“Truth or Consequences, New Mexico,” is an excerpt from We All Go Down Together, a book length piece of nonfiction I am working on.
Everything written here is true, in as much as personal truth is true. The events the informed this story occurred in the of 2013 while on a cross-country road trip with another writer. The names of the individuals involved have been changed.
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
It’s possible that the piece of earth that runs under and alongside the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico is hilly, mountainous even, shifting in elevation, with twisted roads. It could as easily be level, stretching straight out from one horizon line to the other. The roadside might be rocky or all generic scrub brush and sand laid out like a carpet: typical Southwestern desert. Cowboy and Indian country. The kind of landscape that, at first, fascinates in its repetition, and then maddens in its repetition.
I only know that road by night, having traveled it more than once when so far from the light of humanity and urbanity, the only way to describe it is darkness, eerie darkness, soul-stirring pitch darkness, when, rather than extending in long visible switchbacks and steep grades or spreading itself flat out and as far as the eye can see, the road feeds itself stitch-by-stitch, so, like a nervous horse with blinders on, you must trust only what you see in front of you and not give in to the worry about anything that surrounds you, not what comes before or after, not what waits on either side, not what sits above or below.
The sun was just past setting when Martie and I left Albuquerque for Truth or Consequences. There’s a half-light that settles on the world at that time, just before full-dark. Photographers call it the golden hour, a brief moment in time when the fading light of the sun drapes itself over the world like a veil and lends a moribund glow to all the things in it.
Only in this lingering, velutinous twilight would Martie allow herself to admit to a weakness: it was hard for her to see. There was no contrast in the golden hour. It was difficult to know the true distance between things.
I offered to take the wheel, at least through the transition, but Martie refused.
She had already driven the old, white Jeep for hours from the small town of Weatherford, just outside Oklahoma City, where we had stayed the night, west through Amarillo and on into Albuquerque. We stopped only when necessary: for fuel and to use the bathroom. As we moved south into rural New Mexico and broke with the city’s traffic, I resigned myself, once again, to my place in the passenger seat.
To keep herself awake, Martie drank from a plastic cup of lukewarm diet cola. Its ice had melted miles back, but that didn’t matter. She sang along to the music of a classic rock station until its signal grew weak and ghostly. At times, her posture would go slack and her big frame would slouch back in its seat. Then she would sit up straight again and lean over, resting her thick arms on the wheel to get herself closer to the windshield. It was as if the need for forward velocity was coded into her body’s cells, something primal triggered and whispering an urgent “go. “
I wondered if it was the destination Martie was so set on, or if she was trying to get ahead of and clean away from the secret in the seat behind her. When I cast a glance in that direction, it was impossible to see even an edge of the graffiti-covered, converted ammo box that I knew was fastened to the metal workings of the driver’s side seat with a vinyl-coated bike chain and a master lock. But I knew the box was there, under the piled-up maps, tourist brochures, blankets and dirty clothes, rank from sweating in a Southern climate and in need of a wash. I couldn’t see it, but in my mind, the box was the only thing in the Jeep, and it changed its shape and size depending on the ever-shifting temperature of my anxiety.
The crackling of the radio and its lost station grew too cacophonous. I shut it off. We sat in silence with just the sound of the Jeep and the occasional bug committing seppuku on the window or grill. The red taillights of passing cars on the highway thinned and faded one by one into the oncoming dark.
There was nothing out there and nothing to fill it.
That morning, three states prior, in the golden hour that comes just at dawn, Martie and I sat in a similar configuration in a greasy spoon set off the main drag in Weatherford, Oklahoma, a small town on I-40.
The night before, in what had become a familiar ritual, I had to beg Martie to stop there for a few hours so we could sleep. We were the last travelers in, and the only room left in the hotel full up with long haul truckers and out-of-town contractors with the good sense to pull off the road earlier than us was over-warm and sticky with layers of nicotine. This didn’t bother Martie, but I thought I would be sick.
I stayed awake just long enough to catch the late news: the FBI was after the fugitive, Adam Mayes, who had murdered a woman and her eldest daughter back in Tennessee. He had been on the run as long as we had been on the road. There was some talk that he had kidnapped the woman’s little girls, and he and they or he and their bodies were now somewhere out with us, crisscrossing the tangled veins of roads that made up the American South.
Together, Martie and I ate the complimentary breakfast our hotel voucher provided for us. The food was diner fare but nutritious, at least. On the road, Martie fueled herself with boiled peanuts, gummy bears, snack cakes, and diet cola.
“You hungry?” she would toss out from time to time above the road din, before opening a crinkly package of cherry sours or lemon heads with her teeth. She would set it on the console between us before digging in.
I’d shake my head. When I did eat, it was always the blandest thing that could be found at the travel plaza of the moment: saltine crackers, a hardboiled egg from the refrigerator case, coffee and strawberry-flavored gum.
That morning, when I had caught sight of myself in a mirror, the woman looking back was thin and pale. I recognized the long, dark hair, a lower front tooth set back from the rest, a suspicious freckle on her nose, but I wasn’t convinced she was me. The woman had no affect: set below thick dark brows, her gray eyes revealed nothing, nor her mouth. Nothing. Even when she examined her bony frame, her clavicle jutting, her ribs, her wrists, she expressed nothing. I held my breath and stared at her small uneven breasts. Her heart’s beat visible below the left was the only indication that she was alive.
Since it was included in our stay, Martie made a concession, sacrificing sunlight for one sit-down meal. I was grateful for it. Mine was unsweetened oatmeal and dry wheat toast. I took a few bites, then stirred the food around in the bottom of the bowl. Martie had eggs and bacon.
It was early and there was no traffic out on the wide, flat avenue outside the window, which was lined sparsely with motels, insurance agencies, antique shops and gas stations. Weatherford didn’t look like it had much of an economy beyond tired travelers and farmers. The morning sky was big and blue, with the sun just coming up. The late spring air was warm with an early, slight humidity that made the grass heavy with dew, and the feel of it all tickled at something buried in me.
Martie and I said nothing.
We listened to the banter of the waitress and her patrons. A wiry brunette in her fifties, the waitress had laugh-lines carved around her lips. Her teeth were as yellow as a harvest moon from years of smoking, and she flashed them in a wide smile when she cracked her jokes. She could have been named something properly old-fashioned like Flo or Maude, and she reminded me of an America I didn’t think existed anymore.
“You girls going far?”
Martie and I both looked up from our food and nodded.
“Oakland, California,” Martie volunteered right off. She dipped her head a few times in quick succession. I thought she looked like a person guilty of something but trying to make good. “Mmhm, mmhm, mmhm.”
“Mind takin’ this guy with you?” Flo pointed a thumb in the direction of a gray-haired man tucked in over a plate of biscuits and gravy at the dining counter.
“You won’t get rid of me that easy,” the old-timer called back.
Flo laughed, deep and hearty with a murmur of smoke stirring in her lungs. She winked. “These girls’d probably get sick of you before Clinton.”
She patted me on the shoulder as she passed by to take another order.
“He wouldn’t last a day in California,” she said with a smile.
Flo’s playful voice as she taunted the regulars was evocative. As her hand trailed away, it pulled from me, like a magician drawing from his pocket an endless, many-colored scarf, a memory long forgotten and packed away. I recalled five-or six-year-old me, sitting with my grandparents on the filmy vinyl seats of a similar restaurant in Adrian, Michigan and the communal chatter of the local farmers gossiping about crops or hogs or Grange business over coffee and eggy breakfasts. We would have just come from delivering meals to country folk who couldn’t get out to join us because of age or illness.
They talked about important things: the things that made our world and things that I didn’t yet understand. I would drink sweet orange juice from a Styrofoam cup and nibble on a donut. I would listen to the cadence of their conversation. And I would know without knowing why, or that there was any other way to be: I felt right.
“I like it here,” I said out loud and took a sip of coffee from the mug Flo kept refilling each time she breezed by. The oatmeal had cooled and turned into a stiff glue. I couldn’t eat it. My stomach had been off since that first morning in South Carolina just before we hit the road, when Martie tried to hand me the keys to the locked box in the Jeep.
Across from me, Martie finished her breakfast. “Yeah, it’s okay,” she said, though she seemed nonplussed. She pointed a thick finger at the empty plate. “This was good. We should get going.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I meant here, though: Weatherford, Oklahoma. Something about it reminds me of when I was really little.”
“Oh, yeah, me too.”
“Really? I meant the farm culture, the way people talk…”
I took a bite of dry toast then tossed the leftover crust back on the plate. My appetite was gone. Though she had more education than I, for the last couple of years, Martie had started speaking with a deep drawl by default. Her language was peppered with “shugs” and “honey childs,” and she claimed to have been raised as a poor, shoeless Appalachian mountain billy who didn’t know a damn thing about a damn thing but how to cuss, fix cars and drive them. She had insisted on dragging a banjo across country with us, even though it took up more space than anything else. “I can’t live without my banjo,” she had said. But she had only pulled it from its case one time since we had started out on the road together.
I know it shouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did, but she couldn’t name or play even one traditional bluegrass song. This was suspect to me.
Of course, there was plenty about Martie that was suspect. My mind flashed again on the locked box in the Jeep.
“It just feels like America here, is all,” I said, trying to diffuse my own annoyance. I felt a kind of relief.
Martie took a sip of coffee and tapped a finger against the Formica tabletop in rhythm to the folk-rock song playing over the loudspeaker. She looked out the window at the traffic on the street. She started talking, but I didn’t listen.
Flo walked by again. “Seriously, men, can’t live with ‘em!” she said as she scooped our dishes from the table. “Amirite or amirite?”
“Mmhm,” Martie let out, and I thought she might say something more, but she didn’t. “Are you almost ready?”
Maybe Martie said something more, but hundreds of miles later in the deep desert dark, I didn’t remember or care.
Before we left Weatherford, I had lingered in the hotel office while Martie pulled the Jeep around. She waited outside with the engine running while I conversed with the clerk, an older woman émigré from west Texas, who lamented the humidity inherent to the region she now lived in. We talked for a long time, while Martie sat outside with the engine running. She watched impatiently from behind the wheel.
“It’s definitely the humidity that’ll getcha,” I said, slipping into the lazy, colloquial dialect of a Midwesterner. “No doubt.”
She had nodded and smiled, “It’ll boil your brains, for sure.”
“Anything to see between here and Albuquerque?” I asked, thinking of the inherent loneliness of the Jeep’s passenger seat, the growing emptiness inside me, and the starkness of the landscape to come.
“There’s the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere down on 40. That’s about it. There’s the Route 66 museum one town up, if you got a few minutes to stick around ‘til it opens.”
I swiveled around to stare out the window at Martie. She looked irritated.
“Nah, we got to get going.” I decided not to mention the museum to Martie. She often spoke of the Mother Road as if it was just hers. A public attraction in its honor would run contrary to that notion. Martie was annoyed that we were going to Albuquerque at all. She had been complaining about it since before we left New Orleans, and I worried that any unplanned stops would spark conflict that I didn’t have the strength for. I waved goodbye to the clerk, climbed into the Jeep without saying a word, and prepared for the long ride west.
Later, going south on 25, I longed for the passing conversation with the clerk.
I looked at Martie in the glow of the dash. Her hair was windblown. Her skin had a dusty slickness to it. I wondered if she was tired. She had let me drive for half an hour the day before, through a bit of southern Oklahoma that was mostly hills and hawks and roadside casinos. She must have been tired then, I thought, because I had not been allowed to drive any of the thousands of previous miles.
My grandmother never learned to drive because my grandfather knew how. Even during the Great War, when he was gone for two years, it never occurred to her that this was something she could do. My grandfather had his name custom-inscribed on the driver side door of every vehicle he ever owned. My grandmother’s name was inscribed on the other. There was a Henry seat and a Helen seat. I remembered thinking, when I was a little girl, I didn’t want to spend my life in the Helen seat.
I told Martie this. “It makes me feel like I have no control. So let me drive a little.”
“Of course,” she had said, and then she had refused, through back road and bayou and country road and mountain lane, to let me touch the steering wheel or shift the course of our journey.
“You tired?” I asked into the dark.
“I’m fine,” Martie said. But it wasn’t an answer to my question.
“Can you see alright?”
I was uneasy. Even if Martie had gone against character just once and had admitted, yes, she was tired, yes, it had been a long day, no, she could not see a damn thing, I wouldn’t drive straight into nothing like this. It wasn’t about seeing or not seeing. It was so dark. It was like we were driving into a great terminal void, something only poets and eulogists know how to explain and only dead people know how to experience.
Martie stared ahead. The yellow lines of the road unfolded one by one like quick blazes on a primitive trail, each saying, this way, this way, this way.
“You can use your brights,” I said. “There’s no one else out here.”
Of course, she wouldn’t. With one hand still on the wheel, Martie reached up and pressed the button to the moon roof. The darkened glass slid back, letting in more cool desert air. “Look up. It’s all the brights you need.” It was supposed to be soothing. “Can you see the stars?”
“Yes,” I said, but I kept my eyes on the road ahead.
“Ah, shit,” I heard Martie say. “Speedometer’s dead again.” She leaned forward and banged on the dashboard with her fist. Years ago, a blown fuse had left the Jeep’s gauges and indicators temperamental. Without warning, they would all fall flat, so you wouldn’t know how fast you were going.
I wasn’t convinced that the rest of the Jeep wasn’t affected, either.
I stared out into the pitch dark, and then I thought of the converted ammo box chained to Martie’s seat, and what was inside. It was huge now. It filled the Jeep. I knew Martie was thinking of it, too.
The revolver. Martie hadn’t asked. She had simply appeared with it, easy as that. The banged-up, white Jeep sitting in the wild and overgrown side yard of her house in Aiken was already packed for the trip: two weeks by road through the South.
“It’s not me that wants it. It’s my family,” she had said. In her ample lap was an opaque tackle box of bullets and a black velvet drawstring bag, something like a cozy for a liquor bottle. She loosened the string with her thumb and pulled the fabric down into a puddle to reveal the dull metal of the gun.
When I didn’t say anything, she repeated, “It’s not me.” She looked like an apologetic child playing at innocence. Her chin was turned down, and the bottom of her glossed lip was tucked under her teeth. Her blue eyes were wide and big.
I noticed, though, she wasn’t shaking, not her hands or her shoulders, and not like me.
“You are an adult,” I said in a voice devoid of emotion. “So don’t say it’s not you.”
She had stared down at the gun.
“Is that thing even registered?”
“Shug, this thing as old as dirt, ain’t no one care about it.”
I wanted to scream at her: who are you?
“If we get in a bad place, we need to protect ourselves. It can be dangerous out there.”
“I don’t think there’s anything in this world I would need or want to protect myself from with something like that. I won’t go with it,” I said, surprised with myself and the great, empty stillness inside that followed my words. I thought maybe time stopped. I felt down in me, and didn’t feel anything. That gun.
She had nodded, got up, and left the room.
Out in the dark, I wished I had never gotten in the Jeep, but I got a firm talking-to by King, her husband, and a malevolent glare from Billy, her other husband. Maybe, like she claimed, she didn’t have a choice; I thought I didn’t have one either. So for days now, we had been driving, like in a race from something to nothing in particular, with a gun having appeared in the first act and waiting for the third.
We hadn’t passed another car in ages, nor even an exit that offered service. Miles back, we had filled the Jeep’s tank at a truck stop just off the empty highway. There was a rough and desperate edge to the patrons. Locals hunkered down at the lunch counter inside, eating fried foods, drinking black coffee, sipping soda out of over-sized plastic cups, and talking some kind of trouble. The counter girl was missing teeth. She had an aggressive air that made me think she had lost them in a fight. Her copper hair was pulled up in a severe ponytail, and the muscles of her face and tattooed neck looked tight and strong from being angry or hating something for a long, long time. She could have been pretty, I thought, but there was nothing of the softness that makes pretty about her. Maybe it’s what you get for living in the middle of nowhere.
I didn’t like it, and I stuck close to Martie and the Jeep, hoping no one had noticed us, two outsiders in a place they shouldn’t be.
By the light of my cell phone, I studied the road atlas I had held in my lap all the way from South Carolina. I had traced on it the roads we had taken, calculated miles and times, and figured out the names for the mountain ranges and bodies of water we had passed along the way.
“It’s not far,” I said of our destination, maybe fifty miles off.
In the rearview mirror, I could see the headlights of a car coming up on us, fast. I felt a pinch in my stomach. Martie looked up in the mirror, too, and our eyes met for a second.
“Christ, fucker’s got on his brights,” she said, as the car moved closer behind us. I wondered if it was a critique of my earlier suggestion. I felt the Jeep slow down, as Martie worked harder to see the road with the bright flash of headlights beaming through the window.
What if we were being followed? Maybe it was someone from the gas station, a drunken opportunist with nothing better to do than fuck with random travelers. What if we were run off the road by drug mules coming up from Mexico? I thought about the late news from the night before, that fugitive from Tennessee. What if we broke down, and he happened down the same stretch of highway at the same time?
What if Martie was right about the world and that it was full of something stinking and fetid that we must arm ourselves against or risk some terrible fate?
Light filled the car. I looked over at Martie, now squinting just to see the road.
And, what if we did have to use that gun she brought? Had she not brought it, we wouldn’t have had to use it at all.
The car behind us pulled close, and then slipped out into the lane beside us, swooshing past us, leaving us both to stare at its tail lights, which faded before long. We were in darkness again.
“It’s nice to know the stars are up there,” Martie said.
“Uh huh,” I said. I turned on the radio and searched the stations for anything to fill the void.