He began with the clinic in the desert. And with the sneer on the face of the man he wanted to call the Reverend, even though the man was a doctor and the sneer actually a smile. Erek thought about this distortion as he typed his notes in the airless room of the tiny house. Outside, it was very hot. He could hear the faint sounds of a radio blaring and disembodied words. Neighbors, maybe, or memories, working their way into what he wrote.
He wrote about the population and the spread of cities when he did not know what else to write. He scribbled, Eight of the thirteen fastest growing cities in America are in Texas, but he knew that this sort of fact didn’t matter to his article. A highway bisected his new city. At its eastern border, to accommodate urban sprawl, the highway became an arching metal ribbon, boned from the air and bolted into overpasses that had existed before. On either side of it there were shopping centers with big-box stores, and restaurants, and bars laid out in thin, parallel strips. At night, when the heat left the air bit by bit, the streets downtown filled with drunken college students, families and workers catching the bus. Erek saw men wearing cowboy hats and young people in flannel shirts, their forearms scaly with tattoos. He saw a sign for a store that read “Double Shot: Liquor and Guns” and he started to laugh. He tried to write about what he saw, tried to summarize the setting, but everything he wrote came out glib, made him sound like an interloper.
He drove south on the highway till the landscape changed. The clinic was large and square and white. He was met at the entrance by two women and a man. He was taken through clean halls that cut at expected angles. He had his reporter’s notebook and pen; he had on old jeans and an unremarkable shirt. He kept his press ID in a plastic folder. But no one at the clinic asked him for credentials.
The doctor who ran the clinic, the Reverend, Erek called him in his mind, was tall and lean with bright, obsequious eyes. He wore his hair clipped short and spoke in smooth, solicitous sentences. He held Erek’s gaze with an unblinking, ample stare and called him Sir. His arms barely moved at his sides when he walked.
Erek watched him move through the halls of the clinic he had built out of nothing, and listened to him talk about what it meant to him to show women the geography of their wombs. It’s important, the Reverend said, to show them the babies they want to terminate. “They’re small as beans,” he said. “They’re beautiful.”
On the first day, Erek saw the rooms—the space for patient intake, the nursing stations, the ultrasound machines with their oblong wands. The waiting room held clean, comfy chairs and a coffee machine on a bar stacked with Styrofoam cups. There were bright posters on the walls of women and girls wearing etherized smiles. A plate of cookies sat on one of the tables in the middle of the room.
He left the clinic at 5 p.m. He thought about the law as he drove. About not being able to terminate a pregnancy unless you submitted to the internal ultrasound and to verses, spoken after the wand was inserted, on the value of life.
He drove toward a blur of distant lights. He had to break over buckled pavement when he pulled off the highway and into the parking lot of a gas station for food. Inside, he spoke a Spanish he’d all but forgotten.
Always get the last word.
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Erek went through many drafts before he found the right approach to an article. He worked off shorthand notes and a tape recorder, which he listened to at his desk, in the kitchen, sometimes when he drove. He liked to listen to the hours of tape. He hoped he might pick up something in the interminable interviews; that hearing the words again might help him know where to start. Or, if not that, that the voices would put him back in the room with the Reverend and the nurses and their fervent gazes.
Erek wrote out four columns:
LAW REVEREND MONEY RELIGION
The interstices held a story different from the one he imagined.
Erek knew he would live in Texas for four months while on assignment. He knew he would write a profile of the Reverend and the recent legislation that gave the Reverend his mandate. Then Erek thought he would go back to New York.
Erek was a thin man with olive skin, wiry hair, and round glasses. He was a successful journalist with important prizes to his name. He had smoked for eighteen years and recently quit. He had loved one woman for a decade and many, with resignation, in the decade that followed. The woman he loved, Magdalena, lived in Texas, and that was really what brought him west.
He had called her the night he arrived. He had parked in front of the small rental home and gotten out of the car. He had noticed starlight and the sounds of insects. How the air smelled clear and a little smoky. He didn’t bother to unpack. He took a shower and changed, and then he called Magdalena and asked if they could meet. She told him about a place she liked. Her voice echoed on the line; everything she said sounded twice. He heard the voice he remembered, one that was firm, low, a little teasing, and then the echo came, heady and high-pitched, making him pause before he agreed.
The place she suggested was a bar across the highway, away from downtown. At first he thought he had the address wrong. The area looked desolate, with only cactus and short cedars between the bar and the road. The interior of the place was painted in faded strips of red and white. There were men inside and a few women. They seemed absorbed in conversation or in the football game on the television mounted above the bar. None of them looked at Erek, even though the door slammed like a shot when he entered. The bartender was watching TV and pouring pints, leaning back against the lip of wood behind the bar and swallowing beer. The scene made Erek feel strange and exposed, like he should brace for a fight. He knew it was an absurd thought, but the fact that he was alone in the bar, and in Texas, really, put him on edge.
He stood back against the wall by the entrance and pretended to watch television. Magdalena arrived late. Her black hair was wet. She held her keys in her hands. She looked unsurprised when she saw him alone, trying to look nonchalant. He put his hand on her back and kissed her cheek. “You like this place?” he said.
“Why not?” She waved at the bartender.
Erek bought them drinks. They moved to the back room, which was outfitted with pool tables and darts. Erek looked at the pictures on the walls—a rodeo poster, a framed sketch of cattle grazing. He tried not to study her face. Her skin looked lovely and dark, her cheeks a little fuller, but she looked good with extra weight.
“How was the drive?” she said.
“How many hours did it take you?”
“Twenty-six. I listened to books on tape.”
It made her laugh. “I can’t imagine you doing that,” she said.
He shrugged and took a sip of his beer. “It’s the truth.”
“What did you listen to?”
He grinned. She shook her head.
“You should see the place I got,”he said. “It’s small, but it has some land.”
She didn’t say anything.
“You should see it.”
“You don’t have to put it that way,” she said.