In San Antonio we get a room for the night. Jill plays with the remote control, Laney plays with the dog’s food in the ice bucket, and the dog wets the floor in the corner. I go for the shower.
When I get out Laney is already tucked into one of the twin beds, asleep. Jill has arranged a circle of mistletoe on the floor around our bed. She sits there, pushing buttons on the phone. I take the receiver away and set it back on its cradle, gently press Jill down.
“I wanted to tell my mother we were okay,” she says.
I pull her long t-shirt past her hips, kiss her just above the panty line. “Let them all wait,” I say. “It’s just us right now.”
Laney mumbles something in her sleep and rolls to her stomach, twisting the blankets around her. The dog’s legs twitch with his dreams as he sleeps beside Laney. “Rabbits,” I tell Jill.
She smiles and sits up enough to pull the bedspread over us. We work down between the sheets. The heater is on low and the room feels cold, but warmth funnels out of the bedclothes around our faces.
By morning the weather feels better, but the skies are heavy with dark clouds and the radio is calling for sleet mixed with snow. We cut off the main road 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.
Jill acts mad about getting off the interstate in this weather. She says it will take longer. I feel protective about this family right now, happy. The longer we’re on the road, away from her mother, away from Jimmy, the better. I’m aching for something to happen, something to prove. Last night was the best for me and Jill in a long time.
We listen to Mexican radio. It sounds too bright for the weather, rain turning into sleet. Ice forms on the bare branches of the scrubby trees that run along the fence line on either side of the road. When I get out 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 in two. 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 her Mother’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 for something,” Jill says. “I forget what. The last two hundred miles were blizzard and we ended up in a ditch.” She gives me a look.
I use my bandanna to wipe the inside of the windshield.
“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 pee.” Jill adjusts Laney in her lap and gives her a kiss on the cheek.
“You couldn’t go in the sleeper?” I say.
Jill gives me a sharp look and turns toward her window.
“It’s a good story,” I say. “I mean, what were you going to do? The guy was right there.” But now I’m thinking about Tuscon and Jimmy, wondering what will happen there. “Every time the guy called us in Mississippi he exaggerated this southern accent.”
Jimmy was afraid Laney would grow up talking like that. He was the reason I took the job in Mississippi to begin with, so Jill and I could have a chance.
“Yeah. That was stupid,” Jill says, but she’s still staring out the window.
We go for a long time without talking, and then Jill says, “Mother knows someone with the school district. She should be looking for you.”
I nod but don’t say anything, pretend to concentrate on my driving. Her mother knows everyone but it never works out. Jill and Laney start on itsey-bitsey spider.
“We’ve got to talk about it sometime.”
“I don’t have a license to teach high school.”
“You can substitute. Maybe do some temp work.” 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 wipers.
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, still alive. 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.
“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. Laney tries to look too, but Jill holds her back.
“Let’s get going.”
“I think the back is broken,” I say. “It’ll just freeze.”
Laney starts a fit because she can’t see. The thing is as big as a bulldog, laying on its side now, breathing heavy.
“Why don’t you fix it?” Jill asks.
I reach under the seat for the twenty-two and pull it out of the holster. I put in the clip, cock it, 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 Laney’s ears. I aim again and shoot. There is a solid sound and the javelina’s front legs relax and its head slowly slides to the pavement.
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 she says, “Let me drive.”
Jill leans back and I slide over. She gets behind the wheel and looks out at the pig, then 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 takes out the pint 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.