“‘Hey, hey, what’s it take to go missing nowadays? I mean, what does it take, you know? With all of the cameras and phones and credit cards, how does one just go out and never come back?’ You ever wonder that?”
There Will Be Canyons Where We’re Going by Shane Plassenthal
The thing is, I’m sitting in this bar, minding my own business, when this guy walks in wearing a heavy green coat, looking like he’s lost or something. When he opens the door, a blast of cold wind spills in and I can see the neon blinking sign in the parking lot for a moment and then the door closes and he stomps the snow off his feet. Then he walks over to the stool beside me and sits down. He keeps his coat on and asks me, “What’s good here?”I tell him the beer is fine.
He nods and orders a whiskey and soda.
He looks back at me and says I don’t look so good. I tell him I’m not feeling so good. He asks me why. I tell him my wife left me this morning. I tell him we’ve been married five years and I don’t want it to end. I tell him I think she might be having an affair.
He nods like he understands and just when I think he’s going to tell me that he does, he doesn’t. He just drinks some whiskey and stares at the row of bottles behind the bar.
“Listen,” he says a while later, “once, my old lady and I are driving cross country. Where we’re going, we’re going to California. You’ve ever been to California? Me either. Anyway, I got this job offer, this job is waiting for me, so that’s where we’re going, you understand?”
He downs his whiskey.
“We got everything we own in the back of our car. I mean, we got everything we can fit. We’ll have to buy new furniture, of course but it won’t be a problem, I mean, this is a nice job I’m all set to get. So anyway, we’re driving, and we pass this sign. You ever see those signs on the side of the highway? They’re kind of like billboards, these signs but they aren’t. I mean, they’re the kind of signs that aren’t trying to sell you anything, you know what I mean? No, these signs, they always have big red letters that spell out the word missing and there’s like this black background and in the middle of the sign there’s this photo of who might be missing and below that is a phone number and sometimes there’s even money offered. Anyway, we pass one of those. It’s about some missing lady and it’s all sad and so it gets me thinking, it really does. You ever see one of those signs?”
He orders another whiskey and when it arrives, he takes a big, greedy drink.
“Damn that’s good,” he says, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of coat. He lets out a loud belch and goes on with this story.
“So, anyway, I’m thinkin’ real hard after I pass that sign and I look over at my wife. She’s staring out the window when I ask her the question. I say, ‘Hey, hey, what’s it take to go missing nowadays? I mean, what does it take, you know? With all of the cameras and phones and credit cards, how does one just go out and never come back?’ You ever wonder that?”
I nod, it’s the kind of thing that I have wondered about. We’re not so different, this man and I.
He drinks some more whiskey and then he asks if I want another beer. I tell him alright and he orders me one and then himself another whiskey.
“So my wife, she looks over at me and just shrugs. I mean, I can tell she’s also thinking about it but she doesn’t say so one way or the other. She’s mad, you see. She’s been mad at me this whole time.
That’s the part I forgot to tell you. You see, earlier we’d passed another type of sign. It wasn’t about a missing person or anything. No, it was one of those dumb signs advertising a tourist trap. Something about the largest canyons this far west or something. Canyons, I mean, who cares, right?”
Our drinks come and he raises his for a toast. I clink my beer bottle against his glass and he guzzles his down. I don’t drink, though. I just watch him.
“She had said, ‘Hey, can’t we stop? Can’t we stop and see those canyons? And I’d just said, ‘Are you for real? You really want to see those?’ and she’d told me ‘yes’ and I’d told her there was no time ‘cause we had to get to California. ‘Besides’, I told her, ‘there will be canyons in California.’ She’d rolled her eyes. ‘You never want to do anything that I want,’ she snapped. That’s when I’d said that wasn’t true and she said it was and I said I just didn’t want to stop and see some dumb canyons when there would be canyons in California and then she’d said it was my fault we were going in the first place. She said if I hadn’t done what I’d done then maybe things would be different and she wouldn’t care so much about seeing some lousy canyons and so I told her to shut the hell up and she’d said there weren’t any damn canyons back home and so I told her she didn’t know, we never went anywhere when we were back home and she’d told me that’s why our marriage was the way it was and so I asked her what the hell was that supposed to mean?”
He sips his whiskey this time, real slow and all. A tune is coming from the jukebox, some old country song and I think it sounds familiar. I can’t place it. It’s as if his words are too distracting somehow, as if he’s telling me something I’m not quite smart enough to understand.
“So, what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to break the ice. I’m trying to ask her this profound question, you see. I ask it again, I ask, ‘Well, what’s it take, huh? I mean, just how the hell do you go off the grid like that? How do you go missing?’ and she just states out the window, ignoring me. Finally, she turns and looks over and says, ‘I just wanted to see those canyons. I just read that sign and thought it might be kind of fun to see them, that’s all.’ So I tell her ‘Babe, there will be canyons where we’re going’ and she says ‘But not those canyons. Not the canyons I wanted to see.’ And so I tell her that we’ve already passed them, that the sign was miles ago and she just looks at me and says, ‘Well, you could turn around.’ And then I scream, ‘Well you never answered my question!’ I mean, I’ve got the worst temper, I really do.”
He finishes off his glass and this time he simply holds it up for a refill.
“Have some whiskey?” he asks.
“Oh, no, the beer is fine.”
“Suit yourself,” he says and his drink is replenished.
“Well, that just pisses my old lady off, it really does,” he says, shaking his head. “She slams her hands real hard down on the dashboard and turns all red. ‘Why should I give a damn about your lousy question?’ she screams. ‘Just cause you saw some stupid sign and it got you thinkin’. Well I saw the sign, too and I knew you’d ask me about it. I knew it. But you didn’t care about the canyons so why should I care about your question? Hmm? Answer me that?’ By this time, I’m crying, I’m so heated. I slam the brakes, right there, real hard and we come to a screeching stop on this empty stretch of desert highway. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ she asks and I don’t say a word, I don’t, I just spin that car right around and go back the way we came from. ‘I said what the hell are you doing?’ she yells and I tell her that we’re going to see the canyons, that I’ve turned around so she can see those goddamn canyons and she kicks he leg at the dashboard and howls something awful and says it’s too late and I tell her ‘Oh no, oh, no, we’re going to see those canyons, don’t you worry’ and she shuts up and we drive the whole rest of the way in silence. We’ve never been so mad before. Fact is, I don’t even know why we’re so mad. I mean, that’s the thing, is it even really about the canyons?”
He drinks some more, his words are beginning to slur. His speech is slower.
“I’d lost my job,” he says after a moment. “That’s why we were going to California. I’d lost my job. But it was more than that. It was so much more than that. But I’d lost my job and so we were going out there and I had this new gig lined up and we were gonna try it again. But I had gotten so mad about those canyons. And so there we are, I’m going every bit of ninety, gripping that steering wheel and soon we pass that stupid sign, the one she’d seen earlier. ‘Coyote Canyons’ it says in big letters. There’s this dumb drawing below it that, too. It’s of this lousy coyote pointing his thumb in the direction of the road that turned off to the canyons. Somethin’ real cute and all. It got me thinkin’, though, it did. I mean, what I want to know is how could you have this big dumb goofy sign and just a little way down the road how could you have a sign about a missing person? It just doesn’t seem right, you know what I mean?”
“Signs,” he says in between gulps of whiskey. “Signs are funny things, my friend. I mean, I was thinkin as I turned off the highway, I was thinkin’ how could you have those two signs on the same stretch of road? It just wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that something so silly could exist with something so serious. I mean, you tell me how that’s the case? Riddle me how that’s fair, I mean, can you tell me that? Does anyone know why so much bad can be so close to something so good? ‘Cause that’s what I want to know.”
By now he’s drunk. Those words, I’m thinking, those aren’t the kind of words a somber man would say. They’re too profound, somehow, I think. Too honest. Or maybe I’m also drunk. Maybe that’s all it is after all.
“Still,” he goes on, “my wife doesn’t speak. I pull the car up to this dingy little shack and before I get out, I reach over and grab her by the arms. ‘Listen,’ I tell her, ‘you listen to me. We’re gonna see these canyons. And when we’re done, I want you to tell me, I want you to tell me the goddamn way someone can go missing because that’s all I asked, that’s all I wanted to know. You hear me?’ She doesn’t answer. She just keeps staring out the window. And so I leave her sitting like that and go inside this little shack. Inside, it’s about as cold as the Arctic Circle, I swear, the air conditioner must be as low as it goes and there’s this ancient broad sitting behind a counter reading a paperback. I mean, she’s the oldest living thing I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure and so I say ‘Excuse me’ and she puts her book at me and stares at me like I’m some sort of inconvenience or something and then she arches her painted on eyebrows and asks what I need.”
He chuckles to himself and finishes off his whiskey.
“I tell her I would like to see the canyons. I ask her how much will it be? And you know what she does? She just looks at me like I’ve asked her the world’s hardest math problem or something. It makes me all nervous and all and I start looking around. The shack is like some sort of gift shop and there’s tacky stone jewelry in glass cases and a rack of cheap cards in the corner. I look back at her and she’s laughing and I say ‘what the hell is so funny?’ and she says, ‘Oh, mister, these canyons, they’ve done been closed for about two years now.’ Well, let me tell you, I’m so damn mad I want to punch her, I want to send her into the next century, Lord knew she was old enough. And so I tell her, ‘Well it’s not very funny at all.’ And she just shrugs. ‘You’re sign is still up’ I tell her. ‘Don’t you know? That’s why we came. My wife is out there waiting in the car. She wanted to see the canyons.’ This old broad just rolls her eyes and says, ‘Well of course the sign is still up. This here gift shop is still open, ain’t it?’ and I’m so mad, like I said, I’m so mad I just stand there for a long time because I’m afraid I’m gonna do somethin’ real bad, like before, like before I took my wife out on the road, I’m afraid, I had a temper you see. That’s why I’d lost my job. I’d done somethin’ real bad, somethin’ I ain’t too proud of.”
I lean in unsure whether or not I should be afraid.
“One more whiskey,” he says. “One more whiskey and then I reckon that’ll be enough.”
He holds his glass up and the bartender comes over and fills it. I still haven’t finished my beer.
“Well anyway, this old broad and I just stand there looking at each other. Finally, when I’m a little calmer, I ask, ‘Who the hell wants to buy a bunch of canyons? That’s what I want to know’ and she puts her hand on her hip and cocks her head in a funny way. She says ‘Mister, how would I know? I just run this here gift shop, that’s all.’ And I just stand there nodding. I’m wondering what I’m going to tell my wife. And this old broad, she must feel sorry for me. Or else, she just gets tired of looking at me. So she says, ‘Hey, hey, I could give you a postcard. It has a picture of the canyons on it. I could at least give you that since they’re closed. I’d even give it to you for free. Would you like that?’ I nod. She reaches underneath the counter and slaps the postcard on the counter. I don’t even look at it. On my way out the door, I stop and turn around. I say to her ‘There will be canyons where were going. I mean, where my wife and I are going. There will be plenty of canyons when we get there so I guess it’s no big deal. I guess it’s fine your canyons aren’t open anymore. And this old broad just nods like she knows what I’m talking about and so I head back out into the desert sunshine and then I walk over to my car and you know what?”
“What?” I ask.
He lets out a wild laugh. It’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever heard, I think.
“My goddamn wife is gone. So is the car. I mean, just like that, she’s gone. Just some tire tracks where she’d gunned the damn car and taken off. At first, I think it’s some sort of joke. I even smile. ‘Alright’ I yell out into the empty desert ‘very funny, that’s very funny’ and I start laughing. I laugh for a long time but I knew she wasn’t coming back. I’d gotten an answer to my question, you see. That’s what was so funny. She’d answered my question.”
He takes a swig of whiskey.
“I never saw her again,” he says. “I mean, the police, I called them and they looked. Detectives and all. Never found the car, either. Just vanished. She vanished just like that. I think she ran away, myself but they weren’t so sure. I went on to California, though and I worked there for a while and then I moved back. When I got back here, you know what I did?”
I shake my head. He looks into his glass. It’s empty. He reaches over and takes my beer. I don’t even stop him. He downs the rest of it and slams it onto the bar.
“I bought me one of them signs, that’s what I did. Then I made sure it said the word missing on it and I used the best photo I could find of her. I used one from when she was younger and we weren’t married, yet. Things were different, then. Don’t ask me how, they just were. I lost the sign, though and now it’s just another billboard. I think now it’s an advertisement for a car dealer over in the next town.”
That’s all he says to me. He stands up then and heads for the door. He doesn’t even say goodbye but that’s all right. I don’t think I would have wanted him to, anyway. He leaves the bar but I’m not even thinking about him anymore. I’m thinking about my wife. I’m thinking that I need to call her. I’m thinking I’ve had too much to drink and I’m not going to be able to drive myself home. She’s going to have to come and get me. I’m going to call her, I am. I’ll tell her I’m at the bar. When she asks which one, I’ll tell her to look out for the one with the neon blinking sign. That’s where I am, I’ll tell her. That’s where I’ll be.
Shane Plassenthal has been awarded a Gold Key from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and taken first prize in fiction in Heidelberg University’s 2012 issue of Morpheus Literary Magazine for “Chain Linked Fences.”