It was summer and the heater was on. Bob couldn’t turn it off. The 1947 Pontiac he was driving chugged along on flat open road. The car had been restored from brown, back to its original colors, teal and seafoam. Before the restoration, we had known these colors were the car’s birthright. We had seen them, still hiding, on the insides of the shit-brown doors. We had christened the car the Green Bean, and this was its maiden voyage in its new green coat, its heater broken and decidedly on. From my vantage point in the car behind him, I could see Bob’s hand going up to wipe the sweat off his forehead with a white handkerchief, or drinking water from a flask my mother had filled that morning. It was like this for miles, wiping and watering. The road stretched itself out lazily before us, knowing it had nowhere to go but straight on. The clouds rolled by on the Green Bean’s rounded tail fins and the whole cumulus-filled sky was reflected in seafoam. This was Montana, and we were chugging west.
At school in Wisconsin, we had studied about the Lakota Sioux Indians of South Dakota. They believed that west was the direction of death because west is the direction the sun sets in. In the car, looking out the window, I thought about that. It meant that we were traveling in the direction of death. Maybe not death for us, but death for our old new life, back in Wisconsin. Now we were travelling to our new old life, back to the place we had originally moved from: the west coast. For my parents, traveling west meant traveling in the direction of natural progression, of promotion. For me, traveling back meant moving in the direction of ambivalence. I was going back to where I had come from, but I was leaving something behind.
“Can I sit up with Bob?”
My mother looked at me peripherally, concentrating on the road in front of her, straight or not. “Why?”
“I want to see how hot it is.”
She had no response but to follow Bob to the next rest area and pull off. We stopped frequently to make sure the Green Bean’s radiator was holding out. I climbed up into the old car, leaving my mother and spaniel behind in the other car’s air conditioning. It was hot, and I contemplated getting out again, 15-year-old curiosity satisfied. But it was a brief moment, and I stubbornly stuck to my plan. Only the exterior of the car had been restored, leaving the interior and those in it to fend for themselves forty years later. The heater was under the old brown-upholstered seat, and inside, the Green Bean was baking. It was too hot to talk, almost too hot to breathe, an action which, in itself, produced an unpleasant effect. The musty smell of ancient fabric, the roasting heater, and the odd half-smoked cigar in the ashtray produced a stale smell that stuck to the inside of my nose for hours afterward. There wasn’t much point in opening the windows very wide, the temperatures inside and out were so evenly matched, but we left them down all the way to hear the sound of the air moving by, the tires on the road. But this too was pointless. Even more unavoidable than the heat was the music my step-father was playing. Marty Robbins. Through the plinks and twangs of a hopelessly unhappy guitar, I learned about the west Texas town of El Paso and a woman named Felita. She had loved him but left him. Rode off on his horse.
We continued traveling west, the Rockies behind us. Looking at the map of the western United States, I calculated that we would arrive in California in three days’ time. Although it was the place we had come from, it wasn’t our final destination. It was a kind of way station to visit our family and rest before making the final leg of the journey to Oregon and the new home that waited for us there. I had to set aside my reservations about the coming weeks and stare out the window, inhaling the heat. Being the new person was not new to me, and the only thing for it was to take a deep breath and smile and say hello, no matter what that felt like on the inside. And there was something else. I was leaving behind people. Friends. I had known them for two years, but when you’re in middle school and high school, that’s a long time. And one person in particular.
Now, in the car, the old music and stale heat made me drowsy. I thought again of Felita. We had a lot in common, she and I. I had loved somebody. Loved him and left him, too, although not in the way that Felita had loved or left Marty Robbins. I had loved him in the notes-in-school-locker, late-for-dinner, warm-mouthed, leaves-tangled-in-hair way that 15 year olds do. I had left him in the way that my parent’s job decided I should leave. Pulling away from our house, it’s bright red “sold” sign painfully obvious, my mother had looked out the rearview mirror and cried along with me at the sight of the boy waving goodbye. I think maybe she had known that backward wave, and I think she had understood.
Does it truly matter? Essentially, it does not, and if you asked me now, these many years later, I have memories of that time that are mostly visuals of the epic scenery between here and there: The soft-shoeing of glaciers through Yosemite and their carvings on the rocks; the wild hillside flowers as we climbed Colorado; the craggy outcroppings at the top of Devil’s Monument in Wyoming where we all secretly thought of alien abductions, and the tiny remote towns, like Blue Earth, Minnesota, and its tiny diner with red-checked table cloths where everyone knows your name, and if they don’t, they all stop to check you out. It does not matter in any other way except this: transition builds us. I move forward best by saying goodbye well, by remembering kindly, by transitioning to what I can learn next. I know this now. I think I knew it then too. The cheeks were tear-stained, of course, but tanned and uplifted, still. Riding along in that ridiculously hot car, I looked as far as I could see ahead. I imagined myself, Felita, with a red rose behind my ear, riding side-saddle, off into the sunset and into the west, defiant in the face of the direction of death.
I read and I write and I teach and I repeat. Oh, and I’ve sold books.