We All Run Out of Gas

Ben switches on the indicator. A flick of his finger: Left, then tick, tick, tick. Right, then tick, tick, tick. This action is unnecessary: the road ahead of us continues without diverging until it becomes a narrow line penetrating the mountains in the distance.

On each side of us is vast golden brown sand streaked with white, and rock and flecks of green shrubbery here and there.

It’s been over an hour since either of us spoke. For a while I pretended to sleep.

Earlier, when I packed our things, I found the crumpled receipt in his shirt pocket: whiskey again. He used to be better at remembering not to forget. I haven’t mentioned it to him, not yet. Now’s not the time.

I’ve been thinking about his father since we began driving early this morning. I remember when his dad was out on the lawnmower that summer, when the sun seemed to take residency and refused to leave when its lease was up. Ben would help his father in the garden, and would bag the grass which filled the air with that unmistakable scent. Sometimes I’d want to take the black plastic bag from Ben and lower my head and breathe it all in.

That summer Ben would wear this red and black plaid shirt every other day, along with black jeans and big, brown boots. He’d have his work gloves tucked into his back pocket so that the fingers hung down his backside.

It was his most handsome summer.

He’d just started the car wash business with Reggie Whelan and at nineteen he had, like he told me, plenty of time to make enough money to make sure we’d have a nice house in a nice neighbourhood with a nice school for our kids. Two girls and a boy, Ben had said. You three can talk boys, bake cakes, and do your make-up while I take Junior to the game and sneak him a drink like my old man did with me, he’d said.

They’d founded the business with money left to Reggie by his grandfather, savings the two boys had made from summer jobs throughout their school years, and even from a paper route Ben had run from age eleven through thirteen. His father had told him about the benefits of saving well, and sure enough, Ben had listened to Ben Sr. just like he always did.

The business started small and stayed small for the first five years, before it expanded and then became small again once the expansion didn’t work out. I took odd jobs here and there and spent my free time upholstering furniture. University never occurred to us, and it’s not like I don’t know why it didn’t. Business and family, that was the goal. That was the pattern of previous generations and that’s what we were happy to pursue.

I close my eyes again but it’s too bright to actually sleep. I reach out my hand and rest it on Ben’s lap. He doesn’t know what plays out in my mind: his father and that summer and the business. What I’m thinking about brings me closer to him, but his hand doesn’t leave the steering wheel. His grip remains firm. His tenseness hasn’t softened, and it probably won’t until we get home in a couple of days.

When his sister called during the night I could tell she’d been crying, and a few simple words was all that was needed. After taking the call I had to tell Ben that his father was gone, but it wasn’t unexpected. His facial expression didn’t give much away, as usual.

Okay, he’d said, and I’d said that I wanted him to talk to me if he felt like he needed to. And he’d told me that he didn’t need to, which reminded me of the conversation we’d had after we’d been to the specialist for the last time.

It’s me, he’d said. What else do we need to say? It’s my problem, not yours. I’d tried to explain to him that it was our problem, and he knew (of course he knew), but he would just say that it was him, and that was that. And whenever I mentioned other options he wouldn’t even entertain the suggestion with a response.

I lay my head against the headrest and tilt it to the left and I watch the highway. The yellow line passes under the vehicle like lost memories. The scenery doesn’t change, not drastically.

It never does.

I look at Ben, and down at my hand which still rests on his lap.

‘We can always turn back,’ I tell him.

‘No, we can’t,’ he says, his eyes focused on the endless road ahead of us.

‘I know,’ I say.

After a minute or two I say, ‘You know I packed?’

‘Yeah, I know. My shirt.’ He looks at me and says, ‘I know.’

As I look at him I cannot feel anger, not even if I want to.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says.

‘It’s okay,’ I tell him. ‘I don’t even know if it’s your decision anymore.’

He thinks about that for a moment before he glances at me and says, ‘I love you.’

I squeeze his thigh, and I can only whisper, ‘I know you do’.

After a long silence Ben says, ‘Things never really went how we’d planned.’

‘No, they didn’t,’ I say.

‘You could’ve left,’ he says. ‘All those times, you could’ve left.’

‘I know,’ I say. And for a few minutes I try to understand, but I never arrive at an understanding. ‘I suppose we all run out of gas at some point in our lives, but not all of us can afford to refill the tank.’

‘What does that mean?’ he asks.

I don’t respond. I bring my hands to my cheek and I rest my head against the passenger door. I close my eyes again and I’m taken back to that summer: Ben’s father mowing the lawn, and Ben Jr. wearing his check shirt. Those boots. The grass and its freshness. Ben wrapping his arms around me, and me taking his worked hands in my palms. We’d lie in the garden and he’d place his hand on my belly and we’d talk of the future. Every time I smell freshly cut grass I’m taken there, and it reminds me of hope.

 

The Importance of Being Polite

‘See, my problem is that I’m always eager to please,’ explained Harry Folly to his wife Polly Folly, née Reed. Polly had ruminated extensively on how she’d be addressed if she accepted Harry’s proposal, but the love outweighed the potential embarrassment that the surname brought – just about.

‘You know this, sweetie,’ Harry continued. ‘It’s down to my mother’s parenting. She told me to always respect my elders; so I always respected them, despite the fact that Mr. Atwood down the street constantly swore at me, and despite Mr. McGowan being arrested for setting the library on fire. I was there when the police were escorting him from his house; he was in cuffs, and chirpy eight-year-old me said, ‘Hello, Mr. McGowan! Lovely morning, isn’t it? Care for a summer stroll?’

The couple were sitting up in bed in their Manhattan apartment. The window in the small bedroom was partially open, and a faint smell of something burning outside drifted into the room. A puzzle book rested on Polly’s lap; she was in the middle of tackling one of the many crosswords within.

‘And she told me, my mother,’ Harry continued. ‘She told me to always be polite, and that’s something I’ve never been able to shake from my bones, either. I’ve never been impolite. Never. And so I’m always trying to be nice. But because I’m afraid that I’ll come across as unpleasant or disingenuous, because I’m afraid that I’ll end up offending someone, I become anxious and self-conscious, and then I don’t engage in conversation very well. So most people tend to dislike me, which, you know, kind of defeats the whole purpose of me being polite.’

‘Most people don’t dislike you,’ said Polly, placing her pencil onto the puzzle book and squeezing Harry’s knee with her hand.

‘They do, Polly. Trust me.’

‘That’s nonsense,’ she said. ‘Anyway, with all that’s happened recently people liking you is the least you – or we – need to worry about.’

‘See, the thing is, last Tuesday… I decided I’d stop being polite. I wanted to tell you, sweetie, because I’ve been feeling awfully guilty.’

Polly removed the puzzle book from her lap and sat up straight, eyeing Harry suspiciously.

‘Go on,’ she said.

‘Well, I did it. I stopped being nice. I didn’t say good morning to Mrs. Barnes as I passed her on the stairs, and I didn’t hold the door open for that Italian girl, what’s her name, uh, Isabelle, when she was walking behind me as I left our apartment block. As I paid my fare to the bus driver I noticed an old woman walking at a brisk pace in order to catch the bus before it pulled off, but I said nothing to the driver and found my seat. The old woman gave me the finger as I sat looking at her through the window while the bus drove away.’

‘Oh, Harry.’

‘I know, sweetie. I know.’

‘That’s so… demonstrably mean.’

‘I know. And I didn’t thank the driver, either, when I got off. Then, when I got to the office, Jenny, the secretary, said good morning, and I just responded, “Is it, Jenny?” and kept walking to my desk. When I got to my desk Alistair greeted me with his usual “Morning, Reginald,” (I’ve never figured out where he got that sobriquet from and why he uses it) and I said ‘Get stuffed, Alistair. I’m sick of your stupid nickname and I’m sick of sitting next to you and your perennial halitosis.’

‘Harry!’

‘I know, I know. I don’t know what came over me! I just decided that morning to stop being polite. And so a great tension descended on the room. I didn’t feel okay about this; I’m so used to being nice that it felt so wrong, of course it did. But I thought people might respect me if I just stopped trying to be so nice all the time. Alistair didn’t respond to my insult, and no one seemed to acknowledge it, but there was a palpable disquiet in the room.’

Polly sighed, shook her head.

‘And then I finally corrected Charlotte’s malapropism.’

‘Which one?’

‘The one she’s used on too many occasions, honey. She loves to talk about Pyrrhic victories; she used the term only the other week when talking about that British politician who backed Brexit.’

‘And?’

‘Well, she calls it a phallic victory. And we both know that means something completely different. So I told her once and for all – I couldn’t maintain a respectful silence.’

‘Oh, Harry.’

‘I know!’

Polly stared into space as if something had dawned on her. It seemed to Harry that his wife of thirty years had had a light-bulb moment.

‘Oh my,’ Polly said.

‘What? What is it?’

Polly removed the sheets from her lap and got out of bed. She began pacing the room as Harry looked on helplessly.

‘Polly, honey, will you talk to me, please?’

‘Oh My. Oh my, oh my,’ said Polly as she continued quick-footed across the floor: back and forth, back and forth.

‘Honey!’

‘It was you, Harry!’ she said in a quivering voice, still rambling about the bedroom.

Harry hesitated before responding.

‘No! No-no. No, it couldn’t be that.’

‘I don’t know, Harry.’

‘No, it couldn’t be.’

‘Are you sure? What else did you do that day?’

‘What else? Well, after work I… Well, I kind of told Mitchell, the doorman who always gives away the endings of every movie he sees – always! I told him to keep his mouth shut in future.’

Polly quit her pacing, stood still and placed her head in her hand as if embarrassed.

‘Harry,’ she said dispiritedly. ‘What else?’

‘Um, well… I skipped someone in the line at the supermarket. I didn’t say thanks to the cashier. I nudged another man out of my way as I was exiting the store…’

Polly shook her head and rested her chin on top of her furled fist.

‘What else?’ she asked her husband.

‘Um, there wasn’t much else… I came back here after I picked up the groceries.’

‘There was nothing else? You’re sure?’

‘Well, actually, there’s was one other… moment.’

‘A moment?’

‘Before I opened our apartment door, Mrs. Barnes asked if I liked the meatballs she’d dropped into us the previous day. Remember the meatballs she made?’

‘Yes, yes I do, Harry. What did you say to the poor woman?’

‘I…’ Harry raised his hands in the air, as if this was some form of defense for his actions, as if he was pre-emptively deflecting any criticism that was coming his way. ‘I told her I’d licked boots that tasted better.’

‘Oh!’ Polly’s arms flailed in the air. ‘Unbelievable!’

‘It was just a bad day! I’d decided that day… I don’t know why… It just…’

‘You’re responsible for all of this!’

‘I couldn’t be!’

‘Harry, when did Lucifer show up on our street, huh? When did the ground open up and all those demons start terrorising the neighbourhood? Huh? Harry? It happened last Wednesday – the day after you decided to be impolite.’

‘Surely it isn’t down to that, honey. It couldn’t be!’

Polly approached the window and looked outside at the smoldering buildings, the ash floating through the air and the sky of fire.

‘I knew there was a reason Azazel and Beelzebub left us alone after they rounded up the neighbourhood. I knew it. You opened up the Gates of Hell with your rudeness. It was all your doing, Harry. You were the key they needed.’

Harry sat still in the cozy bed. His worried gaze fell onto the bed sheets, and then back to his faithful wife.

‘Honey?’

‘What? Harry,’ she said through gritted teeth.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

‘Just… Just don’t talk to me for a while, Harry. It’ll take me at least a couple of days to forgive you for this.’

Polly turned and left the room. Harry could hear her footsteps as she descended the stairs and the clatter of the pots and pans she moved after entering the kitchen. He got out of bed and made his way over to the window.

‘Harry!’ arrived an angry call from downstairs.

‘Yes, honey?’

‘The casserole will be ready soon.’

‘Okay, thanks honey,’ replied Harry.

‘This does not mean I’ve forgiven you!’ shouted Polly.

Returning his gaze to the window, Harry noticed an imposing, disgusting, two-horned figure as it emerged from the building opposite Harry’s and Polly’s. Standing over eight-feet tall, it snorted and snarled as the sound of its hoofed feet echoed throughout the neighborhood. The demon noticed Harry staring out from his apartment window.

‘Hi, Harry!’ the demon waved enthusiastically.

Harry waved back lethargically.

The End