Randall’s Commute

Randall’s Commute

Randall snorted when the DJ on the radio joked, “If you live in the U.S., your chances of being killed in an auto accident are infinitely greater than your chances of being killed by a terrorist.” Stuck in traffic, once again, Randall didn’t find it funny. There must be something better to do on a sunny fall day than driving to work.

He spent a large proportion of his waking hours on the freeway. Driving to work. Driving home from work. Driving from his suburban house to nearby supermarkets, restaurants, Walmart, Home Depot, movies and stores at the mall. He’d once calculated that he spent about one-third of his waking time on the road, but he knew he’d probably inflated the figure. His arithmetic became undependable when he was agitated.

Randall wasn’t sure whether it was inertia or a disinclination to live in city that had kept him in the suburbs after the divorce. Everyone in San Francisco seemed to be twenty-something. Of course they weren’t, but he didn’t see much of a life there for sad middle-aged divorcees. Not that there was much of a life here. Frozen dinners and sports on TV. He was always amazed at the number of condo complexes and bland high-rise corporate buildings lining the freeway. He couldn’t imagine who lived there or worked there. His job as an office manager was boring, but he enjoyed driving over the bridge. The water, the city skyline. At least when cars weren’t at a standstill.

He wondered whether his son Michael would land a job in the city when he graduated. And whether he’d even want to see Randall. They weren’t on the best of terms.

Traffic was speeding up again after an inexplicable slowdown. A fender bender? A speed trap? An object in the road? He wasted a lot of energy every day, speculating.

Randall looked at all the metal boxes on wheels around him, one occupant each. They hadn’t found any alternatives to driving to San Francisco either. Ride your bike to work. A ludicrous idea. Why not just attach a sign to your back, “Kill me!” Ride sharing. Ditto. Half the population in the Bay Area was crazy, as far as Randall could see. You could end up chained in some lunatic’s basement, or buried in the desert without a head. The BART train. He’d have to drive ten miles from Livermore to Pleasanton and the BART parking lot was always full. More stress. He could swim to work. Really. He’d read a newspaper item about a commuter in Germany who swam to work.

The blare of a horn roused him as a BMW cut him off and then cut off a car in the fast line and zig zagged across all three lanes and back again, presumably for entertainment, as the car didn’t advance much further than the others. It happened too fast for Randall to react. He usually didn’t bother to honk anyway. The horn on his Honda sounded puny and embarrassed him. Why even raise an objection when your voice was so weak and insignificant?

According to the article he’d read, the German commuter stored his work clothes, laptop, and phone in a waterproof bag. He then swam and floated the mile to work, relaxing on his back for long stretches, waving at spectators on bridges. Wonderful! Could Randall get one of those waterproof bags at REI? he wondered, before reflecting that there was no river or canal from his house to the city.

He noticed that a black Lexus was tailgating him, probably had been tailgating him for a while as he savored his reverie. Randall was not a fan of bumper stickers, but he’d considered the one that said “Do you follow Jesus this closely?” He hated tailgaters.

He put on his blinker and moved to the slow lane.

He’d relocate to Munich. He’d do the butterfly stroke instead of the crawl. No, the backstroke. He could see it. Water glistened on his bare chest. His muscles were well developed from swimming and workouts. There were admiring women among the spectators and one tossed a rose to him, which he held between his teeth as he swam on.

He checked his rearview mirror and saw that the Lexus had moved into the slow lane too, probably hoping it was faster than the middle lane. It was tailgating him again. Randall was annoyed. He was going the speed limit.

Should he buy a new car? Randall had been considering electric but they were expensive, most of them. When his neighbor Fred bought one, he’d also invested in a charging station, so that added to the cost. He wondered whether Fred would let him use his charging station, but they weren’t on the best of terms. Randall hadn’t been mowing his grass as regularly as Fred and the other neighbors. It hardly seemed worth it. He didn’t spend all that much time at home and he was never outside. He should probably move.

The Lexus flashed his lights at him. What a jerk. Randall sped up slightly.

We all want to get to work, buddy, Randall said, though no one could hear, and he wasn’t sure it was true. He didn’t particularly want to get to work, and probably the other guy didn’t either. But he didn’t want to be late to work today. The receptionist brought donuts to the office on Friday.

An electric car was beginning to seem too complicated. Besides, driverless cars were on the horizon, and a driverless car would be an optimum choice. Randall imagined himself sitting back in the passenger seat doing the crossword puzzle in the morning newspaper.

The Lexus passed him on the left, then abruptly turned back into the slow lane in front of him. Randall had no time to brake. He was shocked by the impact and the sound of ripping metal. He could feel the seat belt snap taut on his torso as he was thrown forward towards the windshield. The air bag smashed into his face, knocking the wind out of him, as he was thrown backwards against the headrest. The car behind him crashed into the rear of his car, jolting him again.

For a long minute, everything seemed surreal. Impossible to fathom.

Randall had been commuting for years without even a fender bender and now this. An accident. He sat trying to take it in, shaken. He felt his legs start to tremble. What was he supposed to do next? Pull over. The car had apparently turned itself off and his hands were shaking. He didn’t think he could start up the car again with the air bag between him and the steering wheel. The impact had pushed the car halfway onto the shoulder already. Insurance. He needed to trade insurance information with the other drivers. Surely it was their fault, not his, but maybe they didn’t need to get into that. And what if someone was hurt? Randall tried to muster some sympathy for their potential injuries, but he was too upset.

He opened the door and swung his legs around to stand up, reluctant to approach the Lexus driver. Maybe he should just write down the license plate number and wait for the CHP. He wasn’t sure that the CHP even bothered with accidents like this one if no one was hurt. They’d have to come, wouldn’t they, with cars partially blocking the slow lane? The accident felt both momentous and insignificant. He’d seen similar incidents on his commute, occasionally a five or six car pileup, one crash precipitating the next, like dominos falling. In fact wasn’t it a bad idea to get out of the car? Didn’t people get killed that way?

He looked at the car behind him. The front was smashed in, but not badly. The driver, a young brunette wearing glasses, was staring at him through the windshield. She looked okay. She didn’t look like she planned to get out of the car, as far as Randall could see.

The guy in front of him was emerging from the Lexus, a burly white guy with tattoos and a tight, faded T-shirt that read Seaside Diner. “Asshole!” he shouted, shaking his fist. Surely Randall wasn’t the asshole, right? “Old guys like you …,” the guy said. Randall couldn’t hear the rest. “You fucked up my car.”

Randall didn’t think that 53 was so old, and surely it was the other guy who fucked up his car by passing Randall and cutting in front of him, but before he could raise an objection, the guy had reached into his car and pulled out a gun.

Randall tried, and failed, to catch his breath.

This was going to be in the newspaper for sure. “Road Rage Incident on 580.” Or worse, “Road Rage Fatality on 580.” He never imagined it could happen to him. Yet here he was.

Randall pulled open the back door of his car, hurtled into the backseat, and slammed the door shut after him. He pulled out his phone and dialed 9-1-1, his hands still shaking. He couldn’t even lock the door without the key fob still dangling from the ignition. The guy might open the door and drag him out of the car. Of course the guy could shoot him through the window, but would he?

“I’m not sure where I am,” he told the operator, his voice high and breathless. “San Ramon maybe?” He looked around at the green foothills, the clear blue sky. It was a portion of the commute with no buildings, no landmarks. “Somewhere on westbound 580 and there’s a guy waving a gun outside my car.”

He hung up, forgetting that 9-1-1 operators usually ask you to stay on the line. She wouldn’t be any help anyway. Would someone else stop? All these cars whizzing by, drivers oblivious, or intent on getting to work. He couldn’t blame them. He knew he wouldn’t stop either if he saw a road rage incident on the side of the freeway. Would the woman in the car behind him intervene? Probably not.

“Asshole,” he’d said. Randall slid down in the seat, trying to make himself invisible. He couldn’t see over the back of the driver’s seat and the airbag. What was the Lexus guy doing? Was he coming after him?

He closed his eyes and took deep breaths, gulping for air. As his heart rate slowed, he thought of a girl who’d called him an asshole when he was in college. Her face flushed, her eyes bright with anger, her voice vibrating with emotion. “Asshole.” They were in his dorm room, getting dressed after spending the night together, and he couldn’t remember anymore why she thought he was an asshole. Her name was Marnie. Her hair was still tousled from sleep.

He remembered another girl. Or maybe it was Marnie. Lying naked and uncovered in his bed asleep, the sheets rumpled and bunched up around her feet, light from the moon streaming in the window. She was luminous in the moonlight. Glowing. And he’d thought, there will be nothing in my life more beautiful than this.

And there hadn’t been. Maybe that first night at the hospital, when his wife was nursing their newborn son in the dim light. Twenty years later he and his wife were divorced and he and his son were always arguing. Michael had become a Buddhist in college—a Buddhist!—and didn’t care about earning a living. Randall told him it was never too early to think about a career, you have to make compromises, it’s part of being an adult. Had his compromises landed him here, with this guy calling him an asshole and pointing a gun at him while traffic whooshed by, no one paying any attention at all? He regretted it all—the loss of beauty in his life, the indifference of the world, his dull job, his alienation from his family, his failure to be the father his son needed.

Maybe he was an asshole. There was a long list of people he didn’t get along with. He’d probably made too many compromises in his life. For what? A steady income and retirement that was still a long way off? A commute that occupied a third of his waking hours? But he didn’t think he deserved to die.

The car shook as a truck rumbled by.

Randall wondered whether he should call someone else to tell them what was happening, but couldn’t think of anyone to call. Michael would be in classes, and what could he say to him anyway? He should have loved people more. He should have slowed down to appreciate what he had instead of speeding up to get somewhere. He felt pathetic, close to tears. He took another deep, shuddering breath, and settled in to wait. For rescue? For death? There was no sign of the guy with the gun. Would the CHP find him in time?

Randall had never been devout. A lukewarm Episcopalian, he hadn’t gone to church in years. But it occurred to him that he’d sometimes thought of this stretch of lush, unpopulated foothills, so verdant and green, as “God’s country.” Especially in the fall when he returned home from work at sunset, and the hills were bathed in a rosy glow before dusk descended. Maybe what he was waiting for was not death or even rescue, and he wouldn’t know what form it might take until it happened. Redemption. Not a word he’d ever used before. Did Buddhists believe in redemption? He would have to ask Michael.


About the Author

Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to flash fiction in BULL, she has published longform and flash fiction in New World Writing, Five South, Midway Journal, Fictive Dream, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction chapbook The Missing Girl is available from Black Lawrence Press. Find her online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on twitter @doylejacq.


Photo by Aleksandr Popov on Unsplash