BY JOHN SHEIRER
Copyright is held by the author.
PAUL CHOOSE to kill himself in a rental car because it seemed like the polite thing to do.
Using his own car seemed too personal. He couldn’t imagine a relative or friend dealing with the car after the act was accomplished. No one among his small circle of family and friends would be equipped for such a task. He didn’t have a gun and didn’t want to get one. Going that route would probably ruin a car. Surely the insurance would total it. Asphyxiation made its own kind of mess, considering bodily functions and what not. But the car would still be usable. Paul thought that was important — don’t total the car when you total yourself.
The people he called friends were mostly co-workers and neighbours. If he didn’t occupy the same general space, Paul imagined they might not really notice him. Yes, they waved and nodded and smiled and made small words of greeting. But the conversations seldom advanced beyond there. The deepest interactions he had at work revolved around how best to turn the long columns of numbers that he had generated on his computer into the most useful charts and graphs for presentations performed by younger colleagues wearing nicer clothes and wider smiles. If you eliminated the weather as a topic, his neighbours rarely went beyond “hello.”
His daughter lived on the other side of the country and was enmeshed in her own career. Something about property, real estate, houses the size of small hotels. How did she find this line of work? How could anyone afford such places? His calls to her always went to voicemail, day or night. Could anyone really be that busy? Was she avoiding him?
She called back eventually, usually after he had left at least four messages, always a variation on the same theme: “Hi, honey, it’s Dad. I know you’re busy, but give me a call when you get a chance. Hope the job is going well. Love you, bye,” or ”Hi, sweetie. Your old man here. Must be a lot going on out your way. When you get a second, drop me a line. Love to hear what’s happening at the office. Miss you. Talk soon.”
Her return calls came about once a month, more variation on her own themes: Job great. Very busy. Weather’s great. Not enough time at the beach. Not dating. Don’t ask. Car working fine. No need to send money. Paul said, “uh-huh” a dozen times before she had to run.
His son lived closer but had that nice wife and those two twin toddlers who held his whole attention. Paul learned to text because they sent so many photos. Back yard swing set, pre-school activities, church plays, day trips, vacations, visits to her parents. So many trips, but their schedules seldom brought them in Paul’s direction. So Paul got texts with smiling twins. They were usually part of group texts with names he didn’t recognize, just a few at first, then 20 names, growing each time, now so many names he had to scroll three times to reach the photos. Friends? Could anyone have that many friends? Paul could usually tell the twins apart. One smile tilted right, one left.
Paul saw them on the holidays — well, some holidays. The big ones: Christmas, yes; a single birthday for both because they’re twins, mid-summer. Paul drove four hours to their house near the lake. Something about the balance of a winter visit with the snowy fields and a summer visit with the picnic party at the beach made Paul hesitate when he thought of asking to visit more often. Somehow, everybody’s smile looked smaller in real life than on the tiny photos that popped up on Paul’s phone.
A week before, Paul had rented a storage unit. The manager looked like the kind of guy who lived in a storage unit, like he hadn’t seen sunshine since the first Bush administration. Paul wondered if he lived in a unit.
“Size ya need?” he asked.
“Big enough to hold a car,” Paul replied.
“Gotcha covered.” If he suspected Paul’s plan, he didn’t show it on his bleached-out face.
Paul walked the four blocks from his apartment to the car rental place. His last walk. Aside from a new ache in his left knee, this walk didn’t seem much different that all the others leading up to it. The early walks with his wife were different. Holding hands. Quiet conversations. Nothing ached. Twenty years had passed since she walked out into traffic one rainy afternoon. Buses take so long to brake.
“Economy,'” Paul replied when the rental agent asked him what kind of car he wanted. No sense in springing for something upscale. “I’m more interested in function than luxury,” Paul told the agent, a comment that worked for this transaction and aptly summed up much of his life. Besides, this excursion wouldn’t take very long.
“Just the thing,” the agent said.
Six numbers on a keypad opened the gate at his storage unit. Paul read them from the one-page contract that came with the rental. No need to memorize them when this would be his only visit.
The small car fit with plenty of room to spare, but Paul opened the driver’s door carefully. He didn’t want to scratch the paint. The rental unit’s garage-type door thumped into place with a solid seal. Nothing in; nothing out. Not air-tight, but it would do the job.
Paul shut off the headlights and tuned the radio to classical music. The dashboard clock read 1:15, early afternoon. He had no dinner plans.
He’d read that he would just drift off, like falling asleep. No coughing, no wheezing, no fighting for air — all over in half an hour. He thought he saw something like a mist rising in the dim light. He didn’t even smell anything. He was tired. He closed his eyes.
When his phone chimed, Paul was surprised to see the clock now read 3:27. Not possible, he thought. The dashboard showed the car was running, set in park, but still running.
Out of habit, he pulled his phone from his pocket. He had a new text from his son. No photos this time, no distribution list, just a few words: “Labour day next week party at the lake twins would love to see you us too.”
Then he noticed something he hardly ever saw. He had a voicemail. He listened to his daughter’s message: “Hey, Dad. I’m taking two weeks off in October. I’ve gotta use the vacation days or I’ll lose ’em. Wondering if you’d like to fly out for a visit. I’ve met someone special and would love to introduce you. Call me back when you get a chance.”
Paul opened the door, flinching as it banged against the metal wall. He’d have to explain the tiny scratch.
There were no fumes, no smoke, no mist. Once outside the car, he noticed that he couldn’t hear the low hum of engine idle that he expected. At the rear of the car, he dropped to one knee to inspect the tailpipe. He stuck his fingers inside the cool pipe to verify that it wasn’t blocked.
He rested his forehead against the back of the car, the metal hard and smooth. He slowly rocked his head from side to side until he bumped against a small raised structure. It was a metal emblem, barely two inches across.
Paul pulled back his head and noticed the emblem’s graceful design with a faint hint of colour and letters he could just make out in the dim light, six letters that saved his life and would change his world: Hybrid.