The sun blazed up bloody Mary red and sucked its way back down at the end of the day in the same violent hue. Pearl watched it every day and imagined she lived on Mars. She resided in “The City Different.” A logo attached long ago that didn’t quite work with the terrain. Everything in Santa Fe closed down at around nine in the evening and it wasn’t so much a city as a provincial, packed-in, expensive-as-hell town. Fires were blasting up from all corners of the state barreling through the shrub brush and juniper like watching her boyfriend, Philip, another logo that didn’t quite work, assail his way through a breakfast burrito every morning at his favorite spot.
Another problem with this city was that the ratio of men to women was pitiful, unless you were a lesbian. It was one guy for every five girls, so these half-wits didn’t have to do much to have an entourage tailing them wherever they went. They could pretty much set the terms. Philip couldn’t see much past his daily routine to even scout out another girl. He’d worked for ten years at one of the art foundries in town. Artists brought in their wax molds of sculptures and Philip poured the bronze into the mold. It wasn’t a bad job, except that the fumes wailing off 1200 degrees of heavy metal had taken their toll on his brain cells and he wasn’t what Pearl would call a sharp shooter in any arena, especially the bedroom. Nothing much happened there. The fires were outside, not in.
Pearl and Philip had been making a go of it together for over three years. Pearl kept her eyes open for other prospects when they went out on Friday nights to play pool. Lots of single guys hung out there, most of them drunks, but at least they had the potential to crack some excitement in to her life, even if she ended up in jail. Her day job was librarian. She made up more exotic legacies when she was out drinking. Yoga instructor, massage therapist, flamenco dancer all placed her in a whole other category and she played up that angle after a few margaritas.
All had been somewhat “City Boring” and status quo, until the one night Pearl decided to follow Philip in to the bathroom at the “Pork and Grind” and take him on with his pants down at the urinal. She was ready to shake things up. She’d been waiting long enough. It was time to take matters into her own hands. She opened the door to the men’s john and slipped in. She took in the scene, her eyes welled up and she held her hand to her open mouth. Pearl’s placid world suddenly imploded in on her. She was now living on Mars.
Some hormone—she never learned the names—erupted in her chest, sending blood raging to her ears. Philip’s face was arched back in drunken ecstasy. His eyes were closed, but it was the kind of closed that revealed a blaze inside. Pearl never even looked at the man on his knees three feet lower. He didn’t concern her; the sated expression on Philip’s face did. In their three years together she’d never seen it. But she stared now. After he came, he opened his eyes and rolled his head in Pearl’s direction.
“Go to hell,” she said.
“Hell?” He smirked. “Why, aren’t we already living in hell, Pearl?” This wasn’t Philip. This was a guy Pearl had never met.
She ran out of the Pork and Grind, drove up into the hills. Smoking on the hood of her Dodge Dart she watched a wildfire burning from the north, an orange zag slinking toward the city. Hell was really a cold place, she thought. Frozen—minus sixty—like Mars. Like herself. The ember of her cigarette fell off, onto her bare leg. As a tendril of smoke rose, she felt cauterized—already light years away from “The City Different.”
The evacuation sirens and the perfume of charred juniper wafted up from the valley. The fires would rip through the matchbox suburbs of Santa Fe in an hour’s time. Pearl’s house was there. But was it worth going back for some family photos or a few books she hadn’t opened in ten years? Books. The library on the north edge of town was just three stories of tinder now. All those children’s picture books made in China would turn the air toxic blue for a month. She flicked her cigarette into the dry grass and climbed back into her car. She had a full tank, and she could live with the clothes on her back.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m a believer.”
Pearl remembered — maybe it was from college — Dante’s maxim: the hottest places in hell were reserved for people who refused change. That was the real danger, she thought. Neutrality. In all things. She’d always believed that playing neutral in the heat of the moment, in the rage of words, in the deep tangle of the whatever … was terrible. That was the thing she despised in others but hated most in herself. Go one way, go the other— but move. That’s how she wanted to live, but Philip was all about the waiting, the stasis, the silence. Everything status quo, or so she’d made herself believe, but that wasn’t true at all. None of it had been true. He was all about the self— his world — and she was on the outside. It was a game, and she was sick of it.
She was ready. Set the mind to it, and go. At first, the smoke, blast of heat and exploding trees were a real temptation to take that one last look over the shoulder. But what she needed— whatever it was — was not back there. She thought, “Get out of hell, Pearl.” But it wasn’t enough to think it. She had to say it aloud, and she did. Several times.
“Let it burn.” That became her new motto. “City Leaving.” Pearl gripped the steering wheel in her left hand, shifted hard to drive with the right. The tires squealed, and she tore away. She switched on the player— “the road goes on forever, and the party never ends”— threw her head back with a deep laugh that felt so good. She’d almost forgotten what that felt like.
She drove west on 40 all night— Albuquerque to Gallup, the Petrified Forest to Winslow —the flash of mile marker after marker keeping her awake. Somewhere in the miles, in the roar of asphalt, the rage let go. She was empty. Maybe this was happiness, she thought. Maybe.
Eventually Pearl had to stop, though she wanted to keep going. There was more she wanted to leave behind, but for now the feeling of leaving was buried by the feeling of wearing down, the soft numb silence of sleep creeping up on her. She pulled over to the side of the road and crept into the back seat to take a quick nap.
She woke, sweaty and forgetful, at the sound of tapping on the window. A cop. Highway patrol. She opened the window from the back seat, too dazed to crawl back into the front. She smiled. The cop did not smile back. He delivered a lecture he’d obviously handed out hundreds of times. He seemed so bored she wondered if he’d even remember her ten minutes after she’d gone. He told her she needed to find a motel or someplace to pay to sleep for a while.
She supposed he was right; you couldn’t just keep driving forever, after all. You’d drive right into the ocean eventually. You’d drive right into the ass-end of oblivion, the bright-white blur of the hereafter. Not that it sounded so bad, but Pearl was a practical girl. She trusted nothing unless she’d seen it with her own eyes. She trusted nothing of the white blur calling from the depths of eternity, not after she’d seen so much burn behind her. She figured the afterlife was more fire than the promise of the cold indifference of another planet, the sci-fi escape to Mars, more heat than hallelujah. Painful, sharp and surprising. Just like life.
The officer let her go, watched her drive off before he pulled away and sailed on to the tickets and tows awaiting him. She drove slowly, let him pass, turned up the radio and wondered about a place to go that wouldn’t feel so much like practicing for death. A place as cool and clean as she wanted to feel, where you could get lost without even trying.
Pearl drove on, looking for the sign that would call her home for good.
This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet are:
Christopher Allen, whose fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in lots of places like (and very much unlike) Wilderness House Literary Review, The Legendary, Referential Magazineand Connotation Press. He was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters competition in April 2011. Allen edits for the daily literary ezine Metazen and blogs about his obsession with seeing every inch of the planet at www.imustbeoff.blogspot.com.
Amber Sparks, whose work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review as well as a contributor at the lit blogs Big Other and Vouched, and she lives in Washington, DC with her husband and two beasts.
Sam Rasnake, whose works, receiving five nominations for the Pushcart Prize, have appeared inOCHO, Wigleaf, > kill author, Big Muddy, BLIP: The New Mississippi Review, Literal Latté, Poets / Artists, fwriction : review, MiPOesias, Portland Review, Best of the Web 2009, BOXCAR Poetry Review Anthology 2, and Dogzplot Flash Fiction 2011. His latest collections are Lessons in Morphology (GOSS183) and Inside a Broken Clock (Finishing Line Press). He also edits Blue Fifth Review, an online journal of poetry, flash, and art, and serves as a judge for the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, University of California, Berkeley.
Meg Tuite, whose writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals includingBerkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle, Hawaii Review andBoston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review andConnotation Press. Her novel “Domestic Apparition” (2011) is now available through San Francisco Bay Press (www.sanfranciscobaypress.com). Her blog is http://megtuite.wordpress.com.