I needed gas for my Detroit dragon, a ragged convertible dinosaur I had dug out of a local bone yard. I was headed to anywhere, as the pavement held out. It was just after four in the morning, the sun would be up soon. I needed a cup of coffee, maybe three. I pecked at the Plexiglas with my keys and startled Mr. Suspenders out of his gin soaked coma.
“Fill her up.” I said and threw him a bill.
The bell on the pump chimed weakly in the dim fluorescent light as gasoline spilled down the throat of my thirsty beast, still shaking and steaming from being run too hard for her age down the road. That’s life, I guess. Push them till they drop, pick them up, dust them off and then push them till they drop again. She’ll hold out. I don’t know for how long but when she stops, so will I.
“There any place open where I can get a cup of coffee?” I asked him as he made my change.
He considered me a moment.
“Yeah,” he said as he jerked a stubbed thumb over his shoulder, “a little town called Hope about five miles down. The Diner lies just beyond, near to the interstate.”
It was just some sleepy little mid-western town out in the heart of nowhere; a painted over Rockwell where the bleached sky sits heavily on the open land like an oven-baked toad; where the highway runs straight and hot into the horizon and then just keeps going; a population of nobody’s on the front porch; maybe Kansas; I passed a state line marker somewhere in the darkness but I didn’t read it. From the grain elevators, open space and oil derricks; deformed children bobbing in the yard; it could be Nebraska, or Oklahoma- it didn’t matter. Just up the way a neon sign flickered in the tattooed light… Hope Diner. I’d find coffee and maybe a trucker at the counter who would be good for twenty minutes of dull conversation. I rolled carefully toward the light.
She was about ten years past ripe in tight jeans with a red scarf tied over her dirty brown hair and probably looked good once- a mindless cheerleader dancing across the sidelines in the brittle fall air at a local football game- she wasn’t happy, neither was he and his discontent formed a greenish purple ring around her eye. She poured his coffee and shoved it at him.
I sat in a booth near the back under a faded photograph of DiMaggio swinging for the cheap seats; under some bygone glory days and a stuffed deer head with clouded glass eyes and cobwebs in the antlers. She frowned at me. She would have to cross the cracked and yellowed linoleum to take my order. I could have saved her the trip and just called out over the hush but it seemed irreverent to raise my voice in the tobacco soaked tomb.
“What’ll it be, Ace?” She asked a little too loud.
I looked at her long and hard. The road had left her with no shoulder to cry on.
“Well?” She accused me.
“Coffee and dry toast.” I murmured.
“Billy!” Her shrill voice stirred through the worried silence like curdled cream. “You hear?”
He was an ex-pug on the last leg of fifty, his apron grubbier than his hair, what was left of it.
“I heard.” He answered from the kitchen.
She turned my cup over and filled it with sludge. The coffee was old, older than me, her and maybe Billy too. A light rainbow sheen collected on the top of the steaming liquid. The acid in the back of my throat boiled up.
As she rounded the counter with a pitcher of water he grabbed at her. She turned in a huff and shoved his rough farmer’s hands away.
“Knock it off Dwayne, I ain’t in the mood!” She wiggled away.
Dwayne smiled low and dangerous like a mutt at the town dogcatcher.
“Aw, Thelma, don’t play so rough. You know I didn’t mean it.”
She glanced nervously over at me. Dwayne swiveled on his stool and grinned. I turned and stared out the window into the night as it slid sideways like a knife into the buttered sunrise.
“Dwayne, if you don’t behave, I’m gonna call Bruce.” Billy warned as he set my toast up.
“Shit, go ahead; his badge don’t make me so nervous.” Dwayne spat out.
Thelma scooped up my toast.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself anyway, hitting a woman…” Billy answered as he leaned both of his massive fists on the counter.
Dwayne slipped his arm around Thelma’s waist as she came around the bar and pulled her back onto his lap.
“Mind your own business, Billy.” Dwayne growled. “ Those oversized Golden Glove mitts of yours don’t scare me, neither; and besides, I’ve seen your missus with more’n one bruise on her face.”
My toast fell to the floor. The sound of the saucer clattering across the linoleum jangled through the hazy diner like jack-stones scattered across marble.
Thelma was already squirming and wriggling. Dwayne was snickering and my toast was being wallowed in the grime at his feet.
Billy disappeared into the kitchen.
“God damn it, Dwayne!” Thelma shouted as she slapped him across the flat of his cheek, like lightning flashing across the plains.
Dwayne howled like a scorched cat and shoved Thelma to the floor. He stood over her and shook his fist at her while she cowered like an abused child.
“I’ll get you for that, you stupid bitch!” He squeaked.
A roar like thunder split the silence. Billy stood in the cordite haze, stout and gaunt at the kitchen door with a side-by double barrel shotgun, smoke drifting from the muzzle like bad breath,
“Boy, I’ll sure ‘nough drop you.” He warned. “You better git!”
Everyone turned toward me. I sat in the deafening as still as a statue. Dwayne stared at me as he spoke to Thelma.
“I’ll be waitin’ for you at home, girl.”
He turned back to her, smiled fiendishly while he rubbed his cheek and then stomped out the front door, leaving the three of us alone in the dark cloister with the chorus of a cowbell over the jamb. Thelma stood and brushed herself off and picked up my soiled toast.
“What’re you starin’ at?” She demanded.
I sighed and said nothing.
Billy got out a broom and dustpan. He began to sweep up the broken glass and dreams strewn across the floor.
“Get him some more toast, Thel’.”
I stood and walked over to the counter and sat down on Dwayne’s stool, lit a cigarette and offered her one.
“Why do you stay?” I asked her.
She blew an angry cloud of disobedience into the hard air and after a pause, smirked to herself as if she knew the answer to a private riddle.
“How far are you going?” She asked me.
I regarded her for a long moment. She was at the end of it. She was fed up and played out. She was bruised and bloodied, more by words and ideas that never bloomed than by Dwayne’s fist.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wad of cash. I showed it to her.
“About that far.” I answered.
Thelma hit the no sale button the cash register and grabbed a handful of bills. She held them up for Billy to see.
“This about what you owe me, Billy?” She asked.
He exhaled hard like a set of heavy air brakes.
“You sure, Thelma?”
She shoved the gob of bills into her tight jeans.
“No.” She replied.
Sunrise was just breaking, beginning to slither fast and silent as paving oil over the rooftops. I pulled away from the diner slow and easy, like the main float in a Memorial Day parade and stopped at the only traffic light in town.
“Which way?” I asked her.
She put her knees up on the dash, shook her hair out, took a bobby pin from her teeth and pinned her dirty tresses away from her face.
“Doesn’t matter.” She said. “As long as daylight finds me out of Hope.”
I spun the wheel with the suicide knob and stepped on the gas. She grabbed my sunglasses off the rearview mirror and slipped them onto her bruised face. We turned into the sun and sped away into the soft distance. I never saw the other car.
When they pulled her torn and lifeless body from the wreck, she was still wearing the Wayfarers that had covered her black eye.