August 15: “Fast Lanes” by Jayne Anne Phillips

Happy Monday, Story366!  Today I write to you from the road, a pretty common occurrence as of late, my family and I returning to Springfield from Chicago. We got a late start—we always get a late start—but as soon as my youngest spotted a playground and a bathroom stop McDonald’s, it was all over. Can’t blame the kid, strapped into a seat for a few hours at that point, to want to release some of that pent-up energy, aided by his share of the family pack of Twizzlers I got for the road. So, we spent and hour at this Playland, and halfway through, Karen and I decided to stop around St. Louis for one last night of hotel living, which includes complimentary dinner (you gotta stay at a Drury Inn if you haven’t), a pool, and two big, soft beds.

I don’t have too many moments of premeditation in Story366—not since I ran out of minor Polish holidays in the Spring—but I did hold onto to today’s story, “Fast Lanes” by Jayne Anne Phillips, specifically for today. “Fast Lanes” is a classic road story, fitting for a day of travel, and comes to us from Phillips’ second collection, Fast Lanes, out quite a bit ago from Dutton Lawrence (this might be the oldest book I’ve covered so far this year), the follow-up to her much-heralded debut collection Black TicketsI read Black Tickets in grad school and loved it—everyone does—but for whatever reason, never read anything by Phillips again, save selections from that book. Story366 rights a wrong yet again, and here we go with “Fast Lanes.”

“Fast Lanes” is about this unnamed woman who has to get to West Virginia from Denver because her father is having some serious surgery. To get herself there, she enacts a relationship with Thurman, a guy with whom she had a one-night stand, a guy who stuck around the next morning, wanting more than just one night, more than just sex. Lucky him, our hero needed that ride east, so they form an agreement, that for three weeks, they travel together for this trip, nothing else promised, not during, not beyond.

Phillips begins that story in New Orleans, more than halfway into the trip, forming a frame as the structure. At this point, our protagonist has spent the night somewhere, not with Thurman, both of them too drunk to remember what happened, where they were. It’s implied that she spent the night with a faceless man from the bar, and their agreement is threatened: The tenuous nature of their relationship is revealed, but since we don’t really know yet who these people are or why they’re in their situation in New Orleans, it’s a tense, but mysterious moment. Will they go on to West Virginia? Will Thurman hold up his end? To what extent has her infidelity hurt him?

That’s when Phillips loops back around, taking us back to Denver, to the start of all this. We find out about their hook-up, how this journey was launched, and who each of these people are. Both are ex-pats, running from somewhere else, looking for love—temporary or permanent—in the waves of alcohol. Thurman grew up in Texas, the son of a famous high school football coach, ostracized for not wanting to follow in the family footsteps and play at SMU, for leaving as soon as he could. Our protagonist has left for reasons unknown, this got me thinking: Whose story is this? So far, I’ve been calling the female half of this duo the protagonist, as it’s told in first person from her point of view, but really, we get to know Thurman much, much better. On the way to West Virginia, we stop in Texas to visit his family—half the story takes place in his family home, him dealing with his parents, his angry, hurt father. Interesting perspective, this story, practically a duel POV, if not first-peripheral.

The couple get back on the road, make it to New Orleans, and then we pick up where we’d left off in the frame, when Thurman is pissed/hurt/judgmental from the opening scene. Do they make it to her parents’ house in time for the surgery? I won’t say here (hey, this suddenly has me thinking about Jamie Poissant’s story I wrote about earlier this summer). I don’t think the destination is really the point of this story, as it’s more about the relationship between this woman and Thurman. They initiate their knowing each other with drunken sex, but as they move forward, they aren’t physical. Our protagonist admits that she’s had perhaps too many one-night stands and is trying to quit—Phillips employs some addiction language here—and even though Thurman wants more than that, seeming like a legitimate long-term alternative, their time together is purposely platonic. That forms a stress between them, what they don’t do, more than anything they do do.

I love Jayne Anne Phillips’ style, in “Fast Lanes” and in the other stories I read from Fast Lanes. She uses a lot of dialogue and focuses her stories on people dealing with each other (when dialogue comes in handy), her characters built by subtle actions, choices  of words, and tone. Phillips is one of contemporary lit’s great voices and as I sit in this hotel room, I’m honored to scribble this post down, to have spent some time with her today.

Jayne Anne Phillips