The Road Behind
There’s an old expression that says there are always stars in the sky, it’s just that sometimes they aren’t visible. I want to believe this but tonight it’s especially difficult, since the sky is a murky shade of charcoal and the only things I can see when I turn my gaze towards the heavens are sheets of water and clouds that remind me of angry marshmallows. The car still reeks of soot, and it seems like traces of ash remain coated to my body despite the fact that I washed my hair about twenty times with lavender scented shampoo. I light a stick of patchouli incense to mask the smoky odor and wave it around the front seat, and then toss it out the window, hoping that it’s biodegradable. If not, at least the raindrops will extinguish it and it might even give the highway a nice flowery odor for a good couple minutes.
I tilt my head sideways towards my shoulder and I use the tip of my index finger to lightly massage my neck, hoping I can work out at least a couple of the knots of stress I can feel there. It doesn’t seem to do much to help, so I occupy my restless fingers by fidgeting with the silver, star shaped pendant that hangs on the turquoise and lapis beaded necklace I’m wearing. When my mother gave it to me, she told me that lapis is used to bring strength and power to those who are uncertain. I also read somewhere that the color blue is supposed to evoke sympathy from bystanders, which could be beneficial today. My neck is beginning to feel strained and dislodged from constantly peeking into my foggy mirrors to see if anybody has managed to track me down.
The highway hasn’t been very crowded tonight, but now I see that a car is approaching rather quickly from behind. Its headlights gleam more brightly than they should, and this reflects in my back windshield, causing a few seconds of impaired vision. I squint and reach for the volume button on the radio to turn it down. The faint and static-coated country radio slowly fades away until the only thing I can hear is my own heavy breathing and the car engine, which is old and sputtering and sounds as if it has a nasty case of bronchitis. My eyes quickly dart down to the dashboard, making sure that I’m not speeding or driving too slowly or doing anything else that would draw unwanted attention from the highway patrol.
The car’s headlights are too bright for me to notice if it’s a police vehicle or not. If it is, then quickly changing lanes or pulling off to the side of the road is out of the question for it would look suspicious. Instead, I simply tap the gas at a constant speed, grip the steering wheel with one hand while the other rubs a lucky Buddha carved from smooth jade, stuffed deep into the pocket of my dirty jeans. I don’t know if it has ever brought me any luck, but at this point I feel compelled to do anything that promises even the slightest possibility of good fortune. Criminal behavior has fucked-up my karma and I have no doubt that the Gods are staring at me from up above, brows furrowed, twirling their long gray beards and clutching strands of neon orange, cartoon-like lightning bolts that soon will strike down upon me.
I force myself to focus and keep my eyes on the road as I sneak glances at the driver in the other car. Luckily, the man at the wheel is not the dreaded enemy, and I breathe a sigh of relief and ease my grip on the Buddha. Instead, the driver is one of those rugged, Marlboro-ad Western types with a khaki colored cowboy hat and an old mutt riding shotgun. I never expect to see people like him in real life. It’s easier to picture men like that bursting through the doors of a run down honky-tonk in an old movie complete with a Hank Williams-heavy soundtrack. The cowboy driver is about ten years older than me, and I’d probably find him attractive it is wasn’t for the fact that he keeps spitting murky colored, well-chewed tobacco out the car window while shouting at his dog.
Thumping around in the trunk of my dust coated, acid green Honda, underneath torn books, CDs that skip, ripped Levis and wool sweaters covered with holes is the burnt, dead body of my boyfriend Roger nestled next to all evidence that would indicate that I survived the fire and am still alive. I switched the plates on my car with an abandoned Cadillac I found hanging out in the desert. The Caddy was layered in chipped, butter yellow paint, ten year old rust, and lots of Grateful Dead bumper stickers. It seemed as if it were sleeping in the shade next to some sagebrush and a few bored looking lizards with mauve colored, leathery tongues hanging out of their mouths. My life savings was stuffed in my bra, rolled up neatly and tied with a piece of tattered leather that I use for bead stringing. The single recent photograph I have of myself that didn’t burst into flames is stashed under the passenger seat, shoved between the pages of a dog-eared, drugstore mystery novel along with a half-smoked joint and two Gillian Welch concert ticket stubs.
Somewhere deep inside my stomach something starts to grumble and moan, and I wonder if fear and paranoia can actually make me physically ill. It seems they can. I’m becoming nauseated, and the onion bagel with hummus and tomato I ate for breakfast is churning in my stomach, threatening to come up again. My breathing becomes heavy and I start choking on the cigarette I’m nervously sucking down, so I stub it out in the coffee cup I’m using as an ashtray. The cigarette sizzles faintly as it goes out, and I listen to the sound of clumpy, gritty ashes mixing with stale Italian roast, creating a mud colored, chalky blend that would probably be fun to finger paint with if it didn’t smell so revolting.
Driving on the windy highway for hours with no company except for the radio and the sound of sleepy gray raindrops on the windshield gets a bit lonely. I’m becoming nostalgic for Jerry, my arthritic schnauzer-mutt mix who used to be my favorite road trip companion. When I took road trips he would ride shotgun, proudly sporting the malachite colored scarf I knitted for him, complete with dog bone shaped buttons. Jerry would pant and howl along to the Emmylou Harris tapes while pressing his cold, moist nose against the window, little drops of puppy snot smearing the dusty glass. Jerry accidentally got left behind in the house with Roger when I set it on fire and all that remains of him is part of a blood encrusted, stubby paw and his worn canvas collar, which looks as if it were accidentally tossed into a barbecue pit alongside some chicken kabobs and Portobello mushrooms.
My throat feels stuffed with pebbles when I think about Jerry. I wish I could be lying in bed with him right now, stroking his wiry, salt and pepper fur while savoring a legal thriller and an icy vodka tonic with extra lime. However, I remind myself that the circumstances left me no choice, that this is actually very bold of me, very cool and adventurous, very neo-Dharma Bums. On second thought, I’m certain Kerouac never traveled with a dead body nestled next to his sweatshirts and journals.
I fumble around in the passenger seat for my crumpled pack of camels, light another one and take a deep drag as I turn the radio back on and search around for a station. After a few minutes, the muffled sounds of a live Bob Dylan the Band album can be heard through the crackling static if I listen carefully. I hum along and even break into song a couple times, but my gaze is still permanently focused towards the rearview mirror and I’m careful to drive with vigilance.
I have my route carefully charted out and my scribbled directions are stuck to the dashboard with a piece of day old peppermint gum. I’m headed towards a tiny town in Colorado nestled deep within the Rocky Mountains that I decided upon when I tossed a rusty penny onto a map. I watched it spin a few times, dancing over Nevada, and then Utah, but finally resting on Nederland, Colorado. After a quick Google search, I discovered that the town is home to approximately fifteen hundred people and its only claim to fame is that some B-list musician I’ve never heard of allegedly rented a house there one winter. The locals are quite proud of this fact and they speak in detail about it on their chamber of commerce website. There is also a signed portrait of him in the town grocery store, and a special exhibit in the visitor’s center.
A population of fifteen hundred people seems minuscule compared to Los Angeles, and my first worries are about the ability to remain anonymous in a place so tiny. Something just seems completely wrong with trying to escape detection but ending up in a place where it would be difficult not to live under a microscope. My stomach churns when I go over the pro/con list in my head, but the circumstances left me no choice. However, the pictures looked promising, and from the look of the links posted on the town’s main web page, the townspeople seem more into natural herbal supplements and hiking than gossip. At least I hope so. There’s no way to know for sure. Furthermore, I can infer that craftspeople are far more common and accepted out there than they are in L.A. Keeping with the neo-Dharma Bums theme that I’m apparently partaking in, I plan to live that free-spirited, bohemian life I’ve always craved. This will include a rustic mountain cabin, my very own loom and hopefully some pet Alpacas when the weather clears up.
I even have a new name picked out, complete with a semi-credible back-story and a myriad of fake documentation. Al, a friend of my old roommate Gina, hooked me up with the phony driver’s license and teaching certificate which, he assures, will look very authentic but won’t be traceable. Although I did the best I could trying to pass off the fire as an accident and myself as nothing but a pile of ashes, the gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach is telling me otherwise. I don’t think the lucky Buddha is going to be enough; I should have thought ahead and procured a wishbone.
I drive until dawn breaks and the glare of the sun begins to lightly coat the hills, turning the shade of the trees from forest green to lime. Traffic is getting more congested and I pull into a gas station about two miles off the highway exit to fill up the tank. While the Honda gulps gasoline like a thirsty camel guzzles water, I step into the quick mart for more cigarettes, bottled water, and two Kit Kat bars. There are two people ahead of me in line. One is an older man who purchases three cans of Bud Light and five tins of Fancy Feast tuna flavored cat food, paying entirely with nickels. The second is a woman with perfect Donna Reed hair despite the drizzly weather. She’s probably the type of person who can keep plants alive and has a perfectly organized underwear drawer. I’m suddenly very self-conscious about my rumpled ponytail, and I pull my soft grey wool cap down so that only part of my face is visible.
The man working at the counter finishes ringing up the woman’s purchases. She ignores his “have a nice day” comment and turns her perfectly powdered nose up in the air as she trots out. I’m next in line, and I place my items on the counter along with a wrinkled twenty dollar bill I found buried deep in the checkbook section of my wallet.
The man counts out the change into my hands; the bills are painted with ink doodles and the coins are caked with grime. I stash my purchases and money into the front pocket of my green floral backpack and stuff my hands deep into my pockets to hide the burn marks. Although they are beginning to heal, they are still raw and peeling and they look as if they have bee run through a paper shredder and then dipped in raspberry Kool Aid.
“Thank you,” I say, returning his kind smile with one of my own. His eyes are dark brown but have flecks of grey which sparkle a bit when the light catches them at just the right angle.
“You’re welcome,” he replies, trying not to stare at the faded bruise decorating the left side of my neck. The mark is a few weeks old and has yellowed with age, just like paper, but it’s still fresh enough to draw unwanted attention. I avoid his gaze and attempt to distract him from my neck by twirling my hair.
There’s a brief silence between the two of us, and the only sound audible is the pinging of a fan that is shaking violently, it seems as if it might fall from the ceiling. With each rotation around the room, it flings tiny dust particles down on us and the musty gray powder coats the counter and the tops of our heads.
“May I please use the restroom?” I ask him.
“Absolutely,” he replies. “Go outside, turn left. Here’s the key.” The key is ancient and rusted and looks as if it might start crumbling. It’s attached to a key-chain that advertises a five dollar shrimp and pizza buffet at a restaurant a few miles down the highway.
The bathroom is dark and covered with cobwebs, and reeks of Lysol and the sweat of lonely travelers. Sheets of toilet paper have been tossed around haphazardly, and most now rest in small piles on the slick concrete floor. A small rag doll sits alone in the corner, staring at the wall. It saddens me to think that the child who loved her and carried her around is missing her.
There is a small bottle sitting on the sink and miraculously, it actually has soap in it. I lather up, wash my hands and splash cold water on my face. My hands still have traces of soap on them and when the water hits my skin, some of the soap gets into my eyes. The pain is raw and fiery. Instead of rinsing my eye out immediately, I let the soap seep in for a couple seconds, stinging my eyes like vinegar. They tear up, but instead of pinching myself to stifle them, I let them flow freely. My brown eyeliner mixes with the tears and lightly trickles down the corner of my eyes, leaving a faint, chocolate colored smudge along my cheeks.
For the first time in what seems like months, I stare into the cracked mirror and my reflection emerges between the jagged edges, splattered soap and water stains. The girl staring back through the glass doesn’t even seem like me anymore; she has too many jagged scars that require endless explanations and too many wrinkles around her hazel eyes. I am reminded of that scene in The Bell Jar in which Esther, realizing her choppy face is a reflection and not a hologram, drops and shatters her mirror in a fit or rage. I notice the smudge from where the eyeliner ran and use the tip of my middle finger to wipe it away.
The bruises around my right eye are beginning to fade from midnight blue to a more subtle, dusty shade of violet. My eyes well up and my throat feels as if it were clogged with sand. With an unsteady hand, I reach into the leg of my wrinkled jeans to make sure the pistol is still there. It’s heavier than I would have imagined, and slightly bulky, but its cold, slick surface feels good next to my leg, like the Care Bears security blanket I had when I was seven. I acquired the gun when I traded in some vintage turquoise jewelry at a pawnshop back in California, and I still think I got ripped off. The guy selling it to me had a sharp tongue and a habit of staring impolitely. He was small and wrinkled like a pudgy Shar Pei, and his breath and body odor suggested that he ate grilled onions with every meal. Unlike others, he didn’t try to hide the fact that he was staring at the marks on my face. His eyes asked the questions that most people shied away from. I felt his gaze penetrating me for hours afterwards, and I know he could tell I was lying when I assured him I knew exactly how to use this type of weapon. He simply shook his wrinkly head, removed a navy blue cloth from a drawer and began polishing the silver bracelets I had parted with.
I hear a loud knock on the door. Someone with very strong knuckles is growing impatient with my lingering. I realize I have been in here over ten minutes. My face turns a shade of red that matches the burns on my hands. I hope it’s not the attendant, for he was so nice and I don’t want him to think I was shooting up in here. I quickly pull down the leg of my jeans to conceal the gun and fumble with the heavy lock on the door. Luckily, it’s not the attendant; it’s just a woman with her three-year-old son who is wearing a pair of yellow pajamas and dancing around with his legs crossed, clutching a red power ranger whose head looks as if the family golden retriever chewed on it. I apologize and move aside to let the two of them in, and hand the mother the key.
I make my way back inside the quick mart and thank the man at the counter for letting me use the bathroom. He reaches for my hand and firmly shakes it, grasping the tips of my fingers. He looks me directly in the eye and instructs me to drive carefully in the rainy weather.
“It’s dangerous out there sometimes,” he tells me. “A person alone on the road isn’t the safest thing. You could get hurt, so watch your back.”
His tone is far from harsh, and I can hear his voice crack a tiny bit as he says this. I stare at the touristy trinkets for sale: candy colored cigarette lighters, shot glasses with bright green mountains painted on them. I mumble an indecipherable reply to the man and slink away.
My heart drops from my chest to my stomach and starts beating like a bongo drum when I see that there’s a police car parked right outside the gas station. It looks shiny and new; the black and white paint is so bright and fresh that it stands out even in the stormy grey weather. A cop is standing to the side under the awning, taking long drags off of a cigarette. He notices me looking at him and nods his head politely.
“Hello there, Miss” he says, stubbing the cigarette out with a quick stamp of his shiny, espresso colored leather boot. He has those scary Cool Hand Luke sunglasses on, even in the rain and I can’t read his expression so I keep my gaze focused on a pile of mud at my feet. I trace the mud with the scuffed toe of my clog, making squiggly designs in the ground.
I’m certain my face looks panicked and frazzled, like a mink caught in a trap. I can’t even muster up the strength to return his greeting. I make a small sound like I’m being strangled. He tries again.
“How’re ya doin?” He runs his fingers through his hair, which reminds me of a toupee I saw for sale in a thrift shop last week. It is the color of a brand new Sharpie and looks unnatural against his pasty skin.
Oh I’m fantastic, I think to myself. I just burned down my house, killed my crazy boyfriend, accidentally barbecued my dog, faked my own death and fled to a town that’s so small and hidden it’s merely a speck of dust on the United States map, and every second I pray that people won’t think anything of this, I pray that they’ll think I’m just an eccentric hermit/Alpaca farmer/quilter. Everything is just fine.
“Good, thanks.” I dig my toe deeper down into the mud. An earthworm emerges and pokes his head up. Apparently I have just demolished his dream house. He thrashes around violently, and I’m certain he’s cussing me out in his head. I once read that earthworms are blind and I begin to pity this poor creature. Not only can he not see but now he’s homeless and frightened. I lightly prod him back into the earth and attempt to rebuild his roof with the sole of my shoe.
The policeman is still staring and any conversational skills I possess have drifted off into the distance, leaving me with shaking hands and sweaty palms. Every time I fib my face turns five different shades of crimson and heats up like an electric oven. Now I’m glad the cop is wearing those expression-masking glasses. Perhaps his view is distorted enough that he can’t see my pomegranate colored face.
“Where ya headed?” he asks. I can’t tell if he’s just making small talk or if he recognizes me from the newspapers and is slowly closing in on me. My body heats to an unnatural temperature. I can feel the adrenaline pumping but I dig my feet deeper into the mud and force myself to calm down.
“Up to Denver to visit my grandmother,” I blurt out. Lies don’t slide easily out of my mouth; the words feel choppy and leave a bitter aftertaste on my tongue like I’ve just downed a stale double espresso. I wonder if he can sense the artificiality in the air. Aren’t cops trained to sense deceit like a hunting dog senses blood?
His gaze is focused on my face now. I’m beginning to have trouble breathing and sound like an asthmatic in the middle of an attack. His expression gnaws at me, trying to extract more information, trying to suck the truth out of me like a vacuum. He fiddles with the chunky silver and coral ring on the middle finger of his right hand and is clearly expecting more expository information from me. I want to run but I’m frozen in place. My feet are buried in the mud.
“She’s sick and wanted to see me, so…” my voice is choppy, almost wavering, and drifts off like smoke into the distance. I can’t make him stop staring and I really hope he’s just curious about the bruises and not trying to identify me so he can make his arrest. He removes his sunglasses and moves a step closer. His eyes are clear blue and have a bit of shine to them but remind me more of ice than stars.
“You have a bit of makeup on your face ma’am,” he says. “I just wanted to let you know.”
“Oh,” I say, fumbling for a rumpled Kleenex buried deep in the pocket of my jeans. I and use that and a dab of stringy saliva to clean my face. “Um, thank you. I guess I was putting it on in a hurry and…”
“Don’t know how you girls do it!” he chuckles. “I’d stab myself in the eye everyday putting on those things! I’m surprised more women aren’t blind!”
Another silence. I remind myself to speak.
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”
The walkie-talkie in his pocket begins to crackle. My throat becomes lumpy and I listen carefully, but the message I hear through the static has to do with an uncontrollable drunk in the library and not a murderer/arsonist. The cop picks up the walkie-talkie as he hastily waves goodbye but his icy gaze is still on me and I can almost see the wheels turning in his head. He begins to speak into the walkie-talkie in a gruff, deep voice laced with bitterness and lots of police lingo that I can’t decipher.
My hands are so sweaty that the perspiration is dripping onto the ground, adding liquid to the mud puddles sloshing beneath my feet. I wipe my palms on my jeans and head towards my car, which is resting next to the gas pump. I toss my backpack into the back seat and, after lighting up a fresh cigarette for the road, continue on.
The sky has cleared up a bit and tiny slits of light are peeking through the clouds, making it much easier to navigate the highway. The rain has tapered off a bit but I can still see smoky, charcoal colored clouds hovering in the distance. They look bloated and full of water and I’m sure the rain will start up again in the near future.
As I drive, my mind drifts to Roger’s and my last night together. He had come home two hours late from work. He smelled as if he had bathed in beer and I also detected another faint scent, a mild lingering of woman’s gardenia perfume. It smelled expensive. I had heated up some leftover pasta for us, even put it on real plates and set out placemats, drinking glasses and candles. Roger, however, declined, scowling at the food. The noodles looked lonely and abandoned, and started to wilt as they sat uneaten on the blue china plate. He removed his jacket and tossed it onto Jerry’s bed. Jerry, who was performing his standard pre-bedtime ritual of pawing the bed into the perfect shape while gnawing a chew toy, looked disappointed when Roger didn’t stop to pet him. Jerry whined softly when Roger’s jacket hit him, but then he began to snuggle with it and arrange it into a pillow like shape. He nibbled on the torn sleeve for a while but eventually passed out with his mud encrusted, fluffy body sprawled out over the other sleeve. Roger headed for the bedroom and slammed the door. The impact of the door caused my favorite potted plant, the African violet I had rescued from an alley, to topple off of the bookshelf. It cracked on the floor, spilling dirt and purple petals all over the carpet. I didn’t bother cleaning it up. The petals looked up at me like they were pets I had forgotten to feed, or children I had forgotten to pick up from school.
Roger’s sour attitude seemed to fade slightly as the night progressed, and, as I imagined, whatever he had drunk earlier worked its way into his bloodstream. I didn’t hear him muttering under his breath anymore, and he even came out of the bedroom once to kiss me on the cheek and ruffle Jerry’s fur. Later, when I walked into the bedroom to change into my pajamas, he reached out from the bed and pulled me in with him. He had been putting lotion on his hands and I could trace the softness with mine. His fingertips reached for the waistband of my jeans.
We had sex for the first time in weeks. It felt good; my thighs tingle a bit when I think about it, but it only lasted four minutes. Four minutes was too short. Four minutes is a commercial break, I reasoned. Four minutes should not be sex. Also, Roger didn’t seem to remember the repeated times I had told him that I simply didn’t enjoy doing it on the bathroom floor. The floor felt like a freezer, and the tile and grout dug into my back, leaving rashes and tiny cuts that I couldn’t reach with my hands, so I was unable to bandage the wounds or put ointment on them. Roger didn’t offer to help.
After a couple minutes of pounding he collapsed on top of me, breathing heavily, scattering tiny droplets of sour sweat onto my face. They trickled down my forehead and dripped into my eyes. I didn’t stop to wipe them away. Instead, I lightly traced the words “I love you” into his back with the tip of my index finger, but he told me it tickled so I stopped. He pressed his lips onto mine and I tasted stale tobacco and grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches on his tongue. His mouth wasn’t really kissing mine; rather, he seemed to be devouring me, like a greedy third grader devours chocolate cupcakes
He kissed me afterwards, a bit more tenderly, and mumbled that he loved me; but I still felt a dull ache in my stomach after he pulled his hand away when I tried to hold it. I traced his leg with my toes and wrapped my arm around his waist, but he felt rigid. His body was unwilling to form with mine, and my trying to mold us together felt like working on a difficult jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing. He went to the bathroom to clean up and I lay there, adjusting myself into the crevice his body left in the bed. I was still naked, relishing the thought of the worn flannel sheets against my clammy skin. The sheets smelled faintly of mold and perspiration and gardenia perfume.
I light up another cigarette to stifle the tears glistening in the corners of my eyes, and think about warm beds and hot chocolate and handspun wool yarn to cheer myself up. The moisture in the air seems to be mixing with the smoky residue that coats my possessions, and the effect is a damp, slightly smoky, defeated smell, like a backyard barbecue that has been rained out. The wind sounds lonely as it whips raindrops and crackled brown leaves onto my car. The road is bumpier than it was last night and every time the car hits a muddy puddle it jolts violently and I can hear the dull sounds of Roger’s body thumping around in the trunk.
About the Author
Sarah Ben-Zvi is an editor for Two Hawks. Find out more in Meet the Editors.