He takes off his new dress at the first stop, a dirty gas station bathroom in Kennewick, Washington. The young female clerk had given him a funny look, but politely pointed to the key. He emerges in men’s jeans and a loose-fitting shirt. The clerk smiles when he’s out, the crumpled dress in his bag. He takes the dress out at his car and throws it in the back seat. He stops at a Wendy’s before making his way north. His stomach gurgles with displeasure, and he wipes his greasy hands on pants he has not worn for months.
He drives and drives, through the emptiness of the inland Pacific Northwest into the sprawl of Spokane, through the twisting mountains of northern Idaho and the shorter mountains of Missoula, Montana, where he parks at a large truck stop. He fuels up, buys a banana, an egg, a refrigerated sandwich, and a 5-hour energy shot. He cleans out his car and begins to smoke a cigarette, one of the last he will smoke for some time, he decides. He smokes serenely, watching the crystal July air.
He can’t find his keys. He panics. He smokes furiously. He moves clumsily in his bulky jeans and his billowy shirt. He looks in resignation at the garbage where he dumped his trash, and with it, probably, his keys. He leans his head against the rear passenger window.
He sees his keys poking out from under the dress. He drives again.
Around ten o’clock, he stops for gas in Big Timber. This truck stop is not as large, and he is the only person there besides the two women working, one young and one old. He trails his hands along the glass beverage doors. He settles on coffee. He buys a small cup and spills when he puts in the cream. He wipes up the mess. A man in a cowboy shirt comes in and says, “You’re doing one heck of a job!” to the younger woman mopping the floor. She smiles.
He takes his coffee outside and smokes another cigarette. He tries to light a match and fails. He tries another match and fails again. He tries another. And another. Another. Another. He gets it. By this time, the two women have come outside to smoke cigarettes of their own.
He decides to talk with them, but first goes to inspect an odd-looking structure at the back of the truck stop. It’s a dumpster. He goes back and the women have gone. Dots of red light up the black hills beyond the truck stop’s fluorescent throbbing. He trips and drops his barely smoked cigarette into a puddle. Resigned, he picks it up and throws it in the trash, and he drives again.
He stops for the night in Billings. After a few wrong turns, he locates the Extended Stay Motel (Daily and Weekly Rates), plopped loosely in an industrial area between a Days Inn and a Hampton Inn.
He walks in, where a girl around twenty with heavy eye makeup and a pink shirt greets him. “Here’s your key. That floor stinks and smells like weed like a motherfucker, just so you know.” He thanks her. The room smells fine.
He gets out of bed. He strips off the women’s underwear he slept in, and turns on the shower. When he gets out, he puts on boxers for the first time in weeks, then the same men’s jeans and another loose-fitting shirt. He’s back on the road soon.
He stops in Beach, North Dakota, the first exit after the state line. He refuels and buys a soda, another banana, some fries. He eats rapidly out of an urgent joy, because today he reaches his destination. He calls his aunt in Winkler, Manitoba, who is glad to hear he is making good time and will expect him at ten o’clock that night. The rest of his mother’s family is at his grandfather’s place, where he’ll be the next day. The more he thinks of them, the more excited he is to arrive.
He’s so excited that he calls his mother in Eugene, Oregon, on the drive out of Beach. They discuss his grandfather’s 75th birthday, and what to get for a present. He calls his uncle afterward, and they discuss celebration plans. He hangs up and concentrates on maintaining a level but efficient speed, not thinking of the clothes he will wear, the lie he will inhabit, the dress on the backseat that he has yet to hide. He drums his fingernails on the wheel. It’s been eleven years since he moved, and he has returned often since, but as brown scrub turns into waving prairie he can’t help himself from racing home.
He breezes through the North Dakotan summer, remembering the four seasons of the Upper Midwest: almost winter, winter, still winter, and construction. He eases through miles of orange signs before cruising past a police car, going 41 in a 35. He is stopped. The policewoman is polite.
She asks him, genuinely it seems, where he’s going that night. He barely keeps his voice from breaking while he talks with her, and he is almost crying while she’s in her car. He hates his men’s jeans and his billowy shirt. He hates his boxer shorts, he hates his baritoned voice. He hates his jutting cheekbones, his receding hairline, his broad shoulders, gargantuan hands, his hairy arms and five o’clock shadow and his bulky 6’1" frame. He wilts, deflated, as if he had been pulled over wearing the suit of a clown.
He accepts the ticket. He brings himself to say “Okay, officer.” Her irises waver. She might have seen the dress. Yet she’s only looking at him. She doesn’t even tell him to drive safely. She seems astonished at him.
He drives on. Slowly, this time. He makes it to Fargo, and turns north just in time for a cloudburst to break and shower his vehicle. The open land provides unseen light under the shaking sky, and he is fleetingly reminded, in contrast, of his drizzly, shadowy, adoptive Northwestern home.
He stops in Hillsboro. He fuels up, purchases another 5-hour energy shot, another refrigerated sandwich, and an energy drink, which he does not drink. He calls his aunt to tell her he’s still on schedule. He returns a message from his grandparents on the other side of the family, and tells them he’d love to see them for dinner when he returns to the Northwest.
He makes his way past Grand Forks, and turns west on the way to the border station directly south of his aunt’s town. He has until 10:00 pm to make it to the crossing. It’s 9:15 pm. He has plenty of time.
The side road he has turned on to is under construction, and the speed limit is 40. He goes 55, telling himself he could see any police car for miles. He makes it out of the fifteen-mile-long zone. He is lucky. He drives, he drives and bumps and drives along the dust on the roof of the country, desperate to find an opening into the northern sky. It is 9:47 pm, and his nervousness is ballooning, gassed by that crave, that thirst so basic and guttural as to rank with “I have to eat” or “I need someone to love me”: I just want to go home.
He sees a dusty sign with an arrow pointing north. CANADA — 2. He’s at the station at 9:50 pm. There is no line. The customs agent’s eyes flicker at him, this young driver with an Oregon license plate and a Canadian passport, sliding through an isolated crossing station ten minutes before closing on a Tuesday night. Muttering to himself, the agent looks around the car.
A bright green dress lies unloved on the back seat. The driver will don it again only once he is far away from this corner of the world, this old home. But for now, for now the agent has let him through. And he rolls down his windows and lets the warm prairie air in, fumbling to switch his vehicle’s settings over to kilometers.