On Saturday, Iry Boudreaux's girlfriend fired him. The young man had just come on shift at the icehouse and was seated in a wooden chair under the big wall-mounted ammonia gauge, reading a cowboy novel. The room was full of whirring, hot machinery, antique compressors run by long flat belts, black-enameled electric motors that turned for months at a time without stopping. His book was a good one, and he was lost in a series of fast-moving chapters involving long-distance rifle duels, cattle massacres, and an elaborate saloon fight that lasted thirty pages. At the edge of his attention Iry heard something like a bird squawk, but he continued to read. He turned a page, trying to ignore an intermittent iron-on-iron binding noise rising above the usual lubricated whir of the engine room. Suddenly the old number two ammonia compressor began to shriek and bang. Before Iry could get to the power box to shut off the motor, a piston rod broke, and the compressor knocked its brains out. In a few seconds Babette, Iry's girlfriend, ran into the engine room from the direction of the office. White smoke was leaking from a compressor's crankshaft compartment, and Iry bent down to open the little cast-iron inspection door.
Babette pointed a red fingernail to the sight glass of the brass lubricator. "You let it run out of oil," she said, putting the heel of her other hand on her forehead. "I can't believe it."
Iry's face flushed as he looked in to see the chewed crankshaft glowing dully in the dark base of the engine. "Son of a bitch," he said, shaking his head.
She bent over his shoulder, and he could smell the mango perfume that he had given her for Christmas. Her dark hair touched his left earlobe for an instant, and then she straightened up. He knew that she was doing the math already, and numbers were her strength: cubic feet of crushed ice, tons of block ice. "Iry, the damned piston rod seized on the crankshaft," she said, her voice rising. "The foundry'll have to cast new parts, and we're looking at six or seven thousand dollars, plus the downtime." Now she was yelling.
He had let both Babette and the machine down. He looked up to say something and saw that she was staring at the cowboy novel he'd left open face-down on his folding chair.
"I don't know, Iry. The owner's gonna have a hard time with this." She folded her arms. "He's gonna want to know what you were doing, and I'm gonna tell him." She gestured toward the book.
"Look, I checked the damned oil level when I came on shift. It wasn't my fault."
She looked at him hard. "Iry, the machine didn't commit suicide." She licked a finger and touched it to the hot iron. "Mr. Lanier has been after me to cut staff, and now this." She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and shook her head. "You need to get away from this place."
He pulled a shop rag from the back pocket of his jeans and wiped his hands, feeling something important coming. "What's that mean?"
She looked at him the way a boss looks at an employee. "I'm going to lay you off."
"You're firing me?"
"Last time we had a compressor rebuilt we were down for a long time. Come back, maybe next month, and we'll see."
"Aw, come on. Let's go out tonight and talk about this over a couple of cold ones." He pushed back his baseball cap and gave her a grin, showing his big teeth.
She shook her head. "You need a vacation is what you need. You ought to go somewhere. Get out of town, you know?"
"Yeah. Get your head out of those books. Go look at some real stuff."
"Who's gonna watch the compressor that's still working?"
Babette took his shop rag from him and wiped a spot of oil from a glossy fingernail. "The new man who watches during your lunch break. Mauvais."
"Mauvais can't operate a roll of toilet paper."
"We'll just be making party ice after this." She looked at him. "At least he's never let the oil get low."
He glanced at her dark hair, trying to remember the last time he'd touched it.
The next morning Iry got up and drove through the rain to early Mass. The church was full of retirees, people who had stayed on the same job all their lives. The priest talked about the dignity of work, and Iry stared at the floor. He felt that his relationship with Babette, such as it was, might be over. He remembered how she had looked at him the last time, trying to figure why a good engineer would let the oil run out. Maybe he wasn't a good engineer--or a good anything. After Mass he stood in the drizzle on the stone steps of the church watching people get into their cars, waved at a few, and suddenly felt inauthentic, as though he no longer owned a real position in his little town of Grand Crapaud. He drove to his rent house and called his mother with instructions to come over and water his tomato patch once a day. Then he packed up his old red Jeep Cherokee and headed west toward Texas.
After a few miles, the two-lane highway broke out of a littered swamp and began to cut through sugarcane fields. The rain clouds burned off, and the new-growth cane flowed to the horizons in deep, apple-green lawns. Iry's spirits rose as he watched herons and cranes slow-stepping through irrigation ditches. He realized that what Babette had said about a vacation was true.
He avoided the main highway and drove the flatland past gray cypress houses and their manicured vegetable gardens. Through sleepy, live oak–covered settlements the old Jeep bobbed along with a steady grinding noise that made Iry feel primitive and adventurous. On the outskirts of New Iberia he saw something unusual: a one-armed woman, wearing a short-sleeve navy-blue dress, was hitchhiking. She was standing next to a big tan suitcase a hundred yards west of a rusty Grenada parked in the weeds with its hood raised. Iry seldom picked up anyone from the side of the road, but this woman's right arm was missing below the elbow, and she was thumbing with her left hand, which looked awkward as she held it across her breast. He realized that she would only look normal thumbing a ride on the left side of a highway, where no one would stop for her.
When he pulled off, she didn't come to the car at first, but bent down to look through the back window at him. He opened the passenger door and she came to it and ducked her head in, studying him a moment. Iry looked down at his little paunch and resettled his baseball cap.
"You need a ride?"
"Yes." She was pale, late thirties or so, with dark wiry hair spiked straight up in a tall, scary crew cut, and tawny skin. He thought she looked like a woman he'd once seen on TV who was beating a policeman with a sign on a stick. She seemed very nervous. "But I was hoping for a ride from a woman," she said.
"I can't afford no sex-change operation," he told her. "That your car?"
She looked back down the road. "Yes. At least it was. A man just pulled off who made all kinds of mystifying mechanical statements about it, saying it'd take three thousand dollars worth of work to make it worth four hundred. I guess I'll just leave it." She sniffed the air inside the Jeep. "It's awfully hot and I hate to pass up a ride."
He turned and looked at a large dark spray of oil under the engine. "That man say it threw a rod cap through the oil pan?"
She gave him an annoyed look. "All you men speak this same private language."
He nodded, agreeing. "You don't have to be afraid of me, but if you want to wait for a woman, I'll just get going."
"Well, I don't really relate well to most men." She looked at him carefully for a moment, and then announced, "I'm a lesbian."
Iry pretended to look at something in his rearview mirror, wondering what kind of person would say that to a stranger. He figured she must be an intellectual, educated in the north. "That mean you like women?" he asked.
He pursed his lips and saw the day's heat burning her cheeks. "Well, I guess we got something in common."
She frowned at this but wrestled her suitcase into the backseat anyway, got in, and pulled the door shut, adjusting the air-conditioner vents to blow on her face. "My name is Claudine Glover."
"Iry Boudreaux." He turned back onto the highway and said nothing, sensing that she'd begin to speak at any moment, and after a mile or so she did, breathlessly, talking with her hand.
"I've never hitchhiked before. I was on my way from New Orleans where I just lost my job, of all things. My car was a little old, maybe too old, I think, and it started to smoke and bang around Franklin. I just need a ride to the next decent-size town so I can get to an airport and fly home to El Paso where my mother..." She went on and on. Every hitchhiker he'd ever picked up had told Iry their life story. Some of them had started with their birth. One man named Cathell began with a relative who made armor in the Middle Ages and summarized his family tree all the way to his own son, who made wrist braces for video-game addicts with carpal tunnel syndrome. Iry guessed people thought they owed you an explanation when you helped them out.
"We got something else in common," he told her.
"I just got fired myself." He then told her what he did for a living. She listened but seemed unimpressed.
"Well, I'm sorry for you, all right. But you can probably go anywhere and find another icehouse or whatever to operate, can't you?"
He admitted that this was so.
"I am a professor of women's studies," she said, her voice nipping like a Chihuahua's at the syllables. "It took me a long time to get that position and now, after four years of teaching, I lost it." She raised her hand and covered her face with it.
He rolled the phrase women's studies around in his head for a moment, wondering if she was some kind of nurse. "Aw, you'll find some more gals to teach," he said at last. He was afraid she was going to cry. It was forty minutes to Lafayette and its little airport, and he didn't want to experience the woman's emotional meltdown all the way there.
She blinked and sniffed. "You don't know how it is in academics. My Ph.D. is not from the best institution. You've got to find your little niche and hold on, because if you don't get tenure, you're pretty much done for. Oh, I can't believe I'm saying this to a stranger." She gave him a lightning glance. "Does this airport have jets?"
"I don't think so. Those egg-beater planes take off for Baton Rouge and New Orleans."
She did begin to cry then. "I hate propeller aircraft," she sobbed.
He looked to the south across a vast field of rice and noticed a thunderstorm trying to climb out of the Gulf. If he didn't have to stop in Lafayette, he might be able to outrun it. "Hey, c'mon. I'm going all the way through Houston. I can drop you by Hobby. They got planes big as ocean liners."
She wiped her nose with a Kleenex and put it into a shoulder bag. She looked as though she were willing herself to be calm. After a few miles, she looked out at the open land whizzing by, at egrets stabbing for crawfish. She sniffed and wiped her nose again. "Where are you going, anyway?"
"I don't know. Just out west. Maybe go to a couple of cowboy museums. Look at some cactus. See a rodeo." He glanced at her worried face. "What you gonna do when you get home?"
She gave a little mocking laugh. "Cut my throat."
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