Monday, March 9, 2009

"Trooper" by Justin J. Smith

I got a clear conscience about the things that I've done.

Outside the city the highway stretched like her arms begging for the needle. In the passenger seat she smoked a cigarette. Cancer out the window. Her lipstick left a pink mark on the filter. The sun was crawling back over the hills. Clouds in the sky. The horizon was on fire. We were hurtling towards it.

"How much further?" she wanted to know.

"We're meeting the guy at a spot about 40 minutes up," I said.

She was nervous.

"Can't you get us there any faster?" She scratched her arms.

"Do you want us getting pulled over with all that shit in the trunk? Do you want to go to jail?" Silence. "40 damn minutes, Cynthia. That's all."

"You need a shave and a haircut," she said. She looked out the window and sulked. Her body twisted and I caught a glimpse of smooth olive skin between her jeans and her polka-dot blouse. Always pretending she walked out of the 50s.

We'd switched the license plates on the car before we left town. A stolen avocado-green Cadillac didn't need any help getting attention. The chop shop had torn out the radio. The wind was our music, and there was no changing the station. The sunset threw golden amber at the landscape. We were flies caught in the sticky tree sap.

"Do you even know how to shoot?" She reached for the glove compartment.

"Don't fuck with that." I tensed up. "You never know. You don't know what's gonna happen when we get there. I don't know this guy. Only thing I know is he's a guy called Jimmy. That's all. Better safe than sorry, right?"

We were supposed to meet him at this burger joint up the road, a place called Skinny Steve's. I'd bet good money that Steve wasn't as skinny as we were. I hadn't had a full meal in months, and I wasn't sure that I could stomach a diner for much longer than a few minutes. All the sizzling and the smells made my skin crawl. Something awful about hearing flesh pop and sputter over a grill. I couldn't eat a burger no matter how much mustard you slathered on it.

"You're a real bitch, you know that?"

"Yeah, well you're a real asshole," she said. She had a pair of guns tattooed on her chest. They pointed down, like they were ready to take out her lungs any minute. Once there were mermaids on her arms. By then they were pock-marked demons. She gave them names. This is Lucretia, that's Criseyde. They were damned women. Made sense. They leered at me as the white traffic lines flew past. "Drive faster."

"We need gas."

"You didn't fill up before we left?"

"No, Cynthia, I didn't fill up before we left because we didn't have any money! I've barely got enough in my wallet to get us there as it is. I'll fill us up on the way back as soon as we've got the money."

She'd had curves not too long ago. Back when she was 19, writing poetry and falling for every guy with a five o'clock shadow, she had a habit of passing her love around. One of those guys stuck her with a habit. Another one stuck her with a baby. When it came time to choose between her blood and her veins, the kid got dropped off at Grandma's house and Cynthia went to go chase down some more brown.

I met her in a thunderstorm not long after that. I was sitting at my window watching the lightning when I saw her running through the rain like a wet dog. I grabbed my umbrella, gave a shout, and tossed it to her. Then I invited her in for coffee. She'd been following me around ever since. I didn't like the quiet much anyway, and you always needed more than one person to run a good scam, so I didn't run her off. There was a tattoo across her shoulders that said "Hard Luck Woman," and it was no joke.

Couple years ago I'd tried to help get her clean. I put all the heroin on the coffee table and took the lock off her door from the inside. I stayed awake for four days, every moment keeping an eye on her, the baggie on the desk, and the little black bag with the little black spoon and the little black lighter inside. I thought I could wait her out. I was stupid. By the end of the week she had me tying her off. Within a month she was tying me off. How? Why? It's her smile.

I pulled off the highway to a podunk gas station announced as "The Last Gas Before Baker," which is where we were headed. I went inside and gave the man my ten dollar bill. It was the last thing I had in my wallet. Everything else was spent, pawned or burned.

I leaned out the door and yelled to Cyn "Did you want anything?" She laughed for the first time in months. She winked at me. I got warm inside. She's the only girl that could ever make that happen to me. A look like that and I think maybe there's a reason to keep driving, a reason to keep breathing. We were going to get this money and pay off our debts and check into rehab. If we could stand each other long enough to get to Baker. This guy called Jimmy didn't know it, but he was our ticket out of the gutter. Salvation. Like my Dad used to say, Jimmy and his money were “the light of things hoped for.” I got the tank as full as a ten would do it, and then it was back out on the road.

I didn't see him at first. You'd think that black and white would be hard to miss in all that brown and gold, but I didn't see him. Wish I had.

It happened quick: flashers in the rear view, the siren, the panic.

"What did you do, Kevin? What did we do wrong?"

"Dammit, Cyn! You kept telling me to speed up and look what fucking happened!"

"Shit. Shit. Don't stop. We can't stop."

"Look, just calm down and I'm gonna handle this, OK?" I pulled over. She opened the glove box and pulled out the gun. "Put the--" The State Trooper was already making his way towards the car. "Just keep your mouth shut."

A tap on the window. I rolled it down.

"How's it going today, officer?"

"Well, I'd be doing better if I didn't have to pull you over, son. Do you know how fast you were going?"

"I'd guess about 70, maybe 75, sir?"

"I clocked you at 88." Cyn was fidgeting in the passenger seat. Sweating. "You all right there, ma'am?"

"Oh she's fine, she just gets a little carsick. Not real good on long road trips."

"I was addressing the lady, son. Are you all right?"

Say something. Anything. Say a word and get us out of this.

"You mind if I take a look around the car, sir? Pop the trunk for--"

A bomb went off a foot from my face. Couldn't see. Ears ringing. When I could make out shapes again I saw there was blood. Everywhere. On the car, on me, spurting onto the road. Trooper on the ground writhing. Instinct. Grabbed the gun from Cyn and took aim at the Trooper as he laid on the ground.

He might have been reaching for his gun. Maybe he was reaching up to stop me. I'm still not sure. His eyes were wide. He made a noise from the bottom of his throat, and I thought of those cows in the slaughterhouses.

I fired three more shots solidly into his chest. He convulsed for just a second, then stopped moving.

"What the hell are you waiting for? Let's go!"

I watched the color drain from his face. I thought the blood might never stop.

Eventually it pooled like our need and sat impotently, waiting to be swept away or, at best, absorbed into the dirt.

Back on the road. Pedal on the floor. Hope nobody saw us. We had to get to Steve's fast. And then? No idea. Take a back route home with the money? Maybe. We had to get to Baker, get the money, then we could stop and think.

Half an hour down the road Skinny Steve's came into view. Wonderful, a “classic style diner.” Cyn would fit right in.

“You're staying in the car.”

“Like shit I am!”

“Cynthia that was not a suggestion! I don't need you doing anything nearly so stupid as you did back on the road.”

“If I hadn't done what I did we would've been hauled in!”

“If you had answered the man's question we would've been fine! But you flipped! You're staying in the car. He's here in 10 minutes, I'm going inside to wait. I come back out, we open the trunk and trade it for the money, then we go. OK?” She sighed. “OK?”

“OK, you asshole, OK.”

Inside I sat in a booth. Waitress in an impossibly blue dress asked me if I wanted sugar in my coffee, I said I liked it black. Told her that if a guy called Jimmy asked, I was waiting on him. 5 minutes went by. The coffee showed up and it had a layer of oil floating on top. I saw myself reflected in it. I stirred and it disappeared into black and I couldn't see myself anymore. It was hot and bitter. 5 more minutes went by. I bounced on the balls of my feet. 5 more minutes. Half an hour. I told the waitress I'd be back and stepped out the door.

I was rounding the corner to tell her he hadn't shown yet when she ran into me. There was blood coming out of her nose. Hot tears. She threw herself against me and started sobbing into my shoulder.

“He took it.”

“What?” I took off around the corner towards the car, dragging her with me.
The trunk was popped and swaying with the wind. A red car was racing into the distance. Couldn't breathe. Maybe heard her yelling behind me. Ran to the car and looked into the interior of the trunk. With the avocado green color it looked for all the world like an umbrella blown inside out. Our package was gone. Jimmy was gone. We had nothing. From behind I heard a low moan.

I turned and looked at her. She was sitting on the dirt with her arms stretched toward me, looking at her empty hands.

BIO: Justin J. Smith lives in Texas. His work has been featured in the Rio Review and has been rejected by numerous prestigious literary journals.

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