“Fluent, mordant, authentic, propulsive…wonderfully lit from within” (Lee Child, The New York Times Book Review), this critically acclaimed, stunningly mature literary debut is the darkly comic story of a car thief on the run in the gritty and arid landscape of the 1970s Texas panhandle.
In this “stellar debut,” (Publishers Weekly) car thief Troy Falconer returns home after years of wandering to reunite with his younger brother, Harlan. The two set out in search of Harlan’s wife, Bettie, who’s left him cold and run away with the little money he had. When stealing a station wagon for their journey, Troy and Harlan find they’ve accidentally kidnapped a Mennonite girl, Martha Zacharias, sleeping in the back of the car. But Martha turns out to be a stubborn survivor who refuses to be sent home, so together, these unlikely road companions haphazardly attempt to escape across the Mexican border, pursued by the police and Martha’s vengeful father.
But this is only one layer of Troy’s story. Through interjecting entries from his journal that span decades of an unraveling life, we learn that Troy has become so estranged from society that he’s shunned the very idea of personal property. Instead of claiming possessions, he works motels, stealing the suitcases and cars of men roughly his size, living with their things until those things feel too much like his own, at which point he finds another motel and vanishes again into another man’s identity.
Richly nuanced and complex, “like a nesting doll, [Presidio] continually uncovers stories within stories” (Ian Stansel, author of The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo). With a page-turning plot, prose as gritty and austere as the novel’s Texas panhandle setting, and a determined yet doomed cast of characters ranging from con artists to religious outcasts, this “rich and rare book” (Annie Proulx, author of Barkskins) packs a kick like a shot of whiskey. Perfect for fans of Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, and Larry McMurtry, who said that Kennedy “captures the funny yet tragic relentlessness of survival in an unforgiving place. Let’s hope he keeps his novelistic cool and brings us much, much more.”
Presidio ONE Later, in the glove box, the police found a folder of notes. It said:
Notes for the police:
(Or anybody else who finds this and wants to read it)
My name is Troy Alan Falconer. These are the things I love most: I love checking into a motel room on a hot afternoon, when the cool air inside smells of freon and anonymity. (They always leave the A/C running for you.) I love checking out at dawn, my hair combed wet to meet the world. I love hard-shell luggage and Swiss-made watches. I love black Roper Boots and white dress shirts with pearl snaps, starched so the placket stands up like pasteboard. I love full-size automatic sedans with electric windows and bench seats, upholstered in breathable fabric, not vinyl. I love driving cars like this down empty highways in the middle of the night, listening to the music of sincere-sounding country singers like Wynn Stewart and Jim Reeves.
I love these things for their own sake. But I can enjoy them only when they possess a certain additional quality, a quality that purifies the others—the quality of belonging rightfully and legally to someone other than myself.
If you’re lucky in this kind of life, a single motel room can offer up everything you need. Inside the room is a suitcase. Inside the suitcase are the traveling possessions of a man more or less your size, a nonsmoker with passable taste in clothes and aftershave. Inside his billfold—lying right on the bedspread; salesmen like to take a swim before supper—is enough cash to keep you out on the road for two or three weeks. And on the nightstand in the cut-glass ashtray are the keys to his car, parked on the diagonal just outside the door, the windshield making a convex portrait of the afternoon sky.
For me, the instant when I settle down behind the wheel of another man’s automobile is the most satisfying part. While the feeling lasts, the earth is full of promise. It’s more like getting out of something than into it—like slipping my skin, breaking clean from all the things I need to leave behind (among them the last car in which I’ve had this same feeling). I check the mirrors, ease the key into the ignition, and idle quietly out onto the road.
The first car I stole solely for my own sake was in Lubbock in the fall of 1970. A brand-new Ford Torino hardtop with hideaway headlights, it belonged to an Air Force second lieutenant who kept a change of civilian clothes on an aluminum tension rod over the backseat, and in the armrest rack a row of neatly maintained eight-track tapes, including a few by the aforementioned singers.
I had never come across a car equipped with an eight-track before. There were only a few good songs to choose from, but I knew I was finally going to get to do the choosing, not some disembodied disc jockey out there in the ether. When I heard the sound of the music coming from the speakers under my command I was so happy I almost forgot to doubt the feeling.
This was past midnight—those empty hours when the highway patrol has nothing better to do than radio in tag numbers—but I cranked up the volume and rolled down the windows and drove straight through to Plainview before I pulled over to take care of the plates.
I’d like you to believe that I started out with some kind of justification, a reason better than anger and want. But that was mostly it—same old story. It wasn’t until later that it changed from a profession into a way of life, a calling that felt almost religious if I’d been inclined that way.
If I had, I would have been its reverend, preaching my message of freedom through loss from my pulpit behind the dashboard. But I’d have been delivering the sermons to a congregation of one, a nondescript man whose freshly shaved face could be seen sticking up into the rearview mirror from the driver’s side. And believe me, he’s heard it all before.
Troy drove back into town on a Friday night in November of 1972 during the final week of the high school football season, when an away game had all but emptied the small grid of graveled streets. He had planned it that way, consulting the schedule in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. People in small places don’t forget their own, particularly the disappointments, and Troy didn’t want to be recognized by anybody in town except his brother, who would be where he always was, at home, findable by the light from the television, watching Gunsmoke or a fight if he could tune one in.
New Cona wasn’t yet a century old. It was one of the farming towns that took root at great intervals on the cheap land formed by the final closing pockets of the American frontier. For those who arrived later, born there, it was never easy to understand why anyone had settled in this particular place in a part of the country that maps had once called the Great American Desert, a place whose previous inhabitants had used it mostly as a hunting ground and a near-waterless pass-through in which to strand their enemies.
The town sat halfway down the western edge of a caliche plain formed by the earth that flowed down to the Gulf of Mexico as the Rockies pushed up. The mesa left in the wake was hard and slab-flat, a hundred and fifty miles across, devoid of trees and all but the hardiest brush, covered with low grasses that fed every living creature except coyotes and wolves, which ate the creatures that ate the grass. The Spanish called that part of what would later become Texas the Llano Estacado, the staked plain, maybe because the breaks at its boundaries looked like palisades or because horses’ leads, with nothing to tie them to, had to be staked to the ground itself. But the name could have meant something else, orphaned in translation like so many others left over from the Spaniards and the Mexicans.
A few trees could be seen now, in town and clustered in the distance near farmhouses, looking conspicuous, like uninvited guests. Other things rose from the flatness—radio towers, water towers, telephone poles, torqued cedar fence posts in endless rows alongside the roads—but in most visible ways the land had changed little as a result of civilization, and outside town the structures seen from the road all sat low to the ground, obedient to the horizon. The oldest were bleached sere brown, as if the elements were winning a slow war against their intrusion. Looking out past them into the distance, it wasn’t hard to imagine the fear a cavalry soldier must have felt here once as he mounted the mesa in pursuit of some enemy he couldn’t see. But the land no longer seemed actively hostile. It just seemed like one of the places on the earth that had long ago stopped bothering to hide its indifference.
That night a new moon had left the countryside almost invisible. The only way to gain a bearing beyond the headlights was to look for the distant glow of town drawing a silver bead across the windshield, and this far out the lights remained so faint that Troy’s eyes picked them up only when he looked away. The line began to brighten and dissipate into discrete points that spread across his field of vision, and as he drove into them, the outline of a water tower materialized above, dimly visible under a crown of red aircraft beacons pulsing into the dark.
Five miles out he passed a cotton gin, which on long stretches of road in many parts of Texas holds out the first sign of human existence, and it was alive this time of year, even this time of night, casting an orange halo of night-work several hundred yards from the road. A newcomer driving past a working gin for the first time in late fall might mistake its emission for an early snow—alongside it for several hundred yards cotton dust blanketed the road and the bar ditch in dirty white, covering the catenaried telephone wires with strands of cotton lint that hung down like icicles.
About a mile out Troy passed a yard of liquid fertilizer tanks whose vapor lights made them look like phosphorescent pillars hovering just above the ground. The road plunged back into darkness until it reached a rare curve that skirted the bins of a defunct grain elevator and crossed a set of switching tracks not in use since before Troy’s birth. Past these tracks the first streetlight cast a silver-green oval onto the asphalt.
As much as he wanted to drive directly through town to see what had happened to it in his absence, he resisted and turned off west of the city limits, taking a service road that cut through a pasture of stubbled buffalo grass and gave over to dirt. Clouds of dust rose into the headlights as the car passed through fence lines and over cattle guards that made the tires thrum with a sound like a kettledrum. The road ended at the back gate of the small county cemetery, where Troy finally stopped and got out of the car and dropped the chain from the gate and knocked the heel of his right boot against the ground to get the blood flowing again after the long drive.
The nights were not yet cool but he could feel the fall in them, the sense that the shadow of the day’s heat no longer lay on the land the way it did on summer nights. The only sound he could hear, from somewhere miles in the distance, was the steady metallic keen of a pumpjack. He decided that as long as he was sneaking into town by way of the cemetery he should probably take a detour through the gravel lanes to pay a visit to his family’s plot—for the sake of decency, but maybe also for some kind of advance absolution for the reason he had come back here.
The cemetery sat atop a small hummock, the only natural upswell in the land for miles, and Troy looked out from it toward the lights of town as if their arrangement might tell him something. The graves marched up the rise in roughly chronological rows. The oldest, from the teens and twenties, sat at the eastern end. As the ground rose to the west the stones grew newer, larger, and shinier, some decorated with small American and Texas flags and faux-pewter vases filled with plastic floral arrangements. The town wasn’t yet old enough for the dead to outnumber the living.
Troy clicked up the headlights and idled along the main path through the cemetery until he came to a gathering of headstones on the southwestern side, edging up against the groundskeeper’s cinder-block shed. He killed the motor and stepped out again, but as soon as the quiet surrounded him he regretted his decision and almost got back into the car. Even as a child he had struggled to understand why people looked for comfort in cemeteries, staring at names on squared-off stones. All he had ever felt in a cemetery was a sense of looking for something in the wrong place, worsened by the simple awkwardness of walking upright through fields of the permanently supine.
But he walked up into the headlights, adding another shadow to the ones glancing off the backs of the gravestones. The light shone on the full given names of his father and his mother, buried side by side though separated in death by so many years. He was too young to remember much about his mother’s funeral, but he remembered what it felt like on the blistering July day when he had arrived here just after his father’s ceremony and hid in his car beneath a ridiculously large cowboy hat and a pair of sunglasses, watching from the road as two county workers mounded the dirt and took down the canvas canopy that had been over the grave, leaving it unprotected against the sun. Out in the fields behind them a tractor was going about its business, raising a cloud of red plow dust against the horizon. Troy remembered it suddenly occurring to him, as he sat there, that if his father had been able to climb up out of the hole and stand on the near side of the opening, he would have had a clear view down the rise and across the wedge of fallow pastureland all the way to the corner of their house, sitting at the northwestern edge of town. The thought of this line of sight brought him a measure of irrational comfort, as if at least one thing would be okay.
In the semidarkness he could make out a half dozen or so gravestones flanking his parents’, those of his father’s father and mother, who had died before he was old enough to remember them; two cousins—one who had never made it out of the delivery room and another whose body had never returned from Korea, so that his steel casket had been buried with an Army-issued Garand and unworn dress blues inside; a great uncle who died young in a combine accident and another who died at one hundred and one and was buried here against his wishes, having wanted his body to be taken back to Texarkana, where there were trees and civilized bodies of water. Troy stood with his hands in the pockets of his suit pants, looking at the grave markers, feeling as if there was something he should do, though he didn’t know what, so he lingered for what felt like a respectful length of time and turned back to the car. As he did a newish-looking grave marker he hadn’t noticed caught his eye, several feet to the other side of his father’s, and he squinted trying to make out what it said. The tablet was small, a brown granite slab sitting plumb with the ground, and he had to draw up to it to make the light play off the surface so he could see it. When he did he read the name of his younger brother—Harlan Edward Falconer—framed inside a little dogwood oval, cut into the stone in sans-serif letters crowded to fit.
Troy stepped closer to the tablet and crouched down on his calves, studying the letters, trying to figure out what kind of mistake he could be making. It had been more than six years since he had seen his brother in the flesh. But he had spoken to him on the phone only a couple of weeks beforehand to tell him he would come back to help him look for his ex-wife, or the woman who was still legally Harlan’s wife but who had walked out on him with all his money that summer after only a few months of marriage.
In that conversation, Troy had omitted at least four pieces of pertinent information—that he knew his brother’s wife, Bettie, and had in fact known her before she married Harlan; that it was his fault she had taken the money; that if he’d had the slightest idea where Bettie or the money was, he would never have called his brother in the first place; and that if he had found her or the money, Harlan would never have known. But he had no clue where Bettie had gone. He didn’t even know if Bettie was her real name, and he hoped Harlan might have some scrap to go by, a general sense of direction, a town. Among all the untruths Troy had told his brother over the years, he tried to think of those about Bettie as ones that Harlan needed to believe almost as much as he needed them to be believed.
Squatted down in front of the gravestone for a few seconds Troy finally managed to understand what he was seeing: a placeholder. The birth year on the stone sat by itself, followed by a dash—that cruel piece of punctuation standing in for a man’s whole life—and on the other side a void of granite awaiting a slightly larger number. The stone was a funeral home special, a layaway installed out here on this sorry flatland excuse for a hill. The deal probably included the mortuary services and casket, Troy thought, maybe even one of the burial suits with the shirtfront and tie sewn into the jacket.
He stood up and took the keys out of his pocket and let out a low whistle into the night. Harlan was a thirty-two-year-old man, in more or less decent health as far as Troy knew.
“You always did like to be ready for things, didn’t you, Harl?” he said.
He got back into the car and dimmed the headlights and drove through the front gate of the cemetery, following the back road into town.
July 19, 1972
Besides the fact that they both provide short-term habitation, hotels and motels have little in common and there are many reasons why I work only motels. The architecture of hotels is designed specifically to encourage temporary communities to form, in the lobby, in the restaurant, the bar, the ballroom, the conference rooms. The rooms face inward, toward halls that lead unavoidably toward and through these communities, where bellhops and clerks and hotel detectives mark the passage of guests. Motels, by contrast, have rooms that face outward, away from each other toward the parking lot and the road, linked only by open landings and stairs that provide multiple, largely anonymous means of exit. There is no central gathering place; the office is never more than functional, just enough room for a desk and a newspaper machine, a little couch that’s the last place anyone would want to sit, a rack with outdated magazines. The only real gathering place is the pool, which is big enough to provide a discreet distance, and optional anyway. The café is usually an adjoining building, often run by another proprietor, which frees the diner from being identified necessarily as a motel patron.
The best thing about motels is the way they seem to provide the evidence of human hands without their visible presence, a personal touch completely impersonal because whoever does it does it for everybody and so for nobody in particular—the turned-down coverlet; the drinking glasses with their crenellated paper caps; the sanitary band bisecting the bowl; the tri-corner toilet paper fold, a meaningless act of hospitality and yet I admit I’m disappointed if I return to my room in the afternoon and it’s been forgotten.
This morning while I was shaving I noticed the steam building up on the mirror slowly revealing the swirls the cleaning woman had made the day before when she wiped it down. With the hot tap running, the patterns materialized in front of me like vanishing ink becoming visible. I waited until evaporation had cleared the mirror again and with a dry finger I wrote out on the glass, I WAS HERE BUT I’M ALREADY GONE.
Few motels around this part of Texas require identification and I know the ones that do. Even the most dutiful clerks never pay enough attention to see that the picture on my license doesn’t quite look like me. But I’m prepared to move quickly all the same—if it’s a double-decker, I request a room on the ground floor, explaining that I have a fear of heights, which gets a good laugh from behind the desk.
If my luck is working I draw a room with a door connecting to the room occupied by the owner of the vehicle I will later drive away. I watch him closely, taking up positions at the ice machine and the diner, listening through the door for the schedule of his comings and goings.
My liability is that I no longer steal with the objective of converting what I’ve taken as soon as I can get it off my hands. Instead I keep what I get for as long as I can, in order to live a normal life as free as possible from the strictures of legal possession. On the road, I pass myself off as a farm agent or an oil company representative, one of several traveling professionals whose particulars I’ve picked up. But my real profession is the careful and highly precarious maintenance of a life almost completely purified of personal property.
It feels like a calling, as I said, or a condition—in either case something I don’t have a choice in. When it first came on, I thought I would end up by renouncing all worldly possessions, like a monk, but I knew I didn’t have the courage to live the life that required, so I adapted what I already knew and started living this way, having but not owning. I also thought I’d have to disappear, to go away for good from all the people and places I knew, but I had no idea where I’d go besides a monastery or a prison, neither of which sounded appealing. So I decided to disappear right where I lived, to become a ghost in the middle of everybody and everything I knew.
I once ran into a man who said he could help me disappear, legally. He told me he had already done it, that he didn’t exist anymore as far as the United States government was concerned.
“I checked into a room at an undisclosed Hiway House motel in an undisclosed Southwestern state,” he told me. “And a few days later, with the help of some undisclosed people, I checked out a dead man. That’s who I am right now, as I speak to you. Dead to the law.” This required constant maintenance, he said, and constant vigilance. He read to me from a kind of primer he carried, called How to Disappear in America by a man named Barry Reid: “You have to keep from depositing traces of yourself. Every place you go you inadvertently leave pieces of yourself. Every article of clothing, every doorknob, every carpet, every telephone, every toilet seat you use will contain pieces of you. Your skin is flaking off all the time.”
He sounded far more paranoid than I was, which was a lot.
“You’ve lost the ability to own anything . . .” he said after listening to me for a while. “Meaning what? You’re broke?”
“No, that’s not it. I can always get money if I want it. But I don’t want it. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“Do what anymore?”
“Any of it. The whole thing. So I take what I need to live. And when the stuff starts to feel too much like mine, I dump it and steal everything again from somebody else.”
He looked me over and nodded. “I like the way you think. But it sounds like a hell of a lot of work to me.”
It’s been almost two years now. I worry that when this run comes to an end—it can’t go on much longer—people will think I’m some kind of hippie or communist, anti-American in some way and that would be a serious misimpression. If my sin is anything it’s being too much of an American—a throwback to the pioneers who settled this great country, always headed somewhere to claim something with little more than a horse and the ragged clothes on their backs. Or before them, back to the Comanche, who made no permanent home in this part of the country and considered most of what he had only temporarily his. His livelihood was based on what he could hunt, what he could take, especially the horses, whose leads he could slip from beneath the hand of a sleeping soldier without causing so much as a rustle in his dreams.
My kind of horses aren’t as easy to take or leave behind. After I steal a new car the last one sits where I left it, testifying against me in the parking lot. It’s the fatal flaw in an otherwise functional system: the trail that will lead to my numbered door somewhere between Amarillo and Odessa. When it does, these pages will probably be with me, too, notes I’ve made on nightstand stationery, the only thing I’ve allowed myself to keep from job to job besides an extra driver’s license and a paperback or two. It’s my trail back to myself. And the most elaborately detailed confession a jury could hope for. I could say I made it up, but who’d believe me?
For the trip back home he stole a car in Fort Sumner, a 1965 sierra-tan Chevy Nova that he picked over several more attractive options because of its overwhelming inconspicuousness, the kind of car nobody would want to steal or even look at twice. The keys came from the motel room of a professional livestock judge who had registered for the week at the old Bosque Redondo Motor Inn on the south side of the city. The judge was in town for a regional 4-H show, and when he returned from the stock barns he would go out in the early evening for a constitutional around the motel grounds, pulling his dress hat down over his forehead and whistling in a piccolo-like tone that sounded like something he’d practiced. His favorite tune was the old march number “Under the Double Eagle.” Smoking a cigarillo, he would make several circuits of the motel before ambling down to the bridge and staring wistfully out over the Pecos, maybe imagining himself in a previous life, fording it with a band of mounted men.
Habit was Troy’s chief accomplice; the judge always walked for half an hour. When he returned one night, his car was gone, along with his suitcase, his dopp kit, his wallet, his second hat, and his best suit—a mahogany two-button gabardine with yoke stitching over the pockets, slightly too big for Troy in the shoulders. Besides the clothes the judge was wearing, the only possession he had left was his toothbrush.
Troy parked the Nova well off the road on the pasture side of the house, on a grassed-over strip of caliche alongside the fence, so that if anyone saw it they might mistake it in the shadows for a parts car. He got out and walked to the corner of the fence and stared down the alley, empty except for topless oil drums stationed in pairs beside every picket gate, filled with household garbage now instead of the Texas crude they had once held. He turned and walked close to the fence line, making sure no one was coming up the street before he cut quickly across the yard to the front door.
This house, legally his brother’s and before that his father’s, was a low, hip-roofed ranch, repeated with only slight variation up and down the block and for several around, all built in the late 1940s on dropseed prairie at the western edge of town as it neared what no one then knew would be its peak of population.
More than six years had passed since Troy had last set foot on this concrete slab porch. But even by the weak wash of the streetlight he could tell something about the house didn’t look right and he paused instinctively to gauge the distance back to the fence corner, trying to remember the type of handle on the Nova’s door in case he had no time to waste. The lawn badly needed cutting and the flower beds had been graveled over into rectangular gray moonscapes choked with cocklebur and turpentine weed. Along the half-bricked house front he saw corners chipped off some of the asbestos shingles, exposing the tar paper and nailheads beneath, giving the place a shot-at look. Then he saw something hanging from the frame of the storm door, a thing that surprised him to recognize so readily in the near-dark—a spirit ribbon, a paper pennant with black and gold silk streamers, a decoration handmade by high school cheerleaders and Scotch-taped to houses up and down the street to commemorate the night’s varsity football game, a purely obligatory show of civic pride because the other team, the Morton Indians, a team of poor-town boys, almost always won. The ribbon might as well have been an eviction notice; no one would have thought to put such a thing on the front door of Harlan’s house if it still belonged to him. Even in a place this small, he had always managed to keep himself just beyond the boundaries of people’s attention, the way a crow in a field intuits the range of a rifle and settles a few feet outside its reach.
No lights were visible in the house or in the houses across the street. Troy walked to the storm door and pulled it open and knocked several times in a hard, purposeful way, with a story arranged in his head in case anyone answered, though he was sure by now that no one would.
He went over and squinted through one of the smoked oval garage-door windows and saw no car inside. Glancing up the street again for car lights, he walked back to the porch and cupped his hands to the kitchen window, letting his vision settle into the darkness while the metallic dust of the window screen stung his nostrils.
Through two panes of glass separated by a thin metal muntin, the contours of the room where he had spent the mornings and evenings of his childhood and adolescence began to take shape slowly in front of him. They materialized like a diorama in a history museum, manufactured under the direction of memories Troy hardly considered his own anymore: the same gray-flecked Formica countertops, the same panel cabinets still painted canary yellow, the same pipe-legged dinette atop which he and Harlan had eaten for years.
Everything appeared almost the same as he remembered it, making even the smallest differences conspicuous; it reminded him of the kind of dream in which everything presents itself as normal until you realize with a shock that it’s not and never was—people’s faces are altered, the layout of rooms is reversed, primary colors take on unfamiliar shades.
On the back wall of the kitchen he could make out two framed portraits, both showing a large man in a cowboy hat, a nice-looking woman, and a small straight-banged blond girl. In both pictures they were posed together formally in a lopsided triangle with the man at the apex. The girl was no more than a baby in the first picture and maybe four or five in the second. She and her parents smiled serenely out over the kitchen as if it had belonged to them for years.
On the far end of the counter sat some kind of radio set, a ham or CB with a stand-up microphone, official-looking. The dinette itself was surrounded now by unmatched wooden chairs, heavy, varnished municipal-looking ones, and the surface of the table was half covered with a horde of condiment bottles and containers—ketchup, Tabasco, Worcestershire, salt and pepper, mustard, margarine, grated Parmesan cheese, honey, a yellow plastic lemon juice bottle in the shape of a lemon—a lazy-man’s spread he knew his brother would never have created or allowed.
Troy took out his key ring and found the one to the house. It had never occurred to him he would actually need it again. When he found it on whatever ring he had stolen he wondered why it was there, a tarnish familiar in a succession of shiny car keys. But he kept transferring it, motivated less by nostalgia than by stubbornness, a refusal to admit that he couldn’t reopen the door to an old life just by wanting to.
He tried the key and it passed into the deadbolt the way old keys do, easy under the pins, the way he had expected—he would have put money against anyone here paying to change a perfectly good tumbler. He pushed the door open and stepped quickly inside, marveling as he had so many times that in a world full of deeds and liens and property rights all you really needed to render something your own was a ten-cent piece of brass with the right kind of ragged edge.
The hallway was black. He remembered where the light switch was by feel and flipped it on. He quickly opened the coat closet, yanked the light string, pushed the closet door almost shut, and turned the hall switch off again, giving himself just enough light to see but not so much that anyone would be able to notice from the street.
He stood completely still and unbreathing in the interior hush, luxuriating in the feeling of being momentarily invisible. He hadn’t expected to be worked up by being back here again, even just in this too-narrow entryway, where a cherrywood hat rack had once hung over an old Truetone floor-model, more furniture than radio, rarely able to reel in any of the weak waves ricocheting between the atmosphere and the plains.
Troy had lived in the house with his father and Harlan from the time he was eleven until he was seventeen and began spending most of his nights elsewhere, returning only occasionally for money or to try to avoid paying it to partners in low-level criminal arrangements he had started to make.
Within a year of their mother’s death, before Harlan had started school, their father had had the boys start to call him by his name, Bill Ray, a change they accepted for its novelty and its advertisement of their loss. The name didn’t stop Bill Ray from being their father, exactly, but over time it seemed to give him permission to settle into a role that suited him better, that of admired older brother, unpredictably attentive, occasionally feared. The arrangement wasn’t bad for any of them. It bound the boys more strongly to each other in those first years, and it gave Bill a way to retreat to a time before Ruby, before he’d ever met her and found the happiness that would be so short lived.
His attempts at fatherly responsibility tended to involve teaching the boys things his older brother had taught him in their own father’s absence—showy, mostly useless things, like how to wink, how to snap their fingers, how to whistle and spit, to whittle, to catch thrown peanuts in the mouth, to throw a pocketknife to make it plant, to throw a punch, to find arrowheads in the pasture; but sometimes also practical knowledge—how to tell a bullsnake from a rattler by the neck, how to handle a pistol, rifle, and shotgun (though he had a personal aversion to hunting and never let the boys shoot at animals in his presence), and how to drive: first Troy, then Harlan, boosting him up to the steering wheel with a bed pillow. The secret to good driving, Bill Ray had said, was to let your eyes come to rest on the road in the middle distance, not too close to the nose of the hood and not too far out to where it ran up into the horizon.
Bill Ray had been raised on a dryland cotton farm perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, and as soon as he was old enough to leave home he said goodbye to farming for good. He worked several years as an oilfield equipment driver, but after Ruby died, he lost that job and never held a steady one again, getting by with piecework, mostly driving tractors and checking wells. When the oil companies needed extra hands he roughnecked, earning good cash pay, though it never came often enough, and in late summers, when hailstorms brought business, he roofed for extra money. For a time, because he had no fear of heights, he hired on as a maintainer for a radio tower company, scaling the metal armatures with a bucket of aluminum paint tethered to his waist and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, but that job ended one afternoon when he was caught dozing in the harness at a hundred and fifty feet and handed his severance as soon as he got back to the ground. He told Troy and Harlan he had walked off the job on his own. “I got tired of smelling all that bird ass up there,” he said, winking and working a matchstick in his teeth.
His reputation as a drinker wasn’t undeserved, but it was exaggerated in the way such things can be in small towns, by people who considered themselves empathetic and thought it was only to be expected. As a practical matter, it meant that whenever work came his way he had to take it. Pulling on his work boots he would tell Troy and Harlan that it was time for them to hold down the old fort again, deputizings that could last for days when he was working on a rig and sleeping at the drill site. As the boys got older, the absences grew longer. Sometimes a week would pass before they heard from him again between jobs, and they made a habit of checking the odometer of his pickup, which indicated that he could have crossed three states in the time he was gone.
While Bill Ray was away Troy, older by three years, did most of the cooking, what he could manage, because he was particular—cowboy supper, pimento cheese, tortillas fried on the burner, Mrs Baird’s fruit pies heated in the oven. But it was Harlan who ended up as overseer of almost everything else in the household, to keep it from falling to pieces—the dishes, the trash, eventually the groceries and the bills. Harlan didn’t try to conceal their growing parentlessness but people in town, even at the school, seemed not to notice, as if they had reached some private agreement that the Falconer residence was a situation that should be allowed to take care of itself as long as it was able. Harlan was acutely aware of the spectacle of it—of an awkward, overgrown twelve-year-old boy walking up to the window of the county assessor’s office to pay the school taxes. In his stolid way, in a voice that had already begun its steep descent into manhood, he would say “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am” and “a quarter acre” and “Bill Ray’s doing fine, thank you.” He rarely complained and when he did his anger seemed to be softened by the satisfaction of knowing that he was the only one in the family capable of taking things in hand.
Just often enough, or during those times when his attention was absolutely required, Bill Ray would be around. And when he was, he had the ability to inhabit the present with the kind of fierce attention most people lose as children, so that Troy and Harlan would forget he ever had a desire to be elsewhere, just as they feared he would never come back when he was gone.
But he came back, sooner or later, sometimes with a full money clip and a grocery bag of sirloins, like a prospector who had tapped a vein. When a job set him up especially well he would take the boys out of school and drive them to Lubbock to buy new shirts, to see a picture at the State Theater on Texas Avenue, to visit Pinkie’s on the strip, where he bought his beer. He’d give each of them a bottle and the three would sit in the pickup drinking like ragged-ass cowboys in town on a ranch furlough. They never did things other families did, never went to school functions together, never went on vacation, rarely visited another family. Once, Troy remembered, Bill Ray took him and Harlan fishing a couple of hours from town at a man-made lake—most lakes in Texas are man-made but this one looked especially artificial, surrounded by a berm of gravel, too square, too near some kind of industrial facility. It was brutally hot but the lake had just been stocked and they caught a decent-size fish in fifteen minutes and put it in a bucket and took it home. The boys wanted Bill Ray to cook it but he said it was a carp and they would have to beat it for three days with a two-by-four to make it tender enough to eat. Instead, he filled the bathtub and left it there for the afternoon. It swam around briefly but then seemed to accept its fate and floated motionless, staring down the length of the tub, as if waiting for an appointment. When the boys woke the next morning the carp was gone, along with Bill Ray.
By the time Troy was old enough to understand how angry he was, he convinced himself that it was mostly on Harlan’s behalf, at the injustice of a boy so young having to be his father’s father. But he failed to see how much Harlan had to be a father to him, too, or how much of his own pain was caused by his desire to be more like Bill, to inhabit that kind of ease and self-possession, the trick of seeming to float just outside all the places where he was supposed to belong. As it often does, this yearning took the form of competition, a battle of wills made worse by Bill’s ignorance of it, or more likely just his refusal to acknowledge its existence.
By ten, Troy had started to light out by himself. Walking to school with Harlan, he would turn off without a backwards glance and hide in the treed bottom across from the county park or the caliche pit west of town, reading library paperbacks by Max Brand and Edward Anderson or sometimes just thinking, watching the shadow line advance slowly over his feet, his knees, his waist, slipping over his head as the sun fell below the far wall. Even at that age, Harlan said, Troy had an uncommon capacity for two things: lying and enjoying his own company.
At fourteen, cleaning windshields on weekends at the Humble gas station near the motel, he was sometimes able to talk passers-through into driving him the distance of a town or two, to Hobbs or Brownfield. One July, an Old Dominion freight driver took him all the way to Artesia before Troy grew bored and made up a story about being due at Fort Bliss for basic training. The driver was young and muscular, with a pencil mustache and high Indian cheekbones. He was duded up like a cowboy movie star, wearing his hat cocked high on his head and a cigarette tucked behind his ear. Troy wondered what someone so good-looking was doing driving a truck and he thought that life was probably just like that, as he had always suspected.
The driver stared absently ahead through the windshield. “Army must be takin’ ?’em young these days,” he said.
Troy had stopped caring whether he was being believed and was talking mostly to himself, addressing the ruler of two-lane road that seemed to extend through eastern New Mexico to the edge of the known universe.
“There’s a shortage on,” he said finally. “Korea and all.”
The truck was coming into Artesia. The driver lit the cigarette and cracked his window.
“Listen, son, I don’t mind taking you on,” he said, “but I don’t appreciate being lied to in my own rig. Why don’t you save the bullshit for your next freeload?”
Troy listened to the motor protest as the truck engine-braked at the city limit. He said: “I don’t imagine you could spare one of those cigarettes, could you?”
The driver took off his wire-rimmed sunglasses and stowed them beneath a strap on the visor.
“You imagine correct,” he said.
While the truck was pulled over at a filling station and the driver was inside paying, Troy leaned over and spat a prodigious wad of phlegm onto the middle of the spring-shot leather driver’s seat and stole the sunglasses and a thermos full of Canadian whiskey and walked away down the road wearing the shades—idly, like someone out for an afternoon stroll. The highway patrol found him within an hour and telephoned Bill, who delayed his arrival until dawn. He waited until they were a few miles outside town before he whipped the pickup off the road, slammed on the brakes, and backhanded Troy in the face, busting his lip. Troy called him a son of a fucking bitch, and Bill hit him again, this time with his fist, bloodying his nose in a gush that made a fantail down the neck of his white undershirt.
It was the only time Bill Ray ever hit him. He understood as if in the bones of his hand how little it would ever accomplish. But for Troy the blows, after a night spent awake in a jail cell, brought a revelation. Riding back to town with his heartbeat pounding in his swollen face and Roy Acuff wailing the “Great Speckle Bird” on the radio, he came to see for the first time that he was not going to grow up to join the world of respectable or even passably decent people—no matter how hard he tried. The truth was that he knew he was never going to feel like trying. He kept the T-shirt he was wearing for many years as a kind of relic, hiding it in the back of a drawer, taking it out from time to time and spreading it across his bed to see how the blood of his youth had darkened to a color as brown as cow shit, crusted and cracking.
Troy stood in the hallway of the house now, staring back into the darkness of the bedrooms. He wondered if Harlan had left the little dresser here, the one where he had hidden his T-shirt. The dresser was nothing, a paltry stick of furniture, made of thinly primered pine, missing three of its knobs, but it was the only dresser he had used until he was an adult so it still seemed strangely significant. He wondered if he would find it as he remembered it, in the northwest corner of his old room. It had sat on an unraveling rope rug, across from a narrow iron bedstead and a box shelf hung on the wall over the bed, a sort of curiosity cabinet filled with things he had found in the pasture across from the house, a natural history of the alien-looking artifacts a hard land like West Texas casts up—a devil’s claw, a dead silverfish, the desiccated skin of a horned toad, the carapace of a scorpion half as big as his hand, a collection of severed rattlesnake rattles, and a dozen flint Comanche arrowheads that looked as if they had been carved the day before he found them.
He wondered if these new people, whoever they were, had taken out a mortgage on an entire life he had once lived, container and contents. It wasn’t a totally unpleasant thought; maybe their version would turn out better, though signs didn’t seem to point in that direction.
He was able to see better now and went into the kitchen, which smelled strongly of cigarettes and cooking grease. The streetlight coming through the window shone on pearl-gray dishwater standing in the sink and illuminated its depths down to forks and knives glinting at the bottom. He pulled out a chair from the table and sat down to take a closer look at the studio portraits on the wall, to see if he recognized the man or wife or little girl. As he sat studying them he felt fairly sure that the wife and daughter were no longer a part of the picture here anymore, if they ever really had been. The house felt the way it always had, like a place without women, but even more so now, useful only for the refrigerator, the bathroom, and the bed, in roughly that order.
The man in the pictures looked big and well fed. He wore a cowboy hat of cream-colored felt and a bolo tie with string-ends weighted down by copper bullet casings. His wide smile beneath a rope of brown mustache gave his face a benignly boyish look, but there was something about the smile that put Troy off; it seemed too satisfied, the type of smile he had grown up seeing at rodeos on the faces of calf ropers as they stood up over the vanquished animal. An unsettled feeling he’d had on first looking into the kitchen returned, a cloud gathering at the back of his brain. And then it came to him with the force of self-evidence: This was a law enforcement house now. Harlan had sold it to a sheriff, or maybe to one of the highway patrol stationed in town, though everything about the man in the picture marked him as local, not state. Troy was stunned it had taken him so long to pick up on the signs; there was a time in his life when he would have smelled it instantly, some unbodied presence warding him off before he even touched the doorknob.
On first coming into the house he had felt a strange sense of familiarity, not because it had once been his but because he knew it didn’t belong to him anymore, and for years he had spent so much time inside places like it, darkened rooms belonging to other people, in their absence, sock-walking through their undefended possessions. Yet as he continued to look at the picture of the big cowboy it occurred to him that this house felt like a place that still knew him and he had the sinking sensation of returning to it after a long journey to find it ransacked and occupied.
He walked back to his old room, empty except for a stack of cardboard moving boxes in one corner. He coughed and the sound echoed off the sheetrock. He walked into what had been Bill Ray’s room and saw that the old matching oak bedroom set was still there, the one Ruby’s mother had given them for their wedding. The bed was unmade and mounded with dirty laundry. Troy tried to avoid looking at anything. He turned on the closet light, keeping the door almost closed, and went straight to the bottom drawer of the nightstand, the one he would sneak in to open when he was a boy, mostly for the forbidden thrill of handling Bill Ray’s Masonic gear—the carefully folded, starched white apron, the little blue handbook embossed with a caliper enclosing a golden G that he had figured must have something to do with God, though a God more private than the one he knew from church. He had thought of these things as the visible tip of a vast submerged continent of adult secrets. The drawer had seemed to contain all the talismans of manhood—cuff links, tie clips, money clips, lapel pins, sock garters, pocket watches, penknives, all exotic because so rarely ever taken out and used—along with Bill Ray’s olive Army garrison cap and discharge papers and sometimes a bottle of unused aftershave and a box of rubbers. The drawer was empty now except for a scatter of unpaired black socks.
He rose from the floor and saw that a belt and holster had been left looped over the right-hand post at the foot of the bed—the lawman’s extra rig. Or maybe he was off duty tonight, Troy thought, although in his experience few men given the right to conspicuously carry firearms ever passed up a chance to do so, especially at public functions like football games. Troy looked at the gun for a minute, then lifted it gingerly from the holster. It was a Colt .38 revolver, standard police-issue with checkered grips, a gun that looked unfired and ceremonial in its polish. He swung the cylinder out and saw that it was empty. It had been so long since Troy had handled a pistol that its deadweight surprised him. He stood up and straightened his left arm slowly toward the dresser mirror, bringing the barrel into line with his eye. He wanted to see what he looked like but it was too dark in the room; his shape was more shadow than reflection. It reminded him how much he hated mirrors, which had caused him more than once during his house burglary days to jump half out of his skin when he caught sight of himself, fearing he wasn’t alone.
The idea of taking the gun crossed his mind, just to have something for protection now. But Troy had never worked with a weapon and stealing one from a cop would be the worst way to start, so he eased it back into the holster and wiped down the grips with his coat sleeve.
Back in the kitchen he checked the time and sorted through the mail, learning the man’s name, Darryl D. McGuire, deputy county sheriff. He opened the refrigerator but found nothing revealed by its jaundiced light to be worth the risk, so he rummaged around in the cabinets for a can of coffee and rinsed out the percolator and started a pot. Then he sat down at the kitchen table and by the light reaching it from the street began to write on the stationery tablet he had in his coat pocket, trying to clear his mind while he thought about where Harlan could be.
He sat looking toward the hallway where he had just been, which darkened to black from the kitchen to the bedrooms, a distance he estimated to be no more than twenty-five feet, though he remembered it being infinitely longer. As a child he had been terrified of traversing it at night when only he and Harlan were at home and most of the lights were off, per Bill Ray’s strict orders to save electricity. The sprint down the hallway to the wall switch in the bedroom he shared with Harlan was a gauntlet that grew agonizingly longer each time he took it. In those five or so seconds he felt as if he was becoming entangled in some unseen web, snatched at by the fingers of thousands of hands trying to get hold of him, to drag him into an even deeper dark from which he would never emerge. The fear tormented him, and to conquer it he made up his mind to plunge into the hallway nightly until it went away, but he gave up after a week and waited until Harlan had gone back to turn on the light before going to the bedroom himself.
Facing the little stretch of painted sheetrock now, he found it hard to understand how anyone could have suffered so much in such a tiny nothing of a space. And it occurred to him that in some deeply buried way a child’s fear of ghosts might just be a substitute for the fear that there isn’t anything else out there, larger, unseen, good or evil—that what we see is all there is. And as we get older we accept this, so we stop being afraid of the dark in one way as we begin to fear it in another.
Aug. 18, 1972
I can’t account with any accuracy for how I’ve occupied my time since I started. A lot of it has been spent looking as if I’m busy. I like to show the semblance of industriousness—to be out on the road at dawn, the taste of black coffee and toothpaste in my mouth. I never feel better than when I’m moving.
But many days I just sit in my motel room with the television on, mostly for the sound and motion, watching commercials for products I know I won’t have to buy. Or I sit in silence for long stretches listening to passing cars and trucks, to the whine of a vacuum cleaner coming through the walls, to other motel guests shutting and opening their doors, coming and going, talking and talking. Sometimes I sit in a hot bath, one leg crossed over the other, thinking about the world at work while I watch the pulse of my heartbeat in the hollow of my ankle.
To keep myself out of unnecessary trouble, I decided early on to steer clear of hitchhikers, women, and alcohol, and I generally upheld this pledge, which was easy on the alcohol front because I was traveling mostly through counties that had been dry since before Prohibition.
When I met Bettie I wasn’t looking for company—but she was, in a manner of speaking, for reasons that became clear. I was in Friona that morning, sitting in a booth near the front of a café, drinking a cup of coffee after the early rush, reading the newspaper. I never come into such places during the rush, never before nine a.m. To do so as an unaccompanied stranger in a small town is like walking onto the stage of a crowded theater with the spotlight on your face. But by nine these cafés are usually almost empty—the farmers and ranchers head out first, before seven, to the fields, then the lingering jobholders, to make their eight o’clocks, followed by the retirees and the profoundly elderly, who go home to watch a little TV before returning at noon for lunch.
This was a nice café, though in its particulars it differed little from any café in any small town in West Texas, probably any town in rural America: the sweet, flat, animal smell of fry grease, not unpleasant but not quite pleasant, either, a kind of limbo smell; a small counter dominated by a Bunn double-tank coffee maker, with a top warmer for a third pot containing no coffee, only steaming water; a chrome three-drawer Toastmaster cabinet, to warm the dinner rolls and the thick, oiled Mexican tortilla chips; Naugahyde-backed booths with chipped Formica wood-grain trim; an Ace Reid cowboy-comics calendar behind the cash register (“Naw, I ain’t gittin’ throwed off; I ain’t got on yet!!”) next to a framed piece of crewelwork depicting a windmill against a sunset, above the words “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” stitched in Palmer Method script. Next to the cash register a metal toothpick roller and a double courtesy bowl—matchbooks and cellophane-wrapped peppermints. In the vestibule between the two glass doors a newspaper machine, a cigarette machine, a penny shopper rack, and two gumball machines below a row of hat pegs still used by the older farmers and ranchers. On the outside door, facing into the parking lot, a sign that says “Sorry, We’re Open” in mock-official red letters on a black background.
I was eating the breakfast I always ate when it was available: a short stack with syrup and a scoop of whipped butter on top; half a cantaloupe; a small glass of milk. The stack was served on a heavy plate decorated around the edge with various cattle brands. The cantaloupe came in a bowl with matching cattle brands. Both sat atop a paper placemat printed with nostalgic frontier scenes from the Old West that had never happened. The milk was served in a short, brown-tinted glass with wavy sides, the same as the ice water.
The only interesting difference about this diner was a pair of high horizontal mirrors that met at a corner above the front window. When you looked into them from my booth you could see the reflection of the road outside and the sight of the occasional car coming from what appeared to be two directions at once, creating an illusion of identical vehicles approaching each other, crashing head-on, and consuming themselves into nothingness in the middle.
In these mirrors I saw the car, an alpine-white 1970 Challenger R/T, slow and pull into the parking lot. She walked through the door at five minutes to ten and paused just inside to survey the room before sliding into my booth across from me, wordlessly, smiling without making eye contact. She was dressed to be someplace other than a town like Friona, Texas—a fancy starched blue-jean dress with a broad white lace collar and blousy sleeves that draped down like wings, half covering slender fingers weighted down with gold and silver and turquoise. Her coal-black hair was arranged on top of her head in a tall complicated braid formation that made me think of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra or the Aztec princesses on Mexican nudie calendars. The only thing slightly off about her getup, catching your eye, was the panty hose—white ones, like the kind nurses wear in hospitals.
She looked about twenty-five, though she could have passed for nineteen and I suspected she was at least thirty. Her perfume smelled sweet, like layer cake. She had a confidence-inspiring olive-colored face that only in betraying nothing betrayed her attempt at an appearance of youthful virtue.
I noticed she was a little out of breath. She continued not looking at me and reached over and moved my water glass across to her side of the table and quickly drank down half, then took a menu out of the rack and began to study it, as if we were about to order lunch but she couldn’t make up her mind. I finally lowered my paper and looked at her without saying anything. Her back was to the door and I glanced at it—to remind myself where it was, in case I needed to use it in a hurry, but also because I had the feeling that someone would be coming through it any minute now, looking for her.
I was fairly certain I had watched exactly this scene in an old movie, but nothing remotely like it had happened to me. The waitress came over and asked if she wanted to order anything. She continued studying the menu as if it actually offered desirable dining options, then she raised her head and looked into the waitress’s eyes and her face became illuminated with the most genuinely delighted smile I had ever seen on someone I knew to be faking it.
“I think I’ll have a cup of coffee with my husband here and we’ll share a piece of that pie over there under the glass. What kind do y’all have today?”
The waitress returned the smile with unqualified pleasure. “That’s a pecan. Made just this morning.”
“Does that sound all right by you, honey?”
I was holding my paper halfway up now, a position of defensive uncertainty. For the first time, she met my eyes, scanning them, trying to figure out if I was really playing along or if I was just stunned into speechlessness. I didn’t say anything but I allowed a smile to pass almost imperceptibly over my lips, an acknowledgment of professional admiration.
She looked back at the waitress and winked. “He’s always after me about the sweets. But life’s short, ain’t it?”
“A slice of pie never hurts is what I say.”
“You said it. We’ll go ahead and split one, then, à la mode.”
“All righty, we’ll sure get you fixed up,” the waitress said and wrote down the order and then made no move whatsoever to go fulfill it, looking up at us again sociably from her pad.
“Now where’re y’all from?”
This I wanted to hear. I looked across the table and scanned her face closely for a tell but picked up nothing, not the slightest hint of pause or calculation in her eyes.
“We live over in Longview,” she said. “We’re just on our way through to Ruidoso.”
This was fine professional work: She had chosen a place in East Texas, the other side of the state, far enough away that the waitress was unlikely to know anyone from there. Friona was a place that people passed through on their way west to the mountains in New Mexico, and Bettie knew not only this but the name of the right mountain town to mention. She had thought it through in half a second, or more likely she’d had it all ready before she sat down.
“It’s real pretty up there this time of year—a whole lot prettier than around here, that’s for sure,” said the waitress, who was probably about a decade out of high school but appeared a decade older than that. Looking at Bettie seemed to make her feel better about herself.
When the front door to the café opened a couple of minutes later I was still, against all judgment, seated at the table, watching this woman who was pretending to be my wife, with whom I still hadn’t exchanged a word. The only way I can account for why I hadn’t gotten up and walked straight to my car is that I didn’t have a sense of myself as a participant in her performance; it felt more like something I was watching from a great distance, and I wanted to see how it would end. The pie and coffee had arrived; she poured in as much cream as the cup would hold to cool it and quickly drank half, to make it appear as if she had been sitting in the booth longer than she had.
The man who finally came through the door was on the small side but solidly built. He wore a good Western suit and a felt hat with a fan of gray hawk feathers cresting from the front of a woven leather band. His glasses were the brown half-tinted kind that are supposed to go clear indoors but that remain obscured much longer in West Texas because of the ferocity of the sunshine they have been defying. His suit jacket hung away from his paunch and I could make out no holster, though he could have had one on the back of his belt or down under his pants leg. As soon as he took in the room—our waitress; a young farmer; an old rancher in a back booth beneath a sweat-stained hat; a Mexican kid slouched on a counter stool; two other women, retired-teacher-or-church-secretary-types sitting in another booth—I could tell he wasn’t sure who he was looking for and I breathed a little easier.
Everyone turned to see who was coming in, staring for longer than would have been polite in a bigger town. She acted as if the door hadn’t opened, appraising a piece of pie on the end of her fork. The man went to our waitress where she stood near the cash register and said something quietly to her and she smiled reflexively, then she looked pained and said something back to him and turned her head uncertainly in our direction. The man’s head didn’t turn to follow. He pushed his hat back and hitched his belt and seated himself at one of the tables along the far wall, almost behind Bettie but where I could see him and he could see me. He didn’t look in our direction again. He signaled for the waitress and I heard him order a plate of enchiladas and an iced tea.
I looked across at her, to see how she was taking all of this. She finished her pie calmly and stared back at me, hard, as if a thought had just occurred to her. Then she reached a hand across the table and put it on top of mine in a friendly, married sort of way and said softly: “What do you do for a living?”
I left my hand where it was and smiled a bland domestic smile back at her and answered, more softly: “I think if anyone gets to ask questions, it’s probably going to be me, don’t you?”
Maybe because she knew the man couldn’t see her face, she gave me what I took to be a sincere look, though I had no way of knowing. “It just seems to me like you know what’s happening here and you know what you’re doing. So I’m starting to think maybe you’re not from around here. And that you and I might be in a similar line of work. And that picking this booth was the best luck I’ve had in a while.”
“Why did you pick this booth?”
“It was the closest one to the door. And you were by yourself.”
“Maybe I’m a cop. Maybe you picked wrong.”
She looked at me in a way that told me not to insult her intelligence.
I fixed her straight in the eye for the first time and slowly retrieved my hand, keeping my filial smile in place for the man’s sake: “Lady, I don’t know what you’ve got going, but I’m in no position to be in the middle of anything right now. So I’m going to get up and walk out of here unless that little goat roper over there is someone I need to be afraid of personally.”
For a second she seemed happy that I’d gotten the lay of the land so quickly. But then a look of weariness came over her. “I’ve never seen that sack of shit before today. It’s probably the goddamned car. I caught him following me in Hereford and thought I lost him going west but when I got into town, there he was coming around the corner. My windows are tinted so I don’t think he got a look at me. He’s probably sitting over there trying to figure out if I’m really the one and who the hell are you.”
I gave the man another look. “I’d put him at insurance or dealership or private help somebody hired just for your sake. Where’d the car come from?”
The hard look came back into her eyes.
“Where do cars come from? Streets, parking lots, car factories. How the hell do I know? It came with a promise I wouldn’t have to worry and here I sit.”
I took a sip of coffee and kept up my smile. “Let’s say Señor Repo over there decides to make something of it. Would that put you in bigger trouble than a misplaced car?”
“Might how much?”
“More than I need.”
“Why do you think he hasn’t just called the sheriff to help him take care of this?”
She looked annoyed again. “He’s working his own line. Or the insurance company is. Or they both are.”
Probably just to give herself some business she dug around methodically in her purse and retrieved a piece of gum and unwrapped it and put it in her mouth.
“If you help me get out of here and take me to the bus stop in Hereford, I swear I can make it worth the trouble.”
I stirred more cream in my coffee, to give myself some business. “Then he’ll take down my plates.”
She put up a different kind of smile, one that looked marital and malicious at the same time. “Would that be a problem for you?”
She was getting visibly antsy now, starting to lose some of her composure. She tried to keep her voice down without whispering too noticeably. “He wants the car. He’s not going to leave it . . . What are you driving? Is it in front?”
I decided to tell her the truth, for the hell of it. “Coronet Brougham. Around back.”
“A Brougham? Are you a family man?”
“It helps to look like one sometimes.”
“Go get it. Take your time, make him think you’ve left. Pull around front, and as soon as I see you I’ll be out of here before he can make the door.”
“Give me a reason. I won’t take your money.”
“Because I know you don’t want that fuckhead to make his quota on me any more than I do.”
“Maybe if you’d been careful you wouldn’t be in a position for that to happen. Or to put me in the middle of it.”
The color ran out of her face. “Believe me, it’s not something that’s happened before.”
I did believe her. And she was right—it would bother me to walk out of there and let a common insurance dick have his day. But what made my mind up wasn’t that. It was this: It occurred to me with considerable clarity that as dangerous as it would be to help her, it would be much more so to leave her there and run into her or whoever she worked with somewhere down the road. The fact was that I’d picked the wrong café that morning. And if you don’t operate according to facts, facts operate on you. I put down some money for the check and walked out the door. She got in as soon as I rounded the corner, and the little man didn’t even make the parking lot before we turned off.
Instead of going to a bus stop, we went to my motel and checked out and drove to Amarillo, where I’d have an easier time picking up a new car. We drove that one to the other side of the Panhandle, stopping at nightfall in Childress (which I’d avoided for a good six months) and took a room at the Trade Winds Motel. During every minute of the next three days, I fully expected the end to come; I could hear the sirens; I could feel the thunder of half a dozen cruisers rolling up and a dozen men with rifles pouring out, the sound of the bathroom window shattering as more came in that way. Or I envisioned myself waking up to two or three strangers, her standing across the room getting dressed, telling them in Spanish what to do with me. I had exposed myself completely and I deserved whatever happened.
But nothing did. She could have rolled me herself—I slept the sleep of the dead for the first time in months—but she didn’t even do that. For two days, we barely got out of bed or ate or spoke. On the third, while I was showering, she went through my wallet and started to call me Cliff, laughing when she said it because she knew the name on the license wasn’t mine. I said I didn’t want to know her name but she told me anyway, so I assumed it was as genuine as mine.
She wasn’t much good in bed. She was too selfish for that. But I hadn’t been with a woman for almost two years so it seemed to me as if everything she did was a holy miracle. She was generally undemonstrative, but every time she climaxed she made a series of short, sharp squeals, like a coyote’s yip at dusk. I was sure everybody in the motel complex could hear. It seemed to be the only time she ever fully forgot herself, and it might have been her only endearing quality—that and the fact that she didn’t leave me broke and stranded when I lowered all my defenses.
Of course, what she did after she lulled me into this false sense of security made up for all of that.
New Cona was bisected by a shallow draw that cut roughly northwest to southeast, the same direction as the imperceptible grade of the land to sea level. The draw had once run with seasonal water plentiful enough for horses, and so its course had been the roadway that conveyed the earliest settlers, rugged people who, for reasons lost to history, had chosen this particular declivity dwarfed by this particular immensity of mesaland to end their travels, put down stakes, and spend the rest of their lives. They platted a town on the cardinal points, a mile on each side, a square that hadn’t yet been filled out with paved streets. The town lay a hundred miles west of the ninety-eighth meridian—not near enough for the rain that most years fell sufficiently east of that line. A land-sale pamphlet from the turn of the century, coaxing farmers west to the llano, had been artfully equivocal on this point: “The climate here is all that could be expected.” Troy didn’t know where the name came from. Was there an Old Cona? Probably just a Cona—in Mexico? If there was a Cona, what had made it worth memorializing? The name sounded a little like the one Mexican boys called you in school sometimes, coño, laughing when they said it.
Troy had left the house and was driving warily through the draw into town. In his memory the draw had never had water, no more than stood after a rare collected rain, and he still found it hard to envision anything resembling a river running through it. He felt the familiar plunge as the road dropped down into the bottom, a good paved road, evidence that no more water was expected; the aquifer springs that carved out the land had long since dried up, the water siphoned by irrigation pumps to the endless miles of cotton fields that never had enough.
The bottom of the draw supported what passed on the plains for a wooded patch, with low soapberry and bumelia trees, so the county park had been put there to the east of the road, centered around a little tree-topped man-made hill, an exotic site for children. Rising out of the draw the road passed the county swimming pool, the only place in town where the seasonal return of standing water was guaranteed, closed now, drained until summer. The aquamarine paint from the pool bed reflected upward in the glow of the parking lot lights, giving the impression of daylight being stored just below ground.
Next was the New Cona Motel, one of only a handful of motels in the Panhandle whose layout Troy didn’t know by heart. Slowing, he saw the face of an old man in the office window, whitened by a fluorescent lamp. Like most businesses in this part of the state that had once catered to passers-through on their way to the mountains in New Mexico or returning from them, the motel had become a relic; interstate motels and Winnebagos had taken its place and its lifeblood was down to long-haul truckers and migrant farm labor. The street corner nearest the office was fenced in by three eighteen-wheelers, nose to tail, and the parking lot itself was nearly empty, save for a few dirt-covered pickups whose positions indicated the occupied rooms.
Troy took a left at the main road and drove past the squat cinder-brick diner, the feed store, and the one surviving gas station, whose four Exxon pumps sat beneath an orphaned Humble sign. In his absence, the First Baptist Church had built an impressive lighted road sign at the edge of its parking lot, an evangelizing tool many small-town churches had begun using to beam mini-sermons through the windshields of late-night drivers. The vinyl block letters up on the sign read:
You Can’t Fall
If You Are Already
On Your Knees
In his thousands of miles behind the wheel, Troy had become a connoisseur of these kinds of homilies, and he admired this one, though he felt obliged to observe that whoever coined it must have never suffered the singular indignity of being unable to prevent himself from going all the way to the floor after already finding himself on his knees, as Troy had a couple of times during his drinking days.
For a year or so after their mother died Bill Ray had taken Troy and Harlan to this church, but only during Wednesday-night services. Bill Ray could never bear the social pressure and hollow concern of Sundays. On Wednesdays the pews were usually only about a third full and those who came were either the deeply and openly devout, viewed with a certain wariness by regular churchgoers, or simply people who were lonely and too shy to address Bill and the boys.
Troy remembered being allowed to stretch out on the long, nubby, golden-colored pew cushions, where he would fall into a deep sleep staring sideways at the hymnals in their holders and at the cylindrical receptacles for the miniature grape juice glasses that would be passed along the aisles occasionally for the Lord’s Supper. He tried to remember other particulars about the church but he could recall only the baptismal, which was hidden behind a pair of heavy blue-velvet curtains that were drawn apart from a rectangular opening behind the choir seats, revealing the preacher and the suppliant standing together in robes in a sunken fiberglass tub of warm waist-high water. Behind them was a large trompe l’oeil oil painting of a river receding into a coral sunset—a sight never beheld in a waterless country and therefore practically heavenly. He thought about how a single, usually impulsive decision at the age of twelve or thirteen to believe in the Lord and permit oneself to be submerged in water in public was supposed to have the power to change everything for all eternity. After Troy himself had done it, he remembered wondering where the water from the baptismal tank went when it drained away—did it run into the regular sewer?
Troy had no memory of Bill Ray speaking about what he believed but he once said that if church was a place where people gathered under false pretenses at least it was one of the nicer places where they did so. He would sit very still and straight in his good brown suit between his sleeping sons with his arms stretched out on the pew back above them.
Troy drove past the school building, which like most small schools in West Texas was impressively consolidated. Children entered the low, plain, boxy western end at the age of five, matriculated through the Spanish-mission-style junior high in the middle, and emerged at eighteen—if they were lucky, as Harlan had been and Troy had not—at the larger, boxy eastern end, where the twin civic theaters of the auditorium and the gymnasium sat.
Next came the credit union and the defunct Mac movie theater, missing its marquee since the mid-sixties, not long after it went out of business; the old barbershop, now a CB radio sales and repair store; the Dairy Queen, glassy and still new-looking; and the cream-brick three-story courthouse, constructed in a vaguely modernist style that set it at odds with every other structure in town but conferred its importance.
Like most towns its size, New Cona was a picture of rural America in miniature: Anyone driving along its spine could perceive in less than five minutes the shape of a century’s arc—pioneer struggle and its meager, adequate architecture, succeeded by hard work, prosperity, and the ambitious municipal buildings they bequeathed through the fifties, followed by a slow structural and civic retreat in the form of trailer houses, cinder block, Quonset huts, and pastured gaps like a pox in the middle of town. The last time Troy had driven down this road he had been on his way out of town for what turned out to be a very long time. It was a Saturday evening after the rodeo parade and everyone had gone home. The wooden bleachers in front of the courthouse sat empty and the grounds had been cleaned but the pavement along Main Street was still littered with little hillocks of fresh, green horseshit, a fitting token of farewell.
Up ahead to the left shone lights that seemed to be glaring at business brightness, and as he drove closer he saw that they came from an all-night Allsup’s convenience store that had not been there when he left. Troy pulled in, looking up and down the street. Except for a cashier stationed behind the counter, there was no one inside, at least no one he could see through the big glass-front window. The top half of the cashier’s head was obscured by the hanging cigarette rack, but judging by his posture and the thin gleaning of hair on his face he seemed to be no more than sixteen or seventeen.
Troy got out of the car and walked briskly inside, saying nothing, making no eye contact. He aimed for the milk cases in the back and then lingered in an aisle, pretending to inspect a pegboard hung with Frito-Lay and pork skins while trying instead to get a surreptitious look between the shelving at the boy—not to figure out whether he knew him but to figure out whether the boy resembled anyone he knew, a mother or father his own age who might be able to place him from their son’s description.
After a minute his quarry finally shifted into sight, staring slack-mouthed easterly through the store’s plate-glass window toward the road out of town, looking as if he would exchange his place behind the counter for any place out there. Troy was half surprised: The boy was Mexican, which reduced the chances of identification sufficiently for him to stand down his guard.
He looked around, picked out a pack of gum, and walked up to the counter, watching the boy take a good look at him as he approached. The boy caught himself and shifted his focus toward the cash register and attempted to put on a professional voice, but it came off like that of most country boys his age in conversation with adults—awkward, pained, half ashamed, as if an indecent subject had been broached. He was taller than Troy but stooped, with narrow delicate shoulders. His face was sallow and pale; his diet probably consisted of too many items from the store’s own shelves. He wasn’t old enough to grow a mustache but had tried anyway; it looked like a plastic spider on his upper lip, a handful of thin black tendrils headed in different directions.
“You need to fill her up, too, sir?”
“I’m fine for gas, just needed a little something to keep my jawbone busy till I get to Lubbock,” Troy said. He put a twenty-dollar bill down on the counter and, wanting to give the boy no time to think, said: “Listen, son, I’ve got a question for you. I used to come through here every now and then, a few years ago, and I did some business with an old boy named Bill Ray Falconer. You wouldn’t happen to know of him, if he’s still around here somewhere, would you?”
Color rose into the boy’s face and his unease appeared to solidify into something like actual discomfort. He was very still for a moment, causing Troy to become aware of the shining movements of the greasy hot links rolling in the heat-lamp cabinet near the cash register.
“What’s the name again, sir?”
“Falconer,” Troy said. “Tall, slim, sharp dresser, kind of a cut-up and a rounder when he was young. He had a couple of grown boys if I remember?”
The boy didn’t speak right away. “Yes sir, I know him. I mean, I knew him. I’m sorry to say, but he’s dead, sir. He passed a few years back, of a heart attack I think.”
Troy whistled and looked down at the counter and then up at the tag pinned to the pocket of the boy’s paisley-print Western shirt, which said B. JIMENEZ.
“You don’t say! I’m sorry to hear that. I sure am.”
Troy waited while the boy rang him up. “Didn’t he used to live over there near the northwest corner of town, right by the pasture?”
“Yes sir, he did.”
“Do either of his boys still live there, as far as you know?”
The boy flushed again on the high bones above his hairless cheeks. He seemed suddenly aware of being in solitary charge of the store at night. Something about Troy unsettled him.
“One of them, name of Harlan, used to,” he said, “but . . . well, I don’t know. He must’ve run into some trouble or something because he moved out of there a while back and the county rents it now.” The boy appeared to gain a measure of confidence as he heard himself relate verifiable facts.
Troy watched a dirty pickup pull to a stop in front of the store and he suddenly became aware of the unholy fluorescent brightness inside. “Where did this Harlan end up, do you think? Did he move somewhere else?”
He thought he saw the hint of an embarrassed smile move across the boy’s face before it resumed its previous immobility. “Well, he’s still here. But I think he’s outside of town now. He works tending to the big radio tower out east, that one you see over on the Brownfield highway past the Bozart ranch gate. I heard he’s living out there now. But it ain’t exactly a house or anything.”
“And what about the other brother?” Troy asked.
He glanced outside. The man who had pulled up in the pickup, an old man in a feed cap, was filling up with diesel, looking into the store absentmindedly as it pumped.
“I don’t know nothing about him, sir. I ain’t even sure of his name. I think maybe he got into some trouble with the law but I don’t know for sure. He might be dead, too.” The boy paused, maybe wondering if he should have included this final thought but when he saw that it produced no effect he paused and ventured a question:
“What kind of work did y’all used to do with Bill Ray?”
Troy picked up the chewing gum packet and dropped it into his shirt pocket and smiled tightly, fixing the boy for the first time with a good look in the eyes.
“What’s your name, son?”
The boy looked at him for a second, then away.
“My name’s Brandon.”
“Yes sir, Brandon Jimenez.”
Troy smiled and touched a finger to his brow. “Thank you for your help, Brandon Jimenez. You have a good night now.”
Troy wanted to greet Harlan by daylight, so he took the car to the end of a pumpjack road and tried unsuccessfully to sleep. By the time he pulled onto the road to the radio tower, the sun was close enough to the horizon that he could see the outline of the little flat-topped cinder-block shack sitting against the tower base. The shack looked comically small alongside the tower, which rose two hundred feet like a skeletal ladder, stabilized by an array of guy-wires as straight as bicycle spokes running down to the pastureland. The wires pinged as a high morning breeze came in, but when Troy stepped out of the car and began walking toward the shack it was still quiet enough for him to hear clearly, in the near distance, the distinctive metallic chuck of a bolt being shoved forward to chamber a round.
“You come any further and I’ll part your goddamned skull.”
The voice came from above and when Troy looked up he could see the big cuneiform shape of a head silhouetted just above the parapet that skirted the shack’s roof. He instinctively brought his hands away from his sides, turning his palms out and stopping where he was, waiting for the next instruction.
When one didn’t come right away, he looked up and asked: “Is that Bill Ray’s old Winchester?”
Harlan’s head and shoulders came up higher above the parapet, dark against the purplish morning sky.
“That rifle hasn’t worked in twenty years, Harlan.”
A reply was a long time in coming.
“How do you know I didn’t fix it?”
“Because I know you wouldn’t.”
“Maybe you think that and maybe I’ll shoot you anyway.”
Troy let his hands drift back down to his sides. “Then do it and get it over with. Or come on down here and let’s talk.”
Harlan slowly drew the rifle up against his shoulder but didn’t seem ready to relinquish his position.
“Where was I calling when I called you last month?” Troy asked.
After another long silence, and the wind picking up: “The phone company let me keep the number. It rings out here now. You shouldn’t drive up on a man like that so early in the morning, Troy. You’ll get yourself shot.”
“Is this where you live?” Troy asked, resuming his walk toward the shack.
“If that’s what you want to call it. They don’t care if I stay out here. As long as I do my job. It ain’t much—hot plate, a cot. No room for a fridge but the tank out there keeps things cool enough.”
He fell silent again, seeming to search for something else to recommend his accommodations. “The TV reception’s hard to beat. You snake an antenna wire out to the tower leads and you can tune in a Dallas station clear as a bell.”
Troy looked around the overgrown tower site, a dry, sorry-looking patch of cleared pasture that the pasture was rapidly taking back. “How did you lose the house?” he asked, beginning to feel the absurdity of conversing with a man crouched on a rooftop in rifle position.
Harlan raised himself slowly, grunting, and walked over to a metal ladder bolted to the side of the shack. He looked out over the horizon, then laid the rifle on the roof against the parapet and wrapped it several times in a thick tarpaulin and swung his weight out over the ladder.
He approached Troy beating the dust from his shirt and pants with his hands and stood looking at him, stopping a good three feet away.
“Lawbreaking always suited you, Troy,” he said. “You don’t look a day older than last time I saw you. I can’t even remember how long ago it was.”
Harlan’s face was leaner and his eyes more deeply set than the last time Troy had seen him. His features had more of Bill Ray in them than Troy had ever noticed before. He was already beginning to bag at the eyes and elbows and he looked a decade older than he was, due partly to the fact that he now wore a saucer-brimmed felt cowboy hat like the one worn by President Johnson, along with the uniform of the older farmers and ranchers, who preferred heavy khaki work shirts tucked into khaki trousers, never blue jeans. As big as Harlan was, he wore his shirts a size too big, with the sleeves rolled high on his upper arms. His big hands hung down heavily like things he stopped acknowledging when not in use.
“What happened to the house?”
“You asked me that.”
“I’m asking you again.”
Harlan turned without hurrying toward the shack, through high bluestem grass that nearly fenced it from view on the side facing the road. With each footfall grasshoppers arced out around his boots like splashing water. His voice came from inside the shack, where he had turned on a light:
“She talked me into drawing money against it, as little as it was worth. When she left she took that with her, too. The bank claimed it a couple of months ago. Darryl came over himself and told me he hated to have to do it.”
Troy hadn’t known about this part. It gave him a momentary sensation of the ground moving underneath him, of ignorance stretching out in every direction. He turned away from the road and looked across the lightening land. The stock tank sat about a hundred yards off at the foot of an old Monitor windmill whose vane had not yet cranked its blades into the wind. A hundred miles further west, carrying the sun, a line of clouds as big as kingdoms marched across the plains and Troy stood watching them, wondering how long it would take Bettie to spend everything.
“What difference does the house make to you? It’s been more than ten years since you lived there. Hell, you were barely there when you lived in it. It was mine.”
Troy told him about the visit. “It didn’t feel half bad being back in there, Harlan, like I thought it would. I just wish you hadn’t left the furniture you did. I don’t like to think of that deputy bastard using any of it.”
“Did you break one of my windows?”
“I didn’t need to break anything. I still have the key.”
Harlan considered this for a moment. “If the thought had ever occurred to me, I’d have changed the locks a long time ago.”
Troy had come up into the doorway. The windowless space that Harlan lived in was no bigger than a modestly proportioned bathroom, except that it had no facilities, not even a sink. Troy had known a few motel rooms only marginally more hospitable. A wooden cot occupied the right-hand wall, made up with a gray horsehair blanket and a caseless pillow. Along the back was a kind of bivouac kitchen with a single-burner hot plate, an electric coffeepot, and a small larder of plates, cups, and boxed goods arranged on a two-by-eight plank raised off the concrete floor on cinder blocks. A heavy black Bakelite wall phone with a braided cord hung near a jack. On a metal television tray to the other side rested a little Philco television set, which looked like an electronic appendage of a large, vaultlike bank of aluminum cabinets, fitted with switches and cooling vents, the housing for the tower’s broadcast equipment. The whole place smelled acridly of metal and a weak dome light shone in the middle of the ceiling, brown with bug juice.
“I thought you’d like to know that when I got into town last night I paid my respects at your final resting place,” Troy said. “There wasn’t anywhere for me to put flowers.”
Harlan had taken a small aluminum pot and poured water into it from a canteen and put the pot onto the reddening hot plate coil. He took a rubber band from around a box of Cream of Wheat and sat on the corner of his cot to wait for the water to boil.
“There wasn’t anybody else going to take care of it except me, so I thought I might as well get it done. It’s a good thing I did, too, while I still had some money. Bettie liked to have killed me for it, but it’s pretty much the only thing of value she didn’t make off with.”
He smiled, looking away from Troy, though Troy was trying just as studiously to evade his gaze. “Only thing of value I have left and I have to be dead to use it. There must be a country song in that somewhere.”
Troy took a metal folding chair leaned against the wall, the only other piece of furniture in the shack. There was no room inside for it, so he swung the door out and put the chair across the threshold on the packed caliche and sat just outside facing in, rocking back on the legs. Harlan took a mug down from a hook over the head of his cot.
“No thanks. I had a pot of the deputy’s last night.”
“Whose vehicle is that that you’re driving over there?”
“Mine, for the time being.”
“You know damned well I’m not putting a foot inside it. The truck’s around behind back. I can’t promise it’s going to get us very far but it’s the only thing I’m going to drive.”
Troy suddenly noticed a dog almost the same shade of dun as the pasture sand stretched out on its side about a dozen feet from him. The animal was whimpering in its sleep, its feet moving slightly as it ran chasing something along a dream plane perpendicular to the ground. “I thought you didn’t like dogs, Harlan. When did you get that?”
“I didn’t get him—he got me,” Harlan said. “This seems to be where he lives. They call these radio shacks doghouses, so I guess by rights it’s his.” Harlan rose from the cot and walked to the side of the door, snapping his fingers and whistling. Without stirring its head from the ground the dog opened its eyes to look at him and then longer, suspiciously, at Troy. “He’s ancient, old coot. I find him sacked out by his empty water dish. Too old to even whine for it. Just lays there with his head pointed at the dish like a divining rod that tells you where water ain’t.”
The dog’s eyes rolled up and his lids eased shut again. “He’s not a bad one when he’s awake. I call him Beau Jack. After that one Bill Ray brought home that time.”
Troy studied the old dog, which seemed, unaccountably, to be some kind of poodle mutt, greatly overgrown. Troy laughed. “He didn’t bring that dog home, Harlan. That damned dog just showed up one day and Bill Ray kept hauling him out to the country to get rid of him, but he kept finding his way back. So eventually Bill gave up. He named him after some famous colored boxer.”
“What ever became of that dog?”
“He liked to run in the pasture at night. He probably started to think those coyotes calling to him were his friends. One morning he didn’t come back.”
“Sounds like somebody I used to know,” Harlan said, meeting Troy’s eye for the first time.
He poured coffee and arranged his breakfast on his cot in a way that suggested long-established routine. Harlan had always been maddeningly methodical but the ritual of his movements produced a different effect on Troy this morning, peaceful, almost calming. It made him think of a Benedictine monk he had once watched for an hour in a New Mexico thrift shop carving a pair of sparrows from a piece of evergreen pine.
Harlan began to eat, not looking up from his bowl. “Where’ve you kept yourself the last few years? You never say where you’re calling from.”
“Nowhere in particular.”
“A wetback I know swore he saw you about a year ago outside a motel in Sweetwater. I told him he was crazy. I said you probably weren’t even on this side of the country.”
Troy let his gaze climb the tower, hinging his head back to follow its latticework into the sky, where it appeared to undulate like a rope bridge.
“Your wetback was probably right,” he said. “A good deal of my work revolves around the West Texas hospitality industry.”
Harlan laughed, a noise that managed to sound forced and involuntary at the same time. “Your work my ass. I don’t know how you’ve stayed around here without somebody recognizing you, catching up to you.”
“I don’t stick around anywhere long enough,” Troy said. “But you know what’s funny? People don’t pay much attention to people in motels. They just assume they’re strangers they’ll never see again. Maybe wetbacks pay more attention because people never notice them, either.”
Harlan ate rapidly, noisily. “Maybe,” he said with his mouth full. “And maybe you’re just lucky like you always were.”
He gathered up the dishes and reflexively turned on the television, which came to life in the middle of some kind of cheap-looking Western movie. On the screen, two men were having a fistfight that ended with one of the men, a lone gunfighter—he looked like a gunfighter, anyway, because of his black gloves and sleeve garters—stumbling across an expanse of desert sand, cradling his bloodied gun hand. The sound was off, so Troy couldn’t figure out exactly what was going on.
“When does this thing get powered up?” he asked, looking at the base of the tower, which tapered to a single, almost balletic point, poised on a ceramic insulator that resembled a giant lozenge.
Harlan crowded past Troy, bound for the stock tank with his coffeepot and an armful of dishes. “There ain’t been a signal out of here in two years—the little country-and-western station that had it went under. The company hired me to come out here and check on the place because high school kids were busting in at night to drink beer and screw each other, God knows what else, dope I imagine. When I first came it looked like somebody’d slaughtered something in the shack—took me two days to clean it up.”
He slowed at the grassless lunette swept out by tires at the head of the dirt road. “As soon as they know I’m gone they’ll be back out here like a shot, the shaggy little sons of bitches. But maybe I won’t need it by the time we get back.”
“?‘We’ isn’t coming back,” Troy said. “If we find her, I’m on my way again, back to regular programming.”
A quarter of a mile out a crop duster crossed low in the sky heading east, a single-engine Piper that looked and sounded like a yellow jacket. It was close enough that they could see the head of the pilot inside. The plane momentarily dipped a wing but Harlan just followed it with his eyes and didn’t raise a hand to return the greeting. Troy turned to look at the Nova—such a ludicrous lump of shit-brown metal, sitting right out in plain view—and wondered what a crop duster was doing in the sky in November.
“We’ve got to hit the road today, Harlan,” Troy yelled over the receding drone of the airplane’s engine.
Harlan headed toward the tank, talking as he walked away. “What else are we going to do, sit around here and play catch-up? I need an hour to break the place down. Stow your things—whoever’s things they are—in the truck bed. Then you can follow me out into the pasture. We’ll put that car down behind a windbreak and pull off the plates, cover it with brush . . . That’s how you and your boys would handle it, ain’t it?”
“No boys, Harlan,” Troy said. “Only me. And that’s what I’d do.”
Sept. 5, 1972
The first time I stole a vehicle it was just an old tractor, a dirt-red Allis-Chalmers diesel. I was seventeen. It was so easy I think it ruined me. Nobody locks a tractor, there’s no key. Just a soot-blackened starter button and a choke and it shudders to life like an earthquake, like it was planning to all along.
I took it one night to get to the state line bar west of Bronco, to work out a bootlegging run I had planned for rodeo weekend with two older boys. (We lived in a dry county bordered closely by a wet state, a piece of geographic luck that presented moneymaking opportunities.) Nobody could come get me and I wasn’t about to walk the two miles from my uncle’s, where I was plowing that summer. So I took the tractor and parked it behind a windbreak ridge a hundred yards from the bar and then drove it back to the spot behind the old hand’s trailer where he was keeping it.
It wasn’t his tractor anyway—the bank had been trying to repossess it for a month. But I treated it as if it were my very own, I think mostly because I’d already anticipated how satisfying it would feel to take something with impunity, to be in sole possession of the knowledge of my act. I guess I always knew I would be good at it.
I left Texas in my early twenties to see if I could make it somewhere else, learn something about the world. I bumped through Tucson and San Diego, then Sacramento and up north as far as Spokane and Seattle. I found legitimate work here and there but I ended up mostly robbing houses until my nerves couldn’t take it anymore; I understood why so many house burglars became drunks and drug addicts. Automobiles were easier and the money was better. From the beginning I liked everything about the business of stealing them.
Almost as much as horses were in previous centuries, automobiles are essential for livelihood in the West, and when I consider the comparison I focus gratefully on the fact that progress has led to the discontinuation of capital punishment for the act of stealing something so vital.
When I first got into the business I apprenticed the way people in legal occupations do. My first job was a body shop in Hobbs, New Mexico, working for a man who had been pointed out to me as someone in need of specialized automotive work. By my mid-twenties I ran in the kinds of circles where I heard about openings like that. As you might expect, this one required no automotive skill beyond taking a car apart, though I ended up doing little of that. I was the go-getter, the night man.
The station was owned by an ex-cowhand named Jim Quaintance, who had run cattle and then hired on with a sheriff’s department before realizing that his temperament favored the other side of the law. His violent days were mostly behind him, but he kept a short-barreled shotgun on hooks beneath the cash register just in case.
He worked me like a sighthound. I’d come into the station in the evening, and by nightfall I was roaming the streets with a rider to take my car when I found another. Those were the golden years—so many doors so innocently unlocked, so many keys in the ignition for the turning. My only adversaries were dogs and insomniacs, but even at that age I had a second sense for them, lying in wait for me out in the darkness.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for Presidio includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Randy Kennedy. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Presidio is the darkly comic story of three unlikely travel companions whose lives take a fateful turn in one Texas parking lot. Car thief Troy Falconer returns home after years of wandering to reunite with his younger brother, Harlan. The two set out in search of Harlan’s wife, Bettie, who has left him and taken the little money he had. When an act of car theft accidentally turns into a kidnapping, the brothers’ plan to find Bettie quickly spins out of control.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel has three epigraphs, from the poet John Ashbery, the novelist Clarice Lispector, and the artist Robert Smithson. How did these inform your reading of the novel? Did you read them again once you finished reading? Did their meaning change?
2. What is your first impression of Troy? Is he a reliable narrator?
3. Troy’s “notes for the police” are also a journal of sorts. Why do you think he writes these? What do they lend to the story? What do they reveal about him? Is Troy ultimately more a writer than he is a thief?
4. Troy, Harlan, Martha, and Bettie all have suffered the loss of a parent—even though Martha’s parents don’t die, and she is taken from her mother and later separated from her father. How do these losses affect the actions of each character?
5. Troy meets someone who says he can help him disappear, legally, from society (pg. 13). In today’s culture, where personal privacy is under siege, does this longing to hide out, to disappear from view, resonate with you?
6. Harlan says Troy has always been lucky. Do you agree with him? Why might it appear that way from Harlan’s point of view?
7. When Harlan’s truck breaks down in the grocery store parking lot, Troy decides to steal a station wagon. Why does Harlan decide to get in the car with his brother? Would you have gotten into the station wagon too? Why does Martha, hidden in the back, remain quiet and out of sight as the brothers drive off with her?
8. In one of Troy’s notes, he tells the story of how his mother dies. He says that Harlan carries great guilt, but does Troy carry resentment toward his brother? Discuss Troy and Harlan’s relationship. Is there love between the brothers?
9. Although we don’t see a lot of Bettie, her initial meeting with Troy puts in motion a series of events. Is Bettie the ultimate con artist, or are the brothers easy targets? Does it seem possible that the brothers would be able to track Bettie down?
10. Troy writes, “After working for so long to live a life with my eyes open, I let myself fall into the kind of delusion where you don’t just get a few things wrong” (pg. 153). What is he referring to? Where do things start to go wrong for Troy?
11. One of the people Troy encounters is a truck driver who gives him shelter for the night. What did you make of their encounter? How does the story of the truck driver and his wife relate to Troy? Were you familiar with the Biblical story of Uzzah? Why does this story bother Troy?
12. Martha is a quiet character, but she is very strong and smart. How does her will help her in the situation with Troy and Harlan? Do you expect her to escape, and how?
13. Trust and betrayal are major themes in Presidio. Does Troy trust Bettie, does Harlan trust Troy, does Martha trust the brothers? What foundation of trust is there for each character?
14. Aron and Bill Ray are complicated men raising children on their own, though under different circumstances. Are they good fathers? How are they different? How are they the same?
15. Discuss misfortune and luck in the novel. What do these mean for each character?
16. Martha makes two phone calls. Whom does she call? What does she say?
17. The climax of the novel takes place at a diner in Presidio. Were you expecting such a standoff? Was there another possible ending? What meaning does this lend to the title?
18. Troy shares the story of the last house he ever robbed, before giving up home burglary for good. What remorse does Troy feel? Why do you think it doesn’t change his criminal ways altogether?
19. The novel ends with one of Troy’s notes, in which he describes a dream. He writes, “Sitting here brings back a dream I used to have when I was young, a dream that seemed very real even though almost nothing happened in it.” In the dream, he discovers a previously unknown part of the tiny town where he lived, and the discovery makes him very happy. What do you make of this ending? Is this a metaphor for Troy’s life, for the decision he made at the end of the book?
20. Discuss the idea of home in the novel. Where does each character find home? What does it mean to each character? Is any character at home with who they are?
21. Discuss Troy’s monklike desire to be a man without possessions. Why does he shun ownership and consumer culture? Does late capitalism force us to define ourselves too fully by our possessions and status as consumers? Do Troy and Martha share common ground in their outlook toward material culture?
22. Discuss the religious overtones of the novel. In the overnight scene in the truck, the driver, a former preacher, says: “I believe in sin and I believe in bad luck and sometimes I think the second doesn’t have anything to do with the first.” Do you believe in the concept of sin? Do you agree with the trucker?
23. Discuss the book’s stark setting, which serves as a major character in itself. The Panhandle of Texas was once the Comancheria, the hunting grounds of the Comanche tribes, before the buffalo were slaughtered and the tribes forced off their lands and into reservations. Do you get a sense of their history and their absence from the land? Do you think this is a kind of landscape that should have been permanently settled? Does this settlement say anything about the concept of Manifest Destiny and the American frontier?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. How familiar are you with Texas? Go to Google Maps and look up some of the places Troy passes through in the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico: Clovis, Lubbock, Odessa, Fort Sumner, Amarillo, Tahoka, Bronco. Who in your book club has been to any of these towns? Had you ever heard of the mesa land in Texas called the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains)?
2. Martha is a Mennonite. How much do you know about Mennonites? Did you know there is a large population of Mennonites in northern Mexico? How did they come to be there? Visit Wikipedia or your local library to learn more.
3. Troy steals what would now be vintage cars. Look up some of the models mentioned in the book: 1938 Diamond T pickup, 1965 Chevy Nova, Coronet Brougham, Chrysler Newport, Ford Country Squire station wagon, 1950 Ford Business Coupe. What are they worth now?
4. The book’s climax takes place at a small-town diner. What better place to have your book club meeting than at your local diner!
A Conversation with Randy Kennedy
What was your inspiration for Presidio? Was the story based on real events?
For many years, I’d had the figure of a car thief in my head as a quintessential character of the New West. In the Old West, the horse thief was the lowest, most vile criminal—if you stole someone’s horse you stole all means of livelihood, and if caught you were, probably rightfully, hung. Stealing a car isn’t quite as despicable, but almost. In the part of Texas where I was raised—an isolated stretch of the southern Panhandle, a vast flatland called the Llano Estacado, or the staked plains—if you didn’t have a car you were pretty much a noncitizen, a nonentity. The novel is about the isolation and harshness of that land, and its history back to the Comanche tribes and earlier. Thinking about that part of the country as among the last places where the frontier closed, the book is also about a certain suspicion of the ways in which success and happiness have been defined in America in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I’ve never known a car thief, but in Troy, my thief, I dreamed of a character who had stopped wanting most of the things Americans are supposed to want. This grew out of a conviction, which began dawning on me in my late thirties, that most of my adult life had been shaped by a world that was training me to become a more efficient consumer and a more efficient worker, in that order. I wanted a character who attempts a jailbreak from that kind of life, however ineptly, in search of more meaning and deeper human connections. I once told my editor, Trish Todd, that this book was essentially about late capitalism and religious longing. She wisely told me that I should probably come up with a snappier synopsis.
You were born, and grew up, in Texas, where Presidio is set. Did you travel at all while writing this novel? Did you stay at any motels as research?
I feel as if I’ve been doing research for this book at least since high school, in a small town in the Texas Panhandle where I was raised and where the novel is mainly set. But I began in earnest to learn more about that part of Texas and to collect details for writing about a decade ago, on trips back home to see family, and on one solitary research trip that took me from Midland, Texas, on a meandering path to the border at Presidio. I stayed in motels along the way and ate in diners and talked to strangers and kept good notes. When I was a child, my family would take days-long road trips across the West from Texas to Seattle, where my mother’s family lived. Those trips and the motels along the route still loom large in my memory and contributed to the feel of the book.
This is your first novel, but you’ve had a very long career as a writer. Did you always want to write a novel? Was your writing process different from short form or nonfiction?
I’ve wanted to write a novel since I was about twelve. One of the reasons it took so long is that for twenty-five years I worked as a staff writer at the New York Times, where the pace was rarely ever less than exhausting. So I really did write fiction mostly from midnight to two a.m. and on weekends or when I was supposed to be on deadline for a news story. But this first novel was also a long time in coming simply because it took years for me to be able to write something that made me happy, that I myself would want to read. I came across a comment once by the French writer Theophile Gautier, who said that his sentences were as agile as cats—if he threw them up in the air they always landed on their feet. My sentences, as least as far as fiction is concerned, are more like newborn puppies. I have to treat them with extreme care and it takes a while for them to learn how to walk. On a day-to-day basis, making the transition from journalism to fiction was always tough. One of my favorite short story writers, Barry Hannah, said that writing fiction is like getting into a trance, and that was exactly how it felt for me. The good trances came on haphazardly and usually late at night. Maybe it’s why so many of the encounters that Troy, my main character, experiences take place in the wee hours, when he’s alone.
Troy Falconer is a car thief. In the novel, we learn about several of the cars he steals, all American made and no longer in production. Are you a car enthusiast? Did you own any of those classics?
A funny thing about this book is that I really don’t have any love of cars—I haven’t owned one in almost twenty-seven years, since I left Texas to move to New York—but I had to learn a tremendous amount about classic cars of the 1960s and 1970s to write this. Every car that Troy steals is a make no longer in production—so, essentially, an extinct species. And some of the specific makes meant a lot to me: the car that Bettie drives when Troy first meets her is the alpine white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T that Barry Newman drives in the 1971 classic Vanishing Point. The black 1950 Ford Business Coupe that Troy steals outside of Kermit, Texas, is the car, for example, that Robert Frank used to drive across the country to shoot the seminal photo book The Americans. And the car that Troy steals only to find a trunk filled with expensive rare books was, in my mind, owned by Larry McMurtry, who was making his living at that point in the 1970s partly as a book dealer.
Troy meets some interesting people along his travels. Were any of these based on encounters in your own life?
My aunt and uncle owned the struggling motel in the town where I was raised—Plains, Texas, population about 1,500—and I remember vividly some of the down-and-outers, hopped-up long-haul truckers, lonely traveling salesmen, and migrant workers who passed through the rooms there. The book is also very much about the world of my father, a telephone lineman who was born and raised in that part of Texas. He was never a thief and never hung around with any serious ones, but several of his friends were what we called rounders, men who were cocky and flashy and seemed slightly dangerous to me. Bill Ray, the father of my main character, is that kind of man, but one who ends up being crushed by loss. His sons, Troy and Harlan, inherit that loss in different ways.
Martha is a very strong young girl. Was she an easy character for you to write?
I have a daughter who is also a very strong young girl, but she was tiny when I began to write the character of Martha. I don’t know exactly where Martha came from. I grew up around Mennonites, and I’ve always wanted to write about them, but Martha ended up feeling as if she had somehow sprung fully formed from my mind. She was the easiest character to write. I always knew what she was going to say and do. She was a kind of miracle and I want to write about her again.
You live in New York now. Do you consider yourself a New Yorker? Do you think you will write a novel set in New York?
I have lived in New York for twenty-seven years, longer than I ever lived in Texas and it’s my home. I love it all out of proportion. But I’m not sure I will ever write a novel set in New York. It’s been mythologized so thoroughly over the last century and a half. I’ve always gravitated toward novelists and short story writers who write about people living not just on the margins but well beyond them, often rural people whose lives don’t get turned into fiction nearly as frequently as big-city lives do, especially as the country (and the world) urbanizes—tough, funny writers like Lucia Berlin, Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, Annie Proulx, and Barry Hannah.
Martha is a Mennonite. How much did you know about Mennonites before writing Presidio? Was there research you did to make her character more authentic?
I grew up around Mennonite farm and ranch workers who came to West Texas from the Chihuahuan desert in Mexico, where large groups of Mennonites had migrated from Canada in the early part of the twentieth century. The groups I knew were probably less conservative and isolated than the Mennonites in Mexico, but they still held themselves apart from secular society, schooling their children privately and living mostly outside of towns. I grew up a Southern Baptist and I was fascinated by this group of religious adherents who were in many ways not much different from believers I knew, yet vastly different in how their beliefs shaped their lives. Over many years as I wrote the novel, I read deeply about Mennonite life. The book that was most helpful is a marvelously well-written 1971 history of the Mennonite migration to Mexico, They Sought a Country: Mennonite Colonization in Mexico, by Harry Leonard Sawatzky.
Presidio has a very cinematic feel. It’s reminiscent of The Grifters, No Country for Old Men, and Hell or High Water. It was inspired in part by 1970s road movies like Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point. Who could you see cast as Troy and Harlan?
A tough question. If it were the early 1970s, I’d say Warren Oates as Troy and Slim Pickens as Harlan, playing serious instead of comic. Now, maybe Joaquin Phoenix as Troy and Michael Shannon as Harlan, with Chris Cooper as the older version of the father, Bill Ray. Gina Rodriguez, from Jane the Virgin, would make a fantastic Bettie.
In one of the cars he steals, Troy finds a collection of rare books. He keeps a trilogy of Western novels.Did you read any Westerns while working on this novel? Is the Western a genre you enjoy?
A. Growing up, I read mostly science fiction and then started mainlining classic American and European literature. But I worked after school in a county library, so I was always familiar with the big Western novelists like Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, and Elmer Kelton (who I knew lived not far away, in San Angelo, Texas.) I remember a tall ranch hand with a waxed handlebar mustache who came into the library every month on a furlough from whatever remote ranch he was working. He would check out a dozen Westerns and fill a paper grocery bag with them and walk out with the bag tucked under his arm, the happiest cowboy on the planet. I wrote this novel hoping that it would appeal as much to the small-town Texas people I grew up with as to readers in New York or other cities who have never set foot in Texas, much less rural America.
Larry McMurtry wrote about you, saying, “Let’s hope he keeps his novelistic cool and brings us much, much more.” We agree! What can we expect from you next?
I am working on another novel, this one set partly in the art world. For more than a decade I wrote about art for the New York Times and now I work in publications for an international art gallery, so I’ve wanted for years to write about an artist and about the hazy borders between rationality and delirium in the making of art. The setting will be a mental hospital in the Sacramento Valley in California.
Randy Kennedy was born in San Antonio, Texas, and raised in Plains, a small farming town in the Texas Panhandle, where his father worked as a telephone lineman and his mother as a teachers’ aide. He was educated at the University of Texas at Austin. He moved to New York City in 1991 and worked for twenty-five years as a staff member and writer for The New York Times, first as a city reporter and for many years covering the art world. His first novel, Presidio, hailed as a "rich and rare book" by novelist Annie Proulx, was published in 2018 by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. A collection of his city columns, Subwayland: Adventures in the World Beneath New York, was published in 2004. For The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine he has written about many of the most prominent artists of the last 50 years, including John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Nan Goldin, Paul McCarthy and Isa Genzken. He is currently director of special projects for the international art gallery Hauser & Wirth. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Janet Krone Kennedy, a clinical psychologist, and their two children.
"Here is a rich and rare book. Reader, if you like poor Texas boys gone bad (or not bad enough), landscapes so accurate in detail you feel you grew up there, coldly logical Mennonite girls with outcast Manitoban-Mexican papas, magnetic details about old cars, the finer points of an automobile-thieving, and a magisterial use of italics you will want to read this novel through twice in a row as I did. It is a hard picture of the choices offered to poor Texas youths in the 1960s and ’70s. You might say it shakes out as a weird combination of Canterbury Tales, Breaking Bad and À la recherche du temps perdu with a dash of Confederacy of Dunces, but it is brilliantly original. You will laugh, you will cry and you will read it again straight through to enjoy the fine points of marvelous writing. There is nothing out there like Presidio." —Annie Proulx, author of Barkskins
"Presidio is set in what I think of as Max Crawford Country—the bleak dreamscape around the edges of the Caprock, where life is, to say the least—gritty. Randy Kennedy captures the funny yet tragic relentlessness of survival in an unforgiving place. Let's hope he keeps his novelistic cool and brings us much, much more." —Larry McMurtry
"Randy Kennedy writes wonderful prose. He combines the detail and eye of a journalist with the lyricism of a poet. If you want to read about the real deal down in Texas, he's your man." —James Lee Burke, author of Robicheaux
"Randy Kennedy's Mexican-American frontier of the 1970s occupies the same dustblown landscape painted by Cormac McCarthy. Car thieves and drug dealers tumble together with Mennonites and luncheonette waitresses—all of them lightened by empty pockets, small dreams, and minimal futures. From these elements Kennedy assembles a gorgeously written narrative of outrunning violence and despair." —Carol Anshaw, author of Carry the One
“A fabulous novel, executed in rare and exquisite language, about two brothers and the tough little girl, (one of the most engaging fictional heroines in recent memory), they accidentally encounter on a hapless journey across Texas to recover some stolen money. Kennedy is truly the literary heir to Cormac McCarthy in his depiction of the vivid characters and sparsely beautiful landscape of the American West.” —Dinitia Smith, author of The Honeymoon
"An absolute marvel of a novel. Like a nesting doll, it continually uncovers stories within stories, each revealing the depth and humanity of its fascinating cast of characters. Kennedy has given us a wonderfully compelling portrait of the American West in the second half of the twentieth century, full of danger, humor, and surprises." —Ian Stansel, author of The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo
“Two estranged brothers and an unexpected passenger embark on a road trip through Texas to recover stolen money in this strong debut… Kennedy has a fertile imagination he lets drift into many beguiling detours, and the writing sparkles throughout.”
– Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"In this stellar debut....Kennedy soberly etches a Texas landscape of violence and despair as vividly as anything by Larry McMurtry."
– Publishers Weekly
"A fluent, mordant, authentic, propulsive narrative wonderfully lit from within by an intriguing main character...The Texas of the novel...has been written about before, and very well. Kennedy rises to the challenge and succeeds so well that Larry McMurtry and James Lee Burke have offered their praise."
– Lee Child, The New York Times Book Review
"Stunning....Kennedy is a masterful landscape builder, with descriptions so sharp it's hard not to taste the gas fumes."
– Interview Magazine
"With the right person at the wheel, some of the best road trips go nowhere in particular. Those winding up at a dead end can be most entertaining of all. Count Randy Kennedy’s striking debut novel, “Presidio,” in that number. Set in the latter months of 1972, “Presidio” is first-rate Lone Star noir: haunted by fate, gritty with regret, told with dusty elegance and dark humor."