Illustration by Brian Rea
HE PULLS OVER AT THE EDGE OF THE Coalinga feedlots and kills the engine. He has a view of the entire yawning San Joaquin but he's in no state to take it in. He feels no awe or sense of history about it, only contempt. The scalding air stinks of cattle. His pulse pounds through the base of his dry tongue and his whole head is on fire. His entire head. There's the silent pay phone, marooned on a chrome pipe with a pale blue plastic globe guarding it from the blasting sun. Its modernism disgusts him; makes him feel worse off, more removed. Beyond the phone, pathetic groups of steers stand on tall black mounds of their own shit, waiting for slaughter. Heat vapors rise from the mounds, cooking under the intense sun as though about ready to explode and send dismembered cow parts flying into the highway. Beyond the cattle there's nothing. Absolutely nothing moves, clear to the smoky gray horizon.
"It's time to make the call!" It comes to him like a voice; a command. If he doesn't make it now, he never will. Dread or no dread, it's time to make the call. He swings out and slams the door of the Dodge. The sound doesn't carry. It ends abruptly at his feet. He digs for change and crunches toward the phone through loose gravel and mouse bones, flattened beer cans and sun-bleached condoms. He sees all these objects very clearly now; sees them as though they've been laid out on a steel table for his personal examination, like crime evidence. He can see her face too. Her big eyes. He can hear her voice before he drops the quarter -- the terror in it. He makes it person-to-person collect, negotiating through the composite voices of recorded operators; female voices, different ages, each one completely devoid of sexuality. He knows his wife has got to be home. He's timed it, knowing she'll be there. She is.
"Where are you?" is the first thing she says. He knew that would be the first thing and his dread cranks up a notch.
"Coalinga," he says.
"What're you doing way down there?"
"I'm on my way south."
"Why? What're you doing?"
"I'm just -- going."
"Going? When are you coming back?" she says, and he can hear she knows already.
"You mean, ever? You're not ever coming back?"
"I don't think so."
"Oh my God!" she gasps, and now he hears the horrible thud of shock in her chest; her breath chopping away into black silence. Nothing. A truck blasts by and drones off into the steel gray bands of heat. A single cow moans. His hearing has become acute. "Listen," she suddenly says. "Why don't I drive halfway down and meet you? You drive halfway back and I'll drive halfway down. Does that sound fair? Just to talk, okay? Will you do that? Will you meet me halfway?"
"I don't think so," he says, trying to keep his voice steady.
"It seems like after fifteen years we could just do that for each other. Just meet halfway. That's not too much to ask, is it? Then we could at least talk. We can't talk like this, on the phone."
"I've already come this far," he says.
"I know. That's what I'm saying. I'm not asking you to come back all the way. I'm willing to drive halfway down there and meet you somewhere."
"Where?" he says. "There's nothing down here."
"I don't know. Gilroy or something."
"Anywhere! I don't care where it is. It doesn't matter."
"No, I can't go back," he says.
"Why not? After all this time? All these years? What about Spence? Are you going to tell him you're not coming back?"
"Not right now."
"When?" she says.
"I don't know."
"What am I supposed to tell him then?"
"Tell him I'll call him."
"I'm not sure." Silence again. A high piercing shriek of a circling hawk. A Jeep roars past. A Jeep with no windows or doors, just the wind ripping across the wide-eyed face of the driver. "Are you still there?" he says to the phone.
"Where am I supposed to go?" she says.
"I don't know."
"Is this about her? Is that what this is? You're going down there to be with her?"
"Yeah. I am."
"What about her man? Isn't she with someone too?"
"Well, what about him? What's she going to do?"
"She's going to tell him, I guess."
"She hasn't told him yet?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know and you're still going down there?"
"You know what this is for me, don't you? I mean my history and everything -- my father --"
"Yeah. I do."
"Your father too."
"You didn't think of that?"
"And Spence --" Her voice chokes. He stares down at his boots. He wants to feel something. He presses the heel of one boot down hard on the toe of the other. The sun cuts the back of his neck. "What is this going to do?" Her voice comes back and he can hear it's taking everything she has. "What is this going to change? Changing women. Do you think that's going to solve something; make something different?"
"I don't know," he says.
"I mean whatever it is that's making you -- that's causing this thing in you -- It's inside you, isn't it? Swapping women isn't going to make that any different. That's not going to solve anything."
"No. Probably not."
"It didn't solve it when you changed over to me, did it?"
"How many times have you done this and what's it come to?"
"I don't know."
"So why are you doing it again?" He can't answer. He has no answer. The steers set up a long series of desperate bawling, then drop off into silence again. The heavy stench and the heat are making his eyes water. He rubs a sleeve across them and believes for a second that he's actually crying; believes the gesture is about some kind of grief. He sees himself from a distance now, as though looking down from a great height, like the hawk's point of view: a tiny man in vast space, clutching a chunk of black plastic. He can't hear his breath now, he's so far away. He can't hear his heart.
"Tell Spence I'll call him, okay?" he says at last.
"You can't just do me a favor and meet me halfway?"
"I can't," he says.
"Are you going to call again?"
"Yes. I said I would."
"You've got to talk to Spence."
"I can't tell him."
"All right," she says, and hangs up with a soft click. He wishes she would have slammed the receiver down and yelled something. He wishes she would have screamed something he'd never heard before. Some word. He keeps clutching the phone and staring out at the acres of trapped cattle. He can't believe he's going through with this; can't believe it's done. He can't go back. He's more than halfway to L.A. now. He can't ever go back. A door has shut behind him with a soft click. Some woman's voice is speaking to him. A prerecorded operator voice instructing him to hang up the phone. It keeps repeating, then segues into sharp beeps. He drops the phone and lets it swing. The beeps continue.
He drives on and turns the air conditioner up high. His head starts cooling down some. His eyes have finished stinging and the stink of cattle fades slowly behind him. He tries to keep watching the swinging phone in the rearview mirror but loses it quickly, like some small part of himself left behind. The sharp beeps continue in the top of his skull. He remembers a
conversation he had with his wife in his head, less than a month ago. His head was not on fire back then. He remembers this imaginary conversation took place on this very same highway, almost exactly halfway like he is now except then he was heading north. Then he was heading back to her. He was telling her how he'd never leave her; talking out loud in the truck as though she were right there beside him. Telling her how he'd come to a decision. How he'd never repeat his father's mistakes. He would never abandon his son. He was fervent about it -- elated. He remembers the feeling of being full of conviction. The impression of himself as an honest man. The hot valley wind through the open window felt like a source of strength back then. He could hardly wait to tell her when he got back; when she'd come running down the front porch to greet him. But he never did. Something happened. Something shifted. Something he never saw taking place.
NIGHT FALLS FAST THROUGH THE Tejon Pass and now he knows he's gone way past halfway. Now he knows he's deep inside the muscle of an action he'd only ever imagined himself doing. Now some scared boy takes the place of the man; shoves him over, grabs the wheel, hunches forward into the dark, and rides the snaking mountain down into the wild lights of L.A.
At the intersection of Highland and Sunset, huge billboards with shiny movie-star faces leer down at him. Some are in action; running from explosions, falling through white space, punching, shooting, crashing their way through plate-glass windows. Others are frozen in sweaty clinches, mouths agape, necks arched back; transcended through orgasm to plateaus of ecstasy beyond the common man. Stretch limos with tinted windows and thumping, subsonic bass lines haunt the streets with secret cargo. Coveys of hysterical, screaming girls, hair teased, tattooed and pierced in every department, run toward a nightclub framed in pulsing lavender neon, stumbling in their elevator-high platforms only to wait in line while bald bouncers frisk them.
He checks into the Tropicana with no bag, no toothbrush, no change of underwear. The night clerk has junkie eyes. Eyes that could care less what or who stands across from him. His room has nothing but a bed and a phone. It smells like bad Chinese food. He slashes open the green plastic curtains and stares out at the rippling reflections of light off the pool. The hotel logo, a red neon palm tree, dances its reflection in the deep end. A fat man wearing a black Speedo sits perched at the top of the water slide, staring down at his toes. He wriggles them as though testing for signs of life. A TV goes on in a room across the pool deck. Someone pulls their curtains shut.
He turns back into his room and snaps the light on. He goes to the phone. He has the number memorized. He's called this number maybe a million times from every conceivable dark corner over the past two years. He's gripped phones in every possible emotional state, awaiting the voice on the other end. The voice he's become convinced he can't live without. The voice he's given everything up for.
"Hello," the voice says, and he can't believe it's so simple.
"It's me," he says. She laughs and he feels a rush of white excitement like falling high from a rope swing into icy water.
"Where are you?" she giggles.
"I'm here. I'm right here."
"Yeah. I'm at the Tropicana."
"The Tropicana!" she squeals. "What're you doing there?"
"What?" she says, and stops laughing.
"Not -- Your wife you mean?"
"You told her?"
"Yeah. I did. I told her." She laughs again but it's different now. It has a guarded edge to it.
"Well --" she says. "So she knows all about it then?"
"Yeah. She does."
"What'd you tell her?"
"I told her I was leaving."
"When did this happen?"
"Today," he says. "Just today. I drove all the way down here."
"That's crazy!" she says, and laughs again, but this time it hardly sounds like a laugh at all. It sounds worried.
"Can you come over?" he says. "I need to see you."
"What? Now, you mean? Right now?"
"Yeah. Come on over. I'm in number seventeen."
"Well, I can't right now. There's -- I just can't."
"Why not?" he says.
"I'm -- well, actually I was just getting ready to leave."
"Where are you going?"
"Indiana. David's got a new commission out there."
"David?" he says.
"Yes. It just came up. He's waiting for me."
"Waiting for you where?"
"In Indiana. I just told you."
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"You're flying out to Indiana to meet David?"
"Yes. I was just going out the door when the phone rang." He hears the loud splash of the fat man hitting the pool outside. Then nothing. A distant siren. "Hello," she says. "Are you still there?"
"Where am I supposed to go?" he says.
Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf from Great Dream of Heaven: Stories by Sam Shepard, to be published in October. Copyright © 2002 by Sam Shepard.