They’ve called Ludlow a ghost town ever since Interstate-40 came along and destroyed its little Route 66 businesses. Sitting in the middle of the Mojave desert, sped past by most except those riding on the fumes of an empty tank, the only thing in Ludlow besides the abandoned diner are a gas station––a sign warns that the next fuel is eighty miles up the road––and the Ludlow Motel with its Vacancy sign always lit. In our house, though, the very mention of the name of that spit of a town meant, It’s time to shut the hell up and accept the fact that I love you, no matter how mad you or I are right now.
It was our time-out, or a safe word.
I spent Thanksgiving in Saint Elmo, Illinois, Billy’s hometown, where the business district is two blocks long, yet it’d make Ludlow look like a bustling metropolis, but once you get outside the town’s limits, there’s nothing but winter cornfields and an endless sky.
I drove to Mattoon, up north a bit, the next day to get my annual tattoo, a ritual that celebrates our anniversary. This year it was our sixteenth and while that number doesn’t have a particular meaning, I’d already designed what I wanted in my head.
His oldest sister Dixie asked me why I just got that name, Ludlow, tattooed on the back of my calf––I had it done in a classic sailor font with an orange fill. That night, we were at dinner with every member of Billy’s family except for that sister Deb whom no one likes (and I guess she feels the same way about them), and when Dixie posed the question, the table silenced, even little Jack, just thirteen days old, but old enough to know to hold his tongue when a good story was brewing.
“Well, when Billy drove out here to fix up Grandpa Hopper’s house…” I saw every eye on me, except for Kaeden and Kael, too young to know where they even were, and I felt like some exotic creature from that crazy big city out west, but I just continued.
Billy had called me in a panic, his little Toyota truck hadn’t made it more than two hundred miles away from home before it broke down. He was stuck at the gas station off the Ludlow ramp and the mechanic there told him all he needed was a hose. He’d already called an Auto Zone near our house and asked if I could drive it out to him.
Without thinking twice, I jumped in the car, bought the hose for five bucks, and got on the road for a nice long drive. It was about a half hour into the trip that the temperature gauge shot into the red––the only thing to do was turn on the heat so the engine wouldn’t burn up.
To make the story more exciting, and accurate, I emphasized to the family that it was a hundred degrees out, which made it cooler outside than inside the car, and I was sweating. Oh, and all four tires were as bald as the crown of my head.
I made it all the way to Ludlow, somehow, and found a dusty roadside motel and a gas station with one guy there who had no access to auto parts. Billy was sitting in his motel room with the door open waiting for me. When he saw me, he beamed and hugged me and said he could never thank me enough.
“Oh, yes, Guyster, there is a way you can thank me,” And there was. I thought of it while sweating over the past four hours.
Almost every bad fight we had, Billy would retreat into the corner of You don’t love me, you don’t care about me… and I would then have to find ways of reassuring him that he was, in fact, loved.
“OK, from now on, every time you think I don’t love you, I will say one word and one word only. Ludlow. The only reason I’m here, Bill Ledbetter, is because of love. Pure love. Love love love. Love drove that fucking car and love is going to drive it back. So. Ludlow. Got it?”
He nodded in agreement, went out to borrow tools from the attendant and fixed his truck himself. We went back into his motel room. It was dark and cool. We laid there in silence and then started to fool around. It was great being a fleabag motel room and we made the most of it. We fell asleep in each other’s arms. We woke up around nine at night, the sun had said goodbye, and it cooled off outside. I didn’t want to drive back the next day in the heat, so I kissed him, said “Ludlow” as a reminder, and left.
Ludlow became shorthand for love in our home. Ludlow is one of the many words engraved on his memorial bench that sits under the tree near his headstone. Ludlow.