January 26, 2015

Picking Your Nose on the Highway
by Jon Herring (short, PG-13)
Cover image.
Image credit: Sand Pilarski. More info.

And now, a story that will make you sit up and watch to see what's happening in the next lane -- and make you dread what appears...

~~~

Dustin McNaulty swerves into the left lane as a paper bag full of dirty tissues and cold French fries nearly strikes his windshield. The bag and its contents flutter across the highway joining a thick line of crud coating the base of the median.

"Goddamn bastard," yells McNaulty, banging his hands against the steering wheel. "Stupid prick," he says through clenched teeth. McNaulty squeezes the wheel of his SUV like he's trying to choke somebody.

What kind of person ... he thinks. McNaulty speeds toward the vehicle, and glances over. From the left lane, the culprit is in plain view, driving to his right.

Of course, he thinks, taking in the character beside him -- a fat twenty-something with greasy hair, spasmodically head banging, probably to some asshole singing about dragons. McNaulty glares at the driver. I hope that fat son of a bitch chokes on a cheese fry. Gluttonous pig! It's not enough that he destroys his body, but he has to pollute the earth as well. I should run him off the road. His body could feed a village. McNaulty smiles to himself, thinking about a village of starving African children gathered around his corpse, tearing him apart like a pack of hyenas feeding on a bloated elephant.

McNaulty downs half his coffee in a single gulp, his anger thriving on the caffeine. For a moment his eyes rest on a wallet size picture of his ex-wife taped to the dashboard beside the speedometer. His boiling blood cools to a glum simmer. In the next the lane, the obese driver continues to shake his grubby head to the music while air drumming on the steering wheel. McNaulty watches his sausage fingers bounce off the wheel. He re-summons his anger, allowing the artifice of rage to extinguish the repulsive nostalgia weighing heavy in his belly, instilled by the sun-bleached picture of his ex-wife's chestnut hair. The man's globular earlobes merge with his flabby neck -- his hog-like nostrils flaring in spurts. Before McNaulty can finish surveying the man's horrid form, he witnesses the brute shove his thumb knuckle-deep into his nose and scrape out a long wet booger, which dangles from his thumbnail. McNaulty rides the yellow line, conjuring visions of the variegated composite of greens and blood spots that must surely comprise the repulsive matter.

"This fucking guy," McNaulty says aloud. The fat man twists his hand, scrutinizing his catch. He then sticks his thumb into his mouth. "Mother of God," McNaulty whispers. Sickened, he speeds past the overweight snot-eater and merges into the right lane.

Eyes bulging and grinding his teeth, he turns on the radio and forces a few deep breaths. His favorite talk show is on, Randy Wilson's Patriot Speak. He cranks up the volume, listening to Wilson deliver a theatrical tirade on dismantling welfare and forcing all the lazy poor people in the country to get a damn job. "The problem with America," says Wilson, "is that people do nothing but whine! And then do more whining when they realize that whining hasn't gotten them anywhere. It's not fair they say ... Why don't I have money they say? We have to teach these children that life isn't fair and you only get what you work for! Maybe if everyone wasn't off getting abortions and smoking drugs, there would be more jobs!"

McNaulty is feeling better having found company to share in his hatred. His pulse settles. He opens his mouth, loosening the tension in his jaw.

A black mini-van approaches from behind. Instead of passing to his left, the van screeches its breaks and proceeds to maintain a perfectly annoying distance right on his ass. In the rearview mirror McNaulty makes out the dumb face of a woman, driving with one hand, and applying lipstick with the other. Stupid bitch. What a stupid face, he thinks, watching her powder her cheeks. She takes both hands off the wheel, brushing some makeup off her frilly lapel. She probably hasn't had a real thought in her life. She probably believes everything she hears. I bet she is proud to be an American -- thinking that she's a good person because she recycles.

The vein on his forehead throbs as she drifts dangerously close to his car, both eyes focused on the mirror as she traces black liner along her lids. Even though he is confident that his SUV would triumph over the mini-van, he has no wish of arriving late to work. McNaulty decides against a brake-check and opts instead to rail on the horn. The woman jolts, dropping the eyeliner pencil and grips the wheel in a panic. He sees her mouthing obscenities in the rearview mirror. She then shifts lanes, flipping him the bird as she passes.

McNaulty's normal response of increased aggravation is subdued mildly by the reaction he caused in the woman. I should have brake-checked her. Fantasies of the liner pencil going through her eye as she struck his vehicle fill him with regret.

He continues cruising in the right lane, taking care not to exceed the speed limit. The law is the law. Up ahead he notices a lumpy garbage bag lying on the side of the road. Animals, he thinks. People are animals. Sure, in public they try to act decent, following the rules and pretending to be civilized, but as soon as no one is watching they reveal their sinful selves. Everybody's honest on the highway. Traveling at high speeds through different spaces -- where every crime includes a quick getaway.

A low-riding Volkswagen swerves ahead, disrupting his meditation. Fabulous, he thinks, another drunk, still sauced from last night's escapades. The day has just arrived and already decadence prevails! He shifts into the left lane moving in for the pass. As he approaches, he notices the driver's right shoulder shrugging up and down. What the hell? The driver's head is tilted at an angle and twitching forward and backward against the headrest. McNaulty is concerned that the driver may be having a seizure. He moves forward, next to the car, phone in hand ready to dial 911.

He throws the phone against the car door and slams on the horn as he comes to realize the young male driver is not having a seizure, but is masturbating into a white tube sock. The young man turns to his left, shocked to see McNaulty's screaming red face in the next lane. Letting go of his cock and grabbing the wheel he tries his best to drive straight and act cool. McNaulty rolls down his window. "You sick pervert!" he shouts. "I'm going to call the police! What the hell do you think you're doing! Jerking off on the fucking highway, driving seventy-five miles!"

The young man floors the gas and zooms down the road. Distracted by fury, McNaulty fails to capture the masturbator's license plate. Just before he loses sight of the Volkswagen, a sock flies out of the window and lands in a dirty puddle on the side of the road.

McNaulty hasn't masturbated in ten years. Not since his wife left him. The last time he jerked off was in a hospital. It turned out his wife was right. It was his fault.

He told her it was for the best, that he wouldn't be a good father, that he never wanted children -- sticky little screaming animals, he would say. She told him it was all right and that she still loved him. She said as long as they had each other ... But she got pregnant and left him.

A father turns around in a van and smacks his child in the back seat. The mother screams and grabs his arm. The child screams, "I hate you!" The father wishes he had gotten a better hit on the child.

McNaulty turns the radio back on. Music plays. He used to play instruments: piano, guitar and the musical saw. He once thought music could save the world -- that he could be eternally happy if only he were able to write songs for people. He never performed live because he hated all the acts in town and didn't want to be associated with them. "If people clap for these assholes, I don't want their applause," he would say.

Presently, McNaulty abstains from all music, and from all art for that matter. "There's no integrity anymore," he says. He stopped creating and gave away his instruments to the musicians he hated most. When asked why he had suddenly given up his passion, he would reply, "There is so much stinking shit in this world, why add to it?" He turns off the radio and glances at the clock. I'll be right on time. Eight hours of peace and quiet in my tiny oasis of a cubicle. McNaulty makes his living copying documents from a master database into a smaller database and then copying the information from the smaller database into a spreadsheet, which he then imports back into the original database for record keeping in case of an audit. He finds the circularity of his work calming and rewarding. He receives his orders via email and responds with an email upon completion. There are forty-two flavors of coffee in the office kitchen, which is the major enjoyment in his life. The only downside to the wonderful selection is that it is located in a communal kitchenette where he is often bombarded with small talk and forced to laugh at dim-witted jokes.

A Cadillac in front of him crawling at 40 mph interrupts McNaulty's cruise control. "Jesus H. Christ," he says, stepping on the brake. His language comes out jumbled as he tries to express to no one the driver's mistake, "Fucking shit, four ways!"

He merges into the passing lane, his exit just ahead. He lets his horn wail without relief as he shifts over.

Behind the wheel of the Cadillac, crouched in the seat, head barely above the wheel, sits a hunched old man in an ivy cap. The old man keeps his eyes forward. His hands are visibly shaking. He is alone, just as McNaulty is alone. McNaulty's stomach turns, swollen with the guilt of his deeds. He sees his fate beside him, a slow withering, alone on the road.

He rushes past the old man in an attempt to outrun his memory of the situation. But he cannot escape the mocking eyes of his ex-wife's picture and the deadening apathy of her smile. He shifts over into the right lane and turns on the radio searching for a distraction from his guilt. A song sings through, one of his old favorites. Tears escape him. Stale salty globs preserved for too long. He wipes the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and thumb. He feels a sharp pain in his nose as he rubs away the tears. McNaulty stares into the vacancies before and behind him. Not a car in sight. With his thumb, he scrapes a large crusty piece of mucus from his nose and flicks it out the window. His exit has arrived.

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Article © Jon Herring. All rights reserved.


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