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Doug Lawson

Escape

Susan tells Bucky that just because she's a woman with tattoos and red hair and just because she still rides a motorcycle (an old black Harley with tassels off the handlebars long enough to walk big dogs and saddlebags large enough for loot), this doesn't mean she's a woman who still steals cars. She points out evidence like a defense lawyer, ticking things off on her fingers: she has a degree now, her own apartment, a steady job as a lab tech in the hospital. She draws blood on the Psych ward where they don't let just anybody go, you've got to be good with them.

I don't care what things you learned in jail, she says. And I don't care for your sweet talk. She scratches with her shoe in the dust that covers the sidewalk outside her apartment building. I draw the line and past here, Mr. Christopher Columbus, are dragons just like on those old maps.

On one side of the line is a crumpled beer can. On the other is a dead mouse, four paws up in an attitude of surrender. Susan is still in her uniform, carrying a bag of groceries. Bucky has just stepped out of the bushes with the haircut of a man who hasn't seen a decent mirror in a long time.

Well, he says, pretending to misunderstand. To start with, I'm no detective.

Susan rolls her eyes. Not Colum-bo, someone else entirely different.

Second, I hear Columbus is in deep water these days. Multiculturally speaking, I mean.

Since when did you get educated.

With this Navajo guy in for manslaughter. Wanted Columbus' balls. You'd know if you ever came to visit.

No, she says. You can't make me feel guilty. Say what you want, Bucky. I am still not stealing a car with you.

Come on, he says. I know you. Who are you fooling? Bucky grins that grin of his, each side of his mouth turning up by itself. First the right. Then the left. Then both at once and she can see he's gotten his teeth fixed while he was in there--a long line of silver stretched along his gumline is like a snake made out of tin-foil. It's only been three years, he says. Three years and I remember us in Florida just like it was yesterday, Suzie. Remember Tallahassee? Remember the speedway? Remember Miami Beach? I drove all around that ring and people were cheering me, babe. He holds his hands out to her, calluses up, to offer his memories in case she can't find hers.

Susan rearranges the groceries in her arm and digs in the pockets of her white lab coat for her keys while avoiding his eyes. First the right pocket. Then the left. She thinks of him driving races on the weekends, the smell of oil and exhaust, the sun on the back of her neck like a warm dream.

For old times, babe, he says. Look, you even pick the car. And bring that cat, you still got him? With the tail? What's his name.

Whiskers, she says.

Whiskers, Bucky says. That's right. Bet you never rode in a hot car with a cat before.

Yeah. You've got me there and oh, it's so convincing.

Look, he says. I'll stick my nose right up that fat furry butt if it will make you feel better.

Such a macho, manly man you are. Did your Indian like that?

Like what?

Manly men. Or noses, for that matter.

As a matter of fact... That grin again.

Oh, you. Knock it off.

Come on, he says. Give me a break here.

I've got a life now, Bucky.

I haven't seen you in forever. Now I'm seeing you. Run with me here.

Three years isn't forever. It's just three years.

What's that supposed to mean, he asks.

I don't know. She thinks it was just something to say. Look, take this will you? She hands him the groceries, checks her pants pocket and purse and checks her coat pockets again.

You looking for these? He holds up her keys in one thick paw. Fingernails are bitten down to the quick.

Now cut that out.

I hope you got beer, he says. I haven't had a beer in a long, long time.

Three years, huh?

See? You read my mind. He shakes his head in fake admiration. You know me better than my own mother.

Your mother's an old bitch, she says. That woman, she thinks, could use a steadily increasing diet of Lithium and Thorazine. When the phone rings now and there's no voice on the other end, just static, when The Plain Truth comes in the mail, she knows someone still blames her for the way Bucky turned out.

Well, hey, he says, spreading his arms wide. On that note, I rest my case. He makes no sense to her. He never did.

----------

Upstairs, she's got Budweiser in cans, but he's not being particular. Bucky pops the top and wanders around the place, picking up and examining the leaves of plants in the windows, looking at the walls and the ruffles that run along the bottom of the furniture. He hums to himself, quiet expressions of amazement. The plants are ferns. The couch is pink. The carpet, carpet , is beige. The vase has flowers in it, real ones, and there's a tapestry on the wall of a big, white unicorn with wise eyes, standing in front of a rainbow.

It's her place. All hers, she thinks he's thinking, not a trace of him to be seen anywhere. The cat is nowhere. It's never around when she needs it. Outside a dog is barking.

You know what you need, Bucky says.

What.

A picture. Picture of me.

Susan looks at her shoes. White nurse shoes with a blue heart on the sole. To throw darts at, maybe?

Maybe, he agrees. Maybe so. Just so long as you have one.

She does have one, actually. She carries it in her purse but doesn't want him to know. She takes it out and looks at it sometimes, in the long afternoons on her days off. The sunlight comes in through the plants, then, and all that green light reminds her of Florida. Where would I put it.

Over your bed.

Keep dreaming.

Next to your alarm clock, so you see me every morning.

Maybe there's somebody else I see every morning when I get up, she says.

Naaah.

How do you know? Maybe there is.

Naaah.

His name is Gary. Gary Sheppard. She can't make herself sound convincing, and she's not sure, suddenly, if she wants to. Gary Sheppard is a favorite patient on the unit. He's the quietest, most relaxed paranoid schizophrenic she knows. He sits with his arm out for her and doesn't flinch when she pulls the rubber tube too tight or complain when she can't find the vein the first time.

You mean a German Shepard, maybe? Bucky sits on the couch and puts his feet up on the glass top of the coffee table. The tabletop rattles in the fake brass frame and she feels like it's a noise from somewhere inside her. He finishes off his beer. The dog outside is still barking and then, suddenly, it stops. Bucky laughs. Come for a ride.

She sighs. He is a large-bore needle, climbing in under her skin ready to mark her with blue ink, ready to draw blood, and she sits there, arm out and waiting. Bucky carefully studies her stereo VCR from across the room and she knows he knows she's looking at him. Her own life seems transparent, somehow. Weightless like those dust-ruffles, puffing in the humid breeze. She does have memories. They're slung around her neck like heavy gold chains. They're spelled out in the lines of ink on her body that the two of them made together once. The Harley signs and the heart with his initials. The great bald eagle spread across her back in blue from shoulder to shoulder and beneath it, the treasure chest, open and overflowing with all the riches they were someday going to have together.

She gets up and gets another own beer for herself, tosses him another. She sits down again and neither of them says anything. Bucky drains his beer and leaves the can on the coffee table, then gets up and goes back over to the window. Whiskers chooses that moment to make an appearance. A liar and a whore by nature, he struts out of the bedroom like he hasn't been hiding, like he's just been sleeping or something and then just needed a snack. She's not fooled. They're somehow in cahoots, she thinks. Like it's all on TV and scripted somehow--you'll stand here. Mr. Bucky, then the cat will come up to you and sniff your feet.

Whiskers sniffs Bucky's feet, then looks up with those slutty, mournful eyes of his. He meows to be picked up. Bucky reaches down, and scoops the cat up in his arms. Making sure she's watching, he presses his face down into the cat and makes farting noises, like someone would tickle the pink, round belly of a baby. Whiskers purrs like nobody's business.

See? Bucky emerges sniffling. Clumps of cat hair stick to his eyebrows. Even the cat remembers. Tell me that you don't.

I remember, she says. I never said I didn't remember.

Well, then. He sneezes. She looks at the cat and thinks baby.

Baby.

----------

They steal an old Mustang with more rust primer than windows and a hood bent up and over to hold an oversized, turbo-charged engine. Gotta love a Mustang, Bucky says, like he's been planning this one for years. Faster than a cat with a firecracker up its ass. He looks at her expression. I mean a rat! I said a rat!

Susan shakes her head, and wonders aloud about this sudden predominance of posteriors in Bucky's thoughts.

Bucky, grinning, slips a flat strip of metal down between the window and the door and jerks the lock up in one swift motion. Susan wonders if they had classes on this up in St. Albans. All those men with shaved heads and striped clothing, sitting in a circle of folding plastic chairs and sharing secrets.

The seats of the Mustang are deep and black and they suck her in. Bucky says Don't forget your seatbelt, babe, and as she clicks the strap across her chest she thinks that seals it. No return. The neighborhood is small and the streets are dirty.

Tell me about your bike. Bucky says, as they pass where it's parked.

Twelve hundred cee-cees, she says. Highway pegs and the jug's dipped in chrome and rebored, zero to sixty faster than this piece of junk I can tell you that.

Bucky whistles, swivels his head as they pass it by like it was a tall, thin blonde. Sweet, baaaby, sweeet! he says, admiringly. The sound of the pistons knocking as Bucky checks out all the gears between one stop sign and another. A few lifeless trees marking the curb with their ambivalence. Newspapers blow from one side of the street to another. They catch on fences, wrap around posts, converge on and absorb puddles.

An old man perched up on a mailbox watches them go. Susan waves her hand out the window and the old man breaks into a brown-toothed grin and tips his dirty baseball cap goodbye.

Pete Drucker, she says to Bucky. One of my regulars. She sighs. I guess we'll be seeing him in again soon.

----------

Out of the neighborhood, onto the highway. Susan shows Bucky her new tattoos--the willow tree across her cleavage, the face of a clown crying on her right shoulder and the unicorn, down on her leg near the ankle that shows through the white stockings they make her wear. She bends down, takes off her shoe to show him all of it, but instead he looks down the front of her shirt. For a long minute, she lets him.

Been a long time, he says. Been a long, long time. She turns and looks over at the Howard Johnson's they're passing. She's not sure what to say. He rolls down all the windows even though it's starting to rain, turns on the stereo and it's the Dead singing about trucking. Susan buys them both Long John Silver's at a drive-through and they eat it on Route 40 as the rush hour traffic out of New York dwindles. They unbuckle the seatbelts and sword-fight with the plastic forks, him looking down the front of her top and trying to steer all at the same time. Then he lets her win and plays dead, swerving into the other lane for a second with his head down on the wheel, driving blind.

He's the same old Bucky, she thinks then. He hasn't changed at all.

They pass several New Jersey State Highway Patrol cars going the other way and they try to look nonchalant when they do. One'll pass and Bucky will watch the mirror for a few minutes after it's gone. He even waves to one as it goes by them and the cop waves back. Only then the black-and-white swings around in a gas station, crosses over through a gap in the median where only he can turn around and starts to follow them a few cars back. No sirens. No lights. No commotion. Quiet. But Susan can feel sound coming from that car in waves right inside of her like she would feel a drum beat. Words, like she's a receiver tuned in to the right frequency and a large over-comforting voice is talking calm and regular into her ears they way she talks to Gary Sheppard. Everything will be fine. This won't hurt a bit. Everything's fine. Re-lax.

All right, she says to Bucky. Pull over into the Ames there like we're shopping. Let's knock it off before he knows. She looks at the side of his face and she can see a spot he missed shaving.

Naaah. He's looking in the mirror.

Bucky. Don't let's fuck this up.

He's quiet for a long moment and the radio is between songs. Then he says I've been cooped up for a long time, Suzie-babe. He says it real quietly and reasonably. I've got three years of steam to blow off.

He shows her the old pistol stuck down in the top of his pants. It's a small gun, no grip, rust starting on the parts she can see. Then he covers it up again and grins. That silver in his teeth again, flickering...

You asshole, she says. She says it real quietly. She can see the way his hands get tighter at five and eleven o'clock on the steering wheel. She can feel that long familiar something inside of her, that feeling of something vital, leaking away somewhere. She felt it thirty-two months ago, when the old butch nurse at that one clinic said she could go home. She'd looked out the window, at all those protesters looking in and hating her, and for minutes--almost an hour--she could not remember just what street that place was on.

At the light, the cop is right behind them, close enough to read the writing on the rearview mirror on Susan's side. She can hear the sputter of the cop's radio for real, then. She watches everything that happens next with eyes bigger than headlights.

Bucky throws the car into reverse, steps on the gas pedal, and hits the cop car hard enough to pop the cop's airbag. The car jerks and there's a crunch, and then the sound like someone hit in the chest blowing out all their air at once. There's the crinkle of that unfolding, inflating plastic. There's a moment of absolute silence, when Susan looks at the guy in the Jag in the lane right next to her. The guy is caught in the middle of talking on his car phone and looks at her with his mouth open and words still on his tongue. She wants to cry.

Then Bucky runs the light and everything snaps into motion. He pulls into the oncoming traffic, dodges a Jeep and a blue Saab and he sideswipes a red van. Horns are blaring. The siren starts up. There's the sound of squealing tires and a crump and Bucky drives across the median kicking up turf. He gets on the Turnpike going north on the southbound lane and he starts singing that Grateful Dead song, though the radio is now playing The Beatles. Yessirree I'm truckin', he says.

You're not just an asshole, Susan says back. You're a fucking asshole. She hits him on the arm and on the side of the face. He doesn't react to that, he doesn't budge, but his shoulders set themselves a certain way like they did when she used curse words at him. She remembers that gesture real well.

Truckin' with Jesus A-men Praise God, sings Bucky, making up his own lyrics. I got the music and the music's got me, and he says that as if it's some sort of explanation.

I think I'm gonna be sad, sings the radio back. I think it's today, and Susan thinks isn't that too crazy. The window is blowing rain and her white lab coat is soaked now. Her name tag that has her picture and full name on it followed by her credentials is torn off and blown into the back seat where there are piles of McDonald's wrappers and the Long John Silver's boxes, rolling back and forth like yellow, orange, and white sand dunes in the wind as Bucky swerves from lane to lane in tight traffic, stomping on the pedals. He clips the tail of a white stretch limo, overcompensates into a Chevy Citation and bounces between a station wagon and a car with a big black bird on its hood. There is glass breaking behind them. There is the heavy thump of combustion. The radio sings she's got a ticket to ri-hide, and Susan, bracing herself on the dash, thinks Jesus just shut the fuck up. Watching Bucky while he dips and swerves, she sees a twitching now in the corner of his mouth, a jerking in his hands on the wheel and the gearshift. He's working hard and out of practice, she realizes. He's working hard to show her he hasn't changed a bit, that he's still the same old, wild Bucky, and that no one can ever make him any different.

And suddenly, it's like a door is open for Susan. On one side is that strange fondness she's been caught up in, a young version of herself looking strange and eager like a Jehovah's Witness. In her young mind, she realizes, nothing can touch Bucky. No other car on the strip comes close, shines as brightly, moves as deftly into and out of the pit. Like the lightning flashing ahead of all the thunder on its tail.

Now, though, that fondness is over there and she's on this side of the door, a different side. A side that's all her own. She can see the strain in Bucky's face, the shaking of his hands. She sees sweat coming off of his balding head and running down into the collar of that worn flannel shirt. She can smell burning.

He wants the old her, that same old Suzie-babe, with the tube-top and the high heels and the Jack Daniel's. He wants her to fall into his lap, giggling with excitement and the thrill of the chase.

But she's strapped in her own bucket seat. A horn blares, another car swerves, a VW Bus falls over on its side in a flurry of sparks and then it's out of sight, behind them, gone. Susan thinks of the day of Bucky's very last race, when his car lost a tire and he killed a man. It wasn't his fault. Nobody blamed him. But when his car stopped rolling and he climbed out okay and still not knowing, he waved to the crowd and gave them a thumbs up only no one waved back. No one was even looking.

----------

Still on the Turnpike, speeding through the marsh now. She can smell it, that smell of swamp, that smell of home. If this was Florida then around the next turn a gator would be waiting in the water, motionless like a log. But this is New Jersey. The gator is an old spare tire, a floating diaper, a piece of a door off a refrigerator that washed up against the road once and stuck.

Why... Bucky says. Why didn't you ever have that baby?

Something black smears across the window on his side then, oil maybe, and he has to lean out of the window to steer. So he can't hear her answer, which is good because she doesn't have one right away. Baby, she thinks. Baby. The letters that make up the word vibrate around in her head, clink from side to side with the motion of the car. Bucky swerves left and dives across three lanes. He crashes through a tollgate and there's the sound of wood cracking and a ringing that says they didn't pay, and then he gets back on the right side of this road. Off to one side is the Meadowlands. Off to the other is swamp and cattails. Susan can see a long trail of oil-smoke going up behind them when Bucky swerves right. She knows what that means. She thinks Bucky does too. They swing around a curve and get onto a dirt access-road that runs out into the marsh itself, and individual things freeze in her eyes in minute detail. Something lies dead on her side of the road. A crow looks on, undisturbed by their passing. The cattails that flick by, taller than the roof of the car, are green and brown and a faded, dirtied white like old pictures. White, winged things burst from their tops, loft into the air, curl around like cigarette smoke in their wake.

Because, she thinks to the radio. She imagines herself saying the words. Because something made out of a part of you and a part of me then would have been so heavy I would have drowned. It rains more down in that state then anywhere else in the world, Bucky. It rains every day during the week and then it rains on Saturdays too. But they drive on, wrapped in the sound of the motor and the static-filled music of old bands.

Bucky hangs out of the window and Susan stares at the dashboard in silence until they pull around a corner doing ninety and there's a gate. She sees it first in her freezing vision, through the tiny part of clear windshield that hovers before her, that the tall gate is closed and locked to metal poles that are cemented deep into the ground. She sees Bucky see the gate and then he stands on the brakes hard and the Mustang bucks hard and everything is spinning. The car pushes its nose down deep into the dirt and raises its trunk toward the sky and throws them around. Trash from the back seat spills over them like water. Bucky hugs the steering wheel. Susan is pitched forward and she hits the dash before the old seatbelt catches her. She hits hard, and thinks she might have cracked a tooth.

The engine dies. Dust is everywhere. Far away, she can hear sirens.

Fuck, says Bucky.

He tries to open his door but it won't, then he climbs across her, shoves the door on her side and runs up to the gate. He jerks it back and forth. The heavy chain rattles against the metal bars and the thick, heavy padlock swings in the air. Susan gets out of the car and imagines jail. The smell of mildew and sweat. Someone shouting somewhere, like they do on the unit from time to time. She imagines being locked behind thick rock and iron in a place where everyone watches you use the toilet.

She wonders who she will recognize, who might recognize her.

Son of a bitch! Bucky yells. He kicks the gate and punches it with a fist. Don't do this to me!

To you? Susan thinks.

Then Bucky takes out his pistol and shoots the gate. The shots crack out into the air and seem so small, like the snapping of old, brittle sticks in a fire. She doesn't say anything, she just stands there watching him empty the gun. He clicks a few times after all the shots are gone and there's the smell of burning sulfur, hanging there in the air around them.

She holds onto her lip and it bleeds into her hand. Small dots of red fall onto her wet, white coat. Small drops of red that make her think of that time in the clinic. This time he's here to see it, she thinks. This time it's more than just some nurse I don't know, handing me pads. She looks down at her shoes and stoops to tie the one she unlaced to show him the long, golden tail of the unicorn.

You're bleeding, Bucky says.

She doesn't say anything.

I said you're bleeding.

I'm bleeding, she says, looking up. I hear you.

Without taking his eyes from her Bucky sinks down to the ground with his back up against the gate. He puts his head into his hands and then takes it out again and looks up at her. I wanted something better than this.

Lot of good it does.

I'm really sorry, Suzie. I wanted us to get out.

She thinks of those men and women dressed in stripes, walking in circles, all their hands chained together. Out of where, she says.

Out, he says. Get away. Together.

Is that what this is all about, she thinks. Oh, Bucky, you've got it all backwards. She looks at the high grass, at the mosquitoes hovering in the air above it, and feels much older than she has felt before, as though she is his mother now, not that woman in the curlers and the bathrobe, that some sort of baton has been passed over and now she has to run with it.

Christ, Bucky, this isn't high-school anymore. We're not teenagers. Where the hell would we go?

I'm so sorry, he says again. He puts his head back into his hands and it stays there. She can see brown spots across his scalp that weren't there when he had more hair. In the Mustang something catches with a woof! and a black smoke crawls out from under the hood. She holds her breath, closes her eyes and plunges back into the car, feeling around with hands, opening her eyes only when she grasps something. A plastic fork. An air-freshener shaped like a tree. Then it's there, between two fingers, her work ID. Then it's in her pocket and she's out.

I'll tell them it was only me, Bucky says, still by the gate. I'll wait for them and they won't go chasing through the marsh. They won't bring in helicopters. You'll get out. He does not look at her and his voice is muffled, but she still hears him, and him saying that opens up that door inside of her again. She is standing on one side and that old her is just over the threshold. The black smoke winds along the ground. The sirens are closer now, screeching like hungry birds. Somewhere off in the reeds, something small splashes.

Then, deciding, she steps through that door and takes the slim hand of memory, and the old her rises up and walks into the new like something out of Star Trek--two hers in the same space-time, an amalgamation of distinct individuals beamed into one spot. She goes over and touches the top of Bucky's head without saying anything. The hair there is fine, shaggy, and thinning, warm like she imagines the head of a child to be. She picks up the pistol and throws it as far out into the reeds as she can, and then, kneeling, takes Bucky in her arms for a long minute.

Then she rises sprints back up the road, picks a spot at random and moves into the marsh careful not to bend down too many reeds, to leave any kind of trail. Old habits, coming back to her easily now. Running, hiding. She steps her white shoes out into the water. It comes up to her knees and half of that is muck, she'll never see those shoes again. Bugs scatter. There's another old tire and plastic garbage bags here. The water is green and brown and pieces of what looks like mold floats on the surface.

She crouches down and listens to the sirens spiral in, to the cars arriving. She feels the dark water seeping into her clothes and pressing against her skin and it makes her remember the feel of the abortion, the cold hands of the doctor, that long piece of hard, frigid metal turning deep inside her like a key. She imagines the marks it left like a tattoo. A tattoo of gigantic proportions marking her in a place where she will never see the shape. Somewhere that door shuts and both of her, the new and the old, are on the same side, arms around each other.

She looks through the reeds to where Bucky is. They've pulled him to his feet. The Mustang is all in flames now and Bucky is shaking his head as the men are putting him in cuffs and asking him questions. No, sir, he says, loud enough for her to hear. Only me. No, I'm telling you, sir. Sirs. They push him hard against the hood of the car and then two of them walk out to the edge of the swamp, looking. She crouches down lower. They're considering coming in, searching; she can see that in the way their bodies lean outward, ready. Then one of them, the older of the two, shakes his head, points at his shiny boots and shrugs.

----------

They walked Bucky right past where she was hiding, to put him into the back of one particular patrol car. They were so close--clumping of boots, jingling of keys and cuffs and what-else, she could almost have touched him if she wanted.

She didn't. But in her mind that day she did. She reached out from between the cattails and she brushed a spot on Bucky's ankle as the police took him past. Under her imagined finger, in red and blue and gold inks, sprouted a tiny tattoo of an eagle. The very same eagle that's spread across her own back from shoulder to shoulder.

Weeks later on the unit, she can still imagine how beautiful it would have looked. Beak open, wings spread. Poised and ready to fly.

Copyright 1995 Blip Magazine Archive

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