IN THE faint flush of predawn, a Kenworth sixteen-wheeler topped a ridge, forty miles east of Saint George, Utah. With only a half load to hinder it, the rig barreled along the interstate at twenty miles an hour over the speed limit. The driver hoped to make Las Vegas in time for breakfast. The truck rumbled on, unrelenting.
Simple rode shotgun, staring at a dusting of lights that looked like a pocketful of stars cast across a vast and lonely mesa. The iridescent specks reminded him of flickering candles at a funeral, although he had no memory of ever attending one, and he wondered if that metaphor was some ominous sign of what lay waiting for him in Saint George.
He had stayed awake all night, too excited to sleep. His eyes burned, and his mouth felt parched. He wanted a drink, but his water bottle was stashed deep in the backpack that rested on the floorboard, between his feet. Outside, the crowns of cottonwoods, tinged pink with the coming dawn, appeared to be pasted upon a gunmetal-gray landscape. With his peripheral vision, he saw the rearview mirror reflect beams of pale orange light that now chased him across the mesa.
The driver, Dale McNally, a high-school dropout with rough manners and rougher speech, couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. His eyelids drifted toward his cheeks at about the same rate as the Kenworth swerved off the highway. When the right front tire gouged into the skim of gravel on the highway shoulder, Simple grabbed McNally’s thigh and shook it. McNally’s eyes popped open, blinked. He eased the rig back onto the blacktop.
McNally had his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, showing the thick, ropy muscles of his forearms. He wore a cowboy hat with a rattlesnake-skin band. The dashboard’s lights cast an eerie glimmer across his face, and a thatch of dark hair spread out below his hat, covering his ears and hanging over his frayed collar.
“Christ sakes,” McNally barked, “I picked you up so’s you could keep me awake. Help me out here, boy.”
That happened often. Simple was twenty-five years old—a stoic ranch-hand life had made him look closer to thirty—but even men his own age, like McNally, called him boy, son, or kid.
“How?” Simple asked, suspiciously.
“I didn’t mean that. You made yourself perfectly clear about that.”
“Talk to me. Do somersaults on the hood if you have to; just keep me awake.”
Simple cracked his passenger window an inch, enough for a frosty breeze to whistle through the cab. He stared out the windshield, silent as a stone, trying to think of something to say.
“Someone should invent an electrical device for drivers to wear under their hats,” Simple said, “to zap their balls whenever they get drowsy. It could trigger from the change in blood pressure at the temples when the eyelids start to fall.”
Dale snarled, “Don’t be talkin’ about my balls if you ain’t goin’ to do anything ’bout ’em.”
Simple changed the subject, babbling on about the city lights mirroring the stars on the horizon. The hypnotic cadence of his voice made McNally yawn, a mouth-stretched-wide-open yawn, that pulled his eyes off the road for a dangerously long time. His eyelids became heavy again, drifted to half-mast, then closed altogether. His head leaned forward, and the Kenworth wandered into the oncoming lane.
Headlights from a tour bus illuminated the cab like a prolonged flash of lightning. The light triggered a memory in Simple’s head. Blinding light, someone grabs a handful of Simple’s hair and yanks his head back while four men wearing white scrubs hold his arms and legs. He fights with all his will, but they overpower him. A voice bellows in his head, “Get his pants down.” Clothes are ripped away. The orderly holding his hair positions himself between Simple’s naked legs. Simple hears the echo of harsh laughter.
Simple shook the image from his head. He grabbed McNally’s thigh again and barked, not really a word, but rather a harsh warning.
McNally’s eyes flew open and he jerked the wheel to the right. The Kenworth swerved back into its lane, and McNally struggled to keep it from careening out of control. “I’m telling you, boy, you got to help me. Talk to me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Tell me what an Indian boy like you is runnin’ from.”
“I ain’t running from; I’m running to.” One of Simple’s clearest childhood memories was constantly sneaking away from home with a library book under his arm. He felt the need to read alone, so that his family and the other kids wouldn’t tease him. Reading was not what boys did on the reservation. But he did. He had a favorite hideaway, in the cool shade of cottonwoods near the creek, where he would read the days away in the company of Twain, Hemingway, London, and Melville. But late in the afternoons, he would hear a door slam, and his mother’s voice calling the family to dinner. Then he would run, lickety-split, back to the house. All too often, by the time Simple had rushed to the kitchen, his grandfather was slathering the last ear of corn with butter, saying, “Too late, bookworm.” Simple would stare forlornly at the empty serving dish. Although Simple had few memories left, he suspected that he had been running all his life, that he was still running, as fast as possible, trying to claim that last ear of sweet corn.
“Shit,” Dale spat. “Even a knuckle scraper like me can see that you’re fresh out of prison. All your clothes still have the K-Mart tags.”
Simple lifted his arm and saw a price tag dangling from his cuff. He ripped it away and searched for a place to trash it.
Dale said, “Toss it out the window.”
Simple stuffed the tag in his shirt pocket. “I don’t remember much, only that they had me locked up. Not prison, some kind of clinic, but I have a job waiting for me in Saint George—” Simple pulled a sheet of paper from his shirt pocket, unfolded it, and read by the light of the dashboard, “—working for Lance Bishop.”
“Why do they call you Simple?”
“My grandfather named me that to always remind me that a warrior’s life is filled with simple treasures.”
“Could be worse,” Dale scoffed. “Be thankful he didn’t name you after Buttface Canyon, Nevada.”
“Sing me a song,” Simple said. “That will keep you awake.”
“I only know hymns, from when my mama took me to church.”
“Works for me.”
Nodding, McNally cleared his throat and bellowed, “‘Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.’”
Dale’s whiskey-tenor voice soared over the engine’s growl. The tune was uncomplicated, with trilling and mournful notes, resembling both music and a sorrowful cry. It reminded Simple of a Shoshone death chant that his grandfather sang the day Simple’s parents died. He loved the way the long, flowing vowels tumbled from McNally’s lips, like a river meandering through a forest. Simple heard each tone and also the slices of silence separating the notes. It sounded stark and sometimes discordant, yet staggeringly beautiful.
IN THE gritty bedroom of a rundown trailer house, an alarm clock buzzed. Jude Elder’s head swiveled on a pillow, his body folded into a fetal position. He came awake and looked around the room, confused. He cleared his congested throat and banged the alarm off.
He flipped on a bedside lamp, squinted. Rings adorned his lower lip, nose, eyebrow, and a half-dozen crawled up one ear. His mascara was ghoulishly smudged. He rolled off the bed, stepped over a pile of laundry, and staggered to the doorway. As he opened the door, light from the hallway lamp revealed dozens of angry red scars crisscrossing Jude’s torso and belly.
His head hurt too much to think. He focused all his attention on not falling over.
He tottered to the shower and turned on the water. As steam rose, he stepped in, grabbed his dick, and began to masturbate—eyes closed, mouth ajar. Soon his hips bucked and his mouth twisted into a look of quasi-sexual pain. He opened his eyes and they rolled back. He groaned.
Moments later, with both his hands covering his face, he began to sob.
He lifted a razor blade from the soap dish and sliced two lines across his chest. Blood trickled over his pasty torso as tears streamed down his cheeks.
A few minutes later, Jude ambled down the hallway into his choky little kitchen. He had wrapped a towel around his waist, bandages covering his fresh wounds. He opened the refrigerator and snatched a Budweiser longneck, twisting the cap off and downing half. He seized a prescription bottle and shook the few remaining pills into his palm, knocking them back and washing them down with more beer. He tossed the two empty bottles into a sink filled with dirty dishes.
Jude grabbed another Bud from the fridge and cracked it open.
In the bedroom, Jude sifted through the pile of soiled clothes. He stepped into a pair of boxer shorts, his only pair of jeans, socks, and cowboy boots. He lifted a white shirt from the pile, sniffed the underarms, and tossed it aside. He picked up another, sniffed, tossed it. The third and last he didn’t bother to sniff. He laced his arms into the sleeves and buttoned it up.
He jerked a roach from an ashtray beside the bed, fired it up, inhaled, and downed more beer. He took another hit, then strolled back to the bathroom to reapply his eye makeup. In the mirror, he only looked at his eyes as he painted his mask. He couldn’t bear to see the rest of his face or the scars at the base of his neck.
On his way to the front door, Jude lifted a ring of keys off a plate on the kitchen table, then he stopped in front of a mynah bird chained to a perch beside the door. He snatched a food carton and shoveled seeds into the bird’s bowl.
“Loser! Loser!” the bird cawed.
“Now you sound like my dad, shithead,” Jude said.