Featured in Colorado Review
What She IsFiction
Published Summer 2017
Long white-blonde hair in front of the white clapboard chapel. Her body almost invisible in the afternoon sun except for tan legs, bare feet, the straps of sandals held in one hand like an invitation. A small valise at her feet, weathered, blue, hardly big enough for a change of clothing. He noticed her before he saw her thumb, out of place the way she was in front of Phillips Chapel. One thing for a white man who had business there, but a white girl with white hair standing on that corner in front of the church, white in the daylight, he wasn’t wrong to pause, to question, just for a moment, before deciding the answer wasn’t important. Her thumb pointing the opposite direction of the way he was driving. His foot on the brake before his mind made the decision. No harm in it.
He regarded her from across the road. The green patterned fabric of her dress met itself in seams, draping her hips. Her lips were red, but not from lipstick. He’d been on the road for two weeks. It was July already, and he had a few hours’ drive ahead of him. Years later Jim Flessroy would reassure himself that anyone would have stopped for the girl, that she seemed an innocent, that she seemed in need of rescue.
“Where you headed?” he asked through the car window, putting his hat to his head. As he lowered his arm against the open frame, he noticed dirt caked in the beds of his nails. It didn’t matter how much a man scrubbed.
“I don’t know,” she answered.
From just beyond the chapel came the strange call of the lesser prairie-chicken, a small spiral of a hoot followed by a cackling laugh.
“I’m heading to Carlsbad. I’ve got to see a man outside of town. Then on to El Paso,” he said.
She crossed the dusty road, not blinking at the tiny rocks she must have felt underfoot. He hadn’t noticed, until she drew closer, that she was tall. With her shoes on, she would have stood at his height. He got out of the car to put her one small piece of luggage in the trunk alongside his. Her suitcase might as well have been empty, how light it felt in his hands.
“Opposite direction,” he said, walking past her to open the passenger door.
“The way you were facing. That way wants to go to Silver City.”
She looked the way he pointed, squinting as if she might be able to see the place, hundreds of miles away.
“I was facing that way because I liked the sun on my back.”
He held the door for her and she gathered the skirt of her dress in her hands. A smell of heat and sweat and orange blossoms as she slipped past him into the passenger seat.
The street was deserted. No one to speak any judgment about right and wrong. Nothing except the bird’s cackle as he settled into the driver’s seat once more, leaving his hat on. “Jim Flessroy,” he said, touching the brim.
The name startled him. Something about the formality of it.
“You go around with no shoes often?”
Her blue eyes on his, the same shade as the hydrangeas his mother grew back home. He wiped the back of his neck with a handkerchief.
“Smells like a new car,” she said.
He patted the steering wheel. “1959. Right off the line.”
She ran a finger across the ridged dashboard.
“A Plymouth,” he added, in case she hadn’t noticed.
Turning away from him, she rolled her window all the way down, circling the crank slowly. “Carlsbad. Aren’t there some caves there?” she asked, looking through the open frame. Clouds had covered the sun, but they were nothing, a thin layer of skin wounded by the circle of light boring through.
“Caverns,” he said. “I haven’t seen them.”
As he grew older he would forget the conversation, forget how they, as strangers, got it into their heads to walk into the caverns. In his memory, he would see her sitting on the passenger side of that old car, then new, see her golden shoulders, the curve from her neck down into the green folds of her dress, and he would try to recall which of them spoke of it first, which of them decided to go.
* * * * *
“If you don’t have a place you’re going to, then you must be running from something,” Jim Flessroy said to the girl named Margaret. The sound of tires on the road, the whine of speed, filled the car.
“Look at the colors,” she said.
The sun had burned its way through the meager clouds, and towering mesas glowed red in response.
“You’re not from around here,” Jim said.
“Not yet,” she said.
He glanced sideways at her. “You’re moving here?”
“Moving through here.”
Jim thought she might be confused. “So where are you from?”
“All over. Here and there.”
“You sound like a gypsy.”
“I guess that’s what I’m trying to be.”
Jim Flessroy didn’t know anyone who was a gypsy or would want to be a gypsy. He pictured long skirts and earrings, scarves that draped to hide unwashed necks.
“I’m from California,” she said. “Originally. Orange groves.”
“Orange Groves. That the name of a town?”
She shrugged. “Maybe it is. They probably named some town that way.”
“But not yours.”
The dress she wore was faded from the sun. Up close the green pattern was made up of little flowers, hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Underneath her skirt, one leg crossed over the other. Her bare foot dangled, smooth brown skin on top and rough white skin on the bottom.
“No trees around here,” she said.
“Not right here, no. But back where I picked you up, Las Cruces? They’ve got all kinds of trees. Oaks. Acacias. And more pecan trees in this state than you’d know what to do with.”
“Oh, I’d do something, all right. I’d sit underneath one of those trees for the rest of my whole life, letting the pecans fall on me and eating them up. I love pecans.” She said the word funny—pi-cahn—like the percussion of a lady’s high heels on pavement.
Jim Flessroy laughed. “How would the tree feel? You eating its babies right underneath its nose.”
“I ate oranges in the orange trees, and none of them ever said a word to me about it.” She grinned at him. In a glance he could see the orange-eating girl in her, enveloped by this womanly version, too tall to be a kid anymore.
Jim Flessroy couldn’t remember the last time he’d talked to a female who seemed more girl than woman. He was no stranger to women. He’d been a boy still when the girls his age became suddenly, somehow, older, wearing gloves and lipstick, their adolescent giggles disappearing into gravelly laughs. He hadn’t known what to say to them, these newly burnished women, versions of girls who had once jumped into the green waters of the river with him, laughing and screaming as they swam above the current. In the dark backseat of his father’s car, these girls had been eager to let him erase their lipstick, his clumsy kisses leaving smears of color on their faces.
“You ever climb an orange tree?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“You can hide in the branches. Because of the leaves. Green and thick. Nobody can find you.”
“That what you did in your orange groves?” he asked.
She looked out the window. “When I could,” she said.
The car’s tires rearranged dust on the road.
“You have a place to stay tonight?” he asked the girl.
“That depends, I guess,” she said. “Do you?”
He wiped the back of his neck. “How old are you?”
“Older than you think,” she said.
“And how old is that?”
“What if I said twenty-five?” he asked.
“Then I’d say younger than you think.”
Emilie Beck’s plays have been produced and developed at theaters across the country. A recent graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers in fiction, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.