The road is straight; a long ribbon of asphalt disappearing into the basin that Liam isn’t sure is named. It’s hot, almost invasively so, the sun a sadistic two-year-old granted divine powers.
A pickup passes and Liam raises his thumb half-heartedly. The truck speeds on and Liam sits down again in the dirt, listening to the rumbling. Where are these cars going, these metal cages that disappear into this hellacious place. This is the road that crosses this strange anomaly in space-time between Las Vegas and Reno, the emptiness that is known as Nevada; the place people look down on from planes. The pickup truck doubles back, skids across the double yellow line and stops in a pullout not far from where Liam stands. A man, muscular, hairy and clad in plaid. “You looked like you needed a ride,” the man says. “Where you headed? GORGEOUS.”
The last word puts Liam on edge. “California,” he says. “My name is Liam.”
“Liam,” the man says, as if digesting the name. “Thought you were a girl at first. California, huh?”
Liam doesn’t know how to respond to this. “California. My cousin lives in Oakland.”
“All you young ones are going to California,” the man says. “How old are you, Liam?”
“Eighteen,” Liam says, nearly spitting the word. He’s annoyed at how angry this makes him.
The man snorts. “That’s convenient! You know. Just became an adult. Still young enough to look convincing.” The man smiles and half laughs, as if it’s a joke. “Are you sure you’re not a girl?”
Liam crosses his arms over his chest. “I’m sure.”
They drive for a while, just drive, the highway refusing absolutely to make the slightest turn. Highways generally appear straight on maps, Liam thinks, picturing the maps in Kansas, maps laid out on desks in quiet corners, windows upon windows of yellow lines against white background on the blinking screen of Google Maps. “It’s time to go, Leah,” say his parents. He hates the bathrooms.
Does this highway look any straighter on the maps? He tries to remember this particular highway from the map. He laughs, though he’s not sure yet what’s funny.
“What’s so funny?” the man asks.
“This place,” Liam says, feeling a little more comfortable. “The emptiness of it. The brown, the purple, the jagged mountains, the absolute…..” he trails off. “Zero. Lack of anything.”
The man laughs for a while. He laughs to the point where Liam isn’t sure whether or not he will continue holding onto the steering wheel.
“Shit, Liam,” the man says. “That’s what all you city folk think. There’s plenty there. Sagebrush and water and hidden springs. We aren’t stupid you know, we desert people.” He narrows his eyes at Liam, moving his face between Liam’s thighs and chest. “Where you from? Cal’fornia? The East Coast?”
Liam laughs, barks almost. “No. Kansas.”
“Shit!” the man elongates the word, as if there are multiple shits, or perhaps one long shit that will take a very long time to finish. “Talking about nowhere and being from Kansas! We nowhere people should recognize each other, you know. We should. You hitchhiked from Kansas?”
“What was that like?”
“Blurry.” Liam shrugs. He digs around his pack, holds the remains of the kefir in his palm.
“What’s that?” the man asks, blending the two words into one.
“Key-fer,” Liam says, guessing at its pronunciation. “It’s a yogurt drink. I got it in Tonopah.”
“Scolari’s?” the man asks. Liam nods. “Just got back from there. Great food. Best around. ‘Course there’s just that and the store in Benton. But tha’s over the border. Takes a while to cross.”
“Does California have a customs station?” Liam asks.
The man guffaws. “Hardly. Agricultural Inspection Station. Might as well be customs, though. Takes so long.” The man removes one hand from the wheel and takes out a bottle of some type of alcohol, beer or whiskey, perhaps vodka. “I’m thirsty. I’s a desert, anyway.”
Liam squirms a little in his seat, hoping that the man doesn’t notice. The two of them drive along US 6 alone, the road climbing toward the tops of another jagged mountain range.
“How far are you going?” Liam asks the man.
“Basalt,” the man says. He slurs the syllables together and Liam wonders if he’s drunk already. “My ranch. Y’should stay wi’me tonight, Liam. S’late.” Liam has to work hard to understand what the man is saying but his driving ability doesn’t seem to have declined.
“I can’t,” Liam says, almost impatiently. “I’m going to California.”
“California’z‘bout four miles from Basalt,” the man says. “Been hitching nonstop from Kansas?”
Liam nods, wishing that he had lied.
“You deserve a break. Jus’ the night. Better than the side of the road.”
“There’s still all of California left,” Liam says, almost desperately. He feels a little like hyperventilating though he doesn’t know what it would accomplish. He needs to pee.
“California ain’t half as big as everybody thinks,” the man says. “Long, but ain’t but an inch wide really.” The man laughs for a long time.
“Let me out,” Liam shouts. The man stops laughing.
“Shit, Liam, I ain’t drunk. I just had a sip. You actually believe I was drunk?” And he chuckles, a wave of laughter, cascading down the mountain, evaporating in the basin below them.
“Stupid,” Liam says, thinking loudly but only muttering the words. He raises his voice without really thinking about it. “That’s a stupid thing to do.” His voice fills the car, surprising himself.
The man is surprised. “Well shit, I didn’t mean any harm. Pretty girl like you, you sure you’re not a girl now?”
“Reasonably sure,” Liam says dryly. He wonders if there is some exam to become a boy. What the definition is. Man, woman, boy, girl, none of the above. California, so close. SO CLOSE.
“What’s so close?” the man asks, surprised.
“California,” Liam says. “I just can’t believe that I’m almost there. It feels unreal.”
“There’s nothing really there,” the man says. “It’s all unreal. A line in the ground, that’s it. It can become a part of you, you know, these borders. The lines.”
“Thank you,” Liam says and he feels calm. “For…. what you just said.”
“No need to thank me,” the man says. “I’d love some company at my…. my place. Bar. In Basalt. Maybe a couple hours. Fill your tanks and all that.” The man sounds gruff and it makes Liam uneasy, but he remembers the borders, how it came out of the man’s mouth. Can this heteronormative, white, macho, Nevada rancher-man be simultaneously uncouth and polite? He wants to make his own words flow like the man’s but he isn’t sure what to do with his tongue.
“Alright,” he says and all of a sudden they seem to be there, crossing the road and pulling into a gravel turnout from the highway. The air is cool, brisk, and Liam wonders how high up they are. To the west the land falls away and the road makes its way down to a sagebrush-covered valley, light green. Liam walks across the parking lot, wondering why he is wasting time like this in a seedy bar, so close to California; opens the door to the clicking of dusty slot machines, whirring of neon, the clink of quarters as they disappear forever. The casino fades into a bar, the smell of cigarette smoke mingling with that of alcohol. The bartender has no teeth and smiles gummily at Liam as he sits down next to the man.
“Not from around here, are you, gorgeous?” another man calls. Liam feels on edge, as if the bar could explode at any moment.
“No,” he says simply. “From Kansas.”
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Liam,” Liam says. “Where’s the bathroom.”
“‘Round the corner, Leah,” the bartender tells him and he sees the two wooden signs, paint chipped away, that read ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Ladies.’ He exhales loudly, walks through the door marked gentlemen, walks into the stall, and slides the metal lock through the notch, sits down on the toilet and pees for a long time. He can hear the mumbled voices of men as they stand outside the stall. He stands next to the toilet, waiting for the men to file out.
Liam slides the metal lock away from the notch, remembering the silent glow of computer screens, the yellow roads that crossed white emptiness, a blur of numbers. The bathroom door is slightly ajar; he slides through it, back into the bar, and crinkles his nose at the cigarette smoke. Hank Williams is playing from a radio and Liam tries not to listen. He’ll leave, right now. He realizes that he’s still holding the bottle of kefir and he unzips his backpack and lets it fall with a dull clunk to the bottom, not sure why he isn’t just throwing it out. The man who called Liam gorgeous sets a glass of some sort of alcohol before Liam.
“On me, gorgeous.”
` “I have to go,” Liam says, shouldering his backpack.
“You just got here,” the man insists. “Pretty girl like you shouldn’t go running into and then out of bars. Drink up! It’s good liquor.”
“Beer and liquor, never sicker,” Liam mutters under his breath, feeling faint from the smoke. He sips from the glass and winces at the bitter liquid as it slides down his throat.
“Are you going to DRINK?” the bartender asks, her voice surprisingly loud. “Or WHAT? It’s good DRINK. Siddown, you come all the way from KANSAS.” Liam takes another sip of the liquor, bracing himself for the taste.
“NOW,” the bartender says. “I was WONDERING whether you’re a BOY or a GIRL.”
“Does it matter?” Liam breathes, not sure if anyone can hear him.
“What was that?”
“I need to go,” Liam says, louder.
“Ain’t that a SHAME. Lemme get WALT. He’s sure sad to see you GO!” Liam wants to leave, to spill the liquor onto the linoleum floor and dash through the casino back into the desert mountain air, toward California. The man who drove Liam here, Walt, returns from Liam doesn’t know where.
“Walt,” the bartender says, “Is this a BOY or a GIRL?” Liam isn’t listening.
“Saiz e’s a boy. She’s a boy. He’s a girl.” Deep throaty laughter from Walt mingles with smoke.
“I’M GOING!” Liam tells them. He reaches for the glass and takes another sip of liquor, his head feeling faint.
“WAIT,” the bartender says. “Are you a BOY or a GIRL?”
Liam unzips his backpack, removes the bottle of kefir. He places the open bottle on the counter.
“What ARE you?” the bartender asks him. Liam walks out of the bar, listening to the clink of quarters in slot machines. “What IS that?” He hears Walt’s voice, the word ‘kefir’, stands on the shoulder of US 6, walks down the mountain, leaning gently on the guardrail into California. He raises his thumb and a Prius comes to a stop.
“Do you have anything to drink?” Liam asks. “I’m dying of thirst.”
The woman driving opens the glove compartment, handing him a plastic bottle. Liam unscrews the bottle and lets the kefir flow down his throat until the bottle is empty.
“I never saw anyone drink that much.”
“Yeah,” Liam says. “I’m a big drinker.” He places the bottle at his feet without talking. California blurs outside of his window.
Zeke Gerwein was raised in Berkeley, California where they started writing at the age of four when they developed a near obsession with coming up with stories. After winning honorable mention in a city wide short story contest in elementary school they have since written and edited four novels as well as countless other short fiction pieces and short plays. They also enjoy travel by bicycle and have completed two fairly well read online travel blogs from which they have completed three short creative non-fiction pieces one of which was published by Adventure Cyclist Magazine. They are currently a corresponding writer on Nomenclatter e-zine and have performed their fiction at the Oakland School for the Arts, Oakland’s Black Box Theatre, and the California College for the Arts. They currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area where they attend school.