At first the road trip seemed like a good idea. Get away from the hustle and bustle of Denver. Drive up to Yellowstone, shoot some pictures, try to reconnect with the girl he married. Have a little sex under the stars. Dinners at the lodge or down the road in Jackson Hole. Yeah, it seemed like a great idea, at the time.
But things started going wrong from the start. "Are you kidding? I can't take two weeks off to go on this crazy trip," Angela had said, with that frown line between her eyes that had become so prevalent of late in their marriage. "I've got a report to do for the office, I've got the symphony board meeting to sit for, I've got a class to finish. I can't go on some crazy pilgrimage to reconnect with nature, or whatever it is you've gotten into your fool head." She had turned and flounced away, and he'd been crestfallen. But James Henry never gave up an idea, once he'd gotten hold of it. And he really felt that this was the last chance to save his marriage.
Things had been going downhill for the past six months. Started going downhill when Henry had said he wanted to try having a kid. He was a doctor at the Rocky Mountain Health Center in Denver, she was a paralegal at the respected firm of Hollingsworth & Kelton. They'd met 3 years ago at a singles bar out in Cherry Creek, where they both had condos. Henry remarked later, in one of their all night bull sessions, that a large city was the ultimate place to be anonymous. "You can go ten years without ever laying eyes on your neighbor," he had said. And it seemed to be true in their case. Their condos were less than a hundred yards apart on the same street, yet until they came across each other by chance in the Elkhead Lounge, they'd never so much as suspected each other's existence
He had been captivated from the instant he'd laid eyes on her. Long black hair flowing down her back. Sparkling grey eyes above a full and sinful mouth. Her round soft body snuggled in a fuzzy angora sweater and blue slacks. Utterly delicious. They'd chatted for hours until, with a start, they realized closing time was fast approaching. At which point they'd moved to an all night diner. They set a date for the following Friday, and the rest was history.
They'd been married a year later. A year after that, Henry mentioned casually that he thought they might have a kid soon. They were both pulling in five figure incomes, had a big comfortable house out in Littleton, all the trappings of the American Dream. But Angela had hit the roof. "We don't have time for kids," she said in that patient way that he was starting to find infuriating, that frown line coming out again. "And I refuse to pay a nannie to watch them." And when he had suggested, knowing better but almost unable to stop himself, that she might be able to cut back on her activities a little, she hadn't spoken to him for a week.
They slept in separate rooms, barely acknowledging each other's existence in the morning. They hadn't had sex in almost 3 months. Had only taken a couple of meals together in the same time period. And she was gone for longer and longer spans, doing god knew what. At first he wondered if she might be having an affair, but discrete inquiries had yeilded nothing and he was left baffled.
Henry thought that if things carried on this way, they would be divorced in another year, at most.
Hence the road trip. Take a vacation. Try to find the spark they seemed to have lost. Try to find each other again. But Angela wouldn't hear of it. Not at all. So he went to work.
First thing he did was talk to Angela's bosses at the firm. Told them he thought Angela needed a vacation. Told them he thought she might be working just a little too hard than might be good for her. "Sure, she can have a few days off. She has it coming, you know," they told him. "You guys have fun, now."
Then he got in touch with the symphony board. "Sure, she can have a few days off," they told him. "No problem at all." Then he went to her and laid it out. Put all his cards on the table. "Our marriage is on the rock, Angie. It really is. And I don't like it. We've lost each other ... and I only hope it's not too late to find each other again. So please, for the sake of what we once had, come on this trip with me, OK?"
She had protested again. He showed her the notes from her bosses and fellow board members. She got upset at him, claimed he went behind her back and how he had no right to snoop in her affairs. He calmed her down, and finally, he wore her down. She agreed to the trip, and, amazingly enough, got into the idea. Started looking at guide books and websites about Yellowstone. Started quoting interesting little statistics about Old Faithful and grizzly bears. Henry smiled and nodded and was privately pleased. Things were going to work out.
And then his car broke. Total transmission failure. So they had to use hers, a microbus she'd inherited from her parents with the license plate that read angdev1. And a bud vase on the dashboard.
So now, here they were, driving up I-25. On a Friday afternoon in the middle of march. As the miles unspooled behind Henry, he felt a lightening in his chest. He'd been on the road a lot as a young guy. Touring with a college band, from Portland, Oregon all the way out to Chicago. And every time the tour bus started up, and the road unrolled in front of him, he felt what those long ago pioneers must've felt. New places. New things to see, new lands to explore. It was a rush only a few people ever got.
"Did you remember to grab the map?" he asked.
Angela looked up from her cell phone. That thing drove Henry nuts. It was all she seemed to do, nowadays. Text on her cell phone, jabber on her cell phone, do god knew what on her cell phone But he was trying to be civil. This trip was all about setting aside old differences and finding new beginnings, after all. "Of course I did, James. They're in the glove box. Where they belong." That frown line again as she went back to that damned phone.
Henry shook his head and went back to the road. What the hell had happened to his sweet Angela?
ON the radio, the DJ was muttering about a big snowstorm expected to hit Colorado and Wyoming, then about an interstate serial killer who cut the ears off his victims and was assumed armed and extremely dangerous, and then began muttering about the Denver Nuggets, who weren't. Then Eric Clapton came on, telling them about what might happen if he could change the world. I-25 unrolled in front of them, trucks droned by, and the car was silent. And silent.
There was a truck stop looming out of the deepening late-afternoon light, one of those ubiquitous scatters of buildings that had sprung up ever since Eisenhower had built the interstates, like brick tumbleweeds. A garish neon motel sign, plus a diner sitting off behind it, and a few trucks nuzzled up against the fuel bays, like big dinosaurs at their bigger mother.
"You want to stop here and get dinner?" Henry asked, breaking the awful silence.
Angela looked up from her cell phone (god, I hate that thing, Henry thought to himself) and shrugged. "Sure, whatever," she said. Then she seemed to pull herself back from somewhere and her hand crept across, almost shyly, to touch his leg. "Look, Jim, I'm sorry I've been such a bitch."
Henry smiled. "It's OK, Angie. You're still my wife and I still love you." It wasn't a complete rapprochement, not even a partial reconciliation, but it was, at least, an acknowledgement. And Henry pulled into the truck stop, feeling mildly optimistic for the first time since he'd thought up this trip.
The door of the diner opened, letting out a blast of warm air heavy with coffee, cigarette smoke and french fries. There was a battered pinball machine off in one corner, and that old eternal duo, Waylon and WIllie, where imploring mamas everywhere not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys from the jukebox. Off in the kitchen, somebody dropped a garage door, judging by the sound, and truckers were bellied up to the counter with enormous cups of coffee in front of them. To James Henry, veteran of the rock and roll road life, stepping into the truck stop was like coming home. How many times had he sat in places just like this, weary and too tired to sleep, wired on coffee and the optimism of youth? Times beyond number, yes indeed. But, to paraphrase an old song, you could never go back to your used to be. There was this woman, his wife, to whom he had sworn undying loyalty, standing at his side, and trying to hide the fact that she thought this place was a dump.
Ever since she'd started hanging out with those conceited snots on the symphony board and the art gallery crowd, Angela had become more and more of a conceited snot herself when it came to things like restaurants and clothes. No longer was she content to grab a cup of coffee at Waffle House or go shopping at The Gap. It had to be the high priced restaurants downtown and the boutiques over in Aroara. Now, coming into this truck stop, she lifted her hand to her mouth, but not before Henry had seen the slight sneer she was trying to hide. He almost said something, and then didn't.
"Geez, this place is awful," Angela muttered, sliding into the slightly sticky vinyl booth across from him and looking around glumly.
"Well, we won't be here long," Henry said, trying and mostly succeeding to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. Angela missed it, because she was taking that stupid cell phone out of her bag again.
A waitress ambled up, huge breasts spilling out of a slinky halter top and chomping on a plug of gum big enough to choke a Missouri mule. "Can I getcha folks this evenin," she said around her cud.
"Coffee and a bacon cheeseburger, hold the pickles for me, ' Henry said.
"Water and grilled cheese," Angela said, not looking up from her cell.
"Aright, be back soon," the waitress said in a bored voice and wandered off aimlessly, tucking her pad into her skirt.
"Listen, Angela, do you still want to go on this trip or not?" Henry asked. He felt control of the situation sliding out of his grasp.
"Of course, dear," she said, that frown line once again making its appearance. "I'm just kind of distracted.
"Who do you keep talking to on that damn phone anyway?"
"None of your business," Angela said sharply. Color was rising in her cheeks and her hand was clenched. She looked like she was about to jump across the table and claw his eyes out. "God, why do you have to be so damn prying."
Henry was taken aback. "Well, you haven't said a word to me, you're always on that damn phone-"
"I'm going to the bathroom," Angela said shortly, and got up and hurried away, back straight as a pole and head held high.
Henry sighed. So much for his brief fit of optimism. Maybe he ought to just turn around and go home and file for divorce. It was obvious that she didn't want to make much of an effort.
Their food came, flung indifferently onto the table by their taciturn waitress. Angela came back, and they ate in silence. From the jukebox, Patsy Cline was telling them about how she fell to pieces. Truckers came and went and the big motors roared outside. And Henry stared at his wife and wondered what to do.
They were paying their check up at the register when a scruffy guy Henry had noticed sitting at the far end of the counter strolled up to them, hands stuffed into the pockets of his denim jacket. "Hey, folks, don't suppose you could give me a ride?" he asked, smiling in what he no doubt thought was a winning manner and showing off all five or six of his teeth. "I got to get up to Moran, got a job opportunity at the park."
Henry thought the guy might be OK, missing teeth and unwashed hair or not. He didn't smell like a brewery, and he was probably lying about the job, but what the hell, he'd seen a lot of guys on the road and they weren't all rosy. "Sure," he said, shooting a glance at Angela, who looked indifferent to the whole thing. "Come on. We're heading to Yellowstone ourselves."
"Good deal!" the guy said, smiling more widely still. Henry looked away. "The names Bill, Bill Smith," the guy said, holding out a hand that looked clean, if a little chewed on.
Henry shook. "James Henry. This is my wife Angela."
"Meetcha, and I sure do appreciate the ride," Smith said, nodding happily.
Angela nodded. "Jim's always been a soft touch," she said, but it sounded almost affectionate.
They tramped through the blowing twilight to the microbus. Clouds hung over them, gray and threatening. Gonna have to find a hotel before we get there, probably, Henry thought as he dug for his keys.
"Wow, bitchin wheels," Smith said from behind them. "My old granddad had a bus like this when I was growin up."
He climbed into the back and they started up, heading back to the interstate. "Mind if I smoke?" Smith asked from the back.
"Just open your window," Angela said.
"Sure thing," Smith replied, and there was a flick of a match. And they drove on, while the weather grew steadily worse. Snow flurries began to fall, isolated flakes floating past the window like big white moths. The wind howled, rocking the bus on it's wheels. There wasn't much traffic now; they had entered the far north of Colorado and were driving through forests. Radio reception was getting spotty and Henry flipped it off.
There was no sound now except the wheels on the road and the wind howling and screeching. Man, we should've stayed back there, he thought, as the storm worsened. Visibility was getting worse.
"Man, you guys should've taken the friendly skies and got above all this shit," Bill Smith said from the back.
"Nah, I like driving. Don't much like planes," Henry said. He had to slow the bus down to almost thirty-five. He was thinking with more and more certainty that maybe they should've stayed back there at the truck stop. Visions of them hitting a patch of ice and rolling over and over into the trunk of a great big old pine tree, while they screamed and went up in a fireball danced behind his eyes.
"That sow," Bill Smith said, and something in his tone made Henry look back. "Well, I'm afraid you're about to have something else to add to your don't like list."
"Oh, Christ," Henry muttered.
Smith was holding a great big knife in his right hand. He was grinning, that same old warm and friendly smile he'd worn at the truck stop. His eyes glittered strangely. The knife wavered up and down. Henry felt tired. Not afraid, just tired.
"Pull over, Mr. James Henry," Smith said, jabbing the knife at him.
"No!" Angela screamed. She sat bolt upright in the passenger seat, her hands fisted and held up by the sides of her face like a diva in a bad opera. "No!"
"Yes, babe, now shut up," Smith said, snaking one hand between the seats and squeezing one breast and moving the knife closer to Henry's face. "Now, pull over, I said. Pull over now!"
Henry didn't pull over. He jammed his foot on the gas. The bus whined and then skidded forward, almost majestically. Snow spatted against the windshield. The tires slewed all over the road. The speedometer edged up to forty, then to fifty.
"What the fuck are you doing!" Smith screamed. Things weren't supposed to happen this way, the scream said. I'm the one with the knife and you're supposed to do what I say, the scream said. He jabbed the knife at Henry and it cut a shallow graze along the side of his face. This made Henry even angrier. "Put that thing away, asshole," Henry said, low and menacing. To himself he sounded like Broderick Crawford.
"Fuck I will! Pull over, goddammit, pull over right fucking now!"
Angela screamed piercingly and clutched her purse tightly, her eyes staring sightlessly out the windshield. Henry remembered that Angela had told him she had been nearly raped one night after coming out of a class, and he supposed he was having some kind of flashback, but he found he didn't care much; he was too goddamned pissed off to care much about anything except this asshole kid whom he'd given a ride out of the kindness of his heart and who then had the gall to pull a fucking knife on him.