Ten miles south of Norfolk, Vonnie took the Tourguide map from the Rambler glove compartment and spread it out across her knees. Plotting rough co-ordinates on a Portsmouth Nags Head axis, she ignored the printed mileage chart and gauged the distance south with a makeshift caliper of thumb and index finger. “We’re way ahead of schedule, you know,” she said apprehensively, tracing a horizontal crease from the Outer Banks to the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Hours.
“Good,” he said without enthusiasm. “Great.”
“Carter, what I mean is—” She stopped abruptly, clasping her hands above the tricolored web of access roads. He seemed not to hear, more probably not to care. Oddly enough, she felt relieved, thankful her anxiety had not drawn him out too soon. For a moment she sat still, rewording her appeal. Then, tilting the map toward her, she dipped the frayed edge and peered again at the fuel gauge. The needle rested squarely on E. “What kind of mileage are we making, anyway?” she asked with strained nonchalance.
“So-so, I guess,” he shrugged.
She nodded, more to herself than to him, more in willingness to believe than in confirmation of it. Maybe now’s the time, she thought. Maybe he hasn’t noticed yet. Maybe the gauge was jammed. Was that so impossible? Knowing better, she shifted in the seat to face him, ruffling and smoothing the map like an apron, fidgeting to draw attention. The scowl distracted her. “Carter, Sligo is twenty-four miles,” she blurted.
“Oh yeah?” He rocked back slightly, flexing his shoulders.
“Say it for crissake, Vonnie.”
With an effort she checked herself again, fumbling for her sunglasses in the wicker traveling bag between them. They were too large for her, continually skidding down the bridge of her nose with any sudden movement, but she wore them, regularly and without complaint. Carter would be furious if he knew, she realized. He had spent nearly a week in search of light weight Polaroids, which he argued were practical in the long run despite the expense. Amused by his defensiveness, she had grinned affectionately (Carter, it’s me you’re talking to, remember?) and let it go at that. There was a time when she might have responded differently—with bitterness perhaps—but she had since learned to live with petulance and inconsistency, come to understand him, admire him even. Now, holding her head steady and her chin uncomfortably high, she stared at him through amber-tinted lenses, hoping to convey something of that admiration if nothing else. In profile his features seemed more relaxed—the surliness had drained from his forehead and his sallow cheeks, funneled from them really, pursing his lips in a silent, private whistle.
“'Danny Boy’?” she asked tentatively. She knew he sometimes liked to whistle “Danny Boy” or “Beautiful Dreamer,” depending on his mood, and she had always been responsive though she had no taste for them herself
He kept his eyes trained on the highway. “Gershwin, okay? Sousa. Francis Scott Key.”
“Mind if I listen?” she asked, smiling, trying urgently to sound lilting, lyrical, melodic, a fit accompanist for her husband.
“Look, Vonnie. Let me tell you something—”
There was no need for him to continue. She turned quickly away, smothering remorse by refusing to admit it, contemplating instead the gray, in different bank of clouds that had followed them since morning. Harshly metallic now, the autumn sky was swollen with thunderheads—a dense, murky sky, no longer distant or impersonal. Small, darting birds, she noted, were clustered in the sumac thickets near the road, and as she watched, a stand of pine that screened her view of the coast began to sag and swirl to life with the promise of stiff winds. “Carter, you could turn around,” she said, removing her sunglasses nervously. “There was a Gulf Station—”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw him grip the steering wheel more tightly, set his jaw in studied defiance. Instinctively, she groped for the arm rest to brace herself. When he braked, swerving violently for the sloping, russet-graveled berm, she thrust her shoulders back and wedged them hard against the door. Panic wadded her throat, and she did not cry out. Only the clatter of coarse stone striking underneath the chassis signaled their skid in time to curb him. As he veered abruptly left, she felt the front tires clutch the sunburnt shoulder and scramble for the pavement. The wicker bag swayed forward on the seat and toppled, yawning Kleenex, pencils, chewing gum and unmailed postcards to the floor. They coasted to a halt. She waited, speechless and wide eyed, not yet releasing her grip. Ignoring the explanation her open stare demanded, he yanked the hand brake, notched the automatic shift on PARK. “You drive,” he said with a blandness that astounded her. “I’ll walk.”
Seeking refuge in submission, she began to fold the map, mutter a confused apology. He stalked away in silence. Not yet believing, half expecting some signal from him, a familiar grin, the leather smooth laugh (Had you worried, baby, huh?), she forced herself to wait, to watch an orange van loom up in the mirror, gather speed on the downgrade and rumble past: ALLIED VAN LINES. You Can Always Trust— ”The slogan blurred.
As the last of the diesel roar drained away to the south, she bent to straighten up the clutter on the floor, resisting for another moment the backwash of stillness. Languidly, almost imperceptibly, the red dust filtered down across the wind-shield, corroding the world about her. Even Carter, striding resolutely to ward some secret vision of wind-swept sky and glass-green sea, seemed blunted and diminished by the effect. You Can Always Trust. She caught her breath. Just beyond a battered mileage marker he had paused to glance at her, as if for once regretting the distance he had carved between them. For a moment it seemed he might trudge back repentently or cup his hands and shout, I love you, I love you. Instead, he crouched and pried loose pebbles from the lip of black macadam, standing again to lob them sidearm at the fringe of scrawny trees.