Jessica was never sick at first. The first feeling no more than a fullness. A year now since she quit school, a year since her last gymnastics meet, and she thought only at first that she might be growing a little fat in the belly as she got older, but this was not fat. She was being stretched from inside, but she still thought she’d eaten too much. She fasted, half a day and gave in eating half a banana pudding pie still oven warm in one sitting. Then she forgot for a day or two, with great difficulty, but forgot all about it, because she did not think about anything in the shed, and never again, so what could happen.
Then it was a thing, not her, poison that this time did not do her the favor of oblivion but grew in her womb, a burr caught in the inner skin. She’d kill it, save it, pickle it, give it to him, and laugh. But Donnie Mack knew not to come around now.
She stole a twenty dollar bill from her mother’s mason jar behind the muscadine preserves, teased it into the hand of the boy who picked up the eggs and returned the money for them. Only then did she think of taking the money out of that, her mother never counting the eggs. But she gave the boy the stolen bill and kept the new ones. She rubbed a ten over the wood of the shed and nearly tore it in half rendering it old, then put it back in the mason jar, presenting her mother with a few of the other new bills as usual, that night at supper.
The boy brought the whiskey and cigarettes the next day, and she kept the bottle behind the hen she hated least, taking hot choking sips through the day, staggering through her chores, staring at the television dusted by glare while her mother watched her soap operas, gulping it once until her ears ran wet as her eyes. She meant to finish it in an hour but could not. She finished the whiskey the first night. She woke in the field beyond the shed, her eyes up to the stars and a cold dew on her arms, snuck around the far corner of the house, her mother cooking already in the dawn, crawled in the bedroom window, and fell asleep on the floor. She never threw up, and the whiskey only rang in her head the rest of that day, a dull orange hum to everything.
Then it was a thing, not her, poison that this time did not do her the favor of oblivion but grew in her womb, a burr caught in the inner skin.
Both of us, then. Who will you be? Days of growing health, eating everything from the leftover plate from its place worn into the middle of the formica table. Once stealing a spoon of the bacon drippings from their filter can at the back of the stove. She ate eggs fresh from under the hens.
Then she began to throw up. Not in the morning. All day, every day. She could keep nothing down but it stayed and grew.
Us? Or it? Or me?
She left with nothing but the full contents of her mother’s unused purse, nothing but money, poured into one mason jar, and the makeup she kept in her dresser, everything wrapped in a white sweatshirt that in rainbow glitter and melted plastic letters said,
Lindale, she could have walked to, but she wanted to get there before noon and it got more crowded. Middle of the morning it took a while before anybody came down that road, but then a boy who’d dropped out the same year as she had, slowed before he got to her, and then pulled over.
The truck cab the smell of her father’s shirts, tobacco sweat and motor oil. But then the shed.
“Smells like cow shit in here.”
“I’m. I’m. I’m.”
“It’s okay. I won’t say it for you.” She smiled, and looked back through the windshield, away from him. Patience.
“Sorry ‘bout that.”
“No. Don’t you be.” She smiled again, easy for him to see her, smiling at him. “I’m sorry I said that,” she said. The smile faded. “Passin on cruelty’s the laziest way a bein’ evil.”
“Yah—yah. Yooou. You-you-you.” He paused for a breath. “You’re not evil.” He drove with both wrists over the top of the steering wheel and she could see his hands work a little for the words. Overalls clean for this day into a night shift.
“But I was bein’ it. Nobody thinks they’re evil, or there’d be a lot a sorry sons of bitches wandering around. Your ears would hurt from all the apologies.” She had him laughing. But then he stopped.
“Evil. Bein’ evil. You—you. You.”
She waited while he took a breath.
She looked at him again. “I’m not sure but that’s not a statement that can go two ways.”
“I always knew you were smart. The teachers. They’re the goddamn dummies. At least here. I have a brother-in-law teaches at the university in Dallas. He’s no dummy.”
“He ain’t here,” he said, laughing.
“Nope. Sure as hell ain’t. That’s smart.”
“Buh-buh-buh. Buh-rother-in-law. I didn’t know you had a sssister.”
“Huh. You know about everybody. Well. I didn’t either. She was adopted.”
“I’m not—not bein’ nosy or nothing like that. It’s juh-juh. Just everbody thinks they know something’s wrong with me. You get to know other people better than they—. Than they think.”
“You got that right. Anyway, my mystery sister—he had to be dying to marry her.”
“You—you keep your mystery. But you sound jealous.”
“Jealous a growin up in a orphanage.”
“Huh.” He glanced at her and then turned this into a short laugh.
Out the window, the day fairing off. A few clouds going up over a hill of pasture with no cows but the shadows of the clouds in procession rising up the slope. I do love it here. She took out a cigarette. Just not there. She handed him the cigarette and took out another.
“You think it’s wrong to leave somebody you’re supposed to help, if they don’t know you’re helping them? If they don’t see it?”
He leaned sideways, so she could light his cigarette. After he exhaled, he held it over the wheel. “You.” He took another drag. “You take care a your mama.” He took another drag. “She—sick. Right?”
They rode in silence over the next hill, a truck with an empty trailer waiting at the T junction with another Farm to Market. She felt the truck as he covered the brake and then the engine shuddered back up to speed.
“Yes. But if I left. I just mean if—if I left she would still get looked after. She wouldn’t even know any difference.” The herd of clouds rising away from them. “Is it wrong to put an end to something nobody knows about anyway? I mean, there’s no reason to keep our place, any of it, anymore, if she needs looking after and can’t help being mean all the time.”
“M-m-m-me. Me—mean. Mean evil? Orrrr bein’ evil.”
“Right.” She smiled again. “Same difference.” The day warming. “If you can’t remember to keep your days and nights straight, but every morning you wake up mean, then who are you?”
“Sounds like a baby, to me.”
Don’t say everything. “Nobody feels nice when they’re sick. She can’t help being older in a way than she is. And she was old enough when she had me.”
He just nodded.
He’s a nice boy. “Ever day just takes getting up and not bein’ mean, I guess.”
“Youuuu—right about that.” He smoked. “I didn’t leave on acc-ack. On account a meanness. Teasin. You-you-you know that, right? On account a—” He stopped.
“Evil,” she added. “Sorry.”
“N-n-n-no. No. Better word for it.” He rolled down the window and flipped the cigarette out into the still damp sunlight before the next shadow of a cloud over the road. “I thank you.” The window back up. “I had to go to work, too.”
“The coal plant?” Again. Wait. “Sorry.”
“No. I mean. Yup. I mean, no— There’s a new cut. W-way out to, to Longview.”
“Good.” She smiled at him. “I mean, it’s good that you made that choice. That nobody run you off.”
“Shit,” he grinned at her. “Nobody runnin me off, from that damned place.” The cigarette seemed to help him. “I drive so far, just to work half the day and all night. The-the-th. That’s— my business.”
“Good.” Go. Keep going. How many kids do you already have? You—now me? Jesus. Don’t say—
“But how come you to take me into town if, if you were headin just to the highway?”
He grinned again. “C-c-cu—C-c-cu— Cuz I wanted to. My business. Wuh—”
They nearly rolled past, so she pointed and spoke up, “There. Just the store.”
“Oh, huh? But—”
“You can just let me out here.”
“No way.” He turned into the parking lot and stopped at the front.
“Ain’t nobody runnin me off, neither.”
He turned to her, smiling. Slowly. Did he lean toward her even? “Less you. Want to go.”
She looked away. Who is in the store?
She was already out of the truck, and as the door swung shut, she turned and smiled at him one last time.
“To git some eggs.”
His voice muffled, but distinct. “You be good.”
A girl whose name she could not remember at the only one of the three checkouts open. She went past her and halfway down the far aisle with the girl still working on lowering her voice.
“You and—you-you-you sweet on somebody else’s Buh-buh-buh-buh?”
She went through the back past the bathrooms and the stocking area and out the back door and kept walking.
She walked the Farm to Market road the couple of miles to the interstate. Then across the parking lot of the gas station, and went into the restroom just as the old woman inside looked down into her tray and counted bills for a trucker who didn’t look too tough. He would go to the bathroom only just before he left, like Daddy always did.
She waited until she heard the big truck left idling and then the door to the men’s room. Then she went out and stood up on her toes to reach the handle and swing up to the cab.
The trucker came out to see her sitting in the cab, one foot bare up on the dash, mouth parted wide to stretch her lips wider, the lipstick sliding her lower lip.
“Aw. You caught me. You ain’t got a cigarette, do you?”
She got as far as Canton. Not very far. The trucker whipped the rig up an unpromising ramp to a Farm to Market that looked to go nowhere, that even she hardly knew. He was doing this after he had been preaching at her but before the fat bushes in the median that hid the Canton police. God talk and no one around a bad combination if she had ever learned one. She jumped out of the cab in the muddy ruts inside the curve of the ramp into the road, and ran through a field until she heard the truck shudder up and the guy hunt his gears until he got it going and went back down to the highway. Then she walked.
First Monday. Canton stretched all up to the service road, the town spilling tourists out of its flea market. From Dallas and farther away, both hicks and people who thought it was cute pretending to still be a hick. What I couldn’t find in that old barn, that they wouldn’t want to put in a living room in Dallas or Tyler.
The right Monday to leave. But she avoided the men she saw walking alone, or men walking with other men. Duallies and lesser trucks parked half in the road, astride the smaller bar ditches and in fields wherever there were no fences to keep them out. Dogs tied in the beds, children in a string behind women not much older than she was. A Mercedes nose down in a shallow ditch with the back tires clutching the edge of the asphalt. The refugee camp of trailers and trucks, whole acres according to their wares. Dog alley, full of new puppies, all registered AKC and most with some quiet defect or other ticking like a small bomb between cute ears and eyes still half shut. At the end of dog alley some little shorthaired striped pups with bear faces and yellow eyes. They shivered on display in a children’s dry blue plastic swimming pool, their shit smeared up with paper towels and put away into a plastic shopping bag by two women in short hair and matching western shirts and snakeskin boots.
“Look at you. Aw.”
One of the women looked at her, the other looked on, turned away and lit a cigarette.
“Make you a good pet. That little un there.”
“Shit,” said the other woman, done lighting the cigarette and exhaling through wide nostrils. “Make me one sooner an you.”
Dogs tied in the beds, children in a string behind women not much older than she was.
The woman went on anyway. “Just sweet little things. They’re registered, too. Bout six weeks, perfect time to separate ’em fore they get too attached.” She reached up a fat handful of fur and pushed it at her. “This one’s the smartest. Smallest but the smartest by a country mile. Almost potty trained already and barely got her eyes open. You can bring her right back if she don’t work out. We’re here every month.” She hadn’t taken the pup and the woman put it back in the little pool pen but pushed it toward her. They bumped around each other in their blindness, one trying to suck another as if he had found his mother’s teat. More like six days than weeks.
“This your first time to First Monday?”
“Aw.” The puppy bobbled toward her hand, bumping it. She picked it up and held it close, only for a second. Breath of milk and lungs still drying. She could still smell the mother on it.
She walked back north, away from this.
On the bridge over the interstate she watched the Canton car jump from those bushes into the passing lane headed west and catch a BMW, alligator gar on a perch. She walked on. Not fifteen minutes later she was waiting at a gas station on the north side for somebody filling up before hauling their new trash to Dallas. The Canton car found her sitting on the curb, smoking a cigarette.
“I’m just sittin.”
“And I’m just picking you up. Unless your name ain’t Jessica Briggs. You Donnie Mack’s sister, ain’t you.”
She forced a smile.
“Careful,” he said. “You better just git in.”
At Jim Hogg road the Canton cop handed her over to Wade, the one cop she’d seen around her brother when he wasn’t working. He’d stop by, asking for him. She’d seen this cop more than she could remember. Or wanted to. Another reason not to trust cops. The two cop cars sat side by side while Wade took her out of the Canton car and put her in the back of his.
She sat inside while they stood out there talking about her. Some kind of deal. The road back rolling up into hills between walls of pine. The clouds were gone and the sun just sat up there over everything.
Before the Razor
Inside the Creative Process of “First Monday to Dallas”
Jessie, or Jessica Briggs, as you see her in “First Monday to Dallas,” first revealed herself ascending a thousand feet up eleven switchbacks strewn with broken talus on a popular trail in the San Juan Mountains. That was in a dream, though I’d been up that trail myself on a first trip to Ouray, Colorado from where I lived in Dallas, Texas. Jessie’s route grew more technical (especially once I ended up in Boulder, trail running what I’d once labored up like a climber in James Salter’s Solo Faces). Seven companions followed her, up into bad decisions for which the back country can kill you, all into the first draft of a novel. She was twenty-three back then, more years and pages ago than I should confess.
What does this have to do with sixteen-year-old pregnant Jessie, trying to hitch her way out of East Texas? Everything. I long ago killed off her companions on the trail, and went so deep into her back story that the entire state of Colorado vanished from the novel, but she grew real to me on that mountain. Only then could I find where she’d come from, in a setting I knew more about back then. Someday I’ll write something set where I now live. But sixteen years after moving to Colorado, I’m still trailing characters fleeing Dallas, or Boston, or New York. In No Roads Home, the finished novel from which “First Monday to Dallas” is excerpted, Jessie’s trying just to get beyond the pine curtain. That’s what East Texans call the division between the dark trees and secrets of their country, and the Rest of the West of Texas—let alone the rest of the world.
Once I saw Jessie on that trail, I had no idea how she’d get there. I don’t plot. I turn characters loose in worlds I either know or can learn about (the Korean War, for a new book), then follow them. Get to know how they move and think, and where keloids round their hearts.
I once bumped along in the stuffed Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze looking for Michelangelo’s David, seeking seventeen-year-old transformative visions. (A madman had recently attacked the Pietà, so David stood far behind a plywood wall. As Walker Percy puts it, I had a “preformed complex” of David-ness stuck in my head anyway, more barrier than plywood and tourists.) But in an unexpected, and therefore attainable vision that day, I turned a corner into Michelangelo’s unfinished Prisoners: The Atlas, The Young Slave, The Awakening Slave, and The Bearded Slave struggle to escape their marble blocks, extraneous stone yet clinging to them. Rather than casting plaster models, Michelangelo chipped away until these people emerge, as his student Vasari described, as if from a receding surface.
It takes thousands of words for me to find hundreds, because I need a lot of clay on the wheel. Piling up words only to remove them—by chisel, fingers, and razor—I hope my characters escape me.