One Headlight by Molly Bonovsky Anderson

Maggie Hawk, a horse-faced stripper with a blunt cinnamon bob, stuck a steak knife in her knee-high boot. The knife came from Kristy’s kitchen drawer, and before that—Perkins. That was our thing—I stole ceramic mugs and Kristy stole cutlery. Between us we’d stocked our dorm for a thousand steak and coffee dinners. We slipped them into backpacks that held books before we stopped going to class—and it seemed so benign, until Maggie Hawk, with her black eye-shadow and shit-kickers, turned a simple steak knife into a potential weapon. And worse, I’d asked her if she wanted a mug too.

“For what?” she wanted to know.

I shrugged. “Clock her in the head.”

What had happened to me? I used to be so good.

I didn’t really want to go with them, but the mid-nineties had left me cold and apathetic and there was nothing on TV. Kristy and I had been sitting on the floor with her Fry-Daddy, fat on funnel cake, fries and mayo when Maggie knocked. I’d looked at her through the peephole—the fish-eye lens made her face almost pleasant—and winced. My guts were oily, but that wasn’t it.

She wore Drew’s letterman jacket.  Drew was a skinny kid with a flat-top who drove a black corvette ninety-five miles an hour. He did this one time with Kristy and me in the backseat. After that we avoided Drew but Maggie was harder—she was like mono. She hung around, vaguely draining but I wasn’t sure why—and she stole three of my CDs. Greatest hits of the 80s. I didn’t miss the volume with Kajagoogoo but I wanted In a Big Country back. Though I couldn’t prove she’d done it, she’d talked about using Tainted Love in her routine shortly before they disappeared.

 “That girl is going to die tonight,” she said, knocking the snow off her boots. She went on to describe how some girl had said something about Drew and somehow someone had relayed this something to Maggie—I’d tuned out and was flipping through Blender. The Wallflowers had one hit song and it was all anyone could talk about because the front-man was Bob Dylan’s son and blah blah blah. What I caught was that Maggie was going to confront this girl—way the hell out in Nisswa—and we were going to take Kristy’s jimmy even though the suspension was shot and we all bounced around in there like Pop Secret every time we hit a bump.

 So she took the knife but declined the coffee cup, and I was grateful because I felt shitty for suggesting it. I’d only stolen the cups because they were each imprinted with a buffalo in blue ink on the bottom. Kristy had been promising me a trip to the buffalo farm in Lonsdale for months—I’d been so excited, but when we’d got there, the fence was too tall to see over and too splintered to crawl up, and I’d spent five frigid minutes with one eye pressed against a gap in the slats, watching a solitary beast with its head down and its eyes closed. It pushed a hot breath out into the cold air every few seconds, and I’d watched its ghost dissipate with an elusive ache I couldn’t name.

 Kristy parked the jimmy where it stopped after spinning out on a patch of black ice, a few yards from the house. Like many homes in the middle of Bumfuck, Egypt, this one sat the end of what felt like a mile-long driveway. A huge satellite dish flanked the crumbling garage. Frost-gilded prairie grass lay on each side; a forest loomed like a dark cowl at the back of the property. I stayed in the jeep. As Kristy and Maggie walked up to the door, I watched the backs of Maggie’s bare knees. Her legs were like matchsticks.  Her face resembled an awning-browed statue on Easter Island. It was then I realized that strippers, at least in the Brainerd Lakes area, need only be skinny, and fearless. Not brave—that was something else—but fearless like they didn’t mind dying in a corvette or going to jail over assault with a steak-knife.  Fearless like they were fine being ugly and naked in front of every drunken lumberjack this side of the Mississippi. I wasn’t fearless.

 “This’ll be quick,” Kristy said, but Maggie stared ahead and didn’t confirm. Kristy turned the jeep off and shoved the keys in her jacket pocket.

 I put my gloveless hands between my thighs. The corduroy made a zip.

 They made me go once—to the King’s Club. This long, flat building on the highway just outside Benton County. The neon sign on the façade featured a playing-card king whose mustache twitched with each blink of light.  I drank a flat Shirley Temple and tried not to make eye-contact, feeling cold and itchy while Kristy and a few other girls from the dorms giggled and elbowed each other and crowed like jackdaws when Maggie came out—dancing under the name Kat—as it was spelled on the LED scroll behind her. I watched that scroll while she danced—it advertised two for one Canadian drafts, hot wings, and distracted no one but me. Only once did I look at Maggie, because she had suddenly dropped to her knees, and lay arched back with her head on the floor behind her. And I saw it—a purple-red scar the length of a melon slice, a few inches below her navel—so fresh looking that it silenced the crowd. And suddenly Maggie was more than naked, her mouth gaped open to the ceiling like a breathless fish, and no one, not even me, could look away.  Each one of us was seeing—wondering, constructing a story about how and why and where it was now, and there was nothing she could do. She was caught and penned there by the thoughts of strangers.

After half an hour in the jeep, I began to shiver. The late January moon, a powdered pearl, hung high in a halo of moon-dogs. They could’ve at least left the radio on. My breath became visible, and I pulled my arms inside the front of my jean-jacket. You can tell a northerner by her obstinacy toward winter—a refusal to dress for the weather as if the chill already fills her veins, and is not an intruder.

With the dark already deepened to the max and no watch on my wrist, I couldn’t grasp time anymore. I tried counting along to powwow drums in my head. Kristy had dragged me to one of those last week—a confusing affair where people kept throwing blankets at me. Sometimes they weren’t even blankets, but big old scraps of fabric. They lay in a heap in my room—I didn’t know what to do with them, but I felt bad tossing them because they came from something that seemed so much holier than me.

 After ten drum-circle rounds I was freezing and bored to death, but I didn’t dare go inside, lest someone was bleeding and howling in a tangle of hair. I started to sing what I thought sounded like a powwow hymn, thumping my fists on my thighs.

 Hey-how-are-ya, hey-how-are-ya.

 I stopped when I saw Melanie Two-Bears in my head, frowning. Her belly big as a house, leaning against our lockers in middle school. I’d punched her in that belly only months before—when it was empty but still big. She asked for it—but once she was pregnant it was hard to be mad at her. She didn’t bully me or anyone else anymore; she just walked around looking burned down. 

 I needed a new song so I tried singing the Wallflowers one. I didn’t know the words and it was low as hell and even though I was no soprano I couldn’t hit it. The only other song I could remember all the lyrics to was the Star-Spangled-Banner, so I dove into O-o say can you see with aplomb. When I’d sung it through three times and no one had emerged from the house, I lost all hope and began wailing it at the top of my lungs as if I was singing for my life, and at tremendous volume. I squinched my eyes up, opened my mouth and roared the thing until I was hoarse. I sang it like that two more times, and in the middle of the third, with my hands on top of my head in what started as mock despair and ended up damn near the real thing, and my eyes closed and my mouth open wide as the Lincoln tunnel, there came a knock on the fogged-up window. I shut up and sheepishly looked out. Kristy and Maggie stood outside. Kristy motioned for me to wind down the window.

 “What are you doing?” she said.

 I frowned. “I thought you were going to fight.”

 Maggie spoke up and said the girl had a baby. Things looked pretty sketchy in there already.

 I wondered—if Maggie Hawk had enough empathy not to beat up a mother, would her conscience eventually lead her to slip my CDs one at a time under my dorm room door, maybe with a sticky note, “borrowed these, taped them, thanks,” or did she get to pick and choose what she felt bad about.  And what would be the harm in that, really—because didn’t I do the same?

 I stopped thinking and began blowing on my hands. Kristy settled into the driver’s seat and started the jeep.

All day long the clouds had been saving up snow, and as we drove home they opened and dumped. We discovered we were driving a padiddle. It was already so difficult to see things properly in the dark through a curtain of falling snow—with one headlight it was damn near impossible to tell the road from the ditch from the tree-line from the sky.  Kristy slowed her speed down and down until we were crawling along the highway. Neither state troopers nor tribal police braved the storm to pull us over.  The 22 minutes from Nisswa to Brainerd stretched into an hour and a half, and I should have been scared by the poor conditions and lack of light but at twenty years old I was scared of nothing but fearlessness, and while the warmth crept back into me I dropped off to sleep, watching the shadows on Maggie Hawk’s blank face.

MollyMolly Bonovsky Anderson is from central Minnesota. She studied Philosophy and Art History at Northern Michigan University. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Passages North, Penduline Press, Big Fiction, Wilde Magazine, Breakwater Review, Burrow Press Review, and other print and online journals. She lives in Upper Michigan with her husband and son, and is the fiction editor at Pithead Chapel magazine. She is fond of train whistles and lawn ornaments.