Curtis Smith

Hang up the phone. The governor will not issue another stay. A dry-air drowning seizes your lungs. Two hours until midnight, and suddenly, your house, a space in which you’ve felt lost and adrift since your wife’s death, strikes you as claustrophobic.

Walk through the hushed June night. Smell the flowers and mulch, the scents a reminder that your garden is thick with weeds. The dark soothes you, but even this dulled world chokes you with its familiarity. You anticipate the houses of neighbors. The sycamores’ peeling bark. The playground where your son once cried atop the jungle gym, too frightened to climb down.

Stand on the sidewalk outside your house. The streetlight angles toward your door, shadows across the lawn. Your keys jangle, but instead of going inside, you start your car. Tell yourself the full tank is an omen.

Drive. How easy, the traffic at this hour, the lazy pulse of cars beneath Main Street’s metered streetlights. Flow onto the interstate. Billboards and industrial parks slide by, anchors liquefied by speed and the empty spaces between your thoughts. An hour passes. You head north; then west on an interstate you’ve never traveled.

Pass the state line. Hills press upon you. Rivers appear then wind away. Check the dashboard clock. The man who murdered your son is dead now. White lines stream through your headlights’ shine, the wilderness all around.

Drive. Nothing on the radio but static. Drive, the windows down. The night air cools your brow. You never took your son camping, despite your best intentions. Drive.

Head west, through the hills. West, until you reach the flatlands. The speedometer hovers at eighty. In your rearview, the hilltops shade red. Once you explained the earth’s rotation to your son using a globe and flashlight. He spun the globe faster and faster. The continents blurred into the oceans. Your gas gauge flirts with E.

Take the next exit. There’s a filling station, a restaurant, a motel. Your shadow stretches before you, a thin stain over the macadam. The day will be hot, you feel it in the air. Turn back, a hand shielding your eyes. The sun has broken over the hills. Consider the dawns you’ve witnessed after sleepless nights and arrange them into a portrait that says more about you than words ever could.

Step into the diner. “Coffee, please,” you tell the waitress. Your voice is hoarse, the silent hours stubborn in your throat. Your eyes and lips dry. You are a stone heavy with sleep. For years, you yearned for a stranger’s death. Nature seeks balance. Consider osmosis. Consider diffusion. Consider the bell curve. Within you, the hatred has ebbed into a greater longing for your boy, memories brimming with both comfort and pain. Let the state have this man. Let your son be left to you.

Study those around you. The coffee warms your throat but it brings no lift. Waitresses scurry through the kitchen’s swinging doors, plates and saucers balanced. At the counter, talk of the weather and gas prices. Truckers and construction crews come and go. It’s a day like any other; a gift beyond price. A plate arrives, food you don’t remember ordering.

Eat. Eggs, bacon, potatoes. Your fork scrapes the plate, a devouring, a refueling. The waitress smiles. “You were hungry, sweetheart.” Ask her the name of this town.

Follow your shadow across the lot. In the hotel lobby, the early risers, suitcases and bags in tow, check out. The woman at the desk says a check-in now will cost two nights if you stay beyond noon. “That’s fine,” you say.

Ride the elevator. The motion tugs your stomach. The hallway stretches before you, each step begging to be your last. Your journey is near its end. Your room is small and clean. Pull the curtains, the sunlight reduced to window-hugging slivers. Turn on the TV, the volume low; you want to wake to a human voice. Undress, your clothes piled by your feet, and slip between the sheets. Through heavy eyes, study the other bed. Remember a motel room years ago, your wife laying beside you, your boy jumping wildly on the other bed. The smile he wore that day follows you into a dreamless sleep.

Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in many literary reviews, and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. His last two story collections were published by Press 53, and Casperian Books published two novels. His first essay collection will be released by Sunnyside in fall of 2011.