On the stretch between Iowa and Salt Lake City, Frank distracts me from the road with the phantom fidgets of his sleep. I watch him as I drive. He rests a sweaty cheek against the curve of the vinyl door panel. The window’s rubber stripping plies an indentation into his temple. Wind whips through the car’s open windows and beats a pulse in his ears. He dreams of a green, ten-armed goddess shaking out a sheet. Her limbs multiply, twenty, one hundred, one thousand, and the pulse becomes a roar. Frank twitches. His eyes snap open. He feels the hot gust of eighteen wheels putting rubber to the road a few feet from his lolling head. I’m passing a semi.
As I nose the car past the truck, a blazing shaft of sunlight hits Frank in the face. He pulls himself upright and squints through the open window. A few blinking seconds, his eyes adjust. Then dread stings his mind into full wakefulness. You see, Frank nodded off somewhere where they still grew grass. Now he’s awake and in the middle of a brown nothingness that goes on forever. Frank ponders the landscape. The word ‘landscape’ is wrong, wrong, wrong, he realizes. The right word is ‘landscrape.’ The sun grinds into the terrain making the sagebrush jut up like the bared bones of a half- buried corpse. Perturbed, Frank glares through the dirty windshield. The alien environment makes him blink. He reaches over, fiddles with the radio. He finds only static.
“Lowell, where the hell are we?” Frank asks, staring out into the void.
Frank sinks back into silence, sullen and uncomfortable with the great dusty plain on the other side of the passenger door. He’s suspicious of a sky allowed to bear down on the horizon without any man-made structures to interrupt it, put it in its place. He’s a bit of city boy in that respect. Too much space, too much sky. Makes him nervous.
“You know Frank, petty theft and grand larceny alike require mobility,” I say.
“We could’ve stayed in Chicago if you hadn’t’ve pissed off our meal ticket!”
Frank turns his gaze away from our barren location and toward precious little me. He wants to see if his anger is registering. He sees me smile. But something is wrong. Somehow I’ve grown a full beard. He rubs his eyes. The black spots dissipate. Again he tries to focus on me. The beard is still there. Frank swallows, but his throat’s dry clenching makes him more discomforted. Fearful that losing proper track of time might be some awful oversight on his part, and not wanting me to exploit such disorientation, Frank decides against asking how that beard got on my face. He opts to go back to staring out the window. I don’t let this go on for too long.
“You’re so sentimental Frank.” Frank swings his head back around to look at me. His eyes, still angry, flit about my face. They’re hunting for my lips in the tangle of a beard, which has increased in size, a real Grizzly Adams-sized mound at this point. “Her name was Dahlia.” My tone is amiable.
“She never would’ve took off if you hadn’t’ve gone and bullied her into a smaller cut!”
“Not a gross inequity when you consider the difference in prison terms.”
“Can’t rob banks without an insider.”
Once he’s done believing he’s had the last word, Frank’s mind goes on rewind. Ever two steps behind, he questions whether or not I just stated that Dahlia ‘was’ her name. It dawns on Frank that if I happen to pull over to the side of this godforsaken highway and we get out of the car and say, have an argument and if, as such scenarios go, I happen to pull an ice pick out of my pocket and bury it deep in his neck, the only witnesses to such a crime would be the snakes and the scorpions. It all just creeps him out.
He monitors the engine’s noisy throttle, listening for a downshift, thinking he feels his weight press forward from the car losing speed. His eyes dart over to the speedometer. Still ninety-five miles per hour. He coughs and turns his eyes back to the open window. But that doesn’t help. Wyoming’s immensity makes him feel unmoored, an invitation to run amok. Or rather, for the world to run amok and crush him underfoot as it does. He isn’t sure which. We ride miles in silence. Then the geography makes him angry.
“Who owns this land?”
“Wyoming is the least populated state per square mile,” I offer.
“Thought that was Utah.” “Not with all those Mormons.”
He has no response, because he’s just noticing my forearm. There, covering the expanse of my driving arm is a snarled thicket of hair, in no way normal. Again he searches through the small room of his mind for a logical explanation, but finds none. Studying my arm, he sees the hair swell and shudder in the wind. Each stray cilia reaches out to him, threatening him from a malignant collective.
Finding the inside of the car as dreadful as the outside, Frank feels unease flood his senses. Tired eyes, dry mouth, wind pressure on his ears, dust in his nose. Frank wants to crawl out of his skin. The hot vinyl seat makes Frank’s sweaty jeans stick to his legs. As he squirms to re-adjust, he espies a sign in the distance. Rising high above a set of pumps, a vertical metal pole impales three egg- shaped plastic ovals, each containing a single letter: G-A-S. A sign akin to the ones those churches rent to announce Friday night bingo squats at the edge of the road. It reads “Lulu’s Garage.”
“Let’s see if Lulu has Pall Malls, shall we?” I say and steer the car into the gravel lot with a hard turn. After coming to a skidding stop that kicks up a cloud of dust, I reach over and pop the glove compartment. Frank reacts to my sudden movement towards him by pressing himself against the door. The .38 falls out onto his lap.
“Take the gun Frank.” He looks at me. I smile.
A quick spasm grips his face. It’s gotten worse, he thinks. Unable to force his eyes away from what I’ve become, he puts his left palm on the butt of the gun and lays an index finger to rest on the firing pin. I know he’s dabbling with the idea of shooting me right there, but I’m not worried. He isn’t able to take aim. My face is just a natty jumble of hair, formless except for its wispy undulation. A hirsute swath, originating somewhere in my armpit, has snuck out of my t-shirt, spread over my chest and onto a large section of the front seat. He thinks he sees it moving, growing. Toward him. He decides it’s best to keep looking out, rather than in. He turns away and sizes up the decrepit garage – a saggy adjunct to a windowed kingdom of cash registers and junk food. The lot is empty except for my beat-up Nova and a foreign model truck, blue and aged. I laugh. He shoves the gun down his waistband, gets out, and slams the door.
Inside, Frank finds a grizzled, middle-age woman in pair of oil-stained overalls working the counter. Behind her, an open entrance to the garage. He listens; no pneumatic lug nut gun running, no clink and tinker of someone working on an engine. This must be Lulu and she must be alone. More attuned to hair since my transformation began, Frank comments to himself that Lulu should lay off the perms. To my disappointment, he heads to the ancient cooler housing the beer. Frank thinks of himself as having a signature, which is infantile — an indulgence liable to get you caught. While extracting two bottles of Bud Light he says over his shoulder, “Pack of Pall Malls, ma’am.”
“Camel’s the best I can do for ya.”
Frank hesitates. He knows Camels will not do at all. But he can’t turn back now. He ambles toward the register with two bottles of beer in his left hand. He sticks to his routine. He spites me. He pretends there is no gun pushing against his gut. Timing it just right, he lets the bottles slide from his grip just before arriving at the counter.
Lulu lumbers around the counter with a red rag. Frank harvests a razor-edged bottleneck from the foamy mess. She puts her mass in reverse.
“Open the register!” he screams, thrusting the shard at her face.
Lulu, not phased, hits a button on the machine. The drawer opens with the trademark chime. Then a figure appears in the door to the garage behind Lulu.
Frank, being the child that he is, freezes with his impotent weapon and spattered beer on his leg.
At first, he only sees the barrel of a .45. Once his eyes verify that detail, they allow his line of sight to pan out. He finds himself with double vision. LuLu is not alone. Behind her stands an exact replica, a twin. The same size 16 coveralls, the same burnt out halo of salt and pepper hair, the same leathery features.
“Y’all right Lu?” Lu 2 asks.
“Am now, Lu,” Lu 1 says, bringing out a .45 from the open register drawer. They cock their revolvers in unison.
Lu 1, keeping a bead on Frank, reaches up to the overhead cigarette rack, pulls out a pack of Camels, and sets them on the counter with firm hand.
“You’re gonna pay for these, just like ever’ other cancer eater.”
Frank stands a moment, trying to fathom what the situation requires. Without realizing it he releases the bottleneck. It hits the floor with a loud tink! that makes him jump. The Lulus don’t change expression, but Lu 1 rubs the fingers and thumb of her ungunned hand together, the universal sign for scratch. Frank slides his hand into his jeans pocket, past his own firearm, and feels for a defiled, crumpled wad that he knows features Abraham Lincoln.
Stepping forward like a child to a spelling bee microphone, hoping his fear won’t make him fuck up, Frank puts the bill on the counter with two hands.
“I-I-I… I don’t want no change,” Frank stutters.
Quicker than gunshot, Lu 2 brings up a ratty cigar box from below and slaps it to the counter. Lu 1 flips it open with a finger.
“You’ll take the change, boy,” Lu 1 growls. Her meaty hand retrieves a dollar bill from the box, lays it on the counter, then disappears back inside for a dime and three pennies. The change falls from flesh to counter with a scattered, spinning sound. Before the coins come to a rest, Lu 2 makes the box disappear.
Frank blinks. The Lulus raise their firearms, their bead right between Frank’s eyes. If they could see inside his head, they would see no regret. Just an animal aversion to death.
“Go on then,” they say, a gravel choir of two.
His hands tremble. One reaches for the change, the other for the cigarettes. As his palms come to rest on currency and cellophane, he clamps his eyes closed. One second, then two. Not hearing the blast of bullet through barrel, he pockets the money, grips the smokes and treads one fraught step backward. His heel crunches on broken glass, then his foot slips sideways in the beer. He flails a moment off balance, rights himself, then tumbles out the glass doors, back into the car. He throws the pack of cigarettes on the dash. Noticing that I have yet to put the car in gear, he pulls out the gun and yells, “Just drive, man!”
I accommodate him.
“This just won’t do Frank,” I say once we are back on the road.
He continues to point the gun at me, but has a hard time knowing what he’s pointing at. I’m mummified with hair. The wind sweeping through the car makes it swirl in a grotesque mass. You would think Frank might question me on my growing feral coat. But Frank has never been one to articulate his anxieties. He doesn’t utter a syllable. His throat clicks dry, not forming complaint or reasoned argument — let alone madness. His silence has allowed my hair
and his dread to increase at the same imperceptible speed and given them both the inevitability of a god scorned.
“We’ll try again later,” I say. With a gentle hand I press the gun down and slip it away from him. The tension drains from Frank and he flops back onto the seat, staring straight up. His eyes, desperate for something benign to gaze upon, swivel back and forth. They find nothing but the ripped-up ceiling liner. Having had enough of the white heat and brown vastness, they revolt, rolling back into the empty black sockets of his head.
Again, Frank dreams of the goddess. She’s still green, but this time, her face is much like Dahlia’s. A tender hand at the end of one of her many arms holds his head while the rest feed him fistfuls of sawdust. He can’t breathe. She keeps feeding him. He awakes, at last trying to say something, but let’s face it — Frank’s involvement in his hair problem is passive now; its continuation has more life than he. I know it’s rude, but I don’t even say goodbye. A knot of my ego plunges into his open mouth, choking the words before they come to life. Frank forces one last task from his optic nerves. He sees a sign: “Cruel Jack’s Travel Plaza – 45 miles” – a bold interjection into the endless horizon and the soft, sinister hair curling over his vision.
At last, I am alone. And clean-shaven.
I pull a cigarette from the pack and light up.
The moment is spoiled, however. Camels are inferior tobacco. And there is something else. A sound I can’t place, a nagging murmur. I listen closer. I begin to distinguish the syllables, words, of a conversation hanging in the atoms of the air back at Lulus Garage.
“Sure an odd fellow,” Lu 2 says with a sneer. “Who gets in their car from the passenger side?”
“Maybe the driver door is busted,” Lu 1 says, tucking her gun back into the register.
“Shame,” Lu 2 says, uncocking her .45 and depositing it in a pocket of her coveralls. “We could’ve fixed it for him.”
© 2006 Cat Celebrezze