Excerpt from Reconsidering Happiness
From Reconsidering Happiness, Chapter 1
Vivette, On the Road
Vivette knew nothing about Des Moines except for the lovely ease of the letters—the way its name sounded out like a yoga chant, exotic and foreign. Des Moines with those silent “s”s beckoning with a sexy finger, a promise. It whispered to her as she lay in her tousled New Hampshire bedsheets. The wooden shutters on her windows escorting cross-stitched moonlight across the dusty floor. The tugboats, with their deep-throated howls, stretched at their moors, the buoys offering cowbell clangs. Des Moines. Des Moines. Her friends thought she was crazy.
Just like that, she was driving through Bucyrus, Ohio, the land turned from rocky, hilly East to something flat as a pancake. Silos sprouted along the pastures. Water towers loomed. Cornstalk stumps mish-mashed in the fields like crooked razor stubble. Vivette sped on by.
Then at the Mayflower Bar and Grill in Plymouth, Indiana, Vivette did not, as she hoped, find a grill. Instead, thumbtacked to a post, there was a thin paper square that read: “Tunafish Sandwich $1.75.” As she sat at the bar writing a postcard, surrounded by knotty pine walls and bustling small-town conversation, construction workers cashed paychecks with one of the two cute blondes behind the bar, the cash register already loaded down with $20 bills in anticipation of the rush. Under Vivette’s forearms, a wooden bar stretched with thousands of names carved into it.
VIVETTE ON THE ROAD, Vivette scratched into the wood, tracing over the letters with her ballpoint pen.
Two plastic models of the Mayflower sailed along the top of a beer case packed shoulder to shoulder with bottles of Budweiser along with replicas of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. The rough and rugged man beside Vivette talked to no one in particular about the option of doing community service versus time. As the noise in the bar increased, she thought about doing time, what it meant to a person who’d pulled up her roots. Postcards sent and received. Mile markers passed. She mulled it over, content to be invisible. She drank her beer and ate her sandwich. White bread. Tunafish.
After the Mayflower, she was back on the road, past tidy houses with uptight porches. Vivette eased by chubby citizens wearing practical clothing who stood looking lost in their rectangular yards.
She made for the Mississippi River, like so many before her. Even in the haze of her endless driving, it was clear the river saved the country from its own monotony. Her car hovered above the roadway, and Vivette was flying in the midst of her own momentum. The flat, easy horizon. A red pick-up in a cornfield. A tractor trailer at rest on a rise. Ribbons of dirt roads to the left and right led to gullies and ravines and farmsteads with stacks of firewood on little islands in an endless sea of cornstalks. Her world was confined by a solid white line to the right and a dotted one to the left. The longer she drove the more the idea of never stopping, the ease of stepping on the gas, made sense.
Vivette had weaseled the Buick from her grandfather a few months before on a visit to her hometown, Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. She reminded him that it hadn’t been driven in years. Rumor had it they’d taken his license away the last time he tried to make it downtown for bingo.
Vivette said, “Sit down and think about it, Grandpa. C’mon Joe-Joe, don’t you want that car to go out in style instead of rusting in the garage with Sammy running it for 15 minutes once a month?” Vivette settled her freckled face in close. She could smell Joe-Joe’s old-man coffee breath. “You know I’m your favorite. All those other grandkids are spoiled and stupid. I won’t tell anyone you let me have it. Hell, they won’t even know the car’s gone. I promise. I’ll tell Uncle Sammy I paid a thousand for it. He’ll think I got ripped off and be happy.”
Joe-Joe fiddled with his pipe, knocking it against the thick sole of his workboot, scraping at its crusty black bowl, packing it with Red Man tobacco. Vivette stood on the cracked linoleum that stretched out around him—scuffed and neglected once-pretty flowers with green vines. After minutes passed and Vivette was sure he’d forgotten about her altogether, Joe-Joe smiled, let her know she wasn’t his favorite, but said he’d give her the car anyway because she had spunk like her mother. Then there was a lengthy, numbing discussion concerning road safety, tire pressure, oil changing, and car washing. Finally, he shuffled to the kitchen to fill a zip-lock bag with important items for the glove compartment: flashlight, Kleenexes, Vaseline, tire gauge, breath mints.
With shaking hands he patted the bag closed and handed it to her along with the keys. The blue plastic keychain declared, “I’m Your Man—Sammy’s Auto,” in bold silver cursive. To seal the deal he tolerated a kiss on the cheek. The $20 she tried to poke into his shirt pocket only made him mad. He said, “If I’m giving you the car, I’m giving it to you—none of this halfway crap. I want it hanging over you. I want postcards to show the boys over at the VFW.” Vivette brushed some scattered toast crumbs out of the way, tucked the 20 under a pretty blue sugar bowl when Joe-Joe wasn’t looking.
Soon she was nestled into the Buick’s big bucket seat. The car smelled of pine-scented air freshener and Irish Spring soap. The gearshift on the neck of the steering wheel was thick and solid. It was a sturdy car she wouldn’t have to think twice about. She headed back to Portsmouth, ready to leave those five years behind, her friends. Robert.
Back in New Hampshire, she cruised down Main Street, eased to a stop and bought a postcard at the tobacco shop. A tacky collage—seagull/tugboat/drawbridge. She wrote: To Grandpa Joe-Joe. I’m back to pack up my life. Haven’t wrecked the car yet. Will keep you posted. Vivette. She knew better than to sign, Love.
But that was 1,558 miles ago. Now Vivette made her way to Route 80’s constant traffic and eased the old green Buick into a stark, cemented rest area. She wanted to make sure it was okay to visit for a week at Margaret and Peter’s farmhouse. Before walking 50 steps to the map of Iowa and placing herself with a tiny finger within its veiny web, Vivette applied lipstick, messed with her hair, took some deep breaths. Fifty steps more to a shiny black-and-blue payphone.
A stout, whiskery man in jeans and suspenders, his plaid flannel shirt straining its snaps, shuffled up to study a vending machine’s options. He fed in a dollar bill, pushed a button, and a candy bar tumbled into view, his change dropping like rain into the tray. When he slipped a perfect white invitation from a pack of Camels and eased it into his mouth, Vivette reminded herself that she’d quit smoking. The low hum of rushing trucks mixed with the slow chirping long-distance ring of the telephone on the other end of the line.
Vivette clutched the hard black plastic of the phone, nodded through directions to the farmhouse, thanking Margaret, and then hung up the receiver with a broad click. She knew a complicated string of wires connected this pay phone to one particular phone on a coffee table in an apartment in New Hampshire. She would not, she told herself, make another call. One hundred steps back to her car, the impact of each splayed and sandaled foot rippling up to her jaw. She was safe, the engine a kitten, the Buick ready for anything she sent its way. Turn around or keep going. It was that easy: drive west, change a life; drive east, revise—drive, drive, drive. She put the car into gear, yielded to all that was oncoming.