The car had been following Helen for fifty-five miles. She corrected herself. The car had been behind her for fifty-five miles. It was important, in these situations, to remain clear-headed, to take into account things like her mindset and her lack of sleep and the two glass Mountain Dew bottles knocking languidly against each other under the passenger seat, one empty, one half-full of homemade rye. The car was either light blue or pale green. Though it had not gotten close enough for her to identify the plates she had made out a dark round-cornered rectangular border that indicated Arkansas, Michigan, Utah, Maine, or New Hampshire. Twenty miles in she had recognized the mirrors and hood contours of an old-model elky. It was a flashy car, leggy and chromed, the kind people bought to impress people who didn’t know much about cars, the kind that got girls — David Metzger’s father had bought one after his divorce. It was a loud car, not a good follow, but they couldn’t exactly send out the usual fleet of black and fresh-washed towncars onto the desert highways south of Helena, could they. She hoped.
She held the wheel underhanded with her left arm and with the right she palpated the floor, pushing away the slick wrinkled “Uncanny X-Men”s and loose cigarettes, a paperback, a rind of cheese. She found the neck of the heavier bottle and worked it free and gripped it with her knees to pull out the cork. The whiskey was horrible to drink, throat-scouring and sour. She adjusted the mirror. The car was no closer, and no farther behind. Its distance to her had not remained constant but had seemed to vary along a consistent pattern, which she’d tried to time with the radio. Out here, though, she could only pick up a late-night preacher, and it was difficult to measure anything by the roiling climaxes and panting respites of his speech.
She went over the past few days, inventoried the motels, the public libraries, the dank movie theaters she tried to nap in but never could. There had been an old drunk who had taken a shine to her in Nebraska but she hadn’t given him a name and he’d barely been able to stay on a stool, much less remember a face. There were always the late-night clerks but nothing stood out. There was the girl, that waitress in Ulm. That could be it. They had talked for a while. She rolled down the window, lit a cigarette, and turned the radio off. The twinned pale globes of the headlights hovered in the middle of her mirror and she wished for another car to appear. Get as many eyes around you as you can, she thought, remembering the old rule. She was going over seventy but the wind was surprisingly gentle at her side. She glanced down and watched the counter turn over. The car had been following her for fifty-seven miles.
The girl was wearing a pale green uniform with white trim and a matching apron. She had a thick dark stationary braid down the middle of her back. A brown cardigan over her uniform had a nametag pinned to the breast that said Dee. What can I get you, she said. Her voice was burned-over and blocked, like she’d been smoking too much on top of a cold. Helen ordered coffee and black toast and two eggs over easy and potatoes. The girl didn’t write it down. There was a small potted cactus on each table by the salt and pepper and ketchup. Helen played with the spines a little, rolling the last edge of them on her palms. When she got tired of that she looked around the room and tried to match faces to cars. In the far corner there was a fat man with a fan, the kind they hand out at fairs, an oval of cardboard stapled to a tongue depressor. It read PETOSEED. She watched him for a while, pressing her nails flat against the gummy formica. He did not move the fan once that she saw. She looked over her shoulder but theirs were the only two tables occupied. Three cars, one a truck. She saw the waitress leaning on the order window with her chin in her hand, one hip weighted to the side and one foot crossed behind her. She and the cook were saying some low words to each other. Three cars could work.
The girl turned to wipe down the counter and Helen watched her. She had broad shoulders, a neat waist, and clean white sneakers. Her skin was as slick and tanned and ageless as the back of a skin rug. The bell rang and the girl turned to take the plate the cook was pushing out to her. His hair was pulled back tight from his face with a bit of red rag. He noticed Helen and returned her look for a second, then cocked his chin up and disappeared into the kitchen. She didn’t know how to read those looks anymore. She was getting old.
The girl settled the heavy white plate onto the table. The eggs were flattened and pooling with grease, hemmed by a pile of wet white hash. Helen said thanks and the girl stared frankly at her as she refilled the coffee. She said, is that hair natural. Helen had a good five inches of roots and the rest was very blond, fried almost white. The effect was something like a Swedish girl, or a swimmer maybe, wearing a black beret. She had been putting off doing anything about it but she knew she looked odd, which meant memorable, which was stupid. She said no, it’s not mine. The waitress smiled and said she’d always wanted to go lighter, maybe red and Helen said no, no, don’t, once you start it’s hard to get back to what you started with. The girl nodded and went back to hanging on the order window. Helen ate.
When the check came, made out in large loopy indecipherable shorthand, she asked the waitress if there was anywhere around to buy liquor. The girl looked behind her for a second, and took a battered aluminum flask out of her apron. She poured a shot in the cup of coffee. Helen said thank you and repeated the question. The girl said I got more of this in my car if you can wait. I got a break in a half hour. Is this stuff you make, Helen asked, and the girl said her uncle stilled up rye. Helen nodded and thanked her again, and ordered more coffee and chess pie. It came with ice cream she hadn’t ordered, and when Helen asked about it the girl shook her head and said, well, you look like I could about lift you right off the ground.
When the half hour had passed the girl took a pack of Embassys from under the cash register and gestured to Helen to follow her outside. She had rolled the sleeves of her sweater down over her hands. They walked to a dirty white truck and the girl heaved a clanking cardboard box out of the back. It was full of pop bottles resealed with rough-cut corks. She said a dollar per. Helen took two, holding them crossed in one hand, and fished the money out of her shirt pocket. They went back and leaned against the wall of the diner and smoked. The girl’s hooded blue eyes were so dark they looked black in the dim light leaking from inside. She put one leg up behind her and said her name was Deirdre and glanced over. Helen paused for a moment and let it work itself out in her throat and then she said Cassie. The old feeling was still there, the immediacy and ease of it, yes, sure, Cassie, that’ll work. And then the luxurious suppression of the thrill, dampening her tells, breathing slow. The girl smiled a little and nodded. She put her hand out to shake.
They talked for a while. The girl had that shuffling ranchfolk accent that reminded Cassie of her father, who had been born a hundred miles away—they both had a way of saying yup, yup, working the syllable out of the mouth like a pebble rolled on the tongue to keep the thirst off. Do you have any kids, the girl asked. No, Cassie said. You? One and a bit, the girl said, and coughed, and rubbed her stomach with a brief circling motion. I got a little boy, name’s Nathaniel. Called him Natty. She waited a minute until Cassie said, nice name. The waitress lit another cigarette with the butt of her last and said, Yeah, til his daddy came back and said it was said it was Nelly, so Neil now. Cassie said without thinking, you know those are different names. She wanted to grab it back immediately but could not. She scratched at her forearms and watched the hanging pall of their smoke twist in front of her. The waitress said, what do you mean. She was playing with a medal around her neck. Cassie didn’t see a way out. She said quickly, Neil’s not short for Nathaniel. It’s Gaelic. The girl asked what that was and Cassie said Irish and the girl nodded. Niall of the Nine Hostages, the king of Ireland. Or what used to be Ireland, Cassie said.
The waitress, whose posture had stiffened, cocked her neck to one side. How’d he get to be king, she said. Her voice was suddenly serious and eager and hushed like she thought they were telling secrets. Cassie had seen this before. Girls she’d known, girls like this, with babies too young for it, dull work, dead towns — they would seize onto stories, any story, no matter how boring or badly told. It showed all over them. Cassie cleared her throat and took a pull on the bottle. She said, there was another man who didn’t want Niall to be king, so he set up a contest —the girl interrupted her to ask the man’s name. Mongfind, Cassie said. The girl nodded, solemn. There was a contest? Between all the brothers, the princes. They went out hunting and rode for a long time and couldn’t find anything to kill. And then finally they came on an ugly old woman by a well. They’d been riding all day, they were very thirsty. She told them if they wanted water they had to kiss her, and none of them would, not really, not the way she wanted. But Niall did, and when he kissed her she turned beautiful, she was a kind of. Cassie wanted to say embodiment or incarnation or instantiation but you had to translate a little, you had to be smart about words with these things. She said, it was a ghost who looked after Ireland, and she told Niall she would make him king. His sons too after him. For twenty-six generations.
The girl was leaning forward, cushioning her back on the wall with her crossed hands behind her. She said, I feel like I heard that before. Cassie nodded. It pops up a lot of places. The loathly lady. Chaucer, King Arthur. Gower. King Arthur, the girl asked. Like the Sword in the Stone? Sure, Cassie said. The girl was working at a scuff on one tennis shoe with the toe of the other. She said, I loved that movie when I was little. Made my brother take me three times. She spat on her hand and tucked her leg up, working at the mark with her thumb. Don’t remember there being an ugly lady you had to kiss. No, Cassie said. Probably not in that version. They didn’t talk for a while and it seemed to Cassie that the girl had forgotten about the names. In front of them was a weedy cracked portion of asphalt and after that a wide gravel shoulder. After that the highway and the corpse of prairie creasing up into scrub hills and ridges and then the dark blue run of sky.
After a while though the waitress said, that’s really where Neil comes from? Her voice was unhurried and calm and full of threat. Cassie thought of the men her father drank with, men in cambric shirts, hunched over a beer as if trying to hold all its emanations in to themselves. She said, maybe. That or a word that means clouds. The waitress turned to face her, still leaning her hand against the wall, and looked out from under the short spiky brush of her lashes. So you’re saying I been calling my son the wrong thing? Cassie hesitated. Can’t say wrong. Just not the name you gave him. The girl leaned back and they waited. A bat that had been hooked under the far right lip of the building detached itself and darted crookedly away. The girl threw down her cigarette and said, well, I’ll let his daddy know that.
Cassie thanked her for the booze and gave her the last two cigarettes in the pack. She walked across the parking lot. As she swung around to open the door of the Le Mans, she and the girl watched each other for a while. The waitress’ eyes were deep-set and it was hard to see down into them. As Cassie pulled away she saw her still standing hunched against the wall in the yellow cone of diner light, and then the road dipped and she was no longer visible.
That night Cassie lay in the central curve of the thin mattress and watched the fan turn slowly. She thought about the girl, and the cook behind the counter. When she slept she had dreams that ended with her on her back, in a high place, watching a few birds divide the sky up between themselves over and over again. At four she got up and took a shower. She looked at herself in the steamed-up mirror for a while, and went to the car and got a box of dye from the trunk. It’d been baking in there for a week and it was a little gummed up but it worked. By six her hair was dark again. Even wet and hanging around her in hanks she was surprised at how changed her face seemed, how differently shadowed. That she had performed the trick many times did not diminish it for her. There was a switch you could flip that made you the other side of yourself, night to day, Jackie to Marilyn, Farrah to the other one. She gathered her things and dropped the key in the slot and drove south, singing old school songs in German and Latin, singing the Shirelles.
She stopped in Helena and ate and went to the First National on Euclid. They took her back to the room walled with safety deposit boxes, which she had always loved — the intricate little old-fashioned cabinets, their imagined insides. The teller removed box 223 from the wall and left her alone to go through it. It contained a bottle of clear matte varnish, six passports, five driver’s licenses, a gun, a razor, some ammunition, a Polaroid camera, and a stack of bills. She placed the whole box in her duffel and took the things out inside the bag and then replaced the box. She drove to a bowling alley and sat in the parking lot counting the cash. It was the reason she had come west in the first place. It was eight hundred dollars less than what she had thought it would be.
She kept driving south. Periodically there were fences along the highway and behind them cattle whose horns patterned the air like a regiment of archers in foreign salute. She stopped outside of Boulder and got a room and slept for a few hours and bought packets of crackers at the supermarket. When she got back on the road she rolled all the windows down. There was good radio now, old sad tinkling country songs. The car was warm and the hills flanked her on both sides in clear regular rises of brown and purple. When the traffic fell away outside of Butte she noticed the car behind her for the first time. She knew there was barely a town for a hundred miles, and when they didn’t disappear she got suspicious. They stayed maybe six to eight lengths behind her, going sixty. Eventually the sun spread out red at her right and fell away. There were no lights, and the music station was fading. The bottles were much emptier than they had been in the morning.
She knew it was absurd for her to be afraid of this single slow electro-pastel car, dreamlike and steady behind her. It wasn’t that bad, really. There was the waitress, and they could have been watching the bank, but it wasn’t so strange for two unrelated sets of people to end up on the same stretch of highway at night. Maybe they had Utah plates, maybe they were passing through. Or they were lulling her and had been there for days. That game could go on forever though, the switching chalices, what do I know they know I know, and she had never been entirely confident in her estimate of how good they were. You could do it forever. The sound of the wind had started to make her feel she was driving through high fast-moving water. It could go on forever, a period which included a large number of knocks on the door and phone calls and pairs of headlights in the rearview, none of them insignificant, all of them shaped with the capability of harm. She thought that she’d never really been on the same side as time in a fight.
There were other things she should have told the girl. She should have done a New York bit, a story full of street names and bar names and solid types, the raucous stoop-shouldered drunk, the lonely scrubbed ex-Catholic poet, the girl with the boy-short hair. Hints of drugs, a line of something in French. She could have talked about how David Metzger had let her teach him how to open a bottle with another bottle, and how they had taken his dad’s car to the reservoir parking lot and done donuts, and then he had moved to Cincinnati. They had never even necked. Maybe the girl would not have been interested in that but there was more, she had more, “Orlando Furioso” and anchoresses and “War of the Worlds.” She was moving her lips a little as things came to her, Belial’s speech, Marianne Faithfull, her aunt Alma who could have married a movie star at fifteen but ran off with the coalman instead. She should have stayed for a while and given the girl all the kings of England, and all their wives, and all the ways they died. She put her knees up on the wheel to hold it steady. She reached over to the glove compartment and took out the twenty-nine and the box of cartridges. She loaded the revolver and placed it on the floor next her foot. It looked silly to her, shiny as a toy against the stained and colorless carpet.
She glanced back at the car. It had not moved. She tossed her cigarette and breathed for a while and slowly took her foot off the gas. It would take a while, the road was straight and flat forever. She wished for a radio station other than the preacher. The rushing air at her side slowed and the car closed on her a little. The speedometer read fifty-five miles an hour. As the car gained its headlights fell into her hair, lighting it from behind in the mirrors. She looked at herself, the strange dark hangings around her head, and felt very tired. The car moved into the other lane and advanced. She turned her head to the side and watched for them to draw level. It was easier to do that then to wait until they were next to her and then look over. She wondered if they still wore hats. There would be the whole pageant, the quick-draw of weapons, the foolish yelling, the gravel against her face. The wind was warm and slow and she didn’t have to squint. The car pulled even. She heard music she couldn’t identify and saw she had taken her hands off the wheel and settled them in her lap. She lifted them again and looked at the road ahead of her and looked back.
There was a boy driving, seventeen maybe, and a girl in the passenger seat with a very short pale scruff of hair. Neither of them was facing her. The girl’s legs were up on the dashboard and her eyes were closed. Cassie thought she was asleep but then the girl slowly lifted one finger and waited with it poised and at some crucial wailing moment of the song lowered it down and opened her eyes. She looked over at Cassie and smiled in a way that seemed like a question. As the car pulled past her she saw there were either one or two people in the backseat but she couldn’t make them out except for one thin brown arm slung out the window. The car signaled, moved in front of her, and continued on.
Cassie pulled over onto the shoulder. She put her hazards on and considered getting out of the car but didn’t think she could manage it. She knocked her head against the steering wheel a few times and did it too hard and set off one long note of the horn. After that there was no sound except the receding unremarkable rumble of the El Camino. She braced her hands up against the roof of the car and shook her hair around. It felt heavy and inert with the wind gone, like a veil, like an alien thing to her. She sat like that for a long time, watching the clouds of pale dust settle around her in the intermittent orange haze of the lights. Then she turned the key, and the wheel shuddered in her hands as the engine turned over. She lit a cigarette and adjusted the mirror, though it did not need to be adjusted, and drove south, many miles.