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 oakcovered 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."
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 exoilfield 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.
They dawdled over the Glass Mountains and pulled into Alpine at supper. She told him that her credit card had room for one more motel, and they found a low, stucco place on the edge of downtown and got two rooms. The place had a lounge and café, and she met him for supper at eight, ordering a margarita as soon as she sat down at a table. With his burritos he ordered a beer, and the waitress checked his ID. As the girl tried to read the little numerals in the dim light, he looked around at the other customers and the large hats the men wore. Claudine was wearing blue jeans and a white short-sleeve blouse. He looked at her makeup and smelled her perfume, which was still burning off its alcohol, and felt vaguely apprehensive, as though he was having supper out with his mother.
"You think it's all right to mix booze with your pills?" he asked.
She made a sweeping motion at him with her fingers. "Let's not worry about that." Her voice was tight.
"You think you got a shot at this teaching job?"
"Oh, they'll need somebody like me," she told him.
"You going to say to them that you're a good teacher? You know, show them those records you were telling me about? Those forms?"
"I'm a crippled black woman and a gay feminist." She put her elbows on the table. "I'm a shoo-in for the job."
He shook his head. "They won't hire you for those things."
"They'll at least need me to teach freshman English." She took a long drink. He wondered if she'd taken another pill in her room.
"Why don't you just tell them you're good with the students?"
"You have to be a certain kind of good," she said, her voice hardening.
"You can't understand. They don't have people like me in icehouses."
A man in a wheelchair rolled through the front door. He wore a white cowboy hat, and his belt was cinched with a big buckle sporting a gold music note in the center. He coasted into the corner of the room behind a little dance floor and flipped switches on an amplifier. A computerized box came alive with blinking lights. Iry saw the man pick up a microphone and press a button on the box. The little café lounge filled with the sound of guitars and a bass beat, and the shriveled man in the wheelchair began to sing in a tough, accurate voice that was much bigger than he was. Two couples got up and danced. After the song, the food came, and Claudine ordered another margarita.
By the time the meal was over, she was sailing a bit, he could tell. Her eyelids seemed to be sticky, and she was blinking too much. He began to get sleepy and bored, and was wondering what was on the cigarette-branded television in his room, when she leaned over to him.
"Ivy," she began, "it's noisy in here."
"Iry," he said.
"My name's Iry."
"Yes. Well. I'm going to get a fresh drink and walk back to my room." She looked at him for a second or two. "If you want to talk, come with me."
"No, I believe I'll check out what's on the tube," he told her.
"You'd rather watch TV than have a conversation with someone?" Her face twisted slightly, and he looked away.
"No, I mean, it might not look right, me going in your room." He felt silly as soon as he'd said it. Who, in Alpine, Texas, would give a damn what tourists from a thousand miles away did with their free time?
Claudine's face fell, and she sat back in her chair, staring toward the door. The music machine began playing "When a Tear Becomes a Rose," the beat a little faster than usual. When the old man sang, he closed his eyes as though the music hurt. Iry stood up and cupped a hand under Claudine's right elbow, right where things stopped.
"What are you doing?" She looked up at him, her eyelids popping.
"Asking you to dance," he said, taking off his cap and putting it on the table.
She looked around quickly. "Don't be absurd."
"Come on, I bet you used to do the Texas two-step in high school."
"That was another life," she said, rising out of the chair as if overcoming a greater force of gravity than most people have to deal with.
For a few seconds she bobbled the step and they bumped shoe tips and looked down as though their feet were separate animals from themselves, but on a turn at the end of the floor, she found the rhythm and moved into the dance. "Hey," he said.
"Gosh." She settled the end of her arm into his palm as though the rest of her was there. The little man did a good job with the song, stretching it out for the six or seven couples on the floor. Claudine wore a sad smile on her face, and halfway into the song her eyes became wet.
Iry leaned close to her ear. "You all right?"
"Sure," she said, biting her lip. "It's just that right now I'm not being a very good lesbian." She tried to laugh and reached up to touch her crew cut.
"You ain't one right now."
"How can you tell?"
"You dance backwards too good."
He turned her, and she came around like his shadow. "Maybe it is, and maybe it ain't." About a minute later, toward the end of the song, he told her, "I've danced with lots of black girls, and you don't move like they do."
"You're making generalities that won't stand up," she said. Then the tone of her voice grew defensive. "Besides, I'm only one-sixteenth African American."
"On whose side?"
He walked her to their table, his hand riding in the small of her back. He noticed how well she let it fit there, his fingertips in the hollow of her backbone. He pursed his lips and sat down, pointing to her navy-blue purse. "You got any pictures of your family?"
She gave him a look. "Why?"
"Just curious. Come on, I'll show you Babette and my momma. They're in my wallet." He pulled out his billfold and showed her the images in the glow of the candle. "Now you."
She reached down and retrieved her wallet, pulling from it a faded, professionally done portrait of her parents. The father was blond and sun-wrinkled, and the mother lovely and tawny-skinned, with a noble nose and curly hair.
"Nice-looking people," he said. "Your momma, she's Italian."
Her lips parted a little. "How would you know?"
"Hey, Grand Crapaud has more Italians than Palermo. I went to Catholic school with a hundred of them. This lady looks like a Cefalù."
"She's part African American."
"When I bring you home tomorrow, can I ask her?"
She leaned close and hissed, "Don't you dare."
"Ah-ha." He said this very loudly. Several people in the little room turned and looked in his direction, so he lowered his voice to say, "Now I know why you really got your butt fired."
"You lied to those people at the college. And they knew it. I mean, if I can figure you out in a couple days, don't you think they could after a few years?"
She stood up and swept the photos into her purse. He tossed some money on the table and followed her outside, where the air was still hot and alien, too dry, like furnace heat. "Hey," he called. He watched her go to her room and disappear inside. He was alone in the asphalt lot, and he stuck his hands into his jeans and looked up at the sky, which was graveled with stars. He looked a long time, as though the sky was a painting he had paid money to see, and then he went into his room and called her.
"What do you want?"
"I didn't want to make you mad."
"The word is angry. You didn't want to make me angry."
"I was trying to help."
There was a sigh on the line. "You don't understand the academic world. Decent jobs are so scarce. I have to do whatever it takes."
"Well, you know what I think."
"Yes, I know what you think," she told him.
"You're a straight white woman who's a good teacher because she loves what she's doing."
"How many black people have you danced with?"
She began to cry into the phone, "I'm a gay African American woman who was crippled by a horse."
Iry shook his head and told her, as respectfully as he could, "You're crippled, all right, but the horse didn't have nothin' to do with it." He hung up and stared at the phone. After a minute, he put his hand on the receiver, and then he took it away again.
The next morning he didn't see her in the motel café, but when he put his little suitcase in the back of the Jeep, she walked up wearing a limp green sundress and got into the passenger seat. Five hours later he had gone through El Paso and was on U.S. 180 heading for Carlsbad when she pointed through the windshield at a ranch gate rolling up through the heat. "Home," was what she said, looking at him ruefully. It was the only unnecessary word she'd spoken since they'd left Alpine. "First time in five years."
He pulled off to the right and drove down a dusty lane that ran between scrub oaks for a half-mile. At the end was a lawn of sorts and a stone, ranch-style house, a real ranch house, the pattern for subdivision ranch houses all over America. Out back rose the rusty peak of a horse barn. Iry parked near a low porch, and as soon as he stepped out, Claudine's round mother came through the front door and headed for her daughter, arms wide, voice sailing. Claudine briefly introduced him and explained why he was there. The mother shook his hand and asked if they'd eaten yet. Claudine nodded, but Iry shook his head vigorously and said, "Your daughter told me you make some great pasta sauce." He glanced at Claudine who returned a savage scowl.
The mother's face became serious, and she patted his hand. "I have a container in the fridge that I can have hot in ten minutes, and the spaghetti won't take any time to boil."
Iry grinned at Claudine and said, "Prepariamo la tavola."
"Ah, si," the mother said, turning to go into the house.
Claudine followed, but turned and said over her shoulder, "You are what is wrong with this country."
"Will you shut up?"
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?"