In the '55 Mercury

VAGABOND

BUILDINGS AND HOUSES tend to range low and sparse in Kansas. In town the architecture is nondescript, and the landscape seems pretty stark. But looking up is soothing; the sky looms vast and watery, flowing into the distant horizon on all sides.

At night hordes of cicadas hum an even note for a few minutes, stop abruptly as though gasping for breath, and then continue at the same pitch. I have never heard so many cicadas in a densely built area.

There are two exceptions to the general rule in my town the grain elevators side-by-side like five non-filtered cigarettes on end and red and white striped white striped chimney of the Veterans Administration.

I used to drive a '55 Mercury through town at dusk, when I wanted to be alone, heading for 1-70. Sometimes Ronda and Sheree joined me, but we made no demands on each other and they could be no different from solitude. The interstate circles around town a ways, before heading toward open country. It cleaves the dilapidated edge off of Topeka with one arching stroke, and clapboard shanties flank it like chips nicked from the blighted elm trees and dusty earth all around. When the highway beads clear of the shanties, the Kansas River sidles up to it instead, with grain elevators on its banks. Just past city limits, my car radio falls silent.

Tonight we load blankets into the trunk and drive west on impulse without leaving any messages behind. Sheree feels comfortable in cars. She can't handle people very well, but when a machine goes awry she rarely slips up. Her brow is usually rutted, which strangers take for anger. For me, Sheree has a sullen intrigue. To others, she radiates a tension that Ronda deflects with her glib smile and the glinting earring in a pierced nostril. They are always together.

IHEAR AN ACID laugh in the back seat. Someone is following us, Sheree thinks they're going to swing to our side. When we speed up, the heater spews hotter air. We take the nearest exit, so they'll think we have a destination.

A few minutes later, two lamps peer out of the distance, gaining again. The farmers in this village might help us, but we're not sure that this isn't only a game, in which routing the sleepers from their frame houses would be cheating.

The rear tire is punctured and the Mercury hobbles onto the shoulder of the road. We don't feel like climbing out. A man from the other car, parked now a few yards behind us, squats near the fender before coming to stare through my window. A khaki shirt flaps against his lank chest, his black hair touches his shoulders, and one arm swings round and round from its elbow, at a right angle to his hip, out of control. He offers us his jack.

Sherce is good at changing tires. She picks a nail out of the old one, for us to look at, and heaves the spare into place. She even talks to the man who'd been following us. Henshaw--an army veteran until his friend in the car up the road gets impatient.

Later we camp out on a ridge near a truck stop, where the drivers doze in their cabs. the wind forces us to lie flat, but there is a good view of headlights passing far below, and the March sky is crammed with stars. No one bothers us.

*****

Lawrence, Kansas lies east of Topeka at the end of a narrow country highway. This road straddles countless hillocks and wanders around farm houses whose claim to the land is older; it is not in a hurry and travelers used to rushing must find it painful going. With the Mercury, I usually; drove the length of it in about an hour.

I remember leaving for Lawrence before noon, with my brother beside me--cradled in the car's flabby front seat. The pavement stretches bone dry in the morning sun, and the light skims the top of every rise. We've just quarreled and I feel like doing something rash, to vent my anger. My brother knows a lot about cars, and he has worked on this one, patching its brittle sides, but the mechanical parts are too worn for salvage. I shouldn't abuse it with him along.

At home he keeps a wide desk drawer stuffed with magazine clippings on automobiles; a lot of these are advertisements and he can quote their slick spiels word for word, including details on dimensions, mileage and extra gadgets.

BUT THIS NOTION settles in my mind like a scrap of paper: I want to make all thirty miles in thirty minutes. The ungainly metal hull lurches forward, chattering like a rattlesnake, then shifting into a resonant moan. A small cloud of dust churns at my brother's feet--the pavement shows through a hole in the floor of the car--and he glares at it as though that's all that irks him.

Neither of us speaks until an animal rolls past, he sees its fur smooth the way a knife might spread it flat. I try and explain that it's not my fault, we would have felt it under the wheel. His voice cracks, unsure of its own depth, when he tells me it doesn't matter who killed it, but it's like me not to care about the animal, not to care about anything. He is 12 years old and filled with sure indignation: I resent it.

Gradually I brake and ease the car into a clearing off the road. The Mercury's engine gurgles and fails, it is quiet again. His face is finally calm, but I squeeze mine a little so it still looks offended. A yard away, a pile of fallen leaves breaks and an animal with a naked, ringed tail rustles out. Startled, my brother watches the possum's ambling intently. The car door swings wide and he slinks around to my side. I can't help smiling at his shrewd expression as he motions for me to step out. I can't help laughing when the animal scares and he throws up his arms yelling Catch him, catch him!" at me, with high-pitched excitement.