Chapter by chapter, I’ll be presenting my novella here at House of Water. The book is called The Indifference of Stars and it’s available as an eBook through Lulu for iPad, Nook, and as an eDoc.
This is part 5 0f 5.
The Indifference of Stars
by Eric M. Martin
Broken piano chords pulsed through the room and the moved in and out of the curls of cigar, cigarette and candle smoke, at first directionless, but with a gathering snatch of time the chords began also to gather and to create a direction for themselves. East, West, North, South, Up, and Down couldn’t be applied, couldn’t describe the direction, but the chords, which at first were less than musical, began to describe for themselves a motion of subtle feeling. A learned feeling that came from time on the street, above the tiny bodega where the jazz defined everything of the world, one and two notes at a time.
A lesson taken at once, whole, and never forgotten. Forgetting was impossible. Outside now the rain washed down and down and the city loosed itself from the docks of America, loosed itself and shuttled toward the moon as if destiny were in the moment and after this there would be no destiny by only the new, recreating itself by choice, one and two notes at a time, and the broken piano chords carried the city further in their own direction.
There was almost no one on the road after getting onto the outside of the valley, heading down again from Lake Tahoe’s altitude. Leaving, Hannah got onto route 50, which she hadn’t taken on way in. The trees along the road were tall, crooked, and completely alive. The fires hadn’t touched this area, but Hannah found herself thinking of the Krishna cycle of creation and destruction; the one stemming from the other:
One being necessary for the other. One presupposing the other. Both working as a single event. Describing the shape of a circle. Which came first in a chain that had no beginning…
“It’s a chain of accident, honey. A chain of accidents that we can’t control. It took me a long time to learn that all you can do as a person is try to enjoy what you have. Make decisions in the moment, for the moment,” her father had said, when she was a teenager.
The words stuck with her, though their meaning was veiled, as a cipher, as someone else’s private language. Knowing now about the child that was lost and how it affected them, the words came into a new light.
His speech had been in response a question from Hannah about why they moved to Big Sur.
She had asked him also where his family was. What had happened to everyone.
And that short speech had been his response.
Several times he had told her about his parents and his older brother. Parents dead. Smoked too much. Lived simple lives on the farm. Raised their children best as they knew.
His voice held no superfluous reverence, but communicated a deep respect and distance.
Sometimes she wondered about him as a young boy; her father dressed as she imagined in overall-suspenders, barefoot in the dirt. Did he have toys? Did he push around a wooden tractor and use it to rake the dust in imaginary farm work, raising a wheat crop out of the nothing under his hand, the dust getting in his hair and teeth?
Or did he take to the open spaces down south on foot with a stick and an apple and walk a mile farther than he thought he should, challenging himself to find the strength to make it back home before collapsing in childish dramatics on his own doorstep, having eaten only half of the apple and tossed the rest aside in favor of his predicted play at tragedy?
And how would his mother speak to him when he returned, if it ever happened that way, pretending exhaustion, late at his afternoon chores, face streaked with sweat marks that ran through the accumulated dust that was his actor’s mask?
She would put a hand on his head and smile the enduring smile of a mother’s love for the child that would always be the weaker, but the favorite, and tell him that his father would tan his hide if he didn’t get the water brought in and get the mail taken to the post office before the patriarch got back from town.
Or she would greet him in silence, he laying on the step in the spasms of his exhaustion, and watch him in his play and think back to the difficulties of his infancy and his sickness and the hardening of her heart to the possibility of her child’s death and wonder at herself in the moment and at her boy and wonder if the sweat streaks had been matched by tears and if the sadness that always threatened the fragile world had invited him to a new discovery in his joyless errands with his stick on the fields.
Hannah knew that she was placing the situation too far in the past and that her grandparents would have lived on the edge of town. The dusty overalls were of an age beyond and before her father. Yet, the images stuck and constituted her relationship with her father’s parents. They had died before she was born, having seen their eldest son die in an accident.
This story was told with the same tone of awe and deference to the memory of the dead each time she heard it, which was not often.
Her father seemed to always be telling the story of his brother’s death to himself, as if when the event actually occurred he had been shy of the maturity to process its significance. So the story was always told in an effort to receive its truth, as a boy, as he was, so that he might better be placed in time and achieve a permanent respite from this death story.
His voice would be quiet but firm. He would not look at anyone, but at a lamp on the wall or a painting or a doorway, his blue eyes darkening.
“My brother was twenty-one. I was in high school, in the early years of it, and he was in the army reserve. He wasn’t going to get drafted. His number was too far off. So he was safe from the war. So was I. I was too young.
“One weekend a month, he would go to training. A few other young guys from out town were in the reserves, so they drove together.
“They had to drive two hours from training to town and they were on their way back home on Sunday night. Our phone rang after dark. It had been dark for hours. And they said there had been an accident.
“The driver of the car that my brother was in had fallen asleep. My brother was asleep too, in the back seat. The two other guys lived. The driver and the one in the passenger seat. But my brother died.
“When the driver had swerved into the other lane and another car came and both cars ran off the road. Everyone lived but my brother.
“They told us on the phone that he was dead, but that was about all. We had to go get him. At the hospital.”
The fact would strike Hannah then that her father’s family was dead. He was the only one. But it wasn’t true. His father had brothers and they had kids.
Hannah’s father was raised near his cousins and always knew them.
The idea would come anyway though, like her imagination of her father in his overalls, despite the incongruity of the truth with the image, and she would see the words in her head, lit up like a theater marquee, his family is dead.
And she would think of her mother and father and her mother’s parents with an awe that was not dissimilar to the feeling that came across from her father when he told the story about his brother’s accident. An awareness of how different her situation was from his when he was her age rose like a sea-wind.
But none of them were here now. And the wind was real against the north side of her car, blowing from the northwest and getting stronger with every mile.
There were no houses or turn-offs where she was, except for the access roads that went off, seemingly into oblivion, into the nowhere wildernesses that were always beyond the view of the highway driver.
Maybe they wound back to the dirt paths of farms like the one Hannah imagined her father growing up on. Maybe the pavement became blacktop and they unrolled up and down slopes for a great distance and then stumbled the final steps of a travel-worn pilgrim to the locked gates of a military complex; an ominous Shangri-La.
Hannah watched the highway move forward, pulled along its track, keeping her side with half-conscious ingrained habit, though there was no one else on the road. She felt the night above her, around her, and she watched herself drive the car through it, from a distance, as if her true self were looking down from some fixed position in heaven.
And she imagined an alien race abstractly gazing at earth from a distant planet. They would see her, her car anyway, drifting through time, headlights blazing, through the palpable night, and they would know the thing that she couldn’t know, because for all her sense of separation in the moment, she was in the car too, headed to the pacific against the wind.
Pine trees. Brush of medium height. Wild grass. Most arching in the wind. Caught momentarily in the headlights.
Hannah had the feeling of moving very quickly but not getting anywhere. The landscape was recurrent and one stretch of roadway would seem exactly the same as the one she passed through ten miles ago.
Clouds were gathering in the corners of the sky and it looked like rain. As a matter of choice, Hannah rarely drove in rain and now she hoped that she could be gone from here before it started.
Occasionally a tree grew right up on the edge of the highway and Hannah thought some of the short ones resembled people. She slowed down for them only to see the faceless, squat branches stare back at her. After a while she broke herself from the habit of slowing down and actually sped up when she saw these short trees.
Not long after she began to speed up to pass the trees, she saw one that looked more human than the others. She didn’t speed up and she didn’t slow down, but as her headlights fully illuminated the figure, Hannah saw that it was moving slowly, shuffling along.
She passed without stopping, moving to fast to see the man’s face, but she saw clearly his stooped shoulders, his dogged slow steps. In his excruciating gait the old man was progressing along the side of the road like a nail file against a mountain.
Hannah slowed down and stopped a few hundred yards ahead of the man, considering the situation. With some deliberation, she pulled a can of mace from the glove box and she turned the car around with a three point turn. On a busy highway this would have been an impossibly dangerous turn-about. On a busy highway, someone else could have helped this old man. But the road was empty except for Hannah in her car and this old man doggedly grinding along.
Hannah let her car move at idle speed back to the man then stopped opposite him on the road. The light of the headlights shone peripherally on the man as he walked.
“Excuse me, sir.”
The man continued to grind away at the distance of the highway. His mouth was moving, but Hannah couldn’t hear his voice over the car engine.
She raised her voice, “Excuse me,sir!”
He stopped, took his eyes from the ground in front of him and looked up to Hannah as if coming out of a daze. He turned slightly and looked up the road behind him, then looked around at the landscape as if seeing it for the first time.
“Do you need help?”
The man was quick to reply now, “I do. I need help. My wife…”
“Do you need a ride somewhere? Are you ok?”
The old man began crossed the road toward Hannah’s car. She held the mace in her left hand out of sight, just in case.
“I got lost. And…” the old man put both hands to his head and fitfully grasped the sparse white hairs there in a gesture of pain at having made this mistake.
He went on, “My wife is back, in the car,” he pointed vaguely in the direction away from which he had been walking. “I got lost and we were trying to make our way back. We ran out of gas.”
“Are you going for gas then?”
“I can give you a ride. Are you from around here? Do you know where the next gas station is?”
“I live an hour from here, I think. When we got lost, we really, I really… I’m not so sure where we are,” he had been leaning toward Hannah and now straightened up as far as he could, his shoulders still somewhat curved around his chest.
His speech, though stuttered with pauses was lucid. The man had made a mistake, but not through senility. He just made a mistake. The clarity of his speech suggested clarity of mind. His demeanor was as distracted as his speech, but he was probably just worried about his wife sitting alone, lost, in a car.
“So you don’t know where the next gas station is. Neither do I. I haven’t seen a sign or anything. I’ve got a map though. We can take a look at where we are.”
Turning her back to the man, who stood in the middle of the empty road and setting the mace down on the passenger seat, Hannah got her map out of the glove box.
“What time is it, young lady? Do you know what time it is?”
“Yeah, it’s just about one.”
Where had the time gone? Hannah hadn’t realized how late it was, but now the emptiness of the road made more sense.
“I left my wife three hours ago,” the man said, calculating something more with this number. “I need to get my wife.”
Hannah took a long look at the man. He was turned around now, facing away from her, watching the road in a posture of mild fear. Maybe he was senile.
The map lay open across her lap, but Hannah continued to watch the man fidget and gaze up the road to where his wife might be. There had been no cars on the side of the road that she could remember.
“Where is your wife?”
“I had to leave her in the car to…that’s how I got here. She’s in the car and she needs her medicine.”
“What? What kind of medicine?”
“She has a heart condition and she needs to take her medication every twelve hours. We ran out today. It was going to be fine when we made it home…”
The old man looked all about him, like a caged animal, trapped in this problem. The sky set its calm gaze on him indifferently, reflecting nothing, full of itself only, only stars and space.
The map was not very detailed in the area that Hannah looked. She was fairly sure that she was looking at the right part of the map, and it didn’t show anything for miles, no turn-offs, no towns, nothing. She had driven through the same nothing for a couple of hours to reach this point.
“Maybe we should go get your wife.”
“Yes,” he said facing her again. “We would appreciate it, very much, your help.”
“Ok. If you just tell me where to turn off, we’ll go get her right now and drive until we find something.”
The mace was sitting on the passenger seat and Hannah started to reach for it, but then heard the back door open. The old man slowly climbed into the backseat behind Hannah. She turned around and looked into his eyes to see what kind of a risk she was taking in letting him into her car.
His eyes showed only concern, fatigue, age, and a nameless sadness. If there was an edge to him, it was an edge of unwise despair.
She reached back to shove her things to the far side of the backseat and the man moved to the middle of the seat.
“Do you know where you left her?”
“It was on the road that connects to this one by an…an access road.”
“Ok. How far from here?”
“I’m not sure.”
“How far did you walk?”
“I walked a few miles at least.”
Hannah imagined this old man walking for miles at his excruciating pace set against the unknown distance and she cringed inside. A dread that she couldn’t give name to immediately took an immediate hold on her so that she speaking became and effort. But it seemed to Hannah that speaking was the only was to dissipate the strange dread.
“My name is Hannah,” she said, watching him in the rearview mirror as he nervously scanned the landscape for a road that she hoped he would remember, his white hair wiry and sparse and electric on his head.
He didn’t respond.
“What is your name, sir?”
No response. He stared off to their left out of the rear driver’s side window.
She raised her voice to break into his sphere of concentration, “SIR.”
“Oh. Yes. Yes. What is it?”
“My name is Hannah. I -”
“Oh, I am sorry. My name is William. Fullerton. My wife’s name is Cassandra, but we call her Casey,” he said, grasping the distraction of talking with two metaphorical hands.
“Are we getting close? What do you think?” Hannah asked, fascinated by the picture of the man in the rearview mirror, but telling herself to watch for the access road.
He sat with his shoulders stooped curvaceous and tired, like the wings of a dying angel, too old to fly, much too old to fly.
“The road came out at a sign for litter removal. It was the stretch of road sponsored by a Boy Scout troop.”
“Good! We can look for the sign. It should be easy to see right?”
“I don’t see why not,” he said, encouraged.
With a quick jolt of shame, Hannah realized that she had begun to think of this as a game. Finding this woman wasn’t a game though.
“What did you say was your wife’s condition?” she asked.
“Excuse me? My wife’s condition?”
“Didn’t you say that she had a heart condition or something like that?”
“Yes. Hannah. She does. She hasn’t taken her medication in over fifteen hours and she is supposed to have it every twelve hours. We were going to be fine when we got home. We were going to get home at eight.”
“Oh. We’ll find her. Don’t worry,” Hannah could think of nothing else to say.
“What time is it?”
Hannah told him. They hadn’t been driving for a ten minutes yet.
The car moved slowly along. Still no other cars came. The road was deserted and the stars looked on in their idly judgmental detachment. William and Hannah looked off to the left for the road sign he remembered.
“Are you sure it’s going to be on this side? On the left side?”
“Yes. I am sure about that. Sure.”
He had taken to fidgeting again with his hands. One hand rubbing the back of another then rotating. The darkness masked the liver spots on both hands.
Slowly, William raised one hand and pointed, taking Hannah’s attention back to the road. With equal slowness and care he said, “There’s the sign.”
William put his whole head in his hands, simulating defeat. They had been driving now for over an hour, back and forth down one dirt road that seemed to go nowhere and connect with nothing. His car and his wife were gone and he couldn’t remember where he had left them.
The rain that Hannah had seen on the way had begun to fall in slow pelting drops. The stars were covered though, so finally the sky had stopped looking down at them.
“I should have known,” William said to himself. “I should have known.”
“Hey. Don’t do this. You made a mistake. We all make mistakes,” she looked at him again in the rearview mirror, watching the top of his head tilt from side to side in his hands. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
“No. I should have known. I had a feeling. I told Casey about it and she said I was being silly. A fool. But I was right. And now…”
Under the car, the dirt and gravel mixed with the noise of the rain and William’s voice was drowned out. Presently, they came upon a stretch of smoother hard packed dirt that might turn to mud in the hour. For the moment, it quieted the ride and Hannah tried to get William to pull himself together.
She talked to him, tried to get him to talk to her. He started looking around again, out of the car, watching for a turn-off. He was still sure that this access road was the one he took to get to the highway. But now he thought that he had gotten off the main road further back.
He traced back his night.
First they were on the highway. Then he had turned off onto a dirt access road, thinking they were closer to home and than they really were, thinking he knew the road.
After a few miles of driving the road got worse and he realized that it wasn’t the road he had first believed it to be. So he turned left on the next road he came to and drove for a while. Possibly for a half and hour. Possibly for ten miles.
Then they ran out of gas.
He left his wife to go for help and walked to the end of the road they were on then turned left.
Now he was confused and couldn’t remember if he had taken another set of turns after that, maybe another right followed by another left, all on the same kind of road. All the roads looked like the same road. It was dark. They were all dirt and gravel. They were all surrounded by hills at a distance too great to be helpful as landmarks.
Hannah suggested, “We should go back to the main road then and go back to the beginning.”
“Ok. I suppose that is what we should do.”
There were no ideas coming from William. His concern for his wife and his guilt were visible in his features. His face was like a screen upon which his emotions were projected, outward projections of the phantasms overtaking him.
Again Hannah tried to get him to talk and get out of himself to that he could help find his wife and his car.
“I should have known this would happen,” he began again.
Without any more preface than this the old man’s voice opened up, louder than it had been and tinged with a bitter anger that sharpened and amplified. He told Hannah about a dream that had woken him up the previous night. This was what he had spoken to his wife about and she had called him a silly fool.
“She said, no one listens to that stuff anymore, William. But my dream, I said, was Something. My dream was something else…”
In the dream he watched himself open a huge metal door, three times taller than any he’d seen in his life. And from his vantage point, a few feet above and behind himself, he called out to his body and said, “No! No!”
But it was too late. From outside, he watched the door close behind his body and expected the separation to be permanent.
In the next moment, he was in his body again, in a dark corridor. A dozen paces into the corridor, as he walked and tried to turn around, he found that he could not turn. A staircase opened up in front of him, lit on each step by a green light without source.
With an effort that, in the dream, he knew could cost him everything, his life and everything, William managed to turn his head before descending the staircase, and he could see nothing but darkness there behind him. The door was gone.
He closed his eyes in the dream and when they opened he was in a city, a dirty, filthy city that stank of fish, mud, and car exhaust. The streets were poorly paved and rutted in places. Old vans and buses rushed about honking and cajoling each other.
William walked, seeking an end of the city, an edge beyond which to escape.
A man stopped him on the street. He was talking and talking and would not stop and he asked William to listen to his story. The man was near tears and William felt a swelling of sympathy for the man as if this were the point of the dream, like a lesson that, once learned, would be the key to his escape.
So he listened.
The man rambled without ceasing. He didn’t even pause for breath. And William tried to string together the speech into some coherence, as the man repeated, “Listen, please, listen to my story.”
But there was no story. The man had only words. There was no story.
Finally William apologized to the man, “I am sorry. I have listened, but I can’t help you. I can’t help you anymore.”
The man nodded and again appeared close to tears; he kept speaking to the space that William had occupied as William looked back, walking away.
Another staircase appeared, this time heading up. William looked around and could see no other path but the stairs. He was surrounded suddenly by trees. There was no city and the smell of it was gone. Now there were trees and birds calling to one another loudly and the smell of fecund earth, the smell of growth and the stronger smell of decay. The stairs went up and up out of the trees and he climbed.
Once he looked down and could see the city rotting in the distance. Beyond the city was the door he had come through, looming dark and huge in the distance. Somehow he knew he was heading back to the door, though he also was walking away from it, up and up.
He walked for many nights and many days until the stairs plateaued on a mountain. Clouds circled below like dead fish floating on the surface of a pool.
William kept walking by momentum alone, as if in the dream he could do nothing but walk, though he was weary beyond weariness.
There were hills on top of the mountain, spikes of rock that hid the landscape behind them. Rounding one of these hillocks, William saw a stone structure that looked like a Mayan ziggurat. It was shaped like a pyramid with steps rising to the top on all sides. William approached and saw a stone-feathered throne at the top of the structure. It was empty.
A man worked with a flat, square stone at the foot of the temple, carving the stone with a chisel. Though the man was clearly visible, as was the temple, William had to walk several more days to reach them. When he was close enough to speak, William began talking to the man, asking him questions.
The man did not turn or stop working. He continued to carve the stone. Close enough to make out the carving, William stopped walking and read what was on the stone. They were Mayan hieroglyphs, but they were only half carved. Each glyph in its space on the flat stone was incomplete.
The ground at the foot of the temple was littered with other stones, covered in partial carvings. There was a story being conveyed, again and again, but abandoned, unfinished.
William sat at the foot of the temple and watched the man work. The carver grew old carving the stone, but became young again as he abandoned the stone. Immediately, the man picked up a blank stone and prepared it then began his abortive carving. He grew old again and repeated himself, and William, looking on, began to weep.
A man who appeared to be lost came up from the stairs and the clouds and approached William, as he sat on the foot of the temple, and William called out to him.
“Listen to my story! Please, listen.”
For a while the man listened while William spoke in with the same abrupt incompletion as the man who carved the stone. But William continued to grow old.
The lost man eventually shook his head and moved his lips soundlessly and after making several more mute gestures, moved away to vanish into the timelessness of this place.
William wept at the foot of the temple, considering the huge metal door again and wishing to speak it all, to speak it all.
“I knew it meant something,” William said to Hannah, voice shaking. “I’m not a prophet and never have been; not anything like that. But sometimes you just know when it means something. She wouldn’t listen. I am a fool, but…”
William subsided into his hand wringing, his eyes unstill, his white hair standing as if to escape from his scalp to their heaven; shoulders stooped in contrast.
The rain was letting up and they had returned to the main road now, driving slowly to look for another turn off, the one that William must have taken when he got lost.
In the rearview mirror, the dream still played on William’s lips as if he were the deaf-mute man who was lost in his dream, who was a version of himself, who was incommunicable with himself and his truth…
Hannah’s mind leapt, for a moment, out of its liquid element, then plunged back. In that moment she saw, physically, Cathy’s notion of fate, as an edifice standing parallel to that of William’s dream, to his belief in it, two totems in the desert.
How much of all this was meant to happen? That was the question connecting the two and it was the probationary substance of the air above the liquid element of her mind.
William had only had a dream. He had a bad dream followed by a bad day. But it was just a dream. It didn’t really happen. If there was a link that could be drawn between the dream and actually getting lost on the way home…? And losing your wife…? And being picked up by a stranger…?
What if he forgotten the dream; if he had turned over and kept sleeping? Then what would fate have to do with it?
The stars winked their myriad single eyes as the clouds continued to spread and thin against the sky. There were no access roads in sight.
In short intervals, Hannah eyes loped over the landscape seeking the next dirt road then fell on William in the rearview mirror, then saw her thoughts, as if they leaned, visible, in the twin light of the car’s headlights. She drove slowly, hoping, maybe, not to catch up.
What if he dreamed it all? Dreamed of getting lost, of having his wife with him, of running out of gas?
Then could he take it back? Or had it been made real, now?
The road took a slight curve up an incline, the car engine churned softly at the effort of this small climb.
Still in the middle of the backseat, William sat furtively, lips still moving in mute prayer or some other secret whisper or in another dream.
And if Cathy’s fate was a dream could she take it back, when she got to Africa, and lay down in her cold mud hut and decided that she had been wrong, that she should never have come, should have just turned over in her own bed in New York and kept sleeping…
The image of her mother came to Hannah now, not as she was tonight, sleeping in Big Sur, next to her father in the permanent shelter of their intimacy, but her mother as a 27 year old approaching what would become her destiny, narrowly removed from it by time and by ignorance of the near future where she would carry a child to full term then lose it in the hospital, after the name had been given, after the hopes had been reified to the point of tangibility.
Hannah didn’t know the name. She hadn’t wanted to know. The what-if part of her mind was already full, with fuel enough to last well beyond the limits of her interest and her endurance.
You have to just choose with the little power you have, make choices for today. Her father’s truth. The accidental life.
And here she was driving an old man around with his dream, searching for his lost wife on a wet, empty highway.
Joy burst into her from nowhere. Despite all her thoughts; because of all her thoughts. The sudden joy, also, was nameless.
The car rolled down the other side of the incline and Hannah felt the positive downward momentum as her own.
With a shout, William pointed to a road off to the left, “That’s it!”
Hannah turned the car into the access road. This one was smoother than the first road had been, but again was unpaved. They coasted looking for a turn off to their left, another dirt road.
“This is the right way, Hannah,” William offered as reinforcement.
I can feel it, she wanted to say. She felt something was right now, they were going in the right direction.
The trees that had grown close to the high way stood well away from this little unpaved road, gnarled in the shadow as if the sun had deformed them and so they retreated away from eyes of passersby, into the distance and the dark.
But they were alive.
Again William pointed with a start, spotting a road to their left. Again they turned and entered the road. This one was much worse than the others. The dirt was rutted so that the car bounced violently though only moving ten miles an hour.
To keep his place in the middle of the back seat, William had to hold on with both hands to the cushion beneath him. Hannah slowed to a stop and suggested for him to put on his seat belt.
He fumbled around in the dark back seat for a long moment as Hannah strained her eyes to look ahead of the car, past the headlights. There was nothing there to see. As William clasped the lock of the seatbelt, Hannah wondered again if he had dreamed up this scenario.
Her eyes fell to the mace still in the passenger seat.
“Ready?” she asked, measuring William’s intention by the look on his face in the rearview mirror.
“Oh…Yes. I’m ready, Hannah. We’re close. She’s right up ahead. Casey is right up ahead.”
Innocence and worry still dominated his features, but the innocence of old age: the bewilderment of time’s volumeless accumulation.
He added, “This is where I knew we were lost. I’ve – I’d never been on this road before, before tonight.”
Hannah nodded her head and moved on. Only now did she notice that her gas gauge was nearing ‘empty’. They had been driving for a while, but drove slowly. Hannah never thought to check her gas.
“I hope we find her soon,” Hannah said with a nervous laugh.
“We will, young lady. She’s right up ahead.”
The car bumped on for two miles, completely out of sight of the highway, running out of gas. They were the longest two miles of Hannah’s life.
Finally, the headlights caught the reflection of another car’s brake lights. As they neared, a head was visible, leaning against the closed window, not moving.
“She’s alright. She’s alright,” William began chanting.
He moved over to the rear passenger door and waited to Hannah’s car to stop with his hand on the handle. As soon as it stopped he opened the door and went to the driver’s side window of his own car. His wife hadn’t moved yet.
Now he tapped on the window with swollen knuckles.
She turned toward the sound, as if in a dream, and opened her eyes and saw her husband and another car behind him. She smiled a gentle, very weary smile and left her head resting against the headrest of her seat.
The keys were in Williams hands and he unlocked the car. Sitting on the edge of the driver’s seat, he reached out to touch his wife’s face.
Hannah could hear them speaking softly, but couldn’t make out what was said.
“Should we get going? William?”
He turned to her as if he had forgotten her and gazed blankly at her for a moment. The love and fear he felt for his wife cut into Hannah that multiplied her sense of urgency. If they left now they could get back to the road and maybe to a town before they ran out of gas.
“Yes. Hannah we should. We should go right away. She’s ok though. She’s tired but she’s ok. Right, Casey, honey? You’re ok?”
“Yes. I’m alright,” Casey said, putting her strength into the words.
“Wait,” Hannah said, “I’ll help you into the car.”
The headlights of Hannah’s car blazed into the empty expanse of dirt ahead of them and the other vehicle was a dead thing in the road. Hannah moved across both cars to help William carry Casey from one car to the other. She was a short woman and thin. She weighed almost nothing and shivered noticeably as they moved her. Hannah realized that William probably could have moved his wife alone, but she wanted to help, to do something.
They got her into the backseat and William got in beside her. Hannah felt Casey’s shivering in herself.
“Is she going to be able to deal with these potholes?” Hannah asked William.
“I’ll be fine,” Casey spoke up, again putting an effort into the words that could be nearly her last.
“Rest, honey. Just relax,” he said to his wife. “She’s tough, Hannah. Don’t worry.”
Hannah watched Casey smile and close her eyes in the rearview mirror and was suddenly worried that someone would die in her car tonight.
She started the car, turned around so as not to get lost, and set off with a jolt, heedless of the potholes. What was the use of shocks if you’re dead? The miles back to the better dirt road were tedious, but when they gained the dirt road Hannah increased her speed. When the got onto the highway, it was like they were flying on the pavement.
Between watching the needle of the gas gauge, the picture of death approaching the back seat of her car, and the road rushing at them at 80 miles an hour, Hannah’s mind was as busy worrying as seemed possible.
The clock on the radio showed almost two o’clock. The last two hours had seemed like ten. The sun was, impossibly, still hours away. The stars winked on with their perfect, smug indifference and the clouds had been pushed over the hills to rain on someone else’s lost wife, in someone else’s dream.
Running out of gas would be a nightmare. This woman might die. The rain had dropped the temperature down into the forties.
Back up the road a couple of hours in Lake Tahoe, Tammy was smiling in her sleep comfortable in bed next to her boyfriend. Hannah’s mother and father were doing the same a few hours in the other direction.
The road was a long ribbon between them, tying them together, connecting these ideas, but Hannah was in between too, disconnected. Alone with a dying woman and her old husband about to run out of gas.
She took a deep breath and considered that things could be worse. Without going into detail as to how, she accepted this as a fact and kept driving.
The needle of the gas gauge was directly on the red square below the ‘E’ when the car passed a sign. The image of a gas pump in white relief on a blue sign, with an indifference that struck Hannah as being much happier than that of the stars that watched them through this ordeal, posted above the phrase ‘5 mi.’
“We’re going to make it!” Hannah said shouted happily, though she had said nothing to the old couple about the gas tank being empty.
William replied happily too, but with a voice like tears, “Yes. We’re going to make it.”
In his face, in the mirror, Hannah realized that he was watching his wife die and hoping that he was seeing something else, seeing her survive.
The two ideas battled in him as the ghosts of guilt and worry had earlier, but these demons were pitched more deeply inside him. He might die too, Oh shit.
“Less than five miles to a gas station,” Hannah said, knowing it would be her last words for a while.
There was no sound in the back seat.
The car gave a cough. Hannah checked the mirror and saw that William didn’t look up; didn’t seem to have noticed.
Hannah wanted to speed up to gather more momentum in case they did run out of gas, but restrained her foot, thinking that the car would run longer if she kept the speed level. A small slope rose up in front of them.
If we can make it up…
The car coughed again and this time William did look up. He knew the sound.
“Are we running out of gas?” He asked with his voice level, incredulous.
“Ah. We’re going to make it. The gas station is just over this hill.
Both of them repeated the words in their heads, willing the car to crest the hill.
It did. About a mile ahead on the road, down the slope, they could see the lights of a solitary oasis. They began the downhill and Hannah gunned the engine. Ten seconds later when they had made 70 miles per hour, the engine died. Hannah shifted to neutral and they coasted as far as their momentum would take them.
Miraculously, they made it all the way to the station. It was closed for the night.
Hannah jumped out of the car only to feel it begin to roll as she did so. The car was still in neutral. She got back in the car and turned the key to the off position and put the car in park then jumped out again, frantically looking around the lit parking lot.
There was a payphone near the front door of the gas station. She ran to it, feeling that running was natural in this situation, but not feeling herself doing it. When she reached the phone she checked for a dial tone, and, hearing one, turned to William.
She had expected him to be out of the car, on his way to the phone right behind her, but he was in the car watching his wife die.
“Nine one one,” Hannah said aloud to herself.
Then she dialed. An operator picked up immediately and greeted her with the standard question – what’s your emergency?
“Hello. My emergency – I’m on the highway and I ran out of gas –
“Are you a triple A member or do you belong to an auto club? Do you have car insurance –
“No. That’s not my emergency…”
“Ok. What is your emergency?”
The operator, a woman, was calm and seemed like she was in no rush to get off the phone. Hannah tried to calm herself down.
“Alright. Here is my situation. An old man was on the road and his wife has a heart condition – she is really in the emergency situation – she was supposed to – she hasn’t taken her medication and they ran out of gas and she is dying, right now. That’s the emergency.”
“She doesn’t have any of the medication with her?”
“What is her heart condition?”
“I don’t know,” Hannah said, attempting calm again. “Her husband is in the car with her, and he knows but he can’t hear me from there.”
But suddenly, William was next to Hannah, hovering with his stooped, angel-wing shoulders just behind her.
“Oh. Here he is,” Hannah told the operator. Then to William, “She wants to know what your wife’s heart condition is.”
Hannah gave him the phone and took three symbolic steps away from the phone, toward the car.
William named his wife’s condition and the medication on her prescription and repeated the words several times in growing relief. After a short conference between him and the operator, William turned to Hannah and asked, “Where are we?”
“The 50,” she said, “at a Shell station.”
He spoke into the phone then turned back to Hannah and asked, “Which one?”
“I don’t know. The one in the middle of nowhere.”
Her arms hung limply at her sides and Hannah was overwhelmed with the urge to sit down. She didn’t even look for a chair, but plopped down not far from William.
The operator apparently had only mean to corroborate the address on her caller id, so Hannah’s answer was satisfactory. William hung up the phone after reading off the number on it as another confirmation to the operator.
Over the course of the 911 call, his voice had risen to a crescendo of relief and hope and he turned now, vaguely smiling with confidence and looked at the car. Only the print of his wife’s flowered blouse and a glimpse of her khaki pants were visible. She lay in the car with a stillness near absolute.
Hannah watched William instantly descend from his cloud and shuffle over the car, his wiry white hair standing up in mortal desperation, the hundred white flags of his inner world, not giving up on hope, but surrendering to time now and fate.
William got into the back seat of the car, leaving the door open. Hannah picked herself up and went to a bench by the gas station’s front door, sat and waited.
The minutes passed slowly but they passed. Hannah wasn’t keeping track of the time, she assumed that William wasn’t either.
Eventually an ambulance came with its lights spinning red against the dark emptiness of the highway. Uncannily, after all this time, no other car had appeared on the road.
A man and a woman stepped calmly but quickly from the ambulance. The woman glanced at Hannah who pointed to the car. Both of them went immediately then to the car. The man had something in his hand that Hannah hoped was Casey’s medication.
They stuck their heads into the car and William stepped out.
Everything was happening too far away for Hannah to make out any words. And she guessed they were speaking in low tones, keeping everyone calm. A great distance separated the bench Hannah was sitting on from the activity in the car.
She watched one of the paramedics pull out a needle and tap it and hold it up to the light then sit on the seat in the car next to Casey. Hannah felt she was on the shore of some ocean, the only one on solid land, watching the motions of sea-creatures or fishermen, animals of a different element, unintelligible to her landed sensibilities.
Fatigued and more than a little overwhelmed by this proximity to disaster, which was only distant in its dreaminess, in the unique, fantastic placelessness it held in the moment, Hannah made herself stand up and move to the car.
William had tears in his eyes.
“She’s going to be fine. She’s alright, Hannah. She’s going to be fine.” He told her, as if she were the one in the holding back against the metaphysical weight of distress and doubt.
She said, “I’m glad,” feeling empty inside.
“She’s going to be fine,” William said to the female paramedic, half in question.
“Yes, Sir. She will be, but she’s weak and needs to be looked after right now. She’ll need to be hospitalized today – to get her strength back.”
Something like suspicion awoke in Hannah and she looked hard at the paramedic, who looked back, all sympathy, saying with her eyes that the situation was not as simple as her lie made out. But there was nothing more to do about it.
All the effort of the last hours seemed wasted in those eyes.
Hannah turned to go back to the bench, then stopped and turned back.
“Can we go with you, to the hospital?” She asked, grouping herself and William.
“Yes. Of course. We’re getting her into a chair now,” as she said this the other paramedic was unfolding a wheel chair at the rear of the ambulance.
“You don’t need a gurney or anything?” Hannah asked.
The female paramedic gave her another look. This time the look communicated the idea that Hannah was only making things worse.
Hannah looked away, looked at her shoes then up, at the sky where the stars continued their raw vigil of indifference.
They all packed into the ambulance, which was much smaller inside than one would suspect seeing it from the outside. At the hospital Casey was admitted and William signed what he needed to sign and contacted his insurance company and his son.
The waiting room was empty. Hannah had no interest in reading the magazines and so sat watching the day come on through the windows. At dawn, William’s son arrived and went to see his mother. He came into the waiting room, where William now stood, also watching the light grow in the windows.
William’s son said that the doctors had given Casey clearance to leave.
“She’s alright, stable, and just needs rest, they said,” he said.
“Oh, John,” William went to his son and hugged him. His dropped angel wings bobbed up and down with his heavy breathing and he said again, “Oh, John. John.”
Hannah slipped out of the room and walked slowly toward the exit, wondering how she would get back to her car, thinking about sleep, thinking it was still a long way off.
Before she reached the exit, John caught up to her and thanked her for what she had done.
“I just…Well, I’m glad that your mom is alright,” Hannah said.
“Let me give you a ride to your car. Dad told me that you ran out of gas too. At the gas station. What a thing… Anyway, Dad is going to sign my mom out and it might take a little while, so I told him I would take you to your car and come back for them. Who knows when we’ll get his car.”
The ride was short this time and Hannah’s car was sitting, solitary, at the gas station, a testament to some unnamed quality of the human spirit.
“Thanks for the ride.”
“Oh. Here. Let me get your gas. It’s the least I can do, really.”
They hadn’t talked on the way to the gas station. Hannah was exhausted. John, having been awakened at three in the morning, wasn’t very talkative either.
The two of them pushed the car up to one of the pumps and John bought Hannah a full tank of gas, then gave a final thank you and good-bye and drove off.
He had looked like his father in some ways. The same stiff, wiry hair. Only John’s was a very dark brown. Hannah wondered what would happen to John when he and his wife were in their seventies. She wondered what would happen to herself.
The old couple’s smell lingered in Hannah’s car, not strong, but there. Hannah started the car and rolled down her windows and went over the details of the night from the beginning.
She didn’t start driving until she had gone over the whole story in her mind, then she put the car in gear and turned on the radio. It was Sunday morning.
But it felt like a whole new day.
It was like waking in another country.
The moon slept against the new day, the feathery down on its face sticky as a child’s and as soft. Quiet slept at his feet and the city was changed.
The night had given way to day. The figures that had walked and bopped and blown their horns and sucked their cigarettes and made something new out of the air were now merely silhouettes of themselves, black paste on the walls.
The trumpets ceased far from their Jericho because these walls were meant to stand.
The smoke rose only to the rooftops then rained back down as ash because this sky was meant to stand.
The spring would turn to summer as the night had turned to day and the dream of the City would ring only in those solemn hearts who had heart it in the music, the music which was static now too, like the players. The music that if you turned your head quickly could be caught in a snatch of song, a audible glimpse of what was just hours ago the substance and foundation of a whole world, now flaked in silence as snow in a dead-end alley covering the discarded newspapers.
The music that had filled, not only those hearts, but the whole standing sky up to the moon, who had forgotten his people, his City, his vigil.
Sleeping, sleeping in the dream that was his waking night, where fingers were for holding tightly to the brim of the hat and to the hand of the one near, in the encasement of music, below the sidewalk, in the house of smoke and the madness of notes. Fingers to hold the saxophone, the trumpet; to beat the broken chords of the piano until the broken became whole, the ashes became the bird flying toward a beautiful crescendo and flame, rising, rising on the air, describing the vibrating circle of sky that would carry this whole city into the new, into the perpetual spring, the Renewal.
On a distant horizon the dust was settling. In the direction of the rising sun, those birds lay rooted in the ash, not waiting, one eye in the silence, one in the skylight, though grounded, fallen, knowing that with the next moon they would have a peace.
The car drove itself as much as Hannah drove it, only half-awake, half-involved in the present, and the other half of her continuing tell the story of the last few days, like William in his dream, trying and failing to communicate to his other self. Hannah went on and on to herself, silently, recounting the winery and the stars there and Billy and then Tammy and the highway and William and the rain and those other stars, different stars, and Casey and the hospital.
The car drove and that part of Hannah went on and on with the story and the faces in it.
At the table in Tammy’s kitchen, there had been a conversation about Tammy’s new running goal. She had always been a runner and Lake Tahoe presented a ready-made challenge for runners. Run all the way around the lake, over 50 miles.
“But that’s like a double marathon-” Hannah said.
“I know. And I’ve never done a marathon before. I’m running farther now in my runs than I’ve ever run in my life. Every day is a new record.”
She was very happy with herself.
Tammy’s plan was to work her way up to the full length. Five days a week she ran a portion of the lake. From her house, she would run to a farther mark on the path the circled the lake then turn around and run home the way she had come.
In another month she would get half way around the lake in one run. Then she would keep running and come back home on the other side.
“It’s kind of funny. Half way is like all the way. The half-way point is the furthest point,” Tammy said.
Those words found there way into Hannah’s thoughts now. She had gone to the half-way point, the furthest point, and was going home. Or had she?
Was she still ‘working her way up’ and now turning back home the same way she had come? How could she really know?
Hours of driving brought her to the coast and her ocean. It looked the same.
The car turned north and continued to lead itself home as a horse takes its rider home unguided, to the oats in the barn.
Without realizing her speed, Hannah noticed that she was being passed by other drivers. The landscape was moving by slowly so that she could have seen the faces on the birds in the trees, could have visually recorded the details of those trees. She looked at her speedometer. 45 mph.
Despite the low speed, she felt that she could go slower. She should go slower.
Then she realized that she was still looking for Casey, as if they had never found her and never gone to the hospital.
And she was keeping to the extreme left side of her lane to avoid hitting anyone who happened to be walking on the side of the road; watching for William again grinding away the distances of California with one shuffling step at a time.
The night was happening in her, hadn’t stopped happening. Sometimes when she was anxious about something Hannah had dreams where she performed a certain task again and again. Banal repetition of the task substituted for dreaming really because it wasn’t sleep. Her mind performed the tasks with a semblance of consciousness.
On the road as the car drove itself slowly up the long hill that would bring her home, Hannah thought it was almost funny to be in this opposite situation. Now, when she should be fully conscious of the task at hand, driving, she was instead semi-consciously reliving the events of the previous night.
The task was unfinished, somehow. In her mind, William was still walking on the side of the road, moving his lips soundlessly, wrapped in his worry and guilt, moving in his slightly stooped way, angel wings folded uselessly on his shoulders, white hair stiffly refusing the breeze, heedless of the rain that might be coming.
In the daylight no one would pick him up. He’d look like an escaped hospital patient, like a crazed old dog, kicked beyond the point of companionship, too weak to fight back but willed by some inner necessity to walk away eternally, until walking no longer was an effort but was the standard by which all things were measured, to walk was to be.
The phantom image of William haunted the roadside. Hannah watched for him with the dreaming part of her mind. As the night tried to weave itself into a narrative, she watched for him. The telling part of her mind continued the weaving, but found no audience.
Before going back for his parents at the hospital, John had told Hannah about them. Casey had been on track to be a university professor when she met William, who was studying engineering. She had a few years left in her program and he was finishing his when they met.
The assumption of love was the background of the story, so John didn’t mention anything about that. He said that they moved to southern California from the Midwest so that William could take a job with the air force. He worked as an aero-engineer for thirty-plus years. She taught for some time at the local community colleges. Math.
These facts didn’t meet well with the images of the night. Those roles didn’t describe the man and woman, their odor of age, their sharp unpatient agony.
John’s concise history of his parents fell like a handful of pebbles into the already muddied pool of Hannah’s thinking; stood like the indifferent stars, removed from the actual events beneath them, stood as part of this world but unrelated to the things that happened in it.
When the gas tank got down to the halfway mark, Hannah started looking for gas stations. The 101 wasn’t highly populated this far north and she wasn’t interested in being stranded again today.
Signs ahead advertised for several hotels, so Hannah decided to pull off and get gas now.
It was a tiny town, right on the coastline, severed in half by the freeway. There were only hotels on the side of town nearer the coast and a mixture of hotels, apartment buildings, and a few homes on the other side. But Hannah couldn’t see any gas stations.
She drove through the town, exploring the likely places for a gas station near the freeway. Nothing. Just hotels on the street fronting the freeway. The next street back, which was the only other street in town, had no gas station either. Just those little houses and apartment buildings. Behind them was a hill, open with a few sparse trees and grass and some horses grazing.
Hannah drove the street and looked closer at the horses on the hill. The image was relaxing. From their position on the hill, they could easily see over the buildings to the ocean.
There was something funny about the coloring of the horses. They were stripped. Though her mind at first refused to believe what her eyes told her was true, she was looking at zebras. They were zebras grazing on the hill in this tiny town with no gas station on the coast of California.
“Zebras?” she said aloud.
She pulled to the side of the road closest to the hill, stopped the car, and got out. They were definitely zebras. The nearest one was about seventy-five feet away, up the hill. It was slightly brown, where the zebras in the zoo would be starkly white, but there was no doubt about what it was. It was a zebra. There was a whole herd of them.
Dumbfounded, not knowing what to do with this information, Hannah stood and gaped at the animals as they ignored her and studiously ate grass.
She put things into perspective by saying conclusively, “Ok. Zebras.”
With that she waved at them, because it seemed like the thing to do, and she got back into the car and then onto the freeway, wishing she had a camera.
Twenty minutes later, Hannah found a gas station and filled up. She wouldn’t need to stop again before Big Sur.