by: T.E. Cowell ((Header art, entitled “Road Trip,” by Paul Wright.))
The chance for a new life, of comradeship, and of mental and physical well-being — a short story that suggests that when the lure of the road beckons, heeding its call reaps unanticipated benefits…
The day after Matt left his job, he stayed in bed until four in the afternoon, dozing off and on. Then he got out of bed and went into the bathroom. After emptying his bladder he got right back in bed. He didn’t feel hungry, surprisingly, he just felt extraordinarily tired. He fell asleep again fairly quickly and when he woke up it was the morning of the following day. He got out of bed and used the bathroom again. Then he went into the kitchen and got started on making coffee.
Matt didn’t know what he was going to do now that he didn’t have a job, but he didn’t let the unknown bother him. He didn’t want to rush into anything and he didn’t want to do anything drastic that he might later regret. There was so much that he still wanted to do in life that he hadn’t been able to do because of his job, and maybe now that he was unemployed he’d be able to do a few of those things.
One thing that he wanted to do was take a road trip. Not one of those two or three day journeys, but a road trip that took a few weeks if not longer. He wanted to cover some serious ground, to witness the landscape change over and over again. Matt could still remember the road trip his parents had taken him on as a kid across the country to Pennsylvania for a family reunion outside of Pittsburgh. He realized on that trip how big of a place the world was. Yet, as big as it was, even now, thirty years later, Matt had only seen a little speck of it. He found this immeasurably sad.
Another thing Matt wanted to do was get back in shape. Years of excessive sitting, drinking and eating had turned his once-fit body into something loose and cumbersome. Matt wanted to take long walks again, maybe even start running. He wanted to get that springy, youthful feeling back, that sense of lightness and of ease that he’d felt during the duration of his twenties. If he could get his body back in shape then maybe he could get his mind back in shape as well. Maybe then he could then figure his future career path, some dream job that he’d never thought of before, or some novel idea or invention that might make him financially well off.
Matt was thinking he’d drive down to Houston where an old friend lived and surprise him. The friend’s name was Paul. Paul used to visit Matt in the college town in Washington State just south of the Canadian border where he lived quite regularly, or Matt would visit Paul in Houston. They would spend two weeks tops together, two weeks being the maximum number of days either of them could take off from work at any given time. If one of them didn’t visit the other then they’d go on a trip somewhere; they’d flown to Amsterdam a few years prior, and had journeyed to Greece and to Cancun together. In recent years, though, Matt and Paul hadn’t spent as much time together as they had in the past. They started having trouble matching their vacation days. Matt hadn’t even seen Paul’s newest apartment, which Paul had owned for over a year now. According to Paul, his newest place had the best view of Houston of any of his former apartments. Matt had seen a few pictures of the apartment and the view from the balcony, but pictures weren’t the same thing as being there of course.
Driving down to Houston to surprise his friend was in Matt’s mind the classic two birds, one stone scenario.
Before embarking on his road trip, Matt took his car to a mechanic to have it looked at. He was pretty sure the old Honda needed something done to it in order for it to function at its highest capacity, an oil change or a new timing belt, perhaps. Matt was prepared to spend upwards of a grand on his car, so when the bill came to just under that he forked over the money gladly. The last thing he wanted was to be stalled along the freeway with his hazard lights blinking, waiting for a tow truck as countless cars whizzed past.
Matt spent one more night in his comparatively low-rent studio apartment and then in the morning, before he left, just to be on the safe side, he handed the apartment manager a check for next month’s rent.
“I’m going on an adventure,” Matt said after reading a mixture of surprise and confusion on the manager’s smooth-skinned face. The manager was a woman in her late twenties. He found her moderately to insanely attractive, depending on what she was wearing on any given day. Matt had always found it difficult to talk to her in any sort of conversational manner; he had always found it difficult to talk to any woman that he found attractive in any sort of conversational manner. It was primarily for this reason that he was single.
“Okay,” the manager said. “Have fun.” She didn’t smile, though she put on a lazy attempt at doing so. She took the check and turned around. Matt left after filling a Styrofoam cup with tasteless complimentary coffee.
He headed south along the I-5, leaving the town that in his opinion he’d been living in for far too long behind him. For a while thick groves of evergreen trees were all there was to see on either side of the freeway. Then the trees gave way to farmland, and Matt sped past towns that he felt fortunate he didn’t live in, towns that made his town seem like something special.
After the farmland there were more trees again, more thick groves of evergreens. The traffic steadily thickened the closer Matt came to Seattle. Then, a few miles out of the city, it was stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic. Matt didn’t mind it though. Being stuck in traffic of this caliber was essentially a new experience for him. He was in no real rush to get down to Houston and surprise his friend. For the first time in what seemed like a long time, Matt felt relaxed and content. Things would work out, he told himself. He would find another job or strike it big. The thing to do was take one day at a time. Or, maybe he wouldn’t strike it big, but it didn’t matter, not in the bigger scheme of things. Nothing mattered in the bigger scheme of things.
Matt rolled down the windows and observed the drivers on either side of him. He witnessed a lot of shaking heads, pursed lips, exasperated sighs and people staring at their smartphones. Most of these people probably had to deal with this kind of traffic on a daily basis. Most of these people were probably headed to work and texting coworkers or bosses that they’d be late. Matt felt very fortunate that he was not headed for work.
A few days later Matt made it to Los Angeles. He decided to stop in Venice Beach, his old stomping grounds. He felt lucky when he found a parking spot after half an hour of looking for one. If his uncle still owned the surf shop he used to work at, Matt would’ve parked in the alleyway behind the shop. But his uncle didn’t own the shop anymore; he’d sold it to a surf shop chain not long after Matt had left California to return to Washington for college.
As it happened, Matt found a parking spot on the same block where he’d worked for five years after high school, in front of the café he used to go to pretty much every morning for coffee and a bagel omelet. All these years later the café still looked the same. He decided to brave the line which spilled outside the entrance and buy a sandwich for lunch. He could still remember his favorite sandwich they used to make and wondered if it was still on the menu: seeded wheat bread, mozzarella cheese, sliced turkey with a bit of tomato, lettuce, and wetted down with balsamic vinaigrette. Health Nut, the sandwich was called. Matt had never been a health nut, but he had taken care of himself when he’d been in his early twenties in such a way that he felt a sense of shame now when he recalled the person he’d once been. He used to watch his diet, used to exercise regularly, used to apply sunscreen to his face. He had had seemingly limitless reserves of energy then and untapped potential — or so it had seemed.
As he stood in line, Matt looked at the people sitting outside the café around the tables. He was surprised to see some familiar faces that were just a bit unfamiliar from the passage of time. It had been fifteen years since Matt had last been in Venice Beach. He didn’t know the people that he recognized by name, because he’d never talked to them, or if he had, he’d done so sparingly. Matt hadn’t been a big talker back in the day and he still wasn’t, except for when he was with Paul. With Paul, Matt could talk freely. There was something about Paul that allowed Matt to relax, to drop his guard and to be himself.
Matt waited in line until he was off the sidewalk and out of the sun, then found a menu on a counter and picked it up. To his delight, they still were serving the Health Nut. They had quite a vast selection of sandwiches; more than there’d been when he used to live here.
Then it was Matt’s turn to order. He opened his mouth but then stopped himself. “Hector? Is that you?” he asked the clerk.
Hector squinted at Matt with a face that no longer had the boyish appearance Matt remembered it having. The lines around Hector’s eyes and mouth were prominent and heavily numbered, and his ponytailed hair was starting to go gray.
Matt nodded, and Hector immediately reached his hand across the counter and Matt gave it an ardent shake.
“You’re still here!” Matt said.
“Yeah, man. Where else would I be?” Hector’s smile faded, but didn’t disappear completely. Matt wondered if Hector had taken his words as a kind of insult, a low blow.
Matt shrugged in response to Hector’s question, if in fact it was a question and not simply a reactionary response to Matt’s thoughtless potential insult.
“What about you?” Hector said. “What’re you doing here, man? I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“I know,” Matt said. “It’s been too long. I’m taking a little road trip.”
“A road trip?”
“Yeah, you know, a road trip.”
“I know what a road trip is,” Hector said. “But why? For fun?”
“Exactly,” Matt said.
Hector shook his head. “I haven’t been on a road trip in, god, forever.”
Matt felt a wave of excitement wash over him. Somehow his decision to embark on this adventure had been validated.
Matt called Paul before he entered downtown Houston, just as he caught sight of the skyline on the clear-sky horizon.
“Hello?” Paul said.
“Hey,” Matt said. “Guess what.”
“You’ll never guess.”
“Uh. You’re in Houston?”
“Damn-it! You weren’t supposed to guess that!”
“Wait. You’re in Houston? For real?”
“Where? At the airport?”
“Negative. I’m cruising along the freeway as we speak. Surprise!”
“You drove all the way down here?”
“You got some time off from work?”
“You could say that, yes.”
“What do you mean? Wait, did you quit your job?”
“Damn, dude. That’s ballsy. How does it feel?”
“At the moment it feels pretty damn good.”
“I bet. But what’s next?”
“I have no idea. I’m not trying to think about the future too much right now. I’m trying instead to enjoy the present.”
“So do you want to meet up or what?”
“Of course. But I can’t right now. I’m working.”
“Actually, fuck it. It’s close enough to five.”
“It’s not even four yet.”
“I don’t care. It’s Friday. Maybe you can convince me to quit my job too.”
Paul gave Matt the directions on how to get to his place, and soon Matt was walking towards an impressive looking building that skirted the bayou that snaked through part of the city. Paul stood on the sidewalk in the shade of his building in shorts and a striped t-shirt and wearing Vans. He looked shorter to Matt than he remembered. Matt figured this was largely due to the fact that Paul was standing next to a building that considerably dwarfed him. Also, Paul looked as though he was starting to fill out a little more.
Paul stepped off the sidewalk as Matt approached, left the shade for the bright, merciless sun, grinned and shook his head. Matt grinned back, unable to help himself.
“You lunatic,” Paul said, outstretching his arms.
A hug and a few back pats later, Matt started alongside Paul inside of the building. The lobby looked a lot like the lobbies of Paul’s previous apartments: spacious, trendy, and impractical. A few paintings on the high walls showed a combination of squares and circles in subdued colors. Matt didn’t know if the paintings were actual paintings or imitations of actual paintings; he thought probably the latter. In an apartment such as this one it was all about appearances. It didn’t matter if the paintings on the walls were actual paintings or knock-offs; all that mattered was that they lent the room a certain atmosphere in an attempt to attract tenants.
They passed the lobby and started down a hallway.
“So I live on the twenty-seventh floor and the elevator’s not working at the moment, so we’ll have to take the stairs.”
“Really? In a place like this the elevator’s not working?”
“Only kidding,” Paul said. “I was trying to scare you.”
“You can’t scare me,” Matt said. “I’m trying to get back in shape.”
“You want to take the stairs?”
Matt shrugged. He didn’t really want to but he knew it’d be good for him.
“Sure,” he said. “Why not.”
They were both out of breath by the time they reached the twenty-seventh floor.
“Fuck,” Matt said, feeling his heart pounding away.
“Fuck is right,” Paul said. “I should do that more often. Geez.”
They started down a plush-carpeted, beige-walled hallway that looked to Matt about half a mile long. They passed numerous doors on either side of them until finally Paul stopped before a door on his right and turned the knob, pushing it open.
Matt stepped inside. The wide tiled hallway reminded him of the hallways of Paul’s previous apartments. When he came to the end of the hallway, the afternoon light poured through the floor-to-ceiling windows and shone off the hardwood floor in the expansive living room, and this too — the light and the expansive living room — reminded Matt of Paul’s previous apartments. Matt passed the kitchen, then walked over to the windows in the living room. All he could momentarily see out the windows was the blue and white sky. Turning his head, the whole of Houston’s skyline presented itself in the near-distance, less than a mile away.
“Damn,” he said.
“Check out the balcony.”
Out on the balcony, enjoying the view and the warm breeze that blew against his face, Paul asked Matt “So what made you do it?”
Paul nodded. Neither of them spoke for half a minute or so. Matt was the first one to talk again: “I stopped in Venice,” he said.
“Crowded as ever?”
“Yup. Found a spot on the block where I used to work somehow.”
“That was lucky.”
“Yup. Bought a sandwich and then walked down to the beach and out on the Venice pier a ways.”
“See some chicas?”
They stood in momentary silence, each of them remembering the good old days.
“I miss Venice,” Paul said. “Houston’s home and all, but it’s not the same.”
“So go back,” Matt said.
“Can’t,” Paul said.
“Right,” Matt said. “Because of work.”
Paul had an extra bedroom, every apartment he’d ever leased had an extra bedroom, that Matt stayed in that night and for a dozen nights afterwards. During the day while Paul worked from his apartment on science museum exhibit-type drudgery, Matt sweated away in the apartment’s gym.
He didn’t have a belly, per se, but he didn’t not have one either. He had the makings of one, a paunch and then there was the rest of him, his beanpole arms and legs. What had happened? he wondered. He used to be fit. He used to be strong. He had stopped caring about his body. Maybe he could get it back though. He had to get back in shape! He couldn’t give up, couldn’t keep declining like this. He had to fight, had to give it his all. This was his life. His one and only life, damn-it!
Aside from struggling to perform pull-ups, Matt rode a stationary bike as well as jogged on a treadmill. He sweated profusely and his body ached and he felt like puking but he kept going,. He was doing it, he was getting back in shape! The future was his! He had to think like this, if he wanted to change. He would find a way out, a way to live with more happiness, less stress, more relaxation, more time for contemplation. He could do anything he set his mind to, he continually told himself.
Matt would also think of Paul while he exercised, sitting just a few floors above him in his ergonomic office chair, staring intently at his computer screen. Poor Paul. Poor Paul with his money and his sad, stressful job, working away day after day like Matt had before quitting his job, hating the work but doing it anyways, seeing no choice around it. If only Matt could think of something that no one else had thought of before, some genius idea or thing that needed to be invented that could make people’s lives easier, then he could get out of having to find another job when the money in his bank account ran low. Think! he told himself commandingly. Think, damn-it, think! His mind didn’t seem to want to think, though, not yet at least. It was still too groggy, too cloudy from having been a work drone for so long.
Before leaving Houston, Matt and Paul tried to think of something they could do together, some collaborative get-rich-quick idea, but neither of them could come up with anything that seemed worth writing down. Perhaps they were drinking too much beer. Perhaps both of their minds were completely sapped. Perhaps it was both of their fates to die unhappy deaths.
Matt said goodbye to Paul and then continued heading east in his old Honda. He had never seen any of the southern states east of Texas before. He thought he’d drive for a while and then turn around and begrudgingly head for home. He thought he might try to make it to Pennsylvania. Maybe he could find the house where the family reunion had been held all those years ago. His great-aunt, as far as he knew, was still alive, was still living in the house in the woods, the farmhouse, as it had been referred to, as far as Matt knew. Maybe his mom would have his great-aunt’s phone number. It was worth a shot, Matt figured, driving to Pennsylvania. There was no telling what might happen along the way, or when he got there, if he got there.