Derek

Fiction
Traci Chee


Imagine the world is a tin can, and our car is a can opener and we’re carving the lid off this motherfucker with every mile. We’re going up California, sawing her in half vertically, splitting her down the central valley, heading who knows where, maybe Oregon, maybe Vancouver, maybe back to the U.S. of A. in spitting-cold Alaska.

For now it’s enough to be leaving L.A., to watch the Hollywood sign in the passenger’s side window appear and disappear behind warm smog-coated rooftops, to know we won’t be seeing it again, except maybe on HBO as we sit in a motel room somewhere north of the border.

For now it’s enough to know that we won’t have to endure this tepid excuse for autumn—maybe it dips down to seventy, if we’re lucky—ever again. We’ll go somewhere with seasons. With a real fall, with leaves tumbling out of the sky and frost on the grass in the morning. With a real winter, with dirty molehills of slush on the sidewalk from the snowplow. We’ll go slidey slidey slidey over the streets but fuck if our tires ever leave the road.

*

We’re over the Grapevine, scaling that stark son of a bitch in the slow lane, windows down, lukewarm SoCal breeze on our cheeks, singing ourselves hoarse and cranking up the radio until we can’t hear ourselves screaming—

Then we’re coasting down the last crest, watching the 5 meet the 99 on the flat valley floor in a lambda, and god, could we be any closer to rocketing right off the face of the earth? There’s winter sun on the dead grass and white clouds coating the sky like stucco. We laugh, we laugh. That open road is just begging for us. We hit the valley running and go and go and go.

*

After the first eight hours, we’re coughing up the remnants of L.A.-yellow air, and, having driven for so long, we’re developing an intimate yet flagging relationship with our car. She’s starting to smell because we’re starting to smell—you can only eat so much In-N-Out before your pores begin leaking grease—and goddamn we wish it wasn’t pissing rain today because we’d roll the windows down if we could. Just to feel the chill.

We crack a window anyway, get peppered by large drops as big as our fingernails. The thighs of our jeans polka-dotted with water. We grin and our ears go numb.

We’ve stockpiled a set of Doritos bags, rolled up and stuffed into Icee cups, that we plan on discarding at the next gas station. But we’ve been planning that for two pit-stops now. We carry our trash with us, leaving no traces of our arrival or departure. We’re nomads. Gypsies melting into the horizon. We plan to pitch tents when we get far enough into the wilderness.

*

The rain stops when we plow through Sacramento and kiss it goodbye. We travel through cow country, wet and flooding in the low places. It’s been nearly ten hours now, maybe half a day, and the sky is so low above us, gray and pressing down. We find a classical station and listen to opera and the occasional puddle under our tires.

We talk about Derek. Derek died when a pickup truck clipped the bumper of a speeding SUV, sending it spiraling onto the sidewalk, where Derek was waiting patiently at the stoplight. He was pinned to a pole by the grill of a Cadillac, and when they sawed the car away from him, they saw he had been cut in two.

He always used to say his greatest fear was dying young and in pain.

We went to the funeral. We put flowers by that dented pole. We stood on that street corner with our hands in our pockets, watching traffic speed past us until dark fell and it became hard to see the cars. Just the trails of headlights hovering over the asphalt. And we hoped to god Derek was riding a comet across the universe with solar wind in his hair and sunburn on his cheeks.

*

When it gets dark enough we stop at the next motel. We gather handfuls of candy bar wrappers and empty soda cans and sneak them into the dumpster at the back of the building. We feel crafty.

The room we share has a hole in the bathroom door where the knob used to be. It’s stuffed with toilet paper for privacy. We have cable, but no HBO. The beds are limp sponges and the crack in the window lets in a ghost-like draft.

We don’t sleep well, and when we sleep we dream about stop signs and car crashes and slick streets. About losing limbs and someone yelling, “Timber!” as we hit the sidewalk.

We wake up the next morning with neck pain and a quarter-sized spider in the bathtub. We name him Odysseus and set him free on the drain pipe outside. The motel gives us a continental breakfast and we pocket every packet of jam before heading north.

*

We suck apricot jam—the only flavor left—out of those little plastic containers and stack them one on top of the other until we’ve built replicas of our old office buildings. Are we in Oregon now? We had no idea California extended past Chico—yeah, Humboldt and Eureka, sure, but who knew there were mountains up here? Huge mountains. What are these, the Cascades?

The freeway gives way to a narrow double-lane highway, makes us go slow. We open the windows to smell the air sweeping off the snow-capped peaks. It’s cold air, yeah, but we’re so high up now we’re in the fucking sky and only the trees are closer than us.

*

We stop at a lake. What lake? Any lake, it doesn’t matter. We just want to get out of the car for a minute, for an hour, stretch our legs, do some yodeling, do something. We stop at a lake and strip naked and leap in, treading the air seconds before we strike the surface.

Jesus Christ, it’s cold! We freeze and our muscles go solid before we remember how to swim. We kick to the surface, gasping for air, unable to see anything but bright.

Teeth chattering, clutching our elbows, we high-step out of the lake onto the sandy shore. We wrap ourselves in the towels we stole from that shitty motel and shiver.

We sit on the shore, silent, watching as every so often a flock of birds flies over us.

The lake slices the world in two at its waist. Every branch of every tree is deep in that lake, every crag on that mountain rising over it; all the little animals are sunk, but breathing, pawing at passing trout. We wonder if we’re in the water somewhere, faces turning blue, staring up at the sky, raising our hands like someone will reach past the surface and grab our pale wrists.

He will haul us out of the water. He will remind us that the world is a whole.

We’re not ready to get into the car yet. We just want to sit here and breathe. Toes exposed, we’re slapping at gnats with the palms of our hands. Goosebumps rising on our arms. We’re cold, but without wind, the sun is warm enough.
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“I am a graduate student in creative writing at San Francisco State University, and I have been published in Chinquapin, Placebo Review, and Thieves Jargon.” E-mail: tracichee[at]gmail.com

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