When my children were young one of our favorite storybooks was a tale by James Stevenson titled Could Be Worse! It’s the story of a grandfather whose grandchildren think he’s boring because every day he has the same marmalade and toast for breakfast while reading the newspaper. Whatever daily mishaps occur, from splinters to flat tires, he always says the same thing. Could Be Worse!
I have taken on a lot of work during the tax season. As always with accounting, most of it is boring and tedious. Scanning paperwork, paying bills, data entry on Excel spreadsheets. There is never that sense of accomplishment you get when you write a book or paint a house or teach a child how to read.
I have never heard an accountant say, “Look at this tax return I finished. What a beautiful refund.”
Or “How about this report? Do you see the balance and symmetry, how the debits equal the credits. Amazing.”
But it’s always paid the bills, provided the health insurance, and it could be worse. One day this past week, I actually had a pretty good day creating a travel log for a truck driver who had brought in a large stack of of reports detailing his travels. The papers were stuffed in a shoebox, curling at the edges, and covered with coffee stains. My boss wanted them entered on Ye Old Excel Spreadsheet.
Date. Miles Driven. Destination. Next gas receipt. Date. Miles Driven. Destination. An entire year of entries.
Listening to music is not allowed in this office so I found a way to do this tedious task while escaping to a place I love. I got lost in my mind. For you see, I am happiest when I am on the road, the highway stretching before me. This is how my day went:
We load the truck and leave South Florida early in the morning. Rolling past scrub palmetto, a flock of flamingos fly overhead and the tales I share with the trucker take us all the way to New Orleans. I tell him about a trip I made here years ago. The Mardi Gras party I crashed at Al Hirt’s house when I was twenty-five. A late night at Tippitina’s, 3 a.m. and who walks onto the stage but none other than the legendary Etta James. The boy outside the bar who looked like Jackson Browne.
The road west out of the Big Easy brings us across miles of long straight bridges bisecting the bayou. Crossing the border into Texas and heading south to San Antonio we pass ranches with windmills and cacti. Eagles fly overhead and an escaped bull slows us down as he crosses the empty highway.
I tell the trucker about the last time I passed through this part of the country. My girlfriend and I pulled into a gas station and noticed something leaking beneath the car. We went into the small office where the owner was watching a soap opera with two female friends. We told him what was happening and he said, “I’ll take a look in ten minutes, this show’s almost over.” They were watching All My Children, which they referred to as All My Kids. He gave us each an ice cold Coca-Cola from the classic red cooler with the bottle opener on the side, and because we were familiar with the series we sat down and watched too.
Outside in the brilliant Texas sunshine, he checked under the hood, started my car, drove it forward, and took a look at the puddle of liquid on the hot pavement. He dipped his finger in, sniffed, and then licked the tip. “You girls been using the A.C?” he asked.
“Yes,” we admitted.
“It’s water.” He laughed. He checked our license plate. “You two from New York?”
“No, Rhode Island.”
“Yeah, that’s in New York, right?”
“Umm, no.” We didn’t want to insult the nice guy so we politely explained Rhode Island was a state, which is why it has its own license plate. You know, the smallest state in the union?
“Wow. So what brings you folks to God’s country?” he asked.
Very few cars are on the road to Laredo as the trucker and I discuss Larry McMurtry books. Lonesome Dove. Robert Duvall. I tell him I once took a bus from Laredo into Mexico, to visit the cathedrals in Monterey and Saltillo, places you wouldn’t visit nowadays because of the drug cartels and the murders. The bus driver played mariachi music, a few chickens traveled with us, and the scenery was beautiful, all mountains and sagebrush.
A man at the Hotel Rio bar told us Monterrey was the Pittsburgh of Mexico. He spoke with his hand at the side of his mouth as if everything he told us was a secret and he was whispering it to us, but he wasn’t. He spoke rather loudly as he told us about his bachelor apartment with a serape on the bed and how the Hotel Rio doesn’t allow single women in the rooms of men, and “vice-a-versa”. We were happy to hear that.
The bartender hand squeezed the lemons and limes for our margaritas and I think of those delicious drinks every time I have a fresh squeezed ‘rita on the rocks, no salt.
The city was crowded and dirty with lots of gypsy children begging for pesos, their mothers sleeping on the sidewalk. In Saltillo, no one spoke English. The city had narrow streets and mountain vistas. We bought hand-painted ceramic Christmas ornaments that still hang from my tree each year.
The trucker and I travel many more miles before my Excel spreadsheet is finished. In Tucumcari I really feel like a trucker as I hum the song Still Willin’, thinking about weed, whites and wine. In Flagstaff, I recall a day when I took a nap with my husband, back then my boyfriend, in a park under a tree snuggled in our double sleeping bag with the wind howling through the trees.
By now, I am calling the trucker Bobby McGee because I know he’s about to slip away as the stack of gas receipts grows smaller. I read passages from my second novel, Take Me Home, as we pass through the towns that Josie Wolcott visited. Idaho Falls where she met the Indian hotel owners who served her dal with lentils and naan, and Bozeman, Montana where she spent a rainy day with Dr. Andy Radcliffe.
On our way back to Florida for the tenth time in the tax year 2014, we pass through Ogallala, Nebraska which brings us back to Gus in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I traveled through here with a friend of my husband’s on a trip back home to Vail and we took a two hour break from the road to nap, falling asleep to the sound of mooing cattle in a truck parked beside us.
Finally, we pass through Georgia, not far from Dahlonaga where I attended a pulled pork festival and hiked to the Dahlonaga Falls.
Back in South Florida, I finish the Excel spreadsheet and the work day is done. I save it in the trucker’s tax file and tell my boss it’s all set.
“How’d it go?” she asks.
“It was a lot of fun,” I said.
She laughs. She has no idea where I have been all day. It could have been worse.