Our Story Begins New And Selected Stories

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And the great part was, it wouldn't be true! Because Dutch and Dottie wouldn't do a thing for him unless he stayed in Phoenix and got a "real job," like selling houses. But nobody would know that except Dutch and Dottie. They would stand up on the stage listening to all those lies, and the more he complimented them the more they'd see the kind of parents they could have been but weren't, and the more ashamed they would feel, and the more grateful to Mark for not exposing them.

He could hear a faint rushing sound in the hot air, a sound like applause. He walked faster still. He hardly felt the burning of his feet. The rushing sound grew louder, and Mark looked up. Ahead of him, no more than a hundred yards off, he saw the highway-not the road itself, but a long convoy of trucks moving across the desert, floating westward through a blue haze of exhaust.

The woman told Kiystal that her name was Hope.

"Hope," Kiystal said. "How lovely."

They were in the bedroom. Hope was working on the motorcycle. Kiystal lay on the bed, propped up with pillows, watching Hope's long fingers move here and there over the machine, then back to the sweating glass at her side. Hans was outside with the men.

Hope took a drink. She swirled the ice around and said, "I don't know, Kiystal."

Kiystal felt the baby move inside her. She folded her hands across her belly and waited for the bump to come again.

All the lights were off except for a lamp on the floor beside Hope. There were engine parts scattered around her, and the air smelled of oil. She picked up a part and looked at it, then began to wipe it down with a cloth. "I told you we had Del Ray to our prom," she said. "I don't know if you ever heard of Del Ray where you came from, but us girls were flat crazy about him. I had a Del Ray pillow I slept on. Then he showed up and it turned out he was only about yay high." Hope held her hand a few inches above the floor. "Personally," she said, "I wouldn't look twice at a man that couldn't stand up for me if it came to the point. No offense," she added.

Krystal didn't understand what Hope had said, so she smiled.

"You take Webb," Hope said. "Webb would kill for me. He almost did, once. He beat a man that bad."

Kiystal understood this. She felt sure it was true. She ran her tongue over her dry lips. "Who?" she asked. "Who did he beat?"

Hope looked up from the part she was cleaning. "My husband."

Krystal waited, uncertain whether she had heard this correctly.

"Webb and me were on a tear," Hope said. "When we weren't together, which was most of the time, we were always checking up on each other. Webb used to drive past my house at all hours and follow me everywhere. Sometimes he'd follow me places with his wife in the car next to him." She laughed. "It was a situation."

The baby was pressing against Krystal's spine. She shifted slightly.

Hope looked up at her. "It's a long story."

"Tell me."

Hope got up and went out to the kitchen. Kiystal heard the crack of an ice tray. It was pleasant to lie here in this dark, cool room.

Hope came back and settled on the floor. "Don't get me going," she said. She took a drink. "It happened at the movie theater. We were coming out and Webb saw my husband put his arm around me and just completely lost his senses. I can tell you we did some fancy footwork after that. My husband had six brothers, and two of them in the police. We got out of there and I mean we got. Nothing but the clothes we had on. Never gone back since. Never will, either."

"Never," Kiystal said. She admired the sound of the word. It was like Beethoven shaking his fist at the heavens.

Hope picked up the rag again. But she didn't do anything with it. She leaned against the wall, out of the little circle of light the lamp made.

"Did you have children?" Kiystal asked.

Hope nodded. She held up two fingers.

"It must have been hard, not to see them."

"They'll do all right," Hope said. "They're both boys." She ran her fingers over the floor, found the part she'd been cleaning, and without looking at it began to wipe it down again.

"I couldn't leave Hans," Kiystal said.

"Sure you could," Hope said. She sat there with her hands in her lap. Her breathing got deep and slow, and Kiystal, peering through the gloom, saw that her eyes were closed. She was asleep, or just dreaming-maybe of that man out there.

The air conditioner went off abruptly. Kiystal lay in the dark and listened to the sounds it had covered, the rasping of insects, the low voices of the men. The baby was quiet now. Kiystal closed her eyes. She felt herself drifting, and as she drifted she remembered Hans. Hans, she thought. Then she slept.

Mark had assumed that when he reached the highway someone would immediately pick him up. But car after car went by, and the few drivers who looked at him scowled as if they were mad at him for needing a ride and putting them on the spot.

Mark's face burned, and his throat was so diy it hurt to swallow. Twice he had to leave the road to stand in the shade of a billboard. Cars passed him by for more than an hour, cars from Wisconsin and Utah and Georgia and just about eveiywhere. Mark felt like the whole country had turned its back on him. The thought came to him that he could die out here.

Finally a car stopped. It was a hearse. Mark hesitated, then ran toward it.

There were three people in the front seat, a man between two women. The space in the back was full of electrical equipment. Mark pushed some wires aside and sat cross-legged on the floor. The breeze from the air conditioner felt like a stream of cold water running over him.

The driver pulled back onto the road.

"Welcome to the stiffmobile," said the man in the middle. He turned around. His head was shaved except for one bristling stripe of hair down the center. It was the first Mohawk haircut Mark had ever seen on an actual person. The man's eyebrows were the same carroty color as his hair. Freckles covered his entire face and even the shaved parts of his skull.

"Stiffmobile, cliffmobile," said the woman driving. "Riffmobile."

"Bet you thought you'd be riding with a cold one," the man said.

Mark shrugged. "I'd rather ride with a cold one than a hot one."

The man laughed and pounded on the back of the seat.

The women also laughed. The one not driving turned around and smiled at Mark. She had a round, soft-looking face. Her lips were full. She wore a small gold ring in one side of her nose. "Hi," she said.

"Speaking of cold ones," the man said, "there's a case of 'em right behind you."

Mark fished a can of beer out of the cooler and took a long swallow, head back, eyes closed. When he opened his eyes again the man was watching him. They introduced themselves, all but the woman driving. She never looked at Mark or spoke, except to herself. The man with the Mohawk was Barney. The girl with the earring in her nose was Nance. They joked back and forth, and Mark discovered that Nance had a terrific sense of humor. She picked up on almost everything he said. After a while the ring stopped bothering him.

When Barney heard that Mark had been in the army he shook his head. "Passonthat," he said. "No bang-bang for Barney. I can't stand the sight of my own brains."

"Brains," the driver said. "Cranes, lanes, stains."

"Be cool," Barney told her. He turned back to Mark. "So what was it like over there?"

Mark realized that Barney meant Vietnam. Mark had not been to Vietnam. He'd had orders to go, but they got canceled just before he was supposed to ship out and were never reissued, he didn't know why. It was too complicated to explain, so he just said, "Pretty bad," and left it at that.

The mention of Vietnam broke the good feeling between them. They drank their beers and looked at the desert passing by. Then Barney crumpled his can and threw it out the window. Hot air blew into Mark's face. He remembered what it was like out there, and felt glad to be right where he was.

"I could get behind another beer," Nance said.

"Right," Barney said. He turned around and told Mark to pop some more frosties. While Mark was getting the cans out of the cooler Barney watched him, playing his fingers over the top of the seat as if it were a keyboard. "So what's in Blythe?" he said.

"Smythe," the driver said. "Smythe's in Blythe."

"Smooth out," Nance said to her.

"I need a part," Mark said. He handed out the beers. "An alternator. My car's on the fritz."

"Where'syour car?" Barney said.

Mark jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Back there. I don't know the name of the place. It's just this gas station off the highway."

Nance was watching him intently. "Hey," she said. "What if you didn't stop smiling? What if you just kept smiling and never stopped? "

Barney looked at her, then back at Mark. "To me," he said, "there are places you go and places you don't go. You don't go to Rochester. You don't go to Blythe."

"You definitely don't go to Blythe," Nance said.

"Right," Barney said. Then he listed some of the places where, in his opinion, you do go. They were going to one of them now, San Lucas, up in the mountains above Santa Fe. They were part of a film crew shooting a Western there. They'd shot another movie in the same place a year ago, and this was the sequel. Barney was a soundman. Nance did makeup. They didn't say anything about the driver.

"This place is unbelievable," Barney said. He paused and shook his head. Mark was waiting for him to describe San Lucas, but he just shook his head again and said, "It's just completely unbelievable."

"Really," Nance said.

It turned out that the star of the picture was Nita Damon. This was a real coincidence, because Mark had seen Nita Damon about six months ago in a show in Germany, a Bob Hope visit-with-the-troops kind of thing.

"That's amazing," Nance said. She and Barney looked at each other.

"You should scratch Blythe," Barney said.

Mark grinned.

Nance was staring at him. "Marco," she said. "You're not a Mark, you're a Marco."

"You should sign on with us," Barney said. "Ride the stiffmobile express."

"You should," Nance said. "San Lucas is just incredible."

"Partyville," Barney said.

"Jesus," Mark said. "No. I couldn't."

"Sure you could," Barney said. "Lincoln freed the slaves, didn't he? Get your car later."

Mark was laughing. "Come on," he said. "What would I do up there?"

Barney said, "You mean like work?"

Mark nodded.

"No problem," Barney said. He told Mark that there was always something to do. People didn't show up, people quit, people got sick-there was always a call out for warm bodies. Once you found a tasty spot, you just settled in.

"You mean I'd be working on the movie? On the film crew?"

"Absitively," Barney said. "I guarantee."

"Jesus," Mark said. He looked at Barney, then at Nance. "I don't know," he said.

"That's all right," Barney said. "I know."

"Barney knows," Nance said.

"What have you got to lose?" Barney said.

Mark didn't say anything.

Barney watched him. "Marco," he said. "Don't tell me-you've got a little something else back there besides the car, right? " When Mark didn't answer, he laughed. "That was then," he said. "The old days. Gone with the wind."

"I have to think," Mark said.

"Okay, think," Barney said. "You've got till Blythe." He turned around. "Don't disappoint me."

Nance gave him a long, serious look. Then she turned around too. The top of her head was just visible over the high seat back.

The desert went past the window, always the same. The road had an oily look. Mark felt rushed, a little wild.

His first idea was to get the directions to San Lucas, then drive up with Krystal and Hans after the car was fixed. But then he wouldn't have enough money left for the gas, let alone food and motels and a place to live once they got there. He'd miss his chance.

Because that's what this was-a chance.

There was no point in fooling himself. He could go to Los Angeles and walk the streets for months, maybe years, without ever getting anywhere. He could stand outside closed doors and suck up to nobodies and sit in plastic chairs half his life without ever coming close to where he was right now, on his way to a guaranteed job in Partyville.

Los Angeles wasn't going to work. Mark could see that. He'd borrow money from his friend and start hustling and he wouldn't get the time of day from anyone, because he was hungry and nobody ever had time for hungry people. Hungry people got written off. It was like Dutch said-them that has, gets.

He'd run himself ragged and his money would disappear, the way all his other money had disappeared. Kiystal would get worried and sad. After a couple of weeks Mark and his buddy wouldn't have anything to say to each other, and his buddy would grow tired of living with a guy he didn't really know that well and a yelling kid and a sad, pregnant woman. He'd tell Mark some lie to get rid of them-his girl was moving in, his parents had decided to stay together after all. By then Mark would be broke again. Krystal would have a fit and probably go into labor.

And when that happened? What then?

Mark knew what. Crawl home to Dutch and Dottie.

No. No sir. The only way he was going back to Phoenix was in a coffin.

The driver started talking to herself, and Barney rapped her on top of the head with his knuckles. "Do you want me to drive?" he said. It sounded like a threat. She quieted down. "All right," he said. Without looking back he said, "Five miles to Blythe."

Mark looked out the window. He couldn't get it out of his mind that here he had exactly what he needed. A chance to show what he was made of. He'd have fun, sure, but he'd also be at work on time in the morning. He would do what he was told and do it right. He would keep his eyes open and his mouth shut, and after a while people would notice him. He wouldn't push too hard, but now and then he might do a song at one of the parties, or impersonate some of the actors. He could just hear Nita Damon laughing and saying. Stop it, Mark! Stop it!

What he could do, Mark thought, was to call Kiystal and arrange to meet up with her at his buddy's house in a month or two, after they'd shot the film. Mark would have something going then. He'd be on his way. But that wouldn't work either. He didn't know how to call her. She had no money. And she wouldn't agree.

Mark wasn't going to fool himself. If he left Krystal and Hans back there, she would never forgive him. If he left them, he'd be leaving them for good.

I can't do that, he thought. But he knew this wasn't true. He could leave them. People left each other, and got left, every day. It was a terrible thing. But it happened and people survived as they survived even worse things. Krystal and Hans would survive, too. When she understood what had happened she would call Dutch, who'd hit the roof, of course, and then, in the end, come through for them. He didn't have any choice. And in four or five years what happened today would be no more than a bad memoiy.

Kiystal would do well for herself. Men liked her. Even Dutch liked her, though he'd been dead set against the marriage. Someday, sooner than later, she'd meet a good man who could take care of her. She and Hans and the new baby would be able to go to sleep at night without wondering what would happen to them when they woke up. They didn't need Mark. Without him they would have a better life than if he and Kiystal had stayed together.

This was a new thought for Mark, and it made him feel a little aggrieved to see how unimportant he really was to Kiystal. Before now he had always assumed that their coming together had been ordained, and that in marrying Kiystal he had fulfilled some need of the universe. But if they could live without each other, and do even better without each other, then this wasn't true and had never been true.

They did not need each other. There was no particular reason for them to be together. So what was this all about? If he couldn't make her happy, what was the point? They were dragging each other down like two people who couldn't swim. If they were lucky, they might keep at it long enough to grow old in the same house.

It wasn't right. She deserved better, and so did he.

Mark felt that he had been deceived. Not by Kiystal, she would never do that, but by eveiyone who had ever been married and knew the truth about it and never let on. The truth was, when you got married you had to give up one thing after another. It never ended. You had to give up your life-the special one you'd been meant to have-and stumble along where neither of you had ever thought of going or wanted to go. And you never knew what was really happening. You gave up your life and didn't even know it.

"Blythe," Barney said.

Mark looked at the town, what he could see of it from the road. Lines of heat quivered above the rooftops.

"Blythe," Barney said again. "Going, going, gone."

Kiystal woke and bolted upright, blinking in the gloom. "Hans," she whispered.

"He's outside," Hope said. She was standing over the lamp, feeding shells into a shotgun. Her shadow swayed back and forth against the wall. "I'm going to get us some dinner." she said. "You just lie here and rest up. The boy will be fine." She finished loading the gun and pushed a few more shells into the pockets of her jeans.

Kiystal lay on the bed, restless and thirsty but feeling too heavy to rise. The men had a radio on. A whiny song was playing, like the one Hope had sung in the kitchen. Kiystal had not heard any good music for months now, since the day she left home. A warm day in early spring-sunlight flickering through the trees along the road. Trees. Streams swollen with snowmelt.

"Ah, God," Krystal said.

She pushed herself up and lifted the window shade and looked out at the desert, the mountains. And there was Hope, walking into the desert with her shotgun. The light was softer than before, still white but not so sharp. The tops of the mountains were touched with pink.

Kiystal stared out the window. How could anyone live in such a place? There was nothing, nothing at all. Through all those days in Phoenix, Kiystal had felt a great emptiness around her where she would count for no more than a rock or a spiny tree; now she was in the middle of it. She thought she might ciy, but gave the idea up. It didn't interest her.

She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the glass.

I will say a poem, Krystal thought, and when I am finished he will be here. At first silently, because she had been tiying to speak only English, then in a whisper, she recited a poem of Heine's the nuns had made her learn so long ago at school, the only poem she remembered. She repeated it, then opened her eyes. Mark was not there. As if she had really believed he would be there, Kiystal kicked the wall with her bare foot. The pain made clear what she had been pretending not to know: that he had never really been there and never would be there in any way that mattered.

The window was warm against Kiystal's forehead. She watched Hope move farther and farther away, then stop and raise her gun. A moment later Krystal heard the boom, and felt the glass shudder against her skin.

Mark was sore from sitting cross-legged on the bare floorboards. He stretched out his legs and listened to the driver talk to herself, straining to get the point of the things she said. There was sometimes rhyme but never any reason to her words. Eveiy possibility of meaning trailed off into nonsense.

The hearse was moving at great speed, really racing. The driver passed eveiy car they came upon. She changed lanes without purpose. Mark tried to find a break between her words to say something, just a note of caution, something about how tough the police were around here. The car was going faster and faster. He hoped that Barney would tell her to shut up and slow down, maybe even take over himself for a while, but he wasn't saying anything and neither was Nance. She had disappeared completely and all Mark could see of Barney were the bristles of his hair.

"Hey," Mark said. "What's the hurry?"

The driver seemed not to hear him. She passed another car and went on yakking to herself. She was gripping the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles had turned white.

"Better slow down," Mark said.

"Butter sold owl," she said.

Mark leaned over the top of the seat to check out the speedometer, and Nance looked up from what she was doing to Barney down there. Her eyes met Mark's, and she held his gaze as she kept at it, languorously, luxuriously. Mark rocked back on his heels as if he'd been struck. "Stop the car," he said.

"Star the cop," the driver said. "Stop the war."

"Stop the car," Mark said again.

"Hey," Barney said. "What's the problem?" His voice was sleepy, remote.

"I want out," Mark said.

"No, you don't," Barney said. "You already decided, remember? Just be Marco." Mark heard Nance whispering. Then Barney said, "Hey-Marco. Come on up here. You're with us now."

"Stop the car," Mark said. He reached over the seat and began to rap on the driver's head, softly at first, then hard. He could hear the knocking of his knuckles against her skull. She came to a squealing stop right in the road. Mark looked back. There was a car bearing down on them. It swerved into the other lane and went past with its horn wailing.

"Okay, Mark," Barney said. "Ciao. You blew it."

Mark scrambled over equipment and cords and let himself out the back. When he closed the tailgate the driver pulled away, fast. Mark crossed the road and watched the hearse until it disappeared. The road was empty. He turned and walked back toward Blythe.

A few minutes later an old man stopped for him. He took a liking to Mark and drove him directly to the parts store. They were just closing up, but after Mark explained his situation the boss let him inside and found the alternator for him. With tax, the price came to seventy-one dollars.

"I thought it was fifty-six," Mark said.

"Seventy-one," the man said.

Mark stared at the alternator. "I've only got sixty-five."

"I'm sorry," the man said. He put his hands on the counter and waited.

"Look," Mark said, "I just got back from Vietnam. Me and my wife are on our way to Los Angeles. Once we get there I can send you the rest. I'll put it in the mail tomorrow morning, I swear."

The man looked at him.

Mark could see that he was hesitating. "I've got a job waiting."

"What kind of job?"

"I'm a soundman," Mark said.

"Soundman. I'm soriy," he said. "I know you think you'll send the money."

Mark argued for a while but without heat, because he knew that the man was right; he wouldn't send the money. He gave up and went back outside. The parts store adjoined a salvage yard filled with crumpled cars. Down the street was a gas station and a U-Haul depot. As Mark walked toward the gas station a black dog appeared on the other side of the salvage-yard fence and kept pace with him, silently baring his fangs whenever Mark glanced in his direction.

He was hot and tired. He could smell himself. He remembered the coolness of the hearse and thought, I blew it.

There was a pay phone outside the gas station. Mark got a handful of change and shut himself in. He wanted to call his buddy in Los Angeles and figure something out, but he'd left the address book in the car and it turned out that the number was unlisted. He tried explaining things to the operator but she refused to listen. Finally she hung up on him.

He looked across the shimmering asphalt toward the salvage yard. The dog was still at the fence, watching him. The only thing he could do, Mark decided, was to keep calling Los Angeles information until he got a human being on the other end. There had to be somebody sympathetic out there.

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