“Last night, I was that obnoxious driver who comes up out of nowhere from behind, passing you on a two-lane highway and cutting in so close in front of you that you yell, ‘Turkey fucker!’ or some other obscene phrase invented by your grandfather.” Adhra laughed. “If he spoke English. If English existed in his time.
“Anyway, I was that bogie in your rearview, closing in at a horrific speed, rushing past your car with a back-draft that blasts your wheel to one side.” She tried not to smile. “Not that you drive.
“Clayton was in the passenger seat. We were on our way home from a road trip across the Southwest. We’d just arrived in Mancos, Colorado, the point of furthest geographical distance from our apartment in San Francisco—1,047 miles—when I found out.
“Clayton and I hadn’t showered in three days, and our last one had been a lukewarm dribble in one of those campground ten-minutes-for-eight-quarters ordeals that left my hair stiff with traces of shampoo. My feet were sunburned, my lips wind-chapped, and the exposed skin of my breasts matched the color of the passing red rock canyons. I looked like a desert creature, a primordial humanoid in jeans. After a week in the desert, Clayton’s beard was a scraggly sun-blonde mess, his skin a mass of freckles.
“As we drove, the speedometer occasionally swung upwards of 95 miles an hour. Sometimes, the engine sputtered as it caught between third and fourth gear. The meter cut off at 110, but I had this suicidal impulse to test the limits of my Corolla, to press the pedal to the floor. I wanted oblivion.
“As we wove through Flagstaff traffic, the rest of the highway appeared to be at a standstill—the monolithic trucks, their faces painted in grotesque snarls, their teeth gnashing, were too slow to catch my little gray Corolla. Reflectors sped past, oblique, meaningless symbols, an ugly rainbow of harsh yellow, red, green, and white. And then we left civilization behind.
“For an endless stretch, the only sign of humanity was the pavement under our tires. Then there were broken down gas pumps, and a few members of the Navajo nation thumbing their way across the reservation. Then nothing, not a light or a shelter, just monolithic eruptions of stone, outlying mesas rising from a topography pitted with craters like an alien moon.” She blinked at the listener. “Like the one named for you.
“From time to time, a car would pass—first, I would see a metallic glint on the horizon, a pinpoint in the far distance nearing as the architecture of the road forced us into contact, pressed us towards a chokepoint. As each car passed, I would see a face behind a glass windshield, a soul alone in a self-contained universe, inches away and utterly unreachable.
“Clayton and I talked, on and off, saying the sort of things you’d expect. ‘Why?’ I repeated the syllable compulsively, until it was a harsh sound devoid of meaning, a verbal tick marking the passing miles. In moments of composure, I found more words, strung them together one by one into something that approached a sentence. ‘Five-and-a-half years, Clayton,'” Adhra jeered in a falsetto. “‘Five-and-a-half fucking years.'”
“‘I’m so sorry,’ was his only reply.
“The silences were harder. He sniveled in the passenger seat while my thoughts went screaming into the wind that roared in through the open window, my eyes blind to everything but the trail of asphalt running to the horizon. A cacophony of wind and lyrics reverberated through the void between us, the sonic echoes of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujahs resounding in the wake of the car as I passed the speed of sound.
“When Clayton spoke again, he offered details—more than I needed, but fewer than I wanted. I felt sad for Amie, the woman he’d been with. Her husband, an ugly anorexic rail of a man, had cheated on her for years. I knew, because she’d told Clayton a few years ago, and while I thought it was a little strange at the time, that a woman would discuss her husband’s infidelity with a male co-worker, in retrospect, it should have triggered a reaction. But I was trusting. Naïve. I thought that women who sifted through their boyfriends’ e-mails and phone records were insecure, their love insincere, their relationships on the brink.” Adhra shook her head.
“Dawn hit. When you’re driving north and west after the solstice, you’re driving into the sun, and the day stretches out a little longer, but I have to tell you, that last day felt like one hot minute, with the thermostat and the speedometer keeping pace. We stopped once for fuel. I don’t think I drank so much as a sip of water, and I never needed to piss.
“We stopped at a diner, the Navajo version of Denny’s. It was the first food Clayton and I had eaten in eighteen hours—the first food since I’d answered the phone call from Amie. The maize bread was bitter, almost inedible, and the lamb stew thick, incredible, nauseating. I got sick in the parking lot as a torrential thunderhead passed over the roadside town, eclipsing the sun and slamming me with horizontal sheets of rain as I retched. The vomit drained into the gutter, and the rain washed the splatter from my sunburned feet.
“I stood there, the palm of my hand pressed flat against my aching abdomen, and studied a single golden ray that pierced the darkness.” For an instant, Adhra’s eyes appeared to focus on the bleak landscape that surrounded her, on the colorless water, the three faceless figures, but her attention dissolved into the murky river. “The beam illuminated a circle of dilapidated trailers and cast a halo over a lone white horse in a decaying corral. The light made a heaven out of the profane, prosperity from poverty.”
An unnoticed listener scoffed at the young woman, but Adhra continued, unaware of her critic. “An auroral rainbow burned over the desert, and for an instant, Clayton’s infidelity did not matter, the dissolution of the life I’d known did not matter. I was the same woman I had been three days earlier.
“When we got back into the car, it was dark, the moon a blind white eye. I thought about driving through the night, back to San Francisco. I wanted to save myself the agony of sleeping with Clayton in some flea-riddled hotel, but I was so far past exhaustion. I decided to stop a little past Needles, the town on the California border. Believe me, Charon, that is what hell is supposed to look like—distant black crags, the unwavering 115-degree heat that persists into the night, the blue-gray sheen of a mirage the only trace of water. Every passing smile proves that the town’s economy is based on meth.
“Clayton offered to take the wheel, since I hadn’t slept since dawn hit our campsite in Chaco Canyon, Arizona, almost two days earlier. That was the last day before I’d known, and we’d spent it traversing an ancient Chacoan road, the only two people in sight of the horizon. He’d wanted to make love in the ruins, but I was hot and coated in a film of desert dust, and so I told him no, not knowing that I was refusing our last chance to enjoy one another’s bodies.
“His phone rang while I was sitting in the car in the hotel parking lot, waiting for him to pay for our night’s accommodations at the Country West in Mancos. The screen of his phone read Ben, an innocuous male name, but when I answered, it was Amie’s voice in the receiver, already mid-sentence, laughing at an inside joke. It’d been almost six years since I’d seen her, back when the three of us worked at the post-office where I’d first met Clayton, but I recognized her nasal snort of a laugh. I heard the familiarity in her voice, and I knew what it meant.
“Clayton paid 75 dollars for a bed that we never slept in, for a shower that we never shared, 75 dollars for walls so thin our neighbors heard every last hiss and whisper of our breakup fight.
“I opted to stay at the wheel. As I passed the second and last exit for Needles, I saw an old woman resting against her gnarled cane by the side of the road, a plastic gallon of water in one hand, the grotesque red eye of a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. I pulled hard to the right, sending up a spray of gravel pellets, dusting the old woman’s homemade shoes with sand.
“She staggered to the driver-side window. Up close, her skin was a dried tamale cornhusk, her hair charred feathers. ‘Goffs?’ she cawed, exhaling graphite ash and hot desert wind, asking about a town was a ways down the 40 and up the 95.
“I told her I could take her to the junction, although I couldn’t imagine there’d be anyone else headed that way at that time of night.
“‘What’s in Goffs?’ Clayton asked, trying to fill the silence that entered the car with her. I hoped that the old woman’s sight was too dim to see the fleshy red of the skin around my eyes and the black lines of cosmetic dirt that streaked my cheekbones. I was ashamed of myself, convinced that I too filthy to interact with humanity.
“The woman started digging through a beaded pouch that hung like a talisman between her breasts. She pulled out a creased photograph, and offered it to Clayton.
“‘Your granddaughter?’ Clayton asked, but his question went unanswered.
“The lights of Needles had disappeared from the rearview mirror, and the highway had just expanded to four lanes. I slowed the car to a sensible speed, out of consideration for the woman.” Adhra’s face contorted as she remembered. “I was watching a coyote in shoulder. The little adrenaline junkie had one paw raised like it was considering train-dodging our car.”
Charon regarded the young woman with blank eyes. His oars cut into the water, still and black as desert sand. He listened with the patience of one who had long since transcended the limits of weariness. His arms no longer felt the ache of the oars. He had abided the pleas of the dead for millennium, listened to their tales of blind denial without remark.
“I remember thinking I didn’t want to scrape coyote-skull shrapnel off my bumper.”
There were other passengers in Charon’s vessel: a grizzled man wearing a John Deere hat who sat staring fixedly at a metal shard that protruded from his chest, numb to reality and the girl’s rambling words, and the hitchhiker, who was crouched in the stern of the craft, the terror of an underworld she’d never conceived of constricting her chest. The rocking of the boat, the depthless obsidian glitter of the water, the absence of a shore, the timeless void of black night filled the old woman with endless dread. As she pressed herself against the floor of the boat, she pictured her grandchild, the infant she would never hold against her breasts, never bathe again.
“The man’s rear lights were burned out; my eyes were raw, my contact lenses two rigid sheets of plastic. I was on the SUV before I saw the white square of the license plate. I slammed on the brakes, fishtailed, nicked the back corner of the SUV, and sent him ricocheting off the road. I went through the front windshield. I remember the guillotine blade of the guardrail rushing towards me at 75 miles an hour.”
As the young woman spoke her endless river of words, she looked into the eyes of the unknown man. Looked through him, oblivious.
The grandmother hawked black tobacco sludge from the depths of her sinuses and spat on Adhra, the woman who had not apologized for taking her life. As the putrid sediment ran down her cheek, Adhra, dazed, could not comprehend the woman’s fury.
Since graduating from UC Berkeley, Sarah Kravitz has taught English at an alternative education high school near San Francisco. In the near future, she’ll be returning to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in psychology. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Short, Fast, and Deadly, The Centrifugal Eye, and Spark: A Creative Anthology.
I’m consistently impressed by Eunoia’s offerings and this latest piece of fiction is a great example why: it’s absolutely engaging, tense in all the right ways, with diction styled to resonate.