Pinballs on Pavement

By, Ashley Ellen Goetz

No traffic today. Maybe that’s a sign. I was hesitant at first as I drove. I slid my shaky hand out the window. Bay air flung itself into the car, flew through the bridge, slapped the garbage bag that leaned on a dusty pair of hiking boots and shifted a lamp on my back seat. I took in a huge breath of coastal air. Exhaled. I was headed to Denver. It would be better. Green. Happy. Grass everywhere. The wind whipped and swirled past the bridge trusses. I was leaving.

The air whirred through the windows like the memories that buzzed between my ears. Electrical impulses shot through my brain like a pinball upon release from the plunger. Points racked up and up and up. The ball disappeared into a warp zone, blasting a noise like a rocket, then zipped into the gutter.

I pushed it all down into the dark depths of my stomach, down through the soil, past the earth’s crust, and took another deep breath. Down, down. Down, down. The plunger re-engaged and launched. I couldn’t stand another day in that house. I couldn’t see another sad face. I left. I had Sharon by my side and together we headed out to start a new life. We brought rations of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, five to be exact, a few shirts, shorts and the pair of jeans I had on. I had grabbed a handful of dirty socks that I planned on cleaning, but probably wouldn’t. I had strapped my mattress to the roof of the tan Toyota. Sharon had her necessities and her music of course. We also had a floor full of Bob Dylan cassettes and a liter of Dr. Pepper. “The building blocks of life.” I thought. I looked back at the few things that littered the car. They were like crumbs compared to the baggage at home.

Sharon leaned next to me, propped on a pillow. I put my right arm around her and pulled her close. The wind rustled through her. She hummed a sleepy noise, slightly out of tune. I smiled for a moment. Then the ball hit the kickback and flew into a tunnel, shot over a few rollovers and hit a bumper, lights blinked.

I left pretty abruptly. I left the water. I left the faces. I left the hilly roads. I left the dogs. I left James. I left college. I left home. It’s not my home anymore. It’s merely a house. I left it. It’s back at the top of the hill on Jackson Street, leaning on its neighbor in sadness. They all stand there, day after day, relying on each other for support, through death, through denial, through quakes, through storms, in the rain, new coats of paint, bright yellow paint, blue paint, green paint, every year, a new color. Houses.

“At six p.m. tonight, James will come home to an empty house. An empty house that isn’t his.” I said to Sharon. “He will be afraid at first. He will think, now I have to be an adult. Now that everyone has left. Now that it’s over, now I will have to talk to Palmer. He will be scared stark.” Sharon looked away. She looked out the window. The wind blew past her long neck. “He should be the one that’s leaving. Technically it’s my house. It was my house long before he strolled in and stole my mom.” Sharon jerked aside without reply. We had been through so much, the two of us- Sharon and I. So many long nights. So many sad days. And she still sang so beautifully. It was really her that carried me through Dad’s death. Now Mom.

She stared at the ceiling, at the cigarette burns. “Those have been there since James sold me this car,” I told her. I stared for a moment at the sinewy holes in the fabric that reminded me of him. “I remember the night he burned those. I was fourteen. I almost pissed my pants. Do you want to hear it?” I drove over a bump and Sharon nodded at me. “Well, he was with one of his Oakland buddies, they had drank a little too much that afternoon. James was supposed to pick me up from school. They were late. The two of them lit cigarette after cigarette. Blaring music. They didn’t care that I was in the back.” Sharon listened intently.

She was good at listening. She looked at me, urging me to go on with the story. “That was his idea of parenting.” I said. “And they kept lighting cigarettes. And they kept speeding. The car was a coffin of smoke. They were burning around The Embarcadero so fast they didn’t even notice the cop. I stared at its flashing lights but didn’t say anything. Lights, flashing, flashing. They kept driving, flying around turns like it was a video game. Four squad cars finally stopped them from the front. At that point they put out their cigarettes on the roof of the car, burning those very holes. A cop drove me home and I didn’t see James for a week.”

I readjusted Sharon’s pillow. She sat up slightly and looked out the window. She remained quiet unless provoked. I let her be still. She had been quiet since Mom died. The plunger recharged and launched the ball, full blast, across the tilted surface. James was an awful parent. Luckily he wasn’t my real father. Dad never said goodbye, but he was there. He may have had his problems, but he was honest. Mom never got to say goodbye. Not to Dad, not to me.  She didn’t even see it coming. I didn’t say goodbye. Not to James. Not to San Francisco. Not to the tall, crowded, shit covered streets.

There were no yards either. If you put a salad on a sidewalk it’d be bigger than the yard. And before you even blinked twice a dog would probably have found it and taken a shit in it. Then there’d be ten other dogs, all pissed off because they didn’t get to shit in that salad. There’re so many dogs. So few yards. And pavement. Roads. Hills. Cement. Pavement. Dark. Sad. Dirty. Filthy. Fucking. Pavement.

Pavement that covers the green of the earth. Covers the life that tries to grow beneath it. It closes the green to the light. It buries it. It smears its dark, smooth surface over the true dirt. Over the rough surface of nature. Over life. And we build houses. We push away the nature and we live together on a plot of cement. And we wonder why it feels so cold. We wonder why we’re all so stiff to each other. People die right there on the road and we drive right past. We forget about it. Keep walking.

Damn pavement. You die on the pavement and then someone has the nerve to carve your name on a piece of it and stick it in the ground and call it a funeral. Thanks. Preserving, fucking memory. I don’t ever want my name on a stone. I will throw lightning bolts from the sky if someone tries that shit on me.

We passed Sacramento. I flipped the tape deck on. Play with fire, by The Rolling Stones, echoed through the frame of my tan, mangy Corolla. We drove around sharp turns. Sharon swayed back and forth to the music, humming quietly in the wind. I squeezed her tight. She slunk back, sleepily into the pillow next to me. The pinball shot up, left, right, lights lit, I had the high score.

I looked up at the cigarette burns. The cars rotting interior looked nothing like it had when it was only slightly used. James had forced me to buy it. He needed the money. I was his test subject. His first sale. I paid the last monthly payment a year ago. I now owned a rusting piece of 1992. It was mine. Every time I drove I made up new stories for the stains and cigarette burns on the ceiling. We would write songs about them someday. Sharon and I. The pinball flew down the gutter.

It was my sixteenth birthday when I got the car. “It’s a heck of a deal.” He said. “Just a small down payment and I can get you a low monthly rate. Eight years down the road and this tan beauty will be yours. You’ll need it too. You’re Mom works real early. And now that I’m working here, I won’t be able to drive you to school.”

“You don’t have to work until nine.” I said.

“Nine in Oakland. You know what that Bay Bridge is like in the morning. I’ll have to leave at seven. Anyway, this baby is in prime condition. Still got ninety or so thousand miles left.” He tapped its tan roof and gave an unconvincing smile. He readjusted his blue and red striped tie as if he had never worn one before.

“Is there a tape deck?” I asked.
“Of course! And power windows and doors and anti-uh-anti-anti lock breaks.” He said with hesitation.
“James, I think you need to work on your sales pitch.”
He chuckled, his lips forming an uneasy smile. “I think you need to get back to your homework. Come on, lets go sign the contract.” Ten minutes later, I pulled out of the parking lot. As I began to drive away I saw James in the rearview mirror, running awkwardly in his dress pants, waving his hands. “Palmer!” He panted. “Happy Birthday, I almost forgot!” I turned the radio up and drove away.

I hit the mountains, the temperature dropped. I shut the window, best I could, the ropes were in the way. Ropes I had sloppily strung threw the car windows, front and back, clenching my mattress to the roof with a death-tight grip. A miniscule hint of sea air lingered in the car, but was soon replaced with the cold scent of snow and pines. As I curved through the mountainous ridges, Sharon nearly slid off the pillow in her sleepy haze. I tugged at the ropes, making sure they were tight. At every sharp bend, I thought the mattress might put us in a high-speed roll.

As we drove into Reno we hit rush hour. The pinball flicked fast, lighting up my eyes. The last time I was in rush hour was two weeks ago. With Mom. We were at the edge of the Golden Gate. A crash ahead of us had somehow stopped all six lanes of traffic. It was what I imagined the bridge would look like when the last of the North Pole had melted and sucked the bay area into the Pacific. It’s high, shifting currents would eat the edges of the earth, the atmosphere’s winds would spew mass hurricanes. The people of California would be huddling, impatiently in their cars below, water slowly creeping impending doom upon their dingy tires. Used cars with one-star ratings that James had signed to them. He never knew what he was talking about. I swear a chimp could do a better job selling cars. It would do a dance and throw in an extra bunch of bananas for a deal breaker.

“I can’t believe James sold you this car.” I said, sniffing the interior fabric. It smelled of mildew.
“Palmer, I’ve asked you every day for the last fifteen years to please, call him Dad!” She pleaded.
“But he’s not my Dad.”

She twisted her curly auburn hair nervously around her nicely manicured finger. She was a stylist at a salon downtown. The wind was silent that day. All you could hear were horns honking in unrest. She sighed, emitting a puff of sorrow into the blue Tercel. It was an ‘01 addition with a full CD console.

Ever since James began his new career at Toyota in ‘99, I purchased yearly Automotive Consumer Guides. I loved to read up on his sales failures. All of the Toyotas were in it. They were ranked on a scale from one to ten. The Tercel was sadly ranked at two on performance, but held a high seven for fuel efficiency. Unfortunately for today, the blue exterior appeared slightly bluer, and the stiff black seats pulled in a mere three for comfort.

“You don’t know how stressed he is, Palmer. Maybe you would if you let up that act of yours and just talked to the guy! There’s a reason I married him after your father. He’s a writer Palmer. Did you even know that?”
“Maybe he was a writer, but now he’s a used car salesman. I’ve never even seen him lift a pen.”
“Well every writer has to have a side job, Palmer. But he’s stressed out. He tells me all the time how he wants to get to know you better. He’s interested. He wants to hear your music. He really cares. It’s not easy for him- being turned down all the time. By publishers, by his clients, by you!”
“It’ll give him more material.”
“Palmer!”
“What? Every writer needs a little pain, right? And how hard can it be to sell a car? He’s obviously terrible at it. Look at this shit he sold you.”
“Palmer, that is enough! He needs that job to support us. We’re lucky your dad paid the house off, but this city is expensive. It’s killing me seeing James in such a rut. Do you think he wants to sell cars?” She was sniffling in her tears. She hated to cry in front of me. She scrunched every part of her face until you could barely see her in it.”You know, you’re lucky we’re paying for your college, Palmer, and all your damn books and music and guitar picks. But we don’t have to! Maybe it’s time you got a job, huh Palm?” Then she became such a wreck, that we were the ones holding up traffic. I scooted to the middle of the car and held her while she shook. Her tears soaked through the sleeve of my shirt.

Sharon nudged my side, her face turned towards the lights of the Casino that flickered along the highway. “Maybe we should stop Shar, make a little cash for some rent.” I said. As I looked at her, I realized I hadn’t yet thought about where we were going to stay. I breathed deeply. I squeezed my brow, flexing my brain. I looked back at the road. It started to rain.

“Shit. There goes our bed.” I thought, as the rain pattered above, on the mattress. Maybe it would dry out. I figured I’d wash it when we got there anyway, but probably wouldn’t.

We past Winnemucca and Battle Mountain, through miles of dry, sad desert, small, dead towns and road signs that flitted past in endless monotony. Sharon moved back and forth in her seat tirelessly. The lights faded. The plunger didn’t recharge. The tan Corolla submerged into the stale, wet night. The mattress lay under a starless sky, flying atop the roof of the car, breathless as it was lynched by the rope and damp from the rain. Beneath the car’s metal hull, I thought up more stories of the cigarette burns and sang songs about them as Sharon lay next to me. The rain continued to fall, slowly. The night was long and the darkness was tiring my eyes. Wind blew in thick wafts, picking up sand over the open desert.

Sharon shifted uneasily in her seat. There hadn’t been a town in quite some time, “There had to be one soon,” I thought. The rain seemed to have stopped. The air lay calm outside. Then something hit the window. It was big. Then again. And again. “What was that?” I asked Sharon. She ignored me, barely moving her body next to the pillow. Huge drops of rain, fell like spit wads on my windshield. Pattering like tiny tap dancers. “Fuck! Go tiny dancers, go! Leave!” Then faster, like an Irish jig, then like freakish river dance hopped up on speed. It was pouring from the sky like a fucking hurricane. I was not prepared for this. I rolled the windows as high as they could go without snapping the rope.

Skilled little water gnomes were chasing after us on motorcycles, holding shower heads up to the windows, spraying at will. Sharon stirred, she was getting wet, but there was nothing I could do. The floor was a mess of soaked garbage and socks. The sky was mad. It cracked and shrieked. Lightning shot in streaks, blinding me. The pavement became glassy and swift. The dirt below, was unable to suck in the water, covered by tar. Heavy and lifeless tar. The rain filled the beam of my headlights. I squinted into their funnels, like two faint spotlights on the wet highway.

The pinball machine started up, growling like a rocket with loose bolts. Five balls were ejected at once, streaming through the maze of lights and obstacles.

A week ago my mom left to pick up dinner. James had been working late and she wanted to surprise him with Chinese food. It was storming intensely outside. I could hear the rain coming down in hard pelting streams on the roof, shooting out the gutter and onto the sidewalk. I could hear dogs barking angrily from next door. I was in my room with Sharon, showing her a new song.

“Palmer! That sounds great! I’ll be back in a minute, honey, I’m going for Chinese!” She yelled from the stairs.
“Mom, I really don’t think you should be driving right now! The weather’s awful!”
“It’s been awful all week! I called in an order of Chow Mein, it’s just a few blocks!”
“Have them deliver!”
“I tried, but they said they wouldn’t because of the weather! I really want to surprise James, he’s stressed! Rain isn’t good for selling cars… I’ll only be a minute!”
“James isn’t good for selling cars!” I waited for a response but received none. “Fine, be careful! That thing only rates a three on steering!” I yelled. No response. I heard the front door slam. Thunder cracked sending the neighbors miniature terrier into a frenzy.

A fast, bright light flashed in front of me, jerking me awake. Lightning and thunder streaked across the windshield, blinding me. I slammed the breaks, which rated at a four, but performed now at only a two. We were hydroplaning blindly on a spooked conveyor belt atop a thin layer of water and air. The chunk of metal hurled us forward. Sharon’s hallow body smashed the dashboard, she shrieked, her neck cracked. I instinctively reached for her. The car swerved right, then left. Crunched. Hit. Lightning fractured the sky. Something snapped. Rope shot past my face, whipped Sharon’s back and flew out the window. I felt the car tilt, then slap. I gasped. The mattress flopped forward over the windshield. Still. Tears rushed to my eyes. Panting. Barely able to see, I reached for Sharon. I lifted her mangled body up to the seat and cradled her. Hundreds of pin-balls darted before me. I closed my eyes. They filled with bright light and loud constant pattering sounds, dings and rockets and bells and fire, the flippers clicked and flapped, then all hundred balls shot down the whirlpool and were ignited directly into the drain.

Mom had been gone for over forty minutes. I was beginning to worry. I could barely think with the sound of barking dogs and constant thunder breaking my concentration. I stood up from my bed and grabbed my coat.

“Sharon, I need to check on Mom. Wait here. It doesn’t take this long for Chinese food. If I don’t come back, those chords are between you and me.” I said jokingly. I ran past James’ office and a cold gust of wind flew past me, flicking wet papers off a stack by a half cracked window. I ignored it and ran down the stairway. The front door opened slowly and James walked in, soaking wet. He slapped his keys onto the hall table.
“It’s god-awful out there!” He shouted.
I paused at the middle of the stairs, hesitant to get any closer.
“Some idiot swerved past me at the bottom of Jackson Street. It was hard to see, but I swear they smashed into a meter at Foo Young. Two other cars crashed and one flew right through the window! I pulled over to watch. It was quite the scene! Six cops arrived, four ambulances and a fire truck! There are fortune cookies and quarters everywhere! Talk about a lucky day! God, that’s a story, huh Palm?” He cackled.
I gasped and jumped down the rest of the stairs.
“You hungry for Chinese?” James sneered.
I pushed him out of the way and ran out the door.

The mattress was sprawled over the windshield, leaving me in a dim cavern. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I attempted to see. There were no lights behind me. The darkness clung to my skin.  I tried to open the driver’s side door. It was jammed. I reached over Sharon, who groaned as I swept past her neck. I pulled at the passenger door, pushed it open with a slow shove. I was tired. Leaning over, I lost my balance and we tumbled out the door. I crushed her with my weight as we fell onto the wet, destitute pavement.

“Sharon!” I screamed.
“Son, oh god, son are you okay?” The other driver asked.
I stumbled to my feet as the rain poured down.
“Sharon? Sharon! She’s dead! She’s dead!” I fell to my knees. I lifted her, crying. My clothes became soaked, my face, soaked, my skin, soaked, my heart, soaked. Sharon lay crushed and inanimate on the highway, her neck twisted awkwardly.
“Kid, are you okay? Hey! Kid!” The man bent down and knelt next to me. “Are you injured, is someone injured?”
“Sharon! You idiot! Sharon!” I doubled over. Sobbing in shrieks.

The man looked at the ground, confused. He stood and looked in the car window. I picked her up. I lifted her broken neck. I stroked her. But only a sad sound cried out from what was once the most gorgeous body I had ever held. The man turned from the car. He stared me in the eye as I held her. I pleaded with him in sadness.

“Uh kid. I’m sorry about your guitar, are you alright?”
I sat there, staring at him blankly.

A pinball launched and suddenly I was holding my dad in the office, weeping. I had untied the rope from his neck. His body fell to the floor. My mother walked in the front door.

“Baby, I’m home. Palm, sweetie? Where are you?” She shouted, cheerfully.
I was eight. I held my father who was pale in the face. I lifted his lids and looked into his bloodshot eyes. Mom came upon us and gasped. She fell to the floor.

I left Sharon on the side of the highway. I let the rain beat down on her. The pinball machine went silent. I walked past the man who stared at me in speechless confusion. He helped me heave the mattress off the car. We tossed it beside Sharon on the highway. Her strings stuck out and dangled beneath her. We laid the ropes in a pile with the rest, like road kill.

“You sure you’re alright kid? Really, it’s just a guitar. You can teach a new one the same old tricks.” He shrugged and stepped back towards his dented car. Its bumper hung low to the ground.

It was the memories he didn’t know of. The pain we had been through. The music we had made together. I glared at him as I crawled through the passenger door. I turned the car around and drove in lone silence back to San Francisco.

When I arrived, it was daylight. The rain had stopped. I pulled my dented Corolla to the curb on Jackson Street. I walked hesitantly up to the house. The neighbor’s toy terrier was sniffing something on the sidewalk. As I approached, she yelped and growled at me as if protecting a pup. I stepped closer and she skittered off towards the stoop.

The front door of my house opened slowly. James stepped out. “Palmer! Thank God. I was so worried about you! Watch out for that dog shit.” He said. Surprised, I looked at my feet. A single green stem swayed before me. Its one stalk reached up for the sun, a tiny speck of life. It was but one blade of grass that had triumphantly emerged, through the concrete, through the shit, and there it stood, in front of my house, waving proudly. The terrier leapt from the neighbors stoop, snarling, followed by two black labs. The labs sat on either side of the shit. The terrier sat before it. They growled at inattentive pedestrians on Jackson Street where the houses leaned on each other sadly. I waved at James and walked to the guitar store.