Life is a vast open highway. Along the way, we pull over for tourist sights, rest stops and flat tires. Near the end of our journey, if we try to travel the same road again, we find, like Route 66, our memory is paved-over in parts, completely gone in others, replaced with newer faster-moving interstates in some sections, but ultimately we come to a dead end.
Ella Robina, our narrator in Michael Zadoorian's novel "The Leisure Seeker," is dying of cancer. She's seen what happens to friends who meet the same fate, and she's got other plans. Zadoorian's first book, "Second Hand," gave us the heartfelt story of the grown children dealing with "stuff," both physical and emotional, left over after the death of their parents.
"The Leisure Seeker" faces head-on what the parents have to deal with when faced with painful death. It's not a pretty sight, and Ella describes it best with Destiny's salesman-like spin on fate: "[W]ith his loud plaid polyester suit, his halitosis, his cubic zirconium pinkie ring . . . with a meaty dampish paw, [he] smile[s] at us with nicotine teeth and promise[s] us. . . 'That's the best one on the lot.' "
So, Ella puts together a different itinerary, against doctors' and her children's wishes. She and her husband, John, take their "last vacation" along Route 66 headed for Disneyland. They set off from Detroit in the Leisure Seeker, the same RV they've had for most of their marriage and most of their vacations. She's taken John, an Alzheimer's patient, on this vacation with her not just because he's her husband, but because he's the only one of the two of them who can drive. "Is this home?" he asks repeatedly along their journey. She answers: "No, honey. We're not going home. We're on vacation."
With guidebook in hand, they follow the remaining parts of Route 66. They stop in Texas at the now-defunct Reptile Ranch in the Jericho Gap, the Devil's Rope Barbed Wire Museum in McLean and even the Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo. A kitschy diner, the Mid-Point Cafe, serves "Ugly Crust" pie. They travel to what are now the crumbling, run-down and even impassable locales they visited throughout their life together. We never forget their ages, both in their 80s: They use canes, fumble with their memories and, when they fall, can't get up.
We don't know what Ella has up her sleeve (besides Kleenex) after Disneyland, but nothing, not even her children begging via cellphone, or any of the encounters along the way, will convince her to turn back. When a "hopped-up Japenese car" zips past them driven by a young girl and Ella notices the sticker on the back window that reads "No Fear," Ella thinks "good girl" and carries on fearlessly as they travel from campground to KOA to RV park heading southwest. She's dead set on Disneyland.
Though episodic (like most road-trip books), a story like this one wouldn't work without flashbacks, and Zadoorian tidily fills in the couple's history with their vacation slides projected onto a white bedsheet on most nights at RV parks. Shots of their grown children as kids and of lifelong friends now dead blast across the darkness, all confirming Ella's conviction. As we head backward with her through the slide carousel of memories, she and John head on down Route 66 to their destiny.
Zadoorian is true to these geezers. He draws them in their most honest light, with hair loss, old people smell from bodies gone awry, and that constant conflict of tiredness and sleeplessness at the wrong times. Zadoorian treats 60-plus years of marriage realistically with the gentle touches or sideways teeth-gnashing that say everything. At times John can't remember Ella's name or he calls her by the wrong name. Once, John forgets that they are in the middle of an argument and reaches over, pats her knee and smiles at Ella. Ella starts the argument over again because she wants to finish what they started together -- that argument and life.
I hoped for a book that would make me laugh during these tight times, and I was rewarded. But would the ending depress me? As Ella says, "nothing lasts, but even when you know that things are just about over, sometimes you can run back and take a little bit more and no one will notice." We can't avoid the inevitable, but we can make it our own.
Wallen is the author of the bestselling novel "MoonPies and Movie Stars" and will host the forthcoming public radio series "DimeStories."