The sky was grey as far as the eye can see. A huge cloud seem to cover the entire state of New Jersey with an ominous atmosphere. The steady cold wind out of the north carried white flakes the size of golf balls. Jeffery watched them hit his windshield when he reached for the ignition. It was colder than he dressed. His hand shook while attempting to fit the key into the slot, he then quickly adjusted the climate control buttons. I need to get the heater blowing. He pulled his collar together before getting out. It took four trips to load the car with everything he owned. Two boxes, a duffle bag and two large black garbage bags contained everything he owned after seven years of marriage. He went to the bathroom one last time. The blue toothbrush was worn but it was his. He used it then tossed it in the waste basket. The reflection in the mirror made him stop. “No turning back now Jeff.” He said as he flipped off the light switch.
He looked around one last time. "It's all yours now Amy." He didn’t argue about who was getting the television or the toaster. This made him feel better, being he was the one that wanted out. He could still see her face when he told her. He didn’t give any warning. Not one sign of what was coming. He wished he could erase the hurt he inflicted. Beautiful Amy the woman he always loved stood two feet away with piercing blue eyes and said nothing for the longest time. Jeff looked at the floor while he waited for a response. He kept glancing up to see if she was still there. Why is she not saying anything, what else can I say? I've said I'm sorry. This is crazy, how long is she going to keep me standing here. Finally, he looked up and met her eyes. "Are you going to say anything?"
They had arguments like any other couple married for seven years. He'd seen her angry side many times, but when she finally spoke her demeanor was calm and emotionless as if she was reading a script. "I'm leaving now. I want you gone before I come back in the morning." Then she picked up her purse and left.
Jeff had been in the living room of his apartment thousands of times, but never did it feel so cold as the moment Amy walked out and slammed the door shut.
He knew he hurt her even more than he envisioned he would. He tried to explain it to her best he could. He rehearsed what he was going to say in his head, but when the words came out, they sounded harsher and more uncaring than he'd hoped.
"I'm feel like I'm in a cage Amy. I quit my job today, I've been thinking about it for a long time. I want to head west to California, I need to be free from routine life. Can you understand, I love you, but I can't do this anymore. He tried to explain that these feelings have been going on for years. Amy listened with facial expressions changing from raised eye brows to squinted eyes.
Whenever I felt like I was trapped I took a long walk. I thought all married men felt like this at one time or another and I accepted it. I had dreams Amy, don't you remember I wanted to be an actor? How'd I become a maintenance mechanic for Ford?
He said he was sorry only once because he thought it didn't sound sincere, even though it was.
Jeff put his hand on top of his recliner. "I'm going to miss you." Why do I feel so miserable, this is what I wanted... I'll get over it.
Jeff's life changed in a moment yesterday. A switch in his head or his heart, he wasn’t sure which, was flipped and a new Jeffery emerged. Maybe it was his manager Frank that pushed the button when he said, “Jeff are you sleeping, move your butt, we got cars lined up outside.”
One stupid sentence from a man Jeff despised is all it took. Jeff smiled thinking about the expression on Frank’s face when he said; “Screw you Frank. You’re going to have to move your fat butt, because I’m out of here. I’ll be back tomorrow for my check.”
Recalling his courage yesterday Jeff felt empowered again and turned to the door. "Time to go."
Jeff got into his car, turned the ignition and sat there looking at a squirrel crossing the road before leaping to a tree. He sat on the branch looking cold and alone. I am as free as that squirrel and just as alone. Hollywood California here I come. Guess I’ll be sleeping in the car. Wait, I should get my pillow and a blanket.
Jeff took the keys and jumped out, running up the steps. He was glad he kept the apartment key. He considered leaving it on the table with the credit cards but for reasons unknown to him, he didn’t. It wasn’t like he was coming back.
He took the pillow from the bed. He had considered making the bed earlier but didn’t. He figured Amy would get rid of the bed and burn the sheets after he was gone. He wasn’t sure where she kept extra blankets. He recalled the one they kept on the couch and took that.
He didn't stop to look at anything this time and exited as quickly as he entered.
The car heater was now blowing hot, he put his hands over the vent thinking about what his future had in store for him. You have no idea where you’re going other than Hollywood. You have barely enough money to get there, then what? It’s too late to turn back, God help me.
He stopped at the Ford dealership to pick up his pay check. He was hoping to see Frank to tell him things that he wanted to say for years, but his check was waiting for him at the receptionist desk. Sally who had been there longer than Jeff, chuckled when she saw him. “You had this place in a tizzy yesterday Jeff. Customers were screaming, Frank was cursing, and then he got his butt chewed out by Ralph and Tony. I laughed all the way home.”
Jeff tried not to look too happy about it but it was music to his ears. A tidbit of vindication for the years of abuse he endured. “Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
She handed him his check. “Did you get another job Jeff?”
He didn’t want to tell her that quitting his job was the beginning of a new life and that he also left his marriage. No use explaining she wouldn’t understand, probably think I lost my mind. He kept the conversation short wished her well and left.
He had one more stop at the bank to cash his check before starting his trek west. He had eleven hundred dollars. Seven hundred from his check, he also withdrew the maximum amount of three hundred from the ATM. This was the only card he kept. He had no plans on using the ATM card after his final withdrawal. The money had to last him for the next week. He only needed food and gas. He’d sleep in the car but may need to spend at least one night in a motel to take a shower.
He had just passed Phoenix Arizona and was three hundred miles away from Hollywood California when the water pump broke and spewed steamed across the lonely highway. He began driving faster. Please don’t cease up on me, there must be a service station soon.
The steam subsided and the engine began to knock when he saw the sign for gas. There were two gas pumps with a small garage and vending machines lined up outside. Jeff pulled up to the open garage door. The mechanic had his head under the hood when he heard the rattling engine. He turned and grinned waiting for Jeff to exit the car.
Jeff knew the repair would be costly. His previous employer would get anywhere from four to five hundred dollars to repair a water pump.
Jeff popped the hood from inside before getting out. “Hi, glad you’re open, it’s the water pump. Hope I didn’t damage the engine getting here. Do you think you can fix it today?
The heavy set balding man with thick glasses and overalls picked up the hood. “I can do it today as long as Manny has the part in stock, let me give him a call.” He took out his cell and pushed a button. The conversation was short and when he hung up he said. “I can do it for eight hundred.”
Jeff immediately shouted “That’s highway robbery. I’m a mechanic this shouldn’t be more than five.”
The man walked away. “Well then Mr. Mechanic I guess you’ll have to find another garage.”
Jeff looked left then right there was nothing as far as the eye could see. I can't believe this jerk is shaking me down. "Wait a minute mister, I know it's harder to get parts out here, I'll give you the eight hundred. How soon can you get it done?"
"That depends, is it cash?"
He opened the rear car door and took whatever money he had left out and counted it. Seven hundred and twenty dollars. He counted it again, then waved the bills in the air. "There's seven hundred and twenty dollars here, it's all I have. Can you cut me a break?"
The man took a towel from his back pocket and wiped his head. "You have anything of value that can be supplemented for the cash."
Jeff remembered the ATM card. "Do you have an ATM machine?"
The man chuckled and shook his head. "This is a service station mister not a bank." Then he pointed at Jeff's finger. "How about the ring?"
Jeff said abruptly. "That's my wedding ring."
The mechanic said. "I won't be able to help you today, maybe tomorrow."
Jeff looked at the band around his finger, it was there so long he didn't realize he still had it on. He pulled it off. I don't need this anymore. "Okay mister you got the ring also, when can I have the car?"
“If Manny gets here in a half hour with the water pump, I should have it done for you in two hours. Make yourself comfortable there's a bench by the vending machines. Cold sodas are only a dollar and the machines take coins or bills."
Jeff walked to the trunk of his car, opened it and took a bottle of water from the case he bought yesterday. It was warm but wet. There was nothing else to do but sit on the bench and watch an occasional car go by. He reached down into his pockets to assess any money the crooked mechanic didn't get. A five two singles and six quarters was all he had.
The mechanic completed the work in under two hours. Jeff used the five-dollar bill to put gas in the car. There was a little more than three quarters in the tank. I hope there is a ATM between here and Hollywood.
He drove the deserted highway for two hours watching the needle on his fuel gage dropped to less than a quarter tank.
There was 30 miles between him and Hollywood when he ran out of gas. I’m going to have to try my luck at hitching a ride and come back for the car later. Hopefully it will still be here. He went through the contents of the bags and boxes. He took only the essentials and stuffed them into the duffle bag. Then he put the remainder of his belongings in the trunk.
It was hot he needed to protect himself from the sun, he didn’t know how long it would be before a car stopped for him. He found his favorite baseball cap and put some water in the bag before locking the car and walking.
Twenty cars passed him before a brown van stopped. The window came down and a young thin man with a shaved head and a mustache that wrapped around his chin asked where Jeff was going.
“Hollywood. I'd appreciate a lift if you are going that way” Jeff said.
The man smiled. “No Problem, hop in.”
Jeff took a second to absorb the cool air blowing from the vent. “This is great thanks, my name is Jeff.” He looked behind him and saw a woman lying on the floor. She looked like she was asleep or passed out.
The man said. “Rough night, she’s sleeping it off.”
Jeff suddenly had a bad feeling. Why would she be lying on a cold steel van floor? “It doesn’t look to comfortable.” Jeff said.
“Don’t worry about her she’s fine. Why you walking the highway Jeff.”
“Car ran out of gas a few miles back.”
The man nodded, and reached down for his thermos. “Yeah, gas stations are scarce on this road. Here have some cold lemonade.”
The uneasy feeling Jeff was experiencing was over shadowed by his excitement when he saw the Hollywood sign high on the mountain in front of them. He filled the cap of the thermos and took a drink. “I’ve been waiting my whole life to see that sign in person.”
“You want to take a closer look?”
The man that never gave his name turned onto a side road not waiting for Jeff to answer. When he did answer it was too late. “No it’s okay some other time.”
The man said in a low eerie voice. “It won’t take long. Sit back and enjoy your lemonade.”
Jeff's uneasy feeling came back full force. “No really, let’s stay on the main road. I’ll see it some other time.”
The man laughed, but when Jeff looked at him he was moving in slow motion. His laughter started fading. Jeff reached for the door handle. “What'd youuu do to meee? Why…
Jeff managed to open the door and fell out. That’s the last thing he remembered before waking to the sound of someone talking over a two-way radio. He was on his belly with hands secured behind him. He turned his head to a woman lying next to him. Her eyes were open and glazed over and her face was pale grey. It's the woman from the van I recognize the hair. That guy drugged me. What the hell is going on.
He turned his head to the sound of the voices. There were two cop cars and an ambulance in the road. He watched the shoes of police officers walking around him. Jeff called out. “What’s going on why am I here.”
Jeff assume the man with street clothes and a badge hanging around his neck was a detective. He cringed when the detective grabbed him under the armpit and pulled. He was still woozy but needed to get to his feet before he yanked his arm off. "Hey man take it easy."
The detective pointed to the woman on the ground. "Did you take it easy on her, you scum."
Now standing, Jeff realized the woman was naked and bloody. A large hunting knife laid next to her. It took a second for Jeff's mind to register what he was looking at. He took a step back with wide eyes and shouted. "I didn't do this, she was in the van with that guy, I was hitching a ride."
The detective said. You're under arrest for murder. You can explain to the judge why you were holding the knife. He dragged Jeff to a black sedan while reciting his Miranda rights then opened the door and pushed him inside.
He drove off with Jeff pleading for him to listen. The detective said. "You’re a good actor mister but save it for the judge."
Jeff didn't say anything after that and looked up at the Hollywood sign as it passed by.