This is a short story I wrote many years ago. In 2001, it was published in a tiny literary magazine specializing in unusual and strange fiction called “The Missing Fez,” which has apparently gone defunct — probably because it had a ludicrous name. I sent them the manuscript on a lark, and they sent me back an acceptance letter enclosed with a check for $25. Which is breathtaking, to be honest, because should you be lucky to make it out of slush and into print, you shouldn’t necessarily expect money — even at a halfway-decent literary magazine.
I don’t recall ever getting a print copy of the actual magazine (also unusual and strange, since your average literary magazine’s standard currency is sample copies). “TMF” is not online, either. So essentially, this story did not exist anymore, except to me, to the few people who read it way back when I wrote it and decided to remember it, and perhaps to the guy who signed the $25 check to me, assuming he actually read it at the time.
So rather than let the story languish unread, I’m reprinting the story here, mostly unaltered except for a few wildly miscalculated metaphors, lame descriptions, and a semicolon glaring out of the first paragraph.
Route 395 was so long and straight, and Rodney’s seat so comfortable, that he was sure if he dozed off for just a few minutes or so he’d be fine. There was no traffic, not at this hour. For the past thirty minutes he’d rested his arms in his lap, holding the wheel steady with his stomach. The Volvo had heated seats. It reminded him of a soapy bath.
Shit, why the heated seats? The warmth radiating through his back coaxed him into a state of profound submissiveness. Between that and the soft leather he was essentially driving a plush La-Z-Boy with the optional massage turned on, and the soft jazz on the radio was soothing as a lullabye. He hadn’t planned on heated seats. He would’ve just as soon rented a Hyundai. But since Jerry was footing the bill, and since Jerry barely checked his receipts, Rodney had been nice to himself and rented the more spacious Volvo—and when would a guy like him get to drive a swanky car like this again? The heated seats had been a pleasant surprise he’d found while groping in the dark for the rear window defogger. Now the heated seats had spoiled him and he was squinting at the highway—a compromise between forcing his eyes open and letting them drift casually shut.
If only he brought an alarm clock. He could set it to go off in ten minutes and take a quick nap. Sleep and still make it to his hotel before 2, where a soft, plush mattress waited for him like a lover. No reason to steer, no reason to speed up or slow down—let cruise control take over. A little refresher. Just close your eyes—
He closed them.
He was on a bus. He was curled catlike, his legs under him, blazer draped across his shoulders and lap and head resting against someone’s shoulder. His eyes no longer felt like pebbles rolling in dry sockets. Somebody was massaging his back and buttocks. It was a pretty girl with tender, milky hands sitting next to him, and she was saying this is jazz all night with you every weeknight until six ay em we just heard from bing crosby there
Rodney opened his eyes. He was still driving the Volvo, which had gotten bumpier. He checked the clock—somehow he’d lost three minutes. He had also moved from the high-speed to the breakdown lane. The tires roared over the rumble strip. Rodney’s heart beat high in his chest, in his throat, behind his forehead. Just slept while driving! Shit! Shit! Jesus Christ! He was squinting again as he jerked the car into the center lane. His jaw cracked open, and he yawned improbably, trying to force his eyes open.Could’ve been killed! Could’ve driven off the road! Into a tree! Flipped over! Shit! Shit! He would pull over and nap, since nothing was open in this podunk neck of the woods at this hour, and if Jerry complained about the schedule being off, Rodney would—
A flash, and the car hit a wall—he heard a vaguely wet crunch of a meaty object hitting Swedish metal. Rodney was rocked in his seat and a pillow slammed into his face, the seat belts straining to hold him in place.
He slammed on the brakes, ground his teeth, and with an agonized yell, the car fishtailed to a stop in the middle of the highway. Not a wall—he hadn’t hit a wall. It was something. An animal.
Rodney rested his head on the pillow. It smelled like a tire.
Wake up! You hit something! You hit a giant penguin!
The windshield was spiderweb-cracked, the radio somehow louder than usual. He opened the door, wearily poked his head into the cold night, and saw a lump several feet away, in his headlights.
Rodney wobbled to his feet, his ribs, neck and shoulders aching from the crash. He braced himself on the fender. It had been hours since he’d stood up last and his feet had gone numb. A frigid wind strained through his blazer and slacks, ran up his sleeves. He folded his arms, teeth clicking like castanets, stunted breath smoking in the cold. He approached the lump and squinted at it.
It wasn’t a deer or a moose or a penguin. He rolled it over onto its back with his foot.
He hit Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s tuxedo shirt was torn and bloody. He’d lost his shoes. He had a weeping gash on his head, blood clumping and staining his gray hair. One of his legs was at a crazy angle, and the tuxedo pants were in ribbons. His bow tie was crooked. One of Sinatra’s blue eyes was open and dumb, pointing toward at the black and empty sky, the other eye closed.
Jesus Christ. What the hell could he do now? He killed Sinatra. Sinatra was dead. Poor thing, Rodney thought, nudging Sinatra’s leg with his shoe. Through the tears in Sinatra’s pants, Rodney saw that he was wearing—had been wearing—yellow silk bikini briefs.
Rodney checked up and down the highway—nobody around, no troopers or truckers. Not even the moon was visible.
He had to clear Sinatra off the road. He crouched down by Sinatra’s round, wrinkled head, smelling Sinatra’s cologne, a heady mix of leather and scotch. Rodney poked him in the face. He was soft and still warm. Sinatra’s mouth fell open.
Rodney stood and stared at the corpse. He wasn’t tired anymore. If he drove away—no witnesses—but no, he couldn’t just leave the guy there. The car—maybe there was something he could use to push Sinatra off to the shoulder. He didn’t want to touch him again. Let the state clean him up.
Rodney lurched back to the car, holding his aching ribs, reached in and popped open the trunk. He shut the door to mute the radio. By the bumper, Rodney found a shiny black leather shoe, the laces still tied, size 10 1/2, the brand an Italian name he didn’t recognize.
Rodney shoved aside his boxes of silverware samples to the back of the trunk and found a jack handle. He’d use it to prod Sinatra until Rodney rolled him closer to the median—anything to keep from getting blood on his fingers and suit. Another arctic wind filtered through his blazer, ran up his legs, down his collar. He felt an acid bubble crawl up his throat. Rodney swallowed thickly. Sinatra was probably carrying germs.
He slammed the trunk shut and trotted to the front of the car.
Nobody in the headlights—empty road with a few blood spots on the tar. Rodney squinted at the place Sinatra had been and shivered.
He squinted rapidly in all directions, and he saw him—Sinatra—by the side of the road, rubbing the forehead wound as if shaking off a hangover. Sinatra was staggering back into the woods.
“Hey!” Rodney yelled, waving the jack handle.
The six lanes of empty highway said, again and again, “Hey!”
If Sinatra heard, he made no sign. He limped off the road onto the shoulder, tearing off his bow tie. And then he was gone.
Rodney blinked, then looked back at the Volvo. The door was shut. He shivered. He walked over and tried the handle. It was locked. ¶