A bolt of lightning sizzled to earth in silence followed moments later by an explosive crash. The lightning shaft stood out in the western sky where bruised storm clouds mounted an assault against afternoon sunshine.
“The car broke down again Horace.” Rita said with an exasperated sigh.
“I can see that.” Horace replied gritting his teeth and squeezing the steering wheel until his fingers went numb.
Horace and Rita each sat staring deadpan out their car’s windshield at a thick column of radiator steam rising from under the hood. After folding his lanky frame in half, Horace stepped outside and also found a metal flange to something hanging loose underneath the chassis. His eighteen years on the road as a traveling salesman selling farm equipment and supplies had racked-up a good number of miles on the old Ford two-door.
“You should’ve taken the car to your mechanic buddy Larry for a tune-up before we left like I told you, Horace.” Rita reminded him, tucking her loose strands of dishwater blonde hair under her hat.
“Yep, that might’a made a difference.” Horace answered screwing up his chin to keep more words than necessary from leaking out.
No other vehicle drove by for an hour. They sat posed in the front seat like Grant Wood’s painting ‘American Gothic’ until they couldn’t wait any longer. The storm had amassed quickly, trying to disguise itself as the coming evening, but it wasn’t that late yet. Horace and Rita simply needed some help, a little roadside assistance.
“Don’t they do that kind of thing anymore Horace, come out and assist drivers that broke down?” Rita asked confused.
Horace gave a knee-jerk shrug, “Guess not.”
They each hefted their own suitcases from the back seat and started walking west, the same direction they formerly traveled by car. They wouldn’t wait for either the storm or night to fall.
Horace and Rita walked single file a couple of hours, Horace in front ahead of Rita. The humid, pre-storm air was close and itchy. Along the way they daubed at their brows and periodically stopped to pour pebbles and sand from their shoes. Rita wished she had eaten a little something before they left the motel that morning and Horace wished he hadn’t drank that sludge the motel manager called coffee, it had given him terrible acid indigestion. It didn’t matter, their car was broke down and they were forced to walk.
The land was flat all around them, shrub and sage and rye grass and not much else. To the far west, hints of foothills were beginning to rise from the hard Nebraska ground. The road shoulder alternated between gravel, asphalt and plain, mud-cracked earth. Their feet and shoes were taking a beating and their clothes became caked in road dust. Their “his and her” suitcases weighed heavier by the mile.
Along the way, Rita would occasionally look over at Horace who was a head taller than her and eight years older. She knew asking him questions annoyed him, but she just couldn’t seem to help herself, it was part of her nature. Horace didn’t look back to see Rita slowing down behind him, he just kept staring forward, trudging toward the highway’s elusive vanishing point. He kept thinking how he should have stayed back in east Oklahoma, rocking on his porch, sipping lemonade and just let Rita go and visit her family by herself.
Another crack of lightning made a hot streak in the sky. The clouds overhead winced and darkened.
Rita offered an observation, “It’s not so hot as it was earlier.”
“I guess.” Horace returned, still sipping lemonade in his mind.
Horace hated Rita’s small talk. If she said anymore now, he’d start to swear. He was opposed to taking this yearly, routine trip to visit Rita’s family. He didn’t like her family and they didn’t like him, a plain matter of mutual dislike. He considered the visit a flat-out waste of time. All her women folk just sat in the kitchen on their fat behind’s and gossiped about who was sleeping with who in their small town, then cackle like old hens. The men folk just slouched around drinking cheap beer, watching a ball game on television while they scratched themselves trying to think of something to say. Horace wished just one time, just one year they wouldn’t make this trip; but his wishes never seemed to come to pass. Now the car was broke down and they were walking and a storm was building. Soon it would start raining and Horace knew it, knew in his bones it would rain.
“It’s gonna rain soon.” Rita observed.
“I know.” Horace said, poorly couching his annoyance at her statement.
Her whole side of the family was like that, irritating master’s of the obvious. The road began a slow curve, then there started some kind of two-foot, concrete half-wall and the state politely painted a stripe on the edge of the road to let drivers know where the shoulder was. Horace saw some telephone poles ahead and then a few concrete county utility sheds painted white. Being a few steps ahead, Horace saw the light before Rita, they’d reach it in another hundred yards.
“What’s that light up ahead?” Rita asked.
“We’ll know soon enough.” Horace answered, a tic starting in his left eye.
Under the lighted sign, Horace saw metal poles, and a rectangular box-like appliance attached to them. The beaconing sign was a white circle attached to a galvanized pole. In the middle of the lighted circle was a silhouette of a bell with the words “public telephone” stenciled in the middle. As they got closer, Horace could make out the phone receiver, the cable attaching it and a coin return slot. Below the slot on a chain was a black binder used to hold phone books. Directly above the pay phone were the letters T E L E P H O N E stamped into the brushed metal face of the rectangular housing box. Horace didn’t understand why they would do something stupid like that, spelling out the word, it annoyed him because anyone could see what it was just by looking at it, they didn’t need to have it spelled out.
“Oh look Horace, it’s a telephone.” Rita volunteered her observation.
“I know’d it.” Horace spit out in exasperation.
As they approached the roadside phone they both kept staring at it like they’d never seen one before.
“Maybe we can call uncle Freddy on it.” Rita suggested.
“I ain’t callin’ yer uncle Freddy.” Horace said.
“Because I don’t want to hear what he’s got to say about being bothered to come all the way out here to come get us, that’s why not.” Horace explained.
“Well then, what if we call my sister Delores and see if her husband Tate can come get us.”
“No we ain’t callin’ yer sister neither.”
“Well, then who are you gonna call Horace?” Rita wanted to know, fists on her hips.
“We’re callin’ a tow truck and have it come get us and the car, that’s who we’re callin.” Horace had set his legs in his decision.
As he got closer to the telephone, Horace noticed something discouraging.
“Damn it all to hell fire” he cussed.
“What’s the matter Horace?” Rita asked.
“Somebody’s gone and stole the phone book out of the binder that’s what Rita.” Horace spat on the ground in frustration. He felt a drop of rain hit his cheek.
“Then how are we gonna be able to call a tow truck if the phone book is stolen. Do you know the number?”
Horace’s neck muscles pinched as he looked back at Rita and narrowed his eyes. Another big drop of rain hit his nose, ran down its bridge and dropped off.
“Now how the hell am I gonna call a number I don’t even know Rita?”
“Then how are we gonna call a tow truck Horace, you ain’t psychic.”
Horace looked up at the cloud packed sky and then looked around as if he might see something, anything that would help prevent him from losing his temper. There was only asphalt, gravel, some poles, the phone and the painted shoulder stripe. Horace crushed his hat and shook his head trying to remember why he agreed to visit her family. He realized a long time ago that he and Rita had reached a stage in their marriage where things weren’t going to get any better. Now, going past their twelfth anniversary, they were just filling in years. They had met while he was still a traveling salesman, covering the farm territory between Nebraska and Oklahoma. She worked as a waitress at a diner he frequented on his sales route. Their attraction mostly amounted to Horace wanting to get off the road for a few hours break from selling farm supplies and Rita being bored, not having any other distracting prospects at the time.
“So now what are we gonna do?” Rita asked, half whining.
“We’ll dial the operator and have them call somebody.”
Horace picked up the receiver and put it to his ear as he fished in his trouser pockets for some change. Suddenly he stopped. There was no dial tone on the receiver. Horace clicked the lever a few times then listened again, nothing. His grip tightened on the receiver and then he slammed it back in the cradle. He stared at the ground, a scalding flush rose up his neck. He didn’t want to look at Rita for fear she’d ask another stupid question.
Thunder boomed heavily over their heads and the drops of rain hurried into a shower. Horace’s hat became soggy as they both stood by the roadside phone. Neither of them had brought rain coats because they hadn’t figured on walking.
“What are we- ”
“DON’T- say another word Rita, not another dang word or I swear…” Horace trailed off clenching his fists and working his jaw muscles. He kicked shoulder gravel against the cement wall.
“You sure do swear a lot.” Rita muttered under her breath.
More lightning and thunder scuttled across the sky. The shower rushed into a downpour. Horace viciously kicked his suitcase airborne, like he was trying to make a field goal. Rita watched his battered leather suitcase sail over the retaining wall and tumble out into the field behind the phone stand. She couldn’t help herself, out of reflex she asked, “Now what did you go and do a dumb thing like that for Horace?”
Lightning cracked and thunder broke and suddenly in Horace’s mind he heard the dead phone begin to ring. Horace picked up the receiver, savagely ripping the cable out of the phone box and proceeded to beat his wife to death with it. The frayed receiver cord snapping like a jockey’s quip beating a sweat-lathered flank to the finish line. The jangled ringing mercilessly continued in Horace’s head as the public telephone sign rapidly flickered off and on above the murderous spectacle.
Horace dumped his wife’s body over the side of the cement half-wall and hastily covered it with sage brush and road debris. No one would notice it in the dark and during the storm. He stood motionless, drenched to the bone under the lighted pay phone sign as the disturbing ringing in his ears gradually died away.
Within a few minutes, truck lights began inching their way from down the road toward him. Brakes squeaked to a stop as an old vegetable truck filled with wet cabbages pulled up beside him. Its passenger side window was rolled half-way down and the driver shouted to Horace.
“Hey, you need a lift buddy?” Horace didn’t answer.
“I saw a sedan off the side of the road back there a ways, is it yours?” The cabbage truck driver waited for an answer.
Horace just stood in the rain, water pouring off his hat like a rain gutter.
“Hey, pal, do you need a ride or somethin’?”
Horace finally lifted his head and answered.
“I guess maybe I could use a ride.”
The driver opened the door and Horace reached down, picked up the suitcase and then hopped into the truck cab, putting the luggage between his knees.
The two drove down the road a ways in silence, the only sound for a long while was the ticking back and forth of the windshield wipers. The driver eventually looked down and noticed a scrap of pink, laced-edge panties showing between the suitcase halves. The trucker then gave Horace a curious sideways glance and asked, “Is that your suitcase, pal?”
“Yeah.” Horace answered, drawing out the word like a question. A few more mile markers passed by, a speed limit sign, some sage.
“Well, no offense buddy, but I wouldn’t figure you to be a kinda guy what wears pink lace undies.“
Horace sat mute, and stared at the futile struggle the truck wipers made against the downpour that relentlessly beat against the windshield.
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