“Pardonnez-moi,” Molly said, but she said it Par-donny, like what you’d say to Donny if he got par on the golf course. Moi was right, but she said it the way you’d say mwah, like the sound of a kiss, so she couldn’t really be credited for either one. Then again, my sister was fourteen so I couldn’t fault her for it, though I did.
We lived in Kansas. We went to school in the same brick building, our mother drove us from the farmhouse in a Jeep. I carved soapstone and sold my figurines at the swap meets and flea markets in nearby towns: White Cloud, Hiawatha, Highland. I rode horses, read John Steinbeck and thought I could see myself on a ranch. On a camping trip to Texas the summer after high school graduation with my mother and Molly, I started thinking, Hey, I could really make it out here.
The pardonnez business was about cows versus cemeteries. The game fit Texas rancher country: count cows, and whoever has the most at the final destination wins—but if a cemetery passes on your side, you start back at zero. Molly’d wanted to know whether a little graveyard in the side grounds of a church counted and I said, “Of course,” and blew all the air out of my lungs through my nose.
My mother said, “Now, girls,” and turned up the radio. “Ramblin’ Man,” green Texan cement roads, shade from every bald cypress and river birch cast against the car. I was at a hundred and two and Molly at ninety-one. We’d both hit a boneyard and reset.
I think my mother liked to drive that fast. I think she didn’t miss my father. I think she liked thinking of him in an apartment on Hampton Street back in Lawrence while we sped south. Molly just counted cows, but I think all three of us thought, Phew, as though we were relieved to be on the road alone.
Cow piles. The shadows of leaves left constellations of maples and gingkoes in the sun on the road. We took curves close. We blew through Mason, the library sign crooked and the only place we wanted to eat, a diner, dark. The sun on the cleft of the road ahead.
The Llano River followed the land on Molly’s side. It put her at an advantage—less likely to build a cemetery on the banks of a river—but I didn’t say anything. We’d crossed the river in Junction and we’d probably cross it again. The first cross was little more than a paved bridge with red barn-y slabs of wood around the arch like frosting.
“Ninety-two, ninety-three, ninety-four,” I heard Molly count under her breath. My mother fumbled for her cigarettes in the side compartment and opened the ashtray from the dash. She pushed in the lighter; it sprung from its clutch, poker hot, and she plunged the paper tip of her cigarette into the heat. With a sizzle and smoke, the tobacco leapt alive and she rolled down the window. “Ninety-seven,” Molly said. “Ninety-eight.”
I was at one-seventeen, counting in my head and making a list of things I’d want with me in cowboy country. It was late June and it was nice enough to keep all the windows down and let the smoke funnel and whirl out to the treetops. Sleeping bag. Some clothes.
We found the state park between two small towns. It was on the map, a tent stamped on the area like an emblem, and we pulled into the parking lot long after dark. Crickets, cicadas. A porch light, of all things, clicked on from an RV at the trailhead and a balding guy with spectacles came out and took my mother’s five dollars. He pointed us toward an empty tent space and climbed the cinderblock steps back to his trailer. The woods smelled of citronella.
Molly and my mother and I pitched the tent. It gave off a scent of attic must. I pushed the metal stakes into soft ground. I heard bits of grass ripping under the stakes and I liked the way it sounded. Molly unzipped the tent, got in, took off all her clothes and put on a slip. “It’s so hot,” she said.
“Why are you wearing Mom’s slip?”
“She doesn’t care,” Molly said, and our mother said, “I don’t.” She was smoking on the hood of the car.
The sign on the dirt road by our camp said, Bear Country: Store All Food in Bearproof Containers. A small stencil of a fat black bear floated above the text. “See the sign?” I said. Molly was lying on the nylon tarp of the tent floor, head propped on her elbow. She poked her head out the mosquito netting and read it.
“Killer,” she said. “Hope we see a bear.”
“Is bearproof a word?” I said.
I threw a couple of pillows into the tent and Molly and I shook out a blanket. I fell into the woodsy black sleep of the outdoors, my mother’s silhouette willowy and dark in the shade of the jacaranda.
Sometime after midnight it cooled off. I woke and my back wasn’t cold with sweat. My mother had crawled in with us, by our feet. Her hair glistered pale silver in streaks. I heard something close by, crunching around.
Molly opened her eyes and I told her, “Shh.” She looked at me and I said, “Look.” We pushed our faces to the mosquito netting and saw the same as before: dirt road, bear sign, the car. “I heard something,” I said.
Molly curled up and put an open hand over her eyes. On my back I saw hundreds of stars. My mother let go a long breath. I heard a cluster of laughs from a neighbor camp. It was quiet for a long time.
“Two-hundred and eighty-nine cows,” I said. I nudged Molly’s foot with mine.
She didn’t say anything, and then she said, “Three-oh-one.” On her cheeks I could see the moon.