The thing Mary thinks about, clemently and even more than her husband, the thing she really remembers—not because it has some revelatory seam, not because it matters all that much, but just because she does—is her lawn.
The guy who cuts it always comes on Fridays.
She wonders if he will come this week.
Twenty-seven miles out of Sparks, Mary squeezes her daughter’s hands.
Mary’s daughter, Laura, walks the bus. She tests everyone on the state capitals.
“Know anything?” she asks Auslander.
“A little,” he says.
“Oregon,” she says.
“Salem,” Auslander says.
“Maine. Delaware. Vermont,” Laura says.
“Augusta, Dover, Montpelier,” he says.
“Most people would have said Burlington,” Laura says.
She sits beside him.
“I once knew all of America,” Auslander says. He motions Nevada toward the window. “Bristlecones, trout, summer wades in dusk, all of it underneath my thumb—leave you breathless, motionless. What do you know?” he says to her.
“Wyoming, Washington, Missouri; Cheyenne, Olympia, Jefferson City.” She gets up and walks into the aisle. “You have a nice voice,” she says.
Fred the bus driver has a proclamation.
“Nobody touches my stuff. This thermos belongs to me. My lunch bucket is for mine eyes only. Don’t touch it and we’ll be all right.”
“Hey,” someone yells to him, “there’s a turd in the toilet and it isn’t going down!”
“Tough crap,” Fred yells.
“Well, I got to go now,” someone says.
“Too bad,” Fred says. He drives, angry. The bus doesn’t go any faster.
A Stingray that Junior Johnson himself had rebuilt, a snail farm with a house, a wife and kid, a brother at a nice Jesuit retreat in Humboldt County, eighteen-inch arms.
Auslander lived this.
The snail farm had gotten him most of those things and he was glad, he’d loved them—couldn’t eat them—but he was practical and knew how to accept their contributions. The wife and brother hadn’t worked out as well. When Auslander left, he wrapped his little girl up in a blanket he bought from a street vendor in San Carlos, and left her with his mom.
The snails he’d set free.
“Flee,” he had yelled at them. He was going to New York, had a sort of friend there, and with a $6,300 cashier’s check in his jacket he’d come to ride the Nevada void. He had a nice jacket—he thanked the snails—and strength, lots of power, a back that was beautiful, wide and muscly, unreal strong, could throw a man farther than it was anybody’s business to know.
Across from the bus station in Oakland, a streetwalker had asked him to buy her a Kahlua and coffee.
“Fear is everywhere,” Auslander told the girl.
“It sure is,” she’d said.
Auslander sits by Laura. He thinks of the field next to his place. This bear had killed his dog and torn up some snail sheds. So Auslander lays out some food and waits for him. From 25 feet he nails him clean through the throat with a .357. Auslander stays out until it gets light. When the sun comes, he skins and cleans the bear, taking out the tenderloins.
“What are you doing?” his wife yells from the house. “Are you sick?” she says. “What the goddamn are you doing? What the goddamn are you doing?” She’s screaming now.
He puts his face against the window. “Are there bears?” he asks Laura.
“Only a few,” she says. “Not a problem.”
“A few,” Auslander says, “is still a few.” The woman next to Mary points at Mary when she talks.
“I knew FDR’s son. Wanted to take me to Narragansett. I said, ‘No, thank you.’ Even then I was wise,” she says. Her finger almost touches Mary’s face.
She has a strange face, her nose more pig snout than anything else.
“Your daughter is pretty. A little smart, but pretty.” She adjusts her nose with her finger. It doesn’t look any better. “These names sure are something to put your winter coat on. Winnemucca, that’s a new one.” She looks out the window. “Boy, Nevada sure is ugly.”
There are singers, and there are singers.
The Goodwin girls can sing. Panguitch, St. Johns, Barstow, Alameda, all in six days. Everywhere there are people. At Hunter’s Point, the choir cries.
“My feet are tired,” Tillie the eldest says.
“Your feet are done,” Murphy her sister says. “They haven’t seen a good day since that husband of yours.”
“Baltimore summers. They’ll take a girl’s girlishness right out of her,” Tillie says.
“That’s truthfulness,” Murphy says. She’s seen some of the world. She knows. “Your voice is still shining, though. Like a stream with silver at the bottom.”
“God has been good. Always has, I don’t expect no surprises,” Tillie says. “Not one,” her sister agrees.
They sit next to Auslander and softly sing him songs that he remembers from church.
“Don’t stop,” he tells them.
Winnemucca, and there’s this old man on the bus who looks like a hotdog vendor. “I came through here right after VJ-Day,” he says. “Stopped at a place called Stan’s. Still had my uniform on, people always buying me things, you know. Anyway, there’s this old guy, he’s got a kid with him, and ‘Information Please’ is on the radio, and this old guy, the old guy with the kid I’m saying, he starts shooting them off: ‘The Nina, Santa Maria, Pinta.’ Boom! Like nothing. ‘Keppler. Aurora Borealis. Chuck Klein.’ The remarkable thing was this, the guy never looked up. Never, I’m telling you. He would just name them oft he even corrected Clifton Fadiman one time, but never, never, did he look up. After the show was over, him and the kid get up and leave. I never saw him again but jeez, I’ll never forget that, not as long as I live.”
“They got good food there?” Auslander says.
“We aren’t stopping in Winnemucca,” Fred says. He grinds his teeth. “Christ,” he says.
Mary is reading. This guy sits next to her.
“My name’s Tofl,” he says.
“Oh, that’s nice, the matriarchal-christus thing, yeah,” Tofl says.
“Mary, could you find it within yourself to let me console you?” Tofl asks.
Mary crosses her legs. “I’m fine,” she says. “Go away,” she says.
Laura brings Auslander.
“This is Auslander,” Laura says. “He knows some things.”
“Hello,” Mary says.
Auslander is struck at how much mother and daughter sound and move alike, their eyes wary.
He holds his hands up in front of Tofl. “My hands,” he says.
“They’re big,” Tofl says.
“Imagine life itself running away from them,” Auslander says. Tofl excuses himself. “Your daughter is very sharp,” he says to Mary.
Mary stands up and walks toward the back of the bus. She looks out the back. Not a single car on the road.
“Is he yours?” the Goodwin sisters ask Mary. They look at Auslander.
“No,” Mary says.
“Oh, he’s beautiful,” one of them says.
“Look at his shoulders. That boy has hurt things,” the other one says.
“That’s a fact,” her sister says.
They are big girls, sapient girls. “Believe us—believe us—when we say we love buses,” they say. “I believe,” Mary says.
Battle Mountain. Middle of the state, this is the place. There’s this girl there. Helen. Tall, gorgeous. Her eyes are a felt green. She used to run Keno but she’s a poker girl, now. Five card, seven, she owns the table. Her face and arms are ivory. She blows off everybody. Tofl loses the first four hands to her, then wins one. She wins the next nine out of ten.
“Is she good?” Mary asks Auslander.
“More,” Auslander says.
“Some guy who was going to Mecca taught her how to throw,” Fred says. “Let’s go.”
At her table, Helen is destruction. She wins thirteen hands in a row, her face more beautiful than it’s ever been, her arms an ivory perfection.
Elko. It’s dirt, sandy loam, bad water, sage. The Red Lion glows in thirty-foot letters. There is one major street. It comes out of nowhere, from dull brown mounds of landfill, ending where I-80 begins. There are 16 churches and 34 bars, the shift from Saturday night to Sunday morning a subtle one. At the Greyhound there are four new slot machines.
Know the buffet—bad cigarette smoke, strong ribs, a rare prime, decent stew, Elberta peaches, watered-down Canadian draft—and you know Nevada. Laura is thinking.
Tofl gives the history. “The place was settled by Spaniards and polygamists. They were both escaping persecution,” he says. “They came here searching for haven, but the indifference of the land sent them scurrying away. When the silver mines opened, destitute would-be miners turned to crime and to taking the polygamists’ wives. It was not an easy time,” Tofl concedes.
Laura looks at Auslander. “What I was thinking,” she says, “is what my new school is going to be like. That’s it, that’s all I was thinking about.”
There’s the story about this train that leaves Berlin. Everyone is on it. Though there is some relief when they leave Germany, they remain very quiet. It is all over, even for the ones who come back after the war. There is something final in this trip.
“Like going away to school. Everything is different when you come back,” a man with thick glasses tells Bertolt Brecht.
Brecht says nothing and looks at the cold Swiss morning. He wipes his face with a handkerchief he pulls from his coat pocket. He notices it isn’t his.
Erich Bonn, a banker from Munich, clenches his jaw tightly. He begins to bleed from his mouth. It is slow at first, then it pours. A doctor comes and helps him clean himself. “I’m sorry,” Bonn says, “I’m sorry.”
Thomas Mann has a villa in Switzerland. He has sent his valet to prepare the household for his coming. Across from Mann sit a young couple. They are fair-skinned and blonde. The boy holds the girl’s hands.
“You are going to America?” the boy says to Mann.
“No, I am not. And you?”
“Yes, to America,” the boy says.
“Good,” Mann says. “My wife and I are too settled, alas. Perhaps later.” He smiles at them.
“We are not Jewish,” the boy says.
“Nor am I,” Mann says.
“It is frightening,” the boy says. “I’m scared for Germany.”
“I am sad for Germany,” the girl says.
She has a slight accent—British, Swiss, Mann cannot be sure. He nods his head in deference to her. She and the boy soon sleep. Mann does not. He stays awake through the whole journey. At Lucerne, he says goodbye.
“I hope you will prosper in America,” he says.
Later, in his drawing room with Katya, Mann thinks of them. Their faces, their hands.
Fred pulls the bus slowly to a stop. “Piss time,” he says.
Everyone gets off.
“That’s Utah,” Fred says, pointing east and undoing his zipper. “A mile or so.”
“The Mormon state,” Laura says. She looks up into the sky. “Look,” she says.
Everyone looks up. The sky is a creamy, light color against the black backdrop. The stars are all touching each other, the light dim, a streak of fading paint.
“It doesn’t look real,” Mary says.
“That’s Ursa Minor,” Tofl says.
“It is not,” the pig woman says.
“Yes, it is,” the hotdog vendor says.
“It is. I’m serious. I know this stuff, really,” Tofl says. “I used to run the projector at a planetarium. That’s Cygnus, and that’s Andromeda over there.”
Auslander puts Laura on his shoulders. “Can you see?” he says.
“What’s that one?” Mary asks, pointing to a small collection of stars.
“That’s Cassiopeia,” Tofl says. “Look at those two.” He points at two stars that are moving together.
“Shooting stars,” Laura says.
Auslander turns, watches the two dots fade into blue, then black, the figure of a woman and a small child in her arms. He tries to find Cassiopeia. He starts to cry. Everyone is quiet.
On the bus, someone has taken Fred’s thermos.