Sunday Stories: "Angle Of Slip" by Jack Baruth
Note: This is a sequel of sorts to The little death and as such contains adult language, sexual situations, and descriptions of illegal driving— JB
“I think this next turn is… oh, let’s guess and say right, shall we?” Of course, Sebastian knew perfectly well that the road curved right after the blind crest. He’d been driving these roads for twenty years, since he’d been a humiliatingly poor student in an eighty-one-horsepower Volkswagen, working in the cafeteria to make twenty bucks a week and then spending it on ninety-cent gasoline. Learning how to drive these hills one mistake at a time while his friends disappeared to Jackson Hole or Daytona Beach for the weekends or simply plowed their way through a couple of willing Tri-Delts back at the fraternity house. Sebastian had always been short the fifty-or-hundred-dollar buy-in needed for the parties and his presence had been resented there as a result. Easier to go for a drive. Sometimes he’d just driven until the VW had a gallon left before curling up in the back seat at one of the parks and sleeping until it was time to wake up and go to class. His Pirelli P4 tires had been thirty-eight bucks each after all the price-matching and with careful rotation they were good for a whole spring-to-fall before showing cords. Thousands of miles, at full-throttle, alone and untutored. He knew the roads, and he knew this one would curve right after the crest.
With this knowledge firmly in hand, he snagged fourth gear with a practiced insouciance and the Ferrari’s flat-crank V-8 belted him past one hundred and twenty miles per hour and the whole car went dizzyingly light over the hill and he kept his foot in it all the way down before stroking the silver 360 into ABS for the second-gear left-hander at the bottom. He chanced a look to the right and saw Katrien braced in the passenger seat, her long legs open and taut up to a pair of very short shorts, her makeup-free face shining, her lips parted slightly. Hey, kid, Sebastian laughed to himself, you didn’t know it, but the story you were writing twenty years ago ended pretty happily. Then it was time for third gear again and a quick step over the double-yellow, blowing by some hick family in a smoking-tailpipe minivan, and then both of them were laughing out loud, like children who had gotten away with something, safe and sound, all-ee, all-ee in free.
“Time flies,” Sebastian’s father would say, pinning him like a squirming bug under a magnifying glass, “when you work hard and reap the fruits of that hard work.” And so it had been lately. Fourteen months ago he’d been fighting a career-ender of a sexual harassment suit and hiding out on a Florida beach with that woman, Pamela — but it all fell away, the way things are supposed to when you work hard. The clients had come back in droves and before he knew it, the eighty-six-thousand-dollar used Ferrari that had seemed so bold at the time came to look like a half measure. He found himself idly wandering through eBay in the afternoons examining the F430s and even the Fioranos, why not, if things kept on he’d have the money anyway. His predictably brilliant children did predictably brilliant things. The only thing that could have really thrown a wrench into things was Pamela’s pregnancy, but she miscarried almost immediately after informing him and receiving in return his stoic assurances that the proper things would be done for the child.
And now he had Katrien. A mutual friend with a certain zest for drama had introduced them, believing that hilarity would result. She was six feet tall, perfectly lithe and graceful, a long-distance runner, the fervently liberal daughter of a globe-hopping college professor, striding into middle age like a racehorse in the middle of the Triple Crown. “I just want to make sure,” she’d texted him before they met, “that you are actually taller than I am, and not just saying you are.” Sebastian was a robust six foot two and ninety pounds heavier than she was. To appease Sebastian’s middle-class fussiness, she’d waited until the third date before demanding that they sleep together. That night, at three in the morning, Sebastian’s phone had buzzed him awake.
Pamela: how’s your stupid daaaaate
Ugh. He immediately regretted having said anything to her about Katrien in general or the date in particular, but although they hadn’t slept together in a year they were still occasionally talking to no purpose. It was a mistake to have said anything, and it had been needlessly cruel. Plus, he really wanted Pamela out of his life altogether. She was wrapped up in his mind with sand and water and blood and heat. Katrien was sleek and clean, safe inside and out, athletic and passionate in bed without ever once threatening to become intimate with him in any way. “I really like you,” had been her squeaky-polished verdict after the second round of the night. Pamela had required persuasion bordering on force every single time, clutching her panties dramatically as he’d dragged them off then sobbing when he entered her before responding with a volcanic, angry thrashing. Katrien, by pleasant contrast, had stripped in what seemed like a single motion before taking his hand and shamelessly indicating what she wanted him to do. Different, clean, safe.
Sebastian: oh its fine go to sleep already!
That was the last time he’d heard from Pamela, that night of the third date. The fourth date had been yet another brilliant dinner somewhere wonderful. But Sebastian had been restlessly considering what to do with Katrien, this lean, athletic creature, and he’d insisted that the fifth date be a hiking trip set deeply among the twisting roads of his youth. He knew a trail around a local gorge, a five-miler that climbed to the top of the region and skirted five-hundred-foot drops. Naturally, they’d take the Ferrari.
It proved to be a brilliant idea. Katrien’s enthusiasm for fast driving emboldened him and before long they were making every pass, repeatedly grabbing fourth gear and, on one improbable descent, fifth. Dozens of times he snapped off a pair of perfect heel-and-toes before braking the nose to the rushing ground, loading the front tires to their chattering edges and blowing out of the corner with a kicked-up haze of dust. She didn’t appear to have any fear and once when he plainly overcooked an entry and had to ride the ABS into the thankfully empty opposite lane she didn’t even flinch. Of course, he thought, she thinks you’re in complete control. Katrien’s life tended to be a well-controlled thing, consisting of important meetings handled with aplomb and ambitious athletic training goals met without fuss. Sebastian wasn’t a big enough fool to think that he was fully in control of this very fast car barreling along this very changeable and occasionally treacherous road, but if she thought it was fine then he wouldn’t disabuse her of her notions.
Finally they were at the trailhead and she was flushed as she unlimbered herself from the low-slung coupe. “Is it wrong,” she asked him, “that I’m turned on right now?”
“No,” he laughed, waving his hand at the stream ahead of them and the bridge spanning it, “good civil engineering always gets me hot, too.” Then they were running past the bridge and up the trail. Her inseam was a thirty-six; his was a thirty-two. Just watching her climb was a pleasure. Sebastian’s body had always felt to him like a singularly unreliable and capricious working partner, the Garfunkel to his mind’s diligent Simon, but Katrien simply existed as a unified entity, body and mind in single service, leaping from rock to rock and landing on point like a ballet dancer before pivoting away for the next jump. For ninety minutes they ran, climbed, walked, saying very little, Sebastian savoring these final moments before the meat of middle age like the end of the Halloween candy, the last sweetness before the hard years ahead.
They emerged in the sun briefly then loped back down the other side of the hollow to take the low trail. At the end, there was a cold rock cave and a trickling waterfall from hundreds of feet above. Sebastian took Katrien and kissed her until she began to respond then he laughed and ran away. As he did so, he saw a rock where kids carved their initials. For a moment he thought about doing that, another deliberate and artificial evocation of youth. Then he remembered that his initials were already there, twenty years old, with those of his ex-wife, and the rock temporarily swam in his eyes and his breath caught in his throat before Katrien caught him and shoved him along the trail ahead. This wonderful, companionable woman, strong and brave like a man, like he was, perfect in just about every way and just plain dynamite in the way that really mattered. But as they walked back out he imagined his ex-wife sitting alone on the rock. When things had gotten really bad last year Pamela’s final play had been to call the ex and plead her case. It had made Sebastian feel angry and sad all at once. Dimly he perceived that his self-image was outdated, that the harmless, poverty-stricken kid working in the university cafeteria had long ago been replaced by someone who used those days as a justification, a reason to take what he wanted and never feel bad about it. Which was more or less what his ex had said to Pamela and that, somehow, settled matters in a way that turned out to be very easy for him after all.
“Oh fire up the willing engine,” Sebastian smirked as Katrien tossed herself into the 360’s deep bucket, “responding with a roar.” She gave him a quizzical look; prog-rock wasn’t part of her Marx-and-Engels upbringing. So he kissed her again and she tasted scrubby clean and sweaty too and just like nothing to worry about. “I’m about to show you the best road out here,” he said, and she smiled in response.
The road was called “Big Oak” and it was the killer, really, he’d found it as a kid and it combined blind crests and third-gear off-camber descents and one-lane bridges and there was rarely any traffic. This was the good road and he knew it like nobody else. Yet the moment they went under the canopy of trees that crowded Big Oak’s opening sections Sebastian’s mood turned dark. That image of his ex-wife sitting alone on the rock. Intellectually he knew that he hadn’t abandoned her. He never really abandoned anybody. Hell, just a few months ago he’d thrown some work to a guy who had borrowed a guitar from him once and pawned the fuckin’ thing. There wasn’t anybody who could say that they’d been cheated by him in business or that they’d really been let down by him in any way that was measurable. Even Pamela, a year or more after those nights in Florida he still asked her if she needed money for the dentist or if her kids were okay.
“I don’t need money for my teeth,” she’d snarled. “I need you to make the right decision and love me.” Christ. You couldn’t tell her anything.
“Even the lovesick,” he’d responded, “benefit from a cheerful, cavity-free mouth.” Toothpaste. Crest. Hill. Crest. Right down third gear big brake squeeze on ease off second gear spin the wheels on the exit two, three, four brake brake brake leaves on the road squeak slip squeak more throttle on exit and so what if she still loved him he was free and clear third third third holllllddddd it brake tap throttle pick up the downhill work with the camber fourth and hold one twenty eight brake brake brake brake BRAKE BRAKE BRAKE second exit not his fault if he didn’t really want her, it wasn’t her he didn’t want it was the everything else third and tap to rotate and brake and second for the one lane bridge and up and over and he could text her tonight if he wanted and fly to her in the morning he was a grown man and nothing would stop him hold third and left foot this bitch through and just forget that bitch too and third and third and fourth and over the crest and
HOLY FUCK ITS A STOPPED CAR WITH KIDS
and brake and brake and BRAKE and backwards off and SLAM and shudder and the nose is flying away bumper in the air and the kids are safe theyre still on the road that he departed one point three seconds ago and somethings at the end of this field I bet and
NOISE dark talcum dirt blood ringing
Is okay. Just crying, covered in dirt and grass and shoved over to him by her door that’s crinkled in.
The two of them climbed out Sebastian’s side and their American-made New Balances sank together into the damp ground. She leaned against him, sobbing quietly and soaking his baby-powder-covered shirt. His glasses had gone missing but he could see that people were running across the field to them. Behind him, the Ferrari was broken, splayed, the front end mostly ripped off and the rear crunched around a sturdy twenty-four-inch tree trunk of some sort. It smelled hot and sour and there was steam rising from under the engine. This was the time to say something. Something daring, dashing, suave, or concerned. Something about the kids, or about her. But what he said was, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.” Then she stopped crying, faced him squarely, and said to him, her eyes just two inches below his,
“It’s okay. I’m a big girl. I knew we were taking a risk. I’m glad you didn’t hit those kids. I’m sorry, too, about your car.” Then she kissed his forehead and took his right hand in her left hand and led him, squishing in the mud, across to the field to the houses and the people, like he was a child, or a friend.
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Jeez! A few thousand words artfully rendered that seemed like it took seconds to read. Still recovering from the narrative pace, packed with expressed joy, excitement, unresolved issues, the energy that stands the hair on your neck when pushing the limits of vehicle and tarmac, and the trauma of the ending. Felt like I trashed that prancing horse, myself. But, then I know what it is like to rotate through the the dark, wet air, brained seized with dreadful expectation and resignation, finally contacting terra firma after the longest second or two of your life, absorbing the physics of the wrenching excursion, and survive. All through the narrative, the background noise in the mind, dealing with issues old and new while grabbing gears and stabbing the brakes and all the while potently aware of the tactile sensations in hand and the potential for it sitting in the passenger seat. And, I feel like a voyeur, who knows more then he should. Like a good friend, you wish you didn't know so much about. Seems like some critical rest, has its benefits, Jack... well done... a treat to end the day with. Written last night right after you posted.
Oh baby powder = airbag, not cocaine. Or does it. Too bad he became one of the flashy douchebags, like his friends were in college.