Truth is I was on the highway when this diamond come sparkin on my windshield and then it done grew into a girl bout seventeen or so with a pack on her back and a thumb stuck out pointin down the white line. So I pulls up and she leans in and I says where you headin and she says forward ways and I says well thas where I be headin too cause there ain’t no nothin behind.
So she climbs in and I give a hand to shake and I tell her my name and she says thank you but I wasn’t askin for a name nor will I be givin one. To that I says thas fine by me but you should be knowin whose car you’re passenger to.
We get movin and it’s quiet like cept for the engine singin to the bitumen and I knowed that her eyes be scopin my baggage in the back. She says nothin and she settles in her seat like now she knows where she is she can be herself.
Mind if I smoke a cigarette, she says and I says no mind, but your lungs there might have somethin wise to say bout it. Then she pulls a carton from her backpack, one of those paper cartons and it’s half empty and she takes a packet out and I say shoo where’d you get that there giant stack from?
Store, she says.
I says well why’d you blow all your coin on a carton when you coulda bought a bus ticket to wherever you aimin at?
Priorities is all, she says and laughs and I must admit I don’t much like that kinda talk. Specially from a young woman. Reminds me of my daughter who I ain’t seen in almost seven years but I don’t tell her that I just think it.
Well it’s dangerous out here on this highway so maybe you should be considerin better options, is all, I says. But she just puts her mouth out the window and the smoke done get clean taken from her lips.
We was headin into the early sun and it was sure hot but I gave no sweat of it cause it’s the kinda hot that makes your skin dry as a tinderbox, just waitin for that spark to make you fire. And fire I could.
Before long she’s done with smokin and she takes a book from her pack and puts her pack on the floor and crosses her legs like only a girl can and she turns pages and gets to readin.
What you readin there, I says.
King, huh. Which one of him?
A collection of short’uns.
She shows me the cover and I tell her how I knowed that one, that my ex-wife was big time on King and so I got to readin a whole bunch of em myself.
Whassa shortie you up to now?
Oh yeah I read that one once. Seen the movie of it?
Stand By Me?
Yeah. Stand By Me.
Yep. I seen it once. But that dead body got right on my nerves, it did.
How so, I says.
Seems so lonely is all. A stinkin body left out there like that. Like it never had none to love it enough to come find it and take it someplace else. Someplace proper. I don’t never wanna think bout me being like that.
I nod cause I understand and then she’s quiet and she looks out the window and I can tell she’s eyein all that cotton country and thinkin bout how a body could too easy become lost in there, only to be sniffed out by some animal. A hungry animal.
The engine keeps singin and the country moves on and ventually the book means somethin to her again cause she turns back to it and starts readin it loud like, sayin, The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish… then she stops to ask whas diminish and I says it means to make somethin smaller or lesser or to make lots just a little bit and she don’t look at me but she nods and then she keeps readin loud. She reads the first chunk of the story. She reads it like I never done heard it before but in actual fact I know it well. Too well. The stuff bout revelations that cost you and bout people not understandin cause the revelation comes from a place private some. About the things your heart wants to get to sayin but ain’t game enough and not cause you don’t got the words but cause you ain’t found the right listenin ear yet.
I look over at this girl’s ear and she don’t see me lookin while she’s head down readin so I gets a good look at her ear and the ring in it, a small ring like she’s had it since she was just a dribbly young thing and her ear done grew too big for it. But that ring did shine and shine it kept on doin cause when I looked back at the bitumen and lines and my knuckles on the wheel I seen that shine like a droplet in the very corner of my eye. Yes, sir. A droplet that done caught a tiny bit of the sun itself.
When she finish readin loud I says Amen to that, even though I done thinkin bout God near seven years ago. But this girl be takin my mind to Him and all things godly and ungodly.
She puts the book down at her feet, through with it I guess cause that first bit of The Body is a hard one but a good one and a right one and it has the talent for makin the head sore and the chest fill then empty itself for thinkin and feelin bout all the things kept inside. And those things be somethin like wallpaper for my heart.
She opens her packet of cigarettes and takes one and puts it in her mouth and goes to spark it but I put out my hand.
I prefer you refrain from indulgin in that there smokin.
But you gave it no mind before.
I change my thinkin, I says. I mind now. I mind a whole lot and I don’t expect you to understand that but it is what it is and I’m tellin you and you better act on that tellin.
I says these things to her and I knowed her mind don’t see the reasons why I changed my thinkin but I come down a bit hard so she don’t got to think none too much bout it, just get angry. And I could handle angry over tryin to wrap my mouth round explainin the complicated way things are.
But angry she don’t do very well cause she’s all loose lip and sharp tongue, just like my daughter. And my daughter got to knowin me in the heat.
What you runnin from anyway, she says and I don’t like her line of enquiry one bit but I don’t say nothin. Nothin at all.
She looks in the back and scopes my baggage again and she grins and chews on her own smart mouth and says thas a heavy duty bag you got lazin bout on that back seat a yours. Whassa man like you needin a big’un like that for?
Hush up now, I says.
You are runnin, ain’t ya?
Be quiet now.
I ain’t gonna tell nobody. Promise, she says. Cross my heart and hope to die.
I brake in an easy way not a violent way and I shift the car over to the roadside and bring it to a halt and I tells her that if her tongue can’t find a way to stop shapin those words a hers I got no guilt bout leavin her then and there for the snakes and the truckers and for cotton country folk.
She keeps on with that silly grin a hers and although I only just met this one I can tell she’s got the intuition.
What she do wrong anyways, she says.
And thas me done.
I’m none too keen on the way you talkin to me, I says. Is disrespectin. Now I’m countin to three and if you ain’t out of this car I’ll pull you out myself.
She kicks her feet up on the dash and stretches her legs all long like.
She’s got these two barrettes in her hair, two rosebuds shaped out of phoney pink gems and she takes em and drops em on the floor then she looks at a bunch of her hair like I ain’t even there.
On that she turns and looks me direct in the eye.
Three, I says, but she wasn’t no dullard this girl cause she had a spark like I never seen before and she knew that I wasn’t game to leave her there and I can only guess she knew this cause she saw her own diamond shinin back from my eye.
She says nothin more. Not a peep. But she stares. She keeps on starin at me and the diamond in my eye and she seems a moment much older and wiser and like she done seen straight through me and beyond herself to the road we was travellin together yet only in parallel. It was like she seen her own destination.
I roll the window full down and look out cross the road at the cotton there in the dry heat and the red dirt and I get to thinkin bout me as a kid and how once I was showed what it is to pluck one a those cotton heads early in the mornin and crush it in my hand to see the fine wet dew come out from inside, like a dry old man found cryin at really nothin much at all.
Look, I says, some men need a good bottle and some a good god but alls I need is a good bag to keep my things in, so leave it where it is and what it holds won’t come to harm nobody.
She takes her feet from the dashboard and her grin eases into somethin more like sincerity.
That’s very poetic-like mister, she says, and I says that, well, if poetry be nothin but the mouth speakin what the heart can’t say then yes I guess there might be some truth in that. Cause when the heart finds somethin to hurt over most times it finds itself tethered to somethin it don’t have the capacity to fully understand. And words don’t help none either, other than providin a way for that heart to keep on windin it’s way round on that tether til ventually my heart gets stuck on the very thing that hurt it in the first place. And thas the only way it can be. Thas the way it is.
We get goin. We get goin and thas the truth of it, sir. Her and me with the windows full down now in the boil and simmer and the rare car passin in the other direction, maybe even headin to the same places we was headin from.
Daddy, she says, he always told me that every person got a story to tell, and we’s sharin a ride so I been thinkin that it’d be entertainin and all for us to share stories. And they don’t gotta be true, she says. Fiction is often times better than true.
I contemplate tellin her bout my daughter and who she was and who she came to be and all those things that can happen to a person in between. But I don’t.
I ain’t too handy at conjurin tall tales to tell the truth, I says, and I ain’t got no story of my own I’d be willin to shuck from my tongue. Unless you be keen to give me something to tell.
I done givin, she says, then she looks down at those feet a hers or maybe it was that King book but either way I could estimate she got to rememberin somethin she thought she left behind. Her crinkly eyes done gave it away. Then maybe ten clicks down the road she says she’s done with this and asks me to stop at the nearest station cause there’s a phone call she’s got to be makin and I tell her thas good with me cause I be needin to stop for fuel and a cold drink anyways.
And that be all.
There’s a roadhouse bout seventeen miles from here but I be guessin good you already been investigatin there cause thas the place I left her, standin by the phone booth out front, that pack on her back and cigarette in mouth and the rosebud barrettes back in and all up a glow round her that might be fate itself.
So truth is, sir, yes I knowed that girl lying there zactly like the thing she never wanted to be, but I also know when to let go of an idea before that idea comes to be somethin it ain’t. Cause truth is she ain’t my daughter. Nor will she ever be.
The Australian Literature Review