short story    

INTRODUCTORY STATEMENT Like many Americans, I love my job but hate my commute. However, two hours on the highway each day provide quite a study of human nature. Each leg of the trip yields a potential story. Surrounded by the best and worst of society moving at sixty miles an hour, one observes people unashamedly at their most gracious, and most selfish, and most aggressive, all viewed behind a layer of glass. I have found that in many ways, a good stretch on the road is like a visit to the zoo. Or, perhaps, the aquarium.

BIOGRAPHY Morgan McDermott is a graduate of the University of Iowa and teaches creative writing at Adlai E. Stevenson High School. Recently, his short stories received awards from The Nebraska Review, Dogwood, the Ruth Hindman Foundation, Mississippi Review, One Story, Short Story Journal/Society for the Study of the Short Story, River City, The Bellingham Review, New Millennium Writings, Phoebe, and the Bridport Arts Centre in the U.K. He resides on the North Shore of Chicago with his wife, Wendy Parks.


You see the hook coming: a rusted muffler pipe, a yard of curled steel throwing sparks as it twirls eighty miles an hour in your lane. Instinctively your thumb disconnects your voice mail and speed-dials the only man left in your world. Shiny silver bodies run tight on all sides, the current furious. You cannot go left, and you cannot do right. You and the hook are alone.

Dashboard clock time: Six-Twenty. Leave your husband five minutes earlier, you could have missed this moment. Snag one more red light, you would have slipped the hook. Where is a red light when you need one? You spend half the day standing at crosswalks waiting for the light to change, cell to mouth, fording the data stream, swimming from one meeting to the next. Your phone is a shiny lure you attach willingly to your lip, often completely unaware of what may be on the other end of the line. You sell. Because you are in Chicago, you sell to the seashores, though you sell little lately. Clients in New York and L.A. play you until you tire, then cut bait. The game has become catch-and-release. They, too, must keep looking busy. Firings are rampant. Money is tight. Everyone asks how your office is, if it is hiring. Everyone is fishing.

Hey there. It is at once your lover's voice in your ear, and not. A stingray looms in your rear-view, too close for you to brake. Your new Tiburon is nimble, but cannot fly. It has good tires, but they are only rubber. The hook will bite into one of them and you will be caught. You will be at the mercy of the current.

You drop the telephone, grip the wheel. The phone hits the car floor.

Leave a message, it says.

Your husband missed the message you sent when you learned how to drive a stick shift. He missed the subtext when you bought the car by yourself. Machinery was his forte. You bought the car without his consultation. To him, this was not a hint of your infidelity, it was your infidelity.

A former Navy XO, he knows the best way to change a tire but knows no way to change his tone. Twenty years older than you, a heavy smoker, he both angers and tires easily. You never dreamed you would marry an old man, but you were a poor kid from Mobile, and he was a ranking officer. He told you that while he was not rich, he was terrifically liquid. He had a house in Chicago. This reeled you in. Chicago was deep water. Chicago was clubs and lights and music. The XO did not tell you that as a submariner, he was in his house just seventy days a year.

Tiburon means shark, he said, standing at the front door, refusing to come out.

You had brought it home from the dealership to show him. The car was black; in the twilight it appeared to swim, the fading light slipping over its skin. It was spawning season. Thirty was around the bend. But too many years in the close company of a nuclear reactor had tied a slip-knot around the XO's abilities. He had not touched you in a very long time.

A man-eating fish, the XO said. You're trying to tell me something.

An hour later your lover was thrilled, thrown only a bit by its tires.

V-rated, he said. Better than mine.

Your lover is sleek, refined, useless in a pinch. He admits he has never opened the hood of his car. You value his numbers: twenty-nine years old, fifty-dollar haircuts, a count of sixty million sperm per milliliter. You met him over a sales call. He confessed he was adrift, wading through the shallows of young girls; he wanted an older, independent woman. You told him you wanted a child, but not marriage.

That's independent, he said.

You told him an independent woman was a rare catch.

A catch, he said.

You told him an independent woman was an acquired taste, like caviar. You said this thinking of your eggs.

You lock your arms against the wheel, bracing. It is fall. The days are shortening, the wind increasing in bite. The orange construction cones that appeared like crocuses along the pavement are withering; the flowers of the metropolis that appear each spring are fading. If you had left your husband in summer, the traffic would never have been this fluid.

The hook revolves, holding to the center of your lane.

If you had taken five more minutes in the tub.

Your gynecologist, the XO said, casting the line. Your cell phone had been ringing. You had been floating in the bath, treading water: eyes in one world, ears in another. You had a date tonight.

You were slow to take the bait. The XO set the phone on the tile floor. He could no longer penetrate the layer of bubbles surrounding you, so he reached for your towel.

You were his siren. Seaman to the bone, he had hazarded the rocky shores of the Gulf to answer your call. He was still under your spell. He held the towel open. From where you lie, it looked very much like a net. The XO was a former submariner, floundering out of water in the civilian world. He could no longer use his Navy vocabulary, and he had not developed another. He sat at home connected to streaming quotes, buying and selling stocks for an evaporating portfolio. You were all he had.

Here, he said.

The phone's glowing green face blinks urgently from the floor, bobbing just out of reach, a message in a bottle.

Your hands clench in frustration.

Taking a deep breath, you slip beneath the surface. A perilous wave crashes around you, and you cry out. The sound fills your ears as you wait for the current to do with you what it will.

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    Copyright © 2002 by Morgan McDermott