The highway crossed over the river by way of a four-lane bridge. Emmett stuck his head out the window and leaned over. It looked a long way down to the water, a long way down for nothing.
The cattails stuck in the mud by the riverbank, swaying in the wind, not going anywhere. He’d grown up somewhere down there. His memory flooded with thoughts deep and murky, filled with strange debris, bumping in the currents. The river pushed against the banks and the cattails swayed and the mud pushed back.
They said doing time was like a river. But a river didn’t have to worry about crossing state lines and breaking parole. A river didn’t have to be back at work on Monday morning or stand losing a job. A river didn’t have to pay rent by the end of the month or stand getting evicted. The river just flowed, and where it stopped flowing, it disappeared in the ocean. Paying for the past was nothing like a river.
At the end of the bridge they took an exit ramp, turning around just short of a full circle. From there the road extended under the bridge and went south. They followed the road until they came to a gas station where they pulled over. Four clowns sitting in a van looked back at Emmett in the convenience store window.
Lou opened the door and got out to stretch his legs. “I’m sick of driving,” he said. “Somebody fill’er up and somebody take the wheel. Oh, and don’t forget to spring a leak before we leave.”
“We’re fresh out of cash. Should we tip the police off before or after we loot the place?” Glen asked.
“We aren’t no hobos,” Charles said. “But I sure could use a bite to eat.”
“Speak for yourself.” Emmett said and spat out the window.
Glen squinted one eye. “Do you think she’ll follow us this far?”
A fly bumped against the back window. Nobody moved. “She will,” Lou said.
“Maybe we should wait for her. Say what you’ve got to say and walk away,” Charles said.
“Won’t make no difference,” Emmett said. “Obviously she’s upset.”
Lou stuck his hands in his back pockets. “Have it your way.”
Emmett eyed two dogs out in the field chasing their shadows. For a moment there he thought they’d take flight and disappear in the sun. Doing time was more like the wind than a river. It could be felt, but not seen. Even after you got out, the pressure was always there, the clock ticking down the moments of your freedom, the feeling like you might have to go back.
“Sometimes when you’re out on the road, you don’t know where you’re going,” he said.
Lou shrugged his shoulders and left in search of a bathroom.
A breeze passed through the space between the windows. Charles climbed out the side. “Going for a stroll,” he said. He looked back, winked, and was gone.
Glen followed him out and grabbed the pump. He stuck the nozzle in the side and watched as the numbers ticked away.
Emmett eyed the driver’s seat but didn’t budge. He wondered what he was going to say when she caught up to them. He heard a knuckle knocking the glass behind him.
Glen passed him a credit card through a slit in the side window. “Don’t tell the others.”
Emmett read the name on the card. Sarah Little. Glen’s wife. He’d have to forge her signature. He went inside the store and grabbed enough sandwiches and beer to carry them through the day.
A man in a white t-shirt and cut-off shorts glanced up from behind the cash register. He had on a baseball cap flipped around backward, and a hand on the counter pawing a sports magazine.
“Gas. Pump Two,” Emmett said, pointing at the van.
The clerk looked out the window in a slow sort of way. Emmett followed his eyes there. The station only had two pumps, one which was unoccupied.
The clerk pushed a button on the register and handed Emmett a receipt. Emmett signed it in a loose-handed style and returned it. He wondered how he’d ever started down this road, this life of crime. The clerk compared the signatures and gave him back the card.
“My wife,” Emmett lied. “She don’t mind.”
“Are you guys from the circus?”
Emmett pulled the red balloon off his nose and stuck it on the counter. “Birthday party. But if anyone asks, we’re from the university. Professors. Got it?”
“You got a girlfriend?”