Charlotte takes one hand off the steering wheel to slide her sunglasses down her nose. “Light a cigarette, would you?”
“Did you bring any?” asks Leigh.
“Of course not. You know I don’t smoke.”
Leigh lights the cigarette and hands it over. Charlotte takes a long drag and holds it elegantly over the steering wheel, passing it back when the ash gets too long.
“Who’s going to light your cigarettes when I’m gone?” Leigh says.
“Maybe I won’t have to smoke anymore. You’re such a bad influence, you know?” When she smiles, Charlotte’s teeth are perfect, straight and white.
The car speeds north on Highway 5, away from LA. Leigh cracks the window and sticks her hand out into the hot wind, palm stretched toward the low ochre hills dotted with burnt-looking bushes that look exactly like the tumbleweeds in old cowboy movies, only these are still rooted. When Leigh mentions the tumbleweeds, Charlotte rolls her eyes.
“I can’t hear you over the wind,” Charlotte says. “The air conditioner is on, you know.”
Leigh rolls up the window. “It looks like the surface of Mars out there. I wonder if anyone has ever walked on that dirt before.”
“During a bio lecture, Professor Feldman once said all the dirt you’ve ever seen has passed through the body of a worm. It’s all worm poop, far as the eyes can see.” Charlotte flourishes one hand to indicate the landscape. “Feces, everywhere.”
“That’s disgusting.” Leigh blinks at the scorched horizon, trying to remember the astronauts and covered wagons she imagined ten minutes ago.
Last night, Leigh had placed the last of her possessions into a box, taped it shut, wrote her name across the top in sharpie, and surveyed the backpack and three medium-sized cardboard boxes that contained everything she owned: towels, bedding, clothing (including two cheap suits and a wad of panty hose), and a handful of cheap jewelry stuffed into the bottom of her makeup bag. Everything else in their apartment belonged to Charlotte, even the shampoo. Looking at those boxes, Leigh realized how small her life was, and she could not decide if she felt freed or burdened by that fact.
“I can’t believe my whole life fits in the trunk of your car.”
“I know. Can it breathe in there, do you think?”
“Ha. Maybe we should drill some air holes.”
Charlotte takes a long drag and exhales out the corner of her mouth. “I still don’t understand where you think you’re going.”
“I’ll stay in the hostel until I find a job, then I’ll get a place. You can come visit. We’ll hang out in the Haight wearing silk and flowers, singing songs.”
“You need a better plan.”
When Leigh dropped out of college and took the job at the Snappy Temporary Agency, Charlotte thought it was funny. “That’s not just a job, it’s a joke!” Charlotte quipped. “How can anyone work full time at a temporary agency? It makes no sense, not even semantically.” In high school, they’d often cut class and sneak off campus to a café where they’d gulp shots of espresso and brag about their fabulous futures. Office jobs in strip malls had played no part in those fantasies, so when Leigh took the job, Charlotte teased her relentlessly. “Don’t you worry that one day you’ll show up to work and—” Charlotte snapped her fingers in the air three times, as if she were summoning a waiter, “—just like that, it’s gone?”
Even Leigh had to appreciate the irony when the agency folded, even though it meant she was unemployed. That day, she’d returned from lunch to find her boss Annette, who had worked there for twenty-five years, sitting at her desk. Normally a stiff and tidy woman with a pressed pantsuit and a tight bun, Annette sat gripping the armrests of Leigh’s chair. When Leigh came in, Annette started to stand up but then froze with her face over her knees, gasping at her low-heeled loafers. “Are you okay?” Leigh had asked, and when Annette finally lifted her face, Leigh noticed for the first time the drab streaks of dyed hair like thin plaster on the scalp, the craze of veins in the whites of her eyes, and the faint mustache that seemed to have just sprouted on Annette’s upper lip.
“I just found out Snappy Temps is closing its doors,” she said, and her face got softer and looser with those words, as if she were made of wax. “I am so sorry, so, so, so sorry to tell you this because I know that you’ve given everything but I’m afraid we have to let you go. We’re all letting get go—I mean, we’re all legging….” Annette choked, then clamped her hand over her mouth. “We’re all getting let go.” And a button from Annette’s blazer shot across the desk and landed at Leigh’s feet.
That day, Leigh hadn’t rushed home to pantomime Annette’s disintegration or share the punchline that had taken so long to arrive it was no longer funny. Instead, she sat at the Union Metrolink station in downtown L.A. watching the tidal flow of busy people with places to go. They trotted by swinging their arms with remarkable monomaniacal purpose, most of them toting a tidy bag of what she imagined to be very important papers slung over their shoulders. On the wall hung a map of straight lines and primary colors clearly delineating an orderly, stress-free system. One gray line indicating an Amtrak train shot left and up off the top edge of the map and Leigh wondered where it went, imagined a gleaming steam train pulling away from the station and her running along beside it. In this fantasy she was dressed like a hobo in baggy flannel and a Charlie Chaplin hat. All she’d need was some cans of beans, a can opener, a fork, and a poncho. She’d swing her satchel into an open box car and scramble in. She’d slide the door open and watch the California hills roll by.
When Leigh announced her plan to move to San Francisco, Charlotte thought she was crazy but she offered a ride as a going away present: their last hurrah. Besides, it would be an opportunity to test drive her new car, a graduation present from her father, her reward for getting into medical school. As they drive, Charlotte doesn’t gawk at the cars they pass or the quaint roadside shacks selling fruits and almonds. The car is sleek and powerful and she drives fast with one wrist propped at the top of the steering wheel, gold bracelets tinkling up and down her tan arm, pale curls sparking under the sunroof, her gaze settled confidently on the road ahead. Every mile or so, she adds another thought to her last, a hilarious blow-by-blow replay of a recent date with the CEO of a high-tech startup who ate his entire meal with the pointy end of his steak knife.
As her car nears the top of the Tehachapi Mountains, Charlotte says, “Life is a like a job interview. If you can understand the motivation for the questions, you can always answer right.”
Leigh nods. The sun has just illuminated a multitude of long black strands of hair that have accumulated on the shoulders of Leigh’s shirt, and she’s pulling them off one by one and releasing them out the window.
“But really, why waste time on silly trick questions and jumping through hoops when you can chat about vacation plans over a really nice meal?”
“The trick is to remember that you’re the prize, not them. They’re lucky you’re giving them the time of day. Roll up the window, would you? It’s hot out there,” Charlotte says.
At work, it had been Leigh’s job to administer the typing test to the new temps. After they filled out the papers on the clipboard she handed them, she’d lead them over to a computer in the corner of her cubicle and tell them to open the file titled “Typing Test: Aesop’s Fables.” It only took a minute to complete the test but she always took a walk down the corridor so she wouldn’t make them nervous. When she got back, she’d give them their results: “That’s forty words-per-minute, minus seven mistakes, which leaves an adjusted speed of thirty-three words per minute. That’s only a touch less than average.” She’d tell them, “Maybe that was a warm-up. Would you like to go again? How about if we only record the highest result? That’s only fair, don’t you think?”
The typing exam had been her favorite part of her job. Every day, she’d take it as a warm-up. On a good day she could manage sixty words-per-minute, but she always made a few mistakes and never made it to the end of the fable and the moral that followed. She told herself if she ever did, she’d buy herself a present to celebrate, maybe an extra fancy coffee drink or a matinee—nothing extravagant, but a treat nonetheless. The test had become her daily ritual: she sat in front of the computer like a pianist, straight spine and limber fingers, utterly focused on the words growing like inchworms across the screen, progressing a little further every day.
There were hundreds of fables, each with its own pithy moral, and she never knew which one she’d get, but whatever it was, she’d keep it in mind throughout the day, ruminating, and when the overloaded printer jammed, she’d mutter, “Much wants more and loses all.” After appeasing a cranky customer on the phone, she might hang up, exhale at the ceiling, and declare, “In quarreling about the shadow, we often lose the substance.” Her co-workers had begun viewing her as the sage of the workplace and they’d often stand in the entrance to her cubicle complaining about their children or spouses or clients and she’d nod and smile like a serene buddha: “It sometimes happens that one man has all the toil, and another all the profit,” she’d tell them, or something like that, something perfunctory and perfect, and for the first time in her life she had something to share.
Charlotte slides her sunglasses down her nose and shoots her a look. “You know, maybe it’s a good thing you lost your job. When one door closes, another opens, as you would say.”
“Ha. But when you say it, it sounds like a joke.
“Better than sounding cliché, right? Can you light another?’ Leigh lights a cigarette and passes it to Charlotte, who takes a long drag and hands it back. “You know, my therapist says that sometimes things look better from a distance. Situations and people. She says strong friendships can grow stronger with distance.”
“Talk about cliché,” Leigh says. “How much are you paying your therapist again? Was it one-fifty an hour?”
“Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“That’s what I keep trying to say.”
The car shoots up the grade and hurtles down towards Bakersfield. When the smoldering sun touches the horizon, it’s been miles since either have spoken. At a gas station, Leigh offers to pay.
“Are you joking?” Charlotte chides. “You never have any money!”
“Oh come on, I can afford a tank of gas. It’s the least I can do.” But when Leigh swipes her card at the pump, the display instructs her to see the attendant.
Inside, she brings a couple drinks and a big bag of potato chips to the counter. The young woman at the register is about Leigh’s age with a doughy face and faded pink streaks in her hair. “Fill-up on seven, please.” Leigh leans over the counter to watch the girl swipe the card. “I really have no idea why it didn’t work outside. I should have enough money in there.”
The girl’s cheeks match her dyed hair. “Oh, no. It’s just the machine. I’m sorry, it’s been doing that all day.”
“Thank god.” Leigh says. “We’re going to San Francisco.”
The girl’s gaze trawls up to Leigh’s face and then out the flyspecked window towards the car. “I’ve always wanted to go to the city to hear some music. All we have here are dive bars and juke boxes.”
Leigh follows the girl’s stare out to where Charlotte is doing a complicated yoga pose, holding one ankle behind her back and leaning forward against the gold car glinting under the fluorescent lights. “You should go. Just set a day and go for it.”
“I tried once. Crappy car broke down near Coalinga. Had to have it towed.”
“Maybe that was just a warm-up. You should try again.” Leigh smiles her most encouraging smile. “You could catch the train. Wouldn’t that be cool? And kind of romantic?”
“Maybe.” She shrugs and pushes her pink hair out of her face. Her eyes brighten. “Yeah, maybe.”
When Leigh finally opens the car door and slides into the passenger seat, Charlotte says, “What the hell took so long?” She scowls at the bag of chips. “Junk food. You are what you eat.” She pushes aside the bottle of water Leigh offers. “Would you roll up the window, for god’s sake?”
“It’s just fresh air. It won’t kill you, you know.”
Charlotte grabs the chips and tears the bag open, cramming a handful into her mouth, chewing angrily. “I won’t miss your neediness, that’s for sure.”
“You need a place to stay, you need a ride, you need some fresh air. It gets old after awhile, you know.” When they pull back onto the highway, Charlotte lights a cigarette and inhales deeply. “I still can’t believe you dropped out of school. You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”
“I guess not.” Leigh looks out her window. Addressing the darkness she says, “Maybe the strong and the weak can’t coexist.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? You have to stop talking like a fortune cookie, it’s just annoying.”
Charlotte searches for a good station on the radio while Leigh thinks about the fable about the two bowls on a riverbank; one brass and one clay. When the river carried them both downstream, the brass bowl asked the other why it floated so far away and the clay bowl said, “I’m afraid you’ll run into me.” “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t do that,” the brass pot said, but the pottery bowl insisted: “If I come any closer, we’ll touch. And if I collide with you or you with me, either way I’ll be the one who’ll suffer.” Leigh always had trouble typing the quotation marks, always typed a question mark instead, and could never decide if it was better to go back and fix her errors or continue on, aiming for speed.
Charlotte white-knuckles the steering wheel. “Do you have any idea how much I’ve done for you? Where would you be without me?” She waves the cigarette at the bleak panorama, listing telephone poles to the left and low wire fence on the right. “Nowhere, that’s where.”
“Looks like somewhere to me.” But this is probably as close to nowhere as one can get: a dark, flat, cement-colored world made of weeds and barbed wire. “Well, okay then. Without you I’d be nowhere. I’d be just like Annette at Snappy Temps. I’d probably still be dating J.B. and working the night shift at a gas station. No—I’d still be sitting in the high school auditorium wearing my cap and gown, waiting for you to tell me what to do next. I’d be worm food, a pile of bones covered in dirt and cobwebs. Does that make you happy?”
Charlotte’s eyes glint dangerously and then the tears surprise them both. At the next exit, Charlotte pulls off the highway and off to a patch of dirt along the side of the road. She eats potato chips and cries until the bag is empty. Leigh hands her a tissue, some water, a lit cigarette. The world outside the car has been erased by darkness. The headlights reveal only vague, furry forms of rocks and bushes and the painted line stuttering and thinning into air.
“You are a mess,” Charlotte says. “I should be happy to see you go, right?”
“The truth is, I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.” Leigh tries to laugh. “Really, I have no idea.” Charlotte wipes her eyes. Leigh opens the door and walks to the driver’s side. She shoos Charlotte over. “I’ve got this.”
“Are you sure?” Charlotte says. “I know driving makes you nervous.”
“Of course. You’ve done enough.”
Charlotte tilts her seat back, pulls a sweater over her head, and quickly falls asleep. In the driver’s seat, Leigh stacks her spine and focuses her attention on the narrow strip of road illuminated in front of her, straining to imagine beyond. With her hands gripping the wheel, she sucks air from the crack of open window and tries not to think about where she’s going. One mile at a time, slow and steady wins the race, her sweaty palms slide sickeningly on the steering wheel and every bump registers in her guts but after an hour or so she begins to relax and breathe, leaning back against the cold leather. The engine is powerful and smooth and when she pushes her foot on the gas pedal, its power travels up her leg and settles in her stomach.
When her eyes catch and register the meaning of the words on the big green traffic sign that declares “5 South Los Angeles,” it’s like a punchline she’s heard too many times: Los Angeles. Los Angeles.
Los Angeles. She’s been driving in the wrong direction.
She takes the next exit, loops back under the freeway, and pulls over at a bus station. She pulls a pen and a receipt from her bag and sits there for a full minute trying to find the right words before giving up. Never mind the boxes in the trunk: It’s all junk anyway. She leaves the keys in the ignition and makes sure all the doors are locked and the window is closed tight because if something bad happened to Charlotte, if she got hurt, she could never forgive herself.