are whole novels and stories about Route Zero and the drivers who take
it and the reasons they do it. This is not one of them.
only one tow truck in the north corner of the county, and it belonged
to A and A Salvage. Operating out of a building made from two cable cars
set on a little lot overshadowed by redwood trees and manzanita, Elisabeth
Goodman and Melissa Juneau were famous throughout the county for their
promptness, intelligence, and clean work, as much as for their eccentric
1ifestyle. People would call from down in town, and drive half an hour
for a part. Otherwise they might have to drive an hour to go "over
the hill" to Banner or San Jose, and half the time fail to get the
thing they wanted. Melissa would assure them fast delivery and make good
on it. They were hooked into the statewide car parts computer network
and Melissa never made mistakes in transcription. Elisabeth always knew
which substitutions were good and which ones were not, and if there was
no exact substitution available she could make one herself with a near-fitting
part and her roomful of machine tools.
in a reclaimed pump house fitted with a multitude of old many-sashed windows
all sporting different catches and latches, with lattice-shielded decks
to the left and right and the bed in a narrow loft. Elisabeth had come
first; by now she was looking at her fifties, and while she kept her graying
hair short and always wore hickory striped coveralls or faded tight jeans,
it was she who was responsible for the crocheted things and the red geraniums
around the place. She built the latticed decks, and planted them with
Melissa installed the modest solar-heated
hot tub. She was famous as far away as Fremont and San Luis Obispo for
solving the most mysterious electrical problem ever encountered in a car:
though naturally, when all was said and done, the guys could discount
her success, because the problem ended up being in the alternator, where
six people had looked for it before and missed at.
Melissa had turned up at A and A Salvage
quite suddenly while she was still very young, and at first the car men
in the county couldn't quite believe what they were seeing. There were
still men at the auto parts stores in town who shook their heads in wonder
when she sashayed in, lips and nails bright as sunset, to pick up cases
of oil and assortments of spark plugs, flirted outrageously, and finally
gunned the motor on her cycle and zoomed back up the hill to the quaint
place where her butch old lady waited, peering into the crankcase of a
Buick or a Mazda.
Although the end of the county they worked
was sparsely settled and off the tourist track, A and A Salvage got plenty
of business. There were the referrals from town -- "I don't know
what else to do, call A and A. They might be able to figure it out."
There were the locals, who might trundle up to A and A for anything from
a fuel tank for a 69 bug to a clutch for a small tractor. And there
were breakdowns and wrecks. The treacherous winding roads would wash out
in the winter and crack wide enough to break a rim in the summer. Some
were not really wide enough for two lanes, and none of them had enough
signs. Some roads were so steep that even the sleek modern cars could
boil over on them if there were bad enough conditions, such as a detour
from the main highway, a dead deer, or a crafts fair at the church on
Popcorn Grade. The residents up there had a neighborly habit of reporting
to A and A whatever they saw.
Melissa had the reputation for being the
friendlier of the two because she'd chat with folks, give advice, explain,
speculate. Elisabeth, thoughtful and quiet, wasn't really unfriendly,
but she didn't encourage prolonged conversation Perhaps she was already
losing her hearing. Anyway, Elisabeth never had to fend off misunderstandings
as Melissa sometimes did. There was only one time when Elisabeth's intentions
were in doubt, and that was due to the mysterious car.
It was late in the summer that the car
appeared. A neighbor who was passing up Dry Creek Cutoff found it abandoned
by the road before it had completely cooled down. It had been in good
condition up until the head cracked. It had no plates, and no papers in
the glove compartment. It was clean and empty, nothing in it to identify
or even hint at the driver. It was no make that Elisabeth or Melissa had
It had no name on its slate-gray flank:
only a series of letters and numbers, KQ36004. It was of the same general
style as the regular run of cars of the day, square and unprepossessing,
with bucket seats up front, low headrests, and a bench seat in the back
with three sets of lap belts. The engine wasn't exactly like any other,
but it was recognizably a six-cylinder internal combustion engine. Melissa
and Elisabeth admired it for its subtle spare lines, its unpretentiousness,
and its mystery. Melissa reported it through the usual channels, and some
unusual ones too.
Since there was nobody asking for it, Melissa
and Elisabeth worked on more urgent things while the KQ as Melissa and
Elisabeth called it for lack of a better name -- sat next to Melissa's
grape arbor. But when work was done for the day, either Melissa or Elisabeth
could be found, gazing at the anonymous but somehow especially graceful
It was Elisabeth who first discovered the
radio. From the first they had each been aware that the dial was numbered
wrong, but it seemed such a minor detail that neither of them really thought
about it or spoke of it. But Elisabeth had a Honda up on ramps for a brake
job next to the KQ one day and she wanted music, so she tried the KQ's
radio to see what its strange numbers meant.
Unfamiliar music came out of the little
door speakers. t didn't even belong to a style Elisabeth could readily
identify -not that she was exactly current on all the music -- but she
liked it. It rocked a little, and had a sort of folky sound too, but with
Latin interpolations. It was exotic ft that it wasn't what she knew, but
familiar in its cheerful, humanistic sensibility. After she confirmed
that Other radios couldn't tune the station in, she began moving cars
around so she could listen to that music while she worked. She had to
charge the battery a couple of times, which made Melissa nervous because
everything was so nonstandard on the vehicle. But as it turned out there
was no problem.
T can't see why you like that station
so much," Melissa said, whose tastes in music ran to snarling and
chirping young women who used their instruments hard.
"It's a challenge to make out the
words to the songs," Elisabeth said, not wanting to admit that the
optimistic, good-timing fo1k-rock sound stirred up a longing she hadn't
named in years.
The songs expressed a sense of hope and
drive that Elisabeth recognized from the decade of her youth. The music
put her in mind of massive outbursts, grandiose projects, strong opinions
-- some she had since recanted, and some she still held though she no
longer found the opportunity or motivation to express them. Some of the
songs were so simple she blushed: mere slogans. Others were poignant in
their complexity, subtlety, and reach. Their subject matter was at once
familiar and mysterious. The mystery was in specific references: for example,
there was a song that told the story, complete with names, of sixteen
people who rebuilt a bombed-out apartment complex on Story Road in San
Jose. Elisabeth thought: if it were a true story, wouldn't she have heard
about the bombing? But it wasn't the only song that referred to bombs
and even missiles. And it was never Bosnia or Armenia in the songs, but
places that sounded like they were in California.
Then there were the embarrassing slogans.
Elisabeth recognized the kind of thing. One song was composed almost entirely
of exhortations: "Unite and Rebuild," was the refrain, and one
verse was repeated three times: "Rake the rubble, plant the seed,
peace and unity is what we need: armed and alert, singing the song Of
freedom and justice and moving on."
Elisabeth remembered chanting stuff like
that in her youth, but here the slogans seemed to be referring to something
present and rolling, and not something the singers were trying to start.
She wondered what she had missed in the world. In what English-speaking
country -- must be in the Third World somewhere
-- was there a new, hopeful revolutionary
regime, so new that it had not yet succumbed to factionalism and despotism?
Was there some country she had failed to fallow, still producing this
kind of propaganda? The music was so snappy that she was sure the musicians
must be in the first flush of sincerity, not worn-out, dull Party hacks.
It was Melissa who first lucked into hearing
speech aver the radio. Melissa wasn't comfortable about Elisabeth playing
the radio all the time, thinking that the owner of the car would not like
it when he or she finally showed up, but she sat in the KQ with the radio
on herself from time to time, listening to the same station, in spite
of how soft the music seemed to her. She made a note of its location and
turned the dial a little, but it was the only station playing such strange
stuff. It was hard to get back on to it after she had left it. She discovered
that she had to push the button at the end of the dial at the same time
as she turned the knob.
When she succeeded in returning to the
mysterious station, a song about migrant workers had just ended with a
rousing exhortation to support the radio telephone network of Valley farm
workers. A young man s voice began an excited speech rendered almost unintelligible
with alien slang: the part that Melissa got was the part that said "that
song goes out to Paco from Letty in honor of the second anniversary of
the first radiotelephone ballot in the Central Valley. And now for a message
from a driver of another kind. This is from Kyle of the Branch Road Crew
for Juanita, please to remember him when you're at opposite branches of
Route Zero. And can I add as one turtlehead to another that I for one
will be glad when we can shut it down! Thanks to our drivers in distant
worlds, we will soon be able to. "
The song that followed was a standard incoherent
song of the road, with references to loneliness, rootlessness and landscapes
"just like home but alien as the stars." But for Melissa there
was hidden in the song a clue to the restlessness she saw in Elisabeth
when she'd been listening to the KQ's radio, and she was not sure she
was better off far hearing it.
The speaker came on again right after the
song, repeating the dedication, and proceeding to list a series of accomplishments
in various neighborhoods. Some of the places were familiar to Melissa.
He spoke of apartment complexes refurbished, libraries restocked, schools
enhanced, factories starting up in South Winsome, San Lazarro Gardens,
Ottoman, Caviota, and Cerro Grande, and he explicitly referred to the
thing Melissa and Elisabeth had guessed at: he praised his listeners for
"sticking it out through the civil war."
"A hoax," Melissa thought. Like
"War of the Worlds," but ongoing. She didn't tell Elizabeth
what she had heard, not that it made any difference. When Elisabeth heard
the same kind of speech herself soon after, she became enraptured with
the radio. She would come to meals with a distracted look, astonishing
announcements running through her head:"Here's a song dedicated to
the Coalition of Democratic Parties presenting their proposals at the
peace talks in Des Moines" and "If you're going north today,
take an inland route. Bandits have closed Highway One south of Half Moon
Bay" and "Las Hermanas Lesbianas of San Lazarro Gardens dedicate
this next number to Sister Maxie Gutierrez. Get well soon: Everybody admires
your work in reorganizing the Seascape wafer tab plant!"
Melissa thought there was something sinister
about such a sustained effort spent on lies and mystification, and she
didn't like the snatches of revolutionary tune that would escape as Elisabeth
stood under the manzanitas and detached a quarter panel from a Subaru.
~She thought it was a bad direction for Elisabeth to go. She did try to
distract her with her own natural charms. But what would have worked for
the Bosch and Moen dealers only irritated Elisabeth. Elisabeth could always
admire Melissa; the radio she could only listen to until the KQ's owner
The KQ had been sitting next to the grape
arbor for only a week when a strange woman walked into the A and A Salvage
office. She appeared so abruptly that Melissa, reconciling the books in
the office, was startled and disinclined to trust her with the car. But
the woman produced a valid-looking pink slip, listing the KQ as an Aerodynamic
Queen KQ36004, model year 1g37, with the name Hermelinda Gonzalez as the
owner. And next to it lay the glaring holography of her California driver's
license: a good likeness, the name Hermelinda Gonzalez again, an address
"My nephew was driving it," she
said, and Melissa knew immediately that she was lying, and why. "Silly
boy, he panicked, and walked all the way down into Winsome and didn't
call me for days."
"The car has a cracked head,"
Melissa said. "Elisabeth can fix it, but it'll cost you. I can't
find this car anywhere in our lists. Elisabeth will have to practically
make it from scratch. But she can do it."
"I was afraid of that," Hermelinda
said, smiling broadly. "I told my uncle when he gave me the car it
was going to cause me trouble some day. Oh well It's been good till now."
"Where does it come from?" Melissa
"I'm not really sure. Overseas? Somehow
I think Liberia, or maybe Singapore. Fly uncle travels."
"Well, do you want us to fix the car?"
Melissa hoped the woman would say no. There was this light in Elisabeth's
eyes when she looked at the car, that made Melissa hope she never fixed
For all her bright colors and outgoing
nature, Melissa was a homebody, and she counted on Elisabeth staying home
"Oh, by all means," said Hermelinda,
and suddenly she was all business, crisp in her sage green linen suit.
"When can you have it done?"
"Two weeks," said Melissa, not
only to be discouraging but because she knew it would take time to machine
those parts. "Maybe three, depending on how much we have to fabricate
and how much we can substitute."
And then they set an estimated price and
the woman walked away again. Melissa listened for the sound of a car but
she didn't hear it.
She told Elisabeth that she had promised
the KQ in two weeks and Elisabeth grinned in the way that usually meant
dampness and gasping for Melissa. That it meant Elisabeth would be using
her hands on the KQ instead was irksome. And then Elisabeth said the thing
Melissa dreaded. "I'd like to see where she's going to drive that
Another thing Melissa had noticed, and
she couldn't think that Elisabeth had tailed to notice it too, was that
Hermelinda Gonzalez was very attractive in her way, and closer to Elisabeth's
age than Melissa was.
The frontmost cable car was given over
to reception, office space, and a library of shop manuals and parts lists.
The rear one was the workshop, with enough machines for the kind of
fabricating Elisabeth occasionally ended
up doing. The walls were lined with ranks of red and black tool chests
labeled according to a unique but logical system Melissa had devised for
As soon as Melissa agreed to fix the KQ,
Elizabeth had the engine pulled and laid out on a steel table in the back
room, and a drawing and notes tacked on the wall to remind her of the
small surprises she had found under the hood. The good thing, Melissa
thought, was that with the car dismantled, Elisabeth wasn't listening
to the radio station anymore.
Another good thing was that the work seemed
pretty straightforward, and Elisabeth had it pretty much accomplished
when Fred Govern from up Salamander Creek Cutoff came in with a flywheel
from his obscure 1g46 pickup. The best thing was that she seemed to have
no trouble at all putting the KQ aside for a couple of days to walk the
twitchy post-trauma vet through his feckless project of restoring and
souping up the truck. It was not a choice model to begin with, but Fred
shared a birthday with it and had developed a strong identification with
it. He almost said in so many words that
he believed that if he could rehabilitate the truck, the same could be
done for him. "I'm hoping to have it all together before me and the
truck turn fifty," Fred said.
"I hear you," Elisabeth said,
tucking a tuft of white hairs behind her ear as she turned the cracked
flywheel over in her hand."Well, this here's close enough to something
I can my hands on, I think, and then I'll just take some measurements
and see what I have to do. If it's a matter of just grinding down here
and there, that's easy, but it could be a matter of building things up.
You come back in Saturday. I might want to tow the thing down here."
"I hope you don't," Fred said.
"I want to do as much of the work myself as possible."
"You also don't want your baby to
leave home," Elisabeth said, not even smiling.
Melissa got Elisabeth the part she was
thinking of for Fred's truck, and Elisabeth altered it with her artisan's
magic and meticulous persistence, and Fred took it away on Saturday, leaving
behind a tip consisting of three bags of homegrown herbs, two culinary
and one recreational. Saturday night Elisabeth and Melissa fired up the
hot tub and the barbecue and sampled the herbs. Sunday they woke late
and Elisabeth languidly began to put the KQ back together. Monday she
started the car and drove it sedately up and down the dappled back roads,
listening to the gears shift, alert to the fault that caused the problem
in the first place.
Of course she played that radio every second
of the way. Elisabeth had invited Melissa to come along for the ride,
but Melissa said she had to trace a wiring problem in a VW Bug
belonging to an artist who had laden the
poor, formerly inoffensive thing with doll parts and plastic garden decorations.
It was late in the evening when Elisabeth
finally brought the KQ home. Instead of going into the converted pumphouse
where Melissa pretended to read a juicy novel in which most of the all-woman
cast had men's names, she turned on the high floodlight mounted on a pole
behind the cable cars and opened up its hood. She spent another hour and
a half fine-tuning the vehicle. And the radio played softly the whole
Tuesday Hermelinda Gonzalez came back.
Melissa suspected that the woman knew something, because she had left
the linen suit behind this time and came in jeans and a yellow camp shirt
with its collar turned up, herself undecorated except for oxblood lipstick:
her femininity as finely tuned as the KQ's engine. Melissa filled out
the invoice with a sinking feeling and considered how to get the woman
her car without letting Elisabeth near her. But in the end she shrugged
and led her out to the cement pad where the KQ stood, cleaned and polished,
while Elisabeth pottered nearby on a block pulled from another car.
Elisabeth looked up from her work, her
hands resting empty on the trestle table on each side of the block.
"She's all ready for you," Elisabeth
"Thank you," said Hermelinda.
"I'm so glad you were so quick. I have a long trip scheduled and
I just don't know what I'd do if I had to postpone it."
"She's up to anything you could reasonably
ask her to do," Elisabeth said. "I even fixed the window cranks."
"Thank you," repeated Hermelinda.
The radio, muttering along indistinguishably
until now, burst out with a triumphant song of praise. Elisabeth had heard
it several times. Even Melissa knew some of the words, "here's to
the long road to victory, the lonely drivers to unity."
"If you have any trouble with the
car, don't hesitate to call," Elisabeth said. "Wherever you
are. Though I don't expect you to have any problems. I'll be happy to
give road service. If it's too far for me to come, I can talk to the mechanic
there. Tell him what I know about the car."
"Thanks, but I've got a mechanic for
the car where I'm going."
"I guess you probably do," Elisabeth
"Well. The keys are in the ignition."
Melissa watched Elisabeth watching Hermelinda
climb into the car, heard the radio wink out and return as she started
the motor, saw Elisabeth duck out from behind the trestle table and take
three strides to the driver's side window. What passed between them? Whatever
it was, Elisabeth slumped back and the KQ revved and edged away, crushing
gravel beneath its tires. Melissa noticed for the first time that the
tires were subtly off-color, almost more brown than black.
Only when the KQ was out of sight, beyond
the big redwood at the turn in the driveway, did Melissa step next to
Elisabeth and offer her arm. Elisabeth kicked at the gravel and turned
embrace Melissa. "It's not what you
think," she said over
Melissa's head. "It's nothing like
you think. I wish to hell I'd taped that dared radio."
That's not what you really wish, Melissa
thought. "I taped
it. Ninety minutes of it, anyway,"
Elisabeth stared at Melissa as she had
stared at Hermelinda moments before.
"I got some of the songs you liked
the most," Melissa said. "Most of the tape's kind of cruddy,
"It'll be nice to have," Elisabeth
said. "But I think I better not listen to it just now."
"Good. I could get very tired of maracas
and acoustic guitars and bullshit unity slogans."
"I'd love the chance to get tired
of those slogans."
"Yeah, well, if you can't get tired
of the slogans you love, I guess you got to love the slogans you're tired
"You explain it. You're the one with
wisdom of experience."
Fred Govern didn't get his truck put together
before he turned fifty, but by then you could definitely see it was really
going to happen. Minor disasters beset the thing all along, but Elisabeth
was able to rescue him again and again. Melissa liked this project better
than the KQ, because Fred was a comprehensible factor, one of those damaged
mountain guys. When he talked politics it was always the same three subjects:
conspiracy, marijuana legalization, and
the tyranny of building codes. Melissa could only shrug when he talked
about this last, because her own home and business didn't meet code and
nobody in the county government seemed to care. Anyway, Fred put off celebrating
his birthday for two months, until his truck was ready to drive, and then
he invited Melissa and Elisabeth to go with him, in his truck, up the
coast to a restaurant south of Half Moon Bay. "Fifty years, fifty
miles," he said.
"It's harmless," Elisabeth said.
"Let's go with him." It was as much enthusiasm as she'd been
able to muster for anything since the KQ had gone.
"It ought to be harmless," Melissa
said. "You checked out all his work on that truck."
It was a pleasant drive, really: when Fred
had enough time to satisfy his need to talk about his pet subjects, he
lightened up and cracked jokes about being on the lunatic fringe. The
bench seat on the old truck had been completely re-upholstered, and Elisabeth
had helped Fred find hydraulic struts to replace the old suspension.
The restaurant turned out to be a converted
Snow White Drive In with some of the best tacos al pastor on the coast.
Elisabeth discovered they also fixed three soups: birria, menudo, and
pozole, and spent at least ten minutes wavering before she ordered the
birria on the grounds that she knew where else to get menudo and pozole.
They left before dark. Between them they
had consumed two Carta Blanca beers and four sodas (Penafiel, in hibiscus,
tamarind, and watermelon flavors) , so they had to stop twice on the way
Fred was never a man to take the usual
route, so they cut off from Highway One only a few miles down the coast
and entered into a strange back roads world of unsuspected hamlets and
unbelievable home businesses beyond the llama ranches and the rhododendron
farms with which Melissa and Elisabeth were already familiar. They passed
a lighted sign at the base of one driveway proclaiming the home of a carnivorous
plant nursery and research center, the strange pervasive smell of the
mushroom spawn producer, and mysterious places with no sign at all except
for the UPS placard swinging from hooks on the mailbox pole.
Melissa noticed that Elisabeth had zoned
out. She knew this was not due to the tiny quantity of beer she had drunk,
or Fred's amiable chatter wearing her down. It was the quiet of this road,
even with the surprising denseness of its habitation, the gathering dark
and the leaning redwoods. The spooky ambience led Elisabeth to speculate
again about the KQ and the woman who appeared from nowhere to drive it
away. Not that there was anything to do about it. Elisabeth was quietly
gathering her scraps again, as she had maybe a couple of hundred times
in the months since the KQ had come and gone. Melissa couldn't have avoided
noticing Elisabeth's quiet researches carried on while she was ostensibly
looking up other things. She knew the results too. It was no surprise
that the DMV didn't actually have an Aerodynamic Queen registered to a
Hermelinda Gonzalez. No variation that Elisabeth had run through had come
up. The Banner phone book had columns and columns of Gonzalez, even an
H. Gonzalez, but Hectorina Gonzalez, who answered the phone, had no relatives
named Hermelinda, and neither did any of the other people named Gonzalez
that Elisabeth called, except for Jorge on Race Street, and he said his
daughter was only four. But Melissa didn't know what Elisabeth had decided
about the whole incident.
It was thoroughly dark when Fred turned
of f a road neither Elisabeth nor Melissa knew and onto Popcorn Grade
only four miles from home. "How did you do that?" Melissa asked,
startled. She thought she knew every road up here.
"1 cheated," he said seriously.
"I used a space warp."
Elisabeth frowned at him across the back
of Melissa's head.
"You're joking," Melissa said.
"I guess I am," Fred said. "But
when I take Bell's Canyon Road it always feels like a space warp. You
drive up and up to the head of the canyon, and then you take this hairpin
turn, and you come down and down, and you ought to have wasted miles and
hours but you're actually ahead of the game. I cut fifteen minutes off
the trip using that road, even though it looks like a detour."
"Really," Elisabeth said, still
frowning in the dark.
"You'll hate to tell me more,"
Melissa said. "I wasn't paying close attention when you got onto
"I'll draw you a map," Fred said.
"The regular road map has it wrong."
Melissa used the shortcut to go to San
Francisco, and she thought it made the coast route shorter than taking
the peninsula road. But when she had to go somewhere, it was usually in
the other direction, so it didn't make too much of an impact on her. Elisabeth
didn't try the shortcut for a long time, because she wanted to so much
that she didn't feel she could without a good enough excuse. Anyway, after
Fred Govern took his truck to a couple of old-car celebrations, Elisabeth
kept getting calls from enthusiasts with impossible cases, and she got
very busy manufacturing discontinued parts.
"We should charge more for this work,"
Melissa said. "They're taking advantage of you."
"You figure out what's fair,"
Elisabeth said, as she usually did.
Finally, Elisabeth had a day with no work
at all to do.
"I want to drive around on Bell's
Canyon Road," she said to Melissa. "Want to come? Where's that
map of Fred's?"
Melissa shrugged. "It's a pretty drive.
I'll come." But she gripped that map with tight fingers as she slid
into the seat next to Elisabeth. For this they drove the Ranger and brought
along the ice chest filled with fruit and mineral water and sliced turkey
breast. Any likely place, they would stop and picnic.
"For a road nobody you know drives
at all, it seems pretty populated," Elisabeth remarked after the
"That's what it's like down here at
the bottom. Wait till you get to the top."
"Sure are a lot of little roads up
here you never know about," Elisabeth said. "I'm checking this
one out." The green road sign had the name "Baghwan Boulevard"
in white letters, but the road itself could barely lay claim to two lanes
and looked like it hadn't been resurfaced since the flood of 32.
It was five or six miles of five-finger ferns and leaning fenceposts till
the road dead ended in a fat turnaround with two gravel driveways leading
away from a cluster of seven mailboxes and two newspaper tubes. "That
was interesting," Elisabeth said. "I did expect a Rajneesh Ranchero
or something up there."
The rest of the day was like that: Elisabeth
logged about a hundred and seventy miles ambling the tributaries of Bell's
canyon, including some obvious driveways. They had lunch by a creek under
redwoods close within ear and nose range of a cow pasture. Melissa added
some miner's lettuce to her turkey sandwich, and Elisabeth experimented
with redwood sorrel. She spat it out.
Coming down on the north side of the canyon
in the afternoon, Elisabeth was startled to see traffic again. First a
black BMW, then a tan Mercedes ("Do they come in other colors?"
she asked Melissa, knowing quite well they did. "That's all I ever
see them in"), and a run of little boxy economy cars and a pickup
dribbling roofing tiles.
"Nice little drive," Melissa
said. "Tell you what, next day we have time, let's do this again
on Grizzly Creek, okay?"
"Sure," Elisabeth said, distracted
by the pale blue car in her rear view mirror.
"I've driven up and down so many roads
up here, I forget there are so many more of them," Melissa went on.
"I bet if you could really get a good look at them from the air or
something, this whole area would look as dense as a suburb. And it looks
like real wilderness when you drive through it. Practically first growth."
"Uh huh," Elisabeth said, trying to remember the way that Bell's
Canyon dumped out onto Lime Kiln Road. Would it be possible to allow the
blue car to pass and then follow it?
"I just love riding around on these
roads. So many surprises. Wasn't that little schoolhouse a trip?"
There was a troubled edge to Melissa's bright chatter that Elisabeth ignored.
"Yeah." No need to wait for the
intersection. There was a pullout right here, barely scraped into the
hill to make it easier for people to make the left turn to the driveway
across the road. Elisabeth pulled over into it, slowing just enough to
let the blue car pass, wrenching back into the road.
"Was that guy tailgating?" Melissa
asked. "I didn't notice."
"Not yet," Elisabeth said. "He
was inching up on me, though, and I wanted to get rid of him before the
we hit that blind turn down on Lime Kiln Road."
Melissa noticed what the blue car looked
like, and knew there was no way that Elisabeth would miss its resemblance
to the KQ, but it Elisabeth didn't want to talk about it, neither did
she. When two cars slipped between them in the multilane section of Lime
Kiln Road that connected to Highway 3g, Melissa watched it pull ahead
with disappointment and relief. "Cot to call Fred when we get back,"
she said. "Thank him for the tip."
"Yes," Elisabeth said, pulling
abruptly into the parking lot of the Denny's by the freeway.
"Why are we stopping here? Are you
okay? You've been real quiet for a while."
"Just tired," Elisabeth said.
"Let's get some awful coffee, and then you can drive us home."
"All right." Melissa was usually
the one who would propose side trips to roadside restaurants: Elisabeth
preferred to snack on fruit stand produce and to get her stimulation from
Melissa didn't notice the blue car in the
parking lot until Elisabeth strode up to it and somehow opened the hood.
Aghast, she saw Elisabeth slip her hand into her pocket one, two, three
times, before closing the hood and rejoining Melissa with a big grin.
"Let's get that coffee."
"What the hell did you take from that
car?" Melissa demanded. "What are you going to do?"
"What I should have done when Hermelinda
came back for her car," Elisabeth said. "You don't often get
a second chance like this.
"You'd better tell me," Melissa
"I'm going to fairyland or some goddamned
place," Elisabeth whispered as they walked through the windy space
between the two sets of doors. "What I want to know is, are you coming
"This is monumentally unfair,"
Melissa said. "You could have discussed it with me." "I'm
sorry, but I didn't know this was going to come up. And I can't let this
chance go by. Look, there he is."
Even with the inadequate glances they had
gotten through the car windows they had no doubt about the driver of the
blue car. There was only one person sitting by himself, a man with thinning
blond hair and a deep set of lines around his mouth, an empty cigarette
pack in one hand, a newspaper in the other, at arm's length. His coffee
hadn't come yet.
Elisabeth took three long steps to the
booth and slid into the orange seat across from him. The foam sighed as
Melissa followed. He looked up, regarding them with mild eyes, letting
his eyebrows state the question. Melissa noticed his clothes, the baseball-style
jacket with the shoulders too broad for him, the slightly faded rugby
shirt. Completely invisible clothes.
"Name's Elisabeth." She offered
her hand, streaked in two small places from the man's engine compartment.
He looked at her hand, hesitated, and took
it. He didn't say anything. If Elisabeth was right, maybe he wouldn't
speak English? But Hermelinda Gonzalez had.
"Yours: it's Kyle, right? Or Monty?
or Pablo, maybe?" -- all names she had heard mentioned on the strange
"Why?" the first word the man
spoke, and he barely opened his mouth.
"You're right, I don't need your name.
I know your car, and that's all I really need, isn't it? Because right
now, I'm the only person anywhere near here who can get it running. And
the only way I'm doing that is if you take me back to wherever you came
from. And Melissa, if she wants to go."
The man smiled slightly. "So what
did you take from it?"
"That would be telling. But I'll tell
you that they are three parts that I know for a fact are not replaceable
in this country without expert modification and you are looking at the
only native expert on your kind of car."
The tan tilted his head up in a slight
gesture of recognition. "I know who you are. You're the one who fixed
my friend's car. Too bad you're so curious."
"Flattering. The only question is,
what do we have to do to get ready to go? We won't bother to pack."
"I'm not in the habit of helping people
"I don't care one way or the other
about the disappearing part. It's what's on the other side I want to know
"You've made a lot of assumptions.
It's not whatever you're thinking. It's mostly tedious"
"I listened to the radio for hours.
I know something. But I'm no romantic. Not any more. I really don't mind
Melissa held her tongue. She made up her
"You know this is a dangerous proposal
"It's not a proposal, exactly. It's
more of an ultimatum. You take me, or you walk away from a car that won't
"All the same. If you come with me,
there are several dangers. Including me, for all you know."
"This is stupid," Melissa said.
"You're stalling to see if you can think of a way not to take us,
and you can't, and so what are we waiting for?"
All of them fell silent as the waitress
finally came by.
"This is what I've been waiting for,"
the man said. "Just coffee, please," he said to the waitress.
"Black." She looked at the women. "Same," both of
"I wasn't going to drive that way
just now," he said when the waitress was gone. "It's not the
best time of day. It will be dark by the time we're done. It's hard to
do in the dark."
"Bandits, too," Elisabeth said.
"No way to get you to wait until tomorrow?"
Elisabeth shook her head. "I couldn't
keep you overnight."
"Drink your coffee fast, then,"
he said. "I hope you didn't eat too much today. You're going to be
As they walk@d out the door, Melissa whispered
in Elisabeth's ear. "This was too easy," she said. "He's
got something up his sleeve."
"I know," Elisabeth said. "But
there's nothing to do but grit our teeth and keep our eyes open."
"So, " Elisabeth said as she
caught up to the man in the parking lot, "Is it okay for me to know
your name now?"
"You can call me Larry." He stood
close to the door of the blue KQ, waiting for Elisabeth the get the car
"Melissa, get in the car," she
said. "The driver's seat."
Larry stood staring resentfully at Elisabeth
for several beats before he handed the key to Melissa. Melissa smirked
as she oozed into the driver's seat, locking the door and smiling at the
radio dial with its wrong numbers. Not letting on that she was sure that
Elisabeth was leading her into a great mistake.
Elisabeth finished her work quickly, stepped
around to the passenger side, tapping at the window as Melissa reached
over and unlocked the door. Only after Elisabeth was in the passenger
side front seat did Melissa unlock the driver's side door and climbed
into the backseat. She locked her seat belt as Elisabeth locked hers,
and smiled as she heard Elisabeth say, "Okay, Larry, take us home."
Larry said nothing as he pulled out of
the parking lot and onto Lime Kiln Road away from the freeway, back towards
"I knew it," Melissa said. "Fred
wasn't kidding about that road."
"He was," Elisabeth said. "He
"Keep your eyes on the middle distance,
" Larry said when they started up the canyon road. "The trees
and stuff. Look at the road and you'll get car sick. If you try to focus
on the distance you'll get a headache. Double vision.."
She couldn't see the road from the back
seat, and the trees blocked out everything past them, so he needn't have
Elisabeth didn't try to engage Larry in
conversation. She watched the gauges on the dash, and looked out the window,
arching an eyebrow as she grabbed the seat to keep from sliding when Larry
raced up a treeless side road graced with crumbling sandstone along the
cuts and turned around abruptly at a spot where there was no driveway
or turnout to do it in.
"If you're trying to scare us, you're
succeeding," she said, "But you can't talk us out of it this
Larry grunted. Some minutes later, climbing
again on Bell's Canyon, he said, "I'm going to be making more of
those turns. No point in warning you. You wouldn't believe me. And I'm
not going to explain anything either."
"This is funny," Melissa said
after half an hour, "I'm not so surprised that I'm seeing some places
I didn't notice this afternoon, but I haven't seen anything I recognized
since the first time you did that turnaround thing."
"You're just disoriented. Most of
this stretch is pretty much the same no matter how you go up the road."
Elisabeth kept swallowing nasty-tasting
spit, but she kept alert. She could tell Larry was watching the accelerometer
and another gauge -~ there had been one of these on the other KQ too,
and she had assumed at the time that it was a strangely-numbered tachometer
or some such toy. The gauge hadn't budged when she had test-driven the
other car- On this car it rose and fell, but not in concert with the engine.
The only thing she was sure of was that Parry was much more likely to
execute one of his sudden alarming maneuvers when the gauge was near 100.
Larry grunted again about an hour later,
turning around slowly on the side road he had entered. Elisabeth noticed
the gauge read 43 or thereabouts. He drove back down the canyon to the
last side road he had entered and roared back up the hill. He passed the
same two drives he had passed before and paused at the entrance to the
one marked "Dalmatia Cove Cutoff." Elisabeth peeked at the unnamed
gauge. It read 50. As she had come to expect, Larry turned around and
went back down again.
They turned again, climbed again. This
time Elisabeth watched the gauge as they approached the cutoff. The gauge
dropped as low as 20 when they were a few hundred yards away, and started
climbing swiftly as they came closer. When they turned on to the road
the gauge was in the low sixties and still climbing. A little ways up
the road the gauge was at around 35. Larry shook his head and gunned the
motor, so that they were going much too fast for a narrow, twisty road
like this, with gravel flying out from the wheels.
Melissa never minded this kind of driving,
but Elisabeth was speculating on the power of the skinny second-growth
trees to break their fall if Larry lost his grip on the little road. Elisabeth
heard herself yelling as Larry abruptly swerved the car toward the inside
of the curve, straight at the cliff face where the hill had been cut for
the road. Here there was one of those granite outcrops that were scattered
through the landscape otherwise composed of limestone from ancient seas
or the rich dirt laid down by defunct rivers or more recent forests. Some
of the road cuts were so soft they slid every winter, soft enough to cushion
a crash if the car wasn't going too fast. That cliff wasn't going to give,
not a millimeter.
"I told you it was too easy,"
Melissa said, sure that Larry had decided to kill them all rather than
divulge his secrets.
But somehow he made this lunge for the
cliff into a narrow turn back and they found themselves plummeting back
towards Bell's Canyon. Elisabeth saw that the gauge at the left of the
dash was dropping from 100.
Not long afterwards the country opened
out into dry parkland and Melissa looked out over the sudden view that
the height of the road gave her. Behind, the road disappeared into the
wooded depths of the canyon. Before them, the road turned out of sight
again and again as it wound around the rocks and washouts at the top of
the canyon. She remembered this from earlier in the day. But she was sure
that at that time she'd been able to see familiar things down below, in
Winsome: now she could barely pick out the amusement park at Sunday Park
Pier, while the rest of it looked unfamiliar. She was sure she would not
identify it as Winsome if she saw it in a photograph instead of right
below her, not more than five miles away.
But she said, "Look how close we are
to town." "We've done all this driving, but I think we could
throw a rock and break a window on San Pablo Avenue."
"Don't think so," Larry said.
"No San Pablo Avenue. Look for Santa Clarita Street instead."
"We're there?" Elisabeth asked.
"Just like that?"
She didn't know what she had been expecting:
something, anyway, more dramatic than just this, reckless driving in the
San Lazarro hills.
"No. Will be by the time we get down
the canyon though."
"It's not dark," Melissa said.
"Yes. Won't be dark until after we
hit Banner, if we're lucky.
But Larry didn't answer. Instead he gunned
the motor again, and Elisabeth could see the accelerometer, the speedometer,
and the nameless gauge rising together. She was prepared this time when
at the very summit of the road, just at the point where the road switched
back down the other side of the canyon, and at a hideous blind steep tight
turn, Larry hung a U, spinning his tire in the soft shoulder next to the
edge of the road for a split second before it bit on asphalt again. She
didn't yell this time: but she heard Melissa sing out "Whoopee!"
which somehow seemed appropriate enough as they hurtled down towards the
redwoods, past a shotholed sign declaring "San Lazarro County! Democratic
Coalition! Justice and Freedom."
"Yeah, " Elisabeth said, turning
the radio on just as that lonely road song came on. The road didn't seem
lonely at all, on this side. "Take us home, Larry."