In the Fire
Terence Lane

You’re on Sunrise Highway and the sun glare is all there is. Bright as a welder’s torch it slows the great easterly morning commute to a crawl. Sunglasses are useless. But you’re wearing them anyway, the polarized Von Zipper wraparounds the caffeinated teen clerk with two-tone hair from the board shop promised would reduce the effects of said glare. You’re not so sure now, driving half blind, but the glasses do make you feel secure and a little superhuman, like one of the Marvel dudes from the movie you were watching on HBO with Amy last night, your dozing fiancé. She doesn’t know she’s your fiancé yet, but you’ve been meaning to tell her. And soon. Just as soon as you find the right words to say it, and the perfect place to change her life as she knows it, and yours, too, forever. Commitment doesn’t scare you anymore. It pumps your heart and maddens you for her alone, Miss Amy June Daly, and makes you want to say the words and make it real. You’re thirty-one. You’re a man.

And yet, this traffic does something to you. It returns you to your boiling adolescence. You get a little twentyish in traffic. As the highway bends, you glimpse the magnitude of the situation. The multitudes of automobiles dazzle, stretching off into a blazing, imperceptible abyss, forestalling your arrival at the job site in Quogue. The stop and go wears on the Tundra’s worn brake pads, the ones you know you should have changed already but keep putting off. Your younger procrastination has been hard to kick.

Luckily you’ve eaten. The Working Man from Gil’s Delicatessen is a legendary breakfast bomb. Number 6 on the chalkboard, it’s been your favorite guilty thing since high school, a layered brick of grilled eggs and pig flesh done three different ways: bacon, ham, and sausage. Three slices of pepper jack cheese. Hash browns. Salsa. All that formless glop slapped between the two halves of a hero and packed in butcher’s paper.

God, you’re getting fat. And Amy’s onto you. You sense it in the way her fingers feint away from your new hip pudge when she touches you in bed, as if in bulking up, you’ve actually grown more fragile. You’re not proud of this, but you cannot for the life of you amend the breakfast order. After the Working Man, everything else on the chalkboard looks so, so small. You know you should look into the egg white avocado thing that Amy gets sometimes, the number eleven, but the syllables of that number consistently prove unutterable by the time you reach the counter, because 6 is your number. You’re a hopeless Working Man.

An extra large coffee steams in the cup holder like freshly extracted temper. The steam is white sun fire S’ing from the mouth hatch. You eye it. Take it. Take a sip. Replace it. You crane your neck, anxious to see what’s going on up there but of course you can’t see jack. You just hurt your eyes. The Working Man is laying down inside you, compacting, turning from a mash into a perfect plate of steel. A check of the in-dash clock shows 8:51. It just happens: “COME ON!”

Your Carhartt boot pumps the brake pedal. You’ve always liked that gasping sound it makes. It calms you. Reminds you of dumping steam, releasing the pressure. It’s all you can do really. Your freedom has been revoked. Your life isn’t yours. At least you’re not alone. The rearview shows a gridlock of faces hidden by their flip downs, the posture of the delayed. You check your phone, only because you’re not driving, not really, just pumping the brakes, and what’s the difference? There’s a message from Amy. Salmon for dinner! Love you! ☺. You smile. You write back: And for dessert? Still grinning, you return your phone to the passenger seat. You think about how she’ll reply. Amy’s very creative. She can really turn a phrase when the motivation’s right, and you think you’ve set her up. She is a peach. Through and through.

And what is this? The congestion is starting to move. You know you shouldn’t get too excited, but it’s really starting to open up now. Yes, spaces actually begin to span between cars. Your Carhartt eases onto the gas. Thirty-five, forty, forty-five miles per hour. What has come unplugged? Hello, fifty-five! It must have been something other than the sun. Had to have been because it’s still right there, burning just as bright as ever, albeit higher now. You’re really cruising. Before long you see the tracks in the road, the double rubber burns snaking precariously toward the shoulder. And there, just ahead, you see the result. It’s a Dodge Caravan turned accordion. Radiator fumes and smoke sheet from the totaled hood. In front of the Caravan is a green Ford Explorer with its tail lights smashed out and the bumper dangling in the grass. Cops and EMT crawl around the scene like wasps. Poor sons-o-guns, you think, glancing at the in-dash clock.

You should text your boss just to let him know there was an accident on Sunrise and that you’ve been delayed but are back on course now. You eye your phone. Then the road. You take the phone and flip it open. You throw it back on the seat. No way. You’re not a fast texter. You remember the kid from Southampton who veered into oncoming traffic and was flattened by the Hampton Jitney. That’s when the danger of the wireless phone was first made real to you. You’ve always required the most ultimate examples. That’s why you were never good in school. Failure and suspension were just never threatening enough to impress you into making better grades. You hardly ever looked up from your sketches of cloaked demons and big old titties. Mr. Galvan’s history class was an exception. He had style. He’d start off and you wouldn’t know where he was going with these stories of lakes steaming in the winter, of frozen forests with people on the ground, moving their families toward food and shelter. Mr. Galvan described these huge pictures so that you saw. You really saw. The Native Americans. You saw them. You’ll never forget a lesson about how Iroquois parents would let their children toddle into campfires to teach them all about the pretty flames. You are that way. You’ve always had to feel the heat to believe the fire.

One exit before your own, a shape, a low, missile-like thing appears in your rearview. You clench the wheel and eye the speedometer. You’re doing a legitimate fifty-nine miles per hour. If that’s a cop, then she isn’t coming for you. And yet it’s really closing in fast. My God. Really fast. You see it’s not a cop. It’s a sedan. A Kia Spectra. You can tell because it’s right on your butt now, and the girl, the diminutive brunette piloting the thing, you see, isn’t watching the road. She is looking into her lap. Just as you perceive the danger, the Spectra bumps you. What? Yes, it has bumped you. Bumped you! Never in your life has a car ever contacted you in any way shape or form. That would be a collision. But this is not. This is the vehicular equivalent of a love tap. The concept sends you through the roof. Well, not quite. You’re buckled in. Because you, for one, are following the rules. The law. You see that the Spectra is haphazardly drifting over into the fast lane, indicator be-damned. You are so mad that small ornaments are popping in your vision. All kinds. But you are delighted, too, that she is moving forward and will soon come into alignment with your eyes, when you will show her with your hands and with your face just how deplorable, how rotten a human being she truly is. Oh, the moment is drawing closer. You relish it the way you relish the stink of things you shouldn’t, like permanent marker, raw gas, paint, and cow flop. And then you are aligned. She’s eighteen if she’s a day. Her streaked hair is tucked back behind an ear encrusted with silver studs and gems. Around the wrist of her flaccid steering hand snakes a tattooed vine blooming with hearts. In the other hand is a cell phone. Her thumb is jabbing away at the glass. She is texting. Not only that. She is laughing. On the right, your exit surges into the past.

The thought of running this idiot off the road enters your mind for a fleeting second. You know the Tundra is up to the task. But then you see something that wipes the idea clean from your thoughts. In a row across the back seat are four small children. Kids. The things Amy just loves but you could take or leave. It’s not that you don’t like kids, it’s just you never know what to do about them on the rare occasion when one walks into your leg at Friendly’s. You’re never around kids. You’re not even an uncle. Your older brother Douglas is single and gay. Your little sister Brianna isn’t even in the running for kids. She’s been in Haiti two years doing service work and growing her leg hairs, too devoted to the reconstruction to even consider a relationship, and that’s not your opinion, that’s from the horse’s mouth. Kids have never even figured into your thoughts. But all that changes now. Your level of rage ascends to new heights now that you can see that this girl is endangering the welfare of not one, but four actual kids. Suddenly you love kids. Suddenly you’re an advocate for the well being of kids everywhere. No child left behind, and no child left behind the driver’s seat of some trashy teen mom unfit for a name. You are appalled to the core, and she hasn’t stopped texting. You blat the horn. She doesn’t look at you. You blat it five more times. She looks at you, confused. You mouth every bad word you know. Her eyes glass over and she expresses nothing. Is she retarded? You flip her the bird. That’s when she drops the phone into her lap and accelerates out in front of you.

Just when you think you can’t get anymore twentyish, when you think you might hallucinate from anger, you spot a whole menagerie of pink stuffed bears loaded in the Spectra’s rear window. All of them, every one of those bears is looking back at you with their tiny bright eyes. “You cannot be serious!” you scream. You steer into the fast lane to get up next to her again, for one last pantomimed berating, but, to your staggering disbelief, the flaming brat cuts you off.

You slash back across the road, indicator be-damned. For one sobering instant, it occurs to you that you don’t own this road, and you look back to find, not exactly a fleet, but certainly a back-log of cars keeping well away from this.

You slash left and so does she. Un. Real. Those abolished acts from the History Channel should be reinstated for this one. You think of keelhauling, stretching, the cat o’ nine tails, scalding, all good options. You cannot believe how reckless one girl can be, as you slash back into the fast lane and gun it. Once again, you’re cut off, and that makes you think of the guillotine. You think of the stocks. Hanging, drawing, and quartering. Since she won’t let you pass, you decide to bump her. Just desserts. And right before you do, right before you kiss, you see an explosion of changing lights in the rearview. They’re red and blue. For once, you’re glad to see them. You think she’ll be dealt with now. Punished to the full. But the squad car homes in behind you and you see a large finger stabbing at the shoulder for you to pull over now.

You feel impaled by injustice. A hailstorm hits you in the heart. You want to cry, scream, and cry again. All you can do is watch the Spectra diminish unscathed into the east.

You’re breathalyzed and arrested for reckless driving. The whole time you won’t shut up about the teen mom. As you’re led toward the cruiser, you tell him you were bumped. “Bumped?” the officer says, looking more agitated by the second.

“Yes,” you say. You can’t believe you’ve been arrested while she’s still on the loose, on the open road, texting. “I know how it sounds,” you plead, “but she rammed me with her car. Kind of. She was on her phone. The iPhone! Look at my bumper.”

The cop glances around and back. “I don’t see anything.”

“Like I said, she bumped me.”

“All right, all right,” he says, opening the back door, “don’t talk.”

You’re taken to the Riverhead facility. It’s where they bring all the colorful types you like to read about in the blotter, ever hopeful that you’ll recognize the name of some old enemy, such as Oli McPartland, who runs a rival tree service company and probably reads the blotter, too. You get one call. They’ve taken your cell phone so you don’t even know Amy’s number. You’re ashamed of this. You’ve been together three years and you don’t even know how to reach your fiancé. Strange times, you think, a little amused, but mostly sad. You ask if you can have your phone back just to get Amy’s number. “Is she family?” the deputy asks.

“She is my wife,” you say, and that gives you the idea.

You decide it’s now or never. You vaguely pictured your proposal happening on the beach, maybe out in Montauk, or at the Vine and Thresher, over pasta, bouillabaisse, and a nice bottle of malbec. This is a long shot. But you think it will work. You think she’s probably been expecting it for quite some time now. You’ll tell her what has happened, but it will pale in comparison to what you’ll tell her next. It’s perfect. The phone rings. The words are coming together. Nothing profound. Just simple and right. She answers. Your heart jerks and you smile.

“Amy?” you say. “Baby?”

Her breathy, puzzled hesitation sizzles across the line. “Darren?” she says. “Where are you?”
You draw in a breath. They have arrived, the words divined from love and honesty and a connection smoothed seamless by the caresses spread like feathers across the last three years, the best of your life. A film of wetness brightens your eyes. “Amy?” you breathe, so swollen with emotion you think it might close your throat, but you won’t let it, because this is it. This is that time.

She is going to be overjoyed.

Terence Lane is a writer from Long Island.