By David Bassano,
“The speed limit is fifty-five…and do not throw cigarettes out the window!” the trooper snapped.
“Yes, Officer,” mumbled Nick. He’d quit smoking two years ago.
The cop let him off with a warning because Nick’s last name was almost synonymous with the town’s name.
When the trooper was gone, Nick put it in gear and kept to the speed limit for a while. He didn’t know why it was only fifty-five out here. Route 539 was a fifty-mile asphalt ribbon through the Pine Barrens, and to either side a few feet of the white sand that marked the region, with phone poles every hundred feet, then the ubiquitous evergreens. And in places there was nothing else for miles.
Nick saw what he knew wasn’t standing water gleaming on the road far ahead. It hadn’t rained in two weeks. Even in the shade of the pines the heat felt like a constant weight. Days of wet tees and windblown dust, old cars overheating, and reliefless nights of buzzing cicadas.
He rolled into a town around a crossroads with a post office, fire station, bar, library, the church, and the deli. The kids worked the ice cream stand, the campground, and the canoe rental on the river, the water stained with tannic acid leached from the cedars so that it looked like root beer. Half the men were on the cranberry bogs or blueberry farms. The sandy soil was useless for anything else.
Nick pulled up to the Driftwood and saw Griff’s car in the small gravel lot. Across the street, the sign in front of the fire station had its needle swung into the red for extreme forest fire risk.
Nick and Lisa lay on their tee shirts in a small field in the woods in the shade of the pitch pines. Nick was on his back wearing only his biking shorts, and Lisa lay atop him in her running shorts, her bra alongside on the pine needles. The bikes were propped against a big black oak.
“Did you check to see if the canoe rental place has anything?” Lisa mumbled.
“Yeah,” he said.
“What did they say?”
“They don’t have anything right now.”
“That’s what they said.”
“What about Uncle Bob?” she asked.
“He said he’d see what he could do.”
Nick remembered the way Lisa’s uncle had responded and knew that it wasn’t good. And if he’d had something, that wouldn’t have been good, either.
Nick listened to the wind in the tops of the pines. He liked the way you could hear it coming long before it waved the treetops.
“Do you have any laundry?” Lisa asked.
“Okay. Just let me know.”
“I wish I could help you find something better,” she said. “But I’ve asked everyone I know.”
“I know, hon. I appreciate it.”
“Have you heard from your parents?” she asked. “I mean your mom and stepdad.”
“I got a letter last week.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“Not much to tell.” Nick’s mother had moved with her new husband to New Hampshire two years ago. She said they had a nice cabin in the mountains. She didn’t ask questions and she never sent money. She did send birthday cards saying they came from both of them, but were always in her handwriting. They were signed “love.”
“I’m sorry, Nicky,” she said.
Nick looked up at the empty sky.
Since his mother had left town, he had lived in the back of the liquor store that a friend of his mother’s owned. She’d called him Uncle Guy but Nick eventually learned that he wasn’t really family. Nick didn’t work at the liquor store; he worked in a diesel shop, but not as a mechanic. He swept the floor, picked up parts, counted inventory. General Utility Person, said his paycheck stubs. Uncle Guy let him sleep in a storage room, and he could use the sink in the restroom to wash up. A couple times a week, he’d shower at Lisa’s mother’s house when she was at work. He had his sleeping bag and a big backpack, and he slept in the bag in a corner of the storage room between the cases of beer. Lisa gave him leftovers when she could although her mother wasn’t happy about it. Still, there had been many hungry nights when he badly wanted to steal just one bottle of cheap wine. He couldn’t bring himself to do it since Uncle Guy had taken a chance letting him sleep there.
They lay in silence for a while.
“My mom was impressed that you got those tires,” she said, grinning against his chest. Her old Honda had been leaking air from two tires, and Nick had found replacements in a junkyard and put them on the car for her.
“I’m good for something…”
“I know that.”
“Maybe she does too now.”
“I hope so.”
“Speaking of cars…you remember Bobby Brown, right?”
“The guys who races at New Egypt. That I introduced you to.”
“Yeah, him. He won the stock car race last night.”
“Yup. The new champion.”
“Wow! He finally made it.”
“I’ve raced him on the highway before.”
“You told me,” she said.
“I wonder if I could beat him on the track…”
“No, you can’t do that,” she said.
“If I suped up the Civic, I bet I could…”
“No, I mean I don’t want you doing that.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is. I don’t want you doing that. Bobby can do that, but not you.”
Nick said nothing. That’s the smartest thing to do, he thought. Keep the peace. The sacred peace, at all costs, most of them hidden.
The Driftwood was full of people Nick had known all his life. He ignored all the stupid things they said about the heat. The fire station sign was still set in the red, but now there were warnings on the billboards in front of the grocery store, the ice cream shop, and the library, signed by the fire chief whom everyone knew by sight. No burn piles, no campfires, no barbeques. Someone had told Nick that fires were good for the forest, but he couldn’t remember why. Whatever it was, the fire chief didn’t agree.
The county had slashed fire cuts through the pines, long shallow ditches that were supposed to stop fires from spreading. Then there were unpaved roads of deep, soft sand, the unnamed fire roads, so that firefighters could get to remote areas to put out blazes before they spread. There were hundreds of fires each year, but a big one that threatened the towns was a once-every-ten-years event.
Nick remembered the last big one, six years before. It had burned nearly four thousand acres a few miles to the west of town. The fire departments had gone door-to-door telling people on the county roads to evacuate. Everyone had watched their TVs to see if the fire would be contained before it reached town. They’d listened to the news and the police scanner nonstop in the Driftwood, and firefighters had come in reporting on the size of the blaze, what departments were involved, what percentage was contained, and if anyone had been injured. There had been a lot of contradictory information and rumors. Nick hadn’t worried about evacuating; everything he owned fit into a backpack, so could take it all with him. Lisa and her mother had been very worried about losing the house.
He remembered the smoky sky and the scent of burning wood so strong you’d swear the fire was only a quarter-mile away. He remembered the thick ash falling downwind, and closer to the fire it was burning cinders coming down. He remembered the lines of fire trucks along the dusty roads through the fields and helicopters going back and forth from the lake to the fire. But what he remembered most was the sun through the smoke. It was a big, dim, orange disk, but somehow not like the sunset. It was something new in the sky, like an omen. He remembered how it had made him feel. He never told anyone about that.
Nick and Lisa were upstairs with Griff in the apartment Griff was renting from Mrs. Robinson. They’d picked up cheesesteaks from the Driftwood on the way over and Griff and Nick drank beers. Lisa drank iced tea.
“You like the Driftwood’s steaks better than Gino’s?” asked Nick.
“They’re cheaper, anyway,” said Griff.
“I like ‘em better.”
“Not like in Philly.”
“How often do you go to Philadelphia?” asked Lisa.
“Once, twice a week,” said Griff.
“I don’t go once a year!” laughed Lisa.
Nick and Griff finished eating and opened more beers. Griff picked up his acoustic guitar.
“I hafta play the electric with the headphones on,” he grumbled.
“Robinson give you a hard time?” asked Nick.
“Yeah. Now the bitch wants me to mow the lawn and all this.”
“What did you tell her?” asked Lisa.
“Told her no. She said I had to, but I told her it ain’t in the lease. She said I had to do it anyway and I told her I’d just move out if that’s how it was. She shut up about it.”
“What would you do if she kicked you out?”
“Eh. . . sleep in the car? I’d find a place. Anyway, I wanna be closer to Philly.”
“How’s the club scene?” asked Nick.
“Same as always.”
Griff lit a cigarette and switched on the fan in the window.
“Yeah, man. I mean, we get like one or two gigs a week. But split four ways? I shoulda started a trio.”
Griff played “Tangerine” and Nick sang along.
“When you playin’ the Galaxy?” asked Nick.
“Wanna go?” Nick asked Lisa.
“Where is it?”
“Somerdale,” said Griff.
“Close to Philly.”
“Oh. What time?”
“We go on at eleven.”
“Really? That late?”
Griff smiled wryly at her. He had curly black hair and two days’ stubble on his olive cheeks and chin.
“I can make it,” said Nick. “Can you get us free beer?”
“Maybe. I’ll try.”
“I have to get up early the next day,” said Lisa.
Griff turned and blew smoke into the fan.
“I gotta get outta this stupid town,” he said. “It’s too far from everything.”
“You still teaching in Barnegat?” Nick asked.
“What do you teach?” asked Lisa.
“Guitar,” said Griff.
He fingered a few chords.
“Gotta save up some money,” he mumbled. “Where did all my money go?”
“As I remember,” said Nick, “Indonesia.”
“I kinda remember that.”
“Where?” asked Lisa.
“I was in Indonesia and Malaysia for six months.”
“Really?” Lisa’s eyes widened. “Were you in the service?”
“Where else would you go?” asked Nick.
Griff laughed and opened another beer.
“Indonesia was Disneyland,” he said, touching bottles with Nick.
“Sorry I missed it,” said Nick.
“Oh, you couldn’t do something like that!” Lisa laughed.
“Dude, it was brilliant,” said Griff.
“Except for that time you almost died.”
“Still worth it.”
“You almost died?” asked Lisa.
Griff quietly strummed chords as he spoke.
“Tubing in Aceh,” he said. “Big muddy river through the hills. It looked peaceful and they didn’t give us any life vests or anything. Me and a buncha Aussies. Everything was fine for a while, but then we heard this roar up ahead. White water. Class five rapids.”
“In a rubber inner tube?” Lisa asked, wide-eyed again.
“Yup. We couldn’t get off the river ‘cause there were these steep embankments on both sides. Made outta these things shaped like barrels, but they were made outta woven steel cables filled with gravel. Some of the cables were stickin’ out, and if you ran into ‘em they’d rip up your tube or your leg. So we just went down the river screamin’ and hangin’ on for dear life.
“When we got to the end, we had twelve people in six tubes. Like a shipwreck. The locals picked us up in an old truck. When they saw us, they said, ‘Are there any injuries?’ I said, ‘No, no injuries.’ They said, ‘Oh, first time this week, no injuries!’”
“Oh my God!” gasped Lisa.
“Maybe I shoulda stayed,” said Griff. “Coulda gotten work teaching English, but the pay’s lousy.”
“You just work for a while, then go back out traveling?” asked Lisa.
“You only live once,” said Griff with his lopsided grin. “Might as well do what you want.”
Lisa smiled at Griff, bright-eyed, and Nick looked at them both.
“But I don’t think I’m comin’ back to Jersey next time,” said Griff. “I only did that ‘cause I knew I could get my job back.”
“Where to next?” asked Nick.
“Austin, I think. Hearin’ good things about the scene there.”
Nick drove the rusted shop van down to Hammonton to pick up parts at Caterpillar. It was good to get out of the diesel shop, where he’d spent the morning counting inventory.
He was thinking about Paris. The Montparnasse, Montmartre. Cafes, restaurants, museums, jazz clubs. Closerie de Lilas and Deux Magots. He’d been reading A Moveable Feast and listening to The Sun Also Rises audiobook. Before that it had been Bukowski and John Fante. But now it was all about wine-stained nights along the Seine, about dedication and drive, like-minded friends, and not wanting to be anywhere but where you were. Then something would happen and snap him back to the shop with resentment.
Griff had been to Paris. And Barcelona and Positano and Bath and many, many other places. He’d once asked Griff how he’d done it.
“It ain’t rocket science, My Dude. Get a night or weekend job, save up all the money. Work eighty hours a week if you can. Then quit your jobs. Sell your car. Skip out on the last month’s rent and the car insurance. You’re not coming back, anyway. Then get a one-way ticket to London. Or take a Greyhound to San Antonio and then Estrella Blanca to Mexico City. Got any Spanish? It’s easy. Put a buncha clothes in your backpack. You like Paris, right? Here, take this Lonely Planet. Tell everyone goodbye and that you’ll send postcards. Or don’t. You’ll meet people in the hostels to travel with, so don’t worry about that. What’s stopping you, man?”
Nick and Lisa rode their bicycles along a dusty unpaved road to Lisa’s grandmother’s house. There were no clouds and no shade along the road. When they got to the house, the old woman made them glasses of sugary lemonade and Lisa, red-faced from the heat, wet a pair of washcloths for herself and Nick. She tried to wipe the sweat and dust from her face and shoulder-length hair. Grandmother went into the next room to get something for Lisa to give her mother.
“This will be my house someday,” Lisa whispered.
“Granma promised it to me.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“When we get married, we can live here. There’s three acres and three bedrooms. We won’t have to pay a mortgage.”
“Do you want to go up to Marlton on Friday night?”
“What’s in Marlton?”
“Outlets. Mom and I are going shopping.”
“Oh.” She could tell from his voice.
“Why don’t you want to go?”
“I don’t like shopping.”
“Don’t you want to be with me?”
“I always want to be with you,” he said, hugging her.
“Then why don’t you come?”
“Your mom doesn’t like me,” and she lets me know.
“She likes you.”
“She complains about me. To my face.”
“Just keep trying. And try not to make her mad.”
“She only likes me when I don’t say anything.”
“Well, then,” she laughed.
They sat in silence and he feathered his fingertips across her back the way she liked.
“Let’s just stay like this,” he said.
“We can’t, Nick.”
“You always want to run away from things.”
“Is that what I’m doing?”
She sighed. “You have to grow up, Nick.”
They’d had this conversation before, and before that. It had occurred to Nick to just do what she said, just go along. It would stop the arguments that went nowhere anyhow. But then what?
He’d seen the answer. The local boys raced the fire roads in Jeeps and quads at night and drank in groups in the not-so-secret places in the woods, illuminated by headlights and bonfires. They went to Atco or New Egypt to watch the races, or maybe raced themselves, and put all their money into their cars but never drove them farther than Atlantic City. None of them had even been to New York.
Nick watched them marry, attended some of the weddings. Soon came the children. The young wives huddled around the babies excitedly, laughed and cooed, and their young husbands watched silently and smiled a little sadly. Oh Nick, just you wait, the women taunted. It’ll be your turn soon. No more running around with your friends. You’ll have to learn responsibility. Are you gonna propose to Lisa soon? How long have you been together? Well, what are you waiting for? Time for you to grow up. Nick saw the last generation’s young men who were now sullen, overweight, middle-aged men who worked the same jobs their whole lives and complained about them at the Driftwood. The generation before them, now retired, spent their mornings drinking coffee together at Buzby’s until the Driftwood opened. It was like a movie playing out in front of him, a movie he didn’t like.
He remembered the young entrepreneur he’d seen interviewed on a news website. He’d started with nothing but a laptop computer. Learned to code on his own from a book and some online resources. He wrote an app that took off, something related to accounting, and then sold it to a big company. Then he used the money to launch his own software start-up. Nick had listened to him carefully. The young man said that he’d done it through constant hard work, learning everything he could, never settling. He’d had faith in himself. Now he was traveling the world and running the company remotely from whatever beach resort came next.
And Nick had thought: this guy didn’t just get on the bus. He’s driving. It’s his bus. And he felt like he had the drive, the energy to do something like that. Or at least something more than he was doing now.
What’s stopping you, man?
You’re not coming back, anyway.
That’s what, My Dude.
Lisa was here, the only person who said I love you. The town was here, and all the people he knew. He could never feel lost here. He could do what this town wanted from him.
But his own company, or nights on Boulevard Montparnasse? It felt very far away, over the horizon.
He could hear his mother’s voice in his head. She was laughing at him.
“Maybe we can go to Paris someday when we’re older and have a family,” Lisa had told him. He didn’t believe it. Apart from Griff, no one in this town had been to Paris. He’d asked.
He knew this couldn’t last much longer. He had to choose. And that was impossible.
Nick was drinking at the Driftwood with a couple of old high school friends on a stifling, cloudy night. At midnight he settled up and checked his phone on the way to the car. Lisa always texted him before bed. She hadn’t tonight. Guess she forgot. It was a new moon and the darkness was notable.
He drove past Lisa’s house on the way to the liquor store. Her car wasn’t in the driveway. He tried to think of where she could be at this hour. Maybe she’s broken down somewhere. But she’d have called, if she had a signal. It was spotty out here.
Then something occurred to him. He didn’t like it and tried to shake off the half-formed thought.
You shouldn’t think that.
Well. . . go see. Or else you’ll be awake all night.
That makes sense.
He drove over to Robinson’s place. As he pulled up across the street, he saw Lisa’s car in the driveway next to Griff’s.
The house was illuminated by floodlights. Little lights and azaleas wound alongside the walkway across the thick lawn to the front door. It would have been charming.
He looked up at Griff’s bedroom window. The blinds were down but the lights were on behind them. The dashboard said 12:04 AM.
He stared at the window. He couldn’t do anything with the sight.
The light went out.
Everything stopped. He just sat there.
Then he thought about what was happening behind the dark window, put the car in gear and tore away, squealing around the corner to 539. He screeched up behind the liquor store and ripped open the back door. In the storage room he shoved everything into his pack as if evacuating. He paused with the Lonely Planet guide in his hand – it was Griff’s. But Paris isn’t Griff’s. It’s mine now.
He got back onto the empty highway, flew north to Route 72, shot left through the red light and pointed the hood west towards the bright night of Philadelphia. Everything was entirely clear and simple, not just possible, it was inevitable, and he stomped the pedal into a rocket ride through the black woods, fleeing the Pinelands as if they were on fire.
David Bassano is a History professor at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. He is also a human rights activist, an author of academic and literary works, and an avid hiker and cyclist. Trevelyan’s Wager, published by Harvard Square Editions, is his first novel. You may learn more about him and his work at Good Reads.