Every time I went out to the car, I'd slide myself in and pull that pack of smokes from the slot in the dash. Without looking at it, staring into the afternoon haze, I'd run my fingertip back and forth over the unopened plastic tab and breathe. Thinking, but not really thinking. Breathing, but not thinking at all. Every break, every company-granted fifteen-minute block, I'd go sit out in the lousy heat and play with the cellophane wrapper on a cigarette box as I sat sweating in the passenger seat of my not-so-old American sedan.
The doors would be open, there in my numbered spot between the video and audio production buildings, with the stereo on but not loud enough to hear. No breeze to move the smoky cloud over the satellite dishes behind their padlocked-fence enclosure. Signals shooting up and shooting down: weather radar, classic rock, and auto races. Wavelengths encoded with infomercials and kung fu; pornography and cooking shows.
Some of those signals miss the satellites, you know. They go right past. Alien civilizations will see them, and know us through storm warnings, kung fu movies, and porn.
I had not smoked a butt in nearly four years, having quit soon after Elise and I were engaged. I bought the pack the day she told me she had spoken to a divorce lawyer, and it had stayed in my car ever since. I'd never moved it, except for the times I went out to sit and not think, holding the box in my hand—they were Camel Filters, even—and I'd play with the wrapper and say to myself: how bad would it be to have just one?
Finally, there in my car with my shirt sticking to my skin, I thought, Well fuck it, it's done, she's moving out today, I'm having a goddamn smoke finally. The moment I'd started to pull the golden tab with some sort of conviction, my cell phone buzzed and shook; I managed to catch it when it tumbled from where I had placed it above the stereo.
"Andy." A deep voice; just enough gravel, just enough weight. Made for TV and radio.
"Mr. Nelson, you have saved me from smoking my first cigarette in a long time."
"I never understood why you quit."
"You know why I quit."
"That was your first sign of weakness, Andy. You gave in. That's why you're where you are today."
I threw the pack into the center console. "Are you trying to cheer me up somehow? If so, it's not working."
"I know how you feel. I do. My first divorce was hard. So hard. They're all bullshit. But trust me, they get a lot easier."
"Jesus, maybe . . . maybe I'd like to not make this a habit?"
"Ha!" Mr. Nelson said, coughing. "Enough of that, now. Anything better in radio land today?"
"Today, radio land is going pretty well. I think. We never know how the corporate masters are feeling. An e-_mail got forwarded around this morning about cuts in the news _department now that the merger is on. Remote offices are worried, but I have a feeling it's only a rumor." I tried to sound like I wasn't concerned.
"You're safe, Andy. Everyone needs the weather. You're good! You've got that good presence."
"But you really should get back into television. You were made for television."
"I'm pretty happy where I am now."
"Really." He coughed again. "Well, if you end up feeling not so happy, I might happen to know about an opening at the Omaha affiliate—"
"You mentioned. Things are fine in radio land."
"—evening slot, they need a real meteorologist there too. Lots of tornadoes in Omaha, Andy. Cyclones! I know you love those tornadoes."
"Things are good for me here, Mr. Nelson. I mean it."
"And easy, I'm sure. Okay, you go get the headphones back on and put another no-chance-of-precip forecast in the can. But if you feel like getting back in front of a camera—"
"I'll call you."
"Call me anyway. And hang in there. I know it's hard. I know how you feel. I know how you felt about Elise."
"Thank you, Mr. Nelson."
And that was that. I pushed the sunshade back against the windshield and locked up the car. Mr. Nelson—my old coach, mentor, and friend—called almost daily to check in. He knew things were rough. And he did a pretty good job of keeping my spirits up, even if it meant me hearing about a job offering at a Nebraska CBS affiliate every other day.
The air-conditioned blast as I reentered the audio building made my skin go tight with goose bumps. Our weather and news outpost was on the second floor, and I skipped riding the elevator for a jog up the stairway in a pathetic _effort to get some sort of exercise. That daily trot was my only sort of exercise back then, and even if it did nothing for my overall fitness, at least I could fool myself and the beer-fed sheath of fat entrenched around my middle into believing I was submitting myself to some kind of regular physical activity.
If a wheezing run up the stairs to my studio got me feeling just a little bit better, the sight of my obese engineer, Vikas, usually helped me a lot. At least my physical state had not fallen that low. Not yet, anyway. Vikas sat behind the glass wall, slouched down in his rolling chair before his grand engineering board, a corporate polo shirt with a dark wet stain from his diet cola stretched over his belly. Vikas was a great engineer. Maybe a little too young, and maybe a little too earnest. I loved the guy, though, shirt stain and all. After hours, in a total violation of company policy, he used the studio to record his hip-hop masterwork, voicing the angst of the Indian diaspora under the alias of DJ Fatty Vik. Vikas was born in Pasadena.
"Things better, Chief-o?" he asked over the monitor, stifling a belch with his fist to his mouth. That was what he called me, Chief-o, like something out of a Rushdie novel.
"Nothing's better, Vik."
"It'll get better."
"That's a . . . how old are you, Vikas?"
"Twenty-four. You know that. And why? Aren't you forty?"
"Christ. Vik. Stop it. I'm only ten years older than you." I looked at him through the glass and held up both hands, all my fingers spread open. "Ten," I said. "Only ten." He was joking, but man. That hurt. I took my place in my chair and untangled my headphones. "Not forty yet. But I am starting to think nothing gets better after thirty."
Vikas furrowed his brow, like he was afraid for a moment that it could really be true. The fear must have passed, because he rolled himself up to his controls and applied his chubby fingers to the knobs and sliders there. "Let's hit the Central Valley bump again, Chief-o."
I found my notes on my keyboard and pulled the microphone down and adjusted the pop screen. "There's a twenty percent chance—"
"Come on, Andy, your levels are shit. Up."
I repositioned the mic and closed my eyes. "Twenty, twenty, twenty."
"Yeah. There you are. That's it."
I pressed on the sides of my headphones again and swallowed. "There's a twenty percent chance of some much-needed rain-shower activity in the Central Valley. Fresno, Selma, and other towns along the ninety-nine corridor can look for gusty winds as those scattered cloudbursts move through in the afternoon. San Diego County, you're looking to continue that record of five hundred and eighty days without measurable precipitation, with no end to the extraordinary drought cycle in sight as high pressure once again becomes entrenched over the Pacific. From your Constellation Satellite Radio West Coast weather headquarters, I'm Andy Dunne."
"That's it," Vikas said.
"That was fine. I know you've got . . . you want to just get going?"
"Let me do those drive-time bumps."
"I'll get drive time." Vikas almost looked embarrassed when he said it. "And I'll do the uploads." He saw me furrow my brow through the glass. "Corporate's all gone home, dude. No one's going to hear me doing those spots."
"Go take care of your stuff."
I shuffled my notes together and gathered up my things, and Vikas swatted at my arm as I walked past. To the right, the way I'd normally go, the way I needed to go, was the stairway down to my car. To the left, two doors over in a double-size studio, were the Dubs, the Masters of Kung Fu and Asian Cookery, the artists more formally known as the Asia Pacific Voice Talent Studio, LLC. I could have gone; could have seen what action flick or humiliating game show Lam and Billy and the rest of their genial and bilingual crew were cranking out that day. I could have checked if they'd needed me for a crowd scene, or maybe a shout as a villain fell from a balcony. I could have, as more often was the case, gone to pick up takeout and beer for the troops on their forty-fifth, sixtieth, or hundredth loop.
I could have gone to see Hillary. Hill, the voice of the Heroine, the voice of the Demure. The voice of the stooped old lady, or the game-show co-host. The voice of the Martial Arts Badass Chick.
My deep crush and secret shame, Hillary Hsing.
To the left were Hill and the Dubs, and to the right were my car, a commute, and the harsh smack in the face of a house—my house—with most of the furniture removed from it.
I went right, and down the stairs.
The Five slowed to nothing just north of La Jolla, a dead stop, and the cigarettes kept staring at me from their slot below the stereo. I didn't give in. I just rolled down the windows and sat, waiting for something to move. And finally, in my pants pocket, there was a kind of motion: the heart-stopping buzz of my phone signaling the receipt of a text message. One new message. Sender: Hill Sing. We'd all been out drinking when I entered her number into my contacts, and I hadn't realized she had the silent "H" in her last name.
"why didn't you stop in?" the message said.
I started to thumb a reply, but traffic began creeping along again, so I called her.
"Andy," she said. "Andy. Are you okay?" Hillary was born in London and grew up between there and Hong Kong, where her family had business. Her prep school accent was sublime.
"Don't know, really."
She sighed. "Why didn't you come over? Lam has something for you. It's in a big bottle. He says you should be celebrating."
"Lam is crazy."
"He is crazy. But he's sweet. They all feel bad for you, Andy. I feel bad for you."
My wife slept with one of her clients, multiple times, then told me she had done so. Straight up. This surprised me, because I had believed for several months—at least—that she was just too busy or tired for sex. I know I wouldn't have been much of a participant, and she was a busy woman, I suppose. Busy getting nailed by her client. As I'd been drifting along, Elise had been busy living.
When she told me we were getting a divorce, I said okay without much of a pause. I felt like I deserved it, knowing it in a way no one else did: my heart was secretly devoted to Hillary Hsing. Hill and I had been talking on the phone and visiting each other's offices almost every working day for nearly two years. Two years of "accidental" run-ins in the lobby, and proximate seating in group lunches with the Dubs. Two years of cracked fortune cookies and glances over water glasses. Month after month of text messages—hello good night see you tomorrow—repeated until they meant nothing and everything to me at the same time.
Even though we were both nominally devoted to someone else and nothing had ever explicitly been said or done or felt between Hillary and me, I still thought I deserved to be stoned to death. Mental adultery; my affections had gone elsewhere. Elise's request for a divorce seemed reasonable.
"I'm fine," I said. Lam's gift was tempting, however, and I tried to calculate how much time I'd lose driving if I got off at the next exit and went back to the city to get it.
"Andy," she said. "That e-mail I sent—" An incoming call chimed through, clipping her voice.
"Hill, hold on, I need to grab this." I was certain for an instant it would be Vikas, phoning to let me know that corporate had heard one of his bumps and I was now fired.
"Call me later," she said, and I glanced down to see my big sister Leigh Anne's name on the display.
"I will." I pressed the answer button. "Hello?"
"Are you okay?" my sister asked.
"Everyone is asking me that same question today. What is up with that?"
"Andrew, stop it. Are you okay? Where are you?"
"On the Five. Like Solana Beach. Creeping." I rolled on past the Solana exit. Lam's gift could wait until tomorrow. "I'm fine," I said.
"You're not. I can tell."
"Okay, I'm not fine. Jesus Christ. Of course I'm not fine, Leigh. What the fuck do you think?"
"Don't get like that. Come over and have dinner with us."
"I need to go home. I mean, I need to go to my house. And see what's left."
"Come over, Andy. Stay with us tonight."
"I'm not going to be very good company. I may get drunk. I may drink myself to the point of stupor."
"Andy, you can't—"
"Grant me tonight. Come on. Elise is now officially moved out. My things are gone. My things, Leigh. I need to mourn their departure."
"—no, it's Hannah's media program. The interview part is tomorrow. The shadow day."
Hannah. My almost-sixteen-year-old niece. She was a sophomore at the alternative arts high school, and had asked a few weeks earlier if she could follow me around at work for a day with a camcorder.
"Oh, shit," I said.
"Do you not want to? I can call them, maybe she can reschedule?"
"No, no, no, I just totally forgot. Totally. Forgot."
"You really don't have to. I know you have a lot—"
"It's fine, Leigh. What time?"
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. Time?"
"She's supposed to be with you for a full school day to get credit. But we can fudge. No later than nine?"
"No later than nine." I passed a car broken down next to the concrete median divider.
"Don't sleep in," Leigh Anne said.
"I may not have an alarm clock anymore." I was only half joking. "No, I have an alarm on my phone. I won't sleep in."
"I love you, Andy. I know you're upset. Don't go overboard tonight."
"Thank you. I love you too."
Five years older than me, Leigh Anne worked as a career counselor for several local school districts. Her husband, Lieutenant Matthew Packard Sr., USN, was a chaplain in the navy, and seven months into a nine-month deployment with his carrier group. So when my sister was alone with her daughter, Hannah, and her son, Matt Number Two (I refused to call him Junior), Uncle Andy tried to help out. Leigh and I hadn't been so close when we were kids; she liked boys and antagonizing our mother, while my brother Jason and I liked baseball, thunderstorms, and setting things on fire. I never really knew my sister until we both found ourselves in Southern California. I needed a place to stay, and she needed help with her kids. After Jason died, we grew much closer.
At Encinitas, their exit, I thought maybe I should just go and spend the night with them. I pulled off the highway, but drove right on past their road, figuring they didn't much want to watch me wallowing in self-pity. On top of that, I didn't want Hannah or Matt Number Two to see me getting loaded.
Down at the Coast Highway I turned north. It was always the same: surfboards, Rollerblades, cruiser bikes. And gawkers. Slowly driving gawkers. I cursed myself for getting off the Five. From time to time I looked out at the ocean where a sailboat pounded north through the waves, probably beating its way back up to the little yacht basin at Oceanside. Elise and I had talked about getting a sailboat sometimes. That would have been good.
I would have liked a sailboat.
Past Leucadia and the big lagoon I aimed myself back up and away from the sea. Over the freeway that would have had me home by now, and east into the dry brown suburbs. My development, when I turned into it, looked dusty, ash-covered. Like a sepia-toned photograph, but real life. The houses and cars and yards seemed filthy and gray, and the palm trees and ornamentals in the dirty yards were limp. Dead.
My neighbors liked to ask me when the rain would come. I should know, right? Here I was, Mr. Meteorologist, a professional, with a master's degree in atmospheric sciences and an AMS seal of approval. I had been a TV weatherman. I was on satellite radio. But I still could not just make it happen. I did not have that power. I do not have it now.
Excerpted from Two Years, No Rain by Shawn Klomparens. Copyright © 2009 by Shawn Klomparens. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.