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 John Dufresne

Who Are They Who Are Like Clouds?

Marlene Self feels untethered and obtuse, wishes for just a moment that she were dead, and understands that maybe she could be, except for the pain of the knife in her head. Well, then, not dead, but senseless. She'd like to be anesthetized. Marlene has driven from Monroe to Tallulah and back, a hundred and ten miles. She left the kids with Tracy next door, jumped in the Suburban and drove. Drove because she needed time to think, and the car was the only place she could be alone. But now, back in town, driving west on DeSiard, she can't remember any of the last-she checks her watch-two and a half hours. It could have been five minutes for all she knew. How was she supposed to think with a knife in her brain? And how could she think about the man who buried it there? Marlene turns on the radio to drown out his voice. And what is she supposed to do now? Go home?

This morning, Marlene's husband, Bert, who had told her last month over dinner at Frankie and Janie's that he just needed some time to sort things out, so to speak, needed space, was how he said it, left a message on the answering machine telling her that he's not coming back home after all. Our relationship is no longer tenable, he said. He'd be out of town for the next week, but would call as soon as he got back. There was silence, and then, Give Danny and Missy my love, and then, These things happen, Marlene, and then, I'm sorry, I truly am, and then a clunk and the dial tone.

Marlene drives to Bert's real estate office on Louisville at Fourteenth. His car isn't there. Neither is the woman's. On the radio, a song she has always liked, but has never known the name of, plays. Willie Nelson sings it. Marlene gets the red light in front of the Bayou Motel. She sees a man and a woman sitting on white plastic patio chairs outside their room, and she knows she's seen them somewhere before, but where? Their little boy pedals his Big Wheel in circles in the parking lot. Maybe at Safeway? At the pharmacy? The boy's about Danny's age. Marlene begins to cry. Why can't she remember? Yes, there was a girl with them, older, like fourteen, fifteen. Yes, it's the girl's face she recalls best. The way she rolled her eyes when the mother talked, the way she openly stared at Marlene. She can almost place them now. The guy in the car behind her leans on his horn. Marlene screams.

The boy looks up at the screaming lady in the big car. Is she angry with him? He wipes his nose with the heel of his hand. He sees the lady drive away. The boy's father smirks, makes a crack to no one in particular about another bitch on the rag. His wife looks up from her TV Guide and says, The bastard didn't have to honk like that. Where's he think he's going to, anyway? She tells her boy, Bubba, Didn't I ask you to stay on the sidewalk?

The Bayou Motel is a simple, Ushaped, yellowbrick affair. Who stays here are truckers mostly, and hookers. Seventeenfifty a night. The TV works and so does the AC. Truckers park their rigs behind the motel and some of them idle all night. Behind the trucks is a scrubby lot where someone has dumped a stove, someone else a plaid sofa. That's where the woman found the two patio chairs. Beyond the lot is a tank farm.

The man lost his job in the Texas oil patch two months ago. The whole goddamn petroleum business has gone to hell. He doesn't know what he's going to do now, but he does know this-he's leaving this shit-hole town tomorrow. Ain't nothing for him here. Ain't nothing for nobody. Guy at the washeteria said he might could try up in Crosset for a logging job. God's country up there, the man said. The husband opens the cooler by his chair and takes out two cans of Budweiser, hands one to his wife.

The door to their room is open; the TV's on. The girl is on the phone talking to a boy she met in the last town they were in. DeRidder, she thinks, or was it Eunice? She tells the boy how this actor who used to be on a soap, how he's this bad guy in the movie she's staring at, how he's such a total creep, stalking his girlfriend like that. You know the guy, she says, used to be a doctor with an evil twin brother.

Outside, the father sprays lighter fluid on the briquettes in the hibachi. He tells his daughter she's been on the phone long enough. His wife says, Let her yak, Joe. It's the boy's nickel. He says, She ain't never going to see the boy again. Well, his wife says, she don't have to know that, does she? You think it's easy for her, no friends and all? A girl her age. Jesus H. Christ, you think it's easy for any of us? He sits back in his chair. He reads the beer-can label-for what, the nine hundredth time?-and that's what he thinks of himself, he's the king of beers.

When the charcoal is ready, the woman takes the luncheon meat out of the cooler, slices it, lays the slices on the grill. She's got the paper plates, the ketchup, the cookies, the lemon drink, set up like a buffet on the dresser inside. Her husband thinks if this were a hundred years ago, he could just find a piece of land and build a cabin, fish for their food, plant a garden. But now somebody or other owns everything. Every goddamn inch of this country is someone else's. He tells his daughter to hang up now, it's supper. But the girl ignores him. He looks at his wife. I won't be defied by my own daughter, he says. His wife understands this. He walks into the room. The girl tells him, One more minute, Daddy. He takes the phone from her. He tells the boy, This is Kristie's father, whoever you are, and I don't want you bothering with her no more. You got that, trash?

When he hears the dial tone, Theron hangs up. Look who's calling who trash, he thinks. He stares at the phone. For a minute he closes his eyes, stays on his bed, and tries to send Kristie a telepathic message-his brain to her brain. In the message, he tells Kristie to wait till her old man's asleep, take the cash out of his wallet, and get a bus back here to DeRidder. And then he imagines waking up in the morning and Kristie's out there in the kitchen with his mom and they're making breakfast. Yeah, right.

Theron grabs a beer from the fridge. He opens the junk drawer and takes out his daddy's pistol, yells to his mother that he's going out. She puts the TV on mute and turns her head toward the kitchen. Where the hell do you think you're going on a school night? For a walk, he says. She shakes her head like he's out of his mind and turns back to her program. Just go to your room, she says. Theron sees the top of her head, all that stiff hair over the back of her chair. He aims the gun at it, says, Pow. He opens the cabinet over the sink and takes down the box of bullets. He loads one into the pistol.

Theron winds up in City Park across from the Squire's Lounge. Probably his old man is inside with Eddie Guidry, Bobby Chagnon, and those other assholes. This is the bench where he and Kristie talked together for a worldrecord six straight hours the night before she left. She is the only girl he's ever talked to for more than three seconds in his life. Theron sees a black dog in front of the lounge, lifting its leg and pissing in the doorway. He whistles, calls to it. Blackie, he says. Satan. Duke. Come here, boy. He pours a little puddle of beer on the sidewalk. The dog licks it up. He tells the dog about Kristie, about her eyes, you wouldn't believe how blue, about how she smiled more on the one side of her mouth than the other. He tells the dog how in four years, when he and Kristie are eighteen, they would be getting married and moving to California. California is Kristie's idea. The dog rests its chin on the bench and looks up at Theron. Theron scratches the dog's head. He says, We were talking about it on the phone tonight. When he and the dog finish their beer, Theron tosses the can over his head into the park. The dog fetches it and brings it back. You booze hound, Theron says.

They walk along the railroad tracks toward the ValCourt Trailer Park and home. Theron takes the pistol from his belt and aims at a telephone pole. He figures he could hit it easy, but doesn't want to scare King away, or whatever the hell his name is. King, he says to the dog. Baron? The dog watches him. Theron coaxes the beer can out of the dog's mouth. Okay, boy, go fetch, he says, and he tosses it ahead onto the tracks. But the dog picks up a scent. Woofs. Theron aims the pistol at the dog's flank. The dog scoots off into the pigweed, his muzzle to the ground. He's gone. Raccoon, Theron thinks. Possum maybe.

Theron imagines that Kristie is watching him, that somehow this is possible. She saw how he lowered the gun, spared the dog. She knew he wouldn't shoot, knows the bullet's a charm, not a missile. Of course, if someone were to start something . . . A year ago Theron saw Alvin Straughter's Catahoula hound get snapped in half by a Winnebago out on Twenty-Seven. The old man driving didn't even slow down. If that happened right here, right now, this minute, Theron would make his one shot count, that's for sure. And Kristie knows this, too. Theron tucks the pistol into his belt.

Everything he does now, he does for Kristie. He whistles, kicks a stone, combs his fingers through his hair the way the boy in the jeans ad does. He smiles at nothing. He walks a little slower, like a man with plenty on his mind, a man with dreams. He sees himself as Kristie sees him, like from a distance. He's outside himself. And then it's the future. He and Kristie are on their back porch in California and she's telling him what made her fall in love with him a long time ago. His quietness, sweetness, his kindness. And his cuteness. The way he was always thinking. She could just tell, she is saying, could tell on that very first night how he was no sorryass swine like the boys who only want you for the one thing, how he was husband material.

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