A Car Ride of Second Chances
By Len Kuntz
It was my therapist’s idea. Ordinarily, he merely listened, taking a note or two during our sessions, but I could tell my exhibitions of misery were frustrating him, which is why he came up with the suggestion last week.
When I objected, he said, “Don’t forget, you’ve made mistakes in your marriage, too.”
That poison dart stung. I felt a moment of betrayal, but then realized the irony of my thinking—me, who’d been the unfaithful one.
I call our lawyers before leaving to tell them my wife and I are just trying to get out of town for a couple of days, drive to Portland–where people are less likely to have heard the news.
The second lawyer, the needling, suspicious one who often seemed to be on the prosecution’s side, said, “Check in. Call when you get there and give me the hotel’s phone number.”
He was a squat neckless blob, a human Jabba the Hut. I imagined shoving a stick of dynamite down his throat and watching him choke on it right before all 300 pounds of him splattered across his mahogany office. See, that’s what all this had done—turning me violent and resentful, into one batshit, childless husband.
My wife gets into the SUV while I finish loading up. I see the Millers across the street watching us through parted drapes. When I give them my middle finger they disappear, their curtains sashaying like randy ghosts.
Ghosts. I believe in them now. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to open up your mind. I see her ghost every day, several times a day. She glides across the room, floats above my head, always swaddled tight like a cocoon. I hear her gurgle and coo, feel her hot baby’s breath. She never cries. Never.
Near Tacoma, the vehicle starts to rattle the way it has all month, although now there’s an added rumbling sound beneath my feet. Just another one of our broken things, I think. I turn the radio up louder, even though it’s a ridiculous rap song.
My wife stares out the window, any number of thoughts going through her head, or maybe nothing at all. Or maybe she’s reliving everything.
Approaching Chehalis, I turn the radio off. The car still sounds as if it’s going to collapse. I say, “Hey.”
She doesn’t turn and for a second I wonder if she might be sleeping. When I lean forward to check, it’s too late. The deer has loped onto the highway.
I brake hard, even though as I do it, I realize you’re supposed to hit the accelerator instead. The animal slams into the fender—fur, hooves and horns–twirling in the air as if in slow motion. I’m certain that it’s going to land on the windshield, break through the glass and crush us. But it doesn’t. Instead the deer drops onto the top of the SUV like a boulder, then rolls off the back end.
The car finishes its skid, squealing in a semicircle, spraying gravel from the side of the road. The air smells like burnt rubber. Over our heads, in the middle space between us, there’s now an inverted dome of metal from where the deer landed.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
My wife is pale, the color of faded lavender, and her chest heaves.
“Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
She shakes her head, eyes the widest I’ve ever seen them.
Police arrive less than ten minutes later. They want to call an ambulance, but I won’t let them. “We’re fine,” I say, “just a little shaken, is all.”
When he checks my ID, the officer’s face corkscrews and I know he’s realizing who we are. “Where you headed?” he asks, the inflection in his voice not unlike Jabba the Hut, my attorney.
“Portland. For a break, a getaway. Just a couple of days.”
“Your people know you’re going?” I understand what he means. This is unbelievable. I feel myself ripen with anger.
“Lawyers and such.”
I want to tell him to go fuck himself. I want to ram the door against him, break his hip or a few ribs. Instead I say, “They do.”
He stares at me for a few seconds, but it feels longer. Then he leans down, looks across at my wife. “Sure you’re not injured?”
“Just shaken,” I say again, and the officer chuckles.
The SUV won’t start, so the police write up some kind of note and stick it under a windshield wiper. “Be a bitch of a bill, towing that all the way back to Seattle,” one of them says almost merrily.
“I’ll have it towed to Chehalis, get it fixed there.”
“Yeah,” he says, and I don’t know if it’s a question or if he’s agreeing with me.
“Want a lift into town?” he asks.
“We’ll call a cab.” There’s no way in hell my wife and I are getting into the back of a squad car.
“Sure?” He’s disappointed. Probably wanted to grill us on the ride in. “Save you fifty, sixty bucks.”
“I’m sure.” If he doesn’t get the fuck away from me, I’m really going to whack him with the car door, get out and mash his face in with my boot.
Finally he says, “Suit yourself,” then to his partner, “Let’s go, Bob.”
In the rearview mirror, I watch them walk back to their cruiser. “Can you believe those assholes?” I ask. But my wife doesn’t answer because she’s started sobbing.
At our hotel room, my wife sits in a chair by the window weeping silently. She won’t stop and she won’t talk to me. When I tell her I’m going for a walk, she doesn’t even bother to look up.
There’s not much to see outside, the downtown area filled with feed stores and others that sell fertilizer and farming implements. The sun is a ripe blister in the sky, its rays scalding my upraised face. Almost blinded, I nevertheless walk up and down the streets for hours.
I find a bar called “Last Chance Saloon”. It feels like something out of frontier times. I sit at the bar ordering whisky after whisky until the jukebox is drowned out by a jar of angry hornets scouring the inside of my skull.
Back at the hotel, my wife’s still seated in the same spot, but she’s stopped crying.
I sit on the edge of the bed next to her.
“Hell of a day,” I say. “Hell of a month.” I sound like an idiot but I don’t know what else to say, and besides, I’m quite drunk.
“I didn’t do it,” she says. They’re the first words I’ve heard from her since yesterday.
“I told you I believe you.”
“You don’t act like it.”
“How am I supposed to act? She’s dead.”
“Everyone thinks I did it.”
“We have lawyers.”
“Why would I? She was my baby, too.”
“We’re going to have to learn to live with this eventually.”
“What kind of mother would shake her child to death? What kind of animal?”
What kind of man would cheat on his pregnant wife? I think.
It feels hotter in the room than it did outside. My sweat-soaked shirt clings to my chest making it easy to see the rhythmic thudding of my heart.
I slide off the mattress and kneel down in front of my wife. Her hands, her cheek, her earlobes—everything trembles.
“Look at me,” I say.
I reach over and lift her chin up. Mascara is smeared down her cheeks like black scars.
I don’t know if she did it on purpose or not. The experts know. But I tell myself I can live with it either way. What I can’t do anymore is hide or lie.
I take a gulp of air and swallow. “I have something to tell you,” I say.
I take my time. I tell her everything. Outside a stray siren wails in the distance while I wait for judgment, punishment or forgiveness. Anything to set us right.