Mute as a Stone
It was a humpback whale of a thing. At one time it might have been black or dark blue, but over the years it had acquired a purple patina and looked like an eggplant on wheels. Its radio picked up Chicago at night—if you smacked it just right—and a plastic St Christopher stood on the dash. A trailer hitch rose from its rear bumper like a rusted fist.
Hank Stillwell loved the old car, and patted it kindly whenever Marge hinted that perhaps it had seen better days. “They don’t make them like this anymore,” he told her, and Marge would answer: “Thank God.”Hank braced the steering wheel with his knees and fired up a Lucky Strike. He tossed the spent match at the ashtray but missed, grazing the side of Marge’s bare foot. “Sorry,” he said.
His wife flipped the sun visor down. She craned her neck toward the vanity mirror, applying more gloss to her wine-colored lips.
“This car. I swear,” she said.
Roy paid no attention to them. He sat in the back seat, watching in awe as a red Chevy Impala flew by. Roy imagined that it was a rocket ship, leaving a fiery trail as it vanished around the next curve. He took his model airplane out of the tin lunch box which he always carried it in. When he held the airplane out the window, the plastic propeller made a whirring sound, and felt like it was flying under its own power. He’d made the plane out of a balsa wood kit and Elmer’s glue. He’d made lots of other things too, such as houses for his Lionel set, and drawings that his mother hung all over the trailer. When Roy was only eight years old, everyone said he was as smart as a whip. He had a bright future, people in the trailer camp said. He’d make a name for himself and get out of this lousy camp. But there was a hitch. Not one single word had passed through his lips since his father had joined the Navy and shipped overseas.
Roy remained as mute as a stone.
“Keep that thing in the car, Roy, godammit,” Hank shouted over his shoulder.
“Hank! He’s only playing with it.”
Hank eyed her sideways.
Marge Stillwell wore red Capris, and a checked shirt open at the neck. The shirttails were tied just above her waist, leaving a narrow band of flesh. The white kerchief wrapped around her head kept her hair-do inplace.
Hank tugged at his white sailor’s cap, and then jerked a thumb toward his son. “Hell, Marge. He’s goin’ to lose his damn arm, holding that thing out the window that way. I’m just watching out for his safety, is all.”
Marge pursed her lips.
Hank fixed his sight the road.
Draping his hand over the steering wheel, he glanced down at the odometer, and did some quick math in. It was forty more miles to Horseshoe Lake, and his stomach was rumbling already.
Chapter 2. The Galaxy Diner
Snail-shaped clouds hung low on the ridges that bordered the road. Hank scoured the landscape for someplace to eat. Marge hadn’t wanted to stop at the Perkins or Pancake House they’d passed—they were too dirty, she’d said. There were too many immigrants working at places like that. They had passed nothing since then but fallow pastures and sad-looking barns.
Hank steered the car through a curve, flooring the pedal to urge the old Plymouth uphill. As he crested the top of the ridge, a trio of buildings emerged on the side of the road, like three frogs peering out of a swamp. He flipped the blinkers, and jerked the steering wheel into the lot.
The Galaxy Diner was positioned between a Sinclair filling station, and a one-story shack called the House of Reptiles. It was once a railroad car, and now squatted on a foundation of loose concrete blocks. It looked as it as if the builder had forgotten to cement them in place, or maybe the owners had stiffed him and he’d walked off the job. The place seemed to sag in the middle bit, and the aluminum siding was dented in spots. But it gleamed like a new nickel in the harsh morning sun.
Marge Stillwell squinted and made a pained face.
“Really, Hank,” she said.
Hank eyeballed the diner, and motioned toward a pair of semis parked near the edge of the lot. If truckers ate there, then the food would be fine, he told her.
Marge frowned. She’d heard that kind of bullshit before, she told him, adding, “Maybe they’re not in the diner at all. Maybe they’re in the “House of Reptiles,” buying themselves a new snake.”
“Cute, Marge. Real fucking cute.”
“Watch your language around the child, okay?”
“Why the hell should I? It ain’t like he’s goin’ to repeat it nowhere.”
“Don’t start Hank, okay? It’s much too nice of a day.”
“Yeah, well,” Hank, said, with a glance the mirror at Roy. “You know what I heard a smart guy say one time? He said that there ain’t nothing comes to the dog that don’t bark.'"
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard anyone say,” Marge said as she got out of the car.
Hank killed the engine and swung out of the driver’s side door. He leaned his arms on the hood, and adjusted his shades. “Oh Marge, sweetheart,” he said mockingly. “I’m so sorry I didn’t come ‘round like a gentleman, and open up the door up for you.”
“Knock it off,” Marge said.”
The young waitress stood at the end of the booth. Her cotton shorts and a white tee-shirt looked as if they were painted onto her frame, and a name tag pinned above her full young breast read, ‘Hi! Call me Dawn.’
“Good morning, Dawn.” Hank beamed at her, tipping his Navy cap back.
Marge rolled her eyes, and turned to examine the waitress. Her hair was long and blond and brushed back from her face, and held in place by a plastic barrette. Her nails were done-up the color of mother of pearl. The waitress pulled a pad and a pen out of a short stained apron she wore. The plastic pen was chewed to a pulp on the end.
Marge sat up, as cold and stiff as an icicle. Her shoulder blades nearly sliced leatherette booth.
“Good morning young lady,” She said stiffly.
“You want something to drink?”
Marge was nearly forty years-old, but admitted to just twenty nine. Hank didn’t give a jackrabbit’s balls how old his wife was, as long as she kept her figure, and still did those things to him with her hands. He didn’t care that she was so much older than him. She taught him how to do things that he’d never known. She was more experienced, he thought, improving each year like fine wine.
Marge watched the girl closely as she returned with the menus. Goddamn flirt, she thought. Teenage tramp like in the movies these days. “I’ll have the Spanish omelet,” she said, and ordered the usual eggs-over easy for Hank. She slid the menu across the table to Roy, and leaned in to see where he’d point. “Is that what you want, honey?” she said quietly.
Most folks thought they had to shout at someone who did not speak, but his mother knew better. She had the patience of a saint, that’s what folks had always said about her.
“And the blueberry pancakes,” Marge said.
Dawn scribbled the order into her pad and returned Marge’s glare, pirouetting toward the kitchen door. Hank craned his neck, watching the waitress sashay away.
“You’re going to throw your neck out,” Marge snapped.
Hank grinned as he slid from the booth. His wife had some nerve passing judgment on the waitress, considering the way she herself was decked out today. “I think I’ll go get me a paper,” he said.
Marge dipped a hand into her bag and drew out the folding fan that Hank had sent on ‘shore leave’ once. Now It was spotted with pocketbook lint. She tapped it on the edge of the windowsill a couple of times to knock off the dust. By the time her husband returned she was fanning her face
“It’s awful stuffy in here,” she complained. “In fact, it’s hotter than hell. You at least could have found us a place with air condition,” she said.
“It’s not that hot, Marge,” he replied, thumbing through the paper until he reached the sports. His face felt cool, splashed with the Old Spice that Marge had bought for his twenty-fourth birthday.
“Well, it feels awful stuffy to me,” she replied. “I can’t hardly breathe in this place. You can take it, you’re used to that jungle weather.”
Hank rolled his eyes. “How many times I got to remind you, Marge? I was on a ship. A ship, Marge. They float on the water, you know? ” Hank pointed to his canvas cap. I was in the Navy, remember?"
“I’m sorry,” she answered. I must’ve forgot.”
Hank reached under the table and slapped her leg.
“You always forget,” he said.
Roy leaned on the glass and looked out at the gravel parking lot. He inspected his father’s old car. He compared the Stillwell’s car to the other cars in the parking lot and figured that their car looked like some old dinosaur. Marge never used the car when Hank was away. It sat next to the trailer collecting dust. Kids in the trailer camp laughed at it and pelted it with eggs. They draped it with tissue paper, and wrote ‘wash me’ on the windshield. It was always Roy who had to clean the mess.
Roy ached to get out of the diner, and back on the road to Horseshoe Lake. Ever since his parents had told him about their trip to Horseshoe Lake, a vision of the place had been growing in him like a seed. It would be a magical land, where promises always came true. He was certain that Horseshoe Lake would be a land of beauty and peace.
Chapter 3. The Cadillac
Precious minutes were ticking away while his mother and father sipped coffee and talked. They were always talking, it seemed. They talked sometimes about things that Roy did not understand, and sometimes they said hurtful things to each other. But most of the time they just talked.
Roy Stillwell studied his father as Hank raised his coffee to his lips. A package of Lucky Strikes was rolled in the sleeve of his tee-shirt. A crimson heart was tattooed on his biceps, crossed by a ribbon upon which the word “Marge” was inscribed. Hank had gotten the tattoo on shore leave, and just seeing it there on his arm made Roy feel safe. When his father arrived at his bedside each night, Roy wrapped his small hands around it, as if he could measure Hank’s love for his mother that way. Marge had no such mark etched onto her flesh, at least not that Roy ever saw. He wondered if this meant his father’s love was greater than his mother’s. He figured that the crimson heart bearing his mother’s name would be there forever, too, since everyone knew that you could never erase a tattoo. It was permanent proof that Hank’s love would never die, which was something Roy needed to know if he ever dared to speak again.
He pressed his cheek on the plate glass window in the Galaxy Diner, feeling the warmth of the sun on the side of his face. He held a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice in one hand. He watched a long white convertible ease into the lot. It looked like a starship, with its fancy chrome grille throwing sparks in the sun.
Roy took a sip of the orange juice, gazing in awe at the flashy white car it looked familiar.The driver stepped out, then made his way across the gravel lot. The way he moved looked familiar too. Maybe Roy had seen him somewhere.“You posin’ for animal crackers?” Hank said.
Roy caught sight of the man’s face as he entered, and the orange juice fell from his hand.
Marge jolted forward and grabbed the glass.
“My goodness,” she said as she reached for a napkin. She saw fear in Roy’s face. “What is it, honey? You look like you just seen a ghost!” Marge followed his gaze. She noticed the man striding to the counter. “Oh, my god,” she muttered aloud..
Hank looked up from the paper, a puzzled expression on his brow. He glanced across the table at his wife. “What is it?” he said.
“Roy’s dropped his juice,”
“I can see that, Marge. I ain’t friggin’ blind.”
“Oh, what a mess,” Marge said.
“You’re getting it on my newspaper, Marge,” Hank complained. “Now, what the hell’s happening here?”
“I told you what’s happened. Roy’s dropped his juice. It must have been stress. Remember honey? The doctor said that Roy had stress.”
“Stress,” Hank said, and lit a Lucky Strike.