Drive - Sharon Lee Snow
It began as a way to pass the time.
During the light on Kennedy and 60, Jeff turned to Allison and said with a smirk “Animals are Tasty.”
She squinted at the bumper sticker, slapped askew like a half-assed bandage on the rust-colored F-150 truck blowing gray-blue smoke back at them.
“Hah!” She tapped something on her smartphone. “Figures.”
He cracked his knuckles and kept an eye on the F-150 for that slight movement of tires, the rumble of traffic moving forward. He liked the bumper sticker, the F-150 driver making his statement to a newly hipster-colonized downtown that couldn’t appreciate irony.
Jeff turned to Ally. He wanted to talk about it. She used to enjoy his philosophical musings on such things—or so he’d thought, offering her own crazy theories on the people driving the roads with them, putting a spin on the ads and bumper stickers during their daily long commute to work each day from Apollo Beach to Tampa, playing this game.
The exhaust from the F-150 made its way into the car. Ally coughed into her hand. She scrunched up in the seat and turned away.
A buzz and rumble from above. The Action 6 News helicopter dipped and flew off to one of the daily disasters, a bright blue beetle in the sky. A black town car headed north to the airport squealed through a waning yellow light. The cars lined up at Kennedy began to turn left, following the limo at this crossroads where Kennedy Boulevard divorced itself from Florida State Road 60. Jeff stretched, waiting, subconsciously counting the cars rounding the bend at the light. All of downtown hummed and thrummed with its own daytime rhythm, a slight shimmer of heat from the pavement already.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jeff saw Ally smile to herself; some response to one of her messages. Jeff wondered if it was a message from Ryan, her paralegal. A private joke in her private world, orbiting next to his. And Ryan. He wondered at that, too: if that smooth-faced, organized, polite little fucker was really as gay as she insisted.
The quiet inside the car contrasted with the city alive outside the car made Jeff’s scalp itch. Even though he was used to it by now—Ally wasn’t much of a talker in the mornings—it bothered him today. He reached to turn on the music when the GPS chirped: “Turn Right on West Kennedy Boulevard!”
“The Lady is getting senile,” Ally said; they were, after all, turning left on Kennedy, a maneuver they did every day. “We’ll replace you with an app,” she said, addressing the GPS device that they jokingly called “The Lady”—she was so damn polite. Ally had bought the gadget for Jeff after he got them lost (once again) in a particularly bad St. Pete neighborhood after a late-night Ray’s game.
“She’s a fickle bitch, I swear to God,” Jeff said, alert for the traffic, but glad that Ally was talking. “She tried to dump me straight into Tampa Bay last week. I think she’s jealous of you.”
Ally shrugged. “It works for me. Maybe you broke it.”
“Well, I do like her soothing voice.” This was more than they had said in days, and he felt a quick upstart of hope. “The app has that annoying computer voice. I’m used to The Lady.”
“Obviously,” Ally said. “You know the way to work.”
“That I do.” The early morning sun burnished her long hair reddish golden. He liked to study her too, these drives together. Her hair was pretty—thick, shiny, sensuous. He loved to touch it, winding his fingers through it, bunching it in his hands. But she pulled it up lately in what he called her Lawyer Girl style. With her serious dark glasses, she didn’t look at all like the nature-loving activist girl who used to sleep with him on a stained futon mattress on the floor.
She looked untouchable.
He shot a glance at the traffic light and then her: now she frowned, thinking, and then went back to work, scrunching up her face. He could see the tiny lines form and melt away, starting the little grooves at the side of her mouth that he knew would be permanent in about ten years.
Jeff felt the light turn green before he saw it, the slight vibration in front of him as the cars began moving through the intersection. He followed the belching F-150.
“You have arrived!”
“Looks like she’s right this time,” Jeff said, stopping in front of Ally’s building.
“She’d better be.” She turned to Jeff. “Don’t forget to ask about the job.”
Irritation prickled the back of his neck. “I applied.”
“Okay.” She sounded doubtful, but she smiled.
“Don’t get your hopes up. They’re considering some outside guy.” She looked at him. A car honked, then squealed around them. Something in his face must have discouraged her. She reached for her computer bag.
“Ally—” Another car honked. Jeff was blocking the drop-off lane, but he didn’t care. She couldn’t leave with the bad feeling heavy between them. He leaned over and kissed her.
“Destination on the left!” The Lady chirped.
Ally pulled away. “You’re right. That thing is defective.”
“I told you she was jealous.”
Allison smiled, but it was a half-mast smile.
His job had become insufficient overnight, it seemed. After the Great Recession had emptied out the streets like a doomsday pandemic, homes were hot again in the downtown area near Ally’s office. Bid wars breaking out. And Ally had a realtor friend, Cathy, who could get them in first.
There are other houses, he thought. Other jobs. But Allison would not hear it. And the other houses didn’t have the nursery overlooking a backyard that just begged for one of those thousand-dollar swing set forts with roofs and sandboxes, and tanned, thin mommies jogging with babies on well-lit streets. She was one of those people who had notes and plans and little checklists.
As she walked away, he felt the usual mixture of anger and love, impotency and lust. He loved her, but that no longer seemed enough. For her, anyway.
The traffic streamed around him. He could see her as he slowly pulled into traffic, how she’d met Ryan by the stairs, and how her whole posture brightened—Ryan close to her, the way she threw her hands up in laughter. She disappeared into a navy-blue sea through gleaming gold glass doors, leaving the sun to blind him as it rose fully over the highway.
Jeff thought about the day as he and Ally drove home that evening. Work had been a bastard, but Ally seemed relaxed next to him.
She was talking. How long had she been speaking? At any rate, Ally was over the tension of the morning. A bouquet of flowers sent to her office had helped. Jeff had been haunted by the bad vibes of her leaving, the image of Ryan making her smile. The ride home was always of a different tenor, anyhow, both of them transformed by their days. She was animated, stoked after being with her lawyer friends, and he heard about the trials and the coworkers and the divorces and the babies.
Especially the babies. Her hands gestured as she talked, and he could picture them in court, controlled, moving deliberately rather than fluidly with emotion as they moved now. They were beautiful hands, pale with long fingers and perfectly tipped by manicured nails. She smiled, and he nodded. The words swirled around them, but he knew that the house she wanted wasn’t for them. It was for the babies.
Jeff tapped the steering wheel. A CSX coupled to an endless stream of boxcars had them trapped in a line of traffic. Cars approaching from the back squealed for a quick turnaround and headed north and then east on other side roads. The train engine, beautiful with its blue and yellow snout, its testosterone strength, pulled forward and then slowly backed up, the cars dragged along, slow, gray and clanking. The ground shook with a deep bass note. Jeff could feel the impatience of the drivers behind him build up, a damming of the day’s frustrations.
As Allison rambled on, Jeff tried not to sigh. After a day of writing for other people, he was tired.
He’d always wanted a family, but Ally going off the pill sent him into nightmares of triplets needing college tuition. Cleft palates. Still, nine months into this experiment and it hadn’t happened, surprising her doctor. Just a couple more months, and then they’d get concerned. After all, at thirty-three, Ally wasn’t that young anymore.
God he hated doctors. Ally alternated between hope and despair, and their love life, which had flourished at first, became fraught with heaviness and purpose.
“How was work?” She’d noticed his silence. He felt her burning hot beside him.
“It was interesting.” His young coworker, Chris had called their office “a team” that morning, hoping to get Jeff to fight for the promotion. Some team; they spent their days at the ad agency scrambling for deadlines under the thumb of the Creative Director and client. Jeff looked out the windshield for escape, but he was captive, and he was still somewhat in the shithouse from the morning and her uneasiness with his goal compliance in general, which included his similarly unmotivated, lackadaisical sperm.
A sign in front of a gray cinder block store promised XXX Adult Videos and Whips—Buy One Get One Free. A Harley slumped low and alone in the rutted gravel parking lot next to a dumpster.
“What do you think?”
For a moment Jeff thought it was The Lady, with some startling new insight of her own. But it was Allison. She had taken down her hair, and her clear green eyes were serious but hopeful.
“Maybe we should stop in there while we’re waiting.” He nodded to the store. “I mean, come on. Buy One Get One.” He scrambled to catch up to the question.
“Ha! You’d think one whip would be enough.” She smiled. “So you can do it? Meet me and Cathy at the house next week?”
“Sure thing, Baby.” He had a headache. Of course. The new house. Baby-house, housebaby, Baby. Of course.
The last train car rattled past them, thudding and thumping across the intersection. A final shrill note of the horn in the distance and the white and red-striped crossing gate opened suddenly, and they were moving again. Jeff smiled and nodded at appropriate intervals, the soothing voice of the GPS and Allison’s chatter blending into a single droning voice that fell and rose with the turns and stops along their trip home, the signs by the road blurring together into the fading light. Even though Allison had lightened up, Jeff could feel it: latent, her hopes and dreams all bottled up and ready like the dammed-up traffic that had suddenly burst free and flooded into the waning day. Waiting, waiting.
Ally reached for him that night, and for a moment, he hesitated. God, he wanted her, but this hesitation, was new. He felt wary of her and then astonished at himself, as if something as expected as natural male horniness could go away, be dimmed at his age. She hadn’t reacted with hurt when he recoiled. Instead, she curled up against him. She was warm, smelling sweet of soap and flowery lotion. He made love to her, and it was like they were young and poor again, in love in a messy home.
She’d fallen asleep immediately. Jeff had tossed and turned, finally eased to sleep by the gentle steady rhythm of her breathing. He woke up early, wandering the house as he often did these days. He sat down at his computer and opened his novel for the first time in a long time; it had been six months, he realized. The words sprang upon the page—premade from some alien self he was having trouble accessing. He tried to focus, but the words stayed stale, old, flavorless. He clicked the file shut, turned off the computer, and watched the sun march slowly up the flank of the darkness.
Jeff drove in alone that morning. The billboard to his left was one of those new ones, electronic, scrolling through bright bursts of ads. No Scalpel Vasectomy! 1-800 … The image moved before he could read the end.
“Stay North on I-75!” The Lady jarred Jeff back into awareness.
He followed the line of traffic. Exit 250, Exit 256…north they went. The Lady was cheerful, all her signals on target. He was feeling good, even if a little tired. The sun was rising higher over the mall, bright through the scraggly pines and feathery palms.
Traffic slowed at the Brandon merge and he looked for signs, scouting out bumper stickers on the cars trapped with him.
The dirty black Acura in front of him: “Be Kinder than Necessary.”
The lipstick orange Sierra with silver duct tape on the right tail light: “How’s My Driving? I-800-EAT SHIT.” He smiled. Eat Shit traveled with them often. The white Cherokee Sport in the right lane: “An Eye For An Eye Will Make the Whole World Blind.”
It was his job to notice things, to bring small bits of pop culture and language together for the client, to tell a story with their product.
To sell a story and their product.
It was not what he’d set out to do after graduating. He and Ally had met working on an environmental activism magazine in college.
Hannah J on Channel 102 “The Boss” cheerfully called out a fatal wreck ahead. There was always a wreck ahead.
“Stay on I-75 North,” The Lady said again, and he detected a new worried tone.
He was going to be late.
He put the car in park as they all settled in together, cars shoulder to shoulder as the fatality got cleared out miles ahead of them. A billboard caught his eye: a blonde in a pink bikini leading a white horse on a sugar white beach, an outrageous aquamarine Caribbean surf curling behind them, a bottle of rum crowding the foreground. Jeff didn’t like the ad much; it lacked coherence, story. He mentally rewrote it.
The traffic was humming, waiting to move. His phone buzzed. “The Dream Team is here,” said Chris. The team from Jersey that his boss knew back in the day.
Traffic started rolling. He tossed his phone in his cup holder, ignoring Chris’s text while the blonde on the beach and her horse grew smaller in his rearview mirror.
“My Son is a Vampire.” Jeff and Ally were idling in traffic the next day, and the bumper sticker on the beige Explorer caught his eye.
Ally smiled. “Funny.”
“Turn left at the next signal,” The Lady said.
“Really. We do not need you, Lady. Or do you, Jeff? You tend to…cling to things.”
“Like what?” His face burned. “It’s a habit.”
“Am I just a habit?” she asked lightly, but he noted tension in her fingers.
“You’re a good habit. You’re good for me, Ally. I’m one lucky goofball who hit the jackpot.” The road wavered in front of his eyes. God, he was tired. He and Chris had watched the Dream Team go out for cocktails with their boss while they finished up a presentation for a client. She had not asked about his day yesterday, and he hadn’t volunteered. Now it lay coiled in his mouth, and he wanted to tell her, but the words dammed up. Jeff checked for her reaction. Lately she was not as good at reading his emotions as she once was. She slept through his restless nights. He could roam the house freely in the heavy darkness, room to room, like a harmless ghost that frightened only itself. He was aware of all of this beneath his skin.
She didn’t reply but began texting.
“Don’t forget—I have that cocktail thing tonight. I may be late,” she said as she jumped out the door at her office. Her haste seemed like a slap.
“You and Ryan?”
“You hate those things. All we do is talk law. You can stay home and work on your novel. Ryan will get me home.”
“Is Ryan’s husband going?”
Across the street, a billboard caught his attention then. Are You Insured? It seemed profound. He was going to remark on it to Allison, but she had already shut the door.
Jeff let The Lady usher him up and down the interstate the rest of the week, her voice firm and friendly. He spent his lunch hour downloading new maps, letting The Lady learn all she could, absorbing, assimilating all the new places they could go. The day was coming when it was over. The apps, the built-in GPS systems in the new cars—everything was changing.
But for now, he let the data fill them both with a sense of possibility.
All weekend, the lie grew between them grew like a silent cancer in the belly. Chris had called Jeff in a panic. They were enough, Jeff told him. Good enough. But he said it quietly, behind the closed bedroom door.
He sweated his way through Allison’s lists—mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, hoping, waiting for her to let it in, room, the tiniest space to fail and be human. But she talked of mundane things, helped him with chores, and then buried herself in her law work. She drove in early to work that Monday. As he drove alone, The Lady his sole companion that morning, Jeff looked and suddenly saw it: The JesuSaves sign in the weeds by the interstate.
He’d driven by the sign for months but never really paid it any attention. It was ugly, for one thing: weathered boards painted white with the words JesuSaves scrawled crossword puzzle style in green and red block letters up and across the planks. But this morning, the play and economy of the words of salvation intersecting each other on that homemade sign got his attention, and he slowed down, just long enough for the blue Volvo to take the black Escalade’s sudden four-lane jump for the I-4 exit in his place. Jeff caught the squeal of tires protesting the sudden death-grip of their brakes and the inevitable cataclysmic clash of metal-on-metal, the shrieking crunch and boom of glass, fiberglass, and plastic exploding outward and flying inward, the tiny swords of glass imploding into the Volvo, where the driver, Mr. Sweeney—Hannah J would later say—managed to swerve but was trapped by traffic. Jeff heard the crunch of Mr. Sweeney’s car but not his last heartfelt “Goddammit!” before the door crumpled around him.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Jeff snapped to it, all attention now. “Jesus Fucking Christ!”
He gripped the wheel as the Volvo and Escalade became one mangled missile, screeching backwards down the interstate towards him. For a split second, Jeff watched in fascination as a piece of the Volvo’s fender flew up towards his windshield. It missed the car by inches, and he hit the gas and jerked to the left with shaking hands. He thought briefly of Allison and his abandoned novel as he pulled, tires squealing, onto the far-left lane. The smoking wreckage streaked past him. A dump truck with a Don’t Push bumper sticker swerved next to him, wobbled on its heavy gray haunches like a dying elephant, and then gunned it through the destruction. On the side of the road, a man with a red ball cap abruptly abandoned his riding mower to the brush with a quick leap, just as a tire from the Escalade smashed into it. The smoking vehicles streaked past the scattering traffic, continued their deadly clinch and rolled up together in the tall weeds in front of the JesuSaves sign.
Jeff automatically registered all of this, feeling himself awaken as if emerging from a fog. Hands trembling, blood roaring in his ears, he slowed to a crawl with the other terrified drivers. In his rearview mirror, Jeff saw the sign winking through the gray smoke now puffing across the interstate, billowing up to the sky. His heart pounding, his nerves raw, he began to slowly maneuver through the field of vehicles strewn across the road like cars abandoned in an apocalypse. Next to the impact field of glass and pieces of bumper, The Lady suddenly chirped “Arriving at destination!” in the middle of the road.
Ally worked late that night while Jeff wandered the quiet house, pent-up energy crackling through him like heat lighting. After his call to her cell phone went to voicemail, he tried her office phone, but got Ryan instead, who chatted politely for a few minutes before telling him that Allison was in court all day. Was it an emergency?
Jeff had wavered. It felt like an emergency. He’d just experienced a life-changing fucking miracle. He was reborn, alive, while poor Mr. Sweeney was cooling in a drawer at the funeral home on Brandon Boulevard. And he wanted to share it with her.
He imagined Ryan waiting for an answer, his smooth face like those movie androids on space stations that enjoy fucking with the humans they are supposed to serve.
Jeff was burning to tell her, how it felt to be reborn in the middle of a nightmare, chosen to be spared for something, some reason. He opened his novel and hit Delete. He thought of his job. All of it—they should go. He and Ally—just go. Take the car and drive, drive somewhere to start new, fresh, anywhere, somewhere together. All this stale energy gone. He’d waited for her a long time, but he was tired. He fell asleep happy, but uneasy, lonely, dreaming of Ally, ripe and luscious in a pink bikini on a far-off beach, the JesuSaves sign blinking in fog behind her.
The next morning was rushed, and Jeff let Ally take the time to get ready. He knew better than to try and catch her attention until they had settled in for the drive.
He had her all to himself now, and he was glad.
“Sorry I missed your call yesterday,” Ally said. “You must have had quite the day. You were zonked on the couch when I came in.” She smiled at his enthusiasm, his energy.
“You got the job?” She put her phone in her lap, and he felt her watching him as he navigated around a motorcycle.
The job. Of course. Her list. The baby. Tomorrow was their meeting at the new house. He sucked in a deep breath, waiting behind a school bus.
When he hit the interstate, he told her the story of Mr. Sweeney and the Escalade, and how he felt reborn amidst the smoking wreckage. “Whoa, sounds scary,” she said at last, frowning. She picked up her phone. “You were lucky.”
“You don’t see it? As a sign? That I was spared for some reason?” She put down the phone. Finally, he had her full attention. He thought of Ryan on the other end of the phone, expectant, waiting for her direction. Jeff’s face grew hot and tight. He gripped the wheel.
"You think Jesus saved you, Jeff? Is that it? You want to let Jesus take credit for your luck and better reflexes? Hell, Jeff. You’re not even religious!”
“No, it’s a sign. From the universe. From Jesus. I don’t fucking know who, but I felt it. Right there in the road.” He sank back limply into his seat with that weak, clammy feeling you get right after you finally make yourself puke.
Jeff had come home last night filled with a type of hope, for the first time in a long time, and now she was puncturing his elation with smart barbed darts, the kind only someone who had loved you a long time would know how to sling.
Still, he felt a yearning. He wanted to open up, lay it all out there, a smorgasbord of emotions to choose from, options, but she sat there, drumming her fingers, her lips pulled thin.
“God, Ally. You used to want these things,” he said, noticing the sun through the palms, Eat Shit next to them, and knew she couldn’t see them. She was quiet as they made the turn onto I-4, The Lady also ominously silent as to direction. When the buildings of the city grew before them, a slight haze off the ocean shimmering them gray and unsteady, she said: “You don’t care about anything I say, but if a GPS gives you misdirection that makes no fucking sense at all, you call it a sign from God.”
She laughed, packing up cell phone. When they reached her building, she turned to him. Her eyes clear in the wavering light of the gray dawn. “Good-bye,” she said.
She didn’t ask him to meet her at the house the next day nor did she drive with him the rest of the week. When she packed some things and moved out that weekend—something about different directions or growing up—Jeff had walked the empty house feeling a Saturday alone, angry, confused, trying but getting nowhere into the whole truth of her leaving. It was an empty hole that gnawed at him all day long, not so much with sadness but with regret, that she would also think he was an asshole-loser, loser-asshole. Ex. Late in the afternoon he pulled himself together, found his keys, and got into his car.
And once he was driving. He felt better, like a smoker with a lungful of satisfying smoky poison, and he quickly scanned the road for cues. What to do next? He pulled out of the neighborhood, letting The Lady tell him what to do, following her meandering map through the streets. Navigating by faith, navigating by stars still hidden by the sun’s dimming light, he felt an unprecedented sense of freedom. He edged out into traffic, and it was busy, a Saturday night brewing, growing darker. He punched in a random destination and The Lady urged him on: “Stay in the right lane.” He read bumper stickers Idling Gets You Nowhere (or did it get you everywhere?) and signs: Fabulous Student Housing.
He turned back to Tampa, heading past the casino with its empty promise, moving west now, the traffic fanning out as it moved towards the city. The Lady, confused at where he might be going, remained voiceless now, and he concentrated on traffic, his buzz giving way to silence as the darkness crept up in his rearview mirror and the sun sank low, heavy and dull orange behind the buildings of the city.
He took the Kennedy Exit downtown, turned past the Are You Insured? sign, and drove by Allison’s building. Was she there now, working late on a project with Ryan? He pictured her not in her blue suit, but suddenly, pulling him down onto their futon, her burnished hair falling over them.
He drove on, traffic droning around him down the city side streets, watching the neon signs light up the twilight with their own particular glowing beauty in the grungy potholed strip malls, past the Oriental Massage parlor, past the bridal shops and ambulance chasers. At the light, the homeless man on the corner held up a sign “Even a Quarter Helps, God Bless You,” but Jeff kept going.
The sun sagged a minute in the sky and started to dip downward. He was still pumped up, jazzed with possibilities. If life was not quantifiable to a list, it was open to interpretation, and therein lay the answers. A truck with a boat pulled next to him, a small yacht named “Reel Blessed.” He smiled.
He drove past his office. Chris’s car was there, alone in the parking lot. Slowing, he hesitated—she would tell him. Any minute, she would tell him: Turn right. But she remained silent. He gripped the wheel and punched Home.
She guided him down the side streets through the housing project and Section 8 shotgun shacks with their thin veneers. The Lady urged him to continue straight, and he began to have that premonition you have that the hangover will not be worth it, even while you’re still in the middle of the binge. Still, he let her take him the back way home, and he paused at the light, noticing the piles of branches from a recent storm, the tired rental homes with hard-packed front lawns, the resigned faces of the people at the bus stop.
Keep straight. For a moment, Jeff was confused. Was it Ally’s voice? At the light, the “Sunnyvale Villas” sign in cracked blue letters was propped on the ground, its sad attempt to gentrify a neighborhood that had been born poor made him feel a bit more hungover.
Traffic was still heavy, and he looked around. People were going home, talking on the phone, chatting with passengers. He got excited again. They were all in it together, moving, going somewhere. He was one of many, driving, and they didn’t know his shame, when he saw the bumper of the F-250 idling loudly in front of him: NUMNUTZ. For a moment, he thought about laughing. He looked over to nudge Allison.
The truck roared off, and Jeff drove home, his mind empty now, cleansed of symbols and signs and words and emotions. He let the GPS guide him, startled when she zoned out once, losing her line to the stars, then numbly following her through the turns and streets of his past. The sun tipped beneath the horizon finally and the street dimmed as he drove, like a bulb slowly dying. “You Have Arrived” she announced, but he paused, stranded in front of a strange house, waiting for directions that were never going to come.
A Pushcart nominee, Sharon Lee Snow earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida in Tampa. Her award-winning short stories, creative nonfiction, and poetry have been published in South 85 Journal, Jenny Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Gulf Stream Magazine, Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art, Bridge Eight Literary Magazine, and other magazines. She currently is working on a short story collection, a collection of poems about her time living in LA.