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Night Ride Home

[2005]

The Gateway Literary Contest in Canada featured this runner-up for best short fiction (under 1500 words):

“Once in a while, in a big, blue moon, there comes a night like this ...”

Tonight is one of those nights, those perfect nights, where the sky is crystal clear, right up to the stars etched in the heavens. The breeze is cool and scented by wild roses and lilacs and evening stock. Over the rise of the moonlit field to the left of the highway comes the syncopated song of the crickets and cicadas, carried like pale moonbeams on a gentle wind that invites itself through my open window. The road stretches on to the horizon in front of me, behind me, and suddenly, I’m thankful for the solitude. People ruin things. And this is too calming, too ... right ... to be ruined by civilization. It’s just me, the breeze with the flowery perfume and the crickets.

This is how I remember our night now, how I’ll always remember it.

Joni Mitchell’s “Night Ride Home” fills the car. That’s my favourite song; and I can’t help but tap the fingers of my left hand on the steering wheel as my car hurries along the deserted highway. My right hand clasps a yellow manila envelope in my lap, making sure that the contents don’t slip out to the floor. I don’t even know the name of the highway I’m on—I only know that it leads home. Mom told me to take the Coquihalla from Vancouver to Kamloops, and then the Yellowhead the rest of the way to Edmonton, but I don’t like that route much. It’s secondary highways for me, all the way. I tell her that I do it to save time. It’s a lie, of course; that’s why secondary highways are secondary. I really take them for the scenery.

It’s your fault, you know. You got me hooked on the scenic route.

“ ... Like some surrealist invented this Fourth of July night ride home.”

“Our night” was during the summer we drove to Vancouver to visit your family. Do you remember? We were 19, I think it was our first summer together. On the way back home, we made this decision to drive the whole way overnight. We listened to Joni the whole way and you knew all the words. We tried to listen to every song but in the end we only listened to “Night Ride Home”.

“I love the man beside me. We love the open road.”

We had passed this field just outside of Edson. It was about three in the morning, and the sun wouldn’t be up for a few hours yet. Yet this field glowed. It looked like it was lit from beneath the ground, shining silver. There was this low hill right about in the middle of it, and on top, a stand of poplars had taken root and begun to grow. It was an average field; that’s what it amounted to in my eyes. But you pulled over and parked the car on the shoulder of the highway. I asked what it was, and you just pointed. I looked out the window, seeing nothing special. There, there! you pointed, and I stared and stared. What was so special about this place? Look at our fireflies, you whispered. Something clicked and I focused in on the poplars. There, drifting on the wind or maybe just caught in whirling thermal zephyrs, were hundreds of tiny poplar seeds. Caught in the moonbeams that lit them from behind, we both got the impression that we were witnessing hundreds of tiny fireflies dancing on the blades of grass. We knew better, but neither one of us wanted to believe that those tiny dancers could be anything less than ballerinas.

You grabbed your camera, got out to stand on the side of the road. The light was far too low for you to take a picture just holding the camera in your hands, but you had your trusty tripod with you, so everything was okay. You were so confident whenever you set your camera on that tripod. Who wouldn’t be? You could shoot anything from there.

I remember you climbing on top of the car, and me yelling at you to get down. You took at least five pictures after you set yourself up, quietly observing the magic as it unfolded. Capturing that stark image on the black and white film. Dating a photographer had its perks, but I think the biggest joy I had was in seeing those images that you picked through the viewfinder. The last photo you shot that night was my favourite of the five you took.

This was the picture you used.

And now, tonight, I’m passing through a field like that. This field, the one on my left ... it looks just like that first field. In fact, it just might be the same one. And I wish with everything I have that I could stop the car, pull over like you did, and see if I could catch just one firefly. If I did I know I’d never go home. But right now I need to go home. It’s started to smell like rain and I won’t drive in the rain anymore. You drove in the rain and you never came back home.

It’s been a long weekend.

“No phones till Friday. Far from the overkill, far from the overload ... .”

You sent off that photo to the scholarship people at the end of the summer. A letter arrived over Christmas that said you had been shortlisted, and in April a phone call told us that you had won. The awards ceremony was in Calgary on 4 July—a year, to the day, after you took the photos. I had to work that weekend, so your roommate went with you. I wanted to go so badly; I was so proud of you. It was $25 000, which would have covered most of your university tuition fees. You said that I deserved the credit for choosing the winning photo, that I deserved half of the money. I told you that you were crazy. But you kept pointing out that it was my choice to send that particular photo away. I’d been the one who’d done it. Chosen a winner.

You didn’t come home that weekend. There was a thunderstorm. They told me you probably had no idea what was happening; that’s how quick your car skidded off the highway.

“Far from the undertow, far from the overload”

I hate funerals. I had the good fortune of not having to attend one until this weekend, but I think I will always hate funerals because of this. But I have to admit, yours was pretty. You would have wanted someone to take a picture of the church. Medieval and gothic, covered in vines like those abbeys you see in postcards from tiny hamlets in England. The prettiest church in all of Vancouver, I heard one lady say as she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. He would have liked it. The funny thing is, though I don’t know her at all, she knows you very well. Because she’s absolutely right. You would have loved it.

Now, Edmonton comes into view on the horizon. This hazy dome of light stretching across the line where the sky meets the earth; this is the city I live in. It feels like I’ve navigated the world and this is the city that I come back to every time. I press on, hoping to make good time. My eyes are grainy and I’m struggling to keep them open. Joni continues to serenade through the speakers.

“Once in a while ... .”

All I’ve got left to remind me of you is a faded manila envelope with your photos inside, images that you saw and captured, developed and printed. Looking at them is like viewing the world through your eyes, because this is what you saw. Each and every one of those prints is an image that you personally decided was too beautiful to go unnoticed. It’s a small comfort, knowing that I have a piece of you with me.

I clutch it tighter in my hands as I drive.

I don’t drive in the rain anymore because the rain took you from me. But I will still drive at night—all night—from Vancouver to Edmonton, whenever I get the chance. This night, the night I’m driving back from your funeral, it’s only the first in a long line of nights that I’ll travel through. I’ll drive straight on until the sun comes up over the horizon, as long as it’s Edmonton that I arrive in. I’ll keep driving, speeding along down the deserted highway, kicking up dust behind me and carving a path homeward up front. Ms Mitchell will always be on the CD player.

“ ... Like some surrealist invented this Fourth of July night ride home.”

Song credit: Joni Mitchell. “Night Ride Home” Night Ride Home. Geffen, 1991.

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