By Colin Brightwell
Betty was eight months pregnant and Sherman was eight months on the verge of breaking. He’d come into work complaining about Betty busting his balls about painting the room and names for girls. He’d give us this high-pitched shrill impression of her and sulk the rest of the afternoon. Me and the other boys at the construction site were starting to take bets on how soon he’d snap.
Mary and me lived in the same trailer park as Sherman and Betty. We were high school pals, baseball players from the old glory days. Our dads were union workers who spent their days at the bar and came home mad and bitter. Sherman and I thought we wouldn’t end up like them, that we’d fly out of here and end up somewhere warm, where money grew on trees and your car always started. But we got married and settled down and that was all she wrote. Ten years passed and we were busting our asses on the sides of highways and knocking beers down when the world went dark. We hung around together because we stayed behind, both of us reminders of a lost time. We talked in past tense and acted like nothing had changed. But I was growing up and understanding that the world didn’t work that way. Life moved on and you had to move with it or else you’d drown in your own shit.
Some nights in the summer we’d sit on faded patio chairs and watch the cars roll down 40 Highway towards the city and slam back beers while the women chatted. I liked to think we were all content, taking each day one at a time. But there was always something that got Sherman bitter. He would always say what a life we had, Gene, when we were in high school. All the babes we had. Names were dropped, names and faces that memory faded and I just nodded my head and tended to agree with him. Yeah, Sherman. It sure was great.
And now he had that baby girl on the way and everything was catching up to him. One night he came over and said that he was dying, that he had to get out and cut loose for one more night. One more night to reclaim that old glory.
“C’mon, Gene,” he said. “It’s killing me being cooped up in there with her.”
So I kissed Mary goodnight while she slept before the night shift at the hospital and we headed down the highway as the sun started to go down. It was late winter and that Missouri cold was biting and I worried my engine would kill itself halfway down the road.
We pulled up to Harve’s, sat at the bar, and ordered a round. Sherman looked around and said that this place hadn’t changed one bit. The bar was empty save for the bartender and us, and I felt alone sitting next to Sherman. He seemed different when he drank, violent. One time he threw a beer bottle at some guy for looking at him wrong back after school ended. But now he seemed ready to explode and tear down anything that got in his way.
Sherman slammed his beer down and ordered us a shot of whiskey. We held our glasses up in a toast for the last few weeks of his freedom.
“Don’t get you a baby,” he said. “I tell ya, there some nights I sit up all night and think about leaving.”
“We keep trying,” I said. “Nothing’s happened yet.”
It always scared me, having kids, but for Mary’s sake we kept trying. But deep down, seeing what it was doing to Sherman, I didn’t want a baby in the house just yet. Money was tight enough anyway. In my head I pictured the bills from hospitals and diapers and daycares and college.
“Be glad about that. Sometimes I think this is what killed my dad.”
When I was younger I saw my dad’s face grind down to nothing but a pulp mess of wrinkles. I saw that same thing on Sherman’s face. I looked at the mirror behind the bar and tried to see if I was starting to look that way. I drank my beer and nodded along with Sherman.
He got up and chucked some quarters into the juke and played some blues. B.B. King’s guitar wailing about evil women and then Springsteen crooning about some promised land at the end of a winding highway, a place he knew he could get to if he just paid his dues and put in his time. I pictured this highway blasting through the trailer park, the pavement fresh and black, and me and Sherman shredding down the road towards the rising sun. Then the Boss yelled about a storm blowing away all those dreams that eat away at you and that highway disappeared. I ordered another beer and felt a wreck happening deep in my guts and sighed.
“You know, we played some great ball, Gene,” Sherman said.
“Hell,” I said with a half-assed chuckle, “we couldn’t even make state.”
“I’m just sayin,” he said.
Sherman brought this up time and time again those months when Betty was pregnant. I stopped thinking about ball a long time ago after Mary and I married. I knew I wasn’t ever going to wear a jersey again with my name on it. I was a below average player and knew it. But Sherman wouldn’t let this go. He kept bringing it up, the pathetic cliché lost on him. Kept talking about how he could have pitched for the Royals or Red Sox and been real hot shit. Could have married a swimsuit model and lived in a mansion. He was talking nonsense. He wasn’t ever gonna live that life. We were here, and this was it, the end of the road.
“Why don’t you quit that talk,” I said. “You got a baby on the way. Ain’t that enough?”
He nodded and looked around the empty bar, at the posters of half-dressed girls holding sweaty beer bottles and inviting men with their smiles. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Why can’t you be grateful?” I said. “Betty’s one hell of a woman.”
“Once that baby comes that’s it for me,” he said. “No more ballgames on the weekends, no more bars. Just diapers and Barney.”
Mary and me knew each other all through high school, and I knew then I’d spend my life with her. She had these freckles on her face that looked like stars and hair that was fire. Mom loved her something bad and would never let it go if I broke her heart. She was pregnant when we married. She had a miscarriage a month after that. I somehow managed to keep everything alive this long. But there were some nights when I would look at her and think that living in the Highway Estates Trailer Park across the highway from an abandoned drive-in wasn’t enough for us. Maybe she resented me for tying her down to this dead-end way. I thought about leaving so many times but crawled back into bed instead and tried to hold her close, thinking to myself that this was all I wanted.
“Pretty soon,” Sherman said, “there’s gonna be nothing but crying in my home. All night. Goddamn, this is what it all comes down to.”
I told him to shut up, finish his drink, and let’s go find another place that had more noise where I wouldn’t have to hear him talk and think about myself anymore, tear into the meat of whatever was awaiting us.
We drove down the highway speeding down the empty lanes. Patches of pale light from the street lamps helped guide the way. I pictured that winding highway again from the song and wondered what that promised land looked like. If the streets were lined with whatever you desired, if when you came home from work your body didn’t feel like it was broken every which way, if the beer never went flat and the sun never went away and the air was always warm. I wondered if such places existed at all. It seemed to me that places like that were only real in your head. They were fantasies you told yourself to get you through the workday before you crawled back home and realized that you were stuck there.
We were halfway to the heart of Independence when we saw her. A lone girl hiking on the shoulder of the highway in a coat that was thick as animal hide. She had blonde hair and looked smaller than a twig. I wondered if she would freeze out there.
“Pull over,” Sherman said. “Let’s go talk to that chick.”
He rolled his window down when I stopped next to her and that cold air blasted in like a shotgun. Sherman smiled at her and called out, wanted to know what in the hell a pretty girl like her was walking outside in the Antarctic.
“My car broke down a few miles back,” she said. “I was heading west.”
“Well,” Sherman said, “why don’t you get your ass in here before you keel over.”
She peeked in and saw me. I tried to look nice.
“Where you two going?”
I glanced at her and even in the dark I could tell she was young.
“We’re just driving around trying to find another bar,” Sherman said. “You look like you could use a drink.”
She put her hands in her coat pockets and looked down at her feet. “I’m only twenty.”
Sherman chuckled with a sweetness I hadn’t heard in ages. “Hell, nobody cares about that. You come in with us and they’ll let you drink whatever, honey.”
“I don’t know,” she said. Her eyes seemed distant and I thought about pushing down on the gas and leave before she decided to get in when Sherman started talking again.
“You’re gonna freeze standing out there,” Sherman said. “We’ll get you a drink and some food and get you on a bus out of here.”
She shrugged and slowly eased into the back of the car. Maybe she thought she could get some free beer from us, find somebody at the bar willing to take her as far west as they could. Sherman kept talking her ear off and laughing like a madman. Her name was Alison. I kept glancing back at her through the mirror and thought about kicking her out and heading back home.
After a while Sherman told me to stop at a gas station to grab some smokes. He said he’d be back in a flash and winked at the girl and ran in.
It was quiet before she said anything.
“I quit school,” she said.
I nodded and kept watch for Sherman coming back out.
“I’m heading west because I don’t like it here. It’s too cold.”
“It’s Missouri,” I said. “What did you expect in winter?”
She leaned over between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. Her breath smelled like mint. “You lived here your whole life?”
I nodded and dicked around with the radio, trying to find a song worth listening to. But all there was on the air waves this late at night were commercials and talk shows where all they did was talk talk and talk till you lost your patience and slammed the whole thing off and sat in silence.
“Why don’t you leave?”
“It ain’t that easy,” I said. “Believe me.” She was only about ten years younger than me but she didn’t understand the first thing about life. I thought about playing dad with her and telling her this.
“You know what they call Missouri? A flyover state. Know why?”
“Because people don’t want to come here,” I said. “Everyone just flies over us and doesn’t give two shits about places like here.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I want to leave. I have family out in California. Or I can stop in New Mexico and work at some tourist joint. I heard it’s always warm out there. The sun’s always out.”
I turned back around as Sherman was coming out. “Maybe you’re right about that,” I said. “I wouldn’t know. Maybe it ain’t all that bad.”
The Boss’ promised land highway came back to me and I pictured this girl walking down it towards the coast. I looked at her and realized that I wanted her to get out of this place, to find out for me if places like that really existed. I wanted to tell her to get out right now and find someone else to take her out there.
Sherman got in and slammed the door and yelled giddy-up and we drove around till we found a bar off the highway. Some place called The Grid Iron. Trash littered the parking lot and the sign was flickering in and out of life. Some people were gathered outside smoking. They looked half-dead and lost, straight out of those Depression-era photographs they showed us in school.
We sat in the back booth and Sherman ordered himself and Alison a beer and I ordered a whiskey. The same kinds of posters lined the walls, the same kind of women holding the same kind of beer. They didn’t look real to me. They looked like conjured up ideas of women. Sherman kept glancing around at them and Alison.
I wondered what her life was like back home to make her go out west. She and Sherman were talking but she didn’t seem all that interested. He was giving the same old runaround he gave girls back in the day. He was drunk and she could see that.
After a while he got up and found the juke box and played some slow number and went up to her and grabbed her from the booth and started dancing with her. Her face looked bored, as if she regretted taking a ride with us. She looked like a department store mannequin dancing with him, stiff and lifeless and he buried his face in her neck and her eyes looked gone.
The song ended and she tore away from him and sat next to me back in the booth. Sherman followed and sat across from her.
“You’re a pretty little thing, you know that?”
She nodded and looked around the bar. “Thanks. Can you take me to a bus stop now?”
“I wish I knew you a long time ago,” he said. “Maybe I could have gone west with you.”
He sounded desperate and I had an urge to leave the both of them and head home onto the highway on foot.
I had a strong feeling that one day soon I would end up like Sherman. That Mary would finally get pregnant and I would hate it and try to find some and get drunk and sound pathetic. Looking at him right then and there I felt sick. He was a piece of my past that clung to me like those fish cling to sharks. He was pulling me down and I wanted to hit him. Maybe then he would have finally snapped out of whatever it was that was making him like this.
“Stop it, Sherman,” I said. He was trying to grab her leg from under the table.
He looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Stop what? I ain’t doing anything. She likes it.”
She asked Sherman for a cigarette and she stepped outside to light it. He watched her go.
“Boy,” he said, “what I would give for a piece of ass like that. Just once.”
“Let it go, Sherman,” I said. “Let’s leave her here and head on back. I’m tired.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. “I’ll stay here. Play things out.”
He winked at me and struggled to get out and walked into the night with a cigarette in his hand.
The bar was full of greasy men. I figured their lives weren’t any better, driving around the night trying to chase something they thought they could find. Something that would make them feel like they did before life bit them in the neck. I imagined their faces when they realized nothing was there. Walking around in their lives looking for something to blame. Sherman was doing just that. He hated the world so much he couldn’t blame himself for the way things went. He’d just keep hating the world and reliving the past instead of coming to terms with the way it was.
They were gone for a while, and I had a craving for a cigarette. I paid the bartender and headed out. Outside the bar was empty and the highway seemed desolate. I didn’t see Sherman or Alison smoking, so I walked around to the back.
He was standing over her, pacing back and forth, breathing hard under his breath. I could see the vapor leave his mouth like a piece of his soul. He turned around and looked at me.
There was one lone light on the wall of the bar, and I could see his face. He didn’t look surprised that I was standing there. She was lying there like she just fell. In the light I could see a pool of black around her head.
“What the hell happened?”
Sherman shrugged and wiped his nose with his sleeve. “I think maybe I pushed her too hard,” he said. “She just sort of lost her footing and hit her head on that dumpster.”
“What did you do?”
“She started it,” he said. “It got out of hand. She tried hitting me, telling me to back off and I had to get her off me. The little bitch was hitting me hard.”
He looked back down at her. I walked over and got a closer look. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing. She looked about dead. There was nothing in her eyes. I could have left then, got into that car, and roared down that highway and that would have been that.
“She’ll be fine,” Sherman said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Back on the highway he didn’t say one word. He sat looking out the window as we passed the streetlamps and empty buildings that lined that section of road. I felt disgusted with him, with myself for letting him leave her there. I could have called the cops or left him there to deal with it himself. Now I was involved. In the TV shows they called it being an accessory after the fact. Sooner or later, someone caught up to people like me. Nothing seemed to bother Sherman about this.
Whenever I blinked, I saw Alison lying on the pavement. She’d never get out west away from here. I thought that maybe she’d be a ghost that stalked the back of the bar, doomed forever to never leave this flyover state. I could see the blinking light from a plane overhead and pictured its passengers looking out their windows. We were so small to them. It was like we didn’t exist. They would never come here. Even they knew there wasn’t anything good here.
When we pulled into his driveway he didn’t move. He sat there staring at the front door of his home, tapping the dashboard.
“No one needs to know,” he said. “It was just an accident.”
“Shit,” I said, turning away from him. “People saw her with us. Someone’s gonna find her.”
“Well, what do you want me to do?” he asked. “Throw my life away over a little slut? It doesn’t matter. She just fell. She was drunk. Could have happened to anybody.”
“Get the fuck out,” I said. When he didn’t move, I nearly pushed him out, hitting him. He slammed the door and spat. I watched him walk up the steps and Betty greeted him at the door. He gave her a great big hug and kissed her on the cheek. She smiled and waved at me. I backed out, my knuckles turning white gripping the wheel.
Back home, the trailer was quiet and dark. I fixed myself a bag of ice and sat in the kitchen while my skull throbbed, and I thought it was going to explode.
When I crawled back into bed, I wished Mary was there, wished that she would get off her night shift early and come home so I could hold her tight. I loved her and I pictured us having a real family. It would be a matter of time before somebody found Alison and put the pieces together. Pictures of her would be on the news. There would be a knock on both of our doors. I wanted to get out before any of that happened. In the morning I wanted to tell Mary to pack up her things and get into the car. We were going to get the hell away from here. Anywhere. I wished I believed myself.
About the Author: Colin Brightwell is a Missouri native, from the greater Kansas City area and Jesse James country. He has fiction upcoming in Reckon Review and Bull Magazine. He is currently in the MFA program for fiction at the University of Mississippi.