“You sure make stupid decisions.” she said.
Taylor blinked, maybe even winced a little, but otherwise showed little sign that he had heard her, let alone taken her seriously. It wasn’t that he was deaf or so lacking in ego that he could withstand the insult. No, he was simply too busy to bother, too desperate to rescue himself (and her) from the results of this latest stupid decision, all too aware that far too many stupid decisions had been made and the chickens, as they say, were really and truly coming home to roost.
Their honeymoon almost over, they had left the Grand Canyon that morning, driving to Phoenix and their flight back to Toronto. Nicole insisted they have their final lunch in Sedona, where they had stopped on the way north three weeks ago, and where a flirtatious bartender had caught her attention. Taylor wasn’t keen – it would take several extra hours off the interstate to get to and from the restaurant – but he caved in when the GPS revealed a short cut that promised a swift in and out.
So, when the short cut turned out to be a reddish dirt road with a large sign warning that it was not maintained and was only for trucks and all-terrain vehicles, Taylor was reluctant to backtrack on his plan. Nicole ordered him not to try; it was too risky, they were ahead of schedule, and she mustn’t miss that lunch. But her objections only sealed the deal. This was his idea and nothing, particularly her newly hatched timidity, was going to stand in his way. Besides, everyone knows that local bureaucracies inevitably overstate the dangers, covering their rear ends just in case some bozo gets into trouble and considers suing.
“Dandy,” said Nicole, “Just bloody dandy.”
The first few hundred yards didn’t seem that bad. There were lots of ruts and loose stones, but Taylor had no trouble maneuvering the rental car around the worst of them. Granted, there didn’t seem to be any other traffic and only a few isolated shacks half hidden in the woods that appeared to belong to individuals who might not appreciate company. But that didn’t seem important. He would prevail.
Of course, there was more to this than meets the eye. This was Taylor’s second honeymoon. His first wife had taken off just last year, telling all who would listen that Taylor was so utterly caught up in his routines, so lacking in any kind of spontaneity, so boring, that she realized she had to bail before her entire personality was embalmed alive. ‘Embalmed’ was precisely her word and though it had to be an exaggeration, her accusations had found root in Taylor’s guts, and when he encountered Nicole, giddy, cocksure, wild and crazy Nicole, in a local bar and found her receptive to his attentions, he had no trouble unleashing the spontaneity that had apparently been so lacking in his life until then. Three weeks after meeting her they were married and six weeks later they were here, bumping their way through the outback, with Taylor determined to demonstrate that, despite the last three caustic weeks together, he was not entirely ineffectual.
“We’re screwed.” she said. Who would blame her? For the farther they crawled along this time-saving shortcut the deeper the holes became, the larger the boulders, and the slower they went, bouncing back and forth, each new corner, each hill inched up and down, threatening to bring this expedition to an unfortunate end.
“It can’t get worse than this.” Taylor murmured, more to himself than to her, though he definitely said it out loud, and if she had still had any confidence in him at all it might have proved comforting.
“Turn back while we’re still alive.” said Nicole.
She said it in that resigned tone that declared that a night in the insect-ridden woods or a tumbling plunge into the ditch was the best of all possibilities, and the chances of falling prey to a band of deranged hillbillies or perhaps a ravenous bear or something, anything, unimaginably worse, was not out of the question, and she had already prepared herself for any or all of those fates and if by chance she escaped from this with anything less than a quiet moment with that bartender she would ensure this man, her new husband, Taylor, would regret to his dying day his claim on her life.
Meanwhile, Taylor fought on. He was already doubting his decision but the thought of admitting that Nicole was right, and of crawling back to the highway having wasted all the time they were supposed to save was simply too noxious to consider. No, he had set a course and he would bully it through no matter what. They had been bouncing along for almost thirty minutes now. Sedona couldn’t be far.
A dust covered vehicle came over a hill in front of them, an oversized pickup with massive balloon tires and a heavy duty winching apparatus dominating its front bumper. Despite its size it was moving no faster than Taylor’s little sedan. Taylor lowered his window and waved it down.
“Hey.” said the driver, a bearded middle aged man with long dirty hair pulled together in a ponytail and a livid red scar running from his left ear down to the corner of his mouth.
“Peace.” said Taylor.
The man leaned out his window to inspect Taylor’s car, huddled beneath his own vehicle like a chipmunk cringing before a python. He took a quick glance at his passenger, before turning back to Taylor.
“The outfitters want this road a mess.” he said, “Their customers want to feel like they’ve left civilization behind.”
Taylor chewed at his lip.
“They seem to have succeeded.”
The man had a good laugh over that one, turning to repeat it to his sidekick, winking at Taylor as if they were co-conspirators in some incredible crime, then inching off down the road with no more said.
Taylor watched in his rear mirror as the jeep bounced down the path which he had just traversed. He knew now that this was not going to end well. Even if they made it through, the car was going to be a mess. The friendly folks at the rental company would pick him clean, charging him for damage to the underside, the wear and tear on the tires and the suspension system and who knows what else. Plus, if what he had heard earlier was correct, that the rental companies track their vehicles through the GPS system and heaven help your credit card if they discover you’ve taken their precious car on an off-road experience, then there would be even more pain. That was if they made it. What if they bottomed out on some rock, unable to move? What if they ripped a hole in the gas tank? Who would rescue them out here? What would it take to convince an obliging stranger to spare them from his bizarre fantasies?
“Knucklehead.” said Nicole.
Taylor pushed on. The honeymoon had been a disaster. Everything was a disaster. Somehow the diffident guy who rarely visited bars, and only then in the company of well-mannered business clients, had neglected to consider that a woman who passed a major chunk of her life in such an oasis might harbor a slightly different approach to life than him.
Taylor had been flattened by life on the wild side within days of the wedding. Even in the face of the mind boggling Grand Canyon, Nicole’s impulse was to hunker down in the hotel bar, passing her days and nights chatting up others of her persuasion. Taylor, for whom exploring the wonders of the Canyon had been a childhood dream, found himself wandering the trails alone, dodging the svelte young hikers who reminded him of married pleasures he was doing without. He went to bed at nine each night, and Nicole rolled in after two. Taylor was up at six to trek the rim; Nicole only managed to rally around noon, and then only after several drinks in the room. Spontaneity, Taylor was coming to understand, had its downsides.
The road got worse. It reached up to scrape its ravenous claws along the bottom of the car. Great yawning potholes threatened to devour them at the slightest miscue, while the ditch loomed ever larger, ready to take over even if they dodged the other perils. They were barely moving, lurching from one side of the road to the other rather than forward.
Taylor’s imagination drifted to extraordinary connections. He felt new empathy for the man who misjudges a piece of power equipment and suddenly finds himself without an arm or a leg for the rest of his life. So too the woman who absentmindedly steps off a curb into traffic and endures the rest of her days with brain damage. What about the child who ventures too close to the stove and suffers scars that will haunt her forever? Why? How could one miserable decision cause so much torment? And why, in the face of all this, was he persisting with this foolishness?
He hung over the steering wheel, swinging back and forth like a rag doll with each bump. He dared not look at Nicole, though he felt her beside him, her hand gripping the dashboard, her mouth set in an angry grimace, her eyes pinched with hate. But still he pushed forward. They had been on the road more than an hour; the end must be near. Turning back was impossible. Absolutely impossible. They had wasted enough time already.
Rounding a hilly corner they came upon an SUV stopped by the side of the road. A man and a woman were standing beside it, peering across a ravine. Taylor pulled up and lowered his window.
“Much farther?” he said.
The man and woman looked at each other, surveyed Taylor’s car. There was a long silence. The woman finally spoke.
“Sorry buddy, you’re only half way. It gets worse. Turn back. You can’t get through with that kind of vehicle.”
Taylor eased back in his seat, closed his eyes and groaned. He couldn’t go back. So much time wasted. So much energy frittered away. It was impossible to retrace his steps; to inch his way past all those holes and rocks that he had already fought his way around. It was too much. He would rather abandon the car and march off into the woods, never to be seen again.
He opened his eyes and looked at Nicole. She smirked.
“So?” he said.
“As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
Taylor’s mouth fell open.
“Sunday School. My parents made me go. It’s the only thing I can remember.”
Taylor didn’t want to be an adult anymore. He didn’t want all this responsibility. He wanted to lie down and cry. He wanted someone or something to swoop out of the sky and carry him to safety. He wanted to hunker down in some dark place and never venture outside again. He would never make any decision again. He wanted to be told what to do and he would follow blindly. Anything to avoid turning around.
The road curved down around the side of the ravine and up the other side. There was no doubt about it – even from a distance it was insane. Impossible. Only half way?
Nicole chose that moment to reach into the back seat and pull a bottle of wine out of her bag. She unscrewed the top and sucked back a mouthful.
“No treats for you, dog breath.” she said, “You’ll need your wits about you to get us out of this mess.”
Taylor, numb with fatigue, numb with frustration, numb with self-hate, knew that he had but one choice: Turn back.
Now he drove as if in a trance, staring down the road but barely seeing it, nudging the car from side to side, bouncing up and down on his seat like a puppet. The time-saving notion was forgotten. He abandoned his worries about damage to the car and the rental company. He would simply pay. Pay whatever they demanded. Pay until he was sucked dry. Who cares? He would simply endure, endure to survive the next few miles, the next hour or so. Maybe his luck might change and they would make it through. But until then he didn’t want to think or feel. He would do no more than steer and brake, steer and brake, like a robot.
The drive back seemed endless. They met no other vehicles, saw not a single human being. The woods, the dusty road, and the occasional overgrown farms came and went with little apparent progress. Until finally, endless ended and they were back at the highway cutoff.
Taylor eased the car off the dirt onto the asphalt pavement and stopped. He got out and paced up and down the road. He was trembling. He was so beaten he could not stop walking. It was over but the successful return offered him no pleasure whatsoever. He stared at the dust-covered car from a distance, unwilling to get back into the driver’s seat. He watched Nicole tumble out of the car and march off into the woods. She probably needed a pee. He watched her go, then resumed walking until she came back and reclaimed her seat. He went into the woods as well, then returned and dropped in beside her.
“That was some stupid decision.” she said.
“I’ve had it.” she said.
“My lunch?” she said, “No lunch. Hell’s bells.”
Taylor nodded some more. He found it hard to stop nodding. No matter what she said he would keep nodding. She could accuse him of any sin under the stars, any nonsense known to man, and he would nod his agreement.
“We’re through. This marriage is over.” she said.
He pulled back onto the interstate, picking up speed in the merge lane, getting in synch with traffic, settling down in the slow lane. Behind him, in his rear view mirror, he could see the layers of red dust swirling off the car. It reminded him of blood spilling from a wounded beast, still not fully aware of the deadly shot it had taken. He glanced at Nicole, staring out her side window, her silence threatening to annihilate the car. And Taylor, slowly, delicately, still nodding but curbing a smile, began to recognize that taking that lousy shortcut just might have been one of the best decisions he’d ever made.