The Man Who Knew Belle Starr
ON HIS WAY WEST MCRAE PICKED UP A HITCHER, A young woman carrying a paper bag and a leather purse, wearing jeans and a shawl—which she didn’t take off, though it was more than ninety degrees out and McRae had no air-conditioning. He was driving an old Dodge Charger with a bad exhaust system and one long crack in the wraparound windshield. He pulled over for her, and she got right in, put the leather purse on the seat between them, and settled herself with the paper bag on her lap between her hands. He had just crossed into Texas from Oklahoma. This was the third day of the trip. “Where you headed?” he asked.
She said, “What about you?”
And that fast he was answering her questions. “I just got out of the Air Force,” he told her, though this wasn’t exactly true. The Air Force had given him a dishonorable discharge, after four years at Leavenworth for assaulting a staff sergeant. He was a bad character. He had a bad temper that had got him into a load of trouble already, and he just wanted to get out west, out to the wide open spaces. Just to see it, really. He had the feeling that people didn’t require as much from a person way out where there was that kind of room. He didn’t have any family now. He had five thousand dollars from his father’s insurance policy, and he was going to make the money last a while. He said, “I’m sort of undecided about a lot of things.”
“Not me,” she said.
“You figured out where you’re going?”
“You could say that.”
“So where might that be?”
She made a fist and then extended her thumb, and turned it over. “Under,” she said. “Down.”
“Does the radio work?” she asked, reaching for it.
“It’s on the blink,”he said.
She turned the knob anyway. Then she sat back and folded her arms over the paper bag.
He took a glance at her. She was skinny and longnecked, and her hair was the color of water in a metal pail. She looked just old enough for high school.
“What’s in the bag?” he said.
She sat up a little. “Nothing. Another blouse.”
“Well, so what did you mean back there?”
“Look,” he said, “we don’t have to do any talking if you don’t want to.”
“Then what will we do?”
“Anything you want,” he said,
“What if I just want to sit here and let you drive me all the way to Nevada?”
“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s just fine.”
“Well, I won’t do that. We can talk.”
“Are you going to Nevada?” he asked.
She gave a little shrug of her shoulders. “Why not?”
“All right,” he said, and for some reason he offered her his hand. She looked at it and then smiled at him, and he put his hand back on the wheel.
IT GOT A LITTLE AWKWARD ALMOST RIGHT AWAY. THE heat was awful, and she sat there sweating, not saying much. He never thought he was very smooth or anything, and he had been in prison; it had been a long time since he had found himself in the company of a woman. Finally she fell asleep, and for a few miles he could look at her without worrying about anything but staying on the road. He decided that she was kind of good-looking around the eyes and mouth. If she ever filled out, she might be something. He caught himself wondering what might happen, thinking of sex. A girl who traveled alone like this was probably pretty loose. Without quite realizing it, he began to daydream about her, and when he got aroused by the daydream he tried to concentrate on figuring his chances, playing his cards right, not messing up any opportunities—but being gentlemanly, too. He was not the sort of man who forced himself on young women. She slept very quietly, not breathing loudly or sighing or moving much; and then she simply sat up and folded her arms over the bag again and stared out at the road.
“God,” she said. “I went out.”
“You hungry?” he asked.
“What’s your name? I never got your name.”
“Belle Starr,” she said, and, winking at him, she made a clicking sound out of the side of her mouth.
“Belle Starr,” he said.
“Don’t you know who Belle Starr was?”
All he knew was that it was a familiar-sounding name. “Belle Starr.”
She put her index finger to the side of his head and said, “Bang.”
“Belle Starr,” he said.
“Come on,” she said. “Annie Oakley. Wild Bill Hickok.”
“Oh,” McRae said. “Okay.”
“That’s me,” she said, sliding down in the seat. “Belle Starr.”
“That’s not your real name.”
“It’s the only one I go by these days.”
They rode on in silence for a time.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He told her.
“I never thought about it.”
“Where you from, McRae?”
“Long way from home.”
“I haven’t been there in years.”
“Where have you been?”
“Prison,” he said. He hadn’t known he would say it, and now that he had, he kept his eyes on the road. He might as well have been posing for her; he had an image of himself as he must look from the side, and he shifted his weight a little, sucked in his belly. When he stole a glance at her, he saw that she was simply gazing out at the Panhandle, one hand up like a visor to shade her eyes.
“What about you?” he asked, and felt like somebody in a movie—two people with a past come together on the open road. He wondered how he could get the talk around to the subject of love.
“What about me?”
“Where you from?”
“I don’t want to bore you with all the facts,” she said.
“I don’t mind,”McRae said. “I got nothing else to do.”
“I’m from way up north.”
“Okay,” he said, “you want me to guess?”
“Maine,” she said. “Land of moose and lobster.”
He said, “Maine. Well, now.”
“See?” she said. “The facts are just a lot of things that don’t change.”
“Unless you change them,”McRae said.
She reached down and, with elaborate care, as if it were fragile, put the paper bag on the floor. Then she leaned back and put her feet up on the dash. She was wearing low-cut tennis shoes.
“You going to sleep?” he asked.
“Just relaxing,” she said. But a moment later, when he asked if she wanted to stop and eat, she didn’t answer. He looked over and saw that she was sound asleep.
HIS FATHER HAD DIED WHILE HE WAS AT LEAVENworth. The last time McRae saw him, he was lying on a gurney in one of the bays of D.C. General’s emergency ward, a plastic tube in his mouth, an IV set into an ugly yellow-blue bruise on his wrist. McRae had come home on leave from the Air Force—which he had joined on the suggestion of a juvenile judge—to find his father on the floor in the living room, in a pile of old newspapers and bottles, wearing his good suit, with no socks or shoes and no shirt. He looked like he was dead. But the ambulance drivers found a pulse and rushed him off to the hospital. McRae cleaned the house up a little and then followed in the Charger. The old man had been going steadily downhill from the time McRae was a boy, so this latest trouble wasn’t new. In the hospital they got the tube in his mouth and hooked him to the IV, and then left him there on the gurney. McRae stood at his side, still in uniform, and when the old man opened his eyes and looked at him, it was clear that he didn’t know who it was. The old man blinked, stared, and then sat up, took the tube out of his mouth, and spit something terrible-looking into a small metal dish that was suspended from the complicated apparatus of the room, which made a continual water-dropping sound, like a leaking sink. He looked at McRae again, and then he looked at the tube. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “Hey,” McRae said.
The old man put the tube back in his mouth and looked away.
“Pops,” McRae said. He didn’t feel anything.
The tube came out. “Don’t look at me, boy. You got yourself into it. Getting into trouble, stealing and running around. You got yourself into it.”
“I don’t mind it, Pops. It’s three meals a day and a place to sleep.”
“Yeah,” the old man said, and then seemed to gargle something. He spit into the little metal dish again.
“I got thirty days of leave, Pops.”
“I don’t have to go back for a month.”
“Where you going?”
“Around,” McRae said.
The truth was that he hated the Air Force, and he was thinking of taking the Charger and driving to Canada or someplace like that, and hiding out for the rest of his life. The Air Force felt like punishment—it was punishment— and he had already been in trouble for his quick temper and his attitude. That afternoon he left his father to whatever would happen, got in the Charger, and started north. But he didn’t make it. He lost heart a few miles south of New York City, and he turned around and came back. The old man had been moved to a room in the alcoholic ward, but McRae didn’t go to see him. He stayed in the house, watching television and drinking beer, and when old high school buddies came by he went around with them a little. Mostly he stayed home, though, and at the end of his leave he locked the place and drove back to Chanute, in Illinois, where he was stationed. He hadn’t been there two months before he got into the scrape that landed him in prison. A staff sergeant caught him drinking beer in the dayroom of one of the training barracks and asked for his name. McRae walked over to him, said, “My name is trouble,” and, at the word trouble, struck the other man in the face. He’d had a lot of beer, and he had been sitting there in the dark, going over everything in his mind, and the staff sergeant, a baby-faced man with a spare tire of flesh around his waist and an attitude about the stripes on his sleeves, had just walked into it. McRae didn’t even know him. Yet he stood over the sergeant where he had fallen and started kicking him. The poor man wound up in the hospital with a broken jaw (the first punch had done it), a few cracked ribs, and multiple lacerations and bruises. The court-martial was swift. The sentence was four years at hard labor, along with a dishonorable discharge. He’d had less than a month on the sentence when he got the news about his father. He felt no surprise, nor, really, any grief, yet there was a little thrill of something like fear; he was in his cell, and for an instant some part of him actually wanted to remain there, inside walls, where things were certain and no decisions had to be made. A week later he learned of the money from the insurance, which would have been more than the five thousand except that his father had been a few months behind on the rent and on other payments. McRae settled what he had to of those things, and kept the rest. He had started to feel like a happy man, out of Leavenworth and the Air Force. And now he was on his way to Nevada, or someplace like that—and he had picked up a girl.
HE DROVE ON UNTIL DUSK, STOPPING ONLY FOR GAS, and the girl slept right through. Just past the line into New Mexico he pulled off the interstate and went north for a mile or so, looking for some place other than a chain restaurant to eat. She sat up straight and pushed the hair back from her face. “Where are we?" “New Mexico,” he said. “I’m looking fora place to eat.”“I’m not hungry.”
“Well,” he said, “you might be able to go all day without eating, but I got a three-meal-a-day habit to support.”
She brought the paper bag up from the floor and held it in her lap.
“You got food in there?”
“You’re very pretty—childlike, sort of, when you sleep.”
“I didn’t snore?”
“You were quiet as a mouse.”
“And you think I’m pretty.”
“I guess you know a thing like that. I hope I didn’t offend you.”
“I don’t like dirty remarks,” she said. “But I guess you don’t mean to be dirty.”
“Sometimes people can say a thing like that and mean it very dirty, but I could tell you didn’t.”
He pulled in at a roadside diner and turned the ignition off. “Well?” he said.
She sat there with the bag on her lap. “I don’t think I’ll go in with you.”
“You can have a cold drink or something,” he said.
“You go in. I’ll wait out here.”
“Come on in there with me and have a cold drink, McRae said. “I’ll buy it for you. I’ll buy you dinner, if you want.”
“I don’t want to,” she said.
He got out and started for the entrance, and before he reached it, he heard her door open and close, and turned to watch her come toward him, thin and waiflike in the shawl, which hid her arms and hands.
The diner was empty. A long, low counter ran along one side, with soda fountains and glass cases in which pies and cakes were set. There were booths along one wall. Everything seemed in order, except that no one was around. McRae and the girl stood in the doorway fora moment and waited, and finally she stepped in and took a seat in the first booth. “I guess we’re supposed to seat ourselves,” she said.
“This is weird,”McRae said.
“Hey,” she said, rising. “A jukebox.” She strode over to it and leaned on it, crossing one leg behind the other at the ankle, her hair falling down to hide her face.
“Hello?” McRae said. “Anybody here?”
“Got any change?” the girl asked.
He gave her a quarter and then sat at the counter. A door at the far end of the diner swung in and a big, red-faced man entered, wearing a white cook’s apron over a sweatstained baby-blue shirt, the sleeves of which he had rolled up past the meaty curve of his elbows. “Yeah?” he said.
“You open?” McRae asked.
“That jukebox don’t work, honey,”the man said.
“You open?” McRae said, as the girl came and sat down beside him.
“I guess maybe I am.”
“Place is kind of empty.”
“What do you want to eat?”
“You got a menu?”
“You want a menu?”
“Sure,” McRae said. “Why not.”
“Truth is,” the big man said, “I’m selling this place. I don’t have menus anymore. I make hamburgers and breakfast stuff. Some french fries and cold drinks. A hot dog, maybe. I’m not keeping track.”
“Let’s go somewhere else,” the girl said.
“Yeah,” the big man said, “why don’t you do that.”
“Look,” McRae said, “what’s the story here?”
The other man shrugged. “You came in at the end of the run, you know what I mean? I’m going out of business. Sit down and I’ll make you a hamburger, on the house.”
McRae looked at the girl.
“Okay,” she said, in a tone that made it clear that she would’ve been happier to leave.
The big man put his hands on the bar and leaned toward her. “Miss, if I were you, I wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“I don’t like hamburger,” she said.
“You want a hot dog?” the man said. “I got a hot dog for you. Guaranteed to please.”
“I’ll have some french fries,” she said.
The big man turned to the grill and opened the metal drawer under it. He was very wide at the hips, and his legs were like tree trunks. “I get out of the Army after twenty years,”he said, “and I got a little money put aside. The wife and I decide we want to get into the restaurant business. The government’s going to be paying me a nice pension, and we got the savings, so we sink it all in this Goddamn diner. Six and a half miles from the interstate. You get the picture? The guy’s selling us this diner at a great price, you know? A terrific price. For a song, I’m in the restaurant business. The wife will cook the food and I’ll wait tables, you know, until we start to make a little extra, and then we’ll hire somebody—a high school kid, or somebody like that. We might even open another restaurant, if the going gets good enough. But, of course, this is New Mexico. This is six and a half miles from the interstate. You know what’s up the road? Nothing.”He had put the hamburger on, and a basket of frozen french fries. “Now the wife decides she’s had enough of life on the border, and off she goes to Seattle to sit in the rain with her mother, and here I am trying to sell a place nobody else is dumb enough to buy. You know what I mean?”
“That’s rough,” McRae said.
“You’re the second customer I’ve had all week, bub.”
The girl said, “I guess that cash register’s empty, then, huh.”
“It ain’t full, honey.”
She got up and wandered across the room. For a while she stood gazing out the windows over the booths, her hands invisible under the woolen shawl. When she came back to sit next to McRae again, the hamburger and french fries were ready.
“On the house,” the big man said.
And the girl brought a gun out from under the shawl—a pistol that looked like a toy. “Suppose you open up that register, Mr. Poor Mouth,” she said.
The big man looked at her, then at McRae, who had taken a large bite of his hamburger and had it bulging in his cheeks.
“This thing is loaded, and I’ll use it.”
“Well, for Christ’s sake,” the big man said.
McRae started to get off the stool. “Hold on a minute,” he said to them both, his words garbled by the mouthful of food, and then everything started happening at once. The girl aimed the pistol. There was a popping sound—a single small pop, not much louder than the sound of a cap gun—and the big man took a step back, into the dishes and pans. He stared at the girl, wide-eyed, for what seemed like a long time, and then went down, pulling dishes with him in a tremendous shattering.
“Jesus Christ,” McRae said, swallowing, standing back far from her, raising his hands.
She put the pistol back in her jeans, under the shawl, and then went around the counter and opened the cash register. “Damn,” she said.
McRae said, low, “Jesus Christ.”
And now she looked at him; it was as if she had forgotten he was there. “What’re you standing there with your hands up like that?”
“God,” he said, “oh, God.”
“Stop it,”she said. “Put your hands down.”
He did so.
“Cash register’s empty.” She sat down on one of the stools and gazed over at the body of the man where it had fallen. “Damn.”
“Look,” McRae said, “take my car. You can have my car. ”
She seemed puzzled. “I don’t want your car. What do I want your car for?”
“You—” he said. He couldn’t talk, couldn’t focus clearly, or think. He looked at the man, who lay very still, and then he began to cry.
“Will you stop it?” she said, coming off the stool, reaching under the shawl and bringing out the pistol again.
“Jesus,” he said. “Good Jesus.”
She pointed the pistol at his forehead. “Bang,” she said. “What’s my name?”
“Belle—” he managed.
“Come on,” she said. “The whole thing. You remember.”
“Right.” She let the gun hand drop to her side, into one of the folds of the shawl. “I like that so much better than Annie Oakley.”
“Please,” McRae said.
She took a few steps away from him and then whirled and aimed the gun. “I think we better get out of here. What do you think?”
“Take the car,” he said, almost with exasperation; he was frightened to hear it in his voice.
“I can’t drive,” she said simply, “Never learned.”
“Jesus,” he said. It went out of him like a sigh.
“Lordy,” she said, gesturing with the pistol for him to move to the door, “it’s hard to believe you were ever in prison.”
THE INTERSTATE WENT ON INTO THE DARK, BEYOND the glow of the headlights. He lost track of miles, road signs, other traffic, time; trucks came by and surprised him, and other cars seemed to materialize as they started the lane change that would bring them over in front of him. He saw their taillights grow small in the distance, and all the while the girl sat watching him, her hands somewhere under the shawl. For a long time he heard only the sound of the rushing night air at the windows, and then she moved a little, shifted her weight, bringing one leg up on the seat.
“What were you in prison for, anyway?”
Her voice startled him, and for a moment he couldn’t think of an answer.
“Come on,” she said. “I’m getting bored with all this quiet. What were you in prison for?”
“I—beat up a guy.”
“Yes, that’s all.” He couldn’t keep the irritation out of his voice.
“Tell me about it.”
“It was just—I just beat up a guy. It wasn’t anything.”
“I didn’t shoot that man for money, you know.”
McRae said nothing.
“I shot him because he made a nasty remark to me about the hot dog.”
“I didn’t hear any nasty remark.”
“If he hadn’t said it, he’d still be alive.”
McRae held tight to the wheel.
“Don’t you wish it was the Wild West?” she said.
“Wild West,”he said. “Yeah.” He could barely speak for the dryness in his mouth and the deep ache of his own breathing.
“You know,”she said, “I’m not really from Maine.”
“I’m from Florida.”
“Florida,” he managed.
“Yes, only I don’t have a southern accent, so people think I’m not from there. Do you hear any trace of a southern accent at all when I talk?”
“No,” he said.
“Now you—you’ve got an accent. A definite southern accent.”
He was silent.
“Talk to me,” she said.
“What do you want me to say?” he said. “Jesus.”
“You could ask me things.”
“Ask you things—”
“Ask me what my name is.”
Without hesitating, McRae said, “What’s your name?”
“No, really,” he said, trying to play along.
“It’s Belle Starr.”
“Belle Starr,” he said.
“Nobody but,” she said.
“Good,” he said.
“And I don’t care about money, either,” she said. “That’s not what I’m after.”
“No,” McRae said.
“What I’m after is adventure.”
“Right,” McRae said.
“Fast living, right.”
“A good time.”
“Good,” he said.
“I’m going to live a ton before I die.”
“A ton, yes.”
“What about you?”
“Yes,” he said. “Me too.”
“Want to join up with me?”
“Join up,” he said. “Right.” He was watching the road. She leaned toward him a little. “Do you think I’m lying about my name?”
“Good,” she said.
He had begun to feel as though he might start throwing up what he’d had of the hamburger. His stomach was cramping on him, and he was dizzy. He might even be having a heart attack.
“Your eyes are as big as saucers,” she said.
He tried to narrow them a little. His whole body was shaking now.
“You know how old I am, McRae? I’m nineteen.”
He nodded, glanced at her and then at the road again. “How old are you?”
“Do you believe people go to heaven when they die?” “Oh, God,” he said.
“Look, I’m not going to shoot you while you’re driving the car. We’d crash if I did that.”
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, Jesus, please—look, I never saw anybody shot before—”
“Will you stop it?”
He put one hand to his mouth. He was soaked: he felt the sweat on his upper lip, and then he felt the dampness all through his clothes.
She said, “I don’t kill everybody I meet, you know.”
“No,” he said. “Of course not.” The absurdity of this exchange almost brought a laugh up out of him. How astonishing, that a laugh could be anywhere in him at such a time, but here it was, rising up in his throat like some loosened part of his anatomy. He held on with his whole mind, and a moment passed before he realized that she was laughing.
“Actually,” she said, “I haven’t killed all that many people.”
“How—” he began. Then he had to stop to breathe. “How many?”
“Take a guess.”
“I don’t have any idea,”he said.
“Well,” she said, “you’ll just have to guess. And you’ll notice that I haven’t spent any time in prison.”
He was quiet.
“Guess,” she said.
McRae said, “Ten?”
“Come on, keep guessing.”
“More than ten?”
“More than ten,” he said.
“Well, all right. Less than ten.”
“Less than ten,” he said.
“Guess,” she said.
“No, not eight.”
“Five and a half people,” she said. “You almost hit it right on the button.”
“Five and a half people,” McRae said.
“Right. A kid who was hitchhiking, like me; a guy at a gas station; a dog that must’ve got lost—I count him as the half; another guy at a gas station; a guy that took me to a motel and made an obscene gesture to me; and the guy at the diner. That makes five and a half.”
“Five and a half,” McRae said.
“You keep repeating everything I say. I wish you’d quit that.”
He wiped his hand across his mouth and then feigned a cough to keep from having to speak.
“Five and a half people,” she said, turning a little in the seat, putting her knees up on the dash. “Have you ever met anybody like me? Tell the truth.”
“No,” McRae said, “nobody.”
“Just think about it, McRae. You can say you rode with Belle Starr. You can tell your grandchildren.”
He was afraid to say anything to this, for fear of changing the delicate balance of the thought. Yet he knew the worst mistake would be to say nothing at all. He was beginning to sense something of the cunning that he would need to survive, even as he knew that the slightest miscalculation might mean the end of him. He said, with fake wonder, “I knew Belle Starr.”
She said, “Think of it.”
“Something,” he said.
And she sat farther down in the seat. “Amazing.”
HE KEPT TO FIFTY-FIVE MILES AN HOUR, AND EVERYone else was speeding. The girl sat straight up now, nearly facing him on the seat. For long periods she had been quiet, simply watching him drive. Soon they were going to need gas; they had less than half a tank.
“Look at those people speeding,” she said. “We’re the only ones obeying the speed limit. Look at them.”
“Do you want me to speed up?”
“I think they ought to get tickets for speeding, that’s what I think. Sometimes I wish I were a policeman.”
“Look,” McRae said, “we’re going to need gas pretty soon.”
“No, let’s just run it until it quits. We can always hitch a ride with somebody.”
“This car’s got a great engine,” McRae said. “We might have to outrun the police, and I wouldn’t want to do that in any other car.”
“This old thing? It’s got a crack in the windshield. The radio doesn’t work.”
“Right. But it’s a fast car. It’ll outrun a police car.”
She put one arm over the seat back and looked out the rear window. “You really think the police are chasing us?" “They might be,” he said.
She stared at him a moment. “No. There’s no reason. Nobody saw us.”
“But if somebody did—this car, I mean, it’ll go like crazy. ”
“I’m afraid of speeding, though,” she said. “Besides, you know what I found out? If you run slow enough, the cops go right past you. Right on past you, looking for somebody who’s in a hurry. No, I think it’s best if we just let it run until it quits and then get out and hitch.”
McRae thought he knew what might happen when the gas ran out: she would make him push the car to the side of the road, and then she would walk him back into the cactus and brush there, and when they were far enough from the road, she would shoot him. He knew this as if she had spelled it all out, and he began again to try for the cunning he would need. “Belle,” he said. “Why don’t we lay low for a few days in Albuquerque?”
“Is that an obscene gesture?” she asked.
“No!" he said, almost shouted. “No! That’s—it’s outlaw talk. You know. Hide out from the cops—lay low. It’s—it’s prison talk.”
“Well, I’ve never been in prison.”
“That’s all I meant.”
“You want to hide out.”
“Right,” he said.
“You and me?”
“You—you asked if I wanted to join up with you.”
“Did I?” She seemed puzzled by this.
“Yes,” he said, feeling himself press it a little. “Don’t you remember?”
“I guess I do.”
“You did,” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“Belle Starr had a gang,” he said.
“I could be the first member of your gang.”
She sat there thinking this over. McRae’s blood moved at the thought that she was deciding whether or not he would live. “Well,” she said, “maybe.”
“You’ve got to have a gang, Belle.”
“We’ll see,” she said.
A moment later she said, “How much money do you have?”
“I have enough to start a gang.”
“It takes money to start a gang?”
“Well—” He was at a loss.
“How much do you have?”
He said, “A few hundred.”
“Really?” she said. “That much?”
“Just enough to—just enough to get to Nevada.”
“Can I have it?”
He said, “Sure.” He w-as holding the wheel and looking out into the night.
“And we’ll be a gang?”
“Right,” he said.
“I like the idea. Belle Starr and her gang.”
McRae started talking about what the gang could do, making it up as he went along, trying to sound like all the gangster movies he’d seen. He heard himself talking about things like robbery and getaway cars and not getting nabbed and staying out of prison, and then, as she sat there staring at him, he started talking about being at Leavenworth, what it was like. He went on about it, the hours of forced work and the time alone, the harsh day-today routines, the bad food. Before he was through, feeling the necessity of deepening her sense of him as her newaccomplice—and feeling strangely as though in some way he had indeed become exactly that—he was telling her everything, all the bad times he’d had: his father’s alcoholism, and growing up wanting to hit something for the anger that was in him; the years of getting into trouble; the fighting and the kicking and what it had got him. He embellished it all, made it sound worse than it really was, because she seemed to be going for it and because, telling it to her, he felt oddly sorry for himself; a version of this story of pain and neglect and lonely rage was true. He had been through a lot. And as he finished describing for her the scene at the hospital the last time he saw his father, he was almost certain he had struck a chord in her. He thought he saw it in the rapt expression on her face.
“Anyway,” he said, and smiled at her.
“McRae?” she said.
“Can you pull over?”
“Well,” he said, his voice shaking, “why don’t we wait until it runs out of gas?”
She was silent.
“We’ll be that much farther down the road,” he said.
“I don’t really want a gang,” she said. “I don’t like dealing with other people that much. I mean, I don’t think I’m a leader.”
“Oh, yes,” McRae said. “No—you’re a leader. You’re definitely a leader. I was in the Air Force and I know leaders, and you are definitely what I’d call a leader.”
“Absolutely. You are leadership material all the way.”
“I wouldn’t have thought so.”
“Definitely,” he said. “Definitely a leader.”
“But I don’t really like people around, you know.”
“That’s a leadership quality. Not wanting people around. It is definitely a leadership quality.”
“Boy,” she said, “the things you learn.”
He waited. If he could only think himself through to the way out. If he could get her to trust him, get the car stopped—be there when she turned her back.
“You want to be in my gang, huh?”
“I sure do,” he said.
“Well, I guess I’ll have to think about it.”
“I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned it to you before.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“Were you ever married?” she asked.
“Married?” he said, and then stammered over the answer. “Ah—uh, no.”
“You ever been in a gang before?”
“A couple times, but—they never had good leadership.”
“You’re giving me a line, huh.”
“No,” he said, “it’s true. No good leadership. It was always a problem.”
“I’m tired,” she said, shifting toward him a little. “I’m tired of talking.”
The steering wheel was hurting the insides of his hands. He held tight, looking at the coming-on of the white stripes in the road. There were no other cars now, and not a glimmer of light anywhere beyond the headlights.
“Don’t you ever get tired of talking?”
“I never was much of a talker,” he said.
“I guess I don’t mind talking as much as I mind listening,” she said.
He made a sound in his throat which he hoped she took for agreement.
“That’s just when I’m tired, though.”
“Why don’t you take a nap?” he said.
She leaned back against the door and regarded him. There’s plenty of time for that later.”
“SO,” HE WANTED TO SAY, “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO kill me—we’re a gang?” They had gone for a long time without speaking, an excruciating hour of minutes, during which the gas gauge had sunk to just above empty, and finally she had begun talking about herself, mostly in the third person. It was hard to make sense of most of it, yet he listened as it to instructions concerning how to extricate himself. She talked about growing up in Florida, in the country, and owning a horse; she remembered when she was taught to swim by somebody she called Bill, as if McRae would know who that was; and then she told him how when her father ran away with her mother’s sister, her mother started having men friends over all the time. “There was a lot of obscene things going on,” she said, and her voice tightened a little.
“Some people don’t care what happens to their kids,” McRae said.
“Isn’t it the truth?” she said. Then she took the pistol out of the shawl. “Take this exit.”
He pulled onto the ramp and up an incline to a two-lane road that went off through the desert, toward a glow that burned on the horizon. For perhaps five miles the road was straight as a plumb line, and then it curved into long, low undulations of sand and mesquite and cactus.
“My mother’s men friends used to do whatever they wanted to me,” she said. “It went on all the time. All sorts of obscene goings-on.”
McRae said, “I’m sorry that happened to you, Belle.” And for an instant he was surprised by the sincerity of his feeling: it was as if he couldn’t feel sorry enough. Yet it was genuine: it had to do with his own unhappy story. The whole world seemed very, very sad to him. “I’m really very sorry,” he said.
She was quiet a moment, as if thinking about this. Then she said, “Let’s pull over now. I’m tired of riding.”
“It’s almost out of gas,” he said.
“I know, but pull it over anyway.”
“You sure you want to do that?”
“See?” she said. “That’s what I mean—I wouldn’t like being told what I should do all the time, or asked if I was sure of what I wanted or not.”
He pulled the car over and slowed to a stop. “You’re right,” he said, “See? Leadership. I’m just not used to somebody with leadership qualities.”
She held the gun a little toward him. He was looking at the small, dark, perfect circle at the end of the barrel. “I guess we should get out,” she said.
“I guess so,” he said.
“Do you have any relatives left anywhere?”
“Your folks are both dead?”
“Which one died first?”
“I told you,”he said. “Didn’t I? My mother, my mother died first.”
“Do you feel like an orphan?”
He sighed. “Sometimes.” The whole thing was slipping away from him.
“I guess I do too.” She reached back and opened her door. “Let’s get out now.”
And when he reached for the door handle, she aimed the gun at his head. “Get out slow.”
“Aw, Jesus,”he said. “Look, you’re not going to do this, are you? I mean, I thought we were friends and all.”
“Just get out real slow, like I said to.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m getting out.” He opened his door, and the ceiling light surprised and frightened him. Some wordless part of him understood that this was it, and all his talk had come to nothing: all the questions she had asked him, and everything he had told her—it was all completely useless. This was going to happen to him, and it wouldn’t mean anything; it would just be what happened.
“Real slow,” she said. “Come on.”
“Why are you doing this?” he asked. “You’ve got to tell me that before you do it.”
“Will you please get out of the car now?”
He just stared at her.
“All right. I’ll shoot you where you sit.”
“Okay,” he said. “Don’t shoot.”
She said in an irritable voice, as though she were talking to a recalcitrant child, “You’re just putting it off.”
He was backing himself out, keeping his eyes on the little barrel of the gun, and he could hear something coming, seemed to notice it in the same instant that she said, “Wait.” He stood half in and half out of the car, doing as she said, and a truck came over the hill ahead of them, a tractor trailer, all white light and roaring.
“Stay still,”she said, crouching, aiming the gun at him.
The truck came fast, was only fifty yards away, and without having to decide about it, without even knowing that he would do it, McRae bolted into the road. He was running; he heard the exhausted sound of his own breath, the truck horn blaring, coming on, louder, the thing bearing down on him, something buzzing past his head. Time slowed. His legs faltered under him, were heavy, all the nerves gone out of them. In the light of the oncoming truck he saw his own white hands outstretched as if to grasp something in the air before him, and then the truck was past him, the blast of air from it propelling him over the side of the road and down an embankment, in high, dry grass, which pricked his skin and crackled like hay.
He was alive. He lay very still. Above him was the long shape of the road, curving off in the distance, the light of the truck going on. The noise faded and was nothing. A little wind stirred. He heard the car door close. Carefully he got to all fours and crawled a few yards away from where he had fallen. He couldn’t be sure of which direction—he only knew he couldn’t stay where he was. Then he heard what he thought were her footsteps in the road, and he froze. He lay on his side, facing the embankment. When she appeared there he almost cried out.
“McRae?” she said. “Did I get you?” She was looking right at where he was in the dark, and he stopped breathing. “McRae?”
He watched her move along the edge of the embankment.
“McRae?” She put one hand over her eyes and stared at a place a few feet over from him, and then she turned and went back out of sight. He heard the car door again, and again he began to crawl farther away. The ground was cold and rough, sandy.
He heard her put the key in the trunk. He stood up, tried to run, but something went wrong in his leg, something sent him sprawling, and a sound came out of him that seemed to echo, to stay on the air, as if to call her to him. He tried to be perfectly still, tried not to breathe, hearing now the small pop of the gun. He counted the reports: one, two, three. She was standing there at the edge of the road, firing into the dark, toward where she must have thought she heard the sound. Then she was rattling the paper bag. She was reloading—he could hear the click of the gun. He tried to get up and couldn’t. He had sprained his ankle, had done something very bad to it. Now he was crawling wildly, blindly, through the tall grass, hearing again the small report of the pistol. At last he rolled into a shallow gully. He lay there with his face down, breathing the dust, his own voice leaving him in a whimpering, animal-like sound that he couldn’t stop, even as he held both shaking hands over his mouth.
“McRae?” She sounded so close. “Hey,” she said. “McRae?”
He didn’t move. He lay there perfectly still, trying to stop himself from crying. He was sorry for everything he had ever done. He didn’t care about the money, or the car, or going out west, or anything. When he lifted his head to peer over the lip of the gully and saw that she had started down the embankment with his flashlight, moving like someone with time and the patience to use it, he lost his sense of himself as McRae; he was just something crippled and breathing in the dark, lying flat in a little winding gully of weeds and sand. McRae was gone, was someone far, far away, from ages ago—a man fresh out of prison, with the whole country to wander in and insurance money in his pocket, who had headed west with the idea that maybe his luck, at long last, had changed.