Congratulations to Jeff Esterholm whose story “Flaming Chevy Lodestar” (published in RE:AL 39.1) received an honorable mention for the Zona Gale Award for Short Fiction by the Council for Wisconsin Writers!
You can read Jeff’s story below and/or check out the full issue, here.
Flaming Chevy Lodestar – Jeff Esterholm
Flaming Chevy Lodestar
This negative self-talk of yours. Never bring this or that up again. You are resolute. Any of this, just don’t bring any of this up. And then you do. Again.
You were driving south at night on the back roads of Minnesota because your speedometer was shot and you didn’t want to risk being pulled over on the interstate. The self-talk bubbling up over the poor AM/FM reception, and who needed the polka of Fat Bennie and His Bouncing Boys or New Country 24/7 anyway, while you drove at some indeterminate speed, on your way to a trade show related tangentially to the career you had rebounded back into. You despised the work, had quit it once but returned, abashed after a failed bid to become a private contractor. If you were going to be in graphic design, you wanted to be your own boss. Your true vocation? Painting, influenced, some would say too heavily, by Edward Hopper.
You were driving alone through the night, headlights illumining the way, when you glanced in your rearview mirror: orange and yellow flames licking out from the rear of the car. You uttered an oath – remember these coming freer and freer from your lips, having grown up in your father’s house and nourished on the films of Martin Scorsese – and thought the gray Chevy travelling through the moonless Minnesota night must look like a wayward NASA creation, blindly streaking at ground level.
Pulling to the side of the road, you briefly considered what to do, then, oh, yes, your laptop, the suitcase in the trunk with the materials for the vendor’s booth you were to man at the trade show. You got these out without blistering your hands too badly and then you stood a safe distance from the Chevy. What to do? The firelight picked out a deer path up a hill and into the woods. Shit job, in the middle of nowhere, a burning car. You wanted to be a painter. You just wanted to disappear.
Another Man’s Wife
You slept with the wife of another man. Never bring that up again, you said, as if it were the biggest mistake of your life. With Jen, it was not just the one time and she wasn’t the only wife of another man.
Since you were a boy you have had a weakness for people and things that were not yours: your father’s spare change, stolen from the ashtray on top of the dresser in his and your mother’s bedroom; your brother’s worn copies of men’s magazines hidden under his mattress which you sold out of your middle school locker; falling for girls in middle school and high school – for example, Jill and Darcy – who were already dating others, they already had boyfriends, which you merely took as a challenge, like you were some klepto of love.
Jen waited on tables at a downtown restaurant. You also worked there, at a low point after graduating from college and moving into the bad economy of the late 1970s, trying to gain admittance to the art institute with too much on your mind. This was in Minneapolis, where the only other people you knew at the time were your two stoner friends, Johnson and Handy, who shared rent with you on an apartment across the street from the art institute.
Don’t bring up the fact that she began your petite affaire, calling you at work on a day that she had off, asking you to meet her down the street at the Poodle Lounge, a doggery that hadn’t changed in nearly twenty years, with semicircular booths and red leather banquettes that were blistered and patched. Pop Art poodles were up on the walls. Jen was direct. She had found her husband in bed with another woman and wanted payback, with you.
Never bring up again that it took you three and a half weeks to consider whether any of this was questionable: you and a married woman, sexual congress that could pop the bark from an oak tree, and afterward, Jen, standing nude in the middle of your living room, singing along with the Stones on “Wild Horses”. She had country-western ambitions. Perhaps that led you to the consult with Handy over a doobie and the latest by The Clash.
He was fairly succinct, after letting a sinsemilla fog bank swirl from between his lips. “Don’t fuck around with married women. Their husbands always have long, sharp knives.”
As much as you don’t care to admit it, you are affected by your peer group. You told Jen that it was over the next afternoon as she backed you into the bedroom.
“I can’t do this anymore. Are you listening to me?”
She nodded in the affirmative, while keeping a steady gaze aimed just below your belt.
“Yes, I’m listening. I understand. But do you want that to go to waste?”
Months later you were driving with the woman who would be your future, though temporary wife. The old neighborhood. You were shocked to see a very pregnant Jen walking down the street. You hoped that the car made you invisible.
Your future, though temporary wife said, “Look at that poor woman,” it was about ninety degrees outside with no shade, “She’s about ready to drop.”
The First in a Series of Misreads
What did you say about negative self-talk? Never bring this up again. These women you used to know and what had gone wrong, what had simply gone. Two that you go back to, though you know that you shouldn’t, two that you thought you had loved when you were a young man. You don’t want to bring these women up. But you do.
You should admit that the year with Valerie was a series of misreads from the very beginning.
The very beginning: Valerie had invited you over to her apartment for dinner, a first date after stealing her away from her date, a drunken loser from Fridley, during a 4th of July party in Loring Park – remember that predisposition of yours. She invited you over for dinner. While the marinara sauce bubbled in the sauce pan on the stove and the Creamette spaghetti remained boxed, waiting for the water to boil, she took you into her bedroom where she kept her Raleigh ten-speed with its flat tire. Valerie wanted to show you the tire patch kit that she’d been having difficulty with. You – why are you bringing this up, you ask yourself – you took the walk into the bedroom as an invitation and pulled down her blue running shorts with the white trim and pushed her to her bed. She looked off impassively at a spot on the bedroom wall above the bicycle resting against her cluttered dresser.
You were a twenty-three-year-old and coming, only realizing your mistake during the subsequent days and months that you spent with her, realizing only later that, viewed from Valerie’s side, the first time that the two of you had sex together could very well have been rape.
You remember this as the very beginning of a series of misreads that you don’t need to bring up again.
You tell yourself to never bring this last one up again – this last that was first – but the demand is really not so harsh. You are near wistful, aren’t you? About Karen?
She lived with her great-aunt in South End while going to school. You would drive her home from campus after the life drawing class.
The two of you had circled and then gravitated toward each other. Simpatico, you were both nineteen and committed to pleasing one another on the front seat of a Buick LeSabre. You were so passionate at nineteen, weren’t you? Then again, you both made false moves, moves that threw the other off balance.
You recall the crushingly mundane, the lines that led to this first love’s collapse. How could it have ended that way? At first, you both could have sworn that at nineteen no one else could have ever felt the same way. And then left it, just left it. Those lines.
“Would you like to go out to my parents’ cabin this weekend?” she asked.
“Have you ever slept with anyone before?” she asked.
“Don’t worry. I always leave with who I came with,” she said.
“We have to talk,” she said.
“I think we should see other people,” she said.
You said, “Okay, give this some time.”
You said, “A few weeks.”
You said, “Months.”
You said, “Years.”
She took you to see a Shawn Phillips concert for your twentieth birthday and that line came up about seeing other people. “You can drop me off here,” you said.
“But your apartment’s five miles away.”
“You can drop me off here.”
Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Neil Young’s Zuma. These record albums became your theme music. Until she transferred out of state, there were the awkward moments for you, parties where you would run into Karen who was beautiful and fine and could handle anything, and all you could see fit to do was get drunk and high. The pathetic painter.
Graduating, you took a road trip with Handy and Johnson to the American Southwest, but Karen never vanished from your mind. Sleeping in the desert, saguaros like bogeymen, you woke yourself with a weary dream: Karen going up an escalator and you, watching her, going down.
Flaming Chevy Lodestar Reprise
You are hunkered down in a jog of the deer path. The smoke from the burning car stings, planting damaging seeds in your lungs, but you don’t move on. Where does the negative self-talk come from? You have always been too ready to disregard even the little that you might have found to be positive. Why? Due to its impermanence is your response.
You never include anything in your self-talk about the woman who was your temporary wife, perhaps because that period of your life was for the most part good. No, don’t bring up the bad, because that was you, all you, and you admit that and let it go. Let it go. She is with your twenty-five-year-old daughter in Portland, Oregon, and your daughter is, of all the wonders, an artist, a lithographer.
You also never include this. The uncle who was a master sergeant in the U.S. Army. He was in Europe during World War II and later in Korea. He saw things that would make others blanch. It wasn’t masculine posturing, you only heard one allusion to the stench of the battlefield, and that was thirdhand. Uncle Henry also had the misfortune to have his wife die during childbirth. When he retired at forty from the army, he tended bar and soaked up Black Velvet for forty more years before he died.
Henry’s life was riven with pathos.
You saw him a week before he died, and what did he tell you? That he didn’t think he’d ever be ready for the end. Life was too good.
“It’s too good, isn’t it?” But he wasn’t really asking.