RESEARCH

Flash fiction Tom Larsen ⇔ Art by Texas Fontanella

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I catch a ride outside of Dallas, Gary, Lexus, Florida tags. Gary’s bound for Vegas and he’s ripped on something, speed, by the sound of it. Wouldn’t be a stretch to say the highways run on amphetamines. He goes on forever about his car wreck, his DUI and his gambling problem. Mostly he talks about his wife, Stupid Bitch.

“The stupid bitch blows in like a tsunami, BOOM, table goes one way, chips go the other. I’m holding three kings with a thumb up my ass! OOH, but when I’m on a roll you don’t hear a peep. Money can buy some peace and quiet, I can assure you.”

Gary likes to assure me of things. So far I have his assurance that the Rangers suck, the Cowboys suck, money makes money and Angelina Jolie’s tits are real. How he knows the last is what I want to know.

“Stupid bitch finds out I tapped the college fund and goes ballistic!” he waves his hands. “My kid is three! When you feel it you go for it, fuck the college fund. Sorry, that’s the way I am. She knew that going in, stupid bitch.”

Gary stops a few times for I know what and a cell phone call. Whoever he’s plaguing doesn’t answer, caller ID, a wonderful thing. After the last stop he comes back a mess.

“You all right?” I have to ask.

“Sure,” he just sits there. “I’m broke, I’m sick and my wife just left me. I’m fucking great!”

Christ, what do you say to that? In the first place it’s none of my business and in the second, I’m pulling for the stupid bitch.

“Sick?”

“At heart.”

“Maybe if I drive.”

“Stupid bitch,” Gary blubbers.

“Come on, switch seats,” I pop my seatbelt. “You can rest. It’s rough, I know.”

His eyes cut over. “What do you care? You don’t even know me.”

“You picked me up. I owe you,” I force a smile. “You wanna talk? I’ll listen. Put on some miles, it’ll do you good.”

We switch. He talks.

“I’ve known Jeanette since the seventh grade. We got married in high school. Can you believe it? Hell I would have married any girl who’d fuck me. High school, can you imagine? You don’t even know who you are yet!”

Nice car. It occurs to me that in my six decades I’ve never owned a nice car, or even a new car. My wife sprang for a Beetle when they came back out, but I rarely drive it. My own car is a twelve-year old station wagon with a hubcap missing and a check engine light that’s always on.

“I mean what do you know in high school? Nothing.” Gary rolls his head against the headrest. “If you could see the kid you were in tenth grade you’d cringe. Things you thought were important weren’t important and people you thought were cool weren’t cool. I just learned how to drive and now I’m getting married? You know who does that? An idiot does that. First class, I can assure you.”

“It works for some.”

“You know who it works for?” his head rolls my way. “People who peak in tenth grade. You can see the ones, 18 going on 50, the nobodies who know it.”

“Yeah well, …”

The thing about luxury cars, the luxury. I suppose you get used to it but I don’t see how.

“A guy your age. How many times have you been divorced?”

“I’ve never been divorced,” I level with him.

“Never.”

“Married twenty-five years,” I smile to think. “I’ve known my wife since we were kids.”

He waves me off. “You could tell me anything. How would I know?”

“You wouldn’t, but it’s true. The difference is I was over thirty when I got married.”

Gary thinks about that while I lock on the fast lane.

“So … that’s the way you planned it? You said to yourself I’m not getting married until I’m thirty.”

“No, not like that. It wasn’t really an issue.”

Push it to ninety, smooth as silk. Gary doesn’t seem to notice.

“It was my idea,” he tells me. “My wife, Jeanette is a piece of work. Type triple A with a face and body to match. I couldn’t let anyone come between us and I thought marrying her would be the way. Can you imagine that?”

“You were a kid.”

“So how come I’d do it again?”

I cut inside on a long banked curve. Not much traffic so I goose it to triple digits. “So, you love her, right?”

“From the neck down. I had a dream once where I could unscrew her head,” he laughs. “That was a good dream.”

Cruising at 120, the road unwinds like a video game. Lexus, nice, if I could afford one I wouldn’t get one. The thing about luxury, it makes me nervous. A nice car would mean too much to me. I’d obsess. Better to have a car you don’t care about. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the station wagon.

“Happily married, what a crock!” Gary snorts. “So what are you doing scuffling?”

I tell him the truth. I’m doing research for a hitchhiking memoir. I have to admit it sounds pretty wifty.

“So you’re a writer,” he bobs his head. “You’ve been published?”

“Not so you’d notice.”

“Another road book. Good luck with that.”

I give him a look. His head keeps bobbing.

“Anything memorable happen so far?”

“Depends on what you mean by memorable. Strangers confined together, it’s a unique situation. Somehow it always makes an impression.”

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“I bet this never happened before,” Gary nods to the small handgun cradled in his lap. I ease off the gas as my limbs stiffen.

“What’s that for?”

“Plan B.”

“ … What’s Plan A?”

He smiles and shakes his head. “You’ll laugh.”

“I won’t. I assure you.”

“When I get to Vegas I’m going to put everything I’ve got on a roll of the dice. One roll, all or nothing.”

“And if you lose?”

Gary puts the gun to his head.

“ … And if you win?”

He scratches his head with the barrel. “I haven’t given it much thought. I mean what are the chances?”

“You said you were broke.”

Gary reaches in his pocket and pulls out a necklace, diamonds, looks like. He holds it to the light.

“I paid twenty grand and the stupid bitch refused to wear it. Said it’s too gaudy.”

Guns and diamonds in Iowa, right?

“Put the gun away, OK?”

But instead he starts to play with it, twirling it on his finger, spinning the bullet thing. It sounds just like a gun on TV.

“This will make a good chapter,” he cocks the hammer. “Crazy guy with a death wish, definitely not the ride you were after. I mean who knows, I might just shoot you.”

I grip the wheel to keep my hands from shaking. “Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “Irrational people do irrational things.”

I take a chance. “You’re not irrational. You’re just feeling sorry for yourself.”

Gary smacks his lips. “Or you might piss me off.”

So here it is. If Gary’s half the flake I think he is I’m in a world of trouble here. I don’t think he’s revved up enough to shoot me … yet. But we’re a full day from Vegas and he’s bound to keep cranking. Whatever happens will be messy and exhausting.

“Why don’t we stop somewhere, get something to eat,” I nod to a cluster of rest stop signs.

“Just keep driving,” he pockets the necklace and folds his arms, gun pointed my way. I think about how it will hurt, the organs involved, the closest hospital. Gary bobs his head to the radio, white guys rapping.

“You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?” he snickers. “The way you’d write it.”

“I’m thinking about my liver.”

“You’re what, fifty, sixty?” he smacks his lips. “Ever think maybe you missed the writing boat?”

“You mind if I smoke?”

“Please do. What’s second hand smoke to a man with two plans? Hey, there’s a line for you,” he jabs me with the fucking thing. “About that boat. What do you think?”

So maybe I am writing it in my head. In that case I want to get this right. I want to say what someone who gets out of this would say.

“I think you’re making a mistake,” I manage a shrug. “In ten years you’ll be so involved in something else you’ll have trouble remembering this. Who knows, you could be happy. Be a shame to miss that boat.”

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He mouths my words, bobbing and grinning. A well-placed elbow to the nose might do it.

“Ten years ago you were in the same boat,” he says. “Same wife, same delusion, failed writer hacking away.”

Maybe stomp the brakes, bounce him off the dash. But, of course, then he’d have a reason to shoot me.

“Same wife, the rest is different,” I tell him.

“Thing is, I’ve tried to live without her. It doesn’t work. I make myself sick wondering what she’s doing and who she’s doing it with. I can’t stop and I can’t do it anymore.”

“OK, fair enough,” I keep my eyes on the road. “It’s your life, but what about me? I’ve got nothing to do with any of it.”

“Don’t start sniveling,” he waves the gun. “I hate a fucking sniveler.”

“That’s not sniveling. That’s just a question.”

“Look,” Gary slides around to face me. “I haven’t decided what I’m gonna do yet so back off. You don’t want to force my hand.”

“You’re running the show.”

“That’s right. I am.”

“Only you’re facing some major felonies should you have, you know, a change of heart.” Please God, rip out my tongue.

“Maybe that’s the whole point,” Gary whispers. “Paring down the old options. Of course I could never do the time.”

The whisper, very creepy, and the saliva paste, Jesus!

“No problem there,” I keep my voice steady. “You put the gun away and I forget it ever happened.”

“Really. That’s awful nice of you … Tom was it?”

“That’s right. I’ll even drive you to Vegas and check you in.”

“You know what? Let’s do it,” he puts the gun in his pocket. Could it be that easy? I hold a few beats then sneak a peek over.

“So, we’re OK?”

The gun comes back out again. “I like it better this way, dramatic tension and all that. Gives me an edge.”

Past El Paso we get a flat and Gary makes me change it. Lexus, right? I take as long as I can, but who stops to help the rich guy? What would I do anyway, drag someone else into it? Back on the road Gary tells me about his daughter, Melanie. Shows me her picture, cute kid, whatever. His cell phone rings every now and then, post time bugle call, fucking handjob. He checks the ID but doesn’t answer.

“I took Melanie to the track on her third birthday,” he snorts a laugh. “She bet the six horse, the red one she called it. Went off the long shot and won going away, 60 to 1, the freaking red horse. You a betting man, Tom?”

“Not so much.”

“Poker’s my game, or was,” he taps his chin with the gun. “Then one night I’m in AC and I got a bluff going. The bluff is my thing, right? I mean to win when you shouldn’t, to psyche the guy, that’s what does it for me. And this bozo is sweating bullets. Frat fuck, big mouth, I mean I really want this guy. So I put on my game face and raise him a grand, only something’s wrong with my game face. My right eye, I can feel it twitching. Not so you’d notice unless you were looking, but everybody WAS looking. There’s a couple of grand on the table and it’s all eyes on me! Twitching!

“It’s only nerves,” I tell him. “It could mean anything.”

“In real life, maybe. But in poker it means you’re bluffing. End of story I can assure you.”

“Does it still twitch?”

“Only when I’m playing poker,” Gary points to his head. “It’s in here.”

“You could fake it. Throw them off.”

“I tried that, but the slick ones can differentiate.”

“You could wear dark glasses.”

“No good. You can still see it.”

Like I give a rat’s ass. And where’s a cop when you need one? Not that I would try anything. If Gary shoots me we’ll likely crash. Either would be bad but both would be twice as bad.

“So it’s craps.”

He gives me a wink. “One roll, all or nothing.”

We pass the exit for the University of Texas. Way back when I would stop and hit the dorms for a shower and a meal. Blending in might be a problem these days, but the mid point reference appeals to me. I’m thinking Gary wouldn’t go for it.

“I want you to be honest with me,” he pulls out the necklace again. “Would you say this is gaudy?”

I’m no expert but gaudy nails it.

“It’s … nice.”

“Nice?” he spins it on his finger. “Flowers are nice. Candy is nice. We’re talking twenty large!”

“Hey, what do I know?”

“Nothing,” he lets fly and the necklace clatters against the dash. “You don’t know jack-shit!”

“OK.”

“Shut the fuck up,” he barks. So I do.

 

Cattle country but we don’t see it. He’s too wrapped up in the gun and the advantage and I’m too busy beaming compliance. The miles pile up and the tension takes a toll. My mouth tastes like metal, I need to eat and I’m sensing Gary doesn’t like me anymore.

“We’ll need to gas up pretty soon,” I break the silence.

“So … do it.”

The rest stop has a hundred pumps, three of them occupied. I pull up close to the pay booth. A billion bugs swirl in the vapor light.

“Well?”

Gary fingers the necklace. “You pump it. I’m not going out there.”

I push out the door and start walking.

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Tom Larsen : “I’ve been a fiction writer for 25 years and my work has appeared in Newsday, Best American Mystery Stories, Raritan, Puerto del Sol and the LA Review. My novels FLAWED and INTO THE FIRE are available through Amazon.”

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