Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Forty-five Miles, One Way

His grabbed the wheel with both hands, sighed, closed his eyes. Christ, but he needed a cigarette. Instead of reaching for his shirt pocket--it was empty anyway--he tapped the wheel with his fingers in time to some song that was tired even when he was young. Midnight toker? Well, that wouldn't do at all. He hit scan. Shit. Pause. Noise. Pause. Garbage. Pause. Bubblegum. Pause. Blather. He turned it off. What the fuck was a pompatous anyway? He lifted his right hand and hit the wheel hard.

He looked off to his left at the cars flying down the southbound lanes. Who were the lucky bastards that didn't have to work in some miserable city office? He watched the trucks flying down toward him, noting them. Lumber--maybe it was from Canada--cargo, cargo, tanker. They were moving right along, but were their jobs any better? He doubted it. He didn't see how anybody who commuted could be happy. He drudged up some vague memory of a college physics lecture, momentum, mass times velocity. It would be hard to stop one one of those things. He squinted into the glare at the minivan ahead of him, still not moving. There had better be an accident. Somebody had better be dead. He envied them.

He revved the accelerator and inched his car closer, moved half a length. This was murder on his clutch, he thought. His leg was getting tired too, and his hand trembled as he pulled it from the stick shift. He changed his mind and slapped the thing into neutral, leaned back. It was 8:05. It wasn't as though he punched a clock, but there were meetings, and he hated showing up late to them even more than he hated attending in the first place. All hands bullshit this morning, and his absence would be conspicuous. He might still be able to make it by nine if things would move. He reached for his empty shirt pocket, and pulled his hand away angrily. He reached for the radio, brought it shaking back to the wheel.

Was the job worth it, he thought. It was, even ten years ago, some tradeoff between the price of the commute and the price of housing. It was hard to tell which was going up faster. With his mortgage, he needed the job, but his raises came slower than the rates on the ARM, slower than the cost of gas, slower than his medical premiums. The fucking alimony stayed the same. He was sure she was living on it just fine. No, he needed this goddamn job and no move closer was in sight. He needed it pay the heat. The electric would wait till the end of the month, he thought. Tax time was around the corner. He stamped the pedal at two feet of progress but the gears were still disengaged and the engine roared impotently. He gripped the knob and wrenched it into first, shuddered a meager few steps progress toward the next bumper. The clutch was going to cost him.

The clock was digital. He remembered his first car, with the analog clock, the ripped seats, the dented fenders. High school. This one was cleaner anyway. And newer, but not a lot newer. The clock read 8:33. In twenty minutes, he'd moved maybe half a mile, and he had a good forty minutes to go even if things were moving full speed. Was there road work yesterday? It was all the same shit. He thought about laying on the horn, but that never made anything better. He breathed in exhaust--it had been two years--well, minus a couple of lapses--but he still shouldn't be tasting it in on his tongue, should he? Still feeling it in his lungs. He looked at the glove compartment, and then lunged at it, pounding his thigh on the gearshift. His foot left the brake for a moment and he rolled backward slightly, and the guy behind him did honk. He reached up and raised a finger to him. He tore the contents of the glove out, expired insurance cards, receipts, the driving manual. And driving gloves. Who knew? What a pile of useless shit, he thought, and his fingers clutched at a shiny wrapper at the bottom, upended it to free nothing, crushed it in his fist and held it to his face, breathing a smell that was not quite dead. He tore some of the paper from the inside and chewed it, his fillings grating on the foil. Fuck it, he hit the horn. Flipped off the guy in front of him too. His leg hurt, maybe it was bruised.

8:47. His teeth ground, he'd watched every minute of the fucking thing tick by and they were getting slower. The spitball on the passenger-side window was already dry, and the morning was getting hot. He looked at the temperature gauge. Maybe some asshole ahead had overheated. That would slow things down. Maybe no one else would make the meeting either, but somehow he felt like he was the only one that lived in the damn boondocks. How did those people afford it? He grabbed at the radio dial for the tenth time, and shouted. He picked up his foot and stomped on the thing, turning it on and breaking the dial. Horrified, he reached over and tried to dislodge it, the radio got a little louder. It was tuned to some indeterminate station. Words sparking from the static like random thoughts falling out of the mental ether. He opened the window. It was hot. He turned on the fan and left the window open. Traffic hummed around him, stinking. He thought about the word "static." Trucks flew south. His hand jiggled on the wheel. 8:51.

At some point, some asshole got into the shoulder and sure as shit, a whole train had passed him twenty minutes ago. Now they were trying to merge back in. He pulled within inches of the guy in front, and shouted over the stuttering radio at the would-be cutter as he passed him. Fuck you and your precious Beamer, you overpriveleged shit.

After the merge, traffic started moving a car length at a time. He was moving sufficiently forward to be able to weave left and right in the lane a little, but he could see around the blue family van. He hated those things. As the highway began to turn, he could see, finally, yellow flashes off to his left, maybe a mile up. He began to press the pedal, but he still wasn't there.

Finally, he saw it. There had been an accident in the other lane. Some broken glass, but no cars, no police. A tow truck sat in the median, flashing his lights and hurting the eyes of the oncoming traffic. Traffic on that side zipped right past. His thigh hurt more than it should, and the radio was spurting some intermittent Latin rap. He gritted his teeth. Fucking rubberneckers. Fuckin people nowhere to fucking go. He jammed his foot the pedal and sped past it all. Second gear, a lurch into third, fourth, across into fifth. He accelerated. Up ahead, the median got narrow due to some construction, but still the the trucks barrelled down their lanes. He watched them come down, fly past. It wouldn't take much thought, just a second of a lapse, close his eyes for not much longer than a blink, and there could be no more meetings, no payments, no more fucking daily drive through the exaust and the heat and the horns.

His hands gripped the wheel. The trucks barrelled down. Just one twitch is all it'd take. He closed his eyes.

[Written for a "Wikifray symposium." Thanks for the idea, august.]


twiffer said...

great, now there's going to be even MORE traffic.


shades of falling down here, but without the guns. just the crushing depression of modern life.

a cheerful way to start the day, keif.

Keifus said...

It was a writing assignment. Should probably reference that.

Exagerrated of course, but what usually does get to me every day is the daily hour and a half that the highway steals from my life.

Cheerful? You work from home, yes? That should make you happy.


twiffer said...

i've got a great commute. but i also have a 5 week-old child.

rundeep said...

By the way, this was terrific. I've been that person (though you have to change the times back an hour). Rather too evocative. By the way, do you still have our friend John G's email? I don't know whether I've transgressed or I just got shut out on the last vacay, but I'm barred. Thanks.

Keifus said...

Thanks rundeep. I was thinking I could have cut back on the profanity, but you know, it's commuting.

Artemesia said...

Very well done, low key..key to what I believe are many random suicides..spontaneous combustion of the soul in "I can't take it any more..what if...." Death is just a lane away..

Maybe you could work at home? (LOL) ...

Keifus said...

Ah, it's fiction! Write about commuting rage was the assignment...I just thought to turn it inward.

Thanks A.