Most of the crew had left the Double Barrel, including Angel, so Jo headed back over to join Jack and Micah. They were deep in half-drunken conversation, which suited her. The lot had quieted down in the cooler, evening sun, and most folks had wandered off back to town or else huddled up with their families, setting up the camp they’d sleep in this night and the next. It was a peaceful evening, and Jo felt a kind of resignation that let her partake in that peace. She sat down beside Jack, who was talking about his experience in L.A. He was explaining why he’d never felt at home.
“Jo knows this,” he said, making room for her on the bench. “L.A. is all about talking.”
“The man hates talking,” Micah said to Jo. “Ask him, he’ll tell you.”
Jack ignored the sarcasm. “Everyone is always talking, there,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what’s it’s about. The very act of talking is more important in L.A. than what’s being said.”
“Seriously, though, you don’t strike me as a very laconic fellow,” Micah said.
“I was infected!”
Jack wasn’t slurring his words, but he was animated, high. His great arms swung about as he spoke, as if defending some invisible part of him that projected outward in all directions. These arms had more than once knocked things carelessly to the floor, Jo thought, had broken more than their fare share of glasses. They were dangerous, but not in a cruel way. Jack was a gentle man, at heart. After being drawn in by his rough innocence, it was his gentle soul that made her stick around.
“He’s a victim,” said Micah.
Micah was clearly trying to draw her into the conversation, but she wasn’t ready. She nodded solemnly, trying to match in silence the spirit of his tone.
“I’m no victim, that’s not what I’m saying. I chose to stay long after I knew what it was about. But once I’d left I couldn’t go back. Especially not since I had Jo with me.” An awkward silence followed, then Micah ordered another round while Jack sent a girl in a torn green summer dress to bring them some food. He gave her a silver coin.
“Whatever you can find,” he said.
“Okay,” Micah said, “but don’t you feel cut off out here? I mean, don’t you ever feel like being more a part of society?”
“Of course I do, now and then. Yesterday I was coming through town and ran across some kids who didn’t know how to tell time. Ten year old kids! I think it’s a bad way to grow up. I’d never have kids out here.”
Micah nodded enthusiastically. “Amen,” he said. “Take that girl you sent off for food. What was she, seven, eight? Did you see the look in her eyes? She knows more about the world than she should at that age.”
Now it was Jo’s turn.
“And how little would you have her know, Micah? Too little to be able to read between the lines when the State comes by once a year to say that her family is living within the range of acceptable human welfare?”
“Whoa, hey there, Jo,” Micah said.
“Yeah,” said Jack. “I don’t think that’s what he was saying at all. He just meant that—”
“I know what he thought he meant. But the impulse to prize naivety, especially in girls, is a dangerous and stupid response to social decay.”
Jo abruptly stopped, and felt a little ridiculous. She knew her comments were inappropriate, and she hadn’t really expected to say them, but now, like it or not, she was part of the conversation. She smiled despite herself, it was the distraction she’d been looking for since her interaction with Angel. Micah shook his head dismissively and sipped from his drink, but Jack seemed to consider what Jo had said. He leaned away from her so he could see her better, and his face became a frown of acquiescence.
“I get it,” he said.
The girl in the green dress returned, carrying three plates of black beans, rice, tortillas and small portions of unidentifiable shredded meat. She put the three plates down, one a time, and then held out the coin Jack had given her.
“My mom said to say sorry there isn’t more,” she said.
“What’s your name?” Jack asked.
“Well Brenda Sue, why don’t you thank your mother for me, and tell her you gave me that coin back, okay?”
The girl’s eyes widened and her little hand closed over the silver spot on her palm, and Jo watched a world of possibility wash quickly across her small brown face and disappear.
As if, thought Jo, she hadn’t thought of it herself.