This is the last of my Kenyon Review Writers Workshop pieces. The exercise is called “Keep the Engine Running” because the requirements are to have 2 characters in a car, which stops 3 times for 5 minutes each time, and at each stop at least 1 of the characters must interact with another person. The engine must be on during the entire story. The characters must have a destination, but they cannot reach it. And, because all that isn’t crazy enough, my Kenyon “posse” and I decided to honor Michael Jackson (who had died the day we got this assignment) by including a reference to his music in each of our stories. I think mine is obvious, but can you spot it?
Caroline stared in shock at the car that her best friend Greg had blown his entire summer earnings on. And “car” was too generous of a term. More like piece of shit on wheels. Caroline shook her head at the rusted bumper and peeling paint, but she didn’t want to hurt Greg’s feelings, so she kept her mouth shut.
He insisted on a quick trip to the diner on the far side of town. From his house it was only a twenty-minute drive. Even the old clunker could handle that.
They made it the first two miles without issue. Then, in front of the MacArthur place, they heard an extraordinary whump. Greg braked immediately.
“What the hell was that?”
He shrugged, and they both glanced into the rearview. There in the middle of the road sat a dingy metal bumper.
“I got it.” Chuckling, Greg pulled over and got out to retrieve the part. With the car still humming—well, choking really—beneath her, Caroline wondered if the bumper had the right idea. Jump ship while you still can.
“Oh, we’re okay!” Greg called out, and Caroline looked out her window to see who he was talking to. Leonard MacArthur had come out onto his porch and was gesturing angrily at them. Caroline couldn’t understand why, until she noticed the row of tulips that had been smashed into the ground.
“I don’t think he was too concerned about us,” she said when Greg returned. He had stowed the bumper in the trunk. “You could have pulled over up there.”
“I didn’t see the flowers, sorry.”
Of course not. There was a lot Greg didn’t see. But Caroline just sighed, and they continued into town.
They’d gone no more than a mile when they saw a shiny red truck coming from the other direction. Greg honked a friendly greeting, and the two vehicles slowed. When they were side by side, the truck’s driver leaned out the window.
“Nice ride, buddy!”
It was Trevor Criswell, their high school’s star quarterback.
“Thanks, man,” Greg said in his best impression of cool. He tried to rest his elbow on the thin lip of the rolled down window, but he slipped and caught his armpit instead. He winced as he pulled himself back into the car.
“Careful!” Caroline said.
At the sound of her voice, Trevor leaned down. When he saw her, he winked. She made a noise of disgust and turned away.
Trevor returned his attention to Greg. “So you gonna drive this beauty in the Homecoming parade?”
Caroline scowled when Greg’s face lit up.
“Hey, yeah! I hadn’t thought of that. It’s what, like a week away? Sure, yeah, I will!”
Trevor took another appraising look at the car, and then drove off laughing.
They went past the church, the post office, the inn, and the other church, before Caroline said anything.
“I don’t know why you talk to him.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“‘Cause he’s a jerk, that’s why.”
“Oh, you’re too hard on people,” Greg said, as if he was just the right amount of tough.
They paused at a red light before turning left. Trees arched over them from either side of the street, regal and picturesque. Or at least it would have been, if a dark cloud of smoke hadn’t been trailing them. Caroline saw it in the side view mirror.
“Let me out.”
“Let me out,” she repeated.
Greg was so surprised that he simply obeyed. They stopped in front of the Parkers’ house, where Caroline used to babysit for their twins. As soon as Caroline placed her feet on the pavement, she felt better. But that didn’t stop her from slamming the door. Or kicking the tire. Or pounding her fists against the hood.
Greg watched her outburst with no discernible expression on his face. Just as Caroline expected. She went around the whole damn car, raining abuse upon its offensive mass, and Greg sat there. It wasn’t until Mr. Parker came down the front walkway that Caroline slumped against the trunk, her breath coming out in pants.
“What’s goin’ on here?” Mr. Parker demanded.
“Nothing,” Greg answered. Suddenly he was by her side. Greg smiled at Mr. Parker until he left. Then he put his hand on Caroline’s shoulder.
“Don’t stop ‘til you get enough,” he said. Then he went back to the driver’s side to wait.