This was last summer I met a guy called Henry. He threw me a little scratch to drive with him out to his ex-lady’s house. It had been their house, he said, but after they went splitsville she got all the good stuff. Henry wound up my neighbor at a motel in the sketch part of town, around Van Buren and 10th Ave., down by all the soup lines. Matter of fact, all he got in the final deal was the bitty little Honda we were riding in. I think he spent some time living in it, before the motel. When they were together, him and his lady, they’d lived out in Mesa and had some good times. Mesa, where we were heading to. A nice place. They had kids. I think he said a son, maybe two sons, maybe a daughter. He said it had been ages since he talked to either them or his ex-lady. “So, wait what are we doing?” I asked. The tires whined on the 202 below us, loud as an industrial AC unit. Henry was hunched up over the steering wheel. He gave me a giddy, sideways look, eyes wide. Licking his lips. Then he said, “I’m so glad you made the decision to come along with me. It was the right decision. Helping out a friend. We’re friends, and you help out your friends.”
“Sure,” I said.
Henry whapped my arm and, instinctively, I made a muscle. That made me smile, that instant tension in my bi, like a steel cable, I pictured, lifting a long I-beam into the brains of some new building. They were always putting up new buildings. Steel and glass monsters looming up out of the desert. Or maybe it was I smiled because Henry paid attention. Paid me some attention anyway.
“But, wait though, what?” I said.
“Take a look in the back seat there.” Henry threw a thumb over his shoulder.
There were a bunch of coins down on the floorboards, an old blue-handled toothbrush too. On the ripped up seat sat a burlap sack, half-open.
“What’s in it?” I said.
“Go on, open it, open it.” Henry was watching me instead of the road, so we cruised right onto the shoulder and nearly flew out into the desert, before Henry whipped the wheel around and got us back onto the highway. We made an awful skidding, screeching racket. Made my face bang into his seat and I chomped my lip.
“Seatbelts,” Henry screamed, “Seatbelts!”
I flipped the burlap sack all the way open and inside were crowbars, a couple of hammers, tin snips, all brand new. Still had bar codes on them, Home Depot stickers too.
“Looks like you got some hardware here,” I said, still leaning into the back.
“Uh-huh!” Henry was excited.
“Oh, I get it,” I said, “We’re going to rip her place off. Right?”
“No,” he said, “Better.”
“You don’t see any ski masks back there do you? Gloves?”
“We’re going to rip her place UP!” And then he cackled like crazy.
I plonked down in the passenger seat, coughing on the little dust cloud that’d brewed in the air from my wide ass bouncing around. Way up above us were the last rays of the sun, orange forks across this azure sky, tines going every which way. I swear, from one side of the sky to another. And behind those, you could just start to see little dots of stars, like we were under the skin of heaven and God kept shoving a needle through, looking for a vein, looking for lifeblood. Heaven burned on the other side. And there I sat with Henry.
“How big’s the house?” I said.
“Not big. Not big.” Henry’s head bobbed and his bony fingers wouldn’t be still on the steering wheel, like it was a circular piano he was trying to play.
“Are you lit?” I said.
We were quiet.
“Maybe,” he said then, “But only a little bit.”
So, yeah, we made it out to Mesa. Henry couldn’t find the ex-old-lady’s house, even though it used to be his house. We drove up and down streets that all looked the same, with low squatty houses supposed to look like haciendas. He kept saying, “I think this is it,” or “No, this one here,” until we were both totally turned bass-ackwards. After we’d looped around probably the hundredth cul-de-sac, he pulled the car onto the shoulder, killed the headlights, and started to cry. Big sucking sobs. I didn’t know what the hell to do. He calmed down after a few minutes. His crying became wheezing, became sighs, became little murmurs of breath, these tiny putters of air I’d never heard come from any man’s mouth before. They were delicate. Like they could pop.
“Are you okay, Henry?” I said.
“Yes. No. I don’t know.”
“What do you say we head back?”
Henry let his head fall onto his hand. He rubbed his face and I could hear his beard stubble scratching on his open palm. He stared out the window for a long time. Then he said, “No, let’s wait. This might be the street. Maybe she’ll recognize the car.”
About the Author: Paul Luikart lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter. His work has appeared in Curbside Splendor, Chicago Quarterly Review, Johnny America, 322 Review and at the Burnside Writers' Collective. He has studied fiction writing at Miami University and The University of Chicago's Writers' Studio and is currently a student in Seattle Pacific University's low-res MFA program.
Story Song: "Hang Down Your Head" by Tom Waits