By Michael Jackson Moore
On Sunday morning before sunrise, I walked to the rear of Judge Green's house in Grand View Heights and was about to take my customary position in the cab of the Judge's Model "TT" truck for the drive to Whitewater. I opened the driver's side door, and there, slouched down out of sight on the passenger's side, was Audie. She was dressed in khaki coveralls, a green mechanic's cap and a blue gingham shirt, and held a small knapsack and the score of The Desert Song in her lap. She smiled at me and put her finger to her lips.
"Shh. Don't make a fuss. My ma thinks I'm at a sleepover at Lita Megaro's house. In fact, so does Lita."
I stood temporarily stupefied.
"Well nothin'. I'm just surprised is all. You sure you want to do this?"
"I'm here, aren't I?"
I hopped in the cab and closed the door softly.
"You're sure this is okay? Your pa doesn't own a shotgun, does he?"
Audie laughed. "Sure he does. But he won't even know. He's on graveyard. Doesn't come home until 7:30. Then he sleeps all day. And it's Sunday. Ma'll be in church 'til afternoon, so she won't know when I come home. Anyway, it doesn't matter what they think." She held up the copy of the score to Desert Song. "Miss McKay let me borrow this."
I shrugged and tapped my fingers on the steering wheel. Then I hopped out of the cab and gave the truck one hard crank. It caught with a soft "pop," and I hopped back in. Audie settled herself in the seat. I half-leaned on the wheel, starred vacuously into the distance, tapped my fingers on the steering column, and revved the engine softly. Audie looked at me, gazed out of the windshield, then back at me, fidgeted in her seat. "We gonna sit here 'til the sun comes up or what?"
"Keep your britches on. I'm just warmin' her up." To be honest, I doubted if anyone but the Merles or Judge Green would care if Audie rode with me to Whitewater, but I didn't want to wake anybody up and take any chances. I eased the clutch pedal out and engaged the reverse gear pedal, opened the hand brake, rolled quietly around the Judge's house onto Arroyo, then bore left and rolled down Espinosa. When I was out of the Heights and past the last house, I revved the engine up and let the forward gear pedal out. The truck responded and accelerated with a roar.
As we drove down the hill from the mine we could see the first rays of sunlight peek around the Kneeling Nun. The sky was copper with long, lacey flame-colored clouds. The air was crisp and smelled slightly of exhaust fumes; the only sound was the rhythmic stammer of the engine. When we reached 152 I geared up and accelerated down the grade toward Hwy. 90. Audie tried to mask her excitement, so she occupied herself by reading the score and humming, periodically glancing at the scenery as we sped along.
We rolled through Central, Bayard and Hurley and turned south on a dirt road toward Whitewater. We hadn't seen another car for miles, and now, far from Santa Rita and the dominion of adults, I felt myself relax, and hummed along with Audie. The only words between us were the lyrics to the songs as she sang "Romance" and "The Saber Song," and I sang "The Desert Song" and "One Alone," with Audie feeding me lyrics when I stumbled. We sang the duet "One Flower," and all at once Audie stopped singing in mid-phrase and gasped at the magnificent Mogollons far to our right. She put a finger to her lips, and her eyes shone like emeralds.
"The world is so. . . so big and beautiful, and there's so much to see," said Audie with a burst of emotion as if she were orating to the mountains and desert and sky. "I hope I get to see it all before I die. I hope I don't end up like my parents. I just can't."
The poignancy of Audie's declaration made me feel a crushing desire to hold her and smother her with kisses and tell her everything would be just the way she wanted and that I'd make sure it was so or die. I gripped the wheel tightly and struggled to find the courage to say that she was too beautiful and fine to wither in a dusty mining town, too sensitive and delicate to live among a band of grease-stained peasants. But instead I said, "You sure do have grand ambitions. Nothin' wrong with that, I guess."
When the truck was loaded and I was behind the wheel, Tucker Atkins came over holding two strands of red licorice.
"One for you, and give one to your girlie friend there, Mr. Quinn, complements of the house. And next time, why don't you invite her in?"
My cheeks bloomed crimson at Tucker's presumptuous description of our relationship. "Thanks," I said. "I'll tell Judge Green you said what for."
On the way back, a couple miles past Whitewater Road heading northwest on 90, after a spell deep in thought, Audie said, "Did you tell him I was your girlfriend?"
"No," I said vexatiously, "I didn't tell him nothin' of the kind."
"I see. Then why did he say that?"
"I'm not a mind reader. Just bein' smart, I guess."
And then, about five miles out of Hurley, after scrutinizing me intently for a while, Audie said, "It looks like there's nothin' to drivin'. What's the big deal? You just sit and hold the wheel and stare at the road, and wave if somebody drives by."
I chuckled with the patronizing arrogance of a Wall Street banker. "Maybe that's what it looks like, but there's more to it than that. Lots more."
"Oh, pshaw. I don't see what the big deal is. I bet I can do it as well as you."
I inhaled deeply, and in that briefest moment reflected with sheer astonishment on how someone, a girl in this case, with such a sweet face, and such good manners, usually, and such a generally pleasant disposition, could change in a gnat's blink and be so pestering. It was surely one of the great mysteries of life.
"Trouble with you is, you think you know everything," I grumbled.
Audie gasped and shuddered as if she had been doused with a bucket of ice water. She retreated against the door, eyes clouding, chin quivering. "That's a terrible thing to say to someone. I can't help it if I'm smart. I'm just saying what comes to mind."
Now I was numb with regret for what I'd blurted out, and wished I could slowly melt down into the seat and seep through the floorboards. I cut the throttle until the truck came to a dead stop in the middle of Hwy. 90. We sat in silence, staring straight ahead at a pasture of young rye under a cerulean sky pocked with cotton balls, until I said, "I'm sorry I said that. I guess you're right. It looks like there ain't much too it, if you're not doin' it. But it's harder than it looks."
Audie's wounded scowl melted. "Let me try it."
I smacked my forehead. "Oh no. I knew it. I just knew it. I knew what this was leading up to."
"Why not? We're out in the middle of nowhere--what harm could it do? What could happen? That I'd drive into a cloud?"
"Well, first of all, it's not my truck. It belongs to Judge H. L. Green. And second of all, if something did happen, I'd lose my job and spend the whole rest of my life payin' for it, and probably get kicked clean out of my family, and might even get thrown in the hoosegow."
"But you're right here. If something happened, you could help." Audie adjusted her cap and peeked from under the bill. "Just for a little while?"
"Please? I'll be careful, honest. I'll just drive straight and slow. What can it hurt?"
"All right. I'll make you a deal." I cut the throttle and the engine died. "If you can start her, you can drive her."
"You mean it?"
"Yep. If you can crank her over you can take the wheel."
"Deal! Set the throttle." Audie hopped out of the cab and skipped to the front of the truck. She spat on her hands, rubbed them together, and grabbed the crank. "Set the magneto lever to battery," she ordered, and gave one ferocious upward yank, throwing all of her strength and weight into it. The engine turned over on the first try, sputtered and caught. Audie grinned, pulled the driver's side door open, and pushed me over. She sat behind the wheel and gripped it, and switched the lever from battery power to magneto.
"Me and my big mouth."
"What do I do now?"
"You've done that before, haven't you?"
"Maybe, what of it?"
"Well, nothing', I guess. Just make sure you do everything I tell you. Everything."
I pointed to the three floor pedals with my left foot. "This one here is the gear pedal, this one's the brake, and this is reverse. The throttle's on the steering shaft, here, and the emergency brake's over here." I explained how to engage the clutch and accelerate the throttle, and after two false starts we were rolling west toward Silver City with Audie Merle driving Judge H. L. Green's Model "TT." The road was straight and flat and cut through yucca and chamisa-covered mesa, civilized intermittently with small ranches, neatly pruned pecan orchards, and lush pastures of alfalfa and rye as we turned up 152.
Audie gripped the wheel tenaciously and cast a fierce gaze down the winding black ribbon ahead of us.
"It's amazing how you can feel the engine right in your hands. And every inch of the road, too."
"Yes, ma'am. You sure can. That's the truth."
Audie cruised comfortably at a leisurely pace. At 6:20 a.m. Grant County was just rubbing sleep from its eyes, and there was no other traffic.
"It's quite remarkable there's no one else out here. Just us. Like they built this whole road just for us, and the sky, and birds, and clouds, and everything," Audie gushed.
"If you want to look at it that way, I guess so. You can pick it up a little, if you want, that wouldn't hurt nothin'. So edge the throttle up."
Audie accelerated gradually. The barbed-wire fence posts that defined the boundaries of each ranch lickety-clipped by at a faster pace.
We were thrown forward and then back, banging our heads on the rear window of the cab, the instantaneous shock of the accident dazing us more than the force of the blow. Then gradually, by breathing slowly, one precious breath at a time, we returned from a dream state to the world, and the morning unhurriedly came back into focus.
When I got my bearings, I turned and saw Audie leaning on the wheel, covering her face in her hands, her hat askew, her flaxen hair feathered out over the wheel like corn silk.
"Gosh almighty! You okay?"
"Yessir, I think so. Are you?"
"Yeah. I think so."
We both sat quietly, as if making a jarring movement would break the tranquility and plunge us back into peril. I gently lifted Audie's silky hair away from her face, handed her a handkerchief, and she wiped some moisture from her eyes and blew her nose.
"What have I done? Oh my gosh. I've wrecked Judge Green's truck." She blew again. I stepped down out of the cab onto solid ground to find my legs unstable as pudding. I grabbed the door for support, and assessed the damage.
The truck had come to rest against rusty wire field fencing, which acted as a trampoline and absorbed the force of the collision. The right head lamp was bent and cracked, and except for some lost tire tread and a small scratch on the right front fender where the truck had hit the fence, the vehicle, canted precariously in the culvert, was unharmed.
"I think she's mostly okay. So I don't think you have to worry none."
Audie banged her fist against the wheel. "Dang it. It happened so fast."
I walked around to the driver's side door. "Look. It could've happened to anyone. It could have happened to me. And you did the right thing. You grabbed the brakes and steered her to the right. Actually you probably saved our lives."
Audie spoke with a sob. "Oh! That's just so untrue. You grabbed the wheel. I wasn't even looking. I would've run right into her."
I reached through the window and took her hand. "But it's okay. We're both okay, and the only damage as far as I can see is the head lamp."
"Dang it! We're really in a fix now. If we don't get back in an hour all that ice cream's gonna melt."
Audie sat in the cab, hat pulled down low on her forehead, fingering the snap button on her coveralls. Her cheery self-confidence was a memory, the sparkle gone from eyes that were now hollow. She looked frail and small, vulnerable and beautiful. I shook my head at how quickly her mood and attitude had changed. I thought for a moment about whether there might be something seriously wrong with Audie, a character defect, or if she was just a typical woman. I decided that women must be several people rolled up into one, unlike men, who seemed less complex and more direct.
"Well, shucks. I guess there's only one thing to do if we don't get help soon."
"Really? What pray tell would that be?"
I put a foot up on the running board, stuck my head in through the window, and smiled devilishly. "Eat all the ice cream."
Audie pushed the bill of her hat up. "That's silly. No way we could eat all of it. There must be 10 gallons there."
"We could sure give her a try."
Audie giggled. Then her eyes widened, and her mouth opened in an expression of awe. She pointed straight ahead out the windshield. "Hey. What's that?"
Off in the distance I could see an automobile approaching, and as it drew nearer, made it out as a Grant County Sheriff's patrol car. The big Chevy slowed as it approached, and then pulled even with the truck and stopped. Sheriff Oral Blair pushed his coffee-colored Stetson back and leaned through the window.
"Well, Mr. Lockie Quinn. Good mornin' to ya. You tryin' to scare quail up out of that culvert there? Or are you two fixin' to have a picnic?"
"Wow! Are we glad to see you," I yelped. "I mean, good mornin', Sheriff Blair. Nossir. Neither one. Not exactly. We sure are glad to see you. You see, what happened is, I was drivin', me, I was drivin', and a big doe elk jumped in front of us, and, wellsir, I kind of lost control, and wham! We hit the fence and we seem to be stuck, and I've tried everything, but we can't get out, and I'm really in a fix, cause we have 10 gallons of ice cream, and if I don't get it back to Judge Green's, well, that'll be it for my sorry ass."
Oral Blair, a big handsome man with a wide, open face and an infectious smile, threw his head backed and laughed, rocking the patrol car.
"Well, we wouldn't want Santa Rita to starve to death, so I guess we better pull you out."
He turned the patrol car around in the middle of the road, pulled it over behind the truck, and backed it up end to end. He opened the rear trunk and pulled out a heavy tow chain with a talon hook on each end, hooking one end of the chain to a trailer hitch on the patrol car and looping the other around the rear axle of the truck.
"Now listen, Lockie. You jam her in reverse, and when I honk, give her some gas. You got that? And she'll shoot right out. That's the beauty of Mr. Ford's planetary trans-magneto."
"But when she comes out, ease off the throttle so we don't collide."
When Sheriff Blair came around to the cab, Audie had her hat pulled down over her face, and I tried to fill the window to obscure Blair's view.
"Thanks a lot. I don't know what we would have done if you didn't come along when you did."
"Well, she seems okay, so no harm done. You take her slow back to Santa Rita, now. This is elk calving season and there're all manner of critters jumping around the highway."
"Yessir. I surely will."
"And I just might pop in to the Judge's confectionary for a sundae later, so you get that ice cream back directly."
"Yessir. I'll do just that."
Sheriff Blair gave a friendly pat to the roof of the cab. "And you take care there too, Miss Audie Merle."
Audie flipped her cap up and smiled sheepishly. "Yessir. I will."
"I best be goin' on." Blair winked at me. "Don't you worry. Some things are best kept under the brim of a hat."
I smiled. "Yessir." We shook hands, and Sheriff Blair drove south toward Bayard.
Neither of us spoke a word until I made the turn off to roll down into Santa Rita.
"I was kind hopin' nobody'd show up so we could eat the ice cream," teased Audie.
I laughed. "I'd best let you off near Lita's."
"Yes. I guess that'd do."
I pulled up behind the Megaros' house. It was 7 a.m. and the mine whistle blast made the truck windows rattle as Audie unlatched the door.
"Well, thanks for the driving lesson and everything," said Audie.
"Nothin' to it."
"What'll you do about that head lamp?"
"I don't have a single notion in my head. But I'll think of somethin'."
Audie hesitated, then turned back into the cab and before I knew what hit me kissed me full on the lips.
"I had the most wonderful time. See you at rehearsal, Mr. Red Shadow," she said, in a low purr both alluring and angelic. Then she skipped away and was gone.
I let out a soft whistle and touched my lips. The kiss had felt warm and moist, and it seemed like the day stopped in the moment when our lips touched, like if there had been a clock nearby the hands would have been paralyzed. So that's what it feels like, I thought. So brief, but now gone, ephemeral. Exciting, but now just a pleasurable memory. A little disappointing somehow, as if a chord were left unresolved, and not at all like I imagined it would be. But at the same time something had changed in my life that could never be changed back.
After I unloaded the truck, I drove it home and pulled up behind our house. I tapped on our bedroom window sash, and Rowe, tousle-headed and groggy, appeared in the pane. I signaled for him to sneak out the back without arousing suspicion from Ma, who was puttering in the kitchen. I briefly recounted the events of the morning, and showed Rowe the damaged head lamp. After we discussed it for awhile, a plan jelled, and we stealthily executed it by 8 o'clock--just in time for me to return the truck to Judge Green before he needed it to drive to church.
It was at this juncture that Fanning for the first time noticed the dented and cracked right head lamp. And for the entire sermon, and the rest of the day, and the rest of that week, no matter how many times he worked it over in his mind, it wouldn't have surprised me if he couldn't for the life of him figure out how it got there.