Danny and I had set out two weeks ago for her parents place in Boulder, but now we were back, having never even made it past Nevada. It was because of her bus, her stupid fucking Volkswagen, that we didn’t.
In Corte Madera the rear axle began making noises like a machine that chews spoons and we had to get a tow to Mill Valley where we could buy another.
The guy at the junkyard looked at us skeptically.
“A rear axle?” he said, peeling the limp, grease stained ball cap back from his head. “You mean, the ah the uh, the one in back?”
I couldn’t blame him. We didn’t look like we knew a thing about cars. Danny and I were basically the same height, same skinny weight and same black dyed hair color; we had that thing going where you had to look twice to tell who was the boy. I was wearing studded leather bracelets we’d bought on Folsom Street. She was carrying a small pink toolbox covered in stickers that said Nine Inch Nails and Tweakers Suck.
“Maybe, you ah you uh, you mean the mechanic just three blocks away,” he pointed, trying to be helpful or superior.
But appearances were tricky. Danny was a born gear head with thirty-weight for blood; her chrome Craftsmen tool set was a prized possession. She knew her Volkswagen cam shaft to crank shaft and wouldn’t have anyone else working on her bus. Me? I manned the flashlight.
We paid for the axle and carried it on our shoulders to where the tow truck had left us just off the highway. For an agonizing day and a half we wriggled on our backs underneath the bus in the gritty, golden dirt off the shoulder of the road.
“Mr. Flashlight,” Danny would say. “I have to see to work my magic. Shine your light over here, will ya’?”
The dust was thick on our tongues and our fingernails were packed with grease. We had to walk miles to get anything to eat, but if we needed to go to the bathroom, we just went wherever.
It was great to finally get back on the highway. The break down was behind us. We had that elated, giddy feeling of people just passing through. Fairfield. Davis. Sacramento. We chain smoked and flipped the cassettes in the tape deck. Every once in a while I’d look over at Danny––the wind would be whipping her hair horizontal, the razored tips of it would be stuck in the corners of her mouth––and catch her picking at the milky tattoo scab on her ring finger.
“Resist the urge,” I said. “You’re gonna ruin it.”
Her lips flared out a pout. “No way. Suckers think a diamond is forever,” she said, holding out her hand to admire the ink. “Try and remove this.”
I’d gotten just a plain band, but Danny got hers done with a little heart in the center because, she said, “A heart is the anti-diamond. All a diamond symbolizes is conflict and oppression––a lot like most marriages––a heart, well, that’s like your soul and it doesn’t get any realer than that.”
We got them to prove our love, to prove that we were serious––and because we only had seventy-five dollars. Ours were the cheapest tattoos we could possibly get. Even cheaper than an ankle Tweetie Bird.
I sat in the chair first. The tattooist wheeled in his stool, pulsed his machine, making it seem almost like a dare. “It’s permanent,” he said and that was fine by me. I never wanted to take her love off. Danny and I locked eyes and didn’t let go, even when the hurt went all the way up to the shoulder.
Now, just past Colfax, the head gasket blew and sprayed two quarts of high mileage synthetic all over the engine. I felt the van lurch then slump, but thought it was just the hill. I put the pedal to the floor; nothing much happened. People passing us were honking and pointing.
“They probably want you in the slow lane,” Danny said. “It’s a law, you know.”
But when I looked in the rear view I saw we had a two hundred yard long grey-blue puff-tail of smoke.
We walked against the highway traffic back towards town, sticking out our thumbs as a joke. If drivers would gawk, we’d shoot them the bird, but it was more painful when they flew by not even noticing. I rubbed the small of her back, and tried to cheer Danny up saying,
“Well, you sure were right about packing your tools.”
We hadn’t gone too far when a long, sagging Buick eased off the road and pulled up to us; its tires crunched in the roadside gravel.
The driver had one arm draped across the bench seat as if a lover sat next to him, but there was no one. With his left hand still grasping the top of the steering wheel, he leaned far across the seat towards the passenger window. “I’ll take ya’ where you’re goin’, sweetheart,” he said. He had silver rings on every knuckle and wore a pair of sunglasses that he bought without first looking in the mirror. “He can look after your vehicle. I’ll take ya’ all the way. Whaddya say?”
I laughed, wagged my finger. “Good one, dip shit, are you going up?”
But Danny had stopped beside the Buick; shifting her hips, looking in at the guy, then at the cars on the highway whizzing toward their destinations, then back at the guy. The laugh stuck in my throat.
“Get in.” The door groaned open and bounced on the tips of the driver’s outstretched fingers.
She took a step at the car.
“Get in. Let him deal with that piece of shit hippie van.”
Danny smiled demurely––her eyes twinkled blue and the corners of her lips dimpled into her cheeks––and then she kicked the door shut with the heel of her boot.
“Asshole! It’s my van––and I can take care of it myself!”
The guy jumped in his seat and shook his hand like a maraca. The Buick’s reverse lights flashed and pebbles spit out from the tires.
I grabbed Danny and we ran, half laughing, half like, oh shit oh shit. The Buick zig-zagged after us for twenty or thirty yards until a CHP rolled by winking its brakes as it passed.
But we were already supposed to be there. Her parents had probably started worrying. Although Danny wouldn’t admit it, I could tell she was hurt by the delays; we had planned this trip as a surprise, and so I could ask her father’s permission to marry Danny.
“He’ll be very impressed,” she said.
As I understood, he was the type of guy who kept a running tally on those kinds of things.
But her goddamn bus was not cooperating. As we coasted down off Donner Pass the brakes were burning and the motor was sputtering and skipping.
I asked Danny, “Is it the altitude or something that’s making it do that?”
Her temples flexed and she kept her eyes straight to the road.
Bucking our way into Truckee, Danny turned on the wipers to clean off all the bugs. The wipers stood up and bowed down smearing bug guts all over the windshield. She flicked the lever back and forth, back and forth; the wipers kept going, but no fluid squirted out. It was getting harder and harder to see.
“Maybe the reservoir's empty?” I said.
There was an slight pause––the awkward chasm between one second and the next––and I saw her eyes well. Then Danny snapped the lever off the column and chucked it out the window.
We pulled into the first motel we saw.
Danny and I huddled under the shower until the road didn’t hum in our ears and hands and feet, and all the hot water was gone. Then, we sat down to the first real meal we’d had in days at a nearby restaurant. Soon, Danny was feeling more like her usual self.
“When we’re grey and old, betcha anything we’ll laugh about this,” she said. “‘How we survived the road trip from hell.’”
I nodded. “You know, they say it’s all about the journey and not the destination.”
Danny paused in mid-bite, her nose crinkled. “That wasn’t exactly what I meant. Mr. Flashlight, we’d better fucking get there. What’s it gonna say about us if we don’t?”
I tugged gently on her ring finger. “I’ll still love you,” I said.
“Promise me. Whatever it takes.”
I looked out the window and down the street. I could see our motel and the Volkswagen’s fiberglass Westfalia roof in the parking lot. Suddenly, I hated the bus more than anything; I ached for its destruction. It had caused us nothing but problems. No matter how much effort we put into it now, there was always going to be another break down on the road ahead. But that didn’t matter to Danny. She was devoted to her baby, and I was devoted to her, whatever it took.
“We’ll be back on the road super fast. It’s just the valves in need of a little TLC. Nothing my magic can’t fix.” Danny drew circles in the palm of my hand, batted her eyelashes. She sang, “I’ll wear only Sexy Little Things under my coveralls.”
And I knew just how a jealous lover feels.
She let go of my hand. Her ring had a few white, inkless pearls––pieces poached from her heart.
“You’ve been picking,” I said.
By the time it was Danny’s turn in the chair, the heart-fluttering novelty had pretty much worn off. The tattooist reused the same tracing pattern he’d made for me, then hastily drew a puffy, nipped heart on her finger with a Bic.
“Um, yeah, looks ‘bout right,” he said, sticking the chewed off end into his mouth.
He didn’t even bother to warn Danny of any permanence.
All he said was, “Ready or not.”
Then, I heard the metallic hum of the needle. I turned to watch, to reciprocate our moment, but Danny had her eyes shut tight, making scrimped, pained faces. I went outside and smoked a cigarette and when I came back in; she was done.
“That was nothing,” she said.
“It was everything,” I corrected her.
But that wasn’t true. Now, standing in the parking lot shining a beam of light over the engine, I knew what Danny meant. Our relationship was too easy. Not once had we broke down; been forced to tear it all apart, diagnose and put us back together like new. We’d met, fell in love and the road between now and happily ever after was a downhill coast. How could we ever be expected to cherish something if we didn’t have to work hard for it?
“Over here,” Danny said. But I wasn’t paying attention. The saggy Buick from the highway had just pulled into the lot.
“The lady wasn’t kidding,” he said, hanging an arm out the window.
Danny turned to see. “You’ve got a lot of nerve.”
“He tried to fucking run us over,” I said.
“Ok, look,” Buick began. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Let me apologize. I travel for a living. Picking up hitchhikers and messing with them is sort of a hobby of mine. A way to pass the miles.”
“That isn’t much of an apology,” Danny said.
He eased out of the car, holding his hands up in surrender. “You’re right. Absolutely. Let me make it up to you. Maybe I can help you guys get this fixed and back on the road.”
I looked at Danny. “What do you think this idiot knows about VW’s?”
“Well,” he said to her. “I see you’re working on the valves, there’s gunk caked up in there. I’m guessing you guys probably had an oil leak or something. I’ll turn the crank to Top Dead Center, if you want to check the valve clearances.”
Danny’s face was as flat as a puddle; I could tell she was impressed. “All right.” She handed him a wrench.
“Chrome plated Craftsman, huh? And a complete set at that. Expensive.” Buick whistled, stooping down to the toolbox. “Real nice tools. I’d kill to have a set of these.”
“The motor’s up here. Besides, pink isn’t your color.” Danny said. “Mr. Flashlight, shine your light over here, will ya?”
But with the two of them crouched over the engine, there wasn’t any place for me to shine. I felt stupid just standing there and ended up in the driver’s seat fiddling with the radio.
Still, I could hear them.
“So who is that guy, your boyfriend or something?”
“We’re getting married.”
“I don’t see a ring.”
Danny paused a second. “You can’t see it right now, but it’s here, underneath all this grease.”
“Let me get this straight. You’re marrying someone who knows absolutely nothing about cars?”
But then someone dropped a wrench, it pin-balled through the motor and clanked on the concrete; I never heard Danny’s answer.
While I waited for them to finish, I dug in the glove compartment and found a rubber band. I tied it into a noose, hooked it on the little nub of the wiper lever, stretched it around the steering column to the other side and hung it on the turn signal. Now the wipers could still be used until Danny got around to replacing the lever. Then, I undid the panel under the dash and checked the fluid level. It was empty.
I smiled triumphantly. This was a task I could take care of. I skipped up to our room to find something to fill with water.
I was gone a minute, five minutes, I don’t know. When I came back, they both stared up at me looking surprised. Buick’s hand was gripping Danny’s elbow.
“What’s going on?” I said.
They both looked away from me, from each other. They bent down and collected the tools laying everywhere.
Finally, Danny put an outstretched arm on the bus and stroked it gently, leaving greasy smudges. “She’s running great,” she said. “Isn’t she? Purring like a kitten.”
The next morning I felt her wake up. She fished for her panties on the floor, kicked into them and snapped them around her waist. I rolled over with the covers, dreading the ride, whatever else lay in store. Danny went into the bathroom and a few minutes later began taking our stuff to the van.
But, outside there was a commotion. I heard crumbling glass, luggage being dropped, scrambling feet. Then, Danny burst into the room.
“Wake up!” she tackled me. Her nails dug into my shoulder. “The bus––get up––the bus!”
I opened an eye, opened my mouth. I grabbed my shorts, not even bothering with underwear.
The bus had been broken into. It’s back window was shattered on the parking lot. A few latticed crumbs of glass clung to the corners, like cob webs, but that was it.
“What was taken?” I asked her. I jerked open the side door. The stereo was still there, speakers, our cooler. “Is anything missing?”
“Fucker.” Danny stooped down to pick up an eight-millimeter socket. Her face was red. Her eyes were boiling. “God, no. My magic.”
From the lot down to the sidewalk we found a slight trail––a wrench, a few more sockets, some blue latex gloves. On the corner there was a hinge and pink plastic chips splintered out in an impact pattern where the toolbox must have been dropped.
I went one way, Danny the other, and we canvassed all the blocks around our motel until well past checkout time, but didn’t find one thing more.
Joshua "never perfect grammar, always perfect timing" Citrak: is a resident at the Sanchez Writers Grotto, produces Slouch Magazine, and you can tell by his slang he's from the Bay, man.