Fiction | December 01, 1998
When the bus first carried Tina and her mother into the desert, past the oil fields of west Texas, Tina felt somehow that they had passed a point of no return. The land itself became sinister, barren even of oil wells and sage bushes higher than her knee. It was as different from Georgia as a place could be, and everything under the hot, flat sun seemed to speak to her: From now on you are different. From now on you are ours.
Her mother, Madge, already liked it here. She had gotten even fatter on the trip out, living on corn dogs and snow cones and fried eggs and bottled beer that she sneaked back onto the bus from every convenience store they stopped at. Madge was a talker, and this, along with her great size, made strangers like her, especially after they heard her laugh, a laugh so beautiful that it startled, so deep and husky and glamorous, it made you think she could sing, even though Tina knew Madge could not sing at all, not even in church. Madge had made friends with everybody on the bus: the salesman from California, the two Mexican girls from San Antonio, the retired cop from New York on his way to the “sun and fun,” as he put it. Tina didn’t speak to anybody. She wasn’t much of a talker, just fourteen and small even for that age, an elf next to her mother. A troll. The only person she spoke to was the driver, whose seat she liked to sit behind because it was the farthest from her mother. The driver never looked at her but would speak occasionally, pointing out the names of mountains as they passed them. “San Diablos,” he would say, and point a thick finger at some dirty tan peaks. And then he would say nothing for an hour or more.
Once, when they were in New Mexico where the interstate swept far south near the Mexican border, a lone figure waved the bus down. The driver pulled over and a man got on, so covered in yellow dust he might have been buried alive. He held a red bus ticket in his hand. The driver stopped him.
“Can’t get on wearing those clothes.”
“They’re all I’ve got.”
The bus driver said nothing for a moment. Tina waited for him to speak again, amazed that he could utter anything but the names of mountains.
“Shake off,” he said.
The man stepped down quickly, back onto the road, and started to slap the dust off himself. After two minutes of slapping, he climbed back up, not noticeably cleaner than before, and the driver said nothing. The man, carrying a duffel bag, sat in the seat across from Tina. He leered at her, his face yellow with dirt but with teeth white and straight and clean. Tina looked away, then got up and walked back to Madge just as the bus started off again. Madge slept through it all, snoring softly with her head bouncing against the plastic window.
Tina had only recently come to notice that men watched her. The boys at her high school never paid much attention to her, but older men did, especially ugly ones. It had started just in the past year or so, even though she could discern nothing different about herself, about the way she looked or acted. It was as if someone had painted a word on her forehead that only others could read, and it made her even more afraid around people, made her stutter more, avert her eyes.
Still, she dreamed sometimes that this new power might save her, that someday an older man would come to rescue her. Her fantasies consisted of several variations on this theme—in one, a police detective would come and arrest Madge for something and then sweep Tina off her feet. The man was always strong and noble, and never funny—Tina did not trust funny people. And always the first thing out of his mouth was: “You’re beautiful, Tina. You’re beautiful.”
The bus stopped at a concrete diner in Las Cruces. (“The Crosses,” the driver said as they entered the city limits.) Tina ate between Madge and the retired cop. Madge had found out so much about the cop’s past that a stranger listening might think they were married.
“Is there any chance of the tumor coming back?” Madge asked. “Cancer’s how we lost Tina’s father, so I know all about it.” She patted Tina on the shoulder.
“I’ve been clean for three years now,” the cop said. His name was Irv, and he was very old, too old for a girl Tina’s age to even guess. “I go to Oshners once a year for a full looksee. Never came back so far. Keep my fingers crossed though.”
“You can never play it too safe with cancer. Isn’t that right, honey?” She patted Tina again.
“Well, I plan to take it easy from now on,” Irv said. “Hope everything’ll be easier once I’m in the sun and fun. Out of that effing zoo New York.”
Tina ate her hamburger. New York. Even the name sounded wonderful to her. She could not imagine anyplace more different from where they were now than New York City. She wished she were there, right that second.
When she finished eating she went to stand outside in the dirt parking lot. The lot was empty except for the bus, and Tina stood there for a moment, looking out at the horizon. Two weeks earlier she had been a sophomore at Newton High in Lamont County, Georgia. Madge had worked in the cafeteria at Newton High, and Tina had been known by everybody in the school as the fat lady’s daughter. Then one day Madge had been fired for stealing money out of the register, and that tight she told Tina there was nothing left for them to do but head out West and stay a while with Aunt Mattie. Things would be different out there, her mother said. Everything was bigger and better in the West.
So there Tina was, standing alone in the middle of the parking lot, the wind burning her hair. She looked up at the bus and saw the driver still sitting in there, imprisoned behind the tinted glass. She couldn’t tell if he was watching her or not, but she waved anyway.
“Y’all headed to Tucson?” a voice called out from behind her. It was the dirty man, standing across the lot and behind her, at the pay phone, the receiver pressed to his ear.
“Yes,” Tina said.
He hung up the phone. “Nice place,” he said. “Hot as hell. But nice. What’s your name?”
She said nothing.
He nodded as if her silence were an answer.
“You got a joint on you?” he asked.
She shook her head. He faked a pained expression in a way that startled her because it was funny. It made her think that the dirty man had been a popular boy in high school once, like the boys who never spoke to Tina in school. The dirty man was one of those boys. You could even see that he had been handsome, once. He had a strong jaw and skin that was clear, though now deeply lined.
“Listen, you want to play a trick?” he said. He said it in a way that she knew it was the grown-up equivalent of a dare. He reached into his pocket with a hand scarred all around the back and fingers, the fingernails smashed black. When the hand came out, there was a ten-dollar bill in it.
“You see that?” he asked.
“I’ll give you this.”
“I want you to say my name.”
Tina shook her head.
The man went on. “All I want you to do is call me from this phone. I’m gonna call someone in a minute, and after I speak for a little bit, I want you to stand right where you are and call me to you. Like you and I were in a room together. A living room.”
“I have to go,” Tina said, and started to turn. She imagined the bus driver stepping out of the bus to rescue her.
“Twenty dollars,” the man said.
“Aw, come on. Twenty dollars for one sentence. Here, take it.” He reached back into his pocket and got out a twenty, then thrust it out at her. “Please?”
“Who are you calling?”
“You don’t need to know that,” he said, and his eyes narrowed. But there was desperation in them also—this was more than just a prank. And it was this desperation that made Tina brave.
“I won’t do it unless you tell me,” she said.
He sighed, then closed his eyes and rubbed them hard with his fingertips. “It’s a guy I left in Mexico. I told him I was going to Tucson and that I’d be there by tonight, and when he finds out I’m not there he’s going to be pissed off. I mean really pissed. So I have to fake him out. You’re going to be my wife. All you have to do is when I point at you, say, ‘Chris, dinner’s ready.”‘
“Are you really married?”
“Of course I’m not married. You can be my girlfriend, if you’d rather. The guy will never know the difference. Okay?”
Tina started to say no again, but as soon as she did, he dialed the phone and immediately started speaking Spanish. She couldn’t follow a word, except “Tucson” and “Phoenix” and “Si” and “Gracias.” He was standing differently now, straight up, more formal, as if he were afraid of whomever was on the line. He would speak a sentence or two—what Tina thought was a sentence—and then listen for a much longer time than he had spoken. She was not sure what she should do. Finally he said “Si, si,” about ten times. She caught her breath when he pointed to her.
“Chris,” she called out, not yelling it but talking loud. “Dinner’s ready.”
The man said nothing. After a minute, he waved at her, telling her to do it again.
“Chris,” she said. “The chicken’s getting cold!”
He gave her the thumbs up sign, but didn’t smile. He said “Gracias” several times more, then listened, then said “Gracias” five or six more times and hung up. He lit a cigarette and smoked it as if relieved, then handed her the twenty. His smile was gone.
“Thanks,” he said. “I liked the chicken thing. That was worth the extra ten.” He started to run his fingers through his hair, which was long and blond under the dirt. He behaved as if some physical danger had passed for the moment, which of course might well be the case. He seemed to have forgotten her presence altogether, and started to walk away. Then, at the last moment, he turned to her.
“But honestly, you’ve got to be more careful. When a man offers you money and you’re this far out in the desert, you should just run like hell.” He smiled at her, a different smile, more honest, softer. “Just a word of advice. I appreciate the favor, though. You’re a really gorgeous kid.”
And with that he walked to the bus, tapped on the glass door, and the driver let him inside.
Tina went back into the diner, where her mother stroked the back of her head in a way that made her cringe.
“I saw you were making friends outside,” she said.
“Ma’am?” Tina said.
“I told you that you shouldn’t talk to strangers. I won’t have you getting raped and killed out here in the middle of nowhere.”
When they got back on the bus, the dirty man was asleep in the very back, his jeans jacket covering his face. Tina was disappointed—she had hoped for some acknowledgment that they were partners in crime. But it didn’t really matter now. She went to sleep for a while and dreamed that she and the dirty man really were boyfriend and girlfriend. They were on the run together, hiding out in cheap desert motels, running from the evil Mexican gangster they had tricked on the phone. She dreamed that they really were lovers, his stubble rough on her cheek, and his skin hot to the touch.
Madge woke her then. “Wake up, lazy,” she said. “We’re almost there.”
Tina blinked and sat up. She didn’t know how long she had slept, but when she looked behind her the dirty man was gone. Tina felt neither disappointment nor fear, nor even the quiet rage that usually poisoned her very blood. She walked up to the front of the bus and sat directly behind the driver, across the aisle from the young black girl whose name, Madge had learned, was Viola.
“Hey,” Viola said to her. “You’re Madge’s daughter, right?”
“Listen, you can tell me. Your mom’s … she’s a little, you know, wacko. Isn’t she?” Viola twirled her finger around her temple when she said the word, “wacko.”
Tina hesitated. Then, after a moment, she nodded again.
Viola slapped herself on the knees. “I thought so! I could tell that hag was crazy as soon as she opened her mouth.” Viola looked Tina up and down then, apparently searching for some slight deformity that would only show itself on close examination. Finally she said: “You seem okay though. You want some gum?”
Tina took a stick and popped it into her mouth; the sugar hurt her teeth. But she was “okay.” She smiled at Viola, and Viola smiled back. Then Tina looked forward, past the driver’s shoulder and through the windshield. The sun was setting over a new group of squat, tan, vivid mountains in the distance straight ahead, mountains that Tina sensed were near Tucson. And without knowing why, Tina was glad to see them. Absently, she reached down and patted her ankle, feeling the slight bulge in her damp sock where the twenty was folded, tucked deep where Madge would not find it, not even if she searched when Tina was asleep.
Perhaps the West would indeed be bigger and better after all, though not in the way Madge had guessed. Not at all.
“Catalinas,” the driver said, as the sun dipped beneath the highest peak. Tina nodded, and said the name to herself, whispering it so no one else could hear.
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