Don McLean's Greatest Hits
"That's a big fucking truck," she said. "Do your feet even reach the pedals?"
"Cute," he growled in reply to her joke.
It was a 1979 Ford F250 with creeping rust camouflaged by dull red paint. There was baling twine keeping the tailgate in an upright position and duct tape holding the driver's side mirror in place; the other mirror had gone entirely and the chrome bumpers had long since had the shiny beaten out of them.
She examined the truck, frowning. "Dude, there's hay stuck to the tires. And, seriously, could you find a huger truck? It's going to totally eat gas, Blob-style. Like, how expensive is that going to be? Money doesn't grow on trees, mister. And how is the tailgate even staying up? Is that string? Are the shocks okay? Is it bouncy? I bet it's bouncy."
He interrupted her by growling, "So what if it's bouncy?"
"So what if it's bouncy?" she mimicked. "Bouncy equals dangerous. Bad things happen in bouncy trucks. It could rupture my spleen!" She paused indignantly when he snorted. "It could! Stuff like that happens! I saw a thing about it on TV."
He smirked. "I got to tell you, Dukes of Hazzard ain't exactly a reliable source for information. This truck ain't gonna rupture your spleen."
She huffed out an indignant sigh. "You don't know for sure. And what about my wrist?"
She held up her left arm, enclosed in a cast from hand to elbow.
"What about your wrist?" He adjusted the his hat against the increasingly hot glare of the mid-morning sun.
"The bouncing," she said very slowly, drawing out the second word as though he might not understand otherwise. "It might hurt my wrist."
"Well, your wrist is just gonna have to suffer then," he said.
"You are not very nice to me." She glared at him, her lips in a sullen pout.
"What are you talking about?" he asked. "Not very nice to you? I just bought you a truck."
"Yeah, a big, jiggle truck."
She stood, toe to toe with him, sticking her chin up aggressively. Her eyes squinting in a close simulacrum of his own surly glare, she looked less threatening and more like a little girl playing dress-up with a hand-me-down fight face.
He crossed his arms over his chest. Her antics were custom-designed for his amusement. She liked the truck, he could tell. He had known she would the moment he had noticed it on the side of the road. It was just the sort of thing she'd go for. She didn't like pretty. She didn't like new. She liked old and worn, used and spare. Just gears, a radio and a dash to put her feet on.
Lucky for him.
"Where'd you get it?" she asked. He could smell her Big Red chewing gum.
"Farm up the road. Saw it when we were coming in." They had hitch-hiked a hundred miles the day before, after the alternator in the used Jeep they had picked up had given out. "Guy said it still run good."
She wrapped her fingers through his scraggly, overgrown sideburns and pulled his face down until their noses touched.
"I like the sticker," she whispered.
She cheerfully patted him on the cheeks and spun around, flashing him a high-beam smile over her shoulder as she ran back to their motel room. He watched her until she disappeared into the room and then walked around to the back of the truck, arms still folded.
There was an Easy Does It bumper sticker on the sliding rear window. He almost laughed.
While he waited for her to come back, he checked over the truck again. It was a heaping hulk of metal. He wouldn't have put good money on how long it would last. It would get them further down the road, though, and that's all that mattered. He checked the tire pressure and then, wiping his hands on his already grimy tank top, put his faith in American mechanics and left well enough alone.
He turned just in time to watch her crash out of their room with her usual lack of stealth, staggering under the weight of their two bags. Leaning on one arm against the back of the truck, he watched her struggle with them.
"Sure, dude," she screamed at him, across the parking lot. "Don't worry about me. Wouldn't want you to strain yourself or anything. Just let the cripple carry the bags."
Her painfully bright pink tee was damp with sweat, her blue-black hair clinging to her face and neck, when she dropped the bags at his feet. He smirked at her and easily slung the luggage through the open passenger-side door.
"Show-off," she muttered.
When he turned around again, she was holding her arms out, bouncing lightly on the toes of her Chucks.
"Put me up, too," she said.
He grinned. "What? Too little to get in the big fuckin' truck by yourself?"
She snorted. "We're gonna have to fight over who gets to be the kettle in this scenario. Though, it's pretty obvious that you're the pot…."
"Hey, you reap what you sow, small-stuff."
"Put me up!"
"But then who'll put me up?" he asked her. "I'm short. You said so."
"I'm smaller! And younger! And a girl!"
"You're a gymnast. And a modern woman. And younger. You got youth on your side."
"Yeah, you're right," she acquiesced. "What was I thinking? I mean, you being an old, old man with the cane and the walker and the arthritis and the..."
"Alright, that's it," he interrupted. "You're gonna pay and pay big."
He grabbed her around the waist and swung her squealing around in a circle before throwing her headfirst into the truck. She skidded across the seat on her side, holding her broken arm up and out of danger.
"What did I say," he said, slamming the door behind her. "Young and spry."
She just lay on her back on the bench seat and laughed her loud, raucous laugh, all snorts and guffaws.
He smiled a little bit, walking around the front of the truck. He loved the moments of levity they shared. Those brief lapses were a comfort, a souvenir from simpler times when he was the first person she turned to and she was his savior. Back when the world, though dark, was not a pitch black uncertainty. Before her sanity depended upon the perpetual motion of the nomadic.
He thought, swinging himself into the driver's side, that he could go on like this forever--Sal Paradise to her Dean Moriarty. Slamming the door shut, he turned to his passenger. She still lay on the seat, giggling, her head near his thigh. Her dark jeans had a hole in one knee, surrounded by the darker stain of old blood--another reminder of the wreck in Texas.
They had been riding fast on the 20 when a hard rain had kicked up and he had lost control of the chopper. She had trusted him to pull them out of it, refusing to let go of his thick waist even as they skidded across the slick road. For her faith in him, she had road-rash and a broken wrist.
Ditching the bike at a boneyard in Sweetwater, he decided that they'd stick to four-wheeled transportation.
At least until the cast came off.
He turned the key in the ignition; the big block coughed, sputtered and died.
"Not a goddamn word," he warned her.
Looking up at him with wide-eyed faux innocence, she made the universal sign for zipped lips. He tried again and, this time, the engine roared. The clutch groaned when he shifted and the truck lurched forward.
She scooted out of the way of the gearshift as he pulled out onto the vacant, dusty highway. She knelt on the seat and stuck her head and shoulders out of the open window. Her hair whipped around her face as she grinned into the wind. Ducking back into the cab, she patted the dash as though the truck were a good dog. She turned and surveyed the cab.
"Hey, there's a tape still in the deck," she noticed, pointing with one blue-glitter polished finger. He pulled it out and tossed it to her. He threw it a little too hard; it almost went out the window. Her reflexes were fast though and she caught it in time. Sticking her tongue out at him, she turned the tape over in her hand.
"Wow," she said.
"Don McLean's Greatest Hits." She sounded puzzled. "Shouldn't it be Greatest Hit? As in singular? Did he even have more than one hit? Or is it just American Pie, over and over? I mean, the rest of these--Castles in the Air; Superman's Ghost; But She Loves Me; And I Love You--have you even heard of any of them?"
He had to admit he hadn't.
"See?" she demanded. "Not another hit in the bunch of them. And barf for titles, too." She shook the tape at him. "Alright, I guess we'll just have to try it out."
"How about not," he said.
"Why? I think we should ease the truck into new ownership by playing some familiar music." She grinned and bounced in the seat. "Or maybe this is the truck's favorite music and it breaks down without it. That's the only logical explanation. No living, breathing human being could like Don McLean or his hit or his other non-hits."
"Some people consider American Pie to be a classic, darlin'."
"It's garbage. It's cheese. It's, like, adult contemporary. And it's, like, a billion minutes long, too. It's one of those songs that disc jockeys used to play so they could hit the can." Her voice grew incrementally louder as she ranted. "And people loved it. They cried over it. Over a stupid song! It's totally indicative of the gross sentimentality of a generation of people who couldn't move past the collective trauma of their childhoods. Or something"
"It ain't all bad." He shrugged. "Some great tunes came out of that generation. I should know. I lived through it."
She smiled smugly and pointed at him. "Exactly. That is exactly what I mean. You were there and you're sentimental about it. You're probably one of those crying people. I bet if we listen to it right now, you'll sob like a little, bitty baby."
He glared at her. She grinned toothily.
"So, let's find out. Commence Operation Sobbing Macho Man!" Scooting over again, she put the tape in the deck and pressed the rewind button. "It's the first song on the whole tape, 'cause, hello, only hit."
The tape stopped whirring backward and played.
He hadn't heard American Pie in years. Years and years. More years than he liked to admit.
It was a god-awful song.
And it went on and on and on.
Grimacing, he had to admit that it was worse than he remembered. He hated defending something that didn't deserve to be defended. It was when he was about to acknowledge that he had been wrong, that the song really was garbage, that and he heard a tiny, choking sound from beside him.
She was crying.
In front of the tape deck with her sneakers pigeon-toed on the seat and her knees tucked up to her chest, she had rested her right cheek on them. A drop of water dripped off of her nose. She looked very small and even younger than she normally did. Her pigtails were wispy and her bangs clung to her damp forehead.
"Oh, shut up," she sniffled, even though he hadn't said anything. Tears cleared tracks down her dusty, sunburned cheeks.
"So, I was wrong, okay?" He could hear her throat constrict as she choked out the words. "It's just so sad. Everybody dies. Everybody drops dead and dies and there's nothing he can do about except be sad and wish things were different and write a stupid, stupid song."
She turned her head, burying her face in her knees. He could hear her snuffling. He hated seeing her cry. It made him uneasy. Helpless. Made him feel like he had done something wrong that couldn't be fixed. He looked down to where her plaster-enclosed arm lay on the seat. Her fingers were small and pale. They looked shriveled from disuse. Without thinking, he reached across the seat and took them in his large, rough hand. He held them gently in his palm. At the gesture, her head jerked up. Blue eyes wide, she didn't hide her surprise well. For a moment, he thought she'd pull away and steeled himself for the rejection. But, in the end, she surprised him, too, when she just rested her cheek on her knees again. She shut her eyes and left her hand as it was.
He held her hand. He kept his eyes on the road. He gripped the steering wheel. He watched the flat farmland blur as they passed. He looked to the horizon.
He held her broken hand and dreaded the time when he would have to downshift.