Lisa and Jack
Lisa and Jack were driving west. “We’re just going to roam,” Jack had said. They’d
packed the telescope, but then learned from the locals that this was the monsoon season; and so it
became their routine to drive through the day and then at night hole up in a shabby motel and
watch TV and drink. Mornings were best because the front seat was shaded and cool. Jack
played his CDs or slept, and sometimes he joked about how ugly and empty and flat everything
was. Or sometimes he would make up a story about someone from the town they’d just left.
Jack always made them sound friendly and curious, and Lisa laughed because she loved this part
of the drive and knew that Jack knew that, too.
But by afternoon the sun filled the car, and the glare hurt her eyes. “Are you all right? Do
you want to stop?” This was always the same, too. “No, it’s too early to stop.” “At the next exit
then?” Once, after being out on the road for a week Jack had said, “I forget. How many times
do I ask before we get to stop?” For some reason that had delighted her and later at night in the
restaurant or bar or back in their room she would lean close to him and say, “How many more
times?” Jack would cover her hands with his, squeeze her fingers to keep them from moving.
“Behave yourself now. Behave yourself.” But Jack was smiling; she heard it in his voice.
Outside Albuquerque one afternoon they hit road construction. This was always worse in
the afternoons. “Relax,” Jack said. He patted her thigh, cupped the back of her neck. But it was
too close, too hot, and too slow. “I can’t stand it,” her mother used to say. “I can’t breathe.”
Once when she was very young Lisa and her sister had ridden the city bus with their mother. It
was summer, and the bus was stuffy and crowded. At one of the transfer stops the driver got off
and began talking to another man. Lisa’s mother began to doze as she often did. She had a habit
of talking in her sleep, and Lisa remembered thinking that if she could just squirm a bit she
might wake her. There were people standing all around, and the railings smelled like coins, and
her mother’s warm flesh pressed against her. “Hot,” her mother sighed and rolled her shoulder to
free her arm. She wiped her brow, dropped her hand to her lap. She stared at Lisa and for that
moment seemed not to recognize her. Then she leaned forward, tried to rap her fist against the
window. The blow was feeble and just glanced the pane. “Driver-san.” Her voice was phlegmy.
Someone snickered. “Driver-san.” In the next instant she was fully awake, and she slapped the
glass with each syllable. “Driver-san.” At the time Lisa and her sister flinched, embarrassed to
have attention called to them. But later, when they were adults, they laughed and repeated the
story to each other, certain it held some vital clue to their mother’s strength.
The construction detoured them off the interstate onto a two-lane blacktop. Graders and
dump trucks churned up soft grey dust. They were passing mailboxes now. Rural routes. Back
from the road were low wooden houses almost covered by brush. And then came the small
businesses: single pump gas stations and mom and pop grocery stores advertising cold
sandwiches and packaged goods. Finally there were small paved lots and the first of the strip
Jack pulled into one with a Laundromat and grocery store and Thai restaurant. He parked
the car, pulled the keys, leaned across her to get his wallet from the glove box. It was part of his
routine. A glance into the rearview mirror, one more check of the car’s gear. He opened his
door, and then turned back to her, “What are you doing? Are you coming?” And then he was
smiling, too. “What? What is it?” “Do you see me?” “Stop it,” he pushed her gently, but he
was chuckling now. “Stop.”
Inside the Thai restaurant it was cool and dark and silent. A middle-aged white man sat
behind the cash register. He was pot-bellied and unshaven and wore an old man’s sleeveless T-shirt.
“I lost my damn power early this morning, and all’s I got is what we can fix on the grill.”
He bumped around the register and guided them to a table by the windows. “A good ole boy,”
Jack said. “I bet his wife is Thai,” Lisa whispered. “What would Bear say?”
Bear was a somber gentle dog they’d had long ago when it seemed that every year they
were in a different job in a new state. It was when they made the effort to meet their neighbors
and coworkers. Jack was good at this; they both had been. Long stretches of conversation in
line at the store, or over dinners, or across the backyard fence. Everybody’s sweet dreams. At
night in bed Lisa and Jack would talk about those dreams and their own, and somehow
everything, the words, their shape and sound, more poignant hanging in the dark. “Oh,” Jack
would sigh, “Bear would say it was sad. It’s sad, Dad.”
Lisa glanced at Jack; he was staring out the window. It was pleasant in the restaurant; there
was only the natural light, and most everything was draped in soft shadows.
“Where do you think we’ll stop?” Lisa asked.
Jack shrugged, “Taos? Really anywhere we want.” He looked at her and smiled. “What?”
Lisa grinned. He tried to leer, and Lisa laughed.
Another couple came into the restaurant. They were healthy looking and handsome and
moved with an easy grace. The owner led them past Lisa and Jack.
“This is fine,” the man said. “This is fine. Right here is fine.” Their chairs scraped as they
sat down; the man sighed. “What do you want? What do you feel like having?” The woman’s
voice was too soft to be heard.
“Listen, I had this dish once,” the man said. His voice was loud as though he were
addressing all of them. “It was sweet. Sweet like candy, but it was fried. I don’t know the
name. You have anything like that? And we want those spicy noodles. Yeah? We definitely
want that. Chicken, I think. Spring rolls. Pork.” The man was chuckling, “We want a feast.”
“Listen, I don’t have any power. They cut off my power this morning.”
“Then bring us what you can,” the man interrupted. “We’ll take whatever you have.
The woman unfolded a napkin, smoothed it in her lap. She had narrow shoulders and
perfect posture. “I think she’ll be fine.” With her fingertips she smoothed the top border of the
paper placemat, then stopped, tilted her head and smiled at the man. “I think she was just having
The man placed one hand flat against the table and turned sideways, crossed his legs. The
table shook slightly beneath the pressure; the silverware rattled. “You know, let me tell you
something.” He turned to face her, leaned across the table. “This is what I don’t like about you.”
His voice was low but clear. “You never really say anything.”
The woman was still for a moment and then leaned towards him as though they might kiss.
The man drew back slowly; he looked around the restaurant for a moment then stood. He
walked passed Lisa and Jack, brushed the edge of their table. It seemed odd for him to be so
close. The scent of him, the fabric of his clothes, his cigarettes. The woman remained at the
table, put her slender hands in her lap. Then she rose, too, and walked across the restaurant and
out the door.
Jack, his head still lowered, glanced at the woman as she passed, “Someone’s in trouble.”
Outside the couple stood together side by side in the narrow shade of the awning. They lit
cigarettes and smoked. After a while the man turned and stepped around the woman and came
back into the restaurant. She pivoted and followed. Their order was waiting, and when they sat
they began to serve themselves and then eat, each with that undistracted, fully absorbed way
people in restaurants or buses or movie theaters always have when they believe they are totally
Jack exhaled a small sigh, “Oh.” She reached across the table and touched his hand. He
did not look up from his plate, but his fingers wrapped around hers.
It was Lisa’s turn to drive, and she wished for an afternoon rain, a thunderstorm, even hail.
She wanted the dark clouds to pile up and take the glare from the windshield. There would be
the heavy, wet smell of it, and in all the noise and wind the car would be this quiet, dry place.
But the sky was clear, the white light bounced off the windows of the other cars as they
drove through the slow crawl of Albuquerque’s rush hour. They followed the signs for the state
road that led north through the desert to Santa Fe. “At last,” Jack said. “This is it. Ah. Bear
would say, ‘We made it, Dad. We made it.’” Lisa smiled, rubbed her hand down Jack’s arm.
It was a two-lane blacktop that rose and fell with the desert’s undulations, and it would
have been fun to drive if not for the long line of cars.
“What is that?” She looked out at the desert. The sun was lower, and the scrubby brush
and rocks were rounded and dark with shadow. “It’s beautiful.” Lisa was speaking so softly she
knew Jack couldn’t hear. “I wish I knew the names.”
A geology professor had casually sorted through a handful of stones he’d picked up at the
dig site where the class met; he rattled off their origins as he let the stones sift through his fingers
like water. Impressive. She had been amazed and envious. “Bullshit,” Jack had said when he
heard the story. She had smiled and laughed, too. “He made it all up. How would you know?”
She had always loved this, turning things like pebbles to reveal a different side.
“How would I know?”
And Jack said, “What? What did you say?”
“How would I know the names?”
Jack said, “Oh.” He tapped her hand. “The names.”
Then the line of cars began to slow and when the road crested Lisa could see miles of brake
lights ahead, and in the rearview a line of glittering headlights. No other cars were passing them
“Damn,” Jack said. “Here we go. I knew it was too good to be true.”
Traffic stopped, and then the cars in front began to turn off their engines, and Lisa did the
same. The moon was large on the horizon; the sky was violet.
“Clear night,” Lisa said.
“Just your luck.”
They rolled down the windows; the air was soft and cool. Lisa sighed, slid down across
the seat and rested her head in Jack’s lap. She could smell the sweat and the soapy scent of his
cotton clothes. Through the windshield she saw a faint gleam. “A star.” “Sagittarius,” Jack said.
They had thought heading south they would be low enough to see the constellation, but the
rolling land prevented it. She smiled; her lips were very dry. “No.” “It is. It’s Sagittarius.”
The engine ticked, and then she heard the muffled slam of car doors. Voices, murmuring
“What’s going on?” she whispered. “Can you tell?”
She felt his body move, and she knew he was shaking his head.
“There’s no telling.”
She heard footsteps and then saw the profiles and backs of heads as people walked past the
car. Adults. Men.
“Where are they going?”
“I don’t think they know.” His fingers absently ticked against her shoulder.
He shifted, drew a deep breath and sighed. “Come on.”
Lisa turned her head; she heard deep voices and then laughter. She imagined them as
young men, their voices the banter as she pictured them tossing a white ball like another small
moon against the darkening sky.
“What if we’re stuck like this?”
Lisa closed her eyes and smiled. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
BIO: Barbara was born in Chicago and now lives in Nashville, TN.