Tumbleweeds and Lonely Roads

The Last Picture Show (1971)

illustration by Brianna Ashby

This world is black and white and simple. Tumbleweeds languish outside empty gas stations. Trucks rattle down the lonely road. There’s the street with the picture show, the diner, and the pool hall. There’s your car, parked alongside the curb. All empty and open and waiting.

You’re a young woman, or a young man, or a mother remembering what it was like to be young, fickle, and fresh. You want someone to touch you. Anyone to touch you. You want to get out, or you failed to get out, but staying alive in this place requires a fight you don’t always have in you.

Here, everyone knows everybody else and you wish there was a way to escape that, but there’s not.

You play basketball, feel your girlfriend up in the backseat of the bus, go fishing with Sam the Lion, listen to his stories about youth and love and loss.

It’s Saturday night and the only thing to do is go to the picture show and grope in the back row, but evien this has lost its amusement. You want more, but you don’t know what more means. You’ve already seen this picture three times.

Sex isn’t what you expect. It’s not erotic or sweet or romantic. You bear it and hope it will change, that the act will grow into the expectation. Because if it doesn’t, if this is all there is, then that’s too empty to bear.

You’re beautiful and blonde. You’re young and foolish but so assured you’re neither. You expect actions to mean something, and when they don’t, you broaden your strokes, try harder, press yourself against different flesh.

You’re a pretty young thing and you know this won’t last.

You’re a teenager, dating the prettiest girl in school. You see your entire future out in front of you, right here: marriage, a modest job, evenings in the pool hall. But that gets shattered against everyone’s selfishness and you’re left wanting.

Your best friend is dating the prettiest girl in school and the girl you used to date was chubby and rude. You find yourself drawn to your coach’s wife and the bald way she seduces you. The attraction is simple and there until it’s not. She loves you. She’s found something in you she thought she’d never have. But you don’t understand that, because you’ve never felt that lack the way she has. You break it.

You watch television at night, listless, and when an attractive older man comes in and asks you to the pool hall, you tag along. You feel something clutch inside you when he hits the balls cleanly into the side pockets, and he sees this. You let him see this. You are so bored that you throw yourself on that table and let it happen. Want it to happen. Want to feel the way it’ll make you feel.

But it isn’t that. It’s never that.

You let him unzip your skirt. You let her push against you.

The pleasure isn’t where you think it must be. So you chase after fire, choosing to be talked about, rather than forgotten. And it goes just the way you planned, even if that plan left bodies on the street behind you.

You can’t see the same anymore, after all of that.

These are the wounds you bear: the man who loved you but couldn’t feed or house you, the woman you loved but was too distracted to mind, the eye bruised by a best friend’s thumb, the man who died while you were out of town, the friend that died because sand blocked a driver’s vision.

You bear the wound of having felt something, once.

Because the ones who feel it, even if for a moment, carry it with them for the rest of their lives, along with that small stone of bitterness, the knowledge that they’ll never feel it again.

“You know what, Sonny,” you say to the boy that just married your daughter. “It’s terrible to only meet one man in life who knows what you’re worth.”

The pool hall is empty. Its door bangs open again, again, against the clapboard side.

It’s the last picture show at the theater and you want it to be perfect, and just right for that night, but it’s not. You leave.

The road is empty. You’re past the city limits. You turn around and drive home.

It’s the simplest of gestures. Reaching across. Taking her hand.