Carnivale by Pia Z. Ehrhardt, short story book cover artwork

“Carnivale” by Pia Z. Ehrhardt

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A rented car with unlimited mileage, and nothing between Louisiana and New Mexico but the emptiness of West Texas and memories of what might have been.

About the Author
Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of FAMOUS FATHERS & OTHER STORIES. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Oxford American, The Morning News, Narrative Magazine and Virginia Quarterly Review. She is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship and the Narrative Prize. Her work has been performed at Symphony Space, Word Theater, and on WKQR. She lives in New Orleans and Queens, NY.

The car was small, red, a rented Honda Civic with unlimited mileage. It was November and my husband, Donald, and I were driving across Louisiana on I-10, and then through the widest part of Texas. The highway sign at the state line said: El Paso 878 miles.

“Is that a joke?” I asked.

It was easier to look at the side of Donald’s face, his unhappiness, halved. We’d been fighting about everything, the kind of fighting, like siblings, where it’s all pick and nag. We’d talked about separating, but the word spoken out loud in the room, presented like a packed suitcase, was its own kind of separation. We’d decided to travel.

There was a fence streaming by on his side, and acres of farmland. Mother horses munched on grass while their colts pressed against them. We’d lost another baby, my third miscarriage, and I didn’t want to try again with Donald but I didn’t want anyone else either. I hated his disappointment and didn’t know what to do with mine. Our seed was good enough to spark a life, but not enough to sustain one. I ovulated, we fucked, waited, succeeded. We knew it was just a lima bean, but our hearts were cartwheeling, above the waist we were Carnivale. Until I bled, called Donald at the office and told him we’d lost the baby. This time he’d said, “Not again,” and I thought, that’s my again, not yours.

We were driving to New Mexico, a new state for us. I needed air, but it was too chilly to roll down our windows. Dry heat blew around my chest and legs. Donald kept his eyes on the road and I read a Jean Rhys novel, enjoyed her misery, the fur coat, held the book up near the dash so I wouldn’t get car sick.

The road stretched ahead, but we had patience. The truckers didn’t. Donald would stay too long in the left lane, forgetting to get out of the way, until some professional roared right up on our asses and blew us over to the right. After San Antonio, it was mostly eighteen-wheelers driving through the emptiness of west Texas.

I helped Donald find a calm truck to stay behind, a quilted silver one, clean, carrying what we wondered? We drove up on the side to read the decal: Dole Pineapples. The driver kept it legal at 75 mph and we tucked in behind him, passed only when he passed. Donald called the 1-800 # printed on the back to tell the guy’s company what a great job he was doing, what a credit he was to the open road.

When he turned into a truck stop in Kerrville we followed him in for coffee and pie. Coconut cream for Donald, Dutch apple for me because I loved the crust more than the filling.

The trucker walked over, said, “I’m leaving. You two ready?”

Donald paid up and we followed him out. He wore dark jeans, a Houston Oilers T-shirt under an unbuttoned flannel shirt, no hat, but cowboy boots. He held the door open for us. “Thanks for the call to the home office. They let me know.”

Donald blushed a little and I wanted to touch his hair, cool his face down with my hands. “I think we’ll be taking it from here,” my husband said, “but travel safely.”

I spread the road atlas over my legs like a blanket to see what town we’d be hitting next. There were miles and miles of I-10, full speed, and then a red light stopped us in a place that looked like a set from a western and put us back on the map.

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