Within a month of his wife delivering twin boys (on his birthday no less), Maxwell Zims, owner of Zims’ Chevrolet in Los Angeles, took personal possession of two identical pennant-blue Corvette C1s with custom creme interiors. For the boys.
Sixty years later, Arnold—riding shotgun in Mack’s Volvo cab with the two Corvettes in the trailer behind them—gingerly unfolded the yellowed newspaper clipping with the story of Mr. Zims and the two cars. Dated January 1953, the personal interest piece contained a photo of the proud father behind the wheel of one of the Corvettes, a babe straddling each leg. A superfluous smile bursts from his fat, Walt Disney-ish face. There’s no photograph of Mrs. Zims unless she’s the woman in sunglasses peering into the other, empty, convertible.
Arnold returned the clipping to the folder of paperwork for the Corvettes’ next owner, the CEO of a mobile game development company in Estonia who likely wouldn’t be at all possessed by the question that had been gnawing at Arnold since being assigned the sale—and which had infected Mack, too—namely, why were the cars in such immaculate condition, with only double-digit miles on them? Why, instead of the boys taking possession of the Corvettes when they came of driving age, did the cars wind up with a collector in San Clemente, then another in Las Vegas, then a third in Arizona, with none of them taking the cars for anything greater than a cursory spin? It spooked Arnold a little, like the Corvettes were bad luck.
Arnold imagined the twin boys visiting their father at the dealership. They climbed behind their respective wheels, their lips blurred with motoring sounds as they raced forward, the cars angled in perpetual near-collision. As they grew older, the boys would peer with their father at the engines and learn the rudiments of this dark anatomy. Later still, they’d study the manual with their lanky legs slung over the sides of the door and the radios tuned to the same station, the Corvettes on their tenth set of car batteries. What a thing to have sitting there, waiting for you to grow up.
“I still think they died young,” Mack said. “Premature babies.”
“The newspaper said difficult pregnancy,” Arnold said, watching the single file march of giant transmission towers through a swath of cleared forest.
“That’s what difficult means.”
“My daughter was premature,” Arnold said. “Grew up fine.”
“Yes, but things were different in the ’50s.”
Arnold watched Mack pull out another cigarette. Pudgy and poorly shaven, yet wearing a tie, Mack could pass for an accountant at tax season.
“What are you? Forty?” Arnold asked.
Mack looked at him. His trucker hat was as incongruous as a pair of horns. “Thirty-nine.”
“Yeah,” Arnold said to himself. Exactly.
Arnold had met Mack for the first time the day before, at the Rotterdam docks to pick up the cars Arnold had safely ferried across the Atlantic. His first visit to Europe had been on his honeymoon several wives ago. At the time he’d thought he’d return every few years, but he hadn’t.
Arnold had another idea. “Maybe the boys snuck some girls in and then tried to drive out of the showroom. Bet they smashed up one of the cars.”
“You said the cars were mint.”
“Yeah,” Arnold said. “Maybe the cars were just too good for ‘em. Kids can be great disappointments.”
There was a time when Arnold had known he was a disappointment. But he was no one’s son now and only a disappointment to the living, and the living were distant.
Mack looked unsatisfied.
“Or it might have been money,” Arnold said. “Car market went soft after the Japanese moved in. Stayed that way. The guy probably saw a Toyota dealership pop up on one side and a Nissan dealership on the other and said Fuck this. He got out while he could.”
Arnold saw the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Zims having enjoyed retirement in a modest two-bedroom Palm Springs bungalow with an adjacent pool. Their sons would have understood their father’s predicament; the cars perhaps seeming too old-fashioned to them, anyway, by the time they reached driving age. That was it: the economy. The Japanese.
Mack shook his head and moved over one lane to pass a slow car.
“What then?” Arnold asked. “I’m giving up theories at least five to one.”
Mack offered his pack to Arnold and Arnold took a cigarette and tapped it. Arnold had taken up smoking again since the hallucinations had begun appearing. Tobacco seemed harmless compared to whatever neurological surprise had been giving him visions over the past year.
“All right,” Mack said, and exhaled. “You want to know? I think they were murdered.”
Arnold pictured the young boys in their seats, their legs long enough to reach the accelerator but not if they also wanted to see over the dash.
“Too sensational,” Arnold said.
“By their father,” Mack added.
“Too…” Arnold began. But he felt something. Like the Corvettes behind them were ghosts.
Arnold had chain-smoked filterless Filipino cigarillos aboard the Caprice until his supply had been cut off for the bogus claim of endangering the crew’s. They then sold him smokes one at a time for triple what he’d been paying. Their right, he supposed. International waters. For two weeks—except for the storm—he’d smoked in the wind-sheltered lee of the bridge, gazing at a city of orange, blue and green shipping containers arrayed fourteen wide and eight high. The sea appeared lifeless. He couldn’t bring himself to abandon the butts into such an expanse, and cupped them in his hand.
Three days out of New Jersey, as the sea turned its thoughts to a full storm, the containers began to sing and creak. At the storm’s height, Arnold had joined the only other non-crew passengers—an overly gregarious German couple who were trying to circumnavigate the world—up on the bridge to witness the surreal blue-black waves. The sea was a gigantic swoon of plains and peaks of a kind he’d never seen play near shore, and all of it cast with light born of neither day nor night. Arnold wondered if the freighter could take it. Especially when two giant krakens, each with eyes fifty feet across, unfurled their tentacles and attempted to pull the ship’s cargo into the depths. He knew he’d end up in Rotterdam with the two Corvettes somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic.
The Germans called it Sturm und Drang, as though they too not only saw the krakens, but knew their names. Another illusion—they meant the storm. Still, for the first time since seeing visions, Arnold felt less alone, a warmness coming over him and the only explanation for why he joined the Germans in their cabin to imbibe in some sweet German wine and watch their unedited home movies of their journey thus far. Later, when tumbling back to his cabin, he witnessed the corridor twist and disappear in the distance, like the cars of a train in a turn. He wondered if this sight was the storm twisting the freighter, or the two bottles of Gewürztraminer.
The Caprice’s containers shrieked and grumbled for two more days as though the ship were an unblessed ark. And then, waking one morning, Arnold found that the storm was past and that the land he’d prayed for was in sight. Once on it, his thankfulness dried with a shameless speed. He didn’t even have time to recuperate from the seasickness; it was straight into Mack’s cab from the docks.
He and Mack had not hit it off at first, especially with Mack’s rebukes regarding America’s military invasions. “I love America,” Arnold had said. “But sometimes you go crazy.” The Germans on the freighter had been the same way, as though the world thought average Americans like him had any say whatsoever, in anything.
“We can’t be great all the time,” Arnold had finally said.
And then, suddenly, that little phrase tingled the inside of Arnold’s palm with a memory of a smack he’d laid across his second wife’s cheek—the only time he’d ever hit any person he’d loved, or even anyone he didn’t, since at least middle school. He’d used that phrase after the slap, he remembered. I can’t be great all the time. The fight had started with a generic, now-forgotten provocation—their own minor war. She had been having an affair then, but its revelation wasn’t to come out for another couple of years—and wouldn’t have excused the assault, anyway.
In Arnold’s first marriage, back from the Venetian honeymoon on his wife’s father’s dime, he’d felt like such a good person; so helpful, generous, loving. The future was his so long as he remained good. He treated his wife like a gift; he wouldn’t even let her touch the Hoover or do the dishes. But the enthusiasm had ebbed after only a few seasons of matrimony. Goodness had been rekindled with his second marriage, and especially during his wife’s pregnancy, but that smack was where he realized it had all gone out of him again. He hadn’t thought he’d be able to reclaim goodness, but with his third wife it had caught on both sides of the relationship. Down to faint embers sometimes, to be honest, but always still burning, maybe because they were both older and felt they couldn’t face losing again. But poor Sheila was eight years gone now, longer than he’d known her. And he was on a continent of millions where his name, too, was unknown. A strange thing, to be a white American in Europe, his hereditary birthplace, and not know a soul. Except Mack.
Arnold wondered if Mack was right. Maybe the family, or at least the twins, were murdered. Or maybe they were both right. The dealership business had tanked; the man had debts; he started drinking heavily; his wife didn’t understand him and wouldn’t let herself be dragged down; she got a job and a new boss who made her feel desired again; and those twin boys, those empathy-devoid cretins, they kept demanding the level of comfort he no longer could provide. Starting them off with Corvettes, what had he been thinking? Then one day he snapped. He was out at the beach on his day with the boys while his wife was working, or fucking her boss. He strode out to where his half-grown sons were horse-playing in the crowded surf, without regard to everyone around him. Their mischief embarrassed him, and he went out and grabbed them both by the scruffs of their necks, and hoisted them through a breaking wave. Their behavior needed to be remedied before they carried their misbehavior into adulthood. The boys wished they could take back the provocation immediately. Their father took them out past the last sandbar to where the water was too deep for the boys to stand and he held them down just to teach them a lesson, just a lesson, but he held them down too long. It hadn’t seemed more than a few seconds, but they hadn’t been prepared and their lungs, after all, held so much less air than his. And then the regret rolled in, wave after interminable wave, no matter how distant he found himself from the sea. And now Maxwell Zims was finishing a life sentence somewhere, or already dead with a quick slit of remorse, a tight noose of self-loathing. Good god, Arnold thought. Mack’s right!
But then Arnold thought of that newspaper clipping, that face in the car radiating such joy to the camera. No, Mack was wrong. Arnold bet the guy even changed diapers, like he himself had done with his daughter. Ahead of the curve. Helpful far beyond his peers and trying hard as he knew how to be good.
They pulled over for a weigh-in, but there was only one rig ahead of them and it went quickly.
“Hey,” Mack said, pulling back onto the road. “You ever smuggle? I, one time, one year only, had stuff, you know? Fifteen million worth, I estimated. This was when we still had kroons, not Euros. I was paid in diapers.”
Arnold cast a more critical eye on Mack and Mack smiled back.
“You’re thinking, what? Narkootikumid?” Mack said. “Hashish? It was cigarettes, smoked lox, some electronic shit, but mostly diapers.”
Arnold was a little disappointed in the cargo—here had been a chance for Mack to show some true hues. Still, Arnold couldn’t imagine smuggling anything with his own rig back home, his last one. His loads were always born of paperwork and insurance company documentation—cars on transport carriers or, like the Corvettes, strapped down inside otherwise empty shipping containers, each wrapped up in denim-blue padding. At a keystroke, someone at the main office could see where he was, though maybe not now, maybe not here.
Mack looked over at him. “Ask me how many diapers I bought for my kids.”
Mack made a zero with his fingers and thumb. “Until they got too tight,” he laughed. “We had to use tape to…”
Mack’s cell phone interrupted him with a tune. When he answered, Mack slipped out of English and whispered in his mother tongue, as though Arnold might hear and understand. The one-sided Estonian conversation plunged Arnold back into that feeling of not only being a foreigner, but of inhabiting a foreign place. He searched for the familiar. The streetlights—through they cast a different hue—dusted a familiar scene of windowless light-manufacturing/office buildings moated by empty parking lots, the same Hopperian sadness falling over everything, just like at home.
And then, as the truck neared a traffic circle, Arnold saw three women approaching on horseback, their horses galloping down one of the asphalt spokes. Unlike the vision of the krakens, this hallucination didn’t frighten him. At least not until they were so close that he could make out the buttons on the riders’ calico dresses.
The horses pitched themselves headlong into the truck’s side.
“Watch it!” Arnold shouted.
“What?” Mack said. He held his phone to his ear with his shoulder as he made the turn into the traffic circle.
“Thought there was a speed bump,” Arnold said, recovering.
Mack muttered something, then ended the phone call and tossed his phone onto the dash. “You put speed bumps in traffic circles in America?”
“No,” Arnold said. “Thought maybe you did. Just concerned about the Corvettes.”
“Safe as diapers,” Mack said, and laughed.
The krakens, Sturm und Drang, had been a new hallucination for Arnold, but the three horse riders had been along since the beginning. The women looked to be in their thirties, as alike as sisters. They were too young to be his wives—and bore no similarities there—despite the neatness of their number. They were too plain to be sirens and too few in number to be apocalyptic. Arnold had given up trying to interpret what they, or any of his visions, meant. Perhaps he was getting someone else’s hallucinations while elsewhere there was another sufferer puzzled by visions of tumbleweeds and truck stops, of paperwork and RC airplanes, short-wave radio and video poker, and all of Arnold’s other petty vices.
Arnold was fairly comfortable with his self-diagnosis of Charles Bonnet Syndrome. A visit to the doctor would confirm his Internet truffling, but also likely mean losing his driver’s license. With his house being three miles from the nearest convenience store, and that only a gas station, there was no way he could give up driving. And so he’d yet to tell anyone except his daughter, and then only in a roundabout my-vision-isn’t-so-good kind of way. He’d said it was cataracts, even as she stared into his eyes. It made her feel old, he knew, that her father was “getting” cataracts.
Over the past year he’d tried to appreciate the hallucinations as tricks of the brain performed for his personal entertainment. Like all good illusionists, his gray matter didn’t reveal how it conjured the sights that appeared as solid as anything one might trust as real. Arnold imagined that a doctor could reveal the mode of deceit: cholesterol deposits, blood clots, brain tumors. Frankly, Arnold didn’t want to know. The answer would be a disappointment, and likely a far worse worry. If Sheila were still alive, he’d have had a brain scan at the first hallucination. But ailments didn’t carry their weight in fright anymore.
Ahead, in the middle of the dark road, the three ladies reappeared, now standing beside their horses. Their dresses bleached white as the truck’s beams hit them. They didn’t leave a dent.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Arnold asked.
“I believe in the Holy Ghost,” Mack said, after a long pause.
It was only then that Arnold noticed the religious items in the cab: a plastic cross in the dimness, a fish sticker on the window. He reached out to make sure these objects were real.
“I had an aunt who spoke in tongues,” Arnold said. “Never met her. I think she was eventually committed.” He wondered, not for the first time, if she too had had Charles Bonnet Syndrome.
“I’ve spoken in tongues,” Mack said, nonchalantly.
“Not while you’re driving, I hope.”
“No. Once in bed, though,” he said, pointing behind them. “I woke up with the gift.”
Arnold turned and saw the corner of a blanket dangle from the folded-up berth. He scrutinized the space for its holy possibilities.
“Holy Ghost saved me,” Mack said, but instead of elaborating he turned on the radio and found a pop song he liked.
“Was this before or after your diaper smuggling?” Arnold asked.
Mack laughed again. “After.”
They drove on through the fresh night. As they entered a tunnel Mack turned off the radio. “You okay with stopping for a service?”
“I’m in no hurry,” Arnold said. Which was true. They weren’t expected to arrive at the collector’s property until the next day. They’d unload the cars, then Arnold would take over, snapping the requisite snapshots and securing signatures. And then he’d be done. Until then, Arnold wanted Mack well-rested. His fear was that Mack would ask him to take over the wheel so Mack could take a catnap. Driving with hallucinations—there’d be trouble.
Arnold decided he’d change his flight back home and go from Tallinn to Boston, where his daughter lived, instead of Arizona. It’d be nice to see his granddaughters. Maybe he’d pick up some tchotchkes for them first, a couple of nesting dolls, perhaps, though maybe they were too old for such out-dated frivolities, or maybe nesting dolls weren’t even a thing in Estonia.
The last time he’d visited his daughter and granddaughters, over Christmas year before last, the two girls had come down with head lice and strep. He’d stayed for a few days longer than planned so his daughter could go back to work. In dutiful turns, the girls sat cross-legged in front of him as he went nit-picking through their hair. Though he’d never wish them sickness, he loved their uncharacteristic stillness and to listen to them talk drowsily about their lives and, most often, their friends’ lives—girls and boys who did this or that, the knowledge of which they felt was important for their granddad to understand. Strange creatures, all of them.
He gave the lice names. There was Mrs. Poopie-pants and her children Squish, Splat and Eek. He even began to enjoy the just-perceptible crack of the lice whenever he crushed one between his fingernails. After each kill he’d show the girls his bloody nails and the girls would sing a little jingle they’d made up to a tune in The Wizard Of Oz. Split-splat the lice is dead, the wicked lice, it wasn’t nice.
Arnold paused the memory. Or had that been with his own daughter? He’d noticed this lately: memories tack sharp, but unhinged from the calendar. He needed to call his daughter to make sure they were in town.
When they emerged from the tunnel, Arnold squinted, even though it was still night. They were now driving in the mountains. Snow lay thick as cotton batting and as deep as the roofs of a few scattered homes. The cross on the dash had a Jesus fastened there now, mouth open, his tongue sampling from the tiny blizzard of snow that fell through the windshield with all the frictionless-ness of light. Arnold checked himself. “Any snow coming?”
Mack shook his head. “Too early. Next month.”
Arnold watched the wintry landscape unfold. The krakens’ scale had surprised him, but this, this was an entire landscape. He couldn’t help but be amazed at how his lowly mind could manufacture an alternate reality with such seamlessness. He wondered if everything was a product of imagination: Mack beside him, the story of the Corvettes, his job, the house, the angle of the mail where he’d find it lying in the alluvial plain of bills and junk beneath the mail slot when he arrived home. Even the earth below, the sky above. Though, if he were so god-like, if he’d found the part in the curtain and grabbed the controls, he’d certainly have made things turn out better then they had. A happy first marriage, say. A wave of the hand and the lice disappearing in little puffs of smoke. A less reckless husband for his daughter. None of those lonely nights, certainly. He’d have kept a hell of a lot more promises, too. But this snowy landscape, this wasn’t half bad.
“I think we could use that service now,” Mack said, pointing to a snowdrift as he brought the rig to a stop beside the road. “It doesn’t look like a church, but it is. You’re my guest.” The cab rumbled to silence and went dark.
Church? “I’ll join you in a bit.” Arnold wanted to enjoy being in the snow-cleaned landscape awhile longer, before it vanished.
Arnold watched Mack trudge toward a snowbank. And in a blink, there was no snow. They were parked along a road. The stubbled furrows of a dark field met his view out his window. There was no forest, either. Or mountains. The richness of that winter landscape could only be recalled with the weakness of a dream. Across the street stood a row of two-story shops with large windows. Arnold stepped out of the cab and buried his arms into the sleeves of his jacket. At least it felt cold enough for snow. There was one brightly lit window on the second floor of the shops. He went upstairs.
The gathering was in a cramped, furniture-free room accessed via a travel office. There were posters of distant shores on the walls of both rooms. In the bright room, someone was praying aloud. It didn’t sound like Dutch, or Polish or German. And then it clicked: heavy accented English. The room was packed and stuffy and smelled like newsprint. It dawned on him that it wasn’t even Sunday, which explained the AA-vibe: this was an essential church service. Someone went up to read a Bible verse, a bald man—Mack. Next came a short woman in her late forties, maybe early fifties—Arnold could only catch glimpses of her. She spoke Polish. He understood only the words for Jesus and God and Amen. What set her apart for Arnold was the miniature atomic explosion rising over her head, a tungsten glow shining in its heart. Another new apparition. After her long, long sermon, others came up to the podium to speak, and Arnold listened to the syllables of testimonials, confessions, and stories, some in English, some not. After the fourth or fifth speaker, Arnold vowed that he would confess his hallucinations to someone, finally. Maybe to Mack, back in the cab, without all the religious pudding here. That’s what his late wife used to call having faith, though she’d gone in for the pudding at the end. Or maybe he wouldn’t tell Mack. Did Mack believe in all those biblical visions of angels, of writing on the wall, spinning wheels, all those things the prophets in the Old Testament saw? Because though Arnold had seen things stranger than that, he wasn’t one to take away someone else’s dessert by inferring that those stories were just the observer walking into hallucinations’ blinding projections.
The congregation was singing somberly now to the accompaniment of a poorly tuned guitar. A tall man beside him shared a sheet of paper printed with the service’s songs, but none were in English. Arnold hummed along. That’s one thing he’d been good at: picking up a melody and guessing where it might lead. That little atomic explosion, though, made his heart thump unevenly. He wasn’t sure what came next.
In mid-song, Arnold backed into the empty travel office and took a seat behind a desk. He riffled through a fan of brochures, then put them down. He picked up a phone and heard that un-American dial tone. He dug through his wallet and found his daughter’s business card and dialed her home number handwritten on the back. A recording came on, but not in English. Then he remembered he needed to dial the prefix for the U.S. and tried again.
“Dad,” his daughter answered, without inflection. Well, he could be unreliable, he knew. He wasn’t expecting surprise. Never mind delight.
Arnold turned himself in the swivel chair so he could see out the window. The shipping container with the twin Corvettes was a dull orange, the cab a dirty white.
“How’re you doing?” he asked.
“Where are you?”
Was she already up to exasperation, ten seconds in? “I don’t know. I’m in a kind of church travel office place in…Poland, I think.”
“We got your postcard from New Jersey. Missy sent you a package of drawings for your birthday that got returned to us. Have you moved again? Wait, hold on dad. Dad? Hold on.”
Arnold heard her yelling at her kids. Something about syrup.
“What time is it there?” he asked.
“What time is it there?”
“Can I call you back?”
“Sure,” he said, and hung up after she did.
She’d probably try his cell phone he realized, picturing it in his bag in Mack’s truck. It had been ignorant of all calls since leaving port in New Jersey. His phone didn’t work over here. Something different about the innards or the antenna. Somebody understood this stuff, just not him. There was a time when he was a boy, when the only people’s jobs you couldn’t fathom were those spent splitting atoms or gathered around the operating table. Now everybody’s job and every new gizmo was inscrutable to him.
He couldn’t call his daughter from the travel office so soon again or she’d be annoyed. He’d give her a minute to settle the kids, finish making pancakes, fetch another bottle of syrup from the pantry—that girl always kept spares of everything, a trait from her mother. He’d wait a few minutes then he’d call her back. Arnold ran his fingers down the vertical row of buttons on the phone and waited. Then he heard the gunning of an engine. Through the window he saw a blur shoot past Mack’s rig and disappear up the road. Then a second pair of headlights flashed on as the second Corvette descended out of the back of the shipping container on orange ramps.
Arnold felt something fall out of him and he had to cough to get his heart beating again. With that second blur of pennant blue, he felt failure, anger, and a kind of breakage to time pour out. All those weeks of time getting those Corvettes here, for nothing.
He thought fast. Someone had been trailing them, a professional who knew their cargo and its worth from the moment it had been unloaded at the docks. He glanced over his shoulder at the prayer room. Mack? Of course. Stop for a service, my ass.
Arnold took the stairs as fast as he could, then stormed through the parking lot. That place where he often kept a handgun was hollow. He took hold of himself and stopped beside a parked car and damned the adrenaline. He wasn’t going to give himself a heart attack. Still, he tried the handle of a car door on a whim, then another, imagining he might give chase. He scanned the darkness for any accomplices. There would be someone who’d taken the drivers here, maybe, someone who’d snapped the lock on the shipping container and helped position the trailer ramps and then taken them away again. A pit crew of thieves. But there was no one about except for a horse behind a fence in the field across the road. Arnold edged out to Mack’s cab. It was quiet. What traffic he heard was several streets away.
“Mack!” he shouted, turning back to the row of stores. He saw Mack shaking someone’s hand. Maybe they were all in it, the whole faux-congregation. He was witnessing congratulations.
When Arnold turned back to the rig, he wondered how hard it would be to ride a horse bareback after the Corvettes. He could do it, he knew. He’d get those thieves, and later, in Tallinn, the CEO of the game company who was waiting for the cars would be tremendously thankful and would show him how it all worked: the games, the computers and screens and antennas and everything. There’d be one huge ah-ha moment for Arnold.
He straddled the little ditch that ran between the road and the field and reached out toward the horse wanting to touch its head, to put his fingers in the soft spot where a vein ran, doubled back, then ran again under the skin, like a serpentine river seen from the air. He’d never ridden a horse, not really, but he felt certain he knew how. After all, if he could bring on winter, there could be some know-how tucked away in the folds of his brain. The horse lowered its head to graze.
Arnold turned his head and saw Mack approaching with the woman with the atom bomb.
“You,” Arnold said. “Smuggling diapers wasn’t enough, huh?” But he didn’t have time for a confrontation. He needed to go after the cars. Arnold turned back. The horse was gone. Not sauntered off, not trotted away, but vanished.
“Aw…shit,” Arnold said, pinching the bridge of his nose.
He looked at the back of the shipping container. It was closed and locked. “Shit,” he said again. He shook in the cold. He shook knowing he could no longer believe in anything he couldn’t touch.
He dug the padlock key from his pocket, removed the lock, then swung the right door wide. There, lit by the dim streetlight, was the blue wrapping he’d done himself back in Tempe. Below the Corvette’s shape were the tires he’d clamped down. One was flat. Arnold hoisted himself into the container and crawled to the first Corvette. He peeled back the protection over one shape, then found a door though the wrapping and felt the cold paint and colder chrome trim. He rapped it with his knuckles and saw Mack staring at him, waiting for an explanation.
“Just a drill,” Arnold said. “That’s all.”
The woman with the atom bomb was Mack’s ex-wife and she climbed into the rig to ride with them into Estonia. Arnold could see now that she wasn’t as old as he’d believed—or wanted—her to be. He felt a comfortable closeness to her as they talked, like she was the rarely-seen-but-often-spoken-of wife of a close friend. She had dark hair and a tattoo on one arm that peeked from around the cuff of her long-sleeve blouse when she stretched. She was pleasantly overweight and had a sonorous voice, though somehow less so when she spoke Estonian with Mack.
Arnold didn’t tell Mack about his hallucinations. Not even when, over his protests, Arnold was asked to take over the wheel. For a good hour, Mack and the woman lay together on the tight berth in back, shoulder overlapping shoulder, reading the Bible on Mack’s phone, then napping. When snow began sliding down the windshield, Arnold didn’t even ask them if the precipitation was crystalline or an illusion. The only thing he was certain of was that he had two pennant-blue Corvettes to deliver. That they weren’t lost, but still his. They’d once belonged to twin boys who had never received their birthright. It’d been taken farther from them with every decade by men like Arnold, and men who’d come after him, for as near as forever as one could imagine it mattering to anyone.
He did not tell Mack and Mack’s ex-wife about his visions even when the women in calico dresses reappeared ahead of him driving the Corvettes. He thought this vision was not without humor, his unconscious mind sampling cheekily from his conscious thoughts. Arnold didn’t care whether the cars drove out in front or were hauled in back: they were all headed the same direction. He followed the women as the road forked right, only to have the rig punished with a good smack from a road sign.
Mack tumbled off his berth and made Arnold pull over. Cursing, Mack climbed down and inspected the outside of the rig, then pulled himself back in and shooed Arnold away. But Arnold was already standing up against the berth. Mack put the rig back in gear and didn’t say anything, leaving Arnold’s apologies unanswered. Mack looked to be checking his forehead for blood. Arnold turned and stared at the woman still lying there below her private nuke. She pursed her lips, then half-smiled, forgivingly. She had that same quality Sheila used to have in the morning. “Hey Sleepyhead,” he’d say and she’d smile in her pre-verbal, pre-coffee way. Sometimes, if his hand found her gown had ridden up in the night, he’d put his hand up to her breasts and she’d push her body close into his and he’d know the day would be good.
“I see visions,” he said without deliberating. “That’s why I drove off the road.”
Arnold touched her shoulder just to be sure she was real. The fabric of her blouse was soft between his fingers. He gestured above her forehead. “Can’t you see it?”
She looked at his fingers.
“Right now, I’m seeing a vision,” he said, watching the flames reflect in her dark irises.
“No pickup lines,” Mack warned from behind the wheel.
His ex laughed then, her face all teeth, small ones. Even Mack grunted a little.
Arnold stared at the tumbling fire.
“You have sad eyes,” she said softly.
“Yes,” he said, even though he’d never imagined his eyes looked sad. But she knew. She saw something in him that he hadn’t been able to, that no one else—not even three wives—had ever seen in him. Here was someone who could finally speak the truth to him—and not wait ten years to do so. He wanted her to explain all.
“Can I…?” he said, reaching forward tentatively and stopping when her head edged back. “I won’t touch you,” he said.
Mack spoke a question in Estonian as Arnold pulled back his sleeve and edged his bare hand toward the roiling, shimmering flame. He waited for the heat to come, for everything to be finally understood and forgiven. His fingertips were disappearing into the fireball’s corona. He felt nothing yet. Mack’s ex-wife said something and Arnold felt Mack grab his jacket and pull him back as the rig sashayed.
When he came to, Arnold was lying alone on the berth. His face felt like it’d been punched. His hand stung, but his mind held something like a dream.
“You’re awake, Arnold from Arizona,” Mack’s ex-wife said. She sat in the passenger’s seat and was going through his wallet and the Corvettes’ paperwork.
“Mack,” Arnold said. “Mack. I know how it happened.”
Mack was shaking his head.
“I know why the boys never got their cars.”
Mack turned his head back and took a quick look at Arnold. “Yeah?”
Arnold felt sure that Maxwell Zims had died long before the kids had come of age. An auto accident or a heart attack; it didn’t matter. His grieving wife sold the dealership quickly, yearning for simplicity. She sold the two Corvettes as well when her husband’s debts were revealed to her. Her boys were her husband’s sons, but now they were completely hers and she didn’t want their future tied to rubber and steel. There was no retirement in Palm Springs. No pool. When the boys grew up and went to a local college, she sold the house and took a modest apartment. The boys stayed close by. As they grew older, they hardly thought of the cars at all. And when they did it was never with regret and only in the context of their father, who they loved even more now than when he had been alive. Those cars were a ridiculous promise to make, but that’s all their father had to give: promises of what the future might hold if the future was his to command. And as they grew older, older even than their father had been when he’d died, they understood that it was making promises that mattered, the promise of a life together, the resolve and the support, the covenant of unconditional love. Just words. But you had to imagine the future that way for any of it to work. You had to believe it just to get out of bed in the morning.
“Well?” Mack said, ”Aren’t you going to tell me?”
The wipers came on and struck a steady rhythm. Outside, the road was wetly black, but dusted white beyond. Arnold thought he could hear the creak of the Corvettes’ suspension behind them. They were less than ghosts now. They were nothing but old steel and old paint.
Arnold picked at the near-dried blood below his nose. Mack must have slugged him one. “No,” Arnold said. “I’m not.” ◆