She had never been in Texas before, and that night as she’d slept in a Texarkana Holiday Inn it had sleeted and snowed. No one had told her the winters in Texas were severe. She knew the state was large, and she’d given them a full day to drive from Texarkana to El Paso, where Raymond and Esther Ghesterson would not be waiting for them because she had not specified a date, only the chance that after 32 years it might happen. “Don’t be surprised if you see us sometime this winter,” she’d written at the bottom of this year’s Christmas card, but no one had mentioned the terrible weather. The expressway was icy. Her husband, Wally Bartow, had been in his day perhaps the steadiest driver in Alabama and Tennessee—half his professional life had been spent on the road—but his day was almost over. Hard to say, but it was. As was hers. In some ways, an obligation to say, for she believed too much silliness and too much suffering resulted from a daily self-deception about youth and age, and she refused to get caught in the national game. Her mind was clear. She would die when her body broke. Her body would break when she exceeded her body’s capacity. “Relax,” she told her husband who was gripping the wheel and setting his jaw against the day to come, “drive more slowly. We’ve got a ways to go.”
And we’ll get there in the evening as we planned. We won’t go to their house. How could we reminisce in their house? If you want to talk about old times you don’t go to a place that’s big and distracting and full of new times, you go . . . yes, you go to a neutral site. I’ll call Ches and invite them out to dinner. The next morning we’ll be on the way to Phoenix. If I’d ever thought of this as anything more than an overnight stop, I wouldn’t have asked Wally to do it. . . .
His hands had tightened again, sick hands, disfigured hands, when she looked closely—the backs had splotches of scar tissue where the eczema scabs had fallen off. The veins were little bruise-colored rivers covered with a film of skin. As if to do her share, she turned to peer with her husband out at the road. Where the double-wheeled semis had gotten through the ice was converted to slush, but the semis had a wider wheel-span than their Chevrolet Malibu and Wally was struggling to stay in their path. To add to their troubles, a wind fanned loose snow across the expressway, obscuring in gusts the path of the semis and making a straight-ahead, non-braking motion the only safe risk. But that’s what Texas was, she realized: flat and straight-ahead. Ice-glazed pine forests around Texarkana had given way to snow-covered plains the closer they got to Dallas, and on these plains the vegetation was stunted, wiry, and encased with ice. She was looking at mesquite trees. The sky was a vast plain of gray and beneath it the mesquite trees grew crooked as a bent nail and blasted by the wind. North’er—yes, that was the word. The big storm wind over in these parts was called a north’er, and it swept down out of Canada without a tree or hill to get in its way and no wonder nothing out there held root except those scrawny mesquite trees and bushes tangled as tightly as balls of wire. The smallest balls were tumbleweeds, frozen to the ground, but she didn’t know that. She knew only that back home in northern Alabama she saw snow no more than twice a year and that she was now looking at as much snow and ice as she had seen in her life and that her life had been long and attentive.
“Is it safe, Wally?” she asked.
“Safe? I wouldn’t say safe.”
“You know better than I do. Should we stop?”
“Wouldn’t say that either.”
“I’ll stop if you want to.”
“We can keep plugging along. I wouldn’t set my heart on El Paso tonight, though.”
Suddenly they were driving through a snow squall and the wind whipped the snow horizontally across the road, reducing their visibility to the fine-particled blur of a semi some hundred feet ahead of them.
“Golly damn!” Wally muttered, amazed.
“I wouldn’t use that expression,” she said.
“What expression? Golly damn?”
“That I had my heart set on El Paso.”
“That’s what it amounts to, don’t it? You’ve been waiting since the end of the war to see Ches again. It’s about time, it seems to me.”
He spoke firmly, and as obligingly as she had a right to expect. She tried to match his firmness and to leaven it with a touch of good-humored concern for his forgetfulness. “We’re going to visit our daughter in Phoenix. Have you forgotten? For once in our lives Ches and Esther are on our way.”
“They sure are,” he said, “right on our way. And I’ll get you there. Just don’t count on tonight, Ester.”
Not tonight, no, but I can count on him. Wally will get us there, and Texas with its winds and snow and colossal size won’t have a thing to say about it, because Wally is Wally. Ches had more colorful notions, and more imagination, but imagination in a man is like that rabbit that outran the turtle but crossed the finish line last. Ches was a visionary, but when your vision is cut off as it is now, you want somebody who can see what’s in front of him. That’s Wally. That’s the man who stood there when Ches came rushing back from the war and charging up mother’s stairs, yelling that Wally didn’t know what he had, how wonderful a woman I was, yelling that he’d spent a wartime in destroyers in the South Pacific convincing himself that life was worth living because some things in life were beautiful, and some people in life were lucky and that I was beautiful and Wally was unspeakably lucky. And Wally stood there, nodding. Ches was in his naval uniform and had a crazy wartime of thoughts to get off his chest, and until he said that as much as he loved his wife (another Esther, the poor man had fallen in love with the name) he’d still give her up if he thought he could have me, until then Wally hadn’t raised his voice. Then he told Ches to shut up, that he could not have me, that he had had his chance and I had chosen. I remember standing behind the kitchen door with mother thinking that Wally didn’t realize it but I had the choice to make again at that moment and that I still chose him, chose Wally. They didn’t fight. For perhaps a minute they sounded like they might, but the war was just over and at bottom everybody was happy and high-spirited, and shortly Ches and Wally were laughing and clapping each other on the shoulder. Then we sat down to supper. I remember Ches with his coat off, his tie undone, his dark hair uncombed, his mouth full of the first Southern meal he’d tasted in three years. He reminded me of the boy I’d grown up with. He was leaner and manlier in the face as he sat there at mother’s table, and I didn’t doubt he’d been through hell, but he was as excited and talkative as a teenager that night and as rosy-minded about his future as he’d ever been before the war had started and he’d lost me. I remember wondering how long it would last. I remember hoping I wasn’t wrong. . . .
It lasted. It must have lasted. She sat there beside her husband braving a Texas blizzard, a mother, a grandmother, a traveler of the most limited sort in a country that rewarded great leaps across the map with pots of gold. Their daughter had found one in Phoenix, Arizona, and Raymond Chesterson had found many, she’d heard tell, in El Paso, Texas. It had lasted. She’d probably misread him from the beginning. After the war, he’d gone back into the Navy, and when he’d retired as a commander he’d had some of his youth left and a respectable sum of money to invest. El Paso was waiting, a land boom, and he’d gotten in for every cent he had. Beneath that boyish enthusiasm lay a mature ambition which that enthusiasm fed, and her reading of his character had most certainly been wrong. He was a rieh, responsible man. As she sat there recording their route off the expressway signs—Sulphur Springs, Greenville, Royse City—she began to see that her mistake with Raymond Chesterson had occurred on that day she’d concluded she knew everything there was to know about him. She’d thought of him as something like an amateur actor and of herself as his only behind-the-scenes confidante, and when he’d asked her to marry him she’d refused since from the beginning she’d been privy to the whys and wherefores of everything he’d said and done. Marriage had to be an exploration of some sort, she believed, so she’d married and explored Wally, whom she hadn’t spent a childhood with and whom she could chart from scratch and whom she loved. Now she knew Wally, knew him like the back of her still slender, but no longer supple and unblemished hand. It was Texas that was new and huge, and so she supposed, with a sweet and painful misgiving, was Ches.
“Will you look at that!”
The snow blew across the road in sheets, and as Wally edged the Chevy Malibu over to the left-hand lane, she saw the icy-blue flash of a patrol car’s beacon and dimly behind it a large unwieldy block of machinery that she recognized as a jackknifed semi turned over on its side.
“The driver!” she uttered with a shock. “He must still be in the cab!”
She told her husband to stop, but the patrolman angrily waved them on through. Wally crawled by. She saw crates containing heads of lettuce scattered out behind the semi on the snowy road. A few of the crates had broken open. When Wally smashed a head under their wheels, she groaned.
“He must be dead. Otherwise the patrolman would have asked for help.”
“That makes sense. It sure does.” Wally spoke with tense expulsions of his breath. “Sure looks bad.”
“We’d better get off,” she said.
“We’d sure better get off,” he agreed.
But before they reached the next exit they saw another overturned truck, and this time the patrolman did stop them. Esther lowered the window.
An icy wind blew in, the norther. “If you folks are thinking about keeping on, get out from behind these semis. We got ‘em jackknifing up and down the expressway.”
Wally told the patrolman they were getting right off. Esther asked about the truckdriver.
“Bump on the head. Got him in the back seat of the cruiser.”
She thanked God. They started off slowly, Wally fighting his smoker’s cough and the wave-like gusts of the norther. During a moment when both had abated, he said, “I’m sorry, Esther. I know how much you wanted to get this day over with fast.”
She told him not to be silly, there was nothing he could do. Then letting her hand rest on his shoulder where the muscles were as hard as frozen meat, she said, “Let’s find a Holiday Inn.”
Not that easily. Oh no, this trip across Texas, like this storm, came from a long ways off and might cost them their lives. Every mile it got worse. The snow had turned to freezing rain and the expressway to sheet ice. On the outskirts of Dallas they tried to get off and discovered they couldn’t. There’d be no way to stop at the bottom, Wally said, and nothing to do, he concluded, but keep going until they found an off-ramp that veered straight out, flat out, and rolled them to a stop in some prairie parking lot. She knew her husband. Knew that his sensible judgments came from his capacity to be amazed; once amazed he became the most circumspect of men. They rolled on through Dallas, singled out eerily, as if in a dream. No one else was on the road. Traveling over that ice was like traveling through the emptiness of outer space; they could cut the motor and continue indefinitely. She could imagine them reaching El Paso days later, brought in by a sort of remote control, the force of fate, destiny driving, what you will. She saw them feeble from hunger, rattled with nerves, finally brought to a stop at the western tip of Texas, right there at that tip where Ches had his mansion, his other Esther, his family, his rich and illicit life. It was more than either of them could stand. They passed Fort Worth. She saw oil wells now, shaggy with ice. More jackknifed semis, like great crippled beasts of the road, lay on their sides. They passed a town called Weatherford and by some stroke of luck wound up on Expressway 20 which would take them into El Paso.
It was then that she stated the obvious.
“We can get off now, Wally. It’s flat as the sea out here.”
“I could make it for you tonight, Esther. Be early tomorrow morning, though.”
“No, it doesn’t make any difference.”
“Sure it does, Esther. Don’t try to fool me.”
“I’m not trying to fool you. It doesn’t make any difference because I’ve got to be fresh, Wally. I’ve got to be fresh! Don’t you understand!”
He got them off at the next ramp, and that ramp carried them right into a state road which led them not to a Holiday Inn but a Ramada Inn where the desk clerk welcomed them cordially and quietly as if they’d just finished the most uneventful day’s drive. The desk clerk was a neat, dark, and oily Mexican. His English was like the warble of some jungle bird. She barely understood a word. She wondered if they’d crossed the border in the snow and roadside wreckage. She wondered what to say to the boy who took their bags and only said gracias to her. Snowed in in Texas with a tropically-dark family of Mexicans—it came straight out of a dream and that’s where she tried to take it. She struggled all night.
The telephone woke her. “We’re iced in,” Wally reported. “No one can even open their car doors. You wanna go back to sleep or you want me to bring you breakfast?”
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Place called Eastland. ‘Bout five miles outside of town.”
“From El Paso, how far?”
“I calculate about 200 miles.”
“Yes, please,” she said gloomily, sinking into her pillow, “breakfast.” Her head sprang out of the pillow. “Wally, no tortillas or tamales. Nothing Mexican.” She cradled the receiver. She had no humor today, she knew it at once; and her husband had his little practical jokes.
For a moment she lay there listening to the norther, and nothing in her memory of winds and bad weather sounded like what she heard outside. She heard the barren flatness of the prairie. She heard the high-blow and the low-blow of the wind, but nothing of the wind soughing through trees, whistling down valleys, riffling high grasses, nothing of the wind making common cause with the land.
She thought of a windmill.
She remembered the snapshot.
Ches swinging out from a windmill, hanging on and swinging out, and the wind blowing him. Lightly, his pants legs, his hair. He looked like a sailor swinging in his rigging, an expression of healthy, youthful inconsequence on his face. That was before he asked me to marry him. How old were we then? Young. Very young. Ches had the clearest, most peaceful, most unashamed eyes I have ever seen, blue and transparent, with nothing to hide. I can remember that day—the high, quiet clouds, the smell of the heat in the pines, the summer stitching of insects in the grass and trees. The breeze. Just a moment before all the turmoil in our lives began. Crosswinds and whirlwinds and winds of every weather. I’m saying no to him, no to his dear, disappointed father, no, I don’t know, to myself. Those were days when the winds came from all directions at once. And they were over in a flash. I’m saying yes to Wally. The war lasted how long? About as long as it takes a dentist to fill a tooth. Fifteen minutes of unrelieved pain and looking-ahead-to-the-worst, then it was over. By then Larry was born. He was grown and gone inside a week, and his week overlapped by two or three days with Charlotte’s, and she was married, divorced, married, divorced, married again and carried off to Phoenix, where we’re going, and it’s all taken two weeks. The events of your life that matter and that last can be made to fit inside a month, a rich and varied and painful month, but it’s over with that quickly. A month ago I took a picture of Ches swinging out from a windmill on a summer afternoon in northern Alabama, yet when I see him tomorrow I won’t recognize him. The eyes, perhaps I’ll recognize those clear, untroubled eyes. . . .
She heard her husband knock on the door, heard him explain he’d left the key. She thought back three weeks to the day she’d brought Larry, her oldest, home. She pictured her husband’s radiant face on that occasion, the round, reliable cheekbones and chin, the small bright teeth, the eyes, the sandy hair. Then she let him in. She didn’t recognize him. “Try not to get too upset with me today,” she said. “I don’t like Texas.”
“Don’t worry, Esther. A bunch of people sitting out there in the lobby feel the same way.” He put down a tray of toast and coffee and orange juice. “Why don’t you eat and then come on out front. Misery loves company, they say.”
When she became miserable enough, she ate the breakfast, the toast and coffee cool, the orange juice getting warm; then she drew back the beige curtains and took her view of the empty expressway, the ice-preserved, empty, and brush-infested land. How horrible, she thought, the sky on top of you every day of your life. Tornadoes, droughts, northers, and here and there a Ramada Inn thrown up with stopgap speed like an outpost in the wilderness. How futile. She passed a brush through her stiff and dirty hair, put the brush down and lay on the scratchy carpet and began to roll her hips. Mechanically, knees-up, back and forth, until she caught a glimpse of herself and asked herself why. She looked like a foetus rolling in the womb and she was nearly 67 years old, of limited appeal, limited resources, limited life. She lowered her knees and reached back to pull the on-off switch on the television. Through the balcony window she saw the sky, a lid of paraffin gray, then the orange face and green tie of a newscaster who asked an orange-faced boy standing off to the side what hope he could give to storm-racked Texans, and the boy said, for those still with us tomorrow, a lot. Clear skies by the afternoon. Some wouldn’t make it. Some were already gone. Statistics on traffic and other storm-related deaths. Statistics on property loss. She pushed the plunger in. Paced the room. Her back hurt, her head ached, she saw poorly, as if at the end of a feverish sleep. Her brush lay there on a bureau of plasticized wood, and she picked it up and began to yank it through her hair. The harder she yanked the more her scalp tingled, and for five furious minutes her scalp was on fire. Then her strength left her. She sat down on the bed. Got up and stood before the bathroom mirror where her face fared badly in the fluorescent glare.
She found Wally in the lobby, sitting on a low Spanish-style sofa next to a rock garden with cactus. “I haven’t got any shampoo,” she told him. “I can’t go tomorrow unless I’ve washed my hair.”
Wally mentioned the desk clerk, the gift shop. She said she’d tried. They didn’t have her brand. He invited her to look outside at the ice. She looked. Thirty-two years had gone by, and she wasn’t going to let Ches see her looking like this. He told her to look again. He asked her if she saw anything on wheels moving, anything moving at all. She asked him to look at her, at her hair, at the weary, lined image of her face. In his mind’s eye, in his memory, could he see her pretty face? Could he understand? Would he help her?
“Esther, damn Esther! You know I would if I could, Esther. Wouldn’t I?” Flushed and powerless and perplexed, it was one of his looks for her, one she hadn’t seen in a while.
“Wally,” she confessed, wincing, “I don’t know what to do.”
“You want that shampoo, I’ll get it for you, lady.”
Yes, she wanted it, but this wasn’t Wally talking, this was a burly man in a cowboy buckle and belt sitting next to Wally on the sofa.
“How?” she asked quietly.
“My rig’ll make it into Eastland and back,” he said.
“Your rig?” Esther said.
“He means his truck,” Wally said, rising. “You remember those semis we saw jackknifed over on the expressway. That’s what he means.”
“I couldn’t ask that,” Esther whispered.
“Don’t have to,” the truck driver said, pounding his knees and also rising. “What brand you use?”
She mentioned the brand, but Wally knew the brand already and he was going. He was much obliged to the truckdriver, couldn’t thank him enough, but it was Wally’s job. He went to get his overcoat. Then he went half-stepping out onto the parking lot and she saw him heat the key with his cigarette lighter, heat the lock, and get the door open. When he had driven cautiously away, she turned to thank the man still at her side. The truck driver said there was no reason to thank anybody until her husband made it back. She assured him he would. She knew her husband. Yeah, and he knew those roads. He had shoulders and arms big enough for any truck, she thought, and a bull’s neck for the long tense rides through winter storms. What made semis jackknife, she wanted to know. Bad drivers, her sofa companion said, bad drivers with no guts.
When Wally came back with three plastic tubes of her favorite shampoo, she gave him a hero’s welcome.
The next morning the orange-faced newscaster congratulated the orange-faced weatherboy on the birth of his first child, an eight-pound girl by the name of Julie, and in honor of the occasion puffed two or three times on a firegreen cigar before waving smoke away and asking for sweet tidings for all their viewers. The camera closed in on the weatherboy, who was in such an exhausted, elated state he might have said anything. He said beautiful weather, hang on, folks, and she didn’t believe him. He said blue skies, rising temperatures, and he was wrong. The skies remained dense and gray and the expressway a deathtrap of icy slush. Wally coughed and said it was up to her. Yes, she knew that. The day before she had washed her hair twice. That night she had dreamed she’d lain trapped and bleeding in an overturned semi. In her dream Texas was understood to be interminable. Maybe in fact. She couldn’t wait another day.
It was rash, shockingly unlike her, but never when she’d set her limits, shaped her character, had she conceived of anything like this. They set off on Interstate 20 for what should have been the parched and cow-dusty town of Abilene. She knew nothing about this land except the films made in the land’s name, and the films, of course, had lied. For more than 50 years it hadn’t mattered because she hadn’t been in a position to learn the truth. Did it matter now? she asked herself. Only . . .she began. Then it struck her and the next sound she heard was her half-swallowed laugh. Then Wally’s cough. Only, she whispered, if Ches was a Texan.
A wave of sadness passed through her, steady and slow, became a river, became, simply, the day in which she was submerged. For the moment no snow was falling. From the elevation of the expressway she could see for miles over the brown, ice-tipped grass. The trees were gone, even the mesquite. County roads aimed straight for the horizon, and she followed them, realizing disconsolately that the horizon was all show. There was no end, just distance. A man out there would lose not only his way but the wisdom of his years.
She turned to Wally, who drove single-mindedly, as if on a mission. She turned back to the window, her eyes watering and Texas going blank in a blur.
Children, springtime, and how many rows of third-grade children—seven, eight? There were more than 30 of them and I don’t know what I was teaching, arithmetic, probably, and the children were sitting well-behaved at their desks in front of me, and it was Ches who was cutting up just outside the door where only I could see him, pretending to be spring, pantomiming birds and butterflies and flowers and two spring lovers holding hands out on a stroll. He never touched me. He held my hand, he kissed me on the cheek, but it was never a question of that. Never lovers. When school was out, we took a walk along Skinner’s Creek and came to a spot with a pool and a big oak and the coolness of churches. It was like a bower. There were slick spots of mud and wildflowers in among the roots of trees and in the grassy patches that weren’t really wild at all. Violets and trilliums and buttercups and spring beauties. Flowers you discover as a child and wait for each spring, as intimate as anything in your life. Ches had picked his spot. He wore a peppermint-striped shirt, the sleeves fastened with silver cuff-links; he was an airy dresser and a lover of the out-of-doors, a man who made most people smile and some women scheme to get him. And there beside Skinner’s Creek he asked me to marry him. Rather he didn’t ask. His face colored and trembled and seemed about to dissolve with a pleasure so private and intense he could no longer contain it. I can truthfully state at that moment I had no idea what had excited him so. I knew that he had momentous news. I knew that it must involve me. Poor Ches, it wasn’t that he was speechless, or even shy. It was, I think, that he wanted to savor his pleasure an instant more alone before it backed up and overflowed his face. Before it swept me up too. I said, Ches, what is it? He took out the box and showed me the ring. He said, I love you. I said, I know you do. I treasure your love. It was the ring I hadn’t expected. I didn’t take it out of the box, but I examined it carefully in its slot of red velvet, then closed the lid and closed his hand over the box and held it, held his hand in both of mine. I told him, You are my dearest friend, but I am going to marry Wallace Bartow. He didn’t protest. That pleasure in his face drained out with his blood, and I could feel his knees shake. Can you please explain this to father? he asked, pallid and composed. He has always assumed we would marry. You know I will, I said, and did. Brother and sister, lifelong friends, I said. Mr. Chesterson said only one thing: a husband and wife should be friends; it is the basis for a marriage. I agreed and didn’t agree. I thought I was right, but clearly in one sense I wasn’t. Ches and I haven’t been lifelong friends. I can’t think of him now as a long lost brother. Rather I think of him and the spot he picked out to propose in together. And the spot was lovely, sheltered and quiet, and the site of many proposals, I suppose. It was Alabama and our youth, and I never thanked him for that. . . .
She was no longer crying. Wally had driven tirelessly and well; he’d driven until the weather had broken and there were watery pools of blue beyond the gray, and not once had he asked why, why with nothing left unsaid, and she was inexpressibly grateful to her husband and embarrassed by her tears. She owed people so much. She took what they gave and frequently forgot to ask what they got of her. Ches had given her that spot by Skinner’s Creek, and she’d had it when she’d needed it here in the Texas wastes. What had she given Ches? His homelessness? He’d left Alabama and made this uninhabitable land his home, made his fortune selling plots of it to other exiles. God! she cried inside. She saw herself weeping like a lonely sinner into the tea-colored water of Skinner’s Creek—but no tears, no tears.
“You’re doing beautifully, Wally,” she said, steadying herself, taking a number of deep, deliberate breaths. She smelled her freshly washed hair. “I see blue up there. Do you think we’re finally out from under it?”
Directly in front of them a pale blue was marbled into the gray. The sky like the land was breaking up. “Don’t talk too loud,” Wally said, “another one might be riding our tail.”
Once past Pecos, the mountains began and her spirits lifted. Route 80 now wound through rocky valleys, and the slopes and peaks above them were covered with pine. She knew the driving was perhaps more hazardous than before, but she also knew her husband, and Wally was more at home driving a two-lane road around bends than a four-lane expressway across a desolate snow-covered plain where semi-trucks jackknifed for no reason she could understand. All right? she asked. He nodded. Was he expecting mountains? She certainly wasn’t. He shook his head.
A moment later, with a straight stretch before them, he said, “To tell you the truth, Esther, I didn’t know what to expect. Still don’t.”
“It’s nicer, though, isn’t it? It’s not so big.”
“They won’t last long. Mexico’s straight through there. The Rio Grande.”
“See, you do know what to expect.”
“Nope, I just know it’s up there. Haven’t got the foggiest what it’s like.”
Esther smiled and touched her husband’s shoulder. Wally Bartow, skilled driver and navigator, marathon traveler, looked like a boy grown old. Esther flinched and smiled once more. They were driving through a valley of cactus now, its ragged stalks and thick wavy arms partially under snow. She had never seen vistas of cactus before. Snow-covered cactus belonged with the chimeras of her dreams.
“Do you wish we hadn’t come?” she asked him in a tone of plaintive speculation. It was not a tone of hers he’d often heard.
“We could have picked a better month. Getting tired, Esther?” he asked her.
“This is the longest trip we’ve taken together. Do you realize that?”
“Seeing Ches, though, will be like going home. Don’t you think?”
“Can’t say. Seeing Charlotte will be like going home for me.”
“Our daughter, Charlotte, in Phoenix. You’re sleepier than I thought.”
“Charlotte has lived all over. She’s lived in Europe. Charlotte’s not like going home.”
“But we’re like home for her,” Wally said.
“I don’t think she knows what it means.”
Did it matter? What a sulking and self-pitying whine she heard in her voice, what a confused and vulgar thing to say. Charlotte knew what home was—say she didn’t need it as much. As Esther. Say Charlotte’s generation didn’t and ask politely, thoughtfully, if one day, one day at Esther’s age, they might. But then wouldn’t have it. Whose fault was that?
“Probably ours,” she said out loud, but Wally had Mexican music on the radio and a Mexican man singing rapturously of his love. Ours, she repeated to herself, if we secretly send our children out to travel in our place, and ours if we close every door behind them. Mine. I am simply afraid.
Once she’d admitted it, the fear sank, took on the dead-centered weight of a certainty. For perhaps five minutes she sat there next to her husband convinced that she had come out on this trip to die. She would not be allowed to die where she had lived because somehow she had lived there in error. God was not punishing her, but some heartless ironic force in the world was, a force that obliged God to turn his back. She felt judged. She felt lured out into the world by the shallowest of tricks—not an opportunity to visit her daughter and meet her new son-in-law, but an opportunity to revisit her youth, recapture it, blow a spark of it back into being in the western tip of Texas with a man whose boyish love she had spurned.
Then Texas came to an end. They wound down out of the mountains and were greeted by a plain of scrub oak, then a river valley, by a flowering of blue sky, sun, and no snow. The river was the Rio Grande, but they didn’t cross it. They didn’t have to. The first town they hit was called Esperanza, and she knew enough Spanish to know the meaning of the word— hope, an end to Texas, and a fresh Mexican start. She began to feel silly and once again scared. When they stopped to refuel, she saw nothing but oily dark faces, riotous teeth and eyes, bodies with nothing to live for except the lean, violent use of their muscles. She saw a main street of buildings bulled low to the ground and neighborhoods of shacks. Who did these people belong to? Mexico or the United States? For 67 years she’d lived with the Negroes and pickaninnies of Alabama and knew how much of her attention and sympathy and fear they deserved, but these people were like raggedly-clothed nerves who spoke in sharp bursts and smelled of their sizzling spices. These were people who lived among cactus as if those pocked stalks and gouty chains of leaves were objects of comfort and not full of spines.
“I wasn’t expecting this either,” Esther told Wally as they left Esperanza and drove toward Acala, Tornillo, San Elizario, Socorro, and El Paso itself. “It’s such a different world. It seems . . . I don’t know. It seems like the world of the night continued on into the day.”
“You want me to slow down or speed up?”
“Do I have to decide?”
“We could keep going like we are.”
“When would we reach El Paso?”
“I’d almost prefer to get there after dark,” she said slowly, unsure of herself and hoping he wouldn’t ask why.
“Why’s that?” he asked.
And she replied with a flare of baffled impatience in her voice, “I don’t know!” She tried to calm herself and temper her voice. It became conciliatory, almost at once solemn. Then, before she really knew what it was she was going to ask for, her voice began to whimper and plead, and it was no longer hers. “I’m sorry, Wally. You’ve done so well up to now and I’ve done so little to help you. Don’t ruin it—please! Even if it doesn’t make any sense, get me to El Paso after dark. Don’t ask why. I don’t know why.” She stopped. He was fixed on the road again, turned once more into the stoic-faced driver, before her eyes vanished into that part. It was a refuge. She had nothing like it. “Wally?” she inquired quietly; then, almost prodding him, “Wally? Wally?”
“Shhhh. See no evil, speak no evil,” he cautioned, one nicotine-browned finger held before his wizened mouth.
The stage whisper set off a fit of coughing that didn’t end until he had hacked up a mouthful of phlegm and spat it out the window.
She let him get settled, then repeated his name with a quiet cold clarity. “One other thing,” she said. “Give up smoking until after we’ve seen Ches. I don’t want to have to worry if you’ll recover from one of your attacks and if you do recover where you’re likely to spit. Thank you.”
He nodded. A wince tightened to a hard smile at the corner of his mouth. The speedometer dropped from 65 to 57, and her first reaction was to want the speed back, her second to sit tight. She sat tight. Wally drove. El Paso was its expressway’s bright lights, and the bright lights cast everything behind the front line of motels into squalid shadow. This time they found a Holiday Inn.
“I don’t believe it! You’re an imposter! The real Esther Richards would have come directly here, not to a Holiday Inn.”
“Bartow, of course. And Wally is with you?”
“He’s outside taking a walk.”
“Well, I have to be sure, I have powerful enemies. You could be a spy from my past. Quick! Who played the lead in our senior class play and fell off of the stage during the sword fight?”
“Oh, Ches . . . that was Charles Ennis . . . Charles Ennis, I haven’t thought of him in the last 35 years. . . .”
“And who was I?”
“You were some villainous count or something. . . .”
“Count Craven. You’re slipping. The real Esther Richards wouldn’t have missed that one.”
“Esther Bar. . . .”
“Another one. Quickly! Half an hour before the curtain rose where was I sitting?”
“Lord, Ches. . . .”
“A hint: bats and balls, the smell of leather and cold cream.”
“Leather and cold cream . . . Ches, stop! You were always in such a great rush. I know the answer to your silly question. We were in the equipment room at the gym and I was making you up for the play. I had to draw a long snaky moustache down both sides of your mouth.”
“So you did. I’m nearly convinced. Answer the last question, Esther, and I’m won. Why did I remember our senior class play in the first place?”
“Because. . . .”
“I’ll have you thrown in jail for 20 years as a treacherous spy if you don’t answer my question.”
“I haven’t got 20 years left.”
“You most certainly do if I do, and I have. Answer me, Esther.”
“You don’t forget, do you, Ches.”
“Not when I have nice things to remember.”
“I hope they were nice. I hope some were.”
“Some were glorious.”
“Did you get my card this Christmas?”
“I didn’t believe you would come. To be perfectly honest I thought we would die without seeing each other again.”
“No, Ches. Don’t talk like that. You knew where we were. We were the ones who stayed put. You could always have come to us.”
“I haven’t been back. You realize that, don’t you, Esther?”
“Yes. That hasn’t been nice of you.”
“No, it hasn’t been nice. I’ve missed you. Sometimes I miss Alabama. But when Father died and the war ended and . . . you know the rest. . .when it was over, Esther and I decided to go back in the Navy and see the world. I saw more than she did.”
“How is Esther?”
“Esther is fine. Esther has been a wonderful wife . . . . Good God! Do you realize that children and grandchildren and whole lives have slipped in between us? Do you know how that makes me feel?”
“It makes me feel careless, it makes me feel sick with myself that nothing was done.”
“You sound fine.”
“And you sound like Alabama.”
“Ches, you shouldn’t have stayed away so long.”
“If I had it to do over again . . . but I don’t. Our life is here now. I’ve been very lucky and made a lot of money and I feel I owe something back. If you’re playing poker and win early you don’t walk away from the game . . . . Esther?”
“I’m going to say this once, Ches, because I shouldn’t have to say it at all. Come home.”
“You’re lovely, Esther. It would break my heart. You still haven’t answered my question.”
“I know I haven’t. You remembered our senior class play because before you went on stage to be the meanest man in the world I kissed you and told you you were still my hero.”
“Come have dinner with us tonight.”
“No, Ches, I’m tired. We have had three days of snow.”
“Tomorrow, then. At least come spend the day.”
“No, please. Our daughter is waiting for us in Phoenix. I wrote you. . .”
“You and Esther come here tomorrow for breakfast. Can you come early? Wally likes to get an early start.”
“That’s . . . fine.”
“Esther, there is something . . . Esther? Are you still there?”
“Yes, I know, Ches. Tomorrow.”
She lay back on the bed, exhausted.
He has not smoked. God bless him. I have heard him cough exactly three times since last night and each time he’s pretended to be clearing his throat. He thinks I haven’t noticed the ordeal he’s going through, but I have. I notice them all. Sometimes I think the ordeals are the basis for our life together. He’s my knight and I’m his whimsical lady. Wally the Bold, Wally the Willing, Wally the Iron-Hearted. Wally the Old Man of the Road. There are days when he looks ancient, yet he walks like a muscle-sore boy. He walks the way Larry used to walk those first few days of football practice. Sore and springy and always leaning into the next step. Except Larry has never tried to walk off a nicotine fit in a Holiday Inn parking lot in El Paso, Texas—at least not that I know of. He travels a lot. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts, and I get a card from Denver, Colorado—a conference, a skiing vacation—but he doesn’t smoke. Not in public. And I am public for him. That’s sad to say, but I suspect it’s so. He’s gotten that guarded, reclusive side from his father who also treats me like his public sometimes, but Wally is mistaken since for many years now I have known him from the inside out. That is the basis for our marriage. We lived together learning how each other was until the day came when we’d learned it all, when I could say to myself, Now he won’t surprise me, and feel that security like money in the bank, money we’d earned. You have to earn it. Charlotte never understood that. Her first two marriages failed because she quit the second she ran across something she couldn’t understand in a glance. And because she is lazy. Marriage is work. Love is work, investigative work. In some ways the more you know about a person the more you love since the knowledge belongs only to you, it’s the fruit of your labor, and all fruit is nourishing regardless of how sweet or sour it might taste. Wally is a slightly green and knotty apple. The first few bites were bitter, but they went down. The remaining bites were fine. That’s how it is. I can sit here in this lobby with wagon wheels and lariats on the walls and potted cactus on the floor and unappetizing smells and incomprehensible words coming from the kitchen, and look outside and see Wally, someone I know in a spot where I know so little, and he’s as good as an anchor, as good as home. My Knight of the Old South. I leave him there. I look right into the face of a clock mounted on driftwood which says ten after eight. I pick up a magazine no different from the Better Homes and Gardens I might have picked up off my coffee table at home and glance at layouts of a living room furnished with half-collapsed furniture in upper-state New York. The instep of my right foot begins to itch but I refuse to take off my shoe and scratch it. I pat my hair. My palms are wet and I wipe them on a Kleenex I have in my purse. I also have family pictures in my purse, and although it’s not yet the moment to take them out I hold them to the light at the mouth of my purse and flip them over. Both Larry and Charlotte are fair-skinned, strong-chinned, tall, clean, and confused. The confusion shows in a number of ways. Neither seems to want to take a plant. Their eyes are edgy and their smiles queer. My five grandchildren are too active and agile to stay inside my purse. Each wants to get outside into my hand. Each wants all my attention and the rest of my time, and I haven’t got it to give, not now, my purse is closed. . . .
“Esther, look who’s here!”
Wally is here, Wally my rock. The couple with him is so deeply tanned that beside them Wally looks sickly and shutin, and Wally is not. He doesn’t even cough. He stands there smiling at me, then respecting my privacy, lowers his eyes and allows them to drift over the floor. I can sense them stopping on an ugly piece of cactus, shaped like a huge sore thumb. I can follow them halfway up a rack of picture postcards placed beside the restaurant door. His eyes aren’t as good as mine and where he sees only patches of color—ocher and reddish-gold and a shiny ceramic blue—I can see the desert and weather-sculpted rock and the flawless Mexican-American sky. The woman is small, motionless. She wears a stylish, trim-waisted coat with the collar turned up and nothing on her head. Her hair is a wiry salt-and-pepper. Her eyes are large and dark; the deep tan does something unpleasant to the eyes, makes the area around the lids seem moist and fishy-pale, very weak. Everything else is pointy and precise. The man at her side wears a leather car coat, he wears narrow tan tousers and boots. He has weight to carry—the shoulders are broad and powerfully sloped—and at the moment the weight seems both settled and poised. His hands and fingers are thick and hang slightly curled at his sides. Across his weathered lips there’s a thin, controlled, tersely questioning smile, the smile of a successful man with enemies. I look at the short silver hair, perfectly groomed, at the tufts of curlier hair in the V of his open collar. I look at the ears. The ears are small. At the ears he looks vulnerable, affectionate, but the ears seem incidental, vestigial even, like something left over from a meeker species of being. The jaw, forehead, and nose are impersonal and firm. I look at his eyes. I see eyes that look unwaveringly back at me, clear as water and blue because the sky is, because the planet is, but noncommittal, vacant, emptied of the years. I take one step forward and stop. I realize I would never be able to guess this man’s age. . . .