It’s a small town. Everyone knows Sonny hit the guy. Everyone knows Sonny. He drives through red lights and he isn’t colour blind. He ran a red and hit a guy. The police came. Sonny was gone.
He pulls over on the side of the highway to think. Watches the eighteen-wheelers creep across the bridge past customs and motor on. Sonny always wanted to be a truck driver. Thinks the trucks are beautiful. The way they move across the highway at night like monsters. Cabs as big as apartments. He likes the black ones best—the phantoms. Once he tried to hitchhike across the country and only stuck out his thumb when he saw a black one, but the black ones didn’t stop.
He contemplates ditching the car, sticking out his thumb—letting a beautiful eighteen-wheeler deliver him from consequence. But he doesn’t. He goes home. When Sonny gets home, the keys don’t work in the locks. It’s late. Puzzled, he walks to the back of the house. The bedroom light is on. He knocks on the window. A thin hand moves the curtain out of the way and a woman presses her face up against the glass. He bangs on the glass where her face is. She screams and jumps back.
“Jesus,” he says, “What the hell’s going on? ” He bangs his fist against the window again and again.
“What do you want? ” yells a voice from his room. “What do you want? ’Cause I’m calling the police. I’m on hold, but when I get through I’ll get Jim over here. Jim will be over here in a flash and that’ll be it for you.”
“Well, that’s fine, because if you don’t get the hell out of my house, I’ll call the police and you’ll be out on your ass so fast, you won’t know what hit you. So, if you’re smart lady, you’ll get the hell out of my house before Jim gets here.”
Sonny picks up a rock and throws it at the window. It bounces off. Sonny isn’t afraid of Jim. He’s been dealing with Jim for years, for one reason or another. In fact, the last time Jim locked Sonny up, they played poker all night and Sonny whipped his ass. It turned out Sonny hadn’t really broken into the Smiths’ house anyway. He just got confused on his way home from the bar and walked into the wrong house and ended up crawling into Amy Smith’s bed. And Amy Smith screamed like any teenage girl would if some drunken man crawled into her bed at night. And Bob Smith stuck the tip of his hunting rifle up Sonny’s nose and hoisted him out of the bed. Sonny screamed and ran out of the house with Bob Smith chasing him and Jim waiting at the foot of the driveway with his men. Poor Sonny was so disoriented. Jim took him away in the cruiser and locked him up, just to appease Bob Smith really. So Bob Smith wouldn’t accuse Jim of not doing his job.
“What do you mean get out of your house? ” asks a voice from the dark. Sonny turns around to see where it’s coming from. A young woman in a yellow housecoat and yellow slippers approaches Sonny with a carving knife. Her red hair is piled on her head like a turban, her redder lips flapping at him in a way that reminds him of his mother.
“Jesus, lady,” he says. “Put that thing away. I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to go to sleep. I’ve been on the road. I’m tired. I just want to go to bed, but turns out that some dame’s already in it. And on any other night that would be the answer to my prayers, but tonight I just wouldn’t know what to do with a gift like that, and I will thank whichever one of my friends was kind enough to give me such a thoughtful welcome home gift, but...”
Sonny stops. He doesn’t have any friends. He looks at the young woman. She looks at him and puts down the knife.
“Would you like to come in? ”
Sonny says, “Yeah.”
“Sonny what? ”
“Sonny and warm. Ha, ha.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Really, Sonny who? ”
“Sonny James. What difference does it make? ”
“Well, I’m not going to invite you into my house if I don’t know your last name. I mean what kind of a girl do you think I am? God. You have to be so careful these days. You can’t go inviting just anyone into your house. How do I know who you are? How do I know you’re not some freak? I’ve never seen you before. I don’t know where you’re from. I don’t know where you live.”
“I live here.”
Amanda stops on the porch and looks at him.
“This is my house, Amanda.”
Amanda sits down on the porch. Sonny does too. She sighs, gets up, and takes a deep breath.
“Maybe you’d better go,” she says.
“Look, it’s late. We can’t do anything about this tonight. Let’s talk in the morning.”
Amanda goes inside. Sonny stands on the porch, watches her walk into his house, close the door, lock it, and turn out the porch light. He turns and looks out at the street. Watches the neighbour’s cat cross the road and disappear into the backyard. Watches his breath.
“Jesus,” he says.
He sits back down on the step. Feels his heart sink into his stomach. Feels an emptiness come over him he hadn’t felt since his mother shoved him out of the car onto the side of the highway one afternoon and left him there, alone, in the heat. He was twelve. After a few hours, another car came by. An old white Chevy. He remembers because he thought it was sent from heaven. A heaven sending, he told the other kids. His legs were getting weak, his lips dryer than chalk, his eyes rolling into the back of his head, and he saw a light—the light. Through that light came a glimmering white automobile, in slow motion. Angelic voices singing in harmony amidst the cloud of dust. It pulled up to Sonny and stopped. The door slowly opened and he smelled something like home-baked bread and chocolate chip cookies and he was sure he was saved.
Mrs. Nickels tells a different story. She was driving home from church. She decided to go and visit her mother’s grave and somehow got lost and ended up on Dragnet Highway, which is what all the young punks call it. They race cars there because nobody really drives on it. It has too much gravel and dust and it doesn’t really lead to anywhere worthwhile. One of those mistakes a town makes attempting to improve things. Mrs. Nickels kept on driving when she thought she saw the silhouette of a child. At this point she thought she was just hallucinating from the heat, but the closer she got the clearer it became that there was a young boy standing on the side of the highway. She slowed down and as she got closer she could see that it was Sonny James. She slammed her foot on the brake and tried to turn around. It was too late. He’d already spotted her. She opened the door. He got in and closed the door.
“What are you doing out here, Sonny? ”
“Waiting for what? ”
“Is she supposed to pick you up? Should I take you back? What were you doing out there? There doesn’t look like there’s too much to do out there.”
Sonny stared out the windscreen.
“I didn’t see your mom in church.”
“Was she supposed to pick you up after church? ”
Sonny looked out the passenger seat window at the dead cow carcasses on the side of the road, the dormant tumbleweed—the dry earth.
“You’ll be a little sunburnt tonight.”
Mrs. Nickels turned off the highway into town. Sonny felt his stomach turn and empty as she drove down his street. Felt his heart drop into his stomach when he saw his house—the empty driveway. He looked at Mrs. Nickels.
“Oh, my. I’ll feel so bad if your mom’s out there on that highway looking for you. I should have left you there.”
Sonny grew increasingly angry. Wondered how Mrs. Nickels could be so thick. It was understandable that he would take a little longer to get it. That it wouldn’t be obvious to him right away that his own mother would kick him out of the car and leave him on an abandoned highway in mid-August at midday in the sweltering heat. Just leave him there to die, to burn, to dry up like the dead cows on the side of the road—to stop tumbling like the tumbleweeds. Why would he think that? Why would a mother do that? But Mrs. Nickels should be suspicious. She should know better.
“Well then, Sonny, you’ll be safer here anyway. You’re better off waiting here for her to come home.”
“She’s not coming home, Mrs. Nickels,” said Sonny as he got out of the car.
Jim pulls around the corner with his high beams on. No flashing lights or sirens. Sonny takes a deep breath and walks down to the curb to meet him.
Jim rolls down his window and says, “Sonny James. Well, I never would have guessed you’d show your face in this town again.”
“Jesus, Jim, you’d think I hit that guy on purpose or something. Dumb bastard had it coming to him.”
“Let’s go, kid.”
Sonny looks at Jim, looks at his house. Jim puts the cruiser in reverse. Sonny gets in. They drive for a bit in silence.
“There’s someone in my house, Jim.”
“Look, kid, I got a call up on the hill, I’ll let you off here, we’ll talk later.” Jim drops Sonny off at the bar. Just leaves him standing there staring at the cruiser with his mouth half open, speechless. Jim throws him a few bucks and the key to his room at the motel. Jim has his own room at the motel. Says it’s for police business. Sonny’s too tired, too confused, to question it. He just wants a beer, some sleep, and morning.
He sits at the bar, eats peanuts, and sucks on a cold bottle of beer. Keeps his head down. He orders another beer and looks around the bar. He doesn’t recognize anyone. He thought he knew everyone in this town. The man a couple of seats down reading the paper munches on peanuts and chuckles away to himself.
“What’s so funny? ” Sonny asks.
“The news,” says the man.
“It’s funny? ”
The man looks at Sonny and laughs. Sonny watches him. Watches and feels himself start to laugh. Feels his stomach tightening in that way a stomach tightens when you try and prevent it from laughing. Sonny can’t stop it anymore and the two men are laughing their guts out at the bar. Slapping their knees, holding their stomachs, wiping their eyes—the whole thing.
“Oh, God,” says the man. “God, I haven’t laughed like that in years.”
“Yeah,” says Sonny. “I’ve never laughed like that.”
The man laughs a little more.
“What’s so funny? ” asks Sonny
“Oh,” says the man. “The news.”
“Oh, yeah, the news. Hmm. Hmmm.”
Sonny looks down at the bar. Looks at his hands. Looks at his hands and feels tears welling up in his eyes. Not laughing tears, not the funny kind. Real tears. The bar is silent, as if everyone tiptoed out when he wasn’t looking. Are tiptoeing out now while they think he’s not noticing, but he can feel them leaving. Can feel them vacating behind his back. He doesn’t turn around.
“Do you want another beer, kid? ”
The man moves closer to Sonny. Slides his beer along the bar with him and motions to the bartender to get them another one.
“You know, you look familiar, kid. I don’t know why. I just get that feeling. You know that feeling you get about people.”
“No, I don’t know,” says Sonny.
“Oh, come on, kid, you know.”
Sonny looks at the guy. “No, I don’t know.”
“Funny, I had a friend once, swore we had been related in a past life. He was adamant. He’d tell people we used to be brothers. People’d get so confused. ‘Used to be? Used to be? ’ they’d say. And we’d laugh. How can you not be someone’s brother anymore? Oh, they’d get so flustered.”
Sonny stares at him.
“So, you from around here? ” the man asks.
“You live in the neighbourhood? ”
“Wife trouble? ” He laughs.
“Oh, lucky. Man, have I got wife trouble.”
“Look, mister, it was fun laughing with you, but I’m tired.”
“Hey, it’s O.K. I understand.” The man leans closer to Sonny and whispers, “I can help you.”
“I’ve been reading about it in the papers. I can help you. It’s O.K. I understand. I could read it in your face. Could tell the second I saw you. I’ll help. I’ll do it.”
“What are you talking about? ”
“Oh, come on, don’t play dumb with me. Look at you. You’re pale, sweaty. Look at your hands. They haven’t stopped shaking. Look at all the napkins you’re destroying. You’re a wreck. Look at you.”
“I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m tired. I come home and someone else is living in my house. I just need a good night’s sleep. I just need to get my house back, my clothes, my TV. I just need to be home. I need my home. That’s all, mister.”
“It’s O.K. I know we all think we can look after things on our own. That reaching out for help isn’t very manly. But it’s O.K. I understand. I cry. Man, if I told my wife. But I cry. I do and you know what? It’s O.K.”
The man pats Sonny on the back. Sonny stands up, knocks over the stool. Picks up his empty beer bottle.
“Easy there, kid. Look, I’m just trying to help you. I offered to help you. I’ve been reading about all those assisted suicide doctors and people like that and I understand. I understand that it’s not so easy to put a gun in your own mouth or jump off a bridge, you know. You need someone there to pull the trigger, to push you. Think how much easier that would be—less pressure, faster.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t want to die. I don’t want to kill myself. I don’t want you to kill me. I don’t even know you.”
“What’s going on here, Sonny? ” says Jim as he enters the bar. “Can’t I leave you alone for a second without you causing some kind of trouble? ”
“Officer.” The man nods at Jim, sits back down on his stool, spins around and starts reading his paper, sips his beer.
Jim puts a set of handcuffs around Sonny’s wrists and escorts him out of the bar toward a waiting ambulance.
“What’s going on here, Jim? I’m not sick. I’m not sick.”
“Oh, yes you are, Sonny.”