Laughter of the Giants
Her head is full of wretched thoughts. His car screams down the desert road so straight and flat it just might run them off the earth. Their speed is such that even air so thin becomes a wall they push against, nothing but night’s darkness beyond the edge of asphalt.
“I want to see a movie when we get to town,” she says. “An old one. I mean real old. One where Cary Grant wears a suit.”
Charlie says nothing. The car’s interior smells like grilled meat. He’s watching the road closely, as if battling it. It’s good of him to do that, to spare them the wasted time the trip might otherwise take. He’s a gentleman to drive the way he does.
But then she has such awful thoughts, the kind she always has while on that solemn stretch of highway. She turns the dial up on the radio. Frankie Avalon manages to push a single note out through the speakers before Charlie smacks her hand and clicks it off. He says the rhythm breaks his concentration.
“Course the theaters don’t play movies from the first half of the century,” she says. “It used to be enough to see the giants on the big screen laugh and talk in black and white.”
“Shh…” Charlie says, so quietly she doesn’t so much hear him as she sees his lips pucker out to make the sound.
She turns towards the back seat.
“How’re you making out back there?” she says.
The boy peers wide-eyed at the road ahead. He leans forward in his seat and nods toward the windshield, as though annoyed by the question.
“We’ll get you cheesecake at the deli,” she says. “That sound good to you? A nice slice of cheesecake with the cookie crust.”
The boy keeps faithful watch, although she senses his fear of the speed that seems beyond all possible control. She remembers how it was to feel the air rush through the window in those early days. The hair she’d pin so carefully would fall apart behind her neck and whip across her face. And that was just the point.
“I’ll have a box of popcorn myself,” she says to no one. “And a cola.”
The talking does her good and takes her mind away from thoughts she feels ashamed for having. She draws a deep breath. The odor is the smell of high speed.
Charlie had not minded music so much that first date, some eight years ago. In fact he’d turned it up himself and sang along to Bill Haley, smiling as he glanced at her then down at the top button of her sweater. They ran out of gas that night, a misfortune that made Charlie curse and punch the wheel. He said he’d been having such a time he hadn’t noticed he was getting low. They’d pulled over to the side of that barren stretch of road, where the vastness of the dark space around them became suddenly apparent.
“Now they do all these movies up in Technicolor,” she tells the boy in the backseat, not bothered by the fact that he’s too busy mimicking his father’s movements to listen. His eyes scan the road with the same carnal intensity.
Charlie had no problem with music back in those days, and they’d sat together listening for several minutes. Her hair was a mess from the wind and she’d looked up to see the stars shining brightly overhead, feeling so still beneath them that she had to move for fear her heart might stop beating.
He’d said it could be upwards of an hour before another car might come along to help. It was she who threw the seat back, but then she couldn’t stand his fumbling from across his side of the stick shift. So she met him on the hood, pulled him in and held his hips so he could only surge towards the windshield. Afterwards she’d been a little put out when Charlie yanked a perfectly full gas can from the trunk and tipped it up into the tank. But then he drove so fast towards the town her indignation flew off in the breeze.
“They use these fancy cameras now,” she tells the boy. “Place the basic colors one atop the other until they blend just right.”
“I want to sit up there,” the boy says, finally looking at his mother with those gray, stormy eyes that seem a somehow perfect mixture of her light blue shade and Charlie’s dark brown.
Charlie slows the car and pulls over to the side of the road. He glances over and motions his head towards the back seat. She takes one good look at the red hood stretching out beyond the windshield, then opens her door and steps out into the night. The boy slinks out from the backseat and waits for his mother to switch. She takes a deep breath and wonders if this is the very spot, but even in the day there’d be no way to know for sure. The stars twinkle high above her head as she scoots into the backseat.
The car hurtles back onto the road, tires spitting grit as Charlie pounds the accelerator. That strong smell fills the hot, dark space where she now sits, far stronger than it had been up in front.
“You’ll get us tickets, won’t you, Charlie?” she asks. “It’s a large enough theater. Surely they’re playing something I can watch to fill my craving.”
The backseat bounces far more than the front, and she realizes she’d never sat in back except for when the car was stopped. In those casual encounters surely it was every bit as hot, only they’d shed every thread of clothes beforehand and shared the heat in ways that would’ve made them sweat even without it.
“Why have you rolled your window up?” she hollers at the boy.
“The wind made my ear hurt,” he replies.
She feels tucked away behind them, watching Charlie Jr. hold his hands at ten and five o’clock on an imaginary steering wheel. He pretends to stamp his foot down on the gas and stares up at his father.
“Give me a world of black and white,” she says. “Please, Charlie. Give me Fred Astaire. Gary Cooper. Cary Grant.”
She’s buried in the darkness they drag in their wake, staring out from it with eyes she can no longer steadily fix, her vision abuzz with the motor’s whining vibrations.
“I want to see them laugh, those pearly whites that shine so big and bright. I’d gladly watch them clutch their hats if nothing else, and talk and move as if they’re high upon a stage, clad in suits with hair as black as oil.”
She knows she’d vomit if she spoke another word, a wave of giddy nausea rising in her as her son mirrored her husband up front, neither of them looking back. Because she could not speak her mind returned to all the awful possibilities, the visions of the quick and painful end should either of the Charlie’s let the wheel move an inch.
She closes her eyes to let the reel inside her mind play out, sees metal twist and break, a sudden blaze to scorch the sand. When she opens them she sees the lights of town on the horizon. They grow and grow as the feeling overtakes her. She knows that like the nausea it will soon fade, but for the moment as they roll through the town’s main drag she’s sad to be there, sad to breathe, and sad to see the billboard full of movies she doesn’t know a thing about. She’s sad they made it into town.
About the author:
Damien Roos lives in Savannah, Georgia with his wife and two pets. His writing has appeared in The Petrichor Review, Pork & Mead Magazine, Gulf Stream Magazine, The Denver Post, and several other publications. He is at work on his first novel.