A LONG WAY TO NOWHERE
Jim Forester guns the accelerator. In front of him, the road winds upward through barren rocky hills streaked with red, yellow, and white strata, the hillcrests dotted with juniper and pinyon, a land laid open to chance and geology, behind him the country falling away beneath a stark New Mexico sun with the road receding eastward, and beyond that, Texas and the conversation of the night before.
“I bought a gun.”
The bar fell silent.
His friends gazed at him through thick clouds of cigarette smoke.
“A Beretta nine millimeter.”
His friend Dennis took a long drag from his cigarette and squinted at him through the dim light of the bar. “Yup,” he said, the smoke coiling from his mouth, “that’ll do the trick.”
“That’s good, Jim” said his friend Greg. “Being out on the road as much as you are, you need some protection.”
“Oh, you mean besides the kind they sell in the men’s room?” said Jim.
The three men laughed.
“No-no-no,” said Dennis, “I think what he’s trying to say is that besides condoms, a gun’s good too.”
“Ah,” said Jim. “That’s reassuring.”
“Damn right it is,” said Greg. “It’s reassuring to have a gun. It’ll give you a sense of control. You can rest better at night.”
Ah, rest, thought Jim. God knows he could use it, yet in spite of having owned the gun for three weeks now, he’d detected little improvement in sleep, the irony of which was not lost on Jim whose very bread and butter hinged on a commodity any daytime doctor’s show will tell you we need more of--a pleasant night’s rest. A top salesman for Supreme Mattress, Jim sells “rest” all over West Texas and New Mexico, but after fifteen years of service, was recently--and unjustly, thought Jim--passed over for a better paying management position in Austin, a decision over which he’d had little control. It kept him up at night.
Then, of course, there was that other thing.
“So, how’s Jean?” asked Dennis.
Jim sighed and downed the rest of his Scotch and water. Hell, it assured a better night’s rest than any foam or latex mattress Supreme made. And lately, the last thing he wanted was to lose sleep over Jean.
“She’s okay, I guess,” said Jim. “In Dallas, I reckon.”
“Yeah, shacked up with that ad man.”
All those hours on the road, thought Jim. All that dedication to the company, all that time away from home, a home he hardly knew. And what had it gotten him?
“The divorce was final three weeks ago,” added Jim.
The bartender set a new drink in front of Jim as he considered his last year with Jean, the funny change in her voice, a distance between them that persisted even when he was home, the lack of sex, and then, finally, Jean’s unexpected confession of the affair with an advertising director from Dallas. Christ, they’d even done it in his own bed while Jim was away in Albuquerque. This man he never even knew had plundered his home, stolen his wife, taken fifteen years of his marriage. For once, he was glad there were no children. When the divorce was final, Jim got the house. The first thing he did was burn the old mattress. Then he slept on the couch.
The next day, he bought the gun.
He liked how it felt in his hand, the metallic click of the action, the clink of spent shells at his feet, the holes it put in the heart of the target.
“So, where are you headed tomorrow?” asked Greg.
Jim sipped at his drink and frowned. “Farmington, New Mexico” he said.
“Hum, long drive,” said Dennis.
“Yeah, long way to nowhere,” said Greg.
“Hell,” said Jim. “I already live in nowhere.”
“Nowhere” is what early Spanish explorers called the Llano Estacado, the flat plains of northwest Texas, so flat you’d think you could see all the way to eternity, except what lies along the horizon is really New Mexico and out there somewhere, more Supreme stores clamoring for mattresses.
As his car climbs higher into the hills, Jim figures he can make Farmington by evening, but not early enough to visit his first customer. Anyway, Julie’s Bar will still be open for a nightcap before bedtime. He can rest assured of that. In the meantime, he could use a rest stop. His legs are tired and he hasn’t stopped since Santa Rosa. Fortunately, just ahead is mile post 64, which has a nice rest stop with toilets and, if you’re a geologist, a nice view of the colorful rock strata that stretch across the land. He’ll just stop for a moment, use the facilities, stretch his legs, and then be on his way.
Jim pulls off the road and into the rest stop. This is lonely country with almost no traffic, and since it’s a hot summer day, he leaves the car running so the air conditioner can keep the interior cool while he’s in the restroom.
When he emerges from the rest facility, Jim gazes at the country around him. To the east, the mountains stretch north from Albuquerque to Santa Fe where clouds build and shadow the mountains in blue haze, but here, the sky is clear, the sun brilliant. The country suits his mood, the clear air and the strident colors that cut across the land, the turquoise tint of the sky over the hills.
A red Cadillac pulls into the rest stop and parks behind Jim’s car. A big man wearing a straw cowboy hat, a white western shirt, and jeans gets out of the car and enters the rest facility. His passenger, a blond woman, sits in the car, waiting.
Jim pulls up on the door handle of his car. The door doesn’t open. He pulls again, then again. For crying out loud, he’s locked the keys in the car.
Seeing Jim’s predicament, the blond woman opens her door and approaches. She wears a dark pair of Ray-Bans and a white summer dress covered in red and yellow floral patterns. Her hair is long and straight and falls across tanned, freckled shoulders.
“Got nowhere to go now, do you?” she says, standing next to Jim.
“Ah, I guess not,” says Jim. “But then I’ve been going nowhere a long time.”
“Ooh, do I detect a little negativity there?”
Jim looks back at his car. “Yeah, I can’t believe I locked the keys in my car in the middle of nowhere.”
The woman looks eastward across the barren valley as a flicker of lightning cuts the blue haze over the distant mountains. “Yeah, well I’ve been in worse places.” She puts a hand on his shoulder and smiles. “My hunch is you have, too. Don’t worry. I know we’ve got an extra coat hanger in the car. We’ll see what we can do.”
As she turns and walks back to the car, Jim watches the sway of her hips, her tentative steps as she tries to avoid turning a heel on the uneven asphalt of the rest stop pavement. He watches her open the trunk of the car and re-emerge with a coat hanger she’s already bending into shape for the job ahead.
“Now,” she says, standing beside Jim’s car door, “let’s see what we can do.” She pushes the hooked end of the hanger through the rubber sealing between the window and door frame.
“Looks like you’ve done this a few times,” says Jim.
Glancing at Jim, she smiles. “More than a few, my friend.”
As she maneuvers the wire hanger behind the glass, Jim watches the concentration in her face, the way the sunglasses ride lower along the bridge of her nose, revealing olive green eyes, the skin wrinkling in an inverted V between her brows. We’re coconspirators, he thinks, though he’s not sure why his mind seizes upon the concept of conspiracy. Something to do with claiming what’s rightfully yours, he tells himself.
“If I can just get it right,” she says, the pink tip of her tongue sliding along her lips.
Jim gazes back at the red Cadillac parked behind his white Nissan. “Looks like you’ve got it right to me,” he says.
She notices his glance toward the Cadillac. “Well, appearances aren’t everything,” she says.
“Ooh, do I detect a little negativity there?”
She smiles again and maneuvers the wire hook to make a grab at the inside door handle. “If I can grab the handle just right, it’ll open this up.”
“Sounds like a metaphor for life,” says Jim.
Jim can see the reflection of her smile from the car window. “You’re the brooding philosophical type, aren’t you?” she says, twisting the hanger. “What opens life for you?”
“Hum, beds, I guess.”
The woman glances back at him, then goes back to maneuvering the hanger. “I beg your pardon.”
“Oh, I’m a mattress salesman. Actually, an accounts representative for Supreme Mattress.”
She bites her lower lip as she maneuvers the hanger into position to catch the door latch. “The company with the sheep ads?”
“No,” says Jim. “That’s a competitor.”
“Good,” she says. “I hate sheep.”
“My husband raises sheep.”
“Oh yeah?” says Jim, looking back at the rest facilities.
She makes a grab at the door handle with the hooked end of the hanger, but the hanger slips off. “Almost had it that time,” she says.
“So, what do you do?” asks Jim. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Drink vodka, mostly,” she says, glancing at Jim before refocusing on the task at hand. “And seven,” she says, repositioning the hanger.
“That’s quite a hobby.”
“Well it didn’t used to be,” she says. “I used to paint.”
“Yeah, you know, oil paintings. Sometimes watercolors, but mostly oils.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, I sold several. Gained a little fame.” She nods toward the east. “Mostly with those artsy-fartsy types up in Santa Fe. Then what I painted later didn’t sell so well.”
She maneuvers the hook of the hanger into position again, this time just catching the end of the door latch before the hook slips off.
“What’d you used to paint?” asks Jim.
“Oh, pastoral Peter Hurd stuff. You know, distant mountains and golden grassland, lonely farm houses and windmills, maybe a thunderstorm in the distance.”
This time, she’s really concentrating, her upper teeth bearing down on her lower lip. She seems not to hear him, and as the hook slips once more, she answers: “I got married.”
“Ah, that’ll do it,” says Jim, looking back toward the rest facility.
“Second time,” she adds. “Three years ago.”
Jim gazes back to the east where the tops of the storm clouds have blown into an anvil above the mountains. “So what do you paint now?”
“Oh, people with stories in their faces,” she says, arching her brows and gazing at Jim. “You know, people that maybe life hasn’t been too kind to.”
“So,” says Jim, “nobody buys suffering, huh?”
She fixes Jim in her gaze, then focuses again on the handle. “Would you?” she says, making one more grab at the handle like it’s the last chance.
The lock clicks.
“Ah!” she yells, throwing her arms around Jim. “I got it!”
She reminds Jim of his ex-wife when she was his girlfriend back in high school and he’d just won a big stuffed animal at the local county fair. Awkwardly, he responds by embracing this unfamiliar woman with whom he feels a strange connection, but just as he does, she’s ripped from his arms, falling backwards, her face whirling back away toward the direction of the blue mountains, in front of which now stands the big man in the western shirt and the cowboy hat who, grabbing both arms, wrestles her toward the car, yelling something about what she’s doing, about why she isn’t in the car, about why
she’s . . . .
Jim stares, dumbfounded.
The big man opens the passenger car door, but when she says something to him, he slaps her, backhanded, then shoves her into the car. He walks around the front of the Cadillac, fixing his gaze on Jim.
“You got somethin’ to say?” he asks.
“What the hell, man? She was just helping me—“
“Yeah!” yells the big man. “I saw what she was doing.”
“But wait, you don’t understand. She was helping me—”
The big man points at him. “Buddy, you better get on down the road or I’m gonna give you an understanding you’ll never forget.”
Jim hesitates, then gets back in his car. From the side mirror, he sees the big man still standing there, watching.
Jim remembers the gun. Opening the glove box, he retrieves the Beretta and gets back out of the car just as the big man opens the driver’s door of the Cadillac.
Jim approaches the Cadillac. As they’d taught him at the firing range, he braces his right hand with his left to steady his aim, which is directly at the big man’s chest.
The big man stares at Jim, then gazes at the gun.
“So,” says the big man. “You’re goin’ full bad-ass on me now, huh?”
“There’s no reason to treat her like that,” says Jim.
The big man stands there, his hands on his hips. “So, what are you gonna do now? Kill me?”
Jim can feel his wrists beginning to tremble.
The big man stares at him. “Christ,” he says, “I read guys like you all the time.” He squints hard at Jim in the brilliant sunlight, then shakes his head. With his right hand, he makes a sudden grab for the gun, his left hand grabbing Jim’s right wrist. The big man wrestles the gun from Jim’s grasp. Holding the gun, he towers over Jim, squints back at him, and smiles. “Nice bluff, bud,” he says, turning to get back in his car. “But hell, next time you might take the safety off before you threaten someone.” He ejects a bullet from the chamber, then unloads the magazine from the gun and hurls it into the thick olive-green sage beside the rest stop.
Jim stands there, watching. The big man laughs. “Here’s your gun back, Mr. Eastwood. You made my day.” He hands the unloaded gun back to Jim, closes the car door, then tips his hat politely at Jim before gunning the engine and leaving skid marks across the rough asphalt of the rest stop.
After searching through the sage for maybe ten minutes, Jim finds the gun’s magazine. By now, it’s too late to do anything, he figures. Hell, he didn’t think to get the Cadillac’s license number, and as he tries his cell phone, there’s no signal.
Inserting the magazine back into the pistol, Jim gets back into his car. Putting the pistol back in the glove box, Jim pulls back onto the road, his heart pounding as he floors the accelerator and feels the Nissan wind through its sequence of gears as he climbs upward across the crest of high hills and then over, where the road descends steeply to the north, stretching straight out for miles ahead through rocky high desert that now, for the first time in fifteen years, strikes him as the most desolate place he’s ever been.
Without glimpsing a red Cadillac for fifty miles, Jim turns west at Bloomfield and heads toward Farmington where orange barrels line the road and warn of danger, of road construction, uneven lanes, sudden stops. Reaching Farmington, he checks into the local motel Supreme always sends him to, then grabs a quick dinner at a local restaurant. By 10:30, he’s seated at the bar in Julie’s.
Hours later, and after several Scotch and waters, Jim notices how the white band of skin around his wedding finger has faded. He thinks about Jean, of the day she’d confessed the affair, of her olive eyes clouded with tears, how she kept brushing the long blond hair from her brow, hair that fell so lovely across her freckled chest and shoulders.
He thinks of all those years on the road, all that dedication to the company, about the “good friend” who’d gotten the managerial job in Austin.
He thinks about the day’s events.
He remembers the Beretta in the glove box of the car but, for some reason he can’t articulate, feels in no way reassured.
The bartender switches on the overhead florescent lights, signaling “last call.” In the brilliant glare, Jim sees the older man he’s become staring back at him from the mirror behind the bar, the graying of his temples, the first white whiskers in the neatly trimmed beard around his chin, and squinting back at him, eyes filled less with wisdom than . . . .
“Last call, my friend,” says the bartender. “Anything else?”
Jim tips his glass toward the bartender and nods. “One more Scotch and water, please. Better make this one a double.”
Peter Myers has a Master of Arts degree from Texas Tech University where he teachesin the freshman English program. He has had short stories published in Cottonwood, Thin Air, Talking River Review, and Willow Review.