Mutely to the Coast

“…quivered a chambered silence.”

My God I want to get some good music that makes me feel like I’m ten different kinds of victory and loss, trading off and making life as giant, shaky, and indefinite as insomnia. I want the kind of music that makes me look at you like a movie, that slows you down and makes me a little bit scared of all the love we can’t seem to get our fingers into. Oh, but those fingers… I want the kind of music that plays when slapping a woman is justified, you know, because sometimes you gotta hit one, if it’s a movie. And the kind of music that says yeah, she hit him too, ‘cuz hittin’ him’s what he lives to have done. Hittin him’s how he knows this love’s about a four minute screw from being over, and a four day drive from starting over.

“We can’t stay here Tommy. I can’t stay here. It’s no good.”

Tommy sips coffee. “It sure isn’t good enough,” he agrees. “We’re what, like one county over? Supposed to be leaving home, and we haven’t even driven far enough to see anything unfamiliar yet. Which way’s the ocean again?

“I don’t know. We’re in friggin’ Kansas. It’s like, literally halfway between both of them. Plus it’s the middle of the night and I’m sitting on a toilet and I can’t even tell which way is West or East or any damn thing from here.”

“I know what state we’re in, Amy, and I know the ocean’s West.”

“The other one’s East.”

“Right, like the Atlantic counts. West is California, Mexico. What’s East? Like Cape faahkin’ Caahd or something? You ever heard of a badass and his girl running off East? To New England? They probably don’t even have sharks out there.”

“They have sharks, tough guy.”

“But they don’t have the desert.”

I want some good music that makes fast forward the same as slow motion so that when we’re in this thing it’s like a window down and a mute highway and the sound of the engine is only something we think we’ve heard because the engine is us, and it’s revving towards a bed in the desert like a dog growling at a bone you’re holding a few inches from his nose. Sit. Stay. It’s a tease. The speed is a tease, all six speeds are a tease. But it’s in with the air, out with the exhaust, and a tense, mute highway. This ain’t a movie, we’re not on the run, we didn’t rob nobody but our ancestors for the cache of birthright that we’re abusing out here on the 80, West past Green River and on, knowing the Salt Lake is just another thing we’re gonna leave behind. Bonneville a heathen lure, Vegas a comma.

“We’re not special, you know?”

“What is this, now?” Tommy asked her as he reached for his wallet.

“We’re just not. We’re driving West all fast in your cool car, and we’re staying in shitty motels and smoking cigarettes – like anyone does that anymore -”

“Does what?”

“Smokes real cigarettes. Actual paper and ashes cigarettes. Everyone walks around with those ridiculous giant things that they hold like a duck caller and billow out enormous clouds of sick vanilla smoke so it’s like they’re smoking car deodorizers. I want to say thank you or give a high five or something to anyone I see smoking a good old fashioned Camel, smelling like something’s burning and like they might actually die. That’s why we’re smoking these. But it still isn’t anything special. It’s too much. Too obvious. Like bad language and obscene violence in a Tarantino film – there’s so much of it that it loses any chance of having an impact.  All we’re doing is trying too hard. We’re going to wind up in California, having tried real hard and done nothing.”

“Done nothing? We’re doing something. The thing is the thing, and we’re doing it.”
“We’re somewhere in friggin’ Nevada, eating gas station sandwiches on your Dad’s debit card.” She started rummaging through her purse.

“At least I stole the card, you gotta give me that, at least.”

“It’d be cooler if your dad had bothered to cancel it three days ago when he found out.”

Yeah, we got a ’68 Cyclone and a thin story, a goal set for the ocean and an unwhispered knowing that a little breakdown in the desert is where our literate romance wants us, but we’re still scared of anything that isn’t home. We haven’t fought anyone for real. I’ve never been stabbed. The cops never heard of us. But I still want the music that makes us both shut up for at least the space between rest areas so that I can go a half hour on the road without saying or hearing anything out loud about how spectacular the country really is – I’ll get sick if I have to hear anything that sounds like tourism. The country will get spectacular enough if we can do something better than graduate from college, and so far that’s all we got. The loudest noise we made so far is just the one when we tried to sound the same as all the rest – what if we got quiet.

“So you stole your daddy’s debit card. Good for you. I stole something, too.” She was elbow-deep in her purse.

“Oh yeah, tough girl, what’d you steal? Your mama’s lipstick? Daddy’s watch?

She opened her mouth, held it that way for a second, then closed it again. “Never mind, Tommy.”

“No, really, what did you steal? I want to know. I’m on pins and needles here.” He pulled out some bills to pay for the motel room.

“Nothing. I didn’t steal anything. I was just messing around.”

“That’s what I thought.”

What if we got quiet like a window down and a mute highway, with the tires screaming and the cabin, the windshield seals getting tested by pressure at about 85 miles per hour, right where the suspension starts to feel like it’s doing what it was made for, like it’s finally giving the chassis that bedding down that they were made to do together. The windows down and the tires on the road and so much white noise that we know we’re being told to shut up by something that man and God did together and it’s the kind of music I begged for, and that’s why at that last motel just past Battle Mountain, I finally showed you what I stole.

“I didn’t leave my home and my family” Amy’s hand stopped moving in her purse “to bounce across the country on some glorified field trip.” She pulled out a small handgun. It pointed at the floor, hanging from her arm like it would rather not have been dragged into all of this.  She looked at Tommy.

“Holy Jesus, Amy!” He took a step back and dropped the money he was going to pay the clerk.

“We’re not special, you know.”

“We don’t need to be special, Amy! Why do you keep saying that? What are you – I can’t -” He bent towards the money on the floor, searched blindly for it with a hand while he kept his eyes on the little round, black emptiness at the front of the gun. “You brought a gun? A fucking gun? I never said we were special. Why do you keep saying that?”

“Why are you paying him?”

“Why am I – what?”

Him.” She stabbed the gun in the direction of the clerk. “Why are you paying him? You should be taking his money. Isn’t that what we’re doing here? Taking risks? Breaking free? Getting some God damned separation?” She did not lower the gun.

“Separation? It’s just a fucking road trip, Amy! We go from one place to another in a car! It doesn’t mean anything else!” He was panicking, starting to cry, looking from the clerk to the gun to the money on the ground. “We’re not robbing people, and we’re sure as hell not shooting them.” His hand, palm up, waved generally towards the front desk. “We’re just driving, for chrissakes. Now please, Amy, put the gun away.”

Amy looked at Tommy a little disappointedly, a little like she pitied him. She turned her head to look at the clerk, where the gun was still pointed. Nothing moved. A radio didn’t play, a clock didn’t tick, a cat didn’t pad across the lobby. At the end of Amy’s leveled arm quivered a chambered silence bigger than the highway, bigger than the desert, bigger than the ocean. Without taking her eyes off the clerk she said “We’re not special, Tommy” and set the silence free.

And so mutely to the coast we drive.

Thanksgiving

“That’s what they are. Things. A grave. A few street signs. There’s only so close you can get.”

 

“It’s good to see you again, Darren.”

“You, too, Mr. Daly. You too.”

“Come on in and just leave your bag here. We’ll get it to your room later.”

Darren let go of the handshake and walked into the house with Mr. Daly, who was silent. The entire house was silent. Things were clean and modern enough, though for some reason Darren had assumed there would be some kind of grandmotherly feel to the place. Doilies on lemony wood, yellowing curtains, linoleum. Crocheted catchphrases on the wall like the motivational posters of another era. It felt like that, but it was not that. The house was current and without nostalgia, modern art on the walls, a leather sofa with the little brass buttons around it. And when Mrs. Daly came down the hall to meet them in living room, the sound was her shoes on dark planks of some kind of exotic hardwood. Things were nice. Warm, but somehow still kind of – he wasn’t sure what to call it – maybe paralytic. Frozen. Warm but frozen. Darren didn’t know what to say. Mr. Daly didn’t know what to say. Mrs Daly said “Happy Thanksgiving, Darren.”

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Daly. Thank you for inviting me.”

“It’s been a long time, Darren, and you’re not a boy anymore. Please, call me Rebecca. And if Stan hasn’t said so yet, you can call him that. We appreciate you making the trip. Be sure to tell your mother that we’re sorry for stealing you this year.”

“I will, Rebecca. Thank you. Your house is beautiful. It’s a long way from the old place in Illinois. I don’t think I see anything here that you had in that house.”
“Probably not,” Stan replied. “Frankly, it was a lot easier to move without dragging a bunch of old stuff along with us. And of course by the time you and Eric joined the Army, well you know we had already lost Joshua, so the idea of just starting fresh really made sense.”

Rebecca agreed and added “We do still have a few of Eric’s old things, and the little flag setup in the hall, but we haven’t kept any kind of a shrine to him or anything like that. And being that he never lived in this house you don’t have to worry that we’re going to make you sleep in his old room.”

Stan said, “On that note, Darren, let me show you where you’re staying.”

Darren was led to a guest room in the finished basement, and when Stan left him to himself, he was surprised to see a small framed picture of the Daly’s youngest son on the dresser. His name was Joshua, and when he was seven the Dalys moved to Illinois because they had been referred to a doctor there who said he could help him. He had a rare childhood cancer, and this doctor was going to give him some kind of a new treatment. Darren was eleven at the time, and so was the Daly’s older son, Eric. They became friends and stayed that way for the next twelve years, when Eric was killed in a firefight in some little beige village in the desert.

Darren put his bag in the corner and shuffled around uncomfortably for a few minutes before going back upstairs. The Dalys were in the kitchen, casually preparing food for tomorrow’s meal. When he entered, Rebecca finished peeling a carrot and said “I hope this isn’t too uncomfortable for you, Eric.”

“No, it isn’t. I mean it is a little, but I don’t think that can be helped.”

“I don’t either,” Stan said. “When you think about it, what with all the noise and hoopla around Eric’s death – his medal, his story, all the visits from Generals and letters from guys he served with – it’s not as though we haven’t made it through the grieving process, you know? Not as though we haven’t been helped and treated well.”

“Right,” Rebecca picked up from there. “We’re good, we’re past it, as much as we can ever be. We’ve been the hero’s parents, and thankfully we were able to get through it without resenting anything too much. Without being too selfish about it, and without being worn down by the attention the way I’ve heard can happen. It’s just that we’ve never talked to anyone, I don’t know, anyone who knew him that we also knew.  Nobody mutual. Everyone had such wonderful things to say about him, and every time I go back and read the citation from his Medal, the things he did –  I mean, it’s all so incredible. So…nice, you know? But all of those people – every one of them was a stranger to us.”

“Well I hope,” Darren was a little lost, “I hope I can, I don’t know – well, look: As you know, I wasn’t there when he died. I mean, I wasn’t even in Afghanistan at the time.  I didn’t even hear about it until 3 months after it happened. I didn’t even know. I wasn’t there when it happened. I wasn’t with him. I couldn’t have done anything.”

When they were all younger and Joshua seemed to be having a new surgery every week, and his chemo treatments left him weakened and slow, the boys were occasionally tasked with playing with him, taking him with them when they went out. But he was slow and clumsy. He had a hole in his chest, a ‘port’ his parents called it, with a little nozzle like a car tire or a life raft so that he could just show up at the hospital and have a hose plugged into him without a bunch of hassle. Everything else was difficult for him and his enfeebled system, and Eric was mean to him because of it. Darren remembered wishing that they didn’t have to take Joshua with them. It made Eric embarrassingly cruel. Eric gave Joshua gifts and cards and always acted eager to visit him in the hospital. But when they were away from their parents, he called Joshua a retard and tried to show Darren how easy it was to make him fall over. It was the only time Darren didn’t like being around Eric.

On Thanksgiving day Darren came up from his room in the Daly’s basement. A small table in the hall held a picture of Eric, Private First Class Daly at the time, in his uniform, maroon beret pulled down over one ear and maybe just the tiniest suggestion of a smile on an otherwise serious face. On the wall above it was a display of several medals, a Bronze Star along with a handful of lesser ones that Darren had, too, but couldn’t remember the names of. In the center was a plaque bearing the citation for his Medal of Honor, and a triangular case displaying a folded American Flag.

Stan approached and they stood together quietly for a few moments. “They named a street after him back in our old town, before we left. ‘Eric Daly Drive.’ There was a parade, and it seemed like the phone calls and mail would never stop coming. It was exhausting.”

“I heard about the street. I wanted to be there for that, but I was still – I haven’t been able to get back there. Is that why you moved?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m no psychologist, but I suppose it was part of it. I know we never looked at each other and said we have to get out of here. But between that road and all the attention, and Joshua’s grave, I think moving away was pretty inevitable for us.”

“Don’t you –I’m sorry, I really don’t know – don’t you want to stay closer to those things? Will you ever move back?”

“Oh God, I don’t know. I don’t think so. Those things -”

“Yeah, sorry, that was a bad way to say it.”
“No, that’s ok. That’s what they are. Things. A grave. A few street signs. There’s only so close you can get. And even if we moved right back into our old house, our boys would still belong to that town more than they did to us.” They stared at the wall. Somewhere outside, a rooster crowed. From the kitchen came the smell of heat and thyme. “I almost wish we didn’t have that picture there,” Stan told him. “I know it’s old and he was a Staff Sergeant by the time he was killed. We have plenty of other pictures of him, but for some reason we put up that picture there, and now it’s the only way I can ever see him when I close my eyes and try to remember. None of the earlier times, none of the Illinois days, none of the times with Joshua. Just that posed picture there.”

“It’s a good picture, Mr. Daly.  A nice picture. A nice way to remember him.”

 

One winter back in Illinois, when they were fourteen and Joshua ten, the three of them were walking in the field behind their houses. Joshua wobbled along behind them, awkward but with an odd joy he seemed to have gained through his illness. Eric said that one of his brain surgeries ruined him in some way. Made him too stupid to be sad. They made their way towards the pond where the water froze over to a dependable thickness by December every year, and some of the neighborhood boys even played hockey on it sometimes. It was January, and by then they didn’t think twice about walking right across it. To their knowledge, nobody had ever fallen in. Darren and Eric had reached the other side. Joshua was still about 20 feet out. Eric had been cursing him all day. He scolded Joshua to get across, and started lobbing rocks towards him. Joshua looked frightened and shouted at him in a breathless little voice to stop, but there was hardly any noise, just the steam on the air. Eric kept throwing rocks, tossing them higher and higher, and using bigger and bigger rocks. Joshua was doing his best to hurry across, but his coordination had been excised by a half dozen operations, and tumbled around in too many dialysis machines, so he was stuck in what might have been, at another time, a comical flailing of scrawny limbs. Eric taunted him, shouting “COME ON, BAMBI!”

At last Eric got hold of a rock the size of his head, and with two hands and a violent grunt, sent it towards his brother. When it landed it lodged about half of itself in the ice. All three of them stopped moving and stared at it mutely for a few seconds as it paused in that hard blue layer halfway between the water and the sky. Suddenly it vanished with a meek little splash. Joshua looked up at the boys on the bank. His pale face, skeletal and wasted from the medical war that had been waged on his body, registered an oddly mature look of acceptance just before disappearing beneath the ice. Darren shouted his name and started in his direction, but Eric held him back.

“We can still help him!”

“No. We can’t.”

The two of them watched from a distance until water stopped splashing out of the hole that Joshua had made.

At the table, on Thanksgiving, over a small turkey and some wine, Rebecca made a suggestion: “I know nobody likes doing this, but why don’t the three of us take a minute to say what we’re thankful for.”