Storyglossia Issue 30, October 2008.

Rules of the Road

by Barry Jay Kaplan


Alan felt a little better. Driving with the window down allowed him to breathe more easily. The knot of anxiety in his chest was dissolving as he got further from the argument, further from the sound of her voice, further from the oppressive steam heat of their apartment and everything in it that was threatening him.

You don't need me, she'd said. Why are you even here? Why do you stay?

I am what I am. This is who you married. Why are you surprised?

I thought things would get better between us. I thought you'd have a job. It never occurred to me that money would become an issue.

Just because I don't trudge off to an office every day—

Why don't you just finish the damn book already!

I am finishing it!

How are you going to finish it when you get stoned every day?

Who says I do?

Oh please. I'm not that junior editor you make promises to. Do you think I don't notice that your desk reeks of air freshener? Do you think I'm an idiot?

Why are you always attacking me?

What is the problem, Alan? Really. I mean, do you need professional help?

She had to leave for work. They would continue the discussion later. After she'd gone, Alan threw a few things in his knapsack and decided to drive to the house. He didn't take any grass with him because he didn't have any or any money to replenish his supply. The last part of the advance for the book was spent. He didn't have enough to write a check for the telephone bill and pretty soon she was going to have to find that out. Shit! He depended on her more than he liked to admit to himself. He stood at this desk and read over the last page he'd written. Had the moment for this book passed? It seemed so right when he pitched the idea, but now he wondered if it still had that edge. In publishing, the moment was all. His editor was calling him every couple of weeks to check on his progress. Almost done, he'd say, but he wasn't. Maybe I'll take it with me. Oh fuck it, he thought, and bounded out of the apartment, down the stairs and into the street.

The cold air coming in through the car window filled his lungs and had a kind of numbing effect on his chest which was the seat of his anxiety. He couldn't wrap his mind around what was happening to his life. Wasn't he the one with all the talent, all the ambition? Great things were in store for him, right? He should have been farther along by now, isn't that what everyone expected, but how to separate expectation from fantasy? He wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all. I'm working on the fucking book, Stephanie! OK it's not done. OK I'm fucking up. So? He stuck two fingers in the ash tray and like magic came up with half a joint.

Now that's better, he thought, after he'd smoked it down. The top of his head felt lighter almost immediately as if the smoke had gone directly to his brain instead of his lungs but it wasn't just that, it was that feeling of well being he got when he smoked, the sense that all his worry was really just that: worry. Things were actually OK. Things were fine. Yes the book was taking longer than it was supposed to but who really knew how long a book was supposed to take anyway? He'd finish it when he finished it. When he was on a roll with the book, nobody could touch him. He was just a little lost right now, he'd admit that to himself. The fact that his marriage had hit a bad stage wasn't helping. If he was perfectly honest with himself, he wasn't even sure Stephanie was even a part of his future. Had she ever been? How could she be? She doubted him, number one. Well she did, didn't she? She didn't have the kind of unquestioning faith in him that he needed to get through periods like this one. She argued with him instead, accused him, belittled his efforts, made demands on his time. She was the one with the job, as she so often pointed out. She was the one with the successful career and the regular paycheck plus the respect of others and didn't everyone at her job love her too? Isn't that what he saw whenever there was a social occasion and he was in their midst? So what was her problem?

The final long sweep into the valley was visible now and Alan reminded himself to concentrate because a car might be coming up from the valley on the blind side of the curve. The village itself was laid out on both sides of a small river and might have been pretty if the village elders hadn't decided to tear down the old movie theatre and put a gas station in its place and if the supermarket had not gone out of business but still stood empty on a full block of Main Street and if half the businesses were not pizza parlors. Small town America, Alan thought. Charming.

They bought the house when both of them were insane, at least that's the way they explained how they ended up with such an unpromising place. At the time, both had been so involved in their work that if they were not insane, at the very least they were distracted and could not really see what they were actually looking at. Alan was knee deep in research for this very long novel. Stephanie had just become head of her department. The house was meant to be a place to relax, to leave the stress of the city in the city but it had simply not turned out that way.

It's a hundred years old, the realtor told them, and a bargain. This at least was true, but as they were slow to learn, nothing was a bargain if you didn't want it. And "old" did not make it quaint or charming or historical. The windows let in the cold air. The furnace was so noisy they had to turn up the volume on the tv whenever the heat came on. The stairs squeaked. The basement was damp. There was neither a front porch nor a fireplace. Its location on a dead end street meant that in order to take a walk they had to pass several houses worth of neighbors who watched them with frank curiosity and would not be satisfied with a simple wave and smile but demanded conversation.

As Alan drove onto his street, he waved to a little family grouping sitting on beach chairs next to their propane tank, then pulled into his driveway next door. It was freezing inside. He turned on the heat and, as always, was startled by the thunderous kick it made. He sat at the kitchen table without taking off his jacket. The tightness in his chest had returned. He could feel his heart beating in his neck. There was nothing in the refrigerator but a bottle of seltzer and a wedge of parmesan cheese dotted with green mold. He went to pour himself a glass of wine but the rack was empty; he remembered he'd brought a half empty bottle back to the city with him the last time he was here. Wasn't there a fifth of bourbon that someone brought them as a housewarming gift? If there was, he couldn't find it. He had just about enough cash to buy a beer and still have some left for gas to get home; he hated beer. He went out to the car to check the ashtray for the joint he'd been smoking but only a shred of paper was left.

His heart was pounding hard now. Stephanie! Leave me alone! He did not like where this was going. What good was it going to do him to admit he'd boxed himself into a corner? Why come to a conclusion that he wasn't going to be able to bear? He couldn't be with Stephanie any more if this was the way it was going to be. Oh she sees me, all right. She sees through me and I'm not even there! That's what she sees! He couldn't bear her opinion of him but he couldn't be alone either, not while he was in the middle of a book he couldn't finish, not while his confidence was so shaky.

He sat down heavily on the daybed in the living room and put his head in his hands. This trip to the house was wasted; he had not gotten away from anything. He was his own fate and he was waiting for himself wherever he went. He groaned and stood up. The kitchen clock said four o'clock. If he left right now he would be home just after dark.

It was a quarter after four when he took the sharp sweeping curve out of the valley and up into the hills. The light was starting to go. There were no signs of life as he drove; there rarely were on this road. He and Stephanie had a standing joke while taking drives in the area that a neutron bomb had killed the population but left the buildings standing. A decided improvement! they'd say in unison. Sometimes they had fun. Or they used to anyway. It was her. No it was him. It was both of them. It was neither. He shook his head. He had too much imagination to be good at this kind of thinking. He wanted to blame someone but blaming her seemed too easy and blaming himself only made his heart pound even harder. Shit shit shit!

He understood the pull towards speed; when you drove fast or ran fast or skated or swam or whatever, you could go past yourself, at least for the time you were going. The thing was, you always ran out of gas at some point and had to stop and there you'd be, gasping, heart pounding, waiting for yourself with a big stupid self satisfied terrified grin—

He felt the crash first in his shoulders. His arms locked. He gripped the wheel hard, instinctively jammed on the brake. The car swerved. Steer into it, he told himself. His head snapped back against the seat, his neck twisted to the side. The car bounced, straightened out and finally screeched to a stop. He'd hit something. Something big, a deer or a dog maybe, had been crossing the road. Oh God, he hoped it wasn't a dog. He hadn't been concentrating, he hadn't seen it and he'd hit it.

He got out of the car. I'm all right, he thought. I'm all right. Nothing broken. My neck hurts. He walked back, following the swerving tracks his tires had made on the road. He looked over the side of the hill and saw that he'd hit a person, that the person had been flung off the road, down the hill and now lay with twisted limbs against the base of a tall pine tree. Oh my God oh my God. Alan edged his way down the hill, digging his heels into the dirt to keep from sliding but it was steep, he lost his footing and tumbled, grabbing at twigs and grass and finally landing on top of the person he'd hit. He scrambled off, pulling at tree roots to right himself.

It was an old man, skinny, overalls, a plaid shirt, orthopedic shoes. Alan didn't dare touch him. He stared at the old man's chest, holding his breath, waiting to see some movement. The man's false teeth had been dislodged and dangled from his mouth. Blood seeped out of his ear. After a few moments, Alan edged closer and poked at the man's foot. Nothing. What were you doing crossing the road like that! Don't you know you're supposed to wait until the car goes by? What kind of spatial judgment is that? You can understand why squirrels and raccoons get run over all the time: they just don't get it! People are supposed be smarter about how to cross a road than a goddamn squirrel! A person is supposed to understand the rules of the road, for Godsake!

He sank down in the dirt. I've ruined my life, he thought. He continued to sit in the dirt, arms around his knees, as the dark closed in, watching the old man, waiting for something to happen, for something to take over. Finally he stood up, looking down at the old man for a long moment, then brushed the dirt from the seat of his pants and clawed his way back up the hill.

Except for the rustling of the leaves, it was completely quiet. The quarter moon was small and far away. The dashboard clock read five ten. He ran his hands over his face. He was sweating. It was very still. Were there any houses nearby? There must have been one where the old man lived but he didn't see any lights anywhere. Was anyone coming? He listened. Nothing. He took a deep breath, strapped on his safety belt, turned on his lights, gentled the car into gear, released the emergency brake and drove off.

The road down the other side of the mountain had more curves than he remembered. He put his brights on and kept checking the rear view mirror, expecting to see a car coming after him, forcing him to pull over, demanding an explanation. I didn't see . . . I didn't know . . . I . . . He couldn't imagine what he could possibly say.

He pulled into the parking area of the gas station near the entrance to the interstate, then sat in the car, waiting. Still nothing happened, no one came. He got out of the car to inspect the front end. There was no dent, no blood, no torn clothing, nothing that marked what had happened except a small square of plaid flannel caught on the screw that fastened the license plate to the bumper. He held it between his fingers for a moment, then rolled it into a ball and pitched it into the station's dumpster. It had happened, hadn't it? He laughed for a moment: maybe it was a hallucination, he thought. That would be nice. He counted the change in his pocket, went into the convenience store attached to the gas station and bought a muffin.

"Rest room?"

He peed for a very long time then washed his hands and splashed cold water on his face. He looked in the mirror. I look the same, he thought. Then: no, I look different. Then: no, not really.

There was no police car waiting for him. He filled his tank and entered the interstate. As he drove, he concentrated hard on following the white line in the middle of the road, on not going over fifty. He was frightened in a way he had never been before about getting a ticket. He didn't know if he'd be able to stop himself from blurting out that he'd just killed someone or that it didn't just show on his face. He'd betray himself somehow, stutter or sweat or find out there was blood on his clothes he hadn't noticed.

He found a parking space in front of their building. His heart was pounding on the way up in the elevator. Stephanie. Stephanie, something terrible has happened, Stephanie. Stephanie, I've done a terrible thing. You have to forgive me. You have to tell me what to do.

She wasn't home yet. He threw off his clothes, stepped into the shower. If I tell her, she's going to make me call the police. That's the way she is. I'll go to jail. It was that simple. Tell and go to jail. He was afraid to turn off the hot water. As long as stayed under the spray, he was safe. His hands were trembling. His heart was pounding again. He felt sick to his stomach.

"Are you almost done in there?"

He came out of the shower and put on his white bathrobe, convinced that his doom was waiting for him in the next room. He could hear Stephanie walking around, opening and closing drawers. He dried his hair with a towel. When he opened the bathroom door Stephanie was right there.

"Stephanie . . . " He barely had voice enough to get her name out.

"I'm exhausted," she said. "I just want to brush my teeth and go to sleep. Can we just not . . . "

He stood in the doorway, blocking her entry. He was shaking.

"Alan, what's the matter?"

"I . . . I don't know."

"You look terrible. What is it? Are you sick?"

He started to cry. She stepped towards him and put her hands on his shoulders. "What is it? What's the matter?"

He couldn't look at her. "Don't leave me," he managed to say.

"Oh honey, I'm not leaving."

"Don't leave me." He was sobbing now. "Please don't leave me."

She led him by the hand to their bed and looked at him carefully, caressing his face. "Oh, sweetheart."

She helped him to lie down, held him in her arms, pulled the comforter around them. The pounding in his heart slowed down. Gradually, he stopped crying. His breathing was becoming more regular. Alan burrowed against her and breathed deeply. The smell of her robe was sweet and clean as the sky. He was feeling better. What was I thinking just before it happened? Something about the book, wasn't it? And the thought occurred to him now as a kind of revelation that what he needed to do was stop smoking a joint every afternoon and finish it once and for all. Finish the book. Finish the fucking book. His editor would be happy. Stephanie would be happy. That would be something. The way forward looked clear to him.

"Stephanie . . . ?"

She leaned down to kiss his forehead. "What is it, sweetheart?"

Alan looked up at her. She wasn't as pretty as a lot of the women he could have been with but here she was and that was something.

"Nothing," Alan said and soon was asleep in her arms.

Copyright©2008 Barry Jay Kaplan

Barry Jay Kaplan's stories have appeared in Descant, Bryant Literary Review, Upstreet, Perigee, Amarillo Bay, Brink, Hobson's Choice, Apple Valley Review (Pushcart Prize nominee) and others. His novels include Black Orchid and Biscayne. His musical Like Love was part of the New York Music Theatre Festival last year.