Susan next to me said, “Oh my God.”
Lisa in the back said, “Robert, what was that?”
I said, “shit,” put on my blinker and started to coast from the left lane toward the shoulder of the turnpike as cars shot by left and right. We were headed upstate, back to college after the Thanksgiving recess. I’d met the girls at a friend’s party the night before, and over a few joints and some wine I’d offered them a ride back to school. I was a senior in Political Science; they were both English Major sophomores. We were in the middle of a pleasant chitchat about Sylvia Plath, and I had been cool and sensitive and nodded agreement with the ladies that she’d become a symbol of blighted female genius in between a daydream fantasy of which of them I’d bed that evening or perhaps even a ménage a trois. The pleasantness in my brain burst when my car decided to strand me on the road, and I was plunged into a riot of concerns.
Lisa said, “Robert, what’s the matter with the car?”
“I think the engine’s blown. We’ll need to get towed to a garage and go from there.”
Susan’s voice rose. “What do you mean? We’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s starting to get dark. How do we get a tow truck? We haven’t passed a town exit or a service area for miles. Should we flag down a car? I need to get back to the sorority house. My mom will call tonight to check that I’ve arrived, and I won’t be there. I have work tomorrow. We can’t be stuck here.”
Susan was a foot away from my ear and her voice sounded like a magpie. That and the thud of reality that I’d either need to buy a new engine or sell the GTO cheap raised my temperature. I guess it was a loss of concentration that caused me to bring the Pontiac to a halt on the shoulder too close to the right lane of the highway. The whoosh, whoosh as cars shot by only an arms length away further upset the girls and they turned their heads to follow every seventy-mile-per-hour vehicle that passed. A big semi blasted its horn, and I jumped in my seat. The two girls bolted from the car like a starting gun was fired and they ran to stand on the grassy berm. In the faded light Susan had a massive pout on her face and stood with hands on hips. Lisa peered down the road to look for help before they passed.
Stress sweat sheeted on my forehead and my shirt started to stick to my body. I opened the windows on the driver and passenger sides, and I called to the girls that I needed one of them to steer, and I’d push the car further from the highway. I didn’t get an immediate volunteer, but in a few minutes they started to slap at their legs and arms. The mosquitoes and no-see-ums must have risen from the tall grass of the berm and attacked the girls in a blood lust that worked to my benefit. I imagine they deduced a seat in the car would be better protection from bugs so Lisa said she’d steer. She entered from the passenger side and climbed over the silver gearshift to the black leather bucket seat on the driver’s side as I sidled out a crack in the door and slid along the car to get behind as traffic continued to shoot past. Susan helped me push and we were able to move the car far enough away from the road to have the women feel safe and climb back in. The first thing they did was roll up the windows. I put on the hazard blinker and the small roof interior light. Bugs had gotten into the car and we hunted them down, which was good because the activity gave me a respite from Susan’s complaints.
Cars on the road dwindled as night descended. Each set of headlamps lit up two faces of concern inside the car. You don’t realize how black it gets when there’s just a sliver of a moon until you’re away from city lights. The darkness was so intense I felt it in my teeth. The temperature dropped as quickly as the sun went down, and the girls complained of being cold. Shivers stoked the courage of the ladies to brave hungry mosquitoes, and they ran to the back of the car and rummaged through their bags for pullovers using the scant aid of the trunk light. I pushed aside the stash of weed I’d picked up in the city to sell on campus. I’d worked at a law firm the summer before. I was a gofer, but I did get some insight to the unfair plight of people involved with drugs. Okay, heroin is heavy, but marijuana is like taking a drink, and I knew it was only a matter of time before pot became legal. I saw myself as ahead of the curve, and anyway, I was putting myself through school and needed the money. We all came up with sweatshirts and I closed the trunk. We slapped at invisible buzzing and ran back inside the car. We’d let mosquitoes in, and spent the next few minutes killing bloodsuckers.
Susan scratched her arms and legs. She said, “Nobody is stopping. What if we have to sit here all night?
Lisa said, “Robert maybe you should try and stop a car. Susan and I can go with them while you wait here. We’ll send the tow truck back.”
Lisa’s idea wasn’t bad. However I thought, two young women who thumbed a ride outside the car would be our best chance some guy would stop, but I knew without asking that wasn’t going to fly. I said, “Let’s give it an hour. Maybe someone will see our flashers and stop, or maybe highway patrol will come along. The cops give enough tickets for speeding on this road, they must patrol it for stopped motorists.” The thought of police raised a groan of concern in my gut. I didn’t want them to catch me with weed in the trunk. On the other hand dumping my investment on the side of road was an unattractive prospect. While I rolled over this dilemma, Susan spoke again.
“It’s cold. I’m hungry. If I’d taken the bus I’d be at school by now.”
That’s it, I thought, I’d sleep with Lisa. Lisa had straight brown hair down her back, parted without bangs. Her high forehead gave her a look of intelligence, and she had brown eyes that didn’t avoid you, a lovely little nose and full lips. Susan had two big ponytails with straw blonde bangs and dazzling blue eyes. She looked like a Scandinavian milkmaid, and before she started her singsong complaints I’d certainly been up for a roll in the hay with her. The bus remark pissed me off, but I looked at her perky tits, and my bedmate choice began to waver again. I’m dark and have had a Frank Zappa mustache and long hair since the Mother’s Freak Out album was released.
I decided to get the ladies to talk about themselves to pass the time.
“Lisa, didn’t you tell me last night you write poetry?”
“Yes, mostly at night. I get terror dreams and wake up screaming. I have my own room in the sorority house because no one will sleep with me. But the good news is that I can put on my reading light when I wake up and write what flashed through my head. Then I can get back to sleep. My work is pretty dark.” Lisa’s gaze fell, and then rose to meet mine. “I don’t think it’s very good.”
Susan chimed in. “Oh, Lisa c’mon. Robert, Lisa won the university poetry contest last semester, and her work was published in the school magazine.”
“Really? That’s impressive. That sounds like a unique way to cash in on your dreams.”
“Well, there’s no money writing poetry. My teachers tell me I’ll need an academic career to support myself, but I don’t want to be a professor. I prefer working with children with special needs so that’s probably what I’ll do.”
“How about you Susan, what’s your story?”
“Lisa is so together, I feel like a dunce. School and my waitress job keep me pretty busy. I want to backpack in Europe next summer, so I’m taking French and saving money.”
Lisa asked, “Robert, what about you?”
“When I say I want to be a politician everyone groans. I know it sounds corny, but I want to be someone who makes a difference. Ordinary people need an advocate.”
Lisa said, “I think that’s wonderful.”
“Yeah,” Susan added, “Senator Robert. Sounds sexy.”
Lisa asked, “How do you become an elected official? I wouldn’t know how to start.”
“Well politicians need to understand the law, that’s why most are lawyers. I’ve applied to a number of law schools and I should hear back on my applications soon. After school you hire on the staff of some congressman or senator and build a network of support. You need money to run for election even for a small office and that means charming donors. I suppose I’ll need to become a real square and lose the facial hair, but hell, that’s later.”
Susan said, “I’m impressed you have your life all worked out. I haven’t a clue what I want to do.”
I’d had my eyes on the rear view mirror when a car pulled to the shoulder, rolled up slowly and stopped about ten yards back still with its headlamps lit. The car doors stayed closed, and the glare of the lights kept me from being able to see how many people were inside.
Susan said, “Great, finally.” She gathered up the shoulder strap from her brown leather bag like she was ready to leave.
Lisa had raised her hand against the bright headlamps. She spoke with a slight quiver in her voice. “I wish they’d turn off their headlights. Why do they just sit back there and look at us?”
I puffed out a breath, “I don’t know. Sit tight, I’ll talk to them.”
As I cracked open the GTO’s door, I saw someone had also started to emerge behind us from the driver’s side. I didn’t want them to just walk up to me, so I stepped quickly to the GTO’s trunk and opened it. I lifted the carpet that covered the spare and took comfort in the feel of the cool metal of the tire iron in my hand. I left it within easy reach and looked back at my visitor who slowly walked toward me. His car was a brand new 1971 Cadillac Eldorado, candy-apple red with a white vinyl top, and he was alone. His silhouette had a prominent Afro and his shoes crackled the gravel on the road’s shoulder. When the man came up to me he was so tall I felt like I stood in a ditch.
He looked over my head at the two girls in the car before he said, “Car trouble, man?” He pulled at the knot in his tie like his collar was too tight. He wore a dark, chalk-stripped suit, and the shine on his black shoes was visible in the headlights.
I tried to be nonchalant. “Yeah, my engine died. A cop stopped and said he’d call a tow truck. He said he’d swing by again in a bit to make sure we’d been helped.”
The black guy smiled and nodded slowly. Then he pulled out a pack of Kools. “Got a light?”
“Sorry, I don’t smoke.”
He nodded again and then turned and walked back to his car and got in.
Lisa tapped on the rear window to get my attention. I saw the tiny red glow of a cigarette lighter in the Eldorado and my visitor cracked his window and smoked. I walked back to the GTO and got into the car.
Lisa said, “What did he say? Is he going to help?”
“I don’t think so. He asked me for a match.”
Susan put her hand to her mouth. “A match? Oh no. Do you remember the ‘cigarette killers’ in the city? They’d ask for a light and then shoot the person who gave them the match as some sort of gang initiation.”
I like to think of myself as progressive. Yet I have to admit when a black guy with a big Afro gets out of a Cadillac my first thought isn’t, oh, he must be a doctor who wants to see if we’re okay. On the other hand, if the guy wanted to do something sinister, why wait? So I answered Susan, “I don’t know what he wants, but if he intended to shoot me he would have done so immediately. But I’ll keep an eye on him. I told him highway patrol had already stopped, and we were waiting for a tow.”
Lisa said, “That car he’s driving probably has fourteen cigarette lighters. He’s up to something.”
As Lisa made this observation our visitor opened his car door again and I jumped out so I could be near the tire iron.
This time the guy said, “It’s a little cold to fuck around. You have the money or what?”
He put his hand in his pocket. There was a bulge that could have been a gun. I shifted a little closer to the tire iron. “What money? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The guy stiffened. His hand started to come out of his pocket when a flash of headlamps lit us both. Another car pulled up behind his and a white guy and a girl jumped out and walked quickly toward us. The black guy’s hand stayed in his pocket and he backed a step away from me and turned his head toward the approaching couple. Then he spun on his heels and walked toward them meeting them at his car. I couldn’t hear what they said, but the three went to his trunk, and popped it open. The white guy seemed to check a package inside and the girl went back to their car and returned with a hard-sided attaché case. They opened the case in the trunk. I couldn’t see what was inside, but the couple went back to their car with a satchel and the black guy walked to his driver side door with the attaché case. All three got into their cars and drove off.
Meanwhile Susan and Lisa were rapping their knuckles raw on the glass to get my attention until Susan in frustration opened her window and called out to me.
When I got back into the car the girls were on me. Lisa said, “What was that all about?”
I said, “I’m not sure. But I think it was a drug deal. The black guy must have thought we were his buyers when he pulled behind us, and he was waiting for me to make the first move.”
Lisa said, “Oh hell.”
Susan said, “Did you ask them to send us a tow truck?” Lisa and I looked at Susan. “Okay,” she said, “That was dumb. But it’s getting late. How are we going to get out of here?”
Her answer came in the form of another set of headlights that pulled up behind us with a rotating red light on the car’s dashboard. We all three got out of the GTO.
Two men with smoky-the-bear hats in olive uniforms stepped from the car. The older man came out from the driver’s side. His belly hung over his belt, and the climb out of the unmarked car seemed to exhaust him. He talked as if fighting for breath. “Howdy folks. What seems to be the problem?”
Susan couldn’t contain herself. “We’re stuck and I need to get to a telephone to call my mother. Would you drive us to a service station, please?”
The second man was short and thin, not the physique I’d normally expect in a cop. Also he looked a little nervous; maybe he’s a trainee, I thought.
The fat guy responded to Susan. “First things first darling. There’s been an epidemic of drug drops after dark on this road. You folks know anything about that?”
I thought of the marijuana in the trunk, and I bit my lip. I hoped the girls would play dumb, but Susan spoke quickly.
“Yes. There was a black guy here that left just a few minutes ago. He and a white couple made an exchange. It was probably drugs.” She looked at me. “Right Robert?”
“I don’t know. Anyway, officers any chance you can call a tow truck on your radio?”
The fat guy took a few steps closer to us as Susan spoke and put his hand on the black pistol holstered at his right side. He gave a slight tilt of his head to the other man and said, “Marvin, why don’t you take a look inside these folks’ car. Start with the trunk.”
“Hey,” I said, “Don’t you need a warrant for that?”
“Marvin,” said the fat man, “We got us here a smart ass college student. Son, your trunk is open and everything in it is in plain sight. So why don’t you just step out of the way so Marvin can take a look.” He punctuated his statement by pulling the gun out of his holster, but leaving his hand hanging at his side.
Marvin came forward and I stepped away and let him through. He had a strong flashlight and it took him about two seconds to lean into the trunk and spot the bricks of weed I’d pushed behind the girls suitcases.
Marvin said, “Harvey,” we learned the fat man’s name, “We have a winner. Not a gold mine but felony weight pot for sure.” Marvin came up with a big smile on his face.
“Well isn’t that nice,” said Harvey. He took the handcuffs off his belt and threw them to Marvin. “Put the two ladies in cuffs. You’re all under arrest.”
Lisa, ever the poet, looked at me more in sadness than in anger. “Robert, how could you get us involved in this? Officer we had no idea there was marijuana in the car.”
I looked at Harvey. “The girls had nothing to do with this. Please let them go.”
Susan looked scared as Marvin put on the cuffs. “Hey, we just met this guy last night. We just wanted a ride to school. Ouch, that hurts.” Susan started to cry.
I had a glancing thought that it was strange that they’d put cuffs on girls and left me free. But I was still focused on trying to get Lisa and Susan out of this frying pan. “The women are telling you the truth. I was just giving them a ride; they’re innocent.”
Harvey’s belly jiggled when he laughed. “Give them a ride. Yeah, that’s what we’re going to do, eh Marvin?” Marvin had finished cuffing the women, and he had a leering grin on his face.
I said, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Lisa’s eyes widened and started to dart. “What’s going on here?”
Susan’s crying morphed into screams, “Help, help.”
Harvey brought up his pistol and leveled it at me. The barrel transfixed my gaze, and my mind galloped. Harvey said, “Marvin, put some tape over the women’s mouths.” The ladies tried to get away from Marvin. Lisa backed into the car, and Susan tripped and fell down hard on the ground. They both struggled against Marvin, but he took two large tears of gray duct tape off a roll and put them over Lisa and Susan’s mouths in turn. Harvey kept his eyes on me and said, “Don’t worry ladies, when we need those mouths, we’ll take the tape off.”
A chill started at my shoulders and climbed up through my head. I said, “What the fuck is going on?” But I understood I had to do something. I grabbed the tire iron and lunged at Harvey.
The gunshot burned, stung, and my shirt was wet. Lying on the ground I could feel my heart beat in the wound. I smelled grass and gun smoke. A second bullet struck my head, and I went black.
The doctor said I was lucky. Harvey’s intended coup de grace had creased my skull, and the cold weather slowed my blood loss. A trucker spotted me in his headlamps and got me to a hospital. The other bullet had nicked the intestine and I fought infections for most of my four months in the hospital. The nurse shaved my mustache and after the head wound healed I kept my hair short. With the weight I’d lost, I looked in the mirror and saw another person.
The police showed me lots of pictures, first of the entire state trooper force in this county and the counties surrounding, then of people answering my descriptions with violent arrest records. No luck. The pot was gone from my car and I didn’t mention it so no charges were brought against me. Lisa and Susan were missing, and by the time I left the hospital the police wouldn’t admit it, but I knew they thought the girls were dead and buried somewhere in the woods and might never be found. I didn’t want to go back to school and anyway the year was nearly over. Every time I thought about Lisa and Susan I wanted to cry out. When I offered them a ride, I was focused on having sex with them. I was too stupid to think that my carrying pot in the trunk could get them into trouble, and I certainly never imagined Harvey and Marvin. I was responsible for their safety the minute I let them in my car, and I’d failed. When I thought about what Harvey and Marvin did to the girls I wanted to punch walls, and sometimes I did.
I went to the library and found Lisa’s poetry in the university magazine. I got stuck on the lines: “Some women have an inner light for thee, / But only if your heart has ears to see,” and my eyes blurred over the page.
I went to see Lisa’s parents. They lived in a railroad apartment in the city on the third floor. Lisa’s mother opened the door; her limbs were thin and looked brittle. She offered me a cup of tea. Over the couch hung a framed copy of Lisa’s poems from the school magazine. Her father left his wooden kitchen chair in the back room to give me a limp handshake. He was probably in his forties, but he looked gray and tired. He went back to his chair and stared out the window to the street.
“Lisa was a perfect child. Everyone loved her, and she was so smart. Her poetry was published by the university, you know.” Lisa’s mother pointed over her shoulder. “I don’t understand why anyone would hurt her. She’s still alive. I know it.”
I sipped my tea and said I was sorry in a voice I hoped Lisa’s father could hear. Lisa’s mother caught a sob with the palm of her hand over her mouth. I saw myself out.
Susan’s mother was divorced. When I went to see her she was overdressed, over made-up, and her hair was dyed platinum blonde. She touched me enough to make me uncomfortable, and her first question was if I was Susan’s boyfriend. I told her no. She took out an album of pictures: Susan as a smiling baby, a ballerina of ten and a teenage soccer player. My face flushed, and the woman’s mascara started to run. She went into the bathroom, and I could still hear her cry as I went out the door.
I had the first dream in the hospital, scattered gray images, not the entire sequence. I didn’t sleep well, and many days I’d drift in and out of consciousness until noon. I assumed it was trauma from my head wound; the scar where the bullet skidded across the back of my skull was still tender. The images coalesced in my head after I saw Lisa and Susan’s parents, and I started to get repeat flashes during the day: It’s dark. I hear Lisa and Susan scream for help. I search for them, sweating, thrashing through high weeds and trees. Suddenly high beam headlights startle me, and when my eyes adjust to the glare I see Harvey with an enormous black pistol in his hand pointed at me. I leap at him, but the gun explodes, I feel the bullet enter my body, and my breath is punched out of me. On the cold ground Harvey stands astride me like a colossus.
My mind replayed the sequence like a stuck record until my stomach felt like I was in free fall. I fought my mind to change the pictures. There were a couple of young nurses from the hospital, and I tried to focus on them. But the night scenes would recapture my brain. My father had an old 12-gauge shotgun that accepted Magnum loads. I took it without asking him. Once I had the weapon in my hand, I felt like I’d started treatment for a disease.
I figured Harvey and Marvin would both be armed, and I might have to fire twice quickly without careful aim. The shotgun gave me stopping power over a wide target range. If I was lucky, Harvey would go down fast, but Marvin would freeze. Then I’d force Marvin to take me to the girls’ graves. My thoughts on how I’d torture him would push aside the nightmare images in my head.
I got my GTO back on the road and I cruised up and down the turnpike past dark. I slept some during the day and kept myself awake with uppers. Whenever I’d pass a stopped car, I’d circle back a few times in the hope that Marvin and Harvey would show up. Then I’d make sure the motorist would get assistance. I still sell pot on campus. Hey, a guy’s gotta eat. I’ve been doing this a few months and sometimes I think I should apply to law school. But I push that idea aside. I’ve got to get Lisa and Susan back to their parents. Then my mind will be free again.
Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn, and grew up in a blue-collar section of New York City. He and his wife, Jane, lived in Greece, Brazil, Belgium and Netherlands. They now live in Texas with their little Shih Tzu, Sophia, where Joe studies writing at the University of Texas in Austin. Joe’s story, “Small Men have Trouble,” was featured March 23rd in “Black Heart Magazine.” “Everybody does Everybody Eventually” was in “Crack the Spine” in May, and his story, “To See that Look Again,” appeared in “The Summerset Review” in June.