UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 03/2011
The man sat inside the Lancer, his shape cloaked in browns and greens, his skin split and raw. A white dress draped over the body of his wife, her figure sun-kissed and tired, her stature reposed in evening shadow. In the center of her nape lay the pale, tan-less mark of where a necklace had been pawned off the week before. The radio told a common story: race gangs brutally murdering blacks at random, and the woman reached over to silence the ugly interruption.
He asked for the Lupara in the back and the woman reached around and handed it to him dutifully, carefully enough to not wake the child strapped in the middle seat. The car’s interior was cluttered with boxes and bags and other assorted items, the family’s path pigeonholed to vagrancy. The child was theirs. Its name was undecided still despite the seven months it had been breathing.
The man removed a cigarette from his front right pocket. He sucked on it anxiously and his wife shook her head though neither of them had spoken.
The sky was steeped in setting sun and the clouds were purple with dusk. All around them lay endless fields of corn and wheatgrass, dried up in the brutal drought that had hit the West in recent weeks. The highway, though physically empty, remained populated, brimming with the ghostly carriages of restless vagabonds long since released from heartbeats of ceaseless travel and frequent death—failed vagrants whose journey to the California coastline remained incomplete. A tumbleweed moved across the asphalt in the grips of an elemental ballet. The silence was broken.
“You’re going to die,” she said, shaking her head.
“No, I’m not,” the man replied, his face unmoved.
She turned around and looked at their son. “One of these days.”
“You think too much.”
“Well, you don’t think at all, dammit,” she said. The woman pulled out a wrinkled juice-box from her pocket and punched a hole in it for the straw.
The man twisted the handle and the passenger door opened. “I’ll be back in an hour. We’ll leave tomorrow morning.”
“For where?” she said quickly.
He paused, but did not turn to face her. “Home.”
“Do you mean that?” she said, hope flickering in her voice.
They faced each other.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” he repeated.
She smiled faintly.
“I love you,” she said.
“I know,” he responded, unmoved.
The man turned to face his wife and the baby began to cry.
“The hose is leaking, but you should be able to make it back to the motel,” he said.
“Yeah,” she coughed, “I hope.”
The man put the small shotgun inside his shirt, burying it in the makeshift pouch he’d cut out of the inside a few days before. He opened the door and stepped out of the car and his wife turned to tend to the child. The man shut the door behind him and unhooked the pump from the gasket, and a thin stream of gasoline dripped down his fingers as the lifeblood of his family revved itself into function.
As the car pulled away the boy opened his eyes and looked at his father, who smiled and held his hand up to say goodbye, even though the child was too young to understand.
The car moved off the gravel lot and onto the highway, revving off into the setting sun, leaving a whirlwind of dust in its wake.
The man was alone.
An American flag flew outside the station, the banner’s center marked with a strange, flapping puncture. A vulture sat perched at the tear, picking away at the remains of some of the stars that had been ripped out. About a hundred feet below rested a tortoise, its shell half-splintered. It took refuge in the shade amongst a candy wrapper, a dried piece of bubble gum, and a patch of weeds scorched by Nevada summer, its body barely visible next to the glass door that served as the station’s entrance. The gas station itself was entirely bare, save for a single car in the lot, the owners’, a ’57 Beetle, azure and beaten down by age.
He slowly stepped past the Beetle, opened the door, and went inside. Air rushed over him, its processed smell taking his nostrils and its cool, recycled chill grazing his cracked summer skin. Behind the counter stood another: a wiry, thin, grey-haired black man. He wore a stained white T-shirt and a pair of jeans, a speck of dribble glued to the side of his mouth.
The man pulled out a wad of cash from his pocket and paid for the services without a word, holding onto his chest to be sure the shotgun remained invisible.
“Five twenty five. Exact change,” he said.
The clerk said nothing as he rang up his customer, and the man considered drawing the shotgun at that point, but he stopped himself when he saw a shadow move behind the counter, an unseen figure. As the clerk handed back the receipt, he spoke.
“The name’s Marcus,” he said, holding out his hand.
“It’s nice to meet you,” the man said, outstretching his hand.
“I saw your woman left without you,” Marcus said.
“That’s right,” the man replied quietly.
“Well then there’s another car here that you’re hiding?”
The man put his wallet into his back pocket. “Not that I’m aware of.”
“Then she’s coming back?” he responded quickly.
“I would hope so.”
Marcus looked up sharply. “When?”
“A few minutes,” the man said.
For a moment they both hesitated.
“A few minutes?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said,” the man responded. He paused accidentally. “She’s dropping the boy off at her mother’s place.”
“Where’s that?” Marcus asked.
The man’s expression stayed flat.
“Edenia Lane, a few miles north of 376.”
A woman stepped out from behind the counter, the shadow from before. She was grey, much greyer than the man. She was weathered and beautiful. She stared at the clerk for a moment.
“Marcus,” she said calmly, “don’t be so nosy.”
“I’m not being nosy, Denise, I’m being cautious,” Marcus responded, his eyes locked on the other man.
“Did you see the tortoise on your way in?” she prompted.
“What?” The man said.
“The turtle outside. Did you see it?”
“No, I guess I missed it ma’am,” the man said.
“He’s lived here for seven months.”
“I suppose. He’s been around since our daughter left.”
“Good to hear,” the man nodded nervously, his teeth digging deep into his lower lip.
A moment passed between the three before Marcus cut it off.
“You’re from around here then?” Marcus said.
“No. My home isn’t around here, mister,” the man responded.
“The San Fernando Valley,” the man spoke, slowly and deliberately.
“We’ve lived here for forty years. We raised a family here,” Marcus said.
He paused and chuckled to himself faintly. “You raised a black family around here?”
The other man nodded and gazed outside thoughtfully. “Bold move.”
“The right move.”
Denise stepped forward now. She was smaller than Marcus, much smaller, and she took her husband’s hand and rubbed it gently, her eyes fixed on their newest customer.
“I made some sandwiches,” she said. “Meat and cheese. If you were hungry you could have one.”
The man stared at her, his hands firm on the shotgun beneath his shirt.
“That’s not necessary,” he said.
The woman gestured towards her husband. “Marcus, why don’t you go into the back and grab some sandwiches?”
“The man said he wasn’t hungry.”
“I’m asking you, Marcus,” she added firmly.
“It doesn’t sound like asking to me.”
“Well then, I’m telling you politely.”
“Polite in your eyes,” Marcus said, stepping away slowly. He passed through a door behind the counter but turned to face the man as he left. Denise kept her eyes fixed.
When her husband was out of ear-shot she spoke: “California.”
“I’m sorry?” the man asked.
“You said you were from California.”
“That’s right. Born and raised.”
“I always liked the people I meet from California. They always seem like they’re getting somewhere in life. If that means anything.”
Her words did not match her tone.
“Is there you something you’d like to say, ma’am?” he said.
She stared. “Only if there’s something you want to hear.”
The man shifted the gun over a few inches, the barrel against his breast. “Well you are certainly asking a lot of questions.”
Denise grabbed a cold cup of coffee from behind the dresser and took a sip. “There’s no real harm in being friendly.”
“Only if the motivations aren’t as holy as the words themselves,” he replied, leaning in.
“Well then, do you want to know the truth?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, smiling sardonically.
“The truth is, mister,” she said, and then added in a tone far less polite, “the truth is you have a gun in that jacket.”
The man’s smile faded.
“What’s that?” he said.
“I said you have a small shotgun in that jacket, ” she replied.
“And what makes you think that?”
“I know. Just like I know that you don’t do this very often. Just like I know plenty of things that nobody speaks of. You’re trying to rob us. You think that we have money here. You’ve heard about the safe in the back and what’s inside it, and you want it for your own.”
“We’re good people,” she added, “and we don’t want any trouble. We never have.”
The man leaned forward and whispered, “Forgive my manners, but I’m the one with the gun, ma’am.”
She smiled, and then leaned in closer, bringing her voice to a cold monotone. “You’re also the one who doesn’t know what my husband packs in his back pocket everyday.”
They both stayed silent for some time.
“It would be wise of you to leave,” she added.
She stared back at the man and there was not a word between them. Even when Marcus stepped back into the room they didn’t seem to notice. He ambled forward with a sense of hesitancy, three sandwiches in his hand, and to the man he offered only one.
“Marcus,” his wife said, “I think you should give them to the man. It is a long ride to California.”
The man took the gift and nodded but his eyes had not left the woman’s and hers had not left his own.
“Bathroom. Where’s the bathroom?” he said, almost inaudibly.
“In the back of the store,” she replied.
The man turned in silence and walked into the rear as slowly as he could. From behind him both Marcus and Denise watched with measured trepidation.
The man slammed the bathroom door behind him. There was no way now. The man had failed. He thought of his son, and he thought of his wife. His mind wandered to a dream that he had many times before. It began in the same place—in a tiny boat, drifting and rocking just off the mainland, the man paddling desperately to get back to the coast. From the stern he could make out his wife and his son standing on the coast, mouthing uncertain words with uncertain meanings. Their mirages were pale and grey and they appeared as lifeless as dolls. When he turned his head, there were a hundred other boats just like his, paddling towards the same place, splashing the water just as incessantly, creating a current too dangerous to sit in, and a tide too lethal to swim in, setting up the inevitable demise of all those involved. The man always woke up before the waves overtook his vessel. He wondered if tonight the dream would be different.
Inside the bathroom the man shook with rage, carefully enough to keep quiet. A tear drop drifted down his right cheek and he wiped it away shamefully. The shotgun in his parka punched against his breast but he could not bring himself to carry out the deed. He thought of his son, and he thought of his wife. He thought of the long highway ahead of them.
That’s when he heard the voices.
He knew for certain by the creak of the door that someone else had stepped inside. He could make out three new sounds, quiet and faint, all of them men, and he heard a question asked about whether anyone else was there. He cracked the door open gently and caught a glimpse of a man, a hideous scarred man, dressed in all black, his hair greasy and sprayed in various directions, his face monstrous. The man shut the door hesitantly and leaned back onto the mildewed wall. From inside, he could hear everything.
“Do you own this store?”
“How’d you get this place?”
“Did you inherit it?”
“How’d a couple of animals like you end up on the upside?”
“Are you Christian niggers at least?”
He could have stepped out and started shooting but he was unsure how many men there were, let alone what they were carrying. Before long, Marcus’s voice grew panicked and high-pitched and Denise began to scream. The man heard the tear of cloth and the sound of her clothes being ripped open, and then he closed his eyes as the noises became more and more grotesque. Marcus’s cries, reduced to whimpers, gave way to the cacophony of his wife’s screams, almost overshadowed by swine-like grunts and the audible violence of forced violation. The gunshots were unbearably loud and then there was a gurgle and a thud.
Many minutes came to pass before the man re-emerged. The store was quiet, inside at least, and within the confines of the aisles and refrigerators and ATM’s, he saw nothing. Yet outside Marcus and Denise’s car had been engulfed in flames, and another car was hurtling out of the station, roaring off into the night. Against the backdrop of the fire the sun had begun to vanish and the shadow of the evening loomed proudly. The crackle of combustion drowned out the dirge-like drone of the night’s first crickets and cicadas.
Inside, the soda fountain was wholly intact, the junk food locked in place, exactly where it had been before. No freezer doors opened, no beef jerky sprayed out in the back aisles. If another person had entered at this point, it would have been just as standard as it had been five minutes before, just as distant and silent and predictable. The man walked to the front of the store, and that’s when he saw the bodies.
Near the front entrance, the counter-top was sprayed with blood. Skull and brain tissue were painted onto the wall behind where the couple had stood only a few minutes before. He found Marcus dead, behind the register, blood running like a hose out from what the man presumed to be a gaping hole in the back of his head. He walked over to Marcus’ corpse and leaned down, feeling his back pockets and finding nothing, no gun, no knife. The woman had lied. He turned to face her.
Denise lay nude and disgraced, covered in fluids, spread out on the floor in front of the gum rack. Maroon pooled around different sections of her figure. One cheek had been completely shot off, and there were scratches and cuts and scrapes over her entire body.
But she was alive, her chest heaving, her larynx wheezing and gurgling. The man made his way over to where she lay.
“The code,” the man said, pulling the shotgun from his parka and pointing it at her corpse. “Give me the code for the safe.”
“You,” she choked out.
“The code,” he said.
“You,” she repeated, hacking and wheezing.
“Give me the code, Denise.”
She shook her head.
“What’s the point?” She spit up blood and three lines of it ran down her cheeks.
“There’s no gun, there’s no nothing, Denise. You lied. Do you hear me? You lied. Give me the fucking code.”
She smiled, her last voluntary muscle function before her body began to seize. She coughed and choked and tears ran down her cheeks as her heart issues its final palpitations.
“Denise,” the man said, his voice trembling, his eyes welling.
She could not respond, her body twitching and convulsing pathetically.
There was a pause as the two considered each other for the last time. The man pulled the trigger and she was gone.
Two hours later, the man returned to the motel room no wiser than when he had left, no richer either, his body sore and tired from the road.
The night was deep and silent and his wife he did not bother to rouse. His son almost immediately began to cry and he picked the baby up, offering him a piece of roast beef from one of the sandwiches, but the boy was too young to chew properly. Eventually the child went quiet, so the man laid him down to rest for the night and undressed his own body, piling his clothes by the air vent and stepping into the shower. The water ran a frothy pink down the drain and the porcelain was splashed with violet. After he had dried off, he redressed and paced himself to a bench outside the motel room door.
Sirens passed, portents of an insoluble future.
Later that night, the man sat in the local dive, a whiskey at his hands and a cigarette hanging limply from his lips. The man thought of his son, and after a moment he resigned himself to continue, as he had done countless times before. To his right sat the man with the scars, dressed in all blacks, his hair greasy, his face monstrous. Between them there was no threat of action, as both men remained unaware of the other’s significance, the scarred man having never ever seen the other, and the other man being too drunk to even look up. The man with the scars picked pieces of tortoise shell from his boot heels and flicked them onto the ground aimlessly. No one prompted him a question, but he responded nonetheless.
“Nothing changed,” he said.
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