He hit the floor. He hit the floor and he wasn’t sure he could get back up. He scanned the empty room for his son, didn’t see him. Heard the morning TV chirping away in the background. He felt the blood at the back of his throat, tasted it in his mouth like wet copper, and then he scanned the room again.
The man steeped in closer and hit him a second time. He hit him harder.
“I said sit, goddamn it! Just sit!”
Their room was on the second floor. It was like every motel room Bill had ever been in, and he’d been in a few. Two double beds, TV, an untouched chest of drawers, a bible in a drawer beneath the reading light. A laminated menu from the coffee shop across the highway. Local map. There was a small window in the front by the door and another, much larger one in back. The front window overlooked the little horse-shoe shaped parking lot below, the swimming pool, the strip-mall across the highway. The back one aimed out at nothing but miles and miles of empty South Dakota nothing. Scrub land and brush and some mountains in the far distance, Bill didn’t know which ones. He thought maybe they were looking West but he really wasn’t sure.
They’d been in the room for two days now, two days, and Bill was trying to find the strength within himself to get moving again. He knew they had to, knew they still had a lot of ground left to cover. But every time he stared out that huge back window, at all that empty distance, he felt a weight come settling down upon him and he couldn’t find the energy to move, almost. Couldn’t find the energy to lift his arms.
His son Sam was oblivious to it. His son was only seven years old and anyway staying holed up in a motel room on the edge of Nowhere, S.D. made as much sense to him as anything else that had happened to him in the past few days. Kids are adaptable, Bill told himself, and normal was relative. So they watched a lot of TV, whatever Sam wanted to watch, and Bill watched a lot of his son.
Bill watched his son as he sat at the little round table beneath the big empty window, playing with a plastic bag full of little green soldiers Bill had picked up in a Texaco station along the way. He’d watch as one of the soldiers would line up a good shot. His son would let out a little diabolical laugh and say “I’ve got you now!” The other plastic soldier would cry out in anguish and surprise, sometimes even begging for his little soldier life, but Sam’s wars were merciless affairs, and begging did no good. Sam could keep one of these battles going for almost an hour, until all his plastic soldiers were spent. Then, almost immediately, he’d want to watch TV again.
“I’m bored,” he’d say.
The motel had a pool. The woman in the office made it clear that there wasn’t any lifeguard on duty, wasn’t any lifeguard at all, and the motel couldn’t be held responsible for anything that happened. But they were free to use it if they wanted.
“If you drown,” she said, “you drown on your own.”
Sam wanted, he wanted so bad he danced up and down where he stood, but Bill wasn’t so sure. The woman in the office made drowning sound almost routine, an everyday occurrence. She made it sound like a foregone conclusion.
“I know how,” the boy pleaded on the walk from the front office to the motel room. “We’ve been doing it in school. I don’t need water wings or anything. Come on, please?”
Bill kept walking, not meeting the boy’s pleas, the room key dangling in his hand. A shutter opened somewhere behind Bill’s eyes, quick and uninvited, and through it Bill could clearly see his son floating a few inches below the surface of the swimming pool water, eyes and mouth open and unmoving. He saw the boy’s blond hair rising and shifting in the rocking tide. He saw his skin, blue against the blue of the water. He saw his own heavy body crashing through the surface of the water, trying to reach his son but negligent and too late. Just as quickly, the shutter snapped closed, and Bill felt his head snap back.
“You don’t have a swimming suit,” Bill said.
“I could swim in my underwear,” his son said. “They’ve got Spiderman on them, nobody’d even notice. Come on, please? Please?”
“We’ll see,” he said. “Maybe later.”
“That means no,” Sam groaned, giving up for now. “Later always means no.”
Interstate 90, La Crosse to Buffalo, Wyoming. From there through Billings, Bozeman, Butte. Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, Seattle. Interstate 5 to Vancouver. Bill looked up from the atlas, sighed, and closed his eyes.
“She’s an Indian, I think,” the boy said, lining up his soldiers on the bed. A sniper was lying flat on the crest of a pillow, lining up to shoot an unsuspecting green radio man. The poor sap never saw it coming.
“The woman who gave us the keys. The woman in the office, the other night. I think she’s some kind of Indian.”
“Well, could be,” Bill said. “This is where they’re from.”
Bill didn’t know anything about Indians, and he couldn’t picture the woman in the office. They checked in two nights before and had hardly left the room since. Bill hadn’t wanted to look into anyone’s face straight on. It was dark when they checked in, they’d been driving since Rapid City, and Bill’s son was sound asleep in the seat beside him. His forehead was pressed up against the glass and his mouth was wide open. His dreams were a thousand miles away.
“It’s going to rain,” his son said. Looking out the huge rear window, Bill could see the rain coming in like an electric blue shroud. A quick flash of lightning cracked on the horizon, still too far for thunder, and the boy jumped. Bill looked from the sky to his son, and his son looked back at him. Bill knew he would never be able to live out here. He’d never get used to these skies, this distance. It wasn’t anything like Lexington. Here you could see what was coming a long way off, and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do.
“Let’s see if there’s anything on the TV.”
Bill had taken his son from elementary school four days before. He came bursting into the classroom a few minutes before the three o’clock bell with some wildly convoluted story for Miss McAlprine, a story so complicated with hospitals and grandparents and cars careening across the interstate median and anything else that popped into Bill’s sweaty fevered imagination that Miss McAlprine just stood there blinking as Bill hustled his son into his jacket and out the door.
“I’ll call the principal,” Bill offered, running out the door. “I’ll call her right now.”
By the time everybody caught on that something was amiss, by the time Bill’s ex-wife went to pick up Sam at the bus stop, by the time she called the Principal and the Principal called Ms. McAlprine and then the police, Bill had hoped to be forty miles down the road. That was the plan and that’s just how it happened.
That was four days ago and Bill told himself afterward that they’d be fine, just fine. But the truth was, now that Bill had taken the boy, he wasn’t sure what to do with him. He wasn’t sure what to do with either of them.
Radio news. The war. Cost of gas. Sports and China. Delegates and Super-Delegates and food riots in Haiti. South Dakota. The Corn Palace, Souix Falls, 300 Miles to Wall Drugs. The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and Wounded Knee. South Dakota. He hadn’t been here in thirty years, easy, and he couldn’t wait to get through it. They were living on McDonald’s and Subway Sandwiches. It was like a vacation, he told his son. All bets were off. I love you, you know that? I love you. You don’t even know how much I love you.
“When my grandfather came home from the war my Dad didn’t even recognize him, didn’t know him at all. My Dad ran under the bed and couldn’t be coaxed out for hours.”
“Granddad?” Sam asked, and Bill shook his head.
“My grandfather. Your great-grandfather. You never met him.”
“Wait here, don’t move and don’t answer the door.”
“I mean it, not a soul. Fifteen minutes.”
“Okay,” the boy said, only half listening, tucked in and teeth brushed and not looking away from the TV screen as he said it. Bill paused for a second, then went out the door.
“I’ll be right back.”
Strip mall pizza. Shitty little strip mall bar like this in every town Bill ever lived in, tucked in between a grocery store and a card shop. Bright green neon shamrock in the window and Garth Brooks on the jukebox. Bill’s stomach had tightened as he walked past the place. God but he would’ve liked a drink. Just one, shot and a beer and a handful of popcorn. Feel that salty tang up at the back of his mouth, that welcome small explosion. Just to take himself away from himself a little bit.
But he kept walking, and soon he was past the urge.
“Baby, you don’t know.”
Bill heard the man before he saw him, deep ragged voice, tired and raw and trying to be soft. Bill was walking back along the motel walkway with the pizza and the cokes. The man himself was huge, country, all arms and shoulders and belly and neck. His thick black hair was oiled into a kind of 50’s DA. He stood at the motel door, one square hand resting gently on the jamb, and his voice rumbled out of him like a train.
“You just don’t.”
He stood with his forehead almost touching the locked door, almost whispering.
The window beside the motel room door was dark, and Bill wasn’t sure if there was anybody inside, if the man wasn’t pleading to an empty room. Bill edged his way to the outside border of the motel walkway as he passed, head down and eyes averted. The big man stopped talking suddenly and Bill could feel his attention on him, but Bill kept walking and soon he was at the door.
“You’re my moon in June, baby,” he heard the big man say. “You’re my heart and soul.”
The TV was still on by the time Bill was back with the food, but Sam was asleep. The TV was still on. Bill sat down on the bed next to the boy, always a little amazed at how quickly his son could be asleep, just dead to the world. One minute they’d be talking about school or Star Wars or something and the next minute Bill would be alone.
It was from a cartoon, he remembered. Some Walt Disney thing his son was watching, home sick from school one day. The Three Musketeers. Mickey was trapped and sentenced to die, waiting in his cell. Goofy and Donald were nowhere to be found. The bad guy, some kind of evil sheriff or something, is taunting Mickey in his final minutes, telling him that time comes faster than horses. Laughing cruelly as he says it.
Bill sat next to his son, watching the cartoon. He held his son’s feverish head in the palm of his hand, just like now or almost like now, and suddenly he had felt his whole life just slide away.
“Could I get waffles? And sausages?”
The next morning, pancakes at the coffee shop across the highway.
“And whipped cream on the waffles?”
Bill sat on his side of the formica table, newspaper unfolded in front of him, scanning the articles. The paper was concerned almost entirely with stabbings and car crashes, mostly in the dead of night. Today they would leave.
“Sure, whipped cream. Strawberries, why not? Shoot the moon.”
Bill ordered coffee for himself and scanned the paper. A woman found injured and unconscious, left for dead in the street. A nurses strike. A fire near the Governor’s Mansion. One page on horses, another page on weather. Church notes. Nothing about Bill, nothing about them.
“Time to hit the road, scooter. Today’s the day.”
“Where?” The boy looked up from his waffles, surprised.
“West,” Bill said. “I-90 West, more cowboys and Indians. I’ll show you on the map.”
“I’m not Scooter,” his son laughed.
“Well, you’re my Scooter,” he said, and the boy laughed again.
“A minute of your time?”
The man was waiting for them on the motel walkway, he was standing right there as they opened the motel room door, and Bill recognized him at once from the night before. He was dressed neat this morning, in a western shirt and a fresh pair of jeans, but his eyes were red and raw. He had his hair combed back from his forehead.
“It’s OK, son.” Bill smiled a little, nodded, and turned to the man. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I was wondering if you had seen someone belonging to me. She’s got red hair, about yea long. Woman at the front desk thought maybe you’d have seen her.”
“No, jeeze. Sorry.”
“It’s just the woman at the desk…”
“Afraid not,” Bill said, and he tried to edge his way around the man to open his motel door. “Sorry.”
“I’m asking nice, Sir,” the big man said, and his voice lowered as he said it. Bill froze up for a second, then he turned and smiled. “You notice I’m asking nice.”
“As you can see, my son and I…”
“Hey, I’ve got a son,” the big man said. “We’ve all got sons. That doesn’t mean you can’t help me out here. That doesn’t mean shit.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I can help you, sir. Simple mistake.” Bill offered his hand and what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but the big man just stared at him.
“Sir,” Bill said, and he did his best to lock the little man’s frantic eyes with his own steady gaze. He felt his smile stretch dead across his face. “Sir, you’re scaring my boy.”
The man came on him like a dark cloud, and Bill flinched. He kind of knew it was coming, but he flinched anyway, and something inside of his mind shut closed tight. A sudden pain rocketed through his left side, and he heard his son gasp.
“Not here,” Bill said, but it was too late for here, too late for now, and the Man struck him again. Harder than before. It was a pain like fire.
Bill heard glass shatter and guessed that that was the mirror over the dresser. He heard a dull thunk as the little round table fell to the floor. He felt the man’s boots connect with any exposed part of his own body and he heard a rib crack before he could feel the pain of it. The pain was general, it washed over him like a wave. One rib wouldn’t even make a difference.
Throughout it all, Bill could hear the big man sobbing above him. Hard wet spasms being yanked out of the man by force, almost. The man was crying like a child. That sound scared Bill the most. He saw him and then he heard him and then he heard nothing at all.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been lying there. He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling, and he knew he was hurt. Hurt worse than he’d ever been hurt in his life. Hurt beyond blood. He wasn’t sure he could feel his legs. His left side felt very far away.
“Hey, sir? Sir, are you OK?”
The woman from the front desk stood in the open doorway, the Indian woman, and his son hid behind her out in the hall.
“Yeah,” Bill said, still staring up at the ceiling. “I’ll be fine.”
“You don’t look fine, Sir. Excuse me for saying, but you don’t look fine at all.”
“We called the police. Should be here any minute.”
At the word “police”, something turned over in Bill. Turned over and settled, and then it was gone. He tried to shake his head, couldn’t.
“OK,” he said. “Good.”
The woman looked around the room, and shook her head sadly. “What happened to you, Sir? What happened in here?”
Bill knew he wouldn’t have much time once the police arrived, he didn’t think he could stand up anyway. But when he lifted his arm his son came around from behind the Indian woman and came down to him on the floor. His son put his thin arms around his father’s chest, put his face up close to his armpit, nuzzling in. Bill wrapped his own arm around the boy’s side. He felt the boy’s wet fear through his shirt. He felt it seep into his own skin.
“Shhh,” he said, rubbing the boy’s hair. “Shhh now.”
The Indian woman looked at them for a second, splayed out on the floor, and then she looked away.
“Let me get some ice,” she said quietly. “I’ll just get some ice.”
She left the door open and disappeared down the hallway, and Bill felt his son nuzzle in tighter. His forehead damp against his shirt, his breathing.
They lay together on the floor, very still.