Everyone agreed it was a great idea for us to drive there together while also secretly hoping it wouldn’t happen. And then it did.
“Don’t even think about asking if we’re there yet,” Uncle Dean said.
Uncle Dean was my father’s youngest brother. His hands were steering from the bottom of the wheel, eyes scanning I-80 for fresh sources of road rage. He still had the same grin I remembered. Bright teeth like squares of gum. A skin he lived in so loosely you could pull it off his bones and drape it over a plastic skeleton of a real man.
Only 2,200 miles to Salt Lake City.
Two weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving dinner, he’d appeared on our front porch with his son, a grocery store apple pie, and a cocktail mix called Naked Punch. My mom and I got so drunk we couldn’t finish the dishes. Uncle Dean’s four-year-old, Abe, sat on his lap the entire time until my dad sobered up and drove the two of them back to Uncle Dean’s apartment.
“It doesn’t even have two beds,” my dad told us afterward.
But before that, while the whole family was enjoying a manufactured apple pie, instead of asking where he’d been for all this time, we got to talking about Salt Lake City, and how I’d been wanting to go there to visit my twin sister and her new husband, and how Uncle Dean was headed that way for work. Everyone agreed it was a great idea for us to drive there together while also secretly hoping it wouldn’t happen.
And then it did.
Uncle Dean shifted into fifth gear.
“I heard your car has a name,” I said.
Uncle Dean smiled.
“Sure does.” He said. “Hell Bitch. After my ex-wife.”
I could feel immediately that I did not want to know more.
I closed my eyes and pictured Utah, the dry, red heat of the canyons, the brittle scrub and brush ranging the mountains. I saw myself become a stream trickling through the dust, snaking my way over white stones, arriving in a pool at my sister’s feet. She was wearing gold leather sandals. Her miscarried baby was there too, chirping softly by himself behind a gouged, red boulder.
Whenever he looked at you, it was clear he was searching for the way you might hurt him. Then he found it.
When I woke up in Pennsylvania, it was my turn to drive. We stopped to switch at a gas station. In the bathroom, there was a story pasted to the door about an addict and a drunk meeting over breakfast. Christ was there, too.
I adjusted the driver’s seat while Uncle Dean curled up in the back, pushing aside the laundry baskets filled with his flannels and jeans and camp gear. Once he cleared a spot, he pulled his baseball cap low over his eyes and tucked the left tip of his boot under the right.
I put the radio on low and listened to pop hits and commercials promising affordable cars. At 8:30 I pulled into a steakhouse, the kind of place my dad liked, which I thought might please Uncle Dean as well. He ordered a fish filet and three beers. We tried not to look at each other too hard while we ate.
After dinner, we split the check and got separate hotel rooms. I watched a show about weddings for hours in a king-sized bed. My twin sister’s wedding had been held in the field behind our aunt’s house. It was a potluck.
“It’s more about the person anyway.”
My sister had said this while we were out dress shopping, her hands slipping through the gowns. Neither of us mentioned anything about the first time around.
Her new husband had been raised Mormon and was the sort of man who enjoyed torturing himself. Whenever he looked at you, it was clear he was searching for the way you might hurt him. Then he found it.
My sister had been surprised when I told her that I knew this about him.
“It’s his fingers,” I said.
He’d burned off the tips. He didn’t have any fingerprints left. That must have been his favorite way.
I’m finally doing a good job of trying not to die. At least not of that.
In the morning, Uncle Dean and I drank coffee from a machine while the weather rolled by on a big screen in the lobby. We left by 6. As soon as we got in the car, Uncle Dean turned his eyes to me, grinning.
“I’m three days smoke-free,” he announced.
Hell Bitch certainly smelled like it.
“Thanks. I’m finally doing a good job of trying not to die,” he said. “At least not of that.”
I laughed. When I was in seventh grade I’d had this fantasy that my death was coming for me by 18-wheeler. I’d feel it whistle through me whenever one passed by our house. I dreamt about it for months. I even told my sister so that she could draw up a will and divide my earthly possessions between her and our feral little friends at school.
I don’t have such grandiose ideas about myself anymore.
“Plus, if I live longer,” Uncle Dean said, “I’ll be able to actually get a lifetime pass to the mountain. If you’re on patrol for 20 years they give you one for free for the rest of your life.”
“A ski pass?”
“Yeah. Two years, it’s mine. Minus any hiccups, of course.”
“That seems like a good deal,” I said.
A semi carrying a load of cattle pulled past us, dirt crackling under its mud flaps. I tried to look at the cows through the slats but only saw darkness. In my mind they were stacked ten across, rippling against each other the same way heat shivers over a parking lot the moment before it turns into something else.
I knew I was beautiful. I didn’t need anyone to tell it to me, but I could feel that many men, most of them old, wanted to.
We were in Illinois by the afternoon.
“We should spend the night at The Dells,” Uncle Dean said. “It’s a bit of a detour but I heard it’s beautiful.”
We passed a billboard advertising a boat ride through a golden canyon. Even the boat was smiling, with its red, painted-on lips.
“Sure,” I said. Wisconsin could have been anything to me.
The Dells turned out to be a town that turned out to be a series of water parks connected to hotels. Looping green slides corkscrewed into nests above us. The closest restaurant to our hotel was a two-story log cabin called Buffalo Bill’s that served drinks by electric train. Kids were squawking in every crevice. The teenage lumberjack writing down our order was apologizing for the state of things with every part of his body except his mouth.
Two minutes later, four Budweisers pulled up at our station. We clinked all four of them against each other and ordered half a chicken each with all the sides.
“Your dad and I went to a place like this once, in Myrtle Beach.”
My mouth was too full of free bread to comment.
“It was when we went on that golf trip, remember? When we flew on Hooter Air? The tickets were cheap, but your mom was pissed.”
“I do remember that,” I said. Despite the calming force of the children, I was hating Uncle Dean more than I remembered.
“Anyway, we went to this oyster bar and we probably ate at least two dozen each, and your dad, sonofabitch, found a pearl in one of them.”
“Of course. Of course he would. Luckiest asshole I ever met.”
Uncle Dean saw me listening to him.
“And also a good man,” he added.
When my grandmother was alive, if my dad shot a deer he would hang it in her garage so our two dogs wouldn’t get into it. It would stay there for a day, swinging by its hind legs, trussed up from the ceiling. He never took pictures of his kills.
“He is a good man,” I said.
The chicken arrived. We took our plates off the train and Uncle Dean tucked a napkin into the front of his shirt, winking at me. I kept drinking.
We polished the chicken to the bone.
“Dessert?” I asked.
We ate mud pies and drank more beers. The boat from the billboard was on the back of the drink menu, grinning up at me. I felt its red mouth become mine, smiling in a stupid and slow sort of way while the antler chandeliers burned above our heads.
“Where to next?” I asked.
“Wherever you want,” he said.
What I ended up wanting was a bar that had horse saddles instead of barstools. Uncle Dean sat like a lady with his two legs on one side, dropping a shot of Jaeger into his beer. I’d peeled off my sweatshirt and was wearing a tank top with skinny little straps. I felt myself glowing in the white light of the jukebox. I knew I was beautiful. I didn’t need anyone to tell it to me, but I could feel that many men, most of them old, wanted to. I could see myself floating in front of them, all my possibilities gleaming across the oiled leather saddle, the new men they could be if they just reached out and touched me.
“I wish I was bigger.” Uncle Dean grumbled.
“Don’t worry, I’m really good at defense.”
I pretended to strangle my pint glass.
“The only thing is they like it when I choke them,” I said.
Uncle Dean warbled a wet, high laugh into his beer.
“Thank God I never had a daughter,” he said.
I looked at him, his little son up north in Dannemora, sitting between us in my mind. His mother was a nurse at the prison and dressed him in sweet little outfits that brought out his freckles and deep, green eyes. What I loved best about him was that he was a mischievous cheat whenever he came to our house and played board games.
“It seems like you and your sister like each other pretty well,” Uncle Dean said.
“We do,” I said.
“She’ll be happy to see you.”
I laughed. “She doesn’t even know I’m coming.”
“Otherwise I would have flown.”
“That still doesn’t make any sense.”
I slammed my drink inside me. I could feel shaky little sobs dancing in my fingertips.
“I should have been there months ago.”
My eyes felt like they were about to crack open. Uncle Dean knew what I needed.
“She’s not drunk enough,” he yelled to the bartender. “And neither am I.”
The bartender slid the tab and two glasses of water across the bar. I pulled my sweatshirt back on and dragged Uncle Dean with me. Outside the bar we heard people howling. Uncle Dean smiled at me, his eyes shining in the dark.
“We gotta go see what that’s about.”
The howling turned out to be a game of darts where the darts were throwing axes. We stood behind a wire fence, watching the people inside. A woman was on the other side of the fence across from us, also outside, her fingers curled into the gaps.
“You’re doing it wrong,” she yelled.
The men inside laughed and pretended not to see her.
“Let me in the cage,” the woman screamed.
Uncle Dean and I looked at each other. The men were making the smallest of their bunch get on all fours while they balanced a beer on his head. The woman got on all fours opposite them, cackling while she arched her back.
“I think it might be time to head out,” Uncle Dean said.
We strolled arm in arm past arcades and shuttered candy apple stores. Outside an ATM, Uncle Dean found a dollar bill on the ground. He pulled a pen out of his pocket and wrote my name across the bill’s face.
“You’re a legend now,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said.
We left it behind us.
When we got to the lobby, Uncle Dean started patting himself down, his eyes bugging out a little, until he remembered my existence.
“You must have the key.” He said, grinning.
“To your hotel room?”
Uncle Dean turned to the woman at the front desk.
She was already making him a new one. Her hands were long and elegant. Uncle Dean stood with his own in his pockets, smiling up at her with his son’s deep, green eyes.
I’d never felt wind like that before, the kind that passed through you on its way to the end of the world.
Both of us were stiff inside our bodies in the morning. We looked at each other more carefully, kept a bigger distance between us.
“Heck of a night,” Uncle Dean said.
“That it was,” I said.
We ate breakfast at a gas station and pretended it didn’t make us sicker. Outside, the wind was ripping across the prairie. I’d never felt wind like that before, the kind that passed through you on its way to the end of the world.
I sat in the car with my coffee, waiting for Uncle Dean to get out of the bathroom. I watched a man walk his pit bull around and around the parking lot. Her stomach was engorged, her brown skin taut like tissue paper. The sun was behind them. I could have counted every little dog inside her. She looked like a sealed envelope held up to a light.
Uncle Dean took the first shift. It was one of the first truly cold days of winter. I could see it in the air, the way it made the sun look hard and bright, like it could shatter if it got too close to the earth. Uncle Dean hummed something tuneless while he drove, his sunglasses on. I wondered what victories were running through his mind. Or if he was thinking of his failures, if they were opening inside him like gold invitations that he secretly loved to read.
We drove past acres of wheat cut to the ground, past fields of snow that had taken on the curves of the wind, two brown horses standing side by side. Then they were behind us.
Samantha Burns is an emerging writer from the Adirondack region of Upstate New York. She received her MFA from the University of Idaho in 2018. Her short fiction has appeared in Fence, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Onion River Review. Sam splits her time between North River, New York and Moscow, Idaho.
Header photo by Mike Gattorna, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Samantha Burns by Siobhan Levere.