Sunday, August 15, 2010

Guest Writer: Gita M. Smith

The Late Show at the Argo

The Argo Drive-In late show ended at 11:30. When the last car had gone, Marti doused the sodium vapor spotlight, slipped on double latex gloves and rolled the trash trolley through the semicircular theater lot. An empty pint of Courvoisier, an unfurled Trojan, a baby’s sippy cup joined the usual popcorn tubs and soda cans. Nothing special, not like the previous week’s find of a South Sea pearl ring and umber calfskin gloves. She heard the cough of the projectionist’s truck about to leave; Avner sounded a see-you-later beep and rumbled out the exit toward Cooley’s Package Store before it closed at midnight. In the distance Marti could see flashing blue and red emergency lights where the road bent sharply west. Silently she wished Avner a safe detour around the latest crash.
She remembered to check the speaker wires at Slot 23. She’d had to disable that speaker earlier; best to reconnect its parts while it was fresh on her mind. The couple in the car at Slot 23 had not been ugly about the speaker malfunction, especially since she’d moved them quickly to Slot 88 at the darkest corner of the parking rows. They hadn’t come to watch the movie, anyway, Marti knew. The woman had been all over the guy, humping him in the front seat and the back. They’d been oblivious to everything around them.
Marti stretched and craned to see beyond the Argo’s fence. On tiptoe she was 5’10” even. To the west, the red and blue still strobed. To the east, a quarter moon was rising.
Marti moved on to Slot 88. It was the Argo’s newest parking slot, created when the need arose one day. She checked around for any trash or unusual leavings. Nope, clean. In the weak moonlight, it looked pretty much like all the other slots with their yellow numbers, speaker stands and call buttons, which patrons pressed in case of problems. Its special feature, though, was something she and Avner had created.
“I want a pit in the ground, like the one where the mechanic stands under your car, when you go for an oil change,” she had said.
He’d caught on in a blink. “But with a roof over the dugout part so it somehow blends with the parking lot.”
He had rented a backhoe to dig the pit one morning when the Argo was closed. Marti reinforced the sides with timbers; four by fours at the corners, two by fours to brace them. They ran PVC pipe downhill away from the pit to drain off water. The bay was big enough to hold a man of Avner’s size plus a toolbox and a folding ladder. It was narrower than the wheelbase of any vehicle except a Mini Cooper’s. Marti drove Avner’s Silverado over the hole, then her own Acura to check. He practiced sliding under the vehicle’s chassis, into the bay and out again. He could reach every part of a vehicle’s underside while in the bay, especially hydraulic lines and brakes.
“No cutters, no cutting,” he’d told Marti as he selected the tools that would stay permanently in the bay. “Lines have to be damaged, but any neat straight cuts can be detected. That way, no blowback.”
“I’ll blow-back you,” she’d laughed, and they’d had sex in the bay.
The roof for Slot 88 had been a challenge, Marti thought as she rolled the trash trolley back to the concession stand. She turned the popcorn kettle off and rinsed out rags. Impossible to create an asphalt roof over the bay, they’d realized, and no way to camouflage it totally. They had given up on making Slot 88 perfectly identical to the rest. The roof just had to be strong. A flat steel grate slid over the opening, not soundlessly, but quietly enough. Slot 88 had no other parking slots next to it; no lights illuminated it; by the time the late show started, it was a shadow box.
Cleanup over, Marti exited and locked the drive-in gates. She liked this quiet time after the late show when she was sole custodian. Her employers, an elderly couple from Birmingham, left the Argo’s management to her and Avner. They didn’t update the sound system to digital, keeping, instead, old-fashioned in-car speakers that broke easily. “Just replace what breaks,” the man had said. “And keep a good electrician on call.” At her interview, she had told the owners, “I’ve always loved drive-ins. They’re an American tradition, and I want the Argo to survive.”
Two shows nightly – the early shows all PG-rated family fare, the late shows adults-only – meant a short workday for Marti. Twice weekly she completed paperwork or refilled soft drink canisters of CO2. Easy-peasy. Her pay, direct-deposited, was not the point. What counted was the opportunity afforded by the Argo.

*******

It was nearly 1 a.m. when Marti pulled up to St. Vincent’s Hospital on Birmingham’s Southside. She rode the elevator to 3 North, the surgical intensive care waiting room. A haggard older woman, a sleeping child, a nervous-looking man were occupying chairs below a silent TV screen. The man rose quickly and walked to Marti’s side. “Shelley’s still in surgery,” he whispered. “The guy, the driver’s dead.”
“And that’s your…?”
“Mother in law,” he answered. “Shelley’s mom.”
“Lorne, let’s get coffee,” Marti said and drew him towards the corridor.
“We’ll be right back, Mom,” Lorne called out, then followed.
“Cameras are everywhere, so here’s what we’ll do,” Marti said. “When you buy the coffees, take a few extra napkins. Hand me my coffee and put the envelope in my hand, as naturally as if it was a napkin. Keep to natural movements. It’s all good, all good. Keep talking to me about Shelley and the crash.”
At 2 a.m. Marti entered the apartment, showered fast and slid into her side of bed.
“Mmmmm,” came Avner’s welcome. “Go okay?”
Marti fitted her front to his back. “Your half is on the dresser. It’s more than ever.”

The first client had come to Avner, actually. A plumber checking water lines at the concession stand had griped about his cheating wife. “Bitch probably comes here to fuck in the guy’s car,” he’d said. “Bet you see a lot of cheating bitches here. I should come over and catch her. Damn, I could kill her.”
Avner, joking: “Hey man, I could use some extra cash. Let me take care of it.”
Plumber, not joking: “Do you know how to fuck up the brakes on a car?”
Marti, hearing about this later: “Well, do you?”
Avner did, although he didn’t have the stomach for the aftermath. Marti had the job of visiting the hospitals. She was okay with that. Each one got easier. Cheating Shelley was their fifth.
The routine was beautifully simple: The paying client told Avner what make and model car and license plate to look for. Marti passed by the cheaters’ slot and, with a practiced swipe, loosened a speaker wire. The cheaters complained and got moved to Slot 88. Avner slipped into the secret bay under their car as soon as the feature started; the couple drove away at the end of the show. They crashed sooner or later, often with fatalities to the woman cuddled up against her lover.
Money changed hands, lots of money. Time went by. Late shows played seven nights a week. People made love in darkened cars as if they were invisible, the last to copulate on earth.
Marti smiled against Avner’s back as she drifted toward slumber. Yes, her future was secure. The world would never run out of cheaters.


© Gita M. Smith 2010

Gita Smith is a career journalist, whose work has appeared on The Sphere, Fictionaut, Pen10, Not From Here Are You (The NOT), and her reporting on the South appears at LiketheDew.com, a news site.

28 comments:

  1. Wow - what a rich treat to stumble across on a Sunday morning, and I love the smooth detailing and description of it all, a bit like a hot chocolate with just the powdered dregs at the end.

    But I do hope that sooner rather than later the police are going to realise that it's too much of a coincidence for cars to be leaving the drive-in and suffering brake failure ...

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  2. Wonderful storytelling, Gita. Dark actions and motives in the dark corners of the drive in.
    Adam Byatt @revhappiness

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  3. great Gita... it had me thinking of Crash part way through so I was relieved to find it was "only" about hit jobs!

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  4. Gita brings so much to her writing, texture, nuance, depth of character and a lyrical way of constructing her scenes. Another instant classic.

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  5. Great fun story. But Marti better stay away from the hospital. Wouldn't it start to look fishy if she showed up each time????

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  6. Toby, do you know how many hospitals there are in the Greater Birmingham metro area? LOL.

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  7. You do have an evil mind! Next stop, ATON.

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  8. I like the way this story unfolded, Gita. the timing was impeccable and the story, interesting and inventive. Liked it a lot! (I am not happy, however, that a comment I left here two hours ago is gone, or never got posted for some reason! Operator error, no doubt.)

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  9. Gita, I was so engrossed in your story, I had drunk all my coffee and when I finished reading, I couldn't remember finishing the coffee! What a story! You had me hooked into it from the start and I didn't leap off till the very last word.

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  10. Damn, Gita! That's an inspiring read to start the day - must get out my noir pencil. Nicely done. Now, here's a challenge: Write the story of the detective who puts it all together and tracks them down...

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  11. This is one of my favorites of yours, G. Richness!

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  12. Gita,

    You are amazing. I love the detail and the way you held back. An excellent tale.

    Jenny (6S)

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  13. Gita, this was smooth with an unexpected ending...you weave well! Great read.

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  14. i WILL NEVER ASK YOUR ADVICE ABOUT CAR REPAIR-
    ONLY WRITING!!!

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  15. Not only is the tale creative, you bring us so easily into it ... You have a remarkable gift of painting a scene ... we often roll our eyes when we hear "show the reader instead of telling them" but you do it so wonderfully that I will never argue with the wisdom again ... kudos!

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  16. Gita, that was a well-woven pleasure. I am so glad they didn't get caught yet, so they can come back later. All your characters are rich, and I enjoy each of them.

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  17. This was great! I had fun with the whole piece. I remember those days at the drive-in when I was a kid. My aunt always said "we came to watch the movie, not the shows going on around us." Hmm little did we know.

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  18. I love your dark and lovely mind. Your stories are rare gems.

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  19. This read smoothly, like heavily creamed latte. no rough spots, no slow spots. Original horror tale and a twist on cheating husbands. I'm a Gita fan.

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  20. Thank you all so much for your kind words and encouragement. I hope the police don't catch Marti and Avner. They ARE performing a public service.

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  21. Great witty, dark write Gita.
    But I disagree with the 'public service' part.
    Cheating is a Constitutional right covered in the 2d and 21st. amendments.
    Somebody has to stand up for us low life's! :)

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  22. Loved it, suggestion: Jackson Browne's The Late Show for a soundtrack.
    Good story, this is my second comment, the first was too long, I guess, as I included the lyrics from The Late Show and a link to the song.

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  23. I'm up at 3am. I stumbled across this and was instantly drawn in. I can only dream of ever writing like this. Must keep practicing. You are an inspiration. Great read!

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  24. Deft tale of ordinary life become extraordinary while retaining an air of grindstone. Thanks for sharing this with me.

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  25. I read this at Fictionaut and thought it was great. It is.

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  26. Thanx for this story/birthday gift. It's just in time to save my life!I'm a cheating woman who will now stop getting it on at the drive- in! And who'd have ever 'thunk' of it, except a master plotmaker like Gita! Smooooth dark operatives, like the dark night and the dark deed itself. Subtle foreshadowing (much business w/Slot 88)=very effective. Suspense becomes you!

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  27. Oh I should visit MudJob more often. This is probably my favorite piece I've read of yours. That's some clever stuff, right there.

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  28. G., I just sat back and watched the comments pile up on this one. It's one of my all time favorites. This is the post that set MuDJoB off tangentially, and what we were aiming for seems to be coming. Numbers climbed and readers really started taking notice, when we hit our second level. What a delightful dark little platform The Late Show at the Argo has provided. Thank you, Lady G.

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