Best New Ending Wins a Signed Copy of Mending: New and Selected Stories
I’m opening this up to you, my readers— write your own ending to the following short story and submit it via my contact form before March 1. I’ll pick my favorite and the winner will also be published on this page. Good luck! — Sallie
I’ve lived in the mountains for a long time, gotten the knack of it. Every morning down the hill by eight to catch a ride, if I’m lucky, with some guy going to work in Santa Fe. Always a young guy alone in a beat-up car, maybe driving in for breakfast from the campground.
I dress the part: long cowboy coat, big hat, broke-down boots, the hat and coat the last things I bought with a regular wage. That was nine years ago. What’s underneath don’t matter as long as it’s clean; I keep the coat buttoned. No bags. Bags make people nervous, like maybe there’s contraband, or booze, or you’re planning to steal.
If he’s talky—the driver—I tell him it’s my birthday, or I haven’t eaten in three days. Sometimes in cold weather when the tourists are gone, that last is the truth, and the first is the truth once a year, but that’s the one day I never mention it.
I’m clean. That’s essential. At the camp—tarpaulins and a teepee back in the arroyo—we bucket up water from the Little Tesuque till it freezes or dries. We sponge off with that, wash what we have to. With this drought, the creek dried up in June, but they let me shower, usually, at the public recreation center at the bottom of the hill. Not too often, though. In between I depend on those baby wipes.
I can’t smell. That’s rule number one, when you depend on the public for transportation.
Nothing on my breath, either, but that’s no problem now.
So when the kid in the back seat turned up her nose at me, I knew it wasn’t because of my stink.
She was sitting back there when I got in, riding shotgun next to her mother. First woman to stop for me in three years. I don’t blame them. They have reason to be scared, or else they have their purses and shopping bags on the front seat and don’t want to move them. Or a dog. A dog is the worst, sitting up on the seat next to the woman like the ride was made for him.
Eight am or a few minutes past, the last day of June. No school to tote the kid to, so where were they going? Those kind of people don’t drive to town for breakfast.
I thanked her when I got in and looked over my shoulder at the little blond in the back seat.
Maybe twelve, with a sour look. She made the ride even more unlikely. I don’t have much experience with mothers—mine lit out before I remember—but I’ve noticed they guard their litter like tigers. Or tigresses. Picking up a hitch-hiker, western get-up or not, on a lonely mountain road is not what a cub-carrying tigress would normally do.
The atmosphere in that car was thick as cream, but rancid. I saw I was supposed to provide some kind of an excuse, for a fight or more likely to avoid one.
The car gave the woman away more than how she looked, decent, ordinary, in those workout clothes. The car was a German make, solid, clean as a button, but not new, the kind of car tigresses believe is safe, but held onto for longer than I would have expected. The houses in these mountains cost in the millions. Those folks usually change their cars every year.
So in a bad way, maybe? Scared enough to use a homeless man to pad whatever was going on with her daughter?
Maybe already running out of other tricks; she was no looker, this woman. Forty, I guessed, but the desert air makes them look old before their time: wrinkles, and the backs of her hands on the steering wheel were spotted.
On second glance, I could see she’d been pretty some time back. That blond, sweet look that dries up, fast.
She looked at me. Still the eyes of a pretty woman who can count on men wanting her, at least some of the time; blue eyes, with that flash in them. The kid had them, too.
She asked me how I was doing.
I told her the usual, but without the birthday or the three days without food.
She didn’t leave it there. She asked me more questions than I wanted: why I don’t go to the shelter when everybody in town gives it money to take care of people like me (she didn’t say bums). Why I don’t look for laboring work with all the construction around here, how long I’ve been sleeping out.
Most people don’t bother with all that. The answers are always the same: stealing at the shelter, no construction work with the downturn, nine years this Christmas when my last squeeze chased me out.
That’s when the kid in the back seat decided to open her mouth.
“He’s a beggar, Mom,” she said.
Her mom shot back, “Don’t say that, Cissy.” Her voice had a caw in it, like a raven’s.
“I’ve heard worse,” I said, not to give the shrimp the satisfaction.
“Dad’s going to be furious when he hears.” She leaned her sharp little chin on the back of the front seat and turned those blue eyes on me. “Wait till I tell him.”
“You’re not going to tell him.” There was the caw again and those spotted hands strangling the steering wheel.
“Yes, I am.”
Mom glanced sideways at her with that flash. The tigress had met her match.
“You always try to find some way to stop me talking,” the kid went on, like she was giving a sermon in some church. “It never does work.”
“I stop you when you’re rude. When you start cursing.”
I started feeling for the woman. There’s nothing worse than letting a kid get you down.
“Did you know there are no swear words in Indian?” I asked.
They didn’t hear me.
“It’s so lame to fight me about clothes,” the kid said, changing her tactics. Now she sounded as old and weary as her mother. “I don’t know why you do it.”
“Because I won’t let you leave the house looking like —-.”
“Ooh. Ooh,” the kid said, putting her hands to her mouth. Square hands with chipped green polish. “You almost said a bad word.”
“I said what you looked like this morning.” Her voice evened out. She was getting back some of her own. Maybe. “I wont drive you in town looking like that. I won’t have you hanging out on the plaza all day with your skirt that short.”
The girl jeered. “What do you think is going to happen?”
“Oh, honestly.” Mom looked at me, wanting help.
I pulled out what I could. “We all do things when we’re young we regret later.”
“Like being a drunk tramp,” the brat said. I didn’t fall for that.
The mom tried to shut her up. “Now, that’s enough!”
Now the kid figured she’d get me on her side.