I leave a note for my husband, Robert, on the kitchen counter next to the latest issue of his subscription to Popular Mechanics. The note says I know he’s been sleeping with my best friend, Michelle, and by the way, she’s also sleeping with Mark who lives two doors down. I also write that I’m taking the espresso machine I gave him for his birthday. It was really a gift for me. And p.s.: The Mustang we bought with our savings, it wasn’t stolen. I took it.Flagstaff, Arizona north to the Navajo Nation and who knows after that. It’s early spring and under the sparse pine trees are thick pockets of snow. The road is quiet, empty, except for scraps of blown tire and shards of brown glass sprayed along the asphalt shoulder. A long silver truck snakes toward me. As the driver passes, he blasts the horn and winks. He’s wearing a camouflaged hunting cap covered with pointy plastic leaves. No shirt. I start to wave, then catch myself, embarrassed that I want his attention.
Just outside the reservation, the sky expands, stretches. The horizon is dotted with bent, twisted trees, droplets of white clouds, and specks of houses that look like they might fall off the edge of the world. I pick up my cell phone. I want to call Robert. I want him to tell me that he’s made a mistake. That he’s hurting too. I toss the phone over my shoulder: it lands next to the espresso machine in the backseat next to his University of Michigan sweatshirt. I need a cigarette, but I reach for the pack of cinnamon gum in the glove compartment we keep just in case. Three years ago, we had stopped smoking and I’ll be damned if I start smoking now.
Seventy miles into the trip, the oldies station crackles, and the entire pack of gum is gone. The passenger seat is covered with pieces of crumpled silver foil. The quiet in the car is smoldering. My insides ache. I pull over and put on Robert’s sweatshirt. Under the passenger’s seat, I find the CD case. The Nina Simone CD Michelle made for my birthday last month falls to the floor. She and Robert had thrown a surprise birthday party for me. The party was in full swing, the living room was packed with dancers: an entanglement of arms and legs. Al Green on the stereo. Outside on the deck, Robert and Michelle were slow dancing, her ponytail moving from side to side, his hand on her back mimicked the motion of her hair. I knocked on sliding glass door. Robert dropped his hands. Michelle turned around, smoothed her skirt.
“What are you doing?” I walked into the kitchen before they could answer.
I collected some cake plates from the counter, placed them in the sink. The sound of a glass hitting the wood floor came from the living room. I turned on the water, let it run over my fingers onto to the bits of hardened cake icing. What was I doing, I thought. I was my father who had known about my mother’s affair with my track coach. I turned and looked over my shoulder. Robert stood in the kitchen doorway, his hands pressed together like he was praying.
“I’ll get the broom,” he said.
A hitch-hiker stands alone in the only cluster of green grass I’ve seen for miles. Sunglasses tinted and round. Gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. His t-shirt splattered with dry wall. He looks like an older John Lennon, after the Beatles, John with Yoko. I pull over. A brown cloud of dirt rises behind the car, the hitchhiker, the droplets of clouds, the solid white line that divides the road disappear.
In the seventies, my father, a former altar boy and avid Jets Fan, hitchhiked across the country twice when he was eighteen so he felt it was his responsibility to stop for every hitchhiker waiting around the on and off ramps of the New Jersey Garden State Parkway. My childhood was spent in the backseat of the family Ford LTD station wagon with its wood grain paneling staring at the backs of strangers’ heads as my father asked them questions about their lives.
One Sunday when I was twelve, back when my mother started sleeping with my track coach, instead of going to church, my father and I drove a former NFL running back named Tom Green to New York City. My father listened and nodded as Tom told us how his bum knee had kept him out of the draft. Tom, his shoulders wider than the front passenger seat, had gentle brown eyes and thick curly hair. I sat behind him wanting to touch his hair. We dropped him off on the corner of 42nd and Broadway. As he stepped inside the blur of a revolving door, my father turned to me and said: “Only give a ride to a person who looks you in the eye.”
The hitchhiker circles his arms, moves his head left to right like he’s about to run a race. Since I left Robert a few hours ago, I make my own rule: Never give a ride to a person from Texas, Robert’s home state. I put the car in reverse, drive back to John Lennon’s doppelgänger, roll down the window.
“Where you headed?” I ask.
“Colorado,” he says. “Rico.” He takes off his sunglasses. His face is thin, freckled. Right below his Adam’s apple is a tattoo of a red rose. His eyes are the color of walnuts and most importantly he’s able to maintain eye contact.
“One question,” I say. “Where are you from?”
“Texas,” he says.
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Where in Texas?” I consider breaking my new rule if he’s not from Austin, Robert’s hometown.
“That’s two questions.”
“How long have you been waiting for a ride?”
“San Antonio born and raised,” he says.
“I went to a culinary school there.”
“Pastry,” I say. “It’s hot as God there.”
“Hell,” he says. “Hot as hell.”
“I hate being corrected,” I say.
“I hate waiting for a ride.” He laughs, puts his sunglasses back on. I reach over and unlock the door.
He places the pack on the backseat next to the espresso machine and my phone, takes off his flip flops, and puts his feet on the dash. His toenails are painted electric pink.
“Make yourself comfortable.” I say, knowing Robert would have a fit if he saw Clyde sitting like this.
“Clyde Scott.” He offers his hand to me. His fingers are covered with flakes of dry wall.
“Elaine Weber,” I say.
“Nice ride,” he says. “Camaro?”
“’68 Mustang GT with a 351 Windsor, and a Jasper Class Two Racing Motor.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s quick.” I rev the engine, glide the car onto the highway.
He turns the radio dial, and a hissing static fills the car. He picks up the Nina Simone CD from the floor.
“Let’s not.” I take it from him, toss it in the backseat.
“A gift from the ex?” he asks.
“From an ex-friend who’s sleeping with my husband.”
“So you have an ex-husband?”
“I guess so, Clyde.”
We drive over a ridge and come upon a Men at Work sign. A man, wearing a green-neon vest, waves a flag with one hand and holds the other hand parallel to the ground, motioning for me to slow down. I pump the brake. Clyde places his hand on the glove compartment. Along the side of the road, workers stand next to stacks of orange parking cones, drinking coffee from miniature Styrofoam cups.
“Nice espresso machine,” Clyde says.
“I saved it from the husband who drinks decaffeinated.”
“Clyde, we have a hundred or so miles to go,” I say, “are you going to correct me the entire time?”
“I know,” he says, it’s a bad habit.”
There’s a stop sign at the junction ahead. There are no people, no cars, just endless blue sky, but I stop anyway, afraid that Clyde wants to get out. But he stays, crosses his leg one over the other, hands on his knees.
“We don’t have to talk,” he says.
“Okay,” I say.
I wonder if I can be okay with the quiet. The silence between Robert and me was smothering and I worked so hard to fill that space, talking non-stop, asking too many questions, not paying attention to the fact that he was already gone.
The car idles. To the right of the stop sign is a dirt road that winds up and over the top of a red-faced ridge. I could go anywhere. Do anything. Sell tacos in Colorado. Become a stripper in California. Hunt caribou in Alaska. It sounds so silly compared to what I had. Or what I wanted to have. Throughout high school, my father, ignored my mother’s affair with my track coach, a lanky man with a long nose and a mushy chin. I nicknamed him Chinless. He was the opposite of my father, wide-shoulders, strong, square chin like Bob Hope’s, a space between his teeth that I loved to watch appear and disappear when he talked.
Clyde tries the radio again. The static crackles. A man on horse appears at the top of the ridge as if he were dropped from the sky. They saunter towards us.
“What’s next?” I ask.
“A dog,” Clyde responds.
We stop at a gas station, the only building for miles. It’s a low, wide clapboard house. The white paint is peeling off in large pieces, revealing spots of rough, cracked wood beneath it. The house reminds me of the bungalow my father moved into after he and my mother divorced. It was at the end of a lagoon with a view of the Barnegat Bay. Weekends were spent with him and he was always working on the house. Staining the porch. Painting, then repainting the living room walls. He let me pick out the colors. First Lemon Butter, then a green color that I chose because I liked the name: Crocodile Smile. He replaced the roof three times. Three times he pulled off the tiles, throwing them down to ground. Three times I picked up the discarded tiles, careful not to touch the sharp, pointy nails. Each time he threw one down to me, he said: “Bombs away.” I responded: “Roger that.”
After dinner we sat on the front porch. He drank a beer and I drank lemonade from a martini glass. He put a paper cocktail parasol in it. It was July in New Jersey and we watched the sunset melt into the waters of the calm bay, the colors changing from ruby red, to a deep, deep purple that made my heart sing. After his third or fourth beer, he talked about my mother. Her freckled nose. Her strawberry blonde hair. The way they used to laugh together. On these nights, he made me promised I would never get married and if I had to that I had to promise I would never get divorced. He would have stayed despite the affair and the fact that she slept on the couch and got up early in the morning so I would not discover. But in the early morning, just before the sun rose, I heard the creaking of the wood floor as she headed to their bedroom. I promised him as if I understood.
There is a gas pump in the middle of the dirt parking lot with a note taped to the pump. It says: Prepay or die.
“Nice toes.” I point at Clyde’s pink polish.
“Carolina, my daughter’s idea.” He grabs the pack from the backseat, and takes out a photograph of a young girl. She’s laughing at the camera, her front two teeth are missing.
“How old?” I ask.
“Eight going on forty.” He places the pack on the floor.
He reaches into his jeans pocket, pulls out some crumpled bills, and presses them into my hand.
The store is stuffy and smells like sour pickles. A young woman sits behind the counter, talking on the phone. She has long black hair and stern opaque eyes. She points at me, then at the cash register.
“Put the money in the register?” I ask.
“Can’t you understand sign language?”
I smooth the wrinkled bills on the countertop as the woman laughs. I catch my reflection. My dark brown hair is greasy and pulled back. My shoulders are rounded. Robert’s old University of Michigan sweatshirt reaches the tops of my knees. I’ve never felt this tired. And old, so old. A sad woman.
“Pay attention,” I say to her.
“You’re interrupting.” The woman puts her hand over the receiver.
I press my index finger against the lining of the sweatshirt. “I said pay attention.”
“That’s your finger,” she says.
“Tell me where to put the money,” I say.
“It’s a finger.” She rolls her eyes at me.
Behind the counters are cartons of cigarettes, bottles of pale blue mouthwash, a clock that says five although it’s two in the afternoon.
“Give me the clock,” I say.
“Take it. It’s broken.”
“Forget the clock,” I shout, my heart pounding. “Give me the money.”
“Now you want the money?” she says. “That’s robbery.”
“All of it,” I shout louder. She takes a few dollar bills from the register, throws them at me. I throw the money back at her. I will not cry, I think and wipe my eyes with the cuff of the sweatshirt. Legs spread wide, finger pointing at her, I catch my reflection in the mirror. I don’t know who that person is. This criminal.
“Get out.” She stands.
I take a step towards her. She takes one back.
“You’re a fruit loop,” she says.
I walk behind the counter, put the money back into the register, take the clock off the wall.
Outside, the wind is warm and pushes the clouds, that ripple and swell like ocean waves across the sky.
“What’s that?” Clyde asks. He pumps the gas, one foot against the curb of the island.
“A clock,” I say.
“Don’t you have a watch?” he asks.
“Let’s go,” I say.
The woman comes outside. The clouds look like they’re about to crash down on us.
“Now,” I say to Clyde.
She points at me, and yells, “Fruit loop,” laughs, and goes inside.
Down the road there’s another gas station, but it’s closed. The building is bordered up. A soda machine lies on its side. It’s surrounded by red, blue, and green cans. The sun is high and bright, yet seems close enough to touch because there’s nothing else around.
“What about Denver after Rico?” Clyde asks.
I like the sound of Denver, of starting over in a new city with new friends, no questions to answer, no criminal record. Maybe I could open a bakery and sell scones. My favorite thing to bake. Nothing but pumpkin. No employees. Just me at 3 a.m., surrounded by sugar and mounds of dough.
We stop and get out. I open the trunk and find the atlas under the quilted plaid jacket Robert found at a garage sale. He made me try it on though I said it was ugly and looked itchy. He bought it and told me I needed to keep something warm in the car, just in case. He was always worried about the Mustang breaking down. I get the atlas and put on the jacket. Layered in his clothes, the sweatshirt, the jacket, I start to sweat.
“Cold?” Clyde says.
“No,” I say. “You?”
Clyde shakes his head no, takes out a pack of cigarettes from his backpack.
“If I can’t smoke, you can’t.”
“Carolina’s idea to get me to quit.” He opens the pack. It’s full of cigarette butts. He picks up a few half-smoked cigarettes, inhales them.
“Does she live with her mother?”
“Where?” I ask.
“Why are you being cryptic?”
“The roads were icy.” He pauses, covers his mouth as if he’s about to cough, then he clears his throat. “She went through the windshield.” He slides the pack into his shirt pocket.
“Damn it,” I say.
He shuts the car door, rolls down the window.
“Tell me about it,” he says.
Outside of Cortez, an army green Volkswagen bus is parked on the side of the road. A man with shaggy blond hair, a loose shirt over loose trousers watches a small boy with the same shaggy hair in shorts and flip flops throw fistfuls of snow into the air. Clyde hasn’t said a word for the last few miles.
I pull into a drugstore parking lot. On the side of the brick building is a mural of stick children with large round faces, arms and legs outstretched, riding bikes in the sky.
“She loved her bike,” Clyde says.
“Pink with one of those tacky white baskets.” he says.
“Gum?” I ask.
“Cinnamon,” he says.
In the front of the drugstore, there’s a gift shop. The shelves are stocked with pottery bowls and plastic see through containers filled with rubber snakes and plastic rings. I spin the postcard display and choose one with a family making jewelry on it. “Navajoland” is printed across the top of the card. I don’t know how Clyde keeps going. I think of my house, and how I can’t go home, and of the flower garden where Robert and I buried Howard, our German shepherd. When he was only a few weeks old, he showed up on the front porch with pieces of dried gum and popsicles sticks stuck to his fur. Howard died a few days after my birthday. As Robert and I dug a hole next to the azalea bushes to bury him, the rain came down in thick, heavy drops.
“We should have a baby,” I said, sitting down in the wet grass.
“Not now.” He sat next to me, handed me a warm beer. We both started to cry.
The man behind the counter gives me a pen. I write on the postcard: Robert, Don’t forget to water Howard and the side fence latch is broken. I buy a stamp and ask the clerk how long it will take to get to Flagstaff.
“About a week,” he says.
I walk outside; disappointed that Clyde and the car are still there.
Clyde and I follow the Dolores River as it sways and winds its way toward Rico. Once we’re in town, we pass a restaurant with a sagging porch and a closed for season sign taped to the front door. The streets are empty; it’s almost sun set.
Clyde directs me to the last street where there’s a creek bed. We stop. He carries the backpack to the water. I pick up a knobby stick and draw circles in the dirt. The earth is cold, dry. He unzips the pack, takes out a plastic boat, a naked doll with no head, and a package of chocolate-chip cookies.
“Open this, will you?” He hands me the cookies. I tear it with my teeth. He takes the package, and gives me a cookie. We eat.
“Her favorite things.” He places the doll, a cookie, and the comb on the boat. It lingers by the side of the bank, waiting for the current. I walk to the edge of the creek bed, move my fingers across the top of the icy water, head back to the car, check my phone. There are no calls.
I find a photograph in the pocket of the itchy jacket. It was taken last summer during our camping trip to Yellowstone National Park. Me in this silly jacket, Robert wearing a cap shaped like a moose, he wasn’t looking at the camera: He was smiling at me.
The current takes the boat and Clyde watches it sail down the creek. His back to me, his body is still. Like I said, I don’t know how he keeps going. The sun dips behind the trees. The sky between the gnarled branches turns from blue to orange.
I’m back on my father’s porch. He’s holding a beer. I’m sipping lemonade from a martini glass. The air thick with fumes from the stain. The sun on the horizon melts into the calm water. I can hear his voice, the way his words honor my mother.
Kerri Quinn’s Ph.D. is in Creative Writing (Fiction) from The University of Southern Mississippi. Her short stories have appeared in The Santa Monica Review, descant, The Apple Valley Review, and Cutthroat Literary Journal. She was a finalist in the 2010 Glimmer Train Fiction Open contest, and she received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Glimmer Train Fiction Open contest. She lives and writes in Flagstaff, AZ or New York, depending on her mood.