Touch and Go

By Thad Nodine



September 2011
352 pages


Just before the sheriff drove off with Patrick, we walked over to say good-bye through the closed window.

"Don't worry," he yelled. "You can do it. Betsy'll run fine. Use your credit card if you have to. I'll be out tomorrow."

"We'll make do," Isa said.

"Devon," he yelled, "make sure you lash it good on the roof."

Still my leg was twitching, so I shook it some.
I thought Isa would cry when the sheriff pulled away, but if she did,

I didn't hear it. She stepped right over to the patrolman, saying what a shame it was the way Patrick had acted and thank goodness the patrolman was there to help us. "We don't have much money," she said, "but the Lord will provide if you can help lift the coffin onto the station wagon. It's for Daddy."

I imagined her reaching and touching his hand. I imagined him leering at her breasts.

We didn't bother with the tarp—Devon, the patrolman, Isa, and I. We grabbed four handles and hoisted it up. "You get along good for a blind," the patrolman said.

"A blind what?" I said.

"A blind man," he said matter-of-factly. "I've seen folks with two good eyes can't do a thing after a crash like this."

Devon and I did the best we could tying the casket on, but there was some slack, and we forgot about the towels to protect the wood, so we wedged them around the ropes after the knots were tied. We were brushing glass from the backseat when a truck pulled up behind us, its motor rumbling. A door opened and thudded shut, the engine still on. Someone walked toward us.

"Evenin', Tony," a woman said. Her gruff voice reminded me of Dotty, the bus driver in Burbank.

"Hey there, Mabel," the patrolman said.

"Damned if that don't beat all," Mabel said. "Somebody in that coffin up there?"

"You been watching too much TV," the patrolman said.

The woman chuckled. "Kind of spooky, though, ain't it, settin' up there all tilted on that old busted-up wagon?"

"All you get is the bumper," the patrolman said.
"Been that kind of day," Mabel said. I heard her drag it to her truck. Isa got behind the wheel and started Betsy again, with Devon in the other front seat. I sat in the back with Ray, who seemed better; he could answer questions.

"Get off at the first exit," the patrolman said. "That'll be Fabens. There isn't much there, but you can get back toward El Paso on State Road 20."

"We'll be fine," Isa said. "Where do I find my husband tomorrow?" "County jail in El Paso. Get your taillights fixed."

As she drove, I was proud of her strength, the way she was stepping up for the kids. She seemed to relax into her role now that she was in charge. Ray hung on the rope that ran through the car and I tugged down on it too to make it tighter. On the roof, one of the towels started flapping, then quieted completely. Devon laughed, and Ray said the towel was stuck on the grille of the patrol car behind us. Our exhaust came in through the smashed rear window, nauseating me.

"Betsy's running fine," Isa said. "Praise Jesus that none of us is hurt. Who cares about some dents?"

"Dents?" Devon said. "Betsy's busted up. The back door won't open. No rear bumper. There's glass pellets all over the suitcases."

The other towel started flapping.

"It's a miracle the casket is fine," Isa said, as if that was what she'd been talking about.

"I think I'm getting sick," Ray said.

"Stick your head out the window, honey," Isa said. "Breathe some fresh air."

As we dropped off the highway and slowed, we could hear the casket slide forward. We pulled over, pushed the casket straight, and tried to tighten the ropes, but we couldn't get the knot loosened on the front line.

"Look for a church," Isa said. "A church with a light on."
"At ten o'clock at night?" Devon said.
"God grants miracles," she said.

Before we knew it, we were through town. Isa turned several times and wound along rural roads that smelled of fertilizer mixed with our exhaust. I pulled down steadily on the rope that ran through the car, to keep it taut.

From the creaking of the roof, it seemed the coffin was inching cockeyed again. "What'll we tell them?" I said.

"We'll explain what happened. We're on a journey to visit Daddy, who's dying. We'll ask for a place to sleep, just for a night, like Joseph and Mary. I'll say we believe in God the father, the maker of heaven and earth. My name is Isa that comes from Isaac of Abraham." She wasn't making sense. Her voice had risen to that excited pitch.

"I thought your name was short for Isabelle," I said, trying to throw out an anchor.

"Good idea," Devon said. "We'll drive up with a coffin and say Abraham sent us. They'll think we're crazy."

"You'll see," she said triumphantly. "We'll just tell the truth."

Was she ramping up or calming down? I couldn't tell. "I hope we find something soon," I said. "This exhaust is making me sick." A sharp pain began to stab the base of my skull, whether from being rear-ended or from pulling down on the rope, I didn't know. Lao-tzu says that adversity comes from having a body; without a self, how could there be bad luck?

I released the rope—not to relieve the ache but to rid us of the coffin.

I felt a tender hand on my arm.
"You okay, Ray?" I said.

"Did we almost die?" he said.

"No," I said, grasping his warm fingers. "We're alive. And we're all fine."

"God wants us here for a reason," Isa said. "We have to trust the Lord Jesus."

"There's one," Devon said. "There's a light on over there."

Isa slowed. "Voice of God Church of Christ," she said. "That's perfect."

"It looks like a barn," Ray said.

"It's a warehouse," Devon said.

After we pulled up and Isa turned off the car, we sat a while gathering courage. I rubbed my sore neck with one hand and held Ray's fingers with the other. The engine ticked. Crickets crackled as if they'd been in my head all along, only I hadn't been listening. How could there be crickets in the desert?

"No reason to say anything about Patrick for now," Isa said as she got out of the car. "No reason at all."