Harvey was a hermit. Or as much of a hermit as he could be in the basement of his sister’s house with her six kids and deadbeat husband. He really belonged in a cabin on top of a remote mountain range. To be fair, he did have a double-page spread from the National Geographic, a picture of a barren peak in Arizona, taped to the wall above his wide-screen TV. When there was no football on he would gaze at the desert landscape, practicing his thousand-yard stare. On the plains of Iowa, of course, there were no mountains worthy of the name for a hundred miles.
“Harve,” said Ralph, his best and possibly only friend, “you need to get out more.”
Harvey merely wrinkled his nose in reply. He knew he had lost his way, but part of him resented receiving lifestyle advice from someone who never went anywhere without an emergency Twinkie and a rubber cushion for his hemorrhoids.
For ages Ralph had been pestering him to join the Wednesday night bowling league.
“It’s fun,” he said. “They’re a good bunch of guys.”
Harvey was sorely tempted by the prospect of backslapping camaraderie, but rejecting opportunities out of shyness had been his curse ever since ninth grade. The first time Ralph invited him he buried his face in his Slurpee, his answer an incoherent mumble, and after that he was trapped by the need for consistency.
Just after Labor Day he stumbled upon a documentary on the Discovery Channel about the Pueblo Indians of the Mesa Verde. They built their homes high in the canyon walls, eking out a meagre living as farmers and hunter-gatherers. This, he thought, was definitely a tribe in harmony with their environment. During the commercial break, flipping from one channel to another, he made up his mind to go there.
With some trepidation Harvey ventured into the library on Court Street, briefly delayed by getting on the wrong bus. His sister often joked that he couldn’t find the bathroom without a GPS. A helpful young woman with lime green hair showed him how to navigate his way around the computers. After two hours with Wikipedia and Google Maps, he had formed a rough plan.
His next stop was the bank. At the ATM furthest from the entrance, he calculated how much was left of his severance pay, jotting sums on the back of an envelope. If he was cautious, he would have enough for a train to Grand Junction, coach to Durango and even a little sight-seeing. The wad of bills made an anxious bulge inside his jacket as he walked the short distance to the railway station to buy his ticket.
The following Monday he left a note saying he had gone to their cousin Wilma’s to fix her water heater and might stay for a few days. Wilma and his sister had a falling out four years ago over their grandmother’s bone china, so he didn’t think she’d call. He debated whether or not to tell Ralph, but in the end he didn’t. He’d let him know when he came back. If he came back. His plan didn’t extend that far.
He had travelled west before, but never with such purpose. As he hauled his duffel bag up the steps of the Amtrak, his head echoed with the theme song from Bonanza. He tipped his seat back and watched the scenery slowly change outside the window. A preacher heading home for a school reunion tried to strike up conversation, but Harvey feigned sleep until he got off.
He made it as far as Denver. At a table in a Chinese restaurant he opened his guidebook, tracing the route with his index finger as he sucked up his noodles. Had the early pioneers, he wondered, been similarly torn between apprehension and boundless possibility? Perhaps he wouldn’t stop at Colorado. His lips moved as he whispered the names to himself – Bitter Springs, Bullfrog, Chimney Rock, Yah-ta-hey.
After dinner, while searching for a budget motel, he ended up in a dingy back street, where he was robbed by a girl – no older than eleven – in a Pokemon T-shirt. In one swift motion she shoved him into the gutter, snatched his wallet and fled shrieking into the darkness. He attempted a half-hearted pursuit, but his dodgy knee gave out. At the corner she taunted him, waving his return ticket above her head.
With no cash, a bed was out of the question. He tried sleeping in a park until he was chased off by a wino who smelled of urine. He wandered aimlessly, coming to the conclusion that it had been a fool’s errand right from the start, and he was the fool. At four in the morning he was huddled in the doorway of a laundromat when he was rousted by a couple of local cops. They were all set to beat the crap out of him, but since he was white they let him off with a warning. One of them even pointed him towards a strip mall on the edge of town, which to his astonishment he reached without further mishap.
In a stall in the restroom of an all-night diner, he counted up the change in his pants pocket, the only money that hadn’t been stolen by the malevolent pre-teen. Probably he should keep it for emergencies, but his spirit craved solace. He ordered hash browns and coffee, the cheapest thing on the menu, and then cowered in a booth in the corner. The waitress reminded him of his first crush, a paler, skinnier version. It wasn’t her, obviously, but she did take pity on his misery, sneaking him a free refill when the manager wasn’t looking.
After finding a working pay phone, he placed a collect call. He was far from certain that Ralph would accept the charges. With a pang of shame he acknowledged that he – Harvey – was scarcely deserving of loyalty. His friend, however, asked no questions, immediately offered to make the twelve-hour drive to pick him up. It occurred to Harvey that maybe he hadn’t given old Ralph enough credit.
He was afraid to roam far from the rendezvous, so he set up camp on a bench between a drinking fountain and a public toilet. Before the sun grew too hot he paced from one end of the parking lot to the other, careful not to let the bench out of sight. Around ten he retreated into the shade. He tried to pretend he was perched atop a jagged cliff, glaring down on the weary settlers pushing their wagons across the plain towards Walmart, but the magic was gone.
Shortly before dusk Ralph pulled up in his battered Chevy. He tossed the bag in the back and patted Harvey on the shoulder. Looked him up and down, declared that he was a man in need of a square meal and dragged him into the same restaurant. Harvey was too bashful to order, so Ralph chose burgers, chili and fries. While they ate Ralph chattered away about a divorcee at church he was sweet on, a fishing trip where his uncle got caught in a flash flood, the pros and cons of John Deere over Massey Ferguson. After they finished, he beckoned the waitress over and asked for a big slice of cherry pie for his buddy here. Harvey found himself unable to speak.
They shared a room with twin beds and a clanking air conditioner. Ralph snored all night, but Harvey felt he had no right to complain. In the car next morning he snoozed for a few hours, Ralph obligingly silent beside him. When they stopped to pose for photos in front of the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps, Harvey admitted that he hadn’t enjoyed himself so much in years.
As they approached the outskirts of Burlington, Harvey thought about his sister’s house. It would be hectic, it would be loud. It was possible no one had noticed he had been away. He realized that he was thirsty, and he realized it was Wednesday.
“Ralph,” he said. “Let’s go bowling.”
Stephen Coates comes from New Zealand, but is currently living in Japan. His stories have appeared in Sky Island Journal, Mikrokosmos, Landfall, Takahe and elsewhere.