Young Americans

by Perry Authement

Albert Davis Fiction Award
Honorable Mention

The headlights of the 1980 Ford Fairmont lit the dark Utah highway. The sweat of his hands on the wheel, Isaac gripped it and tried to focus on the road. Malachi—his best friend—sipped whiskey from a flask in the passenger seat. Malachi’s bleach-blonde Mohawk swayed in the wind from the open window. David Bowie’s voice was low on the car radio. Isaac hummed along, drumming on the wheel with his thumbs.
Isaac grabbed the pack of cigarettes from the inside pocket of his leather jacket. He lit up and inhaled. He raised his jaw slightly, looking in the rearview mirror. He exhaled and smoke flowed from the crack of the window like the steam from a train.
Miriam, Malachi’s younger sister, was laying on the backseat. Her long, flax-colored hair–fifteen years of growth—was pulled back, braided. Miriam was asleep, a bundle of pastel, still clothed in her pink prairie dress. The gravel dust covered her shoes, her socks, and the hem of her garment. Isaac could feel his heart beating beneath his pack of cigarettes.
“We need food.” Malachi nodded toward the glow of neon signs ahead.
Isaac agreed, turning the volume dial slightly clockwise, a bit louder, as Bowie sang the chorus to his favorite song:

Church on time, terrifies me
Church on time, makes me party
Church on time, puts my trust in God and Man—

They sat in a booth, Isaac across from Miriam, while Malachi occupied the jukebox. Miriam was wearing Isaac’s leather jacket—slightly too large—over her pink dress. The sleeves of Isaac’s jacket empty, Miriam rested her arms in her lap, staring at her hands. She looked out of place.
“You must’ve walked far,” Isaac said.
Miriam nodded, her expression blank.
“Are you feeling all right?”
She shrugged. Her tired eyes searched the table in the diner, contemplating what to say, searching for the answer.
Maybe she doesn’t want to talk about it, Isaac thought. You know how you were when you first left; change the subject.
A bell rang as the door to the diner opened. Isaac looked. Miriam turned toward the door. Two policemen entered the diner, seating themselves at the booth closest to the door. Miriam turned around instantly, her blue eyes wide.
“Don’t worry,” Isaac said. “They’re here to eat. They’re not looking for you.” He waited a moment before he spoke again. “That’s one thing I’ve learned out here—the police aren’t gonna help the Prophet. Not everything they told us was true.”
“It’s all lies.”
“How’s the jacket?” Isaac changed the subject.
“I’m warm. It’s a nice jacket.”
“Good. Thanks.”
Miriam gave the boy a confused look. “Where are your sleeves?”
Isaac sat across from her, his cigarettes in the breast pocket of a plaid button-down. The sleeves had been torn off. His farmer’s tan was visible. “I ripped them off.”
“I’m not sure. I’ve seen some other guys do it.”
Silence lingered before Miriam spoke again. “It’s so strange out here.”
The waitress approached the table and placed Isaac’s milk in front of him. His gaze never left Miriam. As though waking from a daydream, Miriam thanked the waitress after she was served her cup of water. The waitress nodded, placing a glass of Coke at Malachi’s empty seat and walked away.
“Is that…” Miriam spoke with her voice low so no one could hear.
“Milk? Yeah.”
“Wow.” She stared at the cold, white glass.
Isaac smiled.
“What’s it like? I mean, how does it taste?”
“I’m not sure,” Isaac chuckled. “Well, I can’t describe it.” And Isaac watched as Miriam smiled for the first time since her escape. “It tastes the same as it always has. You never had it before, even as a kid?”
“No,” Miriam’s smile quickly faded. “I don’t remember. The Prophet banned it.”
“Have some.” He slid the glass of milk to her.
Miriam looked down. “I couldn’t.” She slid the glass back. “Not now. Not yet.”
There was silence between them.
“Tell me a story, Ike,” she said.
“I don’t know any stories. None of the lost boys know any stories.” Isaac winked at her.
Miriam smiled, although Isaac knew she didn’t understand the reference.
A familiar tune began from the jukebox—a bass line, soft snaps of percussion and the keys of a piano—before the voices of Bowie and Mercury began to the beat of the drums.
Isaac sat up and leaned toward Miriam. “What’s it like?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he leaned forward, “how do you feel? Tonight. Leaving the Creek.”
“Oh,” she realized. “I’m not sure how to describe it.”
Isaac nodded as he listened to the sound of the jukebox.
“It’s so strange out here,” she said again, but Isaac was listening to the music.

‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
and love dares you to care for the people
on the edge of the lights
and love dares you to change our way
of caring about ourselves
This is our last dance, this is our last dance,
this is ourselves—under pressure

“I’m glad I left.” Miriam broke the silence in the front seat. “I knew you’d come back.”
“We had to,” Isaac said. “Malachi promised he would.”
“I know, but…I meant you.”
Isaac smiled, glancing briefly at Miriam before looking at the road ahead. She sat with her bare feet on the dashboard. He had known her for as long as he could remember, yet this was the first time he had seen her ankles. Malachi was in the backseat, drunk, passed out. Isaac lit a cigarette, inhaled. Miriam put her feet to the floor, sitting straight as she let her hair down. Isaac exhaled. The road was dark ahead but he knew the direction they were headed.
“Is there any music?” Miriam asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. He pressed a button on the cassette-player and turned the volume dial counter-clockwise as he leaned forward, eyeing Malachi’s sleeping reflection in the rearview. At the sound of the rolling drum, Miriam unbuckled the passenger seatbelt. Musical notes cascaded across piano keys before the soul of a saxophone sounded through the stereo. Miriam slid across the leather seat, closer to Isaac. Bowie sang over the speakers.
“I’m glad I have you, Ike.” She rested her head on Isaac’s shoulder.

Gee, my life’s a funny thing
Am I still too young?

“I’m glad I have you, Miri.”
Miriam placed her porcelain hand on Isaac’s denim knee.

He kissed her then and there,
she took his ring, took his babies.
It took him minutes, took her nowhere—

“May I have one?” Miriam asked, and Isaac lit her first cigarette.

Heaven knows, she’d have taken anything
but all night,
she wants the young American—

“Short,” she told him. “Like a boy.”
Isaac stood shirtless in front of the bathroom mirror, holding trimming sheers, smoking a cigarette as sweet as Miri’s whiskey lips. The electric guitar of another Bowie song played from the cassette player. Miriam sat on a chair in front of the sink, silently reading. Isaac had never trimmed hair but, in this new life, he knew there would be many firsts. Miriam continued reading, the green hardcover of Peter Pan in her hands. After some time, Isaac had cut away her long locks.
“I love it.” Miriam looked at her reflection. Her blonde hair was now short. She sat straight—liberated—the remnants of her hair circling the floor beneath her. She closed the book. And the lyrics of the Bowie song repeated for the last time:

Got your mother in a whirl
‘cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.
Hey babe, your hair’s all right,
Hey babe, let’s go out tonight—