Jalopy by Josh Woods
The first step in stealing a car is to put gas in it, and that’s because even though teenaged girls like myself have airhead reputations for not noticing the gas meter, it’s actually most of the other drivers who wait till the last drop before they fill up. I notice the gas meter. The meter arm always points to the side the fuel fill cap is on. I notice a lot, like this van that’s been sitting here for months with weeds growing into the hubcaps. It has Colorado license plates, the white-on-green silhouette of mountains a thousand miles away, farther away than I’ve ever been. I figure giving this old junker a gallon for starters is a good idea.
The next steps in stealing a car take place under the hood, where hotwiring gets complicated. This is where the real learning from Kentucky public school pays off. Every school day during these last months, I passed this van in front of this salvage yard. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This van used to be alive. All those dents and scrapes have great stories behind them, I’m certain. Along with its old Colorado license plate, it still has a bumper sticker that reads The Grand Mesa. The great table. I don’t know anyone who’s been that far away, no one except for this van. It doesn’t belong in this weedy, lowland junkyard.
Under the hood, I find the red coil wire in the back of the engine, so the next step is to connect it to the positive of the battery. This gives power to the dash.
Next is the starter. If you cross the solenoid wire and the battery cable, the engine should start. Or it might electrocute me to death. To strip the solenoid wire so I can splice it, I reach for my back pocket and pull out the old straight-razor I always keep there. They said it belonged to my mother, or maybe my grandmother. I unfold it and can see the stars reflected in the blade. I strip the wire and then hold the folded razor in my teeth—so I don’t bite my tongue off in case I do get electrocuted—and I cross the wire and the cable. My muscles seize up, but it’s just me flinching. Still, I hold my breath, and the engine turns, turns. It coughs black smoke, but it starts. I wait for it to die, but it keeps rumbling. I breathe black air, and it smells good. I shut the hood and open the driver’s side door, which was left unlocked, and I free up the steering wheel by jamming a screwdriver in the steering column. I throw my gear inside and drive. After a mile down the road, I turn on my headlights.
I soon stop to fill both tanks, premium gas. This van deserves it. Then I go in for road trip food. Because it’s 3 AM, there’s that strange feeling that makes you feel alone but outgoing, so I yell a greeting at the clerk across the store, just, “Hey, how you doing?”
“I know you,” the clerk says.
“Nope. Just passing through.” Lying, I load my arms with junk food and soft drinks.
“You just graduated, a year behind me. I almost asked you out one time. What are you doing now, with your life and all?”
This question for the thousandth time. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” He laughs and shakes his head like he’s disappointed with my plans for the future. I know that look. He says, “Where’d you get that van?”
I freeze. I see him looking out of the window, so I do too. A cop has pulled up for gas.
The clerk’s still looking at the van. “It’s, uh…” he’s saying.
Don’t say it’s the salvage yard’s. Don’t say it’s stolen.
“It’s, uh, a jalopy.”
“Yeah, it’s a jalopy.” I feel the sweat on me.
The cop walks in. He goes for the coffee, but he talks toward me. “In from Colorado?”
I don’t know what to say. I just nod, but he’s not looking.
“They don’t do tags out there?” he says. “License plate tags?”
The clerk says, “She’s not from Colorado. I went to school with her here.”
I’m done for. I can already see myself in prison, orange suit and all. But I’m not like those other criminals. The old jalopy deserves to escape from this place as much as I do. I say, “The truth is, that van isn’t mine.”
“Oh, yeah?” the cop says, sipping coffee and looking out the window.
“I’m returning it,” I say.
The clerk says, “For charity.” He nods at me.
I smile back at him, at my clerk. “Charity,” I say.
The cop says, “Well, they might hassle you down the road about the tags. Keep your paperwork on you. And be careful, young lady.”
I assure him I will, and I pay my clerk, run to the van, and dump the drinks and food inside. “Come on, Jalopy,” I say. “Let’s get the hell out of Kentucky.”
By morning, traffic passes me in swarms. Jalopy can hardly hold sixty, even on the interstate. We get some middle fingers, but I just smile and wave.
Jalopy’s radio has only one knob, so I have to switch it back and forth between volume and stations. Oldies always to come in clear, so it’s been Creedence, Dylan, The Stones. I like it okay. Jalopy must love it.
We’re somewhere in Kansas when I notice a hitchhiker, and since he’s the only one I’ve seen, I might not get another chance, so we pull over. I open my door and step out, and the hitchhiker backs away. I guess I don’t know the rules—I just need to stretch.
“Need a ride?” I ask.
He walks toward me again, says, “Namaste, little girl,” and jumps in.
He’s younger than I expected, despite his beard.
“Nice van.” He bobs his head when he talks.
“It’s not actually mine.”
“Does anything really belong to anybody?” he says.
I guess not. Jalopy sure as hell doesn’t belong to anybody. Jalopy is free.
“So who are you?” I ask him.
“Japhy. That’s the name I chose, anyway, which makes it more real, right?”
“Why Japhy?” I say.
“It’s from a book. Kerouac. It’s these guys who wander in search of enlightenment. You know the story of chasing the bull, right?”
He explains before I can say no.
“It’s an old Buddhist parable. A boy searches for a bull, sees one, and chases it to the mountain, rides it, then comes back down and lives with the drunkards. That’s what they do in the book: chase enlightenment to the mountains, find it, then come back down to the world with the rest of us.”
“And that’s it?” I say. “Nothing else?”
As if he thinks we somehow just agreed, Japhy says, “Exactly!”
Talking isn’t really getting us anywhere, so I don’t say much else. He stays quiet too, and neither one of us seems bothered about it. After dark, I pull over, exhausted, to get some sleep on the back couch. I tell Japhy that he can drive, but he says he’s morally opposed to driving internal combustion engines.
“Suit yourself,” I say. “I’m getting some sleep whether we’re moving or not.”
And then he says, “Are you sure that’s safe?”
“What do you mean?”
“You shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers,” he says.
I try to read his face, but it’s too dark. I can’t exactly read the tone of his voice either, not for sure, but I don’t like it. To try to play it down, hoping to get him saying something Buddhist or hippy, I say, “No worries. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
But he says, “Yes, you do.” He crouches out of the passenger seat and makes his way toward the back of the van, toward me.
I reach for my back pocket.
He’s close. He starts to say, “You know—” and he puts a hand on my hip.
And I already have the unfolded straight-razor blade to his throat.
He talks as calmly as ever. “Now do you think you have anything to lose?”
I can hear the blood thumping in my ears, and I don’t know if my voice will come out, but I say, “We both do now.” I dig the blade just a little more, like his neck’s a wire I’m trying to strip, hoping it’s not live.
He says, “I think that by the end of all this, you’ll find what you’re looking for.” Then he turns away and gets out of the van. I lock all the doors and watch him as he walks south and keeps on walking. Where, I don’t know.
Then I lie back down on the couch. I want to cry, but not for me, and not for him. On the drive out here I’ve seen some endless fences. I feel like a barb on one of them, among countless barbs, and somewhere down the line a ripple started that I’m just now feeling.
The next day I keep on trucking—we do—just me and Jalopy.
Soon the horizon gets jagged. There’s snow on the peaks. Snow… in June. As we rise into the mountains I can feel Jalopy get revved up. The pines, valleys, thin waterfalls—we’re driving through a painting. Jalopy struggles on the inclines, but he’s probably just taking in the view like me.
Up the mesa, prehistoric-looking rocks are scattered everywhere. The road finally levels, and we stop at a lot where I can see so far that the earth curves. This means we’re here, on top of the Great Table. We find one of the many lake campsites, one with a sign that reads, “No camping. Closed for the Season,” and we camp. I wash the bugs off Jalopy with lake water, and I use my hands, which means it takes a long time, but I don’t mind. It’s good for us.
I wake in the cold of the morning. Jalopy and I drive back to the edge of the mesa and find a lot with a steep grade. The sign says, “Land’s End.” Over the rail along the sharp cliff ahead, there’s nothing but sky. I pull Jalopy to face the edge. I set the emergency break so he doesn’t roll, and I climb out and look at Jalopy. He’s as calm as a Buddhist bull.
But I’m not calm, even though we both know the same thing. We know what’s coming.
I reach inside and pull loose the emergency break. He inches forward. I grab the door frame and push with everything.
He rolls. I keep pushing. Faster.
We run. I scream.
Pushing, running, I can’t keep up, but I hold on, tight. Me and Jalopy, we are one, barreling for the edge of the earth.
My feet skim the ground, faster. I dig my nails into the metal, holding.
The rail rushes toward us. I will never let go, and I’m sure of it.
But I do let him go. I let Jalopy go. I hit the dirt, and he crashes through the metal railing, flies over the edge. It’s silence. I scramble forward just as I’m hit with a wave of thunder. Over the edge, far at the bottom, I see a billow of dust. When it clears, there’s rubble, but I can’t tell what’s Jalopy and what’s rock and dust. I can’t tell where he stops and the mountain starts. And I realize that’s how I feel too. Or maybe that’s how I secretly felt all along, feeling that something was wrong with me, and, actually, what I’m just now realizing is that it is right.
I stand up, lower my head, and begin walking down the road, down off the mountain, back down to the world.
Josh Woods is editor of Surreal South ’13, The Book of Villains and The Versus Anthology. His work has appeared in The Nevada Review, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, Black and Grey Magazine, and Prime Number Magazine, among other places. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Press 53 Open Awards in Genre Fiction. He graduated from the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is currently an Assistant Professor of English in Illinois.