The road unwound before me in the lazy way a cat uncurls itself in the morning, all limbs and slide, not a care in the world, and my progress was equally lazy and unhurried; I hadn’t been on a road trip since I was a kid, when my mom and I would drive up to Pittsburgh in the summers to visit family and friends. Those trips passed quickly. We’d arrive, and I’d have no memory of getting there. It’s a phenomenon called highway hypnosis, or white line fever. You spend hours in the car, and you don’t remember a damn thing. Most times, it happens when you’re going somewhere familiar. It’s because your brain is used to doing it. It’s automatic. You don’t have to think about it. That’s why most accidents occur when you’re close to home, in familiar territory. You’re not thinking about the road. Why would you? You’ve driven it a million times before. It’s safe.
Spend too much time in a place, or on one road, and you forget the details. Everything blurs together. Eventually, you forget how you got there in the first place. But this wasn’t like that. Get out in a place you don’t know, and you remember everything. Your brain doesn’t have any road marks to fall back on, nothing to take for granted. You’re more alert. Time seems to pass more slowly. That was fine by me. I wasn’t in a hurry, and needed the time. I stopped at roadside cafes, local tourist attractions, and the occasional rest area for a bad cup of coffee and to walk Holly, the dog lying on her back in the rear of my station wagon.
“You stupid dog,” I muttered, pitching what remained of my cigarette out the window.
She rolled over, tongue hanging out of her mouth and head cocked as if to say, “What?”
I snorted. Packing my golden retriever into my car for a drive to Texas wasn’t my finest moment, but I couldn’t just leave in her in Richmond. Planes were out of the question; I knew that from that trip to California a couple years ago. I shuddered involuntarily at the memory and made a mental note to use the change-sucking vacuums at the next gas station. It was shedding season.
I turned my attention back to the road and flipped on the CD player. What I really wanted was a good radio station, but the best stations are always local, and I wouldn’t be in one place long enough to justify looking. I debated, not for the first time, switching to satellite and listening to the guy who was filling in for me while I spent my days cruising the endless asphalt. My hand lingered over the button for what seemed like an eternity, but I made the same choice I’d made every time before: No, not today. Maybe tomorrow.
Holly maneuvered her way around the bags scattered haphazardly in the back, until she was sitting contentedly in the passenger’s seat, looking longingly out the window. I sighed, and rolled it down. Holly promptly stuck her head out of the car, flapped her tongue in the wind, and did the whole “dog in the car” thing. I turned back to the stereo and kicked the volume up until I could barely hear myself think. Sometimes, thinking was overrated. Holly didn’t seem to mind. I was halfway through “Whole Lotta Rosie” when the phone rang.
“Hello?” I said. I didn’t bother to check who it was.
It was Tom, my producer. He was a general pain in the ass, and my best friend.
“Hey, Tom. How’s it going?”
“I was gonna ask you, buddy.”
“All right, I guess.”
“Glad to hear it. I was just calling to see how you were doing.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” I said, trying to change the subject as quickly as possible. “How’s the show doing?”
It took a minute for Tom to answer. “It’s fine. Going good.” He paused. “Haven’t you listened to it yet?”
“I’ve been meaning to.”
Tom’s voice was reassuring. “Look, Randy, I know that it’s your baby, okay? But I’m taking care of it. I promise you. Have I ever let you down?” He paused for a moment. “Don’t answer that. No jury would convict me.”
“Every jury would convict you.”
“Are you kidding? Have you met my lawyer?”
“Mike? Yeah, I’ve met Mike.”
“Then you know what I mean. He represents the radio station, by the way, so you couldn’t use him to sue me. Conflict of interest. Which brings me to back to the show.”
Tom was a master of segues, and he knew it. Insufferable bastard. I sighed and mentally prepared myself. “What about the show? I thought you said it was doing okay.”
“It is. Stop worrying. You should listen to it. Trust me. It’s good stuff. This guy’s almost as entertaining as you.”
I readjusted the phone and leaned back in my chair. “Yeah,” I said. “Almost.”
“Yeah, yeah, almost. But at least he’s here.”
To his credit, he recognized his mistake as soon as the words came out of his mouth, and so we did what everyone does when they don’t want to talk about something that they know they have to: we shut up. Still, the bear was in the room now. Someone had to poke it. As usual, Tom was the braver man.
“Speaking of which, I got Mike to look at papers that Maria sent you before you left, like you asked. You looked them over yet?”
I glanced over to the manila folder that Holly had parked her butt on when she’d come up front. Tom didn’t know I’d brought them with me. In fact, I’d specifically told him I wasn’t going to, and he’d agreed it was the right decision. Take some time, he’d said. Get your head on straight. Then worry about that crap. He’d been right, and I knew it. But the folder had caught my eye as I’d been walking out the door, and I’d figured, Why the hell not? I didn’t have to read it, but it was always better to have the option, right?
At least, that’s how I justified it to myself. ‘Course, I’d broken down the first night and read the whole damn thing. Then I’d read it again. And again, and again, and again. I’d barely slept that night, and emerged from my room the next day looking like a character out of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, running on steam, misogyny, booze and nicotine.
But I couldn’t tell Tom that.
“No. What’d he say?”
“From the way he explained it, it seems like it’ll be a pretty cut and dry deal. She just wants a divorce. Everything’ll be yours.”
That’s what I’d gotten out of it, too, but I still rolled my eyes. “How generous of her.”
Tom ignored me. “But yeah, that’s it. Just sign it, get it approved by a court, and this whole business is over and done with.”
“Sounds good,” I managed. I never was a very good liar. “I’ll look into it when I get back.”
“I could fax them to your brother’s place if you want.”
“When I get back.”
“Fair enough, buddy. I’m just trying to help.”
I sighed. “I know.”
“Hey,” he said. “Where are you anyway?”
“Um… I just passed into Georgia a little while ago.”
“So a couple more days, then?”
“Yeah. I’ll call you when I get into Texas, okay?”
“Sure thing. Talk to you then.”
I was about to toss the phone on the seat next to Holly when that familiar longing came over me again. I pulled the station wagon over to the side of the road, and dialed my voicemail. It rang, and then the automated voice answered, “You have one old message. First old message: Tuesday, 12: 23 PM.”
The machine clicked over, and Maria’s voice came over the speakers, complete with that soft, smooth Spanish accent that had never really gone away despite years of vocal training. She’d always said she didn’t want to sound like a foreigner, despite my insistence that I loved her accent. I think it was the first thing about her that caught my attention: those long “a’s,” and the way she rolled her “r’s,” complete with the wink and little flick of the tongue that let me know that no matter what she said, she did all of it on purpose. You might be able to get over the woman, I thought, but you’ll never be able to get over the way she talks.
I could have recited the whole message, written it down backwards and forwards. But I wasn’t listening to it for the content. I think I just wanted to hear her voice. Holly did, too. I saw her perk up as soon as the message began playing. That surprised me, but I’m not really sure why. Holly hadn’t been herself since Maria left. There were still those moments when she reminded me of the playful dog we’d found on our screened-in porch, but they were few and far between. She’d always been Maria’s dog, not mine. I guess the separation was just as hard on her as it was on me. At least Holly was smart enough not to torture herself the way I did every time I called my voicemail.
The message itself was less than two weeks old. It came a couple days after the divorce papers showed up. Tom had taken me out to this little hole-in-the-wall Mexican place we’d discovered by accident about a decade ago. It was small, family-owned, three rooms, maybe thirty, forty tables. It was usually packed and noisy when we were in there, but it was quiet that day. It was around lunch time. There were about 6 full tables, ours included, and the only sounds discernible over the low buzz of conversation were the clinking of plates and the low hum of running water. Tom’d been saying something to me, but I couldn’t hear him. I was still hungover from the previous night. It felt like someone had dunked my head into a bowl of pea soup and left it there. All I wanted to do was go back to bed.
“Randy, did ya hear what I said?”
That snapped me out of my funk. “No, sorry. I zoned out,” I said, picking at my half-finished refried beans.
Tom gave me a look, and repeated himself. “She just up and left? No warning? A note? Nothing?”
“Yeah. She’d been talking about flying out to visit her parents, so I figured she’d mentioned she was leaving and I just missed it. The last couple days have been a blur, what with the show and all. I’ve barely been home.”
Tom waited for me to continue.
“Then two days ago, I get a letter in the mail, and divorce papers.”
“She didn’t even have the decency to call you?”
I sipped at my glass of water. “No. Well, not yet, anyhow.”
“Did she say why?”
“If she did, I didn’t notice,” I lied. I still hadn’t looked up from my plate. I’d been making this giant tower out of individual beans.
“I don’t really want to talk about it right now, Tom.”
“Sorry. Just trying to help.”
Tom leaned forward, and rubbed his hands together. “I, uh… I know this isn’t the best time to bring the show up, but… uh…”
I thought about it. Maybe the show would help me keep my mind off of it. It was ironic; getting lost in my job had gotten me into this mess. It’d been behind all the excuses, all the missed opportunities, all the time I didn’t have. Now it might be the only thing that got me through it. Wishful thinking, maybe, but I figured I was due for a turnaround.
“Yeah.” I said, as I looked up from my plate, right into Tom’s eyes, more lies leaving my mouth almost before I knew I was speaking. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
We finished up the rest of the meal in silence. Tom paid. It wasn’t until I got in my car, over protests that I shouldn’t be driving, that I noticed the voicemail message. She’d called while we were eating. I glanced out my window to make sure Tom wasn’t waiting on me to leave, then dialed my voicemail when he pulled out. A moment later, Maria’s voice greeted me.
“Hey, Pa-,” she caught herself, then continued, “Randy, it’s me. I guess you’ve probably gotten the divorce papers by now.” A sigh. “I’m sorry. I should have called you first. We should have talked about it together. I guess I was scared. It was easier to just send the papers. But it was still wrong.” Another sigh, then, wistfully, “You’re probably working on the station wagon or at work. I understand if you need some time to process this. Just call me when you’ve got a minute and you’re ready to talk, okay? Bye.”
The message was no different now than it had been two weeks ago, but I still listened to it every day. I sighed, and dropped my phone into the cup holder next to my seat.
“I don’t need a vacation, Holly. I need a therapist.”
Holly pulled her head out of the window, laid down on the seat, and whined. I reached over and scratched her ears. “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.”
The rest of the day passed slowly. I went through a few more CDs, stopped to let Holly stretch her legs and do her business, and grabbed dinner at a roadside café. We kept going until about 12:30. Then, three exits and seven hotels that didn’t accept pets later, I finally pulled in to a small Motel 6, parked my car, grabbed Holly, and walked into the lobby. A blonde woman who looked to be in her mid twenties was sitting behind the front desk, reading a magazine I wasn’t familiar with. When she heard my footsteps, she looked up, put down the magazine, and flashed me a welcoming smile.
“What a cute dog. Let me guess: you want to know if we accept pets,” she said, in a Georgia drawl as she tapped a few keys on her computer.
“You have no idea how badly I want you to say you do.”
She laughed. “Well, let me grant your wish: we do.”
I exhaled a breath I didn’t even know I was holding. “Excellent. Then I’ll take a room.”
“Smoking or non-smoking?”
“You still give people the choice?”
She looked up from her computer, a little smile playing across her face. “Honey, this is the South.”
I smiled back. “Smoking, please.”
Her hands flashed deftly over the keyboard. I couldn’t have typed that fast with a gun to my head.
“Okay, then. You’ll be in 113. It’s on the left side of the complex, near the sign. You can’t miss it.” She passed the room key over the counter.
“Lucky number 13. Great.”
“Don’t worry, sir. Nothing bad has happened in that room in almost a month.” She gave me a wink. I pocketed the key and was turning to go when her voice stopped me. “Just one thing, sir. I’ll need a credit card to put on file for the room.”
I gave her my credit card. She looked at my name, then at me, then back at the name. “You’re Randy Kreal? The radio host?”
Oh, great, I thought. A fan. I put on a smile. “In the flesh.”
“Wow,” She said. “I thought I recognized your voice. I listen to your show. Keeps me sane in the mornings. Third shift is a ghost town ‘round here, ya know?”
I nodded. Maybe she wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“So what brings you here, Mr. Kreal, If you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m going to visit my brother. He lives in Austin.”
“That’s quite a drive.”
“Well, I had to take Holly.” I ruffled the dog’s fur. “There’s no one to watch her back home.”
“Well, anyway, it was nice to meet you, miss…”
“Call me Kate.”
“Kate.” I rolled the word around in my mouth. It suited her.
“Have a good night, Mr. Kreal.”
Room 113 was tiny, but it had all the essentials: a double bed, a decent sized TV, and a small chair and table tucked into the corner beside the large window next to the door. Holly bounded in after I opened the door, happy to finally be somewhere that wasn’t the car. I pulled the bags in after her, and locked the door. Almost immediately, she staked her claim to half of the bed.
“Hey,” I said.
She looked at me with what Maria had dubbed her “Deal with it” face. I knew I’d lost.
“Alright, you win.”
She yawned and curled up into a sleeping position.
I set the alarm on my watch for 7:00, sure that she’d wake me up earlier, and climbed into bed. I was out almost as soon as I turned out the lights.
That night, I had a dream.
It was a humid summer morning in Virginia, and the clammy dew still clung to the recently cut grass. The sun had just crested the top of the horizon’s broad hill. The gentle orange light bathed the world in what appeared to be the faint glow of a sunset, the illusion itself only broken by the ponderous upward arc of the rising sun.
I was already awake, dressed in an old white undershirt and a pair of what used to be jeans, my hair tied back in a ponytail, resting my back on the grass beneath the old station wagon. My shirt was wet and sticky from the dew that had collected beneath the car’s sheltering girth, my hands covered with grease as I worked on the engine bloc. The underside of that old car was the most peaceful place I’d ever been, outside of the calm chaos of the studio.
I hadn’t been like this for very long before I heard the low crunch of bare feet on the grass. I turned and saw the low white hem of Maria’s bathrobe waft past the individual blades of grass, who bowed their heads respectfully to accommodate her passing. A moment later, her head appeared under the car, a smile on her face.
“Hey,” she said. “I was wondering where you went.”
I grinned back at her. “Decided to be productive for once and get some work done on the old gal.”
“What’s the matter with her?”
“I think she’s leaking oil somewhere.”
Maria laughed. “Have you tried duct tape?”
“Not yet, but give me twenty more minutes of this, and I might be ready to give it a shot.”
“Well, I’m going to go make some breakfast. Don’t take too long, okay?”
I winked. “Be right with you.”
I found the leak a few minutes later, and after a few tricks of the toolbox, got it patched up. It took less time than I expected, so I took my time putting my tools away, and headed for the house.
The kitchen was exactly as I remembered it. The same things hung on the walls: various Coca-Cola memorabilia, everything from calendars to advertisements and trays, a collection that started with my late father, some signed pictures of me with some of my more famous guests, a few pictures of me and Maria at various stages in our ten year marriage, and Maria’s assorted paintings. One piece in particular, a beautiful recreation of our house in soft pastoral colors, hung over her place at the table. It was something that had always differentiated the two of us: I collected and maintained the things that I loved; Maria tried to recreate them. She was an artist; I was a pack rat.
Eggs and bacon lay sizzling in a frying pan on the stove, and the scent of slowly browning bread wafted over from our toaster in a light, unhurried fashion. It was the very picture of a kitchen in the lazy throes of early morning breakfast preparation, the kind of scene Maria would have instantly broken out paint and canvas to capture if it wasn’t, as she so often said, the sort of moment that was “too full of smells, sounds, and a pervading, indescribable calm to be captured with a mere painting.” You had to live it.
She was right, of course. Still, it was a lovely scene, perfect save for one thing: there was no sign of Maria.
“Maria?” I called.
I decided not to worry about it. She was probably just in the bathroom or something. I grabbed a glass from one of the cabinets on the far wall, then headed over to the fridge and pulled out the filtered pitcher we used to nullify the taste of sulfur in the local water.
I poured myself a glass and sat down at the kitchen table. As if on cue, Holly trotted into the kitchen and nudged her head against my leg.
“Hey, baby,” I said, as I idly scratched her ears. She made that low, happy panting sound unique to dogs, then licked my fingers and flopped down onto the floor.
I pulled my fingers away, and shifted my glass to the table so I could rub her belly. Holly loved it. Her tongue hung contentedly from her mouth, and her back leg kicked against her belly.
“Where’s your mama, Holly?”
She huffed in a way that said, “I don’t know, but she’d better come back soon.”
I reached over to my glass of water on the table, my fingers still damp from the smooth wetness of Holly’s tongue and the condensation that bubbled up on the glass’ outer surface. I couldn’t find a good grip, and I lost the glass almost as soon as I picked it up. It shattered on the tile floor, and clear, shiny chunks flew everywhere. Holly started up from the floor, stood straight up onto the glass, yelped, and ran out into the living room, leaving bloody paw-prints behind her.
“Shit,” I said, trying to get the glass off the floor as quickly as possible. I should have gotten a broom and a dustpan from the garage, but a sudden compulsion stopped me. I couldn’t. I needed to rebuild the glass by hand. Everything would be fine if I could just do that. I did my best, but it was a wasted, impossible effort. Each piece I picked up left deep gashes in whatever part of me it touched, and before long I couldn’t even grasp them anymore, the slick blood covering my hands, the glass, and the surrounding floor, more and more every second, more that any human body seemed capable of bearing. It was foolish, ridiculous, even mad, but I pressed on, my bloody hands still fumbling, lost in a red swath of their own making, as I desperately, hopelessly, obsessively tried to reconstruct the glass.
Then I felt a wetness on my face, and looked up. Holly was standing there, her paws still bloodied, bleeding from a large gash on her right side. One of her back legs was bent at an unnatural angle.
“Jesus.” I dropped the assorted pieces of glass. “How…”
I couldn’t account for it. Perhaps she’d fallen, twisted her leg, slammed her side into something. I didn’t know. All I knew was that this, all of it, was my fault.
I wanted to apologize to her, but she wouldn’t have understood. She wouldn’t have understood that the accident was my fault, that we were both hurt because of me. She was just a dog. She limped over to me, and licked my face.
I put my arm around her, grabbed her sticky, bloody fur with my monstrous red hands, and held her close, so close I could feel the blood leaving my veins and mixing with the blood that seeped through her brilliant, golden coat. “Hey,” I whispered, in the most reassuring tone I could muster. “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”
And then I woke up. At first I didn’t remember anything. My eyes darted left and right as I tried to figure out where and when I was, even as my head remained calmly on the pillow. Then, I heard Holly’s snoring, low and quiet, like the distant rumble of thunder on a clear day. She lay on her side, her ribs rising and falling in a slow, comforting rhythm.
It wasn’t real, I thought dumbly. It was just a dream. Just a dream.
I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, but to no avail. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I called my voicemail, and listened to Maria’s message again. Then again, and again, hoping for some sort of relief from her voice. It didn’t help. The initial terror was gone, but my brain refused to stray from the subject, and I kept turning the dream over and over again in my head, the way that a man might turn over a Rubik’s Cube in his hands, hoping that by viewing it from a different angle, he’ll find a solution. The hours crawled on, one over another, until the sunlight began to peek in through the room’s curtains, and finally, exhausted and confused but too tired to care, I was lulled to sleep by the peaceful beat of Holly’s breathing.
Around 6:00, I woke up to a heavy pressure on my stomach and Holly’s tongue drooling all over my face.
“Dog, you know I love you, I do, but not enough that you can wake me up like this.”
She whined at me in response, and pawed at my chest.
“All right, all right. I’m up.” I muttered, climbing out of bed. “So what’s up?”
She ran over to the door and whimpered again.
I got dressed, lit a cigarette, and took Holly outside to do her business. It didn’t take her long to find an acceptable patch of grass. Afterwards, I let Holly wander around a little just to make sure she was done, and then we headed back to the room. I put some food down for her and took a shower. When I came out, she was asleep on the bed. I ruffled her ears a little bit to wake her.
“I’m gonna go out and get some food. You wanna come?” At the mention of the word “out”, she was at the door, but I finished the sentence anyway.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
She wagged her tail in response and we headed for the main building. I lit another cigarette. Places like this usually had a continental breakfast. As we rounded the corner, I saw the motel’s sign. Yep, continental breakfast. That was all I needed. Surprisingly, we weren’t the only ones in the lobby. The woman from last night sat at one of the tables, listening to a small radio and munching contentedly on a bagel. It was just after 7:00. My watch’s alarm was probably going off in my room. Wonderful. I’d get it later. Right now, I wanted a bagel.
“Good morning,” I said.
She looked up, startled. “Oh, good morning Mr. Kreal,” then, eying my cigarette added, “You can’t smoke in the lobby.”
It’d completely slipped my mind. “Oh, Jesus. I’m sorry.”
She chuckled, and turned the radio’s volume down. “It’s all right.”
I opened the door and tossed the cigarette out into the parking lot. When I came back in, I found Holly playing with her. Kate. That was her name. I grabbed a couple of bagels and a pack of strawberry cream cheese from the tray, and poured myself a cup of O.J.
“Holly, come on. Don’t bother her.” I said.
Kate looked up with a grin. “Oh, she’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“If you say so.”
Apparently done, Holly flopped down on the floor, and seemed content to chew on my shoestrings. I tossed her a bagel, and she proceeded to make a mess of it all over the floor. Kate laughed, and I smiled. Luckily for the cleaning staff, Holly was a canine vacuum cleaner, and the stray bits of bagel were quickly devoured.
“You have a wonderful dog, Mr. Kreal,” she said, scratching Holly’s ears.
“Randy’s fine. Mr. Kreal is way too formal for a continental breakfast.”
She grinned and went back to her bagel, and we lapsed into a comfortable silence, one that I eventually broke.
She looked up at me and nodded.
“Sorry, I’m really terrible with names.”
“It’s fine. I’m the same way.”
“What you were listening to earlier… was that my show?”
She nodded again.
“How do you like the guy who’s filling in for me?”
“He’s pretty good. Haven’t you listened to it yet?”
“I’m trying to get away from it, to be honest with you.”
“It reminds me of my wife. Well, I guess my soon to be ex-wife.”
“I’m sorry.” A pause. “Did she work on the show?”
I swirled my orange juice around in my glass and chuckled. “No. It’s just how we met.”
“Sounds like quite a story.”
It was. And for some reason I couldn’t quite fathom, I told it. I told her everything. I told her about how we’d met, in a parking lot after one of the earliest episodes of the show, how Maria had asked me out then and there, how we’d driven down to a local diner and stayed up all night talking about music, film, literature, radio, and life. About how we’d gotten married a year later. I hadn’t wanted to, but she had, and I loved her. I wanted to make her happy, so I’d given in. I told her about our honeymoon to Madrid, her hometown. About how the show had grown over the years, and I’d refused to let anyone but Tom help run it. About how my ambition to make it in the business had put a strain on our relationship. About my dogged refusal to have children, despite Maria’s desire to do so. I didn’t want to devote my life to a child, and I figured I’d make a lousy dad anyway. I barely had enough time for Maria. It was a decision I’d come to regret more and more the further I got into my mid-thirties, and one I wouldn’t get a chance to fix now.
I told her about our second honeymoon, back to Spain, how I’d left the show for three weeks, how much Maria had loved it, and how she’d spent the nights with her old friends when she wasn’t with me. Things got better. Then we got home. Kate cringed as I told her about the long hours at the studio and Maria’s increasing distance as she retreated into her art, and put her hand to her mouth as I recalled the inevitable affair with a visiting childhood friend Maria had reconnected with in Spain. About how he’d come into a considerable amount of money and had all the time in the world to donate to her. About the separation, the divorce papers, and finally, the road trip with Holly.
I don’t know why I told her all of these things. Maybe it was because she was familiar with my work, and by extension, with me. Maybe it was because I wanted an outside perspective. Hell, maybe it was just because I was a middle-aged man traveling across the country with my dog, and I was lonely. When I finished, she smiled in a sad kind of way, and knitted her brows in that expression of genuine sympathy you only ever see in women.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I’m sorry that you had to sit through that. I don’t know what I was thinking,” I said, more than a little embarrassed.
“Don’t be. It’s the least I could do.”
“What do you mean?”
She tilted her head and smiled. “Your show makes me laugh. Sometimes when I really need it. The least I can do for the guy whose voice I hear every day is listen when he comes into my hotel and has breakfast with me. Everybody needs a little help every now and then. Even hotshots on talk radio.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
After that, Kate and I talked about everything: Sports, radio, television, music, even hotels. I told her I’d worked the night shift at Holiday Inn while trying to break into the business. She told me she’d always wanted to work in radio. I offered to give her a tour of our station if she was ever up in Virginia, and if I could swing it, a job interview. She loved the idea.
We kept on like that for a long time. Eventually, though, I told her I had to leave, and Kate, having gotten off her shift before we’d ever walked in, told me she had to catch a bus.
She glanced at her watch as I packed a couple of bagels in a doggie bag for the road. “Oh, crap,” she said.
“Oh, I missed my bus, and the next one isn’t for a while. I guess I’m walking.”
“We can give you a ride,” I said.
“You sure? I don’t want to hold you up.”
“Kate, I’m driving to Texas. Driving you home isn’t gonna ‘hold us up.’”
She cocked her head. “Point taken. And thanks.”
A few minutes later we were checked out, packed up, and in the car driving towards Kate’s apartment. She only lived a few miles away, and we got there in about ten minutes. It was a fairly small complex, maybe only three buildings. Kate’s place was on the second floor, up a short flight of stairs.
“Do you want to come in for a minute?” she asked, as I pulled into one of the parking spaces. “I can make you some coffee for the road.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d like that.”
I woke up in bed, as the fading light of the mid-afternoon broke through the cracks of the apartment’s violet curtains. Faint yellow light emanated from the bathroom just across the room, accompanied by the steady drawl of water from the shower. Suddenly, the water stopped, and a few minutes later, Kate emerged, the yellow light glowing dully behind her, a towel wrapped around her upper body and another tied around her hair.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey yourself,” she said as she sat on the edge of the bed. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
“Out that long, huh?”
I sat up, resting against the headboard, and rubbing the sleep from my eyes. “What time is it?”
She glanced at the clock that rested on the nearby nightstand. “About a quarter to three.”
“Damn,” I said. “How long have you been up?”
She shrugged. “Not long. Maybe an hour. You looked tired, so I tried to let you sleep.”
I fell back on the pillow. “Yeah, I was. Didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.”
“Something like that.”
She opened her mouth as if to pursue the question further, then thought better of it. “I’m glad you slept better.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Oh, you are quite welcome,” she said.
I laughed and she leaned over and kissed me. Then she rose and walked over to a closet that sat next to the bathroom, slid the mirrored doors apart, tossed the towel covering her body onto a nearby chair, and began sifting through her clothes in an attempt to decide what to wear.
I watched her for a while: the way she shifted her weight from one foot to another as she moved, the way she cocked her head to the side when she examined a particular article of clothing, the way she would occasionally bring her legs together and rub the bottom of her right foot against the top of her left while she thought. Maria used to twirl her hair between her fingers when she was getting dressed, often tangling it up into knots if left alone long enough. It was one of the little things I hadn’t paid attention to until it was gone, but watching Kate, I would have given anything, at that moment, to go back and watch Maria twirl her hair.
She must have noticed me watching her in the mirror. She half-turned, holding a shirt against her with one hand as the other rested on her hip.
“Enjoying the show?”
I blinked stupidly, and abruptly turned away. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have been… sorry,” I finished lamely.
Her laugh was deep and husky but impossibly light, like rolling thunder mixed with wind chimes before a storm. She turned back to the mirror, and pulled the shirt over her head. “I don’t mind being looked at. It’s kind of endearing,” she said, turning around to face me. “Besides, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.”
I shrugged in agreement, and she turned back to look at the mirror.
“Hey,” I said, “do you mind if I use your shower?”
I stood in that shower longer that I should have, enjoying the feel of the icy water as is ran over me. I liked the cold. It was refreshing. I thought about Kate, and my mistakes with Maria. If I got another chance, would I do anything differently? Could I change? Could I be better? Was the Randy Kreal standing here, now, in this cold torrent of water the same man that had loaded his dog and a couple bags into his station wagon only a few days ago? Was he the same man who had married Maria? Who had carved out his own niche on talk radio, inch by painful inch, clawing and grasping his way to the top, leaving everything else behind? And this thing with Kate… was it just a fling with a fan? Even if it was, did that mean anything? Could I turn it into something? Did I even want to?
I must have stood there, motionless, like a statue being chipped away by the rain, for fifteen minutes, just thinking.
When I stepped out, I still didn’t know.
I dried off and found Kate in the living room, playing with Holly. As soon as she saw me, Holly jumped on me, put her paws on my chest, and tried to lick me. Her eyes were bright and large. “I’m glad you’re back,” she seemed to say. “I missed you.”
“I know, I know,” I said quietly as I took her face in my hands and rubbed her ears. “Sorry.”
Kate just watched us, smiling.
It was around four o’clock by the time we were packed and ready to leave. As promised, Kate made me some coffee, and added a couple things to my doggie bag, to boot. Once I got Holly into the car, I climbed in myself. Kate handed me a sticky note through the driver’s window, as I was about to start the car.
“My address and number. Stop by on the way back. Breakfast’s on me,” she said with a grin.
I stuck the note to the windshield just below the rearview mirror.
“So I don’t forget,” I said. We’ll be back.”
Holly barked her agreement, and a moment later, we were on the road again.
As we drove, I was suddenly glad I hadn’t flown out to see my brother. Tom had offered to do everything so that I could. Normally, I would have been more than happy to let him. But Holly had been shaken up by Maria’s departure, and I couldn’t leave her alone. I told Tom I’d use the time to work things out. Problem was, there was nothing to work out. It’d been my own damn fault. As angry as I’d been at Maria for the whole thing, I’d never blamed her for it. Tom had never understood that. I didn’t expect him to. He’d never been married.
On a whim, I checked my phone. Two missed calls, and one voice message. I called my voicemail. After a moment, Tom’s voice broke through.
“Hey, radio man. It’s me. I just wanted to let you know that Maria called me this morning. Said she’d called you and left a message, and you never called back. I know you probably don’t want to talk to her right now, but she said it was important. It’s your call, but I just thought I should let you know. Drive safe, buddy. Bye.”
I sighed, hung the phone up, and dropped it into the cup holder near my seat. I still wasn’t ready to talk to her, as much as I wanted to. Not yet. I could barely handle the damn recording.
I began thinking about Kate. Maybe it could work. I’d always love Maria, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth a shot. Maybe I deserved a second chance. I could do better. Be better. Learn from it.
I was so lost in thought that I missed the rather large piece of what used to be a tire that was lying in the middle of my lane. The front left tire ran right over it. A second later, it exploded.
The station wagon swerved left. I managed to keep us on the road for a second. Then I lost the wheel. The car crossed the grassy median, and then the other two lanes of traffic. I was briefly thankful that there hadn’t been anyone in the oncoming lanes. I tried to brake, but it was no use. The car flew off the road, and slammed into a ditch.
I woke up later, but I didn’t know when. I was on my back. My head hurt, and my vision was blurry. It was hard to move. I tried to reach into my pocket for my phone but I couldn’t find it. That’s where I’d left it, right? I couldn’t remember. Something warm was running down my forehead and my back.
Oh, God, I thought, as everything came rushing back. Holly.
“Holly!” I called.
There was no response. When I tried to prop myself up, pain shot up my spine and made its home in my head, and finding anything suddenly became much less important. I lay back down.
Still nothing. God, it was cold. I wiped whatever was running down my forehead away from my eyes. There was a whining sound in front of me, and I raised my head as much as the pain would allow. Holly was standing there, bleeding from a large gash on her right side. One of her back legs was bent at an unnatural angle. I wanted to apologize to her, but she wouldn’t have understood. She wouldn’t have understood that the accident was my fault, that we were both hurt because of me. She was just a dog. She limped over to me, and licked my face.
I put my arm around her, grabbed her sticky, bloody fur, and held her close. “Hey,” I whispered, in the most reassuring tone I could muster. “We’ll be all right. We’ll be all right.”
She laid her head down on my chest. I looked around, trying to find my phone, and saw it, barely a foot away, next a broken piece of glass that held the sticky note. I reached over with my leg, and slowly pulled both of them to me. The screen was nearly shattered, but it worked. I called Kate.
“Randy?” She said. “I didn’t expect you to call so soon. What’s up?”
“I’ve been in an accident.”
“Oh, my God. Are you okay?”
I managed a chuckle, and felt something bubbling up in the back of my throat. “No, not really.”
“Where are you?”
“On 95 going South. Maybe twenty minutes from your place.”
“I’ll be there in ten.”
“Okay. And I need you to call-”
She interrupted me. “Way ahead of you. Sit tight. You’re gonna be fine.”
“See you soon.”
I dropped the phone to the ground, and rubbed Holly’s head. I could feel the shallow rise and fall of her chest, and the warm blood that spilled from her side onto my shirt.
“We’ll be okay,” I said. “We’ll be okay.”
After a moment, I picked my phone back up, and called my voicemail. I quickly deleted Tom’s message, then listened to Maria’s. I hung up, and dialed again. And again. And again. Maria’s voice came over the speakers each time, a mixture of pain, acceptance, and unfathomable sadness. Gradually, it began to drown out the roar of the road, until the world around me faded, and all that was left was her voice, a slow, pale fire crackling over the silent fury of a deafening, unconquerable void.
Will Borger received his bachelor’s degree in English from University of Central Florida in 2012, where he served as an editorial assistant for The Florida Review and an editor on the Cypress Dome, UCF’s undergraduate art and literary magazine. He is currently the non-fiction editor and assistant fiction editor of The Holler Box, a small literary journal out of central Florida. When he’s not writing or reading, he works in a surf shop in Cocoa Beach.