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Catherine Woodward
A Story About A Man Driving

 

He was making the long drive to His brother’s house as He had done every year since He had married. The house was at the very edge of the state and His brother was fond of telling visitors time and time again that the boundary line ran right through his kitchen. ‘When you do the dishes you’re in one slice of America,’ he’d say ‘and when you go to the fridge for a beer afterwards you’ve just made a major migration.’ His brother used to joke that if the pilgrims had seen such a fulfilment of manifest destiny, they’d have given up and pitched their towns right where they were.
His brother had eternally seemed to be in want of company, and with long spates between family visits he’d forget which gags he’d made and which he hadn’t, and so he would continue to tell you, year after year the same old wise crack and you would just have to sit and listen and laugh at the right moment. Amanda had been very good at this, and it was because of her that these yearly stays had started. She had had big eyes and soft, dull hands from years spent up to the elbow in dishwater (long before they were even married) and an insurmountable pity for everything. A lot of people had liked her for this reason, along with her ever short nails and her woollen, always hospitable dress.
His brother especially had liked her and so it became a habit, around the close of the year when American families feel the inexorable compulsion to come together, that He and Amanda would visit, and she, like a lovely template for all woman kind, would replace for a few days whatever His brother was missing in his bachelor’s existence, be it wife or mother or friend. He however, would sit apart from the two of them in the big, low slung living room, turning over a page in a magazine and feeling his familial duty half done, as though He were sitting through the long, slow pulling of a tooth.
At that minute He was driving along the desert road that made up the longest part of the very long journey. So extensive and infallibly constant was this road, that at intervals it turned sharply to the right, and this, so a reliable source had told Him, was to compensate for the curvature of the Earth.
Accompanying the sound of soft knocking in the engine, He clicked the little dial on the dash board. The heating came on with a resigned blowing, and then He returned to watching the road, which continued to roll out and never got any less. The cab of the car started to warm.
Night had just begun to rise up out of the straight horizon ahead and now the sky (above the road that was pencilled out like a ruled line) was blue with a straight lemony slip of yellow just at the bottom. Like the heat in the air, the yellow line was quickly receding away, leaving for somewhere up in the big night; as it got colder, He had the feeling that everything for a hundred miles had left. He moved on.
To His left and His right the desert, with its odd, hashed up spots of scrub brush, extended in an endless, perfectly cut blue square. Inside the car the engine knocked and the heating hushed, and underneath the grit crunched below each wheel then the next. Everything outside was still and the road carried on straight out into the line of the horizon. There was no sign of His brother’s house yet.
After an hour or so He began to get tired. Amanda used to keep him company, prattling about the neighbours she had invited over or something she’d seen in the paper, like a second hand sofa for sale. She was like a radio, the kind of thing you only listen to insofar as you notice it when it’s gone. She would fill up the car and the desert with it and at night when she fell asleep in the passenger seat she would fill the world up with her being there, useless like a cushion or something, but filling a space that otherwise would be empty.
She never admitted it, but Amanda had been the sort of woman who saw herself as the accessory to everyone. She took the traditional route; she looked after her man and she looked after her family in the most cushion-like way she could, and she was happy with that lot. ‘She was always in the debt of somebody’ her sister had said when He and she finally met at the little funeral. ‘Problem was, she thought she was in the debt of everybody’. He hadn’t considered this until Amanda’s sister had put it into words, and He still didn’t believe it. He had never asked anything of Amanda and neither had anybody else, she brought the cushion role upon herself and she liked it as long as nobody complained.
For that reason He had always thought of her as a stupid woman, but as everybody said, she was perfect wife material; always available, always agreeing, and just generally there. He hadn’t mourned when Amanda died, and as much as both of their families scolded Him for it, He couldn’t see the event as sad. It was more just a change and a mildly inconvenient one at that.
The headlights of the little car bobbed ahead and cut a wide semicircle in the dark, through which the road passed, along with bits of scrub and small stones. The whole road was passing on a reel, and out of the great black slice of nothing - the desert - objects appeared suddenly and then were gone. The car passed and there was nothing once more. He still felt cold.
Then His eyes began to draw down, pulled on a tiny string. He was very tired. He caught himself looking to the passenger seat, but there was no one there (that chair needed reupholstering). The rims of His eyelids were burning, as if an invisible finger was pushing on the balls from the back, and in the windscreen view came a stone and a bush and the road and a stone. His eyes creaked into slits and the road was a thin grey line with a streak of white approaching.
The white thing filled up the whole wind screen. Jerking awake He stamped hard on the brakes and the car crunched and rocked to a stop.
He had His eyes tight shut. He was waiting for a thump or a crack that should have come seconds ago, but instead the engine chugged to itself, the heater had begun to rattle and nothing happened save that the desert had become suddenly huge and immobile and somewhere ‘out there’.
Slowly He opened His eyes and loosened His grip on the wheel. Lit up to a slicing white in the beam of the headlights, sat a dog. It was a Labrador with a pink collar. It was turned away from the bonnet, looking out at the dark road ahead and panting.
He looked at the back of the dog’s head, looked at the pink collar and then left and right. There couldn’t be anyone for miles, certainly no one to own a Labrador with a pink collar. But there it was, sat there obediently, as if it was waiting a moment for who ever owned it to come back. He didn’t like to be sat so still out in the desert like this. He honked the horn. The dog didn’t move.
The sound of the horn rang on a while in His ears. He rubbed a hand over his face, but when He opened His eyes again the dog was still there, sitting. Unconsciously He glanced once more over to the passenger seat that needed reupholstering and then quickly back again. He was gripped in that little instant by the nauseous fear that when He looked back the dog would be gone, but it was not.
He sat rigidly in the seat with arms straight out upon the steering wheel, undecided. This was the sort of thing that Amanda would have been good at. ‘Poor thing,’ she would say ‘It must be lost.’ Then satisfied with that simple explanation He would get out of the car, take the dog by the collar and then bundle it into the back seat ‘We’ll take it to your brother’s,’ she would say ‘Then keep it until some one phones.’ Amanda had been able to make everything simple, even the difficult and the terrifying and the damned weird. There was nothing that could worry Amanda, come hell or high water her dress would be neat and her hair in place and somehow everything would sort itself out - and it did. Nothing changed around Amanda; she sucked in every aspect of life like a black hole and made it seem totally familiar.
In fact the dog made Him think of Amanda at all her dinner parties (always hers, not theirs, was how He had always considered them) Her neat blonde hair tied up and her tired face and her straight arms holding out a tray, taking glasses, always the same, always rigidly dependable. And she would wait until everything was in order, everyone seated, everyone content and then and only then, would she shake off her stillness and join Him at the table with the rest.
Nothing, even, seemed to have changed during her illness, the face only got more tired, and the hair stayed just as neat, the dress perfect, and she would be there when He returned from work utterly unchanged. There was something vulgar, something slavish about this that had made Him dislike her as the disease took its course, until He might even say He was relieved to be rid of her aberrational constancy at the end. Like the house had been purged of a phantom.
Although He didn’t know it, a little sweat began to stand out on His forehead as a ridiculous, awful notion took hold of Him: perhaps the dog always sat here, day and night, unchanging, just like Amanda, never moving and always the same. The dog was a ghost, was a ghoul and Amanda…He shook His head fiercely. No, no it was stupid, it was weird, so what should He do? He was looking all around the car expecting someone to pop out and tell him. This drive, alone like this was all so strange, so wrong and this dog! He was scared and everything was shaking at the seams, the long road and the big, big desert.
He wanted to reach over and shake Amanda awake but of course the car was empty. Still the dog sat, looking out into the desert ahead. What was it looking at? What was out there? Had Amanda seen what was coming ahead of her before all the medicine and the doctor’s visits and the face that got more and more powdered, the eyebrows drawn on? She had been waiting for it, hadn’t she? No complaints, no fear (it seemed) old, patient, constant, if slightly unnerving Amanda. And the day when she was finally gone, that day was exactly the same except that she wasn’t there; no tables tipped, no coins scattered, she had managed to leave it in perfect order. Everything after that had been just ‘life but without the Amanda in it’, set in the same rows with the same road trips, the same family visits until now! And what was he supposed to do? What would Amanda have done and why wasn’t she there?
The sobs came huge, immobilising and one after the other, and for a long time He slumped hopelessly over the steering wheel, rooted to the spot by rolling waves of lurching and choking and violent, horrific hiccups. He cried this way for an hour, all the grief He owed His wife coming suddenly and all at once while the dog still sat there, facing away from Him and waiting for something.
At last He opened the car door and slid out like a great, heavy liquid. His face was wet, His eyes swollen, and His cheeks were raw. Outside it was freezing and He noticed for the first time the mist rising from the dog’s mouth as it panted. He walked over to the dog and placed a hand on the top of its head, She was icy cold and She still did not move. Immediately shivering, the empty cold already in His bones, He sat down beside the dog who did not look at him and wrapped both arms His around it, looking out into the dark along with Her although he saw nothing. And they sat that way together for a few minutes or more in the vast, empty desert.
Then a bang and he slumped down onto the road. From the back of the car footsteps crunched towards the bonnet, there was a click and the car’s engine stopped. After that, two loud smashing sounds and the headlights went out. The desert was dark again. Someone whistled to the dog, it got up, turned around and came towards the sound of moving feet. In the big night someone said ‘Good dog’. For a long while there were strange sounds; crunching, shuffling, clanging. Pockets being rifled, clothes stripped until eventually the sound of the engine acquiesced into life again and in a cloud of dust, it receded away into the night. The sound of footsteps was gone, and the dog.

The next night the dog was once more sat in the middle of the road, looking out into the dark desert and waiting for something.

 

 

 

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