Welcome, dear friends, to Open Mic Friday!
I am so happy to welcome back Ré Harris, whose prose poem “Sparks” was featured on the Open Mic in November. Today, Ré shares with us a story that has been many years in the making, and on which she would deeply appreciate feedback (both positive and critical).
Here’s what she says about her story:
I’ve been working on this story since an eight week writing course I took at the dining room table of a moonlighting college professor in 1993. I think there were six of us students, and for this homework assignment we were told to write down two simple subjects to include in a story. They were put into a bowl, I drew a specific two, and the bones of this story were born. I’ve been told over the years that I have to remember to “show, not tell,” and that sometimes I write things that are told in a way that doesn’t ring true for the reader, so I want to make it clear that I really do want honest feedback. It’s time for me to work harder on my skills, and although I may not always agree with a specific criticism, I need to hear how others truly experience my work so I can grow as a writer. I love the supportive way Lisa’s readers communicate with each other, so I feel safe here. I hope you enjoy this story. Many thanks to Lisa, and to you all for your time!
West on 80, 1993 by Ré Harris
On a cold desert highway in Nevada, the sun shining way over on the other side of the Earth, no moon, she was clutching the wheel of a boxy little car which was piled high with everything she and her boyfriend had decided to take with them to San Francisco. When they had left Chicago, it had been snowing on top of the salty, gray speckled gunk that lay on the streets and sidewalks. It had been cold and sunless for weeks, so although it had sounded like just another of his impulsive and ill-thought out schemes, it hadn’t been difficult for him to talk her into leaving. Besides the intense chill of the weather and of her life there, she couldn’t have paid the rent on their apartment alone with her salary from the deli. Living in her parents’ house again, though possible, would have meant a return to the uncertainty she already knew.
Her younger brother and sister had become disinterested in anything to do with her when they each reached puberty and found out that the things she was able to teach them about teenage-hood weren’t cool. Her ceaselessly distracted father was reasonably good at pretending he didn’t have any money, but not at hiding his love life with other women. Then there was her mother whose warm giving nature butted oddly against an incomprehensible hostility that had once caused her to stop speaking to her daughter for two weeks, after the morning the ten year old had dared to lay out her own school clothes. She didn’t fit into their home as an adult with a mind of her own, any more than she had fit in anyplace else. Rather than the family she had fantasized about that would sit around the dinner table and discuss the news from all the different parts of the newspaper, living day to day again with the family she had been born into would be a torture. Better to go ahead and try San Francisco she hoped, another big city — diverse, cultured, common, poor, rich — but maybe a little different. Hadn’t there been lots of hippies, you know, free thinkers, there in the sixties and seventies? If they were still there — if their children were still there — maybe they wouldn’t think she would be better if she was someone else. Maybe she could change her bad luck with people, and find some who didn’t think that luxuriating in thought and conversation was the same as being strange.
She wondered why so many people seemed to back away from her, receding effortlessly without anger or explanation. They might say that she was nice and they should get together sometime and do something, as they backed away from her permanently like secretly reluctant suitors instead of potential friends. When she first noticed this, trying even harder to be pleasant became her priority. She listened more, and asked questions about what they’d said to be sure that she wasn’t dominating conversations, but still when she tried to share a thought, there was that backing away, like she was a hot stove and they needed to get to a safe distance. Being alone and unheard wore hard on her soul, and it was circular in its effects — if she rarely spoke, she was a good listener and could be tolerated. If she commented on things (assumed the give and take of conversation) potential relationships would soon trail away. She had read some books in her search for an answer to this, but all she had found in them were more concepts for discussions that no one she had ever met wanted to have. She had guiltily, and privately, begun to wonder if she just needed to meet very different kinds of people, and how that could be done.
So there was no one to be sad about leaving in Chicago. The people she’d met in high school and later at work, who liked to party, seemed to think she was boring and quiet. The ones who were quiet looked at her strangely when she tried to make conversation, like they were put off by her small talk overtures, or she stank or something. The only two people she felt she knew, or who seemed to sort of know her (coworkers whose band she’d gone to support a few times at small clubs around town) hadn’t seemed at all fazed that she was leaving. She had told them she was going away during a conveniently shared lunch in the break room, while they were eating sandwiches. “Good luck,” they had each said, and some variation of, “Sounds great.” They asked what was in San Francisco (which she didn’t know how to answer) but they didn’t say they’d miss her. She wondered if they would have said more if the conversation at the other end of the table hadn’t turned to an argument about who the best heavy metal band from the seventies was. Her table mates eventually bowed to Led Zeppelin. She wondered how their conversation concluded without any mention of Steppenwolf.
On the road headed west, her boyfriend was hunched into the passenger seat, shifting every couple of minutes, trying to sleep. He had been teaching her how to drive in Chicago, at his own insistence. “If my mother can learn to drive,” he had told her, “then any idiot can learn.” He said it had been a tortuous process for him because “She does everything upside down or backwards.” She was surprised that he didn’t say the same thing about her. She was happy to learn, and she had studied “The Rules of the Road” but she was sure that she would never be able to drive in traffic, and had no intention of getting a license.
He had told her he was getting too sleepy to drive and since they were on the desert, in the middle of the night, she should be able to take the wheel without any trouble. She had tried to protest, “Can’t we just stop by the side of the road for a while?” But he had stopped the car, fussing at her with the engine idling, and forced the issue. So there she was driving, sitting up as straight as she could, clutching the wheel tightly. He made fun of the way she did that. He didn’t understand that she wasn’t really uncomfortable behind the wheel, he just thought she just looked that way.
She thought the road looked like a dark stage with a spotlight in the middle, the reflectors along the pavement like flying diamonds. Lucy in the Sky. After a while, she realized that she felt like talking, the self-amusing, road drunk thoughts piling up in her head. A few minutes later, he sat up and announced that he couldn’t fall asleep. He reached over the back of the seat, got a Seven-Up out of their small cooler, put the bottle between his thighs as he opened it, and turned to look at her before he took a drink. “Talk to me, babe,” he purred.
Great! she thought. “You know what I was just thinking?” she asked. She heard him slurp his Seven-Up to answer. “I was just wondering, I mean, you know, people like — Charles Manson, what do they eat for breakfast? Know what I mean? Like Jeffrey Dahmer — what kind of cereal did he eat for breakfast? Rice Krispies? Oatmeal? Or Frosted Flakes?”
He stared at her, holding the bottle in midair for a moment. She had an inquisitive look, her eyes wide though still trained on the road. “You are the only idiot on the face of the planet who would think of something like that,” he said. He held the bottle down on one knee and burped. “What makes you say stupid stuff like that? Who cares what kind of cereal Jeffrey Dahmer ate? If you start saying shit like that in San Francisco, you’re gonna have to figure out how to get along on your own. I don’t want people thinking I’m as weird as you.” He took another drink of soda. Then he said, “Man!” The way he stretched it out sounded as if he was letting the air out of something.
She started to speak, but thought better of it. A long moment passed, and she had to try to explain. “Sometimes we forget that they’re people, too. I mean, they’re so evil or sick that we get scared to think that they do regular stuff just like we do. I was only thinking…”
“Well, you should stop doing it. It’s obviously too much for you.”
Her face went hot, and she could feel all the words she’d ever said to him or tried to say to him sticking in her throat, one on top of another, trapped. She didn’t feel like talking anymore and, mercifully, he didn’t either. He finished his soda, leaned his head back and stared out the window. Soon he was asleep.
It was getting harder for her to remember any of the good things between them. Memories were getting jumbled around inside her as if they were little children playing a naughty game. Yet, driving that night, playing her part on one of the world’s tiny stages with the diamond footlights flashing hypnotically before her, she managed to bring up a memory. A pleasant one of her day off and him coming back to the apartment an hour after leaving for work, with a small bunch of lilacs stolen out of someone’s yard and a surprise cheese and vegetable croissant for her breakfast that had made her cry for happy. He had kissed her on the cheek; he had only ever aimed for her lips before. Then he’d said goodbye. “Gotta get back to work.” Who the hell was that guy? Why did he turn on her? She couldn’t quite remember, if she ever knew. She was tired, too.
There was a halo of light up ahead, to the right. It got bigger and suddenly there were streetlights again. She had probably missed a sign saying what town was coming up. I’ve got to stop for a while, she thought. She wondered if there would be traffic, or stop and go lights. It didn’t matter. I can do this, she thought. Her only problem would be if he wasn’t quite asleep — if he woke up and started yelling at her. Where the hell are we? Why did you stop? You can’t just stop somewhere in the middle of the night! She didn’t want anything terrible to happen to them either, but she wasn’t as scared of things as he was, so she made a different decision. Anyway, she wasn’t sleepy, just tired. The doors were locked and she knew how to start the car. She would stay awake and guard him and all of his precious stuff.
She turned into the town, watched her speed on the off ramp, smiled as she finessed the stoplight, then turned left onto a deserted but well lit block with a Western souvenir store in the middle and a closed gas station on the corner. She parked close to the gas station because of the lights, but she didn’t get out to see how far she was from the curb.
He didn’t wake up. She looked over at him sleeping, his face turned away from her, his head leaning against the window. By the end of the next day they should make it into San Francisco; a little more time, then something new. She thought about turning the radio on low, but she didn’t want to take the chance of waking him. She hoped he wouldn’t wake up until after daybreak. Whatever place they were in would have to look safer in the sunlight. Maybe then he wouldn’t throw a fit.
She was very still for a while, not thinking about anything. Then she remembered her serial killer question. Which cereal would Jeffrey Dahmer choose for breakfast? What cereal would a serial killer eat? She started to smile. Then she looked at the man sleeping in the passenger seat. The empty Seven-Up bottle was still between his thighs. I don’t know what a serial killer eats for breakfast, she thought, but I do know what kind of soda an asshole drinks. Her head fell back against the headrest and she laughed convulsively, but quietly, for a full minute. Then the loneliness welled up inside her, and the tears spilled out.
She had coveted his huge, coffee-colored messenger bag since the first time she’d seen it. She thought it looked like something a cowboy would sling over a saddle, and she had fallen for him again every time she saw him carry it. Because of that, she had erroneously thought that his taste and hers must be a shared attribute. He was still sleeping heavily when she finally figured out how to consolidate her most important things into it and her big backpack. The cool wind, soon to be hot, along the desert road was quickly drying her tear soaked collar, and though she knew the dangers of hitchhiking, she had decided that she was much more comfortable with those risks than with the ones in her ex-boyfriend’s boxy little car.
If her life was a country song she would still be holding his keys, or they would be as far from the road as she could have thrown them, being covered slowly by wind born sand and dirt — but she hadn’t taken them. They were on the floor of his backseat, under the box of t-shirts and jeans that was under the cooler.
The sun was coming up behind her as she walked west, and she didn’t look for the name of the town that she’d left him in.
Copyright © 2011 Kathleen (Ré) Harris. All Rights Reserved.
Ré Harris is a longtime writer, and new crochet pattern designer, who lives in Chicago. She began seriously writing on her young blog late this summer when a chance experience at a free rock concert resurrected her creative spirit. You can find her posts at sparksinshadow.wordpress.com.
Thank you, Ré! Give her your applause on the comments, and don’t forget, she would be very grateful for your earnest critiques as well.