We drove through Tucumcari just after dawn. "Welcome to New Mexico, Sweetheart." I snapped my gum and nibbled Eddie's ear, bit too hard when the bus hit a bump and woke him up.
"Shit, Angie. You've been doing that at every state. You're gonna chew my ear off. And quit popping your gum. I'm going deaf." He got up and headed toward the bathroom. I followed and waited outside the door.
Eddie wanted to fly to Vegas, but I wanted to see America, like those families that drive cross country in their Winnebagos and collect bumper stickers on summer vacations. So we were taking the long route from Scranton. I loved the early morning light streaming in the windows and how the world seemed quiet and fresh. At home, we'd kept the blinds shut for my mother and the smell of sick hung just under everything.
The bus had air controls above our seats that hummed so you couldn't hear the whiny kids climbing all over their mom in the back. The vents trashed your hair if you weren't careful, and the mom looked like shit. I would've offered to fix her up if I had my curling iron and makeup bag handy.
When Eddie came out I said, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood," and goosed him. I squeezed into the bathroom, brushed the travel scum off my teeth, and checked myself in the mirror. My hair still looked okay.
Eddie was raiding my purse for the powdered sugar mini-donuts when I got back. I climbed in his lap and tongued his ear.
"I had something sweeter in mind for breakfast." I pushed the donut pack down my shirt.
"Come on Angie, people are waking up."
"Since when do you care?" I ran a fingernail over the zipper on his fly.
He grabbed my hand. "Angela, you're not funny."
"Okay, Edward, whatever you say. But what about last week, on your motorcycle in front of your cousin's house?" My free hand climbed from his belt to his Adam's apple.
"That was different. I was..."
"Drunk, horny, and trying to impress your friends." I scooted to the window seat. "Here, have your stupid donuts." I tossed them on his lap.
"Hey Babe, I don't wanna fight." He slid his hands into my hair and rubbed his chin across the top of my head.
"Me, either." I snuggled against him and dozed off until the bus pulled into Santa Rosa for our official breakfast stop.
We sat on the slide at McDonald's playground drinking coffee and eating Egg McMuffins. "There's a Rambler in the drive-thru," I said. "Wouldn't you love to get your hands under the hood?"
"Earth to Eddie, a Rambler in the drive-thru. Why won't you talk to me? This trip is like being stuck in a library on wheels."
"I'm just thinking." He ran his boot across the plastic slide. "How long do you think it'll take to make $25,000?"
"Six months, a year maybe, I don't know. We have enough to get started." For the past eight months I'd divided all my tips from Dave's Place between the Vegas and Mom jars on the kitchen counter. I'd saved $4,200, helped my sister pay for a cheap funeral, bought our bus tickets, and still had enough, I hoped, for the deposit on an apartment. "You worry too much."
"This is my big chance. I don't want to blow it."
"You'll be great." Eddie was going to deal and I was going to cocktail waitress at the casinos. We'd save big bucks and buy his garage. He knew everything about cars and had a vision for Eddie's Classics. Some rich Vegas entertainer would bring him a beat-up, 1965 red convertible Mustang. He'd rebuild everything from the inside out, totally cherry it up.
"Check it out, Babe." He'd wipe his greasy hands on his coveralls.
I'd bend over the hood in my short shorts and whistle at the gleaming engine. Eddie Junior would coo from his playpen.
I knelt down and put my face in Eddie's lap. His denim crotch felt warm against my mouth. "You know what? I've always wanted to make it in a car that's jacked up on a hydraulic lift."
"Is sex all you think about?" He pushed me away.
"Excuse me, Mr. Pope. Did it ever occur to you that I miss you? The last few months have been totally sucky." I climbed off the slide and walked inside to the bathroom.
On my way to the bus I picked up a Sunday paper and checked the horoscopes to see if Eddie might snap out of it.
"Angie, I'm sorry. I'm an asshole."
"Yeah, remember that." I walked to my seat.
He sat down, held out a handful of Hershey's Kisses and flashed me his cutest smile. "Things will be different in Vegas. I promise."
"You're still on probation." I took a Kiss.
Once we were on the freeway, Eddie pulled out The Everything Casino Gambling Book he was reading, re-reading, and highlighting. He bought me the Ultimate A to Z Bar Guide. I only scanned the pictures. Mostly I traced our route on the U.S. map, read the Nevada tour book my sister gave me, and circled all the places I wanted to see: Lake Tahoe, Carson City and Valley, and Red Rock Canyon.
I flipped through the newspaper's magazine and saw a painting of a guy with a beard, wild red hair, and a blue coat that looked like it was painted with nail polish in tiny strokes like you use on toenails. Only on nails, you try to blend so you can't see the brush marks. In the painting, each stroke made a spike of hair and the coat was nubby, like it went through a dryer too many times. The headline said Pack the Van and Go See Van Gogh in LA Before He Goes. LA is a long way from New Mexico, so I knew this guy was good.
I read the article. What a total soap opera. His life made mine look like the reruns of Leave It To Beaver we sometimes watched at Dave's. I glanced at Eddie. "Did you ever hear of Van Gogh?"
"They like an off-shoot of Van Halen or something?"
"No. He's an artist. Was an artist. He's been dead forever." I told him Van Gogh painted these incredible paintings but nobody bought them. He couldn't marry his girlfriend because he wasn't good enough for her family. He went crazy a bunch of times, ate paint to try and poison himself, then cut off his ear, wrapped it in newspaper, and gave it to a hooker who didn't want it. Finally, he shot himself and died in his brother's arms.
"He cut off his ear? Man, that's gross." He went back to his book.
"But he did it for love." Something Eddie obviously didn't get, since despite my protests, he still had a little heart tattoo with his ex-wife's name circling his left nipple. "Besides, his paintings are cool. I've seen this one before, on the wall in the hospital lounge. Look." I stuck the paper near his face.
"Nice flowers." He waved it away.
I looked at the paper again and wanted to see the paintings in person, especially the vase of sunflowers, the thick yellows and browns that I'd seen in the oncology ward. I closed my eyes and saw him, Vincent Van Gogh, painting bent-backed farm workers picking beans and cotton and tobacco in Georgia and Alabama. I saw him riding the bus across country like me, gazing out the window and sketching the rolling green hills that gave way to the flat, scrubby landscape with its white salt crust and purple highlights.
"Don't you wanna see the rest of the pictures? They're great."
"No, like I told you, I need to get these games memorized."
I leaned over and rubbed Eddie's shoulders. "Boy, are you tight. You feel like iron bars." I pressed my thumbs into his neck. "They send you to dealer school to learn the games, right?"
He leaned his head back. "So?"
"So you need to work on your people skills. You've got to use that sexy smile." I ran a finger over his lips. "Make the women at the tables feel like a million bucks, like you just might go back to their rooms after you rake away all their chips."
He closed his fist in the book. "Right, great advice, Angie. Why don't you do something useful, like figuring out what's in drinks?"
"I don't need to serve expensive drinks to make big tips, you'll see." To prove it, I slid across his lap real slow then grabbed my makeup bag and walked toward the bathroom. Eddie was starting to piss me off. Right when we left Scranton he began quizzing me on drinks.
I told him before, "I know all the standards. Those others, like Slow Comfortable Screws and Orgasms, guys just order them to impress their girlfriends, or to see if I'm gonna blush. They don't care if I don't know what's in them."
Eddie didn't get it. But I'd served drinks for two years, since I turned 21. I watched the guys at Dave's and I knew. The pool players drank a lot of beer—unless they played for money, then they nursed one beer all night—but besides getting a little pink and sleepy, it just made them pee. Guys who sat at the bar and drank vodka and whiskey got that burn in the pit of their stomachs. The burn grew if they kept ordering and they'd argue. Or they'd get fish-eyed and couldn't see you. Or the burn headed lower and then they thought about you straddling them on the barstool while they pumped away. Those were the guys you worked for tips. All you had to do was smile at their pumper thoughts.
That's how I got together with Eddie. He spent too many nights mind-banging me instead of defrosting his Frigidaire wife. One night about a month after he'd been there enough to be a regular, he reached for my hand while I was wiping the counter.
"Angie," he said, all glossy-eyed. "I'm twenty-five years old. I'm too fuckin' young to be this fuckin' lonely."
Then he laid his head over our hands and wouldn't let go. I felt sad for him and for me too, in my apartment with just a cat and the talky old lady in 3B for company, so I petted his hair like my mom did when I was little. He waited for me after work and later wiped his bourbon mouth all over my sheets.
"I've been dreaming about this since the first time I saw you," he said.
When I walked out of the bathroom, the whiny little girls were playing Barbie on their mom's lap. She looked real puffy under the eyes and was trying to sleep, but they kept poking her. She sighed and sat up. I asked if I could paint the girls' nails.
"Sure," she said. "Thanks."
I sat in the far seat across the aisle and cracked the window. "You always want fresh air, so the fumes don't give you a headache." I laid out an emery board and four bottles of polish on the flip-down tray. The girls, blondes about five and six who looked like my twin nieces, squeezed into the seat next to me.
"Youngest first," I said. "That's a switch, huh?"
The younger girl nodded and chose carnation pink. I told her it matched her eyes. She said her eyes were blue. I said the sparkle was like the sparkle in her eyes.
"Are you a bus beauty lady?" she asked.
"No, but wouldn't that be a great job, traveling around the country making everyone look their best?" I pushed her cuticles back. In high school I'd worked afternoons at The Hair Affair making appointments, washing combs, and sweeping up hair. I'd thought about beauty school, but cancer changed things.
"Mommy paints her own nails, but I always mess up."
"It takes tons of practice. I bet when you're a teenager, you'll be great." I filed the rough edges of her nails. "You can start by scrubbing the junk out from under here." I ran my thumbnail under hers and scooped out black dirt. It reminded me of the faint line of grease that lingered under Eddie's nails.
She squirmed. "Do you practice?"
I brushed the color over her tiny nails. "Mostly I painted my mom's nails. She was too sick to do them herself. This pink was her favorite."
"Why didn't your daddy do it?"
I told her he'd been gone for a long time, not passed away like my mom, but he lived far away and I hadn't seen him since I was little. The big sister said their dad lived far away too, and they were on their way to see him.
"He doesn't even know about Kelly."
"That's right, I'm a surprise."
"Well, I'm sure he'll love you both, especially with your beautiful pink nails." I applied a coat of flash dry. "Now sit here and don't move for five minutes. There's nothing worse than smudging your polish with Barbie hair."
Eddie was napping when I returned. His gambling book had slipped to the floor. I picked it up and found an envelope addressed to Pam. I poked him in the ribs. "Explain this."
He opened his Cocker Spaniel eyes and took the envelope. "You're not gonna like this. Pam called me right before we left."
"And she wants you to come crawling back to her, right?"
"Well, I hope you told her to shove it."
"I told her I'd think about it."
"Technically, I'm still married to her."
"That is so cheap. What about me? Doesn't the year we've been together mean anything to you? You left her for me."
"I'm sorry. I really thought I was over her."
"I won't do this again, Eddie. You run to her whenever you get scared, and now that it looks like you're finally gonna be happy, Pam thinks she wants you. You can't keep crawling back to me with your dick in your hands and expect me to make everything right."
"I know my mom getting sick and moving in with us was a crappy way to start off, but we made it. Look at where we are. Who took the chance with you? Who believed in you and saved for you and got on the bus with you?"
He looked away.
"You want something from Pam you're never gonna get. You keep hoping she'll change when you're not looking."
"I guess you're right." Eddie stuck the envelope in his book.
The bus stopped for lunch at a Burger King in Gallup. I sat across the room from Eddie and gave him dagger looks while I ate my Whopper Junior. He drove me crazy with his Pam lapses. He'd gone back to her three times. First it was two weeks when my mom was puking constantly, then a week when I put a hospital bed in the living room. Last time, two months ago, after Mom came home from the hospital, he'd only been gone three days.
A kid with spiked red hair like Van Gogh mopped the floor around my feet. I dipped my fries into a smear of ketchup and thought how things would be different if Van Gogh and I picked lovers who had the balls to marry us right off.
If I were Van Gogh's girlfriend, he wouldn't have to go crazy. I'd sell his paintings. I'd bartend in a brand-new Las Vegas country club. Guys would come into the air-conditioned lounge, hot and thirsty after playing tennis and golf. I'd pour them Diet Cokes and iced teas and Calistoga water with lime, maybe a few beers. I'd wear my tuxedo shirt, black bowtie, and black pants tight enough to see no panty line. My nipples would show through my shirt, but the guys couldn't be sure without staring, and they'd be too polite to stare long.
Vincent's painting of the iris would hang behind the bar.
"My boyfriend painted that iris," I'd say. "Doesn't it remind you of a woman, the way you trace her leg, the little curves in it, just like a flower stem?" I'd pick up the soda gun, squirt some 7-Up into a glass, and drop in a cherry. I'd take a sip and lick my lips. "It's for sale, you know."
Someone's wedding or anniversary would be soon. He'd write me a big check, take the painting to his wife or girlfriend or lover and say, "I bought this because it reminds me of you." He'd run a finger up her thigh, and she'd kiss him and the iris would make them happy.
At our apartment that night I'd find a note on the kitchen counter. Meet me by the pool. -V. I'd run downstairs and find Vincent in his swim trunks and flip flops painting at an easel in the dark.
"I sold your painting." I'd jump on him, wrap my legs around his waist, and dart my tongue in his ear.
He'd twirl me and try to toss me in the pool. I wouldn't let go and we'd both fall in.
"We'd better get you out of those wet clothes." He'd wring out my dripping uniform and hang it over a deck chair. "The sky is amazing tonight."
We'd lie naked on the patio watching shooting stars in the hot June night. I'd trace him with the tips of my wet hair. "I'm painting you."
He'd get his paints and brush swirls of stars and moon and night on me. Circles around my belly, long strokes up my legs until I ached for him. He'd smear the paint with his beard, his mouth, his hands and we'd fly around the night sky until we exploded and shot down like stars.
On the bus Eddie kissed my cheek. "I'm gonna call Pam tonight and tell her it's over once and for all."
"Do me a favor, pretend it's June."
"It's June in Vegas, a broiling hot night. What are you gonna do?"
"I'll be at work dealing. You know that."
"Say you work days."
"Just do it. Please."
"Come off it, Angie, just tell me what you want me to say."
The bus hummed, and afternoon sun beat through my jeans. I reclined my seat and watched the clouds stretch thin across the sky like the tissues you roll perms with.
"I wish they had a TV in here, like in those fancy buses. A bar too," Eddie said. "I could go for a Bud."
TVs hung off the hospital walls, but Eddie didn't know that because he'd never come. "Hospital's just aren't my thing, Angie," he said. Like they're anybody's thing. The hospital TVs played game shows, soaps, and talk shows all day and more game shows, court shows and true-life made-for-TV movies every night that made me gag. When you're sick, when you're dying and pushing that morphine button on your IV so you can float past the pain without screaming, the TV ought to show you good stuff. Smiling babies, waterfalls, couples kissing on the beach. When no one was looking, I'd turn off the TV and comb and curl what remained of my mother's hair. I did her makeup, soft hints of green eye shadow, pale pink streaks across her cheekbones. I propped a mirror on her bed tray and we looked in it together.
"You are the most beautiful woman in the world," I said.
Vincent wouldn't have to eat paint. I'd go to cosmetology school days, bartend nights, and sell paintings. I'd practice makeup, nails, and hair at home. Sometimes I'd put mascara, liner, and eye shadow on Vincent, then give him a facial. I'd give him pedicures and paint his toenails. He'd keep the polish on for a few days, to tease me, until I cornered him with remover.
"You paint people, make them come alive. That's art," he'd say.
I'd get my cosmetology license and a job at a casino salon. To celebrate, I'd bring home my ear-piercing gun and a diamond stud for Vincent.
"Hold still," I'd say. "Now you really look like an artist."
His ear would throb. I'd take him to the bedroom and make him forget all about it.
He'd wake me up at 4 a.m. to watch the sunrise at Red Rock Canyon. We'd sit on the hood of the car drinking coffee and wait for the sun. Vincent would paint. He wouldn't let me look until he finished, then he'd show me our bedroom painted from memory. I'd see our bedspread tinted red like my nail polish and the blood I wiped off his ear.
"It's so beautiful." I'd get all emotional and cry for the first time.
"We'll keep this one." He'd wipe my tears with his sleeve.
It was dark outside when the bus stopped for dinner. People switched off their reading lights and grabbed sweaters. I reached into my backpack, pulled out a long-sleeved T-shirt, unbuttoned my shirt, and tossed it on Eddie's cards.
"Hey, you ruined my poker hand." He looked over and held my shirt like a screen. "Angie, the driver could kick you off the bus for indecent exposure or something."
"Like people aren't gonna see more skin than this by the pool in Vegas." I tugged the T-shirt over my bra.
I'd hang Vincent's starry night painting at my beauty station instead of a mirror. I'd wear my white, zip-front mini-dress, and keep my legs waxed and tan. Ladies would come in while their husbands gambled at the high-roller tables. I'd cut, set, color, and tell them about my boyfriend's painting.
"You know, he practiced on me first, out by the pool one hot June night."
They'd flush but keep looking while I told them more. Their mouths would form perfect O's and sigh at the thought of doing it by the hotel pool that night. Then I'd spin them around, hold up a mirror, and show them their new look. They'd see themselves with the starry night behind them.
"It's for sale," I'd say. "You can put it on your casino account."
A few days later I'd bring home Vincent's check. "I have a surprise for you." I'd crunch the envelope in my bra against his ear.
We ate dinner at Denny's in Flagstaff. I stabbed at the cherry tomatoes in my chef's salad while Eddie talked to Pam on the lobby pay phone. I watched him shift from one foot to the other and twirl the phone cord around his index finger. He smiled, rested his forehead against the phone, and put his palm to his chest. I swore she said they could make a baby right away if he came back. Kids, along with the garage, were his heart's desire and the one thing I said we had to wait for until Eddie's Classics opened. Pregnant and cocktail waitress don't mix.
If I were Van Gogh's girlfriend, he'd still have both ears. I'd always have secrets to whisper in them. "We're going to have a baby."
He'd whisper back. "Let's get married."
We'd head up to Tahoe where Vincent's brother, Theo, would manage a restaurant at a ski resort. My sister would fly out to be maid of honor. Vincent and I would get married in a chapel overlooking the lake and spend our honeymoon backpacking through the mountains. I'd press wildflowers in our wedding book. He'd paint overlooking the tiny lakes where we camped. We'd skinny-dip in the freezing water and shiver like fish on big granite rocks until we heated up and jumped in again.
If I were Van Gogh's wife, we'd buy a house in the Carson Valley, snugged against the Sierras. I'd take massage classes and practice on Vincent, kneading out knots in his neck and shoulders. I'd learn acupressure points on the ears to get rid of stress. I'd drive to Tahoe, work at a resort, do massage and beauty packages, and sell as many paintings as I could. Vincent's brother would hang his paintings at the restaurant, and his work would get noticed.
I'd sing in his ear. "You're gonna be famous."
Vincent would plant a garden filled with sunflowers and paint them. Every day there would be a new arrangement on the table. "They're beautiful in full bloom, just like you," he'd say.
I'd lay on the couch, hot and hugely pregnant in my underwear, and point to a vase overflowing with sunflowers. "This will be your masterpiece."
He'd paint his name across my stomach and kiss it. "This is my masterpiece."
During dinner all Eddie said about the phone call was, "We still have a few things to work out." He talked about cars and casinos instead.
Later, on the bus, I reached in the seat pocket in front of him. "I have a present for you." I unwrapped a Kiss and put it on my tongue, hoping for a make out and makeup session.
"Better lay off the chocolate, or you'll get fat, and fat girls get lousy tips." Eddie plucked the Kiss with his fingers and ate it.
"Sometimes you're such a jerk."
"I was kinda fat when you met me. You said it didn't matter."
"Well, it didn't, but you're the one who's always saying to look sexy for the big tips. And you do look better now, since you went on a diet."
"My mother was dying, I couldn't eat. That's not a diet, Eddie." I stuffed my sweater against the window like a pillow and tried to sleep.
At night, Vincent would sing baby Theo to sleep and lay him in the crib. Then we'd make love and collapse sweaty and exhausted and talk for hours. He'd tell me about the colors and shapes he saw everywhere and how the whole world waited to be painted. I'd lay my head on his heart and draw my hands across his ears.
"Tell me what it's like," I'd say, "to live the painting."
Vincent's paintings would take off. He and Theo and some of Vincent's artist friends would open a studio gallery in Carson City. I'd open my beauty salon down the block. Little Theo would come with us, loving the smells of perms and paint. At night, we'd make dinner together, all of us throwing in our favorite food. Vincent would call our colorful jumble dinner art, and he'd paint that too.
After midnight the bus pulled into the Kingman station and we tumbled out for a break. Eddie headed for the vending machines. Los Angeles caught my eye as the gamblers' express from Laughlin drove away. I was coughing from its exhaust when Eddie came back chewing a Milky Way.
"Yeah." I took a deep breath. "But what if we caught a bus to LA? We could go see the beach and Hollywood and the Van Gogh exhibit, then go to Vegas."
"You're crazy. C'mon." He tugged my hand and I followed him to our seats. The bus rumbled toward Vegas. I stared out the window at the starry sky.
If I were Van Gogh's girlfriend, his wife, his lover, he wouldn't have to shoot himself. When he was old and cancer-ridden and couldn't stand the glare of the sun, I'd close the drapes, paint the walls pale yellow, tuck a quilt with all the reds of sunrise over him, and keep vases of irises and sunflowers on the nightstand. I'd hang the painting of our bedroom from Red Rock Canyon above the foot of his hospital bed. I'd lie next to him and dab him with a cool washcloth, like I was painting a canvas. I'd hold him and breathe hard in his ear.
"Living in a masterpiece is exactly like this," I'd say. Vincent would get it. He'd understand that our love was about art and breath and painting and finding everything you're looking for without going crazy. Then he could die in my arms.
Eddie gave me a quick, caramel-breath kiss goodnight. "Just think, our new life starts tomorrow."
I pushed my seat back, closed my eyes and tried to picture Eddie. But I couldn't.