Henry twisted the plastic cap from the bottle of poison the man had forced on him.
The cut-rate plastic crackled most unsavorily in his hand. It looked cheap enough to be a Chinese import. How could that possibly be a good thing? He wondered what exotic pleasures lurked behind that clear liquid. Chemicals, perhaps? Maybe pharmaceuticals? A blood thinner? Piss?
In the end, he decided it just didn’t matter. If he had any hopes of pursuing this magnificent outing to its resolution, he had to take the risk. He had to drink it and hope for the worst. So he thanked the man with a salute, then took a deep slug. It was warm and thick and tasted like a dead soul, but what choice did he have? This bible thumper obviously didn’t have any liquor.
He carefully recapped the poison, then cranked the seat back and watched the passing monotony. Rocks, scrub, dirt, road kill, more rocks. How the hell did he ever manage to end up out here in the middle of nowhere? This outing wasn’t just a breathtaking success, it was Epic. It was Homer’s Odyssey. It was Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It was Kerouac’s On the Road. It was the fucking Encyclopedia Britannica!
He closed his eyes and shoved the heel of his palm into his forehead. Was the vice ever going to stop tightening? Surely, there was a limit to the pain a headache could inflict? At some point, his skull was simply going to rupture and spare him the misery of enduring it. It couldn’t just keep getting worse, could it?
“What’s your name, son?”
It just got worse.
The free exchange of names could open a boxful of tedium and mundane conversation with a man he’d normally cross the street to avoid.
“Henry,” Henry said, forcing a smile, “It’s, uh… it’s Henry.
“Pleased to meet you, Henry. I’m Joshua. Reverend Joshua White. But my friends call me Josho. You’re welcome to do likewise if it pleases.”
At least the man didn’t offer a hand. “Good to meet you,” Henry said, without putting too much encouraging enthusiasm into it.
“I’m heading up Santa Fe way. Where you heading, Henry?”
Henry tried to envision a map of New Mexico. It was over by Texas, right? Maybe close to Oklahoma? Truth was he didn’t have a clue. And he didn’t care, just so long as he was heading back to California.
“I turn north at Albuquerque,” the man said, “That’s a couple hours down the road.”
“That’ll work fine,” Henry said. Then he added a quick, “Thanks,” because he probably ought to.
“Got a hearing with my wife,” the man continued. His bottom lip was curled out like a snail rolling out of its shell. He’d stationed his left hand at midnight on the steering wheel and was tapping his wedding band against the plastic. The tapping was a little too manic, and it’d been swelling like an air raid siren for several minutes now. It didn’t bode well.
Henry stared out the window and tried to think of something to say to divert the impending conversation. He soon realized he was too late.
“Got a meeting with her lawyer,” the man said to Henry’s complete horror, “Twelve years we were married. Twelve perfect years. Of course, she wasn’t a holy woman, no sir. Not by yards. She wasn’t even a particularly bright woman, for that matter. But man, she was a looker. Had a body that could raise the dead. Arrogance had its hands all over my loins the day I asked her to marry me. Biggest mistake of her life, she tells me.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Henry said, because it was apparently his turn.
“Now I have to meet with her lawyers,” the man pressed, “Didn’t get a lawyer, myself. Figured I already ruined her best twelve years with my arrogance, so what right do I have to win anything? Best just give her everything, you know? Walking away without a fight seemed the righteous path.”
Henry had nothing to add.
“You know what irony is, Henry?”
Henry looked at him. “Yeah, pretty sure I do.” Was he kidding?
“Well, here’s some irony for you. We had a great marriage before I found my Savior again. That’s when she turned into a different woman. I’m not saying she had the devil in her or anything, mind you. No sir, nothing so dramatic as that. I guess it’s just… well, I suppose there’s not much room in my heart for both Jesus and a woman, even though I love them both so desperately. That’s some irony there, isn’t it?”
More like stupidity, Henry thought as he looked out the window at the passing nothing. Nothing suddenly looked very appealing. He wished the damned headache would just finish him off. If it got bad enough, he could always throw himself out of the car as Plan B.
“Yes sir,” the man continued, “It’s probably the best thing for her. Well, no, scratch that. Truth is I know it’s the best thing for her. Probably best for me, too. In the long run, anyway. I can serve the Lord better with my hands free, if you catch my drift.”
He laughed at that.
“Women are fleeting pleasures,” he persevered, nodding his great head in agreement, “A wife is for a lifetime, but Jesus is forever. I guess this is the best thing for all concerned.”
“Sounds like you’ve got it figured out,” Henry heard himself say. He immediately regretted it. What was he thinking? Was he actively engaging this insanity? He should just shut the hell up, nod politely at the appropriate times, smile occasionally, but say nothing.
“I guess I can’t say that’s a true statement, Henry,” the man pressed, “I don’t have it anything like figured our. I guess it’s destiny or fate, or maybe just the divine path, you know, something like that? Who am I to question the divine path?”
Divine path, Henry thought. Hilarious. “Maybe Jesus just wants you all to himself,” he said, sarcastically.
True to the day’s glorious path, the man abruptly veered the car over to the side of the road. Henry’s neck wrenched sickeningly as they slid to a stop in the dust and gravel. The man threw the shifter into park before they’d even stopped. The shoulder was steep and the car tilted precariously to Henry’s side. A dense cloud of brown dust lazily swelled away from them.
The huge man twisted toward Henry and braced his arm against Henry’s seat, so that he was perched precariously above him like a cartoon boulder that might come rolling down at any moment.
“What did you just say?” the man asked. He looked serious as cancer.
Henry pulled back into his door and braced himself for the beating that was clearly coming. “What… what do you mean?” he said quickly.
“You really think Jesus wants me all to himself? You think maybe it’s His plan? You think maybe He wants it this way? I’ve been thinking the same thing myself, but I thought it was just more of my sinful arrogance.”
Henry was horrified. The situation was quickly descending into a worst-case scenario. “Of course,” he said quickly, “I mean, sure. I mean, why wouldn’t he?” How the hell should he know?
A smile as wide as the Man in the Moon swelled through the man’s burgundy face. “It’s funny,” he said, “I’ve been looking for a sign. Something to guide me or counsel me, you know? But it hasn’t been coming, and man, I’ve been praying on it. I mean, I’m just asking for some direction here, some flag to let me know I’m going down the road He wants, you know? I’m buying newspapers just to read my horoscope. I’m flipping the motel TV channels looking for random strings of words that might part the curtains. I mean, I even thought about a sweat lodge, for sugar’s sake. Maybe sweat out a vision, you know? Like the Indians do? Maybe see the truth? But I can’t afford a retreat with the Indians. Heck, the best I can manage is to overheat the motel shower and sit on the toilet with my head wrapped in wet towels, but it just makes me feel like I’m suffocating.”
Henry could only stare at him. This had to be more delusion, more hysteria brought on by the heat and dehydration and this miserable hangover. It couldn’t be anything like real.
The preacher leaned closer. His face was engorged with blood. “But now I pick you up,” he whispered into Henry’s face, “A man whose pain burdens him like Jesus’s own cross, like Job suffering the boils, and you tell me it’s God’s will? My Lord, Henry! Don’t you see what this is? It’s exactly what I’ve been waiting for. You’re my sign. You’re the proof I’ve been searching for. You’re the direction I’ve prayed on, Henry! Jesus still loves me, and you’re my sign to prove it!”
Gravity and fear had Henry pressed back into his door so hard, he was certain it was going to give on him. His head throbbed to the rhythm of his pulse. He wasn’t sure he could draw enough breath to speak. He had to get the hell out of here, but his fear had him paralyzed.
“Do you think this is how He wants it, Henry?” The man was relentless. “Tell me the truth now. Are you my spiritual guide?”
Henry was crowded back as far into the seat as the door and window would allow. The man’s face filled his view like a total eclipse of life. His breath was hot and sour. Another few centimeters and they’d be doing the Eskimo nose kiss.
He tried to remember the lessons he’d been brainwashed with back during his years of imprisonment in Catholic school, but whether due to the hangover or his fear of the great head floating before him, nothing was forthcoming. Desperate, he improvised.
“Well… he… he is the Son of God, right?” Henry whispered into the great face.
“What?” the man said just a whisper from his face.
“And… and he’s all-seeing, right?” Henry continued, “I mean, he’s probably used to getting what he wants, wouldn’t you think? So… so who are we to argue?”
“What do you mean?”
Henry couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t focus. For just an instant, he felt like his stomach was going to end this engagement for him. And then he heard himself say, “Yes, Reverend. Yes, I am your sign.”
Time stopped. The world fell silent. And then the man’s eyes slowly filled with wet.
“You’re my sign,” the man whispered into his face, “Of course, you’re my sign. Me picking you up and all, I mean.” The man’s breath was thick as garlic butter. “You really think that’s true, don’t you, Henry?”
“Sure, of course,” Henry said into the mountainous face, “I mean, Jesus probably wants you all to himself. What do you need a wife for when you’ve got him, anyway?”
The preacher didn’t move. He only watched Henry from atop that mountain of flesh. At least, the right eye watched him. The left seemed to be studying the dashboard.
Henry felt smothered. He felt locked in a box barely large enough to hold him. His heart pounded so hard, he worried he was going to faint. Then, just as he was sure the mountain was going to pull him into a life-changing hug, it ended.
The man’s eyes overfilled with water, and his cheeks swelled up around them, and he slowly withdrew from Henry’s space and collapsed like a landslide into his own seat. He pulled a small, perfectly folded white hanky from his side pocket and buried his face into it just in time to catch his tears.
As Henry watched the man sob, he considered how refreshing a nice walk might be. He quickly probed the door’s side pocket for a map or atlas. If he could just get his bearings, he might be able to plot a nice hike toward home. He looked down at the floor, but the mat beneath his feet was covered in nothing but old fliers touting Holy Roller events around the wilds of Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.
“I’m sorry, Henry,” he heard the preacher saying, “I’m so sorry. I… I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m an emotional teeter-totter these days.”
Henry looked down at his hands propped uselessly on his knees. It was exactly what the old bartender, what Clarence had prophesied. Penance. You’re getting exactly what you deserve. You’re a useless pulse, nothing more. Hell, you can’t even kill yourself properly.
“I’m sorry,” the man said on a sob, “Forgive me. I’m… I’m so sorry.”
Henry felt the guilt rush in like a hot, lifeless desert wind. Do something for once, he told himself. You can’t just sit here like a lifeless lump while the man blubbers. You should say something. Say anything. Make an effort for once in your useless life.
“I h-hate this,” the man cried into the white hanky, “Such a fool. I’ve thrown away everything I’ve ever loved.”
“No,” Henry heard himself say, “It’s… I don’t know… it’s okay, I guess. I mean, you loved her, right? You’ll always have that.” It sounded like so much crap even to him.
“You don’t even know me,” the preacher said as he blew his nose, “I’m pathetic. What kind of man cries in front of a total stranger?”
Henry watched him shaking before the steering wheel, bawling into that perfectly white handkerchief, and he felt a truckload of shame overrun him. He looked out into the endless nothing and considered where he could run, where he could hide, but in all those millions of rocks abandoned across the dirty red wasteland, none were ever going to be big enough to cover him.
“You… you ever been in love, Henry?”
The words landed like a kidney punch. Henry ordered himself not to look at the man, not to risk contact, but his eyes defied him. The man’s face was swollen and wet and sorry as hell. Henry felt his own eyes start to burn, but he fought it back, fought it like it was the devil himself come to haul him away. He couldn’t go there, not now, not here, not with this stranger out here in the middle of hell.
“Love is the world, Henry,” the man said, wiping his nose on his sleeve as if loathe to continue corrupting the purity of his hanky, “It isn’t like the rocks or dirt or any of that secular stuff that makes up the world; love is the world. Do you understand? It’s the matrix of every living thing. It’s the only thing that matters in this mortal life. Love completes us, Henry.”
Henry grabbed the armrest and threw his attention out into the desert. For a moment, he couldn’t get his breath. It felt like a burr had lodged itself in his throat. Zoe’s face unfolded in his head again. She glared at him, smiling that smile that says I hate you and I love hating you and I’ll always be here so I can keep hating you for the rest of time!
“You don’t have to answer,” he heard the big man saying somewhere in the distance, “I’m not sure how I know it, but it’s God’s pure truth: You lost someone special from your life, and I know you still love her. You wear your love on your sleeve just like I do. We’re exactly alike that way, you and me. Like kindred spirits.”
“We’re nothing alike,” Henry whispered. He locked his gaze on the heat devils dancing so mockingly across the scrub and struggled to keep his guts from exploding. “We’re nothing alike!”
“You loved her deeply. I can sense that in you. And you’re killing yourself over it. That’s why you’re out here, isn’t it? Because you love her more than life, and you feel lost in the endless night without her.”
The memories exploded through Henry’s mind. The first time he kissed her, her proposal on the beach, the wedding, the lost pregnancies, the affair.
He threw his forehead against the window. Traitorous tears burned flesh of his eyes. That hammer was beating against his skull again. He prayed he wouldn’t vomit.
Then, salvation. The engine turned over, the shifter clicked down a couple notches, and the car eased back onto the road. And as quickly as that, the Epic Outing resumed, and the pain of her memories lay moldering on the shoulder behind him like so much road kill.
They drove on in silence as thick as mud. Henry considered offering a final word of comfort but wrote it off as a monumentally stupid idea. He had no basis of reference to draw one from, anyway. He’d only end up complicating an already ridiculously complicated encounter. Instead, he watched the burning wasteland sliding past his window and wondered if this journey could possibly get any stranger.