Writer in Residence · 09/05/2011

Prowlers

On the radio we’d heard about a trend in nature in which wolf packs were growing larger and larger – expanding into super packs. The packs were impossible to fight off. They’d attack one small animal and share the meat among them, then find another prey. It was like the wolf-version of small plates. These super-packs were forming everywhere. There was one apparently on the prowl right in the area we were driving through. Sure we were safe in the car, but we’d need to stop for gas some time.

We drove from Chicago to Albuquerque. This was the time I caught a ride with a friend of a friend of a friend– someone far enough removed that you’d doubt the truth of any of their stories, were I to tell ‘em. As luck would have it, though, twenty-two hours passed and neither of us ever finished a thing we had to say. We kept getting interrupted by roadside attractions, something on the radio, a cop pulling us over. Tale after tale cut short, so there’s no reason to retell ‘em or to disbelieve ‘em..

This friend of a friend, people called him ‘Coot.’ I was too embarrassed to ask him his real name, and what would it have mattered?

We were both victims of well-wrought curiosity. Coot was on his way to Sedona to see about some crystals. I heard there was a chance of a cheap ride, and the word Albuquerque tripped off my tongue. I gave a rent check to my roommates and packed a bag full of fluorescent jean shorts and tee shirts covered in paint-soaked handprints. It was that decade. Coot and I were suspicious of each other, but stubborn. Neither of us was convinced this was a good idea, but the price of gas would be halved, and my friends of friends vouched for both me and him. I wouldn’t run off with the car or rifle through his belongings. He would get me there.

I had a boyfriend who’d just broken up with me, but that wasn’t unusual. We loved in a way that was always between talks, punctuated, alive. This might get old for some people, but it kept us going. His name was Wade, but I called him Wader. He hated it for being a homophone, but liked that I’d awarded him a nickname. When Wader heard about me spending twenty-two hours in a car with Coot, he begged me to stay, but even his sobbing didn’t drag me closer to him. The ten inches of black space between us on the couch stayed constant, until I hoisted my duffel onto my shoulder at the sound of Coot’s car horn. “I’ll write when I get there, Wader,” I said and he looked up at me and, always dramatic, said, “Well, if those don’t sound like dying words.” It was hard not to let that sentence dot my mind as I threw my bag in the backseat and forced a smile at Coot.

The floor of the car was covered in empty plastic bottles. “What do you say I pitch all of these the next time we stop for gas?” Across the dashboard, Coot had lined up twenty-two cat figurines. I counted ‘em. “I know we don’t know each other so well, but there are exactly as many cats as there are hours we’ll be in this car.” Coot grunted and kept his eyes on the road. I would learn that he wasn’t one for believing in coincidences.

In the glove compartment I found a pistol, that felt heavy, but Coot scoffed at my foolishness, telling me it was a toy. My stomach had dropped down into the pile of plastic bottles, but Coot said, “Go ahead. Fire it at me. That’s how afraid you should be of that thing.” I refused his offer, and clicked the compartment shut again.

When it was my turn to drive, I counted the seconds between signs on the highway to stay awake. In more populated areas, I waited for the negative light of the sodium streetlamps to shine in on us, and caught glimpses of the filth coating every surface of the car and our skin.

I tried to talk Coot into telling stories, but he’d trail off, pass out when he was the passenger, get himself distracted when he was driving. I tried to tell him stories, but he wasn’t much of a responder, so I’d get bored and flip the radio on, and he’d never complain that he wanted to know what happened. How did I get home that night? What was in the water? Who was at the door after all? Then on the radio – that story of the wolves came on. I couldn’t even tell if Coot was listening, but I was growing nervous. When I switched the station to something I could sing along to, Coot shut the radio off. I could take a hint.

My friends back home wondered why I was going to Albuquerque. It can’t just be for the name, they said. “I just need to feel some control,” I’d admit. I’d become so accustomed to stinking and failing that I wanted to set a goal I couldn’t fuck up. I could mess up a job opportunity easy. I could complain that I was never going to get a painting just the way I wanted it. But to move my body from Chicago to Albuquerque and back felt like an easy and satisfying thing to do. “What will you do when you get there?” friends of friends asked. “Find a little proof and head on home,” I’d reply, and more often than not, they’d say they were going to grab another beer and ask if I’d like another. When they returned with the two bottles, they’d have a story to tell about some quarrel they’d had earlier that day and we’d drift away from the need to understand why I was leaving.

I asked Coot questions, and mostly he remembered he didn’t care to talk to me. But a few times he responded automatically. He’d been convicted of a felony, a fact I think he was trying to scare me with. He told me it was better I didn’t know what. I said I thought it was my right to know, and he said, if anything, what he was convicted of made this car ride safer. I asked if he’d been in jail, and he said, “Um, that’s how that works, yes.” I was still pretty certain there was some wiggle room there, but if he wanted to play it like the two were unavoidably linked, then that was his call.

That same radio story came on about the wolves again. I shut it off and I pulled out a sketchbook and doodled: several young boys tied to railroad tracks, a dirty man on a city apartment stoop, a full train showing a man with an empty seat beside him. Coot glanced at what I was drawing and said nothing. I tried to tell him a story about how I almost died. How I’d gotten very sick and how long it had taken me to notice how sick I was. How by the worst point, I hadn’t showered in weeks, and I’d stopped leaving the house. How I didn’t notice that no one was calling me and I wasn’t calling anyone either. I waited for Coot to ask me what had been wrong, but I quieted down, and his voice never emerged. He was full of refusal. I learned that a skull doesn’t equal a mind.

When we got to Albuquerque, I was still sleeping when Coot pulled into a roadside motel. I heard the gravel of the lot locating itself beneath the car, and my voice caught. “Where is this?” I asked and Coot said, “This is where we part.” I climbed out of the car and walked towards the office to check in. He called after me that I’d forgotten my bag. I’d thought he would at least wait for me to be sure I could get a room, but I was meek, and I pulled open that sticky back passenger door and grabbed my belongings. As the door to the office tinkled open, I heard his tires squeal back onto the road. The whole thing felt both unfinished and final.

That afternoon I wrote Wader to let him know I was safe in Albuquerque. I signed the letter “Love, Jovey” because that’s what I felt at that time. When I returned to Chicago everything would be muddier, but that morning that sign-off felt clear and true.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and mostly, I’ve been able to recognize them as such. That drive, though, something was wrong, and I’ve never been able to figure it out. There’s an old Hitchcock movie where all of the violence happens behind a curtain. A man pulls a woman behind heavy velvet and tries to rape her. The camera shows her hand fumble out grasping for anything to defend herself, until her fingers land on a knife left out on a cheese board, and that, too, disappears behind the curtain. And then, the lumpy, unseen struggle subsides, and you see a male hand flop out, over the arm of a chair, and the terrified heroine emerges, wondering how what just happened could have happened. All that confusion and she was the only one to survive to tell the story. No one could make it clearer for her. She had all the answers there could be.

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Jac Jemc lives in Chicago. She’s the author of a a chapbook of stories , These Strangers She’d Invited In, and a novel, My Only Wife, forthcoming from Dzanc Books in 2012. She’s the poetry editor for decomP and blogs her rejections at jacjemc.wordpress.com

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posted by Jess Stoner