We were somewhere in Colorado after driving the day through Nevada and Utah, and we had miles ahead to go. The sun had set only a few minutes before, the twilight dimming over racing lengths of the Colorado River that we raced in turn, and the blue-edged black of early night was swiftly flooding the sky; we pulled into a gas station below a ridge lined with fast-food restaurants. Their signs were electric and bright against the deepening dark of the winding hills we’d driven behind us, and the plastic yellows and reds made the clean white and green panels of the gas station look more natural, somehow.
We were the only customers until a young couple in a black SUV pulled in across the empty lot. They stood close together on the other side of their car while they filled up, and talked in low voices. They both wore jeans and dark hooded tops; he put out a hand and touched her shoulder, awkwardly.
The distance from horizon to horizon above us, above the buildings and the highways, was vast, in its size, in its overwhelming impartiality. Dust from the road blew across the concrete beneath us; it settled and then passed as the breeze picked back up, and swept out into the shadows and the emptiness of the mountains and the valleys.
We were somewhere in West Texas and the man with the gut overhanging his belt was smiling as he spoke. Sweat beaded at his temples and he wore expensive-looking sunglasses under the white brim of his faded baseball cap. He was looking at Zara so I assumed he was talking to her; through the thickness of his accent I had no idea what he was saying. I kept the handle down and watched the numbers on the pump gauge race higher and higher. We’d come too close to running the tank empty. We’d been driving with the fuel light on for the last few hundred miles of old derricks and faded red soil and scrub. The orange LED had become increasingly apparent with every cresting hill that revealed nothing ahead but more of the same wide flats.
The air-conditioned convenience store of the gas station was a world away from the harsh dry oven heat of the morning outside. I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from the fridges and a pack of jerky from the display hooks and walked to the counter.
I paid with card and as soon as I’d signed the receipt and handed it back the lights flickered once and shut down. With a last despairing whine, the air conditioning choked into silence. Instantly the interior fell into shadow and the air turned still.
Customers groaned. The counter staff, a trio of women between fifty and sixty, fluttered to the computer and tried helplessly to turn it on.
‘Sorry,’ one of them called. ‘No gas. The pumps have gone too.’
Another minute and we would have been stuck here until the power came back. I made my way to the backroom bathrooms using the light of my phone’s screen to light the windowless corridor. When I came back out the power was still off. We got back into the car and drove away, leaving behind us the powerless gas station and the waiting customers, waiting still.
We were somewhere in Mississippi and we’d just crossed over both the state line and another one of the endlessly long bridges across the water. It was afternoon and I’d texted a photo of the road ahead of us to Joe Daly in San Diego. I was writing a text to someone else when I pressed a wrong button on my phone and it deleted the three weeks’s worth of conversation we’d been having.
The sun was over the sea and behind the ragged ghosts of clouds it was in glory; Zara reached down into her bag for her camera and passed it over to me.
Soon the long green marshes and waterways gave way to concrete sidewalks and suburban buildings and we found a low-roofed gas station circled with pickup trucks, with mothers in pulled-back ponytails and busy walks, with teen basketball players and laughing men in singlets holding beer cans. As we stood by the entryway a man with a head of tangled brown hair and a thin, scratchy beard walked up to Zara with carefully deferential steps. With all politeness, in a voice like road gravel and iron filings, he said hello.
‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ he asked. ‘Do you suppose I could buy a cigarette from you?’
Zara smiled and gave him one, waving away his offer of money.
‘Thank you,’ he said, and held it up to us happily, almost as if brandishing a prize. ‘First one I’ve had since I got out of jail this afternoon.’
We were somewhere in New Mexico and Zara was inside the gas station, buying something to drink on the road. I was leaning against the rough stone rear wall around the corner from the automatic doors, smoking. I’d barely lit up when the big Native American standing next to his truck straightened up and walked over to me.
‘Hey man,’ he said. ‘How are you today?’
He looked like he was somewhere past forty years old. He had a battered black cowboy hat and his face was solid and scarred and round. He wore a weathered denim jacket and a t-shirt that was rumpled and old over the size of his torso, all slack with fat and slouching muscle.
‘Well, thanks, man,’ I said. ‘How about you?’
He nodded once or twice at that, looked away, looked back.
‘Pretty good,’ he said.
He looked away, looked back.
‘That’s some accent you got there,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’
His voice was slow and deep; melodic within a single register and unfettered by any trace of emotion.
‘Australia,’ I said. ‘Melbourne, Australia.’
‘An Aussie,’ he said, pronouncing the middle sibilants with hissing American esses, rather than buzzing Australian zeds. ‘Wow, you’re far from home.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling. ‘I’m on a road trip with a friend of mine.’
‘OK,’ he said, and looked away, looked back.
‘Chester Healy is my name,’ he said, and he stuck out a hand. We shook, and his grip was even in its strength.
We spoke, and I started to notice his speech fell into a pattern free of any of the flowing syntax I associated with conversation. He broke his replies apart with that curious look away, look back, wordless every time. Our talk fell into question, response, pause. Question, response, pause. And Chester Healy casually, unthinkingly, dropped curses where they seemed out of place, further breaking the rhythm of his words.
‘So where have you been to?’ he asked, and he lit a cigarette.
‘Oh, everywhere,’ I said. ‘We started in LA, we drove out to New York across the north, then came down South through Washington and through Louisiana and Texas, and now we’re headed back to LA.’
He paused, looked away, looked back.
‘Washington,’ he said, saying the word as if it had some further importance than any other. ‘So did you get to see that fuckin’ nigger they got there, the one who keeps throwing his weight around?’
‘Of course,’ Chester Healy said, after a pause, look away, look back, ‘My wife is a black lady, so I can’t say too much. She gives me a hard time when I say fuckin’ things like that.’
Zara came around the corner then, and I introduced her. Chester Healy looked around at the cars at their petrol pumps and rubbed a hand across his chin.
‘I better be movin’ on,’ he said. ‘Things to do.’
He paused, looked away, looked back.
‘Say, do you have a spare couple bucks?’ he asked.
I only had a five in my wallet, and I handed it over. He shook my hand again. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘If you’re going near Flagstaff, watch out for smoke. I heard it fuckin’ over the radio. That whole place is fuckin’ on fire.’
His face, for the first time, split into a grin.
‘It sure was nice to meet you though,’ he said. ‘Never met a real live Aussie before.’
We were somewhere in Nebraska and I was drinking Red Bull. Zara had never tasted it and she sipped from the can and pulled a face.
‘Is it always that sweet?’ she asked, and shook her head. ‘I’ll stick with coffee, I think.’
I smiled and tipped the can up to swallow the last of it. The sweet, faintly chemical taste of energy drink was cold and sharp. A tingling wave ran over my scalp and I resisted the urge to run my hand through my hair.
For no apparent reason, the gas station garden beds were dotted with cheerful plastic dinosaurs. In lime green they stood watch over the roads leading into and out of the place, wet with the faint haze of rain that gently soaked the air.
We were somewhere in South Carolina and we’d been driving through a morning of thick, sweet-smelling warmth on our way to Charleston. The roads were overgrown and verdant at the sides, and pleasant in their dense miles of dark and leafy green. The night before we’d pulled in to the deserted parking lot of a small and modern-framed church to plot our route and the air had been awash with the scent of cinnamon.
It was sunny and the highway was lined with white honeysuckle. The plants were reaching and alive; long, long vines strung the trees further back into the woods. We drove into a gas station and when I got out of the car the sunshine was a gentle heat on my back. A flock of birds flew overhead in a long V and one of them called out a whistling arpeggio. Away in the foliage, another bird, unseen, called back.
Zara went inside while I worked the pump, and we passed each other at the doors as I walked in to get something to eat. I wandered through the aisles and the attendant kept a curious eye on me as I walked back to her with a handful of muesli bars.
‘So…’ she said slowly, in the first true Southern accent I’d heard on the road. She was pretty, in a plump, flushed way, and her sharp-collared white shirt was open two buttons at the neck. Her hair was streaked blonde and she wore golden rings. ‘Where are you all from?’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m from Australia.’
‘Well,’ she said, and she smiled and leaned in towards me, ‘That lady out there in the car? I don’t know who she is to you, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.’
‘Ah,’ I said.
I returned to the car and as I was pulling my seatbelt on I told Zara what the woman inside had said.
‘Right,’ Zara said. ‘That explains why she was smiling and nodding so much.’
We were somewhere in Iowa and the storm had finally broken. The rain had come down in pounding torrents as we crossed the swollen Mississippi, and it had thrown hard across highways where the only guides through the blattering screens of water across the windshield were the fading red brake lights of the cars ahead, but for now, the clouds were exhausted, and holding back their recovering strength.
The turnoff to the gas station took us up a winding spiral road that wrapped around a hill in the middle of nowhere, nothing more than a place for people who need to refuel. The lot was busy with traffic, so we filled up and then moved the car to park by the embankment around to the side.
People bustled inside, talking to each other across the racks of road stop clothing, filling up cups of coffee at the dispensers, poring over the dried-out convenience foods in heating cases. Zara was fascinated by the hangers full of Jesus t-shirts emblazoned with psalm numbers and sorrowing pictures of the Saviour on the cross. She searched through them while I went to the counter to pay.
A bald man in rimless round glasses was there, talking to the clerk, and the two of us struck up a conversation. He’d been the principal of the local school for twenty years – appropriately, he looked like James Tolkan, the principal from the Back to the Future movies.
He was friendly, and we spoke a little about how long he’d lived out here, in this quiet space far away from the cities. He asked if I knew much about Iowa, and I mentioned Field of Dreams. He laughed at that, and we traded lines back and forth. He saw a lot of truth, he said, in the one about Heaven.
When I got back outside the air was cool and damp. Down below the top of the hill, soft green land stretched out, far into the distance. The sky was a rolling patchwork of light greys, and close. The breeze blew, only slightly, and I looked out to the smoky wisps of rain on the horizon, away on the edge of seeing, and then back to the peace of the place at hand.