The Mother Road
by Barbra Annino
part 1 of 2
Nick had considered himself a lucky guy until now.
“Dude, that sucks,” said Simon.
They were standing outside the Welcome Inn, a hotel and tavern just off Route 66 in Gallup, New Mexico. It was early morning in late August and the desert sun was fading behind the mountains, painting the sky bubblegum pink.
Nick was rooted to the dusty parking lot. Maybe if he closed his eyes tight, then opened them real fast, Rosie would be okay. He tried it. One-two-three. But when he opened his eyes again, she was still a crumpled mess, melted into the earth. He spit, trying to expel the metallic taste in his mouth.
“Man, how we gonna get to LA?” Simon asked Nick.
Nick removed his baseball cap and shook his thick blonde hair. He stared at the Cutlass Supreme his father brought home his first year of high school. The man owned a car dealership and for some reason, he accepted the frame on a trade-in. “You’ll need a car soon. Can’t expect to sponge off your old man. So you’ll have to build it yourself,” he told Nick.
It was just a shell, but after years of his painstakingly restoring the car to her original luster, it sparkled. Coasting open roads, top down, music cranked up was all he had dreamt about with each dime he sunk into the car.
Now she sat motionless, all four tires slashed, key marks along each door, and a message in bright yellow spray paint slapped across her trunk.
Nick edged around Simon and walked towards the car.
“Dude, are you okay?”
Nick spun into Simon and clutched his shirt, practically lifting the smaller man off the ground. Simon could smell the saltiness of Nick’s skin.
“No, I am not okay!” He was spitting as he spoke, his eyes glazed, a tiny vein throbbing in his strong neck.
Simon didn’t say anything. He knew better than to push Nick too far. He knew Nick’s temper could boil over easily, let alone when someone just trashed his ride. Nick was like his father, fast to judge and quick to hit, though Nick hit hard surfaces like walls and doors. Never faces. Simon only saw it that one time. The aftermath of his father’s fist. That day, when Nick picked Simon up for school, something inside him had changed.
Now, Simon could see that darkness in his friend again, bubbling to the surface.
Rosie sat, silently waiting for comfort.
If anyone had told them the cross-country trip would end here, neither of the young men would have believed it. Nick was determined to drive from Chicago to LA, stopping only for gas, food, and maybe a brew, thanks to their fake IDs. They would sleep when they got overly tired or drunk, but otherwise, the car would be in motion and Nick and Simon would be on their way to freedom. No parents, no girlfriends, no school. Just Rosie and the beach. That was the plan. And Nick’s plans always worked out. Like the time he finagled his dad out of a cool grand to buy speakers for the car. “The old man owes me,” Nick had said.
“Man, we should call the cops or something,” Simon said when his friend released him. He plucked a menthol from his jean jacket, brushed a stringy brown hair from his face, and leaned against a guard rail.
“No. No cops.” Nick was tracing his fingers over the cotton spilling from the ripped upholstery of the car. His head pounded, partly from a hangover and partly from the anger. His blue eyes, now the color of steel, washed over his friend. “We’ll do this my way.”
The bartender from the night before pulled into the parking lot and cut her engine. She unfolded her slender legs from the beat-up Buick and whistled. “You two still here? Thought you’d be long gone after the scene last night.” She reached into the passenger seat and pulled out her purse. When she turned back, she noticed the two young men staring at the car.
“Is that your Cutlass?” she asked, slowly.
Nick snapped his head towards the pretty bartender. “Yeah. Do you know who did this?”
The young woman was stunned for a moment, then she backed away. She liked these two guys. They were a lot of laughs until that stupid fight and they tipped well, but there was something unsettling about the blonde one. Like a gas leak waiting for a match, he could explode at any moment. And that kind of trouble, she didn’t need.
“I don’t know, some drunk, probably.” She clipped her nametag onto her shirt and started for the large wooden door. Simon followed her, drinking in her vanilla scent.
Nick gripped the doorframe. He lowered his head into Rosie. It was his mother who had named her. “A car like that needs a name,” she told him.
It was his sophomore year in high school. He didn’t even drive it yet. Didn’t yet know his father was a prick. “Okay, how about Champ?”
She laughed, melodious and light, like a robin’s song. His mom had a great laugh. “No silly, this is a female car. She needs a girl’s name.”
“Okay, you pick,” he told her.
She cocked her head and ran her hands along the dashboard, flicked the pinecone air freshener. The first girl to ever sit in the passenger seat, she looked so young. That was before the cancer, before her hair fell out, before she lost her breast.
“How about Rosie?” she said and Nick agreed.
All for nothing, he thought now. All those long hours tinkering away in the garage when he should have been with his mother. He tried, he really did. But he couldn’t stand to see her suffer. Couldn’t stand to watch her body wither as her spirit had. That was his fault too, probably. If only he could have convinced her to leave the bastard in her house. Maybe she could have battled the monster in her chest.
As Nick stood, Simon approached the bartender. “Hey, Sherry, isn’t it?”
Sherry turned to face him. “Yeah.”
“What time did you leave last night?” he asked.
Sherry stole a look at Nick. “Look, I gotta open, so I really don’t have time for this.”
Simon tucked the smoke behind his ear and flashed a slow, sexy smile. He could be charming, too. Nick wasn’t the only one who could sweet-talk a chick.
“Sherry,” he traced a finger along her forearm, “all I want to know is if the car was like that when you got off work.”
Sherry relaxed a bit. “I really can’t say. I left out the back. Sorry. I have to go.” She unlocked the door. “So, you’re open?” Simon asked, following her inside.
Nick flipped open his cell phone, but there was no one he could call. He snapped it shut and stepped into the car to think. He knew this road trip would be the last. He promised his mother, though, when the final bolt was secure, when the tires were polished to a shine, when everything was in its place, he would take a drive on the Mother Road and think of her.
“Treat her well, son. A girl like that deserves respect,” she had said, her eyes heavy with morphine, her voice weak.
Nick hated his father for all he had put his mother through. All the whores he traipsed around town with while his mom was cooking his meals, doing his laundry — and now lying in a hospital bed. The one time he threatened to tell, Nick took a pounding. After that the old man bribed him silent. Told him it would kill his mother, so he never did tell. But she slipped away just the same. Blood money, Nick realized later.
And he hated himself for that.
“You can’t blame the guy, really. People around here don’t like strangers messing in their business.” Sherry was pouring Simon a Coke, relaying her version of the events that unfolded the night before. The bar reeked of stale beer.
“I mean, just because a woman is crying about her lying cheat of a man doesn’t mean you get involved,” she was saying.
Simon knew she was right. Why did Nick have to get into that broad’s business? Simon suspected the rumors were true about Nick’s dad running around, but man. This was supposed to be a fun trip. Now it was all screwed up.
“But I’ll tell you one thing” — Sherry was stocking the beer cooler — “if it was Earl that wrecked that car, I would highly suggest you leave it alone.” She faced Simon. “That sonofabitch is crazy.”
Simon figured that out when the guy tossed Nick into the bandstand. They were jamming Jethro Tull and Nick sailed into the drummer. Symbols clanged, people gasped, and the dude just laughed. A bouncer broke up the scuffle but Nick would not calm down. He just kept drinking, getting louder and more obnoxious by the minute until Simon dragged him to his room.
Simon thanked Sherry and crossed the threshold from the bar to the front desk. They’d have to stay another night, probably, until they could rent a car. He hoped they had enough cash to do it. That was another brilliant idea of Nick’s. Cash only on this trip. “Free-wheeling men in a classic car don’t carry plastic,” Nick had said. Dumbass.
The plan was to pull money when they got to LA. Each of their banks had branches there. Simon looked around, doubtful this place did. He approached the front desk and dinged the bell.
* * *
The fuzzy dice dripping from the rearview mirror were a gift from his mother. Nick always thought they were cheesy, but she was really far gone then. He’d never hurt her feelings like that. Not like him. Ironic, he thought. The only thing he didn’t like about the classic car was the stupid fake dice. Now they were the only piece intact.
What did it matter anyway?
He unhooked them and put them to his cheek. Soft and warm, like her. Except that last day. That last day she was cold as ice. And that motherfucker didn’t even show up. Nick had called him, told him it wouldn’t be long. But good old dad said he missed his flight, he would catch the next one asap. That was when Nick decided he would fulfill his mother’s last wish. Before they even put her in the ground, he would be gone.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Barbra Annino