The driver pops the hand brake. As the vehicle angles off the shoulder and onto the pavement, the tires cast loose stones that rattle like dice into the darkness.
The truck rolls southwest into the night, with the twin fuses on the blacktop raveling longer in its wake, and utility poles, carrying electric and telephone wires, seem to march like soldiers toward a battleground beyond the horizon.
Among mounds of blankets and saddlery, swathed in the cozy odors of felt and sheepskin and fine leather and saddle soap-and not least of all in the curiously comforting, secondhand scent of horses- the motherless boy and the ragtag dog huddle together. They are bonded by grievous loss and by a sharp instinct for survival, traveling into an unknown land, toward an unknowable future.
WEDNESDAY, after a fruitless day of job-seeking, Micky Bell-song returned to the trailer park, where much of the meager landscaping drooped wearily under the scorching sun and the rest appeared to be withered beyond recovery. The raging tornadoes that routinely sought vulnerable trailer parks across the plains states were unknown here in southern California, but summer heat made these blighted streets miserable enough until the next earthquake could do a tornado's work.
Aunt Geneva's aged house trailer looked like a giant oven built for the roasting of whole cows, in multiples. Perhaps a malevolent sun god lived in the metal walls, for the air immediately around the place shimmered as if with the spirits of attending demons.
Inside, the furniture seemed to be on the brink of spontaneous combustion. The sliding windows were open to admit a draft, but the August day declined the invitation to provide a breeze.
In her tiny bedroom, Micky kicked off her toe-pinching high heels. She stripped out of her cheap cotton suit and pantyhose.
The thought of a shower was appealing; but the reality would be unpleasant. The cramped bathroom had only a small window, and in this heat, the roiling steam wouldn't properly vent.
She slipped into white shorts and a sleeveless Chinese-red blouse. In the mirror on the back of the bedroom door, she looked better than she felt.
At one time, she'd been proud of her beauty. Now she wondered why she had taken so much pride in something that required no effort, no slightest sacrifice.
Over the past year, with as much mulish resistance as the most obstinate creature ever to pull a plow, Micky had drawn herself to the unpleasant conclusion that her life to date had been wasted and that she was solely to blame for what she had become. The anger that she'd once directed at others had been turned upon herself.
Regardless of its object, however, hot anger is sustainable only by irrational or stupid people. Micky was neither. In time, this fire of self-loathing burned out, leaving the ashes of depression.
Depression passed, too. Lately she had made her way from day to day in a curious and fragile state of expectancy.
After giving her good looks, fate had never again been generous. Consequently, Micky wasn't able to identify a reason for this almost sweet anticipation. Defensively, she tempered it with wariness.
Nevertheless, during the week that she'd been staying with Aunt Gen, she awakened each morning with the conviction that change was coming and that it would be a change for the better.
Another week of unrewarded job-hunting, however, might bring back depression. Also, more than once during the day, she'd been troubled by a new version of her former rage; this sullen resentment wasn't as hot as her anger had been in the past, but it had the potential to quicken. The long day of rejection left her weary in body, mind, and spirit. And her emotional unsteadiness scared her.
Barefoot, she went into the kitchen, where Geneva was preparing dinner. A small electric fan, set on the kitchen floor, churned the hot air with less cooling effect than might be produced by a wooden spoon stirring the contents of a bubbling soup pot.
Because of the criminal stupidity and stupid criminality of California's elected officials, the state had suffered electricity shortages early in the summer, and in an overreaction to the crisis had piled up surpluses of power at grossly high prices. Utility rates had soared. Geneva couldn't afford to use the air conditioning.
As Aunt Gen sprinkled Parmesan cheese over a bowl of cold pasta salad, she served up a smile that could have charmed the snake of Eden into a mood of benign companionship. Gen's once golden hair was pale blond now, streaked with gray. Yd because she'd grown plump with age, her face was smooth; coppery freckles and lively green eyes testified to the abiding presence of the young girl thriving in the sixty-year-old woman. "Micky, sweetie, did you have a good day?"
"Sucky day, Aunt Gen."
"That's a word I never know whether to be embarrassed about."
"I didn't realize anyone got embarrassed about anything anymore. In this case, it just means 'as bad as a sucking chest wound.' "
"Ah. Then I'm not embarrassed, just slightly sickened. Why don't you get a glass of cold lemonade, honey? I made fresh."
"What I really need is a beer."
"There's also beer. Your uncle Vernon liked two icy beers more evenings than not."
Aunt Gen didn't drink beer. Vernon had been dead for eighteen years. Still, Geneva kept his favorite brand in the refrigerator, and if no one drank it, she periodically replaced it with new stock when its freshness date had passed.
Although conceding the game to Death, she remained determined not to let Death also take sweet memories and long-kept traditions in addition to his prize of flesh.
Micky popped open a can of Budweiser. "They think the economy's going down the drain."
"Who does, dear?"
"Everyone I talked to about a job."
Having set the pasta salad on the dinette table, Geneva began slicing roasted chicken br**sts for sandwiches. "Those people are just pessimists. The economy's always going down the drain for some folks, but it's a warm bath for others. You'll find work, sweetie."
The beer provided icy solace. "How do you stay so upbeat?"
Focused on the chicken, Geneva said, "Easy. I just look around."
Micky looked around. "Sorry, Aunt Gen, but all I see is a poky little trailer kitchen so old the gloss is worn off the Formica."
"Then you don't know how to look yet, honey. There's a dish of pickles, some olives, a bowl of potato salad, a tray of cheese, and other stuff in the fridge. Would you put everything on the table?"
Extracting the cheese tray from the refrigerator, Micky said, "Are you cooking for a cellblock full of condemned men or something?"
Geneva set a platter of sliced chicken on the table. "Didn't you notice-we have three place settings this evening?"
"A dinner guest?"
A knock answered the question. The back door stood open to facilitate air circulation, so Leilani Klonk rapped on the jamb.
"Come in, come in, get out of that awful heat," Geneva said, as if the sweltering trailer were a cool oasis
Backlit by the westering sun, wearing khaki shorts and a white T-shirt with a small green heart embroidered on the left breast, Leilani entered in a rattle and clatter of steely leg brace, though she had climbed the three back steps with no noise.
This had been worse than a sucky day. The language necessary to describe Micky's job search in its full dreadfulness would not merely have embarrassed Aunt Geneva; it would have shocked and appalled her. Therefore, at the arrival of the disabled girl, Micky was surprised to feel the same buoying expectation that had kept her from drowning in self-pity since she'd moved in here.
"Mrs. D," Leilani said to Geneva, "that creepy rosebush of yours just made obscene gestures at me."
Geneva smiled. "If there was an altercation, dear, I'm sure you started it."
With the thumb on her deformed hand, Leilani gestured toward Geneva, and said to Micky, "She's an original. Where'd you find her?"
"She's my father's sister, so she was part of the deal."
"Bonus points," said Leilani. "Your dad must be great."
"Why would you think so?"
"His sister's cool."
Micky said, "He abandoned my mother and me when I was three."
"That's tough. But my useless dad skipped the day I was born."
"I didn't know we were in a rotten-dad contest."
"At least my real dad isn't a murderer like my current pseudo-father-or as far as I know, he isn't. Is your dad a murderer?"
"I lose again. He's just a selfish pig."
"Mrs. D, you don't mind she- calls your brother a selfish pig?" "Sadly, dear, it's true."
"So you aren't just bonus points, Mrs. D. You're like this terrific prize that turned up in a box of rancid old Cracker Jack."
Geneva beamed. "That's so sweet, Leilani. Would you like some fresh lemonade?"
Indicating the can of Budweiser on the table, the girl said, "If beer's good enough for Micky, it's good enough for me." Geneva poured lemonade. "Pretend it's Budweiser." To Micky, Leilani said, "She thinks I'm a child." "You are a child."
"Depends on your definition of child." "Anyone twelve or younger."
"Oh, that's sad. You resorted to an arbitrary number. That reveals a shallow capacity for independent thought and analysis."
"Okay," said Micky, "then try this one on for size. You're a child because you don't yet have boobs."
Leilani winced. "Unfair. You know that's one of my sore points." "No sore points. No points at all," Micky observed. "Flat as a slice of the Swiss cheese on that platter."
"Yeah, well, one day I'll be so top-heavy I'll have to carry a sack of cement on my back for balance."
To Micky, Aunt Gen said, "Isn't she something?" "She's an absolute, no-doubt-about-it, fine young mutant." "Dinner's ready," Geneva announced. "Cold salads and sandwich fixings. Not very fancy, but right for the weather."
"Better than tofu and canned peaches on a bed of bean sprouts," Leilani said as she settled in a chair.
"What wouldn't be?" Geneva wondered.
"Oh, lots of things. Old Sinsemilla may be a lousy mother, but she can take pride in being an equally lousy cook."
Switching off the overhead lights to save money and to avoid adding heat to the kitchen, Geneva said, "We'll use candles later."
Now, at seven o'clock, the summer-evening sun was red-gold and still so fierce at the open window that the shadows, which draped but didn't cool the kitchen, were no darker than lavender and umber.
Seated, bowing her head, Geneva offered a succinct but heart felt prayer: "Thank you, God, for providing us with all we need and for giving us the grace to be satisfied with what we have."
"I've got trouble with the satisfied part," Leilani said.
Micky reached across the dinette table, and the girl responded without hesitation: They slapped palms in a modified high-five.
"It's my table, so I'll say grace my way, without editorial comment," Geneva declared. "And when I'm drinking pina coladas on a palm-shaded terrace in Heaven, what will they be serving in Hell?"
"Probably this lemonade," said Leilani.
Spooning pasta salad onto her plate, Micky said, "So, Leilani, you and Aunt Gen have been hanging out?"
"Most of the day, yeah. Mrs. D is teaching me all about sex."
"Girl, don't say such things!" Geneva admonished. "Someone will believe you. We were playing five-hundred rummy."
"I would have let her win," said Leilani, "out of courtesy and respect for her advanced age, but before I had a chance, she won by cheating."
"Aunt Gen always cheats," Micky confirmed.
"Good thing we weren't playing Russian roulette," Leilani said. "My brains would be all over the kitchen."
"I don't cheat." Gen's sly look was worthy of a Mafia accountant testifying before a congressional committee. "I just employ advanced and complex techniques."
"When you notice those pina coladas are garnished with live, poisonous centipedes," Micky warned, "maybe you'll realize your palm-shaded terrace isn't in Heaven."
Aunt Gen used a paper napkin to blot her brow. "Don't flatter yourself that I'm sweating with guilt. It's the heat."
Leilani said, "This is great potato salad, Mrs. D."
"Thank you. Are you sure your mother wouldn't like to join us?"
"No. She's wasted on crack coc**ne and hallucinogenic mushrooms. The only way old Sinsemilla could get here is crawl, and if she tried to eat anything in her condition, she'd just puke it up."
Geneva frowned at Micky, and Micky shrugged. She didn't know whether these tales of Sinsemilla's debauchery were truth or fantasy, although she suspected wild exaggeration. Tough talk and wisecracks
could be a cover for low self esteem. From childhood at least through adolescence, Micky herself had been Familiar with that strategy.
"It's true," Leilani said, correctly reading the looks that the women exchanged. "We've only lived beside you three days. Give old Sinsemilla a little time, and you'll see."
"Drugs do terrible damage," Aunt Gen said with sudden solemnity. "I was in love with this man in Chicago once. . . ." "Aunt Gen," Micky cautioned.
Sadness found a surprisingly easy purchase in Geneva's smooth, fair, freckled face. "He was so handsome, so sensitive-"
Sighing, Micky got up to retrieve a second beer from the refrigerator.
"_but he was on the needle," Geneva said. "Heroin. A loser in everyone's eyes but mine. I just knew he could be redeemed."
"That's monumentally romantic, Mrs. D, but as my mother's proved with numerous doper boyfriends, it always ends badly with junkies."
"Not in this case," said Geneva. "I saved him." "You did? How?"
"Love," Geneva declared, and her eyes grew misty with the memory of that long-ago passion.
Popping open a Budweiser, Micky returned to her chair. "Aunt Gen, this sensitive junkie from Chicago . . . wasn't he Frank Sinatra?"