There was no space to spare, not even on the roof, just a perfect rectangle behind my driver’s seat for the dog bed. I stood in the parking lot of my North Hollywood apartment complex and watched Jason tie a rope around the roof box to anchor it to the roof rack of my car. My friend worked with his usual confidence. On the passenger seat sat my driving necessities—maps, water, CDs, smokes—instead of my mother. For the next three days this car would hold me captive on the interstates of Western and Midwestern America. Jason stepped back and we lit cigarettes and admired his work. I put Keegan’s bed in its space and felt calm for the first time since Tuesday.
I picked up my shadow very early on that first day driving, still in the greenbelt of California. My tears from the goodbyes weren’t even dry. The man drove a little red Geo hatchback with California plates, stuffed as full as my little green Subaru. He drove alone, as I did. We passed each other back and forth for the next two days. I imagined him noticing me, validating our synchronicity. Our stops aligned and our overnight rest seemed choreographed. We traveled at the same speed and saw each other about six times a day, though we never spoke. Once, we filled our tanks simultaneously.
I had decided to move to Chicago under the guise of fresh perspective. There was a boy in Chicago. A man actually. Though I’d driven through the United States many times, my mother had never traveled the West. She was to meet me in LA for a road trip. But instead of heading to the airport on the morning of September 11th to pick up Mom, I’d joined my friends on Mikey’s couches, where we always watched TV. We’d assembled in our Sopranos-watching positions by seven a.m., though most of us had worked late the night before. Our manager from the restaurant on the Sunset Strip called us at Mikey’s to say everything would be closed until further notice. Until we knew something. What are the targets? We’re under attack.
I sat with my best friends in front of the TV all day, towers falling in an infinite loop. I kept getting calls. Some in my family had thought Mom was flying out of Boston; aunts and cousins rang in, wondering if she was on flight 11. Already my guy friends at Mikey’s talked about joining the armed forces if we went to war.
“New Hampshire,” I said to my relatives. “She’s fine, never left.”
“Knock it off,” I said to the guys. “We’re not going to war.”
By evening, we’d learned that flights were grounded indefinitely, and that Mom would not make it to LA for our road trip. The 12th began the in-between days of suspended life, when Bush proclaimed, “We’re going to kick their ass,” but then nothing happened. I wanted to stay in motion. Those in-between days felt like stillness. I decided to go to Chicago on my own.
I left on a clear Friday morning. By midday, I was already fascinated with my shadow. Where did he come from in California? Where was he going? A sense of urgency overtook America’s roads. Truck stops were efficient, men did not stop to laugh. I was in a world of men, their grim faces floating above steering wheels. I wondered whether a bomb might fall on us at any moment out in the middle of nowhere; would the next city on the map just be gone? The man in the little red Geo and I might be the only survivors—each on our way to new lives, alone; now stranded together until the end of time, with only the contents of two small hatchbacks to sustain us. Sole survivors. For agonizing hours in the high desert there was no access to NPR. I chain-smoked. I feared that each time I stopped for gas, or some fresh coffee and cigarettes, someone would tell me that we had already entered the nuclear holocaust. While I was somewhere between Tucumcari and Amarillo, the world might end.
Mom and I had planned a ten-day trip, winding through the Grand Canyon, up through Utah’s National Parks, across the Rockies and into the Great Plains. I wanted to show her the world I already knew. Instead, I made Keegan suffer long back-to-back driving days. An incongruous Irish Terrier, Keegan was a road warrior, forty-pounds of red curls with a relaxed gaze—an old soul. He settled on his bed and took the pace in stride. I planned to reach Chicago in about thirty-five hours of highway: a ten, a fifteen, and another ten-hour day, if things went well.
I stopped both nights at Motel 6, in Gallup and Joplin. Motel 6 allows dogs and has HBO. On the first night in New Mexico, when I saw the little red Geo across the road at the Super 8, it served as a strange comfort. Where did he stay the second night? What did he eat when our paths didn’t cross? I thought about him when too much time passed between sightings. A planned meander through the great West turned into a simple marathon: I-40 to I-44, I-44 to I-55; no Rockies to cross, nothing but interstate, cruise control set to seventy-three. The in-between days were not for taking in the sights. My family was east. My friends were west. I was headed to the middle to make a life among new friends, strangers almost. But on the road, I wasn’t alone. I had my shadow.
On the third morning I awoke in Joplin, Missouri, and walked out of the motel room in the rain to find a flat tire on my car, a result of the terrible roads outside of Tulsa the night before. The rain came thrilling and wrathful. It was Sunday. I opened the phonebook from the Bible drawer and found a place just a few miles away. After loading my wet gear and wet dog into their places, I switched the hazards on and drove at a crawl.
The tire store was not a tire store, but it was open. It was a repair facility for semi-trucks. The two men working there helped me anyway. “Your rim is bent ma’am.” Bent? “I’ll rig it for you, but you should fix it when you get where you’re going.” One man detached the tire and the other attacked my tiny rim with a giant hammer meant for much larger rims. Then they rolled the tire back onto the rim, dropped the whole thing in a giant water tub to check for leaks, and slapped it back on the car. It all took under ten minutes.
“What do I owe you?” I asked.
“Just get there safe, ma’am, wherever you’re going.”
I thanked them. “I’m gonna try,” I said.
The rain stopped outside of Joplin. The sun brightened a suddenly blue sky. Back on the highway an hour behind schedule, I fidgeted, tired of my CDs, unable to get the news on the radio. 8:00 a.m. and I wasn’t even to Springfield when the traffic stopped.
I would drive through this same stretch of highway again a few months later. To pass the time on that roadtrip with my Chicago man, we curated the “Missouri Roadkill Journal,” a scientific and literary experiment in identifying the many and varied animal remains on the interstate. Thirty-four bodies in three hours—Missouri has the most roadkill in America. I would know. I’ve been everywhere.
The traffic jam before Springfield was about a mile long up a slow curving hill to the left under an overpass. Emergency vehicles surrounded the scene. My turn came to gawk: I saw a monstrous RV rolled on its side; and a semi with hazards on parked just ahead, a repair truck already working on its engine; and a sedan with the hood accordioned back perched half off of the pavement on the shoulder. And then I saw my shadow, the little red Geo hatchback with California plates, crushed like it had been through the compactor in a junkyard.
His rain-soaked stuff was everywhere, pillows, books, clothes, as if a tornado had lifted a yard sale. The driver’s compartment was mangled into nothingness. I knew exactly what happened. I had pictured it a thousand times while driving the interstate, allowing morbid fantasies to incubate. Some old man with no business driving a Class A merged too fast off the wet ramp, failing to see the Geo in the travel lane who could not move over for the semi on his left, and could not slow down for the sedan tailgating on his bumper.
I knew what happened just as sure as I knew he was dead.
An official would locate his family, maybe out West where he came from, or in some small Midwestern town where he was going. Running to or running from no longer applied. The official would bear the news solemnly. What if the little red Geo hatchback had been the one to hit the pothole outside of Tulsa, and I was the one to start on time that morning? Someone would be ringing my old doorbell back in LA on a fine September day.
From Springfield to Chicago, I was alone. The in-between days would become the war days soon enough. The war days persist. My repaired rim lasted for three years, and many more American miles. I never had it checked. I traded that car in on the same wheel.
There is so much death on the road in Missouri, in the heartland.
Author Bio: Katelyn Keating served as editor in chief of Lunch Ticket for issues 11 & 12. In 2017 she was a fellow of The Los Angeles Review of Books/USC Publishing Workshop, where she now serves as faculty and as a coordinator. She also works as the features editor for BookSwell, the Los Angeles literary calendar. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, where her critical thesis, “A Horizon of Dogs: Canids as Companions and Narrators in Contemporary Fiction,” was a Library Research Award finalist. Her work has been published recently in Crab Orchard Review, Lunch Ticket, and the anthology, In Season: Stories of Discovery, Loss, Home, and Places in Between, from which she’ll read on an AWP 2018 panel. Follow her on Twitter @katelyn_keating and Instagram @bookswellclub.