Samuel Wilkes is a writer, attorney, musician, and ring toss hustler living on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, Alabama with his wife and plump wiener dog. He has a love-hate relationship with Alabama, but consistently draws inspiration from her. His short fiction has been published in WhiskeyPaper, Crack the Spine, Deep South Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Steel Toe Review, From the Depths, and several others. One of his short stories was nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. You can follow him on Twitter at @Samkwilkes.

 

Self Defense

by Samuel Wilkes

 

We shot out of Nashville shortly after midnight, pushing the limits of a Camaro owned by Daniel’s buddy, Stuart. He knew we were taking his car, but would later deny it when questioned. Daniel and I set out on I-65 heading south through Alabama towards the Gulf of Mexico. This was our trip to start anew—new life, new ways, no chains, and no obligations. The road was ours, just two headlights rolling down the empty highway.

Thirty minutes in I started singing “Me and Bobby McGee.” It fit our situation too damn perfectly. Daniel shot me an annoyed look though, so I casually faded out. I never knew how he would react to certain things. At first I thought he might join in the chorus, as he was known to do sometimes, but so far he remained oddly silent. I could tell he was thinking about our future. I could tell he was thinking about a lot of things. Years of prison straight into an unsettled freedom can do a number on the senses. Even when the leash is gone it’s hard not to feel as if it’s still there. Near the Alabama state line, he finally spoke up:

“What’s the first thing you want? Beer or sex?”

I was taken off guard and not exactly sure what he was getting at with regard to sex, but quickly responded nonetheless, “Beer.”

Daniel agreed, so we stopped at the next available twenty-four hour gas station. It was the only store open at the exit. Two parking lot lights flickered, all the others were dead. Daniel liked the looks of the situation.

“You want any particular kind?”

“No, as long as it’s cold,” I said casually.

“Stay here,” he said, tapping a wink in the dark.

I never saw the clerk, but I did notice one other customer in the store roaming around. I wondered if Daniel spoke to him or just went about his business. He handled situations so well. Much better than me.

As he returned with the beer the flickering lights created a strobe effect. He appeared to walk in slow motion. I felt like I was watching a Tarantino film, with a bass drum beating in sync to his every cool step. He rode the rhythm naturally. He controlled everything. And that was fine. I surrendered to his control.

As he opened the Camaro the frigid air hit my face. He handed me the Budweiser and we returned gliding down I-65.

“Cheers to a new start without chains,” I toasted, holding up my can.

“To opening new doors,” Daniel said, taking a swig.

I could see a flash of his sinister smile and thin brown eyes as we passed under an interstate light. We sucked down three beers each and started feeling loose for the first time in years. Stuart’s radio didn’t work, so silence rode in the car with us. I didn’t like to initiate conversation unless I knew Daniel was in the mood to talk. Over the years we had talked about nearly everything under the sun; we no longer had need for words. So near the Athens exit I tried another round of “Me and Bobby McGee.” This time Daniel winked his right eye and laughed. This time I had approval.

I’ve always considered myself to be a heterosexual male. But strange things happen when you’re confined with another person for years. Bonds form that one would ordinarily not think plausible. It’s hard to put in words, but it was there. Daniel always knew I was his; he had picked me and stood up for me. I could honestly say I loved the man. But I’d never actually said it out loud. I wish I would’ve told him that night.

“So what now, partner? We got our beers.”

Daniel smiled and rubbed his black stubble, “Let’s see, I know there’s a dirt hole of a strip club in Decatur where we might round up some pussy.”

“Now you’re talking!” I said enthusiastically to hide any sign of disappointment.

*

Shortly after 2:00 a.m. we pulled up to the Green Duck. A neon leg kicked above our heads, waving us into the hole. Daniel winked and finished off his beer. I followed suit. He then reached across my lap to the glove box. I watched as he pulled out an envelope fat with cash.

“Stuart left it for us,” he said.

“How much?”

“Enough,” he smiled, fanning the bills.

Inside, three men sat in clouds of smoke as the dancers trounced around the stage like old mules. Even though I hadn’t been with a woman in years, I wasn’t too excited after seeing this lot. Daniel didn’t hesitate. He immediately made friends with a bartender and started dropping hints for action with one of the busty girls. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was playing. I thought that to be an odd song for a pole dance, but then again they didn’t seem to care about much at the ol’ Duck. Before I could finish my first whiskey, Daniel and two women in thongs floated my way.

“Norman, meet Twinkle,” he said, grinning wide.

“Hello,” I said, suddenly nervous.

Twinkle was strictly business and lacked any fake pleasantries. I didn’t mind, I was ready to get it over with. Daniel took his woman into a back room. Luckily we couldn’t hear them in our adjacent closet-sized dressing area. For some reason Twinkle kept the light on. She was a mousey little woman with stringy blonde hair that probably always looked wet or greasy. Her breasts were no bigger than mine and her stomach was flat and tone with scars of what appeared to be an old C-section—or maybe a knife fight—it was hard to tell with Twinkle.

I watched my pale hand slide down her indifferent shoulder. But I couldn’t feel her. It was as if I was watching a porno starring myself; a mere outside observer. I tried not to look into her eyes. I started thinking of the titles of all the books I’d read, which usually helped to calm myself in these situations. I had always wanted Daniel to read more. And to read what I read; to know and be able to share the same.

“Christ!” I yelped.

Twinkle was confident in her job and quickly took control of the process. I could feel her now, but I remained detached in some way. I wondered if Daniel was having the same awkward experience. But I should’ve known that he wasn’t. I should’ve known he was dominating the situation. To know Daniel, one must understand that he was a man of extremes. The type of guy that smoked his cigarettes well past the filter line every time, crushing the cotton with his thick fingers. He was either methodically planning his fortune or counting boob formations in the clouds. Some days his selfishness could reach a reptilian level, while on others he could be a caring grizzly bear mother. Such a ruthless man could do surprisingly considerate things. He often made me question the notions of good and evil. He kept me moving. He kept me thinking.

I finished quickly and thanked Twinkle for her patience; a little joke that I hoped would churn up a smile, but didn’t. I returned to the bar and sipped on a whiskey. Now they were playing TuPac’s “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” which I thought was more fitting. My mind gradually drifted into another realm until Daniel came out fifteen minutes later. His face looked new; his strut looked new. I remember his wink appeared slower, and when he patted me on the back it was as though he pitied me, as if he now knew secrets to life that my feeble mind could never grasp. In that moment Daniel sat on top of the world.

Soon as we were back in the Camaro he spilled all the foul sexual details. I couldn’t care less and he obviously couldn’t care less about my awkward experience, but I acted interested anyway. I couldn’t bring him down if I tried. Well, until we reached Cullman.

*

As I read the green mile-marker sign for that goddamn city, Daniel spoke up with a different tone to his voice, breaking a ten minute silence.

“Norman, afraid we got us a problem.”

I rose from the headrest, “What do you mean?” Several scenarios ran through my mind in that third of a second.

“Almost out of gas.”

“And?” I said as I fell back to the headrest, it all seeming trivial enough. “Are there no gas stations left in this part of Alabama?”

“No smartass, we’re out of money.”

“What?” I perked up again. “Already?”

“Yea, already! Sex ain’t cheap, Norman,” he snapped.

“I know, Daniel. I know,” I said defensively. “But if I’d known we were spending it all on that, I wouldn’t have—”

“Goddammit!” he yelled, slapping the wheel with a hint of mad laughter underneath.

I couldn’t look at him. I was too confused.

“Wait,” I paused, with my mind untangling, “if that money was in the glove box, how did you buy those beers?”

“Norman, you know damn well I just walked out with those beers. Hell, the clerk wasn’t even behind the counter.”

I hated when he stressed my name like I was a child. My head fell back to the headrest. I knew right then nothing had changed. There was no new start. I began to hear the front tire whine on the white line. He was thinking too hard, his hands were unsteady.

“Reach behind your seat and grab that bag,” he demanded sharply.

More money, I had hoped, stacks of twenties with a note from Stuart saying “good luck on your new start, guys.” But no, it contained only what I feared this exodus would lead to.

“Should be two .40 calibers in there. Least that’s what I told Stuart to leave us,” he said as I peered inside.

I pulled out the clips.

“They fully loaded?” he asked impatiently.

“Yea,” I replied, finding it suddenly hard to swallow.

“They hollow-points?”

“Yea.”

“We’re set,” he grinned.

I could tell he was patting Stuart on the back in his mind, thanking him for a job well done. I could tell he wished Stuart was in the car instead of me. He always thought I was a bitch. Hell, let’s be honest, that’s why he picked me in the first place. I’d always been his bitch. Just his property to do with as he pleased.

“Only a few hours left ‘til sunrise. I’m thinking we take this here next exit and find the first nice house we see close to the interstate. Get some gas money and hop back on the road.”

I slid lower in my seat not wanting to give a reply. I had hoped his past wouldn’t be necessary with our new start. I had hoped. But I also knew it was inevitable. Daniel was drawn to it like a rutting buck to a doe’s scent.

He took the deserted exit without needing or wanting my reply. Even if I had protested, he would’ve talked me into it. He always did. I looked for signs of life while the Camaro slid silently down the country road. New stars appeared as the blanket of night grew darker.

Daniel pointed across my face to an old two-story plantation house with four columns. He killed the engine before I could suggest differently.

“Here’s to new doors opening for us,” he winked, pulling back the slide of the pistol.

I couldn’t fake a smile.

The house stood amongst a dry field that held nothing but dirt and overnight ice. The closest neighbor sat over a hundred yards down the empty road. As we walked across the field, I watched my breath in the cold rural air. I wished I was a teenager, coon hunting with my dad. I wished a lot of things—anything to take me from my reality. I could only hear my thoughts and the dead leaves crackling under our feet in the hushed predawn. Daniel turned to me every so often and nodded. But I could no longer see his thin brown eyes in the dark. The moon hid that night—a new moon I’m told. Though nothing at that point seemed new to me. The old familiar tracks were before us and our train was running down the same damned line.

We entered the old house through the back screen porch. The den held ticking antique clocks, homemade pottery, plastic candies, and stuffed Mallards. I could smell the years lived. The dining room was unfortunately modest, with no fine china or silver set out on display. They didn’t have anything we could use. I realized at that point our operation wasn’t going to be easy. The sweat from my palms started dripping onto my pistol.

DONG!

“Oh shit!” I yelled as Daniel grabbed me.

DONG!

DONG!

DONG!

Every old clock in the house had just chimed the arrival of 4:00 a.m.

Daniel angrily pressed his finger to my mouth as if I intentionally forgot to be quiet. I couldn’t help myself though. My nerves were rattled. My pistol shook.

“Bedroom,” he whispered, motioning for me to follow.

I couldn’t stop him. I didn’t try. I merely fell in line.

Each step down the hallway creaked softly on the worn hardwoods. All the doors stood shut. Daniel chose the last one since it seemed to be the master. I could not see, but sensed that he looked back to wink before gently opening the bedroom door.

“Take another step and I shoot,” an unseen elderly voice warned from the darkness of the room, as if God himself had spoken.

“Now, now old man, we ain’t here to hurt nobody, just tell me where your safe is and we’ll be on our way,” Daniel said stepping forward.

I heard a soft click before the shotgun blast pierced the night and threw pieces of Daniel’s head on the wall. I remember seeing the explosion of red tissue inches from my face and hearing the thud of his lifeless body against the floorboards as I turned to run. Daniel, with all his contradictions and charm, was gone in that split second. So, then too, I was gone. I knocked over a table of pottery and tore the screen door off the rusted hinges. I ran, crying and stumbling, through the dirt. Everything turned upside down so quickly. The crickets and frogs seemed louder like they were trying to alert the neighborhood. I felt as if in a drunken dream, yet simultaneously awake and sober. Bawling like a toddler all the way, I eventually made it to the Camaro and collapsed. After taking three deep breaths, I cranked the old piece and drove it as far as it would take me—which was only about thirty miles. In my panicked state I completely forgot about our gas issue. I wasn’t cut out to be alone.

*

The Alabama State Troopers caught me around 6:00 a.m. at a Waffle House begging for coffee and hash browns. By then I was tired of running anyway. I had long since given up. I already knew where those old tracks led. Later I learned through testimony that the old man and his wife heard us break in well before the damn clocks scared me into yelping. So, I was glad to know it wasn’t all my fault. I wished Daniel would’ve known that at least. I wished he would’ve known a lot of things that I could’ve told him. Just open my mouth and make the words—that easy. Might’ve changed things, but probably not. My cellmate was dead before the Tennessee State Penitentiary even knew we had escaped that night. So, in hindsight, we actually had a good head start on our path to a new life. Just had to go waste all our gas money on love we could’ve had for free. Love that he had the whole five and a half years while we shared that cell together. Then again, I’ve learned that love and sex can be two completely different things.

 

Copyright 2014 by Samuel Wilkes