He drives, she navigates. Everything is dry and bright. There are many, many cars, there is a long highway, there are billboards and there are low flat houses clustered together with nothing between them and the sun but flat red roofs. Each house sits in a gravel yard, adorned here and there with an artistic grouping of large rocks and a few cacti.
"I can't wait any longer." Williams turns off the highway onto a gravel road that runs past one of these little housing developments and pulls over beside a scramble of bushes and broken glass. When he opens the car door and springs out, the heat pours in around him. Marian listens to his pee sizzle as it hits the ground.
"Marian, could you get me my camera?" Within seconds of stepping into the desert, Williams has found a rattlesnake. "I knew I shouldn't have put it in the trunk."
She gets out of the car, looking carefully at the ground before she puts her feet down, and walks around to the trunk, sure that at any moment something will squirm under her feet, and she opens the trunk and shoves the suitcase around so she can reach the zipper. She pulls out the camera case and takes the camera out of it and then walks on as little of the surface of her feet as she can over to where Williams is grinning at the snake.
"Here," she says.
She doesn't hurry back to the car, though. She stands in the heat and looks out at the landscape, which is ugly. The yards are coated with blinding green grass and the unimproved ground surrounding the development is brown, dusty dirt. Above them the sky is an unlikely blue and there are no clouds. She is ready to turn around and drive back to the airport and take the next plane to a cooler, duller state when, ten feet in front of her, a roadrunner rushes from one side of the road to the other.
"Beepbeep!" Marian cries, without even thinking.
When the phone rang, Hank was working in the kitchen. He put down his drill. "Go ahead, answer it," he said. "It might be the voice of Fate."
"Marian," the voice on the other end said, "I'm getting married."
"That's wonderful," Marian said. "Louise?"
"Who did you think it was?" Louise said. "Look, I want you to give me away."
"What?" Marian said.
"You're my last living connection to Daddy. It would say so much if you could stand in for him."
"Couldn't I just represent him in the audience?" Marian said.
"Come on, Mar," Louise said.
"What does your mother say?" Marian said.
"I don't care what she says," Louise said. "It's my wedding."
"I'm not sure I could handle it, Louise."
Listening in, Hank said, "Of course you could."
"Is someone there with you?" Louise said. "Your dark young friend?"
"It's Hank from across the street," Marian said. "You met him during the trial."
"No I didn't," Louise said. "You didn't introduce me to anyone."
"Surely I did," Marian said.
"Don't be defensive, Marian," Louise said. "It really doesn't matter. Anyway. Will you come?"
"I suppose so," Marian said.
"That's great," Louise said. "Wear anything you want. It's very informal. Bring your little friend."
After hanging up, she said to Hank, "I haven't even talked to her in years. Why on earth would she want me to give her away?"
"Maybe she loves you," Hank said.
"Maybe she just wants to bug her mother."
"Oh, come on," Hank said. "She's how old?"
"In her eighties somewhere," Marian said.
"I mean your stepdaughter," Hank said. "Isn't she a little old to be fighting with her mother?"
"You're never too old to fight with your mother," Marian said. She closed her eyes and saw herself striding down an aisle, hauling Louise by the wrist, Louise struggling to keep up. It is a sort of nice thing, she thought, a way to include Arthur on this day. Though surely the presence of Louise's mother—and the presence of Louise herself—would imply Arthur. Well, it would be interesting to see Louise again, after all this time. And what sort of man she was marrying.
"Sounds like a blast," Hank said.
Come on, baby, come on." Williams is down on his belly in front of the rattlesnake, camera in one hand, a yellow stalk of dead grass in the other, pointing it toward the snake's nose. "Let's see some fang, babe."
Marian supposes in an emergency she could run to the nearest of the low white houses, though no sign of life is visible in any of them. A Mexican maid would probably answer the door. She imagines herself saying "Snake!" very loudly, enunciating clearly. "Rattle!" Shaking an imaginary baby rattle and then, at the woman's uncomprehending look, putting her palms together and waving her arms around, weaving her hips, trying to look serpentine. In college, a girl named Beth had told her she had just the right figure for belly dancing: wide in the hips, thin and snaky on top.
The maid would turn out to be the missus and would call back over her shoulder, into the dark cool depths of the tiled hall, "Harry! Another tourist got bit."
From the darkness a man's belly would emerge, followed by the man himself in a sleeveless undershirt, a soggy cigar hanging from his lip, his grizzled hair in a brush cut and his spectacles thicker than oil. "Where y'all from?" he'd gargle, and Marian would notice plastic tubes running from his nostrils to a tank that he pulled along beside him.
"Saratoga Springs," she'd say. "Please come." And she'd belly dance her way back through the housing development, the old fart gasping behind her, the wife scurrying along behind carrying the oxygen tank, to where Williams lay writhing on the ground, clutching his wrist above the spot where two gaping holes were rapidly disappearing into a bulbous swollen mass of flesh, and the villainous snake had slithered with silent satisfaction into the shade of a greasewood bush.
"Thanks, bud," Williams says. He gets to his knees, then to his feet. The snake is coiled up now, head raised, looking for all the world like a snake.
"Don't you think you're a little old to crawl around on the desert floor?" Marian says. Little bits of gravel and something sparkly like glass are embedded in the flesh of his elbows and knees.
"Never too old to grovel for my art, babe," he says.
Louise is also an artist, in a red-lipsticked, chain-smoking, brassy-haired way. She paints tiny, tiny little pictures, exquisite miniatures, on the heads of matches, the shafts of pine needles, anything so small Marian can see it only if she takes off her bifocals and holds it very close to her face.
"What's the point?" she asked Arthur once.
"Art needs no point," he'd explained in a voice that sounded very, very kind, but in fact was designed to make the interlocutor feel very, very stupid. He was tremendously defensive where His Girl was concerned.
And in fact Louise has achieved a certain degree of fame in what Marian believes is the art world. Once she and Arthur went to one of Louise's shows, where her works were displayed beneath magnifying glasses. People strolled from glass to glass, leaning over and producing positive-sounding murmurs. Once in a while they cried out and leaned closer to peer in.
Are you sure this is the right road?" They have turned off the highway onto a secondary road, then onto a tertiary road, a track which is unpaved and so small it isn't even on the map Marian holds.
"Sure. I've been through here before." Williams has traveled around the area a number of times, though he has never stayed at The Back of Beyond, the inn where Louise will be getting married tomorrow.
"Why do you suppose Louise is having her wedding in the middle of nowhere?" Marian says.
"Lots of people get married there. You'll probably want to too, once you see it."
"I don't think so," Marian says. She likes the desert okay, but in small doses and for very short periods of time. She thinks Man in the Desert is like Man on the Moon, or Man On a Crowded Subway: All the preparation in the world is terrific as long as there is no accident. That For Which One Cannot Prepare.
They bump along. The vegetation has changed: there are tall yellow grasses and some yucca variants that are either just past or just about to bloom. Now and then they come to a wide flat puddle in the middle of the road. At the first one Williams stops, gets out of the car, and inches his way out into the middle of the water, where he looks right and left before coming back.
"What were you looking for?" Marian says.
"Flash floods," he says.
"In the desert?" She wonders if he's gotten too much sun.
"Absolutely," he says, driving the car very slowly through the puddle. "A wall of water can come on you so fast you don't know what hit you. Never step into one of those arroyos if there's even a hint of clouds."
"That was an arroyo?" Marian has begun to worry just a little about reaching the Back of Beyond in time for the wedding rehearsal, which is at four o'clock. She can't imagine why they are going this way. It isn't as if a sign had said Scenic Viewpoint or Point of Interest. There is no reason to be driving up this dirt road at midday under a killer sun.
When they come upon the stalled van, she immediately gets a bad feeling. Even under its coating of yellow dust, it's too bright to look at. Williams slows the little car and is just easing to the left to drive around the van when a man who has been underneath it scrambles to his feet, semaphoring his arms over his head to get their attention. His naked belly is streaked with grease and glistening with sweat. Williams stops the car.
"Don't get out," Marian whispers.
The man jogs around to Williams's side of the car and leans down. "Man am I glad to see you," he says, talking so fast Marian can hardly understand him. "Could you give me a jump? Because I can't get the engine started, could be the starter but there are other possibilities and I can't eliminate them. Can you jump me?"
"I don't have any cables," Williams says.
"I've got them. If you could pull your car up I can do all the work, I'm a mechanic but if you could just let me try them on your engine I think I could get it started. That's all it needs." The man wears no hat and no sunglasses, and the whites of his small, red-rimmed eyes stand out in his dark face. He doesn't look at Williams, but glances right and left, back and forth, as he speaks. Sweat streams down on either side of his nose into the gullies carved past his mouth, and drops of it fall from his chin.
"Sure," Williams says.
The man throws his hands up in an awkward gesture, of relief or perhaps victory, and jogs around the car to the back of his van. Fat joggles above the waistband of his slick green pants.
"I don't like this," Marian says in a low voice.
Williams shakes his head. "This is the desert, Mar. People can die."
The man is rummaging around in the dim interior of his van. When Marian lowers her sunglasses she can see inside; it's stuffed with boxes and piles of fabric and wadded newspapers and bottles and beat-up boots and coils of rope. A jar half-filled with black liquid stands on the ground beside the right rear tire. The man straightens up, waving the jumper cables. Williams backs and saws the car until it is nose to nose with the van, and reaches down to pop the hood.
"Jesus, Williams, that's the trunk." That's the last thing they need, to display their personal belongings to this guy. She opens her door and climbs out and the heat drops on her like a collapsing tent. She struggles through it to slam the trunk closed.
The man fixes the cables on the contact points and clambers into the driver's seat of the van, and Williams revs the engine. Marian trudges a little way up a rise beside the road, feeling as if she is barely moving. There are yellow sunflowery things blooming among the gray bunch grasses, and in the distance she can see a hint of mountains, faint and blurred at the end of the endless desert. The man is shouting at Williams through the noise of the engine and Williams is nodding as he sits in the car, his foot on the gas.
Marian wonders if she will know when they are about to die. The guy is probably a veteran, off drugs for now but way, way down on his luck, and nuts. He's probably done this before, pretending to have trouble with his van and then when his Samaritans' defenses are down he kills them. Buries them in the desert, takes their water, and drives merrily away. The little rented car will be found, but this clever guy will be long gone. No one will ever know what happened.
Marian and Williams will disappear without a trace.
Williams revs the engine when the man waves his hand, lets it slow when the man motions downward.
How do people get through life, she wonders. How on earth do you get through life with no money and no intelligence and no luck?
The van doesn't start. Marian sits on a rock watching the man run back and forth from the engine to the back of the van, hauling grease-blackened tools from soggy cardboard boxes. She winces as he drops to the ground and pushes himself under the car, no little wheeled dolly, not even a piece of cardboard between his flesh and the dirty gravel. He must be on drugs, she thinks, that he doesn't feel the gravel digging into his bare back.
Williams gets out of the car and goes over to look into the engine. "I don't think it's the battery," she hears him say. The guy must have said something from under the car because Williams says, "No, more like the alternator," at which the man's arms drop to the ground at his sides as if in defeat. He lies still for a moment, then digs his heels into the ground and drags himself out.
Holding a wrench, he gets up and walks over to stand beside Williams.
Move away from him, Marian thinks, her heart speeding. Just slowly step away.
Williams, having no instinct for self preservation, doesn't respond. Instead he leans forward and points at something under the hood. The man looks at the back of Williams's head for a long moment before he too leans forward to look.
Marian stands up and looks around again, but no car has appeared on the snake of road that lies like a mirage across the gray-green desert. Suppose the man does something to Williams. Or suppose Williams just keels over in the heat. They have one small bottle of water in the car which by now is probably hot enough to make tea. She would bathe Williams's face and wet his lips and drag him into the shade of the car; then what? Leave him with the man while she goes for help? Send the man for help? Sit companionably with the crazy man and wait to be found?
She would break off the rearview mirror and use it to flash signals at passing jets. She would break the mirror itself and flash it at the man if he should threaten her or Williams.
Williams walks over and reaches into the back seat of the car and brings out his camera bag. He takes the camera out of the case and fiddles with it, then walks back to where the man is still leaning into the engine. Williams says something and the man jerks his head up. Williams raises his hand as if to say stay and the man stays motionless. Williams steps back and raises the camera, and Marian sees the man's bright teeth. Williams leans over the engine and takes its picture, then walks around and takes a picture of the back of the van and the innards littering the ground.
He's a genius, Marian thinks. Not an artist, but a genius. She stands up and walks slowly back to the car.
"Anything," the man is saying. He doesn't look at her, but he doesn't look at Williams either, who stands with his arms folded against his chest and his camera in one hand as he listens to the man. The man looks at his own empty hand, at the right front tire of the rental car, at the hood of the van, propped open above the engine. "Give me enough time and the right tools and I can repair anything. I'm a skilled worker. You've heard of those Indians, those Mohawks, that do that highwire construction work, balancing on the edge of heights? I can do that with any kind of mechanical piece. If I have the right tools, you know? But the water here is polluted, chromium, toluene, you name it. Look at it." He gestures toward the jar of black water. "No way I would put that in my engine, you know?"
"Is that all the water you have?" Williams says. "You can't stay out here without water."
"A decent wrench would make the difference," the man says.
"Not without water," Williams says. "Look, I've been out here before. No one might come this way for weeks."
"We've got some," Marian says. She reaches into the back seat and pulls out the bottle of water she would have used to bathe Williams's fevered brow. It is warm. She holds it out to the man, who takes it without looking at her. "We could leave this with you. We don't need it."
Williams looks at her. "You know how long that would last, babe?"
"It's all we've got, Williams," she says.
Williams turns back to the man and says, "We'll take you into town."
"It could be I need a new alternator," he says. "It's been known to happen. If I just had the right tools I could get it running good enough to get me to town. Even a wrench."
"Look, lock up your van and we'll take you into town. You can load up on water and get what you need."
"I could get the wrench," the man says hopelessly, and he heads for the back of the van.
"Williams, we have to be there by four o'clock," Marian says.
"Marian, it's just the rehearsal." She sees him place an extremely patient look on his face. "We can't leave this guy out here."
Of course she knows that. People die in this heat, dozens of them every year. She's seen it in the papers; she's tried to imagine the desperation that drives people to leave what homes they know and cross the desert. When all that waits for even the luckiest is janitorial work and a hot apartment shared by twenty people.
Saving illegal Mexicans is one thing, but a serial killer?
The smell of the man's body oozes up and surrounds her, and with each bump and pothole the sharp, aggressive odor of his breath surges forward and curls around her head, right at nose level. She holds her sun hat over her nose and mouth. He talks nonstop for the two hours and eighteen minutes it takes to drive to Tucson, but he doesn't give them any information about himself, he doesn't ask anything about them, and he barely responds when Williams responds to him. After he ignores several of her remarks, Marian stops trying to be kind. The man is clearly disturbed, and there's no point in trying to pretend he isn't. They'll be lucky to get to Tucson alive.
But they do, and they spend another hour driving through the ugly, flat, traffic-ridden streets of Tucson's low rent outskirts, looking for Road Runner Auto Repair. By the time they find it, it has closed for the day, although it is only three o'clock. They stand helplessly before the crude but recognizable Roadrunner hand painted on the shop's glass door, the words BeepBeep! rising from its mouth in a little white balloon. Williams points out that lots of repair shops close early in the day, since they often start at godawful hours in the morning, and besides, it's Friday.
"And?" Marian says. She has the sudden feeling that Williams and the man are in cahoots. She has been with them all afternoon, all day, and they have never said anything that indicated any kind of conspiracy, but she feels that somehow they have made a secret agreement without her knowledge, as if men can communicate with grunts and gestures and odors that a woman knows nothing of.
But then the man says, "My sister." He throws his arm down, as if he were hurling a heavy tool to the ground. "I'm calling her!" he shouts, and he stomps over to yank the car door open. He leans in and takes something from the depths of the greasy bag he brought with him. They hear a series of tiny beeps.
Williams and Marian look at each other.
"A cell phone," she says.
Williams's face is lined and gray under the russet flush from the day's overdose of sunlight, and the whites of his eyes are red. He isn't as young as he used to be, and now he has spent all day trying to help a man in trouble. In danger. Marian is embarrassed at the thought of her grumpiness. She rolls her eyes and then smiles at him, hoping he understands she's mocking the troubled man and making light of the fact that they are about to miss the wedding rehearsal and in another hour they will start missing the rehearsal dinner.
"She's coming to get me." The man shouts as if they are a block away. As he comes toward them, Marian notices that he walks unsteadily. An inner ear problem, maybe. "She said, 'Oh, you're at the Road Runner, I'm on my way.' She doesn't want to know about me, but she does."
"Yeah, my family's like that," Williams says. "They don't want to know about me, either, but they can't help it."
"You can go now," the man says, waving the cell phone. "My sister's coming so you can go now."
"We can wait," Williams says pleasantly.
"No, no, no, you go," the man says. "I'm waiting for her." He looks over his shoulder, then moves sideways until he reaches the shop door, and he leans back on it so that for a moment the BeepBeep! balloon is rising right out of his head. Then he slides down and sits against the door with his knees drawn up, clutching the greasy bag and the cell phone to his chest. "I'm waiting," he says loudly.
"Really, it's no trouble," Marian says, but the man turns his face away.
"We'll wait till she comes," Williams says firmly.
The man closes his eyes and shakes his head. "No, no no no no." His voice rises with each no. "My sister's coming. You go now."
And so they drive off, leaving the man sitting in front of the Road Runner. Marian waves, but he doesn't wave back.
"Do you think he really has a sister?" she says.
"Well." Williams sighs. "I don't think he's capable of making her up."
The sun is still strong, but it's so low in the sky that the shadows of the buildings lie across the street; the car moves through a cool gray square of shade, then a hot patch of blinding light that shoots in at the side of Marian's sunglasses, then back into shadow again. Hot bright / cool gray / hot bright / cool gray.
"Strobe City," she says.
"Why is it always Something City with you?" Williams says.
She looks at him. This side of his face is untouched by the strobing of the sun.
"Why can't you say The sun is making patterns on my eyes? Instead you say Strobe City and I'm supposed to laugh."
"You're not supposed to laugh," she says. "I just said it. It doesn't mean anything."
"Don't you take anything seriously?"
"I take everything seriously," Marian says. "Ever since Arthur I can hardly even breathe."
"You think you're the only one?" He pulls into the parking lot of an abandoned strip mall and turns off the engine, and sits gripping the steering wheel. "I signed on too, you know. Late, maybe. But I'm here now."
In the middle of a dead and dry planting strip a white plastic shopping bag impaled on a prickly pear cactus is whipping madly in the wind. It whips and whips and gets nowhere.
Marian reaches over and takes Williams's hand. "For a long time I liked to think that I'd find happiness with someone." She closes her eyes. "I could see a big, rolling meadow with a copse of oaks at the far edge, and I could see myself walking out through tall grass and swaying seedheads to meet someone who was in it somewhere. Then I met Arthur, and for a long time I thought it was him."
"You were younger then," Williams says. "How could you even imagine me?"
They watch the dancing bag.
"Maybe we should go back and check on him," Marian says.
"That guy was scary," he says, frowning. "I can't believe we let him in our car."
"Well, what were we supposed to do?"
"Ask if he had a cell phone," Williams says. "Jesus, can you believe it?"
"You're the tech guy," she says. "Maybe you should sign us up for the twenty-first century."
He laughs and holds her hand to his lips. Then he starts up and they drive back to Road Runner Auto Repair.
The man isn't there, though. No sign of him. No sister, no cell phone, no serial killer. There is nothing to do but turn around and go on. They stop for burritos. Then, while Williams gases up, Marian uses an old fashioned pay phone to call The Back of Beyond.
"The missing stepmother!" cries the woman who answers the phone. "Are you all right, hon?"
Marian says she is. She tells the woman to tell Louise that she'll be there late tonight.
"She'll be tickled to hear it," the woman says. "But I think you're in trouble, sweetheart."
In the dim light of dusk the geography is transformed. As they drive away from the city the land swells up from the highway into little hills and cliffs, and as the road curves around a rise, tiny mountains materialize at the horizon, dark against the white-blue sky.
"What mountains are those?" Marian says. She looks over at Williams. He has fallen asleep, his head back against the headrest and his mouth open.
Tomorrow it will seem like such a non-emergency, a non-event! A man's car broke down and Williams and Marian took him back into town and dropped him off at a car repair shop.
"Now will you get a cell phone?" Louise will say.
But for tonight they're safe. All the way to the Back of Beyond, Marian thinks of the man's sweaty, dirty skin and smells the sickening odor of his breath. She imagines what would have happened if she and Williams hadn't stopped. She pictures the man's body, desiccated and stark and torn, the turkey vultures beadily snacking away. She sees the old van, bleached and sandblasted, standing in the desert forever, all those papers and tools and greasy rags scattered across the sand.
That American dream, Marian thinks. People think you can just pack up and go. Just go, and leave it all behind.