Author’s Note: This story originally appeared in the 2004 Fall edition of The Normal Review, a Montclair State University student-run Literary Arts publication. It appears here with minor (author-ized) edits.
I am 25 years old. I live at home with my mother, my brother, and my sister. My father moved out three years ago, but my parents haven’t gotten a divorce. They still see each other all the time. They go on dates, and they even bought a ‘getaway’ house in Pennsylvania. They have been renovating the house I live in piece-by-piece in what appears to be an attempt to fix-and-sell. At present, the bathroom has been under construction for over a week, and we have no shower to use. Last weekend, I stayed at the Turtle Brook Inn on Northfield Avenue so I could take a shower before I went to work. I recently went back to waiting tables and took a job over in Springfield. I worked last night and then met with some friends and stayed out late and missed my Friday morning class. My father reserved a room at the Turtle Brook again this weekend so we could shower and get away from the construction.
I get out of bed and put my shoes on without socks and throw all my shit in my jacket pockets. I put a change of clothes in a bag and grab my work-shirt and leave the house. I am going to go to the motel to shower and clean myself up and then head over to school to try to make it to my other class. I drive to the top of my street with my music playing loudly. It’s looking to be a beautiful March day. I make the right onto Gregory and, as I approach the light, I see a woman walking. When she sees me, she frantically flags me down. The manner in which she hails me makes me think that she is in dire need of help. I swerve to the side of the road and look back as she approaches the passenger side door. I lean over to roll the window down, while she tries to open the door. I ask her what she needs.
“Can you help me?”she says nervously – in a frightened panic.
I start to ask what happened and what she needs, but she doesn’t wait. She still has her hand on the door handle as she speaks through the window.
“My ar broke down over by Seton Hall Prep and I need to get to my babysitter’s boyfriend’s place to give him the keys.”
“What do you need me to do,” I say, unsure if I want to help this woman.
“Can you give me a ride to South Orange Ave…” she continues, speaking of something; repeating her dilemma and something about what she has to do and something about how it’s going to rain. I think to myself, ‘I really just want to get to this motel and take a shower and get dressed. But, South Orange Ave. is only down the road and it’s really not far out of my way, and she’s walked so far already.’
I decide to let her in the car and give her a ride.
I clear away all the shit on my passenger seat and throw my bags in the back. I spill muffin crumbs on the seat from a Dunkin’ Donuts bag in the process. She is already sitting before I can wipe all the crumbs onto the floor. At this, my senses go up. Her response to a broken down car is off.
“It’s just South Orange Ave.,” she says again.
“Where on South Orange Ave?”
“I’ll show you.”
I make a left onto Helen to turn around.
“No! Go straight!”
I spin my head to look at her and press the break.
“Uh, okay — well, turn around here,” she says, pointing to a driveway.
I look at her again and feel inside me that something is not quite right. I can’t say what, but it feels wrong. I sense something is going on underneath this story she is feeding me, but it is just down the road and I am sure I can just drop her off and be done. But my guard had gone up. Thoughts of being robbed and jumped by some huge guy when we get where we are going cross my mind. ‘I think this woman might be on drugs,’ I think quickly. ‘Her story makes sense but her behavior is off. Too excited, too panicked, too desperate.’
I turn my car around in the driveway so I don’t upset the woman any further. She keeps on about how it is going to rain and how thankful she is that I picked her up before it started. I make a right back onto Gregory and head toward South Orange.
“Make a left here,” she says.
I think to myself, ‘Okay. It must be further down South Orange Ave. than I thought, but that’s okay.’
“No, no, no. Go to the next one — Luddington. Make a left on Luddington.”
‘Hmmm. She knows this area pretty well if she knows the street names. Nobody would say turn left on Luddington. She must live around here.’
“Thank you so much for picking me up. I have to get these keys to my babysitter’s boyfriend. Thank you. I was afraid it would rain. It’s supposed to rain and I was afraid it would. Thank you again for giving me a ride — a left here.”
“Mm-hmm,” as I make the left.
“Do you talk? What’s your name?” she asks.
‘Yes I talk,’ I think but don’t say.
“Darren,” I say while turning to face her.
“Oh, I like that name. My name is Jane,” she says and offers her hand for me to shake. “Make a right,” she says while pointing as we reach the bottom of Luddington. “Do you smoke?”
“May I have one?”
I reach into my pocket and offer her a cigarette.
“Camels. I haven’t had a Camel in awhile. Why is it that everyone smokes Camels these days? It used to be Marlboros and now it’s Camels,” she says as she takes my lighter from my hand and lights her cigarette.
“I don’t know. I’ve been smoking Camels since I started smoking.”
I begin to get a little annoyed at not knowing where we are going and how she won’t just tell me but keeps telling me each turn to take as if I don’t live a block away.
“Make a left here.”
I nod, knowing it is the turn but also acknowledging to myself that we are going further down South Orange Ave. than I anticipated. She goes into her story again.
“Thank you so much. I was afraid it would rain. First, they thought it was the alternator, then the battery, and now the starter.”
A few drops of rain graze the windshield.
“I need to get these keys to my babysitter’s boyfriend,” she goes on, “and it’s supposed to rain. Thank you for picking me up. I was afraid it would rain.”
We pass the train station and come up to Scotland Road. I think we are turning right but wait for her to say it. She is quiet for a moment as she breathes deeply from her cigarette. She notices the droplets on the windshield.
“See! I told you it would rain.”
“Which way?” I ask as I come to the light and ready myself to turn.
‘Straight!’ I think to myself. ‘Where are we going? Where is this woman taking me?’
“Where are we going?” I ask aloud.
“I’ll show you,” she says again.
I look over at her and she adjusts herself, possibly picking up that I am becoming annoyed with that answer.
“It’s just past the college…like a few blocks down…close the Vailsburg section of Newark,” she finally admits.
‘I did not agree to this. She said South Orange Ave. Not Vailsburg. But we’re already this far so what’s the difference?’
I follow the back roads, winding through the South Orange mansions that are hidden from the center of town and the busy sound of traffic on the main roads. She is directing me where to go and where to turn, but I am hardly listening. I’ve been this way before.
“What kind of car is this?”
“A Saturn? Really? It’s nice. Are Saturns good cars? Make a right.”
“Yeah, they’re alright,” I say as I turn and see the university ahead.
“Why stick shift?”
“Uh, I don’t know.”
“Are they cheaper? Is that why?”
“Yeah they’re cheaper, but I don’t know. I like it.”
“I could never drive stick. Make a left at the light.”
We sit at the light waiting for it to change. I want a cigarette but don’t feel like actually smoking one right now, so I wait.
“You think you could wait 10 minutes while I go inside and then give me a ride home?” she asks as the light changes and the cars start moving.
Before I can answer she goes into her desperate story again and I listen more intently because I have been noticing some inconsistencies each time she tells of her dilemma with the car and the keys and her babysitter’s boyfriend.
“Where are we going?” I ask instead of answering her question.
“I’ll show you. It’s not far. I’ll tell you where to turn,” she replies, not answering my question.
I think to myself, ‘Why does this guy need the keys? And why would I bring her home after she drops them off? Isn’t she staying there? Isn’t her babysitter’s boyfriend’s place her destination? This woman is too desperate. There is something very wrong about this.’
“I flagged you down cause I thought you were a musician or a waiter or something,” she says, looking to my backseat.
I remember that I hung my waiter shirt on the backseat hook before I left my house, and I realize why she felt so comfortable flagging me down. I look around and remember the scenery as we ride down South Orange Ave. We come to Brookdale Ave. and the gas station on the next corner, and then we pass by Stuyvesant and I realize it is too late to turn around. Maybe she does have a broken down car over by the high school. Maybe there really is a babysitter’s boyfriend that is taking care of it for her. Maybe it isn’t the alternator or the battery, but the starter that’s the problem. Maybe it will rain later, but it isn’t right now. Right now, we are on our way to buy heroin.
“He should be waiting outside for me,” she says.
‘No kidding he’ll be waiting outside — they’re always waiting outside.’
“Where am I turning?” I say with acceptance in my voice.
“I’ll show you.”
My heart rate rises and my palms begin to sweat. Smoking a cigarette now is out of the question.
“Make a right.”
‘Mayfair Avenue,’ I think to myself. ‘I’m turning right onto Mayfair Avenue.’
A few parked cars line both sides of the street. All these streets are one-ways. One leads in, another leads out. During the day, they’re not as intimidating. There’s a gentleness. It’s not so bad at first glance. The life of the street itself quickly kills those thoughts. Things linger on the sidewalk that can’t be seen. The trees hand with a weary sadness; the dirt at their feet is dying and home to empty bags next to broken glass bottles and littered with cigarette butts. They were born here and will never leave. They dream of being in a forest, of reaching up high into the sky, of housing birds in comfortable nests. They dream of simply feeling he sun dry the moisture from their leaves and stretching their feet in the rich soil. This is where they grew. Trees cannot move. This is where they’ll die. This is all they’ll ever know.
We ride slowly down the block. I see a man waiting by the curb on the left. I think, ‘There’s someone…he’s waiting outside.’ My denial kicks in and says, ‘Maybe she isn’t lying. Maybe her story is true.’ I don’t pull over.
Jane sees the man I see and says, “Wait — I think that’s him.”
I don’t stop. I wait for her to tell me to pull over. As we pass the man she waves anxiously, turning her body in excitement. She sees a few other people standing behind two parked cars up ahead on the right.
“Pull over up there…right here — pull over!”
I pull the car over but not all the way, just enough to let another car by but not enough that I’ll have to hesitate to drive away.
‘As soon as she gets out, I’m taking off. I’m leaving this chick here. I don’t need to be doing this. This is fucking crazy. What the fuck am I doing here?’ My mind is racing. ‘Why am I here? How did this happen?’
She gets out of the car and I watch her walk swiftly up the block toward the people standing on the sidewalk. ‘LEAVE!’ a strong voice inside my head shouts. ‘Leave her here — get out of here now!’ it begs.
I can’t. I want to speed off down the road, hit the corner, fly back to the avenue, make a left and be out; but I can’t do it. I watch her approach the man. I look around out of instinct. I see a cab flash by in my rearview mirror and imagine a cop pulling up behind me. ‘They’re not my drugs, Officer. I swear. I don’t do this anymore.’
He wouldn’t believe me. Even if he did, it wouldn’t matter.
My blood has gone hot. I feel weak all over. The sensation of my heart pumping on the outside of my chest brings me back to the world I used to know. My car is in gear and my leg is stiff against the clutch. My arm shakes and my grip on the wheel fades. My leg shakes violently. I can’t keep my foot on the brake. It’s bouncing on the floor. My whole lower half is going numb.
The shaking numbness. The pre-high high. The adrenaline river coursing through my body. Fear in command of my senses. On high alert, I see everything. Each car that passes in my rearview. The guy standing on the sidewalk behind me. The lady eating Chinese food on her steps. The car up ahead turning off the block. The transaction between Jane and “her babysitter’s boyfriend” up ahead on my right. All my strength is focused on keeping my convulsing leg on the brake and clutch — my hands dry enough to grip the wheel.
It’s done. She’s walking back to the car. My fear increases. My legs are completely numb and shaking. I wipe my hands against my shirt so I can grip the wheel. She opens the door and gets in, her face expressionless.
“Go,” she says calmly.
My weakened legs get the car moving. I try to drive up the block as casually as possible, as if we stopped at the bank or at the store for cigarettes and candy. She’s giving me directions. I’m driving too slowly.
“Go — get out of here,” she repeats calmly, but fearfully. “Turn here — go straight,” she says.
I’m not listening. I know where I’m going.
Also: This is fiction based on reality. Drug addiction is serious. People are dead.