Southwestern, Chapter Eleven: Loss

 

New Mexico had taken its toll on me physically. The day after that epic nosebleed, I was hardly able to get out of bed. Ricky and I went to the diner like usual, but when it was time to leave, Ricky headed out to sell books and I drove my car right back to the house in Bosque Farms and climbed back into bed.

I took a shower a little later in the day, trying to sweat out whatever virus (or demon, or whatever) was hampering me. Standing at the mirror afterward, I took a good hard look at myself for the first time all summer. In just about a month, I could already tell I’d lost a significant amount of weight.

It made sense given how far I was walking each day, not to mention how much I was sweating. But I also thought about my diet, which consisted primarily of oatmeal, fruit, and coffee for breakfast, some sort of deli meat sandwich or PBJ and an apple for lunch, then maybe some cooked chicken breasts with a little bit of barbecue sauce for dinner. It was meager, at best. But it was cheap. I know I’ve mentioned it 30 times by now, but we were instructed to live on as tight of a budget as we could manage. I took that to heart, so I was trying to live off of no more than $25 per week of groceries.

When you add all those things together – weight loss, long hours, poor nutrition, poor hydration – it was no wonder I’d gotten so sick. I knew I needed to take better care of myself. So, reluctantly, at the behest of my mother, I went to the grocery store and picked up a bit more food along with a bunch of Gatorade.

The next morning, I pulled the same drill, except this time I was actually able to eat some breakfast at the diner. Evidently, breakfast didn’t matter. I headed out to sell books but quickly realized I was still too sick to work. I spiked a fever that morning and spent nearly the entire day in bed.

Friday morning came and I finally felt better. I was still pretty weak, but my appetite returned in a big way. At the diner, Deb’s jaw dropped when I finally ordered something different. I still took the oatmeal she’d brought out automatically, but I added biscuits and gravy, eggs, and bacon to the order. I devoured all of it. Ricky was amused, remarking that I looked like Tom Hanks at the end of the movie Castaway.

I made it to noon without too much trouble. When I stopped for lunch at a nearby park, I was exhausted. There was a slight breeze, so I decided to get out of my car and sit on the picnic table a few yards away. Staring to the East, there was a picturesque mountain range that I enjoyed taking in during a break. Despite its beauty, I’d come to hate that mountain range.

Day after day of 100+ degree weather wore me down. One of the more mean-spirited things New Mexico did to me, though, was to threaten rain four or five times every week. East of the mountains, these massive, dark clouds would develop over the course of the day. But as soon as those clouds reached the edge of the mountain range, they’d stall. Almost every day around 4pm, I would stare longingly to the East, watching heavy bands of rain fall to the earth no more than twenty miles away. Maybe only fifteen miles away, but never, ever closer than that. New Mexico was so cruel to me.

For the first time since the first week in New Mexico, I thoughtfully considered the idea that maybe I’d made a mistake. I knew my parents thought I was crazy, despite their best efforts to hide their dissatisfaction with my decision. They would remind me almost every time we talked that I could easily get a summer job back in Indiana. But I wanted to try something different. Something I’d never even dreamed of doing. I wanted to make as much money as possible to help pay for school, too. That was certainly a major motivator.

But, I took a step back and looked at what the first month of the summer had been. I was physically decimated. I was emotionally drained. I definitely wasn’t going to be making $8,000. And psychologically, the doubt was starting to gain a foothold. There was a compelling case to call it quits.

But, I didn’t want to give up that easily. I knew exactly what to do.

Sitting on the picnic table, facing those jerk mountains, I pulled out my phone and called Travis. He always had a way of inspiring me, without even trying to do so. We spent the next hour talking, most of which was him telling me how great I was, and by the end of it I felt like a new man. With renewed resolve, I finished the week on strong note. Not only did I hit the target Andrew set for me (despite not selling for two and a half days), I actually ended up with 12 hard sales for the week. That was good enough for “middle of the pack” on Sunday. But hey, “middle of the pack” was immeasurably better than “last place”.

Sunday morning rolled around and Ricky and I arrived at the park in Albuquerque a little later than usual. More than most weeks, I was super excited to see everyone else. I finally had some success stories to share. And I had a fair share of crazy stories from the week, to boot.

We parked at the end of the lot and made our way to the rest of the group who were gathered around some picnic tables. I didn’t notice at first, but while we were still a good 25 yards away, Ricky pointed out that one of the girls was sitting on the top of one of the tables and her roommate was embracing her while she sobbed.

“Geez, must have been a bad week for Ashley,” Ricky cackled quietly. A few minutes later Ricky would feel like a jerk for making that off-handed comment, but neither of us could have known what was wrong with her.

As we got closer, it became apparent that Ashley wasn’t the only one crying. I stopped in my tracks when Travis turned around, eyes puffy and red with tears. Andrew was speaking in hushed tones on his phone about 15 feet away from everyone else, holding the bridge of his nose and wincing.

“Trav, what’s going on?” I asked as Ricky and I finally reached the group.

Travis threw his arm around my neck and sighed deeply, searching for words that wouldn’t come. Every time he tried to say something, he’d stare down at the ground shaking his head, trying to fight off more tears. I’d never seen him that shaken up before.

“Patrick,” Ricky called out to another guy. “What’s going on, man?”

“It’s Adam,” Pat said. “He quit on Thursday and drove to Cali to see some friends.”

It wasn’t making a ton of sense. There was no way everyone was rendered speechless because a kid quit a summer job. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story.

“He got in a wreck with a semi, though, and, uh…he didn’t make it.”

Patrick had been Adam’s roommate for the summer. They’d been each others’ closest ally for the past month and a half, forming an incredibly close friendship in that short amount of time. He was sitting on the ground, hunched over his knees, playing with his shoelaces. Patrick seemed to be a thousand miles away from all of us in that moment. That image, the one of a traumatized young man sitting on the grass and playing with his shoelaces, is an image that was burned into my memory. There was something so surreal about that moment that it left an impression.

I’d known Adam for about six weeks. We met for the first time in the parking lot at Purdue the day we drove down to Nashville for the sales conference. After that first week, I saw him once a week for only a few hours at a time. Basically, I barely knew him. But learning of his death did something to all of us. It was a poignant reminder that as much as we all wanted to deny it, we all were, in fact, mortal. It also put our summer in perspective. My best week of selling books suddenly meant absolutely nothing to me.

Ricky sat down next to Patrick and stared straight ahead. Travis sat down next to Ricky, and a moment later, I followed suit. The four of us sat in a line, away from the rest of the group. Nobody said a word for the next hour.

At some point I realized we were facing East. It was still too early in the day for rain clouds, but I knew they were coming.

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