by Samuel T. Franklin
I stare into the darkness. It stares back into me.
I’ve never gotten used to it. Not really. Sitting in closed space, listening to the quiet purr of the engine burning catalytic life through heated metal. The worn comfort of the seat, soft, sprung, molding to my body like an old pair of boots—a familiar intimacy no woman could possibly match. Gripping the wheel, wearing my skin into the grooves of my sweet ‘72. Becoming one with the machine.
And all the while, that darkness staring at me, an unnatural reflection of a desire too powerful, too primitive, too basic to be known in the daylight.
And when the flags fly, I’ll go racing through the night, howling and dancing through the pitch, a timeless, stark existence of pure adrenaline hell with the devil grabbing for my heels, snarling in the low bellow of exhaust and smoke, tearing into that waiting blackness, outrunning something, everything, just turning and cycling and screaming through the dark and praying that the sun never breaks the horizon.
It stares back into me.
We both wait.
It was chilly. I remember how Rosie clung to my arm as we walked back from the pet store where she worked. Her used-gold hair blew lankly in my face, and I could smell the faint reek of caged animals in the strands. Every time a car would drive by on the road, her hair would toss a little, and I’d think of shining metal cages and desperate, pleading eyes.
“How was work, Eddie?”
“The same,” I answered indifferently. Factory work doesn’t change that much.
A swooping gust, and she clung closer, melding imperfectly to my body.
“You should be bringing your jacket to work, Rose. It ain’t summer yet.”
“The leaves are turning green. Look, you can see,” she said, pointing to where a stunted sidewalk tree sported a few dingy leaves.
I didn’t say anything. Just looked down at her chunky arms wrapped around mine. Her flesh was a field of cold-stippled skin.
I met Rosie a couple months back, over at Smitty’s on a Friday night. I just wanted to suck my poison until the world went black, but I guess she was in a mood for broken things. I downed all the drinks she put in front of me, and then she took me out back by the dumpster and blew me. I didn’t really get a good, sober look at her face until I woke up in her doublewide the next morning, but it didn’t matter. There wasn’t anyone else, and she was sweet, in her own way.
Sometimes I think I might love her. Most of the time, I know I don’t.
When she asked me to move into her trailer, I did because I was sick of being by myself, and when you can’t stand the feel of your own body in your own four walls, anywhere else is a better place to be.
I lived in the same town where I was born, a little toad-shit pothole on an overgrown back-road of the world, full of bums, bastards, and busted-lipped nobodies. I was raised beneath sagging, filthy, apartment-ceiling skies with a make-believe father and a mother who brought home a different man every night, sometimes for pleasure, always for money, but never for good. I grew up burning in a slow, boring hell of drugs, of dirt, of streetcorner delights and the greasy, idiot pleasure one gets from not considering the consequences of even the simplest of actions. When I left my mother’s crapshack and struck out on my own, needing to carve my own path through the world, I swore to myself that I’d do something with my life—I’d lived in the dust-choked dark side of the promised land, and I was going to crawl out of that shadow and find something else. Anything.
In ten years, I hadn’t crawled far.
Rosie smiled at me, kissed my chin, her lips slipping over the stubble. All around us the world glinted with low afternoon light. Pools of broken glass glared up at us from the street, probably from where some angry street-kid busted something on the ground just to hear the jarring violence of something breaking. The gutters stuffed with trash and shadows. Even the air tasted cheap.
I breathed in the scent of Rosie’s hair, slowly suffocating.
I thought of myself, trapped in my old apartment, the sound of my breathing the only thing breaking the silence.
I thought of the miles of this town, and how all the roads seemed to loop back onto themselves. Cyclic, monotonous, dead.
One prison for another. That’s all I knew, that’s how I had always lived. I shuddered as I realized this, shuddered again when I realized that I wasn’t surprised.
Rosie, thinking I was cold, clung closer.
We crossed the street, toward the used car lot on the corner, walking away the last few moments of ritual, of dankness.
I don’t know how it happened. I’m not even sure if I’m glad that it did. But my eyes wandered away from the cracks in the sidewalk, turned and slipped into the rows of those tired metal bodies.
And that’s when I saw her.
She’d been parked off on her own, a busted, faded heap, quietly rusting, left out beneath the sun to die. The sun flared off the spiderweb cracks in the windshield, off the cloudy spots of chrome on the grill. Her headlights, cracked and cataract-glazed, stared at me with the lonely gaze of a lover who has spent too many nights sleeping by herself. How lost she looked, and desolate—and hopeful. Still pleading for someone, anyone, to come and drive her home, to let her feel the wind smoothing against her body, to burn her away into the dying horizon until there was nothing left but a sizzling trail of rubber clinging to the asphalt. She filled me, my every crack and fissure.
I had never seen anything so broken and beautiful.
“Eddie? Eddie, you all right?”
Rosie’s hand was tight on my arm, squeezing her presence into my skin. “You all right?”
“Fine, Rose. I’m fine.” I forced my eyes to her face, and something inside me moaned bitterly. “Let’s go.”
We went back to Rosie’s trailer. We had sex. She made something for dinner. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you how the rest of the day went, because I wasn’t there. My body was there, eating, feeling, being—but my soul was with that beautiful, beaten dream in the car lot while she sat lonely, waiting for a driver who would never come while her heart slowly rusted in the night, while her gasoline stood as still as an underground ocean and cobwebs gathered between the wheel and the steering column.
My heart broke for her.
After Rosie fell asleep, I stood outside the trailer with my bare feet in the grass, gazing into the wide empty nothing. I closed my eyes, and smelled burning oil, and saw, on the backs of my eyelids, wheels cycling through the darkness.
My heart had never beaten so strongly.
I bought her the next day. I walked down to that car lot and bought her clean, bought her fair. I didn’t even know what model she was. Neither did the guy who sold it to me. He thought she might have started off as a 1972 Challenger, but she had been chopped and twisted so much that she couldn’t really be called much of anything except her own.
“Busted-up rust-bucket,” he said dismissively. “I’m selling it for a friend. Otherwise, I’d have hauled that clunking piece of shit off to the junkyard myself. Goddamn eyesore.”
I held my tongue instead of biting his. He was a fool anyhow. He was asking cash, and cash I had, as low as his price was. He didn’t know what he was letting go.
I hired a wrecker to haul her back to the trailer. There was enough space in the little grass plot for her to settle down on something softer than pavement. It was perfect. I remember that moment right after the wrecker drove off. It was just me and her, alone in the grass with the clouds doubled in her windshield, and it was like I could see the future, what she could become.
Rosie. Behind me.
“Eddie, what is this?”
She didn’t sound mad. Not at all. Just—worried.
“That old slicer we saw yesterday,” I told her. “It was a bargain. I’ll fix her up like brand new.”
“Oh,” she said, her voice still a little distant. Then, with a sly edge, “So we’ll have a car to drive around in, huh? That’ll be nice, us having a flashy-looking car when you’re all done with it.”
I nodded, but I didn’t really listen. I don’t know if she spoke more after that or not. I just remember watching the sky in the cracked glass of my sweet ’72.
And, really, I didn’t stop staring. For months, when I hauled pallets around the factory, when Rosie and I had sex on the sprung old mattress we slept on, when I ate or pissed and even when I slept, she would be there, crouching on the backs of my eyelids. I’d split my muscles every day at that damn factory for as much money as I could get, and I’d lay that money every payday in the junkman’s hand for pipes, for chrome, for sprockets and plugs and beauty and love. My hands were always covered in grease, and I was always tired, always, but I had never wanted anything the way I wanted the sight of her glowing like a resurrected angel in the moonlight.
And, slowly, as if by some act of magic, she began coming back to life. She looked sleeker and meaner every day, like a dormant seed of some beautiful wonder waiting to explode from its skin.
Until, finally, I stood op one day, my body sore and strained and tired, and saw her crouching, completed, in the coming twilight, her shimmering black paint enveloping the dying rays of the sun. I stood there, awed, and watched as the last of the day’s fire slowly faded across her hood: a blaze of glory, a struggling flame, a brief flicker of existence. Gone.
We stared at each other in the darkness.
Then we went out driving.
We drove the next night, too.
And the next.
They’re always here when I come barreling across the backroads, roaring and humming in my sweet ’72 to the old dirt crossroads on the outskirts of town, where the crooked mile-marker sign thrusts out of the ground like a broken neck. When I was growing up, the story was that if you parked your car at the crossroads at midnight under a full moon, the devil himself would appear in a char-black beauty to challenge you to a race.
I’ve never seen the devil here.
But there’s always someone, waiting—waiting for someone else. They appear when the night blossoms out from the earth. Maybe just one or two at first, nodding at each other and hovering in the twilight strange shadows. But more always come—they come in hotrods, souped-up and decked out, street racers, backroad runners, dirty trucks and junky sedans. Anything with wheels brings guys in greasy mechanic’s clothes, in jeans and wife-beaters, guys in khakis and polos and buttoned-down shits, guys with retail nametags sticking out of their pockets, strangers, drunks, junkies, drifters, bored men with nothing to do but lose themselves in a dream of roaring engines. You can see it burning in their eyes, and you know that it’ll be so much cold ash by the time the first bloody streaks of dawn cut across the sky.
One night I raced a guy in an old Stingray, its low curves and flares only visible when the glare of someone’s headlights pulled it into being. I remember the man’s face—haunted, gaunt, the face of a man who realized too late in life that he will never amount to anything, that he will never have a day of rest, that he will have to work and scream and bleed just to keep on living until he dies. We cut into the night when the flags flew, like knives searching through the dark, neck and neck, our engines the only sound in the world and I had never felt so alive, so utterly free as I did then, this was me riding my dream, my soul into a darkness so black I couldn’t see anything beyond my headlights, anything could be out there, something, anything, and when we finally came around and made it back to the crossroads and killed the engines he was screaming his name over and over, yelling, bawling so everyone would hear him and know who he was.
I can’t remember his name.
But I remember how he sounded—like a prisoner who had just discovered a loose bar in his cell.
Something pulled me out of sleep.
Tap, tap, tap.
I opened my eyes. I was in her, in my sweet ’72.
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
Rosie was looking at me through the window. She saw me looking and stopped tapping.
Her voice whined through the window.
“Eddie, do you hear me?”
I heard her. I just didn’t want to.
“Eddie, get out. Get out here.”
I didn’t want to. But I opened the door and got out, squinting in the sunlight, and found her face.
There was an angry fear in her eyes. Her gaze dipped to the gleaming, immaculate machine behind me for the briefest of moments, before returning to me.
“Eddie, where were you last night? You didn’t come to bed.”
“I was out,” I said.
“Out. Again,” she said, her voice dull. Her eyes returned to the ’72, and this time I saw what I probably would have seen a long time ago if I had noticed: the dark glint of jealousy. “I never understood why you bought that thing.” The words exploded out of her, startling her, but she continued. “I don’t get why you need it, why you needed to fix it up. It looks nice, it does,” she added quickly, a pleading smile spasming across her face, “but you’ve never taken me out in it like you said you would, and you’re never with me anymore, Eddie, you’re always back here…working on it. Or out driving it alone. I’m lonely Eddie, can’t you see? Can’t you see I want you, the way you used to walk me home from work, the way you used to stay with me all night, can’t you see that I miss you? You’re never with me anymore.”
“I’m here most nights, Rose,” I said, though that was an obvious lie.
She shook her head. “But when you’re here, you’re not with me.”
There it was, out in the open, and we both knew it was true. Ever since I laid eyes on the beautiful machine, she had been all I thought about. We had found each other broken and made each other new, and when I went out flying at night into the endless turns of the dark, I loved her.
But maybe I hated her, too.
Maybe I hated her for the way Rosie was staring at me, her caged eyes trying to draw me in, needing me, I saw, just as much as I needed my machine.
Maybe I hated her because, as alive as she made me every night, I still died a little every day. And I would never be as free as I always imagined I was.
“I’m sorry,” I heard myself saying. Surprised happiness twitched across her face. “I’m sorry, Rose.”
She stared at me with something like disbelief, and I could clearly see the hurt and the fear of life etched into the lines of her face. Maybe she didn’t really believe it. But I know she wanted to. Needed to.
“Come inside,” she said. She held her hand out, waiting for me.
Waiting for something to happen.
I took her hand and walked away from my ’72.
I awoke in blind darkness, my skin feeling like a nightmare, and I knew that I had spent my last night in Rosie’s bed. I clawed and slithered from between the tussled sheets and into my clothes, foul, feeling cheap for being with her, for hurting her, for knowing she wanted me to stay and lying to her with my body, with my words, just by being there made me a liar. I didn’t love her. I never did, but she’d wake up next to an empty impression where my body had been and maybe she wouldn’t get out of bed, maybe she’d just stay there and shiver and moan to the quiet stillness that she was lost, lost and in pain, caged, but I wouldn’t be there, I didn’t belong there. I never could.
I stumbled outside into earthy nightfall, fumbling in my pockets like a drunk, and I was in front of the darkness, in front of her, my sweet ’72, my no-name, my machine, my soul, and the keys were in my hands, I was sitting in the seat, the engine was rumbling like the last train bound for the land just beyond the horizon, a better place where I won’t have to lie to myself and to those I pretend to love, where I won’t have to look into a woman’s eyes and see nothing but wild animals broken down to a life of commands and cud-chewing idiocy.
My foot was on the pedal, the wind was in my hair, and I was gone.
Headlights blur now in the rearview. I peer out the window, and I recognize the Stingray as it glides up through the blackness, a ghost revving to race.
This is it.
They line the sidewalks, the lost souls of a broken world, watching, and I know that this is it; this is all that truly matters. Everything I am is strapped and bolted and riveted in this metal body, glinting hard and bright and real in the moonlight.
This is it.
Gone are the false walls of a world of unfulfilled dreams and unreached desires. Gone are the loves and the wants and the frustrations that bite, that gouge, that demand attention, that demand sacrifice, that demand that you die a little each day just to feel the slow beauty of the night lull you to sleep. Gone are all the promises and bonds I never wanted to keep. This is all I am, God, this is all I can do—damn myself with furious dreams that maybe I matter, that maybe I can be important, that maybe, just maybe, I can find an answer in the darkness. This is my soul, this is my life, idling behind makeshift flags, waiting for the flash of red cloth in the dark, barreling through blind darkness for something, anything, just some recognition and pride and something better.
A bum walks from the edge of the crowd—raggedy clothes, burning eyes, and two red flags trailing on the ground like greasy pools of blood.
This is it.
His arms raise. The flags swirl.
This is it.
Currently a technical writer, Samuel T. Franklin has also been a university instructor, groundskeeper, and writing tutor, among other things. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.