I was standing on my front lawn the first time I saw him. He was walking up the street dressed in blue jeans and a denim jacket. It was sunny that day, and something about the way the denim looked against the blue of the sky made me notice him. It was late afternoon, closing in on evening. All of the colors were so bright I almost didn't feel solid on the earth as I twirled my baton.
He slowed down when he passed in front of the yard. "You're real good at that," he said.
"Thank you." Something about the way he looked at me made me feel shy.
"What's your name?"
"Who wants to know?" I asked.
He smiled. "Well, my name's George, if you want to know."
Sweat darkened the hair on his head. The white T-shirt he wore was a little dirty.
"Where'd you learn how to do that?" he asked.
About that time my daddy yelled from inside the house for me to come in. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the dimness.
"Who the hell was that out in the yard?"
"Just some man, Daddy."
Our town is small. Once when I was little, Daddy took me across the state to visit my cousins, and there was almost nothing the whole damned way. Sometimes corn and wheat stretched on for miles and miles, brown and gold all the way to the point where it disappeared into the sky. When we got back, Lincoln seemed awfully busy, with people walking out on the sidewalks to jobs and school and whatever else they had to do. For the first day even buying groceries seemed like something special. I guess if you look at it the right way, it always is.
I go to school every day by the same route. I turn left out the door and onto Rosedale. After a few blocks I cut through a nice alleyway that has vines thick with big purple grapes in the summertime. They're just about perfect when I go back to school at the end of August. The alley turns out on to Maple Street, and that's what my school is on.
One day when I came out of the alley George was right there, walking up Maple. I nearly ran into him. I didn't even recognize him until he said something to me.
"Hey there. How come you ain't got your baton?"
"Can't carry it around with me all the time," I said. "I gotta go. I'm going to school."
"Well, why don't you let me walk you?"
I looked at him hard for a second. "Depends of whether or not you can give me a good reason for why you want to." Truth was, I couldn't decide if I had a good reason for wanting him not to.
He smiled, and the sweat the morning sun had caused made him look kind of beautiful. I noticed the cuffs on the sleeves of his jean jacket were greasy with dirt.
"How about just wantin' to, is that reason enough?"
"There's always something behind the wanting, and that's what I want to know," I said.
"Is there?" he paused. "I never thought about it like that."
"Oh, yeah?" I asked and started walking towards school. The shadows from the trees that lined the streets moved over both of us as we walked.
"I think you could drive yourself crazy like that, always trying to get to the very first thing. Unless you just pick something to be the beginning, you could go on forever trying to find it. It might not even exist."
"That's a scary thought. How can something be if it never got a start?"
George shrugged. "Truth is, I guess it just ain't that important. What matters most is what's happening right now."
I nodded and wondered if one of my friends' parents would see us walking together and call my father. I didn't know how old George was, but he looked like he could be ten or fifteen years older than me. And I figured I had a pretty good idea of why he wanted to walk me to school even if he said he didn't.
The red brick of the high school building looked nice in the sun. The lawn was bright green, and kids swarmed all over. Somewhere within a bell rang, and the sound carried into the street.
"I gotta go. I'm late," I said.
"When am I gonna see you again?" he yelled. I heard him, but I was already halfway to the big double doors and didn't feel like yelling back.
I found out a couple of weeks later that he was a trash slinger. I saw him one morning in my favorite alley right before school. He stopped to talk to me even though the man driving the garbage truck glared at him. His pants were greasy down the front, and he wore big gloves. He smiled when he saw me walking up, like being elbow deep in trash was nothing to be ashamed of.
"Good morning," he said, grinning like a shark. "I figured I'd see you again soon. Town ain't that big."
"I didn't know you was no trash man," I said, to see if he'd flinch. "What would I do with some garbage man?"
He looked down and smiled. If he hadn't been wearing those filthy gloves he would have grabbed the back of his neck. "I ain't gonna be a trash man forever. This is temporary. You think every place you're in, you're gonna be there forever?"
"I hope I'm not in school forever."
"And you're not gonna be. Bet you're laying some big plans for yourself right now, ain't you?"
I didn't say anything. I looked at the interior slime of the garbage truck.
"George, man, c'mon. We gotta go," the driver yelled.
He jumped up on the back of the truck and held on. He looked at me, squinting in the bright sunlight. 'What I want to know is how to get you to make me part of your plans."
I pretended to ignore what he said. "Why wasn't you slinging trash the other morning?"
"Why, I told you. This is temporary. I just started doing this."
I looked at him hard. I didn't really care whether or not he was a garbage man. It didn't make a difference to me like it would to some of the stupid girls I went to school with. I liked him, but I didn't want him to know that.
"What don't you come to the corner of Rosedale and Clinton at seven o'clock? I might decide not to show up to meet you, though."
George smiled. "All right!" he shouted to the driver, and they rumbled off. And that was how things started between us.
Everyone always asks if I knew what he was going to do. If I had any idea what he was capable of. I didn't really understand until we were out on the plains driving. I didn't understand until I was back in the same kind of silence my daddy had driven me through when I was a kid. I didn't understand until that first night out when the sun started to set and there were no lights for fifty miles.
I never showed him to my daddy. He would have taken one look at him and called him a sonofabitch and ran for his gun. I met him on street corners or in the park instead. There was one bar a friend of his run, and he'd let me come in with George. These are the places we spent time together. It never occurred to me to ask him why he didn't have a car.
School let out, and we started to see each other more. I saw him during the day after his trash pick up while my daddy was at work. Finally I started letting him into the house through the back door. The first time we did it was in my bed. I bled a little on the sheets and washed them that afternoon. I was a virgin, and the feel of him peeling away from my body was almost unbearable. It was a surprise that someone could get that close and then just leave again. I remember how the summer heat made the dust in the room swim.
Some days it seemed like the scent of us would be so thick that I was sure my father would smell it when he came home. I kept waiting for him to notice that something about me had changed. If he ever did, he never let on. The only time he looked at me sideways was when I put on dinner a little bit late.
I still don't really understand how people fall in love. I just know it happens. I know that sometimes it has a whole lot to do with sex. Or I guess it always has to do with it, whether it's happening or not. Sometimes when you can't have it, it hangs in the air and makes everything mean more than it should.
That summer was different for me than any other summer had been. Maybe it was because of sex. I had never considered that my body was so separate from everyone else until I felt the sensation of trying to make that body disappear with someone. There was always a barrier between the two of us, no matter how much we sweated or cursed to knock it down.
Looking back on it, it seems like George was trying hard to get inside my head, like if he asked just the right question, like turning a lock with a key, that he would know everything about me. Or maybe I only say this because I was trying so damn hard to get in there. Being around George might have even been my way of doing it, by looking at the strange reflection of myself in someone I loved.
That summer I realized how big the sky is big in Nebraska, bigger maybe than any other place on earth. I wonder sometimes if it's just a big emptiness up there or if there's something else. It's hard to think it's just empty. If it is, what does that make me?
George always said he don't believe in God. Said he ain't got much hope or faith in anything. Laying out in the field one day with his hand in my hair, I asked him what he was living for. "Just this minute. Nothing else you can count on. I'm not laying any big plans. I might die anytime."
I thought this was a peculiar way to think. My daddy was telling me every minute about how I had to make good grades so I could get into a good college and make something out of myself. George acted like he'd never wanted to be anything more than just a man. Maybe that's what made me fall in love with him, the way he didn't let his time belong to any other person or any other place.
The part everyone wants to know about happened the winter after I met George. It was 1958. I didn't see it when he shot my father. I heard the gunshot, and then George was grabbing onto my arm, saying, "We got to get out of here. C'mon get in the car now." I knew my father must have been dead, but for the life of me, I couldn't make myself feel sorry about it. He was like a specter moving through the house. I don't know if his life meant anything.
The night after George killed my father I learned that driving is a gift. We swallowed up mile after mile. I thought about all the people who had died on wagon trains trying to get across the country. It took them months. We'd end up going almost halfway across in just a few days, dust blowing out from under the wheels.
The fields once we started driving were all frozen over, the gray yellow stubs of corn still standing in them. Everything was silver and yellow, from the big cold clouds to the prairie grass. We rode on a lot of dirt roads that aren't on the map, cutting across the counties and big cornfields. The dirt was hard packed and cold. I prayed that it wouldn't snow.
I didn't understand what George meant to do until we pulled up to a service station. A man in greasy pants came around to pump the gas, and when it came time to pay George turned his pockets inside out and smiled at him. When the man put his face in the window and starting yelling at him, George opened the door fast and knocked him down. Cold dry dust puffed up on his dirty white shirt. George looked down at him for a minute then took the gun he'd used to kill my father from the backseat and shot the man. I heard him scream as I was looking out at the wide horizon. The smell of gasoline was sharp.
The second time he did it I watched him pull the trigger. We had just crossed over into South Dakota. I felt something in me change. The future receded. It became as dim and unimportant as I had always suspected it might be. But the present lit up in a way it never had before, brighter than the lights of gas stations that appeared on the horizon every hour or so when we were driving, brighter than the bars we stopped at once or twice so he could have a beer.
In a roadhouse in Eastern Montana he killed everyone in one bar, three men with their cowboy boots hooked on stools and their heavy coats in a pile against the floor, and the bartender. He poured his own beer and sat there and drank it slow, his gun across his lap. The silence in the bar was huge, even bigger because the last bits of their conversation was still ringing in my head. George finished his beer and then, like always, we got back into the car.
We went into a few places before George's face and name were on the TV and radio so much. After that he had to kill anyone that saw us. The people who waited on us shied away from George like he caused a chill. I felt it like I'd been lying down deep in grass for half the day and was full of warmth from the sun and the ground. The coldness of it didn't touch me.
I started to grow older while we were driving. I don't know exactly how much. Maybe a day for each mile. While we were driving I started to feel something like I imagined religion was supposed to feel like. I almost wanted to clap my hand on his knee and yell, "Hey, George, I think I got religion!" He'd laugh at that, and then he'd ask me what the hell I was talking about. I knew I wouldn't really be able to explain it to him, so I kept my mouth shut.
But if I was going to explain, explain it for myself, I would say that part of driving is that you can go forever having not done anything except move, and that can be enough. Only something did happen rolling around in that car. Something happened to me. I was never young in the same way after that. It wasn't the few years that I spent locked up in a girl's home that did it either. It was those days out riding through emptiness. I read somewhere after I got out that the road can be a holy thing. People try to find things just by moving. I remember his smile, just like chilly sunshine, the kind of cold, thin light that the sun throws off early on a winter morning.
I remember a bible verse from when I was little. That was the only time we ever went to church, was when my mother was still alive. I think that maybe I was too young to have heard it, because it's stuck with me since then and given me bad dreams on occasion. It's from the book of Revelation, and it reads something like, "God loves the hot and cold, but spews out the lukewarm." It still gives me bad dreams, because it was George that was either ice cold or red hot. I know that I was the lukewarm one.
I'll never stop remembering the countryside we passed through. The light on those days seemed muted and off, like time had been slowed down or speeded up, but I couldn't tell which. It fell across the sand hills and dead trees at an angle that didn't make any sense. We kept driving right through it, the twisted, rotted farmhouses and slow blinking cows. A few times we saw police lights flashing red and blue in the darkness and turned off onto one of the unpaved, unmarked roads that mark up the state.
Sometimes there were towns on those roads, awful places with no more than a couple dozen people. They were orange out in all that black land and dark silvery sky. White houses turned the strangest colors by the winter and that light. Strange to think we could have killed off a whole town and nobody would have known for days. I'm still not sure why he didn't do that. I think something about the desolation must have felt powerful to him, like those people understood part of what he was looking for. That's how I felt, and I didn't want to touch them.
I could never tell when he was going to do it. Maybe he couldn't, either. I never felt scared of what he might do to me, but I was scared of talking to him about it.
"What was it about that man back there?" I asked.
A shrug. A cigarette chucked out the window. "I don't think I need a reason for that. He was doing what he does, and here I am doing what I do." And then he wouldn't talk past that.
The way he wouldn't talk sometimes made me angry so I made up my own reasons after that. I couldn't drive so I just looked at everything. I looked even when it seemed like there was nothing to look at. There were stories on stories in those little towns we passed, and they spread out like ripples in water. After a while I started to pick out shapes in the darkness and even in the daylight we drove through. Some of the things I saw were etched in light, and others were like pieces of black felt cut out and pasted onto the night. I saw the darkness that lies like slivers in some people's hearts and the dark that eats some people up whole.
Those dark shapes started to get to me after a while. They started making me look at my own heart. I wondered how much that was in there was actually my own. I wondered where all the dark things came from; I was surprised by how much there was. I know not everyone would have gone off with George the way I did, but I had to see what happened. I had to see what would open up inside of me.
The mountains that rose up between Montana and Wyoming terrified me. Wyoming is where they finally caught us. I'd never seen mountains before, but I knew what they were. One of my little cousins cried for days when his momma took him out east. He was terrified of the old, worn Appalachians. The Rockies looked like monsters out there, like an awful darkness the land had been cursed with.
And most people know what happened afterwards. Some people know more than others, like the cops that took care of George and looked the other way because he gave them a button off his jacket or an autograph. The cops acted like he was some kind of hero when they finally caught him. He was still wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt, just like the first time I met him. They wanted to get near him, to have some kind of proof that they had been close to him. And then there was all the stories about both of us. The movies that didn't have anything to do with what had happened, but everything to do with making a story. I realized that people don't really care about what something is about sometimes, as long as it's a good story. As long as it's a good story, then they'll make whatever meaning they need from it come out of it.
Looking back, I don't think he expected to make it through. It was like he wanted to turn the lights on full blast before going instead of just fading off into the darkness. Maybe he thought if he lived long enough he'd start to get afraid of dying. I think about his last moments sometimes, but I don't really know what it is I'm thinking about. I guess they were awful to watch. Arms and legs held down by leather straps, his head snapping back. I've wondered if he wanted me right there with him on his lap.
I think I'm surprised to still be here. They let me go after a while. I was in a mental hospital for a few weeks and then a girls' detention center. They figured George had fooled me, and I never pulled the trigger on any of those people. I didn't pull the trigger, but I wonder if just sitting there and watching it happen is even worse.
The last thing I remember about our ride is the sky in Montana. The sky before those horrible mountains came up in front of it was the biggest sky I'd ever seen. Bigger than Nebraska, so big that you could go crazy just from looking at it. You want to fill your chest up with it, but the size of it will stretch you out, make you realize how empty you really are. I looked up into that void while we were driving, looked up into it when we'd stop the car on the side of the road, looked at it in the cold sun, looked at it sparkling with the hard shapes of stars, and I recognized it as my own heart.