COLORADO by Wally Rudolph
an excerpt from the novel Four Corners
WE HAD BEEN DRIVING for two hours. The snow was still light and didn’t seem to be getting any worse. We were behind Ben in the right lane. Four semis with pictures of McDonald’s breakfast food passed us. The trucks put eddies in the falling snow. The salt and slush kicked up from their back tires and left wide tracks in the left lane. As we got into Colorado Springs, Ben exited to a Chevron station. Sean was awake and in the front seat now. He stared at me blankly as we pulled in. He was wearing Ben’s pea coat again and had that same scared look on his face.
Ben pulled up to a pump and motioned for me to come over. When I opened the door, Maddie woke up. She pulled her black hair from her face and wiped the caked eye shadow from her eyes.
‘Where are we?’ she asked.
‘Not far. Colorado Springs. Ben needs some gas. You want anything?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
I closed the door and walked over to Ben. He was clapping his hands together, shifting from foot to foot. His forehead was shiny with sweat.
‘It’s really coming down out there,’ he said. ‘I can barely see. My heater must not be working or something.’
Ben pulled the pump from its holster and unscrewed the gas cap. I walked around to Sean’s side, opened the door, and crouched down next to the Saab.
‘Hey, you doing alright?’ I asked.
Sean looked around the driver seat to see if Ben, his father, was listening.
‘It’s really cold. He won’t turn on the heater.’
‘You want to ride with us? There’s not much room, but it’s warm.’
Sean nodded his head ‘yes.’
‘Alright. I’ll go talk to your dad.’
I went back around and took a hard look at Ben. He’d tied back his hair with a rubber band, and I could see his face was pale and pasty. He was dipping into the crank.
‘Ben, Maddie wants Sean to ride with us. She’s getting bored with me already.’
‘Sure, sounds good. You guys can sing songs and shit, right?’
‘Maddie knows some driving games.’
I walked Sean over to the truck. Maddie got out and pulled her seat forward.
‘I like your jacket, Sean,’ she said.
Sean turned and looked at me before he got in. His whole face trembled, trying not to cry.
Maddie stared me down. She wanted to kill Ben for this. I smiled at her and went back to Ben.
‘The fucking lights at these places. I’ll never get over it. The people who design these gas stations should do houses. It’s fucking livable, man.’
I walked up close – close enough so he’d listen.
‘Sean was in the car.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I’m talking about trying to get you two safe, and you’re doing bumps with the kid in the fucking car.’
‘I didn’t give Sean any –’
‘Can you just take it easy till we get to Alamosa?’
I turned around. Ben laughed at my back.
‘How’s your cock feel now, big man? Important? Frank’s in charge, everyone! Frank the man!’
I didn’t look back. Maddie watched everything through my truck’s dirty windshield. I climbed back in, turned the key, and switched the radio to an oldies station.
‘What the fuck is wrong with him?’ whispered Maddie.
‘He’s fine. Something’s just wrong with the heater.’
‘Get fucked with that, Frank. Don’t lie to me.’
I turned around to check on Sean in the little back seat. Thank God, he was already asleep.
The air was dry after Pueblo. As we drove, the clouds cleared out of the night sky leaving only the white moon freezing the top of the snow. I could see the land again – Colorado forgiving itself this far south. The mountains and trees slowly moved aside for flat ground and the penance of the desert. We had stopped only one other time. Maddie forced me to. Sean was cramped up trying to sleep in the cab, and Maddie made me pull over so she could fashion a bed for him. She pulled two dead car batteries from the truck bed, stuck them between the tiny seats and covered them with her jacket. They were both back asleep before we hit the juncture with highway 160 and started heading west to Alamosa.
Ben knew we were safe driving local road now. He slowed to fifty, pulled the latches on the rag top and shoved it back with a free hand. He let me pull in close to see the scarf muzzled on his face, then he gave me the finger and let the Swedish turbo whistle him away. By a seven count, he was a dash and a glow and gone. A smile pasted onto my face watching him tear away. I pushed the pickup to a hundred without even noticing. I’d be lying if I didn’t say, I wanted a fix right then. Ben was too much. Maddie was too much. Sean was too much. I wanted to be the lesser man in the gas station bathroom fumbling with a pile of meth on the lid of a toilet, blasting it up my nose, trying to forget about kidnapping and winter.
In 1983, I was twenty-one-years old and doing face time for a shut-in hippie farmer named Aspen. His farm sat on a chunk of rolling land outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. For years before he came out to the high desert, Aspen was an old school computer programmer in Texas. He said he had too much money and time on his hands in Dallas, so on a whim, he bought a side of a hill – sight unseen – and proceeded to slowly load the property with two double-wide trailers, a solar power setup, water pumps, and a roughly used but working C class backhoe. He let everything sit for five years and used the time to order boxes of high grade plant seeds over BBS boards on the computer. He had everything shipped to the empty land in Las Cruces and let it sit there for another two years before he threw up his arms one day at work, grew a beard, sold his Porsche, and retreated like me and so many others to the cool barrens.
He took the nicer of the two double-wides and made a home for himself. A well digger drove down from Abiqui and irrigated the whole property. After the first snow, Aspen sparked up the backhoe and demolished the hill at the back of his property. He said it took him two months just to level it off by himself, but the work was proving something to him every day. The hours in the freezing wind, the diesel soot blowing into his face – it all was feeding a very quiet and, up to then, ignored part of his body. He was down to sleeping only one or two hours a night. Just after midnight, he woke up, rubbed his torso with dirt, and then worked himself into an exhausted mess with toe touches and arm hangs off the rotted lip of his trailer. He ate dried fruit rolled in instant coffee naked at his tiny trailer table, then slathered his body in Vaseline – face and all – and slipped into his flannel-lined coveralls for the day’s work. The routine made his chest swell and withered the puny part of his soul every day.
He towed that second trailer into the flattened hill and covered it with the same dirt and finished rebuilding his heap before the thaw. By the time spring rolled around, the red dirt hill looked untouched save for the jimmy-rigged steel door he had salvaged from a train depot in town. In the sun, the hill was the same hill, and you would never know he worked a blister. Aspen had never grown a flower or bean in his life, but by the time I met him, he was letting his marijuana rot in garbage bags next to his compost pit. He didn’t give a damn about it, he said. It was too strong for him. I told him he was lucky he was never caught, being well into felony territory and all. He looked at me with a pair of homemade brass knuckles on his fist and said,
‘Them in them helicopters? Is that what you’re speaking of?’
I nodded my head.
‘Shit, I barely can speak English as it is anymore. I’ve dined on raw four-inch steaks. I’ve eaten rotten catfish. In both cases, I should’ve known better. Look at this watch.’
He pulled up the sleeve of his dirty coveralls and showed me his oyster-faced Rolex.
‘I’m trying to grow something out here, Frank, and it ain’t weed.’
He helped me load the fresher plants into my car, gave me a brand new pistol, and told me to bring back a case of Fiddle-Faddle from the Wal-Mart in Albuquerque. By the books and by the end of six months, we were well into tens of thousands. I had never seen cash you couldn’t spend until then. I had messed around with handfuls of pansy deals before. Boxes of Valium, tupperwares of cocaine – one night drug runs that left me with a month, two-month long stacks of cash.
When I met Ben in ’86, I was already well into my ‘treasure mountain’ investment scheme. I couldn’t deposit the cash into the bank without being arrested, so I took some lined steel garbage cans, filled them with money, and buried them on Aspen’s land with the backhoe. Aspen didn’t care. He was burning all the fives and tens with books of matches from local restaurants. He took the time to record the dates and weather for each of his cash bonfires, writing down the temperature of the fire, color of the flame, and origin restaurant of each match – Baja Tacos, Bobcat Bite, Horseman’s Haven. Aspen believed the blue tips burned faster than the reds, and the reds burned faster than the whites.
I was into burying my eighth trash can, and Aspen was beginning to track fine dining establishments when Ben shut the whole madness down. Up until then, Ben and mine’s friendship consisted of silent drug sessions. We both did whatever was in front of us at any time, that was our only connection in the small world of Santa Fe. When Ben finally saw how I made my living and, more importantly, what I did with my earnings, he spoke straight with me and gave me better ideas for the cash. We could wash it through his father’s casinos, put it in a bank proper, and let the Shenks’ accountant, Goldstein, make the investments. Ben offered the same deal to Aspen, but the hippie laughed in his face and told us both we’d be better off in South America where the cocaine was wet, and the majority of the country still drank black rum and prayed to stone calendars.
‘The American economic model is based on blood lust and nudist colonies. Look at this watch.’
He showed his Rolex again and said he hoped we found what we were looking for in coke and speed, because he was sending a message into space and his first communicado involved dynamiting his underground growing operation. In one night, he sent it all up. Ben yelled, but I didn’t blink. From the beginning, I thought I had more or less stumbled onto Aspen. So when he pushed on, I figured he must have stumbled onto something with his cash bonfires. Aspen was only looking for God like the rest of us.
It was after Aspen left but before Ben met his future wife, the blonde Miss New Mexico 1987, Ali Sharpe, that I took to the pistols and beatings. I was twenty-four and with a pinch of my cash, I grabbed Ben and started running quantities of speed for white trash outfits between Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. We shaved what we could on every trip, and when asked about coming in short on weight, my answer usually began with a piecemeal of cash but quickly fell to Aspen’s homemade gauntlets, his parting gift. All I ever had to say back then was: this fucking sex, this fucking money, this fucking murder.
Police lights broke the night in front of us. By the highway signs, we were ten miles from Alamosa, and Ben’s Saab was skidded out on the shoulder with its nose in a farming fence. A police cruiser had the whole scene lit up with his flood lamp and flares. I let off the gas and tried to see if I could catch Ben doing a sobriety test or laying dead on the pavement, but all I caught was the pig’s dead stare scoping to see who the fuck I was. As I sped back up, an ambulance clipped by with its sirens going. The wail echoed inside the tin interior of the pickup. Maddie’s eyes opened, and she straightened herself up in the seat.
‘What was that?’
‘Looks like Ben wrecked a few miles back,’ I said.
Maddie turned and looked through the back window.
‘You’re kidding. Why didn’t you stop?’
‘We can’t – Sean.’
‘I don’t need to hear it . . . I need to find us somewhere to sleep.’
We drove the last fifteen minutes to Alamosa in silence. Maddie leaned her head against the window and stared up at the electrical wires the whole way into town. There were no cars on the street, barely any street lamps. I stopped at a Day’s Inn before the main drag and got us a room at the back of the motel. Maddie woke Sean up and walked him half-asleep into the room. I popped the hood of the truck and checked the oil. I didn’t want to go inside and see Maddie and Sean and not have any answers.
‘I know you don’t want to talk about it –’
I looked under the open hood. Maddie was standing there smoking a cigarette.
‘But can you tell me what we’re going to do, so I can at least start coming up with a believable lie for Sean?’
‘You should go inside. You’re gonna catch a cold.’
I closed the hood and went to the passenger side looking for something to wipe my hands.
‘Frank, will you just talk to me?’
‘We’re going to Arizona.’
Maddie followed me to the driver’s door. She was getting mad but trying not to yell.
‘Fuck Arizona. What if Ben is fucking dead or if he’s in jail right now?’
‘We’ll go to Arizona and get everything straightened out.’
I closed the truck door and stood in front of her not knowing where to go.
‘How? How, Frank?’
‘Maddie, if you ain’t realized it yet, I can’t change the circumstances. I don’t want to get fucking arrested.’
I tried to think of something to calm her down, but she stared through me knowing I had nothing.
‘We’re fucked,’ she said. ‘I want to go back to Santa Fe.’
‘We can’t do that.’
‘Yes, we can. We’ll take Sean back and just give him back to Ben’s father. Fuck it –’
I didn’t want to hear it; I slapped her with an open hand.
‘I’m going to help Sean. I’m going to do right by Ben.’
The right side of her face got red and pink. Her eyes filled with tears.
‘Maddie, I need you right now. I need you to not be scared. I love you.’
‘Fuck you, Frank – fucking coward.’
She went back inside the motel room. The tips of my ears numbed out in the cold. I couldn’t go inside. I couldn’t watch her cry and hate myself. I wanted to feel right. I wanted to feel like I was doing something right. But all my gut had for me was fear and shame, those rotten fucking truths.
The smell woke me up. I’d fallen asleep in the truck eating the cold leftovers Noni had packed for us. The open container of macaroni and cheese sat on the passenger seat next to me. I opened my eyes and didn’t move. An older Mexican woman, already in her ugly housekeeping uniform, got dropped off for work. She kissed her husband on the cheek and waddled across the empty parking lot to an unmarked door three down from our motel room. She went inside and, after a few minutes, propped the door open with a glass ashtray and rolled her cleaning cart around the corner of the building. She sang a song I couldn’t hear. From inside the cab, it was just a sketch of melody.
My cell phone buzzed in my pocket. The screen lit up with ‘Unknown ID.’
There were a few loud clicks on the other end then a woman’s automated voice came on the line.
‘Hello. You are receiving a collect phone call from the Alamosa County Corrections Center. Will you accept the call from –’
The woman’s voice stopped, and Ben came through loud and clear.
‘My old man is here with Ali –’
He talked low, breathed heavy right into the receiver.
‘Keep going, Frank.’
The automated voice asked me to clearly say ‘yes’ if I wanted to take the call, but Ben was already gone. He only called to send me away. He was embarrassed or being watched or both. I got out of the car, went to the door of the motel room and started tapping away until Maddie let me in.
Sean was still asleep in the bed. His eyes were squinted down tight, and his mouth was barely open. Maddie didn’t say a word. She took my hand and led me into the bathroom. She dropped her pants with one hand and rubbed herself until she was wet. She stroked me until I was hard and wanting her. We fucked over the toilet seat until she came quietly, and then she sat down and sucked me off into her mouth. She spit it out in the sink and went back to sleep in the bed with Sean. I didn’t try to stop her; we didn’t even kiss. I pulled my pants up and washed my face with the motel bar soap. I snuck back into the room and lay on the floor at the foot of the bed. I held my eyes closed trying to go back to sleep, but ended up just staring at the ceiling.
Ben was still flying on that crystal. It wouldn’t have let off an inch. As much as I hated to admit it, he did think a whole lot clearer on the mess than sober. The usual amount of bullshit that flew out of his mouth was significantly less, and when he lied, at least you could see the guilt pass over his face immediately. He disliked himself when he was straight, but high – there were moments between all his big timer talk that he couldn’t downright stand his own existence. A horrible lot for anyone, but when old man Marcus took Sean away, Ben was no longer able to follow all his righteous principles. He wasn’t capable of it. His father burned him for greed and spite, and the grind of the drugs ate any good or god that he prayed to. He lived in a swamp on a deck with no boat, and the water had long ago become nothing but the scariest pit on earth.
I hoped Sean would sleep till noon, but after twenty minutes, he got up and went to the bathroom. He pissed, flushed the toilet, and then came out and sat Indian-style next to my head.
‘Are you awake?’ he whispered.
‘Where’s my dad?’
I wanted to lie to put him at ease, but I knew he was wise on most of it.
‘Your dad – Ben’s in jail, Sean.’
He took the news in slow, not surprised.
‘Are you scared for him, Frank?’ he asked.
‘Honestly? . . . No, Sean. I’m not scared. He’s going to be fine . . . He loves you a lot, you know?’
‘I don’t want to lie to you, though. Your grandfather and mother are here. They’re looking for you.’
‘That means we’re gonna have to get going, huh?’
‘It’s up to you, Sean. Do you want me to take you back?’
He stared into his hands in his lap and shook his head ‘no.’
‘Then it’s settled. So to answer your question – yeah, we’re gonna have to get going.’
He stood up and crawled back onto the bed with Maddie.
‘Can I turn on the TV?’
‘Sure. Just keep it down for Maddie.’
I wasn’t going to be able to rest. I went to the bathroom and started up the shower. For a few minutes, I bathed in the hot steam rubbing my shoulders and stretching my neck and back. My body was starting to cramp up from being in the car for so long. The bathroom door opened.
‘Sean?’ I said.
‘No, it’s me.’
I turned off the water, and Maddie handed me a towel from around the curtain. When I got out, she was undressing, getting ready to wash.
‘Sean’s going to need a bath.’ she said.
I grabbed her by the hand, but she pulled it away and stepped into the tub.
‘I’m sorry, Maddie – about last night by the car –’
‘That’s fine. I don’t want to talk about it. I feel like shit.’
She closed the curtain and hummed to herself like she always did. I dried off, pulled my jeans back on and went back out to the bedroom. Sean was on the bed wrapped up in the polyester blanket with the TV down low.
‘You need to jump in the shower and wash up once Maddie’s out,’ I said.
‘Okay, I will.’
He turned up the volume on the remote control.
‘Your phone was buzzing the whole time.’
I picked up my cell phone from the dresser next to the television. There were five phone calls and three voicemails from a 505 area code – New Mexico. I started to call the voicemail when the line beeped with the same number.
‘Frank? Frank, it’s Marcus – Marcus Shenk. I’m here with Ben. Quite a pickle he got himself into. He’s lucky he’s not dead. The car is useless, though. How’s Sean?’
‘He’s fine. We’re just getting up.’
‘Good. Good. Still heading to Arizona? Don’t worry, Ben told me everything.’
‘No, we haven’t decided. We’re just getting going like I said.’
‘If you’d like, I could send my assistant over to help. He could take Sean off your hands then you and Maggie could be on your way in that little pickup of yours.’
The old fucker was flexing on me already.
‘I think you’ll have to get fucked on that one, Marcus.’
‘Me? Son, you’re in the thick of it. Look, I understand, you’re only doing what you think is right for Ben . . . As a friend, of course. It’s quite admirable on your part. Quite irresponsible on Ben’s – putting you and Sean and that girl, Maggie, at risk and all. I’ve got authorities looking all over for you. Kidnapping across state lines – these are felonies, Frank. I’m more than willing to let it go, if you’d just return my grandson to me.’
‘Don’t you mean your son, Marcus?’
‘Well you’ve had Ali so many times and for so long now – she is Sean’s mother and all. He could be your stepson – no, that’s not right. Ya’ know what Marcus? I don’t think there’s a right term for your situation. What do you call it when a man is screwing his own son’s wife?’
The phone went quiet. Marcus cleared his throat and drank something down.
‘Frank, are you listening?’ he asked.
His voice was quieter now, hollow.
‘I’m going to string him up, Frank. I’m going to string Ben up and beat him until you return Sean.’
‘Like a package.’
‘What, you little fuck?’
‘Return your grandson – I mean your other son – like a fucking package. Like something you’d buy with your fake injun cash – like them tits on Ali.’
‘You just sealed it, Frank. For Ben. For you. The little whore. I’ll be having Sean back presently.’
I hung up the phone and finished dressing. My chest and hands shook with anger. Marcus Shenk was spitting plenty venom and meant every word of it. He didn’t stutter, grab for air. He was seeing the whole future with all its color and blood.
‘Was that my granddad?’
‘Yeah, it was, Sean.’
‘I don’t want to go, Frank.’
‘Then we need to leave.’
Maddie came out of the bathroom drying her hair with a towel.
‘I’m starving. Can we get something to eat?’ she asked.
‘Maddie, get Sean cleaned up. I gotta get us another car. You two, don’t go outside.’
Sean rolled out of the bed and went to Maddie. I grabbed my jacket and pulled the blinds to the side looking for Goldstein in that Mercedes tank. I cracked open the door and peered down the wall of motel doors. The housekeeping woman was just getting to this side of the building.
Marcus knew we were in the pickup. Alamosa is a small town, and he’d have Goldstein and the local police combing the streets for us. In the parking lot, there were eight cars pulled up in front of motel rooms. A couple came out as I was standing there and started loading their Honda up with bags. I walked around the back of the building to the motel’s office. The balding death-door’s night manager had been replaced with a bright-eyed brunette. She was typing steadily into the computer in front of her. When I opened the door, her head shot up with a crooked tooth smile.
‘Good morning. Just so you know, we have complimentary coffee and donuts in the lobby.’
She pointed to a folding table against the wall. A steaming plastic urn sat next to a silver tray of danish and rotting fruit.
‘I’m going to need to check out,’ I said.
‘That’s not a problem. What room are you in?’
‘I’m in 178. I’ve got cash.’
She drummed into the computer, bringing the bill up on the screen. I reached over and stopped her creamy little hands.
‘Can I ask a huge favor?’ I said.
‘Of course, sir. What can I help you with?’
Her voice pitched like a Texas debutante through a cloud of cheap vanilla perfume.
‘I think my battery died overnight, and I need a jump.’
She turned and grabbed my bill from a printer behind her. Her face screwed up like I’d asked her for a lung.
‘I kinda’ can’t leave the desk. I’m the only one here.’
She slid the bill across the counter and offered her crooked teeth again to make it better.
‘Your total for the night is $86.95.’
I pulled out a hundred from my pocket and dropped it onto her keyboard.
‘Shit. . . The thing is, we really need to get going. I guess I’ll have to knock on some doors.’
She handed me back the change and looked me up and down. I tried to sparkle my eyes at her, but more than anything, I was glad I took the shower.
‘Tell you what – how about I give you my keys and you go start your car and bring them back? I’ve got cables in the trunk. Funny thing: my dad put some in there on Christmas. Can you believe it?’
‘Would you really do that? That would help us out so much. I’m Frank by the way.’
I held out my hand. She smiled and shook it.
‘Thank you, Beth. You’re really helping me out. There’s just not that many people to ask this early in the morning, and not everyone’s a Christian before their coffee, know what I mean?
She laughed and went into her purse for the keys.
‘Oh God, do I? You know we get this weather out here, and I swear, it just freezes people’s souls. I go to Faith and Rally Presbyterian, and Pastor always says, ‘The Lord’s light can melt the coldest and hardest of hearts.’ And I believe him. You have to these days.’
‘Beth, you’re preaching to the choir. I’m from Montana, and I tell you what, you guys got it easy down here. Sometimes I think the whole state was born into hell.’
‘What part of Montana? I’ve got family up there.’
She handed the keys over, dying to hear my answer.
‘Bozeman,’ I said. ‘I’ll be right back. Thank you, Beth. God is truly great.’
‘It’s the red Cavalier, crucifix around the rearview mirror.’
I gave her a big smile and backed out of the office. I felt guilty for grifting her, but I wasn’t interested in the Jew mincing my face in front of Maddie and Sean. I pulled the Cavalier to the back of the motel and parked it next to my truck. I grabbed our bag, the tire iron from the pickup, and threw it all into the backseat of Beth’s car. When I went back into the motel room, Maddie and Sean were sitting on the edge of the bed, fresh-faced and worried.
‘I’m hungry,’ said Sean.
They threw on their jackets, and Maddie grabbed her purse.
‘I hear they got good food in Utah.’
We took the side streets as long as we could. It was barely two days into the new year, and Alamosa was already back to work. As we drove past the small houses, cars and trucks sat running, warming up before their commutes to Pueblo or the tiny local airport. One man salted his driveway while his neighbor started up a wood splitter in his front yard. They stared at us. The man with the splitter sipped from a steaming mug of coffee while his machine kicked fist-sized clouds of black into the gray morning. He looked pissed, but then as we drove by, he smiled and waved. Sean waved back through the back window. His fingers hit against the glass and left clear dripping spots where there’d been fog.
‘Don’t we have to get back on the highway?’ asked Maddie.
‘We gotta get out of town first.’
We stopped at the intersection of Main Street and Denver Avenue. In two miles, the main drag would turn back into Highway 160 – one left and then it was a clear shot west, west, west.
‘Well, I need to stop at a drugstore soon,’ said Maddie. ‘I need to get some Advil and some girly things, and Sean needs underwear.’
Sean blushed in the backseat.
‘I don’t need underwear.’
I eyed a sheriff’s cruiser pulling up behind us in the rear view mirror.
‘We all need underwear,’ I said.
‘I’m fine with mine.’
The cruiser flashed his brights and laid on the horn.
‘Frank, it’s green.’
‘Damnit . . .’
We took a left into the right lane and headed down Main Street into traffic. The cruiser stayed behind us for two more blocks before it turned off to another residential street.
‘I’ll find somewhere to stop on the way,’ I said. ‘Maddie can get her girly things, and Sean and I can get underwear.’
‘You know what’s more disgusting, Sean? Walking around like a poor man with dirty underwear. You don’t want that, do you?’
We pulled up to the intersection at the center of town. Three college kids walked in front of the car with backpacks over their winter parkas. Two of them had scarves wrapped around their faces. The third wore a full ski mask and danced in front of the other two as they walked.
‘Sean, look at this crazy guy up here in the road,’ I said.
Sean unlatched his seatbelt and pushed himself forward between the front seats.
‘Why does he have that mask on?’
‘Maybe he’s a criminal –’
Across the intersection, a black Mercedes pulled to a stop heading toward the motel. It was a newer model, but I’d be damned if a local was driving a front-tinted, snow-shoed Benz this early in the morning.
‘Sean, I need you to sit back and put your seatbelt back on.’
‘Can I get a mask like that when we stop?’
I shoved him back with my right hand and hit the gas.
‘Maddie, get the seatbelt on him!’
‘What the fuck, Frank?’
The Mercedes turned into us from the left lane, trying to cut us off. I cut the wheel to the right, barely missing its front end and sent our rear end all over the road. Maddie slammed into the passenger door, and Sean flew around in the backseat.
‘Get him into the belt!’ I yelled.
I floored the gas. In the rearview, the Mercedes jumped onto the curb making the u-turn.
‘Frank, slow down!’
‘Maddie, it’s Marcus’ man behind us.’
She turned, checking the back window. The Mercedes was coming on us fast. There wasn’t a chance in hell we could outrun him. Beth’s Cavalier could barely stay on the road.
‘Sean, are you alright?’ I asked.
He held his head and cried out in a long high whine.
‘Maddie, is he bleeding?’
‘Sean, baby, look at me. Put your hands down.’
The right side of his face was red and swelling up.
‘He hit it pretty hard.’
I looked into the rearview trying to catch his eyes.
‘Sean, look at me. It’s going to be okay – Maddie, give me that tire iron – it’s going to be okay, Sean.’
We were almost out of town; the Benz was right on us. Ahead, the road opened up to another lane as it turned into the highway. I slowed down and took the last right onto a gravel farming road.
‘What are you doing?!’ Maddie screamed.
‘Give me that iron! Sean? Sean, listen to me. I need you to lay down across the seat, okay?’
Sean wiped his eyes and laid down holding his head. I shoved the tire iron up the sleeve of my jacket and slowed the car to a stop. Maddie looked at me wide-eyed like I’d lost my mind.
‘It’s going to be okay,’ I said.
‘Don’t go out there, Frank.’
In my side mirror, a fatter, but still huge, Goldstein got out of the Benz with his pistol in hand. He wore a brown leather bomber jacket and tight black gloves that made his hands look like a pair of giant spiders. His sunglasses were way too small for his bearded head; they balanced on the tip of his nose threatening to fall off. When I opened my door, he already had his gun leveled on my heart.
‘Don’t move unless you want to die out here,’ he said.
I held my arms up and stepped out of the car.
‘I’m not doing anything. Listen now, Sean’s hurt. He needs help.’
I walked towards him, my arms still raised.
‘Stop. Stand at the back of the car, Frank.’
I stayed at the trunk. Goldstein walked slowly to the driver’s door and looked into the backseat.
‘Try anything, you little bitch, and I’ll shoot you right in front of the kid.’
‘I don’t care!’ said Maddie. ‘He’s hurt. He needs to get to a hospital.’
She was holding her hands up, looking scared. When Goldstein bent over to pull the front seat forward, I was to him in two steps. I landed the iron on his back three times in that morning daylight. The fuck took all three and dropped the pistol to catch himself on the ground. He was barely broke. I swung into his knee with all I had. He grabbed at his leg, screaming.
‘I’m going to fucking kill you!’ he yelled.
He was red-faced and bloodshot already. I grabbed his good leg and dragged him behind the car. I crossed his face with the iron, breaking his nose. His hands filled with blood, and his screams turned to hissing groans.
‘Maddie, where’s his gun?’
‘In here on the floor!’
I leaned into the car and picked up the pistol from the floorboard. Maddie grabbed my hand.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Make sure Sean doesn’t get up from the seat.’
I went back to my crying man, yanked up his fat head, and laid the pistol on his cheek.
‘This ain’t no fun, Israel. You tell Marcus to keep coming as long as he wants. Sean ain’t coming back. Ya’ll don’t know a damn about me. You tell him – you tell him, I’ll be having his life presently. You hear that?!’
I snapped his head back as hard as I could. He bucked, trying to grab my hand and pull it down. But it was all nothing. I shot and dropped him crying and wailing onto Colorado dirt. The scraps of his bloody ear caked with road rot as it hit the ground. I dug his keys from his jacket pocket and walked back to the car. I picked up Sean, covered his face, and carried him to the Benz. I didn’t want him to see a man bleeding, throwing himself on the ground. A mile away in town, sirens started up. Maddie and I climbed in the front. Beth would get her car back in the end, I thought.
We turned back onto the 160, and I laid into the gas. We passed the last of the farm roads and a lone ranch house before Alamosa and its two sheriff cars were gone. Sean, his face swollen, stared out the tinted window in the backseat. I wanted to tell him everything was fine, remind him of the ski mask he wanted, but he was wise like I said. He saw Goldstein squeal and kick and cry. He saw my face go blank and hungry when I swung the tire iron with everything on the man’s back. Sean couldn’t sift the ground I stood on, but right then, I’d say he recognized that what separated me from any of the other violence he had known was small and slight. I hope I was more than a brute to the both of them. But damn it all if I didn’t feel a pressure lifted when I took off the Jew’s ear. As if my heart doubled in size, I felt everything in the world – even the overcast sky.
Marcus’ boy had just about every option on the Mercedes, and that included a fuzzbuster that smelled the highway patrol more than a mile away. For the first hour after Alamosa, I resolved myself to being caught. I figured Marcus would buy a helicopter and run us down on the highway. He’d shoot us up with his golden nickel cannon and send us into a snow drift, dead before we hit the wet. But as we cleared Durango, I realized he wasn’t coming – not for now. I slowed down, and my nerves went back to craving a grand fix, thick like sugar.
Sean and Maddie were stretched out on the backseat. Sean lay on top of Maddie, and she held him tight with her small arms. Because of her age, my gut was always to write Maddie off. She listened to shit music and still binged on ecstasy and pot. But in truth, her mind and body weren’t rotted like mine. She spoke clear to herself and didn’t lust like me. She was grown up, had her own stories. I feared she would come around and see me standing with all the remains of my life around me. I could only hope she wouldn’t throw me away. I told myself if I loved her enough, she would never be able to throw me away.
The 160 ducked down into Arizona at the Colorado Border. This is the four corners of the Southwest where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet respectively and alone in the United States. The Navajo still run the place, and as midday hit, the few wagons and RV’s that had been with us since the end of Colorado exited off for the tourist trap on the side of the highway. A large new Airstream honked at us as it pulled off; the young couple inside smiled at us, thinking we were something we weren’t.
It wasn’t safe to head straight to Phoenix. Marcus would wait. He had Ben and his broken man with him now and, if it was just a hateful game before, the work on Goldstein made it dark, personal, and a big cock fight for Marcus and his bottomless bank. At the time, I had thought the hurt I put on his man would scare him away. But now – with me and my sore fists – I realized I had made all the outcomes for just worse. No, we’d follow the 160 till I found a highway breaking back north, and then Utah and rest.
Maddie climbed into the front seat and kissed me on the cheek. She pressed buttons randomly on the center console; lights and fans turned on and off.
‘How do you turn on the radio?’
‘I don’t know. I tried to figure it out for an hour and gave up.’
She reached over and rubbed my hands on the steering wheel.
‘Are you alright?’ she asked.
‘I’m fine. Why?’
‘No, I mean your hands. Do they hurt?’
‘No. . .Yes, a little bit.’
She reached behind my seat and got her handbag from the floor.
‘Will this help?’
In her open palm was a small plastic baggie of meth.
‘Where did you get that?’
‘Noni had a bunch on New Year’s, but we didn’t do any. I kept some.’
‘Put it away. I’m fine. I have to drive.’
I watched as she folded it and put it in her change purse.
‘Well, it’s here if you need it.’
Maddie found the right button for the radio and clicked it on. Tinny pop music blared before she found the volume control and turned it back down. Sean woke up in the backseat, startled by the noise. As soon as his eyes opened, fear broke over his face.
‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘Sorry, it was my fault. I was trying to put on some music,’ said Maddie.
I felt his eyes on me in the rear view mirror. When I glanced up, he looked away.
‘Sean, you should start thinking about what kind of jacket you want,’ I said. ‘You’re going to need some warmer clothes where we’re going.’
His eyes stayed out the window.
‘Like that ski mask that guy had,’ I said. ‘You want one of those?’
‘I don’t want a mask. Why do you keep on talking about it?’
‘I just thought you liked them –’
‘Where are we going?’ he asked.
He met my eyes, demanding an answer.
‘Utah. We’re going to Utah. I know a place up there that’s really –’
‘When am I going to see my dad?’
He was scared, and I didn’t blame him. He had slept and rest, and now was realizing Maddie and I were nothing but strangers to him. Maddie turned around and held out her hand.
‘Sean, give me your hand.’
He reached out; his voice shook.
‘I’m scared. I miss my dad.’
‘I know, baby. I’m scared, too, and Frank and I are going to get you back to your dad as soon as we can. But right now, it’s not safe. Your granddad sent that man back there to get you. He was going to hurt you. We can’t take you back till we know that everything is going to be safe – for all of us, okay?’
Sean wiped the few tears from his face and gave Maddie half a smile.
When Maddie turned back around, I saw she was crying too. She ejected the CD from the radio and threw it at her feet. She turned the volume back up and rolled through the stations till she found some oldies with plenty of static. I wanted to pull over, take them both in my arms and tell them no matter what, I would keep them safe. I would tell them I had a big good heart. I’d tell them I was going to save Ben from that pig, Marcus. But I didn’t know if I could. I could tear and rip and claw, but I knew better than anyone that didn’t mean jack. It only gave one guarantee: more running and more blood. Shit, if it was that simple, I’d buy a shotgun and kill everything. No amount of blood letting was going to make Ben straight and sober again, make him care. And no guns or pocket blades would make Ali any less of a whore. Ending Marcus would only send me to jail. I only knew to keep moving till there was a break in the wagers. Luck and hate always swing steady and fair to the poles – I’ve fashioned my life around this fact.
The Supremes came on quiet on the radio when we passed through Kayenta, Arizona. Highway 98 North was thirty more miles away.
‘Sean,’ I said, ‘I don’t know how, but I promise everything is going to work out alright. It always does.’
He didn’t say anything and laid back down on the backseat.
‘I mean it. I’m going to get you back to your dad, and I’m going to take care of your granddad for you. I’m not going to let either of them be mean to you no more. I promise with everything I’ve got.’
To this day, I hope he heard me. I needed to say something out loud so God and all his pangs of doubt would quiet inside my chest. I was never one to make promises, not even to Maddie. And when she looked at me right then in the car, I told her I loved her. I could have kept on telling her till my mouth was dry.
WALLY RUDOLPH, Born in Canada and raised in Texas, currently lives and writes in Los Angeles, California. In 2007, he was recognized by The Ford Theatre Foundation as part of its INSIDE:Reading Series for his collection of short stories, The World’s Princess. More of his work can be found in the literary journals, Milk Money, Lines+Stars, Palooka, and Prospect Park Books forthcoming fiction anthology, Literary:Pasadena.