His boss told him he needed to head down to Indianapolis for a conference. Told him after lunch. Said, “No, wait until three to hit the road.”
“What about traffic?”
“You got time,” said his boss.
Tyler welcomed the chance to escape his wife for the weekend. They’d been married six months, and she would always cling to him the moment he got home from work. Suffocating. Jeez. They had their entire lives to be together. Didn’t she get it? He texted her before leaving, assured her he had his overnight bag in the trunk of his car. She called him immediately, whining about being left behind. He decided to forget his phone, leave it on his desk. He wouldn’t need it in Indy.
In Indy, where Tyler planned to scratch that itch. That one somewhere in the space between him and his wife that she had facilitated.
After crossing the border into Indiana, he stopped at a Pilot in Haggard. His aging Honda had sputtered on I-90. The fuel gauge didn’t always offer an accurate assessment. He gassed up and grabbed a bottle of kombucha. Two men near the coolers—broad-shouldered, plaid shirts, heavy work boots—talked about a state road, Old 55, that ran through the hills near Pawpaw Grove. Said it cut off a forty-minute chunk of I-65. He asked them how to get there. “Veers off regular 55,” said one of them. Rural accent. Must have been local.
The other one, eyes close-set, spoke in a deeper voice: “You best motor through there now.”
Tyler asked what that meant.
“You ain’t familiar with Pawpaw Grove?”
The men laughed. Guessed, though he refused to confirm, he’d come from Chicago. The one who couldn’t fashion a grammatically correct sentence said, “They got happenings in them hills no mortal could ever describe nor want for witness, you follow?”
He did not. He wanted to get to Indy, check into his room at the Ramada and find a pay phone to order an affordable escort. His buddies had offered to buy him one for his bachelor’s party, and taking his uptight father’s advice, he refused. That decision burrowed under his skin and wouldn’t cease asking ‘what if’ questions. The thought of never being with a woman other than his wife again had morphed into a monster of sorts—a regret haunting him, possessing him.
He wouldn’t cheat on Marissa, per se. He’d feel up the girl, maybe let her go down on him. Lay in bed naked with her. Talk about politics, about the idiot president. He thanked the men, paid for his bottle of kombucha and headed for the door.
“Hey,” said the trucker with the deeper voice. “Your tires crunch dirt, you’ve wandered off the proper road. Best backtrack.”
He thanked him again. They must be warning him about the people who lived there—the danger they represented to civilized folks. Growing up in Glencoe, he’d heard horror stories about friends who’d ventured into Indiana to tip cows. They’d encountered all manners of inbred genetic catastrophes, up to and including the Klan. Hard to believe such bile existed a few miles outside the city.
He folded himself into his Honda and rejoined onto I-65, turning up the radio. Static threatened to rob him of the pop songs on The Mix. As he veered onto State Road 55, the signal disappeared. He scanned the horizon for indications of Old 55 and set the radio dial to search. Nothing but religious stations and farm reports. He settled for a preacher spitting about hellfire and brimstone. The sadist’s superstitions reminded him of his father who’d emigrated from Kentucky but never abandoned his primitive beliefs.
Hills decorated with maples and cedars rose in the distance, a little higher than he’d expected. He’d read that a glacier had flattened northern Indiana; this patch of land must have been spared. A wooden sign on the side of the road announced in scrawled, white paint, “Old 55, next left.” A child’s handwriting. Or maybe an adult. Everything he knew about Indiana suggested the entire state had yet to emerge from prehistoric times. An X fashioned from barbed wire had been attached to the bottom of the sign.
Not long after turning onto Old 55, the uneven pavement rose into the shelter of the forest. The sun, melting in the west, poked through branches—through loose, early autumn leaves flickering in a subtle wind. Red, strobing light distracted him. Reminded him of his wife, talking while he watched the Blackhawks on TV. She’d walk into the den demanding attention, knowing he could not multitask. If his focus drifted to the television, she quizzed him, confirmed he’d not heard a word she’d said, got angry, and then pouted until he acquiesced, apologizing for something, frankly, she’d brought upon herself.
His ears popped, confirming that the road inclined more than it appeared through the windshield. Space between the trees narrowed the higher he ascended. Another hand-painted sign insisted he “SLOE DOWN!” An X composed of intersecting animal bones adorned the jagged post upon which the sign had been nailed.
The trees cleared and shanties built from patchwork aluminum and lumber lined the sides of the road. Steam curled upwards from their sloppy, brick chimneys. Wood, cloth, or stone-made slanted crosses had been nailed near the top of each door.
A shirtless codger in overalls and wading boots—arched and crooked as the chimneys on the shanties—stepped in front of the car, forcing Tyler to stop. The codger made his way around the Honda, slapping the hood twice. He rapped gnarled, purple knuckles against the driver’s window and motioned for Tyler to roll it down. Tyler considered showing him his middle finger and peeling out, not that the Honda would cooperate. The codger smiled. He must have brushed his teeth with soot or maybe baking soda. They stood straight and white as clouds in a rural sky. This hint of hygiene relaxed Tyler enough to oblige the old man’s request. The scent of barbecue, or maybe burning wood, wafted through the opened window.
“I understand your haste, brother,” said the codger. Redneck accent, like the Pilot truckers. Like his uptight father. A little gravel in his voice. Time, or cigarettes, or both. Tyler imagined dueling banjos playing somewhere behind one of the shanties.
“It’d sure be compassionate of you, however, to think about the little ones, might be playing outdoors.” He backed away from the car, glanced left and right, as though expecting something to emerge from the forest. “’Course, most children know better than to be outside this late.”
Tyler wanted to ask: You mean families occupy these shitholes? Instead, he replied, “Early curfew?”
“Anyone knows what’s best,” said the codger, “surely be indoors when the darkness settles. These hills breathe, brother. At night, they hunger.”
Brother. The codger called him brother. Did he not recognize the differences between them? Tyler attended film school at DePaul. He oversaw social media for Boeing. Earned six figures. Lived in a studio on Lakeshore Drive. What did the codger do with his time? Search for crawfish? Did they have those in Indiana? Was that a Southern thing? Didn’t matter. Once you crossed the Illinois border, you were in redneck country straight through Florida. Things didn’t get civilized again, as far as he knew, until you arrived in Cuba.
“So,” he said, already reaching for the button to roll up the window, “I should be, ah, you know, on my way.”
“You going to keep on Old 55, or turn around?”
Turn around? Did the codger brew moonshine? Had he gotten high off his own supply? “I need to be in Indianapolis …” He paused. Had the codger heard of these things called cities? Maybe he’d passed through one during his tour in the Civil War. “I need to be on my way.” Tyler eased the window up and removed his foot from the brake pedal.