BOUND FOR GLORY OR ALBUQUERQUE by Sean Prentiss
AS SIX-YEAR-OLD BOY, Donnie’s suburban bedroom overlooked the rear of a small town City Market grocery store. Late nights, as he slept in the twin bed, eighteen wheelers woke him with their idling engines. He’d stand at his window, his two hands on the glass, and feel the radiant heat of July or an October breeze or a January freeze while men unloaded boxes of Cup O’Soup, apples, and Dinty Moore. The truck drivers took hours to empty those trailers, and as they worked, country music snaked from the cab (promising girls, horses, and highways). Those songs still hum through Donald’s mind when his worries keep him awake these lonely nights.
Donald is now forty-seven-years-old and lives atop Palisades Cliffs—a granite band rising hundreds of feet above the town he grew up in—in a house he designed with his hands. For work, he builds subdivisions below, the ones you see on the far edges of town. (He gave them names like Willow Springs and Tenderfoot View.) Only recently, after years of building, did he learn of Abraham Levitt (and those towns Levitt named after himself).
On these quiet nights, Donald remembers the first house he built (God, nineteen years ago) and how he helped the new owners (Jonathan and Maria Rovner) move in a plaid sofa and a scratched dining room table after they signed the paperwork and the house became theirs.
Two decades later, when a house has been sold, Donald shows the owners paint chips, let them decide the color of their siding, kitchen, bedrooms. The owners spend weeks debating one tan from another while Donald spends evenings alone walking this cliff edge. He peers down on those houses he built. He expected to feel so proud.
He is now twice divorced and has a child with that second wife (Amanda). His boy enters first grade in September (in three short months). At the hospital, Donald cradled him in his arms and swore to god and to his second wife this all would end differently.
The boy and his mother live in a duplex below. These evenings alone, Donald gazes on their green metal roof. He can spot it with the naked eye. There.
Donald misses them—his second wife and only child—the way one misses the dead.
He misses them like the dead.
Nights alone, as the first stars—really Mars—start to shimmer, Donald raises his binoculars, which he always keep around his neck. But he’s done looking at that adult life of his—those cookie-cutter houses and ex-wives who chirp at him like songbirds, the alimony and child support that make him feel as if he has roots for feet and ATMs for arms. Tonight, that life is gone. It’s another world or another life or a dream or a wish or a hope or a broken prayer.
Instead, he focuses on City Market grocery store (shuttered these last twelve years, a new store built on the edge of town). Donald pulls the binoculars up and focuses (twisting and adjusting the focuses) until his sights settle on where customers once exited through those swinging front doors with bags that pulled heavy on their arms.
But that is not the world he needs tonight. He moves his binoculars to the left, refocuses, adjusts, until he locates the alley that ran between the back of his house and the back of the City Market. Whatever happened to all those trucks? Where have they gone? He focuses on his childhood house. Where is his family? The siding remains the same color, though weather-stained. The yard grows crabgrass and dandelions and dirt. The deck is splintering. Donald’s father built that deck but now lives in a condo in Florida. Donald’s mother is long since dead (Her grave, he can see it from here, too.). She never met Donald’s boy.
Donald stares through the binoculars until his eyes water. He once called it all home.
It is an October morning (just at the yawning edge of dawn) and everything is foggy (like the end of that second marriage). All of town is fog (An inversion, they call it. Or, A dream, we call it.). The only thing Donald can see through these binoculars is haze and fog and two brilliant headlights from an eighteen wheeler (a stainless steel stallion) illuminating a lonesome highway that runs not just into this town, but all the way across America.
Donald adjusts the main focus on the binoculars, and though the truck is still so far off—an entire world away, maybe a million miles—he can almost make out the driver through the black sheen of the windshield (though he has no idea why he needs to know who is driving this ghost-truck, but he does).
Closer (as the truck crosses desolate midnight highways along the eastern seaboard), he tries and tries to see through the sheened windshield. In southern Indiana, the truck has a clear shot through the potholes and the pre-dawn hours. It races hard across the belly of the Midwest. In the scabbed empty of Nebraska, Donald can finally see through the windshield. Really? How can it be? It’s a boy, a child, (just a little small thing) driving the rig. Closer still (the truck motoring across the One Hundredth Meridian), Donald sees that the boy is sitting atop big-city phonebooks from Tempe and Portland and Baltimore. He has no idea how the boy reaches the pedals. In the Mountain Time Zone, the boy exits the interstate, drives the double nickel on winding highways. And the boy’s eyes, they barely break the steering wheel.
Standing on his nighttime cliff, Donald is nervous for this boy (though he looks so determined). The boy’s pale knuckles are small knolls on the steering wheel. His colorless eyes stare ahead down the rifle barrel of his highway. He rides the gas hard for his all-night haul.
Donald smiles (so proudly even though he is not sure why) as the yellow lines whiz the boy’s miles by. Even from this distance of a hundred miles, Donald hears the boy’s radio keeping time, Head west, young boy, haven’t we been told. The highway’s filled with whiskey, women, and gold.
Finally the boy enters Donald’s town and pulls out of the fog. The boy backs off the hammer and eases into the City Market alley, pushing hard on the brakes. If Donald were a child asleep in his old suburban house, the screeching would wake him, make him crawl from bed.
The boy steps from the cab. In the alley, the boy (with hair so blond it might be white) searches the nearby houses. Donald watches him scanning the second story windows for the silhouettes of boys gazing down. The boy begins singing, softly at first (though his song reaches Donald even here on Palisades Cliffs). Slowly, he sings louder, louder still—his voice high pitched, nervous—every country song Donald ever knew. Jennings and Willie and George.
The neighborhood boys—watching from their windows—they know just what to do. They’ve been waiting and dreaming and hoping their whole lives for tonight. Donald knows that he did. They straighten pajama bottoms and descend stairs on tiptoes; they don’t want to disturb their parents sleeping off another nine-to-five. They leave front doors open, a breeze swirling through living rooms, knocking over pictures from their first day of school.
These boys come shyly at first, then chattering as they see the others—dozens and dozens of suburban kids. Somewhere in the crowd is Donald’s son—his brown hair, hazel eyes. Donald wants to hug him so hard and long. He wants to tell his son a thousand and one things about this world, the future, who Donald is and how he ended up on this cliff band. Donald wants to straighten the boy’s hair, kiss his forehead, say hello (or maybe goodbye).
The truck-driving boy fills the cab with these multitudes of boys. He secures them in seatbelts. The truck-driving boy fills the sleeping quarters with the boys, tucking them beneath blankets. Our son, he has a fleece folded beneath his neck. The boy fills the trailer full of suburban boys, sitting them on wooden pallets. The long-haul boy appears nervous about these un-seatbelted boys in the box (and so is Donald), but everyone knows it is better than to leave any behind.
With the suburban boys aboard, the boy-driver climbs atop his phonebooks, shifts his Mack through first, through second and third. On the open highway, he upshifts—fourth and fifth. The truck is a machine, a song, a whisper, the wind.
All that stretches before the boy is highway and pavement and yellow lines and guard rails and—hours still away—a bruise-blue dawn breaking over New Mexico’s red rock mountains (the Sangre de Christos) or Montana’s Crazy Mountains (at daybreak, the subtlest shade of blue).
Home, the boy whispers.
Donald knows exactly what the boy means. Donald wishes he was the one saying that. The boys in the back sing out of tune, a chorus, I wanna live where the green grass grows, watching my corn come up in rows. And then they sing (like a hymnal), I hear the snows are deep and the winds are cold. Oh, I’m going to Montana to rest my soul. And they sing, their voices rising into some deep cacophony (like a million ravens swirling in flight), When the snow falls down, I’ll be on my way to a western town. When winter rolls around, I’ll be halfway home to a mountain town.
When Donald lowers his binoculars, the moon has risen—a quarter full and waning (Why always waning?). He walks the slow trail back to the house he has lived in for the last thirteen years, the house he built with these hands (they used to be calloused from swinging a hammer). Below, breaking from moon-shadows, three eighteen wheelers hum toward and from the edges of town.
And our son, for all we see of him—every other weekend and alternating Christmases—he could be in the cab of any of those trucks, bound for glory or Albuquerque. But those trucks—like every country song, like this house on the cliffs, like all those houses below—it’s just empty hands. And those trucks gathering speed, headlights glowing like some Townes song—The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold, so the story ends we’re told—are only unheard whispers in the deadest black of life. Calling from the edges of suburbia. Searching for home.
SEAN PRENTISS lives on a lake in northern Vermont and is a professor at Norwich University. He is the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, an anthology that delves into the questions surrounding creative nonfiction. To read more of Sean’s work, please visit his website.