The problem is, he is insistent on using a map. They have a GPS but no, it’s his new map that’s consulted. The Macklebees have been cruising along the interstate when Gerry spots a thready side road in the crease of the brightly colored tri-fold map.
“No, not that way. Not this time! We have three hours to get to the birthday party and that’s that.”
Lucille is very certain of herself and her driving. Gerry finds her behind-the-wheel style plodding. Unimaginative. She has been a principal driver for the bakery delivery van for years and before that she picked up and dropped off clothing for her alterations business. Door to door; it is almost a talent. She is an exacting driver who knows just how to get places. Gerry wonders why she takes such pride in this, but it is true Lucille possesses a mind that becomes etched with relevant details and thus, she gets product or person to places on time because she doesn’t deviate.
Gerry, on the other hand, prefers otherwise and protests, even argues his point.
“We’re on the road. We haven’t had a trip since last fall. It’s all work, work, work–all well and good, but now it’s time to play. Let’s take a new road at exit 41.”
She makes her little humming noise, a cross between a grunt and a dismissive sigh. It is mid-morning. They are to arrive at their daughter’s and son-in-law’s by mid-afternoon. They always stop (the three other times they have visited the new place) for lunch at a cheery, cheap cafe situated just between breakfast and Anne’s place. Lucille looks forward to the route, an easy drive to the townhouse where Anne and Toby and their son, Edsel–the first grandchild, two today!–now reside at the edge of the capital city.
“I just want to get there. After a good lunch at Clare’s Classic Cafe. We can meander our way back on Sunday. There will be time then.”
“There’s time now, and the sun’s shining away and the corn will be growing vigorously in the country. Turn at the next exit, please, honey.” He reaches across the back of the seat and twice squeezes her plump shoulder, as if a loving signal she ought to obey.
She squints at the sign: six miles to the exit where there is also a rest stop. She might reconsider for the rest stop but then he will argue that they should continue down his vitally important side road. If he had flown planes or run trains for a living, the passengers would have ended up in unwanted, surprising, perhaps shocking, destinations. Luckily, he’s a reluctant businessman who discovered he had a knack for baking. And married her to keep all the slippery organizational data straight. The complementary set they make works well, like salt and pepper.
She presses the gas pedal and switches lanes in one swift move, as if their compact Ford is a dominant force on the road, then looks at her husband. “I think Toby is doing very well now. Anne didn’t say, but she did mention they bought a new–oh, what do they call it? A dial-your-own-firmness sort of mattress. And a new leather couch. So he must have.”
“Or she got a raise. She’s a good French teacher.” He smiles at the thought of her early French as a teen. “Toby’s just a hard guy to know. Sells car parts, likes rugby. And reads John LeCarre–in agreement with that interest.”
Gerry is holding the map closer to his nose. He recently got bifocals and it’s still a guessing game more often than not. He recalls seeing another side road, a county road that seemed to curl around hills, right into wine country. Maybe that would be more fun.
“Foreign car parts, not domestic. Makes a big difference.”
“I suppose so. You know, we might skip Clare’s Cafe and take our chances on roadside stands. If we follow this way.” His finger creeps along the tiny black line from exit 41 to nowhere in particular. He knows they might end up being late but it’s not as if they’re taking a meeting with the Pope. Anne will hardly notice.
“I think she is happier since the baby, don’t you?” She is certainly happier with a grandbaby.
“Hmmm, yes, and he seems happier. He wants a bushel of babies. I’m not sure Anne was consulted on that. She wants to live in France for a couple of years.”
“Oh, time for that.”
Gerry takes his eye off the map a moment to register the last few out-stations of suburban sprawl flashing by. Ping pong pow, he thinks irrelevantly as sunshine flashes off windows. He wishes they had a week off, not just two days. He feels an urge to get out and walk across the entire country. He often has this unruly impulse. It’s a childhood dream of his, given fresh impetus whenever they leave the city. It feels so close inside their house and bakery and also this dull grey car interior, even with windows cracked. He’d rather be in full control of his feet, pointing them elsewhere. Seeing more color. Anne understands, or did.
“If he wants her happy, Paris should figure into his big picture,” he mumbles.
When she was still a teen he’d told her he’d take her when she grew up. Then she grew up and went, anyway, and then got married. Gerry thinks Lucille is rather too optimistic about their son-in-law, though. He isn’t exotic, that’s for sure. Gerry also thinks they just need to focus on the pretty drive, not the family they will visit with for two days. Riding in the car always seeems to bring up subjects better left behind.
Lucille waves away his words, then grips the steering wheel with renewed surety. Soon she will hug Edsel long and hard. She will just continue on. Exit 41 will come and go; he may not even notice with his nose in the crisp map. Gerry and his maps of everywhere, something she’s never understood. If not going there, why trace the routes?
The map is opened up. He loves to look at the entirety of Oregon, its topography highlighted in a select spectrum of soft colors, lighter to darker. The greens draw him in, just as actual forests do. On the map they’re series of irregular puzzle pieces. Inviting yet mysterious. They make populated areas notable for their comparative scarcity. This is a land shaped and regulated by trees. Owned by nature.
“It’s like a portrait, really, a rendering of places and experiences. History made. A record of dreams and daring. The earth.”
“What?” It’s map talk but it is habit to ask. Her dreamy husband.
“This updated map. I’d like to dive right in and find out more of what’s going on.”
“Gerry, here we are on the road, which is a squiggle on the paper map. You are actually having your experience right now.”
He almost disagrees but says nothing. She is thinking of one thing; he, another. He typically wants more.
“The exit, there, coming up!” He points.
“I’d rather keep going, stick to schedule.”
“I need the rest stop, anyway, don’t you?”
She taps the steering wheel with her short index fingernail. “Yes.”
Once she parks and they get out they both stretch. Travelling makes her cramp up. She lumbers to the ladies’, he strides with looser limbs to the men’s. Afterwards, he enjoys a small cup of coffee after donating a dollar to the jar, tipping his baseball cap at volunteers from a service club. He likes the fact that they take time to serve mediocre coffee and cookies, welcoming everyone; it seems the best of being on the road in America. Gerry imagines they sit at rest stops all over the country, chatting and sharing treats. He’d like to find out if coffee is better in Georgia or Maine.
“You’ll just have to go again after drinking more,” she notes sharply as they start back to the Ford.
But she is not looking where she’s walking, and before Gerry can warn her, a small runaway dog dragging its leash crosses her path. It yelps as her foot entangles with the leash, giving the dog and her a yank.
Lucille knees start to buckle as her foot turns over but she grabs a trash receptacle.
And she half-straightens up. “Gerry?” Her round face is stormy with distress as she reaches to him, standing on the good foot. “My ankle!”
There is a flurry of activity as a couple of strangers check to see if she is okay and Gerry helps her to a bench, the anxious dog owner following. They examine it but find nothing remarkable; she can turn it without significant pain. There are effusive apologies amid Lucille’s stern advice, the dog given a very bad look. It backs away, panting. After a few minutes all seems better and they start back arm-in-arm.
“I’d better drive.”
“I think I’ll be fine, just a bit sore.” She turns back to glare at the offenders, now vanished. “Of all things!”
“It’s your brake and gas pedal foot.” Gerry takes the keys and helps her into the passenger seat.
Lucille grabs map and tosses it into the back seat. Dogs! Irresponsible pet owners! She is annoyed with the whole situation although she consoles herself with the fact of a sprained ankle being far better than a broken one. And it may not be sprained, only stressed. She hopes she can play with Edsel without impediment. That she can still help Anne while Gerry and Toby get to know one another better as they admire the updated patio and grill.
But there is nothing she can do about Gerry driving. No telling where they will end up. She thinks he looks a tad smug behind the wheel. If only he have any urges to stop, doesn’t take unnecessary chances on the unknown road.
She tells him so: “Just get us there soon, in one piece.”
“What sort of chances can you take with a six-year-old car on a lonely back road?” A smile skips across his narrow face.
Gerry’s chest prickles with excitement as he backs out, then soon enters the country. The road is eighteen miles long. A detour, sure, but it will reconnect to the highway. If that is what he decides to do.
His wife rubs her forehead with both sets of fingers. He lapses into happy silence though Lucille comments on the rough ride, barns in need of repair, farmers toiling in the summer heat. There are few other vehicles after a battered truck trundles down a private road with its load of crates and huge bags of , perhaps, fertilizer. He wonders what are in those crates.
“Don’t take the curves so fast. There might be pheasants or snakes or a stray cow, one never knows.”
Her hand often checks the tender ankle as she sips from a water bottle. Removes her slip-on sneakers and repositions her bulk. Her eyelids falter, then fall.
Gerry feels the release that comes with this quasi-solitude. The rows and rows of corn look triumphant. Wide front porches of farmhouses are dressed up with hanging flower baskets, painted chairs. Cats dash into driveways, chasing birds or mice or dust whorls and a few dogs chase him as he slows for a better look at barns and sheds, the yards, the men on the tractors who wave back. He has the windows open and the air is overwhelmingly sweet in that wilder way he misses smelling at home. Everything is brighter, clearer out here. The grasses dance in a rifling of wind. The treetops net light so that an entire line of them–are they only ash or cottonwood?–are pulsating against a sapphire backdrop. And then the rolling vineyards–stately, precisely designed, flourishing as intended, soon to be transformed into drink. What beautiful sorts of grapes ripen, ready themselves for offering delights?
This is what he waits for, a curvy country road on a summer’s afternoon. Oh, he loves his daughter and maybe her husband a bit. Of course, that Edsel boy! And Lucille, his right hand, his trusted partner in good and bad times. But to be free like a leaf tossed into a rippling river, that is what his soul craves, he would welcome the bumps and being submerged, the turning this way and that, the wondrous shock of fresh air above the surface. The heart-shaking thrill of tumbling over an unseen cliff and landing somewhere new again. To feel the stunning energy of life being lived up close, at full speed.
How can he live such a stationary life? Why was he born with such a terrible urge to roam? But he does not go and do. He has a business and a family and he does the right thing. But there are times he studies the collection of old maps in his home office, smooths the frayed world map on his wall, spins the globe the family got him for his fiftieth and stops it with eyes closed. Where will he go now? Mongolia! Patagonia! He wants to pack a light bag and head out.
The car carries them down the road, Lucille dozing, Gerry driving a little faster now, the breeze catching his cap so he takes it off to let the last of greying wisps rise like little flags. He sees horses ambling from one good feed spot to another, heads nodding, their elegant bodies without conceit. Everything here is only as it seems. A purity of animate and inanimate. Gerry drinks deeply of this peace. His sport shirt collar and sleeves flap. He stares at sheep grazing and black and white cows lounging in cool greenness. A bumble bee zooms in, buzzes about and then exits past Lucille’s lovely double chin. She turns her face to him. Gerry chuckles. He has mapped out this time and he is free of cares.
And then the car lurches and sways as a tire hits a pothole. He slows down, rolls to a stop near a fruit stand. Lucille has bolted awake but softness clings to her, the part that often hides when she’s awake. Her blue eyes are tender.
“What’s going on?”
“Fruit stop.” He gestures to the stand which is manned by a boy of perhaps nine along with a big, old dog with a long snout.
“Oh, my, look at that beautiful line up.” Her eyes dance, perhaps now grasping his devious plan.
She eases out the door and finds her ankle fit enough. After he inspects the tire and finds it intact, they take their time looking over a surfeit of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries. They inhale the scent of heavy cantaloupes, burgundy plums and ruby nectarines. He chooses a warm blackberry and pops it into his mouth, savoring its succulence, then places one into Lucille’s. They buy and snack more on the fruits of summer than planned. The boy carefully counts his cash and wishes them a good trip, his dog’s tail wagging in accord.
But they hesitate, lean against the door and listen to crows confer on the fence and follow a red-tailed hawk as it sails high, then low. A heron makes its way from meadow to sky. They try to identify a songbird’s mellifluous call, practicing the notes. They each eat a nectarine, juice dripping down chins. Sweat runs its path between her pendulum breasts, down his broad back.
Lucille takes his face between her hands and plants a kiss on his unsuspecting cheek. Her sticky lips fall just right onto his sun-warmed skin. He returns it, smack dab on her lips. The shimmering, endless road beckons them a little but neither mentions time or destination. No one suggests the highway. They’re right here and they don’t need to say one word.