There was no doubt about it. That was our pickup.
I’d seen the busted-up
fender on the right side, the lousy paint job—gray primer on light green,
the wood stakes in the bed frame. It might as well have said "Crenshaw
and Sons" on the side.
I couldn’t breathe. I waited for the brake lights to go red and the tires
to squeal. Dad had to have seen me. I couldn’t move.
Why’d it always have to happen to me?
An excuse—there had to be something I could say. What was I doing? Taking
somebody home after work? Dropping somebody off at the bowling alley? It’d
be just like dad to go back to the place and check.
Another beating . . .
But the pickup kept going! I couldn’t believe it. He’d
gone right by me and been struck blind. It was a miracle! I almost laughed
I watched as the taillights moved away, then suddenly
slouched down in the seat in case he looked in the rearview mirror. You could
get thankful too quick around my dad—and then disaster would strike.
Another week of bruises.
What was he doing out here at this hour of the night?
I looked at my watch again. Eleven-twenty. There was a feed store in Boring
out this way, but it would have closed hours ago. Had he gone to the cannery
looking for me? If so, I didn’t
know how I was going to beat him home. Go a hundred miles an hour on some back
Not very likely.
I heard a girl yelling then.
I glanced to my left and saw the Chevelle had pulled
up next to me. The driver gunned his motor and let the clutch in and out while
keeping his foot on the brake. Big deal. I was still shaking and didn’t
feel like talking now. My hands gripped the wheel so tight they hurt.
"Hey, you wanna drag?"
I took a deep breath, loosened my fingers, and looked
over at her. She had long stringy black hair, a saucy face. She looked like
a Senior. Maybe a year or two older than me. Not anyone I’d consider
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t think straight. I was still trying
to swallow—and at the moment that was hard enough.
I tapped the accelerator, left foot on the brake,
and stared straight ahead. If dad was looking for me, I’d get whipped no matter when I went home.
Scratch the car though and my butt would be sore for a month—and I’d
have to pay to fix it.
Everywhere I looked, all I saw was trouble.
But it was tempting. A ’57 Merc against a ’64 Chevelle. A family
car against a hot-rod. An automatic against a stick shift. But I’d always
thought the Mercury Monterey had good acceleration for its size. This was a chance
to see how it would do. I’d never raced anyone before.
One of the guys in the back seat mouthed off, "Hell, he don’t
"Come on," the girl said. "You can
see he wants to."
I looked over at her, she was popping the door,
half out of the Chevy now. She bent over, her butt to me, tight pants cut mid-thigh,
the bottom edge frayed. I could see her back where her blouse was riding up.
She had white skin, which looked cool under the fluorescent lights in the parking
lot. You could tell she didn’t work in the sun. Probably slept all day
and partied all night with these hoods.
"I’ll ride with him," she told them. "He’s
Yeah, right. The loner dork. How’d I get into
I looked down at my work shirt. It was stained with
berries and dirt. I’d
been dumping crates on the grading lines until they let us go. I looked a mess,
especially with the streetlight at the exit hitting me square in the face. I
eased the Mercury forward, hoping to get into shadow. I still couldn’t
believe dad hadn’t seen me.
"Hey, wait," the girl said. She opened the door and looked in. Her
dark scraggly hair hung down over her chest. "I’ll ride with you.
Make the weight more even."
"I just got off work." Jeez, what a dumb
thing to say.
She didn’t seem interested. "Follow him," she
said, rolling down the window on her side. The Chevy had turned left, out toward
the Loop Highway. Away from dad and the pickup.
"Hey, what’s this?" She had her
hand on a paperback lying on the seat between us.
I swung out after the Chevelle. "A book." Gosh,
now she probably thought I sat in the car and read for entertainment. The book
was for break time in the lunch room.
"Oh, yeah? Whatcha readin’? This is big." Like
all she read was comic books.
"Of Human Bondage."
"You into kinky things?"
She got me with that one. I didn’t say anything,
just shook my head no, trying to figure out if she was joking or just dumb.
I mean, we were in high school now, not kindergarten.
The other guy turned right at the intersection with the Loop Highway, and I had
to step on the gas to keep up.
"So, you like reading?" She was thumbing
through the book, head scrunched down to see in the dim light from the dashboard.
"Helps pass the time at work—during our
And, yeah, I liked it. That’s one thing you’d think my dad would
like, too, but he doesn’t. He’s always jumping on me, asking why
I don’t join the family and why I always lock myself away in my room in
the other house and read.
I mean, he’s the one who taught me. I could read before I was five. Sure,
I talk dumb sometimes, but that’s just for fun, to fit in. When I was growing
up we had to read a chapter of the Bible every morning after chores before leaving
for school. I could recite the names of all thirty-nine books of the Old Testament
and all twenty-seven of the New. You know—hard names like Hosea, Joel,
Amos, Obadiah, Jonah. Start me anywhere—Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah—and
I’d rattle them off like a pro—Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. I bet
by the time I was in the third or fourth grade, I’d read the whole thing
at least five times.
It’s not a bad book really. Sure, there’s parts that are boring but
sometimes in church, when I got tired of listening to my dad preach, I’d
let my Bible pop open wherever it wanted and just start reading. Usually it was
better than listening to my dad. I liked the Old Testament best—Proverbs
and the Song of Solomon and Job and Lamentations. Believe it or not, some of
that stuff’s actually interesting.
The girl dropped the book after a few minutes and swung around toward me.
"What’s your name, anyway?"
"Not just Art or Arthur?"
I shook my head, then brushed the hair out of my
eyes. "A. R. T. I. E. My
parents named us all with nicknames. I got two brothers, Richy and Bobby, and
a sister, Nancy."
"Nancy . . . that’s not a nickname."
She had me there. "Well, it ends with y," I
"I’m Reta Jane."
Hey, what could you say about that? Pleased to meet
you, I guess, but I didn’t
think of that in time.
We drove for about fifteen minutes without talking
much then. I was lost for one thing—started paying attention when it was too late. Scrubby trees
and saplings stalked through the darkness to each side, with big empty fields
behind them. We were on a county road somewhere between Boring and Sandy—two
small towns that were dead at night and didn’t have much to see in the
The Chevelle slowed to a stop when we turned on to a straight stretch near some
fresh-plowed fields with a stand of tall dark fir trees in the distance. At the
last second, as I was coming up behind him, the driver pulled to the left into
the oncoming lane. It was pitch black out, no cars in sight for miles, a long,
I eased up next to him.
"You ready?" the girl in the other car
asked, her head and both arms hanging out the window.
I nodded. I’d thought the other guy might
try to lay a bet on the outcome.
"Okay, I’ll give a countdown." She paused, and I looked ahead
at the road. I couldn’t see very much. Four cones of light from the two
cars illuminated the asphalt, with faded splotches of white showing where the
lanes had been painted years ago. My foot caressed the accelerator.
"You know how to do this?" Reta Jane asked.
I nodded, concentrating on the other car. Hey,
it wasn’t like trying
to hold a popsicle in your mouth with no hands.
The girl in the other car went through a ready, set, go,
and I hit the pedal. For a few seconds we were side by side, although actually
I thought I’d beaten him to the punch, and then he started to pull away.
Reta Jane had her right hand on the dash, tangled
hair whipping around her face. "Wait
a minute," she yelled. "Slow down."
I hit the brakes, fishtailed, and then managed to come to a stop. I looked over
at her. She sounded impatient like she was angry at something.
"Pull up next to Carl," she said.
The other driver had come to a stop ahead of us, sitting off to my left still.
I didn’t know what she wanted. When the cars
were side by side again, she scooted over and leaned across me. I could feel
her breast on my arm.
"Carl, he didn’t even rev up. Give him
She turned to me. "Look, you ever done this
I just stared at her.
"You gotta hold the brake down and accelerate. You took off from a dead
stop with an automatic. Give it some gas. He’s got a Holley four-barrel
carb and over three hundred cubes under the hood."
I didn’t know much about motors and less about cubic inches. A V8 was a
V8, wasn’t it? If I’d been smart, we’d have stopped right then,
but I wasn’t, so we tried again. This time, I held the brake and stepped
on the accelerator, hearing the motor whine, hesitant to rev it up too much for
fear it would throw a rod or whatever it is cars do when they blow up. If I ruined
the motor I could forget a beating; dad would kill me.
When the countdown reached "Go," the other guy must have been ready
because the Chevelle surged out ahead of me. I’d done better without trying
so hard. This time I tried to keep up for a bit and then realized it was worthless.
He was pulling away, red lights growing smaller by the second, and I was already
up to seventy. He had to have hit a hundred.
I eased off the accelerator and started tapping
the brakes, while the hood dipped and rose and my head started swaying like
an old man’s rocking chair. When
the needle hit twenty-five I took a deep breath and glanced at Reta Jane. The
wind was whipping her hair into an angry black mop. "Didn’t help," I
said, easing finally to a stop. I had to breathe through my mouth, short quick
gasps, my heart thudding in my chest as loud as the car’s pistons.
"He beat you fair and square."
Like I needed to be told.
I tried to swallow, my mouth as dry as a dusty cow path after a long hot summer.
I was thinking about going home, starting to get anxious again like a bunch of
heifers ready to hoof it that last fifty feet to the water trough. Only thing
was, it might be a switch waiting for me.
"Listen," she said, pulling a strand of hair from the corner of her
mouth. "Can you take me some place?"
It took me a moment to absorb what she said. I stared at her face, pale in the
dim light from the dash, wondering what she meant. Around us all was dark, the
only sound the quiet hum of the motor, at rest now, the soft rustling of the
breeze. The other car had turned around and I could see its headlights coming
"I need to stop by my uncle Fred’s house. It’s
not far from here. Just over the line in Clackamas County."
I wanted to ask what was wrong with her asking her
friends for a ride, but she must have read my mind because she said they were
going back into town for something to eat. She’d join them later if I didn’t mind dropping her off at
the Polar King on East Powell. Fine by me. I was thinking of going back through
town anyway. I was still bored—in an antsy way, if that makes sense—and
it didn’t look like being with Reta Jane was going to change that.
Five minutes later she’d said her good-byes,
arranged to meet her friends in an hour, and she was directing me down roads
so dark I had no idea where we were. It looked like a time warp had picked
us up in Oregon and set us down in Africa.
The terrain was uneven, the road rising and falling,
and when we were at the crest of one slope she said, "There’s a
creek at the bottom. Turn right just beyond it."
I slowed when we were over the culvert, trying to find a cutoff, and then saw
a break in the barbed-wire fence that ran alongside us, and just beyond that
a gravel road with a cattle guard.
The tires shuddered on the cattle guard and then crunched over the gravel. Grass
grew window-high to each side. When the gravel ran out, the road turned to dirt
and the track grew more rutted. I could hear the dry stalks of grass swishing
on the front bumper and smell fresh-cut hay. A moment later, just ahead and off
to the right, I saw an arc lamp on a pole and then the lights of a trailer and
a low, flat-roofed house.
"That’s it," she said. "Stop
there by the house."
I pulled up next to an old Plymouth. The car was
set up on blocks. Its bare rims glinted in the Mercury’s headlights.
I cut the engine. In the silence, I could hear the motor ticking away. Somewhere
in the distance, maybe in the trailer, a radio was playing. What now? I thought.