Authors: Michael Zadoorian
“I feel great.”
“I’m so glad,” I say, settling onto one of the benches along our table. “Because I’m exhausted.”
“Let’s get going,” says John.
I watch as he trims the bread wrapper with the scissors that I just used to cut off his filthy skivvies. I’m too tired to stop him. “Let me get cleaned up, then we’ll talk it over.”
An hour and a half later, after counting my bruises, rinsing my abrasions, my own French bath, various ablutions, and a few close calls (the advantage of our tiny RV bathroom: you couldn’t fall if you wanted to—not enough room), I’m also ready. The problem is, I don’t know what I’m ready for. By the time we take our meds (plus a little blue for me) with a small meal of oatmeal, dried fruit, toast, and tea, it’s 5:07 in the afternoon.
“Come on, let’s go,” says John, searching for his keys.
I look out the back door and see indentations in the dirt
where we were rolling around last night. “Yes,” I say. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Good riddance to this bad country.
“What day is it?” John asks me after miles of silence and empty road.
“For God’s sake,” I say, peeved. At home, John is constantly asking what day it is and it drives me crazy. The kids buy him calendars for his birthday, so he’ll stop asking them when they come over. But calendars don’t help. How can you tell what day it is when you don’t what month it is? Or what year?
“It’s, it’s—” As I stammer, I realize that I have absolutely no idea what day it is either. “It’s Sunday,” I say, because it feels like a Sunday to me.
“Oh,” says John, satisfied.
“John, for right now, why don’t we just see if we can make it to the Continental Divide?”
He doesn’t care. I think he’s just happy to be driving. Actually, so am I. There are still a few hours of daylight left. We’ll just see where we end up.
“Let’s just take us a Sunday drive, John. What do you say?”
We make it to the Continental Divide in nothing flat. All my life I have heard of it, but never really knew what it was. Simply put, it is the highest point of all Route 66 and the point at which rainfall divides. From this point, rainwater to the east drains into the Atlantic, water to the west drains into the Pacific. I read this all aloud to John, who grumbles as if he’s known it and already forgotten it five or six times over.
The sun is lowering now, getting in our eyes. I pull out my jumbo sunglasses, though I believe it is not that long till sunset. I suppose common sense would dictate that we stop for the night, but I don’t think either of us wants to, especially after only driving such a short time.
I stuff the guidebook in the fabric pocket of the door for safekeeping. “Okay, John, now let’s see if we can make it to Gallup.”
We should stop for the night, but I don’t want to. After yesterday’s goings-on, I figure we can do anything we want. All bets are off. Right now, I just want to watch the red sandstone cliffs shift, change colors, and grow more vivid as the sun liquefies. The vastness of the mesas, the stillness of all this stone soothes my wretched body, makes me feel part of the earth. The angling light reveals the character of the rock, how every inch is mottled and etched with time. I look at my arm, run my fingers across the million tiny folds that cover my skin like endless lines of faded calligraphy. There’s something written in both places, but I can’t read either.
Along the road, there are a few trading posts, some still
open, even at this time of day, but most long out of business. I spy an old Whiting Brothers Gas Station, its sign collapsing into the dust. The windows are all busted out and there’s a giant bush growing where the pumps once stood. Those Whiting boys had dozens of gas stations in the West decades ago; now they’re all gone or looking like this one.
I roll down the window, enjoying the caress of the air as it grows soft and cool, mellowing the day’s swelter. I have always loved the feel of wind in my face, but love even more the sound of it rushing past my ears, blocking all else, creating a blur of noise.
Next to me, John seems content, not at all disoriented by the movement of the sun. He is focused on the road, occasionally checking the side-view mirror, not saying anything until after he takes a swig of flat Pepsi from a quarter-filled bottle he finds in his cup holder.
“Boy, am I sore today,” he says, our night in the dirt completely forgotten.
“Yeah, me, too,” I say. “Must be the weather.”
It is near dark by the time we reach Gallup, but you can hardly tell from all the neon. For a mile or two, with all the motels and signs, it feels like Las Vegas when we visited it in the ’60s, before all the casinos were crowded together, when there was still space between them, a sense of desert. Tonight, the neon signs glow warm and shimmery in the cobalt night:
BLUE SPRUCE LODGE
MOTEL El Rancho
The last is a beautiful old hotel where lots of movie stars stayed, everyone from Humphrey Bogart to Hepburn and Tracy. Errol Flynn rode his horse into the bar. I’ve heard that it’s a classy old joint, but we won’t be stopping there tonight.
Before long, Gallup becomes a city. As we follow the old alignment, it takes us past a beautiful old theater called the El Morro. The marquee is dark tonight.
“How are your eyes holding out, John?”
Just then, a little hopped-up Japanese car zips up next to us. It’s bright yellow with loud, high-pitched exhaust pipes and a big air spoiler on the back. I look over at the driver to see who’s making all the racket. I’m surprised to see a teenage girl there. After a moment, she gooses it and whinnies on past. On her back window, there’s a sticker:
This is an evening of bad judgment.
It has been many, many years since we’ve driven through the night. And for us to choose a stretch of desert to do it in is certainly a foolish idea. The kids would be terrified if they knew we were doing this. It’s exactly the sort of thing they’re having nightmares about. But the fact is, I don’t care and John doesn’t know any better. It’s just another long highway in front of him.
When we were younger, it wasn’t uncommon for us, in a sudden end-of-vacation rush to get home, to drive twenty, twenty-four, even thirty hours straight. It was a punishing thing to do, a kind of trance to which you had to give yourself over. Deaf with fatigue, you thought of nothing beyond the road, beyond the quivering bright scoops of your headlights.
On those nights when we surrendered to that madness, the miles would hiss past with a jagged, frazzled rhythm. We would stop for gasoline every half hour, it seemed, greet a new state every hour. Our senses were heightened to the point where we’d hear every seam of the asphalt, every click of the odometer.
John would drink so much coffee his stomach would creak and growl. He would chain-smoke Galaxy cigarettes and scream at the kids. Yet he kept driving, guzzling gas station mud, crunching down Tums with every cup. Out of boredom, I would dole out whatever was left in our cooler—lunch meats, warm pops, fruits from roadside stands, foods edging brown and green. After twenty or more hours, our car took on the smell of kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom all in one. Our whole family’s eyes became accustomed to the dark. Through glass smudged with stale breath, gas stations glowed and throbbed in the empty night, motel neon smeared red-orange trails; the reflection of our high beams in the highway signs flash-blinded us as we shot past.
The only thing that could move us to damage ourselves in such a way was to get home. There would come a time after twelve or thirteen days of near-solid travel that all you wanted was to be in your own house. Travel was wonderful, travel was glorious.
See the USA in your Chevrolet!
But what you wanted more than anything right then, was simply to sleep in your own bed, eat in your own kitchen, sit on your own toilet. You wanted to stop seeing the world. You wanted to see
world. So we would drive.
The all-night journeys were never planned. We would never intend to drive so ridiculously long and far. We would get one of those “good” days under our belt—six hundred miles or so—then we’d suddenly get fussy, unable to find a decent campground in our AAA guides or from the billboards along the road. We didn’t want to stay in a motel. We’d already spent enough money after two weeks on the road. (We were getting close enough to home to realize that we’d have to pay those credit card bills soon enough.) We’d say,
Let’s just drive a little longer. See how far we can go before we have to stop
So we would drive. A little bit farther. A little bit farther. Twilight would come, arc over us, a lump of sun dissolving in our wake, turning our rear window into color television. Then night would settle in, gather around us, cozylike, an afghan of stars. It was a relief to our eyes after the cruel shifting beauty of sunset. After a while, the kids would even stop whining and complaining and settle down. They were as anxious to get home as we were. Then without even trying, it would be 11:00
., way too late to stop for the night. We knew what we were doing by then. Too late to turn back.
. We were heading toward something, a place we wanted, needed to be.
Tonight, John and I are smack in the middle of the Navajo nation. A gritty breeze buffets the half-open window. Along the highway, I see forked silhouettes of cacti, glints of rubbed rock and dynamited stone, darkened empty trading posts
with signs that advertise
INDIAN JEWELRY AT SUPER PRICES!
I’m scared to be out here in the dark, but it’s no longer a fear that I can take seriously. It’s all starting to feel like one of the rides at Disneyland. Of course, this may have something to do with all the discomfort pills I’m popping. It’s the only way I can operate now. I guess it’s happened: I’ve officially become a hophead. Frankly, I thought it would be more fun than this. I still have no idea why the kids love the dope so much.
I keep a close eye on John as he drives. He reminds me of the John of forty years ago (without a cigarette between his fingers), eyes trained on the road, very alert, not even yawning. I see no traces of the “highway hypnosis” that they used to warn us motor travelers against.
(Chew gum! Open the windows! Sing along with the radio!)
We are both too awake, one of us too aware.
John and I are tethered to the interstate tonight. No side trips in search of the pink concrete of the original 66. At night, there’s just too much chance that we would get good and lost. This way, all we have to do is stay on I-40 and keep moving for as long as we can. Yes, it’s a shame that we’re driving through the Painted Desert in the dark, but tonight is special. We need to get to our destination soon. I can tell.
“I’m going to play some music, John,” I say, fumbling with our bulky case of remaining eight-track tapes. We used to have a lot more, but our stereo has devoured them over the years. I find one called
by Enoch Light & the Light Brigade and plug it into the player. “Blues in the
Night” comes on way too loud, scaring the crap out of both of us. John must have accidentally turned it up when it was off. I turn it down and it sounds all right for a moment, but then the music starts to warble. The woodwinds are pulled thin, and the plucky guitar notes ring flat, but I don’t care. I need sound. I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts. I don’t like my thoughts anymore. They are not to be trusted.
My mouth is so dry. I take a sip from one of the bottles of emergency water. I look over at John and he looks back with the emptiness in his eyes, but also with affection. He whistles along with the music and taps on the steering wheel.
“Hello there, young lady,” he says, smiling at me.
I turn down “Fascinating Rhythm,” which is so chipper and cheery that it’s almost too much to handle, even with the distortion slowing it down.
“Do you know who I am, John?”
“Sure,” he says, smiling, faking it for me.
“Who am I then?”
“Don’t you know who you are?”
He’s tried this before. “Sure, I know,” I say. “I just want to know if you know.”
“Then who am I?”
“You’re my lover.”
“That’s right.” I lay my hand on his knee. “So what’s my name?”
He smiles again. His lips move, but nothing comes out. “’S Wonderful” comes on the stereo, sounding like it’s being played on a tuba.
“What?” I say.
“Is it Lillian?”
I take my hand away. Son of a bitch.
“Who the hell is Lillian?”
He says nothing. I know he’s confused, but I don’t really care. “You heard me. Who’s Lillian?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” I smack him in the arm. “You just said Lillian was your lover.”
“I don’t know.”
I don’t know what this means, but I want to strangle him. When I used to ask John if he’d ever step out on me, he always used to say that he wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t faithful. Now I’m wondering. “Who’s Lillian?” I repeat.
“I’m married to Lillian.”
“No, you’re not. You’re married to me. I’m Ella.”
“I thought your name was Lillian.”
“We’ve been married practically sixty years. You can’t remember my goddamned name?”
“Oh shut up,” I say, punching the off button, then yanking the cartridge from the stereo. The music sputters out as tape spills from the slot.
John sighs, leans back in his seat, and sulks. I do the same.
The miles pass silently. The moon rises, about three-quarters full, revealing vague clues of the Painted Desert: silver glimpses of veiny hills, ridged brick-striped plateaus, and puffy glow balls of scrub. It’s a relief to get off the freeway in Holbrook for gas. I recall that there’s something to see here, but don’t feel like looking in my books. Then just inside the city limits, in front of a rock shop, I see a gathering of gigantic prehistoric creatures—dinosaurs, brontosauruses, stegosauruses—all colors and sizes, loitering along the road between scattered chunks of petrified wood.