Driving through Nazareth County

by Remy Barnes

Me and Jim. Jim and me. Driving through Nazareth County. It’s late
and darkness obscures the mesas jutting from the land like broken
teeth. Jim gestures to the lights of an all-night motel, the Comanche
Motor Quonset, and pounds on the dash until he gets his way. He
hasn’t had to drive. He hasn’t gone sleepless staring at the ceilings of
strange places. Last night, I walked across the highway barefoot into
the brambles and brush of an open desert. This morning, I awoke
with no injuries. No cuts, scrapes, or bruises. I am beginning to think
it is beyond me to feel anything.

We pull in and I deal with the night manager while Jim eyes us
both suspiciously. There’s a lone first floor room available with a single
king bed. I bargain. I beg. And, in the end, I take the room.

I pull Jim’s old Lincoln around. The suspension creaks and whines.
A large man stands near the door to our room. A rig rumbles not
far off and I assume it’s his. If I had a choice, we’d drive through the
night. But I don’t. Not yet.

Getting Jim into his wheelchair takes time. He stays prostrate
like a child, unwilling to help in even the smallest way. I can feel the
trucker grappling with his morality, watching a woman struggle like I
am. But then he retreats into his room. I’ve found this is the way with
most people. They don’t want to watch. They don’t feel comfortable
helping. They just leave. If they pretend like we don’t exist, we don’t.

A curl of drool works its way down Jim’s chin. I lift him up the
curb, have some trouble with the lock but eventually get us inside.

The room is spartan, clean enough, smelling of stale cigarette
smoke and the chalky citrus of cheap air freshener. There is a painting
of two doves in a wheat field, something vaguely Midwestern, out
of place being that we’re in Texas. I can hear the muted drawl of the
television in the next room.

“On dreamless evenings, my father would drink and my mother
would lock herself in the attic, her sobs echoing through the cracks
in the ceiling of my bedroom,” Jim says through his bottom lip. “I
would escape here. There were camps of women in the woods surrounding
the motel. For a gallon of milk they would make you feel
whole again.”

“If you are trying to make me feel sorry for you, keep trying.”

“If you don’t feel sorry for me now, Lisa, I don’t think you ever
will.” Then he says: “I’m half full.”

It’s difficult to get us both in the small bathroom. I stand in the
shower, positioning Jim close to the toilet. I have to reach over him
to do it and I can feel his breath warm the back of my neck. I open the
valve and a thin stream of yeasty urine leaks out and into the toilet.
Jim sighs in relief, a mimicking of an old habit, though it’s been out
of him for hours.

I give Jim one of his pills and help him bring the whiskey to his
lips. A month ago it seemed he was able to do it himself, but the disease
has been working on him quickly. When he’s asleep, I shut out
the lights and leave the room.

The trucker is sitting in a plastic chair and smoking a cigarette.
He’s not as large as he seemed before but he looks strong in the way
men who do manual labor and drink too much beer often are; any
muscular definition concealed by a layer of tanned fat. The crown of
his red hair is thinning. I notice the beer on the ground, next to the
chair.

“Mind if I have one?” I ask and point to the sweating can.
He pulls a can from the small cooler next to him and hands it to
me. He offers up a cigarette from his pack and I take it.

“That your daddy?” he asks, a discernable amount of guilt in his
voice. “Sort of,” I say.

“Stroke?”

“Among other things,” I say.

“My daddy had a stroke. Hard on everyone. I hate to say it, but it
got easier after he went on. He wasn’t a good man, though.” “They
never are.”

He laughs.

“That your rig?” I ask. “Sure is,” he says.

“Want to show it to me?”

“Sure can.”

I finish my beer on the walk over and pitch it into the street. Moths
bat against the lone streetlight illuminating the parking lot. I can
hear the highway in the distance. A sprawling city of stars lights the
night above our heads. In this desert, there are stars forever, none of
them bright enough to make any prayers against.

He opens the driver’s side door and, for a moment, I think he’s still
not sure of what’s about to happen. As if I have any interest in the
interior of his semi-truck.

Photos of towheaded children tucked into vanity mirrors. Pornographic
magazines splayed on the dash. A tissue box stripped of its
guts. I take stock of these things as he pumps inside me, grunting and
whispering sweetly into my ear. He calls me beautiful. He’s surprisingly
gentle. I put my hand on his ass, wordlessly beckoning him to
move faster, harder. He shoves his thumb in my mouth, tastes salty,
slightly acidic. He asks me where to put it. I watch his hairy, damp
shoulders shudder as he deposits his seed into the vaginal folds of
the tissue box. Of course, it’s only now that I notice his wedding ring.

“Did you?” He pants, wounded.

“No,” I say. “But I never do.”

***

When I return, our room is cool and dark, the air conditioner rattling.
Jim is snoring softly. I kneel at the end of the bed and roll his
jeans to his knees. His pale legs are as thin as my arms, just bone and
skin. I stick a pushpin into the diminished flesh of his calf.

“Jim,” I say. “Jim, wake up.”

He doesn’t stir. I push another and another until I’ve littered his
legs with small, plastic spines jutting out at all odd angles.

“Jim,” I say a little louder.

“Miranda,” my mother’s name, he says through the veil of sleep.

“Tell me the story,” I say. “Of the final dreams of the last Comanche
as he lay dying on the plain, the sheen of cactus salve against the
scars of his pox, the smell of gunpowder in the air.”

“I know him,” Jim says.

“I know that when he is dead, he will tend to no war brides.” Why
did Jim contact me? Because he wants to die.

Why did I agree? Because I want to kill him.

And, I suppose, in some small way I feel sorry for him. And maybe,
somewhere deeper, there is the lingering ember of something else—
a buried longing complicated by time and the nostalgia for youth and
young pain.

He says no more. Sleeps again. I pull the pins out, watching small
trickles of blood make their way down his leg. I let the blood dry
there, knowing he will never see it. I roll his jeans back down and
crawl into bed next to him. I move all the way to the edge and try to
make myself as small as possible.

***

I was thirteen when my mother brought Jim home. She worked the
bars around the bay and I guess he’d stop in enough, tipped well
enough, to garner some extra attention. He was handsome— a swarthy,
sun-kissed boat captain running deep sea fishing tours on the
Gulf outside Galveston.

Eventually, he began staying with us more regularly. He was never
particularly shy, always avuncular in the way he played his games. A
slight of hand, a poke in the ribs, the thigh, a scarred knuckle against
my crotch. When he swore he was drunk and lost his way in the hall,
picking the wrong room, fondling the wrong breasts, did my mother
suspect? I don’t know. I’m sure she had her designs. But his checks
were ample and suddenly dinners became more extravagant— fresh
seafood and Mexican beer.

Lisa says, he’d sing, drunk, my mother laughing. On a night like this,
I wish you’d give me a great big kiss.

***

At the diner, I eat a bleeding steak and two eggs with a cup of black
coffee. Jim sips a nutritional shake through a straw. The trucker sits
in a corner booth but makes no attempt to make eye contact though
I stare at him mercilessly.

“Take a picture,” Jim says, slurring.

I fight the urge to tell him about the trucker.

Instead, I ask, “How many more stops?”

“Show me the map,” he says.

His fingers dangle helplessly as he traces our intended path. He
wants to see a swimming hole he favored as a child, another place
that holds some meaning in his fading memories. I pay the check
with his credit card and we leave. I catch the trucker watching me
and his cheeks turn a rosy pink. I wonder briefly if he feels any sort of
regret, or if we will ever meet in this life again, and I hope not.

The swimming hole isn’t far, a quick pull down the highway and
then some turns on dicey back roads. The Lincoln bumps and shudders
over every pebble in the roadway. The red dust kicks up behind
us. Jim tells me to slow down. The Lincoln kicks and swerves and I
almost lose control. Jim moans in a low, guttural way but I regain the
wheel and right the vehicle.

It’s an undertaking getting Jim down the path to the water. At
times, I have to drag the wheelchair behind me. Sweat begins to form,
and soon I am wet with it. The wheelchair almost tips and I struggle
to keep it steady. Jim alternately curses and keeps silent. Eventually,
we come to the water’s edge. It’s still, stagnant. Bugs dart across the
surface and flies attack Jim’s face. He swats at them with his wrists.
Despite the uninviting look of the water, I strip and dive in. Jim’s
plea to cease is muffled by the time I’m under.

The water is tepid, the color of weak tea. I kick around for a while,
practicing my strokes. I used to swim all the time, then the wreck,
and then I didn’t swim as much. There is desperation in the way Jim
is cursing at me. He wants me out of the water, doesn’t want to watch
me ruining this solemn moment. But I want him to watch me. I want
him to see me. I let my breasts float above the surface of the water
drying on my skin in the sun breaking through the thatch of canopy.

***

The first time, I could smell my mother’s perfume on his neck mingling
with sweat and seawater, the musky tang of fish guts. I didn’t
ask for it. I didn’t want it. But I didn’t struggle against it either. I
didn’t fight him.

He poured soda water over the stain on the sheet and sopped it
up with his t-shirt. I remember his naked body, hard and browned,
in my bedroom juxtaposed strangely against the posters of the pale,
stringy teen heartthrobs plastered on the walls around him. How my
collection of plastic schoolgirl dolls watched him from their perch on
the shelf. How he plucked one from the shelf and gave it to me while
I lay there in such pain. How he crawled into bed with me and told me
stories of the Comanche, his father and his father’s people. Later,
my mother coming home and the sound of their lovemaking in the
adjacent room. Jealousy and betrayal and guilt.

This went on for some time. No joy was ever derived but a secret
pride, and a secret shame, welled within me when girls at school
would talk of their desires. My budding adolescent sexuality had already
bloomed and then withered. By the time I was sixteen, boys
knew my name, said it in their furious night rituals and tried to invoke
me into their bedrooms. Summer before college, my mother
slipped from the deck of Jim’s boat. He claimed she was drunk, that
he tried to save her, but couldn’t.

***

I stay still like this, floating, my body weightless in the water. I close
my eyes. My hair dances against the mud and becomes tangled in the
riverweeds. Somewhere, far away, Jim is on the bank and straining
his voice.

I pull myself out by an old rope knotted up to a live oak. The bark
of the tree imprints a welcomed aching against the pads of my feet.

I slip his shoes off, the odor overwhelming. From the bank to the
water, the incline is steep, steeper than I’d anticipated, but I manage
to push him close enough so that he can just get the tips of his toes
in. The muscles in my arms feel tired and strained. It feels good. My
grip on the handles slip and the chair gets away from me. I make a
meek gesture to regain it but it’s too late. Jim’s small body makes a
satisfying splash as he falls from the wheelchair and disappears into
the coppery liquid. I watch the bubbles burst against the surface of
the water. His bag pops up first, floating piss illuminated by a slice of
golden sun.

For a moment, the world is still and silent. The tittering of birds
ceases. The ringlets echoing from the spot Jim once was begin to
fade. What are you thinking now, Jim?

I am pushed aside and fall to the dirt, skinning the soft butt of
my palm. Then Jim is out of the water, aided by a man, soaking wet.
The man works on Jim for a moment, pressing his lips against Jim’s,
pleading with him to stay alive. I plead silently along with him. This
isn’t the way I pictured it, desired it. Not yet. Not here.

Before long, Jim is sputtering into the dirt. The man breathes in
relief and then looks at me. He stands, dripping. Jim is laughing,
howling. A boy, can’t be more than eight, holds a fishing pole and
asks Jim if he’s all right. The wind is cold against my naked skin.

“You should keep your boy away from him,” I say. “Not here,” Jim
says.

“He’s a pedo, you know. Likes young ones.”

The man says nothing but pulls his son away as if we’re contagious.
I admire the veins in his forearms, the arch of his back underneath
his t-shirt turned translucent. The boy keeps his eyes on me as his
father gathers their things. I don’t hide from him. They move farther
and farther down the bank until they are out of sight.

“Not here,” Jim says. “Not here.”

***

I dress wet and we leave the swimming hole clothes clinging to our
skin.

“This is it,” I say. “Just the house now.”

Jim says nothing. I pull onto the shoulder, drape the map over his
knees, feel the sharp, hard angles of the bones there.

“Will you show me?”

He puts a knuckle against the paper.

Driving through Nazareth County. Me and Jim. Jim and me.
Time and geography seem to have no correlation here. Miles seem
to stretch on forever as if we are traversing the ever-shifting distance
between Jim’s own memories. Night descends in seconds. Windows
of vacant buildings like lidless eyes watching from the darkness. Elegies
of violence written in the sad verse of half-lives on their pilgrimage
toward a twenty-foot tall neon bible demanding redemption,
crackling vibrant pinks and greens. A grocery store burns and billows
thick black smoke as we pass. I can feel the heat through the window.
The stillness of the night remains save for the flames licking the blueblack
horizon.

“The trucks won’t come,” Jim says. “There’s nobody to save.”

“This country is a truncheon. It demands submission.”

“No,” Jim says. “This country is a coin with the face scratched off.
No telling how to use it if it could ever be used. Holds no currency.
An object as useless as a button found in a pocket for a shirt you no
longer own. Just here,” he says and points.

I turn down a darkened road. No light save from what comes from
the moon through the trees. The Lincoln begins to wheeze; the wheel
shakes in my grip.

“She’ll make it,” Jim says.

“She has to,” I say.

“I wrote the title over to you,” he says and gestures to the glove
box. “With good care she’ll go on ten, maybe fifteen, more years.”

“I don’t plan on keeping it,” I say. “They’ll crush her. I’ll ask them
to. I don’t want her organs to live on in some other automobile.”

Jim deflates in the passenger’s seat. I swell. We drive for what feels
like a very long time, past dirt lots and dilapidated houses.

“Everybody left,” Jim says, sounding surprised. “Nobody left.”

“Nobody left but you.”

“Everybody left but me.”

“You’re just coming back.”

“Not for long,” he says.

“Not for long,” I say.

The house is a skull on the expanse of dirt. A portion of the roof
has caved and small, black figures quiver in the eaves. The smell of
decaying wild things and dogs gone missing.

***

I wish I could say it ended when I left for college, that I never saw him
again. But that wouldn’t be true. I’d go back to Galveston on the occasional
holiday, leave a sprig of holly or a can of beer at the sun-faded
memorial to my mother.

I’d see Jim at the same bar my mother once worked. He’d collided
violently with his fifties. The booze made him fat and the sun marred
his skin, flaps of cracked wrinkles around his joints and the back of
his neck. I’d watch him watch the girls there, playing his games, a
slight of hand, a poke in the ribs.

The bar and half the town were torn down by a hurricane. Sometime
after, he started to ebb little by little and people would ask,
“Have you heard what happened to Jim?”

“My father was full-blood Comanche,” Jim says in what was once a
living room. His voice scratches at the back of his throat, echoing in
some pockets of the house.

“But not the type who held any romantic notions about his people,”
I say.

“No, not that type. But he got his slice of the plain.”

“After pox had laid it to rest.”

“I found him bleeding on the floor here once. Twice. Countless
times. It wasn’t always like that but it was mostly like that.”

“You’ve told me the stories.”

“Let me tell you one more. The Comanche death dream. I want to
hear it one last time.”

“Soon, the time is coming for silence, Jim,” I say. “There will be no
more stories.”

“You know it. I’ve told it so many times. You could tell it to me by
now,” and he croaks a laugh.

“I said no.” My voice is louder than I expect. A few small bats stir
in the slats of the ceiling.

“Okay,” Jim says. “Then come on with the silence.”

I tap a few of the pills into my palm and feed them to Jim, slipping
them between his lips. I put the mouth of the bottle to his and help
massage the cocktail down his throat. He finishes off the bottles.
Both of them.

I unbutton his jeans pull them around his ankles, exposing the
wounds I’ve inflicted on his calves and shins, but he doesn’t take notice.
I hold his soft, unwashed organ in my hands, smelling sulfuric,
and pull the tube from him. I begin to work my hands around him
like I used to.

“Lisa,” Jim says.

“Not me. Say her name.”

“Lisa,” he says again and I can hear the gasp of passion in his chest.

“Say her name.”

“Miranda,” he says.

He says my mother’s name and I let go, the doughy gnarl hanging
sadly in the tangle of his coarse pubic hair.

“I say it every night. But I don’t see her. I see you.”

“You look just like her now. That’s all I see. You believe me. That I
did all that I could. The water black and impenetrable. I couldn’t find
her. It swallows me. That death.” He holds up his wrists to show me
the damage.

“Not enough,” I say. “Here’s where we end.”

“Stay, Miranda, stay with me.”

“Lisa,” I say but my voice doesn’t sound like my own.

And I leave. And I can hear him yelling, screaming my name, her
name and the names of all those deities who’ve abandoned him. I see
him one last time in the urine yellow light of the headlamps. Pale,
ghostly, naked and alone.

I drive back through Nazareth County. I can feel the tears streak
down my face but I can’t reason why. I am removed from the action
like I’m watching Lisa cry while she drives. I return to our room, my
room, at the Motor Quonset. The trucker sits in his chair, appearing
as a doll I left behind on a shelf in my mother’s house.

“Lisa?” he says.

“No,” I say keeping my stride. “You must have me confused with
somebody else.”