For hours, the chatter of crickets had been the only sound along this stretch of night-time highway until the sound of a distant car engine gradually emerged from somewhere off to the right. As the sound grew, a glow from the same direction began to eclipse the moonlight. The sound and light increased swiftly until a large black Buick sedan thundered by, barely visible in the dark behind its bright headlights. In its wake, nothing but dim red lights on the tail fins and the Dopplered strains of watered-down AM-station jazz.
Inside the car, a large man thumped the steering wheel to the beat of the music and hummed loudly and off-key. He wore rolled-up shirtsleeves and was sweating in the mid-August night. “Ahh, there’s nothing out here in the middle of nowhere,” the man growled, running a beefy hand through his iron-gray crewcut. “Got to stay awake somehow. Have to make it there by nine o’clock.” The man looked at his watch. “Can’t be late.”
He picked up a map off the passenger seat and nearly tore it as he tried to locate the road. “Lousy gas station attendant. ‘Just down the road a couple of miles,’ he says. ‘Just a couple of miles.’ Yeah, well that was forty-five minutes ago and I haven’t . . .”
The headlights briefly landed on a neon sign for a motel along the side of the road. As the car passed, the driver caught a glimpse: “ARE YOU TIRED?”
He laughed mirthlessly as the sign disappeared behind him into the dark. “Yeah, you better believe I’m tired. On the road three weeks and I can’t make any sales in this lousy stinking county. Does Harris listen to me? Nah, of course not. ‘Last chance, Worthing,'” he says to me. ‘This county is your territory. Make some sales or don’t bother coming back.’ Lousy . . .” He hit the steering wheel again. “Like that kid knows how to make a sale. Up there in his air-conditioned office instead of out here closing deals. Well, buddy, I’ve been in the business for twenty years! I know how to make a sale! Lousy stinking county . . . ”
“But it’s all about to change, just you watch, Mister Smarty-Pants Harris. When I get to Central City I’ll swing that new client of yours and make my quota for the month. I’ll show you how it’s done. Yeah.” He laughed with exaggerated confidence. “Even Edwina will finally shut up. ‘When are you going to make it big, Walter? You keep telling me that the next one will change everything. When do we get the sofa you promised me? The kids need new shoes, Walter. New shoes don’t grow on trees, Walter.'”
Worthing shook his head to bring himself back to the present, and fumbled with the map some more. “Where the devil am I?”
Ahead, a sign for a roadside diner a few miles down the road announced, “YOU’RE NOT FAR NOW.”
The man laughed derisively. “Yeah, sure. I never get anywhere on time. No matter how hard I try, I’m always late. But I can’t be late for this one. Can’t get lost this time.” He threw the map back on the passenger seat. “There’s got to be a sign somewhere on this godforsaken road. There aren’t enough signs. Why aren’t there more signs to tell me where to go? Sometimes a man loses his sense of direction in life . . . ”
In the headlights, a sign for a church blurred by. “MAYBE IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT, WALTER.”
Stunned, Worthing jammed on the brakes and pulled wildly over to the shoulder, kicking up gravel. He sat there for a second, replaying in his mind what he had just seen. After a few seconds, he released the brake, turned around, and drove back to the sign.
“MORNING AND EVENING WORSHIP”
He rubbed his face and eyes as the shock wore off, then shook his head and laughed ruefully at himself. “Great. Now I’m seeing things.” He put the car in gear, turned carefully around onto the highway, and accelerated into the night.
Meet Mister Walter Worthing, age 47. Occupation, traveling salesman. Like many men in his profession, Mister Worthing is overworked, underpaid, and chronically late to his next appointment, which always seems to lie just past the next town, the next sales pitch, the next lucky break.
Tonight, however, Mister Worthing will find himself for once arriving at his destination on time. For this particular appointment is with his own destiny, which he will meet just a little further down the highway, just past a lonely crossroads and a sign that marks the county line . . . of The Event Horizon.
Trying to stay awake, Worthing spun the radio dial in search of something louder than the jazz station but found mostly static. So he resumed talking. “This used to be a good job,” he began softly. “A job for a hard-working man. And I was good at it, too. Old Mister Stevens knew that. He taught me everything he learned. Now it’s all bean-counters like Harris who only care about the bottom line. It used to be about the customers. An adding machine can’t make a sale, that’s what I keep telling ’em. I loved making the sale. Time was, a decent man could make a decent living. Now we’re all just cogs in some wheel.”
The car’s headlights swept past a sign for an antiques store: “YOU CAN’T GO BACK AGAIN.”
“That’s for sure,” Worthing groused. “That’s what Edwina keeps saying. ‘You can’t go back to the way it used to be, Walter.'” He mocked her in a nasal tone. “‘Used-to-be doesn’t put food on the table.’ She used to understand. She used to appreciate a hard-working man. Now all I come home to is a nagging wife and three nagging children. I put a roof over their heads and food on their table, I am out here every blessed day trying to make ends meet for her, but it’s never enough, is it? What more do they want from me?”
He wiped sweat — or was it tears? — from his eyes.”‘You don’t love me, Walter,’ she tells me. How can she say that after thirty years of marriage? Well, if I didn’t love her, would I be out here all the time? Sometimes I think she would be happier if I never came home again. And maybe I would too, I hate being on the road now, Used to love it.”
“Hate being on the road, hate being at home. Where do I belong these days, for cryin’ out loud?”
Worthing passed another sign, which blurred by much faster this time: “FEEL LIKE NO ONE UNDERSTANDS YOU?”
Worthing nodded at the sign. “You got that right, buddy. Nowadays it’s all about these fancy ad men and their ties and air-conditioned glass offices. They think it’s advertising that sells products, not people. Used to be that my customers were happy to see me. But now they just sit inside and watch their televisions and when someone knocks on the door, they treat me like I’m, a bug, like I’m a pest, and they slam their doors in my face!” Worthing thumped the steering wheel hard. “Well, no one slams their door in Walter Worthing’s face!” He jabbed his chest forcefully with his finger. “There is still a need for salesmen! There’s still a need for me!”
A sign for another motel blurred in and out of the speeding Buick’s headlights: “IT’S TIME TO REST.”
Reading the sign, Worthing began to weep in frustration. “No it’s not! I have to make Central City! It’s my last chance! It’s my last chance!” His weeping turned into sobbing. “I’m such a failure . . . ”
He pulled out his handkerchief and aggressively scrubbed his face. “All the things I could have done with my life. I could have gone for that college football scholarship. But I quit school for Edwina, for her honor . . . ”
The signs were coming faster, almost conversationally now. “IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO MAKE IT RIGHT.”
“How?” Worthing gasped between sobs. “I can’t make any money selling door-to-door anymore. It’s all I know! God, I love Edwina so much. I still do! How can she love a failure like me?” Worthing could barely see the answering signs through his tears. “How can I make anything up to her? To my boys? Tell me!”
“DO YOU HAVE INSURANCE?”
Worthing clutched at a desperate idea. “Yes! That’s it! Oh, that’s the answer, isn’t it?”
“RIGHT INTO THE TREES.”
“But . . . but . . . I don’t think I can . . . ”
“CLEAR YOUR CONSCIENCE — NOW!”
Worthing threw the steering wheel hard to the right, smiling in relief as the car filled with a warm, comforting glow.
# # #
The motorcycle policeman doused his sirens as he pulled up behind the ambulance and tow truck, then dismounted and walked over to the ambulance drivers in white and the garage attendant in coveralls, all surveying the wrecked Buick.
The policeman shook his head as he played his flashlight over the car, its massive hood crumpled around the tree. The driver, he could see, was clearly dead, his bloody face resting sideways on the steering wheel, his grimace almost resembling a smile.
“Pretty sad,” the attendant said. “Must have been doing ninety. Bet he was half asleep when he saw the exit sign. Tried to take it and missed.” He popped a stick of gum in his mouth and bent down to hook the bumper with a cable. “See it all the time on this stretch.”
The motorcycle policeman flashed his light on the sign, an ordinary highway metal plaque with an arrow pointing to the right: “CENTRAL CITY — 2 MI.” He yawned and stretched. “Yeah, I know how he must have felt. They just put me on the graveyard shift. They’ve got us all working overtime.”
“Anyway, there’s not much to see here,” said the ambulance driver. “We’ll take care of the body. Jack here will tow the car over to the impound lot.”
The policeman nodded. “Sounds good. I’ll head back to the station and get started on the paperwork. Thanks guys.” As they exchanged waves, the officer took one last look at the car and shook his head. “Poor chump.” He climbed back on his police Harley, kick-started it, and turned back up the highway.
A few miles later, the officer slid up his goggles, rubbed his eyes, and tried to blink the tiredness away. When he lowered his goggles again, his headlight caught a sign for a restaurant, which he read as he passed.
“JOB GOT YOU WORKING HARD?”
The policeman nodded. “Boy, you can say that again . . . ”
As the policeman sped off into the night, the glow of its headlight faded to invisibility and the crickets soon drowned out the motorcycle’s fading engine.
The next time you find yourself traveling down a dark deserted highway at night, be on your guard: if you’re looking for directions to more than just your destination, the signs you pass may be harder to read than you think.
Advice offered free of charge, courtesy of the traveler’s bureau located just off the exit . . . to The Event Horizon.