We’re Finally on Our Own

Dennis Covington Click to read more...

Dennis Covington is the author of five books, including the novel Lizard and the memoir Salvation on Sand Mountain, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.  His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times  Magazine, Vogue, Esquire, Georgia Review, Oxford American, and many other places.  An Alabama native, he’s currently Professor of Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.

In the fall of her senior year, on a Texas afternoon quickly losing its light, JoAnn Parish stepped into her spot on the stage of the Needmore High School auditorium and listened intently for her next line cue. This was the last dress rehearsal of Taming of the Shrew before preview night, when Superintendent Huff and select members of the Needmore volunteer fire and rescue squad were expected to be in attendance. JoAnn was playing Kate, the Shrew. But at this critical moment in the play, when Kate was to waver in the tongue-lashing she had been giving Petruchio and relent with a modest “As you wish, my lord,” JoAnn simply turned to him and said, “Oh, just go to hell.”

None of the actors or actresses arrayed in meticulously-rendered period costumes giggled, least of all dumbstruck Pete Donnelly, who, as an unconvincing Petruchio, had shifted his weight from one ornately-slippered foot to the other before realizing that the words had been directed at him, not his character.

“What did you say?” squalled Miss Medina from the back of the auditorium, where she had been engaged in a ferocious battle with her lighting assistant, a freshman named Wayne Dotson, who had missed every other rehearsal this week on account of his late shift at the Needmore Dairy Queen.

JoAnn, still in character, appeared not to hear. “Line?” she called nonchalantly from the stage, but she knew it was too late for that. No one was holding book.

“I said what did you say, JoAnn Parish? What?” And Miss Medina’s voice, carrying as it was over the heads of Wayne and several other timid underclassmen, had begun to resemble a shriek.

“She said, ‘Oh, just fare thee well,’” replied Kate’s maid in waiting, the buxom and formidable Ivy Constance, who was wearing her aqua sateen dress belted high. She was pregnant.

This time the cast did giggle, and Miss Medina came charging down the aisle at them, but pulled up short in the orchestra pit, where she simply stood and glared.

“I’m sorry, Miss Medina,” JoAnn finally said. “The lines must have gotten scrambled in my head.” Several other members of the cast nodded, as though they’d had similar problems in the past.

“Wayne Dotson,” Miss Medina snapped. “Find a script.” And she turned again toward the stage. “I dare anyone in this cast to find the words ‘fare thee well’ in any of the speeches of Kate or her maid in waiting or in fact in any speech in the pages Mr. Shakespeare has written so exquisitely for us.”

But somehow Wayne Dotson appeared to have found them. “Here, Miss Medina,” he said. “Act III, scene 4…’fare thee well ye mutton-headed sop.’”

Miss Medina’s face remained fixed on the mutinous cast. Her eyes narrowed. “Consider this a warning,” she finally said. Then she turned to Wayne Dotson. “Take off that silly cap.” And Wayne dutifully removed his Dairy Queen cap with the letters DQ inscribed smack dab in the center of the Texas map.

“What got into you, Jo?” Ivy asked afterwards in the dressing room.

JoAnn was unfastening the snaps of her pearl gray doublet. She flicked her eyes toward the hallway, where Pete Donnelly was wrestling his glasses away from the boy who’d played Hortensio. Pete’s glasses were those black, horn-rimmed kind that would never be cool, JoAnn thought, unless Buddy Holly came back from the dead.

“Did Pete dump you?” Ivy asked.

The question infuriated JoAnn. She hung the doublet on a hanger, and the hanger on a radiator pipe that snaked along the wall above the mirror and the sink.

“The idiot joined the Marines,” she said. “He leaves for boot camp day after graduation.”
Then she looked straight at Ivy. “Until right before we went on stage, he had told me he was going to UT. It’s the only place I applied.”

“Oh.”

“So that’s why I told him where he really ought to go.”

JoAnn kicked off her point shoes and started wrestling with the knot at the front of her suede leggings.

“Were you and Pete planning to get married or something?” Ivy asked.

“Can you see me marrying Pete Donnelly?”

Ivy glanced into the hallway. “No,” she replied.

“He’s just not my type,” JoAnn said. She flung the leggings into the corner with the other items to be washed.

“He has a very small head,” Ivy offered.

“Very small. And he mumbles. I can’t understand half of what he says.”

“But you’re still a couple, right?”

“That’s not the point, Ivy. We never were a couple. We’re just friends.” She had zipped up her new culottes and, out of respect for Ivy, was trying not to admire her flat tummy in the mirror. But Ivy simply continued to remove the cold cream from her eyelids with a damp Kleenex.

“Look at me,” JoAnn said.

Ivy turned, her mouth ajar.

“You and I are friends, right?”

Ivy nodded.

“And if you had told me that you were going to a certain university, and I had made my plans based on that information, do you think for one minute that you would turn around and, without another word, up and join the United States Marines?”

“No. I’m a girl.”

“Exactly.” But JoAnn was trying to get at something else. “Boys don’t have any idea what friendship among girls means.”

“Men are jerks,” Ivy agreed. “But there’s just one thing wrong with what you said.”
JoAnn waited while Ivy folded her hands across her stomach.

“After graduation, I’m not going to up and do anything.” Ivy stared serenely into her reflection in the mirror. Her expression was familiar–puzzled, but expectant, like that painting of the Virgin Mary in JoAnn’s Art Through the Ages book. “The Annunciation,” it was called, but JoAnn, who normally had a photographic memory for names and dates, couldn’t remember who’d painted it, or when, or why.

After rehearsal, Miss Medina gave notes that were caustic and brief. When she dismissed the cast and crew with a wave of her script, JoAnn noticed that Pete Donnelly was following her outside, where the sun had just set beneath a thin, shelf-like cloud. The parking lot was nearly empty, and bathed in crimson light. Overhead, an odd, misshapen moon floated in the darkening sky.

“I can’t believe you told me to go to hell in front of everybody,” Pete said.

“I didn’t tell you to do it in front of them,” she replied.

Pete didn’t get it. Slow on the uptake. “People don’t talk like that in public,” he said.
“Maybe they do in Reno or Las Vegas.”

“Wouldn’t know. Never been there.”

“Just let it settle for a while,” Pete said. “I know what I’m doing. I’ve given it a lot of thought.”

“There’s a frigging war going on. Did you give that any thought?”

Pete didn’t respond to that one. He just stood there with the usual high color in his cheeks and a tangle of coarse brown hair sticking out from under his Texas Longhorn cap. JoAnn almost told him he wouldn’t be needing that particular cap anymore, but she caught herself. The war thing was enough. Of course he knew about the war. Of course that’s why he had joined. Pete wasn’t like the other boys he drank beer with after they’d shredded the fields, the boys who said they were worried the war might be over before they could enlist. Pete had just gone ahead and done it, even though at times he thought the war might be flat out wrong.

“Some people say it’s the wrong war in the wrong place,” he had once told her. “They say it’s a mistake and we’re the ones who’re going to pay for it.”

“Not me.”

“They think that all of us will pay for it, Jo.”

All of us. What kind of crazy talk was that? JoAnn thought. The war was a creepy news story half a world away. Wasn’t even a real war, according to her dad. Most of her friends didn’t know which side we were on or how to pronounce the name of the place. And nobody JoAnn knew had any intention of fighting in the damn thing, except maybe Jay Reddick and his dim-wit brother Stan. They talked a lot about joining up as they lolly-gagged around the flag pole in their ROTC uniforms after lowering the colors at the end of the third quarter of football games.

“Anyway, it’s an opportunity for me,” Pete said.

“To get yourself killed?”

”To really go to college when I get out, Jo. Your old man’s loaded.”

“My father’s not well.”

“I didn’t mean any disrespect to him.”

“What did you mean, then?” JoAnn had stopped short of Pete’s old pickup with the Needmore Fighting Jackrabbits decal on the back.

“This isn’t the end of the world, Jo. This is just one night in a whole bunch of nights.” Pete was gesturing with his arms, a habit Miss Medina had tried fruitlessly to discourage in him.

“You’ve been letting Shakespeare get to you,” JoAnn said as she picked up her pace. Her own truck, her mother’s really, a brand-new Custom Cab, was parked at the other end of the lot, underneath the limbs of a prairie willow like the ones on her family’s place.

“Hey, I don’t even like Shakespeare,” Pete shouted after her.

“Last I heard, he didn’t care much for you either,” she shouted back.

But on her long, solitary walk to the truck, JoAnn got a hint of what Pete was trying to say. It was the last of October, a mild fall so far, but the air had turned cooler just that evening, it seemed, and this night was only one of many that, in fits and starts, would gradually tend toward winter on the Southern High Plains. By Christmas, it’d be howling snow sideways, the pipes would freeze, and she’d be over whatever shock Pete’s decision to enlist had caused. In the years ahead, she would even forget that she had told him to go to hell, only that they had played Kate and Petruchio in the drama club’s production of Taming of the Shrew, and that the play had gone as well as could be expected in a town whose only other live theatrical event was its Sweethearts of the Rodeo pageant and parade.

JoAnn would remember how quiet and thoughtful Pete had been in high school, how that was what had attracted her to him in the first place, and there was one other thing she’d remember: in the parking lot after that particular rehearsal, when, standing beside her mother’s truck and staring at the flat, dark line of the horizon, she understood for the first time the relationship between the sun and the moon and the plane of earth on which she stood. The arrangement was a geometric shape. It extended into space. Shakespeare was right. The world was a stage. Anything might happen here.

Pete Donnelly, for instance, didn’t wait for graduation. He left for boot camp the week after the play closed.

“Who needs a high school diploma in Saigon?” he had asked.

Who needs Saigon? JoAnn wanted to know.

The letters Pete wrote from boot camp were mostly funny, more about people in Needmore than what the training was like. He addressed them to Kate and signed them Petruchio. When he came home on leave after basic, they drove to San Angelo with a bunch of their friends and danced the Cotton-Eyed Joe at the Crazy Chicken, staying long after the place had closed up for the night.

Pete looked good in his military haircut. From the forehead down, he was tanned. Because of the weight he’d lost during training, his jeans and western shirt didn’t fit quite right, but his shoulders seemed broader than they were before. He and JoAnn made out in the backseat of Ivy’s Impala Super Sport on the way home, and the sharpness of Pete’s desire surprised JoAnn almost as much as the sharpness of her own.

“You look happy,” she told him the next day when he stopped by to return a hair clip she’d left in Ivy’s car.

“I am happy,” he said, and grinned.

And they saw each other every night after that until they finally parted under a cold drizzle at the Trailways station while the coyotes at the playa lake raised their unearthly song. Pete held JoAnn for a long time and swore to write more often. As it turned out, she would write much more than he ever did, but she learned to take that in stride.

At Christmas, Pete came home for the very last time. Ivy and her baby’s father, Billy Ray Whitfield, the boy she’d met at Padre Island the previous spring, had decided to tie the knot. JoAnn and Pete stood with the couple when they got married at the courthouse, and the four of them shared a bottle of sparkling cider from a brown paper bag in the back room of Buster’s Place by the gin.

This time when Pete left Needmore, there was hardly a word about what was to come next. He hugged JoAnn all right, and they kissed until she got a crick in her neck, but as he boarded the bus, he just saluted her and smiled a goofy grin.

The letter he wrote from Camp Pendleton, though, the last one before he went overseas, was different, or maybe JoAnn herself was different by then. She’d been watching the evening news and reading every scrap about the war in the Dallas papers. So she was surprised that the body of Pete’s letter made no mention of the war. Instead, it was about a dream he’d had, of clear skies and mule deer, and the way the wind swirled the wheat fields in June.

“The fields are yellow. The canyon’s yellow. There’s yellow everywhere,” he wrote. And beyond the fields, on the edge of the canyon, stood an old farm house, a corral, and a barn. In front of the house lay discarded toys, and out back, where the wash hung on a line stretched between elms, the sheets blew white in the wind.

JoAnn understood she could never show this letter to anyone. It was only for her to read. But she did share Pete’s postscript with her mother and father: “Look for me some night on Huntley and Brinkley. I’ll be the one with ‘Needmore Fighting Jackrabbits’ on the back of my helmet.”

And that, JoAnn’s mother agreed, was Pete. He’d be just the one to do something like that.

On the last day of July, JoAnn left for freshman orientation at the University of Texas, the only woman in her family to ever make it that far. With the rest of the college-bound seniors, all boys, she stood in front of the altar at the Needmore First Methodist Church while everyone came up with words of encouragement, and Mr. Jenkins, the town’s barber and best fiddle player despite having lost two fingers of his left hand in Korea, held up the Hook ‘Em Horns sign, as though he had a choice.

Ivy Constance, now Whitfield, offered to drive her to Austin, since JoAnn had never gotten more than her learner’s permit, and the state troopers would never be as understanding as Clay Burton had been. Clay, also a Methodist, was Needmore’s only cop.

JoAnn’s mother was the saddest to see her off. The former Mary Grace Cannon hugged her daughter so tightly, the poor girl saw stars. Brother Syd was not nearly as demonstrative, but JoAnn could tell his feelings were genuine when he handed her a spiral steno pad with the frequencies and call letters of all the ham operators in Austin and vicinity, just in case of an emergency. JoAnn threw an arm playfully around his neck in what passed as a hug of appreciation, although Syd knew, of course, that she did not own a ham radio, or for that matter, a radio of any kind.

JoAnn’s father, though, was the hardest to say goodbye to, partially because of his natural reticence, but also because of his health. Nobody talked about it much anymore, but he’d been diagnosed with malignant melanoma the year before, something JoAnn had confided early on to Pete Donnelly. The cancer had sprung from a mole the size of an eraser just above her father’s collar bone (he was fair skinned, despite his dark hair), and although the surgeons in Lubbock said they’d gotten it all, early and decisively, JoAnn sensed that her family’s apparent relief was just that, apparent. Appearances were important in West Texas, and Needmore was the kind of place where cancer, unless proven otherwise, was always gotten in time.

“When are you coming back to see us, pumpkin?” her father asked.

“Every weekend, if I could.”

“But definitely for Thanksgiving, right?”

“Why not Halloween? It’s your birthday.”

A joke. His birthday was actually two days before.

He cupped her chin in his hand and looked at her for an inordinate amount of time, as though he were memorizing her features or had just now fully noticed them.

“Come on, Dad. You know you’re glad to see me go.”

“I don’t know about that. Be good.”

“You, too,” she said.

“Come on, slow poke,” Ivy shouted from the Super Sport, and JoAnn smiled at her parents and did her patented backward dance, ducking her head like she did in that photo they kept on the living room mantle, the one when she was five and performing at the Needmore Senior Citizens’ home.

“Bye, y’all,” she said before she turned to go. And she heard their voices rise likewise behind her as the birds in the prairie willows that lined the drive flung themselves into the sky.

The day, meanwhile, had turned off hot and still. A dust storm loomed to the west, but she and Ivy outran it as they headed southeast down highway 84, through speed traps in an infinite procession of small, dust-blown towns that were as familiar to JoAnn as her own face in the mirror, a settled resignation to the enormous, simple fact of Texas.
Ivy hardly said a word to JoAnn when they stopped for snacks at the Sav-A-Lot in Colorado City, and JoAnn thought this odd. Perhaps Ivy was second-guessing her decision to leave the baby in Needmore with Billy Ray. But when the girls turned east onto the only completed section of the new interstate, with its plowed up median and wide, white lanes, Ivy said, “My mother saw Syd and your mother at Albertson’s. He was handling his walker like a pro, up and down the aisles and all.”

“Please keep your eyes on the road,” JoAnn said. She knew Ivy had never driven on an interstate before.

Ivy just turned the radio on. “Billy Ray thinks you’re making a mistake going to Austin. He says it’s nothing but a bunch of hippies there. He asked me if you were one.”

JoAnn looked over at her friend, who was, she decided, so full of crap. “Tell Billy Ray I want to have his next baby. We could start a commune. You could get it on with Pete when he comes home.”

“The things that come out of your mouth,” Ivy said, but she had started to shake with laughter, which caused the car to sway onto the shoulder and back. A semi passed with its horn blaring.

“Jesus,” JoAnn said. And when they stopped for gas at the first Abilene exit, she said, “Let me take the wheel before you get us killed.”

In this way, both of them knew the trip would go by faster, with JoAnn pretending not to know how to drive and Ivy squealing and clutching her heart. They sang along with Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” and argued about whether Roger had actually been the one to find Patsy’s body–Ivy insisted he had–and then they invented stories about the families in station wagons with out-of-state tags until the freeway gave out and turned back into the familiar two-lane.

That’s when JoAnn decided to stop at the next flea market or cheap antique store so she could get a used comforter for her dorm room bed, one that didn’t smell like home.

“Seems like you’d want to bring one from home,” Ivy said.

“Why on earth would I do that?” JoAnn replied.

And it was in the loft of a general store in Cisco, Texas, that JoAnn felt her new life begin. The sign on the outer door had said “Gone to Lunch,” but the door was unlocked, so the girls walked on in. The place was musty and the walls crowded with the heads of dead animals: a pronghorn, a snarling bobcat, an elk with its thick tongue hanging out. A section near the front of the store was devoted to gardening tools and the kind of floppy hats that JoAnn’s mother might try on, but never buy. The counters along the middle aisle were stacked with china and cut glass, most of it marked down. In the back were the stairs to the loft, where it was so dark the girls had to wait a moment for their eyes to adjust, but when Ivy spotted the quilts and comforters and started holding some of them up, JoAnn seemed to have lost her interest in shopping until Ivy said, “What are you gonna do if your daddy dies?”

JoAnn turned to face her. “Who said he was gonna die?”

“Everybody dies,” Ivy shrugged.

“Yeah, so why’d you ask a question like that?”

Ivy appeared to be weighing the heft of an Afghan. “Your mother told my mother it didn’t look good.”

JoAnn felt her stomach drop. Neither her mother nor father had said anything like that to her. They’d just talked about how successful the surgery had been. Didn’t even need to be looked at again for six months. Every six months and then after five years, it’d be like nothing had ever happened to him. Ivy had heard it wrong. Or Ivy’s mother had. Either that, or JoAnn’s parents hadn’t wanted to disturb her right as she was heading off to college, and when she recognized the truth in that thought, she took a step over to an antique elementary school desk and sat down.

“I thought you knew, Jo,” Ivy said. “Mom said he would have to go to the cancer center in Houston for an evaluation and maybe some further tests.”

“Oh,” JoAnn said. “That’s just routine.”

“Well, that’s what I figured, too,” Ivy said. “I was just asking like, in general, what you would do if something happened to your dad.”

“I thought your mother had heard something else.”

“No,” Ivy said.

“Good, if that’s all it is.”

“What would you do, though? Syd can’t run a ranch, like he is.”

JoAnn looked at her hand on the school desk. The veins on the back of her hand were livid, and the desk beneath it was scarred with the names and initials of generations of kids. She didn’t think Ivy should have said anything about her father on this trip. She would always resent Ivy a little for that. But she knew the only way to avoid being cold and vengeful was to say exactly what was on her mind, and she did this without really thinking because it was the way she truly felt.

“I’m never going back to Needmore,” she said. “Maybe to visit. Not ever to live.”

Ivy looked stunned.

“I’ve never said it to anybody before,” JoAnn continued, “but I guess that’s the way it is.”

Ivy took a deep breath. “I wish I was you. I hate it back there. For Billy Ray it’s not so bad. He can’t go back to Corpus anyway.”

“Why not?”

“There’s a warrant out for him.”

“For what?”

“He cut his ex-wife’s boyfriend in a fight.”

“His ex-wife’s boyfriend?” JoAnn said. “You never told me he’d been married before. When’d he get married, when he was fourteen?”

“Billy Ray’s older than he looks,” Ivy said simply.

JoAnn was following her down the stairs by then. Ex-wife. Billy Ray. Good Lord! The things some people would keep from other people, even their best friends. At the bottom of the stairs, JoAnn caught up with Ivy and said, apropos to nothing: “Momma would just have to sell the ranch.”

Ivy nodded and her cheeks reddened. JoAnn didn’t really mean what she’d said. She was just trying it out. She hadn’t even got to Austin yet, but she felt she had already passed beyond that city and would be inventing the rest of her life as she went.

That afternoon, the girls pulled up in front of JoAnn’s dorm, a massive limestone building called Kinsolving, and Ivy offered to help JoAnn get her stuff up to her room on the second floor, but JoAnn told her to just run along and try to get back to her baby as soon as she could. Billy Ray, as a wanted fugitive, could not be trusted to keep an infant fed. The suitcase wasn’t heavy anyway, just clothes, photos, a Bible, a dictionary, a one-volume set of Shakespeare’s plays, and the mesquite jewelry box containing her mother’s high school ring; the string of pearls her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday; Pete Donnelly’s letters from Vietnam (there were twelve); and that list of ham radio operators her brother Syd had pressed into her hand before she left town. “In case of an emergency,” Syd had said, but he didn’t say what kind.

Ivy hugged her, whispered something JoAnn didn’t catch, and then backed down the hill toward the car.

“What?” JoAnn said. “What did you say?”

“It’s nothing. I’ll tell you later,” Ivy shouted before she turned with a backward wave of her hand.

JoAnn watched Ivy get into her car, and followed the car with her eyes until it disappeared behind a statue of a man on a horse and a building the color of chalk. Then she looked down the street to her left and back to her right again. The pavement was splotched with sunlight under a curtain of green leaves. There were only a few students scurrying beneath the oaks, the girls in their summer dresses with the Peter Pan collars, the boys spinning basketballs in the air. JoAnn picked up her suitcase and clarinet and headed up the concrete steps to the dormitory door. It had been blazing hot all afternoon, but as she passed into the shadow of the building’s portico, the air felt suddenly cold. She stopped, turned around, and shielded her eyes against the dazzling refraction of light from the windows of the UT Tower and the state capitol and the office buildings downtown. That was the moment she understood how utterly alone she would be from here on out.

The next morning, she took a walk, first toward the Tower, the tallest building she’d ever seen, even taller than the grain elevator in Needmore: so tall that when she stared straight up from its base, the top of the Tower seemed to disappear into haze. She walked completely around it, watching the way the light hit its columns and balustrade, and then she headed west toward Guadalupe Street, where she had been told there would be stores for just about anything she might need. What she needed most was stationery, so she could write to Pete.

JoAnn loved to move through neighborhoods like this–a visitor walking fast, taking it in and moving right on. Past the gray-green dolphins in the circle of stones by the house with plum shutters and the bright red door; by the telephone poles plastered with announcements for a covered dish supper at the Wesley Foundation and drum lines in concert and French cinema. Books. There were ads for used textbooks and apartments to rent, a carriage house with a view of Barton Springs, cheap burgers, Las Vegas for two. Sex. There were penises, drawn child-like in the margin of otherwise sober notices: prayer vigils for peace, give a damn about something or other, the ink was smeared. The world was on fire. The poets were lost. And then came Guadalupe Street, with its cacophony of sound, color, incense, b.o. and cabbage gone bad, raspberries, Noxzema, a whiff of butterscotch, something dead; the male students all chattering in their khakis and Weejuns without socks, polo shirts, girls with skirts slit up to their crotch and bangles on necklaces they wore around their ankles; suits, uniforms, nurse’s fishnet hose, and a bottle of rum, big as a boxcar and festooned with streamers, like an advertisement for lethargy, unapologetic sloth. But at the street’s core was this energy that would not give up until she had concentrated on every sign she passed, every glazed transom over every door that read “Asian Delights” or “Cameras Repaired, leave your number in the box.” Leather, every store sold leather and hookahs and what was she looking for? Stationery. Stationery?

A newsstand. On the corner. She stopped.

The other pedestrians parted like water around her, and JoAnn ducked inside. The air was familiar–newsprint and burnt coffee and shoe black from the empty shoeshine chair with its brass footrest and spittoon. Cigar butts in the sand. Like the farmers’ co-op in Needmore. She felt as if she were home.

“Looking for something special?” said the boy behind the counter. He had slick, black hair and a razor beak of a nose.

“Just looking.”

“Let me know you find anything.” He swept a customer’s coins from the counter and into the pocket of his soiled change apron. She was the only woman in this newsstand, but she felt as safe as a doodle bug drawn to its hole. The customers, what few there were, were mostly middle-aged. In the back, an old man wearing a green visor was riffling through sports sections in a stack of regional dailies. His pants were checked, black and white, like his tie.

“First time in Austin?” the boy behind the counter said.

She turned and nodded yes.

“So what do you think?”

“I’m just a freshman. I don’t know.”

He had a loose and easy grin. “It’ll grow on you. Just enjoy yourself. Lot of good food, cheap, if you know where to look. And you’ve got to see the bats.”

Bats? She was thumbing through a house and garden magazine. It’s not that she was interested in houses or gardens, but she didn’t want to give herself away by heading straight for the horoscopes right off. Maybe she’d pick up a news magazine or one of those nifty literary journals with the kaleidoscopic covers. Instead, she bought a pack of Doublemint gum. And then went to the horoscopes. She hadn’t even asked about stationery.

Sagittarius, Gemini, she was searching for Pete’s sign, Scorpio–“ruled by the groin”–and hers, Leo–“find your happiness in caring for others”–when the customer who had been behind her at the counter while she was buying the gum, a middle-aged man like her father, erect, silent, an automaton, jingled the bell as he opened the door to step into the sun and she looked up and saw a hole open in the back of his suit jacket. The window facing the street shattered, and she crouched to protect her eyes. There was a sound like a backfire from somewhere far off.

“What was that?” the boy behind the counter said. Shards of glass covered everything, but he just stood there, untouched. “What the fuck was that?”

Nobody said anything. JoAnn found herself staring at the floor. She was breathing hard and noticed that the wooden floorboards were discolored, as though they’d been left out in the sun. Nail heads. She was counting the nail heads, and when she realized what she was doing, she stopped.

“Let’s just stay put,” said a voice in the back: the old man, she figured, real calm.

Then for ages, it seemed, there was silence. JoAnn thought she said, ‘Is it okay to look?’ but in retrospect she knew she couldn’t have opened her mouth during that time she was crouched on the floor, at least not until the door bell jingled again, and a student rushed in shouting something about a sniper up on the Tower, shooting, and she felt her heart drop in her chest.

“Yeah, right,” said the boy behind the counter–he was clearly not from Texas–and the student grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him face down onto a stack of magazines.

“You don’t believe me, just look outside.”

That’s when she clearly heard gunshots, shouted syllables, voices carried on wind, the sound of sirens, and a rhythmic, raspy breathing, like an animal having a nightmare, but unable to wake itself up.

“Jesus, that guy’s not going to make it,” the student said. More gunshots, steady, methodical. A wail.

JoAnn stood up and looked around. The old man in the green visor motioned for her to get back down, but she didn’t want to, and couldn’t have if she’d tried. She was in one of her waking dreams, a condition her mother had said was all a part of growing up. Barely conscious, she could not be dissuaded by a gesture or word. And in this twilight state, she walked toward the newsstand door. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the boy with the soiled change apron and the student who had rushed in with news about the sniper. They were huddled together on the floor behind the counter now, two faces that amused her, they were so foreign, so forlorn. When she opened the door, the bell jingled again, and she stepped outside. The wind had picked up, but the sound of gunshots out there on the street seemed remote and inconsequential. She cupped her hand against the glare and smelled the injured man before she saw him. The thought washed over her like shame. He lay collapsed against the bricks, a marionette whose strings had been cut. He was wearing burgundy wingtips and green hourglass socks. He had a stubble of beard, gray sideburns, enormous ears. And the whorl of fine hair at the back of his head reminded her of Red Gillum, a Needmore man who’d been caught siphoning gas from a neighbor’s car. The neighbor had shot him in the hip with a pellet gun, but Red had been able to walk home. This man on the sidewalk in Austin, though, wouldn’t be walking anywhere anytime soon. He was not moving, perhaps not even breathing. Blood puddled beneath his waist and lay smeared across the sidewalk in broad, parallel strokes, as though someone had tried to use a stiff brush to shellac the concrete with blood.

“Please come back inside, Missy.”

She turned.

The old man from the newsstand was holding out his hand, green-veined and shaking, but she took it anyway, and he led her back in with another jingle of the bell, past the boys crouched behind the counter, their mournful eyes, and the stacks and stacks of garden magazines; past the Juicy Fruit and Dentyne displays, the cartons of Camels, Bel Airs, Lucky Strikes. He was taking her deep into the newsstand, where light from a hanging bulb shone green through his visor, and when he at last stopped and let go of her hand, they were standing in a sheltered alcove by the stairs to an upper storeroom. Books of every kind, size, and color surrounded them.

“Now, sit on the steps,” he said. “Do you like music? There’s a radio here. I’ll turn it on. What kind of music do you like? Is this okay?”

She heard the rising of violins, cellos, and the notes of a melody she could almost name; then it came to her, “Scheherazade,” by Rimsky-Korsakov, they’d played it at All-State that spring, but behind it were sirens from the street outside. The sound of more gunshots. A scream.

“What was that?” she said, and looked at the old man.

“Just listen to the music,” he replied.

“It was like this, pop, and then another. Pop, pop,” the boy at the counter would say later, and repeat for days after that, years. “Pop. It was like pop.”

“It was like a hammer hitting a nail, like somebody with a hammer,” JoAnn would tell a reporter from the American-Statesman. “Somebody working on a house, you know, a long way off.”

“Did you see the victim before they carried him away?”

“I didn’t see anything. I was on the floor.” She didn’t want to say she had seen the hole open in the man’s back. She didn’t know whether she had actually seen that or not. She particularly didn’t want to say what she had seen on the sidewalk outside. Instead, she looked for the old man in the green visor.

“What about the boy on the bicycle?” the reporter asked.

“What boy?”

“He didn’t make it,” someone beside her said.

“I didn’t see anything,” JoAnn lied. “You’ll have to ask someone else. I really need to go home.”

“Are you a student? Do you know where you are?” This time it was an Austin policeman, and JoAnn was standing in the back of the newsstand drinking a Grapico that the man in the green visor had offered.

“We’re taking you out of here, out the back,” the policeman said. “We think he’s down, but we want to be safe. Come on, sweetie. Step over the glass.”

She squeezed the old man’s hand goodbye–he had the bluest eyes she’d ever seen–and followed the policeman down the hall.

This policeman smelled like after shave, a kind she didn’t recognize. It was as though he’d stepped right out of a barber shop, except for the whiff of gasoline, metal, and oil. He had a delicate face, not cop-like at all; he looked like a counselor from the youth camp at Rio Blanco, his lips too big to be pretty, but his skin too fine to be tough, just a youngish man in a gray uniform, leather, a holstered gun.

The sun in the alley out back was way too bright. JoAnn had to put her hand over her eyes to shield them from the glare. And the air smelled like garbage back there. She thought she might, but didn’t, throw up as she walked toward the blue and white patrol car. Something had happened. Of this, she was sure. She didn’t know exactly what it was that had happened, but it was all she could do to convince herself that it hadn’t somehow been–and this she knew to be ridiculous–her fault.

On their way to the dorm, the patrol car circled the Tower and South Mall, where a crowd of men and boys milled about with deer rifles and shotguns. They suddenly raised their weapons in unison, and the shouting turned into cheers. But JoAnn didn’t want to see this part of the drama, whatever it was, so she concentrated on a thin smear of something dark and luminous on the dashboard of the patrol car until the cheering receded and the sun came out from behind a building lined with columns and marble statuary–a courtyard, a garden. Gone.

Discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>