Here’s a terse, compelling little fictional tour de force by one of my current Vermont College of Fine Arts students, Martha Petersen. It starts and ends, with practically no context or backfill, in the super-heated Arizona desert at night in July and stays tightly focused on a man and a woman in the cab of a truck, both runaways, both strangers to one another — the man has a gun. Repressed violence, desperation and an aura of intense (but not explicit) eroticism explode off the page. The dialogue is immaculate — obsessive, repetitive, dramatic and full of implication. Wonderful to read. Wonderful to have students like this. This is Martha’s first published story.
Jonathan raked his fingers in the sand, and pushed air out from his chest as hard as he could. He found his t-shirt and wiped his hands off. He stood. The ankle was tender, but he could put a little weight on it. A sprain probably, but there would be no more running tonight.
A pickup shot by him and up the road a little way. The brake lights came on, it screeched to the side off the asphalt, then circled around and came back toward him. Someone inside put on the blinker, crossed the center line and turned back around. The truck skidded to a stop just ahead of him.
Jonathan felt inside his pocket and found his gun. He pulled it out and wrapped his t-shirt around it. He limped toward the pickup, fingers on the gun, ready for anything. The passenger window was down. Accordion music was playing.
“Are you getting in or what?”
Jonathan stopped still. If it had been any other kind of person, he would have climbed right in. But it was a girl’s voice.
He leaned in the window. “Just a phone. You got a phone? I need to make a call.”
“A dead one, that’s it,” she said.
He thought about things for a minute, but there was no other choice. There was no other way to get where he was going. “I’m going to Henderson,” he said. He opened the door and pulled himself into the truck. The ceiling light was dim, but Jonathan could tell that this girl belonged anywhere else but out here in the cactus and dust, at night and in the middle of the Nevada desert. She had light hair pasted to her cheeks, a delicate curve to her jaw and chin, a thin neck. The cap she wore shadowed her eyes and most of her face.
Jonathan placed his t-shirt, with the pistol inside, on the floor between his feet. He was suddenly aware of what he must look like, filthy, smelly, shirtless. He sucked in his stomach. His legs stuck against the vinyl seat. “Too damn hot,” he said.
“It’s July,” the girl said. She let off the clutch and the pickup lurched and then caught, and jerked out onto the highway. Jonathan watched in the rearview mirror at the road behind them. It looked the same as the road ahead. The desert was like that, letting you think you were getting somewhere, when really you were always staying in the same place.
The girl flipped the station from the accordion music, to pop music that had been popular when Jonathan was young, to someone talking in Spanish. She stopped it there. “Nothing on out here,” she said.
“When we get to Henderson, just drop me anywhere,” Jonathan said, over the wind and the radio.
“I’m not going to Henderson,” she said back. “I’m driving by.” She sipped on a Coke through a straw. “Want a drink? You look thirsty.”
Jonathan picked up the cup and pinched the lid to take it off.
“Don’t worry about that,” the girl said. “Drink from the straw. It’s all right. Go ahead.”
He did what she said. He sucked it down. The soda was warm and watery, and it burned his throat, and there was nothing in the world Jonathan wanted more. He pulled off the lid and gulped, spilling some of it on his chest. He emptied it all the way to the bottom, then placed the cup back in the holder.
“Sorry, it’s gone,” he said. “I spilled it.”
The girl had a package of candy worms on the seat next to her. She picked one up and put it between her lips and sucked on it. It slipped into her mouth. “What’s your name anyway?” she said through pieces of gummy worm.
Jonathan shifted in his seat, pushed on his ankle, which made him wince. “I’m Jake. My name’s Jake. Where is it you said you’re going?”
“I’m running away, Jake.” The girl slurped down another worm. She drifted off to the right, then pulled the wheel over and bumped along the center line. When she’d straightened out, she said, “You won’t tell anyone, right?”
Jonathan grabbed onto a handle above his window. “How about letting me drive?”
“It’s all right, Jake. Where I’m from it’s hotter than here. In Wellton it’s more than a hundred degrees at night.”
“I’ve never heard of the place.” Jonathan felt his ankle swelling. He needed ice and a stretchy bandage. His needed to wash his hands, to get the dirt out of the cuts. “You like it there?”
“I guess it’s nice if you like dirt and sweat. That’s about all there is there, that and lettuce farms in the winter. That’s why I’m running away. I don’t like lettuce.”
They were flying by sand hills. The black land spread all around them and the glow off the road looked like slick oil. Both the windows were open, and a hot, dirty breeze blew in. Jonathan wondered what Laurie was doing now, whether she was sleeping or had called the police. She imagined them finding his car on the side of the road, calling it in, coming after him. He had to get to Henderson.
Jonathan twitched the foot that didn’t hurt. “You can drop me at the next gas station. There’s a few coming up soon I think. They’re everywhere. I’m sure there’s one coming up.” Jonathan scanned the road ahead, but there was nothing. The only lights that blinked through the dust were the moon and the stars.
The last sign he’d seen said Henderson 210. That was before his car broke down. By his best guess, they had another 130 miles or so left to go. Less than that for a gas station. The girl kept speeding up, then slowing down, like she hadn’t figured out how to keep her foot steady on the gas pedal. “It’s 55 here,” Jonathan said. “It’s not the interstate here. Over there it’s 75, but not here. Pull over and I’ll drive.”
“That’s all right, Jake. I’ve got it. I’ve got my boyfriend in Reno, and after I get him we’re going to California, all the way down the Pacific Highway.”
The blared Spanish. Three people on there now, and sounds in the background like gongs. “Do you understand this stuff?” Jonathan pointed at the radio.
“Do I look like I speak Spanish?” One of the girl’s straps slipped down her small and white shoulder. The lights from the dash outlined the curve of her collarbone.
The girl drove to the side, across the line. She braked to a hard stop. “I got to pee,” she said. “Don’t look.” She took the keys with her.
He opened his door and pulled himself out. In the distance he saw, just barely, an orange glow. Henderson. His friend. A place to rest.
“Don’t look!” the girl called from behind a cactus.
Jonathan put a little weight on his ankle. The pain exploded up his leg. He couldn’t drive, even if he got the keys. This stick shift took two feet, which he didn’t have.
She was done, and she walked back to the truck, zipping her shorts.
Jonathan pulled himself back in. “I’ll drive,” he said.
“Aww, Jake, that’s all right. I’m not allowed to let other people drive the truck.” She rattled the keys in her hand. They both sat there, not moving.
Jonathan felt very thirsty. His leg throbbed.
“Did you look?” she asked.
“Let’s go. Please. I’ve got people in Henderson to help me. I need to get to a phone. See, I hurt myself.”
“You wanted to look, didn’t you?” The girl flipped her cap onto the dashboard. The keys were still in her hand.
“What’s your name again?” he asked.
“I can’t tell you, Jake, because then you might tell someone that I’m running away. Back in Wellton, there’s things going on that shouldn’t be. So this morning, I took these keys here, and now I’ve left that place forever.” She brought out some lip balm that smelled like bubble gum. “After I get my boyfriend in Reno, me and him are going to go down the Pacific Highway. Did I say that Jake? We’ll go down it, then we’ll stop in Chula Vista. Or maybe Tijuana. Want some?” She held out the lip balm.
Jonathan said no thanks.
“You ever been to Tijuana? Where I’m from is pretty close to there, so you’d think I would’ve been. But nope. This is the first time. We’re going to live on the beach. What do you think about that, Jake?”
The girl scooted toward him, turned her face up. The moon was at the top of the sky, and he could see her full face. She was younger than he’d thought. She might have been fourteen years old. She was not attractive. Her eyes were outlined in black, and her face was hawkish, in the way skinny girls’ faces are of that age. The straps of her shirt had slid down both her shoulders. If Jonathan looked, he could’ve seen straight down her chest. She was small and lost, and Jonathan could do whatever he chose with her.
He thought about his wife and what he’d done. His ankle was most likely broken, he was sure of that now, out in the middle of this desert, and he didn’t know what to do. His eyes watered.
“Please,” he said. “Just drive. See up there? That’s where I need to go. And when you drop me off, you need to turn right around and go home.”
She started the truck and they jerked forward, back onto the road. The lights ahead burned the atmosphere. It was because they were getting close that Jonathan decided to put his shirt on. He grabbed his t-shirt from the floor, and the pistol, which he’d nearly forgotten about, dropped in his lap. He snatched it up quickly.
The girl was driving fast, and when she saw the gun, she jerked the wheel and threw both her hands up. She screamed out Jesus’ name. The back of the pickup yanked to the side, pushed itself out in front, and then they were hurtling toward cholla with those needles, which shone like silver hypodermics. He wondered if the police would put it all together once they found the pickup with him inside. They’d tell his wife he was just another one of those guys who’d found a girl to run away with. Just before they rolled the first time, Jonathan watched the lights of Henderson pass across the windshield and thought how beautiful they were, a halo of orange against the blue night.
— Martha Petersen
Martha Petersen lives in Tucson with her husband and four children. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Summa Cum Laude, in creative writing and is currently attending Vermont College of Fine Arts as a graduate student in fiction. She plays classical piano and, over the years, has had a series of jobs including graphic artist and accountant and many others. “The Lights of Henderson” is her first publication.