Navigating the Volkswagen in the rain took all Vicky Lee’s concentration. Keeping both hands on the wheel, she closed her bad eye, and squinted the other. Phil had offered to drive, but he’d been sipping codeine cough medicine. They were in desperate need of hot and sour soup. White pepper and rice vinegar-spiked broth to soothe the hack and spit, calm the beast making them hate each other for being sick at the same time. Somebody was supposed to take care of them. Somebody was supposed to be in the kitchen banging around. Somebody was supposed to be running their fingers through somebody’s hair. Neither were naming names.
Vicky lit a cigarette in the car though she said she wouldn’t. Promises had been made.
“Jesus H., man bronchitis is no joke,” Phil said, rolling down the window. The fever only increased her tendency toward self-destruction, but despite the unspoken urge to drive fast and hard toward the other lane, she kept her foot ready over the brake, her gaze steady. There should be enough gas to get them to House of Chinese Gourmet and back to their apartment. Should be.
They had to park on the other side of the lot from the restaurant. It was close to Christmas and folks clamored at Dollar General. Phil slammed the door, went to get the soup, dumplings, and sesame chicken she wouldn’t eat. Vicky watched the green twinkle lights in the window below the electric red bowl of noodles with its burned-out chopsticks. Her legs sweat against the leather. Every part of her was sticky from the humidity and she wondered what it meant when Christmas was turbulent like May, wet like June. The smoke from her second cigarette wasn’t going anywhere; it just sank down on her skin, looping itself through the steering wheel. She put her hand on her chest to see if she could feel tightness in her lungs from outside her ribcage. Dying at twenty would just figure.
Phil tripped on the mat outside as he walked through the door. His hair was freshly washed and the blond wisps behind his ears caught the green light making him look horror or sci-fi or fantasy—an unreality genre of cool. He cursed, nearly dropping the bag. Vicky yelled as best she could, but it came out in squeaks. “Drop that soup and I’ll beat your ass.”
“Bring it, Punky.”
He called her Punky after the show she loved as a kid, said she still had the same fashion sense and looking down at her rain boots, Family Guy boxers, and lumpy pigtails, she couldn’t argue.
“You know you’ll never get well if you keep that up.”
“I’m trying, babe. You know they’re as addictive as heroin.”
“Fool who says that has never done heroin.”
“Hardest thing I’ve ever had to quit.”
“Better hope that truth keeps.”
Vicky walked around to the passenger side and opened the door for him, flicking the cigarette on the curb. “With a nickname like Punky, how could life get worse?” she said, winking as he tucked his long legs in her compact car.
Vicky saw the blue lights in the distance before they even backed out. Police lights always reminded her of her friend Cora who’d stretched herself out on the train tracks behind the mall. It was the late ’90s and half Vicky’s friends from high school had overdosed, done time, or pulled themselves apart in some other way by then, but there was still mystery surrounding Cora. She hadn’t seemed the type. There was talk of an older guy giving her bad shit and dragging her to the tracks to protect himself. Talk of her mama going to the apartment complex, banging on doors, crying to anyone who’d listen about her baby the track star. Talk. Talk. Talk. Mostly women answered. Mostly divorcees. Mostly recovered. But Cora’s mom couldn’t have known that.
All Vicky knew was sometimes even young people gotta destroy shit, themselves included. She told herself it was the cigarette. Now, she’d get healthy. She’d start running. For Cora. For the rest of her lost tribe.
“Did I ever tell you about the track star they found on the railroad tracks?” she asked, one hand over the seat, looking back toward the lights.
“I think I’d remember something that sick.”
“She laid herself down right in the curve so she knew the conductor wouldn’t see her until it was too late. At least that’s the story. Total disaster.”
“Every story you tell is a disaster.”
“That sort of thing seems to be all along my periphery, babe. Consider yourself warned.” “I’ll take it under advisement, he said, coughing into his shoulder.
“You sound like shit.”
“You don’t sound so good yourself.”
At the stoplight, a police car pulled up behind them. Vicky turned the volume down on the radio. Maybe Eminem wasn’t the best impression for the cops, particularly when you considered her pink hair and his Nine Inch Nails shirt, forearm tattoos, and waifish frame. Sure enough, when she hit the gas, the cruiser kept close. By the time they got to the pawn shop on 7th Street, the blue lights came on for them.
“Pull in the parking lot at the pawn shop.”
“Exactly. Probably cameras, too.”
“You know I only have a learner’s permit,” Vicky said.
“Nothing we can do about it now.”
“I’m stoned on cold medicine.”
“Shh. Do the best you can. Cry if you can.”
As the officer walked up, two more cars pulled in behind him. Vicky couldn’t believe it. She wondered if she was the bad juju for everyone in her life. A knock at the window, a demand, another demand and they were outside the car, hands on the hood, legs spread, the Chinese food between them. There is talk of trash and pushing dope and questions about Vin from House of Chinese Gourmet. All they knew of Vin was his bracing manner, how he’d throw you out of the restaurant if you acted up, the gross way he’d only sell black customers takeout, how pissed he got if you ordered dumplings, which took twenty minutes, how one time he gave them scallion pancakes because they seemed like good kids and he could tell they had only ordered soup because they couldn’t afford the sesame chicken that day. It never occurred to them that he might be “slinging dope from New York.” They guessed it was the New York part that pissed the officers off most.
“We need a female officer.”
“Sandra, come on. You pat her down.” Vicky could barely see Phil’s face anymore, but she tried to analyze his expression when the barrel-chested woman ran her hand all the way up her shorts and the men behind her slapped her shoulder, saying, “Get it, girl.” When she was finished, Vicky looked her in the eye, wondering why she looked haunted when her hand wasn’t.
“We only wanted soup.” In the span of five minutes, Vicky’s fever spiked and she’d sweat through her shirt.
They said they should arrest her for sassing, let alone the permit and being visibly high. Phil sniffled, but Vicky couldn’t tell if he was upset, or because he couldn’t wipe his nose.
“Consider yourselves lucky, kids,” the woman said. They warned Vicky and Phil to stay away from House of Chinese Gourmet. This meant giving up their favorite meal. Giving up the banter that comes with being regulars, letting go of the ease and comfort of rooster sauce and egg swirled into broth, the feel of seaweed between their teeth, losing the one place they wrapped their hands around ceramic cups of hot tea, their one place.
When they got home, Vicky walked out to the back deck, white cartons of cold food in hand. She spun hard in little girl circles until her stomach lurched, stopping only to launch each container off into the parking lot behind their building. Phil didn’t know what to do so he climbed up on the rail and stood there waiting for some kind of answer. He coughed into his shoulder, watching the chicken splatter on a red pickup.
“Let’s walk the tracks,” Vicky said. “I’ll show you where Cora died.”
“Can I tell you something?”
“Better not. Tonight’s bad enough. Let’s save the catastrophe of us for another day.”
“Tomorrow or the next.”
“Tomorrow or tomorrow.”
“It doesn’t even feel like Christmas.”
“It hasn’t felt like Christmas for years,” he said, pulling one of her pigtails. “You should go to bed, Punk. Your fever’s back.”
Under two blankets, Vicky tried to remember what she looked like the day of tryouts. Did she wear her mom’s Tarheel basketball shirt? White Keds? But all she could think about was Cora fifty yards ahead of her, limbs firing like mad, frizz curling at her temples, and the kind of woman she could have been.
Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura from Hyacinth Girl Press (2016). She thinks she’s crazy lucky to work as Fiction Editor over at Little Fiction | Big Truths. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bull, WhiskeyPaper, The Minnesota Review, Literary Orphans, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and enough rescue pets to make life interesting (or flat out insane).
Street Art by goochsoup.
Photo by Adam Lawrence.
Alyeska is dream pop duo from Los Angeles, and “Tilt-A-Whirl” comes from their debut EP, Crush which was self-released in March of 2017.