The mercury registers close to ninety, with the air-con Off. Any setting of On blows only heated air. I have, semi-awake, been sliding open high bedroom windows, the only ones in the apartment not hermetically sealed, around three in the morning, when the surrounding sprinkler system comes on, and sliding them shut when I get up. Russell wants me to call the apartment manager about the central air, because I have time on my hands and it’s an adult thing to do. I have never lived away from home before, except for summer vacations, and I call this, too, with Russell, a summer visit, helping him settle in. I refer to it as a tryout, the possible precursor to a move, in part to appease Russell, and in part to keep one foot planted in potential independence from my family, for no other reason than I want to be considered an adult.

    A couple of months ago, I graduated high school in L.A., days before I drove with Russell, who is twenty-six, to Dallas in what I call my Peanut M&M—a two-year-old 1975 chocolate-brown Honda hatchback my dad bought me new when I turned sixteen, on the condition that I would cart around my younger sister (now—it’s frightening—Deborah drives herself, in a dented red Mustang with black racing stripes on the hood). Russell’s puke-yellow Datsun 280-Z and his scant furnishings were relocated by the men’s accessories company that moved his territory from the Bay Area to Dallas. He and I met in March in San Diego at a MAGIC show, Men’s Apparel Guild in California. My “big sister” April, now twenty-one, is living with Mick, a jeans manufacturer in his thirties, and April and I worked his booth, modeling jeans—not runway or photo-shoot, but walking around, flexing our pocket designs, returning to the booth with admirers, sitting only when we could manage to write an order. Russell had zoned in on me with bright eyes, flashing smile, bouncing Groucho brows, clichéed salesman’s charm—way too schticky. My first impression of him was of a hokey conventioneer who, even though in March it’s just as cold in San Diego as it was in San Francisco, because it’s a beach town, he wore flip-flops with not-quite-casual trousers, too short and wide in the leg; he wore short-sleeved button-downs with ties. When he walked, he bounced on the balls of his white, splayed feet. He was repping a line of belts and side-lining a novelty item called Carter’s Pills, red-white-and-blue labels bearing a cartoon illustration of the new president, red-lidded clear-plastic jars filled with whole peanuts in their shells. If Russell hadn’t been gaga over me from the moment he saw me, he would not have held my attention long enough to spark my interest, but he was persistent, extremely attentive—I became important to him real fast—which made him seem worth exploring, even though I lived in L.A. and he in San Francisco, or maybe because of it. I enjoyed that back-and-forth, close but far. And now we are long-distance from anyplace either of us has ever called home.

    April doesn’t approve of Russell. She says Russell is polyester to my rayon; rayon to my silk; cotton-blend, ten-ounce to my fourteen-ounce, pure-cotton denim. April tries to be nice to Russell, and Russell thinks she likes him. He would bet on it. But April tells me, “He’s vinyl. You’re leather.”

    I believe my dad accepts Russell because I do. Dad’s girlfriend, Kay, a classy, Alabama-accented film producer, must be charmed by Russell, because when he and I arrived in Dallas, waiting for us at our door was a box containing a four-place setting of stylishly understated stainless flatware Kay sent ahead as a housewarming gift. The card said it was from Dad, too. On the other hand, Kay advised me before I left L.A. to set up a Dallas account that Russell knew about and, in case of emergency, one he didn’t. Dad—who is not exactly enthusiastic about Dallas as a move but whose philosophy was always to support me, so I’d feel free to contact him if I need help—accused Kay of encouraging me, in suggesting that I open “an escape fund,” to begin a potential partnership with duplicity and distrust, without an honest chance. “It’s sabotage!” he said, determined to show that he takes me and Russell seriously. Dad reminded Kay that he gave me an issue of his credit card in case of emergency and that Russell knows he is only a collect-call away—if I needed my dad, he’d be on the next plane. Kay shook her head and said, “Rod.” I opened just one account in Dallas. It’s not like I was rolling in it.

    Russell met a guy with a novelty business who hired me to rep his line of gold- and silver-plated, barbed-wire swizzle sticks. I work on commission but have made none. I keep getting lost between gift shops and novelty stores on the deranged and spokey streets of Dallas, keep finding myself driving through a shockingly segregated, inner-city slum. Why am I shocked? Because I am young and naive and have never even driven through the heart of L.A. on surface streets. After Russell’s company hired me to check belt inventories, update orders, and straighten out racks at discount department stores, I began getting lost on a larger scale, out near the Loop, the Belt Line, the bent-rim outskirts of Dallas. Where do I think I am going? Where do I hope to end up? I think maybe I should be getting ready for college, but to study what and why? I have investigated Dallas-area colleges, but how can I afford out-of-state fees, and why ask my dad for financial help so I can stay with my boyfriend, when I could attend Santa Monica College, or maybe U.C.L.A., living at home for free? I think I want to be a grownup. But I am not sure how. A woman’s body won’t get me there, but I don’t understand yet the difference between how I might or should see myself and my reflection in others’ eyes. I can’t know what my mom would have advised had she survived cancer. And my dad reached success as a playwright, television and screen writer, without ever attending college; without a degree, he’s invited to lecture at colleges.

    The apartment manager laughs at me and explains that the central air-conditioning isn’t broken but can only cool up to fifteen degrees below what it is outside. He says, “Don’t touch the windows!” So I do. The glass is heated. But it doesn’t burn.

    The men’s accessories company found the one-bedroom for Russell in an apartment “Village.” I brought with me no more than would fit in my Peanut M&M, to tide me through summer, most of which I store in built-in cupboards and cabinets. Russell didn’t even own all the bedroom furniture he’d had in San Francisco. In the Dallas bedroom is only his waterbed. Russell makes use of the closet’s built-in drawers and shelves. The living room is empty, except for Russell’s stereo on the floor; the dining nook altogether unfurnished; and the living nook the kitchen looks onto holds one armchair, a standing lamp, TV, pillows, and, stacked in a corner, cartons of Carter’s Pills. Russell’s former San Francisco roommate is a cocaine dealer, and this is how he fills Russell’s orders. Russell left the unsold cartons in the Bay Area, and he and I have to find, in each mailing from the ex-roommate, the one jar containing short vials of coke stashed into emptied peanut shells glued back together. I don’t go into the coke without Russell—it’s his—but he does dip into it without me. It goes fast.

    I stand at knees-to-ceiling windows in the living nook and watch rain sudden and pounding, pummeling concrete, asphalt, and metal clean. Each building contains four apartments, two doors at the top of exterior stairs and two beneath. I see Stuart, our neighbor whose door faces ours at the top of the stairs, jog out to his car in shorts and a polo shirt, a towel around his neck. Our building is surrounded by a network of lawns, crisscrossed with walkways and parking lots interconnecting with the Village’s own system of streets with different colored street signs from the rest of the city. Stuart’s TransAm isn’t the only car with its T-top or sunroof open. He slides his roof shut, towels off his seat, gets in, closes his door, and drives away. I watch him move along the edges of the landscaped puzzle pieces of Village greens into the surrounding golf course enveloping this parked-out piece of desert prairie. It is weird to see Stuart in the light of day, without a Delta flight bag—hard to imagine his actual life on the ground, he is so often in the air, or just having landed or about to take off. Yet, Russell and I were his guests once, in June, at a pre-season football game in Texas Stadium, along with his stewardess girlfriend. Stuart is a steward, built like a football player, and he dresses like a model. He brought to the stadium, without yet knowing better, a portable bar, and Russell became belligerent, but he wasn’t the only one. I rooted for the Dolphins instead of the Cowboys, and someone in the stadium seats above sailed a not-so-empty beer can at my head and didn’t miss. Back at the Village, Stuart helped me get Russell up the stairs and into bed. He insisted I take some aspirin, and he waited until I did, before he re-joined his girlfriend across the landing in his unit. Stuart speaks in what I interpret—but Russell does not notice—as coded language: “Remember,” he says, “my door is always open, whenever I’m in port.”

    Rain ceases more abruptly than it began. I watch the asphalt and concrete and lawns and cars and interior upholstery steam-drying—vapors rising—like in time-lapse photography. Rain contributes to the ninety-plus-percent humidity that has driven me and Russell to devise desperate measures—for instance, trying to stay dry after showers: Towel one arm, quickly douse with baby powder, dry the other arm, immediately douse with baby powder, and so on, breaking the body into doable sections, patches small enough to be dried and powdered in seconds, before perspiration can sprout up again. Not until our whole bodies are whitened with a skin of powder do we attempt to distribute it evenly, recovering some color by rubbing lotion into parts that stick out of our clothing. It is an anecdote I relate in letters to folks back home that hint I might want to return to L.A. at summer’s end but not because of poor Russell, who has to live in Dallas if he wants to keep his job.

    I write in letters Russell sometimes reads before I can get them into envelopes, anecdotes like the baby powder, and about how I overheard spectators at the Village tennis courts puzzling over why Russell’s T-shirts flop, while other players’ shirts stick. I tell of how we have gotten to know Dallas by investigating tennis courts for Russell to pine over and aspire to land games on. He aims to play on clay at S.M.U. and come home dusted red. We also began to get to know Dallas via business dinners, but I have stopped going to those because, even though J.R. and Dallas won’t air for a year, I already see these businessmen as cliches, as Texas chauvinists, and their women as cliche accessories, and I find it hard to keep my mouth shut in response to them, which only causes Russell trouble. I write home about how the closest Village pool is an ongoing cocktail party, tenants bobbing like cubes in drinks, except with the opposite effect, warming the water so that it may as well be recycled sweat for how refreshing it is; of how driving around the mirrored city—its loopy roadways sprawling like demented spokes reaching for the crooked rim of a wagon wheel—the after-market air conditioner I had installed in the Honda before we left L.A. hacked out white vapor then choked and died, unable to withstand such ungodly heat and humidity combined. I often leave the Village for free space that can keep a chill inside, like fully-encased, climate-controlled department store malls, whose escalators provide an additional breeze. I wrote home of how, after being hit in my driver’s door in a mall parking lot by a woman with insurance, the body shop mechanic said he didn’t want my business: “Get your Commie car out of here!” And how, when I corrected him—“China’s a Communist country; Japan’s a democracy”—he said that my car and I were “un-American,” and that I should “go back to California!”—like Texas is a country and not a state.

    The telephone rings—Russell calling from the Village club house. “Come out for a drink, sweetie. Meet some people.”

    Rain clouds have blown off to let the sun have its way.

    Russell is getting lit earlier every day.

    When I enter the club lounge, my bare arms and legs wear a film that fights against air-conditioning. Floor-to-ceiling windows are too hot to look at, even with curtains drawn. One happy-hour couple shuffles the dance floor in golf socks.

    Russell tells me, “Dance.” He is in tennis clothes, moving to the disco that the bartender is playing. Saturday Night Fever will not hit theatres for months, but Russell has already been living a life of disco, since before San Francisco, since Chicago, even in tennis clothes. I try to remember if I noticed what Russell was wearing this morning when he left or even if I was awake when he did. Has he even been to work today?

    “Wait till I cool down,” I tell him. I am not a wiz at disco nor at any other kind of dancing, not good at taking choreography. Once I have to think about how I move, I become frozen.

    “I told them my sweetie would dance with me,” Russell says.

    Those people are already embarking upon their escape. Russell stands close and says into my ear, “Look what you’ve done. Those were my friends. Why are you wearing so much makeup? Why do you wear tennis clothes when you won’t learn tennis?” He slides a hand down my filmy arm. “Why won’t you dance with me?” He yanks my wrist so hard I feel a snap in my shoulder.

    I walk out.

    I am doubtful I could pack up the Honda and drive a safe distance before Russell could come home and catch me; or come after me, which I fear, assume, he is more apt to do if it looks like I am running. It is August. I have been waiting out the summer so Russell cannot claim I didn’t give Dallas a chance.

    He comes home and asks, “Miss me?” He pushes the stereo on—disco—with a toe of his Adidas. He pulls me by my sore arm into the unfurnished dining alcove. “Let’s dance.”

    “Russell,” I say.

    He says, “Why won’t you follow me?”

    “It’s no fun to learn,” I tell him, “if it’s just so you won’t look bad.”

    “Just leave me and get it over with.” He toes off the stereo and is out the door.

    Does he mean it? Really—how fast can I pack the Honda? Then I notice through the window, Russell’s car is still in the parking lot and mine is gone.

    He calls after dark from T.G.I. Friday’s interior phone booth. “Come for a drink. And bring me some pants.”

    “Bring my car back,” I tell him.

    “Bring me some pants.”

    “Fucking bring my car back.”

    “I can’t leave this booth.”

    “Too drunk?”

    “No.”

    “Hurt?”

    “No.”

    “Puking?”

    “No.”

    “Have you lost my keys?”

    “I ripped the seat out of my shorts. Come down here and bring me some pants.”

    “You have my car.”

    “Use my car.”

    “Where are your keys?”

    “In my…pocket.”

    “Spares?”

    “In the…Honda. You could walk down here. Get off your ass, do your man a favor. Do you have to ruin everything?”

    “You’re asking me to walk two miles on the shoulder of a dark highway to save you embarrassment between Friday’s and the parking lot? I could be run over. I could be raped. Fuck you.”

    The phone keeps ringing, but I don’t answer because I know it will bring him back in my car.

    “Hang up on me?” he says. “You say ‘fuck you’ and hang up on me?”

    “Stay away from me.”

    “I’m here for my pants.” He leaves the door open and bounces on his toes toward the bedroom.

    I snatch my keys from the knob. My spares are already hidden outside.

    “Give me those,” he says.

    I say, “You have your keys.”

    When the phone rings, Russell makes a point of being the one to answer. He says, “Hello, Rod.”

    My dad?

    “Returning Margot’s call? Hon’, did you call your dad?”

    “No.”

    Russell hands over the receiver, keeping a skeptical eye on me. There is no extension for him to listen in on.

    “Hi, Dad.”

    “Listen, sport, Aunt Zelly’s going in for more surgery, and I want to fly out there as soon as possible. I’m sorry if it’s an imposition, but summer’s almost over and I’m wondering if you’ll come home early to look after the house, because I’m afraid Deb will burn it down or leave it open for burglars if she’s here alone. You’re planning on coming back anyway to register, right?”

    “Now?”

    “‘Now’ what?” Russell asks.

    “If you can,” Dad says, “it would be much appreciated.”

    “If you need me to,” I say.

    “What?” Russell asks.

    Dad says, “I think I’ll have time to fly out and drive back with you.”

    “No way, Dad.”

    “What?” Russell asks.

    “You’re not driving that distance on your own,” Dad says.

    “I’m not driving it with six-foot-four of you folded in, slamming your palms on the dashboard, stomping on your imaginary brake pedal.”

    “I’ll fly Ape out,” Dad says.

    I say, “If you insist.”


April says, “Uncle Rod and Mick really had it out.”

    Russell leans forward from a folded position in the Honda’s back seat, having insisted on coming with me to Dallas–Fort Worth, as if he suspected I might trick him and catch a flight myself.

    “Mick doesn’t understand,” April says, “why Uncle Rod can call and ask me to get on a plane and I’d agree without, not asking permission, but discussing it with him, you know, before I said yes. He gets on the line in the bedroom and says so, and Uncle Rod calls him a sniveler and a whiner, and Mick hangs up on him, which doesn’t exactly have an impact, since I’m still on the line in the living room. Mick’s trying to take some control by mapping out our route and making motel reservations all along the way, even though I know your dad did, too.”

    “How hard can it be?” I say. “We stay overnight in El Paso. From there, it’s I-10 all the way to L.A.”

    “Mick made us a reservation there” April says, “in El Paso.”

    “So did Dad,” I say.

    “And in Phoenix,” April says, “and in San Diego.”

    “San Diego?” I say. “We’re going to cross the border at stinky Blythe.”

    “They want us to cut down to San Diego,” April says, “because it’s more populated. Just humor them. We’ll call ahead and cancel one El Paso and see what kind of start we get in the morning from there, before we cancel Phoenix and San Diego. Think you’re right, though. Can probably get home the second night.”

    “Aren’t you going to ask me what I think?” Russell complains. “Am I even here?” Russell cannot understand any better than Mick the bond between April and me. He frustrates himself with straight analogies: If April and her brothers call Dad uncle, and Debbie and I call April and W.J. and Ian’s mom aunt, why do we kids call each other brothers and sisters instead of cousins? We just do, I tell him. It’s easier.

    “Sure,” April says. “Let’s add a third man’s opinion to the mix.”

    “I’m already in the mix,” Russell says.

    April announces dinner will be on Mick. We go to a restaurant in one of the gold-mirrored cubes that has popped up seemingly overnight from a barren strip of landscape between highways, and I almost wish Mick was with us, so that he and Russell could talk tennis and Chicago, what they have in common besides April and me. Russell drinks too much and better than he would if he were paying for himself. He flirts and schmoozes with wait staff as if he’s celebrating. I wish Russell would be relieved I’m leaving, but what matters most to him seems to be that this is not his idea—it’s something sprung on him without notice, without a choice.

    Russell insists on after-dinner drinks in the bar above the dining room, a mirrored lounge with a dance floor that no one is using. At our table, one moment Russell is looking at us brightly, and the next his head drops from his neck. When his face bounces back up, on his forehead is a crescent of blood in the shape of his snifter’s rim.

    “Russell, you okay?” I put my hand on his head. “You’re bleeding.”

    “Am not.”

    “Feel it? Your forehead’s cut.”

    “It’s not.”

    “Look,” I say, scooping blood onto a fingertip to show him.

    He waves my hand away. “Let me take care of it, find the john.”

    “I’ll go with you,” I say.

    “Leave me alone. You’re going to, anyway.”

    April and I watch him swerve round the corner at the top of the spiral staircase.

    I tell her, “I won’t get into this with you until we’re well on our way to El Paso and I’m sure he can’t hear.”

    Russell has been gone awhile, and I check my purse for my keys, which are thankfully there. My spares are still hidden at the Village. April and I go downstairs to look. We pass through the empty dining room to the bathrooms. I knock on the men’s room door, but there is no answer. I push it open and we go in. No Russell. We check the ladies’ room. No Russell. We go out to the Honda. No Russell. We check inside the kitchen, where a staff member still cleans up, but no Russell. My eyes light on, between kitchen and dining room, behind the wall separating them, a cylindrical wet bar that looks like a giant, lidless ice bucket, where waitresses, when the restaurant is open, fill drink orders. I peer over the rim into its core, and Russell pops up like a giggling jack-in-the-box, pants pockets stuffed with Snappy Toms, mini Tootsie Rolls and mints. He passes out and drops back inside.

    The kitchen guy helps us extract Russell from the floor of the ice bucket and haul him out to the Honda. I open the passenger door and push the seatback forward. Russell comes to and insists that I open the hatchback. He shoves April’s bag over onto the back seat, crawls into the back deck, and uses my rolled-up canvas car cover as a pillow.

    At the Village, April and I attempt to slide Russell out on top of the unrolled car cover, hammock-style. We try to be gentle, but he drops pretty hard.

    “Just leave him out here,” April says.

    “I won’t do that.”

    We sled him on top of the car cover across asphalt and grass, over the concrete walkway, and leave him at the bottom of the stairs, while we go up to prop open the door.

    Each of us uses the toilet, then we stand in the kitchen gulping iced tea.

    Back at the bottom of the stairs, Russell hasn’t moved. Blood has dried on his forehead, despite humidity.

    “Is he dead yet?” asks Stuart, backlit by exterior lights at the top of the stairs.

    “Nope,” I say.

    “Might you use my assistance?”

    “April, Stuart. Stuart, my big sis, Ape.”

    The three of us get Russell up the stairs, into the apartment and onto the waterbed. Russell’s head knocks against the unpadded wood frame to sloshing sounds like those that accompanied my first orgasms—though I won’t know until later that’s what those were—no joy or satisfaction came with them, just sadness and unexplained feelings of what I can only describe as guilt. I bumper Russell’s head with a pillow. April and Stuart go. I switch the light out and close the door.

    “Remember,” Stuart tells me in the living room.

    “Your door is always open, whenever you’re in port,” I say. Then I tell him I’m leaving.

    April and I run cold water over wash cloths to scrub at our faces and pits. We brush our teeth, douse ourselves with baby powder, and change into travel clothes we will sleep in. We crash on the livingroom floor in bags, bunkered by a surround of my packed belongings. When I awaken, it is still dark, and Russell is standing over us, naked. April has ducked her head into her bag, but I can hear her quilted voice: “Seriously?”

    “I need a bath,” Russell announces. “And lamb chops.”

    “Are there lamb chops?” I ask.

    “Thawed even. In the fridge.”

    “Alright,” I say. “Get in the tub.”

    Russell climbs into the filling tub, and I go to the kitchen to fry a chop.

    I sit on the toilet lid, treat Russell’s forehead, and I fork him bites, while he gazes at me expectantly. Without my stuff, the bathroom seems empty. I wonder with the suddenness of a did-I-forget-to-pack? rush if the stainless flatware is Russell’s or mine. He falls asleep. I open the drain. I take his plate back to the kitchen. I decide the flatware is his. I go back in and pat the front of him dry, tuck fresh towels around him, push a bed pillow behind his head and leave him in the bathroom with the light on, so he won’t be scared or angry when he wakes up in the tub.

    I wash up in the kitchen, turn out the light, and climb back into my sleeping bag. April is staring at me, the lump of her covered head a silhouette backlit by the glow of the bathroom light shining into the hall. I close my eyes to April, then hear the front door open. Just as it’s shutting, I see Russell, naked—now on the other side.

    “Ape.”

    “What?”

    “He left.”

    “Good.”

    “Naked.”

    “Oh my god,” April says into her pillow.

    By the time I open the door, Russell isn’t even on the stairs anymore. He is nowhere and naked.

    I grab the comforter off his bed, pocket my keys, tell April, “Do me a favor and find his keys—any and all keys,” and I go out looking for him amidst the isolated whirring sounds of boxed central air fans and of sprinklers, which means it is after three. I hold the comforter high to keep it dry. The water feels lovely on bare legs.

    Russell is not in plain view but I imagine he is potentially everywhere, might pop up from anywhere. I peer under my locked Honda, under his locked Z, and beneath the cars around them —nothing.

    April comes outside hauling her things and some of mine and whispers loudly, “I’m packing your car right now. Open up. Here.” She hands over Russell’s regular set of keys and his spares.

    Hugging the quilt, I walk to the pool.

    The surrounding concrete is dry, and the underwater light is on—no one—nothing.

    I cruise the walkways of our particular island of the Village and hear through the open doorway of the closest laundry room a ping. I reach inside, switch on the lights, poke my head in —nothing. I hear the sound again, except now it’s a stifled peep. I pass beyond the laundry-folding tables. One ocular wall-drier door is ajar. I swing it the rest of the way open. Russell is inside, is dripping wet, probably from sprinklers. He must have fallen. He giggles and asks, “Got a quarter?”


April and I leave Russell in his quilt on his bed and on the kitchen counter a note explaining that for his own safety, his car keys and house keys are in an envelope across the landing with Stuart. I sign Love, embarrassed for April to see so.

    We sit in a coffee shop past sunrise, waiting for my bank to open. April wants to know why I can’t just close my account by phone or by mail.

    “I don’t want to act like I’m running,” I tell her. “I’m going now because Dad needs me.” I don’t say so, but watching out the coffee shop windows, I half-expect Russell’s Z to pull up, for him to stagger in and accuse me of sneaking out rather than showing him the consideration of saying goodbye in person.

    On the road to El Paso, my eyes return again and again to the rearview, looking out for Russell’s Z. I tell April I am not sure whether I decided to leave Russell because his drinking got worse, or if his drinking got worse because he could tell I was going to leave. “I can’t believe Dad called when he did. Russell couldn’t believe it either. Really? Aunt Zel’s having more surgery? Dad’s really flying Back East?”

    “He’s in the air by now,” April says. “Is there something more I should know about?”

    “He didn’t hurt me,” I say. “I don’t know why I think he might come after me, except I never thought I’d find him naked in a wall drier, either.”

    I had the Honda’s air conditioning repaired last month—“You’re living in a fucking armpit!” Dad had said in a letter. “Use the Visa!” April leans forward with her face to the vents while I drive. April is unusually quiet, probably so I’ll talk more.

    I play every single eight-track I have, avoiding the radio, because Elvis Presley has died, behind us, in Memphis, and we cannot get away from him on the airwaves.

    We check in at El Paso before sunset. April phones Mick, and I leave a message on my dad’s machine that he can pick up by remote with his beeper. I tell April I’m still afraid Russell might show up, angry about the way we left him.

    April says, “Call him. If he answers, he’s more than five-hundred miles away, and we can eat and sleep in peace.”

    I try Russell, but there is no answer, and the machine doesn’t pick up.

    Still, there is no answer when we come back from dinner.

    I sleep fitfully. The ground-floor room is locked, but whenever I jerk awake, my eyes are on the backlit drapes. I cry, but I’m not sure why. I have not spent a night without Russell for months. Maybe it’s relief.

    I try him again in the morning, and because there is no answer, after we check out I find myself scanning the parking lot for his Z; once we are back on the road, my eyes are darting in the rearview.

    When April phones Mick at lunchtime from a Phoenix coffee shop and tells him we are cancelling reservations there and ahead, I hear him yelling, “What are you nuts? Are you crazy? How fast are you going?” Mick wants to talk to me after April tells him I am doing all the driving, but I tell April I don’t know what the big deal is—apparently Mick isn’t factoring in zone changes—and I leave the payphones to go find a table. I hear April tell Mick, “We already have fathers—see you tonight.”

    I am thinking about how our friend Becca’s mother Sylvie, depending on what Becca wanted to do, or what Sylvie wanted her to do, has either said Becca was “only” whatever age she was, or because of her age “old enough.” I am wondering how to think of myself—as old enough, or as only?

    After lunch, I admit I am tired, and April convinces me to let her drive. April behind the wheel makes me nervous, but I need sleep. When I wake up, April has us in Phoenix still, on a cloverleaf in Friday afternoon traffic. April is high-frequency frustrated and says she’s been looping around, getting off, getting back on, and no matter what she does, she is going in the wrong direction. I’ve been asleep for more than an hour and we’re still in Phoenix. “How is that even possible?”

    I tell April to get off, and she pulls in at a gas station. I get behind the wheel. I put us back on I-10 west. “Elvis Elvis Elvis,” I say. “Jesus Fucking Christ.”

    We listen to eight-tracks again. We make up new meanings for food names. We call despicable characters like April’s dad Whit, who was my dad’s first agent—or, like Hal, my mom’s widower—a scone, which has a similar mouth feel to scoundrel but is more immediately satisfying to speak, like Jesus Fucking Christ—which comes to me from a Montana friend’s Roman Catholic grandfather—feels more satisfying to say than Jesus H. Christ, whose H is mysterious, unbacked by one solid theory. April and I test scone in different contexts and laugh so hard we hold what April calls our “tweenies.” We wonder whether we have heat stroke, even though the air conditioning works. We begin to receive radio that isn’t Elvis and hear on the news that Groucho Marx has died, ahead of us, at Cedars-Sinai. We say, “Wow—Groucho,” and wonder how our parents are feeling about the news, whether they have heard. We ask each other, remember our parents’ tears when Kennedys died? April says she remembers Jack, and I remember my mom crying over Bobby, but first over Martin Luther King. We remember how Spencer Tracy and Louis Armstrong were assumed when they died to have been our relatives, because we could not imagine our parents mourning so over people who were not in the family.

    I say, “How could we think Satchmo was related to either one of us?”

    “In a way,” April says, “he was. When he died, could you remember a time without him?”

    I say we are gaining an hour when we cross the border, and April says we have lost it, but all I care about is that we are in California and we can ditch Elvis almost entirely by dialing in a wealth of available stations. We cut down to the 405 north, which becomes what we have always known as the San Diego Freeway, and are back in L.A. in a couple hours.

    I drop April in Studio City at Mick’s around eleven and pull out of his drive before he comes outside, because April has been good but is about to burst, and I don’t want to hear from Mick about Russell.

    I take Moorpark west, to where it will feed across Ventura at Tyrone, and then over Beverly Glen to Sunset. I embrace with my eyes towering rows of palms it seems I am now just noticing, rising up distinctly, tall and spindly with frondy heads, evident even against a moonless sky.

    Beverly Glen snakes me south over the hills to Sunset, which carries me west toward my dad’s, where Russell will months from now break in and steal almost everything he has given me—a blue velveteen blazer, a red silk button-down blouse, a stuffed Beagle named Delta—along with my photo albums documenting our months together and the months on either side that Russell had nothing to do with—cementing himself forever in my mind as a twenty-seven-year-old man sneaking in through the one window left unlocked by an eighteen-year-old girl.





Pamela Balluck, from New York City, Los Angeles, and western Montana, teaches writing in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah and Westminster College. Her stories have appeared in, among other publications, Western Humanities Review, The Southeast Review, Barrow Street (flash fiction as prose poem), Pank, Night Train, the Avery Anthology, and an earlier third-person version of this story, “Don’t Touch the Windows,” part of a novel-in-progress, is also forthcoming in the Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories anthology.



Back to Freight Stories No. 7

 

Pamela Balluck

Don’t Touch the Windows