by Jennifer Ruden
Jennifer Ruden graduated ten years ago from University of Oregon's creative writing program. Since then she has taught literacy skills to disadvantaged youth. She lives with her husband and their two children in Albuquerque. Some of her work appears in Word Riot, Puerto del Sol, Literary Mama, The Motherhood Muse, and Eclectica. She won first place in A Room of Her Own Foundation's creative nonfiction contest. Her first novel is aimed at the Young Adult crowd. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most mornings the fat girl leaves her apartment at seven-thirty. She carries a mug of either coffee or protein shake (Joseph isn't sure which) in one hand, car keys in the other, creased leather knapsack slapping her hip as she walks. Joseph watches from his apartment window and waits for her to look up before she slides into her pick-up truck, but she never does.
Afterwards, Joseph cracks his knuckles before his keyboard and begins working on his screenplay. And even though she left him, took the coffee filters, the mouse pad, the Internet cables, the protein shake mix, that very plastic coffee mug, he writes each morning. This is a promise to himself he intends to keep. Before a bike ride, before a shower, he will write.
In fact, when his doorbell rings this morning, he is writing. For a moment, just a skinny sliver of time, he thinks maybe it is the fat girl. Maybe she has come back--to tell him something. Anything. But when he opens the door, it is Joseph's own father who stands before him. Although it has been six years since he's seen him, he isn't surprised; and for lack of something better to say, Joseph invites him inside.
"You either need a decorator, a maid, or a wife. Maybe all three," his father says. He peers around the apartment, critically. Joseph's clothes are thrown about the floor while the laundry basket, positioned in the center of the room, sits empty. Dishes are piled on coffee tables and night stands, the dried edges of food curled up.
Joseph thinks at first he should apologize to his father, but then decides not to. When his father sinks into the sofa, he shoves a wad of cash into his son's hand. Joseph is a little taken aback, not by the gesture, but by how fragile and bony his fingers feel.
"Buy some furniture for God's sake," he says.
"What I really need is a car." Joseph walks to the window, points at the Honda Civic anonymously parked in the space assigned to him. "It's getting old now."
"Fine," his father says. "Anything open this early?"
# # #
According to the sign Gus's Used Cars doesn't open until ten o'clock, but Joseph's father raps on the glass anyway. A man wearing a cowboy hat and reeking of tobacco opens the door.
"I'm Dr. Robinowski," Joseph's father says and extends a hand. "We're looking for a car."
"I'm Gus," says the cowboy, grinning stupidly. He ushers them through a small office filled with foil ashtrays, wrinkled magazines, and orange plastic chairs out into a small parking lot. "I've got safe cars if that's what you're after. Fuel efficient, solid automobiles," Gus says to Dr. Robinowski.
"It's not for me," Dr. Robinowski says. "It's for him."
"Well, that's a different matter entirely."
Joseph glides towards a silver BMW parked carefully beneath a metal awning.
"Just brought in yesterday," Gus says, walking across the lot. He presses a keychain and the headlights blink on. Joseph calls to his father, who does not hear him because he forgot to pack his hearing aid.
"I found one I like," Joseph calls again, louder this time, over the rush of Albuquerque's traffic whirring past the dealership. "Come and take a look."
"This?" Joseph's father asks, walking towards the car. "This? A Nazi car?"
"They never come in looking quite as loved as this one," Gus says, shoving a cellophane-wrapped Danish in his suit pocket. Joseph's father eyes the salesman coldly. He pounds the car's hood with his fist.
"What would anyone want in a car like this?"
"Believe you me," Gus says, mopping a trickle of sweat from his forehead. "This car was loved. Guy cried harder than a woman when I took the keys."
Dr. Robinowski's knees shake as he bends down. He cups his hands around his face and stares in the window. "It's like looking into an eggplant," he tells the salesman. He tries the door, which is too heavy to move. His eyes roam around the interior, "Who can fit inside this Hitler-mobile?"
The car salesman smiles, says, "Your grandson seems to fit into it just fine."
Joseph feels as if he just sat down in a rich, cottony dream. This gently, oh-so-gently used Five Series BMW with its new leathery smell, titanium-finished digital dashboard, leather steering wheel with fingertip cruise control, Harman Kardon MP3 stereo with 12 upgraded speakers (including two subwoofers), and the eight-way power front seat with two-way manual headrest, is positively whispering to Joseph--seducing him.
"It's beautiful," Joseph says, caressing the gearshift.
"It's ridiculous," his father replies. "You're thirty-five. You don't need a car like this."
The car salesman stoops over, props his elbow on Joseph's window and whispers, "Don't listen to him. This car looks good on you."
Joseph rubs at the salesman's fingerprints. "I've always wanted a BMW," he admits.
"Everyone always wanted a BMW."
His father rolls his eyes, groans, and then, with considerable effort, folds himself inside the car. When he inhales to speak, Joseph can hear him wheeze.
"I never did. Never. I don't want to drive something smarter than I am."
"Why not take it for a day?" The salesman asks. "Bring it back here tomorrow morning and let me know what you think." He dangles the key in front of Joseph's face.
"Are you sure?"
The salesman grins. "Enjoy."
# # #
The GPS system speaks in a woman's voice, smooth like jazz.
Destination? she asks.
Dr. Robinowski grunts. "The last thing we need is a woman driver offering up directions."
"Where should we go?" Joseph asks his dad.
"How the hell should I know?" He stares at the talking screen. "You're the one who lives here."
They dart past Albuquerque's seventeen exits out to where the highway flattens out as if yielding to a rolling pin. Joseph watches the city contract in a rearview mirror designed not to fog up.
"Keep your eyes ahead," his father says. "You're making me nervous."
Joseph tells him not to worry.
"You're driving a car worth $45,000, so I'll worry. Let me ask you this. How could a car dealer let you take a vehicle for an entire day with no kind of insurance or any kind of identification? What in the hell kind of place is this?"
"This is New Mexico, Pop," Joseph replies and sets the cruise control. "And if you're white and appear to have some kind of income, this whole sandy world is yours."
Joseph's father reminds Joseph once again that it isn't a sandy world of any sort. It is a shit hole, a place conducive only to stinging scorpions and Indians, but Dr. Robinowski quickly grows quiet again.
The car can take a turn. Joseph tests this theory. He tries one at 70 m.p.h, then 80, and then 90. His father braces the dashboard and clutches the leather seat, but take the curve it does. This is an important thing to have in a car, Joseph knows. The tinted windows are nice too since it is already 90 degrees outside, but one can hardly tell it in this shaded shell of a car, complete with one-touch climate control. Joseph wants to tell his father just how graceful the car is, how it pulls forward with the ease of a ballerina, how it hugs the road like a tourniquet, but the words don't come, as usual.
There is only silence, though it is a different kind than the one he encounters everyday in his apartment since the fat girl moved out. This silence is even quieter, and it makes Joseph a little uneasy.
Joseph knows he should take control of this moment to ask his father a few things about his life. Important things. Things that matter. But all the things that Joseph really wants to know are irrelevant and inconsequential things, details. For instance, he wants to know if his father still turns the water off when he brushes his teeth. Does he still have all his teeth? Does he wake up in the middle of the night, look at medical slides, anatomy models, like he used to? Does he still drink his coffee excitedly, hurriedly, as if pressed for time, even though he's retired? Although his father has never been reluctant to talk about himself, he never discusses these kinds of details. Certainly there's drama in his tales: wars, poverty, anti-Semitism, medical school, marriages, divorces, more marriages, Hollywood--but there's no internal conflict. And now that Joseph has started writing, he knows he needs some internal conflict.
"You still drinking coffee?" Joseph asks.
"In a hurry?"
"In a what?"
"In a hurry?"
"What do you mean in a hurry?"
"I mean fast--like it doesn't matter how hot it is?"
# # #
Joseph's screenplay is about his father. He wishes sometimes it weren't, but as the fat girl once said, stories are like cats. They find you. He has about forty pages, which is more than he's ever written in his life. It is satisfying to see the pile of paper grow beside his computer.
When his former girlfriend read it, she sighed and removed a stray piece of tobacco from her lip.
"It's just that it reads like a movie," she had said after only the first three pages.
"Isn't that the point?" Joseph asked.
"On the first page you have death, sex, war and masturbation, but I don't know anything about your character. I don't know anything about your father." She winked and then lit another cigarette. "Besides that, though, it's really good."
The remark hurt him. She was his only audience, and at that point, he somewhat listened to her.
"You don't need to know about the characters in a movie. You're thinking literature."
"Yes you do," she contradicted. "You need to know what's under the surface. What's the story about, Joseph?"
"No it's not," she said.
"No it isn't," she said again. "I mean what's it really about?"
# # #
Joseph watches the clock on the car stereo for three full minutes and still his father has not uttered a word. He's moaned a bit and rubbed his legs, but nothing more. Joseph remembers how his father used to toss questions out like crude tennis serves in the car (Don't you have any plans? Are you ever going to get off that God-forsaken bike and earn a real living? What about marriage?) Joseph would have to answer them because he had no choice (None. No. I doubt it.) But Joseph's father hasn't asked him anything yet. Maybe it's because he's getting old. At ninety, the man is finally, finally starting to look older, maybe seventy-five. His vitality, which he credited to fast cars and women, is starting to ebb. From the corner of Joseph's eye he can see how small his father looks in the BMW's roomy leather seat. When his father adjusts the visor, his hands quiver.
"So tell me about your brother, Pop," Joseph asks maneuvering around another curve, more gently this time.
"SHELDON. TELL ME ABOUT SHELDON."
"Sheldon was Sheldon. You knew him," his father replies, and taps his fingers on the window. "Jesus Christ," he goes on, "there is nothing out here. A wasteland. I don't know how you can stand it. I mean isn't it a sign when a place is vacant? Doesn't that mean that no one wants to live there? Take California for example. Lots of people live there for a reason."
Joseph notes the scattered cars along the highway, their trunks tied down with rope, the random trucks rambling past. Behind him the Sandias rise up like fence posts.
"Back to Sheldon."
"SHELDON. I mean how did you two get along? Did you fight? Did you ever hang out and go on dates together?"
"I don't remember, Joseph. I really don't. I only remember it rained a lot in Tacoma. That's about it."
Joseph grips the steering wheel and groans. In his screenplay, he is at a pivotal moment when Dr. Robinowski is about to leave for medical school and Sheldon, the younger brother, is watching from an upstairs window through parted lace curtains. He makes a note to himself: add rain.
"Everyone knows that it rains in Tacoma. I'm talking about your brother, Sheldon. You knew him for eighty years. Did. You. Get. Along?"
His father turns and looks out the window.
"I guess so. It was a long time ago. You drive too fast, Joseph. You always have."
The car is quiet except for the cold air slipping through the air conditioner vents.
"I like this car. This is the one I want."
His father sighs. It is a wheezy sigh that sounds like phlegm rattling. "Why in the hell," and then he stops. He slaps his hand on his bony knee. "You know, son, Sheldon never liked these Nazi cars. He never needed sports cars. He drove a truck until the day he died. Remember?"
"Who cares what Sheldon drove?" Joseph replies quickly.
"I'm just putting it out there, son. Not everyone needs a sports car."
"But you did." There is no anger in his voice.
"I wanted those cars for the same reason you want this one."
"And what's that reason, Pop?"
"Oh, Joseph. You know."
And Joseph does know, in a way, though he won't admit it to his father. He knows for certain that this car makes him feel things his Honda Civic doesn't. This car is impossible to ignore, say, if he were to park it in his designated spot outside his apartment complex. It would cause one to pause, speculate. It is that kind of vehicle. One that inspires thought, query, chance.
Cars can do that. Joseph's own father can attest to it. The first time Joseph's mother walked out, his father bought her a Jaguar. She stayed until it collapsed on the 405. Then, years later, when Joseph said he was tired of LA, the naked ambition of it, his father bought him a Honda Civic hatchback.
"Maybe," his father had said, handing him the keys, "This will change your mind."
Like a Honda Civic would change anyone's mind.
Joseph realizes suddenly that there should be more cars in his script, that vehicles should serve as something meaningful, rich, something--what had she called it--thematic. He decides he wants a scene of a yellow Corvette speeding down Topanga Canyon--several near collisions along the way. A silver-haired man (Richard Gere? Tommy Lee Jones?) drives the car wearing tennis shorts. The racket is placed affectionately on the passenger seat. The scene could then shift to a hospital, Joseph's mother (Katie Holmes? Kate Winslet?) is giving birth to a baby. She cries for her husband; the doctors tell her they can't find him. Joseph decides he will add this in when he gets home.
"Tell me son, why this sudden interest in Sheldon?" His father touches the GPS screen and a series of grids open. "You never asked about him before."
Joseph begins to tell him.
"For chrissake, Joseph. Turn the air conditioner off. It's unnatural to be this cold when people are sweating outside." Joseph adjusts the air conditioner to 80 degrees.
"So why again?"
Joseph thinks about it and determines it was really because of the fat girl, Sarah. She said he should expound on the dynamic between the two brothers. People, she said, like conflict. And irony, she chirped. Don't forget irony. She said it was very symbolic: one brother goes to medical school to study the heart, then works in Hollywood as a film consultant. The other brother never marries, never has a family, and yet still saves a million bucks working for a dry cleaner until he dies, suddenly, of a heart attack.
"You can't tell me that's not ironic," Sarah had said. "Maybe you should talk to your dad about it."
"I haven't talked to my father in six years," Joseph told her.
"So what? All the more reason to call."
"It's a movie," he said. "I can make it up."
"No you can't," she said. "Or it sounds false--contrived."
"You think my screenplay is contrived?"
"The beginning is."
"Well that's all I've written," he said.
Joseph still remembers that moment. This was when she was living with him and would leave her things everywhere: textbooks, manuals, glossy magazines, candy. She would proffer advice while smoking cigarettes in her bathrobe, which was fluffy and pink. And because she taught English to Indians on the pueblo, she supposed this gave her the right to raise questions about motivation, plot, and crisis.
"I'm just curious," Joseph says now, in the BMW. "I guess I didn't know Uncle Sheldon all that well either."
"Curious about what?"
"SHELDON. I WAS JUST CURIOUS."
Joseph downshifts to fourth gear and the car pulls forward.
# # #
The only clear memory that Joseph has of his Uncle Sheldon is from about twenty years ago at Joseph's bar mitzvah celebrated at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Joseph attended his own opulent gathering for approximately fifteen minutes, long enough to ascertain that his father wasn't there and probably wasn't coming. Uncle Sheldon was there, though, in a powder blue tuxedo and a yellow bow tie. He was wearing tennis shoes, the only shoes Joseph had ever seen him wear. When Sheldon walked into the bathroom and saw Joseph crying, he drove him down to the Hollywood racetrack in his blue pick-up truck. He bought Joseph his first beer and placed Joseph's bet on a horse named "Lucky 13," who lost.
The most potent memory of that day was not of Sheldon trying to explain away his brother's behavior, or trying to make up for it. "Your father's an ass," he said simply, and put his arm around Joseph. The memory that stayed with Joseph the longest, so much that twenty years later he still dreamt about it, was the lady sitting next to them in the stands. She had fiery red hair and wore a hot pink halter top with moons under her arms that appeared every time she stood up and shouted, "Go Limelight." Her wide mouth and full lips were painted a fiendish purple. After the second race, when she caught Joseph eyeing her tits, she grabbed his hand, sticky with beer and said, "Go ahead and rub them, kid. Maybe it'll bring me some luck." Joseph's uncle had winked, raised his beer mug, and said "L'Chaim." At first touch, Joseph ejaculated in the trousers of his suit.
"You have to put that in your script," she had said, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. Yet when he wrote the scene and showed it to her, she bowed her head. "All I see here is abject sadness." She stacked the papers and put them back on the desk. "Make it funnier."
Ironically it is Sheldon who afforded Joseph the life he has been living for the past six years: a cyclist in the morning, an occasional volunteer in the afternoon, a pornography watcher at night. Right before Sheldon died, he enclosed a large check in a birthday card. "Because you weren't expecting it," the note read. In less than three days, Joseph had cashed the check, packed up his Honda Civic, and moved to Albuquerque, where that kind of money lasts and lasts. He never said goodbye.
# # #
New Mexico unrolls on both sides: rocks, sand, dried up brush, dust. Joseph turns the cruise control on and off with his fingertip.
"I'm hungry," Dr. Robinowski announces, tapping his hand urgently on the dash. "I don't suppose they have any deli in this part of the world." He manages a laugh.
Joseph knows his father isn't hungry. He wants to stop because he has to piss again, though they have already stopped twice along the highway. His kidneys are weak. Over the past few years, Dr. Robinowski's fifth wife has called late at night and explained to Joseph that his father won't eat. He can't hear and he can't see, and, she whispered, he won't stop driving. She is concerned that he watches movies all day, searching for incongruities in place, in character. She tells him how he will yell, "You can live without a spleen for chrissakes," and then pull crusty medical books down from shelves in an effort to prove it to her. Or, during a midnight rerun, he will wake her up, panicked: "CBS put the heart on the wrong side again." She offers this in hopes that Joseph will forgive whatever it is that needs forgiving and call him.
"Is there anywhere to eat out here, son?" his father asks again, more urgently.
The Mexican restaurant alongside I-40 is dirty, but it's open. It was the only one the GPS could find within a twenty-five mile radius. Inside, the walls are covered in seascape photographs and grimy mirrors. Dr. Robinowski excuses himself to find the bathroom. Joseph walks to a booth with ripped orange vinyl upholstery and sits down. Before opening the salsa-stained menu, he begins pondering other approaches to his movie. Sarah said voice-overs were tedious, especially in the beginning. "It just means the director isn't doing his job. If you can follow a clear directive, a movie would never need voice-overs. It's an easy way out. Scene, Joseph," she said. "You can get everything you need to know in a scene." An audience needed to "see things," not just simply listen to words. Words or images, the fat girl had never tried to get a story out of Dr. Robinowski. Joseph didn't see the point anyway; his movie was fine--even with voice-overs. He reflects on its beginning:
Black and white footage. A night in Pacific Northwest.
VO: My name is Arthur Romanowski and this is my story.
Shot of old father and mother counting pennies.
VO: I grew up very poor in Tacoma, Washington.
Mother, pregnant, wearing a shawl, counts–fifteen, sixteen, seventeen! Seventeen!
We have it, Norman. We can get bread.
VO: My parents didn't have enough money for bread when I was born.
Small boy wanders in. He sucks his thumb.
VO: That's me.
Boy: I'm hungry!
Sarah said it was clichéd. It had been done a million times. She said, "Pick a story that hasn't been done and speaks to everyone. One with more potential." She lit a cigarette and then picked at the red nail polish that was painted haphazardly on her toes.
"What do you mean, clichéd?" he asked. "Every story's been done before. There is nothing new."
She sighed. "No. Not everything's been done. You need something original--something visceral. Something ugly."
"War is ugly!" he screamed.
"Uglier than war," she replied.
"Poverty is abominable!"
"Uglier than poverty."
Why did she test him?
"OK," he said, no longer measuring his words. "I'll put some Indians in there who write FAT WHITE BITCH on a certain someone's pick-up truck because they say that's all the English they'll need to know."
She sighed, looked down at her fuzzy robe. "Exactly, Joseph," she said. "Now you see."
Sarah lived in the apartment below him. He had not known her aside from the occasional nod when they happened to be either heading to or from their vehicles at the same time. One day, as he was walking past her truck he noted the remark on the vehicle's side written in what looked like shaving cream. For days he checked the truck; and the words, though faded, were still there. One morning he asked her. "Aren't you going to wash that off?" She looked him over and smiled, like she was pleased he had been ruminating about it.
"I was just so glad they spelled it correctly that I haven't."
He laughed, in spite of himself. In spite of her wide hips and thick ankles, her faded black t-shirt, her glasses and frizzy hair. Later, when he saw her outside washing the truck he went out and helped her. The soap suds cascaded down the rusty hood, the rubber flaked off the wipers, her ashtray boiled with cigarette butts.
"So what do you do besides ride your bike all day?" She asked, wringing out a rag.
"Nothing," he answered matter-of-factly.
She was barefoot, her toes positioned in the rainbowed center of an oil stain. When she dumped the dirty water down the street grate, Joseph saw pavement stuck to the backs of her legs, black flecks of tar. This might be your last chance, he thought, watching the frothy water slide from the bucket.
# # #
His father returns from the bathroom with a perfectly round wet circle on the crotch of his white pants. He leans down into the booth and sighs epically. Joseph is a little embarrassed and is surprised at how familiar the embarrassment is. He was never ashamed as a boy to have a father so old. It was only later in life when he had to admit to people that his father, not his grandfather, was ninety. Then they always asked how old his mother was. She's twenty-five years younger, he'd tell them. Then they'd looked at him like they had him all figured out. Assumed they knew the whole story. Poor little rich kid with a shiksa for a mother who wanted nothing but a rich doctor. That's what embarrassed Joseph the most--the fact that everyone imagined they knew him by simply recounting a number. But it wasn't the case. There was genuine love between his parents for many years. Joseph remembers.
# # #
A pregnant Hispanic woman fills two red plastic cups with water and puts them on their table.
Joseph orders two chicken tacos with green chili.
"What in the hell is green chili?"
The waitress tries to explain. Dr. Robinowski says the nachos are enough. "Gracias," he adds. They both order margaritas.
"Look Joseph," his father says pointing towards the window. "I offered to buy you a car, not an accordion. It's uncomfortable." He rubs his back. "Get yourself a Honda or a Toyota. The BMW costs too much."
Joseph doesn't answer. It's not worth it. His father wouldn't hear him anyway. Instead he looks outside the dingy window covered in nicotine. Monsoon clouds roll forward. The wind picks up pieces of trash and dances it around in circles. It is one o'clock in the afternoon, five hours since Dr. Robinowski knocked on Joseph's studio apartment door. Much to Joseph's relief, his father did not bring wife #5, only a duffel bag and a shaving kit. He wore white pants, white shoes, and a maroon pullover sweater, which Joseph found odd considering it was nearly August. His father did not embrace him, but Joseph didn't expect him to. He merely slapped his elbow lightly and asked him how he could stand to live in such a dump in the middle of nowhere.
"So Joseph," his father says now picking at a piece of lint on his sweater, "why isn't the gal there anymore? I thought she might have answered your door this morning."
The waitress returns with the margaritas.
"Blended, senorita. Not this ice. Blended." Dr. Robinowski slides the margarita across the table and Joseph puts his hand out to steady it. The waitress looks as though she might say something, and both men pause to look at her.
"B-L-E-N-D-E-D," Joseph's father spells. She turns and walks towards the kitchen, mumbling in Spanish.
Joseph tries to determine what to say about Sarah. His father never met her, and Joseph is trying to remember if there had been some clue in his apartment. Joseph doesn't think so. Sarah was so efficient in getting her things out he thought for certain she had a map. She took every single item, including the shower curtain rods (the shower curtain was his) and three cans of artichoke hearts. Then Joseph remembers that sometime during his reclusion he sent a picture to his parents. "Don't send that one," Sarah had said as he stuffed it in the envelope. "Why not?" Joseph asked, even though he didn't need to. He never had to remind her that she wasn't beautiful.
"What happened to her, Joseph? Carrie. Right?"
"Well. What happened?"
Joseph shrugs his shoulders and says, "I guess it didn't work out."
Joseph asks his father about Grandpa Jack who was dead long before Joseph was even born.
"What was he like?"
"Jack. Your father."
"Terrible," his father replies and nibbles the corner of a chip. "I thought you and that gal were living together. I thought she'd be at your apartment."
"What was so terrible about him?"
"YOU HEARD ME."
"Jesus Christ. Everything," his father says. "Where's my drink? Gevalt. How do you live here?"
They are both silent for a moment and the waitress appears like a referee. She puts the "blended" drink down with a thud.
"Did she leave you, Joseph? Is that why you called?"
"Was Grandpa Jack a bad father?"
"Why did Sarah leave?"
There are no answers. Joseph continues to compile scenes in his head. His father's movie needs a war. It needs the Holocaust. Maybe his father will be a war veteran and the sex scene will occur in a trench. Yes, a trench. A svelte woman will follow him down there to protect him. He will say, "You can't save me," and cradle her face in his mud-caked hands.
"What did you do in the army, Pop?" Joseph asks without looking at him. "I went to Alaska," he replies, "and froze my balls off for four years."
Alaska, Joseph thinks and immediately something Fargoesque plays out in his head. Maybe his father murdered his lieutenant and buried his body in an igloo. He would need a cello piece; Yo-Yo Ma could be contracted for the film. It will be bleak. Bleak sells, Joseph knows. "So what happened to her, Joseph? That big girl in the picture you sent me. Sarah. You seemed ok about her. Why did she leave you? "
"I DON'T KNOW."
# # #
When Sarah and Joseph were together he used to imagine the ending. He looked forward to it, actually. It always featured him and a young woman he knew from the gym. She was nineteen and wanted to be a marine biologist. She once asked him how he could afford to be in the gym everyday, so he told her he was a screenwriter. When he leaned over her stationary bike and whispered, "I grew up in LA," she had blushed.
How he imagined it ending was this: He would ask the young thing if she would accompany him on a bicycle ride and she, of course, would acquiesce. She would be so impressed with his athletic prowess she would have to have him. They would ride furiously, breathlessly, back to his apartment, dump their bikes by the curb and fly up the stairs. Later, Sarah would walk in and find Joseph with that girl, the community college girl with the firm ass and the overbite. He would want to pull away from the young girl, Charlotte he believed her name was, but he just couldn't. She was too slippery, too tight. Too everything he knew Sarah never would be. He would hear Sarah screaming from the kitchen, asking him how he could do this. That was how he always imagined it would end.
They have had three more margaritas and the waitress does not speak when she puts the small white bill on the edge of their table. The two men take turns looking out the window, watching the clouds threaten to split open and dump rain. Joseph looks outside at the silvery vision that will be his car. It looks most beautiful in cloudy weather. His father still hasn't asked when Joseph plans, if ever, to get a job. Joseph wonders if it's because he, too, has given up hope. Maybe he will on the ride home and Joseph will tell him that he's never getting a real job. He will write this movie and sell it. He will mail it to Dreamworks in a manila envelope and kiss it the way he imagined all writers did. They will tell him it's the best thing since Schindler's List. He will celebrate in his new BMW and take Charlotte (Charlene?) out and fuck her athletically in the seats that angle back. Some day, Sarah will come across his film; maybe she will show it to the Indians on the pueblo. "I knew him," she will say and no one will believe her. She will regret ever leaving him.
# # #
Dr. Robinowski has to piss again before they leave. When he comes back, he orders another margarita only to excuse himself twice to piss again. Joseph should ask him if he has stopped roaming the hospital where he used to work, ask him if he has stopped driving, but he knows he hasn't. He should tell him that he looks like an old man, too skinny, too tired. He doesn't know how to phrase it, so he says nothing.
Instead, he thinks about how his movie will end; he knows this part well. There will be clouds, a disease, and a young, strapping Joseph (Johnny Depp?) by his father's bedside. His father will apologize. For the first time. He will say he was an asshole, admit he was a terrible father and tell him that's all he's ever known. He'll tell him how badly he wishes he could take it all back, everything, and just start over. Thank God, he'll say, you finally called. Then he will die.
After Sarah left, Joseph called his father. He had wanted to ask him something about the movie, about the beginning. He had it all planned out. "Pop," he would start. "I have a question." But when he dialed the number his father said hello like an accusation and Joseph could not find any words. Instead he held the phone to his ear and listened--heard his father entreat Wife #5 to pick up the phone because he didn't hear a god damn thing. "It sounds like someone is breathing, like one of those perverts on a crank call," his father had yelled. And Joseph had heard the ice tinkling in a glass, something whirring in the background: a washing machine, maybe even a car motor. Wife #5's voice: "Who is this? Who is this? Say something." Joseph will leave that part out. Wife #5 checking the caller ID, "It's Joseph," she'd called, his name ringing out oddly between them. His father asking, so simply, "Is this you?"
In theatres, the audience will cry with abandon; they will embrace each other and share tissues. Joseph is glad he will be able to write his final scene without Sarah looking over his shoulder, breathing laboriously through her mouth, and telling him what constitutes a story. A person can feel a good story, and Joseph feels it.
# # #
When their relationship did end, it was June. It was hot. It hadn't rained in fifty-two days and the roads were buckling. Sarah had lost some weight by then. She was ecstatic because she was a size ten. "Look," she told him once, ripping the tag from a pair of shorts that halved her crotch like a fraction. "Ten."
She had taken to going to the gym twice a day, one hour in the morning and then swimming for an hour in the evening. When she came home, usually never before nine, she locked herself in the computer room and lifted ten-pound weights while Joseph tried to write. She counted calories fanatically and complained how unfair it was that he could eat and eat, how she couldn't. She was jealous of his athleticism, he knew. No matter how hard she tried, he was stronger, quicker, thinner, and what's worse, he could eat more. He explained to her that it was because he rode his bicycle every day and that she should try it. She eyed him skeptically. "It's because you are thin and I am not," she replied.
Joseph was not convinced. There was no reason why the new, thinner Sarah couldn't ride a bike. So one day, while she was at work, Joseph decided to buy her a bicycle. When she came home and found it, she was quiet at first, running a fingertip along its cool metal frame and rubber tires. "Great," she said. "Let's go riding then."
It was cruel to take her up to Sandia Peak, but he did it anyway. He should have started out with something slower, flatter, easier, but he wanted her to see that he could do this one thing, do it better than anything else. Do it better than she could.
She was wheezing and coughing and her white shirt clung to her back, but climb they did. She never asked to stop, though she never said she was enjoying herself either. She stared straight ahead and pushed up the hill.
When she got to the top, she got off the bike and asked for a sip of water. He handed her the canteen, told her she could carry it on the way down. Instead of guzzling it as Joseph thought she might, she tossed it over the side of the mountain as if it were a leaf. She watched its descent, smiling.
"Why in the hell did you do that?" he asked.
"I've got enough to carry," she said.
Then, without hesitation, without any foreshadowing of any kind, she picked up the TREK bicycle, leaned over the guardrail and dropped it. She just let it go. That brand new, $950, navy blue bicycle. The one he had tied with a pink ribbon, painstakingly weaving it through the spokes like silk, adjusting the seat to her height, attaching the toe clips he had bought--the bike on top of which he placed a card congratulating her on her weight loss, telling her how happy he was that she was in his life, thanking her for helping him write his movie, for giving him a shot.
The bike cleared the mountain's side and he heard each swooshy thrush it made as it scraped the sides of trees and rocks.
"Write your own fucking movie," she said.
And that was how it ended.
# # #
Dr. Robinowski is stirring his margarita with his finger.
"It's always been my experience with women," he says, slurring a little, "that someone always makes a decision, you know. To end it. Your mom did and then I did with the two after that. There just comes a point, you see, when you run out of chances. Do you know what I'm saying?"
"She left me," Joseph says quietly, without looking at him. "She just did."
His father finishes his drink, runs his thumb around the salt rim. Joseph prepares to say it again, louder. He steadies himself, pulls in a breath as if to scream.
"I heard you," Dr. Robinowski says. "I heard what you said."
# # #
Dr. Robinowski will buy Joseph the car. This was agreed sometime during lunch without any words. Joseph knows it's a gesture, and probably a weak one, but he is not virtuous enough to turn it down. As they walk out of the restaurant his father talks about how in the afternoon he gets tired. "So tired. It's like my legs don't want to bend, Joseph. It's a strange thing. I've got the bones and the muscles, but it's as if they've forgotten how to work." And it takes Joseph some time to realize what his father is asking. Joseph offers him a hand at first, but his father only laughs. "That's not going to do it," he says. So Joseph, lifting his father beneath the armpits, opens the car door that really is too heavy and folds him into the leather seat that really is too low.
The first drops of rain are falling; Joseph tests his new silent windshield wipers that clear the water with sharp edges. He pulls out of the restaurant and onto the highway.
"I've lost my appetite, Joseph, but I can still drink."
Between the raindrops that are rhythmically being erased by the wipers, Joseph sees the waitress walking along the lip of the road. She waddles awkwardly under the weight of her swollen stomach; she is holding her shoes in her hand. His father points to her and Joseph pulls over. Dr. Robinowski can't determine how to roll down the window so he opens the door and shouts, "For God's sake, get in here senorita."
Dr. Robinowski manages to open his door and stumble out. He fumbles with the seat; the waitress climbs in back and places her shoes on her lap. Joseph's father excuses himself and steps to the side of the highway to piss. Joseph wants to apologize to the waitress about this, apologize for his father who is old and will urinate in the presence of a woman, right in the highway, right in the rain; but instead he asks her if she's warm enough. She nods. Dr. Robinowski staggers back to the car, walks directly to the driver's side and taps the window.
"Get out," he says to Joseph. "I want to drive."
Joseph knows this is a bad idea; his father is too drunk and it's raining.
"You drive too fast, Joseph," he says. He pulls on the door handle. "We have a pregnant woman in the car. I'm driving." He opens Joseph's door.
"What about your legs?"
"They're better now. I'm driving."
As Joseph gets out and circles the car, he is struck with an odd feeling as if this has happened before--more than once because it all seems so strikingly familiar. This pueblo somewhere outside of Gallup, this woman in the backseat who might be Navajo, might be Hispanic, these clouds and this rain stinging his face as he reaches for the door, and this old man, his father, hands quaking as he starts the ignition.
"You coming or what?"
Even when Joseph climbs inside the car, shuts the door and looks towards the backseat, the woman with her shoes planted neatly on her lap, it all seems a repetition of a bad dream or, worse, a repetition of things that have happened before and keep happening.
"How do you work all this crap?" his father asks, turning on the high beams instead of the windshield wipers. He tries to turn the radio lower but instead the air conditioner blasts icy air.
And Joseph wants to tell his father that that's reverse, not first, but the car starts anyway and they jerk backward three feet before they stall.
"You need a pilot's license to drive this thing," he says and tries again.
They finally pull onto the highway, but his father is still in second gear and the engine protests. His father adjusts the air conditioner and the cruise control all by chance, all by sense. And he's telling the woman about the time he taught Joseph to drive on Sepulveda Boulevard in 1965--though Joseph hadn't even been born yet. How he wasn't any good then and he wasn't any good at it now. His father's foot barely reaches the gas pedal and he accelerates as if he were driving a go-cart. He steers straight into a pothole and complains that the roads need to be fixed.
"If you ask me," he says to the pregnant woman, "you can tell about a place by how well they take care of the roads. So what do these roads say?" He belches softly. "I'll tell you. They say who would want to live in this place?" He smiles at her. "They say there's nothing here. It's empty." He raps his knuckles on the gearshift that's still in second. "Look senorita, your neighbors are chickens. My son's neighbors are Mexicans whose neighbors are chickens. You got goddamn Indians here who drink too much. You've got no industry, no water, and it's 6 o'clock at night and still you could fry a tortilla off this Nazi car."
Though he's trying hard not to, though he's trying to listen to his father, to glean something cinematic from his drunken musings, Joseph is thinking about Sarah. Again. How she would laugh that irreverent laugh, how she would say: Now here's your scene, Joseph. This is where you should begin. Right here. How she'd say: You write this down, Joseph, and from this point forward everything else will unravel. And Joseph's father is still talking about how all the best places are near the ocean and the waitress should really think about moving to California because there are Indians and Mexicans there too; he tells her he'd help her find a place to live if she needed it, a good place for her and her husband by the beach, a better job. And he says all this to the rearview mirror, to the woman in the backseat who offers no insight and no direction about which way to go.
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