- The End
Lulu never would have talked me into the road trip if
she hadnít mentioned the thing about The Doors. "Imagine, ninety miles
an hour down a perfectly straight road across the desert, blasting ĎThe
Endí." She had a point. I clocked out of the Circle K at midnight, ate
my dinner from a bag of Ruffles, and we hit the highway.
Anyone would have told you it was a terrible idea. Lulu
and I had broken up months agoóshe was "lez" nowóbut the end of her
Spring Break coincided with the beginning of mine, and driving her back
to art school in Arizona seemed like a sure-fire way to spark up what
had gone cold between us. We bought batteries for my boombox and set it
on top of her bags in the back seat of my í68 Plymouth. Instead of
fretting over choosing the best road trip music, I loaded everything I
had into the back seat: three fruit crates heaped with unmarked
cassettes. Would the car make it a thousand miles from Boulder, Colorado
to Tempe, Arizona and back? Who cared! As long as Lulu was with me, I
didnít give a damn if we broke down in Truth-or-Consequences and had to
clean toilets to pay for a rebuilt engine and a week in a Motel Six
(call it a best-case scenario).
Soundtrack for the road: Buzzcocks, Fugazi, Violent
Femmes, all the way along the snow-dusted Front Range until we crossed
the border into New Mexico, where we turned off the music and rolled the
windows down to let the cool desert night blast our ears in walloping
silence. When Lulu spoke, it was about her new girlfriend she called
Auto (for Autodidactic), who wrote epic poems, who dropped out of
college because she knew more than her professors, and whose tits defied
"I donít want to hear this!" I moaned, throwing my hands
up, letting the wheel bob on its own for a moment.
"Come on, since when do guys not want to hear about
lesbians with hot tits? And sheís only nineteen. Doesnít that
turn you on?"
I blindly grabbed a tape and fumbled it into the boombox,
reaching over the back of the seat to crank the volume. Turned out to be
a mix tape some other ex-girlfriend had bequeathed me: Stevie Wonder,
Marvin Gaye, Jackson Five. (Michael Jackson: once cool, now lameójust
like Lulu! Funny how things fit together like that.)
Lulu kept quiet about her girly-girl for the rest of the
trip, although I have to admit the idea of her rolling around with some
teenage danger queen did have its appeal. I took advantage of the
hip-shifting Motown groove to reflect on what had gone wrong between me
and Lulu, and if I really wanted to make it right again. Tawdry affairs
on both sides, to be honest. Our group of friends was interconnected and
incestuous, everyone bedding everyone else, betrayals as casual as small
talk. What I needed was something completely new, some uncorrupted
sweetheart who Iíd never introduce to anyoneóespecially not to Lulu. But
where to find someone like that? I was stuck with my ex in a rattling
jalopy in the middle of the desert, carting crates of vintage tapes,
trapped between the beginning and the end. You could say that I was at
the very farthest point from where I really needed to be, with nowhere
to go but straight. Michael Jackson, however, seemed to think it was
easy as 1-2-3.
On the scrub flats between Albuquerque and Gallup, Lulu
stripped to her panties and started seizure-dancing in the passenger
seat. Crouched on the ribbed vinyl, she thrashed her head in a blur of
tangled, dirty blonde, flailing her arms out the window, pounding the
dashboard. This was not unusual behavior for Lulu, and the techno-groove
sheíd loaded on the boombox made it inevitableóbut still, it was the
first time Iíd seen her like this since weíd broken up, and it made me a
little blue. There was a time when I wouldíve stripped to my skivvies and
gone wild myself, still behind the wheel and barely in control, but I
couldnít get up the energy now. Besides, I was briefly shocked at the
sight of the bristly sprouts of hair under her arms. Meanwhile, truckers
were passing us and slowing down to steal glimpses of The Lulu Show
through our bug-spattered windshield. I flipped them off one and all,
and they answered with lewd blasts of air horn. This is what the storied
American southwest has come to.
We blew into Tempe in the blazing afternoon. Lulu
pointed directions across a vast, unknowable grid of suburban
thoroughfares, past franchise restaurants, adobe banks, car lots, dental
clinics, the usual. I would just as soon have kept on driving, to Mexico
and beyond. I didnít have any more business here than anywhere else. But
Lulu bounced on her seat, ecstatic to be home, jabbering about the party
she was going to throw to introduce me to all her artsy friends. "You
need a girl," she said, hooking me an eye and laughing her husky laugh.
"Some kind of girl."
"Or some kind of something," I said.
She didnít answer, just rubbed her hands together,
"Hey, Lulu," I said, "we never listened to ĎThe End.í
Remember? That was the whole reason you talked me into this road trip,
blasting the Doors and driving across the desert. But we never listened
She turned to me, grinning and gorgeous. "This is the
end," she crooned, "beautiful friend, the end."
Of course, it really was the end for her. She was back
home, with her girlfriend waiting somewhere, but I was at the nadir of
my journey, with nowhere to go but back. It was becoming clear that all
of this was a bad idea. If I could have thrown the car into reverse and
headed backwards, rewinding to the beginning, I would have.
- The Middle
Tempe may be the least entertaining place on earth.
Nowhere to go in the middle of nowhere, and nothing to do except wait
for the sun to go down to start drinking. By the second day, I gave up
the pretense of daylight sobriety and cracked open an Old Milwaukee as
soon as Iíd chewed my morning bagel. After all, I was on spring break.
Lulu was back in classes, and I rattled around in her underfurnished
bungalow gaping at daytime television and wishing something would turn
me on enough to masturbate. I went through her CD collection but was
baffled by what I found: dozens of techno dance albums, everything by
Madonna, and loads of show tunes and opera. (Apparently she had
developed the same musical tastes as gay men.) She didnít have a tape
player, so I sat in my car at the curb with my boombox and fruit crates,
sipping beer behind the wheel and head-bobbing to The Clash with the
doors flung open on the cul-de-sac, desert sun pounding down, rockiní
Drank all Luluís beer. Buzzed and stumbling, I wandered
the neighborhood. Front yards landscaped with rocks and cactus,
convertible Jeeps everywhere, lots of pink houses. I came to a boulevard
as wide as a football field and walked across parking lots squinting
through windshield glare. I was looking for a windowless tavern,
someplace dark and cool and reeking where I could belly up and sip
whiskey until sundown, then reŽmerge into darkness when the edges had
been worn off the day.
Instead, I spied a music store surrounded by asphalt. I
slipped inside to a blast of air-con chill, instantly going goosebumpy.
I certainly didnít need more music, but I spotted an aisle of used
cassettes and decided to have a look if only to replenish my fruit
crates. I was already thinking about the long trip back to Boulder,
alone this time, and how it would be good to listen to something fresh
to take the taste of Lulu out of my mouth. Maybe some Zeppelin, that
monster guitar obliterating the desert like the blast of an atom bomb.
Or Bad Brains, for pounding the wheel and howling out the window. Or X,
for sheer speed. But I already had these bands, somewhere unlabeled and
adrift in my fruit crates. What I needed was something altogether
different, something completely un-Luluesque. On instinct, I edged into
the jazz section. Miles Davis was the only name I recognized, although I
couldnít have told you what he played. On the cover of a cassette he was
wearing a tie and pressing his lips to the mouthpiece of a horn with his
eyes closed and dark skin gleaming. The album was called "Kind of Blue."
Now there was something I could relate to: not all
the way blue, not completely depressed or brooding, but only kind
of. Bummed. Hum-drummy. Beer-drunk at noon. I pictured a stretch of
road, dead straight to the horizon, silvery in moonlight and sliding
under me in a blur of speed while reedy horns purred and drums whispered
and shushed. Instead of balls-out speed burning up the road, Iíd slide
across the desert like a bead of mercury along a razorís edge. The music
would even sound like the word: jazzzz! I paid the metalhead
clerk my three dollars and seven cents, pocketed the tape, and stepped
back into the burning world.
After sundown, I wandered back to Luluís bungalow to
find a dozen people sitting in a cloud of smoke in the living room, beer
bottles in fists, cigarettes dangling from lips, everyone a-chatter and
a-buzz. I was already half-lit myself, having spent the late afternoon
in a Hawaiian-themed college bar downing frosty mugs of Coors and
staring at ESPN. Now, like a fish to water, I slipped into the party.
Lulu flitted about in a short skirt and Harley-Davidson lace top,
ringing with laughter and wiggling her hips to an old Donna Summer disco
number. Heads bobbed. The crowd was all female save for two guys passing
a joint on the love seat. I briefly scanned for clues to determine who
was gay, who wasnít, and who might be available, but my circuits
overloaded. There was just no way to tell, not with art majors. I swung
by the fridge, snagged a bottle of Newcaste Ale and sunk into a corner
of the couch. This couch was my ad-hoc bed, after all, and I wouldnít be
sleeping anytime soon. I concentrated on the pattern of the bass line,
flexing my sore leg muscles with the rhythm, sipping beer, staring
half-focused through the smoke at the blurs of strangersí faces. I felt
a long ways from home, all the hours between here and there, so many
thousands of dash marks on the road. "Got a smoke?" chirped a girlish
She tugged on my jeans. Pale and petite, with black
shaggy hair, a ripped up concert tee and fishnets under holey jeans. She
sat crosslegged on the floor with her army boots tucked beneath her and
a bottle of Johnny Walker Red between her legs. Her face was white as
paper, her eyes blue, her lips round and red like tiny candies. Hot
tamales. Couldnít have been more than twenty, if that. Somebodyís little
"No," I said, "nothing."
"Liar!" Her hand shot out, reaching for my shirt pocket
and snagging the cassette Iíd stowed there. Her eyes went large as she
looked at the tape in her palm. "Whoa!"
"Told you. No cigarettes."
She turned the tape over, studying the song list, then
staring into the cover where Miles blew his horn in half-light, eyes
closed. "Cool," she breathed, like a long slow sigh. She fixed me with
her pale eyes. "Did you know that Miles Davis invented Ďcool?í I donít
mean just the word, I mean the whole concept of it, as this indefinable
measure of something being fresh and right and dangerous."
I blinked. Her eyes sparkled, her smile stretched.
"Really," I said, and sipped my beer. In a flash, she was squeezing in
next to me on the sofa, grazing my knee with the treads of her boots as
she tucked her legs under and set the tape on her threadbare
denim-and-fishnets thigh. She unfolded the tape cover and glanced
through the liner notes in tiny print, interspersed with black and white
photos of Miles and the musicians in the studio. "See?" she said,
fingering a shot of Miles wearing a scarf around his neck in the open
collar of a dress shirt, like an English dandy. "Look how heís dressed.
On a white guy, that ascot would look conservative, but on Miles, itís
I peered at the pictures, but I was thinking about the
girl. Her punk rock outfit struck me as weirdly contrived, just like
Milesí. But what I said was this: "Cool." And we both laughed.
She swigged from the whiskey bottle and passed it to me.
"But itís in the music, too," she said, narrowing her eyes at me. "That
sense of effortless cool. The nature of the improvisation, the
collective creativityóitís all direct deed, not deliberation, like the
gesture of a brushstroke. See?" She flourished a hand, painting a
phantom calligraphy in the air. "Thatís the real meaning of cool." Then
she pulled a crumpled pack of unfiltered Camels from the pocket of her
jeans and lit up with a Zippo.
"I thought you didnít have any cigarettes," I said
dreamily, but what I was wondering was why this punk rock girl was
talking like a jazz encyclopedia all of a sudden.
"I never said that," she said, blowing twin jets of
smoke through her nose. She stared at me, a challenge, and I felt myself
tingling in the ears. She was gorgeous, after all. With brushed hair and
a change of clothes, she could pass for a cover girl, a television
actress, a law student. Someone you could bring home to impress your
"How do you know so much about jazz? Are you a
She shrugged. "Iíve heard some stuff, here and there."
Meanwhile, Lulu crawled up to us on her hands and knees,
grinning and bleary-eyed. "Auto," she said, "I want you to meet my
It took me a beat to figure that out. The ride was me,
but Otto? Oughta? Auto? Autodidactic. The girlfriend, who had
taken Lulu from meóthe enemy! Both of them watched me for signs of
explosion, but I didnít have the energy. "Auto," I said, holding a hand
out, "Iím the ride."
"Hello, Ride." We shook. Lulu craned her neck up to kiss
her on the lips but Auto pulled away, taking a slug of scotch. "Not in
front of the children," she drawled.
Lulu watched her, deadpan, and said, "What a great
ideaóletís have kids! Iíll get the turkey baster, and weíll make all the
guys jerk off into it, then pow! Weíre moms!"
Auto cackled at the ceiling. Lulu sprang to her feet,
threw her arms up in a ĎVí and started hip-shaking like a voodoo
priestess to the disco beat, shouting, "Come to mama! Come to mama!"
Vintage Lulu. You had to admire her energy. It was what I onced loved
about her, but now it only exhausted me to be around her.
Auto pulled on my arm and whispered in my ear, close
enough to feel her lips, "Sorry about your girlfriend."
"I donít have a girlfriend."
"Thatís what I mean."
"Doesnít matter. Iím fine."
"Can we listen to this?" She tapped the cassette case on
"I donít think it would go over with this crowd."
"I mean in your car."
I admit, the idea of stealing away with Luluís hot young
girlfriend to hang out in my car, just the two of us, struck me as
deliciously vengeful. Or, as Auto might have said: fresh, right and
dangerous. "Bring Johnny," I said, flicking the whiskey bottle with my
fingernail, and she said, "Johnny and Miles," and we slipped out the
At least one thing had become clear: I didnít want Lulu
back. Whatever had existed between us was spent now. I was The Ride,
nothing else. And another idea was surfacing: this Auto girl, whoever
she might be, was using me to make Lulu jealous or to rile her in some
way. I didnít mind at all. Why would I? I was a thousand miles from
home, sloppy drunk on spring break, untethered to anything. We sat on
the bench seat of my Plymouth in the cul-de-sac, Auto and I, smoking and
drinking and talking jazz. Well, Auto talked, and I listened. She was
riffing on Miles again. "To think that these tunes were never played
before they were recorded, that it all crystalized there in the studio
as the tape rolled. Pure improvisation. Itís astounding."
I didnít know how she knew that, or if any of it was
true, but it was pretty to think so. The first song played on my boombox,
a tune called "So What." Just as Iíd suspected, it was smooth and
whispery with brilliant flashes of horns in harmony, surging bass, a
sheen of sound. And then Autoís voice, narrating. "Think of the
challenge of group improvisation," she was saying, "of coherent
collective thinking. Itís a very human problem, the social need for
sympathy and acceptance from all members to bend for the common good.
Thatís what this music is about."
"Cool," I said, blowing smoke. I didnít usually smoke,
but the occasion seemed to demand it. I wasnít going to ask again how
she knew so much about jazz. She was Autodidactic, after all, and
probably read encyclopedias in her spare time so she could sound cool at
art school parties. At least it was an improvement on the typical
Arizona vernacular: like, totally, ohmygod!
Auto crumpled her cigarette pack and tossed it out the
window into the street. "Letís go get some more," she said, putting her
boots up on the dashboard like she was strapping in for a carnival ride.
I keyed the engine. She directed me through the residential streets,
past one convenience store after another until we turned onto a vast
commercial boulevard awash in street lights. "Keep going," she said. I
didnít know where she was taking us, but I didnít give a damn. I was
expected nowhere, and could have wandered off naked into the desert to
live in a sandstone cave for six months before anybody would start to
wonder what might have happened to me. She turned to me with lights
shifting across her face. "Do you have enough gas?"
"To keep going."
The tape played on a repeating loop on my boombox. Three
songs on one side, two on the other, a seamless gig, five elaborations
on one finger-snapping idea. Auto kept talking but I only half listened
to her. It seemed unnecessary to talk about music while it played, like
reading restaurant reviews while dining. We entered the freeway and
picked up speed with the desert unrolling in the night. I turned up the
volume to compensate for the whining of the tires on the road, and Auto
eventually fell silent and watched the horizon where tall saguaros
wheeled past in moonlight. Skirting Phoenix, we stopped for cigarettes
and a fill up and a gigantic coffee. I half-expected Auto to pull a gun
at the register and heist the place, but instead she clicked a Visa onto
the counter. "My treat," she said with a wink and a grin. My road trip
was turning into a movie, and an undeniably weird one. Would the guy get
the girl? Would the jilted lover catch up with them? Would they drive
off a cliff in a surge of sexy nihilsm? The coffee hit my saucey blood
like a buzzsaw and I came alive as we burst onto the freeway in a blast
of trumpets and saxophones.
Another hour down the road and Auto had slid over next
to me on the ribbed vinyl, laying her head on my shoulder and pressing
her face against my neck. Her lips, those hot tamales, puckered on my
jugular and her warm breath seeped into my collar. I kept my hands on
the wheel, at ten oíclock and two oíclock, arms straight, watching the
dash marks shoot out of darkness into the spill of headlights and
disappear underneath. The engine droned. She nuzzled my ear, brushed her
lips across my cheek, flicked her tongue over the corner of my mouth.
Her lips were waxy with lipstick, her breath hot, with the tang of smoke
on her tongue. We kissed for twenty miles at a steady seventy-five. Was
this what I needed, sucking face with Luluís lover? Hadnít I said
something about wanting an uncorrupted sweetheart? Auto was pretty much
as corrupted as they cameóbut it felt good, it felt all right. Direct
deed, not deliberation. "I thought you were a lesbian," I said when
sheíd fallen away to catch her breath and light a cigarette, the soles
of her boots flat against the passenger window, her head in my lap.
"Nobodyís anything," she said, sucking the ember alive
and spilling smoke from her mouth. "Everybodyís everything."
I laughed, sure Iíd remember that line for the rest of
my life. The tape clicked over, repeating again. To tell the truth, Iíd
never felt better in all my days on earth. This Miles Davis tape, I
thought, was a damn good idea. But I didnít say that out loud, because
how could I hope to compete with Autodidactic on the topic of Miles
Davis? She was the expert, I was the novice. We sped through the night,
the middle of nowhere, unconnected from everything.
Midnight dinner at a truckstop outside Flagstaff. Under
the cafeteria lights she looked tired, her makeup crumbly, her lips
naked and puffy. Still, she radiated an edgy beauty, if only because she
didnít seem to care how she looked. I thought I could see a smattering
of freckles under the make-up across the bridge of her nose, and that
suggested all kinds of hidden things about the young Auto: a suburban
ranch home, doll houses and plastic horses, peanut butter and jelly
sandwiches, playing in the sprinklers all summer long. "Whatís your real
name?" I asked, but she grinned and looked away and forked blueberry
pancakes into her mouth leaving a dab of whipped cream on her lips,
flicking it away with the tip of her tongue. Then she said,
astoundingly, "Matilda," and narrowed her eyes at me, chewing.
"Matilda!" Probably a lie, but a good one. "That," I
said, "is a very cool name. Very cool."
"Iím not kidding. No one is named Matilda. It sounds
dangerous. Is it real?"
"Lulu calls me Auto. Everyone else calls me Mattie."
"Iím calling you Matilda."
She shrugged. "Call me what you like."
She didnít ask for my name, and I didnít volunteer it.
She could think of me as The Ride, because that was what I was. We sped
across the northern stretch of Arizona and into New Mexico on a deserted
freeway, three in the morning, the running lights of distant semis like
ships on the horizon. Miles never stopped. Heíd have to wear down the
batteries, and then weíd just buy more and keep the tape looping. It was
the perfect music, Ďbending to the common good,í as Matilda put it. My
vision began to get blurry, my foot on the gas tinkling and jittery, but
I had no intention of stopping. I slowed down a little, the needle
hovering at sixty, just to play it safer, but I didnít want to break the
spell of the road. I was The Ride, after all. She fell asleep against my
shoulder, breathing softly, shifting when the tape clicked over.
Sunrise in Santa Fe. We staggered out of the car at a
gas station on the outskirts, stretching in the chilly dawn, yawning
into the wind, stomping on the tarmac. Matilda made a phone call while I
bought microwave burritos and more scalding coffee. I sat in the car
with the door propped open, eating from the wrapper and squinting out at
the crumple of mountains on the horizon, north, towards home. Miles
still played, but Iíd turned it down. Jazz didnít mix so well with a
Matilda stood before me, tying the raggedy fringe of her
tee shirt in a knot above her belly button. "This is where I get off,"
she said. "I got some friends here."
I kept chewing my hot-and-cold burrito. I shrugged.
She grinned. "Yeah." She twisted around to look out at
the horizon, then stretched some more, fingers laced behind her back,
arching. She tossed her chin. "Hey, you should look me up next time
youíre in town."
"Which town? Santa Fe? I thought you lived in Tempe."
She shrugged, as if it couldnít have been more trivial.
She may as well have said, "Nobody lives anywhere. Everybody lives
everywhere." I would have swallowed that, and remembered it forever.
She kissed me, but only on the corner of the mouth. Then
she walked, arms swinging, across the gas station tarmac to a bus stop
on the edge of the avenue where she perched on the back of the bench in
the sunlight. Maybe this hadnít been about making Lulu jealous; maybe
sheíd only needed a ride. I was Mr. Right when it came to getting you
from Point A to Point B. I waved to her as I pulled away, and she held
her hand upóbeautiful friendóand twinkled her fingers at me. She receded
to a speck in the rear view mirror, then gone, although I probably
should have been watching the road.
- The Beginning
A.C. lives in Zacatecas, Mexico where he teaches college
English and edits fiction for Zacatecas (www.zacatecas.org). His
work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and recently won first place
in The Stickman Review fiction contest. Other stories have appeared
in Blip Magazine Archive, Blithe House Quarterly, Exquisite
Corpse, The Best of Carve Anthology, River City, and
Oysterboy Review. He moonlights as a jazzman.