The Car Wash at the Edge of the World

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Original Publication & Date: 
Ethereal Gazette Issue #3 - 2006

 

As he placed the groceries in the trunk, Josh looked down at the bumper of the new BMW and groaned. The black and silver fiberglass was peppered with the dried husks of dead flies, moths, and mosquitoes.

He lowered the trunk and delicately snapped it shut. Alison noticed and smiled.

“It’s a trunk, Josh. It’s made to be slammed”

 “I’m not ready,” He replied.

Alison laughed and slipped in the passenger side as Josh ran his finger down the rear quarter of his car.

It was more than a car.

It was his dream.

And his dream was filthy.

For as far back as he could remember Josh Brenley wanted a BMW 320I. It was a modest goal, but Josh was a modest man. When the company offered him the transfer to Barrow’s Cove, he knew then that he’d have the money to finally purchase his dream.

Alison was fine with it, actually. She was a better sport than most, willing to put house and home off for a few years to let Josh get this one out of his system while they were still young. After all, she was barely thirty years old. Time was on her side. If Josh was happy, she was happy, and, of course, it didn’t hurt that she liked the Beamer too.

Josh held his finger up to his eye and winced. It was covered in sap, dust, and road salt; the scourge of fine automobile paint jobs across New England. He looked up at the setting summer sun. It hung there low like a squashed mango, bleeding orange and red across the horizon. On a beautiful Friday evening on sunny Cape Cod, there were a lot of ways a young couple could spend it together, and Josh was sure that none of them involved what he was about to suggest to Alison.

“Hon, I wanna wash the car,” he said as he slipped into the driver’s seat.

 Alison rolled her eyes and sighed. “Now?”

“I’ll make it quick, I swear. It’s just that if I don’t do it now, I won’t have a chance until Sunday and, well…”

“Alright, alright,” she said. “Just make it quick, okay? We got ice cream, remember?"

“You sure you don’t mind?” Josh asked.

“No, honey, that’s fine.” She squeezed his knee, and Josh rested his hand on hers as he turned down the main drag of Barrow’s Cove. It was a two mile strip of fast food joints, touristy ocean themed gift shops, and gas stations that led to the beach roads, and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. The sun was quickly setting, and was now little more than a thorn in night’s side. Further up the strip, Josh could barely make out the giant sponge shaped sign of the Bubble Trouble Car Wash. As he pulled into the parking lot, he noticed chains draped across the individual stalls, with white cardboard signs duct-taped to them.

CLOSED FOR VACATION JULY 4th THRU 14th ! GOD BLESS AMERICA!

“Oh, what the hell?!” Josh exclaimed as he swung open his door and stepped toward the chains. He grabbed the sign and looked back at Alison shrugging. She held up her hands.   

Oh well.

Josh stomped back to the car and dropped into his seat.

“Who closes a fucking self-serve car wash?”

Alison reached into her pocketbook and pulled out a pack of Marlboro Lights.

“Well, someone’s gotta come for the money. I mean, the machines don’t empty themselves.” She said as she tapped the cigarette pack against her knuckles.

Josh rolled down his window and started the car but suddenly shut the ignition off.

“Wait a sec.” he said, and then jumped out of the car again. He jogged toward the lone phone booth that stood at the edge of the street, and started paging through a copy of the Yellow Pages. He jogged back toward the car smiling.

“There’s one right up the road, off of RT.6,” he said.

Alison simply shook her head.

 “What?” he asked defensively.

“You’re just ridiculous. Can’t you just use the hose at home, or wait till tomorrow?”

Josh started the car, and slipped back onto the main drag.

“The hose at home is weak, honey.” He grabbed the wheel and did his best evil wrestler impersonation. “Weeeeeeeeeeak!”

Alison laughed at him. She had to. She was in love with an idiot.

They drove back up the strip. The restaurants and convenience stores were now a glowing mass of tacky neon luminescence. When they passed the last of the clam shacks on the main drag it was as if someone pulled the plug on Barrow’s Cove, and the neon and incandescence gave way to the towering evergreens and choking darkness that was the state highway.

“Man, do you feel that?” Josh asked. His voice sounded distant.

“What? Is something wrong?” Alison shifted in her seat and craned her neck as if inspecting for damage.

“No, nothing’s wrong. It’s just smooth. You can’t feel that?”

Alison chuckled and said nothing. She rested her head on his shoulder as Josh stared out at the hypnotic stream of yellow lines that snaked toward them. He lifted his arm and cradled her head against his chest, resting his hand just above her breast. Alison placed her hand on his leg, just below the seam of his shorts, and dragged her fingers along his inner thigh.

“What are you doing?” He asked.

“What are you doing? She countered.

“Oh, so it’s like that, is it?” He asked.

Alison pulled her hand out from his shorts, reached for his fly, and slowly brought the zipper down.

Josh said nothing at all. The last time she did anything like this they were still in college. He didn’t want to fuck it up. He shifted in his seat and the Beamer sped up and slowed down and sped up again.

The road ahead was a blur of black and yellow.

This vessel was on auto-pilot.

“I should pull…”

And then it appeared in the headlights.

Jesus Christ!”

Josh grabbed the wheel in both hands and slammed his foot on the brake. Alison sat bolt upright as the car screeched to a halt not more than a few inches from the huge buck that stood in the middle of the highway. The animal stood frozen, staring back at them with black, emotionless eyes. It was massive, with antlers that stood over two feet above his head, branching off into a dozen points. All was silent save for Josh’s shallow, panicked breaths, and the low purr of the car’s engine. Alison slowly sat up and watched as the deer snorted and walked away, its hooves smacking on the pavement, ticking like a stopwatch before crashing into the brush and vanishing into the dark woods.

“Oh thank Christ,” Josh said. “You’re okay, right?”

Alison blinked her eyes a few times, squeezed them shut tightly for a moment, and then shook her head vigorously.

“Yes…I mean…no, my head is fucking killing me,” she said as her eyes drifted back out to where the deer once stood. In its place there hung a low mist and a swarm of gnats that danced in glow of the headlights. She spoke again, her voice distant and pensive. “I could have killed us.”

 “We’re okay. It’s okay,” he said with an assuring smile. He grabbed her wrists and held up her hands. “See? All your fingers, all your toes? We’re fine.”

Alison smiled faintly as Josh’s attention drifted over her shoulder.

“Hey, what do ya know?” Josh said. He pointed at the street sign that was partially obscured by a low hanging branch. “The car wash. It’s up this street. We would have driven right past it.”

Alison groaned. “Oh, that would have been a shame.”

She rubbed at her temples.

“Can’t we just go home now? I’ve had enough excitement…”

Josh sighed. “Look, we’re already here, just lemme do this and we’ll be home in half-an-hour.”

“Uggh! Fine.” Alison sunk in her seat, still pressing at her temples and stretching her neck from side to side.

Josh turned onto the dark, narrow road. A single streetlamp shone in the distance, and, beyond that, an oasis of pale yellow light and a pink neon sign that read:

     AR     SH

The sign buzzed and flickered and filled in the blanks:

CAR WASH

The place was deserted, but all that mattered to Josh was that the lights were on and there were no chains blocking the stalls. He slipped the car into the furthest one to the left and shut off the engine. Alison shielded her eyes from the harsh fluorescents that hung above. The cinderblock walls of the stall were pea soup green, coated in healthy amounts of mold, mildew, and tufts of moss that sprouted from the gaps between the bricks. A long, rusty wand with a sun bleached rubber hose was mounted on one side of the coin feed, while a duct-taped scrubbing brush mounted to an old broom handle hung from the other.

“This place is disgusting,” Alison said as she dug through her purse.

“What are you looking for?” Josh asked.

“Ibuprofen, aspirin, fucking anything. My head feels like it’s gonna explode.”

“I’ll make it quick,” Josh said as he stepped out of the car. He walked up to the coin feed. A faded metal placard read:

$1.25 Quarters Only

He reached in his pocket, heard the jingle of loose change, and then frowned when he produced only a few nickels and far too many pennies.

“Shit,” he muttered and then looked back at Alison. “I gotta get change.”

She waved him on impatiently.

Josh walked around to the front of the building and saw the change machine. It was covered in faded bumper stickers, rust, and grime, but the dim orange light above the bill slot still worked. He pulled a couple of ones from his wallet and smoothed them out against the face of the machine. He fed a bill in, half expecting the machine to spit it back out at him, but was instead greeted by the sound of quarters falling into the tray below. He slipped in the other bill, gathered his change, and made his way back to his car.

When he got there, Alison was gone.

He peered into the window to see if she may have reclined in her seat, but she wasn’t in there. He looked out into the darkness of the back exit, walked to the edge of the stall, and leaned around the corner.

“Alison?” He shouted.

Nothing.

He walked along the edge of the building and saw a trio of doors; a men’s room and ladies room bookended a tiny office entrance. They were painted the same pale green as the rest of the place, but the paint had peeled and crackled enough to reveal a dark, red undercoat. The knobs had long ago been removed.

There was no way she was in there.

When he came back around the front of the building, he saw the young man sitting on the hood of a late seventies Ford Mustang. He had shoulder length sandy blonde hair, a tight purple t-shirt with yellow rings around the neck and sleeves, and a pair of faded blue jeans that were torn in both knees. There was another young kid in the passenger seat taking deep puffs off of a multi-colored blown glass pipe. He coughed furiously as he drew the pipe away from his lips, and nodded at Josh as he approached them.

“Hey guys, I…uhh…have you been here long?” Josh asked even though he was certain the car wasn’t here when he pulled up.

The blonde boy said nothing. He just stared back at Josh, his lips pursed, tongue swirling around against his cheek.

“Have you seen a woman? She was just over there…” Josh pointed toward the stall. The front end of the BMW poked out.

“Nice ride,” The blonde kid said. “You here for the race?”

Josh shook his head.

“No, no. I’m…I was just washing...” His voice trailed off. “My wife, she was with me. You didn’t see her around here?”

 “That is one nice ride,” he said. He didn’t take his eyes off of Josh.

The kid in the passenger seat kicked open his door and stepped out. He was decked out in a white blazer, baggy white pants, and a pastel peach tank-top straight out of a Miami Vice episode. Had Josh seen him under any other circumstances he’d have laughed out loud.

Josh heard a door slam behind him and looked back toward the BMW.

“Alison?” he cried as he ran back to the car. He saw someone sitting in the passenger seat, but, as he drew closer, he could see that it wasn’t Alison.

A teenage girl with straight dark hair and freckles ran her hands along the interior. Josh stepped around to the passenger side and flung open the door.

“What are you doing?” he yelled.

The girl wasn’t fazed. She seemed to bathe in the luxury of the BMW’s interior, her fingers caressing the leather seats.

“Wow, this is far out,” she said, seemingly oblivious to Josh’s presence. Then she looked up at him with big, saucer eyes and smiled. Her button nose wrinkled.

“This is your car?” she asked.

Josh nodded. “Yes. Yes, it’s my car. Please, get out of it.”

The girl didn’t move.

She’s stoned out of her mind,he thought.

“Are you here for the race?” she asked.

Joss reached down and grabbed her arm, and gently pulled her out of the car.

“No, no race. Do I look like I’m here for a race? I’m looking for my…” Josh paused.

What was going on here?

He tightened his grip on the girl’s arm and dragged her back over to the two boys at the Mustang.

“Owwwww…” she cried.

“What have you done with Alison?” He cried, practically lifting the thin girl off the ground. “Where’s my fucking wife!”

The blonde kid looked at the other boy and laughed.

Josh shoved the girl to the ground, and charged toward him. As he did he heard a distinctive click from below. He’d seen enough movies to know that sound. He stopped and looked down to see the tip of the switchblade brushing against his belly. He slowly stepped back, his legs trembling beneath him.

The blond kid flipped the knife with his fingers and, with the push of a button, the blade retracted.

“You want answers?” he asked.

Josh was still stepping backward. He nodded.

“You get the answers,” he pointed at Josh. “After the race.”

With that, a distant rumble worked its way up the road toward the car wash. Headlights cut through the trees as cars poured into the lot.

Josh turned and ran back to the BMW. He reached in and grabbed his cell phone out of the center console, turned it on, and began to dial furiously.

There was no signal.

He looked up at the concrete ceiling, and stepped out into the rear of the building under the open sky.

Still no signal.

“Fuck!” he yelled as he slammed the phone on the ground. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

He ran back through the stall and watched as cars filled the lot. A candy apple red Trans Am, a primer grey ’69 Chevelle, a newer convertible Jaguar with a balding, middle-aged man at the wheel. The air was thick with exhaust, dust, and smoke.  The deafening roar of revving engines, horns, hoots, and howls.

Josh pressed his hands to his ears and waded through the vibrating sea of fiberglass and steel, back toward the blonde kid and his overdressed friend.

“You tell me where my wife is right now and I won’t call the cops,” he yelled. His could barely hear himself above the din.

The blonde kid smiled and shook his head.

Knife or not, Josh was about to grab at him again when he realized that it had suddenly become very quiet. He looked up and saw that the cars were all parked now, engines off, their respective drivers standing out in front of them and staring at him impatiently.

Silently.

The blonde kid walked toward him. He slipped the knife in his back pocket and pointed back toward the BMW.

“The race is gonna start. You better get ready.” he said.

“Listen, I don’t want…” Josh choked on the words.

The blonde kid turned around, pointed at the sky, and then let out a shrill whistle as he twirled his finger in the air. The drivers scrambled to their cars, howling excitedly, and, within moments, the night was once again alive with the thunderous roar of engines.

The blonde turned toward Josh, pointed toward the BMW again, and then slipped behind the wheel of the Mustang. He turned the ignition and the vehicle roared to life.

 Josh stumbled away through a cloud of noxious exhaust, back to the Beamer. He thought for a moment how far it was to the State Police Barracks in Barrow’s Cove, but then he thought better of it. If he left now, he may never see Alison again.

Josh slowly rolled out of the puke green stall and took his place in the line of throbbing metal that gathered in the lot before him. The Mustang pulled out first, and the other drivers followed, beeping their horns and waving their arms like they were part of a muscle car parade. He followed closely behind as they turned down the narrow road. When they hit the highway, the cars in front of him lined up and came to a halt. The skinny girl jumped out of the Mustang and ran into the middle of the highway. She held up a blue and white bandanna above her head and waved it back and forth slowly.

The engines revved like an orchestra of chainsaws.

The girl stood frozen, her arm stretched toward the heavens, the bandanna swaying in the light breeze.

She smiled and brought the bandanna down, and the cars sped off.

 Josh was left in a wake of acrid smoke and exhaust as the others blasted ahead of him, their running lights becoming distant red beacons. He gripped the wheel and pressed the pedal to the floor. He’d done this only one other time, back when he took the test drive. Since then he’d babied this thing. The car swerved from side to side, but righted itself as the needle on the speedometer climbed.

45, 55, 65, 75, 80

The once distant specks of light were now beside him, and, some, quickly falling behind him. The old Chevelle slowly faded past him; its driver pumped his fist.

Go Speed Racer, Go!

85, 90, 95

The Beamer fought. It shook. It shimmied. But it loved every second of it. It was built for this.

Built for speed, speed I need.

100

Every imperfection in the road was amplified a thousand times over. Josh imagined that if he’d hit so much as a pebble it may very well send him careening off the pavement to a fiery death.

What was scarier, though, was that the thought excited him.

The Trans Am fell behind him now. Out of the corner of his eye Josh could make out the passenger giving him the finger.

110, 115

The Jaguar kept pace with him. The Beamer’s front end lined up with the Jag’s sleek rear. Josh’s eyes welled with tears, but he was afraid to blink them away.

Eyes on the road, he thought. Eyes on the prize.

120

The Jag seemed to lunge forward nearly a whole car’s length, but then fell back. The middle-aged man behind the wheel looked over at Josh and gave him a congratulatory salute, and then waved him on.

Josh smiled in spite of himself.

It was now between him and the Mustang.

125

The steering wheel vibrated like a jackhammer. Josh’s hands were starting to ache. He could feel his fingernails digging into the flesh of his lower palms. The corners of his eyes stung with sweat.

Be cool baby, be cool. Feel the burn.

130, 135.

The Mustang drifted from lane to lane, its red runners glowing ominously ahead. As Josh pulled closer, the Mustang pulled into the left lane and held its course. Josh slipped up alongside it.

The needle was buried now. The Beamer shook. His brain shook. His teeth chattered. His stomach felt as though it were being churned up in a blender.

Captain, She Cannae Take No More!

He dared to take his eyes of the road long enough to see the blonde kid and Miami looking back over at him. Miami raised his fingers and made devil horns and stuck out his tongue.

The blonde kid simply smiled and nodded. He held up his fist and slowly raised his thumb.

The Mustang fell behind.

Josh looked back at the road, at the yellow lines that were now little more than serpentine blurs.

He took his foot off the gas.

The needle dropped.

Josh tapped the breaks gently until he drifted to a stop.

He peeled his hands off of the wheel, the bones in his fingers crackling in protest. He rested his head against the steering wheel, fumbled for the ignition, and shut the car off. As he sat there trembling, he heard the distant rumble of engines as the other cars approached.

Josh pushed open the door and stepped out of the car. As he did, his legs gave and he collapsed, his knees hitting the pavement with an audible snap. He fell forward on his hands, and tried to push himself up, but every muscle in his body felt like jelly. He couldn’t even raise his head until he heard her voice.

“Josh?”

He looked up and there she was, standing in front of the Mustang. Miami held her arm tightly. She looked terrified.

“Alison…just…” He could hardly talk. He could hardly breathe.

His head dropped forward again. As he stared down at the pavement, a pair of ratty white Converse All Stars appeared in front of him. He looked up and the blonde kid stood above him. He helped Josh to his feet.

“You win,” he said.

Josh felt dizzy. His chest felt heavy.

“Now go,” the blonde kid said.

Josh took a clumsy step toward Alison. The blonde kid pushed him back hard, his palms slamming against his chest.

“I said go!” he yelled.

“My wife…she…that’s the deal. My wife…” Josh could barely get the words out. His chest felt warm. Hot. Burning.

“You won!” the blonde kid screamed. “Now go!”

“Josh, no!” Alison cried out. She started toward him. The others surrounded her and held her back.  Josh took a step forward and the blonde kid slammed his palms into his chest again.

“You…son of a…bitch…” Josh whispered. It was all he could do. He staggered backward.

The blonde kid stepped toward him again.

“Now go! Get out of here!” He pushed him again. Josh’s chest felt like it was on fire.

“No Josh! Please, don’t go! Don’t leave me here!!” Alison cried as the crowd dragged her back. The blonde kid kept at him. He pushed him again.

“But…I won,” His vision was fading, blurred. “Why? Why can’t I take…her?”

The boy looked at him, his expression suddenly compassionate.

“Because you won,” the boy said, as he slammed his fists in Josh’s chest once more.

It was a crushing blow.

The burn.

The heat.

The darkness that washed over him.

 

****
 

”Clear!”

The voice was distant, distorted.

“Wait! I’ve got something. I’ve got a pulse.”

There was an elephant sitting on his chest.

“Get him on the stretcher! Move, move, move…”

His eyes opened. The sky was blue, then red, then blue again.

Sirens? The police? Did they catch them? Did they get Alison?” He wanted to move, to speak, but something held him down, and something was down his throat. Something big.

A man in a blue uniform.

A cop?  No, a paramedic.

Why? He wasn’t hurt. He was tired, but he wasn’t hurt. He needed to tell them. They still had her. He was being put in an ambulance. What was going on here? Did they do this to him? That blonde punk? Miami Vice? What did they do to him? What did they do to Alison?

“Did you see the size of that thing?”

It was another voice; a woman.

“That was a trophy buck, for sure,” she said.

What were they talking about?!

Have you ever seen anything like that?” asked the woman.

“I’ve been to scenes where the cars were totaled, but, no, nothing like this,” the man replied.

Nothing like what?

“I mean, right through the windshield, like that? Christ, that poor lady.”

The deer.

Oh God, the fucking deer.

As they leaned the stretcher forward to load him into the ambulance, Josh stared back at the wreck of his car.

And, as it came back to him, it was as if he were living it for the first time.

When they hit the buck, it had felt like they’d hit a brick wall. He could hear the front end of the car caving in. He could see the giant beast sliding up the hood of the car, and, as its antlers came through the windshield, he could almost count every sparkling piece of safety glass as it shattered. He could smell the powder from the airbags as they burst open. He could feel the air forced from his lungs. He could see Alison’s eyes as the buck’s antlers pierced her skull. He could feel the warm spatter of blood hit his cheek. He could hear the sickening crack of her neck as the inertia carried the buck into the backseat, lifting her up and over and snapping her spine like a twig.

He could hear the creature’s hooves beating against the hood of the car.

And he could hear Alison’s last ragged breath.

As they closed the door to the ambulance, the stretcher rocked, and the siren sang, and they were moving.

He thought of the race. The memory of it was starting to fade, but it was still there. As he lay here now, he knew that this was his prize; his victory.  

He had won.

He had lived.

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