Sunday Story: "Memphis" by Jack Baruth

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
sunday story memphis by jack baruth

By the time Nick picked up 40 West in Nashville, with hours left to go and the setting sun still bright in his eyes, he was reasonably sure that he was going to lie to this woman, that he wouldn’t bother to continue on to Texas with her, that he’d make a clean break, that he would end it. He would end it in Memphis, let it go, sacrifice this woman on the altar of his precious emotional distance. She was expecting him to go to her father’s funeral with her; for some reason she was afraid to go alone, demanded that he support her in this. Insisted that he assist her in turning their casual relationship into the sort of thing in which you attend funerals with the other person, hold them while they vibrate tears out of their shuddering bodies, shake a manly hand with the sweating uncles, purchase and wear a Super 150s suit valued at somewhere north of four thousand dollars and purchase it in black because that’s what you wear to a funeral and nowhere else at all.

By the time he was clear of the city limits and past Jackson, by the time the sun was gone, he was certain.

But when he swung up to the arrivals gate at the airport and saw her there, a pixie grown older but no bigger, insubstantial beneath a massive and ridiculous coat that her sun-fried California mind told her would be just right for sixty-degree Tennessee nights, he briefly failed in his resolve and he kissed her fiercely and honestly even as he swung her bag into the trunk of the Ford Taurus he’d rented for the trip.

“I’m not sure about them calling it the Taurus again,” she noted, running her hand along the faux wood surrounding the typical Ford single-disc player.

“No,” he responded, “Mulally is right about this. Taurus means something to people.”

“Five Hundred,” she shot back, “means something to people.”

“Nobody who remembers the Ford Galaxie or whatever is even alive to buy a car now. Taurus is the right name for this car.”

“But,” she chirped, cocking her head at him and smirking, “Taurus means midsize, and the Fusion is midsize now. The nameplate can’t carry the MSRP.” She had a point.

“I thought,” he snapped in response, “you’d gotten out of the habit of thinking about cars. What with being unemployed and all.” It was such a hateful thing to say he couldn’t quite figure out how he’d made the decision to say it. Her face crumpled as he delivered the line and for a moment she looked like the middle-aged woman she was and not the short-haired twentysomething student her body and features suggested at a distance. She took a breath and he watched her re-compose herself into what he thought of as her character, the woman she pretended to be among the men in their shared business, which itself was a fraud of sorts, public relations by another name.

“Good things,” she smiled, not without effort, “are coming to me. I know they are. I have an interview for a position that would be bigger than anything I’ve ever done, or you’ve ever done, mister. After we fly away from, you know, Dad’s funeral. I’ll go and I’ll be brilliant and I’ll do what I need to do and don’t you say I can’t do it.” In response, he took her birdlike hand in his.

“I was wrong to say that. I’m tired from the drive. I want to go to the hotel.” He’d initially booked the DoubleTree for two nights but on the drive in he’d called and changed it to four, with the stipulation that he might change his mind again. There was a TGI Friday’s on the lower level and they each had a double shot, vodka for him and whiskey for her, before retreating upstairs. The fatigue and the knowledge of his imminent betrayal were sufficient for him to try feigning immediate sleep. But when she came out of the bathroom he saw she was completely nude and just as tiny, as insubstantial, as he’d remembered in the weeks since their last meeting. Something awoke in him and he pinned her on the bed, hands above her head and the ball of his shoulder pressed against her lips as she pretended to struggle, to resist. It was always that way with her; he always had to initiate, and she always fought back, but not too hard, and she always told him she didn’t want it before telling him, shyly and in the voice of the girl she no longer was, that she did.

“Tell me,” he said afterwards, his arm around her and her chin on his chest, “why it’s so important that I go to this funeral? ‘Cause, you know, I have some stuff at home that I shouldn’t let go for too long. What if,” and he cursed himself for the weakness of bringing the idea up instead of just executing it, “we stayed here for longer and you didn’t go to that thing? You said you didn’t want to go.”

“I need you to go with me,” she replied, and would say no more.

The next day they both awoke late but she was up and buzzing before he opened his eyes. Something about Twitter. Some statement about some recall or something. “I’m not Tweeting my location,” she said, hunched over her BlackBerry and sipping what he recognized as a six-dollar bottle of water that would be charged to his Amex. “That’s protecting you, so you can go home to your wife later and she won’t fill in the blanks.”

“My wife,” he laughed, standing behind her and circling her thin neck with his hands, “doesn’t know who the fuck you are.” And she tried to shake him off and he took it to be the request that it usually was, so he physically lifted her out of the chair and threw her on the bed and had her with her face pressed into the pillow just hard enough to make her gasp. But afterwards, as they lay sprawled across the bed, she propped up on one elbow and stared him down.

“I don’t think,” she said, a bit haltingly, “that what you just did to me was consensual.”

“You’re fucking kidding me.”

“I don’t want it like that any more. I’m telling you so you know. You can be a real piece of shit sometimes. You take what you want from me and you give me nothing. But that’s okay, I mean, it’s not the worst. But anyway. I want to go to dealerships today and look at signage.” So they did that, being careful never to stop the car lest they accidentally burn some poor bastard’s sole “up” of the day. She took notes in longhand and Tweeted constantly. He put the Evita soundtrack CD in the Ford’s slot and they sang along as her thumbs banged away at her phone.

Then they saw the junkyard across the haze of the freeway surface, on the far side, perhaps connected to the next exit, perhaps not. They looked at each other at the same moment and said, together, “Junkyard!” In no time they were skipping breathlessly down the aisles, calling out to each other.

“Nick, look! An M-body Fifth Avenue!”

“The hell with that,” he laughed, “I can see an R-body Fifth over there! You better recognize these hidden headlights!” He ran around the end of the GM line and nearly knocked her down. She was standing at the sail panel of a big Olds. “Is that,” he asked, “what I think it is?”

“Royale Brougham!” she laughed. Then she produced a penknife and started working the badge off. “You have to have this. I’m getting it for you. Don’t try to stop me.” But seeing the car reminded him that he’d ridden in one as a child, and she probably had too, and now these cars were long past junk, and what he wanted was someone to make him feel young, and the best way to do that was not to date someone older than he was, not for another minute. It made him feel cold and brittle inside, like the beginning of a flu.

“Thanks,” he said, but as he turned away he just felt empty, really. With a conscious effort, he gathered himself back together and thumbed something on his BlackBerry. “I’m Tweeting this one.” Her face froze in a monkey frown and she flung the logo at him.

“Don’t you dare!” she screamed. Then she ran away from him, out of the lot, back through the office, and pounded furiously on the window of the rental Taurus until he caught up and hit the remote unlock. The “Royale” emblem was still in his pocket and he realized, belatedly, that he’d stolen it.

“I don’t understand,” he offered, but she remained silent. Night fell as they returned to the DoubleTree and the street outside was alive with young Black kids in their neon-lit cars, their sound systems wobbling Nick’s lungs as he followed her into the TGI Friday’s and up to the bar. He noted that the eyes of the wannabe thugs near the revolving door followed her ass as she went in and he was momentarily arrogant in his possession of her, the way she surrendered to him in bed, the way she cried out when he took her. For the briefest of spaces in time he wanted to somehow show the kids an image of it, so they would understand that although he was nearly forty years old and white and unremarkable-looking he was nonetheless capable of a force and cruelty that they would recognize in themselves. It made him chuckle out loud and from the depths of a Triple Fat Goose coat the kid nearest to the door shot him a hard-assed look that Nick cheerfully pretended did not reach his eyes.

She was working on her double whiskey by the time he reached the bar, ostentatiously facing away from him. “What’s the matter?” he asked, and her mouth opened and there was this flurry of high-pitched agitation:

“You don’t even know what you’re doing! I’ll tell you! You’re fucking with my brand here, Nick! I need to find a job before I lose my car and maybe my house and it’s critical that I stay engaged with my followers, but,” and she paused for breath, “to protect the privacy of this, I can’t even tell people where I am, you had the nerve to say you were in Memphis and now I can’t, I’M FUCKING INVISIBLE RIGHT NOW!” The sheer babbling idiocy of this struck him as a calculated assault so he reached inside for the most hurtful thing he could say and to his surprise it was,

“I have to say, you’re a lot more worked up about this Twitter bullshit than you are about, you know, the recent deadness of your dear old dad.” In a single motion she hit him across the jaw with the glass of whiskey in her hand and still half full, momentarily blurring his vision. He blinked twice and raised his hands in a defensive manner out of habit but she was already pressing against the revolving door, running out. For a precious three seconds he fished out his Amex and threw it at the bartender before running out himself.

The noise hit him at the same time as the cold air, the throbbing repetition bass, the moronic repetition of the basest possible sentiments. She was ahead on the sidewalk and to his horror she ran directly into the four-lane road. A ’79 Regal on Daytons smoked its locked front brakes past her and the wind whipped the weird peasant mini-dress she had on and traffic came to a halt coming and going and she was screaming wordlessly at its center. He drew a breath, stepped out onto the street and arrived in front of her, his bulk and cruel face more a threat than a reassurance. There was blood in his mouth and on his tongue. She started hitting him, both fists in the overhead motion, striking his face, his neck, his shoulders.

“He fucked me,” she cried. “He fucked me, and he fucked me, and he fucked me, and I’m so glad he’s dead.” Around them, the horns blared in unison and the bass throbbed and he clutched her to him, smothered her voice, squeezed her into motionlessness, watched the BlackBerry fall from her loosened fingers and shatter its screen against the asphalt. There was nothing to say but something had to be said.

“Whatever it is,” he whispered, too low for her to hear, really, “it’s over.”

Join the conversation
2 of 15 comments
  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Mar 31, 2014

    What good, wholesome people! And someone having a $4k suit either makes me think they paid too much for a suit, or I don't spend enough on my suits.

  • Mart_o_rama Mart_o_rama on Mar 31, 2014

    I love short stories and this one is well written, I even thought about it the day after. You definitely got a great talent at writing Jack. The originality of such stories on a car blog is an added bonus.

  • Ollicat I have a Spyder. The belt will last for many years or 60,000-80,000 miles. Not really a worry.
  • Redapple2 Cadillac and racing. Boy those 2 go together dont they? What a joke. Up there with opening a coffee shop in NYC. EvilGM be clowning. Again.
  • Jbltg Rear bench seat does not match the front buckets. What's up?
  • Theflyersfan The two Louisville truck plants are still operating, but not sure for how much longer. I have a couple of friends who work at a manufacturing company in town that makes cooling systems for the trucks built here. And they are on pins and needles wondering if or when they get the call to not go back to work because there are no trucks being made. That's what drives me up the wall with these strikes. The auto workers still get a minimum amount of pay even while striking, but the massive support staff that builds components, staffs temp workers, runs the logistics, etc, ends up with nothing except the bare hope that the state's crippled unemployment system can help them keep afloat. In a city where shipping (UPS central hub and they almost went on strike on August 1) and heavy manufacturing (GE Appliance Park and the Ford plants) keeps tens of thousands of people employed, plus the support companies, any prolonged shutdown is a total disaster for the city as well. UAW members - you're not getting a 38% raise right away. That just doesn't happen. Start a little lower and end this. And then you can fight the good fight against the corner office staff who make millions for being in meetings all day.
  • Dusterdude The "fire them all" is looking a little less unreasonable the longer the union sticks to the totally ridiculous demands ( or maybe the members should fire theit leadership ! )