Foliate Oak Literary Journal, November 2010
“I don’t know,” he said to the baby sitting in the Michelin tire. His mouth sometimes had a hard time forming the words. “I don’t know where she went.” He shook his head from side to side the way he did when his thoughts became cloudy and it was impossible to say just what he meant. He was alone up there, (he and the Michelin baby), beside the lunch pail he packed faithfully each day. Inside the pail was one slice of Oscar Mayer bologna between two slices of Weber’s bread. It was the same as always. He stood there, the same as always, holding a roller. His shoulders slumped inside his faded gray jumpsuit. But the Michelin baby was different. Happier, the man thought, and he smiled in contemplation of beauty.
For thirty-three years, he had climbed ladders to stand aloft and paste up billboard ads with slow hands. In all breeds of weather, John Gray went about his work with meticulous care. It had a special significance for him. To be smiled on by beautiful women. To watch the way the subtle changes in light played over the riddles in their eyes. To stand, life-sized, next to Ford’s brand new line of cars, or to be handed the good life in a bottle of sparkling wine as tall as a doorway. These things and more, in a maze of color and light and half-light, bewitched his simple mind. On one afternoon, there was the circle of an engagement ring like a flaming hoop, and he the lion. And on another, the Neptune-blue romance of a Motel 6 sign. Day after day, life was a parade of words and images unfolding under his hands like a delicious mystery. It gave him faith in the better nature of humankind the same way the Allstate hands gave him faith in God. Advertisements were John Gray’s brand of fiction.
For thirty-three years, John Gray slept soundly on a Sealy Sleeper mattress. He stopped speaking to Joe Camel when the Surgeon General’s warning became larger than life, but he still drank Diet Coke just for the taste of it. For thirty-three years he’d climbed sky-high to find Ruby among the stars.
At fourteen, the girl had loved him. He thought about her often through long days. Ruby Pennywhite had not been beautiful, but she had been kind to him. She wore her skirts shorter than the other girls at school did, and there was something dangerous in her laughter. When the other girls whispered behind her back, John thought they were saying nice things. He thought they were saying, ‘What a flower she is. What a jewel.’ He did not notice the whispers that swarmed at his own back. He only noticed when Ruby smiled. He only noticed when she told them all to go to hell.
John had known that Ruby loved him because on one of those swollen summer nights that belonged to childhood, she leaned over and licked his lips. He was standing there alone after the ice cream social and she had leaned over the bananas and the cherries and the whipped cream and put her own sweet tongue to his lips. “They don’t understand me either,” she seemed to whisper in a backwards dream, and the lids of her eyes had fallen. When it was over, he stood there smiling dumbly at her until she walked away.
Over the subsequent years, in which she dwelled only in his mind, Ruby seemed to him to grow as beautiful as the women on his billboards. Even now, on rainy days, he often had thoughts of summer. There was a word that accompanied his thoughts of Ruby, and often it drowned out the rest of the world in his mind until he could think of nothing else but “Albuquerque.” In their high school memory books, the caption by Ruby Pennywhite’s name had read “See you all in Albuquerque.” John remembered running his fingertips over the brilliant tones of her face, believing, in a vague way, that her faithless eyes and her waiting lips were meant for him. He had an idea that he could find her there in that city with the strange and distant name. On certain billboards over the years, he’d seen the cool metal wings of airplanes glinting in the sun. In his mind, they all had one destination.
It wasn’t really his idea to go to Albuquerque in the end. It had been in his head for years, and then the time came, and he realized he never actually meant to go at all. But he went anyway one summer. For thirty-three years, John had worked for a man named Charlie Potter. Charlie was always good to John and understanding of what other people spoke of in whispered tones. John did not think that having a mind full of beautiful things was anything to be ashamed of. He was going to retire the following June and Charlie insisted upon the vacation. John Gray had not been a day out of West Virginia in all his life and then one day, he was boarding a plane for Albuquerque.
Sitting at a bar in New Mexico, John watched through the window as the dust devils spun across the scorched earth. The suns rays ignited the horizon into flames that leaped and flickered like tongues. The bartender laid a napkin before him and John Gray fingered it in contemplation. “Albuquerque Saloon” it read, but more than that he noticed the lines on his worn hands. His fingers were stooped, like old men lined up out of habit. Years of being caked in billboard paste had left them a solemn and nondescript shade of gray. In the dusty mirror over the bar, he saw that the same regrettable shade had weaved itself through his fine hair. The bartender handed him his diet coke with its lone cherry bobbing among the ice. John Gray fished it out and laid it aside.
She made her way from another table to the barstool beside him. She was less beautiful than they typical taste of men required. Had he looked her in the eye, John Gray might have seen a hint of something devilish in them as if she’d blown in from the gathered dust outside. “I’m Jade,” she said with a tightly curling smile, “Jade Fisher, and you’re about to get lucky. I was sitting over there with Tom and I saw you and thought, ‘Now there’s a man who looks like he needs some company,’ and I asked myself what could possibly make you come in here looking so lonely and then I thought, ‘Well maybe I’ll just go ask him myself.’” John Gray nearly drowned in her expectant look. Her smile snaked across her face in two long red lines. Her head was tilted to the side as if resting precariously on her bare shoulder. John Gray could no longer feel himself. He could not think of a thing to say. Even in his mind, the words stumbled and tripped over each other. “Well, Handsome? I asked you what brings you here? If you’re not up for talking, I guess I could take you somewhere and ease your troubles.” Her laugh shattered like broken glass. John watched fearfully as she stretched her painted claws over the countertop. Her fingers were lined with garish rings that not even a pirate would plunder. John Gray’s eyes were struck as if by sunlight. His memories flinched and cowered behind his lashes. He kept his mouth firmly shut to barricade the confused words that threatened to sputter out.
“Come on, what’s your name, Handsome?” her smile fell like a dead thing and even the ‘Handsome’ was spoken uneasily. She fidgeted on the barstool and John wondered with discomfort how it was possible in a skirt as short as hers.
“Listen, I came over here to flatter you a little and have some fun, and if you can’t even spare me a decent word…” She stood up and looked at him. Then, leaning closer, she inspected his face. “Hey, you’re not retarded, are you?” She gaped at him like that before snatching up her purse. “Glad I bothered, asshole” she spewed, and walked away. John Gray bent his head and tried to breathe.
He sat for hours at the bus station. The dull sky hung over him, reflecting the monotonous red of the earth. And the earth went on for miles. The sky, too, faded imperceptibly away on all sides. The bus pulled up at a quarter to three and John smiled inside himself to see the familiar advertisement on the long silver flanks of the bus.
He clutched his traveling bag to his chest as the bus bounced along the dirt road to the highway. She kicked up dust on all sides, and John, through the window, had to squint to see the last remains of Albuquerque fade away. John tried to shake the dust from his mind. The long gray road home stretched before him, lined on both sides with the tall metal hulks of billboards. He rehearsed each one he passed, familiarizing himself with the faded colors and the vacant eyes of sun-bleached women.