What You Don't Know

Jess peers under his visor and squints at the sun. He's been quiet for the past hour, but now, surveying the desert, he says, "We're nowhere, Prue. Absolutely nowhere."

In the passenger's seat, Prue fans her skirt and lifts her sticky thighs from the seat, releasing them like duct tape. Somewhere back in Kansas the air conditioner went and Jess refused to pay to have it serviced. Now, as heat blasts through the open windows, Prue breathes in the desert until she feels as though she, too, is desert, part of the endless landscape, the unforgiving sky. She should feel lucky with her man beside her. But when Jess curses the absence of road signs and markers, Prue only wants to say he could have gotten a map back at the last gas station. She wants to say he is one of those men who never ask for directions, and that it is his pig-headedness that has them here--lost, the air-conditioner broken, the gas gauge flirting with E, that tenuous line of demarcation. Men and directions, she wants to say, go together like coffee and Jell-O.

Instead, she says, "We're outside Nevada I think. There must be another station somewhere."

"Probably not," Jess says with a hint of bitterness that surprises her. "What you don't know is that deserts go on and on. What you don't know, Prudence, is that deserts eat everything up."

Prue frowns at the sound of her name on his tongue. It is a name given by her ex-hippie-turned-banker-mother, a name that caused constant taunts in high school. High school is where she and Jess met, in fact, in that time when she loved his easiness, his lank, ungainly body and long hair, his sweet teasing and laughter. They are both nineteen and have been married just over a year. Jess is on leave from Fort Bragg where he and Prue live on base, and she is pregnant with something she can't yet see or feel.

She turns up the Bob Dylan song that plays in the tape deck. How Many Roads? She questions, knowing Bob Dylan irritates Jess--he has often said that Dylan is for pussies--and irritating him gives her an odd sense of satisfaction, repays him for the broken air conditioner, for being lost with practically no money left, for this unending road trip. "A tour of America," Jess had called it. At first the idea invigorated Prue, gave her a strange sense of purpose. They headed south to snap photographs of the big peach and the world's largest Coke bottle. They drove to the International Towing and Recovery Museum, then to Silo X in Iowa, with its top-secret disasters and toxic gases that turned men into monsters. They stopped at cheap motels and out-of-the-way diners for greasy burgers and fries that coated Prue's fingers with oil. When they ran low on cash, they spent a few nights sleeping on the hood of Jess's Chevy, buried under blankets, her head on his chest. But now Prue only feels tired, a little too sick, and in need of home. She releases her seat from its upright position, leans back, and props one tan leg up on the dashboard. She says, "It's been a real blast, Baby, but after a while anything gets a little old. Don't you ever get tired of going everywhere and nowhere, all at once?"

Jess glances over. "You don't even care that you've never seen anything, do you? If we turn around, we'll miss the Hornet in Alameda. One of the guys went to California six times to see it, it was that good." Then he adds: "There's a lot that's good on the west coast."

"Home is good," Prue says, pointing. "That direction."

Jess snorts in disgust. "The Hornet's better than home. Bet you didn't know it's haunted. Real live ghosts in that baby."

Prue rolls her eyes. "Only kids believe in ghosts, Jess."

"Bull-shit," he says. "Two hundred sightings of soldiers lost in battle. Doc-u-mented. That ship's seen more action than you'll ever see, that's for damn sure."

"Gas," Prue reminds him.

"Pru-dence," Jess retorts. For a moment, his stare is unyielding, but then, suddenly, he snickers. He glances at the gauge, snorts again, then leans back and steers with his wrist. As is his recent habit, he runs his free hand over his crew cut, back and forth and back and forth again. It is an act that somehow hurts Prue to witness, just as it hurts her when, late at night, Jess turns and tells her they can never go home again, that he's seen too much to ever go back.

Prue feels a strange tiredness, an unaccustomed ache. She knows she should feel grateful that Jess wasn't sent home to her in a box, like so many of the other girls' husbands. She has often tried to imagine what it was like for him, what it was like to be in the desert, to be caught in its swirling storms. Did killing, she wondered, ever become as easy as pulling in a breath of air? One, two, three, breathe and it's over--no real discomfort, no real shock, but only a sweet relief that you are the one left standing. And what--if anything--dies, in the process of all that? Prue wants to ask Jess now but she can't. He would only say she is talking stupid. He would only give her that hard look she's seen so many times since he's been home--jaw clenched, eyes deep and concealing--and Prue would feel unsettled, cast off, as if longing for the boy she knew in high school weren't enough, as if she'd met a stranger coming off the boat instead.

"I bet you didn't know they give you at least twenty extra miles after empty," Jess says. "I bet you've never been out of gas in your life, Pru-dence."

"I've been out of gas plenty," Prue says.

"Bull-shit. I bet you don't even know what real empty feels like."

"Oh, I know empty," Prue says. She glides her tongue over her teeth and tastes the bare, gritty sand. "I know real empty, too." For a moment, she thinks of Fort Bragg and North Carolina's lush forests, that weedy heaviness that hangs over everything. She says, "I don't give a rat's ass about the Hornet. I bet you didn't know that. I don't give a rat's ass anymore about that war of yours, either."

"Oh--I know," Jess says, nodding. "And I agree with you on that last part. I'm done with that war."

Prue cranks up Dylan and turns over possibilities. She will leave him, she knows. One, two, three, breathe, and she will walk away. She says, "I know no desert can go on and on and eat up everything, you're wrong about that. Not if you don't want it to, it don't."

"You don't know shit," Jess laughs. He cranes his head out the window and lets out a fierce, sad howl. He speeds, kicking up dust behind them. "And I know that just like I know it's only pussies who cry for home, just like I know that we've got at least twenty miles before real empty, and that the Hornet is sure as hell loaded with ghosts you'll never see. It's what you don't know that kills you, that's what I know. Bang, bang, bang, dear Prudence. Knocks you real dead."

About the author:

Sandra Novack's fiction has appeared in The Mississippi Review, Northwest Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, and South Carolina Review, among many others. Her collection, Love and Other Disasters was a finalist in the 2004 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and is now a finalist in the 2005 Tartt First Fiction Award. She is currently at work on a novel and can be reached at novackgottshalls@bellsouth.net.