Short Story: Southbound 63

Southbound 63

by Richard R. Barron

You have to understand the reason I went to see Melissa in the first place was that I kind of enjoyed how painful it was. Probably. How the hell did I know? I thought I loved her.

Weary from eight hours on the road but excited to see her, I followed her up the stairs of her non-air-conditioned dorm room at the University of Missouri. Once in her third-floor room, baking in the lingering warmth of the concrete campus, I could see, for the first time in my adult life, the place where I was born. Across the street from her open windows was the University hospital where, 22 years before, I’d uttered my first sound.

For a moment this distracted me. Then Melissa turned around. Suddenly, abruptly, she was my focus once again. And why not? Wasn’t she the prettiest woman I’d ever seen? She smiled. No, not exactly smiled. She tried to smile, then winced from the pain in her neck and back.

I smiled back and remembered the letter from her I received two weeks before. In it she told me of a tipsy night at a bar, and the blurry drive home. Well, not all the way home. She made it as far as that big truck, which returned the favor of her getting in the way by crushing her car into a two-ton accordion.

The letter also said sure, Richard, you’re welcome to come see me anytime.

I assumed that two weeks later was included in “anytime,” so there I stood in her room, looking at my birthplace and the prettiest girl I’d ever known. And I’d known her for a long time. We met in seventh grade. We were twelve. Wow. Twelve. She was cute and quiet and ten times more popular than I was.

Watching her turn in her math homework was the hand that turned the faucet of my hormones all the way on. I had a crush on Melissa. In those dark days of junior high, her freckles and pixie haircut held promise, and now, as I stared at her across the room, all that promise was in its prime. Small and delicate, yet athletic, her body was as perfect as her three-freckle nose. Her face was graced with a frame of silky red-auburn hair, and her pale hands had their own imaginative grace.

With the meaningless hellos out of the way, I felt like being with her, like talking or walking or eating or something. She, however, wasn’t really that kind of person.

“I’m going to The Granary,” she explained, telling me what a great bar it was, and how much fun she’d always had there. “You’re welcome to come along, if you want.”

I guess she either didn’t care or didn’t understand that I had no choice in the matter. I either went with her or sat in silence in her dorm room waiting for her.

The drive in awkward silence behind us, we entered the smoke-filled, dimly-lit night club. Finding a table, we sat, and were pounced upon immediately by a darkly-tanned sorority-type college girl anxious to sell us overpriced watery drinks. She seemed aggravated when I asked for an iced tea.

Five or ten minutes passed as we sipped our drinks. My tea must have seemed a bit pious next to her tall whiskey sour. And my clean smile must have paled in the clouds of her cigarette smoke.

Wait a minute. Melissa doesn’t smoke. My perfect little Melissa doesn’t smoke!

She caught the eye of a friend or two, then another, and soon I was surrounded by people I didn’t know. They were loud, drunk, and vulgar, and I couldn’t understand exactly why Melissa wanted to be around them. Not my Melissa.

The dance floor had been empty, except for one trashy-looking couple who persisted in amusing the entire patronage of the tavern, including us. Their dance was sleazy, sexually obvious and unimaginatively plebeian.

It turned out to be the icon of the evening. Melissa drank and smoked and danced with her friends, and with the sleazy couple.

One in the morning rolled around, and to my relief, it was time to go. I drove, since I was the only one close to sober.

Back at her dorm, she led me across her hall to a friend’s room, where they offered us an amyl nitrite “popper.” Melissa took it, put it to her nose and inhaled deeply, and was instantly in another world. I was stunned.

The next morning, we decided to have an early lunch.

“I couldn’t believe you just sat there all night,” she said as we tried to eat, frowning. “Didn’t you even want to be there?”

No, I didn’t.

“Sure I did,” I said.

It was as if she had ordered me to have fun, and I disobeyed. Now I was being punished.

“I just don’t appreciate the way you acted, that’s all.”

Ah, yes, the way I acted. Sitting quietly, minding my own business. No wonder she’s so angry.

“Melissa, maybe I should go.”

“Maybe you should.”

* * *

The windshield collected bugs rapidly, thick splotches of bug guts and bodies clinging to the glass. The windshield belonged, I thought for a moment, to my own Bug.

“A bug killing bugs,” I mused and smiled weakly to myself.

If I didn’t clean them off at every fuel stop, they quickly became so thick and messy I could hardly see. And as the sun started to set off to my right, the brilliant yellow summer light began to highlight them.

The bugs were a sideshow. I watched them and considered their presence a major issue, because I didn’t want to think about the weekend I was escaping.

The green Missouri farmland rushed past my open window. Trees swayed in the waning heat of the wonderfully, oppressively painful day.

Music covered the drone in my ears as the last rays of the sun touched the tall windbreak trees, southbound on U. S. 63.

I listened to my music trying to get Melissa out of my head.

“… ain’t got no feelings
ain’t got no pain
ain’t got no reason
to try again …”

Ugh. This Supertramp song was the wrong choice. Bad message, bad grammar. I reached up and yanked off the headset. The broken muffler of my Volkswagen droned louder. The night dragged on longer.

I remembered something a friend told me one time. If you start to get sleepy while driving, put your hand in a bucket of ice water. The pain will keep you awake. I was certain that tonight, no ice water was necessary. There was already enough pain.

My Volkswagon and I rumbled south towards Jefferson City on one of the sturdy four lanes of U.S. 63. It was almost dark, so before it became too dark to see, pulled her last letter from its envelope. Awkwardly, with one hand driving and the other unfolding the typed page, I read.

“… and I’d love it if you would come up. Just name the weekend and I’ll work around whatever I have going on.”

She’d love it. And she did love it, for about the first three minutes I was there.

I don’t know. Since I was alone, I had plenty of time to think about what had transpired, if anything, between us. And honestly, I didn’t go to see her with any kind of plan. I didn’t plan to try to fuck her, or talk her into marrying me, or anything in between. I just wanted to be with her.

Fully dark, my headlights shone on the sign for West U.S. 54. I turned, and was on my way home. My tiny car and I rushed through the night. I relaxed as we got further from Melissa. I wasn’t going to see her again anytime soon. And the next time I wanted to feel some pain, I’d just put my hand in a bucket of ice water.