What Mennonite Girls Are Good For.
"Tomorrow," Larissa said. She could practically smell Tecate through the phone line. "I wait for you," she heard as she shoved the receiver into its wall mount and returned to the living room where her roommate Bev sprawled in front of the television.
"Refugee?" Bev asked. "Again? Don't know why you put up with that."
"He's lonely," Larissa said.
"Get one of those Spanish boys at the restaurant to tell you how to say 'fuck off,'" Bev said. "That's what I'd do."
Weak, Bev meant, and Larissa understood, but even if she had known those words in Spanish, she wouldn't have used them.
Bev raised the volume on the television making fake tinny laughter fill the room.
Larissa sat down. She didn't know what to do about Raul. He was different, more sensitive than the others had been. And he always called twice, the second time, drunker than the first, as if he'd sat in that barren apartment agonizing over what he meant to say instead of realizing she'd hardly been listening at all.
Until that morning, Larissa had been looking forward to the two-hour drive west to Ellsworth County where she planned to take pictures of the petroglyphs on Inscription Rock for a Kansas state history course she was taking at the Mennonite college. Larissa had only taken the summer class to placate her parents whose determined optimism about her future always made her feel worse about the fact that all she'd been doing in the two years since high school graduation was wait tables at Hank's, not even the best truck stop in their nowhere town.
But when she stopped by her parents' house to ask if she could borrow their truck to better manage the off-road terrain, Raul had been standing there, his face still sweating from whatever day job the church had found for him.
"You should take Raul along," her father said.
Raul nodded, uncertainly.
Her father knew nothing about Raul's late night calls. Larissa wasn't even certain how much of them Raul remembered. "Tomorrow," he said, the matter settled.
Larissa's father was a minister at one of the local Mennonite churches participating in the Overground Railroad, a church-based action group that gave emergency transport to men fleeing state and guerrilla armies in Guatemala and El Salvador, men with enough violence in their lives to be given church-sponsored asylum in Canada. By the time the men--she learned early not to call them refugees, that faceless sweep of a word--got to their nowhere town, they'd already endured some harrowing escape through Mexico and over the US border only to find themselves stalled in Newton, waiting for documentation to continue north.
Her father found the men housing and odd jobs and, more than once, gave the single men Larissa's number if they asked for it after meeting her. She never told him they called at night, sometimes drunk, the town's dull nights leaving empty hours for memories of their recent traumas to erupt. Stories tumbled into her ear. Towns massacred. A child's naked body abandoned beside a road. A colony of monkeys senselessly shot dead in a jungle clearing.
So sorry, Larissa would respond. Or, can't imagine. She knew they called her because she was one of the few people they met even close to their own age. And, she was the minister's daughter. They trusted her.
"Don't tell your father" was how Raul ended their few conversations. Larissa was never certain if he meant his late night calls or his drinking, but this didn't matter. For whatever reason, respect she supposed, she never told her father about any of those calls.
The phone started ringing again.
Bev smirked over her beer bottle. "Want me to handle it?"
Weak? Bev's disgust wasn't right, but as Larissa went for the extension in her bedroom, she knew something in her own actions wasn't honest either.
THE NEXT DAY, LARISSA PICKED up her father's truck and drove down Main to the apartment, a donated unit, where most of the men ended up. She passed the railroad station and stopped in front the row of dilapidated buildings just south of the tracks. After she rang the doorbell, she returned to the air-conditioned truck cab to wait.
Through the windshield, the day seemed bored even with itself. A swarm of starlings pecked mercilessly at an Asian pear tree. A man spit chew tobacco into a beer bottle as he leaned against the wall of the Legal Tender Saloon, the lone holdout from Newton's past as a rowdy 19th century cow town situated on the southernmost curve of the Santa Fe railroad. Cowboys once drove herds from Texas and Oklahoma, loaded them onto cattle cars waiting at the station, and blew the money they'd just made in Main Street's bordellos, dance halls, and saloons.
Larissa tried to imagine the wide, empty road crowded with stagecoaches and wagons, the bittersweet smell of horse shit steaming up from dirt and sludge, the adrenaline rush of money-making, gun fights, and brawls. Jesse James himself had shoved a knife into the wall of the Legal Tender and inscribed "JJ," initials never verified but dutifully preserved. Larissa had seen them, two simple lines surrounded by letters carved out by decades of drunks.
Now, one hundred years on, late night drinkers staggering out of the Legal Tender squared off only with sober, fresh-faced workers arriving for early morning shifts at the popular Mennonite bakery across the street, a nightly show down between the two halves of the town.
Finally, Raul emerged. Larissa could see he thought it was a date. He'd slicked back his hair with gel and put on a T-shirt so fresh from its packaging, a grid of creases showed across his chest. He wore oversized dress pants and large shiny shoes. Castoffs, Larissa guessed, donated by a well-meaning church member's wife. He didn't get they would be driving through dusty fields, squinting at rocks. The worst part though was that he thought it was a date.
Raul opened the door. "Larissa," he said.
The solemn expression the men on the Overground Railroad wore always made Larissa realize how much people smiled in her town, regardless of genuine feelings.
She decided she'd return the greeting his way. "Raul," she said grimly.
Raul looked startled.
Larissa liked how not smiling felt. "Get in, Raul," she said.
When she'd picked up the truck, her father had given her money for gas and a little extra to take Raul out for a meal on the drive home. "Right, Dad," she'd said, accepting the money instead as a peace offering.
At the gas station, Raul leapt out and went for the nozzle, his eagerness to do what little he could only exaggerating his vulnerability. This irritated Larissa as did her instinct to make him feel better. You don't have to do that, Raul! she would have said before that day. Or, smiling, Thank you, Raul. So kind!
Instead, she stepped out of the truck without even looking at him. The smell of gas irritated her. The starlings flocked in a nearby tree irritated her. The birds had invaded the town in murmuring, squawking swarms drawn by some innate and inexplicable passion to destroy the pear trees the Lions Club had planted down Main, one more attempt at local "beautification" that had obviously failed.
As she walked toward the cashier's station, she saw Peggy, another waitress from Hank's, at a pump. This too would have irritated Larissa, except that if anyone had to see her with Raul, it might as well be Peggy.
When Larissa was close enough to hear, Peggy gestured with her chin. "What's that?"
"Nice way of asking," Larissa said.
"So? Tell me."
"My father's friend."
"Don't see Daddy."
Larissa shrugged. Though her father never asked her to keep his activities quiet, the Overground Railroad wasn't the kind of thing she told non-Mennonites like her roommate Bev or Peggy, and certainly not the traditionally-minded customers and drivers who ate at Hank's.
Peggy yanked the nozzle out of her tank. "What do you think he tastes like? Hot sauce?"
"Tecate more like it."
Peggy laughed, surprised by Larissa's sting. You're so nice, Peggy often teased during their work shifts, mocking Larissa's soft voice and gentle presence.
"You have a good time now," Peggy said, opening her car door. Sealed inside the roar of the air-conditioner, Peggy's thirteen-year-old son waved. Her husband--newly returned from military service in Kuwait sick, silent, addicted to computer games, and impotent, as all at Hank's knew due to Peggy's careless complaints--stared dully through the front window.
Peggy honked as she drove off, taunting Larissa with a thumbs-up.
Larissa looked back. Raul had returned the nozzle to the tank and was washing the front windows, taking care not to ruin his new clothes.
Weak. Nice. Doing God's work. That's what Mennonite girls were good for. Larissa went into the station to pay.
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 Raul 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. Raul turned toward the window beside him. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. She remembered the faith story Raul 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. Raul 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, Raul 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.
Raul had ended his story abruptly. As the translator caught up, Raul 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," Raul 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 Raul. The loud sound effects might even scare him. Gunshots, she remembered from his story. Children. She didn't want Raul to turn into a basket case while it was just the two of them.
The road thudded beneath their wheels. Raul 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, Raul," 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?"
Raul 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," Raul 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," Raul 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, Raul 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.
Raul 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. Raul 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. Raul 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 Raul 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 Raul had heard hatreds far worse than she would ever hear.
"Tell me, Raul," 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."
Raul'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 Raul's story. Much better told.
"Donde vamos?" Raul 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 Raul 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.'"
Raul 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.
Raul 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 engines 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. Raul'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, Raul, 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.
Raul sat back.
Larissa felt a strange alertness. She felt alive. Was this what people got from being cruel?
Swiftly, silently, they continued west through fields that stretched toward enormous cities, those glittering, dreamed-up escapes where people had possibilities and could take charge of their lives and weren't so haunted and hunted like people she knew. People like Raul, whole families even, forced to uproot their lives again and again. People like Peggy driving her husband from one VA doctor's appointment to the next while disappearing with an occasional trucker to "feel a little less dead." People like her father, so haunted by other people's hurts, by those pains he couldn't reach, pouring his love for this world into sermons he offered each Sunday morning to half awake souls and then slipped into manila folders ordered by date and filed inside drawers marked DELIVERED. She'd seen them, the oldest pages yellowed and crumbling, returning unused--like so much available love--into air.
The roar of a train engine blasted Larissa from her trance. She shoved on the brake. The truck jolted to a stop. Raul slammed his hands on the dash but made no sound. She'd shamed him with her silence. She'd made him feel invisible, but she would not apologize.
The engine blurred past followed by a rush of freight cars, each one yanking the next. No cross gates fell across that unpopulated stretch of highway, but she should have seen the train crossing the wide plain.
She remembered a similar near-disaster, another train streaming out of nowhere, only that time it had been night. She'd been driving back from the women's health clinic in Wichita with Peggy in the passenger's seat, months after her husband's deployment to Kuwait. Larissa had loaned Peggy money she needed for the abortion. Larissa had given her a ride. But instead of thanking her, Peggy only said that even though they made the same pitiful wages and cheap ass tips, she knew Larissa would have money saved. And, she knew she could get Larissa to offer it to her.
Nice. "You're one of them," Peggy said. "Doesn't matter how much you think you're not." Then Peggy gave into her body's exhaustion, sleeping the rest of the way to their town where Larissa nearly got them both killed.
That night, no whistle blared. There was only a single, solitary light sweeping across the track. That was the first Larissa saw of those night trains, swift and silent with pristine wheels that flashed like silver as they pulled shipments of military equipment, tanks, and vehicles. In the path of her headlights, the tan and beige camouflage designed to infiltrate the Gulf's desert terrain looked pale and sickly, like ghost versions of the familiar jeweled greens made to invade jungles in Vietnam.
There were reasons, she supposed, why military trains traveled at night. Rights of passage. Lower temperatures. Less visibility to communities, like hers, that might stage protests. And even after the Gulf War ended, those trains kept coming, carrying midnight loads from manufacturers to southern ports and military bases.
What dark genesis spawned the first war? Had her father asked the question one Sunday morning or was it some unspoken darkness hovering over generations? For from that war was begat the next, and from that war was begat the next, and on and on--no exodus--only ghost trains and railroads cutting through the country, delivering the next war already begun.
The last car passed. Larissa crossed the track and continued toward Hutchinson, its low silhouette etched onto the western horizon.
IN HUTCH, LARISSA TURNED NORTH onto County Road 14 and headed north toward Ellsworth County. As they left the city, oversized grain elevators graduated into smaller ones. Houses and schools and shopping areas thinned into long stretches of cropland. That too gave way to grazing land beneath endless waves of sky. Somewhere an invisible border was drawn: to the west, tumbleweeds hurled themselves into the road during their season, clogging up fenders and clinging to fence posts. To the east, tumbleweeds did not exist.
Raul was either asleep or pretending to be, his cheek pressed against the window, sunlight washing down his ear and collarbone. They were almost the same age. No logic or faith could explain why she lived paralyzed by the privilege of possibilities while he lived forever moving, forced to accept whatever opportunity opened.
My life is perfect, Jesus, a translator from San Salvador, one of the men who called her at night, shot back after she tried to express recognition of injustices done to him. Spurning her pity, Jesus insisted he wouldn't have his life any other way--without the people he'd loved, without the people he'd lost, without being forced to learn how little is missed after abandoning everything. Living with death as an everyday fact, his life had rid him of illusion.
"You don't know shit about your own life," Jesus said. "How can you pity me?"
That was when Larissa began to limit her responses. So sorry, she'd say. Can't imagine.
Because Jesus was right--she didn't know shit about her own life, let alone theirs.
As they drove down that road with its veil of dust undulating across the hot asphalt, Larissa knew too that the intensity she'd dreamed up when she first saw that image of the petroglyphs was only more evidence of that same you-don't-know-shit. Seeking to preserve "history" with two-dimensional pictures as if one could interpret and catalog 400-year-old etchings of soul, seeking for meaning inside other people's mysteries, demanding this even, without putting her own "white-girl" existence on the line--this was that same "you don't know shit," proving her false, selfish, and imaginary.
"Informational drawings" her instructor called the Ellsworth petroglyphs as the class passed around the image, a stereograph taken by a guy working for the Union Pacific Railway. The petroglyphs were small: only two feet high and nine feet wide hanging over Mulberry Creek. The colors, if there ever were any, had long faded. Drawn by Plains Indians or maybe Pawnee, other petroglyph sites from the same time period showed more artistic advancement. But the rushed, crude quality of the drawings in Ellsworth suggested they were drawn to convey a story, some urgent history drawn in-transit by a people moving toward a new life.
Like Jesus said: we-don't-know-shit. Colors lost. Stories stolen.
Only shapes and silhouettes remained. Triangles representing tipis. Horses standing on long stick legs. A row of warriors holding shields drawn as bull's eyes--soldiers with bodies made into targets--guarding a figure that dominated the center, a sacred shaman or chief wrapped in death robes. Lines radiated from its sacred skull. A current undulated from its mouth.
As Larissa held the picture in the classroom, she'd suddenly felt cold. Was that a serpent, river, or spirit, or some collective line of soul? The shaman's eyes had no pupils. Its hollow stare absorbed a place far wider than the Great Plains, absorbed time beyond the transient human scene in front of it, far beyond students passing pictures in an airless summer classroom in 1991.
After 400 years, the sandstone bluff threated to slide into creek. Documenting the site would be "a service" their teacher said. Larissa volunteered that same day.
Larissa glanced at the odometer. According to her calculations, the road to the petroglyphs was near. She slowed the car, searching for a break in the fence line, and saw a turnoff. "Private property" a sign read. Then, in smaller letters, "RUINS." She made the turn. Gravel popped against the bottom of the truck bed. Dry, loose dust made the uneven wheel ruts almost slippery. She shifted the engine into four-wheel drive. The truck lurched.
Raul sat up.
"This is it, I think," she said. Gripping the wheel with both hands, her thighs tensed, she felt as if she was driving a horse through an open field of low-lying grasses.
A red pickup sat cattycorner across the lane. As they neared, Larissa made out a silhouette, a stick figure backed by afternoon light, carrying a hunting rifle as he walked toward his truck. An enormous dog shadowed him. The slant of afternoon light exaggerated the length dog's long skinny legs. The man motioned them to stop.
Larissa cut the engine.
As the man secured his rifle on a gun rack crossing the back window of his truck cab, the dog turned.
Larissa glanced at Raul. He sat very straight, sweat beading his upper lip. He hadn't spoken since he'd made his confession: I-like-you-very-much-you-are-very-nice. This realization pained Larissa.
"It's nothing," she said. "He'll tell us we're in the wrong place. Or, he'll let us go on."
With the air conditioner turned off, the day's heat pressed against the truck. Larissa rolled down her window. Hearing her movement, the dog raised its head. Legs tensed, its giant paws pressed into the ground, the dog watched them.
The man herded the dog inside the cab, the animal's long skinny limbs reminding Larissa of the horses on the petroglyphs. After the man slammed the door and started toward them, the dog lifted its head again, its bark soundlessly sealed off behind the window.
"Private property," the man said when he stood beside their truck. "Mine."
Larissa held out her student ID card. "We came to see the petroglyphs. For a class."
Ignoring the card, the man peered inside the cab, the bill of his hat still shading his eyes.
Raul stared at the lane in front of them.
"Who's the Sanchez?" the man asked, assuming Raul wouldn't understand the slur or not considering the term to be one.
"A friend," Larissa said. Her face tightened into its habitual smile. She said too cheerily, "Hearyou've got a real sight back there! You oughtta charge admission!"
"Think I aim to sit here all day waiting on dollars?"
"No, sir," Larissa said, unable to get rid of the stupid smile stuck to her face. If she didn't get to see the drawings after coming all of that way because she'd brought Raul, she'd never forgive her father.
The man took off his hat and shoved his fingers through his hair. Face bared to sunlight, he looked younger than she'd assumed. Fixed on the lane in front of them, his steady gaze reminded Larissa of landscape painter from Cottonwood Falls, a customer at Hank's Peggy disliked. His stare, she believed, bored through her skin and saw right into her poor soul.
The man settled his hat back on his head. "Keep going. Road you're on here is the old Indian trail. Park beneath the wind break. Can almost see the drawings from there, but you got to cross the creek to get close. No matter. Water's low."
Larissa nodded. "Okay if I take pictures?"
"Do what you do," the man said. "Just don't go into the cave. Whole site's near collapse. Don't want injuries. Lawsuit, neither."
"Got it," Larissa said.
The man turned back toward his truck. As his master neared, the dog began to jump from seat to seat, barking soundlessly until laying its chin on the dash as if offering its own head, an animal gesture of devotion Larissa strangely envied.
Larissa smelled Raul's sweat. Damp circles showed beneath his arms. The air conditioner had been turned off during the conversation, but he'd been too anxious to roll down his window. Thank you, Raul, for being so patient, she did not say. Or, Almost there! I promise'. Instead, she started the truck and turned on the air-conditioner and tried to focus on the fact that the lane they drove on was the actual Indian trail.
As they drove into the trees, the light changed. The shaded area seemed like a secret garden. She parked and stepped outside. The solid ground felt good beneath her feet after driving so long. She smelled the mix of sun-scorched dust and the musty green smell of mulch and wet ground. She lifted her sunglasses to the top of her head. Filtered through cottonwood and aspen leaves, the afternoon light flickered down the ravine toward Mulberry Creek.
Larissa turned back for her camera. Raul stared through the front window, his seatbelt still fastened across his chest. He looked miserable. Larissa pulled the strap of her camera bag firmly over her shoulder. His disappointment could only demand her attention if she let it do that.
She slammed her door and started toward the ravine.
The image the instructor showed them had been taken by the railroad company in 1867. In the century between, the people and animals drawn on the rocky wall had been used for target practice by cowboys and scouts, a common practice. After that, white settlers imitating the eastern rage for "picnicking" had made day trips to the shaded creek and had etched their initials into the stone between the images.
But even with this warning, Larissa wasn't prepared.
The warriors became visible first, the bulls' eyes in the centers of their bodies entirely shot out. The shaman's body was stained and blackened. Bullet holes forced open its stare. The current spilling from its mouth was cratered open.
The truck door slammed. Larissa looked back. Raul stood at the top of the ravine. His white shirt stuck to his chest. His face was flushed. He looked miserable. At least, he understood this wasn't a date.
Balancing on the wet stones in her tennis shoes, Larissa crossed to the other bank and picked through the brambles along the base of the wall. Up close, the petroglyphs looked even more pocked and ruined. Too high to reach, the settlers and sightseers must have climbed up the wall to carve their initials, like those decades of drunks who stabbed their initials into the walls of the old saloon beside the scribbled markings of Jesse James as if one could take another's immortality.
Larissa heard Raul's hard-soled dress shoes slipping on the wet stones behind her.
She started up the path that wound around the base of the sandstone and found the entrance to the narrow tunnel behind the wall that supported the drawings. Like everything else about the site, the cave looked smaller and dirtier and less elegant than Larissa had expected, but it at least offered a place away from the day's disappointments.
"Larissa?" Raul called.
She ignored him.
Too impatient to wait for her eyes to adjust to the dark, she stepped inside, feeling her way into the cool wet air. She knew priests and priestesses and shamans once gathered in caves all over the world to offer their chants and prayers, believing the echoes returned from the dark were responses from the divine. Her own history included 16th century Anabaptist pacifists. They too had been hunted, like Raul considered enemies of the state. They too huddled in mountain grottos to pray to their God where no one would hear them.
But pressed against the wall, Larissa felt no urgency. She felt nothing holy. She hadn't even known she wanted such things. She felt only small and alone in a crumbling cave, surrounded by the mysterious nothingness of the plains.
"Larissa?" Raul stood at the cave's opening. He couldn't see where she stood in the dark. "I wait for you?"
That was when the first shot sounded.
Raul's body tensed.
The shot was far away, most likely the rancher going after a ground squirrel or prairie dog or taking potshots at sparrows. But a second shot triggered something deeper in Raul. His stance changed. Sunlight outlined his fear. His body remembered God-knew-what. He became war's fugitive again, hunter and hunted, driven to protect.
"Larissa!" Raul hurled himself into the cave. His body shoved hers hard against the wall. Her arms and shoulders scraped against the stone. Her bare knees smacked the ground. She landed on her side underneath his weight.
"Get off me!" she said. The strap of her camera case dug into her neck. She feared she might choke. "He's not even close!"
A third shot sounded. Raul's body trembled and went slack, his weight sinking into her body.
"Raul!" Pinned beneath him, Larissa couldn't move. She heard the slow trace of Mulberry Creek. She heard wind blow through the leaves of the cottonwood trees at the cave's entrance. "Raul?"
He lay still. His sweat had begun to soak into her shirt.
Had his heart finally given out? Would he die on top of her? Larissa's mind raced. She would have to drag his body out of the cave and to the car. She would have to report the incident. She would be found guilty because she was guilty. Though of what, she wasn't certain.
Her own petty meanness haunted her. Raul didn't know where he was. He didn't know why they'd come there. He'd done nothing except call her when he had no one else. He didn't understand why she picked up the phone. He didn't understand nice. He'd trusted her.
She tried to inch her body forward. His weight sank, pressing her more solidly against the ground. Dust coated the back of her throat.
Raul's body started.
He took a deep breath. His fingers clutched at her clothes.
Larissa tried to pull herself out. As her body shifted below his, she felt--or did she only think she felt?--his erection pressing into her hip. Her body stiffened. She opened her mouth but nothing came out.
Stranger in a strange land. Exodus 2:22. Yes, father. We are all strangers here.
Don't reject him. Don't make him feel unwanted. Yes, mother. Nice, nice, nice.
"Get off me," Larissa said, but her words were so quiet, they sounded like words she might take back.
Raul's mouth opened. His breath dampened her collarbone.
With force that surprised her, Larissa shoved his body away.
Raul fell back but made no sound. Had she hurt him? Did he deserve to be hurt?
Hand. Foot. Hand. Foot. Larissa groped toward the sunlight. Hand. Foot. Hand. Foot. Nice. Weak. Nice. Weak. She stepped back into the ordinary afternoon. The heat choked her. Dust stung her eyes. Mulberry Creek trickled. Forcefully, she brushed filth from her clothes. She brushed the smell of his sweat from her skin. She didn't touch the sticky place where his mouth had been.
Her torn camera case gaped open. She'd taken no pictures, one more failing to add to the afternoon. She pulled out the camera. The lens hadn't been scratched.
She heard Raul's hard shoes slipping as he crawled toward the cave's entrance. Already, she dreaded their drive back to Newton. I'm sorry, so sorry, she'd have to hear him say through stupid, unnecessary tears. Or, Don't tell your father.
She pressed the top button. The film advanced. That first picture--her scraped knee and shredded skin--was an accident. But with it, a realization rose, one new and ugly. She could say Raul attacked her. Her father would believe her. Peggy and the rancher had seen them together. She was white. She was nice. Society's thick, vile prejudice leaned toward her side. All she'd have to is tell that old used-up story, and, wasn't it even true? Raul had followed her into the cave. He'd pressed his body into hers even after she told him to stop. Hadn't he?
She waited with the camera held to her eye.
Her second picture captured the crown of Raul's head emerging through the opening. She photographed him crawling outside. He was crying. Snot shone above his lip. He must have heard the shutter's noise, but he didn't look up.
It's okay'. Larissa did not say. Or, I know you only wished to protect me.
She photographed his fingers covering his eyes, his trembling mouth glistening with spit, his white shirt yellowed with grit. Evidence, she could call it.
A gunshot sounded again followed by the dog's bark. Larissa watched through the viewfinder. Raul didn't respond. Perhaps he understood these were everyday American sounds: useless gunfire, echoes carried by wind.
Larissa returned to the path. Her footsteps sounded louder on the loose stones. She crossed over the creek. On the other bank, Larissa turned and raised the camera to her eye again. Through the viewfinder, the warriors and the shaman grew clearer, their mouths defiled, their eyes forced open by hunters and ranchers. She zoomed in. The initials cut into the sandstone grew sharper. A picnic site for white people, and wasn't that her with the camera in her hand?
Raul came down the path. He stopped beneath the warriors with their bodies made of targets. The shaman with its eyes shot open stared unnaturally at her. Raul looked, too. Through the camera, she saw him open his mouth.
The story was hers. Wasn't it? For as one story begat the next and as that story begat the next, her story--made of guns, of war, of so much whiteness--would be believed.
Or was this too a mirage, a crumbling ruin, disappearing beneath the afternoon sun?