The alarm went off at 5 and she hit the snooze button few times before pulling herself into the shower. The showerhead had lost its connection with the wall and hung at an odd angle, spraying the shower curtain and the floor unless she held it overhead and directed the flow. She switched hands to wash under her arms, shaking with fatigue and leaning on the wall with her elbow. The towel had been left in a wet heap by the door and after patting her body dry with she folded it neatly and threw it over the curtain rod to dry.
She dressed in the dark to avoid waking her boyfriend Travis. He was curled into a ball on the mattress, his hands up by his face and his pants still on under a thin sheet. She lit her first cigarette and felt the nicotine rush over her tiredness. The cigarette hung from her lips as she tied her hair up, looking at him in the faint light from the street outside. Was this what devotion felt like? A backache and burning eyes? “Maybe for Loretta Lynn,” she thought to herself and snorted smoke through her nose.
She rolled her car window down to smoke and the glass rattled around in the door as she pulled up to the diner. The day was already hot and she could smell the grease in the vat behind the store, mingling with the smell of her dirty hair and the asphalt. Lake Charles had always smelled like shit to her. She thought about New Orleans as she prepared the diner to open, making tea and wrapping up silverware. They had gone to a fancy restaurant the day they’d arrived in New Orleans, about a year ago. They’d heard there were shipping jobs and he’d taken her out to celebrate their move. She had crawfish for the first time, and they drank rum and walked down the old streets.
“These old houses are so cute, I bet we can find a sublet or something.”
“God, don’t worry about that right now, just enjoy the city.”
“I am, it’s beautiful, but—.”
“You look good in Jackson Square,” he interrupted and kissed her and wrapped his hand in her hair and pulled gently. They sat on the side of the river in a park and drank, holding each other and watching the barges go by. That night they slept in the car with their belongings, already out of cash.
He’d gotten a union job cleaning up a warehouse for in Lake Charles and she had followed him there, getting a job as a waitress at a local diner. She shoplifted a low cut shirt from Walmart and showed up at the diner every day for a week. They had connived acquaintances into letting them shower at their houses and parked behind her work until they had enough for a small apartment in a tenement. She was prepping the kitchen when her boss walked in.
“Morning sunshine. You look rough. Boyfriend keep you up all night?”
“No, Stan. I had to close up alone last night,” she said, rubbing her forehead as she shook her head.
“Well cheer up, Ana. Smiling won’t hurt anybody.”
Chauvinism must be easy, she thought, or he wouldn’t have the energy for it in the mornings. She tied her apron tighter under her bust and followed him to the office in back, hanging in the doorway. Rubbing a fingertip up the cheap wooden doorframe, she tried to look uninterested as he pulled out a baggy of white powder. He broke up the powder with a bank card and arranged it into lines before looking up at her, “Come sit on my lap and do a bump with me.”
Things had been looking ok for a few months, until Travis got into an argument at work and quit. She picked up extra shifts to help make ends meet, but her boss had hired another girl. The new girl was younger and prettier but she was a prude. Stan started having Ana work in the kitchen anyway. She still made her waitress’s wage so she leaned on Stan until he made the new girl tip her out as a busser. Travis got a loan from a friend of a friend because nobody else would loan money to somebody without a bank account. He had made a big deal out of paying both their shares of the rent that month. It had been cute, him playing the role of provider.
Working in the back wasn’t bad. Nobody helped her, and but until the cook got there she could set everything up as she pleased. Before she left at night, she washed all the dishes, stacking them neatly and covering them from dust. She folded the checkered tablecloths pretended to be a housewife. Most mornings when she arrived, Stan had been there overnight and left dishes in the sink and crumbs on the counter. Before she could prep food, she’d have to clean up again. Those mornings, she would have to double check the inventory and claim the discrepancies had been dropped or sent back. Most of her day was spent inhaling chlorinated steam from the sanitizing sink, but for a moment before opening, she could stand outside and smoke and rest, as if this were her own place and all were right in her world.
Stan’s regulars would come by and have a cup of coffee before he escorted them into his office for business transactions. Sometimes she hung out in the back to see if they felt like sharing. They liked her. She was funny and let her breasts hang out of her shirt. She was at the end of her shift when she got a call on the restaurant’s phone.
“Ana, baby, I need your help.”
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
“I need you to make bail and get me out of here, they picked me up for pawning some power tools.”
She wondered where he’d gotten power tools; he wasn’t very handy. He started to cry on the other end. “Whose were they?” she asked.
“The neighbors, and they called him, the asshole pawnbroker is his buddy or something, I don’t even think that’s legal.” The phlegm in his voice was clearly audible now.
“You did what? They still had his name written on them, or what?” She had been kidding, but there was damning pause on the line.
“Don’t yell at me Ana, I don’t know what else to do. I can’t repay that guy and he says he’ll kill us both.
She slammed the phone down. A customer gave her a knowing look that made her want to scream, but she didn’t. Instead, she went into the back and plunged her hands into the hot, stinking dishwater and scrubbed ground beef off another customer’s plate. Assuming the guy were a legitimate threat, he might know where she worked. Her car out front was nondescript enough, but she stayed in the back harassing Stan for her paycheck early. She had a hundred dollars in a sock under her mattress, if the guy hadn’t gotten there yet.
Her shift ended at 10 and she had her cigarette lit before she was out the door. The sun had just gone down and her clothes stuck to her, oily and damp with humidity. Hot air assaulted her when she opened the car door, stored up in the upholstery even after dark. She turned the key in the ignition, and adjusted the towel under her to avoid touching the hot seat. Her hands shook as she pulled her car from the parking lot to the back of the building, next to Stan’s old Cavalier, and left it running.
That night she packed up their things into grocery bags and purses and in great armfuls, dumping everything into the back of her car. She left his drawers mostly untouched, yawning out of the cabinet and spewing magazines. There were still clothes hanging from hangers in the closet when she left the place and she left the door unlocked– no reason to bust up somebody’s door over her problems. She slept in the car, parked out behind a Walmart right outside of town and made bail for Travis that morning.
As they left the station, stepping into the heat was enough to make her want to step back inside, wait until it passed. Travis had his arms crossed across his chest, his thumbs protruding from under his arms, staring at his feet.
“I don’t suppose you want to tell me what got you into this.”
“Fuck no. Not right now.”
“But with the names still on them? What were you thinking?” It might have been the stupidity of the act that angered her the most.
“I told you I didn’t want to talk about it. Besides, anybody in my situation would have done the same thing.”
She shook her head, rubbing her forehead again. Yes, she thought, anybody stupid enough to have gotten into his situation would have done the same. Travis didn’t say anything when he saw their things in piles in the back seat, just gripped his seat belt with both hands as if to hold himself in.
“So where are we headed?”
“Why Lake Charles?”
They drove through the night, only stopping for gas. Travis was asleep in the passenger seat and they were well into Texas when she saw a wildfire burning out on the plain. She threw her cigarette out the window and breathed in the grass smoke, settling into her seat as if she were driving an incinerator and melting. The flames might have been a mile off, but she could see the glow wrapping across the landscape for longer than she believed. It passed away from the road in a sweeping arc and over the course of many miles and crept over the horizon. She thought it might go on forever and she could not drive out of it. The smoke was filled with the glow from the burn and the sky was radiant long past when she could see the flames and it left her bereft, having lost a sweet dream.
In the darkness again she rubbed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, deciding it was his turn to drive. He turned the radio on until she yelled at him and she slept fitfully with the hot air coming in from the window. Around dawn she woke to find they were in the middle of a black sand desert and she thought the world had ended.
Around Albuquerque the car started making a racket, and by the time they got to Arizona it was sputtering. She thought about her boss leaving the restaurant the night before, sniffling and stuffy, and realizing his car window was gone. She’d taken everything, even his cigarettes. Even his Altoids— she was like the Grinch on Christmas Eve. She’d left a voice mail to his wife from the personal cell phone he left in his car. She’d called his mother. Her car might not make it to California, but she’d put over a thousand miles between herself and fast food wage slavery, 80-hour weeks at a grill and a check that bounces. Her card got declined at a gas station so she gave the attendant some cash and hoped the car would make it past Las Angeles.
There was an old house in the distance when the car caught and tripped and died. It loomed, unpainted and naked as a tower. He popped the hood and stood with his hands on his hips.
“Maybe it’s a belt. I can fix this with a cable or something,” he said with authority.
“Yeah, maybe.” She eyed the radiator cap and watched the heat rise up off it in the airless afternoon. She hoped he wouldn’t try to check the liquids, but she didn’t warn him, either.
The slat over the door didn’t even block her from reaching through and opening the door, ducking under the recovered wood barrier and entering the house. From the window she watched Travis staring at the engine, not touching it, arms across his chest and his back to her. It looked like the house had been abandoned for years. An empty juice glass sat on the counter, lined with dust blown in from outside. The gritty desert dust made her homesick for the thick red clay back in Kentucky, dust brushed off the seat of her jeans so fine and powdery it felt like velvet.
In the back room with a broken window, there was a bare bed frame and she lay down next to it. She hooked her finger around the shoulder strap of her bra and rested her head on her arm. She had always been good at sleeping on floors. The coke was wearing off and with no impending alarm clock or dishes to wash, she fell asleep and dreamed, the kinks in her brain unraveling into something less tangible and more acceptable.
The heat woke her, hitting the roof hard in the airless day. Her body ached and perspired as if a fever had broken. The night had passed without her and she sat up too fast, sending pain into her eyes and down her neck. She looked for her bedmate, for any disruptions in the dust on the floorboards, but he if he had visited the room, he had left no evidence. A breeze drifted through the stagnant structure through the open door. She stood and looked around. The door had been closed when she’d left, but now hung slightly open.
She wrapped her arms around herself, still sticky from the night and looked for her car. She feigned incredulity when she recovered her backpack from the side of the road. But of course he’d left. Some person had come and given him coolant or called a tow truck and he was gone. She reached down into her sock and felt the money still there, and picked up her bag and walked back to the house. In the kitchen, she pulled a chair up to the dusty table and folded her clothes, smoking and using the juice jar as an ashtray, humming.
She tried to plot her course, trying to remember the map she’d seen at the gas station, the names of the cities, but she couldn’t help but fixate on the exact angle of the shirts as she folded them again and again. She wished she had a fitted sheet to fold neatly, and spread out over a bed. She sat in the hot kitchen and looked out the window, marooned in the heat. She wondered if he’d made it to California, and what it was like there.