My walking tour of the southern states got messed up after Texas. I stayed too long in Amarillo with a trucker and got a ride to the border. I waited for an hour and another trucker came along. Next thing I knew I was sitting on a lawn in a hick town somewhere. Everyone who walked by was drunk, or off somehow. Even their shadows were off. One guy walked up to me and said, "You sleep with niggers, don't you?"

I had to get somewhere safe. A woman went by with a package. She had stringy hair and a bad complexion. She looked like she was going home, so I approached her.

"Excuse me," I said, "I don't mean to bother you but I need help. I'm not sure where I am and I just need to get a glass of water. Can I step into your place momentarily? I won't stay long."

"Sure," she said, "come right in. I was just about to put supper on. And listen — if my husband's drunk, don't mind him, okay? He don't mean no harm."

We walked into a narrow kitchen. It smelled like old fried chicken. The living room was just big enough for a couch and a chair. It was lit by a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. The breeze from the door made it swing and cast jerky shadows. A bony man was sprawled on the couch with a bottle in his lap. A little girl with matted black hair was playing with eggs on the floor, balancing them on their sides. The man watched indifferently. When I came in he waved weakly .

"Come right in," he said. "We're the Andersons. Just sit down there on the floor. We ain't got no more chairs."

The little girl perked up and said, "See? See what I'm doing?"

I knelt down near her. I didn't want to disturb the eggs. She seemed different from everything around her: bright and alert, not the product of those two at all. She had black hair and they were both blondes. Just then a lion appeared at the back window.

"Is there a zoo around here?" I asked.

"Nah," said the man. "There's a guy down the street owns him. Lets him out at night. Don't worry — the lion don't mean no harm."

The lion came in through a big hole in the screen door. It nuzzled up to me, pressing itself against my chest. Its big paws upset the eggs. The little girl didn't seem worried. We both stroked its mane.

Then the man pulled a gun out from the couch cushions. The woman backed off into the kitchen. He went in there, too. The little girl hugged the lion and squeezed her eyes shut. I heard a sound like steel drawers being opened and shut. When I peeked into the kitchen the man had tied the woman up with rubber tubing. She was sitting in the sink. Then he shot her.

I grabbed the little girl and we ran through the big hole in the screen to look for a policeman. There was a ball field in the distance, and I could make out two cops busting somebody. I shouted "Police! Police!" They didn't even look up.

"A guy just shot his wife!" I shouted. "This is their daughter!"

"Yeah, so what?" one of them answered. "Somebody's always shootin' their wife."

"Wait! I'll help," said a voice from the squad car. It was a lady cop dressed as a prostitute. We got in the car and she drove us back to the house. When we got there the lion had been shot, too. I was sadder about the lion than I was about the lady. The lion was noble and kind. The little girl would be homeless now. The man was back sitting on the couch, like nothing had happened.

"You gonna arrest me lady? I don't think so. No lady can arrest me."

But the lady cop was tough. She arrested him. He took her seriously then. We all rode in her squad car to the station. No one talked. The little girl looked out the window and sang "Jumpin' Jack Flash" quietly to herself: "Gas, gas, gas."

The station was dreary, like the house and everything else in the town. The lady cop steered Mr. Anderson into a room for questioning. The little girl and I followed. When Anderson took his hand out of his pocket I saw that he had a miniature gun duct-taped to his palm. I quickly left the room and told another cop to come in and help. He came in and quickly put his own gun over Anderson's gun. The lady cop winked at me.

"Good work!" she said. I felt terrific.

But there was the problem of the little girl. Where would she go? Where would I go? My clothes were torn and the tops of my shoes were cut off. It was hard to walk. The lady cop said she would drive us to the train station. I said I needed to buy some clothes and shoes first.

"You're about the same size as me," she said. "How 'bout I loan you some clothes and you mail them back to me when you get to your next town?"

"Thanks," I said.

"You're taking the little girl, aren't you?" the lady cop said. I said I would. It would only be for a while. I'd work hard to find a family for her. I could finish my walking tour another time. I imagined the little girl with her new parents: a young couple laughing with her on the top of a grassy hill behind their suburban ranch house.