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Back in the World: Stories


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Krystal looked straight ahead and bit her lip while Mark explained the situation. “Here?” she said. “You are going to leave us here?”

Hans was awake again. He had pulled the volume knob off the radio and was banging it on the dashboard.

“Just for a couple of hours,” Mark said, though he knew it would take longer.

Krystal wouldn’t look at him.

“There’s no choice,” he said.

The woman had been standing next to Mark. She moved him aside and opened the door. “You come with me,” she said. “You and the little one.” She held out her arms. Hans went to her immediately and peered over her shoulder at the men on the bench. Krystal hesitated, then got out of the car, ignoring Mark’s hand when he reached down to help her.

“It won’t take long,” he said. He smiled at Hans. “Pretty soon, Hansy,” he said, and turned and began to walk toward the road.

The woman went inside with Hans. Krystal stood beside the car and watched Mark move farther and farther away, until the line of his body started to waver in the heat and then vanished altogether. This happened slowly. It was like seeing someone slip below the surface of a lake.

The men stared at Krystal as she walked toward the building. She felt heavy, and vaguely ashamed.

The woman had all the shades pulled down. It was like evening inside: dim, peaceful, cool. Krystal could make out the shapes of things but not their colors. There were two rooms. One had a bed and a motorcycle. The second, big room had a sofa and chairs on one side and on the other a refrigerator and stove and table.

Krystal sat at the table with Hans in her lap while the woman poured Pepsi from a big bottle into three tumblers full of ice. She had taken her hat off, and the weak light shining from the open door of the refrigerator made a halo around her face and hair. Usually Krystal measured herself against other women, but this one she watched with innocent, almost animal curiosity.

The woman took another, smaller bottle down from the top of the refrigerator. She wiggled it by the neck. “You wouldn’t want any of this,” she said. Krystal shook her head. The woman poured some of the liquor into her glass and pushed the other two glasses across the table. Hans took a drink, then began to make motorboat noises.

“That boy,” the woman said.

“His name is Hans.”

“Not this one,” the woman said. “The other one.”

“Oh,” Krystal said. “Mark. Mark is my husband.”

The woman nodded and took a drink. She leaned back in her chair. “Where are you people headed?”

Krystal told her about Los Angeles, about Mark finding work in the entertainment field. The woman smiled, and Krystal wondered if she had expressed herself correctly. In school she had done well in English, and the American boys she talked to always complimented her, but during those weeks with Mark’s parents in Phoenix she had lost her confidence. Dutch and Dottie always looked bewildered when she spoke, and she herself understood almost nothing of what was said around her though she pretended that she did.

The woman kept smiling, but there was a tightness to her mouth that made the smile look painful.

“What does he do?” she asked.

Krystal tried to think of a way to explain what Mark did. When she first saw him, he had been sitting on the floor at a party and everyone around him was laughing. She had laughed too, though she didn’t know why. It was a gift he had. But it was difficult to put into words. “Mark is a singer,” she said.

“A singer,” the woman said. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back and began to sing. Hans stopped fidgeting and watched her.

When the woman was through, Krystal said, “Good, good,” and nodded, though she hadn’t been able to follow the song and hated the style, which sounded to her like yodeling.

“My husband always liked to hear me sing,” the woman said. “I suppose I could have been a singer if I’d wanted.” She finished her drink and looked at the empty glass.

From outside Krystal heard the voices of the men on the bench, low and steady. One of them laughed.

“We had Del Ray to sing at our prom,” the woman said.

The door banged. The man who’d stared at Krystal’s belly stomped into the kitchen and stared at her again. He turned and started pulling bottles of Pepsi out of the refrigerator. “Webb, what do you think?” the woman said. “This girl’s husband’s a singer.” She reached out and ran one hand up and down his back. “We’ll need something for supper,” she said, “unless you want rabbit again.”

He kicked the refrigerator door shut with his foot and started out of the kitchen, bottles clinking against each other. Hans slid to the floor and ran after him.

“Hans,” Krystal said.

The man stopped and looked down at him. “That’s right,” he said. “You come with me.”

It was the first time Krystal had heard him speak. His voice was thin and dry. He went back outside with Hans behind him.

The shoes Mark had on were old and loose, comfortable in the car, but his feet started to burn after a few minutes of walking in them. His eyes burned too, from sweat and the bright sun shining into his face.

For a while he sang songs, but after a couple of numbers his throat cracked with dryness so he gave it up. Anyway, it made him feel stupid singing about Camelot in this desert, stupid and a little afraid because his voice sounded so small. He walked on.

The road was sticky underfoot. Mark’s shoes made little sucking noises at every step. He considered walking beside the road instead of on it but he was afraid that a snake would bite him.

He wanted to stay cheerful, but he kept thinking that now they would never get to Los Angeles in time for dinner. They’d pull in late like they always did, stuff spilling out of the car, Mark humping the whole mess inside while Krystal stood by looking dazed in the glare of the headlights, Hans draped over her shoulder. Mark’s buddy would be in his bathrobe. They’d try to joke but Mark would be too preoccupied. After they made up a bed for Krystal and put the crib together for Hans, which would take forever because half the screws were missing, Mark and his buddy would go down to the kitchen and drink a beer. They’d try to talk but they would end up yawning in each other’s faces. Then they would go to bed.

Mark could see the whole thing. Whatever they did, it always turned out like this. Nothing ever worked.

A truck went past going the other way. There were two men inside wearing cowboy hats. They glanced at Mark, then looked straight ahead again. He stopped and watched the truck disappear into the heat.

He turned and kept walking. Broken glass glittered along the roadside.

If Mark lived here and happened to be driving down this road and saw some person walking all by himself, he would stop and ask if there was anything wrong. He believed in helping people.

But he didn’t need them. He would manage without them, just as he’d manage without Dutch and Dottie. He would do it alone, and someday they would wish they’d helped. He would be in some place like Las Vegas, performing at one of the big clubs. Then, at the end of his booking, he would fly Dutch and Dottie out for his last big show—the finale. He’d fly them first class and put them up in the best hotel, the Sands or whatever, and he’d get them front row seats. And when the show was over, when the people were going crazy, whistling and stamping on the floor and everything, he would call Dutch and Dottie up to the stage. He would stand between them, holding their hands, and then, when all the clapping and yelling trailed off and everybody was quiet, smiling at him from the tables, he would raise Dutch and Dottie’s hands above his head and say, Folks, I just wanted you to meet my parents and tell you what they did for me. He would stop for a second and get this really serious look on his face. It’s impossible to tell you what they did for me, he would say, pausing for effect—because they didn’t do anything for me! They didn’t do squat for me!

Then he would drop their hands and jump off the stage and leave them there.

Mark walked fas

ter, leaning forward, eyes narrowed against the light. His hands flicked back and forth as he walked.

No, he wouldn’t do that. People might take it wrong. A stunt like that could ruin his career. He would do something even better. He would stand up there and tell the whole world that without the encouragement and support the two of them had given him, the faith and love, et cetera, he would have thrown in the towel a long time ago.

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 would see the kind of parents they could have been and 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 Krystal that her name was Hope.

“Hope,” Krystal said. “How lovely.”

They were in the bedroom. Hope was working on the motorcycle. Krystal lay on the bed, propped up with pillows, watching Hope’s long fingers move here and there over the machine and through the parts on the floor, 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, Krystal.”

Krystal felt the baby move in 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 said, “Of course.”

“You take Webb,” Hope said. “Webb would kill for me. He almost did, once. He beat a man to an inch of his life.”

Krystal 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. She smiled at Krystal in such a way that Krystal had to smile back.

“My husband,” Hope said. She looked down again, still smiling.

Krystal waited, uncertain whether she had heard Hope right.

“Webb and me were hot,” Hope said. “We were an item. When we weren’t together, which was most of the time, we were 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.”

“I need some mouthwash,” Hope said. She got up and went out to the kitchen. Krystal 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. “The long and short is, Webb lost his senses. It happened at the movie theater in front of half the town. Webb was sitting behind us and saw my husband put his arm around me. He came right over the chairs.” She shook her head. “I can tell you we did some fancy footwork after that. Had to. 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,” Krystal 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?” Krystal 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,” Krystal said.

“Sure you could,” Hope said. The motion of her arms slowed. She grew still. “I remember when I fell for Webb. We’d known him for years, but this one day he came into our station on his Harley. It was cold. His cheeks were red and his hair was all blown back. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Hope sat there with her hands in her lap. Her breathing got deep and slow, and Krystal, peering through the gloom, saw that her eyes were closed. She was asleep, or just dreaming—maybe of that man out there riding over the desert on this machine, his hair pushed back in the way that was special to her.

Krystal settled herself on her side. The baby was quiet now.

The air conditioner went off abruptly. Krystal lay in the dark and listened to the sounds it had covered, the dry whirr of insects, the low voices of the men, Hope’s soft snoring. Krystal 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 angry with him for needing a ride and putting them on the spot.

Mark’s face burned, and his throat was so dry 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 everywhere. 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. There was no rear seat. The space in back was full of electrical equipment. Mark pushed some wires out of his way and sat cross-legged on the floor. He felt the breeze from the air conditioner; it was like a stream of cold water running over him.

The driver pulled back onto the road.

“Welcome to the stiffmobile,” said the man beside her. 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. The man’s eyebrows were the same carroty color as his hair. He had freckles. The freckles covered his entire face and even the shaved parts of his skull.

“Stiffmobile, cliffmobile,” said the woman driving. “Riff-mobile.”

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

“Speaking of cold ones,” the man said, “there’s a case of them right behind you.”

Mark fished a can of beer out of the cooler. He took a long swallow, head back, eyes closed. When he opened his eyes again the man with the Mohawk was watching him. They introduced themselves, all but the woman driving. She ne

ver looked at Mark or spoke, except to herself. The man with the Mohawk was Barney. The girl with the earring 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 earring in her nose ceased to bother him.

When Barney heard that Mark had been in the army he shook his head. “Pass on that,” he said. “No bang-bang for Barney. I can’t stand the sight of my own brains.”

“Trains,” the driver said. “Cranes, lanes, stains.”

“Smoothe out,” 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 the orders were killed just before he left and 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.”

“Be cool,” Nance said to her.

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

“Where’s your 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 looking at him. She kept watching him.



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