THE CAR WAS UGLY, the color Crayola Crayons used to call flesh. And so old it looked like the chassis might collapse into the fenders. Mitch put a key into the ignition, turned it once, then again. Finally the engine caught, and his shoulders relaxed.
I had never seen the vehicle before. “Who owns this thing?”
“We don’t know.” He shifted into reverse. “Someone left it in that empty lot next door. Key right on the dashboard. Couple of weeks passed, and we just started driving it.”
“We call it the Pig.”
He steered us away from the Kansas City airport. “No one’s using it much, though.” He gestured toward a filling station. “Gas 36 cents a gallon.”
I reached for the cigarette lighter. “You look like a farmer in those overalls.”
He checked his reflection in the rearview mirror and pushed his thinning hair back into place. “They’re utilitarian.” He looked back at me. “How did you leave things with your mother?”
I leaned against the passenger seat door, cradling my knees in my arms, and laughed. “Oh, it’s bad.” I centered myself with a good, long drag. “It’s not even so much that I quit school. They’re furious I’m back here.”
A copy of Mao’s Little Red Book lay on the floor. I picked it up.
“Who’s reading this?”
He shrugged. “Could be anyone.”
A sobering thought. It was one thing to bang out articles for an underground newsletter. Or to set hundreds of copies of that day’s University Daily Kansan aflame on the lawn of the journalism building. (Hadn’t we told them to stop using bikini-clad co-eds to build readership?)
But Mao was something else.
AN HOUR WEST WE pulled up beside Mitch’s house, its weather-beaten shingles hanging at precarious slants. I was barely out of the car when Sabine ran past, racing to keep up with the black lab she held by a leash. The smell was overwhelming. “A skunk!” she yelled. She was gone too fast to say hello.
“Sabine moved in last week,” Mitch said.
I let myself in the screen door. Kenny stood at the kitchen table, staring at an architectural plan through dark frame glasses and a rainforest of black curls. A half dozen cats hissed at each other from the kitchen counters.
Anne loped into the room. “You’re back.” She grabbed me in a hug and turned to Mitch. “We’ve got to catch Mary Lee up,” she said.
“It’ll wait till tomorrow,” he answered. He took my hand and led me to his room.
Kenny yelled out after us. “Hey, did you take the Pig?”
“Yeah,” Mitch yelled back. “It was fine.”
Mitch and I had been together for a year, and I knew this square-footage inside and out. But now that I was moving in with him, the space felt different, odd. I tried to put myself at ease, seeing he’d made an effort, clearing some bookcase shelves and emptying dresser drawers for me. Wildflowers stood in a Mason jar on the windowsill. “This is nice,” I said.
He pulled me down on the mattress and opened the snap of my jeans.
“Why didn’t you tell me Sabine was moving in?” She was a good friend, and it seemed odd I didn’t know. But then Mitch ran his big, clever hand down my torso and between my legs. He searched me, finding the way inside, and I responded beneath the pressure of his body. He fitted himself inside me, making me rock and sway until I turned myself above him, pulsing, hungry for everything he had.
“I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M living here,” Anne told me the next day. We were cutting up potatoes for lunch while cats darted from counter to counter.
“It’s not paradise,” I laughed.
“No. But it feels mythic.”
“Mythic decline? Mythic discontent?” Or mythic heat, I wondered. My God, it was humid.
“Mythic bullshit,” Sabine offered as she entered the room. She was wearing one of Mitch’s T-shirts. “You’ve been spending time in this house for more than a year. How did you stand it? These guys, they call themselves revolutionaries. But all they do is sit around and write poetry. It’s nothing but romance.”
I turned my attention back to the potatoes, watching butter sizzle in a cast iron pan. “You moved in,” I said.
“Yeah, the green room.” Her head was in the refrigerator. “Next to you two.” Then she turned to face me directly. “Did you get your license?”
I shook my head.
“No reason.” She knew I was scared to drive.
“Well, we need food. Use mine.” She handed me a laminated rectangle and looked me over. “Your T-shirt’s fine, but you better take Buddy with you.”
Anne laughed. “That dog is great at distracting cashiers.”
“Be back by 3:00,” said Anne. “We’re meeting in the backyard.”
I don’t know what surprised me more: the fact that my rabble-rousing friends had scheduled a meeting, or that they had found a use for the backyard.
“It’s a mess back there.”
“But it’s safe,” Anne said. “Under the plum trees.”
“What do you mean, ‘safe’?”
Anne pointed her index finger up at the ceiling and ran it in a circle. “We need to be careful about what we say.” She spoke softly, holding her index finger to her lips. “You know about the Pig.”
Indeed, the Pig was right outside, and it was with the utmost diffidence that I opened its door an hour later to occupy the driver’s seat. Placing my foot on the accelerator – bringing the motor to life – I felt fear firing through my spine like an electric current. It was extraordinary what I was about to do, relinquishing control to an unfathomable thing called an engine. I feared it could propel me – and every ton of steel surrounding me – entirely off the road.
I gripped the wheel nonetheless.
Ever so slowly, I set the thing in motion.
THE PLUM TREES STOOD a good distance from the house. Sun filtered through their branches and cast leafy shadows onto mismatched chairs someone had placed in the shade. I pulled down on a branch and saw dozens of the fruits, their mauve hues blending into one another. I snapped one off and took a bite. Almost fully ripe.
“Was the drive okay?” Sabine asked.
“Yeah.” Trying to look blasé, I gave her back her license.
“We all look alike,” she laughed, glancing at it. She was right: three white girls in T-shirts and blue jeans with blond hair halfway down our backs. Every so often someone who didn’t know better called us “hippie chicks.” They would regret it. We were feminists.
“Time for action,” Anne began, looking me in the eye. Twenty years old, with perfect bones and impeccable diction, she’d graduated first in her western Kansas high school class of 10 – the school’s “free thinker,” her yearbook said.
Jenn glided into the yard on a new bike. “Change is up to us,” she agreed, not to be caught short on political clichés. Her bouncy curls reflected an uncomplicated energy as she pulled a can of coke from the basket and popped the top. “I began Fanshen last night.”
Anne nodded. “Mary Lee, here’s your copy.” The book was huge, the story of the Chinese uprising. “Everywhere Mao’s soldiers marched, people abandoned the fields and joined the struggle.”
She was a star philosophy student. What had happened to her gift for argument? And what possible relevance could a country of rice farmers have to us?
“We can’t wait for change,” Anne said. “Our target is Sunflower Munitions. We’re going to get jobs there.”
“At a military installation?” I asked. “Security must be airtight.”
“We’ve done the research. Seven thousand acres with 279 employees, every one of them classically exploited.” She looked at Sabine. “Those one-bedroom shacks they live in? They cost workers half their pay.”
“They’re not slaves,” I observed. “They can move on.”
“Not everyone has your options, Mary Lee,” countered Sabine, a scholarship student who’d spend the evening finishing her Faulkner paper before racing out in the dark to throw rocks through university windows. “Not everyone can retreat to your world of Goodbye, Columbus, tennis courts and country clubs.”
“What do you know about my background?” I shot back.
But I’d had ample reason of late to contemplate the plotline of Philip Roth’s bestseller. Mitch had leveled an analogous charge just days earlier. Back home on Long Island, where I’d just spent a month, my mother had found in my dresser drawer a cardboard wheel of birth control pills. Echoing Roth’s protagonist, Mitch had insisted I’d left the pink tabs where she’d be likely to find them. “You knew she’d raise hell,” he’d said.
Anne cut in. “Don’t get sidetracked. We’re here to figure out Sunflower Munitions.”
Sabine volunteered, “A lot of their workers come from farms.”
Anne smiled. “I know.” She pushed some stray hairs back behind her ear. “They can handle dynamite.”
HOURS LATER, I WAS scrounging through my clothes for a cigarette. I knew I had some Marlboro’s, and as I checked my pockets I wondered where I could get a job that would sustain my habit. Sunflower Munitions? Its pancake-flat terrain hosted endless rows of claustrophobic dwellings. Was there even a single tree?
I looked through my suitcase, behind the dresser and all through the sheets, a search that uncovered not only my cigarettes, but also, under the bed, a pair of Sabine’s pants. Another sobering discovery. Laying them aside, I sat down on the steps outside the bedroom door.
The thing that made this house livable, Mitch once observed, was that each bedroom had its own exit. The building had originally been a home for the elderly, without any pretense at conviviality. If you wanted to, you could avoid everyone else you lived with.
The sun was setting now behind thick layers of purple clouds. Mitch opened the door and sat down beside me.
“Things are so different,” I said, turning my head to take him in. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He shrugged. He would not be finding his way to the armaments factory, or anywhere else where organizing was even a remote possibility. Mitch was not a joiner. Twenty-six years old, he made a scrappy living running the underground newsletter we sold for 25 cents a copy up and down Jayhawk Boulevard. The change we collected paid the rent on this crumbling house.
“Work at Sunflower Munitions?” I said. “I’d clean bathrooms first.”
“You don’t have to worry.” He was looking off into the distance. “You’re all smart, educated; your political views are no secret. No one wants you making bullets for Vietnam.” He picked up a coin on the ground and tossed it further into the yard. “Sabine certainly knows that.”
I stretched my legs out in front of me, feeling my sandals fall against my toes. I started counting to myself: one, two, three.
“You’re sleeping with her.”
He was silent.
“And your Philip Roth rant – you shared that with her.”
We sat there in the dark for a while, hearing nothing but the steady sound of June bugs slamming their bodies over and over again into the old screen door.
THE PLUMS WERE BEAUTIFUL under cold running water a week later, mottled pinks and purples, glistening in the morning sun. Fully ripe, they would be perfect for pie. I lifted a sack of flour from the shelf.
But when Sabine entered the room, I stiffened. Shaggy overalls hid her body, but her hostility was evident.
“Your anger has gotten old.” She shook her head. “Mitch should have told you before you got here.”
It’s a matter of timing?
“He’s been coming on to me for months. You know how he is.”
I was silent.
“Are you listening?” She straightened her posture. “His way with women is well known.”
I assessed the proximity of the rolling pin.
“Look, you cannot have missed that message scrawled in the Rock Chalk Café bathroom. ‘Thank you for a beautiful night, Mitchie D.’ But did you react? No. You just let it go.”
So it’s my fault, I thought. I considered for a moment bringing a thick Magic Marker to the mirror of her room and writing the word SLUT across it in giant capital letters, just as my mother had recently done to me.
“So you figured I’d let this pass?” I had now raised the rolling pin.
“Cut it out, Mary Lee,” Anne said sharply, stepping into the room. “There’s too much at stake.” She unburdened me of the wooden cylinder. “Sabine’s been feeling bad vibes from you since the day you got back.”
So I was the one who needed to apologize?
“Let it go,” she told me. “We’re all damaged people.”
Kenny entered the room. “Who’s cooking?” Evidently confused, he looked at Anne. “I thought you were going to Topeka today.”
She nodded, explaining to me, “We need bikes. You know those rich neighborhoods west of the airport? Kids just leave them on their lawns.”
“You’re stealing kids’ bikes?” I made no effort to conceal my astonishment.
“Yes.” She was unembarrassed. “Rick picked up a three-speed for Jenn last week. You saw it; it’s perfect.”
“I can’t believe you’re stealing bikes from kids.”
Anne shrugged. “They have plenty of money. Their parents just go out and buy them new ones.”
“You’re wrong.” I thought of my two brothers. “The kid probably worked a paper route for years to get his bike.”
Anne turned away. “Mary Lee, please. Those concerns are unimportant.”
As the others piled into Kenny’s truck, I went back to my baking, remembering Jack Kerouac’s observation that apple pie is an ideal food for people on the road.
I was using plums instead.
WHILE THE PIE BAKED, I pulled Sabine’s driver’s license out of the pocket of her jeans. Did I need a road map? I did not. St. Louis was a straight shot on Route 70, seven hours tops in the slow lane.
St. Louis had a state school, my grades were fine, and I could get my records transferred. Why had I planned to ditch college anyway? Social change was great, it had never been more important. But here it had collapsed into a toxic household.
And sure, Mitch had been sweet these past days, trying to make amends. On what might have been the emptiest roads in Douglas County – spaces with more balking chickens than moving vehicles – he’d coached me in the mechanics of driving until I felt more confident accelerating forward.
Then again, Mitch had always been sweet. That didn’t make him trustworthy, didn’t make him loyal. I went to the desk where he kept the newsletter’s cash box. He never locked it. I took every cent.
Next, food. I waited for the pastry to cool, then used a knife to carve a single, slender slice. The fruit at the center was runny and translucent. I blew on the fork and took a bite.
What had happened?
The pie had absolutely no flavor.
I finished slicing it anyway, enclosed it carefully in Saran Wrap and then thought of one final thing. Grabbing a pencil, I wrote out Anne’s earlier pronouncement – We are all damaged people – and placed the note in the now empty cash box.
Picking up the car keys, I gauged their weight in my palm. One of the cats leaped up, but I didn’t care. I ignored every one of them, all training their eyes on me as I made my way out the door.
The Pig was right there, and the gas tank was full.
Sheila Eby is a New Jersey writer with fiction published in the Southampton Review, Promethean, Pilgrimage and Flash Fiction. As an MFA student in Creative Writing at the City College of New York, she won that school’s Doris Lippman Prize for “the most accomplished piece of work” in the program. Sheila is now completing a novel in stories, A Widow’s Guide to the Weekend, whose protagonist is forging a future against the pull of the past.