My daughter and I are driving to Texas to introduce my husband’s mother to her newest great grandchild. The baby’s toddler sister and their kindergartener cousin come along. We are passing through the long emptiness between Raton Pass and Clayton, New Mexico. It’s like driving on the edge of a deserted coastland, with the sky as the endless, moving blue. The babies are sleeping, lulled by the motion of the car and the sight of grazing cattle and dancing antelopes. My daughter is telling me John Gardner’s theory that there are only three story lines: Knight goes on a quest; Boy meets girl; Stranger rides into town.
We come into Dalhart, Texas and decide to stop at the city park to let the girls eat lunch and stretch their car seat-cramped bodies. I doze in the car while my daughter watches the children. She comes to the car to get more food from the cooler. She asks me to check out the man staring at the girls. He is standing across the street from the park, at the entrance to an alleyway between two houses. He looks to be my age, though I suspect he is younger. A shave, a pulling in and up of his posture, ironed clothes, and a smile would, I think, take ten or fifteen years off my estimate.
I am looking closely, alert and aware and suspicious. He is dressed in a tee shirt and sweatpants. He holds a large black trash bag in one hand. He looks and looks at the park where the little girls are playing. I t is the kind of unembarrassed gaze with which our tiny Bess searches our faces. But she is an infant. And, she is ours.
This is important; this matters: I do not have a gun.
A stranger rides into town. We are the strangers in Dalhart. But he is the stranger in the space I create with my car, with my fear, with my answering posture. I expect him to meet my gaze — or, at least, register it — and turn away.
All of this takes place weeks after Trayvon Martin dies in a Florida neighborhood. My friends and neighbors and I mourn the death in the way of the 24-hour news cycle; that is, we stand in front of the television, pausing in our cooking and conversation to remark on the sadness and shame of it all. We use those words, though, of course, we do not mourn. Mourning brings cooking and conversation and life itself to a stop. Mourning hearts sometimes stop. We say they “broke” and we know that they broke on the wheel of grief.
We believe the news stirs us to sympathy, but it stirs us, rather, to wariness and caution. Wrong words, wrong age, wrong color, a move for a gun that turns out to be a cell phone, children grabbed from merry-go-rounds: It is an epidemic, a plague. We know this from the concerned reporters “at the scene,” from the scroll at the bottom of the screen, the rolling banner of tornadoes and kidnappings and riots in the street. A stranger, a horde of strangers, rides into town.
I am aware of the scenarios gathering shape and sequence in my imagination. I am aware that nothing has yet happened, but that awareness dims as I take hold of my phone, prepared, as apparently George Zimmerman was prepared before he shot Martin, to call the police and report. What? A man who gives me the creeps? A man who needs a shave? Who is standing in what is probably his own alleyway, staring at his neighborhood park?
I decide to get out of the car and go talk to him. No, that is too mild. I intend, with my tone and my manner, if not my words, to confront him.
This is important; this matters: I do not have a gun. I suspect I am the only one of my Texas kin who does not drive armed. The strange minutes in Dalhart, when nothing has happened in fact and everything has happened in imagination, will leave me grateful for a choice my husband and I made a long time ago.
A knight goes on a quest. I move to open the door. My daughter says, “Why don’t I just ask him what he wants?”
Why not, indeed? Before I can answer, I see my daughter striding up to him. She’s asking him if he needs anything.
I am taken back to a night in 1975. My husband and I are in our first apartment with our newborn son. A man bursts in through our front door. My husband rises from his chair and asks, “May I help you?”
The man turns and runs back out the door. My husband follows him to the threshold asking again, “May I help you?”
It turns out the man in Dalhart needs the time. He had asked us the time. We had not heard him. He was waiting for us to hear him.
“Twelve fifty,” I call to him, “Ten ‘till one.”
He thanks me and smiles and turns to walk away.