Jack wheeled the large turquoise bin from its resting place beside the ash colored house and began tossing trash from the car into it. Fast food wrappers, crushed-out cigarettes, Rick’s empty cans of Wintergreen, cheery-faced soda cups half-filled with tobacco spit, receipts stuck with chewing gum. The car was itself trash—it ran like shit on a hot day, as Rick would say—and when Jack finished with the garbage he took a paper towel and soaked it with vinegar. Then he started wiping the car’s plastic surfaces. The day was colorless with unyielding gray taking the sky’s place, and hot, which gave the car the sensation of something rancid.
Rick brought the car with him when he moved in a month or so after Jack’s mother brought him to meet Jack for the first time. Even when new the 2001 Toyota Camry would’ve been ugly. The car’s interior was once a glossy brown, but age and mistreatment had turned it a sick yellow. Jack dug at something dark and sticky in the cupholder and whatever it was wasn’t coming up, an eclectic grime now deep under his nails.
The winter had been dry and now, too, the early days of spring were rainless. Where there was no concrete or asphalt, broken and crumbling, there were splintering, fragmented stocks of tallgrass. A reminder of days in green. In the distance, shallow hills covered with black skeletons of Mountain Mahogany and mullen and fields plowed with twisted and mangled corn stock half-buried beneath black earth. Beyond them towering Hogbacks faded and dust layered—browns and reds and some combinations of the two, like walls of dull fire for which the gray sky was smoke and falling ash.
When he finished the car looked odd—empty. The clutter was gone and so was the worst of the grime. What couldn’t be washed off looked secluded or alone and there remained a dust to the interior surfaces. It wouldn’t ever be clean. It reminded him of the nearby Herald’s Grocery—clean, immaculate, but beneath it all was dust. Jack told himself that it was just perspective. The way mom and Rick kept the car, anything tidy would’ve looked far out of place.
He got a box of baking soda and two fabric softeners. He set the box in the center console and made sure it would stay open and set a fabric softener piece under each seat. Then he took the keys, every quarter he could find, and another paper towel from inside. His mother kept a mason jar filled with loose change by the sink and standing fan. Jack reminded himself that he was stealing. $2.75 in total.
At the drive-up vacuum, he slotted a dollar in quarters. When the time started he was frantic—getting as much as he could in those places most noticeable. After he’d been around the car once he still had time. Jack spent the rest of it detailing the harder to see places on the passenger side only. The self-service wash was more—a buck-twenty-five for about 60 seconds. As with the vacuum, he did a once over of the whole car but had extra time. For the last 20 or so seconds he cleaned those hidden places on the right side of the car only. Gray water puddled over his shoes.
He was nervous leaving the car wash. This whole side of town always seemed ready with the dust that was in Mr. Herald’s store. It was thickest on the decrepit walls and signs of businesses. Jack resolved what would happen to the car would happen— no matter what he did. Homeward he passed the Long Branch Bar with its patrons smoking out front, having matted hair so greatly faded that it all resembled the same uniformed shade of gray. The remnants of days in youth. He didn’t look for too long—there was some danger in that. The last thing before Herald’s store was the empty water tank, rusting and stained. The tower’s basin was checkered with gray and uneven rectangles covering graffiti or leaks, Jack didn’t know. They looked web-like, as if the larger patches were prey to some great and industrial beast.
Herald’s Grocery was concrete brick and a tarnished sloped roof of single-plate ribbed steel. He went to the back of the store first. Herald was at the front and Jack knew he couldn’t see him. Still he faked looking at the box openers for a long time. Then he let himself look at the air fresheners. They were two plus tax and without too much hesitation he slid one, the vanilla scented, into his right jean pocket. After he went to the candy aisle. There he got a box of the jaw breakers that cost 50-cents. At the front Herald rang him up and asked if he’d be coming back to work after the school year was through. He told him he would. The tax was more than he had but Herald made up the difference with a dime from the take-a-penny. That got Jack—especially when Herald was so good to him.
He drove around the block to Ramblewood Trailer Park before he opened the air freshener. He rolled up the windows even though it was sweltering and the car didn’t have much in the way of AC. When he got out he took the paper towel with him. At the end of the park was Kathy Lou’s home. Kathy Lou owned two things of importance: a stone birdbath and a bush of red roses. Her truck was out front but the TV buzzed from somewhere inside. He folded the paper into fourths and dipped it in the birdbath. With the other hand he drew his pocket knife and cut the largest rose from the bush at an angle so it could take up water from the towel. He jumped when a dusty Ford rolled by and noticed the blood after he finished wrapping the rose. He wiped it on his knee and walked back to the car, but paused for a moment in the cab. The cut had continued to bleed and blood was smudged across the door’s handle, still wet—an intense red. It had taken the place of the immoveable dust. He tore from the rose’s end a scrap of paper, gray with the water of that land, and cleaned the door’s handle and then stuck it to his hand. The paper was now red and bright as the handle had been—bright as the rose. Setting the rose in the small of the passenger seat was awkward—it was too gentle for it.
At home he did everything else. Washed himself, combed his hair, put on the clothes he’d gotten, and tied the tie the way his father had showed him a long time ago. The earlier grime still wouldn’t come out from under his finger nails. At first he’d tried to dig it out with another finger but that only succeed in passing it from one hand to another. Then he tried to pick it out with a sewing needle but there always was just a bit stuck in the wrong place. He decided that she wouldn’t notice that—above everything else. Plenty more for him worry about. When he got the baking soda from the car it did smell less like cigarettes but not as much as he’d hoped. If it went well tonight, if she stuck with him, he’d decided that around her the car would always be clean. Not like how Rick and mom kept it. He left home a whole hour before the dance started—she lived on the other side of town and he still needed to bring her to the school.
Opposite her healthy lawn he looked at himself in the car’s side-view mirror. There was dust to his face, too.
“It’s just the mirror,” Jack told himself and looked to his hand.
Jake Pritchett is a high school student living in Northern Colorado. His short stories have appeared in DoveTales: An International Journal of the Arts, on FewerThan500.com, and in Gambling the Aisle.