[While most of my writing is horror, I do dabble in other literary genres. This is one of those other stories. Although not terrifying, the subject matter of dropping your spouse off at a retirement facility, is a scary thought for most of us.]
THE DRIVER’S SEAT
By J.A. Sullivan
You open the car door and the smell of him is everywhere, in layers: White Owl cigars he smoked just like his father; lemon lozenges he started buying after he quit smoking; sandalwood and sage cologne you bought him for your anniversary. Sitting in the driver’s seat of his car you turn the key and set the defroster, reaching behind you to grab the snow brush. It strikes you as funny that you still think of this as his car, even though he hasn’t driven in over five years.
Brushing the thick blanket of snow off the windshield then flipping the shaft to use the scraper, it seems like any other day. Only today is different. Today you’re not rushing to get to work after a night of bad dreams and poor sleep, followed by a morning of changing urine soaked sheets, cleaning up Herbert and putting him in fresh pyjamas. No, today you called in sick.
Richard, the manager you, and the other Customer Service Reps, have the unfortunate obligation to report to, hates when people take sick days. It doesn’t matter that you’ve worked at the company longer than he’s been alive, or that he knows the reason you’re not coming in is to take care of your ailing husband, Richard always says the same things: Remember we’ve got a deadline to meet; I was going to have you help me with some high-level details on the new project, but I guess I’ll just find someone else; (and your personal favourite) Hopefully you’ll be better real soon.
Decoded in your ears Richard is really saying: I already told the boss the project would be done today, and I don’t do overtime; Maybe you don’t appreciate the job you have, but I know I can find someone else who will; Get your shit together ASAP. Everything he tells you is just to remind you that you’re a cog in the machine, and broken cogs get replaced.
Every time you have one of these ‘conversations’ you pray that this sick day won’t be the one that gets you fired. Four short years between you and retirement is no time to find a new job.
The sharp cold air cuts into the back of your throat as you take a deep breath and try to stay in the now.
You walk the path you shovelled this morning, up the two porch steps, open the front door and expect Herbert to be sitting on the bench in the foyer, like you told him, but he’s not there. No need to call his name. The voice of Drew Carey echoes through the house and tells you he’s in the living room – “Who’s our next contestant?”
Before fetching Herbert, you stop to gaze at yourself in the foyer mirror. Another layer of make-up should cover up the bluish-purple streak across your left cheek. You inspect the rest of your face, but it seems that’s the only spot that needs a touch up today. The compact you fish out of your purse is nearly bare, but there’s enough to blend your skin to a single colour. You walk into the living room, leaving little pieces of snow and ice on the laminate floor that you will have to clean up later. “Herbert, it’s time to go now.”
“Damn it Emma. Why didn’t you tell me you had to go to the store before I sat down?” He clicks off the television, and reaches over the side of his Frasier-style, partially duct-taped recliner to pull the handle, locking the foot rest back into place. “I swear you’ll be the end of me yet.”
You just nod, and are relieved to see he still has his boots and jacket on. As he walks past, you breathe in his trail of eucalyptus and aloe from the aftershave lotion he only puts on after using the manual razor, not the electric. You pull the front door closed behind you and wonder if any part of him knows this is the last time he’ll leave your home of nearly 40 years.
Yesterday afternoon, still at work, you hesitated to answer your cell phone. Looking around the maze of cubicles you didn’t see Richard anywhere. He hates personal calls on company time almost as much as sick days. You swiped to answer, and held the phone to your ear, angled toward the rear corner of your cubicle where no one could see.
“Hi Emma. Linda here calling from the Community Care Access Centre.” She’s been Herbert’s case manager for the last three years, and even though she can be a bit flighty at times, you still really like her.
“Oh, hi Linda. Were you able to get those extra home care hours approved like we discussed?”
“Well, no, but something better has come up.” You held your breath and imagined she’d uncovered some sort of cure and the good Herbert, the one you fell in love with, would be back to stay. “There’s been an opening at Park Lane Terrace, and Herbert can move in tomorrow.”
You almost dropped the phone, and felt like you’d been gut punched. It wasn’t really a surprise, you and Linda had both agreed that if Herbert was able to get in anywhere that would be best for everyone – you just didn’t think it would happen so soon.
“Emma, are you there?”
“Yes, sorry.” You cleared your throat and tried to reorganize your thoughts, “That’s great news. So how does this work?”
“Well, I’ve already filled out most of the forms, and I just need you to sign in a couple of places. Can you come over after work?” You said a silent prayer, thankful that Tommy made you and Herbert get the Power of Attorney done last year, before things got worse.
“Sure, I should be there by 5:15. Is that OK?”
“That’s fine. See you then.” Click.
You sat in your chair in stunned numbness, not sure what to think or feel. An opening at any of those places only happens for one reason – someone died. You wondered if the body was even moved out of the room before they checked to see who was next on the list. Herbert would be a replacement cog for a different type of machine.
“When you hear the click, you know you’re safe.” Herbert was smiling, like he always did when he rhymed that off to the kids when they were little.
Fastening your own seatbelt, the coward in you starts to creep forward. Maybe you should have let Tommy do this. Fathers and sons share a special bond that can make tough times more bearable – like soldiers standing together. You shake those thoughts away and remind yourself this is the right thing to do.
“Em, did you remember to let Bandit out?”
You nod yes. Backing out of the driveway you don’t want to look in the rear-view mirror because you’re sure Bandit will be looking back at you the same way he did when you took him to the vet to be put down. Of course, that was years ago, but that look never left you – betrayer, his eyes said.
The tires crunch through the snow on your un-ploughed street. It reminds you of when the kids were little and Herbert would drive all of you around to see Christmas lights, humming carols in between puffs on his cigar. At the end of your street you turn left onto Westside Drive. Not only is it ploughed, but it’s the most direct route – fifteen minutes and it will all be done.
Herbert shifts in his seat, props his elbow on the window ledge, and rests his chin in his hand, watching the world pass him by. You hope he will stay lost in thought a little while longer. Your feet are cold. Slowly and carefully you lean forward to change the flow of heat from the windshield to thaw your toes. The leather seat obliges and doesn’t creak – until you lean back.
The traffic light ahead turns red, and you come to a stop just behind the line. A huge black SUV blasting music loud enough to rattle its tinted windows comes to a stop in the lane beside you, clearly resting its front tires inside the cross-walk. You can’t understand people’s attraction to everything loud. What do people have against silence, you wonder. You sit scowling at them, hoping the light will change quickly, to let that monstrous vehicle to proceed on its way, most likely well over the speed limit.
“Hey, there’s our place, Veronica. What d’ya say we go get a room for a few hours?” Herbert is winking with a hungry look that you haven’t seen on him in ages.
“Maybe later,” you say, not knowing how else to respond. This isn’t the first time he’s called you Veronica, but it hurts every time just as much as that day you saw them coming out of the not-so-grand Grand Motel.
“Emma took the kids to her mother’s for the weekend, so we could stay as long as you’d like, if you change your mind.” A car behind you honks and you realize the light has already changed. You push the gas pedal and continue down the road.
You know exactly what time Herbert is talking about – when you took Tommy and Julie away for the weekend. It’s clear in your mind because you hadn’t planned to come back. After the day you saw them together, your suspicions were confirmed – he was guilty. You didn’t care if leaving meant you’d have to raise the kids in a trailer park, like how you grew up. That life seemed better than staying with Herbert, knowing what he had done.
Even though you were sure you had a good plan, your mother didn’t think your solution was so great. “So that’s it then? You’re not even going to try to win him back?”
“It shouldn’t be my job to fix things – he’s the problem!”
“Sometimes you have to just dig in and get dirty, and it doesn’t matter whose job it’s supposed to be.”
So, you went back home on Sunday and focused on fixing instead of blaming. As far as you know Veronica had been the only one, but now sometimes you worry that another lingerie clad skeleton will slip out of Herbert’s unlocked mind.
Flipping your indicator to turn left onto Park Lane, you realize you’d been holding the steering wheel with a death grip. By tonight you probably won’t be able to flex your fingers without flinching. You wonder when you got so old.
Herbert clears his throat and starts searching his pockets, probably looking for one of those lemon lozenges. He doesn’t have any on him. It’s been a while since he always had some in his pocket, but you make sure there are some around. You reach over and open the centre console, “Here you are, dear.”
“Thanks, Em.” He unwraps the crinkly cellophane wrapper, and pops the lozenge into his mouth, dropping the wrapper into the cup holder. Within seconds all you can smell is lemon with a hint of menthol. Herbert moves the lozenge back and forth in his mouth, and you can hear it tapping his dentures. He smiles at you, and you smile back. You’re glad you put a jumbo size bag of those things in his suitcase when you packed it this morning.
“Look Emma, there’s Linda. Is she coming to see Mother too?” Herbert is still smiling, and that’s how you want to remember him. You pull up beside Linda’s car, and are so glad you agreed to have her meet you here. Herbert has already unbuckled his seatbelt and is getting out of the car. You feel like you’re made of concrete and force yourself to get out too, popping the trunk on the way.
Herbert turns from talking to Linda, and walks over to you. “I’ve got it,” he says reaching down to get his suitcase. He sets it on the ground, and looks at you, all the way through to your core. He takes your hands and leans in to kiss you on the mouth. “It’s alright, Em. I’ll take Mother her new clothes. Go on and get the kids from school, and Linda will call when it’s time to come get me.” You nod, swallow hard and bite your lip so it stops trembling.
You want to hold him, kiss him, make him get back into the car, but you can’t. Instead you watch him pick up his suitcase, and walk over to Linda. You stand there, in the biting cold wind, watching the two of them walk up the pathway and through the sliding doors. It’s over.
You close the trunk and get back into the car. For a while you just sit in the driver’s seat, struggling to make the next move forward in your life, without him.
[Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. Last year this story made the short list in the Rotary Club of Stratford’s Short Story Contest.]
[If you’ve been waiting for Part 3 of My Horror Writing Adventure, you may have to wait a bit longer. It’s in progress, but won’t be ready until next week. Also, stay tuned for a new series of posts featuring interviews with other authors.]