Off The Leash – Excerpt

{Chapter One} One Woman, One Man, No Witnesses

The windows are down. I’ve gotten used to the sound and sway, the relentless battering of cross-wind, like a blow-dryer across my face, whipping the seat belt strap in the back. 

Flap, flap, flap, flap.

Seems easier than fighting the wind with the windows up, the way a gust will suddenly lurch a car sideways, prompting a “holy shit!” tug on the wheel. Wakes you up in a hurry, especially when you’re daydreaming or texting.

Damn, I need to be more careful.

Flap, flap, flap.

I’m leathery. Well, parts of me. My left arm is more brown than my right. I meant to put on sunscreen. I think it was back in Ohio somewhere. Too late now. I push my cowboy hat down farther on my forehead. Damn wind. There’s some kind of passivity going on here, allowing myself to be blown around in my own car in the middle of the Utah desert, trying to make good time to Colorado. Already I am feeling the pressure. It’s eating at me. I’ve started tapping my fingers on the steering wheel; I’ve checked my iPhone six times since I left Nevada and all it says is “E,” as in “error” or “no service”. Really it stands for edgy. I’m feeling so fucking edgy again and I know damn well it’s not because I’m out on a two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere and it’s 96-degrees and I have no cellphone service, with nary a sign of a human being or QuikTrip as far as the eye can see. Hell, there aren’t even any telephone poles out here!

This has become routine, S.O.P., standard operating procedure, being out on the open road, just me and the dog. We’ve put 7,600 miles behind us and we’ve got a thousand more to go.

I sing sometimes. Not today. I’m feeling edgy because with each eastward mile I am that much closer to home. What a loaded word, “home.” I am getting closer to the responsibilities I abandoned to take this journey, and soon it will be time to pay the piper. And everybody else on the fucking planet.

Cross that bridge when you come to it, Jean.

There has never been so literal and meaningful a phrase. I’ve been taking it one bridge at a time for eight weeks. Ever since I crossed the miserable Mississippi and got the hell out of St. Louis, heading east; the jubilation when we crossed the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn; the primordial peace when I parked overlooking the Golden Gate; the appreciation when a moment later I looked into the rear-view mirror at my wise companion, who sat patiently observing, never rushing me. She looked puzzled when I hopped out of the front and climbed in the back seat with her, putting my arm around her neck, sharing the view with her: my silent partner, my muse, my canine confidant.

I check my mirror now. Libby’s sleeping in her prayer pose—the one where she tucks her hind legs, her front legs straight out in front and buries her nose into the corner of the car seat. Traveling with a dog is a lot like traveling with a baby. I try not to stop when she’s sleeping: something about letting sleeping dogs lie.

I love her so much, it is indescribable. This is what happens when you travel across the country with your dog.

My eyes come back to the road. Up ahead I spot what appears to be a person at one o’clock. Out here? A man. He’s walking. He’s pushing something. He’s headed my direction on my side of the highway, rolling something in front of him. At first, I think it’s a mirage; I mean, who would be out here, out in the middle of nowhere? They don’t call this “The Loneliest Road in America” for nothing—U.S. 50, the sun-baked, two-lane highway I’ve been traveling since I left Reno. I bought a burger at the truck stop at the Nevada line and played video poker with zero luck while I waited for my lunch. Filled up and fueled up, I was planning to blow straight through Utah and make it all the way to my friend’s house in Colorado by nightfall. Ever since El Dorado Hills, since learning about my real father from someone who actually knew him, it’s been mission accomplished. Now it’s time to get back home. Every mile east of California has simply been a geographic necessity. Fuck Utah. I was going to blast through it, eighty-five miles per hour. The whole damn state had left a bad taste in my mouth since the former in-laws flat-out abandoned the kids and me after their fair-haired son got sent to the slammer. Seven years, they did nothing to help. Seven years, he did his time. I guess I’ve done mine. Just look where it got me. I’m a fifty-six-year-old woman, the epitome of responsibility for, hell, I don’t know, thirty years? I’m on the final leg of a wild hare road trip that smacks of insanity because I walked away.

I walked away. At a time when people are desperate for jobs, I walked away from mine. I had to. And now my eyes are bathed in watercolor brushstrokes of terra-cotta, golds, browns, blues and whites, dazzling bright, piled skyscraper-high atop the desert floor. Thank you, Utah. I’d written off the entire state, but it’s beautiful. It is so beautiful. I wasn’t expecting to love it this much.

And truth is, now that I’m here, I’m trying to make it last just a little bit longer. Practicing what I profess, don’t you know? That “be here now” stuff. There’s plenty waiting when I get home. I’ll be glad to see my kids, glad to see my other dog, but man, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t really want to face. Cable’s been cut off. I barely have this month’s mortgage. Car payment’s due, the shower’s still stopped up and I don’t have a job. And, right now, at this moment, I’ve got some folks in Salida expecting me for dinner. That’s another 300 miles from here. Shit. I told them I’d make it tonight. I don’t have time to dilly-dally.

It’s all starting to get under my skin.

And now there’s this guy up ahead! What in the world is he doing out here? I’m less than a quarter of a mile away now. Is that a grocery cart? There’s a flag, a small American flag waving from a pole. He’s got it attached to his cart like a car antenna.

Poor dude. Rough place to be homeless. Lord knows I’ve seen my share of down and outers this summer, in every city from New York to San Francisco, sleeping in bus shelters, on sidewalks, park benches, curled up inside doorways, all their worldly possessions stuffed into trash bags or piled inside a grocery cart. He’s wearing a bandana; the wind is whipping it around, just like the scrubby tufts of golden grass bent sideways in this sandy soil, desperately clinging to their miserable beds. I felt like that not long ago: dried up, beaten down. Everything gets beaten down by this wind, everything and everybody, today and every day.

He looks young! He looks like a kid, like one of my kids, I say to myself as I zoom by. What the hell is a kid doing out here on the highway, all alone, pushing a—wait a minute, it’s a baby jogger. Looked like it was all zipped up. Wonder why?

Surely he doesn’t have a baby in there, Lib,” I say out loud, but Libby pays me no mind as I continue blazing down the highway, eighty miles an hour and then some. “Where in the hell is he going? There’s nothing out here, and it’s gotta be fifty miles to the next town!”

Damn. I almost wish I hadn’t seen him. If my lousy iPhone was working, I might have been checking emails or texting and I could have missed him all together. Then I wouldn’t have this ping-pong match going on in my head. It’s like that fucking Clash song, except this time it’s  should I drive or should I stop? Damn it! The curiosity is killing me. What if he needs help? Oh, but I’ve got people waiting.

“Waiting for what, exactly?” The voice of the enlightened Jean rises above the conditioned Jean. What if I’d been texting in Texas? I wouldn’t have seen the road sign with my name on it, “Jean,” followed by “Kindley Park”. What if I’d taken the Interstate instead of the back roads in Virginia? What if I had not gotten out of my car at that wreck on I-10? What if I had actually listened to my gut, all those years ago? Would I have passed on Rick? Well, I wouldn’t have had three more babies. That guy back there, he looked to be the same age as Patrick.

This is going to bug the crap out of me. I am still thinking about him, even though I’ve lost him, can’t see him anymore. “It’s too late,” I say aloud. “I’ve gone too far to turn back now.”

Gone too far to turn back now. Are you kidding me? Have you not learned anything? You’ve come too far to not turn back now!

I check my mirror—nobody in back of me, nobody in front. I slow down, downshift to fourth gear, then third. Libby’s head pops up. Third gear, every time. She is like a human: the way she wakes up, stretches, and then sits up near the window, surveying the countryside. “Where are we now?” her doggie gaze asks, casting her bottomless brown eyes out over the golden high desert.

She was supposed to be a cat, truthfully.

“Mom, you’ve got mice or squirrels or rats or something running around up in the floorboards,” said Nate. My son and daughter-in-law had come from Los Angeles for Christmas. They’d braved the elements of the basement bedroom. “We could hear them running around all night.”

Aside from being embarrassed, frankly, I was worried about the house burning down from chewed electrical wires. So a few weeks later, Sean and I—he’s the youngest of the four—were at the Humane Society looking for a mouser.

“Do not even look at the puppies,” I told him as we crossed the snowy parking lot to go cat shopping. We had a dog already, Pete, who was thirteen, and I was thinking within a year or so, I might be dog-free, meaning that once Sean left for college I might be able to sleep over at my boyfriend’s house. If I had a boyfriend. “Do not even go into the dog building.”

An hour later we walked back out with an eight-month-old reddish-gold dog, Libby. She doesn’t even look like a cat. With her widow’s peak, heart-shaped face and Cleopatra eyes, we were done for the minute Sean sneaked off and spotted her at the end of puppy aisle four. She’s always been a sweet dog, if not a little timid. Neurotic too. She won’t walk through half-open doors. She jumps and barks at my toes under the sheets and she has weather anxiety. She hides behind the TV or under the dining room table every time the wind picks up. I think she’s forgotten all that now; the battering of the desert wind against the car doesn’t seem to faze her. She loves the car. Of course I hoodwinked her, not bothering to tell her it would be eight weeks and nearly 9,000 miles when I asked, “Hey Lib, wanna go for a ride?”

Twenty states later, we’re thick as thieves, my girl and me. We’ve seen mountains and deserts and prairies and cornfields, terrible traffic, three fatal car accidents, and, oh, the ocean too. She went to Huntington Beach a couple of weeks ago. She had never seen the ocean, much less romped in the surf, shaking the water off so hard, her whole body lifted off the sand. Have you ever experienced a joy so divine? I laughed and cried at the same time to witness her bravery and excitement. Like a mom with her kid on the first day of kindergarten, I was proud and scared. But Ol’ Lib and I, we ain’t scared o’ nothin’ now.

My daughter’s brave like this. I have mixed emotions about how she came to be this way. In fact, all four of my kids, good, bad or indifferent—are largely fearless now, having grown up before their time. But none of my boys ever articulated their genuine bravado quite as pointedly as Lauren did one night in the parking lot of the grocery store. Lauren, who was fourteen when Rick was arrested, had just celebrated her fifteenth birthday when she got caught shoplifting. I was in the dairy section.

“Will Jean Whatley come to the customer service counter, please?”

There she sat in the store office looking unnervingly calm, mascara and a lip gloss lying on the metal desk. They let her off with a slap on the hand and told her never, ever to come back.

“What in the world were you thinking?” I screamed at her once we got out to the car, asking the stupid question for which every parent knows there is no real answer. “Why did you do that?” Another pointless question. I followed up with “Weren’t you afraid you’d get caught?”

“What do I have to be afraid about?” she yelled back at me, one of the rare moments she’d actually let her feelings show. “My father’s in jail! He’s going to prison for God knows how long! What the hell do I have to be scared of now? I’m not afraid of anything!” And then she began sobbing.

I felt the same way, truthfully. What the hell did I have to be afraid of now? Not that you want to go around borrowing trouble, but even then, after what I’d been through, it took quite a bit to move that fear needle up to the red zone.

It all started with a phone call informing me that my older brother Garrett had died suddenly in his San Francisco apartment. He’d had his problems, but still, it was a shocker. Half numb, I’d flown home to New Mexico where we held his memorial. The day after I got back from the funeral, the very next day, I was back at work, barely functioning, when my assistant called while I was at lunch.

“The St. Louis police department just called,” Amber said apologetically. “They said you need to arrange for somebody else to pick up Sean from school because your ex-husband has been brought in for questioning.”

“Questioning for what?” asked Patrick, a few hours later at our house. He was the oldest child at home at the time, a senior in high school. My eldest, Nate, was in college in North Carolina.  I’d gathered the three kids still at home, in the family room—how apropos—to break the news that their dad was in custody.

“What’d he do?” Lauren pushed.

“I’m not sure, honey,” I said, even though I already knew at a gut level so deep you could plumb the depths of my fear with a submarine, that it couldn’t be good. “Maybe he witnessed a crime or something,” my ridiculous wishful thinking trying to convince me that maybe he had not actually committed one.

After I had arranged for Pat to pick up his little brother at school I’d called my good friend Mick in the cop shop, the chief investigator for the Circuit Attorney. Being in the news business comes in handy sometimes.

“I won’t be able to tell you anything until they actually file the charges,” Mick told me. “My buddy in booking will call me the minute there’s any paperwork.”

Suppertime came, but still no word from Mick. I took the kids out to eat. I wanted them out of the house before there was the  chance of hearing any breaking news. With him being a big shot at the number-one TV station in town, it would be all over the news.  We hid at a neighborhood restaurant: wings, burgers, nachos and nothing but hockey on TV. Somehow it seemed easier to be near other people. We sat and picked at our food. My cellphone rang in my purse. I hopped up and told the kids I’d be right back and walked out to the parking lot. I felt like throwing up what little I had swallowed when my friend Mick read off the list of charges.

So, let me tell you about fear. Fear is knowing you’ve got to take your kids home, sit them down and tell them something horrible about their father in the thirty-seven minutes remaining before his face shows up in a mug shot on the ten o’clock news. After this, everything else seems easy—even a runaway trip across the country, all alone with your dog.

“We’re turning around, Lib,” I tell her as I swing the car all the way around, heading westbound. I tell Libby everything. I fully believe she understands it, too. I’m traveling the same direction he’s walking now. I spot him once again, no mirage. He’s walking at a fast clip. Yep, it’s a baby jogger. And he’s got a backpack, and yep, he’s young, tanned, athletic, and strong. Stronger than I am. I drive beyond him and hook another U-turn, pulling up about fifty yards in front of him. I’m probably scaring him! He’s walking toward me now, the wheels on the baby jogger kicking up the fine pebbles along the shoulder of the road.

I roll to a stop, the right tires in the straw-like tufts of grass. A tractor-trailer rig thunders by, rattling my car. It’s the first truck I’ve seen out here in half an hour. “Wow, what would it be like to have cars and trucks almost blow you off the road all day long? That must be scary. What if a driver gets too close, gets distracted?”

And then, snap. “What the hell am I thinking? How many trucks have gone by in the last half hour? How long would it be before somebody found me?” Here I am, a woman, out here all alone, with a sympathetic dog who’d gladly hop in the car with a band of gypsies or ax murderers in exchange for one simple pat on the head. She’s that friendly and that needy.

I pull off my cowboy hat and set it on the floorboard, don’t want it to blow all the way to New Mexico. “Stay here, Libby, I’ll be right back.” I reach into the back seat and scratch her head. I get out of my car, my safety zone, my escape vehicle. I raise my hand in a friendly wave. The sun is intense and the wind blows my hair sideways, as I push away the glinting strands, of cola-colored lattice over my eyes. I shove my keys far down in my left pocket; and in my right, my business card “Jean Ellen Whatley, Writer.”

I start walking his direction, now twenty yards away. I’m out here all alone, a divorced mother of four, former soccer-baseball-football-tennis-basketball mom, former TV news “celebrity,” exclusive provider of all things financial and familial for my kids, who are grown now, on their own. And now, so am I. There’s not another human being for miles around, save for this man, clearly bigger than I, who could, in a heartbeat, beat me over the head, steal my new hat, my car and my dog and leave me to the coyotes, snakes and vultures.

I’m out here all alone, and yet everything I have experienced up to this point on this journey across America and my time on this planet so far is telling me that walking out to meet this man is precisely what I’m supposed to do.

“Hey there,” I holler and smile, big, so he can see it. He waves back. I approach him, my hand extended.