He is dreaming of machines, either disassembled already or coming apart in dark space. Gears and rods, wheels, bearings, a fender from a 1939 Chevy coupe, armatures, dials, switches, valves, and a lone white kitchen clock, hands frozen at eleven, trailing cogs and pins and springs like a comet’s tail. He can feel himself groping for the parts in slow motion. He wants to gather them in, put them back together, but they are always just beyond reach, and there is no pedal or lever or button to stop whatever he is on. Like a love boat in a tunnel, a tunnel without walls, without water, whoo-shoo, whoo-shoo, whoo-shoo, whoo-shoo echoing in the distance, a pump sucking air, a compressor, a grease gun beating at a zerk that won’t fill. At the edge of his vision a mannequin bobs and weaves, arms, legs, head detached from the torso, smeared red. No hair, no ears, a mouth closed, a nose, eye sockets. The mouth opens. Dark, as if it has swallowed the darkness around it.
Ronnie Blue wakes up hungry. All he can think of is peanut butter. Maybe he’s hungry every night, but doesn’t know it since he sleeps through it. Like Charlene now. She has no idea of his hunger or his dream. She’s off in some never-never land herself, one he can’t get to without rousing her. And if he does that, she won’t be there, she’ll be here—and mad because he woke her. He wonders who she’s with, but decides he really doesn’t want to know and flops to his back, staring at the amber glow from a streetlight on the bedroom ceiling.
His body tenses as a semi, engine lugging up an overpass on the interstate three blocks away, tops the incline and the driver opens it up on the way down. Grinning, he imagines the chase. Flashing lights, sirens, the smell of hot motors. A maverick trucker hauling hijacked goods, a badass cop in fast pursuit. And they have to shoot it out, guns blazing, blistering white against the insides of his eyelids.
The bed bounces as he gets up, and she rolls toward where he was lying, then away, as if repelled by the warmth. She is uncovered, naked, the tangled sheet hanging limp over the foot of the bed, her back to him, left leg cocked like a runner’s. She is seventeen. He has known her for a year and a half and has watched her hips and breasts swell, her waist pinch, her face become more womanly and worried. She is not beautiful, and she is no longer cute, but she likes him, even on occasion still says she loves him.
He met her, just like in the movies, at the McDonald’s on west Kellogg in Wichita. She was working the counter and he told her she should be in that TV commercial where the girl says, “We do it all for you.” She looked at him, smiling in a way that made his groin tingle. There was no mistaking her meaning when she said, “And we do, too.” Over the next week he ate lunch there every day—it was only a block from the Amoco station where he worked then—and every day they got a little friendlier, a little bolder, until he asked her out for Friday night. To the movies. She loved the movies. They picked up some chips and nuts and a six pack, and she told him to park in the third row from the back fence. In the last row you got hassled all the time, but here they weren’t as likely to be bothered. He asked her how she knew and she smiled again. He wondered what Ronald McDonald would think if he could see her.
They sat in the back seat, front seats folded down for their feet, and ate and sipped beer. Half way through the movie, as the crazy was about to make another kill, she scooted over against him, shorts tightening between her legs. His arm went around her and she lifted her knee over his, his hand catching the back of her thigh. She pressed closer, kissed him. When he slid his finger under the elastic of her panties, she bit his ear and yanked his belt loose. He pulled her shorts and underwear down her legs, and she straddled his lap. And just sat, for what seemed forever. Settled, hugging him, head sideways on his shoulder. Through her hair, he could see the crazy at a woman’s bedroom window, and as the music grew more sinister and the beat quickened, so did Charlene. Swiveling bone on bone, gyrating up and down around, up and down around, breath hot on his neck, a gasp, a whimper, the shadow of a man with a raised axe falling across the woman’s bed, her look of horror as she realized what was about to happen, a scream, terrible and climactic.
His stomach growls as he stares at the slope of her hip, the downy hollow in the small of her back. He could take her now from the rear, just where she is. Or from the front, or the top, or the side, anywhere he wants. Because she’ll let him. Because it’s him, Ronnie Blue, doing it. But that’s no good, laying the old lady because there’s nothing else to do, so you won’t have to think of anything else. He’s not that bad off yet. He still has a brain. He can still figure a way.
But he needs to come up with something fast. He hasn’t worked in almost six weeks now, and he’s down to his last twenty. Enough for some gas and a couple of hamburgers, and that’s it. That’s all. No more movies, no more records. She’s been complaining already that they never do anything but hang around and watch TV. He tells her she can always go home if it gets too bad. But he knows she won’t, not for any longer than she just has to.
Her daddy was killed when she was ten—a backhoe turned over on him—and since then her mother has spent most of her days waitressing and her nights entertaining cowboys. The rougher riding the better, she says. And sometimes when Charlene’s home, the cowboys make passes at her, too. It wouldn’t be so bad if they knew when to stop, but they don’t. Once a guy came into the bathroom while her mother was outside, pulled open the shower curtain and stood there staring at her, turned on but scared enough he didn’t do anything. Another time she woke up in the morning with her mother’s boyfriend asleep on the floor beside her bed. Her mother never says much when it happens, tries to joke about it or whatever. But let it be him, Ronnie Blue, and then it’s something else. Like the night he stayed over late with Charlene and her mother came home around three and found them. All hell broke loose, and they were just making out. Nothing heavy. They even had their clothes on. But you would have thought from hearing her mother that he was holding a knife to Charlene’s throat. One minute she’s a slut and the next a virgin princess. In between she might as well not exist. So she’s never going to run off and live with mama again, and he wouldn’t move in there for love nor money. No, sir, he has enough to worry about without that.
The worst part is, none of it needed to be. None of it had to happen. If Carl had only kept his mouth shut, the crippled old fart, and not come out to the garage that day, there wouldn’t be a problem. He would still have a job, money, a little peace of mind, which doesn’t seem to be asking so godalmighty much.
He did, though. He came out. Ronnie could hear the clank and creak of his crutches and leg braces before he ever got to the door. They’re the kind of crutches you put your arms through and lean on while you drag your legs up under you again. Creak-scrape, creak-scrape, creak-scrape. Only that day it sounded different. Slower, more deliberate. He knew something was up.
“Ronnieblue.” Carl always said his full name, as if it were one word. “We’ve got ourselves a heap of trouble.”
The car he was lubricating was on the lift, but he still had to stoop a little to stand under it, so all he could see of Carl were braces and crutches from the waist down. And those immaculate shoes, never a smudge or scuff, pointing straight at him. He wondered if people with crippled hands kept their nails as perfectly. One thing about Carl—even now he’d have to say it—he didn’t give up after his wreck. He didn’t just sit down and die. He moved, and then moved some more, even when it hurt. And he grimaced and swore and took what Ronnie felt were too many pills. But he didn’t quit. In fact, Ronnie thought he was plain foolish sometimes, like the nights after nine when the place went self-service and Carl ran it alone. Why, he was a regular sitting duck in that office, not being able to get around any better than he could. But that’s his business now. To hell with him.
“You’re positive—there’s no doubt in your mind—that you put the oil plug back in Mrs. Brandt’s car?”
“I already told you,” the nozzle of the grease gun aimed at the floor.
“Well, she says you didn’t and that’s why her engine burned up on the way to Oklahoma City.”
“She’s an old bag.”
“But a rich one, who can afford all the lawyers she wants.”
“She’s serious, boy.”
“So am I.”
“She wants a new car.”
Carl’s feet rose, toes dangling like a puppet’s, as he shifted his weight. “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying.”
“No, now that’s not true. It’s just that I don’t like what you’re saying, because I didn’t do anything wrong and you’re trying to tell me I did. But you got no reason to. I’m the best person you’ve ever had here. Or ever will, and you know it. I don’t get sick, I work hard, I’m not sloppy. You could eat your supper off this floor right now. Just the way you said to keep it so there wouldn’t be no accidents. And if you ever need extra help, who comes in? Me, ain’t that right? No complaining. I just do my job—and good, too. But now you’re taking a worry-wart old flea bag woman’s word over mine because she has money?”
“Something happened, Ronnieblue. There wasn’t a drop of oil in that motor.”
“Could have been a lot of things.”
“But it looks awful much like a plug and you know it.”
“You’re saying I left it out?”
“Or maybe at least didn’t get it tightened down.”
“And that’s it? That’s all you’ve got to say?”
Ronnie Blue yanked free another arm’s length of hose and stepped out from under the car, grease gun in hand. “Okay. got it figured now. I see what you’re up to. What you’re really planning to do is tell them lawyers it was me, dumb old me, ain’t you, and if they want to settle up with somebody, I’m the one. Ain’t that it?” He pulled the hose out as far as it would go.
“I don’t know if I’d say that exactly.”
“You don’t, do you?” He pumped a pound of grease between Carl’s feet, and before he could move squirted another mound around the base of each crutch. “What, then, Carl? Because that’s what it sounds like. It sounds like you’re calling me a liar and want to use me to get yourself off the hook. And I don’t like that. Not one bit.”
“Now wait a minute here. What’re you—” He was sweating, even though it wasn’t hot, turning one way, the other, as he followed the course of the grease gun laying a perfect ridge of lubricant around him in an ever-widening spiral.
“You’re crazy, Ronnieblue. One mean, crazy son of a bitch.”
He had to say something, Ronnie knew that, because he was scared. You could smell it on him, like urine you squeeze out when you don’t really have to go but do anyway.
The thought of Carl peeing his pants made him laugh. He kept on laughing as he counted from the cash register the hundred dollars due him. And he was laughing yet when he started his car and burned rubber toward the grease rack—just to be sure Carl moved.
He opens the refrigerator. It smells cold and dry. Slightly musty with the hint of old food. There are two Cokes, a bowl of leftover macaroni and cheese, a chunk of Velveeta darkening around the edges, a shriveled slice of pizza, one limp carrot and a margarine dish full of brownie crumbs.
Maybe he shouldn’t have done it, Carl being crippled and all. But he did come out there to fire him, that was plain enough. Carl just didn’t trust him any more, and he couldn’t work for somebody who felt like that, no matter what. Besides, it was funny. Even now the picture of Carl trying to get out of the way without landing on his ass makes him smile. He’d do it again just for that.
At the kitchen table he munches nuts and burned edges from the brownie dish and drinks a Coke, the fizz and crunch filling the inside of his head. If Carl would only have backed off, damn him. But he wouldn’t. Maybe pride does go before a fall.
No, he’s thought about it and decided what he really wants is a place of his own. His own garage where he can do what he does better than anybody—which is fix cars—and do it without any hassle. No Carls—and no fathers, either, telling him to junk the goddamn motor like he said, not repair it, and if he can’t do that just to get on out and mow goddamn lawns or something. No, sir. No more of that. With a place of his own he can tell them all to take a flying leap, because he’ll be raking in dough so fast he won’t even be able to keep track of it. He won’t have to worry about rent or food or any of the rest, and when Charlene says she wants to go to the movies or buy some records or new clothes, fine. But they have to have money to get started. For that they have to think beyond McDonald’s. They have to dream a little, make some plans, be willing to take a few chances.
He leans back, peering out the window. First light has risen in the crack between cloud cover and horizon. As far as he can see, a thin pink line is broken here and there by stark silhouettes of trees and buildings. Liquid light pours in under clouds, rippled as a sand bar, ever brighter, more vivid, purple, rose, gold, the molten white rim of the sun itself flooding the room with dawn.
In the distance, he hears muffled popping and cracking sounds, some closer, more distinct, like rubber bands snapping on paper. Then it’s quiet but for the roar of an engine, coming, he judges, from near the end of the street. Tires scream to life and Ronnie Blue knows who it is. Martin Zimmerman. The crazy bastard must be doing fifty by the time he passes the front of the house and opens his dumps, windows rattling, floor rumbling, a godawful screech as he rounds the corner on his way to the interstate, the packet of firecrackers he threw exploding on the doorstep with the clackety-clack stutter of a machine gun.
“Ronnie?” Charlene runs from the hallway holding his t-shirt to her front. “My god, Ronnie, what was that?”
“Zimmerman saying happy birthday.”
“You know, happy birthday, Ronnie Blue, and the good old U. S. of A., too? It’s the Fourth, dense-head. Of Ju-ly.”
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know. Five, five-thirty, why?”
“He’s going to end up having his party in jail.” She pulls the t-shirt on over her head.
“Zimmerman? They have to catch him first. And that ain’t likely.”
“They can do most anything they want to when they set their minds to it.”
“What’ve you got against Zimmerman, anyway?”
“Then why’re you always on him?”
“Come on, Ronnie. I ain’t even had a cigarette yet.”
“And you shouldn’t, either. Those things’ll kill you.”
“Jesus, what’s your problem?” she whines.
“Go on, if you have to. Get them. And clean up your mouth while you’re at it.”
He watches the wag of her hips, the muscles smoothing her legs as she goes to the bedroom. And coming back, the jiggly lines her nipples make on the shirt.
“You know the real reason he does stuff like that, don’t you?” he says, brushing paper wads off the front step so they can sit down. “He wants your body.”
“Well, that’s sure a weird way of showing it.”
“I told him I’d pound his ass if he touched you.”
“God, you’re tough,” her voice smiling.
“I mean it. And the same goes for you.”
“I’m so scared I can’t stop shaking.” She flicks ashes into the yard.
“I would be if I was you. But you can suit yourself.”
“You’re really on it this morning, ain’t you?”
“Turn twenty-three and you’re ready to whip the world.”
“All I said was if you messed around.”
“But nobody is.”
“Better not, either.”
“Okay, Ronnie. Let’s just drop it now, okay?”
He locks his arms around his knees and, chin resting on top of them, stares out at the street.
“See,” she says, “now you’re in one of your pissy moods again. I can’t figure you at all sometimes. I mean, one minute you’re fine, then bam you’re acting like this.”
“I can’t help it.”
“That ain’t no excuse.”
“I can’t. My mama said she heard fireworks when I was born, and there’s been fireworks ever since. Me and the good old U. S. of A. But them sparks ain’t been all bad, have they? I mean, I can still light you up.”
“Ron-nie!” pushing his hand from her leg. “I ain’t even awake yet.”
“Be too hot then.”
“We can go someplace cool,” she says.
“Where, Mama’s? Crawl in with her and her boyfriend? She-it!”
“No, I was thinking of the public library, dummy.”
“One thing we ain’t going to do,” he says, standing, nose twitching at the smell of asphalt rising on the hot air. “We ain’t going to sit around here all day eating each other alive. To hell with that.”
“Well? You got an idea, or are you just sounding off again?”
“How much money you have?”
“It’s my birthday and we’re going to celebrate it, that’s why. We’re going to live it up till we can’t go no more. We’re going to eat and drink and play, then start in all over again till we’re sick of it, till you’re begging me to stop.”
She grins, eyes sparkling. It excites her when he talks that way, and he knows she’ll go anywhere with him now, do anything he wants, because it’s him, Ronnie Blue, talking, saying what is and what isn’t. It’s him, Ronnie Blue, about to set the world on fire and her with it.
“Now get along, get ready,” he says, pulling her up and swatting her backside on the way in. “The junkman’s son is going home, and he’s taking his woman with him.”
She stops, glances back, as if to see whether he’s serious.
“That’s right. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we’re heading home. For the time of your life.”