Then I helped the old lady into my 18-wheeler and climbed in. The air conditioning felt blissful as I ran through the gears getting back up speed on Texas 187. “Elbow Jones,” I said, watching her car, hood up on the side of the road, disappear into the rearview mirror.
Barbed wire, bluebonnets and cottonseed trees whooshed by. George Straight twanged from the radio.
“Where ya headed?” I asked.
Didn’t think she heard me; turned the radio down. “Where ya headed?”
That’s when I noticed Eve Dawson pointing a gun, hand shaking and bobbing with the motion of the cab. Felt sick to my stomach.
“Take me to the beach,” she said.
Crazy let out a low growl.
She and the gun looked the same age. If it actually worked you could kill someone just fine with a little gun like that if held close. My Houston cop brother calls them “ear guns,” because that’s where you stick them.
“The beach!” she said, not far from my ear.
Could’ve taken the gun, but she might have had a heart attack. Wouldn’t want that haunting me. Could’ve let Crazy out, but both she and Crazy could get hurt. And I had a feeling she wasn’t dangerous; just old and lonely. Eyes like a mistreated birddog. I had the weekend off, anyway. What the hell?
Padre Island was three hours away. An hour in, she broke the silence. “How do you read all these here books driving all the time?”
I looked at the floorboard. The Ethics of Consumer Culture. Adjudication and Class in Modern America. Meta-Ethics and the Global Corporation.
“At night. On the side of the road. Used to teach at Rice University.”
“Yes, ma’am. I wrote those particular books.”
She pursed her lips. “How does a man go from teaching at Rice, writin’ fancy books to trampin’ roads?”
Didn’t like to talk about those years. About Jennifer. How it all went wrong. My breakdown.
“That’s not your concern, ma’am.”
“Don’t recon it is,” she said. Then she fell asleep, gun in her lap.
I stopped in Alice. Filled the truck, let Crazy pee and bought the old lady a slice of buttermilk pie with iced tea. We were back on the road by the time she awoke, wild eyed and gasping—swinging the gun wildly. She looked at me, looked at the pie and sobbed.
“I’ve got the cancer,” she said, wiping her eyes with a lace handkerchief. “Ain’t dyin’ without seeing the beach.” In the distance I found something to focus on, and hoped my shades hid the tear sliding down my cheek like rain on a marble cross.
The shadows on the sand dunes stretched by the time we hit the beach. I’d driven as far down as possible on Padre Island without missing the daylight entirely. I let Crazy out, and he ran chasing seagulls. I helped her down. Put her gun in my back pocket.
A teenager the color of cowhide and reeking of beer rented me two fancy chairs and an oversized umbrella for $20. “Just leave ‘em when you’re done,” he yelled as he sped off.
We took the chairs down to the water’s edge. She took off her hat. Dark splotches showed through wiry hair.
“Sun feels different somehow,” she said. “At the beach.” She squinted into the horizon at the offshore oil platforms and tankers. Flags on the tankers showed Greece, Brazil and Algeria. We fed the seagulls Cheetos. She got into water up to her waist. Saw stingray, flounder, jellyfish and sand dollars in the shallow, chocolate water. When waves came harder, she got out. I wrapped her in a blanket and built a driftwood fire.
As I stacked wood, she told me about her life back in Utopia. Wasn’t much to tell. Now the sickness.
The sun died completely, and the Gulf was background noise behind the crackling, smoky driftwood. Our faces and Crazy’s fur glowed orange in the firelight, but beyond that glow nothing existed. I offered to go for steaks or sausage to grill, but she wasn’t hungry. The sickness does that. Poured some kibble for Crazy, but he was more interested in the sand crabs.
A park ranger in a cowboy hat drove up around nine o’clock, gave us a once-over then kept on.
“Thank you,” she said, as the Ranger drove away and a coyote howled in the dunes. I was hungry but couldn’t eat either with the nerves, and sipped a fifth of Garrison Brothers whiskey. “I wanted to see the beach,” she said. “And here I am. Sorry about the gun, I ain’t thinking straight.”
I nodded. “Know all about it. Trust me, I know.” A tear rolled down my cheek as I put the cap on the bottle.
The shot echoed off the sand dunes and across the rolling Gulf. I cried like a newborn, dropping the gun and cradling Eve Dawson in my arms. I knew it was Eve Dawson, but in my mind it was also Jennifer. Jennifer diagnosed. Jennifer losing her identity and then life to cancer’s faceless executioner. Jennifer’s memory burning a hole through my life, dreams, career and, I guess, sanity.
Looking back, if I could’ve kept Jennifer from those last terrible years, I would’ve. But the past is the past. Eve Dawson was here. Now. And I made her final memories saltgrass, conch shells and sea air. Not tubes, wires and hospital staff complaining about wages.
The blue and red lights of the Ranger’s truck were a blur through the tears. I clutched the poor old lady and smelled saltwater, Aqua Net and coppery blood. I cried for Eve. I cried for Jennifer. And I cried for a world where any worthwhile journey costs so damn much.
William Dylan Powell writes shady stories set in Texas. He's the author or co-author of a half-dozen books, and winner of awards from the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award Fund and the Mystery Writers of America. Powell's work has been featured in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Demolition Magazine and a host of fine truck stop bathroom walls across the Texas badlands. More questionable behavior at www.darktexas.com.