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Utah
 

    LIGHTS OUT IN UTAH
By TJ Western 

     The highway had droned on for hours. Charlie's eyes blinked, than flashed wide open. He jerked his head from side to side and feigned an intent stare ahead at the hill's crest where the sun had slipped into twilight.
   
   
"Just a few more miles," he insisted to himself, "You'll have earned a steak, a couple of beers in front of T.V. and some solid sleep." Sales hadn't been good today but a favorite cafe waited ahead and a good meal would help sweeten a shit day.

     He fumbled with a map for a minute before giving up to the ashtray the unfiltered cigarette that was couched between his left, yellow stained index and middle fingers. Laying the map across the steering wheel, Charlie traced his route between quick glances up to check the status of the divider line that flickered in the headlights. The dim dome light cast his reflection on the inside windshield. The skin on top of his head glowed slightly, like an onion peeled back. His loosened tie and open collar allowed the folds of his chin to relax. His 5:00am shave was a shadow.

     It had been three months since he last covered this route. The map would aid him with an ETA though a simple calculation of the distance last posted on the road sign would accomplish the task easier. But this was a distraction from the siren call of sleep. Charlie barked twice and yodeled a short tune and shook his head vigorously. He could sometimes ward off sleep in this way. "About fifteen more miles on this god-damned Utah highway."  He knew he could make it that far.

     The last five miles into Green River were a 4% grade of steady coasting curves that wrapped around invisible mountains obscured by the blackness of country night. Twice more Charlie shook his head furiously, "No, no ,no, no,"  as though to reinforce the action with a verbal cheer to stay awake.

     Rounding a curve, Charlie's headlights were reflected by two buttons of light suspended over the freeway. He reacted by swerving the car to the left without noticing if the lane was open. The buck dashed for the shoulder on the right barely escaping the crush of a ton and a half of steel and plastic.

     Charlie had to yank the steering wheel back to the right to avoid careening onto the grass median and then again to the left before he regained control of the Buick. His body shook out of control. Adrenaline coursed through him like flood waters from a broken levy.

     It took him ten minutes to calm himself. He smoked four cigarettes.

     "Stupid fucking deer."

     "Why don't they fence the road?"

     Five minutes later he exited at Green River. It was as it had always been: a small town whose life blood was the detoured traffic flowing from Interstate 70, under construction forever. Gas station lights filled the night sky; motel marquis' advertised special rates; restaurant windows displayed hungry patrons swaddled in appetizing light.     

     Halfway through town Charlie came to the familiar Mountain Retreat Motel. Sharing the parking lot and under the same ownership was the Green River Grill. They advertised homemade pies. Charlie was distracted.

     The parking lot was bathed in the light of overhead lamps. The air was filled with the aroma of fried foods mixed with the occasional whiff of exhaust fumes spewed from passing diesels. A school bus was parked in the center of the lot and a few children climbed in and out of it. There were several nearby rooms which appeared to be occupied by what Charlie guessed were the ten to twelve years old children. Probably a field trip to explore the rock formations or something. The children were mindful of an adult woman who supervised their ascent into the bus and their return to the rooms with their belongings. Two boys chatted excitedly as they hurried from the buss to the motel room.

     "Their first trip," Charlie guessed. He remembered the first time he traveled outside of Lincoln. His mother took him and his brother to visit her cousin in St. Paul. He was ten and had not even been to Omaha before. They rode the train all the way. He equated the clickety-clack sound of wheels on tracks with the thrill of unknown destination with all the mystery and newness and fear of the city. There were no more trains. Only cars, familiar motels, well traveled highways, and parking lots.

     Charlie crossed the motel parking lot and entered the Green River Grill. He was greeted by the smell of french fries and coffee, cigarette smoke and the strong perfume of a passing waitress.

     Charlie sat on a counter stool next to the cash register and ordered his steak, baked potato, creamed corn and pie, to go, along with a six pack of beer. Fifteen minutes later his mouth was salivating as he struggled to open room 101 with his hands full of booty. He entered the room and placed the food on the bed, grabbed a towel from the bathroom to use as a napkin and popped the can top on his Coors. After settling onto the bedspread he arranged the meal beside him and leaned over to page channels past the three available on Green River T.V. He settled on reruns of M.A.S.H. This made life worth it.

     The lights and television flickered before going out. Blackness swallowed the room. A pin point of light slowly faded at the television screen's center.

     "Damn it," Charlie cursed his luck. He got up from the bed--then a dull thud. The room filled with the smell of beer. He stepped in the puddle of beer with his socked feet.

     "You son-of-a-bitch."  He frantically probed the bed for the towel to clean the mess and succeeded only in plopping his hand into the warm creamed corn. Charlie felt his face flush with embarrassment as much as anger.

     A commotion could be heard outside the closed curtains of the hutch occupied by Charlie. Excited giggles bounced through the darkness like bubbles on a brook. He peeked through the curtains out into the dark void of parking lot. A sliver of moon did not help much to illuminate the shadowy figures that seemed to dance in the darkness. Charlie's pupils were still dilated from the lights now gone out so he struggled to focus on the activity.

     "Wow, look, look over there. There was a shooting star," a child's voice shrieked with thrill.

     "Ah, you're making it up," said another boy hinting of envy.

     "Did you make a wish?" asked, what sounded to be, a young girl.    

     "Yea, he wished that you would disappear," a girl taunted. A chorus of laughter echoed from the walls of the motel.

     By now Charlie's eyes had adjusted enough to see the silhouettes of children clustered in small groups around the parking lot. A few larger forms seemed to be adults, probably speculating about what had happened to the lights.

     A man called out softly "Children. Stay close. Don't wander off." His voice carrying in the stillness.

     A shower of sparks sprayed the pavement, then carved an arc high into the blackness followed closely by the whooshing sound of a rocket. A sharp report followed an umbrella of white, red and blue sparks trailing down toward the ground. A chorus of "oohs" and "aahhs" orchestrated by the sparkling conductor's wand accompanied the display.

     Charlie clicked his tongue, disgusted at the prospect of no television and a bunch of kids making noise outside his room all night. He pinched the curtains together to close out the commotion. Lighting a cigarette, he paced the room carefully in the dark.

     He needed his meal and rest. Today was a hard day and tomorrow was sure to be as bad. He really liked the episode of M.A.S.H. that had started before the lights went out too.  He had seen that one a couple times before. It was the one when Radar wouldn't be separated from his Teddy Bear. Charlie couldn't remember how it ended. He really wanted to see it again.

     "I knew it was just to good to last." he thought.

     He remembered his beer and managed to grope out a fresh one in the dark. The pop of the beer can coincided with the report of another rocket launched outside his window.

     "Why can't those teachers rein in the damn kids," he huffed.

     As if on cue, a woman's voice called from across the lot, "Children, children. We must go inside and go to bed. We have a long day tomorrow and it's much too dark to be playing outside."

     There were guffaws and groans. A gaggle of giggles preceded a volley of swishing sounds and then several rapid fire explosions of light and sound.

     "Gerald and Kevin, come here. I want you in your room right now." The woman sounded much sterner now.

     "About time," Charlie thought.

     Shuffling feet kicked gravel just outside Charlie's door.

     The credits for the M.A.S.H. episode rolled by on the screen. An announcer heralded the next program on the schedule featuring an appearance by Joan Rivers as guest host on the Johnny Carson show. Charlie smiled. He again arranged his now cold food on the other twin bed in the room, not soiled by beer and creamed corn, and lighted a cigarette. Propped up on his right arm he gnawed at the steak as Joan Rivers divided the curtains to enter the stage with a fanfare of applause from the studio audience.

     "The night can still be salvaged," thought Charlie sipping his beer through a smirk. 

 

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