The alarm on the desk was screaming out its klaxon for an indeterminate amount of time before the form among the crumpled sheets and fast-food containers stirred, the amount of effort to reach the whole ten inches elicited an inhuman groan from deep inside the man, though the sound had little to do with his vocal chords. The liquid in his stomach sloshed and his head spun as he sat up.
He raised his calloused hands to rub at both his cheeks. The patchy three-day’s growth of facial hair that had grown there during his days of negligence tour, as he had come to think of it. He looked down at his clothing, dusty and stained from the last few days of stumbling through whatever town he happened to be in. At least he could afford a place to stay, and usually, found his way back there, keeping his insanity at least semi-contained.
He pushed himself upward, shambling toward the bathroom. He switched on the light, avoiding his reflection in the mirror until he had urinated, and a bit of the grogginess had faded. The headache however, had only progressed to a full on throbbing in his entire mass of spongy gray matter. He picked a three-quarter empty bottle of Bayer, throwing four of the pills into his mouth, swallowing them with a handful of water from the sink.
He forced himself to look into the mirror as he washed the alcohol stink off his face. He managed to shave as well. When he was done, he began to pack his kit. He applied deodorant before packing that away as well. He stuffed the toiletries bag into his knapsack, then threw the rest of his personal effects into the beat up canvas bag. He left his key on the small table, next to an overflowing ashtray.
He picked up the crumpled clothing on the floor, and pulled the heavy jeans over his toned legs. He pulled on the crumpled, wrinkled blue shirt. He made a small effort to throw most of the trash into the tiny receptacles. When he had finished, he walked out of the shoddy room into the already warming Southern dawn. He wiped at his forehead and goaded himself to walk toward the rattle-trap primer gray and blue van that he called his own.
He pulled the key from his pocket and unlocked the door, slinging the knapsack into the passenger seat. As he slid the key into the ignition, he reached out with his left hand to touch the small glass charm around his rear view mirror. He turned the key and after a second of whining, the power plant beneath the hood roared to life. He shifted into reverse and pulled out of his parking space.
The sun was barely breaking over the horizon as he turned onto the main road. For a moment he forgot how many days he had performed this exact same ritual. It was the only way he could find to keep going these days. His life hadn’t been the same since he had lost the woman who had given him the charm that bobbed and weaved with every motion of the steering wheel. The grooves on the side of the road pulled him back to reality.
He drifted into the fast lane, not bothering to signal on the empty, flat stretch of highway. His foot eased downward on the accelerator as he plotted his next stop. He wasn’t going back to Arkansas, there was nothing for him there but pain. The edges of Texas were within his sight at this point although he had no clue where he was going. His van held all his belongings except those inside the knapsack.
He merged onto I-70 West, without more than a cursory thought. One hand reached out to switch on the radio, surfing the channels until he heard a familiar melody. Before returning his hand to the wheel, he unzipped the small pocket on his backpack, pulling out a silver case and a Zippo lighter. He opened the case and pulled a cigarette from behind the small bar. He flicked the Zippo afterward, lighting the stick of cancer.
He held the smoke between his lips and switched hands on the wheel to manually roll down his window. He forced himself to focus on the road as a trucker pulled onto the highway from a Rest Area. He didn’t need to wreck and at the very least get held up in the South. He wanted out of the area, the oppressive heat giving an odd but appropriate physicality to his sudden uneasiness.
He shifted his vehicle into the opposite lane of the truck, again depressing the gas pedal. The engine roared as he passed the truck, drowning out the radio, which hadn’t been all that loud in the first place. He pulled hard on his cigarette and eased in front of the trucker, again letting up on the accelerator. The man was thankful he didn’t have the “luxury” of cruise control in the van. It kept him firmly aware of what he was doing.
He made a pit stop a little further along the freeway. His day dragged on into the afternoon time, and he had to stop again, finding the town of Weatherford, Oklahoma to stop and eat in, purposely avoiding the more populated Oklahoma City. That was another reason he wanted out of the city in Texas, all the fucking noise. The man spotted a fast-food chain and guided his van into the drive-through.
He ordered quickly and nursed the ancient vehicle along at idle speed, the monster in the engine compartment shaking the frame of the metal brick. He exchanged money for the food and then pulled around front f the place to eat in one of the parking spaces, willfully, and defiantly alone. When he had finished eating, he stepped out of his makeshift dining room and walked to a trash can, throwing away his refuse.
Once that business was done he re-entered the van and turned the key. It once again screamed to life, but more eagerly, it seemed than before. Sitting still wasn’t in either of their nature’s it seemed. He didn’t return to I-40, opting to drive West rather than North. It was almost as if the direction of the wind had changed, and suddenly he was driving toward New Mexico rather than Colorado. The van didn’t seem to mind, and the charm on the mirror bobbed with a sense of affirmation. He considered these good omens as he dug for another tube of chemical death.
He lit the cigarette and again rolled down his window, switching radio stations as the static took over the oldies station that had kept him company for the last thirty or so miles. The day faded as he rattled his way along I-20. The fading day and the rumbling in his gut persuaded him into the major town. He again chose to eat in the parking lot of a chain restaurant rather than inside. Once he finished his rudimentary meal he made his way back onto the highway. He made it another hour out of town before he found a motel.
He paid with his credit card, and rented the room for two nights rather than just one this time. He avoided asking about a liquor store this time as well. His stomach was feeling a little bit watery, and he could only imagine the state of his abused kidneys and liver. He parked the van, and unlocked the door of the room slinging his trusty backpack onto the bed. He sat down and flipped on the television, surfing the channels until he found something familiar.
He picked up the small booklet on the table, flipping past the channel guide, finding a Chinese restaurant that delivered. He picked up the phone and called in his order, paying again with his credit card. He watched the show that was on until his food arrived, and paid the young kid, giving him a five dollar tip before closing the door to eat his food. He ate quickly, not having realized how famished he actually was.
After he had finished, the man showered and dried off, dressing in his last pair of clean boxer shorts He lounged around like that the rest of the night, fighting the urge to drink and chain-smoking. The show that had kept him entertained was over, and the early evening was becoming torture. He really wished he had asked about a liquor store earlier, but he didn’t bother getting redressed to go find one.
Instead he lit another cigarette and picked up the remote. He surfed the channels for about five minutes until he found another passable show. He let himself get drawn into the silliness on the screen. It helped him keep from thinking about a bottle of vodka or whiskey. Lighting another death tube helped a little bit as well. Once he had ground out the cigarette he wriggled his way under the blankets, flipping the channel to an infomercial, the babbling of the people on the screen helping keep his mind occupied as he breathed long and slow.
The breathing exercises didn’t seem to be helping him, so he tried something his mother had taught him. He opened his eyes and stared at the blank beige background of the closed curtain for a few moments, then closed them again. He imagined that a blue light formed in the darkness in front of his eyes, beginning as a spark, and then beginning to grow and pulse with each shallow breath he took until it grew around his body.
He could almost feel the tickles of the ethereal energy against his skin as it rolled over the arm facing the ceiling over his shoulder blade to his spine. The next two breaths drew the light in his mind’s eye into his body. Anywhere the light touched began to relax. His breathing deepened, and the tension in his stomach released.
When the light reached his heart, the man felt the warm, welcome arms of sleep wrap around him like a lost lover. Just as when he was a child, he stepped from his body, into the world of dreams, the blank room he and his mother had ‘built’ all those years ago still in pristine condition. The four doors that lined the far wall were still there, as he had known they would be. Mother had promised, and she never lied.
He approached the farthest door from the point he had first entered his safe haven from. He almost didn’t reach for the handle. Alcohol had made this place inaccessible to him, and he found that he had missed the simple, quiet solitude of it. Almost regretfully, he reached toward the knob of the imaginary door before opening it, the bright, multicolored light within the frame calling to him.
He stepped through and into the land of Nod, where the last thread of consciousness he had held on to, the one that had enabled him to access the room, unraveled. The alarm was the next thing he could remember, and he felt much better after showering and getting dressed. He used the small laundry room that the motel possessed. After he loaded his laundry he sat in the provided, barely-padded chair against the wall, pulling a novel from his knapsack. He opened to the first dog-eared page his fingers found.
The man allowed himself to get sucked into the narrative of the book, the rich, colorful landscape the author painted capturing his imagination more than the characters who were literal two-dimensional fantasy tropes. He hadn’t expected even as much entertainment as he’d gotten from the story when he’d grabbed the book at the truck stop a few hundred miles back. The tone of the washing machine prompted him to set his book aside, switching the clothes to the dryer, then depositing his coins.
He would probably have to make a stop at a bank tomorrow morning. His cash funds were pretty much dry. The fact that he still had about five grand in the bank was comforting, though, he had no clue what he would do when that was gone. He didn’t allow himself to think about it too much, sitting back down and getting absorbed again in his book. He didn’t look up again until his clothing was finished. He packed it carefully into his bag, and dog-eared his page, packing the novel up as well.
He slung his bag into his room and then shut the door, fishing the keys to the van from his pocket. He unlocked the door, and slid into the driver’s seat. He started the engine and pulled out of the motel parking lot with no real destination. He found a diner rather than a fast-food joint, parking far from the few other vehicles outside the place. The man pulled down his visor and checked his reflection before stepping out into the muggy heat once more.
He entered the establishment behind a middle-aged couple who squabbled like his parents, and couldn’t conceal the melancholy smile that formed on his thin, slightly chapped lips. He waited patiently for them to be seated before he was ushered to a small booth by the too-polite hostess. He took the menu and answered her question with an order for coffee. He set the menu aside, already pretty sure of what he would order.
When his waitress came around he ordered biscuits and pork gravy to go with his coffee, hoping to fool himself into feeling at home. The urge to drink was starting to return. He knew he wasn’t addicted, it was just easier to drown the issues in his head, rather than face them like a man. He was nothing if not a coward. That was the reason he sat in a diner in New Mexico rather than his home in Arkansas. Cowardice. Plain and simple. Or she would still be alive.
His food arrived just in time to keep him from wandering too far down the dark path he had set himself on. He dug into the soft, buttery bread and thick, decadently creamy gravy like a man on Death Row. It took him less than fifteen minutes to demolish the entire serving. He paid for his food, left a five dollar tip, relieved himself, and left. Once back in his van, he debated on returning to the motel to vegetate in front of the idiot box, or to quit torturing himself, and trying to find a liquor store.
He opted not to further poison himself, and found a department store instead. He found a bank, and used the cash machine. He then drove until he found a record store, spending his money there rather than on liquor. He picked up a few albums by Bad Religion, a band he had loved since his checkered youth. A copy of The Pixies Surfer Rosa caught his eye, and he snapped that up as well. He paid for his CD’s, and ventured back to his van.
He felt less like drinking when Bone Machine started. The deep bass tones stirring nostalgic feelings inside him as he drove slowly through the strange town. He found his way back to his room. Once more he parked and locked his vehicle. He smoked a cigarette outside his room, leaning beside the door quietly, his head down as he did so.
Movement drew his eyes toward the figure of one of the maids. She was an aging brunette whose uniform was far from flattering. He let his eyes fall back to the faded, cracked concrete that made up the sidewalk. He finished his cigarette, and placed the Do Not Disturb sign on his doorknob. It was a moot point. The room had been cleaned while he was out.
The man wasn’t too bothered by it, and the maid had placed his knapsack carefully on the bedside table. The zippers seemed untouched, and he trusted that they were. He again flipped on the television, mostly for background noise. He cleared a small space within the motel room, and began to do jumping jacks, alternating to push-ups, then to sit-ups. He continued doing this for near an hour before he stopped, stretching his muscles afterward.
He took a shower and changed into a clean green, button-up shirt, and a pair of jeans along with a pair of soft leather shoes which had resided at the bottom of the bag, protected by the box he had bought them in. After he dressed he walked back out to his van, slinging his knapsack over his shoulder. He left the key to his room on the nightstand, and got into the van. He didn’t regret checking out early, the urge to travel had overtaken the nagging voice that begged him to drink.
He pulled back out onto the highway and found himself in the middle of traffic. He changed the discs in his radio, the electrified punk rock thunder of Bad Religion replacing the sonic experimentation and abstract lyrics of the Pixies. His hands followed the drumbeat of the music on the wheel as he crept through the rapidly warming day. Eventually the road opened up and he cranked down his window, increasing speed.
He kept up his increased pace until he was forced to stop behind a long line of vehicles, coming to rest behind a tractor trailer. After ten minutes they crept forward a little. He began to wonder what was going on. The scream of sirens behind him alerted him to the seriousness of the situation at hand. He, along with the other people on the road eased to either side to let the EMT’s as well as the Police that followed them through.
Soon, the officers were flagging them through the other lane, alternating sides of the road to keep things orderly. He made a point not to slow down to gawk as he drove past the wreck, purposely avoiding the horrific details. When he could, he got around the trucker in front of him and picked up his speed. He slowed down as he approached a sign, and then guided his roaring van North toward Nevada.
He drove until it was pitch black and then a little more, narrowly making it to a Rest Area. He rearranged his belongings into the two front seats of the van, laying on one of the long bench seats that occupied the middle of his vehicle. It was easier to relax locked in his van in the early dawn light than it had been in any of the motel or hotel rooms he had thrown money away on. He reached for his knapsack, and withdrew a small bag of marijuana and a metal pipe. He smoked just enough for his mouth to feel dry and the pressure in his brain to ease.
He tucked the plant matter away along with his pipe, and opened the sliding side door of his vehicle. He took a walk around the Rest Area in the muggy night, lighting a cigarette as he passed the squat building that housed the toilets. He walked to the fence that marked the edge of the property, smoking in silence, enjoying being alone for once in his recent history. The slight buzz from the weed probably helped that along, and he didn’t complain.
He wandered back toward the rest rooms when his smoke was finished and walked inside to urinate and wash his face and arm pits. He went back to the van slipping inside as a Nevada Highway Patrolman entered the parking area. The trooper made a slow round, and the man watched him, smoking another cigarette before getting back into the van, laying across the seat. It didn’t take long for him to fall asleep.
He woke at roughly noon, his bladder full to bursting. He grabbed the small green plastic bottle from his cup holder before making a B-line for the facilities. He emptied his bladder with an audible sigh of relief, washed his hands and face, then refilled his water bottle before making his way to the rough-looking cube that had already crossed two state lines. He rearranged his belongings once more, leaving only the well-worn pack in the passenger seat.
He started the engine of his brown beast, and reversed out of his parking spot, heading back out onto the highway. There were more cars on the road today than the last couple he mused as the strains of American Jesus blared from his speakers, his eyes scanning the road as well as the horizon. He saw signs for Interstate 40, and when he approached the ramp he took the exit. He drove until the rumbling in his stomach compelled him to again pull off to eat.
He returned to a fast-food place, this one specializing in fried chicken. He parked and went inside to order, again using the rest room before he ordered. He got the smallest amount of food he could, knowing that his arteries were hardening from the sight of the food as he walked to a small table tucked in the far corner of the room. He ate quickly again and wiped his face when he had finished his chicken.
He left the chain restaurant, and got back on the highway. He drove through the late part of the day, and again into the night. Right around ten thirty, he pulled off the desolate strip of highway, and without any real reason to do so, stepped off the road. He wandered into the desert, his face up toward the sky. He inhaled through his nose deeply, the scent of sagebrush and other desert flowers touching a primal part of his soul.
A slight breeze picked up, carrying the whimpering yowls and yips of coyotes in the distance. He opened his eyes, looking up to the dark sky, the stars danced and twinkled like merry spirits in the ethereal blackness of the atmosphere. The moon, plump and hanging in the sky beckoned to him to rise from the surface of the dusty earth. He wished in that moment for wings, as hi imagined primitive people probably had standing in this exact spot, long before the road had been paved for them.
He didn’t know how long he stood there like that, staring into the infinity of space, the glittering points of light occupying his mind. The moon had climbed higher in the sky during his trance, and he decided it was time to move on. The man retraced his steps back to his van, almost as if walking in his own exact footsteps on the way back. He reentered the van, and started driving once more, waiting for a late night trucker to pass him before navigating back into the lane.
He drove just past Reno, finding another Rest Area. After he had smoked a little bit more of his stash of marijuana and listened to the radio, he began arranging his belongings in the front seats, again laying across the bench seat. He closed his eyes, and the face he was running from swam into his mind’s eye. Rest wouldn’t come easy on its own tonight. He took a few deep breaths, and slipped outside the brown beast.
He committed a bit of slow suicide, lighting a cigarette and taking another walk around the area. He used the rest rooms and made his way back to his makeshift bedroom. He laid down on the seat and closed his eyes. Once more he visualized the blue light in his mind’s eye, burning away her face, but never harming her. Once the light had been drawn into his lungs he stepped into his safe haven, contemplating simply staying there until dawn.