"When eat?" she said, pointing to her mouth. He stared at her unblinking. She shook her head quickly. Why couldn't he understand a simple concept? She put her hand on her stomach and looked at him with pitiful intensity. Couldn't he tell? She eaten nothing since the night before, plus there was a baby inside, his baby, who needed to be fed as much as she did.
He shook his head, and flicked his hand through the air. Leaning over, he pulled a beer can off the sixpack on the table. They didn't even have a proper Amerique table. It had been a telephone cable spool. There was only one chair, and a wooden milk crates to sit on. He pulled the metal ring, and beer fizzed through the tearshaped aperture in the top of the can. He tossed the ring to the floor and took a long draw of the luke-warm liquid. He narrowed his eyes at her.
"I ain't goin' back to town again," he said. "Maybe tomorrow we can go shopping. If the truck'll start, maybe I'll take you to my mom's. She's got a whole pantry full of food."
She looked bewildered. She was hungry now. "God, you're stupid," he said, pushing his dingy-blonde, stringy shoulder-length hair behind his ears. This was as far as it had grown since he was discharged from the army eight months ago.
"Move Mom's?" she asked.
"I'm not moving back to my mother's fuckin' house. I told you that. I'm not a kid anymore. I'm a man. Get it straight." He took another drink of beer and then, as if remembering his manners, proferred the can to her. She took a sip. It smelled and tasted like uncooked bread, but it offered no satisfaction, only piqued her hunger more.
He flipped on the stereo. "Come 'ere," he said, low and deep, coy, mischevious, beckoning her with his fingers. At first, when they'd first met, he used to say that, too, use those same gestures. At first, it was cute, and she liked it. He was just matter-of-fact about it, not embarrassed like some of the others. She stepped forward, around the paper sack filled with empty beer cans and into his embrace. In a minute they were laying on the sheet-covered mattress in the small bedroom. She stared upward. The unbelievable heat had driven the black flies inside and now, under his sweat-dripping, bellows-like form, she watched them swarm on the ceiling. They held onto the cracking plaster and exposed lath with their suctioncup feet, buzzing insistantly. It was hot at home. Unbelievably hot sometimes. There were flies and sweating men that laid on her, but it was home. They understood her at home. It was these men who were the odd ones.
A single tear rolled from her eye to her hairline, but she brushed it away quickly, so he wouldn't see. It was important he not know how unhappy she was. He might divorce her if he knew. Then they would deport. It was hard enough to live at home before, how would she manage to survive pregnant, and then alone, with a small child? Better that he not know.
He sat up, reached over and picked up another open beer from the floor beside the mattress. He had to get up for the third, but he fell asleep in the middle of it. She sat up, then stood up and washed herself with water from the bucket. There was a sink in the kitchen, but it didn't work. They, she, brought water in from the old pump. He did nothing. It wasn't uncommon for men to do nothing for the house. She was used to that. A woman took care of the inside things, the things of the home, the food, and the children. A man took care of things outside the home, the outside of the house and vehicles and animals, and worked. He did neither. She dressed and stroked her stomach. Poor baby.
Her hunger was oppressive, desperate. She stared out the window. There was nothing, in either direction, as far as the eye could see. Only rolling hills, yellowed by drought, and a narrow, snaking gravel road that ended at their house. She had to eat.
He had written her name and address on a little piece of paper and she picked it up off the table and tucked it into the pocket of her jeans and went out the door, being as quiet as the rusted, ill-fitting hinge would allow.
It was not yet noon, already hot. She walked the gravel road to the blacktop and started toward the main highway. It was a winding and hilly road, with streams of heat rising from its surface, miragelike. She wasn't sure what to do next. A green car approached and she stuck out her thumb. They had done that a few times when they had to go into Athens to file papers, or pick up money. The car passed, and she felt a small breeze in its wake, a breath of relief in the otherwise still heat. She felt sweat gather into a drop under the line of her breast, felt it slip, tearlike, around the curve of her belly. She wiped it with her knit shirt, frustrated.
Another car passed going in the opposite direction, and then a third. This one was blue, rusty, with fins. It slowed and then stopped. She walked toward it, and then, afraid it would pull away, began to run. It hurt.
"You alright?" the man rolled down the window and called to her.
She nodded, and he leaned over the front seat and unlocked the passenger side door. "Get in," he said. "Where you goin'?"
She shook her head. "Well, I'm goin' as far as New Covington. You're welcome to ride as far as that," he said, pulling the blue-tipped, silver lever down and putting the car back into gear. He pulled back onto the road. They didn't talk much. He talked a little, but she didn't understand most of what he said, only a word here or there. Everyone talked too fast in Amerique.
When they reached New Covington, he stopped the car along the main street in front of the filling station. "Well, this is it. I've got to get a fan belt," he said. "For my wife's car. Will you be alright?" She nodded and got out of the car.
New Covington wasn't much of a town. There was a filling station with a post office and diner attached to it. There was a feed store and a small train depot, but the trains hadn't run in a good ten years. There were about twenty houses, spread out along the rolling land. It was nothing like home. At home there were tall buildings everywhere. Rich people lived in the tall new buildings, poor people lived in smaller buildings, sometimes four or five families to an apartment. But there were true men at home. She had been in love with one. But they were too easily wooed to gambling by poverty and the hope of riches, too easily lured into debt, and the life was too dangerous.
She had no money. There was no point walking into the diner. She didn't speak enough English to ask for a meal, or to tell them that she would be glad to wash dishes, or their floors or their toilets in exchange for a meal. If she did anything else, like she could've done at home and he found out, there would be real trouble. Besides, these people looked at her as if she was the enemy. They called her Gook and Chink. But Amerique hadn't fought them. They were the allies. Amerique fought their enemies. Why did they look at her as an enemy? She married an Amerique man. That made her Amerique.
Her best girlfriend had written and told her how wonderful life was in Amerique. Everybody was happy for her. She had married an Amerique soldier and come to live here. When the girlfriend invited her to visit, everybody brought out money--her uncles and cousins, so she could have an airplane ticket, and she got off the plane with $6.00 in her pocket. Her girlfriend and her husband had a trailerhouse about twenty miles away. Her best friend's husband had a second counsin, a very close relationship at home, and they introduced her to him. Then they went away. People in Amerique were small with their relations.
There was no place to go. She didn't know anything of New Covington, except that his mother lived a few miles away. She thought she remembered, but standing in front of the feed store, it was confusing. Several roads led away from New Covington toward the east. Mom could have lived down any of them.
She walked aimlessly. It was too hot, too sunny. A brushhogged had cut everything along the road, so no shade fell on the hot asphalt. The road came to an abrupt halt, intersecting with another one, gravel. There was a white house ahead, with a barn and several sheds. There was a car in the drive and a wheeless old truck on cinderblocks. Dogs ran out toward the road, barking wildly. She stopped, terrified. An older man stood up from where he had been bending down beside the road and leaned on his shovel. "Hey, boys, shut the hell up," he yelled, and the barking became yearning, whining yaps.
"Hey," he called. She knew he was talking to her now, not the dogs. She looked up. "Hey, you lost?" he said.
She didn't know how to respond. "You lost?" he repeated, beckoning with his hand. "Come here." She walked mechanically, unsteadily toward him. What if she fainted in the yard? One of the dogs laid down, another other sat up on his haunches and wagged his tail in the dust. The rest, disinterested, ran to the back of the house. "Melly," he called loudly, not taking his eyes off her. An older fat woman appeared at the front door.
"What is it?" the wife asked, a little sharply. She was wearing a loose, flower covered green and orange housecoat. "Oh. Who's this?" Her voice softened with concern.
"I don't know. She was walking down the road."
"Goodness," the wife said coming forward. "Where do you live, dear?"
She shrugged, not knowing what to say. She knew what to say. "I live a few miles from here. I'm hungry, thirsty, exhausted. The baby is making me sick and my husband is not the man I thought he was. Amerique is not the place I thought it was. I want to go home," but she didn't know how to say it. Even if she could speak the words, they wouldn't understand. She gestured as if she was taking a drink. "Poor thing. Look, her clothes are soaked through. Come on in, dear." The woman took her by the arm and gently led her into the house, and pointed to a chair for her to sit in. She sat down heavily, realizing how weak she really did feel. The woman returned from the kitchen with a glass of ice tea. She drained it and held it out again.
"You want more?" the woman asked maternally. She nodded and the woman refilled the glass. She consulted with her husband briefly. "We were just starting a barbecue," she said slowly, precisely. "Do you like barbecue?"
She nodded. Ameriques eat a lot of meat. They eat meat at every meal. At home they said that's what makes them so big. "Come on back outside, honey," the woman said. "You can sit with us. There's a nice breeze on the patio." She followed the woman outside and sat down in a chair made of meal tubes with vinyl strips woven around it.
The man cooked meat on the grill. The smell almost made her faint. They both chattered amiably. She was afraid to move in the chair, afraid to smile. When the food was cooked, they gave her a plate with meat and salad, white bread and barbecue sauce. She ate ravenously, while the wife watched her closely and made unintelligible comments to her husband. So what if they were talking about her? Let them talk. The woman refilled her place when she was done, and then again. The white sun had moved through the pale midday sky and curving down, halfway to the horizon. Her eyes were suddenly heavy and she felt weighty but strangely peaceful. The woman touched her arm. "Come in the house, dear. You're tired." She obediently stood up and followed the woman, who led her to a small bed in a little bedroom. There was a fan in the window moving the lacy curtains. She laid down and quickly fell asleep. She awoke when the room was yellowish red from dusk. The woman was leaning over her.
"You need to get home, don't you?" the woman asked. She nodded. She felt stronger, stronger than she had since a few weeks after her marriage, when she still had thought she was going to be happy in Amerique. She sat up and managed a smile.
"Good girl," the woman said. "That's the first time you've smiled. Where do you live?"
She pulled out the piece of paper that had her name and address on it and the woman guided her out into the living room. "Here," the wife said, pressing an aluminum piepan covered with psatic wrap into her hands. "If you get hungry later."
She nodded and took it. "Thank," she said, and the woman smiled. The man was already in the car and she got into the back seat. They drove home, over the black top, over the gravel road and up in front of the little tar-papered house with the bowed roof, the outhouse that stood leaning toward what remained of the old chickenhouse.
"This is where you live?" the woman asked, and she nodded. The woman clucked softly and looked at her husband. "I didn't think anybody lived here." He shook his head. She fumbled with the door handle. The man got out of the car and opened the door for her. The woman came around the side of the car and put and arm around her waist. As they walked over the gravel, past the car radiator, the broken tailpipes and the junked, hoodless Chevy that was going to be worth something fixed up, she felt suddenly afraid. But they were moving with her, and she couldn't tell them to leave before he saw them. She reached up for the handle of the rickety screen door, but the husband got it before her and swung it open with a nod and a smile.
He was there, sitting at the table on an old spindle chair that had once been white, then green, then blue. He glared over the can of beer.
"Where you been?" he said.
She said nothing, but the older couple appeared quickly behind her.
"Who are they?"
"I'm Mr. Albright," the man said, coming forward and offering his hand to her husband. "And this is my wife, Melly." Her husband only snorted. He hated the establishment. "We live just outside New Covington. We found your wife wandering around in the road." There was an edge to his voice. Snakelike, her husband closed his eyes and turned his head away. He didn't care. She hoped the man didn't rebuke him. He was liable to do anything.
The wife took in the surroundings, the broken window over the sink, the spool table, the broken chairs, the four-burner wood stove with two burners gone, roaches that scattered when her husband moved a beer can, the curling, dirt-black linoleum on the floor. The wife looked at her sypathetically, and tears filled both their eyes, the wife's from pity, hers from shame. "I don't ordinarily mess around in other people's business," the man began.
"Good," her husband said, moving the joint and cigarette butts around in the tunafish can ashtray. The wife looked up at the fly covered ceiling, and took her arm.
"No wonder you ran away, sweetheart," she said. "I would, and my husband's the best man in the world. We'll go now. But if you need anything, you come back to us, alright?"
She nodded. THey went out and she heard the first car door slam, then the second and the engine start. The wheels bit into the gravel with a crunching sound. She was alone. She stood silent, holding the piepan in front of her with both hands.
"What the hell were you doing?" he asked.
She shrugged, trying not to seem offensive. "Hungry."
"I told you I'd get something tomorrow. What are you trying to do?" She shook her head. "Damn," he said, shaking his head. "You know..." He stopped. She put the piepan down on the table. "Is that barbecue?" he asked, suddenly curious, leaning over it. He pulled back the plastic wrap.
"Mom's," she said.
"No," he said firmly, as if to a child. "I'm not taking you to Mom's. I told you. I'm not going to live with my mother. I'm twenty-two years old, and I'll be damned if I'm going to live with my mommy."
"Mom's," she said, firmly.
But he didn't finish. She picked up the woodenhandled knife from the table, holding it up with both hands at chest level, just as she'd seen men do in bars at home.
"Mom's," she said, suddenly aware of the gravity of what she was doing. Five months they had known each other, three months they had been married. She had never raised her voice to him, never once did anything disobedient or disrespectful, and now, she was standing in front of him with a knife opposite his throat. What could he do to her? Beat her? She'd been beaten before. Kill her? So what. Hundreds of thousands of her people died, many thousands by Ameriques. What was one more?
He stared at her. Tears started in her eyes, and sobs shook her body but she kept her stance. "Now," she shouted. "Now. Mom's now. No more night here. None. Baby come. I eat food. I sleep bed. I live in Amerique now."
He said nothing for a long time. She tightened her face, held her body rigid. He pushed his hair out of his eyes again. "Alright," he said quietly, holding up his hands. "Alright." He took the keys off the wall and motioned her toward the truck. "There's probably not enough gas to get there, so if we end up walking the last few miles, don't blame me. And put the damned knife down." She looked at him, unsure whether or not she should trust him. She had no choice. He was her husband. She laid the knife gently on the table and followed him to the truck.