We are somewhere between Indianapolis and Gary, I-65 North to Chicago, where my life is about to change. There is a feeling you get when you know you will get the job. And I know I will get this one. It's just a feeling, a gravity in my stomach that settles there. I am not nervous. Not yet.
Jillie is in the passenger's seat with her feet on the dash, her legs long and smooth and shiny like a mannequin's, her white shorts falling back just enough that I keep one eye on her and the other on the road. I don't have to pay much attention in Indiana, flat and straight as the roads are. There's nothing to hit but corn. Jillie's asleep, oblivious that her favorite song is on the radio. Dave Matthews, Say Goodbye, lovers for tonight and tomorrow go back to be being friends. I put a hand on her inner thigh, let it drop down until I can feel the silky terrain give a little, that soft, fleshy part at the top where muscle drops off into warm, pliable skin just before the pantyline. And I know Dave's probably right.
But what a fantasy we've lived in the last month.
And, dear God, do I hate Indiana.
There's a gas station up ahead and I pull off the road. When the car slows down, Jillie opens her eyes and looks around. Her hair's all over the place. “Where are we?” she asks me in a voice that's not quite arrived yet.
“Still in Indiana,” I say, pulling up to the pump.
“God, I hate Indiana,” she says and I'm just eaten up with love, with something. “Too flat.”
I am reminded of a joke where a Hoosier's wife leaves him, grabs her suitcase and walks out the door and heads out. Every day for five days he'd get up, look out the window, and see her still walking away from him. I don't tell her the joke. I can't remember it right. “You know why all the trees in Kentucky lean north?” I ask her.
“Because Indiana sucks.” She's heard it already. “That goes for Ohio, too.” She gets out to pee.
We pass through Gary and I know we're almost there because everything has changed. The corn rows are gone, replaced by factories and dark skies, road construction. Gary was the murder capital of the nation once. I think it's Richmond, Virginia now. Maybe Detroit.
Jillie's leaning her head on my shoulder, has her hand between my legs. Red Hot Chili Peppers is in the CD player. Blood Sugar Sex Magic. I've been quiet for the last hour.
“What are you thinking about?”
I reach to turn the stereo down. “The job. What the interview will be like. You think I'll get it?”
She leans back over to her side of the car, puts a hand to her temple and closes her eyes like she's envisioning, like she's remembering. She hums. “Hmmm. Yeah. You'll get it. You'll leave me just after the leaves fall.”
It's still August, and that sounds right. If I get it, that is. And I know I will, too. It still spooks me how she does that. How she knows things.
Chicago's not one of those cities that just shows up on the horizon like Cincinnati. You stay on the road you're on, taking the right exits until the city is just all around you. I don't like that about it, how it imposes itself without warning. Though I don't care much for Cincinnati, the drive there is nice on I-75. On the outskirts of Florence, so obviously still in Kentucky, just as you climb that last hill unaware of how accustomed you've become to green hills and the highway that winds between them, you break over the top and you can see everything below you, the last hills of Kentucky, the Ohio River Valley, the bridge, and the grand, lighted stretch of skyscrapers and sports arenas and winding freeways just across the water, the spotlights crawling the sky above, and you think this is how a city should be presented to you, in an explosion of light that gives you ample warning you are about to leave home and enter a place nothing like it. Chicago is different. You look around and you're just there.
We come through the South Side, the rough side I've heard, and stop at a traffic light under a metal overpass of some kind. To the right is an older black man leaning against a brick building with unintelligible graffiti on the side. He's wearing baggy browns and grays, looks dirty, and is swigging from a bottle in a paper sack, just like you might see on television. To the left a quartet of thuggish looking black teenagers are swaggering to the crosswalk in basketball jerseys and shorts that drop below their knees. They're looking at us and I lock the doors.
“You don't have to do that,” says Jillie, and I know she's probably right, but I've heard so much on the news about car-jackers and I leave my doors locked, hoping the car behind me doesn't tap me on the bumper. That's how car-jackers do it. The light turns green and we move on.
I like driving through downtown. The buildings are straight and tall, the streets wide and not too crowded with cars. The city is laid out nice and logically on a grid that makes sense to me, and Jillie directs me which way to turn from the map. She's a good navigator. Chicago impresses me because it doesn't seem as dark and scary overall as other cities I've been to. Pittsburgh looks like Gotham City and the buildings lean over the streets, throwing shadows over everything. Downtown Chicago looks cleaner, brighter. Chicago's a nice town. I could see myself getting along here, as long as winter never came.
“The first thing we have to do,” I say, “is get a hot dog. Have you ever had a Chicago hot dog?”
“I don't like hot dogs much,” she says, looking at herself in the visor mirror and scrunching up her hair – I love it when she does that. “But if you think they're that good, I'll try one.”
“They're unbelievable. They put everything on them, things you wouldn't even think to try on a hot dog. Whole peppers. Tomatoes. Mayo.”
“Mayonnaise on hot dogs? Yech.”
“Yeah, well, Cincinnati puts cinnamon and chocolate in their chili. You like that alright.”
“I'm from Cincinnati. Of course I do.”
We get to the hotel and park on the curb. Best Western. One hundred and eight dollars per night for a basic (read: shitty) room with a view of the brick wall across the alley. That much money could rent you a fine room in Kentucky, something with a jacuzzi. There's a place in Florence where you can get themed rooms: Egypt, Hawaii, Rome, a hut, a cave, a jungle, a champagne glass hot tub. The desk clerk tells me it's another $25 per day to park in the parking garage. I didn't know there were hotels in the world that charged guests to park there.
“You could park in one of the open lots down the street for $8 per day,” he says, with a slight lisp. “But nobody watches it at night.” I pay the man and park in the garage.
“Stop grumbling,” says Jillie, when we get to the room. “It's Chicago!” She spins around the room and falls on the bed, onto the brown and burgundy paisley comforter where I imagine all sorts of disgusting things are living in the fibers, viewable only under a black light. She holds her arms out in the air. “Come here.” I go over and fall on top of her anyway. We kiss. “Let's break the room in properly,” she says, and pulls my shirt off. The bed is hard, creaky.
Jillie gets up and walks toward the bathroom, and I watch as I lie on the bed, taking my time, letting my eyes violate her by rolling up the backs of her legs and over her bottom, up to the top of her back where her hair is a curtain of loose brassy curls against it. “Another thing we have to do,” I say, “is get to Gino's East Pizzeria. I ate there once on a high school trip. The pizza there's about three inches thick and the sauce is on top.”
“I hate it when they do that,” she sings around the corner.
“Yeah, but it's good the way they do it. And the pepperoni's as thick as poker chips. You don't even want to know how big the pieces of sausage are. Your arteries will seize just looking at it. I read on the Internet it's got something like a thousand calories per slice. It's fantastic!”
“Can't we just a get a cheese pizza?”
I want to tell her no, but I just decide she can get her own pizza if she wants.
It's morning and I'm getting dressed. My suit looks more confident than I do, a navy blue pinstripe, gold tie, silver and gold cuff links. My take-over-the-world suit I got for a graduation gift for this very purpose.
I am sick with the butterflies, the hope of getting hired, the fear of getting hired. It's all so surreal, being in Chicago for an interview. Two Twenty-Five West Washington Street, near the Sears Tower, Suite 2200. That’s where the interview is. I try not to even think about where the job is located. The other side of the world. I pretend Japan is just around the corner.
Jillie pops out of bed in a pink tee-shirt and panties. She looks so good I want throw off my suit, let it wrinkle in a pile on the floor and take her hard on the bed. But I keep looking at myself in the mirror, at her floating on the carpet behind me, her legs smooth and hairless and shiny and sleek in the sunlight pouring through the window. Sunlight's all that's through the window. The rest is brick and ugliness.
“You clean up nice,” she says, pressing her mouth against my back and looking at me in the mirror. “I miss the goatee, though.”
My face is round and young now – like I'm 20, not 26. My goatee helps me look my age, keeps me from being carded everywhere I go. “What's going to happen, Jillie? Am I ready for this?”
“It's going to happen whether you are ready or not. This is what's supposed to be. We're being tested.”
Her arms fall from my shoulders as I make for the bathroom. I'm going to be sick.
Jillie goes back to bed and, my stomach thoroughly emptied, I head downstairs for breakfast. Eight dollars for eggs and bacon. Four dollars for orange juice. There's a place back home, a bit out in the boonies, where you can eat yourself sleepy again for $4.25.
It's a sunny day in Chicago, muggy, and I decide to catch a cab so I don't have to navigate, so I don't have to find a place to park. I think of characters in movies as I hold my hand in the air above the sidewalk to hail the taxi. I like the idea of it, the feeling that I'm important and classy enough to wear a suit and pay somebody to drive me across town. There are taxis in Lexington, but you have to call them and wait an hour.
The building where I am to have my interview is a tall silver one, across the street from the Sears Tower, and I still can't get over being there. It's a Wednesday and it's busy, people in suits everywhere walking in different directions unmindful of each other, dodging each other silently. There's a reggae band playing in the courtyard next to the building, a small crowd gathering.
The lobby is an enormous glass structure with escalators going up to where a guard checks your identification, where you have to sign in and state your purpose. “I have an interview scheduled,” I tell him. He checks the book for my name.
There's a bay of elevators to take you to the 22nd floor, and the one I'm on is stuffed with people, and I'm worried I might fart, that the others might think I don't belong here. But they don't pay any attention to me. I'm just another guy in a suit trying to make a living.
The interview goes unsettlingly well, conducted by two young gray-suits with shiny white smiles and identical haircuts. They like my background, my positivity, that I am well spoken. I wait for a Kentucky hillbilly joke that never comes. They tell me about teaching English in Japan, call it America, Jr., tell me they can’t say so officially but that I should apply for a passport as soon as I get home. I have no idea where to get one, but I don’t say so, just roll the departure date around in my head: mid-November. My head is swimming. I am happy and heavy. I realize I’ve never really been anywhere.
The hotel room smells like incense and Jillie is draped over the bed, decorated by shopping bags. We arranged a late checkout. She sits up with her hands behind her, her legs dangling over the edge like a throw, black tank top, little white skirt, stunning. “How'd it go?” she asks me.
I smile because this is what I wanted, but I can feel that my smile is weak because I am nervous, because the destiny of it feels so suddenly heavy. “I think I got it,” I say, dropping my jacket on the chair. “It sure is hot outside. Muggy. Check out my pits.” I raise my arms to show the dark circles.
“You don't have to share everything with me,” she says.
I raise one arm up and bend it back at the elbow like it's a weapon. I walk slowly toward her, feigning a German accent. “Look at my armpit! Look at it, Frau! Eet ees real. Eet ees natural. Eet ees shteenky! Do not look a-way from the powah ov zhe peet.” I stomp toward her with my face contorted, like I just finished sucking on a lemon.
“Yah!” she shouts and turns over on her stomach laughing. Her skirt hikes up.
“I con shee your pon-tees, Frau. Vhat you zhink I should do wiff zem?”
Jillie rolls back over and lets the skirt fall back. She has that look in her eye, a close-lipped smile, her cheeks sunken, mockingly serious. She places her bare foot against my chest. “Take zem ohff, Herr Doctah.”
Lying in bed my stomach begins to turn again. Not because I’m leaving. Because I’m leaving her. Jillie’s in the bathroom, and I fight back a sob. She’s been so cool about everything, as though she’s been fine all along with a temporary and fiery romance, as casual and happy as a sun-hatted belle at the Derby. She won’t be one of those women who holds a man back, she says, I deserve to see the world, to get out of Kentucky, to have a good and interesting job, something better suited for me than waiting tables and waiting on her to get her own life together. For the past six months, she’s only been mentally divorced. I wonder if she feels like I do about it: piss scared and stupid happy at the same time like we’ve thrown our hands up on the downward dive of the roller coaster. Pretty incredible how she keeps her composure, as though striking magic and leaving your husband to chase a dream and having that dream shoot out to the other side of the world immediately is just butterfly chasing. I roll out, pull on my boxers, barefoot over to the bathroom door, put my ear up against it. Her quiet sobs become trapped in the pressed wood particles between us.
We have a few more hours to kill before we have to head home. Jillie wants to go to the Art Institute even though the woman that sold us the tickets said you needed at least two full days to see all of it. The building is impressive, massive, stately with columns and steps out front, a bronze lion statue. Nearby is the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, Soldier Field.
The last time I was here I was 15 and bored, barreling through the exhibits so I could say I at least looked at the patience and brilliance of centuries of art, someone's love, someone's contribution to history, to existence. I scanned them, uncaring, and filed into the cafeteria with the other bored teenagers to flirt and act like an idiot until we all got kicked out.
But today, with so much less time, I intend to be deliberate, to take in the paintings with my arms wrapped around Jillie, to listen to her as she sighs and mumbles words like “amazing” and “so beautiful.” Today I am more aware of the distorted reality of Picasso, more appreciative of the distance and deference with which you must look at Monet and Renoir. I decide that impressionists are my favorite.
But what catches my eye as Jillie is still studying “Whistler's Mother,” is “American Gothic.” It's hard to appreciate art from books, from television. I've seen references to this painting all my life, usually parodies of it of some kind, Green Acres, Loonie Tunes, and my first inclination is to laugh at it again, because that is how it has always been presented to me, in some sort of jest. Up close though, the real thing, is something you can't just take your eyes away from. Haunting. Sad. Determined. So very lifelike the farmer and his wife. Their eyes, I know are only paint, but they look like glass, shiny, multi-shaded, incredible, 3-D, like a photograph. I think of them, who they were, who their descendants are now, if they've been reincarnated. Reincarnated. I didn't used to think of such things. I think they must have lost children, that they themselves died young, that they were proud to be Americans, that they were good Christian folk that kept a huge, black Bible on the coffee table, if they had a coffee table, that there's probably a tent revival going on nearby, that the children that survived childhood, the ones that received their 10-year cake, eventually grew up and moved off the farm and into the cities, but maybe one of the boys stayed behind to take over the family farm. They look tougher than people are today, willing to face the land with a sense of purpose, with a gloomy and hopeful sense of pride and longing, but not necessarily happiness – the Puritan work ethic doesn't require it. But mostly, they look unafraid.
Jillie hugs me from behind, calls the painting a beautiful fantasy.
Jason Lee Miller is a technical writer/editor and composition instructor at Eastern Kentucky University and co-editor and book reviewer at the literary magazine Gloom Cupboard. A former web journalist and graduate of Spalding University's MFA program--a Poets&Writers magazine top-ten MFA school--Mr. Miller's articles have been cited or linked to by the New York Times, the Yale Journal of Law and Technology, Cnet-News.com, and numerous textbooks published in the US and Canada. His original poetry and essays have appeared in Ontologica, the Bluegrass Accolade, the Copperfield Review, and the Eurasia Critic. In April 2011, he launched the blog Off Topic (offtopic.typepad.com), a blog about the writing life.