They drive in silence along the winding country road. Paul glimpses the Hudson river on their right. It is wide and cold looking, battered with autumnal leaves and sunlight that slithers on its surface. On the opposite side are power lines and trees just beginning to show their branches. Once and awhile they come upon a crooked mailbox and a sagging house with a truck parked out front. Sometimes there is a boat and an American flag too. The country dulls his mind, as if its peacefulness is a lure to suck his energy and spit it back into the neighboring botany. The car traces a pond overgrown with algae and weeds. Charlotte gazes straight ahead, navigating where necessary. She can do this without a map.
“You need gas,” Charlotte says.
She’s right, but he hates how she knows this without looking at the gauge.
“There’s a station in the town of Hudson. It’s only a few miles away.”
Paul sighs and flips on his blinker. The approach to the town is not fast enough for Paul. The exit spits them out on a country road that weaves past mostly Victorian homes, splintered with a bank and an auto repair garage. He comes to a stop sign and waves a car through. The asphalt is cracked. “I have an idea,” he says suddenly.
“I knew it! You always know how to work out a problem,” Charlotte says. “What it is?”
“I’m going to go back to see Hetta Iyers again. I need to be more persistent.”
“I agree. You shouldn’t have given up so easily.”
“No, I shouldn’t have. Let’s stay in Hudson tonight. We can figure out how to approach her again tomorrow. Sometime it’s better to sleep on these things.”
“I don’t sleep.”
“No, you’re just naturally brilliant.” Paul is being sarcastic, but Charlotte doesn’t notice. Instead, she says, “I am. I’ve gotten so much smarter lately. It’s like my brain is growing.”
Paul doubts this, but doesn’t want to argue. He steers the car into a BP and shuts the engine off. He waits for the attendant, then remembers this is not New Jersey and he has to pump the gas himself. He gets out. It’s chilly now, so he zips his coat up and quickly begins to fill the tank. Charlotte opens her door and gets out, heading towards the gas station.
“Hey, where are you going?” Paul asks.
“I have to use the restroom.”
“No you don’t.”
She flips him off and continues walking. Paul frowns. She’s up to no good. He glances at the pump, the digits are working their way up towards $40. He taps his foot on the asphalt and looks for Charlotte inside the station. Through the glass windows, he sees her walking past the cashier and towards the refrigerators against the far wall. She turns left, and then his view becomes blocked by a pillar. Paul wonders what in God’s name she is doing now, though he hopes it isn’t what he thinks it is. He wishes he could get in his car and drive away, leave her there to hitch a ride, but it would be counter productive. She’d just get pissed at him and make his life unbearable for the next week, deprive him of sleep by talking all night about how he doesn’t love her anymore and how he’s happy she’s dead.
The nozzle clicks. He pulls it out and hangs it up, then strides inside the gas station. The cashier looks up as he steps inside.
“Gotcha some peach iced tea,” Charlotte says loudly from the fridges near the bathroom.He mouths please don’t. Why can’t she just listen to him for once?
“Do you want some chips too?” Charlotte asks. “Or there’s hot dogs over there near the coffee machine.”
Paul glances at the clerk. Of course she doesn’t hear her. She’s playing Candy Crush on her iPhone with manicured black nails, which click on the screen in a steady rhythm. She is wearing a sweatshirt screen printed with a wolf howling at the moon that hangs like a tree skirt around her rotund figure. The fluorescent lights hum overhead.
Paul wants to tell Charlotte to put the iced tea back; but he doesn’t want to cause a scene. And if he started up with Charlotte, the cashier would no doubt think he was insane. She might even call the police, which has happened before. He turns to the cashier. “I’ll have a pack of American Spirits and a Snapple.”
The clerk nods and turns away to grab a pack of cigarettes on the shelf behind her.
Charlotte hurries by carrying a bag of chips, Paul’s iced tea and a Coke. She sticks her tongue out at him as she pushes the door open and slips outside. A cold wind gusts into the gas station. He watches as she hurries back to the car.
The clerk shivers. It’s the sort of shudder that comes on suddenly and for no reason.
“Kinda chilly all of a sudden,” she says.
“Yeah, I guess it is,” Paul says. A lot of people shiver like that when Charlotte is close. “Can you add a Coke and some Doritos to my bill?”
The clerk squints at him. “Sure, but I need to scan ‘em.”
“Well, why don’t I just leave you twenty bucks instead?” He slips the bill across the counter, takes the cigarettes and a pack of matches.
“That don’t count. My boss said I gotta scan ’em.”
“Consider it a gift then,” Paul says.
She opens her mouth, but before she can say anything more, Paul is headed back towards the car. Charlotte is already in the passenger seat, munching on the chips and slugging the Coke. Paul tosses the cigarettes in the back seat with the half dozen other packs.
“You should smoke those,” Charlotte says.
“When you stop stealing, I’ll smoke all of them.” Paul starts the engine and accelerates quickly, the tires shrieking as he turns left towards Hudson.