It took them about twenty minutes to get the tire off and put on the spare. (William was pleased to discover that they had a full-sized spare. He could only imagine that a dough-nut on the MG probably would have been about the size of a life saver.) They found their way back to the highway, and drove off toward Oklahoma City. They took a room at a Holiday Inn in Tulsa. Death promised that they would make it to New Mexico the next day, which meant leaving the last dregs of winter behind them.
By day break the next morning both William and Death looked like men in the prime of their lives. The gray was mostly gone from William’s hair and the crinkles around his eyes had disappeared too. His nose was less bulbous than it had been three days ago, and his eyebrows looked less like a national forest. He tried to put his pants on. They were too big.
“Look!” he said, and he held out the waste of his pants so that Death could see how big they were. “And I owe it all to you!”
“Mine too,” Death said, smiling. “Have you got a belt?”
“I do,” William admitted. “But they’re going to look stupid.”
“So, get rid of them,” Death suggested.
“How’s that?” William asked.
“You’ve got two other pairs, tear those up. I’ll do mine too. We’ll go hit the pool.”
They cut their pants off at the knee and used them as trunks, then went down to the pool. They swam a few laps, and then got into the hot tub. After what felt like a year in the cold car, it felt good to sweat. William got out of the jacuzzi feeling young and wonderful. They ate a light breakfast and got on the road. By mid-day, they were rolling through the plains of north Texas.
The flat plains of Kansas had made the night sky seem almost impossibly big, as if you were going to slide off of the planet, but this was nothing compared to the open skies of Northern Texas. It was a beautiful day, the heavens were filled with fluffy white clouds, and the air felt clear. At a rest stop, Death and William took off their coats. William tried to stick his in the trunk, but Death shook his head.
“We should dump them,” he insisted, and he put a hand on his shoulder.
“What, in the trash?” William said.
“Gloves and hats too,” Death said.
William didn’t understand. A part of him was still an old man who had spent a life time collecting odds and ends, and the idea of simply chucking away a perfectly good coat seemed ridiculous to him. “Are you sure?”
“You won’t need it,” Death said.
“We could give them to the Salvation Army,” William suggested. “Something.”
“No one wants the clothes of a dead man,” Death said. “And no wants my coat, period.”
They got back into the car. It took them until evening to cross into New Mexico, and even then, it would be another several hours before they made it to Albuquerque. Still, the weather was nice, and for the first time they found themselves rolling down the windows in the MG, and letting the cool air roll into the little car. Death found some jazz on the radio, and they told stories about all the places in the country that they’d been to. (In Death’s case, he’d been everywhere.) They got as far as Tucumari, a little way station in the middle of the New Mexico desert. They ended up spending the night at a youth hostel, where for little more than the change in their pockets they slept on the floor of a tepee in a pair of borrowed sleeping bags. Will was surprised at how warm it was. In the morning, they woke up with the daylight, and bathed in water provided by a hot spring in the ground. Anyone who looked at William and Death would have seen two men in their mid to late thirties- tall, lean, well built, in the best part of their lives, with middle age about to come on them. William’s high forehead might bother him one day, but that day was still several years off, and the very slight touch of gray at Death’s left temple suited him. Looking in the mirror that morning a thought came over William, one he hadn’t had in a long time- he was handsome. He wouldn’t have liked to admit it, but in his heart, this struck a chord, and for a moment he remembered the arrogance of youth- when the world seemed to be made for you to conquer, and reshape, and make into your own. The owner of the youth hostel probably wondered if they were gay, but never asked, presumably considering herself above such petty interests. They got in the car and drove west, toward Albuquerque, Arizona, and the American Desert.
People from Arizona were always eager to tell you how cold it was during the winter, and while William could see their point, these people hadn’t usually spent most of their lives in the frozen northeast. They pulled the car over in a dry plain on a mountainside, and took a whiz in a patch of pine trees.
“You want to race?” William asked. He was lying in the dry Arizona grass, staring out at the horizon. There was a stretch of about a hundred yards of even ground in front of them.
“What do you mean, a foot race?” Death asked, and then he added. “I’ll win, you know that right?”
“Who says?” William asked.
“Everyone in the history of planet earth,” Death pointed out.
“I don’t care,” William admitted. “I just want to run. I haven’t run in years. I think it would feel good. I remember when it used to feel good just to run.”
They lined up, and ran, and William cheated, and Death fell, and he lost. “I’ll get you eventually,” he said, and he raised his hands up like a specter and went “OOOOOOOooooooo.”
By the time they pulled into Flagstaff that day William had lost all sense of age. He was, he figured, roughly two or three years younger than he’d been when his daughter was born, and younger still than she was now. The world felt big and exciting, and William wanted to be a part of it. He wanted to mix up with things, he opened up and let out a mammoth scream celebrating his existence and the world and everything that is and everything that was.
“How do you feel?” Death asked. They were eating French Toast and milkshakes in a silver bullet diner that had probably been built in 1928.
“I feel great,” William said. “Better than I have in- well, just better. I feel wonderful.”
They had both taken off their sweatshirts, and were wearing t-shirts and jeans. A young waitress with black hair and breasts that smile had taken their order and was eyeing either Death or William, but they weren’t sure which one.