Terri leans against the cotton candy stand with her chest thrusting out for everyone to see. She’s at the Route 5 carnival with her girlfriends. The roller coaster and Ferris wheel blink against a lavender sky. Terri takes a free candy apple from a pimply boy. Another gives her free tickets to ride the roller coaster. She raises her eyebrows without saying thank you, turns to her girlfriends, and they all laugh at the boys. What a fun day, what an exhilarating day to be alive.
The cowboy sees them. He sees her. He’s relaxed on a bench, chugging whiskey from a Styrofoam cup. The cowboy’s dirty hat shades his sun-blotched face.
She tosses her hair to the side, tells her friends good-bye—she must be getting back home. The paved road stretches out before her. It’s the same road she walks to and from town almost every day. Bruised clouds roll above nearby fields and little flashes of lightning flicker inside them like a dying heartbeat. She wants to get home but lives about a mile away. Terri glances back at the carnival where she left her friends, the rides’ neon lights rolling and darting like police cruisers.
She throws her cotton candy into some brush on the side of the road and walks briskly up Route 5. She passes the railroad where a group of kids are placing coins on the tracks to flatten them. She forgot her sweater and a cool wind is picking up. It grazes her soft legs like calloused fingers she hates, saying, No, No, I’m not interested. Please drop me off here.
She notices how quiet it is till she hears the train in the distance. The chimes and whistles and screams disappear with each step away from the carnival. A shot of electricity slices the landscape like a cracking whip, and the train-track kids scatter with the wind. The rain turns on like a fire hose, and her sandy-blond hair parted down the middle turns mop-wet. Her feet slip inside her sandals. Two headlights up ahead—a truck—Dad? The rain spits in her face and makes it difficult to see who’s driving the truck.
The truck stops. She squints to see the cowboy thrust the truck door open and pat the dry seat next to him. He’s smoking a rolled cigarette, says, A lady shouldn’t be walking all alone. I’ll take you home—if you want—only if you want.
Never accept rides, Dad told her, under any circumstances.
The cowboy says, Come on, sweetheart; I’ll take you home.
She’s shivering with mascara dripping down her cheeks. The sky cracks and pops and down comes sleet the size of quarters, and they sting and burn and bruise her skin.
She gets in the dry truck that smells like tobacco and barn animals. The fuzzy radio is kept low. The cowboy spits out the window and turns the wipers on high. He bounces up and down along the pock-marked road. She notices his red, peeling nose like skinned cattle. He notices her creamy legs. He noticed them when she stood by the cotton candy stand. One of his hands holds the steering wheel while the other grips a bottle of whiskey. She doesn’t wear her lap seat belt. Dad would be mad. On the floor, by her muddy feet, is a lasso or a rope of some sort. She figures he must wrestle animals, catch cattle, or is a horse wrangler, maybe. He knows good rope. He coils it around his calloused hands. He pulls at it, snaps it to test its strength.
No choice, no choice at all, Dad. She leans over, picks up the rope, and says, You a wrangler or something?
Nope, he says.
And she says, Oh.
A cigarette sticks to his cracked lips as he speaks. His teeth are like broken pebbles. He hands her the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s and says, Go on, sweetheart; go on, baby; take a sip, go on, just take a sip…
She stares at the bottle’s mouth glistening with the cowboy’s spit. She wants to wipe it off but doesn’t. She lifts the whiskey bottle to her glossy lips, both hands wrapped around like it’s a baby bottle. The amber liquid burns her throat and she coughs. The cowboy turns the truck around.
I think you’re going the wrong way, she says. I live the other way.
Hush, sweetheart; I know. I know all about you, he says as they drive past the wet, deserted carnival.
She struggles to open the window but it’s stuck. The handle won’t turn, and he says, Been meaning to get that there fixed.
He drives a ’72 Chevy truck, steel gray with a boxy, wide-sneering front end.
She tries to return a smile, but her cheeks, lips, and eyes twitch. He takes a deep swig from the whiskey bottle and nestles it between his legs.
Here, lemme help, he says.
He reaches across her lap to open the window.
Damn thing, he says.
The window finally cracks open with a cool, hushing wind.
When the dream was better than reality, but now your eyelids have been cut off, and you’ll never get back to the dream again.
She manages a grin but notices his dead expression. Her knees tremble, staring ahead toward a cluster of darkened hills. She hears Dad’s cautioning voice, she feels the cowboy’s rope grazing her wet feet, and she sees the promise of something unknown just beyond those darkened hills.
By Jenn Powers
Previously Published in Diverse Voices Quarterly
Volume 4 Issue 16
WRITER & VISUAL ARTIST