by Peter Felknor
Web posted on February 26, 2001
In tracing back our history
It's a wonder how we came to be
A love driven through a dozen states
With your technique for keeping me awake
And somewhere along the line
You'll turn into a friend of mine
Who knows of my unspoken cares
Amid the aftermath of love affairs
Now I stand beneath these trees
Not far from the refineries
Aimed at the sky like a smoking gun
I'll learn to walk I'll learn to run again
JOHN GORKA, "The One Who Got Away"
In this dusty little railroad town
Smack in the heart of the Bible Belt
Where nothing ever changes
While nothing remains the same
When first I saw the raven
Lean against the wind
I said who's the girl
With the tattoo on her skin
ROBBIE ROBERTSON, "Day of Reckoning"
ONCE A WEEK the seven of us meet, Little Rock's walking wounded, our genteel bunch pulling into the hospital garage in Volvos and Explorers. We know as much about public television as anyone in the State of Arkansas. We have, each and every one of us, been to college. Hell, some of us never left. Sometimes, sitting in the big conference room with its burnt-orange decor and sweeping view of our capital city, with the precious psychobabble of the present day bathing my eardrums, I recall my junior-year statistics course and the importance of verifying whether sampled data is independent--that is, whether one sampling unit may have had any effect on another. Something's fishy here. We are not a good random sampling of the people of Arkansas, and deep in our hearts I think we all know it. We are self-satisfied and smug, most of us have a lot of money, and we enjoy telling ourselves--and especially each other--that we are mentally ill.
Independence? We file in here on Wednesday nights and talk to our team of headshrinkers (a fortyish man and a thirtyish woman who do not bother to hide the fact that they are having an affair) and tell our enormously self-important stories, all of them with the same moral: This is how I lost my mind, and this is why I can't find it again. Then Drs. Streichner and Rossen write us our scrips for Prozac and Tofranil, and we drug ourselves through another week of the real world, counting the hours until Wednesday night when once again, if only for a few minutes, we can be the center of the universe and learn that it's okay to feel the way we do. That's called *affirmation*. We're big on affirmation. It's a lot more fun that trying to figure out why the independence of the data cannot be established, or why we're supposed to be nuttier than fruitcakes while our fellow uneducated-variety Arkansans seem more or less content with a beer, a video, and a good chaw.
Here, to the best of my recollection, is the story of how I wound up at those Wednesday-night sessions at Sacred Heart Hospital--the story of an educated forty-year-old man who lost his mind, and can't seem to find it again.
THE DAY I MET TRACY I was hungry. I was tired, I was alone, and I watched the shadows of cars moving across the grass as if they were spirits of the dead, zipping past me into another world. I would gladly have died if I could have gone with them before the sun went down, into that purposeful realm where everything and everyone had a plan. I knew it would be cold again tonight, on this miserable part of the planet where summer arrived only during the brightest part of the day and frost ghosted the night grass until in my depleted state I swore I saw legions of heavenly angels creeping along the ground. I closed my eyes. I tried to fold myself back into the safe wool of sleep--I opened my eyes and they were still there in the light of the silvery moon, so in order to dispel the vision I had to sit up in my sleeping bag and light a cigarette and then the utter loneliness hit me. I was out in some godforsaken field in Minnesota or Wisconsin, one of those states up along the Arctic Circle, and because I had wanted to see some new country now I was going to freeze to death. Next time I'd go the southern route. I liked the land up here but it was going to kill me. It was the middle of September and I wondered if I'd ever get back to Arkansas. Plodding dairy farmers smiled at me and some of them would even stop and give me a lift another ten miles down this highway that went nowhere.
Finally I reached Madison at four in the afternoon. I was so tired that I could access the memory cells of my childhood; Madison, I remembered, was the capital of the state of Wisconsin, and was the home of the football Badgers that would come down and play our Razorbacks in exhibition games. I wished I was down to Little Rock, sitting in the stadium with a mug of spiked cider in my hand, and that's what I was wishing when the rusted orange Honda Civic pulled off the highway ahead of me.
"Get in," she said. "I don't wanna get a ticket."
Women didn't give me rides when I looked this scruffy, so I was mildly amazed; I had scarcely seen her face, hidden as it was in a nimbus of amber hair as the sun went down and made her and the rest of the world catch fire, but from the Indian feathers suspended from the rearview mirror and the open cassette box on the floor (Talking Heads, Wishbone Ash, Willie Nelson) I knew I was safe again in the bosom of the counterculture.
Oddly, she had a calendar taped to the dashboard. Today's date was circled. It was September 17, 1977. That meant nothing to me, except that it was too cold to be hitchhiking through Wisconsin. But it must have meant something to her. No other date was circled.
"Hi," she said. "I'm Tracy."
When she turned across the tiny space of the cab to look at me and smile, I felt the sudden superiority of the knowledge that I was several years older than Tracy. Except for her patched blue jeans with runes and hieroglyphs etched in Magic Marker, Tracy might have been a high school cheerleader. I had to get to Rockford and pick up US 51 and go south, south, south. In an hour it would be nearly dark. If Tracy didn't stop at all, we might make it to Rockford by then.
"I'm Al," I said. "I'm going to Little Rock."
Tracy giggled, and shoved in a Wishbone Ash tape while she lit a joint. "Little Rock? Where's that?"
"Arkansas," Tracy mused. "Is there really such a place as Arkansas?" And with that, she squeezed my knee to let me know she was joking. She passed me the joint. I took a hit. I reached over and turned up the heater.
Tracy wondered: Was I cold?
"Hey, it's freezing up here."
"I wish you could spend a winter with us," she said. "Last winter the pipes froze all through January. I used to go to the laundromat just to smell the steam."
I looked over at Tracy, but she was driving, so I took another hit off the joint. That's when I decided to go where Tracy was going, if she'd let me. I felt like I could talk to her.
"How far you headed?" I asked.
"I'm going to work. At the Double H. It's a sleazy smorgasbord. Where are you coming from?"
"*Seattle*? Boy, that must have been something."
"I left there four days ago. It's mostly sucked. It's been cold at night. And how many days can you live off canned beans and cigarettes?"
"That sure would give me the farts," Tracy laughed. She squeezed my knee again. "Hey. Know something? I like you."
"Likewise," I said. The tiny car was clouded, and she wouldn't think of cracking a window. Conserve that high! There was something I wanted to say to Tracy, but I couldn't remember what it was, and then she turned off the interstate onto a long ugly four-lane that pointed toward the city. I took a last hit and gently placed Tracy's roach in the ashtray with all the other roaches Tracy had smoked on her way to work. I was higher than a kite. Where did Northern kids get hold of all this good dope? Where had it come from? Vietnam? El Salvador? Lebanon? The sun shrank and foreshortened the world. Boats were pulling up to the docks even now, shipping visions to the cornfields of America. Now I knew what I wanted to say; that I was too high to stand out on the freeway, to spend another freezing night on some nowhere interchange south of Rockford or maybe I'd even get to Peoria or Springfield after three hours of forced conversation with a traveling salesman whose two sons played in the football league and whose little girl took tapdancing lessons, that I was outgrowing the wonderful sense of challenge that getting high used to bathe me in so I couldn't wait to run out the door and confront life, but now all I wanted to do was find a hole to hide inside, preferably with a rumpsprung easy chair, where I would sit Tracy across my lap and we could tell each other the story of our lives. Then we would sleep. We would sleep for many hours. Tomorrow morning, the world would have perspective again. Ah, what a dream.
"But I have to go to work," Tracy said.
"Hey. Were you reading my mind?" If you're high enough, you can almost believe it.
"Why don't you wait till my shift's over at nine. Maybe we'll take a look around. You can stay at our place. You can catch a shower and get a good night's sleep."
I couldn't even remember the last time I had really slept. My college girlfriend had moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, I had hitched all the way up there from Little Rock and all we had done was argue, she had discovered she liked boys who didn't talk with dumb drawls and hadn't grown up in places with names like Heber Springs and Rastus and Jake's Corner, the three towns where my daddy'd run barber shops. "Maybe it's better if we see other people," Mabel had said, her voice suddenly taking on a terribly cosmopolitan bent that belied her Louisiana origins; in order to get back to Little Rock I was going to have to see plenty of other people.
Two hours later I was standing in North Bend, Washington, in a steady dripping rain, coughing too hard to light a cigarette. What I remembered of the trip out West was that you spent two or three days in regions of mountains and slippery roads and towns with seventeen inhabitants and a truck stop--and now I could look forward to all of it again. I swore I'd never have another long-distance romance.
I told Tracy her parents were going to love her for bringing home a hitchhiker. "Guess who's coming to dinner, momma?"
"Boy, I love the way you talk." Tracy squeezed my knee again, and suddenly wheeled her car into a restaurant parking lot. "Here we are. Hey, I don't live with my parents. Didn't work out. A few of us got a house together."
"Kind of like a commune?"
Tracy laughed, and I swear the feathers on her rearview mirror twirled around and around.
"No," she said, "not much. More like five assholes with nowhere else to go." Tracy jumped out of the car, pulling her uniform out of the back seat, and I could see now that she was barely five feet tall, her little elflike features incongruous beneath her teased-up mass of auburn hair; I noticed how she had jammed the driver's seat almost up to the steering wheel. I jumped out after her. I liked the way she looked in her tattered jeans and white Badgers sweatshirt. "By the way, do you have money?" she asked me as she flounced across the parking lot with her funny, aggressive, small-girl walk.
"I have some. Enough to get a bagel and cream cheese." That's what the college kids ate in Seattle. It was a far cry from the catfish and hush puppies back home.
"If you've got four dollars, you can really stuff yourself at the good old Double H."
"I'm relieved." It was funny. I didn't feel hungry at all.
"Follow me around back. Then you go on past the dumpsters and back to the front. Wait for five minutes and I'll seat you."
I didn't think I understood what Tracy was talking about, but for want of any other notion, I walked alongside her until she reached the service entrance. "Listen," Tracy said. "Do you believe in love?"
"No. I absolutely don't."
"Good," she said. Then, with her index finger, she tilted my chin downward, stood on her toes, and kissed me full on the lips. She smelled of marijuana and onions and shampoo. I almost fell over onto the glass that littered the parking lot. The pot had been treated with something. A fuzzy blanket in my head seemed to stifle any thought from taking shape, except for the comfortable sensation that I had known Tracy for years. She was like the oldest and dearest friend I had ever had. She winked at me and disappeared into the kitchen.
I had a cigarette and walked around the big barnlike hangar that housed the Double H while pickup trucks full of farm families from the outlying districts wheeled into the lot and the men spit wads of tobacco onto the pavement while the wives fluffed the wire wool of their hair. It was Friday night, everyone was meeting on the edge of town for a fish fry. The dry northern air was sufficiently dense with the odor of cooking sea life to let me imagine, for a moment or two, that I was in some quaint romantic New England village with a harbor and fog lights. And then I saw how one of the farm wives in the parking lot scooted nervously closer to her man when she spotted me coming around the corner, cigarette in mouth and beard on face, my cursed eyes that always got too red when I was stoned blinking in the light of the setting sun. September 17, 1977.
"Good evening, sir," Tracy grinned as I came through the door. "How many?"
"Just me, I'm afraid. Say. What's the significance of September seventeenth?"
"It's my birthday," she said. "How did you know?"
I tapped my head like an idiot and grinned. Tracy wore a little pale blue institutional minidress with "Melanie" inexplicably stitched above the breast pocket. I followed her back, way back, to a two-chair table next to the waiter's station. "I didn't know your name was Melanie," I said.
Tracy laughed. "Want to know something? All my life, I used to wish my name was Melanie. Well, when I started working here, I figured if I was ever going to be a Melanie, this would be a good place to start."
"To me, you look like a Tracy. Sorry."
"You're a shit," Tracy said. "Go fill your plate up."
"Happy birthday to you."
As she walked back to the foyer to seat another group of hungry farmers, I drew a cup of coffee and settled back in my chair, hoping I could take the edge off the high by eradicating a seductive margin of sleep that was creeping around my overamped brainpan. I didn't want to sleep now. I could not shake the feeling that I had known Melanie/Tracy throughout my life, that we had played sandlot baseball and swapped stories over lemonade as the summer nights pressed down and bugs flitted aimlessly around the lamps. I hadn't done the laundry before I had left Little Rock, there were probably dishes in the sink and since I had missed five solid days of school this early in the semester I was going to have to sleep with my books to even stand a chance of catching up. The trip to Seattle had been a horrible mistake, it had accomplished nothing except to give me a cold-weather cough that would dog me all through the winter--
"Don't make me act like your mother," Tracy said, snapping a check off the waiter's table. "Go eat something. We've got good roast beef tonight."
"Hey. Did you kiss me outside?"
"Well I don't know, Al. Did I?"
"How come you to do that?" Stupid question, unforgivably stupid question, but what I wanted her to say was that she felt it too, that it seemed like we had always been friends, we shared some kind of mystical link and together we were safe. There was a cushion between us where we could bounce and play and our emotions would fall harmlessly to the floor. I wanted to freeze everything I felt. This was so different from Seattle, where all night long I had negotiated dark corners, bumping up against shadowy shapes of reason where there was no reason with a girl who only wanted me to go away. Tracy made me feel needed and wanted, and I didn't know quite how she did it. But I felt the long-forgotten rush of anticipation, of being almost unable to wait and see what would happen next.
Tracy said instead, in response to my question: "It's my birthday, isn't it?" And she punched me in the arm. She was, I thought, a very physical girl. A part of her frightened a part of me.
I was too stoned to contemplate the chilling reality of a bloody slab of beef. I got myself some soft ice cream from a big metal machine that oozed into my dish (this was indeed America's dairyland--I could never have imagined such a contraption). Tracy took care of some customers while I ate my ice cream and thought again about the roast beef--hadn't I been starving earlier in the day?--then she flounced down in the chair across from me and lit a cigarette. "Break," she sighed. "God, I love this job."
"Hey. How old are you today?"
"You shouldn't have to work on your eighteenth birthday. Isn't there a law against that?"
"Uh huh. Tell it to the landlord." Tracy dragged deep on her Viceroy. I could not believe the depth of the weariness in her voice. I hoped she would not ask about me; I would have been ashamed to tell her that I went to college.
"I kind of have a boyfriend," Tracy went on. "You'll get to meet him. He's a jerk."
"So why do you waste your time on him?"
"I don't know. I'm still working on it." Tracy stabbed her cigarette out and lit another one. "Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Kind of. No. I just decided that I don't. Why are we talking about this?"
"Because I think I really like you."
"Boy, no one would ever accuse *you* of being impulsive." And I saw Tracy's little face fall then, almost as if I had slapped her, and immediately regretted what I had said, another of the flip comments that always seemed to get away from me before I could catch them.
"Sorry," I mumbled. Then I said something truly amoebic: "Let's just get to know each other."
Tracy screwed up her face until her eyes were the crinkly slits of someone who had just taken a bite of spoiled food. "Don't worry," she sneered. "I'm not going to *attack* you."
"Hey," I said. I reached my hand across the table and brushed my fingers along Tracy's cheek. Tracy almost smiled, then grabbed me by the wrist and bit my index finger hard.
"I lied," she laughed, and wriggled back to work.
A truck driver at the next table laughed too, jammed a toothpick into his mouth, then slowly turned to face me. "Son, that there's a live one," he said, appreciatively.
I had expected, but was still not ready for, the awful disarray of Tracy's life. She lived just off a street called Commercial Avenue, in the shadow of the Oscar Mayer hot dog factory. Tracy's house was a color of blue that did not exist in nature; her crazy Honda, which at least ran, she had to wedge into the driveway amid the gutted hulks of several cars that didn't. I could hear the metal music blasting before we even got out of the car. "Saturday night," Tracy apologized.
"It's your birthday."
"You know that, and I know that. We'll see if anyone else does." The morning had been clear and cold. Now a kind of sleet was falling. It glistened on the dead bushes next to Tracy's door.
I was immediately impressed when we stepped inside. The far wall was draped with a gargantuan tapestry of dogs playing poker, several different breeds of dogs, chomping cigars and swilling beer--I had seen the like in Ozark souvenir shops, but never on such an outsize scale. And there were two youths, an Indian and a white boy. Both seemed barely conscious, settled deep into a threadbare couch with their hands folded over their bellies. A nearly empty fifth of tequila stood on a card table in front of the couch. The television was turned on, but with the sound killed so as not to interrupt the music. The stereo set twinkled in the darkened dining room.
"Frank. Hi, Frank," Tracy yelled.
The white boy, blond and long-haired and acne-ridden, lifted up the bill of his baseball cap. "Yuh," he said.
"This is Al. He needs a place to spend the night. He's on the road." Tracy gestured helplessly in my direction.
"Hey, Al Capone!" the Indian boy giggled. "How ya doin', Al?" He extended a hand. I shook it, trying to remember all the twists and flapdoodles of a handshake that signified coolness to the young. Thumbs up, clasp, fingertips, wrist, fist, release.
Frank pulled his hat down again so I couldn't see his eyes. "Told you I didn't want you bar-hoppin' without me anymore," he mumbled at Tracy. "Told you we was through with that."
"Frank, I wasn't at the Clover, for Christ's sake, I just got off work. I met Al at the Double H. Jesus, don't you ever look at a clock?" Tracy took off her little boots and threw them into the corner next to the television.
"Sorry to bum your high, man," Frank told me. "Old lady shit, ya know how it is with chicks an' shit. Well sit on down, let's do up a doob."
I was suddenly happy to be just another lucky college boy.
"Frank's my boyfriend," Tracy announced, and flopped down between Frank and the Indian on the couch. Frank took that as a signal to grab hold of Tracy and draw her into a prolonged openmouth kiss.
"Man, they always be doin' that shit," the Indian boy sneered, jerking his thumb at Frank and Tracy. "What say, Al Capone? Let's you and me go out and find ourselves some pussy. What say?" Crazy feeling: it hurt me to see Tracy kissing another man. I didn't think Frank was worthy of her. Was I? Certainly. "I dunno," I told the Indian, trying to sound as uncollegiate as I could. "I'm pretty whipped."
"Lotta pussy on that old road, huh?"
"Naw. Just a lot of road, mostly."
The Indian threw back his head and laughed. "Hey. Capone? I like you. I like you, man. Frank, this guy's a real funny fucker, ya know? Leave it to Trace, she meets the funniest fuckers in the whole world. How do you do it, Trace?"
"Al's a psychic," Tracy said. "He knew it was my birthday, and he wished me a happy birthday. It was like my heart just grew little wings and flew away."
"Fuck, is today really your birthday? I'm sorry, baby," Frank mumbled, and sank even deeper into the couch. If he hadn't actually spoken, I would have sworn he was asleep.
"And speaking of which," Tracy said, "did you remember to take the laundry down today? I'm tired of airing out last week's underwear, Frankie."
"Aw, baby ... shit. You know how it is."
"In other words, you didn't do it. You didn't do it, Frankie." My high had almost worn off. Earlier tonight I had envisioned myself as the Creature of the Road, a pure thing, bright and brittle, without encumbrances. Tracy was definitely an encumbrance, but I wanted to wrap her around my life like a serpent. I only prayed for an hour, two hours, to have her to myself, to tell her everything and be done with it, because I knew she would understand. I looked at her out of the corner of my eyes, and then I was standing face to face with her because Frank and the Indian had both passed out, as a matter of fact Frank had already begun to snore. Well, it's my birthday, Tracy said, and she picked up the bottle of tequila and drank most of the three fingers that were left, I extended my hand to her and she took it and I led her outside onto the porch where now it was snowing, here it was September and already snowing. If and when we saw snow in Little Rock it was always in January and the sight of the snow made Tracy laugh as we closed the door behind us. Didn't we have some unfinished business? I said as I folded Tracy into my arms and kissed her long and serious as cars full of high school kids honked their horns near the Oscar Mayer plant. Mmmmm, I like that, Tracy said when we broke between times, why I asked you before if you had any money, I wish we could just go get a motel room, otherwise my car would be fine but there's just not enough room in those little Hondas and it's so goddamned cold. I know I sound like a hooker, Al, but I'm not, I don't want your money, I just want to sleep in a warm bed a thousand miles away from that asshole and his tequila and his wham bam thank you ma'am, I'll bet you know how to make love to a girl and that's the best birthday present I could ever have. You know what? I'd go to the park up there on Packers Avenue and I'd strip buck naked and you could do it to me on the bleachers while I froze to death and I'll bet I'd be warm inside. That's the feeling I miss. Feeling warm inside. Fuck. I don't care even if you give me the clap, Al, just make me feel warm inside.
(The old navy peacoat in my closet I will never wash again, sometimes I throw it into bed with me and hold it up close and I think I can almost smell the little spot where Tracy's breath froze near the top row of buttons all those years ago, the tequila and the marijuana and most of all, the hopelessness, the hopelessness, the hopelessness...)
She asked me to drive because she wanted to cruise down East Washington Avenue past her high school. The other kids in their cars yelled and Tracy yelled right back at them, as if school had never gotten out, everything frozen eternally in the snowy Wisconsin air. We kept driving out East Washington and eventually we passed the Double H Smorgasbord and I knew where I was again; part of me felt as if it had been born in this misbegotten town, the same part that believed in Tracy, believed that she had been my friend since the beginning of time. Then we crossed over the interstate and went past some car dealers all lit up for the weekend. I kept driving and Tracy said nothing. She lit cigarettes and passed one to me. We were out in the farm districts now.
"Hey," Tracy said. "I love you."
"I love you too," I told her. It felt like the right thing to say, and it was probably even the truth. Tracy turned on the radio; the Guess Who was singing she's come undone. Behind me, in the rearview, I could see the lights of Madison shrinking farther and farther into the distance. I thought of Little Rock, I thought of school, and then I realized that what was happening now was a million times more important. Yesterday in Minnesota I had seen a woman in a diner, thirty years old, soft brown hair clipped short, with her two little boys. She had worn a leather jacket and jeans and was absolutely perfect. She'd gazed up at me at the counter with her sad liquid eyes like Isabella Rossellini and had gone back to her suburban life while I went back to my road and for the rest of the day I had felt out of sorts with the world. The Plains really were like an ocean, I could see why the early pioneers had been terrified. You could lose yourself out there. I turned up the radio a notch and put my hand on Tracy's knee.
"Are we going to a motel?" Tracy asked.
"Listen, it's not going to be much, okay? I've got thirty dollars between me and Arkansas."
"I'll drive you down into Illinois. Frank isn't going to wake up till noon anyhow."
"Hey, you ought to lose him," I said. "Maybe you should come on down to Little Rock with me. We could go to college together."
Tracy snickered. "Yeah. Just imagine me in a college. It takes me all day to straighten out my checkbook."
"Well, don't go to college then. Just be my girl. You might like it down there where the winters aren't so cold." I imagined Tracy in a short bathrobe, curled up on the couch with the Sunday funnies while I did my studying. I had never felt the urge to actually live with a woman before. And I didn't know why I wanted to live with Tracy. But I did.
"Maybe I will," she said, and slid her hand up my thigh. "Maybe I will."
Outside of Sun Prairie I saw a truly dismal-looking motel with a grotesque pink flamingo on the front lawn and a sign that said SINGLE $14.50. The clerk's face lit up when he saw my twenty-dollar bill and I didn't even have to register.
Tracy stripped her clothes off the minute I had closed the door behind us. "Listen, you don't gotta prove anything to me," she said. "Can we skip the foreplay? Can we just fuck like a couple of normal people?"
"Sure. I guess we can do that." Tracy's little body was shapely enough, but strangely hard-edged and humorless. On her right breast was a tiny tattoo of a rose. She lay down on her stomach without even turning back the sheets and rested her head on her hands. After three years with Mabel Strothers, the so-called love of my life who had ditched me in Seattle, three years of phony candlelight dinners and classical music and flowers in a vase on the table, all the southern-belle bullshit I'd had to go through just to get it in, I was ready for Tracy with or without the preliminaries. We coupled with the alarming synergy of people who knew each other, although we knew nothing; I kissed Tracy's ear as she lay her head flat on the bedspread and said, "Just hard and fast, if you don't mind," and I said I didn't know how long I was going to last if that was what she wanted, she said: "You've already lasted a lifetime by my standards, Al, Frank is Mister Minuteman, if he gives me a buzz he think's he doing something wrong." And that's how it went. By some kind of miracle I managed to bring Tracy off before I lost whatever slim margin of control I could hang onto by my fingernails, then I let myself go imagining that this frail girl and her sharp womanish scent had grown as vast as a prairie swept clean by the wind.
Tracy said thank you, something I'd never heard a woman say before, then she got up and went of f to take a shower. I turned on the television but it was too boring for words, in Little Rock I didn't even have a television and had never missed it. I popped open the bureau drawer and found the Gideon Bible and began reading from the Book of Isaiah. The thunder in his words terrified me. I swore that I would start going to church again; like all good Southern boys I knew the Lord had never stopped keeping an eye on me and that one day I was going to have some explaining to do. Then Tracy came out of the bathroom stark naked, shaking her hair out. I smiled to myself, trying to imagine Mabel Strothers doing such a thing. Never. "Hi," Tracy said. "Reading the Gideon?"
"Trying to. I'm way behind."
"I haven't picked up a Bible in years." Tracy climbed onto the bed and straddled me so that all the wicked lines of her body seemed to connect into one fantastic continuous plasma. Then, chastely, as innocently as a schoolgirl, she pecked me on the forehead and climbed off. "I hope I don't go to hell," she said. "Let's watch television."
I didn't want to argue. I turned on the set and observed with puzzled interest Tracy's rapt face as she stared at the screen, her legs kicking up behind her one at a time, wearing her skin as happily as a nurse wears clinical whites. A few days ago, leaving Seattle, I had been another person. There was no way to tell Tracy how thoroughly she had already changed me. Whatever Tracy was or was not, she was what I wanted. That much I knew. I thought these happy thoughts and allowed myself to fall asleep. Tracy was still watching TV.
At four in the morning I got up to take a leak, turned off the television test pattern, rolled Tracy onto her back and made love to her again, taking my time, not minding that she never really woke up, her body telling me that everything was fine and that there was all the time in the world. By now, I told myself, I should have been in St. Louis or at least Springfield, and by dawn I would have to drag Tracy out of bed and we would have to be on the road. The road was like dope; I was beginning to get tired of it. I knew that Tracy was the very last good thing that was going to happen to me on the road.
I loved her face in profile that morning. I loved the little circles under her eyes, the blackhead that had blossomed against her jawline, the way she chewed gum while she drove. It was only nine and we were almost to Bloomington and suddenly my trip had regained its momentum. Suddenly I wondered why I hadn't stayed in Madison--I would go back to Little Rock and my little apartment and pointless studies (comparative literature!); nothing would mean anything. I had crazy fantasies of what would have happened in Madison. I would have fought Frank for the love of his "chick" and would have prevailed. What then? A job; I'd have to find a job. Except for summers working in a warehouse, I had never really done anything. Oh yes, Tracy and I would make a splendid couple, she a waitress and I a warehouseman, living in a little dump on the east edge of Madison, out by the interstate. Well, if nothing else, it would put the kibosh on the classical music and candlelight dinners and comparing Flaubert to Proust or whatever the hell they'd been doing at the U of A while I was gone.
"I'm hungry," Tracy announced. "Al. Don't you ever eat?"
"Sure I do. Name your poison, Tracy."
She smiled happily with the anticipation of the food and I saw again what a sensual girl she was, and then I thought about the narrow parameters of Tracy's life: high-school dropout working in a restaurant, her good looks already beginning to go, living in a world where she was unseen and unwanted. What else was there, besides sex and dope and food? Spiritual yearnings were the province of the rich. I couldn't help but admire Tracy's terrible simplicity, and between us, I was sure we could figure everything out--if only I could figure out how to make her stay.,
We pulled into a Dairy Queen in the tiny town of El Paso, Illinois. I bought Tracy two double cheeseburgers, onion rings and a Blizzard, just to watch her eat. She tore the bread off the top of the burgers and loaded them up with onions and pickles from the condiment counter, and as she chewed her head rolled slightly from side to side in unabashed ecstasy. Her mouth widened when she took a bite. I saw the pit of unfulfilled needs that was Tracy, I saw that no one would ever love her enough but I wanted to try. My spirit sank with the realization that I actually had fallen in love. What had I been doing with Mabel Strothers? I had never loved her. I had wasted my freshman year in a fraternity and Mabel had belonged to a-sorority right next door, all of my frat brothers had wanted to screw Mabel because she had the longest hair and the blondest hair and the worst attitude (flip her tresses on the street and draw a crowd, wink at a professor and up her grade a whole notch) . I composed a letter in my head. Dear Mabel , you were right. We ought to see other people. I saw someone on the road Yesterday who is the answer to all my prayers. I'm going to take her to Little Rock to live with me. Maybe you knew something, Mabel, but you never knew what Tracy knows, which is that--
"Al?" Tracy said. "Al, I'm sorry to eat and run. But I think I'd better head back north."
"I know I didn't really ask you about it," I told her. "Not seriously, anyway. But listen. What do you have up there in Madison? Not a whole hell of a lot. Didn't you ever want the chance to be somebody else? Think about this: I'll take you down to Little Rock, and you won't have to answer to anybody, not even me. Nobody's going to know who you are or where you came from. Maybe what we've got won't even last--and if it doesn't you can go on back to Madison or you can get an apartment right down the street and flip me the bird when I pass by your window, whatever. But I promise to take care of you as best I can. I 'm tel I ing you al I this because I really want you to come along, and not only for the ride. I love you, Tracy. You've made me love you."
She dipped the last of her onion rings into a little paper cup of ketchup, licked her fingers, and smiled at me. "You screw good," she said, and I was amazed again by the lack of adornment in her love language. What she had confided last night--about sex on the park bleachers--was as close to a valedictory as Tracy would ever come. I felt privileged to have heard it.
"You did plenty of good for me too, you know."
"Aw, it's only a dream, Al . Let's not try and turn it into more than that. I'd just be dragging you down. It gasses me to hear you talk, I don't even know half the words you use. Remember last night in the car? Or was it this morning? Know what? I'm supposed to go to work tonight."
I followed the rollercoaster of Tracy's thoughts and smacked into a wall at the thought of her driving all of those blank miles back to Wisconsin, hauling her blue minidress that said MELANIE out of the trunk and standing in the foyer of the Double H for yet another night of seating people who had no idea what she was worth.
"Aren't you tired of living around people who treat you like an afterthought?" I said, and I threaded my fingers through Tracy's. She wore little silver bands on nearly every finger. "Come on with me. You're entitled to more."
"Maybe I ain't," Tracy muttered, playing with the paper rubbish spread across our table. "Al?" she said, and there was a rim of moisture around her eyes, "listen, I've got to go, I swore I'd drive only as far as Rockford but I like being with you so much and I just wish I had the guts to go with you but I don't, still I'm so glad I picked you up last night." She got up and brushed off her jeans. "Thanks a lot for everything," she said, and kissed me for two seconds on the lips, and went out the door.
I was too numb to move for a long moment; then the sound of Tracy's car starting up snapped me out of it and I ran outside. She had almost reached the end of the driveway. "Hey I--" I started to say, not knowing what I would have said if I'd had the chance to say it, she rolled down her window a little bit and said "Love you!," tooted her horn, and was gone. That part of Illinois is so flat that I had to watch her go for a seeming eternity while dumb tourists trundled back and forth along the highway, marveling at the gapemouthed hayseed who stood along the side of the road like a bankrupted farmer scanning pregnant clouds for rain.
I didn't see Tracy again until I was thirty-eight years old. Many things had changed in those f if teen years. I had finished my degree in Comparative Literature and gone on to law school at the University of Tennessee, moved back to Little Rock and married a debutante from the U of A, fathered three children (two boys and a girl), and joined a country club where I played very bad golf with other lawyers and with our elected representatives. I believed in nothing. There was nothing to believe in. My wife sponsored Baptist charity suppers to save the world from hunger, my kids went to the best private schools where they developed horrible attitudes about the hillbilly stock that had settled the state and from which they were partially descended, and I learned that I could smoke a pipe, wear cashmere sweaters, and pontificate all at once. I made a friend named Lula, a single mother about our age who worked in the cafeteria at the state capitol. My wife never knew what I saw in Lula, and was dumbfounded when I invited her to a Christmas party we had spent over a thousand dollars to cater, a party attended by all the partners in the firm and quite a few state senators and local aldermen as well. Christmas was in the air and I drank a little too much rum with my egg nog and took Lula by the hand down to the grape arbor that bordered our property, where we promptly settled into a long French kiss. The mistake of my life.
Next thing I knew Clarisse was standing there. "You can just pack your bags, mister," she said.
These backwoods aristocrats who had grown up on Scarlett O'Hara and Southern honor and soap operas while they filed their nails and the Negroes picked cotton and the rest of the trash dickered with engines and other people's oily hair for a living, it was too much for me, without so much as a fare thee well I climbed into my car (a BMW 325i complete with sunroof, like driving a little living room) and started north, not really knowing where I was going but perhaps knowing all the while, it was nine o'clock in the morning when I pulled into Madison and realized if I drove much further I would be lost in the pine barrens of Canada, I had run out of land, I had even run out of the cigarettes I'd bought in Missouri just to prove that I really and truly did not care anymore, Clarisse had always said that if I simply had to smoke I ought to smoke a pipe so I could at least give the impression that I had the smallest bit of breeding, I had lucked into a life of education and privilege because my daddy had denied himself everything in the world to send me to college but it would never be enough to make me forget standing on the main street of Heber Springs in the twilight while the Negroes rattled into town and eyed the little white boys like me who never had to sleep in their cars out in some cold dewy cotton field dreaming dreams of a faraway Africa they had heard about from their granddaddies, a place where the sun smiled down and you only had to worry about the lions and the snakes. I pulled up in front of the Double H where a tired old black man was sweeping off the entrance mat, he told me the place was closed but he didn't mind if I went inside and used the phone and I did, I looked up the name Carrera which was Tracy's last name and there was only one listing, for a John and Jeanette, and since all of my other trails were cold I went ahead and dialed.
"Hello, Jeanette Carrera?" I said.
The woman sounded middle-aged and irritated. "Yes?"
"I'm looking for a Tracy Carrera. Would you happen to know her?"
"She's my daughter. Listen, if she's done something, that's between you and whoever the hell you work for. I don't know where she lives."
I laughed into the receiver while I lit a fresh cigarette from the Double H vending machine. "Mrs. Carrera? I'm a friend of Tracy's. I haven't seen her in a very long time. I've really missed her; she helped me out of a jam once."
Mrs. Carrera's voice softened. "I ought not to, but I guess I'll have to believe you," she said. "Tracy's gone by the name of Gulbrandsen for quite a few years now. His name is Jim. They live over in McFarland. Say, are you an honorable sort? You sound like an honorable sort."
"I do my best."
"Give me your number there. I'll call Tracy and put her in touch with you. Know what? I'll bet your name is Al."
I was dumbfounded. "As a matter of fact," I said.
"Oh, Tracy's going to be so happy," Mrs. Carrera chuckled. "We drank some beer the other night and she talked about you. Isn't that a coincidence?"
"Frankly, it's hard to believe. It's been such an awfully long time that I wouldn't have been surprised if Tracy didn't remember me from Adam."
"Well, you needn't to worry about that. Don't run over there to McFarland, though; Tracy's been having some marital problems. She can tell you about it if she wants to. Personally, I wouldn't give you five cents for that joker she married."
"Sorry to hear that." And I was; a part of me would have been reassured to find Tracy happy and doing well.
"She told me that you were really decent to her, and I'm afraid Tracy's had some fairly bad luck in that department. Well. If you don't mind hanging by the phone, I'll see what I can scare up.
I gave her the number. "Thanks a million, Mrs. Carrera. You've done me a huge favor."
"Don't mention it," she said. "And call me Jeanette from now on." She hung up, and I wondered if there would be a "now on." It was an odd idea. I hardly had the chance to swish it around in my mind before the telephone rang.
"Hey, sailor," a voice said, and it was Tracy's flat nasally voice. That part of her hadn't changed at all.
"Tracy? Tracy, when you pulled out of the Dairy Queen I wanted to tell you I'd get back up this way some day, but you--"
"--yeah, I didn't give you the chance," she said. "I hate talking on the phone, Al. Where are you?"
I grinned. "I'm at the only place I know in this town. The Double H, of course."
"There's a bar down the road at the Red Lobster. It's in the parking lot of East Towne Mall. When do you want to meet?"
"I think I'd better get a room and sleep. I drove straight through from Little Rock. I'm hung over from a Christmas party. I'd like to give you a chance to see me at my best."
"I already have," Tracy laughed. "Eight o'clock all right?"
"Sweet dreams," she said, and hung up. I went back outside and slipped the janitor a five. "Say now, here's some Christmas cheer!" I walked across East Washington Avenue in the horrible cold, something I didn't think I could ever get used to, the air was so frigid that it hurt to inhale. There was over a foot of snow on the ground. I had to be careful where I walked in my executive wingtips. The desk would give me a wake-up call at the odd hour of five p.m., which would allow enough time to go to the mall, wade through the throngs of Christmas shoppers, and buy some underwear and a suit. It occurred to me that Tracy would likely expect me in jeans and a sweater, but I had been an attorney for some years and didn't feel comfortable out in public without my uniform. As I closed the blinds in my room and stretched out on the bed, I thought of calling home, and realized that I didn't want to, and that I didn't want to think anymore about it until I had seen Tracy again and she had put my life in perspective. It was too much to expect of anyone; still, after all these years, I had that kind of faith in Tracy.
When Tracy walked into the bar at Red Lobster, my first thought was that I was glad I had bought a suit, for she was wearing one herself--a crisp navy blue ensemble with slacks and a yellow blouse. And to my utter amazement, she looked much better than she had as a teenager; her hair was shorter, only shoulder- length, and had not been teased at all. Her eyes were radiant, her fingers manicured, and there was an air of money about her. "Hey," she said, and stood on her tiptoes and kissed me. I tasted her lipstick; I held her shoulders in my hands and told her how great she looked, and it was hard for me to imagine that beneath the starched fabric of her suit and the silk of her blouse there was still a tiny rose tattoo. I had the feeling that perhaps too many things had changed. It made my heart sink, for now more than ever I wanted to take up where we had left off but to do that we would have to turn ourselves into wide-eyed kids again. Crazy to think that the first time we had kissed we had been standing not three hundred yards from this very spot. Fifteen and some years ago. Stoned silly.
Tracy picked up my hand when we had sat down at the bar. "You're married," she said.
"I was coming to that. I don't know how married I am right now."
She let herself laugh, long and low. "That makes two of us. Al , you wouldn't believe how much I remember of that eighteen hours we spent together. Do you recall having this very same conversation?"
"Something about that sorority sister who'd just dumped me? Yes. And then there was Frank, of course."
"Lord, Frank. He's in jail, last I heard. Three kids growing up on welfare. I don't know about your habits these days, Al, but I hope you're not beyond getting good and drunk tonight. We have a lot to talk about."
I signaled to the bartender for another round and Tracy and I moved off to a corner table where it was dark except for a candle in one of those ridiculous fishnet baskets. "Kiss me again," Tracy murmured, and I did, across the table. "I'm glad you're not mad at me," she said. "I was afraid you would be."
"Mad at you? For what?"
"For ditching you in that Godforsaken gravel patch. You know something? I've felt bad about it for fifteen years. You were right. I should have gone with you. I can't believe I was afraid of a piss-ant junior con artist like Frank. I was afraid he'd hit me. Can you imagine?"
"You know," I started, and tore a strip off my cocktail napkin, not sure of how to say what I wanted to say. "I'm sorry you didn't come with me too. Or part of me is. I have three great kids and I love them to death. But my wife? No. My daddy used to scare me out of my wits with his talk about poverty, about how hard he'd slaved so I could go to college and have a chance at life, and I knew that every word of it was true because I had been there. He beat it into me that I had to marry up, some woman f rom a good background who would make sure I kept my nose to the grindstone and made something out of myself, he's the one who pushed me to join a fraternity even though it wasn't what I wanted to do at all. Look at me now. Know what I do for a living? I'm a lawyer. And I'll tell you where my life went wrong: when Mabel Strothers told me to get lost in Seattle and then I met you and I saw what love actually was, I had never known anything about love before but I sure loved you and it would have been so easy for me to come back up here and pull you out of that stupid mess you were in but what did I do? I went fishing at the sorority again. I let fear get the better of me. Tell me the truth: if I had come for you, would you have believed in me then?"
Tracy had tears in her eyes. "For a month or two, I looked for you. I listened for you. I used to think I saw you in the strangest places, but it was always somebody else."
"That's another way of saying yes."
"Al, I knew I made a mistake the minute I left you in the parking lot." A dramatic moment, a traumatic memory. The utter flatness of the countryside around El Paso, Illinois; I remembered how Tracy's car had seemingly taken fifteen minutes to vanish from sight. Perhaps she had been looking in her rearview while I turned into an ant. I had said a thousand prayers that she would change her mind and turn around, and I even went back inside the Dairy Queen and had a cup of coffee while I sat by the window, thinking Tracy would come squealing into the lot any minute. But she didn't. Finally with a heart like lead I had walked across the highway and stuck out my thumb, and not ten minutes later an elderly man who wasn't much for conversation picked me up and took me all the way to St. Louis. The whole way down I could feel Tracy pulling at me, farther and farther away, as if we were connected by a rubber band.
I ordered another round of drinks. The place was filling up with people who looked just like we did, and I wondered what had happened to us. Yeah, yeah, we had grown up, a part of me said; another part knew that it was all a lie. "Tracy, do you have kids?"
She laughed at that and took a big swallow of her drink. "Kids? Al, I'm not even sure I have a husband."
"It's really that bad?"
"You know, I wish there was something truly awful I could say about Jim Gulbrandsen, but there isn't. We got married five years ago. He was an accountant at a firm where I worked as a receptionist. You know what they say about accountants? I'm sure it's not true in every case, but it sure is in Jim's. He's about as placid as they come."
"Your mom doesn't have much use for him."
"Oh, don't pay any attention to that. A year ago he hit me a good lick, punched me in the mouth and broke one of my teeth. Mom can't forgive him for it. What she doesn't know is that Jim had just found out I'd had an affair with one of our mutual acquaintances. Jim is way too private to have mentioned a thing like that to my mother, so she thinks he just hauled off and hit me. I don't know, Al. I thought I could really clean up and become a good girl, but it hasn't been working out." I noticed that the moisture had reappeared around Tracy's blue eyes, and she lit a cigarette to make herself busy.
I told Tracy that my life hadn't worked out either. I told her about Clarisse and the kids and the mistake I'd made with my friend Lula beneath the arbor, that I hated being a lawyer and wished I could throw paint at a canvas and contemplate my navel and read obscure tomes by writers no one had ever heard of. We laughed together and lit each other's cigarettes and held hands. Underneath my soul grieved for my sorry lot and for these, the last truly free minutes of my life. That realization was creeping up on me like a cancer. I could either go back to Little Rock and face the music, or vanish into the pine barrens of Canada. Either way, I was lost.
At one in the morning, when the Red Lobster finally closed, I led Tracy out to her car. She leaned against the door and kissed me and said, "I guess we ought to at least make love? For old time's sake?"
There were a thousand objections I could have raised but I knew that I would not raise a single one of them. It was snowing and the world was still. We walked across East Washington Avenue to the motel and took the elevator up in silence, and I saw the smile lines that had been etched around Tracy's eyes and mouth and marveled that she could find so much to smile about.
In the dimness of my room Tracy gracefully removed her suit, hanging it in the closet while she hummed a little tune; she asked me to turn the television on. I sipped warm Dubonnet and watched her undress. She did look better now; she had gained just enough weight and her body had acquired the indescribable luster of early middle age, a kind of character, which she had set off nicely with a thin gold chain around her hips. Then Tracy did a funny thing. She unzipped my fly and knelt down and brought me off that way, idly, bemused, acting like it was just a stray idea she had had until toward the end where I grabbed her hair and she got serious about it and transported me into another dimension entirely, after which I lay straight back and looked up at the ceiling and Tracy's head floated above me like a balloon. She said, "I can tell you're married, 'cause married men never get enough of that," and I pulled her down on top of me and kissed her for a long time. Then she sat up. "Let's watch some TV," she said.
We both giggled through a Star Trek rerun we'd seen a hundred times between us, we drank wine and necked and I hung up my suit next to hers. Then we made love. It was, without a doubt, the best lovemaking of my entire life; Tracy and I talked, we laughed, we listened to each other, we did it this way, we did it that way, we lit each other's cigarettes, we drank more wine, we watched TV. I was old enough now to know that this was absolutely it, that I would never be able to duplicate this experience, no, not even with Tracy. We were both just drunk enough and just sad enough and just numb enough that everything had become seamless and we finally found the thing that had always been lost, and after tonight we would drop it in the wilderness and lose it again. I promised to stop caring. I kissed the rose that was still there, fading into Tracy's breast. And I saw at last what a selfish, pitiless bastard I was, and that Tracy was the only woman I would ever love in my life.
In the early afternoon when I woke up Tracy was still beside me and I was mildly, pleasantly, surprised. I took a long shower and figured to let her get up in her own good time. By now, of course, her husband and very probably the police were out looking for her.
When I came back into the room Tracy was wearing my new Arrow shirt and eating a bag of Doritos she had bought from a machine down the hall. "Here's breakfast," she said, tossing me a bag of potato chips. Sour-cream-and-onion flavored. Tracy looked as if the booze had beaten her up badly, and then I remembered that she was scarcely five feet tall and had been matching me drink for drink all night.
"It's two already," I told her. "You're in some kind of trouble, no doubt."
Tracy f lopped back on the bed, and I saw that beneath my shirt she had not put on underwear. The sight of her privates in the dull gray light, with all the weight of the world pressing down on us, aroused in me instead of lust something like a protective instinct. "I smoked all my cigarettes," she said to the ceiling. "Bum one of yours?" I stuck a Winston in her mouth and lit it and sat down on the edge of the bed next to her. "Remember that first place where we fucked?" Tracy asked, blowing a fat smoke ring toward the television. "Who would have thought back then that we'd join the Ramada Inn set?"
"Tracy. Come with me to Little Rock. Or maybe we'll go to Memphis. Or Dallas. Let's just go some goddamned place and start the whole thing,from scratch."
"Okay," she said, and blew another smoke ring.
"What happened to Melanie? Your alter ego?"
"The Double H was about as far as that went," Tracy said, and rolled over to face me. "Hey. Does this mean I'll get another chance?"
"Sure. Your name is Melanie, and you're from... Kalamazoo."
"Dookie," Tracy said, and got off the bed, and wandered over to the closet. She unbuttoned my shirt and hung it up and stretched herself and again I admired her tough little form, I remembered the rubber band I had felt between us as we pulled apart and I swore, this time, not to let her out of my sight again. Now that I knew how hideously large the world really was, it was only the small things that kept me from screaming. Just a girl I had met on the road, and yet I could never put into words the way she had made me feel. The rest of life was like a bad screenplay I'd made up as I went along, with a working vocabulary of one hundred words. You'd write a different page tomorrow, but boy would it sound familiar.
"I should go past my house and pick up some clothes and stuff," Tracy announced once we were in the car and had pulled away from Madison on the interstate. Her hair was still wet from the shower, and the car smelled like shampoo.
"No you shouldn't."
"I feel gross. Don't you hate putting on yesterday's clothes after you've just gotten clean?"
"Things are going to be dicey for a few days here."
"Al? You're nuts, Al." Tracy settled back into the leather upholstery. "I'm tired," she said, "but I feel kind of good. Remember once you asked me to tell you my life story? when we were going just this way? and I didn't want to? If you want, I'll tell you now. You'll just have to let me smoke your cigarettes."
And far down into Illinois, almost as far as El Paso, Tracy told me about her life. At first, of course, I measured it against my own, assuming my usual posture of expecting that her life would have been happier than mine--because my momma had died when I was a little boy, and so the neighborhood ladies had baked cakes and pies for Daddy and me on holidays and sometimes even on days that weren't holidays and you'd hear them whisper and cluck to each other, isn't it awful, the boy having to grow up without his mother--and it was some time before I figured out that it wasn't me they felt sorry for, it was Daddy, he'd taken on the doomed heroic shine of a man cast adrift in a world he'd never made--and I could not understand the funny and complicated mindset that lies behind altruism, I thought all the ladies loved me. Later when I found they didn't or at least not particularly it was a horrible blow and it made me feel cheated out of something fundamental in life; but then I would meet someone like Tracy who'd sit there all calm and serene and talk matter-of-factly about experiences that were so far removed from any I'd had that I almost had to believe in a parallel universe, a place where not only did kids lose their parents but there were no morals, no ethics, and seemingly not even a God.
Not that her upbringing had been particularly bad, at least not by normal American standards; she had grown up on the east side of Madison, not far from the house I'd visited off Commercial Avenue, and her parents' single greatest fault seemed to be the way they'd blundered through life without a road map. Tracy's dad had worked at Oscar Mayer in the rendering plant, a hard thankless job that had left him without illusions and without dreams, and all during Tracy's grade school years he had spent more time and more money drinking to deaden the impossible pain of what had happened to his life. Finally he'd met a young woman at the bar and through her thought he could perhaps relive the days when he had not had a wife and four kids he could barely support and a television for compani onship--"Where was your momma?" I asked Tracy; "well, she spent a lot of time doing her makeup and filing her nails and looking scared"—having no skills whatsoever and not even a high school education--one night she'd broke down and asked Tracy's father to bring his lady love over to the house and that was the beginning of what Tracy called "the famous threesome." Through most of the three years Tracy had spent in high school her father had lived with two women under the same roof, one in her forties and the other not much older than Tracy. Tracy would worry about her youngest sister Emily, who was only seven; Emily told people that she had "two mommies."
Finally, of course, it all fell apart, and it fell apart when Tracy was ordered to get a job to help with the food bills. "I told Dad he could support his own goddamned harem," Tracy said angrily while she lit up my last cigarette. "He threw me out of the house. I had to get a job anyway, so I never went back to school."
"And that's when you met me."
"That's when I met you. A few months later."
"You seem to get along all right with your mom now."
"Sure I do, it wasn't her fault. Dad took Janelle and went out to Nevada and ditched the whole lot of us."
"When did that happen?"
"About ten minutes after I split from home. Before you came along."
"How does your momma get by these days?"
"You see, that's the whole thing," Tracy snarled, the smoke curling from her nose. "She's got a job doing telemarketing, but that doesn't pay shit. I help her al I I can. I steal money from Jim and send her a check every month or two."
"Well, what exactly are you doing with your life, Tracy?"
"Going south with you," she said. "Nothing. I was raised to believe that a pretty girl can get along."
"Funny thing is, it might be true."
"Yeah. Look at me now. I'm riding in a BMW."
"Hey. Let's quit trying to win the cynics' award f rom each other. We've both covered a lot of miles--so what. Maybe we ought to try and build on whatever it was we had back there at the beginning."
"Al," Tracy said. "Al, listen to me. You know what I think? I don't think this is going to work. You know how much I like you, you know you're a great romantic and all that--and you're not even a bullshit artist. But life gets into a little track and gets set. You dig your own grave. What about Jim? What about my mom? You mean to tell me I can never see them again?"
"Maybe not," I told her. "Maybe not for a while."
"What about your kids?"
I didn't say anything else. I thought about Ryan and Tommy and Deborah and felt something push against my throat. I thought about all of us living in a modest little house in Memphis; they'd learn to think of Tracy as their mom, Clarisse had never paid much attention to them anyway. We would be the happiest family that had ever lived, and something in me knew that it was never going to happen.
Now we were below St. Louis and there was no more snow. The land looked sorrowful and gray in the flat light and the cars struggled to move against the absence of color. Tracy had gone to sleep against the door. I ran my hand through her hair over and over again and felt the anguish of her pulling away from me; I told myself that maybe by keeping up the happy charade I could somehow convince her that she was wrong. Tracy sleeping, the weight of my own thoughts, the dead of the sky as the light waned; all of it mixed in together made me more tired than I had ever been in my life. Near Farmington I pulled into a TraveLodge and helped Tracy upstairs into our bed and fell asleep with her in my arms, very close to me, the last thing I remember thinking was how wonderful she smelled and how very much I wanted to marry her, surprised at the purity of my own thoughts.
She was gone in the morning, and had left me a note.
Al--it was a really cruel thing to do to you but I didn't know what to say. I love you. That makes everything a thousand times worse. it's my fault, we should have kept going back at the Dairy Queen! Now everything feels like it's too late. A nice retired gent. from FLA is going back home to Rockford, he gave me a lift that far. I hope you'll never spend any time worrying about me for I'll be okay one way or the other, I always get along. Now God damn it you made me start crying and I have to go. Al, we will be together in heaven. I know we will. Please believe me?
ALL my love, Tracy
I stood at the motel window and looked out into the parking lot where nothing moved except the crows buzzing around the dumpster and I tried to form my mouth into a scream, but nothing came out. And when I turned around all that was left was the clothes I'd draped across a chair last night, the necktie from the Red Lobster hanging like a dead man from the bathroom doorknob, and Tracy's barrette on the slick plastic dresser leaving a shadow that grew and grew until it filled the world.
(c) Peter Felknor