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Afternoons Tina opens the back door and walks across the gravel in her open-toed slippers to the edge of the wild grass that separates the house from the highway. There are no people out here -- the nearest house is a half-mile off -- there's just the road, a bypass that skirts the heart of the town. But by this time of the day she's had her fill of housework and television shows and especially the muffled thumps that come from behind the refrigerator every once in a while. Tina is afraid they're rats. She keeps intending to mention them to Richard, but the noises never seem to happen after he comes home.
Tina had thought there was a chain-link fence between the house and the highway when she first arrived here, but she realizes now the fence is on the other side of the road, guarding the large ditch that runs between the highway and a dense cluster of trees. She'll refuse to have a baby here, she thinks. Not that they've talked about kids yet. But when they do, she'll tell Richard it's too dangerous. Semis on their way to the interstate a hundred miles east roll by so close, and at all times of the day and night. Three of them speed by in succession as she's standing there. The first two drivers lean forward a little to get a better look at her as they pass. The third one actually slows down and stops. The side of the truck reads Arcata, Nevada. The driver leans over and rolls down his passenger-side window. He's an older man, maybe fifty, with a day's growth speckling his chin and cheeks.
"Hi there," he says with a broad smile.
Tina smiles back, but only briefly.
"You look like you need a lift," the trucker says.
"No, thank you."
"Heading toward Omaha?"
"No," says Tina. "I'm not going anywhere."
"It's not safe, a pretty girl out here all by herself."
When it's clear the truck driver won't be discouraged, Tina turns and begins walking back to the house.
"Could be fun," he calls behind her, and then lets out a laugh. She hears the truck rumble to life and go on its way. When she reaches the door, she looks back and spots it just as it takes the bend and disappears into the trees.
She returns to the kitchen. The chicken will burn if she doesn't watch it. She lifts it from the oven pan with two forks and drops it on the waiting platter. It's burnt across the top and Tina swears. She doesn't think she'll ever get the hang of cooking. She strains the peas and divides them up between the two plates set on the table. She opens the jellied cranberry sauce and scoops out two helpings. She had to go to three stores to find it. "People don't eat it here," Richard told her.
She stops suddenly, hearing an approaching semi. She goes to the kitchen window. The truck stretches across her view and is gone in an instant. When she turns around again, she gasps and grabs her chest. Richard is there, on the threshold between the kitchen and the living room.
"Didn't you hear the car?" he says. He's in his driving examiner's uniform, a light blue short-sleeved shirt all officially patched and badged by the state of Nebraska, and dark blue pants that Tina thinks make his ass look fat, unlike his navy uniform, which made him look slender.
"God," he says. He shakes his head and drapes his jacket across the back of the kitchen chair. He grabs a beer from the refrigerator and sits down at the table. "Today was like....really. I'm almost too tired to eat."
"There's a ton of food here, Richard."
He nods. "I'll have a little." He twists the cap from his bottle of beer.
Tina slices the chicken. It takes her a few minutes, and when she's done the bird is hacked terribly. She looks at Richard. He's reading the label on his beer bottle. He's a label-reader, Tina has noticed. She goes to the refrigerator, takes out the margarine and a beer for herself, and sits down.
"This guy comes in today," Richard says after forking some peas into his mouth. "Big biker-type fella with a Harley Davidson t-shirt and this big droopy moustache. Worst driver I've ever seen. He kept punching the gas pedal and lurching the car ahead. Then he would slam the brakes on when he came to a stop sign. I told him, you're being tested on how smooth you operate the vehicle too, you know. Chicken's burnt."
"I know."
"So finally he turns into the wrong lane on a one-way street. That's a violation. I explain that to him when we get back. Then he says, you mean you're flunking me? And I said, no, you flunked yourself. Then all of a sudden he bursts out in tears. This big biker-type guy. I couldn't believe it. His learner's permit said he was 37 years old, for chrissake." He stops to peel the burnt skin from his chicken.
Tina looks up from her food. "I wonder why a 37-year-old man would be getting his license now," she says. "I mean, how'd he get by before?"
Richard waves her off. "I've seen 60-year-old ladies come in and get their license."
"I know, but I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about something completely different."
"I've seen a few women get teary-eyed when they failed the test. But you should of seen this guy crying. And not just crying, but really, you know, crying."
"All I was saying is that it's pretty hard to get by in life without a driver's license if you're a 37-year-old man. Especially out here. I mean, you've got a job. A family."
Richard shrugs. "I don't know, honey. I don't get into the personal stuff." He picks up the drumstick with his fingers and gnaws at it.
Tina scrapes lines in her cranberry sauce with her fork. After a minute, she says, "So then what happened?"
Richard pauses, still holding the drumstick in front of his mouth. "I got out of the car," he says. He puts the chicken down and picks up the beer. His greasy fingerprints stain the bottle. "Some old guy was with him. Probably his dad. He stopped me and asked what happened. I told him, he turned into the wrong lane on a one-way street. That's a violation."
"Maybe you could have let that slide," Tina says.
"I don't write the laws, honey."
Tina thinks the license must have been pretty important to the man, but she drops it. Richard fills his mouth with beer, letting it down his throat little by little. Tina's never known anyone who drank that way. All of a sudden she hears two very distinct thumps from behind the refrigerator. This is the first time the noises have happened while Richard is home. She looks to him. He's straining forward, reading the cranberry sauce can.
"Didn't you hear that?" Tina says.
Richard looks up with questioning eyes.
"The noises," she says. "From behind the refrigerator. I'm afraid we might have rats, Richard. My mother said they have rats as big as dogs out here."
Richard laughs once through his nostrils. "This isn't Staten Island, Tina. There are no rats here." He shakes his head. "Your mother," he says, and he's right, Tina knows. She had long ago ceased to believe her mother "only meant well," as she always claimed, by the things she said, especially where Richard was involved. She knew Tina was frightened of rats ever since she was a little girl and found one in her hamper. But when that failed to dissuade her from Richard, her mother said, "You're marrying him too fast, Bettina. He's a hick. What's he gonna do when he gets outta the navy?" And then, when Tina announced she was moving with her newly discharged husband back to his tiny hometown of Bradenton, Nebraska, where his brother could get him a good job, she said, "Do you really think you can be happy out there?" To which Tina silently replied, "At least it would get me away from you."
"Then what are the noises?" Tina presses.
"I didn't hear anything," says Richard.
"That's because you don't listen!"
Richard leans forward and puts his hand on the side of her face. "Don't get upset, honey. I'll take a look behind there if you want."
"You will?"
"Okay." Tina looks down at her plate. She hasn't eaten at all.
"But not tonight." He leans back in his chair and yawns. "I'm too tired." he says. "I just wanna go to bed."
"It's not even eight o'clock yet."
"So what?"
"I don't understand how being a driving examiner can tire you out so much!"
"It takes a lot of concentration!" With that he gets up from the table. He goes to the sink to wash the chicken grease off his hands. When he returns, he puts his hands on her shoulders and they smell like dish detergent. "I'm sorry, honey. Maybe after I lay down for awhile, we'll go out for a drive or something." He kisses her on the top of her head and shuffles off to the bedroom.
Tina stays at the table a minute, her arms folded across her chest. Then she gets up and clears the dishes. She tosses them into the sink recklessly, but none of them break. She turns on the garbage disposal and leaves it on long after all the plates are scraped. She supposes she's hoping Richard won't be able to sleep from all of the noise. But in no time, even over the garbage disposal, she hears him snoring. She knows they won't go anywhere tonight. Once Richard falls asleep, nothing can wake him up.
She snaps off the disposal and fills the sink with water to soak the chicken pan. She hears the thumps again, three this time. She spins around and glowers at the refrigerator. She looks down at the space between it and the stove and expects to see the snout of a rat poking out. But she doesn't want to see it, and she hurries to the back door and throws it open. A semi has just passed. She sees its round red taillights disappear -- first one, then the other -- behind the distant foliage. It's getting darker by the minute now. She looks up -- already there are more stars in the sky than she's seen on the darkest night in Staten Island. The light from the kitchen illuminates the gravel path. She walks it and stands with her toes on the edge of the wild grass. She can still make out the grasshoppers as they leap away from her.
She hears an approaching engine and looks down the highway. She can tell from the loudness that it's not a truck but a regular car, a four-door sedan as it comes into view, blue or possibly a deep purplish red in the fading light. The car doesn't have its lights on and takes the turn tightly, then instead of straightening out it keeps going, into the chain-link fence on the other side of the highway, knocking it down, and disappearing into the large ditch directly across from where Tina is standing.
Tina doesn't know what to do. It happened so quickly, and with practically no noise, that for a moment she's not sure it really happened at all. But she gathers herself, thinking first that she should run across the highway, which is empty at the moment, to see if anyone is hurt. Then she decides she should run in and wake up Richard. He'll know what to do.
But before she can move she spots arms, and then a head, clambering up from the ditch. When the man makes it to the road, he stands up. He's the man Richard had denied his license earlier that day -- Tina is sure of it. He fits the description exactly: a large droopy moustache and a big barrel chest that sags a little in a black Harley Davidson t-shirt. He in fact appears just as Tina imagined him when Richard told her the story. The man peers up and down the highway, then brushes himself off. He looks up suddenly and spots Tina standing across from him. She thinks she should ask him if he's okay, but from the look on his face he does not seem glad to see her.
They stare at each other a minute, each not quite believing the other's presence. Tina is ready to be afraid, ready to turn and run back to the house screaming for Richard. But the man makes no move toward her. He looks up and down the highway again, then back at her.
Tina opens her mouth, then shuts it and then opens it again and calls, "Are you hurt?"
The man doesn't respond. Tina thinks he must dazed from the crash.
"Is there anyone else in the car?" she calls. The man looks at her for a moment, then shakes his head no. In the glare of the streetlight she thinks she sees something shiny running down the side of his face. "Your head," she says.
The man touches his forehead. She hears him say, "Oh God."
"You need help," says Tina. "I'll call 911."
"No!" the man says. "Don't call anyone!" He suddenly seems frantic and starts across the highway, toward her. Tina backs away, almost tripping as she turns. She hurries toward the open kitchen door. But behind her, the urgency dies. She looks back. The man is on his knees, on the double yellow line in the middle of the highway. He is looking down, his hand against his head, the five fingers splayed out; it looks as though a big starfish is stuck to the side of his face.
Tina watches him a moment. And then, inevitably, she hears the distant sound of an engine. She knows it's a tractor- trailer. The man makes no attempt to move.
"Hey!" she yells. "Get out of the road!"
But the man does not seem to hear her, and still doesn't move.
Tina darts from the door, across the gravel, across the wild grass and onto the smooth asphalt. The man does not notice as she approaches. She grabs him by the arm and tries to pull him to his feet.
"Let's go!" she says. "There's a truck coming!"
"No," says the man. "Leave me here. I'll be alright." He looks up at her, still holding his head, and again is sad that she's there.
She is without words, she does not know how to speak, but she's just pulling, grunting with the strain, not even breathing, the engine getting louder and the headlights slowly exploding in the corner of her vision. She thinks that she should run away, save herself, be scared. But she is only pulling and pulling like the man is bolted to the ground.
A hot hiss is let into the air. Tina finally looks toward the rig. It is slowing down, and comes to a stop, well ahead of the two people in the road.
The man looks into the headlights, then down again.
The truck blows its horn.
"Come on," Tina says. The man gets up with a struggle, one leg first, then the other, Tina helping. She holds him with two hands as he begins to walk, holding him by the bicep, thinking that its thick and bulky and little soft, like someone who lifted weights for a long time and then stopped. It is only when they get through the grass and onto the gravel that the truck begins to move. It creeps by, curious, until the woman and the man disappear inside the house.
"Sit down," Tina says. "Please sit down." The man falls into a kitchen chair without ever looking for it. She examines the cut on his head. In the light she can see it is not bleeding, only a little bloody. "You should go to the hospital," she says. "I'll call an ambulance."
But when she picks up the phone on the kitchen wall, the man jumps up, grabs it from her and hangs it up. "Don't do that," he says.
Tina steps back. She thinks she should run in and wake Richard, or at least scream for him. But the man, expended from his outburst, falls back into the chair and groans.
"You're hurt," she says.
"It doesn't matter. I'm not hurt bad enough to die." He seems to regret this.
"I could take you to the hospital myself. Or my husband could." She gestures vaguely in the direction of the bedroom.
"We should at least call the police."
"Well, your car is out there in the ditch."
"That's not my car."
"Is it your father's?"
The man looks up at her. "How'd you know that?"
"I didn't. It just looked like an old man's car. Maybe we should call him."
"No." He makes like he's going to get up again, but can't seem to bring himself to it. "Please don't."
Tina can see his eyes filling with wetness. "Okay," she says. "We don't have to call anyone."
Suddenly the refrigerator thumps three times. They both look over. The thumps have never sounded so deliberate to Tina, so evenly spaced.
"I don't know why it does that," says Tina, thinking it will take the man's mind off his troubles. "Do you?"
Tina looks at the refrigerator again, then back at the man.
"My dad would know," he says.
"Does he know about refrigerators?"
"No. But he would know what's wrong. Some people can just figure out things." The man grabs his head again, as if a sudden sharp pain had entered it. "I don't know how they do it," he says. "They're just born knowing things. While the rest of us don't know nothing."
Tina is surprised not so much by what the man is saying as by the fact that he's talked so much all at once, and by his soft, almost lisping voice. He is on the verge of tears again and Tina tries hard to think of something else to say.
"Where were you headed?"
The man wipes his eyes. "East," he says. "I was gonna drive as far as Omaha, then hop a bus from there. Someone told me that people back East care less if you were an inmate or not. Here, when people look at you, it's all they can think of."
Tina feels her body stiffen. The refrigerator thumps again.
"Do you think that could be rats?" she says.
The man thinks a minute, then shakes his head. "Rats make more of a scraping sound. I know the sound of rats."
"You do?" She says this with hope.
The man nods.
"I think you're probably right." It just makes sense to her. She thinks she should not feel as relieved as she does. "Do you want something to eat? I've got a ton of food. I'd hate for it to go to waste."
The man doesn't want any food. "I just wanna get out of here, out of this town, before the cops come after me. I don't wanna go back to prison."
Stealing a car, crashing it, driving with no license -- Tina knows he's right. The refrigerator makes its sounds again but that doesn't bother her now. She goes to the back door. She opens it and looks out at the spot across the highway where the fence is knocked down. "Maybe the car is okay. Maybe we can call a tow truck to pull you out of the ditch." But as soon as she says that, she realizes that won't be possible. Even if she get a tow truck to come out here in the middle of the night, that would undoubtedly attract the police.
"No," the man says. "We ain't calling no one."
"Maybe we could get the car out ourselves," she says. "I have some rope around here somewhere. We could use my husband's car to pull it out."
"Your husband's car?"
"We could try. Let's at least go look at your car." Tina grabs a flashlight from the kitchen drawer and helps the man up. They walk together to the end of the gravel path, where the man stops. Tina can see he is looking at Richard's car, parked on the adjacent side of the house. "Come on," she says, and the man allows her to take him across the grass, then across the highway. Tina is wondering what the man will do if his car can't be retrieved. They arrive at the ditch and Tina shines the light onto the wreck. It is instantly apparent the car cannot be driven again. The passenger side is completely caved in, the windshield is gone except for the top corner of the driver's side, which clings like a cobweb. She thinks it's a miracle the man is not hurt more than he is.
She wonders what he will do now. She does not know what to do but follow him back across the highway. He is looking at Richard's car. Once they reach the grass, she hears an engine approaching. She knows from the sound that it's a semi. She waves the flashlight at it. The man, who has already reached the gravel path, turn to look at her as the rig comes to a stop. The driver rolls down his window. "Hi there," he says to Tina. "Need a ride?"
"Are you going to Omaha?" she says.
"Sure am." He pops open the door on the passenger side.
Tina turns to the man and signals for him to come. "I don't need a ride, but my brother does."
The driver makes an expression like he does not understand.
"His car broke down while he was visiting, and he really needs to get back home," says Tina, not knowing where the words are coming from. "I'd be really grateful to you. In return, trip, you can stop by here on your way back and I'll give you a home-cooked meal."
The driver seems charmed. "Well," he says. "Are you a good cook?" But the smile disappears from his face quickly the man as he appears out of nowhere.
"All I ask is that you get me to Omaha," the man says to the driver, his back to Tina. She thinks he's somehow threatening the driver, who's staring down at the man's pants. She remembers seeing something hidden by the hang of his t-shirt.
"Just get me to Omaha and I'll take it from there." The driver nods. The man climbs up into the rig.
He turns to Tina. "Thanks," he says.
"Sure," says Tina.
"You know," he says, "it could be a rat that's trapped. Sometimes when they're trapped, they'll flop around like that."
The driver is staring at Tina with pleading eyes, but before she can say anything the man pulls the door shut and Tina watches as the truck rolls away, slowly at first, and disappears around the bend.
She returns to the house and puts the flashlight back in the drawer. She washes the last of the dishes, dries them and puts them away. As she walks by the refrigerator, it thumps several times. Tina decides to put an end to it once and for all.
She stands perfectly still and waits for the noise again. When it happens, she grabs the refrigerator. Using all her strength, she succeeds in pulling it back a few inches. She grabs the flashlight from the drawer again, along with the hammer. She shines the light behind the refrigerator. There is nothing there but a thick gray layer of grime. In the morning she will pull it out all the way and clean behind there.
She shuts off all the lights and goes to the bedroom. She climbs under the covers and is surprised to find Richard's eyes are open. "What's going on out there, Tina?" he says.
It takes Tina a moment to think what she should say. "We might have a guest for supper sometime this week," she decides.
"What?" He is already falling back to sleep.
"If we do, I'll make chicken again. I'll try not to burn it."