Baldwin washed his chocolate gravy down with tepid Diet Coke. The sugar combined with the remnants of last night’s alcohol and made his head ring.

Belly sat at a small, round table in the center of the room. She had pulled the revolver free from the waistband of her warm-up pants and laid it on the scarred Formica. Every so often, she patted the weapon with her right hand, index finger caressing the hard blue steel of the barrel. Her left hand cradled a deck of tarot cards.

“These cards never lie,” she said. After a while she picked up Baldwin’s chocolate-stained dish. “You want some more?”

“Nuh-uh.” Baldwin tried to control his shakes. “That was plenty.”

“I’ll get you some more.” Plate in one hand, Belly stood and turned toward the kitchen. She stopped as if she’d remembered something and picked up the revolver with her free hand. “Don’t you go nowhere, okay?”

But Baldwin was already poised to spring out of the velvet easy chair. A nanosecond after she’d disappeared from view, he dashed for the front door of the trailer, leaped from the rickety porch, and ran down the caliche driveway leading to the farm-to-market road.

A hundred yards later, he stepped onto the asphalt of the two-lane highway and paused to catch his breath. No one was chasing him.

The waning light was about gone. The clouds in the west, just visible above the pines, were streaked with orange and purple, like bruises not quite healed. The town of Twin Wells lay to the east, toward the darkness.

Baldwin took off at a lope, running along the shoulder. Thirty minutes later, as the stars began to twinkle overhead and the pain in his side ratcheted up another notch, he passed the city limits sign.

He staggered to a stop and bent over, hands on his knees, breath ragged like barbed wire in his lungs. Across the road was a low-slung cinder block building with a neon Coors sign in one window and half a dozen cars in the parking lot. Baldwin thought he might have danced there the night before with a woman named Connie or Corrine, but he couldn’t be sure. He remembered tequila shots, an off-kilter pool table, and not much else about the place.

Close to the center of town, near the bank, a pair of headlights came on. For some reason he couldn’t articulate, Baldwin moved off the shoulder. He hid himself in the oily blackness surrounding the now closed garage where he’d left his car.

The headlights meandered down the main drag, heading toward the city limits sign Baldwin had just passed. A few moments later, the vehicle came into view. A sheriff’s patrol unit.

Baldwin wondered where the officer was headed. He turned away from the road and saw his car parked on the far side of the garage lot behind a chain-link fence. He hoped that meant it was fixed and he could be on his way. He’d had his fill of all that Twin Wells had to offer.

Baldwin stepped away from the garage and jogged toward the Lone Star Motel, past the pale, looming limestone bank building where Alexander Johnson III worked and the feed store with the peeling paint and wood siding that was more rot than wood.

Back in his room, he went to the bath, flipped on the light, and stared at his face in the cracked mirror.

Was he looking for answers or for the question itself in the putty-colored features and thick gray bags under his eyes?

He supposed it didn’t really matter. In any event, the lines and fissures weaving across his face gave nothing back, just a battered map of 43 years of hard traveling on the back roads of the petrochemical American dream.

He cursed Joe Newby and his sister as the bile erupted from the pit of his stomach. He fell toward the toilet and vomited up all of his chocolate gravy and Diet Coke. After a few moments, he pushed himself away from the porcelain and staggered into the shower, letting the water pepper his skin full blast.

Fifteen minutes later he stepped into the bedroom, a towel wrapped around his waist, a cloud of steam billowing out from behind him.

The deputy sheriff who had given him a ride into town the day before sat on the bed, holding Baldwin’s wallet.

“Put on a show last night at the fair, from what I hear.” The deputy tossed the wallet on the floor, the bills fluttering around the cracked leather in a ragged circle.

Baldwin picked up the money and wallet with one hand, the other clutching at his towel.

“Where’d you go afterwards?” The deputy hitched his thumbs in his Sam Browne belt.

“Few places.” Baldwin placed his wallet on the dresser.

“Mabel Higginbotham seen you driving a brand-spanking-new pickup out on Church Mill Road. You ran over her dog.”


“She had a blue heeler.” The deputy crossed his arms.

“No.” Baldwin shook his head. “That couldn’ta been me.”

The deputy pulled out his nightstick and pointed it at Baldwin’s torso like a pistol. He advanced until the tip touched his sternum. Then he kept coming, forcing Baldwin to inch backward, hands gripping the towel.

When Baldwin’s shoulders hit the far wall of the room, the deputy stopped. He pressed his weight into the nightstick and leaned over until their eyes were inches apart.

“You see Alexander Johnson last night?”

Baldwin didn’t say anything.

“He lives on Church Mill Road,” the deputy said. “Or he used to, at any rate.”

“I didn’t do anything to that man.”

The deputy cocked his head to one side but didn’t reply.

Baldwin tried to control his breathing. He closed his eyes, willing his brain cells to piece together the events of the previous evening. But there was nothing after the string of bars, just another dark hole, a crevice of unknowns and might-have-beens.

The pressure against his chest disappeared. Baldwin opened his eyes.

“Where’d you get that scar on your cheek, anyway?” The deputy smiled, an expression that was anything but friendly. He cast an appraising glance at Baldwin, as if only now noticing that he was dressed in a towel. He slid the nightstick back in its ring and then touched Baldwin’s chest with one finger, making a slow circle around his nipple before sticking his hand in his pocket.

Baldwin massaged the spot where the deputy’s flesh had connected with his own. The skin felt cool to touch, but his chest was burning.

“The sheriff’s gonna want to talk to you.” The deputy pulled a key ring from his pocket and twirled it around one finger. “So I took the liberty of impounding your truck.”

Baldwin’s chest burned deeper as he recognized the keys as his own.

“Don’t go anywhere.” The deputy winked and left.

Next month:

Chapter Seven, by Ben Fountain, in which Baldwin gets dragged in for questioning.