In a showstopping reprisal of my role as God's punching bag, my shitty car speaker finally snaps under the weight of being alive.
Up until now, I’ve been overflowing the car with screaming, electric-guitar-ing chaos so loud I regret my lack of hearing insurance. Now it shoves my heavy metal through a meat grinder.
I might be driving. Who’s to say? All I know is I'm behind the wheel, staring at the ten and two, and everything is loud, loud.
My throat twists into my ears at the squealing, but I don't switch it off. If you never bury it, it never dies.
Maybe this is all I'll ever know how to do. Maybe purgatory is nothing more than a—
“Sweeeeet Car-o-line! BA! BA! BA!”
I turn at the speed of wet cement to the next car over.
It’s got a window rolled down, a solo driver in kitschy sunglasses, and a speaker that clearly isn't broken.
“Good times never seemed so good! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!”
It’s a theatrical extravaganza. The driver’s face screws up as she screams along to every word.
I do not know how to process any stimuli that is not the gas pedal or caffeine. She grabs an empty bottle and belts into it like it’s the finale of a reality show and her starving family needs the prize money.
Couldn't tell you why I can't look away. She’s got Sharpie all over her arms. Hair the color of trees.
The corner of my mouth twitches, and before I have a second to be surprised, the driver meets my eye.
I flinch into the sun, but she doesn’t shoot me a dirty look. Instead I'm shot with finger guns and a laugh. And a face that expects me to sing along.
Before I can begin to think, the light we’re apparently at turns green and she zooms away with a grandiose salute, still singing at the top of her lungs.
I tap my toe back and forth on the checkered tiles. Blackwhiteblackwhiteblack. Jerk in front of me’s taking a decade to pick out a lotto.
Don’t know why people in movies are always going to places that remind them of people they lost. All this gas station has is a smattering of her hazy ghosts hovering around the slushie machine, and it’s enough to make me contemplate sending the place up with convenient on-site diesel.
I stare at the back of this idiot’s head, who I now recognize as our karaoke extraordinaire. Because of course. Close-cropped hair and a workman’s shirt, but an easy, lanky lean over the counter. She’s waving a hand in circles to the tune of her deliberations.
I clear my throat once, way louder than I mean to, but I let it fill the air. The snack racks judge me.
She turns around and I hope she’ll at least have the good manners to glare, but I’m greeted by a freckled smile instead.
“I had that cough all last month,” she says. “You’re gonna want a few of these babies.”
She reaches behind her like she’s memorized the store. Her out-of-state plates I remember say otherwise, and the code-cracking eleven-year-old in me wants to investigate. Today I’m more interested in whether two sightings of Sweet Caroline here warrants a restraining order.
I don’t think she recognizes me. The baseball cap and shades might not work for celebrities, but they’re all it takes for me to turn invisible.
She hands me a pack of fruit lozenges, which I take only so they don’t fall to the tile.
My instinct is to say thank you, but my body reaches out and hangs them up on a rack of trail mix wordlessly.
I almost laugh at how rude that was, or apologize and play it off as a joke, but I don’t know what else to say. I hide behind my sunglasses and jerk my chin toward the register like, hurry up.
She doesn’t even have the decency to be perturbed.
“Fine. Your funeral,” she says, and the only thing that saves me from multiple felony charges is the speed in which she points out a ticket, tosses over cash, and ambles her giraffe-legged self out of my immediate line of fire.
I accidentally say yes to a dozen charities I don’t mean to on the PIN pad and almost leave the pump in my gas tank screeching away.
The place is still standing, entirely un-arsoned, in my rearview mirror. I think that calls for some kind of award.
I see her again on the highway hours later. I’m weaving lanes to pass idiots who aren’t aware cars can exceed ten miles an hour.
She’s cruising ahead of me. Music still blasts from her open windows and she’s sipping a smoothie between choruses.
At some point she falls behind or ahead and I’m back alone at sea.
A day of driving later, I stop to fund the proud vocation of roadside burger flippers.
The road off the highway turns to dirt, then to gravel as I pull up a worn facade. I find no name other than Restaurant. Ancient flyers flutter from the windows.
Behind a half-jammed door wait stagnant air and rows of ripped leather seats. A voice from the back yells to seat myself and they’ll be with me in a sec.
I scan for seats and—“Jesus Christ.”
I don’t aim to name any lords in vain around these parts, but I’m ready to list a couple more to get the point across.
That stranger swings her boots at the soda bar. I’m the only other patron here.
I turn to leave, but there won’t be any fast food for eons. Besides, fellow cars have long since begun registering as baby ants I could crash into and not mean a thing.
“You,” I accuse.
She turns. Her face hits confusion instead of cycling into a wholesome grin, which helps her anti-stalking case marginally.
“You?” She searches for anyone else. “I mean this in the kindest way possible, but why are you following me?”
I’m about to argue the opposite case, but realize I have absolutely nothing to back me up.
She isn’t a particularly threatening figure. On the other hand, she seems like the kind of lady to carry a few knives on her person for whimsical camp counsellor reasons.
I grumble something intelligent and take a seat several stools down.
She shrugs and leaves me in peace for a blessed period of time. Before I can lovingly scrapbook about the experience, she leans over to bridge our few feet of buffer.
“What brings you out here, then?”
I pretend I don’t hear. I try to calculate how old this person is out of the corner of my eye, but it’s a fruitless attempt.
“M’sister,” I mumble.
I know she’ll make me elaborate. I could stab her with this napkin-swaddled fork. Might buy me some time.
“Dead.” The word sucks my chest dry. “Funeral.”
I hadn’t noticed before how the overhead speakers play a little tune. Meager air conditioning whirs.
“Real sorry to hear that.” Her voice is quiet.
The counter grout needs scrubbing. I pick at it.
She ventures, “I understand.”
I fantasize about smashing her face into the mini jukebox.
“Got some experience there. Not the kind of experience I’d put on a PetCo resume.”
I don’t laugh, but I don’t not laugh, and that’s enough for her to offer me a smoke.
That does actually get a smile out of me, though it’s more a baring of teeth. I wave it away, cheekbones suddenly tight.
“Lung cancer,” I manage, gesturing in the air toward the funeral two hundred miles away.
“Crabapples, sorry.” She stashes the cigarettes with a wince and stows her own behind her ear for good measure. “Foot-in-mouth syndrome, I swear.”
I check over my shoulder and curse the utter lack of waitstaff to distract me. I settle for studying the fountain drink options displayed on a rotting little machine.
“It does get easier, I tell you. You just don’t think about it much after a while.” She shreds a napkin piece by piece. “Well, you do. But you don’t. Time, y’know?”
It should be that easy. I should be able to order a soda and put it all aside and think about any of the millions of topics available on this shiny green Earth.
I open my mouth to finally decide on a Sprite and end up gnashing my tongue between my teeth.
Because a Sprite isn’t a Sprite, it’s the time Melissa jammed a knife in the side of a can because I dared her to shotgun it like a beer and it exploded to teach us a lesson.
I bite the inside of my mouth again, hard, and blood drips down the back of my throat.
Blood isn’t blood, it’s the time her IV slipped and stained the sheets with some of the precious life she had left. It’s her assuring me it’s fine, it looks worse than it is, and I should have learned my lesson that day that Melissa lies.
I must resemble a sick zoo animal, because that’s how the stranger is looking at me.
“Fuck off,” I say, surprising both of us.
I can’t really sit there after that, so I take my menu and shove off the bar for greener pastures.
The pastures are really only about ten square feet, so I end up sliding into a booth in the opposite corner. And this table already has a menu, so now I’m holding an extra, and it’s great that I have bigger things to worry about because I would spiral into a tornado of embarrassment otherwise.
I stick my face in the menu. I wish it was bigger so I could really shut everything out, old-man-with-a-newspaper style, but it would be out of character to acquire good luck now.
When I eventually peek over top of the appetizers, the stranger is looking over her shoulder at me.
“Want some fries, pal? On me,” she asks in a stupidly normal voice. We’re still really not far apart in this shack of a place.
The thing is, I do. And I’m not sure how far a pocketful of non-Benjamins is going to get me in the middle of nowhere.
But she holds out an arm the way Melissa would when she picked me up from swim practice, coaxing me out of the water into the freezing air, and I hide my face again.
A minute. Hours. Who cares.
Now she’s standing at the edge of the table with an uncertain lean toward the booth seat. “Hola. Mind?”
I wonder if there’s a phone number to call to obtain her levels of audacity.
I mutter something along the lines of, “Yeah, fine.”
The lone waitress finally makes her way around and I order a shake without thinking.
Movie theater memories of sharing straws swim in my mind. I attempt to drown them in free ice water.
The stranger fills the silence with bargain-bin this and that. Something something, the trucking business, her opinions on library hours, the merits of various labrador breeds.
I probably speak in return, but all I feel is her cloying sympathy like dying bees wriggling on the table.
I might be eating her fries. I successfully don’t tell her to fuck off again.
She gestures to my shake after a few years, minutes. “If you don't get to drinking that, I will.”
I tighten my grip on the glass. “Saving it.”
“‘Til it melts?”
I narrow my eyes at her, then at the shake, which has the consistency of cottage cheese’s ugly cousin. Nothing seems like a faster ticket to a hurl in the porta potty outside, but I force a sip out of spite.
And I guess she wins for a bit. Not because I feel better, or because the shake is digestible, but because I don’t really see the point in leaving again.
The sun changes at some point. The sky is orange and purple out the windows.
“I shouldn’t have bought this.”
I’m ready to dart a line about the crappy fries, but she pulls that lotto ticket from her jacket pocket with a flick of disdain.
She slides it over to me on the table without a word. I feel like I’m in a drug deal, or being subjected to a sly move in chess that I don’t know enough rules to challenge.
She nods down at it, a dog pushing a bowl forward with its nose. “For you.”
The tacky lettering. That deluded, exploitative promise of three winning stars under the surface, begging for you to scratch them into view. All that stands between you and a lifetime of perfect completeness is a flimsy printing of tinfoil.
I know she has done nothing but exhibit a complete misunderstanding of how anything works so far, but I still crinkle my eyebrows. “Why—”
“They’re not good for me. Take it.” She keeps getting this weird glimmer in her eye, like she’s a farmer in a vaguely Midwestern Hallmark movie.
“You an addict or something?” I blurt.
That was rude, I think. That’s not my business, I think. Melissa would give me an earful and slap me halfway to Tuesday if she heard me, I think.
My jittering legs itch to make a break from the booth, leave the stranger to pick up the tab, and jam my key so hard in the ignition my mechanic back home feels the stab.
The ketchup on the table needs to be refilled. The clock in the corner lost one of its hands. I notice the sticky hardwood, the flickering neon signs, the way my knuckles go white like little peaks and how that doesn’t help a damn when every tiny thing screams that someone is dead.
I want her to ask about Melissa.
I want to spill every brutal detail. The deathbed screaming matches. How many hours I spent wasting gas hunting Mom down to make her say goodbye. How she still wasn’t there when the line went flat.
I want this stranger to ask about the heaviness of dead weight, about grape popsicles served in endless plastic cups, how she burned the everloving shit out of the roof of her mouth by sipping boiling chicken broth for months while hopped up on too many pain meds to notice. I want this stranger to ask why no one else noticed that for her. I want someone to ask if she got the chance to finish her degree.
“Always found that a funny word,” she answers, and I snap back to the table. “Addict. Yuck. I prefer to label it a surplus of hope.”
She laughs, and this time, I surprise myself and laugh, too. So hard my ribcage cracks like glowsticks and I’m coughing and I worry I’ll never be able to stop.
At a certain point, tears must fall from my unwilling eyes because I reach up to find my face clammy, and after a while we each throw our bills at the corner of the table and find ourselves standing in the cold breeze of the diner doorway.
“Thanks,” I mumble, though I don’t know what for. My chest feels like a cave with water running through it. I have no idea what that’s remotely supposed to mean, but so be it.
“Nonsense. Alright, if I see you around, marvelous.” She stops short of clapping me on the back and lets her hand fall on her hip instead. “If I don’t, it means I don’t have a stalker. Win-win.”
I’ll never see her again. Probability doesn’t work that way.
I give a thumbs-up.
The streetlamps zooming by flicker feeble yellow light through my windshield, illuminating the ticket in long, gliding flashes. Always enough to catch my eye, but never enough to read what it says.
I’m holding it now and the music is a droning murmur buzzing through the speakers. And maybe I'm possessed, or stupid, or delirious and half asleep, but I find my eyes tracking across traffic for Missouri plates.
The ticket rests on my thigh, hidden under the wheel, and I thumb the corner of it as I drive. Back and forth, back and forth, until it grows wrinkled and worn in my fingers.
Flying down an empty lane, I hold the slip up to the unsteady light. Squint to make out the fine print.
Three stars to win.