Ben's job was to sell maps, not teach customers to read them. Over an hour he had spent with a gentleman who looked like Bob Dylan and smelled like talcum powder, and now it was 2:00 and no lunch. Ben excused himself to call his wife while the man fidgeted with a compass.
"I'm starving," he said into the phone. "I'm thinking leftover meatloaf. I'll love you forever if you bring me some."
The connection was poor. Thick static.
"Are you painting?" he said.
"I'll take you to dinner tonight. Wherever you want. I'm desperate."
"You haven't been home?" she said.
"That's what I'm telling you. Can't get out of here."
Bob Dylan pushed the Mount Zirkel Wilderness map in front of Ben and tapped his finger on the solid blue line. "Creek or river?"
"One second," Ben said. He could hear a hum and music on the other end of the line. "Where are you, Laura?"
"Oh, I see," the customer said, making the "ok" gesture with this fingers. "River." He winked at Ben.
Ben turned his body. "Laura?"
"There's a note on the counter."
"Oh," Ben said, noticing the redundant drum of hip-hop, his wife's new music, coming through the receiver. His eyes darted around the room. The clutter of maps swirled in front of him—pale greens and browns, lines, shapes, and symbols, antique and road, topographical and geological, endless pages and posters that had made up his days for nearly twenty years.
"I'm in Utah," she said.
He could hear a horn and pictured her slowing to thirty on the interstate. Utah, he thought, trying for a moment to place it. The "Map Man," "Geography Wizard," "Mr. Name the town, and I'll tell you the State"— he couldn't place Utah, the big box one state west of them.
"Utah," he said. "I see."
Laura pulled onto the exit, a scenic overlook. Had to walk, had to breathe. She pictured Ben curled onto the floor of his shop, palms pressed against his forehead. This was not the way she'd meant it to happen. Ben should've found the note in the comfort of home when the day was done, not when he was at work, chipper and hoping for meatloaf.
A trail beyond the picnic tables curled into some woods, and Laura followed it, walking briskly, nearly a jog. She trained her mind on the image of her therapist, a pale, heavy woman, always in dark pantsuits. You're not responsible for his happiness, Laura. You can only fix you. Of course, the doc had only recommended couples counseling, not a disappearing act. What Laura always wondered was why this person, this "licensed marriage and family counselor," wore no ring and always looked sad.
The pathway ended abruptly at a viewpoint where a world of pastels, barren and beautiful, dropped out below her. There was a wildness to the landscape, so unlike the windowless office of the pale woman in pantsuits. Maybe Laura'd gone about this all wrong. Maybe she just needed to get lost in a land of red, orange, and yellow. Stare a coyote in the eye. Walk barefooted on slick rock for a hundred miles. Go hungry.
A not-unhandsome trucker smoking a cigarette approached from behind her.
"Beautiful," he said, nodding to the vista.
"It is," she replied, and for a second as she watched him kick a root with his cowboy boot, she imagined asking him for a drag, even though she didn't smoke. Never had. She noticed blond chest hair rising over the neck of his shirt and wondered what it would be like to touch it.
"Do I know you?" he said. "You're looking at me funny."
"No." She moved away unsteadily back to the car.
Door shut and AC on, Laura practiced breathing, concentrating on the movement of air through her nostrils, visualizing the exhalation of impurities. She should go home. This wasn't right, not this way. She owed Ben better. The trucker reversed from the lot. He might have winked at her—she wasn't sure. No, it wasn't right, but who judged, and what was the criteria?
Laura threw the car into reverse, pressing her palm into the horn, blowing hard and for no good reason as she continued west on I-70, away from home, away from Ben.
She had a date to keep.
Ben sat splayed like a Raggedy Ann doll on the floor. Stinky Bob Dylan tried to talk to him, coax him back on his feet, but after hearing a dozen times, "My wife's in Utah," the man shrugged and left a five dollar bill, taking the map and compass.
"Keep the change," the customer said.
Ben thought of the stray cat who'd made home with them last year. They'd treated it like their own child, fed it warm milk each morning and let it sleep on their heads at night even though they'd never wanted a pet, didn't like cats. They named it Dream and took it to the vet for tags, papers, and shots right before the old beast ran away. Ben had been so upset he had to close the store for two days. Laura'd said he took loss too hard.
Eventually, he pulled himself up off the floor. Another customer came as he was locking up.
"You're not closing now?" the woman said. "It's 3:30." She pointed to her watch.
He handed her the key to the store. "Take what you need."
At home, he read the note, written on the "Ben and Laura" notepad they kept by the phone. Next to it stood a new bottle of single malt Scotch and a wrapped anthology of nature poetry. "Ben, Small gifts to compensate, I know. I love you, but something's not right. Feel like I'm fading away. —L."
Ben dropped into her desk chair. There on the floor by the wastebasket lay a separate piece of "Ben and Laura" paper. Perhaps it was supposed to be tucked under the other, saying, "Just joking about Utah and all. I'm swimming laps. Meet me for Thai at seven." He picked it up. "20 m. Elephant. #11." He studied it. Like clues running through a database. Nothing the Geography Wizard couldn't decipher.
He left the house in a hurry, still wearing his map of the world tie, the one he'd worn every Friday for twenty years. Didn't take anything. Laura would have the camping gear. Had she packed his sleeping bag, just in case?
Life in ski-town had been good to her old friend Remy, and Laura said so as they stood between his black Suburban and the Campsite #11 marker, red rocks ablaze all around. The perennial youth, Remy hadn't changed in the nearly twenty years since she'd seen him last, save for deeper smile lines and a sprinkle of gray amidst the thick brown of his hair. In his hug, she felt hard muscles, vitality without softness.
"Marry me," he said, still holding her waist.
Laura kissed him on the cheek, playing like this light intimacy was natural to her. Her ribcage trembled.
During her ski bum years, Remy had been her roommate. Friend of a friend who needed help with rent. He patrolled; she worked as a German barmaid at the mountainside Edelweiss. On several occasions in the course of that year, they'd shared a bed, subtly fondling one another in the dark, pretending by morning they had not. Laura could never quite get a handle on Remy. His habits were mysterious. For weeks, he would eat constantly, cleaning out the kitchen. No grocery item sacred. And then for weeks, he'd eat nothing. Same with showering. As far as Laura could tell, there was no pattern. He scared her, but she was half in love with him, too.
"Should we crawl on into the tent, or do we need to make small talk first?" he said.
Had Laura's email been so transparent? She'd simply said that she could use the support of an old friend.
"Just kidding." He released her waist and pat her shoulder with a deliberate thump. "Let's drink beer."
Laura had, in fact, imagined they might not waste any time. It'd been a long time since intimacy had shared its bed with possibility, curiosity, sexiness. The idea of it, of being handled by strange hands, of being undressed hungrily, of her body pressed against an unfamiliar chest, these visions had played over and over in her mind. But now, she wasn't sure. Her stomach hurt.
A rainstorm howled across the mountains. The driver-side wiper was broken, but Ben couldn't be bothered with it, even though simply banging it against the windshield usually did the trick. Ben stared into a blurred, sopping world, vaguely watching for the ephemeral yellow line.
Of course, he'd known Laura was "going through something," enough to see a therapist, but he gathered it had to do with turning 43— far worse than 40, she claimed, and with her fickle muse and the dearth of commissions, with the changing dynamics among her girlfriends, with being childless. But he was her stable raft, keeping her afloat with love and support, the only constant in her life. He hadn't seen this coming, and yet when she'd said, "There's a note on the counter," he'd known what it meant.
A horn bellowed, startling Ben—he'd been on the wrong side of the road. Ben imagined a female police officer breaking the news of his death to Laura at her campsite. "Your husband died in a car crash on Hooser Pass en route to Utah, to Campsite #11, to you. Couldn't live without you. Isn't that ironic?" Laura didn't handle guilt well. Broke her heart and gave her stomachaches.
Another car swerved as it passed him. Dying was one thing. Causing death was another. In a sudden motion, Ben pulled over to work on the windshield wiper. Only he couldn't tell that there was no shoulder here, only a steep ditch. As the airbag exploded into his chest, he saw Laura, her sketchbook in hand, looking wide-eyed and tearful at the female police officer.
"Can't explain it," Laura said at the tail end of her second bottle of Remy's homebrew, which tasted like carbonated espresso.
"We're eating meatloaf and pasta salad at the kitchen counter, and Ben turns to me and says, 'Let's dance.'" Laura paused to study the handwritten beer label, "Remy's Remedy" scrawled over a color-copied photograph of the inside of a mouth.
"Shot?" Remy held up a bottle of Jose Cuervo.
"No, thank you." She watched Remy lick salt from his hand, gulp tequila, and suck lime all in a quick and deliberate motion she'd not witnessed in twenty years.
"Go on," he said, his eyes watering.
"So, he took me in his arms, and we danced to Louis Armstrong around the kitchen.'"
Remy banged on his chest and coughed, his composure lost. Laura turned her head upward into the desert sky, paled in the late afternoon. Remy wasn't hearing her—she knew that, and it didn't matter. He couldn't possibly understand how she felt as Ben led, twirling her and pulling her close as they bounced awkwardly between dishwasher and fridge, Ben so predictable in his moves and in this gesture towards romance made worse by his genuine contentment. And when the song ended and she sat back down to her food, she was clear. She loved Ben, as much as anyone or anything, but not enough, not the way a wife should love her husband. And without love, there was no joy, and wasn't that her problem after all?
"Why no kids?" Remy asked, having caught his breath.
"Didn't want them," she said, looking curiously at a nearby bulbous rock formation. "My art, you know."
"The way I remember you, just seems like you would've."
Laura took a swallow of beer. "I guess you didn't know me very well."
"I think I did."
She stood up from her camp chair, picking up the empty bottles as if to throw them away, only there was no place. She frantically arranged them in a row on the picnic table.
"Are you sorry?" he said.
Laura fingered the mouth of a bottle, swirled its dregs, and put it back down neatly in line with the others. A lizard scurried past her toes and onto a warm rock by the picnic table. She returned to her seat.
"What about you?" she said.
He shrugged. "What about me?"
In his emails, the only clue into Remy's personal life was a digital photo he sent of himself alone on top of a mountain. She blew it up enough to see he wore no ring, but she had wondered who took the picture. "Tell me the story of Remy's life," Laura said. "You can start twenty years ago when your roommate drove away in a old Buick station wagon."
He put a finger to his lip, "Shh."
"Come on. Why so secretive?"
Somewhere in the distance a coyote howled. Then a car honked. The sun burned warm on them. Remy shook his head and leaned in close to her.
"Ghosts?" she asked.
"Call them what you will," he said into her ear, and Laura wondered if Remy's specters were beautiful blonde ski bunnies who'd simply left after a time? Had there been baby bunnies—or did these hypothetical women find themselves, like her, middle-aged and empty-handed?
As Remy's hand fell onto her knee, Laura thought about Ben and wondered whether, in her own life, she would become the haunted or the hauntee. Guilt made her hope for the former. Remy's lips fell warm and soft on her neck.
Ben pushed the airbag away from his face. He felt disoriented, like he might have passed out. His head hurt, pretty bad, but otherwise, he seemed in one piece, if you could call it that, but could you call it "one piece" when you were wrecked on the side of a mountain pass, chasing down your wife, your best friend, who'd just left you with only a note, a bottle of scotch, and a book of goddamned nature poetry?
Outside the rain fell hard, pounding like little fists on the roof of the Honda. Ben squeezed his eyes shut. "Why, Laura?" he said, and he wondered too why Canyonlands—why not a hotel in town? It wasn't Laura's way, no flare in Holiday Inn. He pictured her in the desert, perched on a rock drawing, the loose braid of her silky brown hair, her boyish figure and meditative posture. He saw her in her studio, paint on her cheek, Michelle Shocked in the stereo, her forehead folded in concentration. In the kitchen, refrigerator door opened wide, her lower lip tucked into her teeth. In the bedroom, reading glasses resting on her thin, aristocratic nose, the rise and fall of her breath under her sheer nightgown.
Ben shouldered the car door open and forced his way out despite the pinched angle of his crumpled automobile. Blood from his wound dripped off his chin as the rain pelted his head at an angle. Leaning into the wreck, Ben raised his thumb.
He'd pulled over not far from this spot earlier that winter. He and Laura had been driving home from the mountains after a February powder day, the kind of day that usually reassured them that their lives were full and spectacular. Ben was drumming the steering wheel to the beat of a bluegrass CD as he mentally reviewed each run they'd made, wondering if there was a hole in the map industry, some sort of skiers' GPS system that showed updated snow conditions on each run.
Laura's voice came to him in a pale whisper. "You know what we ought to be doing right now, Ben?"
"Drinking margaritas?" Outside, the mountains glowed pink against the evening sky.
"You asshole," she said, her voice full of glass. "We ought to be picking up kids at ski school." She'd dropped her head onto the dash. "We ought to be wiping their noses and changing them out of their little, soggy-bottomed ski suits."
"I'm sorry," Ben said, although it was never his fault. He'd wanted kids. "Maybe it's not too late." He'd pulled over, cars whizzing past them, and held his wife on the side of the mountain road.
A sad stretch of highway, he thought as he stood in the rain, thumb raised to the empty road. It seemed to Ben in some strange way that Laura was with him and she was sorry.
Inside the tent, Remy pushed his strong and hungry hands up Laura's eyelet blouse, and she clung to fistfuls of his yellow tee shirt, the thin, faded material tearing as she tugged at it. "Sorry," she tried, her words muffled with his kiss. Raising his body up, Remy slid his torn shirt over his head revealing a freckled, vigorous torso, tan at the neck and arms. He studied her with a hard, inscrutable, maybe dangerous gaze, the first time he'd really looked at her all night, and as he slowly lifted her shirt, his movements confident and deliberate, she hoped, under the greenish light of the tent, she looked sexy and not sickly. Her tummy had grown pudgy in the last few years, and she tried to suck it in. Remy's expression was one she didn't know, didn't recognize, particularly in the fading light, and she began to feel disoriented, and then his big hands, his mouth, seemed everywhere at once. This thing was happening, this thing she had anticipated and imagined, and it felt strange and surreal in its physicality. Remy whispered something into her neck, but she couldn't make it out, had no idea if it were a question, statement, or command. "What?" she asked, but he didn't answer. He bit at her ear, sucked on her earring, pushed his fingers through her hair. When he ran his tongue in circles around her navel, she felt a cramping in her stomach.
Remy's body dripped with sweat and stuck to her skin, the air in the tent warm and thick. She wanted this. She wanted to erase twenty years and be adolescent again, to enjoy this without remorse. She moved her fingers across Remy's ribs, one at a time, and then across his stomach to his hip, searching for the scar she knew was there. His skin was soft. Remy hummed with increasing desire as her hand moved lower. Be selfish, the therapist whispered to Laura, and as Remy unbuttoned her shorts, Laura imagined she loved this man, this stranger with a freckled, rock-hard chest. She tried only to think of here and now, of skin and sensuality, and not of Ben, her husband only yesterday, still her husband, floating across the ceiling of the tent in his map of the world tie, palm pressed to forehead like when the cat ran off.
Naked now, Laura ignored the ache in her stomach and the strange, guttural noises Remy made. And as she reached for his fly, she tried to believe this was easy and fun, this moving on, and that life after marriage could, of course, start immediately. She tried to forget how gentle Ben's touch was.
"Remy, stop. I can't."
"You're kidding me," he said, kicking his jeans from his ankle.
"I'm going to be sick."
"Yes," she said, and was.
Ben shared the backseat of the old Volvo wagon with a St. Bernard named Shitzoo. The driver, a young snowboarder with shaggy black hair and a pierced eyebrow, spelled out the name and then stretched his neck around his seat to watch Ben's reaction.
"Clever," Ben said. Shitzoo stunk, and Ben did his best to breathe from his mouth.
"Bad cut," the kid said. His name was Larry. "You should get that looked at."
Ben touched the sticky spot below his thinning hairline.
Larry poked the arm of his companion in the passenger seat. "Check out his forehead." No reaction from the other boy.
Larry said, "My pal here ran into a rock up on the glacier today. Hasn't spoken since."
"Could you take me to get a rental car?" Ben said, aware only after speaking that he sounded unsympathetic.
Larry was slow to answer. "Sure," he finally said. "Heading into town anyway."
Ben's watch read 5:12. If Budget closed at 6:00, he would be okay.
Larry took a sharp left off the pass, the Volvo bouncing and sliding up a snow-covered road.
"What are you doing?" Ben's voice sounded more keyed up than he meant it to.
"Relax, man. We live here." Larry pointed to a small cabin at the end of the road. "We just need a quick change of clothes. The boxers get a little damp after a day in the backcountry. Can't be having crotch rot."
Ben thought again of Laura's outburst about soggy-bottomed children in ski suits. "Come on in and clean your head off anyway," Larry said.
What Ben had not expected to find in the small cabin were five other boys in baggy pants and no shirts sprawled onto a couple of couches, stinky feet all around, smoking from a yellowed glass bong. No one seemed surprised by the thin, balding stranger in shirt and tie or even his blood-caked wound. Larry offered him a hit, and the pile of boys laughed.
"I'd love one," Ben said. He looked foolish and knew it as he tried to remember what to do with a bong. Seemed like he needed at least one more hand to get it all done. The boys ignored him. Larry disappeared into another room, and the mute dropped onto a couch. Ben stood near the doorway, coughing furiously.
"Who rented this?" Larry said, emerging from the other room, still in his wet ski pants. He pointed to the television.
A red headed boy with a tattoo on his wrist raised his hand. Larry sat down, and Ben coughed some more.
"Do you mind watching a few minutes of this?" Larry said.
"Rental car," was all Ben managed.
"Just this part. Then we'll cruise."
The scene, something about a fat guy in a mundane office setting complaining about a red stapler, was a short one, but it had the boys in stitches, and so they rewound it three times. On the third time, Ben got it— so damn funny and so sad at the same time, this poor, fat son of a bitch in the dungeon of an office building demoralized by a missing stapler. A laugh arose in Ben from a hidden fold beneath his ribs, and once it came, he couldn't stop. Loud and tearful, Ben gave himself completely over to it. It wasn't the pot. Something else. He felt like he was coming apart.
The boys rewound the scene again, this time all eyes on Ben. "That's fucked up," the mute said, breaking his long silence.
By the time they left the cabin, Budget would be closed, although Larry assured him that it was open 24 hours. Had to be. Ben's palms were sweating. Now, more than ever, he needed to be traveling west, towards the desert, towards Laura, or he would lose his mind.
Remy stared at the vomit on his sleeping bag. "Wow," he said.
Laura motioned as if to throw up again, and Remy scrambled out of the tent, sweeping up his clothes as he went.
After the second explosion, Laura curled her naked, trembling body against the green wall of the tent and caught her breath, the sour stench quickly filling the space. The reddish bile seemed to go the distance, covering at least two square feet, some on the opposite wall. First date in twenty years. Well done, Laura thought.
"That's never happened to me before," she said as she emerged some time later from the tent, dressed now, a stain the color of Remy's Remedy on her white shirt. "Usually I get a ten second warning bell."
Remy pulled a sweatshirt over his head. "Never happened to me before either."
"Maybe it was the beer."
Remy shook his head. "Nope."
Dusk had settled over the canyon country, a smear of the sun just beyond the western ridge. They sat on the ground in front the fire pit.
"Beautiful out here," she said. And then, "It wasn't you."
Remy stared into the sandstone at his feet and rocked back and forth on his tailbone.
To fill the silence, Laura said, "I'd kill for the ginger ale in the bottom shelf of my fridge at home."
"Ha!" Shifting in front of Laura, Remy took her by the arms. "I'll tell you something, lady. You don't know what you want. You need a shrink before you need to be inviting men to meet you in inconvenient places."
Laura met his glare. "I know exactly what I want."
"The fuck you do." He laughed again and in a softened voice said, "Listen, I'll run to the park store and buy you a ginger ale."
"You don't have to do that," she said, gripping his sweatshirt. "I'll feel better in a minute."
Remy smiled, touching her nose with his index finger. "The carbonation will do you good," he said.
Laura watched as Remy drove out of the campground, dust billowing behind his car. A suburban. There were little bunnies, had to be. Laura wondered if he still ran shuttles to soccer games and ski practices or if the SUV were a relic from different days.
"Okay, Mr. Spook," she said to the car, no longer in view. "Tell me what I should do, you with all the answers." She pointed a stern finger to the phantom ski bum. "I might be a crazy lady, a head case, but isn't running the wrong way better than running in place?" Laura nodded to confirm. Thing was, right then, she wanted only to run home. Drink a ginger ale, crawl into bed, forget about the whole thing.
No lights at Budget Rent-a-Car. Doors locked. Parking lot empty. The night held a palpable late May chill, winter still in the mountains, even though it was spring in Denver, summer in the desert.
"Nobody home," Larry said.
Ben banged his fists on the door, and when that failed, he tried his head.
"Jesus, man." Larry pulled Ben away from the glass. "Not a big deal. You want brain damage?"
"You don't understand," Ben said. "My wife . . . I've got to get to Canyonlands, tonight." Larry's hands lay heavy on Ben's shoulder, his gaze steady, and Ben felt a terrible need to bury his face in the boy's chest.
"You can let go," Ben said, "I'm done." He sat down on the steps and put his head in his hands. "I should've just stayed home. For my efforts, I have a totaled car, a possible concussion, no place to sleep— and still, no wife." He laughed. "I even gave the key to my store away. You want my tie?"
Larry sat next to him, took a good look at the tie, and lit a cigarette. Shitzoo waited patiently in the backseat of the car. "Listen," Larry said, tilting his head back to blow out smoke. "I could be wrong, but looks to me like under normal circumstances, you're a nice fellow. The old lady's fucked with you, and that's not cool. Look at you, man. You didn't even wipe off your head."
Ben touched his wound.
"So, I tell you what. Go get her. Make things right. You can take the Volvo—I don't care. I'll crash in town or hitch back. Just bring it back by Sunday." He shrugged. "With a full tank of gas."
"Larry." Ben struggled for words. "You . . . ."
"I'll take the tie, too," Larry said. "If you really don't want it."
Ben removed the tie in rapid motion, as if he were undressing from something more exciting than a borrowed, run-down Volvo. He handed it to Larry, feeling as good about loosening his collar as giving away his tie.
"Could you drop me at the bar?" Larry said.
"Of course." And then Ben thought of something. "What about the dog?"
"Oh, the dog." Larry scratched the thin scruff on his chin and took a few pulls from his Camel. Ben thought for sure Larry would change his mind as the boy realized this among the many logistical conflicts of giving his car to a stranger. "Take him with you," Larry said, "Shitzoo likes the desert."
Ben hugged Larry, loving him, at least for the moment, like the son he never had.
"How dare you tell me what I know or don't know." Laura banged a stick and stared into the fire. This is what she would tell Remy when he got back with her ginger ale. She imagined a scene in which she would tear into him, slay him with guilt and self-righteousness, and then at the height of the emotional tempest, seize upon him like a wildcat, tearing again at his clothes. Laura recklessly added all of her wood to the fire so that it was barely contained in the circle of rocks. "How dare you . . . " she practiced, attempting a feline energy.
A bat flew past Laura's ear, and she covered her head with her arms and wondered where her flashlight was. Hadn't seen it in the camping gear, now that she thought about it, now that it was pitch black and she was out of wood. Kitchen drawer, that's where it was, with the hammer and screwdriver. The thought of it, of the "odds and ends drawer" with her stash of Jolly Ranchers in the back and Ben's stack of credit card receipts in the front, caused her to press her head into her knee and rock. "Oh, my poor Ben."
Somewhere on the western edge of Colorado, Ben drove ninety in a musty, old Volvo wagon. "I'm not the man with the red stapler," he told Shitzoo.
The dog stared from shotgun, panting at Ben.
"That's what you and your stoner friends thought. That's what Laura thinks. But I'm here to tell you, I like selling maps. Eighteen years the Map Man has stayed above board. As long as humans are humans, people will love maps. I'm there to help them find their way." Ben felt embarrassed by his corny statement, wished he hadn't said it. Even the dog seemed pained, turning its big head away from Ben. For years, Ben had imagined doing a commercial for the local channels, hiring an actor to say something like that. Laura had laughed affectionately when he first told her his idea. Lately, she'd only nodded and looked away.
Outside, the stars burned brightly, the darkness so profound Ben couldn't even guess at the landscape. Sagebrush desert? He tried to recall the last time he'd driven this far west. When they were first married, he and Laura came to Utah twice a year, once at Thanksgiving, once at Easter. He couldn't remember when or why they'd stopped.
After passing the Utah welcome sign, Ben tried to plan what he would say to Laura, his confidence slipping. If she drove this far, she was serious. At one point, Ben started to turn around, but Shitzoo gave a sort of moral support, breathing heavily on his neck, as if to say, in a voice not unlike Larry's, "Come on, man. We're this far. Go get her."
It was official by now— Laura'd been ditched. There would be no warm body, no ginger ale, no flashlight. Remy'd left his vomit-encrusted sleeping bag and tent and a couple Remy's Remedies, but maybe that was a small price to pay to escape a desperate woman.
Laura napped upright in her chair by the fire until it died and she was cold. She'd not yet brushed her teeth. In college, she'd developed the habit of skipping her nightly grooming, and she'd not corrected it until Ben forced her. Even when they were dating, he would stand by the bed in his boxers, arms crossed over his chest and say, "Brush, or I won't sleep here." She was crazy for him then, this chiseled man of the mountains with wild brown hair, always planning adventures and when she was lucky, inviting her along.
Under the florescent lights of the campground bathroom, Laura clung to that image of Ben as she brushed her teeth and rinsed her face, letting palmfuls of cool water sooth her tired eyes. Flies buzzed at the light, and some lay dead in the sink and on the concrete floor. She could go home, she thought.
An elderly lady in a 1970's grass-green ski suit entered, looked at Laura, and then went into the toilet stall. Laura was patting her face dry with a paper towel when the woman in green emerged and quaffed her silver hair at the next mirror. Looking not at Laura but at her own reflection, she said, "Today's my anniversary. 54 years."
Laura nodded slowly, paper towel falling from her fingers to the cement floor.
The old lady's gaze shifted to Laura's mirror. "Oh honey. You're so sad."
She reached for Laura and pulled her into her delicate embrace.
Laura allowed her face to press against the mothball scented ski suit.
"You poor baby," the woman whispered.
Laura had not cried so deeply since she was fifteen, her instinct to be child emerging stronger even than the maternal one.
"Fading away, my ass," Ben said, shaking his head, surprised by anger as he traveled across eastern Utah. Shitzoo slept, but that didn't prevent Ben from talking to him. "I think my wife has confused fading away with growing up." He remembered a party they'd thrown when they first married. Laura had disappeared mid-disco, moved into her studio and came back out later, her naked body painted in a swirl of colors, her face drawn like a psychedelic cat, tubes of oil paint in her hand. Later that night as they splashed in the tub of dark orange bathwater while the sunrise came through the small, rectangular window, Ben had wondered what form of creature he'd married. Truth be known, it was sort of a nightmare for him—he'd been so embarrassed for her—whereas Laura sometimes used that night as a point of reference to who she used to be.
From Cisco, Ben drove the narrow, rolling Highway 128 towards Moab, dark and a little terrifying in the middle of the night, the brakes and steering on the old Volvo loose and unpredictable. He worried about deer and couldn't find the brights.
Sidling up to the Colorado River as he neared Moab, Ben stopped the car and gripped hard the wheel. He looked at his canine friend, a two hundred-pound drooling beast, standing now, pawing at Ben's shoulder with his head cocked.
"Here's the thing, man," the dog seemed to say. "What do you want?"
Ben stepped out of the car, desperate for air.
Settled now in her red down sleeping bag, Laura sent a thanks to the immense black night for her friend in the green ski suit who'd taken her into the camper and fed her with peppermint tea and ginger snaps while the husband snored behind a thin wall. Laura was glad Remy had vanished, glad she'd preserved some dignity, if you could call it that. She felt a deep peace in the midnight sky, speckled with stars, and as her eyes grew heavy, she thought of Ben, wished she could call him and explain herself, make sure he was okay. What had she been thinking, she wondered, leaving him a book of nature poetry?
Coyotes bounded upon the foot of Laura's sleeping bag. They sniffed at her ears and licked her face, breathing their warm, sour animal breath, and just before they sunk their teeth into her neck, she covered her head with her arms and whined.
"Laura, it's okay," Ben said. "This is Shitzoo."
Laura shot up in her bag and blinked at the man and dog, one familiar, one not. Her pulse banged in her head.
"Okay," Laura said. "Is he . . . yours?"
Laura remembered Remy's tent, set up just behind her. Same approximate shape as theirs but different color. Would Ben notice?
"Why are you out here?" Ben asked.
Ben stood and slowly turned around, taking in the silhouette of rock formations glowing under the midnight sun.
"Also, I vomited in the tent."
He looked at her curiously and then at the tent.
"Patty melt, I think. I had one for lunch at a truck stop. Tasted funny."
"What's this?" Ben picked up a bottle from the picnic table of Remy's Remedy.
"A local beer. Micro-brewed." Laura bit her lip. Ben gazed at the label, the telephoto snapshot of tongue and molars, and Laura hoped it didn't' say anything in fine print she hadn't noticed. "Brewed and bottled in Remington Jarvis's basement. Vail, Colorado. Call for good times."
"Peculiar choice for a wine drinker," Ben said.
Sitting in her sleeping bag, Laura suffered the sensation of mites crawling up her spine and into her scalp. "Taking risks," she said. "Theme of the day." A hum rang in her ear as Ben held the empty bottle in his hand. "Do you want to take a walk?" she said.
On the moonlit trail, they moved like old people. Laura told Ben of the lady in the green ski suit. Inside her camper, she and her husband had plastered an entire wall with pictures of the two of them all over the world, seven continents, 38 countries, in just fifty-four years. Ben told Laura of the movie and the red stapler, of boys watching him as he cracked, of the dog whom he believed, no shit, to be telepathic.
They sat on a bluff, legs dropping over the edge into the desert night.
"Why'd you come?" Laura said.
"Do you want me here?"
Laura didn't answer. Ben felt so tired suddenly. He thought about the backseat of the Volvo, wondered what sort of germs were in the upholstery. He thought too of their bed at home, crisp cotton sheets, neatly made.
"Did you not believe me?" Laura said. "When you read my note, did you think I wanted you to follow?"
"How was I supposed to know what to think, Laura?" Ben tossed his hand in the air. "I think it's a regular Friday. I think maybe my wife wants to go see a movie or eat Thai food. I think maybe she has time to bring me lunch."
Laura stood up, took a few steps away, and then came back. Ben threw a pebble, harder than he meant. Shoulder popped.
"It was tempting—brand new book of nature poetry, bottle of single malt—just to relax on the couch and absorb myself in images of springtime and nightingales, not worry that my wife of 20 years has left me, 'just faded away,'"
"I'm sorry," Laura said, tilting her head upward, trying to harness the integrity of the stars, wanting only to flee again. "It was the wrong way, leaving like this. But Ben, respect me enough to let me do what I need to do."
"Respect? Are you kidding me?"
Laura blew a long sigh of air from her cheeks. She rose and walked away.
"This is a marriage, Laura," Ben hollered after her. "Not a failed painting you can toss. I'm not disposable."
Laura didn't answer, and Ben curled onto his side, palm pressed to forehead. In his nearness to the sandstone, he absorbed the dry smell and untamed feel of the place, the spirit of the desert, and he wanted to wander, rise up from his seat and just go. Let Laura fade away. He thought of the couple with their photographs, a model of what they were supposed to have become. Before Laura, wanderlust was his bride. Used to drive him to every unexplored corner of the West. Friends joked he had so many maps from his trips, he ought to open a store.
"I'll change," he said into the night. "Tell me how you want me to be."
From her rock, Laura pictured Ben in various costumes. Once, in an effort to liven things up in bed, she had demanded they each pretend they were with someone else. Ben objected, said he only wanted to be with her. No, no, no, she said. You're not playing by the rules. Close your eyes, and turn me into someone else. Okay then, I'm imagining you're . . . oh, I know, that painter friend of yours. Peggy. You're Peggy. Oh, Peggy, I like that. Laura had not told him yet that he was Kevin Costner, and the fact that he took Peggy of all the million women in the world had filled her with sickness. The next time Ben uttered Peggy's name, Laura'd abruptly slid out from underneath him, leaving him baffled while she drew herself a bath.
Could Ben ever be Kevin Costner? Or Remy Jarvis? Or the not-unhandsome truck driver? Could the thrill of newness ever be hers again as long as Ben was Ben, and Ben was her husband? And was that even the issue? Thing was, her unhappiness was amorphous, and if she actually understood it, if she could name its parts, maybe she could talk about it. But as it was, she knew only one thing—she had to start over again.
Softly, she scrambled down from her rock and returned to Ben. "It's not you," Laura said, hand on shoulder. "Not you, baby."
Shitzoo lumbered up behind them, sitting with a grunt against their backs. Ben had the urge to clutch onto the St. Bernard, his pal, his brother, Larry manifested in a dog.
"This life," Laura said. "Sometimes it's so sad and hard and lonely."
"That's why we have each other."
A shooting star burned across the night. They pointed simultaneously and then scooted closer. Shitzoo sighed.
Laura petted his head. "And love—I guess it's just more fragile and slippery than I thought."
Ben nodded. He understood.
It was near sunrise, the sky charcoal, when Laura and Ben arrived back at the campsite to find Remy sitting in a camp chair, his arms crossed over his chest, a ginger ale on the picnic table.
"Stopped at a bar on the way to the convenience store. Not really on the way, but . . . This the husband?"
Laura and Ben stood silent in the gray light, holding hands.
"Boy, you got some explaining to do, don't you." Remy threw back his head and laughed, nearly losing his balance. "Funny, funny, funny."
"Who are you?" Ben said.
Remy's words were slurred. "Most of the time I don't know, but tonight you can call me Lancelot." He nodded in the direction of his Suburban. A stringy- haired girl in her early twenties sat passed out in the front seat of his car. "I've had two pukers tonight. A record."
Laura stepped forward. "Ben, this is Remy." She kept her eyes locked on her old friend. "I knew him when I worked at the ski resort. Bumped into him here at the campground earlier this evening, and we got a chance to catch up."
"The hell we did," Remy said, smacking his knee.
"We were talking and that's when I started feeling bad, so I went into the tent. Remy said he'd go get me a ginger ale. I started to tell you about Remy, but . . . "
"Laura, stop, please," Ben said.
"Hey listen," Remy said, standing up. "She's a good woman, fucked up as she may be. But, I tell you, you gotta do something to liven things up, or she's a goner, if she isn't already." With his hand, he made a twirling, nonsensical motion.
By the looks of Ben—wrinkled button-down, head wound—Remy couldn't have known what was coming. Even Laura was shocked to see Ben step forward and with the grace of a movie star athlete, crisply pop Remy with a right hook to the chin. Remy lay flattened on the sandstone, blood dripping from his teeth as Ben gazed at his knuckles.
Just then, the sun snuck over the red horizon with an eerie silence. Laura and Ben turned eastward, glancing shyly at each other. And then there was a roar and the impact of a hard body and rough rock. Hands gripped at Ben's throat.
"Remy, don't!" Ben heard Laura say. It occurred to Ben he should fight, but he was too disoriented, Remy's hold a vise at his neck. It seemed both preposterous and possible that this stranger might kill him. Ben thought of Larry's car. How would he return it if he died? Hurt like hell, thumbs pressed at his Adam's apple. Ht tried kicking with his legs, but they were useless, as if disconnected to the struggle. He thought of his parents, picturing them younger than they were, and then of Dream, the stray cat, but mostly of Laura, crying for unborn children in soggy ski suits on the side of a mountain pass.
"Get him off of me," Ben heard. There was growling and whining and barking and shouting. The pointed pressure on Ben's throat let up, releasing a painful and violent coughing fit. When he could rise onto an elbow, Ben witnessed the frenzied struggle, Laura doing a sort of spastic dance at the side.
"Shitzoo, no," Ben said, and the Saint Bernard looked up at him with confused and loyal eyes just long enough for Remy kick the dog in the neck and scurry to his car. As he slammed the door, the girl in the passenger seat nodded her head.
Reversing, Remy lowered the window. He pointed to Ben with a look full of sadness. "Atta boy," he said. "That's what the lady needs to see. A little heart is all." He pounded his chest and drove away.
Ben looked at Laura. She watched the car and then returned his gaze.
"I guess what I have to figure out," Ben said, "is if I even care."
Laura nodded. "I understand."
"What'll we do with ourselves?"
"I don't know," she said.
"Neither do I."
Sunrise in the Canyonlands is a showcase of soft colors, baby colors. Laura and Ben drank their coffee as they watched the world go light. Laura cleaned and treated Ben's cut. Together they worked to brush Shitzoo's hair. Finally, they lay down to sleep, sharing a single camp mattress and sleeping bag.
"I think it's probably over," Ben whispered into Laura's hair.
"Shh. Let's not ruin a good thing."
He kissed the crown of her head, and they slept, husband and wife, strangers really, under the shade of desert sandstone.