The Ditchby Terese Svoboda
Her foot pressing the pedal lifts and presses harder, she can’t believe there’s no oomph behind it, the gaseous cloud it’s been causing has lifted off, vanished, made its way into the wheat stubble lining the interstate. Her foot keeps pressing.
The dark doesn’t care. Semis light up the fields—quick stripes—and a car with brights coming opposite shows her sullen in her coasting stop, sad at her misplanning. But that suggests a plan. It’s a rent-a-car with a gas tank, of course it had gas.
It’s warm enough out. She presses a button and the windows roll shut. Stars too, a little wind. Woozy with car-hum, she thinks to sleep in the ditch until daylight.
But a cop will come. She has seen two, disappearing into the far end of the interstate in that two-parallels-will-never-meet setup. Will they turn around ever? Or is that their final sweep of the desolation for the night?
The car woofs and shakes to a complete stop as if remembering it once had spirit, then quiets with a little ticking.
She steps out. She’s left the keys inside she decides the moment she hears the heavy door shut itself. Great. A domestic tragedy but due, as it were, with the other. And there the keys hang, inside the automatically locked.
She breathes in, then out. Maybe it’s a sob or a suppressed cry for help. Cars pass wide around her. At least she’d popped the flashers on.
She leans against the car’s warm haunch. Only the night makes her anxious. The road had been all swimming anyway, she had lost focus a few times, missing whole minutes of the soothing voice of the sociopath being interviewed on the radio. She had been hurrying just to get the hurry over with. She can wait now.
She watches closely the trucks that pull one abreast of the other, the low cars and the high pickups—because they pass so seldom.
Crickets do their thing.
Her father is fast asleep, not answering the phone. Her mother, drugged to sleep of course. She might as well be where she started out this morning, in the airport, on standby.
Then a cop swoops out of the black quietly. It is a she-cop, all business. She’ll get wire between the door’s rubber lips and jerk the lock open in a minute. As for the gas, she will drive her to the nearest station and back, but—
Code blares from her radio. She pulls at the ponytail under her hat, she talks back. Sure, she says, I’ll be there. Twisting in her seat, her bulletproof vest staying put so she looks cut in half, she says, Get down in the ditch, and stay there. Emergency, she says, and drives off, practically rolls over her toes in her hurry.
The ditch is lousy with pollen but she makes for it as fast as fear itself, known or not. The weeds and the dew that plasters down pollen, the rough grade and the lopsided glint of garbage everywhere is just fine. She squats and lowers her head level with the car wheels. She appreciates all the stars, she smells the earth, she sneezes, sniffles and stands up to see what’s going on.
A car has pulled in to park itself behind hers. At first she thinks it’s the cop come back but no, it’s too soon. A man with a big silhouette and quick feet gets out, tries her door, goes back to his, fishes out a wire, and pops it open, slick as a key. She sneezes. He walks to the ditch and tips the feed/seed cap they all wear around here. Taking a leak and got caught out? he says.
She’s so embarrassed she gives up her ditch. I’m out of gas, she says, practically running up the incline.
It didn’t look like real trouble or you’d have a jack out or the hood up, he says. He lights a cigarette. He’s deep-voiced, lean and jean-jacketed. He looks at his cigarette instead of her while the match is lit. You in a big hurry?
She picks up her feet, she says, Yes.
Just as quick as before, he goes over to his car, opens his trunk and walks over a five-gallon container of gas with a funnel attached. No problem, he says.
She’s moved to the car’s flank. Are you triple-A? she says. I didn’t have a chance to call. Did the cop call?
Cop? he says, finding the gas flap button.
The one who stopped.
He puts out his cigarette and begins filling her tank. The container’s looking light when he takes his eyes away from it and looks at her. Too dark out here to see much, isn’t it?
Dark, yes, she says. She is close enough to smell a whiff of alcohol over the gas stink. I will pay you for the gas.
Good, he says. The cop has better things to do.
It takes him a long time to finish pouring the very last bit and seems to shake the container dry. Even the crickets listen and go quiet while he caps it. She watches him but she can’t really, it’s too dark. She just gets this feeling. He walks the container back to his trunk.
When he returns, wiping the gas dribbles on his pants, she is gone. Damn, he says out loud, taking a few steps around the car to peer into the ditch. Where is she? He checks around the car on all sides, listens to the tick-tick of its heat, he goes over and checks around his car. Damn, he walks back, flings open her door, takes a seat, turns the key in the lock and takes off.
She is lying flat to the shoulder, as narrow as she can, between where the wheels had been parked. Her fists are balled. After he screeches off, she wants to ball her whole self into herself but she can’t. She breathes.
Only the flashing red makes her sit up—a half hour, four minutes later?—an Xmas display of red, three cars driving the wrong way down the Interstate with their sirens on, one over the divide. They come to a screeching stop, targeting his car behind her as if the car itself is dangerous.
It was him.
When she sits up, the lights switch to her. They use flashlights too, they switch on their loudspeakers, they pull out guns.
She can hear them cock.
In that cutoff way of the dark and this kind of light, she is nowhere and she is blind. She gets up on her feet, trying to shout I ran out of gas but sneezing instead, a violent sneeze that jerks her arm up.
The pop shot-sound reaches the she-cop, wheeling her car into “reinforcement position,” her luck, her earlier code for car-out-of-gas ignored or unconsidered in the thrill of the small town, no, small state officers—at least one overexcited—with a chase on their hands, and now blood, officers who watch TV, play in arcades, hunt and squeeze those triggers in once-a-year-practice, who score.
Terese Svoboda's Trailer Girl and Other Stories will be out in paperback this fall. Her fifth novel, Pirate Talk or Mermelade, will be published in 2010.