I can’t get enough interstate I-80, between Melissa and her recent past. I never anticipated that I’d see so many dead jack-rabbits.
Tommy isn’t far behind. I’m convinced of that. I know Tommy very well. I’m his brother from another father and his best friend. My older brother Tommy is the one who defended me in high school, kicked the shit out of a few of my bullies. The Tommy I know is good-natured, with a Big Sky heart.
In college, we shared a friendly competition. This included who made the most touchdowns and who ran 400 meters the fastest. I’ll be honest here. Tommy always seemed to have the edge. But, when it came to winning over the girls, I’d say it’s a dead heat.
We both graduated honors, Tommy, Agriculture U.C. Davis, 25 touchdowns over his college career. I went down south, San Diego State University, an M.S. degree in Bioengineering, 23 touchdowns. Not bad for two boys from Wyoming.
Tommy laughed at the restraining order, said, “If I can’t have you the devil can.”
It’s not long before we’ve crossed Salt Lake City, Utah, and then up into the mountains toward Western Wyoming.
“Levi, the sky is endless here.”
Before I answer Melissa, there’s another thumb. A thwack! “I know,” I say and look in the rearview, “I haven’t driven this highway for years.”
Directly in front of me, is 240 miles of freeway that stretches clear to the city limits of Cheyenne, Wyoming. They’re a lot of things I want to keep in the past, but I can never forget the damned Wyoming jack-rabbits.
I say to myself that Tommy is far behind us, but deep inside, my instincts tell me that’s not true. I bet he feels like he’s traveling into the past, so far away from his long term comfortable home, in the hills near the Ghost Mill. Ghost Mill is what we call the long-abandoned lumber town of Tennant, California. Tennant’s sawmill, company store and housing, has been abandoned and emptied of people and trees since way back in the Twentieth Century. Wealthy Northeast industrialists made sure of that, with their insatiable appetite for timber and pulp-money. These days, at least in Siskiyou County, the Fed’s won’t let you snap a matchstick, unless you can prove its flame is sustainable. So, who needs another lumber mill, right?
The good folks of Wyoming joke that they’re more jack-rabbits than humans in their fine state. Equal Rights is their state motto.
“I’m only human,” said Tommy. This was his standard, counterfeit apology for giving Melissa another bloody lip. It was difficult for him to think he’d made mistakes until the thought of losing her again. But this time, there was no turning back.
As a small child, Tommy’s father beat our mother worse than the family birddog, just because he wouldn’t chase quail. This all happened, before I was born. Now Tommy barters his father’s abuse for sympathy, and uses it as an excuse for every shortcoming and failure in his life. His attitude is the very least of his deficiencies. He is both masochistic and sadistic, a rare diagnostic amalgam. He gets high from his emotional pain when he hurts someone. What I’ve come to learn, these past several months is that deep down inside, he knows that he and his dead father are evil as fuck.
Maybe there is such a thing as Karma, and things do come back to haunt you, or maybe take sweet revenge. But Melissa wasn’t going to stick around to find out by running out the clock.
I can remember when Tommy was a teenager, maybe his freshman year of high school. Tommy’s biological father had been dead going on two years by then, but he still reached out from his grave. His father was T-boned and died in the middle of an intersection. Upon hearing this, Tommy expressed very little emotion. Upon his demise, there wasn’t a will. The only thing he left Tommy was a legacy of rage, and anger, gifts that keep on giving.
Tommy kept everything in a knot in his stomach, somewhere deep inside, an incubator for angst and tumult. He complained of a bellyache 24/7. I recall sitting in the family room with him, watching T.V. He’d keep one of the sofa pillows tight over his abdomen. He said it helped him relax and even joked once, “It’s one of the ways you can hold everything bad inside you. Know what I mean Levi? It’s like the horror movie, Alien Resurrection, when they discover most of the cargo on board are mutated humans on life support, all part of a grand experiment.”
Mother said Tommy’s behavior was just a nervous habit, not part of any larger psychological symptom, something he’d outgrow. Sure her husband used to beat him, used a belt or a strap that she provided. She couldn’t tell you why she bawled in the other room. His father’s excuse was that Tommy was no good at making decisions. And, that the ones he made were disasters. Mother wasn’t sympathetic, never had a problem with any of his discipline.
She was part of the conspiracy. She never raised an eyebrow when he called Tommy “a goddamned sissy and worthless,” as well as other horrible names that leave deep emotion cuts that even time refuses to heal. His father said Tommy needed “a little redirection.”
But as bad as he was, there were many days Tommy missed his dad.
Not long after leaving Salt Lake City, we find ourselves ten minutes east of Rock Springs, on the pie crust edge of the Wyoming plains, some 259 miles from Cheyenne. Dodging tumbleweed and bucking headwinds, I keep my eyes in the rearview in case his blue Tesla X shows up. Melissa is in the back seat now, crunched into a ball. She’s sitting with her knees against her chin, and her bare feet on the seat. She’s pensive as hell and afraid for her life.
Tommy isn’t a renaissance man. He’d tell Melissa, “If you need one of those, try New York City, in the Off-Broadway district or the Castro, in ‘Frisco.” He doesn’t know what the hell an Untuckit is, doesn’t damned care. He’s all about his blue jeans and long sleeve denim, and the outdoors.
Tommy’s the type of husband that only says, “I’m sorry,” if there’s something in it for him. He’s not apologetic for how he thinks a man should behave. He’s a chiseled shaving off his ole man’s wooden block. He’s plenty smart. He just doesn’t show it. There’s a blind spot in his head, the size of the Titanic. It’s only a matter of time before he’s going down.
In short order, we whisk through most of Wyoming. We’re now twenty minutes shy of the city limits of Elk Mountain. Across the state, I count dead rabbits. Since I’ve had lots of time on my hands, I’ve concluded that the jack-rabbits in Wyoming have H.D.H.D. Don’t quote me, but I think they’d be less likely to get run down and messed up if they just chilled. They’re too damned hyper, too quick to bullet in any direction, every-which-away. And, they always seem to find a way to run right under your tire. But I give them credit. They’re smart sunsza-bitches, very good at match.
At least the jack-rabbits in Wyoming are. On the I-80, you don’t have to lower your head to look at the odometer to check your mileage. You only need to count the dead rabbits up ahead. Tommy and I have done it so often, going back and forth to college. Dead rabbits are better than any odometer. Each dead Fur-Frisbee is a designated mile. Do you get where I’m going here?
A jack-rabbit’s understanding of calculus is unparalleled. When you see the first jack-rabbit, your odometer is registered at 20 miles. This is your starting point. So, for each dead rabbit, you’ve used a gallon of gas. And so, when you count your rabbits, when you’ve counted 15, you’ve traveled 300 miles. So you don’t need an orange, low gas warning on your dashboard to get you excited. At 15 of those furry bastards, just find the nearest gas station and fill up.
And be sure to stay alert. If you are unfortunate enough to hit one of the skinny ones, hungry, and dressed in bones, you might get a jagged femur in your tire.
It’s a little complicated, so I will attempt to unmuddy things. Melissa is Tommy’s second wife, my first. He borrowed her to fill his need for a bookkeeper. It wasn’t long after she began her new job, he stole her from me for good, with his charm and bravado. She was at a vulnerable place in her life. We needed the money. It wasn’t long before Melissa was Tommy’s new wife at the BigT Cattle Ranch.
The ranch is located just outside of Sierraville, California. Part of me still thinks Tommy knew exactly what he was doing. I learned a quick lesson here: never give a pyromaniac matches.
I should’ve known better. He is a lucky S.O.B. with his dangerous blue eyes, chiseled good looks, and the cattle ranch, let alone all his bank accounts.
It wasn’t long after that Melissa and I amicably divorced. I was the best man. Now my best friend had him a personal bookkeeper and my ex-wife. I couldn’t help but imagine those two together, really cooking the books.
Once all the testosterone and estrogen settled down, I was truly happy that they found one another. After all, Tommy was my friend, and Melissa was my forever love.
Since then, we’ve remained close friends over the years. Sometimes good people just make honest mistakes and move on. That is why God made erasers. We all learned to forgive each other that way.
As we near the city limits of my early childhood, in Cheyenne, I feel unsettled. Melissa and I can’t wait for another chance, though I have a hunch, it will take place apart more than together. All the running we are doing is for her sake.
Before we drove off into new futures, before we could find a safe place for Melissa, she told me some of the things Tommy would say to her.
“Your lipstick is too red for a lunch date with an old girlfriend. An extra night in Reno, at the convention, is too much.”
She’d ask Tommy, “Is this is how it all starts, the abuse, like a leaky faucet before it turns into a waterfall, and carries you over the top? When can I stop lying about all the bruises here and there, from bumping the corners of cabinets or the edges of cupboard door?”
When we’d occasionally meet for coffee, she’d wear her sexy sunglasses, indoors.
I felt helpless. All I could do at first was listen, hopefully provide comfort.
“You can’t fly out to California,” he’d say.
“But, it doesn’t look like mom has much time left.”
His back talk, “Then Melissa, there’s one more reason not to go.”
Questions became requests that morphed into pleading. Tommy’s answers grew relentless. Every damned one was no.
“No, you don’t need to see a doctor. I’m sure it’s only a few cracked ribs,” he’d say. “No, I don’t give a shit how dry the snowpack is in Park City, Utah. You can ski right here up at Donner, or North Star.”
“Hell no,” he’d say. “You don’t need to attend your fifteen-year class reunion.”
Melissa said it wasn’t long before she felt like a cheap bar code on the side of a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Too soon, she’d struggle to remember the names of her nieces and nephews. She hadn’t seen them since she could remember.
She’d shut the drapes when the sun and the sky were beautiful outdoors. It didn’t take long before she started looking for a way out. Anywhere else, a safe space, even death, began looking like shelter.
We thought we might outsmart Tommy. Keep him looking for us in Cheyenne for a while, where he predicted we would be. After all, in Cheyenne was our home, where all families’ psychological bodies are buried. Cheyenne is where we are from.
It hasn’t even been 24 hours yet. We’ve been driving non-stop. I’m using the odometer again. I ran out of rabbits. We haven’t seen many in the contoured mountain roads of North Carolina. They seem to know how to bend left and right here, just when you don’t expect them to.
It’s possible jack-rabbits are smarter here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The direction we’re heading is in front of us, somewhere still unknown, somewhere after tomorrow.
Melissa is now buckled up, on her side, asleep in the backseat. Usually, that’s Cherry’s spot, my golden retriever. I removed Cherry’s blanket I keep on the Highlander’s leather seats. There won’t be any duck hunting for a while, no mud. Melissa is wrapped up in my black leather coat. It’s so quiet now. I can hear each twitch, each moan. It’s like I remember Cherry, when she’s was asleep, at my feet, in front of the fire.
I can tell the way Mellissa moves her feet that she’s running in her dreams. What I don’t know is where she is going. With my Cherry, I always assumed she was chasing a mail carrier, or snapping at someone’s speeding tire speeding down the street.
It’s late Thursday when we pull in front of the Holiday Inn in Asheville. But not too late, they still have rooms. After two flights of stairs, I carry Melissa across the threshold like I did when we eloped. I get us twin beds and a good T.V. with lots of porn.
It’s not long before she’s fearful again. So afraid, I sit on the dirty carpet in front of the bathroom door while she takes a shower. Only after I tuck her in one of the beds, do I turn on the television. Nothing is exciting, not even late-night television sex, so I leave it on, and turn down the volume on the Weather Channel. Melissa finally makes soft noises. She’s beginning to drift out into the deeper waters of sleep.
I’m exhausted too, but vigilant. It’s about one in the morning now, when I noticed her cell phone light up and vibrate next to her bed on the nightstand. I snatch it up to quiet it down, stop it from shaking. Her cell is on vibration mode. Even under the covers, I can see that she’s shaking and shivering again.
I slowly read the text. It’s from Tommy. It’s from his work phone, back home. It says he’s in the parking lot and on his way up. I take the blanket from my bed and place it over Melissa until she stills again.
I worked my way through college, driving electrical parts all over Sacramento, California. My future father-in-law gave me my first real job. It was either that or back home for the summer to buck alfalfa hay in wired up bundles for three months.
Dick and I would, on occasion, share long philosophical conversations. Though we would one day be related, if only by marriage, I considered him more of a friend. One time, over a Coors or two, Dick explained that if you live your whole life with only a handful of friends, you will be a fortunate man. He held up his palm and showed me four fingers and a thumb. After he died, there was only Tommy. I had one friend left.
When I pull the drapes apart, they’re stiff and smoky. Outside it’s misty, and the parking lot is as shiny as tar. The mask of humidity in the air looks ominous and heavy for this time of year.
Someone is walking toward us now. I can barely hear the footfalls coming down the long, second story corridor. The steps soften, tiger paws before a kill.
I glance at the muted Weather Channel. There’s a hurricane coming. I use the remote. It’s the new Xfinity handheld, the one with a handgrip. Inside the room, there is nothing but blackness, like something’s ending.
It’s then I turn into a black panther. I become invisible. I relax in the extra hotel chair, sit on my haunches, and wait. I’ve placed my leather jacket on my lap. From inside the jacket’s long, deep pocket, I pull out my .40 caliber Beretta. I glance over at Melissa. I can’t help but believe she’s dreaming of a brand new life. Her lovely face is pulsing in the red wash of the cheap hotel digital alarm clock. This is the alarm clock, in every damned hotel, in America, that is always set, precisely at the wrong time.
Tommy won’t have to knock twice to enter. I’ve left the door unlocked. Unfortunately, this is going to wake up Melissa.
Dan A. Cardoza’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have met international acceptance. Most recently his work has been featured in Five-Two Crime Poetry, Black Petal, Cabinet of Heed, Cleaver, Danse Macabre, Dissections, Entropy, Gravel, Liquid Imagination, Montana Mouthful, New Flash Fiction Review, Rabid Oak and Spelk.