Keely Bowers has published stories in journals such as Crazyhorse, Creative Nonfiction, and Dickinson Review, and she won The Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. She’s at work on a novel in Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative and technical writing, studies science, and raises her son.
Odessa Ross, widow and owner of the Fulton Hideaway Motel, was one of twelve who survived the grocery store massacre in Montgomery, Kansas, that April, and one of seven who escaped to the parking lot uninjured while the lunatic did the world a favor by finally turning the gun on himself. She stumbled through a side exit, carrying someone’s child in her arms, the echo of gunfire crashing through all the rooms of her skull. She ran, breathless, all the way to the road, where drivers stopped their cars at the sight of her. None of it was her blood. The child, a four-year-old girl, died that night at the Wichita Medical Center where the Life Flight had whisked her across the sky.
Weeks after the killings, Odessa would try to tell herself that for every madman with a gun there are a thousand willing to save us. She would make herself remember the police and paramedics who flooded the parking lot in waves and sirens, those who descended upon Montgomery from a fifty-mile radius. But she couldn’t sleep. She roamed, restless and agitated, through her little motel and her routine. The few guests she had, she didn’t ask where they came from or where they were going. She didn’t volunteer the town’s history. When they wanted to see the underground tunnel the Fulton Gang had dug over a hundred years ago from what was now the motel lobby to what was then an old farmhouse forty yards in back, she neglected to collect the two-dollar fee.
She kept the TV blaring in her apartment behind the lobby and in the rooms while she made beds and gathered sheets and scoured bathroom floors. Cooking shows, the shopping network—meaningless prattle she didn’t have to follow but that swept the silence from her head. She couldn’t bear the thought of a TV drama. She didn’t want news. She didn’t want to hear one more story about the gunman’s psychological problems, his twisted diaries, or his lifelong rage.
She’d been calling her son, Curtis, in New Orleans every day. “I know, I know,” she would say. “We just talked. Tell me anything. Tell me what you ate for lunch. Tell me about that rich guy’s house you’re wiring.”
He was patient with her. “He had a custom cabinet built for dog food storage. It’s got a stained glass window and a light fixture.”
“You’re not serious!”
“A little ambiance for Champ and his chow.”
“I should redecorate, Curtis. Fill the tunnel with sand and seal it up. Let the Fulton Gang R.I.P. at last. I’m sick of looking at their dead faces on my walls.”
“Are you all right, Mom? Is there someone you can talk to? What about Dory Kratzer?”
“I can’t talk to her,” she said. “She’s on a holy roller kick.”
Dory Kratzer, who’d just piled groceries into her minivan when the shooting started, had gotten so riveted by the bible lately, she couldn’t even make small talk. Odessa and Dory, who used to knit together, were never great friends. The last time Odessa had seen Dory was at the Gas-n-Go a month earlier, when Dory had gripped Odessa’s shoulder next to a blue pyramid of windshield cleaner and said, “I’ve seen God’s love and it’s a ring of light, Odessa.”
“God wouldn’t have any hand in this.”
“I’ll pray for you, honey.”
“You smell bad, Dory. They’re having a sale on Cheer. You should buy one before they run out.” And she’d left Dory standing there, praying for her. I’ve turned mean, Odessa had thought as she drove home too fast, braking too hard at the intersection.
The answer to Curtis’s question was no. Odessa didn’t have anyone to talk to, not since her cleaning woman, Holly, had left. Odessa had decided, for the time being, not to hire another one. There were sixteen rooms, and at most, only six in use at a time. She had kept Holly on for the last two years because Holly had needed work and because she’d done as thorough a cleaning job as Odessa expected. And because she’d liked Holly’s company. But Holly, who’d followed a man to Kansas from North Carolina three years ago, had up and followed another man to Taos after the shootings.
“I know when it’s time to leave a place,” Holly had told Odessa after one of the funerals. “Too many ghosts drifting around here. I’m starting to see them in the daylight.”
The girl Odessa had tried to save had been as long and lanky as a willow branch, with dark, honey-colored hair and sneakers blinking blue lights in their soles. She’d smelled like oranges and dirt and weighed nearly nothing, which surprised Odessa. It had been so long since she’d held her own child, or any child, against her chest.
One day in May, Odessa received a letter from the girl’s grandmother, Lucy Messenger, who had been, in a long ago lifetime, Odessa’s best friend. She stood at the motel counter staring at the envelope with a river roaring in her ears and couldn’t open it. The letter was post-marked from Vermont, where Lucy had lived, Odessa knew, for many of the forty-two years since Odessa had last seen her. She noted Lucy’s round, fluid handwriting on the envelope, remembered that same handwriting on notes Lucy had dropped over her shoulder onto Odessa’s desk in eleventh grade English class, some with scratches of poetry. I never saw a moor, I never saw the sea. Lucy had wanted to be a poet and had long, dark, honey-blonde hair Odessa would braid to keep herself awake when she didn’t read the books.
Lucy’s daughter, who was shot and survived, had only come to Montgomery with her little girl to visit an uncle, Odessa had learned from the newspaper. She lived in Pittsburgh, and Odessa had never met her. She had no idea it was Lucy’s granddaughter she was rushing out of the chaos until after the girl had died. When she’d found out, she’d covered her face and wept in a different way.
For two weeks, Odessa left Lucy’s letter in the bill bin, unopened. It nagged at her, of course. It made her remember things. A guest’s blouse became the lilac dress Lucy’s aunt Polly had made for her in the little room off the kitchen in Lucy’s old house. Odessa saw Aunt Polly’s knobby old fingers guiding waves of flowered cloth under the needle, and she saw Lucy stepping out a car door with the lilac dress and crinolines bunched up in her arms, her face lit like a star under a streetlamp because she was in love. Not with that crooked-smile, what’s-his-name in the car with her, but with Henry, the brown-eyed, romantic boy holding Odessa’s hand.
Odessa stepped out of her bathtub one night and heard Lucy say, as if she were standing right next to her, “You and I will be journeyers. That’s what your name means.” She saw Lucy sitting next to her in the rowboat on Flat Lake, sleeves rolled to her shoulders, pants bunched to her knees, her fishing line gone slack with neglect and impatience because Lucy grew bored fishing, would rather sunbathe and write poetry and talk of her future plans while Odessa hooked bass like magic.
Journeyers, she thought, scrutinizing her body in the bedroom mirror. She hadn’t journeyed anywhere. When, maybe. She had journeyed when. In the red glow of the lamplight, she recognized the strong, tender shape of her young self, drawn like a hazy sketch inside the lumpy contours of her old. Those are my legs, she thought. Still strong. Those are my breasts. Those are the curves of them. Her belly was as loose and moldable as plastic wrap, but she remembered her son growing there, the solid, shifting weight of him curled under her heart, forehead against her ribs.
Later she sat in the dark remembering Henry. Long-gone, young Henry. She drew him up through the layers of years and was startled by the rush and clarity of the boy she had once loved and whose son she’d kept a secret from him and the rest of the world for so long it’d all but ceased to matter. She sat on the edge of her bed, bare feet on the floorboards, nightgown twisted around her knees, and tasted Henry’s skin like sage grass, rust, and the warm current of Flat Lake. How did she remember so clearly? Henry the draft dodger, the musician, the sweet, broody boy who punched Eric Morgan in the face in the A & P parking lot for calling Lucy “fat girl,” and Odessa should have guessed, should have understood then that Henry’s heart had turned to shine on Lucy.
The night Odessa learned Henry and Lucy had run off and married each other was her eighteenth birthday, early August, a peach birthday cake in the fridge, and the weight of a crushing heat steamrolling Montgomery. Lucy’s aunt Polly came to the house to tell Odessa and stood sweating in the kitchen, wringing her hands while Odessa’s mother set her mouth in a line and clanged dishes around and said she wasn’t surprised at all and that everyone knew Lucy was a tramp. Odessa had stood stunned in the doorway, her body a current of flares like the electric blazes of heat lightening flashing soundlessly over western Kansas. Already she knew she was pregnant. Already her mind scrambled together a plan while her heart sank to its knees. She went looking for big Bill Ross, who everyone knew had a crush on her. Bill Ross with his chrome-and-tailfin Chevy and his loud laugh and cowboy walk, fifteen years her senior and a drinking friend of her father’s—as different from Henry as a person could ever find in the world, which was what she wanted. No one to remind her of what she’d lost.
At 2 a.m., she put on her housecoat, went to the kitchen, and added a little whiskey to ice water, something she’d been doing lately. She wasn’t worried about turning alcoholic this late in life, though she figured she must have the gene in her somewhere, being her father’s child. She went to the lobby, sat behind the desk, and picked up the letter. One page, judging by the feel of it. How long had she waited, years ago, for a letter from Lucy?
Outside, the road was long and deserted. Beyond it, the dark prairie bared its back to the hard dust of another drought summer. It was the end of June. A full moon gleamed, bone white, an overturned bowl. There was only one guest, some loudmouth news writer in Room 7, whom she’d refused to talk to about the shootings. He was writing a book about gun violence, he told her, traveling the country, collecting interviews. His eyes were slippery, his sympathy rehearsed, and he boasted of his talent—a list of award-winning stories—as if he were entitled to her trust. “How much has your life been affected by the killings?” he asked her. If she’d known what he was up to before she checked him in, she’d have told him “No vacancy” and sent him down the road to the Flamingo Inn, the pink place with the bed bugs. But she’d already run the loud mouth’s card through, so she stuck him in the room with the lumpiest mattress and said she would not be interviewed.
Odessa raised her cup to her reflection in the window and to the woman’s reflection in the photograph on the wall behind her—dark-eyed, legendary Rose Collier, outlaw Gus Fulton’s accomplice and lover, and Odessa’s great, great, grandmother. She raised her cup to the Fulton boys as well. Holly used to make fun of the framed, yellowed newspaper photos of the dead Fulton Gang taken back in 1872 after the legendary Cedarville shootout, pictures that colored the mood of the room with a sepia-tinted, celebratory doom. The Fultons lay on their backs, dead faces propped up against a wall, jaws slack, feet splayed. Holly had dated a local police officer named Cuddy for a while and said she wanted to sneak Cuddy down the outlaw tunnel some night and raise the love bones of all those slack-jawed, dead ghost boys.
Odessa missed her. If Holly were here, she’d open Lucy’s damn letter. She’d tell Holly the story, at least the pages she remembered of it, because what did she really know after all about Lucy and Henry’s story? She’d heard a few things about them way back when people still talked. How he crossed the border into Canada to dodge the draft while Lucy waited for him in Vermont. How Lucy wrote a book of poetry and another about women’s rights and was on a TV talk show. An anti-war demonstrator, an activist, a do-gooder, a journeyer, Lucy went to some African village for a while to teach English while Henry dug wells there in the sand. She knew nothing else about their lives, only that they’d had a daughter and, of course, a little granddaughter. All she knew besides was a quiet old anger. She was surprised at the depth of the anger she still harbored and was ashamed of it, too. She was so long removed from her young-girl self in love with Henry, she resented the intrusion of that letter landing in her lap all these years after. She wished it had been a stranger’s child she’d tried to save. She wished most, on these hard, sleepless nights, that she’d caught the bullet with her own body.
When the sun rose, she was still awake. The early dawn had not settled the wind but had whipped it into a fit. Odessa stood on the step outside the lobby, her nerves twitching in the frantic air. The eastern sky blazed crimson as truck drivers downshifted, lugging their engines into town. They would drink coffee at the Crossroads Diner and gun it hard for Hugoton or Elkhart, where they would hunker in and wait out the storms. It was a mean thing blowing in now, Odessa thought. Cranky, west-Kansan old ladies knew these winds.
She set out the complimentary breakfast of packaged doughnuts, orange juice, and morning coffee for the loudmouth writer, who finally bumbled into the lobby at 10:30. He browsed the souvenir magnets and took his sweet time at the postcard rack. He was skinny but filled the air with his presence, wanting her attention, so she ignored him and watered a philodendron. He studied the dead Fultons’ pictures and said, “A lot of history here.”
Odessa stunned herself by telling him, “I’ll be getting rid of it all. I’m redecorating.” As soon as she said it, she knew it was true. Water overflowed the plant’s pot.
“What about all these photos?”
“I’m sending them to the Montgomery Historical Museum. You can look at them over there.”
“A reaction to the violence you witnessed?”
“A reaction to the monotony of looking at them for too many years.”
It was something she’d wanted to do for ages, something Bill would never let her do. He had decorated the place with the Western-Americana theme twenty-seven years ago when he’d bought it. Cowboy boot lamps, rodeo posters from Dodge City, little soaps shaped like sheriff’s badges. “Home Sweet Home!” the wall borders announced. American flags all over the place. And those dead Fultons’ faces, of course. The barbed wire wreaths had rusted and left muddied bruises on the doors of all the rooms. She would have the doors painted now, every one a different color: orange, blue, green, magenta.
“I wonder if you might get more business here with the recent shootings,” he said. “More folks wanting to see the outlaws of the Wild West.”
“The grocery store is up for sale,” Odessa said. “You can buy it and charge admission.”
“I don’t want to sell tickets. I just want to write the story.”
“Same thing, if you ask me.”
He smiled patiently, jerked his head toward the window. “You keeping that cowboy out front, or is he going too?”
The cowboy was twelve-and-a-half-feet tall and welcomed guests with a lasso and a wink. “Maybe,” she said.
“How much do you want for him?” She raised her eyebrows at the man’s Subaru rental parked in front of the door, and he said, “He’ll fit on the roof. Would you take a hundred?”
She would’ve taken fifty, but not from this man. She shook her head. “I’m not selling him.”
“You wanna give him away?”
“No.” She pressed her palms against the counter. “I don’t.”
Bill had loved that cowboy. “Cowboy Bob” he’d named him because he thought he looked like outlaw Bob Fulton, one of the dead mugs on the lobby walls. Bill had won him playing cards in Dodge City, and three weeks later, Curtis, seventeen and drunk and dumped by a girl, drove Bill’s pickup into the cowboy’s knees in the middle of the night. Bill had run outside in his boxer shorts with the TV remote still in his hand while Curtis stood, blinking and astonished, next to the truck’s dented front end, his shoulders sagging in the headlights. To Odessa’s relief, Bill did not explode at the boy.
For much of the time, Bill and Curtis had puzzled each other. Bill recited his trove of outlaw tales to motel guests and strangers, demanded their attention with the boom of his voice. All the Fulton Gang books he’d read and reread until their dog-eared corners had shredded off shaped themselves into wilder stories each time he told them. Curtis spoke in quieter ways, his stories more truthful but offered with surprising, second-glance sarcasm. For the most part, their stories fell short of each other, and they didn’t catch each other’s jokes. Even their arguments were missed punches.
But that night next to the dumb cowboy with the squashed knees, Odessa observed a tenderness, something recognized between them. It was a rare moment when Odessa removed herself, turned on her heel and slipped inside to put coffee on and set out two cups. Then, she took herself back to bed where she lay awake in the dark, listening to the low tones of conversation before Bill came in at last and flopped down to sleep. He had never asked if Curtis was his son. Whatever their differences, whatever Bill might have suspected sometimes or all along, he had stepped willingly and clumsily into the boots of fatherhood.
Bill had the cowboy repaired and painted twice after the accident, but Odessa always thought Cowboy Bob looked a little surprised afterward. Instead of “Welcome to the Fulton Hideaway!” Cowboy Bob’s face seemed to say, “Holy moly.”
Later, after the writer had wandered off to hunt down a more accommodating subject, Odessa stood in the wavering noonday heat at the edge of the parking lot and studied Cowboy Bob. Someone had blackened one of his front teeth during the last couple of nights. “Well, Bill,” she sighed, “I’ll be sending Bob off to greener pastures as they say.” She was wondering what she might put in the cowboy’s empty spot there by the vacancy sign swinging in the ceaseless wind, when a car pulled into the lot and a large woman struggled out, shielding her eyes from the dust and staring directly at Odessa.
If she hadn’t had her on her mind for the last two months and hadn’t been sitting on that recent piece of haunting, unread correspondence, Odessa still would have known her in an instant. Even after forty-two years and even as Lucy Messenger stood before her now, a hundred pounds heavier in a sea-blue dress as wide as a table cloth and billowing like a sail, her hair not honey-blonde anymore but the color of an old nickel and chopped short as a crew cut. Lucy grinned, and Odessa said, “You got fat.”
There was a rush and a flurry of arms and blue dress, and Odessa felt herself clutched inside a soft hill of perfume and warm cloth and jewelry. “Odessa,” Lucy said again and again across Odessa’s shoulder while she patted her back and kissed the side of her head. “My old friend. My old friend.”
. . .
Odessa hadn’t had company in the apartment since Holly’d left. She’d let the dust build up, and she rarely bothered to empty the dish drainer. She’d been ignoring the heap of unread newspapers in a corner. She snatched up the quilt she’d started sewing a year ago and removed an old brown apple core and a dirty glass from the coffee table.
Lucy said, “Let it lie, honey. Don’t clean up for me, just let it lie. I like a little mess, myself.”
But Odessa tidied up out of anxiousness and a loss of words more than any real concern about the mess.
Lucy settled on the couch and fanned herself with a coupon packet. Her forehead was moist, her breath wheezy. “The air conditioning doesn’t work in that good-for-shit rental car. I should have turned it around and gotten another one, but I wanted to just get here. God, I’d forgotten about this damn wind! How it blows the car around! The wind of my youth!”
“We’ve had wind warnings the last ten days; no rain for a month.” Weather talk. Lord. Odessa tried to pool her energy into something like politeness and manners. “Something to drink?” she asked.
“Anything, honey, whatever you have cold is fine.”
In the kitchen, Odessa stalled. She filled a glass with water and dumped it out. She did this a few times, then filled it with iced tea and drank some of it herself. She looked at her most recent picture of Curtis on the refrigerator, grinning on a fishing boat in the sunny gulf. It struck her that he looked more like Henry at that moment than at any other in his life. She pulled the photo down and shoved it in a drawer. Then she cursed herself and stuck it back up on the fridge. She told herself to get a grip.
“You’ve been so on my mind, Odessa,” Lucy said when Odessa returned, her eyes peering into Odessa’s face. “You look wonderful, honey. You haven’t changed, you look just like you.”
“I look like my father.”
“He was a handsome man. You have his lean face.” Lucy slid the coffee table further down and pulled a footstool to the couch so she could spread herself out. “I’m afraid I don’t much look like myself,” Lucy said and laughed. “But I don’t much give a shit. I have it in mind to become a crone.”
Odessa sat in the rocker across from Lucy but couldn’t relax. She felt as if she might rock herself through the wall. The room was cool, the stone-tinted blinds shielding the light and the AC sucking all the heat from the room, but still Odessa felt warm. She had yet to clean Room 7 and felt guilty for thinking of it, for missing the order of her routine, but she’d rather be wiping away the loudmouth’s sink slop than sitting here looking at Lucy Messenger.
Lucy leaned forward. “It’s good to see you, Odessa.”
Odessa said the only thing she could, the most important thing. “I’m sorry about your little granddaughter, Lucy. I really am.”
Lucy’s voice was steady, her eyes rimmed with sadness. “I’m grateful to you, honey. Lynn and I both are, for your effort to get Meg to safety—”
“I didn’t get her to safety.”
“You got her out of there, and I thank you for that.”
Odessa felt a longing for whiskey and ice water.
“My daughter, Lynn, she has a cane,” Lucy went on. “She was always active. It’s not the physical injury as much as the grief. I’ve been staying with her in Pittsburgh. She holds Meg’s little clothes against her face. She sleeps with them clutched in her arms.”
Odessa thought of the little girl’s weight like nothing, like so much light in her hands, how she could have run with her the whole way to Wichita. Would have.
“Lynn came here to see where I grew up and to interview Uncle Paul for a project she’s doing, an oral history. She’s a historian. You remember my uncle Paul? The vet? The only one of my family left here. But then you probably know who all’s here and who isn’t. He’s ninety-two and mean as a blade, and I told her not to bother with the old fuck, but she was bent on coming.”
Odessa handed Lucy a box of tissues, and Lucy set them on the sofa beside her.
“I don’t know how to help her,” Lucy said, her one hand holding her other. “What can I do, Odessa? How can I help my daughter?”
Odessa hadn’t any idea what she could offer Lucy or why she’d come all this way to see her. “Time will smooth over the sharpness of the pain.” A useless answer, Odessa thought. Words, words, words.
“I’m trying to convince her to come back to Vermont. I don’t want her to be alone in Pittsburgh. She hardly leaves her apartment. She has bad dreams, tortured by the memory of it.”
Odessa remembered with her body, the blasts of gunshots, the impulse of fear burning her palms, the blazed dryness of her throat. Cold floor tile pressed to her cheek and the infinite drag of seconds while she waited to be shot. But her mind had erected a wall against the order of events. She remembered running with the girl. She remembered running. That was what she remembered. Sometimes in dreams, she saw the gunman’s face through a busted screen door. Sometimes in dreams, it was her own boy she was running with.
“It’s strange,” Lucy said. “I have these dreams about Flat Lake since it happened, dreams about creatures under the lake’s surface.” Her hands tried to give form to the wordless things. “I would take Meg to Champlain when they came to see me. She called it ‘the big water.’ I don’t dream about those precious days. I dream of this lake here, and I’m standing alone in it with these ominous, invisible creatures.” She rubbed her forehead. “I know I’m going on and on. I might have lost them both.”
“I’m sorry,” Odessa said again.
“I had to see you,” Lucy said. “I’ve wanted to talk to you for a long time, Odessa. I’ve wanted to talk to you forever.”
Discomfort. Old dread. The silence of years. Odessa was honest. “I didn’t open your letter.”
Lucy’s blue eyes gleamed—her most memorable feature besides a bold force of energy around her that even her grief didn’t seem to dim. She sipped her iced tea and let Odessa’s words fall into some rightful place between them. Odessa stared at the rings on Lucy’s fingers, thick bands of silver and gold. Black onyx. Emeralds. Thumb rings. Gypsy hands, Odessa thought.
“Do you still go fishing in Flat Lake?” Lucy asked.
“I haven’t for a long time. I did when my son was young. I would take him.”
“Tell me about your son,” Lucy said with eagerness. “Is he in Montgomery? What’s his name?”
“New Orleans,” Odessa said. “Curtis. He paints. He’s an artist. And an electrician.”
“Wonderful!” Lucy said. “That’s wonderful, he’s not starving. There’s nothing goddamn romantic about starving.” She nodded at the painting on the wall opposite the sofa. “Is that one of his?”
“That’s one,” Odessa said. It was a painting of wind and sky in shades of muddied green and blue, but there was swiftness in the landscape, a view of the plains caught, it seemed, from the invisible frame of a rushing vehicle.
“I like it. I’m thinking of a Georgia O’Keefe. View from the Plains? Only this one’s got a whole different tone, doesn’t it?”
“Not so much stillness,” Odessa said.
“Is that his too?” Lucy pointed at the little painting beside the doorway. The lights of a night carnival.
“Oh, Odessa, you’re still painting? That pleases me so much.”
“I haven’t painted for about forty years,” Odessa said. “I taught art at the elementary school, and then I quit, and then Bill bought this place. I haven’t had the urge to paint, really. Mostly I quilt.” She hadn’t picked up a quilt in over a year and feared Lucy would detect the silly lie in her voice. “And I knit,” Odessa added, forcing enthusiasm. “And I run this place.”
“He died. Two years ago.”
“I’m doing fine.”
Lucy nodded. “Have you had counseling?”
“About … what happened.”
Odessa bristled. “That. No.”
“You really should, honey, it would do you good.”
The last thing Odessa needed, she was sure, was to sit around with a sad circle of survivors in some pastel basement room of the Montgomery hospital and relive the terror. What the hell did Lucy know, anyway, about what would do her good? She flipped the subject. “How’s Henry?”
“Good,” Lucy said, and without hesitation, “You know we’re divorced.”
Odessa felt a small sting of pleasure. “No. I don’t know anything.”
“It was a while ago. Fifteen years.”
“Irreconcilable differences or similarities?”
Lucy laughed. “Exactly.”
“Where is he?”
“In Pittsburgh with Lynn now. He lives in Albany. He’s retired, but he’s doing some teaching at SUNY. Geology, earth science. He’s been writing poetry again, too, which is wonderful, I think. I’ve been encouraging him. He’s got a book in him at least, I’ve told him so. We’re still friends.”
“You’ll have to give him my regards,” Odessa said flatly.
Lucy started to speak and faltered. She started again. “I didn’t leave things well all those years ago—”
“The last time I saw you,” Odessa interrupted, “you were lying on your porch swing reading me a poem you wrote about Rose Collier.”
“I remember. I’ve written more about her.”
Odessa had seen something in that moment on Lucy’s porch, something worth painting though she’d never done it, of course. Some image of the two of them at eighteen in the bold, orange light of the plains, on the verge of diverging. Lucy would go to college in Vermont, Odessa to a small liberal arts school just across the Texas state line, or that’s what she’d expected at the time. Lucy had wanted dewy trees, red barns, and quaint white church spires rising from town squares, a soft, shadowed landscape that conformed to a body’s curves and moods, while Odessa couldn’t imagine breathing anywhere but on the dry, open plains. And on that last day of their acquaintance, Lucy had been secretly planning her new life in Vermont’s green hills with the boy Odessa loved.
The bell buzzed at the front desk, and when Odessa stood up, grateful for the interruption, Lucy grabbed her hand and squeezed. “Would you mind putting me up for the night?” she implored. “In one of the rooms? I’ll pay you of course. It’ll give us a chance to talk. I’m not sleeping at Uncle Paul’s house, for god’s sake, and I didn’t come here to see anyone else.”
“It’s fine,” Odessa heard herself say. “Just let me answer this.”
It was Roy, the UPS man who liked to grab a black coffee in Odessa’s lobby and gossip over the desk, but today, he didn’t bother with coffee. He slid the box across Odessa’s counter, an order of toiletries for the rooms, and said, “Batten down the hatches, Odessa. It’s getting rough out there. Hugoton’s getting hammered. Tornados in Elkhart. I gotta hustle!”
“You better get out of that truck.”
He laughed, revealing his pretty white teeth. “Don’t worry, Odessa. Your packages aside, I’m not dedicated enough to get myself killed.”
Two years ago, a tornado had thrown a UPS truck half a mile into the middle of the Montgomery cemetery, where it landed on its roof. The driver had fled the vehicle before it left the ground, sought cover in a ditch, and lived to tell his story all over the news.
“Your cowboy out front needs a dentist,” Roy said.
“That cowboy needs a new home,” Odessa said. “I’m sending him back to Dodge.”
“You got a new one lined up?”
“I don’t need another cowboy, honey. I’m redecorating.”
“That’s all right, that’s all right,” he said encouragingly. “Maybe find someone to take his place. A doctor? A retired astronaut?”
“Maybe a skinny-assed UPS man in school-boy shorts,” Odessa said over the tops of her glasses, and Roy laughed harder. “Get going,” she said. “Get off the damn road!”
“He’s a cutie,” Lucy said, coming up behind Odessa after Roy had gone out the door. “Looks like that late-night guy. That O’Brien.”
“That’s what Holly used to say.”
“Remember Eric Morgan?” Odessa asked. “The guy Henry socked in the teeth? That man is his kid.”
“Good god,” Lucy marveled. “The past still lives here.”
“Some of it,” Odessa said, slipping the box underneath the counter. “Eric Morgan left town when Roy was a teenager and Roy hasn’t seen him since. Some leave, some stay. Just like anywhere else, Lucy.”
“You never wanted to leave.”
Odessa resented Lucy’s assumptions. “The question is why have you come back.”
“I needed to see you.” Lucy was looking at the pictures of the Fultons, her back to Odessa. “I loved the stories about Rose Collier. Rodeo queen roping calves and riding broncos, bearing her baby out of wedlock, racing the night to spring her boyfriend out of jail. You don’t have a picture of her.”
“Of course I do. Outlaw Grandma’s over there, above the buffet table.”
Lucy shifted her gaze. “You look like her, Odessa. You do. You have her eyes. Remember all the stories we invented? Woman vigilante? Her secret lovers?”
“Dressed like a man. Stole from the rich, gave to the poor. Avenged her lover’s death by slaying his murderers. Yes, I remember. Bill liked to embellish the stories, too.” But Odessa had stopped looking at Rose’s old picture, at her wise, sparking eyes like little coals because she knew at that century-old, photographic moment exactly where Gus Fulton was hiding.
“We made her into a woman we wanted to be,” Lucy said.
“Nothing so unusual about wanting a girl hero in cowboy country.”
“I’ve missed you, Odessa.”
Odessa took a breath. “Well, I can’t tell you I’ve felt the same.”
“I didn’t know the little girl was your granddaughter when I took her out of there.”
“I wish I’d gotten to her sooner. I wish it every day.”
“I know,” Lucy said, touching Odessa’s arm. “I know you do. But you couldn’t, honey.” Lightning branched across the plains, brilliant veins of fire, and Lucy started. Thunder trembled the floorboards.
Odessa moved closer to the glass. Roy’s truck was parked in front of Seymour Brothers’ Plumbing and Heating. Overhead, the sky swelled, green as a bruise. Dust devils spun through the parking lot and a cardboard box jerked over the road like a torn kite, lifted, and slapped onto the roof of a car. Old Pete’s garage was closed. They’d gone home early. They always did on Friday. The rain began. Hard, fat drops.
“I’d forgotten this light,” Lucy said, moving close to Odessa’s side. “The light of these threatening skies.”
“You forgot a lot, maybe,” Odessa said.
“I didn’t forget you. You’re in my poems.”
“I haven’t read them.” Gusts sent the cottonwoods scraping and scrambling at the ground.
“There are things I tell you in them.”
“Maybe I don’t want to hear what you have to tell me, Lucy. Maybe that’s the truth of it.”
“You’re still angry.”
“I wasn’t until you brought it back. You and that murdering gunman.”
Lucy’s face paled and her voice rose. “Don’t put me in a sentence with him.”
“Maybe I’m not angry,” Odessa said, more gently.
Lucy crossed her arms and then dropped them back to her sides. “Aunt Polly came to find me in Vermont a few months after we got there.”
Odessa said nothing.
“She wanted to check on me. She told me about you and Bill.”
Red dust struck like shrapnel against the window, and both women stepped back. We’re in it now, Odessa thought. Her eyes drew an image of the two of them from the outside, two pale faces in a little motel window with a tidal wave of sky pouring over the roof.
“Look at that sky,” Lucy said. “Aren’t you afraid?”
Odessa thought about Bill. All the dirt in Kansas got blown up here from Texas! The storms never rattled him. He would send Odessa down the tunnel while he stayed above, his brazen, thumping presence staking the building to the ground like some bully challenge to the sky god while Odessa shouted at him to get away from the windows. “Auntie Em, Auntie Em!” he would cry in a high, girly voice, and she’d yell, “I hope you get blown to Oz!” He thought she worried too much, felt too much.
When the tornado siren wailed over the wind, Odessa saw Roy rush out of the Seymour building and hop into his truck. He jerked it off the curb and turned it around. Odessa was out the door and halfway across the lot when he whizzed past, barely acknowledging her waving arms with a nod of his head and a stab at the gas pedal. He disappeared around the bend. “Dammit!” Odessa said and turned back to see Lucy standing under the awning, wide eyed. “Why do the young think they’re invincible!”
“Get in here!” Lucy said. “I’m not invincible. I admit it!”
Odessa pulled the door shut behind her and methodically slid matches, candles, and a flashlight out of a drawer behind the desk. “Go on down the tunnel.”
“Aren’t there lights down there?”
“Of course. It’s a modern-age outlaw tunnel. But they won’t do us any hell of a good if the power goes.”
Lucy poured two Styrofoam cups of what was now stale, lukewarm coffee, grabbed a package of doughnuts, and started down the steps. Underground with the door shut, the siren was a muffled cry, the air stagnant and cool.
“Like a tomb,” Lucy said.
“I don’t come down here much,” Odessa said, and she took the lead at the bottom of the stairs.
The tunnel was a hundred feet long and ended at a dead end where steps once led to a Fulton sister’s house. The house had burned down in the twenties, though there were photographs of it at the base of the steps along with three wooden chairs in a half circle—Bill’s idea—as if the Fulton brothers had sat there, stubbly chins in their palms, scheming their heists. “Have a seat,” Odessa said.
“Looks like you’re ready for a little party,” Lucy said. “Who’s the third chair for?”
The lights flickered on the wall posts, tiny lanterns in a cave.
“I remember back when the old man, Giles, owned this place,” Lucy said. “Kids would make out down here.”
“Did you ever?” Odessa asked.
“I never did,” Lucy said.
“I made out down here with Henry,” Odessa announced.
Lucy sipped her coffee. “I guess he never mentioned it.”
“I guess he’s good at keeping secrets.”
Lucy’s eyes flashed, sad. “I guess we all are.”
Odessa didn’t want Lucy to think she’d been pining over Henry all these years. Only lately, only since the killings had the hollowness bloomed in her chest and allowed old yearning to take a seat by the embers. Henry Morgan Kelly. Old name on her breath. Old name scratched into the rock wall of the tunnel just four feet away at arm level, barely visible now. Odessa had written it when Giles still owned the motel, the night before she eloped with Bill, as if writing Henry there would write him out of her heart and bury him with the outlaws’ secrets. How could she have known at the time that Bill would buy the place, that she would end up living on top of that old name in the rock.
“Were you happy with Bill?” Lucy asked, her eyes soft but probing in the glimmering light.
“Would you feel less guilty if I said yes?” Odessa asked.
“Yes,” Lucy said. “But I don’t want you to lie.”
“You weren’t happy with Henry.”
“Henry’s got a darkness,” Lucy said. “One minute he’s riding high on some new magic carpet idea, and the next, he hits the ground and nothing’s possible, not even a drive into town for a sandwich. He crashes and nothing’s possible.”
“They have pills for that.”
“He wouldn’t take a pill, not Henry.”
“You might’ve slipped them into his food.”
Lucy laughed. “Henry would’ve smelled it before it got to his mouth.”
Bill would not have noticed if she had drugged his food, Odessa thought. He ate whatever she cooked and always thanked her afterward.
“I’ve always been an optimist,” Lucy said. “Henry’s a troubled soul.”
“So you saved me from Henry’s darkness. Is that what you’ve been wanting to tell me all these years?”
“I was here in Montgomery after it happened. I came to be with Lynn in the hospital. I couldn’t see you then, but knew I would come back. I’m here because you dragged my little granddaughter out of the gunman’s hell. And because when we were girls, we were inseparable and I loved you. I’ve written our girlhood into poems as if I alone have the voice of memory. But you’re still here, Odessa, sitting on top of the Fultons’ hideout on this Kansas plain like a gatekeeper to our old western story. You’re the hero. I was a cheating outlaw, stealing away your love.”
“You can’t steal a love who doesn’t want to be stolen.”
“There was more to it.” Lucy hesitated. “And I wanted to tell you I’m sorry.”
“Took you long enough.”
“I was happy when Aunt Polly told me about you and Bill. I thought you made a good pair, you being a quiet type, him helping to draw you out.”
Odessa didn’t consider herself a quiet type except in relation to Bill, who could talk himself to sleep and often did. “I can hold up my end of a conversation,” Odessa said.
“You know what I mean. He was real lively. A lot of fun it seemed.”
“Were you happy, Odessa?”
“I never divorced him. Did you think I was sitting here mooning for Henry for forty years? Like that crazy old lady in the book we read in high school?”
Lucy let out a laugh. “Great Expectations.”
“That old lady still wearing her wedding dress and locked in a room with her clocks all stopped? Did you think that was me?”
“That would never be you, Odessa. You’re too practical and strong to pine. That would be me before that would be you.”
“Don’t give me that. You’re the bold one. You’re the journeyer.”
“Why didn’t you ever leave Montgomery?”
There were many things Odessa did not want to speak of now, in the tunnel with Lucy. She did not want to speak of a thousand arguments with Bill when he kept her away from the counter because he didn’t want her up front as he called it. He kept her in the back with the bookkeeping, as if some out-of-town stranger might entice her away with him or, at the very least, entertain her with a sexy joke or a story. She would not tell Lucy that despite Bill’s going on to guests about the Fulton Gang and all his bragging about his wife’s connection to that free-spirited lady outlaw, Rose Collier, he wanted a hold on Odessa. She would not tell Lucy that he wouldn’t let her drive a car until Curtis was in high school, and Odessa’s hairdresser, while teaching her own teenage son to drive, also taught Curtis and Odessa. She didn’t want to remember the afternoon she returned home, armed not only with her new Kansas photo license, but with a sensible, used Chevy in her own name. Her posture held straight for battle, and Bill said nothing. Nothing! All those years of shouting matches, and when she pulled her car up next to his truck and planted her feet on the ground, he didn’t say a word. She might have just brought home a bag of groceries. She should have bought a car years ago.
She did not want to remember the panicked isolation of the early years with Curtis, when Bill was on the road and her mother hardly cold in the ground. The blurred, numbing stream of days of diapers, dishes, dirty bibs, tantrums, sleeplessness. Her last painting an intense and rushed mosaic of broken glass in the image of Matisse’s The Dream because, she thought, she could not conceive an original image and because the woman in The Dream, sleeping so private-deep, had spoken to her. All those broken glass fragments had mirrored the shimmering mess of her mind. When Curtis cut his foot on a sliver Odessa hadn’t cleaned up, she moved The Dream, unfinished, to the attic of the old house and later sold it at a yard sale for three dollars.
Loneliness, dullness, rage—she did not want to remember these things. She didn’t need them now.
What she wanted to remember was this: Curtis’s high school graduation. Evening sun a soft torch. A stream of picnic tables draped with egg-blue cloths next to Flat Lake and the wind an uninvited but well-behaved guest, like someone’s loud, rowdy uncle on the wagon. Children racing barefoot. Mothers in bright dresses carrying flowered bowls. Boys in ties and girls in eye make-up kicking balls across the grass. Odessa knew everyone’s names then, all of those fifty or so people gathered to celebrate their children’s exodus into the next turn of life. Driving back to the house afterward. Windows down, wood smoke drifting in with the cool lake air. Curtis in back, quiet, his fingers grabbing fistfuls of wind. He won an award at school for a painting he’d done of Odessa and himself fishing in Flat Lake, and it was riding on the backseat beside him, deliberately childish in the rushed, raw boldness of the colors, primaries, and the hasty strokes of the woman and boy in the boat. But subtly sophisticated too, with the motion of light on the water, their radiant faces, the shimmer of movement inside the stillness of their bodies. All evening as people congratulated Curtis, Bill had insisted in earnest that it was Odessa’s artistic inclination that ran through Curtis’s veins. “Odessa’s an artist,” he’d said, nodding toward her. “My wife’s an artist. He got it from her.” And, laughing, “He didn’t get much from me. But that’s okay. That’s a good thing.” In the back of the car, suddenly Curtis spoke up. “You taught me how to tell a good story, Dad. I got that from you.” Oh, sweet boy. Odessa wanted to throw her arms around him.
Bill shifted in the seat, laughed, rubbed his hands across the steering wheel. “People do like a story,” he said. “Makes them forget their own trouble for a minute or two.” And he had gone on, then, to tell a story—which one, Odessa did not remember. What she remembered, what she wanted to remember, was a flock of birds she’d watched descend into a cottonwood at the edge of the lake beyond the evening’s gathering, how they’d closed their wings into the tree’s tall reach, and how she’d felt at that moment a return inside her own heart, how she felt it again riding through the night with Bill and Curtis, some old hope, a flurry of wings, and a settling, however fleeting, into home.
They might have made love that night. They sometimes did even during the worst stretches of the marriage, as if, hands and tongues searching each other blindly in the dark, they might coax love out of hiding, wrestle it to the ground, and finally hold it there between them. But always in the daylight they fell back into line, remote, quarreling, the taste of the night’s intimacy vanished to some vague, unfamiliar dreamscape.
“You didn’t come to Kansas to find out if I’ve been happy,” Odessa said finally. “To lay your eyes on the long-ago friend who tried to save your granddaughter…”
“Henry almost didn’t come with me when I asked him to,” Lucy interrupted, her voice urgent. “I had to work to convince him to choose me over you, Odessa. I had to lie to him.”
It was the simultaneousness of the next two events that would strike Odessa later, the impossibility of distinguishing them by which came before and which came after that would leave her convinced that Lucy’s confession and the tornado were one and the same force in the universe. The distant ring of crashing glass, the smash of something enormous against the door to the lobby, and Odessa was rushing back through the tunnel, her flashlight jerking light off the stones, up the steps to the door that wouldn’t budge, not for all the muscle she could shoulder into it.
Odessa stood panting at the top of the steps, looking down at Lucy, whose immensity seemed to have diminished in the wake of what she’d just a few moments ago revealed. A different face, fearful and shadowed, peered up through the soft arc of the flashlight. “What’s happened?” Lucy whispered.
“Indeed,” Odessa said as she imagined, for a moment, what Lucy must have looked like riding away in the night with Henry, grasping his hand across the seat and racing the dawn across the big middle of the country, riding the bold brink of a future carved out of a promise and a lie.
I told him you were cheating on him.
I convinced him you wanted to be with Bill.
And now Odessa was trapped with her in the outlaw tunnel, their exit barricaded by who knew what. A UPS truck. The whole goddamn motel in pieces on the other side of the door. “Well,” Odessa said. “I was planning on redecorating. This’ll give me a jump-start. Unless of course you and I are buried here together.”
“It’s all my fault,” Lucy said, her voice trembling in the silence left by the siren’s end, tears flooding her eyes.
“My daughter and I come back to the town where I did my friend wrong, and we all pay a price for my misdeeds.”
“Oh for god’s sake!” Odessa said. “A madman and a tornado are not your doing! Now get up there and help me with the damn door. I can’t budge it. Put your weight behind it. Give it your best shot.”
It really was impressive, Odessa would think later, the work Lucy did on that door, bullying, beating, battering it like a raging mama buffalo, sweat soaking and steaming through her dress and a high, gravelly shriek like a war cry tearing out of her throat until it gave a half inch, an inch, until the frame splintered, until Lucy, with one last, screech-howling shove, moved a mountain and tumbled through to the other side.
Odessa found her sprawled and sobbing next to the body of Cowboy Bob, who’d been lifted and hurled like a torpedo through the front window. A pool of glass, tree limbs, rainwater, and holy moly Cowboy Bob—a story Bill would have embellished for years. Odessa choked out a laugh, then a long, gut-quaking cascade of giddy, nut-ball laughter she’d forgotten existed in the world. She doubled over. She laughed until her nose ran. She had to sit down on Cowboy Bob’s crooked knees. She had to pee.
Lucy crawled toward her, her big dress twisted, and grabbed onto Odessa’s hands.
“Well,” Lucy said. “I showed that door who’s the goddamn boss!”
“Yes you did!” Odessa said. “You definitely did. You kicked that door’s ass!”
“I kicked that cowboy’s bony ass!”
“And left him passed out with a smile on his face!”
“Lucky cowboy!” Lucy said.
They roared. They hooted. They held onto each other. They pulled themselves together.
“Your hand is bleeding,” Odessa said.
“Well, it’s no wonder,” Lucy said, wiping her eyes with her arm.
In her kitchen, Odessa taped a bandage carefully around Lucy’s wrist. “Is that Curtis?” Lucy asked, eyeing the picture on the fridge.
“That’s my boy,” Odessa said, and Lucy took a step closer to the photograph.
Lucy was quiet, chewing on her lip.
Odessa let out a breath. “We try to keep our children alive,” she said. “We take care and take care. We wake up when they cry; we hear them in our sleep. I sometimes hear Curtis’s child voice on the edge of my dreams calling ‘Momma’ in my doorway and I sit up. He’s a grown-up forty-two-year-old man a thousand miles away. The nights must be terrible for your daughter. I feel for her. I think of her all the time.”
“She was raising Meg on her own,” Lucy said, still looking at Curtis’s picture.
“It’s hard,” Odessa said. “We’re not made to do it alone. We’re not mama bears braving the ice with our cubs. We’re social animals. We need each other.”
“He’s a beautiful man,” Lucy said.
“And good hearted,” Odessa said.
“Like his mother and father,” Lucy said finally, catching Odessa’s eyes and holding on.
The tornado had blazed an eastern path clean down the road for a half mile and turned a sharp right onto bare prairie, sparing homes and claiming only road signs and windows, a shed, an empty barn, a cistern, and a big winking cowboy. But people were running out to find each other, to talk and reassure each other, to knock on doors, and to speak with news teams who inspected the road and marveled, hats off, at the strangely careful course of destruction.