By Will Finlayson
They say the land is so flat in Aspermont you can watch your dog run away for days. There’s nothing out here in North Texas but dirt and hot air, so you can see pretty much anything for however far you look. I always liked the idea of it, spotting your dog on the horizon and pulling out a lawn chair to watch the brown speck get swallowed up in the heat waves. You see, in Aspermont you can just pull up a chair in the middle of the street because the only thing using the roads are the dogs trying to run away. Sometimes I wonder if God even knows we’re out here sucking on his dry air and swearing at the heat and kicking up the dust of the good earth. When I was a kid, this woman who taught church class on Sundays would talk about Jesus coming down to the earth and saving all the good ones. I asked her if Jesus would come here to Aspermont. She blinked at me a couple times and said “sure sweety. Jesus is comin’ to Aspermont.” Maybe when he comes he’ll pull up a lawn chair next to me in the middle of the road as I watch my dog run away. We’d admire the gradient sunset together, and when that brown spot on the horizon stopped getting smaller, we’d stand up and stretch and fold up the lawn chairs, collect the crumpled beer cans, and start up the truck. Maybe we would pick up the dog and just keep driving on. We’d just keep driving on into that horizontal line, and I would look back with sweaty palms at the brown dot of Aspermont shrinking behind us until we came to the flatlands and there’d be nothing but Texas and blue skies on all sides. I’m sure Jesus wouldn’t mind.
I won’t graduate in the spring. I was in English class when they called me in, sat me down, told me I would fail if I didn’t get my act together. Thing is, most kids just drop out before they even get halfway through, so I was wondering why I was even getting punished at all. I mean, hell, I’m here; you know? Well I guess my school counselor knew I was thinking that, so her eyes got all soft and she told me that I wasn’t “too far gone.” She said that if things didn’t work, out I could try again next year or do summer school, maybe even go to a nice college somewhere if I put my heart into it. I told her that I wasn’t smart enough for college. Honestly, I spend most of my time trying not to think about anything too hard. But when I was sitting in front of her, I was still thinking about being “too far gone.” I liked that.
I left school and went straight to this tattoo parlor my buddy Mike owns. Everyone calls him Bo. I call him Mike because that’s his real name, but he doesn’t want people to know. He took an art class in his junior year where he discovered spray paint, and he just lost it. I mean he seriously fell off the saddle. He dropped out of high school as soon as he could and started tagging the school building every night for a week, got some kind of rush from it. I told him to cut it out because I know the janitor who had to scrub the place down every time. He’s this older man named Gregory who doesn’t say much, but when I shit my pants on the first day of my freshman year and I was hiding in the bathroom, he went and found me some extra underwear and gym shorts. I thanked him sheepishly, and he just grumbled something strange and started cleaning my shit off the floor. I got out of there pretty quickly because watching someone clean up your shit is an uncomfortable experience. Me and Gregory have been friends ever since, even though we haven’t said a word to each other and I never make eye contact with him.
Well one night I went tagging with Mike, and I helped him get onto the roof of the school. He painted a giant penis on the eaves and signed it “Bo” but in these sort of bloated letters. I told him he was an idiot. You don’t leave your name when you commit a crime. “This is tagging, Travis, come on! I signed my name but in a way that makes it hard to read. You see how the letters are all bloated and crunched together? It’s like a secret symbol so taggers can identify each other.” He spent a week in the county detention center and decided he would be a tattoo artist (“I can tag people’s bodies and it’s legal!”) About a week later, some farmer caught him putting ink on his cattle and he was back in for another month, but by then everyone knew who he was since he had walking advertisements all over the town.
Mike’s parlor is a rented space next to a hookah store. I think it was meant to be a storage space, but Mike fixed it up and plastered some of his tattoo concepts outside so people knew he was there. It looked like trash, but I guess that’s what he was going for. I don’t think anyone goes to get a tattoo and expects a clean experience. We sat down on some overturned paint buckets and split a warm beer. He went off about some girl he met the night before, who he’d never seen, must have been from out of town. I wasn’t paying much attention though. Girls show up and disappear all the time here. Mike always acts so surprised, like he’s fallen in love with a ghost. I think they’re just girls who got bored and wanted to find out what another town had to offer. The boys do it too; I know it. The open road calls them in and they answer. They look out past the streetlights and see heaven beyond the heat waves, so they leave. They call it tunnel vision, I think, when you find God in the white lines. But all roads lead into each other and turn into themselves. There’s too much lonely air beyond the empty space, and kids get scared. Once they realize they had it better back home, they return to where they came from.
Mike snapped his fingers in front of my eyes and asked me where I went.
“They’re telling me I won’t graduate in spring,” I said.
“Yeah?” Mike replied.
“I think I’m going to leave.”
“Dropping out is better than doing another year in that—”
“No, I mean like leave.”
“Oh . . .”
Mike looked out the door of the parlor for a moment and stared at the dust swirling in the street. He put the beer can on the ground, smashed it underneath his foot, and stood up.
I took off my shirt and lay across the table.
It was almost midnight, and Amy and I were lying in the back of my old pickup truck, staring up into nothing. The thick Texas heat hung in the air like syrup as the soft light of the half moon filtered through the trees around us. I looked out over the enclosure where I had parked, a small clearing south of town where you could frame the sky in the circle of trees overhead. There was no one around for miles and the stars always felt closer than ever. Tonight I could feel them watching me, pressing down on me.
Amy was leaning against my arm as I hugged my knees close to my chest. We were both sweating, which wasn’t unusual in Aspermont, and the air was filled with the screech of cicadas and the deep roar of bullfrogs cooling off in the mud. I could feel her eyes on me, all horny admiration and chemical wonder. I mean, we’d only been dating for a few months, and I didn’t even know we were dating until a few weeks ago. She was a freshman though, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was drunk when I kissed her that night.
We sat together in silence. The stars crept closer; the night got thicker. I had decided I would leave that night. I would leave early before the sun was up. When I dropped Amy off I would fill up the truck with gas at Allsup’s, get some supplies at home, and leave. All I had to do was break up with her.
“I found this place with Mike a few years back,” I finally said. I was worried she could tell something was up, so I decided to talk. I talk when I get nervous. “We ditched school one day and needed a place to hide because my dad found out and was looking for me. We were driving up this road when we saw a trail hidden behind the overgrowth, so of course we had to explore it.”
I could tell by the glazed-over look in Amy’s eyes that she wasn’t listening to a word I was saying, but I kept going.
“Anyway, we made it through, but I drove us right here into this enclosure. Yeah it’s beautiful now, only a little muddy, but in spring when it rains the whole place turns into a swamp. The look on my dad’s face when he found us, oh man. ‘Where did you think you were goin’, huh boys?’”
I imitated my dad’s voice and chuckled at myself because I nailed it.
“He didn’t seem angry though, kind of amused actually. Had this god-awful grin on his face. He just walked around the truck and crouched down to look at where the front was buried in the mud up to the grill. God, it was a mess. It took him a while, but he set up a hitch and yanked her out like he’d done it before a million times. Then he came over and stood next to me for a moment to admire his work and left without a word.”
“Travis, are you going to break up with me?”
“Oh come on, Amy!”
“You want to break up with me, don’t you?”
I stood up in the bed of the truck and stretched. The stars were swirling in my eyes now, and the night was drawing in closer.
“Travis, do you love me?” She was relentless.
“Dammit, Amy, will you just—”
“Travis, don’t you care about me at all?”
“Amy, look, I’m going to leave!” I was shouting now, probably louder than I wanted to. “I’m going to get out of this godforsaken town and never look back, and you can’t come with me, okay? I have to leave. I just have to.”
I looked down and saw that she was crying. She looked up at me as if I was the last thing in the whole world she cared about. Her eyes held all the emptiness and desperation of Aspermont and beyond. For a moment I could see myself in her eyes, a dark shadow surrounded by the dim light of all the life that came through and left town without looking back. I saw a darkness bloated with shadows and reflections of people living and dying without ever knowing the difference.
I looked up and noticed that the air was still. The night had receded, and the stars slipped back into place. The cicadas quit chirping and the bullfrogs quit burping. Then, from beyond the tree line, a sound broke out and echoed around the enclosure, a snap, like someone had stepped on a twig. I looked and saw a longhorn standing just a few feet off with a penis tattooed on its forehead.
In Aspermont, we generally mind our own business. When you hear a fight breaking out in the house next door, you slowly walk inside and shut the door, common courtesy. If a grown man decides to take a piss on the side of the street, you don’t mind him. And when people pass through, as they do when they’re trying to get to the next worst town, you let them pass without weighing them down with your curiosity. That’s why I felt bad for staring at this family that pulled in to Allsup’s while I was filling up the truck. I had a case of beer in the back, a few bags of beef jerky, some slim jims, and as many cans of beans as I could purchase without looking too suspicious. “Going camping huh?” Joey said when I checked out. I just shrugged. But this family, they were all crammed into a minivan and they must have been driving through the night, trying to get somewhere quick, maybe headed up to Denver. The kids got out first, ran inside the store, screaming and dancing like they had to pee, which was probably true. The wife stayed in the car reading a magazine, and the man got out to fill up. He didn’t look rich, like some of them do. He wasn’t dressed particularly well—loose jeans and a tired shirt, like most folks in Aspermont, actually. The only thing different about him was that he wasn’t from here. Frankly, if I didn’t know every single face in this town, I would have suspected they were from Aspermont. Well, the kids came running back out and piled in the car. The man finished filling up and got back in without a word and they drove off. I watched them pull out and start again down the long road north. I stared long and hard as that minivan drove off and soared along the night sky like a comet, kicking up dust and reflecting the light of the stars.
We live south of town. I should say my mother lives south of town. When my parents divorced Dad moved down to Hamlin, but he still comes up some weekends and I’ll get to see him. He mostly goes to the bar though. Mom works at Hickman’s Diner in the mornings and nights so I don’t see her much, but then again, I try not to go home too often anyways. I think she has a book club once a week with some of the women around the neighborhood, but maybe that ended a while ago. I should ask her about it.
I pulled into the driveway at one in the morning and saw that the lights were on. Thankfully, this wasn’t the first time I had tried to sneak in late at night. My mom has this ugly rock garden in the front yard, but in her defense, rocks are the only things you can have a garden of in Texas. Rocks don’t need water or sunshine and they make a hell of a great place to hide keys, cigarettes, or, in this case, WD-40. A couple drops on the hinges and you can get through just about any door without being heard. She was in the kitchen when I walked in so I ran upstairs before she could catch me. I knew the school had probably called her by now and told her I wasn’t going to graduate. I’d rather save that conversation for another life.
I rushed upstairs and filled a backpack with some clothes, a toothbrush, and some stray cigarettes. I also crammed in a bible and some hair gel. I’ve found that having a bible can never really do you any harm. You keep it on your dashboard and cops seems to have just a little more mercy when they’re knocking at your window. People see you reading the good word, and they don’t look twice at the cigarette sitting between your fingers. The Bible’s just good to keep around. The hair gel is for looking good.
All that I needed was my portable stove and I was ready. Cold beans are horrible. Only problem was it was in the kitchen. There was no way around it.
“I thought that was you Travis,” she said as I walked into the kitchen.
“Hey listen, your dad’s coming into town and wants to see you. You want a grilled cheese?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“You have to eat something. I haven’t seen you in almost three days! Oh listen, Travis, you’ll love this, do you remember when I told you that a stranger came into Hickman’s the other day? Well he said he was staying the whole week on business, but I didn’t know what for; he wouldn’t tell me. So listen, he comes back this morning and do you remember that girl you used to play with in the third grade and you were so cute together, oh shoot I can’t remember her name. . . ”
I was fumbling through the cupboards and drawers, but I couldn’t find the damn thing.
“Anyways, the Williams girl, you remember her? God, you two were cute together. Well they moved away, remember? So apparently, this man married your little girlfriend’s older sister and he was coming back to see if he could buy out the old Roland’s building that’s been closed down for so long now. Wouldn’t that just be the cutest if you and—”
“Ma, I can’t find my stove thing.”
“Well it should be in the cupboard.”
“Well it isn’t in the cupboard!”
“Listen, Travis, I know it’s hard not seeing each other during the day and with your father gone and everything, but you can’t take it out on me. You know, your school counselor called and—”
“Can we talk about it later?”
I decided to abandon the stove and rushed to the front door. Cold beans really aren’t so bad.
“Where are you headed?”
“Out? Where is ‘out’ in this town?”
I let out a sigh and stood at the door.
“Alright, well don’t stay up all night and be home for dinner tomorrow. You know that I love you, right?”
“I know, Ma.”
I walked outside and shut the door behind me. I got in the truck and drove straight through town. The tavern was leaking its last few tired customers who drifted across the sidewalks fumbling with their keys. The sign at the Budget Inn still had its lights flickering, and a car was parked in front of one of the rooms, which is one more than usual. I passed the Baptist church at the end of town and put the pedal to the ground. I drove hard. I drove furious. I let the truck steer itself and watched as the road narrowed and then widened and then burst open to embrace the infinite. I drove faster and harder until the white lines blurred into the black pavement and the stars streaked along the sky and the landscape was a witness to it all.
I slammed on the brakes at the county line and screamed and screamed and screamed.
It was a warm night, and a quiet one. I stepped out of my truck and took off my shoes so I could feel the heat radiating out of the pavement. The roads soak in the heat of the sun during the day and release it at night in wisps of steam. The loose pitch was still soft beneath my feet, and the tumbleweeds sat motionless on the sides of the road. My shirt was sticking to my skin from sweating, so I took it off, then grabbed a few loose cigarettes from my backpack and pulled up a lawn chair in the middle of the road. I was still hot, so I took off the rest of my clothes and sat facing the flatlands and watched the glow of tomorrow rising up from beyond the horizon. I’m going to leave tomorrow. I’ll drive right through Peacock and Jayton and Girard and never look back. I’ll drive until I’m sick of sunsets and blue skies and horizontal lines. I’ll drive myself into a rage. My metal heart will pulse beneath the pedal, beating along with the white lines and the mile markers. I’ll drive until I’m world weary, towards God waiting beyond the next mountain, towards freedom over the next crest, new life at the next exit. I reached behind me and felt the raised skin of the freshly tattooed letters on my back. “Too far gone.” I liked that.
Will Finlayson is senior at BYU studying English, communications, editing, and creative writing. He is a level 7 Kensai in D&D.