Convict Car

Terese Svoboda


The oil man says in Australian that he parachuted into a gully and spent twenty thousand dollars on dragging a derrick out of it, the developmentally disabled woman declares without spitting that she has an iPod, the teacher's mother says she's glad her daughter didn't take a job on a reservation because she's afraid of arrows, and I have to apologize to the driver for not writing Romances. The driver, a fat wan-haired middle-aged woman, insists on our work histories. She herself evaluates gold on occasion, she says, turning all the way around while she takes a corner, and gives us each her card. Before I can worry about my fillings, the sun burns off the sunrise. The trip is not so far to the airport and sundry spots along the road that we can sleep the whole trip anyway, although the bar owner—owned by the bar—gives it a good try. Buses no longer roam the better part of this country.

The convict gets on past the Do Not Pick Up signs. The driver stops and the man is uncuffed from the state's Ranger and, rubbing his wrists, takes a seat in the middle row. We drive without speaking into a column of steam from a beet factory. A person could dive from the car and be lost in it, except for the smell which would be easy to track, I think, so my fear of the convict going berserk with some weapon honed for years for this moment and escaping, escapes. He's looking straight into the windshield, not even out the window, as if he can't believe he ever could. Or maybe his neck hurts.

All conversation extracted by the driver has ceased. She has picked up convicts before, she told us earlier, it's part of the job but it's such a shame they don't like to talk, she says now, glancing in her rear-view mirror at him. The blast of cold air he's let in makes us find sleeves and zippers, open our eyes or shiver. The heater wheezes like the developmentally disabled girl. The driver searches the floor for brochures to distract the woman who has visited her non-reservation teaching daughter: wildlife sanctuary, railroads, Flying W Ranch. The convict takes his eyes off the windshield in his own review of the bright colors fanned out in her hand. I can't watch such desperation.

Maybe he's not desperate. He could be feeling fulfilled, he has served his time, the rest of his life is unreeling before him in tri-folds. He wears a blue button-down shirt, worn-looking jeans and a pair of workboots. With a lunchpail, he could have clocked out at the beet plant, be on his way home. No one has the courage to ask what he was in for. Instead, I ask the Australian man about earthquakes in the oil and gas business, looking across the flat acres of  snow spread across the breakfast-food tan of dead weeds out the window, and he defends his practice, says the earth is all cracked up anyway, says you just have to take precautions.

Like living under a rock? says the convict.

The Australian, about his size and weight class, nods as if that is perfect, just the idea.

The driver pulls into a gas station for a fill-up. They won't take twenty dollar bills, only credit—and before I can offer change—my planes is leaving soon, I need to get going--she drives to another. How about my card? asks the convict, who produces one.

We all turn to look at him. What? he says, you haven't got one?

We murmur, the developmentally disabled woman says she lost hers at a drive-in. At the bank, she says. Her iPod is unhappy, it skips and we hear John Lennon-Lennon-Lennon.

The driver hears a different drive-in. After the fill-up, she says we need a MacDuck stop. The Australian hasn't had an American Mac, the bar owner waves it off as competition, the developmentally disabled woman squeals, the woman with the daughter looks into her pocketbook, I admit I've never had one either, and wolf runs over the convict's face, he looks as if he's waited years.

At the next town, the driver swerves off the interstate but cruises the streets at a pace that does not promise timely arrival. At least it's fast food she's after. And who could begrudge the convict? He is leaning so far forward in his seatbelt he could be said to sit in front, he is saying Left at the light as if he's spent every day of his seven years—he announces his sentence in a voice that cracks from disuse—wandering the streets in his head.

The driver barks out our orders the moment she pulls up. The window woman smiles at the convict when he insists she take an extra dollar for his drink. We chew down the sandwiches in the parking lot for whole minutes despite my plane, gulping what the straws yield. The sweat and smoke and the scent of someone who sat in the car before us, who did not last until the appointed rest stop, changes to the decided odor of things fried and packaged. The developmentally disabled woman is gleeful, shoulders hunched over her sandwich, the Australian eats as if he's at mess at dawn, the woman puts her sandwich in that pocketbook, the bar owner dispatches his food as if surely there's more, I wad up the packaging, dubious about whether I actually ate anything at all, and glance over at the convict.

He is frowning and picking it apart, putting the pickle to one side, scraping off the mayo.