Sunday Stories: "Turnaround" by Jack Baruth
“We have, oh, I don’t know, maybe four hundred and thirty miles behind us,” William said, “and one-twenty-ish yet to go. But trust me, the worst is yet to come. Route 58 from the freeway to the four-lane before VIR is just… hateful, particularly with the tire trailer behind us. Not a single light on the road. No gas stations — the public-urination stories I could tell you, seriously. And the road twists and turns forever, one time we were towing the race car here and Jim literally freaked out, made me stop the truck in the middle of nowhere so he could calm down, he was convinced we were going to tumble down the side of a hill, a lot of spots there’s a sheer drop. I think half of the reason anybody ever goes to Summit Point is that, frankly, it’s an easier drive by a long shot. Same distance from Indy almost but so much easier. But, you know, one more fuel stop at the exit, then you can sleep, I’ll go slow, and then we have the little condo rented on the Climbing Esses, you can wake up late, and you can sit out on the porch and watch me drive. If you want.”
“Oh, yes, I think I dooooooooo want to see you drive,” Kristin smiled in response, stretching her long body out in the Corvette’s confined passenger area, her bare feet scrunching the thin carpet and the line of her neck visible in the reflected glow of the arc lights above them along I-77. “Yes I do. And you can take me on the racetrack? We can race, right?”
“It’s not racing,” he laughed, “but don’t tell some of the other Vette Club guys that, they are pretty sure it is. It’s called an open trackday, but there are no trophies, no prizes, and the focus is on safety.” His pocket buzzed, and he ignored it. Although the cabin noise in his C5 Z06 wasn’t nontrivial, both of them could hear it. A minute or so later it buzzed again, and they started in mutual fascination at the light of the screen visible through his jeans, then he slowly withdrew the phone from his pocket, and they saw his wife’s face, and her name. Then it went silent, and for a moment he felt relief, before the screen lit once more, and he looked from the phone, to the road, then to Kristin, who challenged him with her eyes and whispered, as if the face on the screen could hear but not see her already,
“You’d better answer that.”
“Sweetheart. Hello. It’s almost midnight. You’re still up?” Too much, too fast, he sounded rushed and guilty even to himself. Jenny knew him. She knew his voice, when he was anxious or scared or just silently angry. For that reason and many others, he’d avoided answering the phone since the last fillup outside of Indianapolis. Then, he’d hastily assured her that he would have a safe trip to VIR only to cut her off with little warning when Kristin appeared in his peripheral vision, striding in a diaphanous peasant dress past some gaping-mouthed hick truck driver after a bathroom break that could not have taken any longer than twelve seconds. He had to regroup. Take a breath. Every word needed to be considered carefully.
“When you don’t answer your phone, I stay up until you do. It’s been five hours, William. I’ve called once every half hour for five hours. Do you want to tell me why you aren’t answering your phone? Is there something I need to know?” Not three months ago, he’d literally gotten on his knees before Jenny and cried: I fucked up, I betrayed our trust, I let you down. I slept with Kristin, he’d rushed out, it was a mistake, it happened three times, I know she’s your friend, it was my fault, not hers, she was guilt-ridden about it, she couldn’t sleep, we agreed you had to know even though it’s already over. And the storm that had taken them then, he barely remembered what had happened, but hours later they were in bed and he was holding her, swearing on his life and the lives of their child that it could never happen again, how could it, I’ve learned now what happens, I was a fool.
“No, nothing, the reception’s bad, you know, I just was worried about the trailer, it’s been acting funny, I wanted to keep both hands on the wheel, it seemed you always called at just the time when it was acting up, ah, um, you should be in the business of being like, ah, some kind of water dowser, only for trailers or something, ha ha,” Christ, did he just say something about a water dowser?
“Put her on.” What?
“Put her on, William. Put Kristin on the phone. I know she’s with you. Put her on the phone. William, put her on the phone.” For one brief moment, every moment of terror he’d ever felt at being found out merged into a bright ball that seemed visible before him. Behind him, as if to punish him for lying, the tire trailer attached to the Vette’s rear crossmember briefly swayed in noisy fashion, requiring a correction that brought him back to the present. As if from a great distance above, he watched his hand move towards Kristin, who was facing him from just inches away over the broad vinyl center console.
“She, ah, wants to speak to you.”
“Fuck,” Kristin spat, “you, just fuck you, you fucking coward.” Then she took the phone. “Hey. Uh. Yeah. No, I under… I mean, no, what I’m just trying to say is… no, I understand, I really… okay.” She was holding the phone with just thumb and forefinger as she pushed it back at him. “Take it!” she hissed. William hesitated.
“Jenny, I —”
“Just listen, William. I want you to turn the car around and come home. I knew when you left that you were going with her, okay? You’re never that happy about going to VIR in the dead of the fucking night. I’m not stupid, William. I want you to turn the car around and come home. I love you. We have a child together, William. His name is Jake and he needs his father. I need his father. I need you to turn the car around and come right home. If you do that, I forgive you, I forgive you again. Don’t,” she interrupted him as he drew breath to speak, “say a word, don’t open your mouth to say another fucking lie to me, I can’t handle it, just turn the car around, drop her off wherever you need to, just turn the car around and come home. To me. To our son. To our family. William. Come home to our family.” Then the phone went dead and he stared at it for a long time before realizing that she had hung up.
They drove in silence for minutes. His stomach churned and he thought briefly that he might vomit right there into the wheel and the dashboard. The track won’t give me my money back for the suite. Where did that come from? So what? It’s two hundred bucks, Jenny is at home and she could hurt herself, she’s done it before, when they were kids and they were dating he dumped her for some stupid reason and she went right back to the dorm and drew a razor across her right wrist. “Bitch,” he’d later on make a show of griping for his fraternity brothers, “it was supposed to be down the road, not across the street.” But in truth he’d been horrified and he’d knelt on the ground before her at the hospital, never again, we were meant to be together, I was a fool. The two hundred dollars didn’t matter.
The cold rose up in his throat, the mechanical feeling. You can keep going, it said, run a 2:05 on the Full Course and fuck Kristin all night both nights, tell her it’s the last time, then go home and she’ll still forgive you. She’s invested, after all. In the relationship. In the house. And he could let her sweat it out while he enjoyed Kristin’s body one final time. Nothing will change between now and Sunday night. Tell her he couldn’t skip the trackday, he had students to work with, something, the non-refundable room charge, something, something. And it seemed like the thing to do but meanwhile his hands were steering the Vette off on Exit 14, the regular exit, but his hands had no intention of taking the car to VIR. Once again he felt distant, detached, and Kristin’s voice was thick with fear,
“What’s happening? Why are you stopping? What are you doing?”
“She said,” he offered, lamely, the words slow to come, “she said, to turn around.”
“ARE YOU SERIOUS? NO. NO! NOOOO! William,” and now she had her hands on him, now her breath was in his ear, she was unbelted in a flash and across the console at him, “she’s bluffing, you don’t need to do that, you don’t need to do that, I don’t know what she said to you but just keep going, no, Christ, what’s happening, why are you turning here?”
“Just,” he said, “to fill the car, I need to think.” The first right turn took them up a hill to the gas station and he stopped the Z06 under the lights. “I need to think about this.” But the minute the car came to a halt she was out the door, running. It took him a minute to understand what was happening.
In her transparent blue dress, barefoot, she was running away from him, past the lights of the gas station and the lone semi idling in the back lot, into the darkness, then she was gone from his view even as he found his own feet, his legs complaining under him, fuzzy and prickly from the long drive, you’re almost forty, not a kid to be running after someone, but he forced them into action, towards what appeared to be an unlit clearing with the woods behind it.
Into the darkness he ran and the sound of her feet on the leaves and the sticks ahead was almost drowned out by the tramp of his shoes but he ran blindly after what he could hear then the sound stopped and he panicked for a moment, running in a night that seemed to be inside his own eyes it was so fucking dark out here, then he struck her motionless, crumpled body and went head over heels himself, sprawling then crawling back to her scent and her choked, ragged breathing. “Please,” he begged her, “please.” But what he wanted, he couldn’t say or even think of. “Please.”
“Just love me,” she cried, “just love me, it’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything wrong, I waited my whole life for you, I didn’t know what I wanted until you, until you told me you loved me, it’s not my fault.”
“Please,” he begged again, and now he was crying too, “please.” Then, when the mania had faded from them both, he stood her up, dusted her off with his knowing hands in the dark then walked her to the light of the gas station canopy, where she sat obediently in the car as he filled it up and bought them snacks that he observed himself buying from a great distance overhead and cranked the engine over. Down the hill and the left turn and over the freeway then left again and she began to cry once more as he gave the LS6 its open throttle and it roared and the back wheels spun and the trailer oscillated in their wake and something came from this throat, he was wordlessly screaming himself, beating the steering wheel then gripping it in a single terrified two-handed motion as the Vette began to slew sideways down the ramp, calming it down, getting the trailer in line, snagging sixth gear early and lugging onto the freeway back up the hill away from Exit 14.
The road swirled in front of him. Kristin continued to sob in the passenger seat, curled up against the black plastic of the door. He didn’t know whether he should call Jenny or not. Finally, when he thought Kristin wasn’t watching, he fished the phone out of his dirt-crusted jeans and texted her,
coming home love you love jake ive been wrong im sorry
but as he clicked the “Send” button he looked up and saw Kristin regarding him levelly, the tears gone, replaced with anger, or contempt, or something. Something he’d never seen in her face before. For an hour they didn’t speak and she continued to look at him. Measuring him, perhaps. Hating him, certainly. But then his eyes closed for a single involuntary moment and he realized what she must have known for some time: the four hundred miles home were too far to go.
They were going the wrong way on I-81. He’d fucked up, made a mistake. It was because he was sleepy. Signs for Roanoke were starting to appear. “We need,” he said, “to find a hotel. Sleep for a few hours. Then go the rest of the way.” She said nothing. The first motel was completely booked. The one across the street charged him eighty-seven dollars for a smoking room, because it was all they had left. Wordlessly she followed him up the stairs, carrying her purse and her bag. His hands held only the one key he’d been given, an actual brass key, you’re in the sticks now, Will, he thought. Then he remembered that somewhere, at the bottom of a drawer in his garage, was the keycard to the ocean resort they’d had that first night together and the sob rose unbidden from within him and choked him momentarily, dropped him to a single knee on the second to last concrete step to the motel’s second floor.
The room had a single bed. He heard Kristin brushing her teeth in the bathroom and in the momentary privacy he knelt down before the bed, folded his hands, bowed his hand. God Almighty, if you’re there, if you’re real, let me have my son, let me have my marriage and my family back, let me return to the path of righteousness, or something, wash me clean, Amen. Then as he stood he saw her in the dim light of the room’s single working bulb. She was wearing a sheer blue teddy, her dark nipples shadowed against it, her hair still undone. He took her hand and laid her down on the bed, slipping her panties off, the brass key of the hotel room tossed to the floor and shining there.
“If it happens,” she said, even as he was making it happen, “this can’t be the last time, I can’t have it like this, it can’t be the last time, it has to mean something.”
“It means something,” he murmured into the soft thicket beneath her belly button, “it means something.” But he knew what it meant. He thought of the time he’d been at VIR before this one, when he’d fed too much throttle in at the bottom of the Roller Coaster and for a brief moment the Z06 had nosed towards the pitlane at ninety miles per hour and the prospect of death had seemed both logical and imminent before the Vette’s Comp Mode had reined things in, straightened the car, allowed him to blow past the gobsmacked lookie-loos on the second floor of the Paddock Suites with a whoosh and the thunder of the LS6 in full song. God or no God, allowances would be made. For him. For his behavior. For his selfishness. Something, somewhere, would straighten out the slide. He would arrive at the other side of this night safe and sound. He could keep his foot in it. He could do as he liked.
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You're good. I'll read that story, even if it reads like a True Confessions romance. Good writers can write in almost any genre, and people will buy it. (One of the more famous SF/Fantasy Authors did her best stuff as romances. Yes, I bought them, even though it took some looking around.)
I'm munging the quote, but I heard a voice on the radio say something like "none of the best writers are... the best people." Whatever. Keep the fiction coming and tell us when you find another medium so we can support it.