“Late Date” – Brenda Layman

Little clumps of ice crystals stuck together and collected around the edges of the windshield. The temperature had dropped steadily all afternoon until grey drizzle became heavy snow, followed by more drizzle that froze into an icy glaze, coating bare branches, power lines and the road before them. Jen tried not to show worry. Robert’s hands gripped the wheel. They were old hands, gnarled and arthritic, tendons standing out beneath thin skin. His cheekbones and jawline were still strong, his nose beneath black-framed glasses prominent in his aging face.

“Don’t worry. I’ve driven through worse,” he said, and she knew her attempt to appear unconcerned had failed. “Just twenty miles or so and we’ll be over the hill and the worst will be behind us.”

The hill lay between them and their destination. Every mile took them higher and pushed the temperature lower. The dashboard thermometer reported the downward progression faithfully and without judgment. Thirty-three degrees. Thirty-two. The layer of ice grew steadily as the temperature dropped.

“So, you were saying…” Robert picked up the thread of dropped conversation. She knew he wanted to keep her mind off the treacherous drive, and she played along.

“Yeah, about the play,” she said. “I was saying that I guess I feel sorry for Rothko. I mean, he was so fierce and so vulnerable at the same time.”

“We all have our time, and then it’s somebody else’s time. His conflict is ours, isn’t it?”

“Well, I don’t think my time is over yet,” Jen replied. She was sixteen years Robert’s junior.

“Nor mine, but the day will come. I got used to that idea a long time ago.”

Robert was a poet, really a poet with published volumes of verse and a number of prestigious literary awards under his belt. He still wrote prolifically, pages and pages of lines each day, words like living things emerging from his fingertips and making their way toward the sunlight, seeking approval and thus survival. He smiled.

“Change,” he said. “Change is the future. It’s everything. Shit!” He swore as the car suddenly fishtailed. “Sorry.”

“It’s ok. Do you think we should stop somewhere?” she asked.

“Nowhere to stop until we make it to the other side.” He looked at her and grinned. “Are you saying you want to get a room? On our first date?”

Jen felt her cheeks burn and was amazed that she could still blush like a young girl. Robert was confusing, one moment a wise old man and the next a mischievous boy.

“No, I mean, it’s just the weather, and the ice, and visibility is decreasing.” She tried to recover some dignity with the formality of the phrase, but visibility was indeed decreasing, and steadily. Thick, white fog had dropped, or maybe they had simply plunged into it from beneath as they climbed. Taillights flickered in and out of view a few yards ahead of them.

After the play, they had walked across campus to the Faculty Club, holding on to one another to keep from falling on the slippery walkways as the snow flew. Once safe and dry inside, Robert introduced Jen to his colleagues as “my new friend and lovely date for the evening.”

Jen hadn’t been sure of the date, but going to see a student performance of John Logan’s play, Red, at the local university, accompanied by a professor who had enjoyed a stellar career there, was appealing. Robert had taken her by surprise when he asked her, at a party hosted by one of her clients. She had dismissed him as attractive, but too old. Apparently he had no such qualms, and he had brought her a drink, engaged her in conversation, and then sprung the invitation with practiced ease. She was surprised to hear herself assent.

Afterward, she went online and did some research. She found mentions of his work here and there, and read the poems they quoted. She read his early writings, the poems he wrote at what was considered the height of his career, and his last published effort, released five years earlier. It was unlike the stuff of contemporary poets, less raw and more cerebral. Even his early work, written when he was still in his twenties, had a reserve about it. The passion of his youth ran crimson and hot, but it ran beneath a decorous veneer of literary device.

After Burgundy wine, cheese and conversation at the Faculty Club, they returned to the parking garage and drove carefully to the freeway exit. Jen sat quietly. Structure mattered then, she thought as she watched the windshield wipers rhythmically swiping ice aside, more than it does now. Now it’s feeling creating form; then it was form supporting feeling.

As if he heard her inner voice, Robert said, “Now, take Rothko. He loved being an iconoclast—reveled in it. But the problem with being an iconoclast is, as soon as you start being anything, you set yourself up for the end.”

“I wonder how such a young actor felt about the part?” Jen mused. “He did a great job with it, but it’s hard to imagine he understood it.” The tall, thin young man with his hair streaked silver and lines drawn onto his forehead and the corners of his eyes and mouth had given a masterful effort.

“Yeah.” Robert tapped the brakes and the car slid, then they felt the tires grip. “When I was an undergrad, W.H. Auden came to our school. We all turned out to hear him read. We had to wear jackets and ties then. None of this shorts and t-shirts business. I was thrilled to be there, but I thought him terribly old. The next day our professor asked us what we thought of the lines: ‘There is no such thing as The State/And no one exists alone.’”

“What did you say?”

“I hemmed and hawed and came up with some nonsense about existentialism. Dear God, I had no idea. The only thing I was thinking about was whether or not the girls found me handsome in my new sweater. By the way, do you like this one? I confess I bought it to impress you.”

“It’s very nice. You look good in russet.”

He smiled. “I know, and at my age I try to make good use of every flattering thing I can find.”

“Me too.” Jen laughed.

“Ah, but you are so much less in need of flattery.”

“What a line.”

“But true.”

Before Jen could reply, red taillights glowed through the darkness and white mist. Robert hit the brakes and the car skidded to a stop. “Looks like we’re stopping,” he observed.

“What—”

Jen felt rather than saw Robert’s body tense as his gaze locked on the rearview mirror.

“Jesus, Jen, hold on.”

She heard the collisions, metal screaming and objects colliding, sounds being hurled toward them through the dense, cold air. Impact threw them against their restraints as the airbags burst, filling the car with fine powder that seemed as if the fog from outside was pumping into the car, into Jen’s face, filling her lungs even as the force of the exploding bag struck her in the chest with a blow that left her gasping for air.

Then there was stillness, and silence. She turned to Robert. He was leaning forward, hands still gripping the wheel. His glasses were gone. She slid her hand down the shoulder strap, unlatched her seatbelt, and reached for him.

“Robert!”

He lifted his head. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“I think so.”

Robert unbuckled his seat belt and tried to open his door. It resisted, but he threw his weight against it and it gave. Jen’s wouldn’t open, so she crawled across and Robert helped her climb out the driver’s side.

Icy wind whipped their hair and stole their breath as they stood there steadying each other. Robert pulled his phone out of his coat pocket and called 911.

“This could be bad,” he told Jen. They ventured down the line of smashed cars behind them. Some people had already left their vehicles and were wandering in the snowy road. One teenage girl was shoeless, standing with a small group of friends who huddled together behind a crumpled Honda.

“Where are your shoes?” Jen asked her. “Let’s get them.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what happened. I was asleep in the back seat,” the girl told her. “I don’t know what to do.”

The rear door was open. Jen leaned inside, groping around in the dark until she located the shoes. She knelt in the snow, knees crackling in protest, and brushed each of the girl’s feet off before sliding them into the shoes.

Satisfied that the teens were all right, Jen moved on to the next car, and then the next, helping people with coats and boots. The fourth car had rolled onto its side. She heard crying, heard the harsh ragged sobs of the young man before she saw him. She stood on tiptoe and looked inside. She could see two figures, one rocking back and forth, the other motionless. She pulled on the door and it moved, but she didn’t have the strength to pull it upward and open.

Robert’s arms reached past her. He pulled the door open a bit and said to the distraught man inside, “Push it open if you can. Help us get you out.”

“Oh, God, he’s dead. Evan is dead,” came the reply.

“Maybe not. Let’s get you out of there and see what we can do. Help is coming.” Robert’s voice was calm. “Come on now, push. That’s it.”

The young man pushed from inside and the door opened. He climbed out, tears streaming down his face. Jen thought he looked about twenty years old, and the tears made him seem even younger and more vulnerable.

“He can’t be alive. There’s no way. Look at him.” Free of the car, the young man was shaking from cold and shock.

Robert put both hands on the car and hoisted himself up.

“Give me a push, Jen.”

She grabbed his legs and shoved upward. He wriggled into the car. Jen couldn’t follow him. She put one foot on a tire, clutched the edge of the window, and dragged herself up. Pebble-shaped glass bits were scattered across the fender. She lay full-length over them and looked into the wrecked car through a jagged hole in the shattered windshield. The freed young man wiped away his tears, then climbed up and lay beside her, still choking back sobs as he looked inside at his friend.

Headlights tilted at weird angles and illuminated the scene in streaks and patches. Inside the car, Robert curled at an angle behind the body of a young man of perhaps nineteen. There was grey paint in the boy, Evan’s, hair. The actor was little more than a child, yet he had just played the part of an aging artist. Debris and junk of the sort college kids collect in back seats had been thrown throughout the car and then come to rest in the downhill side of the passenger compartment. A strip of light lay across Robert and the face he cradled in his hands, a face with blood trickling from the nose and mouth, with one eye dangling sightless from its socket. Robert pressed what looked like a wadded T shirt against the side of the boy’s head.

“He’s breathing, Jen.”

The words left Robert’s lips in little puffs of vapor. He bent close to the bloodied face.

“Say your lines,” he commanded.

An eyelid fluttered.

“Do you hear me? We’ve got a show to do. Say your lines,” Robert insisted.

The boy began to mutter.

“I can’t hear you. Speak up. Enunciate.”

The good eye opened. The young actor looked at Robert and began to speak. Jen could hardly believe what was happening. The lines came forth, mumbled in places, but coherent.

“So, now, what do you see?—Be specific. No, be exact. Be exact—but sensitive. You understand? Be kind. Be a human being, that’s all I can say. Be a human being for once in your life!”

He stopped, and Robert urged him on. “Go on, go on. Keep going. What’s next?” Evan mumbled something unintelligible, then he spoke clearly again.

“There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend…one day the black will swallow the red.”

Line after line the actor spoke, blood bubbling between his lips. It seemed to Jen they had been there for hours when she heard sirens. Seconds later they were surrounded by state patrol officers and paramedics.

“Help us. There’s somebody badly hurt here,” she told them. The young man beside Jen slid himself to the ground. An officer helped Jen climb down, and minutes later men lifted the student from the wreckage and placed him on a gurney. Robert crawled out behind him. Both his hands were covered in blood; blood was smeared down the front of his coat.

“Are you alright, sir?” A paramedic supported Robert until he was steady on his feet.

“Yes, thank you. It’s not my blood.”

“Come on, let’s go back to the car and get out of this wind,” Jen told Robert. She put her arm around him and felt him shivering. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wet it in the snow, and wiped off his bloody hands, which were already blue from the cold. They walked together, their breath visible before them. Jen’s knees had begun to ache. They climbed back into the car and Robert pulled her onto his lap, wrapping his arms around her. They snuggled together for warmth, Robert’s head on Jen’s shoulder. For a long time neither spoke. They simply sat there, holding one another in the car that, although damaged, still provided shelter from the freezing darkness.

“I was so afraid he would die,” Robert said at last. “His blood, you know? It was so warm and red. His blood convinced me that I could keep him alive. No one with blood like that could stop living.”

“None of us is ready to stop living,” she told him, and she stroked his steel-grey hair.

Thank you to Brenda Layman for sharing the complete text of her story “Late Date” for free on the web.  The complete book book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Brenda Layman was born in Ashland, Kentucky, but she has lived for most of her life in Ohio. She is a member of Columbus Creative Cooperative, The Outdoor Writers of Ohio, Writers Satellite and Ohio Writers Guild and she has published many articles in Pickerington Community Magazine, Ohio Valley Outdoors, and other print and online magazines. She lives in Pickerington, Ohio with her husband, Mark. Brenda loves fishing, kayaking and traveling, and at the time this anthology was released she had recently rediscovered the joy of watercolor painting.