"Man, we've gotta get out of this shithole town." Mac took a gulp of beer and returned the nearly-empty longneck to the warped surface of the bar, positioning the bottle carefully on a pale ring where the fake wood grain had worn off. The same place he always set his beer. The ring, Mac maintained, was a sign of dedication.
Tommy nodded and sipped his own beer. "You got that right."
"This place puts my brain to sleep. I can't think."
It was an echo of something Tommy had heard before, something he knew was true, but it didn't matter. "Where would we go?"
"Shit, who cares? I've got enough cash for a couple tanks of gas. Five hundred miles, easy. We should just fuckin' load up the Pontiac and head out."
Mac looked at Tommy with red-rimmed eyes. "Hell, Tommy, I don't know. Any place has to be better than this." The big man gestured with his cigarette. "You don't seem to realize what this place is doing to your head. It's the same old shit day after day. You and me, Tommy, we're too smart to be here, working shit jobs --"
"You don't have a job."
"Two tanks of gas, man. A hell of a lot can happen in six hundred miles."
Tommy nodded. "I've got a couple hundred saved up."
Mac smiled with tobacco-stained teeth and slapped Tommy's shoulder. "Well, for Chrissakes, what are we doing here? Let's go."
Tommy hesitated. He looked down the bar at the misshapen forms of his friends, leaning forward heavily on their rickety barstools, seeing nothing but the beers in front of them. They were all there, almost every day, more at home in the bar than at home. A cartoon was playing silently on the TV over Mac's head, flickering with colorful violence, while a song Tommy had heard a thousand times played on the juke box. No one bothered trying to play pool anymore; the cue sticks had no tips and the table leaned so badly it was impossible to rack the balls. The ancient cloud of smoke did not completely mask the sour smell of sweat and puke.
Alice drifted over and leaned on her side of the bar. The low-cut top she wore was more about habit than commerce; all her customers were regulars and all were bad tippers. "Another round, boys?"
"Yeah, thanks," Mac said. "One more for the road, then we're outta here."
Alice popped a fresh pair of longnecks and set them on the bar. "Where you going?"
"Anywhere but here," Mac declared.
Alice snorted and rolled her eyes. "Send me a postcard." She turned to her other guests.
Tommy looked at the beer he didn't want but always had, and took a swig. It really was time to go. "Nellie's not gonna like it."
Mac looked over his beer at his friend. "Is it your money or hers?"
"Then it doesn't matter what she thinks, does it?"
"She'll still be pissed."
"Tommy, we're not coming back."
Tommy took a big swig and set the bottle down. He watched the foam settle. "Gonna miss her."
"No you won't. The only reason you put up with her shit is because you're in the godforsaken armpit of the universe. It's eating your soul, Tommy. Once we get out there, you'll see."
Tommy didn't answer right away. He had his job, and he had Nellie. Mac always found enough work to get by, and they had Alice bringing them beers. He watched the bartender's tight jeans as she helped another customer. Everything he needed was right here. Mac finished his beer and had another. They weren't going anywhere tonight.
When Alice finally kicked them out Tommy walked with Mac down the deserted highway to Mac's trailer. The Pontiac was parked out front, rusting, waiting.
"We should go first thing tomorrow," Mac said. "Get your money. I'll pick you up and then we're gone."
"OK, Mac. Have a good night."
"I got a bottle. You wanna come in?"
"Nah. Big day tomorrow." He almost said I've got work tomorrow.
"Damn right, Tommy, damn right. Finally! You and me, buddy, out on the open road!" He howled like a wolf into the moonless night. "Come on in and have one."
"All right. You get first shift driving, then."
Tommy's house -- Nellie's house, really -- was about half a mile farther down the empty highway. The night was cool and dark, no moon, no clouds, the heat of the day quickly lost to the heavens. A good night for walking. A good night for thinking. Stars filled the high desert sky, crowding each other, pushing and shoving, vying for attention. He scanned the sky for planets, the wandering ones, but could find none. They had all slipped away, hiding behind the sun, leaving only the cold, hard stars.
To the stars, the planets must seem like mad prophets and rock stars, untamed and reckless as they careen about the firmament, but the planets are also bound, their courses charted and known. When planets speak wistfully of freedom, do the stars even understand the word?
Tommy stopped walking and stood at the side of the road, wondering if he had any more choice than the planets. In one direction was Mac's house, and beyond that the bar. In the other direction was Nellie's place. Which way to freedom?
He listened to the night, to the creatures in the darkness living their furtive lives, to the crickets singing their songs of love and death. Above him he picked out the Big W stretched along the milky way. He tried to imagine that giant frisbee of stars, extending over distances that defied time itself, and shook his head. They said there was a black hole in the middle, the drain in the bottom of the bathtub. Somewhere on the other side, perhaps, things might be different.
"Where would we go?" he asked the stars. They looked down on him, severe and unblinking in the still mountain air, and kept their secrets.
Everywhere is the same, he thought. The stars are the same. People are the same, just trying to get by, dreaming of being somewhere else. Some places might have more people and fewer stars, but if he went into a bar in L.A. there'd be a Mac and a Tommy there, drinking from long-neck bottles and talking about getting the hell out of there.
He stood longer, watching satellites make their furtive way far above. A jetliner rumbled by, huge and blinking, filled with people going somewhere, heading west, finally leaving him in peace again. Meteors punctuated his reverie with fleeting streaks of light. Perhaps they were the free ones -- free to burn brightly as they died.
As he watched the sky, the peace of the night settled around him, the echoes of Mac's chatter faded until he could hear his own voice again. "Where am I now?" he whispered into the emptiness. It seemed a simple question, but the answer, 'here', is just a word, a placeholder, the same question repackaged.
Tommy lowered his gaze and looked down the road toward Nellie's house. He didn't feel like going home, but he couldn't think of anywhere else to go. He began to walk, slowly, as the night chilled his skin. Somewhere out in the darkness a coyote howled, but was not answered.
His football knee was bothering him again as he came around the bend; ahead was the porch light, still on. The light was still on in the bedroom as well. Damn. He opened the door quietly, hoping perhaps she had dozed off, hoping to delay the confrontation until morning.
"Where you been?" came her voice through the half-open bedroom door.
"Walking. Looking at the stars."
"You're drunk, aren't you?"
He drifted into the bedroom. She was sitting up, doing the crossword from the paper. "Not anymore."
She set the paper down, the anger in her face giving way a little bit. Tommy wasn't following the usual script, wasn't rising to the bait.
He smiled. "Hey, hon," he said. "You look great." And she did. She wouldn't win any more beauty contests; the circles under her eyes and the creases at the corners of her frowning mouth were hardly flattering. Her skin was gray in the light of the bare bulb next to the bed. But to Tommy none of that mattered. When he looked at her he still saw the young beauty he had chased for years. He had never believed he would win her heart, but always he had hoped, and he never gave up. In those days he had always followed his heart, no matter where it led him.
She shifted self-consciously under his quiet gaze, pulling her threadbare flannel nightgown closed at the neck. "You were out with Mac, weren't you?"
"You should stay away from that guy. He's no good."
"Yeah, I know." Rather than taking off his shoes he crossed over to the dresser and pulled open the top drawer. His money was in there. Two hundred dollars wasn't going to get him very far.
"You're not giving that to Mac, are you?"
"I'm going on a trip."
"Where?" her voice was a challenge.
"Oh, Lord." She sighed and set the paper aside. "This is one of Mac's ideas, isn't it? When all your money's gone you'll be back, like nothing ever happened."
Tommy shut the drawer. "He's not coming."
She hesitated. "What?"
"I'm going alone."
"Where?" It was a different question this time.
He shook his head slowly, afraid to look her in the eye. "Don't know."
She pushed herself up straight in the bed. "Why?"
Tommy groped for an answer, wishing he had a better one. "Need to think."
Her voice was calm, but there was a strain behind it. "Us?"
"You said it yesterday. I'm sleepwalking. Doing the easy thing, just getting by."
"God damn it, Tommy, don't use that against me. You can do your thinking here as well as anywhere else."
He thought about the stars. "Too much noise here."
She laughed, a sharp bark without humor. "Here? This must be the quietest place on Earth."
Tommy scowled, struggling to explain. "It's the voices. I can't shut them out long enough to hear myself. There's always Mac talking, or Alice, or..." He trailed off, but it was too late.
He finally met her eye. "I just gotta think for a while."
Her voice cracked. "You comin' back?"
"I don't know. Probably."
"I won't be waiting for you." Her hands were folded in her lap, but her knuckles were white.
He took a breath. "I know."
She was starting to cry. Not the big bawling of other women Tommy had known; this was a quiet, internal grief. It was the thing he loved most about her, her self-sufficiency, her disdain of drama. She was a fine woman, powerful, and Tommy could never love anyone else the way he loved her. If she asked him to stay he would.
She was breathing slowly and carefully, looking at her hands knotted in the blanket, holding herself in. Her voice was a whisper. "I miss the old Tommy. When he had fire. When he had life. If you think you'll find that man out there somewhere, then you should go."
Tommy shuddered, remembering the pain that had come with the passion, and hesitated. The fire he had once had was dangerous. Sleepwalking was easier, and he could do it forever. It was too late now, though. She had let him go. He put the money in his pocket and sat on the edge of the bed. He took her hands in his. "I'm sorry," he said. He kissed her hands and her wrists.
"I'm sorry, too," she said. "I won't be waiting, but I won't be looking, either. Come back."
"I love you, Tommy."
He swallowed through a tight throat. "I love you too." He'd said it plenty of times before, and meant it, but never the way he did then. "I just do."
There were no cars on the highway; hitchhiking would have to wait for the sun. It didn't matter. He walked, motion more important than destination or speed. The stars looked down on a night full of life. Tommy shouldered his pack and headed west, following the jetliner. It was as good a direction as any.
-- Jerry Seeger