Mykaela settled into a nubby sofa in the hotel lobby promptly at 8:00, as they’d agreed the night before. Atsushi was nowhere to be seen. Just outside the front door, she finally found him smoking a cigarette and talking to a burly pony-tailed man. Atsushi was diminutive compared to the man, whose voice was raspy and deep. Mykaela didn’t know if she should interrupt the conversation, so she stood aside, hoping Atsushi would spot her. Finally, as he seemed oblivious, she moseyed over to them. The man was saying, “I don’t test positive, so I don’t know where she done got it. She said she must’ve had it when we got married two years ago, so how come I ain’t got it? She’s cheatin’ on me, I know. I just don’t know who the dirty bastard is.”
“Sometimes life is confusion,” said Atsushi, puffing on his cigarette. He seemed quite natural at smoking. Mykaela wondered why she didn’t know this about him.
She tugged at Atsushi’s elbow and whispered, “Sorry to interrupt, but we ought to get going.’
The burly man turned to her, “Would you cheat on your husband?”
“That’s quite an inappropriate question!”
He asked Atsushi, “Would you cheat on her?”
“My wife is in Japan,” Atsushi said. “This is my friend.”
“Friends, huh?” The man sneered and glared at Mykaela. “Where’s your husband, then?”
“We better get going, Atsushi,” she said, and headed abruptly back into the lobby. The man muttered something she chose not to hear.
After they loaded their suitcases, along with Mykaela’s numerous bags full of sketchpads, colored pencils and fabrics, into the car, they stopped at the McDonald’s drive-through, where Mykaela ordered a cheese and egg biscuit and Atsushi a maple and fruit oatmeal. Atsushi told her they had been discussing the man’s wife, who was in the hospital with pneumonia after doctors discovered she had AIDS.
Mykaela frowned. “That’s a sticky problem. Nonetheless, that was so damn rude of him to ask a question like that. You don’t have to answer him you know.”
“I want to understand him,” he said. “Everyone is human.”
“You have more faith in mankind than I do.” She could smell the smoke on his breath and in his hair and clothes. Yesterday, he had smelled pleasantly of soap and caramel coffee. “I didn’t know you smoked.”
“Just while talking,” he said. “Don’t worry, I don’t smoke in your car.”
Mykaela pulled the Jeep onto I-70 and, as they settled into the drive, they passed black cows grazing on flat green pastures and later, bristly brown fields with silos and barns. This was farm country, home to corn, soybeans, wheat, and cattle.
Mykaela pointed out a sign for the Wilbur Wright Birthplace & Museum. “Wilbur Wright was one of the two brothers who built the world’s first successful airplane. The other one was Orville. You know of them?”
“I think so, but maybe I’m not familiar with the names.”
“I’ve been to Kill Devil Hills in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where they made their first controlled flight. You can go hang-gliding from the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge. I’ve never done it, but I always wanted to.”
“I don’t like heights,” said Atsushi. He was silent for a bit. “It might be nice to be famous.”
“I would be a doctor who discovers the cure for cancer instead of selling the technology for cure, but a doctor who sings and plays guitar too. Like William Carlos Williams, the poet doctor. What for you?”
“I’d love my art quilts to mimick nature, like Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings but with fabric. I want people to be awestruck when they see my work, to be inspired to honor the environment. Many of our Native American tribes believe nature and the land are sacred. I wish everyone believed that.”
“I could be a singing doctor and you could be a quilting environment activist,” said Atsushi.
Mykaela smiled. Actually, she didn’t really have much interest in being famous, although of course she’d love people to connect with her art at a heartfelt level. Mainly, she would like to get her husband to laugh again, and her daughter Lena to find the right medication and maybe a boyfriend who could give her some stability. She’d love it if Viktoria could shake her stalking ex-boyfriend Will, and if her mother would show even the slightest interest in Mykaela and her family. She wished her father weren’t ill. She would love to have a few close friends who could truly understand her.
A sign said, WELCOME TO KNIGHTSTOWN: HOME OF THE HOOSIERS. “Hoosiers are people who are born or live in Indiana. A lot of the sports teams are also Hoosiers,” Mykaela said.
“Hoosiers,” repeated Atsushi. “A strange name.”
“I don’t know if this is true, but I heard the name came from the frontier days. When people approached a house, they were afraid of being shot, so they’d call out to the homeowner. The owner would reply, ‘Who’s here?’ and it eventually slurred into ‘Who’sh ‘ere?’ I don’t know if it’s true though.”
“Who’sh ‘ere, Who’sh ‘ere,” Atsushi said several times, trying it on for size.
Huge trucks barreled past them on the highway. Whenever trucks came up too close behind her on the highway, she thought of the 1971 movie Duel, with Dennis Weaver. Although she was only two years old when the movie was made, she had seen it much later with Emre on TV. She had bitten her fingernails to bloody nubs while Weaver, driving his Plymouth Valiant over deserted California canyon roads, was harassed by the mostly invisible driver of a decrepit Peterbilt tanker truck.
“This road is a caravan of trucks,” said Atsushi.
“It’s one of the main east-west roads in America, so yes, lots of trucks.”
The I-70 corridor certainly catered to trucks. Signs spoke to careless drivers: BIG TRUCK ACCIDENT? CALL THE HAMMER. Eighteen-wheelers hunkered down in sprawling parking lots around rest areas. INDY TRUCK WASH promised clean big rigs. Double Fed-Ex trucks rumbled past them. Tractor-trailers squatted on the shoulders of exit ramps. Mykaela had never seen this in Virginia.
Gleaming silver grain silos dotted the landscape. The Mountain Goats sang, “The gray sky was vast and real cryptic above me / I wanted you / To love me like you used to do.”
When Mykaela heard words like these, she felt full of gloom. She’d like to see the future, to see if the rest of her life would be spent in utter loneliness with Emre, or if she could entice him, somehow, out of his debilitating depression. If only he would agree to psychotherapy or anti-depressants or hospitalization, but so far he’d refused. He didn’t want his mind messed up by drugs or shock therapy or whatever “experimental methods” doctors used on emotionally disturbed patients. She wondered if there were other solutions not evident to her. She tried to open her mind to the universe for possibilities, but no answers ever appeared to her. She didn’t believe in prayer that asked for specific things, like new cars or houses or healing for people she loved. She thought it was greedy to ask for specific outcomes, so she asked only for wisdom and strength to get through every day.
A billboard reared up ahead of them: HIGHSMITH GUNS – PISTOL RANGE – TOP GUNS INDOOR RANGE.
“Why do American people love guns?” Atsushi asked.
“Many of our immigrant ancestors escaped from oppressive governments. Now, generations later, the children of these immigrants still cling to the belief that citizens have a right to bear arms, to protect themselves from government overreach. But isn’t it likely that if the government became oppressive, even a man with a gun would be powerless against it? Anyway, it seems any crazy person can get a gun these days, and look what’s happening with the school shootings, church shootings, people getting knocked off at concerts. There’s no end to the insanity.”
“What kind of person kills innocent children?” Atsushi said. “I want justice for Jiro. I want his killer found. I have questions to ask him.”
“Of course we’ll go to the police in Grand Junction and try to find out what we can.”
They drove silently for a while, passing a billboard that read: After You Die You WILL Meet God.
“I wonder if Jiro met God,” Atsushi said, “I don’t have God. We are Buddhists and Jiro loved nature.”
“Why did Jiro go to Colorado Mesa University? Why didn’t he stay closer to home?”
Atsushi told her that Jiro loved plants and was pursuing a degree in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Ecology. He was attracted to CMU because of a three-week field course in Ecuador the university offered. He was excited about visiting the remote tropical habitats in South America, such as the lowland rainforest, the cloud forest, and the páramo, a high, treeless plateau. He was eager to learn about the natural histories of the organisms found in each area. He was especially enamored of grasses found at the high altitudes, especially tussock-grasses and bunch-grasses.
“Also, his girlfriend was going there to study winemaking, but at the last minute she broke up with him and decided to stay in Tokyo.”
“So, the girlfriend who deserted him could almost take the blame for his death,” said Mykaela.
“No, I don’t think it’s that way. I don’t want to blame and be angry. Jiro always loved tropic plants, always reading about them in books. He built a small greenhouse in our backyard and grew plants and grasses.”
“Did he ever get to Ecuador?”
“No, he was to go last fall.” He stared out the window as they drove in silence past Indianapolis, Monrovia, Terre Haute.
The Grateful Dead sang, “Friend of the Devil,” and Mykaela thought about Jiro’s killer, who was obviously a friend of the devil — an evil person who still had his freedom and his life while he’d stolen Jiro’s.
The land flattened out, but trees and bushes still clustered between fields, and the wind shimmied the car as it moved down the highway. The smells of hay and dust and grass permeated the car. Mykaela felt unease needling her skin, quickening her heartbeat.
They crossed Vermillion Creek. A quarry gaped under a hazy blue sky smudged with white clouds. Chuck Berry sang “No particular place to go… Riding along in my automobile,” and Mykaela felt that she and Atsushi were speeding along in this cocoon of an automobile into uncertain futures, wrapped in separate blankets of grief.
They crossed Big Walnut Creek and Honey Creek. Tom Cochrane sang, “Life is a highway.” Mykaela agreed; life was a highway with a lot of tacky road signs: billboards advertising adult stores, shooting ranges, liquor stores, fireworks, and detours to nostalgia, all diverting a person from the true road to serenity.
They crossed into Illinois, the only blue state in a sea of red, and the first one since they’d left Virginia. Mykaela breathed a sigh of relief. Here were people she understood, people who weren’t nasty and hateful and all puffed up with white privilege.
Atsushi looked up the symbols: the flower was a violet, the bird a Northern cardinal, and the insect a Monarch butterfly.
“Tell me some other interesting things about it,” said Mykaela.
“There are two slogans: ‘Mile After Magnificent Mile’ and ‘Right Here. Right Now.’ And there’s a prairie grass: Big bluestem. I wonder if Jiro would have known it. I like to think he did.”
“Me too,” said Mykaela, and this time she reached over and touched his shoulder.
They sped by Whippoorwill Antiques and Effingham, and Mykaela couldn’t help but think driving on this highway was “effing monotonous.” Huge expanses of farmland opened up, bordered by sparse forests. The hills became more gradual, long straight slopes. The jeep slogged up and coasted down, as if on an endless slow-motion treadmill.
Another sign, glaring at them from the roadside: Where will you spend eternity? Jesus Christ has the answer.
Did he? she wondered. Mykaela had been brought up Catholic but now attended a Unitarian Church. They believed in the moral authority but not necessarily the divinity of Jesus. She believed herself to be moral but fallible, and she didn’t care for rigid dogma or beliefs that everyone must embrace only one religion to gain access to paradise. Hell, she didn’t even believe in paradise.
A series of signs boasted of THE WORLD’S LARGEST ROCKING CHAIR, THE WORLD’S LARGEST WIND CHIME, THE WORLD’S LARGEST MAILBOX. Mykaela looked all around near the exit to see if she could spot these “world’s largest” items, but she didn’t see anything on the flat horizon. They can’t be that large, she thought. She considered pulling off to look for them, but at the last minute sped by the exit. Too much distance to cover.
They passed Lost Creek Orchard, offering up apples, pears and peaches. Montrose, Teutopolis, giant drills, and hauling equipment with the largest tires she’d ever seen. Signs placed blame: MATTRESS STORES ARE GREEDY – LEARN THE TRUTH. Names blurred outside the windows: Pilot, Little Wabash River, St. Elmo. Cows clustered around dainty ponds on farms. BLUE SPRINGS CAFÉ promised foot-hi pies. Signs at construction zones threatened: “Hit a Worker – $10,000 fine – 14 years in jail.”
They passed two workers in the median strip trying to remove a deer carcass. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and Mykaela focused on the road, stomach turning. She knew she was lucky in many ways not to suffer like so many people in the world did, under horrible poverty, violence, endless war, starvation, slavery, mind-deadening jobs. She was lucky, so why did she often feel overwhelmed by her problems?
Mykaela thought how it was true that some cities and places have nothing to recommend them. The views from the road in Illinois were a disappointment. Maybe she’d find something interesting if she got off the interstate, but they didn’t have time for that. They needed to keep moving along.
She had to face it, as much as she appreciated Illinois for voting against Trump, it was a state with unimaginative place names, often names of people: Collinsville, Edwardsville, Maryville.
Can’t they do any better? Mykaela thought.
The second half of this chapter will post on Wednesday, July 18. This will be the last chapter I’ll post on this blog. I’ll continue to work on the novel privately, in hopes of revising multiple times and eventually publishing (or self-publishing)!
For the first chapter of my road trip novel you can see the following two posts:
“PROSE” INVITATION: I invite you to write a 2,000-word post on your own blog about a recently visited particular destination (not journeys in general). Concentrate on any intention you set for your prose. In this case, my intentions for my Four Corners trip included the following:
- “Bring a character to…” Invent characters and take them along on the journey, keeping a journal from the main character’s point of view. After the trip, write a novel or novella of the trip putting those characters into the tale (in the vein of Jim Harrison’s The English Major, and inspired by a creative writing assignment to keep a journal for a fictional character).
- Pick random titles from poems or short stories as titles for each chapter and let those titles inform the tale.
It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or non-fiction for this invitation. You can either set your own writing intentions, or use one of the prompts I’ve listed on this page: writing prompts: prose & poetry. (This page is a work in process.) You can also include photos, of course.
Include the link in the comments below by Monday, July 23 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this invitation on Tuesday, July 24, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!
the ~ wander.essence ~ community
I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community. I promise, you’ll be inspired!
- Jo, of Restless Jo, wrote beautifully of her time with her friend Meg in Warsaw and time spent relaxing with her Polish family in the countryside.
- Mari, of Travels with My Camera, wrote a post about a visit to Daintree National Park – the Aborigine’s Dreamtime that Never Wakes – in Australia.
Thanks to all of you who wrote prosaic posts following intentions you set for yourself. 🙂