Two Men in a Pickup
Red has the keys to the Fairlane. Won them fair and square, he says. And he's waiting until it's good and dark to leave. He's got a liquor store to rob.
The two of them are in an upstairs room at the back of a rooming house. The wallpaper is water-stained, and the carpet on the floor is worn through. The furniture is old enough to be your grandma's, and the frosted-glass cover under the ceiling light is dark with the bodies of dead flies.
"Ever rob a store?" Red says, slouched in a thread-bare chair and fiddling with a heavy pistol that he keeps putting away and taking out of a black canvas bag that he plans to fill later tonight with cash.
"No," says Kirk. He is lying on the worn chenille spread of a sagging double bed.
"It gives you a hard-on," Red says with a wink, and he points the pistol toward Kirk from between his legs. "Least it does me."
"Is that thing loaded?"
"What do you think?"
Kirk stares at it, blinking. "How many times you done this?" he says.
"Enough to know what I'm doing," Red says. He puts the gun away again, then nervously walks around the room, checking his watch and pulling the window shade open a crack to peer outside. The floorboards creak under him. "As soon as it gets a little darker, we're gonna get this show on the road."
"Have you ever been caught?" Kirk says.
"Now, what the fuck do you think?" Red says.
"I think it's possible."
"Well, so's your lily-white ass," Red says.
"Just once," he says, and sits next to Kirk on the bed. "And that's because the jackass doing the job with me fucked up."
"What did he do?"
"Got scared and ran off. Left me holding the bag." He shakes his head. "I took care of him good when I got out."
"What did you do to him?"
"Well, I had plans to cut his nuts off, but the fucker wouldn't hold still. So I just punched out his teeth," he laughs. "With a tire iron."
Kirk doesn't know whether to believe him. Sometimes the guy seems so full of shit.
"I don't think you did that," Kirk says.
"Hey!" Red says showing his teeth and grabbing Kirk between the legs. "Hey, hey, hey!"
"I'm just saying, I think you're making some of this stuff up," Kirk says, trying to twist away from the other man's grip. His fingers pinch down on his balls, which are hanging free in his jeans, ever since Frank tore off his underpants.
Now the guy jumps on top of him, the bedsprings squeaking, and wrestles to pin his arms against his chest, pushing his knees onto Kirk's legs. His face, warm and sweaty, presses down real close. His shirt snaps pop open, and there's the strong smell of sweat.
"Are you hard?" Red says, feeling the front of Kirk's jeans.
"You're hard. I can feel it." The guy gives Kirk a squeeze.
"That's my pocket knife," Kirk says.
"Aw," Red says and lets him go. "Here I thought you were gettin' to like me a little."
Kirk doubles up and rolls onto his side with his hands between his legs. He's spent a day with this guy, cooped up in this hot room, a dinky, useless fan blowing back and forth from the top of an old scratched dresser. The door to the hallway has been locked, and the key kept at the bottom of Red's shirt pocket. The toilet is down the hall, and when Kirk has needed to go, Red has come along to make sure he comes back.
"Wouldn't want you wanderin' off," he says.
There is nothing to do in the room but read the copy of a Gideon's Bible left in the bedstand. And the hours have dragged by, with the sound of the whirring fan and flies buzzing behind the shades in the windows. And the two of them -- mostly Red -- talking and talking.
"You remind me of a buddy I had for a while in prison," Red says.
"Kind of a country boy. Real easy goin'. If you knew him, you'd never guess he had the balls to knock over a bank." And Red tells of how they hit it off from the first day, stuck up for each other, sat around talking whenever they could, swapping tips on how to do hold-ups, how to win a fight, how to get laid. They beat up on a guy once in the prison laundry, just for the hell of it, and then watched each other's backs when the other guy's buddies tried to come after them.
"We got to be like that," Red says, holding up two fingers crossed. "Never had a buddy like him. We talked about anything. And the stories he could tell." Late at night, whispering dirty jokes about men with women, women with women, men with men, men with animals.
"Ever hear the one about the hired man who was so lazy he stands up on a box behind the mare and says, giddyup, whoa, back, giddyup, whoa, back?"
He bends over guffawing and then stands up, putting his pelvis in motion and saying the punch line over and over.
Kirk closes his eyes and doesn't move, remembering that at first he had kind of liked Red. He seemed friendly and smiled easily. When the boys started a card game around midnight, he'd produced a bottle of whiskey from his bag and passed it around. They played for money, and he was good natured about losing the first few hands, and then, as he liked to put it, Lady Luck smiled on him, and he ended up at five in the morning with just about everything the rest of them had brought to the table.
"If you're so good at cards," Kirk said. "Why do you want to rob a store?"
"Opportunity knocks but once" was the answer he got. Whatever the hell that was supposed to mean.
Red is called Red for the obvious reason that his hair is the color of old carrots, and his face and arms are a gnats' swarm of red freckles. His hair is cut short, he has a broken nose, and his eyes are swimming-pool blue, always watching Kirk, following him whenever he moves around the room.
He wears a black shirt and a pair of stiff wranglers that look like they've never been washed. On his feet he's wearing a pair of snakeskin boots he says he won off a guy in Laramie, but they're not his size and hurt his feet. He takes a fancy to Kirk's boots and makes him take them off so he can try them on. He walks around the room testing them for fit, and then decides he likes them and says he'll keep them.
"Trade you," he says tossing the snakeskins over to Kirk. "They're worth three times what you paid for these."
"But I don't want to trade," Kirk protests.
"You want these back," Red finally says, "You can cut cards for them."
"No, I just want them back," Kirk says.
"Tell you what," Red says. "If you win, you can have the boots, and I'll throw in ten bucks."
"Just give me my boots."
But Red only grins and does nothing. "You could be a little more generous," he says.
Kirk feels his heart sink. It was being generous that got him into this. He'd stopped to give a cowboy a ride to the rodeo. And when he let the cowboy drive the rest of the way from Chadron, because he was tired and wanted to get some sleep, he didn't think it would be a mistake handing over the car keys to him. But it hadn't worked out that way.
In the card game, when the bullrider had run out of money, he'd put the keys on the table, and Red's four of a kind had beat his full house.
"It wasn't his car to bet," Kirk said.
"Well, it sure as hell ain't his now," Red laughs. "And now you're telling me it's not yours either."
"OK, so I borrowed it from somebody else, but that don't mean it's yours."
"Well, I got the keys now," Red says, patting the front pocket of his jeans. "And you know what they say. Possession is nine-tenths of the law."
"Not if it's a car and you stole it," Kirk says.
"I didn't steal it," Red says. "Look at it this way. We're just taking turns here, and you've had your turn."
"But I need to take that car back to the guy it belongs to." Kirk's voice starts to break and he can feel tears in the corners of his eyes.
Red sighs, "Oh, he'll get it back. Soon as I'm done with it. Quit your worrying."
Kirk feels a wave of confusion. His face is burning with shame. He doesn't want to be like this -- at another man's mercy.
"Somebody like you wouldn't last a day in the pen, you know it?" Red says. "They'd take you by the ass and fuck you silly." He glances down to the snakeskin boots lying on the floor between them. "Now, you want them or not?"
The lingering summer twilight hangs faintly in the northern sky. They're driving west out of town toward Ft. Robinson. The highway takes a long, slow bend and the headlights pick up the signs for the fort. In the darkness on both sides of the road there's a string of old buildings, barracks, and stables gliding by and the smell of cut grass in the open windows. Then they are out again into the prairie night.
Kirk thinks of Danny, who loaned him the Fairlane for a weekend drive to Kearney, and how he planned to return it as soon as he was done with it. He probably should have called just to let Danny know, but it seemed easier to take care of any explaining once he got back home. If Danny is going to bawl him out for not getting it back sooner, he'd rather wait until then than spoil the trip.
Now, he's not so sure. With Red in charge, everything has changed.
"Who's this Danny anyway," Red wants to know.
"He's a friend of my uncle's," says Kirk. "Where are we going?"
"You'll find out soon enough," Red says, pushing up the speed. "What kinda guy is this Danny?"
"Why do you wanna know?"
"I wanna know what kind of guy drives a chickenshit car like this."
"There's nothing wrong with him. He's OK."
"How old is he? What does he look like?"
"He wears glasses," Kirk says. "He reads books."
"Tall? Short? Fat? Skinny?"
"He's just average." Kirk is thinking about the canvas bag on the back seat and the pistol. He thinks about diving for it while Red is driving. But he's only ever shot a rifle. He doesn't know anything about hand guns.
"What does he do," Red is saying, "sell insurance? A Fairlane's the kind of car an insurance salesman would drive."
"My uncle has a farm. He helps with the farming." If he had the gun, he thinks, maybe he could throw it out the window. That would even things up between them.
"A book-reading farmer? Tell me another one."
"Danny's not a farmer. He goes to college."
"A college boy," Red says and cackles. "I'm driving a college boy's car?"
"What's so funny about that?"
"Had a run-in with one of them smart-alec college boys once. Put my foot right up his ass."
Kirk gives up thinking about the gun. But it's killing him that this jerk is driving Danny's car and bad-mouthing him. The road keeps unrolling ahead of them in the glow of the headlights. And they drive farther and farther into the night, the speedometer crawling steadily up to seventy, seventy-five, eighty.
Red starts talking about a fist fight in the parking lot behind a local bar in Rapid City. Three boys in fraternity jackets, looking all preppy, had come in and started acting like they owned the place. One of them was talking a little loud, and Red had taken exception to the button-down collar on his shirt.
"Me and my buddies took care of those cocksuckers," Red is saying. "And that's what those fraternity boys do, all of 'em, they suck cock." And he describes, with right and left punches over the steering wheel, how he brought down the biggest one of them and shoved his face into the mud and gravel, and then while the guy was curled up, hands over his bloody face, Red had aimed a kick right between the back pockets of his pants. "You should have heard him holler then," Red hoots.
Now Kirk is thinking about Rich and wishing he'd come along. If only he hadn't got all out of sorts that last night in Frank's camper, when Frank tried cozying up to both of them. He'd just wanted to have some fun, and anyway he'd supplied them with all the beer they wanted.
Letting Frank play with his dick was no big deal. Frank would have sucked them both. There was more than enough of him to go around. But for some reason Rich didn't see it that way. When it was over and Frank had fallen asleep on top of him, he saw Rich get out of the camper and go round to the front of the truck, where he spent the night in the cab.
The next morning he was hitching a ride back home. "Gotta get back to work. Don't wanna lose my job," he'd said, staring up the road and not looking at Kirk.
If they'd stayed together, they wouldn't have gotten into this scrape. They'd be who knows where right now, wrapped up naked in sleeping bags by a campfire, on a back road, like he'd imagined. Not a care in the world. Instead, here he is with a lunatic, who has the car, a gun, and his boots.
"You might need those snakeskins," Red says. "You better put 'em on."
"They don't fit. I told you."
Red shuts up for a while, and there is just the sound of the engine and the rush of air in the windows.
"Make yourself useful," Red finally says. "Find something on college-boy's radio."
"Find it yourself," Kirk says.
Red's hand shoots across the seat and clamps hard around Kirk's kneecap. "You know, I'm gettin' a little impatient with your attitude," he says. The car swerves on the road, and he grips the steering wheel with one hand to steady it. Then he doubles the pressure on Kirk's knee.
Kirk tries hard to pry away Red's fingers, but they are like steel. He finally gets hold of Red's little finger and yanks it back.
"Ow!" Red yells, jerking away, and Kirk feels the car shudder on the road again.
This time Red puts both hands on the wheel and hits the brakes, crossing the center line and then careening back again and over to the edge of the hardtop, two tires dropping onto the shoulder, and now all four of them. "Sonofabitch," Red is yelling, and then they are off the road, gliding through the grass and weeds flying up in the glare of the headlights and smashing into the grill, until the car comes to a scraping, banging stop against a barb wire fence.
Kirk finds himself against the dashboard. The car is still running, headlights angled up into the air, the beams of light swirling with dust. He wants to push open the door and run, but he is trapped against the fence and can't get out.
Red is doubled over the steering wheel, coughing and cursing. He's shaking his hand, yowling that his finger's broken and hugging it with his other hand. Then when he gets his breath, he stops wailing and starts laughing. "Shit, for a minute there I thought we were goners," he says.
He throws the car into reverse, and with wheels spinning in the dirt, backs away from the fence, the barb wire singing and grinding against the side panel and front fender. Then he stops and turns to reach into the back seat. Kirk hears the zipper of the canvas bag, and when Red sits again behind the wheel, he's holding the gun.
"You, boy, are not pulling any more of that shit," he says. And he holds the gun on Kirk until the car is back on the road and picking up speed. Then he shoves it into the front of his jeans.
Kirk settles back in the seat, touching fingers to his forehead where his head hit the windshield.
"You can give me that pocket knife, too," Red says holding out his open hand. "Don't even think about using it." Kirk pulls out the knife and hands it to him. It has three dull blades and wouldn't cut through a paper bag. Red wraps his fingers around it and then chucks it out the window.
They drive on in silence for a while. Red says no more about the radio.
"If you think I'm gonna help you rob a store, you're nuts," Kirk finally says.
"Oh, I was hoping you'd drive the getaway car," Red says.
Red laughs. "Are you kidding? You'd be useless." He is leaning forward in his seat, peering over the steering wheel like he's looking for something.
"I don't see how you can get away with this anyway," Kirk says. "Everybody's gonna be looking for a guy with red hair."
"But it ain't gonna be red. I change the color with shoe polish."
"Oh," Kirk says.
"Got the idea from Charlie Starkweather," Red says. "He snookered them cops."
"They caught him anyway."
"He had his girlfriend with him. That was his big mistake."
"Didn't they send him to the electric chair?" says Kirk.
Red slows down. "I ain't had to kill anybody," he says. "Least-wise, not yet." A dirt road appears on the left, and he turns onto it, crossing a cattle grid and heading out into deeper darkness.
They go for miles over rough road. In some places it's been washed away, and the Fairlane bottoms out, stones pinging under the frame and the exhaust system. Wherever the road divides, Kirk tries to remember the turns, but finally there are too many of them. And Red keeps on driving.
"Where are we going?" Kirk asks.
"Someplace where no one will find you."
"No one's looking for me."
"I like that even better."
Red dodges around another hole in the road, and the tires rumble over old ruts. The road climbs a slow grade, tops out, and then descends again. In places it is only a two-lane track, with grass growing down the middle and scratching under the car as they drive over it.
In the distance, up ahead, a light appears on the horizon. A pole light on a ranch, Kirk thinks, or a light from a window. But then as the road veers away, the light vanishes.
After miles, a gray shape appears out of the darkness. It is a small building with a door on the end and windows along one side. The siding is weathered and broken.
Red slows down and stops where the road widens out in front of the building. Kirk can see that it was once a one-room school. To one side there is an overgrown platform of old planks and a water pump with a long handle. Beyond, glowing dimly in the Fairlane's headlights, are two narrow, upright out houses. Boys. Girls.
Red lets the engine idle. "This is where you get out," he says to Kirk. "And take the boots."
"We don't have time for this. I'm gonna count to three," Red says and pulls the gun from the waist band of his jeans. "One."
Kirk searches on the dark floor for the snakeskin boots and when he has them, tries to open the door. It won't budge. It's jammed shut from when they went off the road and hit the fence. In a blur of movement, he sees Red's leg flash out in front of him, and with his foot give a swift kick to door. It pops open with a grinding squawk.
"Two," he says. And Kirk steps out of the car. Under his stocking feet, the earth is hard and cool.
Red reaches across and pulls the door shut. A loose chrome strip snaps and clatters against the metal. "Don't go walking anywhere without those boots," he says. "There are rattlesnakes all around here."
"Are you coming back for me?"
"I'm gonna be busy," Red says.
"How do I get back to town?"
"Not my problem." Red slides behind the wheel and puts the car in reverse. He backs into a patch of grass and then swings around onto the road.
"What am I going to do out here?" Kirk shouts as the car starts to pull away.
Red leans out the window. "You're a smart boy. You'll figure it out." And he steps on the gas, spinning up dirt and stones. The red tail lights glow in the dusty air, and then move away down the road, following the flare of the high-beam headlights.
Kirk stands watching it go, the sound of the engine fading into the night as the lights finally disappear around a bend. The grass around him is alive with the rustling whir of insects. In every direction, it is dark as pitch. He cannot even see himself. Above, the moonless sky is brim-full of stars that shine bright, right down to the horizon.