ROBERT MORGAN FISHER
★ ★ ★ ★
I guess we all knew Boyd Clevenger was tightly-wound. We heard it in the way he checked his mailbox down in the courtyard. The clomp of his feet on the stairs. The dissatisfied slam of his apartment door.
On weekends, when most of us had visitation time with our kids, we could hear him watching football, hockey or ultimate fighting, alone. If Clevenger had any kids, we never saw them. He once mumbled something to me about a restraining order. Wasn’t unusual that Clevenger didn’t mention his ex. Like other guys in our complex, I too hated talking about my ex, alimony, how much I missed my kids. The last time I got laid.
I envied those without kids; exuberant visitation weekends followed by the saddest Mondays imaginable. Tuesday mornings everyone had a hangover.
I knew nothing about where Clevenger worked except it was in the city. All attempts at pleasant conversation (“How’s work, Clevenger?”) circled back to the same subject: traffic.
“Goddamn accident on the expressway again,” Clevenger would mutter. “Sat there for forty-five minutes. Nothing about it on the radio.” More often than not the guilty parties would be long gone by the time Clevenger’s crappy car rolled past the scene. But if they were still there, finalizing tow truck arrangements—or even being worked on by EMTs—he’d roll down his passenger window and shout:
“This… was… AVOIDABLE!”
It was the same every time, accent on VOID.
“This… was… AVOIDABLE!” Like that.
Clevenger was estranged from domesticity, like the rest of us. And for everything wrong with the world, according to him, there was a requisite portion of blame to be assigned. Hence, the cathartic cheap shot.
I found out about his habit of taunting the guilty when he gave me a ride home from the car repair place. And also the next morning when he dropped me off on his way back into the city. It was the week after Easter; trees locked in furious competition for the most brilliant, blazing multicolored blossoms. It reminded me of spring break vacations with my daughters and soon to be ex-wife. We’d stay at our favorite lodge upstate. All of that—gone forever.
“Roll down the window,” Clevenger would say each time we approached an accident. He’d lean across the seat.
“This… was… AVOIDABLE!”
I could count the hairs on his pale neck.
“Most drivers are moron retards,” he said as I rolled the window back up. I didn’t take offense at this because I could see Boyd Clevenger was clearly a fantastic driver. He was no road-rager. He obeyed the speed limit, never ran a red light and, above all, kept a respectful distance between his car and whatever was in front of him. And he was strangely courteous: if a driver signaled, he sponsored them into his lane with a friendly wave.
As far as I could see, he never, not once, touched his cell phone while behind the wheel.
Because the clot of looky-loos ahead of us would dissolve and we’d suddenly be able to speed away, the shouted incantation felt like a whip crack. Clevenger would visibly relax, as if he’d purged something toxic. Each heckle was a tonic for Clevenger who, in addition to being a model driver, was incredibly fastidious. His car may have been crappy, but it was immaculate. He wore a suit and tie to work, white shirts always pressed. He needed glasses to drive and was obsessive about keeping them clean.
Clevenger had the same spare tire we all fought and was well on his way to losing what little hair he had left. But he wore it well. When he drove, he leaned back, hand on his paunch, and worked the steering wheel with a single thumb. This was the only unsafe thing he did, not keeping his hands at the ten and two o’clock position. But he was such a smooth driver, it was hardly concerning.
“Most accidents are rear-end collisions,” he maintained. “And… avoidable.” The whole “avoidable” thing was something that had been drilled into Clevenger by his father who, according to Boyd, was even more tightly-wound than his son.
“All accidents are avoidable,” he said. “Dad was right.”
Okay. Who doesn’t hate tailgaters? Especially ones who weave in and out of traffic or, worse, harass cautious drivers whose only crime is obeying the speed limit. I respected Clevenger’s outspokenness even if it was judgmental.
“What about breakdowns? Engine trouble?” I said as we dodged a stalled car with its hood up, some poor guy fiddling with the engine. “Flat tires? Construction?”
Clevenger knew I was baiting him—yet his answer surprised me. “All avoidable, of course,” he said. “But the waters of culpability get murky: Poor maintenance? Manufacturer defect? Bureaucratic incompetence? I got smaller, tastier fish to fry.”
* * *
Spring passed, summer became fall. I’d see Clevenger at the mailboxes or doing laundry. He was always in a rush to get up or down the stairs, sharing only a token hello or pained smile. Nothing personal—his aloofness could almost pass for shyness.
Once again I asked Clevenger to give me a lift home from the car repair place. He agreed with an almost giddy enthusiasm. I soon saw the reason: he had a new piece of equipment bolted underneath the dashboard. It looked like a CB radio. There was a hand-held mic on a coil cable. The mic had a button. I thought maybe it was something to help circumvent accident-related trouble spots. Possibly a police scanner. “What’s that?” I said.
When we hit the inevitable gridlock, Clevenger removed the mic from its clip and held it in his right hand. The left hand (thumb, actually) rested at its usual six o’clock position on the steering wheel.
Finally, we reached the idiots. As we drove past, Clevenger discreetly lifted the mic to his mouth, hit the button and let loose with his favorite three-word denunciation.
“This… was… AVOIDABLE!”
Friends, I wish you could have seen those people jump a foot in the air. One cop pulled his gun and tried to fix on a target. The PA was loud, speaker hidden just behind the grill of the car’s right front end, source of admonition undetectable.
Clevenger dropped the mic as soon as he delivered the message, pretended to scratch his chin. All people saw was a nondescript car rolling by, driver nonchalantly focused on the road, as one should be. A slight smile appeared on Clevenger’s face. His neck reddened with suppressed hilarity. We accelerated into the flow.
Once clear, we let loose. We were incapacitated with laughter, our eyes pissing tears.
Two miles on, we came across yet another bumper-thumper needlessly holding up commuters.
As we finally crawled by, Boyd Clevenger spoke his three words.
Again, everyone jumped. One driver flipped the bird to all passing cars.
We screamed with laughter.
I told Clevenger he should add some variety.
“You should say: NICE GOING, ASSBAGS! Or: STOP TEXTING, START DRIVING!” But Clevenger said no.
All he needed was the fundamental truth of three words. A concise adjudication decreed. Like God.
* * *
We all see where this is going, right? I mean, come on.
A three-car pileup on the turnpike two months later would be his undoing.
I knew a little about Clevenger, how he operated. And after piecing together all the accounts, this is pretty much how I believe it went down:
It was the worst— traffic at a complete standstill. Rain falling. Windows fogging up the minute he turned off the engine, so he was forced to idle away half a tank of gas. When traffic slowly began to move again, Boyd Clevenger was out for blood.
There was only one lane open. Nobody would let anyone else merge—typical.
Up ahead, Clevenger saw three cars. He’d gotten pretty good at determining the driver responsible simply by the way vehicles were arranged, the damage and—most importantly—body language. This time it was a man: a spiky-haired, musclebound guy with a massive pickup truck. Provocative bumper stickers plastered across the tailgate advertised his alpha-maleness. He was showing off his tats in the rain, ripped arms crossed defensively as he gave his account to a state trooper.
Clevenger felt certain the guy was lying his ass off. A woman wept as her child was loaded into an ambulance. The little girl was strapped onto a spine board. Two cars had been crushed beneath the oversized tires of the truck. Firemen worked to extract people from what was left of the other car.
Clevenger made it to the open lane.
He saw how, beautifully, once he unloaded his three words, he would have an unfettered path of escape. What’s more—rainwater had pooled just beyond, so Clevenger’s car could soak Mr. Monster Truck with a rooster tail of well-deserved retribution. The trooper had on raingear, so he’d just get a little spray on his back. It was too perfect.
Microphone to his mouth.
He made his move.
Floored it just as he hit the puddle and shot past.
Boyd Clevenger let out a war whoop of exultation. He allowed himself one last gloating glance in the rearview. The road ahead seemed wide open, his gaze lingered on what was behind. He kept the pedal to the floor, didn’t see the sudden red taillights in front of him until it was too late. Clevenger heroically veered and smashed into a cement column. The impact accordioned the front-end driver’s side, pinning Clevenger. It missed the hidden loudspeaker on the right, leaving it intact and fully operational.
The mic was still in his hand, button stuck.
His howls of pain harmonized with approaching sirens.
When they arrived, he screamed solo as they worked to free him.
His wailing faded into full volume, prolonged moans.
Then, eerie heavy breathing, sobs.
Amplified drip-drop echo in the night.
* * *
Two weeks later, I saw a woman unlocking Clevenger’s door. There was a late-model minivan parked at the curb out front. The back and side door of the minivan were open. Inside, two young boys horsed around and laughed amid piles of boxes.
I threw on some clothes, ran a comb through my hair, hurried over.
Carol Clevenger was there to collect his stuff. She planned to drop it all off at Goodwill. I got the feeling she wanted to erase Boyd Clevenger from her life forever.
She was brunette, attractive and trailed a bewitching scent. I inhaled her bouquet: not just perfume and pheromones, but sweet and buttery like Sunday dinner. I immediately wanted to follow her home, rake leaves and fix that leaky faucet. A tiny thrill of pain pierced my heart.
It was actually the first time I’d seen the inside of Chez Clevenger. Spartan, as expected—spotless, really. There was a simple recliner, TV tray. Nothing whatsoever hanging on the walls. No bed, just a mattress on the floor with his weekend sneakers and slippers carefully arranged at the foot.
They’d been separated for years, the divorce almost final. We talked about the accident. She described the part about the PA broadcasting her ex-husband’s death throes.
“He had a public address device in his car,” she shook her head. “God knows what for.”
I didn’t tell her what I knew—nothing about Clevenger’s three words. What would be the point? I simply shook my head like she did and said, “Wow.”
Neither of us said a word for a minute. Then I offered to help load stuff into the minivan. I followed her downstairs and we each grabbed an empty cardboard box. She also had an urn with Clevenger’s ashes. His remains had been sent to her along with a bill for cremation. She needed to ditch the ashes so she could give the urn to Goodwill along with the rest of his stuff. I followed her back up the stairs and into the kitchen. She was about to dump his ashes into the disposal.
“Don’t do that,” I said, “there’s little bits of bone—it’ll jam it up.”
I looked away as she dumped Clevenger into the trash can underneath the sink. I tried to picture their wedding day. She slammed the door on a cloud of ash.
In the closet, familiar-looking suits and ties, along with those starched white shirts. A pair of empty hangers attested to the missing suit and shirt presumably worn by Clevenger on the day of his death. I couldn’t help but imagine spattered blood on a white shirt.
On a shelf was the neatly folded track suit I saw him wear on weekends. Next to that, underwear, T-shirts and socks arranged as if on display at a store.
All this went into my box.
His hamper was empty. He was always doing laundry.
In the fridge I counted twelve bottles of beer, perfectly arranged with labels facing forward. Aside from sandwich fixings and TV dinners, the fridge and freezer held hardly any food. Kitchen cabinets were bare save for a solitary coffee mug next to a dusty shot glass. No pots or pans—all cooking took place in the microwave.
The kitchen drawers were empty except for one which contained a single plate, bowl, fork, knife and spoon. The flatware lay next to the plate on white butcher paper, like a place setting. When I lifted all this out of the drawer, I saw where Clevenger had drawn with a pencil the precise outline of where each item was to rest when not in use.
I looked over at Carol, then into the drawer and her gaze followed mine. She nodded almost imperceptibly and sighed. She took the dishes and flatware from me and put them in her box along with a single bath towel, washcloth, toiletries, bedsheets, a pillow and the empty urn. She didn’t want the recliner, nor did I. It was too heavy to lug downstairs so she left it. Same with the mattress. She did take the TV tray back because it was “part of a set.” She told me to help myself to the beers and whatever food I wanted. I took a jar of pickles just to be polite.
* * *
Outside, heavy lead-colored clouds were about to spill the first snowfall of the season. The air smelled like aspirin. It was the empty end of autumn, no leaves on the trees—not even in the gutter. Next week it would be Thanksgiving, then the holidays. I was tempted to grab two of Clevenger’s beers and invite Carol over to my place. Maybe she’d ask me over for turkey dinner. I imagined a real home with a fireplace and a yard. Then I remembered my own mattress on the floor, my lack of furniture. Her young boys waiting in the minivan.
I unhooked Clevenger’s flat screen and carried it downstairs. The boys were now seated, thumbing gaming devices. They nodded and snickered, oblivious.
Carol was visibly eager to get going. I fumbled a few condolent words about Clevenger, about how he gave me a ride to and from the car repair place. She listened impassively.
When I finished, Carol looked me in the eye and gave up a weak half-smile. She closed the minivan doors and got in behind the wheel. She turned the key, lowered the passenger window. I stood on the sidewalk and transferred the chilly jar of pickles to my other hand.
She leaned over and called out: “Thanks.”
Then she pulled into traffic.
These things happen, I had said to her. They can’t be helped.
But she knew. She knew.
Robert Morgan Fisher’s fiction has appeared in The Arkansas Review, Red Wheelbarrow, The Missouri Review Soundbooth Podcast, Dime Show Review, 0-Dark-Thirty, The Huffington Post, Psychopomp, The Seattle Review, The Spry Literary Journal, 34th Parallel, The Journal of Microliterature, Spindrift, Bluerailroad and many other publications. He has a story in the 2016 Skyhorse Books definitive anthology on speculative war fiction, Deserts of Fire and in the forthcoming Winterwolf Press Howl of the Wild Anthology. He’s written for TV, radio and film. Robert holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently on the teaching faculty of Antioch University Santa Barbara. Since 2016, Robert has led a twice-weekly writing workshop for veterans with PTSD in conjunction with UCLA. He often writes companion songs to his short stories. Both his music and fiction have won many awards. Robert also voices audiobooks. www.robertmorganfisher.com
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