Thunder Basin, North Dakota
Time: T-minus zero minutes
It had snowed during the night in the eastern part of the state, a light dusting, and Eli was tracing patterns on the ground with the toe of his shoe when Richie drove up in a white Austin-Healey 3000 Mk III. Eli stood in the crisp air and admired the car. It looked like it was doing sixty just sitting there. Richie honked, and he flicked his nearly-spent cigarette over his shoulder, threw his duffel bag in the tiny backseat, and vaulted over the side of the convertible without bothering with the passenger door.
Richie was smiling. "Lord look at you," he said. He reached over the stick shift to hug Eli. "Do I need to sign anything?"
"I signed myself in, I signed myself out." Eli ran his hand reverently across the Healey's wood dash. "Richie, is this mine?" He twisted to look at the rear of the car. "I could have sworn I totalled her."
"You drove it into a house," Richie agreed. "My mother's house. On the day she was supposed to get married."
Eli waved goodbye to the facility workers huddled outside on their smoke break. "How is Henry Sherman?" he asked.
"He's all right."
"I don't suppose there's any way this could be my car," Eli said wistfully. "Maybe it could have been repaired."
"I'm not a mechanic, but I don't think so, no."
"It was my fault, too," Eli said. "That poor dog." He brightened up after a moment. "You're going to have a lot of fun with this car, I can tell you that."
"It's not my car, Eli. I teach ten-year-olds how to lob a ball over a net. At the Y."
"And I lecture on Victorian novels to twenty-year-olds. I get a lot of flak about 'relevance.' What I'm saying is, so what?"
"Well," Richie said, "Chas grossed twenty-seven million dollars in the last fiscal year."
Eli considered this while he removed his hat and tied back his hair. "Did you know that alternate history falls under the umbrella of science fiction?"
"I didn't know that." The mid-morning sun had melted the snow in the parking lot, making the asphalt slick, and Richie backed carefully out of their parking spot.
"Old Custer has been embraced by the science fiction community. It's a strange and wonderful thing."
"It's a new car that looks exactly like your old one, Eli."
"I get that." Eli patted his pockets. "Hey, do you have any cigarettes? I'm plumb out."
Outside of Flyway City, Minnesota
Time: T-plus three hours, four minutes
They stopped for take-out and gas an hour after crossing into Minnesota. Eli stayed in the car—the second draft of his third novel was in the backseat—and lowered his hat at the young man who was filling the car. The attendant was wearing an archaic North Stars jersey over a heavy sweater and was having trouble dragging his eyes off the Healey long enough to replace the nozzle at the pump. "The epitome of the hairy-chested British sports car," Eli announced to the parking lot at large. The parking lot, with the exception of the wide-eyed employee, largely ignored him.
Richie stomped out of the gas station and started throwing road maps in the open car. "Minnesota," he said. "Wisconsin. Illinois. Indiana. Ohio," – Eli made a grab for the map before it fluttered away in the wind – "Pennsylvania. New Jersey. New York." He dumped a heavy plastic bag in Eli's lap and climbed in the driver's seat, slamming the door.
After they were back on the highway, Eli looked in the bag. It contained four sodas, two bottles of water, two foot-long subs, and a pack of cigarettes. He smiled and passed Richie one of the sodas.
"Hey, Richie," Eli said around bites of submarine sandwich, "I'm sorry I used your directions to roll cigarettes."
Richie took a long gulp of Fresca and kept his eyes fixed on the road.
"If it makes you feel any better, my throat aches like a son-of-a-bitch. It's probably because printer paper doesn't burn at the same rate as tobacco," he mused. "Or very well at all, really."
"How do you have a drug problem and not already know that?"
"My drug use was a cry for help," Eli said. He crumpled his sandwich wrapper and added it to their makeshift garbage bag. "We drive back to New York the way you came out, then."
"Because I have twenty-four hours of directions memorized. Right." Richie honked furiously at a red car that had just darted in front of the Healey. "I flew into Minneapolis–Saint Paul so I could pick up the car. Did Chas tell you that? Chas was supposed to tell you that."
"I'm sure he meant to," Eli said. "The last time we spoke, he sounded somewhat distracted. As do you. Are you all right, Richie? You seem kind of frazzled."
Richie glared at him.
"Well, I really appreciate you coming all this way to pick me up." Eli put his hand on Richie's shoulder. "Thank you," he said. "And thanks for the cigarettes, too."
Richie almost smiled. "Anytime." He dug a spare pair of sunglasses from his jacket pocket and passed them to Eli. "I need a navigator, Eli. Will you be my navigator?"
"Sure thing, Richie. I was wondering, though – do we need all these maps? Can we just drive?"
"I'm hoping we can pass Chicago tonight and stop over somewhere in eastern Illinois," Richie said. "I want to be back in New York by late afternoon. We're going to have to make a pretty early start tomorrow, what with losing that hour."
"Oh, that's right," Eli said vaguely. He leaned back in his seat and unfolded the map of Minnesota over his knees. "How's Margot?" he asked. "She's your sister," he continued, more or less automatically. "Adopted," he conceded, when Richie didn't say anything. "How's that going?"
"I see Margot all the time," Richie said. "We're secretly in love. She's writing a play."
"What does that even mean?"
Richie glanced at Eli. "Which part?"
"The part where you're secretly in love." Eli tried to look nonchalant.
"I don't know."
"Are you two happy?"
"I don't know. Maybe. I'm happy. It's hard to tell with Margot, but she seems happy these days."
Eli watched as more and more space grew up between the buildings outside of town. Soon all that surrounded them were snow-spotted fields. Occasionally he would see houses, set back from the road and accompanied by barns and silos. The car radio, set to a station on the AM dial, played softly in the background.
"Are you sleeping with her?"
"I don't think that's any of your business, but yes."
Eli tapped his cigarette against the ashtray in the center console. His hand moved almost automatically from the ashtray to the stick shift, but Richie swatted him away. He settled for fiddling with the Healey's switches. The lever controlling the heat was already slid to maximum, he noted with regret. The afternoon was warm enough for two real men to be driving around with the top down, but not so warm that Eli's ears weren't starting to get numb.
"Well, all right, then," Eli said. "What's her new play about?"
"I'm guessing it's about us, Eli. Or the Levinsons."
Eli lit a new cigarette. "Speaking of the Levinsons," he said. "Why do you suppose Chas would buy me a car?"
"You'd have to ask him that. He told me he wants to ask you to go camping with him and Ari and Uzi."
"No, in the city."
"In Battery Park?" asked Eli. "Can you even do that?"
"The Public Archives."
"Margot has Ari and Uzi convinced the African wing is haunted by the spirits of the animals on display. They're pretty eager to spend the night."
"Margot does have a thing for zebras," Eli said. "I always wished I could have gone with you guys."
"I know you did."
Eli played with his seatbelt, opening and closing the buckle, and tried to poke in the glove box, which turned out to be locked. "You know, Chas was never invited, either."
"I thought you would have talked about that in rehab."
Eli could see Richie's scars sometimes, when the sleeves of his jacket rode up his arms. He guessed they had faded with time, but they looked shocking enough to Eli. He turned away. "Talked about what?" he said.
"You wanting to be a Tenenbaum."
"Mostly we just talked about my addiction to Mescaline. And, you know, some other things I was on."
Just south of Ingersoll, Minnesota
Time: T-plus six hours, fifty-six minutes
"Are you sure we're going the right way?" Richie demanded. "I ask because that sign just said we're coming up fast on Iowa. Why would we be going to Iowa, Eli?"
Eli scratched his nose. "It's the future birthplace of James T. Kirk?" he offered.
Richie veered onto the shoulder and slammed the brakes.
"Please don't do this to my car," Eli said.
"Screw your car!" Richie gripped the steering wheel and glowered at Eli. "I'm trying to get us back home in time for my father's funeral. Just because you wrote a book where some guy doesn't die, doesn't mean you have to start giving a damn about Star Trek! What is wrong with you?"
"I'm sorry." Eli reached for Richie, who pushed him away. "Wait, hold up. You mean, Royal's dead? Royal Tenenbaum? I didn't know that. How did I not know that? I'm sorry."
"You promised my mother you'd be at the funeral! That's why we're here!" He pinched Eli's cigarette out of his mouth. "Are you on something?"
"I believe you're missing the point of rehab," Eli said stiffly.
Richie didn't say anything. Eli picked at the stitching on the red leather door panel. "May I have my cigarette back?" he asked.
Richie tossed Eli's cigarette out the window. Vehicles whizzed by at frightening speeds as Eli and Richie sat at the edge of the road.
"My father said he wanted to be a Tenenbaum," Richie said, breaking minutes of uncomfortable silence. "Why would he say that? What's so great about being a Tenenbaum, anyway?"
"I tried to kill myself and you never even came to the hospital."
"I screwed up," Eli admitted.
Richie drew his fist back to punch the dash and then stopped. "No, I screwed up," he said. "You got help. Even Chas got help." He ran his hands along the edge of steering wheel. "It's like we're the two curves on one of those graphs where the one line is swooping up at the same time the other one's crashing down." He shook his head. "I don't even know what I'm talking about...who do we know who knows anything about math?"
"—Chas," they said at the same time. A car raced passed them, two child-sized faces pressed up against the back windshield.
"You're reading the wrong novel," Eli said finally. "What I mean by that is, you're reading the novel the wrong way. You're reminding me of this scrappy kid a couple of semesters ago who read The Woman in White and postulated that it was about fashion. I don't know, maybe it's the grief." This time Richie let Eli embrace him. After a moment Eli pulled away, and Richie turned the key in the ignition.
"That does explain why Chas was crying on the phone. I didn't get that until now," Eli said.
"How could you promise my mother you'd be there when you didn't even know about Royal?"
"She's family," he said simply. "I have to just say – I've been living in my head a lot, out here. Sometimes I miss things."
"You've always been like that," Richie said. "I think that's why it took us so long to see you needed help. Maybe the kid didn't actually read that book."
"No, there was evidence that he had." Eli tipped his head back and looked at the sky spread out above them. It would be dark in less than an hour, he judged. "I wrote another novel," he said.
"No, in a month." Eli tucked his hair behind his ear. "But I was in a rehabilitation facility when it happened, yes."
"What's it about?"
"I haven't figured that out yet."
"Well, what happens in it?"
"I think my protagonist may be based on your brother."
"I mailed him sections of the first draft and he sent me back notes," Eli said. "I really thought this was a was a road trip."
"Yeah, I know, Eli."
Eli slapped the poorly folded map of Minnesota against the top of the passenger door. "We'll make it back in time. We'll get up at four in the morning if we have to," he said. "Let's go. We've got a cemetery to hit."
Richie looked at him.
"Your brother said that," Eli explained. "On the phone. Not—well, not recently. This would have been a couple of weeks ago now."
"I think he may have gotten that from my father," Richie said thoughtfully. "But I don't think Royal would mind you saying it, too."
Eli smiled. After a moment, so did Richie. "We've got a cemetery to hit," Richie said, and eased the Healey back on the road.