2011 spring fiction onenewmessage

by Kate Estrop

Bright red against blacktop, their rental car snakes along the two-lane highway. The road stretches before them, dotted with evasive puddles that disappear when approached.

“It was a nice service,” Angela says. On her lap is an open paperback turned face down, its binding broken, waiting to be picked up again.

Her husband Scott agrees flatly, his knuckles white on the steering wheel. He asks her to turn up the radio.

She does, but when she sits back the volume is the same, just where she wants it.

He leaves it.

Urban sprawl has trickled down to suburban sameness and now they pass fields of stunted corn.

“Everything’s so brown,” Angela says.

“It’s been dry,” he replies, leaning back to stretch. They’ve only been driving an hour, but already he’s stiff.

She is quiet for a few moments, running her fingers along the binding of her book, looking out onto the drought-ridden landscape.

The silence stretches on, mile after mile.

“Holly gave a good speech.”

Scott nods.

“It had the right amount of humor. I hate it when the eulogy is too funny. Or when the person just stands up there and cries. I hate to see that.”

The best friend, Holly, told a story from high school. The handful of her classmates in the crowd laughed knowingly. The rest, like Angela, laughed because it was the only thing to do. Scott laughed because, like a sneeze, he had to release the pressure somehow.

Holly had hugged Scott extra-tight, like she wanted to squeeze some tears out. Scott wouldn’t budge, but he sniffed for her benefit, which made her cry harder, which she probably needed.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered in his ear.

A few more in the crowd gave him the same look of knowing pathos. Angela noticed but at the same time didn’t.

Now, driving home, she puts her hand on his leg absentmindedly, working out scenarios. “Do you think she knew?”

“Who?”

“Janie.” She says it dully.

Janie’s name is too large for the space of the car. Even though they’d been hearing it for the last hour and a half throughout the service and the luncheon, now it takes up breathing air and Scott fights the urge to choke on it. Instead he says, “Do I think she knew what?”

“What was going to happen. That they were going to crash.”

He sniffs. “No way to know for sure, is there?”

“The people on nine eleven. They knew, didn’t they?”

“They were hijacked,” he says, and leaning forward he turns up the air conditioning.

“Maybe Janie’s plane was hijacked.”

Scott shivers.

As soon as Angela sees his face drain she knows she’s said the wrong thing. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I know it was just engine trouble. I’m sorry.”

Though he wants to be angry with her he knows her lack of tact is simply due to the uneasiness of a funeral. It’s the same uneasiness that, at the luncheon afterwards, caused people to laugh and then cover their mouths quickly, wondering if they’re allowed. He sighs and says, “It’s okay.”

“I only brought it up because I wondered something.”

“Hm?”

“The people on that plane, the ones that knew they were hijacked. They called home, right?”

He grips the wheel. “Yeah.”

She flips her hand over, palm up, on his knee, expectantly. “If she knew, do you think she called Robert?”

Her hand feels too heavy, but he lays his hand lightly on top of hers anyway. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t think she did. He would have told us. He was a mess, wasn’t he?”

During the service Scott tried not to look but saw Robert’s tears anyway. Afterward, Robert accepted Scott’s hand gripping his shoulder. He asked, “What will I do now?”

Scott said he was sorry, but he didn’t know and he’d been wondering the same thing.

They pull off at a rest area—a brick box growing out of the middle of a field. “Do you need to go?” Scott asks.

“Not really.”

He needs air. He nudges the car into the lot and gets out to stretch. He aches.

Angela flips her book over and tries to read, but instead of words she sees her husband’s blank face when he answered Robert’s call four nights ago. She cried at the news of losing their friend, but Scott left the house. He was gone nearly four hours before he stumbled back in, drunk. He went straight to bed and didn’t talk about it until they began to make travel arrangements.

The moment passes and the words on Angela’s page come back into focus, but just barely. Scott leans down and asks her through the open window if she wants a drink. She shakes her head and bends back over her book, trying to forget. It doesn’t matter now.

At the vending machine Scott can’t decide. He’s not thirsty for anything here. He looks back to the car to make sure Angela can’t see him, then takes his phone out of his pocket and opens it. One new message.

He puts the phone back in his pocket, buys a Coke and goes back to the car.

Along the parking lot the grass has crisped under the unrelenting sun. No one’s bothered to water it.

“We should make it to Chicago by dinnertime,” he says, sliding back into the driver’s seat.

Angela mutters. She’s failed at getting lost in her book. Now she watches the brown lawn of the rest stop change to brown tall grass in the ditches alongside the road, and then brown crops, with, beyond them, the harsh blue sky.

Everyone at the funeral marveled at the weather. Such a nice day. Such a nice service. Everything is nice when people don’t know what to say and what not to. Robert’s so lucky to have such nice friends like you two.

Angela puts her hand on his leg again, impatiently this time. He takes it.

“She was going to leave him,” Angela says. Her fingers tighten around his.

“How do you know?”

“I could just tell.”

Scott detaches from her and picks up his Coke. He takes a long drink and thinks about the phone in his pocket. He knew for sure, of course. They were fighting. Janie wanted out.

“I guess she did leave him in a way,” Angela says quietly. “I wonder which is worse.”

Scott checks the blind spot, then merges, then looks ahead.

Angela sees nothing in front of them. She’ll be happy to get home and leave this stark expanse of land stretching, never-ending, in all directions. Happy to leave behind eyes that followed her husband down the center aisle as they left the funeral.

Outside the car, the corn gives way to beans, all brown. Harvest will be meager this year. Scott wonders how the loss will ripple, how long it will take to affect everything else.

“I wonder what she said if she called.”

Scott arranges his hands: ten and two. Nine and three.

“I wonder if she told him she loved him,” Angela says, and then after a moment, “I wonder if she still loved him.”

“I’m sure she did,” Scott says, finding his voice.

“I would call,” she says. She opens her book and then closes it. “Would you want me to call?”

“Maybe.”

“How could you say that?”

“It’s not a bad thing, Ang. I’d just want my last memory of you to be a good one. Not a desperate voice over static.”

As usual, he makes sense. Maybe it was a good thing Janie didn’t call. Angela opens her book again and then decides for herself. “I’d want you to call.”

“Can we leave it, please?”

Angela begins to cry. She misses Janie and how the four of them used to be: dinner together four nights of the week, camping, quiet holidays together, escaping their large extended families. Most of the time she didn’t even think about the rest of it.

Scott takes her hand gently.

“I’ll bet she knew,” she says between sobs. “I’ll bet she knew and I’ll bet she called him. I’ll bet she told him she loved him and she was sorry for everything.”

Scott’s face flushes as he realizes that his wife knows, and maybe she has known all along. He will have to apologize too, for himself and for Janie. But not right now. Right now, he holds tight to Angela’s hand until her crying slows, then stops. He steals a glance at her. She is asleep; her chest rises and falls slowly. She’ll awaken with crust in her eyes, he thinks. He watches the horizon before him, wishing a rain cloud would qualify the moment and make his decision for him. But he’s on his own.

He slowly pulls the car over to the shoulder, trying not to jar and wake her. He steps out and closes the door lightly, then checks that she’s still sleeping. Turning toward the road, he shields his eyes and looks out across the fields before him. He slides his hand into his pocket, pulls out his phone, and pushes the buttons. He brings the phone to his ear. You have one new message.

Janie’s voice is small and distant. There is static, and indiscernible background noise: discernable chaos. “I wish you were there.”

He listens to the whole message, replays it again, then hits the button to delete.

Angela stirs as he gets back into the car, then lies still again. They drive on.

About the Author

Kate Estrop is a writer, editor, tutor, and teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a fiction editor for Printer's Devil Review, organizer of Boston Writer's Meetup, calendar editor for Patch.com, and occasional blogger. Kate earned her M.F.A. from Lesley University in 2010. "One New Message" is her first publication.

Maintained or neglected, familiar or foreign, well-worn or wild, roadways inform our decisions and identities. Their geographies direct the movement
of our lives and sketch the cartography of our stories. In this spirit, 322 Review publishes provocative emerging and established artists whose fiction,
creative nonfiction, poetry, and mixed media artwork wander the paths of human experience. A nonprofit literary journal conceived
and operated by former Rowan University graduate students, 322 Review is based in Southern New Jersey.