top of page
Alan Abrams

It Was In The Stars

       His truck hauls up a long wooded slope. When it crests, the new sun strikes the windshield with palpable force.  Its light refracts off dust and spattered insects, dazzling the cab. The blast of sunlight launches him back in time. Could it really have been three years since he met her? 
      East-bound on the empty highway, he smells something familiar, something comforting. It takes him a moment to recognize the aroma of burning oak. Where he’d lived for the past six years, homes were heated with piñon, its fragrance like incense. On frigid mornings, its smoky haze would dull the colors and soften the lines of the settlements strewn along the Rio Grande and its unreliable tributaries. Now, in the gaining light, he can make out the houses—solitary, and in small groups—and the trees that stand around them: hardwoods, tall and articulated, trees with real leaves. 
      East. What is it that draws him back? He’d intended to take I-25 up to Denver, to visit some cousins he hadn't seen since he was a kid—but at the last second, he hooked a sharp right onto 84, and then took 40, east bound. He recalls the fly-back he used to play with, smacking the rubber ball with its plywood paddle, harder and harder, trying to snap the elastic cord and launch the ball across the yard, until he'd miss and the ball would come flying back at his face.
      Now, coasting down a long hill. The bridge at the bottom is nearly hidden by mist. As he approaches it he makes out the broad, lazy creek. An aluminum row boat, upturned on the bank, reflects a glint of sun. Here are ponds, lakes, rivers.  Water—so languid, so undeliberate.  Eastward, flying back east.
      He is somewhere in Oklahoma, approaching the Arkansas line.  Not like that blistering road that runs out toward the Texas panhandle—that westbound stretch he drove almost six years ago, on his way to New Mexico. His plan had been to visit Annamarie, who had moved to El Rancho after their breakup, and then continue to Alaska to work on the pipeline. But he arrived there broke. The next day, the Honda shop in Santa Fe hired him on the spot. By the time he had made enough money to move on, he’d patched things up with Annamarie, and was sharing her tiny rented trailer house with her dogs, cats, ferns, and spider plants. Alaska was forgotten, perhaps gratefully. 
      Now he’s heading back east. He had to get out—the cigarette was the last straw. That stale, putrid smell in the bathroom, on top of his mild hangover. If they stopped at two drinks, there was peace; the third drink was war. It took two more to achieve an armistice.
In fact, the whole blasted thing started with a cigarette, that evening he stopped off in a bar on the outskirts of Sante Fe, on his way home from work. He had a perfectly clear idea how long and how much he could drink before catching hell from Annamarie. But then he noticed a woman, two stools over, slitting open a pack of Newports with a long, cherry red fingernail.
      The recollection triggers a craving. First, for a smoke—and then, for the sensation of those painted nails raking his back. It stirs him. “She could draw blood,” he says to no one—the first sounds he utters in 24 hours.

      WHEN HE PULLED into the gravel lot, the sun was still well above the Jemez Mountains—so bright that when he entered the building, he could barely make out the bar.  He bumped against a barrel of peanuts next to the door. Beside it was a scoop and a stack of paper bowls, but he just dipped his hat into the barrel and dredged up a full load. Then he selected a stool in the middle of the nearly silent bar.
      As his eyes adjusted, he took in the surroundings. The bar itself was a solid slab of ponderosa pine with an unfinished edge. The walls of the building were adobe, and the floor was a chipped and stained concrete slab. Along the front wall was a series rough plywood panels, filling openings that once housed overhead doors. Opposite the entrance, some young men in black jeans and tee shirts were setting up microphones and amplifiers.
      People trickled in. Daylight invaded whenever the door opened, and the few people already at the bar and tables—almost all men—would turn to see who arrived. From an alcove at the back came the occasional clatter of billiard balls. A roadie tapped on a mike, and played a clumsy riff on a guitar. Someone at a table hooted at him, and the roadie looked up and stopped playing. Voices and laughter begin to fill the room, echoing off the hard surfaces.
      He was already on his second beer, and a pile of empty shells was accumulating on the floor beside his stool. He hadn't noticed when she had walked in, but there she was, an empty stool between them. 
      With a furtive glance, he took her in. She wore crisp slacks and a shimmery blouse. Her lipstick matched her nails, and her hair was a brilliant auburn.  Almost natural. He wondered if she felt out of place in this raucous, makeshift roadhouse. But then the bartender—a huge bearlike man—leaned over the bar to receive her dainty kiss on his hairy cheek. No, she was a regular.
      In a moment, she was joined by another man and woman. They sat on either side of her and began to chatter. Sitting closest to him was the man, wearing a sun bleached Carhartt jacket and Levis worn through at the knees .  The other woman, her hair in thick braids, wore a white peasant blouse and nothing under it. Her flowered skirt draped over the tops of her wellingtons. The two women began an animated conversation, seemingly ignoring the man between them. Silently, he drained his mug, and was about to call for the check when she, Red Nails, fished a pack of Newports from her purse.
      The sun is high now. Billboards advertise restaurants; a sensation flows up from his gut. Yesterday, he withdrew a hundred and twenty dollars from the account, leaving her enough for the payment on the trailer house and some groceries until she got her next check.  He scraped up nearly twenty more in loose bills and change. But fifty dollars was already shot on gas, and three more on dinner in Amarillo. A so-called burrito—what Texans have the nerve to call chili is pathetic. In his head he runs through the numbers, a thousand more miles, seventy more for gas. If he spends another night in the cab, he can afford breakfast.
      While he makes those calculations, a promising exit at Morrilton sails past. He nearly misses the next one, but at the last second he swerves onto the road to Plumerville. The duffle in the passenger seat tumbles into his shoulder, and the surprise sends him across the center line.  A horn blares, and he yanks the truck back into its lane. He can't be that tired—after all, he and that woman—what was her name—had once driven coast to coast in fifty two hours. Crazy Sue, that's it.  Collins' wife. Doing ninety most of the way, in that beat up VW. When they arrived in Santa Barbara, he noticed the tire treads were worn to the cords. That’s when he realized just how crazy she really was.
Now, Sweeney's Family Diner appears on the right. There are only two cars in the lot—a jacked up Trans Am, and another marked Conway County Sheriff. He pulls in anyway, right beside the bubble-topped sedan. Some of his bigger tools didn't fit in the crossover box, and lay loose in the bed, so maybe the proximity to the law might give a thief a moment's pause.
      He takes a table by the front window, so he can keep an eye on the truck.  In his reflection in the glass, he notices how wild his hair and beard have become. Two men in tan uniforms are straddling stools at the counter. The projecting butts of their service revolvers remind him of the shotgun lying in his rifle rack. It's legal in New Mexico—but in Arkansas? Too late anyway, too late to get up and just leave, without attracting attention.
      “Coffee?” The waitress startles him.
      “Yes, Ma'am. And three eggs, sunny side, please.”
      “Breakfast is over at ten.”
      “Sorry, I didn't realize how late it is.”
      The two officers look over their shoulders, and take a moment before turning back around to their plates. Across the room, an enormous man in a black stetson looks up, fork frozen before an open mouth.
      She says, “I got a hamburger, cheeseburger, BLT, and a catfish po boy. They all come with fries.”
Again he thinks about excusing himself and getting back on his way, but the aroma of frying grease causes him to reconsider. “Thank you, I'll have the catfish,” he replies.
      As soon as the waitress leaves, he walks as calmly as he can to the restroom. When he returns, a mug of tepid coffee is at his place.
      She would have walked out, without so much as a thanks anyway or an excuse me. It seemed she was always looking for something to be slighted or insulted by—a chance to fight, to fight back. It was a trap he’d always fall into, swallowing the bait, and then his blood was up, too, and there was no stopping until it got ugly.
      But that evening at the Santa Fe road house, those smiling eyes, that natural laugh, arrested him. How carefully she removed the cellophane, picked open the foil, and rapped the pack against the heel of her thumb three times to produce some filters; how she neatly extracted the proudest one with her painted lips. All so perfectly unconscious, never missing a beat of her conversation.
He groped in his pocket for a match, but she—not noticing—had already thumbed open a Zippo and struck a flame. As she tilted her chin up to apply the fire, she gave her head a shake that tousled her coppery hair over her shoulders.
      The bartender gestured toward his empty mug; he replied with a nod. A strum on an electric guitar hushed the room. Heads turned toward the sound. The man between them got up and headed for the rest room. She drew on her cigarette and exhaled. As the band tuned up and started their patter, he gazed at her profile in the mirror behind the bar.
      The smoke drifted back past him; the odor stimulated a sensation that ran up the inside of his arms. As she turned back to use the ashtray, her eyes met his in the mirror.  She did not smile or look away, until he lowered his eyes. Then she swiveled her stool directly at him.     
      “Is there something you want?” she asked.
      She glanced down at the hat still half full of peanuts. At first it looked like she was smiling, but he could see her jaw muscle tensing and releasing.
      “I'm sorry for staring,” he said.
      “It's nothing. No offense taken.” He searched her eyes for assurance but could find none.  She took another drag and started to turn away.
      Then he said, “You know, there is something I'd like—I mean, if you don't mind me asking.”
She turned back languidly.  “Oh, and what is that?”
      “This is going to sound dumb—”
      “Just spit it out.”
      “Well, even though I pretty much quit smoking, I still enjoy it once in a while.  But if I buy a pack, then I start smoking again like crazy. So, if you give me one of yours, I'd buy you a whole new pack.”
      “Is that all you want—a cigarette?”
      He nodded. Her stony aspect dissolved, and she issued a surprisingly loud laugh from deep in her chest. The woman sitting next to her tried to gain a view of the discussion. She, Red Nails, grabbed the pack from the bar and reached across the empty stool to offer him one.  He held up his hand. 
      “No, wait, let me get another pack for you first—there's got to be a machine here somewhere.”
      “Never mind that, I got plenty. But you could buy me another drink.”
      As she began to move to the closer stool, the other man returned, headed for the same seat. She shifted to stand in front of him, blocking him from the stool. She was nearly as tall as him—and he was every bit of six feet. Confused, he stopped before them.
      “George,” she said, “This man is in need of a cigarette, and I offered to help him out.”
      George snapped back to the two of them, “Rose is all about charity—and temperance, and chastity. Right, Rosie?”
      “Right, you smart ass. You just got the order backwards. So why don't you be charitable and go sit down?” George shook his head and complied. Then she slipped onto the closer stool and bumped her shoulder against his like they were old buddies. “Now, where were we?” she said. “Yes, you're going to buy me a seven and seven. And I must pay the price.”
      He summoned the bartender and ordered her drink. Surprised that his own mug was already empty, he ordered another beer for himself. Then, Red Nails—Rose—gave him a cigarette. As she lit it for him, he noticed some engraving on the lighter.
      “Thank you,” he said. “What's that marking on the lighter? Can I see it?”
      She passed him the lighter. On one side was the image of a prancing animal with curling horns.  On the obverse was the Marine Corps emblem, and the words:

                                                                        SEMPER FI
      “My little brother gave it to me, after he came home from Vietnam,” she says.
      “I’m sorry he had to go. Is he all right now?”
      “Yeah, I think so. He doesn't talk about it, though. He's a teacher now, second and third graders. Can you believe that?”
      “I guess so, why not?” He turned the lighter back around. “What's with the goat?”
She laughed that deep laugh again. “It's a ram, dummy. He's an Aries.  Get it?”
      “No, what do you mean?”
      “Aries, god of war. Aries is ruled by Mars, and he's a warrior. A Marine.”
      “Give me a break. You don't really believe in that stuff, do you?”
      “Maybe I do, and maybe I don't. But wouldn't you like to believe that there was something that explains who we are? Some way to figure out who we should be with?”
      “Well, sure, but I don't believe that some planet or star has any influence over us. What about your upbringing, your mother, your father?”
      “If you had a father like we did, you wouldn't want to be under his influence. You'd be glad for some stars, if he was your old man. Bastard had big hands, and he liked to use them. On all of us—even my mother.”
      They both fell silent for a moment. The bartender delivered her seven and seven.
      “Forget it. So anyway, what's your sign?” She took a sip of the drink.
      “Jeezus,” he said, his voice trailing off. He shook his head.
      “Out with it,” she demanded.
      He sighed. “I'm not really sure. It's either Leo or Virgo. I'm sort of in between.”
      “What's your birthday?”
      “August 22.”
      “Of course—you're right on the cusp,” she says. Then her eyes widened and she gasped, “Oh my god! My birthday is December 22. I’m on the cusp between Sagittarius and Capricorn. We're in perfect trine!”
      “What in heaven and earth does that mean?”
      “It means you're coming home with me, honey. I’ll explain it all to you later.”
      He struggles to keep eyelids apart, as darkness begins to hide the rolling hills, farms, and wooded valleys. But now the exits are more frequent, and the lights and billboards of yet another city—Knoxville—compel him to continue, far enough beyond their glow, to find another rest stop or deserted side road, somewhere he can pull over and catch a few hours of sleep.
      What if? What if he had paid his tab and gone back to El Rancho instead?  To Annamarie; to her studied severity and unapologetic frumpiness, her stern body and stringy hair. To her makeshift household, the mattress on the floor, the bookshelves of drooping 1x10’s stacked on concrete blocks. To her disdain—for his smoking and his diet, for the dirt and grease impacted in his knuckles, for his fumbling calloused hands. Yet also, to her willingness to share her bed with him every night, no matter how dull and routine it had become. And in her willingness to accept his mediocrity, the opportunity for his own redemption.
      No, he traded it all for that night, that one night that should have been no more than one night, if it ever should have been at all. The headlamps part the darkness like the bow of a ship, leaving behind a wake of shadows, as the truck continues, rolling, plunging, surging—eastward.
Alan Abrams' work can be found on his website:
bottom of page