I’m reposting this story, a token of love and appreciation for J on Fathers’ Day,
and for all you breadwinners who get the job done.
At first he didn’t mind the commute, even looked forward to having a little cushion between work and home, a slice of silence to separate the electric buzz of hardware and fluorescent lights from the bickering and whines. The commute from point A to B gave him a chance to sit and breathe and let his brain shift gears. Even when there was a little traffic, it wasn’t so bad: he’d just find a good song on the radio, roll down the window, and diddle his hand in the breeze.
It was his time, and nobody could take that away from him.
Then he got the promotion. No more money, of course, but a sexier title and more responsibility. She was so proud she cooked him his favorite meal: tender little hens stuffed with wild rice. A bottle of champagne. The kids made cards, presented him with a nice new tie, and fought for a turn in his lap. That night, he crawled into bed feeling fortunate and full.
It was still dark when he got up the next morning. She was asleep when he kissed her goodbye but he had to be the first one at the office, at least before Art and Don who would expect their new manager to set the pace. At that hour the highway was all his, still wet with dawn’s dew, stretched out like a dark carpet rolled out over the city. There is something about watching the sun come up that makes a man feel like he had something to do with it. But he didn’t know about the highway detour they’d planned and, by the time he finally got to work, his hands hurt from gripping the steering wheel and his voice was rough from cursing. He called her to say he’d miss dinner; he had to make up for lost time.
But for awhile, things were okay. He grew accustomed to the new groove. He missed the kids but sometimes made it home in time to tuck them in. No more time for darts with Art and Don but he shouldn’t fraternize with underlings, anyhow. He even got used to daily accidents, road repairs, lane closures, and detours. On the dashboard, he kept a list on a post-it note entitled Things To Look Forward To, which included Saturday, holidays, a fat paycheck, retirement, and winning the lottery. When he was stuck in traffic, sometimes he pretended his car was a golf cart and he was toddling along towards the 18th hole. For his birthday, they gave him books on tape.
One day when his boss called him aside and said, “We’ve decided to let a few people go,” he felt a weird, quivering smile form on his lips, so he covered his mouth with his hand. Then his boss told him, “We need to cut back, so we’re letting Art and Don go. That means you’re our man.”
Letting them go—what a strange thing to say when you think about it, but with two extra workloads, he didn’t have much time to think. The sound of tires humming against cement used to calm him but now, it almost put him to sleep. Thankfully, there were plenty of drive-through joints between points A and B and his car was soon littered with greasy bags and cups half-full of coffee. At work, he’d avoid workplace distraction by plugging his laptop into his car lighter and conducting business in the parking lot. At a convenience store he picked up a case of bottled water, a big bag of beef jerky, a donut-shaped pillow to sit on, and a spare toothbrush.
Debris: proceed with caution. This new project should be your number one priority. Southbound accident involving a motorcycle: only one lane remains open. This client needs immediate attention right away. Select northbound lanes closed indefinitely for repairs. What the hell are you planning to do about this and when? Major long-term project: the new bridge is now under construction.
He’s home long enough to strip off his shirt and grab a fresh one from the stack on the doorstep. She calls to tell him about science projects, school plays, trips to the doctor, report cards. She promises to send pictures. He packs his sleeping bag and stocks his glove compartment with potatoes. In front of the heat vent on the passenger’s side, he rigs up a little compartment made of tin foil and when he turns the heat up full blast, it’s almost as good as a toaster oven. He hangs little clips all around the ceiling of his car so he can rig up a curtain when he needs privacy. For Fathers’ Day, the kids give him LifeHammer®, a nifty all-in-one tool for breaking the window and severing the seatbelt in case of emergency, and he sticks his hand out the window to wave goodbye and just keeps going, toggling back and forth like a switch, like a pendulum, around and around like a watch with a life-time warranty, in a joyless circadian waltz that stops for nothing, not even when all lanes are shut in both directions for the officer down or road-rage-induced-vehicular-slaughter or high-speed chase or thirty-car pile-up or man threatening suicide on the edge of the bridge, he does not stop, he just floats over and through it all like flotsam in the current, moving endlessly forward, even when the car just piddles out—was it gas or engine? who knows—and rolls to a stop in front of the banner that declares, If you lived here, you’d be home already! and her voice on the outgoing message is just a distant forgery so he redials to hear it again and does not stop, he just sits there moving forward, with his eyes trained on an invisible horizon.
Man, that story was intense. The song by Cake is very appropriate.
Love that song! A great treadmill work-out song.
Intense and absorbing….what a sad state to be in
Yes– the story can’t last much longer without overdoing it. It is exhausting.
I can so readily identify with this existence, because that’s what it is. It’s not a life.
No, not a life at all– just a bad dream.
I hope today, of all days, is one that he gets to stop and just be with his family.
Maybe if he uses the LifeHammer® he can just break the window and crawl out.
Anna, What a wonderfully written story. How true, how sad, how lost, how trapped. Thanks for sharing. I don’t think I will forget this one for a long time. Wally
Thank you Wally. It’s a true story, even though it is not real.
Funny, last night I watched the film, The Companey Men. Same theme. Tragic story.
I’ll have to put that one on my queue. Universal theme, I think, but one we don’t think about often enough.
Wow, Anna. That was incredible.
Thank you. If you had your comments turned on I’d have to gush about those bar-biting puppies or wonder inappropriately if I should start snorting cocaine.
You know one thing I really like about this piece? How the pace picks up and picks up until it’s almost all one breathless sentence at the end. The way you write it with minimal punctuation and the words just snowballing creates high pace and tension as much as the words themselves. By the end I feel out of breath and lost, even while sitting still and reading.