In the roadhouse Mary and Brenda danced together to raunchy country-rock songs blasting out of a horrific stereo system, all staunch fuzz and bloated bottom and savage shrill. I sat down guarding their purses, watching faces, missing home, wondering why the hell we had buried the deer.
Earlier that afternoon there had been an air of promise. The three of us had just gotten off work, and our vague plans had been formalized. "We're taking you to a roadhouse—the kind they don't have here in the city." Mary, homely like an old shed, grinned as she said this.
I had two thoughts. One, we're not in the city. Two, I'm only 17—too young for a roadhouse.
As Brenda, Mary, and I began our drive to a roadhouse in Brenda's open convertible on a warm suburban Philadelphia afternoon in the spring of 1984, a week after Marvin Gaye was killed by his father, it began to rain. The rain came quickly, as if all the drops had gathered themselves for a meeting and promised to stay still, not say a word, and then fall to the land in one hard thrust. Brenda, prettier than Mary but still strange to me—older, from New Jersey, a hippie—fiddled with knobs and pulled a handle and we finally had a roof over our heads, soaked but able to laugh about it.
The car sheltered, Mary, the oldest of us at 25, or maybe 30 (no one really knew), said, "Okay, we're gonna stay on 611 for a ways. No cops out here, not for a while, not until Dublin, so you can go fast."
"Not in this rain. I haven't changed the tires in like two years," Brenda said.
Mary cackled. "What's the worst that can happen?"
Brenda said nothing. I looked out the window because, although I didn't know exactly what a roadhouse would entail, I did know something about Route 611, and by my estimation, in about ten minutes, a billboard would appear on the right side of the road. We would talk about the billboard, maybe even debate its message and its irony. After the billboard, though, I knew nothing. My family had moved to Pennsylvania when I was nine, and my father had taken the family—my surly older sister, my mother with her lisp, and me, the shy one—out for Sunday drives. But we would usually go south, to the city, Philadelphia, with its brick and shadows and centuries of odors. Or maybe he would drive us to Quakertown, Lancaster, and other parts west, where Dad, enthusiastic like a kindergarten teacher with new colored chalk, would point at the devouts walking alongside the county roads. He would call all of them Quakers, though some were Mennonites. Or Friends. Or secular heathens in black hats. But we weren't them, and we wouldn't talk to them. Instead we would go to Allentown to amazing cheese steak restaurant near the airport, where the cheese was sweet like licorice. We would get there before dusk and still have time to get to the mall in Quakertown before it closed, and then to the highway before the smaller towns shut down. Eventually, safe at home in Doylestown, sleep would come just as I vowed not to think anymore about why cheese could be so sweet. But that day in Brenda's car, paid for with tip money from her year dancing in Europe (that's all she told us), the geography was new to me. We were driving north, toward the mountains and past the towns whose water towers, when covered in snow, looked like how I used to picture God when I was much younger than 17: tall, white, vast, and old. But by then I knew better. I imagined God as a small, quiet man living in an old two-story house in the Georgia woods, strumming on a guitar in the one big room so the echoes were perfect. God, singing to his girl. Or maybe God was the girl and the man with the guitar was her troubadour, singing the perfect, whispery song while the crickets chirped and the housecat out back waited for the end of the song to meow for entry.
"Here it comes. Slow down." My first words for miles.
"What?" asked Mary and Brenda in unison.
"The billboard. On the right."
No car in sight behind us, the rain slowed to an IV drip, Brenda could safely stop without pulling over on the shoulder, which didn't exist really. The words on the billboard were more visible than the picture, itself so poorly fashioned that without a hint or a context it wouldn't make much sense. The words: "Abortion stops a beating heart." The picture, we finally figured out, was a fetus with a girl's smiling face, improbably getting a joke, one presumably told on the other side of the billboard.
"So?" Mary, gruff-voiced as always, asked.
"Well, you know Donna? From work?" I asked.
"Oh! Is this the...?" said Brenda.
"Yeah. This is the billboard her parents paid for. Kind of creepy, huh?"
"What's the point of putting this way up here. People in these parts are either religious nuts who aren't gonna be for abortion with or without a billboard, or they're hippies or stoners who don't give a fuck what you do." Mary always could find the end of the line.
"They put it up here because it's cheap," Brenda said. "Down in Doylestown, a sign like this would cost a fortune."
"But Donna's parents aren't poor," I said. Being in love with Donna since third grade, I knew a lot about her.
"But they're cheap," Brenda said. "They make her drive a Comet, for God's sake."
The 1974 Comet—light blue and as ugly as I imagined the roadhouse to be. Well, I knew about the Comet, too.
"But wait," said Mary, suddenly excited the shoe would soon drop. "Donna just had an abortion!"
The sound of a semi behind us, Brenda put her car back into gear and the smiling fetus and catchy slogan were behind us. Donna and the abortion were a rumor, probably untrue and none of anyone's business but Donna's, not even mine. But what I did know, being in love with Donna since third grade, was she disagreed with her parents' views. Still, she had a little bit of pride that they had their own billboard.
I told Brenda and Mary as much.
"Well, she's an adult. She can have an abortion. She can have an opinion," said Brenda, not quite accurately because Donna was only 16, though she did look older and was at least entitled to an opinion and maybe even an abortion—I wasn't sure what the law was at the time.
"Yeah," said Mary, though I wasn't sure she agreed, or about what, exactly.
"How long until the roadhouse?" I asked, wanting to change the subject.
"We're about halfway there. I think," answered Mary. "But we're gonna turn soon. Be on the lookout for an old red barn.
Brenda smiled in the rearview mirror, so I, seated in the back behind Mary, could see. Old red barns? We'd seen dozens, hadn't we? The barns, the houses, the abandoned old shops with equally abandoned bicycles splayed out front with flat tires—they all stopped minutes ago, before the billboard. Now, it was just trees. And more trees. A flat old Pennsylvania forest, though I knew mountains would be coming if we drove far enough.
Seconds passed and then minutes, and I saw God again, the man this time, singing to the cat who he'd let in but not fed because he wanted the cat to be sung to for her supper. It was hard to make out the words to this song, but it was something about a cat, loyal and good and friendly, fully deserving of her third meal of the day because of her virtues. The cat, fresh and moist from the humid afternoon, looked into the guitarist's eyes and hoped the song would end soon so she could eat. Or maybe the cat was God. Then I see something else. "There's the red barn."
"No," said Mary, strangely bored. "That's a new red barn. We want an old red barn."
The downside to being lost and at the mercy of another person, of two other people, Brenda the driver and Mary the navigator—because Brenda, more traveled, a dancer in Europe, had still never been to the roadhouse, to this part of the world, to this road at least—is their mistakes aren't yours, but the consequences of those mistakes are indeed yours to share. In other words, we were lost. Miles passed with no old red barns. New barns, red and black and silver, yes. Old barns, gray and brown and green, yes. More billboards, for distant car dealerships in East Stroudsburg and realtors in Easton. Then, after a while, no billboards or barns or other cars, just trees and the road, which had been two lanes, then four lanes, then, around the time of Donna's parents' billboard, a spacious two lanes, now narrowed further to the minimum space two lanes could occupy.
"I think we're lost," said Mary, slightly uplifted by the potential for new adventure.
"Oh, you do, do you?" asked an exasperated Brenda, who looked bored with the idea of a roadhouse now that the sun had pushed through the clouds and a couple of hours of light were left for her to be a hippie in springtime. "We could just head back."
"No! You guys need to see the roadhouse. Let's ask for directions."
I thought for a few seconds, while the two of them negotiated the silence and traded the responsibility of indecision. I thought about where it went wrong and who wasn't paying attention. The second time I had thought about God, after the billboard, there had been a sign, partially blocked by a weedy bush in full flower. The sign indicated a partial right turn at an upcoming fork in the road in order to follow Route 611.
There was no point in admitting my error of silence. I was young, and these were new friends, older friends, taking me on an adventure. My friends my own age, the ones from school, were dowdy and awkward and socially graceless. Mary and Brenda, my new friends from work, from the restaurant—I needed them.
So I could offer a theory, that perhaps we missed a sign up here in the country. There were a lot of twists and turns to the numbered roads, and maybe we missed a sign for 611, maybe it was covered by a weedy bush in full bloom. Or a tree.
But I said nothing. I liked the adventure of being lost, of not going where we planned to go. I was fine with Mary's disappointment. I was okay with Brenda's impatience. I thrived on the change in plans, because riding around lost was better than going to a roadhouse. I felt closer to both of them.
"There's a gas station. I'm getting directions," said Mary.
"I'll fill up," said Brenda.
At the gas station, a place called Peppiat's Tru Service, I got out of the car and walked around the pumps, not sure of what to do. I watched Brenda pump gas. I saw Mary laughing with an old man inside the station, Peppiat presumably, her and the man smoking. Brenda was the rare hippie who didn't allow smoking in her car.
After politely refusing my offer to pitch in with five dollars, Brenda went in to pay. Mary was still laughing as she walked out. The two of them crossed paths but said nothing to each other. I stood to the side.
Inside the car Brenda was the first to speak. "So how lost are we?"
"Oh, Peppiat? He doesn't know anything. I don't think he knows what town he's in. But I bought a map, and I think we're on Limekiln Pike."
"No way. That's in Montgomery County!" said Brenda. I believed her.
"Well, then I don't know."
"Let's just turn around."
"Maybe we missed a sign." I was happy to say something.
"No. I was looking at everything," Mary insisted.
"Maybe he's right. Let's backtrack and look for a sign."
So we backtracked, and the rain started again, the sky suddenly darker than the hour would indicate. We passed where I remembered seeing the sign. I turned and saw nothing. I closed my eyes. I saw God again. This time God was the girl. She was playing accordion, and her friend the troubadour held—but didn't play—his guitar. They sang together, for an audience of seven cats and Donna, steel-eyed and not smiling, stuck in starchy clothes on an armchair with one broken arm. Donna cried as the song built to its chorus. When the cats joined in on the word "sorry," she had to leave the room. I was sound asleep when Brenda killed the deer.
Sometimes my father took us out of Pennsylvania on our Sunday drives. I remember a trip to New York City during a light snowfall one February. It was the day before my sister's twelfth birthday, and we were celebrating it at an old Italian restaurant, in a part of Lower Manhattan that wasn't Little Italy because Dad said so. Earlier, my parents went to their respective ethnic grocery stores. Mom went to the Swedish shop in Manhattan, with its cheerful cookie tins and hard-to-pronounce chocolates and the cheap caviar in metal toothpaste tubes, with a picture of a smiling blond boy who could have been me, before I found the saltiness to be distasteful, before my hair darkened. Dad went to the Arabic store in the Bronx, where we were not to leave the double-parked car because it was dark and the neighborhood, he said, wasn't right. We waited as he went into the store for his feta, his salted pumpkin seeds, his special foods made of special beans, and my mango juice. We watched him from the street. We did this once a year at least, and I would often see him talking wildly and moving his hands. Sometimes, he seemed angry. But, on the occasions we'd be in the Bronx in the daytime and the three of us would be in the store with him, he never seemed angry.
With the car pulled over to the side, Mary put her hands on Brenda's shoulders to console her while they stood smoking in the rain. I sat in the car staring at the deer. Through the open window, I said it wasn't her fault, that the deer came from out of nowhere, though how could I have known? I had been asleep. The car was fine—a little damage to the bumper. The deer, a doe, was dead. It was Brenda's idea to bury her.
"I have a shovel in the trunk. We'll take turns. Guys first."
Twenty feet off the road, in the only bare space we could find in a mass of trees, I dug. I assumed I'd eventually hit some remnant of a tree—an old root system, a buried trunk—but all I found was dirt and, although this was a good shovel, the dirt was muddy enough to be difficult to move. I dug and dug and the deer—young and slight for a deer but still a large thing to bury—seemed to grow in stature before our eyes. It took an hour. I dug the most. Then Mary. Brenda could only bear it for a few minutes.
"It's okay. Every living thing dies. Accidents happen." Mary wasn't good at consoling.
I had to take over. "It came out of nowhere. Not your fault." Silence. "It's tragic."
This made her feel better. She said, "Thanks for acknowledging the tragedy. No use in pretending this isn't a bad situation."
Brenda and I used our feet to kick the deer into the hole, not wanting to use our hands. Mary poked with the shovel. Our shoes and the shovel were bloody and muddy, but the doe was in the hole. In the dark, the headlights too far away to illuminate, we shoveled the dirt back in, taking turns more equitably this time.
Our work done, we trudged back to the car. The temperature had dipped into the fifties and the rain, which had thankfully stopped during the burial, started back up. We turned on the heat and sat on the shoulder in silence.
Despite being the quiet one, I spoke first. "We should probably get back home."
"No. Let's find the roadhouse. I need a drink," said Brenda, happier than I'd seen her all day.
She started the car, turned on the headlights, drove fifty feet, and there was a sign: "611 North," with an arrow telling us to bear left. Next to the sign was an old red barn. Mary cackled. I closed my eyes in the back seat.
The roadhouse was dark. If we had arrived during the patches of sunlight between the rains, it still would have been dark. It seemed to reject light and ease and articulation. But it was a beautiful rejection. There were a lot of dark places I'd never been to, never heard of, so at least I was growing.
Marvin Gaye's father had killed him at home. I imagined them at the dinner table, a little drunk, arguing about money or Mom or the drugs. I imagined it getting personal and ugly, blame being batted around and rejected. Father blaming child, adult child, for mistakes—the wrong woman, the wrong name, the wrong song, the wrong condition—a dozen wrong decisions. Child blaming father for leaving, for screaming, for drinking and leaving and screaming, for being quiet, for being lost, for not knowing, but never for decisions.
So we decided to go in. Father killing child, adult child. Death, nothing to be afraid of really, death not good perhaps but inevitable and okay. But still he killed a grown man, a born man, a healed man, a star. The roadhouse was ugly. Men and women danced. Or they sat and drank. Or they threw darts.
Many wore hats. Ragged country hats I'd never seen up close before. Some wore jackets, leather and denim mostly, despite the heat being turned up way too high and a gigantic misplaced fireplace burning like arson. No one stood near the fire. The music was rambling and familiar. I don't recall the name of a single song I heard while I was in there. But I do remember the songs rambled and I had heard them all before, probably during puberty when I reconciled my awkwardness by learning the history of rock and roll.
I pictured Donna at her dinner table on the day the billboard went up. Mom and Dad speaking of the myth of forgetting, how we never forget. Donna knew we could, that she has forgotten enough to leave remembering to the legions of dreamers and believers. Donna's father didn't have a gun in hand but had one in the garage probably, unloaded because of something that happened in his childhood, but with the bullets nearby, counted like prescription pills before a long vacation, worshipped for their determination and finality. Her mother, more than anything, wanted to be happy and believed in the sanctity of life and right angles and straight lines.
It could have been the brick walls keeping in the heat that created the relentless dead weight of the big room, the main room of the roadhouse. It was as if the dancers were corpses and the songs, played unannounced on a made-up God's fiddle, the songs unhurried and enigmatic, said almost nothing. I still can't remember a note of them.
Brenda said to me in a silence between songs, "The ride home will go faster."
"I have to get up early. I'm driving to Tom's River to see Dave."
I didn't know who Dave was. "I have school."
The deejay, doubling as a bartender, began the next record as Brenda said "yeah," and we both looked away from each other and at Mary, who was dancing like a pretty, bloated sex devil.
Back at my picture of Donna's table, dinner was served and the family ate, and then it was off to separate rooms for sole obsessions and postcard writing and manifesto editing and culture killing and babies and science and then sleep—Mom and Dad next to each other but rarely touching.
A few weeks later, at work, Donna told me how her dad swore he'd kill them both—Donna and her mother. But he didn't kill them. He just drove away, with the gun and the bullets separated. Donna, who I'd never see again, remembered seeing her dad twitch at the word "kill."
I had one beer. Brenda had three. Mary had seven, at least. But Mary drove us home as Brenda and I rested quietly in the back seat, our heads in separate corners at first. Up front with Mary was Phil, a man from the roadhouse who needed a ride to Doylestown, a man with a dirty cowboy hat, a lisp, and a belief in eugenics. I heard them speak during interruptions of dreams, Mary emphatically disagreeing with Phil.
Later when I realized my head was now resting in the intersection of Brenda's neck and right shoulder, I pretended not to notice because I liked it. I wondered if she felt the same way, and if she, too, found her sleep disrupted by Phil spouting off on the differential value of lives, on the inevitability of an unjust world, or if she slept through it all, exhausted by a day of driving, drinking, dancing, and deer killing.
As we descended the last big hill down Route 611, toward home, it occurred to me that God wasn't the man with the guitar or the girl or the cat; that if God were in that Georgia house, he was likely the guitar. They say music can live forever, but people and cats, with their faces and fingers and claws, can't. Mr. Barford, my gangly Abe Lincoln-like seventh grade science teacher, once told the class God can exist in any object, and that this fact itself can exist without scientific proof, public school or not. So maybe God's the house, or a table in the house, or a figure in the backyard, or the deer decomposing in a too-shallow grave because, really, we didn't know what we were doing.
Mary's car and my car were at work in the restaurant parking lot. As Mary pulled in, Brenda stirred awake. She was either awake the whole time or her timing was perfect. Either way, my head stirred with her, off of her shoulder and back on mine. Mary—Surly Mary, Roadhouse Mary—parked Brenda's car in between my Hornet and her own pickup.
Brenda, who had been looking away from me since she woke up or pretended to wake up, turned to me suddenly. "Did we dig deep enough? I dreamed we didn't dig deep enough."
"I don't know. I never buried anything before," I answered.
Mary would have none of these reservations. "Of course we dug deep enough. We were out there for an hour."
Phil was confused. "What are you talking about?"
"I'll tell you in my truck. Come on, Phil. Let's get out of here. Goodnight, you two." Mary smirked as she said "you two."
Brenda and I sat in the backseat and watched Mary drive away with Phil, toward downtown Doylestown where you'd never find anything like the roadhouse.
"No we didn't dig deep enough," I said.
"Let's go back and do it right."
"I'll drive. I think I remember the way."