Literary Arts | READ LOCAL First

Todd Robert Petersen: The Impeccable Driver

 

READ LOCAL First represents Utah’s most comprehensive collection of celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction, and memoir. This week we bring you Todd Robert Petersen. The excerpt was originally from a short story, which took 2nd Place in the 2002 Utah Original Writing Competition. It is now the first chapter in a novel entitled IT NEEDS TO LOOK LIKE WE TRIED published by Counterpoint Press (May 2018). Petersen is a professor of English and the Executive Director of Experiential Learning at Southern Utah University. He also teaches in SUU’s interdisciplinary Screen Studies program. His writing has appeared in Mid-American Review, Weber Studies, Hobart, and the Wisconsin Review. He lives in Cedar City with his wife and three children.

 

Doyle got an early start. Nothing in that motel would make a person want to linger: loud wall-mounted AC, brittle sheets, heavy polyester blankets, and a prime view of an eastern Arizona frontage road. Behind that were undulating utility lines and a tan haze. Then, open horizon.

He left the on-ramp with a bland breakfast sandwich squatting in his belly and half a thing of purple Gatorade swirling in its bottle. Ten minutes later, Doyle was bored of his music, bored of the unchanging landscape, bored of the whole trip. He was even bored of the wedding he was driving to, a wedding that was still two days away. But the groom was his father, so there was no way out of it.

When he gassed up at a truck stop on the east side of Winslow, Doyle decided his real problem was the interstate, which had all the charm of a tract home. He leaned against a white steel pipe that seemed like it was once an important part of something but now stuck out of the ground and pointed at the plain blue sky. He took out his phone and tapped, then swiped and pinched a map. A trucker in cutoff sweatpants and a Pittsburgh Steelers cap stopped alongside Doyle with a giant mug of soda in each hand and a disapproving look on his face.

“Government tracks your phone, brother,” he said. Doyle scrunched up his face subconsciously. “Excuse me,” he said.

“All your locational data goes to a building in Utah. They can use it against you in court. Ain’t constitutional, but nobody cares.”

“Okay,” Doyle said. “Thanks.”

“Digital money. Digital maps. Digital porn. Brother, once you insert yourself into the grid, you don’t ever come out.”

“I’ll be careful,” Doyle said.

“You’ll be dead,” the trucker said, laughing.

Doyle squinted at him and wanted to run away, but he was trapped by the steel pipe.

“Seriously, though,” the trucker said. “Those itty-bitty little phone maps aren’t hardly accurate.” He started walking. “Follow me.”

Doyle stayed put, nervous to follow this guy anywhere. What if he was a serial killer? It was broad daylight, though, and his truck was right here in the open. 

“Fear not, I promise not to eat your liver. I got a couple of paper maps I’m not using. And I don’t feel good about having you drive the interstate with that thing in your hand,” he said, pointing to his phone.

Doyle agreed and followed the trucker, who exposed most of his butt climbing into the cab. He rifled around the space and threw two maps down to him: one of Arizona, another of all the Western states.

“Won’t you need these?” Doyle asked.

“I know where I’m going. I’m not so sure about you, friend.”

Doyle went back into the gas station, got a cup of ice, and unfolded the map. He looked at the route he’d planned for himself back in Texas, thought about how much he hated it all, and without trying to control things, he let his imagination drift across the paper.

##

At Flagstaff, as part of his new plan, he left the interstate by disappearing into the ponderosas. The road took him through a narrow canyon full of trees and hairpin turns. A smile uncurled across Doyle’s face. On his phone, he thumbed away from the “Dad’s Wedding” playlist and hit the shuffle button. First song: Van Halen, “Panama.” Next thing he knew, his Gatorade was gone, the bottle tossed in the back. The pines gave way to oaks, which gave way to the red rock amphitheaters of old cowboy matinees, which transitioned to a view of open desert.

He crossed the red mesas and ramparts of Sedona quickly, then climbed out of the valley, and wound through the old mining town of Jerome. After that, more pines, more songs: ELO, Pearl Jam, U2. He was in a flow state, not thinking about work, not thinking about his father’s wedding, not thinking about being in his thirties, not even thinking about eating a whole bag of red Twizzlers Bites until it was empty, crumpled, and thrown over his shoulder.

The animal appeared and exploded against his bumper in the same instant. Doyle’s car screamed to a stop. “Bullet the Blue Sky” roared in the sudden silence. He pulled the auxiliary cord out of his phone and quiet filled the air around him.

Doyle glanced behind to see if any cars were coming, then he checked the state of the car’s interior: things were scattered everywhere. He yanked the parking brake, threw open his door, and scrambled out to investigate.

Thirty feet behind the car, a small, white-and-tan straight-haired dog lay perpendicular to the center line, its legs splayed in all directions. Doyle stepped closer and crouched. The dog’s eyes were wide open, a small pool of blood collecting under its belly and running toward the far side of the road. Otherwise the creature was in shock.

The desert air seared Doyle’s skin, sweat evaporating before it could bead up on his brow. He braced his hands against the waistband of his jeans and slowly bent over to quell the waves of nausea filling his body.

He twisted around, looking past a phone booth that stood monolithically against the sky. Beyond that, there wasn’t much in his field of vision but some old forklift pallets and a cloud of dust lifting in the desert wind. The sun burned on Doyle’s forehead while he paced the length of his rear bumper.

“Eighteen accident-free years on the road, and then you,” he said, pointing at the dog, who tried to lift its head. The struggle was too much, so it lay back down and looked up at Doyle, who would not look back.

Doyle tried to comfort himself, thinking back to the days when his father taught him the “rules of the road.” You have to keep three things in mind when you put a vehicle on the road, son. One, the size of your rig versus the size of the road you’ve got it on. Two, the size of the other guy’s rig versus the size of the road you’re sharing with him. And three, the size of his rig versus the size of yours.

They were fine rules in the abstract, but they had nothing to do with the unpredictability of an animal. Doyle stooped a little to see if he could understand the condition the dog was in. It stared straight into the desert now, like it couldn’t bear to look at Doyle or his car. Doyle was close enough now to the dog to hear its wet, labored breathing. He squatted down, and when it didn’t flinch, he put his hand out. When it didn’t growl, he stroked the bridge of its nose with his thumb and forefinger.

This dog was a goner. Doyle knew it, and it seemed like the dog knew it, too. There was no scenario in which he could drive away and live with the decision. If he had a gun with him, this could just be over. But he had no gun; in this he had broken with the traditions of his family.

Before, Doyle’s mind was blank; now he was thinking about everything at once. The dog, his life, this trip, his dad, and his dad’s fiancée. He thought about Santa Barbara, where he’d never been before, his mother, dead now for half his life. He was thinking about how kids don’t go to their parent’s wedding. It’s all in the wrong order. Sure the old guy was lonely. Doyle also felt like he had to get out of Texas before he went stir-crazy. Then out of nowhere he thought about how death gives people a free pass.

Doyle watched and waited for something else to happen, but nothing in the scene changed. A vastness settled over everything. He noticed an abandoned town that was pretty much the same color as everything else. He looked toward his car and walked over to see if there was any damage. There wasn’t. He stared into the distance, and, as far as he could see in each direction, there was nobody coming or going.

He walked over to the dog and knelt again, cupping his hand in front of its nose. He then reached across the head and stroked the ear. This time, when he touched the animal, it started to seize. Doyle stood quickly and stepped back. The dog made rapid rasping barking noises and thrashed about. Its tags tinkled on the pavement, then its eyes rolled up, and its mouth snapped like a windup monster. After another thirty seconds of thrashing, the dog went still.

Again, the air filled with the silence of the world unspooling. Doyle stood and looked toward the abandoned buildings and the convergence of the road in one direction and then the other. With the dog gone, Doyle felt even more alone.

Even this late, the wind was hot, and in the distance, to the southwest, he saw thunderheads piling up, promising a storm by evening. Doyle gripped his forehead and mumbled, then, remembering the tinkling of the dog tags, he reached past the animal’s ear and turned the collar around front. The first one read:

My Name Is Princess

Please Call My Owner

(982) 555-4442

The other was a Yavapai County dog license.

Why couldn’t they have named you Duke? Doyle thought. You can’t roadkill a dog named Princess and have anyone believe you. Shaking his head, he pulled out his phone and took a picture of the license tag, then one of his car. He thought about taking a picture of the dog but realized there was no one for him to show it to.

There was no noticeable damage to the fender, so he would not file an insurance claim. He got in the car and pulled it to the shoulder. After checking for traffic, Doyle went back, grabbed Princess by her collar, and dragged her off the road, painting blood across the pavement. A single fly buzzed around the dog and landed a couple of times on Doyle’s forearm. It was the loudest thing for miles.

If he hadn’t left the interstate, then he wouldn’t have had the chance for his attention to drift. This is what happens when you leave the script, he thought. He looked at the sky, his watch, his phone. He noticed that his phone said No Service. He mused upon the idea that he had not caused the dog to bolt into the road. That was on the dog.

He left the dog where he dragged it and walked back to the car. He looked around at the abandoned structures, wondering if anyone was watching him. Does hit and run extend to animals? he wondered. Surely it didn’t. He strained to listen for any activity in the one or two buildings scattered on either side of the road. He looked for movement.

Doyle decided to walk until he could find a signal. On the other side of the road, a bank rose one abrupt foot before leveling off. The grass was tall and tan, and some cottonwood trees lent their shade to a pair of old white houses with tattered screens and dark windows. Doyle expected to find old junkers on cinder blocks in the yard, but there was nothing except a decrepit swing set and the frayed end of a rope dangling out of one of the cottonwoods. Some other houses were crowded together past the first two, their shingles peeling up and the shutters hanging askew. On the chimney of one house, two crows hopped up and down, gurgling at one another.

Doyle watched the birds until the fly returned and tried to land on his forehead. The second time the fly touched down he slapped at it, and it fell away and landed on the road. Doyle crouched down and watched its legs pick at the air until they slowed and froze like six little wires. Overhead, two jets raced ahead of their rumble, the contrails fanning out behind them, stretching east toward Texas.

Doyle wondered where the dog came from. There was no one there.

The crows flew over the first two houses and perched on the crossbar of a power pole right across from Princess. They flipped their heads back and forth to get a better look at the carcass. Doyle reached down for a handful of gravel. When he cocked his arm, they flew off into one of the cottonwoods to surveil him.

The crows unleashed a strange feeling in him, but he was glad for it, because these birds meant that the world had not disappeared. For a while, it seemed as if he had been engulfed in a ghost town. It had been close to ten minutes since Doyle had hit Princess and still there was no traffic. One crow broke the silence, babbling something that sounded like “hello.”

“What?” he shouted.

Doyle walked up the road, stopped, and came back to what he could see now was the last remnants of an old service station. From here there was a line of sight through a gap in some hills to the southwest. Doyle checked his phone: he got one bar of service, no data. He deleted all the photos but the one of the dog tags, then used the phone number on that photo to call the owner.

As the phone rang, the crows swooped down and hopped over to the spot by the road where he’d moved the dog.

“Quit,” he hollered at the crows.

The phone rang again.

“Git!” he yelled, covering the mouthpiece.

One crow hopped up onto Princess’s body and started tugging at the hair on her belly. The phone rang two more times. “Go on, get away!” he shouted, then threw the tags at the birds. But when he raised his hand, they flapped off, and the tags just clinked onto the pavement. The phone rang again, then someone lifted the receiver. The crows flew up and settled back on the crossbar of the power pole.

A woman’s voice said hello.

“Uh, yes, my name is Doyle, Doyle Mattson.”

“What can I do for you, Mr. Mattson?” The woman had slight drawl, which reminded him of home.

“Well, I . . . uh, have bad news. Really bad news, I think.”

“Excuse me,” she said.

Doyle turned back over his shoulder. The crows were still up on their perch.

“Do you all have a dog named Princess? White and tan—I don’t know— about two feet or so tall?”

“Where is she?”

“Well, I’m here—in . . .” Doyle looked around and saw the faded black letters Congress, Arizona painted on a sign that had fallen to the ground. “We’re here—in Congress, I think.”

“Where?”

“Congress . . . Arizona.”

“Oh, of course, that’s right. Thank you,” the woman said. “She’s been gone for close to a week.”

He gripped his forehead as the event replayed in his head: empty road, U2, Twizzlers, some kind of ghost town, dog, impact, brakes, seizures, rock, phone call.

“Mr. Mattson?” the woman asked.

“I’m sorry.”

“Do you have the dog with you?”

“I do.” He glanced out at the Nissan.

“Well, if you have her then what’s the—oh no,” she said, her voice faltering.

In his peripheral vision, Doyle saw the crows land on the road and hop onto the dog.

“Hey!” he shouted, lowering the phone then immediately raising it back up. “Can you excuse me for a moment?” Doyle ran toward the crows, screaming and waving his arms. One of them was pecking at the dog’s face.

“Go on! Hyah, hyah!” he yelled, kicking gravel at the birds. They flapped toward the furthest houses, cawing and crisscrossing in the air. Doyle stood over the body until he was sure they were gone. Then he grabbed the dog’s collar and dragged the body across the gravel, trying not to drop his phone.

“Sorry,” he said.

“You’re in Congress?” she asked. “That’s not really a place.”

“I gathered,” Doyle said.

There was a pause, then Doyle heard the woman’s breathing speed up and deepen. “But you’re close,” she said.

“I’m sorry. She just came out of nowhere,” he explained. “I didn’t mean to hit her. Ma’am, usually I’m an impeccable driver.”

 

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