Brighton, where are you? Palmer.
It had been etched into the back of the stall door with some kind of corrosive and then, in an effort to remove it, scrubbed with bleach into a halo of white in the dark blue paint.
A message or a late-night hallucination in some truck-stop washroom? Brighton looked at it again. His eyes were still adjusting from all the hours on the road, the last few in a deep summer dark. They were worn out and rubbed raw by concentration and coffee.
He had not seen the graffiti at first. He had a habit of closing his eyes when he sat down on the can. Now he couldn’t look at anything else.
Don’t believe it, he told himself. There’s no way.
He mulled the question over in his mouth.
He closed his eyes again. His pants were around his ankles. He was having a hard time making sense of anything. It’s just like him, he thought. Just like Palmer to leave something like this to fuck with my head.
Brighton’s head felt heavy, wobbly. He rested it face down in his palms. The tiled wall behind the toilet sweated. The tiled floor sweated. The toilet bowl sweated. Brighton had been driving for thirty-six hours. He could tell how long it had been by the growth on his face. He needed a shave.
How hot was it? Brighton didn’t know. One hundred ten, one hundred fifteen, this afternoon. Now? The air was heavy and seemed to be weighing against his eardrums. It was like holding a seashell to his ear. He could almost hear voices saying his name, a man and a woman in the sky some where far away.
Brighton pulled his pants up as he stood. A red light flipped to green when he stepped from the toilet and everything was sucked away behind him. He opened the stall door.
He wasn’t going crazy. He was just tired. Tired and hungry and in need of a shave. Palmer is dead, he told himself. Dead and not coming back anytime soon. The stall door swung back behind him and Brighton stopped for a moment before lifting his hand away. Must be some other Brighton, he thought. Some other Palmer.
A counter with a number of sinks stretched across one wall. Above it a big foggy mirror that reached almost to the ceiling. In the ceiling: air-vents, extraction fans. In the mirror, behind Brighton: benches and a row of lockers.
Brighton put his satchel on the counter and took out his shaving kit. He turned the hot water tap. While the water ran, he wetted his brush and worked up a lather in a small dish of soap and then painted his face with it, up just above his cheekbones and around his mouth, over cheeks, chin, under his jaw, and down his neck where the last whiskers propagated themselves. Then he put the brush aside. The water was unbearably hot. He ran his razor under the tap until it too was hot, then turned the water to a moderate flow. White face. What was underneath? he wondered, or wondered what it would be like to wonder at such a thing as his own face. He began to shave.
Where are you, Brighton? he thought to himself. Where am I indeed? It wasn’t a bad question. Also, he added, where am I going and how long will it take? He knew the answers. I am in California. I am on my way to Miriam’s in Eugene. Six more hours. Still, they felt like the answers to different questions. Or not answers at all, but facts, simple ones that revealed almost nothing. Answers solve things, he thought. What am I trying to solve?
Brighton looked behind him. A man had just come out of the showers and was drying himself off. Grey hair. Thin. Middle-aged. His skin looked to be relaxing around his muscles, but the muscles were still there. Brighton looked back into the mirror and wiped a spot clean on the glass so that he could see his own face. He could also see the man drying himself off. Brighton was only half shaven, the man, fully naked. He dipped his razor in the water again and rinsed off the hairs. He looked into the mirror and then paused. The man caught Brighton’s eye in the reflection and gave a nod.
Brighton turned half way around and looked the man in the eyes. He wondered if one of the eyes was fake. The right, if he had to guess.
Where are we? Brighton asked. Do you know?
We’re right here, the man said. We’re in this truck stop. The man looked puzzled or amused, Brighton wasn’t sure.
No, I mean, do you know which mile this is, or what the nearest down is? How far are we from Bakersfield?
I’m not sure, said the man. You don’t got a map? The man looked sideways at Brighton. The man was getting dressed, methodically. First his socks, then underwear, a white t-shirt, blue jeans. . .
Brighton went back to shaving. No sir, he said. I don’t.
Brighton drew the razor across his skin. He drew it slowly and the whiskers fell away like a field of rape seed under the thresher.
There were locusts in the bathroom. Locusts in the corners and under the counter. Locusts in the sinks and shower stalls. Dead locusts. Locust husks. How do they get here? Brighton asked himself. Why? Somehow this line of questioning seemed both self-evident and mysterious. If you don’t know the why, Brighton thought, is it less important if the what is so common?
Brighton turned back to the man. He was dressed now and putting on his boots.
Did you see anyone in here before your shower? Brighton asked.
The man looked up. He had one gold tooth that hung from his upper gum like a pendant.
My height, Brighton said, lifting his hand up to the top of his head to indicate what he meant. As if he could have meant anything else. Maybe a bit heavier. Grey hair.
The man stood up. He was Brighton’s height, a bit heavier. No, he said, can’t say I did.
Brighton was suspicious. He turned back to the mirror and lifted his razor. He watched the man over his shoulder. The man putting a wallet in his back pocket, running a comb straight back through his hair. Brighton watched him turn his back on Brighton and make to leave.
Palmer, Brighton said, loud enough he could be sure the man would hear him but the man disappeared through the doorway and into the past for now.
In the foyer between the smoke shop and the twenty-four hour diner, a man in a Cubs cap maneuvered a mechanized claw in a glass case. The case was full of small prizes: pink elephants sewn by a woman in China, tiny footballs made of cloth and sewn by a different woman in China, plastic eggs with hidden surprises from a factory in Bangladesh or Korea, key chains of dubious metal shipped in from Mexico on a flatbed that returned with boxes of oranges to the land of oranges where no oranges grow because the waters that feed the Rio Grande now flood, thanks to the hands of the Americans, the green golf courses and agriculture of Arizona and California, and only a trickle of what once was joins the dry passage of earth three hundred miles before the ocean. For a dollar the man was afforded two attempts to capture and retrieve a prize by operating a joystick and positioning the claw above the desired item then pressing a button.
The man was grossly overweight. His jeans sagged in the ass and his belly hung over his belt as though another piece of anatomy had been grafted upon his torso. He was a wizard with the claw.
Edgar, Brighton thought. If I had to guess, I’d say his name is Edgar. Looks like an Edgar. If I was assigning names, I’d assign him Edgar. That’s just the way it would have to be.
He watched the man lift a small purple rabbit by the neck with the metal claw and maneuver it to a slot through which it was delivered to him. The man added it to the pile of prizes at his feet.
Other people, Brighton continued with his thought, it’s like some mistake has been made at the Department of Naming, a mix-up that’s left two people walking around with the wrong names. Two people who are never themselves no matter how long they live.
Do I look like a Brighton? Brighton wondered. Palmer. Does Palmer look like a Palmer?
He doesn’t look like anything anymore, he reminded himself.
Brighton went into the smoke shop and stood looking at the cigarettes on the shelf behind the counter. There was no clerk. A small television below the cigarettes tuned to CNN showed bombs falling on Iraq. Many people had recently died in a roadside attack. Dark pictures with tracer fire and a voice over saying something that Brighton could not quite make out. The ticker had all the latest sports scores. It was too small for Brighton to read.
A small newsstand stood next to the counter. Comic books on the bottom, crosswords, word search, Mad Libs, Archie, and the serious magazines above that, Car & Driver, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek. On the top shelf, behind a black divider, vamped the pornography.
Brighton looked around. The place was empty. He reached for a magazine not sealed in plastic and it fell open to the centerfold. Two blonde, hairless girls wrapped around each other like pythons around a goat. Something was being crushed, that much was clear. Brighton did not care for pornography. He never used it except on the road. Or when it was on television. He kept nude pictures of Miriam on his laptop. That was it.
Brighton looked closer at the picture. He recognized one of the girls. Or he thought he did, he wasn’t sure. Is that Ruth Palmer? He’d known her once when she was only a child. Back then, she was a real person. Now she was a what? A picture? A figment?
Brighton held the page closer to his face. He looked as though he were studying it for fine cracks, tiny fault lines that would lower its priceless value. Her skin was airbrushed and preternaturally shiny. Can’t be, he said. And he was right. It wasn’t. Got Palmer on the mind, he told himself. Jack ass.
The clerk came back and stood at the counter watching the television set. Brighton watched the clerk watching the television and wondered if the clerk had seen him standing there at all. He put the magazine back on the shelf and stepped to the counter.
The clerk was early-twenties, dark hair and eyes, dark skin. Saudi maybe? Jordanian? Brighton didn’t know why he was guessing, he really had no idea. The boy had wispy hair on his chin. He wondered if it had ever been shaved. Brighton wondered why he kept wondering so many things. Must be tired, he thought. Clearly, I’m tired.
The boy behind the counter finally glanced away from the television and looked at Brighton.
Camel, regular, Brighton said.
The boy reached back and grabbed what he needed without looking. His hands knew exactly what they were doing. He tossed the cigarettes on to the table with a flick of the wrist and the package slid across the glass top towards Brighton then stopped a few inches from the lip.
And matches, Brighton said.
The boy lifted his eyes from the cash register and peered at Brighton from beneath his brow. Slowly, he waved his hand below the counter and matches appeared between his fingers. He tossed them down with the cigarettes, then punched a few keys. The cash tray leapt open.
Brighton held out a fiver. The boy reached for it and when he did, Brighton tried to see into his eyes. He wanted to be able to tell something about the boy by looking through his pupils into the dark vault of secrets that lies behind every nerve, but Brighton had no special powers when it came to these things.
The boy handed Brighton his change and he put it in his pants pocket.
Palmer here tonight? Brighton asked.
Palmer. Is Palmer here tonight.
No it’s just me, the boy shrugged. Till six, then another guy comes on.
When’s Palmer on next?
Palmer who works here.
Ain’t no Palmer. The boy shook his head. No, you got something mixed up, man. The boy looked serious and annoyed, but not too much of either.
Yeah, guess I do, Brighton admitted. He picked up his smokes and walked out of the shop.
A thin weather of smoke held sway over the diner, a new element of tobacco and tar and benzine bromide a certain class of men had evolved to breathe and be sustained by. Men from Kentucky, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Ontario, North Dakota, Juarez, Sonora, Texas, men from everywhere highways knit together in the complicated equation of economy, progress and expectations that expressed the state of despair and optimism of the land.
Brighton sat down at the bar and ordered apple pie and a coffee. The waitress sported a brown apron and orange top, with her brown hair done up in a bun. She had smoker’s fingers and smoker’s skin. She looked as though she had been preserved somehow by the lack of oxygen. It was just possible she had been in the diner forever.
Like the boy in the smoke shop she reached behind her and conjured a pot of drip coffee and a white enamel mug she put down in front of Brighton. The coffee came out like watered-down oil and settled in Brighton’s mug according to whatever laws of physics commanded this country. He reached for two creamers, peeled their paper covers and dumped them in his coffee.
A man of enormous girth started talking beside Brighton. Leave those things out, he said, and crows, they shoot ’em back, pop their beaks right through the lid and toss ’em back. Like shots of whiskey for crows. Can’t stop themselves.
Brighton turned his head towards the man. It was Edgar. When’d he come in? Brighton thought. How long have I been sitting here?
The waitress stopped and poured Edgar a cup of coffee, then continued on down the bar chewing gum.
That so? said Brighton.
That’s so, said Edgar. Crows are crafty buggers, ain’t no denying that.
I’m a believer, Brighton said.
Edgar nodded. Yeah, well, Edgar seemed to say, we all have to believe in something.
Brighton’s pie came re-warmed with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting against it. There was no fork. Then he lifted his head to the waitress and one appeared in his hand. He began to eat.
Famished, Brighton felt as though he could eat forever, all night without sleep, riding the weighty hands of the sun and moon around and around the face of time, he could eat anything, the plate, the fork, his fingers, hands, he could eat himself until he disappeared and light flowed around him, around the place that he once was, like water around a stone, virtually undisturbed, except for the slightest ripple that murmurs something here, something here, something here.
Everyone breathed everyone else’s smoke and once the pie was gone, Brighton sat up and opened his new package of cigarettes.
He looked at Edgar. Smoke? he offered, tipping the package toward the giant.
The giant shook his head. Coffee’s bad enough for this one, he said and gestured with the cup in his hand.
You’re Palmer, Brighton said. Aren’t you?
Palmer. You’re name’s Palmer isn’t it?
The giant shook his head again. Sorry friend, I think you got me confused with someone else.
Brighton nodded. What’s your name?
Edgar, Edgar said. My name is Edgar.
The prizes Edgar had liberated from the glass case in the lobby peeked out of a black leather satchel at his feet. He caught Brighton looking at them.
For my kids, Edgar said. Back home in Knoxville. It’s a family tradition. I pick up hundreds of these things a year driving rig all over Hell’s half acre. Kids love it. You should see their rooms, just piles of stuffed animals, weird key chains, trophies, all over the place. Makes them feel wealthy like Donald Trump or something. He talked like he did not want to stop. Where you from? he asked Brighton.
Portland, he said. These days.
I hear that, Edgar nodded, but Brighton had no idea what he meant.
Guys like us, Edgar continued, we’re always just passing through. Edgar grinned. Makes you wonder, room like this, all these guys going from place to place all the time, living on the road, maybe we’re away most when we’re home, if you know what I mean.
I’m a writer, Brighton said, but he wasn’t sure why.
Edgar smiled. Well, then, you know exactly what I mean.
The land beyond the truck stop stretched on in darkness. The sticky mechanisms of locusts clicked in the air and traffic rumbled down the highway, indefatigable even in the earliest hours. Brighton lay scrunched up in the back seat of his car trying to sleep.
It felt to Brighton like a scene from another story in which Palmer is talking. He is describing the ocean that once covered the Great Plains and the creatures who roamed those seas. Men with special equipment and clothing rush out onto the dry seabed and dig. They take readings of everything and record it all in notebooks and plastic bags. A satellite hundreds of miles above the Earth helps them pinpoint exactly where they are, wherever that may be. They are trying to rescue something of those creatures buried in the dirt but they are too late, everything has drowned at the end of the world.
The ocean moved beneath Brighton’s car. Waves passed and never returned. He was being carried off, he thought, to a place where he would never sleep again.
Palmer was in that place, he thought. At the bottom of that sea.
Brighton sat up and ran his fingers through his hair. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to stop after all.
He closed his eyes again. He and Palmer are walking out across swells of grassland. A short post-and-wire fence skates along beside them and then disappears into the distance like contrails into the wild blue yonder.
Where am I? Brighton thinks as the parched grass topples beneath their feet, tiny city of grasses razed under their weight. He recognizes nothing. They are both children as they always are on these occasions. Brighton is sure nothing like this ever happened.
Palmer carries a slingshot and a pocket of marbles, one of which he rolls around in his mouth like the eyeball of a fish. Then he spits out the marble, cradles it in the sling, turns and sends it hurtling at Brighton, the whole mass of the sun turned in on itself and dropped through Brighton’s head.
Brighton opened his eyes. Water seeped out of his skin and through his clothes. He climbed between the front seat and out the driver’s side door.
Standing outside the car, he took off his shirt and used it to towel his hair. Fuck this, he told himself, I just have to keep going. I have to get in the car and keep going. Fuck Palmer. Fuck this truck stop. I need to call Miriam.
Brighton walked back towards the diner, past dreaming men high up in the sleeper compartments of their cabs. Somewhere amongst all this cargo, Brighton thought, a clutch of prizes from China awaits their final destination in Knoxville, Tennessee and the loving hands of Edgar’s children. How long will that take?
In the lobby, Brighton picked up the phone. Through the diner window he could see Palmer sitting at the bar reading a book. It was the man from the shower. The book was Treasure Island.
Brighton fed the phone mouth a quarter and listened to it drop down the machine gullet like a pinball. The dial tone clicked in and he punched Miriam’s numbers.
It rang and rang. It rang for a long time and Brighton was about to give up when the ringing stopped and a voice came on line.
Hello? She said. Hello?
Brighton could not speak. He wanted to cry.
Palmer? She said. Is that you?
Brighton nodded. Yeah, it’s me, he said.
Where are you?