Before the Party

by Joe Engel

It was July 4th, and Lisa leaned against the fuel door of Jim’s Chevy Nova. It was stalled on the shoulder of highway H.  She stared down the flow of traffic, but didn’t wave them over.  They swerved wide as they passed.  It was a dry summer.  The hot wind pushed her hair into her face and a few strands stuck in her mouth.  She slid them out.

“Why would you buy a Chevy Nova Jim?  From what year?’

“1984,” he said.

“And not know how to fix it?”

“I’m not a fix-it kind of guy.”  She opened the drivers side door and sat down on the cracked vinyl seat.

“God this seat is hot,” she said.

“It’s the same kind of car my parents had when I was a kid.”

“Sure.  1984.”

“It’s comfortable.  It was cheap.”

“It’s not comfortable,” she said.

Jim was staring down at the engine of the aqua green car, steam rising into his face.  He looked out at the brown field off to the right of the road, off the shoulder.  The grass was moving in the wind and a small black bird moved here and there between the brittle grass in the field.  He looked at his clean hands and walked around to stand on the shoulder of the road.

“My parents are probably cooking twenty hamburgers,” Lisa said.

Jim put his foot up on the front tire and tightened his shoelace.  He was wearing boat shoes and dockers and a pin striped, short sleeved button up shirt he hadn’t taken out of his closet in six months.

“They would like to see us in half an hour.”

“They’re your parents, Lisa, can’t we be a half an hour late?”

“You know my dad, Jim.  He’s still military.”

“Yes, I do know your dad.  But not as long as you.  He’ll forgive us.”

“He might not talk to us.  He might just flip burgers and edge us out.”

“Eh,” Jim said quietly, “he doesn’t talk anyway.”

Lisa slammed the steering wheel.  “C’mon,” she said, “we’re getting this thing started.”

“Ok,” he said, “let’s do it.”  He walked around and pointed at the engine, “turn the key,” he said.  Lisa laughed and turned the key, the car whinnied like a stubborn horse.  There was nothing.  Just sky and grass and pavement.  A semi rumbled past that made the sleeves on Jim’s shirt ripple.  He felt the darkened spots in his armpits with his hands.  They were cool.  He saw the bird again, a red winged black bird, flying from spot to spot in the field.  It called out with a sound like glass being tapped with a fork.

“It’s not going to start,” he said, “I don’t really care.  I’ve probably already gotten my money’s worth out of the two months I’ve had the car.”

  “Jim, we’re the ones bringing the fireworks to my parents.  You know there needs to be an explosion.”

“Why don’t you call your dad and have him pick us up?”

Lisa was gripping the wheel like she was going one hundred miles an hour.

“Jim,” she said, “he has to be there when the rest of the guests arrive, this is a big day for him.  My uncle Doug is coming up from Rockford.”

A line of ten motorcycles passed, their engines growling through the air.  The man picking up the rear waved as Jim looked up, an American flag flying from the back of his bike.  Lisa looked at the hair stuck to her face in the rearview mirror.  She rolled it off to the side.

“It’s too fucking hot to be stuck out here Jim.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“I mean, these are plastic seats.  Why would you buy a car with plastic seats?”  He reached in and felt the top of the front seat, then he felt her face.  “You’re right,” he said, “it is hot out here.  You’re hot.”

“You’re right about that.”

Jim looked up at the two clouds in the sky, one looked like it was fading away.

“I mean.  Are we going to have to call a tow truck?”

“I’m thinking,” Jim said.  A bead of sweat rolled down the ridge of his nose.  He wiped it and shaded his eyes from the sun.  It was eleven O’clock.  It was going to get hotter.  He couldn’t find the bird in the field now that he was looking for it.  He looked back at Lisa.  Her brow was creased and her face was flushed.  He didn’t talk, not then.  The grass moved in waves from the wind.  It hadn’t rained in three weeks and the water levels had fallen six inches on the rivers in the area.  He walked over and rested the weight of his hand on the back of the car.  He pulled his hand away and rubbed his palm with his fingers.  He shook it a little.  In the hatch he saw the fire works he had brought; roman candles, bottle rockets, spinners.  He looked back at the field.

“There was a bird out here,” he said.

“What? A bird,” Lisa said.

“Yeah, flying around the grass,” he said.

“What kind?” she asked

“A red winged black bird.”

“By itself?”

“Yeah, just alone.  Singing by itself.”

“It was probably calling another bird.”

“There is no other bird.  I think it was just singing.”

“It’s probably calling for help like we should.”

“No it was just singing.  It was playing.  Ok, try and start the car again,” he said, “and I’ll watch the engine.”

He walked around to the hood of the car.

Lisa laughed.  “Jim let’s just call a tow truck.  If we’re late we’re late.  I’ll deal with it.  It’s ok.  You’re right.  We don’t know anything about cars.  It could be anything.  Maybe it’s not even that bad.  And we could have the driver drop us off at my parents.  Pay him a little extra.  I’ll explain to them what happened.”

He looked at her through the windshield.  Her forehead was smooth now but her eyes were slightly pink.  She didn’t need to raise her voice, he could hear her.  

“That sounds good Lisa,” he said, “if you can find a tow company around here I’ll give them a call.”

“Good,” she said.

The bird called out again in the field.  Jim looked but could not see it.  He leaned against the grill of the car. The tailwind from a passing semi stirred up a plastic bag that had been hidden in the grass.  It skidded across the pavement like a jellyfish and came to rest against the grass on the opposite side of the road.  Jim opened the passenger door and sat down.  Lisa was still searching for tow trucks on her phone.  There was a new CD player Jim had installed in the car and a sticker of a smiling whale that Lisa had put on the dashboard above the glove box.  One hundred yards up the road was a mirage, the closest thing to water in sight.  Jim turned on the fans.  Hot air.  Hotter than the air around them.  “I’m surprised we haven’t seen a state trooper,” he said, “he would help us.”

“Or she.  We’re not that lucky,” Lisa said.

Jim laughed.  “God, luck, do you remember that time I won a fake Christmas tree.  But I already had a real one, so I set it up in the front lawn of the condo and decorated it with pine cones?”

“And the condo committee asked you take it down,” she said continuing to search on her phone.  “That was a nice condo.”

“It was,” he said, “so that was lucky, getting to rent a condo for a few months.”

Lisa took a deep breath and released it.  Jim wiped his forehead.

“I never should have quit smoking,” she said.

“Pretend,” Jim said, “just imagine it.”

“Just so you would kiss me more.”

“Pretend,” he said, “look I’ll do it.”  He raised two fingers to his mouth.  He put his elbow on the window frame and squinted his eyes.

“This connection is freaking slow,” she said, “You’d think in all this open space.”

“I would have made a good smoker,” Jim said.

“Oh, I got one,” she said.

“Alright,” Jim said.

“It’s called ‘Lift and Tug’,” she said.

“Ha, what’s the number?  You’d think it would be called Bob’s, you know or Gordon’s, something like that.”

Lisa gave him the number.  He stepped out of the car and sat on the back bumper and dialed.

“Hi,” he said into the phone, “I’m calling for a tow.”  He looked out into the field. “We’re on hwy H, about thirty miles from Kansasville.”  He walked a circle around the car.  “Oh, really?” he said, “that’s perfect.  Ok, we’ll see you then.”  He turned to Lisa, “it’ll be about half an hour,” he said.

“What’s perfect about that?” she said.

“Well they are just outside of Kansasville.  About five miles.  It will make it easier to get to your parent’s house.”  Jim heard the bird again piping out like a glass flute.  He looked around.  “I just don’t know how we are going to afford this,” he said.

“We?” she said.

“Ok. I see a point there,” he said, “but since we were on the way to your parents house…”

“We don’t share a bank account Jim.  We’re not married.” 

He leaned down into the window by her face.  “C’mon,” he said, “this is our car.  We both use this car.”

“I didn’t pick it,” she said, “I’m not paying for your sense of nostalgia.”

“Just pay for some of the tow,” he said, “a quarter.  When’s the last time you put gas in this car?”

  “Could you please stop breathing on my face,” she said and turned on the radio.  Country music came through the speakers.

“See, you were the last one that used this car.”  Jim said and walked around to sit on the bumper again.  He felt the vibrations of the music and watched the curve of the highway like it was moving.  A jet passed overhead.  It’s contrail dividing the sky in two.  Jim’s mouth was slightly opened and his short hair was damp, the brown looking darker from the sweat.  He rubbed his knees.  The bird flew across the road.

“There he is,” Jim yelled.

“Oh, the tow truck is here?” Lisa yelled.

“No,” he said, “the bird.”

“What?” she yelled, “I don’t care about a bird.  How much longer do we have to wait?”

“I dunno,” he said.

The bird perched on the limbs of a sumac across the road and sang.  The shape of the truck emerged just above the mirage down the road.  “Here comes the truck,” Jim said.

Lisa turned off the radio.  “Thank God,” she said.  She opened the door and stood beside the car.  “There it is.  I thought my skin was going to fuse to that seat.”

Jim opened the hatch and gathered up the fireworks.  The tow truck pulled up, the driver came around, “hate to see you broken down on a day like this,” he said, “And on the 4th too.”

Jim didn’t speak.

“Well, we have air conditioning back at the shop.”

“Sounds good,” Jim said.  He looked over at Lisa then back at the truck driver.  “Do you mind dropping her at her parents house in Kansasville, I can give you a little extra money for that.”

“Jim, you’re coming too.”

“I just want to see what’s wrong with my car.  Tell your dad I’m sorry.  You can give him these fireworks.”  A hot gust of wind blew between them as the driver started backing his truck up to the car.  Jim looked at the bird balanced on the sumac. “I’m tired,” he said and dropped his eyes a bit, “It’s just this car.”  

“Sure,” Lisa said. Her face was flush and her hair stuck to her forehead as she walked to the cab of the truck.  Jim watched the tow truck for a moment, as the man hoisted the car. Then followed.

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