Something a bit different this Saturday, as I’m still a bit sideways after last week’s bad news and a bumpy time at work. I’ve given The Cut Crew a week off and decided to offer up a bit of home-grown short fiction.
The following piece was written for a competition set up by my local writing group, the esteemed Reading Writers. I’m pleased to report it won first place. The field was especially strong so a win felt very special.
The prompt was to base the story around a song. I decided to go more widescreen and based it on the early albums of Bruce Springsteen, as well as the songs which influenced his formative tunes. His new album of covers, Only The Strong Survive, is a stone groove by the way.
I hope you enjoy Mary And Scooter And The E Street Shuffle.
Low sun, late summer. Twilight pours through the stands of corn rolling off to the horizon in waves of gold. The air is heated and fragrant, thick with the scent of straw and roses.
On the porch, Mary spins in place, arms wide, lost in the music from the radio. The simple things made epic, a teenage crush elevated to high drama with the kick of the drums, the howl of the horns, the thundercrack from an overdriven Telecaster. He’s so fine. Be my baby. Then he kissed me. Feelings as pure and honest as the first swallow of cold beer on a summer night. Mary’s mouth waters at the thought of it. If only she had a beer. Or an icebox to cool it. Or the money to pay for either.
A faint plume of dust rises from the gateway to the farm. An engine growls, the animal throatiness rising as a car swings off the town road and towards the house. A Chevy in candy apple red, driven too fast, hopping down the cratered drive like a salmon leaping a stream in high spate.
Mary stops dancing. ‘Hey la, my boyfriend’s back,’ she thinks. But there’s no smile on her face. The timing’s all wrong. It’s too early in the day for Scooter to be sniffing around.
The Chevy fishtails to a halt, spraying gravel over Mary’s carefully-planted patch of roses. The engine howls one last time before Scooter kills it. He swings out, slim and graceful as a flick-knife. His hair is up, a black wave glinting in the sunlight. White tee, pack of Red Apple cigarettes stuck in the sleeve. Blue jeans, scuffed work boots. The American dream, striding off the cinema screen and the advertising hoardings and into Mary’s life with a crooked smile and a promise of love everlasting.
Martha Reeves opens up on the radio. ‘It’s easy to fall in love with a boy like you,’ she sings. ‘Too damn easy,’ Mary thinks, and steps over to turn the set off.
‘No need to stop now,’ Scooter says. ‘I love that song.’
‘I prefer The Ronettes,’ Mary says. ‘Nice to see you in daylight, Scoot. What’s the occasion?’
Scooter lights up his sunniest smile, the movie-star charisma turned up full blast. It doesn’t reach his eyes.
‘Nothing less than the rest of our lives, baby. Pack a bag. We’re leaving this dump in our tail-lights.’
Mary stares at him. She doesn’t say a word. There’s no need. Scooter can’t leave a silence unfilled, which means he’s about to empty out whatever’s in that pretty head of his to fill the void.
‘I mean, there’s nothing left for me there, now.’ He jerks his chin away to the east, towards the heat haze cloaking the chimney-stacks and factories of Stonestown.
‘The job at the garage didn’t pan out, the guys on the corner are all jerks. It’s a town full of losers. Winners like us need more.’
Now there’s a light in his eyes, the cold grey sparking like lit coals on a grill. Mary sees it then, sharp and clear.
‘What did you do, Scoot?’
‘Me? Nothing! Truth is, I was defending you, baby! Johnny said something he shouldn’t and well, I couldn’t let it stand, him calling you that name so I, so I admonished him.’
A classic Scooter trick, pulling out a big word he didn’t really understand as a distraction. Hoping you’d be so impressed at his big-brain vocabulary you’d skip over what he meant.
Mary thinks for a moment. Then it hits her. ‘You admonished Spanish Johnny.’
Scooter has the grace to look embarrassed. ‘It all got a little out of hand.’
Mary turns to hide the shock, puts her hand to her mouth. Oh god, no. She’d heard the stories about the boys on E Street, those preening vicious cockerels. Jimmy The Saint and Go-Kart Mozart, Angel, The Big Man and the worst of them all, Spanish Johnny. He could turn a mild disagreement over a horse’s chances at the last race at Monmouth Park into a full-bore gang war. If Scoots had been poking the cage of that particular monster…
Bloodlust on the sidewalks of E Street. Little Angel sharpening his blades. All the boys pulling up floorboards to get at their guns while their best girls wail and tear their hair. She spins back, making no effort to hide the tears.
‘You’d better have killed him. If you humiliated Spanish Johnny in front of his crew—‘
‘I just put him on the floor. One hit, it was almost too easy. Baby, he called you a wh—‘
‘We’re not leaving, are we? We’re running. You had just enough time to swing by here on your way out of town and pick up the rest of your stuff.’ She plucks at her dress. The material is so thin, the sunflower print worn to the colour of baby sick.
The phone starts ringing in the back of the house. Rare enough at the best of times but here, now, it feels too neat to be coincidence. Mary half-turns, in time for the bell to stop. It’s unusual for Pa to move that quickly. She wonders if he’s been listening, if he has a notion of the ugly thing moving up on them.
‘It’s not like that, baby. You know it. This is our chance. Get out clean, find our sunrise.’ There’s a pleading tone to his voice now, a faint but rising whine. It sickens her.
‘Hold on,’ she says, spins on her heel and practically runs back into the house.
Pa is split in two by the stripes of light and darkness from the blinds shading the window. The phone handset is almost lost in his thick paw, clenched hard enough to snap it.
‘I’ll say this one more time, slow enough even for you. My daughter went to the store, I don’t know when she’ll be back. The boy, well, he’ll get the same welcome as you and your rat-swarm if you come around. The loud end of my thirty-ought-six.’ He listens to the squawks of outrage coming from the speaker. ‘Come and try, puta,’ he says, and mashes the handset back onto the phone.
He looks at Mary, eyes dark and sad as gravestones. ‘Bought you an hour. It’ll take that long for them to muster up a set of balls and load up a car. You’d best pack fast. West is safest. Those boys could never stand the sight of a sunset.’
‘I’m not going,’ Mary says. ‘They want Scoot, they can have him. He can run. I won’t.’
Pa doesn’t blink. ‘To them, it doesn’t matter. They’ll hurt you just to get at him. Don’t matter what you say, however you curse him. You and the boy—‘ He puts his hands together, palm to palm, laces the fingers. ‘You’re the same song now. Same sad fucking song.’
‘We can fight.’
‘We’ll lose. Been a long time since I brightened the corners of E Street. I was like them, once. Before I met your ma and grew up. I know how they think. They’ll swarm in and take us to pieces.’
‘All because Scoot couldn’t keep his fist in his pocket.’
Pa smiles then. ‘Yeah. He reminds me a lot of me. I’d do the same for a girl who looked like you.’
There’s no time, and not enough words. Mary runs to her father, hugs him once with all the strength of her heart. It takes her ten minutes to fill a bag with everything she owns. She leaves the house, not daring to look back, afraid of what she might do if she took one last glance at her old life.
And there’s Scooter, trying on the old smile, the cool act. None of it works anymore. He’s a frightened little boy trying to outrun a storm. She thinks of the stories told about kids in their situation. Cathy and Heathcliff. Lancelot and Guinevere. Bonnie and Clyde. Romeo and Juliet.
She walks past Scooter, slinging her bag into the open trunk of the Cadillac, slamming it shut, sliding into the passenger seat.
‘Take the fire-roads,’ she says. ‘Stay off the interstate. Don’t talk to me.’ She turns on the car radio, to mask the silence.
‘Nowhere to run to, baby,’ Martha Reeves sings. ‘Nowhere to hide.’
Would you be surprised to learn I made a Spotify playlist as an inspirational soundtrack while I wrote the story above?
No, of course you wouldn’t. I think we know each other well enough by now. Play it loud, obviously.
See you next Saturday, lovers.