written by Travis Klempan
Archie stretched, hand in the small of his back and hand on the steering wheel. Flip yawned from the passenger seat, and Louis lay in the back of the old panel truck, exhausted from his turn as the navigator.
“Home sorta-sweet home,” Archie said keys in hand, engine off after hours on the highway, nothing left to do.
“I got work on Monday, man,” Flip said. “Bummer.”
Archie shrugged and none of them left the truck. “Think Lou wants us to wake him?”
“I been awake since Gold Beach, man.” Lou dragged the last syllable into a sort of grunt, kind of growl, and Archie smiled. Lou still didn’t move. “Hungry, though.”
“We have just enough to last us ‘til tomorrow.” Archie had watched their money shrink, every tank of gas from Vancouver on south portioned out in quarters and dimes. They’d washed some dishes in Portland, got enough scratch to get them back to Crescent City, but it being Saturday night and everything in town either closed or not open on Sunday, they had to wait awhile to buy anything. The sandwiches from the roadside stand in Coos Bay might hold out, and they still had rice and beans, but without beer or weed they’d be pretty bored until Flip could ask for an advance from his job at the post office.
Archie moved his hand through the open window and grabbed the outside handle. As he lifted he froze.
Flip barely moved. “What, man? Take it easy. I still got motion sickness from the 101.”
“Lookit.” Archie pointed at the dashboard, hand between the steering wheel, finger pressed against glass. “Look.”
Lou looked first, working his way slow and deliberate from the supine position and grabbing hands on the back of the front seats. They’d taken out the seats in back, which had been jerry-rigged by the previous owner in place of the racks for bakery trays. The side of their truck still had letters, faded from the sun and pitted from the fog that read MARIE’S BAKERY. Lou had spent a good hour a few days prior during one of their camping overnights, plopped in along the evergreen-choked coast of some nameless bay, picking at the letters so that it started to almost read MARIE KE Y.
Lou leaned forward, breath heavy with the last of their road trip beer, and narrowed his eyes as he tried to follow Archie’s fingertip. “Whoa.”
Flip sighed. “Okay, I’ll bite.” He slid in the seat, angling his face to see what the others—
The odometer’s numbers tickled and teased: 999,954.
“Ever see anything like it?” Flip and Lou shook their heads slow, not wanting to aggravate their dehydrated and over-baked headaches. “What should we do?”
“What do you mean, what should we do?” Lou looked at Flip and then at Archie. “We gotta get back on the road.”
Flip snorted. “C’mon, man, really? We just drove to fucking Canada and back, and you wanna get back on the open road?”
Lou nodded. “Abso-fucking-lutely.” He turned to look at their driver, the one with an actual license, the only one who’d agreed to drive the entire trip up and back and all the side roads along the way.
Archie had only said yes because after thirteen months in a puke green uniform and nothing but jungle trees to look at, he’d wanted to feel important. Useful.
“Arch, whaddaya say? You up for… For…”
“Forty-six miles,” he said. Needed.
Lou shook his head. “No, no, we gotta do twenty-three miles,” he said, “so when we turn around and come back, bing bang boom, we watch it work the magic as we roll into the driveway.” He grinned bigger and bigger as he woke up. “This is, I mean, this is, man.”
Flip laughed. “Yeah, it’s something. Say we don’t, say we let our asses find the beach or even the bed, and say we do this later in the week. It’ll still be cool to watch.”
Archie shook his head. “No, Lou’s right. We gotta do it now.” He turned to his buddies. “I mean, what kind of story would you rather have? ‘Hey, so I was driving to work and the odometer went,’ or ‘There we were, open road driving, and we just rolled on home to a bunch of big fat zeroes’?” He smiled big. “Huh? Huh?”
“We even have enough gas to do it?”
Archie nodded. “This thing burns through it, sure, but not as bad as a Jeep,” he laughed, “and nowhere near as bad as a deuce-and-a-half.” He tapped Flip on the arm with his fist. “C’mon, now or never.”
“Fine,” he replied. Lou clapped and sang a little song and Archie turned the key. “But I still got work on Monday.”
They crept back out onto the streets, quiet with evening and misty from the ocean. Flip and Lou argued about where exactly the twenty-three miles would be, but Archie kept the speed down and eyes on the odometer as much as he could. He wouldn’t want to miss this, not for—
“That old Jerry Simmons?” Lou asked from the back, toppling forward between the seats.
“Sure is,” Archie said.
“Pull over.” Lou leaned across Flip and grabbed the edges of the open window. “Yo, Mister Simmons!”
“Hey boys, nice road trip?” His legs dangled over the sides of his bicycle. “Ain’t your bungalow thataway?”
“You ever see a car roll over to all zeroes?” Lou asked.
Simmons thought for a moment, lips pressed tight together and eyebrows knotted, then shook his head. “Can’t say that I have, boys.”
“You up for a little ride?”
As the panel truck wove through city streets, picking up miles, she picked up lookers-on and passersby. They saw Mrs. Mooch out on her porch and fit her in the back alongside Simmons and his bike. The three Jeppeson boys were working on their Woody in the waning sunlight and threw the engine back together quick enough to hop in and follow. They added a pack of boys on their bikes and Tom the postmaster, Flip’s boss, on his crappy little moped.
By the time they reached the outskirts of town they were up to 999,962 and had a merry little convoy trailing behind.
Lou and Simmons argued over whether or not they should just drive in circles, give the boys on bikes an easier time of it, and Postmaster Tom pulled up alongside to offer his opinion. Lou didn’t think it fair to cheat like that, they were already cutting it close enough by going back out for it instead of letting it happen natural. They promised to adjust their mileage so that the odometer did its wonders at the edge of town, but Lou and Flip didn’t want to cut it any closer.
Archie didn’t care where they did it. The cool breeze coming in from the ocean across the salt flats and up the bushy hillocks behind the beaches smelled better than he’d remembered, the one thing he couldn’t get out of his memory while he’d been over there. Forgotten faces, names, whole albums of songs and photos, and yet the sea smell would pop in unexpected, in the weirdest times or situations. He owed the memory that much to drive slow back up the coast, eyes split between dashboard and the world.
He glanced in the rearview mirror. The local Chip was tailing the convoy, lights slowly rotating but siren silent, giving them room. This time of night, this time of year there wouldn’t be much other traffic, only locals, so they took up the entire highway, a fleet of motley vehicles and people on this shoulder’s edge of the Pacific stretched across both lanes. Tom on his coughing moped weaved in and out of traffic, the boys on bikes did wheelies and whooped and hollered, and even Archie felt a creeping tingle. He counted an even dozen cars as he rounded a bend, working his way up the coastal elevation, switchbacks affording a simultaneous view of piney mountains and open, open ocean.
Somewhere beyond the sea, out speckled across the water, lay Hawaii, where he’d spent a few days of R&R. Beyond that, the Philippines, where warplanes blasted off to provide CAS and sustenance to the grunts on the ground. Angle just a little one way or the other and you’d miss entirely the country where he’d nearly left it all. He was a lucky one, not like Bob or Monk or Dozey, and even luckier to bring back all his appendages.
There, tucked in among hills and ancient forests, he knew they’d intruded. He meant no offense but knew it didn’t matter, that if someone had come here and paved up a bunch of their redwoods and dropped bombs on the salt flats that he’d just as sure take up against them, so he couldn’t begrudge them that. Archie didn’t like it one bit when a buddy cashed in and checked out, but he couldn’t hate the people living that life.
He hated the land, he figured, this land covered in jungle. It made a people fierce and proud, this little nation that stood up to his and robbed him of sleep still.
No, he couldn’t hate the land, anymore than he could hate the people. At twenty-two he might be old already but that was no one’s fault but—
“Archie, Archie, whoa!” Lou shook his shoulder. “We’re coming up on the turnaround.”
“Right, got it.” He took sweet ever-all to turn the wheel, hand guiding the vinyl circle as slow and careful as he could. He didn’t want to put the panel truck in reverse, lest he somehow steal a few feet back from their count. He waved at the crowd, impromptu little celebration of—
Of what? He kept his foot on the brake, not wanting to let it up until he decided what was going on. Was this a thing? A happening? What were they here for and why had he gone over there and what had be brought back and why did he stay up nights, wondering what the man who’d shot at him and missed was thinking, wondering what President Nixon and his asshole advisors dreamt about and why couldn’t he find the thing he was staying up nights for and—
“Arch, you cool?” Flip and Lou both looked at him. Simmons and Mrs. Mooch in the back held their breath, or so it seemed, and he took a deep lungful of salty air in and let it out.
The ride back was easy, sexy smooth. His foot hovered over the brake and he let gravity bring them back down. The truck passed the boys on their bikes, and Tom’s moped, him standing on the pegs fully erect, fist in the air, howling at the moon, passed the Woody full of Jeppesons and a Corvette soft top with three women teasing along beside (surely the Jeppesons would have company this night) and Archie slowed the panel truck as he came door-to-door with the Chip in his patrol cruiser, their arms extended out into the gap between lanes, the yellow dashes beneath a kind of Morse code signaling O… O… O…
Archie let out a cheer at the same moment the siren gave a burping blast into the night’s air as his fingers grazed those of the patrolman.
He let the panel truck pick up speed and the boys on bike coast down around him, little dolphins darting to and fro in the wake of MARIE KE Y, the giant brown whale. He hugged the curve and the truck neared the speed limit before he applied the brake, boys on their two-wheelers giving each other high fives and wearing grins in the dark, the moon full bright enough to watch over them careful.
The four passengers crowded nearer the driver’s seat, perched and peering as the truck crept closer and closer, some kind of magic about to be unlocked. The convoy slowed, Archie not wanting to disrupt it just yet, not sure what he was about to call forth into this world.
Some type of tightness in his chest and he remembered the time he’d slept full-pressed against a man they all called Brooklyn, even though he was from the Bronx, and they agreed to keep each other warm in the cold rain.
The sight of star-flares and fireworks, lighting up the jungle like a movie with no end, just reel after reel and nothing like an intermission, even when they went to Danang on a weekend pass, even when they came home to their previous lost lives there was still a kind of reckoning.
The lieutenant, young and full of fire, clutching at air and banana leaves, the platoon out of bandages in a valley that had a name, just not one they would ever learn. Archie cradling a head, Doc trying to soothe and sing the boy to sleep and couldn’t, and how many of theirs equaled how many of ours, and what a weight to figure out life when he’s just a boy same as they were, shame as they were…
“Shh,” Archie said, letting his foot off the gas, old panel truck easing to a stop on the little bitty incline just outside of town. He could hear the whole crowd behind and all in the truck and everyone in the world watching in. Surely they weren’t the first to witness this and surely not the last but this was his first time.
The truck stopped and he threw the parking brake on and shut her off quick as he could, afraid to upset the magic. No one spoke. Those outside came to the truck, holding some kind of respectful distance, though each wanted to marvel at the odometer and congratulate Archie. Sure, Lou had hatched the plan and Flip approved, but Archie had driven every single mile and that counted for something.
He slowly opened the door and the crowd parted. He saw the tall grass waving at him, soft as the sand it grew in, and the beach beyond. He took off, not fast but not slow either, and as he gained his own speed going down the beach slopes he tore off his shirt, lost his shorts, and tumbled into the water, shouting across the ocean that he missed them and he was sorry.
Travis Klempan is a Colorado native. He joined the Navy, saw the world (most of it is water), and came home. He received a BS in English from the Naval Academy and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Jack Kerouac School in Boulder. His work has appeared in Line of Advance, Ash & Bones, and As You Were Volume 4 (from Southeast Missouri State University Press). He hangs out with his dachshunds Maude and Tilly and his chiweenie Dexter.