by: Michael Overa
Each story that unfolds holds a foreign truth, and in Michael Overa’s “The Endless Road,” he ruminates about the voyeuristic facets of existance, and wonders if we all might exist only as a footnote in someone else’s life…
The overnight Greyhound out of San Antonio is a piss smelling thing crowded with the misery of the ten thousand people who have worn the seats threadbare over the years. Rita has been unable to sleep, and by the time the bus stops in a nowhere town somewhere in New Mexico, she drags herself from precarious half-sleep. She’s starving and the only thing open at six in the morning is a diner half a block from the bus depot. One of those places obligated to spring up along the highway at nearly perfect intervals, all vinyl booths and syrup stained tables that might as well have been manufactured that way.
She sits at the long counter next to the only other patron, a middle aged trucker type whose face has been carved and eroded by time and wind and sun. It’s a face eroded by the loneliness of the open road, she thinks, and is half-surprised at herself when she strikes up a conversation, not pausing to consider what she’s saying. Perhaps it’s the particular nature of the stress and exhaustion that prompts her to spool out white lie after white lie. Suddenly she is telling him that she is headed to Seattle to see her brother – but the place is no place that she has ever been. It’s simply a place that seems unfathomably different from the arid, nearly treeless landscape of the Southwest. And so, she’s just as surprised when he offers to give her a ride as far north as Oregon.
“You a serial killer?”
“Might ask the same of you,” he smiles.
“Stranger danger, you know.”
“Up to you,” he says, sipping his coffee. “Billy.”
“Now we’re not strangers.”
“Doesn’t really answer that whole serial killer question though.”
Billy simply shrugs and gives her a playful wink. His eyes – a pale blue – have a sort of milkiness off-set by his deep tan and the crow’s feet that stretch out from his eyes. And now, not a half-hour after meeting this stranger, she is sitting in the passenger seat of his battered Econoline-van, soaking in the smell of diesel and dust and cigarettes that permeates the vehicle’s cabin. The smell is so thick that when Rita first goes to light a cigarette she is certain that the whole van is going to go up in flames. Perhaps mistaking her expression for something else he rolls down the window, and the breeze stirs his salt-and pepper hair as he squints at the road. There is no map beside him and he seems to be charting a course based on familiar or former landmarks; a string of forgotten towns that must form a constellation from Flagstaff to Albuquerque. Rita crumples her sweatshirt into a ball and tucks it between her shoulder and the window. It’s far too loud in the van for music, let alone conversation, and the white noise of the road hum and squeaking metal coaxes her to sleep.
When she wakes again Albuquerque has receded behind them by some unknown quantity of miles and minutes. It’s the change in the road that wakes her – the smoothness of the highway giving way to rutted asphalt. She glances across at Billy now, trying to trace her thoughts back to the diner, and trying to shake off the disorientation of waking up in a moving vehicle next to someone who she barely remembers meeting. A quarter of a mile down the road debris begins to appear, mixed in among the hardscrabble sage and spindly cacti. Unidentifiable rusting shapes are caught in the high, accusatory sun. A low-slung rambler comes into view, its white paint molting in thick flakes. Billy parks in front of a detached garage, and before he can even ratchet up the parking break a pair of black labs are circling the van – their coats thick with chalky dust and threads of ropey drool dangling from their muzzles.
As Rita steps down from the van she looks towards the house where a screen door has banged open. A tall man emerges from the house, his long beard nearly reaching his collarbone, and his bald head shining.
“Don’t worry,” Billy says patting the dogs, “he’s friendly. And I don’t just mean the dogs. Daltry this is Rita. Rita, Daltry.”
Rita smiles cautiously as the two men shake hands, the dogs sniffing at her feet until Daltry calls them away while rattling a large wad of keys until he finds the one he is looking for and plugs it into a padlock on the front of the garage. The doors open outwards, and the flattened dirt at their feet is carved by the rocks that have cut deep gouges in the earth where the door has carved it swath. At the front of the garage is a large motorcycle that, given the beastly size and chrome and dark leather, Rita assumes is a Harley. Beyond that there are makeshift tables, little more than sagging plywood slabs propped up on old saw horses. Each table is crowded with odds and ends. As the lights overhead stutter to life she begins to decipher dozens of old appliances, mechanical and electrical things, most of which she assumes probably don’t work anymore. The lines of the older machines betray a long gone period: substantial curving metal like the true lines of vintage cars. The look of machines that were intended to perch on countertops in the most modern homes is juxtaposed against the newer, more angular plastic models. To Rita it’s less an appliance graveyard than an archeological curiosity.
Billy pulls a pair of glasses from his breast pocket and perches them on his nose. The glasses give him a grandfatherly look as he makes a slow circuit around the table. Along the far wall a workbench is crowded with parts and tools and other unidentifiable detritus of someone who has been hoarding for years. Nothing here matches, and the only order, she thinks as she takes in the garage, seems to be disorder.
“Looks a mess, don’t it?” Billy asks without looking at Rita, “Guarantee Daltry here can find anything he wants in this place. Could probably even tell you the story of most everything in here.”
“Here,” Daltry says pulling back a canvas tarp, “this is what I was telling you about.”
As the tarp is pulled back it reveals a pinball machine, its sides painted in bright yellows and reds. Stylized demons leer from the sides of the machine and the glass backboard is designed to match. No doubt generations of kids have leaned over the machine frantically tapping the little round buttons, for a moment drawn into a world composed only of the duration of a quarter and the clack of the flippers.
“Stuck relays?”Billy asks.
“Best guess. It’s what made me think you might be interested,” Daltry respons matter of factly. “Pretty sure the problem is in the electrics. I could fix it up, but no way is it going to sell around here. Better to ship it off to one of those places that specializes in these sorts of things.”
“Seems to be in good shape otherwise.”
Rita jiggles the switch on an old blender, runs her hand along the frayed cord. She angles the gooseneck of a lamp and tries to imagine who it belonged to: a student bent over hours of homework, or a tired father endlessly paying bills. Maybe it illuminated the daily progression of paperwork that accumulates in domesticity. Billy and Daltry are haggling over the price of the pinball machine in a way that seems comfortable and familiar, and is more than likely a game for the two of them. When they have settled on a price they begin to dismantle the thing and carry the the disassembled pieces out to the van, while Rita crouches by the garage doors speaking to the dogs in secret whispers; it’s the first time she’s been able to breath since she left.
The back of the van is already crowded with machines that Billy must have picked up in Albuquerque or Lubbock. An antique Coca Cola machine lays flat on its back. A scattering of power tools are heaped into battered cardboard boxes, cords coiled like sleeping snakes. The men sweat as they shimmy and angle the pinball machine pieces into place and tie them down with broad nylon straps. When the men are finished loading up the van Billy slams the door closed and the two of them light cigarettes. They stand quietly as they smoke. Billy has taken off his glasses and put them back in his pocket and he squints into the late morning sun. After a few minutes the men crush out their cigarettes and shake hands in truncated, goodbye syllables slipping from their lips like smoke. And then Billy is guiding the van back onto the northbound highway.
“This is your job?” Rita asks.
“It’s a living. I don’t know if it counts as a regular job type job.”
Billy originally mentioned something about travelling across the states to pick up things he could fix and make money on, but it had been in Rita’s earlier state of exhaustion and that same exhaustion has settled in her temples now, fuzzing her vision. There was something about a military pension that he collected after serving twenty-five years in the Navy, having retired several years ago. He’d said something about the way the road reminds him of the ocean. And for some unknown reason, either survival instinct or because she feels it would be impolite to fall asleep again she tries to stay awake attempting to keep the conversation going.
“You have a wife and kids?”
“Not that sort of guy.”
“Ex husband back in Austin. No kids.”
The conversation slides into silence as they pass and repass the same cars for miles at a time and the road unwinds in front of them like a great black spool of ribbon that sometimes rolls straight through the desert and at other times bends awkwardly over the hills, folding back on itself in switchbacks that cause the engine to deepen its pitch until Billy finally downshifts. She is in and out of sleep. Sometime during that first full day, after waking up again, she reaches over to where Billy’s pack of Marlboros shivers on the dashboard and draws one from the pack. Billy only nods and reaches down and pushes in the cigarette lighter with his knuckle. It’s the first cigarette she’s had in over five years, and the raw, burnt marshmallow taste of the thing coats her mouth and throat. She closes her eyes and lets the dappled red dots of sun create a curtain of her eyelids.
After several hours the sun paints the western sky tangerine as they cross into Utah, and by Cedar City, that same sky manifests itself deep blue and edging towards black as the cooling breeze goose pimples Rita’s skin. Her face is dry and warm and her arms are a newly sunburned pink.
At dusk Billy is pulling off of the freeway to fill the tank and they stop briefly in a supermarket with cracked floors, lackluster produce, and harsh bright lights that make everything look startlingly real. Here Rita buys a few packs of cigarette and the essentials that she’s somehow forgotten: toothbrush, soap, deodorant. The handful of things in her basket look stark and mundane as she stands behind Billy, noticing only the scraggly gray hairs on the back of his neck against the deeply skinned tan that is crisscrossed with creases from hours leaning over the steering wheel or peering intently into one machine or another.
The inevitable motel is stucco and equally lackluster; clinging to the streetlights and isolation of the highway. Billy parks in front of the small office and say’s he’ll be back momentarily.
“Otherwise they’ll feel sorry that you shacked up with an old doofus like me.”
“That or you have plenty of cash.”
“I cannot, ma’am, say that I am endowed with any particular thing that might make sense of this particular situation,” he says as he shuts the driver’s side door.
Inside the hotel room the AC churns decades of stale cigarette smoke stink, a smell that lords over the narrow beds and the pink and green flecked carpet. The room itself is shabby in a way that betrays countless years of feet treading grooves in the carpet. Shabby from the countless cigarettes smoked and absorbed into the walls and blankets until no amount of laundry detergent or bleach will ever make the sheets truly clean again. But the beds are well-made with a carefully smoothed floral comforter, and the whole room is cooled to nearly frigid. Billy sits at the edge of the bed closest to the door and retrieves a pint of whiskey from his duffle and pours a hefty slug into one of the plastic cups that have been left beside the sink. As he holds out the bottle to her she shakes her head “no.”
“Think I’m going to shower first.”
“Don’t take all the hot,” he says as he unlaces his work boots and drops them unceremoniously to the floor.
Rita closes the bathroom door and locks it behind her, although both door and lock are flimsy things. She can hear the TV come on in the other room, the sound merging with the air conditioner and the ceiling fan and the rush of the shower. She stands for a moment watching the water pool around the drain before stripping out of her sweat damp tank top and clammy jeans. Her body, usually familiar, seems like a borrowed dress, like a hand-me-down from a forgotten self as she steps into the shower and lets the water soak into her skin, washing away road dust and regret. She watches the water as it stutters over her stretch marks. Slowly, almost reluctantly she pushes the thin bar of hotel soap over her skin, forcing it into a lather. The sudden cold of the water drags her from her daze and she finds herself sitting on the bottom of the tub. Reaching up she turns off the water and pulls herself up, drying off and dressing in yesterday’s clothes. Her hair, free from its ponytail hangs in limp tendrils around her face.
Outside, in the room, the TV casts a blue glow on the far wall and Rita can hear Billy snoring softly from the far bed. As she lies down she can feel her wet hair soaking the pillow, but she is too tired to care. In the semi-darkness of the room she listens to the stranger’s cartoon snore and tries to make sense of this wanderer, a man relegated to the road, who has decided to pick up a woman half his age in a diner without any expectation of anything more. There is nothing in him to indicate that he might be dangerous – and maybe she trusted him only on a semi-suicidal impulse. Ever since she left San Antonio, well over twenty four hours ago, she promised herself that she wouldn’t play things safe or logical. There is no point in that now. Maybe it’s a turn towards the ascetic.
She wakes again without realizing that she has been asleep. As she eases into consciousness she looks around the room, half expecting the room in San Antonio. She expects John to be lying beside her, but even before she is fully awake, as she lingers in the no-man’s land that stretches between sleep and wakefulness, she realizes that she isn’t at home. The bed is slightly too cool and the comforter is slightly too scratchy. There is the stale scent of hotel soap and cigarettes. And then she is acutely aware of Billy as she spots him leaning against the frame of the open door smoking a cigarette. Just past him, outside, she can see the pale morning light straining over the torn paper hills of the horizon as the sun chases away the last of the night.
“Morning,” Billy says over his shoulder.
“It looks that way,” she says.
Billy sorts and crushes out his cigarette in the oversized glass ashtray in the middle of the table. He is already dressed, wearing a slightly different plaid shirt than he had been wearing the day before. Rita brushes her hair quickly, pulling at the snarls and snags in her hair with staticky snaps before sweeping it back into a ponytail that she knows will be loose and sloppy before the end of the hour. When she is ready she hands her room key to Billy and follows him out to the van where she stands smoking one of his cigarettes as he walks to the front office to return their keys. The van itself is cold from the desert night and she shivers down into her sweatshirt, huddling into herself as they pull onto the highway, stopping only for gas.
Inside the little filling station convenience store Rita buys coffee as Billy tops off the tank. She thinks of how easily he could leave her behind. She thinks of what it would be like to be stranded here in a place where she knows no one, without much more than the cash in her pocketbook. She wonders if she might even want him to leave her there. Or, perhaps she simply wants to disappear out the back door of the convenience store and go meandering down the back alleys of this anonymous town. There is a certain lightness in the disconnection; she is unmoored from any responsibility of past or future. But as she returns to the van she sets the coffee in the oversized cup holders and curls her fingers around her own cup, soaking in every bit of warmth that seeps through the cardboard.
Their only real company is the countless semis that they leap frog up and down the highway; semis that displace walls of air that rock the van from side to side. They trace 15 North and she imagines that she can tell the locals by the way that they speed past in casually dented cars. Within the hour signs for Yuba State Park start to appear by the side of the road. They are squat brown signs with stark white lettering.
“Ever been?” Billy asks.
“You’ve never been? Then we should stop.”
She wants to get out of the van, but not as much as she desperately wants this trip to be more than a simple get-away. She wants to see something that she never would have seen otherwise. There is something about stopping here at the roadside state park that validates her leaving. It would add to the sense of adventure, she thinks. She would be able to say that at least she has seen something that she wouldn’t have if she had stayed behind in San Antonio. Another sign comes into view and Billy begins to slow the van, downshifting as he eases along the off ramp and into the park itself.
A reservoir expands before them like an uneven mirror dotted with sailboats and inner tubes. Clusters of tents are perched on the pale, flat dunes and Billy coasts to a stop in the small parking lot. The white noise evaporates and they are enveloped by the sudden awkwardness of not having anything to say to each other. The engine ticks silently as Billy hangs his arm out the window, a curlicue of smoke making its way past the side mirror.
“People drive past places like this?” she asks.
“Lots of people drive by lots of places.”
The soft breeze off of the reservoir dances her cigarette smoke out the window in little waltzing movements and she opens the door and climbs down onto the asphalt. Heat radiates up off the blacktop in shimmering waves.
“Looks like there might be a better view over here,” she says pointing to where the dunes rise and merge into the high pine trees.
“Go ahead,” Billy says, “I’m gonna get me some twenty winks.”
Rita follows a narrow dirt trail that emerges into a small shady area near a tent set on the high ground beneath the trees. Farther down, along the shore a man fusses with a hibachi while a woman in a lawn chair intermittently watches two young boys as they run and squeal and splash in the shallow water at the edge of the reservoir. The pale round bellies of the boys protrude over their brightly colored, matching swim trunks. She can’t help but notice that the boys are only a few years younger than Alex as she steps down to the shore, not far from where they are playing.
Stepping out of her shoes she lets the water lap timid waves around her toes and ankles. She imagines wading out there, farther and farther into the cool water, allowing it to envelop her an inch at a time, the level rising up her calves and thighs until eventually she would be weightless and the warm surface layer of water would give way to the deeper, cooler water just beneath. She could dive down deeper and deeper until her lungs burned and her muscles cramped. There in the thick darkness she would roll onto her back as the water hemmed her in. Slowly, precisely, exhaled air would bubble from her throat, passing through her lips like unarticulated secrets and she would begin to sink until she was stored up behind the dam with the silt and silence; insulated by thousands upon thousands of gallons of water and upstream refuse caught there.
Behind her on the shore the woman begins shouting to the boys, and the sharpness of her voice pulls Rita back to the present. She glances up and makes fleeting and accidental eye contact with the woman, causing them both to look away abruptly. Back at the van Billy is reclining in the driver’s seat, his head tilted back. As she nears the parking lot Rita thinks of John, back at home, no doubt wondering where she’s gone. She imagines him sitting at the kitchen table, having finally found the note that she left for him in the picture frame beside the bed, but, instead of dwelling she tries to chase these ideas away as she opens the passenger side door and climbs back up into the cab. Billy opens his eyes and grips the steering wheel to pull himself forward.
Rita nods abstractly as she brushes the sand from the bottoms of her feet and shakes out her shoes before putting them back on. Billy turns the key and the van is alive again and they are slowly pulling back out of the parking spot. She knows that there, beyond the dunes, the two young boys are still splashing at the edge of the water. The man is still fussing with the hibachi and the woman is still looking up intermittently to check on the boys. In the middle of the lake a rowboat drifts, a man reclining in the bow with a fishing pool dipped into the water, concentric circles expanding from the invisible place where the line enters the water.
They cross and re-cross the Snake River, following 86 as it cuts west, passing through towns with names like Rupert, Heyburn, and Mountain Home. The sky darkens and the clouds crumple into different shades of black and gray as the air becomes electric. After a few miles, Rita rolls up her window and wraps the sweatshirt around her shoulders. She can’t help but think back to the thunderstorms back in Texas. She thinks of the way that the small, fine hairs on her arms would begin to prickle in the hour or two before a thunderhead rolled across town. She thinks of the time that she had walked out onto the front porch with Alex in her arms. He had been little more than a year old then, but he was quiet and calm in her arms as they stood there watching the distant flashes and counting in anticipation of the accompanying thunder. Even the slowest build and rumble and snap didn’t startle Ale. The lights had flashed off their faces and ephemeral shadows pirouetted on the flat landscape. John had thought that she was crazy for keeping a young child out in a thunderstorm. For nearly an hour Rita had stood out there with Alex, as John stood behind them, just inside the screen door, shifting nervously from foot to foot until they finally came back inside.
Now it is that same familiar electricity that prickles her skin and lets her know that there’s a storm on the wind – a certain type of barometric pressure on her skin – and she can’t help but smile. Soon enough the sky crackles on the distant landscape in strobing, bright flashes, too far away for the thunder to reach them. A few minutes later the rain seems to assault the van from all sides.
“Some storm,” Billy says.
“How much farther?”
“Another hour or so.”
The place, Caldwell, isn’t far off of the freeway, and Billy pulls down a side street past boxy 1950s houses painted in light blues and pale greens. They pass houses painted in off-whites and barely-grays, until Billy finally parks along the curb in front of a pale blue rambler with a scuffed front door. The rain has slackened by now, but the asphalt is a black mirror. A creosote smell lingers in the greater aroma – the concrete has been dry for months at a time, she can tell. The woman that answers the door is, as best as Rita can tell, about Billy’s age and the two of them embrace in a casual way that makes Rita realize that she has yet to share any form of physical contact with the man.
Billy introduces the woman as Nancy, an old friend. The woman ushers them inside and takes their bags and sets them in a small office off the hallway before leading them into the kitchen where a man in a wheelchair stirs a steaming pot. The men shake hands affably and Billy introduces the man as his old Navy buddy, Paul. Rita can’t help but wonder if it is the Navy that landed Paul in his wheelchair but she knows that it is something that she can’t ask. Nancy hands her a can of cold beer and then they are all lighting cigarettes and talking as Paul putters about in the kitchen refusing any offers of help. The house itself is cramped; the space between the furniture engineered to be just wide enough for Paul’s chair to pass through, making the entire place vaguely claustrophobic. Nancy wants to know how Rita ended up riding with Billy and Billy relates the story in his crisp, efficient sentences.
“Thought maybe you two were lovers,” says Nancy.
“Jesus, Nan.” Paul says.
“An honest question.”
“It’s all right,” Rita smiles.
“You said you were from Texas?”
“Best thing for it is to get away,” Nancy says, “No kids?”
Rita shakes her head and the conversation moves through dinner and the history that Paul and Billy and Nancy shares extends far beyond Rita’s reality. From what she can piece together the two men met in the Navy. The stories are from different ports and other sailors and it’s difficult to track the fragmented memories, a jumble of forgotten names and barely remembered anecdotes. There are stories that pre-date even Nancy and she shakes her head as the stories begin, knowing the trajectory of the stories from the first word like an overplayed song. She has heard these stories however many hundreds of times and fills in the details that the men forget. Rita smiles and jiggles her foot under the table as she smokes and listens. Each story that unfolds reveals a foreign truth, like a window she has glanced through by accident. It’s a voyeuristic thing, and she can’t help but wonder if this is simply the natural unfolding of life. Rita thinks of how nice it would be to exist only as a footnote in someone else’s life and she wants desperately to negate the world that she is a part of. If she is lucky, one day she will be a half-remembered anecdote told over cheap beer and cheaper cigarettes.
By midnight empty bear cans have crowded out the table’s available elbow room and the four of them go on tapping cigarette ash into empty cans and talking and laughing too loudly until Nancy hazards a glance at the clock on the stove. “It’s late,” she says and they all agree, reluctant to end their evening although the air in the kitchen is thick with exhaled blue smoke and eyelids that are beginning to droop. It’s probably time for them to all turn in, especially if Billy and Rita want to get an early start, although the thought of an early start is odd to Rita, who has no specific destination or deadline. Rita follows Nancy into the small office where the two of them work together to unfold the hide-a-bed and spread the sheets over the creased mattress. They work in quiet unison transforming what must be Paul’s office into a guest room. There is a broad desk near the window that looks out on the backyard, and the desk is populated with knives and chisels and half-carved figurines and a small plastic pallet of paint.
“Can I get you anything else?”
Rita shakes her head and smiles as Nancy eases the door nearly closed, leaving only a gap that reveals a fraction of the hallway. It reminds Rita of the way that her mother used to leave the same type of gap in her bedroom door when she was still a girl; it’s the same type of gap that she would leave after putting Alex to bed. In her underwear and a mostly clean T-shirt she crawls beneath the cool covers and wishes that she could stay – as if, even as an adult she could be adopted by these near strangers. The patchwork quilt stretches and ripples over her legs as she thinks of Alex far away, however many miles distant, in his room hating her, thinking of her, struggling to understand.
Even now, after the others have gone to bed the house is full of noises that carry through the crowded hallways like ghosts in a draft. She can hear Nancy out in the front room making up a bed for Billy on the couch. There is the rustle and snap of blankets unfurling and Rita can hear the muffled murmurs of their voices, and, somewhere else, she hears what must be Paul maneuvering his chair towards a bed. She hears or imagines the spring squeak of a well-worn bed, and hears a door close and hushed voices that are only mouse like mutterings in the walls. Rita turns towards the window and can tell that the storm has moved off, farther to the west, leaving behind only a light rain that scatters timidly across the windows.
When Rita wakes in the morning she can hear the others in the kitchen talking at a volume that tells her they are trying not to wake her. Maybe it is the smell of coffee and toast and eggs that has called her out of unconsciousness. She dresses and pulls the blankets from the hide-a-bed and folds them into uneven squares and stacks them on the edge of the mattress. As she pauses there by the door, trying to build up her nerve, she can hear the crinkle of a paper and for a moment is shocked that people still have newspapers delivered. When she steps into the hallway she can see the three of them sitting over squares of newspaper folded into discrete sections. She watches, like a voyeur, the light way that Nancy lays her hand on Paul’s shoulder as she pours his coffee. It reminds her of her past less than a week old.
It’s after eight by the time they are carrying their bags out to the van. In the wake of the storm the morning is a luminous golden thing with high clear skies. Paul and Nancy watch from the porch as Billy fires up the van and the two of them wave one more time before they edge away from the curb. Suddenly self conscious of the silence Rita glances at Billy, trying to find a particular moment to say something, if only she could think of something to stay. Beat after beat passes. Each time she is ready to speak she loses her resolve. For a moment she thinks that she will tell him everything. She will tell him about her husband and her son. But she will not be able to answer the one real question.
“You’ve known them a long time,” she says finally.
She wants to believe that beneath his truncated statement there is a current of memory that drags him back all the way to the time before Paul’s accident, and now it sounds less real and more like the name of painting: Paul Before Chair. In the painting the two men stand side-by-side, grinning in their white Navy uniforms with their little round caps. But there are private things that she will never learn about them, and she knows now that there is an entire of cache of memories that belong to a person and that those memories, like the person themselves, can never be fully excavated, no matter how relentless the questioning. There is a part of each person, she thinks, that must remain an unknowable and unreachable Shangri-La. Some inaccessible place where the true-truth hides.
But now they are nearing the freeway and the silence will soon be overridden by the noise of the road and so she takes the last few minutes to ask where they are headed. Somewhere north, Billy says, close to Seattle.
“Figure I might as well take you all the way there at this point.”
Rita grabs the pack of cigarettes from the dash and punches in the lighter, staring at it until the little button pops back out. For a moment she wants to ask Billy why Seattle, and then she remembers that Seattle is where she told him she’s headed. She wants to tell him now that he needn’t bother. There is nothing in Seattle for her. She has never been. Before she can tell him, she realizes that she is beginning to rely on him too much, and it scares her. It seems too much like the same direction that she has come from. Maybe there is some way in which she has unwittingly tied herself to this stranger, becoming connected in a way that she hasn’t intended. It’s too much like how she ended up with John in the first place, coasting from acquaintanceship to friendship and ultimately, relationship. A relationship that was more steady gravitational pull than love-at-first-site-Hollywood-romance. And then the same gravitational pull locked her into John’s orbit and she was stuck forever encircling him. For a moment she thinks that she will call John from the next gas station that they come to. She’ll begin to apologize but he will insist, in his usual way, that he has already forgiven her.
She will stand in a dry, sand-swept parking lot until John pulls up in his sensible sedan and parks in front of her, the car still running, the door hanging open as he wraps his arms around her. He’ll hold her and tell her that he forgave her before she even hung up the phone. He forgave her as soon as he heard her voice. Alex is at home; John won’t have been able to bring him. He would be unable to bear it. Once at home Alex will be harder to appease. But the only thing that matters now is that she is back and that they are together and that nothing can pull them apart and all this craziness can be put firmly behind them. In a few years, maybe, they’ll be laughing about the whole thing.
But that won’t happen. There is a filament stretching from her to John and Alex. A filament that has become stretched so taut that it is on the verge of breaking. The tension pulls against her heart, and she knows that as soon as it breaks she will be forever liberated. She simply has to be patient and wait for the days and miles to insulate her from her past. This is the hardest part she tells herself as she crushes out one cigarette and lights another.
“You all right?” Billy asks.
“Just checking. You seem, I’m not sure what the word is.”
“Pensive. Thinking about something. Texas maybe?”
“You know how it is,” she says.
It’s an empty phrase half shouted in the inside of a strange van in a place she never thought she’d be, and she realizes that he doesn’t know and couldn’t know, not truly, not ever. Thankfully Billy remains true to form, running at almost absolute Radio Silence. Outside the window the landscape begins to change, slowly, but definitely. There are more hills now, and the ranches and farms are dotted with pastured horses and cows.
“They say cows are sacred in India,” she says.
“I’ve eaten burgers that seemed like a religious experience.”
“I can see it,” she says, “there is a nobility in them.”
The van passes a rumbling semi and they follow the winding highway as it runs, at least for the time being, parallel to old railroad tracks. The day on the road has a familiar rhythm by now, like the grooves worn in the highway – abraded by hundreds of thousands of tires. Except for the changing license plates and scenery they could be caught in the doldrums of nowhere America – the road stretching backwards and forwards inexorably. They stop only for gas and the routine is identical even if the names of the stations change. Billy stands at the pump arching his back, trying to pop his lowest vertebrate. Or he stretches over the hood of the van to scrape bugs from the windshield. Or he taps the over-full ashtray into an overfilled garbage can. Inside the convenience store Rita scans the shelves for candy and beef jerky and chips and buys the now ubiquitous beer and cigarettes.
The desert landscape of Eastern Washington is somehow familiar: the same pickup trucks and cowboy hats and gun racks. Washington, she’d thought, would be more metropolitan, comprised almost entirely of Seattle. Rita had always imagined that there would be more in the way of roadside attractions and the types of places that you see in horror movies. Places glimpsed in tabloids that advertize two-headed lizards and mummified Indian chiefs. But the places that they pass pale in comparison, and if Billy notices the signs or the billboards, he ignores them except for the occasional snort or shake of the head.
A column of military trucks passes them, rumbling by in mismatched tans and dark greens. The soldiers behind the high flat windows are anonymous in their helmets and uniforms. There’s no doubt in her mind that some of the soldiers are veterans, although to Rita they look impossibly young, like kids playing soldier. It’s only a few mile further and Billy pulls off of the highway and into the parking lot of yet another cheap motel. It’s the first motel that hasn’t been made almost entirely out of stucco and surrounded by depressed cacti. The single queen bed doesn’t bother her either, even as Billy apologizes and insists – as if to reassure himself – that he will sleep on the floor. Rita considers momentarily turning on the TV but decides against it, hoping that the comfortable silence of the van will settle into the room, but even after hours of driving together in close proximity there is a pronounced awkwardness. They are no longer distracted by the unscrolling of the asphalt. There is no road hum to screen potential conversation. There is no anticipation of a destination other than sleep.
Billy drains his glass, downing the last bit of whiskey that he has poured evenly into two glasses. Amber droplets ripple around the edge as he squints and rubs his eyelids with his grease-cracked thumb and forefinger. He tilts the bottle and turns it slowly so that the unclaimable residue of alcohol chases itself around the inside of the bottle, and then, unceremoniously, he pitches it into the plastic waste basket with a thud of finality. Rita can tell that the end-of-day sobriety makes him acutely aware of his aching back and dry eyes.
“Saw a gas station a mile or so back up the road,” he says.
“You want company?
Billy shakes his head and grabs his keys from the nightstand. She can hear his heavy boots on the metal stairs as he thumps down to the parking lot and then, after a moment, she can hear the engine of the van as it turns over, and headlights sway across the room as he backs out of the spot. It’s the first time that she’s been alone since Yuba. Rita opens her bag and spills the contents onto the faded bedspread. All of her clothes are dirty but she no longer cares. Even so, she tells herself that she will wash her meager items of clothing in the sink and hang them in the bathroom to dry while they sleep. In the morning she will pack the still damp clothes into her bag and drape them one at time over the back of her seat while they drive. There, the clothes will marinate in the orders of cigarettes and exhaust.
Slipped into a side pocket of her backpack is her slim red wallet. She removes it now from the little zippered pouch and slides her ID from it’s plastic sleeve, wanting to remind herself of the truth. She wants to see her own image – not who she is now. She wants to see who she was before leaving. She reads the address on her license and tries to picture the house. There is the photograph that she pulled from the bedside frame before she left, and she runs a finger along it. It’s a picture taken over a year ago. Not long after leaving she tore John from the picture and let the fragment of him flutter out the window of a westbound Greyhound. She’d been afraid that the picture of him would stare at her accusatory. But now it is Alex, who is gazing at something just off to one side of the camera, that sears her heart. She struggles to recreate the moment in her head, but it is a moss-covered stone, an idea that has blurred at the edges until the hard, definite lines have softened into uncertainty.
Rita puts all of these things back into her bag and takes a towel from the bathroom and scribbles a note for Billy on the hotel stationary left with the Gideon Bible in the nightstand. This way he won’t wonder where she’s gone off to. When they first pulled up to the hotel she’d seen the rippling light of a pool on the high brick walls. Now she is there, a day’s worth of captured heat breathing between her toes, as she slips out of her clothes and lays them over a lounge chair with her towel. Stripped to her underwear she wades out into the cool water, until she is sweeping her arms in broad, even strokes, her feet kicking lightly as the bottom of the pool slopes away from her, four, then five, then six feet below her. At the deep end of the pool she exhales until all that is left in her lungs is an aching tightness. She bounces softly against the textured bottom of the pool, her hair tendriling around her like pale smoke and the chlorine stinging her eyes. She wants the weight of the water pressing down on her now – the unforgiving insistence. Tomorrow she will step out of the van at the next gas station and she will disappear, leaving Billy waiting there until he finally ducks inside the convenience store to check for her. He will wait by the ladies restroom until a stranger emerges and looks at him with suspicion. And then he will return to the empty van and know that she is gone and the pain he feels will be a fraction of what it might have otherwise been.
Michael Overa was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and has lived in England, Ireland, and Australia. After completing his MFA at Hollins University in 2010, Michael returned to Seattle where he currently works as a writing coach and is a writer in residence with Seattle’s Writers In The Schools program. His work has also appeared, or is forthcoming, in The East Bay Review, The Portland Review, Writers’ Block, Fiction Daily, and Floyd County Moonshine, among others.