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Read the Excerpt: Rovers by Richard Lange

ExcerptsRoversbyRichardLange

1

Jesse dreams the old dream for the first time in months. He hasn’t been sleeping much lately, and when he has, he

hasn’t dreamed. On bad days he lies there for hours, tossing and turning; on good ones he drops his lids and dies until the sun goes down. Today, though, one minute he’s staring up at the water-stained ceiling of the motel room, listening to the maid argue with the manager out in the parking lot, listening to Edgar snore on the other bed, and the next, the dream! It reappears like a friend he hadn’t known how much he missed until, hey, there he was again, the rascal. It’s the only dream he dreams, so he’s fond of it. It’s the only time the world isn’t just what it is.

He’s walking down a road, always the same road, a road he’s traveled in his waking life, but not one he can place exactly. Somewhere near Barstow maybe, somewhere outside Las Cruces. Scrubland, where the plants bristle with thorns and the hot wind never stops blowing, where train tracks slice across salt flats like ropy old scars, and the air is so clear what’s ten miles away looks like it’s two. He’s walking alone on this road, and how he knows it’s a dream is it’s daytime.

He hasn’t been outside during the day in more than seventy-five years. Seventy-five years since he’s felt the sun on his face, seventy-five years since he’s lain under a tree and run his fingers over leaf shadows flitting across a patch of warm grass, seventy-five years since he’s squinted through his lashes to pin a cawing raven against the noon glare. For the past three-quarters of a century he’s lived by night, in the ebon hours when monsters hunt and good folk keep to their houses. Since he turned, every dawn’s been a death sentence, every sunbeam a white-hot razor.

That’s why he’s overjoyed whenever he dreams his only dream, when he finds himself walking that road under the blazing sun, under a few wisps of cloud unraveling across the sky. A bounding jackrabbit kicks up dust. A breeze brings a whiff of sage. He comes upon an empty pop can and gives it a kick. Light and warmth worm their way into the coldest, darkest thickets inside him, and if he never woke again, he’d be fine. This would be enough—the road, the sky, the sun— forever.

“Jesse.”

Jesse opens his eyes. The ceiling is dark. Night has come down.

“Jesse.”

“What?”

“I pissed myself.”

Jesse sits up. His brother, Edgar, is lying in the other bed in his own mess. Even Abby, Edgar’s cat, has more sense than that. At least she was smart enough to jump down to the floor. Jesse exhales his disgust. He doesn’t mean for Edgar to hear it, but hear it he does.

“I’m sorry,” Edgar says, and starts to cry.

“It’s all right,” Jesse says. “You’ve been doing better.”

Ten years have passed since Edgar last had trouble holding his water, and Jesse can’t figure out why the problem has returned. He asked Edgar if he was scared or worried about anything, and Edgar said no, so he supposes it’s simply another of his bad behaviors that’ll keep coming back now and then, like the shoplifting and the lying and the wandering off, something he’ll be training out of him again and again for all eternity.

Can he really be that simple? You teach a dog a trick, a horse, and it remembers forever. So how come every few years he has to remind a grown man not to steal potato chips from the store? Could it be Edgar’s messing with him and secretly reveling in his frustration?

Jesse makes him walk into the bathroom, take off his under- shorts, and put them in the sink. Edgar’s not crying anymore and seems to have forgotten he ever was. “Not too hot,” he says when Jesse turns on the shower. He’s a big fella, bigger than Jesse, over six feet tall, round as a barrel, and getting fatter every year. He’ll always be fifty years old outside and ten inside his head, a child bearing a man’s shell, and Jesse will always have to look after him, because he promised their mother he would. What else could he do, a dying woman’s last wish?

He unwraps the cake of soap that came with the room and hands it to Edgar. Edgar smells it, licks it, and makes a face.

“It’s soap, not candy,” Jesse says. “Smells like candy,” Edgar says.

He sings while he showers, his current favorite song, about truck drivers who band together to outwit the Highway Patrol. He knows all the words, including the talking parts, and even cups a hand over his mouth to mimic the sound of a CB radio.

“Wash everywhere,” Jesse yells over the singing. “Under your arms, your ass.”

“Ten-four, good buddy.”

Jesse strips the sheets off the bed. The mattress is already so filthy that one more stain won’t be noticed. He tosses the sheets onto the bathroom floor, will wash them in the shower later.

Jesse stops singing. “I’m hungry,” he says. “There’s Pop-Tarts,” Jesse says.

“I mean really hungry.”

The neon sign of the drive-in restaurant across the road from the motel is missing letters. h mbur sh k s fr s. The first time Jesse and Edgar traveled this stretch, it was part of the highway that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. There was nothing but orange groves here then, and on that frigid January night when they passed through, they stopped to look at the smudge pots—crude oil-burning stoves kept blazing among the trees until dawn in an attempt to warm the air and prevent the fruit from freezing.

Thick clouds of greasy smoke billowed from the pots, smoke that scratched at Jesse’s throat and blackened the faces of the men tending the fires. They looked like demons freshly sprung from hell as they slouched in the orange flicker of the flames, eyes and teeth shining out of the darkness. The sight scared Edgar, set him to whimpering.

“What’s that? Haints?” he asked. “No,” Jesse said. “Just men.”

They tore out the orange trees in the ’30s and replaced them with motels and hamburger stands and filling stations.

Then they built a bigger freeway a few miles south that siphoned traffic off the old route, and the motels, burger joints, and filling stations started going under. Those still hanging on are struggling. There’s no money to buy new mattresses or fix neon signs. Broken windows get boarded over, and owners opt to pay electric bills instead of replacing worn linoleum. Not that it matters to the customers they get these days.

The motel Jesse and Edgar are staying in is a horseshoe of ten cabins that hugs a gravel parking lot. Jesse looks back to make sure Edgar hasn’t followed him out before crossing to the drive-in. The drive-in is where the local whores gather and where the truckers who detour over from the freeway come to find them. They favor this spot because there’s room to park their rigs on a half acre of weedy asphalt next to the burger stand, an expanse that was once a used-car lot.

The whores and truckers conduct their negotiations at the drive-in’s four wooden picnic tables. Two girls are on duty tonight. One sits at a table, nursing a cherry Coke and staring into the mirror of a compact; the other pretends to talk on the pay phone. Jesse goes to the window and orders an ice-cream cone from the old man who runs the place. The codger’s paper-thin skin is drawn so tightly over his skull, he looks like he’s about to scream.

“How you?” he says. “Doing fine,” Jesse says.

He takes his ice cream to an empty table and sits. The girls glance at him but quickly turn away. The one with the compact, a fat blonde, is wearing hot pants and a tube top. She’s got a broken heart tattooed on one of her titties. The other girl is a little Mexican with a droopy eye.

Sí,” she says into the pay phone, “sí,” all the while watching the road for potential customers.

A hot night wind blowing off the desert swirls trash. Bugs swarm the streetlights, and bats dart in to feed on them. The top of Jesse’s table is rough with names and dates and dirty words gouged into the wood. big joe + mary. carl was here. ftw 13/69 hells angels. There’s a pecker shooting jizz and a naked woman on all fours. Jesse runs his finger over the carvings and wonders about the people who made them.

An eighteen-wheeler pulls into the abandoned car lot next door. The engine gives a dusty cough and dies. The man who climbs down from the cab is a bandy-legged cowboy sporting a tiny paper American flag in the band of his Stetson. He does a couple of deep-knee bends before approaching the burger stand, where he tilts his hat to Jesse and the girls before ordering a cheeseburger.

Jesse walks to the liquor store next door. A patch- work Monte Carlo—maroon fender, white door, gray-primer hood—is parked out front. A buzzer goes off when Jesse enters the store. The clerk, a big black man, ignores him. He’s looking toward the beer cooler in back. There, another black man—a pimp in platform shoes, green velvet trousers, and a silk shirt open to his navel—is arguing with a skinny white whore in tight jeans.

“You best not be holdin’ out on me, bitch,” the pimp says. “He only gave me twenty, I swear,” the whore says.

“That ain’t what Trina said.”

“Fuck Trina,” the whore says. “I’m the one sucked the motherfucker’s dick, and this is all he gave me.” She waves a twenty. The pimp snatches it away from her.

“How you gon’ say, Fuck Trina?” he says.

“Fuck Trina, fuck Trina, fuck Trina,” the whore says. “Fuck her in her motherfuckin’ ass.”

The pimp backhands her. She crashes into the glass door of the cooler and slides to the floor.

“Take that shit outside,” the clerk shouts.

The pimp comes up the aisle toward the counter without another glance at the whore. Instead he focuses on Jesse, bugging his bloodshot eyes. Jesse stares right back.

“The fuck you lookin’ at?” the pimp says, moving in so he and Jesse are chest to chest.

“Nothing,” Jesse says. “She your sister?” “No.”

“Your mama?” “No.”

“Then keep to yourself.”

The pimp leaves the store, gets into the Monte Carlo, and roars out of the parking lot.

“You want something?” the clerk says to Jesse. “Give me a half pint of Old Crow,” Jesse says.

The whore is still sitting on the floor. “Can I use the restroom?” she says.

“The facilities is for customers only,” the clerk says, handing Jesse his bottle and change.

“Come on, man,” the whore says. “I need to clean up.” “Buy something, then.”

The whore reaches into her purse, fishes out some coins. “You sell loosies? Kools?”

“No loosies.”

“I ain’t got enough for a pack.” “I don’t give a fuck.”

Jesse lays a dollar on the counter.

“Give her her cigarettes,” he says. “And let her use the bathroom.”

“Thank you, man,” the whore calls after him as he walks out the door.

He’s leaning against a telephone pole and looking up at a sliver of orange moon when the whore comes out of the store. He’s been nipping at the whiskey and is feeling like he’s ready to do what he has to.

“Are you waiting for me?” the whore says. She’s pulled herself together after the beat-down, got her sass back.

“Maybe,” Jesse says.

The whore takes a drag off her cigarette, exhales smoke, and does a little thing with her hips, a little sway.

“You want a date?” she says.

“Who was that guy, the one that hit you?” Jesse says. “Sugar?” the whore says. “He’s nobody.”

“Is he gonna cause me trouble?” “He’s nobody, I said.”

Another truck, as big as a couple of elephants, pulls into the lot. The whore’s eyes dart to it. “What kind of party you looking for?” she says to Jesse.

“It’s not for me,” Jesse says. “It’s for my brother.” “He can’t do his own thing?”

“He’s slow.”

The whore makes a face. “I don’t mess with retards,” she says.

“I’ll pay extra.”

The whore glances at the truck again, thinking maybe that’d be easier money. She swats at a moth that bounces off her face.

“Where’s he at?” she says.

“Across the road, in the motel,” Jesse says.

“You have to give me ten to walk over, and I’m not promising anything until I see him,” the whore says.

Jesse takes the money out of his shirt pocket and hands it to her. He considers offering her some whiskey but doesn’t want her mouth on the bottle.

2

The Little Devil’s got a grouch on kicking and clawing and screaming, Feed Me You Sonofabitch. I curl up on the bed lay on my front lay on my back but nothing helps. He keeps raging in the pit of my stomach a fat spiked toad with possum teeth and a snapping snake for a tongue. There’s nothing but black holes where his eyes should be but he can smell blood a mile off. His skin oozes poison that burns worse than fire.

Jesse brings a girl in. She’s got blond hair and skinny legs. She’s got torn blue jeans and a yellow shirt that shows her belly button. Her eyes are blue too but different blue from the jeans. Abby hisses and crawls under the bed. The girl says, Somebody doesn’t like me much. I say, She don’t take to strangers. The girl nods at the TV and says, What’re you watching? A story about a giant tarantula, I say. Truth is I ain’t been paying attention to the show. Been too busy rassling the Little Devil. He comes on fast and he comes on mean gnaw- ing at my bones and itching me deeper than I can scratch.

This is Candy, Jesse says, get up and make your manners. I stand and stick out my hand and say, Pleased to make your acquaintance Miss Candy you sure are pretty. Candy says to Jesse, This is your brother? Looks more like your dad. Our daddy’s dead, I say, our mama too. My mom’s dead too, Candy says. Did you cry when she died? I say, I cried when my mama died. Candy smiles. One of her teeth is broke. Give me twenty more and I’ll take care of him, she says to Jesse.

Want to hear me sing? I say. Candy looks to Jesse. He nods okay. What songs do you know? Candy says. Do you like old ones? I say. Sure, Candy says so I sing Mama’s favorite. I would not die in springtime when all is bright around and fair young flowers

are peeping from out the silent ground.

Jesse steps behind Candy with his stiletto. He claps a hand over her mouth yanks her head back and sticks her in the throat. He hits a gusher on his first try. A jet of blood shoots across the room. Candy’s blue eyes get real big. She tries to pull Jesse’s hand off tries to wriggle free but ain’t going no- where. Another spurt and her legs buckle. Another and her hands flutter and fall.

Jesse sits on the bed with her in his lap. Get over here, he says, don’t let it go to waste. I fasten my lips to the hole in Candy’s throat. Hot blood fills my mouth. I suck and swallow suck and swallow. You got to work fast to drink as much as you can before the heart gives out. Abby feeds too. She comes out from under the bed and licks up the blood on the floor. Candy was a bad girl. Her blood tastes like dirty water. The Little Devil don’t care. He gets his fill and settles and I’m not hungry anymore neither not hurting.

Sometimes Jesse lets me play the radio when we’re driving sometimes he don’t. Tonight he wants quiet. Won’t even let me tap my fingers. There’s no other cars on the road. It’s dark and dark and darker. Nothing to look at but the dotted line. I pretend it’s ears of corn and the Ford’s a hog gobbling them up. I pretend it’s rabbits and the car’s a hound.

How far are we from Hollywood? I ask Jesse so bored I don’t care if he gets mad at me for talking. We ain’t going to Hollywood, he says. I want to see Daniel Boone and Mingo, I say. Daniel Boone died a hundred years ago, Jesse says. That’s an actor on TV pretending to be him. I know that, I say. No you don’t, Jesse says. You think he’s real.

Jesse says there can only be one boss and it’s him. Says he makes the rules and I’m to follow them. Like a dog. If he’s so smart how come he don’t know you can only kick a dog so long before he turns and bites?

We swerve onto a rough dirt road. I hang on so I don’t bang my head. Jesse drives deeper into the dark and pulls over and shuts off the engine. An itty-bitty moon silvers the rocky hills the sand and the trees that look like badmen surrender- ing. Jesse opens his door and gets out. A coyote yips close by. Abby’s ears is back and her tail’s aswishing. She’d whup a coyote’s ass.

What’re you waiting on? Jesse says. Drag your lazy butt out here.

I’ll do anything to get out of shoveling. I’ve played sick. I’ve lied about a bum leg. It don’t sound like Jesse’s in the mood for foolishness tonight though. I climb out and meet him at the trunk. Miss Candy’s in there with a bedsheet for a shroud. Jesse hands me a shovel.

We walk out a ways and commence to digging. Six foot is Christian but we never go that deep. Ain’t no preacher looking. You got to bury your bodies or burn them. Make them disappear. That’s a rule for all rovers: cover your tracks. Otherwise folks’ll put two and two together and that’d be the death of us all. That’s what happened in Europe in the old days, Jesse told me. Rovers there got sloppy and people caught on and hunted most of them down or run them off.

That’s when the first ones come here to the United States of America.

I say I wish we was rich so we could hire a man to dig for us. Jesse says to wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which fills faster. Or we could turn someone and make him dig, I say. We ain’t turning nobody, Jesse says. There’s too many of us as it is. I ask when he’s gonna take me to Disneyland like he promised. Why? he says. You want to visit Mickey Mouse? You think he’s real too? Mickey Mouse is a cartoon, I say, and a cartoon ain’t real. If you can’t talk and dig at the same time don’t talk, Jesse says.

After we lay Miss Candy to rest I say a prayer over her. Jesse tells me to hurry it up we got to steal a new car before we hit the road. 10-4 good buddy, I say, I’m about to put the hammer down. I know he won’t let me drive tonight so I don’t ask.


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