By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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The gal looked young in the body and old in the face standing alongside I-80 with a flowered suitcase held over her head to block the sun. Stop! Darrell said when we drove by her, but Jake didn’t take his foot off the gas. She’s not such a looker, gentle Glenn whispered. He was by me in the back seat. They all look the same when they’re talking to your johnson, Darrell told him. He rolled his window down and hung his head out to stare at her disappearing shape.
She got better-looking the farther away we got and maybe that’s what gave Darrell inspiration. You can’t leave a live human standing out there in this heat where there ain’t a drink of water for miles, he said. Jake slowed the Falcon and made a U-turn across the median strip. Trouble, he said when we came closer to the gal in a short blue skirt. He cut the wheel again to get back over to her side of the freeway. She waited, cucumber cool in tall heels, hardly seeming to notice us as she lowered the suitcase and propped it against one white thigh.
Darrell was out of the car before it came to a stop. He put the gal’s suitcase in the trunk and I hoped he remembered not to squish my good dress that was laid across the top. I was climbing between the bucket seats when he leaned in through the window and asked if I wanted to ride shotgun, like he was doing me a favor. He wedged himself in the back seat between Glenn and the skinny gal, who said her name was Shoe. Darrell and Shoe whispered to each other the rest of the way across Nevada and by the time we crossed the California state line they were kissing on the mouth.
Jake pulled over on the triangle of asphalt separating the expressway from the second Richmond exit. After nineteen years, three owners, and 278,519 miles, the white ’63 Falcon had died. Son of a gun, Jake said. He got out and popped the hood and jumped away from the steam that went up like Old Faithful. Darrell leaned forward between the bucket seats and reached his big freckly arm to tap the horn and it still worked. He yelled at Jake, Should we take everything now or come back for it? We all piled out — me, Darrell, Glenn, and Shoe — and ringed around the front of the Falcon. The cars rushing by trying to outrun each other made me jangly and I went closer to Jake so as not to feel so small, even though he says I’m tall for twelve years old.
We gonna have to walk? Shoe wanted to know, as if sizzling metal under the hood wasn’t an answer. Jake’s brow crinkled under dark bangs that were a little crooked but I was getting better at cutting them. He looked at Darrell like, She’s your problem. Darrell asked Shoe what in her suitcase she could do without, because the less we had to carry the better. She pouted, but then something changed about her eyes and she said, Leave it all. Who cares? Darrell said sorry and he’d make it up to her. No you won’t, her eyes said. Jake looked at Shoe’s feet. You got any other shoes?
She’d be gone in a few days or a week — that’s how it went with Darrell. He patted her shoulder and told her, Don’t worry, sugar pie, even if he did look a teeny bit sorry for talking Jake into stopping for her and he could find another just like her in Richmond. One with decent shoes. Gentle Glenn had small feet and allowed that she might wear his work boots, but she didn’t seem too happy about that.
We were spitting distance from the Golden Gate but we couldn’t catch a look at it yet. Jake said we’d make it there before we headed to Alaska. He’d promised I could get out and take a picture of where he first saw Celia, her belly already showing with me, walking on a sidewalk that goes right along the bridge. My Kodak disposable had five pictures left and I was saving them for the bridge and Chinatown. Darrell said Chinatown was a waste of gas and likely smelled worse than Nam. Darrell didn’t like anything that reminded him of Nam. Him and Jake and Glenn had been there together, which made them brothers, and Darrell had taken a bullet for Jake that he still had in him and that ached him in the winter.
I used one of my pictures on the Falcon. It had been a good car for us. It had brought us across the wide states, plus all the job chasing we did back in Wisconsin before Jake and the boys decided to throw in together for Alaska. Jake knew about boats, and his uncle, who I’d never met, had died and left him a cabin and a boat. Land of cold milk and warm honeys, Darrell said about Alaska.
I turned my head for one last look at the Falcon as we left it behind. The sun glinted off the metal parts like a halo and I thought of angels coming to take it to heaven. Then I put my face forward and walked where Jake did, so I wouldn’t trip. It was hot and sweat ran in my eyes and it was hard to wipe it away while holding my sack of clothes and my dress. We reached the next exit and Glenn said, What do you think? and Jake squinted first at me and then at Shoe’s shoes and said, Time to get off the freeway. I told him, I’m all right, and Darrell asked how much money we got. Four hundred and fifty-seven dollars, I answered.
I wonder what the Motel 6 in Richmond looks like, Glenn said. That made us laugh — all but Shoe — because that was his joke every time. We walked down the exit ramp, which led to streets with gas stations and carwashes, some gone out of business, and Jake said Richmond was a town where we had to watch our back, although people anywhere could be bad or good. He’d hit a spot of trouble in this same town years ago, but it was nothing to worry about now and we weren’t staying long.
We found a strip mall with a smidge of grass where we could sit and Jake pulled money out of his billfold and asked Glenn to find us some eats and a paper. Then he pulled off another ten and said Darrell should take Shoe inside the Payless for some shoes. I was mad at Shoe for costing us so much of our money. She said thank you, and I think she meant it, because she’d walked a couple of miles in heels. She hadn’t complained much and I allowed to myself she had some grit.
While the three of them went off, Jake sat down for his one smoke of the day and I wandered around checking out storefronts. My feet were tired, but I couldn’t make myself sit still. That’s how I was in a new town: I had to get the lay of it and see if there was a laundromat with a bulletin board where I could find a baby-sitting job. Once, sitting for a lady in Iowa, I taught her kids how to do handsprings and had a contest for them. They liked it and behaved for me — even the oldest, who was eleven and didn’t think she needed a baby sitter. I couldn’t blame her since our ages were so close, but I had a way about me that made people think I was older, especially women, and if I stood up straight and held out my hand to shake and said, Very pleased to meet you, I could pass for fourteen.
I went by an ice-cream shop and stood reading the flavors through the window. Jake came up behind. Do you want a scoop? he asked. No thanks. I was embarrassed to be caught drooling. Go ahead, he told me. I said, But we need money for a car. He surprised me by pulling me in for a hug. He said Richmond was a pretty good town for work and I shouldn’t worry about it, that we’d have a car in no time and be on the way to the Golden Gate and then to Alaska. He gave me a dollar and I thought I might cry, so I quick ran inside the shop.
When we got back to our spot, the boys and Shoe were already there, and Glenn handed me a bag from the burger joint. Shoe had on new white tennis shoes with blue laces. I sat by Jake while he circled the want ads. There were two for baby sitters.
Road crew is hiring temporary, Jake said. I hate that, Darrell said, but he’d do it. Even though Darrell had his ways and a brawl or four in his past, he and Glenn were good workers, and once they fixed on what they should try for, they’d give it their all. Shoe didn’t seem interested. Already she was costing money and not helping. But then she squared up and looked at Jake, not Darrell, and said, If you can get me a place to clean up and take me downtown, I can make some money. You don’t have to do that, Jake told her, and I could hear the steel that came into his voice when he was angry.
Darrell kept his mouth shut. She was his problem, but she was making herself our problem, because Jake would have to feed her or put her on the street. Jake said, We got our next move planned. I could tell she was thinking she’d taken up with the wrong one. Jake wouldn’t take up with you, I felt like saying, but like before, I had to allow she had grit because she’d given herself away by offering.
Do you want the rest of my french fries? I said to Shoe. She said no and then yes and we ate them together. Sometimes it was nice to have another gal to talk to even if she was older and mostly batting her eyes at Darrell. Once, in Wyoming, one of his gals had done my hair real cute. She’d promised me a french braid but then her not-quite-ex-husband showed up and got into it with Darrell in a parking lot. Darrell broke the man’s nose and got probation and I never saw the gal again.
We didn’t find a Motel 6 but someplace just like it that must’ve bought furniture from the same store. I took the first shower, then Shoe, and then everyone else. Darrell, who went last, hollered that the hot water was gone. Glenn turned on the color TV and we watched a couple of western movies. Shoot’em-ups, Darrell called them. I almost fell asleep on the floor until Jake lifted me onto the bed and pulled off my shoes.
Three weeks, four at the outside, Jake told me after he and the boys got hired on and knew the wage. We’re still going to the bridge, aren’t we? I asked. He’d gone out of our way to let me see Mount Rushmore and it was neat how we drove through some tunnels and had a glimpse and then all at once we were right there and I got a picture. But the Golden Gate was more important because of Celia.
Jake said to me, when we had a minute alone, that he didn’t trust Shoe. He told me I shouldn’t go following her around and to be careful where I put anything of value. The only things I cared for were my garnet ring from Celia and my dress. I didn’t think Shoe would be interested in the dress since she had more clothes than I did and was taller and filled out. Still I waited for her to go into the bathroom and then hid the dress underneath the motel bed.
She came out with her hair curled. Want to get something to eat? I asked and she said sure. In the Safeway I asked if she wanted to marry Darrell, just to see what she’d say. She shrugged. Never been married; don’t know why I’d start now. Do you think you’ll stick around for a while then? I said, making my voice polite. Instead of answering, she asked, Why do you call her Celia? I said I always had.
Shoe wanted to get tiny shrimps to toss in a salad and that would put us over our allowance, but I halved the amount of lunch meat and said OK. It could be good if she owed me a favor. Her fingernails were silver this morning, which meant she had polish I could borrow. When we got back to the motel it was after eleven. I hurried to make sandwiches to take to Jake and the boys. Guess I’ll come with you, Shoe said.
Darrell didn’t look too happy when Shoe showed up with me at the work site, but she wriggled her hips and pretty soon he was smiling and calling her honey. You’re so sweet to bring lunch, he told her. I asked Jake about baby-sitting. He said OK if it wasn’t too far away and I should leave the address with the motel manager. It’s right there in the newspaper, I told him, but he said do it anyway. I left Shoe swishing around Darrell and went hunting for the house. I found it pretty easy. A tan house with white trim and a balcony off the front and flowerpots.
Very pleased to meet you, I said to the lady. She swallowed my story that I was in town visiting my California relatives who owned a shoe store and who’d taken me to see the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m too old to sit around all summer watching western movies, I told her, and I baby-sit all the time back home in Boston. You live in Boston? Yes, near Fenway Park. Her husband had always wanted to see a game there. She had me meet her six-year-old kid, who liked to draw. The lady had a part-time job selling perfume at a department store — it was a growth experience for her — and she would need me in the afternoons. We settled on $1.50 an hour and I felt bad I would have to ditch her in a few weeks.
The kid, Dominic, gave me the picture he was coloring. When I got back to the motel I borrowed some tape from the manager and hung it over the bed. It was a sun and three stick figures meant to be the kid and his parents. I thought what it would be like if Celia was alive and how Jake and her and I would’ve come out here in the Falcon and how Celia would’ve liked to see the Golden Gate again. I missed the picture of her I used to have. It got washed with my clothes in a laundromat in Minnesota and I cried so hard Jake sat me down and said all I had to do was look in the mirror because I was a dead ringer.
Jake and the boys got back from working and said it had gone fine. They could pick up some night shifts to get us on our way in no time. Glenn plopped down on the couch. Things will be so smooth fishing in Alaska we’ll think we died and went to heaven, he said.
At the end of my first week of baby-sitting, Dominic’s mother paid me and I walked back to the motel with my hand in my pocket. Thirty dollars. The most I’d ever made. When I held it out to Jake, he said, That’s yours. A girl needs things. I don’t need anything, I said. Isn’t there anything you want? he asked. I guessed maybe a bottle of nail polish. He told the boys how much money I’d earned and Glenn kissed me on the forehead. Darrell took my hands and danced me around the room until we were laughing hard and I let go and fell on the bed. We could get plane seats to Alaska with Moneybags over here helping out, Glenn said and winked at me. Jake thought about it. I liked the idea of a plane ride. But, Jake said, how can we drive across that bridge if we fly? He was like that. He’d been talking about sending me to school again in Alaska; it had been too long, he said. I could read as well as anyone, and who needed math, besides for counting money? But I said I’d go to school again if he wanted.
Two weeks later on a Wednesday we were all in the motel room except Shoe, who was tanning again by the crummy pool outside the manager’s office. I never went with her because the manager could look right out his window and see you there in a bathing suit and he was one of those types who didn’t need an excuse to look and say, Hey, baby, even to a twelve-year-old. I’ve been thinking of just staying here, Darrell said. Me and Shoe want to get a little place. Darrell, for all his gals, had never said a word about keeping one. You’re kidding, Glenn said, just to check. Jake dropped his cigarette butt in the soda can he used for an ashtray. Why would you want to go and live in a shoe box? We all laughed, even Darrell, because it was funny and Jake rarely told jokes.
Jake said, You stay and keep your share of what we’ve made, but Darrell looked Jake square in the eye. I wouldn’t take anything from you but a few bucks to tide me over to payday, he said. I’m the one changing lanes, and anyway you got Celia’s girl. He said that because it was the one thing that would make Jake keep the money. Jake held out his hand and Darrell did too and they shook. Each man has a say for himself, Jake said, and Darrell was being stand-up about it.
After that Darrell kept his share of the wages to save for his shoe box. A few days later Shoe showed up in a new dress that was yellow with daisies on it and after that it was a pair of high heels and then some dangly earrings. When Darrell said he’d rented him and Shoe their own room to have some privacy, Glenn asked Jake, Do you think she’s working him? I stopped painting my toenails Silver Fantasy and looked over at Jake to see by his face what he thought. You aren’t spending your whole paycheck on her, are you? Jake asked Darrell the next time we were all together and Shoe was out tanning by the pool. She does have a way about her gets me worked up, Darrell said.
One day I got back from baby-sitting and Jake and Glenn were watching another shoot’em-up. Guess what, Jake said. I knew right away and yelled, What kind? A ’71 Comet, he said. I ran outside for a look. She was a green beauty, all shiny, with just one little dent on the right rear fender. I could tell by looking she’d drive like a dream. Jake took me around the block a few times and then to a drive-through. Even though I wasn’t hungry it was fun to go by the order window in the Comet just like old times in the Falcon. We’ll be on our way in the morning, he said. I was so excited to see the Golden Gate and Alaska that I wondered how I would sleep at all. Land of milk and honeys, I said and that made Jake smile.
Late in the evening Darrell burst through our door. His bomber jacket was torn and his left cheek was red. Jake was on his feet in a flash, pulling Darrell into the room and shutting the door behind him. Glenn switched off the lights and all three of them crouched down on the floor, so I did too. How bad? Jake asked and Darrell said, You got to come see. Jake said, Stay here, but I disobeyed and followed them to the little room behind the motel manager’s office, where Shoe and the manager lay sprawled on a pullout bed. She was partly underneath him with her dress high and her pale legs showing and one foot hanging off the bed and she was shoeless.
I nearly screamed and had to put my hand over my mouth and say in my head the names of states we’d been to. She got in the middle of it, Darrell said. You know I’d never clock a gal on purpose. He was frazzled about Shoe and worried he’d hit the motel manager too hard because the little bastard wasn’t fighting fair and had come at him with a pocketknife. Glenn picked up a tipped-over lamp and set it by the bed. It didn’t work so he got a reading lamp from the manager’s desk and plugged it in. Jake took hold of Shoe’s skinny wrist and counted her pulse while Darrell fidgeted. After feeling her forehead and listening to her breathe Jake said she ought to be OK. You sure? Darrell said and Jake nodded. I felt less scared knowing Shoe was just knocked out and not dead.
Glenn found the manager’s knife on the floor and handed it to Jake, who went around and rapped the manager on the knuckles with the flat side of the blade. His hand jerked, but he didn’t make a sound. He’s out pretty good, Glenn said softly. I got to clear out of here, Darrell said like he’d just thought of it. You got to help me, Jake. The two of them faced each other across the bed. Darrell looked scared and was calling in his marker on the bullet Jake owed him for. Jake put one hand over his eyes like he was tired. This is it, Darrell, he said. I’ll carry you a ways up the road. Then you’re on your own.
Glenn went and picked up a towel and hung it over the gap where the curtains didn’t quite shut. The manager’s eyelids fluttered for a second. Jake said sharp, Celeste, go pack. I jumped at hearing my name out loud and ran from the room and down the walkway to ours. I could pack really fast, I’d done it so many times, and I quick put mine and Jake’s things in Payless bags and had a start on Glenn’s when the three of them came in. Darrell had his stuff but not Shoe’s.
The Comet had a tank of gas and we got in with me in my old spot behind the passenger. Glenn rode shotgun and Darrell hunched down in back so no one would see his face. Where we going? Glenn asked but Jake didn’t say anything until we’d left town and were on the highway winding north. He drove just the speed limit. Did you tell anyone about Alaska? Jake asked. I might have, Glenn said, but just in passing. Darrell didn’t remember. Yes or no? Darrell guessed most of his talk had been about plans with Shoe. Jake was quiet again and forty miles rode by. None of us said anything because he had to think.
If there’s a way to go into Alaska and claim what’s mine, we could risk it once things settle down, Jake finally said. I sensed Glenn nodding his agreement in the dark. Darrell stayed silent and hidden. Jake reckoned we could keep low and when the coast was clear make a beeline for Alaska. We would have to stretch our money. How much we got right now? Glenn asked. I said, Six hundred eighteen after the Comet, plus anything Darrell has. A buck fifty, Darrell said. Six and change will do, Jake said like he hadn’t heard Darrell, and I knew he wasn’t going to change his mind.
I stared through the window at the empty landscape and tried not to hate Shoe. You couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks and why had Darrell thought he could and he must’ve loved her to try. Because of him we were in trouble but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for poor, dumb Darrell whose hopes were bundled in a flowered suitcase in an empty motel room — dresses and shoes and earrings for a weary-looking gal.
Miles later, when we stopped for gas with Darrell hiding under a blanket, Jake asked Glenn to switch places with me. When we were driving again he said, I’m sorry about this. I meant to do better by you. I knew he was thinking about Celia. It’s OK, Jake, I said. I’m sorry about the bridge. It’s OK; it’s just an old bridge. You scared? and I had to say yes because I would never lie to him. He pulled his billfold out of his pocket and put it in my hand. Celia’s older sister, he said. You know her number? Yes, my aunt I’m named for, but he made me say the number to make sure. But nothing will happen, right, Jake? He didn’t answer and I saw the police lights in the side mirror before they turned on the sirens.