Charms in the Rain
Commuter traffic along route ninety wasn't ideal at six in the evening, but there I was, stuffed into my tiny blue Volkswagen, sandwiched between a Suburban and a Jeep. The line of cars oozed along the slick blacktop, abuzz with impatient, honking businessmen. Massholes, I like to call all of them. Being from Salt Lake City, I don't include myself in this grossly generalized group of awful drivers. In fact, I'm well aware that many men and women of Massachusetts origins are completely competent at the wheel, including my closest friend from university. I simply find the word "Masshole" particularly amusing in the way it rolls off one's tongue so naturally. If you, dear reader, happen to be from Massachusetts yourself, please take little to no offense. This derogatory term we other Americans use is applied most lovingly.
Approximately fifteen minutes after I had passed a Gulf gas station and a Quik-e Mart, my tiny blue Volkswagen began to emit a string of unpromising putt-putt sounds. Biting my lip, I patted the dashboard lovingly and coaxed the car along.
"Come on, Bert," I said reassuringly—and, yes, my car does indeed have a name. "You can do it. Just get me to Kim's house and I'll give you an oil change." Bert did not cease his putt-putting. "I'll even have a new muffler installed—and what about a new paint job?" As soon as I mentioned new paint, I could tell that I'd angered Bert. He had been my faithful car since I was eighteen, and, buying him used, he had already been custom-painted to a pale, baby blue. Now, he increased the rate of his putt-putting and began to shake. My windshield wipers, which had been furiously flinging the rivulets of water out of my line of vision and on to other cars, now collapsed back on to the hood of my car. I swore and put my blinker on. Limping Bert onto the road's narrow shoulder, I turned the engine off and took my keys from the ignition.
I collapsed into my seat with a defeated sigh. Given the situation, I suppose that I should have been angry at my car for leaving me stranded and distressed by my current dilemma. However, my head tipped back onto my headrest and my hands lay limp at my sides as I began to chuckle. Chuckling became snickering, which became full-blown laughter, which became guffawing, which became a sort of gurgling sound as I struggled for breath. This unaccountable reaction took about seven minutes to fully develop, at which time I wiped a few tears from my eyes and cleared my mind.
The most logical thing to do was to call Kim and ask her to pick me up. I could ask her to call her insurance company for a tow truck. Doing this, I was forwarded to her answering machine, which didn't help the situation all that much. With nowhere to go and no one to call, there was nothing I could do. I certainly wasn't going to call the police because there had been no accident. Given few other logical choices, I cursed Bert again, threw on my white raincoat, and stepped out of the car and in to the rain. The cracking sound of raindrops colliding with my plastic raincoat muffled the sounds of car engines and horns. Narrowing my eyes into the sheets of blinding water, I stuck my thumb out and edged toward the right lane, where traffic was speeding up incrementally.
After about fifteen minutes, I'd gotten a few sympathetic honks and more middle fingers—again, Massholes will be assholes—but no one had been kind enough to at least pull over and see what my quandary was. Just about to concede defeat and return to defunct Bert, an orange Honda put its right blinker on and came to a screeching halt a few meters behind my own car. If there existed any supernatural beings in the universe, I was thanking them all at that moment, for I was soaking wet and more than a little distressed.
I ran over to the passenger side of the car and knocked on the window. Whoever sat inside rolled it down and leaned across the stereo console. Two warm, richly brown eyes met mine expectantly. I cleared my throat and stuck my head into the car.
"Hey. Well, uh, sorry to bother you, but is there any chance that you could give me a ride? My car just died and my friend won't answer her phone." I realized, upon replaying my words in my head, how utterly silly this sounded. Despite my self-critical thoughts, the person seemed to accept my story. The eyes widened in understanding and I heard the snap of doors unlocking. It was only now that I processed the darkness in the car, which made the nearly-glowing eyes uncanny. My qualms were dispelled, however, when an overhead light flickered dimly and the driver opened the passenger door for me. Then the person—a young man, I could now see—spoke.
"I'm sorry to hear that, ma'am. Tough luck in weather like this. I'd be happy to give you a ride somewhere—been in situations like this before, too." I cracked a smile and ducked into the small vehicle. His turning the car back on fully brought a wave of deliciously warm, dry air. I burrowed into my seat and put my seatbelt on. The man stuck his left hand across the seat to me, and I shook it with enthusiasm.
"I'm Emily Rosenstein. Pleasure to meet you."
"The name's Jack Middleton. The pleasure's all mine. So, anywhere you're headed in particular?" I thought for a moment before answering. Since Kim hadn't answered her phone, she was either out of the house or dead. My first guess would be that she was shopping, since her dying seemed rather implausible. Given this, taking a bus to her neighborhood would make the most sense. I could ask for a towing truck company's telephone line while I was at the terminal and get Bert taken to the nearest repair shop. Settling on this plan of action, I gave my answer:
"If there's a metro bus terminal on your way to wherever you're going, you could drop me there?" I spoke the words as more of a question than a demand, raising my pitch at the end instead of lowering it. Jack Middleton smiled at me, his face cocked to the side but his eyes still on the road, and nodded.
"That'd be no problem, Ms. Rosenstein. There's a Peter Pan line off the exit I take, so I'll take you there." I let go a breath I had been unconsciously holding, deflating with relief.
"Thanks a lot." Jack Middleton nodded again and we dropped into an oddly natural silence. Looking around the car, I began to observe small details that I hadn't noticed initially. A worn car seat was strapped in to the back. Muddy shoes lay in a wet puddle of murky water on the floor of the back. Hanging from the rearview mirror, a charm necklace glittered in the muted light. On the necklace were strung little glass beads, a silver ring, and a metal dolphin. I studied this necklace closely, itching to ask about it but not wanting to come across as prying. Jack Middleton, apparently, detected my interest.
"Ah, you're looking at the necklace, aren't you?" I jolted upright, realizing that my neck was bent toward it, and cleared my throat awkwardly.
"S-sorry. It's just not like one I've ever seen before."
"Yes, well, it wouldn't be. This used to be my wife's necklace. The ring is her wedding band. She always refused to wear it around her finger," he replied, his eyes losing their focus as if looking instead at something far away, something already passed. A shadow of a smile tugged at the edges of his mouth, but his eyes remained neutral in their emotion.
"It's a very pretty necklace," I say, noticing that on his left ring finger is an identical band to the one on the necklace.
"It is, isn't it? She always wore it under her shirt—she thought the thing was clunky and unattractive, but used it anyway for good luck." I realized that Jack Middleton was speaking in the past; he was referring to his wife as though she didn't use the necklace any longer. Then again, if she had still been using it, the thing wouldn't be in his car.
"I'm sorry to pry, sir, but did something happen? You say that she 'used to' wear it."
"My wife is dead, Ms. Rosenstein. She passed a few years ago." A sweeping urge to hug him, pat his shoulder, comfort him, keeps me firmly in my seat. Funny how wanting to move will leave you frozen. Although I've known Jack Middleton for all of ten minutes, my heart picks up its pace and all I want to do is make him feel better. Instead, I nod in comprehension.
"I'm sorry to hear that." Then I go on, despite my better judgment. I know that it's rude to discuss such personal, weighty matters with a stranger, but the words seem to jump unbidden off my tongue. "You must have loved her very much." At this, Jack Middleton turns completely to look at me for a moment, scrutinizing me in a way that isn't hostile so much as guarded, before turning his gaze back to the slippery road in front of him.
"I still love her. Love defies death, Ms. Rosenstein." I'm not sure how to respond to this, so I grip the edges of my slightly torn seat with my fingertips and look at my sopping feet.
We pull up outside the bus terminal's entrance, a mass of umbrellas and yellow raincoats. I thank him for the ride again and step out, watching him drive away slowly. Although I've never believed in an afterlife or any sort of god, I can't forget how Jack Middleton looked as he spoke those last words. There was something in his eyes, some little spark of defiance, which made me think twice about what he had said.