Quarter-Tank of Gas, by Rebecca Jones-Howe
The waitress uses the same tone that my childhood therapist used to. “So, Henry,” she says, “Are you going to order from the senior’s menu tonight?”
My gaze drops to my open menu and the elastic string of my birthday hat rolls between the sags of my double chin.
I’ve been dreading this birthday since my hair started receding.
I order the Ultimate Burrito and everybody laughs. The people around the table are acquaintances, coworkers, people who really only knew me as The Numbers Guy before I retired. They used to give me forms and receipts and bullshit. Now they order me ridiculous shots. The waitress brings each one with a grin, her pink lips like glossy plastic, too shiny to look at. The shots have names like Gorilla Snot and Liquid Steak and Motor Oil, and everybody laughs when I do them.
The restaurant stereo plays loud songs with heavy bass and lyrics about London, New York, Paris, sex and excess. I do a Flatliner and the neon lights start to meld with the retro movie posters on the walls.
“Maybe we should take it easy on him,” somebody says.
I pound my fist on the table. “You all know that I own a fucking Porsche,” I remind them.
My old boss slaps his hand over my shoulder. “Trying to pretend you’re not on the way to the retirement home, Henry? It’s okay to admit it, you know.”
I shrug him off.
“You’re just in denial,” Paul says. He’s the other accountant who always sat across from me at the office, with his thick black hair always slicked back.
“Hey, fuck you, Paul,” I say. “Fuck you and your damn hair dye.”
“I don’t dye my hair,” he says.
Carol, the secretary, laughs. “I don’t think you’re in the position to make accusations like that, Henry.” She nods at the bald spot on the top of my head.
“The birthday hat covers it perfectly,” Paul says.
“Fuck you all,” I say. “You don’t know me.”
They all start laughing. The joke is that I’ve become The Grumpy Old Man.
After dinner, everyone passes me my gifts. The throbbing bass from the sound system reverberates through my fingers as I open the Whoopie cushion, the cane, the 30-day pill organizer, the bingo hall membership, the adult diapers. The waitress comes back with a cake, its sixty-five candles casting a glow over her chest. Her tits bubble over her low-neck vest, skin smooth like stretched latex, a pair of fully-inflated birthday balloons, gently-tanned.
“Attention everyone!” she calls, her voice too perky. “We have a very special birthday in the restaurant. Henry here is sixty-five today!”
The entire restaurant breaks into a fit of heckling and jokes. The waitress gets them all to sing Happy Birthday, and then everyone waits for me to gather my breath.
I fail to blow out all the candles.
Paul smacks my back as we file out of the restaurant. “You okay to drive, or have all those shots taken their toll on you?”
“I’m just going to walk it off,” I say.
“You sure?” Carol asks. “Do you want me to call a cab for you?”
“I can call my own damn cab,” I say.
They both hesitate before digging out their keys, and I turn and stumble down the sidewalk to my Porsche. Its silver body gleams under the street lights, and I unlock the door and hurl the bag of gifts inside. The empty street gets blurry. I slump against the car. Above me, the height of the sky is an empty span of black.
The waitress walks by. Her footsteps slow on the sidewalk. She touches my shoulder and I flinch.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
I stand up straight and grumble.
“Look,” she says. “I’m sorry about all that. You know how people like to joke about seniors.”
“Since when is being old something to joke about?”
“Nobody really means any of that,” she says.
“Oh, sure,” I say, shrugging. My childhood therapist used to tell me to elaborate my feelings. But then in the fourth grade I became The Dumb Feelings Kid, so I stopped talking about myself altogether.
“Is this yours?” the waitress asks, motioning to the Porsche.
“It’s nice,” she says. She rounds the side of the car and runs her hand over the curve of the roof. She looks inside the open door. “Nice,” she says. “You’ve got leather seats and everything. What’s the stereo like?”
“I don’t use it much,” I say.
“This guy I knew in high school got a Porsche from his parents as a graduation present,” she says, “but he crashed it after a week.”
“Sounds like an idiot,” I say.
“He used to dare all the girls to try to fit in the trunk. I was the only one who ever could.”
“You couldn’t fit in this trunk,” I say.
“Open it,” she says. “Let me see.”
I shake my head, feeling vertigo.
“Come on,” she says, bobbing on her toes. Her tits bounce under the flickering streetlight.
I pull my key from my pocket and open the back.
“I bet I could fit in there,” she says.
“You couldn’t fit in there.”
“I bet you a hundred dollars I can fit in there.”
“I don’t know,” I say.
She smirks, her pink lips teasing. My cheeks start to burn, start to blush. I can’t tell if the vertigo is from the alcohol anymore. This feels like when I met both my ex-wives. Before I was The Husband Who Never Shared His Feelings. Before I was twice-divorced with no kids. Before I became The Depressed Middle-Aged Single Guy.
“You don’t need to prove anything to me,” I say.
“Come on. Live a little.” She pats my shoulder and hands me her purse. I hold it at the corner instead of by the strap, and I watch her skirt ride up as she steps into the trunk. She bends in half, pushes her ass toward the back of the trunk and pulls her knees to her chest. She tilts her head into the last cavity of space. She smiles.
“If this is living it doesn’t look right,” I say.
“Try to close the door,” she says.
I lower the lid. The lock catches, a gentle click.
“You totally owe me a hundred bucks,” she says. Her voice sounds softer from inside the trunk.
“Well, you got me,” I say. A chuckle vibrates up my throat and I draw a breath of evening air. It cools my lungs, compliments the alcohol in my veins. This is how I used to feel when before my stomach blocked my view of my dick. This is how I used to feel when the bullshit wasn’t bogging me down. Puffed chest, standing proud. I pat my hand over the trunk. “How about we go for a ride?” I ask.
“What?” she asks.
“Let’s go for a ride,” I say. “Around the block. Double or nothing.”
“Can you just let me out?” she asks.
“No, please.” There’s rustling inside the trunk. “Seriously, it’s not funny anymore.”
“Come on,” I say. “Live a little. You’ll get your money.” I bob on my toes, using muscles I haven’t felt in a while. My fingers tense. I flex them, feeling all my tendons tighten and release. It’s an uneasy feeling, a sense of euphoria, tingling in my fingertips.
The waitress pounds from inside the trunk. “Please,” she screams.
I pull my key from the lock and stumble around to the driver’s side of the car, tossing the waitress’ purse into the passenger seat with the rest of the gag gifts. I drown her out with the engine, ignited to life, a growl, and I feel the way I’m supposed to.
I’m The Man.
I seek through the radio, finding a dance station with the same loud music from the restaurant, heavy 4/4 beats and repetition. I turn the volume up. The sound throbs through my nerves. Reverberations shake through the steering wheel. I grip down and make the right turn onto the highway. The radio plays thumping bass for an hour and I finally get the point.
I’ve only got a quarter tank of gas left. The waitress’ screams penetrate the music, turning it into a melody of adrenaline I thought I’d never feel again. The black on the highway becomes the unknown instead of the end.
I pull over at the next rest stop and kill the engine. The silence looms. There’s a single light over the gravel parking lot, the restrooms located in the small building off to the side. A car drives past, its lights blocked by the patch of trees and bushes. Its engine is a distant sigh.
The Porsche ticks, cooling down, a metronome counting the pace of the cries from the trunk. Timed right, the waitress sounds like she’s singing Happy Birthday in A Capella moans. This time, it’s a moment worth preserving. At this point I don’t have any choice.
I get out of the car. Gravel shifts under my feet. The scraping rocks count the four heavy paces it takes to round the car. The waitress’ crying subsides.
“Hello?” she calls. Her voice sounds desperate.
My heart pounds. I put my hand over the trunk, spreading my shaking fingers, leaving smears on the grey finish.
“Is that – are you, are you there?” she gasps. “Please. Please let me out. I can’t move. I can’t breathe.”
Touching the metal, it’s like touching dead flesh, smooth and cold. “You know,” I say, “this is sort of like my tenth birthday. For some reason I was scared of having a double-digit age.” I laugh and shake my head. “I was walking home from school and I found this stray cat. I took it home in a shoe box. It whined the whole way, trying to get out.”
The waitress starts crying again.
“I drowned the cat in the bathtub,” I say. “I left it in the box so it wouldn’t scratch me. Even under the water I could still hear it. You wouldn’t think cats could sound so deformed, like a speaker that was short-circuiting. The shoe box ended up getting soggy, and the cardboard crumpled around the cat. And then I was just squishing the cat. Its body was limp, like it was just some sort of toy.”
Sweat beads on the back of my neck. “My mom sent me to a therapist,” I say. “The therapist had a nice office. Funny, I remember her office, but I can’t for the life of me remember her name. We talked about my parents, about the few friends I had. I got into a lot of fights back then. Apparently I was a Troubled Kid. That’s what the therapist told me. She said that talking lets you release things. You know how it is, though. You get older and then you just forget to talk.”
There’s nothing coming from the trunk.
“The same stereotypes follow you everywhere, you know.”
Another car passes beyond the trees and I trace the lights until they fade into the black.
“Look,” I say. “None of this was meant to happen. It was just a joke. It’s just been a long time since I talked to somebody. I was accountant before all this. Accountants don’t really talk.”
The waitress doesn’t respond. I ball my fist and pound, making a dent.
“You’re just scared,” she says.
My fingers curl against the car.
“Scared of what?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer.
I dig my key out of my pocket. I open the trunk. She’s still in the same position. She looks up at me, her eyes bloodshot, her face red. “Scared of what?” I ask again.
She lifts her hand and starts to climb out but I slam the trunk over her elbow. The sound is blunt. Her scream fills the dead night, fills me with adrenaline.
If this is living it’s worth being on the run for.
The trunk opens and the waitress flinches, a staggered kitten. I grab her arm and yank her out of the back. Her body falls hard, scattering gravel. She tries to straighten her legs, tries to get on her feet, but she collapses. All that comes from her throat is a moan.
“I know what that feels like,” I say. “When I lie in bed for too long all my limbs fall asleep and cramp up.”
I reach for her and my bad knee gives. I collapse on top of her. My elbow hits her stomach. She heaves and shudders. I lean over her and grab her neck. Her throat is small, hard, fitting in my palm, and I press down, pushing her against the gravel. Her eyes widen, and she reaches up and pries at my grasp, her nails sunk into my wrists. The sting only makes me push harder. I kneel over her chest. Her gags sound like a clogged garden fountain. Saliva floods past her lips.
I straighten my arms and push harder.
Under the lights, her eyes roll back. Her grasp goes limp.
Her name tag reads: Allie. I pull the tag off and slip it into my shirt pocket. I stand, taking a moment to survey her body. Her gaze looks up into the black sky, scared, timid. Her hair’s a mess, fanned out over the gravel, her arms sprawled, her skirt riding up.
The Waitress. That’s who she is.
I gather my breath, bending down, grabbing her hands. Her fingers slip through mine, so I hold her by the wrists instead. They’re like twigs in my sweaty grasp. Her head sags when I lift her, and I pull her toward the cover of bushes on the side of the highway. My heart pounds. She’s heavier than she looks. I drop her halfway, and her head bangs against the rocks.
I wipe my forehead. My muscles strain when I take her again. My groan echoes as I yank her into the bushes. The light in the parking lot traces through the trees, casts a glow on her chest. I reach out and grope one of her tits. Her skin’s still warm, youthful, and I squeeze her balloon, imagining the skin popping.
Another car passes on the other side of the trees. I roll the waitress into the sludge of wet leaves and walk back to the Porsche. A breeze blows through my white hair, rustling it. I reach up and realize that I’m still wearing my birthday hat.
I leave it on.
Inside the Porsche, I turn the key and rev the engine. The stereo reverberates through my body, counting beats in fours. The pace is ominous, matching the tone of the night.
Rebecca Jones-Howe quit university to pursue of her dream of writing dirty stories with “literary” merit. Her work has appeared in L’Allure des Mots and Solarcide, among others. She lives in Kamloops, British Columbia, and can be stalked online at RebeccaJonesHowe.com
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Tags: alcohol, celebrations, murder, parties, Rebecca Jones-Howe