CLOSE ONE by Matt Barrett

Joanne and three friends brought bottles of Sutter Home to the parking lot of her mother’s CVS. They chose this parking lot because it had three exits: one in back, one to the side, and one right here where they sat watching the moon rise above a McDonald’s kiddie slide, the four of them sitting in back of Randall’s pickup truck playing music with the engine on in case a cop car pulled up any second now. Her mother’s CVS was closed. They drank their wine fast and were finished by 11 P.M., with nothing but a drop in the bottle that Joanne shook out on her tongue. 

Randall cleared his throat. She told him not to ask tonight; she wasn’t in the mood.

“Ask you what?”

“Don’t ask me if I love you.”

He’d been asking her for weeks. It was starting to get embarrassing.

Randall blushed and leaned toward Marybeth. “Maybe I was gonna ask her.”

He never asked her.

“Marybeth. Do you love me?”

Marybeth smiled and put an arm on David’s shoulder. “I love him,” she said. 

Randall nodded and placed his hand near Joanne’s thigh. His fingers nearly touched her jeans. He knew not to come any closer than that. The road was quiet. The McDonald’s was shutting down. Earlier, when they decided to drink, the four of them spoke of it like a bank robbery, studying every which way a cop might come in. Maybe they’d come from the left. Maybe they’d come from the right. Hell, they might come from every way at once with their sirens on, and oh what those bastards wouldn’t do to catch them here with their red and blue lights setting the street on fire. Joanne had suggested they drink. Most nights they sat in each other’s living rooms until one of them fell asleep or parked the truck on a dead-end street before it was time to go home. Where was the fun in that? Where was the risk? Tonight they would drink, she said, and took a couple of double bottles from her mother’s basement and tiptoed out the door.

Randall had offered to drive. He said he knew the best way to escape. He wouldn’t just sit back as the cops put handcuffs on their wrists. No, he’d hit the gas and drive, the four of them with snacks in back and a tank of gas just raring to go. He was willing to drive for miles, across this state and beyond, whatever it took to get away. Joanne’s heart raced at the thought. Maybe she did love him. He made it possible at least. 

From up the road a car’s headlights hit their faces. Randall let go of her thigh and inched back toward the driver’s side door. The car slowed. The driver watched them from afar. For a moment, Joanne saw the chase, the back roads they would take and the homes they’d pass and the fields behind the darkness as the sirens disappeared. For a moment. The car crept past the McDonald’s andthe CVS, disappearing near the highway. Joanne watched it go and Randall sat back down. 

“Close one,” he said.

He inched his hand toward her and stopped when his fingers nearly touched her thigh. Joanne studied his knuckles and asked if she could squeeze his hand.

“What?”

“I said, can I squeeze your hand?”

Randall opened his palm. Joanne squeezed it and turned it and pressed his palm against the truck, leaning her weight against his knuckles, hoping he’d flinch or retract or maybe start to cry—anything, however small. Instead he laughed, She let him go.

“You don’t really think that was close,” she said.

“I thought it was close.”

“What about you, Marybeth?”

“Sure, I was nervous.”

Joanne hopped out of the truck with an empty bottle of Sutter Home and pictured throwing it across the street. Imagine if she did—how many jagged pieces would spread in a million different ways. How far some would go, how tiny some would be. By morning every piece would flatten against the pavement. Over time, they would turn to water. They would seep into the drains and get washed into the ocean. It made sense to destroy and to break. To destroy was better than to sit in the back of a pickup truck where no one wants to be. Hopefully her mother had seen that the bottles were gone. Hopefully she’d still be up and ready to scream or yell or lecture as Joanne walked in through the doors. 

Something had to break. It was safe to sit in a parking lot with three exits. It was safe to let the wine wear off before driving home. It was safe to say, You know I don’t love you, Randall, every time he asked. If he took the other bottle and smashed it in the street, she’d love him. How easy it would be to love. How easy it would be to pretend. Just pretend you love him. Pretend the cops are coming. Pretend you’re on the road and won’t come back today or tomorrow; pretend you won’t come back at all.

Randall snuck up beside her and asked if she’d like to go home. 

“Can you break this?” she asked. 

He took the bottle from her hand, tossed it to David, and guided her to the truck, steadying her by the shoulders.

“I’ll take you home,” he whispered. “You’re tired, that’s all,” he said as he put her in the truck.

When she was eight, Joanne went with her parents and brother to a house on the beach. Her father was happy and her mother was happy and they opened the living room doors to wade out in the ocean, the four of them in bathing suits. As the current pulled them farther out, as the beach turned smaller and smaller, her father told them not to panic. So they swam, they floated, and went back inside to laugh about it. Close one, her father said. But if the current kept pulling them out? Joanne asked. Who knows where they’d be. Maybe Portugal. If they went all the way out. Or Morocco. If the current tugged and didn’t let go, Portugal or Morocco. Or maybe they were headed south or southeast, to Bermuda, the Bahamas. And her mother sipped her wine and her father drank his beer and the world was badass and endless and impossible to understand—Remember that, her father said—as the sun eased itself into the ocean.


Matt Barrett holds an MFA in Fiction from UNC Greensboro, and his writing has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, River Teeth, The Minnesota Review, Contrary, Hobart, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Wigleaf, among others. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, two sons, and their very grumpy 12 year old dog named Rudy.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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