Eric Rasmussen teaches high school English in Western Wisconsin. He is pursing an MFA from Augsburg college, and his work has appeared or is upcoming in Souvenir Lit Journal, Brevity’s website, and Volume One Magazine. Whenever he sees a shooting star, he panics and wishes for something he already has. Visit theotherericrasmussen.blogspot.com for more of his work.
A Short Story
By Eric Rasmussen
Josh’s dad pushed the gearshift to park before the pickup stopped moving, sending them both lurching forward. “Get out of the truck.”
“No,” said Josh.
“Get out of the truck now.”
Josh’s dad grabbed the steering wheel at ten and two, like he was supposed to. His eyes reduced to slits, his jaw deepened like he had just taken a big bite. “We’re not arguing about this anymore.”
“It’s so stupid.”
“So, you’re just going to live in my basement forever?”
“It’s not my fault the gas station won’t give me enough hours.” Josh crossed his skinny arms and scrunched up his skinny face and tried to heft some spite that was twice as big as he was. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to your own son.”
“Well believe it, buckaroo. This is happening. That’s it. Get out of the truck.”
Josh glared at his dad, the first time he looked at his old man for the entire two-hour car ride down.
“Get… out…” Josh’s dad grabbed Josh’s arm and pushed, mashing him into the corner between the seat and the door. The armrest pressed into his side, the flaking chrome door lock into his shoulder. Josh let his head fall out the open window, his face wrenched in much more pain than the truck inflicted. Others in the Greyhound bus depot parking lot unloaded duffle bags from trunks and offered departure hugs, some firm and meaningful, others limp and forgettable. It was time for college kids to return to school and grandkids to return to their parents. Everyone was going back, maybe not home, but at least somewhere familiar, except for Josh, whose entire life had been familiar right up until the moment he whined and yelped and pushed his dad’s hand away.
“Alright. God! Get your hands off me.”
The old pickup door creaked open and Josh yanked his backpack out and slammed the door. His dad met him in front of the truck.
“And don’t forget to have fun out there, okay? You get to be my age, you can’t take trips like this anymore. You know, who knows what kind of people you’ll meet, what sort of adventures you’ll have…”
A tear, half real and half strategic, dripped down Josh’s cheek. “I don’t want to do this.”
“You’ll be fine. I’ll get ahold of my brother. Either he’ll have something for you, or he’ll know someone who will.” Josh’s dad put his arms around Josh’s shoulders and gave him a weak hug. The old man smelled like aftershave and motor oil, like trees and his wife’s macaroni casserole, like everything Josh knew and understood. After a few seconds, Josh’s dad released him. “You’ll thank me later, I promise.”
Josh stared at a spot on the warm blacktop. He stood transfixed on that point while his dad climbed back in the pickup, started her up, backed out the parking spot, and pulled out of the lot. Josh kept his head still while the truck waited at the red light, then accelerated to the next red light and waited again. The truck was still visible a few blocks down when Josh straightened up, earlier than he meant to, but his neck started to cramp. He grabbed his backpack and went inside.
His dad dropped him off forty-five minutes early. Josh threw his backpack and himself into one of the molded plastic chairs that filled the depot’s waiting area, then pulled out the iPod his parents had gotten him for his birthday seven years ago. It held 5,335 illegally downloaded songs. Josh picked one and put it on repeat.
Josh awoke with a start, a spasm that earned disapproving looks from the other cross-country riders who waited in the seats. He had made it to whatever sleep phase left him groggy and disoriented, like alarm clock mornings before school or early afternoon naps that got out of hand. He needed a few seconds to remember that this was a bus depot, and that he was supposed to catch a bus. The departure time returned to him, an odd one, 10:37. Josh stretched and looked up to the clock on the wall, a face clock with no numbers, only lines. Identifying which was the hour and which was the minute hand required specific mental effort, and figuring out which line signified ten and which signified eleven was another challenge. After arriving at an answer, and double-checking his calculations, Josh needed another ten seconds to accept that he had missed his bus.
They must make announcements. They must honk or ring a bell. There was no way they let people sleep through their departure times. There must be some mistake.
Josh approached the ticket window with the stainless steel shelf and the young attendant girl who was cute in a ponytail, volleyball, sits-in-the-front-of-Spanish-class sort of way.
“Hey,” said Josh, “I’m on the bus to New York.”
“That bus left.” After a moment of confusion, she offered him sympathetic panic with her eyes. “Oh no,” she said. “Weren’t you sitting right over there? I made the announcement. I swear I did.”
“Are you serious?” Josh turned away from the girl, then back, then punched the counter. She retracted her sympathy and exchanged it for defensiveness, delivered through squinted eyebrows.
“So, can you call it back or something?” Josh asked.
“I’m sorry, no.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do then?”
“It’s okay,” she said. “There’s a bus that leaves for Chicago in three hours. You’ll have a little layover, and you can catch a bus to New York from there. No problem.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Hold on.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed his father’s number.
The old man answered after the amount of time it took to look, signal, pull to the side of the road, and fish his phone out of his jeans pocket. “Jim speaking.”
“Dad, where are you?”
“I’m halfway home. Why? What’s wrong? Did something happen to the bus?”
“I need you to come pick me up. There was a mix-up or something, so I missed it.”
“What do you mean, a mix-up?”
“I don’t know! Look, they… they announced the wrong number, so I was confused, and I just… I missed it.”
“Well, if you were confused, why didn’t you ask? There’s someone working there, right?”
“I tried, but she was really rude… can you just come pick me up?”
“You have to. What am I supposed to do, live here?”
Josh’s dad sighed. “Don’t they have connections? Can you get something to Chicago and get on another bus down there?”
Josh hung up the phone. He had paced back and forth in front of the ticket window during the conversation, and he ended right in front of the girl, who now used her eyebrows to tell him she had heard the entire fabricated story. She stopped being cute.
“You need that Chicago ticket now?”
“Yeah, I guess I do.” Josh considered a few explanations for the tantrum, hoping for something charming and witty that would bring her smile back. The best he could come up with was, “Thanks.”
“Hey, do the tuna sandwiches have celery in them?”
The teenage attendant with spiked hair seated under the gas station’s selection of cigarettes looked up with profound annoyance. “What?”
“The tuna sandwiches, you know, in the cooler. Do they have celery in them?”
“I don’t think so. You mean, like, slices of celery?”
“What? No. No one puts slices of… No, like, celery chopped up in the tuna.”
“Oh. Then, yeah, maybe they do. I really don’t know.”
“But you sell them.”
“Dude, this isn’t like a deli or something. Check the label.”
Josh’s shoulders dropped and he turned away from the attendant, returned to the cooler, and grabbed one of the triangle sandwiches. Ingredient number six, celery. “Dammit,” he said.
Normally, Josh’s preferred meal instead of whatever his mother had made back home was an assortment of gas station food, but at the moment he really could have gone for some chicken and rice casserole. None of the neon packaged snack food looked good, so he settled on his usual, a bag of flamin’ hot chips, a candy bar, and a bright green soda. He returned to the counter with his lunch.
“Just so you know, yeah, they do,” Josh said.
“They do what?”
“The tuna sandwiches have celery.”
The Slushie machine hummed as it churned its blue slime.
“Sliced, or chopped up?”
Josh laughed. “My best guess is chopped up.”
The attendant scowled at Josh. “That’ll be $4.70. You want a bag?” he said.
“No, I got it.” Josh paid the guy and walked out. Back in the parking lot, he headed toward the bus, nodded at the driver who smoked a cigarette outside the bus door, and climbed the stairs. Halfway down the aisle Josh froze and his pulse surged. The tiny corner of territory to which he had attached the most fleeting wisp of comfort, the six square feet of familiarity he had established in the middle of the bus, had been invaded. Somebody was in his seat.
He marched the rest of the way down the bus aisle to the bearded, long-haired, dusty old man reclining in the left-side aisle seat with his knees pressed up against the seatback in front of him. “That’s my seat,” Josh said.
The man looked Josh in the eyes for a moment with his eyebrows raised. “No assigned seats on the bus, son.”
“Yeah, I know, but I was sitting there, I left my bag there,” Josh said.
“You mean that thing?” the man asked, pointing at Josh’s navy blue backpack now sitting on the floor in the middle of the aisle. “I wouldn’t leave that laying around. Someone might take your iPod or your glasses or, what’s that other thing in there? Some sort of blankie?”
“It’s a stuffed squirrel… How did you know what’s in my bag?”
The man shrugged.
Josh clenched his fists. “What’s your problem dude? You looking for trouble here? Just give me my seat back.”
The man looked down at his knee and brushed a fly off of his jeans. “Sorry, dude, not moving.”
Josh stared at the top of the man’s head, then lost the battle. “Asshole,” he said.
The man laughed. “I’ve been called worse.”
Josh picked up his bag and took the seat directly behind the man. The bus lurched as the driver shifted it into drive and they left the lot.
When the bus driver announced that the next stop would be “Newark,” Josh leapt out of his seat, grabbed his bag, and exited the bus. As he stood in front of the bus station that lay, as far as he knew, hundreds of miles away from his actual destination, he took time to analyze the decision. The simple answer was that he had been sleeping, misheard the announcement, thought the driver had said “New York,” and, after the nap-induced tragedy he had experienced back home, overreacted with a snap decision that left him quite a few miles short of his ultimate destination. The actual answer was that New York City was too big and Josh was too scared. “Newark” was the closest thing he could find to an escape hatch on the back of the bus. It was that or pop out one of the “In case of fire” windows, dive out, and roll down the shoulder of the freeway. But Newark’s cracked pavement, dirty streets, and industrial skyline provided little relief. This had been a terrible idea.
According to the movies, step one was always to get a cab. Stand on the curb, wave, get in and say an address. “Twelfth and Rockefeller, please. Forty-first and seventy-seventh, take the tunnel.” That wasn’t going to happen, so Josh started walking. He had to find lodging, and there had to be something close by.
Two blocks later he found a Best Western, although not one of those nice Best Westerns like they have along Highway 29 outside of Thorp or Stanley. This one looked old, with two stories of rooms encircling the parking lot. All the doors opened to the outside. Josh had stayed in hotels exactly eleven times in his life, and the doors had never opened to the outside. He swallowed and walked into the office.
“Can I help you?” asked the middle-aged Korean man behind the counter.
“Can I get a room?”
“You have a credit card?”
“Uhh, no, but I have plenty of cash.”
“No credit card, no room. You’re too young. What do I do if you trash the place?”
“Sir, I promise I won’t trash the place. Please. I only need to be here for a few nights,” he said. “My uncle has something for me, or he knows someone who will.”
“Sure, but then you have a party and I get screwed. Nope. Not going to happen.”
Josh’s voice wavered. “Look, please, I don’t know this city at all, I don’t know where to go, seriously, I promise I will leave the room nicer than I found it, you won’t even need to clean it…”
The man shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “Sorry.”
A deep, pathetic frown pulled Josh’s face down. He took a few deliberate breaths, and tried to clear his throat, but it was too tight. He huddled into the corner of the room between the wall and the wire brochure rack, pulled out his phone, and dialed his home number.
Six rings later, the answering machine picked up. “Hi, you’ve reached Jim and family, please leave a message.” Josh sniffled, mostly real, only a little strategic.
“Dad, this is Josh.” His eyes watered. “I’m in New Jersey, I guess, and I can’t get a hotel room.” His nose ran. “I’m sorry I was such a dick at the bus station, but I really don’t know what to do.” He closed his eyes tight, squeezing tears out of the corners. “I came really far, but without a credit card I’m totally stuck.” He covered his face with his free hand. “I know you can’t come get me or anything, but I don’t know what to do. Just please call me.” Josh hung up the phone and put it back in his pocket. He held his head with both hands, then felt a tap on his shoulder.
The front desk man had come out from behind his counter and held a key at arm’s length in front of him. “That was pathetic,” he said.
“You can have a room. Fine. But I am serious. No parties. No funny business. I’m serious.”
“Thank you,” said Josh. He took the key and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket.
Two hours later Josh stood in front of the ice machine in a little outdoor alcove when a teenage girl in a green tank top and a noticeably short jean skirt asked him, “Are you staying here too? Do you know if there are any parties here tonight?”
Josh tripped backwards and let the ice machine door slam shut. “No, no parties that I know of,” he said.
The girl moaned. “This place sucks.” She grabbed handfuls of her short, bleached hair, and when she let go, the tufts held their chaotic angles.
“Yeah,” said Josh, “this place sucks.”
The girl slid her hands into the small pockets on the front of her skirt. “So what’s your name?”
“Josh. Nice to meet you.” He held out his hand to shake the girl’s.
She looked at the offering with a small smirk, the grabbed it and shook it with comical firmness. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m Jess. Well, Jessica, but, you know, Jess.”
“Yep, my name’s pretty… awesome.”
Josh shook his head and smiled like a buffoon. “No, I meant… Never mind.” He checked his ice bucket. “Alright then, I guess I’ll see you later.”
“Not so fast, speedy.” Jess grabbed his upper arm and sent tingles shooting throughout his body. “You didn’t even tell me where you’re from.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. I’m actually from Wisconsin.”
“That’s a state, right?”
“Yeah, by Minnesota and Illinois. Chicago. We have lots of farms and cows and stuff.”
“Sounds pretty sweet,” said Jess.
“Where are you from?” asked Josh.
“I’m from Hoboken, but my mom just got arrested for her fifth DUI, so I have to live with my dad for awhile. But he can’t get into his new place for a couple weeks, so we’re staying here until then, I guess.”
“Wow.” Josh shifted the ice bucker to his other arm. “A couple kids at my school have divorced parents, so I know…”
“They’re not married. Whatever. She’s a bitch, and my dad is pretty cool, except this place totally sucks and there’s no one around to hang out with.”
“Well, I think I’ll be here for at least a couple days, if you want to…you know…hang out or something. We could hang out, if you wanted.”
“Great.” Jess smoothed her skirt over her thighs. “Where should we… hang out?”
Josh looked around the broken parking lot, then pointed at the small, shrub-enclosed patio off of the main office. “They’ve got chairs over there.”
“But you’ve got that bucket of ice.”
“Oh yeah. Right.”
“You should probably put that back in your room.”
“Of course. Duh,” Josh said.
“We could probably just hang out there, then.”
“Okay, sure, if you want to, I guess that would work,” said Josh. The ice in his bucket rattled.
“Do you have any booze?” Jess asked.
“No, I’m sorry. And I’m only nineteen. How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” she said. “That’s okay, I might be able to find something later.”
“Cool, cool,” said Josh. “I’m in 211, just up these stairs, if you want to follow me. If that’s okay.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Jess said.
Josh’s opinion of the big city bloomed as he started up the stairs. His little town had plenty of stories about this aspect of city life, the drugs, alcohol, and sex that grew in the corners between the skyscrapers. These were not stories that were shared at the gas station or the Legion Hall. These were stories about so-and-so’s sister or cousin that were shared in hushed tones over coffee in so-and-so’s kitchen or over lite beers at so-and-so’s dad’s fire ring. Josh had found them as unbelievable as the stories of knifepoint muggings and celebrity encounters. Until now.
Josh led the way up the stairs. “So, are you going to school this fall?”
“Well, yeah…” Jess paused. “I mean, I still haven’t decided where I’m going, maybe a technical college or something.”
“Sure, sure. I’m thinking about the same thing. When I get back, maybe I’ll move to Wausau or Stevens Point or something. Or maybe something around here.” Josh reached his door, shifted the ice bucket into his left hand, and reached into his pocket for his key card. “What are you going to study…”
A loud, terrifying shout interrupted his question. “What the FUCK is going on?” A rough, tan-skinned guy in jeans and a black t-shirt raced up the stairs at the pair. Josh dropped his key card and took a step back.
Jess stepped in front of him. “Dad, don’t…”
“Shut your mouth, little lady.” Jess’s dad shoved her aside. He lurched into Josh’s face. Josh retreated into the doorframe of his room as far as he could. The man jabbed Josh in the sternum with his finger. “I asked you what the fuck you think you’re doing.”
“We were just hanging out, I don’t even…”
“Bullshit. You’re taking her to your room, hotshot? You know how old she is?”
“She’s fourteen, asshole, and I will kick the shit out of you.”
“No, sir, really, I didn’t mean anything,” said Josh. He talked as fast as he could. “I just met her, and she said she wanted to hang out and that was it, seriously, I swear, that was it.”
Jess’s dad looked Josh up and down as he shivered in the doorway like a cornered rabbit. Then the old man relaxed a little, like the threat represented by this skinny white kid was not worth the energy. “You stay the fuck away from her. Got me?”
“Yeah, absolutely, I totally, totally got you. I’m really, really sorry.” Josh turned his wide eyes to the ground. “Really sorry.”
Jess’s dad grabbed his daughter by her upper arm. “Seriously, what’s your problem?” He pulled her with him toward the staircase. Jess looked over her shoulder at Josh and mouthed, “Sorry.”
Josh shook so violently he had to try three times to pick up the keycard off the ground, and try four times to slide it into the door slot. He opened the door a crack, slipped in, and slammed it. He took several deep breaths.
He jumped when his phone rang. He let it ring five times before he answered it.
“Josh, it’s dad. I got your message. Is everything okay?”
“That’s kind of a funny question,” said Josh.
As usual, Josh’s dad wasn’t listening. “I finally got ahold of uncle Rick. He’s out on Long Island, which is right over there near New York, I’m pretty sure. He said he’s got some work for you at his shop as soon as you can make it up there. How about that? Didn’t I tell you everything would work out?”
Josh slipped off his shoes and set them next to the door. He walked over to the bed with the faded floral comforter, smoothed the corner with his hand, and sat down. “Yeah, dad, sounds good.”
“So… Are you okay? I couldn’t make out your message. Is everything going okay?”
Josh paused and looked around room, the yellowed ceiling and flaking plaster, the stained carpet and cracked window. He zipped open his backpack and ran his hand over his clothes and Squirrely.
“Josh?” his dad asked.
“Yeah, dad, everything’s going pretty good.”