This story is by Josh Normal and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The car sputtered out—it could have been a sign if Lee still believed anything like that. Besides, it was not a new problem.
It was foreign made, and choked on the gas in town; sometimes, it would not get him where he wanted to go. But Lee was inexplicably fond of the car despite it’s condition. The men seemed to run on beer, and—like the car—Lee could barely swallow that. His wife hated the design. Too European.
Occasionally, when the dream of being anywhere else took hold of Lee, the car would bring him to the one road out of town, past most of the shops. There was a joke in town that the road was a one-way—no one seemed to drive out. But Lee and his car would escape, sometimes.
Each time, he pushed it further, until an odd clang in the front end set him back home to another fight. Twenty or so miles down the route, Lee found an elderly motel, the East Road Motor Lodge. It was the furthest he’d ever gotten, and where he hoped to end up tonight—if his car could make it.
With an effort, he coaxed the car to the curb, and began to walk the last few blocks to the bar, undeterred.
Today, he was not Lee. In fact, it was the two-week anniversary of the night he lost himself. He was not the man who—tired of the arguing—hid away at the bar across town, in a corner not talking to anyone until Carmen introduced herself. He was the man who said yes, met her again a week ago, and now.
Lee came to the front but paused at the door. Inside, he heard Dan singing along to something slow and twangy between sips and laughing barks. Carmen said most of the men at the bar were pigs, but Dan seemed to upset her more than the others. He was relieved to see Dan was terrorizing the other side of the place, and moved to his corner by the door before Dan or anyone else spotted him.
A beer was ordered and delivered; the small pool of anxiety forming in his chest was diluted as the glass emptied, but his stomach turned sour. Lee thought he might be the only person in town bad at drinking.
His father gave him one good piece of advice, “You can live, or you can drink”—but he and most others around seemed to choose the latter. It was a communal constant, from Sunday morning wine to Saturday supper.
Lee looked around the room and compared his one empty glass to the menageries of brown and green bottles and whiskey glasses at other tables. At some point Carmen had arrived. She was near the back with friends, playing on the pinball machine. It reminded Lee of his first years out of high-school, when he and Hannah did the same on dates—the bar being the only place open after nine. There was still hope, then, about her, and money, and cities. Time wasted thinking about the future.
Lee turned back around to be inconspicuous, but Dan noticed him. He arrived to the table as a hand to the back. “That’s some bullshit—don’tya think?” he said.
“The pitcher,” Dan stammered. “Wouldn’t top me off. Not a whole beer’s even left anyways.”
It seemed unusual to Lee. Most people dealt with Dan with the polite resignation the town taught. Lee wondered, for the first time, if Dan did buy himself a drink now and again.
“You wanna get a pitcher?” Dan asked.
“That’s okay,” Lee answered, “I think I’ve had my fill.”
“What if the first one’s on me, then?”
Lee thought about calling the bluff, but instead said, “Don’t worry about it.”
Dan sat down, and ordered a pair of beers.
There was something about Dan that Lee respected—the way people looked at him, and talked to him, like he was always telling some kind of personal tragedy they assumed would happen to someone like him eventually. But the pity did not stop him asking for top-offs.
A few moments passed. “Ain’t you married?” said Dan.
“How do you know Carmen?”
Lee sat a moment to figure out if the two questions were related. A beer was placed in front of him. The question made him take a sip before he answered.
“Don’t really, I guess.”
Dan seemed pleased. “She’s a nice girl,” he said, “wish I’d been able to keep her around. She’s a little wild, but I kinda like that.”
Dan stayed until he finished both beers, while Lee started to understand why Carmen did not like Dan around. They did not have much else to say to each other. From time to time he felt Carmen or Dan looking at him, and saw them exchange a glance once. The conspiracy Lee found himself in was too much like the usual business of people around town.
After the beers, Dan stood up. He said, “See you next week, man,” and left to slap more backs, not realizing anything could change around him.
Carmen walked to the bathroom in the back before coming over.
She kissed his cheek before sitting down. The sudden intimacy left some residue of whatever she had just applied. Lee wiped the mark off with the back of his hand.
She put a warm hand on his arm, and he looked at her smile.
“You feeling alright?” she said.
“I’m sorry I just—“
“Are you nervous?” A look of disappointment grew on her face. Lee looked at his empty cups for a moment.
“Why would you move here?” he asked her.
“I didn’t like where I was, so I left,” she said. “I didn’t plan on living in such a small place, but I like the people here.”
She slapped his arm and laughed. “How about another drink? My treat.”
“I’ve already had three.”
“Well, four’s better, right? Then we’ll get out of here.”
She walked over to the bar, ordered, and looked back at Lee to wave—just a little thing with her fingers and hips, like some last small spell to keep him enchanted. But the bar was emptier, and some eyes followed her gesture to Lee, nascent gossip already starting. The looks were further hexes. The beer had worked its way through Lee’s gut, and a new anxious pool leaked into it. His bladder gave him an excuse to hide for a moment. Lee fled through the empty tables to the bathroom, tripping on a couple of chairs.
The door to the shelter was locked. Lee gave it three solid wallops. Dan answered, “It’ll be a minute, bud!” and Lee boxed the door a few more times.
But he did not want to deal Dan again, and started back to his seat. The bar was quiet, everyone watching the spectacle Lee had become.
Some of the faces shook back and forth, others looked the same as they had when Dan passed through them, telling his sad story for a refill. But Lee did need anything from them.
Lee was in his car before he remembered Carmen. He turned the key expecting to throttle it to life. It knocked and shook once, but turned over easy.
He looked down the road. A young couple walked toward the bar, ready to finish their night out.
The car swung around and, as it had before, carried Lee away from the town. But as he challenged the supposed one-way again, he realized he was never taught what to do if he made it to the other end.
The car drowned out Lee’s last voice of reason as it screamed ahead. It sputtered on past the East Road Motor Lodge for the first time.