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Oct/Nov 2012 Spotlight

Heralds of a Fallen World

by PD Mallamo


1

Spokane, Pullman, Lewiston, then south on 95 to Grangeville and narrow, deserted Idaho 14, which he hopes will take him smoothly across the Bitterroot Range. Then, if he's lucky, 93 to Blackfoot by noon. But foul weather and poor road have slowed him, and by Elk City he knows he's blown it.

Now rain crashes against the windshield. He flips the wipers to high and slows enough to make out the pavement. He sees a woman running on the road ahead. When he reaches her, he sees another further on. They look like they're running as fast as they can. Since he's come up behind them and has passed nothing chasing, he assumes they are moving toward, rather than from. Beyond the second woman he sees two figures, dark shapes laboring against the heavy gray weather.

He accelerates and in 20 seconds finds himself behind a man pursuing a woman. The man is tall and carries what appears to be a large piece of firewood; in a moment he raises and heaves it, striking her neck just below the skull. She falls and the man is upon her, kicking her head and her back. When he stoops to pick up the log the driver nudges the car forward and bumps him away like he's cutting a calf from a herd. The man turns, and he sees his face, water streaming from long dark hair and long black beard, his mouth forming an O as if coming up for air. The man lifts the wood again and with both hands hurls it at the windshield, cracking it right down the middle. The driver touches the gas and the man goes down. Another little tap and he's all the way under the car.

 

2

By now the two behind have caught up. The injured woman sits on the road, holding her neck, bleeding through her fingers. One of the women goes to her, pulls her trembling hand away and examines the wound. The other drops to her knees and hands and peers beneath his car.

He's not moving, she yells over the storm. Back up.

He slowly reverses direction. When he's gone ten feet he steps out and looks at the man, who lies on his back with arms stretched past his head. His face has been torn entirely away. A thick tributary of blood mixes with rainwater flowing off the shoulder of the road.

Anna! the woman shouts. Hurry!

The two yank the man by the legs and drag him 30 feet up the road to where a torrent spills through a culvert and throw him in. The body tumbles over and over, arms akimbo and legs aloft as the flood carries it rapidly downstream, around smooth boulders and into deep woods.

The first woman races back to the car and reaches beneath it. In a moment she pulls from the undercarriage what's left of the man's face. She runs to the surge and flings it in. Then she bends to the flow and washes her hands.

She walks slowly back through the downpour, rubbing her palms on her saturated skirt.

Who was he? he asks.

James Livermore, she says. Our husband.

 

3

The two help up their injured sister and stand starkly before him, like heralds of a fallen world. The one with whom he has spoken looks to be about thirty-seven. She wears a long pioneer dress and her hair is braided and golden; the others, in their mid-20s, wear halter tops, hotpants and black fishnet stockings that are broken at the bottom and gathered about their ankles. Their hair is cut short and colored black; makeup drools over their eyes and cheeks. All are barefoot. They are attractive women with the saddest faces he has ever seen. Thank you, the older woman says. He would have killed her. He's better off dead anyway. You've done the Lord's work. Go home.

The three link arms and walk past his car, toward whatever place they'd left in such a hurry. There is no trace whatsoever of the affair: blood, body, and face all now wholly absorbed into the pouring wilderness.

He walks to the culvert and considers for a moment the furious waters. He starts the car and u-turns in their direction. Get in, he says when he reaches them. Where do you live?

 

4

It is an awful, rambling shack pounded together by a madman. There are hexsigns and warnings both affixed and freestanding, and haystacks of firewood scattered randomly. Six vehicles stand elevated on bricks and stumps. Oil-slicked rainwater trickles downhill from the open door of a shed. Inside he sees a white van with sections of blue and red obviously scavenged from similar vehicles. He looks for an entrance to the house, something to pull up before, but sees nothing.

The door's in the back, the older woman says. That's so he has time to shoot before you get in the house.

He shakes his head. What are you doing out here?

The blonde sighs and folds her hands in her lap and doesn't speak for a long moment. It started as a church, she says. It became a poodle service. Then a sex club. He sold drugs. He went crazy. I believe this is the end.

 

5

They walk around the structure, and she opens the only door, cut so low they have to bend almost double to get in. The interior is dim, cold, and deathly quiet, although children's toys and dolls lay all about. In the kitchen a flame still burns on the stovetop, pots and broken dishes litter the floor, soup and jelly run from the walls and down cabinet doors. In the middle of a room adjoining, he sees a large motorcycle with flesh-colored tank and fenders resting on its side as if it were sick livestock or a shot-up elk.

You want to know what happened? she asks. Well, I'll tell you. There was going to be a wedding: my 15-year old to his brother Posy. The Lord told him to, or so he says. I said I'll see you dead first, and he takes a knife. Pink hits him in the eye with a can of peaches, and the race is on.

She rights a chair and sits down. The other women move deliberately through the debris, shifting this and that with their bare feet, touching nothing with their hands as if everything is contaminated.

Where are the children? he asks.

Over the gulch in the mobile home. They go there after breakfast. They didn't see nothing.

From across the room Anna says, He never hurt them. We made sure of that.

What will you do now? he asks.

Get ready for Posy, I guess, says the woman on the chair. He's coming at five for the girl.

Then what?

I don't know. I don't know how I'll deal with that.

She pushes her wet, dirty blonde behind her head and wearily rubs her face. Nothing's going to work for a while. The Lord told me, just do your best and keep your eyes open. I told James—she rubs her face again and sighs—James, I say, Why can't we just be simple farmers like the Saints of old? You know what he said?—Honey, only one crop pay for this farm, and it ain't tomatoes.

How many children? he asks.

Six.

Go get them, he says.

 

6

She's a waitress for the Electric Cowboy west of Grangeville. She works the Mango Room. The younger ones are telephone actresses—among other things, she says.

Telephone actresses?

Phone porn. They don't leave the compound. Hook up a headset and cook or walk around with the kids. All day, all night. Any time the men want it. It was James' idea. They may as well be prostitutes. Jezebels.

She lifts herself off the chair, walks to the stove and takes a frying pan by the handle. She works her way through the litter to the door, and when she is almost there, turns quickly to where he stands and swings at his head, connecting with a glancing blow as he tries to duck. Then she is upon him, screaming horribly and lunging for his eyes. He kicks her back a pace, swiftly aims his left, and bangs her on the forehead. She staggers sideways and sits suddenly down. He catches his breath and checks his head for blood. Go get the kids, he says evenly to the others. Grab what you need. It's time to go.

 

7

The children are all girls, six in number, ages two through 15, subdued as if mute. He fits the five smallest into the back of the sleek wagon and tells the teenager to sit in the rear seat behind the driver. The two younger women rush through the house, grabbing photo albums, purses, a few clothes. The blonde leans against the car, pressing with both hands a towel to her bloody nose and weeping eyes.

She kept this mess together too long, says Anna, motioning outside with an armful of children's clothes. By herself.

He helps her back inside, supporting her as one would a wounded child, and bathes her damaged face in the kitchen sink. Anna comes in and says, There's both of them bleeding. We need to bring the paper towels.

Get her another shirt, he says, and Anna runs into the room with the motorcycle. She helps her change into a t-shirt that says in large blue letters, "The Hamptons," then takes one last look around.

Lock the door, he says. Like you've gone somewhere.

As they load, he sees the van in the shed with the door standing open. Can you close that up, too?

There's a padlock, says Anna, and runs to the shed. She finds it just inside, swings the heavy doors bangshut against each other, and snaps it in place.

He puts the blonde in the middle of the seat behind him so she won't jump out of the car, but far enough he can slip a punch if he has to. The sky still drenches Idaho as he pulls out of the compound and kicks the turbocharger. All three women look back as home disappears like earth from a rocket, becoming finally nothing more than the horizon itself.

 

8

Her name is Chloe, says Anna. She reaches behind to touch the blonde's leg and whispers, It's okay if I tell him, isn't it honey?

The other is Pink, she says. In case you're wondering, she's called that because James had a revelation. He said that's her name in heaven, so it might as well be her name on earth. Then it kind of stuck. Her real name is Harmony, but we just call her Pink. Now it's Peaches, she says, and all three women laugh.

What about your name? he asks. And Chloe's? Are those real or heavenly?

Both, I guess. He never said. She leans across and looks at the teenager sitting behind him: Her heavenly name is Bathsheba, so we call her Bath. The rest are just numbers, one through five, oldest to youngest. He hadn't figured those out yet. Too late now. We'll have to name them ourselves.

 

9

Explosions of sunlight flash through cracks in the overcast, rain-filled bursts that strike the forests in dancing shafts. They have driven a hundred miles in silence. The children in back seem to sleep. Beside him Anna stares out the side glass as if she is stone. Then she turns toward him, moves her mouth to his ear and whispers, She loved him. No matter what she says.

He sees that she is crying. And you? he asks.

She shakes her head. Hell no. God told us to marry him. There wasn't any love at all. Good thing, too. He was a bastard.

 

10

Another hundred miles and they reach Hagerman, where he fills his tank. A Sonic drive-in is perched on a little hill at the other end of town, and without saying a word, he pulls in. Use the bathroom, he says. Get something to eat.

Pink and Chloe walk together into the sagebrush beyond the drive-in, conferring as they go. Anna leads the children one by one to the restroom. After she returns them to the car, she joins the others, three women standing anxiously beneath a broken sky, two of them bleeding. Ten minutes later Anna walks back and says, We don't know if we should get out or go on. We don't know what to do. Chloe is the oldest. She has to say.

Why don't you vote?

We did, but her vote counts two, so we're even. She wants to go back and bury James. We want to go on.

He's already buried, he says. You'll never find him. Nobody else will, either. He's ten miles downstream, covered in drift somewhere.

She's crying out there. She's so confused. Her eyes are getting black.

Jesus, he says. He hikes out to the women and takes Chloe by the elbow. He turns her toward the car, then wraps his arm around her shoulders and hugs her tight. She collapses against him, and he half-carries her back. There is no god but God, she says. If this ain't the end, I guess nothing is.

He fits her gently into the front seat and hands Anna a credit card. Get some food, he says. Enough for everybody.

 

11

What are you doing up there? she asks, jerking her thumb backwards to indicate that part of Idaho now behind them. After some effort she locates the window button on the door and surrenders her bloody nose rag to the slipstream.

I flew to Spokane, he says. My brother died in Pullman.

She considers this for a moment. What did he do in Pullman?

He taught at Washington State. He purses his mouth and exhales in a little puff. And he drank.

Did he have one of these? She waves her hand to indicate the car.

He laughs and says, This is his. He wanted me to have it. I'm taking it home for my wife.

What caused him to drink?

A bad fit with life, I guess. I never asked.

Why not?

It wasn't my business.

But he was your brother.

Doesn't matter, he said. Not in my family.

She sits quietly for a moment, then asks, What did he teach?

Spanish.

Spanish?

That's right. He loved Cervantes. He looks over at her. Spanish writer. Way back.

Spanish, she says. Imagine that. My mother got so fat, we put her in a wheelchair. Then we rolled her to the store. One day she tipped over a sidewalk and got hit by a car. The doctor said she weighed 409 pounds. We buried her in a crate.

Have you ever been to Kansas City? she asks? Jazz, so many churches, banks. Subway Sandwiches.

I have. Many times.

I thought Mr. Livermore was the Savior Returned. Yes I did. How can a person be so wrong? I have lost all faith in myself. I'm afraid to do anything. Now the animals have got him, or he's dead in the mud with no face. She laughs and says, Not even God will recognize him anymore. You may have done him a service. He can slip through the Pearly Gates with the war dead and plane wrecks.

 

12

When day turns to night, they do not stop except once for gas and restroom. He buys the biggest cup of coffee and finds something on the radio, an intellectual line-up discussing America's diplomacy gap and what to do about it. The highway is almost empty, the storm long cleared.

What time is it? she asks.

He checks the clock near the tachometer. One-fifty-two a.m., he says and smiles at her. Late or early, depending how you look at it.

Where are you going?

Indiana.

Is that where you live?

Yes.

Is that where you're taking us?

Yes.

Are we prisoners?

No.

Then why did you take us?

He smiles at her again. Because I had room.

I'm sorry he hurt your car, she says. Such a pretty car.

The car can be fixed.

Twenty-seven, in case you're wondering, she says, pointing to herself. But you're never too old for love.

 

13

You've not seen anything until you've seen an African war, he says—The human race revealed at last.

You?

Three.

What do you do?

I work for a company.

Is it a good company?

No.

Then why do you work for it?

It's what I do.

She considers this for a moment, then says, You don't understand. We're no better than him. Who did you save us from, ourselves? Then she wags her finger in his face and says slowly, One day he told us to throw the girl children in the river. You can't consecrate females to the Lord, he said, it just don't take. He wanted to start over and have nothing but boys. We wouldn't do it. He walked around naked in front of everybody, even the kids. He hit every one of us—babies, too. We should have gotten rid of him a long time ago. We didn't. Then you came along. The Lord took mercy because we were weak. It makes me ashamed.

 

14

Orilla, he says at 4 a.m.. Do you know what it means?

No sir, I do not.

The bank of a river, or a shore. Reeds and grasses. Small silver fish. He sighs and looks out the window. Blackbirds.

 

15

Fire in the bones. That's what James had. He was irresistible. I couldn't see the Mark for all that fire. Nobody could. She laughs to herself and says, Holy men. There is no end of them.

On her forehead half an inch above the center of her eyes, he sees the indentation of his wedding ring. Her eyes are black and green, her nose is swollen, and when she talks, her voice is of one who suffers allergy or virus.

She rests her head against the back of the seat for a few minutes, then says, Cars are like buffalo. Soon there won't be any more. Someday people won't believe the mess we've made. I like this one, though. What is it?

A Volvo.

Far to the north, mile-long trains full of low-sulfur coal from Montana creep over the Great Plains, locomotive headlamps briefly and without intention divulging the dark world. His eyes search automatically and in vain for the thinnest sliver of dawn.

There's nothing to eat in a first-aid kit, she says dreamily. That much I know. He pulls her to him and tenderly kisses the top of her head.

 

16

By three in the afternoon west of Cheyenne, he can't drive anymore. He takes the second exit to a Motel 8 and rents three rooms, then buys dinner at a Denny's next door. He tells them he'll knock when it's time to go, that it may be a little early but they'll be able to sleep in the car.

Across the table Pink waves at him and asks, Do you want to see something? She pulls a CD out of her purse and holds it up: The Essential Molly Hatchet. It's how we roll, she says, nodding her head for emphasis. She fishes around in her purse and comes up with an envelope. She leans over the fries and hamburgers and hands it to him. It's what we do, she says simply.

There are seven digital images, each of Pink and Anna in oral coitus. They are explicit and of startling resolution. He returns these to the envelope and passes them back over the table. I'm sorry, he says.

She fits them carefully into her purse. It's just a job, you know, so what? We don't hurt nobody.

 

17

At 4:15 a.m. he knocks on the door next to his, and Chloe quickly opens it.

Load 'em up, he says.

They're gone. I didn't want to wake you.

Who?

Pink and Anna.

He steps back a yard. Where did they go?

Nevada. They caught a ride. They're going to Las Vegas. They have an act.

The kids?

Still here.

My god, he says—Just like that?

She shrugs her shoulders. A lamp behind haloes her hair and throws her neck and shoulders into sharp silhouette. I couldn't stop them. What was I going to do, call the cops?

Now what?

You tell me. But I'll be damned if I do this all by myself.

He returns to his room and sits on the side of the bed. He rubs his neck with both hands, then gets up and splashes cold water over his face. He takes a good long look at himself in the mirror, then gathers his things, turns out the light, and loads everybody into the car. Sunrise is still two hours away. He fills his tank with premium gas at a station by the on-ramp, buys coffee, and heads east.

 

18

He tried everything to make money, she says. He was a clown at parties, and once he rented a hall for Christian dance classes, as if he knew anything about Christian dance. I don't know anything about Christian dance, how would he? Then he was going to make a space movie...

She holds up her hands to count on her fingers: He had this idea for a faithfulness clinic where couples learn not to cheat, if you can believe that or not; porn for non-smokers, whatever that is; truck driving school for retarded people since they work for less money; spray on shirts; animal training, even for wild ones; spray on colors for animals; animal psychic. Nothing worked, of course, and that's when he had Pink and Anna do their little dance. That always works, doesn't it? They didn't mind a bit. I think they were doing it between themselves already. He wouldn't let them off the farm for fear they'd give themselves to men. He had a big thing about disease. Wouldn't touch me after the Mango Room, figured I was doing what I wanted out there. Long as I brought home the check, it was OK.

They trust you, she said, motioning to the kids in back. That's why they sleep. No rest in that house, James always upset about one thing or another, middle of the night, didn't matter. He'd get us up and read the Bible, or get his belt and beat hell out of somebody, usually me. You think this looks bad?—she points to her eyes—you could never tell. One moment he'd be fine, the next, Bam! One time out of the blue he beat Pink and Anna. Used his belt buckle. He said men like naked women with bruises on their legs, so shut the hell up, it's your job.

On the eastern horizon, clouds big as whole worlds mount and billow against the rising orb. Sunlight volleys through vapors and the crystalline void, splashing beam and shadow joyously about them.

 

19

They stop for lunch in Colby, Kansas, right off the interstate. She and Bathsheba herd the children in and out of the women's room, then crowd into a booth he's taken by the window. They eat Subway sandwiches among families of Mennonite farmers, the women in lace bonnets and long dresses. She asks him if they might be polygamists.

I don't think so, he replies. These are German Baptists.

They look just like our neighbors, she whispers, peering over the tops of her sunglasses. Old-timey Mormons up the mountain. I think they gave James the idea in the first place. They wouldn't let him join because he was crazy. What's the sense of having more than one wife if you can't deal with the first? I have a question: What are Lutherans?

Bathsheba reaches across the table and touches his arm. We're good kids, she says. We won't make no trouble.

Chloe says, When Pink showed you those pictures, she was saying, Take what you want, Mister, you can have it all. If you did, they'd still be here.

I like the lowdown life, he replies. We all do. I just don't live it, that's all. He looks around the table at the children and shakes his head. Christ Jesus, he says. What they have seen.

 

In Topeka he takes two rooms, a large one for Chloe and the children, and a bed for himself next door. He asks after dinner, What should I expect tonight?

Nothing, I don't think. Everybody's real tired.

 

20

Then the pageant of America, glowing and uncontaminated, reels past in the early sun, vatic and portentous as if of a dream—cheap blandishments and every variety of abomination masquerading as Christian church, fat easy food, Buicks for the aged, plasma centers with drunks, addicts and prostitutes already stampeding for the door, answers, cures, electric energies, spirits, nirvana, exhaustion, promise, relief. The Burger King with crazy eyes. A bloody fetus on an enormous billboard that makes Chloe shield her eyes. Housing developments named after the various kings of France. Recruitment billboards for government killers. Diet Coke. Diet Coke. Diet Coke. Discount Tires. God. Diet Coke. Diet Coke. Diet Coke. Diet Coke. Diet Coke. Discount Tires. Walmart. Diet Coke. God.

 

Topeka recedes, and they are almost alone on the highway. The air is cool and moist.

Goodbye Oz, he says as he closes his window. God Almighty. He turns toward her: Smells like Japan—sweet. Like cooking.

Do you know what day this is? she asks.

Sunday.

Besides that. It's Mother's Day. I wonder if I'll get a present.

He searches the mirror for Bathsheba, but she is curled out of sight on the backseat.

What would you like? he asks.

Something from James, she says. He owes me big.

 

He takes an avenue off the interstate into the heart of the Kansas City and cruises slowly through downtown until he sees a Starbucks.

Ever been to one of these?

No sir, I have not.

Get what you want, he says. Happy Mother's Day.

They sit behind a bar facing a window. He orders hot chocolate for the children, for himself simple coffee. A black woman wearing a high blond wig strolls by on the sidewalk outside. She seems to be examining her fingernails. She is followed by a large black man holding a wad of cash, walking with his mouth open. Chloe watches them through the glass and leans over hard to track their progress, removing her sunglasses and pressing her face to the pane.

His Strong Hand on Everything, she says wonderingly. Even here. Even in Gomorrah.

She takes his own hand in hers, then brings it to her lips and kisses it.

 

I'm white trash, aren't I? she asks. There's part of my brain doesn't listen to me.

I wouldn't say that.

Yes we are, we're all white trash. Up until I met James, I thought I was raised with a little dignity. But normal people don't do what we do, walk around with a headset talking filth, all married to the same lunatic. It isn't normal.

She reaches gently to the dashboard and bushes the dials and instruments with her fingertips. I've never even seen one of these, much less sat in one. This thing isn't on the radar where I come from.

Just a car, he says.

That's what you think. You just don't know.

 

21

So one day James tears the van apart and puts in a big sink. This was between his new church and Christian dance. He nails together some damn kind of dog washer and paints a sign on the side: Poodle Polisher. Can you imagine? After a month of no business, he makes Anna and Pink go with him. He sits in the front, and there's a hole behind the seat so he can watch. He dresses them up like whores, and after a while makes them take their shirts off. This is how they wash the dogs. The phone's ringing off the hook—but it's all these rich old women in Missoula. I almost fell off the stump! Well, they're the only ones with poodles, he says. Besides, they don't touch nothing, they just look. Sometimes they invite them over and so what, what harm can the old women do, they don't have diseases or nothing. That lasts about a year, and he's got this idea for bikini wax back there, too, the same old gals—wash the dog and pluck the cat he liked to say, ha ha—then the sheriff comes out. They had his trial in Pocatello. Such a collection of mental defectives and backwoods lawyers you never saw, feeding off each other like roaches. James does four months on pandering and makes Posy, who is married with five kids, keep us on the farm, even me. He never brought us any food, and we almost starved to death. We lived on cans and garden, what plot James didn't use for his goddamn weed.

She points to a button over her head. What's this?

Sunroof.

He touches the switch, and the cover moves slowly backwards. She reclines her seat and regards the heavens for several minutes. Again she points upwards. He looks and sees an airliner trace a vapor trail miles above. She says, That thing catch fire and roll up there, you'll Believe in a hurry, that's for sure.

That's for sure, he repeats. But is it real? The belief—would it be genuine?

Of course, she says. Genuine as the fire. You can't deny one and then the other, can you?

I suppose you can't.

James had another five or six spiritual wives, she says. He never had sex because he was afraid of disease. But they all sent him money. Did I tell you about the Pumped Up Party Place?

Don't think so.

All these things you fill with air and jump on. Where you take kids on their birthdays. Then you have cake.

How did that work out?

Same as the rest. Because we didn't take our shirts off. Too bad, she laughed. We should have.

 

22

We're married about eight years, and James has a dream. The Lord tells him go Old Testament all the way, so he sends me out to find him some wives. I was stupid enough to do it. I hung around the Mormon college in Rexburg so I could peel off some Mormon girls, but they told the elders and I got chased. One day I was at Denny's in Cour d'Alene and saw these two in a booth smoking and laughing by themselves. I knew right away. When I brought them back, James almost died for joy. Told me I was the greatest wife ever. That very night he slept with them both. Didn't leave that room till afternoon next day, happiest man you ever saw. James didn't teach them nothing new, believe me, but he did get them pregnant. They had beautiful babies. I'll say that much.

She reaches a hand through the open sunroof and catches the cool slipstream with her fingers, then reaches the other hand up, too. She laughs and rubs them together; then, withdrawing her hands and folding them primly in her lap, she turns to face him. Have you ever heard of quarks?

Parts of an atom, I think. Subatomic particles.

God's little angels, she said. That's what they are. We finally found them.

 

23

James made good money off those girls, she said. The dirty movie in the trailer and the phone bit. He sent a good bunch of it up to British Columbia, to invest in a big marijuana operation his brother heard about. Posy takes it and comes back a month later, said he got robbed and doesn't have a thing left. James beat him almost to death, laid him up six weeks his wife said, and I believe it. One time I took some money, too, but James never found out. I was scared half out of my head. Figured he'd kill me. He liked that Mango Room money too much, though. You don't kill the prize chicken.

She turns in her seat and regards the children behind her, two now sitting upright in the back and looking through the windows. This is not the life I wanted, she says. You take what comes your way, but this is not what I wanted. This is a nightmare.

 

24

Jesus is who you love when there's no one else to love, she says. I wanted to open a bridal shop. Pretty young things. I made wedding gowns for Pink and Anna. James said keep the front open so their bare bosoms stick out, but I said, You want me to make the dress, you do it my way. We had a double wedding out there. I made a pie, and his brother came, that's all. Right before the ceremony Posy says he wants one, James doesn't need them both, and James says, Just read the damn Bible where I tell you and shut the hell up. That's how it went, the wedding. That was pretty much the whole thing.

 

25

You have your rights, now, she says. You saved us, we're yours. She shrugs her shoulders. What else would we do anyway? Where would we go? Posy's looking right now, believe me. Soon as he figures James is out of the picture, he'll swoop right in for all of us, even me. Nothing's safe from that thing, even the kids.

Does he have a phone?

No.

What does he do?

Firewood. Says he prays in the forest, which is bullshit I think. His wife works. School lunch lady.

Bad family, he says.

He blew off two fingers Fourth of July, she says. Blasting cap. We had ourselves a laugh. I've never thrown myself at a man before. Never had to. I could throw myself at you and not feel bad about it. Until recent I was fairly good-looking. A little rest and good food gets me my looks back.

I'm sure it will.

Will you help me?

Of course.

Are you married?

I am.

I need some vitamins and vegetables, she says. I need to get sane. At least I know I'm crazy. She places a hand on his arm. Give me that.

That and more, he says.

I'm ashamed. You would be, too.

She points above her, through the sunroof and atmosphere and airliners, all the way through blue sky and space to something she imagines clearly and cleanly, as if she has left behind for good the infinite politics of evil. He can make you new from anything, she says, even shit. He can start with that and change it all in a heartbeat. She motions behind her to the children. You can't leave these in the bulrushes. It worked okay for Moses, but this is a different world.

 

26

They enter Indiana late evening, and when they reach Kokamo, he rents two rooms at the first place with a vacancy, a run-down Best Western next to Liquor World at the south end of town. Midnight comes a soft knock, and when he opens the door, Bathsheba steps through. She pulls her long t-shirt over her head and stands naked before him, well-developed, fifteen. Don't worry, she says, I'm not a virgin.

Where is she?

Gone.

Where?

I don't know. She took the photo albums and left.

He grabs his keys, runs down the balcony, and quietly enters the sleeping room. He checks the bathroom and closet, then runs down the stairs and looks through the deserted lobby. He runs out to his car, rips from the parking lot and for the better part of an hour patrols the blocks around the hotel. By the time he returns, Bathsheba has gone back to the children. She has wrapped and draped herself with white bathtowels and sits on the only chair in the room. On a side table under a low dim lamp, he sees a note Chloe has scrawled across a motel tablet: Pray Pray Pray Always. For We Are Creatures of the Sun and Not Gone Yet! The room exhales the ghastly sweet dead breath of cheap rooms, and he wants to spill himself through the door and vomit.

Am I your wife now?

God no. No. No.

What am I then, Mister? Will we be OK?

Get dressed, he says. We're going home.

When he brings them mostly still sleeping down from the room, he finds Chloe standing next to the Volvo, clutching the albums to her chest. I'll come back, she says. Will you take the children?

I'll take the children.

Because I can't do it anymore. Nothing happens when time don't move. We'll lose every one if I'm still here, every one. She points to Bathsheba: She's about lost now, my little girl.

He takes his wallet from his pocket and finds a business card. The bottom number's my cell phone, he says. Call me someday.

He pulls out several large bills and hands them to her. Listen to me: Steer clear of Idaho.

When they roll out, she's standing beneath a streetlamp, still hugging the photographs. Bathsheba looks briefly behind her, then reclines the passenger seat and sets a hand over her eyes. I'm hungry, she says. When can we stop for breakfast?

 

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