Sunday, June 2, 2024




Al Bruno III

The desert heat pressed down on us, making every footstep a misery. We kept glancing up, hoping to see a town or a gas station beginning to resolve itself in the distance. Still, all we saw was the asphalt of the interstate, cutting a straight line to the wavering horizon. I was glad to have someone to walk with on this Hellish trip, but I rarely spoke. The man I walked with was the regional sales manager for a software company named Spaulding, and he talked enough for both of us.

"All I know is someone's getting sued. I don't give a crap if the car is a rental. This is lost wages and time," he said, "did you see those potholes? It's a wonder they don't have a wreck every week and twice on  Sundays!"

Both our cars had been damaged by potholes so wide they had almost cut across the road, yet neither Spaulding nor I had seen them until it was too late. We had been heading in opposite directions but ended up having to pull over to our respective sides of the road within a few yards of each other.

"And this is an interstate! With all the money we pay on taxes, they should be taking better care of these roads. They're the arteries of the nation. Shipping and commerce, you know what I mean?"

I nodded in agreement. Spaulding had tried to call a towing service and the police, but his cellphone couldn't find a signal. I, on the other hand, had no cell phone, no credit cards, and even my car wasn't properly registered. Ever since I quit my job, I had been living a ghost-like existence.

"How long do you think we have been walking for?" Spaulding said, "Must have been hours and not a single car has come by. There's a new off-ramp near Eden's Corners. I bet it's funneling off all the traffic. Not that it's any kind of excuse for this kind of shoddy upkeep. I mean, look at all those potholes! It never ends."

While none of the dents in the asphalt passing us now were as deep as the one that damaged our cars, they had a jagged quality I found singularly unpleasant. Each hole in the blacktop gaped like the mouth of a lamprey. I made sure to walk on the uneven, litter-strewn side of the road.

Spaulding pointed ahead, "I know the town up ahead, not much of a town really. The only business making any money is a scrapyard. They've got a store that used to be a Woolworth's, but it's owned by some old fart, he runs it by himself, and you can tell. His daughter runs the lunch counter, and she's not a bad cook. Just stay away from the pork chops."

Wherever this town was, there was still no sign of it, and the sun was beginning its downward descent. I did not want to have to walk this stretch of desert at night. There was too much emptiness here. The desolation left my stomach churning. I couldn't wait to reach the town my companion was talking about, but I suspected it would be some time before I could move on again. There was no way I could pay for the repairs my car would need.

"There are no kids; it's like some kind of a retirement community. Everyone's my age or older, heck, even the town whore is pushing fifty," he gave me a mischievous nudge, "but she knows what she's doing, so who cares?"

After another ninety minutes of walking and pointless conversation, it was dusk. I had heard about how cold it could get in the desert at night, and I didn't want to think of how dark it would get. I wondered quietly if we would see the lights from the town soon, and I worried that this was all some waking nightmare I could never escape.

My bladder groaned. I excused myself and headed for a nearby road sign. Spaulding called after me, "Don't shake it more than twice buddy!"

As I relived myself, I thought again of the circumstances that had brought me here, not just the potholes or the dwindling funds; I considered everything. There were times when I worried about my sanity. It wasn't so long ago that I had entertained such lofty aspirations, but now all I  hoped for was to sleep through an entire night and awaken feeling safe.

The sun had almost set, and the sky had turned a murky shade of purple. I  could barely read the print on the weathered old sign- 'BURMA SHAVE.' I  chuckled at the thought this was more of a relic than an advertisement. A sound reached my ears. At first, I thought it was the sound of wind moving through trees, but there were no trees, only solitary cactus and half-dead bushes. Then I thought it might be the sound of an evening tide, but that was an even more ridiculous idea in a desert. Finally, I  decided that it must be an approaching vehicle, and I quickly finished and ran to the roadside.

I found myself alone. There was no sign of my companion anywhere. I  called his name, but there was no answer. A faint slithering sound caused me to turn around just in time to see something pale disappear into the blacktop.

The gloomy dusk left me uncertain of what I had seen, but sometimes, I'm certain what I saw was a human hand slipping away as though it were being swallowed by oily liquid.

Spaulding had called these roads the arteries of a nation, but what might happen if those arteries became starved for blood?

As the last light of the day faded into darkness, I began to run, keeping my every footfall far onto the soft shoulder.

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