A short chapter from my forthcoming novel, MONUMENT ROAD.
Before turning south across the bridge to the Redlands, the parkway snakes between the river and a wasteland of rubble bill-boarded with promises of professional spa installation, exceptional dental care and relief from DUI charges. Leonard sees a ladder-racked pickup coming up on his right, racing to pass before the road narrows to two lanes. The truck bed is overloaded with yard waste, paint buckets and miscellaneous unbagged trash that flits in the slipstream coming off the back. Leonard’s in no hurry, but the reckless move irritates him and he holds his place against being overtaken. The driver takes some shoulder before squeezing in at the curve, spinning a salvo of gravel across Leonard’s grille. Through their back window he can see two yahoos bobbing their heads toward each other in celebration of the maneuver. Let it go, he tells himself, just as the driver swerves again only to jolt over an unseen obstacle, sending up a shower of debris. Leonard feels the thump, too, just as flapping newspapers burst in a flock from the truck bed, twist and plaster themselves across his windshield.
He ducks down to an opening where he can see to cross the bridge and pull safely aside. By the time he steps out to a clear view of the road, the offenders have disappeared over the rise. He strips off the newspaper and mashes it into a ball. How long has it been since he even glanced at the news? Another habit that slid away with Inetta. Behind him, on the bridge, a stray tire bedevils the traffic. He considers walking back to clear it, but the spot is blind and there’s no pedestrian walk on that side of the bridge. Let someone with a cell phone call it in. He’s spent a year shrinking his attention down to a pinhole, and with it, his sense of obligation to clean up after the careless.
Time was, he took on such chores without thinking, hauling strangers out of ditches, offering gas to stranded tourists, snugging up a neighbor’s sagging fence. That was how it was out here. You made your contribution to mutual survival—no recognition or recompense expected. Cowboy karma, he’d heard somebody call it. Inetta might call it grace. But for all that, what did such steadfastness do for his mother and his sister kneeling in the yard. Abner, alone and facedown in his field. Vaughn bent sideways for good. Junior banished and then tumbling through space. Inetta herself, slow walking away from him. No matter what Leonard Self decides about his importance in the universe, if he turns his back on this, the tire will still be off the bridge tomorrow and no one will even remember it was there. He wishes he could talk it out with Inetta, hear again why it matters not to let things slide. He used to step up without thinking on it because simple goodness needed a place to lodge, entrusted closer to the real world than with an all-loving and do-nothing God.
He thinks of his own father, for the first time in a long while without feeling a strangle in his throat. Had Leonard’s sense of rightness only been the offspring of his father’s crime, or had he inherited good examples, erased from memory by the final, bloody picture of the man? Leonard had always supposed in his father an anger that became a poison and the poison caused pain and its steady drip called for an end. But how big must a pain be to also consume a wife and a daughter and a son? His old man was a young man then, half Leonard’s age. He should’ve remembered how things change, how the cold lifts and the desert greens and the humming birds come back. Leonard still couldn’t see all the why of his father but he recognized a partial answer in himself. The darkening was not pain but bone-deep numbness. Not nightmares but short dreamless sleep and long wakefulness. Not chaos but an empty, unbudging sameness that Inetta had been able to wave away whenever it gathered, but left alone with it now, he was ready to roll to a stop.