Detour was first published in the MacGuffin in the Fall of 2016 issue.
The flat landscape of Oklahoma rolled by, punctuated by the occasional tree or billboard. As the freeway slid past Leroy took quick glances from his driving to look at the woman in the passenger seat. Susan sat staring out her window, glaring with the petulance of a small child not getting what they wanted. She had been that way since they had come out the wrong side of Fort Worth and it had become obvious that they weren’t going straight back to Arizona. Now, not far from the Kansas border, her mood had done nothing but deteriorate.
Leroy had tried to start a few conversations when Susan had first gone stone faced, but had long since given up. He wasn’t a talkative man, and it seemed little worth the effort just to get one word answers. The radio played quietly in the background. Slow sad country songs about losing your woman and fast paced country songs about getting drunk. Not much in between. The cab of the old pickup was cleaned as best it could be, but nothing could hide the sun weakened plastic of the dash and the permanent scuffs of long use.
The woman Leroy could see out of the corner of his eye was older and thicker than the pictures she had sent. Her hair had a bleached look to it and there were prominent crow’s feet around her eyes and loose skin at the corners of her mouth. Leroy didn’t mind. Such things were to be expected. He hadn’t let his expectations get too high. Besides, it had been the words in her letters, not the face in her photos, that had convinced him to make the thousand mile drive from Safford to Livingston.
Leroy knew he wasn’t much of a catch himself. Not many women wanted a wind burnt old cowhand who rarely got into town and spent most of his time on the back of a horse up on Mount Graham. At least the photos he had sent had been fairly up to date. Though in fairness, most were of the landscapes around his home rather than his own hangdog features. Leroy knew he was no Tennyson either. His letters had all been fairly straight forward and lacked the flowery wit that he believed most women found endearing. The landscapes had seemed like his most sellable feature. Perhaps some women were looking for a man with unexciting qualities. Leroy didn’t know, he really didn’t understand women, and had never bothered giving much thought to the subject.
It was lonely up on the mountain. Especially when the work was done. He had the cows and a string of good horses, but none of them could be called good conversationalists. Leroy had gone after the problem the same as he would have if he had found a broken pipe or a hole in a fence. Find the right tools, and fix it. No fuss and no muss. The ad he had put in the personals section of the Ruralite had been straight forward.
Lonely Arizona cowhand, age 40, seeks woman.
Quiet and easygoing, seeking the same.
Beautiful place to live.
It had been surprising the number of responses he had gotten. There were a lot more lonely women out there than Leroy had expected. But after a few letters back and forth most had dropped off, except for Susan. Her letters had been long and wordy, always at least three pages, impressive given her small handwriting. Leroy’s letters had been short, though he tried to always make sure he filled up at least one page. Letters had moved on to phone calls. Leroy had done his best to hide the fact that he was about as interesting as morning oatmeal. He had told her all his favorite cowboy jokes, even the one about the dead mouse in the chili. She had seemed to enjoy them.
The “Welcome to Kansas” sign rolled past, changing the state but not the landscape. The pickup cab continued to be filled with sullen silence. Leroy watched the world roll by and ignored it. If she was going to be sullen, she was going to be sullen. A little side trip seemed like a silly thing to get upset about. There was nothing he could think of to say, so he didn’t see the need to bother. Trucks and cars whizzed past on the left. The old pickup was going as fast as it could, which wasn’t that impressive. Besides, if he pushed it too much, air would howl through the loose windshield seal and they wouldn’t be able to hear the radio.
A blue sign whipped past on the side of the road. Susan’s voice entered his ear, flat sounding, but loud in the silence. “Can you stop up ahead? I have to use the bathroom.”
“Sure, no problem.”
Leroy pulled the old pickup off at the freeway exit and parked it next to the roadside restroom. Susan got out, the old seat springs creaking underneath her, and slammed the door. Maybe she was angry, though Leroy couldn’t figure why. Maybe not though, the old pickup’s doors had to be slammed to get them to close proper.
Leroy got out too, and stood next to the pickup admiring the waxed finish on the dulled and chipped paint. He walked around his vehicle and checked the tightness of the ropes which held the blue tarp over Susan’s belongings in the back. Susan hadn’t come with a lot of stuff. Leroy thought of that as a positive. The three pieces of furniture that she would not part with were a squat bookcase, an old sitting chair, and a giant dresser with a vast top like an aircraft carrier. The chair and bookcase would easily fit in the living room, but Leroy doubted there was room in the bedroom for the dresser. He would probably have to throw his out, which was too bad, he had owned it since he was a boy.
All the ropes were as tight as they could be, so Leroy got back into the pickup and sat down to wait. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a folded up piece of high quality magazine paper. The cattlemen’s magazine always used high quality paper. He unfolded the advertisement and sat looking at it.
For Sale $500
Purebred border collies trained by Gus Stewart
Both sire and dam High Plains Cowdog Competition Champions
Susan got back in the pickup and slammed the door behind her to get it closed. She glanced over to see what Leroy was reading and gave a derisive snort. “I can’t believe we’re making a seven hundred mile detour just for a god damn dog.”
Leroy folded back up the advertisement and put it back in his shirt pocket. He ran a hand through his thinning hair, started the pickup, put it in gear, and lurched out of the rest area. His eyes remain locked on the windshield in front of him.
“Who says the dog was the detour?”