Dirty Nickel [story] by Lis Anna Langston

Tie a cherry stem with your tongue. Copious amounts of alcohol are required. Do it in a bar in St. Louis. Act like you have something to prove. Tie it with your tongue. Then stumble back to your overpriced fourth floor walk up in the Central West End. It’s actually your boyfriends apartment. You would have mentioned that first if you weren’t drunk. He’s lost something of yours, thrown it away, carelessly. He’s not really into consequences or things. Pick a fight. A good one. Fight nasty. Fight to the death. Not really. But seriously, get personal. Scream so loud that the fat chicks in Pharmacy school downstairs complain. Leave. Stomp your drunk ass to the bottom of the stairs, out into an autumn night with no shoes or coat. It’s 3:23 AM. In the parking lot you see a dirty nickel on the ground. Tarnished, flat on one side. Dirty or not, put it in your pocket.

You will begin to think you are destined for great things.

Walk to the all night diner. A guy in a booth clears his throat, offers to take you anywhere. Let him drive you across town to your dorm. Walk up the back stairwell. He walks with you because it’s dark and scary and while he may be a stranger he is still a gentleman. You, on the other hand, are drunk and need that shoulder to lean on. Thank him at your door. Then throw up in your suitemate’s bathroom. Lay down with a wretched, vile taste in your mouth and spin. Think about cherries. The kind in the jar. Stare at the ceiling, floating in a sweet, sugar syrup. Think of the stranger. Imagine him there. Imagine how you could tie his stem with your tongue.

Wake five hours later still wearing your clothes. Roommate pacing, rehearsing lines to Hamlet. Tell her to shut up. Pull a pillow over your head. Wonder when you became such a bitch.

Go to class. Literature. Classics. Feel good about yourself. At least you can read. The lesson is The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock. You do not understand this poem. Do not understand why the women come and go. You are looking forward to The Last Temptation of Christ. Contemplate temptation. What it really means. Sneak pieces of dry toast out of your pocket and into your mouth. Go ahead. It’s wrapped in a napkin in your pocket. Goggle the definition for temptation on your phone.

temp·ta·tion (noun) To induce or entice, to be inviting, to incline strongly.

You’ve got that shit on a leash.

Pay attention. Your professor is hot. Go to his office after class and smoke cigarettes. Pray he makes some totally inappropriate move. He won’t. Think about how one Tom Collins might level your hangover out. Walk back to your dorm. Think about your life. Create a list of goals. Forget 87% of them by the time you reach the stairs.

You don’t need goals because you have a motto. A functional one. Enough vodka explains everything.

Walk down the quiet, carpeted hall. The stranger from last night leans against your door, reading a book. Motorcycle boots, jeans. Notice how hot he is. Wonder why you didn’t notice last night. Accept that drunkenness impairs vision. Accept that you don’t remember much about last night.
Wait for him to look up.
He will. When he does, melt.
Like butter.
Surrender. You are a row boat going over a waterfall.
Go with it.
He will close his book, hold his place with an index finger, tell you he came to check on you, was worried because you were barefoot and drunk and crying.
You won’t remember the crying. Keep that part to yourself.
Instead be polite, engaging, say hello, curtsey, laugh in that little girl way that makes grown men stupid.
Invite him in.
He will politely decline.
Bargain with gods you’ve never believed in for a kiss.
Just one.
A single, long, dazzling kiss.
Admit you aren’t paying attention and ask him to repeat what he just said.
He will quietly, confidently ask you on a road trip.
Entertain the thought that he’s a total psycho. Maybe a perv.
But something in those blue, gray eyes tells a deeper truth than can be spoken aloud.
Remember the lines from class. Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky. Indeed there will be time to wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair.

Descend that back stairwell with a mysterious stranger.

You won’t even know his name. This will occur to you in the front seat of his gas guzzling 68 royal blue Mustang. Point out that you haven’t been properly introduced. The stranger will inform you that you won’t be exchanging names. Somewhere during the journey you will form a new name, based on experience. You will think this weird, but kinda hot.

The Mustang speeds down the ramp to the highway.

Break up with your boyfriend in a text. Tell him you know he fucked the server at Bennigans in May. It won’t break his heart. He hasn’t even called. The ride to the state line will be strange. Silence will unfold in a trickling sensation. Feel your way through mile markers. Like walking across a dark room, too terrified and excited to touch anything. Wonder what you are doing. A cool breeze blows mercilessly through your hair. Watch the Stranger grip the steering wheel, note how his thighs flex pressing the gas peddle. You pray, really pray for the first time in your life that you are not dreaming. The sound of the highway is a lullaby. Your head drifts to the window. Evaporated vodka pounds inside your skull.

Wake in the parking lot of a steakhouse. It’s dark now. The Stranger is outside the car pacing, smoking, talking on his phone. Groan, wipe drool from your cheek. Make mental note not to get plastered. Follow up Dr. Phil moment with realization that alcoholism may be in your future. Accept genetic coding. Rum Daddy. Gin Mommy.

You don’t know it yet but you are at the Kansas border.
With a guy you don’t know. Who looks over and sees that you’re awake. He hangs up his phone quickly. Not like he’s been caught but like he’s been waiting. You hope he didn’t pay for his very expensive, fully restored Mustang by dealing in human trafficking. Notice that you forgot to shower. Open the car door, step into a cool night. Feel the air on your cheek. Really feel it. It’s blown across the world just to graze your skin. It’s on its way across the plains now, to the East Coast where it will leave land and launch across the Atlantic and blow through the Strait of Gibraltar. The same wind circles the planet. Charged particles crackle across the landscape. The wind is alive.
One long loop. Same as your life.
This is what happens with less drinking and more thinking.
Hold your arms out wide.
So wide.
Stretch.
Spin out into the world.
Go ahead.
The Stranger will think you are a bohemian.
You smell like a truck driver.

The restaurant air is thick with steak and baked potatoes. Your mouth will water. Excuse yourself to the Little Girls Room. Think about the absurdity of that name. A room for little girls. Go directly to the mirror. Expect the worst. Be pleasantly surprised. Hair tousled. Skin glowing. Eyes a little brighter. Clothes wrinkled.

Sit across the table. Watch how the Stranger talks to you, listens to you, how the candlelight flickers across his face and neck. Take your first bite of steak. Feel it melt in your mouth. Close your eyes, moan. Promise to eat salad later.
Ask the Stranger what he was doing at the diner when you stumbled in drunk last night after fighting with your boyfriend.
Ex-boyfriend.
He will tell you his friend works the graveyard shift.
Ask where you are going.
Montana, he says. Then Portland. I have friends we can stay with.
Wonder what the fuck you are doing.
Briefly.
Don’t linger in doubt but definitely entertain the thought.
Ask him why he’s doing this.
He will say you look like a girl who needs to get away.

Contemplate this.
Contemplate how nice it is to be in the middle of the United States with a total stranger who is hot and doesn’t seem psycho. Contemplate how easy it was to drive away from all of those things you thought you could never live without.
The Stranger asks where you are from.
Tell him about growing up in Mississippi. About levees and sunsets and rivers that flow.
Flow with it. Let the conversation come easy.
Don’t try to impress. Not once. Not even a little.
Don’t talk about daddy’s run in the House of Representatives or how mama runs the Literacy Project.
Talk about you.
Because he asks what you want out of life.
Ask the Stranger what he does in his spare time. He will tell you he owns a shipping business. It’s the off season. More time to explore.

Leave the steakhouse high on conversation and food and hot guy mojo. Listen to the gravel crunch under your Keds. Wonder how many more years you can put off declaring your major. With parental financial contributions it could go on indefinitely.
The Stranger opens the car door.
Pause to remember the last time a man opened a door for you.
Something deep and unidentifiable inside you begins to howl. An indescribable anguish.
Let it howl.
Let it disturb you.
Shiver in the cold.
Something inside of you breaks loose. A cold, stillness permeates the lining of your skin. A low howl churns in the bottom of your gut.
The Stranger lays his hand on your shoulder, asks if you are okay.

You think of vodka but pour steaming black coffee into a cup at a gas station.
The next few hours will lead you into South Dakota.
You offer to drive.
The Stranger rips open little sugar packets with his teeth and pours them into his cup.
Tells you he’s got it.
Pull your legs up girlishly beneath you on the front seat and talk about childhood foods.
Egg salad.
Fried corn.
Coke floats.
Ask him where he’s from.
He tells you Alabama via upstate New York.
Drive deep into the night, trading stories, listening to Indian radio stations and the soundtrack to Magnolia on repeat.
Your roommate sends a text.
Ignore. Delete.
You are now certain that in the last precious seconds of your life, bad roommates will not flash before your eyes.
It’s not until you check into a roadside motel at 6:43 AM that you really start wondering.
What’s going on?
I mean, you’re about to fall asleep in a motel room with a strange guy you’ve driven over five hundred miles with in one day.
He’s not your friend. Per se. Definitely not a booty call.
There’s zero alcohol involved.
Exhausted and confused you flop back on a double bed and wait for him to make a move. You’re wearing jeans but open your legs invitingly, let your arms fall to your sides, sigh.
Think about cherries. The kind in the jar. Stare at the ceiling and think about floating in a sweet, sugar syrup. Think of the stranger. Imagine him there. Floating with you.
Will it be worth it, after all, will it be worth while, after the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, will it be worth it to float with him.

Wake mid afternoon to the sounds of housekeeping in the hall.
Purse on nightstand. Jeans untouched.
Neither psycho, nor perv.
Contemplate how you feel about that since you were counting on one or the other.
Sit up in bed.
No ruthless hangover slams into you.
Your mouth is furry and dry.
The aching realization that something is horribly wrong with your life descends.
The howl returns.
It rips at screaming Christmas memories. The howl is bigger than you so you don’t fight back. You pull your weird, scratchy motel binky over your head and cry.
The Stranger finds you this way.
This time last year you never would have imagined yourself in a motel in South Dakota with some guy from a diner.
You don’t miss your boyfriend.
Not even a little.
You are free.
Free from what bound you.
You traded it for the howl.
The Stranger will hand you a cup of coffee, ask if you’re okay.
You nod.
He won’t believe you.
You won’t believe you.
But you’ve been lying about the delusions of your life for so long that you’re not giving up that easy.
You may go insane but you’ll be dragged.
This crack up brings a disturbing super power. You start to see people as they are and not as you want them to be. This will have it’s drawbacks.

You form a plan in the motel. You and the Stranger. You will shop at Thrift stores and pick out clothes for each other.
Beginning now.
Each will create an identity for the other.

St. Vincent’s Thrift Store. The Stranger chooses a pink, fuzzy jacket and purple velvet pants. You stare at him, wondering why he’s dressing you like a Florida divorcee.
Nothing makes sense.
Go with it.
Do you dare? Do you dare?
From a back rack choose a sweet, dark chocolate, pink pin striped suit that appeals to your cinematic side. You’re not sure he can pull it off.
Allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised when he steps out of the dressing room rocking the suit with a white, open collar, button down shirt and motorcycle boots.
Melt a little.
Quiver at the sight.
You know you want to.
Pinch your face up in that weird way people do when they are about to squee with joy.
At your suggestion the Stranger will choose a pale pink camisole to complete your outfit.
It’s cheating but it hardly matters. Since you’re making it up.
The dressing room will smell like PineSol scented mothballs. Change into a cami that looks sexy with purple velvet pants. Catch a glimpse of the Strangers face when you step into the short hall. Notice how his face softens. You’ve never seen that look on a man’s face before. Maybe in movies. Never in real life.
In the back of a thrift store in Sioux Falls watch the Stranger look you up and down. Get a little drunk off of that feeling. Especially when you tell him you need a handbag and he chooses a 1950’s Lucite purse with a pink heart clasp. Without anyone noticing, you will slide that dirty nickel down into the pocket of your new pants.

Across a landscape of cornfields, wheat fields, fields of fields. Under the watchful gaze of sometimes sunshine. Under the sweet blaze of winter coming. A murmur of insects. Words cascade down to your lips where you suck them in like a wild song from the bayou. Remember driving through parishes at night to your grandmothers house. Through a childhood. Let the wide open landscape rise within you. You want to lie down in sweet grass next to the ants, grasshoppers, dragonflies whizzing.
All new.
All enticing.
A wide open paradise of dust and sky.

Front seat conversation will go something like this.
You will now know all about his shipping company. How he created the model in college for a class.He owns a Ducati.
Has an older brother who is a Preacher.
A guitar he never plays.
A messy office.
A telescope for spying on neighbors.
On a highway. 1 AM. Jacked on caffeine. The perfect place to fall in love.
Freudian slip.
The perfect place to get to know someone.
Except you’re only throwing pieces.
Parts of the whole.
It takes that dead body on the side of the road to rewind you.
Back to the beginning.

That sounds so dramatic.
Body.
Two lane highway. Man on the ground next to the open door of his Ford Taurus.
The Stranger will pull onto the dirt shoulder, throw on his flashers. From the glove compartment he pulls a gun. You have no idea what kind. He cocks it. This could be an ambush, he whispers.
You lock the passenger’s door. Go on hyper alert. Paranoid even.
In the headlights the Stranger kneels next to the body. You will expect it to bolt upright.
The body won’t move.
The Stranger yells for you to call 911. Find your phone. Which will of course have no charge. Jump out of the car and run to the hood. The Stranger pumps the guys chest.
Come get my phone out of my pocket, he will yell.
You slide your hand into the pocket of those dark chocolate, pin striped pants and feel around until your fingers grasp the phone and pull it out.
Dial.
Dogs howl in the distance.
Maybe wolves.
911. State your emergency.
Side of the road. Man on highway. Body.
State your location.
Look around. Black fields roll away. Full moon. You have no idea where you are.
An eighteen wheeler will slow to a stop further down the road. The Trucker runs, change jingling in his pockets.
You reach inside your own pocket and grasp that dirty nickel and thank god you are alive.

Emergency lights explode across the plains. Flashing colors against the sky. Close your eyes. Think of all those people who died last year when a bridge collapsed in Minnesota. Imagine driving off that ragged edge, plunging into cold darkness.
You think of that. Yes you do. Out in your pink, fuzzy jacket, shivering.
Clouds pass in front of the moon. You will listen for clues to the future. Ready to record the slightest detail. You are called from the dark night of your sleep. Courage is your beauty balm. Wear it.
There will be tests of skill.
A path to follow.
A cliff or cave.
You will go down to go up.
Your life will be shaped into star dusted cakes.
A cross. A key. A penny. A poem. A series of numbers. A toad. A golden ribbon. Fields of edible flowers.
Touch the dirty nickel in your pocket.
Your bank account is empty. Not empty. It has seventy-six cents. With the nickel, you have a whooping eighty-one cents saved.
In your old life you avoided dangerous thoughts. In this life you will doubt the fear. It becomes laughable. A joke. A strap that falls away. One that squeezed your neck since childhood. Sirens wail through the night. You toss your head back, face up, shining into the black, sparkling canvas of sky and let out one long howl.
Breathtaking.
The hallowed ground of your old life rushes away like the sea receding from shore. Back into afternoons that ended before they began. Back to a life that was never yours, borrowed glasses of Bacardi and parents acting badly. You burrow deeper into your jacket. Balancing on the edge of trust and grace. Surrender the utter absurdity of doing everything right. There’s no manual for life. Under dark night reach up into the age of abandon and grab onto a slow, creeping insanity that grows like a vine from the very center of the earth. Mile markers are the math of the journey. You remember the first time you got alcohol poisoning. How you drank to have sex because it was too intimate and desperate.

The Stranger will walk out into the field, quietly slip his hand into yours. You turn, watch the emergency workers load the stretcher with the body bag strapped to it into the ambulance. You realize goodbye is the other side of hello.
Lights flash.
Blue and white.
Across open plains.
A black stretch of earth.
Fertile and unplowed.
The police ask for ID’s to fill out their report.
Without a thought you will hand yours over.
Avoid thinking about the guy with the heart attack.
Cause your heart can attack you.
It’s a wicked design flaw.
The same heart that brings love and joy can strike a person dead.
The one thing most deeply associated with love takes you out.
Sorta like god.
A lightning bolt through the heart.
Sayonara.

You wait, shivering in the night chill.
The officer will tell you that you have to come down to the station.
You will stammer, “Did I do something wrong?”
“You’re missing,” he says, forcing a smile.
The past few days descend like an avalanche of emotion. You can’t go back. Not now. Not after all this. There’s nothing back in that old world except to be or not to be.
Suddenly you’re angry.
Feel cornered.
Watched.
Any second that lightning bolt will come burning out of the sky for you.
You watched your sister die. That tiny baby born strange and premature. Struggling to breathe, to grab onto a single thread of life and pull. Your parents made you go to the hospital and stare silently at her in the little glass box. She spent her short life on earth in a series of boxes, especially the one lowered into the ground.
She was a tiny baby made of eggshells. Cracked apart. A physical rendering of your parents marriage. Broken, struggling to breathe. A tiny life beating back the arms of death. Your father named her Amelia Rainn. How could such a tiny breath blow away all of that anguish?

You squeeze that dirty nickel in your pocket and imagine Amelia Rainn dropped it down to earth for you to find. That she knew you’d go on this adventure and need a special talisman. You imagine Amelia Rainn saw the Stranger long before you did.
Squeeze that dirty nickel in your pocket.
Squeeze it hard.
Do you dare? Do you dare?

The station will be quiet. Most of the offices have lights out, doors shut. Coffee brews in a break room down the hall. In the big, open squad room the officer will take you to his desk. Instruct you on the art of dialing. The report lays open.
Missing person.
A metaphor for your life.
Always missing.
Never found.
You recognize the number immediately.
Six rings is all it takes for the ungracious past to descend upon you.
Saved by voice mail.
Leave a message.
Lucky you.
In nervous haste you glance at the Stranger. He isn’t ripped or buff but life has given him a nice workout. A phone rings on another desk. The officer picks it up, listens, then hands it over to you.
A cold strike of fear splits straight through your howl. Even with the phone so far from your ear you can hear daddy breathing because he won’t give up bacon and Newports. He sounds like he’s running a marathon. Like a fat kid chasing the ice cream truck. You were that fat kid once.
He will ask if you’re there.
Do you dare? Do you dare?
You stutter, find words, fall into hello.
He wants to know if you’re okay.
Tell him you’re on a mini vacation.
A what? he will ask.
Tell him you’re on a road trip with a complete stranger to figure a few things out.
That’s when he will start screaming.
The sound of daddy screaming. So controlled, so loud.
Tell him you’re not missing anymore and hang up.
The stranger will look at you, stranger than usual.

You will drive back to the two lane road that cuts straight through the darkness. The sound of tires thump against pavement.
Up ahead on the right.
Close to where you found the body.
On a piece of earth that rises up from a tree lined meadow.
Under a glowing full moon.
A herd of deer.
White tails flick and twitch.
And one of the most magnificent things you’ve ever seen.
An albino buck. Snow white antlers and fur. A blazing, white buck on a mound of earth pushed up from another world.
Whoa, the Stranger will say, slowing down.
Something new and wild enters your bloodstream.
You step out into the cold, watch the buck turn and look.
You will burn this memory into your mind.
Burn it.
Burn it.
Feel the stranger next to you, your breath mingling in the air.
He will reach for your hand, loop your fingers into his and wait. The buck will flick his tail and run into the trees with the other deer following.
Part of you will go with him. Part of you returns to the car. Either way both parts have grown wild.

The stranger will drive into dawn. So late now it’s early. You will get a room at the motel in the next town. 70’s paneling on the wall, Old dresser. Scratched table. Two chairs.
Empty your pockets, the stranger says. We’re going to talk about last things.
Lost things?
Last things, he will say louder. As in, if these were your final seconds on earth what would be the last things you have on you.
Now you understand. You walked out of your dorm room empty handed. Almost empty handed.
You pull out the dirty nickel.
The sum total of your life.
The stranger empties his pockets.
Swiss Army Knife, guitar pick, wallet, phone, old Henry Rollins spoken word ticket stub.
What made you think of this, you ask. These last things?
The man on the side of the road, he will say. You die with whatever you have on you and then like bandits people come and take it away.
I will build a shrine and put your last things inside, you say.
He will look up at you.
Light bleeds through cracks in the curtains.
The bed is so old. The moment is so new.
It’s already tomorrow.
Almost winter.
A full moon.
You ask the stranger if he’s ever done anything like this before.
The stranger will shake his head.
Where will it end?
It never ends.
Where will it end?
It never ends.
You and the stranger talk about how life is like drawing without an eraser. Across the page. Down and around the edges. Up again in a wheeee sort of motion. The first lines you drew were so diligent, rehearsed. Later a few were dashed off. Then there was simply scribble. The moment is a sketched line of landscape curving across the page. Colors so rich you bleed into them. You realize you’ve drawn a world of fake smiley faces on everything you’ve touched. There are all of these doodles you can’t erase. You are someone who ate her erasers. Chewed them right off like the heads of enemies.

Old women talk in the motel hall. Boys laugh and slam doors in the parking lot.
Your life is a gift to your ancestors.
De ja vu.
They see you.
You’ve been here before.
Drawn this before.
You’re delirious from lack of sleep.
Come again, the sign at the entrance to heaven reads. Come again.
And you go into this future of projected miracles.
You wonder if you can learn to travel on light. You grow old … you grow old …
you will wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled.

You fall asleep staring at your last things on the bedside table.
Rain comes thundering out of the sky.
In the room the women come and go
talking of Michelangelo.
The sound lulls you into a dream.
You have a dirty nickel.
You can do anything.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

Image by Travis Rigel Lukas Hornung

Lis Anna-Langston is the recipient of many awards including a 2013 and 2011 Pushcart nominee, 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Semi-finalist, a five time WorldFest winner, FadeIn, Telluride IndieFest winner, Helene Wurlitzer Grant recipient, Chesterfield Film Project Finalist, New Century Writers winner and a finalist in the  William Faulkner Competition. Her fiction has been published in Word Riot, The Blotter, Petigru Review, Hot Metal Press, The Smoking Poet, Eclectic Flash Literary Journal, Paper Skin Glass Bones, 491 Magazine, Fiction Fix, The Monarch Review, 5×5 Literary Magazine, Red Booth Review, Hint Fiction Anthology, Chamber Four Literary Magazine, Emyrs Journal, Literary Laundry, Barely South Review, Flash Fiction Offensive, Flashquake Literary Journal, Steel Toe Review, Cactus Heart Press and The MacGuffin Literary Review.