“We got it,” came Casey’s voice over my work phone, interrupting my answering spiel. She skipped right over a greeting, instead speaking with the firm resolution of a person who had spent days begging for something thought to be nearly impossible.
“Tim said yes?” I asked. I glared as a customer dared to approach me at my station at the register, box of shoes clutched in hand.
“Of course he did. I owe him some giant tattoo now as payment, but whatever. Operation is a go.”
I perceived that my reaction should swing upwards, somewhere in the vicinity of “noticeable excitement,” so I corrected my tone. “Fan-fucking-tastic,” I said. The impatient customer gaped at my vulgarity. I ignored her as I hung up the phone and wiped my eyes, escaping to the break room with the knowledge that someone would pick up my slack on the sales floor. Maybe they’d even apologize for my behavior.
It didn’t matter – the customer, the job, any of it. The Live Music Capital of the World suddenly felt closer than its fourteen-hundred miles.
Tim, the delightful little redneck that he was, had a very sketchy-looking CD player hooked up to the stereo inside the ’89 Rambler he had begrudgingly lent us. Casey and I, in the beginning stages of prepping for our trip to Austin, Texas, had decided against any “sad music” being brought along. “Nothing newer than the eighties,” I had said. “In honor of the dear Rambler.” But it wasn’t a foolproof plan, merely denying the Band of Horses and City and Colour albums access to our luggage. Little singles like “Patience” by Guns ‘n’ Roses and “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” by Zeppelin can easily bring a person to tears when the circumstances are just right.
And, god, were they ever right.
We had each broken down twice before we even made it out of the state, the Michigan trees zipping by in a blur of green and brown obscured behind the tears we were attempting not to excrete for fear of causing the other distress.
Somehow, it was easier to smile as I cranked up “Fred Bear” when we entered Indiana.
It made me wonder how state borders could have such an effect on us. After crossing it I was still the same person, with the same problems, with the same vibrant loss shooting through me with every beat of my stuttering heart. But I could tell with a glance into the driver’s seat, where Casey sat with her brow relaxed, hands at a casual noon and five grasp on the steering wheel, that she was feeling the same way.
We felt lighter than we had in weeks.
We belted out “Love is a Battlefield” too many times to count as we cruised through Kentucky, neither of us particularly interested in what the state had to offer.
Feeling safe with so much space between us and Michigan, I spoke. “Do you think the boys are pissed that we didn’t wait for them?”
“No,” Casey answered immediately. “They have their own ways of dealing with this. You know, crying into their beers and passing out in their own vomit.”
“That isn’t what our plan is?” I asked, eyes wide.
She snorted. “Of course it is. But we’re on a road-trip; it’s classier. Besides, we can play a couple acoustic shows, the two of us, earn some beer money.”
“I like where your head’s at.”
“Well, I’m glad one of us does. Are we almost to Tennessee?”
I glanced at the iPhone in my hand and watched as the little blue dot progressed across the screen, moving further and further into the unknown, away from our problems. I wasn’t so sure we were going to outrun them, but I was positive that the Tennessee border was a scant half hour away.
We stopped in Nashville for dinner, parking the Rambler and mocking the tourists wearing cowboy hats while we weaved through them to find something that didn’t resemble a chain restaurant. Eventually we found ourselves in a suspiciously dark pub. Nearly empty at the early evening hour, it had only a few patrons scattered across wooden booths and stools.
Casey smirked and ran a hand through her dyed red hair while she squinted in the dim light. “Their food must be so spectacular that you aren’t required to view it to bask in its excellence,” she decided.
I grinned as I slid into a booth. My tights snagged on the old wood beneath me, and I jerked them free with a sort of vicious pleasure. A part of me wished the wood had splintered right into my leg, wished for that little pinprick of pain and the small welling of blood, just to show that it happened. That I felt something.
But it didn’t, and my tights were ruined anyway.
After I inhaled an obscene amount of chicken tenders and a few more rum and Cokes than necessarily proper, Casey and I went on our way, looking out over Cumberland River as we drove the creaking Rambler into the growing evening.
“I don’t think Chelsea would have liked that place, even with her godawful appreciation for country music,” I said while we merged onto the highway, band equipment rattling as we accelerated with the traffic.
“No,” Casey agreed. “And Dusty would have fucking hated it.”
As we laughed neither of us noticed the city of Nashville fading from our side mirrors.
Casey made it another hundred miles before she abruptly slammed on the brakes and swerved the top-heavy camper to the shoulder of the road. She was gasping wildly – the sort that precede sobbing – and her hands were clutching the steering wheel, immobile.
“Case?” I turned down the stereo and studied my friend’s profile in the faint light from the expressway cars, but I couldn’t see much.
Gradually her breathing slowed, but she kept her gaze rooted straight ahead. The only noises heard in the Rambler were Casey’s harsh breathing and the intense thrum of the traffic a mere few feet to our left.
“I’m okay… just,” she glanced down at her lap, then began smacking the wheel with the heel of both hands. “Fuck! Just fucking… fuck.”
I flailed for the right thing – or anything – to say, to help bring her back. “That Halloween show at the Pub, you remember that?” I asked.
A long silence passed and I feared that she was slipping away from me, falling down into the abyss we had tried so hard to avoid. She finally spoke. “The one where Tim rode in the trailer with the equipment because he was too pissed at Dusty to ride in the truck with everyone else?” Her voice was strained, but whole.
I laughed. “Yeah, and when we got to the Pub, he flew out of the trailer and accused Dusty of taking corners too sharp on purpose-”
“He got his ass kicked by his own drum-set,” Casey cut in as she scrubbed at her eyes, grimacing as her grief and laughter fought across her face. “Why anyone would sit in a trailer full of loose musical instruments, I’ll never know.”
“Because he’s Tim,” I replied. “You sang great that night, though. Fucking nailed that ‘Crazy on You’ cover.”
Casey shrugged, and despite her puffy eyes and blotchy face, she still had that sense of front-woman pride about her. Stroking a singer’s ego was never the wrong way to go. “And almost nailed that blond guy, too, till Dusty went all apeshit over me trying to hook up with a guy wearing a Romney shirt. He didn’t believe that the dude was dressed as a Republican for Halloween.”
“I agreed with Dusty,” I said. “He looked like a Nazi.”
Casey huffed out a laugh.
“Yeah,” Casey replied. She rubbed her eyes one final time and sniffed hard before throwing the Rambler back into drive. “I’m good.”
“No, you’re not,” I said.
Casey flashed me a weak grin. “No, I’m not. But don’t tell anybody.”
Despite the desire to move forward, Casey and I decided to stop after midnight on the outskirts of Memphis. She had been driving all day since she claimed her experience at drunkenly carting around our friends at sixteen in her family’s Astro van had qualified her as the “Rambler Operator.” I hadn’t argued for two reasons; Casey was absolute shit at directions while I was spectacular, and I loved being able to strum my guitar in the passenger seat, playing along with whatever we had blaring on the stereo, letting Casey’s rich alto sweep together with my chords.
It worked well, me playing the Chewbacca to her Han.
Casey jerked the Rambler to a stop near a few semis parked at the edge of the Walmart parking lot we had chosen to crash in for the night, gypsy-style.
There wasn’t a single person wandering the parking lot; that particular Walmart had operating hours, and twelve AM didn’t happen to be one.
Both of us scrambled out of the motor-home, desperate to stretch and pee. With the amenities locked up within Walmart, and the toilet in the Rambler out of commission (somewhere around 1991, I guessed), we made do in the field next to America’s grocery store as we listened to the crickets and the faint hum of traffic through the woods.
Abruptly, I burst into laughter and stood to pull my pants back up. “I really hope all of those truckers are actually asleep. I’d rather not have my bare ass enter their spank banks.”
“Hmm, I like the way you piss in that field, girl,” Casey said, morphing her voice into a poor resemblance to that of a gruff-spoken trucker.
“Shut up!” I laughed and raced back to the Rambler, but had to wait for Casey anyway, as she held the keys and it was locked.
Once inside, I dug through a bag until I uncovered a pint of rum – the expensive coffee one that Dusty had favored when he wanted something other than a Bud Light. I swiped the blanket off of the bed as I walked past, climbing back into the passenger seat. Casey was already seated behind the steering wheel, legs pulled up on the seat, chin rested on her knees. She was staring out at the field, into the impermeable darkness that the parking lot lights couldn’t dampen.
I threw the blanket over both of our laps, stretching it awkwardly across the center console. As I twisted open the rum bottle and heard the distinct crack of the seal breaking, I asked, “Not ready for sleep?”
She shook her head, wordlessly taking the pint when I offered it to her.
“Don’t hog it,” I said, fiddling with the CD player until “Wild Horses” started winding its way out of the ancient speakers.
“You had a shit-ton of drinks at dinner!” Defiantly, she took another swallow.
I smiled at her and pried the bottle from her chilly hands to take a burning swig for myself. “And I plan on having several more.”
Before the next drink, Casey paused and let her eyes focus on the darkness outside of the windshield. “To Dusty,” she murmured, and drank.
I took the bottle and mimicked her. “To Chelsea.”
After a while I pulled my guitar back into my lap and began the chords to “Lonely is the Night” while Casey sang along, tapping her fingers along the steering wheel at all the right places.
“Lonely is the night when you find yourself alone. Your demons come to light and your mind is not your own. Lonely is the night when there’s no one left to call…”
Casey’s voice broke off, and I wordlessly handed her the pint.
We woke up in the Walmart parking lot sprawled haphazardly in the same seats we left Michigan in the previous morning, with the addition of a mild hangover and the unfortunate desire to rid our bladders of the night’s rum.
“I’m not pissin’ in that field in broad daylight,” I mumbled, squinting at the offensive sun. I scrabbled for my fake Raybans in the cup-holder and slid them onto my face with a sigh.
“I’m fairly sure Walmart is open now,” said Casey as she cracked her neck and shifted the driver’s seat back into an upright position.
“Ugh.” I glared at the offensive building in the distance. “It’s fucking far.”
“Let’s get breakfast,” Casey decided as she turned the ignition. The Rambler roared to life. “Something greasy. Where’s the nearest McDonald’s?”
“It better be within not-pissing-my-pants-distance,” I said, typing into the GPS on my phone.
Casey slid a mock glare my way. “What did Tim say before we left, Liz? No pissing, puking, shitting, pop music, or fucking in my goddamn motor-home.'”
“Hundreds of miles away and that guy is still ruining my good time. Turn left outta here.”
With a squealing of tires, we left Walmart behind in favor of America’s favorite restaurant, Tim’s drum-set banging noisily above the music.
Led Zeppelin coaxed us into Arkansas and influenced us to leave the highway. We followed Route 7 through what people from Michigan would call mountains. The curving road took us near a lake, so I urged Casey towards it. She glared at me, annoyed at taking the Rambler through the excessively winding roads.
De Gray Lake turned out to be incredibly worth it.
We parked as far out on the peninsula as we could and stumbled from the Rambler, ignoring the stiffness in our legs to wander towards the long strip of beach. All around us was the lake – dark, shining blue, reflecting the late morning sun like a million jewels on the surface of the water. And across from the lake – as far as we could see in any direction – was lush, green forest.
There wasn’t a single person utilizing the park on that fine Tuesday morning, other than ourselves. It felt like a gift – something precious.
“Who knew Arkansas had something like this, huh?” I asked, stripping off my shoes and socks before they got too sandy.
Casey was already down to her underwear next to me, her face lit up like a flower that had been away from the sun far too long.
I wasn’t sure if my own expression differed much.
We raced one another across the sand, splashing into the lake with a lack or reservation usually only existent in our drunkest moments. Casey squeaked as she tripped over a rock, landing awkwardly in the water on her knees. I followed her down, laughing and breathless, sunglasses halfway down my nose.
After a moment the only sound for miles, seemingly, was the lapping of the water against the shore. And for the first time since a car accident in Saginaw, Michigan took two people away from us, the silence wasn’t unbearable.
It was refreshing.
“Remember,” I started, but had to pause and swallow, “When we were all at Dusty’s grandparents’ house, on the beach, and Randy Akers was teaching Chelsea how to shotgun a beer?”
Casey’s eyes widened with glee. “And,” she laughed, “and she turned out better than him, despite being, like, half his size! That’s when I finally accepted her as good enough for Dusty.”
I rolled over in the shallow water and floated on my back, eyes closed against the glaring sun, hearing dulled from the water caressing my ears. “It’s better that it was both of them,” I said, my own words echoing strangely in my head.
Casey didn’t disagree; she merely tilted her face up to the sky and closed her eyes against the sun and tears.
We arrived in Austin, Texas later that night, as the sun was beginning its descent. I rolled down my window as the outskirts rolled into sight and took a deep breath of the air surrounding the Music Capital of the World. I remembered all of Dusty’s rants about this place and how we had to get there, and there I was. It felt a bit like victory.
I checked my phone, flicking through text messages quickly. “Tim and Mike’s flight will be here on Thursday.”
“They should have just came with us,” Casey griped good-naturedly. “Barely making it in time for the weekend.”
“Summer classes!” I reminded her.
Casey waved her hand in a manner to seemingly dismiss Tim and Mike’s lack of brilliance when it came to their dedication to furthering their education. (Music would always trump college with Casey.) “Hope these crowds don’t mind our lack of bass player.”
I sucked in a breath, wincing as I glanced out the window. “They won’t mind it as much as we do, I’m sure.”
Casey sighed. “I cannot wait to eat some food and go to fucking sleep.”
“Wait – I have somewhere to go first,” I said, stressing the importance as best I could to someone who had been trapped in a motor-home with me for two straight days. “Believe me, you’ll wanna see this.”
I directed a quickly-flagging Casey through a series of annoying stops and turns, winding our way through a neighborhood in northeast Austin. The homes were of the southwestern flavor; charming and modern all at once. We admired them despite our exhaustion. It felt like Michigan was a million miles away.
“Up here on the right,” I finally said, indicating the row of cars parked neatly on the side of the road. “Just park.”
Casey did so, too tired and too curious to worry about the girth of the Rambler hanging out into the narrow incline of the street. “This better be good, Liz.”
“Just,” I glanced around, noticing an older Asian couple as they mounted the stairs ahead, “up the stairs.”
Ignoring the glare Casey shot my way, I grabbed her hand, pulling her along with an energy reserve that surprised even me.
“What is this place?”
“Mount Bonnell,” I replied, breathing heavily as we trotted up the stairs, urgency thrumming under my skin. I didn’t want to miss it. “The highest point in Austin.”
“What’s so… special about… the highest point?” Casey panted next to me.
“That,” I said as we reached the top, joining a small group of people scattered across the rock platform.
I took in the expanse of the sky, all shades of darkening blue faded to a bright orange at the horizon, and the silver of the Colorado River winding beneath it, glittering with the lights that inhabited both banks.
A sharp breeze blew across my face, warm and fresh. The people around us murmured and took pictures and exclaimed how beautiful it was. But Casey and I stood stock still, as close to the edge of the rock that we could, and thought of everything that took us to that place.
I remembered the flyers littering the walls of Dusty’s apartment, boasting of venues mere miles from the very ground we stood on. Shows that he had never seen, but consisted of music that Dusty had known as well as his own.
“Dusty would have loved to play here,” Casey said, her voice quiet but firm, like something had just been proven to her. “He always wanted to.”
“That’s why we’re going to,” I said, taking in the expanse of everything Dusty had striven to get to, the goal Chelsea had supported from the start. My hands twitched at my sides, longing to clutch at Dusty, or throw an arm around petite Chelsea and revel in this moment. Instead, Casey stepped towards me and slipped her hand in my own shaking fingers. I squeezed her hand. “I think I’ll stay,” I said, staring straight ahead.
“Okay,” Casey said. I wasn’t sure if she meant it to be pacifying or patronizing, but then she said it again. “Okay,” and it sounded like agreement.