I'd like to try to post more of my writing here this year, so we'll see if that keeps up. "Heated Seats" is a short story I wrote over the holidays. I've entered it in the 2016 Writer's Digest Short Story Competition, and I'd welcome your feedback. I'd love to know what you think.
I'll put a disclaimer out there: It's a dark story, and fairly sad, dealing with some pretty heavy stuff--especially tough going for parents. A good friend of mine lost a child several years ago, and I've often reflected upon our conversations. This story is an attempt to explore despair in the face of an overwhelming trauma. That's also a major theme of Wilderness Therapy, the novel I finished this summer, so it's somethign I've been trying to develop a voice for.
It's not a feel-good story. But if you're willing to read it anyway, to travel down a dark, intimate road of fairly raw emotional stuff, I'd love to hear your comments in the space below. And hey...if it happens to win that contest I'll let you know.
A Short Story by Paul Cumbo
He shivers in a threadbare flannel shirt, the driver’s seat icy through his jeans. He should have at least thrown on a sweatshirt, but those are the kind of simple things he’s been forgetting. His van idles at an intersection on a broad, four-lane avenue clogged with traffic. It’s generic suburbia: big box stores and strip malls as far as he can see, which isn’t far through the snow. The engine is cold and his breath floats in visible puffs. He sips coffee, and he’s startled when it scalds his tongue. He sips again anyway, relishing the burn. Something he can feel. Feel. He wants to feel more, because the numbness is worse. Outside, in the blue gray January dusk, snowflakes land silently on the windshield. Before the vents can begin to blow the faintest trace of heat, warmth radiates from the seat.
It was the heated seats that sold her on the premium upgrade. Nevermind the moon roof, integrated navigation, three-zone climate control, satellite radio and sixteen-speaker sound system. Forget the backup camera, radar-equipped parking assist, blind-spot monitor, and lane departure warning system. A hatchback that opens and closes at the touch of a button—a godsend for toddler-hauling parents? Nope. Nevermind all that. Heated seats. In her mind, that’s what justified an extra ninety a month on the lease.
His midsized pickup had done the job for a few years, with two car seats in the back. But a third wouldn’t fit, not even an infant seat. Impossible to latch securely. He’d tried one evening, out in the chill of the garage while the kids slept. He swore with the effort, making her laugh. And so, at her urging, he gave in to the inevitable logic of practicality. For a month he pored over reviews, finding out which minivan would carry them safely and comfortably to the next frontier of family life. The other guys at work—fellow dads, that is—gave him sympathetic, reassuring nods while the younger ones threw good-natured jabs as they climbed into their trucks at the end of their shift.
She’d gone back and forth with him, arguing about the features, the money, leasing versus buying—it was the same old argument they always had, really. It was always the same argument, no matter what it was about. It could have been putting sunblock on the kids, loading the dishwasher, or refinancing the house. “It’s the economy, stupid,” he’d remind himself afterward, feeling rueful and guilty for the pettiness of it. It was always the economics. Of everything. Same as any couple. Well, the economics and his stubbornness. There was that, too. Always that.
They were married at twenty-eight. He was between construction jobs and she was finishing grad school. It was impulsive and beautiful. His work came in unreliable spurts, but she was brilliant—a clinical psychologist with a growing practice. The first two kids—the boys—came within three years, and life was chaos, testing them and draining them and passing by so quickly that some days they’d collapse after the little one finally quieted down, both falling asleep on the sofa with the television on. Their little girl was born just as they’d begun to catch their breath, and the joy and madness of it all was magnified yet again on a hot July day as she came screaming into the world.
The light changes and he moves with traffic, the snow getting heavier as the sky darkens. It’s slow going. The engine is warm now; he dials the heat down and sips more coffee. It’s cooled a bit. He flips on the radio. He’s not really listening, though. He’s not listening because it doesn’t matter. The cold front bringing more lake-effect snow doesn’t matter. Congressional gridlock. Creeping interest rates and turbulent stocks. None of it matters because he’s alone in a seven-passenger waste of space with only four hundred miles on it, on his way back to the dealer to trade it in for something else. He hasn’t thought about what, yet. Another pickup, probably. That would make the most sense. He’ll figure it out when he gets there. Whatever’s on the lot.
No research needed this time. Money’s not an issue anymore.
He’s abandoning everything methodically. The house is on the market, priced to sell, fully furnished. He can’t bear to sort through their things. He’s packed a few boxes, but no matter what else goes in them, they’re full of grief. Photos. Relics in blue and pink. It’s too hard. And he hates that it seems…what? Tedious. Pointless. So today, it’s just the van. He hasn’t bothered to take the car seats out. They can do that. They can have them. Donate them or something.
The phone vibrates. It’s a text. He ignores it. Then another red light, and he slows to a stop, skidding a bit on the icy road first, the back of the heavy van heaving to one side before the antilock brakes pulse, the vehicle straightening as limited-slip engineering kicks in. Then the phone again, this time the insistent, long vibration of a call. It’s his brother again. He cancels it and the buzzing ends abruptly.
Everyone wants to help. Everyone is there for him.
But no one’s there really, because no one’s here. No one’s anywhere. So none of it matters. There’s a stick of her lip balm rolling around in the cup holder. Her seat heater’s still on, but she’s gone. If there were any doubt, the glowing orange indicator would remove it, assuring him: “PASSENGER AIRBAG OFF.” And there’s no one in the back. Only an abandoned Cheerio, cemented to the fabric of the oldest one’s seat by something sticky. There’d been a fight about the Cheerios. The kind of exhausting, pointless fight parents have with four-year-olds, full of kicking and screaming and ridiculous ultimatums. He grips the wheel, recalling it, his knuckles whitening.
Now something’s happening. His vision blurs. Tears cascade down his face, landing in his lap. And then heat. But not from the seat. Not this heat. It rises inside him and breaks out of every pore; sweat engulfs him in hot, itchy pinpricks, soaking his armpits as he begins to tremble. The shakes first happened at the hospital, when he learned he’d lost all four of them in one arbitrary instant when some kid texted his way through a red light. It happened again at the funeral, so bad that he fainted. But it hasn’t happened since, not until now. He’s just been numb.
Part of it’s that he shouldn’t be alone. He knows it. But he fought everyone. He fought them with the same stupid stubbornness that drove all the arguments, and he went home alone to their ghosts. Now the shakes are back. Now, while he’s driving. He knows it’s dangerous—God, it’s so damn dangerous—so he stops the car. Because he can’t stop what’s happening, and he’s pressing the brake hard to the floor, his foot cramping and his fingers clenched as it all starts to spin faster and faster and rise within him—a heaving, twisting pressure from inside his gut and he can barely, barely, barely, breathe and—
“Sir! Sir, open the window!”
He opens his eyes and looks to his left. It’s a young cop, squinting against the blowing snow, his flashlight searching the van in rapid arcs as he taps on the window. His partner is on the passenger side. “Sir! Put the vehicle in park!”
He tries. Unthinking, unseeing, it takes him a moment to do it because he reaches for the ghost of his old truck’s transmission. Finding the unfamiliar knob, he parks the van with a shaking hand. He swipes his eyes clear, only now noticing the pulsing blue and red lights outside. Traffic flows slowly around him, parting behind him like two diverted streams into the other lanes. Drivers rubberneck as they crawl by, squinting and shaking their heads. One flips him off.
An hour later he’s home, standing on the front porch, alone in the cold, watching the snow fall. He holds her lip balm in his pocket. His brother is inside heating up some soup. He’s spending the night. Not to talk, not to counsel. Not to try to make sense of it or decide on next steps or sort through insurance paperwork or tell him things happen for a reason. No. No economics of fate tonight. His brother is there just to be there with hot soup. And he’s grateful, because life has come untethered, spinning out of control, with no one in the cold car seats, and he can’t stand to be alone, adrift in the dark nothing of it all.