in all cases like this. She could still smell her father’s smoke and his alcohol and the aftershave he used, and it nearly made her pass out.
She went to her room and sat there on the edge of the bed for a long while. She sat there as the light faded, sat there unmoving, and in brief spasms of self-consciousness realized that she was thinking nothing at all. The light drained out of the room and she sat there in darkness, not so much because she was depressed but because she did not know what to do, now. There was nothing to tell her where to go, and so she sat. She was not particularly hungry. Then a thought came to her. It was like someone spoke into her head. And the thought made her stand and look around her room and see and find her backpack. And with a little grin she could not have explained to anyone had they asked her about it, she packed a few clothes and a book of Russian poetry and a notebook and the gun which her father had ordained she must one day use, and she put the pack on her back and went out into the kitchen where she found the last bottles of her father’s liquor and took them into the living room, which was empty with a bare wooden floor, and poured out that alcohol and then lit a match and dropped the match in the pool of liquid and watched as a lovely blue flame whipped out like a wing and rose up in a glorious fire.
She walked out the door and did not close it behind her and did not look back. In the windshields of the cars on the street she saw the fire grow and shake and flick little fins as if waving to her as she walked away.
When she boarded the greyhound bus, yet another bus in an uncountable lineage of busses she had boarded in her lifetime, only a handful of people were evenly dispersed throughout the seats, so she was able to take a seat of her own. She put her backpack onto the rack overhead and sat down and waited. They were a silent collection on the bus. The cabin lights lit the windows into dark mirrors so that she could not see outside except where the terminal was intensely lit from within. Instead, her own face and the faces of the rest of the passengers came back framed and still. Then the driver boarded the bus and punched on the engine and rolled the destination sign through a succession of names until it stopped with the words San Diego. Another man outside slammed down the cargo covers, and the driver pulled the door shut, and they were almost ready to pull out of the station when a man came running and shouted at the driver, Stop!
The bus was just beginning to roll and the driver grunted once and jerked to a stop, and the man outside smiled and lifted a hand as if both thanking the driver and hailing to a crowd. The driver opened the doors and the man climbed aboard, carrying a small brown travel case of soft leather. He grinned and said, I thank you, bowing to the driver who only nodded and twisted one side of his upper lip in what looked more like a sneer than anything else. Then he put the bus in gear and pulled forward before the man had a chance to take a seat, and the man lurched to one side but caught himself quickly and with a kind of grace as he started down the aisle, taking the shifts and changes in motion somewhere in the center of his body and moving with his legs just a little apart, as easily as an experienced sailor walks the deck of a ship. There were any number of seats he could have chosen and had a seat to himself, but he stared straight forward and smiled and threw his satchel up on the rack right beside her backpack and sat in the seat next to her so close his leg rested against hers.
Howdy, he said. I’m Jack. He extended a hand.
She felt herself pull just a little away and inside herself but shook his hand anyway. She was thinking to say something like, please take another seat, or, I’d rather be alone thank you, but instead all that she said was, Hi, turning her head quickly in his direction but not looking at his eyes so that all she really saw was the blurred shape of his face and the knife point of a sideburn.
What’s your name?
My name… she hesitated, then she said, Sara.
I’m just coming back from Mexico, he said, and she felt him staring straight at her so frankly and unflinchingly that she seemed to feel the heat of his eyes. It sure is a beautiful country. Beautiful place, although you have to be careful, for sure. It’s better if you speak the language. Me gusta la lengua mucho, entonces fue facile por mi. Comprende? I was down on the west coast just South of Mazatlan in a little town called San Blas. Have you heard of it?
For a moment she was not sure if he was really speaking to her. His Spanish was poor and when she realized she had better say something just to keep him at bay or else allow him to burrow in with more questions about why she was so silent or why she was so unfriendly, she said, No, I haven’t.
Oh, pristine, untouched. It’s just a fishing village, really. Nothing there to attract your typical tourist. No Senor Frogs or string of discos. Just a few restaurants and a whorehouse, but the beaches there have the widest, flattest plane, you know, so that the waves break forever. They rise up a mile off shore and just fall and keep falling all the way in. It truly is a paradise.
Then why did you leave? She didn’t want to encourage any conversation with him. The words had come of their own accord.
Why, he said, a grin appearing, surprised, perhaps taken off guard. It’s a strange story, really. Kind of a mistaken identity thing. I was mistaken for another man.
In a small fishing village?
And now he did not seem to know what to say. He leaned back a little as if to take a more careful look at her. Well, listen to you, he said, and here I thought I was going to do all the talking till we reached Balboa Park and you’re giving me the third degree. Well I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you, and I can see that you’re someone I can’t lie to, it was me who did the mistaking. I mistook a man, you see, to be another man, and I’m not saying I’m the kind of man who can’t make subtle distinctions. I’m a very cautious man… well, I am. But the man I mean was the kind of man that anyone would mistake for the kind of man I was in fact looking for. You see, the man I was looking for was a stranger anyway, and I was trying to locate him based solely on a verbal description. I was told to meet this man at a particular place and at a particular time and that he would be expecting me as well. So I went to this place at the appointed time, and it just so happened that this place was a private home and so not the kind of place you would expect there to be much confusion about, or at least you’d expect that if you went to a place at a particular time and were supposed to be meeting someone there. It would be highly unlikely that anyone else who was not supposed to be there would be there. And so I went out to this place, outside the village on a private road, and the macaws are cackling down at me like old market women, and it’s coming up on evening, hot with the sun already gone. But light enough to see. And when I approach the house I see the front door is open, which I think of as odd even when I see it, but I keep on going and just before I can go through the door a man appears, and he’s got a gun in his hand and he’s looking like he’s been roughed up a little himself, a little messed up, some blood coming from his mouth, and he points the gun at me, so I just stop. I don’t say anything. I just stand there and look at him. And he says, Mas despacio. And I say, como? And he says, Mas despacio. And he waves his gun I think for me to come closer, but I do nothing. Then he points the gun at me and I move forward, and he sits down on the steps and I can see that he is going to die soon. That was one thing that hit me as certain, that I thought I knew for sure, and I looked at him, and I watched as he breathed very slowly, like he had to think about every breath. And he would close his eyes for a very long time, then open them again. And then he just slipped down onto his side like he was trying to go to sleep, and as he did that I saw through the doorway another man who was standing back in the shadows, and he also had a gun. I tell you, I was shock-edge heart-stopped terrified. I just turned and ran back up the road, trying to go back the way I had come, but it was dark now and difficult to see anything. So I go back to the person who had sent me to this place, thinking somehow that I had been set up, but it turns out that neither of the men I had seen was the man I was supposed to see. It turns out that the house was not even the place where I was supposed to meet him. And it turns out that the house that I did go to was a place I should never have gone. But now what was I going to do? Now I was left holding two bags, and nobody there was a friend of mine. I left immediately. I left that very night. And what happened there, the truth of what transpired and the people and the eventual outcome will always remain a mystery to me, but one which only makes me more glad than I have ever been to be alive and sitting here next to you.
He stopped talking and looked at her, and she found herself looking at him; then he leaned forward slowly, more slowly, and kissed her, and she let him.
My Mother got real sick, she said.
The land was a flat dry desert of nothing. A world dissolving in distance. Whirlwinds leaped up near the side of the road, and a dust trail billowed up behind the bus as though the bus moved inside a cloud generated by its own wheels.
She got the flu at first and then she couldn’t stand. We had family over and they knew she had been sick, but when she started vomiting and couldn’t stand for falling over, they just left. It was Christmas time and they were her people, but when she started to get worse they just left. My father didn’t do anything. He told her to stop whining, that it couldn’t be so bad. He was terrible to her. He just drank and said she was being a baby. Then she called me, she made me come to her and her room smelled foul and dark, but she wanted to make sure he couldn’t hear what she was telling me. And she said to me, she said, you go and get my diary out of my dresser, and she told me which drawer and I got it. And she said, now you take that to the living room—don’t read it, now—and you put it on the fire, you understand? I didn’t want to do it and I told her I didn’t want to do it. I told her it wasn’t necessary to do it, that she was going to be just fine and then she wouldn’t want me to have burned it. I wasn’t afraid for myself. I was afraid for her. I mean, I was a little afraid for myself because I didn’t want to be alone, not with him. But she wasn’t able to help anyway when she was well. She was afraid of him. But I wanted her to be all right because I loved her too and I knew that if I did what she told me it would just give her more reason not to fight. She looked horrible. She was wasting away, there. I didn’t know everything that was wrong with her. I was twelve. But I knew I didn’t want to burn her diary. I took it though, but I didn’t burn it. I thought if I didn’t actually burn it she would somehow know, even if she believed I had burned it, and that would give her spirit reason to fight. She had to fight and always did. But now I wasn’t so sure. She was never like that before. She was never like that. I made her cans of soup and put them by the bed, but she never drank them and they just went cold and I poured them out. I slept next to her, and felt her shivering. Sometimes she would say something and I would say, what, what is it, but she wasn’t talking to me. She was more in her dreams. It was pretty horrible. I prayed for her to get better. I prayed non-stop for six days. I said God could have some of my time, to just give over some of my time to her. But she didn’t get better. She got weaker and smaller, and one morning she wouldn’t wake up, but she wasn’t dead. That’s when my father called the ambulance and they took her to the hospital, but by then she was too weak. She was too far away.
He looked at her, his face close and the expression one of excruciation, either from the intense heat in the bus or the glare of the light or the contents of her tale. But she did not entirely trust faces. She did die, though, in the hospital. But I never burned her diary. I kept it. I suppose that was wrong, but now it’s the only thing left of her.
Land. Land and hours passed. Darkness in which not even their faces were visible, though they knew the presence of the other by the proximity of their bodies, their hands interlaced, their mouths close as they talked through the blur of the night. I’ve had fifty kinds of jobs, he said.
Maybe. I’ve done work most people would never do.
I’ve dug graves.
I have. I worked in a cemetery in Louisiana.
Did you ever see a ghost?
What did they say?
This place is spooky…
She laughed and in her laughter her breath caught in a snort and she buried her face in his shoulder.
There were some gravestones that had worn down, lichen covered. You couldn’t read a name on them. Some that broke and sank into the earth. If no one came by or tended them, we just used the spot for another. The dead stacked on top of each other. I know it’s a morbid thought.
What else have you done?
I worked for a food catering service that did these elaborate barbeques. That was in Texas. We did barbeques with these three by six moveable grills full of mesquite. We did whole pigs in a pit in the ground. We did barbeques in the desert in the middle of summer with wet rags on our heads and fire singeing our forearms. That was the hardest job I ever did. We’d be at it for twelve, fifteen hours for these parties of up to two thousand people. Companies mostly, weddings sometimes. I saw people pass out in the heat. I’d be alone at that grill sometimes turning chicken parts as flames spat up into my face. Hell can’t be much hotter than that job. Hotter than the smelting mill I worked in. At least there we had masks. But I think it was when I was working in a hospital in Arizona, I was nineteen, and I was working in the cancer ward. Every day, they came in, those poor sick people. Wasted. Wracked by it on the inside. Old folks, young folks, children. It didn’t seem to matter. At first it was hard to take. One little girl came in for chemotherapy and radiation treatments, bald as a newborn baby. She was maybe eight. I went to the bathroom and I just cried like a… It was a hard job to do, at first. I would go home every night and drink a six-pack just to lighten up. The doctors were like robots. Unreal. I guess you’d have to be. I couldn’t do it after about six months. That was the last real job I ever had.
What do you mean?
I mean, at first, I thought maybe I’d like to do it is a career, you know. Work in a hospital, take care of people. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take the suffering. I felt really ashamed of that for a while, but I saw what it took to do it, and I couldn’t harden myself that way.
The bus pulled into a small town where lights slid overhead in cones of lonely illumination along empty streets. The driver pulled into a gas station with a little cafe and stopped. He didn’t even announce the name of the town. It didn’t seem like a regular stop. The lights of the cabin came on and some of the people lifted their heads and stretched and squinted into the night. Some slept on. The driver pushed the door open and dropped down to the ground and went into the cafe.
You want something to eat? he asked her.
They both got up and sidled down the aisle along with a few of the other passengers. You know, travelin’s a lot easier when you have someone to talk to, and he put his arm around her. She let him, and perhaps it was that she had not slept yet, even though she did not feel the need for sleep, or perhaps it was the unreality of the journey, or being on the road with no home now behind her drawing her back and nothing really before her making her careful to reach some destination, but it was all right, being with him like this, feeling like this. Her father had been a prison keeper. She never dared to have a friend, let alone a boyfriend. Now, though, now, as if this were somehow an act of defiance, something so simple and really so normal. She let him put his arm around her, and she enjoyed the feeling of the weight of it across her shoulder, even the light way his hand brushed across her collarbone, this new feeling, this new way of being in the world. No wonder she could not sleep. Not now, not now that she was finally alive. It was intoxicating.
They slipped into a booth and a waitress floated over in that slow dreamy way people move who work through the night and sleep through the day. Anything to drink? she asked as she laid two slick, plastic-coated menus onto the table.
You folks serve any beer here? he asked.
Bud. Bud Light. Michelob.
I’ll have a cup of coffee.
Coffee girl? You sure you don’t want something a little more adventurous? Have a beer with me.
All right. I will.
Bud, too? the waitress said.
That’s fine, she said.
And why don’t you go ahead and bring me some steak and eggs, he said.
I’ll just have some toast and jelly.
Toast and Jelly? That’s not enough food. Eat up. You gotta eat.
No really. Toast and jelly’s all I want.
Expressionless, drained of anything resembling human decorum, the waitress wrote their order down on a green pad of paper and drifted away without saying another word.
We should be in San Diego by morning, he said. You meeting any people?
I have a friend, she said. I knew her in school. She moved out there and we moved south, but last I heard she lived in San Diego. I was hoping to meet up with her.
And are you just visiting or what?
I don’t know yet.
That sounds like or what to me. How long were you living in Houston?
About two years. We moved a lot.
Why’s that? Your daddy in the military.
She smiled. No. He’s not in the military.
What, then? Why did you move?
Well, he was selling drugs. That’s why we had to move. We were always moving. Then she saw something change in his face. His smile faded for a moment, involuntarily, as if he had lost his ability to smile for that moment, and in its place arose a darker light, some dim and hidden memory perhaps or room of his personality coming to glow. Then he shook his head and smiled again.
Don’t that beat the shit out of it, he said.
And here I thought…and he laughed so loud that people in the cafe turned around and looked at him.
Nothing. He said. I just had a different impression of you is all.
I don’t know. That you grew up in a proper home. You seem to be…well…you carry yourself…
He sent me to good schools, she said. I always went to very good schools.
What a world. And you were on the run?
We spent most of our time in the South. Sometimes we were in Mexico. You know, he taught me how to shoot a gun and said I might need to someday.
I’ll bet he was right.
The waitress brought their food. He ate voraciously, looking up at her and shaking his head and smiling, cramming his mouth with food. He drank his beer and she drank hers. She ate her toast and a few bites of his food that he offered to her. The beer made her head warm and light, and after she finished it he ordered her another and she drank that too and felt a pleasant confusion.
The bus driver rose and paid and went back to the bus. The rest of the passengers followed him. She walked out with him and he held his arm around her shoulder tighter now and slapped his stomach and said, damn that feels good, and leaned down and kissed her cheek and squeezed her stomach with his other hand and moved it lower and kissed her harder on the neck and said, Honey, I think we may have been made for each other. And for the first time she pulled back slightly as they separated to board the bus and take their seats.
They traveled through night, and the road was invisible where she sat with her head leaned against the cool window, feeling only the motion, the rock and occasional jolt as she drifted beside the other there in the darkness. He had now fallen asleep and she was on the verge, though her eyes would not release her, seemed of themselves to choose seeking some vision, resisted the falling away which she felt every time she forced her eyes to close, closing them against a dry ache, closing them for what felt could have been a lifetime or more as she fell into a warm deep amniotic and depthless sea, phantoms and her own past around her like schools of blind fish nerving their way through sea levels, darting in so that she saw herself when she was a little girl in the field behind the house were she lived, and she was alone in the light in a field where rain had recently soaked the high grass. She crossed slowly, wading through the wet swales to a shed, a little shed at the edge of the field beyond which was a grove of thick black maple trees in lush fullness swaying in a breeze that swept through them with animating force, and she went to the shed which was like some weathered ancient outhouse with bare wood grooved and warped and gray and with streaks of black descending from the ancient nail heads. She opened the door. The smell hit first, a damp smell of earth and foul rot, and the darkness was at first a barrier against which she halted and waited for her eyes to adapt. And slowly she saw the dim outline of shelves and a narrow floor of dirt and a low ceiling beneath which she stooped as she went inside, cobwebs threaded in the rafters and flumed like thick-silked and deep-white mouths along the rotting sill beneath a single window that glowed opaque from years and years of dust and spider scurries and mold-growth. Along the shelves were hundreds of bottles. All of different shape and size and color. In the open doorway light they were dull in their rows. Then she reached out and touched them, not even picking them up at first but simply touching them, and when her hand came away the place where her fingers had made contact glowed with a strange and sudden luster. She picked one up. In her hand she felt the shift of the liquid contents, shook it and heard the liquid splash internally, and with her thumb rubbed the dirt, and how so much could have accumulated seemed a mystery, cleaning it so that when she lifted it into the light she could see inside a swirling shape of unmixed ingredients stirring and turning like a tornado. In the top of the bottle was a cork, and with her other hand she twisted it and pulled it out and the smell hit her like a blow, wretched, putrefied, causing her throat to clench and her stomach to seize. Her eyes opened and it was like a film swipe, a dissolve, putting her back in the bus again, riding through the boundless night with the sea of black imagining on the periphery, seething, and with a quick dip of her consciousness she saw the house where she had last lived with her father and saw it as though she had turned and waited after the last departure, saw it swallowed in a rich and heaving fire, becoming a fluttering multileveled and rounded furnace which sent up emissary arms and long thin necks that opened out into brief eyeless head pops that leaped and held for a moment before they extinguished in the air. Disembodied, she rode through other nights in the back of her father’s car, and her mother was there and they were flying through the darkness away from their home, away from a whole series of homes, and in each one was a piece of herself that had, at one point and against a growing suspicion that nothing could last, begun to rest, begun to inhabit and take root. At first she would wait, would not even unpack but would sit with her things inside boxes, sitting on the bed that was furnished, for they always rented furnished places, sitting in a room with a host of smells, the smells of others, the smells of all the lives that had tramped through and sat and slept and fretted and dreamed and moved on as she would too, and she knew there would come a time when the smell would no longer affect her, would diminish into what she thought was her own smell, her own life, and that was usually the moment at which her father would call them out in haste to pack once again and hurry. And gradually she had less and less to pack, leaving bits and pieces, books and hair ribbons and chewed-on pencils and even photographs and even once a diary into whose hands she could not imagine it falling, yet feeling acutely the exposure and the loss, the violation even as someone who would crawl through that same room and smell those same alien and oppressive smells would find it and open it and at last read it. Then even that ceased to touch her, though all of it, in distinct and oddly pristine definition, remained catalogued in her memory. She could wander through each of those anonymous rooms in succession with her mind in this state, could see herself brooding before a portable television set as she watched the ghosts of the past prance around in reruns of old shows made in a time long before she was born but which through the repeated watching became so familiar she could at times believe those images were from her own memory, as though some parallel or past life transpired in the infinite realms of the possible that existed outside her boundary, that moved and pulled at her and even captured her for how long she could not say except that wherever she was or would go she would always return to the world of her father. Nightmare. Ancient shapes. A figure draped in robes, mendicant and hooded who lifts his cloaked arm at her and silent stands and by his presence locks her into place, holds her down without even touching her so that no breath comes, no sound emerges though she tries with all her will to make some sound, tries and would even scream, knowing in some way that the scream would release her, that to scream is in fact what the figure is calling upon her to do, and feeling come out nothing but a hoarse, tight hiss. She opens her eyes in the bus. Now she resists slipping back in, but the reach and power of sleep is strong, her body still, her mind fighting against the nightmare which feels to be around her still, as though she has pulled it into this world with her, so that open or closed her eyes will see the contours of the dream, and so she does, seeing it in odd, floating, black spheres that dart and drift and hold and seem to breathe in the air around her. She thinks if she does not look directly at them they will lose interest in her and move on. Others are here. Others move uninvited nearby and would take a peek through her mind if she allowed it, which she does not. She feels breath. She feels the mouth of a wolf behind her head. The wolf circles her, just beyond her vision though she sees it anyway, predatory, moving peripherally though somehow unable to grasp her, unable to fully locate her. She holds. She holds so still they cannot touch her. Instead, she darts through them, darts down, away, away, away. Does she fully wake? She doesn’t know. It is darker than ever dark. She is somewhere, but she doesn’t know where. She must pass through it. She thinks this though she feels unsure how or where she thinks it. She has no body by which to orient her thought, her sense that she is, and yet she is. She is. She knows this, even though all around her is indistinguishable. Extinguished. Blown out. She is. She knows this. She is.