Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Gas Station Rose

BY LEE CAPPS

Stu wanted a kiss, but his lips bumped against Sarala’s head and closed on a few strands of coarse, black hair. She fell back, banged into the bin. The bottles chirped. Stu kissed the side and back of her thrashing head as her shoulders twisted in his grip. Then she ground his toe with the heel of her platform shoes, and he had to let go, holding his open hands beside his head–like, No foul!–as she stumbled into the bar’s yellow-lit parking lot.

“Fucking asshole!” she said. A shoulder pad waved beside her ear like a ruffled feather. She tried to stuff it back into her blouse. “What the fuck was that about?”

This wasn’t going well. Stu put his hands in the pockets of his jacket and stepped forward. “Sarala.”

“Stay,” she said, “away from me.” Still fumbling with the shoulder pad, she backed away a few steps, then turned out her ankle in the clunky shoes and hopped up and down shouting, “Shit. Shit. Shit!” She ripped loose the pad, turned, and half ran, half hobbled to her Honda.

“Sarala,” he said.

“Go home, Stu.”

“She won’t mind.”

“Well, I do,” she said over her shoulder. The car alarm beeped. She ripped open the door, climbed in, slammed it shut. Stu turned and kicked the recycling bin with his sore toe. Which felt so good he grabbed the bin by its handle and began to shake it. He was shaking it, hearing the painful racket, smelling the soured beer, as Sarala’s headlights cut across him and pushed their way up the empty street into night.

He was alone.

He shoved the bin, took a cigarette from his jacket pocket, and lit it. The memory of the racket was a pressure in his ears, and he felt tired and heavy. Drunk, like super barracho. He stared into the shadow beside the building and smoked.

“Man,” said a long, thin, male voice. “She was jocking you all night.”

Stu ducked his head into shadow and saw a figure sitting against the wall on the other side of the bin. A guy he’d played pool with once. Billy. Long hair, tight clothes, missing front tooth. You got the impression Billy was younger than he looked.

“God,” Stu said. “You saw all that?”

Billy grinned and nodded.

“Not my most gentlemanly behavior.”

“Nah, man.” Billy stood. He was wearing a muscle shirt, hugging himself. The day had been warm, but not now. “A gentleman would’ve bought her a few more drinks.” He made a wet sound to signify a laugh.

“Yeah,” Stu said. “Well.” He was too tired to force a laugh. He dropped his cigarette half-smoked on the asphalt and mashed it with his toe. He could see this guy was going to want something. He pulled out his keys.

“Give me a smoke?”

Stu tapped out a cigarette and held the pack across the bin. He was reaching for his lighter, but the other man tucked the cigarette behind his ear. Stu said, “I got to get home.” He backed into the light and started to turn.

“Hey man.” Billy stepped out and held him by the wrist. “Can’t you give me a ride?”

Stu looked at his arm, then over Billy’s shoulder at the front of the bar. The light was off over the sidewalk, but he hadn’t seen the bartenders leave. He said, “You should call a cab, Billy.”

“It ain’t far, man.” He let go of Stu’s wrist and hugged himself again. Stu saw a yellow bruise under one eye.

“Where you live?”

“It ain’t far,” he said. “Just up the road here.”

Up the road, and a little more, Stu slowed for a red light. A street lamp shone yellow through the windshield and the shadows tilted black and the car interior leaned like the face of a sunflower and stopped. The passenger had said little, only pointed directions and stared out his window. Now he rubbed at the inside of one thigh and squirmed sideways in his seat. A can cracked, plastic rustled. The floorboard was full of garbage. Billy leaned his head against the window and became still.

Stu reached for the stereo, but his hand brushed wire and he put it back on the vibrating wheel. It had been only a radio — no tape deck. And the door had been unlocked. Still someone had broken the driver’s side window to rip it from the dash. The crosswalk signs began to flash red, and Stu put one hand on the gear shift.

Billy said, “You’re married.”

Stu looked over at him. Billy’s head still lay against the glass. He eyed Stu’s wedding band, propped at eleven o’clock on the steering wheel.

“And not to that Indian chick,” Billy said.

“No.”

“The cat is away,” Billy said and made his laugh which was not a laugh.

Which pissed Stu off. “New York,” he said, “for work.” The light turned green, and Stu let out the clutch. The Festiva lurched a little on the grade. “But it isn’t like that. We have an open marriage.” As the car gathered speed the plastic on his window rustled and cracked.

“A what?”

Stu shook his head. He was embarrassed about Sarala, but now his excuse seemed worse than the deed, at least in front of this guy.

Billy was sitting up. “Wait, that’s–You let your wife fuck around?”

“Well.” Now Stu squirmed in his seat.

“No way I’d do that.”

“Only if it’s open,” Stu said. “You’re not supposed to hide anything. Then it’s not fucking around.”

“Fucking around is fucking around,” he said. “She’s going to — Oh, shit. Turn here. Turn turn!”

“Where?”

“Here!”

Stu made a hard right into a Texaco station. Billy, seatbelt-less, caught himself on Stu’s knee. When they were stopped, he patted Stu on the leg. “Wait here,” he said.

“Billy, this doesn’t look like home.”

“I just got to ask somebody something.”

“I’m not waiting.”

“Wait,” Billy said and closed the door.

Stu pulled up closer beneath the intense white lights above the pumps. He watched Billy go in. The cashier was making change for a fat black lady. Billy was just standing there hugging himself. The fat lady came out, unwrapping a pack of cigarettes, and Stu watched her cross the street to an all-night diner.

Thing was, Stu thought Clare was fucking around — even by his own definition. Their arrangement was supposed to prevent this kind of thing. They’d both been in relationships turned ugly by jealousy and infidelity. Clare had been stalked for a period of several months by an ex-boyfriend, and though he’d never admitted it to Clare, Stu once broke into a girl’s apartment so he could be there waiting for her and her other boyfriend when they got home. Fortunately, they’d apparently decided on his place, and Stu had only sat there half the night, drinking her beer.

It got worse, though. Stu met Clare when he was dating her roommate, and the two had become lovers when the roommate was out of town for a weekend. Which was why, before they married, they agreed on this safety valve, a way to keep things out in the open where they could be dealt with before they turned into deceit and hatefulness.

But lately Clare seemed distracted. She started reading books about early Spanish explorers in North America. Became interested in Cuban jazz, when two months earlier she’d still been listening to Ace of Base. Stu was suspicious. And when she left for New York earlier that week, he’d had too many glasses of Maker’s Mark and started looking through Clare’s emails, which was where he found more than a dozen flirtatious letters from someone with the moniker cowboy68 out of company headquarters in New York.

Billy, Stu saw, was now leaning across the counter, almost lying on it, talking to the cashier. Headlights flashed in the rear view, a cop using the drive for a U-turn. Stu thought about breathalyzers and four a.m. calls to his folks and lawyers and bail bondsmen. He was about to leave, but now Billy was walking toward him, taking long steps, swinging something by his side, something rolled in a tube.

Billy got in. Stu said, “We’re taking you home right now, man.”

Billy closed the door and handed him the rose. Stu looked at it, red and tightly rolled in clear, shiny plastic. He didn’t know what to say. Was this guy coming on to him? He handed it back. He said, “Billy. You don’t give people gas station roses. They’re not fresh. It’s like an insult.”

Billy sniffed the rose, shrugged, and laid it on the dash.

Stu spun the car around and pulled into the street. “Which way is home?”

“Just keep going.”

When they were on the downtown loop, Stu said, “Do you live downtown, Billy?”

But Billy said keep going. So Stu kept going, and Billy watched his window, occasionally craning his neck to see better, street signs or buildings, Stu wasn’t sure. It was creepy downtown at night, a ghost town, and finally he said, “Do you even know where you fucking live? ‘Cause I’ve got to get home.”

“Hang on, man. Here it is. Here it is. Next light.”

“Next light, what?”

“Turn.”

“Turn?”

“Right.”

Stu slowed and turned right. They passed the natural gas company, the library, a daycare center, the shadow of its jungle gym like a floor plan for the Church of Satan.

Billy said, “Turn in here, where those cars are.” Stu turned into a dark gravel drive beside an old tobacco warehouse. Above the loading docks were corrugated steel doors bound in dark, dangling chain.

“Park here.”

“Is this it?” Stu pulled in behind an old Camaro. Its suspension was shot, and it listed heavily to port. “You live here.”

Billy opened his door. “Just wait.”

“Oh, no. No.”

“I’ll be right back.” He got out of the car.

“No,” Stu said. “I’m not waiting.” He put the car into gear.

“You can’t leave me here, man.”

“I can.”

“Don’t.”

“Then get back in the car and let me take you home.”

“Turn off the lights and I’ll be right back,” Billy said. “Don’t leave me. Don’t.” He closed the door and tromped in front of the car, hugging himself.

“Fuck, dude.” Stu watched Billy step along the side of the building. At the corner Billy turned, shielded his eyes with one hand against the headlights, and flapped his other hand at Stu. Stu turned off the lights but left the motor running. No street lamps here and it was dark dark, like super dark. He put the car in neutral and pulled up on the hand brake. His eyes adjusted to the light, and he looked around. He saw the outline of the crippled Camaro. There were several other cars in front of it. A spark caught his eye, and Stu looked up through his windshield at the loft of the warehouse. A moment later he saw a cigarette brighten, descend in a shallow arc, and burst against the ground. Someone up there watching, like something out of the movies.

He pushed in the car’s lighter, put a cigarette in his mouth. A pickup truck rumbled up behind him, crushing gravel, flooding his mirrors with light. The engine stopped, the light went out. A door opened and closed, and a stoop-shouldered man in an old windbreaker and a baseball cap walked slowly by, disappearing as Billy had. When the lighter popped out, Stu jumped. He held it to the end of his cigarette and drew. When he finished this cigarette, he told himself, he was out of here. He fumbled the lighter back into the dash and smoked.

Stu had to pick Clare up from the airport in the morning, and he had to decide before then whether or not he was going to confront her. He didn’t want to have to explain what he was doing reading her email, and though he thought he knew a love letter when he saw one, these messages weren’t exactly smoking guns. Maybe he should wait and see. And if he did confront her, when? At the airport? On the ride home? How should he act? He hadn’t allowed himself to get angry yet, but if he did it could get ugly. Or maybe not.

It sounded stupid, but mostly he was just hurt. It felt like someone had opened him up and filled his gut with a pan of cold dishwater.

Sure he’d fucked around once, truth told, with Misty, a college friend of Clare’s and Sarala’s. It was just the once, a drunken quickie in the bathroom the night of the Christmas in July party. Misty, wearing thigh-high boots and a short dress, had sat in Stu’s lap and, wiggling her butt as if trying to get comfortable, informed everyone in the room that the “couch” was lumpy. How was he supposed to react to that? But there were no real long-term implications — certainly no love letters — so he never told Clare.

The worst was the shirt business. In one of Clare’s missives to cowboy68 she’d ended with a postscript: “How do you like my shirt?” How do you like my shirt. It drove him crazy. It was obviously some sort of inside joke, but what did it mean? Had he bought her a shirt? Complimented her on a shirt? Clare and cowboy68 had the same shirt? What? He’d spent the last three days trying to remember what she’d been wearing when he drove her to the airport, but he honestly couldn’t recall. It had been cool, and she’d probably been wearing her jacket anyway.

Now Stu saw someone, a thin someone, approaching from behind the building. And it could have been Billy, judging by his gate, but he saw it wasn’t as the man got closer. Now the man got into the Camaro, started it, and turned around by the loading docks, beneath the cigarette-smoking surveillance.

Stu opened his door a crack, dropped the butt on the ground, and closed the door. He’d finished his cigarette and still no Billy. He put his hand on the shift. But here he came, him for sure, hurrying around the corner. Billy stopped, spotted Stu and ran to the car. He opened the door. “I can’t believe you’re still here,” he said.

“I can’t either.”

Billy got in. “Let’s go. Let’s go.” And as they pulled into the street he said, “Man, I can’t stand coming here.”

“I didn’t agree to take you drug shopping,” Stu said. “Wherever we stop next is where you get out.”

Billy agreed and thanked him and gave him directions. And as Stu drove, Billy rummaged in the floorboard and came up with a Coke can. At a stop sign, Stu saw that Billy was operating on the can with a pocketknife. “What the hell are you doing?” he said.

Billy didn’t answer. He kept working, and Stu kept driving. They passed a cemetery and were now beside a small park. The operation complete, Billy flicked a disposable lighter and drew on the mouth of the bent can. It made a hollow ringing sound and cracked a bit like the plastic on Stu’s window.

“Dude!” Stu said. “What are you doing?” He slowed the car.

“You want some?”

“No. I don’t want some. Is that cocaine? You’re smoking crack in my car?”

“This is good. This is good,” Billy said. And for a second Stu thought he was talking about the cocaine, but he looked and saw that Billy was pointing out his window. “Pull in right here.”

“Here?” Stu pulled into a narrow paved road that wound its way into the park. He saw a baseball diamond back there, lit by a solitary streetlamp. “You want out here? I’m not driving you anywhere else.”

Billy hit his can-pipe again. Stu could see the side of the pipe-can flex as Billy drew on it. It was a coupon for the Carowinds amusement park, the side of the can–five dollars off general admission. Billy blew out, hit the can-pipe again, looked at the bowl, hit it again, looked at the bowl. “Kicked,” he said.

“But I’ve got four more. You want one?”

“Billy, it’s been real nice talking to you, but I’ve got to pick my wife up at the airport in the morning. So.”

Billy dropped the can on the floor. “Nah, man. She won’t mind.” He grinned, his missing tooth like a burned-out light. He leaned over and kissed Stu on the lips, a dry and bitter kiss, like cold metal. “Take me home with you,” he said.

“Out of the car.”

Billy said, “I don’t have anywhere to stay.” Stu let Billy kiss him once more and pushed him away. “Get out,” he said. “Take your rose. Take your crack. Get out of my fucking car.”

“All right, all right.” Billy sighed. He took the cigarette from behind his ear and lit it. “Thanks for the smoke,” he said.

“Thanks for the ride. And don’t let that gal fuck around on you, man. That ain’t right.” He gave Stu two solid slaps on the arm and got out.

As Stu backed out, his lights cut across the solitary smoker — one hand in a pocket, the other holding the cigarette. Then he was driving up the street, his headlights plowing into the dark. He wiped his lips against the collar of his jacket. He scrubbed his lips with his sleeve.

Very soon he had to meet his wife, and he was nervous. Should he confront her? Or wait and see? And for the first time he worried that Sarala might tell Clare what he’d done. And that made him wonder if Misty had ever told Sarala — or, Jesus! even Clare — what happened in July. Clare would know everything. She might know already. He had things to hide, and he felt sick. He pulled into his driveway and sat in the cold car reflecting on the mess he’d made.

Later, he sat in the den, amid unwashed plates and butt-filled beer bottles.

Then the sun came up, and inevitably, Clare came off the plane wearing a checked shirt with a ten gallon hat stitched over the pocket. Stu gave Clare the rose, which still looked all right, cold as it had been in the car that night.

She put the flower to her nose, and Stu hefted her overnight bag. “I got it at a gas station,” he said.

She looked at him and looked at the rose, frowning. They walked out of the terminal and down a blinding-bright corridor. “Hey,” she said. “What do you think of my shirt?”

He stopped and watched her shuffle a couple more steps. She turned to look back at him, tucked one limp, yellow lock behind an ear. The down on her cheeks lit up, glowing in the sunlight. It was devastating.

“I’m not sure,” he said. Then he caught her at the waist and kissed her, pressing his lips hard, as if he hoped to staunch the bleeding.