A cowboy sits in the shade outside the restroom, smoking what’s left of a cigarette all the way down to the butt. He looks up as we approach and his gaze lingers on Shirley. He gives a low whistle when she gets alongside him, and tips the brim of his hat. “My, my,” he says, his voice a drawl. “Ain’t you a big one?”
Shirley doesn’t look at him, but she’s trying not to smile. His tone is complimentary, not mocking. She’s over six foot, taller than me, broader in the shoulders, too. Her hair’s brown and today she’s got it tied back with a blue flower-print scarf wrapped round her head and she wears a red blouse with only the three middle buttons done, and a pair of denim shorts that almost cover all of her ass. She wears cream shoes with a thick heel and frilly ankle socks coming out the top, and those heels give her an added four inches or so, not that she needs it, but they make her tanned legs look real firm too, and when she walks you can see the muscles in her thighs and calves tensing up real nice.
The cowboy turns, realises I’ve stopped and I’m staring at him. He doesn’t care. He smiles at me, flicks ash and sucks on the butt though there’s next to nothing left. “You got a smoke?” he says. Looking at him now, up close, I can see that he’s not as old as I first thought he was. His eyes are brown and narrowed, even in the shade, and his skin’s taut and leathery from being out in the sun, and he hasn’t shaved in a few days, but at the most I’d reckon he’s in his early thirties.
I tell him, “I don’t smoke.”
He keeps right on smiling at me. “Shame,” he says.
The bathroom stinks of piss, but I’d expected it to smell worse. There’re crude pornographic drawings on the tiles and the broken mirror hanging over the cracked porcelain sinks. The mirror’s smashed in the middle, looks like a gunshot. There’re phone numbers too, accompanied by the names of men and women, each of them promising a good time. I piss quick and go to wash my hands but the tap spits out brown water so I just leave it, head back outside and Shirley’s already there and now she’s talking with the sitting cowboy. He’s got another cigarette, and he’s smoking it.
I join them. Shirley looks like she’s been laughing. The cowboy turns, and he’s still smiling. “I didn’t catch your name before, friend,” he says.
He tips his hat. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Llewelyn. Name’s Bob. I was just talkin with your lady here, turns out we’re all headin in the same direction.”
“That so? And where might you be going?”
“Oh, just down the road a little ways.”
“I told him we could give him a ride,” Shirley says. She smiles at me. She’s wearing the bright red lipstick that I like, that I bought her for her last birthday because she’d been telling me she could never find the right shade. Red’s classic, I said. Go with red. She was doubtful until she tried it on. She wouldn’t admit I was right, because that’s not her way, but she wears it nearly all the time.
“You ain’t got a car of your own, Bob?”
He nods at the gas station. “It’s in the shop round back. Broke down about a mile from this place, I had to walk here and get a pickup. Until you people came along it looked like I was gonna have to spend the night sleepin on the backseat.”
“How you gonna get back here when it’s fixed?”
“Bus, I reckon.”
“You can’t get a bus now?”
“Llewelyn,” Shirley says, shooting me this stern look like I ought to play nice.
“I’m short on change, man. Reason I’m headin on down the road, I got a buddy owes me a few bucks.”
I look at Shirley and she looks back at me. The decision’s already been made. I head to the car and they soon follow. Bob sits in the back. As we pull out from the station, he leans into the front, right next to me, and he talks into my ear, a whisper, says, “Hey, Llewelyn buddy, where’s she hidin her cock?” Then he turns to Shirley, looks her up and down, puts his tongue between his teeth and makes a sucking sound, then says, “Darlin, you are magnificent.”
Shirley’s got eyes for the cowboy, for his looks, his charm, his fucking hat – I don’t know what it is, but I’m playing chauffeur as the two of them laugh at one another, ignoring me, Shirley twisted round in her seat so her knee’s almost in my lap.
She’s asking him, “You need this money bad?”
“Well, I know I said it was just a few bucks, but darlin it’s a little more than that. Ought to be enough to get me back on my feet, anyway.”
“You want, we could take you straight to see this friend of yours.”
“Sweetheart, if it’s no inconvenience to you good folks then that would just about make my day.” I don’t need to look in the rear-view to see his smile. Those teeth, tobacco-stained but otherwise as straight as tombstones, have burned themselves into my mind’s eye.
“It’s no inconvenience, honey,” Shirley says. “You just let Llewelyn know where you need to go.”
Bob leans forward, squeezes my shoulder. “You know, I can’t tell you how lucky I am the two of you came along. You been real good to me, y’hear? I ain’t gonna forget it.” He’s got his hand on Shirley’s shoulder too, and she’s got her fingers on top of his.
She turns to me then, finally acknowledging I’m still here, still travelling with her, still driving her. “Llewelyn, honey?” she says. “You might wanna slow down. This ain’t a race.”
Bob directs us to his friend’s house, and when we get outside I ask him, “What’s this fella owe you money for, Bob?”
“Llewelyn,” Shirley says, like I’m talking out of turn again.
Bob manages to tear his eyes and his smile away from Shirley long enough to look at me. “Loaned it to him a while back, but he ain’t seen fit to repay me yet. Now our positions have flipped and he’s the one in good fortune while I’m trying my damnedest not to end up on skid row. I need that money back. I’m sure he’ll recall I was charitable to him in his time of need, and he’ll return the favour.”
“Do you want us to come inside with you?” Shirley says.
“No ma’am, but thank you for the offer. He and I go way back, I just need to talk to him. I don’t want him to feel like I’ve turned up in force now, do I? What kind of message would that send?”
We wait in the car while Bob strolls up the pathway, taking his time, stopping to kick a stone into the dried grass. The front lawn is patchy and the house is in a state of disrepair. Whatever Bob’s friend used that loan for, it wasn’t to fix the joint up, or to move out of this shitty neighbourhood.
We watch while Bob knocks on the door, then when he’s ushered inside by a body hidden in the shadows Shirley turns to me, jabs me in the arm. “You’re bein mighty rude today, Llewelyn,” she says.
“Mighty rude.” I raise an eyebrow. “That so?”
“You’re askin questions out of turn. You know fine well you don’t ask a man about his finances.”
“Why not? He seems like he’s willing to talk about anything – I mean, he ain’t shut up so far, huh?”
Shirley looks at me with those green eyes of hers. “That supposed to mean somethin’?”
“You and he seem to be getting along mighty fine. I mean, the two of you are already awful friendly.”
Her eyes narrow. “You got somethin you wanna say to me, you better come right out and say it.”
“I don’t like him. I don’t trust him. What’s he want from us anyway, other than a free ride cross-country. And there’s you, fluttering your eyelashes and offering him any damn thing he asks for.”
“Why you always gotta be so cynical any time I try and make us a new friend?”
“People out here, the kinda people we meet, on roads and in bars and wherever else, they ain’t lookin to be friends, you understand? They’re all out for somethin.”
“When’d you get so cynical?”
“Around the second time we were ripped off – remember that? Another trampy-lookin motherfucker you offered a ride to cos you wanna be everyone’s shinin saviour, and what happens? We’re left stranded in the middle of Buttfuck, Nowhere with no money and no car until my mama wires us some through, you forget about that?”
“Of course I ain’t forgotten.”
“Then why’re you actin’ like you have?”
“Cos not everyone’s gotta be bad, Llewelyn. Besides, does he look like either one of those fellas to you?”
“No,” I say. “He looks worse.”
Shirley’s biting her lip, looks like she’s gonna blow. “You’re no saint either, Llewelyn. You forgotten the little incidents you’ve had on the road? Shit, you’re probably the baddest man out here.”
“You tryin to say somethin now? You don’t wanna ride with me anymore?”
She rolls her eyes, throws her head back against the rest and won’t look at me. “You hear what you wanna hear, Llewelyn. You always do.”
Down the road a little ways I see a kid walking barefoot, dragging a toy cart. He stops and steps off the pavement, drops his pants round his ankles and takes a piss into the gutter, then pulls his pants back up and continues on his way.
We don’t speak to each other for a while. I look at the house. I take a stab at conversation, “What’s takin him so long?” Shirley doesn’t answer. She looks bored but I know she’s mad as hell.
Finally Bob leaves the house, comes strolling down to the car with a big fucking grin on his face and a bag on his back, and he slides into the backseat.
“You get what you came for, honey?” Shirley says.
“Oh, you betcha,” Bob says. Before he went in the house he smelled of cigarettes and sweat, but now there’s a little weed on him too, like they were getting high in there. “Hey, how about I treat the two of you for your kindness – I take the both of you out for dinner, how’s that sound?”
Shirley answers quick, before I can open my mouth. “That sounds real nice of you, Bob. We’d love to join you, wouldn’t we Llewelyn?”
I say nothing until she jabs me in the knee. “Sure.”
“Swell,” Bob says. “I know this great place just a coupla blocks over. How about you crank the engine and I’ll give you directions, Lou buddy?”
I start the car. Shirley laughs, guess she finally turns my way and sees the look on my face. “He hates bein called Lou,” she says.
“Sorry, friend,” he says. He clamps a hand on my shoulder. His knuckles are bruised and bloodied. They didn’t look like that when he went inside. “Llewelyn just gets to be a bit of a mouthful sometimes. Let’s go get us some food, huh, Llewelyn?”
Bob takes us to some diner not far from his friend’s house, and the place is a dive. It’s one of those joints done up to look like a rail carriage, but all the metal on it is rusting and some of the windows have been smashed and covered up from the inside with cardboard. Hobo’s congregate at one end, taking shelter in the shadows, while at the other are a couple of kids that look like they’re selling drugs. We go inside, take a booth, and Bob orders burgers for each of us, doesn’t give us a chance to look at the menu, though I doubt they do much else.
“It ain’t exactly the Ritz, but I’ve had some damn good eats here over the years,” Bob says. He leaves his hat on, even though we’re indoors. Left it on in the car too, probably left it on while he was visiting with his friend. I wonder if he kept it on when he was hitting him, because I’m staring at his knuckles now and they’re all bust up on both hands and I’m sure it’s from punching. This guy ain’t just a charming conman, he’s fucking dangerous, too. He sits in the corner of the booth, leaning back like he owns the place, and Shirley is next to him and I can see she’s impressed by every damn thing he does and says. Since he joined up with us she’s barely looked at me, her eyes glued to his hat-shadowed face.
The burgers are burnt black and the fries are cooked solid. The buns are stale and what little salad is on the plate is limp and looks as if it’s been run under a tap like this is supposed to make it look fresh. I barely touch the food, and even if I forced some down I doubt it’d stay there. Bob eats like it’s the finest meal he’s ever had placed before him and Shirley picks at hers, not wanting to be rude. She empties half a bottle of ketchup onto the side of her plate, tries to soften her food with it before she puts it in her mouth.
Bob looks at me. “You ain’t hungry?”
Shirley shoots me a look like I ought to bite my tongue.
“No,” I say. “I’m not.”
Mouth open while he chews, Bob drags my plate towards him. “You don’t mind?”
I look round the diner. Some of the patrons are glancing over at us, but they avoid making eye contact. Not every day they get a cowboy and a beautiful woman enter the establishment, and what am I? Hell, I’m the chauffeur. A cowboy, a strikingly beautiful woman, and their driver. Shit.
Our waitress is a young thing, earnest and eager to please, but she’s pale and the skin under her eyes is dark and puffy, her arms are real thin and she keeps scratching at her wrists, and I can see scars there from when she’s scratched too hard. Her uniform is creased and I can smell weeks-old grease on it, and I reckon most of her paycheck is being handed straight over to the two boys on the corner outside. She’s all smiles and she tries to talk to all of us when she’s offering refills or asking if we want anything else or if we’d just like the check, but she’s not looking at anyone other than Shirley. Everywhere Shirley goes, she’s turning heads. She’s a stunner. When my hand’s in hers, I’m a proud feeling man, but sometimes she attracts the wrong kind of attention, like the bikers that time, or the hunters in their caps and orange jackets. In each case they got mouthy, whistling and calling over, like they thought they could lure her from my arm by being crude.
“Just the check, darlin,” Bob says. The little waitress runs off to get it and Bob squeezes Shirley’s muscle bound thigh. “So what d’you think? Good, huh?”
“Yeah,” Shirley says. “Real good.”
“Man, know what I like after a good meal like that? A good drink.” He looks out the window, next to us is one of the lucky few still intact, though it’s filthy with dust and dirt and spatters of bird shit. “Looks like it’s gettin dark out.”
“Where you plan on staying tonight?” Shirley says.
Bob shrugs like he hasn’t thought about it but it’s no big deal.
“What about your friend?” I say.
Shirley shoots me another one of her looks. Before Bob can answer, she says, “Llewelyn and I are just gonna check into a motel, how about you join us?”
“Oh, now really, I couldn’t impose anymore than I already have –” but this motherfucker knows exactly what he’s saying, every word and meaning measured and played against Shirley and what she’s going to say in response.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” They’re smiling at each other like they’ve already planned this out, and this whole little charade is for my benefit. “You ain’t imposin. We’ll get a double room and you can sleep on the couch or somethin.”
“Well hell, if you’re sure now.” Bob’s smiling, showing all his teeth.
“We’re sure,” Shirley says. “Aren’t we, Llewelyn?”
Bob looks at me, smiles at me. I don’t say anything. I don’t need to. It’s already been decided, and they both know that.
The waitress brings the check. Bob pays, like he said he would, but he makes sure to remind us of this fact before he puts the cash down.
The motel looks as old as the diner, and as rundown as everything else in this shitty little backwater. We check in and Bob joins us as we make our way up a flight of stairs and along a walkway littered with empty bottles and syringes. When we open the door and hit the switch I swear to God the carpet gets up and moves, a thousand fucking cockroaches fleeing from the light.
“Looks like they haven’t cleaned it since the last guy killed himself,” Bob says, crossing the room to the TV, flicking it on and taking a look through the channels. The quality is poor, the picture grainy.
“I need to use the bathroom,” Shirley says. “Be right back.”
Bob takes a seat on the end of the bed, in front of the TV. I perch on the sofa where he’s supposed to sleep, directly under the room’s only window, the slatted blinds covering it currently blocking out all light. Bob leans back on the bed, turns to face me, that damn smile still plastered across his face. “Well, this sure is cosy, ain’t it?”
The sofa makes me feel itchy. “When Shirley ain’t here, I don’t need to talk to you.”
His smile turns into a smirk. “Why don’t you lighten up, Lou?”
“What do you want?”
“Shit, friend, I want what any red-blooded man wants. I wanna get laid. What the fuck you think I want? You ain’t got anythin else worth takin.”
“That ain’t gonna happen.”
“That so? I guess that’s what you think, huh, cos it feels to me like I’m gonna get exactly that.”
We hear the toilet flush, the taps run, then Shirley comes back and Bob is watching the TV like we never even spoke. She looks at me like she’s wondering at the silence, why I haven’t made an effort to start a conversation, but I’m getting sick of her angry glares so I look away. “So what we gonna do with ourselves?” Shirley says. “Anything good on the box?”
Bob turns it off. “It’s all crap. But hey, it’s still early, I think we need to start thinkin about havin ourselves a little party.”
“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”
“Of course it don’t. How about we get a few beers in and have a good time?”
“Shit, that might even put a smile on Llewelyn’s face.” She says it to me, and I’m watching the two of them, but I ignore her. “Where we gonna get somethin to drink?”
“There’s a liquor store in town. It ain’t hard to find.” I can see him looking at Shirley, right into her eyes, communicating without words, and he’s tilting his head ever so slightly in my direction.
Shirley understands. She turns to me, says, “Llewelyn, how about you take the car and see what you can find.”
“You don’t wanna come with?”
“Truth be told, I’m exhausted from riding round all day.”
“You think I’m not?”
Her smiles fades. I can see now that while she was in the bathroom she’s taken the time to redo her make-up. Her lips are incredibly red, and she’s taken the scarf from round her head and shook her hair loose. She’s looking at me hard, her head lowered, and it’s a while before she says anything. When she finally does, her voice is low and real deep. “Llewelyn, how about you just go and find us something to fucking drink, huh?”
We stare at each other for a long time.
Finally, I look at Bob. He’s not smiling anymore. They want me to leave, the both of them. I get up and I go, leave the room, close the door, go down the stairs to the car, get in and pull out the lot, drive round the corner so if they’re peering out the blinds they see me leave. I pull off the road, kill the engine, sit for a while with both hands on the wheel. I don’t hold it tight. I’m not angry. If anything, I’m very calm. I just sit for a moment and take deep breaths, then I get out the car and go round to the trunk, fish around in the spare wheel well until I find the tyre iron, then I walk back to the motel. It doesn’t take long, I hadn’t driven far.
I take my time up the steps, so they don’t hear my approach. I’m not worried if the door’s locked because I took the key. Outside, I pause and listen in, but there’s nothing to hear. I reach over and try the handle and find it’s still open. I step inside.
Shirley’s naked on the bed, flat on her back, one arm thrown across her face, covering her eyes. Her garish red mouth is open while she gasps and groans, and the nipples are hard on her curved, muscular chest. Bob is halfway down the bed, mouth full of her cock, his head bobbing up and down. His shirt is off, even his hat, his hair flat against his skull, but his jeans and boots are still on.
I cross the room and I hit Bob across the back of the head with the tyre iron. Shirley sits up, screams some inarticulate noise, but she can’t move, her legs pinned down by Bob. He’s out cold, his mouth still full.
I go back to the door, close it.
“Llewelyn!” Shirley cries. “Get him off me, he’s gonna fucking choke!”
Bob’s body is beginning to convulse, and there’s a gagging sound coming from his throat. “Let him,” I say.
“Jesus Christ,” Shirley says. She manages to lift him enough so she’s able to slide out from under him. He topples from the bed, hits the ground with a thud. She turns to me, to speak, but before she can I go to Bob, get on top of him, and I keep hitting him with the tyre iron until I’ve caved in his skull. His blood sprays up the wall and up my chest, some of it gets into my mouth.
I sit back, dump the iron, catch my breath. Shirley is pissed. “What the fuck have you done?”
I don’t say anything. I look at the mess of Bob’s head. He ain’t smiling no more.
“You need to rein it in, Llewelyn. You need to control yourself.”
“I didn’t like him.”
“You didn’t like him?”
“He was trying to take you away from me.”
She shakes her head, then crosses her legs and folds her arms and looks away from me. “You better get rid of him,” she says, and that’s all she says, and I know she’s still mine.