Sunday, May 1, 2011

Last Meal

I am driving Willa to work because her parents took the car away, and because it snowed the night before, and because I love her.  Barely 10 a.m. and she wears the alcohol on her breath like a fine perfume.
“I had a dream last night,” she says, tracing her index finger along the frost of her passenger window.  Her fingernails are painted with glittery green polish, chipping away.  Her platform see-through heels sit on her lap, along with a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a paperback novel, the cover stripped and the pages turned a coffee-stain color.  “In the dream, I was at a diner.  And I knew I was in a dream, too.  And I knew that since this was a dream, I could eat whatever I wanted.  So I ordered a double cheeseburger with extra bacon and cheese fries.  And the waitress brought it out to me.  And I was just about to sink my teeth into it.  And then the alarm went off and woke me up.  Doesn’t seem fair, does it?”
“I suppose not,” I mumble.  The windshield wipers cut back and forth, back and forth, brushing the still-falling, flakey snow away. The streets are wet, reflecting everything and warping it hideously.  I feel tired and I ache like I fell down a flight of stairs.  I want to drive this car into a telephone poll to delay the inevitable.
Willa lights a cigarette from her damaged pack.  Normally I don’t let people smoke in the car, but what am I going to do?  After all, her fingernails are painted with glittery green polish--I’m powerless.
“What would your last meal be?” Willa asks, rolling her window down a crack and letting the freezing air into the car.  The heater is on the fritz again, not that I mind.  I can’t stand it; I usually get overheated and I start to sweat.  A puddle forms beneath my ass--it’s not pretty, let me tell you.
“I don’t know,” I tell her and make a left.  The sun hasn’t come out yet, if it will come out at all today.  It doesn’t matter.  I need to sleep.  I need to get beneath the flannel sheets and lay in the cold darkness of my tiny room.  I need to learn to believe in miracles and turn everything to dust with my very thoughts.  I need Willa to ask me to turn the car around.
But she won’t.
Instead, she says: “C’mon, if you were on death row--”
“Why am I on death row?”
“You killed someone.”

“Who did I kill?”

“It’s a tragic story--someone killed me, and you were out for revenge.  You thought you found the guy who did it, and you strangled him to death with your bare hands.  It turns out he was innocent, though.”

“You’re right; that is a tragic story.”

“So,” she continues, taking a long hard drag off the cigarette, as if it will impress me, “you’re on death row--what’s your last meal before they take you to the chair and make you ride the lightning?”

“I dunno.  Eggs,” I say, my eyes never leaving the wet road.

Eggs?” she says, clearly not impressed with my choice.

“I like eggs.  Scrambled eggs.  I dunno--this is stupid.”

“Eggs?  Good lord.  You’re about to die!  You will never eat again!  And you’re going to have eggs?”

“Well, what would you have?”

“Oh god, I would go nuts.  Hog wild.  I would get five burgers, and a big plate of chicken parm, and a huge ice cream sundae.  And spicy wings--”

“I don’t like spicy food,” I say.

“I do.  Spicy wings, and sushi, and an Oreo milkshake.  And an entire bottle of tequila.”

“I don’t think they give you tequila on death row.”

“That seems cruel.”

We cross into Pennsauken and right about now would be a good time to press that secret button that turns this car into a rocket and sends us to the moon--the button that doesn’t exist.  Now would be a good time to lie and say we’re out of gas.  Now would be a good time to slam on the breaks so hard that I cause a massive pile-up, the kind you see on the news shot from the expensive news chopper.

Willa stuffs her cigarettes and her paperback into her small backpack, getting ready to arrive.  She checks her eye make-up in the mirror--black as night and thick as an Oreo milkshake being handed to a death row prisoner.  She applies glittery lip-gloss and puckers up.  She looks like she hasn’t showered in a week.  I badly want to bite the nape of her neck.  I badly want to press her into my flesh.

“You’re a doll for driving me,” she says.

“I don’t like driving you here,” I say quietly.

She gives me a sympathetic smile.  A “don’t be silly” smile.  A “you’ll never have me to yourself” smile.

I pull the car into the parking lot of the strip club.  The letters above the door scream FANTASY SHOWBAR in neon pink. I pull around to the back door, marked EMPLOYEES
ONLY.  There are broken beer bottles piled up on either side of the door, and someone has spray-painted a crude-looking cock beneath “ONLY.”

“Do you need me to pick you up?” I ask, my eyes focused on that spray-painted cock.

“No, I’ll get a ride,” Willa says.  She unbuckles her seatbelt and opens the door.  The overhead light goes on, and I look at her.  She’s twenty-two years old this winter, and she looks forty.  And she suddenly looks sad, like her favorite puppy just died.  Like she was all out of cigarettes.  Like she was being denied tequila on death row.

She speaks soft: “You know, you can ask me not to go.  You can ask me not to do this.”

“Would you, if I asked?” I say.

Neither of us says anything for a full minute.

“Thanks for the ride,” she says, and she is gone.  She pounds on the door, her knuckles against that cartoon cock, and a large bouncer opens and the darkness of the club swallows her up.

I drive home listening to Christmas music with the volume low, and I cry softly, the scent of her and her cigarettes tickling my nostrils.  I think about her green fingernails and her black eyes.  I think about what I would have for my last meal.

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