gloam_benedict

“Gloam” by Michael Benedict

26 February 2016 on Fiction  

Now a few miles west of Ellensburg, left foot tapping a nervous beat, right foot heavy on the accelerator and burning past pastures, stands of trees, abandoned barns and motor homes, Ron Stevens glances at the clock again. He works the sums, balances the equation – about 105 miles to go means he’ll be in King County soon, means he’ll be in Seattle by 7:00, means he can make it to his apartment, change, and be tableside at Purple Cafe by 7:30. He reminds himself that the pass conditions look good, that it’s late enough parking won’t be a problem. He assures himself that everything’s okay.

His phone rings – his brand new smart phone. Yes, it was expensive, and no, he probably didn’t exactly need it, but he and Eric, his business partner, have long agreed that appearances are deeply important. Thus the designer suit he’ll be changing into in 95 minutes, the new haircut for which he paid 65 dollars. Thus the recently leased black Audi he’s driving now.

It’s Eric calling. Ron puts the phone to his ear and says, “Yeah?”

He cuts another glance at the clock, calculates, but the math comes out the same.

Ron says, “I know – very exciting.”

Says, “Yeah – everything’s set. The table’s reserved. Everything’s good.”

Says, “Well, no. I’m actually not in the city right now. I’m actually coming back from Pullman. But we’re good, man. I’ve got plenty of time.”

Now Eric’s shouting at him, and Ron’s left foot taps a little faster, accelerating to a true allegro. Eric is out of town for the weekend doing product testing in Portland, and Ron was supposed to stay home to meet with this potential client, an executive from a medical supply company out of Silicon Valley. It was an unexpected opportunity. If they secure the job it will be their biggest client by far.

He interrupts to say, “No shit, Eric. You think I don’t know we need this?”

To say, “Yeah, I know 300 miles is a long way.”

To say, “It’s not my fault he changed the meeting. It was supposed to be tomorrow, okay? Tomorrow. Which means I should have had plenty of time.”

Now Eric takes a shot at Claire, and Ron’s temper breaks. He presses a little harder on the accelerator, the sleek red needle of the speedometer creeping past the “80” mark. “Fucking relax, Eric. Just relax, okay? I have everything under control. I’m near the summit now,” he lies. “I’ll call you later tonight.”

He slams the phone back into the cup holder and squeezes the wheel with both hands. He checks the odometer again – 190 miles out of Pullman means 100 miles left to Seattle means yes, cutting it pretty fucking close. He sighs, risks a touch more speed, scans the ribbon of blacktop before him for cops, but sees only the earth moving from plains to hills ahead, the mountains crouched in the distance, the verdant swath of evergreens. The sun gone from the sky now and only its ocher afterglow lingering above.

Of course in some ways Eric is right – leaving town at all with the critical meeting drawing close was probably a bad decision. But then Claire sank into one of her bleak moods last night, and what choice did Ron have? With Claire saying, “Maybe this is just too hard.” Saying, “Maybe the distance really is too much. Maybe we need to be realistic.”

It’s hard enough for Ron dealing with the usual chorus of detractors: his friends making cracks about the gap between her 22 years and his 31, her parents eyeing him like a predator anytime he sees them, his own mother talking not negatively, exactly, but always with a lilt to her voice that says she knows it won’t last – the aural equivalent of a knowing smile. He suffers doubt from everyone else constantly, and so when it comes from Claire herself, he almost always gives in.

“300 miles is nothing,” he said.

“Come on, Ron.”

“I’ll prove it.” He hung up, shoved clothes in a bag, was out the door in five minutes and on the freeway in ten.

Ron works the numbers again, and now, after pushing the speed limit through the last stretch, he’s starting to believe he can reach his apartment by 6:55. He does a little drum roll on the wheel with the tips of his fingers, feeling a fierce joy that comes over him when things stack up and stack up and stack up and he somehow keeps them balanced. Sometimes he likes being a partner in a small design firm beset by an economy that’s suffocating such firms at a staggering rate. Sometimes he takes pleasure in managing to hold together a relationship strained by nine years and 300 miles. Sometimes, when all goes well, he loves the juggling act, the never-ending rush, secretly savors the whole barely-held-together contraption.

He’s nearing the mountains now. Shrubs and the boles of evergreens crowd the freeway, the trees blocking what’s left of the day’s light and casting the channel carved out by the road in deep shadow. Ron flicks on his headlights for the first time.

He picks up his phone again, thinking to call Claire. She was thrilled when he arrived yesterday, her mood swung back around to sunny affection. She embraced him and held on for a long moment on the landing outside her apartment. They had a good night and morning. Her mood blackened again the moment he hung up his phone and said he had to leave, just as they’d been preparing to go out for a walk. She was already bundled up in a sweatshirt and jeans, gloves and her white knit cap. He rushed into her bedroom and collected his things. She was still standing there when he returned, throwing his leather holdall over a shoulder and saying, “Babe, I’m sorry. You know I’m sorry. But this client – this client is too important.”

“What’s another client, Ron? Why does it matter so much?”

“It’s not that it matters so much.”

She stared at him, waiting for more.

“But this is how” – he stammered, forced himself forward – “how you stay on top, okay? You keep taking new clients, keep your name on people’s minds,” he said. Not mentioning that they’d been in the red the whole quarter. Leaving out, as always, that he and Eric did not take a salary this month. Eliding the fact that the gas to get here, the dinner last night, and the brunch this morning all went onto a credit card, adding to a bill he won’t be able to pay anytime soon.

When he tried to kiss her cheek she ducked away. When he called out a goodbye as he bounded down the stairs, he heard in reply only the shudder of her front door closed firmly.

But now, he reasons, a few hours have passed, and surely she’ll have calmed down. He dials, waits, hears only silence. He glances at the screen – “Searching for signal” – then drops the phone back into the cup holder.

It happens so suddenly that he does not at first understand – the explosive knocking, the burst of white smoke from beneath the hood. Warning lights flash – what looks like all of them, lit up in red and orange neons – as the car lurches, the accelerator pedal now flaccid beneath his foot. He cuts a glance at the rear view mirror and sees only a lone semi in the far right lane perhaps two hundred yards back, and so he wrenches the wheel clockwise, the Audi lurching right, beginning its veer across the three lanes, the sudden turn throwing Ron’s head into the driver’s side window. The semi looms closer still, and Ron realizes he might not make the angle, sees the semi growing still larger, moving so fast for something so huge, and he’s going to be hit, he’s going to be fucking hit – the massive truck is barreling toward him and not slowing down and for one mad flash he catches the eyes of the driver, wide as his own.

Then he’s on the shoulder. The semi rumbles away up the incline, the hard blast of its horn filling the air. Ron sits in a cloud of his dead car’s smoke.

He squeezes the steering wheel with both hands, feels the leather compress to the steel ring beneath it, shakes so hard it burns the muscles of his forearms, as if the sheer magnitude of his frustration could vibrate down the shaft and resurrect the engine. He screams, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

So quiet, then. Alone in the car. An occasional other traveler whispering by to his left, rocking the Audi very slightly. Ron reaches up and rubs his temples. And what if this is it – how the whole thing comes crashing down?

But no. This is an obstacle, a test, and he can best it. He can adapt, adjust. He is nothing if not a problem-solver, an improviser – a man who knows how to overcome.

It’s only five minutes till six, and if he can get a tow truck, then maybe a taxi, he can be back en route soon. He can go straight to the restaurant, cut out the stop at home. That’s the solution – simple. He looks okay in his dark jeans and Italian loafers, his sweater and narrow-banded watch. All he’ll need is a stop in the bathroom to check his hair, to take a deep breath, and everything will be fine.

Ron steps out of the car. The warmth of the afternoon has faded, but he only barely registers the sting of the mountain breeze. He dials 411, waits for the ring, prepares to ask for a towing company or taxi service in Ellensburg – or no, something from west of the mountains would be better, but what’s closest over there? Issaquah? North Bend? Claire would know – she knows all the nowhere towns, collects bits of trivia about them. She likes the little places, has talked about how she wants to raise kids in a small town some day. Ron only sees cities. He couldn’t have found Pullman on a map until Claire moved there.

He gets two rings, then silence. He pulls the phone away from his ear, sees only a single flickering bar. Ron doesn’t hesitate – phone to his pocket, fist to the air, thumb straight up and wishing, praying. He won’t ask for a ride, of course – he’d never do that. But he’ll see if someone has better service than him, if someone can help him out.

A moment passes. And what he earlier scanned for with apprehension now floods him with relief: a police cruiser in the right lane, drawing close, its lights bursting on as it drifts onto the shoulder – finally he’s caught a bit of fucking luck. The cruiser eases to a stop 20 feet behind Ron’s car and then sits, lights flashing. Ron can’t make out the officer’s face, but he smiles at the windshield. Still the cruiser sits there, seconds slipping away, and why, why, why won’t the guy just get out of the goddamn car?

The door opens. A woman steps out. She is middle-aged, with a broad face and frizzy hair worn in a pony tail. The bulk of her uniform and equipment make her shoulders look unnaturally wide. She shines a Maglite on Ron, then the car, as she approaches. It causes him to consider the hour. He registers the sky’s fading light, pictures the table waiting for him an agonizingly close 70 miles away.

“Everyone all right?” she asks.

“Yeah. Fine. It’s just me.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. There was this loud noise – like a thumping, knocking noise – and then it just went dead.”

Tendrils of smoke still rise from the hard angles of the hood. She says, “Any idea what’s wrong?”

“I don’t – I mean, I don’t know that much about cars,” Ron says. “Listen, I’m in a really huge hurry. I’ve gotta be in the city as soon as possible and I’m–”

“Tow truck’s on the way.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said a tow truck’s on the way. Already radioed for one.”

“Thanks so much,” Ron says, nodding, biting his lip. He considers what he’s lost – maybe 7 or 8 minutes – and figures if the truck can get here in 10 minutes, or even 15, then he can be in North Bend or Issaquah in half an hour or 45 minutes. He can get a taxi, maybe even a loaner from a shop, and then he can–

“Where you coming from?” the officer asks.

Ron looks up. “My girlfriend’s. In Pullman.”

“Check the oil before you left?”

Her face has remained impassive since stepping out of the cruiser, but Ron detects, perhaps, a certain amusement in her tone. He imagines her casting him in her mind as the helpless city boy, and it annoys him. “Yeah – right before I left,” he lies. In fact, he’s checked the oil exactly once, shortly after he signed the lease. In fact, he hasn’t taken the car for an oil change in what must be 8,000 or 9,000 miles now, always telling himself it could wait, that it was one expense he could put off.

Ron checks his watch and does the numbers and thinks if he’d just gotten a goddamn oil change this whole thing could have been prevented. He could be flying through the pass now. He could be coming down out of the mountains, plenty of time before the meeting. Why couldn’t he just have gotten a fucking oil change?

A beep and a blast of static come through the officer’s radio. She takes a few steps away, listens, speaks, listens again. She turns back to him and says quickly, “Gotta go. Tow truck should be here any minute. You all right?”

Ron forces a smile. The curvature of the muscles tight, strained. “I’m doing fine.”

She slides into the car and the engine surges to life, causing Ron a rush of envy. She pulls back onto the highway, hits the siren just as she comes even with Ron, making him flinch.

He curses her. He checks his watch. He curses again.

Ron considers his car’s silent hulk – what could be wrong with the thing, and what will it cost to fix? The 160 dollars in his wallet is the only money he really has. But it’s going to be fine, he tells himself. He’s going to make the meeting, charm this client, and win the contract – handling the design elements for a new line of defibrillators for one of the biggest medical supply companies on the West Coast. He’s even got an advantage: the vice president he’s meeting with was a fraternity brother of Eric’s. It’s the reason they’re being considered for the bid, though their company’s so small.

Standing on the shoulder, arms crossed, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, Ron decides he’ll use the windfall from the contract to buy something for Claire. A necklace, or a tennis bracelet. Maybe one of the jackets she’s circled in the Nordstrom’s catalogue that sits on her coffee table, which she leafs through constantly but never orders from.

He hated leaving her this morning, bundled up and expectant, suddenly crestfallen. He misses how it was a year ago, when they were first dating, both of them living in Seattle – Ron at his firm, right before things started to really get bad, Claire waiting tables at a Pan-Asian bistro. He remembers the day she announced that she was sick of her dead-end job, that she would move back over the mountains to take up where she’d left off in pursuit of a psychology degree at Washington State University. To progress toward a career she enjoyed, she said. To get her life moving forward again. When she told him all this it was in a tone that suggested they might as well end things. Ron argued. “We can do this,” he said. “I know we can.”

On the freeway comes sedan after pickup after sedan, an occasional semi lumbering past and dragging a current of mountain air over Ron. Now he can really feel the cold of the evening setting in. Dusk is looking more and more like night. He makes out a shape approaching in the right lane that he takes at first to be another pickup. Then he sees, adrenaline flooding his system again, that it’s an old wheel-lift tow truck. As it lumbers onto the shoulder Ron checks his watch, and the fact is that he’s got a shot. If the guy can get his car attached and lifted in ten minutes or so, if they can do at least 50 over the pass, if he can find a taxi quickly – he’s really got a shot.

The man who steps down from the truck is short, dressed in a beige button-up shirt under overalls, with a wild storm of black hair shot through with silver. He has a protruding gut, skinny arms and legs. He squints, nods, says, “Hey there – how you doin’?”

“I’ve been better.”

“Dangerous stuck here on the shoulder. Let’s get her hooked up and out of here. Name’s Victor,” the man says, and offers his hand.

Ron hesitates. They aren’t two men being introduced at a party, or two business partners striking a deal – he’s just some guy here to tow Ron’s car, and probably charge him exorbitantly for it. But in the end Ron extends his hand anyway, and the man wrenches it up and down.

Victor positions the truck, drops the rig. “So what happened?”

Ron sighs, glances at his watch as he explains – the sound, the smoke, the lights.

Victor whistles. “Sounds like you threw a rod.”

Ron nods as though he knows what this means. He watches as Victor works beneath the car, thinking that he wouldn’t have any idea how to do such a thing. He doesn’t know how on earth you would proceed, where the hook would even go.

To Ron’s delight they’re both seated in the tow truck’s cab and pulling back onto the freeway just eight minutes later. The ghostly green digits of the truck’s clock read 6:06, which means he’ll probably be late – just a little. But that’s okay. He’ll call the restaurant, have them get a message to the client. He’ll say his car broke down. He won’t mention where, of course, but it won’t exactly be a lie.

It’s pleasantly warm in the cab. A crisp smell of citrus, some old rock song playing so quietly Ron can only discern the beat. A picture of two young girls hangs down from the rearview mirror. Ron turns to Victor and says, “Hey, thanks. Thanks a lot.”

Victor signals to pass a semi, smiles and nods.

“Nice car,” Victor says a mile later.

“Yeah. Just leased it this spring. Hardly any miles on it.”

“Nice, nice car. Couldn’t drive one myself, of course. The repairs on those imports – hoo boy.”

“Well, I guess you get what you pay for.”

“I mean, out here we wouldn’t even have a place to service a car like that. You’d have to drive it all the way into Seattle, maybe Ellensburg, just to get a tune-up.”

Ron tries to think of something sharp to say, something to reestablish that Ron is a paying customer – a business owner, for God’s sake – and can drive any car he damn well wants. But the thought slips away when Victor eases onto an exit ramp. Ron leans forward, the seatbelt straining against his chest. Are they getting gas, or is there some small town he’s forgotten? But no – as they reach the stop sign he sees it’s just some turn-off to nowhere: dark, towering trees and sheer stone faces. Ron checks the clock, says, “What are you doing?”

Victor snaps on the turn signal. “How’s that?”

“You’re stopping. Why are you stopping?”

“Not stopping – just turning around.”

“What the hell for?”

“Well, because it’s gonna be pretty hard to get back to Cle Elum driving west.”

“Cle Elum?” Ron asks, saying the three syllables as if for the first time, as if trying to sound out the words of some language he doesn’t speak.

“Sure – that’s where I operate out of.”

“No. I can’t go backwards. I’m late for a meeting. You have to take me to North Bend or Issaquah or – or wherever.”

Victor squints at Ron, then leans over the wheel, looks both ways as they ease to a stop. “I don’t have to take you anywhere. Besides, your insurance is only gonna cover a tow to the closest shop. And that means Cle Elum.”

“I’ve got 160 dollars,” Ron says, surprising himself. Because if he burns that money now, then how will he pay for a ride the rest of the way to Seattle? But it doesn’t merit worrying about – he can’t afford to think more than one step ahead. For now it’s all about momentum, forward progress, the kinetics of the thing. “160 dollars, all yours, if you’ll just get me over the summit. North Bend, Issaquah, wherever. Just get me west of the mountains.”

Victor leans back in his seat. “Listen. This little excursion is already making me late for dinner, getting me in trouble with the wife. So I’m gonna tow you back to Cle Elum, and that’s that. Just call whoever you’re meeting with and tell them what happened.”

Ron opens his mouth, stammers, tries to find the words to explain that the client’s only in town for the night, that if they don’t get the bid now they’ll surely never get it, that the man is doing them a huge favor by considering them at all. But there’s only time to say, “Please.”

“I’m not taking you any farther. That’s final. That’s all.”

Ron closes his eyes, frantically working the numbers, giving himself the benefit of the doubt on everything now: if he just ditches the car, if he can somehow get a taxi, if he’s lucky enough to find a driver willing to speed the whole way – then maybe, maybe he has a chance. He opens his eyes, reaches for the door. “Then drop me off. Unhook my car. Let’s go.”

Like a gambler trying to detect a bluff, the older man studies Ron. Finally he shakes his head and kicks open the door.

Victor gets the car back off the truck as efficiently as he got it on. Before climbing back into the cab he leans in through the open door and grabs a pad of paper, scribbles his phone number and tears off the sheet. He hands it to Ron and says, “If you get your sense back.”

As the tow truck pulls away Ron dials 411, puts his phone to his ear, waits and hears nothing and waits and then remembers – the fucking reception.

He rubs his temples, grinds his palms into his eyes. His breath comes hot and ragged.

It’s really freezing now. Only the faintest hint of daylight still lightening the sky.

And again he wonders if this is it – the tipping point, the moment at which it all falls, at which everything finally changes. He thinks of the resignation in Claire’s voice recently. He hears Eric’s words in a meeting last month, when they sat looking at the ominous numbers, and Eric hinted that they might consider trying to sell out. Or bankruptcy. Defeat.

So many people around him are trying to give up, but Ron is different. He’s the one who understands that you never, ever give up.

Ron dashes back down the off ramp, reaches the freeway’s shoulder and thrusts his thumb out again. And he will take a ride now, if he can get it – of course he will. Several cars pass in a quick rush, but none stop. There follows a long dead interval, not a soul headed west, and Ron can physically feel the seconds ticking by. He checks his watch obsessively. One minute passes, then two, three, four.

Options, options – what are the other options? What are the solutions? There are always solutions, always some way to fix things you simply haven’t yet considered.

What if he popped the hood, saw if there was anything he could do? No. Of course not. He doesn’t know a thing about the car, cannot envision one situation in which he could help himself. What if he jogged somewhere, if there’s somewhere close by where he can get help? But no, no, no – that’s ridiculous, stupid. Why is he being so fucking stupid?

Or what if he could get just a little higher? Could he get a signal then?

On Ron’s side, off the westbound shoulder, the rise of the mountains is hundreds of thickly wooded yards distant. But across the overpass, on the eastbound side, the shoulder turns quickly to a steep incline thick with crab grass and weeds, climbs sharply for perhaps 30 feet and then meets a stand of towering evergreens.

Ron sprints the overpass, toes burning in his loafers, tongue swollen, head aching. Sweating in the thin air.

The incline is steeper than it looked, and the brush is thick and as high as his waist. Halfway up he falls. Near the top he catches his left leg in the brambles and pulls, pulls, pulls until his foot comes loose, leaving his shoe behind. He thrusts his hands into the mess, feels the sting of the nettles, the tear of thorns before he finally comes up with the goddamn shoe, yanks it back on and rushes forward again. He reaches the tree line and rips his phone from his pocket – “Searching for signal” – and then charges forward again. It’s darker still under the crowded evergreens, and so he staggers forward nearly blind, arms shot out straight ahead. He comes to a fallen tree, scrambles on, gains his footing and moves to jump down the other side but slips, his shoe coming off again.

He falls.

His right knee slams into the wood, and he crumples to the ground.

He slides down several feet, comes finally to rest.

Exhausted, breathing hard, Ron checks his watch. He can’t quite make out the hands in the weak glow coming up from the headlights below. He reaches, hand shaking, for his goddamn phone, which can at least still give him the time.

It’s just before seven. Thirty minutes till the meeting, and he hasn’t even reached the summit. In the very best case scenario he arrives at Purple an hour late. In the more probable one he arrives as they’re closing. Either way he shows up sweating. Dirty. Clothes torn. Skin raw. Late.

What the hell is he doing here? How did he fuck this up? How did it come to this?

Just before Ron shoves the phone back into his pocket he notices the single bar of a weak signal. He texts Eric a terse message, only explanation and brief apology. It seems to go through. Then he calls Victor. Humbled. Pleading. When the man responds his voice is choppy, cutting in and out, but Ron can just decipher his agreement to return.

What a strange moment. What an unexpected end to his trip. Sitting in the weeds, breathing heavily in the dark, watching cars speed by a hundred yards below – strangers who will make it, wherever they may be going.

In the glow from the dash Ron can just see that Victor is smiling. Amused. But Ron doesn’t care anymore what Victor thinks. He leans against the window, exhausted.

“You married?” Victor asks a time later.

Ron realizes he’d dozed off. He sits up straight, rubbing his face. “Why?”

Silence from beside him, and Ron looks over to see Victor squinting at him again. “Just take it easy. Just passing the time. That’s all.”

Outside it’s almost perfectly dark – no streetlights, no stars through the clouds, and, for a moment, not a single other car in sight. Ron hates the dark. Hates the silence, the stillness up here. “No. Just a girlfriend. That’s who I was visiting.”

“You two serious?”

Ron sees the angles of her face and neck; the freckles on her arms; the long, faint scar on her left thigh, the origins of which he realizes he’s somehow never asked about. “I don’t know.”

They pass a few more moments in silence, moving east, back out of the mountains.

Ron gestures toward the photo hanging from the rearview mirror. “Those your daughters?”

“Yes sir. That’s an old photo – they’re not so young anymore. Angie’s in her senior year of high school. Got into the UW, so she’s moving to Seattle next fall. Margaret – that’s the older one – works for an office supply company. Never went to college but got in there and impressed the right people. She’s a manager now.”

The pride in Victor’s voice is obvious. Ron thinks he should say something but doesn’t know what to say, and so he just nods, the gesture useless in the cab’s near dark.

Ron’s phone first vibrates as he stands outside Victor’s tow shop, waiting for Victor to reemerge. He sees it’s Eric calling, and slides the phone back into his pocket without answering. It is just before 8:00 p.m.

He feels it vibrate again as he pushes open the door of Victor’s station wagon in the parking lot of some no-name motel between a gas station and an empty lot. Victor reaches across the cab and, for the second time that evening, Ron shakes the man’s hand. As he walks toward the lobby, bag slung over his shoulder, he checks his phone and sees a missed call from an unknown number.

It rings a third time as he walks down the hallway, toward his room. The motel smells like a veterinarian’s office. The carpet is a mess of red and orange diamonds. Instead of the plastic key cards he’s used to he holds an actual metal key, worn to a dull matte finish, attached to an oval of hard yellow plastic marked with the room number – 17. The call is from Eric again. For a third time Ron doesn’t answer.

In his room, bag on the bed, television turned on and volume turned low, Ron goes to the bathroom. He washes his hands. He stares at his face in the mirror – hair mussed; skin pale; dark, pebbled swaths beneath his eyes.

He takes off his sweater. He sits on the bed. He takes out his phone and dials.

When Claire comes on the line she says only, “Yeah?”

“Hi.”

“What is it, Ron? Shouldn’t you be in your important meeting?”

“My car broke down. I couldn’t get there. I’m at some shit motel in Cle Elum.”

She says nothing.

“I guess I should have stayed.”

“I guess you should have,” Claire says quickly.

Ron sighs. He turns off the television. “I love you, Claire. I know things–”

“I know you love me, Ron. But you have to understand how frustrating all this is. I mean the long distance thing – that’s strain enough. Then for you to leave, on a Saturday night, for a meeting with some client? I don’t know, Ron. It just seems like at some point, maybe our thing should rank a little higher than a meeting with one of your millions of clients.”

Ron opens his mouth, thinking at first to continue the same lie from earlier – that business is good, that everything’s fine. That this meeting was somehow vitally important anyway. He closes his mouth again, bites the insides of his cheeks hard enough to sting.

He thinks again of the juggling act, realizes how many things have fallen tonight – the expensive car, the savior client, maybe his relationship with Eric, maybe even the firm itself. But he feels deeply relieved that one thing’s still aloft, just barely, and that it’s the one that matters most: Claire. And Ron realizes that his only shot to keep this last thing aloft is to finally reveal the truth. To finally tell her that he’s not as successful as he’s always made himself out to be.

He launches into it before he can think not to. After he’s forced out as many of the details as he can stand he finishes by saying, “We’re broke, Claire. We’re in big trouble. We don’t have enough clients, we don’t have enough work. I don’t know. I don’t know what we’re gonna do.”

There’s silence on her end for a long time, and Ron realizes he’s holding his breath. He takes in a deep breath, blows it out again. Claire says, “Jesus, Ron.”

“I know you must be upset. I mean, money – I guess money’s going to be a little tight for a while. Things are going to be a little different, just for a bit.”

“Ron, who cares? When have I ever cared about money?”

Ron lies back, an almost narcotic relief flowing through him. He feels a powerful rush of affection for Claire. He wants to see her. He wants to be near her, to lie with her beneath the stiff, scratchy comforter and trace a finger along the faint scar on her thigh. He’ll finally ask her about it. He’ll tell her how he didn’t know which town came first west of the pass. They’ll both laugh.

“Well I’m really glad to hear that. I’m glad you feel that way,” he says. And then, softly, “Why don’t you do something crazy? Why don’t you just get in your car and drive here? I want to see you. It’ll be romantic. It’ll be fun.”

Her cold laughter surprises him. “Come on, Ron. That’s not happening.”

He opens his mouth to persist, but Claire continues. “Christ, Ron – just because I don’t care about the money doesn’t mean everything’s fine. You lied to me. About this enormous piece of your life. I mean, what am I supposed to do with that? What else have you lied about? How do I trust everything else you’ve said? About us? Hell, about yourself?”

“It’s just that I was scared. What if you thought I was – you know, some guy without enough clients, who runs a failing business.”

“Ron, you are a guy who runs a failing business.”

Ron opens his mouth to clarify, but his voice catches on the first syllable. He feels a bloom of unease – a sudden, yawning doubt.

And what if the rest of this is who he really is too? Not the handsome bachelor, the temporarily unlucky, soon-to-be success story, but this: The shabby motel and the ruined car. The scrapes and aches. Crawling around in the weeds like an idiot. Alone, and deserving of being alone. Single. Dumped. A loser.

He doesn’t want to be that. God, he doesn’t want to be that. And he doesn’t have to be – at least not single, not alone. He can make this right, make her understand, assuage these doubts. He can solve these problems. He can find the solution.

And it’s not like it’s a lie. It’s true – at least partly, mostly true – when he says, “I love you, Claire. I love you so much. I only lied because it seemed like I had to, to make things work. I’m sorry I did it. I’m sorry.”

Again there’s silence on the line; hand clamped to the back of his neck, eyes closed, nerve-sick, Ron breathes in deeply and waits for her to speak.

Michael Benedict is from Seattle, Washington and currently lives in Moscow, Idaho. His short stories have previously appeared in The Missouri Review, Eclipse, The Rejected Quarterly, and elsewhere. His novella “Fourth and Long” was published as an Amazon Kindle Single. He teaches writing at Lewis-Clark State College and is finishing work on his first novel.

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