Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday


IT WAS THE DEEP DARK BLACK OF NIGHT. I'd been driving for seventeen hours. The coffee on my breath, the glaze over my eyes, the subtle vibration of the engine moving through my legs-I loved it all. Christy was beside me, asleep, her gargantuan feet splayed out across my lap and her head snuggled tight on a pillow against the passenger-side door. The Nova rattled on as the miles clocked behind us. I couldn't tell if Christy had been asleep for twenty minutes or ten hours. Another set of headlights hadn't appeared for what was beginning to feel like days. For me driving is a passion, as sensuous and hypnotic as anything else I've ever experienced. I can drive twenty-four hours straight, no problem.

Focus and attention to detail, that's the key. You have to watch the road ahead of you while incorporating your knowledge of the road behind. Mark the cars, count them. An old woman in a Cutlass smoking a cigarette, 62 mph. Two Caucasian males approximately twenty-five, drinking large cups of soda and laughing in a '96 blue Dodge pickup, 72 mph. Always be aware of what the cars around you are 11p to. It takes two bad drivers to have an accident; we all know that. Stay ahead of the police. Use your brain. A good driver can see a speed trap before it happens. Stay alert and engaged in what you are doing. Never pass on the right; that causes more wrecks than any other highway infraction. No emotion. Fast song, slow song, good day, bad day: no difference. The world is still turning and you're still watching three cars ahead and two behind. Note the landmarks as you go. That way if you get lost or need to return, you'll be able to find your way. Trust your instincts and make your decisions instantly. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and keep on truckin'.


"One little trial; we can handle this. The world is mean," he went on. "I used to spend all this time walking around trying to convince everybody that I'm a good person, but I'm not good. I'm childish. I want everything my way. I want you to be the way I want you to be. Frankly, I want you to be exactly like me. I think the whole world should be exactly like me! I am manipulative as hell. I feel sorry for myself, I'm two-faced, I talk shit about people I actually like. I am not a good person and I don't want to be, screw that, but I'm not bad either." He was wagging his finger like a third-grade schoolmarm chastising a kid, and then he snapped his hand into a clasped fist. "I want to be a wolf and I want you to be in my pack and if this baby dies I'll nurse you back to health and if this baby is born I'll cut the friggin' cord and you're supposed to have my back. We're not alone. That's the idea; isn't it a relief?" He paused. "Would you look at me?" He banged wildly on the ceiling of the car.

"No, I don't want to," I said. I couldn't even listen to him. He was talking but I didn't know who he was talking to. "I want you to look where you're going."

"I know where I'm going. I'm going STRAIGHT AHEAD."

"Please just slow down."

He seemed to be only speeding up.

"Listen to me and the words I say to you now." He spoke deliberately. "You get what you give in this world. I know you think I'm a walking bag of cliches, but the reason cliches are true is that none of us are unique, all right? Our experiences are not in the least bit fuckin' exclusive." We whipped past a sign marking the city limits of Houston. "There are like eighty thousand women right now, worried that they're losing their babies. And you know what? Some of them will and some of them won't, and one of the lucky babies that does get born will be an ax murderer. A couple of months ago you weren't even sure you wanted this baby; now it's gonna ruin your life if you lose it. Bullshit."

It was then that the police car appeared behind us.

"Oh, my God" was all I could say, staring at the spinning lights in the passenger-side mirror.

"Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me," Jimmy went on. We pulled over and sat in silence as the Nova cooled and rattled.

"I hated our wedding," I said out loud. I hadn't ever thought that before, but at that moment I felt somehow that marriage was responsible for all this misery.

"Shut up about the wedding," Jimmy said, not looking at me. "The wedding was tits, OK? It was the best time you ever had in your life."

The officers seemed to be taking an hour, most likely running our license plate through a computer. Every thirty seconds or so another car would rush by us on the highway, sending a shiver through our seats and my nerves.

"Has this thing been inspected?" I asked, referring to the Nova.

There was a long silence. I tried to see the cops' movements through my side-view mirror.

"What do you mean you hated our wedding?" he finally asked.

"It was lousy," I said, drained of emotion. "I wanted a big wedding outdoors with a band. I wanted to look pretty and not be pregnant."

"You looked pretty."

"I didn't want it to be in a church. I don't even believe in God."

"Yes, you do. Don't say that, it pisses me off."

"OK," I said to myself. I turned and looked outside at the dry plains. Little bits of garbage and high mangy-looking grass surrounded us. Houston loomed large in the distance.

Without warning, Jimmy launched into another tirade, mimicking me in a mock-serious childish whiny tone. " 'I don't believe in God. There's no reason for anything. It's all just stinky. I don't care if there's mountains or deserts or rain or snow-there's no point to it. There just happens to be oxygen for me to breathe, that just happens to be created by the sun hitting the trees, which just happen to be made from the minerals in the earth that just happen to he made by my decomposing ancestors. But there's no reason. Oh, sure, there's a moon that comes out to light the sky after the sunsets, but who cares? There's no purpose, there's just me and my pooh-pooh unhappiness. Oh, boo-hoo, there's no reason for seals and sharks and eagles and cows, it's just all a big coinky-dinky. Just me and my black hole."'

"You are such an asshole," I said. I was furious. "You punched a guy. We're on our way to the hospital and you punched a guy. What are you, ten? I have to take care of everything. We're trying to get to a decent physician and you're going two hundred miles an hour in a car that isn't safe at thirty-five. No, I don't believe in anything, least of all you."

We looked at each other across the seats of the Nova, and at that instant there might as well have been an ocean and ten thousand years between us. I hadn't imagined I could ever feel so distant from him. I didn't even recognize his face.

"Look at you: You're completely irresponsible. You know that?" I continued. The police were still sitting in their car behind us with their lights spinning. "Who's gonna take care of me? I'm pregnant, Jimmy." I was not so much angry anymore as I was just thinking out loud.

Jimmy shook his head. "I'll take care of you. You make it sound like I'm not trying."

"I'm always sitting in urine, Jimmy, do you know that? I'm pregnant, and I wake up in the morning -not that I ever sleep- and I go to the bathroom, which I do ten hundred times a day, and every time I sit in a puddle of your urine."

"Listen, I will never do that again, OK? I promise." He cut his hand through the air, making a giant dramatic gesture. "I swear to God I will never pee on the seat again. Is that cool? Can we stop talking about that?" Then, more quietly, as an aside to himself he added, "I gotta get you to a doctor." He turned impatiently around to get a better view of the cops.

"Well, you're doing a great job." It was like I was somebody else and I just said everything I thought. "You know, we just stopped for gas and you didn't even ask me if I wanted anything to drink. Some orange juice, some water, anything. It didn't occur to you to think, Hey, maybe she's thirsty?"

"I got a shitload of Gatorade in the backseat. You want some? Would you care for a glass, your highness?"

"It's warm, and I DON'T LIKE GATORADE" I said, and started crying. Hot salty tears were streaming down my face. "I want to call my father." I said out loud. I thought I would like my father to beat Jimmy up.

"You gotta tell me," Jimmy said, putting on this overly sincere, sensitive voice. "You gotta ask. You gotta say, 'Hey, I want some water,' end I'll get it, but I can't read your mind."

"I have to tell you everything: to shave, to brush your teeth, to take a bath, to wash your hair. How do you think you'll be able to take care of a baby? You don't take care of anything." I said this through streams of tears.

"Oh, for crying out loud. I gotta get you to a doctor." Jimmy scowled.

Just then a female cop with short curly reddish-brown hair appeared at the driver's side window, with another cop, a tall skinny male, lingering behind the taillights. Jimmy rolled down his window.

"License and registration," she said, her hands placed confidently on her hips.

"Listen, my wife here is pregnant and we're experiencing some complications and we're a little desperate to get to the hospital in Houston."

"Why Houston?"

The question seemed to baffle Jimmy. "I don't know, that's just where we're going. We were at another hospital, but we figured Houston would have the best one. Christy's family lives in Houston." He gestured lamely toward my section of the car. The busted nose in the center of his face wasn't helping our cause.

"First give me your license and registration," she said, with no discernible level of empathy.

"Yeah, right. Hold on." Jimmy dug into his wallet, lifting up his butt awkwardly and reaching behind him. Then he leaned over and dug into the glove box. As he opened it I was the first one to see the small pistol Jimmy keeps there. Still wrapped in a brown leather holster, it plopped dumbly onto my lap.

Both officers started shouting "Gun, gun, gun! " as they pulled out their firearms and pointed one at each of us. Jimmy raised his hands in surrender but I just sat still, dumb to the world. I couldn't even move my arms. I hated Jimmy. I had no idea when I married him how painful it would be to be defined by someone else.

"That's a registered firearm," Jimmy said quietly, in a peaceful passive tone. "I have a carry permit. I am Staff Sergeant James S. Heartsock of the U.S. Army. There is no need to be alarmed. We will comply with full efficiency."

"Oh, God." Listening to Jimmy talk like an army goomba made me want to puke. I have nothing to do with this person, I wanted to say to the officers, but my mouth was dry.

"Step out of the car," the female said, while her partner reached inside the Nova, opening the door and seizing the pistol from my lap. Eventually we both stepped out. I don't know how I did it, I wasn't aware of controlling my limbs at all. We looked like a couple of delinquent deadbeat kids, Jim with his broken nose and wild man eyes and me with my pregnant round face, worn and stained from crying.

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Excerpted from Ash Wednesday by Ethan Hawke. Copyright © 2002 by Ethan Hawke. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.