Tom Mock‘s short fiction has been nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize, selected as a finalist in the 2012 Press 53 awards, and published by Menacing Hedge.
As you drift home in the dead of night in the back of a black cab, the road is as spare as the open ocean. It rises and falls gently in the dark, seeming both wider and longer now in its emptiness than ever before.
Up ahead, they’re laying asphalt in mile long strips on the highway. Orange cones and cement barriers condense the four lanes to one narrow strait, and as you pass through, the oppressive smell of the tar overtakes the cheapness of the cedar cutout dangling from the rearview mirror. Amidst the massive engines slowly tearing up the old way to lay down the new, a man stands alone with his back to the brilliant, twenty-foot lights. Slouched against a yellow-handled shovel, his hard hat set back on his head, he watches the process with a heavy look, waiting for the time when he too may return home.
How that stink must clog his senses. Can he leave it behind him when he goes, you wonder, or does it stalk him even into the arms of a lover, stealing their comfort? He must have some way to wash himself clean. Nothing short of a purifying rite, submerging himself in some natural spring, lying down at the bottom right against the heated stones. Feel the smooth press of the water all around him, the heavy throb in his ears, the heart of the earth.
He wears no coat, even now in mid-November, only a coarse gray shirt under that colored construction vest, the sleeves pushed up his strong arms. Either it’s hot there inside the works, or his time on the road has hardened him like the cooling asphalt which, once set, only begins to crack and wear away again.
The man vanishes into the busy works as you rush past. Spilling out the other side of the strait, the air inside the cab is slow to clear. You think of your own distant reservoir slowly drawing closer and wonder if the waters there have the warmth to soothe you as they once did. Or have they gone from cool to cold? That is why you left in the first place, took the layover flights back and forth across the country, ate your daily ration of bland motel breakfast and reconstituted fast food, droned on endlessly at seminars, reciting the same tired lecture for a month and six days. Not for the money (although dearly needed, that was only an excuse), but to see if when you returned, deprived for so long, there was any power left in that place to restore you.
Closer now, passing lifeless twenty-four hour drive-throughs and small-town shops you’ve passed a thousand times—shops with signs that simply read “coffeehouse,” “cobbler,” and “Joe’s ice cream.” A police cruiser slips in behind you. One of those new models with hard angles, it rides the cab’s rear bumper, the great white nosing a seal. Its headlights fill the cabin and cast your shadow, head and shoulders, onto the seat in front of you. Your heart skips at the thought of any further delay now, and somehow the feeling is reassuring, because it’s unlike the gray constancy you’ve been living under.
It is hard to say where these things start, how long you went without any meaningful interaction before realizing you had slipped into an emotional swamp, nothing but dead water in all directions. It wasn’t exactly the bills stacked at the edge of the kitchen counter, money owed and back-owed and gaining interest, though those did not help. It wasn’t exactly that between your job and her job and overtime and deadlines and night classes and stretching yourselves across fading friends, that the time you spent alone together had dwindled, and when a moment did finally come along you were too tired and short tempered to make anything of it.
It wasn’t exactly a lot of little things, but all of them taken together, and suddenly you never seemed to say anything new to one another. Once you whispered poetry in the dark, and then suddenly you were taking the long way home from work just to listen to the radio.
But now you’re as tired as you’ve ever been, sucked dry by the long lonely sameness, and you desperately want to be home, and you’re ready to believe when you get to where you are going, you just might be.
The light from the cruiser slides off the back of your neck as it turns down another dark corridor of road, leaving your way finally unobstructed, and like that, you’re there.
The hum of the cab’s motor softens into the distance as you stand alone in front of the small arc of your front lawn. When Odysseus disembarked at last at Ithaca, he kissed the sand. You drag your feet in the grass, luggage bumping at your thigh. The wind stirs the high pines in the quiet, and an old, termite-eaten tree creaks as it bends. You stop amidst this subtle movement to listen, to feel the wind tug at your clothes and comb through your hair. The currents come in their own strange rhythm, strong and gentle and strong, irregular and shifting but always the same wind. The air is crisp and filled with the smell of charcoal still smoldering somewhere in the neighborhood, ashes and embers hot even now, hours after the meal was shared. You decide it’s not so cold out tonight after all.
No light shines on the porch to guide your step, but no light needs to. You fan your keys out with your thumb and feel for the one you need. It’s darker inside, deep pools of shadow divided by slanted paths of light that spread as your eyes adjust. You nudge the furniture you expect to nudge: this table with your hip, that chair with your knee; your shoulder thumps the wall as you enter the living room—maybe loud enough to wake someone.
Settling down on the couch is like sinking into a deep bath.
The dog’s tags tinkling in the dark give him away before he appears. He shuffles up beside you and rests his head on your lap—his quiet welcome. There is no judgment in his eyes, only joy. Good boy. Good that he is still young.
You think of the warmth of your own bed, of her waiting for you there. An anxiety stirs in you to know that she is only upstairs, so close after so long. Now all your past difficulties seem trifling, any dulling interest a dream, remote once awake and forgotten just as quickly. How will you tell her that you want her, that you’ll do whatever it takes to be brilliant again, that you have realized nothing could ever take the place of this place? Alone in the dark, you let the way you feel now build inside you until every fiber hums. The throb in your ears is not your heartbeat alone.
Rising, you go upstairs and lay beside her and breathe the smell of her skin.
You will not leave again.