Saturday, March 10, 2012

This Town Smells Like Popcorn

Marla and Eagle are sitting on the curb outside Marv’s Market. She’s eating Red Vines, four at a time. He’s crunching his way through a bag of roasted almonds. He knows apes need lots and lots of nuts to survive. Neither one looks worried. They’re just two young kids, she’s 12 and he’s nine, sitting by the side of the road on a blustery December afternoon.

A beat up red Chevy pickup pulls up and the driver, reaching across the seat, pops the passenger door open. The hinges protest and the door shuts again. The driver pushes harder and it stays open. The smell of Marlboro Lights drifts out of the cab and barely reaches the kids’ noses before being carried away by the wind. An empty 7-Eleven cup falls to the street and rolls under the truck.

“Get in,” the driver tells them. She’s pushing 40, but looks like she already left that age far behind. She’s wearing western chaps over blue jeans held up by a heavy leather belt with a turquoise and silver buckle.  Her cowboy boots are cracked and her western shirt with snaps is wrinkled and stained. The top two snaps of her shirt are unfastened – On purpose? By accident? – revealing an undersized bra and sun wrinkled skin. A tan cowboy hat and cigarette dangling from her cracked lips complete the picture.

“Are you still mad Aunt Dorothy?” Marla asks while getting to her feet. Dorothy shakes her head and then turns to blow smoke out the window. Marla motions for Eagle to come along, but he sits firm, still popping nuts into his mouth. “Come on Eagle,” she urges.
“I’m not gonna,” Eagle says crossing his arms and clutching his almonds to his chest.
“Why aren’t you gonna?”
“Tarzan told me not to get back in the truck.”
Marla turns to Dorothy, “He’s not going to get in, I’m afraid. Nothing’s going to change his mind when he’s like this.”
Dorothy sets the parking brake and reaches behind the seat. She pulls a plastic spear out and starts rolling it between her hands. “Tell him Tarzan came by the house today … and left this.”
Marla turns to Eagle, but he’s already spotted the spear and is scrambling to his feet. “I didn’t know you know Tarzan, Aunt Dorothy,” Eagle says.
“Oh yes. We had lunch today. Did you know his favorite food is hamburgers? He ate three.”
Eagle dives into the cab ahead of Marla and grabs the spear out of Dorothy’s hands. He gleams like a boy on Christmas morning and starts stabbing the dashboard. Marla plops into the seat beside him and reaches for the door handle. She pulls, but her hand slips and she almost tumbles out of the truck. She braces herself with one hand, grabs the handle again, and pulls it shut with a grunt.
Dorothy releases the brake and shifts into first gear. She pops the clutch and the truck lurches forward with a jolt, leaving a puff of black exhaust in its wake.
“Do you two have anything to say?” Dorothy asks.
Eagle doesn’t look up. He just keeps thrusting the spear into the dashboard. Marla looks out the window and says, “Sorry.”
“Sorry what?”
“Sorry for being such a brat, Aunt Dorothy.” Marla throws an elbow into Eagle’s shoulder.
“Owww!” Eagle yelps and turns toward Marla, furious. He threatens her with his spear and snarls like a wild thing. She stands her ground and glares back at him. It becomes a stare down between two wild cats. After a minute of tension, Eagle and then Marla begin to smile and as the tension dissipates he blinks first, losing the contest. He lowers his spear and toying with it in his lap says “Sorry, Aaaaaunt Doroooooothy.”
Cigarette between her fingers, Dorothy reaches down and pushes a cassette into a tape player crookedly bolted beneath the dashboard. Some ash falls to the floorboard to join a mound already there. Music starts playing as she absentmindedly places the cigarette back into the corner of her mouth. The singer is Anne Murray:
“Every now and then I cry/Every night you keep stayin' on my mind/All my friends say I'll survive/It just takes time—“
Eagle blows a raspberry and hits eject with his spear. He looks over at Dorothy as if challenging her to a duel.
Dorothy knows better than accept his challenge. She just reaches down and pushes the tape back in. As she does, more ash shakes loose and falls to the floorboard. Marla notices and frowns.
“That’s gross, Aunt Dorothy,” Marla says.
Anne Murray continues:
—A million miracles could never stop the pain/Or put all the pieces together again/No I don't think time is gonna heal this broken heart—“
“I hate your music,” Eagle says as he pokes the tape free again with his spear. He turns in his seat to face Dorothy.
“Eagle, you do that one more time and—“
Eagle interrupts her with another raspberry and threatens her with his spear. She raises her hand as if to slap him and still more ash falls to the floorboard.
“I said that’s gross!” Marla shouts.
She pops open the glove box. It is like a rolling junk drawer. Bottles of Advil and Tums roll and slide about. There’s a hairbrush filled with hair strands. A used up and dried up stick of deodorant missing its cap falls out. Marla catches it and tosses it back in. There are two heavily read paperbacks – a Zane Grey and a Barbara Cartland. There is a hastily and very improperly folded road map torn across most of its creases.
And, of course, well within reach is a carton of Marlboro Lights with two packs remaining. Marla grabs the two packs and, staring defiantly at Dorothy, holds them out the window.
Dorothy starts the tape again and it becomes a bit wobbly from being started and stopped. Anne Murray sounds sick and tired:
No I don't think time is gonna heal this broken heart/No I don't see how it can while we are—“
Eagle hits eject. Dorothy slaps him across his right ear and he immediately curls up in a ball and starts wailing. Marla tosses the cigarette packs out the window. Dorothy slams on the brakes.
“Out! Go pick’em up!” Dorothy orders.
Marla looks at her in disbelief. Eagle wails even louder.
Marla opens the door and slides to the ground. She walks along the side of the road kicking at weeds and turning her head away from passing cars, embarrassed. She spots one of the packs and gives it a kick into the ditch.
Dorothy honks the horn, holding it in to fully express her anger. Marla retrieves the pack and finds the other perched atop a thistle bush. She starts to slowly walk backwards toward the truck. Dorothy honks again and Marla runs.
“Here’s your stupid cigarettes,” she says climbing into the cab. She tosses them at Dorothy and one of them hits Eagle on the nose. He turns to Marla and slaps her. Marla slaps his other ear and he slides as far away from her as he can and leans his head against Dorothy, his crying now a muffled whimper.
They drive for a while in silence, Dorothy staring straight ahead, Marla staring out the window, and Eagle rolling the spear around in his lap. They are entering a town again and Marla watches as a gas station and a general store roll by. This town smells like popcorn.
Finally, Eagle breaks the silence. “Tarzan told me not to get in the car with you. He says you’re a mean lady.”
“I wish you’d shut up about Tarzan,” Dorothy says without looking at him.
Marla says, “I’m glad Mark didn’t marry you. You would’ve made a terrible mom.”
Dorothy grips the steering wheel tightly, fiercely. Eagle stops mumbling and looks at Dorothy, then at Marla, and back to Dorothy again. Marla smiles cruelly. Dorothy pulls off the road and stops the truck.
“Get out… Both of you… Get out,” Dorothy says.
Marla pushes the door open with a creak and slides out to the ground. Eagle slowly follows her and once he’s beside her he cautiously looks about ready to defend her with his spear.
“Shut the door,” Dorothy says.
Marla pushes the door, but it doesn’t shut because the seatbelt is dangling in its way. She tosses the belt onto the seat and tries again. This time it shuts and immediately the truck pulls away, its spinning tires kicking up gravel. There’s another puff of black exhaust.
Driving away, Dorothy pushes the tape back in and it crankily starts playing:
“—still apart/And when you hear this song/I hope that you will see/That time won't heal a broken-hearted me/Every day is—“
The music stops. Dorothy reaches down to remove the tape and it unspools, part of it still stuck inside the machine. She gives it a tug and the tape breaks. She wraps the tattered tape around the cassette.
“Goddamn him!” she yells as she heaves the cassette out the window.
She tears open a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights and pops one in her mouth. She pulls a Bic from her shirt pocket, lights the cigarette, and drops the lighter back into her pocket. She takes a long draw. She takes the cigarette from her mouth and grips the steering wheel with that hand. Some ash falls to the floorboard. A single tear breaks loose from her eye and travels down her cheek, its course following one wrinkle and then another, and then another.

Marla and Eagle are sitting on the curb outside Quick-E Mart. They’re sharing a box of popcorn. Neither one looks worried. They’re just two young kids sitting by the side of the road on a blustery December evening.
A beat up red Chevy pickup pulls up and the driver, reaching across the seat, pops the passenger door open. The hinges protest and the door shuts again. The driver pushes harder and it stays open. The smell of Marlboro Lights drifts out of the cab.
“Get in,” the driver tells them.

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