I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
This is the unabridged version of Ben Ehrenreich’s story, also available as a Fiction for Driving audio.
1. The Interstate
All along the Interstate, Baker saw scraps of paper skipping through the air like moths. Sunbleached corners of newsprint, weather-softened cardstock, blue-lined sheets of looseleaf paper drifted in the breeze and in the quick eddies of air kicked up by passing semis. Baker squinted through his sunglasses and tugged on his long ears. Where did all this paper come from?
He felt something twitch between his legs. His cell phone, resting there on the seat in the V formed by his thighs, was ringing. He picked it up, glanced at the number on the screen and hit reject. The next exit was half a mile off. It appeared in seconds, and Baker took it. As soon as he turned off the Interstate, the clouds of paper thinned. He braked slowly through an endless, beige landscape of desiccated fields varied only by a few leafless trees and a vague line in the indefinite distance where the earth dropped off and the sky, yellow with dust, took over.
Baker looked both ways, turned right at the light, and pulled into a truck stop parking lot a quarter mile down the road. He turned the engine off. Heat flooded the car. Baker unstrapped his seat belt and regarded himself for a moment in the mirror on the flip side of his sun visor. He saw a face that was recognizably his own: his nose, his lips, long ears and close-shorn hair. But instead of his eyes he saw his sunglasses, a smaller, narrower version of his face reflected in their lenses, and in that image, the lenses again, and a still smaller version of himself. His shirt had already begun to stick to his chest, so Baker cracked the window and got out of the car.
Inside, the air felt almost liquid with cold, as if he had entered not just an air-conditioned convenience store, but a different environment entirely. The shelves were stacked with bottled anti-freeze, fuel-line lubricants, steering wheel and seat covers, mud flaps depicting pistol-wielding mice. A clerk sat hunched over the counter, almost hidden behind the tubs of beef-jerky and brightly colored plastic jars of stimulants. “What’s an eight letter word for bugbear, last letter g?” the clerk said, bouncing a pencil by its eraser against a folded crossword puzzle
“Try golliwog,” Baker replied.
“That a word?”
“Yes,” Baker said.
“Got a phone?”
“Damn, golliwog. That fits,” the clerk said.“Payphone’s round the side. And here, take this.” He tossed Baker a smooth, unmarked coin. A tiny hole had been drilled through its center, and a length of fishing line threaded through the hole. “Just bring it back when you’re done.”
On the side of the building, Baker found an old, blue phone booth, its plexiglass panels rendered opaque by graffiti scratched long ago with pocketknives and keys. None of it was legible. It smelled like rust inside, and old leaves. The floor was lined with uneven ribbons of yellowed paper. He took his cell phone from his hip pocket and scrolled through the call log until he found the number. He dialed it into the payphone’s keypad, and when the operator’s voice told him how much money to deposit, he dipped the coin into the slot, pulling it up again by the fishing line and letting it drop until the phone was satisfied that it had been paid.
Baker listened through the receiver. Four rings, then an answering machine and a voice of indeterminate gender: “Leave a message,” the voice said. Baker listened to the beep and to the crackling silence that followed it, then returned the handset to its hook.
* * *
For miles, the Interstate was empty. Baker did not pass a single car or truck. Still, he drove the speed limit and checked his mirrors often. Sometimes clouds of torn paper circled his car like a flock of starlings chasing off a hawk. Sometimes the paper thinned for a mile or two and then rose up in sudden dust devils above the median. He switched on the radio and found a Christian station. “It’s always double coupon day with Jesus!” the preacher said, but his sermon was soon devoured by static, and when Baker pressed the seek button, the digits circled round and round, catching on nothing.
He passed dead fields and green fields, and watched a crop duster dip low to spray the green ones, excreting over them a cone of yellow mist that disintegrated as it neared the earth. Baker drove past what might have been a coyote, or someone’s dog, splattered beside the guard rail. He passed an armadillo lying on its back, feet in the air like a cartoon corpse. He watched the swallows that made their nests in the concrete overpasses wing and dive, harvesting an invisible crop of insects. Once a crow flew across the highway, a full sheet of notepaper in its beak. Baker swerved a lane to the right, but still, he almost hit the bird.
Then the highway curved in a long arc to the right, and in the distance Baker could see colored dots floating above the horizon. As he approached, they grew into signs advertising fast food restaurants, gas stations and chain motels. The signs sat perched atop high metal poles, like the eyes of snails on stalks, watchful among the papers drifting in the breeze. His tank was getting low, and he was hungry, so Baker nudged his turn signal on and took the first exit into town. Again, the papers disappeared as soon as he left the Interstate. He saw dried leaves blowing about, and dragonflies, but that was all. As he cruised down the exit ramp, for just a moment Baker thought he saw something in the ditch beside the road. It looked like a person’s leg, a naked leg with no person attached to it. But in the rear view mirror he could see only rocks, soda cans, a sun-bleached log, so he drove onward, looked both ways, and turned right at the stop sign.
Baker drove past a Burger King, a McDonalds, a Wendy’s, a Wattaburger, two Hardee’s, a Foster Freeze and a small stand called El Crazy Taco Indeed. He pulled into the parking lot of a diner with a neon sign that was blinking so rapidly that it could not be read. Baker parked between two white pickup trucks, cracked the windows and locked the doors.
He took a seat at the end of the counter. The waitress placed a menu in front of him and poured him a cup of coffee without asking if he wanted one. “Don’t order the fish,” she said, and walked away.
Without looking up from his lap, the man on the stool beside Baker made a kissing noise which trailed out into a long, low hiss. “That bitch,” he said. “Wants all the fish for herself.”
“I don’t like fish,” Baker said.
“You wouldn’t,” the man said. “It’s awful. It’s not even fish.”
“What is it?” Baker asked.
“I think it’s clams,” the man said, and continued to stare beneath the counter into his lap, where, he hid a pencil and a square of folded newspaper. “What’s a six-letter word for lozenge?” the man asked.
“Try troche,” Baker said.
“That’s not a word,” the man said, and then asked how to spell it. Baker spelled it for him.
The man penciled in the letters. “Doesn’t look right,” he said, but before Baker could respond, the waitress was standing across the counter again, asking what he wanted. Her face was flat and stiff, as if it had been carved from driftwood and sanded excessively. He ordered the sirloin steak, rare.
When the waitress had gone away, the man beside him cursed again. “Whore,” he said.
“There a phone nearby?” Baker said.
The man nodded to the left. “In the restroom.”
Baker walked down the hall and through the door marked “gents.” Directly above the urinal, a payphone had been mounted on the wall. Baker took his cell phone from his pocket, checked the call log, and punched the number into the payphone’s keypad. He inserted the truckstop clerk’s slug into the coin slot, fished it up, and dropped it again until the operator’s voice said, “Thank you.”
On the second ring, the door swung open behind him. A little boy rushed in. His fly was already unzipped. “Scuse me,” the boy said. He wedged himself between Baker’s legs and the urinal, and, standing on tippy-toes, commenced to pee. The machine answered. “Leave a message,” the voice said, and Baker hung up the phone. When Baker looked down, he saw the boy staring up at him. The stream of his urine splashed against the tiled wall. A puddle was forming around Baker’s shoes.
* * *
That night, Baker stayed in a motel just off the interstate. There was a Motel 6 across the street, and a Super 8 beside it, but Baker chose a generic tumbledown inn with an empty pool, a pitted parking lot, and no discernible name at all save “Vacancy.” He could not find the remote, so he sat barefoot on the folded orange bedspread and flipped through the channels using the buttons at the base of the television. He switched past a shopping channel selling hunting rifles, past a cartoon in which what looked like a talking penis was wrestling with a grinning yellow sponge. On the next channel two elderly men took turns sodomizing a very young woman wearing only a plaid schoolgirl’s skirt and stockings. She stared at the camera without blinking, without any expression at all save an almost impossible degree of boredom, a heroic, life-preserving blankness.
Baker watched for a moment. He cracked open a tiny one and a half ounce bottle of bourbon that in his palm looked like a normal-sized bottle that had been shrunk by some evil, tee-totaling magician. Baker tipped back his head, emptied the bottle into his mouth, and changed the channel. Two newscasters with furrowed brows discussed the abduction of a teenaged girl from a Walmart parking lot. Her face appeared in the top right corner of the screen. She looked very much like the girl in the plaid skirt from the previous channel, down to the furious absence in her eyes. Baker flipped past newsreel footage of the bombing of Dresden, a show about tornadoes, a preacher with his eyes rolled back, speaking in tongues. “Oola boola lickety ragu,” said the preacher, pausing to fix his hair and then ranting some more. On the next channel a reporter interviewed a man in a military uniform with four stars on his epaulettes who, Baker noticed, closely resembled one of the old men from the porn channel, and the preacher as well. “It is a question and will continue to be a question,” the officer said, jabbing at the air with his fist, “of sustained, vigorous and concentrated effort.”
Baker turned off the television. He twisted open another bottle and poured its contents down his throat. He sat there at the edge of the bed for a while and stared at his reflection in the blank screen, then at his pale brown toes on the blue and green flecked motel carpet. He got up, fished through the vinyl toiletry case he had placed on the counter by the sink, took two pills from a plastic vial and swallowed them with a palmful of water from the tap. He lay down on the bed and stared at the pebbled plaster of the ceiling. If he let his will to focus lapse, patterns appeared, spirals and paisleys, concentric circles like the ripples left by a stone on the surface of a pond. Then the patterns dissolved and images took shape: landscapes first, hills and bays, valleys wrinkled like an old woman’s back; then bodies and parts of bodies, the curve of an instep, the hanging flesh above a fat man’s elbow, the fold of an eyelid, a gaping nostril, the soft plain of a thigh.
A strange, metallic whining interrupted Baker’s reverie. His cell phone was ringing. He grabbed the phone from the top of the television, checked the number, and hit reject. Then he stepped into his shoes and, without tying the laces, left the room.
Baker jogged across the parking lot of the KFC beside his motel and over to the payphone that stood alone beneath a streetlamp beside the AM/PM at the end of the block. He consulted his cell phone, dialed the number that appeared on its screen, and paid for the call using the truckstop clerk’s slug. He heard four rings, then the answering machine. “Leave a message,” the voice said. He did not.
As he walked back to his room, a teenaged girl emerged from among the parked cars to ask him for a quarter. She was heavy, with pale, stick-skinny legs and a face that seemed to have been constructed out of bubbles. She wore a short skirt and too much eyeliner. She called Baker mister.
“Don’t have a quarter,” Baker said.
“Then how’d you use the phone?” the girl asked.
“You got a magic hundred dollar bill?” said the girl, but Baker didn’t answer. She walked beside him. “You staying over there?” she asked, nodding towards the motel in the distance.
“Place is a dump,” she said.
“You must be pretty lonely,” she said.
Again, Baker did not answer.
“I am,” she said. “Lonely, I mean. Could use some company. Could use some fun.”
They reached the door to his room. Baker took the key from his pocket. The girl leaned against the door. “Could I just come in for a little while?” she asked. “Just to take a shower?”
* * *
The sun rose in Baker’s rear view mirror. The sky turned pink behind him and then a brief, shocking orange until a dull wall of ochre fell around him, obscuring the sun and all but a few bright, nervous streaks of blue. It occurred to Baker that he was fleeing the dawn, that you could look at it like that if you wished to, but that despite all his efforts to get away, he was driving into day. Pages torn from a paperback book danced around his windshield. A motorcycle cop rode his bumper for a mile or so, but lost interest and sped off in the fast lane. Baker saw a screech owl sitting on a speed limit sign. For a moment he was certain that he saw a human foot on the dotted white line dividing the lanes. But the light was still low and always deceptive, so he did not brake and did not think of it again.
When his cell phone rang, Baker fished it from his pocket and hit reject. He had to drive for fifteen minutes before he found an exit. He made the call from a payphone outside a Waffle House. When the machine answered, he immediately hung up.
Across the street he saw a restaurant with red shutters and a peaked, shingled roof. Two signs above the door read “home-cookin” and “kountry-style,” but one of the os in “cookin’” and the one in “kountry” had been smashed. Baker looked both ways, crossed the two lanes of asphalt and opened the restaurant door.
He took a seat at the counter. A waitress sitting on a high stool poured him a coffee without looking up from her crossword. “What can I get you?” she asked.
“Breakfast,” Baker said.
“Okay. Scrambled hard.”
“Bacon?” the waitress asked.
“Ham,” said Baker.
“Pumpernickel. No crust.”
“You got it,” the waitress said, but didn’t get up. “You wouldn’t happen to know,” she asked, “a nine letter word for ‘hag’? I think it’s got a k in there somewhere, towards the end.”
“Try ‘grimalkin,’” Baker said.
Baker spelled it. The woman looked up at Baker from beneath one lowered eyebrow. “You make that up?”
“No,” said Baker.
In the booth behind him, a man with long, gray sideburns and hair dyed black dropped his newspaper with disgust beside his empty plate. “That’s the thing about this goddamned place,” he said, apparently to no one.
The woman sitting alone in the next booth, whose back was to the side-burned man, answered him. “Place?” she said. She wore wide, pink-rimmed sunglasses and her hair was tightly permed. She faced forward when she spoke, as if her interlocutor were sitting directly across from her.
“This place, this country, this goddamned nation here,” said the side-burned man, without turning around.
“The thing about it is,” said the woman, spearing a nub of sausage with her fork.
“The thing about it, the goddamned thing is that everyone is from someplace goddamned else. Which means this place ain’t real at all. It don’t even exist, really.”
“Explain,” the woman said.
“What I mean is everyone here’s immigrants or they’re refugees from someplace else or they’re slaves who got brought here without asking to come or they’re Indians, and that amounts to the same thing because the first thing the rest of us did when we got here was messed the damn place up so much that even the Indians felt like they was from someplace else.”
“Somewhere with buffalo,” the woman said, biting off a corner of toast.
“That’s right, with buffalo. Then that wasn’t enough, so we went and moved the poor bastards halfway across the continent so they could share in the experience. Moved ’em to some hole in the desert where nothing grows or some hole like Oklahoma, so they weren’t where they were from neither.”
“And the thing about it?” the woman said.
The waitress slid Baker’s plate down on the counter. “Here you go honey, no crusts.” She shook her head. “Grimalkin. Never would’ve got that.”
“The thing,” the man behind Baker went on, “is that everybody’s missing something, and it’s something big—something exactly as big as this country. It’s exactly what this country is, if you follow me, it’s that thing gone missing. Everybody knows they lost something or they gave something up or had something snatched away from them, something that was everything to them, that was who and what they are, and every single one of them is running after it even when they’re standing still. They’re looking to get it back somehow, take it back, steal it back, build it from scratch if they have to, but they don’t know what the heck it was anymore, they forgot and their daddies forgot and their granddaddies forgot, so none of them has the wee-est inkling of what it was they lost, what it looked like, what it smelled like, what it felt like to be there, if it was worth any damn thing to begin with. But that don’t stop anyone, they want it bad.”
Baker tore open the foil sealing a plastic container of grape jelly and smeared some on his toast. The waitress filled his coffee cup. “Don’t pay them any mind,” she whispered. “They got nothing else to do.”
“So that’s the thing?” the woman with the sunglasses said.
“No,” said the side-burned man. “That’s just the thing that makes them dangerous.”
* * *
In the parking lot, walking to his car, Baker paused beside a yellow station wagon, the old kind with the fake-wood panels on the sides. He noticed it only because sitting on the cracked plastic of the dash was what looked like a severed head. The windshield was dirty and the glare of the sun made it hard to see anything through it. The side windows were even worse, smeared to opacity, as if a dog had rubbed its snout methodically against every square centimeter of glass. The head could have been plastic, some halloween gag or horror movie prop, but it looked real enough. Its nose was flat, its eyes closed. Its lips appeared to have been sewn together with thick, black thread, the hair sheared almost to the scalp, but unevenly, as if it had been cut with a knife and not with scissors. Baker squinted at the thing, tugged his ears, and unlocked the door to his car.
* * *
The landscape changed. Flat fields gave way to jagged hills, long runnels of rust-colored sand, weird lumps of rock that looked like they’d been hurled at the earth by some mischievous child god. Sometimes the rocks were black and sometimes they were red. For a little while, when the sun was at its highest, the asphalt seemed a pale and washed-out green and Baker could not think of a name for the color of the earth beside it.
A jackrabbit bolted bug-eyed in front of Baker’s tires. He waited for the thud of impact, but it did not come and when he looked in his mirror he saw nothing, no corpse on the asphalt and no limping bunny, and he wondered if he had really seen the rabbit at all. How could he trust his eyes? Papers swirled like butterflies except when they did not. Puddles of water took shape when the road dipped in the distance, the reflected sky rippling on the surface of the Interstate. Despite himself, Baker found that he was surprised and weirdly disappointed when the mirages evaporated one after another.
He passed a sign warning of the proximity of a prison. “Do not pick up hitchhikers,” it said. But Baker saw no hitchhikers, and though he scanned the horizon for it, he did not see the prison either. Instead he saw white shreds of paper stippling miles of mustard-colored scrub, car lots gleaming in the sun, a waterpark in the distance, blue slides twisting one around the other, snaking up into the sky. That night, though, he would dream of the prison. In his dream it would fill a dark basin between two hills, its floodlights and the lights on the guard tower and the glittering reflection of the razorwire glowing in the sky for miles, a regular city of light, some shard of heaven carved recklessly off and abandoned here below.
* * *
Baker stopped for lunch somewhere on the outskirts of the state’s second largest city, which as far as he could tell consisted of four tall buildings—the headquarters for a mortgage broker, a private security firm, two banks—surrounded by outlet malls, tract housing, storage lots. He chose a place called Milky D’s. He ordered the fried-pot roast sandwich special to go, and went to the men’s room while his food was being prepared. He peed and washed his hands, drying them with a paper towel from the dispenser on the wall. On the way out of the bathroom, he dropped the crumpled towel into the trash can, in which he could not help but notice—among other paper towels, a chewing gum wrapper and an empty pack of Marlboros—a dozen or more flies perched upon a small, brown hand. Baker kicked at the base of the trash can, and the hand fell to the bottom, out of sight.
Sitting in his car at the shady end of the parking lot with the AC blowing hard, Baker squeezed mayonnaise from a little metallic packet onto the shredded lettuce that covered the upper bun of his sandwich. He ate his lunch in slow, meditative bites, then went back into the restaurant for a coffee. He visited the men’s room once more before he left, just to check, but the trash can had been emptied, and there was nothing in it save a shiny black bag. Baker pulled at his ears, washed his hands again, and left to make his phone call from one of the two McDonalds on the other side of the street.
* * *
That afternoon, a highway patrolman pulled him over. Baker handed the policeman his license and registration and asked if he’d been speeding. The policeman didn’t answer, but asked Baker for proof of insurance and then asked where he was headed.
“South-southwest,” Baker said.
“You’re almost out of south-southwest,” the patrolman said.
“Looks that way,” Baker agreed.
“Here on business?”
“Passing through, officer. Just passing through.”
The policeman smiled. “You know why I stopped you?”
Baker looked at the dark flesh of his own forearm and at the policeman’s pink cheeks. “I got an idea,” Baker said.
“No,” the policeman said, still smiling, “you don’t. No one told you to get an idea, so where in fuck would you get one?” The policeman did not, to Baker’s mild surprise, ask him to get out of the car or to open his trunk. Instead he handed back Baker’s laminated drivers license and the registration and insurance papers for the car. “Just pass on through,” he said, “if you’re passing through.”
* * *
One hour after he returned to his motel room from the payphone outside the corner laundromat that evening, Baker heard a rattling on the bedside table. His cellphone had begun to vibrate. He picked it up. He had a text message. Baker glanced at the closed door of the bathroom. He could still hear the shower running, and the voice of a woman singing to herself. The message was only two words long. “Almost there,” it said.
Baker heard the water turn off in the bathroom and the sound of wet feet slapping on the floor. He pulled his pants and shirt back on, uncapped another tiny bottle of bourbon, drank it, and erased the message with a few strokes of his thumb. The bathroom door opened and a woman stepped into the room wearing only a towel. She was short-legged and long-armed, with a tattoo of what looked like a scallion just above her ankle. She looked at Baker, her eyes a question, but Baker shook his head. “You’ve got to go,” he said.
Baker waited for five minutes after the woman had left, then went out the door as well. He did not return to the phone at the laundromat, but walked in the other direction, hopping the curbs and the hedges that divided one parking lot from another until he reached the bank of payphones outside the Pic ’n’ Save. The first phone he tried was broken, but the next one worked. On the fourth ring, the machine answered. Baker did not hang up. Instead he closed his free ear with one finger, shut his eyes, and listened hard.
It was not silence that he heard. No one could call that silence. There was a buzzing around the edge of it, and softer tendrils of sound shooting through its center and waving around there, as if searching for something they could not see. The buzzing seemed to expand and contract, as if the answering machine had lungs or, like a fish, an air bladder. It occurred to Baker that it might be his own breathing that he heard, or the beating of his heart, but he dismissed the thought when the machine beeped a second time to indicate that it was no longer recording, that no one could listen to whatever was said thereafter, and Baker then heard a real silence, one broken only by his own breathing and the heavy pulse of blood as it passed through his temple and his ear.
* * *
Baker dreamed that night of fire. He dreamed of cities on continents he had never visited, fire descending on them from the sky, rolling through them like a wave that breaks in all directions at once. When the fire had run through them, the cities still stood, and Baker ran after the fire, first in one direction, and then in another. But the fire was faster than he was, and he could not catch it.
While Baker slept, the wind kicked up a storm of soiled newspapers, driving directions printed from the internet, poems torn from journals that nobody reads, empty crosswords waiting to be filled, full-color photos of teen fellatio ripped from dirty magazines, lined sheets of notepaper on which no words will ever be written. But Baker, sleeping, saw none of it, and did not see the sawn off hands and feet and fingers and ears scattered around the parking lot and the field of scrub behind it or, the legs piled like firewood outside his door. Baker saw only fire, and not even that, because that was only a dream, and no one else could see it.
2. The Wall
In the car the next day, Baker remembered his dream. The Interstate curved and he was suddenly blinded by the red light of the morning sun reflecting off the border wall. It seemed for just a moment as if the world were on fire again, and the fire were running away from him. He was still miles from the wall, but from this distance it was nonetheless impressive, obscuring the horizon with its mirrored length for as far as he could see. That is perhaps not the best choice of words though, for as much as it obscured one horizon—the one behind it—it replicated another.
Green signs along the side of the highway warned, “International Border.” As he approached, the wall grew taller. Papers fluttered gaily in the air above the asphalt like confetti at a parade that no had one remembered to attend. Baker took the last exit before the Interstate ran out, looked both ways, then made a series of turns down narrow, unpaved streets, passing dusty clapboard houses and children on bicycles dragging kites, until his car was just yards from the wall. He stopped and set the parking brake. This far from the Interstate, the air was free of paper. He could see himself right there in the wall’s mirrored surface, sitting erect, his fingers tapping the wheel. He half expected to see someone sitting in the car beside him, or in the backseat, but of course there was no one. This close up, he had to bend forward and crane his neck to glimpse the top of the wall, a barely detectable line where the reflected blue of the sky met the actual sky, which was lighter, and looked less substantial than its image.
Baker had run out of road. The pavement ended a few feet beyond his front bumper, but a rough track had been worn by other vehicles in the dirt alongside the wall. He turned right and drove along it, weaving where he had to weave to avoid the worst ruts. When he looked out the window to his left, he saw himself there in the drivers seat of a white sedan, a plume of red dust rising behind him as he drove. His image did as he did, looking forward when he looked forward and obediently turning right when he turned left to regard himself in the wall’s surface. Still, he wondered what it had to do with him. He passed a few abandoned cars, coated in the same red dirt. Before long he came across a Border Patrol Jeep driving in the opposite direction, and he had to pull into the thorns and brush to allow the other vehicle to pass. The Jeep’s driver stopped beside him and rolled down his window. Baker did the same.
“State your citizenship,” the driver said, and Baker did.
“ID,” the driver said. Baker passed his license through the window.
The driver inspected it, typed something into the computer bolted to his dashboard and handed the license back. He wore an olive green uniform and mirrored sunglasses, and Baker could see his reflection in their lenses, a smaller, more distorted version of the image he saw in the wall on the other side of the Jeep. “You lost?” the agent said, staring not at Baker any longer, but at the green and white monitor of his computer, as if waiting for an answer there.
The agent nodded. “Careful,” he said, and rolled his window closed.
* * *
The track was rough and Baker’s progress slow. The rattling of the car ran up his spine and into his jaw. It made his teeth hurt. The dust was bad, so he kept the windows closed, but it crept in through the vents until a fine layer of red powder coated the seats and the dash and the inner surface of the windows. Sometimes the track dropped precipitously and then rose up again, and Baker knew that if a car were coming in the opposite direction, he would not be able to see or hear it, and would almost certainly hit it head on. He kept his cell phone on the seat between his legs and occasionally checked its screen. It always said the same thing: No Signal.
After a few hours, the track along the border wall intersected with a paved road. Baker turned onto it, and drove until he hit a small town: a few leaning stucco houses, a gas station with a single pump, two bars, a post office, a video store and a café called You And Me Got Business To Attend To. He filled his tank, checked the oil and the air pressure of his tires, washed the red dust from both sides of his windows.
The door to the café was open, but there was no one behind the counter or at any of the four vinyl-upholstered booths. Baker heard a thin stream of dance music coming from the kitchen. He walked behind the counter and knocked at the double doors. No one answered but the radio. “Give it to my body,” it sang, “and I’ll give it to your body.” Baker pushed open the door and said, “Hello?”
In the far corner of the kitchen, a dark-haired girl in an apron sat with her feet propped up on the lip of the sink. She had a ballpoint pen in one hand, a newspaper folded on her lap. She was bobbing her head to the music, singing to herself. It took her a moment to notice Baker standing in front of her.
The girl jumped to her feet.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” Baker said.
The girl blushed. “Take a seat,” she said, recovering herself. “Be right with you.”
Baker sat at the counter and waited for the girl to come out and pour his coffee. She brought him a menu and a fork and knife wrapped in a paper napkin. Most of the items on the menu had been crossed out in ballpoint ink. “I guess I’ll have the chicken soup,” Baker said. “And the chicken plate.”
“Fries or cole slaw?” the girl asked.
“Both,” said Baker. “You got a phone I can use?”
“Round the back.”
As Baker walked to the door, the girl called out to him. “Hey,” she said, smiling a crooked, closed-mouthed smile, as if she were embarrassed by her teeth. “You wouldn’t by any chance know a four-letter word for beaver pelt, would you?”
Baker winked. “Try flix.”
* * *
Baker drove all afternoon, up and down the rutted track, gripping the wheel with both hands until his elbows felt as unsteady as the road itself. For a long stretch he listened to a radio station from the other side, and though he did not understand the language the broadcasters spoke, he enjoyed the easy rhythms of their voices and the manic melancholy of the music that they played. But then static took over, and it was all Jesus after that, so Baker turned the radio off.
Just before sunset, he found a motel a hundred feet from the border wall. The clerk gave him a corner room. Its bay window faced the wall, and when Baker pulled back the drapes, he saw himself reflected in the wall’s surface, standing next to the door to his room, his hands spread and leaning on the windowsill, a table lamp shining beside him. “That’s me,” Baker thought. “What am I doing over there?”
He looked at the dust-coated tires of his car and at its antenna swaying with the breeze, but there was little else of the world that he could see directly, without the aid of the wall. In its mirrored surface, though, he could see the entirety of the motel parking lot, the blinking neon sign (no name again but “Vacancy”), the other rooms, all of them apparently uninhabited, or at least dark, with drapes pulled shut. His car was alone in the lot. He could see a few mesquite bushes and what he thought must be palo verde shrubs, their branches clogged with fast food wrappers and shredded plastic grocery bags. And he could see, if he looked up, a red-tailed hawk circling patiently in the sky, though he knew that it was not actually where he saw it in front of him, because the wall was there, and what he saw was its reflection. The actual hawk was directly above his room.
It was only when the phone rang behind him that Baker became aware of the enormity of the silence that surrounded him, as if he had been staring out the porthole of a submarine from far beneath the surface of the sea. The phone was loud, brutal even. It took him a moment to realize that it was not his cell that was ringing, but the yellow plastic motel phone on the table beside the bed. Baker picked up the receiver and held it to his ear. The connection was poor. He heard a crackling, and a series of hollow clicks intruding on a thick, convex buzzing. Then someone said his name. He did not recognize the voice. It began to say something else, and then the line went dead.
Baker stood beside the bed, expecting that the phone would ring again. It did not. He checked his cell phone, but its screen contained the same two words, “No Signal.” He looked out the window. The sunlight had faded. The whole reflected world had fallen into darkness except for the image of his own room, lit by one lamp, a shady figure standing beside it that Baker understood to be himself. He pulled the drapes shut and bolted the door behind him with the key.
The motel office was empty, so Baker rang the bell beside the door. No one answered. He rang it again. After a minute, the manager appeared. He had a wide, unruly mustache and wore a blue paper napkin stuffed into the collar of his shirt. He carried a fork in one hand, apparently more out of absent-mindedness than any concern for self-defense. A child’s head appeared in the doorway behind him. The child also wore a blue napkin at its neck. Baker could not tell if it carried cutlery. The manager slid the window open.
“Did you call me?” Baker asked.
“No, sir,” the manager shook his head.
“Did anyone call for me?”
“There a problem?”
Baker repeated his question. When the manager said no, Baker asked another. “Have you told anyone I’m here?”
“Does anyone know I’m here?”
“Only if you told them,” the manager said. He noticed the fork in his own hand, frowned at it and placed it on the counter in front of him, adjusting its position until it lay perfectly parallel to the magic marker beside it. The manager smoothed his mustache with the pad of his thumb. He looked up at Baker. “You’re the only guest we have.”
The town, Baker learned from the writing on the post office window, was called El Ojo, and from what he could tell, it was smaller even than the town in which he had stopped for lunch. El Ojo had only one bar and no gas station. On the sidewalk outside the bar, beneath a blue and yellow neon sign that read, “If I Knew You Better, I Just Might Give That a Try Bar and Grille: Cocktails, Cold Beer, Darts,” Baker found a payphone. He dialed the number from his cell phone and paid for the call with the slug. But after the fourth ring, the answering machine did not pick up. Instead the phone rang and rang and rang, and Baker stood in the dark outside the bar listening to it ring, the receiver hard against his ear.
At last he hung up and stood, staring at the payphone as if it had said something preposterous and he was waiting, patiently, politely, for it to explain itself. He took a small white pill from the chest pocket of his shirt, placed it in his mouth, crushed the pill between two molars, swallowed. A crow cawed. Baker felt a rubbing at his leg. A cat. Its coat was streaked yellow and blue in the neon light. The two colors did not combine to form green, but managed somehow to maintain their integrity, giving the world outside the bar a striped effect. Under other circumstances, Baker supposed, the cat would be gray. It had something in its mouth, which it deposited like an offering beside Baker’s shoe. It should have been a mouse, Baker knew, or a starling with shiny black eyes and a dragging wing, but it looked instead like a shredded clump of meat narrowing at one end into a dull pink globe. Baker kicked it over and saw what looked like a big toe with a brightly painted nail and a bit of foot attached. But when he kneeled down to take a closer look, the cat grabbed the thing away and scurried off into the darkness.
Inside the bar two men in cowboy hats stood in one corner playing darts. An old Indian with a strap of leather tied around his brow sat at the other end of the bar, nursing a beer and staring intently at a folded sheet of newspaper. The bartender tossed a coaster in front of Baker. She was neither young nor old, with blowdried hair that had once been dyed blond and long since faded to a dull, uneven brown. “What’re you having?” she said.
“Bourbon,” Baker said. “Rocks.
When she brought his drink, Baker asked her if anyone around had recently lost a toe.
“That’s a funny question,” she said.
Baker acknowledged that it was, and told her about the cat.
“I got all mine,” she said, and made a show of looking down to check. When her laughter had run out, she asked a question. “What brings you here?” she said.
“Just passing through.”
“I can smell that on you,” the bartender said. “But what for?”
Baker chewed a shard of ice. “Lonely night,” he said. “Passing the time.”
Baker conjured up a smile. “I’m in sales,” he added. “I sell carpet steamers.”
“No you don’t,” the bartender replied.
“You’re right,” Baker said. “I sell encyclopedias.”
The bartender grinned and shook her head. “You don’t sell anything,” she said. “A salesman comes to life when he speaks to someone, like you twisted a key in his neck and wound him up. But when he thinks he’s alone, when I turn my back and go to pour his drink and watch him in the mirror without him knowing that I’m looking, he deflates like a balloon. It’s like a light goes off inside him, like he’s saving battery power. Then I come back with his Seven and Seven or his Jack and Coke or his beer and he revs right up again, like he was always that way and always will be. But you, you’re saving battery power whether I’m standing here or not, even when you think you’re being charming.”
“So I’m a lousy salesman.”
“Yeah. You are.” The bartender strolled to the other end of the bar to fill the old Indian’s beer. When she was done, she poured two more for the cowboys. “They’re here when you want ’em, fellas,” she said, then hunched in front of Baker and whispered across the bar. “William wants to know if you know a six letter word for a kind of small monkey.”
“Tell him to try vervet,” Baker said, loud enough for the old man to hear.
The Indian shook his head. “He tried that,” the bartender interpreted.
“Grivet then,” said Baker. The Indian penciled the letters in and, without looking up, nodded. “Your next one’s on him,” the bartender said, and poured it.
“What’s it like,” Baker asked, “living next to that wall?”
The bartender looked at him with the same expression she’d had when he had asked about the toe. She blinked. “What wall?”
After his fourth whiskey, Baker chewed another pill and flipped over the coaster beneath his drink. On one side it said Miller High Life: the Champagne of Beers. The other side was blank, but someone had etched a sentence onto it with a dull pencil that left wide grooves in the spongy surface of the coaster. “Everything you see is real,” it read. Baker glanced down the bar, but William the Indian’s stool was empty. The cowboys were gone too. Baker couldn’t remember if he had had the same coaster all night, or if the bartender had replaced it with each drink. She stood a few feet away, drying glasses and singing to herself. He couldn’t make out the tune.
“What time you close?” he asked.
“Usually right after the last customer leaves.”
“That would be me.”
“Tonight that would be you.”
“Could I interest you then,” Baker said, “in joining me for a nightcap in my motel room?”
The bartender smiled. “Sorry, honey. As delightful as the offer sounds, you’re not selling, and I’m not buying.”
Baker frowned. “I don’t know what that means,” he said, and pushed a bill across the bar.
For a little while, Baker was able to sleep. He dreamed of the wall. In his dream, he needed to get across the border. He had a visa and all his papers were in order, but no matter how far he drove, he could not find a gate. Finally his car ran out of gas beside a low pyramid of rocks. There was nothing and no one around. Baker watched himself in the mirror of the wall as he picked up a rock, tossed it from hand to hand, and without any real conviction, lobbed it at the wall. It hit just above the reflection of his head and bounced off without a scratch. Baker threw another, and another after that. He hurled each rock harder than the last until he was in a frenzy, reaching for a new rock as soon as the last had left his hand. The wall remained undented, but when he was getting to the bottom of the pyramid of stones, he noticed cracks opening in the air around his head, fractures snaking across the sky. He heard a buzzing so dense with possibility that it seemed pregnant. Then the rock crumbled in his hand. His hand crumbled too. He watched in the perfect mirror of the wall as the high hills and the cartoon boulders and the thorny scrub and even the clouds and the bowl of the sky shattered and fell in shards. Only the mirrored wall remained, reflecting nothing but the settling dust.
When he woke, the red digits of the clock read 3:19. Baker reached for the remote, turned on the television. He lay half-awake, flipping through the channels, shifting his legs beneath the sheets. He watched a cartoon in which a lizard French-kissed a frog, then ate it in a single gulp. He watched the news for a while: bombings, an earthquake somewhere, fog on the Interstate, the stock market adjusting to new realities, another missing girl, more tales of military valor. Baker watched a pink-faced preacher write on a dry-erase board. He wrote the words “blood debt” in a shaky hand at the top of the board and beneath it scrawled the words’ illegible translations in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, Syriac and Ethiopic. Baker watched a reality show about men fishing for crab in rough seas, then one about gang rape and another about capital punishment. One of the men awaiting execution had starred in the rape show too. In some sense that Baker could not understand, he was its winner.
When the clock read 5:08, Baker turned off the television. He showered quickly, dressed and brushed his teeth. He swallowed two oblong yellow pills from the tube in his toiletry case, put his suitcase in the trunk of his car and slid his room key through the slot in the door to the manager’s office. He walked back to the bar to try the phone again. The neon light was out now, and there were no streetlamps, just the light of the moon.
Before Baker could pick up the handset, the payphone began to ring. Baker stared at it. He let it ring three times, then reached out and picked it up. The receiver was cold in his hand. He heard a familiar buzzing on the other end followed by a harsher sound, like sheets snapping in the wind. Then he heard a voice speak his name. He waited for a moment, but the voice said nothing more. Baker let the phone drop from his hand and walked, stiff-legged, back to his car. Behind him, the receiver hung where he had left it, swinging like a pendulum, coughing Baker’s name into the empty street.
In the dark, it was hard to make out the ruts and pits in the road, but Baker could see the wall at least. He could see the point where his high-beams bent and could gauge from that his distance from the border wall. He drove as fast he could, but he didn’t want to risk getting stuck in the sand or snapping an axle on a rock, so he was forced to restrain himself. Baker slammed at the wheel with his open palm. “Where am I going?” he said aloud to himself. “Where is there left to go?”
In his hurry to leave El Ojo, Baker had not checked the fuel gauge. Just like in his dream, he ran out of gas. His car slid to a stop in the sand. Baker opened the door. The night air smelled of sage and ashes. As Baker stepped out, his cell phone slipped from his lap into the dirt. He did not see it fall. Baker thought of walking back to El Ojo, but rejected the idea. Someone would come eventually. He circled his car, his feet sinking in the sand. He stared up at the stars until he felt the sky slipping in behind his eyes and his head began to ache from the vastness. He walked in the dark, snagging his trousers on yucca spines and mesquite branches. After a dozen steps, he hit the wall. It felt as he’d imagined it would, smooth and cold. No dust clung to its surface, and his fingertips left no smudges.
Baker sat on the hood of his car to wait, his feet on the bumper. Somewhere a bird began to trill, and was answered by another. Insects woke too and filled the air with a thick, expectant buzzing. The sky grew lighter. Though Baker could not yet see the sun, he could see himself there in the wall, or a version of himself, sitting on the hood of a car with his elbows on his knees, his chin propped up on his fists. He looked very small, his limbs thin and fragile, his head only tenuously joined to his torso. And as the light grew bolder, the buzzing of the insects grew shriller and Baker’s image seemed to shrink until at last the sun itself rose up from behind the mountains and he could see nothing in any direction save its piercing light. He could no longer see the wall, or himself reflected in the wall, or the world around him, or any image of it. He couldn’t see the thorn bushes or the cacti or the scattered stones or his cell phone waiting for him in the cool dirt beneath his car, or the tracks left elsewhere in the sand by jackrabbits and snakes or the tracks left by the tires of Baker’s car and his rubber-soled shoes. He couldn’t see the car’s dusty windows or its hood or his elbows or his knees, or anyone else’s elbows or knees or toes, just that streaking yellow light exploding everywhere, the earth a star, all stars aflame, no sign of Baker anywhere.
This issue of First Proof is funded in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Foundation.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel The Suitors. He lives in Los Angeles.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee