(Related: Minimalist short fiction starring Adrián Beltré Part I and Part II)
Charlene at last reached over and let her hand rest on Adrián Beltré’s thigh. Moments earlier, he’d steadied the steering wheel with the inside of his knee so he could light a cigarette, and without realizing it he’d kept his leg in that position. He dropped it so she could keep her hand there more easily. Charlene shifted in her seat, and he thought she was going to drop her head to his shoulder. But then she sat up straight as though she’d heard a strange noise. “Why aren’t your pants wet?” she said.
“I didn’t see you change pants, and these aren’t wet.”
“You said you went in the water.”
“Yes,” he said. “I did. I said that.”
“I know you said that but did you? Go in the water?
“I said I did, yes.”
“If you went in the water after him, then why are your pants dry?”
Adrián Beltré sighed through his nose. He craned his neck to change lanes and felt himself feign a distractedness, as though these questions were less important than changing lanes. “I’m not sure what you’re asking me, honey. I use these pants when I fish. They dry fast. They’re almost like waders.”
“They don’t dry that fast,” she said. “I’m the one who washes them.”
The soft laughter he conjured up sounded more false than he intended. “Charlene, I don’t know what you’re doing right now with this.”
He thought about telling her he didn’t go in that deep, but then she would’ve touched his shin and found the same dry fabric. “If he was in the water drowning and you went after him like you said, then why are your pants dry?”
“Charlene, come on.”
“Are you going to answer me?”
Adrián Beltré, as best he could, inventoried what he’d said and what had happened. His judgment, arrived at in seconds, was that it was too late to double back on himself, too tangled, and would lead to more of whatever this was. Some coworker from years ago had once explained the difference between an untruth and a lie. What he’d said before felt more like an untruth because it just came out of his mouth. It came out too quickly for him to own, and now, miles down the road, it was too late to fix any of that. “I told you what happened,” Adrián Beltré said. “I don’t know why you’re doing this.”
Somehow her hand was still upon his leg, no doubt because the mind makes the body forget. She seemed to remember this, too, as Charlene picked her hand up and folded it across her lap.
“Do you believe me?” he said.
“What?” she said. “Jesus, Adrián Beltré. Why are you saying it like that? Listen to yourself. Say, ‘You don’t believe me,’ or something. You sound like a movie right now. No, I don’t fucking believe you when you say it like that.”
Adrián Beltré reminded himself of a useless moon as he hovered about the kitchen. He pinned himself to the doorframe, so as not to get in Charlene’s way. She flowed from turkey and green bean casserole in the oven to the macaroni and cheese on the stovetop to the dressing in the mixing bowl to the dinner rolls thawing on the counter. “I hope this is going to be enough,” she said. “Curtis can put away some food.”
“When has it not been enough?” Adrián Beltré said.
They didn’t often have guests for Thanksgiving, but this year Charlene’s mother and her boyfriend were making the drive up from Falls City. Charlene acted harried enough, but she also hummed a tune Adrián Beltré couldn’t quite place and once or twice laughed softly to herself while she cooked. “What can I do?” Adrián Beltré asked.
“Hmm,” Charlene said as she put her hands on her hips and lifted her head to look out the kitchen window. “Not much in here.”
“Don’t I know it,” Adrián Beltré said.
“Buzz needs a walk, I guess.”
Their lab mix, curled around the legs of the rattan Adirondack chair by the back door, picked up on the word and climbed to his feet. His tail thumped the drywall behind him. “Ten-four,” Adrián Beltré said as he fetched the leash from the hook. Buzz hopped toward him and smiled, or whatever you’d call it.
Outside, they made their way toward the woods behind the subdivision, with Buzz stopping to sniff the frost heaves in the sidewalk and pricking up his ears at some distant barking. It was warm for late November in Nebraska but still cool enough to make Adrián Beltré wish he’d had on something more than a windbreaker. He stopped for a moment and considered whether to go back for something heavier. When Buzz strained at the leash, however, they pressed on.
They walked down the cul-de-sac that ended at the edge of the woods. Knowing the way, Buzz tugged Adrián Beltré forward and onto the trail that wound past Camp Wakonda and into the marshes northwest of the Missouri River. Once the woods opened up to the railroad tracks and the open prairie beyond, Adrián Beltré unhooked the leash, as he always did when their walks took them this way. Buzz sniffed at the last line of trees, which sent some squirrels up above into a determined chatter. He followed a scent for a few yards and then began hopping through the prairie grass. The dog was nine and, as an overweight lab mix, slowing down a bit. Every so often, though, he found that old energy on the breezes, particularly when the weather was turning. Adrián Beltré laughed at him as Buzz worked himself into a gallop. He fished a cigarette out of the back pocket of his work pants, which he’d put on that morning out of force of habit, and turned from the wind to light it. After he did, he looked up and got lost staring at one sprawling old oak that dominated the edge of the canopy. He felt the smoke leach down his throat, fill his belly more firmly than it should have, and then billow out his nostrils. A gust from the west shook leaves from the old oak.
Adrián Beltré turned back to the meadow and couldn’t put eyes on Buzz. The grass wasn’t high enough to hide him, unless he was somewhere rolling in a possum carcass or something. Adrián Beltré called his name and listened for the familiar metallic jangle of tags around his neck. He switched the cigarette butt to his left hand and put the pointer finger and pinky of his right hand in his lips to make that trilling, warbling whistle that always put Buzz on alert. Only the wind was moving the grasses. Adrián Beltré scanned the horizon but saw nothing. He mashed the cigarette out on the sole of his boot, flicked it to the ground, and walked forward.
It had been raining recently, so the grasses weren’t holding a trail. Had they been dry and brittle, as they usually were this time of year, then he would’ve been able to track Buzz’s steps. The meadow gave way to more trees and then 200 yards or so further, the steep side of the bluff down to the headwater that ran into the Missouri. Every few steps Adrián Beltré shouted his name. Every 10 or 12 steps he pierced the air with his whistle. He stopped at the edge of the drop, which stood 80 or 100 feet above the edge of the water. “Goddamnit, Buzz.”
Adrián Beltré walked that edge, shouting and whistling, long enough for the chill to creep up from his exposed fingers into his chest and across his ears. His feet were warm, though. He hadn’t put his watch on, but it had to be after 4 o’clock. The gloaming was drifting in, across the water, up the hillside, and into the trees that loomed over him. Unseasonal midges swarmed about his face. He tried to scatter them by swinging his right arm with such force that he dropped to one knee. His breath quickened. “Buzz,” he shouted. “Please.”
It was fully dark by the time he stopped roaming and whistling. The woods there weren’t sprawling, and you could head toward any compass point and find your way out before too long. Getting lost, though, felt like a possibility at the moment. Descending and scaling the bluffs above the river every hundred yards or so had put him in a sweat, which, now that he’d stopped to stare and think, had made him all the colder. He shuffled back through the fallen leaves and negotiated the groves of hardwoods, whistling and calling once again. Without realizing how close he was, he found himself back at the road with the leash slung over his shoulder. He summoned up a final shout of the dog’s name so loud that it seemed to Adrián Beltré
Back home and breathing harder than he should have, he knocked on the front door for some reason. He opened it before anyone could answer. The heat from the stove and furnace relieved him, and the smell of the food cloyed his nose. “There’s the man,” said Curtis, Charlene’s mother’s boyfriend, when Adrián Beltré eased into the room. “Heck of a meal you’re missing.”
He pulled the leash from his shoulder and bunched it up in his hand in what felt to Adrián Beltré like some kind of automatic effort to conceal it. They were eating in the living room on TV trays with the Cowboys game on.
“Don’t I know it,” said Adrián Beltré.
“Still hot,” said Curtis. “Hadn’t been eating long.”
“What in the world,” said Charlene bustling into the room with a pitcher of tea. “Hon, you’ve been gone for more than two hours. Was that you knocking? Why were you knocking?”
“Adrián Beltré,” said Charlene’s mother. “Let me get you a plate.”
She corralled her cane and began rising unsteadily from her chair. “No, mama,” he said. “I’ll get my own here in a bit. Thank you, though.”
“Where’s Buzz,” Charlene said.
Adrián Beltré cut his eyes at her and half-nodded in a way that he hoped would convey that something was wrong. She didn’t pick up on it, though, and smiled at him. “Let me talk to you outside for a second,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” Charlene said.
“Just for a second,” he said.
He made for the door, and Charlene followed him cautiously. Out on the front porch, the chill caught him all over again, and he shivered. He took her hand. “Honey,” he said. “Something happened.”
“What,” she said.
“I took him in the woods like I usually do and ran him a bit, and he must have seen something,” Adrián Beltré said. “He must have seen something because he took off and bolted and went over one of those steep cliffs, and …”
His voice trailed off. She brought her hand up to her mouth. “And what?” she said.
“And I ran over there to the edge and saw him find his feet and start tearing off for the river.”
He didn’t know why he did it. It seemed to Adrián Beltré that his mouth, powered by something other than his own will, had first embellished what he intended to say and then piled lies upon it. “I don’t know what he saw, a goose or something maybe, but he went in the water, and I went in after him. He kept swimming upriver after something, and I was wading after him and yelling for him, but he got tired I guess.”
“Oh no, don’t. Don’t tell me this.”
“I’m sorry, Hon. I couldn’t get to him. Current was too strong, and it took him under.”
Her face tumbled, and she covered up with her hands and turned away from him. She sobbed softly, and he put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her in for an embrace. Her arms remained crossed as he held her. “Where is he,” she said.
“Hon, I don’t know where he is.”
“Take me to where you last saw him.”
“It’s dark, Charlene. I don’t even know if I could find where it was.”
“Take me there, Adrián Beltré, or I’ll go myself. He’s probably on the bank somewhere freezing and scared.”
“Charlene,” Adrián Beltré said. “Charlene, he didn’t make it out. You didn’t see the current.” His own lies stunned him all over again, as though he hadn’t already buried himself in them.
“He’s a good swimmer,” she whispered. “I’ll get the keys to the truck.”
“No, stop,” he said.
She did. He would tell her. He would tell her the truth, that he’d lost the dog and didn’t know what happened to him, that he was scared and the lie just came out. They’d had a neighbor or a neighbor’s neighbor maybe on the street behind theirs years ago whose son went missing after school one day. They never found him, and on occasion Adrián Beltré would see the father working in the yard and could see in his curled shoulders, lined face, and the way his eyes stayed locked on the middle distance how the loss had ripped him up. It’s the unknowing that burrows into you and lives there, lives off of you. Yes, this was a dog, not a child, but the weight could feel the same depending on who carried it.
They’d put up posters with Buzz’s picture on it. She’d probably choose the one on the end table by the couch, in which he’s sitting at attention on his haunches with the snow in the backyard putting his nut brown fur into sharp relief. Buzz was so straight in that picture and Charlene’s Polaroid had been right above him. It all made him look like he was stuffed and mounted on somebody’s white wall. Adrián Beltré never told her that, of course. Unlike people, dogs look how they look in pictures, he thought. They’d hang those all over. In the woods, she’d insist on tying them around tree trunks with twine instead of stapling them because that way the wind wouldn’t get behind them and tear them off. She’d call the rescues and pounds every morning. She’d blame him without saying so. She blamed him now, Adrián Beltré knew, but if Buzz was lost instead of dead that blame would make a home inside her, he figured. The lie felt beyond him now, like an untied skiff that had drifted out of reach across the water. He could say the lie was for her – better dead than lost, in some ways – but that wasn’t what made him lie. What did make him, he’d have to think about. Or did anything make him? Didn’t he just choose to do it? Because it was easier? Was it, though? Every question made him ask another one.
“I’ll get the keys,” he said and said nothing more.
Inside, Curtis was still eating, and Charlene’s mother was regarding a half-eaten slice of pecan pie on her plate. Adrián Beltré sighed to get their attention. “You OK?” Charlene’s mother said.
“It’s the dog,” he said. “He got away earlier, got away from me, and got into the river. I told her it’s a lost cause, but she wants to go look for him.”
“Oh no,” she said. “I’m sorry. Tell her I’m sorry.”
Curtis, whose hearing was going, looked up and smiled and then turned back to the game. “Well, we’ll be fine,” Charlene’s mother said. “Take your time and do what you need to do. She loves that dog.”
“She does, yeah,” Adrián Beltré said. “Back soon.”
He fetched the keys from the hook by the door and grabbed his Maglite from the coat closet. Outside, Charlene was standing by the passenger door of the Dodge staring up the road. Adrián Beltré climbed into the cab, reached across and unlocked the passenger door. The truck rumbled to life, and they backed out of the driveway.
Adrián Beltré didn’t know where to drive. Any kind of honest search couldn’t be done from the truck. He couldn’t get to where he’d been by driving. They’d have to walk there, and even with the leaves off the trees – even in the moonlight – they’d be wandering to no end. But that’s what they had to do.
Outside the truck in the dark, just beyond the reach of the street lights where they’d parked, he clicked his thumbnail across the button of the flashlight and pretended to turn it on. “Shit,” he lied again, “batteries must be dead.”
Did he fear they’d find the dog, and she’d be right? He liked the dog. Loved it, he guessed. He liked almost every dog he met. Shouldn’t he be feeling more than this? The panic from what had happened had crowded out the rest, he told himself. Then the lie. He was out of sorts from all of it. That was it. So stop fucking lying, he seethed at himself. Adrián Beltré banged the bottom of the flashlight on his palm and then clicked the light on to make it seem as though it had come to life. “There, that did it,” he said and found his way back to something like truth.
“Buzz,” Charlene shouted. “Buzz? Come here, big boy!”
Silence followed and then some rustling in some nearby leaves – far too soft of a noise to be a dog of Buzz’s size. Adrián Beltré yelled his name, too, recoiling at how false it sounded. Maybe he shouldn’t have joined in since he’d insisted to Charlene that the dog couldn’t have made it. She kept shouting every 20 seconds or so as they followed the cone of the light through the leaves and around the trees. “Careful of your step. Hard to tell how close we are to the edge when it’s this dark out,” he said, probably as a way to suggest they not keep at this too long. He got mad at himself again.
She stopped calling his name after several more minutes of walking, and Adrián Beltré heard her soft, muffled sobs. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe we come out tomorrow when it’s light.”
They drove back in a heavy silence. Charlene kept her fist at her chin and stared out her side window. “No,” she said after he steered into their driveway. He’d pulled the truck out on the curb that morning so Curtis could park in the driveway and close to the front door. “Keep going. I can’t go in there right now.”
He’d always hated missing a turn, which is what this sort of was. Adrián Beltré hated the defeated process of pulling into a driveway and then backing out, hurried by the thought that someone might part the curtains to see who’s here. She still wasn’t looking at him. “Okay,” he said to Charlene. “We can drive for a bit.”
A series of idle turns put him on Highway 75 winding north. He looked over at Charlene to see whether she was ready to go back home, but she stayed turned away from him toward the window. Some approaching headlights at a four-way stop – “rich man’s headlights,” as he called them, that blinded you even on low beam – let him catch her reflection. Her eyes were closed. After a few more minutes he drifted right onto the on-ramp for I-80 east. He looked at her again. She was staring straight ahead now with her eyes open. Her shoulders leaned toward the windshield, as though Charlene were helping press the truck forward. He kept driving.
Past downtown, the bluffs along the Missouri River crowded the bottomlands, which crowded the sides of the interstate. Into Iowa, those bluffs gave way to the Loess Hills that weaved between the farms and the hardwood forests set far back from the road. Head west out of Omaha into the vast remainder of Nebraska, and the hills ease down into nothing — plains and farms and then the treeless prairie. It’s inviting to drive it, with the flat, splayed-out ranchlands and Chinook tailwinds on the other side of the Platte River. You feel like you can fall asleep at the wheel until you hit the panhandle. Eastbound, though, you wind and weave through the mounds and cornfields until it almost feels like the mounds and cornfields don’t want you there. He thought all of that just before Charlene reached out and rested her hand on his leg.
Deeper into Iowa and after nightfall, the red lights atop the windmills flashed as a warning to low-flying planes. It looked to Adrián Beltré like some distant city across the hills. Tractors with headlamps worked the fields against the surrounding darkness, and some hauled bale feeders for midnight cattle feedings. Past Des Moines, he tried and failed to keep up with a train barging across the nearby fields.
Adrián Beltré grew tired. Had he been alone, or had less of a pall been with them, he would’ve rolled all four windows down to keep him awake. He found the steady “whoosh” of the headwinds and traffic – passed and passing – to be oddly calming, but the cabin noise and the cold air were always enough to stave off sleep for the next hundred miles or so. Well east of Iowa City but before the Illinois line, they stopped for what he thought was a bathroom break. It was a Casey’s truck stop with an adult video store in eyeshot and a motel sharing the same parking lot. In the broken bathroom stall, he pissed with something near rapture, like voiding his bladder of hot sauce. As he did, he read the profanity scrawled on the wall, some of it countered by Bible verses and phone numbers. He put $20 of regular in the tank and bought several packs of cheese and crackers and three Cokes.
Back at the truck, he found Charlene gone. He looked up and saw her going through the glass door to the Walcott Motor Court, according to the red, gassy sign. He waited for her. She came out and handed him a key attached to an oval of wood with “103” drawn on it in permanent marker. She was holding another key, and Charlene saw him notice it. “For tonight,” she said.
“Fine,” he said, sounding harsher than he intended. “That’s fine, I mean. You should call your mother. Christ, I forgot about them. They’ve called the police, I’m sure. Or maybe they’re still driving around themselves looking for us. They’re worried, I know. At least they got to eat.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for them. They can stay in your room,” she said.
He cut a hint of a smile without really meaning to. “A joke,” he said. “Good to hear one of those.”
“I want to tell you to go to hell right now.”
“Yeah, well, you can.”
“I know I can. I don’t need you to tell me that.”
They stood and stared at one another in the parking lot for a moment. The neon sign fizzed off and then back on after a second of darkness. “I don’t like this, either, Charlene” he said.
“Then good night, I guess.”
“All right,” he said. “Good night.”
His room was about what he expected – cigarette burns on the rust-colored carpet, a creaking Murphy bed, card table, three chairs. a lamp, and an ancient Curtis Mathes with rabbit ears positioned unsteadily on a dresser it was too wide for. The bathroom faucet worked, albeit with the sounds of water hammer deep in the plumbing.
He rinsed his mouth out, stripped down to his boxers, and climbed into the grainy sheets. Outside, a queue of 18-wheelers rumbled by. His truck’s engine ticked from heat.
By force of habit, Adrián Beltré slept facing the door, so he saw her in the middle of the night when she wiggled his door lever and came into the room. He’d left it unlocked just in case she needed him. Charlene took a few cautious steps but not the steps that separated them. She made her way to the dresser, retrieved his pants from the top of it, and fished the truck keys out of his pocket. She then eased back toward the door.
Adrián Beltré sat up in bed, and the box springs creaked as he rose. Charlene froze with the door handle in her hand. She held still waiting, he was sure, for him to speak. Had she planned this when she handed him his key and said just for tonight, or had this decision come to her out of nowhere as she tried and failed to sleep in the next room? She probably didn’t even know herself, he thought, which made it her question to answer, not his.
Adrián Beltré closed his eyes and lay back down. His nostrils flared with each breath. The door sagged open behind her. In a few moments, he heard the truck door open and the engine start. She backed out and rolled past the open door, her face muted and determined, the tail lights hazed by the exhaust. Charlene turned right out of the motel parking lot and, he could tell from the fade of the engine sounds and the bend of the headlights, headed back west.
Adrián Beltré stared at the popcorn ceiling for a while before getting out of bed and slipping on his pants. Outside, he stepped carefully in bare feet to the edge of the highway shoulder and stood, looking east toward the on-ramp where she’d gone. Maybe he was thinking she might have pulled over to work through what she was doing, but it had been too long for that, he knew. Maybe he needed air or couldn’t sleep after she’d taken the truck. Mostly, he wasn’t sure what he was doing out there and couldn’t remember what he felt like even 30 seconds ago to make him come out here. He was tired of the inside of his own head.
After several moments a large tractor-trailer passed him. The rush of wind and sound enclosed him, warmed him somehow. Pebbles kicked up by the last tires of the trailer peppered his pant legs. He was too close to the road. He should step back, he thought. He should do that now before something else, something closer and more dangerous, comes along.