It's better to travel hopefully. Than to arrive--Bassho

A Scenic Route

by Dw. Dunphy © 2001

Her Porsche was in the shop; not that there was anything wrong with the car per se, but if there was anything that reeked of status more than ownership of a candy-apple red Porsche, it was the occasional luxury of putting the car into the shop for a little "fine tuning". She would have to wait for her husband, Eric, to pick her up from work in his silver Jaguar.

It didn't hurt her ego a bit to have the Jag pull up and accept her. Lord knows her co-workers at the firm were duly impressed, but there was Eric--dutiful, subservient, passive Eric. As with every other time she was picked up from work, the pattern remained--him with his sunglasses and blank expression, one hand on the wheel, the other on the gearshift, hot coffee waiting for her in the cup holder. She liked the coffee, liked the car, didn't mind the sunglasses, in theory, but the husband . . .

"Hey, hon" he blankly greeted her. She groaned back in a snide "just take me home" tone, slid into the passenger's seat, pulled the seatbelt over her chest, buckled the strap down, retrieved the warm cappuccino and drank a generous mouthful as the slick car pulled away. He pressed a button on the dashboard CD player and music filled the cozy compartment.

"Everybody / Have you heard? / If you're in the game / Then the stroke's the word"

She tolerated the music for only a minute or two then reached over and turned the deck off. Eric glared at her. "What did you do that for?"

"You know I hate your 80s music crap," she said.

"Yeah, but it's my car, Lainie."

"Then be a decent enough host not to discomfort your guest, all right?" She had a way of speaking that, even on the rare occasion when she was being magnanimous, still sounded like a spoiled princess. Eric didn't argue. He just sat and drove in the vacuum of quiet. Lainie sipped at her coffee, licking foamed milk off her upper lip in an unpleasant, utilitarian manner, as seductive as a windshield wiper. It was then that she noticed he wasn't taking the highway home. He turned off onto a back road, a winding and picturesque but decidedly longer path. "What are you doing?"

"I thought it might be cool to take the scenic route for a change," he explained.

"I'm not in the mood for joyrides. Turn around and get back to the highway."

"We never do anything fun anymore, just you and me, stupid things like . . ."

"I didn't get home until late last night and I'm tired, so stop screwing around and get back to the highway!" That was true, she had come in late the night before. She used to tell him that she and a couple of girls from the office just stopped off for a few to unwind. Then she stopped telling him anything, except, of course, for telling him what she wanted him to do. Also true was that she had waked early that morning to get her car to the shop, but just barely. Lack of sleep or hangover or whatever, she probably was tired but Eric was not turning the car around. He just sat there, hands on wheel and gearshift, letting her protests go in one ear and out the other.

The backroads were sparsely lit and mostly flanked by clusters of trees. The slope of the road indicated that they were heading on a downhill trajectory, much like her patience. "I swear to Christ if you don't turn around, I'm calling the cops." She meant it. Her hand was already reaching into her purse for the phone.

Eric kept his eyes fixed to the road, sunglasses firmly set before them even as the last sunset slivers drowned beneath the tree canopies. He spoke in a monotone, barely uttered above a whisper, carefully punctuated for maximum effect. "Who is he?"

"Who is who?" She said it so casually; certainly not the way a falsely accused person reacts but certainly not quivering with guilt either.

"Lainie, who is he?"

"Who?" She seemed annoyed and unnecessarily dismissive. She was remaining calm and, in her usual demeanor, blowing him off. The transmission started to reach first gear's end cycle, the motor whirr practically begging "time to shift, time to shift" but he wasn't bothering to heed the call. He sat there, patiently, calmly, waiting for a satisfactory answer. Nothing came from her after that. She drank the last of her coffee, slid the waxed cardboard cup back into the holder and smugly held forth in her own silence. "Time to shift," the transmission insisted, "time to shift."

Eric listened. He jammed the stick into second gear, bucking the car with a tremendous judder, gunning the machine. This wild, irrational action shocked her, scared her, and didn't alarm him one bit or prevent him from asking again. "Who is he?"

"Slow down, Eric," she stated.

"Who is he?"

"Slow down!" A sharp bank in the road approached quickly. He took it like a pro, yanking the wheel left, right, hugging the curves and riding the quick bumps of the street like a bronco buster. The sudden rising and drops made her feel light and nauseous in the pit of her gut, the hairpin swerves causing dizziness. She felt like she was swimming in air, and the panic seized deep within her. "Slow down, dammit!"

Quietly and reserved as ever, Eric responded "Tell me who he is or I'll wreck the car." He was in, what? fourth, fifth gear? Was that possible in a Jag? Did it matter when the scenery outside the windows was becoming little more than slashes of light and color? And every bump, oh God, every bump made her head float and her stomach want to give up the ghost as well any inclusive contents. He'd obviously gone over the edge, his fear of dying going right along with it and now he was going to take her as well in a fifty, sixty, seventy-five mile streak.

Headlights appeared before them, approaching them fast. That was because the sleek Jag was doing most of the approaching. It cut hard right, then jumped back in once it passed the car, an old Pontiac. Had they hit it, it would have been instant death, the steel-bodied Pontiac cleaving the fiberglass sporter clean through. She squealed in a nervous "eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee" and winced, trying to shut her eyes from the rapidly oncoming obstacles and bumps. She diverted her line of sight from the right, desperately ignoring that curb that kept darting closer, away, closer still.

"There is no one!" she shouted. "Jesus Christ, there's no one, Eric! I swear there's no one!" She was shouting and hyperventilating, competing with the sound of a screaming motor. His passivity, on the other hand, was infuriating, absolutely galling. That was because he heard what he expected to hear once she uttered such a denial - unmistakable insincerity. It was dark now, but he refused to turn on the headlights, refused to turn on the dashboard lamps. About the only illumination in the interior was the idiot lamp over the speedometer warning of imminent engine trouble. All she could picture was the silver Jaguar's motor suddenly engulfed in flames, barreling down a hill at ninety? Ninety-five miles?

"Who is he, Lainie?" he repeated.

By now she was overcome. The dizziness had her head so locked into confusion and her heart fluttered so that she barely could hear the motor over her own body's blood rush. She tried as best as she could but the little man broke her down, terrified her enough to make her spill the beans. "Tim! Your cousin Tim!"

The turns came fast and furious and Eric wove all over the road as if it were sheeted with black ice. "Tim." he mulled, thinking how possible, how probable, the concept was. The erratic driving didn't stop. It only got worse, and forced Lainie into stricken, confessional screeds at the top of her lungs. "You're gonna kill us, Eric? You're gonna kill us both?! I had him on our bed, Eric, on our bed, like an animal, drunk and stupid and you know what? That one time was better than all the times you had me combined! I left him staggering like he was hit by a truck! Then we did it again; Hell, we did it right under your nose! You wanted to know, honey? Now you know!!" She slashed with her words as deftly as with a stroke of a razor blade, each one cutting him deeply inside but he refused to offer her an ounce of satisfaction. The austere, stone-faced resolve continued.

Eric flipped the headlights on, slowed the car down with careful pumping on the anti-lock brakes, not the suggested thing to do as, it caused the wheels to skip and slightly shudder, but that was exactly the grace note he was seeking. The silver Jag eased into the side of the road, coming to a complete stop. There, with the car idling in neutral as if nothing had happened, he stared out at the road that was now vaguely lit by his front lamps. Lainie broke into a deep, throaty laugh; a laugh made with equal parts of light-headedness, dizzy disconnectedness and a tinge of absent-minded dementia. She gasped with a congested rasp, like her lungs could go at any second and taunts rose from her, unfettered. "I knew" Gasp. "You didn't have the nerve" Gasp. "To crash the car with us" Gasp. "You're such a coward." Wheeze, rattle.

"You're right, hon." he admitted freely. "I really wasn't gonna crash the car." By now, her breathing was labored and strange, caught in the throes of something other than the after-effects of potent panic. "I just wanted to get you all worked into a tizzy, that's all. That way, the poison in your coffee would kick in faster." At that, she started to reach for him, perhaps to strangle him, perhaps to beseech his forgiveness and beg for a non-existent antidote, but it mattered little. The breaths came too hard, her chest rising and falling like a bird's heart and far worse, paralysis had overtaken the rest of her body.

He kept his eyes fixed on the road, right up to and including her long last clamberings for a precious breath, and when it started to sound like the emptying of a half-clogged sink drain, he turned the CD player back on.

"Say you're a winner / But man, you're just a sinner now."

x x x

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