From his front porch near the crest overlooking town he watched the parade of vehicles leave at first light. Off in the west the sky was dark and nebulous, veined with snatches of pink and white. Coffee steamed from the mug in his hand and he knew he’d leave with them, trucks and vans and cars of all types with campers tugging boats and trailers behind them. He’d leave Boise for the first time since his wife died and he was surprised how easy it was for him. Sunlight shattered the sky in the east, and it was not a broken sun but vibrant and full of life and he turned from the endless stream of vehicles crawling from south Boise to check his rig once more. And then, moments later, as he pulled away from his house on Mackinaw Road for the final time he did not even look back nor did he feel sadness or guilt but rather romance and faint excitement despite his age at the novelty of uprooting and diving headlong into the unpredictable and enchanting world.
Hitchers lined both shoulders of I-84 outside of Boise with packs stacked on their backs like mules. His wife would have told him to stop for one of them and so he picked out the most vulnerable looking one and slowed down. The girl found an empty place in the backseat of the rig to set her pack and then hopped up front, smiling, her cheeks the color of blood, talking in rapid bursts and thanking him for stopping.
I’ve been walkin all night, she said. Thank god. I can’t believe you stopped.
Where you headed? he said.
Denver, I think.
I can take you into Utah, if that’s okay, he said.
That’s fine, she said. I’m Corine, and she talked fast while he drove down through the valley. The sun rose up into the world, intense and warm. She talked so much that he almost regretted picking her up. By the time they rode down through Mountain Home he noticed she’d stopped talking, slumped against the window with her mouth shut quiet despite the sun on her face.
She was young. He didn’t know how young because long ago he’d stopped paying attention to young people. He guessed she was in her early twenties or thereabouts. It was her hair, dirty blond and bunched up playfully in the back of her head, or maybe it was her skin, ruddy and smooth, her cheeks with that soft unused look. Piercings in her ears and nose and a black loop in one eyebrow. She was short and thin, perhaps too slight to carry the size of pack she had with her. He turned down the radio and let the news reports die so the girl could rest.
He drove I-84 alongside the Snake River toward Heyburn with nothing to see but sun-washed grassland and trees breathing in the distant morning glow. Neglected farm equipment hunched in the haze with farmers milling about like skeletons, quiet and remote. There were hitchers on both sides of the freeway and every mile or so there’d be a van or truck slung onto the shoulder with a tent fastened to the ground near the vehicle. The man looked over at the sleeping girl and wondered what she was doing out here alone, a drop in the world’s bucket of caprice. He figured he would protect her if he had to, and he didn’t know why. He could feel the road beneath the SUV skipping past and he thought of his wife, he conversed with her in his head as he was wont to do in solitary moments, just a man alone in a house or upon the asphalt that happens to connect us all with the past, with each other. For our experience in life is not relegated solely to the physical, though it is the physical that we have before us, it is the physical that we have to draw from or compare to, and though his wife was there with him in spirit she was obviously not there in the physical form, which is to say that he could neither verbally address her nor reach out and touch her. At times he forgot this caveat just as he often forgot the small details, the minutiae that escaped him and then returned to memory when he least expected, randomly. He’d forget about her scars and moles and imperfections unknown to everyone save the two of them, and then those details would return to him arbitrarily, often at night, he with a book in his easy chair by lamplight, suddenly present and engaged with the contours of her neck, the bones in her back just beneath the skin, her scent lingering on his tongue.