Crime, Romance, and Self-Sacrifice: Sea Of Hearts

This post is for readers who really enjoy the quick, literary 1-2-punch that only short stories can deliver.  Enjoy!

Title of story: Sea Of Hearts

 Sea Of Hearts (7, 630 word count): this story interweaves elements of crime, romance, and self-sacrifice and entertains the notion, regardless of the odds, love always find its way home.      

My short stories have appeared in The Writing Life, Millennium Shift Magazine, Taj Mahal Review and SoMa Literary Review

Sea of Hearts

     Blood soaked through his white shirt as he drove on the desolate highway.  Nothing appeared familiar to him, not the rural landscape, nor how the moon followed behind his car, drifting through the purple sky as if tethered to the car’s rear bumper.  The green glow from the Pontiac’s dashboard lights illuminated enough for him to see the revolver sitting in the passenger seat.  He reached for the gun and placed it on his thigh.  From under his seat, he pulled out a brown cloth and wiped the gun clean.  His hand moved slowly along the bluish-black metal before returning the gun to its hiding place. 

     Static hissed through the radio speakers, orphaned between ever-changing radio stations.  An audio stream of fragmented advertisements, hissing, radio voices, hissing, evangelical sermons, hissing, and different voices again, all blending in unison to the echoes of gun fire within his mind.  Over the ridge of his scraped knuckles, a myriad of headlights surfaced in the distance.  They rose onto the horizon like a swarm of fireflies released into winter’s darkness, glowing and moving fast.  As he stretched his arm into the backseat and fingered the bag’s handle, he felt his wound reopen, cold and sticky.  He hoisted the bag in to the passenger seat and covered it with his jacket.  A loud explosion followed by a burst of steam escaped from under the Pontiac’s hood; hot liquid spattered onto the windshield and the dashboard lights went black.  With a stiff steering wheel, the car shot into the median, speeding toward a flowing river of headlights.  He gripped and choked the steering wheel into submission, forcing the car to the outside lane and off the highway into complete darkness.

     The radiator pissed coolant as it whined and grumbled.  Steam poured through the car’s grille, like an angry spirit leaving a body, before disappearing into the night.  He placed the revolver in the bag and stepped out of the car.  A dilapidated billboard advertised gas and food, two miles ahead.  He kept a steady pace as he walked.      

     After the first mile, after being windblown by passing vehicles and stepping through road-killed carcasses, he climbed down into a ravine and walked until the soles of his boots were caked with mud.  Like a dog chasing its tail, he whipped the bag out of the ravine and followed it as if it never left his hand.  The bag landed heavily along side an uncultivated field.  Small animals scurried through acres of dried brush, zigzagging away from his footsteps while invisible birds took flight.  Sweat dripped off his hair and face, and the weight of his bag had seemingly grown heavier since the first mile. 

     When the gas station and adjacent diner’s signs sharpened into focus, he cut through the field, walking though dead vegetation toward a pool of light.  The white light washed into his eyes and stung like soap suds.  Two additional buildings, which were hidden behind the gas station and diner, now appeared: Tom’s Auto Repair and Tow Service and a row of farm worker quarters functioning as the Moon and Stars Motel.  Both places looked dirty and forgotten, but they were still trying to hold a smile. 

     A wind chime jingled from behind the door as he entered the gas station/mini-mart.  The place appeared abandoned but smelled of fresh cigarette smoke.  From behind the counter, an old man with glasses rested on a folding chair, watching television and puffing a cigarette.  “Need gas, mister,” the old man questioned, swiveling his sights back to the TV.  “Looking for Tom.  My car’s on the side of the highway, a couple of miles back, with a blown radiator,” he said, hiding the blood on his shirt.  “Tom gets in around eight o’clock every morning; you’ll find him in the back there,” the old man said, his eyes still fixed on the screen.  He placed a box of gauze, a roll of tape, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol upon the counter, then asked for one of the novelty t-shirts on display behind the counter.  The old man gasped at the sight of him.

     “Which shirt would you like, mister?” 

     “Give me the one with the wolf.  And, I’ll take one of those hats, too.  The one that says ‘Live to Ride.  Ride to Live.’”

     “Sounds like a good enough motto to me.  That’ll be $35.75.”

He handed the old man a couple of twenty dollar bills and told him to keep the change, then walked out of the market toward the motel.

     In his motel room, he undressed and walked into the windowless bathroom, placing his gun on the toilet tank.  He examined his wound, flaking away the crusted blood from the horizontal laceration on the left side of his stomach and squeezing out fresh blood from the knife wound; the cut was deep and infected.  He thought of dental floss and sewing needles while stepping into the shower.  Blood mixed with soap suds as water carried dirty, pink lather down the drain; the odor of iron and the scent of white flowers rose with the steam, coating the bathroom walls with a blanket of moisture.

     Under the shower head, fatigue, blood loss, and dehydration surrounded him.  Echoes of gun blasts filled his head as the room appeared to sway.  He stumbled from the shower toward the paper bag on the bed and fell next to it.  Rolling onto his back, he tore open the bag, grabbed the bottle of rubbing alcohol, and slid his left hand to the wound; his thumb and trigger finger stretched open the wound as he flooded it with alcohol.  Sweat built on his forehead until he could no longer feel the sting.  He dressed the wound before falling asleep with his gun and leather bag in hand.

     The following morning with his hat pulled low, he waited outside Tom’s Auto Repair and Tow Service until a green Ford truck stopped in front of the garage.  “You Tom,” he asked, readjusting his hat.  “The owner of this garage?” 

     “Yes, sir.  I’m Tom, Tom junior.  Which Tom are you looking for?”

     “Which ever one can tow my car to this garage, broke down about two miles back.”

     “You’re the owner of that ‘75 Firebird?  Drove passed her this morning . . . you ever think of selling her?”

     “She can’t even hold a drop of water right now.  Need to get back on the road as soon as possible,” he said, tossing Tom the keys while scraping off a chunk of dried mud from his boot.  “Sure thing.  I’ll have her on my lift in no time,” Tom said. 

     As the tow truck disappeared out of sight, he walked down to the diner with his revolver tucked in his waistband.  The diner was nothing more than a place for truckers to get a hot meal and a cup of coffee in between cities.  It had the charm of a foulmouthed woman sitting on a toilet, and it was the type of place where conversations were kept to a minimum and where locking eyes with a stranger could land a person in a hospital.  These types of places always made his blood race a little faster and his trigger finger twitch.  He walked to the booth closest to the back door and sat facing the diner’s entrance.  The wind rushed through the back door, ushering in the damp smell of fresh soil and diesel exhaust as if they were paying customers.

     He wondered how the twenty-something year old waitress ended up in a place like this as she asked for his order.  She had her dirty blond hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail while several strands outlined her narrow face.  And, just above her left ankle, two interlocking hearts and the name Levi were inked into her skin by an unsteady hand.  He assumed it was Levi’s only act of permanence. 

     While waiting for his answer, she couldn’t help but stare at the reddish-pink, scrape marks circling each of his knuckles.  The cuts and scratches covered his hands, like tattered gloves stitched together by scars.  She smiled as she wrote his order on her notepad, then straightened her posture and walked away.  She felt different inside when taking his order but couldn’t begin to describe the feeling; however, she knew she hadn’t felt that way toward a man in a long time and wanted more.  She returned with a clean ashtray and placed it before him and then filled his cup with coffee.

     “Thought you might need an ashtray?”

     “Thank you, but what gave you the idea that I smoke?”

     “Don’t know, but I know you smoke.  And, I know you like pancakes, and you bought that shirt and hat at the mini-mart,” she said in a confident tone.  “My name’s Madeline, but you can call me Maddy for short.” 

     When Maddy brought his breakfast to his table, she imagined him to be more than a stranger, more than someone who would leave in the middle of the night without saying goodbye, someone who would take her so far from her reality that she would forget her past.  However, she knew it was only a little dream, one that helped her make it through another day.  Placing the bill on the table, she said, “If there’s anything else you need, you just ask,” then inhaled and waited a moment.  A broken smile was all she received in return.  Later, while putting his dirty dishes into a plastic bin and wiping down the booth, she felt embarrassed for thinking someone could love her again.

     Leaving the diner, he noticed his Firebird on the lift and heard Tom cursing while extracting parts from the car’s engine; Tom resembled a frustrated dentist attempting to remove a set of deeply-rooted wisdom teeth from a patient’s mouth.  One by one, parts began piling up on each other.  He walked into the garage as Tom said, “Stupid, goddamn, water pump.  Quit putting up a fight.”  “Looks like she’s got you up against the ropes,” he said, “What’s the damage?”  Tom, without breaking his line of sight, said, “Yeah, mister, she’s been a pain the entire time, but I think I got her licked.”  Then with a loud grunt, Tom allowed his wrenches to fall on the garage floor as he carefully held the water pump with both hands.  He smiled like a mechanic who had just helped a car give birth to a water pump; with water streaming down his arms and dripping onto the floor, he placed the engine part next to the pile of others.  “From the looks of her, looks like you’ve been mistreating her; and now, she’s going to make you pay, mister,” Tom said, wiping the sweat from his brow.

     Tom explained that the car’s belts, radiator, water hose and pump needed replacing and offered to order the parts today, but the parts wouldn’t arrive for another four to five days.  “Sorry, mister, it’s not everyday I’m asked to work on a 1975 Firebird, so I don’t typically stock those parts,” Tom apologetically said.  He asked Tom to order the parts before walking outside to smoke a cigarette. 

     He had taken two drags before noticing a smiling Maddy walking towards him.  “See, I knew you smoked,” she said, walking passed him into Tom’s office.  From outside, he overheard Maddy and Tom discuss money, parts and labor, before she reappeared and asked to use his lighter.  “So, it looks like you’re stuck here, too,” she said, taking a pull from her cigarette.  “Isn’t that a coincidence, kinda funny how things work out sometimes, don’t you think?  I mean, one day you’re on that highway over there, going somewhere fast with nothing in front of you but your dreams and then out of nowhere–bam!  You wake up here, right here.  Stuck.   That’s how it begins, one day bleeding into the next.  So, where are you staying?  Oh, wait, let me guess–the Moon and Stars Motel.  Am I right?”

     “Listen, I’m just passing through.  I’ll be gone as soon as my car’s fixed.”

     “Where you headed?”

     “Haven’t given it much thought really, maybe somewhere with mountains and a coastline,” he said, snubbing out his smoke.  “Sounds pretty . . . well, break’s over, better get back to work; Can’t keep the chicken fried steaks waiting,” she said, “So, now that were officially neighbors, what can I call you?”

     “Memphis.”

     “Like the city?”

     “Don’t know, never been there.”

     “Maybe you should visit, even though that’s not what I meant.  See you ‘round, Memphis.”

     As Maddy walked back to the diner, Memphis stood watching her slender body push against the wind, impressed at how quickly she sized up his situation.  From the garage’s rear corner, Tom’s voice jumped over Memphis’s shoulders, “Do yourself a favor, mister.  Stay away from her.  I’d admit she’s nice to look at, no question about it, but that’s about it.  She’s the type of woman who shoots first and asks ‘who gives a fuck’ later, know what I mean?  All bite and no bark.  That’s why I keep our business strictly business.  Anyway, I overheard you say that you got a room at the motel there.”  “Is there something wrong with that place,” Memphis questioned.

     “No, no, not at all, just wanted to know how I could get a hold of you, but I guess I won’t need to–”

     “Can’t get very far without my wheels; but if you need something, you can always leave me a note at the front desk,” Memphis said, walking out of the garage toward his room.

     Memphis slid the gun from his backside to his front and carefully keyed opened his door and, with his gun now drawn, slowly turned the corner into the bathroom.  The place was empty.  He locked and bolted the door then tucked the top of a chair under the doorknob before tossing the leather bag on the bed.  Bending to his knees bedside, he placed the gun next to the bag on the mattress and unzipped the bag, then rolled back onto his heels.  “Wholly shit,” he whispered under his breath.  His vision of grandeur peeled back his eyelids, widening the gleam in his eyes. However, the fantastic image slowed to a dead stop, distorted and melted beyond recognition, like frames on a celluloid film burning to white on the silver screen.  “They’re going to hunt me down and kill me . . . got to keep moving,” he said, zipping up the bag.

     He stashed the bag under the bed and felt the familiar wetness of his bleeding wound.  The blood had completely soaked through the gauze.  In the bathroom, he removed his shirt, peeled away the red gauze, and redressed the wound.  He had underestimated the depth of the wound and growing infection.  He squeezed out the pus until blood followed, and then flooded the wound with alcohol.  The sting caused the skin on the back of his neck to crawl to the top of his head.  He grimaced and poured more alcohol into the hole in his stomach.  The idea of visiting a doctor entered his thoughts but disappeared.  “Too many questions, too risky for just a scratch,” he said through a clenched jaw. 

     With a patch of clean gauze on the wound, he laid on the bed smoking, wondering if they were closing in on him, wondering if they figured out who ran away with the money.  They all had their hands in the deal.   The guy who doesn’t end up at the morgue with a toe tag is the one who moves to the top of their list, and he knew, sooner or later, they would send someone after him.  By that time, the money would no longer be the issue.  The stolen money would only be the kindling for a raging wildfire.  Within his motel room, he waited as his imagination played host to a series of dreadful thoughts, all eating though his mind like hungry worms burrowing through a piece of decaying fruit. 

     The sun sank closer to the horizon, drowning in a reddish-pink sky.  He turned on the television and found a game show to distract his imagination.  White noise filled his room and cleared his thoughts, now only the grumbling sounds of diesel engines lumbering outside his room occupied his mind.  Tubes of white and green neon flickered on, outlining the motel’s eaves, painting a mint green glow on the row of motel doors. 

     Through the gap between the curtains, he saw shadows stretching across the parking lot.  Laughter rose above the click-clacking of high heel shoes before trailing off into a nearby room.  Several doors away, more heels were heard approaching his room, then stopped on his doorstep.  His finger twitched as it slid onto the gun’s trigger.  “Can you open the door?  My hands are full, thought you might want some dinner.  Open up, it’s Maddy . . . from the diner,” she said.  He peered out between the curtains before opening his door.

     “Hope I didn’t interrupt your beauty sleep, cowboy.  Want a beer?”

     “How did you know this was my room?”

     “I don’t know.  After I heard your TV, I just knew.”

     “My TV?  It could have been anyone’s TV.”

     “Yeah, it could have been anyone’s, but not really.  Listen, I’ve lived here long enough to know that people stay here for two reasons, and watching television isn’t one of them.  This is the Moon and Stars, not the Taj Mahal.  Sorry to be the one who had to break it to you, Memphis.  Now, do you want that beer?”

     “How long you been living here?”

     “Longer than I care to recall . . . a motel room shouldn’t have a guest’s furniture in it, or family pictures on the walls, or have their clothes washed every Thursday morning by the maid.  I don’t really remember when I stopped being a guest and starting being a person who lives out of a motel room,” Maddy confessed.  “So, how about you, cowboy, you got big plans for yourself?”    

     Memphis drank his beer without response, sort of feeling sorry for Maddy, but he wasn’t looking for a charity case.  He didn’t need anyone slowing him down or getting in the way.  They both knew she would be forgotten as soon as he was back on the road, but that didn’t stop her.  Occasional sex with strangers, one-night-stands, has been the closest Maddy’s been to falling in love in a long time.  She’s learned to close her eyes and imagine a better tomorrow, all through the smell of beer and cigarettes.

     Maddy sat closer to Memphis on the bed, kicking off her heels and resting her head on him.  She felt his body become tense, but she calmed him down when he tried moving away.  Maddy moved her hand up Memphis thigh, up to his belt buckle and started working toward removing his pants but stopped when her fingers became wet.  She slid her thumb across her fingertips and smelled blood in the air.  “Jesus, Memphis, you’re bleeding.” 

     Maddy found the first-aid supplies and cleaned his wound, resisting the urge to ask how he acquired it.  She had her own suspicions, and none of them were good.  “Where are you going to go?  I mean, when you get enough money to leave this place,” Memphis asked, while Maddy taped a clean patch of gauze to his stomach.  “Oh, I don’t know.  Somewhere far, somewhere without the smell of wet dirt and greasy food,” she chuckled.  “Somewhere where I can stretch out, feel a cool breeze on my skin and not see a single eighteen wheeler in any direction I look.”  “Sounds like a nice place, Maddy,” he said, lighting a cigarette.  “Doesn’t it though?  Yeah, it’ll be a while . . . but once I finish paying Tom to fix my clunker and save a little cash, I plan on hightailing out of here, that’s for sure.”

     “Tom’s fixing your car . . . in his garage?”

     “Well, of course.  Where else would he fix cars?  He’s not fixing it right now.  But when I finishing paying off the repair bill, he said he would start working on it, once the bill is paid in full.  He usually gets thirty, maybe fifty dollars, each month from me, so as you can imagine, it’s been a slow–”

     “What type of car is it?”

     “Thunderbird, not sure of the year.  It’s an old one, want to say 1979, maybe ‘78.  He keeps it under a tarp in his garage.  Why?  You looking to own another car that don’t run?  You need a doctor more than another set of wheels.”

     The following morning, Maddy walked back to her room alone.  She wasn’t certain if Memphis used a condom or if he didn’t, but she wanted to believe he did.  She already knew what she would do if she became pregnant.  Someone had once told her that it gets easier each time, but it turned out to be the exact opposite for Maddy.  She shoved the thought to the back of her mind and believed Memphis protected them. 

     From his window, Memphis could see Tom working on someone’s truck and decided to pay him a visit.  Memphis noticed a covered car toward the rear of Tom’s garage.  Cardboard boxes, several stacks of newspapers, greasy wrenches, and dust sat on the car’s hood.  A thick layer of dust stuck to Memphis’s fingertips as he picked up one of the newspapers and read its date.  “I use them to wrap old parts in, keeps the oil from dripping on the floor,” Tom said, without breaking his concentration.  “What do you got under the tarp, something fast, like my Firebird,” Memphis asked, lifting one of the tarp’s corners.  “Oh, that thing, “Tom laughed.  “Fast?” he laughed again, “That bucket of bolts hasn’t seen the road in so long that I bet it wouldn’t even recognize it.  That rust bucket belongs to Maddy, the waitress at the diner.  She’s paying me to bring it back to life.  Her Thunderbird is more like a lame duck,” he said, laughing until he coughed.

     “What’s wrong with the lame duck?”

     “Well, for starters, the damn thing needs a front to rear tune-up, then a bunch of replacement parts, which I already ordered.  But Maddy doesn’t have the money to start the project, not all of it.”

     “How long would it take to fix it, make it road ready?  A day or two, give or take a few hours?”

     “Two days?  If I cleared my slate, man, I bet I can have that T-bird flying again in a day.  A twelve hour day, that is.  That’s only if she had the money, but she don’t, so it’ll be another six or seven months before I get started, I imagine.”

     Memphis wished Tom a good day, walked back to his motel room, locked the door, and turned on the television.  He sat on the bed watching a local news anchor report a story about a botched jewelry heist.  “Four found dead in a nearby abandoned warehouse.  One of the men was released from a California state prison one week ago,” the news anchor stated.

     Memphis drifted in and out of sleep and no longer counted time by hours, but rather by day and night.  While asleep, he wandered seaside in a golden field of sand, feeling the warm grains cradle around his bare feet as sunlight dance upon blue waters in the distance.  He could see himself in white linen attire walking hand in hand with a small child, laughing with the child and hoisting him upon his shoulders.  Memphis had this dream ever since he pulled the trigger and killed those men; he would awaken from his dream, time and time again, after seeing the threads of his white linen shirt bleed into red.

     Like the previous night, Maddy knocked on Memphis’s door with his dinner in hand.  “Open up, cowboy, it’s me again,” Maddy said, her voice slipping through the door and into Memphis’s ears.  They were soon chewing through their fried chicken and mashed potato dinners before Memphis looked at Maddy and said, “Look, I’ve been thinking, I want to talk to you about leaving this rat hole.”  “Leaving?  What do you mean, leave this motel, this county, the state?  What are you saying exactly,” she questioned, coolly sipping her beer as if Memphis was about to play a cruel joke on her.

     “I’m saying, drive to Mexico.  Leave all our troubles behind.  We both could use a new start.  You don’t have to if you don’t want to, I just thought–”

     “Jesus Christ, Memphis, are you serious?”

     “Dead serious, Maddy, wouldn’t kid you about something like this.”    

     “Hell, I never been to Mexico before, don’t even know how to speak Mexican.  But if it means getting out of here, I’m in.”

     By 8 o’clock the next morning, Memphis peered outside his window, waiting for Tom to arrive at work.  No more than ten minutes had passed before Memphis walked out of his room and followed Tom’s truck to his garage.  “Good morning.  I’m still waiting on those parts,” Tom said, pulling the chain to the garage’s roll up door.

     “I’m not here about the parts.  I’m here to make you a deal, a very special deal, Tom.”

     “What kind of special deal are you talking about?  Because my garage isn’t for sale, it’s been in my family since–”

     “I want to offer you my Firebird.”

     “Your Firebird?  Man, I’d be the bull’s horns around here with that car, but I ain’t got that kind of money, but if I did, I –”

     “I want to trade you my Firebird for the cost of parts and labor on that old Thunderbird there.”

     “But that’s Maddy’s car?”

     “True, it is Maddy’s car.  Can you give that T-bird its wings in twelve hours, Tom?”

     “I’m pretty sure I can, but I haven’t worked that hard in awhile, but I’ll see what I can do.”

     “Here’s a hundred to get you started and another hundred will be waiting for you when you finish.  See you tonight.”

     “Thank you, mister.”

     Memphis forced a smile and walked away as pain raced through his body again.  His stomach muscles convulsed, sending pains down his left side of his body as sweat built on his forehead.  Memphis cleaned his wound again, pinching out the pus until the fluid poured out red.  He knew the infection was spreading and, unless he sees a doctor soon, he wouldn’t have a fighting chance.  “Once we make it to Mexico, I’ll see a doctor,” he whispered.

     Memphis waited in his room with the television on behind a locked door; the TV was nothing more than white noise as he drifted in and out of sleep.  And again, he wandered seaside through a golden field of sand with the child’s laughter echoing in his ears.  The same fantastic dream with the same dreadful ending, over and over, white linen soaked in red again.  Memphis opened his eyes to Tom throttling the Thunderbird’s engine outside his window.  He reached under his pillow for his revolver and tucked it in his waistband, concealing it under his shirt before stepping outside.  “Listen to that engine.  I told you I’d have her done in twelve hours, didn’t I,” Tom said behind the steering wheel.

     “And as I promised, here’s that other hundred.  The Firebird’s yours now, just take her out every once and a while so she can stretch her legs.”

     “Thank you, but I kind of feel like I got the better end of the stick, so I put new tires on her all the way around, even threw in a new spare.”

     The two men exchanged smiles and sealed the deal with a solid handshake.  Tom thanked Memphis one last time before driving away.  Memphis sat in the driver’s seat, revved the engine twice, and drove the T-bird sixty yards to the gas station.  The interior smelled musty, like an old forgotten coat, and the shocks creaked from age, but the engine was strong and the brakes felt good.  Memphis walked around the car and checked all the lights, then steered the car back to his room.  He reversed into a parking space and unlocked the trunk before going inside his room.     

     It wasn’t long after that before Maddy knocked on Memphis’s door, holding a bag of dinner in each hand.  “I did what you told me, just like you said.  I didn’t even hint that we were leaving, nothing out of the ordinary,” she said, proudly.  “I brought us dinner, but you’re probably so sick of chicken by now.  It’s my free meal of the day, so I–”  “We’ll take it with us, now you go get your things and put them in a bag,” he said.

     As Maddy moved like a tornado through her room, tossing her clothes into a duffle bag, she worried that Memphis had lied to her, creating a distraction while he sped off into the night.  Visions of Levi flooded her thoughts; and once again, she feared opening her door to an empty parking lot.  She mustered her remaining strands of trust and fought the familiar voice in her head telling her she wasn’t worthy of anything better, nothing more than life’s little fool.  Maddy opened the door and saw Memphis waiting behind the steering wheel of her Thunderbird.  “Let’s go, Maddy; we got to hit the road,” he said, though the passenger window.  She hopped in, closed the door, and sat with her eyes locked in a forward position until Memphis asked if she’d like to listen to the radio.

     They drove throughout the night, only stopping at gas stations along the way.  At times, the silence in the car would cause Maddy to start conversations, mostly one-sided ones.  Memphis didn’t seem to mind too much.  He enjoyed the sound of her voice.  Maddy moved from subject to subject like a humming bird, flying from flower to flower.  She commented on how the evening air smelled, how some cacti resemble men being held at gun point, but she soon grew silent and stared out the window at the vacant desert landscape, wondering if Memphis could ever love her.  She imagined them living together, just her and Memphis and no one else, in one of those colorful houses, a flamingo pink and azure blue house, like the one she once saw in a magazine. 

     As Memphis drove, he stole glances at Maddy, noticing how the soft glow from the dashboard lights illuminated off her face.  Minutes before dawn, Memphis steered Maddy’s car off the highway and into a rest stop.  Several eighteen wheelers, a couple of RVs, and less than a handful of cars occupied the parking lot.  Maddy sat upright in the backseat, stretched and yawned, allowing the blanket to slide off her shoulders.  “How far are we,” she questioned.  “Not far.  I’d say we should be crossing the border some where around dinner time,” Memphis said, rubbing his eyes.  “You want me to go first?”  “No, I’ll go,” Maddy said, grabbing her travel bag on her way toward the woman’s restroom.  “Sit tight, I’ll be right back.” 

     She began thinking of ways to get herself back to her room at the Moon and Stars Motel, back to her job at the diner.  As she changed clothes, her eyes were drawn to the homemade tattoo that Levi inked on her.  She stopped and stared at the two hearts above the black letters that spelled Levi; with all her might, she pressed her thumb on his name and hoped that it would be gone when she moved her hand.  Only a red mark surfaced over the “e” but made her feel better inside.  She forced herself to believe that Memphis would still be waiting for her in the parking lot.  Maddy washed her face, brushed her teeth, and sponged herself with coarse paper towels before walking out of the restroom.

     Memphis quickly shut the trunk when Maddy approached.  “Don’t you look brand new?  You mind fixing us a couple of sandwiches while I use the restroom,” he said, while using his hand to shade his eyes from the sun. 

     “Sure thing . . . hey, Memphis, you’re–”

     “What, what’s wrong?”

     “You’re looking a bit pale.”

     “I feel fine, just tired from driving all night, that’s all.  I’ll be good to go after I clean myself up.  You mind doing some of the driving today?”

     “Sure, whatever you say.”

     From the driver’s seat, Maddy watched Memphis walk toward the restroom.  She noticed Memphis had developed a slight limp and suspected the infection was spreading.  In a restroom stall, Memphis placed the bottle of alcohol upon the top of the metal toilet paper dispenser and removed his shirt.  And again, he found himself chasing the infection.  The wound was uglier than before and festering.  Memphis picked away the yellow scab and squeezed until sweat covered his face.  He dressed the wound, stepped to a sink basin and filled his hands with cold water and drank deeply.  Memphis swished the water around his mouth; the water drained clear the first several times but not the last.  “We’re almost there,” he whispered, leaving the empty alcohol bottle and box of gauze in the restroom.

     Maddy drove in to the late afternoon while Memphis slept in the backseat.  She gripped the steering wheel, worried about Memphis’s worsening condition as the Thunderbird’s tires chewed their way toward the Mexican border.  Maddy placed the jug of water behind her seat and told Memphis to take a drink.  He lumbered about behind her, occasionally raising the jug to his mouth.  She heard Memphis mumble fragmented sentences as he slept, as if he were trapped in a recurring nightmare, then silence, and then mumbling again.  The sun burned through the sky, two fists above the horizon when Memphis raised his head from his the backseat. 

     “We’re coming up on the border, ten miles, the sign said,” Maddy stated, looking into the rearview mirror at Memphis.  “You feeling better?”  “The rest did me some good and so did the water,” Memphis said, climbing to the front seat.  “Remember, when we get to the border, smile and act polite like we’re two lovebirds on vacation, okay?”  Maddy smiled.  “Lovebirds on vacation,” she repeated with giggle.

     Under a flood of white lights, rows of vehicles lined up, waiting to drive into Mexico.  “How do I look,” Memphis asked.  “Wipe that shine off your forehead, and you’ll be fine,” Maddy answered, loosening a button on her blouse.  Two U.S. border patrol vehicles flanked the border’s crossing terminals on the United States’ side; each parked with watching patrolmen inside.  The intensity of the beaming lights grew as the Thunderbird crept toward the borderline.      

     Stopping at the border patrol booth, the patrolman asked Maddy a series of questions regarding her business in Mexico.  And again, she giggled and said, “We’re just two lovebirds on vacation, officer.”  The patrolman forced a tiny smile and ducked his head inside the car, aiming his sights at Memphis.

     “Are you feeling okay, sir?” 

     “Feeling just fine, except that I believe I ate some chicken that wasn’t fully cooked some miles back.  I’ll be better in the morning, officer,” Memphis said, laying his hand over his stomach.  The patrolman tapped their driver licenses against the palm of his hand, suspicious of Memphis.  “We can’t wait to explore every inch of your beautiful country, officer,” she said in a sultry tone, squaring her shoulders and offering the patrolman an ample view of her cleavage.  The patrolman filled his eyes with offerings, sucked his teeth, and returned their licenses.  “Welcome to Mexico,” he said, waving them through.

     “We did it, Memphis.  We’re in goddamn Mexico.  I can’t believe it,” Maddy said with excitement.  “Aren’t you happy?  Oh man, I loved how you said ‘I ate some chicken that wasn’t cooked,’ that’s was just . . . I don’t know . . . a gift from heaven, Memphis.  You just opened your mouth, and there it was.  Perfect.  Ain’t that right?”  “It was, wasn’t it?  Just perfect,” he confirmed, tasting the bitterness of blood in the back of his throat.  “Like a gift from heaven, Maddy.”

     Rain fell from the black sky and washed away the coat of dirt from the Thunderbird’s body, shedding her dusty, brown skin of forgotten places.  The rain soon developed in to a downpour, and the driving conditions made Maddy nervous.  “Damn, it’s like the clouds got so full they just busted open, like they just popped, like a million water balloons all at once,” she said.  “Maybe, we should find a motel for the night and get started again in the morning.  It’ll be nice to sleep in a bed tonight, clean up that wound again.”  “Maybe, you’re right,” he said.

     The next morning, Memphis awoke dizzy to an empty room, but the Thunderbird remained parked outside.  The car keys still rested at the bottom of his pant’s pocket and Maddy’s duffle bag still sat in the corner untouched.  Maddy had left Memphis a note taped to the bathroom mirror, letting him know she went out for food, cigarettes, and first-aid supplies.  Memphis dressed, locked the room, and walked several doors down to the motel office.  A dark-skinned Mexican woman sat behind the front desk.  “I’m staying here in your motel; I’m a guest here, but I’m looking for a place farther south, a small town by the ocean.  Do you know of this place,” Memphis questioned.

     “Yes, but there are many places like this, many towns by the ocean.  This is Mexico, senor,” she stated with a grin.  She unfolded a regional map and placed it between them.

     “The town I’m looking for has a large beach, and there are two very big rocks in the ocean.  You can see them from the beach; the rocks have big holes in the middle of them; they look like this.  Do you have a pen, I’ll draw them for you,” he asked.  The motel manager handed Memphis a pen and a piece of paper and then leaned against the counter and watched as he sketched a cluster of houses, a wide beach and a bay with two rock formations in the shape of two hearts.  Before Memphis had finished sketching, the motel manager touched his hand and said, “Yes, I know this place.  My brother, his wife was born there,” she said with a smile.  “Its name is El Mar de Dos Corazones.  The sea of two hearts.”

     “How far?”

     “On bus, one day.  Car, ten hours, senor,” she said.  Then using another piece of paper, she drew a map and directions to the seaside town.

     “Thank you,” Memphis said, then wrote several words on the note and tucked it in his boot.  When Memphis pushed open the door to leave, the manager raised her voice, “Senor, you need a doctor.  You are sweating too much.  Sit down, I’ll call for a doctor, okay?”  Memphis smiled, looked her in the eyes and said, “No doctor, but thank you very much,” then walked out of the motel office and back to his room.

     Maddy was sitting on the ground with a bag of groceries on her lap outside their motel room.  “Jesus, Memphis, didn’t you read my note.  I said I was going to be right back,” Maddy said, standing up, appearing worried. 

     “Did you think I was going to leave you here?” he said, keying open the room.  “No, I never thought for one minute that you’d ever leave here.  I was more worried about you than me this time.  Let’s go inside, so I can clean you up.”

     After Memphis undressed, Maddy drew a cold bath to bring down his temperature.  She washed his body as his head leaned against the bathroom’s pink tiles.  Blood seeped from the wound beneath the water’s surface as Maddy laid a cold washrag upon Memphis’s forehead.  “If you’re not careful, I think I can get used to this,” Memphis said. 

     Maddy walked into the bedroom, reached into the grocery bag, and pulled out a bottle of alcohol, box of gauze, and a bottle of painkillers.  She set them down on the table and called for Memphis, then did her best at mending him, and neither of them spoke a word while she worked.  

     Memphis sat shirtless against the bed’s headboard as he pulled on his pants and boots, and Maddy watched him as she smoked a cigarette in silence.  “We better get on the road, looks like we got a ten hour stretch before reaching our destination, El Mar de Dos Corazones,” Memphis said, washing down several painkillers with a gulp of water.  More sweat had grown on Memphis’s face.  “Hey, I bought you something,” Maddy said, handing Memphis a thin cotton shirt.  “The lady at the store said they’re popular around here.  But you can’t have it unless you promise me that you’ll see a doctor when we get to that town.”

     “Sounds like a deal I can live with.”

     “Promise me you will.”

     “You have my word.”

     Memphis drove out of the parking lot and onto a city street leading to a seemingly endless stretch of coastal highway, and the city’s traffic sounds, street vendors, and playing children soon disappeared from the rearview mirror.  Maddy rested her bare feet upon the warm dashboard and stared out her window at the streaking blue and brown landscape.  She smiled at the thought of being a lovebird on vacation.  The wind flew in and out through the car’s open windows and filled her ears with its song, making her hair dance behind her like the flowing mane of a wild horse running free.  Maddy pictured herself sitting next to Memphis on the patio of their colorful house overlooking an infinite sea of blue.  She believed all the empty nights and countless tears she suffered had now paid for a life worth living.  She promised she would gift herself a new name and hairstyle the moment they arrived into town.

     “What’s the matter,” Maddy questioned as Memphis pulled the car onto the highway’s shoulder and flung open his door.  She watched as Memphis leaned out of the car and became sick.  “Too many painkillers,” he said, ignoring the small puddle of blood soaking into the dirt.  Memphis rinsed his mouth with water before closing his door, but the blood taste remained in the back of his throat.  “You should rest.  I’ll drive the rest of the way,” Maddy said, wiping his face clean.  “You just tell me where to go.”

     “Fine, just keep on this stretch of road and keep the tires straight until you see a beach town with two, huge rocks in the ocean.  You’ll now them when you see them, and don’t stop this car for nothing or nobody, no matter what.  You keep driving until we get there.”

     Memphis climbed into the backseat as Maddy sat down behind the steering wheel and looked over her left shoulder out into the desolate landscape.  She shifted the Thunderbird’s transmission into drive and shot back out onto the highway with great intent, like the last bullet from a dying man’s revolver.  Maddy’s mind jumped from thought to thought, mimicking a small ball within a roulette wheel, as her right foot grew heavy. 

     As her Thunderbird raced beneath the sun, she remembered the morning she met Memphis and the night they shared together.  Maddy tried believing she was more than the type of woman who’d lay down with a handsome stranger without protection, but this time, she surrendered to the truth.  From that very night, Maddy had known she would become pregnant.  She adjusted the rearview mirror and noticed Memphis had pulled the blanket over himself.

     More cars appeared on the highway as dusk approached.  The highway stretched around a bend, parting a series of large rocks which lined both sides, before descending down to a view of flat-roofed houses, a golden beach, and a pair of heart-shaped rocks jutting out of the sea in the distance.  Maddy gasped in disbelief.  “You were right, Memphis; they’re actually here; I can’t believe we made it, look at them,” she said, stopping the car on the highway’s shoulder.  “Wake up, you got to see this; it’s so beautiful . . . Memphis?” 

     The wind had blown the blanket partially off Memphis’s body, exposing the overflow of red through the once white cotton fibers of his shirt.  Maddy climbed in to the backseat and shook Memphis by his shoulders until she found herself weeping against his chest.  When her tears had finally dried, she covered him with the blanket and discovered a piece of paper in Memphis’s hand.  It was the map to El Mar de Dos Corazones.  Memphis had written a few words for Maddy next to the town’s name. 

     She walked around to rear of the car, keyed open the trunk, and found a screwdriver next to the Thunderbird’s spare tire.  She then slipped the screwdriver in between the rim and tire.  And with all her might, she pulled the screwdriver around the circumference of the rim until tire’s bead was fully exposed, then inserted her hand into the tire’s belly and realized Memphis’s words were true. 

     She closed the trunk, walked to the front of her car, and sat down on the warm hood with his words in her hand.  “Most of life’s wonderful gifts are found in the least expected places, Maddy.  Love, Memphis,” she whispered, as the sun faded into the sea.

###

For more info on the author, visit: www.ernestlangston.com

Thank you for stopping by my blog. 🙂                            

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