The Man Who Knew Belle Starr
Mcrae picked up a hitcher on his way west. It was a young woman, carrying a paper bag and a leather purse, wearing jeans and a shawl—which she didn’t take off, though it was more than ninety degrees out, and Mcrae had no air conditioning. He was driving an old Dodge Charger with a bad exhaust system, and one long crack in the wraparound windshield. He pulled over for her and she got right in, put the leather purse on the seat between them, and settled herself with the paper bag on her lap between her hands. He had just crossed into Texas.
“Where you headed,” he said.
She said, “What about you?”
And that fast he was answering her questions. “I just got out of the Air Force,” he told her, though this wasn’t exactly true. The Air Force had put him out with a dishonorable discharge after four years at Leavenworth for assaulting a staff sergeant. He was a bad character. He had a bad temper that had got him into a load of trouble already and he just wanted to get out west, out to the wide-open spaces. It was just to see it, really. He had the feeling people didn’t require as much from a person way out where there was that kind of room. He didn’t have any family now. He had five thousand dollars from his father’s insurance policy, and he was going to make the money last him awhile. He said, “I’m sort of undecided about a lot of things.”
“Not me,” she said.
“You figured out where you were going,” he said.
“You could say that.”
“So where might that be.”
She made a fist and then extended her thumb, and turned it over. “Under,” she said; “down.”
“Does the radio work?” she asked, reaching for it.
“It’s on the blink,” he said.
She turned the knob anyway, then sat back and folded her arms over the paper bag.
He took a glance at her. She was skinny and long-necked, and her hair was the color of water in a metal pail. She looked just old enough for high school.
“What’s in the bag?” he said.
She sat up a little. “Nothing. Another blouse.”
“Well, so what did you mean back there?”
“Look,” he said, “we don’t have to do any talking if you don’t want to.”
“Then what will we do?”
“Anything you want,” he said.
“What if I just want to sit here and let you drive me all the way to Nevada?”
“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s just fine.”
“Well, I won’t do that. We can talk.”
“Are you going to Nevada?” he asked.
She gave a little shrug of her shoulders. “Why not?”
“All right,” he said, and for some reason he offered her his hand. She looked at it, and then smiled at him, and he put his hand back on the wheel.
It got a little awkward almost right away. The heat was awful, and she sat there sweating, not saying much. He never thought he was very smooth or anything, and he had been in prison: it had been a long time since he had found himself in the company of a woman. Finally she fell asleep, and for a few miles he could look at her without worrying about anything but staying on the road. He decided that she was kind of good-looking around the eyes and mouth. If she ever filled out, she might be something. He caught himself wondering what might happen, thinking of sex. A girl who traveled alone like this was probably pretty loose. Without quite realizing it, he began to daydream about her, and when he got aroused by the daydream he tried to concentrate on figuring his chances, playing his cards right, not messing up any opportunities—but being gentlemanly, too. He was not the sort of person who forced himself on young women. She slept very quietly, not breathing loudly or sighing or moving much; and then she simply sat up and folded her arms over the bag again and stared out at the road.
“God,” she said, “I went out.”
“You hungry?” he asked.
“What’s your name?” he said. “I never got your name.”
“Belle Starr,” she said, and, winking at him, she made a clicking sound out of the side of her mouth.
“Belle Starr,” he said.
“Don’t you know who Belle Starr was?”
All he knew was that it was a familiar-sounding name. “Belle Starr.”
She put her index finger to the side of his head and said, “Bang.”
“Belle Starr,” he said.
“Come on,” she said. “Annie Oakley. Wild Bill Hickok.”
“Oh,” Mcrae said. “Okay.”
“That’s me,” she said, sliding down in the seat. “Belle Starr.”
“That’s not your real name.”
“It’s the only one I go by these days.”
They rode on in silence for a time.
“What’s your name?” she said.
He told her.
“I never thought about it.”
“Where you from, Mcrae?”
“Long way from home.”
“I haven’t been there in years.”
“Where have you been?”
“Prison,” he said. He hadn’t known he would say it, and now that he had, he kept his eyes on the road. He might as well have been posing for her; he had an image of himself as he must look from the side, and he shifted his weight a little, sucked in his belly. When he stole a glance at her he saw that she was simply gazing out at the Panhandle, one hand up like a visor to shade her eyes.
“What about you?” he said, and felt like somebody in a movie—two people with a past come together on the open road. He wondered how he could get the talk around to the subject of love.
“What about me?”
“Where’re you from?”
“I don’t want to bore you with all the facts,” she said.
“I don’t mind,” Mcrae said. “I got nothing else to do.”
“I’m from way up North.”
“Okay,” he said, “you want me to guess?”
“Maine,” she said. “Land of Moose and Lobster.”
He said, “Maine. Well, now.”
“See?” she said. “The facts are just a lot of things that don’t change.”
“Unless you change them,” Mcrae said.
She reached down and, with elaborate care, as if it were fragile, put the paper bag on the floor. Then she leaned back and put her feet up on the dash. She was wearing low-cut tennis shoes.
“You going to sleep?” he asked.
“Just relaxing,” she said.
But a moment later, when he asked if she wanted to stop and eat, she didn’t answer, and he looked over to see that she was sound asleep.
Copyright © 2012 by Richard Bausch. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.