Ruthie knows she should be scared, crouched here behind the teller desk while some beautiful lunatic waves her gun in the air – and lord, what would the pastor say? – but in truth, she is taken by the sight of her. Transformed, transported. Devastated.
“You hear me?”
Ruthie fights back a smile and the pistol barrel aimed at her head seems to fade, until there’s nothing but the pretty face behind it. There’s a bandana tied above her nose, obscuring her lips, her cheeks. But her eyes shine fierce and bright, like the bottom of a well when the sun hits it. Fear, she reminds herself. She should feel fear. And maybe that is what she feels. Maybe that is the name of the rock in her stomach.
“Yeah, I heard you,” Ruthie unlocks the safe beneath her desk. She pulls money out by bundles worth more than she is, more than her mama is, more than Daddy, more than God and drops them in a burlap sack like it’s nothing.
Just before the holdup ends, before her robber slips out the front door and into the west Texas dirt, Ruthie leaps to her feet and yells,
“Y’all got room for one more?”
Her name is Beth Ann and when she drives, all the dust in the world comes together just for the privilege of flying up around her. She never wears any sleeves and only ever keeps one hand on the wheel, the better for yanking her blue Cadillac into turns that would make a protractor blush.
“Hope nobody bout to come looking for you,” Beth Ann yells, somehow louder than the gales whipping around Ruthie’s ears.
“They’ll be too busy praying for my soul,” Ruthie shouts back, through tangles of flying hair. She thinks of her mama in her Sunday best, church hat pulled down low in shame. Guilt bubbles in her chest and makes its way out her mouth in a burst of laughter.
They spend the night some fifty yards off the road, camped out on the dirt and sharing canned beans and ghost stories. Beth Ann keeps her gun round her hip even now, as though she expects trouble to materialize from the barren brush around them. The top two buttons of her shirt are loose and whiskey hangs around her breath, but her eyes flick watchfully between the money and the black beyond the fire.
“Ain’t got a ring?” Beth Ann mumbles around a cigarette, “Pretty girl like you.”
“Slippery fingers,” Ruthie shrugs, “It’d fall right off.”
Beth Ann breaks into a grin that takes up half her face, wild and dimpled.
“Slippery fingers. I’ll be damned.”
“I thought you was gonna shoot me,” Ruthie admits, “When I jumped up like that. Thought I was a goner.”
“Then why’d you do it?”
Around the fire, where the smoke is thin, flies buzz in and away from the light like waves to shore. Ruthie’s never seen the ocean, save for in the movie theater once, some thirty miles west out in Odessa. But she knows how waves crash, how they can’t help it. Like she knows how moths and flies and people flock to campfires and lamps and suns.
“I was bored,” Ruthie says, omitting half the truth, “I wanted to leave. Why’d you take me?”
“I’s bored, too.”
Beth Ann hands Ruthie her cigarette and she takes a deep indulgent drag, before spinning smoke up toward the stars.
Another week, another bank. It’s easier with a partner, Beth Ann confided once. Someone to watch out, to have your back and start the car. To blink real slow at the teller, lure him in just enough to distract him.
“Nobody ever sees you comin,” Beth Ann shrieks, leaping over the side of the car as Ruthie slams on the gas and they peel away from the sound of coming sirens. Their glee and their hollering and their breathless laughter mixes with the scream of rubber on asphalt, with an engine showing off. It’s the most beautiful music Ruthie ever heard. Like Mama and that one hymn, she thinks. How sweet the sound. Tears fly off behind her, joy spilling out into the world.
They celebrate at sundown, an hour’s drive from the New Mexico border and a lifetime away from Odessa. Close enough to feel each other’s breath, they count the money together for the first time.
“We could buy a whole town,” Beth Ann observes with a laugh, and Ruthie delights in ‘We’.
“What’d we do with a whole town?”
“Whatever we wanted.”
Ruthie presses her forehead to Beth Ann’s and drinks the laughter up from the air.
“What do you want?” She whispers, though by then Beth Ann’s lips have brushed against hers, and the point of asking is moot.
For two months, they browse the classifieds and make their lackadaisical way to California. They don’t find a whole town, but there’s a ranch south of Los Angeles. A hundred longhorns and some cowpoke, more interested in the paycheck than in who signs it.
It’s fifty-three years before Ruthie next sees Texas, in the autumn of 2004. They tore the bank down a long time ago, some local old timer tells her. Got robbed back in the fifties he said, hobbled on for a decade or two but never really recovered. Soon as a new one opened up down the road, some national chain, that was it.
“Is that where it was, Aunt Ruthie?”
Ruthie looks out the window. Bank of America.
“No,” She shakes her head. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s all gone. Coulda been that Wal-Mart, coulda been anywhere.”
In the driver’s seat, John deflates. He’s too old for that, Ruthie thinks. Forty-five and still whining with his whole body. When he was ten, back when Beth Ann’s sister died and the two of them took him in, they’d assumed he’d grow out of it.
“We came all this way,” He sighs, “Must be hard to see everything change so much.”
“Hard? I spent my whole life waiting for this change. Hard,” Ruthie snorts, “Hell, it hasn’t changed enough.”
They pass a billboard, right in the middle of town. 1-800-FOR TRUTH. CALL NOW TO AVOID THE FIRES OF HELL.
“We should get something to eat.”
“No,” Ruthie dismisses him with a wrinkled hand, “Beth Ann’s cooking tonight. Chilli. Remember?”
Beth Ann has been dead nigh on thirteen years. Ruthie knows it, John knows she knows it. But he can’t fight her when she says it, like some kind of fragile line she gets to draw in the sand with her age. It means they have to turn around, to go home like they were never here.
John flips his blinker on, exits onto I-20 without a word. Ruthie shuts her eyes and doesn’t open them until Odessa is long behind them, and all around their car is plains.