Like an unbelievable promise, the desert town ahead was the only thing in Doreen’s vision not still in the grip of the sweltering day. From the top of the grade, the early evening lights appeared cupped in a hollow hand of shade extending from low bluffs that rose behind the distant buildings, while a deepening red held claim on the land for the unseen sun. The rocks and sand that blurred past Doreen’s tinted windows burned with scarlet remains of daylight. As she raised the visor and removed her sunglasses, Doreen could feel the heat in her steering wheel and see it in the red-washed leather of the empty seat beside her, urging her eyes to the soft lights in the shadows ahead.
Doreen drove the 200 miles to Barstow every few weeks to spend time with her friends, Connie and Charlie and their boys. She needed to get away from Las Vegas and the people there who thought they knew her—to be where she felt at home, with people who felt like family. Connie had married Doreen’s oldest brother, David, when Doreen was sixteen, a year before David drowned in the surf at Redondo Beach. An ex-sister-in-law was as close as Doreen got to family anymore. When she left home during her senior year of high school, Doreen went straight to Connie’s house. Ten years on, she knew she would always be welcome there.
With Connie and Charlie, Doreen could shed for a time the personality she’d constructed over the years. Doreen had never been happy with the professional persona she’d assumed, though it had served her well in Vegas. Her part-time job as a dancer had turned into a lucrative career, she owned her own home up a quiet arroyo outside of town, and she finally had a car with enough head room—a Mercedes SUV, no less. She was financially secure at the age of twenty-eight. She had won.
She accepted the cycle of depression that drove her to seek refuge in Barstow twice a month as part of the price she paid for the safety that she’d thought of as success.
Ten years ago, when Doreen O’Sullivan began changing into Dory Blair, any price would have seemed like a bargain.
After a series of army bases and volleys of infidelities in both directions, Doreen’s parents had divorced when she was twelve. Her father signed on for duty in Thailand and she ended up sharing a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and Kenny, the younger of her two older brothers. Her few friends from junior high were assigned to a nearby high school while Doreen and her brother, snagged in a narrow spike of political boundary thrust into their low-rent neighborhood, were bussed to a preppy school in the Palos Verde hills. Doreen didn’t know anyone at Golden Hills High and felt completely out of place—wrong clothes, wrong hair, no boyfriend. She was desperate for friends, but ones who had nothing to do with her lowlife brother Kenny. She already saw too much of him and his drugged-out accomplices.
Cheerleading never entered Doreen’s thoughts until freshman year, when she was chosen by a popular junior named Becky to be her sidekick. Such an honor for a lowly scrub could not be refused. Cheerleading was assumed to be part of the job. In exchange for a peer group, dance lessons, parties, and rides to The Strip on the weekends, Doreen became a cheerleader and played the foil Becky needed. It was more than she could have hoped for. Even by her family, Doreen had never been considered cute. At thirteen her long face had not yet broadened and softened into the features that would make her a beautiful woman. Her mother told her cheerleading would help her gain confidence in her body and cultivate some poise, but Doreen knew her mom would be happy to have her away from the apartment afternoons and evenings so she could pursue the full-time job of finding a new husband. Doreen, at five feet eleven inches and growing, was just hoping to find a tall boyfriend.
By the time she became aware of the thick layers of phoniness in the clique culture of the school, Doreen was stuck in a web of unsatisfying relationships that were nonetheless the only ones she had. She took comfort in believing that she wasn’t as shallow as those around her. After all, she was serious about her work—even cheerleading. She enjoyed the hard work of the dance routines, and she was becoming an excellent dancer. But every day she felt the pain of having to fund her emotional credits with the same deflated currencies used by her peers: half-truths and denial, fair-weather loyalties, gossip and backstabbing.
It was music that really kept Doreen going, and the joy she felt in singing. She’d always loved singing, but it had always been strictly for the shower until Becky heard her singing along with the dance routine music and told her she could pick up a guaranteed ‘A’ by taking choir.
The first time Norton Welty heard Doreen’s big contralto, a wedge of fermenting ambition ripened in the frustrated opera singer. Ever since he’d given up the struggle to succeed as a performer and accepted a teaching job, Norton had hoped to find his greatness through a student. When Doreen auditioned for his choir at the beginning of ninth grade she looked to him like any other young girl—unusually tall perhaps, but just a gangly kid.
“Why is a basketball player like you auditioning for my choir?”
“I hate basketball,” she averred with a well-practiced eye-roll.
When Mr. Welty heard her audition that morning, he botched his scales staring at her. She made the most womanly sound he’d ever heard from a student. The excitement he forced himself to hide that day was almost erotic. Over the next three and a half years, as Doreen’s body grew to match her voice, his excitement grew and he hid it less and less.
Mr. Welty groomed Doreen to be his featured soloist. Golden Hill’s a cappella choir would become her backup singers. By junior year Becky was gone and Doreen was being treated like a star athlete. She quit cheerleading, but Mr. Welty insisted that she continue taking dance classes—even offering to help her mother pay for them. She received music lessons and academic tutoring that her mother could never have afforded. Missing homework was mysteriously excused. Deadlines became flexible. Her teachers seemed to grade her on a different scale. She maintained A’s and B’s, while doing less and less regular schoolwork.
Doreen’s life began to revolve around Mr. Welty. He drove her to madrigal choir before school and to performances at night. Charging nothing, he gave Doreen all the coaching and extra practice she needed to perform the demanding music he selected. Doreen was flattered. He urged her to strive for the aesthetic experience. She was entranced. Ours is a special, once-in-a-lifetime relationship. She was in love. Exactly at what point Mr. Welty’s close attention became physically intimate, Doreen could hardly tell—she had been deeply penetrated emotionally long before.
When she pulled off Interstate 15 at Scenic Vista 32, Doreen was glad to see the parking lot empty. She loved it when her schedule and the season came together like this, putting her at the top of the rise, knocked out by a big-show sunset.
She slid from the arid cool of her car into the scented heat of the evening. Rising through the windless dusk, the warmth filled her sleeveless shift. There is a moment at the end of every desert summer day when the heat radiating from the land overtakes the thinning warmth of the air no longer infused with sunlight. Doreen was always unconsciously uplifted by that moment, the easy heat drifting from the ground without interference from wind and sun, leavened by the fragrances of creosote and sage.
Doreen breathed more deeply than she had in weeks.
In many ways she still enjoyed her job. Dancing, even in the overblown Vegas productions in which she starred, gave her a kind of satisfaction that would be hard to replace. But the bullshit was endless. The constant negotiating with the casinos, the managers, even with her own agent. The competition between her and other girls and her general lack of trust in anyone made it hard to have friends. Worst of all was the hustling and cruising. Hit on and propositioned several times a day, she never let her guard down.
In a gem of silence between the howling of cars and trucks, Doreen began to sing.
Out of the fullness of love?
The Brahms. The Alto Rhapsody she never got to perform. She thought of Mr. Welty. All those months of rehearsal, and then he was gone. She controlled her memories of Mr. Welty with discipline, remembering him only in connection with the music. Her ritual, when she was truly alone, was to sing as he had taught her, as if she were performing, as if he had not destroyed her life.
He furtively consumes his own merit…
Her notes were sure and full, her voice like an organ pipe viola. She felt especially good here, her voice echoing, then escaping into the stillness—as if she could feel through her closed eyes the shape of the silence around her by touching it with her voice.
In unsatisfying egoism.
She could see Mr. Welty leading the boys of the choir as she soared with the chorus that followed.
Open his clouded gaze… To the thousand springs… Next to the thirsting one… In the desert.
As the sunset died, she turned her attention to the town below, lights wavering through the heat like reflections in deep, rippled water. Beyond the glimmer, the sharp daylight clarity of the mountains along the horizon had become an indistinct mass of indigo, the last trace of day a jagged line of blood that faded at its ends to starry darkness.
A meadowlark appeared on the cattle fence that separated the interstate from the desert. He trilled his obbligato, cocked his head, and hopped along over the barbs, then flitted into the brush. Doreen heard the crackle of her sandals on the gravel as she turned, the ticking of her cooling engine, and the muffled pleading of her cell phone.
The best part of the sunset was over by the time Ray geared his rig to the top of the last hill. He was disappointed, but he’d scared himself twice in the last hour shaking off sleep, so seeing Barstow in the distance was better than a sunset. He clutched up a notch for the compression run down Interstate 40 into town.
Minutes later a sudden echo from a road cut amplified the machine-gunning of the jake brake, startling Ray out of another dangerous lull. He thought about the useless hitchhikers asleep in his bunk.
Ray’s policy on hitchhikers had changed over the years. When he first got his rig, he’d pick up anybody he didn’t have to pull over for—at truck stops and diners. He completely swore them off when he got married, but he didn’t actually quit picking them up until Ruthie was born. Since the divorce he’d started doing it again sometimes. He always kept an eye out for guitars.
Mike and Carol had been stuck at the inspection station long enough to look hopeless, but Ray thought they were too young to really be as desperate as they appeared. He told himself he could use the company to help him stay awake, but he was looking at the well-traveled guitar case. He felt foolish trying to size up a player just by his case, but he couldn’t help it. He did it every time.
Carol had leapt by Ray so fast on her way up into the sleeper that later he would be unable to describe her clearly. But from a flash of face he knew that she was angry. Mike took shotgun, hugging the guitar case stiffly. Ray decided he didn’t look settled with that guitar and probably hadn’t been playing long, but he’d been wrong before—maybe there’d be a little jam before he hit the sack.
After a few minutes of small talk, Ray got around to guitars. “So, what you got in the case?”
“Oh, you know, just an old travel guitar,” said Mike, shrugging. Then, his voice rising as if to tease out a secret, “What kind of guitar do you have?”
“It’s a pretty good ol’ Martin dreadnaught.”
“Hmm…” Mike hummed. Sliding lower in the seat, arms wrapped around the neck of his case, he stared at the headliner and smiling slightly. Without a glance at Ray, he adding, “Nice. I’d like to see it.”
Annoyed with Mike’s non-engagement, Ray got to the point. “OK, well, what do you like to play? I got my guitar with me, maybe we can heat ’em up a little when we get to Barstow.”
This did not seem to register with Mike, who said nothing.
Ray’s impatience, fatigue, and adrenaline pushed him forward. “Yeah, well, I’m going to get some shut-eye in Barstow but I like to play for a while before I try to go to sleep ‘cuz, you know, no matter how cold-cocked you are at the wheel you gotta unwind a little or you hit the sack all tired-n-wired.” Ray huffed a laugh and checked for some response. He felt like a jerk rattling on with Mike so distant, but he could feel the lack of sleep in the twitching muscles of his face. He wanted to get Mike going, get him talking. Mike looked like he was doing algebra in his head, so Ray went on, “We don’t have to sit up in the truck and play. This friend of mine owns the motel at the truck stop and he’s got this room out back…”
Mike interrupted, straightening up a bit, his energy level spiking, “You mean you’re not going straight through to LA tonight?”
“No, man, I been going since Albuquerque this morning. I’m pretty wiped out. Get to Barstow I’m gonna get me a beer, play a little and crash.”
“Hmm… yeah,” Mike said, slipping back into a laconic haze. “Well, I guess we’ll get a ride with somebody in Barstow…”
Ray thought, These guys aren’t hooking on with anybody tonight. Nobody’s going to want to get to LA in the middle of the night—especially when Connie’s having a party. But he said nothing.
After twenty miles of silence, Ray began asking Mike about music and guitars again, trying to tell if he was enough of a player to make it worth getting Charlie’s room for them to play in. Mike talked about life as a street musician and Ray started figuring on putting them up and taking them into LA with him the morning when he heard Carol’s voice for the first time.
“You are so full of shit, Mike.” Ray pushed on the steering wheel with both hands, snapping himself upright. He’d forgotten she was back there.
“Shut up, Carol.” said Mike. He lowered his head and sent an angry look sidelong into the sleeper at Carol. Ray could sense his rage.
Carol sneered, “You bullshit everybody, about everything, and I’m the one who’s always got to hear it. You gonna tell him the story about why we had to get out of Phoenix so fast?”
Mike brought his head still lower, eyes slits, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and you don’t know what you’re talking about either, so just shut the fuck up.”
“Why did we have to sneak off so early this morning, huh? You never get up that early without a good reason.” Ray could hear the taunt in her voice.
Now Mike turned toward Carol, curled up in the back corner of the sleeper directly behind Ray. He looked calm and spoke softly and slowly, from his throat, through grinding teeth. Over the noise of the engine Ray barely heard Mike say, “Shut up, Carol,” but he felt Carol fling herself onto the thin cushion of the sleeper. Mike’s steely glare was chilling. Ray did not hear Carol’s voice again.
“Doreen! You coming or not?”
“Connie, Connie, I’m sorry.” Doreen gathered herself back to the present. “I’m already here.” She turned the key and put the Mercedes into motion. The highway was nearly deserted. A faint trace of tail lights, accented by the occasional northbound glare of high-beams, was all that showed the way down to the splatter of lights that was Barstow.
“Up on the pass, at the turnout.”
“Jeez, you are here already. What are you pulled over there for? You all right? Why din-choo call me?” Hearing Connie, her hardened r’s, her words sliding together, always made Doreen feel like she was home.
“Oh, you know how I get on a roll and forget. I’m just up here looking at the sunset.”
“Sunset? It’s dark already. You should-a called me, Dory.”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry, but you knew I was coming and I never know when I’m going to be able to get away from that place, so… you know, but hey, are you really having a party?”
“I always have a party when you come and Charlie and the twins are gone.” Connie dropped the critical tone. All was forgiven.
“You always say you’re going to have a party but luckily nothing ever comes of it.” She accelerated past a Winnebago. Flecks of neon were becoming distinguishable within the bloom of lights at the edge of town.
“Oh, it’s happening this time for sure. And not just the truck stop crew either. Lots of people know about this party. It’s gonna be famous!” Doreen could hear Connie’s toothy smile through the phone. She knew this time Connie wasn’t kidding.
“What did you do, pass out flyers?”
“Nothing that bad, just a few signs in the right places.”
Doreen pushed out a full-bodied sigh. “Oh, god, Connie, what are you up to? You know I’d rather stay home with you—or go out to the roadhouse.”
“Well tonight we’re going out and staying home at the same time.” Doreen loved Connie. She sensed the older sister tone in her voice and didn’t argue.
“OK. Who’s coming?”
Ray shook himself and jolted upright. He couldn’t recall turning on the radio and Mike was climbing back into the seat beside him, but Ray didn’t remember him going into the sleeper. It was a long, straight roll down the hill to the town. He’d been drifting again.
Mike croaked, “You got a cigarette, man? Is that Barstow?” He sounded as sleepy as Ray felt.
“That’s it.” Some right-wing demagogue was retching on the over-cranked radio. Ray turned it off. Mike stared at him expectantly. Ray shook his head, a little bewildered, “Oh, no, don’t use ‘em.”
“Where do you think’s the best place to catch another ride?”
“I’ll take you where the trucks are.”
Ray liked to get off at East Main and take old 66 through town to the truck stop—while it was still legal to take a big-rig through town. Moths and June bugs formed swarming hemispheres of specks around the streetlights and neon. People appeared in slow motion on the sidewalks, still-life in the panes of window light. On all those trips to Kansas, with his mom and sisters sleeping in the camper, Ray riding shotgun with his dad, they always stopped in Barstow just at dawn for breakfast. As phony as the downtown nostalgia was, it could still put a lump in Ray’s throat if the right song was on the radio. But tonight, he only felt Mike and Carol’s tense silence. He was looking forward to unloading his unhappy passengers and had decided to sleep in the cab. He’d known all along he wouldn’t actually go to Connie’s party. All he wanted to do was get some sleep.
Doreen avoided going through town by staying on the interstate past the junction and getting off at Avenue H. The small-town glitz on 66 was depressing. What she liked about Barstow was Connie and Charlie and their boys—and the anonymity it gave her. When she and Connie did go out, it was always to the roadhouse up on 58. Not being known by anyone felt so delicious. Doreen had been visiting Connie for the past ten years, but the only people she knew in Barstow worked at the truck stop diner Connie managed. Now Connie was finally having the party she’d threatened to have for so long. So much for anonymity.
They had been arguing about it since Charlie first got Doreen a job in Las Vegas: Connie wanting Doreen to settle down and get married, Doreen wanting to stay detached, keep her professional life protected and her personal life free of commitments. They both knew Doreen had arranged her life to be a kind of scab, though Doreen refused to admit it and Connie didn’t press. Connie felt the wound had healed enough, but Doreen was too afraid to look.
Connie met Charlie ten years ago at a casino where he gambled for the house. She was trying to get over losing David, and Charlie was looking for a good reason to get out of Las Vegas. After a month of lost weekends, they got married. With his winnings and her insurance money they bought a motel in Barstow with an old farmhouse in back. Within a year, Charlie was managing the truck stop next door while Connie ran the diner for the same absentee owners. Connie and Charlie formed a good working partnership. They took to the hard work and to each other with similar passion. Connie thought Doreen just needed to find a Charlie of her own and she’d be fine.
Doreen picked up her cell phone again as she neared Connie and Charlie’s restored Victorian on the street behind the motel.
“Dory? I thought you were just about here.”
Doreen heard Freddie Fender in the background. Instead of turning it down to talk, Connie walked out to the porch. When Doreen heard the screen-door slam her stomach tightened. Connie really was having a party.
Connie and Charlie’s was the only house in an area of warehouses and scrapyards. Making the familiar right turn, Doreen was shocked to see the usually-deserted street lined with cars. She felt a flush of panic and drove right past Connie’s house.
“I am here—I mean, I just drove by.”
Connie, party-ready in silver and turquoise, jangled down the porch steps toward the street. “What? Where? I don’t see you.”
“Well, actually I’m just going around the corner by the motel.”
“What are you doing? Come on back and come in.”
“I’m tired, Connie.” She realized as she spoke that she was lying. “I’m just going to get some dinner and go to sleep in Charlie’s room. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Connie wouldn’t hear of it. She walked out to the street toward the diner, determined to change Doreen’s mind. Doreen continued to drive around the big industrial block fending off Connie’s persuasions. Wracked with indecision, Doreen drove past the truck stop and came back around the block. Connie was standing in the middle of the street. Still arguing into her cell phone, she climbed into the Mercedes. Neither of them wanting to give in, they would not look at each other and for a moment they continued talking through their phones. But in an instant of recognition they giggled like sisters and embraced.
They drove eight more times around the block.
Ever since their big falling-out toward the end of high school, Doreen’s only contact with her mother had been through Connie. The second time past the truck stop Connie asserted her big sister status. “It’s not about the party, Doreen. It’s about your life.”
“I’m doing pretty well,” said Doreen. She tried to sound indignant, but her lack of conviction betrayed her and she sounded pathetic instead.
“Oh, sure, you’re rolling in dough, but that’s not real life, Dory.”
Doreen was surprised that Connie was bringing up issues they’d both stepped lightly around for years. Connie could see that she was speechless and pressed her advantage. “No matter how busy you keep yourself or how much money you pile up, you know you’re not happy with what you’re doing. Loneliness can tear you up inside, Dory. I know, I been there. Pretty soon there’s nothing left. You’re just empty. You’re going to regret it big-time later if you don’t do something about it pretty soon.”
The fourth time around the block Doreen started to defend herself. “I’m not that bad off, Connie. I’ve got a new agent, and I’m doing more singing than I’ve done in years—she might even get me hooked up with another tour.”
“Yeah, great you go ahead and be another back-up singer for another country-western asshole.”
That road trip had been the longest three months of her life. The memories were too painful to continue arguing in that direction. She fell into whining. “Come on, Connie, I come down here a couple of times a month to take it easy and I just don’t feel like going to a party when I’m here—parties are too much like Vegas.”
“Oh, but you don’t mind going to the roadhouse every time you get itchy—that’s not too Vegas for you, no—you haul some cowboy back to the motel and I end up going home alone.”
Doreen winced, then jabbed back. “That’s really unfair, Connie. I’m entitled to have a sex life and it’s none of your business.”
“It is when I feel like your pimp.”
Half a block of silence passed with Connie looking out the window, feeling sorry, Doreen fighting tears. A strangled, “Fuck you, Connie,” was all Doreen could muster. She could feel the truth in Connie’s words but she resisted.
Another turn around the block and Connie was pulling family rank on her again. “You cut yourself off from your mom and your brother, Dory, and I’m tired of being the go-between.”
When Doreen seemed beaten, Connie softened. “OK, OK… but you’re not gonna find a husband that way.”
Doreen repeated the ready response that was less convincing every year, “Maybe I don’t want a husband.”
“I know better, Dory. You think you fixed yourself up all on your own, but I was there when you were right on the edge and I know you need other people—you’re just scared to let anybody get close. I know why. I understand. But you got to move on Doreen.” Connie sensed her opportunity. “Come on, Dory. There’s nothing to be scared of. Verdina and Holly’ll be there and Manny and Jose are coming over after their shift. Everybody who’s coming are good people. You won’t have to put on a show for nobody. You’ll have a good time.” She smiled broadly and lightly punched Doreen’s shoulder. “And I got some good news I’m going to tell everybody.”
Doreen perked up slightly. “Yeah?”
“I’m pregnant again.”
Doreen turned toward her friend and fairly squealed, “Oh, Connie, that’s so great!”
Connie was coming out of her seat with excitement. “Yeah, I’m already three months along, so it’s really going to take this time—and Dory, I got ultrasound pictures and it looks like it’s gonna be a girl!”
As Doreen made another right turn in front of the motel, her body seemed to give way inside. She was numb. She had saved her own life, but now it felt like someone else’s—living out a script in Las Vegas, with a cast of familiar strangers, playing a part she was made for, in a show that never ended.
She wrapped her arms around the steering wheel and hugged it, chin resting on the top. Glancing at her friend several times as tears began to fall, she wanted to stop the car and hug Connie, cry on her shoulder, thank her for being alive. But she forced her focus to the right turn past the truck stop, back to Connie’s house.
“Dory, wait, look, something’s happening. Turn in.”
On the west side of town, the storefronts and clutter of old structures opened up to the desert again. From the cooling bottom of the wide arroyo ahead Ray smelled the ghost of the winter river through the creosote and diesel of the railyard. On the south side of West Main, humming and blinking like a respirator, the Heartland Truck Stop and Motel was keeping the old highway alive where it cut across the dry flats above the riverbed full of boxcars.
Ray angled his set of doubles across the empty eastbound lane of 66 and eased it to a halt in his usual spot between the diner and the motel. Basking for a moment in the glow of the diner’s window, he shut her down for the first time all day. As the familiar noises of the truck stop replaced the dull roar in his ears, Ray felt as close to being home as he ever did anymore. He stretched his tired arms and let them dangle. Muscles relaxed that he had not known were taut, and he was left with the pressure in his bladder and bowels.
Mike had gone back into the sleeper as they were getting off the interstate. Ray called to the strained whispers and rustling in the dark bunk, “I can see about getting you guys another ride, but you got to pack up. I’ll be back in a minute.”
When he got out of the restroom ten minutes later, Ray was wishing for a shower. He knew the emergency number above the pay phone would dial up Charlie and Connie’s place behind the motel. The motel was full, but Ray and Charlie went back to Ray’s first day in a truck and Ray knew he could stay in the room Charlie kept for poker games and friends. If there was a party at the house, that meant Charlie was out of town and he’d have to talk to Connie about the room. He hoped she hadn’t promised it to someone else. Ray felt bad about begging off on Connie’s party and then asking her for Charlie’s room, so he started thinking maybe he’d put in an appearance at the party just to get the key. He’d call her up and play it by ear.
As Ray reached for the phone, Gino, the night mechanic, ripped open the door of the diner and ran in. “Ray! There’s some kind of fight going on in your truck, man, you better get out there.”
Ray was through the door before Gino finished.
Doreen turned off the highway and pulled up short. Everyone at the truck stop was running toward a semi-truck parked next to the motel. There was already a small crowd of truckers below the open door of the cab.
“Oh, Jeez,” said Connie. She sprang from the car and ran to the diner.
Doreen edged forward. She wanted to see what was happening, but she did not want to give up the safety of her vehicle. Her headlights glanced off the jeans at the fringe of the crowd and she stopped. When the men noticed her lights, she saw a shuffling of Levis and Wranglers as they organized an opening in the crowd and waved her forward to light the scene.
Mike hit the asphalt just as Ray burst from the diner. Ray heard a thud and looked in time to see him bounce and jerk. He did not see Mike move again.
The Mike’s guitar case had crashed down with him and sprung open. The sickening, musical clatter of Ray’s Martin skittering on the asphalt lingered as Ray froze for an instant, realizing what had happened. As he ran toward Mike’s prone body, Ray’s anger took a twist, seeing he’d been stabbed: the Korean bayonet Ray kept in a saddlebag behind his seat protruded from Mike’s stomach.
Hesitating for an instant before crouching down, Ray glanced up into the dark cab and thought about Carol. In that moment he knew what she had done and thought he understood why. He wanted to climb up there and tell her something important, but as he tried to think of what it was, he saw Mike bleeding at his feet and tried instead to remember his Red Cross training.
“Mike! Mike! Can you hear me?” Ray shouted. Mike’s face was lifeless, but he was surely still alive the way blood was coursing from him, black as crude in the shadows of the gathering crowd. It had soaked his t-shirt and already begun to pool beneath him.
“Verdie, call 911,” Gino screamed toward the diner, then knelt beside Ray wheezing, “What should I do?”
“Check his breathing and see if you can you find a pulse. I’ll try to stop the bleeding.”
The bayonet was leaning out of Mike obliquely, like a dead tree with roots in a mudslide. Ray figured pulling out the blade would make the bleeding worse. So, with his eyes to the stars, feeling for what he could not see, Ray began groping in the warm blackness for the source of the blood. He hoped Mike’s heart would keep beating.
The truckers in the crowd shouted advice.
“Pull the fuckin’ thing out,”
“No, don’t do that, it’ll kill him,”
“I think the guy who stabbed him is still in the truck.”
Some of them deputized themselves and cordoned off the assailant’s escape routes. Sirens sounded in the distance.
With his hand on Mike’s throat and his ear to Mike’s nose, Gino shouted, “His heart’s beating, but, Jesus, Ray, I don’t think he’s breathing.”
“Well, if I can get a hold of this hole and steady the knife you can do CPR or something.”
Mike’s stomach and shirt looked like a black, gaping hole. Running the fingers of his left hand down the shaft, even the bayonet felt like a sticky liquid. But beneath the warm wet shirt, Ray felt the puckered lips of the entry wound around the blade. He pressed on either side just firmly enough to staunch the bleeding. He felt as though his hand might slip through the torn flesh if he pushed any harder. As he steadied the handle of the bayonet with his picking hand, he had the odd sensation of playing the guitar. In a flash of panic, he feared he would start laughing and rip Mike’s stomach open, but the crowd around him shifted and he refocused in the light of a pair of headlights that turned the scene a lurid red.
When the blue jeans parted in the reach of Doreen’s headlights, she gasped at what she saw. Two men knelt over a third who was covered with blood, a large knife protruding from his stomach. One man she recognized as Gino was bent down administering to the bleeding man’s head. The other man was an angular-looking trucker like so many who frequented the diner and the roadhouse. She knew she had seen him before but couldn’t think where. One of his hands gripped the knife as if he’d had perpetrated the stabbing, but she noticed with relief that he was putting pressure on the wound with the other.
Doreen had never seen that much blood in her life. A wave of fear started in her skin and knotted in the pit of her stomach. But then, as she shivered around a core of tension, she was surprised to feel herself detach and begin to observe: three men, one of them probably dying, Gino breathing into his mouth, and the trucker holding him together with his hands. Who is he? Looking off, away from the glare of the headlights, he appeared to be lost in some distant thought while he held his arms and body firm.
Just as her memories began to emerge, they were drowned by sirens converging from all directions.
The blast of light and the rush of red hit Ray like a wave of nausea. Overwhelmed by fatigue and trying to keep calm, he concentrated on holding his hand firmly against the soft warm hole, hoping to stem the ooze of Mike’s life. His thoughts began to blur with the swirl of action around him. He was aware of Gino working beside him and of the agitated crowd. He thought of his boss and wondered how this load of furniture was going to get to LA. He thought of Carol and of the kind of person Mike must be to have driven her to this. He thought of his guitar and wanted to twist the blade. And he thought of his father and his father’s bayonet. For protection, his father had said. You can do this one thing for your mother and me, Ray. Ray had always thought of the bayonet as his dad’s way of having the last word in an old argument.
Ray was grateful to the point of tears when he realized that the rising wail he had thought was a panic alarm in his mind was actually outside his head. The ambulance and cops had arrived.
Men in uniforms swarmed into Doreen’s headlit tableau. With the crowd shouting and pointing at the cab, police surrounded the truck. One of them approached the open door with a hand on his holstered gun and appeared to speak with someone in the sleeping compartment. An older officer who seemed to be in charge crouched beside the familiar-looking trucker as the paramedics rushed in with their gear to take over. The trucker looked dazed and exhausted, but calm. A name began to surface in Doreen’s mind. Waving back the crowd, the officer brought Gino and the trucker over to the diner where Connie, Verdina, and Jose stood watching.
On a signal from the negotiator, the police converged on the truck. Two cops sprang into the cab. A moment later they seemed to be lowering a body out the door. “Oh my god!” Doreen’s exclamation faded into thought: it’s a woman. They cuffed her as she lay motionless on the asphalt. She seemed to be drugged. Doreen had expected that a man had committed this crime, but when she saw that it was a woman her feelings changed and she found herself suspicious of the victim. She wanted to believe the woman they were carrying to the squad car had her reasons.
Ray, Connie, and Gino were conferring with Sargent Dobbs when Carol was lowered from the cab. She had gone into a kind of swoon, like a non-violent protester. Two young cops laid her on the ground, cuffed her and carried her to the cruiser parked in front of the diner. As they manipulated her torpid body into the back seat, her long, straight hair fell away from her face for a moment and, in the midst of her limpness, she turned her head toward Ray and distinctly, to him, with bloody, swollen lips, she mouthed, I’m sorry.
Doreen watched the paramedics strap the bloody body onto a stretcher and load it into the ambulance. The one holding the bayonet climbed in back with the stretcher. The driver slammed the door and raced to the front seat.
As the ambulance screamed away, Ray went into the diner to clean up. When he came out, Gino told him his guitar had been taken to the police station.
Doreen saw Connie and Ray talking outside the diner. She remembered him quite well now. Connie gestured and Ray looked toward Doreen. She glanced away and felt herself sink a bit in her seat, but a smile crossed her lips.
Connie was in a hurry to get back to her party. She told Ray he could get a ride to the police station with her friend, Dory, in the SUV. Ray had heard of Dory Blair from Charlie. Some of the guys had seen her in one of those big shows when they’d gone to Vegas with their wives. She was supposed to be quite a babe, but Ray had never seen her. He stayed out of Vegas if he could.
“Connie volunteered you to drive me over to the police station. Do you mind?” He continued to ask the question for a second with his eyes. When she opened her mouth but no words came out, he turned and walked around the Benz, opened the passenger door and leaned into the interior. “Seems like I’m the proud owner of a crime scene and a murder weapon,” he said. Emotionally exhausted from her talk with Connie and now with the shock of all this blood, Doreen continued to stare blankly.
As he often did, Ray made a gut-check decision, hopped in, and closed the door. He had borrowed a clean shirt, but the dark blotches on his jeans she knew were blood. “Quite a rig you got here. My name’s Ray.” He extended his hand and Doreen was hit with a rush of male sweat and soap from the diner restroom.
“Oh… yeah, thanks, Ray… eh, I’m Doreen.” She reached out and her long, cool fingers meeting his warm strength. His calluses scored the softness of her palm, giving him a twinge of self-consciousness and her a hint of pleasure. He would like to have held her hand for hours, but she abruptly pulled away, trying to straighten out her thoughts.
“You sure this is OK? I didn’t really want to go in a cop car.”
“Sure. No problem. Let’s go.” Slightly confused, but oddly excited, she steered through the still-buzzing truck stop and onto the highway into town.
While her eyes were busy, Ray took the opportunity to look at Doreen in a way that was usually not possible between two people just meeting. She was regal, filling the space beside him with long, fluid movements. Legs and body, arms and neck and head—some thinly veiled in white cotton, some warmly shining in the flesh, animating the cold florescence of passing lights.
“So, what happened?” she said as she settled into her lane. “Are you all right?” Ray assured her that he was fine and recited what he knew of the ballad of Mike and Carol while they drove across town to the police station.
“Is your guitar OK? Where’s the case?” Doreen asked when Ray came out of the station and maneuvered into the Mercedes with his scratched and naked guitar.
“Well, not that great, but fixable. That was Mike’s case. My case is still in my truck.” Pivoting in his seat, Ray carefully place his vintage Martin in the back seat. As he pulled the seatbelt across his exhausted body he began to sag, his chin almost to his chest. Then, with a self-conscious glance at Doreen, he snapped himself upright. “OK, let’s go over to the hospital and see how Mike is.” It surprised them both that he even cared.
“What do you think’s going to happen to Carol?” she asked, merging into the light traffic on East Main.
“Dobbs thinks she’s going to claim Mike kidnapped her or something, I don’t know. But he told me if there’s a trial, I’ll probably have to testify in San Berdo.” so I’m not supposed to go on any long vacations.” He shook his head and chuckled softly to himself.
“Where do you live?”
“Oh, over by Riverside. You know where Forest Falls is out on the far end of Baseline?”
“Sort of—I think we went to the snow there once when I was little.”
Ray looked her up and down for a second and couldn’t help but say, “You don’t look like you were ever little.” He could taste his foot in his mouth as soon as he said it.
Doreen had heard comments about her height for years—most of them far less innocent. She thought nothing of it, but a practiced look of disapproval still seeped into the corners of her mouth—enough for Ray to notice. She sensed Ray’s awareness of his faux pas and found it sweet. She smiled broadly at him and he laughed, “Yeah, well, I got a little place up there.” Then, with a sly smile he let go: “Well, now that I brought it up anyway, how tall are you?”
For some reason that tired question sounded different this time. “Six feet four and a quarter, and, no, I don’t play basketball,” she said, still smiling. It felt good to be telling him something personal.
“OK, I’m six-two, and I do play the guitar,” he said, nodding his head at the fairness of their official exchange of particulars.
At the hospital, they found out that Mike had not bled to death but had broken his neck falling from the truck. He was expected to live, but the nurse at the desk confided in them that in cases like these, paralysis was common.
They walked out of the hospital in silence, Ray thinking about his father’s bayonet (Why did I let him talk me into it?), Doreen thinking about a younger Ray (He doesn’t remember me at all.) When they got to the car, Doreen looked at the neon sign across the street and said, “Come on, let’s get a drink.”
They stood before the door of The All-Nighter for a few moments, looking at the glowing haze of grease on the window crowded with beer signs. They turned toward one another and both said, “Let’s walk.”
A side street led to the riverbed. They lifted their faces to the hint of moisture on the breeze, as cool as warm skin. Leaning against a stucco wall beside the railroad tracks, they talked. He began his stock story of buying the truck with inheritance money from his grandmother.
“Weren’t you supposed to go to business school or something?” she said, suppressing a smile.
“That’s right,” he said, a little surprised. “They were going to send me to Wharton.”
“I know, your dad wanted you to take over the family business, and when you ran off to be a trucker, he disowned you, right?” She could no longer hide that she was teasing him.
“Well, he didn’t disown me exactly, but, hey, how much has Connie filled you in on me?”
“Connie? Not a bit. But I do know you had a really good band at one time. What made you quit playing music?” She rolled onto one shoulder against the wall, turning an open smile toward him.
“Who says I quit playing? One of the reasons I started trucking was so I could play what I wanted to play. I never was much into doing top 40 crap so people could dance. I just wanted to play the guitar, you know? But hey, how do you know so much about me?” He turned his head to study her face under the shadowy street light.
“You really don’t remember me at all, do you?” Having the advantage pleased her.
“Now wait a minute, lemme see… who did you used to be?” Ray crossed his arms and, pressing his back into the wall, searching the stars for lost memories.
She saw he was drawing a blank. “You and your band played all the time at Golden Hills High about ten years ago.”
“Yeah, now…” He turned, squinty-eyed and purse-lipped, pointing a finger at her midsection. “Dory Blair’s not your real name, right?”
“Well, back that one time when we got drunk at a party together, I was Doreen O’Sullivan.”
Ray jumped and clapped his hands. “Dave! You’re Dave’s little sister!” A look of panic crossed his face. “Shit, I hope I wasn’t an asshole with you or anything. I got so wasted so many times back then. There’s a lot of nights I don’t remember. That’s another reason I got out of the business. Is it too late to apologize?”
She laughed as she realized that this quiet, apologetic man, who hadn’t hesitated to save another man’s life, was the real person beneath the long hair and leather she’d been so smitten with. He may have thought of it as top 40 crap, but Doreen remembered with pure delight dancing in the gym while Ray whipped his band and the crowd to a frenzy with his guitar. She’d been a starry-eyed groupie that one drunken night she’d tagged along with her brother to party with the band. She’d had her hopes up for something, and was disappointed when nothing happened. “Don’t worry, Ray, you were a perfect gentleman.”
Heaving a sigh of relief, Ray, too, rolled onto one shoulder against the wall to face her fully. Each held the other’s gaze and wondered which of them would speak. A low growl began that grew to a rumble, causing them both to turn and search for its source. The blast of the diesel engine’s horn echoed first off the warehouse across the street and then burst upon them, blaring just beyond the corner of the building where they stood.
After two startled leaps and comical looks of panic, they nearly fell over laughing into each other’s arms.
A salsa beat was pouring from Connie’s house when they got to the street in back of the motel. Doreen had been telling Ray about her work in Las Vegas.
“But you were a singer back in high school, weren’t you?” Ray asked at one point. “I mean, I know you were—I remember hearing you my senior year. You were just a freshman, but you could really belt out that classical stuff. You really got some pipes.”
“Well, the short version is that there’s no money in singing—especially classical.”
“So, you’re dancing just for the money?” he asked incredulously.
“It’s really good money. I’m a lead dancer and I get as much work as I want. It’s hard to say no to it.” Her words sounded as hollow as she knew them to be. She didn’t have to take off her G-string and dance with a pole, but it still felt like she was prostituting herself. And what of it if she was? She wanted to tell him what she thought of her work so he could know who she was and just not care—maybe think all the more of her for being a survivor. She wanted to tell him who she really was so she could be sure of who he really was.
Ray only knew that he wanted to see her again when he wasn’t so damn tired—maybe play a little, hear her sing, find the harmonies.
They’d driven the last few blocks in silence. Ray’s breathing had become so even and deep that Doreen thought maybe he’d fallen asleep. After their walk, remembering who she was and how much he’d liked her, enjoying just hearing the sound of her voice, his exhaustion had broken through to some kind of high. Now, parked behind the motel in front of Charlie’s room, with the music drifting across the street from Connie’s house, he looked strangely satisfied as he turned toward her and assessed her questioning face through puffy, heavily lidded eyes.
“Do you want to go around to the diner and get something to eat?” she asked him.
“I’m too tired to eat,” he said, and sighed, “And I really can’t deal with that party. He stretched his arms and pulled his shoulders back, straightening himself. “But they won’t let me sleep in ‘the crime scene’ and I forgot to get the key from Connie, so I guess I gotta go in there and get it. You going in?”
“I didn’t want to before, but I think now maybe I will.” She paused, her mind spinning with indecision. “I’ve got a key to Charlie’s room if that’s what you need,” she felt herself reflexively deploy the wide eyes, slight nod to the left, and rising shoulders of her go-to come-on look. Instant memories of roadhouse regret made her wish to take it back. She relaxed to a neutral gaze and struggled to hold it.
Ray’s insides took a spin, but he settled himself quickly. “Do you now?” He gave her the purse-lipped, arched eyes of pseudo-surprise. “I figured you’d be staying at Connie’s.”
“I am, I mean, I do, but, you know, I’ve got my own key because I, you know—use the room sometimes,” she spluttered, all semblance of cool breaking down.
She felt a blush begin and tried to scramble clear. “You know, for privacy,” she said, and let it go at that. But the blush deepened as Ray unbuckled his seat belt and leaned in, his face inches from her shoulder. Doreen smiled as the cab light showed a slight thinning of light brown hair at the top of his head. He looked up and smiled warmly.
“Well then, can I borrow that key from you, ma’am?” he crooned in his best cowboy voice. “You know—for a little privacy?”
Doreen approached the top of the pass, again at the perfect moment. But the sky would not be red this time. Unlike last night’s gaudy sunset in the western sky thick with coastal moisture and city fumes, the sun would rise in the clear, dry air to the east. Blue on blue, above a radiant rim of gold, the sky would brighten, in brilliant anticipation of the dawn.
She was happy she had gone to Connie’s party after all. She was surprised to find herself having so much easy fun dancing and chatting with the crew from the diner. Connie’s friends were good people. Every so often she thought of Ray asleep in Charlie’s room and a peaceful excitement had enveloped her. Though she joined her pregnant sister-in-law in not drinking, they still laughed as they never had before. Around 3:00 AM they scrambled eggs for everyone, and when Connie started cleaning up, Doreen used the SUV to shuttle home those too drunk and sleepy to drive.
After dropping off her last passenger, Doreen had driven back to the interstate. Where she was going and why became clearer the farther into the predawn night she drove.
Singing to herself every song that came to mind, she thought of Mr. Welty in ways she had long avoided, and she thought of her mother in ways she never had. As she sang, she forced to the surface memories of herself and Mr. Welty and of her mother and Mr. Welty together. Then she held these memories firmly until they were solid and heavy, like a stone in her chest. She took the stone from her chest and held it in her hands like a steering wheel. She imagined tossing it out the window, and her lips tightened to a determined grimace. There would be a time for crying later.
Now the sunrise filled her car with amber. The rear-view mirror played the flashing fire into her eyes like a spotlight as she reached the summit of Cajon Pass.
Ahead the sleeping valleys to the west were filled with misty purple—rivers of cool air converging on the dark, hazy basin she knew to be Los Angeles. Doreen was headed for the polluted heart of that haze.
But she would take the side roads, snug with the base of the mountains that dwarfed the beaded threads of highway, and eat breakfast on her own in Riverside.