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They headed straight west toward Hutchinson on US-50. To the south, parched yellow wheat fields unfurled toward the Oklahoma panhandle interrupted only by crops of fiercely green milo. To the north, there was only the same.
An awkward silence dominated the truck cab.
Larissa could feel Raúl waiting for her to carry the conversation as she did on the phone, but she wasn’t going to do that anymore. She shoved her sunglasses onto her face. The glasses were ridiculous, movie star big, but good at deflecting prairie sun. And, they made her feel sophisticated, despite her t-shirt and shorts.
Larissa raised her chin. Raúl turned toward the window beside him. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. She remembered the faith story Raúl had given at the church just after he arrived. A girl Larissa’s age who was already making herself useful serving Mayan communities outside of Chichicastenango had provided translation. Raúl had been a schoolteacher accused by both guerrilla and governmental forces of using his position to incite rebellion. Other teachers had already been disappeared. Only weeks before that church presentation, Raúl arrived to his schoolroom and found it emptied, a blood-stained knife stabbed into his wooden desk. He fled the building, fled his town and didn’t stop until he reached Guat City. He didn’t know if any of his students–children, he emphasized–had been killed on his account. He didn’t know if the screams and gunshots he heard in dreams were memories or imaginings made of his worst fears.
Raúl had ended his story abruptly. As the translator caught up, Raúl stared at the back of the sanctuary so intensely, Larissa turned, half-expecting to see parts of his story too painful to share imprinted on the bare white wall.
In the truck, Larissa turned on the radio. Only one station played on that stretch of the highway. The twang of country music guitars filled the truck cab.
“This music,” Raúl said. “I like it very much.”
Larissa switched it off. “That’s funny,” she said. “I don’t.”
The storage compartment between their seats was filled with cassette tapes her parents bought during public radio fund drives, vintage seasons of Prairie Home Companion and The Very Best of Fibber McGee and Mollie. But those shows had the old-timey jokes her father loved and things forever falling out of closets, jokes impossible to explain to Raúl. The loud sound effects might even scare him. Gunshots, she remembered from his story. Children. She didn’t want Raúl to turn into a basket case while it was just the two of them.
The road thudded beneath their wheels. Raúl gripped his loose pants and stared at the fields.
Resentfully, Larissa launched into a story about the last time she’d been on that road. She’d taken a bus trip home from Chicago to Wichita. The trip shouldn’t have involved Hutchinson at all, but when the bus passed through Leavenworth, a man boarded carrying only a small paper bag. Instead of sitting in one of the empty rows like any normal person would have done, the man chose the seat next to hers.
“Leavenworth? Larissa stopped. “Leavenworth? Federal prison? Jail, that means.”
He nodded. He didn’t get it.
“You see, Raúl,” she said. “I have one of those faces. Nice? Nicer than I actually am.”
He nodded again.
Deciding she wouldn’t care if he got her story or not, that she would tell it to the end unless he figured out how to make her stop, Larissa detailed how the man grabbed her box of Fireball candies and poured the whole contents into his mouth. Tongue fireball red—disgusting, she added—he ranted about the dumbass bus, the dumbass passengers, and the dumbass sunset hanging over the dumbass Flint Hills.
“The guy was kind of ‘off,” she said. “You know, loco?”
Raúl smiled. He thought, perhaps, she was telling a joke.
Larissa looked back at the road. Route 50 was heavily trucked by line-haulers running toward the Rockies. In the afternoon glare, she had to watch for real potholes amid the false, shimmering mirages of potholes. Mirages of potholes. If she had to choose a symbol for her own dumbass life that would be the image she’d try to catch.
“I’ll stop telling this story,” she said. “It’s stupid, really.”
“I like it,” Raúl said.
This made Larissa feel worse, but ahead there was nothing but highway, and inside the truck, there was nothing but story, so she continued. At the Wichita station, the man from Leavenworth followed her off of the bus. Assuming whoever picked her up would be equally nice, he pounced on her father and asked for a ride to Hutchinson. The man must have lived in the area at some point because he knew what everyone called the town.
“Hutch,” Larissa said sarcastically.
“Hutch,” Raúl repeated so solemnly, Larissa was startled. Was he making fun of her?
She went on. Her father agreed, of course, though driving to Hutchinson added almost an hour to their trip. Imprisoned in the back seat, Larissa was subjected again to the man’s rant, which improved—of course–before his male audience. He started with heroics. He’d been a dog handler in Vietnam. But after learning her father was a Mennonite minister and remembering this implied a pacifist faith, the man changed his story to one that showed how his military service led him to the “peacely-minded take.” After watching his dogs go to death for each other, watching his dogs drag dying soldiers miles back to camp, he’d decided love was the soul’s organic state.
To hate, to kill another soul, these acts the body—Larissa drew out the word, imitating the man’s accent—these acts the body had to be taught. These acts the body could not forget.
But when US forces pulled out, there were too many dogs to take home. Jungle disease, the soldiers were told. Eaten by the Vietnamese. But the men who owed their lives to those dogs knew the truth. “Tell me, Sir!” the man’s voice shook as they drove through the dark. “Tell me as a man of God, what good is it, learning how to love if we all just get put down in the end?”
Larissa stopped. Perhaps, her story was insensitive. It involved a war and a lonely man on the run. But it was a story born from the rhythm of that very road, born of her father’s kindness, his rigorous practice of love, the same centripetal force that drew both of them there. And, Raúl hadn’t told her to stop.
She skipped to the end. On the westernmost edge of Hutch, the man directed them to a sprawling ranch house, dark except for a security light beaming from the top floor. The man got out of the car, offered her father a military salute, and started down the long walk, the paper bag grasped in his hand.
But halfway to the porch, he stopped. Beneath the glow of that lone light, Larissa saw his body stiffen. He knew they saw no one waited for him. He’d underestimated her father’s kindness, her father’s infallible hope that a door might open and welcome that man into some kind of light. The man’s fierce humiliation, his lonely lie pinned them all there until he ran off and leapt over a hedge into the prairie dark.
Raúl sat up, recognizing she’d ended her story. “Your father,” he said, “Big soul.”
“Yes,” Larissa nodded. This was true. “Big soul,” she said.
Her story had certainly been insensitive, but maybe this didn’t matter. Raúl would hear what he needed to hear. He couldn’t afford otherwise. He’d put all of his trust, his whole life into the church’s hands. The enormity of this terrified her. It was dishonest even. Raúl would think he could trust white people. He’d been forced to trust them. His apartment and church sponsored jobs kept him from the cruel words she heard waiting tables at Hank’s or sitting beside Peggy at her son’s Little League games–brutal words, thoughtlessly tossed, meant to inspire laughter.
Or perhaps Raúl had heard things. From the men who stood outside the Legal Tender below his apartment or when he walked to the store at the edge of town where church people who sponsored him wouldn’t see him spending their money on beer, perhaps Raúl had heard hatreds far worse than she would ever hear.
“Tell me, Raúl,” Larissa said. “Do you believe in God?”
He turned sharply.
“The hell you’ve been through? I wouldn’t blame you for lying. You have to say you believe in God. To get the church’s support. To get here. To stay alive, I mean. ”
Raúl’s mouth tensed. Maybe he mistook her questioning for some sort of test, some Great White Test of Faith, or for yet another interrogation.
“It’s okay if you don’t,” Larissa said. “I’m not so sure I believe in God myself.”
He stared at the dashboard.
“Forget it,” Larissa said. He probably believed anyway. “You now,” she said sharply. “A story.”
“Una cuenta,” she demanded. Let him do the work. Let him carry the conversation.
“A story.” he said. He braced his hands on his thighs again and quietly, clearly said: “I had a wife. I had a child.”
Larissa gripped the steering wheel. The road before them had not changed. The dying wheat fields, those hadn’t changed. The dust yellowed horizon that too hadn’t changed. I had a wife. I had a child. That was Raúl’s story. Much better told.
“Dondé vamos?” Raúl demanded as if telling his story had ripped something from him.
Driving farther from the only town he knew, away from his apartment and routine jobs, it must have seemed they were driving toward the kind of place where anything might happen. Larissa recalled a church movie—was it Romero, set in El Salvador, or a documentary from a Witness for Peace presentation? She remembered soldiers leading village men into a jungle clearing, stealing their clothes before shooting and burying them in anonymous mass graves. She remembered the women searching for the bodies, their hands attacking the land as if it had committed the atrocity.
Didn’t Raúl know things like that didn’t happen here? Or, did they?
“I have to take pictures of petroglyphs,” she said. “Drawings on walls. Made by native people.” She added uncomfortably, “Los indios?”
He didn’t get it. She didn’t blame him. The trip was strange, as was the country’s romantic fascination with cataloging its own history of genocide. The topological map her teacher photocopied for her was wedged between the stick shift and his seat. She could have opened it, tried to explain the elevation numbers, the red circles identifying the location of the drawings, but the moment had grown big and stupid and complicated again.
“Look,” she said. “We’ll stop on the way home. We’ll get dinner. In ‘Hutch.’”
Raúl smiled. Larissa did not.
A ravine hidden by a cluster of trees took her by surprise. They descended too fast. Deep and very real potholes broke up the asphalt. The gears ground. The truck jerked. Larissa shoved down on the clutch but reached too late for the stick shift. One each side, the trees flattened into a green blur as the bottom widened like a mouth below them.
Raúl gasped. His knees slid forward.
Larissa felt a cold, satisfactory calm. Though she wasn’t good at it, she liked driving standard transmission. It was physical–her hand gripping and yanking the stick shift, her bare thighs tense as her foot pressed the clutch. Her whole body tuned into the engine’s hum, her whole body listening, her body even corrected its own mistakes if she didn’t think too much.
They shot out of the ravine as abruptly as they’d dropped into it, the road’s flat expanse spooling ahead as if the incident never happened.
Larissa shifted into fourth and then fifth gear. Raúl’s thigh remained pressed against her fingers on the stick shift. She only noticed this when he took a breath. As if he’d rehearsed all night for that ridiculous moment, he announced, “I-like-you-very-much-you-are-very-nice.”
Nice. Before that afternoon, she might have smiled. Thank you, Raúl, she might have said, or even, I like you, too–on account of the hell he’d been through and because, as he’d just told her, he had no one else. But she wasn’t going to do that anymore.
In the awkward silence he had created, Larissa acted as if he’d said nothing. He could believe in God. He could bare his soul all he liked. She’d kept his late night calls a secret. She’d obeyed her father and brought him along. She. Had. Done. Enough.
Raúl sat back.
Larissa felt a strange alertness. She felt alive. Was this what people got from being cruel?