THIS IS STILL A LOVE STORY
I think we’re in love by Arkansas. The heat and humidity blazing down all around us is making the leather smell, and I have to squint real hard to make the horizon stop shimmering. We’ve long since given up on speech, our bodies and minds as fried by the summer heat as whatever the buzzards are tearing at on the turnpike outside Fayetteville. When I exhale and let my muscles untense—you still make me so goddamn jumpy when you’ve got that look on your face—I wonder if you think that I look like a melted candle with my shirt off and my stomach pressed out against my jeans as far as it’ll go. That thought troubles me enough that I do my best to flex whatever abs I’ve got the next few times you look over. Of course, when you start flicking little chunks of soda fountain ice at me every time I do, I’m quick enough to take the hint and lay that particular conspiracy to rest. We sleep in the parking lot by THE SOUTH’S BIGGEST ROC_ING CHAIR, or so the neon lights tell us, and jump a little every time the electric buzz reaches a fever pitch. It rains that night, and the ozone in the air tastes delicious.
We’re in Tulsa for my birthday, and so we buy best-buy-tomorrow Aldi’s bargain coffee cake and sit on the truck’s hood somewhere outside the city limits. There’s a beauty to the oil rigs out here, all black and wizened like knotted trees against the setting sun. Plumes of flame erupt from one, and we stay and watch as firefighters arrive to put them out. I’m about to make some half thought-out point about how there’s beauty in the destruction as well when the ambulance arrives and its riders rush out. As they wheel someone back on a stretcher, they walk slow. Driving off, they don’t bother to turn on the flashing lights and no siren rings across the landscape. It’s very cold and we’re bloated to all hell, so we fall asleep eagerly and greedily that night. I have a strange dream, one part sulfur and two parts gunmetal. I awake with a ringing in my ears and resign myself to the future. Everything that happens after this is going to hurt.
We settle down to map things out at a rest stop outside of the Cherokee Nation. The funds are growing low, but it’s not as though there’s really all that much more country left to see. We’re bottom feeders now, it’s all I’ve been able to think about since Tallahassee. Crawling our way over remnants of brotherly strife and border skirmishes, when we hit the left coast we’re going to have to stand straight and let the sun alight upon us. For now though, the planning is more logistical than ideological. Drag ourselves through Colorado and Utah, stumble into Nevada and don’t bet too big to have to stay, and keep on target into NorCal until you and I and the whole little project burn up on re-entry. That’s the future though, soon but not soon soon, and so for the moment I content myself to make you promise to take a video of me hopping between our nation’s squarest states at the Four Corners. At the Cherokee gift shop—there’s always a gift shop—you shoplift a three dollar flag decal for the truck, but by the time we’re back on the highway you’re already feeling so bad about it that you donate a full thirty online. You’re good, I say it again and again as I pat your thigh and the dust circles us. You’re good, you’re good, you’re good, you’re good.
I don’t really know where to buy mushrooms in Denver, but I do know a guy in Denver that it’s easy to buy mushrooms from. He overcharges me because he doesn’t really like me and I don’t call him out for it because I really can’t bring myself to care that much. We get back on the road after that, but when the rain starts before we’ve entered Utah proper we decide to wait it out. It goes all night. It’s humid enough out here in the dog days of August that we can pretend we’re still back in Tuscaloosa. We take the mushrooms outside, there’s far worse things in a Utah rest stop than college kids with pupils like a raccoon’s, and start our wandering there. The trashbag ponchos don’t keep us all that dry, but I feel safe in mine, and that’s a real help when your face keeps shifting and turning in on itself. We sit underneath the tall trees around the back of the truck stop and tell ghost stories that don’t have endings. You tell me I look very dashing while thunder rumbles somewhere far off, and I lie and tell you that you smell like jasmine instead of sweat. At some point we trudge back to the car, and at some ungodly hour I wake up and there’s a very live wolf in the flatbed. I bare my fangs and flick on your Yoknapatawpha County Zippo and the lightning cracks the sky and I don’t think the damn thing was ever really there to begin with. The next morning I ask if you’re excited to learn how to chase ambulances at law school and you question with great ferocity whether I’m excited to lease a Mustang, jerk off in a bunker for four years, and then spend the rest of my life bragging about it to whatever poor high school girls are volunteering at the local VFW. I’m almost mad until you take whatever kind of bow one can really take in a pickup and toss your laugh out across the mountain range.
I didn’t want to hit Vegas because I thought it’d be too on the nose. You agreed, and so instead we end up in Reno, and Reno is the end of the world. We gamble and we lose money and we go back to the motel that we’ve allowed ourselves to rent for the night as a consolation prize. I buy you cowboy boots and you buy me a Stetson and together we look like holy hell. We track dirt from fifteen different states in behind us and christen every corner of the room with that filth. It’s so cold, I never remember that about Nevada. Right before we’re about to fall asleep, I feel the moment that you decide to rebel. You turn the lights on and I grab the guide book and we do anything we can. Automatic rifles until our ears ring at a gun range for LA tourists, a truly terrible up and coming comedian in a three-piece suit, and cooking Sherry and Coke. The last of those is so potent and so stomach-turningly sweet that I can’t get down more than a cupful. Even that leaves me looking like a well-fed carnivore. We don’t sleep, and the jittery energy that we run on the next day as we barrel towards the California border is pure delirium. We pull off the highway when we’re within a few miles of the Golden State. We take surface streets until we find a side road, and then finally we get within sight of what the residents of Verdi, Nevada assure the occasional tourist is the official border between themselves and the unwashed coastal masses. You stop the truck about fifteen feet from the stop light that we’ve unspokenly decided is the official line of demarcation. We stay there a long time, but the sun doesn’t seem to move in the sky.
Harry Katz is a part-time bartender and full-time student in the Department of American Studies at Stanford University. His work has appeared in the Rye Whiskey Review and Do Geese See God? and won the Bocock Guerard Fiction Prize. He lives in the stormiest part of Central Virginia, in a county with far more cows than people. He can be reached and found at @katzinbag on Twitter.