With this short story by Stuart Watson, we continue our series of original fiction or poetry by writers who either published their first book at 40 or after, or who have yet to publish a book. Writers interested in submitting work should see our guidelines.
Car with Idaho Plates
On the evening of their arrival at the San Diego vacation rental, Larry heard a commotion out by the roller carts. He went to check. Someone had deposited a bunch of trash in their recycling. He moved it to the trash, slammed the lid. The gall.
A few feet away, a first-gen Lincoln Town Car had taken up residence at the curb. It wore vanity Idaho plates celebrating someone named JELLI.
Larry suspected it or its owners were the source of the trashpass. Its interior light was on, and someone – perhaps Jelli – was kneeling on the driver’s seat, stirring stuff on the passenger seat. Where was that vial? A young male with floppy hair was rooting around in back. He had misplaced his flip flops. It wasn’t quite bed time, but there was no room in the car for anybody to sleep, if that was their intent. Larry went inside and told Leena about the trashpass. This would piss Leena off if it happened in Seattle, but when Larry groused about it, Leena shrugged.
“More entertaining than cable,” she said. “Since neither of us can figure out how to turn the cable on, fucking box with wires coming out all sides and only four remotes.”
She was always good for a rant. Larry half suspected one of the remotes operated one of the other remotes. Like sleeping with your sister, not that he would know.
He looked through the front louvers.
“At least she’s putting trash into our containers, not taking it out,” Leena said.
She kept her eyes locked to the online crossword she had been playing for days.
“With all the people on the street around here,” Leena continued, “at least those kids are living one step up from the next step down.”
She had the ability to converse with Larry’s unspoken thoughts. It was eerie.
When Larry took the dog out later, in the deep dark beneath suspended pools of streetlight, he noticed Jelli sitting in the driver’s seat, lighting her next joint from the last one. A cloud surrounded her head, like a beehive hairdo of carcinogens. Her guy was gone.
Larry approached the car from behind, feeling a little stealthy as he picked through the visuals for a clue. The light was on inside, and this Jelli person was rustling around like a squirrel in a nest of leaves.
Back in his rental, he closed the shades and turned off the lights and went back to the front window and slowly opened the louvers enough to monitor activity in the car. Was she going to spend the night, the newest climate refugee?
At daylight and on dog detail, he took passing note of the car with Idaho plates. Its owner was not in the front seat, and not likely burrowed behind the bags in the back. Off to the early shift at McScrapin’s? Or curled inside another house, on a friend’s sofa, or in a sleeping bag on a the carpet full of crumbs from a season of pot processing?
Larry had no tolerance for the nouveau vagrant. He led his dog inside, just as he noticed Jelli lying in the back of an SUV parked across the street in front of what looked like the aftermath of an eviction. Her boyfriend, back from a bakery run, ducked under the SUV’s raised hatch and dropped a bag of bagels on Jelli’s sleeping bag.
Jelli looked up, smiled at Shay. She hadn’t moved since he left. She was stretched sideways, her back against a pillow, feet where Shay wanted to resume lying prone with his arms dangling over the Save Mono Lake bumper sticker. They looked to Larry like they belonged there. He couldn’t know that they were paying rent to sleep in the SUV, to the guy who had converted the house behind it into a #vanlife hostel.
Jelli was thinking she would like to get rid of her Town Car and get a ride like the SUV, with room to sleep in back. She stuck out her hand, and Shay fed it the change from the bagel buy. He flicked his head so that the hank of mature alfalfa rooted in his scalp might lift from his eyes, but it promptly fell back.
“They’re lookin’ for people.”
“I applied. I need some money.”
“You applied? For what?”
“A job. Morning baker. I’ll be home before you’re awake.”
“Here. The car. I’m tired of asking you for money. Your dad doesn’t know your money is going to me.”
“Me is we.”
Jelli had dropped out of grad school in Boise, told her folks she was going #vanlife. Her dad gave her the squinty-eyelids look. “San Diego,” she said, as if that explained everything.
Dad owned a semiconductor company. He had been funding her bank account. He didn’t stop when she headed south. They never discussed it. She figured it was probably easier for him than cutting her off and hoping the police didn’t call.
“Too good to last, if you ask me,” Shay said, and flicked his head.
“Just enjoy the ride,” Jelli replied.
Alberto emerged from the #vanlife hostel. Bunk beds for twenty-five a night. Who’s on top? Who’s on bottom? Who cares? Street parking for car campers. A flophouse for the fluid.
Four Japanese girls with roller bags passed Alberto, slowed as they approached the house, then turned and disappeared around back. Each of them stared at a phone.
Alberto approached the back of his SUV, poked his head in back, asked Shay, “Can you help jump me? Battery dead.”
Shay looked at Jelli and Jelli looked at Shay and Shay began to move until he approached vertical and stepped from the car. He didn’t know how to jump anything but Jelli.
“That guy across the street is weirding me out,” Shay said.
He stared across the street. He had seen Larry, with the big black and white dog, staring their way, but Larry wasn’t there now.
“Weirding?” Jelli said.
Shay flicked his head and shrugged. She knew what it meant.
Larry and Leena had no idea they were weirding the transients. They knew they were renting. They knew they were entitled to enjoy the little house for a month, base camp for their own beach walks and museum tours. The house dated to the early 20th century, but recent improvements had positioned it better for a quick hose-down between vacationers. It had a plastic picket fence, plastic lawn, plastic plants.
Larry and Leena had locked up their own house and headed south from Seattle for a month of sun.
“Can you keep an eye on it?” Larry asked their neighbor. “If somebody parks a grocery cart full of overstuffed plastic bags in the drive, call the cops?”
The neighbor nodded. They were all in this together.
Some of those neighbors rented to people escaping Phoenix in the summer. Over cocktails, they heard tales of other neighbors buying second homes a block or two away, then running them like motels.
“Anybody tries to do that near us, I’m raising holy hell,” Larry told Leena.
“Listen to you. Don’t look now, but we are the problem.”
“Us? You’re shitting me. We’re paying plenty for this little dump.”
“That’s probably why those kids can’t afford anything but their cars.”
“Maybe they could try getting a job.”
Instead of hanging out all day, doing nothing, he thought, as he wandered to the screened-in porch and its view of Weirdstock.
Larry noticed Jelli on a mat, in the street, working through some yoga postures. She had a tube top and leggings on, the better to display the tattooed mural on her abs. Her boyfriend lay in the SUV, no evidence of pulse.
Larry saw the Latino character standing by the uplifted hatch, talking with Shay. Shay got out and flicked his head and took some jumper cables from Alberto.
Larry took his dog out and around the block. He heard the car alarm from a block away, and it grew in volume as he approached. Alberto and Shay stood on either side of the car with Idaho plates, cables extending from beneath its hood to beneath the hood of the SUV with its raised hatch. They looked under the hood, the bleats of the alarm erupting around them, no doubt wondering What next?
Larry thought, It’s anybody’s guess what these gizmos have the cables attached to.
Larry guessed they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. Which was why they had set off the alarm. A police car pulled to a stop, and two plainclothes types got out, handguns holstered on their hips.
“There’s cops out there now,” Larry said, holding down one of the slats. “They just slapped something pink on the Jelli-mobile.”
That’s how it went for the next week. Although Leena tried, it was hard for Larry to ignore them.
It was quite the show. Shouting, laughter, bongos and busted mufflers coming and going. Towels and blankets were draped across the fences. Beer cans in the morning gutters. Occasionally, someone would pull wood from a scrap pile in the driveway and begin fabricating something. Bunk beds. A cargo box for the back of the pickup with the large stuffed bear sitting beneath an umbrella on top of the camper.
Chatting with the residents of the homes and apartments strung along the street, Larry got the sense that they didn’t have much regard for, as one put it, “the ghetto.” Most of them admitted that they were renters, too, so Larry guessed they weren’t concerned about their property values. Just appearances.
Looking out at the mess, Larry slid downhill into his own reverie about the neighbors and their militant non#vanlife. Who chooses long-term tenancy in a one-bedroom walkup with a cactus out front, unless they have to?
Larry and Leena were snowbirds (Leena called them snowballs), even though she didn’t allow him to call it vacation.
“It’s life,” Leena argued, “just somewhere else. It’s not a vacation.”
Larry bit his lip when Leena expounded on their lifestyle, but didn’t mind sharing.
“I tell you what, paying 4K for a month across from hashtag-vanlife isn’t hashtag-mylife.”
On the afternoon before he and Leena were to head back north, Larry heard elevated voices. Jelli and Shay were sorting their shit.
They stood on the curb next to Larry’s rental as if it were their breakfast nook.
“I want a job,” Shay said, flicking his head. “I’ve always worked.”
“Why? When you’ve got me?”
“Do I have you? Or your dad? I would hate asking him. He would slap me across the room. You’re his daughter, so I guess it makes sense to him.”
“If it keeps me out of his hair, I guess.”
“Aren’t you a little … embarrassed? It’s like welfare.”
“I got food stamps once. It wasn’t bad.”
“Have you ever earned anything?”
“You’re saying I haven’t?”
“What did you do to earn this? The monthly deposit?”
“Showed up. Played daughter when their friends came over. Kept my mouth shut.”
“How much could I pay you?”
She smirked. “Funny. I’ve done other things.”
“I showered. Earlier, if that’s what you mean.”
“No. Have you ever worked? Earned money.”
“Why? I don’t need to. Why should I?”
“Your dad’s gonna cut you off. He should.”
“Maybe he wants to help me?”
“Help you what? Avoid responsibility?”
“That’s the problem. I don’t want you to be responsible for me. I like pulling my weight. I grew up on a potato farm. Before I met you, I drove harvesters, trucks. Paid rent. Then the asshole landlord jacked it up. So I would leave. So he could rent it to skiers from Seattle. It was your car or the street.”
“What’s wrong with my car? My Dad hates it.”
“A 1982 Lincoln Town Car? He should.”
“So you’ve got that in common.”
“I appreciate the ride, but don’t make like it’s some sort of sweet deal.”
“It got us here, didn’t it?”
“Hanging out in the street?”
“It’s nice. The sun. No snow.”
Larry saw Jelli turn and walk away, and Shay dangle his arms and flick his head, and Larry wondered why he didn’t just get a damned haircut. Flick … flick … flick.
Larry closed the louvers and went inside. Leena was streaming something. He turned out the lights, turned down the thermostat and went to bed. The next day, they packed their car early and headed north toward the Puget Sound. The car with Idaho plates was still parked across the street. It had a “For Sale” sign in the back window, but no signs of Shay or Jelli. It was still early.
Stuart Watson wrote for newspapers in Anchorage, Seattle and Portland. His writing is in yolk.literary, Barzakh, Two Hawks Quarterly, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Mystery Tribune, Bending Genres, Flash Boulevard, Revolution John, Montana Mouthful, Sledgehammer Lit, Five South, The Writing Disorder, Grey Sparrow Journal, Reckon Review and Pulp Modern Flash. He lives in Oregon, with his wife and their amazing dog.