Kerri Quinn ~ Rico

I leave a note for my hus­band, Robert, on the kitchen counter next to the lat­est issue of his sub­scrip­tion to Popular Mechanics. The note says I know he’s been sleep­ing with my best friend, Michelle, and by the way, she’s also sleep­ing with Mark who lives two doors down. I also write that I’m tak­ing the espres­so machine I gave him for his birth­day. It was real­ly a gift for me. And p.s.: The Mustang we bought with our sav­ings, it wasn’t stolen. I took it.Flagstaff, Arizona north to the Navajo Nation and who knows after that. It’s ear­ly spring and under the sparse pine trees are thick pock­ets of snow. The road is qui­et, emp­ty, except for scraps of blown tire and shards of brown glass sprayed along the asphalt shoul­der. A long sil­ver truck snakes toward me. As the dri­ver pass­es, he blasts the horn and winks. He’s wear­ing a cam­ou­flaged hunt­ing cap cov­ered with pointy plas­tic leaves. No shirt. I start to wave, then catch myself, embar­rassed that I want his atten­tion.

Just out­side the reser­va­tion, the sky expands, stretch­es. The hori­zon is dot­ted with bent, twist­ed trees, droplets of white clouds, and specks of hous­es that look like they might fall off the edge of the world. I pick up my cell phone. I want to call Robert. I want him to tell me that he’s made a mis­take. That he’s hurt­ing too. I toss the phone over my shoul­der: it lands next to the espres­so machine in the back­seat next to his University of Michigan sweat­shirt. I need a cig­a­rette, but I reach for the pack of cin­na­mon gum in the glove com­part­ment we keep just in case. Three years ago, we had stopped smok­ing and I’ll be damned if I start smok­ing now.

*

Seventy miles into the trip, the oldies sta­tion crack­les, and the entire pack of gum is gone. The pas­sen­ger seat is cov­ered with pieces of crum­pled sil­ver foil. The qui­et in the car is smol­der­ing. My insides ache. I pull over and put on Robert’s sweat­shirt. Under the passenger’s seat, I find the CD case. The Nina Simone CD Michelle made for my birth­day last month falls to the floor. She and Robert had thrown a sur­prise birth­day par­ty for me. The par­ty was in full swing, the liv­ing room was packed with dancers: an entan­gle­ment of arms and legs. Al Green on the stereo. Outside on the deck, Robert and Michelle were slow danc­ing, her pony­tail mov­ing from side to side, his hand on her back mim­ic­ked the motion of her hair. I knocked on slid­ing glass door. Robert dropped his hands. Michelle turned around, smoothed her skirt.

What are you doing?” I walked into the kitchen before they could answer.

I col­lect­ed some cake plates from the counter, placed them in the sink. The sound of a glass hit­ting the wood floor came from the liv­ing room. I turned on the water, let it run over my fin­gers onto to the bits of hard­ened cake icing. What was I doing, I thought. I was my father who had known about my mother’s affair with my track coach. I turned and looked over my shoul­der. Robert stood in the kitchen door­way, his hands pressed togeth­er like he was pray­ing.

I’ll get the broom,” he said.

*

A hitch-hik­er stands alone in the only clus­ter of green grass I’ve seen for miles. Sunglasses tint­ed and round. Gray hair pulled back into a pony­tail. His t-shirt splat­tered with dry wall. He looks like an old­er John Lennon, after the Beatles, John with Yoko. I pull over. A brown cloud of dirt ris­es behind the car, the hitch­hik­er, the droplets of clouds, the sol­id white line that divides the road dis­ap­pear.

In the sev­en­ties, my father, a for­mer altar boy and avid Jets Fan, hitch­hiked across the coun­try twice when he was eigh­teen so he felt it was his respon­si­bil­i­ty to stop for every hitch­hik­er wait­ing around the on and off ramps of the New Jersey Garden State Parkway. My child­hood was spent in the back­seat of the fam­i­ly Ford LTD sta­tion wag­on with its wood grain pan­el­ing star­ing at the backs of strangers’ heads as my father asked them ques­tions about their lives.

One Sunday when I was twelve, back when my moth­er start­ed sleep­ing with my track coach, instead of going to church, my father and I drove a for­mer NFL run­ning back named Tom Green to New York City. My father lis­tened and nod­ded as Tom told us how his bum knee had kept him out of the draft. Tom, his shoul­ders wider than the front pas­sen­ger seat, had gen­tle brown eyes and thick curly hair. I sat behind him want­i­ng to touch his hair. We dropped him off on the cor­ner of 42nd and Broadway. As he stepped inside the blur of a revolv­ing door, my father turned to me and said: “Only give a ride to a per­son who looks you in the eye.”

The hitch­hik­er cir­cles his arms, moves his head left to right like he’s about to run a race. Since I left Robert a few hours ago, I make my own rule: Never give a ride to a per­son from Texas, Robert’s home state. I put the car in reverse, dri­ve back to John Lennon’s dop­pel­gänger, roll down the win­dow.

Where you head­ed?” I ask.

Colorado,” he says. “Rico.” He takes off his sun­glass­es. His face is thin, freck­led. Right below his Adam’s apple is a tat­too of a red rose. His eyes are the col­or of wal­nuts and most impor­tant­ly he’s able to main­tain eye con­tact.

One ques­tion,” I say. “Where are you from?”

Texas,” he says.

Thought so.”

Is that a bad thing?”

Where in Texas?” I con­sid­er break­ing my new rule if he’s not from Austin, Robert’s home­town.

That’s two ques­tions.”

How long have you been wait­ing for a ride?”

San Antonio born and raised,” he says.

I went to a culi­nary school there.”

Chef?”

Pastry,” I say. “It’s hot as God there.”

Hell,” he says. “Hot as hell.”

I hate being cor­rect­ed,” I say.

I hate wait­ing for a ride.” He laughs, puts his sun­glass­es back on. I reach over and unlock the door.

*

He places the pack on the back­seat next to the espres­so machine and my phone, takes off his flip flops, and puts his feet on the dash. His toe­nails are paint­ed elec­tric pink.

Make your­self com­fort­able.” I say, know­ing Robert would have a fit if he saw Clyde sit­ting like this.

Clyde Scott.” He offers his hand to me. His fin­gers are cov­ered with flakes of dry wall.

Elaine Weber,” I say.

Nice ride,” he says. “Camaro?”

’68 Mustang GT with a 351 Windsor, and a Jasper Class Two Racing Motor.”

What does that mean?”
“It’s quick.” I rev the engine, glide the car onto the high­way.

He turns the radio dial, and a hiss­ing sta­t­ic fills the car. He picks up the Nina Simone CD from the floor.

Let’s not.” I take it from him, toss it in the back­seat.

A gift from the ex?” he asks.

From an ex-friend who’s sleep­ing with my hus­band.”

So you have an ex-hus­band?”

I guess so, Clyde.”

We dri­ve over a ridge and come upon a Men at Work sign. A man, wear­ing a green-neon vest, waves a flag with one hand and holds the oth­er hand par­al­lel to the ground, motion­ing for me to slow down. I pump the brake. Clyde places his hand on the glove com­part­ment. Along the side of the road, work­ers stand next to stacks of orange park­ing cones, drink­ing cof­fee from minia­ture Styrofoam cups.

Nice espres­so machine,” Clyde says.

I saved it from the hus­band who drinks decaf­feinat­ed.”

Ex-hus­band?”

Clyde, we have a hun­dred or so miles to go,” I say, “are you going to cor­rect me the entire time?”

I know,” he says, it’s a bad habit.”

There’s a stop sign at the junc­tion ahead. There are no peo­ple, no cars, just end­less blue sky, but I stop any­way, afraid that Clyde wants to get out. But he stays, cross­es his leg one over the oth­er, hands on his knees.

We don’t have to talk,” he says.

Okay,” I say.

I won­der if I can be okay with the qui­et. The silence between Robert and me was smoth­er­ing and I worked so hard to fill that space, talk­ing non-stop, ask­ing too many ques­tions, not pay­ing atten­tion to the fact that he was already gone.

The car idles. To the right of the stop sign is a dirt road that winds up and over the top of a red-faced ridge. I could go any­where. Do any­thing. Sell tacos in Colorado. Become a strip­per in California. Hunt cari­bou in Alaska. It sounds so sil­ly com­pared to what I had. Or what I want­ed to have. Throughout high school, my father, ignored my mother’s affair with my track coach, a lanky man with a long nose and a mushy chin. I nick­named him Chinless. He was the oppo­site of my father, wide-shoul­ders, strong, square chin like Bob Hope’s, a space between his teeth that I loved to watch appear and dis­ap­pear when he talked.

Clyde tries the radio again. The sta­t­ic crack­les. A man on horse appears at the top of the ridge as if he were dropped from the sky. They saunter towards us.

What’s next?” I ask.

A dog,” Clyde responds.

*

We stop at a gas sta­tion, the only build­ing for miles. It’s a low, wide clap­board house. The white paint is peel­ing off in large pieces, reveal­ing spots of rough, cracked wood beneath it. The house reminds me of the bun­ga­low my father moved into after he and my moth­er divorced.             It was at the end of a lagoon with a view of the Barnegat Bay. Weekends were spent with him and he was always work­ing on the house. Staining the porch. Painting, then repaint­ing the liv­ing room walls. He let me pick out the col­ors. First Lemon Butter, then a green col­or that I chose because I liked the name: Crocodile Smile. He replaced the roof three times. Three times he pulled off the tiles, throw­ing them down to ground. Three times I picked up the dis­card­ed tiles, care­ful not to touch the sharp, pointy nails. Each time he threw one down to me, he said: “Bombs away.” I respond­ed: “Roger that.”

After din­ner we sat on the front porch. He drank a beer and I drank lemon­ade from a mar­ti­ni glass. He put a paper cock­tail para­sol in it. It was July in New Jersey and we watched the sun­set melt into the waters of the calm bay, the col­ors chang­ing from ruby red, to a deep, deep pur­ple that made my heart sing. After his third or fourth beer, he talked about my moth­er. Her freck­led nose. Her straw­ber­ry blonde hair. The way they used to laugh togeth­er. On these nights, he made me promised I would nev­er get mar­ried and if I had to that I had to promise I would nev­er get divorced. He would have stayed despite the affair and the fact that she slept on the couch and got up ear­ly in the morn­ing so I would not dis­cov­er. But in the ear­ly morn­ing, just before the sun rose, I heard the creak­ing of the wood floor as she head­ed to their bed­room.  I promised him as if I under­stood.

There is a gas pump in the mid­dle of the dirt park­ing lot with a note taped to the pump. It says: Prepay or die.

Nice toes.” I point at Clyde’s pink pol­ish.

Carolina, my daughter’s idea.” He grabs the pack from the back­seat, and takes out a pho­to­graph of a young girl. She’s laugh­ing at the cam­era, her front two teeth are miss­ing.

How old?” I ask.

Eight going on forty.” He places the pack on the floor.

He reach­es into his jeans pock­et, pulls out some crum­pled bills, and press­es them into my hand.

The store is stuffy and smells like sour pick­les. A young woman sits behind the counter, talk­ing on the phone. She has long black hair and stern opaque eyes. She points at me, then at the cash reg­is­ter.

Put the mon­ey in the reg­is­ter?” I ask.

Can’t you under­stand sign lan­guage?”

I smooth the wrin­kled bills on the coun­ter­top as the woman laughs. I catch my reflec­tion. My dark brown hair is greasy and pulled back. My shoul­ders are round­ed.  Robert’s old University of Michigan sweat­shirt reach­es the tops of my knees. I’ve nev­er felt this tired. And old, so old. A sad woman.

Pay atten­tion,” I say to her.

You’re inter­rupt­ing.” The woman puts her hand over the receiv­er.

I press my index fin­ger against the lin­ing of the sweat­shirt. “I said pay atten­tion.”

That’s your fin­ger,” she says.

Tell me where to put the mon­ey,” I say.

It’s a fin­ger.” She rolls her eyes at me.

Behind the coun­ters are car­tons of cig­a­rettes, bot­tles of pale blue mouth­wash, a clock that says five although it’s two in the after­noon.

Give me the clock,” I say.

Take it. It’s bro­ken.”

Forget the clock,” I shout, my heart pound­ing. “Give me the mon­ey.”

Now you want the mon­ey?” she says. “That’s rob­bery.”

All of it,” I shout loud­er. She takes a few dol­lar bills from the reg­is­ter, throws them at me. I throw the mon­ey back at her. I will not cry, I think and wipe my eyes with the cuff of the sweat­shirt. Legs spread wide, fin­ger point­ing at her, I catch my reflec­tion in the mir­ror. I don’t know who that per­son is. This crim­i­nal.

Get out.” She stands.

I take a step towards her. She takes one back.

You’re a fruit loop,” she says.

I walk behind the counter, put the mon­ey back into the reg­is­ter, take the clock off the wall.

*

Outside, the wind is warm and push­es the clouds, that rip­ple and swell like ocean waves across the sky.

What’s that?” Clyde asks. He pumps the gas, one foot against the curb of the island.

A clock,” I say.

Don’t you have a watch?” he asks.

Let’s go,” I say.

The woman comes out­side. The clouds look like they’re about to crash down on us.

Now,” I say to Clyde.

She points at me, and yells, “Fruit loop,” laughs, and goes inside.

*

Down the road there’s anoth­er gas sta­tion, but it’s closed. The build­ing is bor­dered up. A soda machine lies on its side. It’s sur­round­ed by red, blue, and green cans. The sun is high and bright, yet seems close enough to touch because there’s noth­ing else around.

What about Denver after Rico?” Clyde asks.

I like the sound of Denver, of start­ing over in a new city with new friends, no ques­tions to answer, no crim­i­nal record. Maybe I could open a bak­ery and sell scones. My favorite thing to bake. Nothing but pump­kin. No employ­ees. Just me at 3 a.m., sur­round­ed by sug­ar and mounds of dough.

We stop and get out. I open the trunk and find the atlas under the quilt­ed plaid jack­et Robert found at a garage sale. He made me try it on though I said it was ugly and looked itchy. He bought it and told me I need­ed to keep some­thing warm in the car, just in case. He was always wor­ried about the Mustang break­ing down. I get the atlas and put on the jack­et. Layered in his clothes, the sweat­shirt, the jack­et, I start to sweat.

Cold?” Clyde says.

No,” I say. “You?”

Clyde shakes his head no, takes out a pack of cig­a­rettes from his back­pack.

If I can’t smoke, you can’t.”

Carolina’s idea to get me to quit.” He opens the pack. It’s full of cig­a­rette butts. He picks up a few half-smoked cig­a­rettes, inhales them.

Does she live with her moth­er?”

No.”

Where?” I ask.

No where.”

Why are you being cryp­tic?”

The roads were icy.”  He paus­es, cov­ers his mouth as if he’s about to cough, then he clears his throat. “She went through the wind­shield.”  He slides the pack into his shirt pock­et.

Damn it,” I say.

He shuts the car door, rolls down the win­dow.

Tell me about it,” he says.

*

Outside of Cortez, an army green Volkswagen bus is parked on the side of the road. A man with shag­gy blond hair, a loose shirt over loose trousers watch­es a small boy with the same shag­gy hair in shorts and flip flops throw fist­fuls of snow into the air. Clyde hasn’t said a word for the last few miles.

I pull into a drug­store park­ing lot. On the side of the brick build­ing is a mur­al of stick chil­dren with large round faces, arms and legs out­stretched, rid­ing bikes in the sky.

She loved her bike,” Clyde says.

What col­or?”

Pink with one of those tacky white bas­kets.” he says.

Gum?” I ask.

Cinnamon,” he says.

In the front of the drug­store, there’s a gift shop. The shelves are stocked with pot­tery bowls and plas­tic see through con­tain­ers filled with rub­ber snakes and plas­tic rings. I spin the post­card dis­play and choose one with a fam­i­ly mak­ing jew­el­ry on it. “Navajoland” is print­ed across the top of the card. I don’t know how Clyde keeps going. I think of my house, and how I can’t go home, and of the flower gar­den where Robert and I buried Howard, our German shep­herd. When he was only a few weeks old, he showed up on the front porch with pieces of dried gum and pop­si­cles sticks stuck to his fur. Howard died a few days after my birth­day. As Robert and I dug a hole next to the aza­lea bush­es to bury him, the rain came down in thick, heavy drops.

We should have a baby,” I said, sit­ting down in the wet grass.

Not now.” He sat next to me, hand­ed me a warm beer. We both start­ed to cry.

The man behind the counter gives me a pen. I write on the post­card: Robert, Don’t for­get to water Howard and the side fence latch is bro­ken. I buy a stamp and ask the clerk how long it will take to get to Flagstaff.

About a week,” he says.

I walk out­side; dis­ap­point­ed that Clyde and the car are still there.

*

Clyde and I fol­low the Dolores River as it sways and winds its way toward Rico. Once we’re in town, we pass a restau­rant with a sag­ging porch and a closed for sea­son sign taped to the front door. The streets are emp­ty; it’s almost sun set.

Clyde directs me to the last street where there’s a creek bed. We stop. He car­ries the back­pack to the water. I pick up a knob­by stick and draw cir­cles in the dirt. The earth is cold, dry. He unzips the pack, takes out a plas­tic boat, a naked doll with no head, and a pack­age of choco­late-chip cook­ies.

Open this, will you?” He hands me the cook­ies. I tear it with my teeth. He takes the pack­age, and gives me a cook­ie. We eat.

Her favorite things.” He places the doll, a cook­ie, and the comb on the boat. It lingers by the side of the bank, wait­ing for the cur­rent. I walk to the edge of the creek bed, move my fin­gers across the top of the icy water, head back to the car, check my phone. There are no calls.

I find a pho­to­graph in the pock­et of the itchy jack­et. It was tak­en last sum­mer dur­ing our camp­ing trip to Yellowstone National Park. Me in this sil­ly jack­et, Robert wear­ing a cap shaped like a moose, he wasn’t look­ing at the cam­era: He was smil­ing at me.

The cur­rent takes the boat and Clyde watch­es it sail down the creek. His back to me, his body is still. Like I said, I don’t know how he keeps going. The sun dips behind the trees. The sky between the gnarled branch­es turns from blue to orange.

I’m back on my father’s porch. He’s hold­ing a beer. I’m sip­ping lemon­ade from a mar­ti­ni glass. The air thick with fumes from the stain. The sun on the hori­zon melts into the calm water. I can hear his voice, the way his words hon­or my moth­er.

~

Kerri Quinn’s Ph.D. is in Creative Writing (Fiction) from The University of Southern Mississippi. Her short sto­ries have appeared in The Santa Monica Reviewdes­cantThe Apple Valley Review, and Cutthroat Literary Journal. She was a final­ist in the 2010 Glimmer Train Fiction Open con­test, and she received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Glimmer Train Fiction Open con­test. She lives and writes in Flagstaff, AZ or New York, depend­ing on her mood.