Oklahoma was where it all went wrong. Alex steered the juddering van to the shoulder, and, with his dog Munson howling along in the seat beside him, he cursed everything: himself, the van, the criminal used-car salesman back in North Carolina who’d sold it to him, the forlorn stretch of road they were currently breaking down on, the distant memory of a service station forty miles back, his mother for conceiving him thirty-eight years earlier, the human race in general; also: destiny, the universe, God—everything. Smoke billowed in gouts from the hood, thick tendrils grasping through the open window. He rolled it up hard and the crank broke off in his hand. When the van finally lurched to a stop, he killed the engine and raced around the vehicle to free Munson. Unleashed, the dog bounded gratefully away into an adjacent cornfield.
He started after Munson but stopped. The dog had run off before and always come back. One thing at a time, he thought, lifting the hood and loosing a gust of acrid smoke into his face. After he’d coughed and spat for a minute, he tried examining the scorched engine again, with both hands on top of the grill in the posture (for whose benefit it was unclear—his own? passing traffic? there was no passing traffic) of someone who knew a thing or two about cars and how to fix them—although, of course, if he knew anything about cars, he wouldn’t have bought this one.
Still, he should have known there was something wrong with the van, a mint-green Ford Econoline priced to move—then stop moving—at six hundred bucks. Why had he bought it? Well, he’d needed a van and could afford this one, that was one thing. But more generally, he believed in acting on instinct and living in a state of receptiveness to the world—you took what it gave you and trusted it to lead you forward. Times like this, however, tested his philosophy. Against the backdrop of the blackened cavity, he could vividly picture the salesman running an incredulous thumb over the wad of bills and handing over the keys, while overhead, a red-orange wind puppet writhed with laughter.
He retrieved a jacket from the back of the van. It had been a warm day in mid-October, but the sun was setting fast, and the air felt like a turned pillow. In a couple of hours, the prairie would be cold. What would he do? He pulled out his wallet, though he already knew how much money it contained: eighteen dollars. Barely enough for two more days of food, not enough for a tow, or even gas to get to Los Angeles, where an independent gallery was scheduled to show the paintings crammed into the van’s rear storage. He had begun stealing gas at little mom-and-pop stores along the way, places lacking surveillance cameras or other customers. His vague plan had been, once the paintings sold, to retrace his route and reimburse the places he owed money. He’d even kept a list on the back of an envelope—gas station, town, exit—and entertained himself on long stretches of the drive by imagining the look of wonder on some old Arkansan’s face upon receipt of a hundred-dollar bill and an apology. Yes, he would say, I took from you because I had to, but now I’m giving it right back. Plus interest. The whole thing could wind up reaffirming some people’s faith in humanity.
The dog had not come back. Alex scanned the gray and purple cornfield, the long stalks shivering in the breeze. He called out, to no reply. It seemed like the dog had vanished into another dimension. Zipping up his jacket, he scrambled down the embankment to the edge of the field. He’d never actually been in a cornfield, and found that what from the road looked like an impenetrable wall upon closer inspection contained narrow avenues between stalks, paths down which an Australian shepherd could bound to its heart’s content. The dog’s tracks were visible in the dirt, and he followed them into the field.
Munson! he called. Munny! As he moved, he bent the occasional stalk, marking his lane for the return journey. It wasn’t hard to imagine getting lost here. And while the thought was not completely unpleasant—wandering this hidden realm had a strange appeal—the cold reality, in an hour, would be. A familiar bark sounded somewhere ahead, and he hurried his pace toward a distant break in the corn.
The row opened onto a neat lawn, the grass mown and borders squared. A backyard, he saw now. A large backyard, with a nearby shed—one of those prefab things you could buy at Walmart or Lowe’s—and a clothesline running between two rusted metal posts. In the other corner of the yard, Munson stood on his hind legs, barking up an old oak. He looked over his shoulder, for a moment seeming as though he might push off and saunter across the grass. For Alex, imagining the dog as a person was habitual and reflexive—most of the paintings in his van were from a series of Munson taking part in human activities, both serious and absurd. His latest featured the dog clad in a punk-rock T-shirt and Oakley sunglasses, riding a Segway, flipping the bird at onlookers.
“Come here, Munson,” he said.
Immediately—as though, in the deepest fulfillment of his master’s fantasies, Munson was answering—a voice came back, “Who’s that?”
An old farmer, wearing actual overalls and an actual gingham flannel, pointed an actual shotgun at Alex’s chest. He was near the house, but steadily advancing. “Stand still,” he said, “I will shoot you.”
Alex noticed that his hands were up by his ears. “I believe you.”
The man got closer. “Call off your dog, cat’s up there.”
“Munson!” The dog reluctantly dropped and ambled over. The man was now twenty or so feet away. Alex noticed that he wore Nikes, which seemed odd. The gun was still leveled at him, twin black discs, tiny voids from which death would come screaming.