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  • Writer's pictureJoseph R. Goodall

Beyond the Reach of a Lasso


Photo by Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernandez via Unsplash

He steers his brown delivery truck off the highway and down a worn, two-lane road. Several potholes jostle the old vehicle, and he holds on to the dashboard to maintain his balance in the balding leather seat. He passes a red sign prohibiting truck traffic as he follows the GPS toward a residential address. Towering pine trees and colorful mailboxes line the narrow street, but his attention is continually drawn to the blank phone screen laying in the passenger seat.

Occasionally, he is distracted by the sound of a sportscar or minivan rushing past his open truck door, but his mind soon empties of work tasks, his daughter's childcare schedule and the question of which burger joint to visit for dinner. His thoughts boomerang to her, the woman who leaps into his arms with blazing gray eyes, dives into problems without a fully formed plan, recognizes his tells with disturbing accuracy.

He looks up through the windshield, squinting against the hatched glare of afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees. The patches of solid blue sky remind him of the summer day when her shoe fell in the lake. He can't remember if she had thrown it at him, or if it had been an accident, but he had fished it from the green water with a broom stowed in his truck cab. She had stubbornly walked a mile with a squishy sole before he'd convinced her to pause and wait for the water-logged sneaker to dry out in the August sun. For years they've been trying to make their relationship work in a similar way, enduring disagreements and times apart with strained patience.

He taps the brake pedal as he rounds a sharp turn. Square orange signs point dutifully in the direction of his route, away from the sway of his body. He wonders about the speed limit yet knows he won't be paid extra for making the delivery any earlier, won't have anyone waiting up for him if he gets home a few minutes later. He turns the radio dial again, watches the station numbers climb quickly, the volume level bars crest and fall. Still he hears only the muffled engine noise. He attempts and fails to retrieve song lyrics from the recesses of his memory.

At a stop light, he reaches over to the glove compartment and dislodges a smashed foil wrapper from beneath his coffee-stained registration papers. The expired gum still carries a blast of mint flavor, and the effort of chewing slows his frantic thoughts. He remembers the chocolate-covered breath fresheners at her restaurant as the truck lurches forward, the way her head rotates slightly when talking to customers, or how her chin lifts when commanding respect among kitchen staff. With a smile he wonders what he has to do to convince his coworker to trade routes with him, to put her restaurant back on his itinerary.

After unloading several crates at a white brick estate, he scrolls through his email on the walk back from the three-car garage, then checks baseball stats and the price of an oil barrel. There's still no response from her as he climbs into the truck and returns the phone to the passenger seat. He adjusts the rearview mirror and notices the emergency brake releases more easily as he starts the engine. He studies the network of bug splatters across the windshield and tries to adapt again to the silence. The asphalt flies below the truck tires as he grips tightly to the steering wheel and replays each line of their last conversation in his head.


 

Marching past cluttered silver countertops and blue-flamed stoves, she tears off her apron and pockets the small package wrapped in plastic. Suds fly as her manager scrubs trays in the huge stainless steel sink, yelling after her for assistance. But she continues walking, feeling a burn intensify in her chest. At her locker, she kisses her fingers and touches the picture of Lila hanging on the inside of the narrow metal door, the one where her daughter's curly hair is aloft in the wind as she sits on her father's shoulders. The chef sighs as she unwraps the box of cigarettes inadvertently left behind by the recently fired dishwasher.

As she pushes through the back door, the jet of air blows off her cap and sends it sailing into a holly bush next to the smoker's receptacle. She lights a cigarette and sits next to the plastic bin, which looks like a sideways barbell or an upside-down lollipop. Outside the bustle of the kitchen, she inhales deeply and considers the conversations she used to have with the old dishwasher in this same spot, before she quit smoking. This peaceful ritual is a welcome respite from the constant movement and heat and urgency, but it is difficult to replace after giving up smoking.

Familiar ghosts materialize in the quiet between puffs, showing their unwelcome faces as she exhales into the humid darkness. The night air clings to her skin, reminding her of the last time she went to the rodeo with her daughter's dad. He'd driven the two of them out to the arena in his delivery truck, since her car was in the shop. She drank and heckled the cowboys like her daddy had taught her. But the man with her is nothing like her daddy. He is spontaneous, simplistic, and forgetful, yet sober, down-to-earth, handsome and kind. He has a steady job and has proposed to her twice. Later that night at the rodeo, he proposed a third time, but one of the bulls got its head stuck in a fence and broke its neck, ending the show early.

Beyond the holly bush, the restaurant parking lot smells of oil and magnolia flowers. A couple returns to their car, complaining loudly about the poor meal service. The man drops a container of leftover food on the ground. The woman reassures him it wasn't worth taking home anyway. They shut their doors and drive away in their noiseless hybrid.

The chef extinguishes her cigarette with a slip-resistant heel, staining the sidewalk gray. She wonders why the manager hasn’t left their restaurant, doesn’t trust her to run the show herself. An internal voice, sounding awfully like her mother's, ridicules her for dropping out of college. Her conscience dredges up a fresh round of condemnation about her daughter being bullied in school, about her weight, about smoking again.

She stands up, reaching for the door handle, then stops at the sound of an exasperated shout from the kitchen. Instead, she paces the sidewalk, brushing against the prickly holly leaves as she thinks of his lively voice in the truck cab, his raucous stories of growing up in the desert and missing out on a baseball scholarship. She passes the dock where he used to unload his truck, where he would carry sacks of flour and rice through the doors alongside the dishwasher, joking as they worked. She shakes her head, retrieving her wayward cap from the bush and yanking it over her unruly hair.


 

His route is now lit by flickering streetlights. The road is long and straight, illuminated like a modest airport runway. The truck bounces loosely over a pothole, unburdened at the end of his route. There will be a strip mall in a few miles, the one with their favorite diner. The radio is still silent, but he's left the truck door open and unbuttoned his shirt to let the cool night air rush over his torso.

He scoots forward to the edge of his seat and looks up at the crescent moon through the windshield. It's darker on this side of town, and pinprinks of light are scattered across the sky. He considers the thrill of watching a cowboy pursue a bull in an arena, feels the thump of dissatisfaction and longing pulsing in his chest. He drives faster now, remembering the smell of her hair nuzzled under his chin.


 

The bus route back to her mother's house is delayed. She waits at the bus stop by the high school, where the silhouetted bull statue stands bulky and motionless in front of the compact campus of brick buildings. She holds her white apron and latest paycheck in her lap and has a canvas bag slung over her shoulder. Her throat is still dry and scratchy from her impromptu smoke break and a yelling match with the restaurant manager. As the cicadas argue and fuss in the grass around her bench, she can't help wondering why she must always communicate with such intensity, why she must always move so far in one direction without stopping to consider her destination.


 

The brown truck screeches to a halt at the bus stop. She peers through frizzy bangs at his goofy grin, wiry mustache and pointed chin, emblazoned in orange by the light of a billboard. He says he's offering direct routes to dinner and a show, pulling his shirt apart.

Her cheeks redden as she stands. She doesn't watch re-runs, she says. The rectangular strip of paper flutters as she waves it at him, asking if they can instead swing by an ATM.

He groans and says he's hungry. She thinks of their first date, when he ate three burgers and interrupted the entire restaurant with a thunderous belch. Though she can barely stomach the thought of food, she stuffs the apron in her bag, casts another glance at the lifeless bull mascot, then clambers into the passenger seat. The cab smells of beef jerky and musty leather. When she sits, she feels a solid rectangular object against her ass and worries she left the pack of cigarettes in her pocket. He prods her arm and grins sheepishly, reaching below her backside to retrieve his phone.

She might have accidentally butt-dialed him, he says. It would have been the first time she'd called in a while.

Hadn’t he changed his number? She chuckles sardonically as she kicks off her heavy shoes and clutches her bag against her beating heart, wishing he'd drive faster.

He is silent as the truck shudders down the road. He chews on his thumbnail as he leans toward her on the armrest. She sees the dark gray ink traced across his freckled forearm in the shape of a joshua tree, though she always thought it looked more like a river delta. Out of the corner of her eye she notices him watching her.

After swatting away swarms of nocturnal insects at the ATM, she has a small wad of cash in her canvas bag. He clears his throat and strokes his mustache, then asks her what type of restaurant she's going to open with her million bucks.

She laughs and shakes her head. Reaches over and hooks her arm around the crook of his elbow, pulling the spiny, riverine tree on his skin against her face. He inhales a sharp breath, but she tells him not to say anything else.

As the truck whizzes past the diner, a wave of emotion engulfs her, and she tells him to stop. Soon they are sitting together in a booth with two malts and burger combo plates between them. Their knees are pressed together below the tabletop, their eyes tired yet unmasked. The fries are cold, and the dessert is utterly average, costing a small chunk of her paycheck. But they are communicating in their own, wordless language, their imaginations bucking like a pair of wild creatures beyond the reach of a lasso.

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