By: Wyatt Tune
Well, last night I noticed there was something wrong with the transmission. The car slurred when it moved, and all sorts of terrible metal noises had started coming out of the hood. There were the thumps I heard, and the piston-y squeals of dying industry. I’d say I ought to get it checked, but the wheels moved just fine – and the roads here were mostly paved. So I didn’t figure I had to stop just yet. Those motors needed moving, and I had to get to Billings by Wednesday.
What was that? I slowed, changed gears. Was it another break from the inside? The noise came only once, and it was fast and sharp. It was gone though now. I moved back into gear and kept going. There – again! The same noise. I turned up the radio to block it out. It was Luther Perkins, who I liked. I cruised for a while more before deciding to stop for the night.
I slept on the roof of the car, hands as pillows. Friendly shadows. The clouds looked clear, and the corn weeds off the road could dry me if needed. Black metal backs should keep warm for me even in the July night. Off went the lights, and I climbed up praying nobody would rob me. It was Nebraska, the people were nice. I had no money for hotels or top-bars, anyway. Oh, well.
I woke up unrobbed, and itchy but alive. The car was alive, too – but I guess not by much. When I turned it on, well, that’s when the problems started. The noises were worse, they were smoky and chugging along like a freight. The wheels moved different, the steering seized and the brakes hiccuped. I thought I saw smoke coming through the hood, too. I needed a mechanic. So I pulled out the manual, first, and tried to figure out the problem. Then I fanned the smoke with the book, because that seemed better. Nothing here, nothing there.
Where was the nearest station? I don’t know. There was one back in that small town, ninety miles back. Belgrant, that was the name. That place was small, very small. Two hundred people? Maybe. It was Nowhereville. A gas station, general store. A field where the farmer was a cow. Nothing. I suppose I might have to go back there. To Belgrant. But ninety miles? That’s a whole day. There had to be one closer. And forward.
I passed a sign. ARROW. It said. That’s an odd name for a town. Three of the four numbers on the population marker were gone. The only one left was the third, and it said six. There were no other signs, I didn’t know how far away it was. Surely, close, right? There was only a field around me, no sign of any buildings or towns or arrows. With only four digits on the population sign, it had to be close. At least a little close. Whether it was one thousand, or ten. So I kept driving. Sorry, Belgrant. You probably didn’t have a mechanic anyway.
I drove for a very long time. All morning, all afternoon. Now when I looked at my watch I was alarmed. 5:03, it said. PM. And no Arrow. Not even a bow, or anything. I laughed, probably because I was going insane. How big could Nebraska be? The roads never seemed to change, and it was only fields. Corn fields, to which I didn’t know the owner. Beans. Grass. Grass. More grass. No towns. Arrow, where are you. Arrow, arrow, arrow.
Stop! A building. It is red, brick. A flat top, like some half shack-slum Hoover house. There is nobody inside. The door is closed, and I slow down to see it has four locks. Is there something inside? I think of all of the things that are inside, for it to need four locks. Especially for such a puny, ugly house. It is the only one. Maybe there is nothing inside, and the owner is paranoid and crazy. Like I’ll be, if I don’t repair this damn car soon and get to Arrow. What a silly name. I roll past the house, and keep going.
Eventually I stop for gas. There is some in the trunk, enough for one fill up. I siphon, and now face the dying sun like a fool. Arrow? Maybe not even a town, it could be some native american memorial or something. Or maybe some crazy put it there for poor old people like me. But no town. Only fields, and sunset, no matter how beautiful it is. Red, orange, yellow. Purple. Black. Night. I keep going, no sleep for now.
I’m sure there are more fields, but I cannot see them. Grass. Corn. Sunflower. Pavement. Pavement? Road, person. STOP! There is a person in the road, and he has a tow truck. It is parked on the side, and is black and sleek. The man is tall, slender and has teeth for eyes. There is a sooty hat on his head, and a blue suit over his body. The name tag is blank, only a stamped number. Six.
“Hello!” I say to the man, slowing but staying in the car.
“You have a nice ride,” he responds, with a low voice. “What model is it?”
“Fify four. Eldorado,”
“Just a few years old, then?”
“That it is.”
“That is nice,” the man says again. “Classy, but I heard it from all the way over there.”
“Something in the hood. Transmission, engine maybe.”
“Sounds like it.” The man walks to the other side of the car. I stop and get out. The paint is baby blue, silver rims with four, tired wheels. You cannot see any of that now though, it is dark.
The man stops eventually. My eyes deceive, he looks to have a keen face, deep and staring into my soul. The eyes pierce, the sooty cap swells and distorts like something I do not know. Then it is gone, just like that. I am getting too tired, and finally gone insane I suppose. Perhaps it is good that the man stopped me. Or I stopped for the man? I cannot be sure.
“Yes, I like the paint. Good finish.”
“May I ask something?” I say. Two questions come to mind.
“You are a mechanic, yes?” I say. I do not ask my other question, why he was alone on the side of the road. At night, in the middle of nowhere.
“Why, yes I am.”
“I saw the truck, and the uniform. That is why I ask.”
“No, yes I am. No harm done.” He grins, in a strange way. I go the hood, and tap the paint in a drumming tune. There is a noise from within, I do not know what. I tap again and think. Maybe there is something strange about this man, and he is trouble. Maybe, yes… maybe. But I am desperate, and the Cadillac may not run much longer like this.
“Would you mind checking the car?” I say to him. “Just because it’s running this way.”
“Sorry, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not without opening the hood, at least.” The strange mechanic grins, and I laugh. But not a real laugh. Really I am now a bit worried.
I pop open the hood, and there is a mirky poof of all sorts of things smoking out. Greasy, grimy, hot. The man examines for a moment, peers and ponders for several more. He at one time places his hand on the hood, tensing it every once in a while. But when I look at his face, it is blank. Like I am staring at the sky behind him.
“I know just your problem,” he says.
“What is it?”
“Complicated. A combination of things.”
“Let me take down your information, boy. We need records.”
“Well, I’m not sure how I’ll pay you. I have no money. Or – well only thirty one dollars.”
“That’s not a concern.” He takes out a notepad and a black pen.
“Bailey Grant, sir,” I say.
“That’s a girls name, son.” The strange mechanic smiles above his paper.
“You better hope so. It was my Momma’s, too.”
“You have your mother’s name?”
“Why, of course. I loved her, after all.”
“Let’s get back to it.” I am irritated now, the mechanic prys, and wraps his fingers around my head a few times. What could he be writing? It looks like scribbles, frantic paces about the paper by the movement of the pen. Was he writing anything at all? I can not be sure, but the man definitely feels like trouble now.
What’s that? Behind him, a flurry in the shadows of the night. A man, creature, animal. What? It is not there anymore. Maybe a reflection of something, or it went off the tools on the tow truck. I shiver… what is this.
“Done,” the mechanic says.
“So now what?” I respond.
“I told you, I don’t have money.”
“Do you gamble?”
“Poker, five draw,” the man says. “Cards.”
“I suppose,” I respond. “A little.”
“Do you mean to say we gamble for the work?” A scoff comes with my words. I do not mean it, I am not a pretentious man. Many times I’ve gambled for work, or played with chips for jobs and dollars. I do not put it past the man to ask for a game, but it seems a bit off. Working man to working man? Maybe, I hope so.
“I say so.”
“Well, alright then,” I say. “But there’s gotta be rules to this.”
“Of course.” The man’s face is dark though, and not just from the night. Even so, the night seems to have gotten darker. The shadows are longer. Unsettling.
“So what are the rules, then?” I ask.
“You’ll have to let me think.”
“If we play poker, there is not much to think about.”
“And if we don’t?”
“Don’t act that way,” I say, joking. “Poker is what all the road games are. They play them on trains, sidewalks. And you said poker yourself, for what it’s worth.”
“Well I guess you’re right. Do you have a deck of cards?”
“No,” I say. “I would think you had one. You suggested the game.”
“I do.” The man pulls a ratted deck of unmarked cards. Peeling sides, in no condition to play. But I say nothing. It is strange how he would ask me for cards, when he already had them.
“Now this is poker,” the man removes the cards. “There are not many more rules to be established.
“Poker for two. Funny.”
“I don’t think this game will take long.”
“Now don’t get ahead of yourself there, Bailey.”
“But the rules. Even for two and a quick game,” I say. “What are they?”
“Your a real stickler Bailey.”
“I’ve played my fair share.”
“Boxcars. Drinkers. The sort.”
“Then, Mr. Grant,” the man stops and shuffles on the roof of the car. “You’re bound to beat me.”
“Don’t distract,” I respond, thinking all around. “And if you say my name, I’d much like to know yours.”
“Well, I’m the mechanic.”
“That’s your name?”
“And if it was?”
“Well that would be an awful strange name. Who’d be named that?”
“Better than a boy named Bailey.” Before I can respond, the man gives a loud crack of the deck and deals five. I guess I should keep my mouth shut now. It is all quite silly, when I think about it. Poker for two. No dealer. Now. In Nebraska. Po-ker for t-wo.
I look in my hand. The cards are all in a neat stack, so I see one at a time as I fan them out. They are strange, but in a dusty bar-house way. The first, a Jack, has faint red lines down the middle. And the corners are dirty, maybe this one came off the factory wrong. Ten of spades. Three of clubs, seven of diamonds. Ah! The fourth card is another Jack. So at least I have something. Then I look at the fifth card, and furrow my brow. The design is there, and the card blends in, but the corner number. . . it says fourteen. No, it doens’t. That can’t be right.
I shake my head, maybe I breathed in too much smoke. No, the fourteen of clubs. It’s there. I glance up at the man, he is still. I reckon to myself this deck is bad. But I don’t say a word.
“I’ll take two,” he says, and before I lift a finger, he switches them. “And for Mr. Grant?”
“None. And I say -”
“Well then that’s that.” He lays down his five, and my eyes are wide to see that three are jokers.
“What kind of game do you play? There’s no jokers in five card.”
“Well I say there’s no jokers there.”
“That’s three kings.”
“Your a damn liar!” I say. “And what’s this?” I flip my fifth card to the man.
“I know you lost Bailey. No need for trouble now.”
“This deck is a damn bust.”
“Well look!” I flip my fifth, but stop. It is a four. I look over again, to what are kings along the Cadillac.
“Bailey Grant. I think you may be imagining things.” the mechanic smiles.
“I know what I saw.”
“Well I see a fair play.”
“And how is that?”
“People get weary,” he responds with a wink.“Out on the road. Alone. And those passer-goers sometimes see things they shouldn’t.”
“Don’t be silly,” I say.
“Things you don’t see, Mr. Grant. It was a good game.”
“Well, this isn’t fair! I got a busted trunk, and no signal, and a hood that’ll start a fire.” I spit on the ground.
“And what should I do?”
“Well, I say we deal again.” But there is a pesky click that comes from the mechanics mouth.
“No extra gos.”
Well, the mechanic left. And the day came, and the engines still shot. But I haven’t run out of gas. I smile amist the sun on the road. Corn. Road. Bean. Corn. Dirt. I should get to Arrow soon. Then I’ll get some real help. Yeah, I’ll get there soon. To Arrow. What a funny name for a town.
I sleep, the day is over, and the corn keeps going. Arrow sure is far away. I’ve been driving fifty-four days and I still have’t seen it. Nebraska sure is big.