This short story was inspired by the facebook status of an old school friend of mine, now living in the USA. I loved the mysterious and slightly sinister, impending-disaster sound of it, and spent a few weeks mulling over the who, what and how of it all. Eventually this story grew and grew until I liked it enough to put it onto paper. I’ve taken a few liberties with the geography of Shaw Island (it doesn’t have a lake), so apologies to purists for that.
Dead Truck on Shaw Island
Denny breathed in and out three times, loudly, puh, puh, puh, making everything tense, then opened the truck door. He stood in the burning afternoon, scratching his head, his nose, his balls, like a cartoon. He kicked the tyres one by one, cursing, then walked away a little and lit a cigarette. He looked up at the sky and blew out a spitball. The truck had shuddered like a dying pig, then stopped somewhere between the harbour and wherever the heck Denny thought he was taking me. I crossed my legs and turned to look out of the window. There was nothing to see except the lake and the pines and the red mountains.
“Well, what is it?” I yelled. “Don’t tell me it’s no gas, I told you, I damn well told you to fill up. Jesus Christ, Den. Jesus Christ.”
“We got gas, it’s not gas,” he yelled back at me. “Must be the engine. Summat in the engine.”
“Well, hoo de doo, Einstein,” I said, and pulled out a Marlboro. Truth was, Den was no more use with an engine that I was with an icing pipe, but he couldn’t say nothing, what with his manly pride and all. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, though, so I got out and walked over to him.
“Hey, it’s cool. This is a great spot. We’ll pitch up right over there and you can call a garage for a tow. It’s no big deal, hon.”
He lifted the bonnet and hit a few pipes and things, just for the sake of it.
“S’probably the carburettor, or the plugs. Must be summat like that,” he said, the cigarette bouncing up and down in his mouth. “Damn thing. Hell. Dammit to hell.”
“There’s nothing dripping, that’s gotta be a good thing, yeah?” I said, squinting into the truck’s insides. “No oil leaks or nothing. No brake fluid. That’s a good thing, int it?”
“There’s nothing good about a busted truck on this island,” he spat, and got back into the cab. He turned the key a couple more times, just to check that it really was busted. Nothing. Not even the groaning and grinding my pop’s old Ford Mustang used to make before it choked into life.
“Reckon it’s the battery. Gotta be that. Or the electrics. Summat electrical,” he said.
I didn’t think batteries would just give out like that, right in the middle of being driven, but there wasn’t no point in me making a conversation about it, so I just agreed with him and thought about the rest of the afternoon and the night ahead of us.
“Well, we can still celebrate, hon,” I said. “We’ll pitch up over there, you can call the garage and get them to come by in the morning. I got my Visa card, you can use that. Yeah? Hon?”
He’d gone real quiet, which was never a good sign. He didn’t use too many words at the best of times, but when he got mad – well, I knew I needed to dig out the sugar. I went back to the cab and got my bag. I found my Visa card and handed it over to him.
“I’ll start making camp. Go ahead, use it.”
I left him there and went to the back of the truck, flipped the tailgate and started to unload. The lake was a little way down to our right, and looked real pretty. I wasn’t sad to be stuck there the night, that’s for sure, and seeing as we were on a camping trip anyway, I figured it made no difference whether we were here or a coupla hours further into the hills. I watched Denny tap at his phone, his brow an angry stack of Vs, and smiled. He took life so damn serious. Shoulders with half the world on them. Shoulders I loved to lay my head on.
Twenty minutes later I had the tent and all our gear laid out neat and ready to put together and Denny came walking down. His face had gotten a little lighter, he had one thumb hooked in his belt and was spinning my Visa card like he was dealing Aces. I had that liquid thing go in my heart.
“They figure they can get a guy here Monday.” We were still on Saturday. “He don’t have no one free till Monday at the earliest. He’s gonna call. Maybe I should turn the phone off, save the juice? Ain’t a decent signal here anyway, was like speaking through a sack o’ horseshit.” He knelt down next to me, unzipped the cooler bag and finally I saw the big smile that changed him into a honey bear. He handed me one of the beers I’d packed and we sprayed a little froth over each other.
“And this,” I said, pulling a bag of weed out from my pocket, “is for later.”
It was evening, the tent was up, I had a fire going, and had made a pretty good dinner of eggs and stuff, kind of all mushed up like an omelette. We were sitting on a blanket at the edge of the lake with a smoke and our beers, just listening to the insects and watching the water. It was kind of hypnotising. There’s something real beautiful about how water moves, something you can’t capture in words. Maybe if I could draw or paint I’d be able to keep a bit of it for myself, be able to frame some of that lake and hang it on my wall and think of it sliding and shimmering, all cool and liquid and impossible to hold on to. I’m not the artistic kind, though, couldn’t never do much more than potato prints, but I can see it all just fine in my mind’s eye. Denny’s the one with the talent. He can take a guitar and pick out any tune you can name, just like that. And he sings, he sings like the sweetest angel.
The truck was still up on the dirt track, of course, sitting there like a dumb friend who wasn’t allowed into the party. Denny lay back on the blanket and closed his eyes.
“Listen to that,” he said. “Nothing. No highway, no TV, no fuckin’ microwave going ding.” I laughed. He stretched out and took the smoke from me. “That’s the sound of the universe,” he said, breathing out a long, blue-grey stream. “You think the universe goes ding when a star is born? I don’t fuckin’ think so.”
I leaned over him and unzipped his jeans. He didn’t say anything, just took another deep drag on the smoke and held it for a long time. I did what he loved so much, going slow, knowing he would relax and let himself go when he was good and ready. I loved the feeling of his hand in my hair, stroking the back of my neck. He’d had a kitten once, real crazy little thing, must’ve been a runt or a retard because it never grew proper and had one eye that turned outwards and made it look like it was always staring at something round the corner. He used to stroke that kitten all night, pull it onto his lap, fleas and all, and the thing would purr like a motor. Denny’s hands were as tender with me as they were with that retard kitten. They sure as heck weren’t meant for going inside no busted engine.
Out there on the island, when night comes, it comes pitch black and sudden, and when I looked up from Denny’s lap, the stars were so many, so countless and impossible I kind of got dizzy and overwhelmed. Denny sat up and turned around.
“Fire’s almost out,” he said. “I’ll fix it, stay here. You want another beer?” I sure did. He stretched and got to his feet.
“Take the flashlight, hon, you’ll break your neck,” I said. I blew him a kiss and lay back. I was sleepy and full of the taste of him.
We were celebrating ten years together. I don’t forget the day we met, it was a Friday evening, September, although Denny says otherwise, says he’d seen me plenty before then and had made his mind up, just didn’t know how to make an approach. We have a joke going, like that old song, he remembers one thing, I remember another. What’s true is that there was a fair bit of weed and beer involved, and a drive out of town up into the hills, and that sure hasn’t changed none. The truck was ten years younger then, too.
I heard the crackle of wood being thrown on the fire. Denny was next to the flames, holding a long branch in one hand and the flashlight in the other. He looked like some kind of wild island man, all lit up and flickering. He saw me watching and pointed back up to the truck.
“Just gonna fetch something,” he said. “Don’t go nowhere.”
“What you gettin’? Hon?”
“Don’t go nowhere.”
He turned away and walked into the darkness, the beam from the flashlight skittering on the ground in front of him.
“Hey,” I yelled, “what about my beer?” But he was gone.
Even though the island seems silent at night, when you listen close you hear all these little noises. Tiny little critters going about their night business, little bugs and ants and whatever, all doing their thing. I don’t have a problem with none of them, I figure they’re all part of nature’s way, and who are we to say what’s a good or a bad bug. I wouldn’t care for any of them sharing my bed, for sure, but in their own place, well that’s just fine with me.
I must’ve sat there like that for fifteen minutes or so, just staring out over the lake. It was hard to keep an exact track of the time because of the smoke. But soon enough I realised that Denny hadn’t come back from the truck.
“Hon? Hon? You ok up there?” I called a few times, feeling a little self-conscious at the sound of my own voice. I’m not one to be prone to getting nervous of the dark, but I couldn’t figure out what was taking him so long. I got up, pulled the blanket around me and went back to the camp fire. The tent was all zipped up tight, everything seemed peaceful and sweet. I sat down and cracked open another beer. The air was chilly and I wanted to get to bed pretty soon, get all warmed up next to Denny and maybe continue what we’d started down by the lake. I found my Marlboros and was just lighting up when I heard whispering. I have to say, the weed suddenly kicked a paranoid nerve and my heart flip-flopped like a fish in a bucket.
“Den? What the heck? Den? Come on hon, what you doin’?”
The whispering stopped. I stood up, turned around, but couldn’t see anything past the fire and of course Den had taken the flashlight.
“Jesus Christ, Den, Jesus Christ, what you doin’? Stop creepin’ me out, I ain’t in the mood.”
Then I heard a voice, clear as anything, from down by the lake. A man’s voice. Saying “Over here.” That’s what I heard, “Over here.” And it wasn’t Den’s voice, neither. So then I was starting to get riled for sure.
“Who’s down there?” I yelled. “I’ve got a gun, I’ve got a gun.” I didn’t have no gun of course, I hate the damn things, but I picked up a piece of firewood and held it out in front of me. I stood still, feeling all my blood going real fast around me and my legs getting a little shaky. Everything was quiet again, just the fire crackling and the bugs humming. There was people down there. Had to be at least two, the voice had said “Over here,” so unless he was talking to some crayfish, there was someone else who was supposed to hear him.
“Jesus, Den, what the hell are you doin’? Who’s there? Stop messin’ with me, I ain’t amused, ain’t amused at all.”
I walked a little with my stick, listening as hard as I could. I figured I had to go back down to the water, that’s where the voice was. I ain’t the praying kind for sure, but I confess I did ask something, somewhere, to keep a lookout for me just then. I was just about at the water’s edge when the person down there spoke again. I guess he must have been twenty or thirty feet away, in the scrub. He said, loudly, “Stop right there.”
I jumped, hard, and spun round. “Who the fuck’s that?” I yelled. My voice was not sounding brave, it sounded high and vulnerable and I hated it for betraying me.
“Just stay right there. Don’t move. Do as you’re told,” whoever the hell it was said.
“And everything’s gonna be just grandy and dandy,” said another voice, another guy, but this time it was a friendly voice, I could hear a laugh in it.
“Who the heck is there? What’s going on? Den? Jesus Christ, Den, what’s going on?”
And then at last, his voice. Denny’s voice. Coming out from the darkness, from the bushes and scrub, coming towards me through the night air, Denny’s gentle voice, singing. And a guitar, he had a guitar, how the hell did he have a guitar? And then the two other voices joined in with him, getting nearer and nearer. Three voices, harmonising, the notes rising into the night air, as tight and sweet as lovers’ tangled fingers.
“Babe?” I was finding it hard to get words out. “Babe?” I dropped the stick.
They came closer to me and then I could see who was with Denny. It was Jose and Mervyn, his buddies from the kitchen. They had the biggest smiles but still carried on singing. Hell, it was the most beautiful song I ever heard. I sat back down on the ground, shaking my head, feeling tearful, and let them come.
Denny was standing over me, his beautiful face alive with smiling and singing, his hands so light and quick on the guitar strings. Jose and Merv stood either side of him. They were singing Sandy’s song from Grease. Denny knew how much I love that song. They were just getting to the middle bit, where Sandy walks away down the path and the key changes, where she’s about to sing but now there’s nowhere to hide when Denny pushed the guitar behind his back, reached out to me and took my hands. Jose and Merv carried on singing, hitting those notes dead on. Jesus, who knew those boys could hold a tune like that? Then Denny knelt down in front of me. There he was, on one knee, looking at me like I really was something special, like I wasn’t no useless sports store cashier, like I wasn’t the kid who flunked all my grades at school, who was scared of swimming, like I wasn’t the one who couldn’t say no to all those cheap guys who just take and take anything and everything they want. Denny was looking at me like I wasn’t that kid.
“Jim. Jimmy. James,” he said, real quiet. Jose and Merv stepped a little way back. They were singing real quiet too, almost not singing. Just soft harmonies. The lake was so close I could taste the water in the air. “Babe. I kinda fucked it up. The truck went and died and I couldn’t hardly get a message to these two.” He leaned his head back to Jose and Merv. “Guess these things are sent to test us.” He let go of my hand and felt in his pocket. “Thing is, you know what I’m doing, don’t you?”
“Jesus Christ, Den, Jesus Christ.”
“Babe, we’ve been together ten years. I want another ten years with you. And then another. And then another. You reckon you could handle that?”
He opened his hand and there was a thin silver ring in it.
“Jesus Christ, Den.” I looked at him, at Jose and Merv, then back at him. “Yes,” I said. “Yes. Jesus Christ.”
Jose and Mervyn stopped singing then and whooped and high fived, and Den kissed me so long and tender and deep that I thought I probably wouldn’t never be able to breath proper ever again.
Sunrise came with heat and birdsong, and we all stirred inside the tent. It was a pretty tight fit, what with Jose and Merv next to us, but it was just fine. I looked down at my hand and the silver ring on my finger. Den was on his back, his mouth open, his breath going puh, puh, puh. I stroked his chest and let my hand rest there. I stared at the silver sitting amongst the dark hairs. No one had ever given me a ring before. I kissed Den’s chest and then slid myself out of the tent as quiet as I could. The world was bursting into life around me. I picked up the blanket from next to the fire, shook it out, wrapped it around me and walked down to the lake. I looked out over the water, over the shimmer and shine, the impossible liquid of it. I looked at all the bugs and midges flying around doing their thing. A couple of geese suddenly broke out and flew noisy and low above me. Something slipped in my heart, slipped into a place of calm and quiet. I figured it was the feeling of love. I let go of the blanket, let it fall to the ground, then I stepped into the water.