Linn County, just north of Eugene, calls itself the "Grass Seed Capital of the World." I only knew this because there was a sign announcing at the county line. It is written in large letters, presumably so people can know why they are scratching their eyes out of their sockets and pulling over to combat the seizure-like sneezing fits. Even Gracie, who had climbed into my car with only slight coaxing after Trubull had let me on my way, was having trouble. In farms on either side of the highway. tractors pulled combines which churned up dry dust, sending plumes of rust-brown particles into the air to form dust devils. At one time, coming down off a ridge into a valley, I counted seven funnels dancing at a leisurely pace to and fro. I crossed the path of one and learned that the recirculation feature on my car did not work as advertised. I pulled over and Gracie and I dusted ourselves off.
I knew that I either had to do a great deal of thinking on the way north or resolve not to think at all. The facts were troubling. They knew where I was every step of the way. They followed me, perhaps even baited me. It was enough to make a person paranoid, if he wasn't careful. Or drunk. With this logic, I had decided to get drunk the night before, hitting an anonymous bar on the way back to the hotel, then running to the Dari Mart next door to get two six-packs of Henry Weinhardt's Private Reserve, a much less impressive beer than it sounds but also cheaper, and I watched infomercials on TV, imagining myself as the inventor of these products and trying to contemplate the circumstances that would lead me to believe the world needed any of these items. The drunker I got, the easier it became, and the easier it was to forget the ominous feeling of being prey for a nameless predator, and at last, for a time, I slept.
Three beers that morning had gotten me ready for the road, but after being doused with dust I wanted to find someplace and rinse off inside and out. I stopped at one of those large Super America outfits to take a shower, buy a gallon of water and a six-pack of Red Dog, and empty the litter box which I had jammed down behind the passenger side; even after three uses, the odor had become untenable. I couldn't blame her for not diligently burying her crap in a moving car, though; I certainly couldn't. I can barely hit the bowl peeing in an airplane.
I breezed through Portland without stopping. Well, without getting off the freeway. I hit a traffic choke point just before crossing what I assumed was the Columbia River (I later confirmed that it was) and spent a handful of minutes examining individual cracks in the pavement. After three Red Dogs, I pulled off to fill up the tank and void my bladder at a Chevron north of Vancouver, then kept on until I saw a sign for the Slaughter Creek Rest Area. Nothing sounded particularly restful about a place called Slaughter Creek, and I thought it might be entertaining to discover its etymological origin. Turns out it was just named after a guy named Bill Slaughter. While this family name may have had an interesting and possibly nefarious beginning, the source of the creek's resonant patronymic was typical of much of the country: just named after some rich guy who had lived around there.
Gracie had just finished processing some tuna I had given her earlier, and I was anxious not only to deposit her leavings in the green metal trashcan but also to air out the car; to be fair, the beer and road snacks diet I'd been living on had taken its toll on the air quality in the passenger compartment, so we were both equally at fault and in need of the refreshment of Pacific Northwest air.
I'm not quite sure why I even thought to glance over my shoulder as I got out of the car, but I did and saw a nondescript gray Ford Taurus several dozen yards further down pulling into a parking spot. What caught my eye was the license plate, which was 440 JOY. I didn't know much about music, but I knew that the standard wavelength for an A was 440 megahertz, and it occurred to me when I saw this license plate that perhaps it was a personalized plate for a musician or a piano tuner. But then that struck me as silly; it was likely just a random happenstance. But that coincidence was not what troubled me.
What troubled me was that I had had this same conversation with myself two days ago, in Eugene when, waiting at a traffic light while leaving Sheriff Trubull's, I had seen a gray Taurus with a license plate that read 440 JOY.
My heart probably stopped for a moment, my twitchiness not helped by the not-quite-gallon of horrid convenience store coffee I had downed along the way.
The car pulled in to a shaded area of the lot, and I couldn't see into the windows. Nervous at the thought of someone or someones were watching me, I forced myself to move as naturally as I could to the passenger seat to scoop Gracie's litter into a plastic bag. Grateful for the effort, she showed her appreciation by jumping in and scratching around aimlessly. I deposited the bag into the garbage nearby and turned to face the car, where I could see the Taurus in my field of vision without looking directly at it, and I pretended to stretch and shake off the road knots in my shoulders and back. If they'd been following me, they would have seen my many stops for beer, cigarettes and snacks...
And I would have seen them... And I had. When I got gas off the interstate just south of Portland I had seen a gray Taurus pull in and drive up to the air pump, but I hadn't checked the license plate. Despite the generic nature of the color and make, the memory didn't inspire confidence. I had stopped far more than any average traveler, and to have gone less than two hundred miles and seen the same car seemed enough of a coincidence that, combined with everything else I knew, made my paranoia as justified as it had ever been.
I stretched for a minute or two, then checked on Gracie. The car never moved; no one got out. I told myself I couldn't linger too long for fear of arousing suspicion, so I gave Gracie's ears a final scratch. A beat-up pickup truck came choking and chugging its way into a spot near mine. A wiry middle-aged guy with a trucker cap and hollow cheeks was yelling at someone through his cell phone, moving it away from his ear and putting it in front of his mouth for emphasis.
"This truck you gave me is a complete piece of shit! I just put two new belts on it and it's still squealing at me. Fuck you and your tensioner, what kind of crap is this, giving me a truck like this? Grateful? For what? That's what Abby said, that I should be grateful for her fucking me, but what about them herpes, huh? That's what this truck is, a half-assed fuck with herpes!" The guy shot me a "What the fuck are you looking at?" look, which I've never understood. When someone is carrying on like that, how could anyone not look? You'd have to have a much more exciting life than mine to look away from that kind of conversation. But I shut and locked the doors and headed up the low hill towards the bathrooms.
Normally I avoid the stalls of a public restroom like the plague (and I don't mean that euphemistically; I avoid them in exactly the same way and for the same reasons), but I made an exception just to have a moment out of sight from anyone else. I sat there for a few minutes planning my next move, although planning may be too strong a word. Grasping was more like it. They'd obviously been following me all along; this was nothing new. I just happened to finally notice. I could walk over to the car and just knock on the window, see who it was. But what would I do if it was someone I knew? Or someone I didn't? I had no followup that made sense. I could just keep going, pretend like it didn't bother me, go about my business. They hadn't bothered me and maybe wouldn't.
As a wave of residual stench overtook me, I almost let out an almost audible "Fuck that." I was sick of being tracked, of being anticipated, of being manipulated. I was supposedly an intelligent individual despite what the last few years of substance abuse had done; I could figure a way out of this.
Footsteps. Zipper. A stream of water hitting the metal basin. Then a grumble and a "motherfucker" that escaped almost unbidden. I recognized the voice and threw together a plan. I stepped out of the stall and went to wash my hands. Herpes man in his trucker hat stepped away from the urinal and went towards the exit. Since he didn't go to wash his hands, I had to step back into his path. I tried to keep as much space as possible between us and to effect as ingratiating and harmless a demeanor as I could, but there are few places one wants to be accosted by a random stranger less than public men's room, and I could see his body go into defensive mode, his hand reaching around towards his back, where perhaps he had something hidden there that could make quick work of me. I spoke quickly.
"Listen, I overheard you talking out there. I've got need of a truck for a business opportunity and my car runs real well. I'll make you an even trade," I said.
I had to repeat most of that once he realized I wasn't going to attack him or solicit him. "What color?" he said.
"Uh... a kind of a gray-green, I guess, it was the one right out there, right next to you."
"I didn't notice it. I was busy telling my sister's brother exactly what I think of him and his piece of shit truck. Well, I'll take a look at it, but let's get out of here, this is creeping me right out, a normal man don't talk to another man in the men's room unless he's queer or crazy," he said, sucking at his teeth; he seemed to be missing one or two of them in there somewhere, as the sucking sound had a lot of air movement and saliva associated with it. "Which one are you?"
There was a moment in which he seemed like someone who might be open to any answer, but I was operating on a timeline here. "Impatient," I said. "I can't do this deal here. Look, I'll give you five hundred dollars right now; you drive north ten more exits, then get off there. I'll meet you at the offramp junction and you can look it over and see if it suits you."
"You're in some kind of trouble, huh?"
"Nothing a new pickup can't fix. Or even that piece of shit."
"That it is. Well, I got nothing against helping a fella out, but that car didn't look so great."
"Runs like a charm. Besides, you said you didn't see it," I said, starting to share the strange feeling of having an extended conversation here, with our voices bouncing off the hard surfaces, the push and pull of the smells of shit and fresh air competing for room where we stood.
"I got the gist of it. This kind of favor, though, that seems like maybe something that might be worth a thousand to you."
Everyone is a fucking chiseler. "Listen, I'll give you five hundred right now then five hundred after the exchange. And you're getting a deal on that car." I handed him the five hundred which I had counted out and placed in my jacket pocket. As he took it and held it, his eyes bright with greed and excitement, a doughy man with curly red hair and puffy cheeks came in. I saw his eyes grow as he watched our transaction but continued on towards the stalls and went into one. Anymore, unless you were planting a suspicious package in the corner, you could be assured that nobody would hassle you about even the most suspicious interaction.
I let my accomplice exit before I did, making a show of washing my hands again, and he knew this was a fraud but didn't say anything. He was likely one of those low-level ex-cons who'd done some time in his twenties and supposedly straightened up, but he wouldn't be opposed to running a little meth now and then or carrying some guns for some guys. And then he'd take the money and blow it in a couple of nights at the bar, and then he'd be broke again, looking for a friendly couch or a girl with low enough self-esteem. A thousand bucks and a car that worked, he was going to be living large for a long time.
He had already taken off, and I heard his engine coughing and wheezing as it ramped up to freeway speed. I walked over to the passenger side and, while making sure Gracie was settled, throwing things into my bags for easier transfer. Then it was time to start the part I hadn't thought much about at all.