Losing Touch with Gravity

Losing Touch with Gravity

Pell couldn’t recall ever seeing his life move away from him in a long, never-ending road, but it must have seemed that way to him once. Now, however, as he drove straight into the blood orange heart of the dying sun, he could only envision how the road would end. It would appear before him in an abrupt rise. But he wouldn’t stop, no, he’d speed ahead, and once he reached the top, the road would disappear. Down and down he’d fall. Nothing underneath him. No road, no car, no gravity to hold him in place.

Most roads end. And after such a weary journey, it must feel good to rest.

He had been driving since early morning and now night was fast on his heels. He was tired and hungry and needed to stop. He wasn’t even sure where he was. He thought he was in Wisconsin. Maybe Minnesota. At the junction of I-35 and I-90, he pulled into a truck stop and eased into a parking spot in the glare of the restaurant. He rested his head on the steering wheel, hiding his eyes from the harsh lights. When he finally looked up, he stared into a long window that framed a row of red booths. The thought of going in depressed him, but he needed to eat.

He eased out from behind the steering wheel, stretched, and slammed the car door shut. He walked wearily around the corner to the front of the building and held the door open while a big-bellied man picking his teeth squeezed by him. The man nodded and Pell watched him make his way toward the row of grumbling trucks parked in the shadows. Pell felt sorry for him. Pell looked up into the starless night, the smell of grease and diesel fuel bringing on nausea. He felt like turning back to his car and driving on, but he needed something in his stomach. Maybe just a cup of coffee.

He felt exposed in the harsh lights inside the restaurant. A waitress, hurrying food to one of the booths, told him to sit wherever he wanted. He looked ahead and to the side. Wherever he wanted wasn’t anywhere here. Vacillating, he moved to the long counter and sat down, as far as he could get from anyone else. He pulled the menu from a set of brackets bolted to the edge of the counter and looked through it. A waitress in a white blouse and black dress set a glass of water in front of him and asked if she could get him anything else to drink. He ordered coffee. She brought the coffee and looked sideways at the other customers sitting at the counter. She seemed bored. Or tired. Probably both.

He couldn’t imagine what brought her here. Before she could take his order, he had already made up a fantastic story for her, how she had grown up on the edge of nowhere and was working only long enough to put together a stash that would get her to California. She dreamed every night about the warm beaches in Southern California and her dreamy romance with a tanned, tousled surfer who never promised her anything but steamy sex and insecurity. She didn’t mind. She didn’t need security. Or comfort. She wanted wild sex with a tanned, tousled surfer on a warm beach in Southern California. As far as she could get from the edge of nowhere.

“Do you need more time?” she asked.

Pell looked up at her. She had emerald green eyes and a tangle of red hair. She was pretty. He didn’t feel like eating anything but ordered a hamburger and fries. She smiled. The first sign of life. He watched her move away to the end of the counter to an opening cut in the wall between the long counter and the kitchen, slamming his order on a slender spike and striking a small stainless steel bell, maybe a little too aggressively. She stood there for a minute, lost in thought. And then she looked back over her shoulder, aware that he was staring at her. She turned away and looked back through the opening into the kitchen. She was embarrassed. She didn’t want to be seen here. She was bound for California, but how could he know that. But Pell did know. It was his story for her.

Pell rubbed his forehead and when he looked up she was standing in front of him.

“It’ll be just a couple minutes before your burger’s ready,” she said.

“Oh, that’s fine,” he said. “I’m in no hurry. I needed a break from driving anyway.”

“You been driving awhile?”

“Yeah, since five this morning. I’m beat.”

“You look tired. Where you headed?”

“West. Nowhere in particular. I’ll just keep driving until I run out of road.”

“Yeah? That’s what I’d like to do. And I will one day. As soon as I put together enough money to get me out of here.”

“How did you end up here?” Pell asked.

“I didn’t end up here. I’ve always been here.”

“Born here?”

“Unfortunately,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Pell,” he said. “How about you?”

“Lily,” she said. She held out her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Same here,” Pell said. “How late you have to work?”

Lily looked over her shoulder at the clock on the wall above the opening. “I got three more hours.” Pell looked up at the clock. It was almost nine o’clock. Midnight. She got off at midnight. What could he do until midnight? He could easily slide into the backseat of his car and sleep for three hours. But what was he thinking? He didn’t know anything about Lily. She might be married, for all he knew. Of course, if she was married, she wouldn’t be talking about saving up enough money to leave. Would she? Maybe she was unhappily married.

“You plan on staying tonight?” she asked.

“I wasn’t planning on it, but maybe,” he said. “I probably should get some sleep.”

“There’re a couple pretty nice motels in town.”

“How far is town?”

“Oh, just four miles down the road, not far.”

“You live in town?” Pell asked.

“Yeah, I have a small apartment,” she said. “It isn’t much, but then I don’t need much. A studio apartment, so everything’s kind of right together. Kitchen and living room and bedroom. There’s a separate bathroom.” She laughed. “You wouldn’t want the toilet in the middle of the kitchen and living room.”

“No, you wouldn’t want that,” Pell said. Pell was thinking. He wondered what his chances were? He’d like to spend a little more time with Lily. He enjoyed her company. Should he ask her what she was doing after she got off work? That would seem kind of silly. What was she going to say? That she was going to a candlelit dinner and a midnight show. Wherever they were, it sure wasn’t New York City.

She fidgeted. Pell thought she seemed nervous. Waiting. For what? Should he ask her what she was doing later? Why not? She looked away.

“I’ll be right back,” she said. Pell watched her walk to the far end of the counter. She cleared away an empty plate, silverware, and a cup, and carried them to a plastic bin overflowing with dirty dishes. She looked over at him and smiled. She had a pretty smile. She walked past him to the window that looked into the kitchen. She stood there for a moment, conscious of his stare. He swiveled on his stool and looked out at the scattered tables, and to the booths along the wall, and the reflection in the long window. It wasn’t enough to have to look at the booths themselves but he had to look at their reflection too. He was overcome by a deep sadness. Who were these people? He swiveled back. Lily stood in front of him holding his plate. She hesitated. He smiled up at her.

“What did you decide?” she asked.


“Yeah, are you gonna spend the night?”

“Oh,” he said. “I haven’t decided yet. I’ll think about it over dinner.”

She set the plate in front of him. “Would you like some more coffee?” she asked.

He looked down at his half-empty cup. “Sure.” She left. He looked at the hamburger and fries, wondering how he was ever going to get it down. He lifted the bun and looked at the hamburger patty underneath. He reached for the jar of mustard, shook it, and smacked out a blob of mustard on top of the patty. He added the slice of tomato and the lettuce but skipped the slice of onion. Lily poured out the coffee.

“I was wondering if you had plans after work?” he asked.

“No,” she said. He looked into eyes that seemed to be pleading with him.

“Well, what’s going on in town at midnight?”

“Not a lot,” she said.

“Any place to get a drink?”

“Yeah, there’re a couple of places,” she said.

“What do you think? Do you feel like getting a drink after you get off?”

“Yeah, I’d like that,” she said.

As she walked away, he tried to fit the burger into his mouth. He put it back on the plate, cut it in half, and squeezed down on it with the palm of his hand. What had brought him here? Life wasn’t an endless road. It wasn’t a road at all. It was a fantasy. One story at a time. Each story, once it was read and put away, made up a life.

He took a bite of the hamburger. He watched Lily. She moved with purpose now. He chewed a french fry and looked up at the clock above the opening into the kitchen. For the first time, he became aware of the clanging inside the kitchen. He imagined the cooks bumping into each other in their efforts to get plates filled and out to the waitresses who got them out to the diners who sat in the red booths in the glare of their own reflections in the long window. He smiled and picked up the burger. He hesitated. He took a sip of coffee, holding the burger above the plate. The coffee was hot but tasteless. He set the cup on the counter, returned the burger to the plate and pushed it away. He wasn’t hungry.

He swiveled around. People, mostly truck drivers, came and went. It was dark outside. The night moved without warning. Trucks pulled onto the long highway, some heading west, some east. An endless procession of headlights.

When he swiveled back around, Lily stood in front of him. “Don’t you like the burger?” she asked.

“I’m not hungry,” he said.

“Can I get you something else?”

“No, no thanks,” he said. “I’m fine. I’ll just finish my coffee.”

“Listen, I’ve been thinking,” she said, looking over her shoulder at the clock, “I can get out of here early. We aren’t that busy.”

“Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”

“Trouble, the hell with trouble. I’ve been in trouble my whole life. This place is filled with nothing but trouble. Toil and trouble. Nah, it’s fine. I need a drink.”

“OK,” he said.

Lily ripped his check from the pad and put it in front of him. “I’ll be ready in a minute.”

“Perfect. I’ll take care of this and wait for you out front.”

She turned and walked through the swinging doors at the end of the counter. He took another sip of coffee, picked up the check, and stood up. Another story. He looked around the noisy restaurant. Everything seemed as if it were taking place inside a dream. These people weren’t real, only reflections in the beam of a headlight passing through an imaginary window.

He walked to the front counter and paid his bill. Before he left, he went to the restroom. He looked down as he stood in front of the urinal. Is this what he was after? He didn’t know. The story was still being told. And it wasn’t his story alone. She had become a part of it. He looked at his reflection in the mirror as he washed his hands. His hair was a mess and there were dark circles under his eyes. The light was weak. He peered harder into the mirror. Was Lily desperate? She must be. He was tired and worn out from driving so long. He needed rest. She needed rest too. But what did he have to offer her? Would they find rest together? An escape perhaps. Everyone was looking for an escape. He turned away and pulled a paper towel out of the dispenser. He dried his hands carelessly and threw the paper towel into the trash can. It fell onto the floor. He looked down at the pile of wet paper towels on the floor. Before he left, he looked back at the restroom. The whole place was disgusting.

He walked quickly through the restaurant and out the front doors. It was cooler now. But humid. The stink of diesel smoke came to him from across the crowded parking lot. He fought back a headache. He looked back inside the restaurant. Would she come through these doors or a side door? He walked around the corner. Before he reached his car, he’d already pulled the keys from his pants pocket and unlocked the driver’s door. He slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine. He looked over his shoulder as he backed out of the parking space and turned into the wide parking lot, driving around trucks turning onto the on-ramp that led back to the freeway. He knew she’d be standing there by now. He didn’t look back.

No, he couldn’t recall ever seeing his life extending out in front of him in an endless road. Even if it had at one time, it didn’t seem like that to him now. He was looking for the steep rise at the end of the road, the rise off of which he would lose touch with gravity.  


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