Any Time You Like

I understand what ‘deafening silence’ means now.

Any Time You Like

     I understand what ‘deafening silence’ means now.

He had been driving for several hours, and he shifted his weight from one cheek to the other to alleviate the tightness and numbness in his legs.

His wife had been asleep for the last fifty or sixty miles, her head cocked to one side, unnaturally, her chest rising and falling softly with the occasional deep sigh, which left her lips sputtering and sinuses echoing.

They were on their way back home from her grandmother’s funeral in Denver. Her grandmother had exerted significant influence on the woman she was became, having raised her during her formative years while her own mother struggled with addiction. Even when her mother cleaned up, got a job, remarried, and became a ‘functioning member of society’, she still went to her grandmother for advice and encouragement.

     Deafening silence.

Things had been tense between them for months. It wasn’t unusual for them, and probably not for most long-term relationships, but this was different. They’d both retreated to their respective dark corners, surrounded by the shadows of past slights and hurts that encouraged them to stay there. They both agreed that it, whatever it truly was, wasn’t worth the fight anymore.

The quick smiles, loose laughter, and ease of companionship had fallen away like leaves from trees in the fall – gradually, one at a time at first, then in clumps. Neither of them could put their finger on a single conversation or incident that caused the change, but it was here, and there was no spring for them to look forward to.

Their weekly date nights became excursions into silence as hard to navigate as their intentions, and mutual relief was all they had shared when the evening was over. At least in their own home, they could escape to separate rooms, close a door, and temporarily enjoy the illusion of object (spousal) impermanence.

One evening, hailing Mary, she reluctantly suggested to him that they take a trip together to try to reconnect and love and appreciate one another again. He was as surprised at his response as she was. The thought of a trip quickly and unexpectedly invigorated them, and for several hours, they connected, flirted, laughed, planned, and joked as if something, once long restrained, had been loosed.

Their resurrection was cut short when his wife had gotten the call from her mother that her grandmother was dead.

This wasn’t the trip that either of them were prepared for.

He turned up the volume on the radio, but not enough to disturb her as she slept. Propping his elbow on the windowsill, he hummed along to the songs and watched fields and farms roll by. Once green fields were glazed with ice and snow, windblown and flecked with spots of brown and the girthy erections of hay bales, which were the only discernable elevation for as far as his eye could see.

He marveled at the size of the irrigation systems, their long arms spread protectively over the hard and furrowed earth below. Their size never ceased to amaze him, nor did how many he saw in the distance as they sped past. He smiled wistfully, remembering the time she’d explained to him what they were and how they were used.

Since she’d spent her formative years living with her grandparents, she’d grown up working their farm: detassling corn, milking cows, feeding chickens, and collecting their eggs. When they’d only been dating for about two months, she took him to meet her grandmother; her grandfather died before they met. He remembered driving down the highway searching for the turnoff to her grandmother’s rural gravel road and being greeted by the strong smell of manure. “Mmm-mmm! ‘Smells like money’, my grandfather used to say!” she’d told him.

Small snow drifts huddled around fence posts as if for warmth. The posts, deliberately spaced and connected by taut lines of barbed wire, took no notice.

It was unseasonably cold.


"My Maserati does one eighty-five,

I lost my license and now I can’t drive,

Life’s been good to me, so far!"


He drummed his fingers along the steering wheel, simultaneously imagining playing drums and guitar. Absently, he wondered how different his life would be if he’d learned music as a child and stuck with it.

He noticed a swath of blood that began in his lane and ended beneath a bloody deer carcass resting in the lane to his left, its legs facing the direction he was driving and its neck broken, eyes facing him. He wondered what kind of vehicle it had been hit by.

On the other side of the grassy median, an oncoming car darted carelessly between two tractor trailers. He caught sight of a tractor trailer in his lane, about a quarter mile ahead, and began silently calculating when to speed up ahead of the nearest vehicle in the passing lane. As he approached the truck,

M &S National Transport

LIC#65jty5

he noticed its trailer tail and mud flaps, each with the same chrome silhouette of a naked woman in repose, her back arched seductively.


"I woke up this morning,

And I got myself a beer!

The future’s uncertain,

And the end is always near."


Lincoln 47

Omaha 93

He sighed heavily and looked at the clock. We should be home by 9:00 p.m.

He came upon and passed a blue minivan, with five smiling stick figure stickers on the rear window, in the middle lane.

Looking past his sleeping wife, who momentarily stirred, he surveyed the occupants of the minivan – a man, the driver, possibly the husband/father, looking bored. The woman, the passenger, possibly the wife/mother, sat beside him aimlessly turning the pages of a magazine. Two kids slept in car seats behind them.

     Deafening silence must be contagious.

He fidgeted in his seat from right to left again and caught a glimpse of the minivan as it pulled off of the interstate into a rest stop.


"Try to understand,

Try to understand,

Try

Try

Try to understand,

He’s a magic man!"


He couldn’t ignore the familiar tingle any more. He searched ahead to the horizon, just short of the rapidly setting sun, for signs of a gas station, for a bathroom.

A commercial interrupted his head bobbing and quiet singalong:

     Are your monthly debts piling up?

     Do you feel overwhelmed and stressed, and wonder how you’re going          to pay what you owe?

     Then you can’t forget about the National Lottery! Here’s what our last          lottery winner, Jeannie Atkins, has to say:

          “Seven years ago, I was in debt and in danger of losing my home. My           husband and I decided to register for the National Lottery, and we               won! All of the debts we had accumulated up to that point were                     forgiven, and our credit slate was wiped completely clean. And since           we couldn’t accrue any new debt for the seven years between that               drawing and this one, we we’ve actually been able to save and get                 ahead!”

          “The National Lottery only comes around once every seven years,                 and this year, one lucky person will win. Have doubts about playing?           Ask yourself: how much debt have I accrued in the past seven years?           What are the chances of me paying it off in the next seven years?”

          “Wouldn’t you like a fresh start, to be free from financial burdens                 that keep you from being the person you could be and living the life             you were meant to live? It’s not too late! Go to your local post office             and register, or register online at www.usnacitizenlottery.com. All               you need to do is enter your Social Security number and sign some               legal documents absolving the government of the United States of                 North America of any liability should you not win. U.S.N.A. citizens             currently living in other countries are also encouraged to                               participate.”

          “Think about it – finally being financially free. No more mortgage; no           more student loans, no more phone bills, cable or electric bills – no               bills, not even for food, for the next seven years!”

     Jeanie and her husband Scott have been able to save their paychecks            and actually get ahead.

     What’s stopping you from living your dream?

          “Register now! The drawing is in 90 days. Just think – in 90, days, you           could be living a completely different life than the one you’re living             now, one without financial burdens or responsibilities, for seven                   years.”

          “What are you waiting for?”

National Lottery, he mused. Wouldn’t that be nice? Unbeknownst to his wife, he’d registered several months ago. She thought the Lottery encouraged financial irresponsibility in a growing segment of the populace. “I’ve seen on the news where people are amassing large amounts of debt and aren’t paying their bills in between each Lottery drawing, hoping to win. With almost seven hundred fifty million people in the U.S.N.A, not including the countries we’ve annexed in the South American Territories, the odds of anyone winning are astronomically against them. It’s a horrible thing the government is doing, and why? What do they get out of it?”

     “That’s a good question. I think –“, he began as she cut him off.

“More consumers, that’s what they get. More consumers. Think about it – say we win, and not only is all of our current debt wiped away, but any debt that we may accrue over the next seven years. Do you think we’d only buy things for ourselves? How many previous winners have told stories about their neighbors asking them to buy houses, cars, and even businesses for them? It may not happen as much since they put tighter restrictions on what could be purchased for other people, but it still happens.”

     “You’re right, it does, but if we won, what would be the harm in                    getting some extra things for our extended family? Food is still allowed,      as far as I know.”

Her glared at him through narrowed eyes. “You’re thinking about registering, aren’t you?”, she spat.

     “I don’t know. I don’t think it would be a bad idea.”

Her eyes remained on him, steady and unblinking, and suddenly uncomfortably wide for him to look into.


"Blue morning,

Blue day,

Won’t you see things

My way?

Blue morning,

Can’t you see,

What your love has done to me?"


Done with reminiscing, he returned his attention to the rapidly darkening expanse of road ahead of him. The songs on the radio helped keep him awake and focused, although they didn’t do anything to relieve the growing insistence of his bladder. He figured he’d be seeing signs for the first of the Lincoln exits soon.

He noticed another swath of blood that began in his lane and ended beneath a bloody deer carcass resting in the lane to his left, its legs facing the direction he was driving and its neck broken, eyes facing him. It struck him as odd that its body was in the same position as the other one he’d seen earlier.

On the other side of the grassy median, an oncoming car darted carelessly between two tractor trailers.

He again caught sight of a tractor trailer in his lane, about a quarter mile ahead, and began silently calculating when to speed up ahead of the nearest car in the passing lane. As he approached the truck,

M &S National Transport

LIC#65jty5

he noticed its trailer tail and mud flaps, each with the same chrome silhouette of a naked women in repose, back her arched seductively.

I don’t remember that truck passing me. I guess it could have. It obviously did.

Had he been asleep, or so caught up in daydreaming that he hadn’t noticed?

Lincoln 47

Omaha 93

Wait a minute. That can’t be right. I passed that sign forty-five minutes ago.

Did I misread it back there? Had it actually said:

Lincoln 147

Omaha 193

?

He came upon and passed a dark minivan, with five smiling stick figure stickers on the rear window, in the middle lane.

Looking quizzically past his sleeping wife, who momentarily stirred, he surveyed the occupants of the minivan (which he now realized was blue) - a man, the driver, possibly the husband/father, looking bored. A woman, the passenger, possibly the wife/mother, sat beside him aimlessly turning the pages of a magazine; both features outlined by the dashboard lights. Two kids slept in car seats behind them.

He fidgeted in his seat from right to left again, but not from any physical discomfort; this time, it was from sheer bewilderment.

He drove for another minute or two before he saw a sign informing him that gas, food, and lodging were available at the next exit, some 1500 feet away.

He turned off at the marked exit, and took a sharp right before turning into the nearest gas station.

C&K GAS

He pulled alongside the pump closest to the station entrance and turned the car off. Although the scream was building in his bladder, he remained in the car for several seconds collecting his thoughts.

     Hon, he said gently, trying to rouse his wife. Hon?

          What?, she slurred, her eyes still closed.

     We’re at a gas station. Do you need to use the bathroom?

          No. Her voice trailed off as she settled deeper into the seat. Just let               me sleep.


The cool water trickled down his cheeks. He gripped the sides of the metal sink as it slowly filled. The faint, sharp smell of urinal cakes, mop water, urine, and cigarettes had greeted him when he first entered the bathroom, but he didn’t notice it anymore.

Thoughts, questions, things, circled vulture-like, teasing him peripherally, but none were concrete enough to lay ahold of.

Nothing made sense.

He worked his way backwards, from the start of the trip home. Had he fallen asleep while he was driving and dreamed about the deer, the tractor trailer, and the blue minivan with five smiling stick figure stickers on its rear window, before he awoke and actually drove past them, like an out of sync premonition or misrepresented déjà vu? Was it really possible that he passed two dead deer laying in the road exactly same way, two of the same tractor trailers, and two of the same minivan with the same stickers and occupants? It didn’t make sense.

Exiting the bathroom, he scanned the aisles for snacks and something warm to drink. He decided on two bags of his favorite candy and a large cup of coffee.

     That’ll be $22.17, please.

$22.17?, he thought. I wish they’d hurry up and round things up to even numbers like they keep promising to. Hardly anyone uses anything less than a twenty anymore, much less coins.

He placed two crumpled twenty dollar bills on the counter.

     I’m sorry, sir. I don’t think I have change.

He looked at the woman behind the counter. She looked young, but something in her demeanor told him that she was older than she looked. He noticed her slender face, lightly furrowed brow, laugh lines delicately placed just so. He watched her hands as she opened the register and rifled through the drawer looking for change. Her knuckles were large but not swollen, with creases threaded deeply into the skin. The flesh on her hands was dry and stretched thin with veins.

Her nametag read Maureen.

He wondered what soft hell she’d fallen from before landing here.

     That’s alright, Maureen. Her hands paused their frenzied search and            she smiled at him. Just give me a ten and a five.

She obliged, and as he grabbed his purchases and gave her a reassuring smile, a middle aged man entered through the automatic double doors. The man stood just inside the entrance, looked around, saw the RESTROOMS sign, and headed quickly in that direction.

     He must’ve been holding it for a while. He exited the store and headed        to his car and his still sleeping wife.

As he started the car and slowly pulled away from the station, he caught a glimpse of a tractor trailer in the parking lot:

M &S National Transport

LIC#65jty5

its trailer tail and mud flaps, each with the same chrome silhouette of a naked women in repose, her back arched seductively.


"I got a Nikon camera,

I love to take photographs

Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away."


He drove with a heightened awareness of his surroundings.

He questioned every tree, each patch of snow, mile marker, and bale of hay he passed.

     Have I seen that sign before?

     Is that the same hill I just passed?

They all looked the same to him.

Eventually, he relaxed, and realized how tense he’d been when the muscles in his shoulders and back began to hurt. He put both hands on the steering wheel and arched his back so his shoulder blades met, which helped ease his pain quite a bit.

It was getting dark, and the sun still had not completely set.

As he rounded a large curve, his headlights pierced the darkness ahead. There were no other cars on this stretch of interstate, in front of him or behind him.

Traffic was sparse heading in the opposite direction as well. He wondered where the moon was, and as his eyes darted from the sky above to the ground before him, he saw something dark on the side of the road, ahead.

He knew what it was before he got to it.

He briefly thought of pulling over and closely examining it, but wasn’t sure what good it would do. He slowed the car to a brisk walking pace instead.

He saw a bloody deer carcass resting in the lane to his left, its legs facing the direction he was driving and its neck broken, its eyes fixed in the opposite direction.

He didn’t know what to do. Reflexively, instinctively, he sped forward, the engine humming throatily as he moved from one gear to the next.

He hadn’t driven very far when he saw red taillights in his lane, about a quarter mile ahead, and a pair of white headlights behind him.

On the other side of the grassy median, an oncoming car carelessly darted between two tractor trailers that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

As he gradually came upon the vehicle ahead of him

M&S National Transport

LIC#65jty5

he noticed its trailer tail and mud flaps, each with the same chrome silhouette of a naked women in repose, her back arched seductively.

He pulled alongside the trailer and ducked down, trying to get a glimpse of the driver, but it was too dark and the truck’s windows were too tinted.

As he sped past, he saw

Lincoln 47

Omaha 93

And knew he hadn’t been mistaken earlier.

11:40

Surely, the clock was wrong. They should have been home at least two hours ago.

How is this possible?


"You’re listening to WAYT The Pure, 101.1 on your FM dial

Playing nothing but 100% pure classic rock.

Our rock is so pure, it’ll make your face numb

It’s 11:40, twenty minutes till midnight

I’m Keyboard Craig, button-pushing DJ extraordinaire

Bringing you the absolute best music from yesterday and yesteryear

I’m taking requests, just call in and let me know what you want to hear…"


He heard the voice without really listening to it. He was taking stock of the situation, over and over again, looking for a break, a pattern, something recognizable to point him in the direction of an answer.

     I saw the same

     Lincoln 47

     Omaha 93

     sign three times. We should’ve been about an hour away from home            when I saw it the second time..

     Same deer,

     Same tractor trailer,

     Same minivan,

     Same stickers on the rear window,

     Same people in the minivan,

     Same sign.

     Well, I can’t be sure it was the same truck because I couldn’t see the              driver, but it stands to reason that it’s the same person.

     The sun should have set by now, and it hasn’t, but time is still moving          forward. I feel the passage of time, and the clock is reinforcing that.

     So is the DJ.

     Speaking of which, different songs play on the radio, even commercials.      Come to think of it, I haven’t heard the same song or commercial twice.

The internal dialogue yielded no answers, not even a path to one. He was too used to his own voice, his own thought process, to break new ground when he desperately needed to.

     Hon, wake up.

He pressed his hand against her shoulder and stopped short of grasping her sleeve.

     Hon, wake up. Hon!

     Amy!, he yelled, dividing his focus between her and the road. Wake up!      Something’s wrong. I need to talk to you!

She unfurled herself slowly and sat upright, groggy and confused, and looked around – first at him, then outside.

          What is it? she slurred. What’s wrong?

     I don’t know how to explain it to you, but –

She cut him off.

          David, she croaked as she glanced at the clock, It’s almost midnight.             Where are we? Why aren’t we home yet?

    That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Something’s wro –

          Are you lost?

     -ng…Lost? What? No? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But something’s            happening and –

          David, I’m so tired. Just wake me up when we get home. I just want               to sleep in my own bed. She sighed heavily, leaned her head against             the window, and fell back to sleep.

He drove in a state of nervous confusion for about fifteen minutes before he saw a sign informing him that gas, food, and lodging were available at the next exit, some 1500 feet away.

He turned off at the marked exit, and took a sharp right before turning into the nearest gas station. When he saw the sign,

C&K GAS

he felt metal needles in the center of his chest, sending the cold notice of their presence through his limbs and extremities, up his spine to the base of his skull and extending to his forehead. His bowels tightened.

     What is going on?

With no answers forthcoming, he parked in an open space near the double glass doors and went in.

     Hey, how ya doin’? Is there anything I can help you find?

The pleasant, smiling voice belonged to the woman behind the counter. She looked young, but something in her demeanor told him that she was older than she looked. He noticed her slender face, lightly furrowed brow, laugh lines delicately placed just so.

Her nametag read:

Maureen.

     Maureen, he panted, I was just here, maybe an hour and half ago. I              bought a cup of coffee and two bags of candy. Do you remember? The          total came to twenty-two dollars and change, and I gave you two                  twenties but you said you weren’t sure that you had change, so I told            you to just give me a ten and a five. Do you remember?

Maureen cocked her head to one side and gazed at him intently.

          Um, no. You say you bought a cup of coffee and two bags of candy                 and I rang you up?

     Yes, you did. Do you remember?

          Are you sure it was me? Because my shift just started fifteen minutes           ago.

He was at a loss for words.

A deep, rough voice, yet no less feminine than Maureen’s, erupted from behind him.

     Is there a problem, sir?

Turning in the direction of the voice, he saw another woman, who looked to be much younger than Maureen, approaching him.

          No, there’s no problem.

He saw that her nametag read:

Kathy

     Kathy, this gentleman says that he came in almost two hours ago and          bought a cup of coffee and two bags of candy that came to twenty-two          dollars and he gave me two twenties, and that I told him we didn’t have      change.

He noticed that not only was Kathy much younger than Maureen, she was also much shorter, and her demeanor conveyed such control and authority as to inform him that she was, in fact, Maureen’s boss.

     Are you saying we shorted you, sir?

          No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that –

     Wait a minute. Turning her attention to Maureen, she said, You just              started, right?

          I did. About fifteen minutes ago.

     That’s what I thought. Returning her gaze to him, she asked, Are you            sure you’re in the right gas station? You know, these things are                      everywhere.

Before he could answer, a middle aged man entered through the automatic double doors. The man stood just inside the entrance, looked around, saw him and Kathy in (what appeared to him to be) conversation, looked briefly at him with a mixture of recognition and confusion, and headed quickly toward the restroom.

     You’re right. These things are everywhere.

He followed the man into the bathroom.

     Hey. Hey!

He called out as he entered the bathroom just before the door closed. Hey!

The man turned but did not stop as he backed into the stall and locked the door. I won’t take long, he said.

     I don’t have to use the bathroom. I just wanted to ask you – have you            seen me before?

He heard leather snap against metal and a quick zzzzzz!!!!! as the man unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants. He heard the buckle hit the ground; the man grunted as he sat down, and the loose toilet seat replied in its own way.

He stood at the door, his forehead against its cool face.

     Have you seen me before? he echoed.

The man sighed, deeply.

          I said, I won’t take long.

     I know, I know, and I said I don’t have to use the bathroom. All I want to      know is, have you seen me before? Earlier tonight, at this gas station, or      another one like it?

          Mister, I drive a truck and I stop at all kinds of gas stations and see               all kinds of people.

     Does your truck have a trailer tail and say

     M&S National Transport

     LIC#65jty5

     and have chrome women on the mud flaps?

The man grunted. Yes. His voice was strained.

     Did you see me on the interstate earlier tonight, or in this gas station?

There was a long silence before the man replied.

          Yes. On the interstate and in this gas station.

Relief cascaded from the top of his head and rolled warmly down his face, neck and shoulders.

     This gas station? Not another one?

          No, this gas station. You had a cup of coffee and some candy, looked             like.

He pumped his fist and nearly danced around the restroom.

     So I’m not imagining things, and I’m not going crazy. You noticed it, too,      then? Do you know what’s going on?

The man didn’t answer.

     I’m sorry, I’m sorry, he chuckled. I’ll let you finish your business first.          He backed up to the sink. I just want to understand what’s happening to      me. I thought I was going crazy.

The man didn’t answer.

     My wife and I live in Omaha and we’re driving back from a funeral in          Denver. I’ve seen the same dead deer in the road, passed the same blue      minivan with the same stickers on the rear window, seen the same sign      telling me that Omaha is 93 miles away, and came across your rig, three      times in the last few hours.

     My wife has been asleep this whole time, so she hasn’t seen anything.          And when I’ve tried to wake her up –

          You can’t, came the voice behind the door. You can’t wake her up.                 Not completely.

     What do you mean?

Another deep sigh. 

          I mean you will not be able to wake your wife up, fully. She will                     never be wide awake again. Ever.

This time, the cold metallic needles crept outward from beneath his sternum. 

     I don’t understand.

          You will. You’ll have plenty of time to figure it all out, trust me.

     What’s that supposed to mean?

Silence.

He moved away from the sink and pressed his face against the stall door.

     What do you mean? He pounded on the door.

     What do you know?

     Do you know what’s going on?

     Do you know what’s happening?

     Are you the one making this happen?

     Are you doing this?

     What do you know?

     Why are you doing this?

     Why is this happening?

The questions leapt from his mouth, unexpectedly. He only realized the words were there when he heard them.

Silence.

He pounded on the stall door.

     Why won’t you answer me?

He pounded again. 

     Answer me!

And again. And again. And again. Answer me!

And again. And again. And again. 

     Hey! I know you can hear me!

He threw his full weight against the stall door.

The latch on the door slipped and the door opened, slowly. He stood, panting, hands sore, his lungs desperately sucking up air lightly dusted with the faint, sharp smell of urinal cakes, mop water, urine, and cigarettes which had greeted him when he first entered the bathroom,

The stall was empty.


As he started the car and slowly pulled away from the station, he caught a glimpse of a tractor trailer in the parking lot:

M &S National Transport

LIC#65jty5

its trailer tail and mud flaps, each with the same chrome silhouette of a naked women in repose, her back arched seductively.

     "That was the Eagles, that great classic rock band from the 1970s, with        Hotel California. Doesn’t sound like it was recorded over a century              ago, does it? A great, great song by a great, great band." The voice on            the radio became excited, almost animated.

     "Speaking of great, my grandfather was a huge classic rock fan, and he        used to tell my dad stories of how his father, my great-grandfather, got        to see the Eagles in concert several times, and even got to meet some of      the guys in the band." The voice chuckled. "Jealous!"

     "Alright, that’s enough of my stroll down memory lane. Coming up next      – some Pink Floyd, right after this commercial break."

As the commercial began, he pulled onto the interstate. Despair eclipsed confusion as he noticed that it was getting dark, and the sun still had not completely set.

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Any Time You Like
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