Exit Zero, 2017 First Place Adult Division and Publisher’s Choice

By Eric E. Wallace

The skies above the Owyhees were gray and unpromising. The clouds, sullen, raised defiant fists against any possibility of brightness.

Neville returned his focus to the roadway, urging his sputtering Civic along with an unspoken prayer and plenty of tense body English. He remembered his father’s habit of encouraging their ancient John Deere tractor by bobbing back and forth on the rusting metal seat, maybe a throwback to some rocking ancestor trying to convince an exhausted plow horse to dig one more furrow. Or maybe, Neville thought, there was an even earlier ancestor in shoulder-aching leather harness himself, straining in the dusty twilight to keep farm and family going.

Neville thought a lot about his family, past and present. But these days, that was all. Just thoughts. Since he’d moved to Boise, he never visited his parents, still farming near Jerome, never saw his siblings, scattered like seeds across the Magic and Treasure Valleys, never emailed the aunts and cousins in Payette. His one living grandparent was stored away in a Buhl nursing home, and she didn’t know a pot from a potato.

Some idiot on a Harley caterwauled by and careened insolently across the Civic’s bow. Neville flinched but felt too depressed to hit the horn. In any case, the horn rarely functioned.

Neville could drive to work using side streets and Overland. But he usually took this little bit of freeway, the so-called ‘Connector,’ to give himself a sense of, what? Freedom? Speed? The illusion of going somewhere? He often snickered at the name “the Connector”, thinking that these days he was the least-connected person on the planet. One black sheep, far from the farm. Baa.

“You wanta do what?” said his Dad, scraping manure and mud from his boots. “This here’s college. This here’s all the art anybody needs. See how I done them twenty acres? That’s art.”

“I think I have a talent for painting.”

“You wanta paint? The barn needs painting.” His father was trying to be conciliatory, but it came out like sarcasm. “The shed needs painting. You can paint the house, come to think on it.” He hawked, spat, squeaked open the screen door. “Art? Your mind slipping, Nev? I knew them feds was poisoning the damn aquifer. Makes everything turn weird.”

“To thine own self be true…” Neville tried.

“Who said that?” Dad poured coffee into a tin mug.

“Shakespeare, I think.”

Dad nodded. “He didn’t have to work no ranch, did he?” he said without rancor. He gulped his coffee. “You know how life works, Nev. It’s God first. Family second. Land third. There ain’t no room for ‘self’ in that pecking order.”

“I gotta do this, Dad.” His head had been packing for eons.

At Neville’s news, Mom, bonded to Dad like gneiss on granite, had shaken her head and turned her back. She had other children.

Jimbo stayed and worked the farm. Paulie got an offer from a big tractor maintenance outfit in Notus. Dad took that as a badge of honor and let Paulie go. Sissy married a Wendell boy, a farmer with prospects, and that was all right. Darlene hooked up with a Burleigh banker who had his finger on a wagon-load of agricultural mortgages. Good move. But Neville…

Unblessed by his parents, Neville left for art studies at BSU.

His classes went extremely well, he painted furiously, he created what he thought was a pretty fine portfolio. After a year he applied to get into the best art school anywhere—Cornish in Seattle. He crossed his paint-stained fingers and waited to hear from them.

And waited.

Two part-time jobs kept him afloat. His main job was at a cineplex, where he took tickets, worked the booth, and cleaned up after trash-tossing filmgoers. His fellow workers were other students and a few young adults with mental challenges. Neville mostly kept company with foam-core people like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, each of them larger than life. Sometimes they made him feel pretty insignificant. He had all the stale popcorn he could eat.

His other part-time job was as a waiter at a Cracker Barrel near the cineplex. Sometimes when he walked towards the faux country building, he felt an odd little spasm of homesickness. This made him laugh, as the décor was hopelessly contrived and was no more connected to his former life than were the dreams and illusions up on the movie screens.

Neville rented a rundown trailer near the mall, sharing it with a student name Seth, a psych major from Oregon whose main interest seemed to be football. Seth ignored the smell of paints and linseed oil constantly filling their small space. He tolerated the wild, multicolored splotches in the kitchen and bathroom sinks. The outside of the trailer happened to be pink, yellow and purple, so Neville figured there was at least some crazy logic in the cosmos.

Using the Connector, it took him only ten minutes to drive to either of his jobs. At first he’d laughed at the metal sign marking the ramps to the interstate: it said Exit 0. At that point you either went curving east or splaying off west. There were no other choices. The actual sign—in constant danger of being flattened by a distracted driver —stood bravely, if forlornly, at the very V where the roadway split, kept company by a dozen blades of the scruffiest grass in the universe.

This afternoon Neville didn’t laugh as he approached Exit Zero. With still no word from Cornish, a decision needed soon about another term at BSU, and the continuing dull weight of semi-alienation from his family, Neville thought the highway sign was beginning to taunt him: he seemed to be perpetually turning toward—or turning into— a big fat nothing.

Adding to Neville’s gloom, the Civic began sputtering at the entrance to the Cineplex parking lot. The threat of repair bills caused Neville’s pulse to race. But the car recovered, kept running, and Neville edged it into a slot.

Today his fellow ticket-taker was Wendi. “Hi, I’m Wendi. With an i,” she always told people. “That’s the little letter i, not like the eyes on your face.” A small, hunched blond girl in her indefinite 20’s, Wendi had a surprisingly-complex smile to energize her often-bland face.

“Hello, Devil,” she greeted him, without any irony or playfulness. The first time they met, she’d misheard his name, and Devil stuck.

Neville had learned Wendi’s story from an assistant manager. Wendi’s parents, their love worn thin by weariness, had been searching for a permanent institution. A protective aunt swept in, secured Wendi a place in a four-adult, lightly-monitored home and found her the Cineplex job. A close-enough bus line and a bit of walking got her back and forth. Independence, whether with a capital I, a small i, or both.

“I like my job.” Wendi told Neville. “I get to be me.”

“That’s a good thing,” said Neville.

Wendi was always ready with the rest of her spiel. “I’m slow,” she said solemnly. “But it’s a good slow.”

“It is,” Neville told her each time. And meant it.

He wondered how he’d describe himself. These days, the words might be ‘unsure,’ ‘torn’ or ‘hesitatingly-hopeful’.

The afternoon had unexpectedly turned sunny, and the movie business was light. The supervisor was off sneaking a cigarette, and Neville sneaked a check of his phone for calls and email. As usual, nothing from Cornish. How long had it been since he applied?

Wendi reached into the big orange and blue-striped tote she always had with her. She pulled out a mauve, cloth-covered book and offered it to Neville.

“Look, Devil. Here is my eye.” He took the volume from her, and she went on. “Not the little i. The eye that sees.”

He opened the book. It was some sort of journal with pictures. The handwriting was juvenile. But the thoughts Wendi had inscribed made his heart jump. ‘Love isn’t a word, it’s what you do.’ ‘Can you see my feelings?’ ‘Do i scare u?” ‘The sky is kind today.’ ‘I was going to run away, then I saw a robin.’ ‘Slow is fast enough for me.’

“Wendi, did you make up these phrases, these, eh, sayings, the words?”

“Yes.” She nodded slowly, her expression neutral. No hint of shyness, not a glimmer of pride. “I think things, I put them there.”

What was just as startling to Neville were the small drawings, at first suggesting around eighth grade skill, but many with unusual color juxtapositions, many successfully combining line drawings with pastel washes or crayon overlays. There was poignancy without sentimentality, humor without cuteness.

“It’s good,” Neville said. “Really good.”

Wendi looked up at him. “I want to be like you, Devil,” she said. “Make art. To share, so….” That smile emerged. “…so someone like me might like it.”

She said she’d show the journal to her parents the next time they visited. She hoped they could help her ‘share it’. She didn’t seem to know the term ‘publish’, but Neville figured that’s what she meant.

“Wendi, it’s wonderful.”

She nodded gravely. “Slow. But I’m a good kind of slow.”

The following week Neville had what he later called his ‘double whammy day’. The mail brought a letter from his mother, only the second since he’d left. On a yellow, lined sheet she wrote, without endearments, that Neville’s father was laid up for ‘a long spell, months, likely.’ She wanted Neville to come home and help with the place. Apparently Jimbo couldn’t do it alone. It was signed simply ‘your Mother.’

As Neville was trying to deal with the miserable conflict this letter churned up—he hated the phrase ‘obligation of the eldest’—a thump at the door announced a special delivery. It was from Cornish. Excitement dueled with dread. He opened the envelope, his heart jumping hurdles.

“Dear Neville Mayfield…”—his vision blurred for a moment—“…Cornish College of the Arts is pleased to make you an offer of acceptance, with a possible scholarship…”

Acceptance? Scholarship? Yelling, Neville jumped up and down. Seth’s guitar slid from the couch, twanging, two mugs clattered into the sink from the drain board and the trailer rocked as though hit by an earthquake.

Joy rarely comes without asterisks and small print. When Neville calmed enough to read further, he saw phrases like “limited space…extremely-high competition…let us know immediately, or the opportunity will be offered elsewhere.”

He was reaching for the telephone when he saw his mother’s yellow letter, lying open, accusing, beseeching. No, he thought, she would never beseech. It was an expectation, a demand. He hesitated. Read more from Cornish.

The art school also had a demand. “Presuming your positive acknowledgment, we need you to report to the Admissions Office no later than the 20th of this month.”

Oddly, after all the formality, there was a small note scribbled in red ink on the last page: Hey, Neville! Loved your Pieta series. Hope to work with you. It was signed by one of the foremost painters in the Northwest.

Neville groaned in frustrated ecstasy. And he had to go to work.

As he approached the Exit Zero sign, it taunted him again, this time in woeful sync with his thoughts. It was the zero hour. He needed to make a significant turn. But East or West? Farm or college? Family or studies? Loyalty or self?

At least the Civic knew where it was going, and it took him to work.

He struggled through a lunch shift at the Barrel, his mind ping-ponging. He was surprised that he mixed up only two orders.

Over at the cineplex, Leonardo DiCaprio smiled but provided no help. Denzel Washington, frowning, said nothing. Tom Hanks, a heroic everyman, ignored Neville. His father stared impassively from the cardboard eyes of a furrowed Robert Redford.

Neville knew he couldn’t discuss his dilemma with Wendi. And he soon learned she had her own problem.

“My Dad said no, Devil.” Wendi’s face was neutral, but her voice held bewilderment. Her parents had told her they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help with her dream of sharing her journal. Likely they didn’t know how, Neville thought. And they don’t really know her either.

“That’s a shame, Wendi.”

“I want to share. Me. The art.” She fluttered her hands. “I can’t…do it…myself.”

 At home that night, staring broodingly at a sketch for his Pieta paintings, Neville thought about Wendi. For a moment, his own problems dropped away. His talents, sooner or later, surely would come out. But Wendi’s gifts…

To thine own self be true. His maxim. But does that mean being self-ish? A sagging mobile home might not always inspire reflection, but he forced himself to sit quietly in his room, thinking deeply for the first time since he left the ranch.

Yes, he needed to be true to himself. But couldn’t that include, ironically, being unselfish, thoughtful, compromising? He blinked.

He rushed to his desk, found a calendar, stared. It might just be possible to…

The next morning, he called Cornish and accepted, said he was mailing his paperwork immediately. He made the Admissions appointment for the last possible hour on the last allowable day.

He emailed student and faculty contacts at Boise State, laying out facts and asking an important question. He received five very positive responses.

That afternoon, Neville and Wendi had the cineplex breakroom to themselves. He told her his plan. He could connect her to nice people knowledgeable in art and in marketing. For free, they’d try to help her publish her journal. No guarantees, but a good shot at success.

She seemed puzzled. “Will these people like me?”

“Yes. They’ll like you, Wendi. And they’ll love your work. They’ll arrange to meet you—if I have your OK.”

Her lovely smile pushed aside the veil of uncertainty. “OK, Devil.”

He drove home, humming happily, but his mind in overdrive. He was due at Cornish in twelve days. He calculated his needs. Two days for packing and for shipping some things. One very long day for the drive to Seattle. That left nine days. He hoped that was enough time to spend with his father and mother. Enough time to mend fences. The kind mended with conversation, patience and love. And with a firm sense of self.

The clouds above the Owyhees were tinged with pink. The little Civic, somehow reenergized, sped up the Connector.

For the last time, Neville approached Exit Zero. He smiled. For the first time, he recognized it for what it could signify: a starting point.

He turned toward the morning sun.

copyright © Eric E. Wallace, 2017