At noon, Josie discovers herself walking through a black and white photograph. Dark asphalt shrinks ahead of her into the horizon. Along either side of the highway, dying grasslands extend into the distance and meet stonegray clouds and are distinguishable from the sky only because the sky is up and the ground is down. You did it, her voice in her head reminds her. You did it, her voice in her head congratulates her.
“I did it,” Josie says, and releases a breath.
So she walks for a while in the black and white photo. Which direction she is going does not matter. Even if she’s going the way she came, that’s no guarantee she’ll follow the road back into her former life. People she knew might know her but she won’t recognize them, and the places that made her who she was won’t have any power over who she’ll become. All of this is according to plan.
In her head is a list of what she has brought with her; she reads through the list, checking her body to confirm everything is there: (1) a slatecolored trucker jacket, ninety-nine percent cotton and one percent elastane; (2) one thousand dollars in American cash, ten one hundred dollar bills, in the left inside pocket of the jacket; (3) a white t-shirt tucked into black skinny jeans tucked into Doc Marten knockoffs; (4) her dark hair, her light skin, her bitten nails; (5) in her right jeans pocket, a scrap of college-ruled notebook paper on which she has written, in block letters, Are You the New Person Drawn Toward Me?
A difference between who she was and who she will be is she will act, she’ll have power, she’ll have and use agency.
Far ahead, a vehicle appears and spins towards her, growing to fill its half of the widening highway. It is a black truck, an antique, moving opposite the direction she has been walking. She holds out her arm. She has never hitchhiked before. She sticks up her thumb. The truck slows in advance of her and stops in front of her and Josie goes up to the open passenger window and, picturing the way a person like she wants to become might appear to someone who is picking up a hitchhiker on an empty highway, places both hands against the truck’s door. Folded into the driver’s seat is a tall woman in aviator sunglasses. Her left wrist rests against the top of the steering wheel. Josie’s lips open, maybe to say thank you or ask the woman’s name, but before she can form any words the woman speaks.
“I’m Paula. Where to?” Whitespace in her mind keeps Josie from answering for what must seem like a long time, because the woman in the aviator sunglasses says: “Hey, get in or get lost.”
Josie takes her hands off the truck door and straightens and realizes how much smaller she is than the woman in the aviator sunglasses. “I’m sorry.” She touches the door handle. It is silver and cold. “Can I get in?”
“What did I just say?”
“You said to get in.”
The woman in the aviator sunglasses raises her right hand, parallel to the ground, and jabs it at the passenger seat.
When Josie opens the door, it creaks, makes an oldcar sound that ignites firebugs in her stomach, puts the black and white photograph in which she feels she exists into motion, and gives her a role in the resulting moving picture. She comes unstuck from an everydayness she didn’t know she was experiencing and the blank page in her head starts to fill with words and colors. Is this what it feels like to be alive? The feeling is nostalgia but for the present and not the past. It’s a high. Her pursuit of this high, she begins to understand, led the person she used to be to erase themself and become a canvas on which to paint someone new.
In the center of the truck’s interior dashboard stands a figurine of a man carrying a child on his shoulders, a tiny statue of St. Christopher, famous for guiding travelers through the waters of a dangerous river until, one day, he carried a small child whose immense weight nearly drowned him. The child said, You had on your shoulders not only the weight of the world but also of He that made it. Desaturated images from this story flicker in her head, St. Christopher and the child move through the water in jerks and chops, a movie projected onto the wall of an ancient nickelodeon. This story is a thing Josie knows but she doesn’t know why she knows it. She straps herself into the truck’s passenger seat. “I’m Josie. I’m ready.”
The woman in the aviator sunglasses laughs at her. It’s not a kind laugh. “Okay, Josie. Where to?”
“It doesn’t matter.” She couldn’t have named the highway or the state through which it ran and it doesn’t matter, and she isn;t scared—well, she is, she feels her own pulse under the skin of her wrist and it is racing—but the fear is not a cold, bad thing. She has lightning in her veins.
“All right, then,” Paula, the woman in the aviator sunglasses, is saying, and she puts the truck into gear. Its engine sounds a midcentury thunder-growl and the truck accelerates through the monochrome landscape, its driver not speaking, the two of them alone together on the road. Finally, the woman in the aviator sunglasses says—her face forward, hidden eyes fixed ahead—“Anyway, what are you doing out here?”
“You won’t believe me, but I’ll tell you anyway.”
Paula is driving with her fingers slung casually over the button of the steering wheel. She’s wearing a shirt with black letters on it, but Josie can’t make out what they spell. “Okay?”
Josie says, “I don’t know how I got out here. I don’t know because I forgot on purpose. I did this. I blanked out the person I used to be.”
Paula turns halfway towards her. Reflected in the aviator sunglasses, the form of a young woman sits with her hands in her lap, staring back into her own paired mirrored images. Imagine wearing those sunglasses, driving along this black and white highway, destination indeterminate, feeling free. Josie moves her hands to her sides and can finally read the small letters on Paula’s shirt:
THE DIFFERENCE between
GENIUS and STUPIDITY is
GENIUS has its LIMITS
“Hey,” Josie says. “Did you make that shirt yourself?”
“Yeah,” Paula says. “Albert Einstein is my uncle.”
“Albert Einstein is dead.”
“Everything is dead, depending on your point of reference. Anyway, how would you know?”
It would be disconcerting, the way Paula is now driving with her aviator sunglasses aimed at Josie instead of at the road, but this isn’t a time to be disconcerted. The electric feeling is still pumping through her body. “I didn’t forget stuff like that, random knowledge, or whatever.”
“Good old American facts. Keep yourself fixed in a context.”
“It’s fine if you don’t want to tell me the truth,” Paula says. “Just don’t turn out to be a serial killer. I’ll end up a poor stupid asshole on some podcast.”
“I don’t want to be a serial killer,” Josie could safely say, because she most definitely does not want to become the sort of person who gets off on death.
“That’s comforting. You’re out here alone?”
Josie smirks at her own dual reflections. “We’re all alone, depending on our frame of reference.”
“That’s insightful.” The aviator sunglasses finally point back at the road.
Josie watches the landscape pass. It is a blur of black asphalt and gray desert. Her forearm is resting on the door panel, and she senses that the truck is motionless, that the world is a looping film reel simulating their movement. Occasional blips of conversation help her compile a collection of new facts. They are going south on Highway 285 in New Mexico, they are going to pass through Roswell (“Are we going to meet any aliens?” Josie asked; “Oh, you decided to remember aliens?” Paula said), and then they are going to drive another hour to Carlsbad, where Paula has a fifty dollar reservation at a Super 8. Why she is going to Carlsbad is Paula’s business, and Josie is welcome to take the second bed in the Super 8 room but then she has to find some other travel arrangement. She has to be gone by seven a.m. and not a minute later (“Expecting someone?”; the eyes behind the sunglasses looked at the road). Additionally: Paula is forty, Paula is six feet one inch tall, Paula would prefer if Josie stopped asking questions. Every twenty minutes, Paula takes one hand off the wheel, rotates the driver’s side rear view mirror so that it is aimed at her, looks at herself, and then rotates the mirror back into its regular place.
The Super 8 flows into view as a feature on the grasslands. The white sun is sinking when they roll into the parking lot. The motel looks like a protestant church; it even has a pair of crosses, each composed of four sets of straight lines intersecting with a central circle, mounted above its lobby. The hotel room is the same as every hotel room, a pair of queen-sized beds and a minifridge and a TV. Paula drops her truck keys and the hotel card key and her aviator sunglasses on the nightstand and lays her duffel on the floor and throws her long body into a bed. She says, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m drinking tonight,” and pulls a bottle of Maker’s out of the duffel. “Do you drink? Or do you remember that.”
Josie decides she drinks.
By nightfall they are halfway through the bottle, drinking in steady sips from the paper cups they found by the room’s coffee maker. Streetlight dimmed gray by curtains streams into the room. It is so important, Paula explains, sitting crosslegged and barefoot on one bed, to Josie, who is leaning against stacked pillows on the other, that Josie make the right choices this time. If she’s really going to roll with this blank slate life restart thing. If for the sake of conversation she really has deleted her memories of self and started new in a black and white photograph of a highway in New Mexico. That’s assuming she made wrong choices last time. Paula refills her cup. But it’s a safe assumption.
Is it, though? Maybe this isn’t about running from mistakes. Josie can’t recall a list of reasons that explains the why of it, but she senses she is moving towards something rather than away.
“Towards what?” Paula says.
“Oh, man,” Josie says, and laughs and drinks again, because she didn’t realize she’d spoken out loud. “Let me ask you something.”
“Why me? I mean why pick me up, mostly why let me stay with you.”
Paula drinks before she answers. “You remind me of someone.”
“Someone who is coming here to meet you?”
She lets out a sound, something between a laugh and a curse. “Remember what I said, when you leave and go and do whatever you end up doing. What I said about right choices.”
“Okay,” Josie says, but then what are the right choices? The moral choice, yeah, sure. But what she senses about the why of this is it’s about the act of choosing more than the choice itself, that too often when we make what we think of as a choice what we are actually doing is just crawling through the narrow spaces left for us by big egos and systemic glitches. Blast open the narrow spaces. Act.
The bottle of Maker’s is two-thirds gone, and sits on the floor between their two beds. Slowly, Paula sinks onto her back, an empty paper cup beside her. Josie slides to the floor. “Listen,” she says.
Paula’s eyes are closed. “Hmm?”
Josie crawls onto the bed, straddles Paula’s body, sees the touch of eye shadow, the thin gold chain on her collarbone. “Whoever you’re seeing tomorrow, you know, whatever it is you’re planning to do, do it.”
Paula opens her eyes, and Josie sees for the first time that they are winecolored, so bright they are almost embers. Paula reaches one long arm off the bed, slides her fingers into Josie’s hair. Gently, she directs Josie’s gaze into her own. She doesn’t say anything, she closes her eyes and so the embers go out, and her hand drifts down, down, Josie watching it move through the air and then catching it, feeling its warmth, lowering it to the bed.
At six a.m. the inside of the motel room glows orange and Josie wakes up, feeling fine. She looks across the room from her bed to see Paula still sleeping, lightly snoring, turned on her side, her long legs making a right angle. At some point she had taken off her clothes. Her jeans and shirt are in a little heap on the floor between the beds. A long raised scar, two shades darker than her skin, runs from the middle of her right thigh over her knee to the top of her shin.
Josie decides on a list of actions to take, step by step. (1) She goes to the Super 8 front desk and gets a flimsy toothbrush and tiny bottle of toothpaste and, back in the room, takes her time to brush her teeth. (2) She washes her face, removes her t-shirt, holds a washcloth under the faucet and wipes yesterday away, dries off, puts her shirt back on, and finds her jacket on the motel room desk. (3) On the nightstand, she finds Paula’s truck keys and aviator sunglasses. She takes the keys; she hangs the sunglasses from the neck of her t-shirt. She prepares to steal these items away, but before she does she watches Paula sleep, sees the red ponytail holder encircling her right wrist, sees the streaks of hair stuck to her forehead, sees her left forearm rising from the mattress and pressing itself against her stomach, a kind of embrace. (4) Outside, she discovers that Paula’s old truck isn’t black, it’s navy, and she gets inside and cranks the engine. (5) She puts on the aviator sunglasses, shifts the truck into gear, and, after sitting with the vibrations of the big old engine for a moment, takes it out onto Highway 285. Even through the tint of her sunglasses the vibrant world is full of color. Deep blue sky and yellowgreen grasslands collide, forming a sharp border, and far, far ahead the road shrinks into that horizon.
In Josie’s mind, Paula emerges from the motel into the Technicolor universe; blinking, she walks along the shoulder of the highway, unsure of which direction she’s going. The color drains, the desert turns gray, it blends with the cold steel sky. Hours pass; the sun moves. At noon, Paula is walking through a black and white photograph, holding her hand out to flag down a passing car, hoping that the person inside is the someone she needs to meet.
Bradley Warshauer is a tiny little sicilian-new orleanian grandma.
image: Lindsay Hargrave