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OF RUST AND WRECKAGE


They saw her leaning against the stop sign at the crossroads that was Main and Church of old Delmar, the town long boarded up and blasted away by the disappearance of the rails which had created it. What once had been a bright brick cross-street was now littered with Styrofoam cups, the occasional beer can, and dozens of cigarette butts. She was the one bright spot, her red hair like a spot of rust against the dull street and pavement, her legs tapering to ballerina-like feet as she absent-mindedly kicked pebbles. She was as old as they were, or perhaps a bit older. Her face had a sweet look that came from daydreaming too much, and not having a foot in the real world, and she didn’t appear to notice the boys, for she was spending too much time looking off into the soaped up windows of the old Radio Shack, which had long ago boxed it up for the highway.

“Let’s stop and see if she needs a ride.” Jackson said as they passed her. He followed her in the rearview as she grew smaller and smaller behind them. He admired her shape, her tight black tee against the gray smear behind them.

“I don’t know man, I kinda want to get home.” Kent wanted to count his money in the safety of his bedroom, where wind, water, or a woman wouldn’t put it at risk.

“Come on, she’s cute. Maybe she’ll have sex with us.”

“You’re retarded.”

“What?”

“Things like that don’t happen, Jackson. It’s like a law of physics.”

“Fuck physics, let’s pick her up. I want to talk with her. She’s hot.”

She was hot, they both knew it, and the kinds of girls they knew weren’t as nearly as attractive as this one, but they weren’t the kind of girls who were found at crossroads, either. Kent didn’t know why he agreed, but he found himself swinging the wheel and returning to the girl who swayed from side to side as if tuned into music, her face turned up to the sun. The truck sidled up to the curb and he leaned over getting a look at her. She was 19, maybe, with dark red hair and a face that was angles and lines. She was pretty, and freckled, and taut.

“Hey,” was all Kent mustered.

She didn’t say anything at first, and then Jackson’s mouth jump started.

“Hey, what’s up? My name’s Jackson and this here is Kent. We’re from down the road. We just come from the Junk Man, you might know him. He’s a character that junk man, I tell you what.”

“Down the road, huh? Junk man. Right.” She said in a voice rough with smoke and sand. “I hear it’s good down the road. That right?”

“I guess. Down, up, wherever.” Jackson replied. The air hung with heat. Ahead of the truck the highway wavered.

“My name’s Rachel.”

“Rachel, huh? Wanna ride?”

She did, and the boys took her in with calmness that surprised them both. She had the look of a girl who had been caught doing something illegal, sheepish grin and sheepish eyes that flashed steel if you caught them right, but only if you could catch them for she turned and hid her eyes from them knowing that if they could see them she would have been left behind, and she couldn’t stay at crossroads anymore. Not today.

She was a smoker and didn’t offer a cigarette to either of them, and they didn’t ask, and she sucked on the end of it like she was dying of thirst and the butts held water. Jackson noticed her hands trembling.

“Don’t worry about us, we won’t harm you. We’re good guys. Aren’t we Kent? Hell yeah, we just hard workers is all. Don’t mind all the dust on us. Rust. That’s what it is, you know? Rust. When metal oxidizes it gets discolored. And we got it all over us, man. Damn, I can’t wait for a shower. Really, I know it looks like dried blood, but it ain’t. Like I said, we’re the good guys.”

“I’m glad.” She exhaled out the window. “I’m sick of the other kind.”

“Sounds ominous,” Kent said. “You ain’t on the run are you? From no one. We don’t want trouble. Shit, I don’t want nobody’s daddy coming after me with a shotgun.”

“Daddy,” She exhaled. “That’s a good one. Jesus, no. I’m just. I’m just out.” She paused. “I’m just out for a walk, you know. Get out of the house.” Rachel laughed a high weedy laugh. She put her hand on the dashboard and straightened herself. “I ain’t never done this before.”

“What?” Jackson asked.

“Hitchhiked.”

“You’re not hitching. This isn’t hitching. We stopped for you,” Jackson said.

“And why was that?” Rachel asked.

“Because you’re cute.” Jackson said, smiling, his eyes flashing and blinking, and Rachel smiled back for a moment before turning back to the window and exhaling. Kent turned on the radio and began humming along to the commercial, a jingle for a local car dealer. Rachel turned and locked eyes with Jackson for a moment and then turned away, her smoke rolling out the window. “Where does it all go?”

“What?” Jackson responded. “Where does all of what go?” Jackson asked. She stared out the window at the scrub pines and loblollies that grew thick towards the Atlantic. They were a dark green dash against the hazy blue sky.

“The smoke. It goes out the window, but where does it go? Imagine. What comes out of my body could go all the way to China, or Europe.”

“Yeah. Pretty amazing. You know, I never smoked much, once on graduation night. A menthol. Hated it.”

Kent grunted. “What school did you go to?” He asked.

“I went to Stephen Decatur for a while.”

“Right on. We graduated two years ago. Arcadia. Glad that’s over with.” Jackson said. He liked her, she was different, and he felt like he was saving her from something, even if it was boredom. “Now we work the clam beds in the summer, or did,” he emphasized did, “and take on odd jobs. Kent here is a helluva mechanic. Got a job lined up with Harry at Goodyear, if Harry’s still busy in September.”

“Yeah?”

“Oh yeah. Kent could repair the ass end of a tractor if it was on fire.”

“Ever work on Mack trucks?” Rachel asked. She cast the butt out the window and promptly lit another one. Her fingernails were dirty underneath, like she had been working with oil.

“Yeah, sometimes. Rebuilt an old lorry with my grandpa last summer. Lots of fun.”

“My boyfriend in high school was a gear-head.”

“Really?” Kent asked.

“Yeah, he had a nice job and he went and ruined his thumb one night when he tried to operate on a corvette while drunk off his ass.”

“Damn.”

“Tore it up. Had to quit that. Drives trucks now.”

“That sucks.” Jackson said. It grew quiet, the radio provided white noise.

Rachel looked out the window and finished her smoke before speaking.

“That’s okay, I made my mistakes too. It’s all right. We all loose a finger sometimes. Only sometimes we don’t know we lost it.”

“Wow, aren’t we philosophical,” Kent snickered. Jackson elbowed him, and Kent settled down. And again the cab was quiet. They had only been driving for a few miles. Kent wanted a destination, and Jackson wanted a destination that would lead to love. Neither of them knew what Rachel wanted. “Jackson here is my neighbor.” Kent said to break the silence. “We’re like brothers. I watch his back and he watches my back,” Kent said. He meant it as a warning and a promise. Kent meant it to end it, to be the statement that would make this girl request to be dropped off, so he could go about doing his business.

“That’s sweet.” Rachel said in a sing song voice. She went into her purse. “Listen my old man is a dick, on a bender, is all, and my friends are all gone this summer, and I’m sick of being stuck in this hell-hole with nothing to do.” She was speaking to both of them, but directed her tone to Kent. “I’m looking for some fun.” She inhaled sharply. “Damn.”

“What?” Jackson asked. He’d watched her rifle through her bag, but saw nothing more than make-up and scraps of paper. Her purse was floppy, barren, and stained with something that looked like tomato sauce.

“I thought I brought another pack of smokes. I guess I left them at the house.”

“We can stop, can’t we Kent.”

“Sure, I guess, I need to take a leak.”

“Tell you what, take me to buy some smokes and I’ll buy you guys some beer. There’s a beach I know about where we can hang out and ya’ll can wash this rust off.”

“Deal.” Jackson said.

Kent followed the road till he found a gas station, a Shore Stop that had once been shiny as a dime, but now was streaked with field dust and mold. Two beat-up cars were parked in front and a black man, rail thin, sat on the curb smoking a cigar, a bicycle kicked over at his feet. They didn’t need gas, so Kent parked the truck, which felt light to him, especially parking the old beast, and he hit the brakes a bit hard, and Jackson and Rachel rocked forward, Rachel’s hand reaching for Jackson’s knee.

“Sorry guys, foot’s kinda heavy.”

No one responded, and Kent hopped out along with Rachel, and they left Jackson in the truck who fumbled in his pants for his chewing gum.

Kent let Rachel go ahead of him, and he followed, his eyes running up her legs and up the moon of her back. She was pretty, he’d give her that, but she was off, and if he were back home he’d feel better about it, but something about being away from home, even if only a few hours away, lent her more danger than perhaps she warranted. They both edged to the front of the counter, and Kent expected Rachel to reach into her purse and pull a gun, but she didn’t, only scanned the cigarette stacks and columns above and behind the clerk.

“Restroom?” Kent asked.

“Here,” the clerk said, and tossed him a key attached to a wooden block of wood that read MEN. “Round back.”

“Thanks.”

The clerk paid him no mind.


Jackson stepped out of the car when he saw Kent heading for the bathroom. “Hey, she’s allright, right?”

“Dude, she’s weird. What ever you want to do let’s do it and get it over with. I want to go home.”

“Easy Kent, jury’s still out with her. The beach, that’ll be cool. Come on we worked so hard this morning. It’ll be nice to wash the skin off, drink a cool one. Maybe get some action.” Jackson gyrated and bounced with the possibility.

“Fine, let’s just not make a night of it.” And Jackson had to follow him in, and relieve himself, not for need of it, but for need of companionship and courage. And when they got out, Rachel was leaning against the truck, packing her smokes against the cup of her palm.

“You know I think I saw you guys earlier today, when I was walking into town. Loaded up full of junk, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Thought so, when you told me you had been to the Junk Man’s, I thought to myself, I wonder if these are the same boys I saw earlier.”

Anyone who saw the truck would have taken a second glance for it bounced and crowded the road. The large planes of rusting steel wangled, and the cubes of metal which were once stoves and dryers were so rusted red that you felt sorry for whomever had to touch the side, for the metal was furry and hairy as if with disease that to touch it would mean sickness. The various poles and odd spheres of iron and steel caught and reflected the sun light and bounced the light between the tight corridors between the refuse in the truck bed. From behind one might see the light play between the metal, like some sort of Morse code, or language. The haul was the color of smoke and sandpaper, still there was something beatific about the waste, something cocoon-like and hopeful, the promise of new life, as if the truck bed held a shred of survival in its palm.

“I bet you made a nice sum, Junk Man’s paying a good bit for crap these days.”

“Hell yeah,” Kent said, proud of his hard work and glad someone recognized his good idea and fortune. “Korea, China too, all that crap you saw today is going to be on its way to Asia. Junk Man says they need nickel and iron, or something.”

“Yeah, I hear.” Rachel said, “Enough gabbing, let’s have some fun.”

And Rachel’s idea of fun was a twelve pack of Natural Ice and two packs of menthol cigarettes, and she giggled in the lip of the can as she pointed the way to the beach, a fresh smoke stuck on her lip. Jackson had settled close to her and she liked his scent, and the two of them appeared comfortable with each other’s proximity.

“You’ll see a dirt road up ahead. It goes to a public landing. We go there sometimes and fuck around.”

Rachel opened her purse up and rooted around for a lighter. Jackson saw a wad of bills at the bottom; he also noticed a key ring loaded with corny key chains that said things like: Truckers do it Better, I’m wild, Don’t Mess With Texas, and the like. The kind of tacky gifts one found in truck stops across the country, and they jangled and knocked together as she pulled the camouflage lighter from the bottom.

“It’s a fun beach, private for the most part. Used to be a house, but it burned down. Some motherfucker tried to kill his wife, or something.”

“Really?” Kent asked.

“Maybe, that’s what the kids used to say in school. Cheated on him, or something. Anyway the wreckage is still there, you’ll see it.”


They reached the beach as the sun melted in a red and orange stain in the sky above the road and bled into the tree line and into the darkness of the pines, which promised that night was coming. They parked against the cuticle of sand and gravel, and Rachel squealed as the truck pulled into park. “I just love coming here,” she said, “Reminds me of the old days.” She hopped out and kicked off her shoes and ran towards the water’s edge. Her purse bounced around her body and her cigarette smoke trailed behind her like a scarf.

Kent wasn’t drinking, but Jackson had popped his second beer, the fumes of which filled the cab for a moment before evaporating in his wake as he exited and followed her. He too shouted and hooted as he gave chase. Indeed this was working out like Jackson had planned. But for Kent, anxiety crept into his legs and began its ponderous bouncing. He didn’t want to stay much longer, but he felt loyalty to Jackson and compromised his time. He would pace and wade, pace and wade. But he knew beer could lead to a longer engagement than he was prepared to commit to. He looked at Rachel; she looked gorgeous as she kicked in the surf. There were girls like her in school, and every one of them came with a warning.

Jackson stripped his shirt and whipped it behind him, and Rachel waded deeper into the water. The sky was a deep orange and looked to Jackson as if were about to separate from the darker background and fall like scrap towards them.

“Your friend doesn’t trust me. I can tell,” Rachel said.

“What do you want me to say?” Jackson asked.

“I don’t know. When you pulled up, I felt like it was a moment. You know. A moment that I couldn’t pass by.”

Jackson reached out for her hand. She took it and he pulled her close.

Jackson kissed her, and pulled her body into his, and she kissed him back. He felt her hesitation, but pushed it back with his mouth and hands, and her resistance melted. On the beach Kent grit his teeth. He swore and stood and turned on his heels. It gave him a sickly feeling in his gut. He walked around some scrub pines to where the old scratch of the fire ruins reached the water. He stood there for a while and looked into the scorch. There was little to tell: a fire, grass encroached upon the black spindles of frame. Kent stood there and then waded into the water where he washed his hands, and splashed water on his face. He didn’t know how long he had stayed, but when he returned Jackson and Rachel were a pair of entangled shadows that kissed and drank, and pushed each other in the breaking water. Night had come quickly on them but not on Kent who had kept his eye on his watch, and on his heart.

Kent had had enough and interrupted the couple, who giggled and exhaled and tugged on their clothes. After a few fumbling minutes of kisses and gulps of beer they piled in the cab, and Kent began the drive back.

“So where do you live?” Kent asked

“Not far.” Rachel said. She held onto Jackson’s hand and smoked, her exhalations escaping out the window in regular puffs.

“You want to be dropped off there?”

“Sure.” She said, and squeezed Jackson’s hand. “You guys can come in, but you can’t stay. Not even for a little.” She giggled.

“No problem,” Kent said. “Though lover-boy here will disagree with us both.”

Jackson smiled and kissed Rachel on the top of her head. They drove the rest of the way in silence save for the occasional directional from Rachel who had settled under Jackson’s arms. Kent thought it was imagination but he could have sworn that she was staring off in the marsh grass and the oily sky looking for someone. It was in the way she breathed, he thought, strained and stressed as if she knew her time was coming to an end.

Her house was a trailer near the side of the byway, and it stood out like a patch against inky pine dark, the trailer itself dirty, and dusky, and hairy with use. There was no one home, which seemed to relieve Rachel, for she sighed and loosened her grip on Jackson’s hand. The highway was deserted.

She invited them in and Jackson and Kent took her up on it, though Kent kept the truck running. He wanted Jackson to know he was on a leash. And they walked through the weedy yard and up the wooden steps to her home. The air hung with the salty rot of low tide. There was a waterway nearby, and Kent could make out the far cry of a marsh loon, which made him want to go home even more, if only to hear the familiar cries of the owl in his backyard. Inside it smelled of dog and cat piss, and smoke. And Rachel lit up fresh as she came in, and tossed her bag on the counter. Empty beer cans and whisky bottles were lined up on the counter. Above the television a wedding photo was marked with what looked like spaghetti sauce. Other pictures were overturned or at odd angles as if a pillow, or other object had been thrown at them.

“Nice place,” Jackson said, trying to be polite.

“It’s a shithole, but thanks.” Rachel opened the refrigerator and threw in the remaining twelve pack, and pulled one out for herself and another for Jackson.

Outside the sound of a Mack truck loomed. Jackson wondered how one could live so close to the highway, with the noise and fumes. Especially on this side road with it’s trucking corridors and port access ways. He could see the noise bothered Rachel, for she tensed up and began to tap her fingers against the counter. Their popped beers sounded like a lid being lifted from an ancient jar. Again the sound of the Mack groaned, and Rachel’s hands began to flutter. Kent stepped further inside the living room.

“How can you stand living so close to the road? It’s like in your living room.” Jackson said as he moved closer to Rachel, “I want your phone number. Maybe we can get together this weekend. I’m off, and we ain’t digging clams, not for a while, anyway. Maybe we could…”

“Yeah maybe,” Rachel replied.

Kent, eager to leave, scanned the room, he was drawn to the wedding photo and the red stain across the face of the glass. Rachel was evading Jackson’s advances and he was glad for that, maybe they would be going soon. Outside the rumble and boom of the truck enlarged. The bride and groom of the picture seemed happy, but it didn’t appear that they were happy any longer based on the look of the place. Rachel resembled her mother, Kent thought, and then peered closer. The woman in the picture was Rachel, the same steel in her eyes, the red ringlets of hair like springs in front of her face.

And suddenly there was silence outside. The truck had passed, or had it? Kent hadn’t been paying attention, listening to Jackson and looking at the photo. But Rachel knew, Kent could tell by looking at her. Her face was stiff and her hands like iron braces gripping the kitchen counter. He could see her jaw working a slow grind, and if Jackson would have shut his teeth, would have heard the slow crush of enamel on enamel. Then there was the sound of a door opening and closing, and Kent knew now that they had to leave, and Rachel knew it too, for she was already moving back around Jackson, who was oblivious, moving back deeper into the kitchen.

“Jackson, we got to jam.” Kent said, his voice hammering in his throat.

“Yeah, you should go.” Rachel said. She lit a smoke and winced. To Kent she looked like she was about to break into pieces from stress.

“Why?” Jackson said. “I’m not finished with my beer.”

“Come on, man, fuck your beer. Finish it in the car.” Kent said.

Then the door was slammed open and her husband, grizzled, grinding his teeth, face taut and angled, cut the room with his voice. “Whose fucking truck is out there, Rach? Huh?” And Rachel moved between Jackson, Kent and her man, blocking her man from the boys, from the front door. “What the hell is going on here?” He cussed and swore, but Kent didn’t listen, only pulled on Jackson’s elbow. There was a back door in the kitchen, and Kent moved towards it.

“Fucking bitch, what did I tell you?” He jerked her around and the force of it whipped her neck about.

“Hey don’t touch her!” Jackson shouted.

“Shut up,” Kent hissed at Jackson, pulling him back.

“Fuck you!” Rachel’s husband growled.

“Baby, come on, I got a bag full of money, let’s go get a room and relax. Come one baby. We’ll celebrate, like the old days.”

“Fuck off,” he growled.

“We’ll get some champagne…I’ll take care of you. Do that thing you like. ” Rachel cooed, her hands coaxing his chin. “You know how you get on the road, after all that no-doze and jolt, come on baby.” She soaked his ear in whispers and kisses and rubbed his chest, which bought Kent and Jackson enough time to slip out the back.

And they bolted around the trailer, through the maze of beach chairs and coolers, and instead of following the boys; Rachel’s husband kicked the front door open and jumped his way down the wooden stairs.

They leapt into the truck but Jackson did not escape the man’s fist as it raked across his lip. He laid in one punch and grabbed Jackson by the collar and punched him hard in the mouth, sending blood across the face of the dash. Jackson countered with a weak punch and jab, which was enough to separate himself from the angry man. The Mack blocked the head of the drive, but Kent gunned the old girl back, knocking the Mack hard in the teeth. He swerved and pulled the truck hard around and rolled over the edge of the yard, the headlights capturing, for a moment, Rachel pulling on her husband’s elbow, her mouth in rictus as her husband’s fist grappled with her neck, both of them shouting and spitting at each other in the dark.

“What the fuck!” Jackson screamed. In the rearview he could see Rachel taking a blow to the mouth, as her husband reeled back upon her. “We have to go back! We can’t leave her there. He’ll kill her.”

“Fuck that! Did you see that guy, he was hopped on trucker speed, I ain’t going back there.”

Jackson whimpered.

“Dude, you’re bleeding. He fucked your lip up.”

Jackson examined himself in the side mirror; he couldn’t see much but a bloody stain. His tooth wiggled.

“She’s married. The picture. Above the TV. It was her.”

Jackson pounded his hand on the dash. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” Kent said.

Jackson beat his head against the dash. He moaned and cussed, and slapped the dash repeatedly. “Please tell me you have the money.”

“It’s in the glove box.”

“No it isn’t.” Jackson said, “She has it. In her purse.”

“What? Are you sure? I put it there before we left Junk Man’s.” Kent’s heart stammered as he maneuvered the back road murk. Please, he thought, not that, not that.

Jackson pulled open the glove box. It was black and empty, but he stuck his hand inside anyway, his fingers fluttering above the littered scraps of receipts and folded maps.
“It’s empty.”

“Son of a bitch!” Kent screamed.

“Why would she take it?” Jackson wondered.

“Because she’s fucking poor, dumbass. You saw her trailer. She’s desperate.”

“But not for money.”

“Just shut your damn mouth.” Kent yelled.

The old truck groaned, they had slowed down a bit to get there bearings. When they stopped a dark T-section Kent let the truck idle, trying to remember the best way to get to the highway.

Jackson sulked, and in the muffler silence a backfire, or gunshot, and the boys looked at each other. Then another.

“We should go.”

“We’re not going back, Jackson.”

“We have to do something. He could have killed her.”

“We’ll call the cops.” Kent argued.

“I don’t know her last name. I didn’t get her phone number.”

Kent sighed and turned the truck around, and they drove in crisscross passes around the area where they thought she lived, but found little they recognized. Without streetlights the crowned roads looked the same as they oozed out of the pinewoods. Once they thought they found it, but it was an old streamline rotting in the honeysuckle, kudzu vines erupting from the windshield. It made Kent think of the deer skulls in the woods and how weeds or vines would push up through the eye sockets. Through the search Jackson said little, his hands flexing into fists and out again. In the end Kent found his way to the highway, and Jackson dropped his head back and looked up into the cab’s ceiling. He looked past the ripped liner into the metal which was mottled like a moth’s wing, not with powder, but with rust, and outside the stars pushed against the haze. Somewhere behind them an old story retold itself to no one, and the boys drove home in muggy silence.

Comments

Cassidy Brynn said…
Nice story, Good Luck. Love the ending. The Eastern Shore is beautiful. My family lives in Wicomico County and we visit there often. You're lucky! PLease post readings and events that occur. Perhaps we can attend
vawrtr said…
Great tale. I like the ending. Ghosts? Death? Good luck with the competition!

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