The gas pump was the old kind, its hum more like an engine than something electronic. The numbers on its face rolled over each other, white-on-black, as the gallons and dollars added slowly, higher and higher. Gas cost too much, of course, everywhere, but Tilden felt pleased with the station. It sat at a corner near downtown Monteagle, a little brick market fronted by two pumps under a short, tall awning. A young redheaded man with a sad mix of freckles and acne cleaned the windshields, and Tilden took turns watching him work and following the pump’s progress. He settled on the boy as the gas bill pushed sixty dollars.
“Shame, these bastards,” he said. “Running the price up like there’s no tomorrow. And I know, I know. It’s all gonna run out. But you tell me how we’re supposed to quit it. They’re gouging just because they can. You used to get gas for nothing. Before your time.”
“Ever been to Memphis?”
“Not missing much.” He ran a hand over the smooth roof of the car. “I got out there on account of Chrysler.”
“Good cars,” the boy said.
“I suppose. Never actually owned one. That city, now, shoot. Blacks running wild. You listen to that music any?”
“They do a lot of it over there. Obnoxious stuff—and they make money on it, somehow. You’d think they could do something honest, something useful. Like pump gas. You think?”
The boy shrugged. The pump finally clicked off, seventy-two dollars, and he quit with the windows to top the tank off. Tilden could tell he’d made the kid uncomfortable, and it left him feeling a little wore-out. Couldn’t say anything anymore without somebody thinking you’re a racist. He pulled the billfold from his pocket and paid, left him a tip. He probably needed it, maybe deserved it. Tilden climbed behind the wheel, wiggled until he was good and situated, and cranked the engine. He pulled into the street and headed back to the highway.
“You’re one to talk,” Regina told him. Tilden glanced at his wife, plump and hunched with the passenger’s seat raised so high she was at eye level with him. Maybe a little higher. She rubbed her fingers in circles over her breastbone and frowned. “Do something useful. Only thing you’re good for is driving. I wouldn’t say too much about black people.”
“It’s not just them.”
“However you want to put it,” she said. “I wouldn’t say just a whole lot.”
“You think you know just everything about what I do, don’t you.”
Tilden wished he had something to say, a point to throw back in her face, but he’d just been running his mouth. He wanted to run his mouth a little, didn’t understand what was wrong with it. Everyone needed to talk. He eased them out of town and along the highway, onto the Interstate to dip off the plateau. He didn’t like the expressway, the speed and largeness of the lanes, but appreciated the Monteagle Mountain stretch. They closed it in bad weather, people died on it and wrote songs about it, but he figured it the safest way down. The valley opened, solid slopes of trees for miles, and a steep grade. Tilden loved the view, a little scary, wild, but majestic. He imagined pioneers, great old men and women, people with nothing to lose trekking through the Appalachians. He didn’t understand how they made a living off that land.
“Oh,” Regina said. She massaged her chest, looked miserable. “That breakfast.”
“Why didn’t you get antacids when we stopped?”
“That place was awful,” she said. “I don’t know why we have to eat at greasy spoons and get gas at the most desperate-looking places. Really, don’t you get tired of it?”
“I’m very tired,” Tilden said.
A couple exits down the flat of the valley he left the Interstate once again in favor of a two-lane road. He felt safer, didn’t want to drive into Chattanooga and on toward Atlanta. It might have been shorter, definitely was quicker, but there wasn’t any hurry. Every summer they made the trip to her mother’s, the old hen pushing a hundred and still plucking along. They’d reach her house and she’d start in on Tilden over something—their late arrival, why’d they eat already, how far he parked from the curb. She always griped bad as Regina, the genetic root of it all. He didn’t begrudge them the visit, but he wouldn’t worry race into it, either. Regina cleared her throat, took a sip of water from the bottle she’d filled before they left the house.
“I’m just choking on it,” she said.
Her carrying-on had begun to give Tilden indigestion, too. He tried to ignore her, watched from the corner of his eye as she finally pulled knitting needles from her gigantic purse and got quiet. He thought about turning on the radio but feared it would spark more talk, complaints, another argument. They wove over and around foothills, the smaller mountains, not a lot of traffic to test his nerves. Easy driving but steep enough drops, sudden and sharply-curved directions in the pavement that demanded attention. No fussing, no lollygagging with the scenery—which wasn’t much but trees hunkered over the road, the occasional break of pasture. Barns with eroding advertisements for Rock City painted across their roofs. Pretty, maybe, for people who hadn’t seen it all before.
Regina laid her head back on the seat, after a while. Tilden waited for the first rumbling hint of a snore and let out a breath, finally feeling a little alone. He tried to remember if he’d ever feared being alone when he was young—it seemed like the kind of thing kids worried about, growing old and lonely. But he had grown old, had a wife to fight with and a grown man of a son who wasn’t no count, wouldn’t get married, showed up with a different, disinterested-looking woman every Christmas and Fourth of July. Always the same sick kind of skinny, fake breasts, dyed hair. Regina fussed over every last one of them like angels, like they might be back. She was either nuts or hopeful. She copied out recipes for them and toured them through the china cabinet. Tilden sat in the living room and watched ballgames with his boy, worked on the art of peace and quiet while sharing a loud, cramped room.
He pushed the car over a rise and onto another long decline, the last big drop in elevation they had to make. He’d been making the Georgia trips for nearly fifty years, he counted. The car coasted easily along the downgrade, and he let it drift a little, enjoyed the feel of the speed around blind curves and brief uphill turns. The tires mounted and straddled the center lines, came back toward the shoulder, flirted with disaster but not in any serious way. Just a way for a tired old man to take some pleasure out of the drive. Tilden smiled.
* * *
When she’d first asked him to go to her parents’ place, when they were in college at Knoxville and not even all that serious yet, Tilden thought it sounded like a great idea. He was in his prime and knew it, spent weekends sneaking into the girls’ dorms or driving up to the Smokies to overnight it in the car. Motels when money wasn’t tight. He had been out of hand and never could believe, looking back, he’d been such a miserable little person. But it had meant so much, then, and everybody’s young once. Regina he’d met in class, econ or stats, and they’d gone out, petted a lot like they called it, kept seeing each other. Tilden held no aim on the future. When she promised a weekend away he figured real time alone, lovemaking all over two states, a great time. He agreed to the trip, said he’d pay the gas. They’d just have fun.
He picked her up downtown, near a tiny alterations shop she worked in part-time. It was Saturday morning, he didn’t think she’d been working, but that’s where Regina wanted him to come. Tilden loaded her bags into the trunk, let her peck him on the cheek. He remembered her being taller, thought maybe she’d lost a good three or four inches over the years. Wide-hipped but thin, something out of a pinup magazine but so far removed from that it wasn’t even funny. She was a pretty good girl, as far as that went, but her body excited him. The carefully-tailored outfits she made revved her up to something faster, and even her voice had a way of stretching out to make him shiver. He was anxious to really get his hands on her.
“You really want to go?” she said. “I mean, it’s my folks.”
“Absolutely.” Tilden opened her door, got her seated, and walked around to the driver’s side. He slipped behind the wheel and told her, “We’ll have a swell time.”
“It’s so lovely out,” Regina said. She stared out as they left the city, and he followed her gaze. Spring had hit early, the trees putting out leaves. “Ever been to Georgia?”
“Nope.” He gave her a grin. “Never had any reason to go.”
“I was really wanting you to.”
“I’m really wanting to.”
Tilden steered them south. It was pretty out. A huge patch of dogwoods just as they hit the countryside, bloodily-petaled beside a farmhouse, scorched itself into his brain. He threw his arm across the back of the seat, ran his fingertips over Regina’s shoulder, and she scooted over the leather to snuggle up to him. He bent to kiss her neck, smelled soap and something a little rusty. She giggled. It would be a fine few days.
“Here,” she said after a while. Regina pulled her feet into the seat, tucked the dress under her legs and rested her head in his lap. Tilden looked down in surprise and saw her yawn. “I’m so tired. Can I?”
“Yeah,” he told her. “Of course. I’ll wake you when we’re getting there.”
“I won’t sleep long,” she promised. “Quick nap.”
* * *
They passed through small towns, places Tilden hadn’t heard of and that sat boarded-up, slow and filled with nothing to see. He kept the car steady, sped through backwoods and watched for speed traps near busy areas. Regina lay sprawled across the seat, practically gone to the world. He pulled into a fueling station in Cleveland, lowered the window to tell the attendant to fill it up, paid without her ever stirring. Before pulling away from the pump, Tilden watched the old man fold the money into his shirt pocket, look down at the woman curled on the seat, and give him a wink. He didn’t know whether to thank the man or tell him to go to hell so he just left him standing there, greasy and grinning in the rearview.
Tilden could have winked at himself, anyway. He liked her there, felt connected in a good, simple way. He rested his hand on her stomach, the fabric of her blouse surprisingly cool, and drummed his fingers. She wasn’t waking. That was what it must have been like to be the knight in shining armor, a caveman, even just plain married. Having a woman to guard. He needed a club or sword, something to complete the picture. Tilden slipped his hand around her body, squeezed one breast and then the other. Thought about pulling the car off on a side road and waking her up, asking her to make love right there.
They were a few hours out of Knoxville when a hand-painted sign welcomed them to Georgia. The mountains rose and dipped around the car, edges of national park forests, and Tilden eased along. He turned onto smaller highways and narrow roads, not entirely sure where he was but confident it was more or less the right direction. South would get them there. Regina’s head finally turned, he felt her yawn, and she pushed up in the seat. She nuzzled his shoulder. He gave her a pat on the leg, and she scooted back to her side of the car, rubbed her eyes and looked out the window. The hillside dropped away just past the shoulder, into cedar and pine, a bright valley below. She studied the landscape, turned to Tilden, looked back and forth again.
“Where are we?” she wanted to know.
“Georgia. Welcome home, honey.”
“No, we’re not. I didn’t sleep that long.”
“No, that’s it,” he said. “You’re a regular knot on a log.”
“I didn’t sleep that long, Tilden. There’s no way.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you. Here we are.”
“Don’t lie to me.” Regina poked a finger at the windshield, then turned it toward him. “That’s not Georgia. I just napped.”
“Christ’s sake.” Tilden let off the accelerator. She put her hands in her lap, fingers gripping each other tightly, and worked her mouth like she’d taken too large a bite. She stared out of the car with something between disbelief and certainty, and he didn’t know what to do. “I don’t know what to tell you. We crossed the line. This is it. That’s it. Take a good look.”
“I just closed my eyes for a little bit.”
“Well, shit. Close them again and then we’ll be there.”
“Stop the car,” she said.
“You want me to stop?”
“Pull over. Just stop.”
Tilden stepped on the brake and skidded to a standstill in the empty road. He figured they’d have it out and go on. But Regina swung the door open and stepped out. She straightened her clothes as cool air flooded the cab, and then slammed the door shut. He waited for her to take a look around, maybe pull some grass and taste it for proof of her location, but instead she walked to the back of the car, tapped twice on the trunk. Tilden cut the engine off and climbed out to look at her, arms crossed and hair catching the breeze. She stared him down and slapped her palm against the trunk once more.
“Give me my luggage out. You can go on home. I don’t give a damn where we are, you son of a bitch.”
“You’re kidding,” he said. She tapped a foot and nodded at the trunk. “You were just sleeping. What’s the big deal?”
“Get my things out of your car,” she said, “and let’s both just go on, please.”
“All right.” Tilden walked to her, towered over her and stared down, but she didn’t move. He shoved the key into the lock and popped it open. “I’ll even do you one better.”
He lifted one of her suitcases, a smaller cosmetics bag, from the top of the pile and stepped to the edge of the road. The earth dropped away from his toes, sloped steeply into trees and undergrowth and dirt. He tossed the bag, heaved it underhand so it floated at eye level a moment and then dove, hit the ground and bounced and skidded into the foliage. Bottles broke, he heard them, and then it all disappeared from sight. He turned back to Regina and tilted his chin, but she only stood there as before, unmoving.
“That’s just fine,” she said.
Tilden emptied the trunk, her three large suitcases and his two smaller ones, his suit in its plastic sleeve and a box wrapped in leftover Christmas paper she’d brought for one of her sisters. It didn’t matter. Each piece rolled into the darkness of the trees and bushes. He got down to his spare tire and jack before he stopped, took a look around and felt the blood hammering through his insides. Regina had walked to the shoulder to stare over the side, down to where her belongings had vanished. She stood slightly bent, arms crossed, just watching. Like it all might climb up again. He shut the trunk and slipped back behind the steering wheel. Tilden shifted the rearview to see her, make sure she wasn’t crazy enough to jump, and waited. He lit a cigarette, clicked on the radio, and watched. After a few more minutes, Regina walked back to the car, seated herself without a word, and softly clicked the door shut. Tilden turned the engine over, eased off the clutch. They rolled on down the hillside.
* * *
The road twisted back and forth and finally spit them into a small town. A few dozen houses lined up along the pavement, a restaurant and stores clustering around a stop-signed crossroads. Tilden drove into a gas station lot and parked in front of its tiny white box of a store. He stepped out, took a quick look around, and walked inside. Regina followed after a moment. He dug a couple colas from the icebox on the back wall and set them on the counter in front of an old man wearing flannel pajamas. He looked up from his newspaper, scratched his white beard and asked them about gas.
“No, thanks,” Tilden said. “Can you tell me where we are?”
“Fortune. Middle nowhere, but head up the road you’ll be in Chattanooga.”
“Yessir. Just the cokes, then?”
“Fortune, Georgia,” Tilden repeated. “How about that.”
He fished change from his pockets, paid the man and handed the bottles over, cool and wet, to Regina. She choked their necks between her fingers and followed Tilden to the car. They sat together without a bottle opener, drinks in hand. He turned the radio on and right back off, thought about which direction to go next. There was no good way out he could find. He pressed the head of his bottle up under the dash and popped the cap on a sliver of metal beneath the steering column, swapped with Regina for the one still unopened. She took a sip and they sat. The clerk popped out and gave them a small wave before disappearing again. Fortune was dead, quiet and deserted. They’d have to go somewhere.
“So I was wrong,” Regina said.
“I’m sorry,” he told her, and he was. Sorry she was wrong, sorry about the luggage, sorry about it all. “I’ll take you on to your parents.”
“We’re later than we ought to be.” She pointed up the street to a squat strip of brick building, a motel with maybe four rooms and a blue-painted office. The sign read Good Fortune In, one N, like luck was in for business. “I bet they’ll let us use the phone.”
Tilden didn’t like the idea of calling the bad news ahead, but he restarted the car and pulled to the front of the lodge. He just wanted to get her delivered and cower back across the state line and back home. Cut his losses and recoup. He followed Regina into the office and stood by the window as she talked to the innkeeper. It was a teenage girl, and she handed the telephone across and disappeared into a backroom. Tilden smelled greens boiling and realized the girl and her family must live in the motel. He looked out at the town and watched children on bicycles cut across the street, between two houses. He listened to Regina on the phone, pausing and talking.
“Ma? Yeah, we’re coming, but—Fortune. Yes. Yes. Well, no, we had an accident. Someone stole our luggage, right out of the trunk. No, we’re fine. We’re fine.”
Tilden nearly choked on his own spit, had to work to slow his breathing. Regina explained to her mother that they couldn’t make the rest of the drive, they’d have to see them tomorrow, not to worry. She was picking him up off the rocks and letting him live a little.
“No, Ma. We won’t. No. I will. We’ll call. Okay. Bye-bye.”
She hung up the receiver and gave him a smile. Tilden crossed to her, shoved his hands in his pockets and pursed his lips. She reached out and slipped her arm through his.
“Okay?” she said.
“I guess,” he said. “Okay.”
He waited for the girl to come back and rented a room. Regina took the key and walked to the end of the building, room four, and went inside. He moved the car, sat and smoked a cigarette and tried to calm down. He wasn’t sure what was happening yet. Didn’t know how to handle it. In the morning they’d backtrack up the mountain, look for the spot he launched their clothes. They’d find it, find everything but his suit. The cosmetics bag would be filled with broken glass and a sick mess, so he’d leave it lying in the woods. But the rest, Tilden would reload into the trunk. They’d carry on, act like none of it had happened. Tell her parents it was pranksters, that the luggage turned back up without much fuss. And on they’d go from there to marriage, their son, getting old and slow together.
That evening, though, he walked into the motel room with her. They stood at the foot of the bed a while, watching each other before edging into a hug. Tilden felt her shake, like she might be crying, but it didn’t last long. She stepped away, pulled the curtain across the window and turned to face him again. Regina started unfastening the ivory buttons of her blouse. She disrobed slowly, stopping to take each piece in her hands, flick it up in front of his face and let it tumble to the floor. Once she was naked, she went to work on him.
He started to get a handle on things, slowly but surely—she had hold of him. She’d created something for the two of them, enough space to clear their slate. But it was messier than that, too, not nearly so neat and clean when he dug to the bottom. She bought him with a lie, made them collaborators, wrapped inescapably together. Much later he’d recognize it as their starting point, how everything in their life came from that moment on the phone between the outburst on a mountainside and their night in Fortune. He’d wonder how he could have flipped it around, walked away or at least saved himself the trouble that comes with the easy way out.
* * *
Tilden swung around a curve in the highway, drifted over the line, and realized he was driving head-on for a station wagon climbing the hill. It took him a moment to react, pull out of his reverie and jerk the wheel away from the family headed up-slope. For a second, he stared into the oncoming car, saw the panicked face of the mother and her husband, angrily awake, in the passenger’s seat. Three or four children, maybe a dog, flailed side to side in the backseats as they swerved wide of disaster, re-gathered their wits, carried on with their lives. Or maybe he imagined them all, hadn’t come so close. Tilden wasn’t sure. His tires dug into the hard-packed gravel shoulder, bounced and tried to fishtail, and he eased onto the brake and gave the car its way until he could coerce it, gentle and willing, to a stop back in their own lane.
Regina snapped awake and wailed as they roughed it out. She tossed her knitting from her lap onto the dashboard, grabbed hold of the armrests after they’d come to a halt. She darted her head back and forth, checking the windows in all directions until she was satisfied they were no longer moving.
“It’s all right,” he told her. “Just got a little distracted.”
“Good God. Can’t even drive anymore.”
He checked his mirrors, saw the station wagon hadn’t stopped. They were okay, he was okay. No other traffic around to witness the event, even. He eased forward once more, coasting carefully down the rest of the grade. Regina kept it up, talk of driving straight and staying between the lines, maybe she should drive and he could sit and lollygag all he wanted. She’d get them there in one piece. He was getting downright dangerous. She didn’t mean a word of it, he knew—didn’t aim to drive, anyway, only to fuss, ride him a while. For all it was worth.
“Why don’t you shut it a while,” he finally said, surprised when she did go silent, draw her knitting back to her lap and stare out of the car without so much as another peep.
They crossed the northeast-most corner of Alabama and into Georgia. Tilden started looking for a place to stop. He was hungry, really, but his nerves were shot, too. He couldn’t drive anymore. At least not like he used to, it was true. They drove into Trenton, a far-flung little Chattanooga suburb, and he decided to pull in at a decent-looking steakhouse. Regina didn’t complain about its looks, location, anything, bless her heart for once, and he figured it was a good choice. They walked inside and were seated, ordered drinks and then their food. Tilden lit a cigarette before realizing it was nonsmoking, everything now nonsmoking, and quickly snubbed it in his coffee saucer.
He watched his wife, plump and downcast, peering cautiously around the room but trying to look like she wasn’t paying attention to a thing in the world. She wasn’t a bad woman, he knew, a downright good old girl, but he was miserable. After all the years he was tired. He thought about hopping back in the car, just heading home. He imagined the traffic, facing it on so quick a turnaround, how the dark would chase them into Memphis. Their house quickly lighting up. His own bed. There was no going anywhere, though. He settled for making a toast when their food arrived. Tilden lifted his coffee mug to his wife, waited for her to return the gesture.
“Here’s to what never changes,” he said.
“Here,” she said, giving him a frown.
They ate in silence. Tilden chewed his steak and felt certain they’d have gotten a better meal elsewhere. Someplace smaller, somewhere that served breakfast all day. Regina didn’t look happy with hers, anyway. He watched her work her jaws. Mechanical. At some point he’d liked seeing her eat, remembered how she had a way of splitting everything up and taking it in parts. Took such tiny bites. Reminded him of a bird. Tilden watched as she halted, set the fork down and went to rubbing her chest. She turned her head up, and he readied himself for another bout of heartburn. Before they’d even finished. This time they’d go straight to the store for antacids. Regina kept looking at him, though, reached a hand out before wrapping all her fingers around her throat. She stood, knocked her plate to the carpeted floor, and stared wide-eyed at him.
She was choking, really choking, something lodged unforgivingly in her windpipe. The other diners, some of the waitresses, slowed what they were doing, came to a horrified pause before bursting halfway into action. They rose from their tables, tipped glasses over, took a couple steps and waited, unsure who should do what. They edged closer, and Tilden sat in his chair. Unable or unwilling to move, he wasn’t sure which.
He locked eyes with Regina for just a second. Her face darkened bit by bit. She probably didn’t even see him. She clawed at her throat, began to flail her arms. People swarmed, formed a net that never quite closed on Tilden and his dying wife. It was the show to end all her shows. He watched a moment longer, tried to think of anything he knew about saving a life. Heimlich, CPR, the letting of blood. Every eye in the room turned to him. He rose calmly, stood across from Regina as she slumped toward her seat again. They’d reached the apex, and the crowd stalled in the unexpected stillness. Tilden felt himself precisely at the sudden and miraculous center of his whole’s life’s storm, and he edged around the table toward his wife. He had it under control.