Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
2805 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Tour of Nothing

by Jon Steinhagen

LBH and I drive somewhere anywhere does it matter it doesn’t matter not to us not really lately and we see a great expanse of nothing no different from the other great expanses of nothing we’ve been seeing ever since we left the city. What makes this particular great expanse of nothing so unlike the other great expanses of nothing is what looks like an ice-fishing hut at its edge upon which hangs a large hand-painted sign that reads TOUR OF NOTHING - EVERY HOUR - $5 - EST. 1964. I think What in the blue hell and LBH must be thinking What in the blue hell too as she tells me Pull over so I pull over.

Then I think Wait a minute this is how people get killed people get murdered like this just pulling over for no reason in the middle of nowhere there are killers just banking on the random puller-overers. So forceful is this thought that I say it out loud and LBH tells me Like we had planned anything better to do. LBH digs in her purse for something. Her camera. The car crunches over a gravel drive which umbilicals from the highway to the tour hut. Behind us the highway trucks knife along at top speeds.

We approach the hut or booth or whatever it is. A rusted Ford pickup hides behind it. In front is a clean economy car of anonymous make anonymous to me because I know nothing about cars except how to drive them and occasionally lock my keys inside them which is why I carry two sets of keys although today I can’t remember where I left the second set. A man and woman of uncertain ethnic origin lean against this nice economy mystery car and a little boy appears at least I think it is a little boy and I think the little boy belongs to the racially questionable couple. I ask LBH if this is really what she wants to be doing and she tells me Anything to get me out of this car.

I park at a respectable distance from the family or trio of uncertain people for no other reason than this is how I operate I mean this is how I park and observe the rules of strangers I park decently enough away from others so as not to risk scratching of paint or denting of bumpers or entrapment or a whole list of car-related woes and hassles. I say to LBH Who in their right mind wants to take a tour of nothing and she says These people obviously. I check the time and say Assuming “TOUR EVERY HOUR” means every hour on the hour we’ve got another twenty-three minutes to kill. LBH says Whatever.

It wouldn’t be fair of me to mention now but I will anyway I will mention that LBH and I are currently at a loss as to what to do with each other. When the weather is nice there is only so much sidewalk eating you can do and when the weather is not nice there is only so much television observation you can do. LBH is not from here which is to say I am a native and she isn’t so she can’t fool me with surprises like innocently planned trips. Last summer she told me to take a Friday off work and pack a suitcase for the weekend. I had asked her where we were going and she had said it was a surprise and I told her if I was driving it wouldn’t be a surprise and she told me to take a certain highway and I spoiled it all by guessing Galena. LBH told me it would still be a surprise and I told her we’re spending a weekend in Galena at a bed and breakfast and the only surprise would be which bed and breakfast and she was very pissed off by my deductions but come on you can’t fool me. Had she been driving the weekend would have been a surprise although I would have known eventually and maybe would have bitten my tongue but I just can’t do that. That weekend was further ruined by our breaking of the vintage bed when we had sex the first night and I had to cough up some extra money for that and well everything kind of went downhill although we were pretty much at the foot of the hill by then. And we didn’t like the other people staying at the bed and breakfast and the television room smelled like cigarettes. I told LBH then and I still believe it to be true that it was very nice of her to spend her money on me like that and I didn’t deserve it and she said You are right you don’t but I needed to get out of the rotten city. So there’s that story.

We wait in the car looking at the nothing and I think about saying What a waste of time but I keep my mouth shut as I’m remembering the way I don’t bite my tongue. The possibly foreign couple doesn’t move an inch but their little son or daughter is having a great time running around their nice economy car. LBH looks at them and says I hope they can control that kid. LBH and I have let enough minutes pass and get out of the car and I remember to take the keys. We mosey which is the only way to describe how we are moving oh we are great moseyers in the city in the country wherever we mosey. I mosey and nod to the possibly Asian couple and they smile and nod in return. The child stops when it sees us and holds up a model airplane and LBH says Oh I see and we still have no idea if it is a boy or a girl or a very small adult with really good skin.

It is very easy to describe nothing to you and I am going to do it. The nothing extends as far as the eye can see. Now when I say nothing it is not a void I mean no there is earth of a dirt-like quality and only dirt. No fences no grasses no mounds no abandoned farm equipment no graves no signs no furrows. Powder brown crumbly dry dirty dirt. Look as far as you like as far as you can and the only other thing you see is the sky and the sky is doing nothing. No clouds but the blurry sun is to our left so we must be facing north because it is the afternoon and that’s all there is to describe. I fish my wallet out and look inside and find nothing but twenties and I tell LBH this and she tells me Ask for change you’re not sticking me with the tab for this besides I’ve got nothing on me.

The child zooms around the economy car again making airplane noises and I say to the couple Hello and they nod again and LBH looks the other way. I say to the couple Cute kid boy or girl and they nod and smile. I nod and smile. LBH spits. She is the only woman I know who spits. She used to be a smoker and she continues to be a very dedicated drinker.

A door on the side of the tour bureau opens and a not unattractive blonde woman in jeans t-shirt ratty fur coat boots emerges.

Afternoon, she says. If you’ll line up on my left, please.

LBH and I line up on her left and let the silent couple stand in front of us because they were here first. The woman in the fur coat holds out her hand.

Five dollars, please, she says. I am your guide.

The man hands her three five dollar bills and she gives him one bill back.

Children are free, she says.

I hand her a twenty. She gives me the man’s two fives.

Isn’t that interesting the way money makes its journey? she asks. One minute the money is warm inside a wallet and then it it’s in someone’s hand and soon that someone passes it along to someone else and a new wallet for however long it’s meant to be there. Isn’t that interesting? Our money gets around more than we do.

All of us look at her.

Let’s begin, she says. My name is Calixta. Photographs are allowed.

The man clears his throat at the child and the child trots up to him and stands still with the energy gone out of him or maybe just rebottled. Calixta tucks the twenty into her shirt pocket and runs a red nail polished hand through her hair.

This way, she says.

She leads us beyond the cars and stops so we can see from a new vantage point and all we can see is her and a whole lot of nothing behind her.

You have come to a point that is very similar to if not exactly like many other points in this fine country, she says. You have been drawn here not by a desire to see nothing but by someone else’s desire to make you desire to see nothing for a fee. In this era of everything and too much there can be a shack and a beautiful blonde in an old fur and there can be nothing. Here is the nothing.

She gestures to the nothing. LBH holds up her camera. Calixta notices this and poses as LBH takes a photograph and the man takes many photographs with his much nicer camera.

You will say either to me or each other or to yourselves that what we are looking at is not exactly nothing it is something and this is true, Calixta says. There is Earth and there is sky. Sky and Earth are something. But the sign was only so big and Nothing fits better than Earth and Sky and essentially Nothing. For once you have mentally registered Earth and Sky you have nothing else. There is nothing interesting here. There is nothing happening. There is nothing that has been left behind. There is nothing that has been neglected. There is nothing different from the nothing on this side of the highway to the nothing on the other side of the highway other than on the other side of the highway nobody is charging you to take a tour of it. That is a fact and that concludes the factual part of the tour.

This nothing has been here for quite a long time or so we assume. Our memories can only go back so far. It is possible that one hundred years ago a farm was here or a house but there is no memory of it and no record of such. It is possible that something once grew here. There is no memory of it and record of it. It is possible that one hundred and fifty years ago a collection of people with horses and covered wagons rolled over this on their way to somewhere else. But there is no memory of this and record of such. It is possible that two hundred years ago there were people native to this soil who actually lived and hunted and slept and loved and ate and died on this nothing but there is no well you get the picture. Imagine a thousand years prior to that. And a thousand years prior to that. And five thousand years prior to that. And ten thousand years prior to that. And fifty thousand years prior to that. And three hundred thousand years prior to that. And a million years prior to that. Imagine the birthday of this planet and then imagine this spot. It is possible that we are looking at the birth of this planet. And now if you’ll follow me.

Calixta leads us into the nothing. It is soft and lacking any smell. The sounds of the highway become fainter. Calixta puts her pretty hands into the pockets of her fur. The woman takes the hand of her child. The child clutches the toy airplane. LBH takes my hand. Calixta stops and turns to us.

If you look to your right you will see a continuation of the nothing but this is not to say that if you began walking in that direction that sooner or later you will happen upon something, she says. In fact it is a certainty that sooner or later you will happen upon something. If you look to your left you will see more nothing and the same applies to this direction if you decide to start walking. Don’t worry nobody is going to steal your cars. Behind you is the highway that makes escape possible. I point this out because in other times in automobileless times you could be standing here with nothing but your feet or perhaps a horse or perhaps a horse and wagon to take you away from this nothing. The highway is also what brings you here if here is what you want. If you want nothing, we have it. If nothing is what you want, there is plenty of it. You could even pass us and in the next fifty miles you will find a spot exactly like this. A spot full of nothing. At no charge. You are not fools. You are here and you paid because you are curious and I am here because I am curious about you and I need the money. There is only so much something. There can be continuous something but there is only so much of it that you take. You might be able to take it continuously and I know people like that. At any rate there is only so much nothing here and it is a contrast. If you do not think about these places do they exist? Certainly. They won’t be existing for you but they will be existing for whoever is here when you are not thinking about them. And who is to say there is really nothing here? Look behind you.

We look behind us and see nothing but footprints. Smaller quicker footprints of the child. Two sets in tandem of the couple. LBH’s starting far from mine and coming closer.

And now look behind me, Calixta says.

We look behind her see footprints. Many of them. Overlapping. Small and large. A scampering. An aimlessness. A trodding.

One year from now ten years from now twenty years from now a hundred thousand million years from now there will be no memory of us and even our tracks will be mashed down into nothing but that doesn’t mean we are nothing, Calixta says. It means we are something once we were something once.

LBH lets go of my hand.

Thus concludes the non-factual part of the tour, Calixta says. You are free to roam around and explore as long as you like. It gets dark around seven-thirty.

She smiles and walks back to the hut. The child holds up the airplane and makes airplane sounds and runs farther into the nothing and its parents follow it.

LBH and I don’t move.

I think of that trip to Galena that was a surprise and wasn’t a surprise and remember that even though we didn’t much care for the people who were also at the bed and breakfast when we ate with them the next morning they all seemed friendly and they all assumed LBH and I were married. I remember how LBH picked at her cranberry muffin and smiled and blushed and told them we were brother and sister. I remember somebody dropping a fork because I know I know I know they all heard the bed being wrecked the night before. I remember this because it was so LBH.

LBH says I’m starving.

She and I walk back to the car no we mosey back to the car. There is no sign of Calixta as we approach the hut but there are other cars now and other people standing and waiting. A man asks us if we are the tour guides. I say Yes but we’re off duty the next guide will be along soon.

LBH says Wait and she turns around and takes one last picture of what we have seen and off in the distance moving farther away are the tiny figures of the man and the woman and the running child and its toy held aloft.

LBH says Let’s get out of here and I say Done and done and we drive away.

I say Where to and she says Surprise me.


SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Jon Steinhagen

is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists and past winner of the Julie Harris Award for Playwriting. His plays include Blizzard ’67, Successors, ACES, and The Teapot Scandals.

His fiction has recently appeared (print and online) in SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Alliterati, Bodega, Wigleaf, Lantern Journal, The Atlas Review, The Minetta Review, and The American Reader.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury