Harlan Ellison

Turnpike

FORMLESS, SOME KIND OF heart-bearing creature all sense and instinct, I’ve swum my life through a sea as black as the motivations that have driven me. Limpid reason, dulled at birth, has played so infinitesimal a part in my doings, that I cannot truly say it has ever sent me with the proper tides. Bumped and jostled and once or twice I have cleaved to another entity in that lightless ocean, sucked it dry of whatever it had, and floated away. If I knew, if I had the faintest idea why I do what I do, why a man such as myself — and God knows I’m anything but stupid — cannot find direction and ethic it might save me from tomorrow. Better still, from tonight.

But tonight began three days ago, and tomorrow is as inevitable as the way it started.

Riding high in the cab of a tandem-axle semi; underneath me twelve big overweight doughnuts out of Goodyear; behind me seventy billion uncounted ground-up Brazilian coffee beans mixed with some mocha java and a little Guatemalan, packed in double-foil bags with turndown closures guaranteed to keep the grind “brewpot-fresh” all the way from the loading dock in mid-Manhattan across the turnpike route to San Francisco, California, where “brewpot-fresh” coffee is treasured, worshiped, bought at the very highest mark-ups in specialty gourmet shops. As pushed — like a pea with the nose down all the highways of tomorrows — in a 12-wheel, tandem-axle etcetera by this heart-bearing creature, this Neil Danzig, this truck driver with the soul of Rimbaud.

Riding high above the Pennsylvania Turnpike, somewhere just past King of Prussia (leave it to the stiff-necked, proper-miened Dutch to preserve absolutely nothing), I pulled alongside the Mustang convertible with the blonde girl driving. We matched speeds, just sixty, lane-by-lane. She drove with her face straight-forward and didn’t look at the behemoth pounding along beside her. The top was down, her hair was loose in the flat, long teen-age style, and it fitted: she was eighteen. Not a dime older.

I was fascinated; it was the best thing I’d seen on that imbecile stretch of turnpike with the unbroken concrete grey and mindless in front of me. I was able to drive and stare at her, both at the same time. The road went flat-out and the concentration was useless. Tunnel vision and road hypnosis were my excuses. Stare at the broad, and don’t let the highway kill you. We fled along beside each other for half a dozen miles, and finally she looked up at me, right across the old man asleep on the other side of the front seat.

She had eyes as blue as a diesel exhaust, and a wet mouth. The hair was like a banner flying out behind her in the wind. She gave me a smile that was the end product of a million female mouths. I smiled back.

We kept abreast of one another for twenty miles, flirting with each other. I would make half-assed funny faces at her and she would toss back her head and laugh, the sound lost in the whipping backwind. We couldn’t talk to each other, but it was somehow more satisfying than the usual fencing conversation a guy has to use when first he meets a girl. We got all that out of the way in the first twenty miles.

Finally, I caught her eye on one of our interchanges, and made a pantomime of a cup of coffee with my left hand. I pointed to her, then back to me. She shrugged, gave me a helpless little moue of resignation, and jerked a thumb almost into the left ear of the sleeping old man on the passenger side. Then she shrugged again. Sorry, Neil, but old dad is in the way.

We continued up the pike, and I kept urging her, all in dumb show. Finally, she nodded. Reluctantly. I pointed ahead to the next turnpike sign that was coming up on us. It said rest stop ten miles. She nodded and smiled, and we both decked the accelerators at almost the same moment. When we were within a mile of the rest stop, she fell behind, and I speeded up, and pulled into the service area a minute ahead of her.

Old juices were coming to life in me as I sat in the Howard Johnson’s, waiting for her. She was a kid, but even sitting down, some of her concealed, she was some kid. The poor-boy sweater she was wearing showed me a tasty abundance of high, round meat. Her face was something you see in a television commercial, all lean and sleek and well-fed and clean. Eighteen, but as Pushkin put it: “Old enough to bleed, is old enough to butcher.”

She came through the entrance and looked around.

Then she walked to me, without guile, and sat down. The waitress came with the two coffees, then.

“Is this a pick up?”

“That’s what it’s called.”

“I think I’d like a piece of pie.”

The way she looked at me, I knew it was there, if I could figure a way to get it. Cross-country, on turnpikes? Her in her little blue Mustang, me in that semi? It was impossible. She had a piece of pumpkin pie, with a scoop of maple-walnut ice cream.

“Who’s the fellow you’re with?”

“My father. He’s very strict. We came from Pittsburgh. We’re going to Sacramento, California. Some property he has to take care of.”

I told her my name was Ken Schuster. She told me her name was Stephanie Lane. We grinned at each other in a mako-shark sort of way. I told her my name was Jack Norton. She told me her name was Jane Doe. We both laughed. We didn’t bother telling each other the truth. It wasn’t that kind of conversation.

“Too bad we can’t find some place to stop along the way, to get to know each other better …” I suggested.

She shrugged. “It’s very hard.”

My little mind went ker-whump and I felt gears clashing, as the nativity the crucifixion and the resurrection all merged into one. “If we drove all day, and kept each other in sight, we could stop over in the same motel tonight.”

“What about …?”

“Your father? How about you let him do all the driving. He doesn’t look like he can cut three, four hundred miles of hard driving and still stay alert. Then when you suggest overnight, he’ll go for it. Do you take separate rooms when you stay overnight?”

She shook her head, and addressed herself to the sweet things. Then she licked the corner of her mouth with her tongue tip. It was a singular movement.

“Usually a room with twin beds. But, yes, I guess that would work, about his driving. He has a bad heart, and he can’t keep at it too long, he gets tired fast. And his reflexes aren’t too good, that’s why I’ve been driving. How’ll I know which room is yours?”

That simple. We had it all planned that simple. “I’ll leave my light on. At that hour, there shouldn’t be any others on. And I’ll keep an eye out so you don’t wander into anyone else’s room.”

“Why, Mr. Schuster, Mr. Norton, Mr. Mickey Mouse, I think you must believe I’m some kind of loose woman or something.”

She smiled a smile that was not intended for an eighteen-year-old face, got up, and walked away. The sound of her nylons rubbing at the thighs set me up erect, and I watched the way her body smoothed and rolled as she stopped by the candy counter to buy some chewing gum, giving me time to pay the check and get to the truck just after she’d slid behind the wheel of the Mustang. The old man raised up, looked around with total disorientation, murmured something to her and she said something back. Then he nodded, thumbed his sleep-sticky eyes with a pair of weathered claws, and she got out, went around to the passenger side as he slid under the wheel. She got in and they peeled off. Badly; he swerved around the gas pumps.You have an exhausting five, six hours ahead of you, old pop. I thought, smugly.

That day I kept in sight of them straight across the beefy middle of Pennsylvania, the dead face of the turnpike staring up at me vacuously. One road sign after another, no rest breaks, and the old man must have been pleading. But she kept him going, on and on, and there I was, hanging back so I could get my big hands around those breasts of hers, bend her double and work off the road strain I’d been building for I didn’t know how long. And then, as we passed over the line into Ohio, with night bombarding us, I got the most eerie feeling. What was pulling me on like this? Why was I so hot to get this little teenie-bopper? I’d seen the swingers before; they peppered the bars off Times Square every Saturday night, in from Jersey where the age limit was higher. But why this one? What song had she been silently singing that got my groin all tingly? What emptiness was there in me, what wrong bell bonging, what snail crawling through my inward side, what height I hadn’t reached, what door slammed when I was a child, what act I’d begun and never completed, what vision I’d had that had been shattered for me … what meal had turned rancid in my belly, what bill had never been paid, what game had I chanced everything and been taken like a patsy … what wind had chilled me, what sun had scorched me … all uselessly, all senselessly … that had brought me through four years of college to the day of graduation when I’d run shrieking into the fields of reality and never gone back for the passport into the big time? What was it, that made me follow through the night that blue Mustang with the waving banner of yellow hair? What was it, and would it kill me?

We pulled off the turnpike just east of Cleveland. I passed them doing seventy and in the rearview I could see the eyes of her dear old father, like a pair of mushrooms grown in somebody’s basement.

The Red Coach Motel was a U-shaped complex, twelve little ticky-tacky boxes, with a VACANCY sign burning vermilion in the night. I plowed in across the gravel and got my room as quickly as possible. I watched from the ...

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