Edna, and I had started down from Kalispell heading for Tampa-St Pete, where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police. I had managed to scrape with the law in Kalispell over several bad cheques–which is a prison crime in Montana. And I knew Edna was already looking at her cards and thinking about a move, since it wasn’t the first time I’d been in law scrapes in my life. She herself had already had her own troubles, losing her kids and keeping her ex-husband, Danny, from breaking in her house and stealing her things while she was at work, which was really why I had moved in in the first place, that and needing to give my little daughter, Cheryl, a better shake in things.
I don’t know what was between Edna and me, just beached by the same tides when you got down to it. Though love has been built on frailer ground than that, as I well know. And when I came in the house that afternoon, I just asked her if she wanted to go to Florida with me, leave things where they sat, and she said, ‘Why not? My datebook’s not that full.’
Edna and I had been a pair eight months, more or less man and wife, some of which time I had been out of work, and some when I’d worked at the dog track as a lead-out and could help with the rent and talk sense to Danny when he came around. Danny was afraid of me because Edna had told him I’d been in prison in Florida for killing a man once, though that wasn’t true. I had once been in jail in Tallahassee for stealing tyres and had got into a fight on the county farm where a man had lost his eye. But I hadn’t done the hurting, and Edna just wanted the story worse than it was so Danny wouldn’t act crazy and make her have to take her kids back, since she had made a good adjustment to not having them, and I already had Cheryl with me. I’m not a violent person and would never put a man’s eye out, much less kill someone. My former wife, Helen, would come all the way from Waikiki Beach to testify to that. We never had violence, and I believe in crossing the street to stay out of trouble’s way. Though Danny didn’t know that.
But we were half down through Wyoming, going toward Interstate 80 and feeling good about things, when the oil light flashed on in the car I’d stolen, a sign I knew to be a bad one.
I’d got us a good car, a cranberry Mercedes I’d stolen out of an ophthalmologist’s lot in Whitefish, Montana. I stole it because I thought it would be comfortable over a long haul, because I thought it got good mileage, which it didn’t, and because I’d never had a good car in my life, just old Chevy junkers and used trucks back from when I was a kid swamping citrus with Cubans.
The car made us all high that day. I ran the windows up and down, and Edna told us some jokes and made faces. She could be lively. Her features would light up like a beacon and you could see her beauty, which wasn’t ordinary. It all made me giddy, and I drove clear down to Bozeman, then straight on through the park to Jackson Hole. I rented us the bridal suite in the Quality Court in Jackson and left Cheryl and her little dog, Duke, sleeping while Edna and I drove to a rib barn and drank beer and laughed till after midnight.
It felt like a whole new beginning for us, bad memories left behind and a new horizon to build on. I got so worked up, I had a tattoo done on my arm that said FAMOUS TIMES, and Edna bought a Bailey hat with an Indian feather band and a little turquoise-and-silver bracelet for Cheryl, and we made love on the seat of the car in the Quality Court parking lot just as the sun was burning up on the Snake River, and everything seemed then like the end of the rainbow.
It was that very enthusiasm, in fact, that made me keep the car one day longer instead of driving it into the river and stealing another one, like I should have done and had done before.
Where the car went bad there wasn’t a town in sight or even a house, just some low mountains maybe fifty miles away or maybe a hundred, a barbed-wire fence in both directions, hardpan prairie, and some hawks sailing through the evening air seizing insects.
I got out to look at the motor, and Edna got out with Cheryl and the dog to let them have a pee by the car. I checked the water and checked the oil stick, and both of them said perfect.
‘What’s that light mean, Earl?’ Edna said. She had come and stood by the car with her hat on. She was just sizing things up for herself.
‘We shouldn’t run it,’ I said. ‘Something’s not right in the oil.’
She looked around at Cheryl and Little Duke, who were peeing on the hardtop side by side like two little dolls, then out at the mountains, which were becoming black and lost in the distance. ‘ What’re we doing?’ she said. She wasn’t worried yet, but she wanted to know what I was thinking about.
‘Let me try it again,’ I said.
‘That’s a good idea,’ she said, and we all got back in the car.
When I turned the motor over, it started right away and the red light stayed off and there weren’t any noises to make you think something was wrong. I let it idle a minute, then pushed the accelerator down and watched the red bulb. But there wasn’t any light on, and I started wondering if maybe I hadn’t dreamed I saw it, or that it had been the sun catching an angle off the window chrome, or maybe I was scared of something and didn’t know it.
‘What’s the matter with it, Daddy?’ Cheryl said from the back seat. I looked back at her, and she had on her turquoise bracelet and Edna’s hat set back on the back of her head and that little black-and-white Heinz dog on her lap. She looked like a little cowgirl in the movies.
‘Nothing, honey, everything’s fine now,’ I said.
‘Little Duke tinkled where I tinkled,’ Cheryl said, and laughed.
‘You’re two of a kind,’ Edna said, not looking back. Edna was usually good with Cheryl, but I knew she was tired now. We hadn’t had much sleep, and she had a tendency to get cranky when she didn’t sleep. ‘We oughta ditch this damn car first chance we get,’ she said.
‘What’s the first chance we got?’ I said, because I knew she’d been at the map.
‘Rock Springs, Wyoming,’ Edna said with conviction. ‘Thirty miles down this road.’
She pointed out ahead. I had wanted all along to drive the car into Florida like a big success story. But I knew Edna was right about it, that we shouldn’t take crazy chances. I had kept thinking of it as my car and not the ophthalmologist’s, and that was how you got caught in these things.
‘Then my belief is we ought to go to Rock Springs and negotiate ourselves a new car,’ I said. I wanted to stay upbeat, like everything was panning out right.
‘That’s a great idea,’ Edna said, and she leaned over and kissed me hard on the mouth.
‘That’s a great idea,’ Cheryl said. ‘Let’s pull on out of here right now.’
The sunset that day I remember as being the prettiest I’d ever seen. Just as it touched the rim of the horizon, it all at once fired the air into jewels and red sequins the precise likes of which I had never seen before and haven’t seen since. The West has it all over everywhere for sunsets, even Florida, where it’s supposedly flat but where half the time trees block your view.
‘It’s cocktail hour,’ Edna said after we’d driven a while. ‘We ought to have a drink and celebrate something.’ She felt better thinking we were going to get rid of the car. It certainly had dark troubles and was something you’d want to put behind you.
Edna had out a whiskey bottle and some plastic cups and was measuring levels on the glove-box lid. She liked drinking, and she liked drinking in the car, which was something you got used to in Montana, where it wasn’t against the law, where, though, strangely enough, a bad cheque would land you in Deer Lodge Prison for a year.
‘Did I ever tell you I once had a monkey?’ Edna said, setting my drink on the dashboard where I could reach it when I. was ready. Her spirits were already picked up. She was like that, up one minute and down the next.
‘I don’t think you ever did tell me that,’ I said. ‘Where were you then?’
‘Missoula,’ she said. She put her bare feet on the dash and rested the cup on her breasts. ‘I was waitressing at the Amvets. It was before I met you. Some guy came in one day with a monkey. A spider monkey. And I said, just to be joking, “I’ll roll you for that monkey.” And the guy said, “Just one roll?” And I said, “Sure.” He put the monkey down on the bar, picked up the cup, and rolled out boxcars. I picked it up and rolled out three fives. And I just stood there looking at the guy. He was just some guy passing through, I guess a vet. He got a strange look on his face–I’m sure not as strange as the one I had–but he looked kind of sad and surprised and satisfied all at once. I said, “We can roll again.” But he said, “No, I never roll twice for anything.” And he sat and drank a beer and talked about one thing and another for a while, about nuclear war and building a stronghold somewhere up in the Bitterroot, whatever it was, while I just watched the monkey, wondering what I was going to do with it when the guy left. And pretty soon he got up and said, “Well, goodbye, Chipper,” that was this monkey’s name, of course. And then he left before I could say anything. And the monkey just sat on the bar all that night. I don’t know what made me think of that, Earl. Just something weird. I’m letting my mind wander.’
‘That’s perfectly fine,’ I said. I took a drink of my drink. ‘I’d never own a monkey,’ I said after a minute. ‘They’re too nasty. I’m sure Cheryl would like a monkey, though, wouldn’t you, honey?’ Cheryl was down on the seat playing with Little Duke. She used to talk about monkeys all the time then. ‘What’d you ever do with that monkey?’ I said, watching the speedometer. We were having to go slower now because the red light kept fluttering on. And all I could do to keep it off was go slower. We were going maybe thirty-five and it was an hour before dark, and I was hoping Rock Springs wasn’t far away.
‘You really want to know?’ Edna said. She gave me a quick, sharp glance, then looked back at the empty desert as if she was brooding over it.
‘Sure,’ I said. I was still upbeat. I figured I could worry about breaking down and let other people be happy for a change.
‘I kept it a week,’ she said. She seemed gloomy all of a sudden, as if she saw some aspect of the story she had never seen before. ‘I took it home and back and forth to the Amvets on my shifts. And it didn’t cause any trouble. I fixed a chair up for it to sit on, back of the bar, and people liked it. It made a nice little clicking noise. We changed its name to Mary because the bartender figured out it was a girl. Though I was never really comfortable with it at home. I felt like it watched me too much. Then one day a guy came in, some guy who’d been in Vietnam, still wore a fatigue coat. And he said to me, “Don’t you know that a monkey’ll kill you? It’s got more strength in its fingers than you got in your whole body.” He said people had been killed in Vietnam by monkeys, bunches of them marauding while you were asleep, killing you and covering you with leaves. I didn’t believe a word of it, except that when I got home and got undressed I started looking over across the room at Mary on her chair in the dark watching me. And I got the creeps. And after a while I got up and went out to the car, got a length of clothesline wire, and came back in and wired her to the doorknob through her little silver collar, and went back and tried to sleep. And I guess I must’ve slept the sleep of the dead–though I don’t remember it–because when I got up I found Mary had tupped off her chair back and hanged herself on the wire line. I’d made it too short.’
Edna seemed badly affected by that story and slid low in the seat so she couldn’t see out over the dash. ‘Isn’t that a shameful story, Earl, what happened to that poor little monkey?’
‘I see a town! I see a town!’ Cheryl started yelling from the back seat, and right up Little Duke started yapping and the whole car fell into a racket. And sure enough she had seen something I hadn’t, which was Rock Springs, Wyoming, at the bottom of a long hill, a little glowing jewel in the desert with Interstate 80 running on the north side and the black desert spread out behind.
‘That’s it, honey,’ I said. ‘That’s where we’re going. You saw it first.’
‘We’re hungry,’ Cheryl said. ‘Little Duke wants some fish, and I want spaghetti.’ She put her arms around my neck and hugged me.
‘Then you’ll just get it,’ I said. ‘You can have anything you want. And so can Edna and so can Little Duke.’ I looked over at Edna, smiling, but she was staring at me with eyes that were fierce with anger. ‘What’s wrong?’ I said.
‘Don’t you care anything about that awful thing that happened to me?’ she said. Her mouth was drawn tight, and her eyes kept cutting back at Cheryl and Little Duke, as if they had been tormenting her.
‘Of course, I do,’ I said. ‘I thought that was an awful thing.’ I didn’t want her to be unhappy. We were almost there, and pretty soon we could sit down and have a real meal without thinking somebody might be hunting us.
‘You want to know what I did with that monkey?’ Edna said.
‘Sure I do,’ I said.
She said, ‘I put her in a green garbage bag, put it in the trunk of my car, drove to the dump, and threw her in the trash.’ She was staring at me darkly, as if the story meant something to her that was real important but that only she could see and that the rest of the world was a fool for.
‘Well, that’s horrible,’ I said. ‘But I don’t see what else you could do. You didn’t mean to kill it. You’d have done it differently if you had. And then you had to get rid of it, and I don’t know what else you could have done. Throwing it away might seem unsympathetic to somebody, probably, but not to me. Sometimes that’s all you can do, and you can’t worry about what somebody else thinks.’ I tried to smile at her, but the red light was staying on if I pushed the accelerator at all, and I was trying to gauge if we could coast to Rock Springs before the car gave out completely. I looked at Edna again. ‘What else can I say?’ I said.
‘Nothing,’ she said, and stared back at the dark highway. ‘I should’ve known that’s what you’d think. You’ve got a character that leaves something out, Earl. I’ve known that a long time.’
‘And yet here you are,’ I said. ‘And you’re not doing so bad. Things could be a lot worse. At least we’re all together here.’
‘Things could always be worse,’ Edna said. ‘You could go to the electric chair tomorrow.’
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘And somewhere somebody probably will. Only it won’t be you.’
‘I’m hungry,’ said Cheryl. ‘When’re we gonna eat? Let’s find a motel. I’m tired of this. Little Duke’s tired of it too.’
Where the car stopped rolling was some distance from the town, though you could see the clear outline of the Interstate in the dark with Rock Springs lighting up the sky behind. You could hear the big tractors hitting the spacers in the overpass, revving up for the climb to the mountains.
I shut off the lights.
‘What’re we going to do now?’ Edna said irritably, giving me a bitter look.
‘I’m figuring it,’ I said. ‘It won’t be hard, whatever it is. You won’t have to do anything.’
‘I’d hope not,’ she said, and looked the other way.
Across the road and across a dry wash a hundred yards was what looked like a huge mobile-home town, with a factory or a refinery of some kind lit up behind it and in full swing. There were lights on in a lot of the mobile homes, and there were cars moving along an access road that ended near the freeway overpass a mile the other way. The lights in the mobile homes seemed friendly to me, and I knew right then what I should do.
‘Get out,’ I said, and opened my door.
‘Are we walking?’ Edna said.
‘We’re pushing,’ I said.
‘I’m not pushing,’ Edna said, and reached up and locked her door.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘Then you just steer.’
‘You pushing us to Rock Springs, are you, Earl? It doesn’t look like it’s more than about three miles,’ Edna said.
‘I’ll push,’ Cheryl said from the back.
‘No, hon. Daddy’ll push. You just get out with Little Duke and move out of the way.’
Edna gave me a threatening look, just as if I’d tried to hit her. But when I got out she slid into my seat and took the wheel, staring angrily ahead straight into the cottonwood scrub.
‘Edna can’t drive that car,’ Cheryl said from out in the dark. ‘She’ll run it in the ditch.’
‘Yes, she can, hon. Edna can drive it as good as I can. Probably better.’
‘No, she can’t,’ Cheryl said. ‘No, she can’t either.’ And I thought she was about to cry, but she didn’t.
I told Edna to keep the ignition on so it wouldn’t lock up and to steer into the cottonwoods with the parking lights on so she could see. And when I started, she steered it straight off into the trees, and I kept pushing until we were twenty yards into the cover and the tyres sank in the soft sand and nothing at all could be seen from the road.
‘Now where are we?’ she said, sitting at the wheel. Her voice was tired and hard, and I knew she could have put a good meal to use. She had a sweet nature, and I recognized that this wasn’t her fault but mine. Only I wished she could be more hopeful.
‘You stay right here, and I’ll go over to that trailer park and call us a cab,’ I said.
‘What cab?’ Edna said, her mouth wrinkled as if she’d never heard anything like that in her life.
‘There’ll be cabs,’ I said, and tried to smile at her. ‘There’s cabs everywhere.’
‘What’re you going to tell him when he gets here? Our stolen car broke down and we need a ride to where we can steal another one? That’ll be a big hit, Earl.’
‘I’ll talk,’ I said. ‘You just listen to the radio for ten minutes and then walk on out to the shoulder like nothing was suspicious. And you and Cheryl act nice. She doesn’t need to know about this car.’
‘Like we’re not suspicious enough already, right?’ Edna looked up at me out of the lighted car. ‘You don’t think right, did you know that, Earl? You think the world’s stupid and you’re smart. But that’s not how it is. I feel sorry for you. You might’ve been something, but things just went crazy someplace.’
I had a thought about poor Danny. He was a vet and crazy as a shit-house mouse, and I was glad he wasn’t in for all this. ‘Just get the baby in the car,’ I said, trying to be patient. ‘I’m hungry like you are.’
‘I’m tired of this,’ Edna said. ‘I wish I’d stayed in Montana.’
‘Then you can go back in the morning,’ I said. ‘I’ll buy the ticket and put you on the bus. But not till then.’
‘Just get on with it, Earl,’ she said, slumping down in the seat, turning off the parking lights with one foot and the radio on with the other.
The mobile-home community was as big as any I’d ever seen. It was attached in some way to the plant that was lighted up behind it, because I could see a car once in a while leave one of the trailer streets, turn in the direction of the plant, then go slowly into it. Everything in the plant was white, and you could see that all the trailers were painted white and looked exactly alike. A deep hum came out of the plant, and I thought as I got closer that it wouldn’t be a location I’d ever want to work in.
I went right to the first trailer where there was a light and knocked on the metal door. Kids’ toys were lying in the gravel around the little wood steps, and I could hear talking on TV that suddenly went off. I heard a woman’s voice talking, and then the door opened wide.
A large Negro woman with a wide, friendly face stood in the doorway. She smiled at me and moved forward as if she was going to come out, but she stopped at the top step. There was a little Negro boy behind her peeping out from behind her legs, watching me with his eyes half closed. The trailer had that feeling that no one else was inside, which was a feeling I knew something about.
‘I’m sorry to intrude,’ I said. ‘But I’ve run up on a little bad luck tonight. My name’s Earl Middleton.’
The woman looked at me, then out into the night toward the freeway as if what I had said was something she was going to be able to see. ‘What kind of bad luck?’ she said, looking down at me again.
‘My car broke down out on the highway,’ I said. ‘I can’t fix it myself, and I wondered if I could use your phone to call for help.’
The woman smiled down at me knowingly. ‘We can’t live without cars, can we?’
‘That’s the honest truth,’ I said.
‘They’re like our hearts,’ she said firmly, her face shining in the little bulb light that burned beside the door. ‘Where’s your car situated?’
I turned and looked over into the dark, but I couldn’t see anything because of where we’d put it. ‘It’s over there,’ I said. ‘You can’t see it in the dark.’
‘Who all’s with you now?’ the woman said. ‘Have you got your wife with you?’
‘She’s with my little girl and our dog in the car,’ I said. ‘My daughter’s asleep or I would have brought them.’
‘They shouldn’t be left in that dark by themselves,’ the woman said, and frowned.’There’s too much unsavouriness out there.’
‘The best I can do is hurry back,’ I said. I tried to look sincere, since everything except Cheryl being asleep and Edna being my wife was the truth. The truth is meant to serve you if you’ll let it, and I wanted it to serve me. ‘I’ll pay for the phone call,’ I said. ‘If you’ll bring the phone to the door I’ll call from right here.’
The woman looked at me again as if she was searching for a truth of her own, then back out into the night. She was maybe in her sixties but I couldn’t say for sure. ‘You’re not going to rob me, are you, Mr Middleton?’ she said, and smiled like it was a joke between us.
‘Not tonight,’ I said, and smiled a genuine smile. ‘I’m not up to it tonight. Maybe another time.’
‘Then I guess Terrel and I can let you use our phone with Daddy not here, can’t we, Terrel? This is my grandson, Terrel Junior, Mr Middleton.’ She put her hand on the boy’s head and looked down at him. ‘Terrel won’t talk. Though if he did he’d tell you to use our phone. He’s a sweet boy.’ She opened the screen for me to come in.