Wil wanted the car, no question. A Corvair Monza 900 convertible. The body perfectly restored, sleek as a shark. A gray-silver-green that existed only in the moment the car’s panels were pressed. Chrome finishings, custom. The car had muscle. From a certain angle, it had hips, curves. Not a girl, a woman. The car knew secrets, dirty transactions in its back seat. They had been restored and recovered and reclaimed away, but Wil imagined them anyway. He wasn’t a grease monkey. He had no idea what Kyle was doing to the car in his dad’s garage, and though he knew Kyle from Beaumont High—class of 2007, and Kyle just a year ahead—he didn’t know him well enough to stop by and admire his progress. The car had oily inner workings that Wil didn’t pretend to care about. He wanted to put his hands on the wheel and feel the car purr.

    He might have only heard about the car’s maiden voyage through town if he had not been walking—walking—home from work and got caught at a red light, only to see Kyle glide past, a one-man parade. It was a moment Wil had relived many times since: Kyle in the Corvair, him on the sidewalk or, if he was lucky, in his dad’s old truck, which was mostly his. Wil spent seven more months watching Kyle tooling the Corvair around town, up and down Beaumont Street with a sunburned arm out the window. He had known from first sight that he’d have that car, or one like it, if there was another like it, someday.

     It was a 1969, twice as old as he was, but the car made Wil think of his childhood anyway. When he was a kid, boys sorted themselves into packs. There were scout troop boys and war-and-guns-back-by-creek boys and video game boys and school boys and church boys and boys in the band. Wil had always known he was a car boy. He built models and saved his allowance for zippy remote controlled toys. He collected castoff Wheels and Deals, the magazine his dad searched weekly for a used car a bit better than the used car they already had. He drew cars from memory and TV and imagination. He created cars that didn’t exist in the real world. When Kyle Decker finally unveiled the restored sharkskin Corvair, Wil felt such a pull in his gut that he would have believed he’d owned the car in a past life, or had invented it with colored pencils back when. But no—someone else had, twenty years before he was born.

    And now the car was for sale. Wil didn’t know why. He didn’t care why. There was a machine straight out of his dreams parked on the street in front of the Deckers’ house, a handmade sign in the window. For Sale.

    Wil had seen the sign on the way to work that morning, and so he was stuck all day at his spot on the factory line alternately thinking about the car and what he always thought about. Girls. How to meet girls. How to make more money. How to get rich, actually, it would just be easier that way. And famous, too, but good famous, not bad famous—how could he get to be good and famous? Also: how many plastic Christmas tree parts had he put out into the world working at Shandle’s the past two years? And plastic kiddie pools, because that’s what they made in the winter, no kidding. How many of those? And how many fake Christmas trees and kiddie pools did the world need? And girls again, because he didn’t have one. He really needed one, he thought, because if he had a girl to take out on Saturday nights, he might not have to stand around twisting hot plastic Christmas tree needles onto their wires thinking half of what he thought about.

    Dean, the guy who brought them the hot pine needle bunches in a rolling bin, swept past. Wil looked up. “Hey, guess what I saw this morning—” he started to say. But then he thought better of it. What if Dean wanted the car? Dean probably picked up the Wheels and Deals, too. Dean lived in town, drove a beater, needed to meet girls, too.

    Dean pulled the empty bin out and swung the full one into place. “What?”

    “Never mind.”

    “What?”

    “Nothing. It’s hot.”

    “It’s always hot,” Dean said, and shot him a look. Wil had wasted his time. Not that anyone at Shandle’s minded having a little time wasted if they could get by with it. But Wil knew he’d done it wrong. To start up a guy’s imagination out of the boring middle of the day, when there wasn’t a break for another hour, when there wasn’t anything interesting to talk about. Well, that seemed dirty, now that he thought about it.

    Dean peeled off his gloves and settled against the pillar behind him. He wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist. It wasn’t always hot, not really, but it was always hot in Shandle’s. Outside it could be cool and bright, the sun suggesting ways for how to spend time, but inside Shandle’s, it was always a hundred degrees. The fans ran all day, every day. The girls who worked the tinsel garland machines came out of their room with bits of sparkly green and red stuck to their legs and chests and held their shirts out from their bellies toward the fans. It was enough to drive Wil mad, until he dreamed of the days when they’d be back to kiddie pools, and the glitter was put away.

    Dean was staring at him. Wil cleared his throat for time. He thought back to the morning, before he’d passed the Deckers’ house and seen the Corvair. “Well…I saw Missy Shandle in the White Castle drive-thru.”

    Dean glanced around. The rest of the line workers were too far away to hear. He started pulling his gloves back on. “So?”

    Wil deflated. Missy was the boss’s daughter. Most of the Shandle’s workers were ready for a Missy joke when you had one. He thought for a moment. “What about this? I heard—remember that guy Marcus used to work here? He joined the fucking Marines. Can you believe that?”

    Dean shrugged.

    Maria, one of the women on the line, hissed in their direction. She had her long black hair tied in a knot at the back of her head. Her neck was shiny with sweat. “Lazy boys. Stop talking shit and get back to work.”

    “Si, si, mamacita,” Wil said. He turned to Dean with a wink, but Dean had slipped away with the empty bin.

    “Don’t you mamacita me, you little twerp,” Maria said. She plucked a twig of pine needles out of the pile on the conveyor belt and wrenched it into shape. “I’m not old enough to be your mama, but if I was, I would have raised you right the first time so some stupid bitch doesn’t have to do it again.”

    Wil was watching the particular way Maria’s breasts bounced when she twisted the pine branches. She caught him and rolled her eyes at Marcella, further down the line. Marcella shook her head. Maria launched into Spanish.

    “What does that mean?” Wil said.

    “The Spanish is so I don’t have to talk to you no more,” she said.

    Her boobs still bounced with every twist. At the other end of the line, their supervisor, Pete, called out, “What’s going on down there?”

    Wil stepped back to the line and reached in for a pine branch—virgins, they called them, before they wrenched their necks so that the metal tip would slip into a piece of plastic made elsewhere inside Shandle’s and, somehow, after all the pieces had been twisted and packed and shipped and bought, this all added up to a Christmas tree. It never felt like Christmas inside Shandle’s. By the time it really was Christmas, they were balls-deep in baby pools, and those things were sharp if you didn’t pay attention. The only fun they ever had was talking shit.

    “I didn’t mean the Spanish,” he said. “What did you mean about—my mom?”

    Maria sighed. “No, no. Not what I said, Lazy-boy recliner. I said someday another woman would have to teach you all over again. When you get married.”

    “I’m not ever getting married,” he said. He grabbed at a virgin without looking and poked the heel of his hand on its metal tip. He recoiled and studied the pearl of blood that grew from the scratch.

    “Maybe no girl will want to marry you?”

    He sucked at his hand, turning to look up and down the line. The women—Maria, Marcella, the old woman everyone called Gal, even the two women across the room who claimed not to speak English—they were all smiling secretly into their work, listening.

    “Plenty,” he said. “Plenty of girls will want to marry me.” He thought of Kyle’s car. Girls must flock to it. Flock. He wondered briefly why Kyle would ever let it go. But he was, and that’s all that mattered. At quitting time, he was going to go make the Corvair his.


The Deckers lived on Beaumont Street, which was really State Road 32 cutting straight through the town like it wasn’t even there. Wil drove into town on 32/Beaumont Street from his parents’ house outside of town every morning and, in the afternoon, turned his truck toward the setting sun for the return. Today he slowed as he neared the short row of white box houses nestled in the shadows of a raised railroad berm. He did a sweeping U-turn to pull up behind the Corvair.

    Nobody around. Wil sat in the truck and went over it again: What he could afford, which wasn’t much, plus the savings he’d managed to pile up at the bank. If he could talk him down—God, Kyle would be a fool to sell so cheap. He was a fool, too, to think he might. He was a dog to come scraping like this. Wil pulled the truck into reverse and let it roll a few feet. But what if he could talk Kyle down into the neighborhood? If he got an advance from Shandle’s and asked his dad for help, he might be able to make nine thousand dollars. Wil put the truck back into park and counted it up again. Nine thousand was a lot of money, but probably still not enough. But it he could command nine thousand dollars, what was he ashamed of? That was a man’s salary, earned, saved. And borrowed against, sure—but a man’s wages borrowed against what he promised to do. No shame in being a working stiff. He turned the key in the ignition and let the truck rattle to stillness.

    Wil saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, and then the curtains at a window on the Decker house dropped. A second later, the front door pulled back, and a girl about Wil’s age with a blond ponytail stood at the screen. She wore a tank top, no bra, cut-off shorts. When she came out, letting the screen door slap, she was barefoot.

    “Did you decide?” she called.

    Her voice reached inside the open window of his truck. Oh, man, he thought. Kyle, please let that be your sister. He slid out of the truck, closed his door, and came around to the yard. “Did I decide what?”

    “If you were going to ask about the car. Did you decide?”

    The back of Wil’s neck went hot. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

    “What do you think of her?”

    Her. Wil pried his eyes off the girl and went to the hood of the car. He pretended to study the angles, check a few nicks in the paint. He kicked a front tire.

    “The tires are all new,” she said.

    “I know. I mean, I can tell.” Wil felt the red creeping up his neck and across his face. He wasn’t good at talking to girls. He hadn’t ever been, no matter how many women he worked with.

    He walked the length of the car on the street side and wished he could rip the homemade sign out of the window. He patted the convertible roof, checked the seal. He finished his tour around the back, admiring every line, every curve. From the outside, he could smell the new leather upholstery. Baking in the sun, the sent out a sweet smell, a fresh-pack-of-cigarettes smell he had imagined from afar. He cupped his hand to the window and peered into the back seat. Pictured the blonde back there, the insides of her tan thighs splayed against the white leather, and then quickly stood up to shake it from his mind.

    “How much do you want for it?” he said.

    “Kyle wants at least eighteen for it. It’s a classic.”

    Eighteen. Of course. So far out of his league that he was ashamed to have stopped. Kyle would have listed it in Wheels and Deals. He’d get a serious bid on it from someone in Indianapolis, maybe even Cincinnati or Louisville. A collector, a racer, some hobbyist who would take it out once a year for a rally. Someone who knew its worth.

    The good feeling he’d had since morning dropped away. Wil walked again around the front of the car, studying the hood, the grill, as close as he would ever get to it, ever, because any minute Kyle would hand the keys over to someone with deep pockets, no question, and he’d never see it again. He knelt at the bumper and patted it wearily. He noticed his own pulled-face reflection in the bumper and for a moment remembered Dean that morning, his face slack with indifference to everything Wil could think to tell him. How soon, he wondered, before he fell into the grooves, too, and couldn’t be bothered to think about something other than the very spot where he stood, only the moment he was living?

    He turned his head and watched his reflection stretch and gape in a new way. He’d be damned if he’d go that easy. If he was going down, he’d go out fighting.

    He lifted his head. “Would he take twelve for it?”

    The girl laughed. “I doubt it, but I don’t know what’s going on in his head. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

    “You’re Kyle’s girl?” Of course she would be, he thought. What didn’t Kyle have that Wil wanted?

    “Six months.”

    Wil nodded. They’d met after Kyle had his car finished. When you have a little bit of luck, the world tumbles over itself to hand you the rest.

    There was a slap of the screen door, and Kyle himself came out to stand on the porch. His hair stuck up on one side. He yawned and scratched at his bare chest, pulled up his loose jeans by the belt loops. “Hey,” he said. “I know you.”

    Wil stood. “School.”

    Kyle came across the yard and then gingerly across the rough sidewalk in his bare feet. “And around.”

    Wil shook the hand Kyle offered, trying not to think how many times he’d gaped at Kyle’s car from the sidewalk.    

    Kyle said, “You work at Shandle’s, don’t you?”

    “Trees and baby pools, I’m your man.”

    Kyle nodded, almost smiling. “Hey, Baby,” he said over his shoulder. “We need a fake Christmas tree or one of them wading pools?”

    The girl came out of the yard and tucked herself under Kyle’s arm. “Not yet.” She looked up at Wil. “You offering that in trade, are you?”

    Wil shuffled his feet under the weight of the girl’s attention.

    She said, “He wants to know if you’ll take twelve for it.”

    Kyle looked long at the car, and then at Wil.

    The girl nudged Kyle’s shoulder with her head. “That’d be a lot to come back to.”

    “You could do twelve?” Kyle squinted at Wil, glanced toward the truck. Next to the Corvair, the truck looked like it had been put out for the trash.

    Of course there was no scenario where Wil could put together that much. He felt like a guy down on his luck who realizes that his life insurance policy meant that he’d be worth more dead than alive. Except he didn’t have any insurance whatsoever, no plan at all past this conversation. He’d been thinking all day about driving tomorrow in the Corvair, seeing everyone’s heads whip around to give a second look. He took a slow breath, hoping a plan would come to him. Finally, he had to shake his head. “I really can’t. I would, if I could.”

    The girl stood straighter. “But you said—”

    “I just wanted to spend more time with the car.” He wouldn’t look at the car again, he promised himself. He’d already lost it. They stood silent, until Wil knew it was his move. “Sorry to waste your time.” He started for his truck and had almost reached it when Kyle stopped him.

    “Hey. Wilson, right? Wait.”

    The girl frowned. “Babe?”

    Kyle rubbed her back. “Will you get me a t-shirt and my shoes? I want to take Wil for a spin.”


Kyle took the Corvair up to eighty, but no higher.

    They had the top down. They drove into the low-hanging orange sun, the rushing wind trying to take the top off Wil’s head. He couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. They blasted out of town and down 32 until they’d run out of things to see except knee-high cornfields. Knee high by the fourth of July, Wil thought, his head full of songs and jingles and the roar of the world going by. He wanted to make a song of it: Knee high by the fourth of July. The low corn was a green carpet all the way to the end of the world. It reminded him, against his will, of the long conveyor belt of pine branches rolling toward him. But he refused to think about Shandle’s now, and the summer ahead of him: plastic pines until the season turned. He turned to watch the fields and the road narrow behind them.

    The backseat glared white, hot, empty. The girl hadn’t been invited. Wil turned back around. “You didn’t want to bring your girl?”

    “She’s all right, you know?” Kyle yelled over the rush of wind. “But she’s all over me about commitment. We’ve only known each other five months.”

    “Six,” Wil bellowed back. “She said six.”

    “She would. I’m surprised she wants me to sell the car at all. It’s about the only thing she likes about me.”

    “Why are you selling the car?”

    “I’m going to be gone for a while.” Kyle’s jaw muscles flexed. Was he grinding his teeth? Wil wondered.

    “Jail?”

    Kyle laughed. “You’re one messed up fucker, aren’t you?” He downshifted quickly and swung into a gravel road with a fishtail flourish. They slid to a stop, a billow of pale dust sent off into the fields. “Want to drive us home?”

    Wil didn’t wait for him to change his mind. Seated at the wheel, he felt a sense of rightness, of justice. Yes, finally, Wilson Tierney will come out on top.

    They were back on the road and heading toward illegal speeds before Kyle said, “I’m joining the Army.”

    “Do you know a guy named Marcus, used to work at Shandle’s? He’s in the Marines.”

    Wil held the gearshift tenderly, checked the mirrors twice. He liked the way his unremarkable hair fluttered back at this speed.

    “Not the same thing,” Kyle said. “At all.”

    “I thought it was interesting. Two guys from Beaumont going into the military.”

    Kyle snorted. “I’m starting to get you, I guess.”

    “Yeah?”

    “‘Two guys from Beaumont.’ You’re funny.”

    Wil was gaining on a slower vehicle and had a double yellow. He could pass—he was going twenty miles an hour faster than the car in front and could see far enough to gauge that they’d make it—but he was in no hurry to get back to his truck. He slowed. “What’s funny about it?”

    “Like any of us have a choice. It’s not funny.”

    Kyle was smiling. Wil thought it through but still couldn’t see what he was saying. “You could do something else. Shandle’s is always hiring.”

    Kyle shook his head, then caught sight of Wil watching him. “Shandle’s isn’t for everyone.”

    “Everyone works there.”

    “Everyone works at Shandle’s for a while.”

    “Your mom worked there. I remember her retirement party.”

    “My mom earned twelve bucks an hour for most of her life. You know how much Uncle Sam takes out of twelve bucks an hour?”

    Wil tried to remember Mrs. Decker. She was a large lady with a hairnet, though it was not required, thick hands, thick glasses. She and Gal had been friends. He tried to picture himself there as an old man. Maybe he would have filled in a bit by then, grown a moustache worth having. Promoted off the line and up into the office as a supervisor, and he’d be the one to bark down the line when one of them screwed around. Who would still be there? Marcella, maybe. Maria. A crew of young people, too, to replace those who’d left or died. Always a crew of young kids who started the Monday after school let out. By the end of summer, the long-timers hated the kids, if there were any kids left to hate. One or two might hang on to go full-time, like Wil. But most of them went somewhere else.

    They were coming back up on the fast food joints and gas stations that heralded the edge of town. What he wouldn’t give to go through the White Castle drive-thru so that someone could see him. If he was Kyle, though, he wouldn’t let anybody touch a morsel inside this car. He pulled into town going much slower than he needed to. “I don’t have big plans,” Wil said.

    “Not any?”

    This car, but he couldn’t say that. He tried to think: When he was at the line, what did he dream of? “Get a girl. Win the lottery.”

    Kyle slapped the outside of the Corvair, laughing.

    Wil couldn’t even smile. “What’s wrong with that?”

    “Nothing,” Kyle choked. “That’s a good goddamn plan.”

    The sun beat on Wil’s forehead. His mouth felt dry, sour. “What do you want so bad you have to join the Army to get it?”

    Kyle quieted, sucked in a deep breath and let it out like a tire going flat. “You don’t want to hear about this, and I’m not sure I can tell it right.”

    “You’re giving up the Corvair.” He thought of the Army commercials that played before just about everything he watched on TV these days, the ads in the video game magazines he sometimes flipped through at the movie rental place. The ads always promised big. A high-technology kind of job, maybe, or to be ripped so no one ever picked a fight. Travel to foreign countries, if you were into that. “Must be something.”

    They passed under the railroad tracks. Wil eased into the spot in front of Kyle’s house. He could see his truck in the rearview. He was distracted for a moment by the feeling that something miraculous would happen. Kyle would offer to sell the Corvair to him cheap, just to have it taken care of. Or even sign over the title for free, in exchange for some loyalty or promise. Like buddies in war movies, shaking hands. If I don’t come back, Wil, watch over my girl. He struggled for a bargain he might be able to strike, but nothing came to him. He turned the key in the ignition and handed it to Kyle. They both got out. Wil paused by the open driver’s door and stared hard at the For Sale sign. No miracle would occur today.

    Kyle said, “It’s about everything. I don’t know.” He slapped the back of his hand across his own thigh. “I used to take the Corvair out for test-drives at night, so no one could see what a bucket it was. But every time I took it out, I heard a new noise. A rattle in a place that didn’t used to rattle. That awful sound the brakes make when the pads wear out, only that sound was in the dash.”

    Wil pried his eyes from the sign. “You used to take it out at night?”

    “Don’t you ever feel like you can’t get yourself together? Like something’s gone loose, and no matter how hard you try to tighten it back up—” Kyle patted the Corvair’s hood lovingly. “I’m sorry we can’t work something out on the car.”

    “It’s okay,” Wil said, though he didn’t mean it. “Thanks for the ride.”

    He turned toward the truck, hoping the whole time he took to get inside, start it up, and pull away that Kyle Decker would think of some reason to stop him. But there was no reason to, so he didn’t. Wil nodded to Kyle, backed up a few feet from the tail of the Corvair, and U-turned toward home.


“Hey, shit-talker boy is not shit-talking today.”

    Wil, stuck below his dark mood, rose to the surface. Maria plucked a virgin from the line, gave it a quick twist, threw it to the side.

    “What’s wrong with you?” she said. “You haven’t been staring at my boobs all morning.” Marcella snickered, but stopped when Wil shot her a look.

    “Nothing’s wrong.” But it wasn’t true. He had arrived not in the Corvair but in the old truck again—and not even in the driver’s seat. His dad needed the truck for the day. Wil had been dropped off. A half-hour early, Wil had stood against the wall of Shandle’s as his co-workers arrived. They all had their own cars. None had anything like the Corvair, it was true. Minivans with dings in the bumpers, old sedans with empty baby seats in the back. He crouched against the wall as if sick. By the time he clocked out that afternoon and started walking home, the Corvair would be sold. And it didn’t matter if only the sale sign had been taken out or if the car had been driven to its new home. It would make no difference to him. Not the kind of difference he could do anything about.

    They worked without speaking until the first break. At the bell, Wil bolted for the outside door ahead of all the smokers, gulping for air as though the factory was on fire. He walked to the far edge of the gravel parking lot and kicked at a few tall stalks of weeds growing around a rock that had been deposited there.

    “You’re having some sort of bad day, huh?”

    He turned. Maria handed him a can of soda. He opened the tab and took gulping drinks, feeling that if he stopped, he might cry or punch something.

    “I saw you after work yesterday. You looking at that fancy car for sale on Beaumont?” Maria sat on the rock. She let her hair down, then pulled it all up again and clipped it back. “Are you mad?”

    “No.” He thought for a moment. “Yes.”

    “The car was taken? Too bad. Or the girl?”

    “You wouldn’t understand.”

    “Tell me anyway, and I’ll just stare at you.” She waved across the parking lot. The two women on the line who said they didn’t speak English were smoking at the corner of the building. They started to laugh. When he turned back to Maria, she was orbiting her finger around the side of her head, the universal sign for loco.

    He flopped into the grass and weeds and cigarette butts near the rock, Maria a dark shadow outlined by the sun.

    “The car was not sold,” she said. “But it cannot be sold to you. Too expensive.”

    He hated the sound of it coming from someone else. “Yeah.”

    “It’s a nice car. It should be expensive.”

    She wasn’t helping at all. He had five more minutes of break. He wanted to spend them feeling bad, not talking about feeling bad and ending up worse.

    “Maybe this is not the car for you right now.”

    “Thanks a lot.” He stood and dusted the dust and twigs off his jeans.

    “Not in a bad way. Maybe you have to fix up your own car.”

    “I don’t have a car,” he said. “And I don’t know how to fix cars.”

    Maria sighed something in Spanish

    “I don’t know what that means,” he said.

    “There are plenty of things in English you don’t understand, either.”

    Wil kicked at the loose rock under his feet. “Tell me what that means.”

    “You want the short cut for everything, like a little boy. Someday you will take the long way around. Like a man. Fix up your own car.”

    The bell inside the factory rang, distant. The women from the line and a few others stamped out their cigarettes and filed back into the factory. He didn’t want to follow them. The factory seemed about to cave in on itself. The walls, made of block and brick, had been painted over and over, and revealed every layer, here yellow, there dark green. Weeds grew where the walls met the parking lot. All the windows were dirty and gray. In the winter, when they were closed, you couldn’t see across the street. Now they were propped open to let the breeze inside, hot as it was. He couldn’t believe he had ever walked in. It occurred to him that if he’d bought the car, if he’d used every cent he had to his name to drive the Corvair into the lot today, he couldn’t have thought for a second about walking out. But just now, he thought, he could. He could walk home right now. Never clock out, expect his last check mailed. But then what?

    Maria shook her head, stood, and took the can of soda from him. She walked toward the door, tilting her head to drain the last bit of drink. Wil watched her disappear inside, but couldn’t yet force himself to follow. In a moment, he would hear the whir of the line starting up again, and in a few minutes after that, he could count on Pete barking down from his office about his absence. Wil could predict what Pete would say or, if the rest of the line made up for him being gone, he could predict how the women would make him pay for it later. He could see how everything would go, as if it had already happened and would happen again. He choked to think of the summer ahead, the wading pools next winter and the cuts on his hands when he forgot his gloves. He felt a wave of despair. But he knew it wasn’t Kyle’s fault. He felt as if he’d been walking his whole life.

    If he’d had the truck there in the lot, he might have driven away. But he didn’t. He didn’t have the Corvair, and he didn’t have the truck. All he had were his own two feet. Wil put them to work, hurrying toward the door and the line before anyone bellowed, before anyone had to cover for him, before anyone had to make up for what he wasn’t doing. Where’s my short cut, Maria? he thought, and knew that he’d be asking her for many days, weeks, months. But he wouldn’t have to ask forever. Because he’d either find it, he decided, or wouldn’t need it, having gone the long way around.





Lori Rader Day’s stories have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, TimeOut Chicago, After Hours, Big Muddy, and Southern Indiana Review. She won the 2008 Chris O’Malley Prize in Fiction from The Madison Review. She recently received her MFA in creative writing from Roosevelt University and is working on her first novel.










Back to Freight Stories No. 6

 


Lori Rader Day

The Summer Ahead