Driving back after the funeral, he stopped at a Target to get Starbucks and take a piss. He’d stayed overnight at a motel, and he left the motel early in the morning to make it back east by driving all day.
Driving that morning he thought of the black and white picture of a Joshua tree in the room. It was the only thing not reusable in the motel; it was the sort of picture somebody would take in an intermediate photography class, not something tastelessly good the owners would get in a bulk purchase of decor.
There was something too amateur—too ambitious but clumsy—about the composition of this picture of a Joshua tree, and the overexposure of the image—and there was the starkness of that, it was the wrong tone for a motel. It made your eye stop, and in a motel you shouldn’t seem to have had eyes.
He’d drove—drove not really seeing anything but the spiky black silhouette of that Joshua tree, and the grainy white of the blown-out desert behind it—and the gray of the highway, the tires below the bumpers, and the loss of time they represented.
The Target was empty this early in the morning. The aisles were pristine, walls of familiar merchandise waiting brightly in fluorescent light. The store seemed eager—except for a yawning cashier. It was stunning after the monotony of the drive and his thoughts.
When he went into the bathroom, a light on a motion sensor turned on. There was a pleasant artificial cherry smell. It was all gray slate, white porcelain, straight lines. It was easy.
He did what he came to do.
Going to wash his hands, and in the mirror he noticed the boots in the little stall. He’d assumed he had been alone pissing because of the motion sensing light—that was wrong.
The boots were cowboy boots. They had dark bluejeans tucked into them. The jeans were stiff tubes, almost hollow seeming. The man’s legs must be thin.
The feet were planted far apart, as if the person in the stall were bracing for one to give the devil. But the jeans weren’t down.
Embroidered on the side of the boot closest to him, which was almost under the gap of the little stall, was a rose.
It was the kind of rose you would imagine tattooed on the bicep or chest of a biker or sailor.
The bathroom was new, even the grout on the floor by the boot was clean and white. The boot with the rose also appeared to be new. The red threading of the rose shone like silk. The leather had not yet crinkled or cracked. The leather wasn’t dusty or soiled. The point of the boot was sharp.
The figure was still and quiet in the stall. The sound of the ventilation system filled the room.
He looked away from the stall, the boots, the mirror. He rinsed his hands in the automatic faucet and wiped them on his slacks. He pulled open the door and went out.
The episode of the man in the stall was one of the small strange occurrences that we overlook, and then forget, in the course of a life.
We have all had something like a man staring into the window of our house from the street in the middle of the night—something like being in the fog on a beach in the morning and coming upon a rotten seaweed-entangled heap that gives us a feeling—had something like a lost object turning up after a few days in a place we knew we didn’t leave it.
He went and got a venti iced coffee. He added whole milk and three paper sachets of sugar. He was in for a very long drive.
He listened for bootsteps behind him as he made his way through the empty store to his car. He heard only ice shifting against plastic and ice.
Years later, looking through all the stuff he had to sort through a few weeks after the next funeral, he turned a page, and there were the boots. They were on his Dad. His Dad had an armful of Mom. They were by the bulk of a redwood. They were young.
He put the album down, he got into his car, he turned the key. He idled in the driveway. He noticed he was covered in a sweat gone cold.