After the lunch of pasta and salad, he asked to see the barn. The mother had leased the range, but she maintained three horses for Claudine's brother and his children, who lived in Albuquerque. Two of the animals were in the pasture, but one, a big reddish horse, came into a gated stall as they entered. Iry inspected the barn's dirt floor, sniffed the air, and walked up to the horse. "Hey," he said. "You think we could go for a little ride?"
She came up behind him, looking around her carefully, a bad memory in her eyes. "I'm not exactly into horse riding anymore." Her voice was thin and dry, like the air.
"Aw, come on."
"Look, I'm thankful that you brought me here, and I don't want to seem rude, but don't you want to get back on the road so you can see cowboys and Indians or whatever it is you came out here for?"
He pushed his cap back an inch and mimicked her. "If you don't want to seem rude, then why are you that way? I mean, this ain't the horse that hurt you, is it?"
She looked back through the door. At the edge of the yard was the gate to the open range. "No. I just don't trust horses anymore." She turned to face him and her eyes were frightening in the barn's dark. "I don't think I ever liked them."
"Well, here," he said, opening the wooden gate wide and stepping next to the horse, putting his hand on its shoulder. "Come tell this big fella you don't like him because of something his millionth cousin did. Tell him how you're an animal racist." The bay took two steps out into the open area of the barn toward where she was standing, but before he took the third step, she made a small sound, something, Iry thought, a field mouse would make the moment it saw a hawk spread its talons. Claudine shook like a very old woman, she looked down, her eyes blind with fright, and she crossed what was left of her arms before her. Iry stepped in and pushed the horse easily back through the gate. The animal swung around and looked at them, shook its head like a dog shedding water and stamped once. Claudine put her hand over her eyes. Iry slid his arm around her shoulder and walked her out of the barn.
"Hey, I'm sorry I let him out."
"You think I don't know who I am," she said. "You think the world's a happy cowboy movie." She stopped walking, turned against him, and Iry felt her tears soak through his shirt. He tried and tried to think of what to do, but could only turn her loose to her mother at the door and then stand out in the heat and listen to the weeping noises inside.
Two days later, he was in the desert at a stucco gas station, standing out in the sun at a baked and sandblasted pay telephone. On the other end of the line Claudine picked up, and he said hello.
"What do you want?"
"You get that job?" He winced as a semi roared by on the two-lane.
"No," she said flatly.
"Did you do what I asked you to?"
"No. I explained all the reasons why his English department needed me." There was an awkward pause in which he felt he was falling through a big crack in the earth. Finally, she said, "He didn't hire me because there weren't any vacancies at the moment."
"Well, okay." And then there was another silence, and he knew that there were not only states between them, but also planets, and gulfs of time over which their thoughts would never connect, like rays of light cast in opposite directions. A full minute passed, and then she said, as if she were throwing her breath away, "Thanks for the dance, at least," and hung up.
He looked out across the highway at a hundred square miles of dusty red rock sculpted by the wind into ruined steeples, crumpled hats, and half-eaten birthday cakes. Then he dialed the icehouse's number back in Grand Crapaud and asked for Babette.
"Hey. It's me."
"Where in God's name are you?"
"Out with the Indians in Utah, I think."
"Well, I've got some news for you. The compressor, it wasn't your fault. Mauvais had put mineral spirits instead of oil in the lubricator."
"Did the shop pick up the parts for machining?"
"No. The owner is buying all new equipment. Can you believe it?"
"When are you coming home?"
"You want me to come back?"
"I guess you'd better. I fired Mauvais."
He looked west across the road. "I think I want to see a little more of this country first. I can't figure it out yet."
"What do you mean?
"I met this one-armed gal and she hates it out here."
"It ain't like that." He looked across toward a blood-red mountain. "It's pretty out here, and she don't want nothing to do with it."
"Where's she want to be, then?"
He made a face. "New Orleans."
Babette snorted. "Baby, you're liable to stop at a rest area out there and find somebody from Death Valley traveling to Louisiana to see stuff. Even around here you can't swing a dead nutria by the tail without hitting a tourist."
An Indian wearing a baseball cap rode up bareback on an Appaloosa and waited to use the phone, staring just to the left of Iry. After a minute, he told Babette goodbye and hung up. The Indian nodded and got down in a puff of red dust. Iry eavesdropped, pretending to count a handful of change. He didn't know what the Indian would say, if he would speak in Navaho or inquire about his sheep herd in guttural tones. After a while, someone on the other end of the line answered, and the Indian said, "Gwen? Did you want two percent or skim milk?"
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