Happy Lucky Gas

by Rebecca Chekouras

She was a patient woman and wary. She did nothing to tip her hand except, perhaps, set the plate of eggs and toast on the dining room table with a too hard click of melamine on wood. She went to the kitchen and returned with coffee. Watch the Bluetooth he said and laid his hand over the earpiece next to his laptop. She refilled his cup and he drew back his hand to take up his fork and plow through the eggs. He finished and pushed the plate away; drew his computer to him and lifted the lid. Her stomach tightened. It showed in her reach for his plate. You’re doing it he said. I can’t have any distractions when I make these calls. He wound the Bluetooth into his ear. She went out to the chain link fence that ran like a ski lift up their backyard hill, a hill too steep to climb without breaking every bone. Her neighbor, a psychic who read out of her home, came out her backdoor with a cup of coffee in each hand, passed one to her over the fence. She didn’t need a third eye to tell her he watched them; watched them from behind his gleaming screen, ringtone funneling into his brain, his sales quota slipping farther away with each unanswered call or hang-up.

What do you two find to talk about everyday he asked. She set his lunch in front of him. Girl stuff she replied and moved to the living room window and put a hand to her eyes to shield them from the winter sun. Their rented house sat at the bulb end of a thermometer cul-de-sac, the road out ran straight from their driveway to the freeway. Her neighbor had said you’ll know your time when you see it.

In the late afternoon he closed his laptop and twisted the Bluetooth from his ear. I’m going to try the tables while you get dinner together he said. He went out. A moment later the soft gulp of a car door sealed him in. The engine started. He gunned it several times. The garage door cranked up. He roared out. She watched from the window wishing that car would rise at the end of the street and fly away until it was nothing more than a tiny black dot and then nothing at all.

Headlights bore into their living room. Shadows climbed the walls. His motor panted in the driveway. She went to the kitchen to mix him a drink. He took the drink between his thumb and second finger, downed half of it on his way to the living room.  He never discussed how he was doing, at sales or cards. Slouched in front of the TV, he took aim with the remote; tossed the gadget aside when he found football. I’m thinking, he said over his shoulder, of going to Vegas. Not the big holiday tournament but the side games all over town. A man like him, he said, smart, able to read people at a glance, could cherry pick his tables and make good money if not an outright killing. Be back in time for Christmas. Sure, she said, glad he could not see her face. You want another before I bring you your supper?

He drove to Vegas, claimed he could make it in three hours though they both knew this was bullshit. He drove to deprive her of their only car. He called several times each day, robo-dialed if she failed to answer. December 23rd he told her he was in the hunt at a 6max and would stay. Said he’d be back Christmas day flush with cash and she could have anything she wanted. On Christmas Eve her neighbor came to help her pack. They’d discussed this at the fence many times and moved easily through the closets and drawers. She wasn’t taking much. Her neighbor would drive her to the bus station and leave her there to buy her ticket with borrowed cash ,inconspicuous, no trace. She might have noticed the car roll up and stop in precise alignment with the front door if it weren’t for the hug and good wishes of the psychic. But suddenly there he was, coming through the door and into the living room.

What do we have here? His tone was conversational, without surprise. She knew this tell of his and stood completely still. A single word, an eyebrow repositioned, a tongue darted along her upper lip could flip him. Her neighbor, knowing them in their long nights, mimicked her. The silence, the downcast eyes, hands limp at her sides. He stayed calm until he saw the trash bin and their wedding video at the top of the pile. He picked it gingerly from among the cracked plates and chipped cups. Ran his fingers along the edge and then passed it from one hand to the other as though weighing their entire six-year marriage. He looked to her with that old, familiar roulette spinning his face from sorrow to anger to exhaustion to heartbreak to pity to vengeance until the ball dropped and his jaw clenched and his lips set. He closed his eyes and drew a tremendous breath through his nose. Her neighbor caught her eye and silently telegraphed RUN. So she bolted for the door and ran out and he chased her into the night and he caught her by the neck and he forced her into a car she didn’t recognize and he punched the child safety lock and they sped into whatever would come.

He took 10 to 5, a monotonous ribbon of compacted pitch that split California’s Central Valley straight up south to north. They lost the LA stations, waited for Bakersfield, couldn’t get Fresno. Just the same old carols and novelty songs, he said to pave the way for the tyranny of his silence when he switched off the radio. Traffic thinned and the night closed around them. Occasionally they passed a house set far back in a field, holiday lights glowing red, green, yellow and blue. Or a neon sign, like this one, as big and brilliant as the Space Shuttle rising up from the immense valley floor and burning white and red against the black hour to announce a truck stop. He exited without saying anything and pulled up to the pumps. He gave her the look and got out. She watched him in the side mirror as he filled the tank. His breath burst from his mouth in small atom bombs. He watched her watching him. What funny business could there be in this place of transient men and sex workers? Moonlight, weakened by a thin veil of milky blue clouds, shone on fields that in summer had been lush and green and now were bone white and ink. The harvest threshing had left behind row after row of stalks dried by winter to punji spikes. They made a run impossible even if she were wearing something sturdier than fleece lined slippers. She would know her time when she saw it. He returned to the car, fired the engine, and took them back to the freeway.

You’re doing it again he said and she realized her teeth were clenched. Stop it. In his each breath, in the angle of his neck, in the tension of his fingers on the wheel, anger rose like a fever that would not break. Her jaw ached. She couldn’t look at him; let the miles run beneath them, let rictus turn her to stone. Fields of stubble gave way to sand and reedy grass bent by wind that carried a sour whiff of shit tainted with animal fear. The Patterson Stock Yards. They were nearing the 5/580 split. She was practiced in reading even his smallest signs. She examined her nails and picked loose the dirt she found there. He bore left. Altamont meaning San Francisco where they’d met seven years before. They climbed into the pass. The wind picked up and gusts batted the car. All around them long-stemmed daisy-bladed rotors carved great, white circles in the air. Somewhere farther down the line these slices of night became electricity. She could feel it humming in the hair on her arms.

They rattled to a North Beach curb in the first hour of Christmas. The city appeared evacuated. He stared through the windshield with an intensity that scared the living shit out of her. Chinatown cut to the west and sex clubs to the east. Below them, the Transamercia pyramid and financial markets. Above them the weepy old churches built by Italian immigrants. She turned to the passenger-side window. I need to pee she said to him. Okay he said. He opened his door careful to keep the child lock in place and came around to her side, opened her door and took her by the arm. She walked beside him acutely conscious he was twice her size and their marriage was still legal. Her purse, and in it her phone, were 400 miles behind. They passed a rag-wrapped mummy neither man nor woman sheltering in a doorway. Nothing’s open he complained. He thought he remembered a place and led them up a steep alley between a SRO hotel and a strip club. Her breath burned in her lungs. At the top they found a toy ass/vagina combo of grimy latex discarded in a sauce-smeared pizza box. Merry Christmas he said and tried to kiss her but she turned away. He said you can give me that wad of money in your back pocket and there went her bus ticket.

She awoke cold and achy, the seat stiff beneath her. He slept with his mouth open, his arms across his chest. She tried the door but it stayed firm. He stirred and stretched his arms out and pinned her to the seat. I’m hungry he said. They foraged for food. Only a few people out for an early coffee. A digital banner blinked useless information above The Bank of Canton. 43°. The Dow Jones closed. She slowed each time they approached a sidewalk table; silently begged the stranger in a parka or fur to look up from their foamy lattes. But her sweatshirt and stretch pants, slippers not boots, were not enough to get their attention in a city grown weary of meandering homeless people. We’ll get a cup of joe and move on he said and again took her elbow.

The gas station was far off the main road and deep within Tahoe National Forest; a place UFOs would land to run secret experiments in the green-glowing night. She stood at the tank, squeezed the lever in her fist because the place was a dump and the little flip-tab thingy had broken off. Her exhaustion felt the same as energy but she knew better than to attempt thirteen hundred square miles of wilderness. You will know your time when you see it. He came out of the tiny mart and crunched over to her on scattered gravel and broken glass. In one hand he held a jumbo soda, with the other he shook some corn nuts into his mouth. He waggled the pack at her. Gas rose in the throat of the tank. It made that noise like a garroted larynx and she let go of the lever. She turned back to the pump and replaced the handle, wiped her hands, and faced him again. He crumpled the corn nuts bag and threw it at the trash barrel, held the soda out to her. Is there a straw she asked. He said let your lips get wet, keeps them soft.

They crossed into Nevada on a desolate stretch of road. Her bladder was like a baby inside her. She asked him to stop and he did. You can go behind the car he said and tilted his side mirror to the rear fender. She finished and walked back to the car. He came around and closed the door after her. He stayed just outside her window, opened his fly and stood with his back arched in release. His shadow lay behind him like a black keyhole on the ground. His stream dug a wet bullet hole into the sandy dirt. He shook himself and zipped up. You’re doing it again, he said.

They drove east into the advancing night, the red sun a bullseye in her side mirror. Desert ochre and umber faded to lavender and oxblood. They arrived in the grey of dusk at a roadside motel. He walked her into the office. He took a room on the second floor so she had a long, cement walkway and the echo of metal stairs to betray her before she could even reach open land to nowhere. He bolted the door, slid the chain into place. She tried the TV. I don’t want that he said. He sat at the plywood desk and applied himself to a letter that, once he finished and read it to her, would set everything right between them. She sat on the bed, her back against the wall, her legs stretched out, her arms crossed over her chest. He bent over his notebook and, his fingers white with pressure, pressed line after line of very small letters into paper. The top of the pencil jolted back and forth like the needle on a lie detector. His hand cramped and he stopped to rub his wrist. She pulled the chain on the lamp beside the bed. The bulb burned with a fried-wire sizzle, even the shade tilted with the need to run.

They rose early packed their few things and went down to the car. He opened her door and a yeasty bloom of burger wrappers and soda cups, brown rings in the dry bottoms, brought her stomach to her throat. He shoveled the mess to the back seat and then settled behind the wheel, checked the child lock and started the engine. They crunched through gravel until they gained the smooth asphalt of the freeway and the day streamed past and past and past her window.

The horizon lay forever at the same unreachable distance in a desert so vast and without pity she couldn’t imagine pioneers desperate enough to face it alone. To maintain a sense of time, she watched fence posts zip by. Dust bubbled in the low hills, died to the ground and rose again as a herd of wild horses bolted and shifted and stopped and ran again at some provocation or simply the joy of being free. The Bonneville Salt Flats he said. She nodded at the scaly white scalp and ran her tongue across cracked lips.

The sun was above them now. Foothills buckled the horizon. Mining roads bridged roadside ditches. At first only a few but soon the range was streaked with fingers of gravel roads reaching for long buried ore. High in the range, under the gold-white gleam of sodium vapor lights, giant machines bit into rock and hollowed out one mouth after another. They ate at a gas station and pushed into Great Basin. She imagined their route as a thin white scar on the broad back of the continent. Late in the afternoon they crested the range. The road dropped to a broad, flat apron. It took them the remainder of the day to reach the other side where again mountains rose and the last of the sun glinted off of the steel and glass of Salt Lake City.

They took a downtown exit. Streetlights burned white against the sky still blue above plumbing suppliers, wholesalers, gas stations, and vacuum cleaner stores. In Pizza Hut, Sizzler, and Outback Steak House miners and engineers, sellers and buyers lined up for early bird deals. He pulled in at a Red Lobster. I used to work here he said. In high school. He didn’t park but kept going. At the back of the building, a vista opened before her just as it had coming out of Great Basin: an interior prairie of conjoined parking lots behind a corral of street-facing restaurants and bars stretched left and right down the long city blocks. As they moved away from the crowded restaurant chains to the thinly lit areas behind extended stay hotels, the cars they passed changed from bright finish with shiny chrome to dull paint and dented fenders. Orange extension cords ran from rear windows to electric plug in stations. He slowed and scouted the area. A dog barked somewhere nearby, its call muffled and dull. A separate world back here he said. People mind their own business he said and took a slip where tree branches hid the light and the few cars lurking in shadow had tee shirts flapped over their rolled up windows.

She awoke to a muffled keening low and nearby but couldn’t see the dog from the car. She thought she would go insane. He woke and said he was hungry. He pissed in the bushes and then drove them to the street side of the block; parked at the corner, the car’s nose pointed to Happy Lucky Gas across the street. You can pee there he said. He opened the glove compartment and retrieved a roll of quarters. Get us something to eat he said. She took the roll and he released the childproof lock. She got out and stood, ran her fingers through her hair, walked to the corner, punched the crossing button and sniff checked under her arms. The light changed. She looked back to him. He was out of the car and leaning against it. He motioned for her to keep going. Six lanes later she was the farthest she’d been from him in four days.

It seemed, later when she thought about this, that the moment she reached Happy Lucky Gas a flat sheet of sunlight tipped on the fulcrum of the mountains and slid down into the valley, cleared the row of pumps, and struck the plate glass of the door where it was trapped in the ghostly white prints of a hundred greasy hands. She pulled the door open. A bell sounded. The interior was in deep shadow and she sensed but couldn’t see it was cramped. Just inside the threshold she waited for her eyes to adjust. Under the fading chime of the bell another sound, labored breath, no, a scratching too short for breath. A whisk more familiar than exotic but before she could place the sound, the door behind her opened and light shot into the store. The space was no bigger than a bedroom. A raggedy man, weather-beaten, his skin as dark and earthy as a potato just pulled from the dirt, shuffled by with his arms already up and reaching for the counter and, she could just make out, the figure of a man in a meshed and fortified cage wedged between racks of chips and candy. The door clicked shut.

Half-moons of dim light swelled from the glass doors of cold cases along the walls. Ramen noodles and single rolls of toilet paper stacked on top of each case fractured what natural light angled in from a high window. Dust motes spun in some movement of air she couldn’t feel. She scissor stepped to the first case. Her reflection stared back at her. The high desert had sucked all the moisture from her skin and hair, her cracked lips were swollen. She pulled the door open and it made that gasp it does. She pawed through the same fat-loaded, salty calories they’d been eating since Los Angeles. She grabbed two apples instead and a pack of cheese sticks. In the second case: green and blue drinks to keep long haulers awake, orange and red drinks to rehydrate, single cans of beer and liters of soda. He drank Dew. She grabbed one of the bright green bottles and cradled it in her arm, the cap end resting against her shoulder, her hand supporting its bottom. She found a bottle of water. The door rushed back. She took everything to the counter, a matter of simply turning around.

Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, raggedy man pushed each penny forward with a black-nailed finger. One hundred he said and paused, breath locked high in his chest, to properly acknowledge the successful conclusion of his dollar. He cupped the mound of coins the way a priest might caress the head of a sinner and pushed it forward. Two fingers, forked like the tongue of a snake, struck from the shadowy cage, pressed and slid the pennies two at a time into a container that rang with their landing. Between the two men lay a bag of Chips Ahoy and a can of Coke. One, raggedy man began again. He slid this pile forward with the conclusive “all in” motion she’d once seen at the tables in Reno. Raggedy man straightened and waited, accustomed to the recount.

You short the counter man said. You short fifty-seven cents.

I don’t have it raggedy man said as serious as a man under oath. Can you spot me? Until next time?

In the side-to-side sway of counter man’s sallow head his eyes met hers.

I could get it she said. Out of here. She freed a hand and pulled the roll of quarters from the waistband of the stretch pants she still wore.

Raggedy man grabbed the cookies and Coke, bolted to the door, and flung it wide in his escape. Light crossed the cage and counter man’s face waxed full: a broad, high forehead, wide cheeks, and full lips. He was tall. Boney and loose jointed. His black hair was nicked with white V’s just like the dolls whose hair she’d cut as a child. She set her food and drinks in the white scar worn into the center of the hinged counter by years of sliding change.

Chinaman in desert he said from his coop and laughed. He plucked up the roll with delicate fingers and squeezed quarters into his palm. He stacked these into dollars, scooped up what he needed, counted back her change. Then he raised a finger, indicating she should wait. He pulled a sketch pad from the piles of paper stuffed between the register and wall. A pencil was slotted into its spiral binding. He opened the pad and held it out for her to see. My customer she said. He showed her pages of portraits he’d drawn, all of them street people, all of them rendered in such detail she easily recognized raggedy man. I do you, too, he said. He shut one eye and sketched an oval onto a new page. He expertly established lines for her eyes, nose and mouth, and she recognized the sound of lead on paper. Outside, a car rolled up to the door and stopped, engine growling. She grabbed the food and hurried out.

The passenger door was open and she dropped into the seat; handed over the bottle of Dew. I need to pee she said. Well that’s your fault isn’t it he said.  We’ll go up to the mountains, take a snow bath. He said I want to trust you again but you make it hard.

There was nothing suspect about their car among the many others parked behind pancake houses and fast food chains where an anonymous population of contract mine workers and drifters moved and shifted their cars like shells hiding a pea. But he was predictable, she had that. He quickly established routes. She plotted these against whatever there was to mark them—the big telephone box, the FedEx drop. Time collapsed to morning, day, evening, night. The letter was 20 pages now. She hoped she might find an angle of appeasement if he read what he had and she asked him. I’m not ready he said. Her clothes were filthy. She was certain her teeth were coming loose and she ran her tongue over them constantly. Sleep was impossible. That goddamned dog whimpered and cried all night. She could not stand crying.

In the morning still the dog. A car door opened nearby and urine splashed the pavement. Christ she said out loud and he stirred. You up he asked. She turned away to hide her streaked face. He got out, tested his pocket for the key, double checked the safety lock, and closed the door. The tee shirt covering the window of the car next to them lifted and an eyeball searched her face. She put her hand to the window. The tee shirt dropped back into place. He was twenty yards away, pissing in a row of bushes behind Olive Garden. The dog put up a frantic bark. She tore through the glove box, ashtray, upholstery, between the seats, and under the floor mats looking for paper, a pencil, ketchup pack, anything. Anything she could use. The passenger window darkened and she turned to see him looking in on her, his mouth cracked in a smirk.

It was dark when they returned from Burger King. He parked right up against the Olive Garden bushes, cut the engine. We need fresh air he said and rolled their windows down a few inches. It smells like a latrine she said. The dog whined not two feet from her. She turned to the sound and could feel his grin hit the back of her head. She knew this part of him, too. He was pushing her, daring her to make a move so he could come at her. She rolled back the paper on her double cheeseburger and bit into the worm soft meat. She heard steps and her side mirror reflected a man approaching them from the rear. He came up the slot between their two cars and popped the door on his. A short haired, skinny brown mutt no more than ten pounds leapt free, raced to a tree and peed, his one hind leg sticking up and shaking like a scolding finger.

Get back here the man yelled when the dog finished. The dog cowered and stayed close to the tree; sniffed for whatever news he could get. God damn it the man yelled. Don’t make me come get you. Tail between its legs the dog slunk back and the man grabbed it and threw it in the car. Slammed the door. She spit the ball of mashed food to the floor and screamed before he could roll up her window or the man could walk away. She shouted my boyfriend says you’re a fucking asshole the way you treat that dog. Instantly the man was at the driver’s door, had his hand through the gap in the window, and the door open. The man pulled him from the car by his shirt and punched him before he could react. Blood ran from his nose and his eyes settled on a point in mid-space like they’d stopped seeing. He went down and the punches became kicks. She reached across the console and clicked the childproof lock, opened the door and leapt out. Other men, pent up, ready, came out of their cars and gathered around him where he lay on the ground. What the fuck one of them said, his thumbs stabbing at his phone. The angry man slapped the phone away. It skittered across cement. The men all swung now in any direction, happy for the feel of fist on bone. The dog stared at her from the other car. She tested the door. It wrenched open. She scooped the quivering mutt up in her arms and ran the maze knowing exactly where to turn and where to hold fast.

Counter man looked up at the sound of the bell. A lone police siren came up the broad street, ricocheted off buildings and cars. Blue strobe pulsed through the cage and was gone. You can come in here he said and lifted the hinged counter.

He sat on a plastic milk crate on the register side of the cage, nodded to a second crate across from his. She sat and tucked the dog onto her lap. A swell of sirens, among them the braying hee-haw of an ambulance, rose, sped past, and ebbed down the long canyon of plate glass. The dog squirmed free and lay at her feet. Counter man reached for a light just above her head and clicked it on. The pencil slid from the spine of his sketchbook with the sound of birds taking flight. He opened to the oval he’d started, settled the book on his knee, and smoothed the paper with the side of his hand. Pencil an inch from the page he looked up at her. He was measuring, getting proportion. She could tell by the way his eyes studied her face, how they moved from one cheek bone to the other, eyebrows to ears, from her widow’s peak to the thin lines of her Hellenic nose, the bow of her lips, the curve of her dimpled chin. He bent to the page and his pencil whispered her face.

Get the dog, too, she said and sat very still.

Rebecca Chekouras is a fiction writer and essayist. Her work has appeared in numerous local, national, and international publications. She lives in Oakland, California.