By Jill Talbot
It’s the middle of the day, and she runs his truck across the border from Utah to Nevada. Fumbling the scratchy seat for the postcard, she flips it over and reads the directions for the third time. 37 miles SW of Baker Exit on I-15. A sheet of rain in the distance and everything she can’t shake closing in. Cruise at eighty-two. She tucks the postcard above the visor and passes the sign that says two-hundred and seventy-five. Cutting the distance to Barstow brings it to just under two-hundred. Parched arroyos and pillow clouds in the west. A clear country music station and a straight shot south. She shimmies to Jerry Lee’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and pushes the gas, shout Cash’s “Stripes” (uh huh) and pounds the dash, sobs through Parton’s “Jolene” and slides further down. She used to think she knew what Earl meant when he said things. When he sang them. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe that’s why he left. Maybe.
Earl was a big man, tall, the kind who grew a beard every winter and kept most things to himself. She likes to think wherever he is now that she’s one of the things he keeps to himself. Creosote bushes and a crease of clouds. She rolls her window down just enough to let the wind pull her hair. She’s always liked that Earl’s truck has one of these aluminum gearshift columns, the kind that ends in a knob. She thinks about the way he used to grip it or how he’d curl his wrist over the steering wheel and squint. How he’d wander a room and start a John Conlee line but never finish it. I can’t find one good reason for staying. The way he used to nudge her under the sheet or walk the hardwoods with his shoulders heavy.
She drops down into California. Alluvial fans spreading like splayed pages. Out the passenger window, a cloud splinters the sun and reminds her the way the tv glare fractured the room the night she knew. Back in their beginning, Earl wrote her a letter, told her that being with her was like a long Sunday drive. She read it so many times the crease tore. That letter. She wishes she’d kept it.
Earl has been like desert dust following her in and out of every town. The sun beating down, the back of her boot heel knocking the floorboard to the rhythm of “Ramblin’ Man.” Earl used to joke about how the song rambled on and the guy would be gone before it was over. Some things, she thinks, are never over. When he left, he left her questions.
She holds the truck steady at eighty-two and thinks about the way she tap-tap-taps her fingertips on the top of the steering wheel every time she pulls up to the bar. As if she might make up her mind to get off the long stretch between Not Drinking and Disappear. But every time, she takes a deep breath and lets it out like an air conditioner on high. Slides her hands across the seat as if clearing away a table of reasons. In the rearview mirror, the diner idles. She tosses the keys under the seat and shoves the door through the give of its creak. And most days, she makes it to the diner. Sits by the window in one of those red-leather booths and watches the bar. She and Earl used to drop quarters down the jukebox and drink til everything played out.
One time she thought she saw his silhouette duck into the bar, and even though she knew better, she peeled the plastic from a soft pack and stubbed out a whole afternoon. Or was it a month. After a while, she got tired of the things her mind kept telling her. So she got a sheet of paper and sat in that diner and wrote Earl a letter. But she had no idea where to send it. Out the window, the clouds were sifting their way to the next town.
She had been online looking for any trace of Earl when she found the photograph of a post office in the middle of the Mojave. Blue letters on the building. Its once-green blinds sun-stained to teal. She went into the kitchen, pulled the postcard from the fridge and jotted down the directions beneath Earl’s words: I’m comming home. She never did tell him the mistake he didn’t know he’d made.
Out here, the triple train tracks run alongside the road. She slows down, comes into what used to be the town. And here it is, the cinder-block building. She pulls just past it and clicks the gearshift to park. When she gets out, her tank top sticks to her back, and the heels of her boots scuff sand, and she can hear the wind. Picking up. The post office stands like a monument to all the sorrys everyone wishes they’d given or got. Who was the last person, she wonders, to pull that door closed, to check the lock and make sure.
The building keeps its secrets. And in the distance, a boom, the settling of the sand sheets in the upper dunes. She leans her head against one of the windows of the post office for a long while and wonders where Earl is, what the last part of that line he used to sing might be. The sun slips behind a sloping cloud, and she steps over to the door and tries the lock against reason. She thinks about leaving the letter on the step but there’s nothing to keep it. Behind her, the wind curves the crest of the dunes until they fold like an envelope.
Jill Talbot is the author of a memoir, Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Defunct, DIAGRAM, Hobart, PANK, The Paris Review Daily,The Pinch, and The Rumpus. She is currently the Elma Stuckey Writer-in-Residence at Columbia College Chicago.