Henry had never driven in such absolute darkness before.
It felt like they were tunneling through a black hole. He kept the speedometer aimed at forty-five and prayed that none of the local denizens would dash out into the road.
“How much farther?” he asked Alice.
“Just a few miles, dear.”
He glanced over at her. Her smile was brilliant. It hovered in the shadows of the passenger seat unsupported by any earthly form. He remembered seeing the same image in the back of the van just minutes after they’d first picked him up at the onramp. He liked that memory. He wished he didn’t.
“I should’ve driven from the start,” he said, “I didn’t realized he was so messed up.”
“I told you he’s a lousy driver when he’s stoned.”
“I heard that!” Frank called from the back.
Alice glanced into the back, then leaned closer to Henry and whispered, “I also told you he’s sensitive about it.”
“I am not. Bitch!”
“Shut up, Nancy!” she yelled into the back.
Henry glanced in the rearview. “I should’ve just forced the twenty bucks on him and left it at that,” he said, “Never should’ve given him the Vicodins.”
Alice leaned closer, reaching across the console to rub his shoulder. “Don’t be silly,” she said, “He’s got an arsenal hidden somewhere here in Fort Drift. A regular medicine cabinet. If you hadn’t given him the Vics, he’d just have eaten something worse.”
“Couldn’t be much worse,” Henry said. He nudged his head back into her hand as she rubbed his neck. It simultaneously calmed him and sent his warning bells ringing. It seemed like she was touching him more and more, and he was resisting less and less. He had to start pushing back soon. If he didn’t, the end was going to be ugly, at least for one of them.
“You don’t know what you’re saying, Henry,” Alice said, “It could be much, much worse, believe me. You think he’s goofy now? You should see him when he’s speeding. It’s like Speedy Gonzales meets Jerry Lewis.”
“I doubt I’d have the generosity of spirit to tolerate it. Thanks anyway.”
She twisted around and again glanced into the back of the van. Then she settled back into her seat. “Last time we went out he was speeding like the March Hare. It was in South Dakota, some rinky-dink little nothing town in the middle of the Black Hills. To make long short, he created a wee bit of a scene. We ended up bailing him out of the Sheriff Taylor’s pokey.”
“Too seriously,” she said, laughing, “I don’t think we can go back to South Dakota to this day. I’m pretty sure he’s got a price on his head there. That’s the Story of Nancy, I’m afraid.”
Henry looked over at her, or at least at the brilliant smile floating in the darkness of the passenger seat. Then he turned back to the bug-spattered windshield. “Sheriff Taylor’s from North Carolina.”
“Sheriff Taylor. He’s not from the Dakotas, he was from North—”
“It was a simile, Henry. TV is not real.”
“Actually, I’m thinking you mean allegory.”
She gave him The Look. “Simile! Allegory! Who could possibly care?”
Henry shrugged. “Well, it’s just that when—”
“Henry, you are so married to useless facts, you miss the color of the story.”
He thought about that a moment. He wanted to argue but there wasn’t any viable defense to be made. She was right.
“Okay,” he said, glancing over at her, “I surrender to your unrestrained-by-logic-or-facts sense of order.”
“That’s Mister Analman to you, pal.”
Alice twisted in her seat so that she was leaning back against the passenger door again. Then she slipped her bare feet across the console and onto his lap. He looked at the toes dressed in bright orange polish wiggling at him from below the steering wheel. Then he looked at her. “Does this seem even remotely safe to you, Alice?”
“What? My seatbelt’s buckled just like you said.”
He looked at it. It was buckled, all right. She was sitting on top of it. He looked back at the road. “This is a suicide mission, isn’t it?” he said, “None of us are expected to come back alive, are we?” Actually, it fit perfectly with his plans.
She laughed again and tickled him with her toes.
Henry doubled forward. The van swerved. Alice caught the dashboard with a hand. He braced her legs. The sound of rolling bodies again resounded from the back. Frank squealed. A moment later, they were back in their lane.
“Damn it, Alice!” he yelled, “What the hell are you doing?”
“Obviously. And for the record? You think that’s the best time to pull a stunt like that? While I’m driving through the black hole of New Mexico at sixty?”
“Sorry.” She smothered her laughter with her hands.
“I’m serious, damn it!”
“I know you are!”
He could see her eyes glistening wet in the dashboard light. She was still covering her mouth. She couldn’t stop laughing. Again.
Henry shook his head, but found himself laughing with her anyway. How could he resist? She had the kind of laugh that could spark an epidemic. It ran perfectly counter to his natural tendency to nurture his bad humor.
After a few minutes, he saw a spark of red light sizzling against the darkness ahead.
“There’s something,” he said.
“That’s it, Superman.”
As they tooled closer, the sign grew clearer. It read Happy Corners Mall. The H was flickering annoyingly. He pulled the van into the gravel lot and immediately realized the sign was a complete lie. It wasn’t a mall and it wasn’t at any corners, and it didn’t look anything remotely close to happy.
He glided the van slowly past a trashy gas station, a souvenir slash grocery slash video store with more beer signs than parking spots, and an abandoned garage with a stack of rusting old shopping carts lined up in the assumed position out front. An exhausted hurricane fence spanned the gap between the garage and the bar. It protected a junkyard of cars and household detritus that stretched back into the night.
Parked outside the bar were three pickups, two cars, a couple motorcycles, a couple more bicycles, and another van even older than the one they were riding in. The lights on the bar pulsed gloomily. The name of the joint flickered in fading red above the door. The Cheatin’ Heart. No T. No shit.
“What’s so funny, Superman?”
“Are you kidding me? The Cheatin’ Heart? The Cheatin’ bloody heart? I’ll bet you my last twenty there’s not a woman inside that bar.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Frank called from the back.
“Go back to sleep, Frank,” he said over his shoulder.
“What, and waste a perfectly divine buzz? Never! Let us drink and dance and trip the lights fandango!”
The cargo door slid open and Frank stumbled out into the bleached mercury light. Ed and Bridget shuffled out after him. They were barely standing again before Bridget was reassuming the position with Ed, lips to lips and groin to groin.
“You heard the man,” Alice said to Henry, “Let’s drink.” She disengaged her door, but didn’t push it open. “Are you coming, dear?”
Her words sounded like background noise. He watched The Cheatin’ Heart flickering despondently above the door. A few moths circled it without much enthusiasm. He hated the name. He was pretty sure he was going to hate the bar, too.
He didn’t look at her. “What?”
“Are you all right?”
Her hand handcuffed his wrist. She didn’t say anything.
He looked down at her fingers wrapped around his arm.
“Ready?” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said. It was the truth.
She pulled the door shut. Ed and Bridget passed the windshield. Bridget pointed at the door and made the universal sign for a drink. Alice waved them on. Frank stumbled past a moment later. He was still laughing.
Alice looked at Henry. “What’s going on?”
“No obvious lies.”
“It’s nothing, Alice. Let it go.”
“Fine. Let’s go get a drink, then.”
He looked out at the gravel lot simmering under the mercury light. “Go on ahead. I’ll be in shortly.”
“What is it?”
“I said no obvious lies.”
He looked at her.
“Tell me, Henry.”
“It’s nothing… I just… I hate bars like this, okay? And I’m tired, I’m really tired. I’ll be in shortly. Go enjoy yourself.”
“You change directions like a pinball.”
Her face pulsed in the pink glow of the bar’s flickering sign. She was brandishing a smile with a sharp edge. He had the feeling he wasn’t the only one who could change direction on the fly. He had a worse feeling he was about to get a demonstration.
Alice rolled her window down. She pulled a cigarette out of a crumpled pack resting in a drink holder and lit it. Then she crossed her legs, laid one arm over the other, and looked at him. He felt her green lasers burning into him through the darkness.
He looked out into the parking lot. “What?”
“What? You tell me what. You were fine a few minutes ago, and now you’re all mopey. You’re not acting yourself. Or maybe you are acting yourself. What’s up?”
“How would you know what acting myself is, Alice? You’ve known me ten minutes.”
She took another hit from the cigarette and sent the smoke fleeing out the window. Then she set her aim fully on him. “You do have an angry side, don’t you? In fact, I’d say three of your four sides are generally in some phase of pissed at any given minute.”
For just a moment, he didn’t know what to do. He had no experience with her irritation. He didn’t know how to approach it. In the end, he decided on the truth. “Yes, Alice,” he said, turning his own lasers fully on her, “I do. I have a very angry side.”
If she only knew.
“Are you pissed because you didn’t get to leave today?” she asked plainly, “I can have Frank drive you south to US Ten first thing in the morning.”
He thought about that. “No,” he said because it was the truth, “Not really.”
She took another hit. The smoke swam hesitantly from her pursed lips, like it was deeply sorry to be leaving her mouth. It enticed him in a way that left him wondering if he’d been drugged himself. He had the most murderous urge to kiss her. Instead, he took refuge in his dark side.
“Are you afraid you’ll drink too much?” she said.
He let loose an insincere laugh at that. “More afraid I won’t drink enough.”
Her gaze intensified a bit. “Excuse me?”
“It wasn’t anything like nothing.”
“Night isn’t my best time, Alice,” he said, looking out at the flickering sign. “The Cheatin’ Heart. What the hell kind of name is that for a bar?”
She drew another hit and sent the smoke out her window. Then she crushed the butt out on the outside of her door and dropped it into the gravel.
The moment drew tight. Though he couldn’t explain it, he found the thought that she might be angry with him nearly unbearable, which only aggravated him to no end. What right did she have to intrude on his anger? It was none of her damned business, was it?
But he branded the thought a lie the moment it drew breath. That wasn’t the source of his irritation at all. The truth was he found himself in a queer kind of limbo, a place of ridiculous indecision that he had no experience with. The other truth was he couldn’t decide which he wanted more, his anger or her.
This moment had to be murdered.
“Forget it,” he said at last, “It’s not you. It’s just me. Me and my ghosts. Let’s go inside.”
She watched him for a moment. Her eyes were darker than he’d ever seen them. He could only imagine what kind of storm was brewing behind them.
“Yes, Alice.” Here it came.
“I want to tell you something.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“I know you’ve got… issues. Or ghosts. Or whatever. I understand that. I know a man like you doesn’t end up on the interstate in the middle of the night without a wallet or a memory unless he does.”
He felt a rush of embarrassment. His anger requested control of his emotional steering wheel, and it was all he could do to refuse it. “Alice, I—”
Alice leaned over and pressed her fingers against his mouth. “I’m not finished talking to you. You’re not allowed to speak until I am finished talking to you. This is Alice’s Minute. Nod if you understand.”
She didn’t remove her fingers.
“I don’t know why I picked you up, really,” she said, “But it wasn’t because you’re the valedictorian of mental health. I’m not really qualified to judge anyone in that category, anyway, so I just don’t go there. What people hide inside is what makes people who they are. It doesn’t have to be labeled good or bad, certainly not by me. Nod if you’re still with me.”
She didn’t remove her fingers.
“Good. So here’s what I want you to know. You have your ghosts, I have my ghosts. We’re both our own special flavor of nuts. But tonight? Tonight our ghosts are not invited. They’re excused to the parking lot where they can huddle around and smoke and drink and tell their pathetic stories to each other until we return. Nod if you understand.”
She still didn’t remove her fingers.
“So, that being said, tonight’s plan is as follows. You’re going to hold my hand and take me into that bar right there in front of us. You’re leaving your pathos out here in the van. You’re going to drink with me. You’re going to dance with me. You’re going to make me laugh. A lot. And if you’re really, really good at those three jobs, there’s an extremely remote possibility that you might get kissed. Nod if you understand our plan.”
She pulled her fingers away.
“Good,” she said, “Now, is there anything you want to say to me before we commence with the festivities?”
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m really sorry you ruined my new designer duds.” He absolutely wasn’t.
She laughed at that, and the sound of it felt like a death row pardon. “First, it was totally my fault, Henry. I pushed you in the river, remember? They got drenched.”
“I do,” he said, smiling back, “Quite clearly, actually. But it’s possible I might’ve deserved it. After the bucket of water and all.”
“Excuse me? Might have?”
“No further comment.”
“Second,” she said, “They’re not ruined. They’re only wet.”
Then she leaned over the divider and kissed him on the cheek. “Anyway,” she said, stroking his chest, “I’m just glad Ed came through with some duds for you. You know, you don’t look so bad in a tee and jeans.”
“Thanks,” he said.
Then she pulled away and threw her door open. Before she climbed out, she paused and looked back at him. “I really like that shade of blue on you. That’s a color that was born your slave. But honestly, it’s the design that takes my breath away. I just love a man in uniform.”
Then she climbed out of the van and slammed the door convincingly.
Once she’d crossed before the van and passed through door into the bar, Henry looked down at the borrowed tee shirt. The Superman emblem was practically ablaze across his chest. “Actually, the color is just fine,” he muttered, “But I’m not sure I deserve the promotion.”