My last stop before leaving campus was the computer lounge. Waiting for access to my inbox, I took in the unfamiliar faces—their eyes squinting down at glowing screens. The aid flipped through his textbook near the printer station, with the quiet buzz of technology holding the scene together.
Sign on. Password. Inbox full of spam. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check, delete. Clearer screen. Still no word from Chloe. Compose Mail. Subject: “Thinking About You.”
“Hey there, Been calling like crazy and still no word. Everything must be jammed in the city still. I ended up quitting school, thinking I would rush home to strap my dad’s canoe to the roof of my car and drive up and find you, but then I realized how crazy that would have been. Decided to drive out West instead, like we always talked about. Sorry how we ended. Hope to cross paths again. Love, J.”
Sign out. Sigh.
The screen flashed news briefs: “Anthrax Letters Cause Evacuations.” I was just about to stand and leave when I remembered Dr. Melvin’s “On the Road” recommendation for some reason. I opened up a search window and started reading different web pages about the book. Partly it was a way of putting off the final decision on when to leave town. I clicked on one page—more or less at random—and in the middle, there was an image of Kerouac’s hand-drawn map, showing the route that he and “Dean Moriarty” followed on their travels. It seemed like a sign. I knew I was looking for signs, but it still seemed like a sign. I hit print, snagged the copy and walked out.
By the time I pulled into my parents’ driveway my dad had emptied half the attic and much of the basement onto the picnic table under the towering maple in the yard. Coolers of all shapes and colors spewed in two directions on the grass: a stained Boy Scout mess kit, a green Coleman camping stove with an extra canister of fuel, a tent, sleeping bags, a hand axe, rain gear, iodine capsules, flint and steel, fishing tackle, a folding army shovel, a canteen, road flares, a fix-a-flat, flashlights, a large bag of venison jerky, and a Colt .38 caliber revolver.
“This was lent to an English officer during World War II,” he said, showing me how to open the chamber. “And returned after the Germans surrendered. You don’t have a license to carry, so I’ve loaded it with blanks. At least you’ll be able to scare someone away. I’ll show you how to hide it under the seat.”
The screen-door creaked, and my mother walked outside. Her face was obstructed behind a cardboard box, and her feet scraped along the sidewalk under its weight. We both moved to help but she called us off. The box— when she unloaded it onto the table—was filled with cans and boxes of food. Also inside the box, was a smaller box—wrapped in Sunday funnies.
“For emergencies,” she said. “It’s a cell phone with prepaid minutes.”
I stared at the boxy, black device with its short antenna, wondering what to do with it.
As I drove away, before turning the corner out of sight, I looked in the rearview mirror. My parents were holding hands and waving.
I quickly realized that if I stayed on the highway I wasn’t going to see much of anything beyond billboards, sound barriers and the backs of tractor trailers—many with cartoon devils on their mud-flaps warning me to ”Back Off!” as they sped past.
I had never been west of Pittsburgh before. Considering I had already broken new territory after only six hours, I pulled into the first rest stop after the “Welcome to Ohio” sign just after midnight. The lot was well-lit, and about a quarter of the spaces were occupied. Alone and no longer distracted by the road, for the first time the romance of what I was doing gave way to fear.
I dug out my toothbrush and headed inside the bathroom to clean up, shivering against the wind. The urinal smelled of bleach. I closed my eyes and took a deep, astringent breath. I rolled my neck around in circle and attempted to clear the scattered thoughts buzzing around my head.
What am I doing? Will my students feel like I failed them? Do my parents think I’ll be back in a few days and are just humoring me? What will Mrs. Warburg tell the other teachers?
“Oh, Julian, he just couldn’t handle it,” she will say.
Will they laugh? Does Chloe still hate me? Will she ever talk to me again?
I pulled up my pants, buttoned them and bent down to stretch my hamstrings, barely touching my toes. Head still upside down, I rocked my trunk to loosen my shoulders. Slowly, leading with my abdomen, I rose back up—vertebrae by vertebrae. I hoped the stretches would help me regain my focus after hours of highway hypnosis. But at this late hour, doubts and insecurities danced too wickedly in my head. I decided it was best to go back to the car and rest.
Pushing open the heavy door, I re-entered the autumn air. I was surprised to hear a faint harmonica somewhere in the distance, but I kept on after a beat, intent on the Jim Beam in my trunk. It took some shuffling before I found the paper bag, unscrewed the lid on the flask inside and endured a few warming sips. Minutes later, curled over in the back seat under my sleeping bag, I went to sleep out of sight.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.