'A degree of wrong?' I said.


Then the voice came together with an image, that of a small, nervous, dark-haired man, with a hawk's nose and thick glasses, in a blue suit with dandruff on the shoulders. What was the name? Green? Greenberg?

'You're Mr. Greenbaum. The accountant. You were at the Deitrichs' luncheon yesterday,' I said.

The line went dead.


The next day was Saturday, and the streets in town were rain-washed, the sky blue and the air shining. I did some work in my office, then drove out to Val's for lunch. Val's was the drive-in restaurant on the north side of town, equidistant between the West End and East End of Deaf Smith, a neutral territory where the children of the rich and those of oil field and cannery workers put their hatred and fear of one another in temporary abeyance.

I went inside and had just ordered when I saw Jeff Deitrich, Earl's son, pull into the parking lot in a yellow convertible with a Mexican boy and girl next to him. They parked under the awning, and Jeff walked across the lot toward the entrance, his partially unbuttoned silk shirt filling with wind.

We were told he was the child of Earl's brief first marriage to a Cajun girl when he was stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana. Jeff was larger, more handsome and athletic than his father, with dark brown hair that had natural waves in it and wide shoulders and long arms and big-knuckled hands. He was bright in a limited way and confident and always ingratiating and had done well for two years at the University of Texas, then had quit, either to learn his father's business or just out of indifference toward what he saw as the necessary province of others.

But I always had the sense that Jeffs manners were the natural ones of his class and that he used them only as the situation required him to. Three years ago I had witnessed a scene in the same parking lot, one I had tried to forget. But I had never looked at Jeff quite the same afterwards.

It was a lovely fall night after a football game, with a yellow moon as big as a planet hovering right over the hills. The lot was filled with convertibles, customized 1950s hot rods that glowed like hard candy under the neon, chromed Harleys, and Cherokees and Land-Rovers and roll-bar Jeeps. Then a beery oil field roughneck, in Cloroxed jeans and steel-toe boots and a T-shirt still spotted with drilling mud, got into it with Jeff Deitrich.

They fought between cars, knocking serving trays onto the pavement, then went at it in an open area, both of them swinging hard, connecting with skin-tearing blows in the face that made the onlookers wince.

They fought their way between two cars in the front row, then Jeff caught the roughneck hard above the eye and knocked him across the curb against the side of the building. The roughneck was down on one knee, his eyes glazed, the fight gone out of his face, a self-deprecating smile of defeat already tugging at the corner of his mouth. When he started to rise, propping his fingers against the pavement for support, Jeff drove his fist into the hinge on the man's jaw and fractured the bone like pecan shell.

The restaurant owner had to hold the roughneck's jaw in place with a blood-soaked towel until the ambulance arrived.

'How you doin', Billy Bob?' Jeff said expansively as he passed my booth on the way to the men's room, not waiting for an answer before he pushed the door open and went inside.

Outside, the Mexican couple in his car were ordering from the waitress. The boy's hair was as black as paint, cut short, oiled and combed back on his head. The girl's skin was biscuit-colored, her hair a dark reddish color, as though it had been washed in iodine. She was smoking a cigarette, tipping the ashes over the side of the door, her eyes lingering suspiciously on the people in other cars. She and the boy next to her sat apart from each other, not talking.

Jeff came back out of the men's room and sat down in my booth.

'You curious about the cuties in my car?' he said.

'They look like gangbangers,' I said.

'The guy is. That's Ronnie Cruise. Sometimes they call him Ronnie Cross. Leader of the Purple Hearts. His squeeze is Esmeralda Ramirez.'

'What are you doing with them?'

'My dad's funding a youth program in San Antone and Houston,' he said, and smiled at me with his eyes, as though we were both privy to a private joke.

'You know where I could find an accountant named Greenbaum? He's a friend of your folks,' I said.

'Max? Sure. I put him on a plane to Houston this morning. What's up?'

'Nothing important.'

'It's funny how they run of a type.'


'The Tribe. It's like somebody writes a script for them. Guys like Max must read the material and walk right into the role.'

I set down my fork and looked at him. His grin never wavered. His confidence in the health and good looks that seemed to have been given him along with his family's wealth was such that my stare at his bigotry and callousness had no more meaning to him than the fact a waitress was standing by his elbow, ready to take his order, reluctant to interrupt him in midsentence.

'We're all right here,' I said to her.

'You want to meet Ronnie Cross? Two guys tried to pop him on a rooftop. Both of them took the fast way down. Six floors into the concrete.'

'I'll pass. He's wearing a rosary around his neck. Tell him for me that's an act of disrespect,' I said.

'Tell him yourself. It's my father who wants to send these guys to Taco U. I just drive them around once in a while, like Operation Outreach or something.' He winked at me, just as his father had. 'Gotta boogie. See you around.'

Later, they drove out of the lot past my window. The boy named Ronnie Cruise passed a quart bottle of Lone Star to Jeff. The girl named Esmeralda, who sat by the passenger window, looked straight ahead, an angry light in her face.

I got up early Monday morning and brushed out Beau, my Morgan, in the lot, put some oats and molasses balls in his trough, watered the flowers in the yard, then went upstairs and showered. Through the window I could see the long, gentle roll of the green land, seagulls that had been blown inland, plots of new corn in a hillside, oak trees planted along a winding two-lane highway that had once been part of the Chisholm Trail.

The phone rang. I wrapped a towel around myself and picked up the receiver in the bedroom.

'I guess this is foolish to ask, but can we take you to lunch after Wilbur's arraignment?' Peggy Jean said.

'Y'all are going to be there?' I said.

'Earl's upset. But that doesn't mean our friendship has to be impaired.'

'Another time, Peggy Jean.'

'I thought I'd ask.'

'Sure,' I said.

After I replaced the receiver in the cradle I felt a strange sense of loss that didn't seem warranted by the conversation.

In the closet mirror I saw the welted bullet scars on my left foot and right arm and another one high up on my chest. Loss was when they put you in a box, I told myself.

But the feeling wouldn't go away. I looked at the framed picture on my dresser of my mother and father and me as a child. In the picture I had my father's jaw and reddish-blond hair, just as my illegitimate son, Lucas Smothers, did. Next to my family picture was one of L.Q. Navarro, in his pinstripe suit and ash-gray Stetson, a bottle of Mexican beer in his hand, his Texas Ranger badge on bis belt, a dead volcano at his back. L.Q. Navarro, the most loyal and handsome and brave man I ever knew, whom I accidentally killed on a vigilante raid into Coahuila.

I blew out my breath and rubbed the bath towel in my face and dressed by the window, concentrating on the blueness of the sky and the dark, steel-colored rain clouds that were massed on the hills in the distance.

At ten o'clock Wilbur Pickett was arraigned and released on five thousand dollars' bail. Earl and Peggy Jean

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