When I show up at ten, Roy is standing against the back wall near the emergency exit nervously smoking because he’s never done a billionaire before. “What’d he look like?” I say.
“Sad,” Roy says. “Sad and very very dead.”
“No, the family objected.”
“Did he have anything good in his pockets?” I ask.
Roy produces a few items. A flattened penny with Mount Rushmore stamped on it, a half melted army man, a swizzle stick and two business cards with phone numbers on the backs written in tight, adult but nonetheless girly handwriting. At first the items warm my hands, but soon they begin to burn so I give them back.
We peek around the side of the building and notice that the limousines and town cars are beginning to dock out front. Slow moving boats, barges and tankers filled with people of the loss sort. Roy throws his cigarette against the wall, it explodes into a ball of quick angry red. “I guess it’s go time,” he says.
Inside, I’m standing in my nonchalant stance, hands folded at crotch level, impassive face, trying to distract myself away from a potential boredom hard on. Roy stands beside me and beside us is the dead billionaire. He’s lying there in his coffin with a tight jaw, as though he were straining against the notion of death. Skin a shade whiter than sleep, he looks like a man that had to be convinced of his own demise. It’s a masterful job of reanimation which is what Mister Torrence is so well known for.
Mister Torrence greets people, wading into a sea of black, shaking hands, offering best wishes. He is a Goliath of a man with deep pocks on his cheeks and a paleness which advertises his profession. Now he’s speaking to clearly The Wife, a sprightly but serious looking woman with a sixty year old neck and forty year old eyes. She is taking him aside and he pats her on the arm in that never you worry way.
Roy leans into me and nods in the direction of behind The Wife. “Get a load of the daughter.”
Long black gloves, long dark pantyhose, a thick veil pinned to a big broad black hat. She makes a sound that reminds me of the cats who fight in the backyard; anonymous turf wars that set off the back of my mind like fireworks in the middle of the night. She is falling to the floor and being helped up, she is falling back again and finally being held on either side by serious looking man boys. “Jesus Christ,” I say.
Next to us now is Mister Torrence who, instead of saying hello says, “Boys, I need to see you two in the back.”
“But of course,” Roy says with a politeness just this side of insolence. He’s been here five years and knows the line.
We follow Mister Torrence through the curtain and down the hallway to the little council office for private breakdowns. Mister Torrence turns and looks at Roy. “Something’s come up and I’m going to need you two to take care of it.” He likes Roy and Roy likes me. This is how we all fit together.
“Whatever you need, boss,” Roy says.
“I’m being told now that the gentleman will be buried on the East Coast.”
“What happened to Clearview?” Roy says.
“I don’t know,” Mister Torrence says. “It’s a pretty strange request at this hour.”
“I’ll call Carmichael and Chrystie,” Roy says.
“The family doesn’t want any vendors involved. This is, apparently, quite a big secret. We’re going to have to drive him ourselves.”
“Drive?” Roy says, pulling out a cigarette.
“We?” I say.
“He was afraid to fly.” Mister Torrence nods at Roy’s cigarette and says, “please.”
“He built planes. And besides that, he’s dead.”
“I know,” Mister Torrence says.
I am reading the spines of the books on the bookshelf, something which I’ve never done before. There are three Hardy Boys mixed in with a lot of scripture. “When?” I ask. “When’s this all supposed to go down?”
Mister Torrence looks over at me with a where’d he come from expression on his face. “A-Sap,” he says, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “The body has to be there Sunday.”
“Just outside of New York City. A family plot.”
“But I,” Roy says, motioning to the office where he and Mister Torrence sat across from the family and sold them the arrangements.
“I know,” Mister Torrence says, in the same voice he talks to the bereaved.
“I have to smoke on it,” Roy says.
“Me too,” I say.
“Keep in mind that I’m not really asking.”
Outside, Roy noses his shoe into the concrete step and says, “It’s too much for a man in my condition. I have beans soaking back at the house. I have a stew in the crockpot with carrots and a delightful tomato stock. I highlighted stuff in the TV Guide, good stuff, educational things.” He tosses his cigarette on the ground and then lights another. “I’m going to go tell him. I’m just going to put it plain and simple.”
“Tell him for me,” I say, lighting another cigarette and watching Roy climb the concrete stairs.
I catalog the reasons I don’t want to do it. I am comfortable with smallness, with walking to the bar after work and walking home after that. My room is clean and my mother has recently either come to grips with the question Why Me or has perhaps begun to understand that it is far too complicated. I cashed my paycheck last night at the bar and bought two rounds and that is the kind of investment in goodwill that loses value the minute memory fades which, in this particular bar’s gut hardened case, is a day or two max.
I say I won’t do it several times, perhaps as many as twenty but then there she is, The Daughter, stepping out the back door and unsurely down the concrete stairs. “Are you the driver?” she says, stopping on the last step and leaning down into my face. Her veil is lifted, showing a hard face pinned together with wraparound sunglasses. I am noticing her cheekbones, how tight they are. I am noticing the way the high heels press her leg into perfect tension. I am noticing how her jacket folds back to reveal just a touch of lace that shows perhaps a hint of sweet breast foothill.
“I am,” I say.
“It’s a long trip,” she says, taking my cigarette and putting it between her dark red lips.
“I’ve tripped longer,” I say, looking up at her.
She finds this funny. She throws her head back and laughs the exhausted joyless laugh of a woman on her tenth rum and Coke. “It is a tragedy, he was too young. The poor die at sixty-five, the working class, men who dream of retirement only to find themselves dead in front of the television. Not my father.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“He deserves dignity. He deserves special handling. He started an empire.” She looks at me over the tops of her sunglasses. Her eyes are tight and dark with flashes of passion, or is it anger? She is wholly not the kind of woman I’m used to talking to.
“I will,” I say. By this I mean that I will guard that which is most dear to her, that I will not rest if she is not rested, that I will protect her heart. I touch her on her cigarette arm, the lit end burns into my wrist and I shake the sting out my fingertips. “You have no worries as far as I’m concerned.”
And then she is leaning closer to me. And then I am noticing the lacelike string between her breasts. And then we are together. And then she is telling me that she’s self destructive, goddamn is she self destructive. And then her tongue is deep in my mouth. And then I am sliding my hand between the buttons on her blouse. And then she is telling me to take her somewhere, anywhere, anywhere but this rotten place. And then I am realizing that I have the potential to be for once a rescuer and not the cause of the need.
Roy, the dead billionaire and I cross the state line in no time. It has the ease of injection, the before you know it you’re there. This is a four lane highway we’re on, two coming and two going, and there is no variation to it except the odd outcropping of tract housing and superstores. The trees, the fences, the scrambled glistening lumps of red fur and gristle all look the same.
I’m driving because not long ago Roy pulled over, put his thumb where we were on the map and his finger where we’re supposed to be going and told me that if it was true what I said about duty that I had to take my turn at the wheel or fate would catch up with us. I never called my mother to worry her any further with our plans, yet I don’t feel that pinch of ambivalence that makes me sad for her whenever I end up somewhere that I should not. I think it has something to do with how The Daughter told me she hated herself and how I felt a strange itch in my spine that seemed like recognition as I pulled her close to me.
The night is starting to announce itself in front of us and the large ball of fire behind seems determined to dip below the horizon. I snap on the lights and look over at Roy who is making lazy circles on the glass of the passenger window with his pointer finger. We’ve long since run out of vodka and Mountain Dew and the clutch-brake feeling it gave me that I thought might tear me in half has faded with the daylight.
What is true is that godliness is so big that cleanliness is only tying up a little spot on one small side and that there’s plenty of room for the rest of us if we feel the need to snuggle. What is true is that I’ve shouldered a lot of disappointment in my life, not mine but others’, and that I’m ready for that aspect of my being to be over. What is also true is that the trip gets us out of work for a little while and doesn’t count against our time off. Night is coming, it’s almost like we’re driving right into it, and I feel the calm of a bedtime story because I see The Daughter somewhere at the end of the darkness.
Now Roy is asleep, his face pressed flat against the glass of the passenger’s window making a nicotine grease stain that I suppose will be hard to rub off. The night has gotten the best of me. I press the find button on the radio and the numbers run laps over and over. There is nothing out here in the middle of the darkness except flatness, the outlines of cactus, and the occasional determined semi tractor trailer. I am tired in my entire body except one part which is the part that is either the cause or the effect of thinking about The Daughter.
Roy speaks from his dream, blowing yellow mist on the window. “Candy store,” he says, “Trinidad and Tobacco.” Underneath, the road churns, and I can’t help but feel the insatiable burning immediacy that makes most men quiver.
At the next town the gas station is closed but there is a dilapidated phone booth out near the air hose. I pull up and I see in the sweep of headlight a pair of eyes looking at me. A pair of red eyes, red like hate, red like starving and angry. “Nice puppy,” I yell as I get out of the hearse. The dog shifts its weight from one foot to another. I watch this as I walk over toward the phone, knowing that the only thing separating me from that disgusted knot of generalized hatred is the good grace of a rusted engine hoist chain attached to a massive choke collar. For just a second I decide it would be prudent to get back in the hearse and head out, but I’m propelled toward the semi-collapsing phone booth.
The operator on the other end of the line tells me that it’s unreasonable to expect the exact number. That it would be a borderline miracle if she could just type the name into the computer and get the person I’m actually looking for. I tell her I’m no stranger to disappointment, having been called that by my father as a near nickname for most of my life, but to nonetheless take her best shot at it. She goes away for a second and I notice that the dog is now straining against the chain, causing it’s enormous chipped up head to bulge.
The operator is back with my number, “I’m pretty sure this is the one,” she says.
I thank her and repeat it back for safety’s sake, ignoring the fact that the dog is now releasing a low guttural roar that sounds more mineral than animal.
It’s The Daughter alright, I can tell by the scrape of her voice when she picks up the phone. She sounds the kind of tired that coffee and sleep do not cure and this causes me to feel helpless in ways I’ve never felt before. I tell her my name and she says, “Who?” and I say, “Remember. The funeral home. Your father.”
“Where are you?” she says.
“I’m not certain,” I say. “It’s dark and flat. It might be Nevada. Every time I close my eyes, I see you.”
“Well keep them open,” she says. “You’re driving for fuck’s sake.”
“Back there?” I say.
“Back there was an aberration,” she says, “a random turn of events.”
“Can I call you?” I say, “I mean when a reasonable amount of mourning time has elapsed?”
She blows smoke into the phone, a long cool river of sound. “Call me?” She laughs.
“Yes, call you,” I say, “as in at some point this all makes sense from a remember when perspective.” I hear the dog’s chain making a rusted screaming sound.
“Let me be clear about this,” she says, “if anything happens to my father, I will find you. I will find you and I will do things to you that involve the kind of pain that makes hellfire seem like day old bathwater. You are not my type. And I mean that generously. Do you understand me?”
“I get your meaning. But my mind’s made up,” I say.
On my way back to the car Roy yells, “Batten down the hatches, batten down the hatches.” This is when I hear the crisp sound of chain snap.
What I’m thinking about is not the thunderous buffeting of paws on oil slick concrete. What I’m thinking about is not the saliva drops or the deep hellish growl as the dog approaches. What I’m thinking about is that The Daughter holds some kind of connection between the chips and fissures that skate along behind me and a future of surefootedness. This is approximately the moment the thing tears into my leg.
I have read about shark attacks. I have read about men falling into lava. I have read about gorillas pounding environmentalists like ragdolls. You smell the blood before you see it. You feel the heat and the pressure before the pain. There is a calm sense of panic. It is not the panic of forgotten keys or lost wallets. It is not the panic of fathers seeing grade cards or hearing from bosses that you never showed up to the jobsite in the first place. It is the panic of the stomach slipping into your groin on a ride at the fair on the beach and the fear that your stomach may end up there forever.
But then the pain comes. The white searing, urine seeping visceral glow as the thing, nearly as big as I am, seems to grow more teeth by the second and relentlessly tears at my flesh. My mouth is watering, my eyes are flowing, I am tense and hot. The dog is over me and on me at the same time. I kick the air with my free leg, I grab the concrete with my nails. My stomach is full of churning fear.
I am forming a ball with my body when I hear the sound of the thud. It is a full hollow crack that enters my heart before I feel it tug the mouth that is around my calf. One last pulse of jaw and then slack, the dog rolling off and then a tremendous billowy roar as it collapses onto the ground expelling a sea of air from its lungs like the cloud after an avalanche. I smell the ancient rot of liver and 10W40, the tender sweetness of shop rats and engine coolant. I listen as the growl becomes a whine and then a cozy little squeak as the thing travels back in time to the moment it was an eyes closed little ball of potential.
Roy’s standing over the dog with a two by four that has a six inch nail sticking out of it. “I now pronounce you dead,” he says.
Roy is driving because my right leg is slippery with blood and stiffening rapidly. “I need something to blame the double vision on,” he says. “I need a reason for my paranoid streaks and my xenophobia, my irrational hatreds and my personal hygiene issues. I was too young for Vietnam, I missed it by about five years, and nothing came along afterward in the way of American conflicts that involved bottom of the barrel people like me.”
“The war on drugs,” I say.
“I’m talking about jungle and heat, the rewriting of rules, animalistic behavior.”
“I was in the Boy Scouts,” I say.
“I’m talking about survival on the most basic scale. Not merit badges and knot tying and fucking one match bonfires.”
“The one match fire was probably my last success,” I say.
“That was good back there,” Roy says, banging his hand on the steering wheel. “That was really good. We made decisions with weight and consequences.”
“You made decisions,” I say.
“There was a dividing line,” Roy says, “and at some point we crossed it. The line that nature provides special for these kinds of occasions.” He bangs his fist on the steering wheel again. “I feel so alive, I feel so fucking alive.” He looks over at me. The horizon is just beginning to separate itself from the night and I can see dark hills all around us. The dashboard seems too bright, it lights up Roy’s face in an odd way. His eyes are explosive black dots and I don’t seem to recognize them.
Hot liquid runs from my forehead down my cheeks and I feel the need to close my eyes. When I do I float just a little bit. I tear my eyes open again. Roy is staring at me, licking his lips. He says something about the heart. He says something about the eagle. He says something about the devastating moral plane. “I’m going to die,” I tell him.
“We all are,” Roy says.
You feel a growing sense of unfairness and yet at the same time there is a warm resignation. There is even a little bit of excitement. You let go, first of your toes for they are curled deep in your shoes, and then gradually you unknot your body. The last thing you feel is a stream of urine letting itself out and the relief at that moment is so deep that you understand you’ve been pinching that muscle for the better part of your adult life.
I am above the car and then I am standing on a plane of impenetrable water that appears to extend forever. My body doesn’t feel feverish or heavy. My skin doesn’t feel like it is a wet bag.
The dog is here, all of a sudden I notice her. For some reason I know that she’s a she. A big red, white and black dog, a Doberman and a Rottweiler and some other jowly creature all mixed together. She sits in a comfortable repose about sixty feet away. Clean looking. I am moving closer and closer to her. At first I’m afraid but for some reason this leaves my body, the fear running out of my fingers. We are speaking from a place deep inside our heads.
“I waited for you,” the dog says. “There is a long distance to travel and you seem the type that needs a companion.”
“How did you know I was going to die?” I ask. I move closer to the animal. She’s amazingly big, almost my size.
“I got you pretty good in your femoral artery. Your lifeforce came unattached.”
“What made you think we’d go to the same place?”
“I’ve been studying this shit for years.”
We walk together, side by side, for quite a long distance. The view never changes.
“I’m sorry about back there. The death. It must have been a crummy way to go.”
“Any better than bleeding to death?”
“Why’d you do it?” I ask. “I mean, attack me like that. You don’t seem the type.”
“Funny, I’ve been pondering that myself. I was chained up behind the station for so long my brain was so sun baked and I’d been hit with so many rocks that I had trouble separating the different realities. You get bent up enough that things just get kind of automatic.”
“Choices are not really made, they just happen.”
We’re silent for a while, but it’s not a long silence that happens because all of our words are collapsed in on themselves, folded or crumpled, layered.
“Do you have any regrets?” I ask.
“I never lived my life like that. You?”
“I haven’t been successful as a man which is to say that I haven’t killed and eaten my own food, I haven’t spawned as frequently as the hips have suggested I should, I haven’t protected my territory or found my place amid the fallen timbers that spell out the history of my species.”
“You were young yet.”
“I was thirty-two.”
“Thirty-two divided by seven is four point five seven something. That is young.”
“How long is this journey?”
“That question signals the fact that you are not patient.”
“It is true that I have the sensation that I haven’t gotten where I need to go. But patience is related to time and I am feeling devoid of time.”
“Acceptance is a form of patience and it doesn’t feel like you’ve accepted.”
“I would agree with that with one caveat which is to say that I was never made aware of the rules.”
“Goals are traps.”
“But how will I be remembered?”
“Success doesn’t have a universal measure.”
I am noticing how much lighter I am than the dog. I pass my arms through themselves and say, “This is strange.”
The dog looks over. “The tag on your collar is only useful if it has a phone number or an address,” she says.
It is light, bright like, hot even. My body is soaky hot wet. It is bright and I am hungry, painfully hungry. It is bright, I know I mentioned this but boy is it bright. Roy is tapping on the window, he’s outside the hearse. My eyes are blinking open and closed and things are swirling into place. I feel the weight of my body on the seat. Roy does the sign language for roll down your window. I press the button and it glides down elegantly.
“Good morning sleepy head,” he says. “I put a tourniquet on your thigh. I hope you don’t mind that I took your pants off. It was strictly in a non-amorous, life saving capacity. I didn’t look at your package or anything like that, you have my word.”
“How long have I been out?” I say.
“Long enough for questions to be answered and decisions to be made,” Roy says. He’s leaning against the outside of the hearse, carefully smoking.
“Where are we?” I notice that we’re parked on the side of a dirt road and I see a long fence and the flat expanse of a field. Cows stare at us from a distance.
“We isn’t the right word for that question.”
“It appears as though you’ve saved my life,” I say.
“Yes, it does appear that way,” Roy says. “I don’t suppose you understand what that means as far as indebtedness and such?”
“One can assume,” I say.
“The electric grip of the city has been released,” Roy says. “I have fallen in love with this place.” He points his cigarette into the distance.
I see a house and a very tall tree. I see the way the dirt road we’re on travels over a hill and then stops, over another hill and then stops, all the way out into the sky.
“Do you feel the peace?” Roy says. “Do you feel the way the electricity has been drained and we are now relying on the pull of the soil, the sky, the earth?”
I am trying to get myself out of the hearse. My leg feels like it is one long piece of pain. I touch the flesh, it’s bluish and dark, there are many small pocks of blood, the thing feels like it isn’t a part of me. I want a cigarette and wonder where Roy got his because the last time I checked we were out.
“An important thing to notice is the way the grid conforms to the earth. High tension wires follow geographical features. Roads go where they can, not where they want.” Roy points with his cigarette. “Birds, hear the birds?”
I listen. The rack of noise must be coming from one of the adjacent fields because I can’t see any winged creatures.
“Leaving aside generous portions of the arthropod world, that was back there the first time I’ve killed. I’m referring to the dog whose skull I caved in with a blunt object. I’ve tasted blood.” Roy stubs his cigarette out against the hearse. “It was the testimony of my passage. I will not be continuing the journey,” Roy says.
“I can’t drive with this leg,” I say, “and we need to get this gentleman.”
Roy cuts me off. “You are not invited to stay. I want to start fresh and alone. I believe I have a good chance of making it.”
“But we have an obligation.”
“Technically yes, we do have an obligation. And I appreciate your efforts on my behalf. You have quite a bit more distance to go. You’ll make it, most definitely, but you don’t have much time to waste. I hate to be such a taskmaster. I’ve been acutely aware of the time you were out. Another five hours and the Minnow would have been lost. You have no idea how many times I’ve looked at my watch. So yes, I am on your side as far as the obligation of which you speak.”
I picture the dead billionaire. I only saw him the two times. The first after Roy and Mister Torrence had him dressed and I helped put him in the coffin. The second time after I wheeled him out of the back cold cabinet and into the viewing room. I remember thinking, as I closed the coffin the last time, that he looked restless in a way I’d never seen a dead person look before. His face was pinched, almost in a wince, like he were waiting for a shot in the arm. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time except to say that it felt like he needed some calming.
Now the sun is up in an official, quietly optimistic manner and the road nods up and down, rising and dipping in lullaby fashion. As long as the leg remains a dead branch pressed against the accelerator, we’re in business as far as the pain is concerned. I can’t help feeling this momentous lift, as if I’m tipping upright a monument which has been dreadfully off kilter for many years. It’s a feeling that makes me terribly sick to my stomach with longing for my mother. I see her face in it’s younger incarnation, a tight jaw and flat lips, exhausted yet lively eyes. There was a time when she was beautiful, I’m sure of it because I’ve seen the pictures, and I wonder about my role in the crystallization.
The Highway Patrol crests a hill behind me, a full, lights ablaze regatta of, I’m counting, ten, eleven, twelve cars tacking their way through the traffic toward me. I am noticing this and then I am noticing that there are no cars on the other side of the highway. It’s just a long bare line that rises slowly over the hill and rises quietly over the hill further on.
In the distance I see a large trail of thick black smoke. So do the people ahead; the blaring red snake of brake lights sends bubbles from my crotch all the way up my chest and out into my arms. When I press the leg inexactly onto the brake pedal the leg screams like a raw tear.
Semi-tractor trailers have pulled off, drivers standing on the running boards looking toward the smoke. Cars are pulling off too, families appearing to have given up. I feel pressure in my chest. I’m thinking about the man in the coffin in back, his strangely strong nose, his clear skin. He felt well cared for when I saw him that first time, broad smooth nails and perfect teeth. He seemed like a man capable of great love yet probably unable to adequately present his case. Where is she at this very moment? Is she sleeping, is she weeping, is she staring at her watch thinking about the journey I’m taking with her father in tow? I want to do something. I’m noticing the cars behind me slotting themselves into place as this has the feel of something that might take a while. I don’t have that kind of time.
I stop the hearse half on the shoulder of the highway and half in the dead grass next to it. The road is now a parking lot. I leave the engine running to keep it cool in the back for the shocked looking dead man whose head is not four feet from mine, a man, but for different circumstances, I would probably have sucked in my stomach for and tamped down my fear of the large to ask for his daughter’s hand. My pants are as ragged as an abandoned flag and I struggle in the semi-privacy of my door to pull them over this useless leg that feels like an unanesthetized amputation. The black smoke ahead flows upward in a raging wagging fist. I believe for a second that I can see flames shooting up the dark arm like a biker’s tattoo.
I limp a bit in that direction feeling that my bravery is being forced through a funnel in the wrong direction. I watch as a boy and girl sprint playfully, weaving through the buses and trucks as the cars plink, plink, plink, the metallic settling sound of cooling automobiles. A man in a Custom Van has set up a cooler on the ground and stands over it with a small crowd, drinking sodas. Umbrellas have been unfurled, families have walked out onto the grass beside the highway and spread picnic blankets. A young couple lay on the hood of their Plymouth, watching the smoke turn from a fist into a mushroom. He has his shirt pulled up, revealing the half moon scar of a great white shark attack. She has sunglasses and a cigarette. It all feels like a celebration I didn’t get the invitation for.
Rumors filter back, anything from a delicate hostage situation to a bridge collapse, but the general consensus is that a truck filled with highly toxic chemicals jackknifed and rolled somewhere up ahead. They’re saying that the highway is melting and that it’s possible we’re going to be here indefinitely. They’re also saying that at some point soon those of us that need to are going to be allowed to drive by but that they can’t guarantee our safety. It is suggested we hold our breaths for as long as possible when we pass.
I see a man and a woman next to a Winnebago. They’ve spread a tattered looking Indian rug on the warm highway and set out four poles with some kind of sunshade tarp. Underneath, the man sits in a folding chair and the woman wrestles hers open. “Need help?” I say, grabbing her chair’s aluminum legs.
“Thanks much,” she says. Her face has a puffed cloudy quality, a grandmotherly softness with a light layer of peach fuzz.
“Chet Marker,” the man says, thrusting a hand up toward me. “This is my wife, Martha.” They’re both tan enough that it’s clear their priorities are straight and have been for some time.
Martha sets herself down into the chair with a little winded commentary. She’s the active form of hefty, with a body much the way my mother’s is headed. Chet looks like he might still lift weights. His body has a trim keg thickness with faded bluish and black tattoos on his wrists and arms that look spur of the moment but not regretted.
“Sit?” Martha says. “There are four more chairs bungeed to the back.” She points in that general direction.
I shake my head. “I’m trying to give my leg a little exercise,” I say, pointing down at the stiff log of uselessness and pain.
“Yes, what happened?” Chet says while Martha mouths the same question.
“A dog got me.”
“Looks like you’re bit up real good,” Chet says.
“Feels like it, too,” I say, smiling in a way meant to erase the subject. “Where are you guys headed?”
“No particular place for the time being,” they both say, which Chet follows with, “but we’ll eventually end up in Mexico when the weather gets cold.”
“Mexico,” I say.
“There are entire communities of people who never fit in up north, you just need to know where to look,” Chet says.
“The dollar goes much further,” Martha says.
I nod and we watch as the boy and girl who were sprinting down the fast lane come racing the other way. A man struggling to light a bar-b-que stops momentarily to cheer the kids, his white chef’s hat bobbing up and down.
“Disasters bring out the best in us,” Chet says.
Martha hums in agreement.
A man in flip flops and a business suit straggles up to us. “It’s a chemical fire,” he says, kicking the corner of the Indian rug so that it lays flat on the pavement.
“Chemical fire?” Martha says. “You don’t say.”
“How do you know?” Chet says, his gaze settling lazily on the man’s chest.
“I overheard someone talking to a trucker,” the man tells Chet.
“Is it true they’ll let us go if we need to get by and that we’re going to have to hold our breaths?” I say.
The man looks at me and narrows his eyes. “No, but I’m glad you asked. If the wind shifts we’re gonna have a good sized class action lawsuit on our hands.” He pulls three business cards out of his pocket and hands them to us. They say, Tom Franklin, Senior Sales Manager. “There’s a toll free number because I’m in ten states,” Tom Franklin says. “Keep a detailed record of your symptoms. We’ll get the bastards.”
Chet says, “Sounds like a winner,” in a very practiced way, and puts the business card into the breast pocket of his short sleeved old man shirt.
The three of us watch Tom amble up to the maroon Crown Victoria behind. There’s a family sitting near the trunk, two boys and a girl, a sweaty mother and a stringy husband who stands a few feet away. Tom Franklin leans on the maroon Crown Victoria and shakes the man’s hand.
“Lawsuits will one day replace the lottery,” Chet says.
Overhead, three Army helicopters march dutifully toward the smoke, their rotors cracking the wind.
Martha points at my leg. “You need to get that looked at.”
“Absolutely,” Chet says. “Where you headed?”
“I don’t have time,” I say. “I’m supposed to be outside of New York City by Sunday noon.”
“You look like the rough sketch of a good man,” Chet says to me. Then he looks down toward the ground. “I’m wondering if you’re going to make it.”
“It’s a body I’m driving,” I say, as if this will make my case stronger. “The father of a friend.”
We look at each other for a little bit.
“Your friend, I’m sorry,” Martha says.
“Yes,” Chet says.
“These things are hard,” Martha says.
I find myself wanting so badly to get in the Winnebago and curl up on the couch, wondering if there even is a couch.
“New York’s a long way away,” Chet says.
“Oh, I’ll make it,” I say, “I’ll make it for sure.”
Chet looks at his watch. It’s one of those big broad things with fifteen different dials and appears to weigh more than the arm itself. “Sunday noon,” he says, “is an impossibility.” He rattles his arm and the watch falls against the base of his pudgy hand. “Sunday night, if you have the wind at your back, but even then.”
“You sure?” I ask.
“Son, I was a long haul trucker for twenty-eight years,” Chet says. “I know my roads.”
Martha looks at me. She has gray eyes that are bright but unfocused. Her face has a familiar assumptive concern. “Honey,” she says, sadly. I hear my mother in her voice, many years back, before the sandpaper of delinquency rubbed it into a mournful whisper.
Right about now she will poke her head into my room after an increasingly bold and bothered knock. She will tell herself that things will have to change at some point soon and that I can’t count on her goodwill forever. I am wondering whether the constant trickle of dirt that makes it hard for me to pull myself out is something preordained or built out of expectation. It was never my intention, I’ll tell her when I finally get around to writing.
“There’s always hope,” I say to Chet.
“I never beat the scales on hope,” Chet says, “not once.”
Martha’s head is tilted just a little bit, she looks like she might stand up and hug me. “You really should have that leg looked at,” she says, “it doesn’t seem like it feels very good.
“I’m going to go wander a bit. I’m sure I’ll see you on the way back.”
“Well thanks again for the chair,” Martha says. “Want a pickle sandwich for the road?”
“If you ever get to Mexico, look us up. Go toward the Pacific Ocean and ask the first gringo that looks tan and comfortable for directions,” Chet says, squinting up at me.
I nod politely and walk ahead toward the smoke. I have the distinct impression that there’s not a chemical spill or a mutant bomb but a crack in the earth that has opened up and threatens to swallow humanity. For a second I toy with the idea of talking myself past the makeshift security zone and throwing myself into the chasm. I wonder if I have enough good in my body to satisfy the gods. I am not a virgin, not by a long shot, but I don’t believe that the path from junior high until now has led that steeply down the valley. I picture the angry asphalt zipping itself up after me and the emergency workers shrugging at each other. I am not a believer in reversal but for some reason at this moment I’m convinced of its existence. I have no idea where Mister Torrence is right now and my speculation about what is pulsing through his knobby head ranges from blind hatred to paralyzing fear. In the end he is not a very good judge of character, I’d say, the references I listed at the bottom of my application were from John Coltrane, Stretch Armstrong and Niels Bohr. I did not really want the job in the first place, therefore some of the blame of this surely has to originate with management.
The leg is turning my walk into a limp into a slight one-footed drag. No matter how far I tamp the pain it seems to have gotten into my gait. A kid on the shoulder of the road playing catch with his dad stops in mid-throw and points at me. A woman leaning on her family’s station wagon touches my arm. A girl follows me the lengths of about ten cars. There are helicopters massing near the smoke. There is the distant throb of alarms. The other side of the highway is abandoned and shines with a sense of purity and calm. I want to go lay down there.
I’m now hearing the daughter threatening to track me down. I have no doubt about her forthrightness or her abilities in this area and though I am not one to prepare speeches, one does pop into the back of my mind. I will say that I did my best, but in the end my best doesn’t have a current earthbound corollary. I have some idea what it’s like to be cheated by death but I’m assuming I haven’t made the mourning process any easier. Then again, the largest part of saying goodbye is the letting go part, even when there’s injustice involved, and so in a way I’m proud to have been the welcome mat. I will tell The Daughter that I’m sincerely sorry and that I hope my voice as well as my presence has a restorative property. I will tell her that she strikes me as a woman who is, like me, intimate with inevitability.
And then I will tell her welcome to paradise, please make yourself at home. It is a little different down here but the beaches are clean and the dollar goes far. You get used to it pretty fast and before you know it you’re home.