Joy Ride

 

Snow, with more snow coming. It buried the road in one endless tidal wave, no moon to pull it back.

Ronnie Barker—Bark, his friends called him—had stolen a rusty black Ford station wagon out of the Farmer Jack's parking lot. Old cars were easiest to steal. Almost too easy. Barker was hoping he'd be able to drop that from his repertoire of crimes soon, maybe grow up some and get a job or some wacky shit like that. He'd be out of school in four months, with or without a diploma, depending on who he could casually intimidate to help him cheat on his finals.

Intimidation could be subtle, Bark realized during his stint in the Navy sponsored by a local judge who'd offered jail as the alternative. He simply needed to scope out each class and politely ask the smallest, smartest kid for the answers. Bark was 6'4, 250—a nice chunk of change. While his Navy muscles had lost some of their tone, he still had enough to scare the little shits. That, and his reputation.

His friends had piled in when he'd swung the car around behind the high school where they were huddled like raggedy robins who forgot to check out for winter, missing the bus south, and nothing to do about it but pass around a couple of joints in the cold and blow on their hands as if stoking their own heartbeats. If he hadn't stolen the car, Barker would've been out there with them, like the guys who hung outside the temp agency every morning hoping to pick up some work. That's where Bark would have to start looking for a job—that, or fast food, but temp work paid better when work was to be had. Or, a life of crime. Whatever happened, Bark couldn't go back in the Navy. They'd seen enough of his stubborn, sorry self. If he got in trouble again, it'd be jail for sure. "Life of crime, life of time," he mumbled to himself as if it were the disembodied refrain of some heavy metal song. It clashed against whatever blared from the radio—bad music turned up loud.

He counted in the rearview mirror—four of them back there. Heater was rocking out the BTUs. Body rusting out, but nothing wrong with the heater. "What the fuck's a BTU?" Barker shouted above the radio—no tapes, CDs, or nothing. Must be some old-dude car. He could turn it down, but what was the point. No one answered. Perhaps no one heard him. Someone shouted, "Fuck you too." Maybe that was his answer.

Still and rigid as a thin nail next to him in the middle of the seat sat Jeanine, who was under orders never to see him again. But when he'd pulled up, she'd landed right up front in her old spot. Jeanine wasn't kicking out the BTUs. She was shivering. Bark put his hand around her skinny thigh and rubbed up and down her jeans.

"Good heater in here," he said.

"I can't hear either," she said, and he turned down the music.

"I've been missing you," he said, and everybody heard.

"Where we off to, Captain Barker?" It was Tater, once everyone's favorite catcher, and now nobody's favorite friend. Tater had stopped playing baseball, and had stopped being of use to them as a buyer too. Once Barker came back from the Navy, he was more than happy to buy everybody's booze. Tater had joined them in eighth grade as a sixteen-year-old from Kentucky. Once the baseball league discovered how old he really was—it took years for that birth certificate from Kentucky to materialize—it didn't matter how old he was for baseball. He was old enough to buy booze, and that had counted more than hitting taters. But when Barker returned, old Tater was just another fat guy who laughed too loud and got on everybody's nerves.

"My grandfather's cottage," Barker shouted. Everyone quieted down. The heater blower hissed and huffed.

"Where the hell's that?"

"We didn't even know you had a grandfather," Ken said. "We thought you'd emerged on the scene fully formed, tattoos and all." Barker imagined Ken in the back seat, winking at someone.

Barker worried about becoming the new Tater. Why did these kids hang around with him? Two years in the Navy. Nobody ever asked him about it. He'd been in school with some of their older brothers and sisters. What was he doing back in high school? It was like a board game where you pretended to be somebody else, to care about things you did not care about. Used play money.

"Yeah, we thought you were an alien, dude. Arriving in this space ship from planet Fuck-you-up," Kimmy O said, the smart mouth, the wicked angry girl everyone was half-afraid of.

"Farmer Jack's, man. Planet Farmer Jack's," Barker said, hoping to get a laugh.

"Hey, I think this is my car," somebody shouted. "I think I did Kimmy O on this seat back here. Remember, Kimmy?"

Kimmy smacked him, the guys howled, and everybody forgot about his grandfather's cottage except Jeanine, who tugged on his jacket sleeve as if he was working the checkout at Farmer Jack's and forgot to give her change. She wanted her change.

"You wish," Kimmy O said, just to clarify.

"Take me home, Ron," Jeanine whispered. "It won't be worth it."

The wipers waved at the snow, and the snow dodged them, overwhelmed them.

"It might be," he said. "If we could get rid of everybody else."

"Where were you planning on going when you found us?"

"My grandpa's cottage, like I said."

"By yourself?"

"He's dying, okay? Just want to go up there and smell the place." He knew that sounded strange. "Something like that," he added softly.

*

Ron Barker—half a dozen Warren cops knew him by name, slowed down next to him while he walked down the street. Waved. Beeped their horn. Pulled him over and patted him down if they were bored. Make the big guy squirm—a good game for slow nights in the city. They pulled rank on him. He had no rank, just a big Navy lunkhead back in high school. Get a job, they told him.

Officer McDonald called him Chief Barking-Up-the-Wrong-Tree—said it was his Indian name. There weren't any Indians in Warren, Michigan. Just cowboys holding pissing contests on street corners and in parking lots until they got bored enough to break something or to break into something, both illegal under local statutes.

The charge that sent him out to sea involved some version of a Molotov cocktail Barker had put together and thrown through the window of Berlin Drugs, a drug store / package liquor store that had been selling to Bark since age sixteen, but then suddenly refused his fake i.d. when he had a car full of friends waiting. The cocktail did not ignite, but Mr. Berlin did.

*

"With all due respect, Mr. Caruso, fuck you." Bark had meant to say, "I love your daughter, and no way can you keep us apart," but it came out wrong. He had the bad habit of sprinkling fucks into his everyday conversation like sugar on donuts. The assistant principal, Mr. Walker, an old Navy man himself, just shook his head at the little detention slips in Barker's enormous hands. He barely fit in the desks anymore, his thick legs turned sideways, tripping everyone who passed, everyone who had hoped he was gone but now he was back.

Mr. Walker had become a semi-friend of the Barker family, particularly Mrs. Barker—Helen—who, through their frequent meetings before Barker entered the Navy, had taken a shine to him. Sometimes Barker wondered if the only reason his mother was making him finish high school was to get reacquainted with Mr. Walker.

Mr. Caruso, like Jeanine, was a wisp. Thin in a coat-hanger kind of way—gnarled, tight, hollow, and pissed off. He worked at Chrysler driving a hi-lo. He was sensitive about his height, Jeanine said. He combed his hair back like a greaser and strutted like a broken toy.

Jeanine carried her passion tightly wrapped around her tiny bones. It rarely emerged, but sometimes, when they were parked on the dead end of Keller Court in whatever random vehicle Bark had come up with, it felt like she was kicking his ass when they made love, her bones banging against his, her angles thrusting against him in jumbled ecstasy. She wanted to be filled with something he could not give her. Not even him, the one guy in the neighborhood who had been outside the country, who had seen something—even if he had not been paying attention and was now back cruising the old streets, two years older, enjoying the ride through one last year of high school in order to please his mother, who seriously could kick anyone's ass. Who'd sent her first husband packing, limping from a kick to the balls, according to his dying grandfather, dying because he simply could not stop smoking.

*

They had arrived at Jeanine's house near dawn, the sky graying above the tiny box houses of Warren. Jeanine had not wanted to go home. Sure, earlier that night, they'd steamed up the windows of the stolen car—a big Mercury—but at the Red Apple, a 24-hour diner next to the Salvation Army on Nine Mile Road, they'd spent hours just talking about sober dreams. Jeanine's dreams all had to do with getting away. Barker loved watching her face flush, her tiny hands curling into fists as she imagined a future that included him.

Mr. Caruso had been up all night waiting, jazzed on coffee or speed or pure rage. He stood in the driveway, caught in the headlights of the stolen car. "You will never see my daughter again," he'd said, trying to get up in Barker's face as if he'd been rehearsing it. But he only came up to Bark's neck. His breath stunk, Barker remembered. He'd never liked Barker taking Jeanine out. He called Bark "the criminal," Jeanine told him.

"Dad," Jeanine said, and he'd pushed her away, then stepped into Barker and shoved him against the bricks of the house next door. Bark peeled away Jeanine, who had run back between them, and charged at Mr. Caruso.

He hadn't meant to punch him, but that sort of went the way of the tactful language. Just two punches, but the little man reeled and fell into the bricks of his own house, then slumped down.

"Get out of here, Bark," Jeanine shouted. For a moment, it looked like she was going to leave with him, but lights were coming on in the houses around them. She ran into her house, a horse running back into a barn during a fire. He drove off in the Mercury, then ditched it in the parking lot at the Ford Plant over on Mound Road and walked home, cursing himself, knowing he'd done something he couldn't take back, that he'd booby-trapped his own life yet again.

*

Now, a month later, Jeanine was next to him again. Her father couldn't keep them from seeing each other at school, though they shared none of the same classes. She was college prep, and he was vo-tech. Aside from brief minutes in the hallways at school, this was the first time since then that they were together.           

The snow bounced off the car and slid parallel to the ground before landing behind them, accumulating. It took an hour to drive to the cottage in the best of weather. "The driver needs a drink," Barker said, and somebody passed forward a pint of peppermint schnapps. He took a swallow and gritted his teeth. He hated that sweet shit, but somebody back there liked it.

"This is stupid," Tater said. "What are we gonna do up at this cottage except freeze our asses off?"

"Build a fire. Toast our toes," Barker said cheerfully.

"Create friction," Kimmy O said.

"We already got friction," Tater said.

"Smooth friction. They got beds in that cottage, right Bark?" That was Ken. Somebody'd get into a bed with Ken—that could be counted on. The handsome one who could talk his way into and out of anything. Barker admired and hated him.

"Is this snow fucked up, or what?" Kimmy said, her voice edged with worry.

"We got beds," Barker said. "Me and my brothers used to come up here on weekends. My grandpa put warm bricks in our beds to keep us warm."

Barker knew that none of them could stay out all night without consequences. He felt his power over them now—the power to instill fear. They'd left the safety of their familiar streets, where they could opt out, get dropped off on a random corner and walk home. They were stuck with Barker in a stolen car in a snowstorm. His own parents didn't care where he was as long as it wasn't jail.

"Warm bricks? Shit, I'm talking about love, I'm talking romance, I'm talking spiritual oneness, and he's talking warm bricks. I'll take two girls in my bed, and we'll leave Bark with the warm bricks," Ken said. They all laughed nervously, except Jeanine, who sat paralyzed next to Bark, staring out the window.

"Jeanine, did Barks really kick your dad's ass?" Tater asked.

Bark sighed. "I didn't kick nobody's ass. Little guy was rightly pissed off at me for keeping his daughter out all night." Bark glanced at Jeanine. "Didn't mean to hurt him. Not at all." The car fishtailed a bit, but Barker straightened it out. "His feelings were hurt is all."

He looked over at Jeanine. She was biting her lip. He knew these clowns—her friends, mostly—must have asked her the same thing. He wondered what she'd told them.

"He didn't have me busted, and I'm glad of that."

Barker knew Jeanine blamed him. His banishment made everything more difficult—impossible. Yet here they were. If they were going to risk being together, at least make it worth the risk, he could hear her thinking, not just joy-riding through a blizzard, joyless and not alone.

"Jeanie and I are getting married," he said.

Jeanine closed her eyes. Barker was having trouble seeing the road through the layers of snow, the tires fishtailing again as he changed lanes on I-94. He wished he'd taken a look at the tires.

*

Barker turned the key and put his shoulder to the door. It quickly swung open, snow angling in onto the old linoleum. A sleeping bag and blankets lay bunched up on the couch, and half a loaf of bread and a jar of grape jelly sat on his grandmother's sticky oilcloth on the room's one table. She'd died while Barker was in the Navy, and he'd gotten a leave to return for the funeral, though he spent the whole time drunk.

A few bricks sat on top of the cold oil heater.

"Looks like somebody's living here," Jeanine whispered.

"Well, it sure ain't my grandpa," Barker said. He guessed it was his Uncle Right John. He hoped his father was behind this, a little secret between the two of them. But where was his uncle now, in this blizzard?

Barker found a pile of burned matches near the pilot light. He thought maybe it was out of oil, but the burner quickly lit. Maybe his Uncle had been unable to figure out how to light it, or was simply too drunk to accomplish the task. Maybe he was keeping the heater off while he was gone to conserve oil. Maybe nobody knew he was here.

Barker peered through a dusty window at the outhouse. The door swung open in the wind.

"It'll heat up," Barker assured the shivering group huddled around him.

"This ain't gonna be like one of those horror movies, is it?" Tater asked. "Where the psycho guy comes back and terrorizes the teenagers?" Nobody laughed.

"If anyone comes in, it'll be my Uncle Right John, and all he'll do is drink whatever booze you've got left. He's a terror when it comes to booze."

"Bark is the psycho guy, but we're his friends, so we're safe, right Bark?" Ken said.

"Shut up, Ken," Barker said. Why had he picked them all up? Had he even asked them, or had they simply piled in? Sometimes he just didn't think. Would they be able to get back to the main road through the deep snow? Was his uncle freezing to death out there somewhere?

He turned on his grandfather's radio with the big light-up dial and tuned in a crackly oldies station. "Jeanine and I are going to rest awhile in this bedroom," Barker said. "Anyone is welcome to use the other one," he added. He looked around at them all. "Well, party on," he said, leading Jeanine behind the dingy curtain his grandfather had hung instead of a door.

The bare studs were visible, the rooms unfinished forever. Every sound in the tiny cottage was audible, every breath. The silver backing of the insulation reflected the dim light bulb before Barker clicked it off. He and Jeanine climbed into the bed and threw themselves against each other. Barker felt her mouth press into him so hard it hurt, and he briefly pulled back.

In each other's arms, they forgot that they were not alone in the tiny cottage—shack, really. His barracks in the Navy were luxurious compared to this, but the memories of his grandfather's gruff kindness here made Barker feel safer than just about anywhere.

*

"Okay, big boy, let's do it," Jeanine said, wrapping her thin arms around his thick chest. She seemed relaxed, content, even confident. Sexual release maybe, but something else too.

"We just did it, Sweetie," Barker said. He didn't want to make the drive back tonight, but he had to. Her father said he'd press charges if anything else happened.

"I mean get married."

"Sure, Babe, we can get married." Her long hair tickled his bare chest. He pulled up the musty old quilt over her bare shoulder.

"Hey Bark, what about those warm bricks you were getting all weepy about?" Ken shouted from the other bedroom, though he sounded like he was standing at the foot of their bed. The snow pushing in on all sides seemed to amplify the tiny square space of the cottage.

"They're right on top of the heater," Bark said. He thought of his grandfather in the hospital, wheezing with emphysema, the stink of the room, the pale thin ghost of his grandfather like smoke ready to dissipate forever.

He knew something was wrong with Uncle Right John—he hadn't been to the hospital to visit his own father. Maybe his body was buried in this blizzard.

"I mean now," Jeanine whispered.

Bark laughed nervously. He got up and pulled the chain on the ceiling bulb. They could see their breath in the dim light. "But Babe, we need money for that...Why do you think I steal cars?" He began getting dressed. "I slept in a room full of other guys for two years. I'm happy being home again." Bark surprised himself—he thought he sounded wimpy.

'I'm not," she said. "Fuck college, by the way," she said, apropos of nothing.

"College is good," he said. "Not for me," he said quickly, "for you. No jobs here. Everybody getting laid off. My old man's bringing home Bomb Pops for dinner. Bullshit and Bomb Pops....We gotta get you home," he said suddenly.

"I'm tired of hanging out in parking lots," she said."Everybody get dressed. Or whatever," he shouted.

Outside, snow had covered all their tracks. He held his grandfather's key in his fist, the key his grandfather had secretly handed him in the hospital last week, asking him to take care of the place. Some day the cottage might be his, if his father found a way to keep paying the taxes. Or else his uncle would burn it down trying to keep warm. They called him Right John because John was boring, and he was always saying "Right," though he never listened to anyone.

Bark pushed the curtain aside. Tater and Vickie sat glum on the couch. Uncle Right John's pile of sour bedding had been tossed into a corner. Either something had happened between them, or nothing. Ken and Kimmy emerged from behind the other curtain like a couple of shy actors stepping on stage. They were holding hands. Barker grabbed Jeanine's hand.

"Let's see if we can get out of here," Barker said. He didn't know whether to lock the door. Maybe his uncle had lost the key, since the cottage was locked when they'd arrived. Bark left it unlocked.

The girls took turns in the outhouse, screaming with the cold on their bare skin, while the boys pissed in the snow. The car started right up, and Barker cranked the heater full blast.

*

The car quickly became stuck in a snow-covered ditch. Jeanine steered while the rest of them leaned against the trunk, slipping, cursing, till the car gained traction on the packed snow of the empty road. Barker took the wheel and followed the wide tracks a truck had made. They slid off the road two more times before finally reaching the interstate.

"Who's going to help me with the Michigan history final?" he asked in the silent car as it crawled back down the freeway. The plows had already hit it once or twice, but the snow was relentless.

Nobody answered. Nobody missed him when he was in the Navy. Nobody'd miss him if he left again. He was a novelty act, good for maybe one year. He was sure Tater could tell him all about it.

"Just get us home, big boy," Ken finally said.

"Chicken," Jeanine whispered. "If you loved me, you'd find a way." She pounded on his knee with her tiny, gloved fist.

Did she love him, or the idea of him? He was still astounded by her stubborn attachment to him in the face of her mad father. Bark had ruined her reputation. What did she see in him? Nobody was going to help him study on that.

"What if I was pregnant?" she asked, not bothering to whisper. He held the wheel steady. He slowed down and dragged his foot to make sure he was still on the road.           

"That'd be no good," he said soberly. He knew guys in the Navy who'd gotten someone pregnant and had been forced into marriage. Get somebody pregnant, join the Navy. Get busted, join the Navy. Bomb Pops and bullshit.

"Why would you want to marry me?" Barker felt his slack belly pressing tight against his belt. Muscle—the one thing the Navy had given him, and he was losing it.

"You kicked my father's ass," she said, and she said no more.

"See, I told you," he heard Tater mumble.

The clock in the car was broken, Bark never wore a watch. After all the attention to time in the military, he'd been careless with it, he realized now, thinking it was unlimited.

"What'd your father ever do to you?" Barker asked. He leaned his ear against the cold window.

The car edged along the freeway in a long line of headlights obscured by snow. In ditches on either side, cars had helplessly slid and sat abandoned for the night. He was grateful for the weight of the others in the back giving him traction. He'd also thrown a few bricks in the trunk. The next time he looked over at Jeanine, tears were streaking her cheeks, and he knew she had not told him everything.

*

Back on the flat streets of Warren, Barker drove more aggressively, swerving around icy corners as he dropped the others off one by one. Nobody said thanks or see you later. Barker's mouth was dry and sour. He half-wanted a swig of peppermint schnapps, but it was long gone.

He dropped Jeanine off last. She had him stop around the corner from her house.

"If he ever touched you, I'll kill him now," Barker said flatly.

Jeanine slipped off a glove and put her small finger against his lips.

"Do something good crazy," she said. "Surprise everyone. Marry me. Let's make a plan. I need a plan to live on."

"I'm no good on planning. You make us a plan, and I'll sign onto it," he said. He ached for her. He knew it was dangerous to want one thing, just one thing, so much. His grandfather was checking out, and Uncle Right John could be just about anywhere, alive or dead.

"I will." She smiled, kissed him, and got out of the car, struggling through the deep snow. He sat idling at the corner till she got inside and turned off the porch light.           

He wanted to write something in ink, not just the same sweaty pencils they used for tests at school. Fill in the circle completely. That was hard enough, even if he knew the answer.

He pulled into the empty Farmer Jack's parking lot under the passive floodlights, the snow angling across them like falling stars. He was sorry to give up the car now—it was just starting to feel right. A snowplow was crossing back and forth, heaving large piles of snow into mountains, clearing things out for the morning. A thin layer of packed snow covered where the plow had driven. They'd salt that later—they'd bring back the slanted yellow lines marking out the spaces. He gunned the engine, yanked the wheel, and spun a series of donuts over the smooth surface. The plow driver idled, watching. The car came to rest where it had started.           

Barker got out and waved to the plow driver, then began trudging home. The snow was drifting high against fences and buildings and parked cars. It'd take everyone a long time to dig out from the storm. He himself was in no hurry.

 

 

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