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The Barcelona Review

Author Bio




Fulkerson was nearly upon the car when he saw it. A Honda or Toyota nose-down an embankment, trunk to the sky. He slowed and peered toward the accident. Steam rose from the ditch, and a full moon and his headlights illuminated that steam and also two people sitting in the weeds beside the road. He braked and pulled onto the shoulder.
      He glanced in his mirror and saw a figure hurrying forward. In an instant a young man was staring in at him.
      Fulkerson lowered the window. “Looks like you folks had a crackup.”
       “You might say,” the man said. He was bent at the waist, hands resting on his knees. His chin and T-shirt were dark with blood. “The air bag busted my nose, I think. Maxine dinged her shoulder.”
      Fulkerson was a loan officer, and he relied upon his senses as much as his training or a client’s credit history. The young man was alert, nervous, and had been drinking whisky.
       “Are you badly hurt? Should I call for an ambulance?”
      The man put his hands on the window frame and rocked the car gently. “You know…” He looked up and down the road. “I’ve had my nose busted lots of times, and Max ain’t hurt that bad.” He grinned. His incisors were large and also rimmed in blood. “An ambulance means cops, and cops is the last thing I need. Know what I mean?”
      “I believe so. You’ve been drinking and have DUI arrests in your past.”
      The young man was chuckling. “Bingo,” he said.
      Fulkerson looked in his mirror again. He saw a woman stand, then hug herself in clear distress. Her hair was gathered in a tousled knot on top of her head and was pink in the glow of the taillights.
       “Your wife looks like she needs medical attention.”
       “That’s Len’s wife. He ain’t here. He’s at work.”
       “How in heaven’s name did you get out of that car?”
      The man laughed. “Thing is, I don’t remember. One minute we’re headed into the ditch. Next, we’re sitting by the road and you show up.” He glanced toward the upended car and whistled. “She’s not going to be worth much now, is she?”
       “Is that Len’s car also?”
      The man started, his eyes hardening. “No, sir. She’s mine. I got the papers on her.”
      Fulkerson looked at the road ahead of him. Cornfields on both sides made a ghostly tunnel forward, narrowing as it disappeared into blackness. Insects flickered in his headlamps. Otherwise there was nothing—no oncoming car, no light from a farmhouse.
       “What would you like me to do, if I don’t call for help?”
      The young man straightened and put a hand to his nose. “She’s broke, all right. I can move the sonofabitch all over my face.” He laughed again. “Tell you what, if you was to drive us to the ER, I’d be grateful. I’ll tell them I ran into a basement door, and Max fell down the stairs coming to help. Think that’ll fly?”
       “You know the answer better than I, having broken your nose many times. What about the car?”
       “I’ll get a tow in the morning, once my head’s straight.”
       “What if the police find it first?”
       “That’s a chance I got to take, ain’t it? I doubt the law gets out here much anyhow.”
      Fulkerson took off his glasses to polish them, then studied the man a beat longer. “I will help you,” he said at last, “but on these conditions. I’m going to pop the trunk, where you’ll find an assortment of towels, a gallon jug of alcohol and plastic garbage bags. I want each of you to take a towel and the alcohol and clean yourselves as best you can, then put the soiled towels in a bag and return them and the alcohol to the trunk. I’ll take some bags myself and spread them across the passenger seat and in the back. It makes no difference who sits where, though I must ask that, while you’re inside the car, you refrain from touching anything—door handles, glass, air vents…anything. When we arrive at the hospital I’ll open your doors. I’ll remove the bags you’re sitting on after you exit.”
       “Dang, Mister. What’s all that about?”
       “I’m what people call a germaphobe. I have a fear of illness and infection.”
       “Ain’t neither of us sick.”
       “Nevertheless, those are my conditions.”
      The young man put his hands in his rear pockets and twisted until his spine popped. “Open the trunk then,” he said. “You’re the only monkey at the zoo.” He walked to the rear of the car, where Fulkerson watched him and the woman talking. She shook her head once or twice, then sagged in a way Fulkerson had seen a thousand times across his desk—the woman, certain better terms were available, yielding to the man.
      He released the trunk latch, then fetched a packet of disinfectant wipes from the glove box and swabbed the window frame where the man’s hands had rested. Afterward he stepped from the car and joined the woman at the open trunk. She was wincing as she cleaned her face with a towel, using one arm to do so as she hugged herself with the other. The man was nowhere to be seen.
       “How badly are you hurt?” Fulkerson asked.
      She scowled at him, steam from the accident hovering about her shoulders. She was tall—as tall as Fulkerson, himself a big man—and wore a sleeveless blouse, multiple bracelets and leggings that perfectly defined her bottom and thighs. Her hair was pink after all, and Fulkerson placed her in her forties, though the young man was barely twenty-five. “My collarbone’s broken,” she said. “It doesn’t help doing this shit.”
       “I’m sorry for your troubles. Where’s your friend?”
      She sniffed and turned away. In that moment a shout came from the ditch and her partner struggled up the bank. “I had to get some crap from the car,” he announced, holding up a canvas duffle bag. He looked behind him and shook his head. “Man, she’s busted up. I don’t know how we’re not worse off.” He stood and slapped dirt from his knees. “Cheer up, sweet cheeks,” he said to the woman. “We done been rescued.”
       “Shut up, Billy,” she said. “You and your happy talk.”
      The young man bent to the trunk, doused a towel and began swabbing his face. “I ain’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Ten minutes ago all was fucked up, and now—” He peered at Fulkerson. “What’s your name again?” 
       “The sooner you’re done, the sooner we can be on our way,” Fulkerson said. He stood with his hands clasped behind him and watched the pair clean themselves. The woman continued to scowl, while the man—Billy, she’d called him—chattered and laughed, stuffing the towels into a bag after they’d finished.
       “Ready for inspection, sir,” he said.
      Fulkerson stepped to the trunk and took from it four garbage bags. He walked to the passenger’s door and spread one across the seat and sheathed the back cushion with another, then did the same in the rear. He wore a short-sleeved white shirt and narrow tie, and when he’d finished he smoothed and straightened both before turning around. “Off we go, then,” he said.
      After the two were seated—Max in front, Billy behind—Fulkerson closed the doors and took the wheel. Before he put the car in gear he caught a glimpse of the young man in the mirror. Billy’s face was blank as stone, though when he noticed Fulkerson watching he winked. “Clean as a whistle back here, captain. How about you, girl?”
      Max huddled against the door, bad arm to her breast, free hand making and unmaking a fist.“ Can we go? Please?”
      As they pulled away, Fulkerson watched the upended car diminish and disappear behind them. He lifted his phone. “Does anyone want to call Len about his car?”
      The woman turned sharply. “What do you know about Len?”
      Billy snorted. “I might have mentioned it. Chill out, babe.”
      Max grimaced as she twisted toward him. “You and your goddamn yap.”
       “It ain’t nothing,” Billy said. Fulkerson felt the man’s knee against his seat. “What you doing out this late anyhow, Mister?”
      The road had widened, cornfields giving way to soybeans. Farmhouses appeared and disappeared as they sped by. The barnyards were lit by pole lights, though—it being four in the morning—the houses were dark. “I have insomnia,” Fulkerson said. “I find it restful to drive the country roads alone.”
       “Don’t your wife complain?”
       “I’m not married.”
       “There it is,” Billy said to the woman. “He got nobody to talk to.”
       “That’s mostly correct,” Fulkerson said. “I live with my mother, who is ninety and has dementia. A nurse stays with her during the day, and I tend to her in the evening. These hours are the only time I have to myself.”
       “Why don’t you put her up somewhere?”
       “It’s my obligation to care for her as long as I’m able. She did the same for me.” He turned onto the main highway. The hospital was forty-five minutes distant, and he pressed the accelerator until the speedometer passed sixty. “But enough about me. I’ve drawn some conclusions about the both of you, if you’re interested.”
      Tires thrummed beneath them for a time, until Billy said, “Shoot.”
       “I work in a bank,” Fulkerson said, “and make a living on first impressions. My clients are often first-time borrowers with little or no credit. They hope I’ll take a chance on them, so they put their best foot forward.” He felt the woman watching. “It’s my belief that the two of you are, as they say, on the lam, and that the car behind us is indeed Len’s.”
       “I said she was mine,” came a voice behind him.
       “Yes, you did. You even said you had the papers on her.”
       “Well, there you go.”
       “The fact that you offered the information without my asking was the first hint you were lying. Your surliness confirmed it.”
       “Hear that, Max?” came the voice again. “You ever know me to be surly?”
       “What else?” she said to Fulkerson.
       “Billy has a tattoo on his left hand—four dots surrounding a fifth. The outer dots signify four prison walls, the fifth the prisoner himself.” He briefly returned her gaze. “Your friend has done time.”
       “I’ll be goddamned,” Billy said.
       “On that I have no opinion, though Mother believes a virtuous life guarantees one a place in heaven.”
       “You a preacher?”
       “Far from it.”
       “Then why—”
       “Like many men who visit my office,” Fulkerson said, “Billy tried to win my trust this evening with coarse humor. He even referred to me as a monkey, never dreaming that such insolence might jeopardize his chances. You, on the other hand—” he glanced again at the woman—“are above such foolishness. You’re always three moves ahead, even now.”
      She held his eyes before looking away, and Fulkerson heard a sound like a hand unzipping a canvas bag. “I guess you’re calling me stupid,” Billy said.
       “Not so. You’re clever enough to hitch your wagon to someone with twice your intellectual gifts.”
      The woman’s bracelets jangled as she stifled a cough.
       “I’ll be goddamned,” Billy said again.
       “I only wonder which of you will tire of the other first. She because she knows you’re foolish and rash, or you because having the lights off is no longer enough.”
       “All right, that cuts it,” Billy said. Fulkerson felt a hard object—a pistol, he concluded—against the back of his head. “You’d best pull over, Mister. I’m done with your mouth.”
       “Don’t be stupid, Billy,” the woman said.
       “It ain’t stupid,” Billy said. “We’ll dump this joker like you said in the first place. Anyway, I don’t care for that word, Max…not from you or him.”
       “I never called you stupid,” Fulkerson said.
       “As good as.”
      Fulkerson pressed the accelerator so the car leaped forward. In an instant they reached eighty miles an hour. “Have you ever considered,” he said, “what an odd thing it is to hurtle along in a car at night?”
      He felt the gun harder against his skull. “Pull over, I said.”
       “You did indeed.”
       “I done murder once tonight. Don’t think I won’t again.”
       “I suspected as much about poor Len.”
       “Jesus, Billy,” the woman said. “You and your yap.”
       “It don’t matter now, does it.”
      Fulkerson sank more comfortably into the seat and put his right hand at six o’clock on the steering wheel. “Billy’s right, it doesn’t matter what I know.” He reached forward and switched off the headlights, and the night rushed in like water through a breach in a seawall. The road was a silver ribbon in the moonlight, the soybean fields rumpled oceans of blue. The sky at the horizon had a wan glow, suggesting the lights of a far-off city or a morning sun creeping westward.
      Max gasped and Billy shouted, “What the fuck?”
       “Isn’t it odd, even exhilarating,” Fulkerson said, “to race across the earth in such darkness?” He swerved gently from one side of the road to the other, letting the tires drop onto the graveled shoulders. “Under a full moon you see how the world must have looked ten thousand, ten million years ago, and here you are in a tiny box of metal and glass, rushing blindly over its surface like a gnat on an elephant.”
      Max cried out each time the tires hit the shoulders, and Billy shouted again, “I’ll shoot you right now!”
       “Oh, Billy,” Fulkerson said. “I’m going eighty miles an hour, and neither of you is wearing a seatbelt.”
      The gun left his neck, and he heard hands patting vinyl cushions. “Ain’t no belts back here,” Billy said.
       “I removed them so I can vacuum more easily,” Fulkerson said. “As you noted, I’m a solitary creature. I rarely carry passengers.”
      Max’s free hand was pressed against the dashboard. She was panting heavily. “Please, Mister, please. Turn the lights on. I won’t let him hurt you.”
      Fulkerson laughed. “‘Please, Mister, please,’” he repeated. “When you spend so much time alone, you make the oddest connections. There’s an insipid pop song with the same title. Perhaps you’re acquainted—Whoa!” A dark shape was scuttling across the road, and though he wrenched the wheel a sound came of gut and bone exploding beneath a tire. Max screamed and he heard Billy tumble against the door. The car’s tail yawed crazily before settling.
       “I’d say that was a skunk, though it may have been a possum or raccoon,” Fulkerson said, easing off the gas. “When I douse the lights they appear like phantoms.”
       “Please,” Max cried. “Billy won’t hurt you. He does what I tell him.”
       “As you wish,” Fulkerson said. He turned the lights on and slowed to fifty. “See what happens, Billy,” he said over his shoulder, “when you ask politely?”
       “Fuck you,” came a voice. “You’re crazy.”
       “I’m not. Not clinically so, in any case. I do have habits you’d find peculiar, though I haven’t murdered anyone tonight.” He sat erect. “We’re at loggerheads, aren’t we, Max? Shoot me and we crash. You’ve already broken your collarbone, and the way you hug yourself suggests internal injuries as well.”
      Her voice was hoarse. “Tell me what you want, then.”
      Fulkerson inhaled deeply. “Smell that?” he said. “It was a skunk after all. A friend once told me that a skunk—that faraway whiff on the road—smells like a woman. I wouldn’t know, having never smelled a woman besides Mother. When I was a boy, she smelled of Ivory soap and nutmeg potpourri. Now she smells of Depends and gingivitis.”
       “Ain’t nobody cares what your mama smells like,” Billy said.
       “Max asked what I wanted, and that’s the first thing that came to mind.” He sought the young man in the mirror. “Is it true, Billy? Does a skunk smell like a woman?”
      When no answer came, Fulkerson accelerated and reached for the headlights. “Tell him,” Max cried. “Tell him what he wants to know.”
       “I guess sometimes,” Billy said quickly. “Some might smell kind of ripe and randy like that. It’s all kinds, though. It’s all kinds of women in the world.”
      Fulkerson lifted a hand to massage his temples. “‘It’s all kind of women in the world,’” he repeated, “yet even Mother looks away when I enter the room.”
      They passed through a tunnel of corn again, stalks rushing by in a blur. “I have a confession to make,” Fulkerson said. “The friend I mentioned a moment ago wasn’t a friend at all, but someone I picked up by the side of the road like you. His car was broken down, his phone dead. I was his only hope.”
       “Did you do your snake-charmer thing on him, too?” Billy asked.
       “If you’re asking did I tell him bits and pieces of his story from clues I picked up, yes, I did. I told him his voice suggested Chicago, and he acknowledged being born there. He carried a suitcase that held samples of what he was selling—cleaning products, I guessed, from the piney smell.”
       “What happened to him?” Max asked.
      Fulkerson paused. “Everything was going smoothly,” he said finally. “He asked me to drop him at an all-night garage, which I fully intended to do. It wasn’t until he decided to entertain me with lewd chatter—skunks and women and how as a boy he’d lost a testicle slipping off a bicycle seat—that things began to go south.”
       “Like Billy and the monkey talk,” she said.
      Fulkerson nodded. “Bingo.”
       “Dang,” the young man said, “I was just yakking like folks do.”
       “When people display such disrespect in my office I have no choice but to listen,” Fulkerson said. “Their abysmal record keeping, their crude jokes, their mountainous lies. My car is another matter. The salesman discussed his genitals and the carnal appetites of lonely housewives. Billy put his hands on my window frame and called me a monkey.” His voice trembled. “I have a right to expect a certain level of decorum on my own premises. I have a right to – ”
      They drove on in silence. The moon had sunk low and shone like a beacon above the horizon. Fulkerson put both hands on the wheel and aimed toward it.
       “What’s your name?” Max asked suddenly.
      Fulkerson looked at her. She was staring back, hugging herself with both arms now. “John,” he said, though his name was Howard. “My name is John.”
      Her voice was soft as she leaned her upper body toward him. “John,” she said. “I’ve always been a man’s girl. I know when they’re in trouble, I know what they need.”
       “You do that,” Billy called out.
      She leaned closer. “You don’t have a soul in the world, do you, John?”
      Fulkerson gripped and ungripped the steering wheel. “Do I have a woman friend? Is that what you’re asking?”
       “That’s exactly what I mean.”
      The road rushed beneath them. The tires made a high, blue hum like wind through an attic.“No,” he said at last. “Besides Mother there’s no one.”
       “Shoot,” Billy said. “You just need to get laid, is all.”
       “No, Billy,” the woman said, her eyes never leaving Fulkerson’s face. “He needs so much more than that.” She reached out and laid a hand on his arm. “What say we start again, John. What say we pull over and talk, just you and me.”
      Fulkerson stiffened until she withdrew her hand. “The moment I stop,” he said, “you shoot me and take my car.”
       “No,” Max said. “I’m like you. I know what it is to have nobody.”
       “Thanks a heap,” Billy said.
       “We can fix this, the two of us,” the woman said. “You stopped to help when you didn’t have to, when you could have passed by on the other side and gone home to Mother.”She smiled and touched his arm again. “You’re searching for something, baby. It’s clear as the nose on your face.”
      Fulkerson stared forward. A sign indicated the city was five miles distant, and he slowed to forty. “We won’t be stopping just yet,” he said. “Before long we’ll enter a residential area, and I don’t believe you’ll shoot me there. You already have one body in your wake. You didn’t plan for two.”
       “If you knew Len…” Max said, then shook her head. “But that’s not what we’re talking about.” A fingernail grazed his cheek. “What do you want, John? What are you looking for so late at night?”
      Fulkerson breathed deeply. The skunk had faded, and he took in the woman’s perfume —a smell like burnt apricots. “Mother broke a hip two months ago,” he said finally,“ and immediately developed a kidney infection. I insisted on antibiotics, of course, and the infection subsided.”
       “Then the infection returned, and again the antibiotics.”
       “Oh, my.”
       “Three times it has happened, and now the doctors are suggesting we hold off on further treatment. Let sepsis overwhelm her. Death is painless.”
       “And what do you say to that?”
       “Let the old bat die,” Billy called cheerfully. “Maybe then you can get out and enjoy life.” A plastic bag rattled. “Get dirty for once.”
       “Shut up, Billy,” Max said. “You and your yap.”
       “I’m just saying…”
       “John doesn’t care what you’re saying.”
       “Truth be told,” Fulkerson said, “your young friend has perfectly captured my dilemma. I’m sixty-two years old, and I’ve never left the family home. I –I’ve never…”
      They’d left the country and were passing through an industrial park. Dark factories lined the road. Storage tanks loomed like space ships.
       “I know, baby,” Max said. She squeezed his arm once more, then turned squarely to face him. She dropped the arm she’d used to hug herself, then raised the opposite hand and unbuttoned her blouse. In an instant her breasts spilled out—white in the moonlight, whiter than the moon itself, nipples large and dark as the foil-wrapped chocolate dollars he kept on his desk for clients.
       “You’ve never buried your face in a pair of these, have you, John?” she said, wincing as she held her shoulders back. “I don’t know where your friend got that skunk nonsense. Billy says I taste like re-heated pot roast.”
      Fulkerson’s foot left the gas pedal as he peered at her.
      “Don’t be afraid, baby,” she murmured. “They won’t bite.”
       “I’m not afraid,” Fulkerson said.
      Fulkerson massaged his temples again. The car slowed. “You can’t know how—” he began, then heard a commotion as Max launched herself toward him—bracelets and breasts and white teeth flashing—and scrabbled at the wheel.
       “Shoot him, Billy!” she screamed. “Shoot him now!”
      Fulkerson hunched and twisted as she clawed at his hands. He had a moment’s glimpse of the pistol floating between them and then a report went off, and he felt a blow like a skillet against the side of his head. His elbow caught the woman in her broken place, and as the car careered off the highway he heard her scream again.

He woke to the useless clacking of a crankshaft disengaged from the connecting rods. He opened his eyes and stared into a weedy embankment, the weeds so close they tickled the shattered windshield. He looked down and saw the airbag drooping like an empty pillowcase from the padded center of the steering wheel. He felt for his glasses. They were broken in two but pressed so deeply to his face he had to peel them off, one piece and then the other. The right side of his head burned and he fingered a wet crease on his temple where the bullet had grazed his skull.
       “I can’t feel my legs,” a voice said, and Fulkerson saw that Billy was bundled into the space between front seat and dashboard. A silvery light filled the car, and the young man’s eyes were round and bright as a child’s. “I can’t feel my legs,” he said again.
      Fulkerson looked for Max and saw that she’d been hurled through the windshield, her upper body suspended above the hood, her lower half still in the car. One arm dangled in the void, limp as a marionette’s, bracelets stacked where her wrist widened to become a hand. The way their bodies were piled together reminded Fulkerson of medieval renderings of Hades, and he concentrated fiercely to take in the images and retain them.
       “This didn’t turn out as I’d hoped,” he said after a time, first to himself and then to Billy when he saw that the man was listening. The words came out strangely, and he knew that his nose and perhaps his jaw were broken. Nevertheless he laughed. “What an odd thing,” he said. “We began our relationship with an accident and broken bones, and now we’re ending it the same way.”
      The young man’s eyes followed his every utterance.
       “I’m not overly concerned,” Fulkerson said, “even if you survive. I’m a respectable loan officer, while you and Max are criminals on the run. A good Samaritan makes an unfortunate choice and pays the price.” He craned his neck this way and that, and was pleased at the range of motion. “I try to keep mementos from these encounters,” he said. “I have a bottle of glass cleaner in my pantry from the salesman’s sample case, and I carry a woman’s handkerchief in my breast pocket every day to the bank.” He shook his head. “What possesses a person, a young woman especially, to hitchhike in today’s climate? It boggles the mind.”
      He heard the far off wail of sirens and glanced at Billy. “By the by,” he said. “Mother is alive and living in a retirement village in Florida, where—can you imagine? —the most common ailments are chlamydia and syphilis.”
      To his surprise the young man smiled. “Mister,” he whispered. He opened and closed his mouth several times, though when Fulkerson bent close he spoke as if addressing a crowded room. “Ain’t nobody cares who your Mama’s fucking.”
      He raised the pistol and shot Fulkerson through the eye.

© Bob Johnson 2018

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Author Bio
Bob JohnsonBob Johnson lives and writes in South Bend, Indiana. His story "Bird Fever" won the Marguerite McGlinn award in Philadelphia Stories magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other stories have appeared in the online mags Wags Revue and Winning Writers. A new story appeared in November 2017 in American Fiction (New Rivers Press). He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop.