Rita Whitelaw and Jimmie Roy Guy seemed like a strange couple to everyone but themselves. No one could understand how this boyish man of twenty-nine had come to partner with a flinty Blackfoot woman ten, eleven years older and looking every day of it ... though even her harshest detractors would not deny that Rita was of a type certain men found alluring. She stood nearly six feet tall--taller yet in her fancy boots--and wore a hawk feather woven into her braid. Her finely sculpted features brought to mind a long-dead movie actress whose name folks could never quite recall. But there was something off-putting about her, something distinctly not-beautiful. Too much crazy luck and reckless living in her eyes. She gave the impression you might strike sparks from that hard-held mouth if you brushed her lips with a kiss. By contrast, Jimmy was towheaded, several inches shorter, with an amiable hillbilly face and grayish blue eyes whose steadiness supported the air of distracted calm with which he met the world. Some would tell you that he wasn't right in the head, and Rita was taking advantage of him. Then there were those who argued that the situation was exactly the reverse. Whatever their opinion, when people saw Rita and Jimmy sitting behind their tables at the gun shows, they found no reasonable way of fitting them together, no evidence of love or any ordinary mutuality. The only thing they appeared to have in common was each other.
Thursday, the opening morning of the Issaquah Gun Show, began as did many of their mornings in a campsite just off the expressway, this one a twenty-minute drive west of the Cascades in Washington State. A heavy mist ghost-dressed the landscape, lending the bunkerlike building that housed the bathrooms a mysterious presence and making shadowy menaces of the sickly spruce that sentried it. The rush of high-speed traffic sounded like reality had sprung a serious leak. Rita had thrown on a plaid wool jacket over a denim shirt and leather pants, and was stuffing sleeping bags into the rear of a brown Dodge van with Guy Guns lettered in black and yellow on the side. Jimmy, wearing jeans and a tan suede sport coat that had seen better days, was standing off a ways, his head tipped back as if contemplating a judgment on the weather.
"Believe we got one coming today," he said. "One with some move on it."
"You always say the same thing," Rita said curtly. "About half the time you wrong."
"I can feel them out there," he said. "They all trying to come our way, just sometimes they don't make it to the table."
She slammed shut the rear door of the van. "Yeah ... we'll see."
They drove the slow lane for nine miles to the Issaquah exit and turned off the access road into a strip mall. Rain began to slant against the windshield. There were deep puddles everywhere. The blacktop was a regulated river running straight between one-story banks of burger taco pizza, with big shiny metal fish passing along it two-by-two. They ate a McDonald's breakfast in the van, staring out at a tire dealership bulking up beyond a row of dumpsters--a huge tire with a white clown face bulging from its middle was stuck on a pole atop the roof. Jimmy had gone for the sausage-egg-and-cheese biscuit. Rita was working on a Whopper and fries supersized.
"How you eat hamburger damn near every morning of your life, I'll never know," Jimmy said, and had a bite of biscuit. "That ain't no real breakfast."
Rita said something with her mouth full and he asked her to repeat it.
"I said"--she swallowed, wiped her mouth with a napkin--"you're eating lard." She took a swig of Diet Coke. "That thing you're eating, meat's about half lard. Biscuit, too."
"'Least it tastes like breakfast."
Rita let out with a give-me-strength sigh, like she knew she was dealing with a child. They continued eating, and into Jimmy's mind, which generally ran along unimaginative lines, came the image of a sapling palm bathed in golden early morning sun. As the image hung there, superimposed over the customary traffic of his thoughts, it began to acquire detail. Dew beaded its dark green fronds. Glowing dust motes quivered in shafts of light like excited atoms. A speckled lizard clung to the trunk. When it faded he said, "Now I know we got one coming! It's talking at me already."
Rita popped a fry into her mouth, chewed. "What's it say?"
He told her about the palm tree.
She was studying the fine print on the back of a candy bar wrapper she was preparing to tear open. "Sounds like a real pretty story."
"I know it ain't talking at me," he said, annoyed by her indifference. "It's a figure of speech is all. I ain't as simple as you think."
"You don't know what I think," she said flatly, and peeled back the wrapper; she had a bite of the candy bar.
"What the hell you see in me?" he asked. "It can't be much. You treat me like a damn idiot about half the time."
The rain picked up, filming across the windshield, washing the tire dealership into a blur of blue and white.
"How I treat you the rest of the time?" Rita asked.
"You treat me nice," he said sullenly. "But that don't..."
"Well, maybe you oughta consider that before you snap at me. Maybe you oughta assume when I don't treat you nice, I got things on my mind."
That worried him. "What ... " Something bothering you?"
"Something's always bothering me, Jimmy." She stuffed the empty fry carton into the McDonald's bag, balled it up, rolled down the window and heaved the bag in the direction of a dumpster. Rain slashed at her shoulder as she wrangled the window closed. "I'm thinking about bills. If it ain't bills, it's about getting the van looked at. About whether we should do the show in North Bend. About all the shit you don't have to handle."
"I can do my share, you just let me."
"Oh, yeah! I seen you do your share. Last time I left you to handle things, we had collection people calling every five minutes. You want to know what I see in you?" Her black eyes nailed him so hard, he felt stricken. "I tell you that, chances are I won't see it no more."
She turned the ignition key, gunned the engine. "Finish your breakfast. Y'know they won't have nothing good at the show."
He was remembering the palm tree, wondering where it grew, Mexico or Brazil ... maybe Cuba. It took him a few seconds to respond.
"I ain't eating no damn lard," he said.