Went into my trunk this morning to look for a DVD and spotted the copy of The Stonefence Review in which I had the headliner short story (Winter 2005.) Decided to transpose. It’s longer than I remembered, so here is Part 1 of 2.
The Mack truck glistened in the haze of the Jersey rest stop. The driver jerked the nozzle out and replaced it on the island. He looked grizzled and gaunt, with dirt-gray overalls and a stride that spoke of tar in the nostrils, juice in the spit, and mornings of thick-eyed pinks and grays. He climbed into the cab with an arthritic delicacy one acquires only through decades of obstinate pride. Exxons, Shells, Roy Rogers’, Bob’s Big Boy’s, monotonous gas islands and defunct restaurants clinging to the sides of turnpikes and tollways; it was a highway monogamy no wife could ever understand. His evening embrace was the mold of his torn felt seat, his drive home just another asphalt day fading into dusk. The truck started with a low roar and began toward the on-ramp. A moment later it was just another rig merging onto the highway.
The automatic shutoff clicked audibly, and the boy returned from reverie. He hung the nozzle, closed the gas door, grabbed his receipt, and made his way behind the steering wheel. The wagon was filled to the brim. An obstacle-free rearview mirror was a luzury not afforded to homebound college students, but facilitated the entertainment of creative lane changing. All in all, it was by no means terrible; better to keep yourself racing through Camden than daydreaming along the monotonous line of totem pole transformer towers.
There were too many miles between each exit of the forsaken southern half of New Jersey I-95 not to imagine an adventure eluding some omnipresent RADAR ENFORCED BY AIRCRAFT. And then there was the soundtrack, refracting clumsily with broken bass and a hollow treble semblance of his otherwise glorious eighties mix. The songs were celebratory, saturated with an innocent romanticism that helped you ignore their lesser qualities. Creative license plays second fiddle when George Harrison of all people has his mind set on you. Can you fault a song that makes you smile? Unfortunately it was difficult to argue against some of the overt silliness. Someone in the Outfield doesn’t want to lose your love tonight, Eddie Money will take you home tonight, and INXS needs you tonight; that girl was obviously in a very tough spot. And then there’s the strange case of “Bette Davis Eyes,” which began softly as the boy started the engine.
Younger generations get Bette Davis and Betty Grable mixed up; Bette was an actress, Betty was some pin-up floozy our grandfathers whistled at. It’s an unfortunate mistake to make, as not only was Bette Davis an actress, she was a good actress, and held court in 1942 as the highest paid woman in America. The boy knew none of this; he only felt a reserved infatuation with this particularly feminine song, and a pervasive, lazy curiosity as to the true appearance of those eyes. They might be big blue Caribbean spheres, deep cerulean sparkling, rolling, and diving into themselves with each sidelong glance. Or thick almond browns, forgive-me puppy dog eyes tearing hopeful hearts in two. But the boy imagined these eyes as unique beyond prototype. No blues, and over time even the sienna iris had itself been romanticized via opposition. These eyes lay somewhere between the ends of the American love-at-first-sight spectrum, flaunted by Monroes on one end and championed by Morrisons on the other. Bette Davis was something better than the best; the song itself somehow provoked this mystic perception. Jade greens, smoky hazels, lavender lust, wanderlust grays- anything else, a mix of the four, but there was an inherent, amazing distinction than any beauty he had ever known. But now that he thought of it, Van Morrison didn’t decide on brown until the day before the recording. It was supposed to be blue-eyed, and that scrupulous tidbit would scratch plenty of down-on-their-luck-but-still-dancing-in-their-t-shirts brown eyed girls, if they only knew this partisan truth of classic rock. And before he could forget all about on decade to contemplate another with equally presumptuous ignorance, Joey Watkins almost hit the gas station attendant.
The Ford squealed mid-halt, and in the cargo hold a metal wastebasket filled with poetry and coat hangers spilled over. Colorful books and tangled wires scattered across boxes and trashbags overflowing with clothes. The paper covers of some of the hangers advertised collegiate discounts, with big marquee phone numbers letting you know where to call for the “Best Deal In Town- Guaranteed”. Details tell all. The young man had no jar of laundry quarters on his desk, and his clothes always came back dry and precisely unwrinkled. And while Dougy Blanchard steamed his shirt for the seasonal fraternity formal, the young man paid no mind as he played Wallace Stevens’ blue guitar with an air of apathetic care, picking Cummings’ pretty how town in the wispy chords of his mind. His shirt was always delivered steamed and perfect, along with his slacks and jackets, courtesy of the best deal in town. He didn’t even know how to turn on an iron- he was a well-endowed Gatsby of Gasbys, Great Neck and Port Washington for yesteryear’s Eggs, East and West respectively. And now, as the car stopped the once empty back seat now held a number of coat hanger advertisments. Atop these was an upright overturned book advertising some ridiculous connection between the tenets of Taoism and one orange, stuffled with fluff Winnie-the-Pooh.
The man tapped at the window. Yellow nails. The boy turned off the car.
“You’ve got a flat there.” Except “there” came out more like “thah”- migrant New Englander for sure. And flat-fucked out of luck. He got out and looked. Running low. Hopefully not done. Just low. His neck turned coolly, scanning the rest stop with panicking pupils. He knew nothing about cars.
“Oh…does the station have an air pump?”
The old man shook his head and muttered some garbled Bostonian rhapsody of “not”‘s and “shed”‘s as he walked away from the gas islands and toward the restaurants. The boy followed with his eyes and spotted an off-orange nickel aluminum door; a maintenance building sat closed on the far edge of the shopping center. The man trod toward it, head down, still talking as he closed the distance away from the flat-tired Ford