God damn it.
He had pulled over for a cigarette, and it hadn’t needed to be this complicated. Just a quick dart before he hit Pennsylvania. Had there been anyone else there to perform for, he might have kicked the tire haphazardly, cursed loudly enough to be heard but quietly enough to remain nonthreatening to any objective audience. George turned his head slowly and confirmed what he already knew: he was alone.
It was there outside the Mobil station, it’s faded ultraviolet bulbs underscoring cracked blue paneling, that he swore off the sentimental worldview for what must have been at least the fiftieth time.
Some people (not real people—people on TV, where it’s glossy and things are always neatly resolved, and the sex is only implied) call the voicemails of their loved ones in the days after their passing. Just to hear their voices once more. He thought that shit was stupid. In fact, he knew it was stupid, but here he was, nonetheless.
He slid his cell phone into the back-left pocket of his Levi’s and knelt for a better view.
In the first year after Ellen, back home, his father had sometimes offered into conversation that there were only two worldviews: the sentimental and the tragic. The sentimental worldview, his father would explain, was useful in coping and in comfort. It helped us carry forward the best parts of people in our memories, but it ignored the harder realities of life; the way that everything eventually fails. The tragic worldview, then, provided a more accurate, though bleaker lens of experience. In those moments all his siblings would nod, reverently admiring their father’s articulation of someone else’s suffering. They’d all been closer then.
Practically laying on the ground, but being mindful of how easily the dried rock salt lining the pavement might stain his coat, George couldn’t make out any blockage in the seat track. Propping his elbows up with the edge of the armrest, he looked into the cabin of the station wagon. Nothing there. Did he really have nothing he could extend his reach with? His sister would call this the American solution, attempting to dislodge a mass the existence of which one had not yet confirmed.
There was snow on the ground in Paw Paw, but both George and the car hadn’t spent much time away from Asheville since Ellen passed. George tried to remember the last time he’d seen his windshield scraper, or if he’d ever even had one. It would be perfect for this.
He stood, shut the door, and felt colder, the full extent of his height undoing whatever windbreak the old Audi had provided him while hunched over. George realized that, while he’d thought of it for some time now as his car, it had never really stopped being Ellen’s. Fitting then, that in the past three years he’d never seen fit to change the first memory-seat position to his own preference.
He’d never listened to Ellen’s voicemail after she was gone. It wasn’t some great avoidance of emotion that held him back, she just had one of those pre-programmed ones. You have reached the voice mailbox of area code eight-two-eight-seven-one-two-two-seven-one-one. Watching the old, automatic seat move captainlessly to take her form was as close as he’d been to sitcom catharsis. In truth, it hadn’t done much for him.
He opened the driver’s side door once more, this time to pull his wallet from the center console. Knowing fully well it wouldn’t work, he cycled through the buttons on the side of the driver’s seat once more: M, 1, 2, 3. The seat remained frozen in Ellen’s shape, perched high and far too close to the steering wheel, recalcitrant to his wishes.
He took stock of the situation as he turned back towards the Mobil. The snow was picking up but only slightly, dancing on the late November wind. It was getting darker, and he needed something with which he could unjam this damn seat, now stuck in a position sentimental at best, tragic at worst.
He was 130 miles from Pittsburgh, more than 400 from Asheville; further in than out. George hoped the trend held.
Daniel Perret is a Chicago-based author of short fiction. He holds a Bachelor’s in English from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin and an MBA from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @nothinghead.