Interstate 10 after midnight, westbound. El Paso now. Coach Duprene says he can drive till morning. Blank asphalt rolls ahead, but I'm seeing Amanda, picturing the way she looked in high school: small-chested in a cheerleading uniform, auburn hair, green eyes, freckles dusting her nose. Grasslands give way to desert, with purple and orange barely visible, hallucinated colors. Then such immensity of night over flat, featureless land that I can see how certain people could fear open spaces.
"You see that?" Coach asks.
He uses a bottle of Jose Cuervo to trace an arc across the windshield. "All the stars are gone. It got pitch black."
I stick my head out the window, into explosive air, and he's right. Around us is nothing but darkness, and even though the sky's invisible, I know a storm is coming. "It's going to rain."
He passes the tequila. "How you know?"
I tap a scar under my chin. "Broken jaw."
The metal in my lower jaw twitches, something that happens only when the air is charged with electromagnetism. Steel stitches an X in my mandible because when I was fourteen, convinced of my own possibilities, I tried out for the football team. That was seven years ago. Coach still coached the Port Arthur Toreadors back then. I never made it past tryouts, but I went to a lot of games. I'd be the boy sitting quiet, peeking between loud fathers in front to watch red-and-blue cheerleaders kick and clap. My favorite cheerleader was Coach Duprene's daughter, Amanda. Honey-skinned. Her eyes closed when she smiled. The kind of cheerleader who paid attention, actually cared about the score. She'd follow the game while the rest of her squad twisted their hair or discussed what to wear to the after party.
"You said it," Coach says, and I wonder if I was thinking out loud. He nods at the windshield, where rain spatters. I'm used to thinking out loud, especially in a moving truck. At this time I still work for Lone Star Environmental, in Port Arthur, and my days are spent driving back roads with a clipboard, noting phosphorus and ammonia levels in the watershed, making sure farmers aren't spreading chicken shit over their fields. In the evening you might catch me at Petro Bowl or Chili's, trying to buy drinks for grade school teachers and secretaries, but at work I drive alone, five to seven hours, and on those days I tend to narrate my thoughts, turning observations into stories. Rilke wrote, "Love your solitude, for solitude is difficult." I remind myself not to think out loud.
Rain builds, and before we reach Las Cruces a torrent lets loose, hiding the road under a curtain of water. Metal writhes in my jawbone. The wipers don't do much, and Coach leans close, squinting. He takes a pill from a brown plastic bottle.
"It's late enough." He swallows. We pull over onto the shoulder, rain drumming. He slouches against the window and tugs his baseball cap down. Coach doesn't coach anymore, but he receives a generous stipend from Port Arthur High and the honorary title of athletic coordinator, which is what eight district championships and three state titles get you in East Texas. I watch him breathe, softened, rain making the windows look like creeks, and I try to connect this man sleeping so calmly with the man I used to see, the fuming, granite-faced commander on the edges of hallways, on the sidelines of a game. I try to figure how he got from there to here. I do that because at this age one of my essential habits is to look for causal links, find stories, and I spend a great deal of time combing through the past, as if answers were there. I'm at an age when I drive in circles, and I take the words of poets and famous men at face value. I'm four years out of high school, living in the house my grandmother left me, and not until sometime after Coach and I reach Los Angeles will I stop looking for answers.
My cheek rests against the window, because it's cold and dulls my jaw's throbbing. Coach starts to snore.
I was there the day she left. I mowed lawns back then, and on that Sunday I worked the yard next to Coach Duprene's house. A red Chevy Blazer parked in their driveway. Four boys I knew from school were in that truck. The back end sagged with boxes and bags, a surfboard. High school was over, and they were all moving to California. Coach Duprene watched from the porch and didn't wave as the truck rolled away.
Someone, we can now say, should have stopped that Chevy. It's no secret. She makes movies under the name Mandy LeRock. I've seen only one.
Lightning flashes over a plain, lighting my reflection in the rainy window, and I realize I'm not telling the whole story. There are two stories here. In the first I am sitting beside Coach Duprene in his truck. We are driving to Los Angeles to kidnap his daughter.
In the second story, the reflection in the glass, I'm a teenager named Bobby who lives with two generations of women, a mother and her mother, on empty stretches of grazing land. This boy sleeps in a room with no air-conditioner and mows lawns for spending money. He's a student athlete, but only runs track. His grades are good, and he draws the same picture over and over in his notebooks, from every angle: a Navy destroyer taking counterfire off the coast of South Vietnam.
What joins the stories, their causal link, is Amanda Duprene. We're lab partners freshman year. Biology class is after lunch. I can't stomach dissection exercises, so Amanda handles the cutting. I find refuge from ammonia and formaldehyde in the scent of her hair and neck: shampoo, lotion, sweat. On Fridays she wears her cheerleading uniform. A lot of these long days are eased by watching the sun move over the backs of Amanda's legs, from one o'clock till two. This is the girl I'm searching for.
Later a second search will occur.
It will be undertaken after we get back home, by an investigative firm in Houston whose specialty is locating people. They're called Reunions, Inc.; they charge me $300 and take two months to produce results. Their report is mailed to me in a big white envelope with the company logo printed on it: two open palms cradling three people, who hold hands under a shining yellow sun.
For now, though, outside Las Cruces, we seem to be parked under a waterfall. Coach snores. I should have brought something to read. This is the snug, familiar isolation I experience at work, when I'm eating my lunch in a truck cab and reading, say, a Saint-Exupéry book about desert pilots. Then I steer the company truck over dirt roads that go on for miles and miles without passing a house, hazy gold cordgrass and grainfields yawning into the horizon; checking groundwater for ammonia spikes and algae blooms; turning to the empty seat beside me, telling my stories.
The countryside ripples with superheated colors. Surfaces look like they were cleared with explosives. We cleaned up at a truck stop in Tucson, and I'm labeling things with brochures we got there. Cholla cactus and greasewood. Sagebrush. Saltbush. All the clouds stack up over one particular peak of the Maricopa Mountains, like a volcano's portrait. At Theba we decide to fish for our dinner. It's late afternoon; a tiny branch of the Gila River splits high green meadow grass.