As far as James is concerned, the asphalted tongue of interstate between Houston and Baton Rouge will never end, and he’s been driving it half his life. Having first taken it westbound to college; then backtracking along it every Christmas before his stepfather died, when his mother was still so fixed on the idea that the four of them—James and her; his stepfather and and his stepfather’s son Moultrie—would some year shape themselves into a family.
But this time Baton Rouge is not exactly where he’s headed. He may have driven grudgingly into Louisiana, where the car of choice seems to be a mud-spattered white Caddy, but no way does he have any allegiance to this place, where houses seem to be something to be carried along interstates by flat-bed trailers, and debris he keeps having to swerve to avoid litters the road.
“I’m not even related to him,” he’d reminded his mother when she phoned, though it had wanted to come out of his mouth as he ain’t no real kin of mine. In Houston he’s careful about how he says things and is able to get away with claiming he grew up in Louisiana miraculously, without any accent.
“He’s all the kin you’ve got,” his mother had said with asperity. “You know none of those people he ran around with will ever be coming to see him.” Her voice softened. “And there’s something he says he wants to talk to you about. You know he’s just no good at letters.”
Letters that, James realizes —guilt being something his mother has always been especially good at—he probably wouldn’t have answered, were they to have arrived in the first place.
Now, because of that same guilt, he is driving once more over the Atchafalaya Basin into that brief hollow space sandwiched between night and dawn, when the bonds that hold things together seem, mysteriously, either strongest or loosest. Beyond the vapor lights’ wan glow, the darkness is rich, has body, is like some fine wine. It remains unpunctured. Once, this stretch of interstate arching over swamp, where when he was in high school someone either he or his stepbrother Moultrie knew always lost their life on prom night, signaled either the beginning or the end of his trips. This time, the pitch from elevated roadway down to solid ground just indicates that he still has further to go.
The squatty cinderbrick houses that announce the outskirts of Baton Rouge are already bravely swathed with Christmas lights, but their red glow might as well be that of a cigarette tossed from a passing truck. The blue and green seem thoughtless to James, something that draw the wrong kind of attention to unguarded houses built too close to the roadway.
When his stepfather passed away and left his mother a widow, Moultrie had been the one to show up unannounced at her house with a stepladder under his arm, the one who good-naturedly hauled the artificial tree down from the crawl-space and outlined the windows and eaves with Christmas lights. Another of Moultrie’s typical gestures, simple and perfect and something James would have thought of himself, if he hadn’t been busy—working, unlike his stepbrother—in Houston.
Up until the very second when what Moultrie still refers to as his misstep occurred, he always claimed he got some sort of lenience. He was still in business because he had scruples and they knew it: if the sale of certain drugs was going to happen in Baton Rouge, they’d rather it be him that did it than anybody else, so they turned a blind eye. This logic seemed stupid to James, one of his stepbrother’s wrongheaded assumptions that left him wondering how Moultrie had managed to survive life for almost forty years.
“Who’s they?” he’d said a year ago at Christmas, the last time he actually saw Moultrie. “You’re full of shit, you know that, don’t you?”
It was always cold when James saw Moultrie, always Christmastime. When his mother started asking him in June if he’d be home in December, he always told her he wouldn’t, but in the end, he always was. Driving along the holiday-dead streets to pick up Moultrie, whose cars were never running, and take him to their mother’s, where they went through the motions, the midnight mass attended by a sparse group of elderly parishioners it always startled James to realize included his mother; the forced cheer of unwrapping the small pile of presents; the drawn-out dinner of Coca-cola basted ham.
Everything had changed about Baton Rouge, except his stepbrother and the dirty houses he lived in and the way James always wound up sitting in the living rooms of them, drinking beer and staring out the window at the messy strands of Christmas lights that licked up and down the street, while Moultrie told James who’d moved where and who had divorced or died, and other things James said didn’t matter, but bummed him out a little when he thought about them later.
The house Moultrie had lived in last year had been a different questionable side of town than the one James remembered him living in the year before, but houses Moultrie rented always smelled the same. Of old, possibly faulty gas space heaters and cigarettes, not Moultrie’s because he didn’t smoke, but those of his nervous customers; of potentially decent weed; of Moultrie’s clothes, which he usually found at thrift stores.
“Who’s they?” James had demanded last Christmas.
“The Dixie Mafia,” Moultrie explained. “The police.”
“The Dixie Mafia?” James repeated. “And who is that, exactly?”
Only Moultrie would believe he was still in business because the underworld and law, working in some weird conspiratorial partnership, believed he was a scrupulous dealer. Although it was true enough that Moultrie had never once been caught holding any bag, not once in any of the years James knew of: through buying beer for him when he was still underage, to selling pot to kids who halfheartedly attended the nearby junior college.
“The other shoe is going to drop down soon enough,” James warned, taking a swig from his beer. “Get out while the getting’s good.”
“I’m careful,” Moultrie said, but he wasn’t. James knew he ought to stop coming by Moultrie’s house, even if it was only once a year—to be there when the cops busted down the door wouldn’t do him a bit of good. And in any case, he didn’t want to be around, to have to be the one to break the news of Moultrie’s latest bad luck to his mother.
When Moultrie had let him into his house he hadn’t even thought to lock the door behind them once he waved James through it; James had been the one who reached back and shot the probably useless deadbolt home, and he hadn’t hardly touched anything anyone could fault him for in years. If Moultrie got busted while James was sitting in his living room, James would end up downtown for questioning or as a witness at Moultrie’s trial, forced to lie or tell the truth, or he’d have to make Moultrie’s bail, and any of those things would solder him too tightly to this place. Which he prefers to visit for a day or so, then leave.
As soon as James makes it east of Baton Rouge, he has to remind himself to watch the road signs for I-12 as it branches away from 10 and slips above New Orleans, flat and even duller than the ground he’s already covered. I-12’s the comfortable sure shot, the choice of truckers and salesmen and the middle-aged, of those poor fools who hope to, or have to, make time. Ten’s the party route, no reason to be on it but New Orleans, and for years, he and Moultrie held anybody who’d choose I-12 instead of it in contempt.
The horizon beyond the windshield is brightening, degree by imperceptible degree, and some of the cars on the other side of the grassy median have already cut off their headlights. An oncoming car flashes theirs and his spirits lift. It seems like such a friendly gesture, as if the occupants of these cars streaming toward him—going where? home? to work? going somewhere—are well-meaning fellow travelers telegraphing to him the news that his long haul through the night is finally over.
In the grayish half-light, he takes his eyes from the road long enough to glance down at the piece of paper on the seat beside him. Moultrie’s hand-drawn map contains a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Home Depot as landmarks, and precise mileage. How can Moultrie know these details, when he hasn’t ever had the opportunity to drive this particular route himself? Moultrie’s handwriting is the sort of deliberate, flourished cursive James jettisoned in high school.
All in all this situation has given me time to reflect on my life and see my accomplishments and mistakes with open eyes, the last paragraph of the letter begins. It’s hard to know whether this is a sentiment Moultrie actually wants to convey to James, or if it’s for the benefit of someone else who reads his mail.
The postscript to the letter, and James has followed its instructions, even though it has always irked him to have Moultrie tell him what to do, is this: Be sure to bring change for the vending machines, man.
Moultrie’s current predicament has cleared up several things James always wondered about: how elderly mothers can continue to love felon sons; how neighbors, unswayed by yellow webs of police tape and the eyewitness of the news, always swear that the quiet man who lived across the cul-de-sac from them just went hunting a lot and that was why his house contained so many guns. Moultrie is still the same person he always was. Besides, it’s not as if he killed somebody, a fact that James’s mother, of whom James expected more, has not yet tired of pointing out.
When Moultrie’s father married James’ mother, when James was fifteen and Moultrie was seventeen, Moultrie had been fairly circumspect, and at that point all he sold was pot. It wasn’t until James started college that it occurred to him that it might have been more considerate of Moultrie to move out of his father’s house rather than keep living in the basement rec room.
By last year, Moultrie had long since moved out and on, as had James. By last year, Moultrie had also taken to keeping much harder stuff—his stuff, swaddled as tenderly as babies waiting to be adopted and taken home by people James had known all his life and others he would never meet—stashed in empty Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar containers arrayed in a row in his freezer. It was the last place anybody would look, he told James. His electronic scale and stash of Baggies were hidden underneath the floorboards in the living room, and the phone rang nonstop while he showed James exactly how he measured things with the same pride in his craftsmanship as when he’d taken him, earlier, past the cabinet he’d built of scavenged heart-pine.
“Such a worrier,” he said, his fingers busy. “Be cool, man.”
Now Moultrie is the one who worries. Which is as it should be, James thinks. As James’ mother says, Moultrie frets. Every phone call he makes to what he now without even noticing calls the outside requires a catechism that no longer startles James when he picks up the phone to hear it—press one to indicate that you understand this call has been initiated by an inmate of the Louisiana State Prison system; press the pound key if you are willing to accept these charges.
Moultrie’s called James just often enough that responding to the recorded request to pay for a call has become habit: once James even accepted the charges for what turned out to be a wrong number or misdial, some other poor fuck in some other prison hoping to get word of something to someone. Tell Mama I’m in here the voice had wailed into his ear over the shriek of a prison common room, and there’d been nothing for James to do but gently replace the phone in its cradle.
And now Moultrie, mellow Moultrie—who used never to worry about much of anything and often slept, James remembers, past noon; Moultrie, who any afternoon in 1983 might have announced to an admiring James that pretty soon he’d be quitting one of the interchangeable menial jobs he held to go off to follow the Dead; Moultrie, who several summers after that would tap into something called the Rainbow Family Gathering, and even more recently hitchhiked all the way to Burning Man, threatening to stop in Houston on the way—now Moultrie, he frets. Apparently. He’s called James twice—at least a five dollar charge each time—to confirm the make, model, and tag number of the car James will be parking in the prison lot, and once more since then to make sure he’s still planning to show up.
James hunches over the steering wheel, fumbling to turn on the windshield wipers, to swipe at the windshield with a bit of ragged Kleenex scavenged from underneath his seat. The difference between damp night and warmer morning has fogged the curving glass. His mother doesn’t realize arriving in time for visiting hours meant he had to leave Houston in the middle of the night. Moultrie has no idea how what he did has aged her. James flicks on the radio, looks down at the passenger seat at Moultrie’s carefully written directions, and noses the car into the exit lane.
It’s that time, just pre morning-drive-time, when in other circumstances James might be leaving a woman’s apartment, shirt untucked, shoes off and in one hand so he doesn’t wake her when he lets himself out of her apartment. The time of morning when there’s still dew to spangle the windshields of all the recently-waxed compacts in the parking lots and, once he slips behind the wheel of his car and turns on the radio, the deejays can play pretty much what they please, the flip-sides of hits and songs that never made the top ten. This time of day always feels like a fresh start, and James wishes he had a better reason to have driven all this way.
It’s approached so delicately, in code—Moultrie’s situation. His misstep. He pled guilty to the charges against him in the hope he’d somehow beat the mandatory sentence and serve less than the three-plus-something years that Trafficking—a felony, James would like to point out to both his mother and Moultrie, a federal crime—had meant. The fact that he didn’t beat anything and’ll now be serving at least four years out of fifteen means he harbors great enmity toward his lawyer, one found by James’s mother who either failed or did not fail to live up to his end of the bargain, and cost a sum she’ll be struggling to pay off for the duration of Moultrie’s sentence and probably past that—but Moultrie has never once admitted to being guilty.
All in all this situation has given me time to reflect on my life and see my accomplishments and mistakes with open eyes. Alone in the car, James allows himself to roll his eyes. This is not fucking Oprah—Moultrie was busted.
There’s probably an actual town with a main street and square cached between the interstate and the state highway leading to the prison, but James will never come back here again. Sometime in the future he’ll speed along I-12 past the signs indicating this exit and remember only the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Home Depot from Moultrie’s map, and the deserted McDonald’s playscape he just passed. The restaurant behind it is already open, circled by vehicles waiting their turn at the drive-thru.
Three strikes and you’re out, Moultrie reminded him over the phone. I didn’t even get one! His tone had been righteous. Rapists were in and out in much less time that he’ll be.
He’d just made a misstep.
The prison, or, as Moultrie labeled it so carefully on the return address of his letter, the correctional facility, turns out to be in a field that might’ve once grown corn or cotton. Its location falls somewhere between country and town, and it could be located anywhere, in fact probably is, there have to be a thousand places just like this all over the country. It could be a school or a sewage treatment plant or rehab facility or any of a number of vaguely institutional things. The gravel parking lot is already almost full by the time James pulls into it, a fact that reminds him this is podunk minimum-security stuff. He’d expected something more—The Big House and The Pen and cinematic lock-downs.
The line to check in at the guard box at the edge of the lot snakes back five yards or more, consists almost entirely of girls who look too young. Possibly too young to have finished high school, certainly too young to drink, or to possess the babies half of them hold in their arms. He takes his place in their midst, is surreptitiously looked over and then ignored. At the front of the line, the security wand dips and crackles. Passing over the baggie of change and car keys a girl with hair combed into an elaborate up-do clutches in one hand, then over the apparent self-portrait drawn in ball-point on lined notebook paper she holds in the other. The envelope of photographs she also wants to bring in apparently will require permission from someone higher-up, a sergeant.
“I’m going to have to wand you, little man,” the guard says, bending toward to the toddler who’s wandering blithely toward and then away from the gate. The guard reaches out and tugs gently at the straps at the back of the little boy’s overalls: the wand in his hand passes over the tiny tennis shoes, their laces tied in neat bows; over the dingy blue plush stuffed animal hugged in one hand.
James waits his turn, wondering if the real punishment of jail might lie in the complete tedium of it. Everyone is bored; the girls standing in line with their arms folded and their hips lazily cocked, some of whom holler across him about the Greyhound bus they took to get here; the guards, who over and over again in a monotone explain rules everyone already understands.
But everyone seems to know each other, and the guards are less uptight than Security at the Houston airport.
“How you doing, Miz Cantrell?” the guard in the booth says to the elderly woman in front of James. He extends his clipboard for her to sign. Everybody else knew to put their coins for the vending machines into Zip-loc Baggies, but James is going to have to toss his loose change into a bowl before he walks through the metal detector.
“Moultrie Woodruff,” he announces when he gets to the window of the booth. It’s so simple, like a password. One second, he’s out in the free world, then the security wand blesses him with a flourish, and there he is—on the inside.
There’s nothing high-tech about his entrance. He just signs in, walks the thirty feet into the squared-off cinderbrick building, is buzzed through one small waiting area and into the next like livestock moving through a chute. Each group of guards waves him on with an astounding lack of suspicion; they don’t even bother to prevent him from noticing, when he puts pen to paper at his second stop, that no one’s been to see Moultrie in months. Somewhere, behind another set of closed doors, he can hear a loudspeaker summoning his stepbrother.
Moultrie’s long ponytail has been cut off, what’s left of his hair has gone gray. All the other inmates being visited seem to be the same age as the girls who’ve come to see them—as far as James can tell, they’re all mere babies being visited by babies.
“James, man,” Moultrie says, moving forward.
James steps back.
“Hey, it’s not like it’s catching or something,” Moultrie says, his voice loud. “Not like if you touch me they won’t ever let you back out again.” Their second try at an embrace dissolves into an awkward bumping of shoulders. “Let’s just sit down, bro’,” he says.
James realizes he’d expected—planned on—a pane of plastic between them. Where are the phones, the surveillance cameras? What the room resembles most is a school cafeteria, one where the folding chairs Moultrie indicates have been arranged in rows along the sides like bleachers. The vending machines are at the back.
“Can’t sit facing each other,” Moultrie explains as they sit down shoulder to shoulder. “You might pass something off to me. How are you?”
“Okay,” James says. The wall in front of him looks mirrored, but he knows it’s not, that there must be more bored-seeming, poker-faced guards behind it. All around them, family groups have begun to settle in in a way that makes him realize they’re going to sit here like this for the entire five Visiting Hours, the long haul.
“What’s up?” he says, hands on his knees, because it’s what he has always said, since he was fifteen and his mother and Moultrie’s father had just merged households and he used to get home from school and knock on Moultrie’s bedroom door, and sometimes Moultrie would let him shake the seeds from the weed into the crease of Quadraphenia’s double-jacket before he cleaned and bagged it. James asks it even though it feels like saying to some cancer patient how are you? The answer can’t be good.
“Thanks for coming, man,” Moultrie says formally beside him. “It’s been a long time. Directions get you here okay?”
“Yeah.” Had those directions been so detailed, and Moultrie’s handwriting so careful, just because it was another way to fill up time? The five hours ahead of them stretch into eternity. Driving here, James had imagined he’d stay for an hour or two; that maybe he’d be able to make it back to Houston before midnight, only half his weekend wasted. What can they possibly do here?
“What’s your day like?” he asks finally, clearing his throat.
Moultrie pauses. “I read,” he says. “Read a lot. We got a group that reads the paper after dinner.”
“There a decent library here? What kind of stuff are you reading?”
“Elmore Leonard. Tom Clancy. Lot of the guys read romance novels.” Moultrie’s lip curls. “But I just finished Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky. He’s got it down, man.”
“What down?” James asks.
“This.” Moultrie waves an encompassing hand at the room. “Before that I read The Fountainhead.
“I keep to myself,” he adds abruptly. James sits back. Maybe now the prison movie he’d imagined will start, and Moultrie’ll say something like I keep my nose clean.
“Got a job,” he says, instead. “Mom tell you?”
James remembers hearing something about work in the kitchen. Framed by his mother’s eternally optimistic voice as something good, something Moultrie could use later. On the outside. She has always looked on the bright side, at least as far as Moultrie is concerned.
“That one didn’t work out.” Moultrie sighs. “I was real fucking depressed, those first few months, about my situation.”
There it is: the situation. The reason James is sitting here, the reason he can’t think of a single thing to say.
“I’m in the Shop now,” Moultrie says. He turns so he can look James full in the face, careful to keep both feet on the floor. He sounds awake for the first time since James arrived. “Painting signs.”
“Signs?” James says. The clatter of chairs scraped back on the linoleum is threaded through with the wails of fretful kids and the thud of a soda can as it rattles into the chute in the vending machine. He feels defeated by the clamor of so much important information needing to be conveyed so fast—five hours isn’t much, when you’ve got a life you’re sealed away from and a family out there doing stuff they need to tell you about.
“You brought change, man?” Moultrie asks, interrupting himself hopefully. As early as it is, everybody around them’s drinking Coke like coffee, even the guard sitting, yawning, by the door. “I could use something to drink.”
“Sure.” James digs in his pocket.
“You’ve got to go get it. We can’t both go. You might be handing something off to me. You know.”
“Oh,” James says, disconcerted. “What do you want?”
A Coke, a Baby Ruth Bar, some vinegar and salt potato chips, maybe some Twinkies. As Moultrie lists them, James realizes Moultrie didn’t ask him to bring change because he wanted to be as much of a host as possible and have a way to offer something, but more because whatever James brings back from the machines will be out of the ordinary, an unexpected entertainment. What’s it like to be bored so shitless?
“Yeah, I know,” Moultrie says when he gets back. “I’m going to start working out again a couple of months before my date comes up.” He peels back the wrapper on his candy bar.
“So you’ve got this job in the sign shop,” James says. “You just going to let yourself turn to shit, man?”
“Huh? Like, you know, you’ve seen those signs they put up when there’s going to be some kind of big meeting? About a piece of property? Like so somebody can make changes to it?”
“Oh,” James says. “Like for zoning hearings.”
“Yeah. And sometimes highway signs. You know, the big green and white ones.”
“People paint those?”
James never thought about where they came from, had assumed they were printed somehow, stamped out by some giant machine, and this is Moultrie, for Chrissakes, who could’ve gone to LSU, who could’ve done anything.
“Yeah,” Moultrie says simply. “I’m the best at it in here, so now it’s mostly just me. Pretty cool. I get the shop to myself. There’s a radio. Everybody else they tried at it, they just slopped the paint all over the place.”
His obvious pride doesn’t seem manufactured, besides, there’s no way anybody else can hear them: the din’s almost enough to stop their conversation in its tracks.
“Oh,” James says.
Moultrie leans over. “Look at him,” he whispers abruptly, with a jerk of his chin indicating a young guy sprawled out in a chair. The guy’s girlfriend or wife or lady or whoever she is leans solicitously toward him. James recognizes her as the one at the front of the line who’d carried in the drawing that looked like something she’d done at her desk at the back of math class. The envelope of photos that held up the whole line must’ve made it through somehow, because she’s handing each of them over and then taking them back like a handful of cards she’s been dealt. Bee-Bee, she say tell you hey, she says. Over there’s La-Keisha. The names ride the current of noise toward them. Coconut cake for dessert, she adds. Wish I could’ve brung some.
“Let me tell you, that fucker was on my ass when I first came in,” Moultrie says. “This might as well be his living room or something. He’ll be here his whole fucking life. In and out.”
Unlike Moultrie, who just last Christmas looked mainly like some placid hippie-type and now has lost it all—his supply, his beautiful long braid, his dirty house so comfortable for hanging out in—and doesn’t even have anybody to visit him every weekend like these other guys do.
“What about you,” Moultrie says. “What’s going on in Houston? Got a girlfriend?”
James shakes his head.
“What about that little brown-eyed girl, what was her name, that one you brought home that time us three drove down to New Orleans for the weekend?”
“May-Beth?” James says repressively. “You know her name, man. Shit, I ain’t seen her in two years.”
When May-Beth had come to Baton Rouge with him, she and James and Moultrie had stood in the wind on the observation platform at the top of the state capitol and stared at the muddy Mississippi. James still remembers the way her curly brown hair had escaped from its ponytail, the way she pushed away from her face with her fingers.
“That’s right,” Moultrie says. “May-Beth.”
Such a typical Moultrie move, to pretend he doesn’t remember. May-Beth had joked that she wanted to touch her fingers to a bullet hole left from the barrage fired at Huey P. Long, so they’d taken the elevator, all three of them, down to the basement, and after that, Moultrie had driven them on what he called his guided tour of the city, which consisted mostly of slowing the car at houses where he got stuff. That night, when May-Beth folded herself into the narrow twin bed in James’ old bedroom with him, she’d sleepily pronounced Moultrie a trip and a half, and James should have known what was coming. The next night, she’d danced with them both in turn in the Quarter, Moultrie more than him. And then she had linked arms with them both as they stumbled their way back, tipsy, through the empty streets toward their car.
And that, as they say, had been that.
“So who all’s come to see you?” James says pointedly. He knows from his quick glance at the guard’s clipboard that the answer’s nobody.
A girl he’d been sort of dating when he went in, Moultrie says without much regret in his voice. She came once at the very beginning.
“I asked her to pack up the rest of my shit and get it to Mom. Did she do it? She hasn’t ever wrote me.”
“What shit?” James asks.
“Huh? I got somebody to hold onto all the furniture, but this was like, little things. Books and pictures. Stuff you could fit into a suitcase. You know.”
“You didn’t figure out what to do with it before? It’s not like you didn’t know you’d end up here.”
“Mom,” Moultrie says, ignoring him. “Mom was somebody who came to see me. I couldn’t let her come again after the first time. Just couldn’t take it, the way it made her so upset.”
“That was nice of you,” James says. “Of course it made her upset.”
Moultrie takes a quick, furtive look around. “Hey, James, chill,” he says. “I didn’t think I was going to end up here.”
“Where the fuck did you think you were going to end up?” James hisses. “No way was some junkie ever going to pack up your shit and get it to Mom’s house.”
“It wasn’t like that,” James says, looking affronted.
“Like what?” James says. “You mean it was all hearts and flowers?”
“Hey, James, take it easy.” Moultrie says again, simply. He pauses. “Let’s not fight. You and Mom are just about all I got now.”
“Cut the sad song and dance,” James says, standing up. “I already know what you want to ask. Mom already said. How you need me to tell the parole board I’ll let you live with me once you get out. That you’ve turned over some new leaf.”
“Hey, calm down, it’s cool, bro’,” Moultrie says, looking stricken.
It’s just another family squabble, business as usual for this place. The girl who drew the portrait of herself in ballpoint pen is crying, fat tears running down her face. The scarred linoleum on the floor beneath James’s feet, the folding chair he’s sitting on, the thump and clank of the vending machines, all enrage him.
“Just admit it for once,” he leans over and hisses to Moultrie. “Okay? Just admit you were so fucking dumb you had a backpack full of heroin lying there on your living room floor and the front door unlocked. That’s all I’m asking.”
“Huh?” Moultrie says.
“Are you fucking deaf?”
“Yeah,” Moultrie says simply. “A little. It gets to you, in here. The noise.”
“Jesus,” James says. “Why bother lying to me? What’s the point?”
“No,” Moultrie says stubbornly. “I don’t know how that stuff got there.”
He looks away.
Nobody here is guilty of anything. Everybody was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. All it was was bad luck or circumstance. Connections that went bad, and deals that went sour.
“Aw, shit,” James says. He sits back down. “You dumb fuck.”
In the end, he retraces his steps out of the gravel lot and past the field shored up with barbed wire. Past the stand of curving pines, and then along the corridor of strip mall—Home Depot and the KY Fry, and all the other buildings Moultrie hadn’t listed in his directions, a Citgo and a yogurt shop and a place for to-go Chinese food. The road in front of James is glinting wet windshields from the afternoon rain. Everybody in this town seems to be going somewhere, and the wide flat lots in front of all the restaurants are starting to fill up. With couples, and families stopping for their big meal of the day, still so country that behind the big plate-glass windows they’re clasping their hands and bending their heads to bless the food set on the plastic tablecloths in front of them.
The interstate is a looming comfort he can spot from the trajectory of the access road. The coffee he stops for at the last-chance McDonald’s wedged into the on-ramp is hot enough to scald him back to Houston. It makes the car smell like home.
All the newness he remembers from the morning has burnt off the day, and the two right-hand lanes are clogged with truckers, not a single good citizen among them. The trucks are all chrome and heat and glow, impatient to get somewhere before dark, and it’s just as easy for them to box James in as not to.
All it was, was a suitcase, Moultrie said when he turned to leave; and there were just a couple of places it might be.
These trucks are never going to let James merge without a fight; they’ll never give him a courtesy blink to remind him that in the rain that’s started beating down again he ought to put his lights on.
“So what am I looking for?” he’d asked, turning back to his stepbrother, jingling the change left in his pocket.
“Some other stuff’s in there, too,” Moultrie had said, looking pained. He cleared his throat. “If nobody found it. Just flush it.”
The trucks press close on either side of James in a dangerous lumbering embrace. Green-and-white reflective signs Moultrie could’ve painted nudge at his right shoulder. He forces his way into the middle lane. How quick your reflexes have to be, he thinks as he merges, rejoicing. A moment’s hesitation and all might be lost.