By Claudia Ricci
He has a live mouse, sitting on the floor between his grey alligator boots, secure in a Havaheart trap. That’s the first thing he says after he picks her up.
“I’ve got a rat here,” he lies. He jerks his thumb toward the truck’s floor. Would you like to see it?”
He laughs. Guns the gas pedal. He sounds wheezy, the air sounds like it is whistling through tiny reeds. Later, in the D.A.’s office, she will say his skin was the color of vanilla pudding. His truck was the color of a faded tomato.
“Why do you have a rat?”
“In there. In the cage.”
“Oh, you mean Minnie? She’s no rat. She’s a mouse.” He picks up the trap and laughing gleefully, he shoves it her way. The cage rattles. The mouse retreats.
She has a fleeting glimpse of the beady eyes. She recoils. “Why do you have a mouse?”
“Why the hell not?” He replaces it on the floor. The cage jangles.
"I mean everybody needs a mouse now and then. Or would you rather a snake?” He laughs harder. Whistling. Coughing.
Black glasses wrap his fat face. The sun is low. The sun floods through the windshield. It hits his lenses. It glances. Bright points of light dance her way. He steers with three pudgy fingers.
She starts singing. But low. With none of the throaty bellow she loves. “I saw the light in your window tonight. I sawww two shadows, hol-ding each other tight…” In her mind, she could be Linda Ronstadt. Wynona Judd.
He turns. “Holy shit,” he says. “Where’d you get it?”
She stops singing. “Where’d I get what?”
“That sweet voice.”
She looks away. “If you say so.”
“No, I mean it. I’m sittin’ here thinking, I got myself a singing star in my wagon.” He leans. Leers. His front teeth are yellow. With gaps between them. “I picked up some kinda celebrity. Are you some kinda star?”
“Right. A right big star.” She is looking out the window. Inside, though, she knows his words are exactly what she wants to hear.
“Sing some more. Sing louder.”
“Because I got no reason to.”
“Sure you do. You can sing for me.”
“Exactly. That’s exactly why I’m not.”
They remain in silence.
“So where you goin’? I mean, besides Nashville that is.”
“Massachusetts. Near there.”
“You can let me off at the border. Like at a gas station. I’ll call from there.”
He has a flask. In a brown paper bag twisted at the neck. He tips it. Swigs. Offers her one.
She’s indignant. “No!” Shakes her head. That makes him laugh. Wheeze. Cough. Spit. He gathers a mouthful and lets it go out the window.
“You got a name?”
“Penny? Like a quarter, penny?” He slaps his thigh. Wild laughter fills the truck.
She bites her lip, tips her head against the window. Later she will tell the D.A. that the black glasses were skinny. Really skinny. And his face. His face was fat. Cream and pudding fat. Cherry-colored pimples too. He had a face as wide as his backside.
And blue jeans. He wore blue jeans. Stiff. Blue. Jeans. Cuffs.
She should have known. She should have known. Anybody with cuffs.
And his red plaid shirt. The top button. Buttoned. That too. She should have known. Anybody with the top button. Buttoned.
His hair? What color was his hair?
Greyish. Sort of. Or…brown. Maybe some black too. I don’t know. It was short.
So you’re not sure.
Uh uh. No. I’m not. But it was cut. Flat. You know. Crewed.
She is sure of that. Flat.
He stops at a crossroad. Pauses, as if trying to decide. Then he turns. Points the truck down a dirt road.
She turns to face him. “Where you think you’re goin?”
He slaps his knee. The truck flies. A cloud of dirt plumes up above the windows. He leers at her, and the truck veers left, onto another road. Soon, he pulls over. Leaves the engine running.
Claudia Ricci is on the faculty at the University at Albany, SUNY, where she teaches literature, creative writing and journalism. Her first novel, Dreaming Maples, was published in 2002. This excerpt is taken from a novel called Pearly Everlasting.