This week, Let’s Get Published is revealing the top finalists and the grand prize winner of our inaugural short story contest.
Today we are pleased to present The Nowheres, a literary fiction story by David Antrobus.
The Nowheres by David Antrobus
A couple times each month, he’d drive out from the city to what he called the Nowheres, a flat, unremarkable piece of the rural Midwest, and pay for two nights, sometimes three, in a nondescript motel somewhere off the beaten track, thirty bucks a night or thereabouts. Sometimes he’d bring along a fifth of cheap bourbon, and other times he’d find a bar nearby and drink steadily and methodically, speaking only to the bartender before hiking unsteadily back to the motel on dark and mostly silent county roads.
He never told the few friends he had in the city what his purpose was, what he did out there in the Nowheres while Lucinda, Shelby, and Patty emptied their abandoned, melancholy hearts on a jukebox at the bar or on a cheap boombox in his room, in time with the ebb and flow of the Wild Turkey he tipped and swallowed without joy. He never told a single soul that he came out to the Nowheres to get drunk and write shit down—not any old shit, but the kind you needed to get out or it burrowed into your dark places like a soft, blind thing and over time became hard, mean, and cancerous.
Something about the lingering sunsets. The sudden stillness. Crepuscular rays spotlighting barns, grain elevators, corn patches, painting them briefly gold. Streaks of byzantium, coral, and vermillion like fever-dream inlets separating dark cloud archipelagos, ushered slowly westward into the flat horizon by the gentle darkness.
Like it or not—and sometimes he truly did—this was his country, on some level he barely understood.
This night, he crossed the gravel parking lot of the basic two-story L-shaped motel, looked up at the sign, the neon in one of the letters long leaked away: Mote. Because it was a mote, and he was a mote, and all the people and cattle and corn and fields were motes of inconsequential dust under the stars, which were also motes, but made of brightness. Beneath that sign, a smaller one, also broken: acancy, which sort of made him laugh. These lonely visits sure felt like acancies, even though he knew that wasn’t a word.
Other nights, after dark, he would look up at that same sky, in which a few stars trembled between the dark reefs of cloud that scudded furtive like the decamped souls of everyone who’d once pined and then died of some related strain of sorrow in this wide and disregarded place.
Traffic on the distant interstate was usually a muffled commotion that sounded like the landscape dreaming fitful dreams, but the railroad was closer, and when he heard the familiar abandoned rattle and moan of a passing train, his mind went to dirt and rust and peeling paint, went to sleeplessness and silent entreaties to sellout gods, went to shrieks and sparks and graffiti, and unquenchable longing. Went to her. His momma. Went to that day—and every day since—she’d turned off most of the light in his world by up and leaving. He’d been perhaps eight when he watched her slip away in the night, heard her quiet sobs until a night freight had blared and clattered by, stamping its larger grief on their smaller one, erasing theirs so no one even noticed it. No one but him. Those days, passing like ghost trains, each boxcar filled with ever more solitude. Those days when he couldn’t possibly blame her. Those days when he blamed her with a savage, perilous heat.
The pages he filled with longhand he’d sometimes set light to over the john, make of them black flurries, tiny apocalyptic storms, other times would tuck behind heating or air-conditioning units, slide into gaps in the fake wood paneling, under mattresses, or tear in tiny pieces while he cried raw tears. His memories made into words. Mostly of his momma but sometimes of his papa too. He still missed her; and less often, his papa too, god help him. He could keep on missing that sonofabitch forever, though, as he was never coming back from whatever sorry hell he’d volunteered for by finally swallowing the muzzle of a military-issue Beretta M9.
He knew he couldn’t do this forever. The coming of the interstates had proved a slow and lingering extinction event for the era of these motor courts, and this—whatever this was—wouldn’t work the same way in some Comfort Inn or Motel 6. Take this place—thirty-two units and only three vehicles parked out front. Always, always an acancy.
Back in the motel, room 27 on the second floor, where the two wings of the L join, he hit play and grabbed a notepad and pen, while Lucinda sang about some farmhouse out a ways and how she didn’t want no one to come find her if she strayed, and his whole breath hitched. He felt strange, like he was smaller and more scared, remembering his fear of the dark and of the lightning bugs that lit the dark, believing they were the souls of demons who’d lost their way to hell. More Wild Turkey and he began to write like the little boy version of himself was watching over his shoulder and giving him tips.
“Papa was meaner’n a yard mutt, but he never took his belt to me. He managed a kind of meanness you’d have to study for at some school of evil, if such a place existed. I know Momma left ’cause a him, an p’raps he did take his belt more’n once to her, or worse, but never to me. When he was real drunk he’d threaten to hang hisself from the rafters in the barn, or go lay down on the railroad tracks, or some variety of same. It sure got tiresome. But one day might as well stand in for all the days, he told me to follow him out to the barn, and I didn’t want to, but I knew things would only go sideways quicker if I said no. He sat on a hay bale and looked at me funny. He always looked at me funny, but this were a different kind of funny, like he didn’t really see me but someone else: maybe God or Jesus or some loan officer whose name he cussed on a regular basis. He was so drunk he was swayin’ slightly. He slurred, too, which was unusual as he had a high capacity for the rotgut he liked to drown hisself with. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘go bring me the shotgun.’ I stood still. I didn’t want to do such a thing, given the tenor of his usual threats. He looked at me out of one eye, the other closed as if even the dusty murk of the barn was too much light for him. ‘I said, go git me the shotgun or there’ll be hell to pay.’ Far as I could see, there already was hell to pay, no matter my part in all this, so after thinking about running and hoping he’d forget when he sobered up and then quickly abandoning that plan soon as I remembered I’d seen lightnin’ bugs out there earlier, I went to the tackle room and grabbed the old Winchester pump-action 12 gauge, trying not to think about what hell charged. When he seen me with it in my arms, like an altar boy bringing the priest the host, his face twisted into something unrecognizable. ‘Son, you’d bring a man fixin’ to end it all a goddamn fuckin’ weapon? Not jes’ any man, neither, but your own kin?’ I had no words. I jes’ stood there and took it. ‘You some kind of cold-blooded monster, boy?’ He stared for what felt like a whole day, and I closed my eyes and didn’t answer. I didn’t have no answer. Then he stood and without another glance in my direction went back to the house and to bed. While I stayed in the darkness of the barn, eyes still closed, and all of me trembling.”
He was trembling now, sometimes felt like he’d been trying to get halfway warm again for twenty-some years ever since, so he got up, put on a fleece jacket, and went out on the balcony for air. The night was quiet and cool. His pickup sat in a pool of light, as if the heavens were beaming him a message.
Then he had a dream.
A road-scarred nineties-model Corolla pulled up beside his truck and she got out the driver’s side. It was her; he had no doubt. Older, sadder-looking, dressed in black denim, but his momma. She didn’t see him right away, but when she finally looked up he waited for a reaction but saw little of anything at all in her dark Spanish eyes.
“Mister, could you help me here?” she said.
He swallowed and couldn’t make his voice work.
She opened the rear door of her Toyota and started dragging out something dark.
“Mister? Please? I hate to ask, but I think I twanged something in my back last night, and I jes’ need to get this into room”—she dug out a key and squinted at it—”eleven. Room 11.”
“Oh sure, ma’am. Be right down.”
That bare bulb was still spotlighting their two vehicles like they were on some ethereal backlot in a movie by David Lynch. This couldn’t be real, but he played along and took the nearby stairs to ground level. He wanted so badly to embrace her, to hold her, to bury his face in her cool dark hair now shot with strands of gray the color of heartbreak. When he recognized the object in the backseat as a guitar case, he felt like crying. Damn. She still played.
“You a musician?” he asked.
“You might say as I am, but it don’t exactly pay the bills.”
He recalled her thin but melodious singing voice and the early months of her learning to play, helping her string her thrift-store guitar and figure out how to tune it, grasping at chord shapes and building calluses, and how those were about the only happy memories he had from back then, before the light had gone out, before the music had quite literally died.
Turned out room 11 was directly below his. He carried her guitar and placed it on the bed.
“You’re a sweet man,” she said. “You gonna be around tomorrow night?”
“Uh, maybe, sure.”
“Well, you are or you ain’t, but if you are, I’m playing at The Busted Flush on Route 40, a couple miles east of here, and you’re welcome to come hear me. Ain’t no Patsy Cline but I know my way around a few good tunes.”
“I might just do that, ma’am.”
“You’re a polite boy. I like that.” She smiled briefly, then looked troubled for a moment, then let the veil fall again.
He wanted to scream at her, tell her in no uncertain terms who he was, rail at her for her betrayal, plead with her to come back, beseech her for her love, but none of that felt right, somehow. He was no longer a boy and this had to play out the way it decided to play out. Let her find his scraps, even if she was a dream; let him follow her spore, even if it weren’t.
Some believe each moment splits into many versions of itself, that we live so many different lives in so many possible worlds. If so, did he hook up with his mother, as appalling as that sounds, or did he go watch her play in a bar and get involved in a fatal confrontation after some drunk asshole heckled her, or did he do neither and return to the city and his shadow life there? Did he live all these things and more? Possibly. Better still, was his story really her story, and did she find his notes in a series of nondescript rooms over weeks and even months and piece together his identity and movements until she could pinpoint him, find him, try to make it up to him? That’s good, too.
But in this world it appears he returned to his room, to his sad caucasian girls and his fragments of memory, to stale air and worse decor, where he picked up the Beretta that had killed his papa, knowing why he’d kept it but afraid all the same, and he listened to another freight train run its ragged fingernails down the grainy backdrop of the Midwestern night, and he pounded more Wild Turkey while the reedy sounds of a phantom woman singing country tunes a floor below nearly drove him mad, out in the Nowheres, out where no one else came.