At the Bend in the Old Highway

The old highway stretched relentlessly in both directions from the bend, disappearing into the heat haze–not that it did Howie any good. He hated both the damn highway and the lousy filling station, but he was stuck there, like the monster centipede he’d once run through with the tip of his hunting knife, nailing it to the back porch floorboard, its legs wriggling like hell but going nowhere.

Even Zippo, his old mutt with the bum back leg, had run away. Or wandered off to die. Same thing. You didn’t just take off on foot around here, not with that heat and dust. The screen door slammed behind him, the loudest noise he’d heard in nearly an hour. He glanced around: there was Carrie in her old housedress and slippers, grinning at him like a retard.

“Food,” she said, squinting to see him against the dusty glare.

Her way of telling him that what passed for lunch was ready. It sure as hell wouldn’t be anything for him to bust his buns to get at. He could just about predict what it’d be. Runny homemade coleslaw and hot dogs–or hamburger “steak.” Where his little sister got the idea that frying a slab of hamburger until it was black made it a steak, he didn’t know. Even all the catsup in the world wouldn’t make it taste good.

“Not hungry.”

“Gotta eat.” She wiped her palms on her skirt, pressing it against her thighs, grubby fingers spread wide.

“Sez who?”

“Okay, forget it, asshole.”

Pouting, she retreated behind the screen door, where she’d go back to daydreaming and listening to country western music on the radio. Maybe she imagined one of those guys with the fancy shirt and twangy voice would drive up in a white Cadillac convertible and save her from the boredom and dirt.

Cloud of dust up the road told Howie a car was coming. ‘Bout time. Business was lousy, these days. Somebody must’ve thought this was a good place for a filling station, at the bend in the highway. Ha! The new interstate across the valley had fixed that, all right. When the state put in that new freeway did they give a thought what it’d do to folks over here? What did they care? Just get the damn cars moving faster, from one side of the country to the other. Never mind the saps who were left behind.

He shoulda stayed on the goddam farm, except he hated that place even more. ‘Specially after Dwight died. It didn’t have any meaning for him, now. Stupid damn brother of his, getting dragged half way across the county by a twenty year-old John Deere tractor. Idiot moron.

Drink. That was Dwight’s problem from when they were junior high squirts: always had a beer or something in his fist. Graduated from beer to tequila and whiskey. You don’t drive a tractor when you’re boozed up. Not too many damn times.

It ran in the family, Howie often thought–stupidity. He knew that he wasn’t overly bright, but the rest of ’em abused the privilege of being slow-witted. It was like there was a contest for who could be the dumbest and each of ’em was bent on winning it.

He hated being stuck in this endless nowhere, whether it was here or at the farm. The old homestead was a holy place to his mother, ’cause her grandma and grandpa settled there about a thousand years ago. She’d hated the old hypocrites, they were so damn mean and holier than thou, but she was sentimental about family connections. The farm was sacred. She probably even worshipped the black widows in the outhouse.

Who gave a damn about his great grandparents, anyway? They never loved each other, old Jeb and Rose. They had nearly a dozen kids, but according to family lore couldn’t stand each other. No wonder three of the brats died at birth and several others ran away as soon as they was able.

Jeb was a good twenty years older than Rose and a foot and a half taller. All she was to him was somebody to satisfy his needs, produce kids who’d work on the farm as soon as they could walk, do the work nobody else had time to do, and feed the whole damn tribe. In those days a woman didn’t run off, no matter how bad she was treated.

Howie never met the unholy pair, but he’d seen antique snapshots of ’em: Jeb tall and skinny in his bib overalls, face thin and sun-wrinkled, and Rose short and fat in her layers of skirts and aprons. Both of them uglier than you’d think two human beings could be.

His mother had met ‘em a few times when she was a girl and dragged out to the farm by Howie’s grandmother. Eventually, the unlucky chump who became her husband, the blockhead who’d someday be his father, actually was stupid enough to buy the farm from whatever aunts and uncles had inherited it from ole Jeb. Nobody else wanted the place. Good riddance, they probably thought. That was before he was born, of course.

Then an earthquake knocked the house off its foundation, so they had to build themselves a new dump to live in. Eventually, what was left of the old homestead burned down. He always suspected it was Dwight and his pals sneaking into it to smoke and screw around, but it could of been one of the bums who used to hitch along here before the new interstate was built.

Families. Why couldn’t we just crawl out from under a rock and be spared all this shit? He’d been desperate to escape the filling station for at least three years. It took him longer to decide to get away from the farm, but he wasn’t as patient as he used to be. He didn’t give a damn any more if Eugene and Mary Anne were stuck on the farm or if Carrie and Ruby would be trapped running this place after he split.

The dust storm turned into a Studebaker–about thirty years old, he figured. Pretty damn rakish in its day. Beat up as hell, now. Damn crime. Somebody shoulda taken better care of it. Bunch of kids in it were laughing and acting goofy, probably pie-eyed, or three-quarters of the way to it. Maybe on some kind of dope. Rich kids, out partying. Probably went to junior college someplace. Never had to work a day in their damn lives. All the windows were wide open, letting heat and dust into the car.

“Liar!” he heard one of the girls shouting as they swerved off the road and slowed down. “You didn’t screw Katie. She wouldn’t let you touch her with a ten foot pole.”
“And Charlie’s pole sure as hell is no ten footer,” came back one of the others. “Not even close!”

They all fell out of the car, one of the boys telling Howie to fill the tank, the girls tromping through the dusty weeds to the restrooms, the other boy wandering into the store– looking for beer and cigarettes, most likely. He hoped they had enough cash to pay. He’d been burned by kids like these too many times. His mother had warned him when he took over the filling station.

“You can’t trust people,” she told him. “They act friendly, then cheat the crap out of you. The ones you think got money are the worst. Remember that, if you’re gonna run a business. Your father’s too trusting—that’s his big problem. Not that he don’t have plenty of others. Just remember, Howie: human beings’re no damn good.”

Standing there filling the Studebaker tank, he remembered his mother’s funeral. Idiot minister babbled about what a good wife and mother she was, but he didn’t know her worth shit. Not that she was a bad wife or mother–smartass just didn’t have any notion what kind of person she really was. He’d hardly laid eyes on her, so he just pulled out the usual damn words.

People did that all the time and it pissed Howie off. He tried to tell his old man how he felt, but that just made him mad. His father thought that somehow Howie was insulting his mother. Now, they both were gone, lost in the big dust storm in the sky—where he’d end up someday.

“Gimme those corn chips, jerk!” shouted one of the girls, running after the tallest of the boys from the old Studebaker. Her chest was bouncing up and down under her pink tee shirt, good sized and no bra. A lot better looking than either Carrie or Ruby—but almost any gal was.

“Ugly jerk!”

“You’re ugly, too!” he shouted back, waving the open red and yellow bag of Fritos corn chips over his crew cut head.

The kids stumbled out past the pumps with their beer and cigarettes and other trash from the store, squeezed into the Studebaker, and left Howie there with a fistful of dollar bills and coins and billows of dust in his face, their tires grinding over the gravel. What’d they do, rob somebody’s piggybank?

He’d decided, though. Watching them weave along what used to pass for a highway out here, Howie realized that they’d pushed him over the edge. If his sisters couldn’t cope without him, that was too damn bad. And their own fault for being too shy and stupid and mean-tempered to get themselves husbands. If their lives were out of whack, too bad. Who did they have to blame? He’d put aside enough cash to give himself a start in a new life, whatever it turned out to be. And, goddam, he was ready.

It was a crime, letting that classic Studebaker get so messed up. Folks didn’t know how to take care of themselves or their things. How the hell did the world go on as good as it did, when everybody was so stupid? Hell, who said anything was goin’ good, anyway? From now on, Howie Lynch was gonna look out for himself and screw everybody else. And if he ever got a car like that old Studebaker, he wouldn’t treat it like a piece of garbage.

Suddenly, a monster truck was roaring toward him on the old highway, but he knew it wouldn’t stop. They never did. They fueled up at the big stations a county or two down the road—even as far away as the state line. Driver just wanted to make time, sending up waves of dust, until he had to stop and make a delivery. Whish! And it was gone.

“Bastard!” Howie shouted, dirt and filth flying into his face.

Blinking grit that felt like ground glass out of his eyes, he abandoned the gas pump and walked around the store to the living area in back, shoes crunching on the gravel, heat-crazed grasshoppers exploding out of the dry weeds around his ankles, stomped up to his room, and pulled off his dusty shoes and clothes.

It was so damn hot. The overhead fans creaked and moaned, but didn’t cool a damn. Carrie wanted an air-conditioner for the store, but it would blow a fuse, even if they could afford one. Human beings weren’t meant to live out here. Even birds fell out of the sky, cooked by the sun.

He wanted to be where it was cool all year long, maybe up in the mountains, among trees, lots of trees. Or down by the ocean, where he’d watch the white caps and feel sea breezes morning, noon, and night. Not that he’d ever seen the ocean, but he knew he’d like being there.

Leaving his clothes on the floor, he padded into the bathroom and climbed into the tin shower, squashing a sand-colored centipede with his naked heel. With the roar of the water, he didn’t hear the bedroom door open.

“Howie? Howie, why ain’t you at the pump? Who’s out there?”

Naked, drying his hair, he walked into the bedroom, confronting his younger sister.
“Nobody, I guess. Unless Ruby is.” He rubbed at his balls and belly with the towel. He was gettin’ soft in the middle. Have to do something about that. “Don’t matter, anyway. Not to me. Not any more.”

“Got soap in your hair,” she told him. “What’re you talkin’ about?”

He rubbed at his scalp and tossed the towel on the narrow bed and began pawing through a drawer until he found some jockey shorts that weren’t all holes.

“I’m leaving.”

Gusts of hot air pushed at the old window screen, forcing dirt through the rips and under the splintered frame. The brown curtains fluttered and tossed half-heartedly, but didn’t keep out either the heat or the dirt any more than the screen did. There was no way to keep that filth outside.

“I don’t get it, Howie. What d’ya mean?”

“Them assholes really messed up that Studebaker. Did you see it?”

“What d’ya mean, you’re leavin’?” Carrie grabbed at him, her arms around his naked shoulders, her face up near his bristly chin. “Howie!”

He pushed her back, a good strong shove, making her bump against the chest of drawers.

The glassy-eyed stuffed owl on top bounced.

“Hey, sis, I’m getting dressed, okay?”

“What’re ya telling me?” Carrie insisted, her limp hair hanging over half her face.

“Goodbye. That’s what I’m telling you. Goodbye.”

Poor Carrie. She really was a homely girl. Woman, now. Not a girl any more. That stringy brown hair she washed every other week, if that. Those freckles and funny-looking teeth that kind of stuck out when she smiled. She wasn’t ugly, but not pretty, either. And Ruby wasn’t much better, just homely in a different way. He felt sorry for ’em, but that didn’t mean he was gonna hang around any more.

“They got no right havin’ a car like that, practically a classic.”

“Where ya goin, Howie? When’ll ya be back? Can I go with ya?”

“Don’t know where I’m goin’ and I’m never comin’ back. And, no, you can’t come. Any more questions?”

If he stayed here, he might as well’ve stuck on the farm. One grave was as good as another if you were gonna be buried alive.


Standing there like some kind of broken doll, her head waggling back and forth, Carrie watched him dress. Then she watched him pull down the old fake-leather suitcase from the shelf in the closet and throw it on the chenille bedspread. Yellow dust flew up when it hit the bed.

“You mad ’cause Ruby mouthed off last night? Howie? You know she don’t mean nothin’ when she does that. You know that.” Sniffing and rubbing at her nose with the back of her hand, she watched him jerk open drawers and toss clothes into the suitcase. “Don’t you?”

Used to be Dwight’s suitcase, Howie remembered. Not that he ever took it many places. Maybe Dwight’d be alive today, he thought, as he tugged on his old boots, if he’d walked out years ago. He never understood why Dwight hung around.

“Howie! Talk to me, damn you.” Carrie stamped her foot like a mad little kid.

Dwight and him used to fight all the time. Big brothers were supposed to take care of their younger brothers and sisters, right? Wrong. Dwight made Howie’s life miserable from day one. Did it ‘cause he could. Howie was always afraid of what his brother would do next, but he never wanted Dwight dead. Just far away, where he couldn’t torment him any more.

When the rat got the drink in him, there was no tellin’ what he’d do. He’d hurt you for the fun of it, watching you squirm, and laughing the whole goddam time. Howie was glad when Dwight got put in the county jail for a few months, but the asshole was just meaner when he got out. Always getting into fights, ‘specially out at Monson’s Road House. Hell, everybody got into fights there, but Dwight more than most.

“Howie?” Carrie sounded like she was gonna start blubbering. “You ain’t really going? Not forever?”

“Wanna bet, sweetie?” He took the old moth-eaten stuffed owl from the top of the chest of drawers and dug into it from underneath, pulling out a wad of cash. That would take care of him until he got himself a job. Stuffing the money into his pocket, he turned to Carrie. “I’m leaving and nothin’ and nobody’s gonna stop me. So you and Ruby better not try.”

He’d take the new cutoff over to the interstate freeway. Didn’t matter if he went east or west when he got there. Either direction would get him far away from this hell hole.

“You’re mad ’cause of last night. That’s it, ain’t it?” Carrie put one bony knee on the bedspread, looking up pleadingly at her big brother. “Ruby’s got that mouth on her, but she don’t mean half what she says. She knows you work hard, Howie. We both know it.”

“I always hated Dwight. You know that, Carrie? I hated that bastard from when I was old enough to know how to hate.” Howie patted the cash in his pocket. “I didn’t cry when the John Deere ran over his sorry ass.”

The wind was growing stronger, making the rusty window screen vibrate in its frame, like it was trying to escape, too. Goddam lousy place. Even the roof was groaning and complaining like it wanted to get the hell away. The fences were falling apart and the few spindly trees some dumbbell had planted long ago were dead or dying.

Kimball’s Auto Court across the old highway was abandoned, now, and was surrounded by a forest of weeds. Under its crumbling orange roof tiles, it had got so dilapidated that only reptiles and insects lived in those rooms–maybe a coyote or skunk or some damn creature like that. And rattlers, always the rattlers around here, even in the weeds around the filling station and under the back porch.

He’d lost his virginity in that auto court, cabin number eight, with the Coolidge girl, the one everybody said was slow-witted. He “borrowed” Dwight’s pickup and drove out here from the farm, collecting her on the way. Dwight damn near broke his arm when he found out.

What was her name? Some kind of flower. Half the girls in this area were named after flowers–probably ‘cause there weren’t many around. Marigold? Nah. Something less fancy-sounding. Pansy? No. Daisy. Daisy Coolidge, that was her. She was only sixteen at the time and kind of fat, but she didn’t care who did what to her. Poor dumb Daisy. He’d heard she was in the Funny Farm, now, over in Pottsville. Now that the interstate passed the place, it’d be filling up with loonies faster than ever.

Fat Daisy growing fatter out in the Funny Farm–the thought made him smile.

Howie had his own Chevy pickup, now. Too bad he didn’t have a car like that Studebaker, though. He woulda kept it in good condition.

Carrie whimpering behind him, he carried Dwight’s old suitcase downstairs. He could hear her slippers flapping on the wood steps.

“You’re joking, ain’t you, Howie?” she called after him, stopping half way down the stairs. “Quit kiddin’. You wouldn’t really leave Ruby and me. Wouldya? I’ll make her say she’s sorry for last night.”

“Just watch me, sis.” He looked up at her. “Don’t worry, you and Ruby’ll be okay. I’ll send you money when I get me a job. And Ruby knows everything about running the filling station. She’s strong. Folks like her, too. You take care of the store and she can manage the station. Everythin’ll go fine, you’ll see. I gotta get out of here. I’m thirty-two years old, kid.”

“You’re mean, Howie. That’s what you are. Mean.”

“Yeah, I’m a mean sonuvabitch, but I can’t take any more. It’s now or never. And it ain’t gonna be never.”

He stopped in the store to say goodbye to Ruby. Big homely Ruby, standing next to the racks of tortilla chips, mini-packs of Saltines, Cheez-Its, and all that crap. She was big and she was strong, but she hadn’t been the same since she had that baby and it went and died on her. Three, four years ago, now, but she still seemed depressed and mad all the time. Wouldn’t let it go. He told her, you can’t mourn forever, but she just swore at him. Always finding excuses to fight. Picking arguments over nothing, just mean and nasty for no reason.

At first, she didn’t get what he was saying, either. Then she started shouting at him, so he kissed her on her flabby cheek and walked out. No point hanging around and listening to all that crap. Just because she was his big sister she always thought she could manage him. Hell, nobody was gonna manage Howie Lynch any more.

Throwing his suitcase in the back of the pickup, next to the tire iron, he climbed into the cab.

Sun burned his eyes. Burned everything. This was like one of these desert places where people rode camels–worse. And getting hotter every year. Good thing they put in the interstate. Folks’ll be able to escape faster when it all burns up. He glanced back at the old place, and let himself breathe the hot air. Goddam, it would feel good to get out of here.

He had a thought: Should he drive past the farm to take a last look? Nah. No going backwards. Not for him. He was gonna get him a job where he’d see the ocean–water and lots of it. No more dirt and dust and dry wind all the time. Clean air and plenty of water. And a job where he could feel okay about himself for a change. Buy him a good car–first in his miserable life.

The screen door to the store crashed open and Ruby came lumbering out, that man’s plaid shirt with the sleeves cut off she always wore flapping around her big hips.

“Howie!” she screamed. “You can’t do this!”

“Yeah?” he grinned.

“I won’t let you!”

He leaned out the pickup window to get a last view of his big sister. She looked a lot like Dwight, but features that were okay on a man were lousy on a girl. Her nose was too big and bony and her chin stuck out too much. Hell, it just dawned on him: she looked like ole Jeb, their great grandpa, in them old snapshots. Poor bitch took after ugly farmer Jeb. Plus she had that scar from the barbed wire running down her arm. Never had a chance of catching herself a husband.

“Remember great grandpa Jeb?” he hollered to her. “Remember them snapshots of him and the old lady?”

“You’ll just kill yourself if you leave here, Howie Lynch. That’s what you’ll do. Stop this damn nonsense!”

“I’ll be in touch, Ruby.” Sweat was running down his face next to his nose. “Maybe if the interstate had been built sooner, Dwight would of got his butt outa this place and everyone would of been happier.”


“Look after Carrie, okay?” He turned the key in the ignition and the miserable rotten pickup began its usual coughing and sputtering. “Don’t let smartass kids cheat you on the gas.”

The dust was blowing around Ruby and the truck. The goddam dust was everywhere.
“You can’t do this. You can’t go. I love you, Howie. We’re blood. Carrie and me, we need you. You’re all we got.”

She grabbed his head with both strong hands, pulled it toward her, and pressed her cracked, chapped lips against his mouth. A gust of wind blew dirt and dust over them.

He had to get to the interstate. Then he’d be safe. He’d press the gas pedal to the floor and keep on going, the road shimming from the heat and leading right off the earth where the horizon and the sky disappeared into each other. Maybe he’d drive all the way across the country, counting the state lines. Maybe he’d drive straight into the ocean.

Behind Ruby, next to the pump, in her faded housedress and flowery apron, stood Carrie, a tiny smile on her lips. Howie pulled back from the truck window, forcing Ruby to release him, and saw his little sister standing in the weeds and dust, her stringy hair blowing around her face, that smile getting bigger and bigger until it damn near cracked her childish face in half.

Bruce Reeves’ novella, DELPHINE, published in 2012 by Texas Review Press, won the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition. He has also published three novels (THE NIGHT ACTION, New American Library and Signet Books; MAN ON FIRE, Pyramid Books; and STREET SMARTS, Beaufort Books and Ace Books.) He has published more than forty stories in magazines and journals, print and online, including: The High Plains Literary Review, Runner’s World Annual, Hawaii Review, The Long Story, Eclipse, The Main Street Rag, The Evansville Review, The Eastbay Express, Clapboard House, South Carolina Review, The Blue Lake Review, The Clackamas Literary Review, and The New Renaissance. Bruce Reeves won the Louise E. Reynolds Fiction Award from The New Renaissance and three of his stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize.