Halfway there the old Ford breaks down. Oh, Christ, not now, not this day, he says, pulls off the road. Fuel pump.
He thinks of Roz, how she’d stuck with school all this time—five years!—long days, the blear of late nights, seen it through. Can’t be late for this.
No time to get help. Have to hitchhike. Gets out of the car, grabs the bag with the gift for Roz—he’d saved for it, a Tag watch—used, sure, but in the box it came in—puts on his tweed coat, sticks out his thumb—How do you hold it—how can I be this age, not hitchhiked once? But cars sparse, time ticks by, hot day, the thought that he’d be late makes him pour sweat, thumb out, no luck.
Let’s see. Half-past 1. The thing starts at 2. I doubt she’ll walk the stage ’til, 3, 3:10.
He sees the scene. The dean, scroll in her hand; Roz holds out her left to take it, shakes the dean’s with her right, turns, he gets a snapshot with his iPhone. Ph.D. It’s done.
No ride. He pulls out the phone. I should call Joan to come get me. No: she’s on her way from the south—she’d be late, too. I can get a ride. She’ll be so pissed at me for this.
They’d talked last night & Joan laid down the law. We’ll sit side by side this one time. This is her day. We can be kind: you to me, me to you. We’ll go have a nice meal. Her day: not yours, not mine. Keep that in mind.
A flatbed truck pulls up. Two guys, look like they’d been on the road too long.
Where to? one says.
If you can just drop me at the off-ramp to 116, I can walk from there.
Find a place.
Can you guys hang onto this? He holds up the bag with the gift in it.
Oh, for me? the guys says.
Nah. It’s for my kid. (My kid, he thought. Roz is my kid. God, how old am I?)
He swings himself up onto the steel bed, yells Where?, the guy says I told you, just find a place, & they’re off.
Did it seem the one at the wheel laughed?
He looks for a handhold. The flatbed, rolled steel, seems sheened with a light oil, & he backs himself up to the cab, pulls himself mid-way, sticks out his hands as the guys take off, finds the space where the bed meets the cab—it’s tight, but he can get a handhold there, the whole bed sheened with oil, & he looks at the sides of his buckskin shoes—oil on them this soon, his tan pants, moons of oil at the knees, Oh, jeez, he thinks, but digs in, holds on, the truck hits a rough spot, the cab bends back to the bed, his hands caught, pinned, the pain so strong it shoots up his arms, his hands numb now as the truck gains speed & something goes wild in his brain, his hands out now & he looks & they’re like bent spokes, the hands he’d held Roz with, STOP! he calls, his crushed hands flat on the bed now, his voice weak in the wind & the guy on the right looks back, says something to the one at the wheel & they laugh & as the freeway banks hard right he can’t keep his grip, slides to the side, the wind in gusts, My back’s like a sail this way, & STOP! he calls, Please stop! & flips himself flat, limbs splayed, smells the oil, his coat in oil, his gut, Can’t get a hold, low-crawls to the side, thrusts out a hand to find a post-hole to dig into but it’s full somehow, a stump of sheared wood where the upright would be, Broke, he thinks, was there but it broke, so crawls mid-bed once more, lifts up his head, says PLEASE, YOU GUYS, but they glance back, laugh, & this goes on for miles, he slides right as the truck bears left, left as the truck bears right, miles, & no one drives past that he can wave to, call to, & the one at the wheel jams on the brakes—he slides toward the cab—then speeds up—he slides back, his hands crab-like, legs splayed for grip & he sees now that some of the oil-stain on his coat is from his own hands, blood, & the miles pass & soon a car pulls up left of them & he waves, mouths Help me & the car slows, a man takes out a phone, seems to make a call, then speeds on, the road worse & the wind worse, the men ginned with the fun they’ve had, jerk the truck right, watch him slide, jam the brakes, hear the head thud—& he weeps of course, all hope lost as the one at the wheel says Now? & the one in the seat says Now & the wheel-man cranks the truck hard, left lane to right in one sharp sweep just at 116, where they find a store, stop to see what’s in the box, buy more beer.
Gerald Fleming’s poetry and prose poems have appeared widely over the past thirty-five years. Between 1995 and 2000 he edited and published the literary magazine Barnabe Mountain Review, whose archives can be found at U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. His book of poems Swimmer Climbing onto Shore was published in 2005, a book of prose poems, Night of Pure Breathing, appeared in 2011 from Hanging Loose Press in New York, and a book of longer prose poems, The Choreographer, appeared in 2013. In 2013 he launched the limited-edition vitreous literary magazine One (More) Glass. Fleming taught in the San Francisco public schools for thirty-seven years, and has published three books for teachers, the most recent of which is Rain, Steam, and Speed (Jossey-Bass/Wiley). Most of the year he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.