THE OUTSKIRTS OF NOWHERE
Spring comes in measured footsteps this far north. Sun one day, numbing blizzards the next. But Wales is willing to take his chances driving out because he knows if he stays on, listening to the voices in his head, he’ll lose his mind. They say you can’t outrun the past, but Wales knows differently. He’s done it before, a dozen times. The only hitch is, each new town grows stale twice as fast as the last.
He sets out on a cold, sunny morning, heading west into Idaho, where he’ll cut up through Cour d’Alene, and from there, thread his way into Canada, through British Columbia and the Cariboo Mountains, eyes on the rearview the entire time. Along the way he’ll pick up work where he can--swamping, bucking bales, whatever. He’ll earn enough pocket change to buy a cheap meal now and then. Or a jug of corn liquor. Whichever appetite overtakes him first. Funny thing is, he doesn’t need the money. Family tragedies have seen to that. However else his people have shortchanged him, they’ve been generous to a fault in listing his name on legal documents calling for a beneficiary. He works because it keeps him from thinking, soreness in the muscles a small price to pay for the luxury of an empty mind.
He’s on the road three weeks before he decides to put in at the small crossroads of Cantwell. His gut tells him the old rail town’s a good bet, and because his gut’s never let him down before, he takes a chance on a room at the Silver Saddle Motel where the river edges the road. The desk clerk looks him over with a narrow eye, but she’s seen worse. She passes him the registry and tells him eight a night or thirty-five a week. No cooking, no extra roomers.
Months pass, and over time folks in town come to know him as Bill Drake, the hunter’s guide. The hermit. He wears a full beard and carries a deerskin wallet filled with made-up documents that match his made-up past, and he knows he’s come long and far when he hears stories about himself from the old, gray-haired woman at the grocers. Some of the tales are so far-fetched, they make him wonder if they aren’t true. Others so close to home his insides tremble at the hearing of them.
“You know how it is, ” the old woman shrugs. “People talk.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I know.”
His real name almost never enters his mind, and when it does, he finds it’s as if he were thinking of someone else. A dim acquaintance from the past. A fellow he’d known from long ago in his youth. It’s a name he can forget as quickly as it takes him to turn on the radio, or adjust the rabbit ears on his black and white, and he sees this as a good thing. A sign of progress. Hope that one day his chains to the past can finally be broken.
People he once knew sometimes come back to him in his dreams. But they appear with less regularity than they once did, and usually hesitate when they walk in on his sleep--turning away, confused, when they see it’s Bill Drake, the hunter’s guide, and not Tom Wales, the ranch boy, they’ve intruded upon.
He dreams of his folks sometimes, too, and winces when he pictures their faces. When he thinks how he’s tarnished the good name they gave him. He expects they heard it, the sickening thud of the boy’s body as it struck the fender of his truck. The awful sound it made. He imagines they heard it all the way from their graves up on Jericho Hill that night. Felt it reverberate through their cracked and drying bones just as he felt it reverberate through the truck’s undercarriage.
He chews at his lip when he thinks about that night. Twists the ends of his chin whiskers while the whisky glass in his hand grows warm before the fire. There’d been no reason to run, and that’s what slays him. No reason for his life to have turned out as it had, except that he’d panicked, making that one bad decision to cover his tracks, and in doing so turning a blameless accident into a crime. He hadn’t been speeding that night. Or drinking. He wasn’t even looking the other way. He was just an eighteen year old boy trying to get home to his little sister, who he knew would be watching for him from the living room window, waiting for his return.
Sometimes he wakes now and still doesn’t know if it’s real. Sits up in the dark, staring at the walls, seeing himself with the trenching shovel in his hand, the mound of earth and stone at his feet. He remembers the dead boy’s lifeless eyes. The gouts of dirt he shoveled over the boy’s expressionless face. And it gets to him. It gets to him bad. The fear so primitive it walks on all fours, and stalks his dreams at night.
At first he believed he’d be caught. That someone would have seen him swerve and fishtail, knocking the boy down as he stepped into the gravel road waving his arms. But no one did. Nor did anyone report seeing the truck, which he’d parked in the brush alongside the road as he dragged the boy’s body beneath the old iron freight bridge and buried it. He’d read the papers every morning thinking someone would come for him. Take him away and make his sister Emily a ward of the state. Subject her to a Dickensian parade of foster homes. But no one did. The news came and went, and when the story faded no one seemed to care.
The parents of the boy were interviewed on the television one night. The boy’s name, he learned, was Ethan Loomis Smith. It was believed the boy had run away, or perhaps been abducted, and the parents begged tearfully for the help of anyone who could aid in his safe return. Wales listened to the pain in their voices, wondering at the horrible images that must have infected their thoughts. He wanted to call them up, tell them the boy was safe. That he had been knocked down after stepping into the path of a speeding vehicle, and that he had never felt a thing as his body tumbled headlong into the ditch. He wanted to tell them that the boy was dead, killed instantly, but that no more harm would ever come to him again. Yet he couldn’t. He couldn’t tell them this or anything else, because it would have meant losing his sister, the only family he had left.
He waited for the feelings of relief to trickle through him when he realized no one was ever going to find Ethan Loomis Smith’s body. But it never happened. The opposite, in fact, came to pass, and over the years his apprehension was replaced by a dull, creeping dread. The fear that he might go on just as he had. That he might get away with the frightful deed and that justice might never be done.
When, like Ethan Loomis Smith, Emily was killed in an auto accident four years later, thrown from the car driven by her sixteen year old boyfriend, Wales began to understand the strain of bad luck that would define his life. The shadow of pain that would crawl after him for the rest of his days. He had no one anymore, neither family nor friend, and after many, many years he would come to feel as though he never existed--except to give shape and story to his own fictitious past.
He stays in Cantwell two years. Then, with another hard spring drawing to a close, gathers his possibles and takes to the open road. He heads south this time, going town to town, and late one day in the month of September, finds himself in a small café in Casper, Wyoming, sitting in a booth where a steady wind bangs against the window panes as if some angry, unseen traveler were standing outside, demanding to partake of the comfort therein.
Wales looks up from his plate and watches the panes shake in their frames, and through the window nearest his table he follows the dust that blows down from the Rattlesnake Hills, tracing its goings as it lashes across the open highway in a swirling brown cloud that shakes the twisted chaparral and sends the hollow skeletons of dead brush and other debris tumbling across the prairie.
“You need anything else there, Slim?”
The waitress startles him, leaning over the table to refill his cup.
“No.” He looks up, forcing a smile. “I’m fine. Thanks.”
She gives him a matronly going over. Turns and walks back to the kitchen.
Wales raises the cup, sips at the steaming coffee and when he draws it away, notices his hands are trembling. He tries to still them by making a fist and slowly unfurling his fingers. But it does no good. The hard shell that’s held him together all these years feels as if it’s beginning to crumble apart, crack like sizing.
He wonders if he’s finally going mad. Whether the whispering he hears isn’t his conscience at all, but God’s lips pressed against his ear saying, I can’t help you, son. He picks up a spoon and rubs it clean with his napkin. Lifts it to his face. The countenance he beholds in that scratched metal purports to be his own, but in its freakish confines he sees nothing that looks familiar.
“Ask you a question?” he says to the waitress when she comes by again.
“Sure, hon. What is it?”
He glances aside to make sure he won’t be overheard and, lowering his head a little says in a burned-out voice, “Anything about me seem out of place?”
“Out of place?”
“You mean missin?”
The waitress pores over him with her wash-water eyes, gently as if not to hurt him, the way a nurse tends to a baby in a soapy tub while running a sponge down its back. She shifts the weight of her hips from one foot to the other and smiles as she renders her verdict. “You look just fine. Only thing I see is a man could use some sleep.”
“That’s the truth of it?”
His eyes drift down to the plate. “Thanks,” he says, sounding relieved. “I was beginnin to feel kind a rickety, you know? Like a wheel come off or somethin.”
A sympathetic laugh passes her lips.
“Girl quit you?”
He raises his head.
“Lost your girl, did you?”
She goes to top off his cup, and as she does he notices the small silver cross around her neck. His sister Emily used to wear one just like it. “Yeah,” he says somberly. “Somethin like that.” When she rights the coffee pot he notices her wedding band is loose around her finger. As if she’s lost weight or never had it properly sized.
“You’ll get by, all right,” she says with a smile. “You know what they say. Whenever a door closes, God’s sure to open a window.”
He smiles back, unconvinced.
“I’m right. You’ll see.”
She takes the green guest check pad from her apron pocket and tears off the bill and presses it to the table with her clean, unpolished fingernails. “My shift’s up in a couple a minutes,” she says almost apologetically, “but you go ahead and stick around as long as you want. You need anything else, one a the other girls’ll take care of you.”
She pats his hand.
He knows he should be getting on, but where? He’s thought about heading north into the Bighorns, or maybe driving down into Medicine Bow. Pushing west into the Snake River valley. He’s even considered making a run for Mexico. There’re no ghosts down there who have any stake in troubling him--at least none he knows of—and the thought of another hard winter in the mountains makes the sand and sun of the Baja seem tempting.
He lays twenty dollars on the table, and says his thanks. Tips his hat to the girl at the cashier’s station. Outside, the wind comes up behind him like a pair of bullying hands, giving him a shove that nearly sends him down the short flight of wooden steps, and when he recovers his legs he sees the waitress watching him from the front seat of her Buick. The window’s rolled down and he can see she’s done something to her hair.
“You all right?” She makes a visor of her hand. The wedding ring is gone. He stands there, stupidly. Says, “Yeah, sure. Right as rain. You?”
“Whisky joints never worked for me,” she announces, propping her arm on the window and running her fingers back through her auburn hair. “Only fellas I ever liked, I met in broad daylight, stone-cold sober.”
He glances over at his truck, but doesn’t move.
“Was.” She smiles faintly. “I wear the ring to keep to keep the coyotes at bay. If you know what I mean.”
“Feel like killin some time?” She reaches down and turns the key to the ignition, a low rumble, like muffled thunder, coming up from the undercarriage. “I got the rest of the day off.”
He lowers his eyes and stirs the gravel with the toe of his boot. Ten years of running. Ten years of bad memories wash up inside him. He finds her eyes and says, “It’s been so long, I don’t remember how.”
She has a small white house with rose bushes some twenty miles outside of town off a dusty stock road that shoots straight south through the hills and into the hazy nowhere that runs beyond them. He follows her in the back door, and once inside turns her by the shoulders and pulls her to his mouth, and the two of them stumble up against the kitchen table in a clatter of chairs and silverware.
They go at each other like wolves. Tearing off clothing and leaving what’s torn wherever it falls. A trail of garments scattered all the way down the hall into the bedroom.
“What’s your name?” he demands, squeezing her by the arms.
He pulls her into the room and lays her on the bed, panting. Slips his hand between her thighs, and pours himself into the cool, blue well of her eyes.
Outside the wind slams up against the house, sending shudders through the walls, moaning as it passes through the window jambs, and though she whispers yes, and then yes again, he finds to his dismay that he is unable to commit himself to the lean white body that strains so longingly for his touch.
“I can’t,” he whispers in a leaden voice, looking at the silver cross she wears. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
The next morning they awaken in one another’s arms like lovers reunited after an eternity in exile. Yesterday seems a dream, a falsehood uncovered and corrected, and as she lies with her head on his chest and her eyes on some faraway thing beyond the bedroom window, he plays with her hair, tenderly, as if every strand were familiar to his fingers.
“You got a name?”
“Got two,” he says, without opening his eyes.
“Where I come from, we all got two.”
“Right,” he says, as if talking in his sleep. “Only I got two a each.”
A moment passes.
“It’s Wales,” he says at last.
She looks out the window, absently, tracing the ancient scar that cuts across his ribs, her fingers calling up flashes of pain. Images and memories that stab at his heart.
“You got a first name?”
“Tom,” she says with a surprised smile, as if she’s trying on a new dress. She lifts her head and says it again, still tracing the scar with her finger.
He mumbles, “If that one don’t suit you, you can call me Bill. I answer to that, too.” His fingers untangle themselves from her hair. His hands cease moving. “Bill Drake. That’s the other name I go by.”
She’s quiet for a moment. Then she raises her head and looks at him. “Why? They run out of trouble for you to get into up there in Alaska?”
“Who says I’m from Alaska?”
“The tags on your truck.”
He offers no argument. Glancing down at her, a thin smile creases his face. “Who says I’m in trouble?”
“Fella don’t go around usin two names unless he’s in trouble, does he?”
“No,” he agrees. “I expect not.”
She lays there, working her finger on the raised flesh of his ribs. “Scars,” she says in the voice of a woman wholly different from the one who’s spent the night sleeping beside him. “Scars and secrets. I never knew a man who didn’t have one without the other.”
His eyes move across the room to the window curtains, then to the window itself and the world beyond where all things unimaginable are, for a man in possession of enough bad luck, not only possible, but terrifyingly real.
“You ever think about ghosts?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she says.
“I mean ghosts. Do you believe in them?” He can feel her eyes on the side of his face. Her fingers pulling away from his skin. “There were these folks,” he says. “I didn’t do right by them.” He draws in a chestful of air. Holds it for the longest time. Lets go of it, along with the words, in a quiet but hurried voice. “They had a boy, see. This kid just a couple a years younger than me.” He stops. Turns away. Takes another breath. “Anyway,” he says, pushing at his eyes with the heels of his hand, “they’re all gone now. I had a chance to ease their minds over somethin, and I didn’t do it. I should’ve, but I didn’t.”
She says nothing. He feels her lean forward and kiss his shoulder. Without a sound she draws back the covers and slips out of the bed, goes to the dresser and pulls out a t-shirt and pajama bottoms.
“Get some rest,” she says, standing in the doorway.
He lays there a long time, staring out the window thinking about how the world has just grown one town smaller, his heart one place emptier. Then he gets up, collects his clothes, and begins to dress. He hears the clatter of pans in the kitchen, catches the scent of bacon and fresh coffee filling up the house, and for a moment—for the briefest, stillest of moments—he’s transported back to his boyhood home. To the breakfast table.
He shudders, shakes the feeling off. Combs his hair into place with his fingers, and trudges down the hall to the kitchen where he finds her standing over the stove, cooking. A wooden spoon in her hand.
He pulls out a chair at her insistence. Takes a seat at the small table they’d nearly toppled over the night before, and which she’s now spread over with a clean linen cloth and a glass vase set with cuttings of larkspur and hares ear.
Without saying anything, she takes a plate from the warming oven and spoons scrambled eggs onto it, bacon and fried potatoes, serving them to him along with toast and a cup of coffee.
He looks at the food steaming on the plate. Then up at her. “You ain’t hungry?”
“Feel kinda strange, eatin alone.”
She smiles. “I woulda guessed otherwise.”
He lowers his head, picks up his fork. She gestures for him to start, and he does.
She pours herself a cup of coffee and sits down across from him, taking stock of her fingernails then pushing them into the folds of her t-shirt like a little girl. “I never did have any luck with men,” she says. “First one I ever fell for ran off with a school teacher from Thermopolis, and the second one, he got thrown by a horse.”
Frowning, she turns to the window. “There couldn’t a been more than one stupid rock in that whole stretch of meadow,” she says, “but somehow his head managed to find it.” She sighs, and lets out a sad, little laugh. “Can you believe it? I used to tease him. Used to tell him he had a head for trouble—andthen that happened. It was like my sayin it made it come true. Like I’d cursed him, or somethin. One morning he was kissin me goodbye, telling me he’d be back in a few days, and the next mornin, at almost exactly the same time, his huntin buddy, Cord, he comes walkin up the yard with his head down, leadin Jack’s horse.”
He looks at her. He knows the nature of the smile on her face. The one derived of a single memory. A solitary recollection under whose governance the dead are restored to life.
“He was good around horses,” she says. “That’s the funny part. He grew up around em. Even used to ride in some of the local rodeos. That’s where we met.” She points to a Mexican-made curio cabinet against the far wall, and says, “Them are some of his trophies. He was real proud of em.”
Wales lowers his fork and looks over his shoulder, through the cabinet’s glass doors at the odd collection of belt buckles on the shelf inside. He turns to her and says, “He was your husband?”
He scrapes some eggs onto his fork and turns his eyes on her naked ring finger.
“Died three years ago this fall.”
“No man since then?” he asks, glancing up.
He looks at her, doubtfully, then goes back to his food.
He swallows and brings his napkin to his mouth. “I guess.”
“Well,” she says, “no more than me. But when I saw you standin there yesterday, somethin come over me.”
He stops eating, lays his fork on his plate and pushes back from the table, scraping at the corner of his mouth with his pinky.
“What about you?” she says.
“What about me?”
He shakes his head.
She gets up from the table, takes away his dish and puts it in the sink. Then she goes to the cupboard, fetches a well-used metal thermos whose silver top is scuffed and dented, and fills it with hot coffee. “It’ll keep you awake on the road,” she says, setting it in front of him.
He looks at it for what seems a long time, then raises his eyes and says, “’Preciate it.”
She waits to see if he’ll take it.
“It’s best I move on,” he says.
She nods. Still waiting. Looking like a kid who holds the trip-string to the wooden stick on a rabbit trap.
When his fingers close around the vessel and he rises from the chair, her face goes pale and she turns her back on him. He tries to thank her, to say goodbye, but she’ll have none of him now. Not even when he brushes his fingers against her cheek.
The door clatters shut behind him as he steps out onto porch. He shades his eyes and looks across the range toward the highway. The weight of all his travels, of all his ill-conceived, ill-met plans, is mounting, piling up on his chest like stones upon a cairn, and as he watches the horizon tender itself up in pretty shades of pink and gold, he thinks the world might finally destroy him, for he’s never felt more lost or more alone in his life.
He glances back over his shoulder. Sees her standing at the screen door, arms crossed, elbows cupped in her hands.
He turns and walks toward his pickup truck, and as he opens the door to climb in she calls out to him.
He looks back.
“Don’t go,” she says, shaking her head. “Stay.”
The road to Medicine Bow is all but deserted. The prairie spreads open in a broad apron of grassy plains and stony draws, the air silent save for the clicking of the cicadas, the breeze scentless but for the faint essence of wild sage. Away in the distance, red bluffs glow like coals from a campfire, and at the far edge of the horizon the earth looks as flat as a frying pan under the weight of the orange sky.
“Where are we?”
He looks over. She’s tossed off her boots, and planted her bare feet on the dash. Her painted toes grip the vinyl padding. A well-thumbed Rand McNally atlas is propped against her legs, jostling up and down with the bumps in the road. “Bout fifty miles from anywhere, I guess.”
She frowns at the passing countryside. “Looks like the middle of nowhere, if you ask me.”
He glances at her. He’s been to the middle of nowhere before, and this isn’t it. Not by a long shot. “Maybe more like the outskirts.”
“The outskirts of nowhere,” she says, nodding. “That’s good.”
They drive a little further on, and he glances at her again and points to the map. “What’s it say on there? That’ll tell you what you want to know.”
The map’s a topo, not a roadmap, and its ridiculous cartography of rippled lines has been causing her fits ever since they started out. She runs her finger over the page, then turns her eyes back to the road. “I can’t read this damn thing.”
He laughs when she tosses the atlas on the floor, and she swats his arm, threatening to get out and walk home if he doesn’t shape up. He enjoys her sassiness. Her moxie. They’ve been together almost a year now, and it’s the thing he’s come to love best about her. My god, girl, but you’ve got a mouth on you, he groans mockingly whenever she starts in on him. There ain’t no quit in it, is there?
He can’t believe the change in himself. The change she’s brought out in him. His life had once been as unreliable as a rumor, but he now feels solid ground growing under his feet. A cautious desire to send down roots.
“How did I ever get on without you?” he says.
“I don’t know,” she answers back, “but you’re stuck with me now.”
The pronghorn have begun to stir, looking for places to bed down, and he puts his attention back to the road, knowing how spooky they can get. Some of them stand like statues on the hills. Others stray precariously close to the shoulder of the highway, browsing on the yellow chamiso in the culverts.
He makes out a small band ahead—a buck, a harem of does, half a dozen kids—all silhouetted against the sky. The fawns are no more than a couple of months old, birthed in June or early July, and they’re small in the chest, and spindle legged.
When he sees the car in the oncoming lane, off in the distance, he eases his foot from the accelerator. He’s thinking he wants to give the pronghorn an out if they decide to bolt, and assumes the approaching driver will be thinking the same thing, taking similar precautions.
Everything is as it should be as they converge upon the herd. But lessons hard learned have made Wales cautious, so he presses his boot lightly against the brake pedal, just to be sure.
What happens next surprises him, even though he’s prepared himself for it. One of the fawns strays ahead of the band, into the road, unshepherded, and at the double yellow line turns and looks back as if wondering why the others have chosen to remain behind.
The fawn’s ears prick and twitch as it turns and stares into the headlamps of the oncoming car. Its skittish little legs do a stutter step on the tarmac. It turns its head back in the direction of its clan, its rump hair suddenly bristling, and then, without warning, it breaks for Wales’s lane.
The fawn is safe if it keeps moving because Wales has already begun to apply more pressure to the brake pedal, giving the animal every opportunity to skitter off, unscathed. But halfway into the lane the fawn stops, inexplicably, and turns itself around again, taking a cautious and ill-advised step toward its family.
The oncoming car cannot stop. But before it can strike the helpless animal--before it swerves, correcting its path, and continues on down the road with its broken headlamp and dented fender--Wales is forced to witnesses the macabre physics of the tiny animal’s demise.
He sees the head recoil from the heavy blow, the small, tan and white trunk twist lifelessly in the air, the spindly legs, so delicate and elegant in life, tangle themselves in an incoherent freefall of clacking bones.
“Oh, God!” Marla Richardson cries, cupping her hand over her mouth, “Oh, my God!”
Wales is struck dumb by the incident. Sickened by it. The image is horrific. Crushing. Relentless.
“Oh, God!” Marla Richardson cries again, clutching at his sleeve, “Should we stop? Is there anything we can do?”
Wales feels his insides crumble. Disintegrate into dust. His heart goes out to her in ways she will never begin to know, never hope to understand. But rather than stopping, he puts his boot to the gas pedal and presses on. The fawn’s death will play in her head again and again, without pity, from now until the day she dies, and the only consolation he will be able to offer is the warmth of his embrace, and the cold comfort of the words he’s muttered to himself through a thousand sleepless nights. It was an accident. There’s nothing anybody could have done about it.
# # #
"The Outskirts of Nowhere" first appeared in The Southwest Review.