The rain had tapered off just enough to allow Hal to exceed the speed limit by 10 miles. It wasn’t a practical stunt to pull on the overpass, but it seemed to transfix Hailey to an extent that she would fall silent, blue eyes widening, hands clenched on the sides of the leopard patterned seat cover. He didn’t want to go so far as to assume this aroused her, but she did get a kick out of it. Defying authority was beginning to become a side interest when she wasn’t studying business administration. It was the cheapest of thrills, and Hal got a kick out of whatever would make her quiet. All the same, as he approached their turn, he slowed down. The threat of hydroplaning overrode his efforts to push the speed envelope, and he couldn’t afford another ticket. But there wasn’t much commotion downtown. The rain had forced many indoors, which worked towards their advantage. Grat’s country store could be a nightmare of clogged consumers. But not today.
“Oh wow, we got a parking space right up front,” Hailey marveled, applying the last smear of foundation on her forehead. “I’m glad we’re doing this today. I’m so…..tense about it, y’know?”
Hal emerged from his muddy Hyundai, heading over to the side to open the door for his already tense lady. Hailey’s engine was running, and nothing would quiet it.
“I mean, my parents aren’t super against you, Hal. They are, y’know, concerned about you being a mechanic and all. But, I mean, c’mon. We all have to start somewhere, y’know? They’re just being snobs. Doesn’t matter. I know you better than they do.”
Hal shook his head, fighting back a sly possum grin.
“Naw,” he murmured, “They just need to meet me to make sure I’m not a pusher. But I know it don’t matter…”
“DOESN’T, Cletus,” Hailey burst, wagging a bright red nail in Hal’s falling face. He knew he was in the grammar doghouse again. She was calling him Cletus. He swallowed hard, and spit out the correct wordage as if he were spitting out oil.
Hailey nodded in satisfaction, gripping his hand.
“Ok, so you’re not a homecoming king. You’re Hal the mechanic. And you’re mine.”
Hal leaned back a bit at the sight of Hailey’s eyes enlarging to an amorous stare. She ran her fingers over his five o’clock shadow.
“You should grow a beard,” she purred, “Kaley’s boyfriend has one. It’s rugged as hell.”
Was she getting frisky already? It was getting hard to tell. Maybe it was just nerves. Either way, Hal diffused the situation.
“Uh...your mom would love these, uh, over mitts they sell. They’ve got hens on ‘em.”
Hailey’s stare softened, remembering the task at hand.
“Oh. Right. Let’s do this. Open the door for me, Hal, my nails haven’t dried.”
They entered a nearly vacant country store that was normally attractive to out of town tourists for its novelty value. But today, there were only two attendants on the job: a middle-aged man with a thick brown mustache, and a young African-American woman with an overwhelming afro. Hal took in the pair. Their name-tags read: “Dusty” and “Alona”. The neighborhood was changing. Hailey was already locked on the kitchen section, commenting on the items in a jumbled mess of anxiety and enthusiasm. Hal slagged behind, wondering if he could afford a few gumballs for the road. He hadn’t had a decent gumball in years. As he approached the huge barrel of rainbow Gumball goodness, Hailey ran up to him, clutching a box that looked expensive.
“Oh my God, Hal! Look! They have a fondue set! My parents love fondue!”
Hal examined the box image. No price tag. This wasn’t a good sign. He gave the box a tap.
“Fondue? Yeah, I guess it’s good if you like butter.”
“That’s cheese, Hal,” Hailey pointed to the gooey glob on the box image. “Haven’t you ever had Fondue? I thought you said your dad made it once.”
Hal’s body stiffened. He sighed deeply, resuming his attention to the gumballs.
“No. Dad’s not a fan of cheese.”
Hal shook his head and decided he would get a few jelly beans as well as the gumballs. Over the intercom, the music changed from the usual acoustic guitar and fiddle to a slow, crawling synthesizer. Hal found this bizarre. He wouldn’t think Grat’s would entertain that eletrco-pop that all the university students blared in their cars. But as he listened to the rhythmic wave, he suddenly found he lost all interest in gumballs. The pulse of the song was like a ticking clock. He placed a hand on the transparent lid of the gumball crate and listened.
“Aw man!” he heard the mustached attendant exclaim. “The Boss! Something good finally!”
Hal turned to the counter where Dusty held his hands up, swaying to the rhythm. Alona seemed unimpressed, but it didn’t stop Dusty from carrying on. From the houseware section, Hailey rushed up breathlessly to the counter, another large box in hand. As Dusty appeared to be lost in the song, Alona tried to answer her inquiry. It difficult as Dusty was bursting at the sound of Springsteen.
“Man, I remember hearing this! Five wet ones and a shiner later. Listen to it!”
Alona gave him a cold stare. Hailey couldn’t help but focus her attention on what she assumed was some burnt out hippie working in retail.
“This is the most beautiful song about being horny as anything! Dang! I want to meet the woman who inspired this.”
Dusty closed his eyes, and Hailey dreaded what came next.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh, I’m on fire!” Dusty sang. “Dang! That’s poetry of the rawest nature!”
Hailey and Alona exchanged a weary glance. Leaving the box at the counter, Hailey, hands over her ears, rushed to Hal.
“C’mon, let’s get out of here. That hippie is freaking me out. Hal? Did you hear me?”
Hal stood at the gumball barrel, still. His gaze was fixed on the shop window, overlooking the rainy streets and overflowing gutters. His breathing was labored. His eyes glazed over. It was as if the soul had abandoned the body, leaving only an empty shell to stand among the taffy and gumdrops. Hal stared at the wet, black road as the song continued. He didn’t notice that the hand placed on the transparent barrel lid was soaked in perspiration. He was immovable. The world had stopped and all that remained was Hal and this droning song about the unattainable. Things lost in the fire. Washed away so long ago. Buried but always present. Years that make the memory worse. It had been raining. Years ago there was a flood. That night.
She had packed all her belongings in one bursting trash bag. Most of what remained could rot with him. She wouldn’t miss it. She left with her son around eleven that night. He would be passed out, slumped in the recliner crusted over with red stains, smelling of sour moonshine. It had been raining all evening, but when she took off in the Sedan it had slacked to a light drizzle. Her son was riding shotgun, and though he tried to comprehend his mother’s hurried explanations, his seven years with his father had taught him not to ask questions. They took off on the highway. It was dark in that car, the only lights being the glowing, green numbers in the speedometer and the dull blue blur of the CD player. She had put on Springsteen, a sentimental favorite. Even though she wasn’t fond of the synthesizers, she did love this particular song. Even her son knew it, singing with her on lonely afternoons, oblivious to the content, but not to the quality. Tonight though, she was singing along. Her son glanced at his mother, her hands mounted on the steering wheel. The glowing green numbers read 89. Outside the rain began to pick up. The sound of water crashing against rubber and concrete became more intense. At a traffic light, the son could see through a rain-soaked windshield the color red. His mother didn’t stop. He glanced at the glowing green numbers that read 97. He didn’t why his mother looked so scared. Was it the rain? It couldn’t have been the song. It was getting to the best part. The son wanted to sing along, but he knew his mother would not join in this night. Despite that, he mouthed the final lyrics. It seemed to calm him among the sudden downpour.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh, I’m on fire…
“Ooh, ooh, ohh, I’m-”
There was a sharp sound of metal that pierced the son’s ears. Jerking forward, he could see his mother gripping the steering wheel. Her mouth was wide open, but no sound came out. There was a sudden dizzying sensation, not unlike the time the two of them went on the bumper cars, only this time the son wasn’t at the wheel. The harsh grating of steel and metal. Glass shattered in a frenzied burst. For a moment, the son felt weightless, and then…
The nervous tic woke him to Hailey’s look of stern annoyance. There was a harmonica playing on the intercom. He stared at her, disoriented, but gradually returned to Grat’s. The fire had been put out. He had no words for her but removed his wet hand from the barrel lid. Outside he heard the rain gathering force, pounding on the country store's tin roof. He gathered himself one piece at a time. Words came thick, but now Hal could only manage:
“The song…..it’s something…..”
“What, the fire song about being horny?” Hailey cut in. She tried to match her gaze to his.
“Who was she, Hal?”
Hal found his gaze right into Hailey’s burning blues. His throat felt as if it was caving in, but he croaked:
Hailey flung up her arms. “I knew it. You’ve been acting weird all day. Maybe Kaley was right about you.”
Hal tried to register what was before him, but it was disjointed. A mismatch of red nails, pale leggings, and blonde highlights. In his mind, the song continued. He didn’t know when it would finish, but he knew enough to know when to cash it in. He thought he heard himself utter:
“Why don’t you find someone else, Hailey. Someone who won’t embarrass you. I gotta get.”
He felt himself move one foot after the other until he was out of Grat’s and into the pouring rain. He didn’t look back. Fumbling for the keys, he entered the Hyundai and took off to the overpass. He knew he should have felt a loss, but the numbness held it back. He drove aimlessly to where he belonged. He knew he would find his way. He had ridden this road before. It hadn’t changed.
The Sedan was totaled in the ditch. A detached front tire lay soaked on the side of the road. The officers who responded to the call admitted in hushed tones to each other that this was just about the worst accident they had seen all year. If there was a silver lining, it was that no other vehicle was involved. It was clearly the fault of the driver. When her body was unearthed from the twisted wreckage, it was past recognition. There was no license found. No wallet. Just a trash bag filled with clothes and toys, now scattered on the highway. The officers weren’t looking forward to I.D.ing the victim in the state that she was in. Head-on collision, going, one officer estimated, well over 90. Hydroplaning on a soaked highway in the middle of the night. One officer surmised that substances were to blame for such a rash decision, but no alcohol was found. It was agreed that it was a sorry sight, made worse by the fact that the passenger was very much alive. A young boy, maybe her son, was taken to the hospital. He had suffered bruises on his face and arms, but was very much intact, physically. It was observed by highway patrol that the driver most likely tried to shield the boy from the collision with the guardrails. The driver’s side received most of the impact, but on a night such as this, it was difficult to do a routine sweep. The rain washed away most of the shattered parts. The officers hoped that the boy would be able to identify himself so they could find whatever remaining kin he had.
“God help him,” one officer declared. “It ain’t easy.”
The Sedan was cleared by morning and towed away. A crushed tin can. It was curious though, that out of the wreckage, the CD player was still operating. The song that was playing was on repeat. It played on through the night and into the coming morning.