When Mary woke up, they were lost. She knew it, and Clark knew it, too, although he didn't want to admit it at first; he was wearing his I'm Pissed So Don't Fuck with Me look, where his mouth kept getting smaller and smaller until you thought it might disappear altogether. And "lost" wasn't how Clark would put it; Clark would say they had "taken a wrong turn somewhere," and it would just about kill him to go even that far.
They'd set off from Portland the day before. Clark worked for a computer company -- one of the giants -- and it had been his idea that they should see something of the Oregon, which lay outside the pleasant, but humdrum upper-middle-class suburb of Portland where they lived -- an area that was known to its inhabitants as Software City. "They say it's beautiful out there in the boonies," he had told her. "You want to go take a look? I've got a week, and the transfer rumors have already started. If we don't see some of the real Oregon, I think the last sixteen months are going to be nothing but a black hole in my memory."
She had agreed willingly enough (school had let out ten days before and she had no summer classes to teach), enjoying the pleasantly haphazard, catch-as-catch-can feel of the trip, forgetting that spur-of-the-moment vacations often ended up just like this, with the vacationers lost along some back road which blundered its way up the overgrown butt-crack of nowhere. It was an adventure, she supposed -- at least you could look at it that way if you wanted -- but she had turned thirty-two in January, and she thought thirty-two was maybe just a little too old for adventures. These days her idea of a really nice vacation was a motel with a clean pool, bathrobes on the beds, and a hair-dryer that worked in the bathroom.
Yesterday had been fine, though, the countryside so gorgeous that even Clark had several times been awed to an unaccustomed silence. They had spent the night at a nice country inn just west of Eugene, had made love not once but twice (something she was most definitely not too old to enjoy), and this morning had headed south, meaning to spend the night in Klamath Falls. They had begun the day on Oregon State Highway 58, and that was all right, but then, over lunch in the town of Oakridge, Clark had suggested they get off the main highway, which was pretty well clogged with RVs and logging trucks.
"Well, I don't know..." Mary spoke with the dubiousness of a woman who has heard many such proposals from her man, and endured the consequences of a few. "I'd hate to get lost out there, Clark. It looks pretty empty." She had tapped one neatly shaped nail on a spot of green marked Boulder Creek Wilderness Area. "That word is wilderness, as in no gas stations, no rest rooms, and no motels."
"Aw, come on," he said, pushing aside the remains of his chicken-fried steak. On the juke, Steve Earle and the Dukes were singing "Six Days on the Road," and outside the dirt-streaked windows, a bunch of bored-looking kids were doing turns and pop-outs on their skateboards. They looked as if they were just marking time out there, waiting to be old enough to blow this town for good, and Mary knew exactly how they felt. "Nothing to it, babe. We take 58 a few more miles east... then turn south on State Road 42... see it?"
"Uh huh." She also saw that, while Highway 58 was a fat red line, State Road 42 was only a squiggle of black thread. But she'd been full of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and hadn't wanted to argue with Clark's pioneering instinct while she felt like a boa constrictor that has just swallowed a goat. What she'd wanted, in fact, was to tilt back the passenger seat of their lovely old Mercedes 'and take a snooze.
"Then," he pushed on, "there's this road here. It's not numbered, so it's probably only a county road, but it goes right down to Toketee Falls. And from there it's only a hop and a jump over to U.S. 97. So -- what do you think?"
"That you'll probably get us lost," she'd said -- a wisecrack she rather regretted later. "But I guess we'll be all right as long as you can find a place wide enough to turn the Princess around in."
"Sold American!" he said, beaming, and pulled his chicken-fried steak back in front of him. He began to eat again, congealed gravy and all.
"Uck-a-doo," she said, holding one hand up in front of her face and wincing. "How can you?"
"It's good," Clark said in tones so muffled only a wife could have understood him. "Besides, when one is traveling, one should eat the native dishes."
"It looks like someone sneezed a mouthful of snuff onto a very old hamburger," she said. "I repeat: uck-a-doo."
They left Oakridge in good spirits, and at first all had gone swimmingly. Trouble hadn't set in until they turned off S.R. 42 and onto the unmarked road, the one Clark had been so sure was going to breeze them right into Toketee Falls. It hadn't seemed like trouble at first; county road or not, the new way had been a lot better than Highway 42, which had been potholed and frost-heaved, even in summer. They had gone along famously, in fact, taking turns plugging tapes into the dashboard player. Clark was into people like Wilson Pickett, Al Green, and Pop Staples. Mary's taste lay in entirely different directions.
"What do you see in all these white boys?" he asked as she plugged in her current favorite -- Lou Reed's New York.
"Married one, didn't I?" she asked, and that made him laugh.
The first sign of trouble came fifteen minutes later, when they came to a fork in the road. Both forks looked equally promising.
"Holy crap," Clark said, pulling up and popping the glove compartment open so he could get at the map. He looked at it for a long time. "That isn't on the map."
"Oh boy, here we go," Mary said. She had been on the edge of a doze when Clark pulled up at the unexpected fork, and she was feeling a little irritated with him. "Want my advice?"
"No," he said, sounding a little irritated himself, "but I suppose I'll get it. And I hate it when you roll your eyes at me that way, in case you didn't know."
"What way is that, Clark?"
"Like I was an old dog that just farted under the dinner table. Go on, tell me what you think. Lay it on me. It's your nickel."
"Go back while there's still time. That's my advice."
"Uh-huh. Now if you only had a sign that said REPENT."
"Is that supposed to be funny?"
"I don't know, Mare," he said in a glum tone of voice, and then just sat there, alternating looks through the bug-splattered windshield with a close examination of the map. They had been married for almost fifteen years, and Mary knew him well enough to believe he would almost certainly insist on pushing on... not in spite of the unexpected fork in the road, but because of it.
When Clark Willingham 's balls are on the line, he doesn't back down, she thought, and then put a hand over her mouth to hide the grin that had surfaced there.
She was not quite quick enough. Clark glanced at her, one eyebrow raised, and she had a sudden discomfiting thought: if she could read him as easily as a child's storybook after all this time, then maybe he could do the same with her. "Something?" he asked, and his voice was just a little too thin. It was at that moment -- even before she had fallen asleep, she now realized -- that his mouth had started to get smaller. "Want to share, sweetheart?''
She shook her head. "Just clearing my throat."
He nodded, pushed his glasses up on his ever-expanding forehead, and brought the map up until it was almost touching the tip of his nose. "Well," he said, "it's got to be the left-hand fork, because that's the one that goes south, toward Toketee Falls. The other one heads east. It's probably a ranch road, or something."
"A ranch road with a yellow line running down the middle of it?"
Clark's mouth grew a little smaller. "You'd be surprised how well-off some of these ranchers are," he said.
She thought of pointing out to him that the days of the scouts and pioneers were long gone, that his testicles were not actually on the line, and then decided she wanted a little doze-off in the afternoon sun a lot more than she wanted to squabble with her husband, especially after the lovely double feature last night. And, after all, they were bound to come out somewhere, weren't they?
With that comforting thought in her mind and Lou Reed in her ears, singing about the last great American whale, Mary Willingham dozed off. By the time the road Clark had picked began to deteriorate, she was sleeping shallowly and dreaming that they were back in the Oakridge cafe where they had eaten lunch. She was trying to put a quarter in the jukebox, but the coin-slot was plugged with something that looked like flesh. One of the kids who had been outside in the parking lot walked past her with his skateboard under his arm and his Trailblazers hat turned around on his head.