We were listening to Doodles Weaver crack jokes on Rudy Vallee’s radio show when it happened. We were catching dust from the open car windows, the dry wind from the Black Mesa. Maybe if Aphelia hadn’t driven her father’s rickety box-of-metal-on-wheels so hard, so reckless, the one she stole, along with his police revolver, it wouldn’t have broken down. Maybe if she didn’t hold up the pimple-faced kid shakin' in his knickers at the grocery store back in Reynes for a bag of god-darn breadsticks, we wouldn’t be stuck in the middle of Cimarron County. The throb of nowhere. The black heart of everywhere.
And what the hell do I know about cars, clutch parts, seal or something bearings? I ain’t a boy. Whoever designed this motorcar is a man with a well-greased heart and a pair of tin hands that leaves his wife longing for flesh and flowers. I know a man didn’t design a woman. She came from dust.
“Fiddlesticks,” says Aphelia, kicking some stones off the dirt road. Under her cloche hat her green eyes are the same ones that sting me at night. They belong to a beautiful feline living at the bottom of a well that is me. Every law-abidin’ girl has within her a secret feline squatter.
Aphelia is twenty-five. She once worked as a punch press operator before the plant closed. I’m seventeen, used to sling hash part time with my mother. The diner is where I met Aphelia, one morning, wearing a large floppy hat, a distracted glow to her face, grease smudges on her flower-print dress. She said she had been helping her father fix the car and asked me if I knew anything about repairing one. I said I'm not a boy and we both got giddy.
She had been talking about stealing a bag of breadsticks for days. Half this country is waiting in soup lines and the other half is digging ditches in the rain. And Aphelia and me are rich on bread sticks and queer sunsets. But I don’t think this is about the breadsticks, or about how I feel, or what I want. It’s more about the distance from here to the New Mexico border, or from here to Colorado, and how I’ll never come back to Oklahoma. In some strange town, I’ll find another earth mother with salt-lick wounds, a queen of rain whose flesh, whose breasts, the Black Mesa wind cannot erode. I will call my new earth mother, Aphelia.
“Hey, Leigh,” says Aphelia, turning, wearing one of her love-is-free smiles, “you wanna play Flip the Frog?” It’s something she always says before we fall into each other's pond and believe our shuddering reflections. Aphelia says that I make love like a Bolshevik. I’m not sure what she means. Do Bolsheviks shudder? Do they call each other in the heat of lovemaking--my crazy sweet-grass strumpet?
In the distance, I can make out the serpentine roads that appear, vanish behind hills, the wail of police sirens that will soon blot my thoughts. The cars are tiny misshapen dots growing larger.
I ask her the same question that I asked back in Reynes. “How many bullets you got in that gun?” I didn’t like the answer I got in Reynes.
“I already told you, darlin'. Just one.”
“Well, that's just swell. You really plan ahead, don’t you?”
She takes two small steps towards me. It feels like she’s at the other side of the world.
“Like I said, the one is for me. I know where I’m goin’. But you’re gonna run. Run until you can’t run no more. If they catch you, lie about your age and tell them you’re fifteen. Make like you're mindless--a witless girl who could only make a living capping mayonnaise jars. Tell them I took you as hostage. Tell them you didn’t know nothin’."
If she had one more bullet, I’d follow her off the edge of the Black Mesa. But all I have to offer is a dustbowl of girlish brown-eyed love.
Slowly, I walk up to her. She’s smiling and I’m drowning. I kiss her, our tongues swirling, the dance of two water snakes in love with the other’s slither. She gently pushes me away.
The sirens blare louder. Closer.
“Someday you’ll get back on the main road. You’ll have a husband who’ll stand by you, work sixteen hours a day. You’ll have children who’ll obey, do chores for you. And when they grow bigger, when they grow wayward, tempted by something they can’t define, you’ll see me in their eyes. There's no future for us, honey.”
I reach to grab the gun tucked in her pleated skirt. She wrestles my hand away, has a grip like a man's. Her eyes are wild, her voice, firm, edgy. We are both breathless--the possessor and the possessed.
“I’ll stall ‘em, put the gun to my head. They’ll negotiate. It’ll give you enough time. When you hear the sound, it means I love you a thousand times.”
“No,” I say, shaking my head of sunshine ringlets.
"They’re not takin’ me alive. No callused fingers in my pond and the dirt from this dry country."
I study my own fingers. So small. Fat twitching worms.
“Here,” she says, “take one of these. You‘ll need the energy.” She holds out the bag of breadsticks. I imagine how one will crack, like those tiny smiles in top soil, ones I will fall through. I close my eyes and hear the shot in the distance. I’ll never make New Mexico. I’ll drop from exhaustion and wake up with a different name. But the sound. The sound will stay with me for years, a reminder that I was once stranded in the heart of Black Mesa country.
“Take one,” she says, "don't be shy."
One for you. And one for me.
Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey, where he skateboards, falls, and sometimes doesn't get up. He has work pubbed in Why Vandalism, Zygote in My Coffee, Up the Staircase, and others.