Five bottles of dollar-fifty beer had come and gone when I saw her glide into the bar and sit at a booth behind me. Above the bar, the Budweiser horses pulled their plastic wagons of beer into infinity. I saw her in my peripheral vision, smooth and solitary, wearing a white T-shirt tucked into faded jeans. I limited my sidelong glance to exactly one second. Then I went back to my job of watching the plastic workhorses turn in their lighted globe.
I tried to count to sixty, slowly, but my eyes betrayed me, and I looked at her again. With her face hidden in the shadow of the high-backed wooden booth, she sat alone, sipping from a bottle of Bud Light that Bob had carried to her. She rested her long, thin arms on the table; elbows jutting out at sharp angles, and began picking at the label on her beer bottle. When she tilted her head in my direction, tossing her long brown hair out of her eyes, I turned back to the bar as subtly as possible. I wondered if she was waiting for someone to take her out of this bar, this town, this state. Since I´d dropped out of school at Wayne State College and took the job at the video store, the only beauty I´d seen in this one-horse Nebraska town was pasted on movie boxes.
At the other end of the bar, Bob struggled to slide a keg over the warped floorboards. His pants hung low, and his rear end half-mooned me. With the careful toes-down-first walk of a drunk trying to appear sober, I got up from my stool and passed by her booth, slanting my eyes toward her. Her lightly tanned hands continued to tear at the label on her beer bottle.
I was past her, the dimly lit booths and tables blurring like the countryside seen from a speeding car. I dropped my bottle into the garbage can with a hollow clank. She looked across the room at me, and my feet seemed to move independently toward her table. The words were out before I could restart my stalled brain.
“You know, you don´t have to take it out on that bottle, it never did anything to you, and here you are picking it to death.”
“Excuse me?” she asked, with the slightest trace of a Southern accent. A tiny crinkle formed at the corner of her blue eyes.
“I was just saying, what are you, I mean, you´re really picking the hell out of that label.”
“Oh,” she said with a half laugh, “I´m just thinking, is all.”
I backed up a step. “Well, if you´d rather be alone–”
“No. Don´t go. I could use someone to talk to. Sit down, sit down.” She pronounced the last word with two syllables. “You´re not imposing at all. My name is Andie.”
“Nice to meet you, Andie. I had a neighbor with the same name, but he was a guy and he used to beat me up all the time.” I dropped into the empty seat across from her. “So what brings you into this fine establishment on such a miserably hot summer night?”
“Excuse me again,” Andie said. I was staring. “I think that before you start asking all these questions, I should know your name.”
Leaning close to the table, I raised my right eyebrow in my best Nicholson and muttered, “Call me Joe.” I held my hand out for her to shake.
“Nice to meet you, Joe.”
I let go of her hand slowly, my arm tingling from her touch.
* * *
I waved at Bob behind the bar, and he carried over two more beers. He set the bottles down on the table with a thunk. Andie jumped and grabbed for her purse, then smiled sheepishly at me.
I grinned and passed Bob a crumpled five. “Keep the change, big guy.” It was my last cash until next Friday. Bob hitched up his pants and went back to the keg behind the bar.
“I like his tattoo,” Andie said.
With some effort, I recalled Bob´s forearm, where a golden hawk was scarred and painted into his skin, ready to attack some unseen prey somewhere around his fingers.
“Yeah, I´ve got a couple tattoos myself, but I´d have to remove some clothing to show them to you, and I really don´t know you well enough to do that. Some of the illustrations are first-rate, trust me.”
“Gosh, Joe, you are so mysterious,” Andie said. “How do I get to know you better, Joe the stranger?”
I threw my arms into the air. “Well, I´m a pretty complex kind of guy.” My hands dropped to the scratched table. “I´ve been all over this country– California, Chicago, Florida, D.C., even New York City for a week. And you know what? Everywhere I go, people fill me full of hope and wonder one second, and then in the next second they fill me with hate and contempt.” I
paused for a breath.
“Go on.” Andie leaned over the table to listen to my diatribe, the gentle curve of her breasts pushing against her loose cotton shirt.
“I wish I could understand how people can be so stupid,” I went on, “so ignorant of other people´s feelings and emotions. People used to care, but now–” I looked down at the table and the stripped bottles of beer in front of us. “Now it´s like we´re reverting back to animals, just trying to survive, to fill our bellies and be the best in the jungle. It´s like–”
Andie started laughing, and I lost my train of thought. Sweat trickled down one side of my chest. Tammy Wynette began playing on the jukebox.
“That was good, Joe. That was a very, very nice speech. I´d clap, but I´ve got to finish my beer, and so do you.”
“Hmmm?” I didn´t have room in my stomach for the rest of my beer, but I took a deep breath and finished it anyway.
Andie set her empty bottle on the table and locked her gaze on me. “Let´s go, ” she said in a clear voice.
I didn´t have any response to that, so I pulled myself out of the booth and followed her to the door, shaking my head back and forth like a wet dog, trying to get rid of the pounding in my head. Before I walked out of the bar, I stopped and looked at the Budweiser horses. The display was off and the horses, like me, weren´t moving.
* * *
Andie stood at the curb outside, in front of a navy blue Toyota Tercel. The air felt cooler and cleaner outside the smoky bar, but my eyes weren´t adjusting.
“Hop in,” she said. “I´m driving.”
“Wait. Wait.” My hands floated out of control in the night air as Andie reached inside her purse. “I can drive. Come on, Andie. Let´s go to my car, and I´ll give you a ride home. Wherever that is,” I finished.
Andie threw her purse into the car. She turned to me with a slow, exaggerated movement and put her left hand on my arm. In her right hand was a small black pistol. Squeezing my arm, she said between gritted white teeth, “Hop in. I´m driving.”
I fumbled onto the driver´s seat and cracked my knee on the steering wheel. Light exploded in my hazy vision. Pulling myself over the stick shift and emergency brake, I fell into the passenger seat, holding my throbbing knee. Andie slid in and slammed the door.
“Listen to me, Joe,” she said in the sudden silence of her car, “I don´t want to have to use this. If you´re going to do anything stupid, tell me now, and I swear to God I´ll shoot you right here.”
As she talked, her Southern accent grew stronger. Something about the wide desperation of her eyes combined with her twangy, unsteady voice made me laugh.
“Stop it,” she whispered, pulling the gun up and pointing it at my face. I was too drunk to keep my head from jerking away.
I quit laughing and rubbed my knee. “What do you want?”
She set the gun on her lap, but kept her right hand on top of it. I thought about all the movies I´d seen that had guns in them, and how small and inconsequential they looked on the screen. This little peashooter was huge.
“I need some help. My boyfriend, my ex-boyfriend I mean, got us into some big trouble back home.”
I felt my head nodding up and down with every other word. A scratchy smell like hay lingered in the car.
“He broke some laws in North Carolina and Virginia,” Andie continued, “and now we can´t ever go back. Everyone´s gotta be lookin´ for him, and me too.”
All the windows were up, and I was having trouble breathing. “Andie, why don´t you start the car?” I said. She looked over at me, eyebrows raised. A moment of clarity struck me. I was drunk, it was almost one in the morning, and I was sitting next to a beautiful Southern girl with a gun. I felt more alive than I´d felt during the entire past year living in Wayne, Nebraska, and I didn´t want it to wear off or end.
“We´re not getting anywhere sitting here,” I mumbled. I stifled the urge to start giggling or dancing in my seat.
Andie looked over at me again, her face blank. Wedging the gun under her right leg, she turned the engine over, and we began to move down the dimly lit street. Andie swore under her breath when she saw the sheriff´s cruiser idling in front of the co-op, but I couldn´t see anyone in it. Officer Miller was probably out watering the grass or peeping in someone´s window. I swallowed down more insane laughter.
I noticed, as if for the first time, the rusted pickups at every other driveway and the wide two-story houses with cookie cutter lawns. Children´s toys and bikes dotted the burnt summer grass. The town of Wayne slept like a workhorse dead on its feet after a full day of plowing the fields. It was so quiet I could hear the stoplight change from red to green at the intersection of Main and Lincoln. We reached the outskirts of town, and, with a bump, the paved town road became gravel. The Tercel swerved slightly from the sudden looseness under
“So tell me, Andie, why the gun? And what´s with the silent treatment?” Nothing. No reaction. “I suppose Andie isn´t even your real name?”
“Shut up,” she said, without much force. “Don´t talk to me like that. He talks to me like that, and I hate it.” She gripped the wheel with both hands, fighting the pull of the gravel.
“Sorry,” I said, not sure why I was apologizing. “I´m just drunk, and I don´t really care about anything. Sorry.”
Civilization, such as it was in northeastern Nebraska, lay behind us. The lights from town faded, and the stars became clearer. Farmhouses dotted the countryside, and spotlights drew weak outlines of barns and farm equipment.
“Who talks to you like that?” I asked. “Is it your boyfriend, I mean your ex-boyfriend?”
Rain and wind had worn ruts in the gravel. The little car bounced and swerved, and Andie avoided the ditch on my side by half a foot. I pulled on my seatbelt and waited for an answer, fighting the urge to grip the dashboard with both hands.
“He´s here,” she finally said. “That´s where we´re going.”
“Three´s a crowd, isn´t it?”
“Yeah. We´re gonna see him, and I´m gonna make him a deal.”
I sat there for a minute, trying to put her words together. I had a sudden, almost comforting memory of my double bed in my tiny apartment in town. Andie turned a corner hard, and my seatbelt locked as we slid across the gravel.
“Whatever,” I said. “Just keep it on the road, so I don´t die before I can make this deal for you, okay?”
The Tercel turned into a dirt lane and stopped in front of an old gray barn.
“We´re here,” Andie said.
* * *
The voice, whiny and full of injured bravado, reminded me of my customers after I told them they had a month of late fees on one of their videos. “Who the hell is this?” The owner of the voice wore thick, wire-rimmed glasses and had a mouth twisted from lack of smiling. His cheek was puffed out with a wad of chewing tobacco. “You said you were just getting gas, and that was two hours ago. Godammit, Andie, what´s goin´ on here?”
We went inside the barn. A pile of hay and rotten wood burned in the middle of the dirt floor.
“Lymon, just relax. He´s not gonna hurt anyone,” Andie said. “He´s just a guy from town who´s gonna help us.” I winced at her description.
“We don´t need any help,” Lymon shot back. “We just have to get out of here. Gimme the gun.” Andie crossed her arms and shook her head. “If you don´t give me the gun,” he went on, “I´m goin´ back to North Carolina to turn you in, and it´ll be your word against mine, and you´ll go to the pen. Now hand over the gun.”
Andie seemed to shrink in his presence. Something shifted inside my chest, seeing her like that, even though she did kidnap me at gunpoint. I stepped up to the barn door.
“Listen, Lymon, my name’s Joe, and I can help you out here. I´ve lived here for over a year, and I know a lot of the back roads. I don´t care what you´ve done or why you´re here, but I can help you get out without attracting attention. Just take me with you and Andie. Get me the hell out of this shitty little town.”
“I bet he can get ya to those ranches you talked about, like you wanted,” Andie chimed in. “And you can buy me a ticket home, because you won´t need me ‘round anymore.”
I glanced at Lymon. The flames from the small fire danced on his glasses. Turning to Andie, he pushed them up with a chubby finger and pulled at the bottom of his NASCAR t-shirt. “You and me were going to see the country, just the two of us. Right?”
“That was before we left Carolina,” Andie said, looking down at the ground again. “Before Illinois.”
“So how´s this guy gonna make it better?”
I walked outside and let Lymon and Andie huddle together in the corner. I found the stars of Orion the Hunter winking at me like an old friend. The crickets were awake and singing. I could have made a mad dash for town, but town held nothing for me now.
The voices in the barn grew silent. As I heard Andie and Lymon´s footsteps behind me, I saw a pair of headlights on the gravel road a mile away. The headlights switched off as Andie and Lymon met me at the barn door.
“Put out your fire, Lymon,” I said.
“Godammit, he´s a cop, Andie! How could you be so stupid? You brought them right to us.” Lymon reached for Andie. “Gimme the gun.”
Andie looked at me, the gun hanging from her hand, pointed down. Her eyebrows lowered, and for a second she looked as if she was going to pull her arm up and point the gun my way again. She shook her head a fraction of an inch, as if to dismiss the thought.
“Put out your damn fire!” I said.
Lymon scurried over to the fire and plunged us into darkness. “Okay, wiseass, here´s your big chance to help us out. Show us a shortcut and get us out of here, and I´ll let ya come with us. Pull any funny stuff, and she´ll shoot ya.”
We hurried to the car. I jumped behind the wheel and cracked my knee again. Using the light of the stars to avoid the ditch, I pulled out of the lane with the lights off and took a right. I followed the Little Dipper past three gravel lanes and rolled through a four-way intersection. Andie reached into the glove box and pulled out a heavy-duty flashlight. She held it out of the window and lit a section of the road in front of us. I was able to push the car up to about thirty miles an hour.
“Can´tcha go any faster, ya damn hick?” Lymon whined from the back seat.
I took my eyes off the road for a second and gave him a look of pure hatred. “Do not call me a hick, you dumb piece of redneck shit,” I said, then turned back to the road. I swerved into a tight turn and pulled hard on the wheel to stay out of the ditch. Andie fell back into her seat and dropped the flashlight onto the gravel. I wondered where the gun was. We hit loose gravel, and I accidentally stomped on the accelerator.
One moment we were on the road, the next we were sideways. I was pressed against the driver-side door, Andie on top of me. Her gun was pointed at my face.
“Don´t shoot me! Jesus Christ, get that thing out of my face!” I screamed.
Andie laughed and help up the gun like a dead fish. “It´s not even loaded, Joe,” she said, her eyes flashing in the weak light. She dropped the gun, and it fell onto the driver-side window with a hard clattering sound that could have awakened the dead.
* * *
Andie smelled like soap and sweat, and her hipbone was digging into my side. In the grayness behind me, I could make out Lymon´s squat legs sticking up onto the back seat, his head resting against the cracked rear window. I pushed her up and out of the open passenger-side window and pulled myself out of the car. We stood silently on the dark country road, surrounded by barbed wire and fields of corn.
I heard gravel crunching softly. Andie jumped into the darkened ditch, headed for the cornfield. I followed behind her.
As I was squeezing through two strands of barbed wire fence, something shifted in Andie´s car. From the back seat came a flash and a crack, and there was a sharp kick in my side. I fell to the soft dirt on the other side of the fence, as Andie sprinted into the corn.
Blue light filled the air half a mile away, and I could hear the roaring of a large engine. I held my side and tried to breathe. My hand was covered in hot blood. I staggered into the field as another blast came from the car and something whizzed past my ear.
Inhaling shallowly through my mouth, I followed the rustle of cornstalks that was Andie. I glanced back through a break in the corn and saw the police cruiser slide to a stop in front of the ditch. Then I couldn´t see or hear anything else, as flat leaves slapped me in the face. Finally, the thick corn opened into a small clearing. Andie sat on a large rock, her hair falling into her face. I fell onto the ground and tried to breathe.
“He said he´d take care of me, Joe,” she said, as if to herself. “Even when he was yellin´ at me, he said it was because he had to take care of me. I told him I wanted to leave him, but he kept takin´ me further and further from home.”
Andie´s lifeless blue eyes stared into the corn. Her long, delicate hands rested uselessly on her legs. A frayed piece of a Bud Light label stuck to her white t-shirt. I heard voices yelling in the distance. A gun went off, then another. She didn´t even flinch.
“I couldn´t stop him when he started holdin´ up the stores. He said we´d never have to use the gun, but why was there two bullets gone that mornin´ in Illinois?” She looked down at me. “He told me he´d never shoot anyone, Joe. But maybe he did. Maybe I did. What if I shot someone, but my
brain won´t let me remember?”
Something in the corn was approaching us. My side was throbbing and stinging. Edging closer through the black Nebraska dirt toward Andie, I took a breath of air into my mouth. “I thought you said the gun wasn´t loaded.”
Andie blinked her eyes twice and looked at me with her head cocked to one side like a hunting dog. “You´re bleedin´ Joe,” she whispered. She leaned over me as if she wanted to kiss my forehead. “You were supposed to get me out of this, but you were too drunk and too worthless to help me. Good-bye, Joe the Stranger,” Andie said, as she turned her back on me and walked into the corn.
I sank back to the ground and gazed at the sky, as my blood drained out of me into the dirt. I stayed where I was, bleeding and looking up at the hazy constellations. The corn rustled next to me, and I managed to smile.
A fat man carrying a gun and wearing a badge burst into the clearing. “She went that way,” I said, pointing toward the fields stretching below Orion´s belt, and Officer Miller slipped into the corn. Then I was alone, on my back in the middle of nowhere, counting each breath I took, waiting.
Michael Jasper is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and the Master of Arts creative writing program at NC State University. His stories have appeared in O. Henry Festival Stories 1998, Obsidian II, The Raleigh News and Observer, PIF Magazine, New Works Review, Dark Planet, SpaceWays Weekly, and ShallowEND. His story Mud and Salt was published in Fall 2000 in the Writers of the Future anthology, as a third-place contest winner. Michael’s website address is www.michaeljasper.net