The Mother Road
by Barbra Annino
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Simon had the key to Nick’s room. The desk clerk informed him that the room he was in was free for the night, but Nick would have to switch rooms. Some special guest request about wanting a first-floor room near the exit and blah, blah, blah. Rather than bother his friend with it, he thought it best to let him cool off so he’d just grab Nick’s bag and throw it in Nick’s new room.
The gym bag was on the chair next to the bed. Simon grabbed it and tossed in the clothes Nick was wearing the night before, save the briefs. There was only so far a buddy would go. He went to the dresser, checked all the drawers, but they were empty. He was just about to open the door when he thought he should make sure there was nothing in the john.
Just thinking about his father made Nick’s anger brew. He didn’t even care about the jackoff that messed up his ride anymore. Whoever it was did him a favor. He didn’t need the guilt of remembering he wasn’t the best son every time he lit the ignition. Even though it wasn’t his fault. He knew it wasn’t his fault. Still, he’d just leave the car here, let her rot in the middle of the desert, and catch a train to Cali. He got out, stretched his legs and walked towards the trunk.
Simon flipped the light switch and scanned the sink top. He didn’t see anything except hotel shampoo and a bar of soap. He turned and started back out, then stopped. Was that what he thought it was?
What the hell was taking Simon so long? Who cared about the chick? There’d be more along the way, certainly in California. He imagined well-toned girls in skimpy bikinis playing volleyball on the beach, roller-blading on the boardwalk. Maybe one of them would have a laugh like a Robin’s song. If they ever made it there.
The sun was baking Nick’s shoulders and he stuck the key into the trunk to unlock it and pull out his cotton shirt, but he stopped short.
The room was crashing in on him and Simon could barely breathe. He sat down on the bed, trying to make some sense of this before he went back outside. What the hell would he say to his longtime friend? He rolled a hundred scenarios over in his mind and none of them ended well. Maybe he should just throw everything away. And then what? Pretend nothing ever happened? No. It needed to be done. Nick was like a brother to him. He couldn’t let this pass. Not after seeing that blood.
The keys were jingling in Nick’s hand as he recalled his last encounter with his father. He was tightening the wheel of the back left tire and the old man walked into the garage, tears threatening his eyes, as if he really cared. He babbled about the funeral arrangements, the service, Nick’s part in it, his mother’s wishes. “As if you would know,” Nick had said.
It was barely a whisper but his father heard him anyway. “Excuse me?”
Nick was tired of holding it in, always saving face for the family. He was tired of the mind games, the lies, the bullshit. So he told his dad exactly what a low-life, good for nothing, piece of garbage he thought he was. Of course, deep down he knew his father would lay into him.
The air was different in the desert. Fresh and musty all at once. Simon closed the door to the room, the blood mopped up, the contents of the trash can zipped into Nick’s bag. He approached Nick in the parking lot, with no clue what he was going to say until he opened his mouth.
“Maybe we should get going?” Simon said.
The keys were singing in Nick’s hand, it was shaking so fiercely from the memory of that afternoon in the garage. His father’s fist. The tire iron. The blood. When Nick looked at Simon, he tried to wish it away. But he saw at that moment that something was wrong. Simon’s face held a question.
Simon stood with Nick’s duffle bag behind Rosie in front of the Rt. 66 sign. Nick tilted his head, mirroring Simon’s expression. And like a lightening bolt, his mind flooded with images of the previous night. Nick alone in his room, drunk and pissed, then sad and ashamed, the pocketknife in his hand. The flick of the blade, the pain when he cut into his skin. But... he couldn’t do it. So he stepped outside for a smoke.
Nick swayed and Simon reached out and grabbed his forearm to steady him. “Nick, man, what’s going on?” His face was a blend of worry, fear, and... hope.
Nick looked at Rosie. All that was good and bad in his life, over the last few years, rested with her. And a single fat tear tumbled down his face.
He brought the paint because he read on a website there was an open graffiti wall along the route. 66ers were encouraged to throw a note on the wall for future visitors to enjoy and add their own two cents. Yellow because that was his mom’s favorite color. “Yellow means yield, slow down, but don’t stop. To me, that’s what life is all about,” she had said once.
“Nick,” Simon broke the trance. He was clutching the bag, not sure how to bring it up. It had to be a coincidence, but he wanted to know. He looked at the trunk, at the message. DIE. The color was the same as the spray paint he found in the bathroom trashcan. Surely, there would be a reasonable explanation. “I found something in your room,” he said.
Nick bowed his head. Confirmation enough.
Nick knew Simon would never understand it. Hell, he didn’t even understand. That woman in the bar, that asshole she was married to. It was all so reminiscent of what he had left back home, or rather, what he had brought with him, that he just snapped. He came back outside to think, have a smoke, but Rosie, that beautiful ride, was mocking him. She held all the secrets and he wanted them to stay buried within her. Then maybe he could leave it behind him. Start fresh. But it wasn’t really her he was mad at.
It was what was inside her.
Nick looked at the trunk and Simon’s gaze followed.
“Nick, buddy, give me the keys,” he said.
“I can’t do that.” Nick shook his head, refusing to meet Simon’s eyes. And in that moment, their friendship shifted.
With authority in his voice, Simon demanded, “Dude, give me the keys.” He wasn’t backing down this time. Whatever it was, it was serious enough for Nick to pull a Soprano on his own car. And Simon wasn’t about to move until he found out what was in the trunk.
Nick couldn’t believe he had been so careless. Up until that point, he’d taken every measure not to be traced. No cards, no notes, no phone calls, nothing. And Simon was all for it. He ate up that Easy Riders crap. Nick even planned everything by the old route. Not the newer highway 44, but old 66. And they were so close now. Just a quick stop in the desert and then he would disappear.
The heat was reddening Simon’s cheeks and he hadn’t eaten in hours, but he was numb, he felt no physical discomfort. Just mental unease. Running through his mind was the knife, the paint, the blood. If Nick didn’t give him the keys in the next thirty seconds, he would tackle him. His muscles tensed and he cracked a knuckle. Then his phone rang.
Nick stiffened. “Don’t answer it, Simon.”
Simon lifted the phone from his pocket, checking the name in the window. “It’s my dad,” he said.
Nick stepped forward. “Buddy, don’t answer it.”
“What’s in the trunk Nick?” The phone was singing Springsteen’s Born to Run.
Simon thumbed the face of his phone as the Boss crooned, “Tramps like us....” He lifted it to his ear.
“Okay!” Nick scanned the parking lot, heaved a sigh, and stuck the key into the lock.
Simon clipped off the phone just as a state trooper passed by and Nick stopped, blocking the painted damage with his girth.
The trooper slowed, nodded, and drove off.
Nick waited for the police car to fade into the highway. He looked at Simon, twisted the key, and the trunk yawned open.
Simon held his breath and walked to the back of the car. He leaned in and saw a suitcase with a note on top. Next to the suitcase was a box. Simon sifted through it. There was a book, clumps of hair, a bottle of perfume, and a framed picture of Nick’s mother.
“She wanted to come with us,” Nick said.
Simon narrowed his eyes at Nick, his stomach churning. Nick realized what Simon was thinking.
“No, man, not like that. I was going to bury the box in the desert, under the sun.” The sun. Yellow. Like her favorite color.
Nick sighed. “Check out the note.”
Simon leaned in and read.
If I know my son at all, you’ll be checking the trunk to make sure you have everything you need to take care of Rosie on your trip. Don’t do it when your father is there.
I’ll hasten to guess that you’ll be headed off into the sunset before I’m laid to rest and I want you to know that I wouldn’t expect any less. You know how I hate goodbyes. Take a little piece of me with you, will you? I’ve always wanted to see the Painted Desert. Always wanted to bury my toes in the sand. I hope you will seize the opportunities I never did. There’s a big world out there, Nick.
I know you’ve grown cynical. I know your father robbed you of so much. But I have a surprise for you. I’ve taken back from him. I couldn’t always protect you in life, but in death, I wanted to make sure that you got the head start you deserve.
The instructions are all in the trunk. Slow down, yield, but don’t stop too often until you get to California. Don’t take any credit cards, don’t use your cell phone. All that can be traced. And if he finds out what I’ve done, if he finds you before you get to where you’re going, then he’ll try to fight you for it, and he could win, since you’re not eighteen yet. Don’t let that happen.
I love you, Nicky.
Inside the suitcase was more cash than Simon had ever seen in his life. There were bills of all denominations and the second note indicated it was in the ballpark of a couple hundred thousand. She didn’t say how she got the cash, but she said the name on the bank account in California matched the name on Nick’s fake ID. Simon was stunned.
Simon watched as Nick shut the trunk and locked it. For the first time, he noticed the cut on Nick’s arm. The blood. That’s where it came from. He smiled to himself, recalling the crazy thoughts that had run through his mind.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Simon asked.
Nick shrugged. “I don’t know, thought maybe you’d slip up.” He looked at Simon, serious, stern. “My dad can’t find me, man.” Nick lifted a smoke from Simon’s pocket. “He’d kill me. Dead.”
Simon leaned in to light Nick’s cigarette. “So what do we do now?”
Nick glanced at the skyline behind him. Mountains that appeared to have been stacked, slab by slab and then painted every color of the rainbow. “Guess we bury the box. Then hitch a ride to the coast.”
Nick leaned against the car, inhaled the wintergreen taste of the cigarette. Simon joined him. “Why the car, Nick?”
The larger boy shrugged. The fight just before he had left was ugly. His dad was careful not to leave bruises on his face anymore, but Nick took a few to the gut, the back, the shoulders, before he swung the tire iron, clipping his father in the face and then landing it in the hood of the old man’s Mercedes.
Nick froze then. He couldn’t believe the sight of it. A tiny cut just above his father’s eye, but the blood flowed. Nick hopped in Rosie, bolted down the driveway, scared, and the last thing his father said to him was “I own that car. I own you, son!”
“Never really was mine,” Nick said to Simon, flicking his cigarette into the dust.
Copyright © 2009 by Barbra Annino