• 1 • Impala
By midafternoon Roy and Maysle Potts were crossing from Illinois into Missouri. The Impala’s tires buzzed the gridwork of a bridge spanning wide ﬁelds of alfalfa. New Orleans, Roy was thinking, New Orleans, New Orleans. The rhythm of the words kept time with the thup of the expansion joints as the big convertible rocked and bridge girders sent shadows stuttering over him and his wife. “Look,” Roy said, pointing. Sometimes he was amazed at the simplest things. It was something for his notebook—the rows of green shimmering below them like a folding fan laid ﬂat in the sun. But Maysle didn’t look. She was in the last chapter of a mystery novel and thinking about the fact that they’d been on the road for ﬁve hours—since leaving Rockford—and Roy hadn’t stopped talking.
“Look,” he said again. “Cairo, Illinois.
Except it’s Kay-row.” Maysle raised her head for a second. The tight skin of her neck stretched as she peered over the edge of the roadway. She lifted her eyebrows.
“That’s nice, Roy.” With that she dropped her eyes to the book in her lap. Sometimes she had to use the skills she’d learned in her ﬁfteen years as a court stenographer—the ability to listen without really listening. Roy didn’t seem to notice.
He didn’t notice a lot of things. He kept himself entertained well enough.
“That’s some of the best farmland in the world,” he said. He was still pointing. “Right there.”
Roy drove with his belt unbuckled and the button of his shorts undone. His tank top showed through the white-striped Guayabera shirt he wore, which hung loosely over the roll at his waist. The wind slapped what was left of his blond hair against his forehead. He had a pale, hairless face, as though a white ﬂash of light had singed his eyebrows clean. His eyes moved constantly. He squinted and licked his lips. On his last trip to New Orleans, he’d traveled this same route with Kyle Hoyt and Aloysius McDermott, two of his graduate school friends.
They’d come down in Roy’s last semester at the University of Illinois, two years before he’d even met Maysle. The three of them took turns at the wheel, driving all night, stopping only to pee and buy beer and eat the baked potatoes and roasted chicken breasts they’d wrapped in aluminum foil and wedged into the crevices of the engine. They’d measured cooking times by the green mile markers.
A little farther into Missouri, Roy said, “I just wish it was going to be Mardi Gras.” It was the middle of August, as far from Fat Tuesday as you could get.
“No, you don’t,” said Maysle.
Roy blew air through his nose. “Yes, I do.”
“Mardi Gras is hell, Roy.” Sometimes she had to shut him down before he even got going on a topic. She had agreed to drive the fourteen hours to New Orleans, but she at least wanted it to be their trip, not the echo of some time before Roy had even met her.
“How would you know? You’ve never been.”
Maysle folded her ﬁnger in the book and turned her green eyes on him. “Hundreds of drunk people having sex in the street?” She wore a sleeveless yellow blouse, a shade or two lighter than the Impala’s interior. Her short red hair churned in the breeze. “What’s the mystery?”
“Come on, May. Mardi Gras is fun.” But the word fun—the empty feeling it left behind in the air—seemed to prove Maysle’s point. Was anything fun anymore?
“That was how long ago?” Maysle asked.
“When’s the last time you were there?” Tangled in her words was another question: How long had it been since they’d made love? They both heard it.
“Nineteen seventy-seven.” A Winnebago inched by on their left, shedding a wind that nudged the Impala toward the breakdown lane. Roy was still unsure of the car’s handling—the hood was impossibly long. “It was fun, May.” Two young boys waved at Roy from the Winnebago’s rear window. He lifted two ﬁngers o¤ the wheel.
“People puking into each other’s shoes,” she said. He clamped his lips down on a smile. She’d remembered his stories.
“You’ve never been.” He glanced down at the needle of the big speedometer. He was doing seventy-ﬁve. “At least I’ve been, so don’t tell me it’s not fun.”
“And how old were you, Royal?”
He looked over at her. “Twenty-four.”
“Twenty-four.” She lowered her head to the book again. Roy hated when she did that, when she called up a tone of voice that could end a conversation the way you snap o¤ an icicle. All their discussions seemed to end thatway, if not with a cold snap, then with a slack and empty feeling that nothing was ever talked out between them, nothing ever settled. Their discussions about money never changed the way they spent it. Didn’t they still live in the same apartment in New Bedford, Massachusetts, that they’d rented for thirteen years?
And about kids, the ffffact that there weren’t any—what had come of those tentative discussions? It wasn’t a topic Roy liked to think about. Maysle had turned forty-one the month before.
• • •
The Impala belonged to Maysle’s newest brother-in-law, Wayne. It was a mint-condition, powder blue, 1971 eight-cylinder convertible with a spotless chrome grill, long bench seats still wrapped in manufacturer’s plastic, and a trunk so big Roy imagined you could ﬁt his Escort into it—disassembled, of course. They had driven that Escort out from Massachusetts to visit Maysle’s family in Illinois for the wedding.
Roy had never thought of himself as much of a gear head or a car guy—hell, he taught English at a Catholic high school— but he’d almost wet his pants when Wayne rumbled up in the Impala. It was the same model as the car Roy had driven to New Orleans eighteen years earlier. The sun seemed to melt down the curve of the hood. With his hands in his pockets, he asked Wayne if he could take it for a “short jaunt” up Rural Route 10 and back. Maysle rolled her eyes and leveled at Roy a look he tried to ignore. He and Wayne had barely been introduced, and Roy wanted to take o¤ in the man’s car? “Sure,” Wayne said, though his grimace said something else. He was a tax attorney. He collected vintage automobiles, kept them in a brick warehouse in downtown Rockford. He threw Roy the keys. “Knock yourself out.” Watching Roy pull away, Maysle wanted to apologize. He’s like a child sometimes, she almost said.
But what came out of her mouth was, “I wouldn’t worry, Wayne. He’ll bring it back in one piece.
He’s very careful.” “No problem,” said Wayne.
In some things, Maysle knew, Roy could be too careful.
There was that time they’d been out to visit her parents for Christmas seven years earlier. One night, in the bathroom, she’d heard her father through the bedroom wall. “Are they ever going to have kids? It’s like they’re goddamn roommates.” Maysle climbed back into bed with Roy and woke him, his eyes snapping open when she reached up under his boxers and cupped his balls in her cold palm. He climbed on top of her, and it was so forbidden and kinky with her parents only a few...