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The face of Jimmy’s watch stares at him from the nightstand. He can’t see the actual time, not without pressing the button and lighting up the LEDs, so the face is just a dark, reddish circle. A flat disc on a glinting gold band.
It’s still early, at least. The light that falls through the thin bedroom curtains is pale and drawn with the dawn, and he can feel Kim asleep behind him, can hear her steady breaths. Her weight on the tired mattress is like an anchor pulling him backwards from an elastic band knotted somewhere in his spine. He lies there with the tug of it for a while, looking over at his dark-eyed watch, knowing that Kim is there even though he can’t see her, not wanting to turn around in case he wakes her up.
Somewhere outside, a car door slams.
Jimmy wipes a hand down over his face. He exhales softly and slides out of bed, rolling his weight up off the mattress, his knees creaking. Kim stirs but doesn’t wake. She’s twisted on her stomach, her right arm wedged against her side and her left tucked up beneath her pillow. The elastic knot still tugs in his chest.
Pale lavender light slices over the bed, and Jimmy moves his hand in and out of the brightness as he gets his watch from the nightstand. He slips the band over his wrist and snaps down the clasp, then finally presses the button on the side: 5:13.
Even earlier than he thought. He presses the button again, and the date flashes up, too. 5 15.
He rakes his hair back from his forehead and moves on sock-covered feet past the bed. The whole room feels small now in the pale light, like the close walls are amplifying every small noise he makes, like the old dresser and shelves have overtaken the space.
It hasn’t actually changed—and that’s the thing, right? Nothing’s changed. Not for him, not since 1979. High up in the corner, the star stickers are pale white shapes against the pale white ceiling. Stars, a spaceship, a ringed planet. A moon. He could peel them off now, and then they’d be gone for good.
Kim lets out a soft, huffing sound in her sleep, tucking her face deeper into the pillow. Her hair falls over her lips. It drifts a little with each exhale, but she’s still.
Jimmy releases his held breath. He bends down and unzips his duffel bag, slowly, the zipper groaning. The bag is filled with a tangled mess of clothes. He hunts around for a fresh pair of jeans then gingerly pulls them free—
His law school letters spill out with them. Sudden squares of white on his old blue carpet: the envelopes face down, seals intact. He steps into his jeans and buttons them, his fingers moving slowly, and then he crouches again and gathers the letters up. Rubs his thumb and forefinger on a slightly browner envelope, testing the thickness. Not very thick, but it’s nice paper. Heavy stock.
Kim is barely visible from this angle, but he can tell that she’s unmoved, still twisted beneath the covers, her arms still wedged at strange angles. He taps the pad of his finger against the envelope, soft and rhythmic like a ticking clock.
He puts the letters back.
Downstairs in the living room, Ruth is already awake, too. She’s sitting with the newspaper folded over to the crossword and Delilah curled up near her feet. The fortress of cushions is arranged behind her just like it was yesterday, purples and pinks against the old brown couch. A nearby lamp is a ring of yellow in the soft blue light, and from the kitchen comes the sound of a little portable radio, the news on low.
Jimmy moves closer, padding over the worn carpet.
Ruth looks up. “Morning, honey,” she says, smiling. “You’re up early.”
“Running on mailroom time,” Jimmy says, and he perches on the arm of her sofa and turns to her. “How about you, you sleep all right?”
His mother makes a soft humming noise. “Not bad,” she says. “Dee was howling for her food.”
The old cat now: curled up and content, her tail tucked over her eyes.
Ruth tsks , looking from the cat to Jimmy. “And after all that racket, she only ate half of her breakfast.” A light sigh and then, musically, first high then low: “Oh well. I was starting to feel cooped up in bed, anyway. I really need to get back on my feet.”
“Mom,” Jimmy says, shaking his head, “it’s been, like—a day.”
“One day too many,” his mother says. She flicks a page back on the newspaper then looks up at him. Her eyes change, twinkling, and the musical tone returns: “And how’s Kim this morning?”
Jimmy smiles and shrugs, looking down. “Yeah, still asleep,” he says. He’d passed the wide open door to Chuck’s empty old room on his way downstairs this morning, too. He presses the button on his watch—5:29. At this rate she might actually manage a full seven hours for once.
Ruth turns another page in the paper, then folds it in half with a rustle and picks up her pen again. She marks down a couple of numbers then makes a thoughtful noise with her throat. “I like her.”
Jimmy grins. “Oh, good,” he says, soft. “I’ll keep her, then.”
His mother gives him a credulous look over the top of her reading glasses.
He chuckles and waves her away. “Yeah, okay,” he says, “I know.” He taps his hands on knees and raises his eyebrows. Glances to the dark kitchen then back to his mother. “You want a coffee yet?”
“Goodness, yes,” Ruth says
Jimmy laughs quietly and nods. He rises from the arm of the couch and walks through into the kitchen. Delilah follows him, the little bell on her collar jingling as she trots around the counter. She twists between his legs as he gets the coffee going, dumping the old filter and hunting through his mother’s cupboards for a new one. Rubs her cheek on his ankle as he scoops Folgers into the new filter.
As the coffee brews, Jimmy wipes his hands clean on a dish towel, staring idly through the kitchen window at the fence that runs along the side of the house there. There’s a notch cut out of the wood, and he can see a slice of the neighbor's yard through it. Leaves wave on a spindly bush, and a yellow string is tied to one of the branches. From someone gardening, maybe, or children playing. He wonders if it’s still the same family living there.
The clock ticks above the fridge behind him, and coffee drips into the pot. He bends down and scritches Delilah between the ears, and she rubs her cheek on his knuckle, purring warmly until the coffee’s ready. He carries two cups into the living room, hands his mother hers, then leans against the edge of a low, heavy cabinet. There’s a row of old photographs behind him, and he knows them without looking at them: Chuck’s graduation, himself as a teenager sitting on the floor of his bedroom. He curls his hands around his warm mug.
The television is going now, tuned to the weather report. All of Illinois is covered in clouds. The weatherman gestures calmly and Jimmy drinks his coffee.
“So…” Ruth says, when the weather’s done. She leans forward to put down her coffee, then settles back. “Kim tells me you’ve been working hard these days.”
Jimmy almost smiles, but instead he just shrugs, loose-limbed.
“Come on, honey, let me snoop,” Ruth says, and she pats her right hand on the couch. “What have you been up to? Sit, sit, indulge me.”
So he heads over, the sofa springs creaking under his weight, and he twists to face her.
Her eyes are patient. Patient and weary, maybe, just a little.
And he does smile now, wide and almost disbelieving. “Well, I finished my degree,” he says. A swallow and then, because she hasn’t said anything yet, he adds, “Really. You got yourself two college graduates for sons, now—well, just New Mexico Community College here, but hey, they still give out the fancy piece of paper just the same as Georgetown.”
Her eyes shine bright and warm. “That’s wonderful, honey,” she says softly. “When?”
He chuckles and briefly covers his eyes, then lowers the hand. “I went back last summer.”
“Don’t tell Chuck,” he says quickly. “He doesn’t know yet. I’m waiting to tell him.”
Jimmy’s hand is loose on the couch between them, and she reaches for it, squeezing the side of his palm near his thumb. Her skin is papery and warm, and then she lets go.
“So, anyway,” Jimmy says, looking away, trying to make his tone bright, “I’ve been busy with that. Imagine me like, actually reading—well, okay, maybe not reading reading but at least spending all my money on textbooks instead of a decent apartment or, I dunno, a real car.”
A soft chuckle from Ruth. “And what are you driving now, a Flintstones one?”
He groans. “Yeah, I wish.” He rubs his thumb over his lip, looking out at the orange-patterned kitchen. “I reckon they’re all out of Flintstones cars at the dealership. Should’ve kept my Cutlass, huh?”
“Well, that one’s easy, honey,” she says. At his returning glance, she rolls her eyes, and adds, “Borrow the Volvo. I never use it anymore.”
“ Borrow your car?” he says, and he laughs dryly. “Mom, I live in New Mexico now, remember?”
“Shush,” she says. “I’m not senile. Drive it down to Albuquerque.”
He lets out another short laugh.
“Or get Kim to drive you, I’m sure she could manage it,” Ruth says, and she presses her palms to her knees and rises from the sofa. As she bustles toward the kitchen, she adds over her shoulder, “This is why you should tell me things sooner!”
Jimmy bristles. Pot, kettle, huh? he thinks. He sits there with his mouth half open, but then finally stands too, following her. “Do you just want an excuse for me to visit more?” he says lightly. “Like any time you need the car back?”
She shrugs, rinsing her coffee cup out in the sink. “Well, I do like to see you, honey.” She holds out her hand. “Mug.”
Jimmy blinks. After a moment, he hands over his own empty cup, and his mother rinses that too. Her hands are weathered and pink, twisting beneath the running water. They look old. “I should stay here with you longer,” he says softly, as she shut off the faucet. “Take care of you.” And then, when she looks over at him blankly, he adds, “You need someone to change the dressing on your thing again later, right?”
She scoffs. “It’s a Sunday, Lily will be here for dinner.”
“Right,” he says, “sure, Sunday, of course. But Mom…”
“Please, Jimmy,” Ruth says, and she moves back out of the kitchen. “I don’t need any more babying—oh, good morning, Kim.”
Kim’s floating in the threshold of the hallway, wearing jeans and a cream-and-purple blouse. Her hair is pushed back from her face with a headband, and she looks freshly showered, her cheeks pink and her eyes shining.
Jimmy smiles to her. He reaches for the pot of coffee and a clean mug.
“Look at us,” Ruth says, glancing back to Jimmy, “a flock of early birds, hungry for worms.” Then her gaze snaps to Kim again. “Are you a good driver?”
Kim laughs like it’s a joke she doesn’t understand. She takes the cup of coffee when Jimmy offers it to her and has a sip, then says, “Wait—am I what?”
“Kim has to get back by tomorrow for work, Mom,” he says, propping his hip against the bench top. “So do I.” And he chuckles. “You know, my real job?”
“So do you, psh,” Ruth says, tossing a dismissive hand. “If my son can work you all so hard, I can keep you for a little longer. I’ll tell him you’re rescuing the car; I imagine he’ll be relieved. I didn’t hear the end of it over Christmas, you know.”
From the edge of the kitchen, Kim studies Jimmy, her eyes scrunched.
“Mom wants me to take her car,” Jimmy says to her, “drive it down to Albuquerque.”
Kim just shrugs. Looks between him and his mother and then says, “Well, it’d save us buying more flights.”
He frowns, trying to think back to that Friday in the airport, back to the friendly woman at the ticket counter. Didn’t Kim get return tickets?
Kim looks at him for a long moment, and then her face shifts. She says, “I wasn’t really sure, you know…what the situation would be.”
Silence settles over the kitchen, spreading softly to the corners of the room. The clock above the fridge ticks, the second hand trembling with each stuttered movement.
Then Ruth claps. “So, that decides it then,” she says brightly. “As easy as that.” She turns and busies herself in front of the breadbox, opening the curved lid and pulling out a loaf and untwisting its bag. “Oh, and honey?” she says, not turning back. “I think the tires need some air.”
He laughs softly and glances to Kim, who’s still at the edge of the kitchen, her hands clasped in front of her.
She raises her eyebrows at him, and he walks over, stepping around to her other side and then drawing close.
“Listen, Kim,” he says quietly, “I can still take you to the airport, and then you’ll get back in time for work tomorrow.” Beneath the words is the thought: then maybe no one has to know that you looked through your boss’s childhood photo albums. That you had dinner with your boss’s mother this weekend. He shakes his head and says, “I mean, Jesus, how long is this even gonna take?”
But Kim shrugs. “We can get there by Tuesday,” she says simply. “I’ll call in sick on Monday morning.” Her gaze holds his. “Jimmy,” she says, lowly, “I can make up the hours. I’ll just tell them I’ve got a twenty-four-hour bug or something.”
Jimmy frowns, rubbing at his chin and looking away. His mother is staring over at them, too, and after a moment her gaze meets his own. As their eyes connect, she mimes a zip over her lips. She holds the pose for a couple of seconds, and then she smiles, a little glimmering thing that reaches the wrinkles around her eyes. Jimmy breathes out, and looks back to Kim.
“I mean, really, d’you know how many times Jack has phoned in and I’ve had to pick up his slack?” Kim continues. “Believe me, I am due.”
And he feels a smile of his own crawling up his face, but he resists it. He says, “Kim, seriously, it’s gotta be like, a thousand miles. At least.”
“Jimmy,” she says softly. Her face grows still. Her eyes hold his, dark discs in the blue. There’s the slightest flicker of an expression, intense and unreadable and gone before he can put his finger on it, but, if he really had to name it, he would call it, maybe— want .
As he inhales roughly, Kim breaks the gaze.
She says, “Well, fair enough, if you don’t want to do it, I know how much you love catching the bus—”
“Okay, fine,” Jimmy says loudly. “Whatever, I’m in.” And he lets himself, finally, grin.
Kim swats his arm and brushes past him. She pours herself another cup of coffee, the dark liquid splashing into the white ceramic. Pours one for him, too. When he takes it, his fingers brush hers.
The kitchen fills with the sound of Ruth clattering in the dishwasher for plates, with the sharp smell of toast, and Jimmy leans against the counter, his hands around the warm mug. He lets himself think about it all, really think about it. The freedom of a car. No more relying on Kim or the unpredictable bus. He could leave half an hour later for work, could get home half an hour earlier.
And he lets himself, for a split second, think of Kim agreeing to drive down there with him for… God knows, however long it takes. For a thousand miles, at least. He can feel the smile tracing his lips, and he stands there, staring out the window and through the gap into the neighbor’s yard, to the spindly bush with the yellow thread still waving.
“So you’ve got everything?” Ruth says, looking over Jimmy’s shoulder into the open trunk of the sedan. His and Kim’s bags both fit inside with plenty of space, tucked in beside an old toolbox and a couple of rolled-up blankets. “You sure you don’t want to go back inside and double check?”
Jimmy closes the trunk with a snap, the Volvo bobbing on its back wheels. “Mom, d’you think I was spreading all my clothes around like breadcrumbs? We were here two nights. Two.”
“Well, okay,” she says, and she looks up at him, eyes gentle.
“I’ll call you when we make it back,” he says. He pats the top of the trunk. “Gotta let you know if the old thing makes it in one piece, huh?”
Or as close to one piece as it’s in right now, anyway. The paint-job is holding up well enough—a dark, sea-foam green—but there’s an orange rust running along the bottom of the windows and seeping down from where the wing mirrors meet the body. The body itself is angular looking, a 70s style sedan with a shovel nose. 1978. That year, the car was too shiny and too expensive, and his father’s grin had been shiny, too, sitting in the front seat as the rest of them stood around the new car in the garage.
The garage itself hasn’t changed at all. It’s still warm, still smelling of dust and oil and lemon-scented things. An orange-hued bulb hangs on a wire with a string-pull, and there’s a little frosted window in the side door that lets in a haze of morning sunlight to catch the edges of an old sewing machine, of a broken KitchenAid and old paint cans.
When Ruth makes a soft noise, Jimmy turns back to her. He says, “You tell me when you need it and I’ll bring it right back, okay? Seriously.”
She pats his arm. “Of course, honey.” She wraps him in a hug, a rush of floral-scent and warmth.
He remembers to be careful of her this time, and he rests his palms gently on her shoulders—just touching, no pressure. Ruth’s hand rubs up and down on his own back, shifting the fabric of his windbreaker over his t-shirt with a hiss.
“I’m very proud of you, Jimmy,” she murmurs, and then before he can respond she quickly draws away, with the familiar squeeze and release of his upper arms. “Drive safe, okay?”
“Thanks, Mom,” he says, softly. “Really.” And then, even quieter: “And you’ll call me when you hear anything from the doctor, right?”
“Of course,” Ruth says. She smiles to him, greying hair curling back from her forehead, and then she looks away. “And Kim,” she says, moving around the car, “it was a pleasure to get to meet you.”
“You too,” Kim says, but her eyes are on Jimmy, soft and warm. Ruth moves around and hugs her then, too, her hands coming up to rest on Kim’s back, and Kim looks away from him.
They hold it for a few seconds, and then Ruth releases Kim. She says, “Take care of him for me, okay?”
Over the roof of the sedan, Jimmy says, “She means take me out back and shoot me.”
“Well, that I can do,” Kim says, and she grins sideways at him. “Put you out of your misery.”
“Of course,” Jimmy says, grinning back. He taps his palm on the car.
And then his gaze snaps to Ruth, standing there so small in the dusty brown light of the garage, and a part of him suddenly, horribly, wants to already be gone, wants to be on the road and out of Cicero and the green-walled hospital and the small house, with the eyes of his mother behind him and the flat yellow land of New Mexico waiting far ahead.
As he lifts the garage door, he stares into the dark corners, notices the bicycle broken from when he crashed it into a concrete alley wall, notices the stacks of old magazines, the old dinner set with chipped edges. As he drives the car out into the alley, he feels the bump of the wheels over the lip of cement, feels the dip where the water collects when it rains. Where the leaves gather in fall.
And, as he sits in the idling car, as Kim rolls down the garage door, he watches the dark shape of Ruth standing there, her cardigan down over her hands in the chill of the morning, her hair drifting with the wind coming in through the gap, and he thinks he should appreciate it all more than he does, that he should stay here longer than he does—
But he doesn’t. He just watches as the roller door closes, and turns forward again, looking away.
In the car, nestled against the old sheepskin covers, with the scent of something familiar in the recycled air that blasts coolly through the console vents, Jimmy shuts off the engine..
He turns to Kim. Through the window behind her, the twisted trees of neighboring houses are grey-green in the morning light, watchful and stern. He should say something. After last night, he should say something.
He opens his mouth and imagines saying that he wants to really be with her, all in. Cards on the table, chips in the middle.
But he can already see her shaking her head. He wonders darkly if they had slept together last night whether Kim would be here in the car with him, or whether she’d be on a plane home, ready to step back over some new line in the sand.
Like she’s worried she’ll look to him one day, and he won’t be there. He swallows.
“So it’s just us now,” he finally says, softly in the settling stillness. “No more Hurricane Ruth. I can still take you to the airport first.”
Kim frowns at him, her brow creasing. “What, and drive the whole way alone?” she says. Her face grows, somehow, even softer. “Come on, Jimmy.”
He feels something click in his chest, finally. “Well, all right, then,” he says. He turns the keys, and the ignition catches and burns. “Let’s hit it.”
The air pump beeps, and Jimmy removes the nozzle from the Volvo’s right front tire. He rises from the hard cement awkwardly, his knees aching, and then loops the air hose back around the hook on the machine. He’s checked each wheel twice, and the tires are holding okay.
The whole thing feels like he’s running through the preparations for some ritual, like he’s stretching and inhaling before a long run. He kicks the toe of his shoe idly against the front tire, then gets back in the car and drives down to one of the gas pumps.
And the ritual continues: He opens the gas-cap cover and lifts the nozzle from the pump and slots it inside, then clicks in the little latch under the handle and lets the fuel flow. As the gas tank fills, he wonders if Volvo have a different poetic name for the color of this car. River valley green. Seaweed green. Hissing, the pump churns out fuel, and the air fills with the biting, sweet scent of gasoline. Gasoline green.
Over the forecourt, trapped rainbows glimmer in patches of dark cement.
The latch on the nozzle snaps down again, and Jimmy frees the pump then hangs it back up. Crackling music rattles from the overhead speakers, and it grows crisper as he steps through the automatic doors of the bright storefront. An old crooner singing alongside blaring horns.
Jimmy waits for the attendant and then pays for his gas, and a couple of coffees, as large as possible, and some danishes.
Kim’s standing in front of a rack of magazines and pamphlets, holding a road atlas. Her brow is creased, and she’s got the book open to a page for Missouri. He can see the spidery lines snaking out from Kansas City. All roads lead to Kansas City.
“So, you got it all figured out, yet?” Jimmy murmurs, moving up closer beside her. “Second freeway to the right and then straight on till morning?”
Kim chuckles and turns. He holds out her enormous coffee. A smile flashes over her face, and she tucks the road atlas under her arm and takes the cup. She has a long drink, then indicates the road atlas by shifting her arm. “I’m gonna get this. You need anything else or you good?”
He waves the paper bag of pastries dangling from his grip. “All set.”
They walk back to the counter. As they wait for the attendant to be free, Kim spins a tall display of cassette tapes. Discount stickers are plastered all over it, stars and explosions and jagged letters, and then some less flamboyantly-advertised new releases.
There’s a clock on the wall above the counter. It’s shaped like a little car. The minute hand is pointing out through the front windshield: 8:15.
The attendant comes over: a tall guy with stringy hair and a peach-fuzz mustache. He rings up Kim’s road atlas and her bottled water and then frowns. Nods his head to the stand of cassettes she’s still studying and sniffs. “Were you gonna pick anything, lady?” he says, droll and low and oblivious to the look Kim’s just shot him.
Jimmy wipes a hand over his mouth to disguise his smile.
“If you fill up on gas it’s buy two, get one free,” the lanky attendant adds. He gives another sniff, then nods to Jimmy, and, with all the condescension of a king, he says, “He got gas like, two minutes ago, so I can still put it through with the discount, actually.”
Kim looks back to the tape stands. She nods slowly, eyes on the spines of the cases. “Yeah, okay,” she murmurs, and she spins the rack again.
They walk back over the forecourt, the paper bag of pastries swinging from Jimmy’s grasp and the coffee warm against his other palm. The gas station is filling up a bit, now: an RV parking up over two spaces; a family having a conversation at the front of a loaded-down van; a businesswoman standing six feet away from the pumps, talking on a cellphone.
Jimmy gets into the driver’s seat and nestles his coffee into the cup holder. The clock on the dash says 8:23. He looks sideways at Kim.
“Daylight’s burning,” she says, her eyebrows lifting.
And he laughs warmly, still surprised by it all. He turns the key and the engine kicks on again, and then they’re really going, the car groaning and then humming beneath them as the pass the empty red-brick factories, and the overgrown lots, and the low lines of old bungalows that vanish along every passing street.
The sun’s a flash of white behind enormous grey clouds that loom over the houses, that swell hugely upward from the road as it rises to a bridge, crossing the train lines that run down past his mother’s house and out, out to the hospital and then beyond the city, always somewhere beyond the city.
Jimmy doesn’t turn to follow the tracks this time. He drives on southward to meet the freeway instead, merging with the speeding cars that cruise down the smooth, wide lanes. They snake over old canals, over widened riverbeds that fuel the industrial city.
As he drives, it becomes more and more the kind of grey and dark day they never get in Albuquerque. The sky feels low above them. It’s not raining but here it hasn’t been long since: the highway is sheet metal before him and there’s a glitter to everything, to the grass on the parkway and the dark-leaved trees. Jimmy sips his coffee, and Kim scans through the radio stations until they hit on a traffic report. Sunday morning and clear roads ahead.
“So,” Jimmy says, as a cheerful jingle closes out the report, “what’s the plan, here? We just gonna put as many miles behind us as we can until we need to eat or, I dunno, pee—” He darts a quick glance at the two enormous cups of coffee sitting in the console.
Kim snorts. “I’ll start plotting bathroom breaks now, huh?” She pulls off the cap of a Hamlindigo blue pen, and in the corner of his eye he sees her trace a line over the road map, running southwest of Chicago. “How long you think you can last—twenty minutes?”
“Oh, I can go forty,” Jimmy says lightly, reaching up to adjust the rearview mirror a little. “Maybe even forty-five.”
Kim snorts, and says, “Yeah, you wish,” as she turns a page over in the road atlas. “I think we can get to Kansas City tonight. Maybe get a motel somewhere past it, maybe Wichita if we can make it. That’d be about halfway.”
“So, what, Illinois and Missouri today at least?” Jimmy asks.
Kim makes a little noise of agreement. She flicks another page, then turns back, and says, “Damn.”
“We were supposed to get a free mug with this,” she grumbles, and she spins the map around to face him. There’s a little red starburst in the lower right corner with a picture of a blue and green mug on it.
“Well, fuck that, then,” Jimmy says.
“Yeah, I’ll just throw it out onto the road,” Kim says.
He chuckles and shifts lanes, accelerating to pass a sixteen wheeler. Has another long drink of his coffee. It’s cooling already, bitter and sweet, and he chases it with an enormous bite of one of the danishes. “Mmrf, hey, help yourself,” he says, spraying powdered sugar forward onto the steering wheel.
“Thanks,” Kim says, brushing a hand over her own face.
He folds the last bite into his mouth then wipes his hands on his jeans. Twists a dial and scrubs through the radio stations (sports, sports, talk back) and then he just turns the volume down.
They pass brown road signs—first one, then another, then another. Jimmy’s eyes catch on them each time, the words holding his gaze: Historic Route 66. The signs point to a frontage road running parallel to them, old and cracked. Green and brown bushes speckle the ditch between it and the freeway, and there’s a low wire fence right before the edge of the dirt.
The distant beginning of the same route they’d driven on together two years ago, back when he had felt like he was somehow rescuing Kim from something—when he had felt like he should whisk her away from the piles of textbooks and exams and classes.
He glances sideways. A curve of cheekbone and the flash of blue headband. The glimpse of shadowed clavicle above her blouse. He can see the mole in the gap there without actually seeing it.
He looks back to the road.
And the memories of that are suddenly so vivid. Maybe it’s the time of year. Maybe it’s being on a freeway with hours ahead of them, even though it’s so different here: dark trees and rivers and the grey whorls of clouds above and still the glint of the since-gone rain on it all.
He’s not thinking about the freeway though, really.
Jimmy clears his throat. “So, how’s work?”
Kim turns. “Work?” she says, after a beat, like she’s coming back from somewhere far away.
“Mm,” Jimmy says, “the great upstairs getting you down?”
Kim groans, and he hears the thud of her head hitting the headrest. But she says, “It’s fine. We’re not so busy as we were. It kind of comes in waves, actually.” She leans forward and fiddles with the air con, then settles back. “The professors warned us but I didn’t realize there would still be so much to learn, you know?”
“That bad?” Jimmy says softly.
She turns to the window, a flash of blonde in the corner of his eye. Her voice is quieter when it comes: “Jimmy, you know how grateful I am to HHM.” A pause, just the hum of the car. “But I suppose I can’t remember the last day I didn’t…the last day I just didn’t , you know?” She exhales, and the blonde hair visible in the side of his eye flares again as she turns. “Other than yesterday.”
He flicks a glance, skimming off her shadowed face and then back to the wide and vanishing highway before them. “Well, get ready for a whole lot of didn’t today,” he murmurs. “Miles and miles of didn’t.”
And he’s thinking of White Sands again, now, of the two of them alone out in all that emptiness. Just them and the rippled shadows over the dunes and the trapped colors of the falling sun. Miles and miles of didn’t.
He taps his fingers on the wheel. Has a sip of the lukewarm gas station coffee. Nestles it back in the holder and quickly looks at Kim again, at the curve of her against the grey glimmer of the window, then stares forward.
“Okay,” he says, slowly, wetting his bottom lip, “road trip game.” He waits until he sees her turn to him again, and then he asks, “What do you think is the opposite of coffee?”
She chuckles. “Is this some Chicago version of I-spy?” He stays silent, watching the road, until finally she offers: “Okay, I suppose, tea.”
“Hmm,” Jimmy says, folding his lips and nodding. But he says, “Those’re both drinks. Both have caffeine.”
Kim doesn’t respond. He can imagine the patient tilt of her eyebrows without needing to really look.
And he says, “Like, maybe the opposite of coffee is pizza.”
“Huh,” Kim says mildly. There’s a moment of humming silence until she says, “You still put that in your mouth, though.”
Jimmy pats his palm on the wheel. “True,” he says. “True.” Another quiet moment. He says, “Okay. Pittsburgh.”
“Pittsburgh?” Kim says, with new brightness at the edge of her tone. There’s a long moment, and then she says, “They have coffee in Pittsburgh.”
“Do they?” He shrugs. “Have you ever been?”
“I guess not,” she says. She finally reaches for the paper bag of pastries and pulls out a danish, cupping her palm beneath it as she takes a bite. She swallows, then says, “I was thinking diamonds.”
Jimmy smiles. “Wow,” he says, “yeah, that’s not similar at all. Diamonds. Well done.”
Kim has another bite of her pastry. She says, “Thank you,” her voice muffled.
They’re quiet for a while. The wheels judder over the raised cat’s eyes along the road markings as he shifts lanes again.
Kim says, “So what about the opposite of ice, then?”
He grins. “Ice?” he says, and he makes a soft noise. “Well, obviously not fire.”
“Obviously not,” Kim says warmly. “They both burn you.”
“Right?” he says. “Totally. Okay, so the opposite of ice is, uh…” He rubs his lip. “Airplanes.”
And Kim says warily, “Airplanes?”
“Yeah, sure,” he says. “Ice is on the ground, planes are in the air, that’s pretty opposite.” He lifts a hand from the wheel. “Plus, ice melts.” A darted glance, his smile growing. “Planes do not melt.”
Kim finally chuckles. “No, not ideally,” she says, shaking her head. Another chuckle, then she adds, “Okay, well reasoned.”
“Thank you very much,” he says, running the words together like Elvis. He waits a minute, until the clock on the dash ticks over, and then he asks another one: the opposite of a cow.
As they talk, the traffic on the freeway slowly thins. They pass the steep flat sides of factories, pass signs for rest areas and the turnoffs for suburbs and towns. The sky is close and grey above them, bright with glimpses of the sun.
Eventually, Kim reaches down into the plastic bag at her feet and pulls out one of her cassettes. She runs a thumbnail along the plastic wrap, tearing it open, then slips it into the tape deck. The opening track is slow at first, but it swells, synths and bells and a sliding guitar, and it sounds like a funeral or a wedding.
The freeway crosses the river again. The bridge here is a huge, metal-girdered thing, crosshatched with rust-riveted beams and steel struts. Bars flash past the window on the other side of Kim, and, through the gaps, the Des Plaines river stretches widely off toward the tree-lined banks. The water is as grey as the sky, a mirrored patch of clouds. And here in the 1978 Volvo, with Kim beside him and a thousand miles waiting ahead, it feels just like the man is singing about in the song, like living on the edge of the world.
“Huh,” Kim says beside him. She’s staring upwards, her head tipped back, hair drifting loosely above her shoulders in the wind.
Jimmy looks upwards, too. “Yep,” he says, echoing her soft tone.
“I mean…” Kim starts, and then she makes another thoughtful noise. “Huh. It’s definitely big.”
“Definitely big,” Jimmy agrees. “Definitely a hot dog.”
Kim nods. “Right,” she says, “and that’s definitely Paul Bunyan.”
The man before them is huge, at least twenty feet tall, wearing a red button-up and blue jeans. He glares down at them with dead black eyes and tilted dark brows. Instead of an axe, he’s holding a hot dog.
Paul Bunyon, the sign says. He’s off brand.
“Huh,” Kim says, again, and then by unspoken agreement they both turn away at the same time, heading back down the quiet, empty town street. It’s colorful and manicured, the storefronts all clean and freshly painted. They almost look like dollhouses.
“So how many pigs d’you think it’d take to make that dog?” Jimmy asks idly, checking his watch and then tucking his hands into his pockets.
“I don’t know what you think a regular-sized hot dog is made of, Jimmy, but that one is probably still only, like…half a pig,” Kim says.
He chuckles, says, “Yeah, maybe,” and then slows to a stop, halfway down the wide and quiet street.
It takes Kim a couple of seconds to notice he’s not following anymore. She turns back and tilts her head, her hair blowing sideways as the wind rises. “You okay?” she asks, finally. “What’s up?”
He points through a gap in the quaint, flat-fronted buildings, out over the train tracks. A yellow smiley face stares at them from hundreds of feet in the air, supported by a thick, white pillar. Its eyes are dark dots and its smile is enormous, maybe a dozen feet wide.
Kim turns so she’s shoulder to shoulder with him. She lets out a little amused huff and then stills.
The enormous face smiles at Jimmy. There are brownish stains around the lower part of the sphere, and the top is sun-bleached, off yellow and pale. Only the eyes seem to hold the same color as when they were painted: dark and sharp at the edges. Even the smile is fading into an accidental jeer as the paint becomes patchwork somewhere up in the dimpled curves of the simplistic cheeks.
Beside him, in a low voice, Kim says, “God sees everything.”
He turns to her. “That’s a water tower.”
And Kim chuckles, and pats his arm. “I know.”
They continue down the road, through the tiny town with its well-tended gardens and Old West-style storefronts. It feels like a perfectly-frozen capsule of the past, like stepping back through time. Just like the strange town up in the high mountains near Alamogordo that had reminded Jimmy of High Plains Drifter.
On a patch of grass about the size of his mother’s backyard, there’s an ancient red ticket office framed by two identical oak trees. It looks like a city park in miniature: walled off with low red brick, and a tiny path twists circuitously up to the little red building, like something from a fairy tale, even though it’s only travelling about six feet.
In the same block, a Route 66 gift shop is filled with trinkets designed to seem older than they are. The ceiling is low, and novelty lampshades hang at forehead level throughout the store.
“What are you looking for?” Kim asks, as Jimmy kneels to dig through one of the cluttered lower shelves.
He glances up and laughs. “Albuquerque shot glasses,” he says.
She smiles and rests her hand on the top of his head, and she squeezes past behind him to look at a stand of fridge magnets. She leaves behind the shadow of the touch.
Jimmy stretches, lacing his fingers together and straightening his arms up over his head, the bones clicking in his back and high up near his neck. He rolls his head around and then exhales, and lowers his arms. His shoulders ache.
“Want to swap for a bit?” Kim asks, coming up to the side of the car. “I can drive.”
“Mm—yeah, okay,” Jimmy murmurs, pressing his palm into the nape of his neck. He exhales, and leans against the sea-foam body. The car is warm behind him, and a breeze carries over the forecourt and then outward, rippling like a brushed hand over the endless fields of green corn that border the Love’s Travel Stop.
Kim turns, and leans against the car beside him, her shoulder brushing his.
Another gust blows, and the corn dances. He hears Kim breathe, just like the wind here, and Jimmy says, softly, “This your kind of country, yet?”
Kim stares off into it, her profile flat and muted in the overcast light. “No, not the same,” she says, finally. Beneath the grey clouds, her eyes seem grey too, pale and shining.
Though the clouds are lightening steadily, more white now, really, and rippled like marble. “Mm,” he says, “guess this is more like, you know…” He presses a couple of fingers to his forehead, rubbing the skin, then quotes: “This plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”
Kim chuckles. “Yeah, you better watch out, Cary.”
“I think that was the other guy, actually,” Jimmy says, picking up his soda from the roof of the car and shaking it so the ice cubes clack around in the cup. “You know? The guy waiting for the bus or whatever.”
“Sure,” she says, softly, and she smiles at him.
He takes a long, rattling drink from his soda, draining half of it in one go, and when he lowers it Kim’s staring at him in barely-hidden amusement. She tilts her head, and cuts her gaze down to the jumbo-sized cup.
“Hey,” he says, gesturing with the soda, “you said you didn’t want one!”
She holds out her hands. “Just throw me the keys.”
He does. In the grey and white light, they land, jangling, in her palm.
The countryside passes in sliding flashes of power lines and trees. Farms and old houses peek secretively from the tall corn, their half-hidden windows and dark doorways like eyes peering at each passer-by over the leaves. Distant lines of dense trees mark the edges of other unknown places, obscuring the horizon.
Jimmy props his left foot up on the dashboard and sits with his torso folded, watching the rush of green and grey. He presses the side button to flash up the red numbers on his watch: 12:48.
And he reaches down into the footwell and pulls up a bag of pork rinds, cracking open the plastic bag. He holds them out to Kim, and she takes a couple, her eyes not leaving the freeway. Jimmy nestles the open bag into the center console and then tips his head back against the headrest, tapping his foot on the dash to the slow and steady thrum of guitars on the stereo.
In his duffel in the trunk, the law school letters. Six envelopes. He thinks if he started opening them right now, he could drop each rejection out the window like a trail to follow if he ever needs to crawl back to icy sidewalks and basement apartments.
Jimmy lays his hand on the statue’s nose. The bronze is warm from the sun. He rubs his palm over the smooth surface and looks into the dark, heavy-lidded eyes above. The pupils are holes carved deep into the metal.
And he steps back. Kim’s beside him, facing the other way, so he turns around, and sees what this bronze bust of Lincoln sees: a great lawn surrounded by towering old trees, with green leaves and rugged branches. Storybook trees. The enormous low clouds of earlier are thinning, and there are glimpses of blue through the grey, patches of bright sun that move over the colossal cemetery, that throw afternoon shadows.
Inside, they’re greeted by another Lincoln, sitting proudly in bronze, smaller than life size but somehow still imposing. The statue is all lit up on his pedestal in the middle of the circular room. Jimmy and Kim follow the tall marble corridor that vanishes off the entry-room, and in its caverns they pass more hollow-eyed statues, pass more cold stern walls all hushed and still. Jimmy’s footfalls feel impossibly loud. Kim runs her fingers over the well-worn snout of a bronze horse. Over the top of a shoe.
Then they turn another corner, and, glowing under spotlights like a singer on a stage, there waits the tomb itself, a red marble slab rippled and layered like a slice cut and lifted from the Earth.
Jimmy’s eyes are fixed to it, to the great theatrical presentation of the thing. The piece of marble is encircled by saluting flags, with embossed golden words on the wall behind it. He hears the inhale of someone else turning the corner, someone else looking at the tomb.
It feels as if he and Kim and all the other visitors moving here through the cold corridors under all the many eyes of all the many frozen Lincolns now return those bronze stares thousandfold upon this red tomb. Lincoln watching and being watched. The skin on Jimmy’s neck crawls.
When he turns, though, Kim’s facing the other way, facing the wall crypt of Mary Todd Lincoln. The crypt marker is a huge rectangle of pale marble inside a black border, and it seems to swell under the beam of a single soft light. The squat letters of Mary’s name adorn it unassumingly, MARY TODD LINCOLN all in capitals, in an even and characterless script. The letters watches the red glowing tomb of their husband.
And Kim’s brow is drawn.
Jimmy thinks of the hundred-foot marble obelisk towering above, and a dead president’s body somewhere below, and them here in the middle. And it seems like everything here was designed so you’d feel the crushing weight of it all coming down on yourself, all the marble and heavy bronze, and the floor-to-ceiling crypts of Mary Todd Lincoln and her sons there holding it up.
And he and Kim are outside again, now, with ice-creams. A churning wind rattles the ancient-looking trees on the edge of the cemetery, where the grass cuts with a clean edge along the sidewalk. The curb is perfectly, impossibly clean. The trees shake.
“You know, she was holding his hand when he was shot,” Kim says, finally, words cracking through the rustle of the graveyard’s edge. She turns to him, eyes hard. “Can you imagine?”
Jimmy shakes his head. Behind Kim, the ice cream cart is sliced in half by the shadow of a tree. The dark leaves ripple over the white roof.
“She only wore black after he died,” Kim murmurs. “And then she was institutionalized.”
Jimmy takes a cold, sweet bite of his chocolate ice cream and looks away. He doesn’t know what to say, but he doesn’t think Kim needs him to say anything, anyway.
In a sunlit wind, the trees move and then fall still, move and then still.
Jimmy tilts his head back against the headrest and feel the vibrations drift through his skin, down into his neck and shoulders. The sheepskin seat cover is warm beneath him, and he cranks down the window, letting the wind whip through the music-filled car.
It smells of the country, finally—like livestock, somehow sickly sweet. Tied-up hay bales dot the fields like spilled marbles. Jimmy exhales, and rolls his head on his shoulders, and then sits forward again. Picks up a Rubik's Cube from the dashboard, and turns a few of the sides, trying to gather the reds onto one face. He gets one line of them, then two. Twists another side. Spins it around. He can’t get the bottom left corner no matter what he does.
“Fuck it!” he says. “I give up. It’s impossible.” He tosses the cube over into the backseat behind him.
Kim’s chuckling softly. She hums along to the track and then, light and just the right level of carefree to bug him, says, “You sure?”
He huffs, and twists around in his seat, wedging a hand onto Kim’s shoulder for leverage as he stretches back there to grab the cube.
He can feel her tremble with laughter beneath his palm.
They cross the Mississippi mid-afternoon, the water dark and rippling in the wind. Here, the riverbanks are dense with trees and the kinds of tangled logs that kids would fish from in old stories. Kim drives slowly and steadily with the other cars, and one of the worn tapes that his mother left in the glove box plays on the stereo: 60s guitar lines that were recorded backwards on the track, with harmonic voices layered above.
The clouds shift, and Kim flips down the windshield visor as the sun flares orange before them, floating above the other side of the river. The rays catch the dirt on the car windshield.
Jimmy leans forwards and stretches, arcing his back. He bends and then straightens each of his legs. Rubs his thumb into the dip of his left knee and flexes it again. Hisses under his breath.
Kim glances to him, her face light and calm. “Break time?” she murmurs. “Get some air?”
He huffs out a long breath, then nods. “Yeah, all right,” he says. “Hey, one state down.”
“Three hundred miles,” Kim says, nodding.
“We’re almost there, then,” he says. The words come out with a thin layer of disappointment beneath the irony. He can’t tell from Kim’s expression whether she noticed it there or not. Three hundred miles and still hundreds more to go, and his body one big knot, but he feels the road vanishing now as they cross the first state line, and he wishes that it wouldn’t.
As they reach the other side of the river, a sign for Missouri welcomes them beneath the burning afternoon sun.
Jimmy rests his forearms on the warm metal railing, looking out at the river through a gap in the trees. He inhales, letting the clean air settle in his lungs, and then he expels it slowly, out to drift downstream with the wind. The trees here have thick, fat leaves that shiver with the sway of their gnarled branches.
The afternoon sun is warm on his shoulders, and the light glitters in flecks on the surface the rippling Mississippi: gold over the green. Shadows stretch from the shivering trees and out to the water, darkening patches along the banks. The tiny mirrored glimpses of the sun seem to float in and out of the dark patches, flashing and then vanishing only to reappear some feet later downstream.
And there downstream, along the shore: a town. From their vantage point, Jimmy can see straight along the main street. The buildings here have flat, old facades, too, and it’s like a perfect, sharp-edged slice has been lifted out of the town.
The sun presses on his back, and Jimmy sighs. “This place like your Willa Cather?” he murmurs, and he looks to Kim.
She turns away from the river to face him, too, her hair drifting over her face. She brushes it clear, and cocks her head to the side.
“All the Mark Twain stuff here, I mean,” Jimmy says, waving a hand to the town below. “Mark Twain Avenue, Mark Twain restaurants, Mark Twain Bridge”—he twists, and gestures behind them—“Mark Twain Lighthouse.” The lighthouse is a tall, white-brick thing with a red door, picture perfect, that stands atop the overlook here.
But Kim smiles, shaking her head. “It wasn’t like this, no,” she says, but then she frowns. “Although I really don’t… it’s been a long time now.” She shrugs lightly. “Maybe some of those petitions finally won.”
Jimmy shifts, angling his body away from the river and toward Kim. He tilts his head, and gives a little half smile, then he says, “Yeah, well. I reckon these guys have probably tried to rename the Mississippi after Mark Twain.”
She smiles softly. “Be easier to spell that way, I guess.”
He chuckles, and then turns back to the slowly-moving water. The glimmered fragments of the sun float like flower petals between the shadows of the trees.
And behind him, the lighted beacon of the lighthouse turns. He read a sign earlier that said it was first lit by President Roosevelt using a gold key in Washington D.C., a key that ignited a signal that traveled down telegraph lines over half the country until it reached the banks of the Mississippi and spluttered to life here, too far inland to protect any ships. A light just to turn and shine. He imagines the electric current snapping across America, and he twists his body around to look up at it now, at the slow flash of the old beacon.
Eventually, he and Kim descend the narrow steps that climb the craggy cliffside, back down to the parking lot, Jimmy’s knee protesting weakly with the downward jolts until they’re back on lower ground. Here, at the river level, the dirt around the parking lot is patchy with dead grass and sand, and piles of tangled leaves and branches are gathered against the hollow parts of the cliff. A splintered tree lies half-in and half-out of the river.
Jimmy flexes his knee again and then rocks his weight on it. Swivels his torso back and forth, elbows at right angles. He can hear the click of bones shifting in his lower back. “God,” he says, and he presses his palm into his spine and tries to crack it.
Kim’s eyes twist sympathetically. “Doing okay there, Grandpa?”
“Eugh,” he says, looking her up and down, looking at her easy stance, “how are you still in one piece?”
“I didn’t spend my twenties throwing myself at icy sidewalks,” Kim says mildly.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he says, “I’m like a retired athlete.” He lowers himself down awkwardly, and lies back on the cement. Kim looms into his vision, her cheeks pink and hair loose with flyaways. “Don’t make me get back in the car, yet, Kim,” he says up to her. “I won’t do it.” He closes his eyes, the sun warm on his eyelids.
The cement is warm too, and he can feel the muscles relaxing in his back. He could sleep here. Stay in this one spot forever. He could just melt into a pool on the pavement.
“Hey, Kim,” he murmurs into the yellow darkness of his closed eyes, “d’you want to live with me in Mark Twain town? I’m sure they still need lawyers.” He shifts, rubbing his back against the pavement. “Or maybe we could start a river boat cruise, y’know? I’ll get one of those river boat… hats…”
“Jimmy, are you dehydrated?”
He opens his eyes and looks up at her.
“Don’t answer that,” Kim says, shaking her head. “You don’t need another sixty-four ounce soda.” But she smiles softly, and she holds out her hand. “Let’s go for a walk. Stretch our legs a bit more. And we can stop somewhere for dinner soon, okay?” She waggles her extended hand. He takes it and she helps him up.
The sea-foam Volvo is parked up at the base of the craggy lighthouse, but they leave it there and wander down into town, along the main street he had seen from the overlook. The road is cracked in spidery lines, and the stores look like they’ve been open for a hundred years, from the time shop was still spelled with an extra ‘p’ and an ‘e’. There’s a gift shop with racks of t-shirts in the window: mostly with Mark Twain’s face or characters, but there are several shirts that say in big bright text, I Survived the Flood of 1993.
There are other remnants of last year’s flood throughout the town, too. A yellowing paper in a shop window that assures everyone they have sandbags in stock, and news clippings up in the windows of cafés.
People sit under bright umbrellas at tables along the street like it’s a seaside resort, the Mississippi River one block over. The orange sun drifts down toward the tall shopfronts with their old-fashioned facades, with their ornate cornices.
And everywhere more Mark Twain: sculptures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, of the man himself. The shoe of one statue is polished and gleaming from years of being touched, just like the shoe of one of the Lincolns had been back at Lincoln’s Tomb.
A building at the end of the street here has block letters raised above the flat roof on metal struts, Hotel Mark Twain. It reminds Jimmy of the letters on the old Hawthorne Works factory that had risen from the rooftop to proclaim to all of Cicero that the factory belonged to Western Electric.
He and Kim double back up a different block, moving slowly through tree-lined streets. On the edge of the town, tucked against the rise of a hill, they come on a house that feels somehow too-small, or like two houses cobbled together. The lower story is brick, the upper white weatherboard. The building is cut cleanly in two along the horizontal, and neither floor seems tall enough for a person to really stand upright in. There’s a white picket fence and sign out front.
“Molly Brown,” Kim echoes, just as Jimmy’s reading the name, too.
And he nods. “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” At Kim’s glance he says, “Hey, I saw the Debbie Reynolds movie, too, you know.” He grins. “Loved the bit where the toy ship hit the iceberg.”
“Mm,” Kim murmurs. She’s still looking at the old red-and-white house, and she chews absently at her bottom lip. Her thumb jangles at her side. She breathes in. “I watched it with my dad,” she says, eventually, her voice quiet—still looking at the house. She’s silent for a time again, and then she tucks a non-existent hair behind her ear and looks to Jimmy and smiles. “I guess he thought there was going to be more iceberg action and less singing and dinner parties.”
“Yeah?” Jimmy says, softly. The air around his feels fragile, like it could shatter if he moved too fast, or spoke too loud.
But Kim just nods, and she looks to something in the distance behind him. Her eyes shift, back and forth, and then she moves away in the other direction. Jimmy turns toward her gaze. There’s nothing down there, just a cheap motel. He frowns. And he follows her back through the old streets where the ancient green trees swallow up the tiny bungalows, until the two of them are almost back where they began, at the top of the main street with the lighthouse on the hill behind them.
The sun hovers in the west, dripping orange ink onto the clouds that hang above the hills. Wind rustles the branches of a manicured, fence-boxed tree on the sidewalk behind them, and Jimmy inhales. He presses the button on his watch: 4:39. He rolls his shoulders again—they’re looser now, at least.
Beside him, Kim murmurs, “Hey, world’s best root beer.”
“Hm?” Jimmy says, turning to her.
And she points to an old-style brick restaurant on the corner. There’s a sign on the door boasting about the drink, and on a tall wooden pole is an enormous brown model of a glass of root beer. It spins slowly.
“Hah. I guess that’s three claims to fame, then,” Jimmy says.
“Yeah, maybe they should call it the World’s Best Root Beer Bridge,” Kim says warmly. She ghosts a hand over his elbow and moves off toward the place, saying, “Come on, I’ll get you one.”
They stand with their root beers in a courtyard out the back of the restaurant. There’s a wooden pergola that crisscrosses over a collection of outdoor tables, and Kim leans against one of the supports. Jimmy stands beside her, looking off to where the street slopes gently down toward the river.
Through open floodgates at the bottom, he can see the slowly moving water, and the dense line of trees on the opposite bank. He imagines he can hear the rush of the water even though he knows he can’t, not really.
The old-fashioned amber bottle is cold in his hand. He has a sip and then lowers it, staring at the solemn face of Mark Twain on the label. He frowns back at the old man.
“What’s up?” Kim says.
“I, uh”—and he grins lopsidedly at her—“forgot I don’t really like root beer.”
“Well, jeez, Jimmy,” Kim says warmly. “Wasted on you, then.”
He chuckles, then waves a hand to her bottle. “Is it the world’s best, at least?”
She has another sip. Shrugs. “Yeah, it’s okay.”
“Honestly, Kim, I don’t know how you do that.” He makes a little disgusted face at her and shakes his head. “It’s like fizzy piss water.”
“Don’t let the ghost of Mark Twain hear you calling it fizzy piss water,” Kim says, her eyes glittering.
“Why, d’you think he’s listening?”
Kim lifts her eyebrows silently and then looks around. There’s an enormous mural of the writer on a nearby brick wall, black and white paint in broad brushstroke, and a little caricature on the back of each menu, and other portraits, too, on hundreds of keychains in the store window over the street, and one fifteen feet above them on this side of the novelty root beer sign. Jimmy suddenly feels all the many pairs of eyes on him, feels them crawling on the nape of his neck.
He widens his gaze back at Kim. He murmurs, “We’d better make a run for it then, huh?”
“Yeah, all right,” Kim says, and she pushes off the pillar. They walk beneath the crosshatched shadows of the pergola and back out to the quiet town streets, the air that's fresh and bright from the river. The wind ruffles his hair and cools his bare forearms.
Jimmy drops his root beer into a trash can on the way back to the car.
“God, okay,” Kim says, eyes bright over the round red table, “then what happened?”
“Well, I obviously had to go over there and see her, right?” Jimmy says, tapping his palm on the table. “She lived way out in Roselle so I had to get two trains—” He breaks off, leaning back as the waiter comes by to clear their plates.
“Get you guys anything else?” the waiter asks, stacking their empty glasses on a tray and then smiling tiredly, dark lines creasing around his eyes.
Jimmy taps a finger on his lips. “Another Maid-Rite?”
“You got it,” the waiter says, and he smiles at them again and then heads back down over the black and white checkered floor toward the kitchen, his red shirt coming untucked from the back of his slacks.
Jimmy looks back to Kim, who’s staring at him dryly.
“Really?” she says, the word a single flat tone.
He nods. “Yeah, I had to go all the way into Chicago—”
“No—” she starts, and she exhales. Waves at the table before him. “How many more sloppy joes can you possibly eat?”
“Sloppy joes?” he repeats, reeling back. “Okay, Kim, first of all, these are completely different.” He holds up a finger. “Totally unique food. And second, it says they’ve been making them here since the 50s. Since the 50s, Kim! So they’re that good.”
Her eyebrows rise. “Didn’t they put mercury in everything in the 50s?”
“Yeah!” Jimmy says, throwing up his hands. “And the mercury is what makes them good!”
She chuckles, head tilting down so her eyelashes catch the light.
He grins. “Anyway, whatever,” he says, driving a finger down into the table, “stop distracting me.” He taps the finger again. His grin widens, returning to the memory. “So I get there, all the way to Roselle, and she has these hippy parents, super young, can’t have been much older than Chuck. They have carpets hanging everywhere, and these little, like, blue eyes up on all the walls just leering at me the whole time, okay?”
“Creepy blue eyes,” Kim says, nodding. “Sure.”
And Jimmy nods along with her. “Yep. And of course her bedroom has a beaded curtain instead of a door.”
“God,” Kim says, snorting.
His heart fills warmly, and he nods at her again. Carries on: “We’re fooling around in there anyway and then her Mom comes in, right through the curtain. And I’m panicking, right?” He wets his lips, hands up in front of him. “But she just takes me off to one side and hands me a condom and winks. Tells me to have fun.”
Kim chuckles, eyes wide. “So did you?” she asks.
Jimmy grins. “I mean—yeah,” he says. “Yeah, ‘course I did.” He gestures wildly again. “But it was weird , Kim, come on! I thought in the morning her parents would be there with another damn report card for me. Like, I don’t know, D+ for the foreplay—oh hey.” He grins up at their waiter, who has suddenly reappeared at the side of the table.
“Here’s your Maid-Rite,” the waiter says, unflapped, setting the burger down in front of Jimmy. “Enjoy.”
“Wait, hang on, I’ll maybe get—” Jimmy picks up the drinks menu, turning it over to the back where there’s a flashy spread of different novelty milkshakes. He frowns at them, wondering over the different between the chocolate and the chocoblast.
Then the menu vanishes from his grasp.
He makes an affronted noise and looks up. “What?”
“Jimmy,” Kim says, holding the drinks menu, “we’ve still got a lot of Missouri to get through.”
He huffs. “Yeah, all right, fine,” he says, and he nods to the patient waiter. “Yeah, we’re good. Thank you.”
The waiter inclines his head and moves away.
Kim shifts in her chair, settling her head on her hand. “So, the curtain girl…did you see her again?”
Jimmy shakes his head. He shoves half his burger into his mouth. “Mm, nah,” he says thickly, “No way.” He swallows, then grimaces. “I mean, I mostly did it to make another girl jealous anyway.”
Kim groans, shaking her head and closing her eyes.
“Hey, c’mon, you never did that?” Jimmy says, nudging her foot under the table. He imagines, suddenly, Kim kissing some faceless unknown guy at the back of a bar, the figures of the two of them writing in the dark, and it makes him want to rip his skin off, so he looks down. “Okay, yeah, it was really shitty. I was kind of a dick in high school, Kim, hate to break it to you.”
“Like I don’t already know that,” she says warmly.
He grins and shrugs. “We were all kinda dicks then, right? What about you? Come on.” He has another bite of his burger and raises his eyebrows, chewing patiently.
Kim folds her lips inward and shakes her head. She glances away, then back to him. “Honestly, Jimmy I was just boring. Whatever kid in your yearbook you can’t remember at all? That was me.”
“Uh-uh, no way, Kim,” he says, shaking his head. “No way. I’d remember you.” He’s never seen a photo of Kim when she was younger, but he tries to imagine her at that as now, as he finishes his burger. He can almost see her staring up at him from the yearbook page, blonde hair tidy on one of those mottled blue backgrounds, forced smile on her face. “What was your senior quote, anyway?”
“We didn’t do quotes,” she says softly. She looks off behind him, her eyes glimmering. A smile flickers over her lips, and she shakes her head. Drops her palm to the table with a thud and says, “Okay, damn it.”
He grins, wiping his hands on a napkin. “What?”
“I just hate how much you’re going to like this,” Kim murmurs. She inhales. “In my junior high yearbook I got ‘best fingering’.”
Kim waves a hand downward, and, over his splutters, she manages, “I played the cello!”
He drains his glass of water and swallows, then exhales shakily. “Kim, what?”
“I guess that’s what happens when you fill a yearbook committee with a bunch of eighth graders and one ancient guy with tenure,” she says mildly.
He shakes his head slowly, catching his breath and grinning.
Kim smiles back at him under the hanging lamps of the diner. In the warm yellow light, wearing her headband and with her hair tucked behind her ears, he feels like he can see the thirteen-year-old version of her crystal clearly now. See her sitting in class and listening attentively, probably. See her playing an instrument that had to be almost as big as she was.
“The cello, huh?” he says fondly. “I bet you were good.”
Kim snorts. “Jimmy, I was thirteen, I was terrible.”
He taps his hand on the red diner table. “Nope. Don’t believe that.”
“I really was,” she says, but she’s smiling again. “We did an outdoor performance at the school once and dogs a block away howled.”
“Maybe they were crying out, y’know, encore!” he says, hand up to the side of his mouth like he’s shouting the word louder than he really is. He lowers the hand and then shrugs. “You don’t know.”
“True,” Kim says. She smiles softly at him, and taps her palm on the table. After a moment, she tilts her head and nods it toward the counter, and he nods back. He wipes his mouth on a napkin again then balls it up and leaves it on his plate, and they rise from their chairs.
“You’ll serenade me sometime, right?” he says, as they walk through the restaurant. “Break out the old Brahms?”
Kim laughs. “Maybe,” she says, and she touches his arm as they squeeze through the gap between two other groups of diners.
When the car finally needs more gas, the sun has only just set, and the sky is one enormous wash of indigo, still lit up from below the horizon.
Jimmy’s driving again, his window down enough to fill the car with the warm smell of the highway. His foot is a steady pressure on the accelerator. The fuel light glows at him from the dashboard, and he pulls off the freeway at the first exit sign, slowing as they climb the off-ramp then turn left to cross above the steady drift of headlights.
Jimmy slows. There are no streetlamps here, just the purple half-darkness and the yellow glow of his headlights swimming along the black cement.
Dark shapes litter the flat ground outside his window, hundreds of shadowed mounds, and he thinks for a moment they look like headstones—and then the cone of his headlights catches one clearly, and he sees suddenly that they are headstones, that there are hundreds of them here, all stretching out into the dark.
The cemetery runs right up against the road. No fence, no border. Just the mismatched curves and lines of the grave markers like animals grazing in a field. A flag flutters against the sky. The Stars and Stripes are colorless in the darkness.
And then finally the blue overhang of a gas station fades up ahead of them. Jimmy slows, teasing the brakes. And he swallows.
There are the shadows of half a dozen cars under the forecourt. The flash of his headlights reflects off the windows of the store, a sudden mirrored brightness, but there’s no other lights on here, no glowing sign or familiar brand. It’s all just black.
“They look closed,” Kim says from the passenger seat.
He nods slowly, swallowing again. But he flicks on the turn signal and pulls into the entrance anyway, approaching in the quiet whir of first gear, the tires creaking over the cement. He turns, and the headlights roll over the scene like a spotlight. He stops.
And under the spotlight he sees they’re not modern cars but classic cars—American Graffiti stuff with chrome bumpers and fresh paint jobs. A shining red coupe with a white top. Another in teal blue. Behind them all is a classic cop car. It has round headlights and a single, bulbous siren on the roof.
“Okay,” Kim says, and he looks to her. It’s hard to see her expression in the darkness.
He laughs weakly. “I guess it’s just, like, a fun little replica gas station.”
Her silhouetted head nods then turns away from him, looking off into the yellow spotlight of the headlights. “Oh my god…” she murmurs, and suddenly there’s the click of her seatbelt releasing, and then she’s opening her door and getting out of the car.
“Kim?” Jimmy calls, and he watches the dark shape of her move off toward the classic cars. He curses, and turns off the engine. The headlights shut off, too, and he gets out and follows her into the purple-black twilight.
Kim’s shadow slows beside one of the cars. Her head twists back to him. “Jimmy, do you have a flashlight back there?”
“Uh—no, don’t think so,” he says, and his voice feels cavernously loud, like he’s shouting. Softer, as he stops closer: “What’s up?”
Kim replies in the same lowered tone, “Just come look.”
“…Do I want to?” He’s still a few feet out from the car.
She chuckles quietly. “You definitely do.”
So he steps closer, sneakers loud on the cement. As he approaches, he can see, behind the silhouette of Kim, another shapeless and dark figure: slumped over in the driver’s seat. He inhales.
Kim’s head turns to him. “What do you reckon, Jimmy?” she says, and then, “Mannequin or papier-mâché?”
He exhales, his pulse thudding. He steps closer and angles his head to study the dim shape again, more closely. It’s misshapen and horrible and probably is an ancient mannequin. “Uh, how about a beach ball in a wig?” he says weakly.
Kim chuckles kindly, moving down to the next car, and he follows close beside her. He can see a mannequin driver in this one, too. It’s wearing a floppy hat, almost like a scarecrow. Its fake hands are propped on the steering wheel. “Could be a crash test dummy,” Kim says.
Jimmy clears his throat, the sound echoing over the forecourt. He says scratchily, “Could be bodies from the graveyard.”
Kim squeezes his upper arm. “Yes!”
And he laughs feebly. There’s a mannequin dressed as a cop in the police car, too, silhouetted in the window. An old policeman’s hat is propped jauntily on its head, all hard angles and the flash of a badge.
“Come on Jimmy,” she says, fingers tightening on his arm. “So they crawl out here at night, act out their old lives…” She turns to him now, her face all shadowed, her hair translucent threads.
He says, “Must’ve done a lot of refilling on gas in their old lives, then.”
“Well… maybe it’s the whole town,” she says. Her shadowed eyes are locked on his. Behind her stretch the uneven headstones of the enormous graveyard, like jagged teeth. “Maybe,” she murmurs, and then lower, “maybe there’s a whole town down that road, with shopfronts just like this, and it fills with all the dead citizens every night, and then during the day it’s empty again. A ghost town.”
He can see her grinning widely, now, can see the dark and hollow shape of it.
And she must notice something in his face then, too, because she laughs wildly. She releases his arm and pats him on the chest, her palm landing right over his heart. He inhales with the touch, and then she moves past him, back toward the car.
Jimmy squeezes his eyes shut quickly. When he opens them, he doesn’t let his gaze return to the classic cars or the mannequins. He just stares at the old Volvo, and then he looks out, out and up—
And with no streetlights here or any nearby houses, the stars are impossibly bright. Glittering pinpricks in the vast purple sky. And around the stars runs the faint and ghostly river of the Milky Way, like frozen smoke against the night.
Jimmy slows, his footsteps drawing to a stop, his head tilted back. He points up, and he says, just above a whisper, “Big Dipper.” The constellation is brighter than he’s ever seen it. It feels almost bright enough to illuminate the two of them where they stand here in the empty gas station, like each star’s a distant spotlight casting flickering pools all the way down onto the Earth. He turns, feet shuffling, and his faze follows part of the constellation down through the sky to—
“North Star,” Kim says, suddenly closer to him, just as he sees it, too. He lets it flicker in his vision, the central spotlight now trained over them both, like it’s waiting for some opening number. Then he looks to her, standing there under the light. She’s staring upward, angular shadows falling from her jaw, her eyes glimmering.
“Hey, Kim?” he says. He waits for her to look back down. “How’d the hell’d we end up here?”
She smiles lightly. “What, in a mannequin-filled gas station on the edge of a graveyard?”
He smiles, too. “Yeah, that.”
And Kim just laughs. She rests her hand on his elbow again. “Well, I think we needed gas.”
And he laughs, too. “Yeah,” he says softly. “Maybe let’s just try the next exit.”
They trade off the driver’s seat again some time later, as the last of the blue light vanishes from the night sky. Jimmy tucks himself against the soft sheepskin seat cover in the passenger’s seat. The stereo jangles softly.
“Opposite of blue?” Kim asks, her voice a careful hush. It’s her turn.
He hums. Closes his eyes and looks at the faded darkness of his eyelids. Opens his eyes again. He murmurs, “Guitar.”
There’s a moment of quiet, then: “Oh, Jimmy,” she says, warm and quiet. “You can play the blues on a guitar.”
“Hah,” he says, smile flickering. He breathes out slowly. “Yeah, I guess you can.”
Silence settles comfortably between them: the rumbling silence of the engine and of the steady guitars on the stereo. It sounds like waves breaking, like the edge of a river rushing. Eventually, from somewhere on the shoreline, Kim murmurs, “Keep trying.”
He hums again. Thinks about the opposite of blue. He rests the back of his right hand on the car window and nestles his cheek into his open palm. It’s warm and steady and heavy.
A touch on his shoulder. Jimmy comes back to the soft familiar smell of the old sedan. He lifts his head, blinking. Red and blue lights flare in his eyes.
“Hey,” Kim’s voice says gently, on his left. “You fell asleep on me.”
He turns to her voice. She’s got her hand on the wheel, her torso angled to face him from the driver’s seat. He wipes the back of his hand down over his mouth. “Oh,” he says, finally, his throat scratchy. “Uh—sorry.”
Kim just shakes her head, smiling softly. Behind her, in bright neon, is a sign for a Motel 6. The light from it glows through her hair, catches in North Stars in her eyes.
He shifts forward, looking up and out through the windshield. The sky here is muddy and yellow with light pollution. Tall poles of freeway lights are lined up in a careful assembly nearby, flaring green-blue. Jimmy reaches blindly down near his feet for a bottle of water, and he cracks the top then drinks slowly. Swallows and coughs then asks, “Where are we?” His voice is clearer now.
“Just past Kansas City,” Kim says lowly.
“Hey, nice,” he says. He rubs his hand on his neck, surprisingly loose, looser than it’s felt for hours. Presses the button on his watch, and the red LED numbers ignite. It’s a little after midnight. He exhales, grinning. “And just in time for Monday. Not bad progress for a day, huh?”
“No, not bad,” Kim says warmly.
He rolls his head on his neck, then looks out at the motel. There’s a strip of white neon running beneath the awning, and the blue-and-red sign is a huge beacon on the side of the angular roof. Most of the visible windows are already dark, but welcoming yellow spills from the lobby.
He turns away from it, and looks to Kim, who’s dappled with neon in the driver’s seat.
“You need sleep?” he says quietly. “Or you just too tired to drive anymore?”
She frowns, brows twisting. “Why?”
“I can take over for a bit,” he says. His skin thrums, electric. He taps his palm on his knee, a soft noise on the denim. “Wide awake, actually.”
“Oh, so now you’re awake?” Kim says, a smile ghosting her face, but she’s already unbuckling her seat belt.
They trade places, and Jimmy settles once again behind the wheel. The leather cover is warm from Kim’s hands, and he rubs his thumbs against the stitching as Kim closes her door.
In the passenger seat, Kim folds her legs up beneath her, and she curls against the window.
“Kim, you sure you’re good?” Jimmy murmurs. “We can stay here if you want.”
She gives a little dismissive huff. “Daylight’s burning, Jimmy,” she says fondly, glancing to him, her silhouette glowing in the reddish dark.
The elastic from earlier that morning tugs persistently at the tangled knot in his chest, and he nods, watching her, agreeing to something—to her suggestion that he drive on, or to the pull of the cord, or something else entirely, he doesn’t really know.
He’s driving down a freeway. The road is almost empty, just a distant set of headlights far behind him, and the occasional onward blur. The road is perfectly, unbrokenly, straight. The road is dark.
When he looks to Kim, she’s asleep. A few miles back, she pulled his windbreaker up to her chin, and now she’s made herself into a huddled shadow with it. There’s just a peek of her face over the backwards collar. He can hear her steady breaths beside him even though he can’t really see her.
Now, though, there’s the flash of a truck’s headlights, and he turns, and in the white light she’s made briefly vibrant. He remembers her all lit up in the snow-colored evening of the Owl Café. He remembers her telling him she wanted him.
As she returns to the darkness he inhales and looks away.
And he thinks of her looking blindly out at the old dead stars on his bedroom ceilings. Vanished stars—red dwarfs, or red giants, or whatever it’s called when a star dies, he can’t remember.
He opens his mouth as if he’s going to say something, here in the car. As if he’s finally ready to talk. The music from the stereo is a careful harmony of voices. He knows he could whisper his thoughts to the old car and the old musicians and that she wouldn’t hear, but he just traces the words in his head anyway. We should be together. We’re good together. We just drove for a day in a car together, and we don’t hate each other, and you looked, actually, Kim—relaxed.
You looked, Kim, happy.
We just drove for a day in a car together, and we don’t hate each other, and I’m here. I’m here in the seat beside you and we’re driving onward together because things can last. Things can last, Kim.
There are no streetlamps on the freeway here, just the beam of his own headlights. An ever-breaking shoreline of light rolling just ahead.
He’s stopping at a gas station. He’s stepping through the automatic doors and into the monstrous white light, and the sharp smell of the cheap coffee is heavy in the dense air under the fluorescents, and the tired attendant blinks at him from behind a plastic screen.
And in the filthy bathroom mirror, Jimmy catches himself. He doesn’t look tired. He doesn’t feel tired. He turns on the faucet, and the water runs smoothly over his hands. He twists them under the current. His veins are raised and blue on his pale skin.
And then he holds his hands under the screaming air of a dryer, and the water beads off his skin and down to the tiled floor. In the flickering light of the bathroom, he presses the button on his gold watch. The ever-patient LEDs tell him it’s 2:13.
He buys a cup of the sharp-smelling coffee, and it tastes sharp, too, like daggers. He drinks half of it standing outside in the silky night air of the empty gas station, beneath an enormous sign that says, Junction City. The words float in his irises as he stares at them and he thinks—
—things can last.
Kim’s still asleep when he gets back into the car. Her cheek is scrunched up against the window, and her eyelids are fluttering. Her shoes are off, loose down in the footwell somewhere, and her socks peek out of the bottom of his windbreaker, her makeshift blanket.
He sits there in the driver’s seat under the neon-white forecourt and turns to a new page in her map book, breaking the careful Hamlindigo blue line.
He’s driving down a road. It’s not a freeway anymore. He’s got the radio on. It’s tuned to the only station he could find out here, a weather report, a list of temperatures delivered in a tired and monotonous voice.
And Jimmy feels like the man’s voice is mapping the dark country around him, spinning out in electric lines and dropping place names down into the dirt. Dropping towns along the roads they’ve driven: Lawrence, and Kansas City, and Hannibal, Springfield, and Atlanta. And somewhere far off, landing in red brick: Cicero.
Kim wakes at one point on this road. It’s so dark here he knows there’s nothing for her to see, just the headlights as they swim onward through the darkness. He doesn’t say anything. He watches her head turn out of the corner of his eye. The smooth fabric of his windbreaker hisses with her movement. She adjusts the air con vent on the dashboard before her, and then settles back in her seat.
He can hear when she falls asleep again. Her breathing is steady, like a rhythmic tug on a string, like the swing of an old pendulum clock.
He’s driving down a road. The road is narrow. He hasn’t seen anyone for a long time now. He doesn’t know how long. Even the radio station dropped out some miles, and when he scanned again he found nothing. He’s turned the volume down most of the way, but not completely. There’s a hiss of soft static.
And Jimmy thinks the static will help Kim sleep. He rubs his thumb over the stitching on the steering wheel cover and darts a glance over just to make sure. There’s an uneasy weight hanging on a fraying thread in his stomach.
The radio sounds like crashing waves, sounds like the sea.
So he traces his words over with Hamlindigo blue pen in his head: We should be together. We’re good together. Things can last. Things last even if you don’t think they do, even if you look away for a little while.
He feels, at least, that the more he traces the words, the more they flow into each other. The more they all make sense. They more they make a clean line from start to finish.
He breathes, and Kim breathes, and around them the static of the dead radio rushes.
The sun hasn’t yet risen, but soon the enormous and cloudless sky fills with lavender dawn. The lightening sky lightens the land, lightens the open fields and the sheet-iron landscapes, lightens it all to a great pale expanse that stretches far away from the dark and starlit road and out, out to somewhere beyond the horizon; until finally before him, illuminated in the crashing wave of his headlights, a green sign in white letters says, Nebraska Welcomes You.
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