Photograph by Koury Angelo
by Erika Swyler
They should have gotten gas. She knew it. Three hundred miles between the car and Las Vegas, miles where rest stops were rare. Before them stretched a vast expanse of reddish yellow sandy nothing with rocks and cliffs fencing in either side of a two-lane highway. The road disappeared into the crease of the horizon. Rena glanced over to the driver’s seat. Benny’s wide, bullish face gazed ahead, his dull eyes barely focused on the road, lips mouthing the words to a Johnny Cash song—one Rena couldn’t stand. Maybe it was because whenever Benny sang it he tried to mimic Cash’s voice.
Issue #11 soundtrack: Brock Enright & Kirsten Deirup "luluby"
“We shoulda got gas.”
“Babe, we’re fine.”
Babe signaled end of discussion, where once it had been a term of endearment it was now a finishing word. Rena thought back to how her breath had jumped the first time he’d touched her cheek and said, “You’re beautiful, Babe.” His hand had been warm and she remembered her face flushing to match it. She’d never had a nickname before. She’d never been beautiful before. She wondered at how the word had faded and the way kindness leached from things.
“I’m serious, Ben. We shoulda gotten gas at that exit.”
“I know this car, Rena. We’re fine.”
“The gas gauge has been broken for what, like, three years?”
“I know the car, Babe. Me an’ the Olds go back.” He rattled on about the exact number of miles they had per tank, how at the speed they were going and with the weight they were carrying they had the optimal amount of miles per gallon; highway versus city; good, solid American manufacturing and the superiority of the 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
Again Rena said they should have gotten gas.
“You don’t know nothing about it, Babe,” he said and patted the dash.
She bit her lip and crossed her arms to signal she no longer listened. She turned to the window once more, looking out at the dry. Behind them dirt churned; plumes of dust billowed and marked their path before settling to the ground once more.
In fifty miles the car stalled.
“Why are we stopping?” Rena asked, as slow satisfied pleasure washed over her.
“We’re outta gas.”
“I’m sorry, we’re out of what?”
“Oh, shut the fuck up. You were right. Happy?”
“Very. This trip was a stupid idea.” She watched Benny. He didn’t respond, didn’t move, only gazed ahead—chewing in the way of hulking, stolid cattle. She felt her palm twitch, itching to smack him. “Call somebody, already.” They needed to keep going. It was too hot not to move, her skin already drying out and constricting around her.
He muttered something about not having his phone. Rena sighed. Unprepared for everything, being with Benny demanded a diaper bag. Rifling through her purse she produced her phone. Startled, she stared into the pleasant blank screen. No bars. No reception. Trying to remain calm, she pictured her bathroom sink, summoning each detail, from the way the water dripped over a chip in the basin to the oval pink porcelain, surrounded by jars and canisters. Face cream by the box of cotton swabs, hand lotion next to the orange pump hand soap, next to the bottle of Chanel her mother had given her that she had yet to use. She and Benny never went anywhere that warranted Chanel. Even now, she’d known better than to bring it with her. It was too much. She couldn’t stand to be in the car with him any longer.
“It’s not that bad, Babe! We’ll siphon gas off somebody. It’s not that fucking bad!”
“It is that bad. We’re in the desert. No gas. And I fucking hate you and your car you know so damn well. So damned well we’re out of gas.” Her voice hitched-- a well-practiced modulation. “This is worse than bad. This is worse than Missy bad.” Rena wriggled down into her seat. She’d said it. Missy bad was impossibly bad. The mere mention of her name was a slap that made Benny bark the air from his lungs.
“Why you gotta bring that up? Why you gotta keep bringing her up?”
“Who, Missy?” Rena smirked. Benny winced. “I didn’t bring her up. I just said it’s worse than her. That’s not bringing her up, that’s making a comparison. Missy bad is awful, depraved and shitty. This is worse.” She felt a tiny sparkle of delight at the flare of his nostrils and the reflexive twitch in his neck.
Rena eased into satisfaction and basked in the joy of being right, a privilege she’d grown to relish since Missy. Once the initial hurt dulled, Rena realized she should thank her. Missy had given her control over Benny. Guilt—the great motivator, a weapon she’d seen her mother deftly wield. Guilt had wrangled her father back from poker games and strip clubs, kept him in line and home at dinnertime. Rena never understood the mysterious power her mother held, and had even envied it—until Missy. After Missy, she’d discovered that Benny could be brought to heel with the mention of her name, and that his shame could feel almost as fulfilling as his love. Almost.
“Rena, it was a mistake.” Jaw closed, the words hissed from between squared teeth. “People fuck up. It happens. It’s done.” His foot began to tap against the gas pedal. A serene smile stretched across Rena’s face.
“Oh yeah. It’s done. Missy’s done; that’s fine. But we’re still stalled.”
“Fine. I’m going out.”
Benny lurched out of the seat, slamming the door hard enough to rock the entire car. He strutted around the Olds like a drunken rooster, waves of anger radiating from him, mixing with the desert heat. Rena rolled down the windows, pulled her chapstick from the glove compartment, reapplied, tilted back her seat, stretched her legs and closed her eyes and tried very hard to not think about Benny, being stalled or Missy. Instead she counted the exact number of purses she owned, and tried to remember the order in which they hung in the hall closet. Sunlight spilled through the windows on to her belly. She could be quite comfortable, were it not so dry.
Icy wind and a furious pounding on the side of the car woke her from sleep. The middle of the night surrounded her with unexpected cold seclusion. Benny stared at her, his skin pink even in the dark, glowing with the afternoon’s sunburn.
“Babe. Nobody’s come by. I’m gonna take a walk and see what’s down the highway. Maybe there’s something off the side somewhere.”
Rena blanched with doubt. There was no logic in Benny leaving her alone, despite the fact that she didn’t want him in the car. He was helpless, no common sense about him. No cell phone, flashlight or maps, no gas can. She couldn’t see how walking off by himself would fix the situation. It was a pointless endeavor and she told him as much and he chuckled. The smile split his face in two, showing a glimpse of Benny before Missy—when he’d first kissed Rena and she felt her stomach flutter, when his soft mouth had been charming and laughter was for the way the bed sheets used to tangle between their feet, tying them together.
“Don’t worry. Tomorrow night, we’ll pull up to the hotel, call your mom, tell her what happened, get cleaned up. Then I’m going dancing with the prettiest girl I ever met.”
In spite of herself, she blushed.
“Stay here. If somebody comes by, you get gas and pick me up. I’m heading that-a-way.” Like in an old movie, He went that-a-way, officer.
She worried. Benny was such a little boy. He stuck a thumb in the in the direction they’d been heading before the stall out. Rena nodded, lips tight. Benny started walking, the soles of his sneakers kicking up soft dust clouds. He did have a nice back, she thought. Broad and confident, full of male pride and just Benny. At 100 yards he disappeared into the sameness of night and she could no longer hear his shuffling feet. In the silence her mind played. She listened to blood rushing in her ears until it blended with the sounds of desert night, then she counted heartbeats and tried not to think of Benny, alone and walking. She thought of Missy and her adorable Irish face with its sweet, upturned nose, which led to thoughts of Missy’s perfectly freckled ass on their sheets. No more Missy. She’d won; Benny was with her. No, Benny was not with her; he was wandering down an empty road in the middle of the night. The situation was drastically wrong.
Morning light. She rubbed her eyes. A fine film of grit covered them and the rubbing made her skin raw. Slowly her vision righted itself to the too-bright glare of sun on dirt on pavement. No Benny. Why she hadn’t left him after Missy? Missy, who was back home, cleaning tables and serving coffee—not sitting in a rust bucket without air conditioning or gas in the middle of the goddamned desert. She wondered where the hell Benny was so she could beat the shit out of him. She was alone and cold. There had been cars during the night and the road now was empty, save for the Olds, a thought that made her stomach hurt. How many hours had he been gone? What if no one ever came by? She could start walking but knew she wouldn’t get far in heels. Open-toed heels. She thought of the line of shoes in her bedroom, boots, flats, sling backs, sneakers, the scuffed toes and worn heels. She couldn’t walk in open-toes here. What if no one ever came? How long had it been since they stalled—eight hours maybe? No cars in eight hours. The thought did not sit well. No Benny since the middle of the night. Four hours? To her surprise that left her more unsettled. He could be hurt. She pictured his body lying by the roadside, a wolf chewing on his arm. No. Wolves didn’t live in the desert, coyotes did. She pictured a coyote, fur matted with blood, teeth curved and shiny, with little pieces of Benny dangling from its jaws. She pictured his body lying by the side of the road, blistered from snakebites and so bloated his that skin burst. She thought about when he’d suggested the trip.
“It’ll fix us, Rena,” he’d said. “Vacation’s all we need. Let me treat ya right.” Now she saw those words coming from his snake bitten, coyote ravaged body. She thought of every horror movie Benny had ever made her sit through. Most started with a deserted highway, all ended with dismemberment. She kicked the dash with her bare foot. It hurt, so she tried to think about the pain instead of imagining Benny impaled on a meat hook.
Hungry and thirsty, her stomach gurgled and her mouth was dry. During the night she’d had the last of the water. She chewed on her fingers and picked at a hole in the passenger seat. She pulled pieces of the yellow foam and rolled them between her fingertips until they disintegrated in to small particles that felt and looked like sand. Benny must have found gas. He had to be on his way back. Or dead. As the sun climbed the temperature began to rise. The heat stifled and forced Rena out of the car until the glaring eye of the sun forced her back in. She instructed herself not to think about coyotes or snakes.
Benny had to be dead.
A glint in the rearview caused her to snap her head around. A dark dot wavered in the heat lines radiating off the highway. Dust clouds filled the air. A truck. She flung herself from the car. She jumped, waving her arms with frenetic abandon. The dot grew into a dusty red Ford F150. Rena let out a whoop as the truck neared and slowed. It pulled up alongside her and the driver rolled down the window. Rena noticed it was a manual crank from the movement of his shoulder; an unexpected laugh welled up, she’d thought Benny was the only person left with manual windows.
A face emerged from the window. A man in a worn t-shirt, faded and frayed at the edges. From under the curled bill of a baseball cap, poked a strong, squared chin. A few day’s growth of stubble caught the light. She scooted closer for a better look.
“Car trouble?” The hat came off. Brown hair. A youngish man, not so far from her age, with a straight nose and kind looking eyes that squinted against the sun. They had creases of white around the edges, she assumed from working outside. This was a good-looking man.
“Outta gas.” Rena took a deep breath and squeezed her breasts together with the soft insides of her arms, pushing up and forward, creating a curved V of cleavage she kept reserve for mechanics and bartenders. “Think I can siphon some off you?”
He smiled, slow and easy. White teeth, not yellowed from smoking like Benny’s were. “Well, let’s see,” he said.” Gas ain’t cheap.” He thrummed his fingers against the side of the truck.
“It’s not. I can pay you.” Rena smiled back and leaned against the Olds, the metal searing into the soft skin below her shorts. She draped an arm against the cracking white vinyl of the hard top. Someone like this had a girl somewhere, a Missy. Flirting wasn’t a crime, she reminded herself. Flirting was a weapon, and there was no harm in thinking, just for a moment, what things might be like if she wasn’t with Benny. She could be with this man, a man in a position to help her.
“It ain’t a matter of money,” he said. Again the smile, the white teeth.
“What’s your name?” She bet he worked on a ranch, maybe even had a small house of his own or a little bit of land.
“Rena.” She bet he smelled good too, not like axel grease or cigarettes. And his hair was clean. There would be no oil stains on his pillowcase.
“Anybody else come by since you been here, Rena?” The man leaned back into his seat and settled down a few inches.
Rena shook her head. She stared at the man’s eyes and felt them slide up and down her body, leaving a troubling chill in their wake. Something changed. The soft ripping sound of a zipper drifted out the window. The noise snapped her body to tight attention. She pressed her arms to her sides.
“Thought as much. You alone?” He dangled his arm out the window and gave his truck a swift pat. Rena shook her head. “Boyfriend up the road probably? Hope he’s smart. There’s rattlers out here.” She didn’t respond. “Shame he left you, ain’t it? Gets real hot.” His fingers caressed the side view mirror, tracing its curves.
“I’ve got money. I’ll buy your gas.”
“Ain’t a question of money.”
Rena felt the conversation shift, but couldn’t know exactly how she’d lost control.
“Lemme ask you,” he said, running a blunt finger along the truck’s window, “you know how to siphon?”
Rena shook her head.
The door clicked as it opened. He motioned her to the truck with a wave of his hand.
She told herself it would be fine. She’d give him money. Maybe he’d cop a feel. Nothing too bad. Nothing men hadn’t tried before. At least this one was handsome. She smiled. Keep it light and friendly. She pulled the money from her bra—$80 in tips she’d kept that Benny knew nothing about. When she reached the door he caught her wrist and dug his fingers in. When he began to wrench it the last pretense of civility fell away. As he yanked her up into the driver’s side she shouted. In a soft voice he reminded her that nobody traveled this road much. He could leave her stranded and she’d most likely die. Most likely, he’d said, as though it might be just as bad if she lived. He could kill her, he told her, and nobody would find her. That was when he took his penis out. That was when he grabbed a fistful of her hair and dragged her face to his crotch.
“Open up, Sweetheart.” He said it like as if to a lover and released her hair, only to put a hand around her throat, the other at the back of her head. “Open up.” It was the quiet of his voice that made her obey. If he’d yelled she might have been able to hit him, she might have bitten him, she might have kicked, but the quiet alarmed her. He was calm, which terrified. He could break her neck. She opened her mouth.
Rena let her body go limp. She would not participate. She would let this man do what he would until it was over. It would be over. Her fingers brushed against the seat. Vinyl. Her knees hurt, pressed against something sharp. Long minutes later it was finished. Humiliation stung her, and she felt like a child. His fingers grasped then released, grasped and released. He groaned.
He dropped his hands.
Her head tipped up, mouth brimming with the acrid taste of skin, urine, sweat and the other. Her eyes watered and stung. Her neck burned from the force of his hand pushing on it, the small muscles that held her head in place throbbed. Her jaw popped.
His roughened mitt of a hand shoved a thick black piece of hose in her face.
“The siphon?” she coughed.
“Same as you just did,” he drawled.
Rena wheedled the tube into the tank of the truck, stopping when she heard a soft splash. She forced her eyes shut so as not to see the leering face watching her. She tried not to remember the rattling sound of his panting, or the raunchy musk that oozed from his pores. She tried to think of her bathroom sink, of her handbags, of her shoes, but couldn’t remember what they looked like. She listened to the sound of her breath to deafen his dry coughing laugh when she put her lips to the end of the hose and began to suck. A rush of gasoline greeted her tongue, sour and pungent. The fumes stung her eyes.
She didn’t retch until the truck pulled away. Then she leaned behind the Olds’ bumper and let the strings of spittle fall and hit the dirt in soft pools. She stuck her fingers in her mouth and ran them over her tongue, the insides of her cheeks and teeth to no avail. The taste remained. She shoved her fingers down her throat; the bile rose quickly, but did not dull the tang. She grabbed a fistful of dirt and licked it, then finally chewed it. Her teeth ground against the sand, rattling her insides. She tasted clay, salt and iron, but nothing else. He knew her name. She’d told him her name. Rena scraped the dirt over her face, scrubbing his sweat from her cheek. Then she drove.
In the empty space of the highway the pedal molded perfectly to her foot. The gentle pressure was became an afterthought as she slid from one gear to the next. The vivid blues and purples of the sky before her went unseen as she remembered the pain of her throat stretching and the choking feeling. She’d snotted on him; at least she hoped she had. She wondered if Benny had encountered the man and if the man had stopped. She wondered if he’d told Benny about the roadside whore. She wondered if he’d killed Benny.
Missy bad. This was worse than Missy bad.
The road edged into the horizon as Rena drove. She followed the feel of the car, rather than the road. The wheels ran smoothly over the asphalt and gave her mind a clear space to run. She didn’t notice when she began to drift towards the shoulder. She barely noticed when the shadowed form of a denim-clad person had to leap to the side. A mile later she knew that person was Benny. He was whole. He had not met the trucker. She cranked the wheel as hard as she could. The Olds lumbered through a U-turn across both lanes. Benny. What to tell Benny.
She swung the hefty passenger door open, bending in half across the balding plush seat. The powder blue paint had a subtle sheen that cast a glow on Benny’s face.
“I was walking back, but I couldn’t remember how far it was. I thought I’d missed the car, Babe. There ain’t shit out here but snakes. Fucking snakes.” He looked at her face, the dirt that covered it, the bruises. “What the hell happened to you?”
She looked at him.
What she sees is the house they will have, with its leaking faucets and collapsing roof. She sees the children they will have, round and screaming. With each birth she will grow thick around the middle. She sees Benny, ten, twenty, thirty years forward. His face will become fat and wrinkled until it sags in on itself like an old sack. His hair will thin and disappear altogether. She sees the women, the stream of women that will never stop—the waitresses, the secretaries, the girls just out of high school, Missy after Missy. He will apologize. Sometimes he will mean it. She will forgive him. She will cry at the kitchen table when she thinks the children can’t hear. He will hold her now and again and tell her that everything will be fine.
Rena snapped her head to the side and motioned for Benny to climb in.
Erika Swyler has fiction in The Green Flash, Semaphore Magazine and Anderbo.com. She is an award-winning playwright and a recipient of an InnermoonLit prize for best first chapter of a novel. Erika holds a BFA from New York University, and lives and writes in Brooklyn with her husband and a petulant rabbit. She also blogs at ladyofthehouse.tumblr.com and ieatbutter.tumblr.com.
Koury Angelo is a rock & roll and portrait photographer based in Los Angeles. He received his BFA in Studio Art from the University of Texas at Austin, then moved to Paris, where he spent a year studying at the prestigious Speos Institute of Photography. Koury then moved to New York City where he began his career as a freelance photographer. His work has been exhibited in numerous group and solo shows in Paris, NYC, LA and Austin. Koury was just selected as one of the Top 160 Photographers in 2010 by MOPLA, Month of Photography Los Angeles. Visit him online at kouryangelo.com.
Brock Enright & Kirsten Deirup's album Torben is named after their son. The LP released this summer alongside a documentary starring Brock and Kirsten called Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same. The LP is broken into two distinct sides: “Day” with Brock's vocals and twisted rhythms, and “Night” with lullabies sung by Kirsten. Brock rose to fame after Rolling Stone profiled his company, Video and Adventure Services, which provided “designer kidnapping services” and led to appearances on “The View” and “Good Morning America." Visit Brock and Kirsten's official page at Factory 25.