West Texas heat waves shimmer as she descends into the red sun. Nothing. Rocks, red dirt, patches of yellow weeds. Nothing. She glances into the back seat at Buddy asleep, his boney knees up under his chin, his brown hair slanted across his eyes.
In her wake hangs a trail of black smoke. Her old Caprice roars, moans, coughs. Her body shudders with the car’s death throes. Finally, it sighs, coasts . . . . Stops.
She sinks back into the worn-out upholstery. Sweat stings her eyes.
Buddy moans, stretches, and says, “I’m hungry, Momma. I’m thirsty.”
“I know, honey. I know.” She stares ahead at the red ball of a sun, the black
ribbon of road. It’s a two-lane secondary road, a “scenic route,” but there’s nothing to see.
Buddy sits up, looks around. “Where’s McDonald’s?”
“No McDonald’s, Bud.”
“Why we stopped?”
Buddy’s blue eyes darken and his mouth drops open. “I wanta go to McDonald’s.”
She shoves her door open and gets out, starts walking fast into the low sun, her skinny arms swinging hard. She hasn’t gone fifty feet when she stops.
Jesus, she can see forever here. Baltimore was all tall buildings, a maze. Southern Ohio was a maze, too, with its winding roads and hills and tall trees. Ohio–-two days behind her. Two sleepless days of asphalt.
She turns, sees Buddy standing in the road, heat waves blurring him. He could be a mirage. “Get out of the road!”
“Where you going, Momma?”
She pulls her cheap knock-off of a Swiss Army knife out of her cut-off jeans, holds it up. “I’m gonna kill you a rattle snake for supper. We’re gonna have McSnake.” She walks back.
Buddy steps over next to the car, which is yellow and lists to the driver’s side. The grill is smashed in and reminds her of her ex-boyfriend Roger’s mouth after a bar fight.
“Where were you really going?”
“Hell if I know.”
“It’ll cool off when the sun goes down. Get back in the car.”
“Guess we’re not gettin’ to Phoenix.”
This afternoon, Glen Campbell sang “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” on the staticky radio, and she and Buddy sang along. Then they tried to sing it on their own but couldn’t remember all the words. Buddy got farther than she did.
A sky-blue mini-van approaches as she stands cluelessly staring at the car’s greasy, complicated heart, the hood raised, but the mini-van whooshes right by, inches from her, a freckle-faced kid’s nose smashed against the glass, the man and woman in the front seat looking straight ahead, deliberately blind to her and her piss-colored car.
She slams the hood down and gets back in behind the steering wheel. Buddy is in the front seat now, his face red and sweaty. “Shouldn’t you put on those lights?”
“Those–-” He holds up his hands, palms out, opens and closes them repeatedly.
“The flashers? Yeah. You’re pretty smart, Bud. You know that?” She pets his head.
“Give me a hug.” They wrap their arms around each other. He’s so small, bones like a bird’s. That’s what Tom said about her, that she had bones like a bird’s, his big hand kneading the small of her back while the fingertips of his other hand traced her jaw line and neck.
Today is the Fourth of July, and it occurs to her she’s never had any luck on holidays. This Easter, she was running away from Baltimore to Chicago or St. Louis or Dallas or Phoenix, but the Caprice gave out quietly and without warning on a hill in Ohio in view of the Ohio River. It was black night, and she and Buddy sat on the hood of the car and watched the lights of a barge moving slowly toward Cincinnati.
Tom showed up in a silent whirl of blue, red, and white lights. He rose from his patrol car, enormously tall and muscular. Her natural reaction to seeing a sheriff’s cruiser was to break out in a sweat.
She whispered to herself, “I’m clean. I’m all right. I’m clean.” She held her arms stiff and a little away from her sides, her fingers splayed.
“I didn’t say anything.”
The sheriff tipped his Smokey Bear hat at Buddy, smiled. He had big white teeth, crow’s feet, and gray at his temples.
“I’m eight. My mom’s only twenty-four, but she really is my mom. Her name’s Scarlet, but everybody calls her Scar.”
“You and your mom got car trouble?”
“Yeah.” Buddy kicked a tire. “Damn thing. Damn piece of crap. Piece of shitshitshit!”
Scar put her arm on Buddy’s shoulder. “That’s enough, Bud.”
Tom looked at her, gave her a lop-sided grin. She looked at his black boots.
She couldn’t help remembering shoving Baggies under car seats, trembling with the knowledge that in a matter of minutes she might be in a jail cell getting strip searched. Once Derk, Buddy’s father and a guitar player in a Baltimore punk band, shoved a couple of joints in her face and said, “Swallow ‘em!”
“What?” They were stopped on a downtown Baltimore street. Behind them, a cop who had waved them over was dismounting his motorcycle.
“Swallow ‘em! Quick!” Derk’s silver hoop earring swung. He ran his hand across the black stubble on his chin.
She’s leaning with her back against the car, looking up at the darkening west Texas sky, the first stars making their appearance, when a moving van comes barreling out of the red horizon, a tattered Christmas wreath on the massive grill. The moving van hesitates just an instant as the driver takes a look at her leaning there with her tee shirt soaked through, then flies on.
“Is it Christmas, Momma?”
“I’m not in the mood for your shit.”
Buddy’s red face looks slapped. His blue eyes turn away from her and gaze out over the landscape.
She wipes sweat from her eyes. “I’m sorry, Bud.”
He nods, says, “That truck had a Christmas tree on it.”
“I don’t know. Maybe the truck driver likes to pretend it’s Christmas all year long.”
“Will it snow in Phoenix when it’s Christmas?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Can we go back to Ohio for Christmas?”
“You know, today’s Independence Day, and we might see a fireworks celebration here soon if we watch the sky. I think some town is over that way.” She points. “I love a fireworks show, don’t you?”
“Can we what?”
“Because. Because Ohio is . . . a trap.”
All the way out west she has glanced in her rear-view mirror, thinking she might see Tom’s patrol car coming up behind her, but it hasn’t happened. He would know to look for her on the scenic routes. If he came after her, she might go back, telling herself she had no choice.
In Indiana, Buddy asked why they were running away.
“We’re just moving on.”
“Because we can.”
After Easter, by the time the parts for her twenty-four-year-old Caprice arrived, she and Buddy were renting a mobile home on a grassy lot near the river bank in Manchester, and she was working at the McDonald’s three blocks away.
She would have worked anywhere else if she could have. Whenever she saw a McDonald’s she thought about the time Buddy was two months old and she almost abandoned him. She had told Derk on a pay phone that she was desperate, that she and Buddy were living in a dump, that she’d gotten fired from her waitress job, and that she’d gotten her electricity and phone cut off. He had said, “No sweat,” and she had believed he’d show up–-this kid was his, too. They agreed to meet at a McDonald’s. She didn’t want Derk coming to her place because he might end up crashing there for days or weeks.
“No sweat,” she muttered, waiting for him. “No sweat.” She and Buddy sat with their backs to a life-size plastic Ronald McDonald, Buddy in his car seat sleeping. The ice had all melted in her Sprite, and her stomach hurt, and her fingers were greasy from the fries she had eaten. She didn’t have enough money now for even an apple pie. Outside, it was night and raining. Cars hissed along. Every once in a while there was lightning and then a crash of thunder, the buildings dark silhouettes against the lit-up sky.
Buddy woke up and started crying. She rocked his car seat, told him everything was fine. “Everything is cool, kid. No sweat.” Through the window she saw a skinny long-haired guy
slouching down the sidewalk, soaked from the rain, but he wasn’t limping, so she knew he wasn’t Derk. Derk had a limp from falling off a stage.
The McDonald’s was empty. The workers were back in the grill area. She smelled cigarette smoke although there were signs all over the place saying, “This is a smoke-free McDonald’s.”
Buddy cried harder. She dug a bottle of juice out of his diaper bag, but he jerked his red face away from it. Her nipples leaked. It seemed he cried all the damn time. He never let her sleep when she was exhausted. He sucked too hard on her nipples. At two months, Buddy was pretty much like all guys.
She got up and walked out.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Buddy’s screams were silenced, replaced by the pounding rain and splashing cars and the diesel engine of a truck.
All thought spilled out of her head as she leaned into the driving rain. Cars, buses, taxis plowed through the wet streets, their red tail lights bleeding across the pavement. Her sneakers filled with water.
She was almost to a corner when a car ran a red light and slammed into a bus. The impact was like an explosion--collapsing steel, shattering glass. She jumped, then froze where she was. Steam hissed free from a radiator. An engine fan clanked. Cars honked. The bus sat cockeyed like a beached whale, the car folded up next to its side. She looked back down the block at the McDonald’s, which looked eerie and empty. Thunder crashed. The sky lit up like day.
She ran. She stumbled where the old sidewalk had cracked and heaved up. Her chest hurt. Her throat felt raw. Her breasts ached.
She shoved through the door--her heart pounding in her head, her breath coming hard–-and froze just inside the entrance. Buddy was not screaming, and he was not by the plastic Ronald McDonald. A chubby boy came out from the back and said, “May I take your order?”
She stammered. “Wh . . . where?” Something sizzled in the grill area. A cabinet door slammed. She suddenly realized that she had spent most of the two months of Buddy’s life hearing him cry or feeling him pinching her breasts but not much time looking at him. She didn’t know whether she could identify him.
She heard something else and lurched toward the statue of Ronald McDonald. Around on the other side was Buddy. He was facing Ronald McDonald, smiling and gurgling and kicking his feet.
Later that night, Scar’s friend Felicity, who lent her ten dollars, took a hit off a joint and said an angel must have moved Buddy.
At the McDonald’s in Manchester, Scar’s boss was a nineteen-year-old named Earl Roy Pickett, who was about six-two and tipped the scales, Scar figured, at around a hundred and twenty pounds. The first night she worked, he brushed against her butt as she scrubbed grease out of a deep fry trough and said, “Excuse me, Scarlet. These aisles are so narrow.” But he didn’t move. She turned to see what he wanted. His long yellow face was close to hers, patches of red skin glowing. He reeked with Old Spice. His breath smelled of McDonaldland cookies. “Listen,” he whispered. He looked around and grinned crookedly. “Let me know if you ever want me . . . to slip you . . . a gift certificate. . . .”
Ethel, who worked the register, was at least eighty, smelled like a wet dog, and made people mad all the time because she couldn’t count out change. At night, Scar’s dreams were full of images of Ethel’s blue hair and bull dog face, ketchup-smeared
tables and walls, half-eaten pickles, melted yogurt cones. She awoke with the fear that she was inhaling grease the way a coal miner inhaled coal dust.
The evening she got her first pay check she stared at the numbers, tried to will the decimal point to the right, thought about the rent on her trailer, groceries, utility bills, car repairs, Buddy’s birthday, Earl Roy’s Old Spice, Ethel’s dog smell, the odor of fish sandwiches. She thought again about Buddy’s birthday coming up. In the grill area under a table there was a big box of Beanie Babies they would start giving away in Happy Meals the next day. She was closing. Everyone else was gone. Scar stuffed Beanie Babies into her pockets and down the front of her pants.
She walked to her trailer and piled the Beanie Babies on the card table in the kitchenette. Then she went into Buddy’s room to watch him sleep. He was especially beautiful when he slept. While she stood above the mattress that Buddy slept on, just gazing at him, somebody knocked at the front door. She told herself that if it was Earl Roy she would hit him with a frying pan. She flung open the door, and there was Tom. He wore his Smokey Bear hat. His badge glinted. His black boots were shiny. He looked serious, a little flushed, even a little sweaty. She noticed now, for the first time, that his eyes were intensely blue, like Buddy’s when Buddy was afraid.
Fear rendered her mute. He asked whether he could come in, and she backed away from the door. He nodded at the pile of Beanie Babies and said, “Good investment if you hold on to them.”
Scar’s face burned. Tom had been coming into the McDonald’s two or three times every day, making small talk, asking how things were going, but he had never come to her trailer. Finally, she managed to say, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Please don’t tell Earl Roy. I’ll put them back. He’ll make me have sex with him or something.”
“Earl Roy been harassing you?”
“Yeah. I mean, no. Just . . . .”
“I’ll talk to him.”
“No! Don’t. I mean–-”
Tom frowned. “You sure you’re all right?”
She stared at the Beanies. A chicken, an elephant, a fish, a turtle, three or four bears . . . . She tried to look at something else, but her eyes kept going back to the beanies.
Tom cleared his throat. “I came here to see whether you’d like to go to a movie Saturday night.”
“What?” She looked at his face, those blue eyes.
“Buddy can come, too, of course.” He was clearly sweating
now, and his face was bright pink.
“That’s why you’re here? To ask me . . . ?” She stared at his Smokey Bear hat, then grinned, put both her hands on her chest, one on top of the other. This was so cool. He didn’t want to arrest her; he was just trying to get laid.
One night Scar awoke from a nightmare about Roger, the boyfriend she was running away from. Roger washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant and claimed to know a lot about oriental Cultures. The walls of his apartment were covered with mounted swords and scabbards decorated with dragons. Once, when he let her hold one, it was horribly heavy and obscenely long. On the handle was a dragon with bulging eyes and a forked tongue. Roger liked to grab a hunk of her long red hair and say, “Look at me when I talk to you.”
He told her that if she ever left him he’d track her down and he’d have one of his swords with him.
She woke from her nightmare with a scream, and Tom held her and petted her.
“Why don’t I ever see you with a gun?” she asked him.
“I haven’t met anybody yet I’d want to shoot.”
“But don’t you think you should have one for when the occasion arises?”
Tom was staying with her every night. One day at work, as she was wiping ketchup off a table, the thought occurred to her that Tom was the first . . . man . . . she had ever known.
She didn’t know anything about his previous romantic life, but one day when she was buying stamps at the post office, a blonde mail clerk with breasts too big and high to be real sneered at her out of the blue and said, “I know who you are.”
Scar looked away, sighed, looked back. “Damn. Well, you know I’m pretty famous, but I was hoping people wouldn’t recognize me.”
“You’re funny. Maybe that’s what he likes.”
“Let’s just say we have a mutual friend. He doesn’t mail packages any more since you came to town.”
Tom would pull up to her mobile home with the back seat of his cruiser crammed with books and knickknacks and kitchen utensils and something large sticking out of the open trunk–-a rocking chair or a big framed picture of horses in a fenced pasture, a rolled-up rug, a floor lamp, a kitchen table.
“This what you do as Sheriff? Go to yard sales?”
“Some times. These are decent things, just inexpensive.”
Scar had never thought much about fixing up a place. She and Buddy always made do with a couple of mattresses and bean bags.
“This place is starting to look like somebody’s Goddamn home,” she complained to Tom.
“That’s the idea.”
“I don’t want a Goddamn home.”
Tom said, “I am always going to want you.” He kissed her shoulders, her neck, her breasts.
She said, “You got a case of the Scarlet Fever. I make men burn. But don’t worry. You won’t burn forever. Eventually you’ll die.”
“I mean it. I want you for always. Forever.”
There it was.
Tossed at her like one of those medicine balls her high-school gym teacher shoved at her one time. Knocked her backwards. And she dropped it.
“Don’t say that.”
“I mean it.”
The next day at work, she pressed up close to Earl Roy and said, “I think I’m ready for you to slip me that . . . gift certificate.”
Earl Roy grinned, his eyes as big and green as pickle slices. His acne flared as crimson as ketchup.
They took their breaks at the same time and went to her
trailer. She said, “Let’s get this over quick,” and dropped her pants. Earl Roy gasped, hyperventilated. Then it was over quicker than it took a yogurt cone to melt.
“God, I love you, Scar.”
“Shut up, Earl Roy.”
At work the next day he kept asking her when he was going to
get to see her again. He asked her in front of Ethel and everybody else. And in front of Ethel and everybody else, she replied, “I don’t know.” Then, “I’m on my period.” Then, “Never!”
After midnight he banged on her door and hollered, “Scar, I need to talk to you!”
Groggy with sleep, Tom asked, “Is that Earl Roy?”
“Yeah, that’s Earl Roy.”
More banging. “I need to talk to you, Scar. It’s very very important. I know you’ve got Sheriff Schmidt in there with you.”
Buddy appeared in the bedroom doorway. “Momma.”
“It’s okay. Go back to bed.”
“Is it Roger?”
“No. It’s just Earl Roy. Besides Tom’s here.”
Buddy turned and staggered back to his room.
Tom said, “Jesus, honey, what the hell did you do? Steal some more Beanie Babies?”
She looked at Tom. “I let him screw me.”
“Now he won’t leave me alone.”
Tom sat up.
Earl Roy was under her bedroom window now, muttering something incoherent through the vinyl siding. Tom got out of bed and pulled on his pants and shirt and went to the door and said something Scar couldn’t make out. Earl Roy responded with a short and incoherent speech, his voice high and rapid. All she understood were the words “love” and “Scar.” Tom spoke again, softly. Then she could hear Earl Roy drawl, “Yes, sir.”
Tom came back to the bedroom and finished dressing.
“I felt sorry for him,” she said, sitting up in bed. “He’s my friend. He’s such a nerd. It didn’t mean anything. Jesus, he was . . . .”
“I just told you.”
Tom looked at her, then shook his head.
She had her mouth open a while before some words came out. Then she stated flatly, “I’ve screwed lots of guys.” She looked at the wall.
“Earl Roy thinks it meant something.”
“Jesus, he’s such a nerd.”
“What do you expect a boy like that to think?”
“Is he going to leave me alone now?”
“He will for tonight.”
She looked up at Tom, who stood over her. “Jesus. What a dork.” She sighed. “It’s your fault.”
He stared at her and she stared back. He looked away first.
Putting on his hat, he said, “You always bring hell on yourself?”
She followed him down the narrow hall to the living room and to the front door. She said to his back, “Tom.” He didn’t pause.
As she watched his cruiser drive away, she hugged herself and realized she was naked, but she didn’t mind being naked. She closed the door, locked it, looked around at all the stuff that made the trailer look like somebody’s Goddamn home. She got a beer out of the refrigerator, and the pop and fizz when she pulled the ring on the can sure did sound like celebration.
She’s still leaning against her car, her head way back, the sky dark now.
She hears an engine and looks up the road. The moving van with the Christmas wreath is returning. Apparently, the driver decided to help her and found a place to turn around. She smiles. The moving van down shifts, the transmission whining; the air brakes squeal; the diesel engine rumbles. Encircled by the tattered Christmas wreath, the grill says, with an upward slant of letters, “Peterbilt.”
The driver scoots over to the passenger door and pushes it open, jumps down to the tarry asphalt. The light from the cab falls over him like a spot light. A wiry guy maybe thirty, he’s wearing tight jeans with black smears on them and an LA Dodgers cap, and when he grins, he shows yellow teeth. He pulls a cigarette out of his tee-shirt pocket.
“Who’s this?” Buddy asks from the passenger seat. “Who is he, Momma?”
“Somebody to help.”
The trucker nods at her, rubs the dark bristle on his chin. His eyes dart to Buddy and back to her. “Got trouble, little lady?”
Scarlet hears popping, explosions, the distant whistling of
Then beyond the trucker, high in the black sky, colorful tendrils appear. Fire rains down.
Mark Spencer is the author of the novels Love and Reruns in Adams County (Random House) and The Weary Motel (Backwaters Press) and two collections of stories. His work has received the Faulkner Society Faulkner Award for the Short Novel, The Omaha Prize for the Novel, The Bradshaw Book Award, The Cairn Short Fiction Award, and four Special Mentions in Pushcart Prize.