A Life on the Road (Short Story)

I.

I’m halfway through my route when I pass a powder blue automobile with its tire blown out. It’s got a polish on the hood like it’s made of sunlight, and the engine growls like a bear. I wonder who’d be out on the highway this early besides me and my bike—I’ve got my Sunday route, after all—when John Wilder gets out of the car and opens the passenger side door for his daughter.

She’s maybe eight years old, but there’s a look in her eyes like she was eight years old when Rome fell. She gets the look from her dad—the lost-on-purpose look, with starry green eyes and premature lines.

They say he’s a lost prince, fleeing his home country with his daughter and only heir. Miss Sandy the florist says he took her away so she won’t have to marry her own cousin. Dr. Wright says the little girl is too feral to ever make a refined wife anyhow. I say Dr. Wright is a quack, and who and how she’ll marry isn’t his business. But nobody listens to the paper boy.

He wears a waistcoat and a pocket watch and rectangular spectacles on his nose. He’s got the mighty face you’d imagine on a faraway prince, but it’s toughened out since they moved into the house on the hill.

I wave to them, cap in hand. Good morning!

He tips his hat to me. “Morning to you too.”

Car trouble?

“I have a spare.”

I pull a paper out of my basket and hand it to them. Happy Sunday.

His daughter leans against the car, fiddling with a toy bird. Its wooden head has popped out of the socket, and she twists it desperately, re-aligning a spine that isn’t there.

Do you want some help?

She looks me dead in the eye, her dark brows furrowed in frustration. “If I can’t fix it, I don’t think you can,” she says smartly, and hands me the bird. I snap its head back into place. Her eyes widen, and her mouth makes a little ‘o.’

She whispers, “You saved its life.”

John Wilder puts his hand on my shoulder. “Thanks, kid.”

II.

Does it bother you that you’re one of the only women serving in the Air Force?

She lifts her chin. “Not at all.” She has a strong jaw, like a pencil-drawn knight. A noble prince of the good old days that never really existed. I take her empty pint and lean over the bar, handing it to the dish washer.

Soldiers have come in and out of the pub for weeks now. Right next to the army road, we’re an easy place for them to stop and relax as they go on their way. They’re interesting to listen to, Captain Wilder in particular.

Why did you join?

“My father gave me a model plane when I was younger. It was a plane from the Great War, called the Curtiss JN-4. I wanted to fly one for real, especially after he died.”

And the fighting? Did you want to do that too?

She shrugs into her pint, the shrug of a jaded idealist. Her US Air Force badge glints under the barlight. “Someone had to do it.” It’s nights like this I forget she’s only twenty.

 

III.

I commute through Inman once a month. It’s a quiet town with a curious arrangement of quaint cottages and six-columned masterpieces of classical architecture. The forests always seem to smell of roses, and the cemeteries of kudzu and honeysuckle. As I reach the edge of town, I notice more deer than people.

A powder blue automobile, a re-designed antique, races past me. I make to call them back, give the rude driver a piece of my mind, but as the car disappears around the bend, I see a veil flying out behind the passenger seat.

I grumble under my breath. Damn honeymooners.

Pieces of paper drift toward me then, fluttering and dancing in the newlyweds’ dust. I snatch one out my window; another smacks gracelessly into my front windshield.

It reads,

 

August 3rd, 1943

 

Dear Mother,

Gerald is a lovely man. It was incredibly generous of him to move all the way to Inman for me, and he has been good company to me. However I’m not certain whether we are fit to be married. We differ in our hobbies and our tastes, and to be perfectly honest, I would prefer not to be a wife in Inman for the rest of my life.

Do not mishear me—I am fond of Gerald, or else I would not have enjoyed or even tolerated his company for the last year, and I certainly would not have been engaged to him had I not genuinely cared for him. But I’m beginning to question my choice of husband.

In more uplifting news, I am learning how to fly. I don’t know if you remember Charmine Wilder—dark wild hair and freckles, scrawny child always running where she shouldn’t—but she’s quite an adept pilot now, and she’s agreed to teach me. You needn’t worry about the cost of the sport; Charmine has a bi-plane with which I am learning. She joined the Air Force when her father passed away, see, in that horrible accident a few years ago—you know the one; it was all over the papers. She’s on leave right now, and she’s purchased a plane with her inheritance. I believe she returns to Europe in May.

Charmine Wilder has grown up so much since you last saw her, Mother. She’s quite brilliant, and Gerald and I have been guests in her home nearly every night this month.

I hope you are in good health and that Father is doing well in the city.

All my love,

Jenny

 

October 20th, 1943

Dear Mother,

I’ve become quite skilled in flying. I would love to show you, but I’m not certain I’ll get the chance, now that Charmine is on active duty. My relationship with Gerald has become somewhat rocky of late, but

 

The second letter ends there, and I set it on my passenger’s seat.

 

IV.

It burns the pasture grass, creaking and curling into itself. Its wings bend like paper-mache, and flames consume a dirt highway that’s been around since the Roman empire. Barely visible from such a distance, the Eiffel Tower marks the horizon, framing the wreckage like every painting turned to ash in the war.

I pull up beside the crash. My lieutenant hops out the truck’s passenger door. He blows a sigh through his cheeks and lights a cigarette. “First woman in the United States Air Force to fly over France,” he says. “First to crash over it too, I guess.”

They shot her down, I remind him.

“It’s a shame.”

Well, come on then. Try’n get her out and maybe we can send something home to her family.

He calls the rest of the unit, and they go at the wreck with a hose until it turns to steam and rust and charcoal. It smells like Death dropped by and fled when his cloak caught on fire. She’s twisted and broken and burnt in the cockpit.

I hear a gasp from the wreck. “Goddamn, she’s alive!”

The cigar drops drops and fizzles out. Goddamn, she is.

 

V.

I notice several more sheets of paper come to rest on the street, in the gasoline puffs of the newlyweds’ car. This is not the sort of thing that typically happens in Inman, but then, I suspect nothing usually happens at all. I pick the rest of the papers off the sidewalk; each has a date stamped at the top, beginning about six months after the last letter was penned.

 

March 10th, 1944

 

Dear Mother,

Something dreadful has happened. Charmine Wilder has been injured in France; she is here now, in Inman, recovering in her father’s house. It is not certain whether she will ever walk again. She has asked us call her Chance now, as if that will increase her odds of recovery.

I’m trying as best I can to help, but she refuses nearly all assistance. She does not allow her neighbors to prepare her food or even tend her property. She would recover at lightning speed, if only she did not exhaust herself. I do not hope to continue my flying lessons, as it seems she will no longer be able to fly at all.

Gerald returns in eleven days, and we will set a date to be married. I promise I will tell you immediately when our plans are made.

All my love,

Jenny

 

May 26th, 1944

Dear Mother,

I believe the war in Europe will draw to close in the coming months, and that gives me cause for happiness. Chance Wilder is returning to good health, but it seems her leg will not heal completely—unable to pilot properly, she is forever chained to the ground. Meanwhile, I am still uncertain as to whether Gerald and I are fit to be married. I know the wedding is in a month’s time, but I’ve realized that perhaps

 

June 23rd, 1944

Dear Mother,

I may not have the words to explain my situation to you, but Gerald and I, but Chance

 

June 23rd, 1944

I believe I have fallen in love with Chance Wilder. I’m not quite certain how

 

June 26th, 1944

Dear Mother,

Send Gerald my sincerest apologies.

All my love,

Jenny

 

VI.

Cold jazz buzzes softly from a floor beneath mine, the wail of trumpets and the croon of Clarinets in A. Southern rain, wet and warm, patters the third window above the street—the yellow window that hangs above the motel lights. This is 304.

Room 304 is missing its curtains; that’s why it costs less. I stayed there once, alone with my cigarettes and sorrows. It’s just a roadside motel, a one-night interlude for lost souls, on the road or on the run. Nothing special, but the manager lets me park my car beneath it when I open up the club. And when I close for the night and sweep the cloths off tables, clear confetti from each evening’s dance act, I see the stories of every stranger who ever stayed in room 304.

The lights come on just before I walk out the door. I turn around at the sound of a truck on the Interstate just east of me—that’s all we are in this town, a brief stop on the Interstate—and 304 lights up like an opera stage across the narrow street.

A woman in a white dress drums her fingers on the window pane. She’s graceful, dainty. She watches the rain-soaked street with owl’s eyes, wide and unblinking.

The neon sign of the movie theater flickers off beside the motel. Behind that, the drugstore shuts off its lights for the evening.

A dark-haired woman in a black blouse and pencil skirt walks into the room in uneven strides. She pins a bandage, bloodstained, around her hand and carries a washcloth. Barely more than a silhouette in the window, she is all sharp angles and misaligned edges. She sits on the edge of the bed, lights a pipe and a candle on the bedside table, next to a pistol.

At the window, the white-gowned girl sways to radio trumpets. She turns around, perching on the windowsill, and wrings her hands over her tattered veil. She takes the washcloth, presses it to her face.

The stern woman looks up to the ceiling light. She blinks once, twice, three times. Then she stands, tugs on the veil, and pulls a hidden face toward her. She wraps her arms around a muddy waist and kisses a cloth-covered forehead. She sways to the clarinet. She pulls the veil from the other woman’s head and tosses it to the floor.

The bandages on her hand unclip, and she steps back, turning around re-fasten them, hiding the bloodstains. Behind her, a white satin dress glows with the neon green of my club sign.

I begin to feel as though I should look away, when at last, the lights flicker out. The trumpets fade weakly to silence, and I sweep my own curtains closed. I lock the door behind me just like every other night. The stairs squeak beneath my shoes.

 

VII.

I pull them over on a highway just South of the Canadian border. Two women driving fifteen over the speed limit in a car the same blue tint as my son’s quilt. They have four suitcases strapped to their roof and a caged falcon in the back-seat.

“We should have waited to get a bird,” mutters the woman in the passenger seat. She looks to be in her thirties, with cropped strawberry-blonde hair and a fragile figure, slim and spritely features. She speaks with a soft Southern lilt like my wife does when I come home late from a patrol night.

My wife’s face flits into the back of my mind, fiddling with the collar of my uniform and telling me in her particular born-in-Georgia twang that she’s barely seen me since I made the force. She’s holding my son, who reaches for the badge on my chest, giggling. I promise him one day that shiny badge will read “detective,” and I’ll be a little more important to a few more people than I am now.

But for now, being important to two people is enough.

“Jenny,” the other woman huffs, and I have a feeling they’ve been over this subject before, “she’s a perfect bird. You can see it in her eyes; she’s a born hunter, just as smart as we are. And God, it’s so beautiful to watch her fly.”

I lean into the driver’s side window. Do you two know how fast you were going?

The red-haired woman shakes her head. “No Sir.”

Well, I would guess you were going about seventy miles per hour.

The driver chuckles grimly. Familiar lines etch into her face, aging her a little. I want to say she’s four or five years older than her passenger, but I can’t tell for sure. Her hair is the rich brown of licorice or wet soil. She’s weathered, though by time or wear I can’t discern. “Didn’t notice it was all going by that fast. Sorry for the trouble, Officer.”

Do you two have a permit for that bird? And your license, please.

The woman at the wheel pulls a permit and driver’s license from her glove compartment and hands it to me.

Thank you, Miss Charmine Wilder.

“Chance,” she corrects me.

Chance Wilder, then. I’m going to let you off with a warning. Please drive within the confines of the law.

“Many thanks, Officer,” she replies.

Say, where are you two going with a bird like that? They’re an odd sight, driving with a falcon on a rarely travelled mountain highway.

Jenny says, “we’re moving to Calgary.”

“We intend to take up falconry,” Chance Wilder chimes in. “Or at least, I intend to.”

Jenny puts a hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be better for you than trying and failing to fly that rusty old plane.”

“I know.”

Have a nice day. I walk back to my car and turn my flashers off.

 

VIII.

 

The Sheriff crosses his arms uncomfortably. “What do you think, Coroner?”

Looks like a bear attack. She’s in her late forties, I would guess, with strawberry-blonde hair greying at the roots and features that would have been delicate in life.

“Some people driving by found her and called it in.”

Another woman, handsome and dark-haired, with the laugh lines of a long-time sailor, speaks hysterically to the Deputy. She’s quite a sight, with a lame leg and falcon on her shoulder. She pulled up in a rickety blue buggy, her brakes squealing like a tantrum. She’s a lover, I suppose, but I’m not here to pass judgment on the dead.

I’m glad my job is with the deceased, to be honest; it’s always seemed easier than speaking to their loved ones.

The Deputy says something, and she nods, arms crossed over her chest. She wipes her eyes, smears the tears on her slacks and white blouse. They’ll stain later. I hear her tell the deputy, “I told her to wait for me in Vancouver. I’d meet her there once John’s hunting season ended.” John’s the falcon, I suppose. He flaps when he hears his name.

I can’t hear the officer’s response, but I can see his mouth moving in the all familiar, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

 

IX.

If society had a place for physicists with the souls of poets, I’d be working for NASA right now. I’d be floating around in space, contemplating which way is up, whether intelligent life from elsewhere in the universe is pointing at me and laughing, where Math ends and God begins.

Instead, I’m filling gas tanks for minimum wage, waking each morning in a trailer to the stench of rotting pines and diesel fuel. My alarm is down-shifting eighteen wheelers, and I get a front row seat in watching the mountains die.

A beat-up blue car with rust in every cranny rolls up to the station’s only pump and sputters pitifully. An old woman gets out the driver’s side. Long white hair, hundred year old face, wearing hemp trousers and carrying a bird on each shoulder—don’t all the hippies come to Oregon. I grab my name tag and head to the pump.

Cool birds.

“Thanks,” she croaks. She smells like oranges and high-end tobacco. “Why can’t I fill my own gas tank?”

Don’t ask me; it’s state law. I’ve got to do it for you. What’re their names?

Her forehead wrinkles. “Who?”

The birds.

“The falcon is John. The hawk is Jenny.” Her hands are shaking as she opens the ancient car’s gas tank. Her skin is translucent, stretching freakishly over her knuckles. It looks like her fingers are covered in saran wrap.

I nod, watching the number of gallons on the tank because I’m scared to watch her.

“You would think after driving this route so many times I’d get used to your strange state laws, but I never do.”

You pass through here a lot?

“Every year for the last three decades.”

Where’re you going?

“A gravestone in the mountains outside Vancouver. Today is its anniversary. I suspect it’ll be my last, though; I’ve gotten old. My time’s finally running out.”

The gas pump clicks full. I stop asking questions after that.

 

XI.

I sit cross-legged on the hood of my beater car, downing a cup of cold coffee from the nearest gas station. The hawk—at least I think it’s a hawk—twitches feebly on the gravel, and its wing has bent and re-frozen at an awkward angle, like hot metal thrown at the wall.

So this is the climax of my adventure: trapped on the side of the highway with a broken windshield, watching a bird die. Around me, thousands of vertical feet of rock and conifers whisper greetings in a wet wind, wondering what the hell enticed a woman to leave her stable New York job and hightail it to the middle of nowhere.

I feel almost as if I’ve let the mountains down, my reasons for traveling far less compelling than strangers liked to theorize. No climbing dreams or buried hippie instincts had led me here. My truth is this: the city had begun to sicken me; the crowds had clouded my senses; the subways made me itch, and I actually liked being able to hear myself think. If I thought I’d have to kill a bird on the side of the road, I wouldn’t have come.

A car older than my grandmother’s pulls up next to me, comes to a sputtering halt inches from the concrete barrier. Dressed in a waistcoat and leather fedora, the woman who gets out the driver’s side is either hopelessly lost or has never been lost in her life. She’s timeless, could be thirty or three hundred, and I’m not about to ask which.

She says, “good morning” and tips her hat. Her voice is rich and husky, with a North-English roll that toughens her polished figure. She almost makes me feel like my dying bird and I fit in here.

She asks if I need any assistance.

Only if you have a new windshield.

“No,” she says, “I mean with the bird.”

It’s neck is broken. I can’t make myself kill it.

She walks toward me with a heavy limp. “I will, if you want. It’s awfully sad, but better not to let it suffer. Sometimes that’s the way it is.”

No. I should do it. It flew into my windshield. I hate to kill something, but I don’t trust anyone else to do it for me. It’s not the act of killing that disgusts me; it’s the act of watching die. My other truth is this: commuting every day on a New York subway is watching people die.

She opens her coat to reveal a hip holster. I move to climb back into my car, bird be damned. Strangers with guns in the middle of nowhere are not to be trifled with. She chuckles and holds out her hand.

“I’m Chance Wilder,” she tells me, “I live around here. I’m not going to shoot you, I promise. A bear attacked me once, and now I don’t take any chances.” I wonder if that’s how she got the limp. I wonder if it’s even true.

She unhooks the gun from its holster and hands it to me, gesturing with her chin to the bird. “You shouldn’t let it suffer.”

I don’t trust her—I don’t trust anyone, especially a woman dressed to the nines off a highway in the Canadian Rockies, but I take the pistol anyway. I’ve never fired a gun. The bird twitches pitifully at my feet; it’s eyes are dying but its body refuses to follow.

“I’ll teach you, if you want.”

Sure.

She steps behind me and reaches over my shoulders, her coat billowing in the wind like that of an Old Western outlaw. She puts my right thumb on the corner switch and my left pointer finger on the trigger.

“Point and shoot. It’s just like a camera, capturing the world in a single moment. Freezing time, making pictures that last forever.”

Point and shoot. Make inescapable memories.

“Exactly.” She steps back. I look over my shoulder, search for her wizened green eyes, round and dark and far away from her body.

I shoot the bird. Its feathers puff out from its bones and drift away like seeds, its crooked wings splayed for takeoff. They will settle beneath conifers, and from them will spring newly fledged hawks stretching their wings in first flight.

Chance Wilder says behind me, “sometimes that’s the way it is,” and chokes softly on her vocal chords. “Sorry if this is what you’ll remember from your trip.”

I set the pistol on the hood of my car. I tell her, I won’t remember shooting the bird, because I won’t. This too is my truth: I don’t remember what happens in noise. I don’t remember New York, only the sounds of it, and I won’t remember firing the gun, only hearing it boom and echo across the mountains. And I’ll remember what a hawk looks like dead, and I’ll remember fetching gardening gloves from my car.

I’m going to bury it. That’s what I want to remember.

And Chance Wilder turns around, her hand on the driver’s side door handle of her ancient car, and says, “why? I abhore funerals. The dead are never remembered the way they want to be.”

So people don’t pull over here and desecrate it. I think birds have a certain dignity, and I’d like to maintain it. I like to make sure lost things are lost properly.

She stops then, steps away from the door. Her handsome face is present, eyes present too. “That’s quite noble of you.” She smiles thinly. “I ought to be going, though. I have someone waiting for me outside Vancouver.”

I remember the gun, the smoking barrel that put a hole in a bird’s skull. Wait—you forgot your pistol.

She ducks into her car, revs the engine, and spins back onto the highway. I reach for the gun, but the hood of my car is empty but for a spot of charred paint. The hawk lies at my feet with a hollow hole through its eye.

My final truth is this: The dead are birds. Bound by no obligations, with nothing to be late to, they will always stop to help you on the side of the road.

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