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Kymberlie Ingalls is native to the Bay Area in California. She is a pioneer in blogging, having self-published online since 1997. Her style is loose, experimental, and a journey in stream of consciousness. Works include personal essay, prose, short fictional stories, and a memoir in progress. Thank you for taking a moment of your time to visit. Beware of the occasional falling opinions. For editing services: http://www.rainfallpress.com/

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Carefree Highway

“Her name was Anne.  But I’ll be damned if I recall her face.”  The grizzled features that stared back at Ray from behind the bar couldn’t possibly be his – the shaggy gray beard with fading streaks of color, the lines that ran deep in the sun-colored skin, eyes that had seen the world and all of its evils.  He wasn’t that old.  His gaze went right through the bartender as he continued to take in his reflection.  “She left me not knowing what to do.” he drank from the cool beer in front of him. “And that I’ve never forgotten.”
          Why was he telling this guy?  Until a week ago, he hadn’t thought of her in over three decades.  Keep lyin’ to yourself, buddy.  Tell the old man another lie too.  Ray swiveled his head like an owl to see if he was still the only one in the joint.  Yep, just him and the barkeep.  That’s why you’re telling this guy.  There’s nobody else to overhear your pathetic tale of wanderlust. 
          He reached back in his memory.  “I gave my little girl a porcelain doll once.  Pretty little thing, it was.  Soft when you touched her.  Dark hair, with green eyes and a smile that was painted on, but like there was a secret inside that couldn’t be seen unless you broke her open.”  His daughter had adored that doll.  Ray hadn’t wanted to admit to himself why it called to him from the store’s window.  It fed his dreams whenever he saw it on her white storybook shelf, propped against the well-read books. 
          The bartender dipped a used glass into a small sink full of soapy water and wiped it dry before placing it among the others.  He’d heard this story before, Ray was sure of it.  His, or a thousand others just like it.  The light peeked in through the dirty windows, casting shadows behind the bottles that glinted beneath the mirror.  All lined up, begging for stories.  Each shot that was poured was a tale waiting to be told. 
          Ray pulled out his tarnished watch and sprung it open.  .  He should be on the road right now, logging miles in the rig to get to his next load, but when he’d seen the sign for Apache Falls as he rolled through the Midwest, it lured him from his route.  He shoved the watch, a gift from his old man back when he finished school, back into his jeans pocket. 
          He’d seen the sign on many of his trips across the country, and tried like hell to outrun it as he pushed on the gas just a little harder than usual.  The memory of one night had haunted him for a lifetime.
          “A dark, green-eyed beauty ain’t nothin’ to forget.”  The bartender mused.  The name above the door as Ray had wandered in read “Joe’s Place.”  He figured it was Joe standing there – had to be a one-horse bar in a two-horse town.  “Where ya headed?”
          Tennessee, this trip.” 
          “Yeah?  Always wanted to visit the old South.  Take the wife to that there ol’ Opry, see some of the greats.”  As if on cue, Merle Haggard came alive on the jukebox that sat in the corner.  The volume was low, to match the empty bar. 
          “I’ve been there and back a hundred times or more.”  Ray said. 
          “Where ya comin’ from?”
          Oregon.  That’s where my family is.  Wife and my little girl, Sarah.”  He closed his eyes for just a moment as he pondered what he’d done.  Sarah had driven with her girlfriend off to college the week before he’d left.  “Hell, she isn’t so little anymore.  All grown up now.” 
          “Got a few of those myself.”  Joe chuckled. 
          “She’s the only one.  A surprise when she came along, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.”  Ray told the old man how nineteen-year-old Ellie had tearfully given him the news.  He stared in horror at the blue-eyed blonde-haired girl before him.  The girl next door, literally; they’d grown up together.  They’d messed up, and now she was pregnant.  They were small-town kids, he only a year older at twenty.  Back then a man did one of two things – stepped up or fled the coop, and he wasn’t a runner.  Until now. 
          They weren’t in love, but they liked each other enough to get hitched for the sake of the baby.  Ray and Ellie grew into each other, and Sarah bonded them.  But Ray had a secret. 
Just as they’d begun seeing each other the year before, he’d put a down payment from money he’d saved working at the local service station on a used long-hauler.  He hadn’t been on too many gigs when he rolled through Apache Falls one afternoon as the sun was setting over the prairie.  He remembered it like it was still painted fresh in his mind.  Reds and oranges and pinks streaked the sky as the blazing yellow sun settled into the distant hills. 
As he pulled in to stay for the night, there was a roadhouse with an open door where a young crowd stumbled in and out, smoke trailing behind them that clouded around the neon beer lights.  Figuring he could use a drink to wind down, Ray parked his truck in the vast field behind the shack alongside two others.
It was three Budweisers after he figured out this was a guy who didn’t ask for proof of age when he ordered a shot of Jack with the next round.  While he waited on the drinks, a girl about his age slid onto the stool next to him, rubbing shoulders as she leaned with laughter at whatever her girlfriend had said behind her. 
“Oops!  Sorry!”  She straightened herself on the chair and giggled at the bartender when he came back.  “A champagne cocktail for her,” she nodded to her friend, “and…“ glancing at Ray, “I’ll have what he’s having!”  Her green eyes rested on his for a millisecond, but it was enough.  Admiring the way her chestnut hair fell in waves just past her shoulders, brushing against the western-styled plaid shirt tied at her waist above the faded jeans covering the longest legs he’d ever seen, Ray forced himself not to stare. 
“Uh,” he stammered, “It’s on me, whatever she’s having.”  He tugged at some wrinkled bills from his pocket, tossing them on the bar.  Suddenly there was no crowd, no Journey playing in the background.  There was only this creature smiling at him.
“Thank you!  I guess that warrants a name then, doesn’t it?”  She offered him her hand.  “Anne.”  When he didn’t answer, she laughed again, softly.  “What’s your name, stranger?”
Coming back to his senses, he shouted his name above the din while her friend snatched her pink cocktail and danced her way back to a group of friends.
And there they sat until the bar closed down.  They walked outside and around to the back field, neither ready to say goodbye just yet.  He learned that she was a rancher’s daughter, some days content with that but there was an artist in her longing to be freed. 
“It’s nothing more than a silly old dream.”
Ray couldn’t stop himself from reaching into the starry night and caressing her cheek.  “There’s nothing silly about that.”  And then they kissed.  It seemed to last for hours, and he knew he wanted it to last a lifetime. 
The more they shared, the further in love they fell.  When the sun began its ascent, Ray and Anne couldn’t pull themselves apart without a sadness overtaking them.  But he had a job to do.
“It’ll only take me two days to reach the west coast, and another two to get back after a quick stop at home.”  Ray held her chin up high so he could hold her gaze steady with his.  “But I’m coming back for you.  If you’ll have me.”  It was a promise he wanted to carve in stone.
“I think I want that… very much…” she raised her lips to his again as they curved into a smile.  And they parted.
Two days later, his promise was lost in that prairie when Ellie shattered his world.  How the hell…?  They’d only been together three times.  Hell, they’d only been dating for just a few months. 
The mornin’ after blues from my head down to my shoes… words echoing through him like a witch’s chant.
Ray never could bring himself to go back to that little town.  Surely she was better off thinking it was a magical night that never really happened, rather than being with a man who ran off and left a baby behind.  It was a secret he harbored from Ellie for the last eighteen years.  They’d settled into a life that was content, she went to work running the office of a local attorney, and the road trips gave him the quiet he needed; but Ray knew his heart wasn’t in the marriage and knew that hers wasn’t either.
One day they’d gone to a museum in nearby Ashland, a last family outing before the summer ended and Sarah was off to school.  There was a collection premiering of Midwestern artists.  His heart nearly seized when his eyes fell on a canvas featuring an old ramshackle roadhouse, dimly lit on a starry night, with two lone figures beneath the moon.  The placquard next to the art read Anne Turner. 
It was then that he made up his mind.  His little girl was going to be on her own now.  It was time, and Ellie deserved better than what she had.  They’d made a good life for their daughter, but it was time.  After dinner that night, Ray sat his wife down on the front porch swing, and they talked.  They were good enough friends that the tears were brief, but this wasn’t an unexpected twist for either of them. 
But now what the hell do I do?  Quietly that weekend he stuffed his clothes into oversized duffle bags.
“Don’t worry.”  Ellie watched him with a forlorn, faraway expression, a prideful grace keeping her still. “Your stuff’s not going anywhere.  You can come get it when you figure things out.”  He loved her then, more than he ever had. 
Guess it must be wanderlust or tryin’ to get free from the good old faithful feeling we once knew…
And now here he was in Apache Falls, telling his story to a stranger while he nursed the broken heart he didn’t deserve to have.  “The thing that I called living was just being satisfied, knowing I had no one left to blame.”  The two men were silent for a moment.
Joe reached beneath the payphone that hung on the wall like a lonely reminder of simpler times and grabbed at the thin phonebook, tossing it on the bar in front of Ray. 
“I could keep pouring what-ifs into that glass, or you could take your chances, if you’ve got a nerve to.”
Ray stared heavily at the mirror again, still trying to recognize the man he saw.  Slowly he opened the dusty book, turning the thin pages until his finger rested on her name.
“She’s still here.”
          “Yeah, took over her daddy’s place there when he died, she’d been without a Mama since she’s just a girl.”  Ray looked at him with a question in his tired eyes.  “And no, she never did marry.  Lived with a feller for a long time, but the story went that she just wouldn’t make it official, so he left town a few years back.  She’s made a name for herself around these parts with those paintings of hers, but she stays pretty quiet out on the ranch.” 
Reaching for his cell phone, Ray realized he’d left it in the cabin of the truck.  Joe bounced a couple of quarters at him, and as if in a trance he watched them roll to a stop and fall down on the bar top. 
“This one’s on me.”  The bartender smiled.  “Don’t you think it’s about time?” 
Ray pushed himself to his feet, still unsure.  He could walk out of here right now, and nobody else would ever know he’d been here.  Indecision hung in the air, shadowed with fear.  Finally he moved toward the phone.  Joe walked off to the other end of the room, pretending to dust off the pool cues in their rack. 
Searching through the fragments of my dream-shattered sleep, I wonder if the years have closed her mind?    Dropping the coins in the slot and lifting the receiver that smelled of many drunken pleadings for forgiveness, Ray pushed the buttons with trembling fingers. 
Her name was Anne, and I’ll be damned but I still recall her face...

© Kymberlie Ingalls, June 2, 2012
Inspired by the song Carefree Highway, written by Gordon Lightfoot

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