Variations on a Theme


by Matthew Falk

Raindrops spatter against the ancient green Impala's windshield like the blood of some dying sky-god. The wipers are worse than useless. Undaunted by the treacherous conditions, Kurt drives down the narrow rural highway, humming along with a pop song on the radio. In the passenger seat his wife, Claire, is emerging from a nap. It is not yet dawn.

"Was I snoring?" she says.

"No. A little bit."

"Where are we?"

"Middle of nowhere."

"Want to stop for breakfast soon? I could really go for some coffee."

"Sounds good."

"And, like, a nice, fat joint would be good."

He tosses her a pack of Newports containing, in addition to cigarettes, two joints. She lights one up, inhales and starts coughing, hits it again and keeps it down. They pass it back and forth, spilling ashes onto the seat between them. Kurt turns up the radio.

"Who sings this song?" she says.

"No idea. It's from a commercial, isn't it?"

Carefully putting the joint out in the ashtray, she says, "It's a really long song."

"This is a different song. The other one's over."

"I don't think so. I think it's the same one."

Suddenly something appears in front of the car, then bounces away with a dull thud, a sound like raw meat slamming onto a cutting board. Claire gasps, "Dog!"

Kurt just grunts.

"You hit a dog," she repeats. "You have to stop!"

"It wasn't anything."

"We have to go back."

"What for?"

"We don't know if he's still alive."

"So I should run over it again to make sure?"

"Asshole."

"Thought you wanted breakfast."

"What's your problem?"

"Fine. We'll go back."

He spins the Impala around abruptly, slamming her against the door. He drives back to the site of the event and pulls off the road. Claire gets out.

While she searches, he sits in the vehicle with the engine running. She taps on his window; he rolls it down.

"I found him," she says. "Still alive, I think, but barely. Guess I'm going to go see if that's his owner's house up there."

Kurt peers where she's pointing but doesn't see any house. The edge of his visible world is only a few feet away. He declines to accompany her. While she's gone, he smokes the other joint, leans back in his seat, and closes his eyes. The radio plays the same song over and over.

He's soon jolted half-awake by what sounds like a pistol report. Looking around groggily, he observes nothing unusual. Back to sleep.

Then he's awakened again by Claire climbing back into the Impala. As she fastens her seatbelt, he pulls the car back onto the road.

"Find the owner?"

"Yeah."

He waits for her to elaborate, but she's just looking out her window toward the misty horizon, where dawn's greenish-gray tendrils are unfurling.

"So—?"

"Dead," she says.

"The owner's dead?"

"No. The dog."

"Oh. Thought I heard a shot. You OK?"

"Yeah." She closes her eyes. Then after a few minutes, she says, "Turn that damn radio off."

He does so, and the silence in the car becomes tangible.

"Hey," he says, when he can't stand it any longer. She ignores him. He says it again.

"What?"

"Are you mad at me?"

She opens her eyes in order to roll them at him. "What do you think?"

"Kind of think you're making a big deal out of nothing."

"You would say that, Mr. Can't-Even-Stay-Awake-Until-I-Get-Back."

"Sorry."

"What if something had happened to me?"

"Would have been your own fault. I didn't want to stop in the first place."

"Oh my god. Seriously?"

"But it doesn't matter anyway," he says, "because nothing happened."

"Nothing that has anything to do with you, at least."

"That's not what I meant. Are you saying something did happen?"

"Oh, suddenly you're all concerned. Too late, Kurt."

"Come on, I said I was sorry. Tell me what happened."

"You really want to hear about it?"

"Sure. I mean, yeah. Of course I do. Please."

She sighs. She keeps looking out the window. Then she says, very quietly, "So I go up to the house and ring the bell, right? And this guy answers, real big guy, lots of facial hair, like a Hell's Angel type. Doesn't say a word, just sort of leers at me. And I'm like, hi, excuse me, do you happen to have a dog?"

"'Cause you don't anymore," Kurt says.

"Can't you shut up for, like, two minutes?"

"Hey, take it easy. I'm sorry."

"Anyway, so I'm like, we couldn't see your dog until it was right in front of us. And he doesn't even answer me or anything, but his eye kind of starts twitching, and I'm all like, OK, he's going to murder me, but instead he totally starts crying. Some kind of sensitive soul. And so I'm just like, There, there. And then he starts going off about how it's his mom's dog and mom died, like, three days ago and left the dog to him in her will. Sounded like it was about all he got from her. And he goes, She only left me that god-damn dog to fuck with me because I hate it. Her final fuck-you from beyond the grave. And I'm like, oh my god, right? So we go on down to the ditch, he's following me, and we get there and he's still, like, snuffling and carrying on, and we're both just soaked, and he goes right up to the poor dog and pulls this great big pistol out of his pants."

She falls silent for a few interminable minutes. At last, Kurt says, "And then what?"

"What do you mean?"

"What happened next?"

"He shot it."

"No shit. What else?"

"Nothing."

"What do you mean, nothing?"

She doesn't answer.

"Come on," he says. "You can't tell the story like that, that can't be the end. It's a big let-down."

"I'll tell it however I want. And it's not a story, it's just what happened. You're full of shit."

"But no, really, I'm just saying—"

"Oh my god. I need to get out of this damn car right now."

"Sounds great. I'll pull over, and you can walk home. It'll give you some time to practice your story-telling craft."

In response, Claire suddenly screams and braces herself against the dashboard. Startled, Kurt sees a black pick-up truck in the wrong lane bearing down on them.

He frantically turns the wheel, and the Impala veers hard to the left an instant before the pick-up grazes its flank. Everything spins, time slows down, and now they're directly in the path of a bright red sports car that the pick-up had apparently been trying to pass. Kurt twists the steering wheel back the other way. Dust and gravel fill the air as the Impala hurtles off the road and skids to a stop. Then the engine cuts out.

There's no sign of the pick-up truck. The sports car is in a ditch behind them, its horn blaring.

His hands shaking, Kurt turns the key, and the engine starts right up, along with the radio. He's waiting for Claire to tell him not to get back on the highway, but she's not saying anything. He lights a Newport, then slowly turns up the radio until it drowns out the sports car's horn.


BIO: Matthew Falk is the editor of Cardinal Sins, the arts and literature magazine of Saginaw Valley State University. He lives in Bay City, MI, with his wife and two cats.