For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with America. I find some of its politics frightening and bordering on the absurd, but as a cultural influence, its had an enormous impact. Most of my favourite movies are American. Bands, too. And when it comes to writers, I’d say the vast majority of those I can’t live without are from the States.
It was probably crime fiction that got me into the American writers. Starting with Chandler (technically a Brit but who’s counting), Hammett, James M. Cain, through to Ross Macdonald, John D. Macdonald, James Crumley, and up to the present day greats like Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. It’s difficult to band this disparate group together, but I’d say they write with a dark, existential hardness that is unique to the American psyche. I’ve thought a lot about how to define this, and I think it partly comes from the vastness of the landscape and the themes of alienation, loneliness and desperation that can come from living an isolated life in the often forgotten heart of the American continent.
The images of the American interior, tumbleweed and hot desert air, run-down shacks and ramshackle bars, and the people who live in these places, hard-working but falling through the cracks, holding on to the remnants of the frontier spirit. This is what fascinates me. I’ve read it in countless books set in opposite ends of the country, from Don Carpenter to the brilliant books of the underclass by Willy Vlautin. And it’s tradition is firmly set in American history, going back to Huckleberry Finn, the whole western genre, Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry, the Beat Generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg and reaching a nadir in the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S.Thompson. I’ve been enthralled and intimidated by these authors, and have always wanted to try and make an attempt to offer a take on the downside of the American dream. The short story that follows is that effort.
The final push I needed to write this piece came from reading Norman Mailer’s brilliant The Executioner’s Song, one of my books of 2017. The book is based on the gruesome life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore, but at its heart it is an exploration of a man unable to live outside of prison, a highly disturbed, forgotten individual in a Utah town who turns to murder almost out of boredom. The backdrop of small-town America is brilliantly sketched by Mailer and the book discusses through the life of Gilmore some of the themes I’ve tried to sketch out above. The isolating, unstable figure of Gilmore seemed to encapsulate the negatives of rural American towns and set off a ton of thoughts in my head, trying to figure out how I could say something about this subject, one that I had wanted to for a long time.
As tends to happen with me, a couple of songs helped to crystallise these thoughts into something more tangible. I am a sucker for more modern country music, the Americana stuff of the Southern and Midwestern states, and loneliness, grief and pain are pretty much the default themes. All of which helped me to find the tone and atmosphere I was searching for. I allowed the story to bubble and boil up in my imagination whilst working on my latest novel, and once that behemoth of a first draft was complete, this story came rushing out and was completed in less than a week.
So, here it is. It’s called ‘One Night Rebellion.’ Hope you enjoy it, and as always, any comments are most welcome. As an aside, I have entered this story in Booksie’s online short story competition for 2017/18. One of the finalists is chosen partly based on the number of reads their story chalks up, so if you fancy reading it on Booksie and helping my cause, I’d be grateful. Thanks. Otherwise, read on…
ONE NIGHT REBELLION
I clocked off and stepped into the entrails of the evening, following a steady trail of my co-workers as they streamed out to their cars. There were few conversations. Everyone had a purpose, places to be.
As cars started to pile out of the lot, I took a slow step forward and meandered towards my truck. There weren’t many cars left now. Beyond the lot, the red and green glare of the adjacent service station shone like a Christmas tree. The sky was a beautiful salmon pink colour, one of those long sunsets that made you feel small and ineffectual. Although the lot was virtually deserted, less than a mile away traffic sped up and down the interstate, a constant rush, day in, day out. Everyone was in an awful hurry.
I patted my shirt pocket for my cigarettes, then remembered I had chain smoked the last two at break. I was getting into the habit of doing that. Cursing, I vowed to pick some up on the drive home. Maybe get a six-pack, too. A cold beer to finish up the day. That sounded good.
The vehicle next to mine was also a pick-up. It was in a much worse state. I could see rust flaking off the undercarriage. There were dents all over the bodywork and the tyres didn’t look in great shape. A man was leaning against the truck smoking a cigarette. As I got closer he came up off the car and spoke to me.
‘You’re Gus, right?’ he said. He blew out a long stream of smoke. He had a large gap in his face where his middle teeth should have been. The teeth that remained were yellow, turning to brown in patches.
I shrugged. ‘Yeah. That’s me.’
The man nodded, then shook out a cigarette and offered it to me. I took it and bent forward to accept his light. There was a powerful odour coming off him, more than the sweat of a hard day’s graft. It made me want to throw up.
‘Heard a lot about you.’
I couldn’t think what. I didn’t even know where he’d seen me before. Must have been a new employee. The turnover was huge at that place. But I wasn’t a high flyer. There was no reason he should have picked me out. I forced a smile. ‘That’s nice.’
He returned the favour, showing more of those horrible teeth. ‘Hey listen, you want to grab a beer?’ He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘We can go in my car, if you want. She’s not much but she knows how to run.’
I didn’t think about it much. ‘OK, sure.’
He flicked the cigarette butt to the floor and ground it under his foot. ‘Gotta make a quick stop at mine first. You cool with that?’
He walked to the other side of the truck. I looked over my shoulder at my car. Fuck it. Would still be there in the morning. And sure as night followed day, I would be there too.
‘Good man,’ he was saying. He smiled over the top of the truck at me. ‘My name’s Corey,’ by the way. Pleasure.’
‘Likewise,’ I said, and got into the truck.
‘So, how long have you been working at that place?’ Corey asked. He lit another cigarette. I wasn’t offered one this time.
I shrugged. ‘Long enough.’ Truth of it, I was struggling to remember. I had only planned on it being a short-term thing, whilst I looked for something better. The days had kind of melted into one from then on. It was years, I knew that much. And since Charlene had given up work, there wasn’t any chance of a way out.
Charlene. ‘Hey, I’ve got to make a phone call, OK?’
Corey nodded. He cracked the window and a hot blast of air buffeted my face. We were heading away from the interstate, into the desert. towards the foothills. I flipped open my cell and stared at the screen. Battery running low. I scrolled to Charlene’s name. My fingers hovered over the call button. I stared at the mountains hovering in the distance. Then made the call.
It rang for an age. As I was about to hang up, she answered. ‘Hello?’ As if she didn’t know who it was.
‘Hi. It’s me.’
She didn’t respond. I just listened to her breathing, slow and ragged. She’d probably fallen asleep in front of the TV again, plate of cookies resting on her belly.
‘I’m going to be late,’ I said. ‘A couple of the night shift failed to show, so they asked if I’d stay on. I’ll be home soon, I’m sure.’
‘Fine,’ she replied. I started to respond, but she was already gone. Corey was staring at me as I placed the cell back in my pocket.
‘Nicely done,’ he said, and grinned. Like we were kindred spirits. I wanted to wring his scrawny little neck. Instead he leaned forward and switched on the radio. An old, miserable country song was playing. But at least I didn’t have to talk. I turned to the window and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains, the road turning from tarmac to dirt track, wondering where the hell we were fucking going.
After ten minutes of driving we came upon a small adobe building set back from the road. There was no driveway to speak of, just a more worn patch of dirt that we pulled into. A child’s tricycle lay overturned in front of the porch, its red wheels spinning in the wind. I got out and wished I had a cap with me. The heat was dry and stifling, even at dusk. Corey walked to the porch, opened the screen door and went inside without inviting me in. He disappeared into the back of the house as I stepped through into a long corridor, rooms branching off left and right. I could hear voices in the nearest room to the left, so went in there.
It was only the TV, turned up far too loud. A woman lay on the couch, taking turns flipping through a magazine and looking up at the screen. An ashtray by her elbow was full of roach butts, and she had one on the go. The room reeked of marijuana smoke. I coughed politely.
‘Hi,’ I said.
She raised a hand, then went back to her magazine, blinking with bloodshot eyes as she turned the pages. Jeopardy was on TV, but she wasn’t paying any attention to the questions. I had a feeling she might struggle to find the answers. I heard a yell and looked beyond the room to see two small boys in the back yard. One of them had a model aeroplane and was running around the tiny garden with it. His brother was jumping for the plane, trying to get his turn, and failing. He yelled, loud enough to be heard through the glass of the back door. The boy with the plane laughed and pushed him away. He sat down on the grass and began to cry. I turned my attention back to his mother. She was oblivious.
Corey came back in. He’d changed into a fresh shirt but hadn’t managed to rid himself of that stink. He carried a six-pack of Schlitz under one arm. ‘Shall we?’ he said, and we left the room and headed back to the truck.
We drove away, Corey spinning the tyres, shrouding the house in a cloud of dust. He laughed and popped the tab on a beer, taking two long swallows, then threw me the six pack. I took a can and did the same, feeling the cold beer hit my throat. I already felt settled, relaxed. Corey was drinking like a fish, the first can already gone and out the window of the truck. I drained mine shortly after. He handed me another and I opened it and placed the can between my legs. I hadn’t done that for years. I had a flash of a memory, Charlene and I headed to the drive-thru when we first started dating. Planning to watch a movie but getting too distracted by each other. Getting a buzz on from slow beers, when we had the invincibility of youth and whole world stretched out ahead of us like a delicious promise. It made me crestfallen, to think of it. And how different it was now. How much I dreaded going home. I took a long drink, trying to drown the memories in booze. Dusk had fallen and the lights of the truck bobbed and weaved as we headed back to the highway.
‘Hey,’ Corey said. He lit a cigarette. Without asking, I took one when he replaced the pack on the dashboard. He frowned at me. ‘Gus. You have anything against tits?’
He grinned. ‘You know, tits.’ He took both hands of the wheel and made that awful grabbing gesture. ‘You into ’em or what?’
I looked at him, face in shadow in the gathering dark. ‘Sure,’ I said. As far as I could remember. ‘Who isn’t?’
Corey smiled, the cigarette glowing red as he inhaled. ‘Exactly, my man.’ We went past a sign for the interstate, one mile away. ‘That’s what I figured.’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘Why do you think?’ He shook his head as we approached the turn-off. ‘What else is there to do in this town?’
I didn’t have an answer to that.
We took the first exit off the interstate. Corey took a few turns as we headed deeper into the rougher end of town. I just had time to finish my beer before we pulled into the sparsely lit car park of the Chameleon Club. From somewhere near the entrance I heard the sound of breaking glass, and beyond that, the low thumping bass of music. An empty takeway carton blew in front of me as we got out of the car and headed for the club. The neon chameleon sign had the reptile outlined in garish green, with its flicking tongue blood red. A big guy in an ill-fitting suit and white shirt stepped out to greet us.
‘Corey,’ the doorman said. ‘Must be Friday, seeing as you’re here.’ His massive frame dwarfed Corey, who was grinning up at him.
‘I like to be regular,’ Corey replied.
‘Brought a friend along,’ the bouncer said, holding the door open for us. The noise level went up a notch. That’s new.’
‘Gotta keep you guys in business somehow.’
The doorman looked me up and down. ‘Well, you know the drill. Keep your hands to yourself, don’t have too much to drink, and we’ll get along fine. You got that?’
I nodded. ‘Yessir.’
‘You know me,’ Corey said, laughing nervously. ‘Always on my best behaviour.’
‘OK,’ the doorman said, turning away. ‘Enjoy your evening.’
We made our way inside. The noise was deafening. Corey went directly to the bar, which ran in a C shape to the right of the club. In back, under a blue glitterball, a girl went through the motions of dancing, clutching the pole and throwing her head back as men grouped around tables looked on with gaping eyes. To the left of the stage was a velvet red curtain which presumably led to the private area. As I took stock the curtains parted and a woman wearing not very much escorted a man back to the bar. Up close I could see she was barely out of her teens. She whispered something to a barman and a glass of clear liquid appeared in front of her. She drank it in one swallow and before she had time to turn round a man had settled in beside her. After a few seconds of conversation they disappeared behind the curtain. On stage, the girl had finished her performance and there was cursory applause as she exited the stage. The glitterball continued to spin forlornly. I felt a twist in my gut and closed my eyes. I opened them to find Corey gesturing at me from the bar.
‘This place is great, isn’t it?’ he said, sliding a bottle of Bud down the bar to me. I took a sip. There was an accompanying shot of whisky with fingerprints on the glass. Corey held his up in a toast and we drank. I shuddered getting it down. The knot in my stomach ratcheted tighter.
‘And the women!’ Corey said, ogling a blonde as she worked a table close by. ‘More tail than you could shake a stick at.’ He showed me the hole in his face again. ‘So, you wanna get a little private action?’
I was about to shake my head when the blonde poked her face in. She was wearing enormous heels and a short dress that left nothing to the imagination. She was even younger. The thought of her dancing for a leering idiot like Corey sent bile to my throat.
‘Either of you fine young men interested in a little dance?’ she drawled. Her accent was fake and embarrassing.
‘I could be tempted, sugar lips,’ Corey said. ‘You gonna make it worth my while?’
She did an exaggarated twirl. Her dress was so short I noticed a vaccination scar on her inner thigh. Corey was eyeing her small breasts. ‘You like what you see?’ she said.
Corey reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of notes. ‘You betcha, darling. How about it?’
She smiled and took his hand. ‘You’re my type of guy,’ she said, and led him away. He grinned as he brushed past me. I turned back to the bar and stared straight ahead, waiting for the disgust and self-loathing to subside. When it didn’t, I picked up my Bud and drained it in one. Corey had left his drinks behind, so I had them too. Then I turned and walked out.
The alcohol had gone straight to my head. But I needed more. Enough to forget. There was a liquor store on the next corner, where I bought a fifth of Four Roses. Outside, I unscrewed the cap and drank until I started to cough. I stumbled crossing the street, but kept going, and kept drinking. The bottle was half empty went I careered into a shop doorway and stood, trying to catch my breath. I took out my phone and stared at the lit up screen. Battery at 12%. Still enough life to call Charlene. But I knew I couldn’t.
I managed to walk another block before it all hit me at once and I slumped down in an alleyway next to the bank. The world was starting to spin, big time. Perhaps lying flat would make it stop. I did and it had no effect. I looked up at the stars, willing it to go away, thinking that there had to be more than this, that this couldn’t be all that life had to offer. I imagined Charlene asleep, a wide space in the bed where I was supposed to be. A woman whose bed I shared but whose life I no longer did.
I shuffled onto my side and vomited, a steady stream that was all liquid and singed my throat. I watched it trickle into a storm drain. Then I passed out.
I woke up with an axe splitting my forehead. The sunlight hurt my eyes as I checked my watch and groaned. Only an hour until the next shift started. I inspected myself and found that miraculously I hadn’t benn sick on my clothes. Standing up took guts. It took everything I had. I wished for a pair of sunglasses to shield my eyes from the penetrating sun. My mouth was dry, my body crying out to be rehydrated. Sharp pain hit my kidneys with every breath. Putting one foot in front of the other was difficult, but I made it to the mouth of the alleyway. Somehow, I was only a ten minute walk from work. Wherever I went I felt its pull, a job that meant nothing yet took forty hours a week from my life. Nuts for Donuts was en-route. I had time. I stepped into the day and got out of there.
‘Jesus, Gus,’ Brenda said when I reached the counter. ‘Rough night?’
I just nodded. I didn’t feel up to conversation.
‘What can I get you? You could do with an aspirin, if you ask me.’ She tittered and tapped her pencil on the pad in front of her.
‘Coffee. Black. That’s all. I’m going to use the bathroom, OK?’
Brenda frowned. ‘Sure, Gus. I’ll bring it to your usual booth.’
In the bathroom I took a leak, then drank long and hard from the cold tap. I splashed my face and inspected it in the mirror above the sink. Dark lines around my eyes. Little scratches on my forehead from sleeping on the rough ground. Angry purple veins prominent across the bridge of my nose. A middle aged man, drunk in a cheap bathroom. For an act of rebellion, it didn’t seem like much. Felt like a drag, to be truthful. A weight around my neck that wasn’t heavy enough to pull me down, but was always present. And had been for a long time.
Brenda shoved the coffee in front of me as I sat down. ‘Sure I can’t get you anything else?’
I nodded. I was incapable of food at this juncture.
‘All right, then.’ She hovered by the table. ‘Charlene was in here yesterday morning. How’s she doin’?
‘She’s fine,’ I said. I could tell Brenda was keen to say something more, but a sharp glare put paid to that. She forced a smile and left me to it. The coffee was hot and strong, burning my insides as I drank it down. I finished the cup and left a couple of bills under the saucer. I didn’t leave a tip. It was even hotter outside. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day. I staggered the last few blocks to work and punched in two minutes before my shift was due to start. Almost like clockwork.
The truck was where I’d left it when I clocked off. As it should be. The shift had passed without incident. I got some strange looks and was avoided by just about everyone. Which made it a normal day. I didn’t see Corey. He’d probably called in sick. Whatever. I didn’t want to be around him, anyway. I got in the truck and crawled home as slow as I could, the hangover fully kicked in now, and it was punishing. Sweat poured down my forehead as I finally pulled in at home and parked up. I sat in the truck and smoked a cigarette. There wouldn’t be any row. That would mean she cared. More likely silence, or worse still, pretending it had never happened. I smoked the butt all the way down to the nub, then went inside.
She wasn’t in the lounge or kitchen. Dirty dishes were piled up in the sink. I found a beer in the fridge and twisted off the cap. Took a swallow and grimaced. Then slowly climbed the stairs.
Charlene was in bed, facing away from me as I sat down and placed a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t turn around or do anything. I whispered her name. Still nothing. I looked over and saw that her eyes were closed. I didn’t think she was asleep. I said her name louder, and again there was no reaction. So I gave up. As I stood up a tear escaped from beneath her eyelids. Or maybe it was a trick of the light. I killed the lights and went back downstairs.
I took the beer out to the porch. The view was spectacular of the desert plain and the grand swirl of the mountains. We had fallen in love with it on our first viewing of the house, just after we were married. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d enjoyed it together.
I thought back over the night’s events, thinking of that girl bathed in blue, dancing with the world’s weight on her young shoulders, already wondering where it had all gone wrong, how her life had been snatched away before it had even started. And it brought back another memory, one I’d long forgotten. Charlene and I, in the early months as a married couple, in the honeymoon period. Driving back from a weekend in Austin. Somewhere just before the Texas border, she spotted a bar doing karaoke. She urged me to pull over.
‘Sounds like fun, huh?’ she said. Late afternoon sun flashed through her sunglasses, her teeth bright white as she smiled. ‘Whaddya think?’
‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘If you want to.’ I never said no to her, back then. It was a time when I would have done anything.
She clapped her palms together, then leant across and kissed me. ‘Let’s do it, then.’
The air-conditioning in the bar was a godsend. We ordered beers as Charlene flipped through the songbook. ‘Here’s a good one,’ she said.
‘I don’t think you’ll have much time to wait,’ I said. It was still early, and the bar was deserted.
‘Well, wish me luck.’
‘Knock em’ dead,’ I said, and moved to a nearby table, clambering onto a stool. For an empty bar, the stage was big and imposing. Charlene grabbed a microphone, and as the lyrics began to scroll across the screen, started to sing.
It doesn’t matter what the song was. It’s a personal thing I’d like to keep to myself. But she was amazing. For its duration I stared at her, transfixed. She kept her eyes on me too, smiling, making me feel like the luckiest man this side of the Gulf of Mexico. How she revelled in the spotlight. When the song ended, rapturous applause broke out. I turned and saw to my astonishment that the bar had filled up whilst she sang, and they were on their feet. I put my fingers to my mouth and whistled. Charlene did a theatrical curtsey and laughed, and all eyes were on her as she jumped off the stage and strode to my side. I put an arm around her and she kissed me, her eyes shining bright. She pulled back and held her hands either side of my face.
‘You and me,’ she said. ‘Always you and me.’
And we smiled and laughed and held each other tight as the applause thundered in our ears.