Indianapolis (Highway 74) by Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard’s short story “Indianapolis (Highway 74)” is infused with haunting images and a sense of not quite being lost, but instead being adrift.  The basis of the story is quite simple.  Two people meet by coincidence after not seeing each other for forty some years.  Nothing stellar or original with that.  What makes this story though is the narrator’s voice and perspective.  It opens with him, “crisscrossing the country again, without much reason,” and pulling off the highway because of a snowstorm.  Nothing seems to be under the control of the narrator, not even his own actions.  The weather forces him to stop.  The TV in the lobby is stuck on channels blasting out a background of violence, which the hotel clerk is unable to change, and whether or not a room is available all depends on someone else canceling their reservation.
It’s here that the woman enters the story, Becky Marie Thane.  She walks by him and he feels “immediately sad for no reason.”  When she comes back down to the lobby, she calls out his name.  “You don’t remember me, do you?”  “We lived together for a while.  Don’t you remember?”  These questions from Becky, and Stuarts inability to remember further add to the sense he is adrift and disconnected.  The questions keep coming and it seems that Becky is enjoying seeing Stuart squirm.  He thinks, “There is no escape.”  As memories finally begin to come back, Stuart is again aware of sadness.  The present background of violence from the TV is mirrored in his memories as he thinks of Martin Luther King, and riots in Detroit and L.A.
Where is Stuart going?  “Just passing through,” he says.  It’s as if he has no idea about anything.  The story then takes a bizarre emotional shift and we see that Becky is also in a sort of limbo while staying at the hotel.  Both characters use this word.
As Stuart eventually departs, (the potential guests will be there soon), he declines Becky’s invitation to stay in her room.  However, on the road, he’s again flooded by memories and images as the snow blankets his car and he drives blindly in a whiteout.  The story turns here as Stuart makes a decision.  He decides to drive back to the hotel.  How have things changed?  Have they changed?  Again he’s fearful of an emotional breakdown.  We never know why Stuart is driving across the country.  We can assume there’s no one at home, since he takes his dog with him, and the pet seems to be his only real connection.  He even wonders if he’s “finally broken all connections, without really wanting to.”  The story ends with a shift in Stuart.  The reader doesn’t know exactly what has happened, but it seems that Stuart is beginning to face the past, or to remember.  By not telling us about Stuart’s past, it creates a sense of mystery and adds to the feel of being in limbo.  Where better to be in limbo than a waiting room as well?  The setting and word choice create a stifled, controlled atmosphere that helps readers identify with Stuart’s need to escape, even if he has no idea where to go.

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