There is a photograph on the dashboard. It was taken years ago. I have it turned around backwards so that, when I pass beneath the orange cone of the sodium lights lining the highway, the picture is shown in reverse on the inside of the windshield. The elongation and warping of the images as I pass beneath each light is almost hypnotic. If the aberrations of the picture's images are not putting me to sleep, they are at least keeping me companion here on the endless plane of America's heartland. The night is dark; there are a million stars stretching from one horizon to the next. The radio sputters in and out, songs and voices being replaced by the crackle of static and the loneliness of silence as the miles continue to pile up behind me.
My only companions are the photograph and my own thoughts. Somewhere, here in the middle of the country, here in the middle of a vast, directionless prairie, I have direction. If nothing else, my direction is memory, dreams built on the events of the past. A crumpled piece of paper sitting on the passenger seat reminds me of how it's dangerous to let my mind wander into my memories. Try as I might, I cannot ignore it or what is written on it.
For the time being, I keep driving, eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, thoughts tumbling through my mind. The road is lonely, my head is far lonelier.
The phone rings, but I am ignoring it. Finally, it shuts off but I do not hear the chime letting me know that I have new voice mail. Five seconds after it stopped, the phone rings again. I try to ignore it, but the pattern holds until, after the fifth time it rings anew, I answer it.
"This is Rob."
"Hey, Robby! Where are you?"
"Hey Steve. I'm in New Jersey. Did you know they actually make you pay to get into New Jersey?"
"What in the hell are you doing in New Jersey?"
"Looking for a hamburger stand. I saw it on that show on Food Network. The one with the Italian guy, with the hair. You know what I'm talking about. The food here is supposedly 'off the hook' or some such."
"No, seriously, Rob, where are you?"
"Fine, be that way. Graham is going to be pissed--"
"I called Graham and left him a message. I told him that I was headed out of town for a couple of days. Doctor's orders."
"Oh? Hey, yeah, how did the check-up go?"
"Everything's...fine. Except I'm stressed. The doctor told me that my stress levels were high, which was causing me some blood pressure issues and was the reason why I'm not sleeping so well. He told me that I probably needed some time away from the office." I paused for a moment to cough and clear my throat. "So, I just got in the car and drove."
"Wow. That's some shit man. When are you going to be back?"
I hesitated for a moment and coughed once more. "I dunno. I haven't taken any time off in three years. I think I'm due."
"What about the Smith report?"
"Emailed it to Graham. There's a manila folder on my desk with all the Smith stuff in it. If Graham needs it, tell him to look in there."
"Well, alright then. I guess that's all. Gimme a call when you get back this way, alright? We'll hit the bars, smoke some stoags. Sound good?"
"Yeah, sounds great. I shouldn't be more than a week. Anyway, I think I'm at that joint in Hackensack. We'll see if this place really is 'off the hook.'"
I disconnected before Steve had a chance to respond and promptly turned the ringer off. Tossing the phone on the seat next to me, I ignored the exit numbers and kept going north.