by Nick Young
As she passed the city limits sign she stepped hard on the gas. No more town speed limit. No more fucking town, she said to herself, reaching for the cigarette lighter. Joy Tallmadge was two months shy of thirty and two hours past her vow of never blowing out the candles on another birthday cake in Creek Bend, a dirt-bag dot on the road map. Yes, it was the place. Mostly it was him.
She lit her cigarette and nudged the side vent window open so that the smoke was sucked out into the cool April night.
Joy did not much like driving after the sun went down, not on that two-lane blacktop, not in her state of mind.
Fifteen more miles and I'll hit Route Three.
Then? It wouldn't be Sikeston. She was done with Missouri. Now, she was done with Illinois, too.
Three hours I can make Memphis.
If her nerves could take driving in the dark that long. She feared a creature, maybe a racoon, scuttling across the pavement, freezing in her headlight beams, causing her to swerve. Worse, it might be a deer leaping without warning from the trees that crowded each side of the road. Or, what if her car broke down with her all by herself? There was so much that could go bad.
And if it can go bad, it'll damn sure go bad for me.
Nervously she took a deep drag off her cigarette and pulled it away. A flake of tobacco stuck to her chapped lower lip, and she began working at it with the tip of her tongue.
Running. Again. She had been in Creek Bend for a year-and-a-half, and she had made her peace with the town, drab as it was. At least there had been no melodrama in her life. Not like Sikeston or Cape Girardeau before that. Not until she had hooked up with Travis Freeman. That started it all over again.
Now, with the pavement spooling out in front of her, Joy was desperate for some distraction from the thrum of the car's motor and the anxiety and anger squeezing her chest like a vise. She clicked on the radio and began spinning the dial up through the frequencies.
That station in Little Rock -- where was it? Nine hundred?
Through the crackle and fuzz, she finally caught the signal and the tail end of "Higher and Higher."
"Jackie Wilson on the Mighty Ten-Ninety, KAAY, where the hits never stop, night people!" And while the disc jockey rocked, he rolled into "Born to be Wild." Travis liked to crow that it was his theme song.
Oh, fuck me! I can't even get away from him on the goddamn radio!
She snapped it off, took a last drag from her cigarette and flipped the butt out the window. It was pushing one and the thick clouds that had been rolling in steadily for the better part of an hour began to open up, fat drops that drummed heavily on the windshield.
Just what I needed.
She turned on the wipers, started them whipping across the glass, throwing off thick ropes of water. At the same time, she eased up on the accelerator as the rain began washing down in sheets. This stretch of road was especially treacherous -- asphalt, unmarked, snaking through hilly terrain. There were no good places to pull off. Joy didn't trust the shoulder which was narrow, falling away sharply into a deep ditch. So, with the beams of her headlights cutting a murky wedge through the downpour, she white-knuckled the steering wheel. Her eyes flicked to the rear view mirror, worried that the heavy rain would find a way into the trunk of her shitbox Corvair, where she had hurriedly thrown her clothes and what few possessions she called her own.
"I can't take it no more, Mace," she had said to the other girl working the lunch counter that night at the truck stop on the north end of town.
"He gettin' rough with you again?" Macy asked, knowing the answer was always the same with Joy.
"Sometimes I just want to kill him."
"I'da done it already. I don't let no fucking man raise a hand to me."
"This is it. The last time. I'm outta here -- this crummy-ass job and this dead-end town and my shitty life with him."
She finished her shift, took her paycheck from the back room slot labeled with a strip of masking tape that had her name written on it in ballpoint and went straight to Travis' trailer, gathered up her things and climbed behind the wheel. As she drove away, she cast a look back at the rundown single-wide that occupied the lot nearest the road at the mobile home park.
'Scenic Vistas.' What a joke!
A dozen or so trailers -- old, poorly kept up, with more cracked red clay than grass for any kind of yard to speak of. It was dismal, a place that blighted the outskirts of the town like a fly speck.
Joy had known such places before, really had never shaken them since moving in with her boyfriend a month after she quit high school. He was twenty-one; she was seventeen. Her father had no use for him, but she couldn't have cared less. The old man never paid her one day's worth of respect or affection. The same way he treated her mother. He was, plain and simple, a lousy bastard who drank himself into dark rages, until the night five years before, when he put both barrels of an over-under in his mouth and ended everyone's misery. Joy hadn't bothered with the funeral.
But her corrosive relationship with the man she'd taken up with -- Jim Tatum was his name -- set a tone for her life that kept repeating, a bad dream that had unfolded yet again, forcing her to cut and run.
Jesus, I can't see a thing!
She had slowed the car to a crawl and turned on the high beams. But with the windshield starting to fog up, it made the visibility worse, so she quickly switched the headlights back and swiped her hand across the glass, clearing it enough so that she caught the outline of an overpass up ahead. She tapped the brakes and eased to the side of the road beneath its shelter. Abruptly, the pounding of the rain stopped, leaving the frantic wheeze and creak of the wipers. Joy shut them off, slipped the car into park and lit a fresh cigarette. She let herself slide down until her head rested on the back of the seat and drew in a deep lungful of smoke. She didn't think it was possible to feel so bone-tired.
My life is nothin' but a broken record.
Sometimes she wished she could cry -- and this was one of them -- but there were no tears. Not any more. She was all cried out. What remained was anger at herself. And frustration.
Each guy had turned out to be like the one before, and all of them carbons of the old man in their skill at inflicting heartache.
Travis? Well, it had seemed different with him in the beginning. He was back from two tours in 'Nam, poor like her, struggling to make some kind of life as a mechanic at the truck stop. The war had left deep scars. He was edgy, suspicious, withdrawn. But she knew he was hurt and vulnerable, and while he pushed others away, he let her in; and she salved his wounds, calming him, making him feel whole, at least fleetingly. And giving to him allowed her to renew the sense of herself that the other men had tried so hard to crush, the belief in her worthiness beyond the sad trappings of her existence.
For a few months, the hard angles of life became softer, with a glimmer of hope that she just might have a future with this one. But then the old pattern began again. The more she offered of herself, the angrier he became. When it happened, especially when he was drinking, he took it out on her verbally, bitterly.
"You needy little bitch! You want to suck the life out of me!"
Then it turned physical. Not every time, but lately more often than not, sometimes when she least expected it. The bruises she could cover with makeup or long sleeves and high collars. Inside, her soul curdled.
It never failed that the remorse followed. He would break down, baring his shame, begging her forgiveness, and she would relent because he held her in a way that pulled her from the lip of the abyss of extinction. And in those moments, filled with soothing words and passionate caresses, she absolved him, fearing abandonment more than his cutting her heart yet again.
Joy sat up, threw her cigarette away and laid her forehead on the steering wheel. Outside, the storm seemed to be losing some of its fury. She sighed and reflected on her slender prospects. There wasn't much money to make a new start. She had managed to squirrel away a few dollars, tips mostly, which she had wadded up in her haste to leave. She picked her purse up from the seat and snapped it open, pulling out the bills and folded pay envelope. By the dim dashboard lights, she counted out the bills: ninety-eight dollars.
God -- that's it?
All the rest of the money she had in the world was in her last check.
No way that's going to make another hundred.
She saw that the flap on the pay envelope had already been opened, so she folded it back and reached inside. Along with her check, out came a small piece of paper. It was smudged and smelled of motor oil, lined, with a frayed edge, torn from a spiral-bound notepad. With her thin fingers she angled the paper to catch what light there was inside the car. The writing was nervous, a pencil scrawl:
I'm sorry, little buttercup. I truly am. I love you like sunshine in the morning.
She closed her eyes, her lips drawn tight.
Not this time.
The downpour had subsided into fitful showers, bursts of lightning and intermittent thunder. Joy tossed Travis' note onto the seat beside her, shifted into drive and pulled slowly back onto the pavement and out from under the overpass.
She thought about the radio again but decided she preferred the slow rhythm of the windshield wipers. She drove on for several more miles; but there was no exhilaration, no feeling of triumph or liberation that welled up within her. Instead there was a sadness more profound than any she had ever known, and a yearning for human touch so strong she thought her insides would burst. She resisted her first impulse but finally relented and reached out until her fingers found the scrap of notepad paper. She lifted it up and read it again, then put it close to her nose, inhaling its smell.
Another mile, maybe two and in the Chevy's headlights, Joy spotted a mailbox on her left at the entrance to a gravel driveway that cut into a thick stand of trees. She slowed, pulled in and sat, feeling the ragged, low rumble of the car as it idled. A dull half-moon slid from behind the last scraps of storm clouds. The rain had moved northeast and the wind had fallen away. After a long moment, she took a deep breath, then turned the car around. The dashboard clock glowed green: 1:25.
He'll be waiting.
Nick Young is an award-winning retired journalist whose career included twenty years as a CBS News correspondent. His writing has appeared in the San Antonio Review, Short Story Town, CafeLit Magazine, Fiery Scribe Review, 50-Word Stories, Pigeon Review and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies. He lives outside Chicago.