Erik Smetana

Morning Rush

The man was sound asleep. The man was dri­ving. He was doing both things at once, rolling down the high­way at sev­en­ty miles per hour. No one seemed to notice. Cars passed with­out giv­ing the bald man—whose jaw was rest­ing against his shirt collar—a sec­ond thought. The sleep­ing man’s car was beat up, a bit like him.

A weath­er worn, rust­ed out, ’78 Mercury Marquis. The same make and mod­el I learned to dri­ve in. The same style of land bound boat we lost our vir­gin­i­ty in. The car I got my first tick­et in, a not so minor cita­tion just out­side Lafayette that cost me my license for six months. The vehi­cle that lat­er died on me in the mid­dle of a funer­al procession.

Wedged behind the wheel of the not-quite-mine auto­mo­bile, a husk of a once proud sedan, the sleep­ing man wore a blue shirt, fad­ed oil stains pock mark­ing the sleeves, a name patch I couldn’t quite read stitched over his heart. But more than the uni­form or the car he was dri­ving, the thing I noticed most about the sleep­ing man, I’ll call him Magee (that’s what the van­i­ty plates on the Mercury read), was his high speed flir­ta­tion with disaster.

For a mile or so we rode side-by-side, me watch­ing Magee’s head leak for­ward over two chins into his bar­rel chest. The painful, slow pace of that liv­er-spot­ted scalp’s descent, cou­pled with the almost too fast to see equal-and-oppo­site-reac­tion of Magee sling­ing the weight of his tor­so upright. Over and over, I watched, as we drove, as he slipped in and out.

One eye on him, the oth­er on the road, I began to won­der. Did he have a fam­i­ly? A wife? Did she leave him? And take the kids? Is he work­ing two jobs just to pay alimo­ny while she’s shacked up with a woman from California she met online? How bad was he strug­gling, just to get through one more day?

Wonder mixed with wor­ry as I merged right and Magee passed. What if Magee’s head didn’t bob back up? What if some­one got hurt? What if he didn’t make it to his next shift—or any after that? Knowing full well that women don’t leave men like him, who’d take care of Carla (a name that felt fit­ting for some­one mar­ried to a guy like Magee)?

As the salt-chewed trunk of the Mercury fad­ed away, I con­tin­ued my com­mute, toward my clut­tered office (just a tiny part of my all too clut­tered life), left to won­der and wor­ry about things that had noth­ing to do with an old man named Magee. I dri­ve, drift­ing into my own wak­ing sleep, dream­ing fit­ful things. I dream about you. And her. And things I can nev­er take back or instead wished I’d said or done. But the only words that cut across my lips as the quake of rum­ble strips jolt me to atten­tion are short and curt, “Fuck you.”