Short fiction: ‘Lost Highway’

lost highway

An old man had pulled up in his car outside the shop. We could see him through the front window, parked out beside the petrol pump. Sitting in behind his steering wheel. The old man was alone. His car was an old, boxy Ford, shaded with dust and rusted through in little patches. He sat there, staring over the wheel, looking through his glasses. He sat there for a long time.

‘Are you alright, mate?’ My Dad asked. First, Dad tapped on the drivers’ side window and the old man flickered to life and looked up and he wound down the window just a bit. The old man stared up, eyes like a puppy, looking out to my Dad.

‘Yes, yes, fine,’ the old man told him.

‘Well, you’ve been here for a while, mate. Do you need some help or something?’

‘No no,’ the old man raised a hand as he turned his head. ‘I’m okay, thank you.’

Then the old man settled back into his seat, looking on ahead. In the front seat, Dad told me later, there were all sorts of plastic drink bottles, both empty and full, all littered about the place.

Dad let the man sit there for a moment, just watched from beside the car. Dad looked up the road ahead. There was nothing there, nothing to see. The road and the trees and the yellow grass beneath the sunlight.

‘Do you wanna come in for a bit?’ Dad asked, his voice reaching in through the still wound down window. The old man looked down a bit, dropped his head, then he looked back up through the windscreen.

‘Okay,’ the old man said.

He unclipped his seatbelt and opened the car door, stiff and creaking, then he hefted himself out onto the crushed stone of the car park.

 

He came into our shop, the old man. I remember that he was wearing a brown cardigan that was so thin you could see straight through it, a sky blue shirt underneath. Old-style dress pants with folded lines along the middle, brown leather shoes, the tops of them worn away like callouses round their curves and edges. The old man had white hair that flailed out at the back, thinned into sprouts and dots on top. I don’t know how old he was, but I’d guess in his eighties.

He shuffled along the linoleum floor, a slight hunch. He moved with the grace of a fridge being shifted by a single person.

The old man came out into the back room and sat on a chair by our table, the surface of it covered in papers and lolly wrappers, crayons and pictures that had been left by my little sister. The man let out a breath as the chair took up his weight, leaned his head back. He looked tired, sun-worn. The gaps in his hair shined with sweat.

Dad gave him a cup of tea and the old man sat and looked around, staring out through his thick glasses, squinting to see.

‘You been on a big drive, mate?’ Dad asked.

‘The longest I’ve ever been done.’

‘Really?’ Dad sat down at the table too. There was no one in the shop. It was a quiet time of the day.

‘Yes. I’m taking a drive up the coast.’

‘Okay. How you going with it so far?’

‘It’s okay,’ the old man told Dad. ‘It’s a lot of quiet, there’s a lot of quiet periods with not much to see.’

‘Yeah,’ Dad said. ‘A lot of paddocks.’

The old man was still looking around, looking behind himself, at the brick wall, the calendar on it.

‘Are you going okay?’ Dad asked.

‘Okay, yes,’ the old man said. ‘Just…’ The old man turned to look at Dad. ‘I’m not sure where I am right now.’

‘Oh,’ Dad said. ‘So you’re lost?’

‘I’m not sure.’

‘Well, I guess you are then, hey?’ Dad laughed. The old man showed no response.

‘I’m not as good with maps. My wife did the maps, you know?

‘Where’s she then?’

‘She died. Some years back.’

‘Oh,’ Dad said. ‘Sorry to hear that.’

‘She died, then the dog passed away last week. Then I decided to go for a drive, go see the coast, you know?’

‘Okay,’ Dad said. ‘Wow, that’s a lot to take on. Really sorry about your wife, and your dog.’

‘I couldn’t go before,’ the old man said. ‘Because who would feed the dog?’ He looked at Dad.

‘Yep, no. I don’t know, mate.’

The old man bowed his head a moment. And when he lifted his face again, his eyes glistened beneath the overhead light. He was crying.

‘Well,’ the old man leaned forward, a hand on his knee. ‘Time to get moving.’

‘Hey, no, it’s okay,’ Dad raised a hand. ‘It’s fine, just stay here a bit, just rest a moment.’

‘No no,’ the old man said. ‘I need to crack on.’ The man stood up, arched his back up slow.

‘Well, where are you headed, mate? I can help you with directions.’

‘That’s the thing,’ the old man smiled. ‘I don’t really know.’

 

The old man shuffled back across the shop floor, in front of the shelves of biscuits and pasta and canned soup. He stepped carefully down the concrete steps, then he moved across to his car. He eased himself in, a steadying hand on the metal frame.

‘Really,’ Dad told the man. Dad was holding the door open, helping him get in. ‘I’d rather you stayed for a bit.’ The old man settled into his seat, shuffling across. ‘Is there someone we can call for you?’

‘No, no one to call,’ the old man said. ‘I’m fine. Just need to get back on the road.’

‘Well mate, if you need anything, just come back, alright? Do you have a phone or something?’

‘No,’ the old man pulled his door shut, the slightly open window quivering in its frame as he did. ‘Time to get going,’ the old man said.

 

The old Ford rattled across the car park and out onto the road, the old man’s head hidden behind the headrest, which I could see through the back window, shadowed beneath the sunlight. Dad and me stood out in the heat of the day, watching him leave. The red lights of the car blinking on as he approached the curve. Then he was gone.

Sometimes I wonder about the old man. Who lost his wife, lost his dog. Sometimes I wonder where he ended up next, where his travels took him.

Sometimes I think about him, when I consider what it is to be in love. And how the beings that have your heart eventually become your home.

 

Main image via Good Free Photos.

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