Fiction  April 2013 | issue 448

Say

by Joe Wilkins

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JOE WILKINS is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, and two collections of poetry. He lives with his family in Forest City, Iowa, and though he doesn’t travel as often as he used to, he often daydreams about driving across Nebraska while listening to Gram Parsons’s Grievous Angel.

LET’S SAY WE HAVE a man and a woman.

Let’s say they’re riding in some old Chevy pickup, windows down, prairie earth wheeling past. Let’s call it Nebraska. No harm to say some old Chevy. No harm to say Nebraska.

Though, to be honest, judging by the cheatgrass spiking the ditches, those four cow skulls nailed down a fence post’s crooked length, and the great bluescape of sky, it might be Wyo­ming, or Montana, or a Dakota — any of those dun-colored, too-wide-open, go-crazy-you’re-so-lonesome places in the middle of America.

But we’ll say Nebraska. We’ll say the Chevy’s a faded green and has a beat-up topper on the back. We’ll say the plates are nearly mudded over, the engine cranked up to a high whine. We’ll say some things fell through back home, and they’ve heard there’s work in Fort Collins. We’ll say they’ve been on the road a long few days. We’ll say that in the cramped cab of the Chevy they’re close enough to touch, but they’re not touching.

He drapes one hand over the wheel, reaches the other out to her, palm up, like he’s trying to make a point, like he’s trying to come to the point — but she’s not listening. We don’t even have to say that. You can see it in the way her gaze has gone as flat and vacant as these plains. See the sunburnt angle of her jaw? That quick tremble of her lip? For her sake let’s say that, finally, he shuts up.

He smokes cigarette after cigarette, each one burning down faster than the last, and as the miles streak by, she has retreated to some dark place behind her eyes. It’s probably fair to say they’ve had it hard. Not only the four hundred flat, aching miles they’ve come since sunup in Sugar City, but his drunk father, her drunk father, the job he walked out on and wishes he had back, the two semesters she tried at state college and will pay for until she’s thirty-seven, that thing he did so long ago in the night, that man who grabbed her wrist, the friend who loved him and whom he treated cruelly, the sister she let make her own mistakes. Yes, it must be said, like you or me or anyone — like everyone — they’ve had it hard. You can see it in the sharp wing his elbow makes, the way she shuts her eyes for miles and leans her head against the shuddering window glass. And, just to top it off, let’s say the cassette deck is broken. So for hours it’s been either silence or silence. Nebraska and silence. Yes, it’s been a hard goddamn day.

But let’s say — and it could happen, I promise you — she opens her mouth and begins to sing: Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?

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