Somewhere in Arizona
It was pushing midnight when I woke up. Darby was still driving, fingers tapping on the wheel as she hummed some wavering tune to herself. The banker’s body lay stuffed in a trash bag in the back of the van, half-hidden behind the drum-set.
“Good morning, Stargazer!” Darby sang. My name really was Stargazer. I’d changed it legally six years ago, thinking it’d be kind of rock-and-roll. Darby teased me about it every now and then, but this one time her brothers were making fun of it after a gig and she destroyed them–going into this whole thing about how at least I had the spirit to do something crazy and that alone gave my stupid-ass name the kind of soul their Pete and David would never have. It was pretty sick.
“Where are we?” The desert night didn’t give any clues. We were supposed to drop the banker’s body in Reno, which was convenient since we had a show there coming up.
“Fuck if I know, dude,” Darby said. “Somewhere in Arizona?” Darby’s natural voice always surprised people, its cartoonishly high pitch a sharp contrast from her low, growling vocals.
“What’d the last sign say?”
“It said somewhere in Arizona.”
“It did not.”
“It’s true!” Darby laughed. “Look, there’s another one.” She pointed to a sign in the distance. At first, I thought I must be seeing shit, but as we got closer it was clear that the sign really did say Somewhere in Arizona. Ambiguity aside, it was just a normal highway sign, green and white-bordered, standard font.
“That is some vague-ass information.” I reached for the PBR can rolling back and forth between my feet and cracked it open, foam spilling down the sides. “Maybe we’re
in purgatory or some shit.”
Darby huffed. “Dude, purgatory wouldn’t take our asses.”
“We should really take a picture.” Darby pumped the brakes and I followed her out of the van with our Polaroid. She stood beneath the sign and shrugged, making a who knows? kind of expression. I put my beer on the ground and looked through the lens at Darby and the sign and a whole lot of darkness spread all around them, as if they were spot-lit on a stage.
“Say what the fuck?!” I shouted.
It was my turn to drive. After a few minutes, I took the Polaroid out of my pocket and put it on the dashboard for us to see. Darby looked cute as hell and the picture was an instant classic, we agreed. She taped it to the photo-wall we had going across the top of the van, then began to doze off in the passenger seat. I didn’t want to be alone and tried to start a conversation.
“I was thinking,” I said, “If there were a Yelp for signs, Somewhere in Arizona
would be rated 1-star.”
Darby smiled. “I mean for sure,” she said, voice throaty with half-sleep, “but this also begs the question, like, what should the ratings for signs be based on?”
“I think first and foremost how informative it is,” I said.
“And then maybe how nice it is to look at. Like its colors and shit.”
Darby shook her head. “I say how easy it is to read from the road. Then after that we can talk aesthetics.”
“That’s fair,” I conceded.
“I am now asleep,” Darby said.
The van got quiet and soon it became clear I was its only conscious occupant. I wondered how far we were from Reno. When I saw the lights of Vegas, I’d have a better idea. A smell began to come from the back of the van. I looked in the rearview mirror and could just see the shadowed lump of the banker’s body behind the drums. One of the difficulties with getting our money the way we did was the images that would come to you unbidden. Like, I’d be driving along thinking about the sign-Yelp thing and then all of a sudden I’d see the banker’s face when he realized what was about to happen, all desperate and shit. I’d see Darby spraying bleach on the bloodstains as I wiped the place for our prints. I’d see the moments afterward where she and I avoided eye contact with each other and it was like my last connection to humanity had been severed. I’d see the trash bag, the part above the banker’s mouth that some corner of my brain kept expecting to inflate with breath. It was like anything I guess; shit just comes back to haunt you. But eventually, the images would pass, and I would drink a beer and feel grateful for what I had.
I needed coffee. Problem was, I hadn’t seen a place to stop the whole time I’d been driving. No diner, not even a gas station. Just the same blankness on and on, as if the world kept running out of itself and resetting us. I remembered the blow we’d found in the banker’s pocket and pulled to the side of the road. I reached over and opened the glove box, careful not to wake Darby, but the coke wasn’t there, so I step-crawled to the back of the van. Had we forgotten to set it aside? I didn’t see it lying around anywhere, so I guess we had. Fuck. I wasn’t into the idea of taking the banker out of the trash bag and seeing his face again and shit, so I just felt around for his pockets, found the bulgy one,
and ripped a little hole above it.
I did a line off the dashboard and stepped out of the van to get some fresh air. The night had a staleness to it though, the air humid and still, settling on my skin like warm soda. Standing there fidgeting, I had a strange insulated feeling, like there was another layer of outside, true outside, that I wasn’t accessing. A little ways ahead was another Somewhere in Arizona sign. The font on this one was a little different. Or maybe it was the same, but just made shittier, like it had been done in a hurry. Some of the letters were too close together, some too far apart. Whoever painted it had run tight on space towards the end of Arizona and the ona was barely squeezed in.
Just then I heard footsteps behind me. To my surprise, it wasn’t Darby, but an old woman in a leopard-print coat.
“Hey, stranger.” She staggered towards me. “Have you seen my friends?” She stopped in front of me and lit a cigarette. I made a quick glance towards the back of the van. If anyone asked we were going to say there was a dummy in the trash bag and that we were ventriloquists. This was mostly a joke because of course, we didn’t expect it to get that far.
“Sorry.” I shook my head. “I haven’t seen a soul out here.”
The woman nodded. “I’m looking for my friends.” Her skin was leathered and she had the voice of a lifelong smoker, the kind I associated with warmth and good humor, maybe because of my mother. I peered down the highway in the direction she’d come, but the lights along the road were dim and far apart and I couldn’t see much.
“Did your car break down?” I asked.
The woman didn’t seem to hear me. She’d noticed the sign and was staring at it. Her eyes kindled with loathing. She went closer and gave it the finger. “Fucker’s always one step ahead.” She spit on the ground beneath it. “Would you
let me know if you see my friends?”
“Well I’m about to haul out, actually, you want a ride?” Just as I said it I remembered that we couldn’t really give rides with a body in the van, but luckily the woman waved me off and continued on foot, pulling a flask out of her coat.
“I have to keep going!” She shouted.
This response seemed odd, but I believe everyone has a complex set of gears turning inside their heads at all times, and some things might just be hard to translate. A sentence like I have to keep going could be standing in for layers upon layers of thought and feeling, all put into a fucked-up blender that never stops blending. Another example would be if I said my band-mate and I kill people for money. It just doesn’t account for all the layers.
The next Somewhere in Arizona sign was even messier than the last, with Arizona abbreviated vertically in the bottom right corner. The one after that just said Somewhere. The hell was going on? It was like a prank gone too far. I thought about what the woman in the leopard-print coat had said. Always one step ahead, like the signs were something to outrun. Well, shit man, I was doing the best I could. I drove on, ignoring my growling stomach. The smell from the back of the van intensified. Soon my eyes grew tired and things started going fuzzy. I did another line from the banker’s stash, but it didn’t seem to help as much as it should have. The marks on the road began to flicker like dying lights. The air inside the van fizzled and popped. Passing cars buffered in and out of existence, at one moment distant and the next right beside us. I stopped looking at the signs we passed. I knew what they said.
Eventually, the road ended. It could have been minutes or hours later; the numbers on the clock were all blurry and I couldn’t read them. All I knew was that it was still dark. I rolled to a stop as pavement gave way to the flat expanse of desert. A giant sign loomed over the cut-off point, legs dug into either side of the expired highway. It was blank.
I shook Darby’s shoulder, but she didn’t wake up. I yelled and clapped my hands in front of her face. Nothing. Her chest rose and fell in the steady rhythm of sleep. I shook her harder. She lolled around like a corpse, head slumped to the side. I began to feel short of breath, becoming more desperate every time I failed to wake her. Darby was a heavy sleeper, but not this heavy.
Suddenly a large panel of light shone into the van. I held my hand up against the glare and squinted through the windshield. The sign looming over the road had become some sort of screen. On it was a flipped version of Darby and I, with Darby in the driver’s seat trying to wake me while I lay comatose beside her. Her mouth was moving, but the image was silent. She kept shaking the sleeping Stargazer until suddenly the van she was in, too, was encased with blue light. The Darby inside squinted up through the windshield. She saw me. We stared in confusion, in fear. I waved and she waved back. It was nice to be un-alone for a moment, even in this fucked-up way. It made me feel like this wasn’t an end, like we’d be on stage in Reno this time tomorrow, head-banging and sweating like sin, doing the shit we lived for. But a moment later the screen blinked off, just a blank sign once more. Next to me, the sleeping Darby didn’t stir.
I stepped out of the van in a daze and stumbled to the side of the road, lying down on the dirt. I imagined our Polaroids spread across the sky like cosmic tile. Photos we took on the road or before a show somewhere, posing in front of janky gas stations and funny signs, sitting around in whatever shitty backstage space. I closed my eyes. The air outside seemed to have taken on the same smell as the inside of the van, and I breathed through my mouth as I went over the set list for Reno in my head: “Crucifix,” “Blink for Me,” “Cards for Chewing,” “Rustbite,” “Will Bleed for Food.” It was going to be a good show.
Timothy Day poses as an adult in Portland, Oregon. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University and his fiction has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Barren Magazine, Jet Fuel Review, and elsewhere.