The car was still there, along with all my gear—tires full of air, tray heavily laden with quarters. Comforted my things were in order, I got out and scanned around for the old vet but found no sign of him. I leaned against the passenger door, thoughts heavy, waiting.
I recalled the way my father’s voice floated as he described the vast potential of I-80 (the highway that led to the snaking dirt road that twisted and turned to our trailer) left an indelible impression on me as a youngster.
“The freeway we just got off,” he would say, “you could drive it a straight shot from New York to California.”
I was 4 or 5years old and had no idea what he was talking about, but I felt something while sitting in the cab of the pickup, listening as he spoke of the road. He did, too; I could see the way his body relaxed in the expansiveness, putting his arm up on the back of the bench seat and letting out a long exhale. The muddy potholes on our two-mile driveway––each divot in the dirt another chore, another hole to fill each spring––no longer made him cringe. Bopping along the back roads of Spring Hill Farms on those yellow afternoons, my father’s usual worries—about feeding us, paying the rent, or fixing the rusted tailgate before it fell off the back of the truck—dissipated in the vague glow of the word “California.”
Miniature me on the huge vinyl bench seat had to strain to see above his Kodiak can on the dashboard. But my face lit up anyway, I’m sure, charged by his rare display of excitement. New York to California: 2,906 miles all on one road.
The next morning I woke and broke camp. I felt more focused than ever on making it to L.A. I’d driven a little over an hour before noticing a rusted, maraschino-red pickup pulled over on the shoulder with the hood up and steam pouring out. I didn’t know much about cars, but figured if all the guy needed was some water to cool an overheated engine, I had a gallon jug. I’d filled it that morning before pulling out of the campsite. I switched off the Cavalier and got out but didn’t see anyone near the truck. I yawned and stretched my arms above my head. The old beater seemed abandoned. Shrugging, I walked up the small embankment into tall grass, unzipped my pants, and began to sign my name in cursive among the swaying switch grass.
“Oh!” I said, as I noticed someone sitting on a rock nearby. “Sorry about that; I didn’t see you.”
The young man tucked his knees into his chest and rocked forward, his feet beneath him. Brushing himself off, he turned in the opposite direction and sighed.
“That your truck?” I asked, turning to take him in. He wore a red-and-black checkered flannel that was tucked into his jeans, with a leather belt that matched the color of his boots. His shaggy hair was dirty blonde above a slightly hooked nose.
“Radiator’s shot,” he said. “I was thinking about white-flagging her and trying my luck on foot, but I got a lot of gear.”
“What kind of gear?”
“I’m headed west,” I said, “if you need a lift.”
He looked at me for a moment.
“Julian,” I said, extending my hand.
“I had a grandfather named Julian,” he mused, turning to walk back in the direction of the truck. “He always kinda scared me when I was a kid. As I got older I realized he was actually pretty funny. I’m Grover. Mind if I wash up first before shaking your hand?”
Grover wasn’t kidding. The whole plastic utility harness bolted behind the cab was full of padded attachés: The kind that in movies always contain money or guns. He fumbled around beneath the hood for a moment, then knelt down to inspect a large puddle beneath his engine. Head hanging low, he kicked the tire with a muffled curse. “Think I might take you up on that ride,” he said.
We’d packed almost everything Grover had into the back seat when I turned to see him holding a small generator. I couldn’t help wondering what a farm boy was doing with all this shit. I shuffled a few things around. “That sure is a lot of technology,” I said, wiping sweat from my temples.
“Hope this doesn’t change your mind.”
“What do you need a generator for?”
“I’m filming a documentary about forests,” he said, “and some of the oldest are pretty remote.”
He tore a piece of white fabric from a T-shirt and rolled it up in the window. I left him alone to say farewell to the old Dodge and snag his plates. The funereal mood stayed with us as we sped on past billboards, concrete barriers and 18-wheelers waiting to be weighed. Tired of the radio, I drove in silence at first; after a while I wanted to talk.
“What made you want to do this?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” Grover said, adjusting his elbow from its perch near the open window. Turning to face me, he said, “I just woke up one morning and knew.”
“Knew what?” I asked. “That you wanted to film trees?”
He didn’t respond.
“You look decent enough to get a girl,” I said. “What made you give up everything to film trees?”
“I didn’t realize I was getting in the car of a psychologist,” he said, taking off his square tinted frames to polish them. His eyes creased together. I noticed they were slightly different colors. One brown, the other more green.
“Sorry,” I said. “Not a psychologist, just curious.”
Grover sat back and took a breath. “After film school, I was basically depressed and feeling like shit every day. So I moved back to the country and took a lot of walks.”
“Sounds great,” I said.
“Yeah, it was like Walden,” he smirked. “Except for the strip club a few miles away.”
“Why did you leave?”
“Last winter got to be pretty depressing.”
I allowed his silence to settle.
“What about you?” he asked. “What set you off?”
I wondered where to start, how to condense it.
“I was teaching,” I said, “and we were watching the towers burn on TV. The kids were scared. The teacher, who was sort of my boss, told me to ignore what was happening, ignore their questions and get back to co-ordinating conjunctions.”
Grover nodded. “What did you say?”
“‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.’”
He laughed. “Rage against the machine!”
Smiling, I turned contemplative. “This may sound weird, but I don’t know how else to describe it. At the moment I stood up to her, it felt like this switch flipped.”
“Like you finally woke up?” he asked, pumping his fist.
“Yeah, it was like, what the fuck! Here I am, and I’m not going to do what I’m fucking told because I know shit is fucked up around here!”
My hands came down hard on the wheel.
Grover rolled down his window, stuck out his head, and screamed, “Yeah!” His rebel yell was long and loud until his lungs expired in the wind.
Now, it was starting to feel like an adventure.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories every other week in encore throughout 2014.