BY PAUL HANDLEY
Paula laughed at the jests on NPR. Her chortles sounded to Rance like a chimpanzee establishing social dominance in the unit, though the unit was limited by the size of Paula’s Honda Aoshima or Rance’s Subaru Outback. It was further limited by the number of responses to the RideShare program, thus their tribe was a carpool of two.
The upside of being marginalized by Paula’s cornering the market of radio repartee was that Rance felt very masculine with her, especially when they pulled up to the truck driving school under the polyethylene sign that he had commissioned. The building had cheap, sliding, horizontal windows. The discolored white siding appeared vulnerable to a decent boot with a size 13 side-kick, heel forward, which happened to be Rance’s foot size.
Rance’s sense of his Y chromosomes boxing out Xs was fleeting. After Paula dropped him at off and steered toward her destination of employment, Simplot College, testosterone floated from him like steroid dandruff. A Southwestern wind blew the secreted spores around the few parking spaces and tumbled over the driving instruction lot in search of a receptive dimple. This may have been a good thing, given the amount of heightened virility already bumping up against each other in the school’s tight quarters. Any additional testosterone could exceed the building’s capacity, causing it to explode.
Perhaps that’s why he had been hired as Director. The owner of the nationwide chain of truck driving schools may have sensed Rance’s willingness to ratchet it down in the interview. His he-man self-image with Paula was in direct contrast to the truck driving school where his lack of handiness became the basis of most of the humor directed at him. To save on expenditures, the staff completed all the repairs on site. Diamond didn’t even bother to ask Rance anymore since he was hopeless in that regard.
One day to demonstrate his worth manually (the root of manual is man, although if you read the manual that diminishes the man), Rance decided to dig a posthole in which to plant the unpainted graying wood rail, lined with broken tree rings dating back to the first Bush administration that supported the mailbox. He neglected to wear gloves, developing multiple blisters that soon interconnected to create single serving fillet of halibut bubbles. Only after the blisters were formed did he look for some work gloves, which quickly became soaked with what he thought was sweat, but realized after taking them off was burst blister serum. He had to stop one of his usual poses for days, of which the outstanding feature involved sticking his hands in his pockets and not much else.
He didn’t even know how to drive a truck. In fact, he had never even driven a pickup. He didn’t have any desire to drive a truck. He thought ruefully that someday he would, in order to gain a sense of legitimacy, be forced to sit in the classroom and then go on the road to grind some gears and burn out a clutch in one of the monster vehicles.
“How’s your girlfriend?” asked Diamond. The administrator/de facto office manager was sitting at her desk and could spy out approaches and departures from the window to her right. Due to her immense girth, she rarely moved except to go to the bathroom. She couldn’t fit in the regular bathroom, so she shared Rance’s, which could only be accessed by entering his office. He felt guilty thinking about it, but Diamond left behind odors he associated with sweat formed between her layers of overlapping skin: fat sweat.
Rance said, “We’re just riding buddies.”
“She’s pretty. Looks like your type.”
“You know my type, huh?”
Ruben, one of the instructors wearing a red Peterbilt cap said, “Yeah, she has legs,” and they all laughed, Rance less enthusiastically than the other two.
“She’s all right,” Rance sighed in mock exasperation that was expected in keeping in the character established when he had previously protested the girlfriend designation. Office personnel appreciate consistency, was his rationale. He would continue down the path of put-upon boss as long as this particular romantic specter was raised.
Rance went into his office to switch on the company computer, and flipped open the blinds. As he gazed out the window waiting for the computer to boot up he could see the brick pinnacles of the college rising above the softwood trees. They were the tallest and most majestic buildings by far in Soda Springs. He couldn’t quite make out the time on the clock tower that was slightly turned away from him, the hands shimmery arrows from this distance.
The college was private, thus not dependent upon the whims of the LDS bishops that composed the bulk of the legislature that essentially made the state a theocracy. For example, LDS members were not allowed to drink and were anti-government, yet the liquor stores were state owned. Rance had completed an internship in the State House where, on the first day of the legislative session, the Majority leader decried the perniciousness of elected leaders. This was met with enthusiastic applause from the other representatives. A rallying point they could all agree upon was their inherent awfulness.
Simplot had a reputation as a good college, whatever that meant. High standards to get in? Immaculate grounds? Classes taught by graduate students because superstar faculty were too busy maintaining superstar status?
It was the chicken or the egg dilemma to Rance. Graduates got good jobs, so it was a good school and it was a good school because its graduates got good jobs. What happened if there was a break in the cycle? Was there a sudden decrease in good schoolness?
Were students at other schools reading the Cliff Notes? Did schools really want kids who slavishly studied from the ages of fourteen or fifteen, rounding out their assault on admission committees with SAT weekend preparation, multiple extracurricular activities to plump up their applications and then, once they entered the collegiate population of their choice(s), dive bombed magnificently into a free fall of drug induced hijinks and sexually transmitted diseases they had denied themselves during their formative years?
Paula told him that she had been the head of the English department and all she had was a master’s degree. How good a school could it be with a department chair without a PhD, he thought snottily. His state school would never have allowed it. His institution wouldn’t even hire a person with the degree from which he was all but a mammoth dissertation, plus defense of said dissertation, away.
At first the carpool conversations were mostly one way. Rance feeding Paula questions. They carpooled only on Mondays and Fridays, so there was lots of weekend small talk such as “How was your weekend?” or “Any plans for the weekend?” Paula would reply in a flat voice. “Ran errands. Did my laundry. Took my daughter to the park.”
She would grudgingly, per the demands of polite society, ask weekend questions in return. After she felt that her obligation had been met, Paula would emit a little sigh of inward pain from the effort.
Paula had published three books of poetry. She met Rance’s stereotype of a poet. She emoted like a Broadway performer without the grand gestures, but using melodramatic facial expressions to reach the audience in the back rows. The amusing part to Rance is that anyone could also see that Paula was attempting to suppress her feelings. Rance imagined that he was an audience member on a daytime talk show that was offered the mic and was lecturing the guest on the reality of the situation. “Honey it just ain’t happenin’. You ain’t hid’n nothing.” Of course, he didn’t say anything because doing so would have compromised a significant advantage on his part.
One Friday morning Paula opened up a bit. “I couldn’t sleep last night. I saw one of your commercials at 3am.”
“They aren’t that bad,” said Rance, quick with a lame joke.
Paula used her polite laugh that sounded as automatic as gesundheit. “Do they actually work?”
“Just lose a chunk of hope, have a few drinks, smoke some meth and you might look at them differently.” Rance had a willingness to spend the company’s money on advertising. The only investment strategy Rance had learned from the economics of micro/macro theory and history was that you had to spend money to make money. He even doubted that’s where he accrued that info. It was probably gleaned from a movie.
Fortuitously, the key demographic watched TV when rates were cheapest. Rance also felt that early morning advertising slots coincided with the time potential students were at their most emotionally and chemically vulnerable. He pictured them in musty basements lying back on couches, hide-a-beds, and futons, wanting to run away from responsibilities and lack of responsibilities.
“How can you sell a product when you believe it’s horrible?”
“I just bought the ad space. It wasn’t hard.” Rance had met people like Paula. He recalled an acquaintance astounded by the latest poll results in the last presidential election, stating “I can’t believe anyone is voting for him. I don’t know anyone who likes him.” It was a club united in willful naiveté based upon their limited connections despite a plethora of sources telling them otherwise.
Most of the road between the two towns where Rance and Paula resided and where they were employed was a two-lane highway. One foggy November morning after a light snow followed by freezing rain, they were crossing a small bridge that narrowed, eliminating the shoulders and drawing close the open wooden slates on either side through which could be seen a river, forming a scenic bull-riding chute. Taxes were low; consequently, plowing and road maintenance was minimal.
The car went into a slide and the bridge became a time vortex where it felt like the careening could go on indefinitely. Rance wasn’t positive what black ice was, but he thought the black ice on the bridge was the black ice referred to in cautionary news reports. He could feel Paula’s fear. Consequently, he froze his own fear in a pocket just under his stack of left ribs in order to not let it take him over.
Outwardly he displayed zero emotion as if cutting through a middling puddle. He often thought that in a pair, trade-offs had to be made to reach an instinctual emotional center point. If Paula was less fearful, the only sensible option might be to show terror to appease the gods monitoring the appreciation levels of their situational output. Since Paula was doing the heavy lifting, he had to tamp it down.
The Outback slid at forty-five miles an hour. Rance reflexively turned into it and they eventually righted. No outcry by either of them. Paula tripled her normal allotment and intensified her tells. Her momentum stopped mid-reach to brace herself against the dashboard. Rance had an urge to nudge her forward or extend her arm completely.
He hoped Paula wouldn’t think he was driving too fast for narrow bridges layered with onyx crystals that individually were pretty as any snowflake, he reflected with absurdly misplaced competitiveness. Despite the possibility of poor judgment, he felt his manly meter had ticked up again.
Another time Rance announced, “I read one of your poetry books.” Paula got a panicked look in the one brown eye he could view from the passenger side. Neck crooked. Slight recoil. Freeze. Then slowly worked her way out of it like an accident victim waking up in a hospital room testing her limbs for nerve damage.
Rance had deliberately made a trip to Borders Books to find one of Paula’s books. It was magical for him to see a book from somebody he knew on a shelf in a bookstore. As far as he was concerned it put her in the pantheon of all people. He knew nothing about poetry, but suspected it might be good. It certainly had clever images and wordplay tinged with music.
Since Paula seemed poised for the crushing blow of a negative review, Rance ended her anticipation. “I liked it. Donkey Narcotics, right?”
“Donkey Narcissism,” she corrected.
“Yeah, that was it,” laughing at his mistake. “Good stuff, I think, for all I know about poetry.”
“Thank you,” she said in a perfunctory way that seemed to Rance that she didn’t think his review worthy of consideration. She had already flitted away to another disposition despite her intense anxiety fifteen seconds earlier.
“Have you ever thought about writing a book and maybe combining it with poetry like Possession, by umm…?”
Paula’s emotions flitted to astonishment, then disappointment, the connective reactions making it difficult for Rance to enjoy the former.
“A.S Byatt,” she said tonelessly.
“No. I’m just a one-trick pony.”
Rance had begun to give her tidbits of who he was, as defined by what he enjoyed doing. One of the things he liked doing was bringing up topics to jar her. He could create a smoothie of jarness. Place her in a blender as the foundation around which the other ingredients such as obscure movies, literary literature, Hollywood gossip, and sports ricocheted.
One Monday morning he told her had had gone to see a movie that weekend. A critical darling called The Ice Storm. Paula registered instant effrontery, distilled with a wry tilt of her mouth of acceptance. He liked messing with Paula, but that was overridden by a desire for her respect. Eventually he told Paula about his education.
It bothered him that they both needed him to trot out his resume, albeit for different purposes. Although, her need was more understandable since the vital part of their interaction was a commute involving a stop at a truck driving school where he was employed and shouldn’t he have an intrinsic quality that would have relayed the pertinent background information to her? His self-image had at one time contained modesty and not caring much about the opinions of others. Rance believed he still retained vestiges of those idealizations, but they had been eroded by qualifiers to such a degree as to be almost unrecognizable.
He was grateful for the cessation of the haughty NPR chuckles. The on-air patter in-between was often sort of cute, but not worthy of an outright chuckle, which he knew was beside the point.
The point was that she was part of a club that engaged in exclusive activities that were available to the masses, but who did not partake due to their lack of mass appeal. That was part of the allure. The exclusive activities were right there for the partaking. The activities were egalitarian in theory but lost gloss when the clubs’ stated aspirations for others were met, and gained when they weren’t.
The drop-off at the other’s home had moved past perfunctory byes to a time for wishes to enjoy the middle week or weekend. Rance lingered in his seat wanting more. One Friday as they sat outside of the white doors of the Carolina blue garages blocking the apartment windows of the two story quadplexes where she dropped him off, he leaned over quickly to kiss her, giving her a slight moment to decide, and Paula reared back.
Rance immediately popped out of the car embarrassed and angry. He stalked away, barely feeling his legs. He had overestimated the allure of what he felt was a manly intellectual stew with a side of romantic failure, repeating a mistake he had made many, many times, not just sexually, and that was false-consensus. His mistaken set were often pied pipers with equal opportunity musical ears, studio musicians that abhorred songs about and actual life on the road.
He entered his empty apartment. His wife often worked late. Rance fell back onto the faded blue rent-to-own couch that they had made monthly payments on for twenty-four months, where he contemplated his humiliation.
Rance’s much more intelligent wife, Rachel, sold cosmetics at the mall. She’d grown up in a rural area and then had gone to school at Yale. While a freshman in the dorms, her suitemate had committed suicide from the academic pressure and Rachel had dropped out at the end of the year to stave off her own self-lethal itchy trigger finger. She now enjoyed trawling the mall even when not working.
The next Monday, as Rance got into the Aoshima, Paula’s daughter was in the back seat. Paula explained, without seeming to recall that just a few days earlier Rance had brought gaucherie into the front seat of their carpool, that Nora’s school was closed for day.
Rance reflected that Paula was a college professor. Maybe sexual hijinks were part of the package in English departments where profs and students alike had to be flexible in their approaches or at least aware of the outlook given the college’s location, ringed by a second world culture in U.S. terms.
“It’s an institute day, one of the seemingly innumerable days off. She’s coming to work with me today.” Nora could be cute or not. She had features in progress. She was wearing an orange dress with a white lace collar and was obviously thrilled to be on an outing with her mom. The entire effect made her adorable.
Nora sang along with the songs from a top ten station without any inhibition. When a favorite came on, (Rance thought it was Third Eye Blind), Nora went loud. He thought her performance was beautiful. It gave him such joy he lost control of his cool and grinned like a simpleton. Just prior to getting dropped off, Nora rhymed words and nonsense with his name, giggling throughout. “Rance, dance, manse, canst, lance, fance…”
“Stance,” added Paula, ever the teacher. That Friday, Paula explained she was no longer with Nora’s father and they were never married. He was a writer who worked for a small publishing house to make a living.
“Wow, you guys are in the same industry.”
Paula seemed puzzled, “How else would we be able to talk?”
Rance seized on this as evidence of her narrowness. He was glad to have found another flaw, even while suspecting she may have a point.
“Is he a good father?”
She shrugged. “He’s fine.” She amended this to “He’s good,” with seemingly a lot unspoken, but Rance was wary of prying farther. “Emotionally Unavailable” seemed to radiate from Paula’s forehead and that was enough for him. Later, as he mentally catalogued events, he realized he was also probably wrong about this.
He had been in an experimental doctorate program at Idaho State. It was based upon the premise the professors should train to teach instead of focus on research. The premise never caught on. Administrators and radical professors were reluctant to change, not hip to any diversity that could affect their vocational definition as based upon an ethereal mission statement. Rance was ABD (All But Dissertation) or AD (All Done) as he told his wife.
“You and Jesus,” she said.
Rance had always suffered from depression and anxiety, but in the doctorate program it became acute. He had access to the school’s health facilities and visited the psychiatric department. They wouldn’t see him because, as the physician wearing jeans shrugged her sweatshirt clad shoulders apologetically explained, he was “too high functioning.”
Exercise proved to be the most effective therapy. Rance went on jogs that were dependable as a cortisone injection into an inflamed joint. He ran every day in intense winds that inhabited the semi-arid plains in that part of Idaho. It felt like his features would be chiseled until his head achieved aerodynamicity, the optimum form being a javelin.
While being buffeted, his mental habit was to focus on one negative thought such as a dismissive comment made earlier that day, a characterization of Rance made over the phone by a family member, or his wife’s minimal ambition that would cycle over and over, not in a searching for a solution mode, but like a computer virus corrupting all-ware. Despite the constant inner cranium thimble thumping, Rance managed to come out psychically ahead after a run.
A young black man was at the front of the room standing to the side of a tabletop lectern. Rance guessed he had swept it aside in a theatrical show of solidarity with the audience or perhaps he had simply sidestepped it. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, wearing fashionable cornrows, the ends adorned with turquoise beads.
Paula had invited Rance to a poetry reading of a former student who was now a published author. It was in the morning and he didn’t mention to anyone at his school where he was headed.
The reading had already started when he arrived in the small lecture room. Rance glided to the back, leaning back against thick grasscloth covering the wall. It was thick enough to double as a mattress pad. As the poet read the students would occasionally titter and he would reward them with a convivial smile. Rance enjoyed the rawness of the verses, by which he meant humorous despair, and the sex and drug references. Paula was up front, sitting in a chair, semi-facing the audience, her expression a sentient satellite dish ever attuned to any nuances. Though she did not meet his glance, Rance was positive she knew he was present.
After work he picked Paula up in the usual spot, parking in a gently curving, half-moon thruway behind what he assumed was the building in which Paula’s office was housed. On the structure a seemingly haphazard plaque was affixed with “Arts & Letters” stamped in gold characters by a celestial Dean. It was at a height of approximately eleven feet and slightly tilted. He could wait without fear of an impatient driver. There was plenty of room because it was too late for students and faculty. It occurred to him that Paula worked late in order to carpool. Not for his company, but because she believed in conservation and perhaps she needed to help him keep down expenses.
Paula was opening the car door before he had even seen her approach. Rance thanked her for inviting him. “He was good. The students liked him.”
Paula was dismissive. “They like that stuff.” Rance thought she would have used the word titillating, but forgot for a moment he would probably know what she meant. “I’m going to be gone next week, she said.
“Where are you going?”
“Guatemala. I’m adopting a child from Guatemala and I have to fly there.”
“Wow. You’re adopting a kid. Is he… she a baby?”
“She. Yes, two months.” Paula continued in her one-trick pony vein. “I don’t have many talents, but I think I’m good at raising children.” Once, she had admitted her hypocrisy of believing in the concept of public schools despite sending Nora to private school. Rance had also latched onto this info to add to his “feet of clay” collection along with her preference for identical vocation relationships.
“Do your students know about it, about the adoption?”
“They’ve seen pictures and heard names.”
“What names?” He resented that Paula hadn’t shown him any pictures or shared any potential names. Despite the poetry invitation, he was less an intimate than her students. “I’m sorry I asked the names. It’s none of my business.”
“It’s too late,” Paula said, like it was an issue she had purposefully thought out and reached a conclusion.
“Too late for what?” The rest of the ride was silent.
On a Friday, three weeks later, Paula seemed renewed with her new baby named Eliseo. After placing the car in park to let Rance out, he leaned forward to pick his backpack off the floor mat between his legs. Paula ducked away against her side door like she had when Rance tried to kiss her. He muttered a barely audible “bye” that seemed held in by his tightening chest.
He understood her reaction, but was still deeply offended. Hadn’t times changed since what he admitted, at least to himself, was a mistake? He did a great imitation of a doomed prisoner with leg shackles ambling to his execution. He couldn’t hear the car move behind him and was able to pull out of his death march the last few feet before he rounded the corner of a garage and out of Paula’s sight if she was watching him.
The next Sunday night Rachel said, “Your carpool lady called.”
“What did she say?”
“She asked for you.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Nothing. That you weren’t here.”
“I have to know if she’s going to be waiting for me to pick her up.” Sometimes they called each other to cancel. They had never exchanged email addresses. Rance called and left a voice message. A couple of hours later Paula hadn’t returned his call. It was getting late so he called again. Still no answer.
He wanted to ask his wife, “What did you say to her? She’s a poet. She’s very sensitive.” He was fairly certain she hadn’t said anything directly, but it was her tone of voice. When Rachel had recounted the call, her voice went into a stressed register that he was sure was identical to the voice she had used on the phone.
Rance refused to call again and so did Paula.
PAUL HANDLEY’s work has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Gone Lawn, mojo, and Ostrich Review, among others. He was a runner-up in the William Richey 2015 Short Fiction Contest judged by Aimee Bender.