“Hell’s Half Acre, huh?” Helen squinted. “Cute.” She wiggled her toes in the sun on the dash. “Fort Worth was nothing like what I expected.”
Adam gripped the wheel and held it steady. “There’s a Devil’s Backyard out here, too,” he said. “It’s farther on.”
Helen was busy taking it all in. “It’s like another world,” she said. It was her first time west of East Texas. “Love it love it love it!”
Adam stared a little glumly through the windshield and gave the car more gas. “You ought to try growing up out here.” The sun came off his sunglasses from time to time in her direction, causing her to turn away. She gave no indication she was as bothered by the heat as he had expected her to be. The clear blue sky was endless, and the infernal, heat-beaten land flowed past them like the current of an extinct river.
Helen slouched deep down in her seat. “I’d take this kind of wide-open space over city life any old day,” she asserted. “I don’t care what you say.”
Adam shook his head. “I figured the city was starting to get to you,” he said. “I just never thought I’d hear you say it.”
She slid on her sunglasses. “I never said that. It’s just that this,” she said, surveying their surrounds, “this feels really special.”
It would be over an hour before they reached another town. They might not encounter another vehicle in all that time. West Texas distances were like that. It was a notion that had to be dealt with. Even if the antenna weren't broken there were no airwaves to tap into. All sorts of time.
“That waitress back there was something else. How bout some more of this good good coffee,” he said in a twangy falsetto voice. “How does that grab y’all? She really rubbed me the wrong way.”
Helen giggled. “I thought it was sweet.”
Adam bounced his palm rhythmically on the steering wheel to no audible music. “Lone Star hospitality run amok.”
Helen reached over and patted his leg lovingly. A kangaroo rat darted in front of the car and was consumed beneath the tires with a quick, hard thump. “Oh, honey,” she said, flexing her toes. “How awful.”
“She was something else all right,” he said.
The road took a series of dips where seasonal flash floods liked to wash across. When the rains came to these parts they came with a vengeance. Next to the asphalt at the trough of each dip was a flood gauge that measured three, four, even six feet deep. That kind of water, here, in this kind of place, was hard to imagine.
“I can’t wait to meet your mom,” said Helen. “When is she expecting us?”
Adam cringed. “With me she knows better,” he said.
“Really?” said Helen. “Did you tell her you were bringing someone?”
“Not exactly,” he said with a private chuckle. “She half-thinks you’re a figment.”
An early nighthawk swooped down before the car and never came back up. Helen looked at Adam then at her fingernails.
“Dumb animals,” he muttered.
The chiseled landscape passed them by like an endless array of drab backdrops pulled differently along, a hastily sketched panorama of mesas and bluffs and insinuated floodplains. In the foreground clumps of scrub brush sprouted populously from the earth and stood like singed fists, stooping with the secret weight of something held onto.
“Last night was nice,” she said. “That little motel was like something out of a movie.” Her head rolled against the headrest and her neck arched and undulated with a slow swallow. The earth gave up its heat in shimmering waves.
“Can you believe we’re still in Texas?” he said. “It’s like it never ends.” The sun was nearly through for the day, though the land would retain its heat long after dark.
“How long since you’ve been home?” she said.
His eyes swept back and forth, assessing the car’s progress. “Since dad died,” he said eventually. He spoke like his mind was a thousand miles away. “Wait,” he said, snapping back to the moment. “I came once since then.” He rubbed the back of his neck and raised and let fall his shoulders.
“Here,” she said. “Let me have the wheel.”
“I’m fine,” he said.
“You got us this far,” she said, unbuckling her seatbelt. “Here.”
They pulled over, and as Adam took the opportunity to pee Helen got behind the wheel and watched him. Looking down, he missed seeing the spotted fawn that was scared up by his presence. Adam got in the car and made himself comfortable with a towel for a pillow. He adjusted the seat and stretched his legs until his feet were flat against the firewall.
“I brought Sara out here,” he said as they pulled onto the empty highway. Helen said nothing for some time.
“What was that like?” she finally said.
“Mom was having a hard time at first, so we came out to give her a hand.” As he relaxed his voice grew thick. “It was like she’d forgotten how to do anything for herself.”
“Oh. Was she a long time like that?”
“Yeah. We had to put things aside for a while.” His head was turned halfway into the towel so that when he added, “What a nightmare,” it came out muffled.
“You mean your dad dying?”
“Huh? Oh yeah, that. But I was referring to the whole Sara thing.”
Helen shifted in her seat. “How did your mom deal with being all alone?”
“Well. It was hard seeing her like that. She had always been the strong one—even after all he put her through,” he said into the towel. “Once he was gone she just folded up into herself. Funny.”
“When was that?” said Helen.
“Last year,” he said. “Last summer, about this time.” Helen adjusted her hold on the wheel while Adam stretched like a cat and yawned languorously.
“Remember…” he mumbled. Minutes passed and she thought he must have fallen asleep.
“Remember what?” Helen ventured.
“It’s just… All those things people have in common,” he said. His eyes were barely open and his voice dragged. “You know, at first.” Trance-like, he eyed the road with calm consideration, like someone just entering a long tunnel trying to imagine what must lay on the other side.
“What about them?” Helen said.
“Where do they… go?” His voice sounded lost, alone in him. He reached over and roughly patted her hand. “Never mind me. I’m tired is all.” He attempted a smile. “Tired talk.” Helen began to count the number of times her chest rose and fell. Birds, she once read, breathe in and out at the same time.
Rounding a bend, she came up on an airfield where a stubby white blimp of an airship was moored to a towering mast. The ship stood out from the monochrome severity of the seared landscape like a Hollywood movie prop—a strange blemish on the earth. Its surface was impressed with running patterns that reminded her first of wind tunnel testing, then of fingerprints, then of an unfinished quilt. At that very moment it must have been released because suddenly it began to ascend rapidly like something with an earnest yearning to leave this planet far behind. A nondescript dirt road led from the highway toward the airfield. There was no gate, and if she had been alone she might have taken that road. A sign next to the dirt road showed the NASA logo and, next to that, in authoritative script and bold colors, a Department of Homeland Security seal. She monitored the receding image of the blimp first from the sideview mirror and later from the rearview, and finally she stopped looking back for it altogether. It never occurred to her to wake Adam, and she continued to think about the blimp long after it was out of sight.
“Careful!” Adam blurted, jarring himself awake with the sound of his own voice.
Helen casually checked the rearview.
“Where are we?” he said, rubbing his eyes, having no memory of his mid-sleep outburst.
“About an hour along,” she said, her voice distant, it seemed, though this fact did not sink in for him.
“Want me to take it from here?”
Helen pulled off the road and shifted the car into park. “It’s all yours.”
She adjusted the passenger seat and propped her feet on the dash and recalled the fawn running away, the stiff white flag of its tail shrinking into the distance. She wondered what it must be like to flee through desert vegetation, could almost feel the scratch and pull of the thorns on her skin. A billboard approached on her side. She latched her attention onto it, calling it to her like an object of desire. It materialized out of the distance as a weathered Dairy Queen advertisement for a place almost 200 miles down the road. Uppermost, perched atop the once crimson DQ logo now faded to the color of rain clouds, was a red-tailed hawk. It swiveled its head mechanically and she caught in stark profile the shredded remains of a small mammal dangling from its beak. She allowed the sight to pass into her and spark an appreciation for the distances at hand. She imagined her eyes were remote sensors, brain cells at the end of long stalks, almost independent of her. It was easy.
“Oh, great,” said Adam, glaring into the rearview. “A cop.”
Helen turned around and saw the officer behind them, as if he’d materialized from out of nowhere, motioning to one side. “He must’ve been behind that sign,” she said.
“What sign?” Adam said, pulling over. “What are you talking about?”
“How fast were you going?” she said.
“Why are you asking me? I was going however fast the nice trooper tells me I was going.” They both rolled down their windows. The waning sunlight reflected off the approaching officer’s badge, belt buckle, and gunmetal in a light show of radiant glints. What with his unhurried gait and his authoritative composure, the man gave off the air of something inexorable—the past catching up to you in the form of a lethal man-machine.
“Is there some kind of emergency here?” Pinned to his shirt pocket was a Don’t Mess With Texas button.
“No, there’s no emergency,” Adam said, rubbing his temple. He removed his sunglasses sluggishly. “At least I don’t think so.”
Helen leaned over, pressing her weight into Adam. “We were talking and he lost track of the speed is all.”
Adam fidgeted and Helen slid back over to her side. “I didn’t lose track of anything,” he said.
“Thank you, ma’am,” said the officer coldly. Helen propped an elbow on the window ledge and sniffed at the air outside. Something in the sideview mirror caught her eye. A pale shape far in the distance behind them was moving upward at an extraordinary rate of speed. The ghostly surveillance balloon ascended high into the atmosphere, like a random soul bound for Heaven.
“Can I see your license and insurance, please, sir,” said the officer. Adam opened the glove compartment and some papers fell out.
“Grab those,” said Adam. Helen ignored him, mesmerized. The balloon had vanished into the clouds, the silvery strand of its tether standing impossibly off the land in a farfetched curve that disappeared into the atmosphere, like a wispy umbilicus connecting mother earth to the celestial promise of new life.
“Never mind,” Adam mumbled, breathing out slowly and evenly.
“The reason I pulled you over is I’ve got you on radar at eighty-three.”
“Radar?” said Adam. He looked at the steering wheel where his hands had been when he was driving. Something was at work in his head. “Wait… you said you’ve got me on radar?”
“Yessir, that’s right,” said the officer, stone-faced. “You. On radar.” He held up the driver’s license so it was level with Adam’s face.
Adam stared at the floorboard. “He must be burning up in that uniform,” he whispered to Helen.
“No sir, as a matter of fact I’m not,” said the officer. “I’m comfortable as can be. Now would you mind stepping out of the vehicle, sir.” His words fell like pieces of steel.
“Yes, of course, officer,” said Adam sheepishly.
“Out of the vehicle, please.”
Suddenly the officer jumped back and tapped at his holster. He stared at the car near Adam’s door. “You see that?” he said.
“See what?” said Adam.
“I need you to stay in the vehicle, sir,” said the officer. He tucked Adam’s license and insurance card into the Don’t Mess With Texas pocket and backed away until he stood in the middle of the road. He crouched down and tossed some gravel under the car. “Stay right there in your vehicle, sir, and don't come out.” He approached Adam’s door, dropped down, and began to crawl underneath the car. Adam leaned out his window and saw the officer’s legs sticking out.
“Rabbits were all over the road,” Adam said, sounding a little frantic.
The officer’s legs kicked at the air to get him farther underneath the car and then stopped moving.
“I think I may’ve hit a few,” said Adam loudly, practically shouting.
“Well, I’ll be,” said the officer, his muted words emitting from beneath their very feet. He inched his way out and stood with his hands cupped and his sunglasses clinging crookedly to the tip of his nose. You could see the man’s wide, green eyes. His uniform looked relatively untidy now, and his face shone with beads of sweat. “Look here.” He pursed his lips and opened his hands and blew gently into them. Helen squeezed next to Adam on the seat and they brought their heads in close for a look.
“What is it?” said Helen.
“Albino horny toad,” said the officer. “Ran under your car just now.” He wielded the animal like a frail prize. “I’ve seen my share of these things but never come across an albino one.” His face was lit up. “They say they can shoot blood from their eyes, but I never saw one do it. Probably a myth is all.” With delicate confidence he gently pinched the smallish lifeform by the horns. “Watch this,” he said. With dramatic care, he removed his other hand from under the animal. Its body arched and became perfectly still, like the thing had been dipped in liquid nitrogen. “I remember, as a kid, I never saw anything like this right here,” he said. “You pick ‘em up by the horns and they just freeze up.” Its little pink tail pointed upward and nothing about it moved except for its eyes. The paralyzed reptile blinked at them. “Like magic,” said the pleased officer.
“Prestidigitation...” Adam murmured.
“Yes, sir. I’m familiar with the word,” said the officer as he eyed his rare prize. “They eat ants,” he said proudly, his voice infused with a quality like that of a child.
“Horned lizard,” Adam said.
“Say again?” said the smiling officer.
“They’re actually horned lizards.”
The officer’s rapt expression dissipated and was replaced by a brief look of intense puzzlement. He adjusted his sunglasses nervously and shot Helen a helpless look. Adam chewed on the inside of his cheek. The desert air held the three of them like souvenirs encased forever in acrylic, a living southwestern diorama.
“Yessir,” said the officer, his inflexible tone back in command. “Horned lizard.” He walked in front of the car and over to the roadside and squatted. The lizard lay flat on the ground and brought its small white horned head straight up. It scampered a short ways, then turned and headed back toward the officer before it stopped and blinked and changed direction again and glided off into the sparse brush, its legs and belly leaving a sinuous grooved pattern in the sand. The officer watched after the lizard like a departing friend and then stood up and approached the car. He returned Adam’s license and insurance card and waved them on. As they drove away Helen turned in her seat. For as long as she could make him out the officer stood in the middle of the road, his uniformed silhouette thrown against the deepening blue canvas of dusk, looking off in the direction of the lizard.
They drove just over the speed limit straight through Valentine toward Van Horn and the time change there.
“You hear about blood-red sunsets,” said Helen, “but it doesn’t hit home till you actually see one.” Her face was bathed in a blood-red light. “It doesn’t sound possible.” She watched the sky and took Adam’s hand into hers. The wide-open space that became all of Texas if only you could see that far was tinted blood red.
Adam checked the mirror and, without realizing it, breathed a heavy sigh. It was a long time since he had said anything. If they kept going, soon they would gain an hour.
Small creatures darted across the surface of the burning desert, scarring its face going into the night. Some of them, for no good reason, endangered themselves beneath the tires of the speeding automobile. Although the sun was gone from sight it continued to cast an incandescent bruise over the entire western half of the sky. For a while they drove in perfect silence. They pulled over before reaching Van Horn, watched the last of the blood drain from overhead, and spent the night under the stars, in the middle of nowhere. It was time to let the dumb animals have the road.