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The Ride Home
Words by Nick Wenzel
Image by Brad Garber
If not for being more depressed than usual Everett Trill would not have been caught dead drinking down at the bar of the chain restaurant, but he had felt so lonely that he figured he could pass the evening with a few beers, and while he was at it maybe sketch a few faces into his notepad. Though Everett was a talented artist the notepad that he always carried around with him also served as a means of communicating with others, for he was born not only talented, but deaf-mute as well.
When he’d first arrived at the restaurant, and the waitress swayed up to him with a smile, he’d written on a clean white page, very clear and large: BEER, PLEASE. Though taken aback, the squinting waitress quickly recovered with a smile, and said, “Oh, I see. Sure thing, darlin.” A moment later she’d delivered his glass of beer, receiving payment and a second note that read, THANK YOU, along with a kind smile from Everett’s soundless lips, as he laid two dollars-tip on the bar.
Presently Everett sat hunched over his notepad, a few dark strands of hair hanging in his eyes, as he drew an old man in a John Deere hat, seated across the bar from him. The old man hadn’t taken notice though, as he was already sleepy from drink. Every so often Everett would raise the glass to his lips for a sip of beer. And yet he did not seem to enjoy the beer so much as he felt it was the badge he needed to show that he belonged where he was and not just, like he felt, a tourist stealing from the rural environs.
He finished drawing the old man, so turned the page and began to sketch the waitress. Her nametag said Bethany. Everett guessed Bethany was around his own age, thirty-five or so. She was big-boned, but not fat: somewhat medieval, he thought while shading the underside of her breasts. Likely she had a child somewhere whom she was working to feed. Bethany had a pretty face and, judging by the roots, her hair was naturally darker than the blonde it assumed. Subtle and innocuous, music played in the background, though Everett could only feel its rippling vibrations. For him the room was silently astir, like a TV with the sound turned off. His beer glass was soon empty.
Not knowing what to do, Bethany came and loomed over him, rapping her palm on the bar. Everett looked up expectantly. And assuming her purpose, he laid a finger on the rim of his glass and nodded that he’d have another. She smiled and turned to go, but caught a glimpse of his notepad causing her to pause, studying the drawing of her likeness with her head cocked to the side. Everett felt the burn of her curiosity run up his neck, so he picked up the notepad and displayed it for Bethany to see, giving her a well-meaning shrug that begged her not to throw him out.
“Hey, that’s pretty good,” she started to say, but then froze up.
Everett smiled then flipped the page over and wrote something down. When he was finished he held it up for her to read:
IT’S OK. I CAN READ LIPS.
“Ohh,” said Bethany, giggling at herself. “I just said that it looks good. Just like me actually.”
Everett smiled and pointed first to the drawing then to Bethany, his eyebrows slanting in a triangle shape.
“Me? You – oh, you want me to have it?” asked Bethany flabbergasted.
“Well, okay. Thanks. My son will love it. Will you sign it?”
Everett pointed his pen-finger in the air, nodded, and quickly signed his name at the bottom corner of the page then tore it out and handed the drawing over to Bethany, who held and marveled at it for a few seconds. Her face grew bright.
“Thank you,” she said. Then she folded the drawing in half and tucked it into the pocket of her work shirt. “This beer’s on the house,” she said slowly, and started away.
A moment later she returned and exchanged Everett’s empty glass with a full one, lingering a second or two so that he could absorb the flirtatious smirk on her face. His pale cheeks reddened and his eyes looked down in a sheepish smile.
He was not a bad looking man. And if not for his infirmity he might have been very successful in romance, or at least the physical intimacy of romance. Tall and thin, Everett Trill was excellently put together with a cleanly shaven jaw and strong Scandinavian features. His dark hair, though gray at the temples, was long and combed back over his head save for the black curtain of wisps that refused to go anywhere but over his face though he swept these strands back religiously. Unlike the rest of the clientele, Everett Trill possessed an almost Victorian refinement; adorned in his pale blue cardigan, gray button-down and thin black tie, along with his black, ironed slacks and shiny leather shoes. On his wrist he wore a silver watch that glimmered in the red and honey-colored lights shining down from above the bar.
Like an island of bottles, the bar was entrenched in the middle of the restaurant. While on the perimeter there were squat leather booths, darkly lit, and sparsely populated by small groups of bent and chewing diners. The kitchen was closed now and so whenever these stragglers were done with their dessert, the only life left in the place would be reduced to the bar and the staff closing down the kitchen; all of which transpired in what seemed no time at all…
Around eleven o’clock all of the kitchen staff had clocked out, leaving the place solely in the hands of Bethany and those few lonely bodies seated at the bar, of which Everett Trill was still a member. Having stayed longer than he ever could’ve imagined, he was on his fifth glass of beer – two more than he usually drank – and so his fingers felt numb and his mind a bit fuzzy. The old man in the John Deere hat was now sleeping with his cheek in his palm, his elbow planted on the bar while a sturdy rope of drool fluttered in his exhalations.
That is not to say that all was quiet. There was a fat couple at one end of the bar, eating shelled nuts, and yelling up at the recap of the Seahawks game on the TV. They were so loud and obnoxious that even Everett Trill wished that they would go home already. Then a few stools down from the sleeping old man there was a youngish man with fat cheeks and a blue baseball cap on. He wore a maroon bubble vest and a T-shirt. For some unknown reason Everett Trill had taken a slight interest in this young man. Perhaps it was his way of talking with Bethany. He called her over constantly and she would lean against the bar, nodding her head and laughing, as he gesticulated and seemed to tell wild stories, which Everett’s eyes could not keep up with. His stories were always accompanied by a conceited something hidden in his grin and dark wily eyebrows, like a cat reciting opera to a wounded mouse. Now and again, this talker would turn to look across the bar at Everett, lifting his chin in a jerky motion to say Hello. Everett would smile and nod back, though he kept a distant expression on his face. At one point, when Bethany was busy adding up the numbers on the ticker tape, the young man got up and walked around the bar, eventually hunkering down onto the stool next to Everett.
“So, how you doin pal?” he said, throwing out a hand to Everett.
Everett shook hands with him then let go. Scrambling, he jotted something on his notepad.
DEAF. BUT I CAN READ LIPS.
Wrinkling his face, the young man read it over twice. “Well okay then,” he said and laughed. “You done throwed me for a loop there. Haha! But oh well. The name’s Dale! What’s your name?”
EVERETT. NICE TO MEET YOU, DALE (?).
“Yep. That’s right,” said Dale. “Good to meet you, Evert. Say, I was juss telling Bethany over here a joke and – you follow so far?”
“Great. So I was juss tellin Bethany this joke. You want to hear it?”
Everett shrugged, ‘Yes, why not.’
“God dammit! Sonsabitches!” shouted the bearded fat man, suddenly slamming the bar with his fist. “Come on, honey. Let’s go home. It’s gonna be another bad season for these pussies.” Apparently the Seahawks, or whomever it was that he’d wanted to win, had failed him. So now he and his fat wife, or girlfriend, got up and walked out, leaving a few dollars amidst the nutshells scattered on the bar.
The old man woke up for a second at the sound of the cursing, only to nod back into sleep as the front door hovered shut.
“Sore loser, huh?” said Dale, and snickered. “Okay, so anyways, here’s the joke: what did the Easter egg say to the boiling water?”
Smiling, Everett shook his head, ‘I don’t know. What?’
“It’s gonna take me awhile to get hard, I juss got laid by some chick!”
Quietly, Everett rocked with half-hearted laughter. Meanwhile Dale launched into violent hysterical laughter, even though he was the one telling the joke, and for the second time in the past hour. He slapped on the bar. “Now that’s what I call funny! Hee-hee-oh-hoo! Boy, oh boy! Aint it, though?”
Down by the cash register, Bethany shook her head and scoffed while muttering something under her breath.
Drying his eyes, Dale called down to Bethany. “Hey sweetheart, what do you say to another round for me and my new buddy, Evert, here? –Hell, you shake a leg an there’ll be a real sweet tip innit for ya.”
Bethany chuckled. “How about I shake nothing, and you tip me anyway,” she drolly replied.
“Hey, I’m juss teasin you, sweetie, you know that,” said Dale.
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I’ll just be a sec, finishing up some math.”
“Take yer sweet time. It’s fine,” said Dale, winking confidentially at Everett.
The drinks arrived soon thereafter. Everett drank slowly, watching Dale’s mouth as he told one story after another. And though no one saw it happen, the old man in the John Deere hat had awoken at some point, left some money on the bar, and shuffled undetected out of the restaurant. Yet it wasn’t until Bethany had collected all the money up off the bar that the old man’s disappearance became a registered fact.
At midnight Bethany turned off the open signs and locked the doors.
“All right, fellas. It’s time to mosey. Anyone need to call a cab or anything?”
Dale’s face showed a surprising amount of worry, surprising because all night long he had been the embodiment of confidence and cocksureness.
“Hey. What’s a matter, Dale?” Bethany asked, slipping a puffy white winter-coat over her work uniform.
“My truck’s in the shop,” he said. “And my brother was sposed to show up bout an hour ago to get me. But he never did.”
“So you’re stranded then?” Bethany asked with a sigh. “Well I’m sorry to hear that. But I can’t give you a lift cause I gotta rush home – the babysitter’s waitin on me. You want to call a cab from here?”
Dale hung his head in dejection. “I can’t be spending money on no cab. Nuh-uh. No way… Guess I’ll have to walk home. Probably get myself runned over, too. Them roads out to my house is dark as hail, lemme tell you…”
Everett tapped Dale on the shoulder. Dale spun to find Everett holding a pair of keys up in the air, a calm questioning look on his face.
Everett nodded again.
“Well, hail’s bells! You’d be doing me a huge favor to drive me home. It aint far, not for driving anyways. And I sure would appreciate it.”
“So you’re good then?” Bethany asked. “You’re taking him home?”
Everett nodded. Bethany relinquished her anxiety and they all filed out the door and into the cold night air.
After locking up, they moved in a group across the parking lot, their breaths rising up visibly in the orange glow of the streetlamps.
“Well, that’s me,” said Bethany, pointing to a battered old jeep. “Where are you at, Everett?”
Everett pointed to a gray pickup truck on the opposite side of the parking lot.
“Okay,” said Bethany, and moved in close next to Everett. “Drive safe, okay? Oh. And take this.” She handed him a business card from the restaurant. On the back her name and phone number were scribbled in blue ink.
“This one, Evert?” called Dale, stumbling towards Everett’s truck.
Turning, Everett guessed Dale’s meaning, nodded, and held his thumb up.
In a hushed voice, Bethany said, “How about you call me sometime and –.” It was at this point she realized how Everett’s deafness made telephone calls impossible, and she became tense with embarrassment. “I’m sorry.”
Everett held the card between his two hands, like it were a precious trinket. He smiled and flapped it in the air by his chest, his eyes saying that, ‘he just might.’ This smile helped to assuage Bethany’s bad feelings.
Then they said goodnight, each moving off in different directions.
“Man, oh man,” said Dale, jumping up and down and blowing hot breath into his cupped hands. “Juss get me in that truck, boy – I’m freezin my royal balls off out here! Whoo-eee!”
Everett unlocked the doors and they both got inside…
As they drove along through the woods, Dale talked incessantly about himself, about how his truck was in the repair shop, and about his ‘obedient little lady back at home.’ Not paying much attention, Everett blinked his eyes, staring down the road ahead and struggling with fatigue.
The headlights of the truck lay like a yellow fan on the macadam, which began to seem endless. Pine trees lined the road, giving a dense cover to the lighted windows of trailer-homes hidden behind their black hanging boughs, like the huts of dwarves.
A mound of earth served as a barrier between the road and the forest. The yellow lines painted in the road, to divide the lanes, had ceased some four or five miles back, so that now Everett felt himself coasting along a snaking river of frozen ink, bound in by a tunnel of sagging tree-limbs.
He was beginning to grow frustrated by how long this trip was turning out. Especially given how near Dale had made his house seem. Everett wanted to back at home. He regretted his altruism now.
“Alright. Slow er down, Evert,” said Dale, leaning towards the windshield and pointing. “Ya see that white post there – the one in the trees? Yeh, take a left there.”
Everett slowed and eased his truck up and into the narrow passage, his line of movement enforced by the sturdy rows of tree trunks girding the path.
The tires crunched along the rocks of a dust road and the headlights flew up and down with the potholes, flashing on the parked cars and outer walls of other hovels more recessed in this backwoods community.
“Now go on over to the right,” said Dale pointing, and leaning back with pride at seeing his home. “Juss pull on up beside this big ol tree here.”
In a tight clearing, wedged in by tree and house, Everett’s truck finally came to rest, its red taillights illuminating the dirt and the furrowed bark of pine trunks in a rosy glow.
“You wanta come in for a bit?” asked Dale, already halfway out the door.
Everett showed his palm and declined with a demure shake of his head, as if to say, ‘No thanks. I should be getting on.’
“Oh, come on buddy! I’d like ya to meet the little lady. I got some beer. The least I can do for the ride is invite you in to have one with me. Come on, Evert, I’m hardly asking. Hah!”
Everett shrugged, smiled, and turned off the engine.
“Oh, thank God!” shouted Dale, and slammed the passenger door shut…
Dale’s house was little more than a shack: small, slatted, and brown. There were some duck-shaped bouys in a pile by the front door. Walking inside behind Dale, Everett felt swallowed up by the yellow light and the warm smell of bacon grease mingled with moldy carpet. A dirty, lighted kitchen lay ahead. Against the wall there was a TV set that played an infomercial for a can of spray-on hair for men. On their left there was a low, brick fireplace and a sliding glass door that led out onto a porch-lighted patch of cement, littered with pine needles and junk.
While pressed against the outer wall there was a ratty green couch, on which, bundled in a quilt, a homely looking girl sat peering dumbly up at the two men. She had red-brown hair down to the bare shoulders and straps of a tank top. She wore large glasses above a freckled nose, her plump mouth parted and sucking in oxygen. She could not have been older than sixteen – seventeen at the most. And her presence made Everett feel uneasy to be there, regretful again that he’d offered Dale a ride home…
“Evert, I’d like you to meet my little lady, Isabelle. Chicken, this’s my buddy, Evert. He’s deaf-mute, which means he can’t hear nothing. But he can see what you say when he looks at yer mouth…”
Isabelle looked at Everett like he was holding a swarming beehive in his hands; the thought that he possessed ears but could not hear seemed to strike her dumb.
“Well!” Dale shouted.
“Nice to meet you, Evert,” said Isabelle shyly, squeezing the edge of the quilt she was hidden under.
Everett smiled and gave a half-wave.
“Daddy’s thirsty, chicken,” Dale said. And seeing that the girl was still thinking about Everett’s handicap, he gave a sharp whistle. “Well, get up girl! Go and get me and Evert a beer. –Goddamn!”
As if she heard a whip crack, Isabelle threw the blankets off of her and scrambled up onto her spindly legs, her skin white as mist, sticking out from the flannel men’s shorts. She darted into the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with two open bottles of beer and offered them both up to Dale, her big eyes peering off to the side and through her glasses at Everett.
Dale handed Everett his beer, receiving a nod of thanks in return. Then he faced the girl again with a long, domineering stare. She seemed both frightened and exhilarated in the dark beam of Dale’s eyes. Everett, too, for that matter felt a disconcerting tingle down his spine just watching their silent exchange.
“Daddy’s gonna show Evert the backyard. How’s about you run and get your pink dress on?”
“Yes, daddy,” said Isabelle, and ran across the carpet, disappearing through a wooden door into the bedroom.
Slapping a hand on Everett’s back, Dale motioned to the sliding glass door. “Come on, buddy. Let’s step out back.”
Everett started. Dale pulled the door aside and then followed Everett outside, closing the door behind them.
The air was sharp with cold, causing Everett’s lungs to feel scraped by frost. Between sips, their breaths rolled off into the dark. There was a partially open tin shed at the edge of the cement square they were standing on. A draft of wind stirred the heavy branches slumped over the brown wooden fence.
“Yup. –Gonna turn this into a real sport court soon,” said Dale, sweeping his hand toward the fence. “Gonna lay some more cement down, get me a basketball hoop, maybe one of them pitching nets…”
Everett had no idea what Dale was saying, as he was faced away from him, but he nodded anyway. He sipped his beer quickly now, while Dale rambled on about all of the improvements he planned to make whenever he had the proper funds. And soon enough their beers were emptied and Dale led Everett back inside the house.
“I’ll take that,” said Dale, reaching for Everett’s empty bottle. “Go on and have a seat. I want to show you something.”
Dale pointed, and Everett went over and sat on the couch, hunched over his knees, planning a polite way to leave.
Coming from the kitchen holding two new bottles of beer, Dale foisted one into Everett’s hand then walked over and knelt down by the TV. Everett took a sip of beer and screwed up his face, for it tasted different than the one he had just finished.
Craning his neck so Everett could read his lips, Dale said, “I put some whiskey in there with the beer. Hope you don’t mind. Haha! –It’s a old hunter’s trick.”
Before Everett could object, Dale had turned back to fiddle with the TV once more. Everett set the laced beer down on the carpet by his feet and reached for his notepad. But he did not have it.
“You ready in there, chicken?”
“Yes, daddy,” called the frail voice behind the door.
“Okay. I’m gonna press play then.”
The TV screen went from pure blue to a scene of a concert with people reaching up to the singer on the stage. In particular there was a pretty dark-haired girl gazing lovingly up at the performer, as if she knew him personally. Everett could feel the vibration of loud music flowing out of the TV speakers and swelling in the small yellow room, in which he now felt himself more or less a prisoner.
“Sit back, Evert. Hah! I promise you’re juss gonna love this, buddy boy.”
By now Everett was far too nervous to give a convincing smile though he tried all the same, his mouth twisting in several conflicting directions at once.
Striding out of the bedroom now, Isabelle appeared in a pink dress with a ruffled skirt. The dress looked dirty in places, and gave the already pitiable girl an extra dose of the pathetic. Her bare toes lilted across the carpet in clumsy ballerina steps. Everett saw red razor-nicks on her shins. All at once the girl fell into an awkward dance routine, throwing her arms up and shaking her flat behind in a failed attempt at sexiness.
Bad as it was, it was clear somehow that this was not the first time she had performed this dance.
Most upsetting though to Everett was not the dancing girl, but the feeling of Dale’s eyes fixed on him the whole time, studying his reaction to the strange spectacle forced onto his consciousness. Not once did Dale cast a glance at the girl, the unflinching blade of his gaze causing Everett to feel as if his skin was being slowly peeled off in tiny strips.
When the song finally ended, Dale began to applaud and whistle, his hands slapping one another like a circus seal’s.
“Come on, Evert! Don’t be rude now! Give er a hand!” barked Dale, and whistled hard through his fingers.
Terrified, Everett clapped mechanically.
The girl bowed, her face turning red and her large yellow teeth protruding from under her top lip. Her eyes travelled immediately to Dale, as though seeking his next command.
“Go on, girl!” he growled, rising to his feet. “Go put on your jammies.”
As she passed by him, Dale slapped her behind like she was a cow running into the stables.
The bedroom door fell shut.
“Come on, Evert,” said Dale, looking suddenly grim. “Let’s step outside.”
Everett rose, though his legs were weak and the bile was climbing up the back of his throat. He felt a powerlessness which he had not felt since he was a child. Dale now ushered him outside through the open door. He found himself stumbling into the cold. His heart jumped when the sliding glass door was thrown shut behind him. Turning around, he came to face Dale, who seemed transformed.
No longer the happy-go-lucky joker, Dale’s face darkened. He seemed disturbed by some primal obsession. His lips trembled. It was as though he was afraid to look up at Everett, not because Everett frightened him, but because he was afraid of what he might do to his guest.
And sensing this inner-tension, Everett began to back away.
“You like what you seen in there, Evert?” Dale said after a long period of silence while slowly stepping towards Everett.
Everett’s eyes widened. Dale raised his fist and punched Everett’s jaw. Then he lifted his left fist up, catching Everett under the chin so that he flew back and bit off a piece of his own tongue, before falling down.
Blood filled his mouth as he rolled over onto his hands. He spat a red piece of meat onto the cement. Dale kicked him in the side twice, sending him to his back. Then Dale stamped Everett’s crotch several times, grinding his heel in to make it hurt more.
When he was through beating Everett, Dale flexed his reddened fists in the cold, breathing hard and furious:
“Now I’ma go in and deal with her. If I come back and you’re still here, I swear to God I’ll kill you. Ya hear that, Evert? Huh? –I’ll kill you. An don’t think I don’t meant it neither…”
His vision was a blur of pain. Everything hurt in its own nuanced way. Everett watched Dale step inside the house and close the door behind him.
A moment later Everett struggled up to his feet, holding his hands at his groin and coughing blood-mist into the air, he went limping around the side of the house for his truck. If he were not deaf, he would have heard screams coming from inside the house.
He managed to get into his truck and start the engine. His mind swam, woozy, and on the verge of passing out. Still he threw the truck into reverse and started backwards in the dark.
Moving slowly, the truck bumped into a tree and bounced. There was a pause. Then the headlights came on and the truck spun around, creeping out through the narrow gap in the trees and onto the long road back.
His eyelids kept falling shut while he drove. He felt that at any minute his mind and body would shut down completely. A few snowflakes sailed down and stuck to the windshield, yet Everett couldn’t remember how to use the wipers, so the glass grew misty. It would be the first snow of the year.
A mile down the road, Everett finally lost control. The truck veered to the right and lifted up off the dirt mound and sailed through the trees, spinning in the air, and crashing down on top of an empty trailer home; slicing through its middle like a knife through a loaf of bread, the tires still spinning in the air.
A few minutes passed. Contorted like a ragdoll tamped in a drawer, Everett wiggled his toes to see if he could move. He could, but not much. The wintry air snuck in through the fractured window and gnawed at his bones. The radio of his consciousness skipped in and out. The snow came down faster and heavier as the first flicker of flame crept up through the wreckage. It was to be a true storm, unlike any in the past fifty years. By morning the whole forest would be blanketed in white. Then it would take two more days before the snowplows finally arrived at that stretch of road.
#Unreal #Fiction #Strangers #Stuck #BadDecisions #Curious #Wrecked
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