OCOTILLO – Barbara Ann Norris
I made up my mind on the last boogie oogie oogie. There wasn’t going to be any segue into love to love you baby.
The stage lights blinded me to two thousand Dallas socialites circling white-linen-draped tables like frogs on lily pads floating in the darkness. I cooed into the microphone in my breathy, imitation of Marilyn singing to Jack Kennedy. “Don’t go away. We’ll be right back.”
Larry’s head jerked up like he’d just been lassoed, but his fingers kept on racing up and down the keyboard. He launched into the theme song from Miami Vice and I hotfooted it to the dressing room.
I grabbed my canvas bag and took off running down the atrium of the Anatole Hotel in my sparkly butt-hugging spandex dress, past the Zen reflection pool littered with pennies for wishes and the boutiques for people who already have everything they ever wanted and more. A group of Asian tourists milled around at the front desk taking selfies with their smartphones. They looked lost and jet lagged and amazed to be in the land of JR Ewing. A grinning black guy in a Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band uniform held the gigantic glass door open and waved me through.
Out on the portico, I tore off the platinum Afro and aimed for the trash. My matted, dirty-blonde hair sprung free of the bobby pins. The wig narrowly missed Sergeant Pepper, who picked it up and raised it to hail a taxi. In under a minute, I was in the back seat hollering at the driver. “Go!”
I didn’t tell the cab driver to go and keep going if that’s what you’re thinking. He took me by the house first. I peeled off the red dress, threw on jeans and a T-shirt, and crammed some extra clothes in a duffel. I got my guitar and a toy gun Larry had given me to “protect” myself. He’d said no telling what I’d do with a real one and nobody would know the difference anyway.
Then I told the driver to head west until I said stop.
We swung by an ATM in Fort Worth and got enough cash to fund my escape from Larry Lanier and his DFW experience. I didn’t feel I could breath until the glow from the lights dimmed behind me. West Texas spread out before us, and my chest let go a little, made some room for air. No trees, no hills, no nothing for hundreds of square miles except oil and gas pumps standing like dark sentries on the dead ground.
In the silence, my brain played and replayed its 80s disco set list.
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir.
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir.
My heart pounded the rhythm of a ghost bass drum, and my brain stayed cloudy and sluggish even with the adrenalin pumping. Disco oldies had whitewashed over every halfway intelligent thought I’d ever had after Larry ordered me to quit “that singer-songwriter crap.” I became Jade Black, the disco queen of Dallas, and he became my Colonel. Panic raced through me when I pictured Larry finding me, and he would. He’d hunt me down and leave his mark. Past souvenirs of his displeasure hid under the sparkles of my dresses like badges of my stupidity.
“Hey, no smoking in the cab.”
I rolled down the window and flicked out the cigarette. The air still held the warmth of the day’s ninety-degree high and reeked of the oil and gas that paid for all those galas we headlined. Jade Black and the Black Jacks. Singing night after night to the bobbing heads bowing over lukewarm steak dinners, sipping from wine glasses perpetually filled. That quick trip from Nashville to disco queen of Dallas turned out to be a long detour to nowhere.
You’re wondering if I had my cell phone and if Larry was calling. Yes and hell, yes. I should have ditched the phone. I didn’t need the magic of constant contact, but I couldn’t let it go. Instead, I put it on vibrate and stashed it in the bottom of my tote, where the blue light stayed lit with his calls and texts.
The cabbie took me to Cisco. By then it was three in the morning. “I got to get back to Dallas, lady. This is where you get off.”
He pulled up to a motel with a row of jacked-up 4×4 pickups in the lot.
He calculated with his fingertips. “Five hundred and sixteen dollars. Plus tip.”
He held out his hand for the cash.
I counted out twenties and plonked them into his open palm.
So much for escape by yellow cab.
I would tell you how I got from Cisco to furthest-West Texas, but I’m embarrassed to give you the details of yet another bimbo move on my part. It’s not that I am a bimbo in the strictest sense. I actually have a good mind, and when I’m using it correctly, it works pretty well. But I inherited a trait from my mother that tends to interfere, or maybe it’s a lesson I learned growing up in a daddy-free zone.
The most memorable example of this teachable moment, though by no means the only one, is the time a rat moved into the pantry. My mom put out a cyanide trap, and when I got home from school that day, the rat was sitting on the top shelf, munching on the poison, its swollen head pulsing with its heart beat, like it was about to explode. It froze when she shone the flashlight in its face, and its eyes flicked to and fro in manic mode. It wasn’t anywhere near dead, and my mom was pissed.
She told me to get back, and then she gave it a good, hard thwak. The rat squealed, leapt six feet to the floor, and scurried between my legs into the kitchen. I watched paralyzed as my mom took off after him. He led her on a chase down the length of the shotgun shack and landed on her double bed with pink chenille spread. From there he made a mad leap onto her white lace lampshade with fuzzy dingo balls. He sat up there like he might turn into a prince, as if that pounding, pulsing brain might open up like a flower and reveal his true self.
No way was my mom going to smash him and end up with rat guts and blood splattered all over her squashed lampshade. She was breathing heavy and wielding the broom like a knight’s staff. I was holding my breath and squeezed up against the wall, trying to stay out of her way and the rat’s. She feinted toward him and hit the wall behind him. He took off in my direction and ran under the couch. Seized with the spirit of a banshee, she shoved the couch aside and chased after the little bastard, whacking at him with her broom, screaming, “I need a man! I need a man!” until she cornered the intruder and beat him to death.
So that’s what I know about navigating life’s ups and downs. Beg God for a man to save you from having to save yourself, and if your prayers go unanswered, deal with it. Larry Lanier was not the first or last white knight in my arsenal. At the Cisco Motor Inn, I found Butch, a little itty bitty guy with a big, long Jaguar that bounded across West Texas like a graceful, wild cat in hot pursuit of its prey.
Butch’s hand only crab-clawed over to my thigh a couple of times, and I simply lifted it off and replaced it on the gear shift. At dusk we headed south on a two-lane highway. A thin line of purple mountains emerged like a mirage at the horizon. Ocotillos shot up from the gray, dry ground, their tall, spindly stalks barely greening. I laid my head back and closed my eyes. At last, I thought. Free at last.
Rough terrain shocked me out of my reverie. Butch had turned onto a ranch road and come to an abrupt halt up against a deep ditch. He launched himself over the console. “I’m about to explode,” he wheezed, panting and fumbling with my shirt.
I managed to reach down and pull out the toy gun from the side pocket of my bag. His soft belly gave way to the hard poke of the snub-nosed barrel. “Get off me.”
He reared back. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m telling you to behave.”
Butch pulled himself together and got the Jag back on the blacktop. A couple miles down the road a water tower came into view. A neon sign skittered and sputtered in the last throes of life. MO-EL. The last moel.
“Come on. This is no place for a girl on her own.”
I stabbed him with a raised eyebrow over a dagger eye.
“You’re miles from the next town, and even that isn’t much. Why don’t you ride on to Marfa. I won’t bother you, I swear.”
“Just stop the car.”
He came to a halt by the 1940s-era motor court marked by MO-EL and a dead neon cactus.
I grabbed my canvas bag and climbed out. “Thanks,” I said and flipped him the bird.
He pooched out his lower lip. Poor Butch, I thought. Men are such babies.
I was reaching in the back for my guitar and duffel when the door of the Jag knocked me back on my heels. He took off like a shot. The passenger door swung shut and ole Butch headed west with all my worldly possessions but the contents of my bag.
I stood there long enough for the dust to settle on my boots, thinking in that foggy way you do when you’re not sure what just happened and you don’t want to review your options, which you know are nil. After that day, my mother’s voice receded into a whisper. It’s not that I never heard “I need a man” again. But the words no longer moved me to surrender. At the Cactus Mo-el, I started hearing other voices.
A crumbling fake adobe wall held up by nothing more than a row of prickly pear cactus marked the boundary between the motel and the blacktop. My boots crunched the gravel as I passed under the arched entry and crossed the parking lot. The screen door squeaked open, but the knob on the glass door wouldn’t budge. I gave it a sharp rap, and it rattled in response. A minute passed. Maybe more. I knocked again and pressed my nose against the pane, straining to see into the dark. An ethereal form floated from the shadows. Her white hair glowed like an iridescent veil. She put her hand to her forehead and leaned against the window, then turned away.
“Hey!” I knocked again. “Please!”
She reached behind the counter and came back with a key. “Can’t be too careful,” she said, opening the door wide enough to let me in.
“Yes, ma’am. I know that.”
Her attention shifted to the empty parking lot behind me.
“I need a room for the night.”
“Sorry. I don’t need that kind of trouble.”
“Me neither.” I followed her to the counter. “How much for the room?”
“Don’t have any.”
“You’re telling me you’ve got no rooms.”
“That’s right. We’re remodeling.”
The evident decay of the lobby said otherwise. The place reeked of cigarettes, burned coffee, and dry rot. It needed a lot more than a remodel. It needed to be destroyed.
“I’ll take any room that’s got a bed in it.”
She shook her head and took a key off the peg board behind her. “Pay me in the morning if you decide to stay. It’s number five. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The flashing MO-EL lit the way into the moonless night toward the room at the end of the row. The key turned out to be unnecessary. The crooked jamb prevented the door from closing all the way. It opened with a light shove. I pawed the wall looking for a light switch that wasn’t there. My shin hit the edge of a mattress, and I dropped my bag onto the bed.
The musty scent of cockroach and rat turds filled my nose. I stood there for a minute, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark. Behind the noisy rhythm of my breath, I sensed the movement of molecules rearranging themselves around my presence. My knees tightened. Dim light from a shaded window emerged from the inky black.
The rearranging molecules turned up the volume. A rattling ensued and grew so loud I heard it with my whole body.
I inched away, sucking air like a racehorse. Drops of sweat trickled into my eyes. The rattling filled the space and blocked every thought I tried to squeeze out.
My back knocked into the edge of the door. I startled. The rattling intensified into a thousand mariachis.
One big step backward landed me outside. I pulled the door as closed as it would go and careened, stumbling over a rock.
I scrambled to the middle of the parking lot, as far away as possible from the room and the stones and the cactuses and all the other detritus lining the perimeter of the building where little desert monsters like snakes and lizards and tarantulas and scorpions and horny toads lurked waiting to pounce. I collapsed barely noticing the gravel that pierced my jeans and bruised my butt.
This was not turning out the way I’d imagined. For months I’d fantasized seeing beyond the metal and glass high-rises and the red tiled roofs of mega mansions. In my imagination, nothing stood between me and silver highways cutting through the gold grasslands of my childhood. I wanted to be alone. I longed for relief from too many people. Too many of the wrong people. Way too much Larry.
The quiet hummed like a telephone wire vibrating against the black night. Even the rattler had quit talking. Over the past twenty-four hours, I’d been stripped down to my iPhone, some cash, and the jeans and blue work shirt I put at the motel in Cisco. I reached over for my bag to get a smoke and felt hard gravel scraping my palm.
Ah, yes. My bag. On the bed, in the room, behind the door shut against the one thing that scared me more than staying put in Dallas, Texas.
The manager was not happy to see my face so soon.
“Well now, that’s a problem isn’t it,” she said when I explained the situation.
“Do you have another room? One that doesn’t have snakes in it?”
She shook her head at me in a way that didn’t signal rejection so much as utter disdain. And she didn’t say anything about another room.
“Please. I’m in a real jam.”
“Here’s what you better learn real quick. It’s your emergency, not mine. I’m not on your rescue team.” She slapped a room key on the counter. “Number seven.”
I reached over and grabbed it before she changed her mind, and then, feeling desperate for my phone and my chap stick and the few other items I still possessed, I couldn’t stop myself from asking. “I hate to put you out, but my bag is in that other room, and I can’t go back in there.”
“Get it tomorrow. That snake ought to be gone by then.”
I felt pretty sure I was going to cry, and I didn’t want her to see that, so I turned to go.
“Hey. Where’s the other key?”
I checked the pockets of my jeans. “I must have dropped it.”
“Well, if you don’t find it in the daylight, you owe me five dollars.”
The next morning, I walked around back of the motel looking for the old grump to give back her key. Past a wobbling gate made of sticks and baling wire, I discovered a garden of cactus and wildflowers next to a greenhouse and an ocotillo fence. I hadn’t seen one of those since Del Rio. My mom planted the tough, thorny stalks to keep the raccoons out of the garden. After a couple of years, they took root and rose from the dead. Green leaves sprouted from their blunt-edged thorns. When it rained, their tiny red petals burst into bloom, like tissue flowers in a glass of water.
Behind the dust-fogged panes of the greenhouse, the white-haired old lady moved among the plants, humming a tune.
“What?” She swung around, startled.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” I made my way down the narrow path between tables covered with young plants.
“You didn’t scare me. Good lord, why would I be scared of a little thing like you?” She wiped her dirt-covered hands on her overalls and swiped the hair out of her face. “What do you want now?”
“If you’re fixing up the place, I could help.”
She looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “Well if that doesn’t beat all. I doubt you could lift a hammer.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Uh huh. Come on outside. I need a drink of water.” She took a pull from the garden hose. “What’s your name?”
“Janni. Janni White.”
She offered me a drink.
“No thanks.” I still had too much Dallas in me to slurp from a water hose. “You have a beautiful garden. It must be hard to grow things out here.”
“Hardly. You just have to know what you’re doing and choose plants that don’t need to be pampered. Every living thing has to be tough to make it in West Texas.”
“Yes, ma’am. I can see that.”
She settled on a faded pink metal chair under the shade of grape leaves on brown, twisted vines. I sat on a rough-cut stump opposite her. She looked me up and down, wrinkled her nose and sniffed. “I came to this godforsaken town five years ago, thinking I’d take a little break from the action. Haven’t seen any reason to leave yet. What brings you out here?”
“Same thing, I guess.”
“I don’t need somebody who’s going to go running at the drop of a hat back to—where’d you say you came from?”
“I didn’t say.”
“Uh huh. Ever done any real work other than singing?”
“I grew up on a ranch down by Del Rio.” Not true. Not the ranch part, anyway.
“Yeah, but can you haul and scrape and hammer and paint?”
“Absolutely.” I lied.
“Eight bucks an hour. And you stay ’til New Year’s.”
“Would you be interested in letting me work for room and board?”
“Now why would I want to do that?”
“I’d take anything you’ve got.”
She looked me over with her hawk eye. “There’s a bungalow at the back of the property. Not much more than a shed, but the roof doesn’t leak and it seems to be critter-proofed. I used to use it for my studio. If you want that, we’ve got a deal. But no board. I don’t want to have to feed you.”
“You haven’t even seen it.”
“I don’t need to see it. As long as I don’t have to share it with a snake, it’ll be fine.” She didn’t even crack a smile. “When do I start?”
“Start now. We’re going to fix that door on number five.”
She rose and headed back toward the greenhouse.
“What kind of action did you need a break from?” I asked her retreating back.
She kept walking and muttered, “I didn’t say.”
It being the only bar in town, I had no choice but to spend my free time at the White Horse Saloon, next door to The Sage Hotel, a Dallased-up, 1930s hotel built for traveling salesmen making the rounds of the surrounding ranches. Within a week of my arrival, I’d already had a quick fling with its owner, an oilman from Houston with a taste for Western art, gourmet ranch-style fare, and younger women. Younger than his wife, that is. She showed up unexpected and tried to slap me up side my head with her Vuitton bag. She missed, but I scrambled out of that bed and hightailed it back to the Cactus. I don’t play well with snakes or angry wives. And I didn’t know he was married. I swear.
Most evenings I sat at the bar and shot the breeze with Caleb, the bartender. Just friends, in case you’re wondering. A print of a wild mustang hung on the wall near the bar. I had plenty of time to inspect it over wine and the occasional—ok, daily—shot of Southern Comfort.
Caleb, a big, friendly, bear of a man, worried about me like an old mother hen. We got to be bar friends, but I didn’t tell him about Jade or what came before. He knew something had sent me out there, but kindly didn’t ask. On more than one occasion, he said, “Don’t you think you’ve toughed it out long enough? Here’s a quarter. Call your mother.”
I didn’t talk about my family. I let him think I had gumption rather than reveal the truth, which was that I had run out of any hope of rescue, and my mom would be the last person I’d ask. Or my dad, but he had a good excuse. He was dead.
Actually, I was getting used to my new condition. That is, twenty-six years old, a washed up singer pounding nails and painting trim at a down-in-the-heels motel in exchange for a room. Hell, Adele couldn’t even afford a neon “T,” and probably wouldn’t buy it if she could.
Caleb filled me in on Adele, who never told me anything except “you’re late,” or “you missed a spot,” or “could you speed it up there, Swifty.” He told me she’d been a folksinger in the ’60s. A pretty big deal, I guess, hanging out with Dylan and Seeger and Baez. He’d heard she’d quit singing in the early ’80s and gone overseas with her partner, a war correspondent, who was killed by a land mine in one of the Slavic countries. Caleb couldn’t remember which. So that’s what Adele took a break from when she came out here. Death and general mayhem. And I was running from a disco band.
After I heard that, I decided to quite being such a weenie. I put up with her bitterness and took it like medicine.
One day, I let myself in the back door of her apartment behind the motel office. It took a second for my ears to talk to my brain, but when it did, I froze. Adele sat in her recliner, her eyes closed, her hands steepled at her mouth, listening to the stereo. I’d never seen her smile, but there it was, hiding behind her rough fingers.
“That’s me,” I said, sounding like a little mouse.
Her eyes popped open, then narrowed. “What are you doing here?” She spoke softly, as if she’d been awakened from a deep dream.
“That’s me singing.”
She looked around at the CD player, at the faceless song. It wouldn’t have looked like me anyway. That girl was veneered with two years of being Jade Black smothered in spangles and wigs and pancake makeup followed by two months in West Texas that turned me brown and rough and tougher than the long-gone me singing in the CD player.
Adele didn’t say anything. Just stared past her feet and ignored me.
I backed away, dizzy, disconnected from my body, giddy with the strangeness of hearing my own music. The girl with that voice had possessed me back in Nashville. But Nashville girl had fled. Most likely the boogie oogie had done her in. Left me carved out and empty as a winter squash.
After a couple more hours of painting trim in the heat, I escaped into the relative cool of the laundry room. I was cleaning my brush when Adele poked her head in. “What do you mean that’s you?”
I pulled off my yellow latex gloves and dropped them in the bucket with my other tools.
“Used to be.”
Her eyes lit up with indignation and closed down to slits, studying me. “Jesse Blue is not pounding nails in the goddamned desert, I can assure you. That girl could sing.” She slapped the porcelain sink. “And another thing—that’s my song, girlie, not Jesse Blue’s and certainly not yours. I wrote it. I own it. And I made a pile of money off it. Enough to buy this damn place and then some.”
The screen door slammed in my face and through the rusty screen, I watched her stalk down the path.
Later on, I went out to the greenhouse to see if there was anything else she needed me to do. I found her elbow-deep in compost, scooping it with a small hand shovel and sprinkling a new layer on the seedlings in a framed bed. “Come in here,” she said.
She rested her shovel on the bed frame. Her eyes looked older than they had just a few hours before, moist around the edges.
“Why did you stop?”
“The music. Why did you stop singing?”
“Why did you?”
She turned back to the seed bed and spread the compost with her fingers, careful not to smother the fledglings. “I wanted to do something important. Make a difference. But all I got was loss. Too much.” She shook her head. “Senseless.”
“You didn’t think your music was important?”
“I was singing into the wind. Nobody was listening. But you—you had a number one record. You made it a lot further than I ever did.”
“On your song.”
She nodded. “It was a good one.” Our eyes darted at each other and away. She raised her eyebrows. Pressed her lips together. My body felt like a large, uncontrollable foreign object. It moved toward her against my will. I watched my arms reach out to her as she backed away. Adele and me. Linked by the gods of good fortune. By a number-one Billboard hit.
I leaned against the rough edge of the seedling table as if that was where my arms were headed. “Why did you quit?” I said. “You were one of the greats.”
“I’m a dinosaur. Dylan can get away with a face that looks like a turd and a voice like goose farts. Where’s Joan Baez? Carolyn Hester? Judy Collins? Resting on their royalty checks, that’s where. Have you seen Grace Slick lately? No, because she retired twenty years ago, fat and white haired and looking like hell. Nobody wants to see us anymore.”
“You didn’t have to quit the writing.”
“Yes I did. I don’t have anything left to say.”
My boot toe dug into the dirt looking for an argument with that.
“Did you get sideways with the label or what?”
I shrugged. “The music business eats its young.”
Adele laughed. “We’re not talking about business. You walk away from something like that, you’d better have a damn good reason to tell yourself.”
I turned on my heel and let the door slam shut. The glass rattled like a crystal wind chime surrendering to a stiff breeze.
About a week later, I found a little Spanish guitar on my bed. My fingers on the gut strings felt stiff and awkward. I practiced every evening, sitting on an old plastic chair on what passed for a patio, looking out over the live ocotillo fence at the golden fields and the purple mountains. I rocked back and forth, whispering my old songs, not wanting Adele to hear. She’d think, how sad. That used to be Jesse Blue who died in Nashville, eaten by the machine.
I discovered if I sat quietly for a few moments and kept my eyes on the horizon, that jagged ridge of the Davis Mountains would give up a melody as clear as the sirens in the Dallas night. As my fingers picked out the tune, I hummed, and the words flowed without a hitch. It didn’t matter to me if nobody else ever heard any of those songs. Maybe for the first time ever, I was channeling me.
In late July, on a hot Friday afternoon at The White Horse, I sat at the bar and talked to Caleb, who never got riled even when they were lined up three deep ordering Shiner Bocks and shots of tequila.
“Big shindig this weekend. A wedding. They’re starting to trickle in from the two o’clock flight in Midland.”
“You have to have some serious bucks to fly your friends all the way out here.”
“Oh yeah. They’re bringing in a band, too. Guess the Pinche Gringos weren’t good enough for them.”
“The name probably put them off.”
“Yeah. That’s why these folks hired Jade Black and the Black Jacks. Much classier, eh?”
The walls and ceiling of the cramped bar closed in. I heard a muffled roar, and then the lights went out.
“Hey. Janni. Wake up, Janni.”
My eyelids fluttered open to the sight of Caleb’s bush of red beard inches from my face. “What happened?”
“You took a dive. Actually, more like a slither, right off the stool. You ok?”
A couple of guys helped me up and Caleb returned to his station behind the bar. I reached into my jean pocket and fished out a five for my beer.
Out front, the sidewalk melted under the four o’clock sun. Shimmering heat waves rose up from the highway. And then I saw it, rolling into town like a gigantic black tumbleweed. We’d traveled to every gig within a thousand miles of Dallas in that Dodge Ram. It was Larry’s package, tucked neatly into a trailer full of gear. I ducked my head, shoved my fists in my pants pockets, and turned the corner to the alley just as they pulled up in front of the hotel.
A full five minutes after picking myself up off the floor of the White Horse, I thought of my iPhone. He’d known where I was all along and let me think I wasn’t at the end of his rope. And now he was going to reel me in.
I pulled my ball cap down low over my forehead and took the side streets back to the Cactus. Adele was sitting in the shade of the arbor, drinking a cold beer, holding it to her chest to cool herself down between sips. I told her what happened. “Come on, honey. It’s time you learned how to take care of yourself.”
The sun had just gone down behind the mountains leaving a trail of silver along the ridge. A nice breeze blew the scent of Adele’s rosemary bushes my way. I tipped back the pink chair and leaned up against the wall of my little house. Over the past few weeks, Adele’s guitar had begun to feel like my own. My fingers had no problem finding the chords and picking out the tunes that lived in my head.
Fly, ghost horse, fly
Free me from this—
I smelled him before I saw him. Cigarettes and scotch and Ralph Lauren after-shave.
“Go away.” My fingers kept working the strings.
He stepped closer. “Three months is a long time. I missed you, Jesse.”
I laughed. “I’ll bet.”
“I mean it.” He reached over and took hold of a hank of my hair.
“Let go of me.”
He gave it a tug. “Guess you noticed we’re playing at The Sage.”
“Sign says, “Jade Black and the Black Jacks.” His hand swept across the air as if the goddamned name was up in marquee lights. “That’s you, baby.”
“Not anymore.” I kept my head down, studying the cypress swirls on the guitar.
“Molly’s been standing in for you.” He shook his head. “She’s god-awful. If you heard her, you’d be ashamed she was using your name.”
“It’s not my name, and I don’t give a shit.”
The guitar flew out of my hands and landed with a clanging thud. He grasped my neck and pushed up my chin. I looked him in the eyes, hard and defiant as I could muster.
“I’m gonna fuck you up.” His hand whipped my cheek. I gasped from the sting.
The sharp point of his knife slid between my breasts.
I flashed on the rat on my mom’s dainty, white lampshade, his brain fixin’ to explode. My breasts flirted with the blade with every shallow breath. Sweat moistened the armholes of my gauzy shirt and dampened my palms.
I reached behind me and wrapped my slippery hand around the grip of Adele’s Derringer. Larry leaned into me. The blade’s point pierced my skin.
The knife slit my shirt and left a bloody trail of broken skin.
The shot and my pulse pounded in my ears. The gun stayed glued to my fingers. Swearing and blubbering, Larry clutched his right leg, writhing in front of me like a shot dog. Blood from his thigh blossomed into a dark red rose on his faded blue jeans.
Adele emerged from the shadows. She checked him out, and I watched from a far-off place, a kid again, eyes glued to the television in that Del Rio shack, captive to the climax of an old western.
Larry moaned in agony. “Jesus Christ. Somebody help me.”
“You can just wait a minute,” Adele said. “It’s a long way from your heart.” She led me away, her arm around my shoulder, her soft, strong voice reassuring me.
A siren disrupted the momentary calm. “The sh-sh-sheriff will want to know my n-name,” I stuttered. “It’s not J-Janni White or J-Jesse Blue either. It’s not even a J name. I’m sorry Adele. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“I know who you are, sweetie. I don’t need to know your name. You shush now.”
That night, I saw white horses in my dreams, carrying me west, toward the Davis Mountains. And there was the Cactus Mo-el and red blossoms on the ocotillo fence, bursting into bloom. We were flying over the gold fields, past the blue and the black. A tune I never heard before felt like it might be mine. And words spilled down on me like blessed rain.
In the morning, I showered away the blood and sweat. Washed my hair under the slow, rust-red dribble of Adele’s half-assed plumbing. Over the summer we’d fixed up all seven units, and I was getting pretty good with a hammer and a paintbrush. In the past, I would have considered the events of the past twenty-four hours a sign to move on. But Adele and I had plans to build a breezeway, one of those arched structures they have in North Africa and other desert places. They cool the air, keep it moving, create an oasis, a refuge of sorts. I think I can build that. Then, we’ll see.