Driving home from Valley Fair, August, 1995, about 1:00AM, kids conked out and sprawled: a couple in side-by-side, sucker-sticky car seats, one more next to them, asleep against the window, and the oldest, the daughter, fast asleep in the back of the Seafoam Green Taurus station wagon. No such thing as seat belts. Pearl Jam moans on the radio and bugs explode on the windshield like black bullets. Army worms seethe in the trees.
"Can you find something else?"
"I like this song--reminds me of Seattle."
"we've never been there."
"...Can we find something else?"
Forty minutes later, deer, several of them, appear in the headlights, grazing just off the shoulder, their heads jerking up, fixed on the stabbing white beams.
"Jesus!" he says, adjusts his posture, blinking.
"What was that?" she whispers, jumped awake.
"Just deer. They're everywhere. Like running the gauntlet."
"You want me to drive? You look tired."
"I'm alright for a while. Have to get gas. You can drive after that, if you want."
The moon pours over the parking lot like a yellow, touchless pond. Music in the overhead awning over the gas pumps, Muzak-Meets-Carousel. A perverted version of "Benny and the Jets."
"I've got to get something to drink," she says, stretching, flexing in the moonshadow, her limbs angled gracefully, hair down, a little in her face, in her eyes, veiled, dark eyebrows.
"Go ahead, take your time. I'll be in to pay in a minute."
He watches her walk away and his mouth waters like it always does. She walks like she lives in her body, joyful, but wary, not merely inhabiting it. Like an animal. He watches her pull open the door. She looks back at him and smiles. His mouth waters again. He smiles back.
"Fucking beautiful," he says, then looks into the car, the four miniature him-and-hers sleeping there, chests and abdomens rising and falling in unison.
A dirty blue pickup truck with white trim slants into the parking lot and screeches to a stop at the adjacent pump. Four young men pile out, drunk and laughing, one of them shouting a riot of obscenities into the sky, aimed at no one in particular. His elbow bleeds generously.
In a moment, he realizes that the other three boys are bloody as well, none of them as copiously as the one with the injured elbow, but all have blood on their clothes and are decorated with a various assortment of lacerations, bruises and cuts. They gather next to the truck's gas tank and pull out their wallets, their voices down a notch, but still loud and echoing off the brick of the convenience store. They negotiate gas funds and one of them, seemingly the driver, clutches the cash in his fist and raises it over his head as he slams the nozzle into the gas tank.
"Money!" he yells, "it's a hit! Don't give me that do-goody-good Bullshit!" The others cheer in affirmation and commence to fall about the parking lot, wrestling and jousting--the one with the elbow surprisingly aggressive with his mates.
"Take it easy!" one of them complains. "It's me for Christ's sake..."
The one with the elbow laughs, derisively. "I know, I know," he says. "Fucking pussy."
In the car, one of the kids, the youngest, wakes with a start, "Mom!"
He bends into the open window and attends to his son. "Take it easy, Buddy. Go back to sleep," and the child relaxes, but his eyes remain open, bright, attentive.
The tank filled, he returns the nozzle to its place and draws out his wallet from his back pocket as he walks toward the store to pay, just aware of the young men from the blue truck watching him.
His wife exits as he enters and he reflexively kisses her as they pass, the inside of his cheeks salivating. She smiles and holds out her cup and straw.
"Want a drink?" She asks. "Diet Coke."
He leans toward the straw and she jerks it away at the last moment, leaving him lurching forward, lips pursed, like a sunfish grabbing at a worm.
She laughs softly and apologizes, sliding the straw between his lips. "Take it," she says. "You can have the rest."
"No, I just wanted a sip."
"Nice ass." The guy with the bleeding elbow, out of nowhere behind her, facing him, the other three following gamely.
He watches her eyes widen and her lips draw straight. From her face, he moves his eyes to meet those of the guy with the elbow, which now, angled in a V in order to hold the door, drips from it's downward apex, like a leaking drain pipe.
The two men regard one another. He feels strangely out of place and out of character. In another time and venue, this moment would naturally pile into the next and the next and the next--all following a certain logic and form--culminating with a stimulated exhaustion, post-violence. But this--here and now--too old for fighting in parking lots, too out-numbered to take a chance, too compromised with wife and four kids in tow...his mind reels. Tastes bile high in his chest, like heartburn. Fear spreads in his blood, like dye.
Over the shoulder of the elbow guy, the others stand in Back-Up mode, two of them smiling like barnyard felines, the other strangely solemn. Beyond them, in the station wagon, the blond heads of his two older children stirring, looking out the windows, waving.
"C'mon," she says to him. "Let's go."
He moves his eyes back to her face. She is resolved. Time to move.
"Go ahead, I still have to pay for the gas."
"I'll be in the car."
As she walks to the car, passed the guy with the elbow, he turns his head and follows her with his eyes, squinting, which she feels, intuitively, a familiar humiliation. She walks on, self-consciously, stiffly, defensively. The others, mimicking their leader, watch her walk, too.
When the guy with the elbow turns back toward him, smiling garishly, he's met with a pounding blow to his throat, collapsing his windpipe. He clutches his neck, like a man choking and staggers backward, against the rough brick of the convenience store, his eyes wide, his knees buckled and shivering, his elbow running with blood.
One of the others, the solemn one, leaps to the side of the stunned man and holds him up, screaming, "Are you okay?" The guy with the elbow shakes his head, No.
One of the others, the one who'd been singing Pink Floyd two minutes earlier, says, "You're fucking dead, Dude" stepping toward him, slowly, his fists raised like a boxer.
"I'm not here to fight you losers. I'm just buying gas. You and your idiot friend over there are the ones looking for trouble."
"And I guess we found it!" he shouts and lunges, throwing a wide and heavy right hand that would have been a real problem, had it connected. But the mix of alcohol, adrenaline and emotion conspire to compromise accuracy and he misses his target entirely, who, sidestepping clumsily himself, trips off the curb and sprawls into the parking lot, surprisingly noisily, he thinks.
"Start the car!" he yells in the direction of the station wagon, pulling himself up off the blacktop.
"Stop it!" she's screaming and behind that shrill sound, he hears the collected voices of his children in various degrees of distressed screaming.
"Just start the fucking car!" he shouts, turning toward the men, the guy with the elbow, still not recovered and still attended to by the one. The other two now make their way toward him, the first--the one who'd taken the swing--leading. In an instant, the second of those two, makes an arching, flanking movement and heads toward the station wagon. The engine revs.
"Hey!" he yells at the flanking man, who briefly turns in acknowledgment, then returns his attention to the car, picking up speed, starting to jog.
Swiveling his head from the jogging flanker to the oncoming, arms-raised boxer, he progresses backward toward the running car and as the three are about to converge at the station wagon's front bumper, he darts to his left, intercepting the flanker's path, tackling him to the ground in a violent thrashing of legs and arms.
"Roll up the windows and lock the doors!" he yells and he can hear the electric windows abiding, hears the locks engage. "Good," he whispers.
His momentum had carried him almost completely over the flanker and he struggles to maintain his position on top of him, knowing it would be seconds before the boxer made his way to them.
With only his his lower left leg still on top of the flanker, he bends his knee so that it rests, momentarily, on the flanker's chest. Using his knee as a balancing fulcrum, he raises up, depressing the man's solar plexus. He hears air expelling. The flanker rolls to his left side to avoid the knee pressure on his chest and as he does, he grapples for purchase on anything to give him advantage: a wrist, an arm, the crotch. Before he succeeds, a handful of gravel is thrust into his face and as he screams, rocks and sand are shoved deeply into his mouth, his tongue pressed down by the force. As he inhales, gravel and dust flow into his windpipe and he chokes, and coughs in a seizure of panic. His hair is gripped as if to be scalped, his head yanked back and he swallows rocks and dirt. More gravel is caught up from the parking lot and raked into the flanker's eyes, tearing the skin of his face. He tries to scream but his lungs are nearly empty; he continues to inhale small gravel.
"Stay away from the car."
By now the boxer is on them and he kicks wildly at his head. He blocks the kick, partially, but the weight of it throws him off the flanker, entirely and he uses the momentum to roll to the rear of the car where he can use the station wagon as a barrier.
Inside the car the children scream, he only now hearing it. However, one child, his oldest son, autistic and beautiful, looks up at him through the window glass from his place where he's kneeling on the back seat.
The boxer is on him again and he runs away, circling the car as if playing a game. As he passes the flanker on the ground still coughing and choking helplessly, he stomps the man's knee, viciously twisting the heel of his boot as he makes contact. The flanker wails like a siren.
"Get away from the car."
As he circles the Taurus the second time, he makes direct eye contact with his son, his yellow hair straight and perfect. "My little lemon," he whispers at him through the glass. "Open the door."
The boxer, enjoying the role of pursuer, changes direction in an attempt to gain a step or two, and as he passes the rear door where the yellow-headed son is positioned he hears the door lock unengage. At this, the two men stop in their tracks and look at each other, for the first time, really. The boxer slowly reaches for the door handle.
With an explosion of kinetic energy, he sprints toward the boxer, who, momentarily taken aback, gives way to the charge--an intuitive reaction to things charging. Finding himself directly in line with the now unlocked door, he simply opens it, slides in next to his lemon-headed son and locks the door.
With the exception of his silent son, the car interior is a shrieking hiss of terror. The Ford bounds forward, tires spinning, back end fishtailing as it rounds the gas pumps and exits the parking lot onto the frontage road just as two squad cars, lights flashing, glide by them into the lot.
"Should I stop?" she screams above the din.
"Just drive," he says and she does. "And everyone stop screaming now." And eventually, they do.
Five miles later, he climbs over and takes his place in the passenger seat beside his wife. She is angry and scared and beautiful. He looks at her face as she drives, silently. His mouth waters.
"I'm sorry," he says.
"Un-fucking-believable" she says.
Fifty miles later he drifts in and out of sleep. In the midst of a lucid dream he feels himself smile, feels her watching him.
"What's so funny?" she asks, her voice tender, if not altogether calm.
"Siphoning is a lot easier way to get free gas."