Nick Hamsun parked the truck down in the cul-de-sac, where he sometimes did when it was late and didn’t want to wake Anna, but tonight it was because the front room lights were on and it was clear someone else was living in his house.
Nick had known something like this was happening, or at least he was sure it might very well happen sometime, so he wasn’t exactly surprised by it. He’d known plenty of guys who’d come home to such scenes.
He smoked a cigarette on the street outside and eyed the soft glow of his living room lights between curls of smoke. He started to figure out who it might be inside, who it was lying in his bed, eating his food, drinking his beers, touching his wife, but he stopped himself. Did it really matter? Someone, anyone, who wasn’t himself drinking his beer and caressing his wife, was a sickening thought. The beers though, it was particularly that that sent him into a brief fit of rage.
He calmed himself and remembered he was tired. Nothing seems right when you’re tired. So he’d just let it go for tonight.
Nick walked around the darkened side of the house and went to the basement door at the back. The door was unlocked and he pushed it open.
A single 40 watt bulb burned in a depressing aureole in the far corner over his workbench. The Down’s Syndrome girl, Elizabeth, from a few houses up the street, was sitting in the wheelbarrow petting Anna’s cat, Jackson Browne. The girl sat quietly, rocking evenly on the wobbly wheel. Nick sighed as he came in, calming his agitated heartbeat.
“Hi, Nick,” the girl said. Her voice was dull and flat. Nick nodded and set his duffel bag on the workbench, disinterested in Elizabeth altogether. She was, after all, likely to be found sitting in Nick’s wheelbarrow rocking quietly back and forth as she petted Jackson Browne.
At first, Nick would take Elizabeth by the hand and walk her back home, after a loud noise or the banging basement door would wake Anna, and she would wake Nick, and he was then forced to deal with it. But no matter how many times Nick told the girl’s mother the situation and where he’d found her, Elizabeth kept coming back, breaking in through a window if she needed to. Eventually Nick put a spare key under a rock at the back door for her, then just started leaving the door unlocked altogether.
The soft familiar hum of Jackson Browne’s purr echoed off the cement floors. Elizabeth stared at Nick through her large, wide-set eyes.
Nick sat at his workbench and reached far underneath and pulled out a warm can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He felt a slight shiver of pride; hiding a few beers, a pack of smokes, scattered around the basement for those dire times, the all-night arguments and no hope of a break to run out to the store. He sipped in the stale light and lifted his gaze to the underbelly of the living room as footfalls and laughter drifted through the hard pine boards.
“What are they doing, moving furniture?” Nick lit a cigarette and took a long warm drink. “For Christssake, what’s so funny?”
“They’ve been up there all day,” Elizabeth said matter-of-factly. “Actually, all week. Jackson can’t hardly sleep with all that banging around.”
Nick stared at the scarred, sawdust-ridden table. Among the scrapes and rogue saw blade cuts were fat splatters of dark wood stain and bumper stickers—Los Angeles, Hollywood, Bourbon Street, Key West Mile 0, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Park—all the places Nick’s eighteen-wheeler had taken him. All the places he’d ever wanted to see when he was a boy. A man must know his country, his father always said. The names and places stared back at him—all the places he’d promised to take Anna for a real honeymoon. And while at first she did go along for the week-long excursions across the crowded lonesome country, she quickly stopped and stayed home, feeling the time spent on the road wasn’t quite as romantic as Nick believed it to be. They had watched that evening redness break across the desert sky, had caught the Vermont leaves change and burst in a kaleidoscope of autumnal colors, had seen mile after mile after mile together. But never a real moment, never a honeymoon. It was always tacked-on to another long haul, another mile until Denver, another trip out to the canyon before Tuesday.
Instead of a honeymoon Anna had a corner hutch in the living room, complete with lights and crystal shelves, illuminating a vast collection of all the myriad trinkets and giftshop items Nick had brought back for her every other weekend. No honeymoon, and a hutch full of over-priced shit to prove it.
Nick finished the warm beer and reached again into the darkness under the bench for another hidden can. No luck. He stood on his tiptoes and reached up into the duct-work and found a can of Old Milwaukee. He blew the dust off and popped it open and sipped. Elizabeth eyed him judgingly and he took his seat again.
“First beer never counts,” he said.
He took out his cellphone and began looking at the next weeks’ route. He’d head out through Knoxville on 40 West, stop off in Memphis, then Little Rock, then on to Wichita Falls on 44 southbound, headed for Lubbock. The tiny glowing screen hurt his eyes and he rubbed them and the bridge of his nose, as if he wore glasses. He didn’t though.
He cut his phone off as another bray of laughter and banging came through the floorboards. He tossed his phone aside and went to his duffel bag and scrambled around among the disarray of clothes and paperback novels and a few gift shop trinkets he hadn’t gotten around to giving Anna yet. As he looked at them, he suddenly felt a strange emptiness as he knew he never would. He took out a neatly folded road atlas and spread it out over the workbench. All fifty states and their highways and forgotten state roads stretched across the worn wood like exposed veins. He followed a few routes with the tip of his finger, a cigarette balanced between his lips. Laughter flowed down evenly like an oppressive spirit and hung suspended in the cloud of smoke above him.
“What’s that?” Elizabeth said.
She was now up and standing at Nick’s side in an occult manner, petting Jackson Browne with fierce strokes.
“It’s a road map for us truckers.”
“Road map, an atlas. Shows all the highways and roads in each state.”
“Why don’t you just use your phone like a normal person?” the girl said. The sour stench of Elizabeth’s body odor and unwashed breath cut through the smoke and damp basement smell and pricked Nick’s nose like little needles. He choked slightly, breathed hard out through his nostrils twice unconsciously for a clean breath.
“’Cause sometimes you need to see the big picture, see all the outcomes where one road might lead. Sometimes you think all’s well and you’ve got a road all the way, then BAM, construction, toll road, dead highway.”
The two of them paused as the sound very similar to a couch being lifted then slammed down repeatedly rumbled the tools hanging on the peg board just in front of Nick. He took a long drag from his smoke, and drew a line with his finger through North Carolina, then Tennessee.
“What do you think of Van Zandt, Texas?” Nick asked the girl.
“Ain’t never been,” Elizabeth said. She squeezed the cat tight in her grip, holding him up higher now to Eskimo kiss him. In an instant, the cat reached out and clawed the girl, drawing blood from her chubby cheek. Nick glanced down and saw the several similar claw marks, some old, some still fresh, running up the length of her arms. “He can’t hardly relax with all that noise,” she said. “They’ve been at it all day. All week actually. Jackson can’t relax any with all that noise.”
The cat wriggled from her chubby hands and flailed to the cold cement floor and darted quickly off into the dark corner behind the furnace. The Down’s Syndrome girl sat back in the wheelbarrow, rocking back and forth, back and forth.
Nick stared blankly at the atlas unfolded before him. All the roads leading to far-off places only to end, only to start again when you arrive.
“Never ends, all this going and coming. Never ends,” Nick said.
The longer he sat and thought about it, the squeak of the wheelbarrow and thumping noises from upstairs lulled him into a distant place. All this going and arriving, just to go again, just to arrive again. What was it for? Why did he prefer the lonesome deserts and midnight highways? Why did he like dreaming of his wife, of his home, more than being there, more than kissing her? Why did he feel that great breathless release each time a new city developed against the horizon like a photograph? Why did Anna want him to take longer routes, to go to the edge of the world and not call to check-in anymore? Leaving and arriving, when would it end?
Life on the road was a lonely business. Nick always thought he would die in a car accident or from cancer. But it never came. Every puff was just another lonely mile closer to the edge of the earth.
“You know, Lycan, Colorado, is just beautiful this time of year,” Nick said. “The west is lonesome enough for a soul to get lost in but crowded enough where no one would even notice.”
“My momma went to Scottsdale, Arizona, once to visit my grandma,” the girl said. “Grandma died though.” She stopped rocking and lifted her wide-set gaze skyward, as if looking for her grandmother in the floorboards. “Can’t they be quiet for a damn minute? Momma says they’re gonna have a baby, then get married. She said that’s how people do it sometimes.”
“Arizona,” Nick said. “Now there’s a thought, ain’t it.”
He drank and stared at the pale-colored outline of the state on the map and smiled.
“You know, we’re just forgotten out there. Once you open the door, hit the road, no telling where you’ll go, and no one thinks about you anymore. Out of sight and that’s that. You could be carrying bombs or bread and no one gives a shit at eighty miles an hour. Just don’t fall asleep, is all they ever say. Don’t fall asleep. But you know, I think I did, somewhere out there. Sevierville maybe, maybe Birmingham.”
Nick dropped a finger on Arroyo Plains, New Mexico, drew a line up towards Alaska.
“Yessir, scot-fucking-free,” he said.
“Can you please tell them to keep it down?” Elizabeth said.
Nick stood and went to the stairs and paused a moment. The cat crawled out of the darkness and hopped into the wheelbarrow again.
Nick smiled and came back to the workbench and took a hammer down from the peg board and found another beer stowed behind the hot water heater. He lumbered up the steps, whispering, “The desert sure is nice this time of year.”
Elizabeth petted Jackson Browne with slow heavy strokes. A shout, a scream, a loud banging, like a sofa being lifted then dropped twice, echoed through the floor from upstairs. Elizabeth smiled as the house went silent.
Nick came down the stairs with slow, even steps, and a cold beer in his hand. He slid the hammer back in its place on the peg board and drank the cold beer with a calm sigh. A single droplet of blood slid off the curved end of the hammer and splashed on Van Zandt, Texas. Nick smiled.
Elizabeth sang some song to herself in the darkness and Jackson Browne purred softly in her heavy grip. The wheelbarrow creaked as the girl rocked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
“Anna always hated Texas,” Nick said, lighting a fresh smoke. “Guess it’ll just have to grow on her. It’s big enough for a soul to get lost in out there. She probably won’t even notice.”