STATE HIGHWAY 1
by Kevin Lipe
Julia felt pretty sure she was going to kill herself, even if she didn't know the exact when, where, or how. That was the dark gnawing voice at the back of her head for as long as she could remember. Especially after Andrew died. Andrew died because an Iraqi insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade blew him up. The Iraqi didn't care much that Andrew had two sisters who loved him. Julia didn't care much that the insurgent’s brothers burned to death in their Toyota pickup truck after an unmanned drone fired missiles at them. Even if she’d known, it wouldn't have helped. It wouldn't have brought Andrew back, but then she wasn't sure she’d want him back either way. What difference would it make now?
Issue #65 soundtrack: Adios Ghost "Wistful"
She decided this while she was driving back up to Memphis from her grandparents’ house in Greenville, Mississippi, weaving her way up State Highway 1, the levee always out the driver’s side window looming green beyond the cypress trees and the great lines of old oaks making windbreaks in the unending cotton fields, snow-white bolls spread across the flatland on either side of the cracking brown asphalt. Ever since U.S. 61 was widened to four lanes, it was faster, but Highway 1 was deserted and Julia could speed. Highway 1 runs through the towns most people would like to forget. It was mid-afternoon, and hot out. The sun was just starting to tilt, shadows stretching across the roadway. In Rosedale she stopped at a gas station at the stoplight—there was only the one—and bought a Gatorade and a pack of Marlboro Lights. She got back out to her car and paused before she sat down, looking around at the boarded-up windows and falling-down old brick buildings lining the main drag. When she was a little girl, face pressed against the windows of her father’s Chevy Lumina, where her brother threatened to hit her if she didn't give back his Game Boy, Rosedale looked like an exciting place, another town she didn't live in just like Greenville. She imagined it had a Catholic Church full of Sicilians and a park with a baseball diamond, a cemetery with other peoples’ great-great-grandparents, and a big gleaming post office. She didn't know it was dying even then, shrinking, blowing away like stray cotton across Highway 1, but it was. It was, and yet here she was, lighting up a cigarette as she pulled back out onto the cracked and shifted concrete.
Once she hit the north side of Rosedale, the trees opened back up and the road laid out for miles ahead, barely a curve, the world flat all the way north to Tunica. Julia floored it, trying not to think about her brother, about fire and death. She knew her Nissan handled the curves at speed, and figured she’d be able to get out of whatever trouble some Sheriff’s Deputy tried to get her in. Memphis lay northward, up on the bluffs, away from the bottomland.
Then she saw it, up ahead glinting in the September sun, a lighthouse across a sea of cotton and dirt. Off in the ditch on the right side of the road, a big land yacht of a 1977 Chrysler Cordoba billowed black smoke out from under the hood, behind it up on the road a trail of broken metal parts. The driver’s door was open and nobody was inside. As Julia passed the car, flames peeked out of the grille and flicked around the sides of the mile-long hood, black burn marks appearing on the dirt-brown factory finish. The car’s vinyl roof was in tatters, the windows hazy like wax paper. Julia pulled off the road, figuring she should at least make sure the driver wasn't hurt. Once she was out of her car she noticed a trail of bent-down cotton going away from the car toward a line of trees a hundred yards to the east, the sun filling in the trail with shadows, a black gash across the fluff. This person is running away from here, she thought to herself. This person does not want me to come after them. She walked back to her Nissan and took off back toward Memphis, watching the column of black smoke furl into the pale blue sky in her mirror. She never told anybody about the Chrysler, burning there in the ditch. She didn't know what it would help.
She was lying on her side, one hand grasping his to her breast, and he was fucking her from behind, her eyes clinched shut, her mouth not quite closed. Her auburn hair fell across the side of her face, and its ends strayed into her mouth. She felt it on her tongue, felt it shift with her gasps for air. She came right after he did, a slow building wave, everything tense and relaxed at once. His whole body went limp behind her, tension being let out of a cable, his breathing heavy and regular, neither of them speaking. She closed her eyes and breathed in deep through her nose, breathing out and out until her lungs started to burn, and she thought maybe this was what it was like to drown. She wasn't going to tell any of it to Tyler here anyway, not that he would try and stop her. He’d tell her not to be so dramatic and then sigh and run his fingers through his hair. He turned on the lamp and propped himself up on the headboard so he could look at her while she lay on her stomach, one arm over her face and the back of her other hand pressed against her hip, skin slick with sweat.
“You’re something, Jules,” he said.
“I do what I can,” she mumbled into her arm. She knew he was going to want to go again, but she just wanted him to go home, wanted him to take his Wallabees and his iPod touch and disappear. She rolled over onto her back and locked her fingers together across her belly, one knee up and the other straight. The ceiling was rippled like the underside of rain clouds, and God knows how much lead paint was still up there. “I think my face went numb,” she said.
“Yeah, wouldn't be the first time,” said Tyler. On the dresser across the room, Julia’s phone vibrated, but neither of them took much notice. He sat there staring at her for a good ten minutes, the curve of her breasts in the soft lamplight, the mole perched right on the end of her rib cage, or maybe it was a freckle, he didn't know. Couldn’t remember kissing it, though he was sure he had. Whatever.
Thirty-seven minutes later he was gone, and she stood naked in the dark by her dresser looking at her phone, the message from her little sister, Carson, asking whether she’d made it back from Greenville in one piece. “I’ll reply to this later,” she said to the dresser. Carson was having dinner at their parents’ house out in the suburbs anyways. Her father was made a deacon in the spring despite his stint in inpatient counseling after Andrew’s death and despite his heathen temptress middle daughter. Her parents were having one of the prospective College and Young Adult ministers over for dinner, and of course Carson had to be there so he could introduce the candidate to his family. What was left of it.
She lay back on the bed staring at the ceiling, lit by the full moon coming in through the blinds, wondering whether it would really be so bad to bleed out in a full bathtub, whether it would really hurt, or whether someone, Carson probably, would figure it out and fish her from the murky red water just in time, and then she’d have to deal with being forced to talk to someone about it – which ultimately would be worse than being dead. She scratched at the mole right there on her ribs, and figured she should crawl under the covers and try to sleep another night.
The next weekend her grandfather took a turn for the worse and she was headed back down to Greenville, flying back down Highway 1. Between Rosedale and Benoit she started feeling it again, that murmur in the back of her mind, telling her maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to go this way. Maybe it’d be better if they blamed it on texting and driving, or on the failure of some esoteric Nissan suspension part. Maybe it’d be better if there were no note, no proof that any of it had been on purpose. There’d just be a burning car on the side of the road, because accidents happen. People die on the highway every day, she told herself.
Pretty soon it was all the could think about, rocketing around the curves in the highway with her brown eyes glazed over, her face blank, not even focusing her eyes on what was out ahead of her. In one curve she didn’t cut the wheel sharp enough and put the right-front tire in the gravel, showering little rocks out across the ditch into the field, crunching under the car as she jerked the wheel back left and centered in her lane. Maybe if I wait until a big truck comes the other way. She turned the radio off and listened to the thrum of the tires on the road, the solid thump as she passed over bridges. Her chest was getting tighter, every breath a struggle against her ribs. She wondered whether the paramedics would come from Beulah or Rosedale or Greenville. Whether other people would be hurt. The road made a sweeping left with trees on both sides, and then on her right—the side closer to the river—there was a big pond lined with cypress trees, deep green needles shading the gravel shoulder. A truck was coming the other way, an old primer-grey Ford with a rusted steel box-beam brush guard on the grill. I guess this is it, she thought. I guess this’ll do. She waited until the Ford was about a hundred feet in front of her and cut the wheel to the left—she thought about what she was doing. She closed her eyes and gripped the wheel so tightly her fingers ached. The only sound was her own blood pumping and the driver of the Ford laying into the horn. She stopped trying to turn the wheel. Tires squealed on the blistering Mississippi asphalt; she didn't know whose. Either she was going to die, or she was going to screech to a halt after the Ford passed.
What really happened is, eyes closed, she somehow turned all the way across the front of the Ford so that it drilled the left-rear corner of the car. She felt the thump, felt the car start to spin back the other way, seatbelt taut across her chest and throat, and her car went off the far side of the road and rolled, landing on its roof in a field, perpendicular to the rows of cotton. She heard the wide-open burble of the mufflerless Ford speeding away, and only after a few seconds of staring at the metal Nissan emblem in the center of the steering wheel did she realize she was hanging upside-down from her seatbelt. She closed her eyes again, mind like water, mind like Zen.
Several minutes later she was sitting and smoking on the little embankment overlooking the bottom of her car, cotton and trees spread out in every direction but westward, where the levee loomed two hundred yards beyond the highway. The dirt felt cool on the bottoms of her bare feet, her rolled-up jeans tight on her calves. A hot breeze blew her hair across her face. Somewhere out in the field, her cell phone was lying on the ground, but she didn't much care to look for it.
A rusted beige Ford Fairmont stopped and a man got out wearing a yellow baseball cap that said “J&H Diesel” in red block letters, a denim work shirt and dirty, worn jeans, a Camel burning between the fingers of his right hand. The driver’s door window of the Fairmont was held up with black duct tape, and from where she was sitting on the embankment Julia saw something dripping from underneath the engine. The air smelled like exhaust, cigarettes, and burnt plastic. Below her, her overturned car popped and creaked like the radiators in her house in the dead of winter.
“Holy shit,” the man in the hat said, looking down at the car. “I guess if you’re out here you must not be hurt or nothin’?” The Fairmont’s motor had a steady tick, like a Timex camping watch. “Sheeit.”
“I think I’m okay,” Julia said. She didn't turn away from her car, still staring at its underbelly, the X stamped into the bottom of the fuel tank. “I think… I’m okay.” She wasn't about to tell this stranger what was happening. She heard Molly Hatchet playing from inside the car, probably on cassette.
“You call for help already?” asked the man.
“No,” she said. “My phone is out… there somewhere,” she said, gesturing at the cotton. “I haven’t even looked for it yet.”
“Shit. Well I’m all outta minutes on mine.” The man took a drag from his Camel. “The fuck happened, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” she said, straightening her back when she spoke. “I don’t really remember.” The pause before the man spoke again was how she knew he knew she was lying.
“Well, shit. If you want I can give you a ride up to our place up the road and you can use the phone there.” The man looked out at the car and wiped his nose with his cigarette hand. “Tell you one thing, you ain't drivin’ that nowhere.”
The “place up the road” was a double-wide next to a straight row of elm trees and a gravel road about a hundred yards east of the highway. The man, who introduced himself as Jerry, worked for the company that farmed the huge tract of land, keeping the tractors and such running. He spoke in short sentences, sometimes dropping the subjects, always taking a drag off his Camel between thoughts, and when that one burned all the way to the filter he lit another. He held the pack out for Julia, offering her one. She usually smoked Lights, but the heaviness of the smoke sitting in her lungs brought her focus, pushed out the tightness in her chest. She could breathe again.
“Damnedest thing,” Jerry said. “My old lady wrecked her Chrysler right out at that curve just last weekend.”
“Her big fuckin’ Chrysler just ran clean off the road,” he said. “That’s what she said, anyways.” This isn't happening, Julia thought. “I think she just wasn't payin’ enough attention, if you ask me. That woman never calms the fuck down.” Jerry looked over at her as he stopped the car next to the trailer. She was trailing her cigarette out the window, focused somewhere past the horizon, as though the burning Cordoba were just beyond. “Sorry, ma’am, I don’t mean to cuss so much. I didn't catch your name?”
“Julia. Well,” he said, “it’s a hell of a way to meet somebody. But this is the place.”
Inside the TV played some old People’s Court rerun, and the whole place smelled like formaldehyde, old cigarettes, and unwashed dog. The blinds were barely open, blocking out the hot summer sun, bright light leaking from around dirty cornflower blue curtains. Chew toys in various stages of decomposition were scattered around the little living area. Jerry showed her the phone on the wall in the little kitchen area, and the first person she called was Tyler.
“Mhmm. Wait, Julia? What number are you calling from?”
“Don’t worry about it. Can you pick me up somewhere?”
“Uhh…” There was silence for a few seconds, and she heard people laughing in the background. “I don’t know. I’m pretty busy. How soon do I need to be there?”
“Nevermind,” she said. “Just… nevermind.” She rolled her eyes and hung up.
“Where you tryin’ to get a ride to?” asked Jerry from the living room, already sitting in his chair drinking a can of Busch. He was still wearing his sunglasses.
“Greenville. I was coming down from Memphis.”
“What about the car?”
“Fuck the car,” she said. The next person she called was Carson. Julia told her what happened—the wreck, anyway—and Carson, who was out to dinner with their parents after Sunday morning worship, told her she was headed down immediately. Julia hoped she’d remember how to cut over to Highway 1 right north of Clarksdale, hoped she could do it without accidentally ending up in Helena, Arkansas. Wouldn't be the first time.
Julia couldn't do much but wait with Jerry and smoke and watch People’s Court, and so that’s what she did. He brought her a beer without asking whether she wanted one, which he opened for her before he sat it on an International Harvester coaster on the table beside her. Her shoulder was starting to hurt from being upside down in the car, a catch in it when she tried to raise her arm. With any luck, that too would pass. The window-unit air conditioner buzzed and struggled against the August heat, air so humid she felt it on her skin, even indoors.
“Can I ask you something kinda… personal?” Jerry said. Please, dear God, don’t let him ask about how I wrecked the car.
“Sure,” she said.
“I noticed you got somebody’s dog tags on your key chain, there.” He took a sip from his Coors. “That ain't yours, is it?” She looked down and saw the stamped metal there with her house keys and her Petco Pals membership card, just now starting to oxidize after all these months. Julia hadn't looked at them, really looked at them, in longer than she could remember.
“No, not mine,” she said. She paused, her heartbeat in her throat. Her shoulder ached. “My brother’s. He died in Iraq. Basra.” She unfocused her eyes, the little silver tag going blurry as Jerry looked down at the carpet and sniffled, like maybe he shouldn't have asked.
“Damn,” he finally said. “Well, I know you loved him. I can tell that by the way you’re sittin’ there looking at that key chain.”
“I did,” she said. “I miss him.”
Jerry didn't say anything else. They just sat there, cigarettes trailing blue smoke up to the ceiling, Julia’s fingers aching from the cold of the beer can he had to have been storing in the freezer. After a while, he turned to face her, and sat his can on the Wal-Mart chipboard end table.
“I don’t think Debra’s Chrysler really run off the road,” he said, his voice gravelly in its hushed tone. “I think she wanted out of here—away from me.” He looked down at the end of his cigarette, and flicked a big chunk of ash into the ashtray next to his beer. “That crazy-ass daughter of hers was all that was keepin’ her here to begin with. Once that girl took off, she was lookin’ for a way out.” Jerry looked up at the TV, and then muted it with the remote. “I reckon she found it.” The phone rang in the kitchen, and Jerry got up to answer it. Julia closed her eyes, and imagined she was lying on her back in a cotton field, away from a burning car, hair in her eyes, looking straight up into the pale blue summer sky, the heat of the sun on her face. Out of here, away. The keys dropped out of her hand and clattered to the floor, and she opened her eyes. A stabbing pain shot through her shoulder. She smelled the same strange plastic scent from inside the car, upside down in the Mississippi dirt.
“That was your sister,” Jerry said. “She said she’s on her way.”
Kevin Lipe is a Memphis-based writer, musician, and basketball nerd. He covers the Memphis Grizzlies for SB Nation, and appears on the Pretty Broken podcast with Greg Turner. This is his first published piece of short fiction.
Erika Rier is a fine artist whose work is mostly ink with splashes of gouache color. Erika currently lives in Washington but has also lived in Maine, Vermont, Brooklyn, NY, and Arizona. To view more of her work, visit erikarier.com.
Adios Ghost is a Brooklyn-based project that started in Bed-Stuy as the home recording project of Ben Sigerson, but quickly expanded in scope with the addition of Simon Davenport, Jimmy Stull and A. Loew. At the same time, the band itself moved around a lot, from cramped, by-the-hour rehearsal spaces in Midtown, to a dingy Clinton Hill garage, to a warehouse basement in Dumbo. There in their basement space, they laid down their debut EP, which came out in October 2012 and was later re-released on 12” vinyl. For more, visit Adios Ghost on Bandcamp and Facebook, or catch them in NYC at The Delancey on April 3rd.