The Bean Trees
By Barbara Kingsolver
The One to Get Away
I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt
Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying. He got stuck up there. About
nineteen people congregated during the time it took for Norman Strick to walk up to the Courthouse and
blow the whistle for the volunteer fire department. They even-tually did come with the ladder and haul
him down, and he wasn’t dead but lost his hearing and in many other ways was never the same
afterward. They said he overfilled the tire.
Newt Hardbine was notmy friend, he was just one of the big boys who had failed every grade at least
once and so was practically going on twenty in the sixth grade, sitting in the back and flicking little wads
of chewed paper into my hair. But the day I saw his daddy up there like some old overalls slung over a
fence, I had this feeling about what Newt’s whole life was going to amount to, and I felt sorry for him.
Before that exact moment I don’t believe I had given much thought to the future.
My mama said the Hardbines had kids just about as fast as they could fall down the well and drown.
This must not have been entirely true, since they were abundant in Pittman County and many survived to
adulthood. But that was the general idea.
Which is not to say that we, me and Mama, were any better than Hardbines or had a dime to our name.
If you were to look at the two of us, myself and Newt side by side in the sixth grade, you could have
pegged us for brother and sister. And for all I ever knew of my own daddy I can’t say we weren’t,
except for Mama swearing up and down that he was nobody I knew and was long gone besides. But we
were cut out of basically the same mud, I suppose, just two more dirty-kneed kids scrapping to beat hell
and trying to land on our feet. You couldn’t have said, anyway, which one would stay right where he
was, and which would be the one to get away.
Missy was what everyone called me, not that it was my name, but because when I was three
sup-posedly I stamped my foot and told my own mother not to call me Marietta butMiss Marietta, as I
had to call all the people including children in the houses where she worked Miss this or Mister that, and
so she did from that day forward.Miss Marietta and later on just Missy.
The thing you have to understand is,it was just like Mama to do that. When I was just the littlest kid I
would go pond fishing of a Sunday and bring home the boniest mess of blue-gills and maybe a bass the
size of your thumb, and the way Mama would carry on you would think I’d caught the famous big lunker
in Shep’s Lake that old men were always chewing their tobacco and thinking about. “That’s my big girl
bringing home the bacon,” she would say, and cook those things and serve them up like Thanksgiving for
the two of us.
I loved fishing those old mud-bottomed ponds. Partly because she would be proud of whatever I
dragged out, but also I just loved sitting still. You could smell leaves rotting into the cool mud and watch
the Jesus bugs walk on the water, their four little feet making dents in the surface but never falling through.
And sometimes you’d see the big ones, the ones nobody was ever going to hook, slip-ping away under
the water like dark-brown dreams.
By the time I was in high school and got my first job and all the rest, including the whole awful story
about Newt Hardbine which I am about to tell you, he was of course not in school anymore. He was
set-ting tobacco alongside his half-crippled daddy and by that time had gotten a girl in trouble, too, so he
was married. It was Jolene Shanks and everybody was a little surprised at her, or anyway pretended to
be, but not at him. Nobody expected any better of a Hardbine.
But I stayed in school. I was not the smartest or even particularly outstanding but I was there and staying
out of trouble and I intended to finish. This is not to say that I was unfamiliar with the back seat of a
Chevrolet. I knew the scenery of Greenup Road, which we called Steam-It-Up Road, and I knew what
a pecker looked like, and none of these sights had so far inspired me to get hogtied to a future as a
tobacco farmer’s wife. Mama always said barefoot and pregnant was not my style. She knew.
It was in this frame of mind that I made it to my last year of high school without event. Believe me in
those days the girls were dropping by the wayside like seeds off a poppyseed bun and you learned to
look at every day as a prize. You’d made it that far. By senior year there were maybe two boys to every
one of us, and we believed it was our special reward when we got this particular science teacher by the
name of Mr. Hughes Walter.
Nowhim.He came high-railing in there like some blond Paul McCartney, sitting on the desk in his tight
jeans and his clean shirt sleeves rolled up just so, with the cuffs turned in. He made our country boys look
like the hand-me-down socks Mama brought home, all full of their darns and mends. Hughes Walter was
no Kentucky boy. He was from out of state, from some city college up north, which was why, everyone
presumed, his name was back-wards.
Not that I was moony over him, at least no more than the standard of the day, which was plain to see
from the walls of the girls’ bathroom. You could have painted a barn with all the lipstick that went into
“H. W. enraptured forever” and things of that kind. This is not what I mean. But he changed my life, there
is no doubt.
He did this by getting me a job. I had never done anything more interesting for a living than to help
Mama with the for-pay ironing on Sundays and look after the brats of the people she cleaned for. Or
pick bugs off somebody’s bean vines for a penny apiece. But this was a real job at the Pittman County
Hospital, which was one of the most important and cleanest places for about a hundred miles. Mr.
Walter had a wife, Lynda, whose existence was ignored by at least the female portion of the high school
but who was nevertheless alive and well, and was infact one of the head nurses. She asked Hughes
Walter if there was some kid in his classes that could do odd jobs down there after school and on
Saturdays, and after graduation maybe it could work out to be a full-time thing, and he put the question
to us just like that.
Surely you’d think he would have picked one of the Candy Stripers, town girls with money for the
pink-and-white uniforms and prissing around the bedpans on Saturdays like it was the holiest sub-stance
on God’s green earth they’d been trusted to carry. Surely you would think he’d pick Earl Wickentot,
who could dissect an earthworm without fear. That is what I told Mama on the back porch.Mama in her
armhole apron in the caned porch chair and me on the stepstool, the two of us shelling out peas into a
“Earl Wickentot my hind foot” is what Mama said. “Girl, I’ve seen you eat a worm whole when you
were five. He’s no better than you are, and none of them Candy Stripers either.” Still, I believed that’s
who he would choose, and I told her so.
She went to the edge of the porch and shook a handful of pea hulls out of her apron onto the flowerbed.
It was marigolds and Hot Tamale cosmos. Both Mama and I went in for bright colors. It was a family
trait. At school it was a piece of cake to pick me out of a lineup of town girls in their beige or pink
Bobbie Brooks matching sweater-and-skirt outfits. Medgar Biddle, who was once my boyfriend for
three weeks including the homecoming dance, used to say that I dressed like an eye test. I suppose he
meant the type they give you when you go into the army, to see if you’re color blind, not the type that
starts with the big E. He said it when we were break-ing up, but I was actually kind of flattered. I had
decided early on that if I couldn’t dress elegant, I’d dress memorable.
Mama settled back into the cane chair and scooped up another apronful of peas. Mama was not one of
these that wore tight jeans to their kids’ Softball games. She was older than that. She had already been
through a lot of wild times before she had me, includ-ing one entire husband by the name of Foster
Greer. He was named after Stephen Foster, the sweet-faced man in the seventh-grade history book who
wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” but twenty-two years after naming him that, Foster Greer’s mother
suppos-edly died of a broken heart. He was famous for drink-ing Old Grand Dad with a gasoline funnel,
and always told Mama never to pull anything cute like getting pregnant. Mama says trading Foster for me
was the best deal this side of the Jackson Purchase.
She snapped about three peas to every one of mine. Her right hand twisted over and back as she
snapped a little curl of string off the end of each pod and rolled out the peas with her thumb.
“The way I see it,” she said, “a person isn’t nothing more than a scarecrow. You, me, Earl Wickentot,
the President of the United States, and even God Almighty, as far as I can see. The only difference
between one that stands up good and one that blows over is what kind of a stick they’re stuck up there
I didn’t say anything for a while, and then I told her I would ask Mr. Walter for the job.
There wasn’t any sound but Henry Biddle using a hay mower on his front yard, down the road, and our
peas popping open to deliver their goods out into the world.
She said, “Then what? What if hedon’t know you’re good enough forit?”
I said, “I’ll tell him.If he hasn’t already given it to a Candy Striper.”
Mama smiled and said, “Even if.”
But he hadn’t. After two days passed with nothing more said about it, I stayed after class and told him
that if he didn’t have his mind made up yet he’d just as well let me do it, because I would do a right smart
job. I had stayed out of trouble this long, I said, and didn’t intend to let my effort go to waste just
because I was soon going to graduate. And he said all right, he would tell Lynda, and that I should go up
there Monday afternoon and she would tell me what to do.
I had expected more of a fight, and when the con-versation went straight down the road this way it took
me a minute to think what to say next. He had to have about the cleanest fingernails in Pittman County.
I asked him how come he was giving the job to me. He said because I was the first one to ask. Just like
that. When I think of all the time and effort girls in that school put into daydreaming about staying after
school to make an offer to Hughes Walter, and I was the only one to do it.Though of course it was more
a question of making the right kind of offer.
It turned out that I was to work mainly for Eddie Rickett, who was in charge of the lab—this was blood
and pee and a few worse things though I was not about to complain—and the x-rays. Eddie was an old
freckled thing, not really old but far enough along that everybody noticed he hadn’t gotten mar-ried.And
Eddie being the type that nobody made it their business to ask him why not.
He didn’t treat me like teacher’s pet or any kind of prize-pony thing, which was okay with me. With
Eddie it was no horseradish, I was there to do busi-ness and I did it. Lab and x-ray were in two
con-nected rooms with people always coming in and out through the swinging doors with their hands full
and their shoes squeaking on the black linoleum. Before long I was just another one of them, filing papers
in the right place and carrying human waste products without making a face.
I learned things. I learned to look in a microscope at red blood cells, platelets they are called though they
aren’t like plates but little catchers’ mitts, and to count them in the little squares. It was the kind of thing
I’m positive could make you go blind if you kept it up, but luckily there were not that many peo-ple in
Pittman County who needed their platelets counted on any given day.
I hadn’t been there even one whole week when hell busted loose. It was Saturday. These orderlies
came in from the emergency room yelling for Eddie to get ready for a mess in x-ray. A couple of
Hardbines, they said, just the way people always said that. Eddie asked how much of a hurry it was, and
if he’d need help to hold them still, and they said half and half, one of them is hot and the other cold.
I didn’t have time to think about what that meant before Jolene Shanks, or Hardbine rather, was rolled
in on a wheelchair and then came a stretcher right behind her, which they parked out in the hallway.
Jolene looked like the part of the movie you don’t want to watch. There was a wet tongue of blood from
her right shoulder all the way down her bosom, and all the color was pulled out of her lips and face, her
big face like a piece of something cut out of white dough. She was fighting and cursing, though, and
clearly a far cry from dead. When I took one of her wrists to help her out of the wheel-chair it twisted
away under my fingers like a sleeve full of cables. She was still yelling at Newt: “Don’t do it,” and things
like that. “Go ahead and kill your daddy for all I care, he’s the one you want, not your-self and not me.”
Then she would go still for a minute, and then she’d start up again. I wondered what Newt’s daddy had
to do with it.
They said Doc Finchler was called and on his way, but that Nurse MacCullers had checked her over
and it wasn’t as bad as it looked. The bleeding was stopped, but they would need x-rays to see where
the bullet was and if it had cracked anything on its way in. I looked at Eddie wanting to know would I
have to get her out of her top and brassiere into one of the gowns, and couldn’t help thinking about
bloodstains all over the creation, having been raised you might say in the cleaning-up business. But Eddie
said no, that we didn’t want to move her around that much. Doc would just have to see around the
hooks and the snaps.
“Lucky for you he was a bad shot,” Eddie was telling Jolene as he straightened her arm out on the table,
which I thought to be rude under the circum-stances but then that was Eddie. I held her by the elbows
trying not to hurt her any more than she was already hurt, but poor thing she was hysterical and fighting
me and wouldn’t shut up. In my mind’s eye I could see myself in my lead apron standing over Jolene, and
this is exactly what I looked like: a butcher holding down a calf on its way to becoming a cut of meat.
Then Eddie said we were done, for me to keep her in the room next door until they could see if the
pictures came out; they might have to do them over if she’d moved. Then he yelled for the other one, and
two guys rolled in the long stretcher with the sheet over it and started hoisting it up on the table like
something served up on a big dinner plate. I stood there like a damn fool until Eddie yelled at me to get
on out and look afterJolene, he wasn’t needing me to hold this one down because he wasn’t going
any-place. Just another pretty picture for the coroner’s office, Eddie said, but I couldn’t stop staring.
Maybe I’m slow. I didn’t understand until just then that under that sheet, that was Newt.
In the room next door there was a stretcher intended for Jolene, but she would have none of it. She took
one of the hard wooden seats that swung down from the wall, and sat there blubbering, say-ing, “Thank
God the baby was at Mom’s.” Saying, “What am I going to do now?” She had on this pink top that was
loose so it could have gone either way, if you were pregnant or if you weren’t. As far as I know she
wasn’t just then. It had these little openings on the shoulders and bows on the sleeves, though of course it
was shot to hell now.
Jolene was a pie-faced, heavy girl and I always thought she looked the type to have gone and found
trouble just to show you didn’t have to be a cheer-leader to be fast. The trouble with that is it doesn’t get
you anywhere, no more than some kid on a bicy-cle going no hands and no feet up and down past his
mother and hollering his head off for her to look. She’s not going to look till he runs into something and
busts his head wide open.
Jolene and I had never been buddies or anything, she was a year or two ahead of me in school when she
dropped out, but I guess when you’ve just been shot and your husband’s dead you look for a friend in
who-everis there to hand you a Tylenol with codeine. She started telling me how it was allNewt’s
daddy’s fault, he beat him up, beat her up, and even had hit the baby with a coal scuttle. I was trying to
think how a half-dead old man could beat up on Newt, who was built like a side of beef. But then they all
lived together in one house and it was small. And of course the old man couldn’t hear, so it would have
been that kind of life. There wouldn’t be much talk.
I don’t remember what I said, just “Uh-huh” mostly and “You’re going to be okay.” She kept saying she
didn’t know what was going to happen now with her and the baby and old man Hardbine, oh Lord, what
had she got herself into.
It wasn’t the kindest thing, maybe, but at one point I actually asked her, “Jolene, why Newt?” She was
slumped down and rocking a little bit in the chair, holding her hurt shoulder and looking at her feet. She
had these eyes that never seemed to open all the way.
What she said was “Why not, my daddy’d been calling me a slut practically since I was thirteen, so why
the hell not? Newt was just who it happened to be. You know the way it is.”
I told her I didn’t know, because I didn’t have a daddy.That I was lucky that way. She said yeah.
By the time it was over it seemed to me it ought to be dark outside, as if such a thing couldn’t have
hap-pened in daylight. But it was high noon, a whole afternoon ahead and everybody acting like here we
are working for our money. I went to the bathroom and threw up twice, then came back and looked in
the microscope at the little catchers’ mitts, counting the same ones over and over all afternoon. Nobody
gave me any trouble about it. The woman that gave up that blood, anyway, got her money’s worth.
I wanted Mama to be home when I got there, so I could bawl my head off and tell her I was quitting.
But she wasn’t, and by the time she came in with a bag of groceries and a bushel basket of ironing for the
weekend I was over it for the most part. I told her the whole thing, even Jolene’s pink bow-ribbon top
and the blood and all, and of course Newt, and then I told her I’d probably seen the worst I was going
to see so there was no reason to quit now.
She gave me the biggest hug and said, “Missy, I have never seen the likes of you.” We didn’t talk too
much more about it but I felt better with her there, the two of us moving around each other in the kitchen
making boiled greens and eggs for dinner while it finally went dark outside. Every once in a while she
would look over at me and just shake her head.
There were two things about Mama. One is she always expected the best out of me. And the other is
that then no matter what I did, whatever I came home with, she acted like it was the moon I had just
hung up in the sky and plugged in all the stars.Like I was that good.
I kept that job. I stayed there over five and a half years and counted more platelets than you can think
about. A person might think I didn’t do much else with all that time other than keeping Mama
enter-tained and off and on dating Sparky Pike—who most people considered to be a high-class catch
because he had a steady job as a gas-meter man—until I got fed up with hearing who laid out in their
backyards by their meters wearing what (or nothing-but-what) in the summer-time.
But I had a plan. In our high school days the gen-eral idea of fun had been to paint “Class of ’75” on the
water tower, or maybe tie some farmer’s goat up there on Halloween, but now I had serious intentions.
In my first few years at Pittman County Hospital I was able to help Mama out with the rent and the bills
and still managed to save up a couple hundred dollars. With most of it I bought a car, a ’55 Volkswagen
bug with no windows to speak of, and no back seat and no starter. But it was easy to push start without
help once you got the hang of it, the wrong foot on the clutch and the other leg out the door, especially if
you parked on a hill, which in that part of Kentucky you could hardly do anything but. In this car I
intended to drive out of Pittman County one day and never look back, except maybe for Mama.
The day I brought it home, she knew I was going to get away. She took one look and said, “Well, if
you’re going to have you an old car you’re going to know how to drive an old car.” What she meant was
how to han-dle anything that might come along, I suppose, because she stood in the road with her arms
crossed and watched while I took off all four tires and put them back on. “That’s good, Missy,” she said.
“You’ll drive away from here yet. I expect the last I’ll see of you will be your hind end.” She said, “What
do you do if I let the air out of the front tire?”Which she did. I said, “Easy, I put on the spare,” which
believe it or not that damned old car actually had.
Then she let out the back one too and said, “Now what?” Mama had evidently run into trouble along
these lines, at some point in her life with Foster and an Oldsmobile, and she wanted to be sure I was
I thought, and then I said, “I have a bicycle pump. I can get enough air in it to drive down to Norman
Strick’s and get it pumped up the rest of the way.” And she just stood there with her arms crossed and I
could see that she nor God nor nobody else was going to do it for me, so I closed my eyes and went at
that tire for everything I was worth.
Mama hadn’t been there that day. She couldn’t know that all I was seeing behind those shut eyes was
Newt Hardbine’s daddy flying up into the air, in slow motion, like a fish flinging sideways out of the
water. And Newtlaid out like a hooked bass.
When I drove over the Pittman line I made two promises to myself. One I kept, the other I did not.
The first was that I would get myself a new name. I wasn’t crazy about anything I had been called up to
that point in life, and this seemed like the time to make a clean break. I didn’t have any special name in
mind, but just wanted a change. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that a name is not
something a person really has the right to pick out, but is something you’re provided with more or less by
chance. I decided to let the gas tank decide. Wherever it ran out, I’d look for a sign.
I came pretty close to being named after Homer, Illinois, but kept pushing it. I kept my fingers crossed
through Sidney, Sadorus, Cerro Gordo, Decatur, and Blue Mound, and coasted into Taylorville on the
fumes. And so I am Taylor Greer. I suppose you could say I had some part in choosing this name, but
there was enough of destiny in it to satisfy me.
The second promise, the one that I broke, had to do with where I would end up. I had looked at some
maps, but since I had never in my own memory been outside of Kentucky (I was evidently born across
the river in Cincinnati, but that is beside the point), I had no way of knowing why or how any particular
place might be preferable to any other. That is, apart from the pictures on the gas station brochures:
Tennessee claimed to be the Volunteer State, and Missouri the Show-Me State, whatever that might
mean, and nearly everyplace appeared to have plenty of ladies in fifties hairdos standing near waterfalls.
These brochures I naturally did not trust as far as I could throw them out the window. Even Pittman, after
all, had once been chosen an All-Kentucky City, on the basis of what I do not know.Its abundance of
potato bugs and gossip, perhaps. I knew how people could toot their own horn without any earthly
And so what I promised myself is that I would drive west until my car stopped running, and there I
would stay. But there were some things I hadn’t con-sidered. Mama taught me well about tires, and
many other things besides, but I knew nothing of rocker arms. And I did not know about the Great Plain.
The sight of it filled me with despair. I turned south from Wichita, Kansas, thinking I might find a way
around it, but I didn’t. There was central Oklahoma. I had never imagined that any part of a round earth
could be so flat. In Kentucky you could never see too far, since there were always mountains blocking
the other side of your view, and it left you the chance to think something good might be just over the next
hill. But out there on the plain it was all laid out right in front of you, and no matter how far you looked it
didn’t get any better. Oklahoma made me feel there was nothing left to hope for.
My car gave out somewhere in the middle of a great emptiness that according to the road signs was
owned by the Cherokee tribe. Suddenly the steering wheel bore no relation to where the car was going.
By the grace of some miracle I surely did not yet deserve, I managed to wobble off the highway all in one
piece and find a service station.
The man who straightened out my rocker arm was named Bob Two Two. I am not saying he didn’t ask
a fair price—I should have been able to fix it myself—but he went home that night with his pocket full of
something near half the money I had. I sat in the parking lot looking out over that godless stretch of
nothing andcame the closest I have ever come to cashing in and plowing under. But there was no sense in
that. My car was fixed.
I had to laugh, really. All my life, Mama had talked about the Cherokee Nation as our ace in the hole.
She’d had an old grandpa that was full-blooded Cherokee, one of the few that got left behind in
Tennessee because he was too old or too ornery to get marched over to Oklahoma. Mama would say,
“If we run out of luck we can always go live on the Cherokee Nation.” She and I both had enough blood
to qualify. According to Mama, if you’re one-eighth or more they let you in. She called this our “head
Of course, if she had ever been there she would have known it was not a place you’d ever go to live
without some kind of lethal weapon aimed at your hind end. It was clear to me that the whole intention of
bringing the Cherokees here was to get them to lie down and die without a fight. The Cherokees believed
God was in trees. Mama told me this. When I was a kid I would climb as high as I could in a tree and
not come down until dinner. “That’s your Indian blood,” she would say. “You’re trying to see God.”
From what I could see, there was not one tree in the entire state of Oklahoma.
The sun was headed fast for the flat horizon, and then there would be nothing but twelve hours of
headlights in front of me. I was in a hurry to get out of there. My engine was still running from Bob Two
Two’s jumper cables, and I hated to let a good start go to waste, but I was tired and didn’t want to
begin a night of driving without a cup of coffee and some-thing to eat. I drove across the big patch of dirt
that lay between the garage and another small brick-shaped building that hada neon Budweiser light in the
When I drove around to the front, a swarm of lit-tle boys came down on my car like bees on a bear.
“Wash your windows, lady,” they said.“Dollar for the whole car.”
“I got no windows,” I told them. I reached back and put my hand through the side window hole to show
them. “See, just the windshield.Lucky me, because I got no dollar either.”
The boys went around the car putting their hands through all the window holes again and again. I thought
twice about leaving my stuff in the car while I went into the restaurant. I didn’t have anything worth
taking, but then it was all I had.
I asked them, “You boys live around here?”
They looked at each other. “Yeah,” one of them said. “He does. He’s my brother. Them two don’t.”
“You ever hear of a Polaroid memory?”
The big one nodded. The others just stared.
“Well, I got one,” I said. “It’s just like a camera. My memory just took a picture of what y’all look like,
so don’t take any stuff out of my car, okay? You take any stuff, you’re in for it.”
The kids backed off from the car rubbing their hands on their sides, like they were wiping off any-thing
their hands might have already imagined grab-bing onto.
After the cool night, the hot air inside the bar hit me like something you could swim through. Near the
door there was a wire rack of postcards. Some had Indians in various hokey poses, but most were
views-from-the-air of Oral Roberts University, which apparently was in the vicinity—although I’m pretty
sure if it had been within two hundred miles I could have seen it from the parking lot.
I picked out one with two Indian women on it, an older and a younger, pretty one, standing side by side
next to some corn-grinding thing. I had often wondered which one-eighth of me was Cherokee, and in
this picture I could begin to see it.The long, straight hair and the slender wrist bones. The younger one
was wearing my two favorite colors, turquoise and red. I would write on it to Mama, “Here’sus.”
I sat down at the counter and gave the man a dime for the postcard. I nodded when he pointed the pot
of coffee at me, and he filled my cup. The juke-box was playing Kenny Rogers and the TV behind the
counter was turned on, although the sound was off. It was some program about, or from, Oral Roberts
University, which I recognized from the postcards. Frequently a man with clean fat hands and a crest of
hair like a woodpecker would talk on and on without sound. I presumed this was Oral Roberts himself,
though of course I can’t say for cer-tain that it was. From time to time a line of blue writing would run
across the bottom of the screen. Sometimes it gave a telephone number, and some-times it just said
“Praise the Lord.” I wrote my post-card to Mama. “Grandpa had the right idea,” I told her. “No offense,
but the Cherokee Nation is crap.Headed west. Love, M.” It didn’t seem right just yet to sign it Taylor.
The place was cleared out except for two men at the counter, a white guy and an Indian. They both
wore cowboy hats. I thought to myself, I guess now Indians can be cowboys too, though probably not
vice versa. The Indian man wore a brown hat and had a brown, fine-looking face that reminded me of an
eagle, not that I had ever actually seen an eagle. He was somewhere between young and not so young. I
tried to imagine having a great grandpa with a nose like that and such a smooth chin. The other one in the
gray hat looked like he had a mean streak to him. You can tell the kind that’s looking for trouble. They
were drinking beers and watching Oral on the silent TV, and once in a great while they would say
some-thing to each other in a low voice. They might have been on their first couple of beers, or they
might have been drinking since sunup—with some types you can’t tell until it’s too late. I tried to recall
where I had been at sunup that day. It was in St. Louis, Missouri, where they have that giant
McDonald’s thing tower-ing over the city, but that didn’t seem possible. That seemed like about a blue
“You got anything to eat that costs less than a dol-lar?” I asked the old guy behind the counter. He
crossed his arms and looked at me for a minute, as if nobody had ever asked him this before.
“Ketchup,” the gray-hat cowboy said. “Earlserves up a mean bottle of ketchup, don’t you, Earl?” He
slid the ketchup bottle down the counter so hard it rammed my cup and spilled out probably five cents’
worth of coffee.
“You think being busted is a joke?” I asked him. I slid the bottle back and hit his beer mug dead cen-ter,
although it did not spill. He looked at me and then looked back to the TV, like I wasn’t the kind of thing
to be bothered with. It made me want to spit nails.
“He don’t meannothing by it, miss,” Earl told me. “He’s got a bug up his butt. I can get you a burger for
“Okay,” I told Earl.
Maybe ten or fifteen minutes passed before the food came, and I kept myself awake trying to guess
what the fat-hands man was saying on the TV screen. Earl’s place could have done with a scrub. I could
see through the open door into the kitchen, and the black grease on the back of the stove looked like it
had been there since the Dawn of Man. The air in there was so hot and stale I felt like I had to breathe it
twice to get any oxygen out of it. The cof-fee did nothing to wake me up. My food came just as I was
about to step outside for some air.
I noticed another woman in the bar sitting at one of the tables near the back. She was a round woman,
not too old, wrapped in a blanket. It was not an Indian blanket but a plain pink wool blanket with a satin
band sewed on the edge, exactly like one Mama and I had at home. Her hair lay across her shoulders in
a pair of skinny, lifeless plaits. She was not eating or drinking, but fairly often she would glance up at the
two men, or maybe just one of them, I couldn’t really tell. The way she looked at them made me feel like
if I had better sense I’d be scared.
Earl’s ninety-nine-cent burger brought me around a little, though I still felt like my head had been stuffed
with that fluffy white business they use in life preservers. I imagined myself stepping outside and the wind
just scattering me. I would float out over the flat, dark plain like the silvery fuzz from a milk-weed pod.
Putting it off, I read all the signs on the walls, one by one, which said things likeTHEY CAN’T FIRE
ME,SLAVES HAVE TO BE SOLD and IN CASE OF FIRE YELLFIRE. The television kept on
saying PRAISE THE LORD.1-800-THE LORD. I tried to concentrate on keeping myself all in one
place, even if it wasn’t a spot I was crazy about. Then I went outside. The air was cool and I drank it too
fast, getting a little dizzy. I sat with my hands on the steering wheel for a few minutes trying to think myself
into the right mood for driving all night across Oklahoma.
I jumped when she pecked on the windshield. It was the round woman in the blanket.
“No thanks,” I said. I thought she wanted to wash the windshield, but instead she went around to the
other side and opened the door. ‘You need a lift someplace?” I asked her.
Her body, her face, and her eyes were all round. She was someone you could have drawn a picture of
by tracing around dimes and quarters and jar tops. She opened up the blanket and took out something
alive. It was a child. She wrapped her blanket around and around it until it became a round bundle with a
head. Then she set this bundle down on the seat of my car.
“Take this baby,” she said.
It wasn’t a baby, exactly. It was probably old enough to walk, though not so big that it couldn’t be easily
carried.Somewhere between a baby and a per-son.
“Where do you want me to takeit?”
She looked back at the bar, and then looked at me. “Just take it.”
I waited a minute, thinking that soon my mind would clear and I would understand what she was saying.
It didn’t. The child had the exact same round eyes. All four of those eyes were hanging there in the
darkness, hanging on me, waiting. The Budweiser sign blinked on and off, on and off, throwing a faint
light that made the whites of their eyes look orange.
“Is this your kid?”
She shook her head.“My dead sister’s.”
“Are you saying you want to give me this child?”