He picked up the fork, held it up to me, waved it around a bit, as if he had made his point, and stuck it back in the pie.
``You know, Julie,'' he said, meaning me but looking out the window, ``your problem is that you have no heart.'' I had no idea what he was talking about, and I got the feeling he was just making things up as he went along. Words often had no meaning when Josh opened his mouth.
``Would you care to explain that in further detail?'' I queried, playing his game, but at the same time wondering if he had been serious.
``Okay---how many boyfriends have you had?''
``What has that got to do with anything?'' Perhaps I was a bit too defensive. I paused. ``One.''
``And he dumped you for Megan, no?'' I nodded. ``And have you ever been in love?''
What cliché questions he was posing, how empty the conversation. ``What do you think?'' I snapped. Out of the corners of my eyes I glanced around the diner, suddenly aware that my voice had been a little too loud, but the place was mostly empty, and our booth in the non-smoking section was rather isolated. Our waitress was back talking with the cook, I supposed; she was Angel's mom, a strung-out, alcoholic bitch in my opinion, but the truckers liked her, and she was the diner.
Josh kept his mouth shut for a bit, at least until raising his fork and a generous piece of cherry pie to his mouth---they never burned the crust here. ``No,'' I said, staring out the window. It was still mid-afternoon and the shadows were still short. Chevies and Fords lined up in the parking spaces, and across the road, on the tracks, a rusted out old grain car stood silhouetted again the distant mountains. I saw huge sprinklers spraying a rainbow as they danced from left to right, then spun back around in a violent gesture, but the diner's floor to ceiling windows kept out the sound. A gust of wind stirred up dust in the parking lot, and a fat momma cat hid from the sun under Josh's busted-up truck.
``No, I've never been in love,'' I whispered. At that moment Angel's mom came by with a near-empty pot of coffee and we both smiled as she filled our cups. ``Thanks,'' I said as I beamed up at her.
``You're welcome,'' came the standard reply. Then she disappeared behind the counter again.
I turned back to Josh and put my chin on my palms. He had wavy, wind-swept strawberry hair and too many freckles for his own good. Cynical, always there, and sort of an outsider, he was my partner in crime. A friend, but not the intimate type---more the type who would stand up for you when you needed it, but who would tell it to you straight when others weren't around. ``I don't think I really love anyone,'' I added.
Expectation must have shown itself on my face, but he didn't ask how so? or what do you mean? or even you're kidding, right? He just took another bite of pie and washed it down with luke-warm coffee. He could have at least complained about the coffee. Instead, he left me hanging, my words heavy---words that couldn't be taken back.
Glancing up from his plate, he looked me in the eyes, peered into me, and looked down again. I think a slight frown passed his lips, but perhaps it was just a twitch. ``Let's go,'' I said, changing the subject. I already had a hand in my jeans pocket to pull out a five; Josh just nodded, slipped some bills from his shirt pocket, swung his black jacket around his shoulders, and stood, waiting for me to rise.
A bell on the door jingled a bit as we left. We walked across the parking lot, kicking up dirt and gravel as we went, and I climbed in the passenger side of the white Interntational. ``What about your family?'' Josh asked as he turned the ignition, shifted to reverse, and backed out. The road was barren, dry and dusty as usual, tracks on the left running parallel, fields on the right.
``I wouldn't want anything to happen to them, but,'' a pillar of smoke could be seen on the horizon---a farmer probably doing some selective burning, ``I don't think my care amounts to love. I don't feel much of anything for or against them. They just are.''
``Never a tingle of infatuation, a sliver of emotion driving you on?''
``Come on, you know the people at school. You know none of those guys could interest me.'' And I couldn't interest them, I wanted to say, but didn't. Hick jocks, dairy queens, farm boys, and cow girls; we were all a bit of each of those. Not me I always told myself, and I knew that someday I'd get out. Until then, I just had to make it through, and until then, nothing in my life could have much meaning for me.
Neither of us heard the siren until it was almost upon us; the volume on the cassette player was loud and the windows were shut, the fan was turned up on high, and each of us was sort of away in our own little world. Glimpsing the lights but not hearing the sound, Josh pulled over to the side of the road and let the fire truck and ambulance pass by. Shaken by the disruption, I turned down the volume, looked to my left and pondered, ``Where do you think they're going?''
Josh checked his watch, and said, dismissing the time, ``let's find out.'' Mere minutes later Josh gasped and I felt something catch in my throat. We pulled into the long driveway leading to Josh's house. At the end we saw the trucks and the smoke. It was the house. I stole a look to my left: Josh's face was blank and solid, his eyes looking ahead, his lips tight. I didn't feel anything, and couldn't find anything to feel.
As the truck came to a stop Josh killed the engine and both of us stepped out into a breeze, the smell of dry, unfamiliar smoke, and the shouts of firefighters as they ran about setting up equipment.
Minutes went by as we stood back from the activities and simply stared at the gray smoke and fountain of water sent to combat it. Time meant little, words meant less, and as my mind grew heavy and finally began to take in the scene before me, a wave of nausea washed over me. I raised a finger to point, but my armed refused to move. Before I could speak Josh sighed and whispered, ``Julie, is that ....''
He didn't need to finish; in the shadows of the burning building stood a green station wagon, its side panels of wood, it's windows now covered with ashes. My parents' car---the vehicle we'd had since I was a little girl. A few hundred thousand miles, and counting? My parents and Josh's were friends and mine always came over for afternoon coffee on Wednesdays. What was today? Where were they? People couldn't be trapped in a house like this, as big and open as it was. Where were they?
We simply stood there fascinated, waiting to be tapped on the shoulders by mom and dad. So the minutes slipped into hours and at last, as the sun started to slip behind the distant mountains, the fire was finally extinguished. The station wagon looked no worse for wear. And yet we stood, until firemen and paramedics exited the house, carrying behind them several dark forms. Did the blood rush from my face in that moment? Josh lurched forward and I watched him go, unable to move myself. Finally I tore free and caught up, but no hesitation on my part would have changed the scene before me, the charred bodies, the cut faces, the pained looks.
``It looks as if a gas line broke,'' mumbled one paramedic.
``The kitchen windows and walls look like they were shattered. Exploded,'' agreed a firefighter. Was it Mr. Wheeler?
So, we halted again and watched as the men on duty passed us by, pulling their tokens behind them. Josh and I didn't speak, but he turned to me, something pased between us, unsaid, and he nodded. I lowered my eyes in agreement, and as I turned back towards his truck, he put one of his big, farm-boy hands around my shoulders. Back in the truck, as he started the ignition, I looked at the fuel gauge and sighed in relief.
We wouldn't have to stop driving for many, many miles.
-- March 29, 1999
Notes: The title to this story comes in a way from Don McLean's ``American Pie''. The story itself grew out of my trip to Wisconsin in August of 1997. Along the way we stopped at a cafe in eastern Idaho; this cafe served as the starting point for the text.