|Driving through the mountains of Oregon, having just crossed the border from California, June didn’t know where she was going. She saw the mountains in the distance during the day and what little her headlights revealed now told her she was high up, the road was prone to twisting, and she could easily shoot off into dangerous night. But mostly everything was unhelpful black around her.|
All day she’d driven, not especially caring if she had nowhere to stop. She didn’t think much about sleeping or the future, still she was smart enough to know she was going to be really tired soon and she was likely to plunge into the rocks below if she didn’t stop somewhere. So she turned off on the next ramp she saw whose signs told her about a Denny’s and a Day's Inn.
It was really fucking cold when she got out of the car in front of the Denny’s. She was wearing a black turtleneck sweater and black slacks under an overcoat, but it was much colder than she was used to. There was a breeze, but she figured it would have been much windier if she wasn’t in what she imagined to be a tight little valley. The road had seemed to go straight down until it flattened out for the small buildings and she pulled into the glossy little asphalt lot of the Denny’s. There was a big, old, green Buick, like from the 50s, in the lot, but June’s car was alone there otherwise. She had her hair down, figuring it would keep her neck warmer, and her hands shoved into her pockets.
June was only twenty-two, but she thought she might look like some chic businesswoman to whoever might be watching, stopping just briefly as she was on an urgent errand to Seattle. Unless, of course, they saw her shitty old Cordia.
She was very hungry, she realised as she waited to be seated. It was just the same Denny’s inside as every other Denny’s on the road; red imitation leather seats, plastic, faux 50s décor. She wondered what the Buick thought about this place. She actually giggled out loud. But if you’d asked her about her state of mind, she might have told you her mind was only slightly warmer than an ice cube, a tack only slightly dulled.
“What’s so funny?” The waiter had heard her laugh. She hadn’t even seen him walk up. He was cute—a pale, beefy guy. In good shape, but not like he really took care of it. Sixty years ago, they’d have called him a strapping young fellow. To-day, he was shamefully far from Brad Pitt. But he had a cute face, and there was something nice about a specimen so different from the L.A. stock.
“Heh, oh, I don’t even know,” she said, not sure how to answer him. She was staring straight at his small, goofy grin without realising it. “That car, I guess.”
He glanced over her shoulder. “The Buick? That’s my car. You don’t like it?”
“No, no, it’s great. I love 50s stuff . . .”
He nodded and June half expected him to offer her a ride. It would be the standard pickup line, but he merely led her to a booth by the window with a view of the car.
“Uh, I’ll just have coffee and a bagel,” she said, realising finally that she was staring at him. She smiled at her small hands folded on the table. It occurred to her now that what she took for a perpetual rosiness of his skin was actually a flush, and that he had never looked her in the eye.
He was gone, of course, when she glanced up. Ah, well. She leaned forward, putting her chin on the table and draping her arms across it, gripping her cuffs to her palms. She could sleep right now.
“Here’s your coffee,” he said.
She sniffed and slid back until she was against the window, bringing her knee up to put her foot on the seat. She smiled unabashedly at him now and he stood still, staring at her.
“What are you so nervous about?” she asked.
He shrugged, “Sorry,” and walked away.
The two of them were alone in the Denny’s, she realised. He probably hadn’t expected to see another soul all night.
She got up to follow him.
June thought she was being silly. Her boyfriend had been dead for two months. She’d wondered why she barely felt sorry about it. Now following the waiter, was she trying to prove something? If so, what?
She found him in the gleaming steel and white plastic kitchen, staring motionless at her bagel, cut in half on the counter before him.
“Whatsa matter?” she asked, leaning against the doorway with her hands slightly cupping her hips, hoping he saw how relaxed she was.
His immediate reaction was to frown at her, clenching his jaw, which was quite square, she noticed, like Superman’s. His face got even redder and he looked away.
“My name’s June. What’s yours?”
“Gordon.” He looked past her before he looked at her and asked, “What do you want? What are you doing back here?”
She blinked and lifted her eyebrows, letting her gaze lazily roam the kitchen, stopping at his flat stomach under his blue Denny’s shirt. “I’m just . . . hanging out. Is that okay . . . ?”
He turned his frown back to her bagel. “Yeah, I guess. Is there any—do you want this toasted? Do you want cream cheese on it?”
“Please, yes. On both counts.” She spotted a tiny gold crucifix on the little triangle of chest the button down shirt permitted her to see. “Are you very religious?”
“Uh, I, no. I mean, I don’t go to church every Sunday.” His long, thick fingers pushed the bagel halves down into a toaster.
“Are you a godless liberal?” she asked.
“What?” He laughed once, not looking at her. “What does that mean?”
“Not much. It’s one of Ann Coulter’s lines. Do you follow politics?”
“Ah, no . . . My parents are Republicans. I don’t really care about that kind of thing. I don’t think they really do either.”
“Huh. I thought Oregon was a blue state.” He had large, straight blonde eyebrows furrowed over pretty green eyes. June wondered if he was Irish. Her father was Irish; she wondered if that ought to make flirting with an Irish guy seem weird.
“What’s a ‘blue state’?”
“Blue states usually vote Democratic. Sorry, I’m a political science major. It’s gotten so I see everything in terms of politics . . .” June yawned. “What time is it?”
“One thirty.” Not having her bagel to work with, he stood with one hand pressed flat on the counter and his gaze pointed, unfocused, just over her shoulder.
“No wonder. I oughta be in my dorm, studying my ass off right now.” She lifted the tail of her coat and wagged her butt at him quickly, immediately feeling stupid about it. She laughed. Her opinion of her state of mind was now drastically reformed.
But he seemed to relax a little then, even giving her a smile. The bagel popped up.
Good, she thought, things are getting mellow. But what to say next?
“You must get pretty bored, working here all night. Do you work the whole night?”
“Yeah.” A crackling sound as he spread cheese over a darkened bagel half. It was a very sweet sound right now. “The morning shift comes in at four. I work until six . . . You sit here and . . . think a lot.” He stopped with the cheese and gripped the knife tighter before setting it down. His jaw clenched again and he smashed the bagel halves together.
What the hell is on his mind? June knew she’d get nowhere asking him straight up again. She needed to think of something innocent to say.
“So how come you didn’t offer me a ride?” She tried to inject a teasing, sly tone in her voice. But she sounded hollow and transparent to herself.
“Huh?” He frowned as he handed her the bagel on a small white plate.
“Uh, why don’t you sit with me?” Yeah, why not sit on his lap? She grimaced.
He froze. Then he looked up, and all around the kitchen, before he said, “Uh, yeah. Okay . . .”
She took a big bite and watched him with wide eyes while she munched. Gordon had been sitting there quietly with his arms straight against his sides, his shoulders raised, as she’d told him about how she figured Hillary Clinton would be the next president, and how that sat just fine with her.
“So, uh, I guess . . . you’re against the war in Iraq?” Gordon said feebly.
June shrugged, looked at her plate and tapped it with her bagel. “My boyfriend died in Iraq a couple months ago.”
“Uh—oh? He was a soldier—?”
“But, I guess that’s not an answer to your question, huh?” She laughed. “I don’t know—I mean, I do know I think it’s time to bring the troops home . . . it was a mistake going in . . .” She frowned and pushed her tongue into the flesh below her lip. “Sorry to bring the conversation down . . .”
“I’m sorry—sorry your boyfriend died.” He nodded and looked at the table and she could tell he didn’t give a shit. She decided to pretend he did.
“I feel kind of guilty about it, really. I mean, I don’t feel like I actually deserve condolences . . . He was really only my boyfriend because he asked me out a few times and I didn’t have anything better to do.” June put her elbow on the table and leaned her head into her palm, scratching her plate with the bagel. “I spend most of my time studying. Straight A student, always have been . . . Guys came to me, and he was the nicest. I barely thought about him, actually. But he broke up the monotony. We dated for a year before he went to Iraq . . . It made no difference to me . . .”
She set the bagel down and rested her fingers lightly on its warm, crisp surface. It was nice after the cold outside. “Well, I’m . . . maybe not being accurate. I remember once he—he always sent me letters, and I remember one letter he sent had a picture of him grinning and he’d—I could see he’d lost one of his front teeth. Right there in the front, you know, to ruin pictures for the rest of his life. But the big puppy didn’t care.”
She folded her arms and leaned forward, staring intensely at her bagel. “And I remember thinking; I should have been there—I should have been a part of it. I mean, his life was going on and I wasn’t . . . I felt it was my right to be part of it. And I was denied that.
“I guess I’m a selfish bitch that shit makes me feel worse than his death.” She laughed unkindly. “Maybe I’m glad he’s dead. Now there’s nothing to miss . . . Ah, fuck.”
All this time, she had avoided looking at Gordon, but now she looked up and saw that he was staring at the table surface between them, and she was gratified to see he seemed like he now gave a shit. But he didn’t say anything right away so she took another bite of her bagel, which was still warm, and the cream cheese had gotten a little runny.
“So,” said Gordon, “did your boyfriend . . . ever kill anyone?”
“Um. Heh . . . I . . . don’t know, actually. I assume so . . . But I don’t know. Why?” The question sunk in a little further and June decided maybe Gordon didn’t give a shit about her problems after all. “Look, motherfucker, tell me what’s eating you.”
His skin reddened again and he fixed his wide eyes on her. He took a moment before he said, “I’m going to kill someone to-night.”
June suddenly felt like she was sitting across from a gorilla.
“Er, really?” She took another bite from her bagel and leaned back. Speaking around the bread and cheese in her cheek, she asked, “Why? I mean, what’s the story?”
“It’s this guy—my girl—” He snorted and looked out the window. “He raped her. And I’m going to kill him.”
Aw, he’s got a girlfriend already, was June’s initial thought. But she shoved it aside and spent a second figuring out what she was supposed to say and came up with, “Oh, that’s—that’s terrible, I’m sorry . . . Is she, she okay?”
His face got darker. “Yeah . . .”
“Well, that’s, uh, I’m really sorry—”
“What the heck am I waiting for?” He stood up and pulled his button down shirt up over his head and June stared at his soft but sleek midsection sheathed lightly by a wife beater.
“Uh, hey—it’s cold out there, Gordon.” He had disappeared into the kitchen as she spoke, and he emerged about as quickly but now wearing a bomber jacket and a black baseball cap bearing the face of an angry beaver pulled low over his eyes.
She got up too. “Let—let me go with you, huh?”
“Why?” Gordon pulled out the gun then, a black metal rod perpendicular to his fist, and there was the snick sound as he pulled the slide back.
June felt seconds slipping out of her hands as she tried to think of a way to tell him to get rid of that scary thing. “Where the fuck did you get that?” She felt like an actress who suddenly didn’t understand her role in the middle of a play.
“I’ll see you around.” He made for the door and she put her back on it, standing in his way.
“Look, hey—uh, I want to go with you.”
So I can stop you, you dumb beautiful hick.
Don’t call him a hick, she told herself. That probably won’t work.
“Aw, that—fucker—fucking rapist! I can—can just imagine how violated I, as a wo—as a girl, would feel . . .” Wait, don’t I? How come I don’t? Nevermind—“And you can’t do everything yourself! You’ll need, like, a lookout, or whatever, right?”
“I’m not shoplifting, I’m—I’m darned killing someone!”
“All the more reason to cover all your bases,” she said. “Right?”
Gordon just stared at her a while with his lower lip shaking and June found herself staring ridiculously at the angry beaver on his cap. That could be a flirtation prop somehow. Especially since I’m pretty hairy down there, but how would he know . . . ? Shit’s going down to-night and I’ll probably die never having gotten a Brazilian wax.
“All right, fine,” he said, “but get out of my way.”
She nodded and stepped aside.
She was really in it now. Far from home in the care of a dangerous stranger. She’d wanted to get away from everything, most especially herself, and now it looked like she was going to get it. Oh, what has become of poor June? She laughed, and like a pull chord had been drawn in her chest, she found herself unable to stop, giggling stupidly next to the angry ox.
“What?” he glanced at her, barely interested. “What are you laughing at?”
“Oh, nothing, I don’t know,” she said, breathing out a few last chuckles as she wiped her eyes and sighed. “So who is this guy you’re going to kill?”
Gordon twisted the leather steering wheel cover in one fist and didn’t answer.
June sighed again, more pointedly, and leaned her cheek against the cold glass. She tried to imagine being raped. The first thing she thought of was a strange penis inside her. June had only had sex with two guys in her life. One penis had had a small head with sort of a fat shaft, the other, the one belonging to Kyle, her dead boyfriend, had been shorter with a larger head. The head had seemed oversized at first, but she found out it was about average once she’d started looking at porn.
She didn’t often masturbate and she’d never quite understood why people enjoyed orgasms so much. She wondered if it was because she had a small clitoris that was difficult to reach. Certainly she wouldn’t want anything down there without her permission, but the idea of disease or unwanted pregnancy seemed like the worst parts, which led her to believe she just didn’t get it, as it was usually the trauma of the experience itself that seemed to upset people.
Gordon drove down a ramp and stopped at a light. June found herself looking at the corner of a grey house across the street, made mustard yellow by a single streetlamp. There were no other visible streetlamps, but there was a row of porch lights beyond the grey house.
Soon they were moving through the usual residential maze, the houses here having the same basic look of all houses made twenty years ago; slats of wood, white trim, triangular roofs, and perfunctory porches. Some of the houses had concrete driveways, some had only gravel. The street itself was cracked and crumbling and June could no longer keep her face against the window as Gordon sped through the streets, the uneven ground jostling the big car.
Finally Gordon pulled over, not to a curb but to where the asphalt dissolved into dirt. June had seen only sporadic islands of sidewalk.
The house wasn’t unique. It seemed a little small and she guessed there weren’t more than two bedrooms. A single streetlamp stood before the house and in front of Gordon’s Buick, its casing broken so that cold white light blazed directly from the bulb. When Gordon cut his headlights, the only illumination aside from the streetlamp came from one of the wan yellow porch-lights, this one showing a simple, dusty white porch, a single, equally dusty green chair, and a white, rusted table. The windows were black and reflected the dim light like rat eyes, watching from behind the buzzing glare of the streetlamp.
Gordon hadn’t moved and he stared at the quiet house, occasionally glancing at June as though he suddenly didn’t know what to do with her.
“Maybe he’s not home,” said June.
Gordon snorted and shook his head, not looking at her. He licked his red lips and said, “Well,” and then said nothing. The streetlamp coldly blasted his skin an ugly white but June still thought he was kind of cute.
“You know, Gordon,” she said, “we could simply keep driving around . . . just—get to know each other.”
He didn’t react.
“I don’t want to see you go to jail. I’m sure your girlfriend doesn’t, either, especially not for her sake. Why don’t you just tell the police about this guy?”
Looking down as he pulled the gun out onto his lap, Gordon’s face was hidden by his hat as he said, “The police wouldn’t help. They—they wouldn’t help. And this is about honour anyway.”
Leaning back, out of the glare, June rubbed her lips, trying to think of something else to say. But then metal groaned as Gordon shoved open the door and got out, slamming it behind him, causing a thunderclap to roll up the dead street. The metal of the dark little gun flashed reflected light, the screen door creaked open, and Gordon was inside the house.
There were no other noises for a while as June wondered what she ought to do. She still felt like it didn’t matter what happened to her, which surprised her a little as she had assumed the sour apathy that had come over her about a week ago would’ve worn off by now, especially in a situation like this. But she liked the oblivion in this dark, quiet place.
Then she heard the deep, barking tones of young men yelling at each other and she decided to get out of the car. The front door was still open, even the screen door hadn’t closed, its hinges apparently completely useless. The conflicting light sources revealed the dim shapes of boring furniture encased as by vines in mounds of papers, books, and binders. June followed the voices down a dark hall ending in a bedroom lit by a single cheap black metal desk lamp.
“You’re—you’re deranged, Gordon—What do you think Becky will think of this really?” said a guy with dark hair and thick, black-rimmed glasses, the desk lamp behind him giving his white button-down shirt a yellow aura. He looked like a nerd, and then June noticed a Circuit City nametag on his chest that read, “Jim.”
“You’re psycho, Gordon!” Jim continued. “Becky is my girlfriend!”
“You—you’re not!” yelled Gordon, louder than Jim.
“Er, so no-one got raped?” asked June.
“Raped? Who the hell are you?” asked the Circuit City employee.
“Just a bemused bystander, Jim. Damnit, Jim, I’m a bystander.” She giggled.
“He—raped—took advantage of—of,” said Gordon.
“Gordon, you fucking . . . jerk!” June pointed at him. “You lunkhead! She’s not even your girlfriend?” June shook her head. “Unbelievable.”
No one said anything.
“Sorry, Jim,” she said. “We’re having a real hard time adhering to the Prime Directive to—”
Then it was like Mom waking her up early on a Saturday by using a hole-puncher on her forehead as a single, sudden sound took the room and shoved Jim against his desk and red jelly spat up from his chest. He’d fallen into the lamp and the room spun with light that gravity brought to the floor with Jim’s tumbling, wiggling corpse.
Everything was still, the silence seeming to ring like a bell around June before Gordon’s goofy laugh faded in. It was a loud, gasping laugh like a nervous hermit.
With a great sniff, Gordon stopped at last and there was a little more silence before he looked straight at June and said, “I shot him. I killed him.”
“Gordon, you dolt,” June said, “you—blithering hayseed hick, you . . .” June realised her back was pressed against the wall and she pushed herself off of it like a swimmer as her voice raised. “You goddamn stupid motherfucker, what—what the fuck? And, you know, I was all vulnerable and easy—you totally could’ve fucked me if you’d had half a fucking brain, you . . .”
Gordon grinned like a gorilla, looking at the floor. He shook his head. His face was very red now and he was sweating.
“Oh, let’s just go,” said June. She started to walk past him but suddenly there was the pressure of his big hand across her chest. She was shoved to the floor hard enough she felt it in her bones, through her ass.
“So that’s it, you big piece of shit?” She scrambled back against the wall. “Well, I’m not going to give you the satisfaction, what d’you think of that, motherfucker?”
Gordon stopped, laughed, looked around as though to remind himself of his location, and then left the room.
June didn’t move. She relaxed, and then she heard the Buick’s engine start and its tires on the gravel, taking it away.
Sitting up, she rubbed her bruised chest and noticed the smell—something burnt, something like meat, something like metal, all beginning to overwhelm the bad, sour smell of a guy’s room.
“Fucking guys . . .” June found herself hoping her heart would never get caught up in another human being. She started looking for a phone so she could call the cops.