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Now in its fifth year, Summer Stories is our annual short fiction series. This year’s theme: The Road Trip. We’ll feature stories from some of the region’s best writers about road trips that are memorable, strange and sometimes a bit of both. Visit Summer Stories to read this year’s entries and revisit previous editions. Buckle up!

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Summer Stories: ‘The Old Road’ by Shann Ray

THE SIMPLE TRUTH: John Sender believed in love.

Thirty-three. Still single. Driven, overly driven. So much head work, and such solitude, but now into his self-doubt, love. Real love. A love he could hardly believe after such drought, but yes, he believed. He’d even gone home to Montana and borrowed his long dead grandfather’s black Florsheim wingtips from his recently dead grandmother’s bedroom closet, and from her bureau the diamond ring she’d kept through two foreign wars – his mom wanted him to have it – the ring he’d be giving to his bride.

Only he hadn’t much spoken with his bride yet.

He pressed his hands down on the desk, flattening them, staring. Big boned, rough. Late night; everyone gone. Alone again. The day had been difficult, another without tone or hue, loans drawn up, rates secured, moneys meted out. He worked for Bank of America in downtown Seattle. Strange, the bones of a hand, beautiful in their way. His were like his father’s, not afraid of work. Strong like his father’s too, but meek with women.

He had thought he might just stick to horses; they calmed him every bit as much as he calmed them, the kind-spirited ones, the wild ones too, like bolts of lightning he could get a heel into and fight. He missed it, breaking for Dad and the neighbors. That, and all the rodeoing he’d done.

Spooked since he could remember, he felt like a fool on every date he’d been on, which was few. Tall man: 6-foot-3, wired tight. Bridge of the nose bony as a crowbar, broken on a fence in Flagstaff. Rodeo docs always salty, that one laid him flat on the ground, shoved two metal rods up his nose and got on top of him, then jerked the rods hard. The sound was unnatural, the pain like a landslide in the brain. His mouth tasted like metal. Straightened things out but left a crude notch. Too tall for saddle broncs the doc said, but he’d made do.

“Hardnosed,” his dad said when he saw the nose.

“Keeps the women away,” John answered, and they chuckled.

But John was better looking than he gave himself credit for. Shoulder-length black hair, black enough it had a silken sheen, drawn back, crow-like. Vivid dark blue eyes, near violet. Bold features. Big. Just quiet with women. Probably a little too morose too, he thought. He put his hands through his hair. Easier to see couples enter his office hoping to secure something… a loan, a home. The men were anomalies. The women called them husband, or hubby, or honey – or silent, said nothing. The men didn’t know what they had, John thought. When it came to love, they should realize what they borrow is a woman: you borrow her from her family, from her mother and father, and mostly from God.

John’s daily business was loans. Tailored suit and silk tie. Late again, after dark, he needed to finish the paperwork and get home. Peculiar, he thought. Vicarious living or some kind of narrow foresight. No cowboy hat, no boots, he felt at odds with himself. A rodeo scholarship and a bachelor’s in English from the University of Montana, then three years on the circuit and an MBA along with a smattering of additional graduate work in philosophy from Seattle University. He’d been in loans now near a decade, and until he met Samantha everything had seemed caught in a time foreign to him, and uglified. His blood was Czech and German and very fractionally Cheyenne. Hollow, missing the land and sky. The ranch. Mom and Dad by themselves and him a corporate hired hand, trapped like a pawn in some large thoughtless efficiency, all take, no give.

He was afraid of himself. He was also afraid of women. But he wasn’t afraid of the dark. In fact, he loved the night – the ocean north of the city not held in city light but illumined by immense star fields and the night’s own lantern. The scent of kelp and mud wash and cold.

And of the men who borrowed?

Their lives, like his, were made as much of confusion as clarity, edging toward death but wanting life, poised on the tipping point between dark and light. Tangibly they ranged the border between self-sabotage and a new country of grace, and it worried him, the threshold over which a man must pass, the crucible. He worried about them, and himself, and yet how easily he forgot them.

JOHN PLACED a stack of loans in the processor’s in-box.

In America it was an old institution, loans: indebtedness part and parcel of the capital condition. Debt perhaps the oldest form of being human, men were owned by their own misperceptions, he thought. They wanted money and when they couldn’t get it he detected the undertow: depression smelled stale, violence smelled like blood.

Looking at amortization schedules mesmerized him.

Trying to own a home meant being in a one-down position for a very long time.

Never mind that the banks shorted you and sucked you dry for 30 years.

At least you had a roof over your head, they said.

Past midnight locking the office door his hands felt very cold. He hoped beyond fear she’d come to like him but he had to laugh at himself, everything so unlikely still. He’d only been in her close proximity once, but as he merged onto I-5 for the 40-minute commute from downtown he pushed the ring over his right pinkie finger, a simple solitaire, firm hand at 12 o’clock, and watched the glow through the windshield, subdued usually but in the direct light of oncoming vehicles the stone a tiny torch of white, gold, and vermillion. He envisioned placing the ring on her slight hand, smiling into her eyes, receiving from her the smile she’d give. He dreamed of trips back home to Montana, where he drove Going to the Sun Road in Glacier, hiked the lakes region from Hidden Lake at Logan Pass, to Avalanche Lake and Two Medicine. He’d teach her to fly fish. He’d make small bright fires under wide skies on nights that would deepen from light to dark blue then black as black silk, silver points like fine sand from east to west, the Milky Way an arm of clustered stars overhead. The Summer Triangle. Cygnus the Swan. Vega, Altair, Albireo. In the western night they’d shine, he and she like satellites.

John hated the city for its constant speed and press, the suffocation of buildings and people set too close for comfort. He liked the city for how life seemed always about to flicker and catch flame. That night in bed, he held his hands over his chest and stared at the ceiling. The reasons men borrowed were simple, and not so simple. They borrowed what they felt they needed, and not just from him, from everyone, and not just money, they borrowed everything. They borrowed against their line of credit, cash, jewels, furniture, paintings, vintage guitars, home theaters, cars. A house, a home.

He stared into the dark. He was harmony and fracture, he was love freighted with loss. His hands wouldn’t warm up. To win love men put on an attitude of cleanliness, clipped nails, and shaved faces, sideburns like little battle axes, a soul patch below the lower lip or a thin goatee, lines of facial hair crisp, hard, geometric, glistening. Men borrowed emotion, physicality, tenacity, trouble.

The smell of her neck. The taste of her kiss.

Men were made of both darkness and light.

Dumb as animals, but like angels, majestic.

Unknowingly they willed themselves to succeed or die.

They were brash and frail and rarely single, often married, often divorced.

AND JOHN SENDER. On free fall in the apartment, linear, solid, spare. Unable to sleep he moved from the bed to the kitchen, drank a glass of milk, went to the leather reading chair and stared at the window. Strange reflection: long white body, white T-shirt, white underwear, skin like alabaster. He leaned and took an old issue of Montana Quarterly from the rack beside him. He read an article on a wolverine researchers collared that crossed nine mountain ranges in 42 days. He fell asleep in the chair. He woke, stumbled back to bed. Night sifting the sediment of dreams. Dark animal, solitary, full of speed. Light. Morning. Glass of water. Toast. No TV, no radio. No sound. Driving I-5 to work he lifted from the heart pocket of his suit coat the pen Samantha had given him that first chance meeting. He thought of her holding the pen, a blue ballpoint made of inexpensive metal alloy, pens the bank gave out. He’d seen her in the lobby after work, seated, writing a memo, a note to a friend, or perhaps her mother, left-handed – a note to him, he liked to imagine – her clear nail polish and French manicure, the pale half-spheres at the base of her fingernails like small suns touched to the ocean of her skin. He loved her skin. It was sudden: he had desired her more than anything.

Awful, the anxiety he’d had over his voice being too boyish, his face overly pale and hands too hard. He sat down next to her. “Can I borrow your pen?” he said.

“Sure,” she said, handing it to him, “keep it.” She slipped her fingers into her purse and drew forth an identical pen.

“Kind of you,” he said. His hands were not only cold but sweating.

She smiled.

He managed a few awkward questions. She grew up in East Tacoma. Her mother was from Puerto Rico. She mentioned her family, her studies, work. She looked right at him, not away.

He lost himself.

“Can I take you to dinner?” he said.

“What?” she replied.

“Sorry,” he said.

He’s country, she thought. Pero es muy guapo. Very handsome. She didn’t dislike him. Samantha Valeria Arrarás was a woman with a presence like a wild horse: stay away, or come near if you dare. Puerto Rican, along with Ugandan from her father, Swedish and British intermixed, she’d let go of her father’s surname and reclaimed her mother’s. She loved her mother.

John’s hands flushed with sweat again. He waved at her and turned to go and she smiled, and he was astonished at how her smile delighted him. Down the hall, when she couldn’t see, he slapped his hands together, covered his mouth and muffled a whoop. She hadn’t even said yes.

Still, he felt like the top of his head was on fire.

He couldn’t foresee the future. The road ahead was unclear.

He wondered if they’d walk it together, and if they’d make it to the other side.

The above is an excerpt from “Who Pays The Blackbird,” a novel in progress, some of which appeared in different form in Ruminate magazine.