Driving to Gallup
Creative Nonfiction by Heidi Utz
If you’d coasted past me on the road that night, you’d have seen a middle-aged woman driving in her PJs, slurry, a bit fragile, maybe off to get some bourbon from the 7-11 up past the ridge. Tired, PO-ed, yet showing few signs that me and my lover had just gotten into it once again. Blood dripped down me, but not on the outside.
I knew this route, had done it three times this month already. I-40 far as you could go before the AZ state line. Maybe farther. Sky City Casino, fronting the Acoma rez: first light in getting outta Dodge. And then the long silence that descended west of the Albuquerque citylights. Few indications that anyone or anything lived out here. The occupants tucked into bends of arroyos or shadows of mesas. Chunks of pedernal cutting black flat, halving the planes of heaven and earth. The occasional billboard, jarring in its brilliant neon against the pitch of night. Winds dusting out cavernous skies.
I turned on the radio, hoping to find the answer to me and Luce from a country song played at the right moment or a caller to Delilah. Every night she spewed unconditional faith in Christ, God’s will, and one day at a time. And if I blanked out all that religious crap, I could hear honey-luv dripping from her voice. “Draw comfort in the darkness … and light to find your way…”
Driving had always cleared my head. And when all that was waiting for me at home was a woman spitting fire, ready to nail me for a daily list of transgressions, I figured I’d hold the wheel, maybe to Cali. I’d packed two outfits, a toothbrush, Discover card, phone—enough to start a new life. I’d hole up in a sad-sack motel for a week or two, then rent a tiny studio 15 minutes from the beach. Sit for hours on its deck and watch the breeze rustle the palm trees. Not much, with its ’70s decor and swag lamps, but a harvest-gold bath, mini-fridge with a can of sauce, box of spaghetti, Gallo red—and all mine, baby, all mine.
Midnight approached. Traffic thinned to pinpoints of light in a vast empty field, and the night air bit holes in the desert heat, gobbling it down. When I dropped into the truck stop to gas up, the neon bubbles read 46 degrees, 11:39 PM, Love’s Emergency Flares 1.49! A Native man with black pigtails, white denims, and a turquoise belt buckle the size of a saucer scrutinized me as I put my things on the counter. A Mountain Dew, M&Ms, and a windbreaker that said NASCAR Pit Crew. The April night might freeze my calves in these little boxer shorts, but at least my tits would be warm. I wouldn’t need much more in So Cal anyway.
“You can’t leave your car there,” the man said sternly.
“You can’t park your car at my pump. Pumps are for people gassing up.”
I glared at him, too tired to argue. “Whatever.”
There it was again. Couldn’t I do anything right? Everyone seemed to have rules for me, but none of them made sense.
I paid and headed for the exit. “You got rules?” I yelled. “Maybe you should post ’em. I can’t read your mind.” I stumbled toward the parking lot and climbed into the Altima. Ripped open the brown bag with my teeth and crunched the M&Ms into my gums, sugar and peanuts in the cracks.
Luce’s ballcap on the passenger seat caught my eye as I got in. What had we been fighting about again? I kept forgetting. Something important. It was always important. But a punch-drunk brain can’t remember shit. Something I was supposed to do to get her to calm down. A need I was supposed to forget about and she’d be content. Wouldn’t slam me against the closet door and scream in my face. Wouldn’t secretly meet her old lover—the one she’d been loving for 25 years.
The car crested a hill, and Delilah spewed on about God and Faith and Love. Her voice sounded like Sugar Daddy candies stretched way out long when they got gooey soft. I wondered if I were more like Delilah—perfectly loving, perfectly kind, adopting multiple children—if Luce would still hate me, roll over, not talk to me for days on end. Christ, J, the girl pays your rent. Can’t you even be kind?
Six months ago, I’d lived on my own, finally finding a place after months of couch-surfing. Earlier in the year, my health had gone south, such that I wondered how I’d ever recover. So wobbly I could hardly walk. When I met Luce that July, she liked me for my sick-slimness, my vulnerability, maybe even my compromised, less vital state. She acted all sweet, created art, had what she called a spiritual practice. The tide was turning. I felt ready for some happiness. But when I stored all my stuff and we moved in together, an iron door slammed shut.
On the other side of that door was my former life: my friends, the community I’d had for 17 years, the job I’d had for 7. The familiar places I did my errands. Lost: all but a suitcase full of my stuff, my dog, nature I lived with and so loved. And left with a dark, brick-floored urban cavity with a cellmate I fought viciously. Who would have burrowed in her studio 17 hours a day had I not insisted she stay home after eating the dinner I cooked her. Who told me my first weekend there she was off to spend three days camping with Angel Heart. Her ex, Angel Heart.
Every day knocked a fresh hole in me. Until I felt like a trace of the person I’d previously been: creative, capable, smart. A talker so sure of her own words, and her right to speak them. After five months of spiraling down, I stood outside throwing a ball for Luce’s black Lab, Ben. Ben ran like crazy and returned the ball every time, wagging and looking up at me like I was God. Maybe I’d spend the rest of my days making a dog happy chucking a tennis ball, because at least that was something. And I was nothing.
I set the cruise to 85, slit the window, tried not to drift off as the night stilled. At 1 a.m. stars blaze the NM sky like diamonds strewn across the heavens. Scattering light, dignifying your thoughts, black as they are. Giving you a sense there could be life in other galaxies, if you could just find the right star.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Luce’s voice blasted through the hypnotic white dashes striping the blacktop. “Put your keys down and get back to bed!” The Lab began barking in time with the tension in the air. Luce stood there, hacked hair dyed bottle red, bare-legged in a white T that hit her thighs where the varicose started. The shirt looked dirty to me, like it’d clung to the bottom of the hamper for months. Her breasts flopped around under it, in a way I used to find sexy, now just saw udders. And as she kept yelling, I realized it said Niagra Falls in puny, faded letters. Right, I thought, our little honeymoon in Love Canal.
I took the keys and jangled them in her face, slapped at the lock till it flipped, then slammed the cell door hard as I could. The Buddhist plaque with the Japanese words clattered. The Lab barked louder. And what I screamed at the patio could have easily been fuck you.
A light in my rearview flashed red, snapped me back. A cop was right on my ass, swerving anxiously from left to right. I changed lanes and he didn’t follow. Saw him once-over me as he passed. But I guess he’d met his quota for old dykes and let me be. Or maybe there was a pinch of mercy in this middle-of-the-night universe that I hadn’t bumped into for many moons.
On my right was an exit. Continental Divide. Brightly painted signs for Indian frybread and blankets and knives, 24 hours. Here you could handle any midnight snack-and-knife emergency. I exited hard right and crossed over the bridge. At 7,200 feet, bits of snow hugged the packed earth and salted the rocky cliffs I could discern with my brights. Locking the car, I felt the cold air whip the skin of my legs, but a man yelling 10 feet away stopped me. “Come home! Dontcha know what time it is already?” he slurred into the doorframe, as the cashier waved her arm at him.
“Raymond, go home and go to bed,” she sighed back.
When he began his retreat, I entered the massive warehouse space, filled with every Indian item ever put to wood or metal, leather or bone. Cheap tourist crap toe-to-toe with expensive, fine-crafted articles. I’d never seen so many knives in one place. Under glass, the silver of their blades gleamed in the bright overhead lights. I asked the woman for coffee and gazed at them. When she set the cup on the counter, I wrapped my hand around the warm Styrofoam and continued to stare down.
“Need a knife?”
“For my uncle,” I said. “He collects them.”
“Every woman needs a knife,” she said, shifting her gaze to the entrance, where Raymond was again huddled.
Her husband began to wail, gutturally, like he was chanting. She pulled the largest dagger from the case—handle inlaid with turquoise and lapis. “How ’bout this?” The blade was as long as my forearm, and I startled back a bit.
I wanted to feel it, just touch the edge. Imagine thrusting it into skin. The biggest knife I’d ever owned was a Leatherman. This one felt thick and heavy, sturdy in my hand. And its blade would not retract, however deep it plunged.
For a second I felt the urge to scratch myself with its burnished tip. Test how sharp it was. See if I would bleed. I turned it over, back and forth, caught my image, pale and weary, in the blade. In my mind, red slashes striped my arm, and someone could see on the outside all the bleeding I was doing.
I handed it back and sipped at my coffee. “That all you need?” the woman asked. I nodded. Zipped my jacket. “One fifty-nine.” I put a buck and some coins on the counter. Strode to the door warmer now. But Raymond stood blocking my way.
“All women are trouble. Trouble, trouble, double trouble,” he sung into to the floor. I moved closer and he backed away, weaving toward the outhouse. “Troubbbb-ble.... Yessiree...”
The highway felt a bit lonelier now, and I pushed scan on the radio to get some noise. Closing in on Gallup and the AZ border, I needed to decide. Where would I plunk down tonight? Back in the condo, Luce was probably snort-snoring, far under in a dream. The impact of my leaving lost on her. I could drive two hours back home, crawl into bed, hope she didn’t notice. Not have to face the shitstorm till sunrise. Or I could spend the night out, make my point. Won’t be pushed around anymore. Keep driving till I hit LA. Another ten hours. Not go back for a week. Buy my ass some leverage.
Leave-rage. Leave her-age. Lev her. Love her. Leave her. My mouth played games with the words. Though I couldn’t catch any meaning in the sounds.
As my eyes began to close, the radio cranked out another song—a ’70s ballad with violins. Love conquers all, even in tough times. Going back could mean an apology, falling in love again, the peg in the circle I waited for each time: the best-behavior, goodwill and harmony, sex-to-die-for part. Where Luce would yield to me for a few short days, understand that she needed me more than she let on. Or was it just … wanting me back so she could control me some more?
If I turned around now, I’d be home by 3:30. She’d be worn down from fighting, maybe receptive to talking. But I’d lose all that I’d gained these hours away. Power. Not answering the phone. Making her wait. A screw I could insert and twist again and again and again.
Why did the only power I ever had come by walking away? Delilah told her late-night caller to stick around. “Just love him a little more, honey. Just turn the other cheek.” Even if it was bruised and like my spirit, bloody? Would a soft-rock selection take that away?
A screaming-yellow muscle car swerved in front of me, making me brake hard. Yet another drunk spewing testosterone like rocket fuel on the NM highway. Maybe it was a sign to head home, try this again in a week, with a full suitcase, fuller tank, first thing in the a.m. There was a 50/50 chance things would be OK when I turned the key. That I wouldn’t have to balk a second fight. That Luce would just sneer at me and roll her big body over, exhaling acrid contempt like factory soot. I’d crawl in beside her, make myself small, try not to breathe.
When I considered exiting at the next green sign, my heart thudded so loudly its bass filled the car. But late-night exhaustion poured over me like a thick sludge, and my car veered right and slowed. In the notch between the exit and the interstate sat a Dodge Ram towing a rickety trailer. I braked, checked, and found the scene empty, except for two equine heads framed by battered silver doors. As I backed to even with the trailer, I heard one horse neighing forcibly into the night, knocking hoof against metal. The other stood still.
I got out and peered through the truck windows but saw no one. Peered until I heard a loud crash of metal, then turned to see the white horse stepping onto the blacktop. Skinny, bowlegged, and tousled at the mane, the rangy old quarter nevertheless exerted her presence: large, powerful, and robust. I watched her observe the cars speeding down the highway, waiting to make a move. In my dulled state, something nudged me toward her. But when I started walking east, she spooked and began to lope. A few more vehicles rushed by. Holding my breath, I stopped and waited, bursts of wind lashing me away from the road.
Moments later, the mare took a few steps into the right lane, as cars began to swerve to avoid the shoulder. “Wait!” I yelled and started to follow her. An Escalade blaring rap rushed so fast over the middle lane that it stopped us both momentarily. As I approached, the mare trotted in the opposite direction, toward the thicket on the side of the road. She crossed through the mud and over a surface road behind it, picking up speed as she fled into a small, wooded area. I watched her silhouette darken and blend with the charcoal slashes of bark, until all I could see was trees.
Back at the truck, I offered my hand to the other horse, miraculously still set within the trailer’s confines with the exit wide open. I stroked his neck a few times, then closed and latched the gate.
The mare was gone.
Inside, my car felt different now. The old leather seat crackled beneath my bare legs, and I was awake. If I headed west, I could hit the coast in time to watch the surfers against morning tide at the beach. I could cross the Mojave into grungy old Needles and embrace its scruffy palm trees, spouting fronds despite the grit, grab a bite at a Route 66 mom-and-pop with a tarpon on the door, sit outside and feel the gentle breeze blow sand up my pores.
That night, above some dirty downtown, the moon would rise and the stars would twinkle. And I would stand outside on my own two feet, not in a vehicle speeding by at 85 miles per hour, and simply look up in wonder. The vastness of the sky would reassure me of that wide-open space in which little in the moment mattered. And there I’d be, calculating my journey by the North Star and the ancient words whispered inside myself—freedom now remembered.