Fiction: Rideshare by Jen Knox

photo-of-white-vehicle-crossing-a-tunnel-3I was close to death that winter, but we all were. The flu was the worst in decades, and the blizzards were no help. News reporters stopped covering stories outside of Ohio and included only “breaking reports” from specialists or “urgent updates” from meteorologists who were adept at saying nothing in complex ways.

It was the middle of a whiteout, and I was stuck at work with a flat tire. The snow was beginning to fuse with ice, and no spare hid under the philosophy books in my trunk. Resigned, I covered my head with my briefcase and trundled toward my classroom. A woman with roadside assistance said there was a two-hour wait, so I sat at my desk watching oak trees crystalize outside the picture-frame window.

“Oh good, you’re here!” Seuss, a student named after the Doctor, said.

“School’s cancelled.” I gestured outside, as if he needed me to point out the weather. The only footprints on the quad were ours.

Seuss took a seat. “Yep. Snow day,” he said, pointing to an email on his phone. “I told my girlfriend it would be cancelled, but she said that the satellite campuses never cancel, and I can’t risk getting an A-. I’m a point away from making the honors cohort next year.”

“I’m not teaching, Seuss.” He wore a blue snowsuit, like a small child’s, which he brushed off with his gloves. Dirty snow settled on the linoleum.

“What about today’s readings?”

Since it was snowing so hard, and the school was so warm, I conceded. Not only did I give Seuss the readings, I went ahead and delivered my planned lecture on epistemological contextualism. I would repeat it all next class, so when I was done I told him he wouldn’t have to show. “No penalty, understand?”

“Yes. Thanks, Mrs. Braverman,” he said, nodding overzealously. “You’ll have a bunch of enlightened sceptics on Tuesday!”

“I appreciate that, Seuss.”

“I knew this blizzard was coming, you know,” he said. We looked outside at the two additional feet of snow that had settled in sparkly, untouched splendor around the quad. Our footprints were invisible. I was tempted to test my student’s grasp on perceived truth, ask him how he knew, but I decided against it.

“My girlfriend can give you a ride,” he said. “She has a Jeep Renegade.”

“I’m OK, Seuss. Thanks.”

“Can I ask you something?” I gave him the you-just-did look. “Why philosophy?”

The answer was everywhere around me – the dread that the rest of the world felt, the love and pain. The answer was that I couldn’t feel anything, and I wanted nothing more than to find out why. Instead, I said, “Because the questions hold more truth than the answers.” He gave me a satisfied smile, as I called roadside assistance again and was put on hold. The line went dead. I tried again and was told it would be another two hours, possibly longer.

I checked a rideshare app, not expecting to see any cars nearby, and was surprised to find a four-door a block away. Hustling to suit up in gloves and hat and scarf, I hurried outside. Another foot was on the radar in the next hour. The snow sparkled threateningly, and when I saw a black Cadillac slide, hit the curb, then straighten, my stomach warmed. The car stopped a few feet short, windshield wipers hissing, and I took a few shovel-like steps forward; then, noticing the figure in the backseat, took those steps back.

“Anita?” the driver called. His voice was raspy and low, familiar.

“Yes.”

“Get in.”

The man in the backseat was vaping. The saccharine scent and warmth made it seem like I was stepping into a cinnamon roll. I inhaled and, though I would ordinarily tell my husband to respect others’ air and put that damn thing away, I asked if I could hit it. “I mean, since I’m breathing it in anyway.”

“Oh, sorry. Sure,” he said, and when he said it, I examined his wiry mustache. It was a familiar mustache, one belonging to my old dentist.

“Dr. Hartford? Are these good for the teeth?” I asked, inhaling from a plastic filter that was attached to what looked more like a machine than an electronic cigarette. The vapor was cool, and it made the air around my face sticky and sweet.

“These things aren’t as bad as the sugary coffees you used to subject your teeth to. Still drinking that garbage?” he asked, and I noticed for the first time that his teeth looked exactly like marshmallows. “How are those veneers holding up?”

I blushed for the first time in years. The driver glanced back, and I saw something familiar in the corner of his eye. “Fine,” I said, feeling my caps with my tongue.

The ride was smooth for the next few miles. We followed a salt truck down Waggoner and Summit, then took a hard turn onto Broad St. and began to slide again. When we stopped sliding, I realized we were stuck, at a bus stop. Two men stood, waving their arms, then helped to push the car right again. They looked like brothers, twins, in their twenties. They were tall and wore fur hoods.

“Can we get a ride?” one of them asked. “The bus is over twenty minutes late. We’re going five miles toward town. Just this way.” The other one gestured. They were wet from snow, and when the driver nodded, they pushed in next to me so that I had to sit uncomfortably close to the vaping dentist.

“I need to get home. My husband has the flu,” I said. “Mind dropping me first?”

The driver nodded. The dentist nodded. The two men mumbled in unison, “Of course.”

A mile away from my apartment, the Cadillac hit a patch of ice that sent it spinning into the median strip. All the liquids in my stomach swirled when we came to an abrupt stop. A bus, perhaps the brothers’ bus, passed us. My stomach screamed as the stillness took over, and a tingle raced up my arms.

I hit the vaping machine again, and my toes tingled. When I looked over at the brothers, I realized that they too looked familiar. “Did you guys go to Otterbein?” I asked.

“Yes! You were in Algebra with us!” they said in unison.

“I knew it! Do you remember the flickering light in that room?” I always wondered why an entire term went by and no one fixed that light.

“Yes! We always wondered if they got that fixed,” they said.

We were still in the middle of the road, and a yellow car approached us, slow but unsteady. “Didn’t you guys get into an accident? That roller coaster that malfunctioned?” I remembered hearing that one of them had a concussion. The school newspaper solicited prayers, but I had been taking geology, along with algebra. It had been a hard term, and the brothers slipped my mind.

When the yellow car hit us, it hit us like a kiss and pulled back slowly. It was an old Volkswagen Beetle. No one else was on the road. When the engine finally went off, a large woman in a gray coat and gold scarf exited; she looked a hell of a lot like my grandmother, who had died last year from congestive heart failure.

She knocked on the glass. “Honey, you are such a bad driver,” she said to me. She had always ridiculed me for no reason, but I loved her.

“I’m in the back seat,” I argued, my belly warming the way it used to when we’d argue.

Grandma didn’t even ask if she could ride with us. She opened the door and took a seat on the dentist’s lap; he smiled. The twins chuckled, and the driver said, “Well, I guess we’re getting close. I think I can make this work. The extra weight helps.” He turned the wheel slowly, revved.

“Watch yourself, Marty,” my grandmother said, as she licked her hand and smoothed down my hair, which was dry and staticky.

“Hey! Marty?” I asked, and the driver’s eyes caught mine. It had been ten years, but I was pretty sure Marty was Martin Grange, a boy I used to date in high school, who played the sax and wanted to be in a jazz band. He listened to Parker, Coltrane, and Davis, and promised me I’d get better at math if I too listened. I didn’t, but now I do. I thought he’d be famous, and when he took off for New York, I entertained fleeting thoughts that he’d show up someday in my ear, finding me through satellite radio or a viral video.

“Marty? You didn’t say anything. Why are you a driver? I thought you hated driving.” I remembered Martin driving a Cadillac like this one, which he’d bought senior year.

“Had to make a living,” he said. I noticed his use of past tense and felt a numbing sensation race down my spine.

“Want a hit?” the dentist asked Grandma, who plucked the vaping machine from his hand and took a long drag.

“Mmhmm!” she said.

“Grandma, why am I seeing you? How’s your heart?”

“My heart was too big for your world.”

“My world? Am I dead?” The word came out of my mouth in blocky letters, as though choked up from deep inside, and I was about to cry when her insistent tone distracted.

“You should be so lucky. All this craziness going on in your world.” As she said that, a child who looked like Peter from The Snowy Day, the first book I remember reading, ran alongside us on the street in his red suit. I called, “Peter! Slow down! You’ll slip, and Peter giggled. He rolled a plump snowball and tossed it our way playfully. Just as it hit, the Cadillac’s wheel let up and released us to the road.

“On the road again,” Martin sung. “You still want to go home?”

I hesitated. “Bye, bye!” Peter yelled, falling to the sidewalk and making a snow angel.

“Bye!” I yelled, realizing that it was no longer cold at all outside, or that I no longer felt the cold. The sky and snow were no longer discernable, in fact. Everything was white, and I marveled that Martin could see enough to move forward. Not only did he move forward, but he seemed to be having a blast, turning the wheel this way and that, laughing when we slid.

I was about to say, “Yes, take me home! I need to get to my husband!” when another kid, a little older than Peter, jumped in the car at a stoplight. He was bundled up in so many layers that I could barely make out his face. All I saw was a nose and two brown eyes surrounded by water-repellant puffy fabric.

“I have to get home!” he said. “Please, I’m a few blocks away on Uhlman.”

“Perfect. My house is on the way,” I said.

“I have time for one more drop,” Martin said. We were a block from my house, and when he turned on my street, my heart began to knock on my chest. My small gray house was covered in white, fluffy snow. The windows were iced. The mailbox was shiny and striped, like candy.

I looked at the kid. I looked at my grandmother, a woman I both feared and missed dearly. I glanced up at Marty, who I always wondered why I didn’t love. He was the sort of guy you were supposed to love in high school. “Take him home first,” I said. And so, we rode.

“It smells like a cinnamon roll in here,” the kid said, pulling at his hood.

“It’s a special day, kid,” my grandmother said. “I remember my first ride—best of my life.” Her earrings looked like clusters of gold. They were clip-ons that reminded me of a trip we’d taken when I was young. I panned for gold at a science center, finding little planted flecks. Grandma had wandered off to the gift shop, returning with those very nuggets. She took one off and handed it to the kid. The other, she unwrapped, exposing a dark chocolate that she placed on her tongue.

I was in a car with four people who had most certainly died, including my childhood dentist, and the world was turning into a giant sweet thing. I was dizzy with this truth, with the truth that I wanted to live.

I watched the kid get out of the car near my house, make his way to the door where a young woman, a neighbor, stood. I inhaled, long and deep. Because I controlled my truth, I didn’t stop there. I inhaled the snow, and everything that was keeping me from home.

Before long, I was kissing my grandmother goodbye, and she was saying, “See you soon, doll. You’ll have a blast when you’re ready.” My snow boots were no longer necessary when they dropped me off. The world melted as I walked to my front door.

“Stay warm, take care,” the twins yelled.

“See you soon,” Marty called, winking as he slid off, and I nodded affirmatively.

I opened my eyes and saw him there, resplendent. My husband wore a blanket like a hooded cape. His lips were chapped but perfect, and he appeared confused when he glanced beyond me toward pale orange sky outside our window. “I knew it would stop,” he said.

I grabbed the throw from our couch and wrapped it around my shoulders like a full-body scarf. “What do we really know?” I teased. He smiled, humoring me. “We don’t know, and we don’t need to pretend.”

“What?” he asked, feeling my forehead with the back of his hand, and I absorbed his energy. “You look near death, honey. Are you with me?”

“I am,” I said. Or thought.

I watched as my husband microwaved a mug of chicken noodle soup. I leaned into him as he held my chin, so I could sip. I glanced out the window and down the street, watching as the sun rose behind thin clouds, feeling a rush of warmth, feeling as alive as I ever had.

Jen Knox is a writing coach, yoga instructor, and manager/lecturer at The Ohio State University. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Chicago TribuneFairlight Shorts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Sivana East, and The Saturday Evening Post. Connect with Jen at jenknox2 and jenknox.com

 

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