The Shoulder

Fiction, Prose

Fiction by Nick Fuller

Byllis was one of those two gas station towns in vassalage to the highway. The gas stations were built on a short hill in vast flat country and were right across from each other just off the exit.

One was a Marathon, the other a Shell. The Marathon had a tire shop. The Shell had a better selection of candy and chips. The geriatric denizens of Byllis liked to sit at the picnic tables outside of the Shell’s grab-n-go, sipping big gulp pops and getting free refills and talking to anyone who stopped for gas on their way to somewhere else. Down the road from the gas stations were a single bar and restaurant, a hardware store, and a pawn shop, with a bright red sign you could see from the highway that read GUNS/JEWELRY. You had to go twenty miles in either direction for lodging. There was a Wendy’s a few stops south, and a McDonald’s equidistant to the north. At night the highway was tantalizing and lonesome, save for the occasional sigh of pass-along traffic.
+++There was better luck northbound. Along that stretch of highway, which had no median or guardrail, Margaret discovered in the remnant shards of glass and plastic all her most poignant salvage. She stepped carefully into the gloaming of Interstate 71, shining a flashlight along the separating white line, to the shoulder of the highway. She’d left her bike by the exit. Tonight she was hunting for something with greater potential than the scraps of tire rubber she collected by the yard, and took home in the basket of her bicycle. Something that could be something.
+++
Margaret checked down the road for oncoming headlights. She crossed the battered asphalt to the stretch of uneven grass which divided northbound from southbound. The grass was tall in the center and mown by the road, like a mohawk. In the tall grass, little white moths flitted from tufted strand to strand. The highway was silent, and the air thick with honeysuckle pollen, sweet and choking in the night, the wind muffled by humidity. She wore a few reflective patches on her clothing, and her light-up sneakers (a pair of young boys’ shoes she’d found in a thrift store in Mansfield) stained the dark ground as she walked.
+++
Margret scanned the roadway with her flashlight until she caught the glint of broken glass. Among the shards of glass were large strips of tire rubber, and a long hunk of red plastic that was once the fender of a newer car. She followed the flashlight towards the glimmer of a sideview mirror, which sat mostly intact by the shoulder line. She bent down, picked up the sideview mirror, and stayed crouched to examine it. There was a crack in the mirror glass, which shot off towards three of four corners, with a chunk missing at the origin of the crack, as if it were a bullet hole. Some wiring extended from the handle of the mirror, and Margaret fingered the rubber tubing around the thin strands of copper. The wire ends were sharp, and the plastic of the sideview mirror was shiny and smooth. This was what she had been hunting for. A good find. She felt a pang of satisfaction in her stomach.
+++
From an indiscernible distance came the quiet rumbling of a motor. Then the pickup truck. Margaret stood up just as the draft of the vehicle rushed past her. The blinding headlights. The blue whir of the driver’s side door. The rust in the wheel wells. All of it like a gossamer of otherworldly things wrapping itself around her head in the sudden rush of wind. She fell backwards, stared blankly across the two lanes of northbound Interstate 71. Her eyes fixed on the dark trees on the other side of the road, seeing both a single strip of bark and the totality of the wood all at once. She remembered running to take sheets from a clothesline before a thunderstorm. The sheets flapped in the wind, hugged her face and body. She watched the storm from the porch afterwards.
+++
Margaret leaned back on her hands, let her legs stretch out before her. She exhaled. Her shoe-lights blinked.
+++
“You almost got squashed.”
+++
There was Conroy, who went by Connie, sipping a 32 oz. pop and straddling his bicycle. He was twelve, and four years younger than Margaret. Another rare child in Byllis. He was a skinny, bucktoothed kid with a handsome babyface in the light. Here in the dark he was creepy, and slurping through a straw.
+++
Margaret’s guts, which had been so certain of the sideview mirror, now gripped and twisted, discombobulated and reverberating with the thuddering of her heart. She became annoyed. This was a private moment, one in which she didn’t wish to be seen. Margaret was communing with her personal mortality, and Connie was an interloper.
+++
“Where did you come from?” she asked.
+++
Connie slurped his pop. “McDonald’s,” he said.
+++
“What were you doing all the way up there?”
+++
“The pop tastes better from their fountain.”
+++
“Is that right.”
+++
“Corporate standards,” he said. “The soda and the syrup are very evenly distributed. Are you okay?” Connie let his bike to the ground and offered Margaret his hand.
+++
Margaret groaned, leaned forward, and examined a sharpness in her palm. She’d cut herself on broken glass. Blood was beading along the cut, but hadn’t begun to trickle. She gave Connie her other hand and let him help her up.
+++
“Are you okay?” he asked again.
+++
Margaret pinched the skin on either side of the cut, inspecting the slice, which was thin and deep. “Why not just buy a can from the store?” Margaret asked, affecting disinterest.
+++
“A can of what?”
+++
“Pop.”
+++
Connie seemed to fix his gaze into Margaret’s chin. Was he thinking or did she have a zit? He laughed, scratched the nape of his neck, bowed sheepishly.
+++
He said, “I guess I just like riding my bike to McDonald’s.”

 

The highway was littered with roadkill. In the spring and fall, especially, you saw a lot of belly-up and smashed deer. This early June it was dead deer season, and it came with the buzzing of flies and mosquitos. Connie rode no-hands, letting them slack at his sides, steering as he could with his knees as the bike meandered forward zig-zaggedly. Margaret followed him. She measured her steps by the lighting up of her sneakers. Just a few years ago Margaret babysat the boy, and now he played out a grownup-seeming aloofness, and she walked behind him in sneakers not unlike a pair he owned back then. He had been eager to please and well-behaved—Margaret thought there wasn’t much of a reason for her to be babysitting him to begin with, but Connie’s parents gave her ten bucks a night, which she socked away for trips into town with her mother. Here he was now, almost tall, certainly taller than Margaret, and biking by himself all the way to McDonald’s. Since Connie no longer needed babysitting, Margaret had hardly seen him or his family. She knew there had been a divorce, and not much else. It could be lonely in Byllis, but not lonely enough to spend your time with a twelve-year-old boy—even a particularly mature one.
+++
“What were you doing walking around on the highway at night?” Connie called back to her. “Where’s your bike?”
+++
“Just up here by the exit.”
+++
He stopped and straddled his bicycle, waiting for Margaret to catch up. “Where were you going?”
+++
“I was gathering supplies,” Margaret said, she waved the sideview mirror at him with her uninjured hand.  She kept the injured hand balled up, applying pressure on the cut with a now wet-with-blood McDonald’s napkin Connie had produced from his back pocket.
+++
“What are you going to do with that hunk of junk?”
+++
“I’m gonna make something with it.”
+++
“Like what?”
+++
“Like a sculpture or something.”
+++
Connie rolled ahead down the ramp. Margaret’s bike lay in some grass by the yield sign marking the highway entrance. She took it up, put the sideview mirror into the basket, and walked it down the incline towards Connie, who again straddled his bike, waiting for her under the highway overpass. The pawnshop sign seared above them bright enough to gag the stars.
+++
“You make trash statues?” Connie laughed. “Weird.”
+++
“I guess I just like to,” Margaret sneered.
+++
Connie gazed at her flatly, appraisingly. “Can I come with you next time?” he asked.
+++
Margaret laughed. He was still a little boy—a relief to her that he had yet to grapple with the predatory mechanisms that awaken in male adolescence. “I don’t know, Connie. Do you have a second seat for that bicycle?”
+++
“I have foot pegs at home.”
+++
“Fantastic,” Margaret said.
+++
“Should I walk you home?” Connie asked, brightly, hopefully.
+++
“I should be walking you home.”
+++
“Are you?”
+++
“No.”

 

In the summer, especially, Margaret was thankful for the internet, it’s infinite radio stations warbling from her portable speakers as she bolted tire strips together with George’s nail gun, hot-glued glass shards into place, hitched scraps together by twine. It felt nice to create something from the interruptions and inconveniences and tragedies that occurred on those four lanes of highway that split Byllis down the middle. Repurposing the evidence of human error further gave human error meaning, though Margaret had never quite been able to voice that to those who asked her about her late-night debris scavenging. Byllis, a place that was really only between places wasn’t home to much stimulating conversation when it came to art or the making of it. Her mother offered vague support for the making of things, but lacked the imagination to understand Margaret’s current vision. Why not something more practical? And if something impractical, why not something less dangerous?
+++
Margaret laid out a strip of tire scrap and bolted it to a log she’d found behind the shed. The log was healthy, maybe two and a half feet long, a foot in circumference. She had it in her head that she’d create a kind of totem pole. Mysticism from the road. A god of diesel and emissions, of speedometers and odometers and breakdowns and rust. The sideview mirror sat on her workbench. Maybe it would be the head, thought Margaret, or maybe something else. It was the current pride of her collection, full of tantalizing meaning and difficult to appropriate—that she’d almost been decapitated in its pursuit made the thing all the greater. She wanted to smear the thing with blood from her cut.
+++
The music flicked off.
+++
“Consider yourself summoned to the dinner table,” George said. It was Sunday, so the restaurant was closed, and he cooked at home for the three of them: ribs or BBQ chicken or burgers, usually whatever was left over from his restaurant’s weekly menu changes. This evening they were having London Broil, George’s specialty. Usually for calendar occasions, though it had been said by both George and her mother that tonight they would be celebrating life. George stood over by the speakers, fingers still on the volume knob.
+++
“I’m almost to a good stopping point, anyway,” Margaret said.
+++
“How’s your little art project going?” George asked. “Your mother’s been complaining to me it’s dangerous. I said the only cool things in life are dangerous, but she wasn’t having it.”
+++
“Oh, it’s good,” Margaret said. George had a way of making her feel childish and special at the same time. In one roundabout way or another, George had been dating her mother since Margaret was twelve. When Margaret first met him, he’d brought a small bouquet of dandelions picked from their front yard. He’d said, “A bouquet of dandelions for a dandy young lioness.” Pure mozzarella, but delivered with charming self-effacement. Margaret admired his ease of being.
+++
“Maybe when you’ve finished whatever it is you’re working on, we’ll have a little installation at the bar. Maybe I’ll even let you celebrate with a beer. Hell, two beers, if they’re lite. Though I suppose art openings are more of a wine event,” George said. “Try to keep your mother from seeing your hand.”
+++
George turned the volume back up a little, softer than before, a reminder not to get too invested in any heavy-duty work. The shed door clacked behind him.

 

On balmy summer nights, Margaret could not hear the call of the highway over the impossible country silence, the deafening country stars that appeared to be shaken out over the sky like powdered sugar you could smudge with your fingertip. Margaret tapped her nails, painted a sophisticate’s black, along the wood armrest of the porch swing. She was waiting for an excuse to snap a picture with a polaroid camera she’d bought at the pawn shop a few weeks ago. Tonight they were celebrating life, or the fact of being alive, Margaret supposed, and she wanted evidence of the meagre pulse of Byllis.
+++
George spoke of a flatter abyss out west, that in Nebraska and Kansas and Utah the stars were so loud you had to wear ear plugs. Margaret supposed George was handsome for Byllis. He was graying and handy, intentionally unkempt. For a man nearing fifty, he was in good shape. Like her mother, George carried some slight elasticity around his jowls and underarms, but was otherwise ropey, appropriately knotted. Because his restaurant and bar was the only place in town, he was very popular. Something about him came off as cosmopolitan. He was from Byllis, but had lived all over the country, working in kitchens and tending bar. You can go all over, he liked to say, but the only place that’s home is the shack you’re born in.
+++
“Imagine not even hearing crickets,” George said. “And Utah, that place will make you believe the moon landing was faked. It’s about seven kinds of desert. You can see how the Mormons might think Jesus was the first American.”
+++
Margaret liked the idea that a place could be so alien, so unrecognizable, that it gave you pause and wonder at the legitimacy of the greatest of human accomplishments, and credence to perhaps the most outrageous of human claims.
+++
“Is that what Mormons believe?” she asked.
+++
George laughed. “Who cares?”
+++
Her mother, Lucy, joined them on the porch with three lemonades on a plastic serving tray, the glasses sweating in the summer mug. She said, “The two on the left are for the adults.” Margaret sighed. Her mother had replaced most of her parenting with incessant reminders that Margaret was not yet grown up. When Lucy noticed the bandage on Margaret’s hand she shook her head and asked if she’d put Bactine on the cut yet. “You never used to cry when you skinned your knee, but the second I brought out the Bactine, you’d blubber like a big old baby,” her mother said. “You’re still my baby.”
+++
Margaret had the feeling that Lucy watched her as if she were an experiment running its course, not much deviating from the hypothesized outcome. Lucy offered little advice save for glancing disapproval or mild endorsement.
+++
George took a lemonade from Lucy, drank a big gulp, and removed a flask from his pocket, with which he refilled his glass. “Now this,” George said, “now this is almost living.”
+++
“And if this isn’t living, what’s living to you?” Lucy asked, her body casting a matronly shadow. She was a bedraggled, handsome kind of woman. Margaret could imagine her mother living on a prairie out West, in a long dress, her hair braided, a rifle on her shoulder and muddy cowboy boots on her feet. Lucy enjoyed a certain Wild West glibness, too, irreligious and bible-refencing.
+++
George swigged loudly before answering. “Just plop down in my lap, and I might remember.”
+++
Lucy sat in George’s lap. They both giggled. Margaret watched them, at first uninterested. But as they stayed piled up as they were, became more fidgety in the dark, lost the initial spark of the moment, lost out to long fits of staring into the distance, Margaret found herself compelled by them. Now this is almost living, she thought. Parts of George must have got stuck in Utah and Kansas and Nebraska and New Orleans and Chicago. Margaret’s mother, however, had almost exclusively lived in the Byllis, save brief stints in Mansfield, Akron, and three semesters at the University of Cincinnati, nothing nearly as exotic as the San Rafael Swell of Utah or the big cities George had lived in. George, even in his slightly demeaning way, took interest in Margaret’s art, which he seemed to recognize as akin to his own restlessness, his own wayward disposition. Lucy couldn’t even see where the impulse came from. It was as if her mother’s brain filtered out any creativeness, as if creativity were an embarrassing accent her mother had worked hard to drop in an effort to more comfortably fit in. George, diagnosing in Margaret something he had long ago stifled, both celebrated and dismissed her art as a necessary kind of stupidity.
+++
Margaret took up her camera and snapped a picture. The camera flashed, popped, and whined, then emitted a 3.5 x 4.2 of George and Lucy in their preoccupation. Margaret fanned herself with the polaroid.
+++
“Margaret,” Lucy said, “some warning. Please. You’ve about blinded us.”
+++
“I’m seeing spots!” George said. He mock tore at his eyes, as though they’d been fried out of their sockets.
+++
“Sorry,” Margaret said. “I was compelled by the first American.”
+++
“Jeee-zus,” George laughed. “He hath struck the sight from mine eyes.”
+++
Lucy stood up from George’s lap. “Repent,” she said. “And as St. Paul’s sight was returned to him, I shall refill your cup.”
+++
Lucy and George laughed and smooched and hugged with broad gestures, both caricaturing and demonstrating genuine affection. Margaret looked away, out into the yard, tried to see past what was illuminated by the porchlights into the darkness. Good for them, thought Margaret. She stood up and walked out into the yard, her back to the porchlight. Her eyes adjusted to the night, and it appeared that just past the shadow of the trees which marked the end of her front yard, was the shadow of a boy riding a bicycle, down the road toward the highway.

 

The wi-fi made it just past the front porch, where Margaret lounged on a beach chair. The boys online always had something they wanted to teach her: art or history or whatever they knew about, or kind of knew about. A demonstration of knowledge, and worthiness. First they would message her about her drawings and sculptures that she posted to Imgur. Then they wanted pictures of her.
+++
Margaret flicked her phone into the grass beside her. It was better than the boys in Byllis, the mere handful of them, who were too interested in guns and hunting and fast cars—their idea of flirtation whistling and cat-calls. The boys online, not to get it wrong, were still boys, but some of them at least tried to use their brains—if not a little too loudly.
+++
The gravel in the driveway crackled under the pressure of tires, and Margaret looked up to see Conroy rolling towards her, standing on the pedals of his bicycle. She sat up.
+++
“Were you riding by my house the other night?” she asked.
+++
“I saw the light on,” Connie said. He hopped off his bike and let it drop to the lawn.
+++
“Are you a moth? Or just some kind of stalker?” Margaret asked. She had Connie cornered, and thought she might fuck with him a little bit.
+++
“No,” Connie said. “I’m not a stalker. Jeez.”
+++
“Why were you riding by my house?”
+++
“I was just riding around.”
+++
“I don’t believe you.”
+++
Connie shrugged. “Believe what you want, I guess. Would a stalker just ride up to you like that? Wouldn’t I have just hid in the bushes?”
+++
“Alright, Connie,” Margaret said. “What do you want?”
+++
“I was hoping you’d show me your art or whatever,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it and how you almost got run over. I’ve never seen anyone die before.”
+++
Margaret stood up, wrapped her beach towel around her waist, and tied it off. “You still haven’t,” she said.
+++
“That’s true.”
+++
“Come on then,” Margaret said. “A lot of it’s still in progress, so don’t judge too harshly.”
+++
She slipped her toes into flip-flops and led Connie down the gravel driveway around back to where the shed was, all swallowed up in ivy, and surrounded by overgrown grass. Her mother had an herb garden back there, and some cherry tomatoes, and a single large sunflower, which often had goldfinches on it. There was a birdfeeder on a hook in the middle of the yard, but George, who had stuck it there, had left it forgotten all summer.
+++
Margaret was excited to show Connie her sculptures. He was the perfect audience, she decided. She didn’t care about his opinion, but was certain he’d only have nice things to say. She opened the shed door slowly, hoping to build anticipation in the boy, to create a mystic atmosphere. Margaret briefly fantasized about owning a smoke machine. Fog for the god of diesel and rust to emerge from, darkly and full of voodoo.
+++
“In here,” she said.
+++
Connie walked carefully into the shed. His face was stern and concentrated, as if he were walking into a chapel.
+++
“Where is it?” he asked. The shed was dark. The only window was partially covered with old paint cans. Her work table was littered with doodads, the shelves were full of tools and nails and loose equipment. There were piles of tire rubber in the corner, and a clear plastic box full of glass shards and roadside chunks. Margaret pulled the string that lit up an uncovered lightbulb in the middle of the shed. She walked over to the stool in the corner and picked up the log she had covered in tire strips and glass shards. She had painted on it, in white and yellow, road markers and signage.
+++
“It’s not done yet,” Margaret said. “I want to incorporate the sideview mirror, but I’m not sure what to do with it. I have a stop sign in my room, too.”
+++
“Wow,” Connie said. “What is it?”
+++
“Like a totem pole maybe.”
+++
“What are you going to do with the sideview mirror?” Connie said. He was brimming with new energy.
+++
“Maybe it’s the head, or, I don’t know.”
+++
“If you had two, they could be eyes.”
+++
“Or horns.”
+++
“Horns. That would be cool.”
+++
“And then I’ll bolt the stop sign to the back of it.”
+++
“Absolutely,” Connie said. There was a kind of indiscriminate excitement he had about the project that Margaret found infectious. She wanted to run out and rip a sideview mirror off someone’s car right this very minute.
+++
Connie leaned back onto Margaret’s workbench. He thought carefully about something. Finally he said, “There’s a junkyard by the McDonald’s, not too far off the highway. I ride by it sometimes when I don’t want to go home.”
+++
“Got a lot of busted up cars?”
+++
“Loads of busted up cars.”
+++
“Maybe,” Margaret said.
+++
“I could take you,” Connie said.
+++
“Are you asking me on a date?”
+++
“No. Of course not.”
+++
“Oh,” said Margaret, feigning hurt. Connie was irresistible to torture. “Well maybe.”
+++
Before he left, Connie pleaded with Margaret to set a date to go to the junkyard. She affirmed to herself that she would go, alone, preferably, though she’d never ridden her bike that far down the highway by herself.

 

That night Margaret lay on her bed fantasizing about the junkyard and all its possibilities, a vast wasteland full of potential. Her speakers produced the high twang of hazy surfer rock, a band she learned about from a guy online. She wished she had been asked to the dump by him rather than a twelve-year-old. As inoffensive, and complimentary, as Conroy was, a child’s adoration wasn’t as satisfying as an adult’s.
+++
Margaret, with her toes pointed up at the ceiling, head propped up on some pillows, looked at the photograph she’d taken of George and Lucy. Their eyes shone yellow in the picture. George held on tight at her mother’s waist. They stared off in different directions, but their mouths were in the same slack posture, like unfastened seatbelts before the retractor snaps the latch back into place, as though they both were considering potential squandered or spent frivolously. She felt disappointed for them, that there was an unnamed desire left out in the world, something given up on—and glad for them, too, that they had each other, that George still held on tight at the waist of her mother.
+++
Margaret changed for bed into soft underwear and a t-shirt. She went to the bathroom and brushed her teeth, making sure to hit her gums and tongue, where her mother told her bad breath came from. She had toothpaste foamed up at the sides of her mouth when George opened the door. He stumbled in and past Margaret without saying anything. He lifted the toilet seat, pulled himself free of his boxers, and released a stream into the toilet. Margaret watched him, too embarrassed to speak, toothbrush still in mouth, toothpaste trickling down her chin. His hair was wild and his gut protruded. George flushed, turned to Margaret, took her cheeks into the palms of his hands, and said, “You really should get the hell out of here. Don’t recommend coming back.”
“Okay,” Margaret said. She wasn’t afraid, but there was mounting stress along her spine, and she was concerned with not brushing up against anything below George’s navel.
+++
“Good girl. Your mother got me all sauced. Heavy-handed tonight. She’s trying to trick me into an altar ceremony.”
+++
“Is that bad?”
+++
George produced a condescending laugh, a solitary note, like a dog’s bark. Her naivete was a special treat to him. “No,” he said. “I told her we were already married. She’s just bored and wants to spend money we don’t have.” He stumbled out of the bathroom and wandered down the hallway. Margaret heard his heavy, uneven steps. “Alright, Luce,” he called, re-opening their bedroom door, which soft-slammed closed soon after.

 

The ride to the junkyard was stressful. There was daytime traffic. Cars honked as they passed the children on their bikes. One man rolled the passenger-side window down and yelled for them to get off the fucking highway. Connie gave him the finger. Margaret told Connie to knock it off, but thought the boy’s attempt at steely bravado was amusing. He was trying to show off in other ways, too. Popping wheelies, wandering close to the white line with his hands off the handlebars.
+++
“You’re gonna be road kill, stupid,” she yelled to him. The passing of cars and the high wind of the highway made it necessary to holler.
+++
“I won’t die,” Connie yelled back. He rode up ahead of Margaret, but closer to the grass. Margaret, in the end, had decided Connie’s imperfect companionship was better than enduring the long trip herself. He had made himself available to her by riding around her house every day for a week. Margaret simply walked to the end of the driveway with her bicycle, and told him to lead the way.
+++
The junkyard itself was not what Margaret had expected. It was mazelike, but not full of large scrap metal pyramids like she had imagined. There were cars piled on top of each other. The attendant, gruff-looking, bald and spattered with motor oil, halted them at the entrance. He asked what they wanted, and when Margaret said she was an artist, he stopped listening. He was filling out dirty thumb-printed forms. His office was a cramped partitioned square of a garage that smelled dank and combustible.
+++
“Whatever,” the attendant said, leaning back in a rolly chair. He raised the clipboard to his face and squinted. “Just don’t hurt yourselves. Tetanus all over the rust shit. They’ll have to amputate your arms before the rot sets in and seizes your heart. Don’t take anything worth money. I’ll be watching.”
+++
“What’s worth money?” Connie asked.
+++
“You’ll know,” the attendant said. He dismissed the two of them with his fingers. He called out from behind them. “If you aren’t sure, ask me before you touch it.”
+++
They walked their bikes through the junkyard and its acrid smells, gasoline and grease, mold and rust, the waft of stale air. The path was sallow dirt and there were puddles turned yellow, green, and blue by the oil in them.
+++
“Is that really how tetanus works? It seizes your heart?”
+++
“No,” Margaret said. “I don’t think so. He wanted to scare us off so he didn’t have to deal with us.”
+++
Margaret turned at the corner of two cars piled on top of each other, and entered a wide corridor. She felt that she was in the center of the junkyard, with little alleyways opening up between frames of jagged scrap metal. Rusty beams seemed planted like flagpoles from scrap piles, bent by wind and turbulence. On the far end of the corridor, set slightly apart from the wall of garbage, was a totaled red sedan. Connie became excited, dropped his bike and made for the car. Both ends were smashed, all of its wheels had been removed, and the driver’s side door was missing. The windows were either rolled down or busted out. The windshield was in place but cracked brutally, a thick spiderweb pattern seemingly made of shaved ice.
+++
“Looks awful familiar,” Connie called. “Do you think it could be the car?”
+++
Margaret agreed. It did look awful familiar. The sedan was missing what she suspected to be a familiar sideview mirror. And the fender was long gone.
+++
“But it’s missing both of them,” Margaret said on further inspection. It would have been too serendipitous. It was better to cobble together mismatched parts to create a solid whole anyway—after all, this was a totem of rust and rubble and highway despair.
+++
“Maybe it’s around here in the scrap,” Connie said. He poked around in the debris near the car, timidly, avoiding sharp edges and nails. He kicked and nudged with his sneaker.
+++
Here was a devastated vehicle. Fucked, thought Margaret as she approached the sedan. The plastic of the hood and body of it had completely given way to impact, like a loaf of bread trapped in the bottom of a grocery bag full of soup cans. Margaret walked around the back of the sedan, running her fingers along the crumpled trunk, along the edges of the now wrinkled backseat door. She peered into the driver’s side, where there was no door at all, and looked through the busted-out passenger side window. She sat down in the driver’s seat, which was dusty. The inside of the car smelled of mold and the leather was hot. She rested a hand on the steering wheel, and wiggled it gently from side to side. The junkyard sun, jaundiced and sour, came in through the cracks of the windshield.
+++
Connie opened the passenger side door and plopped down. “Is it weird?” he asked.
+++
“I guess so,” said Margaret, facing Connie. She’d rarely sat in the driver’s seat before.
+++
“Coffee still in the cupholder,” Connie said, picking up a Styrofoam cup from a Dunkin’ Donuts.
+++
“How far away is the nearest Dunkin’?”
+++
“I don’t know. Jeffersonville? Could be from Cincinnati.” Connie laughed. “What other foreign treasures do we have in here?”
+++
In the backseat were some dirty clothes. PINK sweatpants. A brand-less hoodie. Socks. There was a scarf with purple elephants printed on it. Connie offered the scarf to Margaret, who took it from him, inspected it, found it stained, and tossed it into the back seat.
+++
Margaret left Connie in the car. She stared into the dirt and scrap around her. The roping of her guts writhed and gripped, like a loose knot pulled tight from both ends. Margaret couldn’t help but feel that her sculpture was made of viscera, which she fished from sloshy buckets and sewed together.
+++
Connie tapped Margaret on the shoulder. He had something in his hand, and bright blue plastic sunglasses on his face.
+++
“This is good,” he said. “What’s wrong?”
+++
“Nothing,” Margaret said, though she knew she wasn’t hiding much. She was overwhelmed with melancholy, and her face contorted as if she had bit into an ice cube. Here Margaret was, and the people of Byllis, including Connie, hardly moving at all, playing around in the debris of those unintentionally halted. Unhappily halted. At best in need of gas, coffee, or a potty break. Was she simply reassembling bones, like dinosaurs in a museum? Was the whole earth a burial ground, or just the highway? And how could anyone do anything if the cost of movement was death?  “I think I just need to get out of here,” Margaret said.
+++
“I know what you mean,” said Connie.
+++
Margaret doubted him. He was twelve, and probably the only inhabitant of Byllis who had left fewer times than she.
+++
Connie dropped to one knee, stiltedly, like he were re-telling a joke after no one laughed the first time. Margaret saw her reflection in his newly acquired sunglasses. “I found this in the glovebox,” he said. “It was with these sunglasses and a chapstick.”
+++
In the palm of his hand was a faux gold ring, glinty plastic, with faux emeralds and rubies, one of those crappy fakes found in vending machines. Margaret took it from Connie. It was too small for her ring or pointer, so she slipped it onto her pinkie finger. She presented it to Connie, her fingers languid, posh. “Kiss it,” she laughed.
+++
Connie blushed and turned away. “You can throw it out or whatever if you don’t want it.”
+++
“Of course I want it.” Margaret placed her hand on top of Connie’s head. She tousled his hair. He shook her off.
+++
“Stop,” he said.
+++
Margaret gathered Connie’s cheeks in her palms. He looked up. She said, “Okay.” It was nice to have such a stupid boy around.
+++
Connie stood up. His face had flushed a spectacular orange. “Let’s grab you a sideview mirror and get out of here.”
+++
“Okay,” Margaret said. “That will be okay.”
+++
They found another red car, an old Nissan, a little boxier than the sideview mirror in her work shed, but it had very attractive splotches where the paint had come off. Connie found a thick piece of pipe and whacked away until the sideview mirror fell to the ground. The mirror glass remained intact, as did the little script: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.

 

Nick is a writer from Akron, Ohio. He received his MFA from Brooklyn College.

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