Mom let Aunt Arlene drive out of Barstow. She ate a surprisingly satisfying chicken salad sandwich there in the passenger seat. There was chopped celery in the mixture, she liked that the gleaming white Styrofoam container balanced on her lap watching desert and desert in the dark pass by the window. The sandwich shop had only provided a few thin napkins no bigger than a child’s hand. Mom had to use one just to whip the mayo smear her fingers left on the radio dial. There were signals in the lonely dark, weak and strong. Elvis on AM. Elvis on PM. My aunt ate her ham and cheese with one hand on the steering wheel, the other half of the sandwich in its container open beside her. There was a glop of melted cheese on Aunt Arlene’s right thigh, when Mom reached over and swiped it off with one of those tiny napkins my aunt snapped at her, “stop pecking at me.”
Mom’s immediate urge was toward defense but in interests of harmony she said only, “okay, okay.” She tried to hand Arlene a napkin but my aunt did not have a free hand to take it. The stain from that cheese ruined those pants.
There were three times they could have turned off the I-40 to head for Las Vegas. Both sisters had been to Las Vegas more than a few times. They’d exchange children and go with their husbands a weekend every other year or so, they went once together to attend an Elvis concert at the Hilton. Deciding not to broad on that mocking busy signal, Mom flirted with the idea of driving to Vegas, spending the night in a cheap hotel room, eating at Prime Rib dinner and lying beside an extravagant pool somewhere. They could be home by Thursday morning, and all it would cost them is twenty bucks for the hotel room, five for the buffet and whatever a bathing suit would run. But Mom couldn’t bring herself to even say the words out loud, knowing her sister would take her little daydream to seriously.
They stopped for gas in Arizona, Mom threw away the dinner trash. Aunt Arlene swept everything on the backseat onto the car floor. Mom drove through most of New Mexico, it felt like it was just themselves, truckers and desert and desert in the dark. There was a complicated flashing of headlights between the truckers that seemed to have something to do with passing. But Mom couldn’t figure it out. The radio hissed and crackled or poured out grief and Elvis music, Mom sang along under her breath; my aunt snored.