Up along the side of the road there was a figure, standing, waiting patiently as if in a lineup for a movie ticket. Carol Massey had already made up her mind to pull over in order to pick up this person who was waiting oh-so patiently for two reasons: one, had some tired long-haul driver not picked her up on the side of the road so many years ago, where would she be? Not in Phoenix, that’s for sure. Not happy. She’d still be in Tucson, haunted by her gruff father and the ghost of the child she had failed. The second reason is that she kept a gun under the seat.
Carol Massey wasn’t a stupid woman, it’s just that she was profoundly unlucky, which the untrained eye could look remarkably similar. For example, she dropped out of high school at the age of fifteen for no fault of her own. She had been what her father had referred to as “up the spout”, a charming neologism meant to rob the sting out of teenage pregnancy. He died the following year, leaving her alone in their bungalow with the small, demanding gift left over from her brief foray into heavy petting. The child had a remarkable array of needs, each as mysterious as the one before. After leaving him on the bus to Tucson, he was taken by the state, deemed underweight. She still thought of him as “Buster”, even though by now he must have been at least eighteen. She had stopped celebrating his birthday so she wasn’t so sure anymore.
Despite this run of bad luck, she had made a name for herself. Not a big one, maybe one where people go, “who?” before a vague sense of understanding washes over them and they wave their hands, declining more details. After Buster got taken away - Alan, she reminded herself, don’t go calling him Buster when you see him - she hitchhiked to Phoenix with the $500 left over from her father’s life insurance policy. It hadn’t even been much in 1971. But after a few waitressing stints and a regrettable tenure at the grocery store, she had gotten a job at the local library as a clerk. It was unengaging, meditative work. She felt needed.
“Job,” she said out loud in the car.
“Jo-o-o-b,” she said again, feeling the word in her mouth. It was an unpleasant word. It had connotations.
Buster - Alan - had called her out of the blue, asking to talk to a certain Carol Massey.
“That’s me,” she had said. After he said that he was her son she dropped the phone and nearly cracked her head on her kitchen counter. Of course I want to come meet you, she had said. Of course. She couldn’t believe her luck. Buster was alive and kicking, and he wanted to see her, the woman too stupid - too unlucky - to know how to take care of a baby when she had barely gotten out of short pants herself. But here she was, zipping down the highway with the windows open, the arid heat of the Arizona sky baking her skin like a rotisserie chicken.
Slowly, she pulled up on the side of the highway, already committed to helping this perfect stranger. A man, of indeterminate age and weight and comportment, stood and assessed her car. Carol had bought it in a police auction - a steal at $1000 - and it did the job. Jo-o-o-b. It blended into the background, as she herself often did. Satisfied, he nodded at her, picked up his briefcase and walked towards her car.
The closer he got, the younger he seemed, until he was at the passenger seat window and he could have been a baby for what it was worth. He had the look of a polite college boy. Probably nothing but a string of bad luck had brought him here, she thought. After all, why else would you want to drive to Tucson?
“Well, hi, there,” Carol said, leaning over slightly. Under her seat, the butt of the gun kissed the heel of her shoe like a timid lover. The man nodded at her curtly.
“Ma’am,” he said. A moment passed, and another.
“Might I bother you? I wouldn’t ask unless it was important,” he said finally.
He seemed stiff and impatient. His eyes travelled to the seat and then to the stick shift of her car, and then to her leg. The gaze was held there while Carol said, “Yes. I can give you a ride. But I’m only going as far as Tucson. And someone is meeting me there,” she added, lending an air of legitimacy to her importance. Places to be, babies to see.
The man nodded, and got in.
He smelled like English Leather, and something else. An antiseptic soap, maybe. Concrete. Carol was the first to break the silence as she took the car out of park and drove back onto the highway.
“So, what do you do?”
The man shrugged.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” he said.
“Sure, doesn’t bother me,” she said. “My dad used to smoke. Didn’t kill him, though. He got hit by our neighbour. Drunk driver. Can you believe it? Fifteen feet out of her own driveway, and bam.”
The man lit a cigarette and blew some out the window into the dry desert air.
“My old man is dead, too,” he offered.
“I guess so,” he said, “Never met him but that’s the impression I got. Didn’t know my mom, either.”
Carol’s heart skipped a beat. She snuck a glance at his hands, weathered and dry like the skin of a pig. He must be older than eighteen, she thought. Still, her chest ached, not because she genuinely believed this young man might be Buster and they were driving towards the most awkward reunion of all time, but because she was scared of being found out. Carol had never felt guilty about what she did, or didn’t do, but she was scared. She dodged the question of children, their very mention, with a deftness only the most invested participant could manage. Once, she had simulated a migraine at work just to get out of a baby shower, in case someone could telepathically detect her categorical inclusion in motherhood. The wombs of mothers gape and glow and she had spent a lot of time hiding that.
“Sorry to hear that,” she said, in a tone she hoped was casual.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I don’t do anything. I’m looking for work, as a matter of fact. You wouldn’t happen to know of anything in Tucson?”
“No, sorry,” she said. She chewed on her lip, and continued, “I just have some family out there, but I don’t know many people.”
“Just my luck,” he said. “Sorry. Just tired.”
“It’s okay. How old are you anyway?”
“Twenty-six,” he said. Carol let out some of the air she had been hoarding in her lungs.
“And you don’t do anything?” she asked, “Nothing at all?”
She meant the question light-heartedly, but his face went dark.
“Well, I know how to smash rocks and keep my mouth to myself. Sure I can apply that to something.”
Another pregnant moment passed.
“Sorry,” he said, “Tired.”
“It’s my second day out of prison. Did you know that?”
Carol pushed the gas pedal a little too hard and the gun under her seat lurched forward. She kicked it under the seat again, her skin prickling. You’re so god-damned stupid, Carol.
“Huh,” she said.
“Well, it’s true. Two years of my life, poof. Gone. Hidden under a sea of rocks and roadside garbage and out-of-date law books. What a joke those were. They let you read them in there because they wanna give you the impression that what’s going on is under your control. It’s not. It’s pure dumb luck. The lady at my probation hearing just needed a little rub-out. In my estimation, anyway.”
Carol looked ahead, a bead of sweat forming on her forehead. In an instant, the dry air licked it off her forehead the way a dog might. A silence followed, punctuated by the odd gust of air out of the young man’s mouth, delivered out the window with a pouting lower lip. He tossed the butt of his cigarette out of the moving vehicle like a paper football.
“What did you do?”
“Killed a man.”
“Jesus, I’m kidding, lady. I hit some kid in the park when I was eighteen for beer and his girlfriend hit me with assault a few years back. I was drunk and the county lawyer was out for lunch so off I went. If I was rich they’d have had me picking up trash for a week and then sent me on my merry way.”
While she tapped the gun under her seat with the heel of her shoe, she was awash with a feeling that she had not felt, or so she thought, in many years: guilt. It was a special brand of guilt, one reserved most for the semi-affluent, known also as, ‘there but for the grace of God’, crossed with a tinge of defensiveness. I didn’t do anything wrong, the feeling said. I was just unlucky. All those other people threw out their good fortune for spite. The feeling separated the wheat from the chaff, the industrious from the lazy, the dignified working mother from a woman who decided to buy crack while still raising children. Whenever Nancy Reagan came on the television, Carol always felt needy for her approval for reasons she could not explain. I never did anything wrong.
“That’s… probably true,” Carol said, finally. Her voice came out reedy and imprecise.
The young man scoffed. “It is true, lady. Nice lady like you probably doesn’t know about stuff like that, but it’s true. Perfectly good men go to prison every day for no reason at all. They just need somewhere to put all of us whenever we start to embarrass polite company.”
The road in front of her wobbled and bent like a violin bow. A combination of the heat on the asphalt and the threat of tears had turned the highway into an underwater tableau.
“My name is Carol,” she sputtered, “Not ‘Lady’. Stop calling me that. It makes me sound like someone’s mother. Some old woman.”
She dissolved into tears, weaving the car a little. In an instant, the car was repositioned and her tears had stopped, like the flick of a switch.
“Jesus, I’m sorry, la - Carol. I’m sorry, Carol. I’m… sorry. I’m just -”
“Tired, I know. Spare me.”
The young man took in a deep breath and sighed.
“Well, I’m Daniel, nice to meet you.”
“My luck isn’t so good either, Daniel-nice-to-meet you. One time I left my baby on a bus and some man in a suit told me he didn’t weigh enough, and I’m driving to see him for the first time since he was in diapers. Just my luck I picked up some… ex-con. You know I have a gun under the seat. You do know that, don’t you?”
She used a tone of airy casualness, as if remarking on the weather. Daniel stared at her with wide eyes from the passenger seat and crossed his arms over his chest. She reached down and pulled the gun out from underneath the seat and waved it, her free hand still on the steering wheel.
“Well, I do,” she said, “I don’t know what brand it is or anything, but it’ll kill you just the same.”
“You picked me up!” Daniel said, panic setting into his voice.
“Oh, so it’s my fault? You sit there and crack jokes about killing people, I’m not stupid, I know you’re trying to scare me.”
She gripped the wheel with both hands, the gun still looped into her finger, the one she bought from an ex-police officer in a paper bag. He had been let go from the force, and needed some extra money, he had told her then. The sallow look of the policeman’s skin told her he likely wasn’t putting the money away for a rainy-day fund, but that wasn’t her problem.
“You can just let me out here if you want,” Daniel muttered.
“What, and make you walk?” Carol said lightly. She wanted to break the tension somehow, the tension located primarily in her right hand, gleaming in the sun like a coin. There was no way she was apt to put the gun down, though - she wasn’t stupid, of course - but her hands were damp with perspiration. Either the gun would have to return to its cave under the seat, to lie in wait for the next imagined threat, or she would have to hold up this young man all the way to Tucson. She supposed she could let him out, too, but it was awfully hot. She wasn’t a monster.
Daniel’s arm shot out suddenly, a viper strike, to try and wrestle the gun from Carol’s hand. She let out a yelp. The car swerved on the empty highway while he gripped the barrel, shouting like an animal. In a perverse twist of misfortune, while trying to pull the gun back, Carol pulled the trigger.
Carol gasped. She slammed her foot onto the gas pedal, lurching her and Daniel forward. Her chest slammed into the steering wheel, activating the car’s horn. For what seemed like a lifetime, the sound rang through their ears like an echo in a cave.
“I think…” Daniel began.
“Please don’t throw up in my car. I couldn’t bear it. Besides, I told Buster I would take him out to lunch,” Carol whispered. Daniel let out a small burp.
“Lucky you didn’t load it,” he remarked. This was true. In a moment of misplaced confidence, armed to the teeth in the car she bought herself in cash, she had never even bothered to load the gun. Carol pulled back onto the highway and kept driving. A long and bizarre silence followed. After what seemed like weeks, Carol pulled up in the parking lot of a convenience store and turned off the ignition of the car. She looked over to her passenger, who was staring ahead, his eyes set on some unfixed area on the dashboard. Without breaking his gaze, Daniel reached down to pick up his briefcase, and his knuckles skidded against the handle of her gun, which neither of them had dared to touch or acknowledge until now.
“Thank you,” he muttered, and slammed the door behind him, walking around the corner and out of Carol’s life forever.