*** Shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize 2015 ***
It is a two lane road somewhere in North America. The car is pulled onto the shoulder with the brake lights on; a grey midrange sedan from twenty years ago. The road is edged on both sides by thin half bare trees. It is winter, autumn, or spring. The day is blank, covered in high cloud. Now and then another vehicle goes by. A police officer walks forward, gun drawn, towards the driverside door of the midrange sedan. He is state police and wears the felt hat and the uniform with the thick dark stripe on the outside trouser leg, the hat pinched at the top with the wide flat brim. The shirt is tucked and tight round his paunch. He is thick-bodied, heavyset. He takes small steps, in a strong shooting stance. There is someone inside the midrange sedan. Through the back window there is a head, unclear, in silhouette. They have not deserted the vehicle or fled the scene. At least one person sat in the front. Black dot birds scatter from the tops of the trees, and now and then another vehicle goes by. The trooper is pointing with his right hand the gun at the window, and with his left hand he his reaching for the handle, going for the arrest. He is shouting, has been shouting the whole time. He pulls open the door and shouts at the driver. He is pointing the gun and shouting at the driver. He tells them get out of the car now. He says get out of the fucking car. He holsters the gun and pulls the driver from the sedan to the road. The driver is female, Caucasian, middle-aged, and overweight. She is facedown on the asphalt in her black slacks and baggy jumper, with the trooper on top of her, his knee on her back. He hits her on the back of the head and unclips the handcuffs from his belt. He is shouting, has been shouting the whole time. He says get on the floor, get on the floor, I’ll cut your clothes off, get on the floor. The driver is very overweight and does not put up a fight. The woman facedown on the floor with her hands in cuffs behind her back, the trooper standing up still shouting, telling her to get on the floor, do not fucking move. Other vehicles go by. Police means do not stop, do not get involved. It is police harassment, police violence, official police business. Police means do not get involved. The image fades to black. A voiceover says the woman sustained bruises and cuts and pleaded guilty to speeding. The voiceover says the trooper, a seven year patrol veteran, has been fired and is expected to appeal. For a few seconds it is solid black and silent.
The event repeats, but quicker this time. The trooper moves quicker, the cars go by quicker. The shouting, the pulling, the punching, the shouting is all quicker. And the event is done, over slightly quicker. The screen fades to black. The event repeats and the screen fades to black. The event repeats and repeats, each occurrence getting quicker, shorter, the action rushed and hurried, the voices higher in pitch, higher until they sound like some helium cartoon, higher until just noise, just squeal, the image just noise, just blur. The moment is compressed out of shape, a moulded thing. It seems to reach a critical point, an aesthetic threshold or some technological limit, and the screen fades to black and is black for longer than before. This is credit space in any other film, the vast list of rolling names. Instead it is black, just black, silent, until it starts again, at normal speed, on that North American two lane road.
There’s a couple next to you, also watching, a young woman and a man you guess is slightly older, faces washed with projected light. They came in around the same time as you. The guy is telling the girl how funny it is. He’s not laughing, but he’s telling her about how the whole thing is so funny, how he’s getting such a kick watching the fat woman get it. He says the best part is knowing that the cop gets fired. He says this is the icing on the cake. The girl is nodding, not saying much. She looks sort of spaced out, or bored, or thinking about something else. They each have a beer in both hands. They are good-looking in a wrecked sort of way. Her in a heavy sweater and drainpipe jeans, he entirely in black—trench, trousers, big clunking boots. You decide that maybe they’re not a couple after all. It’s awkward, stunted. They don’t seem close in that way. There’s a perceptible layer of performance, at least in the girl. The smile she gives you as you walk past. A faint thing, half-bothered, half-formed. Not half-bothered in that she doesn’t care to smile, but half-bothered in that she almost doesn’t care to not smile, that she can barely keep herself from smiling, barely has the energy or will to maintain the presentation, the unmoved unbroken unsmiling face. She can barely be bothered to keep the pretence intact, whatever the pretence might be. You remember being like that, finding pleasure in games and half-reality. You remember inventing and testing and teasing, pushing outward, new things, forms, external conditions, the discovery each day of a new way to be. The smile admits the act without defining it. The question is why admit the act at all, and why admit the act to you.
You take your coat from reception and say to the staff, yes, thank you, interesting, goodnight. Outside, people hurry with umbrellas and collars turned up against the rain. You take two aspirin and walk onto the street.
* * * * *
Marie thought it was rude that Johnny still had on his boots. Her shoes were by the door. She sat crossed legged on the floor holding her bare ankles. It was his place so she didn’t say anything, but she was entitled to her opinion and her opinion was it was rude. He’d left big footprints all over. And in the kitchen, where it was tile not carpet, she had to step around several pools to keep her socks from getting wet. Now he had them up on the table, not far from her face, as he leaned back on the couch, waving his arms as he talked. He would splay his hands or jab a finger at the air, and sometimes clap or rub both together like it was cold—which it wasn’t, so Marie figured it to be the cocaine. He tilted his head to face the ceiling. Heavy traffic noise washed up from the street.
“The way they drive here,” she said.
“The Iranians are worse. Way worse.”
“And when were you in Iran?”
“You know, never. I read it someplace. Or I heard it. Yeah,” he said, pointing. “I heard it on TV.”
“I’m serious. The Iranians can’t drive. It’s a thing. Like, they’re crazy fucking people. Suicidal, homicidal. We’re talking major death wish.”
“I’m serious,” he said.
“I know. I’m not laughing. This is smiling, it’s different.”
Marie watched him put his feet on the floor and lean forward.
“The talk is always New York.”
Marie nodded. “Los Angeles.”
“New York, oh sure. But Los Angeles.”
He thought about this for a while, scraping his credit card back and forth, tapping it on the table top glass, staring at the white, the plains and heaps and dusty bounds.
“It’s bigger,” he said. “I suppose.”
“It exists for the car.”
“Is it bigger?”
“They were made for each other. It’s the natural habitat, really, the pure expression. What other city has this? The pure expression.”
“I think the Italians would disagree.”
“And the Swiss,” he said, carving the air with a hand. “In the Alps the roads are ribbon thin and winding.”
“In Los Angeles they drive one block to buy milk.”
They did the lines and went silent for a while, Johnny rotating the bottom of his glass against the table, watching the remaining rum tip and swill in the bowl, Marie lighting a cigarette, blowing smoke rings and Irish waterfalls, enjoying herself getting high and watching him think. Johnny finished his drink and squinted at her.
“Is that a car thing or a people thing, one block to buy milk?”
She said, “They’re inseparable. That’s the point.” It wasn’t like her to speak this way. She was trying not to laugh or talk about her dad.
“You know,” he said, “in Rome the car is like a second language. In some areas they speak more car than Italian. Celebrations, condolences, disputes. There are phrases, meanings, ways of meaning, things that can’t be translated because there isn’t any other, other way to say it. It doesn’t translate. Large sections of life discussed only in car horn.”
“ ‘The talk is always New York.’ ”
“And not only the horn. The headlamps, the brake lights, the way you take a turn or how you park. The skilled reader knows whether you’re married with children just by how you overtake. Speed, proximity, the context of the street. The skilled reader sees you approach the Colosseum and knows, instantly, who you are and what you’re about. Near intimate details of life at that point.”
Marie sat back on her elbows and unfolded her legs, peeling each out straight and stretching.
Johnny said, “They see you coming.”
She lifted one leg higher than was required, drawing it down, crossed at the knee over the other.
“You know, that’s the car, you know, when it reaches that point, that level of intuition and understanding. The skilled reader sees and knows, speaks and sees and reads and knows.”
Marie didn’t know him very well, in fact for only a few hours, but she guessed he talked like this most of the time. It was how they’d met, earlier in the night. Johnny talking to some people and her close by, listening, thinking, thinking who is this guy. Marie had stood next to him getting a beer and now it was his apartment at midnight. A musician, he’d said. And that made some kind of sense. He’d said, let’s go to mine, I live like four blocks from here. She lived a train ride away and had missed her last train. This fact seemed somehow essential, an element the experience required. You didn’t go to a stranger’s place and take the last train home.
They talked and smoked and finished the coke and Johnny got up and went out to buy more. Marie lay on her back on the floor a while, listening to the street and tapping her foot to whatever song it was on the radio. She let her gaze fall loose over the objects in the room. The TV was on without sound. Some show with people dressed up as animals running an assault course or the like. They kept falling, these people, over and off things, down things, into things, as things, things that kept falling while trying to run and climb in the costumes and the mud. A dog collided with a chicken on the downhill tyre slope. The camera cut to disappointed loved ones watching from a bleacher to the side. There was a wine bottle holding a candle on top of the TV. There were wine bottles all over, upright, on their side, huddled in dimness in corners, under furniture, by the skirting. She counted five shoes from her position, each without their other. She got up to go to the bathroom, pausing on her way back in the doorway, leaning against the frame. A TV, a couch, some mismatched wooden chairs. She moved into the centre of the room. A low table, a desk lamp on the floor. She went to the hallside wall and took small steps clockwise round the room. Peeling paper, odd stains and small burns, smudges and finger marks near the switches that didn’t switch, near the pinned up photos and cuttings and magazine pages, one mainly unused shelving unit, books in floor-stacks and piles, half-burned candles, one fitted closet, mainly unused, a tall window and battered aircon box, plant pot full of dry soil on the ledge, cigarette butts stuffed into several brimming trays, stuffed into any container that could serve the same purpose, in mugs and glasses, on plates and in one shoe, the main door with three locks on it, three locks and a chain. She went quickly to the kitchen and then back to the bathroom, basically a toilet and a shower, a sink with taps that twisted for an age before the water dribbled out. She went through the livingroom to the bedroom and opened the wardrobe, the drawers, the drawers in the desk, the bedside cabinet, the large chest with the cushion on top, the three shoe boxes at the end of the bed, the plastic storage crate in the bottom of the wardrobe, the plastic storage crate beneath the bed. Beneath the bed she found an acoustic guitar, generic, light brown, missing three stings.
Johnny had been gone a full hour. She thought about going to look from the window, but it seemed wrong somehow, in some way against her idea of the event, that she might be seen from outside standing within that glowing frame—the woman at the window waiting for the man.
She walked round the living room, mindful now of her place among things. She picked up her shoes and put them on an empty shelf. She took one shoe off the shelf and put it behind the TV. She pushed the table round ninety degrees. She dragged the couch to the opposite wall. A song she liked came on the radio and Marie moved quickly about the apartment, picking up things and putting them somewhere else, sometimes trying three or four places before it felt right, sometimes putting an object back where it was found, citing lack of inspiration or some other wrong kind of vibe. It was an impulsive activity, one that worked with haste or did not work at all. She didn’t know exactly what it meant, but the more she moved things the better it felt. The gesture was total, made sense within itself.
She removed her clothes down to her underwear. This would lessen the impact of the image whenever he got back. You go out and come back and she’s there in her underwear moving the furniture around. The half-naked woman run amok; a funny thing to tell his friends. And, only a half-step from sex—talking, laughing, fucking on the floor. She picked up her clothes and put them in the fridge. She sat on the couch and lit her last cigarette. The early weather report came on, promising strong northerlies and angular rain. Marie lay sideways with a blanket and her legs tucked up to her body.
It was early afternoon and light hung stale in the apartment. Marie woke up and tried to think about the night. She said his name, Johnny. She said it more than once. She went saying his name from room to room. She said his name and thought his name, hoping some form of the word might make it true.
She went to the window and looked for him a while. The traffic was there, as ever, blaring and blurred in the rain-streak of the glass. Car light, light from the street-level stores, from the offices and apartments above, light in long pools and streaming chasers, in glittering dabs and smears and flecks, light the city’s underflesh, shimmering and exposed. Marie watched the street fade as the window fogged with breath. She drew a small rectangle lengthways on the glass. Closing one eye, she aligned the shape with a busy section of the street. Cars went through it, enlivened for a moment before dulled again by fog, and slowly the rectangle began to steam and cloud and rejoin the larger patch.
Marie remembered to take her clothes from the fridge before she left.
[Note: this version is slightly different from the version shortlisted by The White Review]