In the dizzy year since getting my license, I was surprised to realize that you can learn the most about a person, anyone, while watching them ride in a car. The slightest rapping of fingertips on the dash, a yawn, the subconscious tugging of a seat-belt, are like the footnotes to someones personality, speaking louder, much louder than simple words. So-like an old, toothless prospector panning a played out claim, my dim, irritated eyes desperately seeking shiny bits-I’d study others from the corner of my eye. Spying June picking her nose at a stoplight or glimpsing Grace cloud gazing through the passenger window is as telling as a half-hour conversation over the lunch table or while watching Mean Girls for the twelfth time. And yes, as Hollywood as it is, Lindsey Lohan’s plain-girl-to-prom-queen transformation still gives me a shameful tremor of hope.
“Turn here,” Maxwell grunted, not bothering to point one of his hot dog fingers left as with all the earlier turns. I guess his energy must’ve be drained from such angry pointing. Instead, he nods his thick double chin towards 25th Ave. I steered around a corner, slowly, careful with the potholes. Some of them having the looks of failed mining operations, showing both red clay and sandstone at their bottoms.
“She knows where you live,” June mumbled.
I looked into the rearview mirror. Every one my few friends were crammed into the Caravan’s cab, and for a glowing moment, they filled my little world. But by the scowls on each of their sweaty faces I knew my sentimentality was not shared. Packed as tightly as they were they could’ve been extra moody, acme ridden sardines. Maxwell, appearing bearlike, sat tense, his stubbly double chin now as tight as a length of twisted rope. Buried above his heavy cheeks, like two black marbles pushed thumb deep into a gallon bucket of putty, his dark eyes shined.
“Yeah, we played Magic there a few times, remember?” I said this as matter of fact as possible, doubting bear-boy would’ve forgotten the happenings of just a few weeks ago, but knowing how people can be. I turned towards the road, glanced at street signs, studied overgrown lawns. Still, I could feel his stare, the definition of impotent rage, burning into the back of my head. “The last time was just a few weeks ago.”
It occurred to me, as it if were a sublet drop in barometric pressure signaling an afternoon storm, that something would happen by the end of the night. I looked again in the mirror; still the eyes. Maybe his anger would erupt and a few new holes would appear in his bedroom wall. I counted three the last time I was over, two partially hidden by well-placed lamps, another by a family photo of him and his mom dressed as pumpkins,. They were looking out from a Halloween ten years back. Neither was smiling.
“We should play again sometime,” I said. I think only the steering wheel heard me, and even then, only just. Is it true that low talking is a sign of low self-esteem? “And don’t worry about the car, I’m sure it can be fixed up, a little Febreze you know.” I cringed, my words suddenly so high you’d thought them blown through a whistle.
We’d waited for Maxwell after Final Bell, quietly watching as the Senior-Junior parking lot emptied. Pen napped in the passenger seat as Grace searched Wikipedia, commenting on the 2008 Camry SE’s exception gas mileage. Brian and June sat silent on the back seat, each wearing the hungry frowns of concentration camp prisoners. I think Brian is a free-lunch kid like June. The fact that he seems to only own two t-shirts and single pair of oil stained jeans are dead giveaways.
A stone’s throw away (maybe fifty feet depending on the aerodynamics of the stone and determination of the thrower) stood Principle Gamble and Mr. Jones. Maxwell stood between them. They watched the birds-hundreds of birds, each black and polished as hot tar-swarm over the car, over Bitch, like seagulls stealing small morsels of a whale carcass.
They messed you over son. Mr. Jones-a Vietnam veteran rumored to have a collection of dried human tongues nailed above his fireplace-formed his words slowly, displaying the lazy articulation of a man who was never surprised, only amused. He held out several slick canisters the size of coke cans. On the side of one was the graphic of a buck, it’s two eyes the red, cartoon hearts found on Valentine cards and scribbled in teenage girl’s diaries. Buck bombs.
Principle Gamble, his thick grandpa glasses magnifying the weary eyes of a man hardly a year into his fifties, nodded. Maxwell’s nose wrinkled. He eyed the canisters as if they were a pair of severed hands.
The wind picked up, wafting the stink in our direction. I breathed through my mouth. After several hours the odor had dissipated, becoming a somewhat tolerable miasma that gave those who breathed it mild headaches and slightly dilated eyes. I’m sure that by morning it’ll have faded farther, hopefully becoming the passive stink of a cesspool. Strange the things you learn to hope for.
And you don’t know who did it? Principle Gamble asked. He didn’t expecting a response. Instead, he looked at the sky, or maybe he was counting the birds. The ones sitting on the power line, those waiting patiently to have their fill of Bitch’s soft innards, were around fifty. He didn’t attempt to count those fluttering over and on the car itself, perhaps knowing he’d have better luck numbering a school of fish. Not a clue?
Maxwell attempted a shrug, stiffening his cheeks and rolling his shoulders, moving in uncomfortable, unfamiliar ways. I gave him points for effort. His ragged once-white Adidas, their laces frayed and soles stuffed with cardboard, glowed in the late afternoon sun. Even then he had the look of a bear, not the grizzly he’d soon become, but some other kind. The Andean Speckled Bear maybe, a shy creature with droopy eyes.
No. He said.
Thick, white droppings covered most of the car’s already battered body. Many of the birds (I’m sure they were some type of crow, Google says they were most likely Corvus Brachyrhynchos of the family Corvidae, that’s the “common American crow” ) were feverishly tearing away bits of upholstery and stealing cigarette butts from the overfilled ashtray. Somewhere on the backseat, my copy of Stephen King’s Different Seasons (a pristine first edition bought on eBay and lent to Maxwell after he promised to take care of it, saying that I could trust him) was being torn to shreds.
I watched as the occasional adverb, adjective, and noun fluttered away, soon to line the nests and burrows of Greenville’s avian population. As painful as it was to watch (I’d planned to one day make my way up to Bangor and personally ask King to autograph both Different Seasons and several other of my favorites, Mr. Mercedes and The Shining, hoping he’d scribble something about his favorite young reader on their inside covers), a small flutter of excitement ran down my spine, tickling my legs and emptying out my toes. It was the unmistakably electric sensation of hope. To think that the names Dussander, Dufresne, and Jack Torrance would be in the trees and air of my little nothing town, filling the atmosphere with a sweet, strange aroma, seemed magical.
“I guess no spaghetti for a while.” I smiled into the rearview mirror, hoping to lighten the mood. “Grace, no spaghetti?”
Grace looked at me, squinting, shading her eyes as if my question were a set of oncoming high beams. Normally, she’d have the center seat to herself, but today she was squeezed next to Maxwell, appearing like a toddler next to his bulk.
“Well?” I ask, not knowing why. You’re suppose to leave snakes, sleeping dogs and land mines alone.
Grace shifted from cheek to cheek, wearing t he irritated scowl of a girl on a heavy flow day. Maxwell’s sweat dripped on her left forearm, wetting her favorite peach pattern blouse, the one she got during a family trip to Savannah last spring. A half-dozen more hang in her closet: tiny peaches, large split peaches, peaches on the limb.
“Why?” Her voice was robotic, an automated reply programmed in by a good upbringing and a considerate disposition. Anger, for her, is digestible and passes in a day or so. She just has to stomach it for a while.
“You know, because of the smell? It was lunchtime…” I grasped all the straws and still came up short. This is the truest definition of an inside joke. My theater seated one and my name was on the RSVP card. They made no comment and continued watching Greenville pass at a safe, legal speed. “They were serving spaghetti when it happened.” I mumbled.
Someone once told me that scents imprint themselves on the mind. This was Mrs. Sherman, my Fifth grade teacher whose oddly shaped and overly large head was a repsitory of facts, figures and strange theories. Ask her a question about the American Revolution and, after five minutes, she’d have segwayed you into the world of English Lit. and on into the minefield of leftist politics. She said that our olfactory bulbs, those little white curds buried deep within our grey matter, are the most honest parts of ourselves. They marry scents to memories so you can’t have one without the other. Grandma’s pumpkin pie will always smell like grandma’s pumpkin pie and a litter box will always smell like a litter box.
The year I won the West Greenville Elementary Reading Fair (my five page, hand written essay was on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) we had an April so wet the school’s sewer system flooded. Madison Huggins (I still hate her delicate auburn curls and high cheekbones) screamed as the toilet under her spilled over. In the school parking lot boys watch with wide eyed, toothy grins as yellow water gushed up from manholes. The pipes underneath the school cafeteria, large clay tubes set in place during the Depression, funded by one of FDR’s New Deal plans, backed up. With a mouthful of pizza, I was horrified to look down and see black water washing over my shoes. The place smelled like a toilet for a year; I couldn’t eat pizza for twice as long. Spaghetti is now a lost cause.
Reaching a red light I begin fumbling for my iPhone. I pull up Mumford and Son’s “Winter Winds,” and slide the cracked I3 above my sun visor. “How about you Maxwell, spaghetti?”
He looked at me in the mirror, holding eye contact just long enough to define the moment as poignant. I could’ve counted to three.
“Just drop me off…” Maxwell growled, his voice the angry, dangerous sound of an idling chainsaw.
I bit my tongue. We drove the last fifteen minutes in silence, me chewing resentment like a half-dozen cubes of watermelon flavored Bubble Yum.
Later, as I stared at my American Lit. III text, William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” battering against my brain like a hammer forcing a round peg of dense, painful prose, into the square hole of my indifference, I began to wonder.
The can of Chef Boyardee beef ravioli- close enough too high school spaghetti, right?- was in our kitchen pantry, hidden behind a small mountain of corn beef and a solitary tin of long expired cat food. I threw the cat food out and spent a few moments relearning how to use our electric can opener. Ninety seconds later, sitting at the kitchen table with a full bowl of commercial grade beef, noodles, and tomato sauce steaming in front of me, I braced myself and took a bit.
“God!” I spat out the once-chewed ravioli, staining one of Mom’s favorite place mate. My teeth marks only partially indenting it’s soft skin. It tasted the way doe pee smells.
The sun has disappeared behind the theater, turning its red brick front into blue shadow. The unlit marquee (there must be two hundred bulbs circling it, half busted, the other half waiting to be) is as mute as a broken radio. It’s hard to believe that the The Royal Cinema (I’ve been Googling the place as Grace croons over her soon-to-be car) is listed as a Greenville historical site. High above us -as if in attempt to balance out the injustice of the bulbs-the cosmos begin to wink.
“That’s Sirius.” June says. She rests her head out the Caravan’s open passenger window, her curls hanging half way down the door. “That means the ‘Dog Star.'”
I look through my cracked windshield. There, beside a yellow crust of moon, Sirius shines like a diamond. Perhaps not a full or half carat solitaire but it’s still there, unobtrusive, a little sweet. I’ll take June’s word on the name, though it might not be Sirius at all but Jupiter or the International Space Station. “That’s nice.”
“She needs to hurry up.” June says, the star forgotten. “It’s getting late. I’m going to miss Shark Tank.”
Grace and the Camry glow in the sunlight, in a narrow stream of orange sunlight that has erupted from the ally between The Royal Cinema and La Pinata. She circles the sedan, phone out, snapping more pictures than she’ll know that to do with. She’s even giving directions, encouraging the two tons of imported steel and fiberglass too just relax.
“It’s almost seven.” I say. The green numbered clock on the dash reads 6:54. “Mr. Barker will be out again soon, ready to lock up.” I point to a large plywood sign near the lot entrance. The lot’s hours are listed in large red numbers.
Mr. Barker, the balding, manatee-like owner of Barker Auto, surprised us earlier when he stepped out of his single wide, a clipboard in one hand and an RC cola in the other. He looked us over for a moment, maybe unsure of what to think of his visitors, and said something I didn’t hear. Grace answered him. I didn’t hear her either. My hands were on the keys, ready to crank the ignition for a quick getaway. Sure, there is the occasional distracting star, but I’m quick and bright and haven’t forgotten that on this side of town our lives and virginities are in peril. It’s like the time I mounted the monkey bars at the Bower Park playground, standing atop them like a grim statue. I was six or seven and did it to impress my then BFF Judy Hill. It was a joyless triumph. I didn’t feel the wind in my hair or hear the birds sing. I didn’t reach for the sun or enjoy the view. I only thought of where my feet were.
“Grace said that he’s going to lock up at seven.” I say, remembering what she’d told me after Mr. Barker went back into his trailer. “Just a few more minutes.”
Watching the single wide’s drawn shades, cobwebs spanning their corners, I anticipate seeing prying eyes. “Go ahead and buckle up.”
June shuffles in her seat. I don’t have to look to know that her eyes are closed and that if she were an American Shorthair she’d soon be purring. I thump her ear.
“Punta!” June rubs her left lobe.
I look again at the dashboard clock: 6:56.
After a few moments the trailer’s door opens and Mr. Barker steps out. He calls to Grace and taps his huge grandpa wristwatch, the clock faced kind with an elastic metal band, the kind Pa Paw used to wear. Grace, both her and the car lit by the final rays of sunlight, yells something back and laughs. Dimples, deep enough to hide dimes in, appear at the corners of the old man’s mouth. He laughs and nods.
“Lets go.” June says, finally clicking her buckle, “I still might get to see some poor dingleberry get turned down. No money for you mi amigo.”
Mr. Barker watches Grace head to the van before beginning his locking up, that is, checking the doors of each of his small herd of jalopies and popping any of the balloons deemed too deflated to make it another day.
Grace hops in and buckles up in the backseat, her motions as quick and upbeat as a ping pong ball. I don’t have to look in the rear-view to know she’s smiling.