Authors: Justin Tussing
Mary handed me her empty glass.
Once it was loaded I flipped the dishwasher on. I sponged down the counter and rinsed the sink. As soon as Mary went to bed, I was going to sneak off to Alice's.
Mary kissed me on my cheek. “Tell Shiloh I said he's welcome anytime.”
But Shiloh didn't visit again. For his next trick, he made me disappear.
Shiloh gave me a promise. “You're going to thank me for this, Thomas. You get into a car expecting it to take you somewhere physical, but when you travel, you bring more than just your body.”
He watched me stow my luggage, such as it was, in the two-wheeled fiberglass trailer he'd bolted to the rear of Alice's carâthe trailer looked like one of those Styrofoam boxes fast-food places used for hamburgers. I had two hundred dollars in my wallet, another four wadded in my shoe. I'd never carried so much money in all my life. I felt both rich and stingy.
Shiloh pulled a pair of cheap-looking sunglasses from a paper bag; the lenses were heavily mirrored at the tops and bottoms but had a stripe across the middle where the mirroring had been worn away. He put these on. “Say hello to the rest of your life. Here's Alice.”
She was pulling half a dozen grocery bags out of her building. I went to help her. The bags contained kitchen stuff: pots, pans, a cookie sheet, plastic bowls, a set of measuring cups, a stack of dishes.
She must have just stepped out of the shower; her eyelashes held the tiniest globules of water. Alice's eyes were a compromise between gold and green. The faintest crow's feet made her appear a little dour. The only explanation I can give for those wrinkles is that she smiled with all her face. She was twenty-five. She wrapped her arms around my waist and kissed my neck. I saw where the bandanna she wore was soaked through. The blunt ends of her hair, dripping onto the collar of her blouse, rendered the fabric translucent. Her hair looked almost black while it held water, but it dried yellow blond, like pine wood. She used to keep it shoulder length, but in the spirit of change, she had allowed Shiloh to cut it above her nape. Her complexion was particularly fair, but the skin those shears exposed was buttermilk. I hooked my thumbs beneath her earlobes and bent her head back. I kissed her on the lips and on the point of her chin.
“Let's go,” she said.
And while Shiloh found room for these last, last things (he packed them on either side of himself for the sake of symmetry and because he didn't expect he'd have a need to get out of the car in a hurry), Alice got the car started, selected a gear, eased out the clutch.
The dappled light scrolled across the windshield.
Shiloh slapped his hands on the back of my seat. “Wait and see. You get into a car expecting the scenery is going to be the only thing to change. Watch out. Watch out!” A rabbit darted across the road. “We'll become better people with every mile.”
I hadn't worked out anything to say, and the moment felt so full I just wanted to keep it inside me. At the first stoplight I was almost overcome with emotions. I needed to shout or for someone to hit me. I faked a yawn in order to relieve some of the pressure inside my chest. The light went to green. Alice got us on the elevated highway and then we were on that vertiginous bridge and the town was behind us. There was a hiccup at the top when the car crested and got light on its suspension. The Ohio beneath us, as still as a line on a map. One thing we couldn't see was Shiloh's crooked shed. Had it washed away or was that single room intact but inundated, like the chamber of a heart?
“I predict,” said Shiloh, “we will never need return to that damp
town.” He reached his arm past my head and stuck his hand out the window.
“Don't do that,” said Alice.
“What did you do?” Every breath was holding on and letting go.
“I can't believe it,” said Alice.
She was correct. Each moment was unprecedented. At some point Mary, Fran, and Pawpaw would come to a similar conclusion. And years later, when I had even less of an idea of what I'd done, Fran would ask me if it hadn't been that stupid job that I was running from.
We weren't in the car ten minutes when Shiloh said, “A generation ago, your average person died less than fifteen miles from where he was born.”
I asked Alice the name of the mountains around us.
They didn't have names. They were hills.
Gaps in the interstate system meant that for every ten miles of highway, we spent a mile creeping through some perfectly forgettable town. It rendered the whole idea of escape anticlimactic.
Three hours into the future, we were exhausted and just a hundred miles from where we'd started. We stopped for gas. I bought cheese sandwiches. Alice asked me to drive. The sandwiches were damp inside their plastic wrap. We tossed them out the window. Alice fell asleep. The car converted fuel into miles. Shiloh sat up high in the backseat; whenever I checked the rearview mirror, his face was right where my eyes wanted to be. I trained myself to use the side mirror, but the moment I forgot, his face perked up.
His mouth made word shapes.
“How do you feel?”
“We're on our way.”
On either side of the road, chicken farms stretched as far as you could see, low aluminum barns. Downy feathers carpeted the road. The turbulence from the car snatched the feathers into the air.
That afternoon, the road amazed us by passing over the Ohio again. The river had turned steely, and narrow. We wouldn't have recognized it except for a sign. This bridge was an unremarkable cantilevered cement span, and crossing it seemed less an event, just as the river seemed less of a thing.
Alice woke up and moaned. She'd slept in such a way that the right side of her face was sunburned. She commandeered the mirror in order to study her face.
“Tell me the truth,” she asked, “how noticeable is it?”
I turned from the road to face her. Her lips took on a vulnerable shape.
“There,” Shiloh said, pointing to a billboard that was being pulled down by vines. A place to spend the night.
Tiny white cabins were scattered among gnarled trees. A hand-lettered sign, “Pool,” pointed around the back. I gave a man twenty dollars for a key.
Inside, there was just one big room. The bathroom and shower stall were hidden behind a kitchenette. The ceiling was open beamed and the rafters painted white. Organdy curtains in the windows. “God,” Alice pronounced from the bathroom. When she came out her face was buttered with Noxzema. She slumped into a chair.
Shiloh and I decided to visit the pool.
It wasn't a swimming pool, but a diving pool, straight sided and as deep as a well. There was a springboard with handrails and a wheel underneath so you could adjust the board's fulcrum. The water was green. Shiloh and I entertained ourselves with jackknives, cannon balls, suicides, and sailor dives. When we got tired of pulling ourselves out of the water, we stretched out on the cement apron and let the heat rise through our skin.
Excitement pulsed through me, like money I needed to spend.
Later the three of us sat on the cabin's lumpy mattress and referred to a map. Assuming we got on the road at a decent hour, we were guaranteed to reach New York before noon. And what, Alice
wanted to know, did New York have to do with Vermont? Shiloh had a friend he needed to see. This friend knew people in Vermont. He would help us find our way.
Alice asked what the chances were we'd be in Vermont tomorrow night. That, Shiloh said, was not a matter of chance, but a statement of fact.
I took my shoes off and slid my legs beneath the sheets. Alice did the same. Shiloh told us he'd sleep in the car. Could he borrow the bedspread? He rubbed it against his face. He wanted us to know it was too scratchy, too dirty, too thin. He was on a talking jag. He started a story about a guy who might have been him, who got so cold he broke into a pigeon coop and stuffed the birds inside his pants. He was still in the room when I fell asleep.
I was the last up in the morning. I heard Alice stumble into the shower stall. I put my shoes on and walked outside, into the gentlest storm I'd ever known. The rain sifted down. I went over to the car to check on Shiloh. I could see him propped up in the backseat, but when I opened the door, he wasn't there, just a pile of his clothes.
Something shifted in my peripheral vision and I turned to see Shiloh wend his way through the stunted trees.
“What've you got?”
He placed six tiny apples on the roof of the car. With the rain it was dim beneath the trees. The apples were as dark as plums.
Alice had finished her shower. Whenever she stepped between the window and the table lamp, I saw her silhouette.
Another moment passed.
“Have you ever seen rain like this?” I asked.
“I hope Alice comes out soon.”
“That's the spirit.”
I turned to look at Shiloh. He was using a fingernail to scrape a stain from the front of his shirt. “You'll get a kick out of New York,” said Shiloh.
“What are these people like?” I asked.
“For a certain period of time, they were the best people in the world.”
When Alice came out of the cabin, the rain had stopped. She asked to drive. We piled into the car. Shiloh leaned his body forward so his chin rested on the seat back. In a voice that seemed full of regret, he said, “I promised myself I wouldn't go back there.”
Inching through the orchard there were just the dark trees around us and the woolly clouds above.
Alice asked him why.
“I told you already,” said Shiloh. “I got my heart broken. Heading back I'm bound to see things that will bring that into focus.”
Alice got us onto the highway.
“It's no big deal,” said Shiloh. “We'd never get anywhere trying to avoid my past.”
There was a horn blast and then a car pulled abreast of us. I thought for a second it might be Alice's ex-husband. But it was only an angry man in a blue Cadillac. He gave us the finger before motoring on. I guess Alice had drifted out of her lane.
“This morning I almost forgot the name of this guy we have to see,” said Shiloh. “I remember all these details about him. His shoes are fourteens, for instance. He's not a forgettable cowboy. It was as if some part of me didn't want to carry his name. Can you believe that?”
“But you remember it now,” I said.
“Thomas, how many people have you met in your life? Now of those people, how many can you greet with their name? If energy can neither be created or destroyed, what goes on when we forget someone's name?”
It was about that time that the road came around a bend and we saw a whole town contained in a valley. A millworks bordered one side of a shallow river. Every window of the building had been broken out. There was no way for us to know if it had happened all at once or if it had taken years of hail and rocks and bullets.
Shiloh had something else to add. “What sort of responsibility do you have to those people, people you loved even?” He spit the sen
tences out as though they were poison. We were taking him to his heartbreak.
Alice turned toward me and rolled her eyes.
“His name is Parker,” said Shiloh. “What he and I have in common is this other man. And this guy, this other guy, what made him most special was, he forgot no one. I'd give anything to talk with him.”
“I wouldn't mind meeting a man like that,” said Alice.
“Did I say
I should have said boy.”
“Look,” I said. Next to the highway a huge billboard welcomed us to New Jersey. The signs said “Philipsburg.” “Newark.” “Jersey City.” I saw a finger of land bristling with buildings. Alice reached to touch the windshield and I extrapolated a line from this. There in the water, the Statue of Liberty.
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,” Shiloh sang, “with conquering limbs astride from land to land; here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.”
And then the road came to something that looked like a pair of gargantuan drainpipes set into a wall of cement. The Holland Tunnel. What did we do? We drove underneath a river.
Shiloh didn't know the names of half the places we raced past. We saw bright sculptures like the skeletons of dinosaurs. Parks and squares and narrow streets. The Italian consulate was somewhere. John Lennon lived somewhere. There was this really cool toy store somewhere and a place where a person could buy two-dollar boots and a place where you could get an egg sandwich for twenty-five cents and had we ever had an egg cream or a real bagel or, shit, tried Oriental food? The streets were greasy. Loose trash was piled at the curb. We followed those fissured avenues up the island. Take a look at all these people. They were all living together, well, not together, but near each other. He had Alice zigzagging around. She'd never been here either. Had we ever played handball? Had we ever listened to opera? That was the opera house or the symphony. See? Central
Park. There's a zoo inside it and murderers. He pointed out the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the public library, and other grand things meant to commemorate a race of fantastic geniuses who had lived and died there, and ages ago. And had we heard of Washington Square Park? A person could buy anything there. Anything. He told us the city is made up of one-quarter immigrants, one-quarter intellectuals, one-quarter working stiffs, and one-quarter of the richest, most beautiful people and they all get along, and even if you live there, you can't tell them apart.
Beneath Shiloh's voice there were car horns and sirens and there were radios playing in the cars around us and kids beating on plastic tubs and kettle drums. In the middle of an intersection, a woman balanced on one leg playing a violin.