Sweet Sixteenby Lewis Warsh
They were driving south on Route 13 through Maryland and Virginia when a blond shirtless young man appeared with his thumb in the air on the side of the road. Elizabeth guided the car onto a strip of gravel fifty yards ahead of where he was standing, rested her arms on the steering wheel, and stared at his figure in the rearview mirror. As the man ran towards the car, dragging his duffel bag on the ground behind him, Maureen turned to her friend, adjusted her skirt over her knees, and said: “I trust your instincts, but he looks like a killer.” The hitchhiker opened the back door, threw his duffel bag onto the seat, and climbed in.
“Thanks for stopping,” he said, in a way that made it sound like he was doing them a favor by accepting the ride. “How far you going?”
As Elizabeth eased the car into the flow of traffic, the hitchhiker leaned forward, looking over the front seat at the bodies of the two women, trying not to be obvious but wanting them to know what he was doing. He carried with him the smell of pine cones or maple syrup, something musky, like he’d been rolling around naked on the ground.
Elizabeth told him that they were heading for the North Carolina coast, the area known as the Outer Banks, a town called Nag’s Head where her parents owned a house. They were going to spend a week in a house near the ocean.
For a few minutes they drove in silence, like characters in a pornographic movie, the two young women in short dresses up front, the bare-chested young man in the back looking out the window. What he saw when he looked were farms, some of them deserted, cornfields and vegetable stands, an occasional billboard warning of the evils of television—how it corrupted the morals of young people and would eventually lead to the end of the world. Then Maureen turned around and asked him where he was from. It was the usual question that a driver or passenger asks a hitchhiker but she couldn’t think of what else to say.
“Canada,” he said, mentioning the name of a city or province where neither Elizabeth nor Maureen had ever been.
Elizabeth, who had driven this route before, told them about a 25-mile long bridge spanning Chesapeake Bay and Maureen took out her old-fashioned Minolta and said she wanted to take some photographs when they crossed. Elizabeth didn’t know how long it would be before they reached the bridge but she hoped it would still be light out. The hitchhiker, who hadn’t told them his name or how far he was traveling, asked to see the camera and Maureen handed it back to him.
“I used to have one of these,” he said.
He focused on the back of Maureen’s head and when she turned in his direction he snapped her picture.
“Hey,” she said, “don’t do that.” She tried to sound annoyed, but she was smiling. “I look horrible.”
From time to time, during the drive, Elizabeth and Maureen stared at one another covertly, or so they thought, trying to communicate their feelings and impressions of the hitchhiker without using words. Already they could imagine the dingy motel room where the three of them would spend the night: the glow of the TV, the spray of the shower on their backs, the smell of the sheets as they spread their legs.
They stopped for late lunch at a roadside diner called The Paradise Grill and Elizabeth and Maureen were surprised that the hitchhiker, whose name was Eddie (at least that’s what he told them), had enough money to pay for himself. Before entering the restaurant, he fished in his bag for a clean work shirt which he buttoned up in the restaurant parking lot and tucked into his pants. They sat in a booth covered with blotchy chartreuse upholstery which stuck to their thighs, the two women facing him, and during the meal (omelets, cheeseburgers, French fries, milkshakes) Elizabeth felt the pressure of his foot against her ankle. Then his knee touched her knee, pressing against it firmly, and she didn’t move away, but parted her legs slightly and pressed back, smiling at him. Over coffee he began to open up, telling them about the one time in his life he’d been in New York and how he got lost on the subway and ended up in Brooklyn.
“So you’re from Brooklyn?” he said, shaking his head, as if he couldn’t believe people actually lived in such a place. “To me it’s just a place to get lost in, not to see.”
Elizabeth said that the next time he came to New York she’d give him a tour of the city. He slouched in his seat, the leg of his jeans scratching the inside of her thigh, and told them that his parents had died in an auto accident when he was ten, and that’s when he moved from Florida (where he was born, where he was heading) to Canada (where he was coming from) to live with relatives. As he talked, bumming one cigarette after another from Elizabeth’s pack of Kool Lights, Maureen thought: I don’t believe a word, it’s all a big mistake. She could sense something was going on between the hitchhiker and her friend (the way he lit her cigarette, the way he addressed his words mainly to her), and she was jealous.
It was raining when they left the restaurant and Eddie offered to drive. They had stayed in the restaurant longer than they had planned and would never reach the bridge before dark. The car was a brand new Chrysler Le Baron which Elizabeth had rented in New York with her American Express card. It was silver, with gray trim, her favorite colors. Elizabeth sat up front and Maureen moved to the backseat. She fell asleep and Eddie took Elizabeth’s hand and held it between them on the front seat as he steered with the other. Every few minutes she lit a cigarette with the dashboard lighter, one for herself, one for him. Maureen was still asleep, her head resting against Eddie’s duffel bag. The rain had stopped, but the sky was one immense cloud, and some of the drivers passing in the opposite direction had already turned on their brights. There was a station on the radio playing songs from the fifties and sixties, music by groups of black women with names like the Shirelles and the Chiffons and the Ronettes, music that had been popular before Elizabeth, Maureen and Eddie were born.
Elizabeth asked him what movies he liked and he said he didn’t like movies much, he liked sports if he liked anything, and so she said “What sports” and he said “Volleyball” though he’d never played it and Elizabeth said that she’d been the captain of the volleyball team when she was in high school and he said “You don’t seem tall enough” and she said “I was the tallest person on my team.” As if to prove a point, she pulled the hem of her short dress above her thighs and shifted her legs in his direction. He reached out and put his hand on her knee and looked at her for a moment, taking his eyes off the road just as a truck passed in the opposite direction with its brights shining in Eddie’s face, blinding him slightly and forcing him to grab the steering wheel with both hands and turn it to the right to prevent a head-on collision. Elizabeth laughed, pulled her dress down, and straightened her legs so that her knees hit against the dashboard. When he offered his hand again she made a circle in his palm with her finger.
Elizabeth and Maureen had met when they were sophomores in high school and now they were going to be seniors in college and they were still friends. They had gone to different colleges but had stayed in touch. Elizabeth remembered at the end of their junior year in high school when Maureen called her up late one night to tell her she was no longer a virgin. She remembered enduring a lengthy description of what it had been like to have sex with her boyfriend Alex, how she had been drunk but not drunk enough not to know what they were doing. Maureen insisted that she had enjoyed it, that she was in love with Alex, that they were going to apply to the same college and live together in an apartment off-campus, none of which ever happened. Elizabeth remembered the night Maureen called her up from college to tell her she was pregnant, that she was going to have the baby even though she didn’t know the identify of the father, and then calling her back the next night to say she was going to get an abortion. The towns where they were going to college, in upstate New York, were only fifty miles apart. Elizabeth picked up Maureen on the steps of her dormitory and drove her to the abortion clinic and waited in a lounge filled with comfortable threadbare sofas and armchairs and a brown mahogany coffee table with piles of magazines: Vogue, the New Yorker. There was only one other person in the lounge, a woman in her mid-thirties with prematurely white hair who was wearing a ring in the shape of a snake that curled the length of her middle finger. Elizabeth, unable to concentrate on her German lesson (she had an exam the next day) asked if she could see it. The woman, who was wearing sunglasses and turning the pages of a magazine with glossy reproductions of Renaissance paintings, looked up and smiled. “It’s just some cheap ring I bought on the street,” she said, crossing her legs. “You can have it if you like.”
Eddie told her that his father had been in the army and that they had lived (he, his parents, and two sisters) on various army bases in the southwestern part of the United States until he was ten and the accident happened. He said the word “accident” and swallowed and then didn’t say anything, forcing Elizabeth to ask: “What accident?” which is what he had intended her to do, giving him time to make up the story as he went along. Apparently his parents were driving home from a party with another couple and they were hit by a truck. Everyone died, including the truck driver. After that he was sent to live with his mother’s brother in the city he had mentioned earlier, Port Elgin, on the coast of Lake Huron. Elizabeth moved closer to him, not knowing how much she believed of his story, not caring.
They were still a hundred miles from the house in Nag’s Head when the cat leapt in front of the car. Eddie pressed down hard on the brakes and Maureen fell forward out of sleep and hit her forehead on the back of the seat. Each of them had heard a thud, the contact of the fender or tire with the body of an animal, but neither of them suggested they stop to see if the animal was alive. It could have been a raccoon or a skunk, but it had looked to both Eddie and Elizabeth like a big cat with bright eyes, more like a leopard or a cougar. Elizabeth wished she could be alone with Maureen, if only for a moment, so she could tell her everything she was feeling.
“I’m sorry I stopped so suddenly,” Eddie apologized.
“Are you O.K.?”
The motel was called Whispering Pines. It consisted of a dozen connected units, one story high, with a slanted tile roof, modest red brick in an L-shape around a tiny swimming pool. There was a grove of exhausted weather-beaten pine trees behind the motel. A beach chair had fallen over onto the grass alongside the pool and some purple and yellow leaves floated on the water’s surface. Maureen went into the office and paid for a room with her Visa card. As soon as they were alone in the car (it was the first time they had ever been alone), Eddie put his hand between Elizabeth’s legs, biting down gently on her lower lip as his finger moved inside her. In the office of the motel a woman in pin curlers (“dead batteries” as they were called when Maureen and Elizabeth were in high school) asked how many people were going to sleep in the room and without hesitating Maureen said: “Two, me and my friend.” Maureen asked the manager of the motel if there was any place nearby where she could buy some food. It was almost nine o’clock and everyone was hungry again. The manager told her that there was a strip of restaurants about a mile down the road: Bob’s Big Boy, Hardees, KFC, Burger King, MacDonalds, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell. One after the other, maybe a drive-in bank or an auto supply store in between. Maureen didn’t bother getting back into the car but pointed to Eddie to follow her to their room. He stopped the car outside the door which Maureen had opened and helped Elizabeth unpack the trunk, what they’d need for the night. Maureen offered to drive down the road to buy some food and bring it back to the room.
“You don’t mind?” Elizabeth asked. “Shouldn’t we all go?”
Maureen winked at her.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said. “Think about yourself for a change.”
She went to the bathroom and locked the door behind her. She peeled the wrapper off a miniature bar of Ivory soap and washed her hands. Rubbed skin moisturizer over her face, put on lipstick, blush and mascara, changed from her white dress into jeans and a tank top. When she emerged from the bathroom fifteen minutes later, Eddie was sitting on the floor in front of the TV watching the Olympic Games, looking bored. Elizabeth was lying on the bed behind him. She was leaning back against the wall, skirt tucked between knees, brushing her hair.
Maureen drove past the strip of fast food restaurants. About a mile further down the road she saw a sign, Little Anthony’s, and turned into the parking lot. She could hear a woman laughing out of control from a car parked nearby and music from behind the door of the bar, not live music, but a jukebox turned on full blast. The people in the bar were laughing and dancing. It was Saturday night. Most of the women in the bar were in their late twenties and wore long frilly cowgirl dresses or tight jeans with crocheted blouses. Many of them were divorced from their husbands and lived alone with their children and worked during the week while their children were in school. Some of them had dyed their hair to make them look younger. The men wore cowboy hats or baseball caps and didn’t seem to pay much attention to the way they looked. Some of them had beards, some of them needed shaves, others were obviously more interested in drinking than dancing or picking up women. There was a group of men sitting at a table at the far end of the bar playing cards. There were women of all ages, though none as young as Maureen, carrying pitchers of beer and bowls of chips on trays and laughing with the customers who stood on the dance floor when the music came on.
Maureen found a place at the bar and ordered a Jack Daniels with ice. At the sound of her voice, obviously she wasn’t from around here, the man to her right turned a full circle and tipped his hat. He asked her where she was from and she said New York City and he told her that he had been in New York a year ago to visit his sister who lived in Brooklyn. Saying you were from New York always inspired some kind of response. The top three buttons of his denim shirt were open. He was wearing a wide leather belt with a gold buckle and his face twitched slightly. When he caught her noticing his tic he said: “I do that when I’m nervous.” He had a tattoo of a rose on his left wrist. His hair was thinning. He wore a ring that looked like a wedding band and when Maureen asked him if he was married he said his wife was dead. He smiled when he said it and Maureen felt like laughing in his face. She sipped her drink and he ordered another beer, calling the bartender by his first name. As she stared into the drink, Maureen saw the faces of her friend Elizabeth and the young man named Eddie whom they had picked up hitchhiking. She saw Elizabeth’s black hair spread out on the pillow. She saw their bodies, surrounded by a silver glow, moving rhythmically on the unmade bed. Then a person who was a friend or acquaintance of the man at the bar came up from behind him and slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Why don’t you introduce me to your friend,” motioning to Maureen, but the first man, whose name was Rex, said: “I would, but I don’t know her name,” and Maureen smiled as his face jumped again and said “I’m Maureen,” and the second man offered his hand and said, “I’m Davis, nice to meet you.”
Maureen guessed that both these men were twice her age, forty or more, though she also knew that people who drank a lot usually looked older than they were. A Randy Travis song was playing on the jukebox and the man named Davis asked Maureen if she wanted to dance. She put down her glass on the bar, it was almost empty, anyway, and glanced back at Rex, whose face was going crazy. She rested her head on Davis’s shoulder and could feel his breath against her cheek. It was a familiar smell, beer and smoke, but she didn’t want to kiss him, not yet. He placed his hand on the small of her back and guided her in a slow circle around the dance floor, gyrating slowly with his hips to see if she would respond. Maureen pressed him closer, her hands on his ass. Then the first man, Rex, came up to them, pushing his way through the crowd of dancers, holding a beer bottle by the neck, and tapped Davis on the shoulder. “My turn, friend,” he said, though it was obvious he wasn’t feeling very friendly. Davis looked at Rex with disgust and then at Maureen and said, “I’ll be back, sweetheart, that’s a promise,” as if she cared one way or the other about either of them. A minute later the dance ended and a fast song came on and Rex, who had stepped on her toes twice, said: “I don’t dance fast.” He took her arm and tried to steer her back to the bar, but she slipped free and stood on the edge of the dance floor watching a black man and a younger white girl with blond hair down to her waist. The black man was the only nonwhite person in the bar as far as Maureen could tell. He lifted the young girl in his arms and swung her around while the people on the sidelines stomped their feet and applauded. Then the man named Davis came up behind her and circled her waist with his arm. “It’s my turn,” he said to Maureen, kissing her on the side of the neck. “I’ll show that nervous fucker how to dance.”
Warsh is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction and autobiography.