The woman talked and talked. Iry stopped for lunch over the Texas border at a roadside café, figuring a meal would stop her mouth for a while. Their wobbly table was next to a taped-up picture window. He drank a beer with his hamburger, and she told him that she was originally hired because she was a woman and that her gender helped the college administration meet a quota. "Well," he said, wiping mustard off his shirt, "whatever the hell works."
"After I'd been there a year, the English department began considering hiring a black man to replace me."
He picked up his burger and shook it at her. "Yeah, I missed out on a job like that once. The company had to have one black guy at least on this oil rig, so they hired this New Orleans dude instead of me and put him on Magnolia number twenty-two with a bunch of them old plowboys from central Mississippi. He lasted like a fart in a whirlwind."
Claudine raised her head a bit. "When I produced evidence of my own one-sixteenth African American blood, they let me stay on." Iry looked at her skin when she told him this. He'd thought she was from Cuba.
"During my second year, the department brought in other women's studies specialists, and at that point I stopped wearing my prosthesis, to emphasize the fact that I was not only black and a woman, but disabled as well." She waved away a fly. "But they still tried to get rid of me."
"Ain't you no good at teaching studying women?"
"My students liked me. I published articles and went to conferences." Claudine nibbled at the cheese sandwich she'd ordered, brushed crumbs off her dark dress, and put it back on the plate. She looked at something invisible above Iry's head. It was clear that she did not understand what had happened to her. "They kept trying to let me go."
"That's a bitch."
She frowned and narrowed her eyes at him. "Yes, well, I wouldn't put it exactly in those words. When a search committee member told me they'd received an application from a gay, black, female double-amputee from Ghana, I reminded the committee that part of my childhood was spent in Mexico, and then I played my last card and came out as a lesbian." She picked up the dry sandwich and ate a little of the crust. Iry wondered if she was afraid that eating a juicy hamburger might poison her. "But it did no good. The college found someone more specialized, foreign, and incomplete than I could ever be."
He listened to her through the meal and decided that he'd rather spend eight hours a day with his tongue on a hot pipe than teach in a college.
The two-lane's abandoned filling stations and rickety vegetable stands began to bore him, so he switched over to the interstate. In the middle of a Houston traffic jam, Claudine suddenly asked if he was going all the way to San Antonio.
"Well, yeah, I guess." He felt what was coming and didn't know what to think. She talked of things he'd never known about: university politics, glass ceilings.
"You could save an hour by going straight through instead of detouring for the airport." The statement hung in the air like a temptation.
He shrugged. "Okay." So she kept riding with him west, out into the suburbs and beyond, entering a country that started to open up more as they glided past Katy and Frydek, Alleyton and Glidden. Claudine found a PBS broadcast and listened to a program of harpsichord music, but soon the weakling signal began to fade, succumbing to slide guitars and fiddles. To his surprise, she brought in a strong country station and listened for a while to a barroom ballad.
Claudine grabbed a fistful of her short hair and turned her head away from him to stare out into the brush. "When I hear that music," she began, "I think of my father and his Mexican wranglers sitting out under a tree in the backyard drinking long-necks in the wind. I think of their laughter and of not being able to understand any of it, because I never found one thing to laugh about in that blistered moonscape we lived on."
"You were raised on a ranch?"
"We raised cows and killed them, is what we did. The place was so big, I'd go off on horseback and actually get lost on our own land. One time, I rode out at night, and over a hill from the house there were so many stars and such a black nothing that I thought I'd fall up into the sky. I felt like a speck of dust. The sky was so big I stopped believing in God."
"You had your own horse?"
She looked at him, annoyed. "You are really fixated on the cowboy thing. Let me tell you about my horse." She held up her nub and her voice took on an edge. "He was a stallion who was always trying to run under a tree to rake me off his back. The last time I got on him, I was sixteen and had a date lined up for the prom with a nice boy. When I mounted the horse, he was balky and I could tell he didn't want to work that day. I gave him the spur at the corral gate, and he bolted to a shallow gully full of sharp rocks about the size of anvils. He lay down in them and rolled over like a dog with me in the stirrups. That's how I got this," she said, pointing at him with her stump.
"Now, do you have some ruined or missing part you want to tell me about?"
His mouth fell open for a moment, and he shook his head. Iry didn't say anything for nearly a hundred miles. He imagined that she might be unhappy because of her missing arm, but he'd known several maimed and happy ex–oilfield workers who drank beer with the hand they had left. He guessed at the type of information she taught in her university. Too much of all that weird man-hating stuff is bound to warp a woman, he thought. But from what she told him, he decided she'd been born unhappy, like his cousin Ted who'd won ninety-two thousand dollars in the lottery and yet had to be medicated when he found out about the tax due on his winnings.
The sun went low and red in the face. He drove past Luling and Seguin, where she asked him to stop at a lone roadside table sitting in a circle of walked-down grass. Iry got out and pulled off his cap, pawing at his short dark hair, which in texture resembled a storm-flattened cane field. They walked around the table like arthritic old people until their muscles stretched, and then they sat down on its cement benches. A barbed-wire fence ran fifteen feet from the table, and a Black Angus stepped up and looked at them, pressing its forehead against the top strand of wire. Iry was a town boy, unused to cattle, and examined the animal's slobbery nose, the plastic tag in its ear. Claudine picked up a rock the size of a quarter and threw it overhand, hitting the cow on the flank, causing it to wheel and walk off, mooing.
"I want to drive for a while," she told him.
They stayed in separate rooms in a Motel Six, and the next morning got up early and drove around San Antonio like a tourist couple. She mentioned several times that she wanted to get to El Paso as soon as possible, but he convinced her to stop at the Cowboy Museum, and they wandered from room to room looking at pictures of pioneer cattlemen, displays of branding irons, six-shooters, and leatherwork. Iry stared at the Winchesters, leggings, badges, and high-crown hats as though he were in the Louvre. At the last display case Claudine put her ruined arm on the glass. "This place feels like a tomb," she said. "A graveyard."
He fumbled with the two-page brochure that the woman at the desk had given him. "I don't know. It's pretty interesting. All these people came out here when this place was like some uninhabited planet. They made something out of nothing." He pointed at a gallery of mustachioed vaqueros. "What's the difference between one of these guys and Neil Armstrong?"
"Neil Armstrong was 239,000 miles from home."
He looked at the gray in her hair, wondering how much of it was premature. "What you think it was like in 1840 to get on a horse in St. Louis and ride to the Rio Grande, maybe seeing a half-dozen guys in between. I bet the feeling was the same."
"The romance of isolation," she said, heading for the door. "A vestige of obsolete paternalistic culture."
He made a face, as if her language had an odor. "What?"
She pushed open a glass door and walked out, pausing on the bottom stone step. "How many images of women are in this museum?"
"A few," he said. "I bet not too many gals got famous for roping steers and blowin' up Indians."
"It could have been their job. Why not?"
He stepped down past her and turned around to look up into her face. He started to say something, but feared the avalanche of four-syllable words he would trigger down the slope of her anger. Finally, he brought his big, thick-fingered hand up, matching it under her thin white one. "Here's one reason," he told her. "The other's this: women are more family, that is, social-like. They're people people."
She took back her hand. "That's a stereotype."
"Oh yeah? Well, look at us. I'm heading off into the brush to look at stuff, not people, stuff. You're going home to stay with Momma." He expected a scowl, but she looked at him closely, as though he had suddenly revealed another identity to her.
West of San Antonio they took highway 90. The weather became hotter, and the villages squatted at roadside, beaten down by the sun. Some towns like Hondo were brick-and-stucco holdovers from the last century, while some were just low and poor and could have been in southern Illinois, except for the Mexicans and the drought. The land seemed to be tumbling away from water as he drove the old Jeep west, passing through broad thickets and then open country, a dry, beige world populated by cactus and mesquite, hotter and hotter as they moved toward Uvalde, Brackettville, and Del Rio. She talked over the tinny jar of the Jeep, and he listened and looked. West of Del Rio he stopped and wandered out in the brush to look at the sun-struck plants, and Claudine had to spend twenty minutes pulling needles from his hands.
They stopped at Langtry to see where Judge Roy Bean had presided.
"Now, I've got to concede that here's a real astronaut," she said, standing on a basketball-size rock at the edge of the parking lot. "A wild man comes where there is no law and just says, ‘I am the law.'" She motioned with her good arm. "He staked out his territory."
Iry pulled off his cap and scratched his head. He was feeling hot and tired. "Ain't that what professors do? Like what you was telling me in the car?"
She gave him a startled look. "What?"
"I mean, like, you say I'm going to be the Tillie Dogschmidt scholar. She's my territory because I'm the first to read all her poems or whatever and study what all everybody's written about her. That what you called ‘carving your niche,' right? Some kind of space you claim, just like the Judge here did?"
She raised her chin. "Don't belittle what I do."
"Hey, I think it's great. You invent yourself a job out of thin air. Wish I could do that." He thought about something a moment, and then pointed at her. "I read a old book called Tex Goes to Europe , and in it they talked about castrated opera singers. I bet if you found out some of those singers wrote stories, you know, about what a drag their life was, you could start up a whole department called Castrated Opera Singer Studies."
Her eyes opened a bit. "That's not how it works at all."
She stepped off of her rock. "No. Can we please get back on the road."
He pulled open the door to the Jeep and sat down, wincing at the hot vinyl.
She got in on her side. "Am I just not a real person to you?"
He turned up the air conditioner and frowned. "Am I to you?"
On the other side of Sanderson he got a glimpse of the Glass Mountains and sped up, his hands clenching and unclenching the steering wheel. The Jeep began to vibrate.
"They're not going anywhere," she told him.
"I don't get to see mountains too often."
"They're like everything else. You get used to them."
"You got a job lined up when you get to El Paso?"
"Mom knows the head of the English department at a community college in the desert. I just have to show up and sell myself."
"How you gonna do that?"
"Tell them how rare a bird I am. How I'll fill all their quotas in one shot. Aw, geez." She began digging in her bag. "I need a Prozac. I'm sinking down, down."
"Hey. We're heading toward the mountains."
She washed a pill down with a sip of hot Diet Sprite. "You bet."
"I think you ought to forget about all that quota shit. Just tell them you're a good teacher."
She seemed to bite the inside of her cheek. "The world's full of good teachers," she said.
Go To Page: 1 2 3 4