Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 490 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews, and anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
The Gin Rummy Traffic Entanglement
By Steve Carr
It was a Friday on the 15th of August and the weather had reached a sweltering 97 degrees Fahrenheit. On the highway leading out of the city, the traffic was bumper to bumper, most fleeing the city by noon, anxious to get away for the weekend. Drivers and passengers in the vehicles stared glaze-eyed at the visible waves of heat that arose from the pavement while trying to tune out the blaring of horns, including their own. No one dared roll down their windows to hurdle foul language at the jerks who tried to squeeze in between them and the car ahead, fearing they would lose even a small amount of air conditioning that kept the inside of their vehicles like the inside of an ice chest. But countless upraised middle fingers were directed at one another, and many steering wheels were subject to the blows of an open hand smacking them in anger and frustration.
Alongside the highway the front hoods of dozens of cars were raised as steam poured out of their bone dry radiators. One of those cars was owned by Carl Truett, a plumber by trade, who was attempting to reach his cabin and the lake it was located near to do a weekend of fishing. He, like most of the other drivers of stalled automobiles hadn’t thought of bringing water along in their haste to leave the city. After raising the hood, and unscrewing the radiator cap, they quickly returned to their places behind the steering wheel, to at least be able to listen to a ball game on the radio or keep their kids from murdering one another, or their mother from killing them. Carl had no kids in his car, and no wife, and the radio was on the fritz. There were three CDs he could have chosen from to insert in the CD player, but they belonged to his ex-girlfriend, Joanne, who had a penchant for classical music. He hated classical music.
He took his cellphone from the compartment between the front seats and stared at it, but quickly came to the painful realization there was no one to call, not even AAA since he wasn’t a member. He put the phone back into the compartment and slammed down the lid, not because he was angry, but because the latch required the slamming to catch and stay closed.
He spent time studying the makes and models of the cars that passed him at a snail’s pace, while avoiding the dispassionate stares by the car’s passengers, none who seemed the least bit inclined to offer assistance. The truck drivers ignored him altogether. He pondered that he could die with his head resting on the screeching car horn and not one of the passersby would take an interest in his early demise. Dying at age 32 seemed premature to him, especially since he was in great shape and very healthy. Joanne had insisted he accompany her to the gym three evenings a week, and although she stopped going, he continued going, enlarging muscles he never knew he had and increasing his sexual stamina, which Joanne grew rapidly less interested in with the more weight she gained. He thought the extra poundage on her was sexy, which only increased her anger with him. He consoled himself that at least he would die in the comfort of refrigerated air, that was until the condenser went out and the car became as hot inside, as the weather outside. Rolling the window down did nothing but remove the barrier between him and the beer and soda cans tossed from other cars, aimed at him or not.
When his underarm deodorant gave out and without any blowing air to quickly evaporate the stream of stench that began to drip down his sides, he took a deck of cards from the glove box, got out of his car, went to the back and lifted the hood to the trunk. Inside sat the empty ice cooler that he intended to fill with ice and food at the small grocery store near the lake, as he always did. There was also two brand new fishing rods and his gym bag packed with his clothes and his favorite triple x-rated DVD, Sherry and the Stranded Sailors, that he had never been able to sit through to the end for obvious reasons. It was the most sexually graphic pornography he had ever seen. Underneath everything was a card table and folding metal chair that he carried along everywhere, because why not? He figured having them in his car would come in handy sometime. He moved everything else aside and lifted out the table and chair and set them up in the gravel on the side of the highway.
He surveyed the field and farmland beyond the stretch of roadside gravel hoping to see some sign of a source of water but seeing none, he resigned himself to dying of thirst, and sat down on the metal chair. He took the pack of cards from his pocket, removed the cellophane from around the box the card came in, and poured the cards into his hand. Not wanting to add to the litter cluttered along the highway, he put the box and cellophane back into his shirt pocket and then shuffled the cards. He tried to imagine that Joanne was seated across from him and then seeing the scowl on her face, he wiped her image from his mind and replaced it with a naked, smiling, Sherry. He placed the deck of cards in the middle of the table. “You, first,” he said to her.
You’re such a sugarpuss, she said back, the same thing she called the four horny sailors just before she called out “anchors aweigh,” taking them on individually, two or three at a time, or the entire crew of four.
Playing her hand, because after all, that was his only choice, he took the top card and placed it on the table across from him.
As much as he had tried to ignore them, he glanced over at the two kids who were making faces and sticking their tongues out at him through the window of the back seat of the car that was inching along beside where he sat. The girl and boy looked to be no older than ten or eleven. He had once wanted to have children, especially after his sperm sought so many frequent chances of escape from his testicles after he started working out, but an ill-advised trip home to see his parents where he announced his plans to ask Joanne to marry him reversed his decision to have children.
“Whatever you do, get a vasectomy now,” his father told him. “You don’t want kids screwing up your life like you screwed up your mother’s and mine.”
“Oh, that poor girl,” his mother said. “You’ll disappoint her as a father of her children if you have any, just like you’ve disappointed everyone else in your life.”
Although the kids in the car actually held no resemblance to either him or Joanne, he suddenly saw in their facial features a likeness to both his ex-girlfriend and himself, causing a chill to go up his sweaty spine. It wasn’t his best, or most adult. moment, but he stood up and lowered his pants, showing his worked-out tight butt muscles, mooning them. When he pulled up his pants and turned around he saw they had fallen back in what looked like gales of laughter. Then their mother turned around from the front seat and began walloping them. The car inched on with the kids crying. He felt justice had been served and drew the next card. Sherry would go first.
He sat staring at the deck of cards feeling the same emptiness he felt when he played chess alone or masturbated for the third time in a day.
“You need someone to play with?”
He turned around to see a young man, possibly in his early twenties, standing a few feet away. The young man was wearing a t-shirt with the image of Gandhi’s face on the front. There was a hole in the t-shirt that exposed the young man’s left nipple. Without a doubt, the junk heap that was parked about twenty yards back with its hood raised and steam pouring from the engine, belonged to him. He was carrying two bottles of water in one hand and holding a lawn chair in the other.
“Sure,” Carl said, feeling his dry throat disappear even at the sight of water. “You know how to play gin rummy?”
“Yeah. I was on a ship in the Navy and we played all sorts of cards to kill time.”
“You were a sailor?”
“Yeah. For two years. I got kicked out, though.”
“When you were a sailor did you know a gal named Sherry?”
The young man’s face twisted into a pretzel as he tried to decipher the non sequitur. “Who?”
“Never mind,” Carl replied. “I’m Carl. Have a seat.” He waved toward where Sherry had been sitting.
“I’m Rick,” the once-a-sailor said as he walked to the other side of the table, opened the lawn chair and sat down. He held out one of the bottles of water to Carl. “I thought you might be thirsty.”
Carl quickly grabbed the bottle and twisted off the cap. The head of the bottle was already on his mouth by the time he remembered to say thanks. He tried to block out the Freudian or homoerotic implications of not being able to look away from Rick’s nipple as he guzzled the water. Finishing the bottle and with water dripping from his chin, he dealt ten cards to both of them.
“You said you got kicked out of the Navy,” Carl said. “What happened?”
Rick picked up his cards and fanned them out in his right hand. “I got caught with a bag of weed in my duffle bag. I was lucky I didn’t get thrown in the brig. That was two months ago. I haven’t had the nerve to tell my folks yet. Since then I’ve been traveling around the country seeing the sites.”
Carl picked up his cards, quickly looked at them, and then folded them in the palm of his hand. “You seen anything interesting in your travels?”
“Once you’ve seen five interesting landmarks or tourist traps they all begin to look the same. You know what I mean?”
Carl recalled the trip he took to Disneyland with his parents who fought the entire time. Three attractions in, the entire park seemed repetitive. “Yeah, I know.”
“You want to draw to see who goes first?” Rick asked.
Carl took a final look at Rick’s exposed nipple and looked up at Rick’s bemused expression.
“Sorry, Sherry was my girlfriend and I sometimes think she’s still here.”
“What happened to her?”
“She had a boating accident. Her and four s . . .Scandinavians were lost at sea while sailing. ” Carl said.
“Wow,” Rick replied. That’s quite a coincidence, you and me meeting and me once being a sailor, and your girlfriend dying that way. I’m sorry to hear about your loss” He scratched his goatee with the edge of his cards. “I don’t usually think of Scandinavians being sailors.”
“They gave it their all,” Carl replied.“You can go first.”
Rick drew a card and stared wide-eyed at the four aces in his hand.
“….and that’s why pigs can’t tap dance,” Carl said. He looked up from his cards at Rick who was staring at him blankly. “That’s the punchline.”
“I don’t get it,” Rick said. “I’m not good with jokes. Never was.”
Carl looked at cards in his hand and winced. He was holding two pairs, twos and eights, and the rest an assortment of cards below a ten. He had already lost a number of hands, which he lost count of, and was behind Rick in overall points by 420. The afternoon had dragged on with the two men enduring objects and insults being hurled at them from the slow-moving motorists. With their shirts off the skin on their shoulders and upper backs had turned a rosy sunburn color.
Carl had shifted his focus from Rick’s tit to the tattoo of an anchor between the young man’s pectoral muscles. Looking at it was less threatening to his sexual identity, but kept his thoughts of Sherry uncomfortably active, especially as the combined heat from the direct sunlight on his bare skin and the persistent images of events in the DVD played in his head played heck with his libido.
Just as the Sherry in his head was about to indulge in a coconut milk bath with him on the beach while the sailors looked on, Rick yelled “Gin” and laid down a set of three jacks, three queens, and four nines.
“Damn,” Carl muttered under his breath. He laid his cards on the table and then proceeded to count up their points.
Rick stood up. “I need to take a piss. Your turn to deal.” He walked away, headed to the sole tree in the field. Standing behind it provided the only private place where they could pee away from the prying eyes of the passersby.
Carl didn’t intend to cheat when he began shuffling the cards. Even though Joanne frequently accused him of cheating on her which he never did, and more frequently than he liked to admit, customers accused him of cheating on his charges for installing pipes or toilets which he didn’t do either. His father and mother cheated on one another all the time, and he vowed he’d never cheat about anything, including on his taxes. But seeing the pale skin on Rick’s bare back glisten from the light shining on his sweaty well-developed muscles, that Rick had said with some pride, “I never work out. I don’t believe in it,” Carl quickly arranged both hands so that he had four aces, three kings and three tens, giving Rick a handful of junk.
When Rick returned and sat down at the table, Carl wasn’t able to look him in the face, but instead kept his eyes on the face cards in his hand.
Rick looked at his cards. “I knew it.” He slammed his cards down on the table.
“What?” Carl replied, trying to sound innocent, but still unable to look directly at Rick.
“My luck had to end sometime.”
Carl looked at Rick. “Your luck . . .?” he stammered.
“Ran out. It always does. I go along thinking I’m gonna win at something for once in my life and then I get dealt a shitty hand by fate or the universe or God. I went into the Navy because I hoped my life would turn around from the bad path I was taking, and then my luck runs out and I get caught with the pot.” He slumped back in his chair. “And to top it off I always end up losing at cards.”
“But . . .” Carl started, desperate to find a way to confess that he had attempted to cheat that wouldn’t alienate his new, and only friend. It was then that a beer bottle hit him in the side of the head, shattering and spilling beer on his upper body. Dazed and unable to stop him, he watched Rick quickly get up and run to the car where a teenager was half hanging out the back window. Rick pulled the teen out, threw him on the ground and began to beat the shit out of him. Within minutes the car came to a stop and the three other teens got out of the car and jumped onto Rick.
The traffic behind the teen’s stopped car came to an abrupt stop, some colliding with the car in front of them. Drivers got out and punches began to be thrown. A few fistfights quickly turned into a riot.
Carl slowly stood, allowed his dizziness to subside, and then ran to the heap of bodies on top of Rick and using every bulging muscle in his body, tossed them aside like rag dolls, until he reached Rick and helped him to his feet.
“You’re my hero,” Rick said as blood dripped from his lower lip.
Then the shrill and blaring sound of several highway patrol motorcycles caught everyone’s attention.
At the police station, Carl and Rick sat on a wood bench awaiting to be interviewed by one of the cops sitting at desks. Rick held a medical ice bag to his lip that the arresting cop had given him. He also had a swollen and bruised right eye. A cold strip of cloth was wrapped around the knuckles of Carl’s left hand.
“I need to get something off my chest,” Carl said.
“You don’t need to,” Rick replied. “I knew you were gay when I caught you staring at my nipple. All you gay guys have killer bodies.”
Surprised, and stumbling to find a response to what Rick said, it took him several tries to say,
“ I’m not gay. I have a DVD in my car to prove it.”
“Speaking of cars, I hope they don’t search yours and find the large stash of pot I hid in your car during all the commotion while the cops were sorting out the entanglements,” Rick said. “I couldn’t keep it in my car. I stole it a few days after I got out of the Navy and they’re sure to have questions about that. It’s just my rotten luck.”
Mouth agape, Carl stared at Rick for several moments before saying, “You have to be the stupidest son of a bitch on the face of the planet.”