Grateful acknowledgement is made to Post Hill Press for permitting STORGY to exclusively publish ‘Manolos and Gas Fumes‘ from Michelle’s debut collection; Chain Linked
Manolos and Gas Fumes
The Volvo was out of gas. I couldn’t believe it. I can still hardly believe it. The red light dinged on the dashboard, exposing a tiny outline of a gas pump. It looked like a miniature neon sign. “C’mon down to Mobil,” it warned. I hummed along to the radio. 98.7 was having a classic-rock weekend, and “Moondance” oozed out of the speakers. Earlier, the pinky-lemon sun sunk into the horizon, and it felt like one of those Indian summer nights when the air was still hot. Hot like a sauna. My window was open, and the balmy breeze blew my hair. Sometimes it blew it right into my mouth and I had to spit it out. I could taste the dry split ends. Time for a haircut.
And then the old gal sputtered, coughed, and halted. She was a rustic cadaver with headlights casting a shimmering glow over the valley. I was on Coldwater, and it was 1 a.m. This piece of shit has cost me a bloody fortune. Every time I took her to the dealer, he found a mechanical problem between nine hundred and seventy-five dollars to fifteen hundred dollars. I know. Never take it to the dealer, but I didn’t know a good local mechanic.
“Lizzie, do you listen to Car Talk?” my pops asked me on the phone. “They might have some ideas. Those guys are terrific.”
Like I was going to listen to a radio show that talked about cars. I’m not a dude. Anyway, I remembered that the car was not falling to shit; I was just an idiot. I ignored the red neon light twenty minutes ago. I glanced at my iPhone; it was time to call Triple A, but the phone was dead too. Its one red battery bar hadn’t fazed me when I left Spago. Great. I felt like Eeyore.
“It could rain today.” What was next? A rabid coyote? I was going to have to hike down the canyon in Manolos on a quest for a gas station and carry a little red plastic can back up to fill the old gal’s thirst. Maybe my Nikes were still in the trunk. I wouldn’t make it in those red satin stilts. I never wore heels, but I was on a date and everyone said you had to wear them. It’s sexy and guys like it. I’d rather rock motorcycle boots than hobble along looking like a fool. It felt like rusty nails were digging into the tips of my toes. I’d borrowed the Manolos from my friend Jen, so I didn’t think she would appreciate it if I scaled a mountain in her twelve-hundred-dollar shoes. This guy wasn’t even worth it. Another asshole from Tinder. He squashed my one glimmer of hope five minutes in.
“Why are you still single? You must be a nightmare.” Should have swiped nope, again.
I rummaged in the trunk, sifting through a Home Depot bucket. A few bottles of Cheer had toppled onto some Trader Joe’s bags, and thank God, the Nikes rested by the spare tire. Wait, Nike. Shit, there was only one. I sat in the backseat and took off the Manolos. My feet were finally free, and I rubbed them to flatten their twisted crimson nubs. I laced up the one Nike and pulled on my navy UCLA sweatshirt. One ratty gym sock from underneath the floor mat was now on the other foot. I smelled like my beagle, Daisy, and looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care. I found a flashlight in my earthquake kit. My pops had given it to me for Christmas, and I’d thrown it in the old gal’s trunk. I had no room in my kitchen pantry; too many cans of garbanzo beans and bottles of Windex. I never thought I would open it, but it came in pretty handy that night.
My pops always told me to pay attention to the details, not to let the important stuff slip through the cracks. “You need to be a responsible young lady. You are thirty-two and a full-fledged adult.” But I had a tendency to forget. I couldn’t help it. My house keys, writing a rent check on time, and, well, running out of gas. This wasn’t the first time. I could just see him clicking his tongue and shaking his head, his hairy gray eyebrows twitching. Last September I puttered along on gas fumes on the 110/101 interchange. I was a “SigAlert,” and drivers honked and gave me the finger as I sat stalled in the middle lane.
“Elizabeth Olivia Harrison, really, again.”
I pretty much locked myself out of my apartment weekly. I learned how to jimmy the front screen by yanking on the wooden frame and sliding it upward. It rumbled and jerked, flaking white paint chips into my hair. I wrote countless reminders in blue ink on my palm, but it smudged into a blurry haze. Oh well.
Coldwater’s asphalt was jagged and crumbly. It was steep like Runyon, but not as rocky. My ankles gave a bit when I stumbled on the uneven pavement. It wasn’t easy with just one sneaker. Cars whizzed past, and I watched as their sparkly taillights rounded each corner and disappeared into nothingness. I thought of trying to hitch, but figured with my luck, a kook would kidnap me and drive to Tijuana to sell me as a sex slave. No bueno.
I decided to skip, make light of it, and have fun. This could be a great adventure. Lots of fancy people lived on Coldwater. I heard Tom Hanks had a house up here, and it was Emmy week. Who cares about that old frat guy from Tinder? He had a piece of kale stuck in his front tooth the whole time anyway.
“Well, it’s a marvelous night for a Moondance with the stars up above in your eyes, a fantabulous night to make romance, hmm, hmmm.”
I couldn’t remember the rest of the words, and I was singing out of tune. My skipping was pretty bouncy, and I was focusing on how high I could jump in the tight leather skirt, but my shoelace caught the tip of a pothole and launched me into the brush. I was now sprawled flat with the flashlight on top of my chest; a perpendicular spotlight shot skyward. I had just gotten hockey-checked by the asphalt. The grass was damp, and my left ankle tingled. My lone sock, black and torn. It stank. I was probably lying on top of a steaming pile of shit.
“Good job, Lizzie,” I muttered to myself. I sat up and dusted off the foliage and spiky branches. The foul smell was getting stronger, and the reeds rumbled. I shined the flashlight towards the swishing. It sounded like a cat or dog was trying to make its way through. I squinted and it got closer rather quickly. Its black-and-white bushy tail poked upright, and its beady eyes glowed. It hissed, stamped, and scratched the dirt, kicking some of it up. I tiptoed away, but it was too late. The skunk’s hiss became shriller and it let loose its gassy venom, spraying the front of my shins. I staggered backwards as the varmint continued its rampage into the brush. The smell was disgusting, like raw sewage. Fuck.
How could this much bad juju happen to one person in less than two hours? It wasn’t my turn for bad karma. In fact, yesterday the pregnant psychic at the car wash told me that my aura was pretty high. Good things were coming my way. She was sitting next to me waiting for her Toyota Sienna. Her big belly rested on her thighs like a gigantic beach ball, and a Yorkshire terrier yipped at her feet.
“You have a lot of light in you.”
Really? So, then what the hell was all this?
“Lady, hello. Are you okay?”
I was so busy hopping up and down trying to get the skunk stench off by wiping my sweatshirt all over my shins that I didn’t notice a Prius taxicab had pulled up. Its headlights glared and its muted engine purred.
“Oh, hey.” I shielded my eyes from the light to get a better glimpse. “I’m okay. I ran out of gas and my phone died, so I was hiking down to get to the nearest gas station.” The brilliance blinded. Was this my kidnapper? Next stop Tijuana?
“C’mon, we’ll give you a ride.” He waved his arms into the light like he was forming snow angels against the dark sky. “I just have to drop this customer off at a party up the street.” Good, he wasn’t alone. What were the chances that an international taxicab kidnapping duo drove a hybrid? Minimal, I decided.
“Okay. Thanks so much.”
I limped over clutching my flashlight, purse, and stinky sweatshirt. Wait till they got a whiff of me. I slid into the backseat and clutched the edge of the door.
“Jesus, lady. What happened to you?” The customer stared, mouth agape, but then pinched his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He looked kind of familiar with a roundish face and jovial smirk. His hair was a mass of dirty blond curls, puffy and ‘fro-like.
“I apologize. Not only did I go on a bad date, run out of gas, and have my phone die, but Pepé Le Pew just nailed my ankles.”
The driver turned and studied me before pulling his Dodgers cap down low over his eyes. They both erupted into laughter. You know, that bellyache, uncontrollable giggle when you feel like you might pee your pants. I laughed too and gave a small snort.
“Well, that’s crazy. You’re actually kind of foxy underneath all that mess. Anyone ever tell you, you look like the girl from Scent of a Woman? Whoo-ah.”
Actually, the crazy homeless guy at the Laundromat said it to me all the time. He wore a rainbow Mexican blanket with no shirt and tan chinos and shouted “Whoo-ah” every time I stuck a load in the dryer.
We merged onto Coldwater. The customer pointed at my one sneaker and shook his head. How did I know him? Barry’s Bootcamp? Had we been partners one day?
“Did you go to UCLA?”
“No, I went to the New School in New York.”
He was younger, I would have guessed mid to late twenties. He dressed sloppily—ripped jeans, lopsided button-up, and Chuck Taylors. Ray-Ban Wayfarers clipped to the front of his shirt.
“You know it!” He was still plugging his nose but hummed “Slow Rider.”
“Do you have a cellphone I can borrow? I could call Triple-A and be out of your hair.”
“I left it at my buddy’s.”
“I only have radio dispatch.” The driver eyed me in the rearview mirror. His forehead was wrinkly with upside-down frowns.
Oh, I get it. I didn’t know him. It was Jonah Hill. That was the problem with living in Los Angeles. Famous people just looked familiar.
“15308 Coldwater.” We stopped in front of a driveway surrounded by an eight-foot metal fence. It was ornate, with a fleur-de-lis at the apex.
“Well, this is me,” Jonah said. “You should come in and use the phone. Triple-A can get you from here.” He handed the driver a fifty from a crumpled-up wad. I lingered, clutching my stinky sweatshirt. He poked his head down and smiled.
“Whatcha doin’? C’mon, whoo-ah.”
I unclicked the seatbelt and stumbled. My shoeless foot throbbed, and the sock was beginning to shred. “Your friend won’t mind? I mean, I’m a total mess.”
“It’s cool.” He punched a code into the security box, and the gate opened, whining. He motioned for me to follow. The driveway was long, with tiny candles lining each side.
“Is this a fancy Emmy party?”
“Naw, just a small gathering with friends.”
I could barely squeeze my way through the front door. Loads of fashion bloggers and actresses decked out in spiked Manolo gladiators and Hervé Léger dresses huddled about. I bumped into them while they drank Moscow Mules in copper mugs. They leaned sexily and took selfies. Jonah high-fived almost everyone.
“What’s up, man! Party!”
It was a beautiful home. Very modern, glass walls, stainless steel with concrete floors. Black-and-white Mapplethorpe-like photos. Guests gawked, frowned, or corked their nostrils. I didn’t blame them.
“Who’s the chick?”
“Make-A-Wish Foundation? Is she homeless? Jonah, you are too sweet.”
“She’s cool; she just needs to use the phone.”
He was such a nice guy. I needed to rewatch Superbad or maybe Moneyball. A few bloggers scurried, clicking their heels against the concrete, scratching it like nails on a chalkboard. I sweated and my stomach did loops like the Cyclone at Coney Island. I wanted to go home, take a shower, and crawl into bed.
“Phone’s over here.”
We were in the kitchen, and Jonah pointed to a cordless on the counter. It was much quieter here. The caterers were working on stacking small golden bites onto silver platters. It smelled buttery and hot. Man, I was hungry. It had been six hours since I nibbled on a cheese plate at Spago. My mouth watered. The servers and chefs ogled me too. I gave a small wave.
“My main man, Jonah!”
“What’s up, Franco? Rockin’ party. My friend needs to use your phone. What’s your name?”
“Lizzie, nice to meet you. Wow, rough night?” Of course, it was James Franco’s house. The night was getting weirder by the minute. He took two steps sideways and gave me the once-over.
“Ha, ha. Long story involving running out of gas, falling into a ditch, and pissing off a skunk. Sorry to bother you. Thanks for letting me use your phone.”
“Mi casa, su casa.”
He was smoking an electronic cigarette and wearing pajama pants with a Hawaiian shirt. His mirrored aviator sunglasses were pulled halfway down the bridge of his nose.
“Anyone ever tell you that you look like that girl from Scent of a Woman?”
“Totally. I said the same thing.” Jonah nodded. I was beginning to hate that movie.
“We’re going to get a cocktail. You want one?” James said.
“No, thanks. I appreciate it though.” I cradled the receiver.
Jonah and James strolled into the starlet jungle. I turned and the entire catering staff was still staring. I twisted my back and dialed Triple-A. The counter was lined with quirky doodads, mostly adorable Limoges boxes. One ornate teakettle, an orange tiger, and a perfectly robust beehive. I didn’t envision James Franco as a collector of expensive French junk. They were lined up neatly one after the other, a gigantic mob of them. They didn’t seem to go with the overall modern décor, but I guess it was kitschy. Maybe that was the point?
I picked up the beehive, listening to Neil Diamond on hold. I ran my fingers along its smooth surface. It had a tiny gold clasp, and I mindlessly fiddled to see what was inside. Maybe a swarm of adorable bumblebees? It was so delicate and yet difficult to pry open. The honeycomb top jolted off and flicked into my palm. Neil still blasted into my right ear. I scrambled, placing the top back on by cupping my palms and then gently placing it on the counter. It wobbled a smidgen but remained intact.
“Yes, I’m at 15308 Coldwater. Fifteen minutes. Thank you.” I returned the receiver and took a few steps back. I needed to get out of here.
“Señorita. ¿Puedo audarle?” The housekeeper tapped my right shoulder. I glanced at the tiny beehive.
“Que descuidado te vez. Te estoy mirado. Compórtate, o le llamo a la policía.” Her chocolate eyes glossed over, and she crossed her arms in front of her chest. She had a unibrow. I didn’t speak Spanish, but I caught “policía.”
“Um, no, gracias. I’m going to wait…um, you know.” I smiled real toothy and did a curtsy before sprinting outside.
The pool was a bottomless midnight blue. Only a handful of guests were hanging outside lounging on lawn chairs. I glanced at my wristwatch; it was 2:15 a.m. and still muggy out. I could feel the frizz puffing my hair into a hefty storm cloud. The brilliant moonlight made the water twinkle like a thousand tiny diamonds. It was relaxing and inviting, hypnotizing even. I shuffled my way around its kidney maze, inhaling the pungent chlorine. It smelled fresh and shiny. No more skunk stench. I was concentrating on how many gulps of clean air I could take in that I didn’t notice the drunken fashion blogger. She staggered in her Manolos and elbowed me in the back, striking me right between the shoulder blades. I splashed head first into the shimmering liquid. It was muted and hushed under the water, calm and serene. I wanted to remain submerged and surrender. Okay, Mercury in retrograde, you win. I floated to the surface and laid on my back, arms and legs splayed out wide. My pinkie toe tingled in the tattered sock. The water was lovely and almost made me forget my predicament. That’s it, turning over a new leaf. Detail and precision would be my new name. No more Lizzie.
“Hey, are you okay?”
I drifted to the edge, sopping wet, but at least I didn’t smell like a skunk anymore.
“Yeah, icing on the cake.”
A guy in a crisp white button-down dangled a towel. The moonlight encircled him in a glittery mist. He had sandy brown hair that hung loose over his cobalt eyes. He winked and flashed perfect movie star teeth. Did I know him? Maybe he went to that Whole Foods on Santa Monica? Boy, he was handsome.
He offered me the towel and took my hand, leading me up the pool’s staircase. His hands were soft but manly. Goosebumps.
“You’re even pretty wet.”
“Thanks.” My cheeks heated up to a blazing lilac. Maybe the car wash psychic was right?
“What’s your name?”
“Elizabeth.” I said elongating the “e.”
“Hey, anyone ever tell you that you look like the girl from Scent of a Woman? Whoo-ah.
Michelle Blair Wilker
Michelle Blair Wilker is a Los Angeles-writer and producer. Her work has appeared in Across the Margin, Whistlingfire, Hollywood Dementia, Unheard LA, Felix Magazine, and The Huffington Post. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s November 2012 contest for new writers and shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize in 2015. In 2017, she attended DISQUIET: Dzanc Books International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, and was featured in The New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles. Her first book, Chain Linked Stories was published in June through Post Hill Press and Simon & Schuster. Chain Linked was recently selected for the 2018 Montana Book Festival.
Read Michelle Blair Wilker’s Guest Post in STORGY Magazine
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The human heart: you can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it.
We are bound together and yet broken apart, like a chain link fence.
We yearn for connection’s kinship and mourn its losses; it is the fabric of our existence and what drives us. The agony of lost love, the hollowness of an absent family member, the cute guy on the basketball court that you just can’t muster up the courage to say hi to. A summer trip to Montauk. A night out at a salty dive bar. A foghorn in the distance, sipping a sweet drink. Emptying the fridge, packing up the old condo. Listening to Grandpa’s corny jokes. Wondering if life as a prep school art teacher meant anything. Getting even with your older brother. Haunted by Havana’s vacant casino high rises and ancient automobiles, dreaming of pizza in Rome.
Chain Linked chronicles life’s joys and discontents in vivid detail and gives us a window into our souls.
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Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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