The Beach 10: High Plains

There’s no obvious point where the Great Plains end and the High Plains begin; you just look round and suddenly notice things have changed.  It’s like being in a small vessel in a sheltered harbor.  You get used to the choppy little waves and suddenly you’re aware that the small waves have given way to deep ocean swells and that you’re out of sight of land.

The land has gone from flat to hills and the deep green of the Great Plains is gone, replaced by a patchwork of short, poor green shoots  punctuated by rags of sand.  There is more oil drilling equipment and the soil has gone poor enough that it’s used for grazing more than anything else.  Raw umber hills in the distance stand in the deep folds of their own shadow.  Farming this land is only for the dedicated and the mad, because it’s not worth much.  A world as wild and empty as the Great Plains but lacking charm because it’s so scruffy and scraggly.  Tonya is utterly spellbound by the sights, which is good.  She’s sweet but she talks too much and asks too many uncomfortable questions.

When we cross the line into Colorado she says, Weed is legal in this state.  Can we stop and get some?

The closest pot shop is in Denver and we’re hours away.

How do you know?

Googled it.  There are maps that show where you can buy weed.

Is Denver the only place?

It’s the nearest to us.  There are some in Boulder and Greeley where the universities are but they’re a long way from Denver.


Wanting to get her away from the subject of weed i say, See the horizon in front of us?  That little bank of clouds?  It’s not clouds.

Not clouds?  What else could it be?

Mount Evans.  The snow on the peak hasnt melted yet.  That’s what you see.  Looks like clouds.

But it’s summer.

Early summer.  I think it’s about 15,000 feet up and it’s still cold up there.

But how can you see it from this far away when you cant see the mountain underneath it?

I dunno, i say irritably.  Dry air.  The albedo maybe.

No science lecture today?  She says.

No.  Last night you got the last one for about a year.

You think i’m stupid, dont you?

No.  And i’d never want to punish you for being curious about things like that.  But if you think you’re stupid i could get a t-shirt that says ‘I’m with stupid.’  Tell the world.

You’re such a dick sometimes, she says.

I try.

Well, dont!  She snaps at me.

When you get past Denver, which is mainly flat, on I-70 you suddenly start climbing at a 45 degree angle, maybe steeper.  IDK why i mention that now…oh, yeah.  The way my first wife reacted to it was so funny.  I’ll tell you about that later.  If i tell you now i’ll start laughing so hard i might wreck the car.

Why tell me about it?

Why?  Because you wanted to hear all about the bitch yesterday.  You got me talking so dont expect me to just shut up about her.

Fair enough then, she says.  Tell me about your sex life.  With her.

You want me to tell you the details of my sex life with a woman i havent seen for thirty years who probably ate herself to death long ago?

No.  Just about after she got so big and fat.  How did you two do it?  Looks like it’d be difficult.  Or impossible.

Piss off, Tonya!

I guess that means you two didnt do anything for years and years…how long were you two together?

Ten and a half years.

Then nothing for the last five?  Or seven?

Nothing for the last…fifteen months.  It was impossible.

I’ll bet.

See, i had this job that i wanted to stay at but she left and demanded that i come with her.  But i couldnt just leave.

Back where?

Back to Atlanta.  Where momma was.

That’s pathetic.

I agree but what was i gonna do?  I wrapped things up where i was and went back but i had to give notice and do some other things so i wound up staying for a while.  The day before she left to go back i stayed home and fucked her all day. She left the next morning.  About a month later i took a week off work and went to Atlanta to look for a job.  During that time i tried to fuck her and i couldnt.  You see…well, she had gained enough weight while she was gone that i couldnt get inside her.  There was just too much fat and as you know i am not big enough to push myself past that big a mass of flesh.

She was too fat to fuck?

What happened was that without me around she could sit in front of the TV and binge eat non-stop.  She wouldnt do that if i was around.  At least she had enough pride to care whether i saw her doing that.  But she ate so much and got so fat that i just couldnt…i stop and shake my head and wonder if i feel more hurt or angry.  

Did you go out on her?

NO!  WTF do you think i am?


I ought to throw you out of the car, i say.

If you didnt go out on her then what did you do?

I improvised, i say.

A year and a half sounds like a lot of improvisation.

RU happy now that you have humiliated me?

Why did she want to go back to mama so bad?  Was it…

Hannah had a long history of this same behavior.  It went back years before she met me.  There was some guy she liked she met in school that she was going to Jacksonville to live with.  She went.  I dont think it lasted a month.  She just kept trying to run that same game with me years later.

Did she try to leave you?

She started going that way but i refused to let her.

What do you mean you refused to let her?

She was a quitter, i say.  The first time things got a little rough she would quit.  I’m not like that.  I just refused to let her do that to me.

You must have really impressed her, Tonya says.  Hannah’s mother, i mean.

Her mother said right before i left Hannah for good that no matter what happened she would always love me just like she loved her own sons.  I never pretended to be a saint but i guess i looked like one in contrast to Hannah.

How was that?

Hannah was two-faced, i say bitterly.  She would go over to see her mother and stepfather and talk about me behind my back.

Bad things?

Bad things.  And i never, ever said one bad thing about Hannah to her mother or to anyone else.  I’d like to think i have more class than that.

How do you know Hannah was bad-mouthing you to her mother?

Well, Hannah told me her mother defended me.  Mom told her that she was being too hard on me and she ought to worry more about being a better wife and she didnt want to hear anything else about me when i wasnt there.  I guess Mom just got tired of hearing it.  It was the contrast of a gossiping back-stabber with a husband that wouldnt do the same.

Personal silence and rhythmic mechanical noise.  I want to cry and i dearly wish i had never hooked up with this nosy little bitch.  Mount Evans looks closer but if i didnt know better i’d swear it was just a bank of clouds in the hard, bright sky.

Tonya sighs heavily.  Then she says, How did you…how did you ever hook up with this…with someone like that?  Where did you meet her…

That’s enough, i say sharply.  Enough.  After i’ve recovered from this…this telling of the past i’ll say more about it if you want.  Not now.

Tell me how you met her?


Tell me what your sex life with her was like before she got so big?

Yes, if you will STFU right now, i promise.  I dont want to hear your voice for a while.  I mean it.  And i’m pulling over right now and you are going to drive the rest of the way to Denver.



The Beach 9

Standing under a dark sky in western Kansas.  An angry crescent has set and stars pepper the sable firmament.  The Great Plains wind ruffles our clothes and sets the prairie grass to gnashing and murmuring.  Orion has risen like an electric kite.

Tonya points at it and says, How far away is that?

Your mind cant comprehend distances that vast.

Try me.

The stars there in Orion’s belt are about four hundred light years away.

How far is that?

Well…the nearest star is about four light years away.  A light year is about six trillion miles.  Or six times ten to the twelfth if you think of it that way.

Stop showing off!

I’m not!  Light in a vacuum travels at 300,000 kilometers a second.  Or a hundred eight-six thousand miles a second.  Seven times around the equator and then some.  The light from those stars has been travelling four hundred years to reach us.

I cant imagine how far that is.

Your mind can only conceive it by scale.  Imagine the sun the size of a basketball in the middle of five points in downtown Atlanta.  The Earth is the size of a marble orbiting about a hundred feet away.  Pluto is the size of a grain of sand orbiting a mile away.  Now Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, is in Seattle, 3,000 miles away.  By the time we get to Denver tomorrow we’ll have only gone half that far.  I thought that since you’ve been travelling mile after mile after empty mile this would give you a grasp of the distances involved.

It does, she says slowly.  This country is huge but on that scale, i cant imagine.

Look at the stars in the belt again.  If you see a picture of the nebula in a book it will be spectacular.  But the only way to appreciate it is to look at it thru a small telescope.  When i was ten years old they got me a six inch Newtonian reflector.  It took me weeks to put it together since nobody around me knew how to assemble one.  When i finally had it ready i took it outside and pointed it at that nebula.  I’ll never forget the sight.  It glows green like Kryptonite and has the consistency of a piece of very stretched out cotton.  Wispy like that.  The pictures of it in books do not do it justice.  They cant.

You did that when you were just ten?


I wish i’d known you then.

You werent even born.  Not for nearly another sixty years.

Sometimes i forget how old you are.

try to forget how old i am.

You can be a bore when you’re self conscious about that.  Stop worrying about it.

Easy for you to say.

I dont even know your name, she says.

No?  Havent you looked at my driver’s license enough times?

I only looked at it once!  And i cant even remember your name.

My name is Seth.  Seth Joiner.  Happy now?

No, she says.  It’s chilly.  Let’s go back inside.

The Beach 8

We have been driving for days.  This day we have been driving for hours.  And we’re nowhere near a beach.  In fact we’re about as far from one as you can get.

On I-70 going west thru Kansas.  We have been thru Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, and the eastern part of Kansas, all of which look alike.  But now we’re on the Great Plains, and IDK of anything else that looks like the Great Plains.  Big sky, grasslands.  A tree about every 10 miles that was brought in and planted next to a farmhouse to break up up the incessant, demon wind that never stops blowing.  The sky over the road ahead is clean and pagan blue but there is a thunderstorm on our right and you can see the lightning leap from the black thunderheads to the ground.  On our other side you can see snow falling miles away.  Here it is sunny and hot as hell.  You have no idea how overpowering this is to someone who grew up in a place that is heavily forested like Georgia.  I’ve seen it before but Tonya hasnt and she is spellbound, which is good.  It’s shut her up for a while anyway.

There hasnt been anything on the radio for hours.  Just white noise.  For almost an hour i got a station in Nebraska somewhere but all it played were polkas.  Now there’s nothing.  I havent seen a vehicle for at least two hours.  Windmill spinning like a chinese toy by a house every few miles.  Once in a while something that looks like an oil derrick in the fields.  Or an oil something, hammering relentlessly against the ground.  I think of those apparently empty farmhouses we pass once in a while and wonder if there are strange, fucked up people in there watching the road, waiting.  Maybe they’re cannibals who eat people they hunt for outside.  Or eat each other.  I shake my head.  Sometimes i give myself the creeps.

Suddenly Tonya sticks her entire body out of the car and looks around and i grab her by the shirt and yank her back in.

Hey!  She says.

You’re like a bratty 18 year old, i say.  Or a little older but still a brat.

She opens her mouth to say something but thinks better of it and says nothing.  I smile tightly at her and say, It’s really something, isnt it?

You werent kidding, she says, shaking her head.  You’ve been out this way before?

Yes, i say.  I was 27 years old.

Did you come out here to work?

No.  Well, yes but i was looking for work.  Right out of graduate school.

Were you alone?


Were you with a girl?


Who was she?

My first wife.

Tell me about her?

I shake my head.

Come on!  Dont make me fence with you.  What was she like?

Well…she had a monkey on her back.

What?  Smack?  Meth?  Or…

I start laughing.  When i stop i say, Not that kind of monkey.  One you wouldnt ordinarily think of.

Well, RU going to tell me what it was?

If you’ll shut up and let me talk i’ll tell you.


When i met Hannah she was a little overweight, i say uncomfortably.  Not enough to matter.  She was that way when we got married.  A few years later that bitch weighed 305.

We are both silent for a moment.  I havent been watching the road behind me and a motorcycle, a chopper shrieks by and seems to disappear in the heat.  Tonya screams and shuts up.  I look down at the speedometer and i see i’m going 85.  That chopper must have been doing 120.  After a minute or two she opens her mouth to say something but i beat her to it.

She couldnt stop eating, i say.  One day in Brunswick she told me she was an addict and she was addicted to food.  I laughed in her face.  But time told the story.  She was right.  She reacted to any kind of sugar like a junkie on smack.  I looked back on things she’d done that never made sense and it all made perfect sense.  One day years before we had a bunch of errands to do that were infuriating and unpleasant and we had to do them together and by near the end of the day she was nuts.  There was one errand left to do but i could do it by myself so i dropped her off at home and did it by myself.  Forty five minutes later when i got home she was in front of the TV and was like a different person.  Have you ever been around a heroin user right after they shoot up?

Oh, sure.

You know how they are?  Kind of not there at all but everything is completely okay with them?  Dopey but not like a drunk?


Well that’s what she was like when i got back.  If she hadnt been such a little miss perfect i wouldve thought she was on something but she was too much of a pussy about things like that to ever even try such a thing.  The most she ever did was smoke some weed with me once in a while.  But in the kitchen garbage can there was some kind of wrapper that wasnt there that morning.  It had held some kind of pastry that was pure sugar, or pure fructose corn syrup.  They havent used sugar for a long time.  Anyway, it made perfect sense.  In her own way she had shot up.  She finally got off that habit and went to a Twelve Step group for compulsive eaters.

Well, i’m glad she…

wasnt, i say, glaring at her.  She got rid of that habit by herself.  Those groups are like cults, and all cults are dangerous.  All she had to do was change her diet.  I’m glad she did that but all she had to do was change her diet..

You dont know anything about that, she snaps at me.  Those groups are the only things that….

dont know anything about it?  dont know anything about it?  You dont know a fuckin thing about it!  I’m the one that lived with her.  When she was clean she was sane but mean and resentful.  When she was using she was just like a goddamn heroin junkie.  But those groups never made sense to me.  Replace one dependency with another.  One obsession with another.  Things she said that werent her words.  Somebody else’s words.  That was scary.  But it just meant somebody was filling her head with bullshit.  Sorry, i’m going to have to pull over..

I pull onto the shoulder of the road and stop the car and turn the engine off and pocket the keys. 

Stay in the car, i say and start walking off into the head-high grass and when i am sure i am not visible i take a long, satisfying piss.  When i am empty i go back to the car and start it.  She looks hurt and i feel guilty.

Sorry i yelled and hurt your feelings, i say.

That wasnt what hurt me, she says.

Then what?

You didnt leave the engine on.  You turned it off and took the keys.  Like you were afraid i’d drive off and leave you.

Oh, shit, i’m sorry, i say.  That was automatic.  I didnt think, i just…well, i’ll have to get you a set of keys.  We need another set anyway.  I’m really sorry.

It’s okay, she says, sighing like a martyr.  At your age i guess you have to…

Have to what?

You know, you suddenly have to…

Have to what?  You mean old-age urinary urgency?  No, i just didnt see the point of waiting for a an exit with a gas station, since they’re only about every twenty miles.  I just got out and leaked and came back and drove off.  Dont start trying to provoke me with that old man shit.

I’m not.

If you’re trying to get inside my head and fuck with it find something else because that wont work.

Allright, she snaps at me.  What about her?  The rest of it?

The rest of what?

About your wife..

I could spend months doing that.  We were married ten years.

Did you leave her because she was so big?

NO!  You think i’m that big a son of a bitch?  No, i’d never do that.  Toward the end of that marriage she’d gotten up to three fifty.  She’d lost 100 pounds and hit a plateau and couldnt handle being stuck there so she went to eatin’ and gained it back and then some.  She wouldnt tell me what she weighed the last six months but at the very end i swear i think she weighed about 400.

But you…

No.  When i left her it had nothing to do with her weight.  Even if she’d weighed 700 pounds.  It was because she was such a Passive-Aggressive bitch.  Actually, when i left it was because she’d manipulated me into having to leave.  That’s a long story.  And that’s all i have to say about it except for one thing.  One thing to show you how she could hurt me and give you an idea why i finally left.

I force back tears and take a deep breath, trying to see the road as we move right into a western sun that will be a torment for hours until it sets.  I’m almost at the point where i need to let her drive. 

When she was in that 12 step group for overeaters she was working the fifth step.  The one about ‘taking a fearless moral inventory,’ whatever that means.  The healthier groups interpret that to mean to ask yourself if you are honestly doing everything you can to stay straight.  If the answer is yes, that’s all there is to it.  Unfortunately the group she was in was one of those that thought you needed to make lists of everything you ever did to hurt the people you were close to.  A list for the people that were closest and most important to you.

She did that?

Yes, Tonya, she did that.  She was sitting, writing something one day and i asked her what.  She told me she was listing everything she’d done to the people she loved to hurt them, yak,yak, yak.  It was one of the worst things she could have done because it fed right into her obsessive, pathological guilt.  It was sick.


But get this.  She was making two lists.  One for her mother, one for her sister.  I asked her where my list was.  Of the things she’d done to hurt me.  Surely she didnt think she’d never done anything to hurt me.  Her face got really red and she stammered and i left.  I just walked out and didnt come back for hours.  I would not let that fuckin bitch see me cry.  And i cried.  For hours.  I couldnt stop.  After that i dont know if we ever talked about it.  But we both knew she didnt do a list for me was because i wasnt important enough to deserve one.  Get it?

Yeah, she sighs.

I’m pulling over, i say.  Your turn to drive.

Near sunset we get off the interstate at a little town in western Kansas caled Oakley and find a motel for the night.  Tomorrow afternoon we should reach Denver.