The Meteor Crater
Beth Escott Newcomer
She drove west, deep into the afternoon. As the Arizona sun began to angle into the windshield, she lowered her sun visor. The trip odometer turned 2,525, and the jukebox in her head clicked on. How did that old song go? In the year 2525, if man is still alive, if woman can survive… Maybe she should have stopped in Winslow for the night, but she wasn't tired. She wanted to keep going—maybe forever. She hoped the yellow dashed line down the middle of the blacktopped road ended in infinity. An idle thought entered her road-emptied mind: How fast would I have to drive this car to stop?
Should she throw it in reverse and rev it up to 1,040 mph to match the speed the earth is rotating on its axis? That way, she could keep driving and never get anywhere. Or should she floor it to Kingdom Come, warp drive, 670,616, 629.38 mph—the speed of light—and literally stop time? It was a whimsy—and maybe she wasn’t much for calculations, but she knew this much: The little red pickup truck could barely go above eighty.
She hit the gas anyway, and the poor thing struggled for a moment before it surged forward, screeching off into a sloppy conundrum of physics.
She was now so near the finish line—less than a day’s drive from where her new life awaited. California: a glittering prize. As if by traversing the entire United States—New York to Los Angeles—alone in this tin can would earn her some kind of renown. As if she had crossed the Atlantic in a rowboat, or circumnavigated the equator in a hot-air balloon. Welcoming crowds. Clouds of confetti. A key to the city.
It may have started out like that, but now her mood had changed. In the same way a marathon runner, engorged with endorphins, wishes for the race to go on and on, suddenly, she did not want this drive to end. When this journey was finished, the past would, at last, have to be discarded, and a new life begun. She dreaded stopping. Instead, she wanted to keep going right off the end of the Santa Monica Pier, nosedive into the Pacific, and drive along the ocean floor, all the way to Hawaii or Japan and beyond.
She plotted an underwater course, driving past the cavelike bases of the Channel Islands, down into the Patton Escarpment, and up the other side. Skittering along the edge of the Murray Fracture, past the Fieberling Tablemount and the Moonless Mountains. Doing donuts and figure eights around the Hawaiian Islands. Turning northwest to the Emperor Seamounts, where she would scale its heights and drive along its towering peaks, still 100 feet below sea level. She would navigate the Kuril Trench, north of Japan, up and over and into the Sea of Okhotsk, then triumphantly emerge from the dark waters to race across the deserted Manchurian Plain, driving on and on, paused in a bubble of stopped time, yet forever in motion, forever at 5:35 p.m. The golden hour.
The speedometer hovered at eighty-five—a speed just below what was needed to defy the laws of physics, but just above what the little truck could bear. The cab began to shake. The needle pressed against the E on the gas gauge.
But Providence did not abandon her. Out on the distant horizon, the neon dot of a Marathon gas station sign came into view. Though the late afternoon sun still gave off heat and cast burnt orange on the surrounding landscape, a cool breeze wove through it. She pulled in and parked next to one of the gas pumps, got out, and stretched, before turning to fill the tank. While the gas streamed in, she checked the ropes that secured the load in the bed of the little pickup and surveyed the things she’d chosen to bring on the journey—things from that cramped apartment on 13th Street, the attic of her mother's house in Bloomington, and various eleventh-hour sweeps through thrift stores and street sales on her last weekend in New York.
Her maroon Honda 350 four-cylinder motorcycle with the leopard-skin fairing occupied the center of the truck bed—stripped of its chain and emptied of its fluids, no longer rideable, now more a talisman of a past when life with Anthony was still good, back in Chicago. Side by side they’d race up and down Halsted, across the river, back up Diversey, the long way around. He loved that she hated being the bitch on the back of his Yamaha 650 and had bought the 350 for her as a gift. Driving her own bike, she loved the cold October wind coming off Lake Michigan, snarling her hair, chapping her face, while she zipped between the cars, taking foolish chances.
Those days were long over. The bike had been in storage in her mother’s garage for the last two years, while she rotted away in that tiny New York apartment. As an ambitious girl from a small midwestern town, she’d always thought she was destined for greatness in the Big Apple, and had been thrilled when Anthony asked her to join him in the city, but the place had chewed her up and spit her out. Things had gone better for Anthony, and his success had only made her loneliness more unendurable.
Looking at the Honda now, tied down in the bed of the pickup, she wondered if she would ever ride it again. Embarrassing to think she’d bought a pickup truck merely because it had room in the back for this thing. She’d have been better off to let it go.
In fact, why did she need any of this stuff? Her mother’s old card table and folding chairs. The cheap brass lamp that Dad used to have on his desk when studying for his doctorate. Her granny’s “good china” with the violet pattern she adored, but which her mother said was ugly. Some pots and pans and kitchen things. A beat-up dresser she’d painted purple in junior high when everything had to be purple. A crate packed with record albums and a dozen boxes full of books and photo albums and journals, every poem, every story, every school paper with a gold star on it.
And there was Anthony’s old boom box—the unlikely thing he was carrying when he chased the pickup down 13th Street on the last day. He was crying—had she ever seen him cry before?—making an uncharacteristically emotional display on the streets of the Lower East Side neighborhood she would no longer call home.
She’d pulled over, rolled down the window. “You know I have to go.”
And he said, “Yeah,” and kissed her on the cheek and placed the boom box in the bed of the truck, where it remained. That was four days ago.
Now, in this remote desert spot, it was as if the person checking her load was different from the one who packed it.
“That your bike?” asked a trim, tanned, blond man in a dirty coverall, wiping grease from his hands as he walked over from the garage. Behind him, a motor hung from a winch, suspended over the open hood of some kind of muscle car.
“Yeah.” She was startled by her own voice. It was the first word she had spoken since her pit stop at her mother’s place in Illinois.
“Those four-cylinder jobs are a smooth, smooth ride,” he said, exposing a clean set of teeth with an attractive gap in the front.
“Yeah,” she said, suddenly shy, tongue-tied. There was heat, but maybe it was just the desert breeze.
“You been out to see the meteor crater?” he asked.
“You really should go out there. It’s quite a big hole in the ground.”
“A big hole in the ground.” She repeated the phrase with the same level of wonder in it, as if the guy had said there were live pterodactyls on display just up the road.
“Yeah,” he said, mirroring or maybe mocking her earnestness. “It’s a really big hole.”
It struck them as funny, and their laughter peeled out and left tracks. It felt like they had always known each other.
She handed him a twenty for the gas, and he pulled four ones from a big roll of cash he fished from his pocket. For a second, she considered a change of plan. Stop right here. Marry this beautiful gap-toothed man in coveralls. Make a life outside Winslow, Arizona. Instead, she blurted out, “Hey, do you want any of this stuff? Like maybe the motorcycle? I won’t need it where I’m going.”
“Where’re you going?”
“I…I don’t know. Los Angeles. Or maybe Japan… Just heading west until it’s time to stop.”
He looked at the bike and looked at the traveler. The desert silence was velvety and soft—night would soon be falling.
“I think you should keep the bike,” he said. “You never know when you might need it, you know, to make a quick getaway or something.”
“I guess you’re right. We’ve come this far together,” she said, rubbing away a tear with the back of her hand. What was she doing? Where was she going? She was suddenly so scared. She wanted to throw herself at him and tell him the whole story of how she got here, how much she’d hoped for a different ending. But, instead, she said, “Guess I better get going. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Feelin’s mutual,” he said, then leaned over and kissed her cheek. “It’s going to turn out better than you can possibly imagine.”
She threw her arms around him and sobbed into his neck. “Thanks.”
When she pulled away, he took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. She wiped her eyes, and when she went to hand it back to him, he gestured for her to keep it. She got back in the cab, shut the door, and he stepped over to the driver’s side window.
“Seriously, you should go out there and see it before it gets dark,” he said, “the meteor crater, I mean.” He pointed at a two-lane road that stretched off to the right in a perfectly straight line, all the way to a vanishing point on the horizon.
So she hit the gas and arrived at the place just before twilight. The gift shop was closed and the parking lot empty, but the sun was still half a hemisphere on the horizon. Racing the sunset, she walked quickly up the path from the visitor center to an overlook. The key points of the story were engraved on a plaque: 3,900 feet across. 570 feet deep. Formed 50,000 years ago. The meteorite mostly vaporized upon impact. The angle of the sun—now almost set—caused a shadow to fall against one side of the crater. She peered in, but from where she stood, she could not see the bottom.
She stepped over a low fence and moved in for a closer look. While she stood there, gazing into the big hole, a sudden gust of wind rushed up the side of the crater. She was thrown off-balance. She stumbled, but at the last moment caught herself and was saved from falling into the void. Her heart was racing, even after she found firm footing there on the edge. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself, and noticed a mantra had formed deep inside her: “Better than you can possibly imagine,” at first a murmur and then a command, clear and direct.
She watched the last sliver of sun slip into the west. It would still be the golden hour in Los Angeles, while Venus and Mars and the first few stars blinked on in the darkening Arizona sky. That blast of clean desert wind had taken with it the principal part of a dank and mildewed sadness she’d been carrying around with her, and left in its wake…nothing. No wind. No sound. Nothing but wide open space to fill up with something new. Or maybe to just leave empty for a while.
About the Author
Beth Escott Newcomer’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Alembic, Bluestem, The Diverse Arts Project, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Duende, Paterson Literary Review, poeticdiversity, Rougarou, Sand Hill Review, Stickman Review, Switchback, Tulane Review, and the chapbook Wednesday Writings. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for inclusion in Best of the Net Anthology. She grew up in Normal, Illinois, but now lives in Fallbrook, California. In addition to writing, she manages her Southern California-based graphic design firm and helps promote her family’s cacti and succulent nursery.