The mortician had trimmed the chaos of hair that had once sprouted from the ears and nostrils of Colton’s grandfather, but a single black arc of eyelash still lay like an unmatched parenthesis atop one bratwurst-colored cheek. Colton licked his thumb, as if readying to turn a page, touched the eyelash, and then studied it against the meaningless swirls of his fingerprint.
“Doesn’t he look natural?” Colton’s grandmother said. She stared down at the body, squeezed a dead shoulder. “That’s how I found him, honey. Just like that, with his eyes closed. Peaceful.”
Colton brushed the eyelash against his slacks and straightened his tie.
His grandmother held her fist beside her mouth in a way that reminded Colton of Ugolino gnawing his fingers in the Ninth Circle of Dante’s Inferno. Colton was what professors called a nontraditional student: a thirty-year-old sophomore taking a couple of night classes a semester, trying to study his way out of the oil field. At his side, Colton’s five-year-old daughter, Esmeralda, rocked restlessly from foot to foot.
“Except for his hands,” his grandmother said. “He was in bed, and when I came in, his hands were twisted in the sheets.”
Colton fingered the thick fabric of the American flag that lay folded over the lower half of the coffin. “Look, baby,” he told his daughter. “You should see this.”
Tiptoed, Ezzy glanced into the casket briefly before flattening her feet and padding off toward a spray of lilies. When Colton reached under her arms to lift her, she eeled free. “Flowers,” she said.
“Where’s Megan?” Colton’s grandmother asked.
He repeated what his wife had told him—“The nurses are incredibly understaffed right now”—though he questioned the legality of her recent work schedule. Sometimes she labored through back-to-back shifts with only a quick nap and cup of coffee in between. “She wanted to come,” he said.
“Bless her heart, I know she did. You give her our love.” His grandmother’s hair, a deep black in Colton’s youth, was now gray, her face tracked with crow’s-feet. “Just think,” she said, sniffling, “he can breathe now. I bet he’s walking with Jesus right now and he doesn’t feel any shortness of breath at all.” She said they’d meet again, and Colton could hear in her voice the cracked cadence of the hypnotist; but she could not chant herself out of the present world.
What, went one of the questions on a recent sophomore lit exam, must one abandon when entering hell?
“If he only knew,” his grandmother said, kneeling before the coffin. “If he only knew the emptiness I’d feel after he left. Why couldn’t he just breathe? How could he possibly forget to breathe?”
Moments before visitation ended, a cousin approached Colton. His other grandfather had died two months earlier. “Same shit,” he said. He laughed in a way which indicated that nothing in the world was truly funny. “Fuckin’ déjà vu.”
Steps away, Ezzy buried her nose in a lily blossom.
“Two greatest people in my life,” Colton’s cousin said. He stared at Ezzy for a moment and then, reaching over to adjust the blue bow in her hair, said, “Let the decomposition begin.”
At the service, the preacher mouthed commonplaces about heaven, about glory, God’s glory, glor-y glor-y hal-le-lu-jah. He spoke the Lord’s Prayer, first in German, then in English, and during the latter Colton was surprised to see his daughter mumbling along through a mouthful of the chocolate with which Colton had tried to bribe her into obedience. He wished Megan were there, if only to help calm Ezzy while the preacher waxed on his grandfather’s kindness, his devotion to the church, and his speaking voice; the way he willingly handed out bulletins, slopped food to the masses at potlucks, read scripture from the podium.
But the grandfather Colton remembered existed primarily outside of buildings, outside of cities, in stretches of roads yet unnamed or whose names had been forgotten. When Colton would ask where they were going, his grandfather usually responded, “Wherever we get.” Then the last time—what was it, a year ago? two?—he’d said, “I’d like to keep driving until I run into someone who doesn’t know what a cell phone is. But I don’t think that man exists.” They’d coasted through the snaking roads of Central Texas, and, staring up at a new housing development on the outskirts of Fredericksburg, his grandfather had said, “You tell me, Colt: Do they have to put a goddamn mansion on every hill in Texas?”
At the graveside, Ezzy refused to sit with the rest of the family. She hardly knew his side: to be with Megan—to be with Megan’s parents—they’d moved to a West Texas oil town, and they rarely made it back to Fredericksburg. Right before Colton grabbed the silver handle to lift his grandfather’s casketed body, his cousins and uncles beside him, Ezzy tugged at his sleeve. “Daddy,” she said, her tongue flickering in the gap between her front teeth, “what’s recomposition?”
His cousin shrugged across the casket. “Ready?” he said.
“I don’t know, baby.” Colton stared down at his shoes, the lacquered-looking toes full of sunshine. They were the shoes he’d worn in his wedding. “I don’t know if that exists,” he said.
Three hours into the drive home—traveling along a road on which no shacks, much less mansions, existed—Colton, to his delight, lost cell phone service. The landscape was bone-dry, barren: what little rain usually fell in West Texas had not fallen this summer. Everything on the horizon was within two shades of dust.
Farther down the road, antlers rose from the rain-starved dirt, a bouquet of bones not unlike the surrounding mesquite trees. Only when he’d slowed the truck to a stop, as the buzzards reluctantly flapped away, did Colton see the rest of the mule deer, its hulking body laid out majestically, as if posing for God. He shifted into park.
Colton caught himself, as he did often, gazing at his daughter and thinking that nothing seemed more unlikely than a broken condom leading to beauty of this magnitude. He thought of having another child. Megan had recently gotten off the pill, claiming that breast cancer had risen exponentially since its use became widespread. This mattered little in view of how seldom they had sex. Cancer-free and fertile, she’d lost a cup size, but also a size in the waist, and now, in the mornings when she reached for the tub of protein powder above the fridge, her hip bones shone sharp between her shirt and pajama bottoms. Maybe having another child would be just the thing; it might focus their relationship. They could quit fighting about his work schedule, or her work schedule, or the sloppy way he knotted his tie before church.
Colton squeezed lightly on his daughter’s knee to wake her. She rubbed a fist into her eyes, looked at the white smear of mucus on one knuckle, and then, furtively, licked it clean. She was thirsty, she said, really thirsty, so thirsty that it made her tongue feel funny. “Like a popped balloon,” she said, “but with less spit inside.” Ezzy’s lips were thick, like her mother’s, and candy-bar chocolate winged out from both corners of her mouth.
“If you were really thirsty,” he said, “you’d have gotten a drink of water when I asked you, back at Great Grandpa’s funeral.”
“I wasn’t really thirsty then.”
Colton lifted her out of the car seat. The ground was soft, step-absorbing—he’d expected sun-baked dirt, not sand. He threw his tie over one shoulder.
Squinting into the sun, Ezzy said, “What are we doing?”
“Looking.” He knelt over the buck, the antlers of which had seven good points and one badly splintered. “Don’t you wanna see this, baby? Don’t you love animals?”
“I like the live ones better,” she said, but she shuffled closer. A shadow darkened her body for an instant and passed. Colton studied the sky. Intellectually, he knew the buzzards circling overhead craved the buck, not his daughter; but his stomach wasn’t so sure.
Memories of his grandfather rattled in Colton’s mind as through a wire sieve. He felt images slip from narratives, dialogue divorce from settings. When the details disappeared, when the contradictions ceased, when his grandfather became simply, as the preacher put it, “a good man,” the specificity of lived life lost to a general idea, his death would be final, truly and without hope of resurrection. Colton dabbed his forehead with his tie. Out of a sense of preservation, he tried to remember mistakes his grandfather had made, day-to-day imperfections the preacher had failed to mention. He’d once thrown Colton into a creek, instructing him to catch that perch, laughing as he floundered, terrified, slapping at water, little older than Ezzy was now. But the more vivid remembrance was of his grandfather’s hands, knuckles like walnuts, squeezing Colton about the ribs, lifting him from the creek, the blurry glow of sunshine through matted lashes.
What token could he give Ezzy, what remembrance? The faces in old pictures would quickly become as impersonal as those of models in a store-bought frame.
He had Ezzy fetch a bow saw from the toolbox in the bed of his truck.
“Why’s the deer dead?” she said, handing the saw down to Colton.
“Probably a car hit it. There are no cops out here, so sometimes idiots drive too fast.”
“Why aren’t there cops?”
“Because we’re in the middle of nowhere, baby.” He took up a switch of mesquite and slid it into the open mouth of a beer bottle. “This,” he said, “is civilization.” He waved vaguely toward the horizon. “And that’s wilderness. Take a good look—it may not exist by the time you’re grown.”
Ezzy’s tongue swirled the chocolate in the corners of her mouth. “Is wilderness always this brown?”
“Not always,” he said, “but in West Texas, it’s generally pretty close.” He set the teeth of the bow saw close against the deer’s skull and began the slow process of freeing the antlers, the blades sighing. “Wilderness is what God made, as opposed to what we make.” Pink flesh pocked the buck’s flank where vultures had plucked up fur. The point of Colton’s tie brushed the deer’s glazed eyeball.
“Is that wilderness?” she said, aiming a finger at a far-off plateau: the turbines of windmills, glaringly white in the sinking sun, cartwheeled through the open air like tri-limbed children. Closer, some hundred yards away, a pumpjack mechanically dipped and rose.
“No,” he said. “That’s money.” For several minutes, he sawed without speaking, until the lower contour of the sun rested on the flat horizon. He half expected it to roll away. The antlers were nearly off now, but his triceps felt like a stretched rubber band. “Give those horns a pull, baby, and see if they’ll come loose.”
“I don’t wanna touch it—it’s dead.”
Pulling over had been a mistake, a bit of latent romanticism made manifest by his grandfather’s death. He’d never get his daughter home in time for bed. “You know her entire next day is ruined,” Megan told him on a daily basis, “if she doesn’t go down before nine.”
But his grandfather had been an inveterate roadside stopper. They’d stopped for sun-kilned bones, wind-bent flowers, coyotes crossing fences. Once, his grandfather had slid a tire-iron through a coiled snake and flung it over his shoulder, onto the highway. He’d then proceeded to flatten the rattler’s head against the macadam. The remains he’d thrown into the back of the pickup, and each time they’d stopped on the way home, Colton had heard the body slide forward, streaking the truck bed with blood. His grandfather had shifted gears without comment, his eyes hidden behind black wraparound sunglasses. Skinning the snake had been like peeling off a sweaty shirt, and the naked product, pale-bodied and headless, had continued to writhe and flip intermittently for hours after its death, waiting precisely long enough between movements to give the false impression that each stillness was final. “Just nerves,” his grandfather had said, and they’d salted the skin and laid it flat along the top of the cinderblock fence to dry.
Colton pressed into the saw one last time, and the antlers fell free. The buck now seemed meager, a sad thing. To enter hell, a buck would have to abandon his antlers.
When you start contemplating the afterlives of roadkill, he thought, you’re losing it. He loosened the knot of his tie.
Sand plumed from the back tires when Colton footed the pedal. He released the gas, hesitated a moment, punched it again: no dice.
“I’m still thirsty,” Ezzy said.
Sick of waiting, one arrogant buzzard feasted on the deer carcass in plain view of the pickup. Ezzy unsnapped her harness and followed Colton, climbing onto the hood of the truck to hold his hand while he tried to put a call through to roadside assistance, tried to pray. No service, no answer. He deflated the tires, lined their paths with two-by-fours. The ruts were too deep: he couldn’t get out.
“I’m still thirsty,” Ezzy said. “Did you hear me?”
“Goddammit,” Colton said. Ezzy inhaled, and he could see her ribs through her dress. He wished she wouldn’t breathe so deeply. “Swallow your spit.”
“It’s all gone.” She flopped out her dry tongue. “I used it on my lips. They were fixin’ to bleed.”
“Listen, baby,” he said, “if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you in on a secret.”
“Is it about Mama?”
Colton scanned the fields for a sign of life, a shack with a rancher kind enough to drive them into town. “It has nothing to do with Mama.”
“Is it about Hank?”
“Who the hell’s Hank?”
Humming, she shook her head and held a hand over her mouth.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “who is Hank?”
“I thought maybe you had the same secret I have.”
Daycare, he thought. Stranger, uncle, babysitter, teacher, preacher. “Why is he a secret?” he said.
“Ew.” A crinkled ribbon of deer intestine swung pendulously from the buzzard’s beak.
Colton threw a two-by-four end-over-end at the bird, which flapped into the air a moment and settled on the body again. “I need you to tell me who Hank is, okay, baby?”
“Mom just talks to him sometimes. Like, one night, while you were at school, he made dinner.”
“You don’t talk to him?”
“Not really,” she said. “I just said ‘Thank you.’ Now you tell your secret.”
“Oh.” He sighed. “Our family has special powers.”
“Did Great Grandpa have it?”
“More of it than anyone else, next to you.”
“Then how come he died?”
The roads were clear as far as he could see in both directions. The sun was all but gone.
“What if everybody’s dying and going to heaven and then it’s just me left here all alone?”
I suppose, he thought, that you keep walking as though you have legs, speaking as though the world weren’t deaf. You show your daughter a car-killed buck, and you remove what’s beautiful from him, and when you return to the truck you realize you’ve parked in sand. Because wilderness is a word to you, not a lifestyle. You’re an asshole stranded on a farm-to-market road, sitting on a pocketful of black-and-white pictures, your grandfather’s dog tags cold against your chest.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said.
With her toe, she traced a sloppy E in the sand. “What’s the secret power?” she said.
But Colton was thinking of tires and sand and Megan, and his secret no longer seemed to matter.
They trekked the shoulderless, empty road forty minutes, an hour, he didn’t know. Clouds of dust rose from his steps, puffs from hers. Sweat ran down the wings of his nose, collecting on his upper lip. Licking away the salt and sand left his tongue desiccated as belt leather. Around the time Colton’s vehicle became mirage-blurry behind them, a sleek new Tundra sped by doing what must have been a hundred miles an hour. Colton waved maniacally; the truck passed without slowing.
Ezzy was so thirsty.
And Colton thought of the secret he’d created and neglected to dispense. “You know what a spring is?” he said.
“Exactly like water,” he said. “We have little springs inside of us, but the only way to get at them is through our cheeks. Just suck your face in, like this.” He vacuumed his cheeks into two hollows. “Like a fish,” he said. “Try it.” Her lips protruded. Saliva had not saved them from cracking: sand and blood had replaced their chocolate covering. “That’s it,” he said. “Now softly—remember, softly—bite down. Not like it’s food.”
“Like it’s gum.”
“Even softer. Like you’re massaging your cheeks. That’s it. Now wait a few minutes, don’t say anything, and your mouth will fill with water so pure you won’t be thirsty again for a long time. Okay?”
She nodded, her cheeks sunken.
Even if it took all night, someone would stop. Or they’d reach a town. And Megan would be furious. Colton and Ezzy were always late: when he took her to a hotel pool, dandling her in the shallow end, floaties on both of her arms; when a snow cone led to a movie, which led to half-priced appetizers at Applebee’s; when they went to the pond, small and growing smaller, on the edge of town, where Ezzy would stand on a hill throwing hunks of bread until she was surrounded by ducks, a god raining manna on the web-footed masses. The times they spent together, time didn’t exist.
Who was Megan to be angry? Who the hell was Hank to cook Ezzy dinner?
“The water’s good,” Ezzy said. Her face had pinkened, but the sun was setting: the burn wouldn’t be too severe. “It tastes like melted ice.”
Colton bit his cheeks and tried not to think.
The dark was not as frightening as the quiet, which seemed less a lack of noise than a property in its own right, tangible and terrifying. The background silence limned sounds so small they would never be noticed in a city. Colton heard his wedding shoes—which had assumed the color of dust—scraping along the gravel-strewn dirt. When the wind blew, mesquite limbs scratched against barbed wire. Once, Colton swore he heard a train.
Far off, little tongues of fire rose from a refinery chimney.
Colton longed to see a billboard. He recited an advertising slogan. He tried to remember how long it took to die of thirst.
Ezzy had crawled onto his back and fallen asleep something like a mile ago. He prayed that she sleep until they found salvation, whatever form it took—headlights, hovel, or convenience store. The knot of Ezzy’s hands, just below his throat, gradually uncoiled until he was supporting her entire weight, his hands pressed to the small of her back. A comforting little string of saliva dripped from her mouth down his nape. They passed a sign for a creek, but after Colton had, in stupid excitement, awoken Ezzy, he saw that the creek was little more than a wheel-rutted ditch behind three tiers of barbed wire.
“I’m sorry, baby,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”
“I wasn’t sleeping,” she said. “I can’t sleep without brushing my teeth.” She slid down his back and came up beside him. “Or my smile will turn black.” As they walked, Ezzy bent periodically to the ground—to study insect life, Colton initially thought. After a while she said, “Civilization’s sticky.” She displayed her palm, upon which rested a dryer sheet smeared pink with gum and topped with a small mound of cigarette stubs.
Colton resisted the urge to scold her. They both needed her idealism. He watched her gathering shredded trash every few steps, piling it against her new funeral dress when the refuse overflowed her hands.
Then the wind gusted, snapping mesquite branches, spraying Colton’s ankles with gravel. In the near distance, a dust devil too dense to see through twisted toward them.
Reluctant to throw the trash back onto the ground—“I want the wilderness here when I’m older,” she said—Ezzy stuffed the small pieces into her father’s pockets and balled the remainder in her fists. Colton took off his button-up and wrapped it around the child’s head, carrying her, and he could see two small wet spots where her eyes were, could hear her sobbing through the fabric. The more substantial bits of garbage were pressed between their bodies, a barrier composed of candy wrappers, a pill bottle, and a large strip of tire rubber.
Sand ground into his skin, blinded his eyes, but he kept walking, tapping one foot in front of the other to feel for danger, a blister bubbling on his heel. What would he do if, just once, he toe-tapped a snake? He’d die. He’d run himself to death with Ezzy on his back, and he’d collapse when the poison had pulsed up his calf and into his heart. Simple as that. The terrible thing to consider was what his daughter would do. Here, in the wild, eternity barren in all directions.
But his toe tapped only what he soon came to recognize as more strips of rubber, then smaller, thinner threads of tire, and the wind settled as quickly as it had stirred. He tried not to rub at his eyes, hoping for tears to clear his vision. He stood blinking for several moments, and when he thought he saw the black Toyota Tundra on the side of the road, he kept blinking.
The front passenger-side tire was shredded. The driver, Colton thought, might have already been rescued. He tried to remember what he’d seen on television about hot-wiring vehicles. Then, through tinted windows, Colton made out a man’s silhouette. He slid back into his shirt and knocked lightly on the roof.
“Jesus,” the man said. He rolled his window down a half inch. “Who the hell are you?”
Through the small opening, Colton could see the man’s left hand between his thighs, toying with an unused jack, a lug wrench at his feet. His right arm hung in a dark blue sling over his belly.
“You have a spare?” Colton asked.
“What are you, some kind of hermit? You can’t really live out here.”
“My pickup’s a couple of miles back, in the sand. I walked.”
“You look like hell,” he said. “That devil pass?” Colton told him that it had, and the man rolled down the window another inch to reveal a thin layer of butter-colored hair spread over his balding head. “You give me a hand with this thing?” The man lowered the window completely and passed the jack, then the lug wrench, out to Colton. “Wing-shot, it’ll take me all day to get the tire off, and this idiotic navigation system tells me roadside assistance won’t get here for another forty min—” He stopped, noticing Ezzy where she stood half-sheltered by Colton’s right thigh. “You didn’t have that girl walk all this way.”
“I didn’t have a choice.”
“Jesus,” he said. “This country. It’s like going back to the frontier.” He opened the door. “She looks like a daughter of the plains.” He took a gallon-sized bottle of water from the passenger seat. “I’ve only drank a sip,” he said.
Ezzy looked to her father for approval.
“Go on,” the man said, “I don’t have cooties.”
Colton nodded. Ezzy carefully set the refuse she’d been carrying on the ground, and, holding the bottle with both hands, she drank and drank and drank.
“West Texas,” the man said. “If I could meet me at twenty-seven, I’d hit myself in the teeth for even thinking about buying property here.” Colton had replaced the tire, and the man was driving now, his left hand resting carelessly on the wheel. “Except for the money.”
“Oil and gas?” Colton said.
“I didn’t see any work trucks out.”
“My patch, what I just seen to, hasn’t heard of fracking yet,” he said.
“But it will.”
“They say it’ll save us.”
“Won’t anything save us,” he said, “but it’ll goddamn help.” He nodded to Ezzy in the rearview mirror. “Sorry, sweetie.”
“Anything that gets us off foreign oil.”
The man chuckled. “You act like this is America out here,” he said. “Like it isn’t foreign oil already. Tell that to a Yankee. Hell, tell that to me four months out of the year.”
“What about you?” he said. “I see from your hands what part of the industry you’re in, even if you got a tie on.”
Colton was thinking of Hank and Megan, who might be Cerberus, not Beatrice. “I’m going back to school.”
“Wonderful,” the man said. “Night classes?”
“They pay for that, the fellas you work for?”
“They’d fire me if they knew what I was doing.”
“That’s no kind of way to guard an investment.”
“I go to school,” Ezzy said from the back seat.
“I bet you do, honey.”
They passed a county line sign. After a few moments, the man leaned across the center console. “Listen, man: You look pretty hard up. And I like to help people when I can.”
“I can pay you for the ride.”
“Nonsense.” He thumbed the tip of his nose several times. “You could use some money— is that right? Get your pickup out of the sand? Maybe buy you another class at the community college?”
“I’ve got a credit card.”
“Be easier not to use it, though.”
“And maybe things aren’t so great around the house either. Even in Texas, this economy’s rough.”
Colton had a hard time reconciling the hours he’d just spent in the sun with the idea that money was the primary medium of value. Pay slips, bank balances, credit card statements: they were all abstractions next to soil and sun, water and wind. He watched the horizon, waiting to see city lights.
“I’ll shoot you straight,” the man said. “I’ve got eight hundred-dollar bills in that glove box. Go on, take a look.”
“I believe you.”
“I’d believe me too. I’m telling God’s own truth. But look anyway.”
He absently opened the glove box, wondering what he’d tell Megan when his cell service returned. If this were a job offer—maybe something lucrative, maybe off the rigs—she might not even bitch. She might even smile. “Under the registration papers,” the man said. Colton’s fingers found a small roll of bills wrapped in a thin rubber band.
“Go on, count it.”
When Colton tried to remove the cash, the rubber band snapped, and the bills blossomed in his hand. He fingered the money. “Nine,” he said. “Not eight.”
They passed a cemetery and a feed store.
“I’ve got a garage just the other side of town,” the man said. They were idling at a stop sign. “Real nice spot—got an air conditioner in it and everything.”
Air-conditioning. Thank God for air-conditioning. Colton leaned into the truck’s artificial breeze. Five blocks off, he saw a neon-lit gas station; under a canopy, a woman—her figure small in the distance—stood filling up her car. Colton admired the elegance of all that gasoline pumped through a simple tube into an ancient Oldsmobile. When she got into the car, she’d turn the key, and the engine would roar to life. For a moment, Colton was proud of his role as a cog in the oil-extracting machine.
“Now,” the man said, “you let me take her there for half an hour—half an hour, that’s it—and those nine bills are yours.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Tax-free.
“And I’m not talking about hurting her in any way. I’m talking about looking at her. Because I haven’t had kids of my own. Lifetime bachelor, you know. Looking at her for twenty, thirty minutes. You don’t even have to wake her up.”
They sat idling at a stop sign in front of the First United Methodist Church, two blocks from the gas station. In the rearview mirror, Colton saw the little blue bow loosely clipped to Ezzy’s tangled hair. She was sleeping peacefully, the bottle of water leaning against her stomach.
He smelled the rubber on his hands. Vomit fingered his throat. He coughed, and the man placed a hand on his left shoulder.
“You alright, buddy?” he said. He eased the truck out into the intersection. “You gotta lay off those cigarettes.”
Colton sat silently a moment while he regained his breath.
“What do you think?”
Hope, Colton remembered: that was what you abandoned at the gates of hell. Hope, though, was no abstraction. It was immediate and physical, his daughter in the back seat snoring. Hell was earth, not ether. “The cigarettes,” he said. “You’re right. You’re right. I need to lay off, but I can’t think without them. I’ve been walking all this time without a fuckin’ cigarette.”
“You don’t have to talk that way in front of the girl.”
“I can’t breathe, I can’t think. I can’t even listen.” He coughed into his sleeve. “Could we stop at that gas station?”
“I don’t wanna do it to you,” the man said, but he was braking. “I feel like I’d be enabling.”
“Listen,” Colton said, “let me get a cigarette, and we’ll figure this thing out. Nine hundred dollars is a lot of money.” He wanted to shed his skin. Because imitation is a kind of becoming. Lie long enough and that is truth. Colton missed his wife.
“Take care of that truck problem and leave you with some change,” the man said. “For nothing. What’s basically nothing.” When Colton didn’t say anything, the man went on, “It’s natural. For me, for her. For you. What’s it called, the Oedipus thing. Freud. Kinsey. It’s all there, in the classroom. You know this stuff—you go to college.”
“Before him, what was psychology? No more a science than palm-reading.”
“Science,” Colton said. “Jesus. How about addiction? You see this shit?” He showed the man his trembling hands. He set the cash in a cup holder.
“It’ll get better,” he said. “Keep at it. I had the nicotine bug, too, but look at me. I broke it. Six years ago. Peppermints, that’s it.”
“I’ll try that tomorrow,” Colton said. “But pull the hell over before I seize up.”
The man put his blinker on. “Hey,” he said, parking at the gas station. “Take the money.”
“I have a twenty.”
“Take it,” the man said. “You might see something else you need.”
Colton picked up the money and smoothed the curled bills. As he lifted his daughter out of the back seat, he heard the man tell him to let Ezzy sleep. “Well, for God’s sakes,” the man said. “Try to hurry.”
They hurried inside. Groggy, Ezzy squinted into the artificial light. Colton called to tell his wife they’d be home soon. He hung up before she could respond.
He took Ezzy into the single bathroom, and he laved their faces in sink water and pink sludge from the soap dispenser, the image of his daughter before him blurry but beautiful. Then he sat on the piss-stained toilet, studying the swirls of her hair against his fingertips. He kissed her twice and told her to stay inside, with the door locked, until he came back. He left her crying with her forehead pressed to the condom dispenser.
He walked past the Advil and tweezers and bunion pads, Dramamine and antacids. He asked the cashier for a pack of cigarettes.
“Buy two packs, save a buck.”
“I need a tow,” Colton said.
The cashier had a brother-in-law with an F-350 that could pull a tank out of quicksand. He made the call. The truck would be there in fifteen minutes. “Anything else?”
Colton watched his hands shake. “A lighter.” He stared out the storefront glass. Just nerves, he told himself.
“This one here’s shaped like a shotgun. Makes a little noise when you strike it. Tch-cht. Like you’re cocking the thing.”
Outside, Colton lit a cigarette beneath the awning. He felt the tension behind his eyes liquefy. The parking lot was empty, save for the Tundra. He walked over an oil puddle, lifted the X-shaped lug wrench from the bed of the truck, and got in on the passenger side with it pressed to his right thigh.
“Where’s your daughter?” The man took his broken arm by the wrist and moved it in its sling so his elbow jutted at the bottom and his hand rested over his heart. “You can’t leave her in there alone.”
“Don’t worry about my daughter.”
“I am worried about her,” the man said. “And put out that goddamn cigarette.” The truck was steadily filling with smoke. “What’s the matter with you?” He reached for the door handle.
“Don’t open that door,” Colton said. “She’ll be fine,” he said aloud, and then repeated the phrase twice in his mind.
Recognition crossed the man’s face as he took in the metal rod protruding from the lug wrench. “Hey, just who do you think you are? I did you a favor.”
“I appreciate it,” Colton said.
“You took that money.”
He took the nine bills out of his pocket. They were meaningless as words in a foreign script.
“You know, a policeman comes here, this looks like robbery outright.”
“Take the money.” Colton set the bills on the center console.
“Son,” the man said, “you been in the heat too damn long.”
“But the moon’s out now.” Colton balanced the lug wrench on one leg. “And the breeze is cool.”
The man reached behind him and, taking the shoulder strap in one hand, lowered his casted arm its sling. Then he skinned free the sling and wiggled his fingers through the end of the cast. “Do you know who I am?” the man said. He said it softly, as though unsure of his audience.
“We can figure it out together,” Colton said.
“This the kind of example you wanna set for your daughter?”
Colton glanced through the smoke at the plate-glass storefront to see Ezzy walking the aisle closest to the door, her head just visible over stacked cases of bottled water. He’d expected too much. She rounded a corner and peered down the middle aisle. She was searching for her father.
Something cracked between Colton’s eyes. His cigarette and the lug wrench fell, the former chasing the latter to the floorboard. Colton’s spine went limp. Each time the cast hit the back of Colton’s head the man cried, as though feeling the pain he inflicted. A hand gripped at Colton’s face. Two fingers entered his mouth and lodged in one cheek and yanked. The cheek was about to tear loose from his gums. Then, his head pressed to the console, money against his mouth, Colton swung the lug wrench clanging across the floorboard into the man’s right shin. The hand released Colton. He sat up and, holding the man by his shirt, tried to break his nose. His knuckles scraped teeth, and blood dripped warm down the back of his wrist. He tried to rip an ear from the man’s head; it stretched like cold taffy. Then Colton reached across to open the door and the man fell from the truck.
He crawled over the console, gripping the lug wrench. He got out of the truck. He stood pivoting one heel in the man’s good hand. He heard the jingling of bells. His cheeks ached.
Supine in the parking lot, the man said, “You call yourself a father?”
Colton kicked his jaw, stumbled. He tapped one rod of the lug wrench lightly against the man’s forehead.
“Fucking Texas,” the man said. “Everyone wants to kill each other. I thought you were different.”
“I’m not,” Colton said. He felt watched, and he told himself not to look up.
The man reached with his left hand for the lower doorjamb of the pickup, but before he could lift himself into the cab, Colton swung the lug wrench, crushing the man’s hand. Then he heard, simultaneously, the wrench ricocheting against knuckles and truck metal, and the word Daddy in his daughter’s voice, spoken as a question. She stood holding on to the truck’s grill guard, sucking her cheeks. The man screamed. His hand looked like a dark gray mitt.
Colton lifted him, hands under armpits, into the cab.
“You’re trash,” the man cried. “You’ll die on the rigs. You’ll die.”
Colton said, “Don’t you dare look back.”
When the truck was gone, he waited for his daughter to embrace him. But she leaned against the storefront weeping, her handprints smeared across the glass, and suddenly Colton couldn’t breathe.
Colton explained nothing. Car trouble, he said. Bad, but they’d made it. “Here we are,” he said. To his surprise, Megan accepted this, and she kissed him—open-mouthed, stone-tongued—with something like passion.
He had fed an uncontrollably crying Ezzy two Benadryl on the ride home, and she now lay limp as a wet flag on his shoulder. Megan removed the bow from her hair. “It’s not even blue anymore,” she said, and dropped the tattered mess into the garbage. “How’s your grandmother?”
“In hell,” he said. “How was your day?”
“As good as work can be.”
“No extra shift?”
“Not tonight, thank God.”
Megan leaned into Colton’s chest, then, surprised, pulled back. “You smell like an ashtray.”
“I feel like the ash,” he said. “It’s been a long day.”
Details would surface in the morning. Ezzy would spill everything. There’d be a fight. But tonight, his daughter was in his arms. Knees buckling, his ruined shoes constricting the blood flow to his feet, Colton climbed the stairs, which seemed eternal, ascension without end. He climbed on because stopping no longer seemed like an option. Upstairs, he helped Ezzy brush her teeth, marveling at how quickly they became white again, as if their chocolate- and sand-soiled past did not exist. She was asleep on her feet. She said something about heaven, and then refused to let him carry her. Halfway down the hall, she sat on the carpet, and leaned into the wall, and closed her eyes. Then he hauled her off to bed.
Megan tucked Ezzy’s stuffed tiger into the sheets. She asked Colton to pray, but his idea of God was not stable enough to address directly. With a bit of backup from his wife, he made it through the Lord’s Prayer.
Outside the room, Megan kissed his dust-caked lips. “It’s been too long,” she said. “It’ll make you feel better. Forget about things.” She examined the tooth-mark on his right middle knuckle. “Get cleaned up.”
They hadn’t had sex in weeks; they hadn’t made love in recent memory. Work kept her tired, and by the end of the day, the only thing she wanted to do was curl into a splash of lamplight and flip through a magazine. Which was fine. It was all fine, he told himself.
In the shower, filth streaked Colton’s body, sand sliding in a grainy stream over the dog tags, the debris propelled to the drain, where it clotted in a skein of hair. He stood ankle-deep in muck, and when he got out of the shower, he washed one then the other foot beneath the faucet. He wrapped a towel around his waist and bent, pain shooting up his calves, to retrieve wallet and phone and keys from his slacks. His pockets were stuffed with cigarette stubs and lollipop wrappers, his daughter’s efforts to save the wilderness, which he emptied into the wastebasket.
Colton went downstairs, into the kitchen, to search without success for his cocktail shaker. He mixed a Tanqueray martini in Megan’s protein-shake bottle. Holding a fork over its mouth, he strained the liquid into a coffee-stained mug. A shade of residue lifted, dispersed, colored the drink a turbid hazel. Megan appeared suddenly. She took a sip and, politely, shielding her mouth with both hands, spat into the sink.
“That’s why I stopped drinking.” This, of course, was a lie: Megan was trying to live forever, or, barring that, at least a couple of centuries. Online articles had informed her of the dangers of soda, sunscreen, alcohol, corn syrup, pasteurized milk, vaccinations, and, most recently, the birth control pills.
“But you love gin.”
“It tastes like toilet-bowl cleaner,” she said. “How do you drink it?” She kissed him long and wet on his neck. “I’ll be upstairs,” she said, “waiting.”
The air outside smelled like rain, which meant nothing. Scent didn’t send buds shooting forth, didn’t inspire the grass to grow, didn’t make the barren magically fertile. He brought the antlers in from his truck. At the kitchen table he thumbed over the points. The buck would be picked clean by now, bones to dry in the sun. Colton tapped the bottom of his mug so that the last drop fell to his tongue.
Colton sat on his daughter’s bedroom floor, observing her and, with a moistened rag, polishing his wedding shoes. A thin strand of brown hair had fallen down Ezzy’s face, and with every exhalation it fluttered above her nose and fell again. A rose-shaped nightlight reflected in the plastic eyes of her stuffed tiger. The animal sleeping beside his daughter—cotton-gutted, blind, with sewn-on stripes, its unbreathing throat constricted by Ezzy’s half-closed elbow—frightened Colton.
Beneath his right Achilles tendon, a small, fluid-filled blister projected. He poked it with the hardened tip of a shoelace. The juice dribbled down his heel. He leaned over Ezzy’s half-curled frame, and, with horror, he noticed the twisted sheets above her hand. He smoothed the fabric over his sleeping daughter, as if ironing the wrinkled texture of eternity.
In a moment, he would pick up his wedding shoes, his funeral shoes, pinching them together between thumb and forefinger. He would walk toward the bedroom by the yellow light slatting through the doorjamb. Neck and wrists perfumed, his wife would be lying nude beneath a silk comforter. And as he crawled into bed, carelessly dropping his shoes to the floor, lacing his body to hers, he would feel the beaded chain around his neck, the heft of a name. Then he would hear his daughter’s voice: Daddy? And he would think, as his wife whispered into his ear, of how he’d spend the rest of his life answering that question.
W. Ross Feeler is the current writer-in-residence at the Clark House in Smithville, Texas.
Listen to W. Ross Feeler and Elvis Bego read and discuss “Spindrift” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.