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Steal Your Thirst, Riding Shotgun Ahead

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Except for twice sliding with Chris into her dorm cafeteria, since Chicago I hadn't eaten anything but little boxes of cereal. Now hours beyond Denver, on the west side of the Rockies, I was short on gas again, and by the end of the morning, I was also hungry, and worried.

Just across the border into Utah, I stopped to pee. I soon realized with dazed anomie that the rest stop was a tribute to some hunting club that had donated the building, and so on. Display boxes glowed with bland photographs of various species of animals it was fun to kill. As if to mock my resolve not to spend the price of a gallon of gasoline on a single can of soda from their arrogant glowing humming machine, the one lonely drinking fountain waiting in the next alcove dribbled out a sad little stream that barely filled my water bottle half-way.

For some reason, as I refilled and refilled my water bottle again, staring down at this teasing concrete thing unworthy to slake the thirst of a gerbil, a vile pragmatism gushed up through my chest to my brain. The whole way I had been trying to save gas by setting the cruise control down at sixty-three, and cracking the front windows so I could leave the air off. I'd even descended an entire mountain range in neutral gear. But all that economizing, and forcing myself to crawl along, still hadn't been enough.

If I successfully stole another tank of gas, I suddenly promised myself, I could spend a full three dollars for lunch, at the terrible fast food place of my choosing. The desert pressing in against both sides of the freeway right there was no pale glittering thing, rolling away dirty in all directions.

I stuck myself into the car again, fearing and hating the fat thieves who'd stolen that hideous rolling dirt, all of it, everywhere I looked, these psychotic gun fanatics who'd built a gray plastic obscenity over top of the emptiest places they could find, and what they'd like to do to me.

The road ahead stretched out entirely flat. An unusual road sign zipped into view, and beyond: 'Road Damage Ahead.' I wasn't quite sure when this damage would start, or if it had started; I kept waiting, but at its worst the road only felt like a brand-new Detroit freeway. There weren't even potholes. The tires did start roaring a little louder, and as the roaring changed pitch, whistling higher and lower like a deranged aria, I felt the energy of mass psychosis, of zealots mad with power and visions, slip invisibly toward my horseless wagon train across the open rock like an oily breeze, and I felt deeply unhappy that the gigantic beautiful mountains were behind me. Only a monotonous band of brown and tan spiky hills loitered at the edges of things, low to the horizon, too far away to keep me company.

At a gas station anchoring two thin roads worn into the dust at an angle, I filled the tank of the car, got back in without paying, made a steady turn out of the station, and another right onto the flat on-ramp, back into the blinding sunshine, and my heart beat faster and sicker. I thought it better that the two gas stations had been in different states, but then I didn't want to be caught in either place.

Thinking about it with a coldly rational dread, if anyone came for me, there wasn't anywhere for me to go. A trooper could set his cruise control for ninety for an hour or two and pass everything on the way to the ocean. The exits were laughable, concrete ramps gliding gently into smooth, dirt roads, empty of trees or buildings for miles in any direction.

After an hour or so, though, as my idle paranoia faded, I had a sudden awareness that when I'd seen that 'Last Gas 112 miles' sign, more than a half hour ago, I'd looked at the orange needle obscenely fondling the F at the top of the gauge, taken the sign literally, and forgotten it. After all, I had plenty of fuel. For the car, that is. For the human was a different matter. Grabbing for my water bottle, I instantly knew it would swish into my hand only a third full, and it therefore did. I said unpleasant things and worked on developing a sincere regret, but this seemed to leave the water level in the bottle completely unchanged. Well, short of car failure I didn't think I was going to die in the next two hours, but I was going to be very unpleasant.

At the next rest stop crawled toward me from the highway's vanishing point, I momentarily relaxed, and then once more stiffened with thirst as I realized the entire rest stop consisted of a pair of portable toilets, spray-painted tan and bolted to the concrete. I couldn't believe there wasn't any water, and then I couldn't believe that I'd thought there might be. And now it was as far to the other side as to turn around.

Soon after, back on the freeway, I begged a couple of overweight yuppies wearing aviator sunglasses on neon lanyards, after rolling my window down all the way and miming for them to do the same, for some water from the gigantic blue cylindrical cooler on the seat between them, at the next rest stop. The woman looked as if I'd suggested something vile and unmentionable, but even that didn't make me feel any better.

The road had continuously ascended a steep slope, thousands of feet up, over an eroded mountain. No grand peaks reached out above the roadway as they had in the Rocky Mountains, there was just this feeling of having climbed too large a hill, too slowly, and of being far from water. I turned the air conditioner on, a little bit. The mouth to which I was involuntarily attached began to get stuck to itself if I didn't force it open every minute or so.

I figured I still had twenty minutes or so before something involving water arrived, but at the second rest area I stopped anyway. A man stopped there quite reluctantly agreed to pour a little water into my empty bottle. He took this agreement literally and therefore poured only an inch into my tiny bottle from his gallon jug. Since I had wisely prepared myself to receive only a few drops, he went away smugly thinking he'd cheated me, while I laughed at him behind his back. I put the water onto my tongue a splash at a time while I commanded the car to drive at an even seventy, the highest I'd set it, while I grimly held the steering wheel steady one-handed.

Five minutes after those few sips were gone, I pulled off at the promised end of the one-hundred and twelve miles, drove up to the first store and bought an entire gallon of water. After drinking deeply, I very gently reached in through the open door to put it on the floor of the passenger side, and patted it, to make it feel appreciated.

Standing by the open driver's door, surrounded by gas pumps and painted concrete, my mind still remained in the empty desert, needing water, watching the dry rocks look back at me, that place where everything was hiding or dead. Back in that nervous place below the sunshine, inside a perpetual oily motion, I understood why the faithful had headed dead into this abandoned place, and only gotten worse.

...what just happened again?...
...section four...
story index - iv