March 02, 2015

Traffic in the Tunnel
by Michael Price (short, PG)
Cover image.
Image credit: Sand Pilarski. More info.

If only he'd kept his temper, the store wouldn't have been closed...

~~~

First-year University of Minnesota graduate student Greg Bork had some unusual difficulties in the practical application of focus.

His was almost too good.

Most of the time, as an undergrad, this abnormally keen aptitude for entirely immersing himself into whatever he deemed important at the moment served him quite well. His unique ability to completely tune out any and all distractions whenever he recognized a particularly vivid goal on the horizon was a major contributing factor in landing him on the Dean's List every quarter of his undergraduate career, 1974 - 77, despite living in the dorm, with its built-in disturbances, the entire three-plus years. The English Education major and college professor wannabe had missed countless meals, crammed through many a sleepless night, and sustained few friendships, his predilection to selectively become absorbed by simply flipping a switch, or so it seemed, making it only slightly short of impossible to allow into his world any such potential diversions during these times, often for days on end.

And God forbid anyone or anything should actually succeed in rousting him from one of these obsessively focused comas of his.

Two years prior, as a nineteen year-old sophomore, out on a rare movie date with his eventual girlfriend, Janice Hartung, Greg shh! -started a small riot when his hypnotic involvement with the box office nail-biter Three Days of the Condor was jarringly aborted -- three times -- by brief but strident giggles from the rear, although any comparable disruption from anywhere in the theater would have done the trick.

As in,

Boom! "What?

"Where am I? ... Oh yeah, movie. Damn! Shhh! Shut up! Shut up!... where was I?..."

After graduation, Greg finally moved out of the dorm and into a small, off-campus apartment with Janice, took a week to start and complete bartending school, and immediately secured his first nightclub gig for extra cash. He worked a little, took on a full load of graduate level literature courses, and studied a lot.

His senior year -- the year before -- through the campus grapevine, he had heard about a notoriously difficult 8000-level English course on the works of turn-of-the-century Irish author James Joyce, one he wasn't able to take at the time as an undergrad. But the following fall, as a graduate student, and never one to shy away from a challenge (often in search of one), he eagerly registered for the course. His grade, as per the first-day-of-class syllabus hand-out, was to be determined thusly: two five-page papers -- each worth twenty per-cent of the grade; a mid-term -- twenty per-cent; and a final test, project, or paper -- forty per-cent.

Greg fostered an idea for a final project right away, first day: a short story of his own, based on and inspired by Joyce's characters, literary style, techniques, usages, etcetera, but set in a bar, an environment he was fundamentally familiar with. It seemed a perfect fit. He was excited about its potential as a grade-A quality final project. He was certain old Doc Stephenson, who had been teaching at the U. for more than forty years, the course on Joyce more than thirty, and had visited and studied in Ireland several times, would recognize every Joyce-ian detail, every cleverly re-named character, and would surely appreciate and consider brave the originality of his short story idea as a final project format, and thoroughly enjoy the many literary singularities of the great Irish writer Greg planned to employ in his project. He started taking notes on all course readings the day he read the first story in Dubliners.

It was a very good idea. He was sure of it.

By the time he was ready to sit down at the old typewriter his father had presented him for his high school graduation -- late Thursday afternoon, the day before the project was due -- he had a stack of notes more than an inch thick, scribbled on both sides of every edge-tattered and wrinkled sheet of notebook paper. He was prepared to stay up all night for the second night in a row, if necessary -- and he was pretty sure that's what it would take; he was a fairly fast hunt-and-peck typist but a hunt-and-peck typist nonetheless -- in order to finish and hand in his project on time, ten-o'clock the following morning.

He was excited.

"Doc's gonna love this."

He got started a little after 4:30.

Totally engrossed in his work, mindlessly oblivious of all else, not once did he consider that he might run out of typewriter ribbon, which took place five hours later.

Boom! "What?

"Aw, shit!"

To relate, at this point, that he threw a fit -- a fit to top all fits, at top volume, there and then, at 9:35 that night -- would constitute the King Kong of understatements.

Livid times ten. Distressed times twenty.

Suffice to say, the apartment complex in its entirety was soundly alarmed, the greater portion of Greg's tirade divisible by four. Somebody called the police, probably a bunch of somebodies. By the time the cops got there, in less than five minutes, his girlfriend had calmed him down -- some.

"Please let me go," Greg pleaded with the two officers, briefly outlining his dilemma. "Please ... hey, I'm sorry, officers, I really am. But I'm fine, now, really." He checked his watch. "Look, the office supply store closes in fifteen minutes, I gotta get there, I gotta get that ribbon, it's really important. I'm fine, I swear. Please."

They let him go. He waited until they were out of sight, snatched a jacket from the front closet, sprinted to his car, and sped off.

It took about a minute-and-a-half before a different cop, a female officer, stopped him for going fifty-six in a forty.

"License and registration, sir."

Greg's heart sank, as the lady cop retreated to her car with his information. Just give me the ticket so I can go, raced through his mind. I don't care. I gotta get that ribbon ... I gotta get that ribbon ...

He glanced down at his watch. "Never gonna make it," he muttered to himself.

"What's that?" she said, returning at his window. She was quicker than he had considered. Maybe there was still a chance ...

"Uh ... nothing officer."

"Well," she continued, painfully unhurried, "you don't have a record." She handed back his documents.

"No ma'am." Could we please hurry this up a bit?

"You're obviously not drunk."

Greg emitted an anguished chuckle. "Boy, I sure hope not."

She shone her flashlight in Greg's car. "Where're you headed so fast?"

For the second time in less than twenty minutes, he hastily recounted the Reader's Digest condensed version of his situation.

"For a typewriter ribbon?" She was smiling.

Greg mirrored her smile with a forced one of his own. "Pretty silly, huh?"

She laughed. "Ha! I like it." Her ear to ear grin was unnerving, and remained on her face far too long for his timetable. "Go on, get outta here," she said finally, walking away, laughing under her breath.

"Thank you, ma'am," Greg called back, jamming his car into gear.

"Slowly ..." he heard as he drove away.

Greg arrived at Araby Corner -- a small, sparsely frequented, suburban strip mall -- almost five minutes late, probably only because he felt compelled to drive the speed limit those last five miles. The lights were still on in Office City and he could see the young lady working at one of the cash registers, but the door was locked. He pounded on the glass door, displaying hopeful eyes for her to see. Her head was down and she was professionally ignoring him, but he was relentless. She finally looked up at Greg, cracked a sour smile, and mouthed the words, "We're closed."

"I know," yelled Greg. "Please ..." He shrugged two open palms, a gesture of I'm sorry I'm so late embarrassment, but, "Please ..."

She shook her head, "Sorry," and returned to her business.

Greg sighed. "So that's it," he said to himself, shaking his head. "What a waste." He stood there for several seconds, suppressing an urge, with some difficulty, to punch his way through the glass, the section of the store containing the typewriters and accessories in full view from where he stood. He even pinpointed the exact ribbon he needed, second aisle, middle shelf. "Way to go Greg, ya big idiot. Way to screw up a perfectly good A." More heavy sighs ensued, as he aimlessly sauntered down the sidewalk fronting the strip mall, his mind now depressingly blank, the creative fire extinguished, hands in pockets, idly kicking at the concrete every step or two. All other mall business had shut down, lights off, except perhaps one; it was hard to tell from a few doors down: a little Mexican Restaurant at the very end of the mall. It was mostly dark when Greg got there but when he tried the door, it opened. "Why not? What the hell ..."

"Good evening, sir. Welcome to Baja.

Greg took a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkened ambiance of the room, barely discerning four people seated at two small tables in the restaurant area to his right and, on his left, one guy slumped over a coffee cup at the far end of the otherwise unpopulated, ten-seat, hardwood bar, bobbing and weaving in his seat. Greg approached the dimly lit bar, the only illumination in the tiny space. "You still open?" he asked the bartender, an older, white-haired fellow.

"Sure," the man said, wiping the bar with a damp towel. "Pull up a stool, if you can find room." He flashed a sad smile. "Little cold out there, is it pal?"

Greg wasn't exactly in the mood for exchanging mirthful banter but, as a fellow bartender, he strained a smile back. "It's Minnesota."

"I hear that. What'll ya have ?"

Greg drew in a deep breath, "How 'bout a Rusty Nail?" and exhaled audibly, draping his jacket over the first bar stool.

"Ooh, good idea," said the bartender, folding his towel carefully and setting it in the bar rail. "Let's get this li'l ol' party started, huh?" he over-volumed, chuckled once, then whispered in close, "Gotta see your I.D. though, pal -- sorry."

The bartender reminded Greg of Jim Phelps, the Peter Graves character on Mission: Impossible, his favorite TV show: fifty-five, maybe sixty, a tall, slender, clean shaven, very distinguished looking gentleman. Greg assumed the guy had been tending bar longer than he'd been alive, which, for some reason, made him feel a little better.

"Thank you, Mr. Bork ..."

"Greg, please," said Greg, stuffing his license back in his wallet -- again -- and dropping himself onto the stool.

"All righty then, Greg, you can call me Jackson." They shook hands. "Let me get your drink, uh ... Rusty Nail, Rusty Nail ..." He turned and stopped, finger to mouth." "Hmm ..." He looked at the high back wall of bottles like it was a physics problem. "I'm sorry, Greg, I'm afraid I'm having a bit of a senior moment here. Rusty Nail -- Scotch and..."

"Drambuie."

"Drambuie, of course. Scotch and Drambuie, I knew that. My apologies, Greg, it's been a while."

"Not a problem."

Jackson poured. "Easy for you to say."

"Pardon me?"

Jackson set the drink in front of Greg and feigned a grimace. "Ach," he shrugged. "Forget it, it's nothing. Start you a tab?"

"Sure, why not."

"Terrible question." Jackson shrugged. "Besides, I'm the bartender. I'm supposed to listen to your problems. I believe that's the way this game is played."

Greg sipped at his drink. "Well," he swallowed, "if it makes you feel any better, I'm a bartender, too."

"You're kidding. At twenty-one?"

"The Market, couple nights a week."

"Good money?"

"Okay for now. Wouldn't want to do it for the rest of my life."

"I hear that."

"So spill. I'm all ears."

Jackson pondered silently while Greg nursed his drink. "Well ..." he started finally, choosing his words carefully, "... I dunno, I've been so ... preoccupied, I guess ... lately." He lost himself in thought. "I keep thinking ... hell, you hit it right on the head, Mr. Greg. This was not the plan, ya know? If you'd have told me thirty, thirty-five years ago that I'd be standing here, hole-in-the-wall joint -- eleven, midnight, one in the morning -- shootin' the breeze with you ... no offense..."

"No, I get it, I do."

"I mean, I actually make pretty good money here, believe it or not. You missed the dinner rush by about an hour," he said, panning the nearly empty room with his eyes. "And it'll pick up again after eleven, after second shift lets out, especially with the hospital two blocks away." He smiled. "Nurses and I get along just fine, thank you so much. Financially and otherwise."

Greg smiled back. He felt himself starting to unwind -- some.

"And I can't begin to tell you about some of the places I've worked at over the years. Talk about good money ..." Jackson heaved a slow sigh and laughed under his breath. "But I dunno, somewhere along the way I got ... misdirected, somehow -- there, how's that for a word for ya? Misdirected -- almost sounds like it was somebody else's fault, and ... well, here we are." He smiled ruefully, shaking his head. "Wasn't exactly the way it was supposed to go, Greg."

Greg pasted a bartender smile on his face. "But there's money to be had here, you say?"

"Oh sure, no complaints there. But it's a trap, ya know, this business. You get stuck makin' a hundred or two a night, you always have cash on hand, which is nice -- as you know -- plus your paycheck ... hell, sometimes I forget all about my paycheck, it's like a bonus that shows up twice a month." He poured himself a low ball of cola. "And it's not like I'm working my ass off, Greg, no forty hour work week or anything like that, shifts are almost never more than eight hours."

"Doesn't sound so bad."

Jackson looked down, hinted a smile, and shook his head. "Naw, I s'pose not." He downed his cola in a gulp, then made noise setting the glass in the rail. "Except today I got my ass reamed because I was a half-hour late for work."

"Ooh, ouch."

"Not a doggone thing I could do, either. You know the old Finnegan Tunnel? The one under the freeway? The one with all the patched potholes?"

"'Bout a half-mile east of here? Sure."

"Yeah, well, I got caught in traffic on the way here this afternoon, other side of the tunnel. A lot of flashing lights -- bad accident, looked like, which is unfortunate, of course. But traffic was stopped -- as in stopped completely -- for like forty, forty-five minutes.

"Ouch again."

"You know how frustrating ...? I mean, I could actually see this building from my car and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. I coulda walked here faster."

"I hear ya, Jackson, I do."

"So they finally clear the far left lane, just the one. So then it's literally stop and go for the next five minutes. That was almost worse. Took forever, just sittin' there."

"Not fun."

Jackson finished shaking his head with another audible sigh. Then, "But!" and a hundred-eighty degrees cheerier, "So, Greg, two nights a week at The Market ... what else you do? Or are you one of those independently wealthy bartenders ya almost never hear about?"

Greg smiled. "Hardly." He rimmed his drink with a forefinger. "I'm in the English Master's program at the U."

"Ah, good for you. To what end?"

"Lit prof of some sort -- emphasis to be determined. First year."

"Good for you, good for you," nodded Jackson. "So what are you doing here? Isn't this about finals week?"

For the third time that night, Greg regaled his final project nightmare of a story, this time slower, with even more lamentable details; one Rusty Nail finished and another ordered, mid-recitation.

He stopped abruptly. "Wait -- how do you know it's finals week?"

With masterful comic exaggeration, Jackson puffed out his chest and hitched up his trousers. "University of Minnesota, B.A. P-sychology, 1943."

"Really?"

"Go Gophs."

Greg smiled incredulously and raised a fist. "Rah-rah."

"Put that degree to good use all the time, never even have to leave the bar."

Both men laughed.

"But I gotta ask ..." The aged bartender furrowed his brow. "This uh ... Dr. Stephenson, your lit prof for this Joyce class ... that wouldn't be Dr. Sheldon Stephenson, would it?"

Greg's eyes opened wide. "You know Dr. Stephenson?"

"If it's the same guy, had 'im as a freshman."

"You have got to be kidding me."

Jackson shook his head. "First college course ever. Comp 101, or whatever they call it. Tough grader, as I recall."

"Unbelievable."

"Think I mighta squeaked out a C. Woulda been, what?... 1939, 1940?"

Greg couldn't contain his laughter. "Unbelievable," he repeated, much louder, the drunk at the end of the bar sitting up and taking notice. "That's definitely him, though," Greg nodded. "His mid-term ... it was ridiculously difficult. Nobody could've done well on that sucker, I know that. Going into the final I'm getting a low B. And, from what I hear, that's one of the better grades in the class."

"Sounds familiar."

"I really needed to blow the old man outta the water with this final project idea to have any shot at all for an A in the class, but now ..." He allowed his words to dissipate into his drink.

Jackson slitted his eyes in thought. "You know what, Greg? Just thinking back ... you might still be all right."

"How's that?"

"I remember ... God, I haven't thought about this in years. I remember me and another kid -- same class -- we turned in our final Comp papers at the same time; it was at least a couple days late, pretty sure 'bout that. So Doc starts giving us this big spiel about ... ya know, sure, meeting deadlines is important, but that he'd much rather read a good paper a day or two late than be forced to -- and I'll never forget it, his exact words, I swear -- "... than be forced to weed his way through a piece o' crap term paper that was turned in on time."

Greg felt his heart somersault, his temples pound, his previously squandered motivation instantly rejuvenated. "You're kidding," he blurted. "Please tell me you're not kidding."

"Wouldn't do that to ya, Greg. Probably wouldn't remember it so well 'cept he made such a big deal out of it. Can't believe the old geezer woulda changed his mind about that in the last forty years. We're talkin' about a good five minute lecture, as I recall."

"Seriously?"

"A real production number."

More than forty-eight hours sleepless but now maximally reinvigorated, Greg slid what was left of his second cocktail onto the rail, literally hopped off his stool and, more than a little tongue-tied by a frenzied sense of renewed hope, calmed himself sufficiently, swallowing a burgeoning grin, to utter the following words:

"Tab, please."

It was the last thing he would remember about that particular Thursday night in the fall of 1977.

He didn't remember his method of payment, saying goodbye to Jackson, or even getting into his car afterward, much less driving away. Once behind the wheel, his focus was so acutely readjusted, he was so zoned in on this presumable second chance, that nothing relative whatsoever to the cognizant operation of a motor vehicle passed through his mind. He was, for all intents and purposes, driving with some serious blinders on.

Two exits from home, the car tailing him, and moving up fast, was a police car, driven by a veteran police woman.

He was doing forty-one in a sixty-five.

The lady cop -- the same lady cop -- sensing a problem, turned everything on: siren, spinning red light, ear-splitting bullhorn; "... this is the police, pull over, this is the police..."

Which severely jolted him from his current focus coma.

Boom! What?

What?

But by that time his car had already veered onto the shoulder. Frighteningly startled and panic-stricken, he skidded off the pavement, losing complete control of his car. He hit a stop sign head on, folding the signposts into a ninety-degree angle of grotesquely misshapen metal over the top of his car.

As one might presume, back in the strip mall parking lot, it had never crossed his mind to make use of his seatbelt.

His forehead and face rocketed into the windshield, the steering wheel creasing his midsection and whiplashing him back into the car, as the engine killed.

The pursuing cop arrived on the scene within seconds. She quickly diagnosed the urgency of the situation and immediately began administering CPR.

* * *

"Hello?"

"Janice Hartung?"

"Yes?"

"Ms. Hartung, my name is Ellen Livingston, I'm a nurse here in the Intensive Care Unit at St. Evengeline's ..."

"What's happened? I just left Greg a couple hours ago. Is he all right?"

"Oh, he's fine, really good. Actually, that's kinda why I'm calling. And I apologize for calling at this hour of the morning ..."

"No no, that's fine. What's the problem?"

"Well ... nothing really, I s'pose. But I was just wondering ... is it normal ... I mean, he's so pumped full of medication -- for pain, sleeping meds, pain again -- he should be out like a light and he's ... he's been sitting up and looking around."

"Oh that."

"At first he kept repeating, 'Nine a.m. Monday morning, nine a.m. Monday morning' -- with a very ... I dunno ... very determined look on his face, I'd say. It was kinda spooky ... I mean, with all those stitches and all ...

"... and a few minutes ago, he asked me for a piece of paper and a pen."

On the other end of the line, Janice smiled.

Greg's stay in the I.C.U. was short-lived; he was transferred to his own room after eight o'clock that morning. Aside from requiring nearly a hundred stitches to sew up multiple gashes in his face, he was fine. After breakfast, a young doctor and nurse administered a battery of concussion tests; Greg passed easily.

"I should be finishing with my final project about now," he bemoaned to the nurse while having his vitals taken, glancing at the clock on the wall, after the doctor had left the room. "And handing it in within the hour."

"Hey, I saw the police report," said the nurse. "You're lucky to be here."

"I don't care about that," he answered quickly. "I've had stitches before, I heal. As long as I get out of here in time to get it to Doc by Monday morning, I should be okay. I hope."

In addition to considerable attention given to other possible injuries from the neck up, multiple X-rays of Greg's chest and abdomen were taken -- all negative. Also an abdominal MRI -- normal. No less than four times on Friday, groups of two or more white-coats, mostly speaking in Japanese or Korean, Greg guessed, came in to poke around his stomach and rib cage area, which confused him. He felt fine there and said so, quite demonstrably, concluding that they probably didn't understand him much better than he understood them.

"Frankly," explained a different, English speaking doctor around supper time, "that's really the only reason you're still here, once we were sure you were breathing okay. The stitches aren't gonna keep you here -- we'll take them out in a week. But we know for certain that it was the steering wheel that kept you in the car; it's in the report. That's a whole lotta propulsion to be stopped so violently. We just want to make sure you're okay internally."

"And I am, right?"

"So far, so good," said the doctor, shaking his head dubiously. "A little hard to believe, actually, but ..." He shrugged off the end of the thought. "So we're going to keep you here at least overnight for observation ..."

Greg was released from the hospital at noon, Saturday, after passing the same concussion tests and enduring one more round of prodding and poking of his abdomen. He drove straight to Office City -- at the posted speed limit -- bought three typewriter ribbons, and went home to finish his project. He finished his final proofreading mid-afternoon Sunday.

"Doc's gonna love this."

He set his alarm clock and slept, his first substantial sleep in days.

Dr. Sheldon Stephenson had kept the same office hours for most of his tenure at the U: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, nine to ten in the morning. Greg was in a good, well-rested, positive mood when he arrived at the venerable professor's office, first thing Monday morning, nine o'clock sharp. He knocked on the open door.

"Can I help you?" asked the young lady seated in the chair behind the desk.

Greg stepped into the room. "Yes, I'm Greg Bork, here to turn in my final project for Dr. Stephenson's James Joyce class."

The young lady rose, offered an outstretched hand. "Linda Strom, one of Dr. Stephenson's graduate assistants." They shook hands. "I can take your paper, Mr. Bork."

Greg smiled, and his thirty-five page masterpiece changed hands. "What's up with Doc today?" he joshed.

Linda searched Greg's eyes. "Oh my ..." she started and stopped, "... you haven't heard."

Greg shook his head, "What?" feeling his smile sag at the corners.

Linda exhaled into a sullen tone. "Dr. Stephenson suffered a stroke Friday morning."

Greg's demeanor fell flat. "Oh my God, no," he said. "Is he all right?"

"He's alive, if that's what you mean."

"But he's ..."

"He's not doing very well."

Greg genuinely felt sad. Yes, the James Joyce course had been thorny as advertised and Dr. Stephenson had proved to be a tough sell at times. Still, he legitimately liked the man, enjoyed the challenge of sorting out his lectures and off-beat, old-school sense of humor, and at no time wished him any malice -- certainly not this. He was a good man ... "Is a good man," Greg said to himself.

Perhaps most importantly, the good doctor had amply provided him the background and tools enabling him to truly appreciate the value of Joyce's work, which ultimately, he concluded, was just about all one could ask for in a literature course.

Now, though, it was entirely possible -- even probable, Greg guessed -- that Dr. Stevenson might not even have the chance to read his paper at all, that he might very well be deprived of a veritable banquet of scholastic richness specifically intended for him. Greg tried not to feel even worse for what he admittedly considered such selfish ideations. But now, with his own touch-and-go weekend so fresh in his mind, combined with this latest, awful news, his heart was twinged with disconcerting ambivalence; he didn't know how or what to feel.

"I am so sorry," is what he said.

"I'll add this to the stack," is what she said, tossing his paper onto the desk and sitting behind it.

"Thank you," said Greg, slowly turning to leave. He took a couple steps to the door, then turned and faced the young lady. "Say, I don't mean to seem so callous about this whole thing but ... how're we gonna get our grades now? I mean, who ...?" He trailed off.

"To be determined," she said, head down, writing. "Things are kind of up in the air right now."

Resignedly, Greg nodded, "I understand."

"However, Mr. Bork," she finished writing. Looking up at him, expressionless, she said, "Your project is late."


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