At 1:31 PM, David Valensky jerks the dusty, bug-spattered rental car into the open left lane for the fifth time and bears down again to pass the vehicle they’ve been tailing since leaving Canyon de Chelly. It has grown from an indistinct gray hump to a maroon SUV bearing Utah plates with the numbers and letters partially obscured by a layer of thick, baked-on mud, and now they’re climbing up its backside.
He glances over at Svetlana. The rising heat and the endless smooth motion of the car lulled her to sleep thirty minutes earlier. She hasn’t gained much on the horrendous fatigue she accumulated before they started this vacation, and he knows she’ll now sleep for several hours, deeply and without dreams. A thin sheen of perspiration moistens her neckline as the air conditioning strains to keep up with the blazing mid-day sun. The pink tee-shirt she picked up in Moab is already damp and rumpled, a look she hates.
Staring out over the brown, patchy landscape, he thinks back on the last ten days. The vacation has been a disaster from the get-go. They had bickered fruitlessly on the plane to Salt Lake, arguing about the inconsequential and ridiculous, his failure to pack the prescribed number of briefs, her forgetfulness in leaving behind the hiking boots. Each of them knew these things were their combat camouflage, desert gray ovals fused with irregular sandy white circles, mountain greens interwoven with earthy browns, the uniforms of illusion they wore with each other so they could sidestep the deeper truths. They shielded themselves brilliantly from each other’s armaments, the cache of weapons that, if ever unleashed, would surely strip away the cover-ups, unmasking disappointment and failure.
Failure. Their problems reduced to this piercing singularity. His. Hers. But in his mind, mostly his. He perceives their issues, important or otherwise, as entirely the consequence of his own imperfections. It’s an inaccurate assessment, disproportionate and cruel, but deeply embedded. His psyche is an open wound, twisted and disfigured.
He knows about her affair. He is certain that she does not know that he knows, and he’s right about that. Fourteen years married, he has seen her roving eye in action, watched her at restaurants, at corporate affairs, at hospital fundraisers where she openly admires the handsome waiters, the polished, distinguished senior partners, the carefully manicured hospital executives. She will often lure them into a sassy, provocative conversation with a flirtatious smile or a well-executed turn to the side, her back arched just enough to playfully throw her ample breasts into a delicious profile. Secretly, perversely, it turns him on when he sees it—he loves her, doesn’t he?—and he feels the stirrings and pressure in his groin she has always caused. But it’s not his stirrings and pressure that concern him right now. It’s those of Elliott Cooper, the Medical Director of her surgical group practice, whose manhood he would like to sever carefully with her
most precious scalpel, the one she uses for the initial incision of her most challenging surgeries. He sees himself washing the blood away and bathing it with formaldehyde or some other fixative in a mason jar, shaking the jar and watching it undulate a moment in the thick, viscous liquid as the chemicals begin to firm the flesh, a grotesque reminder of the gruesome price of her infidelity.
They each wonder privately why they didn’t cancel the vacation. They know they are coming up to a dark brown place in the marriage, and survival is not assured. But they’ve been to these western parks and national monuments once before, in their happiest times, and secretly they’re each thinking it could be an opportunity for resuscitation. Breathe deeply, my sweet, cleanse your lungs, purify your body. Begin again.
Despite perfect weather—flawless blue skies, dry, bracing mornings that quickly give way to scorching heat and an occasional stray thundercloud—they can’t seem to get untracked. Escalante, Arches National Park, Canyonlands all bore them. At Bryce, with its fairytale limestone castle formations and the easy descent to the canyon floor, they go through the motions: a few photographs, the obligatory rim drive. No hiking, not even the easy trails; they are content in the cool recirculating air of their cramped rental car, a prison cell of their own choosing. It’s almost like solitary confinement. They don’t even stop in Zion. Say something, she thinks. Say anything.
Each morning, David vows to tell her how the day before they left he was unceremoniously fired. But he can’t do it. She knows he was on the verge of the promotion that would ensure his position in the firm, the progression to Managing Director, the money, the prestige, the security. She’ll never understand. He barely does. He shot his mouth off to a know-it-all client—politely, but with that unmistakable air of disdain he can’t mask when he’s on the receiving end of arrogance and belittlement. The client was his boss’s college roommate and best man. Exit David, career in ruins. Go directly to jail, do not pass GO, do not collect $200.
When David thinks about the affair, the firing, the crumbling marriage, he envisions his life as a series of devastating accidents, the wreckage strewn everywhere. Here, at the site of a murderous plane crash, he sees his wife’s smile reflected fleetingly off the twisted metal of an engine that has rolled across a golden field of wheat and come to rest awkwardly against a barrel-shaped bale. Before he can reach it, the reflection turns from a smile to a torn, bloodied mouth and disappears. There, in one of the charred, ruined first class seats still smoldering at a lethal train derailment, he sees his briefcase crushed, its contents destroyed, the computer containing his entire life’s work flattened like scrap metal on the way to a salvage yard somewhere in northern New Jersey. There are signs of ruination everywhere in the detritus he imagines: body parts, clothing in flames, pieces and parts of their most precious keepsakes scattered across the plowed up, steaming landscape. The hectoring voices of his parents, demanding and intolerant, echo over and
over in his head, knifing home once again the old familiar pressures from high school and college, even from his grad school days.
In Las Vegas, there’s a breakthrough of sorts.
“Wallensky?” she says. It’s her most affectionate term of endearment for him, a riff on his last name, spoken with a w interchanged for the v, the way she prefers he pronounce Svetlana. Swetlana.
“Dr. Petrova-Wallensky?” he throws back playfully. He smiles at her. “Petrova, what’s on your mind?” They’ve got a suite high up in the Mandalay Bay, two bedrooms, an absurdly spacious living room. There’s a stunning view of the glittering Strip below.
“Do you think we’ll be OK?” Her voice is timid, uncertain. So much is unsaid between them. So much ground to be covered. The promises they’ve made. Their mutual expectations, their individual ambitions. Her rise. His fall. The affair. The wine has fogged his mind, and he knows it’s no time to be serious. She throws her hair back, flowing and luxuriant, that Slavic iridescent black with its bluish hues radiant and almost painfully alluring. The movement invites him to the soft, dark skin of her neck. It is so unexpected that it takes him a moment to react.
“Do you want us to be OK?” he asks, moving to her side, touching his fingers to her closed eyelids, the bridge of her nose, the perfect white teeth her slightly parted lips have exposed. She doesn’t answer. They close the bedroom door softly, open the curtains to the bright lights of the night to charge the moment with an erotic current. When he touches her, he finds that she is already wet with anticipation, a river of fierce, unexpected desire.
The next day, on the way to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, her cell phone rings. She listens with the phone pressed tightly to her ear as if to contain the sound, suppress the vibrations of whatever is being said. David can hear only the muffled words of a male voice.
Finally, she speaks. “No, Elliott, that’s just not possible. No, no…I can’t. See if you can get Chandravarti to do the procedure. Truthfully, she’s as good as I am for this.” She listens another moment. “Only in a genuine emergency. Please.” There is no goodbye. She closes the phone and powers it off, her face suddenly closed and brooding as if deep gray storm clouds were scudding toward them, bringing a deluge to ruin the sweeping vista stretching out to the distant horizon.
She turns to David. His eyes glance away from the road to look at her for only a second or two, trying not to show his disgust—no, his contempt—that Elliott, he of the fancifully embalmed genitalia, has actually called her when he knows how overwrought she has
been for many months now. “It’s a complicated surgery. It was scheduled for the day after we get back, but Elliott thinks we can’t wait that long. You heard what I said. But if he calls back again, God, I don’t want to hear myself say this, I’m sorry, but if he does call again, can we find a way to shorten the rest of the trip?”
Shorten the trip, he thinks. For always and always, until death us do part. He chews on this slowly, digesting the import of what he is about to say. He bites off each word. “Yes, Petrova. We. Can. Shorten. The. Trip.”
David turns into the passing lane once more, pulls even with the maroon SUV. The road looks clear, its gritty, pock-marked surface an endlessly straight pathway to the far off, indistinct horizon. Four miles ahead on the shimmering pavement, barely a speck at that distance, an eighteen-wheeler is heading in their direction. They are hurtling toward each other, but lulled by the heat, his eyes drifting to the desert on his left, David is distracted and pays no attention to the looming whiteness. Has the SUV sped up? Suddenly it seems to be keeping pace with him. He presses the accelerator more firmly, trying to gain speed and front end clearance.
The SUV’s driver side window is opening, scrolling down. The driver’s profile has come into view, a young man in his early or mid-twenties. He’s gesturing to David, pinrolling his left hand as if he wants David to open the passenger window of the rental car. He’s
holding a cigar, and now he’s thrusting forward with it, pointing toward the open roadway up ahead. There is only the far off semi. What’s he trying to say? Does he think they’ve entered a game of chicken at 85 miles per hour? There is a passenger in the SUV, a male considerably older than the driver. He leans over the steering wheel, grinning at David, then thrusts his right arm into view, clenching his fist. He tightens his bicep, a body-builder’s physique, rippling its blue and red rattlesnake tattoo. David feels a frisson
of excitement at this, an inexplicable surge of adrenalin. The passenger has a swarthy, unkempt look. He’s unshaven and grizzly, maybe the driver’s father, maybe his pimp. If this man were to open his mouth, David is certain he would see a single shining gold tooth, a tooth that signals criminality, or a gaping space where such a tooth might be.
David thinks the driver is quite handsome, a James Dean face, square-jawed, entrancing blue eyes. He admires this face, so clean-looking, so young, though not innocent. Definitely no longer innocent and naïve. David’s state of mind is deteriorating quickly now. He finds himself thinking absurd, sick thoughts about the driver’s life as a gigolo, bound in slavery to his passenger who is bringing him to Mexico where he will service the wealthy Latinas, plump and buxom senoras, svelte, anorexic senoritas, and the occasional ricachon.
The driver who is now a gigolo on his way to Mexico points forward with his cigar once again. His mouth curling into a snarl, he throws the cigar onto the hood of David’s rental
car where it rolls into the shallow gulley below the windshield washers, its phallic swollen mass coming to rest like something obscene and fecal. That’s when David notices that the speck up ahead has turned into something well-defined, the silver vertical exhaust pipes gleaming in the sun on both sides of the square featureless cab. There’s a shape in there that might be the driver’s head or a passenger, perhaps the driver’s son. David’s stomach turns over; his heart is hammering. He does not look at the gigolo as he
hits the accelerator pedal again. He is no longer racing or passing. The way he likes to think about it, he’s just….shortening the trip.
With his right arm David reaches over toward the passenger seat to touch his wife. The fingers of his right hand first trace the small bony structures at the top of her shoulder, then move across her neckline, the place he used to love to kiss, the place she used to love him to kiss, and then to the rise of her breast. In his mind he hears Dylan singing the lyrics that have haunted him for so many years. And if my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.
Now comes the tricky part. He sets his left knee against the steering wheel to keep it steady and turns his head and shoulders toward the passenger seat, reaching for Svetlana with his left hand to shake her awake. He wants to be looking into her eyes when it happens. He glances into the back seat, imagines for just a moment that there is a child there, a phantom daughter, seven or eight years old, the Nadia or Elena for whom they never had time. He sees so much in that one moment. He sees her lying across the back seat, sleeping, and when he awakens her she hears, as he does, the urgent low pitch of the eighteen-wheeler’s horn bellowing at them uselessly. She says to him in her hoarse, carefree voice “Daddy, are you crying? Why are you crying? Daddy?” Through the rear window he sees that the gigolo has desperately braked the maroon SUV, screeching off the roadway. David watches it disappear behind them down a shallow embankment,
careening onto the hard-packed desert floor. Laughing at their cowardice, he holds Svetlana’s hand very tightly as he pushes the gas pedal to the floor.
At last, Svetlana startles awake. David slips his knee forward and wedges his thigh, his straining, rigid quadriceps, tightly against the steering column, trying to lock it in place. He looks into Svetlana’s eyes as he digs the fingers of his hands into her soft, trusting flesh. He envisions the wreckage.
Stan Lee Werlin’s short stories have previously appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Review, and Sheepshead Review, with another story forthcoming in Glassworks. Since 1987, his humorous children’s poetry has been published in children’s magazines including Cricket, Spider, Highlights for Children, and Odyssey, as well as in several anthologies. He is an avid reader, enjoys competitive tennis and online Scrabble, and is a lifelong fan of the Boston Bruins!
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Driving to New Hampshire for a family vacation when I was 9 or 10, my father turned the car into the left lane of a two lane road, misjudged the distance of an oncoming car, and wound up driving into the breakdown lane on the far left and then completely off the roadway to avoid a headlong collision. A few years ago, when my wife and I were driving in remote Arizona from Canyon de Chelly to Sedona, I pulled us out into the left lane of a two lane highway to pass the car we were trailing. I daydreamed a moment and came out of it to find an eighteen wheeler heading toward us and the car I was passing still abreast of us on the right. I had about 20 seconds to pass or pull back and it was completely unnerving. The story gradually formed from these two incidents.
I’ve always been fascinated by the human capacity to reach a flashpoint at which rational behavior—overcome by emotions, anger, stress, loss, humiliation, failure, a chance word, or who knows what other causes—suddenly disappears. And I don’t think IQ has much to do with it. I think—like the character David Valensky in "Wreckage"—we all harbor the capacity for unpredictable, violent, and horrific post-flashpoint behavior. Fortunately, for most people, it is never triggered.
Q: What does your writing space look like?
A: Nothing special. Desk and laptop.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I seem to need extreme quiet. Without the muse, there's no point in trying to force the writing. When the muse is present, I can't not write.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?
A: James Lee Burke. His insight into the human psyche and his ability to write about his characters in ways that reveal their psyches is breathtaking. To me his police/crime genre novels are literature in its finest sense.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Several short stories underway, waiting for the muse.