Javelina: A Christmas Story
by Terry Engel
It’s the week before Christmas, and Jill and I are driving back to Phoenix after four months in Mississippi. I taught English at a college not far from the Gulf of Mexico, a job I liked, but Jill was always homesick and she thought the people were backwards. I had thought it would be good for us to get away from her family and live in a place where have anyone to depend on except one another, but things between us only got worse. She wants mistletoe to hang from the rearview mirror, but I’m not sure that it grows in this part of Texas. I’m not sure I would even know it if I saw it.
My old Jeep Cherokee is loaded down, every square inch stuffed with boxes of books, clothes, Christmas presents, kitchen stuff. Just behind the front seat is a spot hollowed out for Laney’s car seat. Laney is Jill’s baby, just over a year old, riding back there with her blankets, a couple of toys, and the puppy. She’s been walking for a few weeks, but not talking yet. Jill thinks it will be any day now.
We spend the night in San Antonio and get back on the road. The skies are heavy with dark clouds and the radio is calling for sleet mixed with snow. We cut off the interstate and drive down to Del Rio, and then West on Highway 90. The country is rolling hills with sparse brown bushes stretching away on both sides of the road. We cross little canyons with steep walls and muddy water trickling along the sandy banks. I want to call the canyons arroyos, but I’m not sure if that’s the right word.
“That’s Mexico over there,” Jill says, looking up from the road map and pointing south. “This will add at least a day to thee trip.”Why did you want to come this way?
I shrug and try a smile, but she tosses the map on the dash and turns on the radio. Mexican music, all guitar and accordion, too bright for the weather, which is rain turning into sleet. Jill turns the radio off. In Mississippi, she marked the hours I was away, teaching and holding office hours, and resented the weekends grading papers. I tried to please everyone, but it only seemed to work with Laney and the dog. I liked looking in on Laney during the nights, playing with her in the evenings.
Ice forms on the bare branches of the scrubby trees that run along the fence line on either side of the road, and then it turns to ice on the wire fence. When I stop to lock in the front hubs on the jeep my fingers go numb instantly. The grass is sheathed in a film of ice, glassy brown jewels sprouting up from the ground. I remember an ice storm when I was little, how the ice was so heavy it bent the tops of trees all the way to the ground and broke the branches and trunks, but this ice is beautiful in its way. I get back in the truck and shift into four-wheel high range and drive down the center line. Jill fixes sandwiches from the cooler and we drink beer. She tells me not to stop for anything and then sings a bit of “Graceland” by Paul Simon. Her voice always surprises me, how pretty it sounds.
Laney sits in Jill’s lap because the back is too cold, even with the heater going full. They play patty cake to pass the time. The dog curls up against me on the seat.
“Right after Laney was born Jimmy and I had to go to Denver,” Jill says. “I forget why. The last two hundred miles were blizzard and we ended up in a ditch.” She gives me a look.
I wipe the inside of the windshield with my bandana.
“Anyway, this trucker picks us up, but after a while he had to pull over. It was too rough. I had to pee so bad I couldn’t stand it, so this guy gives me an empty orange juice bottle.”
I look at Laney but she’s just staring out the windshield. I tickle her foot and she gives a little kick.
“I give Jimmy the baby but the guy’s right there. Finally Jimmy hands Laney over to the trucker, then he shifts around and holds his coat open wide so I can crouch down in the floorboard to pee.” Jill adjusts Laney in her lap and gives her a kiss on the cheek.
I chuckle a little and look at her, not quite sure what she wants me to say.
Jill turns toward her window.
I think about Phoenix and Jimmy, wondering what will happen there. “Every time the guy called us in Mississippi, he exaggerated this southern accent.”
We go for a long time without talking, and then Jill says, “My mother knows someone with the school district. She should be looking for you.”
I nod and lean over the steering wheel, holding on with both hands. Her mother knows everyone. Jill sings a little bit of “Hotel California.” She holds Laney’s wrists and lightly claps her hands.
“We’ve got to talk about it sometime,” she says after a verse or two.
I reach over and take one of her hands away from Laney. We ride like that for a while. Ice starts to build up on the wiper blades.
Up ahead, there is a dark shape lying across the center line, some animal. As I pull to one side and stop I see it is a wild pig. The animal tries to get to its feet to run, only the back legs don’t work and the front legs can’t get any traction on the icy road. It makes a huffing, painful sound as it collapses.
“What’s wrong?” Jill says.
“It’s a javelina, I think. Like a wild pig. I’ve never seen one before.”
Jill sets Laney on the seat and leans over me to look out the window. “Let’s get going.”
“I think the back is broken. It’ll just freeze.”
Laney cries at being set down. The thing is as big as a bulldog and working hard to breathe.
“Why don’t you fix it?” Jill asks.
She nods at the floorboard.
I reach under the seat for the twenty-two pistol and open the cylinder: five bullets and an empty cylinder the hammer sits on. I pull the hammer back and aim out the window and shoot, but the bullet skips off the pavement past the pig’s head. The sound shocks us inside the cab. Laney screams and Jill covers her ears. I cock the hammer again, aim with two hands, and shoot. I imagine a solid sound when the bullet strikes. The javelina settles to the icy pavement and stops breathing.
We sit there for a minute while Jill tries to quiet Laney down. Sleet bounces off my shoulder and rattles against the roof of the Cherokee. Then Jill says, “Let me drive.”
She leans forward and I slide over. She gets behind the wheel and looks out at the pig, then shifts into gear and starts to drive. I pull Laney into my lap. She’s still crying, trying to go back to her mother.
“Will you do something with her please?” Jill says.
I look down and see I’m still holding the gun. I lean over and push it under the seat. “Slow down a little,” I say, and then whisper a song to Laney. My ears are ringing.
Jill opens another beer and takes a few sips. She offers the bottle to me but I shake my head.
“You’re pretty good with her when you’re not being a cowboy.”
I look at Jill a minute and then at Laney. “Yeah. She’s the best part of this deal.”
Jill keeps on driving like she didn’t hear. She pulls the road map off the dash and tosses it across the seat. “Just get us back on the interstate,” she says.