"Sorrow you can hold, however desolating, if nobody speaks to you. If they speak, you break down." - Bede Jarrett
We stop talking on a summer's day somewhere between Ohio and Indiana, a hot and dry stretch of highway that we travel for an hour without seeing another car.
He never talks on country roads. Speak and he doesn't answer, whether by ignoring you or simply not hearing, I don't know. He took on my problems when he let me travel with him so I think it's only fair that I respect his silence.
But that doesn't stop me from wondering what causes it.
I know I wasn't the first person to ride along with him. There's luggage on the back of the car that doesn't belong to either of us, and there's something about my seat that feels wrong, almost as if I've stepped into the place of a ghost, filled a void only to find it's not empty. There are times when he starts to say "Linc" and it begins differently, as if for a moment he's forgotten who I am and only remembers the first person who sat here. I pretend I don't notice.
I dropped a few leading hints the first weeks, opportunities for him to tell me without pressuring. He avoided them.
It must have been a friend, someone close. Someone he left behind in one of the countless towns we drift through.
After a while I decide he's dead.
Finally, on an empty country road in the middle of nowhere, I ask him, plain and outright about someone a long time ago who used to occupy my seat in his car. Tod doesn't answer me at first. He just sits, knuckles white against the steering wheel, eyes staring straight ahead at something only he can see.
"Buz Murdoch." Three syllables, spoken quietly without inflection of any kind. He says them as if he expects me to know the name, to share whatever pain he holds by an empathetic look, as if I can know, by a name, why he never untied the luggage or why he never talks on a country road. He says the name with such significance I know he expects me to have a face, an image, a person wrapped inside it.
But I don't know the name and it gives me an odd feeling to realize that a man is gone, someone who meant everything to one person, and only that person. Nobody else recognizes the name, almost as if the man behind it has been erased and blown away on the wind, leaving only a whispered memory.
I don't ask and he doesn't offer anything. It's his personal memories and I have no right to intrude, I know. For all the places we go together there's always been a wall between us. I can't climb it and I wouldn't even if I could. I can only wait and see if he ever takes it down by himself.
We turn off onto a side road, deeper into the country, past a farm with the wafting scent of fresh hay and the sounds of cows lowing as they graze. There's a breeze drifting across us and I tilt my head back into the sun. Across from me Tod sits, stiff and motionless, eyes searching both sides of the road as if expecting someone to appear. After a while I join him in looking without even knowing what we're searching for.
I don't speak again until we turn onto the main highway, and then only after he switches on the radio and starts to talk over the music, joking and laughing until I join in.
And he stays that way until we turn onto another country road.