The brown paint of the old Buick was almost melting, falling away chip by chip as the screaming sun baked the road ahead of me. It was really hot, the pavement hazy and wavy as I circled the town with all the windows open trying to cool off; you could almost hear the crackle of ants being toasted on the sidewalks and the sizzling of beetles lying out in the grass. This was my only pleasure, driving around town after getting off work—I was the bumper putter-onner at the Dodge plant up the road—listening to Johnny Cash records I had put on tapes.
Cocaine Blues: the one song that whenever I got in my car always seemed click on, and then when the song had ended, it was the one song I would play over and over again. I would be driving to work in the morning, my eyes still asleep, all damn hunched over the tape deck holding the REWIND button down playing, the song non-stop. During the day the tapes would sit in the car and sizzle like eggs in a pan, warping and twisting, slowing the jaunty rhythms down to a crawl, the entire band sounding like it was playing at half-speed on the way home. There something about those records, though. Something that I think I identified with. No, I ain't been in prison before—hell, I had never even been pulled over for running a stop sign or gotten a parking ticket. Fact is, I was the most untough, unbad, uncool, guy in LaSalle County—but it was the idea of the songs that really meant something to me; the feeling of being trapped where you are; the feeling of being stuck where you stand; that kind of frightened feeling of wondering why the hell you stick around in that place for so long. So I made an entire tape of that song, each side filled back to back with takes Cocaine Blues.
I lit up a cigarette, taking in a deep breath and letting the smoke escape through the open windows of the front seat. The hot smoke aided and abetted the blistering heat as each drop of sweat ran down my forehead and sneaked in between my eyelids, making my face all wet and puffy like. A sharp left down Main Street and I eased the car to a stop at a light, when this girl, this unknown girl, just jumped in: a pretty looking thing, with blonde curls and a pimply face, wearing cut-off blue jeans and a white t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off. She looked filthy. There were smudges of dirt all over her face, little black and brown patches on her cheeks and legs and arms.
"Finally, where the hell've you been? I've been standing there forever," she said in a deep Southern accent. She wiggled around in her seat trying to get comfy, almost like she had been in the car before and was trying to find that one sweat spot the seat had to offer. She was skinny. Real skinny. I thought that if I wanted to, I could take her. You know, just in case she was some kind lunatic and all. Her long arm snaked around and found the seat belt. She buckled it in and took a deep breath, her chest almost rising high enough to touch her chin. I couldn't help but watch her bounce around in my passenger side seat, blowing her hair out of her face and pulling her shirt down over her exposed white stomach. I hadn't had any kind of girl in a while, and it seems that if one just jumps in your car you might want to take advantage of that; no matter how scared you might be.
"Well, are we goin' or not? Jezz, ya think you never driven a car before."
My mouth was suspended, hanging open trying to figure how all this had happened.
"Ma'am…forgive me, but I don't know you?" I said, wiping some sweat off my forehead.
"Oh now, don't let that stop ya, And hey, lose that ma'am shit, kay?" she said, pulling her curls back on her head with her hands. "It's green there, honey." She pointed up toward the stoplight. I flicked my cigarette out the window, ran my hand through my short greasy hair, and eased the old brown car into intersection down Main Street.
For the life of me I couldn't understand why that girl would not just sit still. She kept adjusting in her seat and all, and then she reached down and pulled off her big, yellow, work boots and plopped her tootsies up on the dashboard.
"Would you mind terribly if I turned the music down?" she asked, already reaching for the big silver dial before I had a chance to answer her.
"Yeah, that's fine!" I shouted, hoping she could hear me over the combination of the music and the wind blowing in through gaping window holes.
"Honey, you don't have to yell. I'm right here."
"Why are you calling me honey?" I asked. "And who the hell are you?"
"What do you mean? Would you prefer sugar? Or maybe daddy? "
She giggled a little, resting her small, round, head against the headrest on the top of the beige seat like she knew she was playing with me. Her neck was long and tanned, with some red scratch-like marks on it. She ran her hands through her hair again, periodically taking a glance out the back window like she was looking for someone. She seemed nervous. Real nervous. The kind where people look all panicky, ringing their hands together and biting their fingernails.
"How'd that happen?" I asked, pointing to hues of red on her neck.
"Oh, that. Well, I kind of fell into some bushes. Long story, you know? I'm Yvonne, by the way."
She reached out to shake my hand and I placed mine in hers. Yvonne had a strong grip, the kind that really demanded your attention. I had these two simultaneous fantasies: she would just grab me by the back of my head and kiss me hard—she looked like the type of girl who would kiss hard, pressing her lips against mine with such force that you could hear our lips smack as they came together—or she would punch me in the nose because I said or did something stupid. The real bitch of it was, either way was fine with me.
"You gotta name?"
"Yeah, I do," I replied.
"Wanna share it with the rest of us?" she asked, looking in back again, checking if anyone was there.
"It's kind of girly and all. It's a little embarrassin'," I said as she unbuckled her seatbelt, sitting up, and whirling herself around wiping some sweat off her forehead. Her face was red and puffy like mine, but I couldn't tell if hers was from crying or acne or the heat.
"You don't have to tell me…whatever," she said, shaking her head in a motherly way, like she was disappointed with me; I could her it in her voice, that kind of ashamed frustrated tone mothers have when you tell them you don't how those dirty magazines ended up in your sock drawer.
"Are you looking for someone?" I asked. "Someone following you or something? You keep hoppin' around like a damn frog." I was joking, but there was this pounding look of seriousness on her face as she shot a glance at me. I didn't take the joke any further down the line than that. Figured it was something she didn't want to talk about.
She sat back down, this time on her knees. Her painted-pink toes hung out over the floor as her long legs didn't fit on the seat. I made a left on Telegraph Avenue and the sun blared right down into the car, feeling like it was blinding us cold.
"I'm not looking for no one," she said, putting her feet back up on the dashboard. "Don't mind if my paws are on the dash, do ya?"
I shook my head no.
"So, tell me ‘bout yourself. Whaddaya do?" She asked in a sing-songy kind of way, her voice just coming out of this light humming.
"I work at the Dodge plant, you know up in LaSalle. How about you? Whaddaya you do?"
I could hear her sigh now, the sound of her head whipping around to check behind us echoing throughout the old, metal, car.
"Nothing now. "Cept time."
"What? Time? You make clocks or…"
"Five years, man," she started to say, cutting me off. She was mumbling, like she was trying to talk to herself but I caught every word. "Five years and it wudden't even my fault. I tried to swerve…just couldn't." Her voice was so faint and feminine, sounding so breathy and pain-ridden that it made me want to steer the car into a tree. I looked over at her. This girl, this stranger of a girl, was now sitting in my car crying. Her head was lowered toward the ground resting on her chest, as she sniffled and snuffed tears back into her body.
"I'm sorry…" she mumbled aloud again. I didn't know if she was talking to me, or to herself, or someone else all together.
"Listen, do you want to come back to my place?" I asked, leaning over toward her." It's really small and it smells kind of funny, but it has beer."
She nodded slumping back in her seat, her knees cracking as they moved with her body.
"What'd say your name was again?" she asked as we came to the corner of State and Main. I didn't answer her, just kind of glossing over her question as the car squealed to a stop. To the right you could see downtown: a non-existent skyline littered with tiny storefronts, barbershops, and a couple of bars where everyone knew who I was, with a few churches thrown in for fun. Ahead of us up at the next intersection was a string of police cars, a line of red and white lights cutting across the road, stopping traffic both ways. One cop was redirecting traffic while others talked on walkie-talkies or stood around looking at maps and whatnot.
"Must be a road block or something," I said in a very matter-of-factly- kind of way. It didn't surprise me any. See, there is this women's prison about an hour or so out of town, and it just seems like we have cops and federal agents here all the time—trying to hunt down girls that escape and such.
"What'd you say?" Yvonne asked, sitting up in her seat now.
"Damn cops are doing something," I replied, banging my hand on the old, wide, steering wheel.
"Oh, shit," Yvonne added softly under her breath. I went on.
"There's this women's pen about and hour or so away. Somebody must have gotten lose. Some dirty con or…"
"How do you know?!" she hollered, looking out toward the roadblock ahead. ‘Not all cons are dirty. Some just got dealt a bad hand!" Yvonne pounded on the dash of my car, holding her hand in pain afterwards. Her face looked to worn, so broken in like a baseball glove. She looked like she was about to cry again, her eyes holding as much water as they could.
"Are you okay?" I asked. I didn't look at her. Fact was I was too damn scared. I just sat there with my hands at my sides waiting for the light to turn.
And as quick as she came she was gone. Her long arms threw open the door while her legs let her slide out of the car and into traffic. I hollered after her, but she didn't care; you could tell by the way she was running: her head leaning forward and her arms swaying violently like she was determined to get away. I watched her slink between the stalled cars like an excited dog as she ducked down Beach Street, a few left turns down. Car horns honked and people screamed as she made her way through traffic, cutting off cars and darting in between in turn lanes.
Nice meeting you: The last thing she said to me before she bolted out of the car. It seemed really strange, her last words. She really didn't meet me; she just jumped in my car and jumped out, as big a stranger in the end as she was in the beginning.
I was sitting there in traffic wondering if maybe I should go after her or something, trying to figure what the hell had happened when it all clicked. See, like a fire of exhaust from a muffler the cops in the road ahead sprang into action. Some got in their cars, some whooped and hollered stuff to the other cops, and some tore off on foot down Beach Street. She was on the run; she was wanted. She was a dirty con! I looked over at where she had sat, and there on the floor was what she left behind: the yellow boots. She forgot them. I still drive around town all the time now, her boots are still there on the passenger side floor like they are waiting for her to come back—I think I was waiting too. Well, maybe hoping at least. Whenever I come to that light where Yvonne first jumped in, I always wait just a little bit longer when it turns green, thinking maybe she will see me and hop on in, and we can talk a little more. And every time Johnny Cash clicks on, his dark and raspy voice shaking the steel car to it's core, I wish I had told her my name: Gracie.
about the author
Nick Ostdick is a fiction writer from Suburban Chicago. His short novel, Sunbeams and Cigarettes, was released in October of 2005. Ostdick also edits RAGAD, an online zine devoted to new writers. His short fiction has appeared/will appear in automiguel, Word Riot, and The Independent. He likes grilled cheese sandwiches.