An Excerpt from “Highway 47”

This is the first part (to the first line break) of a short story I loved writing. It came out of pure imagination, completely unconnected to anything I have experienced. It’s about a man who wants something he knows he shouldn’t have and what he gets when the “right” situation presents itself. I think the outcome for Grey is not what most readers will expect, so it will be interesting to see if you find it as unpredictable as I tried to make it. I’d also be interested in knowing what readers think of the dream sequence and in what they think actually happened. But I’m not giving you the whole story! I want to pique your interest. Enjoy!

 

GREY

GREY PULLED OFF THE ROAD in a meadowed valley to stretch and watch the fading evening light. Beyond the narrow stretch of tall grass, hills dusted with early snow rose like rounded steps to higher and higher summits. He loved the land’s brown curves, the lacing arms of bare trees reaching up, the creeks coming down through rocky draws, but it was too late for even the shortest hike up the beckoning gravel roads. He had been pushing himself all day, never getting out for more than a stretch. Getting home to Lesley before ten o’clock wasn’t the only reason or even the main one. The rhythm of Highway 47’s rolling turns had hooked him into a race against the clock, saving him from the familiar road dreams he had been trying to escape, leaving him content to soak up the dying light and dimming woods and hills in mesmerizing motion.

He jogged four circles around the car and tried a few perfunctory stretches before getting back in. Soon Highway 47 gave up the meadow for a forest tunnel, his high beams piercing it like a miner’s light, his dashboard reflecting him back on himself from both side windows. He floated past lone houses and closed stores under pale fluorescent cautionary lights. Random scenes from within replaced the cold landscape, flashing by like a sped-up silent movie: Lesley sipping wine at the kitchen table, wondering how early he had left; his mother probing before he left, her nosiness trumping her caution; the week of work ahead, needing to be planned; a woman somewhere on the road, inviting him. Grey tried to follow that last one, but six hours with few stops had tired him. The images flooded by too fast until the perk from the last cup of coffee wore off, and the scenes began to fade. He blinked his eyes and forced them open with imaginary posts and beams, then clamps and vice-grips. He sermonized aloud on favored topics and worked out the logic of strong convictions. Anything to keep moving.

He surfed the radio: country western, talk show politics, weather reports from somewhere about snow, forgettable oldies, country western, fire and brimstone, talk show psychology, storm watches, country western, biblical prophecy, talk show politics, metallic rock and roll and rock and roll and on and on until a road sign announced his immediate goal, Payune, twenty miles. He relaxed and imagined a booth in Denny’s with chinking dishes and steaming bad coffee, a newspaper, a breakfast plate.

The thought of food gave Grey a second wind. He shut off the unrelenting radio trash, cracked his window to an unexpected damp chill, and straightened up for the run to Payune. A dot of blue neon appeared where the road dissolved in the last strands of crimson daylight at the end of the tunnel of trees. The dot grew and took on shape, slid out of sight, came back over the road refined into “Adrian’s Diner.” He slowed and coasted toward a left turn into the parking lot. A road sign appeared in his headlights. “Payune 14.” He thought about pushing on to predictable fast food. He might make it home before Lesley turned in, but his tired back and feet had already taken command. His stomach growled agreement. He took the left.

Adrian’s Diner was a flat rectangular addition that ruined a cozy two-story, steep-peaked house of unpainted wood. The latter wore single windows on either side of a centered front door and a double above, tight under the peak. The diner was all windows with blinds drawn down and slats left open. Grey could see no one inside, but an “Open” sign hung in a pane of the front door. Overhead a thin veil of gray permitted the night’s first stars to shine through, but the cold, damp hint of snow surprised him. He wished he had listened to the weather reports and thought again about moving on.

He wondered whether Adrian was a woman, and that possibility got him through the door. It opened to a tinkling of bells, soft like the wind chimes Lesley hung from the eaves by their back door a few years before. He stood for a moment in the diner’s soft light and warm browns, so different from the white glare he had expected. On the window side of a wide aisle sat a row of booths, on the inside a counter with a row of stools. In a gap in the counter stood a small display case with an antique cash register mounted on its glass surface. Each booth had a beige and white-checkered tablecloth, dark brown vinyl benches, and a brassy little jukebox under the window. Above the jukes, light beige wall lamps with small cream-colored shades cast a row of downward glows. Even the blinds were milky brown. The slow, warm colors would keep him off the road a while. He figured Adrian’s Diner for a mom and pop place run by friendly older folks. Oh well, he thought, they would know about the weather and, with luck, have a passable paper and serve breakfast at dinner with a decent cup of coffee.

Grey stood there, hands in his pockets, choosing his spot. A young boy he took for five or six came in from a door behind the left end of the counter. He watched the boy fill a water glass and take a set of utensils wrapped in a brown paper napkin from a drawer. Balancing the load in his little hands, the boy went to a window booth and arranged the setting with great care, looking resolute, important. Impressed, Grey gave a rather formal nod and held back the broad grin, then settled into the booth and took off his glasses to rub his eyes. The boy watched him, his shoulders relaxing out of his waiter pose. After a few seconds, he scurried around the counter and through the door behind it as if on his way to report the completion of an assignment. Propping his elbows on the table, Grey leaned his head into his hands to let the stiffness ease from his neck and shoulders.

When he shut his eyes, the road reappeared, taking him in and out of turns, up and down rises and falls. He felt his car turning into the diner’s parking lot and saw a young woman peering through its bank of windows. A scraping sound, rubber boots on the floor, intruded. He looked up to see the boy at the edge of the booth, his face peering from the tightened furry hood of a winter coat. Their eyes met, Grey winked, and the boy, his waiter’s demeanor now abandoned, gave him a shy grin and scooted toward the door, scraping the heels of his boots on the floor with each step. Grey lay his head back in his hands, closed his eyes, and found himself back in the driver’s seat, opening the car window to the chill air and hint of snow. I’ll be really late now, he thought, what with this break. He was tired and knew it would be a long one.

He heard the door click shut, the bells hanging on it mingling with the sound of a woman’s voice, dusky and pleasant.

“Can I help you?”

Startled, he straightened up with a jerk.

“Are you okay?” the waitress asked, her voice cautious. She stared wide-eyed, her pupils bobbing around in large, clear whites, her arms crossed in front of her.

“I’m all right, just tired,” he said, looking up. An oval nameplate bearing “Adrian” in cursive letters rode a field of yellow leaves on long, brown stems. “And hungry.”

“There are menus.” She pointed at the jukebox at the window end of the booth. The menus were behind it. “Something to drink?”

He looked past her down the row of booths. Against the wall at the far end of the diner’s broad aisle sat a big juke, brassy-brown and ruling. He noticed that the counter had little jukes across from every third or fourth round, brown vinyl stool.

Adrian stood there, waiting. “I’ll just come back.” “I’m sorry. Such a nice place. Just water, thanks.” “Sure,” she said, turning away.

“Haven’t been in a jukebox diner in a long time. Nice touch from the past. I’m really sorry. Falling asleep. I guess I was more tired than I thought.”

She nodded and motioned again to the menus. “I’ll give you a few minutes to order.”

“Nice colors in here,” he said. “I like them.”

“Every shade of brown.”

“That’s right.”

“Well, I guess I should look this over.”

“Good idea,” she said, turning away. She’s autumn, Grey thought. Copper penny hair, freckled skin, reddish brown eyes. She was lean and athletic with strong, high shoulders and a small waist and firm, freckled arms that matched her hair. He followed the loose braid down past her waist to the curve of her yellow-leaved dress, then back up to her arm as it stretched to clean the grill, revealing the profile of her breast. Not until she glanced over her shoulder did Grey finally reach for a menu, but the jukebox distracted him. He scanned the songs. Adrian, sniffing at a coffee maker and wiping down a broad grill, was difficult not to look at. She glanced over her shoulder.

“Coffee?”

“Decaf please. High-octane raises me up and sets me down. I’ll do better on the road without it.”

“Then look over that menu for solid food. Half and half and sugar?”

“Just half and half.”

Adrian brought his coffee. He kept his eyes on the menu while she poured, but a quick glance at her left hand revealed an empty ring finger. When she shuffled back a step, he hoped she hadn’t noticed. She drew a pad of tickets and a pen from a pocket in the leaves and waited.

“Should I make myself scarce a while longer?”

“Not necessary.” He looked up. “Can I order breakfast?”

She pointed toward the top of the menu. “Anytime, like it says.”

“Yeah, there. How about a Number One? Fried and over easy, the whites cooked, the yolks runny but hot, you know, the impossible egg. Crisp bacon and home fries, whole wheat toast. Could you go light on the butter and only one tin of jam? And since this is a fifties place, how about eight quarters for the juke and a small glass of grapefruit juice?”

Adrian smiled, showing even, gleaming teeth. Grey reached for his wallet. After she took his two dollars, he returned to the distraction of the juke. With the chrome- tipped handles that extended through the curved slot in the bottom, he turned the stiff pages. Hank Locklin, real country. He’d pass, as that was most of the day’s radio fare when he found music. Jerry Lee Lewis. Nope. He thought of Lesley and decided he would call after dinner. Perry Como. No way. She would ask how his mother was and how late would he get home. The Kingston Trio. Getting better. He didn’t know when he’d get in and might need to find a motel. Early Beatles. We’re getting somewhere. She would repeat the question about his mother. He would say that the old gal was better and glad he came. The new place would be good enough. The Eagles. All right. He probably would get a motel. Somehow he would see her shrug and would ask what she was thinking. Linda Ronstadt, a true lamenter. She would say it would be nice if he would push on and ask how much time he killed walking. Emmy Lou Harris, a sweeter wailer than Linda. He would say hardly any and wonder what difference getting home tonight would make. Rita Coolidge, “If You Could See Me Now.” That’s the place to start. He hummed a line: “If you could see me now, the one who said that he’d never roam.”

“Pardon me.” Adrian stood at the edge of his table. “You’re going to need these,” she said.

She held out her left hand, long tawny arm extended, long fingers curved into a little basket from which she spilled the coins into his. Buy the right music, he imagined her fingers saying. Play the right songs for your dream of me. He searched her face for details to remember in a motel room in Payune. Her mouth seemed to be working to hold something back. Perhaps she knew he would take her image with him, skin and shape and motion to be remembered.

Her face became serious. “Snow’s coming,” she said, her throaty voice informative, convincing. “This might be too much music.”

When Adrian left, Grey trickled the coins, eight songs for a fantasy he would flesh out with the image of her, onto the table one-by-one. The coins stared up at him. In their graying surfaces he tried to see Lesley and was rewarded with the two of them in bed without embrace, with no more touch than a ritual peck goodnight before their heads hit distant pillows, his eyes searching the ceiling for the image of someone else. He turned back to the juke and slotted six of the coins, keeping two to fiddle with. Snow or not, Payune was close enough for a dozen songs.