The young geologist slumps into his seat. The shoulder belt, twisted, bites into his collarbone. He rests his head against the dusty passenger-side window and stares through the fingerprints and smeared bugs at the long dry hills of eastern Montana. This is not New Orleans, he thinks; New Orleans and a few million people could fit between the interstate and that trailer house over there. He imagines New Orleans, magically depopulated, set among the gullies and sagebrush. There are no hills in New Orleans.
He remembers sitting on the balcony of the restaurant with Eleanor, who danced in the bar downstairs. They drank tepid coffee with Jim Beam, and sucked the guts out of crawfish heads, laughing and throwing the shells into the rain-wet squirm of tourists who had gathered to hear a mediocre zydeco washboard band play under the awning.
He turns from the window, to look through the cab at the thundercloud darkening in the north, lit from above and behind by late afternoon sun. The pickup dashboard is littered with candy-bar wrappers and dashboard laughing-buddhas. Luisa, the driver, a Californian, thinks he is looking at her.
“What, honey?” she asks.
“What is it, Jeremy?”
He leans towards her to hear her over the road hum. “Nothing.”
She turns to look again at the road. After a while she says, “we’re almost out of gas,” blankly, to the windshield.
“Can we make it to Miles City?”
They reach Miles City with the thunderclouds. North and west of the Sinclair, the sky is deep blue with rain, brown with dust and wind. A dirty wet breeze comes from this direction.
Jeremy pumps the gas, then pays the listless girl wearing too much makeup.
Luisa sets the bathroom key, which is wired to a pipe, on the counter next to the penny dish. He asks her, “you want I should drive?”
In the car, Luisa searches vainly for a radio station with clear reception. The tape player is broken.
“I don’t need music,” he says.
Luisa presses her face against the window and falls asleep.
By the time they reach Glendive, the thunderstorm has overtaken them. Rain bursts noisily against the windshield, rising and waning in intensity every ten minutes or so.
In New Orleans it rains all day long; a slow, humid rain that acts like it will never quite go away. It rains mostly straight down, warm and soft, making greasy garbage-filled puddles that reflect the streetlamps in oily rainbows. There is no real distinction between rain and non-rain — rain takes all morning to get started, with fogs and mists and sticky humidity, and doesn’t lose momentum easily.
They eat supper at a truckstop in Glendive: hamburgers and french fries and coffee. Jeremy has to ask for tabasco sauce. Luisa thumbs through a book with a listing of public campgrounds in Wyoming, Montana, and North and South Dakota.
“We can camp at Makoshika State Park,” she tells him, “the book says, ‘small fee, water, toilets.’”
He drinks his coffee, which tastes burned and weak.
She raises her eyebrows, leaning towards him. “Well?”
“That’s where they found the Avaceratops last year.”
“So let’s go.”
“I just wanted a shower, that’s all.”
When they pay their bill, Jeremy asks the waitress, a high school girl in a maroon uniform, how to get to Makoshika State Park.
“You’re not from Montana, are you?” she asks. She makes terse and distinct words, clipping the vowels like the way CNN anchorpeople talk.
“Nope,” he says.
“We’re working in the Dakotas,” Luisa says.
“You’re southern, eh?” asks the girl, putting their money into the cash register.
“I’m from California.”
The girl tells them what streets to turn at to drive to Makoshika State Park, and they drive there. At the park entrance, they put eight dollars in the envelope and register Luisa’s pickup for the campground. The narrow road into the park is unlit and poorly-paved. The tall, scrubby badlands glow in the sunset. The hills seem desperately colorful against the darkness of the underside of the raincloud: a distinct line, orange against black. The rain has stopped.
“Do you want to pitch the tent?” he asks, after they have found a good spot backing a gentle cliff. He opens the door on the pickup-bed cover.
“The ground’s pretty wet.”
They unroll their sleeping bags in the back of the truck, zipping them together. They brush their teeth, spit the white foam onto the pavement, take off their shoes and jeans and sweatshirts. They climb into the back of the truck, where they have sex quietly, hoping not to waken their neighbor campers.
The sun is past set; Luisa breathes softly. Jeremy lays on his back listening to the chirp of crickets. This is like the end of the world, he thinks: traveling in dry open country with a woman I don’t love. There is space here, spaces between every juniper tree and clump of sagebrush.
This is not New Orleans; not noisy and blurry. Things run together there: houses run into other houses’ sides, streets meet head on. Puddles run together and sit on the pitted pavement, smelling crowded and bad. The people blur: dark, honey-colored people in damp shirts with stains in the armpits, all standing close together. He thinks of Eleanor, bending over the sink wearing only her underwear, washing off her makeup, then turning towards him and dipping her chin to look at him through her eyelashes. He wonders if maybe he loved her.
He rolls onto his side. He looks up out the small window at a bright new star, unblinking in the purple sky. The air smells wet and sagey; something fresh and new and lonely, like the end of the world. He shuts his eyes. Through the crickets’ chirping he hears the steady tick-tick-tick-tick of the radiator cooling.