The road before them is long and straight and gray; the intervening years have stolen whatever knowledge she ever had of their destination. It’s hot and the sun is round and liquid-yellow in front of the van. They are headed into the sun; she remembers that. She remembers the cloud of dust that rises behind them as her father slows the van and pulls off the road. She remembers the sudden change of timbre as the balding tires leave the asphalt and rumble against the gravel and dirt . . . always a sharp intake of breath as the unroad presses its lips against her ear and whispers of urgency and disaster. The gravel gives way in a million small broken pieces, each crunch of loose surrender a soft echoed murmur in her head . . . the words of her mother . . . Stay on the road. You’re swerving. Stay on the road. You’re scaring me. Stay on the road.
She braces for an impact against the murmurs that doesn’t come, and instead the van bounces giddily to a stop. Her father reaches with cigarette in hand to straighten the rear-view mirror, and she turns below the small reflected flame to climb into the back of the van. She watches the man run to catch them.
They always run.
A man much younger than her father climbs into the van, pulling the door closed hard behind him, shoving his gray-green dufflebag down into the space below his feet, “Thanks, man. Been walking for a while looking for a ride. Walking is progress but rolling is progress accelerated.” He laughs at what appears to be a joke, repeating the phrase “progress accelerated” as my father steps on the gas and works the clutch and coaxes the van to higher speeds. The man reaches to bang out a short song of gratitude with his palms against the dashboard, “Thanks, man.” He turns and notices her, “Did I take your seat? Thank you, little lady.”
She doesn’t say anything.
He smells. She leans to breathe in the scent, because it reminds her of something. She holds the breath against the flat of her tongue and tastes what she finds there, considering. There is sweat and smoke and an odor she always thinks of as just “stale,” but there is also something else. The man smells of fishing . . . of worms and slime and scales and hooks too deeply swallowed, pulling entrails as they pass over gasping lips a second time. She relaxes a bit; she knows that smell.
The man is bouncy, bouncier than the van. He pulls his laced-up booted feet onto his dufflebag and his toes tap out a frantic rhythm. His knees bump up and down. He is telling a story of a girl and a dog with a broken leg and then he is telling a story of a couple who gave him a ride earlier in the day who sang Jesus music at him until he thought he would cry and then he is telling a story of how he promised to write to people but now that he’s gone he’s thinking no more words are required. As he talks, his hands move in the air, silhouetted against the afternoon heat as she stares past his hands and through the front window.
Her father asks the man where he is headed, and the man closes his eyes and leans his head back, “Anywhere west of where I was a moment ago.”
Her father says how far they can take the man, and the man nods his chin, his eyes still closed, whispering the words again, “Anywhere west of where I was a moment ago is just fine.”
The sun dips and beckons them from somewhere farther along this gray stretch of straight. She puts her hands up in front of her face and pulls her focus back from the sun so that her hands are silhouettes; she tells herself stories of a girl and a dog and Jesus songs and letters that won’t be written. She feels sad that the people who were promised letters won’t get to see the silhouetted hands explaining how no more words are required.
Her father and the man talk of nothing in particular more loudly; a small brown bottle is passed back and forth, and the air within the van is moodier . . . more volatile.
Her father’s voice. Something about the briefness of life’s candle. Something about a failure to appreciate. Something about not knowing what life has in store for you and how you shouldn’t be an ungrateful motherfucker. Something about getting your ass kicked. Something about snot-noses and peckerheads and assholes and pussies and fear. Something about motherfucking fear teaching you some motherfucking truths.
The bouncy man has stopped bouncing.
He smells of fear and evasion now, although she can still smell the entrailed hook swallowed too far. He turns and smiles a false smile at her; he rummages in his bag and comes up with an apple, which he tries to pass to her. She puts up her hands in silhouetted refusal and shakes her head. The man smiles still, his eyes darting sideways at her father, “Come on . . . you can have it.”
Her father reaches with cigarette in hand to adjust the rear-view mirror so that he is looking into the back of the van, “Take the apple. We’re giving the man a ride. He wants to express his appreciation. Someone offers you a gift, even a meaningless gift, you take it.”
She cannot see his eyes, but against the sun and beneath the reflected glow of the flame, she closes a hand around the apple.
Her father is still talking, but not to her, almost to himself, “Never know when someone’s going to snuff that candle. Take the gifts that are offered you.” He swings the van off the road and she listens once again to the crunch of the gravel and the whispers of fear in her mind . . . Stay on the road. You’re scaring me. Stay on the road.
The man steps from the van and then turns back to get his bag, relief in his voice, “Thank you for the . . .”
Her father is already pulling away.
The man runs after them.
They always run.
Her father beckons to her, and she climbs back up into the front seat, her feet resting on the gray-green dufflebag.
Her father reaches to pat her knee, cigarette between his fingers, “We did him a favor.”
She rests the apple’s round redness in her lap and turns to look at him.
He takes a drink, settling the small brown bottle between his thighs as he works the clutch and shifts to a higher gear, “Only way to see what you’re made of is to lay everything down. No way to accept the gifts that may be offered if your hands are filled with burdens. Lay everything down and start walking. See how far you get.”
He snorts in derision and takes another drink, “See how west you get.”
She points out the window to the pulsing sun that seems to greet them endlessly, “We’re going west.”
Her father laughs, “So we are.”
He squeezes her knee again, “Let’s see how far we get.”
The apple rolls and bursts when she throws it out the window.
She tells its story with her hands held out against the sun . . . a small circle and then obliteration.
An imagined crunch of loose surrender.
Leaving her hands open to accept the gifts that may be offered.
No more words required.