“Give it,” Jimmy said. He had one hand on the wheel and one extended at me.
“Hold on a second.”
We were beginning to swerve into the other lane.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” I said, trying to hold the bowl in one hand and the lighter in the other. We had been driving for over an hour. The roads had stopped looking familiar about ten minutes earlier, and I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that we were lost.
“What road?” Jimmy asked, smiling as he said it. It was the same old Jimmy. The same stoner jokes, the same stoner smile.
“Here.” I held the bowl out to him. He took it in his hand along with the lighter and raised his knees up to the bottom of the steering wheel to drive while taking a hit. He exhaled and the smoke billowed out of his mouth and brushed against the windshield that was dotted with the bloody, green remains of kamikaze insects.
“Man, I’m pancaked,” he said.
“I’m pancaked.” He started laughing and the car slowed down as we veered out of the right lane and onto the right shoulder.
“Hey man, watch the road.”
“What road?” he asked again, this time laughing harder until his eyes closed and tears started streaming out of them. We were driving almost as slowly as the elderly couple walking their dogs next to us.
“Slow down,” I said. “I’m gonna ask these people for directions.”
Jimmy stepped on the brakes and we pulled up next to a gray-haired man and woman in sweatshirts who were walking two fat Border Collies on leashes. The man’s sweatshirt read UVA sucks. He wore an NRA hat and sunglasses. His wife also wore sunglasses but her sweatshirt was not quite as abrasive. It simply said Go Hokies on the front and #97 on the back. She smiled as I leaned out the window.
“Excuse me,” I said as we pulled to a stop.
“Yes?” the woman asked.
“Could you tell us how to get to Mossy Creek?” It had been a long time since I had smoked and all of a sudden I realized that I was way too stoned to be talking. My mind was off. My eyes were heavy and half closed. I tried to concentrate on the couple in front of me. I tried focusing on the task at hand, but then rapidly, and without warning, the doctors’ voices crept back into my head, and with the presence of their voices, I could feel my eyes go crossed.
“Sure,” the woman said, “you drive down this road for about two and half miles. Take a right at the stop sign onto Clover Hill and go down that for about half a mile. Once you get to a fork in the road you need to veer left. You’re gonna want to go right, but that’s wrong. Be sure to stay to the left.”
I was nodding my head like I was listening, but it was too late. The doctor’s voices were now way too loud to be ignored and I was focusing on them and not the woman in front of me. There was nothing you could do, one of them had said. These things happen, another had added. But at the time, Anna hadn’t bought it, and I guess, neither had I.
Sitting in the car beside me, Jimmy was croaking like a frog. He screeched out the word ‘ribbit’ at varying degrees of audibility and then rested his head against the window next to him. The woman outside kept giving us directions.
“Thank you,” I said when she stopped talking and started staring.
“You got it?” she asked.
“I got it.”
“You want to reel them off back to me just to make sure.”
“No thanks,” I said.
“Okay. Well, have fun.”
“Thanks. We will.”
“Ya’ll going fishing?”
But before I could answer Jimmy had slammed his foot on the gas and we were barreling down the road towards a group of turkey vultures that sat in the middle of the black asphalt.
“What the f**k man?” I asked.
“Dude, that sucked.”
“You’re an ass. They were giving us directions.”
Jimmy looked at me like I had a penis growing out of my forehead. It was a look that I had forgotten, and one that I had not missed. I shook my head, and Jimmy flicked me off.
“Don’t be a pussy,” he said, and we drove in silence to the end of the road. Green fields stretched on either side of us. Fat cows lurked along the wire fences, grazing and mooing and staring up at us from time to time with looks on their faces that said we didn’t belong.
Jimmy drummed the steering wheel and sang along to Guns ‘N Roses. He drove until the road came to a T-section and then stopped and stared at me.
“Now where are we supposed to go?” he asked.
“I think she said to go to the left.”
“You think, or you know?”
“I think I know.”
“What?” I asked. “You don’t know.”
“No, I don’t know, but I wasn’t the one asking for directions.”
“No, you were the one making frog noises.”
“Okay, fine. We’ll go left.” He put on his blinker. “Just like college.” He shook his head with a smile and stepped on his brakes. He then spun the truck down to the left and we drove along a small creek that ran beneath a thin stand of trees. The creek was just wide enough for a few inner tubes, and Jimmy said that if the weather stayed warm for another couple of weeks, that I should come back down for a tubing trip. He said that earlier in the summer, they had gone almost every Saturday. He had been trying to get me down for months.
“It’s not good to be alone in times like these,” he had said. And of course he had been right, but at the time, I hadn’t wanted to listen to him or anyone else.
Others had said things like: “It was meant to happen,” or, “It was God’s will.” But I didn’t buy that any more than Anna did, and after we got back from the hospital and after she had left without saying good-bye or leaving a note, I didn’t think that that was God’s will either.
Jimmy didn’t get philosophical.
“Sally still lives here,” he’d said over the phone. “She still lives here, and she still looks the same.” Maybe, it would help, he’d said. Maybe a float on the James and a trip down memory lane was just what the doctor had ordered. Maybe all I needed was to forget, was to ignore it all and just move on. But when the time had come for me to get in the car and make the drive down 29, I had walked back upstairs and crawled under the sheets and stayed there until my boss came by three days later to see if I was all right.
Jimmy slammed on the brakes.
“This is wrong,” he said.
“This is wrong. We’re going back towards the highway.” The mountains in the distance were round and green, but they were the wrong mountains. The ones we wanted were scarred by a forest fire. Jimmy was right. We had to turn around.
“When you ask for directions, you’re supposed to listen to them,” he said, showing real frustration for the first time.
“Don’t pin this on me. You were there too.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t the one she was talking to.”
“Just turn around and we’ll go down the other road. We’re close.”
Jimmy ripped a U-turn and sped down the road in the opposite direction. He pulled the bowl out of the console and lit it, once again driving with his knees on the bottom of the wheel. A deer stood on the side of the road, and I gripped the steering wheel while Jimmy took a hit. Another deer stood behind it and watched as the first one trotted out into the middle of the road in front of Jimmy’s truck. I yanked on the wheel and Jimmy dropped the lighter, keeping the glass bowl clenched between his teeth.
“Holy sh*t,” he yelled, not taking the pipe from his mouth. The back wheels skidded out behind us, and suddenly we were fish-tailing down the road. Jimmy exhaled, and I half expected him to take another hit.
“Grab the f**king wheel,” I said.
“Holy sh*t,” he yelled again.
The deer jumped out of the road and onto the shoulder on the other side before bolting up and over a green ridge. In the rearview, I watched as the other deer raced across the road, following its friend over the hill and into one of the fields that stretched out above us.
We stopped, and Jimmy placed his hands on his head.
“I just saw my life flash before me,” he said.
“Keep your eyes on the f**king road.”
“I’m serious, man. I thought that was it.”
I sat without answering, knowing that the next words out of my mouth would only make things weird. Jimmy looked over at me, and I think that he felt the need to apologize even though he had said nothing that should have made him feel that way. I looked away, and after a few seconds, Jimmy regrouped and we pressed ahead, slowly making our way around the sharp turns of the country road. Before long, we reached a fork.
“Veer to the left,” I said. “She said to go left.”
“You said to go left last time.”
“I know. I meant that we were supposed to go left here.”
“f**k that. I’m going right.”
“Go left, man. I remember. She said to go left here.”
“Like I’m listenin’ to your ass again.”
He turned right and after five minutes of driving we were as lost as we had been an hour earlier.
A house sat up on a hill in the distance. The sun was falling behind the mountains and the occupants of the house had turned on their porch light and some of the lights inside. As we got closer, I could see a man a few years older than myself sitting on a sofa with a little girl sitting next to him. A blonde woman stood in the doorway above them. She looked like she was about to have a baby. They made a nice looking family and watching them all smiley and giggly-faced, I felt my stomach go hollow.
“This is wrong,” I said.
“I said, ‘This is wrong.’ We’re going north. We need to be going west. You gotta turn around.”
“You turn around.”
“I’m serious. We’ve gotta be going west.”
“We are going west.”
“No we’re not. Look at the sun. West,” I said and pointed across him at the mountains.
“All right. Fine.” Again, he turned the truck around.
Back where the road forked in two directions, we turned onto the road that we should have taken earlier, and before too long, the scenery suddenly became familiar.
“We’re here,” Jimmy said.
“Yeah, I think you’re right.”
“I know I’m right. Look,” he said and pointed at a run-down wooden shack that marked the edge of a small gravel lot. He pulled into the lot, and we jumped out to rifle through our gear in the back of his truck. After getting what we needed, we struck for the dirt trail that hugged the stream, our rods on our shoulders and our fly-bags and vests in our hands. Jimmy walked a few feet ahead of me, and I let the distance between us grow.
“Hurry up douche-bag. We don’t have much light.”
“I’m coming,” I said, but I had lost interest miles back.
Jimmy stopped at a fence and waited for me before crossing over. He held the barbed-wire down for me, and then I did the same for him. On the other side, the grass was taller and less forgiving. Weeds grew among the grass, and thorns grew among the weeds, cutting my bare legs as we walked through a field and down to the stream. Once we got out of the tall grass, we walked along an old wooden fence on the edge of the field to avoid the herd of white cows that glowered at us between moos. Cow patties decorated the ground around us, and swarms of horseflies flew from the patties to my legs, crawling up and down them to drink the fresh blood that the thorns had scratched up. Swatting and walking and leaning to swat, we made our way through the field and reached the first fishable section of the stream.
“You take this,” Jimmy said.
“Yeah, I’m going up higher.”
I stopped and set down my bag and then started to pull the floating line through the eyelets of my rod.
“Here.” He handed me a handful of small olive-green flies. “Start with these.”
He stood, watching me as I fed the line up the length of the rod and through the tip. My hands were shaking, and I knew that Jimmy could tell. He looked away and pulled up a blade of tall grass. After a few seconds I had the line and leader through the eyelets and a small fly on the end of it.
“You all set?” Jimmy asked.
“I think so.”
“I’ll just be up there.” He pointed to a large willow tree that sat on the far side of the stream, its long feathery branches dripping into the water. “Okay?”
I turned my back and listened to his feet crunch down on the brush and tall grass of the field. I held my rod in my hand and whipped it back and forth a couple of times to get the line out and then sat down in the grass to watch as the current pushed the fly into some weeds along the far bank. It bobbed up and down in the water and then broke from the weeds only to be carried in a frothy stream of bubbles back into the middle of the current. Within seconds, the line shot down stream and became taught, dragging the fly with it and creating small v’s of wake that streamed away behind it. Skating on the water like that, the fly looked like it might take off. I lay down in the grass and rested my head on the top of my arm and stared at the little green dot as it jumped and slid across the surface of the water, almost believing that it had real wings, half hoping that it could take off and disappear.
From where I sat I could hear Jimmy yelling further up stream. He had a fish on. It had taken him less than five minutes to hook it, and from the urgency in his voice, it must have been a big one. Get the camera, I heard. Hurry, he yelled, but I did not move. I no longer cared about fishing or Jimmy or Jimmy’s fish. I no longer cared about forgetting or ignoring or moving on. All I wanted to do was sit and remember and wonder what our life would have been like. All I wanted to do was walk into our small apartment and go upstairs to our small bedroom and hold Anna and tell her that sometimes these things just happen, that it must have just been God’s will, knowing perfectly well that neither of us would have believed a word.