Her head is rocking in time to the blaring sound of Aerosmith’s “Walk this way.” She lets go of the steering wheel to play a little air guitar riff. The thumping bass prickles her skin as her leg rests against the speaker. Candace Blythe is cruising along at 80 MPH on I-40 through the longest stretch of the old Route 66 heading to Kingman. She announces to the empty cab of her Ram 1500 that she is not getting any kicks on Route-66 and chuckles at her own silliness.
At 49, Candace leaves behind Joplin, Missouri, her job, if you want to call it that, and soon-to-be ex-husband. She has no idea why she is heading to Los Angeles but believes life will be better out there. The warmer weather is a bonus. She loves Hank Blythe. Hell, she’s loved him since she was twelve. But at 49, Candace thinks she loves him like a brother, and well, she has six of them. No sisters, though. In midlife, she needs a change—a serious one. Growing corn and soybeans on a 200 plus acre farm isn’t how she saw her future. Yes, they had cows, and yes, Hank considered introducing vines to produce good Missouri wine but was this really all there was to life? Wake up before Jesus, toil all day, manage the finances and maybe sneak a beer or two?
Joplin sits squarely in the middle of the Bible belt, and Candace knows beer-drinking, especially for a God-fearing woman, would be frowned upon. Her town is undoubtedly a Christian one, but she never viewed herself as deeply religious. Sure, Candace sits in church on Sundays with Hank and her neighbors. Of course, she sings those hymns and listens to the preacher assure his flock they’re all going to hell unless they change their ways. She’s asked Hank a million times, “Well, what ways are going to get us into heaven? It’s not like we’re living in Sodom and Gomorrah!”
Good-natured Hank just laughs, throws his arms around her, and reminds Candace just how blessed their lives are. She knows he is right but still, Candace feels an emptiness she can’t quite put her finger on, and before she turns 50, she needs to find out what it is she’s missing. The acid in her stomach starts to bubble. She thinks about Hank finding her letter lying on the wooden kitchen table that’s seen pie crusts rolling, turkey carvings, and even lovemaking. She has written many versions shredding them to pieces and burning them.
A waning gibbous moon pours light into the kitchen as Candace tiptoes across the linoleum floor. Her hands and knees know every square inch intimately after decades of scrubbing. Sweat pools under her arms as she slips the gold wedding band from her boney finger. Her hand trembles as she rests the letter against the smiling black and white cow sugar bowl. A gag gift Hank purchased years before. Candace now recognizes it was an omen of things to come.
Her life isn’t terrible, far from it. By most Joplin standards, everyone would say that she and Hank have a perfect marriage, a perfect home, and perfect life. But Candace knows it’s not perfect. Nothing is ever perfect. Not because of handsome Hank with his crewcut hair, lopsided grins, and work-aged face. Hank is a salt of the earth man for his neighbors, friends, and family. Everyone knows they can count on Hank like the sun rising and setting. Especially Candace. A sudden tinge of guilt and remorse grip her. She swears the steering wheel is pulling to make a U-Turn. She presses the gas pedal, releasing herself from the pull.
Sure, they didn’t have children, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Lord knows they tried and tried. But it just never seemed to take until it did, and Candace drove to St. Louis because, well, she was never really sure she wanted a family. Once a family starts, it means roots will plunge deeper and deeper into the earth, fixing you forever to a place and its people.
Candace wipes away a tear that stealthily slides down her cheek. The screaming wind rivals Steve Tyler’s high notes. She looks out her side window, shocked to see the number of giant tumbleweeds speeding beside her truck. The woman knows something about the wind. While “Proud of Our Past…Shaping Our Future,” Joplin sits outside of Tornado Alley, though thirty percent of the town destroyed by one would disagree. She thinks, “Unharnessed wind is not your friend.”
A dust devil is spiraling up ahead, kicking up dirt and grit into an enormous cloud. She turns on her wipers just in time to hear the thrumming of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar and David Lee Roth singing, “Running with the Devil.” Staring out the windshield, she grips the steering wheel with one hand and reaches blindly with the other to turn off the radio’s power. “Shit!” She shouts as the song continues. “Creepy.” Candace shivers, finally managing to turn off the music.
Pumping the brakes, she slows down. Though the headlights are on, she can barely make out the ram hood ornament. Yet another gag gift from Hank. He found it on eBay and, against her protests, affixed it to the hood of the Ram 1500 truck. Candace hates the ornament until now. It is suddenly a beacon that reassures her. Of what she isn’t sure, but its familiarity and steadfastness to the truck’s hood encourage her to drive on.
The moon hides, leaving the highway pitch black. She flicks on the truck’s high beams hoping to illuminate the road. Her flesh prickles as she hears the wind’s mournful howl. Candace hopes she doesn’t have to wait out the storm. Easing off the brake, she cautiously presses the gas pedal.
“Pop!” The truck backfires and startles her. “No! No!” Candace shouts. “Please. Please.” She calls out to any gods that might be listening. “Not now,” she says, scanning the desolate landscape of rocks and sand. The car’s lights flicker as the engine sputters. “What now?” She moans, wondering what force has conspired against her until she realizes she is her own saboteur.
The needle on the gas gauge is dipped below the “E.” The truck is suffering from fuel starvation, and Candace suddenly remembers she failed to get gas at the last exit thinking she could squeeze out a few more miles. She scans the highway realizing this stretch of road is pretty deserted. “Let me get the truck off the road, okay?” She asks, looking up at the ceiling of the cab. “I know I don’t deserve more.” The truck wheezes to life as it rolls toward the shoulder and stops just over the yellow line.
Candace glances at her watch, “2:00 AM.” She knows the likelihood of someone coming to her aid at this time of morning is slim to none. “How far is the next town?” She wonders as she opens the glovebox and searches for a flashlight. “Damn!” She bites down hard as she slams the door to the glovebox so hard, she nearly snaps the hinges. “I must have left my brain back in Joplin too!” She derides herself for such poor planning. But had she really planned this? She thinks she has, but when Candace looks at the gym bag, the haphazard contents of a few underwear, a sports bra, a T-shirt, and a pair of sweatpants say differently.”What was I thinking?” she groans.
She hopes that the tumbleweed, papers, and other debris swirling precariously close to the windshield don’t crack it. Candace reaches around her throat and feels her lucky bandana. “Lucky my ass,” she scoffs as she unties it and covers her nose and mouth. Pushing the door hard against the wind, she slides her feet onto the asphalt road. A gust slams the truck’s door on her leg, sending a sharp pain up her body. The wind whips past her eyes, delivering grit. She raises her arm to block any other detritus and realizes the futility of standing outside the vehicle just asking to be pummeled by the wind.
She rubs her leg and is about to climb into the cab when a pair of highlights approaches. It is a beautiful sight, and Candace nearly drops to her knees in gratitude. She raises her arms above her head and frantically opens and closes them like a pair of scissors. Stepping onto the road, she knows it is risky, but she’s not going to give the driver any option but to stop.
A gold Lincoln, shiny even in this dust storm, stops several feet away from her. Candace runs toward the passenger side and pulls on the handle. The driver leans over and releases the door for her to step in. “Please, God, don’t let me wind up with a serial killer, okay?” She whispers as she looks inside.
“Truck problems?” The younger man with a kind face asks.
Candace blushes and sheepishly admits, “I ran out of gas.”
“I don’t have any cans with me but hop on in, and I’ll take you to the next gas station. We can get some there, and I’ll take you back.” He smiles through his eyes, and Candace feels a wash of relief. “Where ya heading?” He asks as he begins to accelerate.
She hesitates, wondering if the details of her destination are essential to him. “California,” she manages.
The man looks at her for a brief moment, grins, and returns his eyes back to the highway. “Sounds like as good of a destination as any.” He removes a cap and scratches his head.
There is something familiar about this man, but Candace cannot place it. She recognizes his face, his voice, and mannerism. A sense of knowingness is just beyond her memory’s reach. “Where are you from?” She asks, thinking small talk will relax her.
“Winslow. You know, like the Eagles song. Winslow, Arizona.”
She thinks he’s about to sing it but catches himself. “Yeah, I know it.” She laughs. “I mean the song, not the town.”
He glances at her. “Where are you from?”
“Joplin. Missouri.” She says and looks at her hands. Candace wishes she’d kept the wedding band as a talisman to ward off unwelcome advances. Though she isn’t picking up that vibe from him. “Besides, I’m old enough to be his mother.” She thinks, stealing another glimpse at him.
“No kidding. I grew up in Joplin.” His voice animated. “I went to Joplin High.”
An image of this younger man suddenly crystalizes in Candace’s brain. She knows where she recognizes him from. “Scott? Scott Greco?” Her eyebrows lift as high as her hairline. It can’t be. This guy looks at least twenty-five years younger than her but the face. She’s sure it’s his. “Could it be his son?” She wonders.
“In the flesh.” His eyes sparkle. “You’re Candace Collins, right?” He grins recognition.
“Why yes,” her mouth opens. “I’m Candace Blythe now.” She says, though, she is suddenly remembering she was leaving Blythe behind.
“Oh, that’s right,” Scott says. “You married Hank. What a great guy. Great athlete too.”
She’s nodding her head, still stunned at the sight of this long-lost Joplin citizen who has hardly aged. “So, when did you move to Winslow?” Candace asks.
“Right after high school. I attended Northland Pioneer College for nursing.”
Unexpectedly Candace feels squeamish. She really remembers Scott now. The soft voice, the feminine mannerisms, and how everyone in high school suspected he was gay. She feels the red heat creep up her neck. “Scott Greco.” She thinks, feeling the bile of guilt rise in her mouth. Candace had been part of the group that had tormented the boy. But not Hank. Hank had told her to stop and leave him alone. Only she wanted to fit in with the other kids. The tormenting ended when all-star athlete Hank Blythe had shown the high schoolers that Scott Greco was his friend.
Candace knows he sees her recognition and guilt of that time. “I’m sorry, Scott.” Tears well in her eyes as she wipes them away with the back of her hand. “Really, I am,” she says, fighting down her contrition.
“Oh, Candace. That was a long time ago. We were young. Everyone was trying to figure themselves out and trying to fit in. I’m simply happy that most people have finally changed.”
Scott reaches over to pat her shoulder. His sleeve rolls back, revealing a thin, silvery scar running along the vein in his arm. “Funny how we can look back on things and shake our heads in regret. Sometimes we don’t understand the repercussions of our actions or simply why we act a certain way.”
He gives her a quick look, yet at that moment, Candace feels his absolution. She wants to ask about his scar but bites the inside of her cheek to keep quiet. Up ahead, she sees the twinkling lights of a gas station and exhales a sigh of relief. “Thanks so much, Scott.” She looks at his tender eyes and wonders how she could have ever been so cruel to this man.
The Lincoln rolls into a parking space, and Scott jumps out to open her door. Candace steps out and sees a diner attached to the gas station. She offers, “Let me buy you breakfast, Scott. Please. I’d like to thank you for your help and a peace offering.”
Scott grins. “Well, there’s no need for a peace offering, Candace. But I will take you up on that breakfast. I’m famished.” He says, patting his flat stomach.
Her eyes follow his hand, and again, she is stunned by just how young he appears as she considers her middle-aged, thickened waist.
Bells on the door of the diner tinkle as Scott pulls it open. The rush of freshly brewed coffee, frying bacon, and griddled cakes greet them. All eyes turn to see the new arrivals. Candace takes in the red leather booths, black and white checkered floor, and soda fountain at the counter. Scott gestures to her, “Do you want to sit up at the counter or grab a booth?”
Just then, a waitress appears seemingly out of thin air. She is at least six feet tall, towering over Scott and Candace. Her hair is copper red, teased into a beehive, and sporting a protruding pencil. Her waitress uniform is cotton candy pink with a crisp white pinafore. “Howdy,” she gives them a toothy grin and cracks a piece of gum. “Sit anywhere you like,” she gestures a sweeping hand around the restaurant. “Coffee?”
“Please,” Candace pleads.
Scott chuckles. “I know the feeling. My day doesn’t start until I have coffee.” He grabs two menus and passes one to Candace. He scans the card and places it down. “They make great omelets. Can’t go wrong with any of them.”
“You’ve been here before?” The crease between her eyebrows deepens as she wonders what would bring him to Kingman more than once.
“Oh yes, many times. It’s on my route. I travel I-40 pretty regularly.” He smiles but offers no further explanation. “So, are you meeting Hank in California?” He studies her face.
Candace feels that Scott will instantly recognize a lie. Beads of sweat form on her upper lip as she is about to share her leaving Joplin when the waitress returns. “Y’all know what you want?” She asks, cracking the gum on one side of her mouth. Her cheek is stretched by the size of the wad she is chewing. The pencil is moving in time.
Candace looks at Scott. “I’ll have what he’s having,” she says, hoping he won’t order something horrible like spam, scrapple, or other mystery meat. The corners of her mouth turn down at the thought of the mixture.
“Veggie omelet, a side of avocado, and a little, medium salsa, please, Florence.” He bats his lashes feigning flirtation.
“Rye toast?” She asks, still chomping away and filling two mugs of coffee.
“Of course.” He hands Florence the menus. “And a little extra butter, thank you.”
Candace mumbles, “Yes, thank you.” She averts his eyes, sensing Scott can see right through her.
Scott sits quietly. His fingers are tented as if he is praying. He is studying them, and Candace cannot stand the silence. Her mouth opens, and a torrent of words flows. “No. No, I’m not meeting Hank out there. I’ve left him. The farm…” her voice trails off. She is waiting for his recriminating look, but there is none. His face is open and listening.
The silence becomes a sucking void needing to be filled with words, explanations, apologies. “I need to see if there’s more to this life, Scott, than milking cows, toiling in the sun, doing laundry, cleaning, cooking, paying the bills.” She stops and studies her hands. They are filled with lines of age and years of working on the farm. Candace looks at Scott’s smooth hands and thinks they belong to someone young or a man who has never worked a manual day in his life. “I’m not sure why I am telling you all this,” she says, looking into his eyes, pleading for understanding.
His voice is barely above a whisper, yet Candace can hear him clearly. “Sometimes, we just lose our way, Candace. I understand. It’s like life is simply on a spin cycle, and you just want out. Everything goes around and around, and you start to wonder what’s its meaning.” His fingers are still tented as he leans forward. “It took me a while to figure it out,” he smiles shyly and sits back.
Candace is waiting for the punchline. When none is forthcoming, she asks, “What did you figure out, Scott?”
“It’s above love, Candace. We all need to love and be loved. Because that means we matter in this world even if only to one person.” He reaches across the table and takes her hand. It is not a sensuous movement but a comforting one. “Sometimes we’re running so fast we run past the signposts of meaning. We search when we’re not lost. Feel empty when we have everything we need to be filled.”
Florence is heading back to the table carrying two small cast-iron frying pans. Steam is billowing above them. Napkins are tucked under her arm, pencil poking out from her hair, and gum still cracking. As the tall, thin woman approaches their table, Candace blinks several times, seeing a figure just over the waitress’s shoulder.
Eyes wide as saucers, Candace chokes on her coffee. She dabs her mouth and starts to rise up from her seat.
“Candace, are you okay?” His face etched with concern.
“I just saw Hank,” she stammers. “Oh my God. Hank’s here!” Her heart is thrumming faster as she feels blood rushing in her ears. “How’d he get here?” She blurts.
Scott is holding her in place. “I don’t see him,” he says, looking over his shoulder.
Candace breaks from his hand. “There. Over there. Hank. Hank.” Her voice carries across the diner. All of the guests turn to see who is calling, except for the man. She rushes over to him and taps the man on the shoulder. He turns. “Oh!” She lets out an audible surprise. The man is Hank but not Hank. He is the same height, build, and coloring but a much younger version of the man she married more than thirty years ago. “Hank?” She hears the questioning in her own voice.
The man, who is perhaps twenty, turns and smiles. “Sorry, I’m not Hank.”
Candace pivots, her legs wobbly. She is beyond confused.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” His voice earnest as he grabs Candace’s elbow to steady her.
She trips over her feet, trying to disengage herself from the young man. “No. Sorry, I confused you with someone else.” Her ears are crimson. Still, she thinks, “What is that German word…doppelganger?” As Candace makes her way toward the table where Scott is now standing, she recognizes another familiar face in the diner. “Dr. Orndoff?”
The man offers her a smile, a slight nod, and returns to speaking with his table companion.
Candace stares at Scott. “But that doctor died in an accident?” The diner’s floor begins to spin, blending the checkerboard tile into a blur. She feels herself being sucked into a vortex as her body drops.
“Candace. Candace.” The voice pierces her haziness like a foghorn. The rough skin of a hand scratches her forehead. It feels like sandpaper and yet intimately familiar, loving.
Candace tries to open her eyes, but the lashes feel glued together. She runs her tongue across her lips that are cracked and dry. Her mouth and nose are caked with dust as she tries to speak.
“Shush,” the kind voice assures her, smoothing her hair. “It’s okay, Candace.”
She reaches and grabs the hand touching her. “Hank?” Her voice is parched and tentative.
“It’s okay, Candace.” Hank’s voice soothes. “I got you now.” His strong arms wrap around her.
“Where am I?” She tries to sit up but feels pinned to the ground. Pain arcs from her foot to her groin. Her leg is buried under a piece of debris she cannot move. She touches an oozing gash on her forehead.
Hank’s strong hand holds her in place. “You’re home, honey. Your leg’s caught, and we’re in a pretty bad dust devil. I found you near the truck. “You scared me, Candy. I thought you had left me for good.” His eyes well with tears.
“Hank,” her voice croaks. “I was leaving.” The words stick in her throat. “The letter…” She inhales, catching her breath. “I left it on the table.”
Hank’s brows furrow. “Well, I wouldn’t exactly say it was a letter, Candy.” He smiles. “More like a brief note.” He holds up a small sheet of lined paper with the logo of a local grain company embossed across it. “Hank, I’m heading off to Mexicana California, to pick up tonight’s dinner. XO Candy.” He tucks the paper in his shirt pocket. He squeezes her closer. “You weren’t going to get too far because the truck’s out of gas.” He shakes his head and smiles.
Candace reaches down and runs her finger across the smooth gold wedding band. She knows she was driving that truck heading for California. If Scott Greco hadn’t found her, she would still be stranded outside Kingman. “But how’d I get home?” Her head is throbbing. She is trying to understand how she is in Hank’s arms, lying beside their truck.
“You know I love you, Candy,” Hank says futilely, wiping a sheen of dirt off her face. “I have since I first laid eyes on you in seventh grade.” He leans over and kisses her mouth.
Candace can feel the crust of dirt outlining his lips. “Hank? ” she says, gripping his hand. Her eyes flutter open, and she is surprised by the mask of dirt covering her husband’s face, throat, and hair. His eyes have two circles that resemble a raccoon’s markings. She sees the imprint of where his eyeglasses had shielded his eyes. Despite the direness of the situation, Candace lets loose a belly laugh. “Jesus, you’re a sight!” She exclaims, looking at him. Studying the craggy lines on his face now packed with grit, Candace feels an immense love for this man. Hank. The man who had always been there for her despite her failures. She feels his embrace and knows the world is going to be alright. She pushes off slightly to turn toward him and winces.
“Hank.” Her voice is barely above a whisper.
“It’s okay, Candace.” He whispers back.
“I’m sorry. I am really sorry for the bad things I’ve done in my life. Twenty years ago, I drove to see a Dr. Orndoff in St. Louis.” She looks down at her lap. Her shoulders sag. “I had an abortion.” Tears roll down her face leaving a wake of streaks.
“I know, Candy.” He squeezes her tighter.
Her eyes open wide. “You knew?”
“Candy, when people have been together as long as we have, there are very few things that go on without the other knowing about it. Besides, you weren’t too sneaky. You used our credit card.” His smile is bittersweet. He ran his hand across his face wiping away his own tears.
“Why didn’t you say something? Weren’t you angry? Didn’t you want to divorce me?” She shudders with disbelief.
“Angry? No. Disappointed. Sad.” He takes her hand. “But I realized that if you were desperate enough to make that decision, it wasn’t meant to be, Candy.”
“That mistake is probably sending me to hell.” She shudders through her weeping. “How’d I turn out to be such a bad person, Hank?”
Hank extends his hand and draws a line in the piling dirt with a finger. “You’re not a bad person, Candy. Far from it. We all make decisions. Choices. Remember, not one person could cross over that line in the Bible to declare they weren’t a sinner. It’s the whole picture that matters. Not one small dot within it.”
“I think I saw our son,” she says, trying to navigate around the lump in her throat. “And that doctor.” She hesitates, wondering just how insane she sounds. “I also saw Scott. Scott Greco. Is that crazy?”
“Scott Greco. Gosh, I haven’t heard that name in a while.” His voice saddens by the memory. “About two years after he left Joplin, Scott killed himself. Not because he was gay, but because his family and friends shunned him. He was a great guy. We kept in touch after he left, and that’s how I knew he had died.”
Candace touches the gash on her head and thinks she must have been dreaming. “It feels like the things I’m sorriest about flashed before my eyes in that dream.” She pauses. “And I am sorry, Hank. I look back on our marriage and realize life has been very good. I don’t know why I did some terrible things, but I did, and I can’t change them. All I can change is me going forward. I love you, Hank. Will you give me a second chance? Their eyes meet.
“We have a whole lifetime ahead of us, Candy. I love you. I’ve always known despite the ups and downs that you have loved me.” He squeezes her closer and kisses the top of her head.
The wind screams as sand batters against glass pane windows. Roof tiles take to flight like a flock of birds. The wooden turbine spins as if preparing for launch. Paper, plastic, bales, and anything unsecured blows through as if attempting to escape the storm.
The old Chevrolet pickup parks and two men leap from the cab. Willard Jones scratches the back of his head, whistling through his teeth. “Wind pretty near took the roof off the house,” he says, pointing to Blythe’s home.
Dazed, the cows roam in circles looking for their long-overdue owners. Willard and his companion walk toward the front door of the house. The younger man points toward the Dodge truck. “Guess they didn’t have time to put it in the barn,” he says. “It’s going to need some paint. That dirt nearly stripped it clean.” He shakes his head in disapproval.
Willard walks over to the truck for closer inspection and notices mounds of dirt gathered near the running board. His brain refuses to make out what he is seeing. Dropping to his knees, he begins to claw through the mound of dirt. “Come quick!” His plea carries like the sound of a whistle.
The younger man breaks into a run and drops down beside Willard. Frantically, the pair paw at the mound of dirt. The glint of a woman’s wedding ring catches their eyes. Willard’s stomach lurches, ready to release the morning’s meal. The younger man continues to dig, using his hands as rakes.
The earth removed; a middle-aged couple lies in an embrace. Candace Blythe’s leg is crushed by a beam of wood that had broken loose. “Looks like she was trapped, and Hank stayed with her.” The younger of the pair says.
Willard’s eyes fill with tears. “That would be Hank.” The couple’s eyes are closed, their lips are nearly touching. Years later, Willard Jones would swear the Blythe’s were smiling.