Dusty Road to Farewell
Written By: Geoffrey Marsh
“I don’t usually take off with people I meet at truck stops,” Lana Marks said as she fished a pack of Marlboros from her purse and held them out with a perfectly manicured hand. “Smoke?”
Billy Wayson nodded beneath his black Stetson hat. He had made a pit stop on I-80 in west-central Nebraska, and by chance was the first on the scene after Lana had her car stolen. He offered use of his cell phone and as they waited for the police, they got to talking. It turned out that they were both going to western South Carolina, so he offered her a ride in exchange for help with the driving and gas.
“Thanks,” he said, accepting the proffered cigarette. “You didn’t strike me as the type to take up with strangers. I sure don’t normally pick up women at highway rest stops.”
Lana nodded. “I do appreciate the ride. So where is this place you’re headed again?”
Billy lit the cigarette before continuing. “It’s a sort of a dude ranch called the Farewell Ranch, or just Farewell, about an hour out of Greenville. A buddy of mine has had this place for about twenty years. Every week he has this thing called the Farewell Ceremony. People bring a picture of a loved one they lost. There’s a bonfire, a reverend says a few words, and at the end they throw copies of the photos in the fire. It helps folks move on after the loss of a loved one. He’s wanted me to come up ever since my wife Carolyn died eighteen months ago.” He touched the clear plastic fob containing a picture of Carolyn that hung from the rear view mirror. “We were together for twenty-two years. It’s been tough.”
“May I ask what happened?”
“She had been working long hours and I guess she just nodded off. The troopers said she drifted into the path of an oncoming semi. They say she died instantly.” Billy took a long drag and let it out slowly. “Everything in my life revolved around her. When I got that call, my world ended. I still half expect to come home and find her waiting.”
“Wow. I’m sorry.”
Sympathetic silence mixed with the gray smoke in the cabin.
“You live in Greenville for long?” he asked, trying to move to safer ground.
“Sort of. I grew up there, but then later moved to Sacramento with my husband.”
“How long you guys been married?”
“Well, we were married for nineteen years, but that’s over. My brother, Sam, was diagnosed with inoperable carcinoma and given six months to live, but he lingered on for almost three years. Me and my mom were his primary caregivers. For the first year or so Mike was real supportive, but he was alone in California while I was back east. He felt abandoned and his heart wandered. I don’t blame him—I would have felt the same way. Ironically, the divorce was finalized the day before Sam died.”
“You lost your husband and your brother. That must be tough.”
“Yes and no. Everything was said while there was time. There was total closure. Maybe too much closure . . .” She trailed off.
Billy pulled his own pack of Marlboros down from behind the visor and held them out to her. She waved it off. “Thanks, but no. It’s just that I sometimes wonder. What’s the point? All that joy, all that happiness, now just memories. I’m left with . . . nothing. Maybe I’ll take that smoke after all.”
Billy handed her the pack and she shook out two, lighting them both before handing one to him. The cloud in the cab got thicker. A few minutes later Billy glanced over and found that Lana had fallen asleep. He plucked the cigarette from her fingers, finished it in one pull, and deposited the butt in the ashtray.
The highway stretched before him as his fiery blue pickup sliced through the afternoon. He put on a Randy Travis CD, turning it on low so as not to wake Lana. In doing so, he bumped her purse and something jangled. A fob like the one on his rear view mirror dangled from her purse strap. On one side was a picture of an athletic young man Billy took to be Sam, on the other was a snapshot of Lana and her ex in happier days.
As silently as he could, Billy unclipped the fob and attached it to the one that hung from his mirror, so that Sam and Mike spun and twirled beneath Carolyn.
There were no open booths at the highway diner, but two stools stood side-by-side at the counter. Billy followed Lana through the crowd and took a seat.
“So you’re driving all the way from Nevada to South Carolina and trying to avoid the interstates as much as possible,” Lana said after they ordered.
“Yeah. It’s tougher out west, but the further east we get the easier it will be. Don’t get me wrong, the big roads are great, but road trips lose something when all you see is miles of pavement and green exit signs. The American soul changed when they built the interstates. We lost something core to what makes us who we are.”
“And now everyone is so used to them, nobody really understands what’s been lost,” Lana said.
“Where in South Carolina you headed?” The guy at the stool next to Billy looked over. He was a little taller than Billy, swarthy, bearded, and wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with “Support Working Moms: Tip A Stripper”.
“She’s headed to Greenville and I’m going out to a ranch nearby.”
“Really? I’ve been trying to make my way over towards Spartanburg to visit my sister. Any chance I could get a ride, at least just to Greenville? My name’s Jim, by the way. Jim Foreman.” He extended a massive hand to Lana and Billy.
The waitress came with their orders. “I can vouch for Jimmy. Known him since we were both in diapers. He’s good people, despite the look of him.”
“Can you pay for part of the gas and take some of the driving duties?”
“Sure, no problem.”
Billy looked at Lana. She shrugged. “You smoke?” she asked.
“Like a chimney.”
“Then I guess it’s settled,” Billy said.
They drove to Jim’s house long enough for him to throw some clothes and toiletries in an old canvas suitcase. Lana crawled into the tiny back seat to try to get some sleep, and Jim took the wheel. Billy was just starting to drift off when Jim spoke up.
“These pictures hanging from the mirror, who are they?”
Billy sighed and shook out a pair of cigarettes, lit them and handed one to Jim. A lighter flickered in the back seat. He recounted as briefly as he could the stories of the three people in the pictures.
“You ever lose anyone you loved?” Lana asked.
Jim was silent and for a moment. “Not a person, but someone I loved. My retriever Buddy. He was ten years old and I had him since he was a pup. A couple months ago he busted a hip when we were out hunting. The vet said he would be in long-term pain if it wasn’t taken care of, but wanted over a grand to fix him. I don’t have that kind of cash. All I could do was take him home, get my rifle . . .” he trailed off. “Toughest part is when people say things like ‘He was just a dog’ and ‘Get over it’.”
“That’s rough,” Lana said. “When Mike and I first got married, some of my family thought Mike was beneath me and that I was ‘marrying down’. After a few years of marriage that talk stopped, but it picked up again when we split. When I was distraught over our breakup, I was told I should never have married him in the first place, get over it. We’re cruelest to those we love most.”
“You got a picture of Buddy?” Billy asked and flipped on the dome light. Jim nodded and fumbled in his wallet while Billy steadied the wheel. The snapshot was a trimmed photo of a bay retriever, tongue askew. Billy slid the photo into his fob back-to-back with the picture of Carolyn.
They roared through St. Louis before dawn, Lana driving, Jim dozing in the passenger seat, and Billy asleep in the back. The Mississippi was a sea of darkness. As the sky brightened, they stopped for breakfast, then Billy slipped back behind the wheel.
“From here to Greenville, we stay off the Interstates. Anybody got a problem with that?” he asked.
Lana shook her head. Jim, in the back seat, grunted a “No”.
“Good.” Billy hit a button on the truck’s dash and the navigation system popped up.
“Pretty fancy for a good ol’ boy like you,” Jim said.
“Like the song says, just a hi-tech redneck.” He punched a few buttons, typed “Greenville SC” and checked the “Avoid Highways” option. “Here we go.”
A computer-generated voice directed them onto a state route, and Billy eased back behind the wheel. This was travelling.
They rolled across the countryside, crossing the Ohio near Shawneetown and continued southeast through endless small towns. This was what America was about. Forget the big cities, the traffic, the highways. This was where people mattered. Where living was easy.
A lot like life with Carolyn. Just easy living.
At an intersection, the nav system directed them right, down the main street of a town. Ahead was a church with a crowd of fifty people or so standing out front. As Billy turned, a Sheriff stepped in front of the truck and held up his hand. Billy rolled down his window.
“Morning folks. Sorry to hold you up but they’re just wrapping up a wedding at the church and we need to stop traffic while they send the bride and groom on their way. Shouldn’t be more than about ten minutes.”
“No problem. Mind if we stretch our legs?”
“Not at all.”
Billy climbed out, walked around the front of the truck and leaned on the hood next to the Sheriff. Lana came around behind him. “Who’s getting married?” she asked.
“Patrick Williams and Susan Pulaski. Pat and Susie have been sweethearts since middle school, but had to wait while Pat got back from Iraq last month. The entire town is coming out to see.”
Billy glanced over at Lana. Her lips were pursed as she watched the milling crowd dressed in their Sunday finest. “I remember my wedding day,” she said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “Happiest day of my life.” She shook her head. “What do I have to show for it . . .”
The Sheriff glanced over at her. “Divorced?”
“Been there. I’m on wife number three. Divorced one, buried another.”
“And yet, after all that heartache, you still keep coming back for more.”
The Sheriff nodded. “Yep. George Carlin said your entire life is represented by a dash on a tombstone. He’s right. Everything in life is going to end some point. And when it does, all we’re going to have to show for it is memories or a marker. If we’re on the right side of the grass, we will have those memories for the rest of our life. Nothing is forever, but that doesn’t make it worthless. It just makes every day that much more precious.”
Lana dropped her cigarette butt on the pavement and ground it with her boot. Billy watched as she walked a dozen paces closer to the assembled crowd. The newlyweds emerged from the church; the bride in a simple white wedding gown, the groom in a formal Marine dress uniform. They kissed on the steps, then ran through a shower of rice to a waiting limo.
Lana’s head followed as they rode by, taking stock of the couple inside. After they passed, she turned back to the Sheriff, her eyes misty.
“Yes, I guess it does,” she said.
A feather drifted into her hair from an elm tree overhead. She picked it out, held it up before her, and let it go. The breeze carried it high up into the sky beyond the church.
Clouds moved in as they crossed the line from Kentucky into Tennessee north of Nashville. They skirted the sprawl outside the Music City, stopping for lunch at a roadside burger joint, then Lana got in the driver’s seat and they continued southeast through the dry country north of Chattanooga. Billy was partial to Tennessee. Its people seemed like just about the nicest, friendliest folks he had ever met.
“So tell me a little more about this ceremony you’re going to,” Jim asked.
“Sure. It’s called the Farewell Ceremony. Awhile back, my buddy Frank lost his fiancée to a drunk driver. He struggled mightily with her death, then the judge let her killer off with two years probation. I was staying at his ranch with him during the trial. After the sentencing I found him loading two handguns and a rifle and packing them into a duffle bag. When I asked what he was doing, he was so tore up he couldn’t even speak.
“I got the rifle and one of the pistols away from him, but he knocked me backwards and tried to turn the other pistol on himself. As I fell all I could do was to kick him in the stomach. The gun went off, but the round went wild.”
He lit a cigarette. “That was a wake-up call for him. He had been running a dude ranch in the hills outside Greenville, and he started up a program for helping people who were struggling with loss. And as part of that he created the Farewell Ceremony. Anyone who is feeling a loss of someone or something they love can attend. It can be recent, it can be long ago. But the only requirement is to have loved and to have lost. Those pictures there, under the mirror, that’s the price of admission.”
Billy glanced out the passenger window. The sky was dark and threatening. “I got no problem with pushing through thunderstorms, but there’s no reason to. Anybody want to stop and let this thing pass?” A few miles further on, a neon sign advertising a restaurant, gift shop, and music store loomed on the right side of the road. Lana pulled the truck into the lot as the first drops of rain streaked the windshield.
The gift shop was classic Americana tourist kitsch. In the back was an arched doorway over which were stenciled the words “The You-Tunes Store.” Jim made a beeline for the music and Billy trailed him. Through the archway was a room the size of a convenience store containing a labyrinth of Vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, even 8-tracks. Billy smiled as Jim’s jaw dropped.
“You like?” The proprietor, a bald man with a huge beer belly beneath a tie-dyed T-shirt stood up from behind a stack of LPs.
“Yeah,” Jim said. “I’ll take one of each.”
They both laughed. Billy wandered towards the section labeled “Country” as he listened to the conversation.
“So what’s your pleasure?” the man asked. “My names Simon, by the way. Pardon my lack of manners.”
“No problem. I’m Jim, that’s Billy over there, and Lana’s in the gift shop. My pleasure? I’m kind of partial to blues.”
“Modern or Delta?”
“Only as a last resort.”
“Then you’ll appreciate this.” Simon tossed a hand-labeled CD to Jim. “Acoustic Robert Belfour from back before his Fat Possum days. High quality bootleg.”
“Sweet. Man, this is quite a place you got here.”
“Yep, and got a website too. We have everything from classic country to that rap stuff. I can’t stand it myself, but the kids these days seem to dig it.”
“How long you had this place?”
“Five years now, give or take. Opening a record store was always my dream. Music is candy for the soul. Everyone likes music, but everyone likes different styles, different beats, different instruments, different patterns. Musical taste is utterly universal yet totally unique. Nobody can tell us what music to love or to hate, we each make our own decisions.”
“A lot like love,” Lana said, standing in the archway to the gift shop.
Simon nodded. “Just like love. Nobody can tell us who or what to love, we have to work it out ourselves. And in the end, that love is a personal experience. Only we know what that other person, that animal, that object really means to us.”
“And when that thing is gone?” Jim asked.
“All the more. Nobody can ever change what they meant to us. That is ours forever.”
Jim’s head was sunk forward on his chest, his shoulders hunched forward. Lana came up beside him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“You okay?” she asked.
Jim nodded. He took a faded red bandanna from his pocket and blew his nose. He turned back to Simon. “How much for that Belfour bootleg?”
Simon smiled. “On the house.”
Billy and Lana trailed Jim as he walked back out into wet parking lot in the aftermath of the storm. A gust of wind carried a feather through the air, landing it on his shoulder. He picked it up, held it in the breeze from the fading storm, and let it go. The currents carried it high before he lost sight of it in the turbulent sky.
It was early evening as they crossed briefly through North Carolina, the north tip of Georgia, and finally into South Carolina. Just after 7:00 they pulled into a gas station and convenience store at a state route intersection.
Billy pointed to the road to the right. “That road leads to Greenville,” he said. Then he pointed to the road that ran straight ahead. “That’s the road to Farewell.”
Two teenage boys ran up, carrying soap, a bucket of rags, and dragging a rubber hose.
“Wash your truck for ten dollars,” one of them said.
Billy glanced at the miles of dust on his truck. “Ten bucks to wash that filthy thing? That’s a deal.” He fished out two fives and handed it to the boy in the lead.
The convenience store looked like it had last been renovated in the 1950s. Worn plank floors and rusted metal shelves were in stark contrast to the shiny new packaging of the products they bore. From a room in the back, Billy could hear the sharp voices of a man and a woman arguing. The woman’s voice snapped, “I have to go tend to the customers,” and a door slammed. A moment later a short, middle-aged woman in a housecoat appeared behind the counter.
“How you folks doing today?” she asked.
“Just fine,” Billy said. “And you?”
“Alright I guess.”
She didn’t sound it to Billy. “You gonna be okay?”
“Yeah, it’s just when he gets into one of his moods, he can be a handful. He’s in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s now and it’s really starting to get frustrating for him.”
“He’s your father?” Lana asked.
“No, my husband. I was nineteen when we married, he was almost forty. I married for love, but now the Alzheimer’s makes it hard. Still, we had thirty wonderful years together, and nothing can take that away.”
“Last year I buried my wife of over twenty years. I’m learning that when happiness ends, the hole it leaves is deep.”
She nodded. “True, but I look at it like this. There ain’t no guarantees in this life. No guarantees of happiness, of success, not even survival. Nothing. If we do end up finding happiness at some point in our lives, well that’s a bonus, it’s extra credit. Those of us, like you, like me, who have real joy with someone we love, we’re either really lucky, or we’re really blessed. If you believe you’re really lucky, then you should be grateful and thankful for that luck. If you believe that you are blessed, you should be grateful that whatever deity there is out there loved you enough to give you that much joy. And maybe, just maybe, there may be more of that joy with that person or thing in whatever comes next.”
She paused to dab at her eyes. “You see, it all comes down to what you believe. What do you believe?”
Billy just shook his head. “I don’t know what I believe anymore.”
“Then believe me. We’re blessed.”
Billy bought a carton of smokes then turned and walked out of the store into red light of the setting sun. A gust of wind carried a feather that landed on the brim of his hat. He picked it up, regarded it, then held it aloft.
What did he believe?
“It takes feathers to make a wing, and it takes wings to make an angel. Carolyn, my love, I think this belongs to you.” He let go of the feather and watched as the wind carried it far into the sky.
Lana walked out of the store and stood beside Billy. “Jim and I were just talking. You think that maybe you could stop in Greenville on the way back rather than on the way out?”
“You guys want to come to Farewell?”
“Yeah, we do.”
The truck sat clean, wet, and glistening in the setting sun. It looked new.
They piled in and Billy pulled out of the gravel parking lot, leaving a cloud of dust as they headed up the road to Farewell.
Geoffrey Marsh writes general fiction, mysteries, dark fiction, the occasional poem, and just about anything else that gets caught in the sieve of his imagination. His stories have been featured in Sanitarium, Cemetery Moon, Heater, and an upcoming issue of Jitter.
When not writing or hanging out with his rescued mutt, Ellie, he is a mountain biker, cyclist, sea kayaker, and geocacher. Because he needs to eat in order to write, by day he is an IT specialist with the U.S. federal government. He lives in central Maryland.