Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith is published by No Exit Press on 23 February 2017. The publishers have kindly given me permission to share an extract of the book.
The old man was nearly to the Louisiana line when he
saw the woman and child walking on the other side of the
interstate, the woman carrying a garbage bag tossed over her
shoulder and the child lagging behind. He watched them as he
passed and then he watched them in his rearview mirror and
he watched the cars pass them as if they were road signs. The
sun was high and the sky clear and if nothing else he knew they
were hot, so he pulled off at the next exit and crossed the bridge
over the interstate and headed back north on I-55. He’d seen
them a few miles back and as he drove he hoped there would be
a damn good excuse for what they were doing.
He slowed as he approached them and they walked in the
grass, the girl slapping at her bare legs with her hands and the
woman slumped with the weight of the garbage bag. He pulled
onto the side of the interstate and stopped behind them but
neither the woman nor the girl turned around. Then he shifted
the car into park and got out.
They stopped and looked at him and he walked over. Their
cheeks red and sweaty from the heat and traces of a sunburn
beneath the streaks of the blond, almost white hair of the child.
The woman and the girl both wore shorts and tank tops and
their shoulders were pink and their legs spotted with scratches
and insect bites from walking in the rough grass on the side of
the road. The woman dropped the garbage bag to the ground
and it hit with a thud.
‘What y’all doing out here?’ the old man asked. He adjusted
his hat and looked at the bag.
‘Walking,’ the woman said. She squinted as looking at the
man meant facing the sun and the little girl folded her hands
over her eyes and peeked between her fingers.
‘You need some help? She don’t look too good,’ he said and
he nodded toward the child.
‘We’re trying to get up to the truck stop. At Fernwood. You
‘Yeah, I know it. Another ten miles or so. What you got there?’
‘Gonna meet somebody.’
‘Somebody with a car?’
‘Come on and get in. Y’all don’t need to be out here like this,’
he said and he reached down and picked up the garbage bag.
‘It’s heavy,’ the woman said.
The old man grunted as he tossed it over his shoulder and
the woman and child walked behind him to the long, silver
Buick. He opened the trunk and set the bag in it and the woman
followed the child into the backseat.
He watched the woman in the rearview mirror and tried
to talk to her as they drove but she looked out the window or
looked down at the child as he spoke, only giving one-word
answers to questions about where they’d been or where they
were going or what they were doing or what they needed or
if she was sure there was gonna be somebody there to meet
them at the truck stop. In the air-conditioning her face lost its
color and he saw that there was a vacancy in her expression
when she answered his questions and he knew that she didn’t
know any more about what they were doing or where they were
going than he did. The woman’s face was thin and he could
only see the top of the girl’s head in the mirror but she seemed
to look down, maybe from exhaustion or hunger or boredom
or maybe some of all of it. He hadn’t been around children in a
long time and he guessed she was five or six. She sat quietly next
to the woman, like a wornout doll. The old man finally gave up
talking to the woman and let her ride in peace, figuring she was
happy to be sitting down.
In minutes the sign for the truck stop appeared above the
trees on the left side of the interstate and he pulled off the exit
and drove into the vast parking lot, where the big trucks moved
in and out. Around to the right side of the truck stop were the
diesel pumps and a row of motel rooms. The old man drove
to the left of the truck stop, through the gas pumps and past
the gift shop and truckers’ showers and changing rooms and
he stopped at the door of the café, which had its own separate
entrance at the back.
‘This all right?’ he asked the woman and she nodded.
‘C’mon, baby,’ she said to the girl.
The old man walked around to the trunk and lifted out the
garbage bag and set it down on the concrete. Then he reached
into his back pocket and took out his wallet and he picked out
forty dollars and he held it out to the woman.
She bowed her head and said thank you.
He nodded and said he wished he had more but the woman
told him that was plenty. She hoisted the bag and took the
girl’s hand and thanked the man with a half smile and he held
open the door of the café for them as they walked inside. He
watched them through the glass door. A countertop and row
of bar stools lined the right side of the café and the little girl
tapped her fingers on top of each stool as they walked past
and the woman dropped the bag on the floor and dragged it
across the linoleum. He watched until a waitress took them to a
table next to the window and he started to go in after them, to
give them his phone number, to tell the woman to call him if
her ride didn’t show up and that he’d do what he could. But he
didn’t. Instead he got back into the Buick and he crossed over
the interstate and drove along the highway, back toward home,
where he parked underneath the shade of the carport and
where he would then go inside and sit down with his wife at the
kitchen table. He would tell her about the woman and the child
and when she asked him what he’d been doing driving toward
Louisiana in the first place he wouldn’t be able to remember.
About the book:
“In the vein of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and the works of Ron Rash, a novel set in a rough-and-tumble Mississippi town where drugs, whiskey, guns, and the desire for revenge violently intersect
For eleven years the clock has been ticking for Russell Gaines as he sat in Parchman penitentiary in the Mississippi Delta. His time now up, and believing his debt paid, he returns home only to discover that revenge lives and breathes all around.
On the day of his release, a woman named Maben and her young daughter trudge along the side of the interstate under the punishing summer sun. Desperate and exhausted, the pair spend their last dollar on a motel room for the night, a night that ends with Maben running through the darkness holding a pistol, and a dead deputy sprawled across the road in the glow of his own headlights.
With dawn, destinies collide, and Russell is forced to decide whose life he will save – his own or that of the woman and child?”