Mile High
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Truth"
Originally featured on 01-26-2007
As part of our series "Phases of a Holiday Meal"

Margot stood at a Mobil station in Paducah, Kentucky, where she waited alongside a blue Honda Civic with a pack of Marlboros. It was a clear morning and the wind was hitting at all the right angles: right under the knees where sweat builds up from driving, and at the nape of the neck where sweat sticks to hair. It was so clear early that she could still see the half full moon. She snapped gum and sang along to the Beck album Peter had finally agreed to listen to. She tipped her Red Sox cap and leaned up against the truck with one heel resting on the tire, like a cowboy. In the distance, trucks roared on to Colorado, the highway pulled tight to the horizon.

“I bought a Willie Nelson tape!” came Peter’s voice, excitedly, “for a dollar.”

“The tape player’s broken,” Margot told him, and lit a cigarette. A rumble of laughter came from a group of truckers assembled by the back door of the gas station using nickels to scratch lottery tickets; every few minutes a howl would erupt and one of them would slap his knee,

“Driver, I just won five bucks,” he said and smiled proudly, kicking his boot into the ground.

“What a waste,” Margot said with her eyes narrowed. She looked at Peter, standing with mouth slightly agape at the band of large men in his pleated khaki’s and too large forest green lambs wool sweater. He used too much hair gel, and Margot suspected it was his mothers—he smelled like a hair salon, as did the inside of his Mets hat that he wore all day; he took it off only when they ate dinner, usually at a packed and hot smelling diner where the vinyl booths were slick with year old grease.

“It looks like a helmet,” Margot had told him, as she cut into her meatloaf at a not half bad restaurant in St Louis on their first day on their trip. She looked across the table at his hurt animal expression. He ran a hand over his plastered down hair and tried to rough it up, but it stood straight up now like a porcupines needles.

“Better?” he asked, and he looked so hopeful about it that she had to nod.

Margot would’ve been more honest, but her cousin, ten years younger than herself, was deemed ‘fragile’ by her mother and needed special care and attention. She thought of him like the little baby chicks in her sophomore year science class, the ones she watched hatch and had to keep warm under heat lamps. They seemed to fear the human hands that reached in to spread seed or change the water; their feathers never seemed to settle and they always looked extremely uncomfortable with existence. When she looked at Peter, with his hands shoved into his pockets as the cool Kentucky breeze hit his face, she again narrowed her eyes. Looking up again she and found the North Star, the Big Dipper.

“Let’s go,” she said, and they got back in the car, joined up again with the interstate, the familiar sound of lapping pavement underneath them.

“When I was young,” Margot began, turning down the country station that Peter had requested, “my dad and I were driving back to Portland from Bend where Aunt Grace lives and that night there was a blue moon, behind us, sort of lighting everything up, and as we came closer and could see Mt Hood in the distance, and straight above the peak was the Big Dipper and it was tipped, you know so the handle was almost straight up and it looked like it was pouring chocolate sauce all over the mountain. Dad told me I would never see anything like it again.”

“What’s Mt Hood?” Peter asked, looking not at her but out the window. Margot sighed and shook her head.

“It’s a giant volcano,” she said, and he turned, his mouth again agape, “that could one day explode and demolish the state of Oregon.”


“Yup. There are tons of volcanoes there. Like Mt St Helens, Mt Rainier…”

“Didn’t Mt St Helens erupt?”

“A while ago. My dad remembers it really well, but I was still in the womb. I can’t wait to see one blow though, it’ll be awesome.”

“But a lot of people would die,” he said, biting his nails, a habit she found disgusting and often she would swat her hand at his without meaning to and he would bite off too much, blood would begin to seep out and she pictured showing up back home with him covered in band-aids, her mother scowling.

“Hundreds of people die every day due to smoking cigarettes,” she said, “and that’s a man-made thing. This is nature…it has no sense of human mortality, and in fact I think Mother Nature is trying to get rid of us, maybe.”

“That’s kind of weird,” Peter said, turning the music back up and staring out the window. He held the Willie Nelson tape in his hands, the plastic crinkling as he absentmindedly rubbed his fingers over the seam.

Margot had met Peter for the second time two weeks ago when she had pulled into their driveway in her mothers Civic. He was sitting on the front steps with a large gray cat in his arms, his back hunched over as he pet it. He had looked up at her when the car door slammed, with the expression she thought now might be the only one he could muster—mouth dropped open in a way that showed no teeth, eyes wide but not out of curiously, rather in a way that suggested he had just gained the ability to see and was unable to understand the vast amount of information flooding in. He wasn’t dumb, she knew this because he was coming to Oregon to attend Reiser Academy on a full scholarship. It was a long way from Chatham, Illinois—a long way from its mess of railroad tracks, fried brown yards and flattened landscape.

Peter’s mother, her Aunt Michelle, had Ziploc bags full of trail mix and sliced up apples for their trip, and thanked Margot profusely for coming to get him.

“Donating your time like this,” she said, and put her hand on Margot’s arm, warm from the cup of tea she nursed, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.” Putting her mouth up to Margot’s ear she whispered, “I couldn’t afford plane tickets,” and then shrugged. Margot knew she was poor because of the way the family dressed in clothing from second hand stores and the silverware was unmatched and sometimes bent; when Michelle had set the table for lunch before they left she rummaged in the drawer for the most polished forks and knives, used cloth napkins. She smoked and stared at the window as she reminisced about Peter’s childhood, turning every so often to look at him, then to Margot.

When they pulled out of the driveway she stood out in the yard until the car was out of sight, Peters little sister Melinda on her hip. He didn’t say a word for the first few hours, kept polishing his glasses, adjusting them.

“How long have you smoked?” he finally asked her, opening the cigarette pack in the cupholder.

“About two years,” she said and took the pack from him, turning it over in her hand, “I’m trying to quit.”

“You’re not trying very hard,” he said, eyeing the full ashtray.

“I made a deal with my mother that if I drove out here I could smoke in the car, and she said yes. If you were a smoker you’d understand that it’s nearly impossible not to smoke while driving.”

“Hmmm…” he said, and he looked at her. He saw a girl he did not know very well, one with a reputation that had made his mother bite her lip when she heard the news that Margot would be coming to get him. Margot with her floppy red mane of hair, held back with a small army of hair ties and bobby pins; their first stay in a motel, the Motel 6 in Junction City, right off 70, he had watched in amazement as she pulled them all out, lining them up atop the night stand while she sat with her legs crossed, watching Dave Letterman.

She had seemed so intimidating when he’d met her, the way she had breezed into his house, eyed the furniture that was jagged at the edges, the carpet stained from years of his fathers muddied boots—he was sure she had seen all of these things. He knew Margot’s family had more money that his; their fathers had stopped speaking for years over a refusal on his fathers’ part to accept plane tickets to Portland. He’d been crushed when the trip was cancelled, but the way his father looked at him when he hung up the phone told him not to question it. When he heard Margot was coming to get Peter, he only said, “Suppose she’s got nothing better to do,” and left it at that.

His mother had cried when he said goodbye, and squinting as he looked at her, nearly eye level now, she pressed him against her and he could feel the sun against his eyelids, the way the her earring dug into his chin.

He rubbed his chin now, looked at his jagged, broken nails.

“Have you ever been to L.A.?” he asked, his eyes scanning the inside cover of the Willie Nelson booklet, the cowboy hat, the bandana, the toothy grin.

“No. It’s a hell-hole.”

“How do you know?”

“How do I know? It’s a place that shouldn’t exist, Peter. L.A. and Las Vegas only continue to thrive by sucking the Colorado River and rancher land dry. It’s a travesty. I avoid it for the same reason I avoid Wal-Mart; it’s evil.”

“My mom likes Wal-Mart a lot. We got all of Melinda’s baby stuff there. I remember because mom was about eight months pregnant and we had to take bus…luckily these two guys gave us their seats, and then helped us carry the stuff back to our house because I guess they knew my dad.”

“Well, who knows, maybe you’d like L.A.. That’s just my opinion.” She shrugged, not knowing if he was insulted or not. She wanted him to like her, wanted him to report back that her family wasn’t so bad, had been misjudged. But he seemed so different to her, like no one she had ever met before; she got the impression the feeling was mutual when she could almost see her words flying over his head.

She had met him the first time when he was eight or so, when her family had flown to Springfield, just ten miles or so from Chatham, for Thanksgiving. They drank hot apple cider together with Elise, Margot’s younger sister, and Davy, the child of the neighbors. Peter didn’t say one word all night unless spoken to by his father, and even then the reply seemed forced, like it was being dragged out of him. Then she hadn’t cared whether he liked her or not, and she and Elise had made fun of him on the flight back, calling him turtle-boy for the way he seemed to disappear into his turtlenecks.

Now, watching him work on a crossword puzzle out of the corner of her eye, the lights of the highway flickering in his glasses. She was tired, but they were close to Denver, they’d watched the Rocky’s form from little pimples on the horizon to the full range, she could feel the elevation in her head, longed for sea level.

She thought of how strange it would be for Peter to live his new life, so far from his family, his way of life, his climate.

“Are you excited about school?” she asked, hoping to get some information from him. She tapped nervously on the wheel as she waited for a response, and then stopped, wondering why it was so important to her. Peter sighed, attempted to run his fingers through his hair.

“I guess, I mean I don’t have much choice.”

“About what?” she asked, genuinely confused.

“About going to Oregon. I was fine with Archie High, but my dad wanted me to get out of the Midwest, he doesn’t want me getting stuck in a rut. He’s not very happy with the way his life turned out I guess.” After a moment, he shrugged.

“The truth is,” he continued, now with her full attention despite the Rockies full and looming in the distance, “I didn’t even know he was sending in the applications. When he said I’d gotten in to Reiser I thought he was going to start crying, which I’ve never seen before, except maybe when our dog Scout got hit by a car a few years back.” He was looking at his feet, but with intention.

“I want to be able to take care of my parents when they’re older,” he said, and Margot nodded, “I don’t want them to have to go into a old people’s home or anything, unless maybe, it’s a nice one.”

“I don’t want that either,” Margot said, instinctively reaching her arm over the console and patting his knee. The khaki’s were stiff with starch, his knee bony.

“We’re almost a mile above sea level,” Margot said, straightening herself in the seat, “maybe we can find a hotel here with a tape player,” she said, checking the exit signs.

“Yeah,” Peter said, smiling for the first time since they had left Chatham.

“I’m pretty far from home,” he continued, turning around, as if he could make out his house still in the distance.

“Yeah,” Margot agreed, “but I think you’ll like the West Coast, and you’ve got family there.”

“I think it’ll be okay,” he said, smiling again. She smiled as well. Freedom seemed to be good for him.

Read More By Liz Varley

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