“Man, that car is so goddamned fast.”
It was maybe eight-thirty, just past dark. David and me heard the car coming before we saw it. A ‘69 Mustang, the fastback GT, solid black and all growl. It powered passed us doing at least twenty over the speed limit but we could still hear it slamming through gear shifts. We knew that car. Hell, I had pictures of that car on my phone. The owner, a human socket wrench named Joey Turnell, lived in the center of town where the cracks in the sun-bleached roads were filled in with cheap rubbery tar after the economy tanked. Already, the tar was coming up, little black tic-tacs of it lining the gutters and waiting for rain.
Turnell was thirty, five years older than us. We had always hated him but, honestly, I hated him more before he stabbed me than after. If I had any idea that, later that night Turnell was going to cut into my spine with a busted bottle and put me in the hospital for weeks, I would have gone out anyway. I would have thanked him.
Turnell cared about the same things as us: cars, cheap beer, shooting pool, but he didn’t care about anything else. It wasn’t because he was too busy dreaming like David, or planning like Laila, just because he wasn’t bright enough. Turnell could tell you anything about any car ever but he couldn’t count to twenty without taking off his shoes.
We didn’t hate him because we thought he was an idiot or even because he was just another white trash example of what we could have been; we hated him because he caused trouble everywhere he went. I mean, it’s really no surprise he attacked me. He had a reputation going back forever. Normally, he was in one of the redneck bars on the East end of town, over by the closed wood and paper factories where it still smelled like glue and rotten eggs even though they’d been dark for years. We only saw him when he was dropping off or picking up his kid sister Leslie, but even then we’d seen him start fights for no reason. When he wasn’t drunk at the bars, he was sleeping it off in jail, but no one ever pressed charges and the police just gave him some Tylenol and let him go when he woke up in the morning. People said maybe if we had the factories back guys like him would get union jobs and straighten up like they had in some collective vision of the past, but I don’t know. I just knew I despised him. And that he drove a really nice car.
Earlier in the day David and me had gone to the only theater in Streisberg County, right near the center of town on Main Street. A three-screen place from the seventies, sweaty and crumbling in on its peeling dark blue paint. We always sat in the back since David was six-foot-two and if anyone sat behind him they wouldn’t be able to see over his head. The sound was terrible, and the whole place swarmed with popcorn-chomping high school kids who weren’t old enough to go to bars yet. School wasn’t out but you’d never know it. Let’s just say our town didn’t really prioritize studying.
David and me watched a forgettable comedy and afterwards went to pick up Laila from work at Johnny Lee’s Chicken and Ribs. There was no traffic and the ride over was fast. The buildings down Main were all two or three stories and spaced apart by thin alleys, forming a skyline like the turrets on a castle. Sure, half the storefronts were closed or boarded up— the restaurants, offices, the ice cream shop my parents took me to when I was a kid. They were gone, their walls turned dirty and gray with neglect. But Greene Records was still hanging on and Nathan’s Diner. Starbucks, the small law office, the post office and library were all impervious to time and the economy and kept well-tended flowerbeds hanging from their windows and boxed along their walls. Employees were careful to keep them watered and pull out cigarette butts that were always put out in them, even though most of the shops had ashtrays by their doors. The shopping traffic had moved to the new Walmart so there weren’t many people walking, just empty sidewalks, wide and immaculate, overhung with the brown branches of the maple trees waiting to bloom. As much as I wanted to get out, I had to admit the trees lining our streets were worth an Instagram account. They’d probably out-live the town itself.
David and me had gotten to Johnny Lee’s right after Laila texted us both saying, “Manager sat me extra tables and they’re not friggin leaving. At least it’s 💲 Need a 🍺” So we waited in the parking lot in the warm early May weather watching YouTube videos. That’s when we saw Turnell’s Mustang go by.
Laila came from around the back of the building where employees used a big trough sink to scrub the BBQ and spilled beer smells off their arms. “Sorry about the wait guys. Fuckers wouldn’t leave. But they tipped better than I expected. First round’s on me!” Looking down at herself, she added, “Just give me a minute to change. These clothes smell like a slaughter house.”
“Yeah, no shit. I get hungry every time you come home!” David said. “Take as long as you need.”
Laila climbed into the cab of her truck and stripped off the shirt that stank of slow cooked meat, changing into a tight brown one with short sleeves and a stiff collar. She replaced her stained work jeans with a pre-faded, pre-ripped pair and crammed the dirty clothes into a plastic bag, tied it tight, and tossed it into a storage bin in the bed of her truck. She added a pair of chunky earrings, plastic and light blue, and a matching bracelet, and spent a few minutes picking her fro. She covered her hair with a wrap at work to help keep the smell out, and she was not much into fashion during the week or at school, but on a Friday night we all needed to look at least better than the rednecks, so we put in a little more time. I was wearing my best shirt, and David had on a pair of new jeans Laila made him get when we went shopping last as well as a nice watch she found for him on the internet.
Waiting for Laila to change, we smoked a cigarette each and swatted away the bugs that were starting to swarm in the seasonal warmth and humidity. When she was ready we left her truck in the lot and the three of us got into my piece of shit Toyota Camry, fifteen years old and held together with bailing wire and prayers, and drove down the poorly lit streets toward Red’s.
“God, you still smell like ribs and beer!” David said to Laila before we even got off Main.
He was right – the smell was hard to get rid of. I didn’t even like washing her clothes with mine.
“I know. It’s the worst part of that shitty job.”
“You know you love your job!” David said.
“You know you love that your job keeps you busy,” I corrected so she didn’t have to. “Anyway, we’re going to a bar and you’re going to be drinking beer, so you don’t need to worry about the beer smell.”
“What about the reek of death and barbecue sauce?” she asked.
“You’ll still smell better than half the people there,” David said.
“Smoke a cigarette and no one will notice,” I recommended.
“True, and good idea,” Laila said, responding to both of us, then sniffed toward her shoulder and pulled her arm along under her nose, smelling all the way down to her wrist. “But they might still notice.”
We were driving through the suburban outskirts of town past low-slung houses set on plots of land big enough to have forests or streams cross their back yards. Most of them were falling into neglect despite their owner’s best intentions, many of their front lawns brown and giving to weeds, cars as bad as mine or worse, some sitting on blocks and rusting down to the primer. Some of the houses in that area had started cooking meth or heroin in their garages or sheds. We were soon past them.
Red’s was a mile beyond the last stop sign where the city officially ended and the sky gave way to the tall trees that dominated our area for hundreds of miles. We pulled into the gravel lot and parked in the darkness, the trees towering from all around the perimeter. We got out and were hit by the sounds. The forest noise was in full after-dark swing, crickets chirping, an owl and other birds I couldn’t identify, all of it rhythmic and louder than the human noises coming from the bar.
We crunched across the lot toward the archaic cinder block frame with a roof held up only by the smoke and rock music inside. As we approached, the unlit name of the bar came into focus through the darkness, painted huge along the wall in swooping yellow letters my Mom would have remembered from when she was young. The letters were only recently yellow again – a few months ago the place had gotten a pretty serious cleaning and a new coat of paint. But the paint was just putting lipstick on a pig. The fifty-year old structure still looked its age, and I mean that in a bad way. We passed between the two blue bug zapper lights that flanked the door and into the music and the smell of rotting ceiling panels and spilled whiskey, threaded the six pool tables, and dodged everyone we knew until we made it to the bar.
Red’s may not have been nice, but it was ours. Everybody we associated with hung out there. It was one of the few places where attitude meant more than what you did or where you worked or what color you were. It was one of the few places above the South Side that Laila felt comfortable going into, and in our town I didn’t blame her.
These were our lives. I worked at the biggest grocery store for thirty miles and took night classes at the state college a county over. It was a surprisingly liberal college for our state, and generally people in town sneered when it came up, but that’s one of the reasons I liked it. I was majoring in math, because I was good enough at it and didn’t know what else to do.
Laila went to school with me but was smarter and took a full load of classes. Her finances were better since the factory her father had worked for paid a serious insurance policy after he died, and she could afford full-time school. She was double majoring in political science and ethnic studies – she would brag that our sociology department was the only one for hundreds of miles with classes that focused on race and ethnicity – and planned to go away for a master’s as soon as she graduated. I would go too, probably as a transfer, but it didn’t matter how. To the hard working but wildly blue-collar people who lived in our town, it was weird that we were even still in school, and our majors were baffling. In our town your options were a factory job, the military, or jail. Half the factories were shuttered and the economy was never going to come back, but people acted like we were putting on airs.
It had always been me and Laila’s plan to get out. We had wanted to leave for college right after high school, but our senior year, when we should have been applying, we’d just been trying to survive. We only applied at the state school because a teacher pushed us to. And besides, if we left, what would David do? He was never going to college. Hell, he barely finished high school. He didn’t aspire to leave the way we did. David bussed tables during the week and cleaned the Best Western on the weekends, braggingrthat he was the only guy on the maid crew. The motel kept him around despite his often showing up late because he didn’t mind doing dirty work and could lift about anything, and because everyone liked him.
When Laila and me were in class, he would watch TV or play video games or lay out in the mulching grass under the first line of trees where the forest came up to the buildings near our house and stare up at the stars, enviably content. He even slept out there sometimes, just nodding off and not snapping out of it until some bug crawled over his face or the dew set in. One night in January, he nearly got himself frostbite but it didn’t stop him. He said, “Why waste a perfect night sleeping in a bed? The air’s just better outside, man. You can see all the stars.”
I was concerned David didn’t take things more seriously. I saw that as what set Laila and me apart from the rednecks in our town. We took life seriously. We had plans. When his parents died, David had become more internal and stopped being distracted by the real world.
I used to tell him, “Things’re important David. They have to be.”
And he always got the same confused look like I had just interrupted his entire sense of reality, and he asked, “Why?”
There was never a middle ground, so we generally didn’t discuss it.
Despite that philosophical difference, we were a tight group, maybe brought close by tragedy, but tight all the same. All our parents were long gone – Laila’s father to an industrial accident and her mother to suicide six months later; David’s both to addiction, first opioids and then heroin; mine in a car wreck, hit by a drunk driver. All we had was each other. We lived in Laila’s house, which was more than big enough. She got us all-you-can-eat ribs for free. I got us expired or damaged stuff from the grocery store – food, of course, but mostly household stuff like dish soap. David got us free rooms at the motel to hang out in when we were bored and let us into the motel’s pool in hot weather. In a pinch, he could get us a box of those mini bottles of tequila or vodka from the storage room. For as long as we’ve been together, we took care of each other like that. That’s what family’s for.
David and me had always seen each other as brothers. Mom said he was the first friend I ever made. When his dad finally died from kidney failure and he didn’t have any other close family, my parents took him in. I remember us always being together while other people came and went. People in our lives were always like that – just coming and going. Or dying, like our parents had.
Laila moved to our area in the middle of our freshman year of high school. A lot of people didn’t know how to approach her. She was the only African American in our class and most of our classmates weren’t exactly great at being welcoming. They tried, but just didn’t know how. Most of the African Americans in town lived on the South Side and we didn’t interact much. Plus, everyone around here was fairly disdainful of city people, and since she was from Atlanta, that was a big strike against her. I liked her because she was from a big city. David liked her because she had more imagination than most of our peers. He would say she came from the stars.
Laila’s father had been recruited to our town as a manager for one of the bigger factories. They had the nicest house of the three of us by far. Her mom didn’t work, but not because she was unemployed like David’s mom. She just didn’t have to.
It’s a good thing we were so close. Junior year, when my parents died, it was Laila’s family that had the space and money to take us in, just like my parents had taken David in. They had strict rules, of course, but her mom told us we were the only two who welcomed her daughter on her first day, and how much we meant to Laila and their family. So Laila, David, and me became three siblings instead of two, not knowing that soon Laila’s parents would be just as gone as ours.
I still remember Laila’s mother—who had always supported us—sitting in her house for those six months after her husband died, the sympathetic visitors long since stopped coming, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, and feeling a little more ruined every day. She stopped cooking and wouldn’t get out of her bathrobe. We tried to spend more time with her but she didn’t leave her room a lot, and we were all so buried in our own grief. I can’t say I’m surprised she killed herself, and all three of us feel some part of the responsibility. But I could never stop holding it against her that she abandoned her daughter. No one knew better than us that families are supposed to stick together.
We were at Red’s, only one beer in, and playing pool while Laila checked out a factory guy a few tables down. He was lanky and too old for her, but she liked that type. She liked how they never got tired, even though they woke up early in the morning, and how they never showed up late for a date, never sent a “sorry can’t make it” text. I was hot for a girl near the pinball machine, a girl I’d never seen before, who was hanging out with Leslie Turnell. Seeing a stranger in Red’s was odd. I mean, really odd. The whole bar was in whispers.
The new girl was cute. She wore her hair short, and it was streaked through with pink and purple. And she had a skirt on, which, well, meant she was the only girl in Red’s not in jeans.
David had gone to the bar for a shot of whiskey, and came back with our second round of beers. “Here you go, guys,” he said, setting the three glasses down on a standing table we were using. “Can we talk about that girl by the pinball machine? She must’ve come straight from the stars. A girl like that is not from around here!”
Laila, who always threw her support to the underdog, came to my aide. “Relax Davie. Joel’s already got his eyes on her. Just pick up one of those trashy girls at the standing tables by the bar. Try asking one of ‘em for a quickie in the forest. They’d prefer it to your room, for sure!”
“Actually the brunette – what’s her name? Michelle or something – has had some quickies out there. Her and Jimmy French woke me up one night last summer when I was sleeping off some drinks by the berry bushes just off the parking lot. They nearly smacked down on top of me. He was more embarrassed about it than she was.”
Laila flicked her eyelids. “Why am I not surprised?” She paused and looked around. “Jesus, other than Factory Guy there’s not a real man in here.”
“Hey!” we both said, incredulous.
We shot a few games of pool before David got liquored up enough to try picking up one of the girls. The one he chose must have thought his line was good since she didn’t slap him, and soon after they left together. We knew he’d be back, smiling whether anything happened or not, and laughing. Once he was gone, Laila and me talked about school for a bit. David got bored when we talked about it in front of him.
As if on cue, I got a text from him. It read, “Things are going well. Be back later. Stop talking about school and make a move on Pinball Girl!” Laila and I had a laugh at that, then she started encouraging me to go after Pinball Girl, too.
“You seeing the looks everyone’s giving her? You need to make your move before the competition gets heated. Too many of these people get drunk and she’ll be swatting them off.” We were openly staring at her while we talked, but she was alternating paying attention to Leslie and texting.
“I know. I’m still trying to figure out who she is. Why is she hanging out with Leslie Turnell?”
“They must be related.”
“I guess. Well, I didn’t wear my nice shirt for nothing. As soon as we finish this game, I’m going over there. But you’re going to make a move on Factory Guy.”
“Fine with me.”
After Laila won, we returned the pool balls to the bartender, got her license back, and agreed to meet at the bar in ten minutes or text if we needed more time.
She struck out quick with Factory Guy – he dropped that he had a girlfriend. I was more successful than I ever expected to be. The new girl was cuter up close, with big city hazel eyes, and she was real nice. She was twenty—maybe twenty-two—and in the dim light, it was hard to tell if her hair was black or dark brown under the colors, but it was short either way. Leslie was a senior in high school but she was savvy enough to know what was going on. She focused on the pinball machine, giving us space.
While we flirted, the new girl pulled out a slim Parliament and lit it with a lighter smaller than her thumb. That’s when I knew for sure she was from a city, I mean a real city. People from big cities always use really small lighters and people from small towns always have really big lighters. David noticed that working in the motel. Besides, most people around here smoked Marlboros or vaped. I asked if she was interested in a game of pool with me and a couple of friends. She looked at the back of Leslie’s head and I was quick to add, “Her, too.”
“Sure,” she said, and turned to Leslie, “come over when you’re done.”
This girl was calm in all the wrong ways. Her shirt was light blue and cut with a hole to show off the center of her back. Just the edge of a tattoo, big and colorful, was visible running down her right side.
I waved Laila over from the bar and she came back with the same balls we had just returned, as well as a tray with four beers, two for us, two for Leslie and the New Girl.
I never figured out where the girl came from. Her name was Aria, one of those names we heard on TV when we stayed in the motel and watched shows none of us would admit to watching the next day, shows that took place so far from our tiny world. David came back pretty quick with some mud on his shirt that he’d smeared trying to dust off. He stopped by the bar and then came over, smiling. He was holding five beers – three in one of his giant hands and two in the other. The girl he left with never came back. Before we could ask about the half-hour he’d been gone, he said, “Hey guys! Hey Pinball Girl! Nice to see you at our table.”
He set down the two beers and picked up Laila’s half-empty one, drinking it in three or four chugs before asking if she minded, which, of course she didn’t. Then he handed out our new ones.
We played pool for more than an hour, and that whole time I didn’t really think I had a shot with Aria. I was just killing time and rolling the dice. But she returned my smiles and stood close enough to let me smell her perfume, vanilla and some kind of flower I couldn’t place. She didn’t wear too much but it made my nose itch – I wasn’t used to smelling perfume. Then she took my hand in between shots. We kissed a few times and moved ourselves to the corner of the bar where we had a little more privacy.
Honestly, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten her home, but tell that to Joey Turnell who’d been working in the garage all day then gotten liquored up and was looking to howl. Turnell had driven over from one of the redneck bars in his fucking Mustang to pick up Leslie and Aria, and was probably already in a bad mood about having to do that. It turns out Aria was their cousin, and Turnell wasn’t happy when he saw us making out. But I think he was just looking for an excuse.
Turnell wasn’t big but he was tall, and he was menacing in the way loose cannons are. David and Laila came over to me as soon as he came in. I gulped back fear and looked toward the back door, knowing any excuse to fight was enough for him. It didn’t take him long to start making a scene. I’d been in a couple of fights but wasn’t any good at it. Turnell would hand my ass to me without breaking a sweat. But I had all that beer in me, and I’d just been making out with a pretty girl, and I felt like nothing bad could happen. Besides, if I ran out, I’d look like a coward.
“Aria, I’m not letting that idiot drive you back. I gotta take Leslie home and you’re coming too!” Turnell demanded.
Aria’s voice was high pitched and could have broken windows with its fury. “Like hell you are! I didn’t come here to be bossed around by you. I’m twenty! I can get home my own way. Or maybe I won’t come home at all. There’s people here who would let me spend the night at their place, you know.”
“Him?” Turnell snarled, violence competing with alcohol in his voice as he pointed a greasy finger at my chest.
The earlier high of invincibly washed out of me. It wasn’t even feeling like a coward that kept me from running, it was something deeper. I knew I could make it to the door, and that maybe the violence in him would be satisfied if I ran and he wouldn’t need to chase me, but my panic had nailed me to the floor. I just stared, seeing an escape and not taking it.
David reacted better, moving quickly, taking a guy’s pool cue and separating us by a good swinging distance. Laila moved herself between me and Turnell hoping she could distract him—that some sense of chivalry wouldn’t let him hit a girl—but we knew more than one of his girlfriends had ended up in the hospital, so I didn’t think chivalry was going to stop him if she got in his way. All of Red’s was watching but everyone seemed to take a step back. The distance between us was empty, but filling quickly with his rage and my fear. I was hoping Aria would talk him down.
“With him?” Turnell demanded again, sweating rage at being talked back to in front of everyone.
“Now!” I thought. “Get out!”
But I just stared at him, playing dead.
Aria must not have known any better. “Of course with him, you asshole!”
One of her slender hands tried to slap down his finger. Laila said “shit” and made a move to grab for him as he came at me, but Turnell was past her like she wasn’t even there. I was stuck in place, my brain not sending the commands it should have. All I could do was move my arms up to protect my head, and even that was too slow. Turnell probably didn’t feel David’s cue snap across his back as he pulverized my nose. The next thing I knew he was dragging me by my shirt and shoulder into the darkness of the parking lot through the back door. I flailed my arms against his grip but it didn’t do anything.
Laila was grabbing to stop him when David pummeled him from behind, trying to pin his arms. Everyone had poured out behind us but no one else was stepping in to help. Turnell broke David’s grip, flattened him with a fist, and shrugged Laila off. Seeing them attacked, I finally did something. I managed a kick to his shin but it was a desperate move. He went down but was up faster than me or David could react.
He picked up a broken bottle from the gravel. I saw the light glint off the jagged edges as he lunged, and I turned quick to run, but it tore through the back of my shirt. I felt the cold. Then, I was over on my back on the ground and I could smell metal. I thought maybe he had hit me with a pipe or a wrench or something, but it was blood from my broken nose. The night was just starting to get damp and I was lying there in the blue bug zapper light staring up at the stars, and for a moment, I swear, all I could think was how pissed I was that my shirt was ruined.
David was over me apologizing over and over again and saying something about Turnell driving away. Laila was on my other side sobbing. There were people everywhere all talking too fast for me to understand. I just heard the owl and the crickets and felt the cold, no pain at all, not much of anything. Staring up at the stars from the open space of the parking lot, the sky seemed like a bubble and the trees around the border curled up as though they were growing flat against the inside of it. The stars and the trees were in focus more than the people around me, and I thought, “This is what David feels all the time.” The cold wasn’t bothersome, and I wasn’t in any pain and I had no reason to mov. The stars were as close as the people next to me. That was his life, and lying there bleeding into the gravel, I didn’t mind it. After all these years, maybe it took Joey Turnell stabbing me with a bottle to make me understand my best friend better.
The stars were blinking in front of me, or else it was the flashing lights from an ambulance or police car—I don’t know. I just remember watching the sky above me grow rounder, and the trees and Red’s were pressed against the inside of it and everything was dark except the sky, and the stars were blinking in and out, in and out, in and out, and then I looked at David again and he was streaked with blood and looked so serious – it was the first time in years I had seen him serious like that – and then the stars winked in and out again.
I woke up in the biggest hospital in the area—not so far from school, actually. I hadn’t been there since Laila’s mom had died. David and Laila were both there, and a vase with flowers and a balloon. My own town had stabbed me in the back with a broken bottle, but at least I got a balloon out of it.
Laila saw me looking at them and explained, “The flowers are from Leslie Turnell. She dropped them off yesterday. She was crying, and talked about how sorry Joey was. She said he turned himself in.”
“He out already?” I asked.
My throat was dry and felt torn inside— a desert. David winced hearing it. He still looked so serious. Some part of him must have learned to be serious while I was lying in the parking lot.
“They’re holding him until they talk to you. She said he never expected the bottle to cut so deep, that he just wanted to scare you. He says he doesn’t know how he lost control that bad.”
“For what it’s worth,” David broke in, “apparently he cut the shit out of his own hand when he stuck you with the bottle. Must have bled all over the inside of his car.”
I didn’t have anything to say. It was nice of her to bring flowers. I felt bad for her, having to come here and apologize for something that wasn’t her fault.
“The upside is you’ll probably get free drinks at Red’s for years!” David said, because, of course, he would say that. I tried to laugh but my body wasn’t up to it.
When the doctor came in and talked at me, I missed a lot of what he said. I certainly heard words like “spine” and “some nerve damage” and “rehab.” Maybe it was the morphine, but with David on one side and Laila holding my hand on the other, listening to the doctor lay out my injuries, it was like looking up at the bubble of stars – I’m sure everything he said was important, but I just wasn’t concerned. I’d lived through worse things.
I’d do rehab, then I’d graduate, and, finally, move on. There was nothing here for me, except David and Laila, and they would be my family whether I stayed or left. After staring up at the sky like David had all those times, I saw that from his point of view. He always knew we would leave. He’d been preparing for it all those nights, preparing to be alone again like after his parents, or to come with us, or to accept whatever life gave him.
“You’re going to have to stay in the hospital for a while,” the doctor said and paused to let it sink in.
David spoke up again, trying not to laugh, “Man, I know you wanted to get out of town, but moving to the hospital is pretty extreme!”
Laila moved to shove him but I laughed at it. I laughed with him, a laugh worth the pain in my throat, then she laughed, too.
Chris Burns’ fiction has appeared in Carbon Culture Review, Eclectica Magazine, Laurel Review, Transfer Magazine, Lady in the Lake, and the upcoming 42 Stories Anthology. His story, “The Psychic and the Foodie: A Love Story” received second place in the 2018 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award. Chris is a writer and librarian living in San Francisco and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College in Oakland, CA.