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« Canada (Richard Ford) review | Main | Coming up tomorrow. »
Friday
Jul272012

Bent Highway: Chapter Two

Arrow

The half-ton’s engine stalled, but I didn’t turn it over again. I sat in the ditch thinking about those bowed lips. I remembered asking the question.

"What was your name again?”

No response.

I tried again. “Last time I didn’t catch it. We talked in that bar in Yellowburn.”

"I didn't give it," she'd said.

I’d met her more than once. I closed my eyes and pictured a smoldering house trailer, then bursting into fire, her running into the field, me after her, then that big beast toppling over me. Was that where the gash came from?

My skull throbbed like someone had hammered a four inch spike into it. I cranked the engine, pulled out of the ditch with the tires spinning, four-wheel drive my ass, and headed back down the highway.

They say your body remembers a lot, but not in ways that can be put into words. The part of me that slammed on the brakes when I saw the sedan wasn’t sending telegrams to the figuring-shit-out part of me. For now, I trusted my legs more than the swiss-cheese head.

The general weirdness faded as I picked up speed and the road straightened into an arrow. Driving was the one thing that calmed me. Tires humming on the asphalt were a hundred times better than those vibrating loungers at the mall, and there wasn’t a salesman with food court breath next to me in the cab saying how I couldn’t live without one.

Money was running out and I'd probably have to start looking for a job again. I’d eyed a few help wanted signs over the screen door of road diners. The greasy bacon and eggs didn’t change as I drove across the country, but the people did. I'd met some characters.

In Holdfast there was the guy who channelled John the Baptist. He kept telling me to repent, make my ways straight and all that. I didn't think I was that bad of guy – so I challenged him a bit. He was drinking hot water, no tea bag, steam rose from his beard on every sip. 

“No one thinks they're all that bad until the time comes.” 

"Time for what?" I'd asked him.

"Exactly," he said.

Then he started spouting off in what could have been an ancient dialect or just the D.T.’S talking. After I left the diner, I’d passed him in the parking lot and he was crunching on something I hoped wasn't a bug.

Then in Breeston there was that girl at the gas station doing a goofy dance to no music I could hear. She was dressed somewhere between 1970's hippy funk and depression era rags, her ripped jeans hanging dangerously low, threatening to be shaken right off her ass at any moment. I was mesmerized and considered offering her a ride. When I walked up to her, the dance got more intense and her hair started swirling around like she was either having a hell of a time or was on the border of a seizure. I just kept walking.

I’ve seen this country through gas stations, hotel bars perched next to giant graineries, diners that served the same plate of eggs, played the same tinny country twang over the radio next to cash register, and general stores that doubled as liquor vendors in towns that had no reason to still exist. I guess that just like the dancing gas station girl I had a soundtrack, sometimes it came from my truck radio, but a lot of times it was just tunes I carried around in my head. I never sang along, just let the guitar lines pulse through my head as I passed through another empty town.

And then there was the chalk girl. That white skin glowed in my brain. How come I knew where I met the dancing hippie chick, but I couldn’t place her? Maybe it was too recent – names and faces piled up in the corners of my brain like cords of wood and only with distance did one tumble out of the pile for closer inspection. Maybe this is why truckers look a bit dazed at those stops – I'd thought it was tiredness from the road – but maybe something starts to happen to you when you see so many places, so many people, everything starts to blur together like the dotted line that becomes a stream of yellow piss racing underneath your tires. That still doesn't explain the black outs.

I was so lost in the dizziness of my own thoughts, a soundtrack of swamp rock pulsed in my mind, that I almost missed seeing the black sedan. I slowed down, u-turned and pulled into the parking lot. A weathered sign read Riverside Diner. I looked across about a hundred miles of bald prairie and didn’t see even a hairline creek. 

My boots kicked up gravel as I passed the sedan in the lot, making little tings against the gleaming hubcaps. My knees buckled and I dropped to the ground. What the fuck? I braced my hand against the driver’s door and pressed into it – it was like touching dry ice. I tried to pull my hand back but it was stuck to the metal, burning and cold at the same time. I pulled hard and flesh ripped as I fell back, the ground opened up to accept me, and I was swallowed into blackness.

* * *

I woke up staring into cup of coffee with a spiral thread of cream making its way to the edge.

"Are you well?"

Before I looked up, I pictured the colour of her skin, those red lips, a shock of black hair slashed across her forehead.

"What's happening?"

"Are you still blacking out?" Her voice had a reverb to it.

"I don' t understand… why?" Sweat gathered in the crease of my forehead, my hands shook. "Last night… we talked and –"

"It's probably best you're not remembering a lot right now. It'll come back." 

I watched her lift the water glass and drain the contents in one long gulp. I expected to see a lipstick stain on the glass when she placed it back on the table but there was none.

An image flashed in front of me, a crisp blade splitting flesh, my flesh, a heavy shape pinning me against damp ground. And then her voice from across the table, not within the image.

"… time will not follow its usual path once you've slipped across. You’re fighting to keep things linear. That’s what your body is used to, so it’s going to be disorienting for awhile. Caffeine doesn't make it any better." She slid a glass of water in front of me. 

"I'm sorry, I don't understand what's happening I—" I didn't even know what to ask.

"Just drink."

I sipped at the edge of the glass. The ice bumped against my lips and reminded me of the sedan door. Then, as I drank, I closed my eyes and saw the highway, the ditch, the brake lights of the sedan, the Dandy diner, the fan – I watched it all in slow reverse and it led me back to last night. The tall man with the broken nose with the knife that cut across my arm, no… it was my leg, but then the flesh closing around the knife, and the blood going into the wound and then the wolf. It started to pull together – something about time, how they had found a way to get past it, through it, to dive into the stream like a series of rapids and ride along until you spilled out at a different point, a different place on the road. Except it wasn’t an ordinary road.

"I saw you in Breeston." I said. "And before." A final tile slipped into place. "Time – you told me I could escape it if I wanted."

I felt my leg where the knife had gone in and it became crystal. His voice was in my head, gutteral like he had a ton of phlegm he needed to get expel.

"You straddle the line, your body, your blood, needs to be in both places. That’s what he told me.”

“Uh-huh. Drink some more water.”

"Why the wolf?" I asked. 

The chalk girl smiled. She asked the waitress for some more water, and could she have a bit more ice this time? 

"It's falling into place for you. The wolf, as you call it, is needed to keep you here."

"Here? Place or time?" My head still spun.

"A bit of both." She twitched, her elbow jerked out in a brief muscle spasm. "I have to leave."

I stood and pain shot through my knee. I collapsed back into the booth. The waitress heard the noise and rushed over, almost spilling her tray of water.

"Are you okay?" She set down the tray, the ice made soft clinks against the glass. "Whoa, you should probably go see a doctor about that." 

I followed her gaze to my left knee. It was stained deep red and glistened as fresh blood pumped from the cut. The diner went out of focus and I felt myself slide out of the booth and onto the floor. The waitress yelled something but I couldn't make it out.

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