Andrew is bored and frustrated as he looks out at the passing herd of semis and dry, gusty wind along I-15. The sound from the gentle breeze of the air conditioner and the numbing hum of the tires on the road beneath him are all he has to consume his dry, thirsty mind. His iPod, stationed in front of the broken radio taunts him with what could be. He has had a song stuck in his head for the past few hours, but he can only remember one line which has been looping endlessly like Chinese water torcher. The feeling of restlessness is beginning to overtake his body and he is trapped, perhaps inside a box, an oven and his imminent arrival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming seems as distant and mysterious as death, though it is all he can think about. He does not like to be bored.
This is Andrew’s first time driving all the way to Jackson Hole from Phoenix where he had been living for the last five years. He had made the drive before from Phoenix to Lyman, where his parents had previously lived - where he had grown up.
“Don’t ever complain that I live too far away,” he rehearses as he rounds the familiar curve of Interstate that tracks through Lyman, “now that you put another five hours into this fucking drive.” He wouldn’t say “fucking” when he gets there.
Lyman, population 2,102 looks almost exactly the same as the picture in his memory. He is surprised this time, however, to see the post office remodeled and a new burger joint called Ben’s Burgers where the old pizza parlor/video rental store used to be. The Taco Time sign to his right, still with its broken corner and sun-worn colors, towers as the tallest structure in the town and its only fast food chain. He is sure the sign has not changed since its birth back in the mid eighties. Across the street from Taco Time is an old antique store - also unchanged since his first memory of it – that he has never seen anyone enter or exit. The familiarity of it all seems overwhelming and what is normally comforting feels unnerving, almost uncanny.
As he pulls into the old gas station to fill up, he is suddenly hit with a wave of exhaustion. He stands, holding the lever to the gas nozzle and watches a group of Junior Highers steal a case of Pepsi from outside the door. They see he is watching, but he smiles to let them know that he will remain silent; he is on their side. He thinks about the time he stayed up four days straight during finals week his Junior year of college, the only other time he remembers feeling such exhaustion.
The sun is wrapping Andrew in its arms as he stands; like a blanket, it comforts and confines his energy, but there is a cool, balancing breeze that lifts him into the air and he sees the pathetically small town from above, exposed for what it is. A cage that only few have had the courage to fight threw the bars and escape. He feels proud for being one of those few, and the rest are all fools; naïve and sheltered with no clue of how the world is outside their cage that is tucked away in this valley like a lost child hiding from the towering strangers all around.
Done filling his tank, he climbs back into his car and pulls forward to a parking spot in front of the convenience store. He steps back outside of the car and begins to walk down the neighboring street. Across the street, he sees a small girl who rides her tricycle down her family’s driveway. She looks more like a ghost than a real girl. She is the smoke blown from his cigarette. In front of her, an orange tabby cat walks into the street and sulkily sits down in the middle, its tail swishing behind it. The sound it produces when it opens up its mouth is more like the sound of what he would imagine an extra terrestrial to sound like than a simple meow.
This is ridiculous, he thinks. Maybe this feeling is coming from all the Red Bull and Gardettos that have filled his stomach the last two days, or maybe it is an extreme haze from his high the night before, or maybe this is just the feeling one gets when one spends 13 hours alone in a car with no radio.
“The hell with this,” he mutters and tosses his cigarette butt. As he walks, he stares at the ground hoping to avoid any more sightings of ghost girls and alien cats; his legs must walk while his mind hopes for sleep. The broken sidewalk is an obstacle course for his feet giving him something to focus on, to block out the feeling of the sun and wind, and the sounds of the distant car and lawn mower engines, but this is quickly interrupted by the yelling of two small boys. One is holding himself up, peering over the tall fence of his backyard, the other’s head rhythmically appearing and disappearing as he bounces on a trampoline.
“Hi!” the kid peering over the fence yells at Andrew, who stops and stares at him through his dark sun glasses. “My brother’s here,” the kid says. Andrew looks, confused and disturbed, not sure what to make of such a statement, but unwilling to stick around and ask. He continues on silently, pointing his head back down at the sidewalk.
There is an old paved black path that follows the side of the road, the one that leads to his old high school. It lies, hidden from the road like a ghost in a room. He takes the path and follows it in to the scattered trees and subtle breeze, and the shadows of the leaves flicker all around him, dancing as if behind a movie screen. He is shocked at its beauty.
He peaks through the trees away from the road and sees a clearing where a row of picnic benches gather next to an old, rustic swing set. It is a park he spent countless Saturday afternoons at as a kid. The best kept secret of the town, he remembers once thinking. As he walks into the clearing, he sits down on the rotten and frayed wood of the benches, the source of many slivers as a child.
“This is what you get for not sitting still,” his dad used to say as he dug at the slivers with his pocket knife as. “Maybe one day you’ll learn.”
A line of trees divides the benches and swing set from a heard of rocking horses, a slide, and a rusting set of monkey bars. He walks over, almost hearing himself as a child running around to each object of entertainment, happy as heaven. He thinks about his high school days; the empty and sometimes broken beer bottles left behind, the paintball fights, the first time he got high on Dramamine.
A squirrel flies across the ground below him and glides up a tree as the leaves rustle in the breeze like a team of tambourines. He’s done thinking; there is no fun in thinking. He walks back through the park and onto the path and back to his car.
He reaches his ’95 Ford Escort and as he opens the door he catches a quick blur of a familiar face streaking smoothly by him on the sidewalk. It is Susan, the mother of David, a close childhood friend of his.
“Susan!” he yells, and she comes screeching to a halt.
“Oh my gosh!” Susan exclaims. “Andrew! What are you doing here?” She wears that same wide, gleeful grin that he’s always remembered.
“How are you doing?” he says, happy.
“Oh, I’m good,” she answers. “I’d give you hug, but I’m sweaty.” She looks down, as if annoyed by her appearance. “Oh screw it, you’re like family. You’ll forgive a little body odor,” she says and then leans in to him for a hug. She smells musty with sweat, but even her sweat refuses to stink. He imagines her constant smile chasing off the odor.
“So, what are you doing in town?” she says. “I never would have expected to see you any time soon.”
“I’m just passing through,” he answers. “On my way to see Mom and Dad.”
“Oh good. Are you going all the way tonight?”
“I was going to,” he says. “But I’m kind of worn out. I’ll just do the rest in the morning.”
“Well then,” she says as if she had already prepared for her response. “I’ll make you dinner tonight. Tom is out of town for the week and I have a fridge full of leftovers that need to be eaten. It’s not fresh, but it’s still home cooking.”
“Sure,” Andrew says without hesitation. “Sounds delicious as always.”
She tells him to let her run home and change and then to meet at her place in a half hour and then continues on, running.
Andrew stoops into his car and thinks about all the lunches and dinners Susan had served him over the years. He’s never met someone who could turn something as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into a gourmet delicacy like she could; and the lemonade and cookies she would always bring out for David and himself when they took breaks from the trampoline. Even when he and David grew apart, she never retracted her smile or her friendliness toward him. He hadn’t thought of her in years.
“So, tell me about yourself,” Susan says as she pours herself a glass of wine in her recently remodeled kitchen. She then puts the wine bottle back in the cupboard and begins to reheat what looks like burrito stuffings on the stove and scoops some jello salad into a large bowl.
“Just working in Phoenix is all,” Andrew responds. Her eyes rise to make contact with his, commanding elaboration.
“I’ve been getting into rock climbing,” he says and her expression moves back to pleased as she returns to the stove. “Not so much in the summertime though,” he says. “I try to go into hibernation once July and August come around.”
“Kind of the opposite of here then,” she chuckles. “I’m happy to hear that though. The city hasn’t consumed you too much. It’s good to know that we’ve trained you well enough here.” She takes a sip of her wine and then jolts, “Oh shoot,” as she sets the glass down on the counter. “I forgot you’re an adult,” she says and scuffles to the fridge. “And have been for years. There should be some beer in the fridge if you want it, or I can pour you some wine.” He looks in the fridge and grabs a Bud Light, the only option.
“I’ve never liked beer,” she says. “Even in college, I could never get used to it. But wine is just fine for this gal.”
He smiles and pops open the top of the bottle. “I’m a beer guy.”
Once the table is set and the food warmed and ready, Susan leads Andrew to his chair. As he begins to reach for a tortilla he catches Susan’s warning eye.
“Oh, right,” he says and brings his hands to his lap.
“Come Lord Jesus,” she says, head bowed and eyes closed. Andrew somewhat bows his head, but keeps his eyes fixed on her, smiling as she speaks. “Be our guest, and let these gifts for us be blessed. Amen.” Andrew raises his head and pretends to have had his eyes closed and reaches again for the tortilla.
“You still eat meat, right?” Susan says as she dishes the fillings onto the tortilla on her plate.
“I’ll eat whatever’s in front of me,” says Andrew.
“Good. Not that I would judge you if you didn’t, but I would be disappointed. I probably should have asked before I heated them up. Lexie, my niece came home after moving to Seattle last year and wouldn’t eat any of Steve’s home raised beef. A ranch kid,” she says with a scoff, “refusing to eat the meat that paid for her own upbringing and college tuition. Feel free to eat until you feel sick. I want to send as little of this as I can back to the fridge.”
“Oh, for sure,” Andrew says. “It’s delicious. Thank you.”
“So, how are your parents liking Jackson?” she says.
“I think they like it alright. Though I would never really know if they thought otherwise.”
“I see,” she says. “I never liked it. It’s been overrun by all those rich Californians. I don’t know why they would ever want to move up there in the first place. You better be staying in touch with them.”
“Mom calls me about every week. Sometimes more than once,” he says, wanting to avoid the subject. “I haven’t talked to dad since I was home last.”
“You should call him. Just cause he won’t take the initiative to call you doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to talk to you. Steve’s the same way, but I know that the few times David has called him he’s been thrilled. Whether he shows much of it or not.”
“How is David?” he says to change the subject.
“Oh, he’s just great,” she says with pride. “Says he’ll get promoted soon. He’s enjoying the Air Force. Has since his first day at the academy.” She stops to chew a bite of her burrito. “But I don’t want to be one of those moms that goes on about nothing but her own kids,” she says. “I have my girlfriends for that. I seen Casey got married last month.”
She tells him about all of the gossip of the town; who got who pregnant, who was this year’s valedictorian, etc. as they take their time eating. Andrew doesn’t care about any of that, but he fakes interest, and soon there is a dead space as he finishes his second beer and Susan sips on her glass of wine. They both seem oddly content with the silence, neither forcing its end with meaningless conversation. Then, Andrew begins to slowly feel overwhelmed, just as he did on the drive into town, and he feels a sense of panic that he thinks can only be alleviated if he ends the silence.
He begins to open up to Susan, not sure why and not stopping to ask or even think about what he is saying.
“Susan, I feel lost,” he says with a bowed head. “There’s so much shit in the world.”
She sets down her wine glass and looks at him, interested.
“I was dating a girl named Annie. We were in love. We were together for years, but we began to grow distant from one another. Our interests began to split in different directions. Eventually, I began to feel like a dead weight to her that she was forced to carry me around with her out of necessity. Every time there was dead space in our conversation, though I knew both of us wanted to talk things through and attempt to figure out what was happening, words always lost out to making out, which would lead to the obligation of sex. I wanted so badly to talk to her, but I knew it would either lead to a shattering breakup, or a commitment to change, both of which I found equally terrifying. But no matter how we tried to cover up the real issues, the more the issues seemed to bury themselves and she eventually became a blur, unreachable beyond increasingly fake orgasms.”
He tells Susan all of this without shame, but with much despair. “We faded out as a couple, never even talking about it, but by communicating less and less until they no longer communicated at all, and honestly,” he stops, peering out the window. “I feel like all the lights have been turned off and everything is an illusion, like a piece of my mind evaporated over time. We had talks of marriage before all this started happening. For so long, she was the one reason I had to believe in truth, and even hope. I’m probably just being dramatic, but those are now gone too with Annie.”
Susan looks at Andrew, clearly contemplating everything he just told her. “Andrew,” she then responds. “To be honest with you, the more I look at life, the less truth I find myself. I think honesty is all we have, because truth is just simply beyond us. Full truth. But I think honesty is the only sliver of truth we can fit our fingers around. I know you have a good heart and I know you well enough to know, even after all these years, that you’re going to be just fine. You’re still young and there is still time.” She looks at Andrew with compassion that he’s never seen in another human being before. And then her face grows long and her eyes grow serious as if her own words just caught up to her.
“And to tell you the truth,” she says, as if no one else is in the room. “I haven’t been honest for years. Not even with myself.” She pauses, thinking and Andrew remains quiet, listening, repaying the favor she had given him during his turn. “I try to run off my unhappiness, to wear this big stupid smile of mine as if it’s going to bleed into my soul, but it’s all a lie. It’s all fake, like I’m turning into a damn manikin.” She pauses. Andrew sits and listens to the silence.
“Sometimes I am convinced that Bill doesn’t love me and David doesn’t care for me. Sometimes these thoughts seem so silly, but other times, they seem too overwhelmingly truthful to be ignored. I’m sure Bill is hunting right now to escape from me. He is a good man, but he ignores me and it’s only getting worse. It makes me feel as if I am nothing. But, of course I haven’t been honest with anyone because, you know, the gossip. It would only make things worse. The more he ignores me, the more I feel as if God is ignoring me.”
She turns her focus back across the table to Andrew and he sees into her eyes as if they transform right before him from a drawing on a canvas to those of real life. They enter a new dimension entirely, revealing a depth he has never seen in a pair of eyes. He can see into her down to her soul, and he notices her face change, as if she can see the same in him. Time ceases to exist and without the necessity of words, he feels a deeper understanding of her and knows that she does him. A longing grows inside of him, first as a lump in his throat and then down through his stomach, and eventually to his pelvis. He can feel an energy he has never felt before and he grows hard, pants tightening below his waist line. He wants nothing but to crawl slowly across the table and lick the oozing tears from her cheek and kiss her like he’s never kissed a woman before. To slowly unbutton her blouse and lift it over her head like a trap door, to reveal her freckled body. He wants to be inside her, and he knows it would open up the world to an entirely new perspective, one much further than he sees in her eyes. He imagines how they could lie on the table in the spilt food and cracked dishes when they were done and stare into each other like ones stares into a telescope. They could further this access beyond the confines of language and time. He slowly moves his hand and places it on the table and carefully leans forward, fearful of breaking the moment.
“Well,” she says with a hard blink, sending him straight back to the world he thought he had left. “That was unnecessary.”
She stands up and begins to gather the dishes from the table. “You’re grown up,” she says. “But you’re not that grown up.” When she reaches the sink and places the dishes inside, she rests her hands on the counter and wipes her eyes with her shoulder. Andrew sits, motionless at the table like a dog having been denied his bedtime treat; his heart still pounding, shocked and unstable.
He finally musters up the motivation to stand up and brings the rest of the dishes to her and sets them on the counter. She gives a smile, one that shows only a glimpse of her teeth and says, “Thank you for stopping by and helping me eat these leftovers. I’m glad we got to catch up.”
He thanks her for the invitation and the conversation and, without needing to say goodbye heads over to the front door and looks back and sends a wave as he exits, knowing that he will never see or hear from Susan again.