The car was a late-model Oldsmobile, the interior dank and musty, and the driver bore the distinctly sweet, rotting smell of overripe bananas. Lucius was his name. Thick dark hair sprouted from his knuckles in wild tufts. They were in southeastern Kansas, heading east as Patsy Cline quavered through a pair of broken speakers.
Dobbs hadn’t slept in days. He couldn’t put a firm number to it. The days whipped by like telephone poles. He feared he was losing the ability to see anything head-on. It was as if he and everything around him existed on separate planes, veering toward one another but never quite touching.
The noise of the highway made it sound as though Patsy were singing in the heart of a tornado.
After a couple of hours, they reached Lucius’s southbound exit, and Dobbs got out, shouldering his bag, moving on by foot.
* * *
At a truck stop in Topeka, he ordered coffee. Perched atop a pearlescent stool, he watched the pot empty its brown dregs into his cup. He imagined the coarse grit in the grooves of his teeth, the caffeine percolating through his veins.
There were only two other customers, each in his own remote booth. It was the hour for solitary travelers. The griddle was at rest, reflecting shimmery streaks of carbonized grease. A waitress hobbled from table to table with a magazine of straws clutched under her elbow.
“Your hair,” she said when she got to him. “Is it really that red?”
Dobbs caught his reflection in the mirror behind the counter. The color did seem unusually bright, the curls loose and wild. But his skin had the pallor of egg white. He was like a diseased tree, directing every last nutrient to its remaining leaves.
Every few minutes a thin, aproned boy came by and dropped a stack of dishes in the bus tub beside the counter. The dishes landed with an explosive charge buried at the base of Dobbs’s skull. Through the wall of hazy windows, he watched for trucks pulling in. He waited.
Other rides came and went. The drivers began to slip Dobbs’s mind the instant they pulled over, the moment they ducked to meet his eye through the open passenger window.
One night he found himself shivering, curled in the back of a pickup truck, sheltered within some sort of camper. Beneath the blankets lay a bed of cold steel.