Molly Giles’s award-winning collections are: Rough Translations, which won The Flannery O’Connor Prize, the Boston Globe Award, and The Bay Area Book Reviewers’ Award; Creek Walk, which won The Small Press Best Fiction Award, the California Commonwealth Silver Medal for Fiction, and was a New York Times Notable Book; Bothered, which won the Split Oak Press Flash Fiction Award and, most recently, All The Wrong Places, which won the Spokane Prize for Fiction. Her novel is Iron Shoes; her ebook, Three For The Road.
Scotty wasn’t used to adults liking her, and Uncle Carl’s good natured wink scared her to death. Uncle Carl was her father’s brother but he didn’t look like any of the photographs of her father; he was fat and bald and had black hairs on the backs of his hands and a tattoo of a noose around his neck. Refusing to wink back, Scotty buckled herself into the seat of the pickup and stared straight ahead, hoping Uncle Carl wouldn’t reach over and pinch her cheek, like he did once to Melissa, that time Melissa slapped him. “Ready to boogie?” Uncle Carl asked, flashing two gold teeth as he got in behind the wheel and turned the key. “Let’s see if we can’t set a record and beat the little duchess.”
Scotty had no idea what boogie meant but she knew “the little duchess” referred to her cousin Melissa, who had talked their grandparents into buying her a plane ticket to Salt Lake City. Dov and Dada had phoned to tell Scotty how sorry they were they couldn’t afford to fly her out as well. “I don’t care,” Scotty had lied. “I like to drive.” Which she did, in a way; she was in no hurry to spend the summer at her grandparents’ house and she liked looking out windows.
“Behave and remember to do everything you’re told, Scotlyn,” her mother called as Uncle Carl pulled out of the driveway. Uncle Carl honked and hollered, “She better not,” which was simply incomprehensible, and then he gave Scotty another of those distressing winks before he reached for the radio and turned the game on, loud.
Scotty had no interest in baseball and she tuned out easily as she looked down at the book on her lap. She was the fastest reader in the Fifth Grade and knew she’d finish it before they got to Reno, which would leave her with nothing to do the rest of the trip. Usually she played Twenty Questions with Aunt Elcie but Aunt Elcie was staying home with the twins and having what her mother called “a nervous breakdown” because Uncle Carl had been out of work so long. The cab still smelled like the twins: talcum powder, sour milk, and throw up. Was there a forgotten diaper stowed somewhere? “You don’t get car-sick do you?” Uncle Carl asked as she straightened up from checking under the seat. “Smart girl like you?”
“I don’t think intelligence has anything to do with kinetosis.”
“Sure it does. Kine what?”
Scotty adjusted her glasses and didn’t answer.
Uncle Carl whistled. Then: “So what’s your book about?”
“I haven’t read it yet. So I don’t know what it’s about.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“It’s part of a dragon cycle.”
“That like a unicycle?”
Scotty was not going to answer that.
“Ever tell you I had a unicycle?”
Nor that. One of Uncle Carl’s jobs had been in a carnival and he still did tricks. Scotty had seen him put the dollar bill in his ear at family picnics too often to still be impressed, though she never said No when, with a flourish, he pulled it out from his other ear and handed it to her.
“Yep. Rode it right down Main Street. Me and my pet bear.”
She looked up despite herself.
“Yep,” Uncle Carl nodded. “Blackie.”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
A bear. He would have to be caged. Maybe chained. He could be trained to dance and behave on walks. He would terrorize other people but not her. He would love her. Her voice cautious, Scotty asked, “What happened to him?”
“No idea; he’s probably still around somewhere. Bears live forever. Didn’t your Dad ever tell you about old Blackie?”
“I don’t see my Dad,” Scotty reminded him. “He moved to Texas.”
“Melissa said he’s never coming back.”
“Melissa, honey, I hate to say it, isn’t a nice person.”
Scotty didn’t argue. It was true. If her cousin Melissa was here in the truck right now she would have her feet on the dash and her elbow in Scotty’s throat. She would smell good though. Melissa always smelled good. She looked good too. She had grown three inches since she’d turned 12, wore a bra, and swore in Mandarin. She would cover her ears and scream if she could hear Uncle Carl start to sing about a place called Crippled Creek with a chorus about a drunkard’s dream which actually made Scotty a little nervous for she knew Uncle Carl used to have a problem that way though her mother said he’d made amends whatever that meant and had recovered.
“Your turn,” Uncle Carl said. “I sing for you, you sing for me.”
“I can’t sing.”
“Come on, Scotto, let’s hear it. What’s your favorite song? Belt it.”
Scotty shook her head and slunk low in her seat. Her favorite song was, to her shame, “Let It Go” from Frozen, and no way was she going to sing that for Uncle Carl or anyone. Uncle Carl, surprising her, didn’t insist, just shrugged and said, “Guess you’ll have to listen to me the whole way then,” and broke into something that sounded like an injured dog. All his songs sounded like dog songs — yipping, yapping, howling — and Scotty found it was as easy to tune them out as the ball game had been. She tugged at her new shorts, bought for this trip, and lifted her bottom to unstick herself from the vinyl seat. Her bare skin made a smacking sound she hoped Uncle Carl couldn’t hear. She turned away to study the colorless landscape — strip malls, orchards, farm houses set back from the road. She imagined a long sword extending directly from her window and cutting everything they passed in half: telephone poles, buildings, other cars, people.
“Of course your dad’s coming back,” Uncle Carl said suddenly. “What? You think he doesn’t miss you every day?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well I do. You don’t stop missing your little girl. Not ever.”
“I’ve stopped missing him,” Scotty said.
She didn’t correct him. Her father was living with another woman who had another daughter of her own. End of story. She was hungry and hoped they would stop for lunch soon, but when Uncle Carl explained he had to get to Nevada fast — there was a guy he’d promised to meet there — she unwrapped the sandwiches her mother had made and they ate the dry tuna fish and wilted lettuce as the truck chugged up into the mountains. “Winnemucca,” Uncle Carl promised. “How does a big fat bloody steak sound in Winnemucca?”
“You’ll change your mind once you see it. You don’t have to use the facilities yet do you?”
Scotty did but said no.
“We’ll stop for gas soon,” he promised.
They stopped for gas at the first stop over the Nevada border and when Scotty came out of the restrooms she saw Uncle Carl inside the convenience store playing a slot machine. “Try your luck?” he asked, handing her a quarter. “Just put a coin in and pull. It’s easy.”
Scotty did what he said and watched the tube with grapes and lemons spin until they stopped and yes, he was right, it was easy. And dumb. Uncle Carl handed her another coin but she shook her head and went back to the truck. She opened her book but must have fallen asleep in the sunshine for when she woke up the cab had darkened and they hadn’t moved; Uncle Carl was still in front of the slot machines, only he was drinking a beer now, which was probably all right, her mother said one beer never hurt anyone. Still, they‘d been here a long time. Melissa might have landed in Salt Lake by now. Did she dare honk the horn? She reached over and tapped it and Uncle Carl turned, slapped his forehead like a cartoon clown and came right out, beer bottle in one hand and a mound of silver in the other. “Here you go, schnooks,” he said, reaching into his pockets and dumping what felt like a hundred heavy silver dollars into her lap. “Don’t say I never did nothing for you.”
“I’ll say you never did anything for me.”
Again, the surprising laugh just when she was braced for a slap — her mother slapped — could she really get away with saying anything to this man? No one likes a know-it-all — she had heard that a hundred times. And it wasn’t even true. If she knew it all, she wouldn’t be the last one chosen in soccer every year, she wouldn’t have to sit alone at lunch. Well, as the song said, let it go. Scotty plucked the coins, many of them stuck to her skin, off one by one, and poured a clanking stream of them into the glove compartment. Money was not something you threw away. Or dumped on people. Or plunked into rigged slot machines. No wonder Aunt Elcie was having a nervous breakdown.
She tugged at the hem of her shorts again as Uncle Carl sped out of the parking lot. “Who wears short shorts,” Uncle Carl sang. He grinned, slapped her knee lightly, and whistled, “We wear short shorts.”
Another stupid song and Scotty squinched away on the seat. She hated her legs, which were too thick, too pink, too hairy, and her uncle’s voice was slurred and she hated that too. She turned her head aside, blinking back tears. What was she doing here anyway? She had campaigned hard to spend the summer at home, reading and watching tv while her mother was at work but her mother said that wasn’t healthy so here she was, stuck in a smelly truck with her carnie uncle and once she got to Salt Lake it would be no better; her grandparents would make her go to church twice a week to pray for her runaway father and she would have to sleep on the sunporch with Melissa, who hated her. She brushed her cheek, turned to the window, and began to count the telephone poles and dead jackrabbits that littered the highway.
It was hot in Winnemucca and the casino behind the diner was half empty. Uncle Carl scouted the gaming tables and came back looking disappointed. “Guess I missed him,” he said. “Just as well. We had a good run here five years ago. Times change.” He settled into the booth heavily beside her and ate the pickle off her plate.
“Hey,” she protested.
“You want it back?”
“Here.” He stuck his tongue out. Big fat gray tongue with a slime of green slashed across it.
“Take it, it’s urine.” He turned away from her as two men and an old woman came in and headed toward the casino in back. “Wait for me in the truck,” he said.
It was too dark to read in the truck and Scotty waited a long time before Uncle Carl came out. He was silent as he clambered in and started the engine. “Got any money?” he asked, his voice pleasant. He smelled like smoke and sweat and something dark and sweet and oily.
“There’s money in the glove compartment,” she reminded him and when they next stopped for gas, somewhere in the middle of a vast dark nowhere, that is where he looked. Again he was gone a long time and again, trying not to be scared, she waited. She jumped when he rapped on the passenger door.
“Move over,” he said, getting in her side and pushing her with his big hands toward the steering wheel. “You’re driving.”
“I can’t drive!”
“Sure you can. Melissa drives all the time. Look. Here’s the key, put it in, that’s right, turn it to the right, good, you’re a natural. Can you reach that pedal on the floor, stop saying you can’t, Scotty, it’s not true. Just stand up a little and stretch your leg down and do it. Got it? Good. Now hold on to the wheel, wait, I’ll turn on the headlights, just hold er steady, that’s right, see that white line? Keep it to your left, I’m just going to…” Uncle Carl said and toppled sideways, his huge head on Scotty’s lap, pinning her behind the wheel as the truck began moving forward.
“I can’t drive!” she screamed. She stared wildly into the dark. A huge rig of some sort, lights glaring, horn blaring, whooshed up from behind and passed with a loud hiss of wind. She felt a thump under the tires — another jackrabbit? She gasped when, accidentally turning the wheel, the truck turned as well. Were they still on the road? She could no longer see the white line; everything was dark. Yet the engine continued to throb beneath her thighs and the wheel tingled under her grip. She turned the wheel one way, then another. Were they going in circles? This was like riding an animal — a bear, an eagle, some creature heavy and swift but obedient — trainable! Melissa always said Scotty couldn’t cross a room without falling on her face. Her mother wouldn’t let her dry knives. Her father, that prick, took the tennis racket from her hand one day and hit her over the head with it. Hopeless, he’d said. Yet here she was with Uncle Carl who might be dead, driving a pickup truck straight through the desert. By herself! She leaned forward, pressed her foot to the pedal and heard her own voice, weirdly on key, rise up to sing.