From “Street Life”
Sailing the River Jordan
Maryann glanced up at Kenny her gaze full of expected miracles. All men know how to fix these things, those eyes said. It's in their genes. It's what they're good for. It's why we put up with them. To agrue with her, however, was like telling a drowning soul he couldn't swim. Not all men took auto shop in high school, or cared for the gease and oil of backyard maintenance. Kenny hadn't even gotten a driver's licence until he was 21, and then only under the duress of a three hour bus ride each way to his job. His teen age years had been dedicated to guitar, pot, and hippie chicks in the city. He knew no more the difference between a spark plug and a piston than she did.
"Well?" Maryann finally asked, examining her broken nail as he eased out from under the hood. She was peeved at the missing chunk from her middle finger nail, stressing the $55 price tag now lost to a latch Kenny couldn't open. The accusation hung in the tone like an invoice. She expected him to pay for the damanged nail with a quick auto repair. "What is it?"
"The car doesn't start," Kenny said, chuckling at his own joke, though from Maryann's crinkling expression, she didn't appreciate his humor. She hated inconvenience, bucking her car at traffic lights when they went on too long. Disasters of this kind were not supposed to happen to her.
The smell of gasoline and coolant swelled up from the open hood and lingered painfully in Kenny's nostrils, destroying the last enjoyable vestages of their recent roadside meal. It almost made him forget he had eaten, though his stomach quelled with the fumes and heat. He was tempted to crawl out into one of the cornfields and relieve himself of the mess with one quick upchuck-- though he knew he would regret it later when the hunger came again and he had no more money to feed it.
"Kenny, no jokes. I'm not in the mood for it. Just fix the thing and let's get on with it. I've got things to do when we get home and we're already late," she said.
"I'm not joking about that," Kenny said. "I don't know what's wrong with it."
The smell of coolant was some clue. Kenny knew it implied a leak somewhere in the system, but that was the extent of his abilities. How a leak in the cooling system should stop the engine from turning over was beyond him. It couldn't have been a significant leak. There was no tell-tale pool of green liquid forming on the crushed stone parking lot beneath the car.
"Don't tell me that!" Maryann moaned. "I'm not ready to handle that on top of everything else."
Everything else was the man down the road, locked behind the bars of the county prison. Kenny had never asked for details about his arrival there, though his transfer to the boondocks of Lebannon, New Jersey was a typical bureaucratic boondoggle, as if part of the punishment was sending souls like his as far from his loved ones as possible.
I have to go see him, Maryann told Kenny on the phone, the courtesty call after a whole night of baking turning into a magical mystery tour.
``Why? Isn't he satisfied with letters?''
It's me. I'm not satisfied. Paper and ink doesn't do it anymore. I need a little flesh and blood.
``And you want me to come with you?''
If you could...
He could have said no. She wouldn't have hated him the way she did so many other men in her life. And he had been tired. Too tired to drive a hundred miles into nowhere.
``I worked all night, Maryann. I'm not sure I'm up to driving.''
No problem, I'll drive.
``You'll drive? In that rat-mobile you call a car? We'd leave a trail of rusty parts the whole trip south.''
Which goes to show how much you know, Maryann told him. I'm the proud owner of a new car.
Well, almost new. I bought it off my cousin this week. I need to take it on a trial run anyway, and this is the perfect opportunity.
Kenny didn't want to hurt her feelings, but he hated the way she drove. Like a truck driver. Banging gears. Screeching brakes. Twisting in and out of traffic. Yet there was that note in her voice, the sense of panic he'd growned atuned to over the years. She needed him with her and would really be hurt if he refused.
``All right,'' he said softly. ``I'll come. But I want a nap on the way down.''
Of course, Maryann said.
And of course, he never got one. She talked the whole trip about her man in jail, about the love letters and her plans for him when he was released. Unfortunately, Kenny knew her and knew just what she wasn't talking about: the other man. The one not in jail. The one now one hundred miles away waiting to meet her for dinner.
Nor had he calculated the distances correctly. The map told only a partial story of miles not culture. He never even remotely imagined hillbillies in New Jersey -- though hillbillie was Maryann's word. To Kenny they were rednecks the kind he had fought years earlier in Denver and Northern California, farm-hand types who had seen too much sun and whisky, their faces shaped from too many families of kissing-cousins. The ones who sat around the hotdog stand wore tattered cowboy hats and faded dresses, eyeing Kenny like their breathern had twenty years earlier. Their eyes saying: We don't like no hippies here.
Fortunately, Maryann drew the bulk of their attention, her sleek hip-hugging dress and spiked-heals straight from the heart of the New York club scene, as appropriate to the dusty fields of growing corn as the Empire State Building. The women clucked their tongues at her; the men stared at her bulging breasts. A few younger cowboys counted their cash.
Tim needs me to look this way, She said when Kenny's jaw dropped at the door.
``Look too good and he'll break out of that jail,'' Kenny joked, though knew that more than Tim would appreciate her outfit.
He needs to see something pretty, she said.
``And you're smile won't do?''
Don't be a wise guy, Kenny. I don't need your humor right now.
So he shut his mouth and let her drive, listening to her talk about making Tim happy.
``What about Steve?'' Kenny finally asked when he couldn't hold back any more.
At first she pretended not to hear, her gaze distracted by something on the road ahead. But her tight, grim mouth gave her away.
I'm not forgetting him, she said.
``But he doesn't seem to have a big place in your plans.''
Why should he?
``Because he loves you.''
That's nonsense. We're just friends.
``Friends who sleep together. That kind of thing usually winds up serious.''
Not this time.
``But you must know something about cars,'' Maryann said.
``If I knew something, I'd fix it,'' Kenny said, glancing back towards the roadside audience who seemed amused at his egnorance, as if guaging his manhood by his mechanical skills. He wondered how long it would be before they brought out the tar and feathers.
``Well there must be something we can do?'' she insisted, pushing closer to Kenny, her hands touching his shoulder as if the contact would transform him into someone more mechanically minded. She seemed capable of shaping men out of clay.
``We can pray,'' Kenny said.
Her fingers fell away from him. ``Don't be blastfamous,'' she said sharply. ``We're already in enough trouble.''
He almost moaned. He'd never been able to put together these two halves of Maryann, the permiscuous lady of the New York dance scene, and the pious soul he remembered from grammer school, her head bowed beneath a veil as if dedicating her life as a bride of Christ.
``You expect a bolt of lightning to strike me down?'' he asked, eyeing the sky. Sunset was slowly being eatten away by incoming clouds, the thick grey hides of which threatened a downpour at any moment.
``I'm not sure,'' Maryann said, slumping agianst the green fender. ``I just don't want to tempt fate.''
Poor Steve, Kenny thought and settled into a similar slump, the engine at his back, cars streaming up the highway in the general direction of home, all seemingly aware of the threat of rain, all struggling to get home before the cloud-burst. Unsuspecting Steve who Kenny had seen the first time flirting with Maryann at a party in Paterson.
``She's got a boyfriend,'' Kenny told him, as both reached into the ice chest for a bottle of beer.
``Yeah?'' Steve asked, a strapping blond-haired man from Jersey City with a grin that could have melted steel. His eyes were kid's eyes, always ready to burst with some vivid emotion. Most of the time he laughed. But there were moody moments like the one when he twisted open the beer that seemed to hover over the party, dampening it. ``Is he hear? Or maybe you're him?''
``Neither,'' Kenny said. ``I'm just warning you. So you don't waste your time.''
Steve laughed. ``I never waste my time, friend.''
``If you aim for her you will.''
The grin came as if in answer to a challenge. ``We'll see,'' he said and grabbed another unopened beer from the ice chest, and marched with it across the yard to where Maryann stood amoung her enterage of women friends.
``I bought you a drink,'' Steve told her, his boyish grin towering over her so that she had to look up at him. Her eyes flashed with curiousity, then interest. Kenny groaned and started away, out of the yard where he didn't have to witness the slaughter. He had seen this before. The temporary arrangements she'd made while waiting for her man in jail.
I'm only human, she'd told Kenny after several brief affairs. And I'm not married yet.
``He said you had a boyfriend,'' Steve boomed, jabbing a finger at the retreating Kenny. The gesture stopped Kenny at the gate of the yard, freezing him in place with his one hand still on the latch.
``He did?'' Maryann said, not bothering to look at Kenny, her eyes dialating as they stared up at Steve. She wet her painted mouth with a quick flick of her tongue.
``Yeah,'' Steve said. ``Is he here? Can I meet him?''
``I came with Kenny,'' she said. ``My boyfriend's in jail.''
Steve's grin changed and he looked down, his wide eyes, puzzled. ``In jail? For what?''
``A number of things, but none of them are your business,'' Maryann said, but in a tone that didn't totally turn things off. A tease. She had turned as if to walk away, but Steve thrust the beer at her.
``This is yours,'' he said, and slowly she turned back, her fingers closing around the cold bottle, the moisture dripping out from between her fingers as she stared up and smiled again, beginning something that still hadn't ended.
``We can't stay here like this,'' Maryann said sharply.
``Short of pushing the car home, I don't see us having an option,'' Kenny mumbled.
``Push it? Where?''
A fair question. Nothing but cornstalks for miles, like a green and gold sea, shimmering in the dying light with only the highway free of it, local institutions like the hotdog stand, several taverns and a decrepid motel clinging to its sides. Down hill, the grey walls of Tim's prison elbowed for more room, but Kenny didn't see himself knocking on its door for help.
Sure, come on in, stay awhile, the guards might say, and he had come too close to that fate to even joke about it.
"Actually, I think it's the battery," I told her-- I had heard the clicking noise in my own clunker a few times during the winter when my battery was run down. But if heat had the same way of draining juice from a battery, I had heard nothing about it. "But you didn't leave the lights on when you went inside the jail. I would have noticed."
"I'm going to ask for help," Maryann said with the usual air of finality that refuted argument.
"From who?" I asked, ignoring the warning signals that said I would be sorry in pursuing it.
"From one of them," she said, waving a hand vaguely in the direction of the stand and the wrinkled, sunbleached faces seated upon each of the stools. "One of them must know how to fix a car."
It was bit of her city snobbery showing-- that vulgar idea that people west of the Hudson were largely ignorant savages in anything but the physical sciences. In things like farming, auto repair, carpentry, there were all geniuses.
"If you think they'll listen, go ahead," I said, knowing she had expected me to talk to them, glaring at me when I made no move to relieve her of the burden. Then, stout-heartedly she crossed the gravel lot, her high heals catching every other step, threatening to tumble her over. She looked drunk and glared back after each minor disaster as if to say they were all my fault, that if I had been a man she wouldn't have had to walked over there.
I had harder arguments against her I would never use, about how she needed men around her to make life bearable, if not me, then several lovers at once, each filling in the gaps in her life, one in the morning to keep her occupied during breakfast, another in the afternoon, yet another to tuck her in at night. Mostly I filled the gap none of her men could fill, talking to her about books and ideas. Her men were all physical men, all capable of fixing things.
I think now, my inability to fill in this gap for her lessened me in her eyes, saying maybe there was less to books and ideas than she had thought.
But our being here at all was her fault. Lebanon.
I didn't understand what gap Tim filled, but she needed him, coming to every prison he got transferred to when she needed him. Maybe she really had found love this time; maybe she was going insane over the absense of Tim the way countless other men had gone crazy over her.
I suspected Tim more kind to her than she to them. He didn't send her away out of some dark and sudden mood, or have other women visiting him at the same time, the way she did men at the apartment, playing one of the other to see who could show her the most affection.
I showed her none. It was the reason she had to ask the hicks for help instead of me. I knew giving into her urges meant total loss of self-- and though I loved her a lot as a friend, I loved myself, and didn't figure on losing myself in her ego.
She stopped at the counter where the scattered remains of our meal had not been cleared. The waitress looked up from some animated conversation with several old men at the end of the counter, pretending to notice Maryann for the first time.
"Is there a problem, dearie?" her shrill voice asked loud enough to echo in the corner, a bit of hick snobbery saying: I got you and you know it.
Maryann blushed, and glared at the girl, that rattle snake stare normally reserved for the high and mighty of her Manhattan night club competition. And the waitress only smiled, a plain, naughty smile of jealousy and envy, as if Maryann was everything a country girl dreamed of being, part of sin city where people dressed like that all the time.
"My car doesn't seem to work," Maryann said, her voice cracking slightly.
"You don't say," the waitress said, glancing across the lot towards me and the raised hood as if all this was suddenly a revelation.
"I was wondering if there was a service station nearby we could call," Maryann went on.
"Not on sunday, deary," one of the other women said, a wrinkled faced old lady with a dusty baseball hat screwed down on her head. Her hand shaking as it held up a styrofoam cup of coffee. There was a church service echo in her tone, saying people around these parts didn't do that kind of thing on the Lord's day. Bars stayed open. People laughed and cursed out in front of places like this. But God wouldn't ever approve of people fixing cars.
Someone snorted out a laugh from the midst of them, and sat up straight on his stool, tattered and greasy cowboy hat turned slightly off-center on his head.
I'd seen his kind before hundreds of places between here and Los Angles, red-neck immitation cowboys with just enough gusto to be dangerous. This one grinned at Maryann with all the bashfullness of a mack truck, one or two of his front teeth chipped. He picked at the gaps with a coffee stirrer.
I had seen that look before as well, like watching the slow certain flip of a light switch. Something went on in the poor sucker's eyes. He didn't even know it was her doing. He just smiled back and pushed up the brim of his hat with dirty fingers.
It took a god-awful minute for him to stand, gambolling off and around his stool as if stepping off a horse. Never once did he remove his gaze from her, though his John Wayne routine suffered several stumbling setbacks as he ran into unseen obsticals like his own two feet. Nor did he stop grinning, despite the giggling people at the counter.
"So what seems to be the trouble, little lady," he asked, hitching his thumbs his pants pockets. He looked as silly as Maryann did, though less out of place, his slanted smile as gross as Steve's or Tim's in similar circumstances.
All lust and no sense, Maryann once said in describing the look. It's when a girl knows she's got a man.
Some girls, I had argued.
All girls. Don't kid yourself otherwise.
And if anyone had been gotten, Tex had. He swayed closer to her as if drunk on her perfume.
"My car," Maryann said in a weepy voice that disgusted me. "We just can't get it started."
"You want I should come look at it?" Tex asked.
"Would you?" Maryann said, looking greatly surprised.
"What about your boyfriend?" Tex asked, hooking a thumb in my direction. Maryann followed the gesture, her gaze changing as it confronted mine, begging me not to spoil her game, telling me over the distance that it was the only way home.
"You mean Kenny? Oh he's not my boyfriend."
"Don't he know nothing about cars?"
A different, less satifactory look crossed Maryann's face, indicating my lack of manhood. "Not at all," she said.
A slightly superior expression rose into Tex's cheeks. He grinned again, this time at me, and crossed the lot with his chest thrown back in the fashion of a beach bully.
"Might as well take a look," he said to Maryann as she struggled to keep up in her high heels. "These automobiles can be very tricky when you don't know what you're doing."
He elbowed me out of the way and I glared at Maryann.
Again she pleaded with her eyes. I want to go home, Kenny. I don't want to be stuck out here forever.
It wasn't forever. Tomorrow was monday and even these parts had road service then. But Tex had already removed his greasy hat and bent to look beneath the hood, humming to himself in the disinterested way of a casual observer. His exposed butt made a tempting target-- though I was in no mood for a fight.
"Is it bad?" Maryann asked, easing closer to his side, letting her bare pale arm touch his tanned one. He glanced sharply up at her as if startled by an electric shock, his grin flickering back into place.
Her dispair was evident despite her teasing demure. She had no cash and had asked about paying for lunch earlier with VISA, something that had drawn a scornful glare from the waitress, and had resulted in me draining my own limited resourses of wrinkled bills and loose pocket change.
"I can't tell yet, little lady," Tex mumbled from under the hood, a pale, round bald patch showing at the top of his head. He scratched it several times, and hummed, then slowly rose again, replacing his hat. "Sure is a puzzler."
Maryann glared at me-- something in her gaze saying it was all my fault, my lack of manliness rubbing off on the people around me. Her expression showed her deep disappointment. This here was a real man and even he couldn't fix the car. I saw her gaze flicker around as if another could be dredged up from the dust the way they had back in the club scene, one man popping up after another, all chanting the same hollow words:
What's a girl like you doing in a....
"But I've just got to have the car," she moaned. "I mean we've come all the way here from near New York..."
The words trailed off, leaving its silent pleading behind.
And poor Tex took it straight on the chin, his eyes flashing up with immediate guilt. Of course it was his fault. How could he have let the poor little lady down. His moustache wiggled as he glanced at me, a bit of red rising into his cheeks.
"Why don't you go back and polish the rear bumper," he said. "You're just in the way up here."
"In the way of what?" I asked.
"Me fixing things."
"You mean you figured it out?"
More red, deeper, coloring the ball of hic cheeks till he looked like a western Santa Claus.
"You're asking for trouble, boy," he said.
"Kenny!" Maryann hissed. "Don't bug the man."
"Me? I didn't do...."
She motioned me away with her eyes. They could have been knives. I was spoiling her helpless act. I shrugged and moved off towards the side of the car to study the corn, to watch it growing. I had an ugly feeling I would see it rise a foot or two before the car found the road again. At least under its own power.
"Can you really fix it," Maryann asked, doing her you're such a big man act.
Tex wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "Sure I can," he said. "Why don't you just slide your little bee-hind onto the seat and try starting her up."
Maryann smiled apologetically as she moved passed to the driverside door, her eyes saying it would be all right, her gaze begging me to let her do things her way. I gruned and leaned against the warm metal, more than a little disgruntalled, wanting the car to click the way it had for me, suspecting it might start right up just to spite me. Inadament objects had a way of cursing me, like the car Louise and I had bought in Portland to cross country in, breaks failing four miles out of town, forcing us to walk back carrying our things.
"Go ahead and turn the key," Tex yelled. The keys jingled. The clicking came, like a single disgruntal cricket hiding beneath the hood.
"Well?" Maryann asked, poking her head out the window to see around the hood. "Did you figure it out?"
Again, Tex scratched his head. "It's got something to do with the battery," he said.
"But it can't be the battery," Maryann protested. "My cousin told me he bought it new just a month ago. It's one of the things he stressed when he sold me the car."
I laughed. "Maybe you should check the trunk to see if he left you a spare. With cousins like him, maybe you should have trusted a used car saleman."
"This isn't funny, Kenny," Maryann said in a tone of voice I knew approached total panic. She would get angry next and vent her rage on the first male to give her grief. I shut my mouth, hoping Tex would open his.
"Where is your consin," Tex said. "Maybe you should give him a call."
"God knows he can't help. He moved to Florida last week. But I swear if he sold me a lemon I'll have his heart out when he comes up visiting next Christmas."
"It's no lemon, little lady," Tex said. "I'll bet it's not even anything serious."
"But it's serious if we're stuck here," Maryann moaned, sliding back out of the car, her long, stocking'd legs first, providing a visual for Tex and future gossip for the "girls" at the counter.
Up the highway, two red neon bar signs flicked to life as the first heavy clouds brought on early twilight. On our side, a huge, ragged eagle looked down at us from an unlighted motel sign, the lettering of which had long since been obliterated. A slight wind began to rustle through the heads of corn, warning of the oncoming storm.
Tex grinned. "You worry way to much, little lady. Didn't I say I'd take care of you?"
"Yeah," Maryann said, half convinced. "But what do we do next?"
"Well, we can hook the sucker up to my truck and see if we can coax it into starting," Tex said.
He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the large, red pickup truck parked on the far side of the hamburger stand, polished to a gleam still bright in the rapidly dimming day light.
"You just wait here until I bring it around," he said and marched off, boot heals kicking up gravel. He glanced at me hard, expecting some hippie trick to wisk her away before he could return. I smiled. It did little to reassure him. And the minute he vanished around the building, I turned on Maryann.
"Are you crazy messing with a man like that? Don't you have enough problems without turning someone else on?"
"I know what I'm doing, Kenny," Maryann said, her jaw rigid, her gaze locked on Tex's activities-- the tall cowboy mounting the cab of his truck as if a horse, looking too lanky for it, unable to stuff his legs inside comfortably.
"Then you know he's going to want something in return for all this."
She looked over at me, her v-shaped face crinkling up with disgust. "You have a dirty mind," she said sharply.
"No dirtier than average," I said. "Nor as dirty as those you seem to find in white knights."
I didn't need to mention Steve by name-- how he had squirmed his way into her life with good deeds, flowers, candy and complements, knowing all the time she had a man in prison for whom she waited. Nor was his attentions so unwelcomed. Her eyes had a way of signalling his kind, calling to them like a beacon across empty water, saying: I'm available. I need to be rescued.
"He's helping you as well as me," Maryann said.
"So what happens when the bill comes?"
"Let me worry about that."
"I can't," I said. "I'm likely to have to rescue you."
Her gaze went sour as it studied my appearance. "You?" There was laughter in her eyes-- the cold, brutal laughter of disbelief. It hurt. It touched a part of me that always ached around her, the sense that I wasn't good enough to take the place of men like Tim or Steve-- or even Tex. Something about me didn't quite fit the role properly. I could be Sancho Panza, but never Don Quiote.
"Yeah me," I said. "I don't want to get into a fist fight with this bastard. Not for something as stupid as a car."
"I can handle it," she said, as the roaring sounded from the far side and a puff of blue smoke billowed out the rear side of the great red truck. A moment later, it rumbled around the back of the building, huge wheels spraying gravel back into the stalks of corn, the body bumping up and down over the uneven ground like a bucking bronco.
It slid into the slot beside Maryann's blue Dart, "You Ride with the Devil" sprawled across its wide hood in gold script. The man leaped out with the engine still running and popped open the hood.
"Here, boy!" he said, grabbing a tangle of wires from a box behind the seat. He tossed them to me. "Make yourself useful."
Maryann cringed and pleaded with her gaze for me to keep my temper, my flushed face more than enough to indicate my mood.
"What exactly did you have in mind?" I asked, Tex.
The man turned, something quivering under his protruding cheek bones as he breathed. His gaze narrowed. "And what did you think I had in mind?" he asked. "Hook them to the battery, boy. Black on positive. Red on negative. And make sure you do it right. I won't want to wind up on my ass with the shock."
I carried the wires to the dodge. The smell of grease and antifreeze stronger now, and the engine darker with the incoming clouds. The metal clips from the jumping cables bit deep into the soft metal of the battery pods.
"You done yet, boy?" Tex yelled.
"Just finished," I said and handed him the other end of the cable. He grinned at Maryann, then carried them ceremoniously to the truck where he attempted to repeat what I had done.
Sparks flew around the clips in an arc of blue. He staggered back and stared at cables dangling from his fingers, then glared at me.
"I told you red on positive, boy!" he shouted.
"You did not."
"I should know what I said," the man growled and shoved me away from the dogde and reversed the clips, glaring at me as he retreated.
"Is something wrong?" Maryann asked innocently, softening Tex's rage.
"Don't you worry, little lady. We'll get it right this time."
No sparks rose from the truck this time when he connected the clips, but the engined slowed with the drain of power into the dodge.
"You think you can turn the key without screwing things up, boy?" the man asked, glancing victoriously at Maryann. She stared at me, pleading for me to be good. She remembered me from school yard brawls and could easily imagine us both in jail. But that had been a long time ago, before Louise, before Louise had vanished with our child. I'd mellowed. I didn't have the urge to fight people for petty things anymore.
"I can handle it," I said quietly and headed for the front seat and the keys still dangling in the ignition where Maryann had left them. The interior was overheated, too, but didn't smell of grease, only vinyl. The truck engined slowed another few notches as I turned the key, the dodge drawing electricity from it like blood. But the heart of the beast didn't stir into a heart beat. Clicks came. And more clicks. Then nothing at all.
"Stop!" Tex shouted, and paraded from the truck to the dodge's open hood. He stared in, hands on hips, shaking his head slowly.
"I don't get it," he said. "There's enough juice in my old truck to start twenty of these little buggies. It must be the battery terminals."
"The battery terminals?" I said, standing to one side as he long fingers plucked off the clips.
"Yeah, the terminals," he repeated more determinely. "They probably need cleaning."
"And that would keep the car from starting?"
I stared over his shoulder. In the dimming light I could just make out the battery, its bright surface unmarred by the grime which infected the rest of the engine. It looked as new as Maryann's coucin had claimed.
"They don't look dirty to me," I said.
"You can't tell anything by just looking," Tex growled. "We'll just get the brushes and scrub them off."
I stared at him. It was like talking to my uncle when I was a kid, who always had an answer for things even when he didn't. Tex noticed nothing and produced a wire brush from his truck with bristles like metal teeth.
"Just a few strokes of this and you'll be on your way."
"Oh please, Lord, let it be so," Maryann mumbled, looking frazzled in the heat. The ends of her bleached hair had begun to curl and the humidity in the air rose with the increased threat of rain.
Tex wedged himself under the hood and began to saw at the poles of the battery with the brush. Lead shavings curled into his face like grey sawdust.
"Another stroke or two should do it," he mumbled over his shoulder.
"There doesn't seem to be a lot left," I told him, fingering the pile of grey around each pole.
Tex drew back from the engine, his eyes brows and moustache also contaminated with specks of grey. He shoved the brush handle into his belt like a six shooter and eyed me.
"Why don't you go and give it a try, boy."
I shrugged and climbed back into the car, cool air swirling into hit from the field with the smell of earth and corn and rain. I turned the key. The engine winded then with a series of resistant groans came to life.
Tex's grin could have killed a cow, and the whoop he let out echoed in the fields behind me. I half expected the crowd at the food stand to cheer or clap, though they only nodded at each other. Now here was a real man, not so dump hippie.
Even Maryann's eyes glowed, her gaze following Tex as he disconnected the wires from the dodge and truck. Then, with wires dangling from one hand he stopped in front of her, the proud hero home from war.
"Well, there you go, little lady," he said. "I told you all along it wouldn't take much."
It was reward time, and Maryann swayed slightly, regaining her balance. Her car worked now, she was no longer the helpless female stuck in the middle of the woods. Something subtle changed in her eyes, emphasizing the shark in her.
"That's just wonderful," she said in a even tone, as she stuck out her hand for the man to shake. "We do really appreciate your help. Don't we, Kenny?"
Tex stared at the hand, then at me, as if both were something utterly alien. He shook his head slowly, some of the dust from the battery falling from his face.
"If you really appreciated my helping you, you'd come across the highway with me for a little drink," he said, motioning towards one of the log cabin bars across the highway with his free hand.
"I'm sorry," Maryann said, her voice quite cool now. "We really don't have the time. We should have been on the road home an hour ago."
"But I helped you," Tex said, his tone weakening, sounding much the way Maryann had moments before, as if he was the one now stuck.
"I know," Maryann said, waving me towards the car. "And maybe if I'm back this way sometime we can have that drink."
She walked right around him, never looking back, the way the thousand men before him who had given her a drink or a ride, making a brief and fading memory of him an instant later.
I slipped in through the passenger side as she sat behind the wheel.
"That was cute," I said.
"He did help," I said. "As reluctant as I am to admit that."
"Shut up, Kenny," Maryann said. "And go close the hood. We can't drive home with it up."
I climbed out, too embarrassed to look at Tex, or the obviously shocked crowd at the counter who watched and waited for him to explode. He sputtered a little, mumbling something about hippies and whores, but if there was fire left, it was deep down, showing nothing until we had gone.
The car kicked gravel at him as we passed, loose stones pinging off the fender of his truck like bullets. Maryann wiggled her fingers at him, then pulled out onto the highway. I watched him shrink in the passenger side mirror into a dot.
"You do that very well," I said. "I suppose it comes with practice."
"I told you to shut up."
"Why? It won't ruin our ride, will it."
"No, because I'll dump you out here if you keep it up."
"Then me and Tex can go cry about it over beers."
"Shut up. You don't think I enjoyed that, do you?"
"If only," I said.
"I'm the only person you'd never did."
Her mouth puckered, disturbing the smooth shine of her lipstick. "You sound jealous, Kenny," she said finally, fingering the latch of her purse till it opened. A pack of Kools fell out onto the seat between us. She nimbly pucked a cigarette from it.
"Maybe I am," I said, staring at the road and the thick clouds that seemed to cover it, rolling rain clouds that would sound drop their load.
Maryann stared across the car at me, her brows rising in an expression of honest surprise. "Kenny! I'm shocked at you. I thought things were different between us."
"Too close for us to ever get involved, eh?" I said with a laugh, reciting what had become a near daily litany. She didn't want to think of me as a man, but as someone she could whisper her secrets to, more ghost than human. We talked. We were friends. She didn't trust her lovers to get so close.
"Exactly," she said.
"I guess things have changed," I said.
"Not with me," she said, the unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth as she fumbled with her purse again, pouring out the contents in search of a match. "I'm not interested in deep relationships."
"And I would be a deep relationship?"
"You know too much to be anything else?"
"What about Tim?" I said, hooking a thumb back towards the road and the jail we had recently visited.
"He's not that serious, Kenny," Maryann said, throwing the now-empty purse down in disgust.
"But he's your spiritual man," I protested, having listened to diatribe after diatribe about how sensative a soul Tim had-- this opposed to the obulent Steve, the physical, overly male Steve, who hadn't an ounce of culture or spirit in all of his big frame.
"Spirit's one thing, brains are another," Maryann said, lips puckered uselessly around the cigarette. "There's nothing more dangerous than a smart man, Kenny."
"Which leave me out of competition, eh?"
"You're my friend. That should be enough."
"And if it isn't?"
She glanced over again, her eyes bright and hard like pieces of polished stone. "Then we might not be friends any more."
"I thought it might be something like that," I said, then laughed. Things had been hard since breaking up Louise. I hadn't been able to get myself back on track where women were concerned. Most of the time I watched other men come and go with Maryann and other women friend like some non-sexual being, aching a little in some deep and mysterious region of myself, never quite able to bring it to the surface or take action that would satisfy its craving.
"So what about Tex?" I asked. "He's not one your city boys. The next time he sees you he might well take a pot shot."
"I'm not coming back," Maryann said.
I felt my eyebrows rise. "Oh?"
"I'm having Tim transfered closer to home. I'm sick of coming out to places like this where there's nothing but corn and rednecks."
"Now you're beginning to sound like me," I said, and stared out the window at the moving heads of corn, and the signs of wind moving through them like a stalking beast. It brushed at the side of the car, making the wheels wavering over the broken lines for the lane.
"You have those kind of connections?" I asked.
"I don't follow?"
"To transfer Tim? I mean it takes serious political weight to move him from prison to prison."
"I know somebody," she said, her mouth pressing down harder on the still unlighted cigarette.
"There you go again! Damn it, Kenny, stop with the jealousy. I get enough of that from Steve."
"I was only asking a question," I said.
"It was the way you asked it. The way Steve asks everything. I don't fuck everybody, Kenny. I don't need to."
"You haven't answered the question," I said.
"Because it's none of your business," she said sharply, sucking on the unlighted cigarette. Realizing it wasn't lit, she snatched if from her mouth and crumbled it into the ashtray.
"Lot's of things you've told me over the years were none of my business," I said. "I thought you only hid things from lovers."
"You're acting like one of them," she said, taking up another cigarettee, her gaze searching the car for something to light it with.
"Or maybe I touched a nerve?"
She stared at me. "For Christ's sake, Kenny. You make me sound like a whore or something."
"I'm merely trying to keep the facts straight," I said and stared out the passenger window, struck oddly by how slow things moved by, the corn fields and the weathered motel sign, as if we and the world had shifted into the slow-motion venue of my uncle's vacation films-- he retarding the picture to emphasize some point of interest I could never find.
Maryann pressed down hard on the gas, the car reactly sluggishly as it picked up a little speed.
"He was a lover a long time ago," she said, both hands on the wheel with the unlighted cigarettes poking out from between the fingers of her right hand.
"And I suppose this lawyer owes you a favor?"
"I see," I said.
"No, you don't see. There are no strings attached to this deal."
"Did you explain just who Tim was-- I mean his relationship to you?"
Maryann bit her lower lip, smearing her recently reapplied lipstick across her teeth. "I didn't think he needed to know."
"Interesting," I said.
"Not everybody needs to know everything about my life, Kenny," Maryann growled. "Isn't it bad enough most of my friends have stopped being my friends because I love a jailbird?"
"That's only because your jetset friends can't find jailbird lovers of their own," I said. "They hate you because you've managed to slum better than them."
"I'm not slumming, Kenny."
"Are you sure?"
"I would know, damn it."
"We all hide things from ourselves, and you did take up with Steve. What was he? Insurance?"
"I told you. I was tired. I needed a little fun in my life."
"And now you're sitting pretty with two men and no place to put them. Does this move mean you've made up your mind to keep one and throw the other one away."
"I haven't made up my mind about anything," Maryann said.
"But Steve's on the decline, I gather."
"Only because he's such a fool!"
"Because he wants you to marry him?"
"Because he thinks he can buy me."
"You seem to enjoy yourself when he gives you things."
"Why shouldn't I?"
"Maybe you're giving the wrong impression. I mean taking his gifts might be considered a way of... well, leading him on."
"We've been through all that," I said. "I'm not one of the privileged many."
"Stop it, damn it. Give me a match."
"I don't have a match," I said, still staring away from her as the first few flecks of rain appeared on the window, like sharp cuts in the corn, not marks on the glass. "That poor fool back there didn't stand a chance against you."
"So you're taking his side?"
"Side? I didn't know there were sides. I'm just tired of people being manipulated."
"Like a champ. It hadn't hit me before, though I've seen you cut up city boys with equal ease. Maybe I figured they deserved it."
"He did, too," Maryann said, drawing my gaze back. She stared straight up the road as it rose out of the valley. Her eyes seemed harder now, the veil of innocense totally gone. Even I hadn't seen her this naked before. She seemed angry.
Her gaze flickered towards me. "He's a man, Kenny."
"You mean there's something wrong with being a man?"
"When it comes to some things."
"Sex or love. They don't know the difference. But they know how to use a girl up if she lets herself become vulnerable. It's dog eat dog, Kenny. I use them or they drain me."
This time her gaze stayed on mine. "All men."
Something flickered in her eyes. Doubt maybe. Or realization. I knew too much about her from years of listening to her whispered secrets. Maybe my problems after Louise had left me seeming less than a man even to her.
"You ask too many questions," she said. "Where's that match I asked for?"
"I told you I don't have any. Use your car lighter. That's what it's there for."
She eyed the spot on the dashboard where the knob protruded as if she'd never seen one before, frowning over it, the cigarette drooping from her lips already used up.
"Mind if I roll down the window?" I asked. "It's already stuffy in here." The car seemed to slow more, now barely up to the speed of a city street. "You'd better pick up speed. Or we'll have the cops on us for obstructing traffic."
She pumped the pedal but the engine didn't seem to respond, dying this time by degrees instead of all at once.
"How's the gas?" I asked.
"Half full," she said, the panic coming into her voice again. The smell of anti-freeze came through the window again, not unduly strong, but there, like a whiff of some familiar perfume, bringing with it associated memories. Of times I'd spent on the roadside with Hank, car spewing green liquid. Or times outwest with Louise, struggling to get north or east.
"Faster, Maryann," I said. "Or we'll stall on the hill."
"I'm trying, Kenny," she said. "But the thing won't listen to me."
There must have been some male spirit hidden in the trunk, I thought, eeking revenge on her for all the other souls she'd tortured and thrown away.
Was Tim another? Her friends believed so, though suspected he was out to ruin her with his love letters and poetry and pleahs from jail. Maybe it was the bars that made him seem so attractive. I'd read the letters. They were romantic trash, a distant string-pulling to get him out of jail. And may she deserved him, a real tough character who would rough her up the way none of her normal men would, who would say no when she tried to push them away after he'd been used up. Maybe Tim himself had projected his spirit into the car from the jail, beginning what would amount to years of revenge.
"Down shift," I told her.
She did. But the car still slowed, the needle now fingering twenty and fifteen and ten..
"It must be the hill," she said.
"Can't be," I said. "But when you get up to the top, pull over. I'll take another look under the hood."
Another useless and pointless look that would tell me about as much as I already knew. But I was feeling a bit less a man just then and needed to pull a Tex and have Maryann think me in the competition.
Three men in her clutches instead of two. Or would I be fourth? I suspected lies about her lawyer friend. Few of her ex-lovers did anything for free, knowing how she was, and how they'd be out in the cold once she finished with them. Get it while you can, the old song said.
"What good'll that do?" Maryann asked, calling my bluff.
"God knows. Maybe Tex screwed up and left metal filings in your carburetor."
I grabbed one of her cigarettes from the seat between us. I hadn't smoked in years but the series of disasters inspired it.
"Light me one, too," Maryann pleaded with the old one still dangling at her mouth, unattended, unnoticed. I nodded and pushed the knob on the dashboard.
The car freaked out! It bucked like an angry steed, ripping the wheel out from Maryann's hands, another nail snapping in the process. She let out a small cry and grabbed for the wheel again, and held it as I screamed at her.
"Turn it off!" I yelled over the noise of the roaring engine. But they vanished instantly, leaving the echo of my yelling voice to fill the car. Maryann twisted the wheel towards the gravel shoulder.
"It's hard, Kenny," she moaned. "It feels like I'm driving a truck."
"It's the powersteering," I told her, helping her turn it, telling her to keep her feet off the break. "Let it roll as far as it can. We don't want to get stuck with our rear end out on the highway."
The car, however, began to slow, rolling now rather than running, struggling even as Maryann aimed it towards the side. I leaped out with the door open, walking beside it, pushing it to keep up the momentum. The hill and car's weight resisted and the walk became a crawl, and the crawl became lack of motion, even as the rear tires popped on the gravel, only six inches of car hanging out into the highway.
Then came the silence-- a silence city people hated, the background of crickets and wind. The cracking of the cooling engine helped a little, but only as a fading light in a distant sea. Soon it would vanish altogether, leaving us where we had been earlier-- only elevated somewhat by the hill. Leaning breathless against the car, I could still see the flat roof of the hotdog stand a hundred yards below us and slightly farther on, the barbed silhoutte of the prison now firmly in the grip of clouds.
The scent of coolant swirled around the car, combined with the smell of burnt wire and acrid exhaust, obliterating the odor of earth and corn. Nothing moved on the highway. I sagged down into the seat and stared straight out the window at the hill top which we would never reach.
Maryann sucked on her still-unlighted cigarette and stared at me, her hands shaking where they gripped the wheel, two nails missing tops, spoiling the balance. Small clear dots began to appear on the windshield, like transparent tagpoles slithering down towards the body of the car.
"What happened?" Maryann asked, the shiver spreading up from her hands and into her voice.
"We broke down."
"I know that!" she growled. "But why?"
"How the hell should I know."
The dots came more quickly, filling the windshield, changing our vision of the world into something indistinct. I felt the urge to turn on the windshielf wipers. They wouldn't work, of course, but a vague feeling of dread came over me. If the lighter had caused such a disaster, what would the windshield wipers do?
Maryann's suddenly melted, arms and hands falling from their fixed position to one on either side of her. She looked like an abandoned rag doll. Even her hair had suffered, blown back by the wind and left mussed. She made no move to correct it.
"You were right, Kenny," she said. "It's me. I'm cursed."
"I didn't say you were cursed."
"It's true," Maryann said. "Whether you said it or not."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"But we're here. Stranded again. It has to be punishment for something. Maybe if I had gone for a drink with that cowboy we'd be safely on our way by now."
"Or you'd wind up with yet another male owing you favors. Leave off the metaphyiscs, Maryann. We're in enough trouble."
"Damn you, Kenny. I'm serious."
"So am I. It's one thing to think a man might be using you, quite another to think the whole universe had condemned you for being unfaithful. If anything the universe doesn't even know you exist."
"And God's turned against you?"
"Maybe He's warning me about this."
"Then why doesn't He send a messenger? A flock of archangels with neon signs saying: `Maryann! You've sinned."
"God doesn't work that way."
"Well, I sure wish he would, because I'm getting sick of portents and omens. All I want is a way out of this mess that doesn't intale selling my soul to anyone-- you, Tex or the devil. If you haven't noticed, it's starting to rain."
She looked up at the windshield as if for the first time, blinking several times before understanding the phenomina of squigling dots. They looked like a whole river of tears pouring down on top of us, for men she'd loved and left, for the men she'd never met. I felt sorry for her, and myself, wishing I hadn't screwed up my thing with Louise, begining to believe where Maryann had many, I only had one-- and Louise had been it.
"Just sit," I told her. "I'll go and see if God left any more messages under the hood."
The rain sprayed into my face as I climbed out of the car, a steady downpour that sounded like snapping in the field of corn, like a million insects attempting to escape. The car hood stuck when I pulled the latch, then gave way with the deep moan of resisting metal.
Maryann appeared beside me, the rain dripping down her cheeks and chin, making havoc with her over-sprayed hair till it was little more than yellow hemp handing down either side of her face.
"Do you have a flashlight?" I asked.
"In the glove compartment, maybe-- at least I thought I saw one there."
"But you don't know for sure, right?" I said, marching back the way I'd come to the still open passenger side. The glove compartment door stuck, too, as if part of a conspircy of locks. Inside I found a screw driver, an empty box of condoms, a sports magazine, but no flashlight.
I removed the key from the ignition and went to the trunk. This space proved even emptier, lacking jack or spare tire-- which said a lot about Maryann's cousin. Had the whole family relied on fate to live their lives, on the wills of imaginary gods? I shivered with the cold touch of rain down my back and closed the trunk, returning to the open hood to stare uselessly at the useless engine.
"Nothing," I said and sagged against the cool metal. "Didn't anybody ever tell you not to travel unprepared."
"Please, Kenny, don't be like this. I'm having enough trouble handling things."
She looked cold and too much like a wet kitten for me to keep up the abuse. "You want to wear my jacket?" I asked, noting her shaking hands.
"What will you wear?"
"I have a sweater in my bag," I said, the green ammunition pouch presently propped on the dashboard, just visible between the crack at the top of the hood.
"You brought a sweater?"
"I was a boyscout once," I told her. "You want me to get it?"
"If you don't mind."
I grabbed the bag and plucked out the sweater and threw it at her. It was much too large, but it fit over her nicely, erasing all the disturbing details that attracted flies like Tex. She looked younger, the way she had in Grammar school, and innocent again as well-- though I remembered her torturing fools even back then, using a different boy daily to carry her books home.
"I'd say we're in for a bit of a walk," I told her. She glanced up at me, her blue eyes startled.
"Walk? To where?"
"To whatever's open," I said indicating the bar lights lit on the far side of the highway. "We could try the motel first. I don't suppose they close down the motels here on sunday."
"The motel seems safer," Maryann said, the image of a room of Tex's shimmering with horror in her eyes. Even she couldn't control them all, not now, not looking as helpless and vulnerable as she did. She wouldn't be able to say no to any of them if they chose to help her.
"All right, it's the motel then," I said.
"Couldn't we try and start the car again?" Maryann asked, brushing the wet strands of hair from her face, her two broken nails like missing comb teeth.
"And what would that do?" I asked, glaring at the car. "The damned thing seems determined to break down. It might as well be here than a mile farther on where we won't even have a motel to walk to."
"Maybe there's an open service station over the hill."
"Please, Kenny. Just one more time."
I had already walked down hill a bit, staring back up at her through the now slanted rain. She looked like a lonely old woman now with her cheeks sunken and her black make-up running down from the corners of her eyes.
"One more time and that's it," I said and marched up passed her to the driver's side door. It creaked as I pulled it open. Inside, it felt strangely safe but the clicking evaporated the illusion. "There, are you happy?"
Her shoulders sagged. "No."
"Like I said, we walk."
"And leave the car here?"
"Well if you want, we can pack it up in my bag and take it with us."
"I'm serious, Kenny."
"What are you worried about? Nobody's going to steal it."
"But someone could hit it in the dark," Maryann said, waving her hand vaguely towards the empty highway. "A truck might come along and then we won't have a car to get home in. Or the police could see it here and have it towed."
"This isn't the city," I said, impatiently, the water dribbling into my eyes from my hair, and down my shirt and into my shoes-- and with it a chill that said Summer would be over soon. I pictured us as statues of ice, frozen in our expressions of helplessness, waiting out the thaw. "Cops are different here. They don't come to you. You go to them. If we find a phone, we might be able to scrape one up-- and he might be able to get us to a service station."
"But I can't leave the car like this."
"So? You want to sit here while I go use the phone?"
She glanced around at the corn field and across the highway at the barlights shimmering in the heavy downpour like distant flames. She shuddered and shook her head.
"Then I'll stay here and you go."
Her lip trembled as she stared down the dark road towards the unlit motel sign just visible against the glow of the prison even more distant. "Alone? You want me to go there alone?"
"You can't have it both ways, Maryann. Either one of us goes and the other stays, or we rot in this place."
"Couldn't we move the car closer--?" She indicated the motel with a wet sweep of her hand.
"How? The engine's dead remember? Unless you think the battery pods are dirty, too? Then maybe all we need to do it wet them down some and hope for a miracle."
"I'm not joking, Kenny."
"I'm not either."
"You sound it."
"I've peeved, not funny, damn it. And you're unreasonable. Now either we go or we don't. Just make up your goddamn mind before we both drown."
"Couldn't you sort of roll it? I mean it is all down hill."
For a long moment I stared at her. Out of her desperation she had actually hit on something remotely resembling a working plan. It was down hill, even though the dark settled in now like a large and heavy hand and visibility through the rear window would be like staring through a frosted vase. But I could roll it down hill, and save us both the trouble of later trying to rescue the thing if nothing came of our calls to the police. With the momentum, I might even actually roll the thing up into the motel parking lot where it wouldn't suffer the risk of damage from non-existant traffic, or towing by ghostly police.
"All right," I said. "But you've got to guide me. It's too dark and I don't want to roll over into the ditch by mistake, or out into one of the lanes where a truck might actually hit it."
"I'll do what I can, Kenny. But I'm not good at that sort of thing..."
Man things, she meant, the way she had meant back at the rootbeer stand, looking at me the way she had looked at Tex, not exactly promising anything-- though her eyes promised everything I ever dreamed of-- as naked and raw and wonderful as I could have wanted.
"Just yell if I turn too far one way or the other," I said and released the emergency brake, then with a bit more struggle, got the automatic gear shift into nutral. The whole car swayed with the release and began to move, even before I could fully grip the wheel-- rolling back first slowly, then more quickly and I had to press down hard on the brake to keep it from getting out of control. The brakes didn't react well. Nor did the steering. Both had been partially powered by the engine. Without them, they were stiff and unresponsive. Just the thing I needed with the rain, Maryann, and the long roll back to the motel.
"Are you ready?" I asked, watching Maryann's head move slowly up and down. I eased my foot off the brake. The car jumped a little, then rolled. I punched the brake again. The car jerked, wheels slipping against the wet gravel, spitting them sideways into the corn.
Then, the car began its serious movement, rolling down, straight along the six foot wide gravel shoulder, growing faster and faster. I didn't dare slow it. It needed momentum for the upward slant of the motel drive, a hump of land that seperated most of the property this side of the highway from the road itself. Maryann ran after the car for a moment, then gave up, waving her hands at me as if she wanted me to stop, or thought i was going to crash into something in the dark. I couldn't see out the rear window any more, only the images of the jail. But I could gauge the distance from the corn when it broke, making room for the driveway and the land upon which the motel stood. I jerked the steering wheel left. The car spun right and rolled up towards the summit of the mound, stopping just short-- before threatening to roll back towards the highway. I slammed the gear into park and put on the parking break, freezing the machine in that precarious angle.
"What did you stop there for?" Maryann shouted, as she ran down the side of the highway.
"I didn't exactly stop by choice," I growled, climbing back out into the rain, studying the angle, wondering if the two of us could manage a push over the lip. It didn't seem likely.
"But it's blocking the driveway," Maryann said, finally stopping, breathless and wet at the rear bumper. "We can't leave it here like this."
"The car just wasn't going fast enough to make the bump," I said. Yet it wasn't true. I had panicked at the start hitting the brake too much. If I had let it take its natural course, it would have made it over the top.
"So what do we do?" Maryann asked-- her voice utterly given over to dispair. "Push it?"
"It's two heavy for us to push," I said.
"Damn! Won't anything go right?"
"Well it's off the highway," I observed.
"And right smack in the middle of these people's driveway. They're not going to be happy with us blocking things up."
"Hold on, hold on," I said, circling the car, trying to find a flaw in the hill's defences. But it seemed unsurmountable. At least without some other set of hands helping us. A mere foot separated the car from the top, and once there, it was an easy roll down into the water-filled parking lot. Beyond the lot, an "L" shaped building grinned from out of the rain, windows and doors as tattered as its large sign, the paint pealing like sunburned skin. "Maybe we can find some help in there."
Maryann stared over dubviously. "God! It looks awful. Like one of those highway joints up near us."
I glanced over at her and she blushed.
"Don't look at me like that," she said.
"I'm just surprised, that's all."
"You mean that I would know about motels like thos?"
"No, that you would sink so low as to go to one. I thought you had some class."
"I went there when I was younger," Maryann said, sagging a little more. "Before I knew any better."
"And now you do?"
"Are we going to look for help or are we going to gab all night?"
"Good point," I said, grabbing hold of her hand. "Let's go dry off."
We circled a huge round pond that had formed in the center of the lot, though the grass and gravel squished under our heals, hinting of spreading water. A concrete walkway with a leaky tin roof welcomed us, running along the inner side of the "L", motel doors opening onto it. Each looked vacant. Not one room light was lit. Above us, the rain pelted the tin, making for an oddly deafening silence.
"Want to go for a quick swim?" I asked, indicating the olympic-sized swimming pool at the center of the "L", the sides of which showed years of cracks, and the bottom a swell of brown surging liquid that in dry season must have been dirt.
Maryann shook her head stiffly, missing the joke.
"Lookie here!" I shouted and pointed towards the motel wall and the slightly dented public phone shimmering in the shadow. "I think our luck has changed."
Maryann held back as I plunged towards it. "I don't know anyone to call," she said.
"Of course you do," I growled. "You're not going to start quibbling over details now."
"It's not a detail. I won't bring Steve out here."
"Because the prison is down the road? You mean to tell me it makes any difference where you see him?"
"It's not seeing him here that bothers me."
"Ah," I said, catching on. "You're afraid of the price."
"You don't have to put it that way."
"What other way is there?"
"Let's say I'm concerned over his feelings."
"Like you were over Tex's?"
"That's different. I don't know him."
"Or the lawyer's?"
"Kenny! Please! I'm just not going to call him and that's final."
"You're not making sense, girl," I said. "You've twisted the ma enough to know you can get away with anything, even this."
She stared down at her fingers. They shook-- but not merely from the chill. "Maybe I'm growing tired of that."
I stared at her. She wouldn't meet my stare. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I've been thinking about making things work with Tim."
"How? He's behind bars, you know."
"I can do something about that."
"Through your lawyer friend?"
"But won't you be stretching his feelings?"
"He won't expect anything. He's married now."
"Married didn't mean anything to your men before."
"But he'll do you a favor like this?"
"If I ask him right."
"I see," I said, and stared away from her, out into the dirty rain, and the dirty puddles, and the dirty world dripping water like blood.
"No you don't, Kenny," Maryann said. "It's not what you're thinking."
"I'm not thinking anything," I said. "Just that I'm cold and tired. All I want is someplace warm where I get dry for a while."
"I could call the police," Maryann said, thoughtfully.
"No thanks. I wasn't thinking of a place that dry."
"I mean to help us with the car," she said.
"Why not," I said with a shrug, feeling empty, echoing to the droplets like the tin roof above us-- each reminding me of how hollow things had become. "But you'd better do the talking. A helpless woman'll get a better response. You have money?"
She shook her head and I fished in my pocket for the loose change, the last of my paycheck till tomorrow. If we got back up north in time to catch my boss at the store. I pushed the wet coin into the palm of her hand, then slumped against the cool brick, seating myself with arms around my knees-- warmer but not warm.
Maryann punched out zero on the phone, the small metal button sticking in, forcing her to dig it out with her broken nail. Then, she spoke, asking the police.
"Okay, the sheriff then, if that's what you people have in this part of the state. No, I don't think the state police is what I want. Just get the sheriff, all right?" She covered the receiver with the palm of her hand and mouthed out the word "Hicks" at me, then spoke back into the mouthpiece. "Operator? Are you there, operator? How come there's no answer? I know it's sunday, but that doesn't mean the police have to close. I know you're not responsible for what he does, but it seems odd to me. No, I'm not from around here. Well, who do I call if my car's broken down? But you said the sheriff doesn't work on Sunday. No, I can't wait until tomorrow!" Maryann slammed down the phone and glared at me. "I don't believe these people."
"Maybe you should try calling all the churches to see if he's in one," I suggested, not bothering to look up at her, too tired to start a new argument when her expression soured.
"He's probably across the highway in one of the bars," she said.
"That's God-fearing people for you."
"It's what a man would do."
"Which means I should be over there drinking with the boys?"
"You know what I mean, Kenny McDonald."
"I know we're stuck. That's all I know. All the rest of your metaphysics doesn't mean anything to me."
"But what do we do? We can't just sit here and watch the rain. Not with the car out there like that."
"Why not? I don't see that we have a choice-- since you've eliminated the only obvious solution."
"Why is it all up to me? Don't you know anybody we could call?"
"Lots of people. But none who'd come this far. Most of my friends are artists. They know as little about automobiles as I do."
"Can I help you people?" a grey-haired man asked, stepping out of the shadow of a doorway just down the walk, his hands pushed deep into the pockets of a wrinkled sweater. Grandfatherly. But with a wry twist to his lower lip I didn't trust.
"You the manager here?" I asked, rising to meet the man, pulling the ragged Maryann up beside me. The old man's gaze studied her, from her ruined stockings to her dripping party-wear. His eyes dialated slightly as he nodded.
"We have a little problem," Maryann said, blushing as her a quick glance studied her appalling condition.
"You mean the car in my driveway?" the man asked.
"Yes," I said. "We broke down."
"Well you'll have to move it," the man said. "I can't have you blocking the drive like that."
"We can't. It's stuck."
"But I saw you pull in..."
"We rolled it down the hill," I said. "But it wouldn't roll over the hump."
"But you have to move it. Suppose someone should want to come in," the little man said with a slight hint of his own shattered dreams. No one would pull in tonight. Not intentionally. Not to a place like this in a town like this where there was nothing but corn and angry hick stares.
"We've called the sheriff for help," Maryann said. "But he doesn't seem to answer his phone."
"You could roll the car back towards the highway," the man said.
"It wouldn't be safe."
"But it would be out of my drive."
"I suppose the three of us might be able to push it over the hump," Maryann said, smiling at the man, though the promises of sweet things had washed out of her face with the smeared makeup.
"The three of us?" the old man laughed. "I'm not helping you push that thing anyway, especially not into my lot. Our parking lot is reserved for guests."
"It doesn't look crowded to me," I said.
"I'll call the sheriff," the old man said.
"If you can find him."
"I know his home number."
"Then call him," I growled. "We'll let him help push."
"Do you take Visa?" Maryann asked. Both me and the old man stared at her.
"What?" the old man asked.
"If you take Visa, we'll rent a room. That'll entitle us to a parking space."
The old man swawllowed very slowly, caught between images of us, first vagabonds, then patrons. It seemed to confuse him, before his expression hardened again.
"But you haven't moved the car yet," he said.
"We will," Maryann said. "Come on, Kenny. Let's go push the car into the lot."
"Us? We're not going to be able to..."
"Come on, Kenny."
I followed her back out into the rain. She had stiffened, too, parading ahead of me as if she actually knew what she was doing.
"Are you crazy?" I asked. "We'll spend the rest of the night doing damage to our inner organs, but we'll never push that thing over the top."
"Maybe we will," she said. "I saw a pair of headlights pull into the drive while you and the old man were talking. Maybe we can get the driver to help."
"Maybe it's the sheriff coming to find out what the fuss is about."
"Then he'll help us."
But it wasn't the sheriff, or even some stranger looking for a room. Tex stood at the rear bumper of the car, bathed in his own headlights. He staggered and cursed, obviously drunk, rain water dripping from the brim of his hat.
"Well hello Tex," I said loudly, casting a knowing glance at Maryann. Things weren't going her way. In the past her jilted men vanished into the haze, allowing her to go on without guilt. Now, they all came back, as if rising from the grave, haunting her, refusing to let her live her life in peace.
"B-Bitch!" he said glaring at Maryann. "You ain't n-nothing b-but a stup-pid b-bitch!"
For a moment, in the after glow of the truck lights, I mistook the man for Steve-- not the shape of the face so much as the expression, the one I'd seen the first time at some social get-together back north, when he had stumbled out of a garden and had seen Maryann. I knew the story by heart, of how he had whispered questions about who Maryann was, and how her friends had plotted to introduce him. They wanted this nonsense about a prisoner to end. They wanted her to meet and marry the right kind of man. Their kind of man. I remembered the hurt, mingled with attraction that had shown in his eyes, as if he already knew he couldn't have her, or keep her if she consented to romance. Maryann saw it, too, and stepped back, and cringed, though the large man made no move to hit her.
"Hey, hey, Tex," I said, moving between them, clamping a hand onto Tex's shoulder in mutual male bonding. "How about helping us push the car, eh?"
"Help you?" he said, sputtering out rain with the words.
"Just over the hump," I said. "The three of us ought to be able to do it."
"Kenny," Maryann said. "Don't. We'll just roll it back onto the highway like the manager said."
"You said you didn't want to leave it on the highway."
"It doesn't matter now."
"Damn it, Maryann. Make up your mind."
I stared at her. She meant something else. Some startling bit of self-revelation which I was supposed to bow down, too. Only I was tired of emotional wounds and their healing. I wanted the car over the hump and myself curled into a warm bed where the rain didn't pound down on my head.
"So have I," I said. "And We're going to push the car up. Right, Tex?"
Tex burped, and sagged down against the car's front fender, not exactly giggling, though amused at something, perhaps himself, or us, or the sound of the rain pounding on the top of his hat.
"Leave him, Kenny," Maryann pleaded and pulled at my wet sleeve.
"No," I said. But it was obvious to both of us, Tex would be of little help. "We'll use the truck. It'll push the damn car over the lip no problem."
"But we can't...."
"Get in the car and steer," I told her. She sank behind the wheel of the dodge, leaving me with a limp and giggling Tex. I yanked open the car's rear door and shoved him in, face first, stuffing the legs in after him, like a straw man, bending the limbs in ways they shouldn't have otherwise gone.
"Close your door, Maryann," I said. "And get hold of the wheel."
"But I can't drive the car backwards," she said, staring at me, squinting against the truck's headlights.
"It won't be hard. Just put the gear in neutral and let go of the brake when I beep."
She looked at me as if I was crazy, as if seeing me for the first time. Another man in her life. A spy who peeped into her secrets and judged her by them. I knew nothing after this would be the same between us. She'd not trust me; I couldn't listen to her without feeling pain. My pain. Tex's. Steve's. Tim's. Even the shadowy lawyer's. I would play the part of every man ever to have made love to her, knowing I hadn't, couldn't, wouldn't.
"All right, Kenny," she said softly and slammed the door.
Then, I was up into the truck, staring at a dashboard full of gagets and lights, trying to figure out which button did what, and remember how the gearshift went. I grinded the gears the first time and half expected Tex to come roaring out of the back of Maryann's car, cursing me for ruining his truck. The second attempt was more successful and the truck's bumper eased up to the Dodges and pushed. But the Dodge didn't move.
I beeped the horn and let the truck move foward again. But still the dodge didn't move.
"Put the car in Neutral!" I screamed, waving my hand, flashing the truck's high beams till Maryann rolled down her window.
"The gear shift. Put it in neutral."
"Oh yeah," she said, dreamily. "I forgot."
Then with the third attempt, the car moved, the truck motor roaring with the effort, wheels spinning on the the wet drive, spitting up gravel as it gripped. But the car rolled over the top, its own wheels swishing through the flooded parking lot as it came to a stop. I pulled the truck beside it, and turned off the engine and lights before leaping out.
"We did it!" I yelled and hugged the still-dazed Maryann as she climbed out, water to her ankles.
"I'm tired, Kenny," she said.
"I know. But it'll be okay. We'll catch some sleep tonight and call a tow truck in the morning."
"What about him?" she asked, indicating the tilted form of Tex still sprawled in the back seat.
"I'll put him in his truck," I said, and yanked open the back door. It took some doing, but eventually, I got him up and secured, a regular sleeping beauty who'd wake up with a sore head in the morning.
Maryann locked up the car and followed me through the water to the walkway where the grey-headed old man greeted us with a shake of his head.
"You're not leaving that truck here, are you? A room entitles you to one parking space, not two."
"Call the sheriff," I said. "You know his number. I'm sure Tex would appreciate a night in jail."
"So would I," Maryann mumbled and fished out the credit card from her purse. Perhaps she had come to a decision after all, I thought, then forgot about everything as I followed her and the manager towards a waiting bed.