Same Place, Same Things

Something about the way she looked at him suggested toughness .Before long he knew why

A Short Story

by Tim Gautreaux

THE PUMP REPAIRMAN WAS CAUTIOUS. HE SAW the dry rut in the lane and geared the truck down so he could take it through slow. The thin wheels of his ancient Ford bounced heavily, the road ridge scraping the axles. A few blackbirds charged out of the dead brush along the road and wheeled through the sky like a thrown handful of gravel. He wondered how far down the farm lane the woman lived. When she had called him at the tourist court, she had not been confident about giving directions, seeming unsure where her own house was. On both sides of the road fields of strawberries baked in the sun. It had not rained, the locals told him, for seven weeks.

Leafless branches reached out to snatch away his headlights. Billows of dust flew up behind the truck like a woman’s face powder, settling on roadside dewberry bushes that resembled thickened fountains of lava. It was an awful drought.

In a short while he arrived at a weathered farmhouse set behind a leaning barbed-wire fence. He pulled up and got out. No one came from the house, so he slammed the door of the truck and coughed loudly. He had been in this part of the country long enough to know that the farm people did not want you on their porches unless you were a relative or a neighbor. Now, in the Depression, life was so hard for them that they trusted almost nobody.

Finally he blew the truck’s horn and was rewarded with a movement at one of the windows. In half a minute a woman in a thin cotton housedress came out.

“You the pump man?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am. Name’s Harry Lintel.”

She looked him over as though he were a goat she might or might not buy. Walking to the edge of her porch, she looked back toward the field behind the house. “If you walk this trail here fora while, you’ll find my husband trying to fix the pump.” He did not like the way she made a face when she said “husband.” He was uneasy around women who did not like their men. She walked off the porch and through the fifteen feet of thistle and clover that served as a front lawn, moving carefully toward the pump repairman, who regarded her warily. Poor people made him nervous. He was poor himself, at least as far as money goes, but he was not hangdog and spiritless like many of the people he’d met in this part of the state, beaten down and ruined inside by hard times. She looked at his eyes. “How old you think I am?”

She seemed about forty, four years younger than he was, but with farm women you could never tell. He looked at her sandy hair and gray eyes. She was thin, but something about the way she looked at him suggested toughness. “Lady, I’ve come to fix a pump. What kind do you have and what’s wrong with it?”

“My husband, he’ll be back in a minute. He’ll know what all you need to find out. What I want to know is where you’re from. I ain’t heard nobody around here talk like you in a while.” She had her hair tied back in a loose knot and reached up to touch it delicately. This motion caught his eye. He guessed she might be closer to thirtyfive.

Harry Lintel put a hand in his right front pocket and leaned back against the door of his truck. Taking off his straw hat, he threw it into the front seat over his shoulder. “I’m from Missouri,” he said, running a hand through a clump of short, brassy hair.

Her expression was still one of intense evaluation. “Ain’t there no pump work in Missouri?” she asked. “Or did your woman run you off?”

“My wife died,” he said. “As for pump work, when it’s dry and the local pump repairmen can’t keep up with their work, or there ain’t any pump repairmen, I come around and take up the slack.” He looked around her at the peeling house and its broken panes patched with cardboard.

“So why ain’t you where you belong, taking up slack?”

He looked at her hard. That last remark showed some wit, something he had not found in a woman for a while. “Where’s your husband, lady? I’ve got cash jobs waiting for me up Highway Fifty-one.”

“Keep your pants on. He’ll be here, I said.”She folded her arms and came a step closer. “I’m just curious why anyone would come to this part of Louisiana from somewheres else.”

“I follow the droughts,” he said, straightening up and walking along the fence to where it opened into a rutted drive. The woman followed him, sliding her hands down her hips to smooth her dress. “Last week I was in Texas. Was doing a good trade until an all-night rain came in from Mexico and put me out of business. Wasn’t much of a pumping situation after that, and the local repairmen could keep things going.” He looked down the path as far as he could see along the field of limp plants. “Month before that I was in North Georgia. Before that I fixed pumps over in Alabama. Those people had a time with their green peppers. Where the devil’s your old man?”

“I never see anyone but my husband and two or three buyers that come back in here to deal with him.” She began to look at his clothes, and this made him uneasy, because he knew she saw that they were clean and not patched. He wore a khaki shirt and trousers. Perhaps no one she knew wore unpatched clothes. Her housedress looked like it had been made from a faded window curtain. “Texas,” she said. “I saw your ad in the paper and I figured you were a traveling man.”

“No, ma’am,” he said. “I’m a man who travels.”He saw she did not understand that there was a difference. She seemed desperate and bored, but many people he met were that way. Very few were curious about where he came from, however. They cared only that he was Harry Lintel, who could fix any irrigation pump or engine ever made.

He walked off into the field toward the tree line a quarter mile off, and the woman went quickly to the house. He saw a wire strung from the house into a chinaberry tree, and then through a long file of willows edging a ditch, and figured this led to an electric pump. He was almost disappointed that the woman wasn’t following him.

As he walked, he looked around at the farm. It was typical of the worst. He came upon a Titan tractor stilted on wood blocks in the weeds, its head cracked. Behind it was a corroded disc harrow, which could still have been useful had it been taken care of. In the empty field to his right stood two cows suffering from the bloat.

He was sweating through his shirt by the time he reached a thin stand of bramble-infested loblolly edging the field. Two hundred feet down the row of trees a man hunched over an electric motor, his back to the repairman. Calling out to him, Lintel walked in that direction, but the other man did not respond—he was absorbed in close inspection of a belt drive, the pump repairman guessed. The farmer was sprawled on a steel grid that hung over an open well. Harry walked up and said hello, but the farmer said nothing. He seemed to be asleep, even though he was out in the sun and his undershirt was as wet as a dishcloth. Harry stooped down and looked over the pump and the way it was installed. He saw that it was bolted to the grid without insulation. Two stray wires dangled into the well. He watched for the rise and fall of the man’s body, but the man was not breathing. Kneeling down, Harry touched the back of his knuckles to the steel grid. There was no shock, so he grabbed the man by his arms and pulled him off the motor, turning him over. He was dead, without a doubt: electrocuted. His fingers were burned, and a dark stain ran down his pants leg. Harry felt the man’s neck for a pulse and, finding none, sat there for a long time, studying the man’s broad, slick face, a face angry and stupid even in death. He looked around at the sorry farm as though it were responsible, got up, and walked back to the farmhouse.

The woman was sitting on the porch in a rocker, staring off into a parched, fallow field. She looked at the repairman and smiled, just barely.

Harry Lintel rubbed his chin. “You got a phone?”

“Nope,” she said, smoothing her hair down with her right hand. “There’s one at the store out on Fifty-one.”

He did not want to tell her, feeling that it would be better for someone else to break the news. “You’ve got a lady friend lives around here?”

She looked at him sharply, her gray eyes round. “W hat you want to know that for?”

“I’ve got my reasons,” he said. He began to get into his big dusty truck, trying to act as though nothing had happened. He wanted to put some distance between himself and her coming sorrow.

“The first house where you turned in, there’s Mary. But she don’t have no phone.”

“See you in a few minutes,” he said, cranking up the truck.

At the highway he found Mary and told her to go back and tell the woman that her husband was dead out by the pump. The old woman simply nodded, went back into her house, and got her son to go with her. Her lack of concern bothered him. Didn’t she care about the death of her neighbor?

At the store he called the sheriff and waited. He rode with the deputies back to the farmhouse and told them what he knew. They stood over the body, looked up at the dry sky, and told the pump repairman to go back to his business, that they would take care of everything.

He and one of the deputies walked out of the field past the farmhouse, and he tried not to look at the porch as he passed, but he could not keep himself from listening. He heard nothing—no crying, no voices heavy with muted passion. The two women were on the porch step talking calmly, as though they were discussing the price of berries. The widow watched him carefully as he got into the police car. He thought he detected a trace of perfume in the air and looked around inside the gritty sedan for its source.

That day he repaired six engines, saving little farms from turning back to sand. The repairs were hard ones that no one else could manage: broken timing gears, worn-out governors, cracked water jackets. At least one person on each farm asked him if he was the one who had found the dead man, and when he admitted that he was, each sullen farmer backed off and let him work alone. Late in the afternoon he was heating an engine head in his portable forge, watching the hue of the metal so that he could judge whether the temperature was right for brazing. He waited for the right color to rise like the blush on a woman’s cheek, and when it did, he sealed a complex crack with a clean streak of molten brass. A wizened Italian farmer watched him like a chicken hawk, his arms folded across a washed-out denim shirt. “It’s no gonna work,” he said.

But when, near dusk, Harry pulled the flywheel, and the engine sprang to life with a heavy, thudding exhaust, turning up a rill of sunset-tinged water into the field, the farmer cracked a faint smile. “If you couldna fixed it, we’da run you out the parish.”

Harry began to clean his hands w ith care. “Why?”

“Stranger find a dead man, that’s bad luck.”

“It’s better I found him than his wife, isn’t it?”

The farmer poked a few bills at Harry, turned, and began walking toward his packing shed. “Nothin’ surprise that woman,” he said.

IT WAS EIGHT-THIRTY WHEN HE GOT BACK TO THE Bell Pepper Tourist Court, a collection of six pink-stucco cabins with a large oval window embedded in each. The office, which also contained a small café, was open, but he was too tired to eat. He sat on his jittery bed, staring across the highway to the railroad, where a local passenger train trundled by, its whistle singing for a crossing. Beyond this was yet another truck farm, maybe twelve acres punctuated by a tin-roof shack. He wondered how many other women were stuck back in the woods living without a husband. The widow of the electrocuted man didn’t even have children to take her mind off her loneliness. He had that. He had gotten married when he was seventeen and had raised two daughters and a son. He was now forty-four and on his own, his wife having died five years before. The small Missouri town he was raised in couldn’t keep him provided with work, so he had struck out, roaming the South and the Southwest, looking for machines that nobody else could repair.

He stared through the oval window at his truck. At least he could move around and meet different people, being either sorry to leave them or glad to get away, depending. He gazed fondly at the Ford, its stake body loaded with blacksmith’s tongs, welding tools, a portable forge, and boxes of parts, wrenches, sockets, coal, hardies, gasket material, all covered with a green tarp slung over the wooden sides. It could take him anywhere, and with his tools he could fix anything but the weather.

THE NEXT MORNING AT DAWN HE HEADED OUT for the first job of the day, noticing that the early sky was like a piece of sheet metal heated to a blue-gray color. He pulled up to a farmhouse and a small man wearing a ponderous moustache came out from around back, cursing. Harry Lintel threw his hat back into the truck and ran his hands through his hair. He had never seen people who disliked strangers so much. The little farmer spat on the Ford’s tire and told him to drive into the field behind the farmhouse. “My McCormick won’t throw no spark,”he said.

Harry turned to get under way, but over the Ford’s hood he saw, two hundred yards off, the back of a woman’s head moving above the weeds in an idle field. “Who’s that?" he asked, pointing two fields over.

The farmer craned his neck but could not recognize the figure, who disappeared behind a briar patch between two farms. “I don’t know,”the farmer said, scratching his three-day beard, “but a woman what walk around like that with nothing better to do is thinking up trouble.” He pointed to Harry. “When a woman thinks too long, look out! Now, get to work, you.”

The day turned as hot as a furnace and his skin rolled with sweat. By noon he had worked on three machines within a half mile of one another. From little farms up and down Highway 51 he could hear the thud and pop of pump engines. He was in a field of berries, finishing up with a balky International, when he saw a woman walking along the railroad embankment with a basket in the crook of her right arm. It was the wife of the dead farmer. He waited until she was several rows off and then looked up at her. She met his look head on, her eyes the color of dull nickel. He admitted to himself then and there that it scared him, the way she looked at him. Harry Lintel could figure out any machine on earth, but with women he wished for an instruction manual.

She walked up to him and set the basket on top of his wrenches. “You ready to eat?" she asked, as though he had expected her.

He wiped his hands on a kerosene-soaked rag. “Where’d you come from?”

“It’s not far from my place,”she said. He noticed that she was wearing a new cotton dress, which seemed to have been snagged in a few places by briars. She knelt down and opened the basket, pulling out a baby quilt and sandwiches. He sat on the parched grass next to her in a spot of shade thrown by a willow.

“I’m sorry about your man,”he said. “I should have told you myself.”

Her hands moved busily in the basket. “That woman and I get along all right. You did as good as you could.” They ate in silence for a while. From the distance came the deep music of a big Illinois Central freight engine, its whistle filling the afternoon, swaying up and down a scale of frantic notes. The Crimson Flyer thundered north, trailing a hundred refrigerated cars of berries, the work of an entire year for many local farmers. “That train’s off its time,” she said. “Seems like everything’s off schedule lately.”She took a bite of ham sandwich and chewed absently.

“I asked the boys that own this engine about your man. They didn’t want to talk about him.” He took a bite of sandwich and tried not to make a face. It was dry, and the ham tasted like it had been in the icebox too long. He wondered if she had fed her husband any better.

“He was from New Orleans, not from around here. Nobody liked him much, because of his berries. Fie tried to ship bad Klondykes once, and the men at the loading dock broke his leg.”

The pump man shook his head. “Breaking a farmer’s leg’s kind of rough treatment.”

“He deserved it,”she said matter-of-factly. “Shipping bad berries give the area farmers a bad name.” She looked at her sandwich as though she had seen it for the first time, and threw it into the basket. “He was too damned lazy to pick early enough to ship on time.”

He was afraid she was going to cry, but her face remained as dry as the gravel road that ran along the track. He began to wonder what she had done about her husband. “What about the services for your old man?”

“Mary’s pickers helped me put him in this morning after the coroner came out and give us the okay.”

So that’s it, he thought. Half your life working in the sun and then your woman plants you in back of the tool shed like a dog. He was tempted to toss his sandwich, but he was hungrier than he had been in weeks, so he bit at it again. The woman put her eyes all over him, and he knew what she was doing. He began to compare himself with her husband. He was bigger. People told him frequently that he had a pleasant face, which he figured was their way of telling him he wasn’t outright ugly.

When she stared away at a noisy crow, he stole a long look at her. The dress fit her pretty well, and if she were another woman, one that hadn’t just put her husband in the ground, he might have asked her for a date. A row of pale freckles fell across her nose, and today her hair was untied, hanging down over her shoulders. Something in the back of his mind bothered him.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Ada,” she said quickly, as though she had expected the question.

“I thank you for the sandwich, but I’ve got to get going up the road.”

She looked along the railway. “Must be nice to take off whenever you’ve a mind to. I bet you travel all over.”

“A lot travel more’n I do.” He bent down and began to pick up box-end wrenches.

“What you in such a hurry for?” she asked, stretching out her long legs into the dead grass. Harry studied them a moment.

“Lady, people around here wonder what the trees are up to when they lean with the breeze. What you think someone that sees us is going to think?”

He walked over to his truck, placed his tools in the proper boxes, row-hopped over to the engine, slung the flywheel with a cast-iron crank, and backed off to hear the exhausts talk to him. The woman watched his moves, all of them. As he was driving out of the field, he felt her eyes on the back of his neck.

THAT EVENING AFTER SUPPER IN THE BELL. Pepper Tourist Court café Harry looked up from his coffee and saw Ada walk in through the screen door. She walked across the hardscrubbed pine floor as if she came into the place all the time, sat across from him in a booth, and put on the table a bottle of bright-red strawberry wine. She had washed her hair and put on a jasmine perfume.

Harry was embarrassed. A couple of farmers looked at them in hangdog fashion, and Marie, the owner, lifted her chin when she saw the bottle of wine. He was at first grouchy about the visit, not liking to be surprised, but as she asked him questions about his travels, he studied her skin, which was not as rough as he had first thought, her sandy hair, and those eyes that seemed to drink him in. He wondered how she had passed her life so far, stuck on a mud lane in the most spiritless backwater he’d ever seen. He was as curious about her static, unmoving world as she was about his wandering one.

Conversation was not his long suit, but the woman had an hour’s worth of questions about Arkansas and Georgia, listening to his tales of mountains as though he were telling her of China or the moon. What he wanted to talk about was Missouri and his children, but her questions wouldn’t let him. At one point in the conversation she looked over at Marie and said. “There’s them around here that say if you hang around me, there’s no telling what trouble you’ll get into.” She put her hands together and placed them in the middle of the green oilcloth.

He looked at them, realizing that she had told him almost nothing about herself. “You said vour husband was from New Orleans, but you didn’t say where you were from.”

She took a swallow of wine from a water glass. “Let’s just say I showed up here a few years ago. Nobody knows nothing much about me except I was kept back in that patch and never came in to drink or dance or nothing. Where I’m from’s not so important, is it?” She took a sip and smiled at him over the rim of her glass. “You like to dance?” she asked quickly.

“I can glide around some,” he said. “But about this afternoon. Why’d you follow me with them sandwiches out in the field?”

Ada bit her lower lip and thought a moment. “Maybe I want to move on,” she said flatly. Harry looked out the window and whistled.

They took their time finishing off the bottle. She went to the ladies’ room and he walked outside into the dark parking lot. He stood there stretching the kinks out of his muscles. Ada came out to him, looked up and down 51 for cars, and threw her arms around his waist, giving him a hard kiss. Then she backed off, smiling, and began walking up the dark highway toward her place.

Oh, my, he thought. Her mouth had tasted of strawberry wine, hot and sweet. Oh, my.

Later that night he lay in his bed with the window open, listening to the pump engines running out in the fields, which stretched away on all sides of the tourist court for miles. They throbbed, as delicate as distant heartheats. He could tell which type each was by the sound it made. He heard an International hit-and-miss engine fire once and then coast slower and slower through several cycles before firing again. Woven into that sound was a distant Fairbanks Morse with a bad magneto throbbing steadily, then cutting off, slowing, slowing almost to stillness before the spark built up again and the engine boomed back alive. Across the road a little McCormick muttered in a ditch. In the quiet night the engines fought the drought, popping like the musketry of a losing army. Through the screen of his window drifted the scent of kerosene exhaust.

He thought of the farmer’s widow and finally admitted to himself, there in the dark, that she was good-looking. What was she doing right now, he wondered. Reading? For some reason he doubted this. Sewing? What, traveling clothes? Was she planning to sell the patch and move back, as many women had done, to wherever she had come from? If she had any sense, he thought, she’d be asleep, and he turned over and faced the wall, listening to the springs ring under him. He tried to remember what he had done at night when he was at home, when he was twenty-four and had three children and a wife, but nothing at all came to him. Then, slowly, thoughts of rocking sick babies and helping his wife can sweet corn came to him, and before two minutes had passed he was asleep.

THE NEXT MORNING THE SKY WAS AS HARD AND expressionless as a pawnbroker’s face. At eight o’clock the temperature was ninetyone, and the repairman had already welded a piston rod in Amite and was headed south. When he passed the woman’s lane, he forced himself not to look down its rutted surface. He had dreamed of her last night, and that was enough, he thought. Times were so hard he could afford only his dreams. A half mile down the road he began working at pouring new babbitt bearings for an old Dan Patch engine. The owners of the farm left him alone so that they could oversee a group of inexperienced pickers, and at nine-thirty, while he was turning the blower for the forge, she came out of the brush to the north carrying a clear-glass jug of lemonade.

“I’ll bet you’re dry,” she said, giving him the jug and a tin cup.

“You’re an awful friendly lady,” he said, pouring himself a drink and looking at her slim waist, her long hair.

“I can be friendly when I want to be.” She rested her hand on his damp shoulder a moment and let it slide off slow.

They talked while he worked the forge. He tried to tell her about his children, but she seemed not to be interested. She wanted to know where he had been and where he was going. She wanted to know how it was living on the road, what people were like in different places. “Do you stay in tourist courts every night?” she asked, wide-eyed.

By the time he had finished his repair, she had told him that she had just buried her third husband, that she had never been a hundred miles from the spot they were standing in, and that she didn’t care if she never saw another strawberry for the rest of her days. “Sometimes I think it’s staying the same place, doing the same things, day in, day out, that gets me down. Get up in the morning and look out the window and see that same rusty fence. Look out another window and see that same willow tree. Out another and see that field. Same place, same things, all my life.” She heard a distant train whistle and looked off toward it, caught up in the haunting sound.

Harry Lintel was at a loss in dealing with unhappy people. He remembered that putting his big arms around his young wife years ago would stop her from crying, but he had no notion why this worked. Looking at the delicate hollow of Ada’s cheek, he felt sorry that he didn’t know what to do for her. He wondered if she would take up with him in his truck if he asked her, would just go off with him up the highway to Tennessee or Georgia, wherever the next drought was needing him to fix engines or windmills. Would this heal what was wrong?

After a local freight train racketed by, three men in overalls drove over the track, got out of their pickup, and began telling him about a big engine in a dry field six miles west, and how nobody could get it to run all week. The men ignored the woman, and as the repairman packed his tools and dumped the forge, he saw her walk off. She went south, away from her place, along the dirt lane that sidled up to the railroad, keeping her thin brown shoes out of the heaped-up dust ridge. After he had loaded the truck, he cranked it, and headed not west, along the route given him by the three men, but north. Turning into her lane, he bumped along the ruts down to her farmhouse. He walked to the back of the property and saw her berries blanched by the sun as if they’d had kettles of boiling water poured over them. Returning to the house, he opened the fuse box nailed to the rear outside wall and saw that one fuse was blown, even though it was a special heavy-duty type. He used his pocket knife to pry off the faceplate and saw where a switch wire cut into the circuit and ran from the bottom of the box through a hole into the house.

He found the front door unlocked. Walking through the house, he saw there was little furniture: only a set of dark-varnished chairs, two small, rough tables, and a rickety, curled-up sofa. The windows were dirty. In the kitchen he found the wall switch that activated the pump and, peering close, saw that it had been turned on. He was sure that many farms with electric pumps also had inside switches. But surely the man would have killed the circuit before he went out to work on the thing. And then he remembered that he hadn’t seen any switch out in the field.

He sat down at the oilcloth-covered kitchen table and squinted out the front window. He saw a rusty fence. Looking out a side window, he saw a willow tree. My God, he thought. He turned to look through the rear window, into a field. Near the broken tractor was a freshly dug mound of dirt. He put his face down into his hands and shook like a man who had just missed being in a terrible accident.

The next ten days he worked the whole parish. Wild animals came out of the woods looking for water. Bottoms of drainage ditches cracked open and buckled. He saw pickers brought out of the field with heatstroke. The woman found him only twice, and he was polite, listening to her tell him about her nights and what she saw through her windows. She wore the same dress, but kept it clean and ironed. Once she asked him to come over for supper, but he said he had work to do past dark.

At the tourist court he avoided the café and went to bed early, putting himself to sleep thinking of his wife, painfully, deliberately. He remembered the kindness of her meals in their kitchen and the fondness of her touch, which was on him still, teaching him.

On a Thursday morning before dawn he was awakened by a drumming sound to the northwest. At first he thought it was someone at the door, but when the sound rolled down on the parish again, he knew it was thunder. By first light the rain had started in earnest, and at eight he was still in his room, staring out at sheets of wind-tortured spray welling up in puddles along the highway— three inches at least, and more to come by the looks of the sky. It was time to move on.

In the café, for the first time Marie had no repair calls for him. He paid up, gave her a hug, and headed out north in his groaning truck, rainwater spilling off the taut new tarp covering the back.

The highway followed the railroad up through a series of small towns, and he made good time despite a traffic of small truckloads of produce and an occasional horsedrawn farm wagon. He felt lighthearted for the first time in days, and whistled as he steered around slower vehicles navigating the rainy road. There was something good about getting out of this section of the country, he felt, something good about pointing his headlights toward Jackson or Memphis, where he would hole up in a boardinghouse and read a big-city paper until the weather reports told him where he’d find lots of dust, heat, worn-out pumps, and busted windmills.

About noon he pulled over at a cafe south of McComb. Walking to the back of the truck, he saw that one of the tarp ropes had come undone. When he raised the cloth to check inside, the woman lifted her face toward him, her eyes rusty and dark. “When I heard the rain start on my roof, I knew you’d be pulling out,” she said. “You can go somewheres. I can’t.”

He stared at her for a long time, trying to figure what to say. He looked up and down the red-dirt highway lined with spindly telephone poles and then at the café, which was closed, he realized. Finally he climbed in and sat on a toolbox lid next to her in the oily dark. “You can’t come along with me.”

“Don’t say that,” she said, putting her arms loosely around his neck. “You’re the only person I ever met can go where he wants to go.” She said this not in a pleading voice but as a statement of fact. “I can go with you. I’ll be good to you, Mr. Lintel.”

He looked at her eyes and guessed that she was desperate for his freedom of movement but not for him. The eyes seemed already to be looking ahead, looking at a whole world passing by a truck window. “Where you want to go,” he said at last, “I can’t take you.”

She pulled her arms away quickly. “What you mean by that? You just going to toss me off on the side of the road like a worn-out machine? There’s something in me what needs to get away with you.”

Harry Lintel leaned toward her and took her hands, trying to remember the ways he had once brought solace to his wife. “If I could help you, I’d bring you along for the ride,” he said. “But I can’t do a thing for you.” He half expected her to cry when he said that, but she only shook her head.

“You’ve got a heart like a rock,”she told him,

“No, ma’am,” he said. “I loved a good woman once, and I could love another. You can’t come with me because you killed your old man.”

Her eyes seemed to pulse, and what softness lingered around the corners of her mouth disappeared into a flinty expression of fear and desperation.

He reached for his wallet. “I’m going to buy a ticket and put you on the southbound. You can walk home from the station.”

She grabbed a bill from him and then straightened up, throwing an arm in back of her as if she were searching tor the handle of her cardboard suitcase. Harry stared at his empty hand for a moment and turned to climb out into the drizzle. He heard the music of a tempered wrench being picked up, and then a bomb went off in his head, and he was down on the floorboards, rolling in cinders and wire, his arms and legs uncontrolled, his eyes letting in a broken vision of the woman standing over him, looking down the way someone might examine a stunned fish. “I’ve never met a man I could put up with for long,” she told him. “I’m glad I got shut of all of mine.”

His head roared like a forge, and he tried to rise, his eyes flickering, his arms pushing him toward the woman’s upraised fist, where his biggest box-end wrench glimmered like a thunderbolt. The blow was a star-giving ball of pain, and he felt the tailgate in the small of his back, the world going over like a flywheel, his face in collision with gravel and clay, a coppery rill coursing through his nose and mouth. The only thing in his head was the silver ringing sound of a tool, and then the exhaust of a four-cylinder engine pulling away, fading into a clash of gears at the top of a hill, and then, for the longest time, nothing. Somewhere a cow bellowed, or a car passed without stopping, or wind blew through the grass around him like knowledge through an ear.

Near dusk he woke to a dove singing on the phone wires. He idly wondered where she would sell the truck, to what town she would ride on the train. It didn’t matter. She was a woman who would never get where she wanted to go. He was always where he was going.

One eye began to work, and he watched clouds, the broken pieces of the world hanging above like tomorrow’s big repair job, waiting.