A Prayer for Travelers

A Prayer for Travelers

by Ruchika Tomar


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"Sometimes characters come along that demand a new kind of novel. The young women at the center of Ruchika Tomar's A Prayer for Travelers - elusive Penny and wounded Cale - are two spirits hitchhiking through geographies of dislocation and desire. The human collisions in Tomar's novel are emotionally seismic, and they leave us haunted and unsettled."
--Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master's Son

Cale Lambert, a bookish loner of mysterious parentage, lives in a dusty town near the California-Nevada border, a place where coyotes scavenge for backyard dogs and long-haul truckers scavenge for pills and girls. Cale was raised by her grandfather in a loving, if codependent, household, but as soon as she's left high school his health begins an agonizing decline. Set adrift for the first time, Cale starts waitressing at the local diner, where she reconnects with Penélope Reyes, a charismatic former classmate running mysterious side-hustles to fund her dreams. Penny exposes Cale to the reality that exists beyond their small town, and the girls become inseparable----until one terrifying act of violence shatters their world. When Penny vanishes without a trace, Cale must set off on a dangerous quest across the desert to find her friend, and discover herself.

An audacious debut, told in deftly interwoven chapters, A Prayer for Travelers explores the complicated legacy of the American West and the trauma of female experience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525537014
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/09/2019
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 60,672
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Ruchika Tomar was raised in Southern California. She holds a BA in English literature from the University of California, Irvine, and an MFA from Columbia University. A recent Wallace Stegner Fellow, she is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.

Read an Excerpt



I drove to the Crossroads with the windows rolled down, the radio off, scanning the flat, packed earth in the glare of afternoon light, the land broken up by clumps of creosote and rabbitbrush. I was hoping to see Penny walking on the shoulder of the road heading in my direction. I drove so slowly it would be impossible to miss her. When I saw her figure, tall and milktea pale, her long black hair nearly to her hips, I would pull over and unlock the passenger door. I would make room for her on the bench seat while she chronicled the saga of the delayed bus, the careless excuse Flaca had given when she hadn't shown up to give Penny a ride. When she was finished, we would wait in silence for the reality of the previous day to dawn. She would reach across the seat and we would embrace each other gently, needing to feel the other whole. She would tuck her chin in the dip of my shoulder, careful to avoid the bruises covering the right side of my face. I would say her name.


Instead a car horn sounded and a battered Trans Am shot out from behind, flying past, taillights flashing red at the corner a half mile down the road. I watched the car turn off and disappear. For the rest of the drive I considered what I would say to Penny when she finally answered her door, the nature of rebuke to deliver. Answer your fucking phone! I was prepared to resume the role of surly outcast, if only to stir her incautious charm.


At the entrance to the Crossroads, two young girls stood a few feet apart, tossing a big red ball between them. It was the cheap plastic of the swap meet, certain to deflate within a day. Countless other balls lay flattened like the vibrant, molted skins of mythical creatures in weed-strewn backyards all over Pomoc. The taller girl wore her black hair in pigtails and looked up when I drove past. In another week they would both be back in school. The careless feeling of summer was almost gone.


I pulled down the narrow lane to Penny's neat white mobile home, the pot of bee balm still flowering on the ledge. I took the stairs two at a time and banged on the door, straining my ear for the familiar sound of Penny's television or the slight, high-pitched yip from the new puppy. But Penny always slept in a deep, comatose oblivion, impossible to rouse.


"Penny!" Pounding on the door with the side of my fist.


I had, on occasion, slept over; I woke early to the sound of the workers pounding down the stairs of their units in their steel-toe boots, calling to each other across the east side of the park; I had pulled back Penny's gauzy bedroom curtains to watch them walk down the drive. Now I left the front door to walk around the rear of the unit, crouching down to peer through the sliver of Penny's bedroom window where the curtains met the sill. If a neighbor chose this moment to look outside, they would have cause to be alarmed-but Pomoc was still at work, the men tossing bags of ice down the chute at the plant, sweating under yellow construction hats all over the county, the women assembling circuit boards at the electronic manufacturing plant in Noe. Through the window, I could just make out the edge of Penny's rumpled bed and a twist of white sheets, but not whether Penny was still inside, lying in them. I rapped on the glass, waiting for some response.


It was the bright afternoon hour of small shadows, my reflection liminal on the glass, vanishing and reappearing with a tilt of my chin. I returned to the front of the mobile home, the light sparkling on the antennas of parked cars, gleaming off a doublewide's stripped metal siding. I hesitated at the front door. Go home. If it wasn't for the unanswered voicemails, the sandman, Lamb-maybe I could have. But Penny was a reliable waitress, punctual to a fault, and with each passing second it felt increasingly necessary to see her, to test our shelter. To bear each other's witness.


Under the pot of bee balm on the ledge, I felt for Penny's spare key. Let it just be her inside. Not Penny and a half-naked stranger, or worse, just the stranger. The sandman lurking in the hallway, primed for his revenge.


I slid the key in the door and the lock popped open, the knob turning easily in my hand. Inside the old television sat mute, the screen staring blankly, an eerie, vacant hush swallowing the room. I walked straight to her bedroom. Her bed was empty, the sheets pushed back to reveal an impression in the mattress where she had slept curled toward the wall. I ran my hand in the hollow her body left. The sheets were cool.


I grabbed the tangled covers and shook them out, a hard object falling, making solid contact with the floor. I dropped to my hands and knees, inhaling dust bunnies to reach the familiar glint of her phone under the bed. I pocketed it, climbing to my feet again. I called softly for the dog, checking behind the door, inside the hamper-anywhere a small, scared animal might think to hide. I retraced my steps to the hall to check the coat closet and the bathroom, flinging aside her shower curtain: empty, empty. Penny could have walked to the general store, caught a ride to the diner-but where was the puppy? In the kitchen the counters were clear; no dog food or water bowl, no toys. Not even the milk crate she had used to carry him home.


Returning to the front room, I considered the dwindling options. The dog wasn't behind the couch or the television, not curled under the serape throw folded neatly over a chair. If the dog had gotten sick, she could have hitched a ride to the vet. But Penny wouldn't forget her phone. On the mirrored table, an assortment of silver gum wrappers had been folded into a flock of origami cranes. I squashed one with my thumb. Any moment the front door would fly open, and Penny's low voice would arch across the room in surprise. She would stamp her feet on the threshold. She would carry the newborn pup in her hands, drowsy and soft as velvet. She would ask why I was here.


I flopped on the couch to wait. Nothing happened.


Eventually I got up again and wandered into the kitchen, opening the fridge. A bottle of ketchup, a carton of eggs. A takeout container from the diner. I picked an apple off the top shelf to bite into the fruit, cold and wet against my teeth. In the freezer were several empty ice trays and the old coffee can. A couple weeks earlier I had stood in this exact same spot watching Penny flip pancakes on the stove. I had taken the coffee can down to brew a pot, only to have her set down her spatula and cover my hands with her own. Penny, who could talk and talk, hadn't said a word. She simply took the can away and replaced it in the door. At the time, I understood it to hold something precious or peculiar-ashes, the flat frozen corpse of a pet fish, some embarrassing boundary our friendship had yet to cross.


I took the can down again now, holding the apple between my teeth, brushing loose coffee grounds from the lid before peeling it away. It was packed tightly with rolls of cash, each bundle tied off with a rubber band. I reached for one of the rolls and unwound the rubber, the feel of textured paper underneath my fingertips. I took all the rolls out and stacked them on the counter; twenties, all of them. There was nothing else inside. After staring at them awhile, I replaced the money in the coffee can and shut the freezer door. On the handle, a rust-colored smudge that flaked when I touched it. My heart began to sink.


I pulled Penny's phone from my pocket and tried powering it on, looking around the kitchen as if a power cord might appear, or Penny, some useful explanation. But the phone was dead. I tried to remember if I could ever recall Penny with two phones, if this could have been a duplicate. The sick feeling grew, the omniscient gray vapor rolling low and sinister through the halls.


The truth is, I knew when she didn't show up to work. I knew when she didn't answer her phone. I didn't know where she was, or what might have happened, but I knew something was wrong. I knew, and yet it had taken me hours to arrive. The mobile home was silent, the entire community still. At long last I heard my own blood rushing in my ears, steady as a storm.




Lamb's daughter was tall, her hair the color of rosewood. A pale, square chin and a wide mouth, a jagged-edged mole above the right lip like a scar. She stood on the perimeter of the emergency room in Tehacama where her own mother died twelve years before. She was dressed in dirty jeans and a ratty coat, a baby tied to her chest with a cotton sling.


Later, a hospital janitor pushing a mop bucket of filthy water would say the girl seemed distracted, impatient. She was overheard asking a man in the next seat for the time. The baby cried and the sound was lost amid the wail of an ambulance just pulling up, a cacophony of voices melding English to Spanish, back to English again. The crying stopped and started again, hours passed; nothing matters. When the girl's name was finally called she walked into a wide adjoining room divided only by paper screens.


Later, when the nurse rolled her cart in, the girl was sitting on the exam table with one leg folded underneath her, the other swinging back and forth. The baby had fallen asleep on her breast. The nurse straightened one of the girl's pale arms, tracing blue-green veins like rivers underneath smooth, unbroken skin. The girl didn't seem like a junkie, at least not in any obvious way. But twenty minutes later the nurse returned to find the baby alone, lying on the exam table's creased paper, quiet as you please, mouthing an expired driver's license. The nurse called the police and the police called a second number and several hours later an older man with a long angular face and black hair walked in from the cold. He was unknown to any of the parties involved and showed his identification to the uniforms guarding the child. He had driven three hours just to get there.


No, he told the officers. He had not seen his daughter in many years. He did not know where she was living.


They gave him the child, promising someone would call to follow up. The long-faced man took me home and built a cradle out of the lodgepole pine he'd been saving to make a desk. When I grew older, he told me I was his granddaughter. He told me my name was Cale.



He had a first name he never liked, last name Lambert. The boys in school called him Lamb, a lark because he was anything but. He was more like a tree grown bent from the earth, weathered and sound. Every day he went to work at CesarÕs ice plant forty miles down the freeway. It began as a high school job: six dollars an hour to catch bags of ice at the bottom of the assembly chute and stack them on pallets for delivery. After three months came a promotion; in another six, he ran the floor.


Before Trixie, before Wolf, I was his only shadow. At two, already queerly distinct from the daughter he had lost. Brunette and yellow-eyed like one of the coydogs they bred on the mountain. In all the important ways, I was of him. I wore his socks, five sizes too large, and drank the dregs of his coffee from the cups left carelessly unattended throughout the house. In the evenings, when he retired to the front room to read the paper, I crawled into his lap to tuck my head under his grizzled chin, comforted by the smell of pine tar soap and Marlboro Reds, the clean, faded scent of laundry detergent on the breast of his checkered shirts.


At three and four and five, I asked for dogs. I had a pathological desire for warm animal bodies to kiss. Does this signify some kind of loss, a lack of attention on the guardian's part, an absence of love freely given? I don't know. I wanted to love something and know what it meant to grow it. I wanted to put my love on places and things that didn't mind. I had gotten to know about farms, where cows and pigs and dogs lived. These were things Pomoc would never have, lives that could never happen. Oh, you might buy a pot-bellied from the breeder in Nixon, but it's hard to keep fat things happy in the summer heat.


Our house was simple, one of the few in Pomoc with a second story. The floors had been stripped and remained unfinished; the stairs creaked and the taps ran cold for a long while before growing warm. In the front room stood the old blue couch where Lamb read his paper, the Paiute rug Wolf slept on those nights the temperatures dropped low enough to frost the saltbush. One summer we built bookshelves into the wall from harvested trunks of birch. When the panels had all been fitted together, we stacked our treasure there: Lamb's collection of dog-eared textbooks from two years at state college, my own assortment of dime-store paperbacks like snapshots from phases I'd outgrown-mysteries, romances, slow and sprawling biographies of famously short men.


Lamb's room, and his daughter's, was on the second floor, cool in the winter and the early hours of morning. I woke alone in her twin bed across a wide window overlooking the land. The room carried echoes from its previous owner: two black scuffmarks by the closet door where a full-length mirror hung, delicate pencil marks on the doorjamb where she grew taller and taller, until she stopped growing and had me. I lay in bed for hours imagining the million cruel ways she moved about the room, the smell of her hair as she stepped out of the white-tiled bath, even the shape and feel of her hands.


Across the hall, Lamb's bedroom had been modified for a widower. He kept the dresser polished to show a thick, wide scar in the wood and a black-and-white portrait of Catherine with her short, dark curls pinned up. The glass plate that held her jewelry had been packed and stowed, along with all her blouses and coats. In the attic were boxes of photo albums: the fresh-faced couple with dusty shoes, clasping hands in front of Pyramid Lake; the newborn baby swaddled in cloth; a wide-eyed toddler slick and gleaming in a tub. Later photographs showed a surly, cinnamon-haired daughter in corduroy trousers, clinging to Lamb in a dry field. I studied these photos to gauge Lamb's happiness and compare it with our own. Did he already know then, that he held the wrong daughter by the hand? Had the largest, most generous part of him always been waiting for me?

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A Prayer for Travelers 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
JennyLibrarian 5 days ago
I finished this one a while ago but am having trouble deciding how I feel about it. Writers today often write a narrative that jumps around in time, and Ruchika Tomar also employs this method. Some authors do this better than others. For the first third of the book I had trouble keeping up and if asked to rate the book at that time I would have given it three stars. The middle third of the book was gripping and at one point (can't remember when exactly) I felt this was a great book and that it deserved 4 stars. By the end of the book I was back to 3 stars. The plot and characters were well done and in general I'm glad I read the book. Somehow I felt that it could still be better.