"Driving Toward a Broken Heart"
Gwen Bender can see all of them from up here in the news helicopter, see them pushing up against one another, yelling out their windows. The worried ones have pulled off to the side, hoods propped, steam radiating. The anxious pace near open doors, phones pressed against their ears, gesticulating to invisible people, while others catnap in reclined seats making the best of spontaneous downtime. Gwen adjusts her headset, motions to the cameraman. “Start right there and pan slow.” She makes a note on her pad what she wants to say, then sneaks another look at the new pilot. Her co-workers at the station think they know all about Gwen. How she’s smart and political, driven to succeed. How she never says the wrong thing on the air and always leaves the Christmas party before she drinks too much. They don’t know that she goes home to an empty house, not even a cat to clean up after. They don’t know that she hates TV, doesn’t even own one. They would never guess that she believes she’s broken inside, incapable of love. Gwen touches the pilot’s arm and when he looks at her she thinks she may not be that broken after all. Below them, in the snarled traffic, in the mess of the accident, Gabriel Turner rolls his Camaro closer to the dirty minivan with the faded God Bless America bumper sticker. The animated mermaid movie with a singing crab is a nice distraction. It pulls him into a happier place, away from regret, away from Barb and the break-up. Away from Valentine’s Day. He never promised her castles, he thinks. Why does it always end this way, girls wanting what he can’t give? Gabe stares at the hot brunette in the junker in the next lane. He wonders if she’s married, wonders if it matters. He reaches for his convenience store soda and works his lips around the straw trying to get her attention, trying to forget Barb and her silly demands. Everyone knows being late for your period doesn’t always mean you’re pregnant. His whacked-out cousin Anita brags how she hasn’t had a period in almost a year and he knows there’s no way that Jesus lover is pregnant—possibly bi-polar and probably anorexic, but definitely not pregnant. Paula Rogers is thirsty. The more she thinks about how it, the more uncomfortable she feels, like she has a spider caught in her throat. Paula hates spiders. Now she’s thirsty, hot and creeped-out. She peels off her sweater, opens the windows. It’s this car, her druggy sister’s junker, that’s freaking her out. She roots around under the seats hoping for a soda, a bottle of water, anything wet. She curses her husband, Pastor Matt, the only man that has ever made her feel guilty. It’s his fault she gave up her black-striped Suburban today, with its air-conditioned interior, lumbar supported seats and all those convenient cup holders for endless bottles of water. She opens the center console, then paws through the ashtray finding only a few parking tickets, a worn business card from a tattoo parlor and a half-wrapped stick of gum. As she pushes the gum into her mouth, she notices the guy in the Camaro staring at her and a moment later—Holy Pileup, Batman!—she realizes it isn’t just a stick of gum. Paula should be home opening a box of chocolates, thanking her husband for the dozen roses, telling him he shouldn’t have while secretly wishing he’d given her more. She should not be here on Valentine’s Day, stuck alone on a highway tripping on ecstasy-laden gum. Judith Fernweather drives a pristine 1971 black Jaguar XKE and smokes with the windows rolled up. The air conditioner blows her salon blond hair off her forehead, revealing a patchwork of wrinkles formed years ago by teenaged step-children. Gold rings on her fingers clink together as she raises the cigarette to her lips. When she goes home to Kentucky, her country sisters look at her fancy clothes, her classy car, her high society life and call Judith lucky. They don’t know she has earned every chain, every carat, every ounce she wears, one prize for each time she put up with the shenanigans of her successful celebrity dentist husband—a man who goes on fishing trips with special buddies, gives furs to his female staff, but never holds his own grandchildren. She doesn’t tell her sisters that she buys everything herself from an Indian jeweler who calls her My Friend. She’d never admit that she believes happiness comes in a box, that it glitters. What they might understand, if her sisters loved her enough to ask, is that at the end of the day Judith knows all that precious metal only weighs her down. Isabelle Ryder slams on her brakes. The sleek A8 responds smoothly, merely tapping the rear of the junker. Like it would matter. In the past week, Isabelle has learned just what matters in the world, and if you can buy it or sell it or take a picture of it and hang it on your wall, then it’s worth shit. What you want is what you can’t touch, what you can’t buy, what you can’t capture or qualify or control. Things like happiness, like that feeling of a shiver running through you, a tingling of your spirit, something that is unquantifiable, but when it happens you better hope you’re present enough to recognize it because it may never happen again. Last week, after fourteen years of marriage and three months of counseling, Isabelle gave her husband Stan a test. He’d had his flings in the past, but they were over, he promised. He was reformed. Isabelle wanted to believe him, but she knew men. She had a philandering father and her share of morally impaired boyfriends. She knew how they operated. So she lied, saying, “I hired a private detective. He’s been following you for two weeks and I’m meeting him in an hour to pick up the report. Is there anything you want to tell me?” And when Stan started talking, he didn’t give apologies or pleas, just facts: names and dates and places. Her husband was a real Casanova. Isabelle heard everything from far away, as if she was watching a movie of her life, only it wasn’t her life, it couldn’t be. She wasn’t one of those dumb broads on daytime TV whose cross-dressing husband steps onstage in a dress and wig making a fool of his wife—a woman who had tried for years, for the sake of love—to overlook the huge red pump-up bra and size fourteen stilettos hidden in the back of their closet. Valentine’s Day will never be the same. Love has disappeared from Isabelle’s vocabulary, replaced by legalese shoved into a manila envelope, an envelope that will be served to Stan tonight instead of his filet mignon as he dines with his girlfriend at the Ryder’s old table at The Palm. Maxwell Feldstein glances at the console of his baby blue BMW Z4 recognizing the incoming call. He taps the earpiece, clicking over from the corporate round table meeting to see what his dumbass housekeeper wants now. “Speak.” He’d hired the woman as a favor to a friend of a friend and has spent every day since regretting it. How tough was it to clean a house? To pick up the dry cleaning? To care for one small shit-eating dog from China? “What do you mean you can’t find Mu-shoo? He wouldn’t leave the yard. Did you check the laundry room? If you left towels on the floor like last week, that’s where he’ll be. Just go check. No. You can’t leave until you find him. Listen, that’s what I pay you for. Yes. I’m serious. No. He’s not just a dog. I don’t even know why we’re having this conversation. Get it done.” Maxwell punches the button to retract the convertible top as he hangs up, saying, “Fucking Mexicans!” only then noticing the agitated truckload of landscapers in the next lane. Nate Berkowitz, the driver of the minivan wishes he’d made better choices in life. He knows there’s no going back. Only sour people live a life of regrets. But he can’t help wonder at times like this—stuck in traffic in a shitty minivan, slightly hung-over from cheap wine with three kids yelling and throwing stuff at his head—where would he be now if he had taken more precautions? The pill and all those condoms apparently weren’t enough where he and Fertile Shelly were concerned, but a vasectomy? Now, that would have been the ticket. That, and finishing law school. Nate turns on the mermaid movie for the third time, hands crackers to the boys and a bottle to the baby. He doesn’t know how he got to this place, where he’s the house husband, the man who changes diapers and drives the kids to preschool. He’s the only man at class functions, always the one they ask to move the desks and take out the trash when he leaves, if he wouldn’t mind. He doesn’t. Nate spends his week counting down to Saturday—the only day he gets for himself—the day he runs fifteen miles and leaves his cramped life in Suburbia behind. In his shorts and running shoes, traversing the back roads of North Georgia, he’s someone else. As his thighs pump and his chest heaves, Nate’s soul opens and he becomes important, an integral part of the universe, a cog in the wheel of life. He knows that without him, life could not happen at the same speed. He feels alive. He feels necessary. He runs until he collapses, and even then, he’s smiling. Stan Ryder is not in pain. He can’t quite figure out why his head is outside the car but his body is inside and when he tries to look behind him, at the damage to his beautiful Audi, blood drips into his eyes. He feels nothing more than a familiar stab of guilt. The accident is his fault. He remembers swerving out of his lane to avoid the suddenly braking cement truck, he remembers the look of horror on the face of the man in the Suburban, remembers the screaming woman. Stan is the King of Mistakes, a man who flounders but somehow, usually finds a loophole, some way to pull himself out of the mess he’s gotten himself into. There are presents to buy, trips to plan, slow dances in candlelit restaurants. Begging with real tears was not beneath him. Stan can fix everything—but this. He feels himself drifting away, the rocking motion of the car suspended over the concrete divider making him sleepy. He remembers a war movie where the hero tells the injured man to stay awake, don’t go to sleep, or he’ll die. But Stan needs a nap. He has a date tonight and wants to look his best. Paula finds her new cell phone and turns it on. She’s not used to carrying it, or talking into something so tiny. It looks like a toy. Nothing is real, is it? She’s feeling the drug more now and is so thirsty. She holds the phone to her ear, feels like a spy. That makes her laugh. The guy in the Camaro looks over and smiles. Paula listens to the message her husband left, that he’s going to help her sister Randi move, that he won’t be home until late. Paula tosses the phone into the back seat and steps out of the car. She walks over to the Camaro and leans in, smashing her forehead against the driver’s as she reaches past him and grabs his soda. He doesn’t seem surprised or offended. Paula finishes the drink, tosses it in the road and leans in again, balancing on her toes as she sinks into him rolling her forehead against his, wanting to carve a place right there between his eyebrows and hairline and sit in it, like a soaker tub, hang her arms over the edge and dangle her feet in the blue, blue, blue of his eyes. It’s as if their skin has melted together, attaching them like Siamese twins. She is struck with the thought of skin—how cool, how smooth, how sweet skin is. This skin. The skin of a stranger—the most real thing she has ever known. Gabe feels the heat radiating off her like steam. If it was dark out, he would see it rise, the ashy, smoky haze of a recently extinguished fire. He lets her kiss his forehead, lets her call him beautiful, but when she cries, he can’t stand it. He pulls her in through the window, surprised at how light she is, how limber, how easily she comes to him as if they’ve practiced the same move a hundred times before. Anita Turner imagined her death eighteen different ways, lying about the exact number to her father, The Shrink. She told him that sure she had thoughts of suicide, who hadn’t? Bottles of pills, pistol to the head, a leap from a roof, stones in her pockets at the lake. All possible. All requiring far too much planning. All unlike his daughter. She never mentioned the car. How driving in a car, it seemed simple. Especially going over bridges how she thought, what if I took my hands off the wheel just for a second? What if I swerved to the right and gunned it? Anita hadn’t eaten in four days. Her head was pounding and the voices wouldn’t stop taunting her. She unclipped her seatbelt and floored the blue sedan, pulling out in front of a speeding cement mixer then closing her eyes as she slammed two feet on the brakes. There wasn’t a bridge or a cliff, no water to sink into, just a sea of metal monsters to crash into her over and over and over until there was nothing left but another pathetic tragedy for the evening news, something for people to catch on YouTube, update on Facebook, follow on Twitter. Randi, Paula’s sister, is dying. She spends her last few moments on Earth worrying that she’ll bloat in death and people will think she was fat. She knows her sister will hate her forever for seducing her husband, though maybe she’ll never find out because it looks like Pastor Matt isn’t walking away from this either. Randi reaches her arm toward his bloody pant leg, unsure whether anything’s attached to it, but believing simply touching the pants of a man who knows God might be enough to get her where she wants to go. Viewing the scene of the accident from above is chaos at its finest. Cars litter the highway like a giant’s playthings. Some are overturned, rocking on their roofs like air-pedaling turtles. Others are crushed and combined into shapes that don’t roll. A blue sedan is trapped under the rear wheels of a tractor-trailer, flattened like a squeezed tube of toothpaste. A shiny black Audi with a broken, blood-splattered windshield teeters east then west, hung up on the lane divider. Gwen can read its vanity plate, StnDMan. A black and white striped Suburban is torn in half from radiator to hitch. An explosion of clothes, shoes, frying pans and dishes is spewed across four lanes like the entrails of road kill. And at the head of it all, a green and white cement truck leaks its contents faster than men with shovels can scoop. The white stream runs downhill across blacktop to encapsulate steel, glass, chrome, leather, blood and bones. It’s a beautiful mess—a mosaic lit by the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles and made multi-dimensional by tiny people skittering in and out of view crushing candy boxes and red roses into the cement underfoot. Gwen tries to find words to put on her pad, but nothing comes. As the helicopter pulls up and back, the image below blurs into a broken heart—black and white and red—bleeding engine fluids and gasoline into hardening cement. The rotating blades stir the sky with burning debris, sending a wave of cool air to solidify the wasted remains of another regrettable Valentine’s Day. In the distance, a line of cars veers off the road, cutting a path through an overgrown field like the trail of an arrow shot straight and true.
© 2009 Moronic Ox Literary Journal - Escape Media Publishers / Open Books
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About the Author:
Linda Sands is the editor and founder of scratch, a quarterly literary anthology of contest stories. Her award-winning essays and short fiction can be found in books, magazines, newspapers, and online. While her agent shops her novel, We’re Not Waving, We’re Drowning, Linda stays busy as the mother of two in Atlanta, where she's finishing a short story collection and a contemporary novel, 3 WOMEN WALK IN TO A BAR.
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