They were in the morning rush hour heading into Chicago when Lars began to stir. His eyes were closed and he flexed his cheek, as if his face were practicing to be awake. The truck was rolling softly and stopping, rolling and stopping. The small car in front of them braked suddenly and Finn hit the pedal hard. The truck jerked and Lars looked around. A semi out his window grumbled to a halt, the engine brakes popping. They were surrounded by cars and trucks. Lars rubbed his eyes.
“How long have we been going?” he said.
“Couple of hours,” Finn said.
“I didn’t feel you start up,” he said.
Finn started the truck again slowly, trying to find a coasting speed that he could keep up.
“I started gently,” Finn said. “You looked like you needed sleep.”
Lars nodded and rubbed his eyes. He watched the jerking flow of traffic. Finn hoped he wouldn’t ask him about Chicago. He didn’t feel like talking what the slowly creeping feeling in his stomach said was another failure. Another failed chance to rise to the occasion. Wishing it would go away just made him think about it harder.
Lars said, “You ever have to drive in this? This would make me crazy.”
Finn said, “No. I sold my truck —“
He realized he had been holding his breath. “Before we came,” he finished.
They approached the junction of the interstate with another interstate, two great rivers of metal rolling slowly together, two motley sluggish streams blending and curling into the heart of the city. Slowly they floundered through it.
Lars said, “I don’t know if it’s because it’s so crowded or because the cars are so packed in here, but it makes me want to jump out the window.”
Finn said, “Maybe that’s from sleeping in a truck all night.”
“Somebody said I should move to the city, at least Grand Forks or Fargo,” Lars said. “I can’t imagine living in a place like this.”
“You think you’ll ever come back?” Lars said.
Finn shook his head.
“Your girlfriend still here?” Lars said.
Finn said, “Was.”
“She left?” Lars said.
“Was my girlfriend,” Finn said.
Lars nodded absently.
“I think I screwed that up for good,” Finn added.
Lars said, “I’m sorry.”
Finn looked out the driver’s window, away. Nothing to see but the dull grey side of a semitrailer. The wheels made a clatter as it pushed over a crack in the roadway.
“Not sure I could live here either,” Finn said.
Lars said, “I imagine it’s a little easier when both people come from the same place, a similar place.”
“You may find out you’re really different, in the end,” Lars said. “But at least the day-to-day, you expect similar things.”
A car cut them off. Finn honked. He said, “I shoulda taken the loop around. I didn’t want to pay the toll. We’ll probably make it up in gas, just sitting here.”
“I thought we were going to get married,” Finn said. “I think she did too.” He hadn’t wanted to talk, now he was talking. “She said, ‘Let’s wait,’ And now —“
They were coming deeper into the heart of the city now. The highway dipped down below street level, squeezed between concrete walls. Brake lights flashed. The city blocks were taller, grim old buildings, drab and unkempt and loomed over them. Lars looked out his window.
“When we were driving in here, in August, just like today,” Finn said. “I feel like I was going the wrong direction from Minneapolis.”
The tracks for the El were perched above them, running down the centerline of the highway. A train clattered to a stop at a station above them.
“I thought I was coming back just for a little bit. Like I had forgotten something. And then I just couldn’t leave.”