issue 51: January - February 2006 

| author bio

Long Ride Home
Katie Arnsteen

 The car smelled of old vinyl and stale cigarettes. Molly tried opening her window, but the crank was broken. She sliced her palm on the butt of it. An empty airplane bottle of bourbon rolled on the floor by her feet.
      "Where to?" Randal said, struggling into the low driver’s seat.
      Molly made herself small, shoulders hunched, arms crossed over her chest. "Old Town."
      His tongue slid out of his mouth like a dog’s. "You live in one of those big houses?"
      The keys slipped from Randal’s hand to the floor of the car, and he struggled to retrieve them, grunting as he bent, fumbling to grasp the scant key chain.
      "Do you want me to drive?" Molly asked, although she possessed only a learner’s permit and had never driven a stick shift.
      "No ma’am."
      She wished she knew what time it was. Had to be after two, maybe more like four. No way to know. Randal had no clock, not in his apartment, not in his car, not on his wrist. She’d not worn her own watch tonight, too clunky and sporty for Adam’s birthday.
      "What kind of music you like?" Randal asked as the car jerked out of the parking lot.
      "Any kind. I don’t know."
      Out the window, the night passed by in a blur – darkened strip malls, blinking stop lights, occasional cars. She still felt woozy from the rum, but throwing up had helped, cleared her mind a little anyway. This area of town was unfamiliar to her, although some of the sights were the same. Walgreens, Amaco, McDonald's. The same but different. Dirtier.
      "This is my favorite song," Randal said, tapping his finger against the car radio.
      She nodded. "I like it too." She’d not heard it before, hated country.
      Molly’s friends were at a slumber party. Sort of a soccer-team bonding thing after their winning season. She’d skipped it for Adam’s birthday, but hadn’t had the nerve to tell the girls. Feelings would be hurt over it, but she’d come up with an excuse. Parents grounded her. Grandma came to town. Stomach flu. She pictured her friends now, watching at least the third of five Friday the 13ths. The goal was all five. While Randal swung his head to the crooning on the radio, Molly’s head filled with images of flannel pajamas and ghost stories.
      She thought too about Adam, the boyfriend, lying curled on Randal’s carpet, naked except for pale blue boxer shorts, the side of his head pressed into a puddle of bile. She hadn’t told him good night.
      "How long you been with Adam?"
      Molly could feel the muscles in her back spasm. "Seven and a half weeks about."
      "Long time. Do you love him?"
      "Yes," she said, although she hadn’t thought of it before and wasn’t sure if it were true. Randal’s voice was so strange – that’s the thing she was thinking about. A thin, raspy whisper. Speak up, man, she wanted to say, the way her father demanded of her brother when he mumbled.
      "Have you made love to him?" Randal glanced at her, his droopy eyes circling her face.
      Home, she thought. Please. Her parents would be waiting for her, watching out the window in their bathrobes. She would have to explain who this strange, scruffy man was dropping her off in his ramshackle Chevy Nova. Adam’s uncle? She hoped they wouldn’t come out to the car. Maybe she’d get dropped off down the street.
      "You didn’t answer," Randal said.
      "A virgin?"
      Her mind staggered, searching in the dark for the smart answer. Who did he want her to be? What was safer? An innocent, prudish Catholic girl, or a loose teen? "I don’t know …" She was maybe going to say, "I don’t know if we should talk about that," but was afraid.
      Randal exploded in laughter.
      Hours ago, Adam had undressed her on top of Randal’s unmade bed. It was a moment she hadn’t anticipated, but after the Captain Morgan’s, she’d lost track of things, like she was swimming under murky water. Details had been blurred, unfamiliar – the ceiling light above her, the yellow stain on the wall, the fuzzy voices coming from the television. As he touched her in places she hadn’t been touched before, it was as if she was watching him from above, like she wasn’t actually there herself. She could see her pale body, skinny and awkward, not woman but not little girl either. Then he got sick. After that, Molly’s memory thinned out into flashing images:  vomiting side-by-side with Adam into a rancid toilet, a broken record player, a plump, unfamiliar man sitting on the edge of the bed swilling the leftover rum. When she awakened to find him there, he’d said, "You’re just like Sophie."
      Focusing her attention out the window, Molly noticed how dark it had become since they’d turned onto the two-lane highway back to the north side of town. She squinted to see the passing trees and small homes lining the road. Surrounded by the opaque night, Molly had the strange sense that she and Randal were the only living people on earth.
      "Adam didn’t tell me you were rich," Randal said. "He never told me you were pretty either."
      Molly turned her head towards Randal, noticing the outline of a jagged scar across his nose and cheekbone. "How long have you worked with Adam?" she asked, knowing already that Randal was on his third week at the Pizza Barn where Adam bussed tables on Monday nights and Saturday lunches.
      "Long time," he said, nodding thoughtfully. "He’s a good boy. Stick with him. He’d make a good husband." Randal squeezed his face into a tight grimace.
      She wondered at his expression, so loaded with emotion, and found herself gripping the door handle. She hated the sight of emotion, anyone’s, particularly a grown man in too-close proximity. She turned her body away from him, as if something outside the window had interested her and she was twisting to see it.
      "I shouldn’t do this," Randal said, shaking his head angrily.
      Do what? Molly wondered, but didn’t ask.
      "Can’t afford another DUI. Means jail." He pounded the horn. "No."
      Molly put her fingers to her mouth, pressing her upper lip against teeth. Half an hour earlier, she’d called home from the laundry room of Randal’s apartment building. Under the florescent lights of the sour-smelling room, she’d delivered a sloppy excuse to her father about a broken-down car and a cousin on the way. Randal had stood by, smoking a cigarette and watching her.
      "I’ll be home soon, Dad," she said, hanging up quickly as if the receiver was hot to the touch. She’d turned  to Randal, staring into the spot just over his head. "Can you take me home?"
      He’d scratched his scalp through his mesh Pizza Barn ball cap. After taking a thoughtful drag from his cigarette, he touched her elbow and said, "Why not?"
      She should have called a cab. Only now did it occur to her. She thought of her older brother, always aggravated with her. "How can someone with so much book smart have so little common sense?" He’d said this after she poured motor oil through a funnel into his gas tank, thinking she was doing a nice thing for her big bro, giving him a little extra fuel for his drive back to college. How was she supposed to know that oil was not what came out of the pumps at the gas station? In the end, that error in judgment was funny. This one – getting herself stuck in a car with a strange, drunk man on a dark country highway – was not.
      In a quiet, rickety voice, she said, "You’re driving really well. You won’t get pulled over."
      Randal nodded, looking hard at her. "Okay."
      In the meantime, he’d slowed to twenty-five miles an hour.
      "Thanks for taking me," she said. "I owe you."
      He smiled, nodded.
      "I’ll pay for your gas. And trouble."
      "You’re dear."
      "Do you think you should go a little faster?"
      "Nah." He laughed, turned his blinker on, and turned onto a narrow lane so inky black that once he turned the lights off, Molly couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, or his hand for that matter, and so when it landed on her shoulder, she gasped.
      She had thought Adam was planning a birthday dinner at a restaurant for their date. She’d brought money to pay for both dinners, and worn a sundress, hair curled. Their journey to a stranger’s apartment on the south side of town had come as a surprise, as had the Captain Morgan’s that lay waiting on top of the TV with a note saying, "Happy Birthday, pal. Be good. Ha, Ha. Randal."
      Molly couldn’t object, didn’t want to seem prissy or high maintenance. They’d ordered pizza, watched TV, mixed the rum with grape soda, and made out on the bed. Molly played cool, pretending to ignore the smell of mildew in the bed sheets and the stickiness of the carpet on her bare feet. It was Adam’s birthday.
      Randal’s hand slid down from her shoulder. She wasn’t a priss – but this was different. His fingers lingered at her elbow and then traveled lightly over the front to her dress. She froze. She didn’t stand a chance fighting, or giving in. Screaming would do no good. No one nearby to hear. No breath to scream.
      "Do you like this?" he said. He put his other hand just under her dress, pressing against the inside of her leg. "This?"
      Her body trembled. She thought of her parents, wanted them, but didn’t. Who could save her?
      "I don’t think this is a good idea," she whispered.
      "Why’s that?" His fingers moved higher onto her thigh.
      She didn’t know why, couldn’t think that straight, her mind casting about wildly for a reason. She could only think of his fingers, thick against her leg. "Adam, you know…"
      He laughed.
      "I mean, I like you, but .. . I’m with Adam."
      Randal cocked his head.
      "I love him," she said.
      "And that’s why I should stop?" Randal drummed his fingers. "Out of your loyalty to Adam?"
      She smelled a rank sweetness in his breath, his face close to her. "I don’t want to cheat on him."
      "So, if not for Adam, my touch…" he reached his hand down the neck of her sundress, "would feel welcome? You’d let me turn you inside out? Let me teach you ninety-nine ways to reach the Promised Land, nirvana, ecstasy?" He prodded her with his fingers.
      Molly’s gums and the tip of her nose felt numb. She wished she could see, the darkness intensifying her vulnerability.
      "Why do you lie to me, Sophie?" Randal yanked both hands away and slapped the dash.
      Sophie? Molly felt as if another stranger had entered the car.
      Reaching toward her again, Randal held Molly’s head by the ears, his face an nch from hers. "Tell me what you want. Look inside and tell me what’s in your heart more than anything else."
      His face was fading from her dim vision, its black silhouette blurring into deeper darkness.
      "Tell me." His hands were shaking. Spit sprayed into her face. Poking her chest with his index finger, he said, "What’s in there?"
      "I want to go home," she said.
      He let go of her ears and sat back in his seat.
      She was doomed, she knew it. Now he would rape and kill her.
      "Okay. What else?"
      There was a whining and ticking in the engine. Crickets screamed outside. Molly wondered if anyone even lived on this street, or if it was simply a place for murderers and their victims.
      "What else?" he said again.
      She didn’t know what he meant. "Nothing."
      "Why didn’t you say so?"
      Her skull hummed and tingled.
      Randal turned the engine over, backed up, and turned the car back to the main road.
      Molly wasn’t sure what had happened, had no idea whether she was safe now, whether the Nova was pointing home or toward a better place for death.
      Randal turned the radio up. An ad for a dating service blasted from the speakers. He pressed it off.
      He was driving north – that was a good sign.
      "I’m sorry I did that to you," Randal said.
      His strange whisper was different now – deflated, sweet. Who was this person? Her hollow understanding of him made her feel ungrounded, dizzy.
      "It’s okay," she said.
      "Really? It’s okay?" He laughed, licked his lips. "So I could do it again? I could pull off on the next dirt road and squeeze your little titties again?"
      Satan. She hated him as much as she feared him, tired of his riddles, his lunatic questions. "I need to get home. My parents are probably..."
      "Now that’s the reason? What about your undying devotion to Adam?"
      She held her elbows in close to her chest.
      "Why don’t you say what you mean?" He turned the radio back on. It was the same crooning country song they’d heard half an hour ago. "It’s my lucky night. Twice now." He stopped talking and drove.
      Two lanes became four after the blinking light that signaled the end of the county highway. On the left, they passed her church. In the fog of the late hour, the Gothic structure looked eerie. She’d be back there for mass in only a few hours – assuming she wasn’t mangled in the woods at Wagner Park or on some other abandoned dirt road. Molly thought to pray but was too distracted, worried about Randal’s intentions, and, as they neared home, about what she’d tell her parents should she make it. She wished she’d gone to the slumber party.
      At the red light just past the train tracks, Randal stopped, leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes.
      "This is a long light," he said. It was true. Her parents both complained about it every time either was stopped here. Should she get the nerve to jump out, this would be the place.
      She pushed her hair away from her eyes. Her mother had insisted she grow her bangs out, said the weight of them on Molly’s forehead was causing acne. It was a pain, the awkward clump of hair always hanging down in her face, worse than the bangs which she’d actually liked.
      The light turned green, but the car remained still. Molly turned to Randal and saw his chest rise and fall, the streetlight illuminating his pale, jaundiced face, his whiskers black and oily. Was he asleep, his mouth half open, his breath heavy?
      Seeming to sense her eyes on him, Randal raised his head. "I know you," he said.
      His lids still closed, Molly feared he was talking in his sleep. She didn’t want to shake him, didn’t want to touch him. She gripped the door handle.
      "Trying to be all things to all people. Your parents must be very proud. Sweet, well-mannered, agreeable. Teachers eat you up. Good student, I’d bet." He looked at her with a sudden sharpness. "Am I right?"
      "The light’s green," she said.
      He didn’t move. "You do your homework every night, raise your hand in class. Polite and eager. Am I right?"
      "I guess," she said. "The light –"
      Not true, she thought to herself, her jaw tight. She’d read Emerson and Thoreau in English, and she knew all about stamping out conformity, marching to the beat of her own drummer. Maybe hers wasn’t much different from the crowd’s, but that didn’t make her any less real or alive.
      "Popular with your friends," Randal continued. He accelerated through the cross street, still looking at her rather than the road. "Boyfriends will love you. You’ll put out without being a slut. Cold and stiff as a dead fish though, fighting inside yourself rather than feeling what you’re supposed to feel."
      He was speeding now. Be quiet and watch the road, she wanted to say. They were nearing her house. This would be over soon.
      "Adam," he said. "You love him?"
      "Really? Are you worried about him? Unconscious on the floor of my apartment? Have you thought of him?"
      Asleep, she thought. Not unconscious. He’d be okay. Maybe it wasn’t "love love," like the real thing, but she liked Adam. She didn’t dislike him anyway. He was more like an experiment in having a boyfriend.
      "Do you know what love is?" Randal spoke softly now.
      Molly nodded, thinking of her music appreciation teacher. She loved him most, but he always blanked on her name. She was the only student he could never get right. He’d finally stopped trying and just said, "Yes," when she raised her hand.
      "How could you know love?" Randal said, shaking his head. "Twenty years from now, you’ll be married, kids of your own, and you’ll be miserable without even knowing it because your whole life, you never learned to say what was on your mind. You never even knew your mind."
      She wanted to tell him he didn’t know her at all.
      "I feel sorry for you," he said, turning the radio off again, another commercial.
      She tried not to look at him, but the silence got to her, and glancing toward him, she was frightened to see his face wet, his eyes puddled.
      Out the window, the trees were becoming mature and manicured, the houses and lawns bigger with each passing block. Her pulse pounded at her temples. Please don’t cry.
      "You’ll be turning left at the round-about," she said.
      "You’ve got everything going for you, everything a person could ever want, but still, I wouldn’t take your life for a million bucks." He licked his lip. Tears dripped off his chin. "It’s no life."
      "Down here on the right. Or, you can stop here. I’ll walk the rest of the way."
      Her house was just three away. She could see her parents standing on the porch, arms crossed over their chests identically, not in their bathrobes as she’d imagined, but fully dressed.
      Randal stopped the car, and Molly yanked at the handle, relieved that in the end, it was easy. Take one step out of the car, shut the door, wave, walk home. Her parents would think it strange she was dropped off down the street. She’d make an excuse – maybe Adam’s mom drove her home in her nightgown and, seeing Molly’s parents on the porch, was too embarrassed to meet them.
      "No," Randal said, slapping his hand over her arm as she stepped out, his thick fingers just above her wrist.
      Molly tried pulling free, but Randal’s grip tightened.
      "Shut the door," he said.
      Her parents had seen her and were mobilizing, deliberating, she could see it in their gestures – should they both go, should they bring the mace, a golf club?
      Randal turned off the lights.
      The neighborhood, her family included, had fought streetlights, said they cheapened the aspect of the street. Now, for the second time that night, she sat with Randal in blackness.
      "I said I would take you home," Randal said, "And I will. But listen to me." His whisper was liquid and sticky. "I’m not a bad guy."
      "I know," she said.
      Randal pounded the steering wheel. "One true thing. I just want you to say one true thing before you go. One. Can you?"
      She could hear his breath catching. His grip remained tight enough to bruise her arm. A minute might have gone by. She couldn’t think. The silence, his breathing, weakened her.
      "Thank you for the ride," she finally said.
      "You can’t do it." He shook her arm. "One true thing."
      "Ow? That’s all the truth you have? Ow?" He let go of her, and placed his palm on his forehead. "You are in so much danger."
      The interior light shined a dull yellow when the door opened. Molly’s father stood at athletic stance, as if preparing to return serve, wearing his summer khakis and a red plaid shirt. Her mother stayed ten feet back, her hand in the pockets of her Bermuda shorts.
      The crickets bleated absurdly, their grand finale before daylight would silence them. Somebody’s dog barked, probably the Putnam’s.
      Nobody moved. Randal only half looked at Molly’s father, his head pointing down and slightly to the side. Her father’s eyes shifted back and forth.
      "Dad, this is Randal," Molly said.
      Her father stood taller, leaning onto one foot.
      "He took me home."
      isHHis hands fell to his side, sliding awkwardly into the pockets of his slacks.
      "He’s Adam’s uncle."
      Molly moved her gaze towards Randal. A grimace passed across his face.
      "We dropped Adam off already." Molly spoke quickly about the late movie and Adam’s car that wouldn’t start despite the many labored efforts. Friends with jumper cables, etc… Randal nice enough to come in the middle of the night to pick them up.
      Her father’s shoulders loosened, and her mother took steps toward the car. They reached to shake Randal’s limp, plump hand through the car door. Molly’s dad apologized for his aggressive entrance. "You can never be too protective when it comes to daughters," he explained.
      "Of course." Randal nodded and looked at Molly with a sad sideways glance.
      "Please let us give you something for gas," Molly’s mother said.
      Thumbing through his wallet, her husband removed a twenty, having nothing smaller, and gave it to Randal, who crumpled it in his hand and stuffed it into his pocket.
      Molly watched this exchange, wondering at her parents’ insincerity, recognizing it as her own. There it was – one true thing.
      She stepped out of the car, and for a moment, all parties remained frozen, as if reluctant to end this affair. Her father put his arm around Molly, and her mother linked elbows on the other side. In a strange flash, it occurred to Molly that she was closer to her soccer coach than to her parents. She wasn’t very close to her soccer coach. Another true thing.
      "Thanks again," Molly said, and Randal stared at her as if trying to remember who she was.
      Finally, he smiled, his stained teeth gleaming yellow. "You bet," he said and winked.
      She considered what it meant to be turned inside-out. When he’d pressed her inner thigh, it tickled in a way that felt more good than bad.
      Her father coughed.
      "Great kid," Randal said. "Must be proud."
      Molly’s parents nodded vigorously, in unison, like they always did at soccer games and music recitals.
      Molly didn’t like soccer. She didn’t like piano either. She did like bangs.
      Randal smiled and shook hands again before driving away in the wrong direction. He’d come to a cul-de-sac soon and turn around.
      "He’s got a broken tail light," Molly’s father said before turning to her, his hands back inside his pockets. "No more Adam."
      Her mom nodded apologetically behind him.
      "Okay," she said. She thought of Randal, filled with rum, driving the dark neighborhood,  sleepiness in his eyelids. He was still with her, in her bones, weighing her down as if with warm cement, thick with gray matter.

© Katie Arnsteen 2006

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author bio

Katie ArnsteenKatie Arnsteen teaches American Literature and Fiction Writing at The Colorado Springs School. She received her MFA from Colorado State University in Fall 2005. This is her first published fiction.

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issue 51: January - February 2006


Niall Griffiths: Coming of Age
David Ramos Fernandes:
Nora Pierce:
Guess Who Loves Me Now?
Caroline Kepnes:
Katie Arnsteen:
Long Ride Home

picks from back issues

Pete Duval: Fun With Mammals
Adam Johnson:
Trauma Plate


James Meek


Harold Pinter
answers to last issue’s quiz, Harry Potter

book reviews

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
The Blind Rider by Juan Goytisolo
Borrowed Light by Joolz Denby
Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol

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