Jimmy Brown’s blowin’ town, he thought, as he slipped behind the wheel of his silver grey Honda Odyssey, the gift he gave himself for his 70th birthday. He loved the smell of new leather and fresh upholstery. He rubbed one hand along the dash as he slipped the key in the ignition.

The car had power adjustable seats with eight variations, the steering wheel had a tilt and telescope facility. Even the sliding doors were power operated and on top of that, it topped all the safety standards. There was a dock for his cell phone that would let him take calls, hands free and charge the battery, too, while he was driving.

Jimmy let himself slip and slide back as he ran through the driving seat adjustments. He did the same with the steering column until everything was just so. Next, he turned on the ignition, chose a cd from the selection of country favourites he’d just bought in the 7/11, Jim Reeve’s Greatest Hits, slipped it in the machine that lit up like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, then he selected a button for random play, checked his mirror, signalled and pulled out into the quiet, Main St traffic.

‘Get ready to take us to warp speed, Mr Scott,’ he chuckled, as he drove down the short end of the street and the quickest route, out of town and into the country. Monday was a quiet day so Jimmy closed the office, for the day, sending Mrs Wicks, his bookkeeper home for an unexpected break. He felt a passing whimsy, he suppressed, about why she never made any remark about it. She knew him, he didn’t take days off, yet she never said a thing about it, just grabbed her bag and coat, waved and took off.

‘What the hell, like as if I cared?’ he said to himself and he pointed his gleaming new SUV, a Honda Odyssey, no less, southwards into the great blue and desert like yonder. Jim Reeves was singing, ‘From a Jack to a King, from loneliness to a wedding ring…’ He didn’t like any fuss, anyway. Mary Wicks worked with him, in that same office, for close on 30 years. He saw her family grow up. He even designed the extension on her tract house on the edge of town.

‘with no regrets, I stacked the cards last night and Lady Luck played her hand, just right…’

He was singing along but ol’ Jim Reeves wasn’t making magic for him, he thought. With his right hand, he rustled around in the bag he’d thrown on the passenger seat and found Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads. ‘Now, that’s more like it,’ he thought, ‘a good ol’ boy, done good.’ He hit the random selection button again and gotmarty1

‘when I hear the raindrops coming down, it makes me sad and blue…’

Frustrated, he hit the random button again and this time ole Marty was singing, ‘Cool, clear, water…’ This was one he knew like he’d written it himself in an old notebook he kept as a journal. At least now, though he was alone, he felt free and, well, happy or so he told himself, ‘keep a’movin’ Dan, he’s a devil of a man…’

Now the desert highway stretched out before him and he knew he had choices with plenty of time to make them. He could go on to Las Vegas and spend the night there. Or he could take the interstate at Kingman and take the long ride into Los Angeles.

Marty was singing, ‘bury me out in the prairie, where the coyotes can cry o’er my grave…’ The words made him pause as he tried to make sense of the jumble of emotions he was feeling; lonely, because he was alone for the first time in 50 years, on his birthday and angry, because his wife, Barbara, his childhood sweetheart was gone, taken by cancer, before they could pack up her memories and say goodbye.

‘She was young and she was pretty, she was warm and tender, too…’ ‘Christ,’ he shouted, aloud, reaching over to turn off the music. ‘Even Marty Robbins’s against me,’ he thought. He hated himself for feeling so sorry for himself. When he got up that morning, he was thinking of stopping by the nursery to pick up some saguaro cactus blossoms and paying a visit to her graveside. She loved their sweet smell and always laid them out in a bowl floating on a thimble of water for his birthday. She said they reminded her of him, big, rough and spiky but soft and fragrant, too. She told him it was no coincidence he was born in the same month they blossomed.


He couldn’t go to her grave, couldn’t face her, feeling angry and lonely. They’d both grown up together in Scottsdale, sweethearts through high school and stayed devoted to each other even when he studied architecture in ASU, Tempe. But that wasn’t far away so they kept in touch. His father was an architect, studied and worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and little Jimmy Brown was going to build big things, too.

But that was 1965 and he joined the Marines, volunteered, like a fool, he thought in a moment of patriotic lunacy. They married, before his first tour of duty, up country Vietnam. It was a hell that kept on giving and the only ray of hope and light for him was the thought of Barbara, waiting for him, at home. She even sent him cactus blossoms while he patrolled in the sticky heat of the fetid jungle. When he got home, safe and uninjured, externally, at least, he finished his degree, got a job and bought a house, but he knew and she knew, too, but she understood, he was never the same man.mohave1

He’d been on the road for almost three hours now, he figured but, lost in his thoughts, he didn’t know where he was. His new Honda had satnav, as standard but he was wary of it and hadn’t turned it on. He didn’t know where he was going so how could it tell him where to go?

There was one road and plenty of dirt trails but this was the Mohave Sonoran desert, the hottest, bleakest expanse of searing desert in all of North America. He’d stocked up with  drinking water, had a full tank of gas and in the a/c comfort of his Odyssey, he felt at ease. He didn’t want to go to Las Vegas, though, and the thought of the long drive through even more desert, to Los Angeles, bore no appeal. No, he thought, there’s nothing to do out here, time to head home.

It was then he saw the road sign, old and beat up, it said, NOTHING and he started laughing and laughing, until the salty tears ran down his face, unchecked.nothing1 He’d reached the town of Nothing, an uninhabited ghost town, smack in the middle of the desert that was now used for photo opportunities by tourists and an occasional film crew. Still laughing, he swung the Odyssey around, his journey was over. He knew Barbara would’ve laughed as well.

The drive home seemed shorter than his outward venture. But then, he thought, that was more of a journey inward. He put on another cd, Hank Williams at the Grande Ole’ Opry, put it in the machine and hit the button and waited.

‘Hey, hey, good lookin’, what you got cookin’?

Jimmy smiled, slapped his wheel, threw his head back and sang along, ‘how’s about cookin’ something up with me? Say, say, sweet baby, don’t you think, maybe, we could find us a brand new recipe…’

For the rest of the trip he sang along with Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Tammy Wynette and pretty soon he was home in Surprise, Arizona.surprise1


24 thoughts on “From Nothing to Surprise

  1. I’ve driven through Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and arid California. All have their charm. As long as you have A/C in your car and music you love while miles of endless desert move past your window. 🙂

    • I saw you read that story. There was no word count. I haven’t been there since 1973, when I hitchhiked from Denver to Albuquerque, New Mexico, then a wide, desert loop through Arizona, Nevada, Utah before heading east, all the way to New York. Did you see those towns, Surprise and Nothing?

      • I don’t remember if I was in Surprise or Nothing. I can imagine that in 1973, hitchhiking wasn’t as dangerous (my sister hitchhiked through Germany without a problem). I did want to visit Needles, but never got around to it. I had family in Ajo. It was the first time I’d ever heard the joke about a place being so hot that people took blankets to hell with them when they died.

        Regarding word count: I thoroughly investigated the links. states
        “To write Flash Fiction: Write a scene as you normally would Then strip it down to under 600 words or 300 words, whatever the prompt or your goal is.”

        One another page it says, “Word Count is off! Let’s focus on the theme of the thing. Not many actually stick to the word count anyway. (SUGGESTED-No more than 500 if you want to try that.)”

        I found it excruciating to try to pack emotion into so few words. It was a lot like writing poetry.

      • Funny you should say that. I wrote a poem tonight for the Wednesday Writer’s quote challenge but I was very consciously trying to keep the words I used to a minimum. And yes, it was ‘safer’ to hitchhike then although I met some very weird people along the way but I was just 18 and ready for anything.

      • The prompt was SURPRISE… who knew? Not me. Yes, I am sure my take on your story was interesting. Words, expressions and transitionings can take us places on our own hearts. Thank you, Dermott for generalizing your unique moral to the story…

      • Now I feel I haven’t succeeded in doing what I set out to do. Yes, the prompt was surprise and I tried to avoid a cliched rendering of a ‘surprise.’ So, knowing there was a town in Arizona called Surprise, I did some more research and found Nothing, a ghost town in the desert, north of Surprise. Throw in some country music, remember Marty Robbins was from Phoenix and, well, the rest of it told itself. None of my stories, if I can help it, follow standard and, to my mind, clichéd plot lines. I don’t think this is a ‘unique’ moral story, but it might not be the story you expected. It’s a story about grief and loss and a man coming to terms with that.

      • Hello Dermott

        I like the fact that he had bought himself a car for his birthday. It reminds me of that Bob Hope joke ‘You know when you’re getting too old when all your birthday presents have expiry dates on them’. So a car to me, means he was hoping to stick around a bit longer. The sign saying ‘Nothing’ made me laugh too. Gives new meaning to the phrase ‘I came from Nothing’. Americans seem to have a thing about naming their out of the way places odd names don’t you think? He starts off angry, and drives off as if he’s running away – but the drive and the music and the road signs make him think about his wife and what she would have done. This stops him being angry and makes him accept her death more, remembering her how she was. Then he feels he can ‘go home’ again.

      • Round of applause for that lady, you’ve nailed it. It’s a very simple story, about grief. When I was researching and found the town, Nothing, I almost danced

      • Kate, thank you, again for the reblog. Yes, Americans do have a penchant for odd place names, although the only ‘Hell’ I can remember is the name Clint Eastwood’s character paints on the town, right after he makes them paint it red in High Plains Drifter

      • Ha! Yes! THAT’S where my memory got it from! (although I’m sure if we look hard enough there’ll be an abandoned town somewhere in Texas called Hell) I’m sure there is a place called ‘Purgatory’ though (or was that another film?)

      • There’s a story of mine called Old Bones, for New, I’d like you to read it. I adapted it as a screenplay and a Canadian screenwriters ‘ festival want to stage it. They get professional actors to read your script in front of a live audience. Now I’m working on a rewrite

      • Dermott! You looked it up. How nice of you. So I’m not going gaga yet! Can you imagine the municipal meetings? ‘Welcome to this month’s Community Meeting in Hell’ There’s a motion on the agenda to slightly alter the name of the town from ‘Hell’ to ‘Helen’ – All those against – All those in favour? – the ‘no’s have it. So we’ve been to Helen – back to Hell. Hahahaha..
        Excellent! I’d love to read ‘Old Bones for New’. Where will I find it?

  2. We never know about life journeys which lead us to various situations of surprise. The story is metaphorically impressive but the moral of the story remains unresolved with no shared happenings in “SURPRISE” (which can be one’s own personal, life experience). 😉

    • Interesting take on it. The man in the car is struggling with his own grief, torn between celebrating his birthday, with, perhaps, his friends at home or getting out and getting away. But what he’s really getting away from is his own failure to grieve, there’s ‘nothing’ inside him, a fact he comes to terms with, when, confronting by the musical narrative of the songs on his sound system and then his arrival at, Nothing, a physical realisation of the metaphorical state he’s in. Then he can grieve, not by crying, but by laughing, the way his wife would’ve. He returns home and even the music has changed and where’s he going? To Surprise, so the journey became his moment of surprise. Am I making sense or talking shit?

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