By Patricia Kilday
Ray still expected to eat the way they had back home. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes, chicken and dumplings, pork chops and candied yams. Food that had to be simmered and stirred, scraped and baked, gravied and babied. The kitchenette grew steamier as the potatoes boiled. The stovetop was no bigger than a laptop; the sink was the size of a toaster oven; the fridge was the size of a carry-on suitcase. Life in miniature. Everything diminished.
Except for herself, two pants sizes larger.
Shirley was stripped to tank top and underpants, but still sweat swizzled down her neck, puddled between her breasts, turned her hair to wet strings. Black dots like midges swarmed before her eyes, and she had to clutch the counter for support.
The dizziness passed. Not heat stroke, then. She speared the ham steak, sliced it with a serrated knife. The knife slipped in her sweat-slick hand, slashing her thumb. Blood welled, the cut instantly throbbing. It took four Band-Aids to stop the bleeding.
Ray had missed the bloodletting. He was sprawled in the recliner, strictly observing the RV’s No-pry Zone. What happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen. Food appeared on his plate; he ate the food. Not his concern how it got there.
Blood seeped through the bandages, oozing into the gravy. But gravy was basically blood anyway, Shirley reasoned, watching as the stuff thickened, turned the color of wet sand. She poured it into a bowl, stuck in a spoon, whomped it onto the table. Once she’d prided herself on her tablecloths, her china, her water glasses, her hand-sewn napkins, her centerpieces of fresh flowers. Now it was all plastic knives and forks, cardboard cups, paper plates that still smelled faintly of the sulphur mills that had stamped them outeverything flung catch-as-catch-can onto the dinette table.
“It’s on,” she announced, her voice as beige as the gravy.
Afterwards, Shirley scraped the remnants of supper into a plastic bag and washed the dishes at the hobbit-sized sink. Tepid water drizzled from the faucets at the speed of melting Dreamsicles. Exhausted by this simple bit of housekeeping, she sank into the vehicle’s built-in sofa, her sweat-soaked underpants clinging to her buttocks, the cheap nylon of the sofa cushions scratching the backs of her thighs. Raking her wilted, long-overdue-for-a-perm bangs out of her eyes, she gazed with loathing around the compact interior of the Winnebago. It felt like a cell in the kind of prison where the thumbscrews were velvet-lined and the guards employed psychological torture. Zo you refuse to talk, eh? Igor—bring in za olive green chairs, za brown shag carpet, za particleboard cabinets!
She picked up The Tipping Point, its pages smudged with her sweaty fingerprints, her place marked with a dog-eared postcard. Although she rarely read non-fiction, Shirley found herself caught up in the author’s easy-to-digest prose. Small things quietly built up until they reached critical mass, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, and then quite abruptly tilted in a new, unexpected direction. But tonight, Shirley snapped the book shut after reading half a page. Reading made her eyeballs sweat.
“Why don’t we do some sightseeing?” she cried, suddenly bouncing to her feet as though she could convince Ray by taking him by surprise. “I noticed a park on the bluffs above the river as we drove in—”
Ray looked up, irritated. “Cripes, Shirl—by the time I get this monster unhooked, drive it down the road and park it—”
“Not driving. We could walk.”
“Walk?” He looked at her as though she’d suggested a sex change operation.
“Or a movie. There’s a multiplex two blocks from here. And it’ll be air-conditioned.”
“Look, I’ve been driving all day. I just want to relax. That too much to ask?” He turned back to his re-run of Dancing with the Stars, an odd obsession for a man who’d refused to do a box step at his own wedding. The subject was closed. The Great Oz had spoken.
The serrated knife in the dish drainer shimmered at the edges of her vision. How would it feel to plunge that knife deep into Ray’s freckled, meaty back? Shirley blinked the vision away. Turned and stalked out of the Winnebago, craving a dramatic, noisy exit. But the door had rubberized edges and produced an anemic schuntk rather than a satisfying clunk. She stomped across the parking lot, bound for where?
She couldn’t go to the movies by herself, not with dark coming on in a strange town. So, Walmart by default, or one of the piglets at the Big Box’s teats: Dollar Tree, Pay-Less Shoes, Pay-More Loans, Buncha Junk from China. Shirley lurched to a halt, realizing she was the object of smirks from the couple next door, sprawled on lawn chairs in front of their Airstream. She was still in her underpants. Red-faced, she slunk back into the Winnebago, yanked on shorts, snatched up her purse and—a last second decision—the laundry basket.
Inside Walmart, Shirley tucked the laundry basket into her cart, feeling no more outlandish than some of the other Walmartians wandering the aisles—once, when they’d stopped at a Walmart in Oklahoma, she’d seen an elderly woman whose bare, sagging breasts were tucked into the waistband of her shorts. She wheeled over to the detergent aisle. Laundromat vending machines never worked; you needed to bring your own soap. Here was the detergent, in the aisle with the ironing boards and dishwashing liquids, exactly where it would have been in the Walmart back home. It was as though she’d never left.
What she’d longed for, all those years of clipping articles from the Sunday travel sections, was to go somewhere that was not Xenia, Ohio. A place where the seasons weren’t marked by church suppers, PTO meetings, deer hunting, and waterless cookery parties.
And then, the day after he’d retired from Ohio Tire and Axle, Ray had bought the Winnebago.
Free as birds, Shirl.
His sales pitch. Footloose and fancy free. Go where the wind blows us. Practically pay for itself, what we’ll save on motels. Haul our beds along with us, like snails.
That was hermit crabs, not snails, Shirley thought, but at the time she’d been enchanted at the idea, thrilled that she and Ray were at last going to travel. They’d left Xenia the last week in May. By the first of June, cuteness and coziness had morphed into claustrophobia. The Winnebago became Xenia on wheels, a low-rent version of her former life. Home away from home except for laundry room, dishwasher, air conditioning, hot showers, flower garden, mail or friends. What it did have was twenty-four hour a day Ray.
Shirley had wanted palm trees, houses the colors of oil pastels clinging to a hillside above emerald seas, exotic people who spoke English as though it were a strange liquid, men in white blouses strumming guitars, parrots squawking from flowering hedges, stars prickled out in unfamiliar constellations.
What she’d gotten was the Grand Canyon viewed from a parking lot filled with other RVs, the view of the North Rim obscured by porky tourist backsides. A night in Las Vegas, whose scaled-down pyramids and Roman coliseums were as close as she was ever likely to get to the real thing. Complimentary drinks at a third-rate floor show, twenty dollars’ worth of slot machine tokens, a headache from cigarette smoke.
The air conditioning stopped working east of Amarillo. The shower conked out south of Tulsa. The murderous fantasies began scrolling across her mind as they were hauling across eastern Colorado’s endless plains. Had pioneer wives in Conestoga wagons entertained similar fantasies? Wives enduring the same numbing horizon day after unending day, sweating through their sunbonnets, grieving over babies who’d died of typhoid or scarlet fever along the trail, breathing dust, brooding over the homes they’d left behind at the insistence of husbands who hankered for elbow room, grimly vowing that if he cracked that bullwhip one more time she was going to wrap it around his stupid red neck? Her fantasies had all been variations on murdering Ray.
Once they’d reached Los Angeles—tar pits, star tours, gridlock on the highway, they’d turned around and started back east. Stopping at a Walmart every night to circle their wagons with the other RVs, suck the juice from the local power supply, and restock the food and water. She’d lost track of where they were. Kansas? Nebraska?
No, Missouri. Boonville, Shirley recalled as she approached the checkout, listening to the twangy voices of the customers. She’d liked what she’d seen of the town as they’d rolled through it earlier today—red brick buildings above the Missouri River, but its outskirts were just more cookie cutter copies of every strip mall on every interstate in the country.
Shirley paid for the detergent and left the meat locker chill of the Walmart for the body-buffeting humidity of outdoors. Eleven o’clock and still the blacktop simmered through the soles of her flip flops. She felt as though she were walking on chewing gum, the gooey asphalt sucking at her rubber soles, making her think of those poor mastodons stuck forever in La Brea’s treacherous tar pits. There, just down the block, was the twenty-four hour laundromat she’d noted earlier, tucked between a chain hardware and an auto parts store, both businesses closed and dark. The laundromat was called the Suds and Duds, but the sign had been vandalized and now read Duds. The door was warped; the screen slashed. Through it she glimpsed a single customer, a man in farmer overalls thumping a vending machine. Shirley hesitated, wishing there were more customers—chatty young mothers, kids running up and down the aisles. Reluctant to return to the Winnebago, she shrugged aside her qualms, balanced the basket against a hip, and pushed through the door.
The interior was shabbier than the outside. Dented, scratched machines, curling linoleum tiles, broken chairs, drunk-sounding flies bumbling against the windows. She found a working washer, stuffed in her dirty clothes, doled out coins for the slots, and went to find the rest room.
The water-spotted mirror above the sink drew her like a roadside accident. She studied her reflection with horrified fascination. It was like picking at a scab. Lit by the color-leaching fluorescent fixtures, her skin looked like newspapers left out on a beach. Fifty-four. How had she gotten this old? Her wrinkles looked etched in acid, the bags beneath her eyes looked deep enough to plant potatoes. She ought to wear makeup, but it seemed too much effort.
Once she’d been pretty. Big hazel eyes, long, straight brown hair, heart-shaped face. She’d been a Snowball Princess in high school. She could barely remember the boy who’d been her date but still recalled every detail of her outfit, a frothy white strapless dress with a silk rose at the waist. Somehow the Snowball Princess had stepped into the wrong life. Somewhere seventeen-year-old Shirley Brennan lurked in the wings, waiting to begin her real life.
When she returned to the washer her clothes had already cycled to their wrinkled end. Her bras, Ray’s underwear, pajamas, shorts, tank tops—everything was tangled into knotted lumps. She no longer bothered separating darks and whites, so the whole lot was an unappetizing gray. Her turquoise Hawaiian shirt bled into Ray’s gold plaid Bermudas; his red knit shirt muddied her green floral skirt. What did it matter? No one ever saw her or Ray except for the counter help at Kwik Pantries and E-Z Gas stations. Who gives a shit? That would be her new motto, Shirley decided, dumping the wadded clothes into a dryer and sliding in quarters. Commercial dryers shrank her stuff to Barbie clothes—who gives a shit? Fat poodging around her waist like lard in sausage casings—who gives a shit? Ugly clothes don’t fit any more—who gives a shit— toss ‘em out the window. The image of her size 36 Maidenform waving jauntily from the antennae of a tractor trailer quirked her mouth into a smile. At heart, she was an optimist. When life gives you zucchini, dump them on someone’s doorstep and run like hell.
The man in the bibs stood in front of her, fluttering a dollar bill. He was pudgy and pimply; his chest and arms bare beneath the overalls. One of the straps was fastened with a safety pin, and he smelled like unwashed hair.
Shirley fished two quarters from her purse. “You can keep it.”
He accepted the coins, his hands sweaty in the fleeting moment of contact, his eyes slithering damply over her body. He shambled off to the opposite row of washers.
You’re welcome, Shirley nearly corrected—she’d raised two boys—but unease goose- bumped her arms and she said nothing. Not her business. Suddenly she wanted to be out of this place, even if her clothes were still wet.
“Lady,” called the overalls man as she tossed her damp things into her basket. “Something’s wrong with this machine. The red light keeps coming on.”
“You must be unbalanced,” Shirley said. “Your load, I mean.”
“Can you c’mere?”
Shirley hesitated, in her mind already out the door, then sighed, set down her load and came around to his row. No need to be so suspicious; probably the guy wasn’t used to commercial washers. “You just open it up,” she explained, yanking up the washer lid. “And— “
He slammed a meaty arm across her head. She bounced against the washer on the opposite wall and slid to the floor, ears ringing, fireflies spangling her vision, too stunned to decipher what was happening. Then he was hauling her up onto her knees, gripping the back of her head, pressing her face against the coarse denim of his overalls, jerking down his zipper.
“Do me,” he mumbled thickly.
This could not be happening, Shirley thought. Not here in this town whose main street was draped with American flags and petunia planters. Not to a middle-aged woman who wore elastic-waist shorts and eyeglasses on a chain. Not in a place with stray socks caught in the cobwebby crevices between machines and floor fans whooshing lint-frizzed air and copies of Woman’s Day with the recipes ripped out.
His washer buzzed, the End of Cycle signal, startling him; he snagged his zipper in his pubic hair. “Fuck!” He released his grip, fumbled with his fly. Shirley wrenched herself backwards, scrabbling at a laundry cart to haul herself upright, bolted toward the door, pinballing off the sides of the washers, attempting a scream but producing only a breathy wail. He caught up with her near the change machine, snatched the tail of her blouse, reeled her back toward his mauling paws.
Maddened by fear, Shirley wriggled furiously, her blouse ripping apart at the seams, its plastic buttons pinging against the sides of the dryers. His nails gouged into her back as he husked the shirt off her body, spun her toward him. And jerked to an abrupt halt, face inches from hers, his breath hot, smelling of Blackjack gum. He’d snagged his overall strap on the jutting lip of the coin changer. Enraged, he gripped the machine, grunted with effort as he wrenched the entire thing out of the wall.
It took two heartbeats; it was enough. Shirley blundered up the aisle, punched through the door, staggered into the street. She tripped over a motorcycle parked at the curb and went sprawling, burning her knees against the ragged blacktop pavement.
Flag down a car! But the street was dark and empty. Breathing in sobbing gulps, her flip-flops slapping against the pavement, her lungs skewered by hot spears, Shirley hobbled toward the Walmart a hundred impossible feet away. She felt him touch her bare shoulder as she ran past the loading docks at the rear of the store, spun around, screamingno one there. Whirling back, she slammed into the industrial dumpster, its sharp-edged lid slashing her jaw. No pain, nothing, just—get around the side, to the brilliant outer space splash of parking lot lights. There was the Winnebago at this end of the lot, bigger than she remembered it. If only she could get there before her heart burst. Wheezing, bleeding, unsure whether she was hearing her own footsteps or his, she wobbled up to it.
The door was locked. Ray was a locker of doors, a closer of windows, a taker of no chances. She pounded on the door, bruising her fists. She heard him heave out of his chair and stomp across the floor. The safety bolt scraped. Before he’d opened the door all the way, Shirley had vaulted the steps and dived inside.
Explanations, incoherent at first. Shirley hunched in the recliner, curled into a ball, making herself as small as possible. Ray listened, face crunched into a frown. Then, before she could stop him, he bolted out of the trailer. He was going to do something brainless and macho, Shirley thought; he had some mad idea about avenging her honor; he would try to find the overalls man and maybe try to kill him. She needed to stop Ray. Ray was fifty-nine years old; the overalls man was young and strong. What if he had a gun? She had to call the police! She groped for her cell phone, remembered it was in her purse, back in the laundromat. It was their only phone; Ray refused to use cell phones.
Outside, the clunk of fixtures being undone. Gas, water, power. Then Ray was back inside, climbing into the driver’s seat, starting the vehicle, backing its ponderous bulk out of its slot, turning out of the lot onto the frontage road. He was going to drive to the police station. Well, that was sensible.
Shirley lay back, closed her eyes, allowed herself to feel the first probing tentacles of pain. Her jaw—terrible. And one of her teeth was loose. Opening her eyes, Shirley glanced out the window. “Ray? I think this is the wrong way.”
Face set, mulish, Ray stared straight ahead.
“Ray, we’re driving away from town.”
“Can’t understand what you’re saying. You sound drunk. Put an ice pack on your mouth for Chrissake. Wash your face.”
“I don’t think I should. The police are going to need it for evidence. They take photos— “
“Evidence, what’re you talking about? We aren’t going to the police. It’s not like you were raped or something.”
She hadn’t heard right. She watched as they passed a blinking neon eye tucked beneath an overpass, a bright blue eye advertising the Forty Winks Motel. The eye blinked closed. Open again. Closed . . .
Lurching to her feet, Shirley moved up front, steadied herself on the back of the passenger seat. “Ray. This man. He hit me. He knocked me down. He unzipped his pants. He—he took out his— “She found herself resorting to childish euphemisms. “His thing. He wanted me to—you know. “
“But you’re okay now, right? A little dinged up, but nothing a couple band aids won’t fix.” He scowled into the rear-view mirror, at a honking car attempting to drive around the Winnebago’s enormous rump. “We don’t want to blow this whole thing out of proportion. You know how you overreact.”
“I am not overreacting!” Her voice came out in the tones of someone who was overreacting. “We need to report what happened to the police.”
“We’re not going anywhere until you get yourself under control.”
They were lumbering up the ramp to the interstate, a cloverleaf that tilted the RV at an awkward angle. The fruit bowl slid off the kitchen table; oranges ponged around the floor. Shirley lost her grip on the chair, staggered.
“Sit the fuck down!” Ray said. “Put on a seat belt. I can’t drive this thing and baby-sit you at the same goddamn time!”
Her mouth was filling with blood. It trickled down her throat, coppery, vomit-inducing. Sweaty and trembling, she lurched to the kitchen sink, leaned over and spat out a stream of viscous blood. It clung in slimy strands to her mouth, threaded itself into her hair.
Ray’s voice floated in and out, a radio in need of tuning. “Let’s just go over this now, Shirl. Some nut job in the laundromat shoves you and hauls out his pecker. You run out because you think he’s chasing you, then you bang into a dumpster because you can’t move without tripping over your own two feet. I mean look at it rationally—you gave yourself that busted lip.”
Shirley breathed shallowly, willing the bile in her guts to stay down.
“Now I take you to the cops, what’re they going to do? Put out an alert for some punk who likes waggling his weenie? A guy who’s probably a million miles away by now? They got better things to worry about.”
Shirley slid to the floor beneath the sink cabinet. She found the gallon container of water they kept on hand for emergencies and tried to open it. She couldn’t seem to remember how to unscrew a cap. Righty tighty, lefty loosey?
“How do you get me into these situations, huh, Shirley?” Ray said, adjusting the mirror. “It’s embarrassing. I leave my wife wander around a strange town in the middle of the night, what are the cops going to think?”
He was driving at seventy now, even though they were in a construction zone. Through the RV’s big side windows Shirley could glimpse orange barrels flashing past. The Winnebago’s frame vibrated. “You go running out of the trailer tonight ‘cause you’re pissed I don’t jump when you say jump. You go hanging out in a fuckin’ laundromat in the middle of the night, naturally some creepo is gonna say gimme a blow job. It’s like you hung a sign around yourself saying I’m asking for it. That’s what the cops are going to say.”
Shirley lifted the bottle. It took all her strength; her muscles felt like rubber bands. She drank sloppily, water and blood drizzling out of the sides of her mouth, sloshing onto her chest, soaking her bra.
“And get some clothes on. Did you throw your shirt in the wash? Were you standing around in your bra? No wonder this guy thinks you’re hot to trot.”
She closed her eyes. Why was she surprised? It would only have been surprising if Ray had wiped her tears, bandaged her wounds, wrapped his arms around her, told her they’d get through this together. She sat there in a daze—am I in shock? —for an hour. Another hour. They could have pulled over at a rest area, but now that they were on the road, Ray seemed determined to steal a march on tomorrow. Making time had become Ray’s obsession. He drove as though he were a long-distance trucker rushing the rutabagas to market. He didn’t seem to care anything about the national parks or landmarks they’d set out to see. Driving there had become an end in itself; he would have been content, she thought, to drive past their destination and jot it down in his mileage log.
Grand Canyon, June 9th, 3:09 p.m. Check.
Joshua Tree Monument, June 11th, 10:34 a.m. Check.
Today was supposed to be Lincoln Village in Illinois. She pictured Ray looping through the parking lot while she craned her neck and snapped pictures of Lincoln’s tomb through the trees. Lincoln’s Tomb, June 17th, 3:45 p.m. Check.
Dawn came early on the Missouri prairie. When the sun rose at five o’clock they were already a couple of hundred miles down the road from Boonville. The gas was getting low and Ray exited at a Mobil station off eastbound I-65.
Shirley pulled on a T-shirt. Her right knee was oozing clear liquid. Wincing, she eased a sliver of imbedded asphalt out of her left knee. So much for evidence. She waited until Ray was in the mini-mart, then climbed out of the Winnebago, went to the restroom. It was cramped but clean. She rinsed her face, watched the water turn murky pink, studied herself in the mirror. Oh, God. Her jaw and cheekbone were swollen; her mouth had a crescent-shaped gash, her hair looked as though starlings had been nesting in it. Automatically she reached in her purse for her brush.
And remembered her purse was back in the Suds’n’Duds. Probably Overalls Guy had already trolled through it for cash and credit cards, then tossed it away. She’d have to notify the credit card companies, put a stop order on her checks, apply for a new driver’s license. Just thinking about all the hoops she’d have to jump through made her feel exhausted.
Limping out of the restroom, Shirley glimpsed Ray inside the building, filling up his thermos at the coffee bar. She could see that he had a bag of doughnuts. Their breakfast. It wouldn’t occur to him that her mouth was too sore to eat anything. So, he would eat all the doughnuts.
Malcolm Gladwell had been right. There was a tipping point. It was doughnuts.
A young woman with a blonde ponytail came out of the gas station, walked toward the car at pump seven, an orange convertible. An odd color for a car, Shirley thought; it was almost the shade of a monarch butterfly. The seats were black leather, the plates were Illinois. Keeping an anxious eye on the building’s door, Shirley hurried over to the orange car.
“Excuse me,” she said.
The woman—a girl, really—glanced at her. She looked like the college kids who sometimes showed up at Shirley’s door asking her to sign petitions to stop fracking or save endangered owls or polar bears.
“I wonder . . . could I bum a ride?” Shirley’s heart thumped so hard she thought it might bruise her ribs. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ray came out of the gas station, headed for the RV, evidently thinking she was still in the Winnebago.
The girl’s eyes lit on Shirley’s swollen cheek, split lip, raw knees. “That guy over there,” she said quietly, tilting her head toward the Winnebago. “Is he your husband?”
Shirley looked away. “I don’t know that man.”
“I see,” The girl considered. She was a softie, but not a fool.
“Never mind,” Shirley said, embarrassed now.
“No–it’s okay. Come on, get in. I’m heading for Chicago—Hyde Park. But I can drop you somewhere along the way if you want.”
Shirley got into the car. It felt strange being in a vehicle so low to the ground. “Chicago. If you don’t mind the company.” She’d never been to Chicago.
“Well, okay then.” The girl smiled.
She started the car, shifted into gear, pulled out. They picked up speed as they hit the highway. Wind ruffled Shirley’s hair.
It felt as though someone was roughly massaging her head.