Jamie swiveled a quarter turn from her computer and said, “See ya.” Earlier she had vowed not to cry when I left the office, and she made good on that promise. I’d already hugged and kissed most everyone else in my department. I left the last kiss for Gretchen, squeezing all one hundred pounds of her, and kissing the top of her blonde ringlets.
Joe and I squirmed our way through Thursday ostensibly packing. Little was done, though, other than sitting in our familiar spots on the couch staring at the TV. I’d start to put things in a box, tearing up as I once again put Billy’s things, our things, back in a box readying them to go back home to where they belong. We were both exhausted from doing nothing other than anticipating the moment we knew would happen since the day we first met. I tucked Joe in on the couch, kissed him goodnight, and went to sleep in that bedroom for the last time.
Friday was the toughest goodbye. I knew it would be, and so did Joe. He handed me an unadorned small cardboard box, mumbling an apology for its lack of wrapping. Inside was his beloved mini iPod, the green one with the engraving Memento mori. Memento vivere..
“I always meant for you to have this.” While he showed me how to use it, he said he filled it with his favorite music. I half-listened while I wiped my eyes knowing how much this meant to him, knowing how much everything means to him.
The movers were hours late. I started to panic at having to leave town so late in the day. Finally, while the movers had just packed up the living room and were starting on the kitchen, I told Joe I had to leave to make time on the road. He began to carry the ten or so boxes filled with things I wouldn’t entrust to a moving company down to the car. It was DC swamp weather on Friday, and he came back soaking in sweat.
On our last trip down the elevator, he struggled with three heavy boxes while I held a cooler with one hand containing Billy’s unfinished Coke bottle, his uneaten tapioca pudding cup, two birthday toppings, one spelling out Happy Birthday Guyster and the other Happy Birthday Terry, and an unopened bottle of sparkling cider left over from our last New Years Eve. They’re chilled mementos from our refrigerator in Venice, and they’ll return there.
“You’re my pack mule.”
“Not anymore. Mickey can be your pack mule,” he said, wistful and angry.
We stood next to my loaded Explorer, and I kissed Joe all over his face, again and again, told him I loved him, and watched him wave through my rearview mirror as I pulled out of the driveway one last time.
Somewhere in the middle of the wide waist of Ohio, just past the Mad River my odometer turned to a one followed by five zeroes. Gretchen called a little while later, checking on my progress. I looked up at my digital compass. It read W.
“All I know is I’m headed in the right direction, both literally and figuratively.”
I pulled into St. Elmo, Illinois around eight on Saturday evening. It was a long day of driving marked only by brief stops to reload my Diet Coke, gas up, and take a leak. The in-laws had arranged a backyard party for me on Sunday, so I’d planned to stay in Guysterville for an extra day.
After checking into the same motel Billy and I had stayed in on our first visit to see his family, the same place where I’ve come back to visit without him, Chris and Becky, Billy’s nephew and his wife, came over for a brief visit before they went to a friend’s birthday toga party.
Sunday morning, I had breakfast with Billy’s brother, Bub, and his new wife, Karen, at the most popular buffet in Effingham, which is twelve miles down the interstate. We talked about the family feud, and if anyone had the gumption to make the first move toward mending it.
After breakfast, I headed into downtown St. Elmo, all one block of it, to videotape the places that mattered in Billy’s life: his high school, the abandoned Elmo picture show, a mural on the side of the IGA where he worked as a teenager, the railroad crossing where his oldest brother, Charlie, was killed by a train.
I looked at the thermometer in my car. It read one hundred, but with the humidity, the weatherman listed the heat index at a million degrees. There were no pedestrians, few moving cars, and the town was dusty. Chris and Becky threw me a backyard barbeque. Most of us used the napkins to wipe the sweat off ourselves rather than food off our mouths.
A large wheat-colored dog was galloping through the tall green timothy in the median of the highway in Missouri. I don’t know how he was able to dodge the speeding semis to get there, but I hoped for a shade tree and a bowl of water waiting for him when he decided to stop running.
Just outside of Effingham, a large steel cross adorns the side of the interstate. The locals claim it’s the biggest one in America, but there’s an equally large cross on I-40 in Texas that’s preceded with two miles worth of billboards announcing itself as the Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere. The only difference I noticed was the one in Texas had an adjacent gift shop.
I’m in Amarillo tonight lolling on a king sized bed, an air conditioner that works, and an internet connection. On a road dotted with scrub and sorrow, this is as good as it gets.