The Road to 86 by Frank George
The sun pierced the sky above the blue-grey mountains as Carson Olbermann woke up. His neck was stiff. His eyes felt like two sheets of paper glued together being torn roughly apart. The heat blowing strong from the dashboard vents tried to push him back down into sleep like a heavy blanket. He took a deep, defiant breath and straightened up. He took a drowsy look around. The sunlight wasn’t yet touching the world as they drove in solitude across blue-shadowed plains of frosted grass. The light was only just skirting across the underside of the few and scattered clouds etched across the sky, which was a baby blue cloth.
His hand was asleep; he’d been sleeping on its bent-back wrist since Hood River. Trying to work the knot out of his stiff neck, Carson tried to rub away the sleep in his eyes with the sleeping hand. The sharp, moving needles in his fingers spread down his forearm and he tried to flex it away. The pickup truck passed a stream that cut through tall, wind-blown grass and wound in a wide, lazy ribbon that looked like clouded glass.
“Where are we,” his hoarse voice croaked, eyes glancing at the cassette deck that played a soft Elizabeth Cotton song.
“We’re on 86, headed for Idaho,” his father responded.
Jim Olbermann was a man who didn’t talk. He saw no value in it. Over the years, Carson had become the same, but not because it was in his nature. Because Jim wouldn’t say anything back if Carson were to talk to him, he’d decided that there wasn’t much value in it, either. Just the necessities and that was it. Forget it if anyone wanted something more.
Carson looked at the mountains and couldn’t figure out what justified them in standing up so tall. The Wallowa’s had thick hoods of woolen snow covering their craggy heads and only a few roughly-cut lines could be seen in their faces. The lines were shadowed and pencil-thin bruises, frozen in time forever.
There were two Styrofoam cups of coffee in the cup holders between them. Carson had been asleep when Jim had bought them. The thin little vines of steam that rose up from the narrow spouts divided Carson and Jim. Isn’t coffee what brings people together, thought Carson ironically. He thought about saying that out loud to start the day off. He thought twice. His eyes still felt like paper, but he’d rubbed them enough that they were more like wet paper now. He thought about saying it a third time.
“Why’d you hit Mom?”
Jim Olbermann said nothing. The truck, with its loud, rumbling motor, was the only sound for what seemed like an hour. They rounded a wide, sweeping bend in the highway between two hills of short, brown grass. Ahead, Carson could see the shadowy figures of ponderosa pines scattered randomly as they grew closer and closer together into a dense wall, underscoring the gentle sloping of hills that rose up to become the mountains.
“S’pose I’m selfish. And I’m stupid,” Jim said finally. His voice was both stubborn and, in a way, surrendering in its tone.
“And now we’re here,” Carson said, his voice resigning as he looked out his window so that he couldn’t see Jim’s face.
Silence. Carson cranked the handle down until his window stood halfway open, letting the refreshingly icy wind brush across his face.
“You being stupid ain’t an excuse,” Carson began angrily, his voice raising. “We’re all selfish and stupid, but that ain’t a pass to do whatever you want.” Carson stopped, looking out straight ahead. He watched the dashed lines of the passing lane rush underneath the truck’s hood. He swallowed stiffly. His throat was dry from sleep and reluctance to continue the conversation.
“But I still love you, Dad. Even though I hate you, too.”
“I know it. There ain’t no need to go telling it over and over,” Jim said with a sigh.
Carson looked over at him. The way Jim said it seemed as if he really did know it, like he was stating a simple fact. “But you’re my boy,” Jim went on. “And boys always love their old man, somehow. Even when we go and do things like what I done.”
“I wouldn't rest easy in that,” Carson felt like he somehow got a leg up with that comment, half-threatening and half-seeking to elicit some shred of guilt in his father. “I could ask you to say sorry every day for the rest of my life and I’d be right to do it. I want you to feel sorry. I want to hear you say it.”
His father didn’t say anything.
“You ain’t ever given a thought to sayin’ anythin’ to me,” Carson continued, staring out the window again and not looking at Jim. “Now I could make you say it over and over and I know you’d feel guilty enough to do it, too. But guilt and sayin’ sorry don’t change nothin’. It’s knowin’ when to stop and think about someone else for a change. That’s what it should be. You’ll never be that, though. You’ll never know what’s good for us. Only you and what you want.”
Jim turned the wheel as they rounded a slow, arching curve that tracked along an outcropping of red earth. The clay hillside was held together by the roots of a grove of ponderosa pines. If it weren’t for them, Carson thought absently, the earth would have given way to age long before. Carson felt that whatever roots held the peace with his father intact had dissolved. He’d said more than he thought he could. Carson hadn’t even known he felt some of the things he said.
“Like I said, there ain’t no sense in sayin’ things we already know,” Jim muttered quietly.
Carson shook his head bitterly. He wanted to turn to his father and hit him. Just to say he’d done it. His father was the best example he could’ve asked for; he’d seen it enough times to know. Carson tightened his arm and imagined what it would feel like and his face burned violently. Carson reached down and took his coffee and flung it out the window. He saw the cup in the mirror as it splashed into the rocky ditch that ran alongside the highway’s cracked edge of fading paint. As he cranked up the window again, Carson felt the refreshing sting of the cold morning air pierce against the skin of his face and he reveled in the thought that he could have struck his father so easily.
Neither said anything. Carson burned with a quiet, hot rage as he looked out at the road. He waited for his father to say something, anything that he could use against him. Nothing ever came.
“All I ever did was wait for you to give me somethin’, Dad; somethin’ of who you were. You had everythin’ I ever wanted inside you. All I wanted was for you to give it to me. All I wanted is what every other dad gives his son. I could ask you to beg for my forgiveness every day, because then for once I’d have somethin’ to give that you didn’t already have and then I could say no. Just like the way you always kept me from what I wanted.”
Carson’s voice had become bitter and spiteful, a few tears inching onto his face as he talked. His eyes burned with tiredness and emotion and he resigned himself to close his eyes. He did not rest or calm himself in the uneasy, tenuous silence. His lip shook and he shivered, but he wasn’t cold.
“You’re right. I never gave you what I ought’ve,” Jim began calmly. “But you ain’t got nothin’ that I need and you ain’t got nothin’ to give me. We’re the same, kid. You and me. We’re both headed down this road with nothin’ worth saying and nothin’ but tomorrow between the two of us. So, we best both get on with it and stop actin’ like anythin’ can be different from what it is.”
Carson breathed deeply. Elizabeth Cotten was telling them through the cassette deck that praying time would soon be over because Jesus was coming back soon. They sat in silence and passed the same stream, which had arched its way all throughout the wild land and made it back to the highway’s narrow, eastward path. The sun was rising a bit higher and the air was still a cold shade of blue outside. Carson wondered where his mother was. Was she still sleeping, or had she slept at all since the fight. They’d driven almost four hundred miles through the night. Jim hadn’t slept since they started down the road. Carson opened his eyes, wiping a half-dry tear from his cheek in silence. A question formed in his mind and a knot was tied in his stomach.
“Why’d she make you take me last night,” he asked, his tone now void of its former spite. It was replaced by a faint flicker of desperation and it made him feel ashamed but he couldn’t help it.
Jim sighed heavily. They passed a roadside which read Baker City, 75.
“I think she sees me when she looks at you and any bit of me is too much when it comes to your mother. Bad luck for you, ain’t it? She don’t want you just the same as she don’t want me.”
Carson said nothing.
“Ah, hell. I brought it on you, I guess. You always were a good kid through all of it. ‘Shame for you to have it hangin’ on you, though. No boy deserves what we done to you.”
“That’s life,” Carson shrugged irritably, trying for some reason to act indifferent. “It’s like you said. We best both get on with it and stop actin’ like anythin’ can be different from what it is.”
Jim looked over and, for the first time, had a grimly remorseful look of pity for his son. He parted his mouth as if to say something but closed it again.
“How do you even know where we are, anyway? You didn’t bring a map with us,” Carson demanded, breathing deeply and shrugging off his emotion.
“I just know we’re still on 86. And I don’t need a map.”
“Where are we going?”
“Someplace that I want to be right about now, I guess,” Jim wondered aloud, looking out through the window at the landscape flashing beside him. “But I haven’t decided where that is just yet.” He laughed dryly; it was somewhat nervous. He lifted a hand up and rubbed his eyes in tired desperation.
“Guess that means I’m really lost after all. But it ain’t about knowin’ how to get someplace. It’s knowin’ where you want to be that matters. You’ll find the way to what you want. But if you don’t know what you want, you’ll always feel lost.”
“What do you want, Dad?”
Jim broke his eyes away from the road before him, which was his only solace. He reached his hand out, its skin cracked with age and work, and rested it on the back of Carson’s head. He smiled at his son for the first time since the last time, but it was a sad smile and Carson saw the tears in his father’s burning, pained eyes.
“I’m looking for forgiveness I don’t deserve. Forgiveness that no one could ever give to me for what I done.”
The road stretched on before them and fell back behind them. The both of them were lost and the sun didn’t rise any higher, the colors didn’t change. Just the tears, falling from their eyes, and they crossed the stream of glassy ribbon time after time. They passed over a steeply-sloping hill that rose up in a swelling ripple that rolled across the span of land before them. The world was quiet and still. As they descended down the hill’s eastern face, the road wound downward and was flanked by two straight lengths of barbed-wire fence. The wire was strung up between dark railroad ties like smudges of charcoal against the dimly-painted landscape. The fence broke at one point into a wide gravel shoulder on either side and, to the south side of the highway, a lonely and aging corral stood, bent low beneath the sky and rotting with age. A sign, which must have once displayed the ranch brand to which the structure belonged, had fallen to the dusty ground from its rusted chains. No one had come to replace it and, as Carson looked at the corral passing swiftly by through his window, he somehow knew that no one ever would come. It had been forgotten by everyone but travelers on the highway. They, too, would most likely forget it after passing on down the road. Carson saw the sign in the side mirror, barely upright and clinging to the weathered wood fence as it shrunk farther and farther behind them. As they drove on, he couldn’t forget the sight of the sign, and he never did.