Sooner or Later
Eric Skjei

At some point, we all walk into and out of another's life: sometimes with a ceremony, sometimes without even a nod. But what defines our path: its beginning or its end?

First the tire blew out. Then his tongue began to bleed. It all happened at the same time. He heard the muffled thump and the clatter of the hubcap skipping away, felt the puff of air and the new wobble, and became aware of that familiar salty-metallic taste.

"Cafard, as the French say." The renowned author was droning away on the radio. "A sort of weariness of the spirit." The word brought to mind the morning at the cafe when she first literally let her hair down for him, transforming herself from contained professor of romance languages into sexual creature, then telling him about the dream she had had the night before about his eyes. It was an invitation, and he had happily accepted it for the next seven years.

At the sound of the flat tire the two women in the van next to him craned in a startled way. Their van slowed abruptly. He did nothing, just kept driving, the seat gyrating beneath him. His blessed mind chimed in. Sure, why stop? It's pouring. You'll just get all wet. In the rear view mirror, he could see the two women peering at him incredulously as their van dropped behind him. Why bother? Who cares? You don't, that's obvious. So ruin your rims.

He pushed his tongue against his teeth, exploring the sore, then looked in the rear view mirror. There it was, a thin red vertical crack at the very tip. It's the dry weather. Your hands, lips, and even your heels for Christ's sake are always getting dry and cracked.

He thought about his meeting that morning with Dr. K. Slowly turning the pages of the wedding album, the doctor had listened attentively to him. "A Buddhist wedding," repeated the doctor tonelessly. An embryonic hope had started in his breast. Then the doctor handed the thick volume back to him, saying, "So, why are you showing me this?" Disappointment replaced the hope. So don't go back.

Now the album lay on the seat next to him, bouncing to the car's awful thump. He thought back to the wedding, the golf jokes beforehand, the ritualistic ceremony with the seven objects -- what were they again? -- a conch shell, a flower, a flame, a something, a something. Bowing to the Regent. Trying to put the ring on her finger. That took some effort. The room was sweltering and her finger was swollen. She still had the designer dress, but never wore it.

His own ring was in his desk drawer now, not on his finger. They weren't wedding rings anyway, they were engagement rings. Gold with a green jade crescent across the top. Kind of like lime Life Savers. From the jeweler at the foot of Grant Street. Often admired, envied too, by all her friends and sometimes also her lovers, even here in the Midwest, where it still was de rigueur to wear diamonds.

He returned to the present. You're going to ruin your rims. You're getting careless. He pondered that for a minute. You could care less. C'mon, stop and change the damned tire. You even have some of that canned stuff in the glove compartment. Remember? For flat tires. You bought it from those handicapped people who are always calling to sell you light bulbs. So they would leave you alone. Why not use that?

He sighed, aimed toward the shoulder and slowly bumped to a halt. In the sudden silence, the car sat idling obediently, waiting for his command, stupidly unaware of its predicament. Whither thou go, eh? Not anymore. She's gone already, and I'm not going anywhere. Austin. Heat and humidity. I hope they're miserable.

He turned the engine off and sat in the ruins of his life. Cars whizzed wetly by. He reached down to the lever beside the seat and let the back recline. If he could sleep, he thought, he would. Then when it stopped raining, he would get out and change the tire.

He closed his eyes. In the silences between passing cars, he could hear the loud ticking of the dashboard clock. After a while, he sat up and examined the tip of his tongue again. There it was, the same hairline crack. It had stopped bleeding, but it still hurt.

He turned on the radio and got a burst of static. Underneath the noise, he could faintly hear the author going on in his plummy voice, saying something about morality and perestroika. He thought he heard a hard "t" in the word "often." Hypercorrection. Quel bozo. And his latest book isn't even that good.

He turned the radio off. That antenna needs work. Every time you go through the car wash, it wags back and forth like a semaphore. One of these days it's just going to snap right off.

Headlights appeared in the mirror. They rapidly grew bigger and brighter, then stopped right behind him, filling the interior of the car with a harsh blazing glare. No light bar silhouette, no flashing red and blue lights. Where are your insurance and registration? In the glove compartment? A horn honked. He sat, unmoving. It honked again. He grunted, opened the door and stepped out into the rain.

It was the van with the two women, the one that had been in the lane next to him when the tire blew out. He bent down next to the driver's door. She cracked her window and rolled it down an inch.

"We thought you might want us to call a tow truck," she shouted. "We almost didn't come back, but then we thought we should. Nobody helps anybody these days." He was getting drenched and it looked like she would just keep on talking so he interrupted her.

"Thanks," he said, grinning tensely. "I think I'll just wait until the rain stops, then fix it myself." She looked at him for a moment, then turned to her companion. They had a quick conference, then she turned back to him. "Get in. We'll drive you to the gas station. We trust you," she tittered anxiously. "We can't just leave you here."

He nodded. She twisted in her seat and reached back to unlock the door. Why not just leave him alone? He doesn't want your help. He climbed in and sat down. The windows were foggy.

"...and this is MaryJo," said the driver. She had told him her name first but he hadn't caught it and didn't want to ask her to repeat herself. He thought it might be something like "Michael." Her companion smiled and nodded. They were in their 40s or 50s, dressed alike, with identical well-trimmed gray hair. Dykes? Nuns? Both?

"From around here?" prompted the driver.

"Larkspur," he said. "You?" he added in a polite afterthought. They nodded, but said nothing.

The driver turned on her blinker and began to pull out onto the highway. A small alarm went off in his head. "Wait a sec. Forgot something," he muttered. He scrambled out and went to his car, then came running back clutching the wedding album under his jacket. They waited until he had slammed the door again, then moved out onto the asphalt.

"Wedding album," he said, by way of explanation.

"Oh," cried MaryJo. "Just married?"

"Just divorced," he replied.

There was a pause. "Oh," she said tonelessly.

He began to flip through the pages. There they were, he and his in-laws, getting ready for the reception. Planting flowers all over the backyard, setting up tables, eating pizza. There they were, his brother-in-law and the dark beauty of a wife he divorced a year or two later, leaving her and their four kids for his pushy business partner. There was his friend from Phoenix and his wife, now his ex- wife. There was another one of his friends, already divorced at the time of the wedding, the one who had just survived a heart attack, the one who delighted in telling the story about how the hospital scared his daughter half to death the morning she brought him in with severe angina by asking what religion he was. There was his wife's German grandmother, whose 90th birthday celebration, produced by his relentlessly positive father-in-law and immortalized on video by his equally relentless brother-in-law, he had suffered through not long ago. She was dead now, and a sweeter little old lady had never blessed the face of the earth, despite her disconcerting way of dropping a casually vicious reference to "kikes" into the middle of her interminable stories about her youth in Chicago. And there was the so-called Regent of the Tibetan Buddhist sect his wife belonged to, the one who had been too preoccupied with his official duties to inform his male lovers that he was HIV-positive. And there was his wife, looking remarkably young and happy. And there she was again, and again, and again.

"It was a Buddhist wedding," he remarked, apropos of nothing, into the loud silence in the car. "She was a Buddhist. Is a Buddhist."

"Buddhist," said MaryJo cautiously. "We know some Buddhists, don't we?"

The driver nodded and glared out into the rain. "...perfectly honest, I don't much care for them. That one that's always going on about the wheel of dharma?"

MaryJo didn't seem to have heard. At length she said, "Karma, not dharma. That one?"

"Samsara," he interjected, sounding a little harsher than he intended. "Samsara is the one that is usually compared to a wheel." He pushed his tongue against his teeth, finding the sore place again.

Yeah, you could use a wheel right about now. He remembered Thomas the sculptor and his cement wheel, back in his student days in Berkeley. Yeah, even a cement one. Then he thought of John and the cement coffee table they had made at the beach, casting it into a hole in the sand, then muscling it into John's pickup when it had cured. They drove back to the house they shared with their girlfriends, both of whom were named Margaret. They backed the truck up to the front door and rolled it straight into the living room. It was so heavy it made the floor sag. There it sat until the party with the keg, the one where he got so drunk he went for a ride with someone he barely knew to East Oakland, where he wandered around, in and out of black people's houses, for most of the evening. Finally someone called a cab for him and back he rode to the party. In fact, that was the time you woke up in the middle of the night, screwing John's Margaret, a split second before you both came, just as your Margaret walked in the one door of the bedroom and right out the other. Out of the house, in fact. Out of his life.

What a ride. From stupor to drunken consciousness to orgasm to guilt and terror in less than a second. The only thing he had experienced that was remotely like it was the time he fainted in his mother-in-law's hospital room.

"I just need to hang another bag of blood," the nurse had said. And then they had stood there, him, his wife and his sister-in-law, morbidly fascinated by the slow descent of the red fluid down the IV line into Marian's arm. He remembered deciding he needed to sit down. The next thing he knew, he was coming out of blackness with a halo of anxious faces above him, that same nurse in the center, raising her hand to slap him again.

"Interesting," he had mumbled. "You were snoring," his wife had snapped. What he remembered most of all was the feeling of enormous peace and pleasure, not shock or pain. If that's what death is like, it's not so bad. And that's what he kept telling himself while he rode to the memorial service a month or so later, the small, heavy cardboard box holding Marian's remains on his lap.

"What kind of work do you do?" asked MaryJo. Beside her, Michael oversteered, both hands clamped on the wheel, making constant small corrective motions.

He didn't tell them he was an artist. Instead he told them about the small company he owned, selling and servicing industrial fire extinguishers. They made polite noises. "Today is payday," he said. "And the payroll's back in the car. The boys at the plant will be getting pretty upset when I don't show up with their checks." MaryJo grunted and lit a cigarette.

The van slowed and veered toward the shoulder. Ahead in the murk he could see an old station wagon with a mottled paint job parked alongside the road. They stopped in front of it and honked. A young woman carrying a baby climbed out and ran up to them. "Oh, thank you," she gasped opening the door and clambering in beside him. "I thought I was stranded for sure."

Georgia, maybe. Or Tennessee. Definitely not a Texas accent. She was thin and blond, and her hair was very fine and straight. She was also incredibly young.

The baby began to fuss. She casually switched it to her other arm, unbuttoned her blouse and held it to her breast. "This is Gabriel," she said proudly. The baby continued to squirm, sucking furiously. "I'm Alcie."

"What's wrong with your car?" he asked, watching the baby wriggle.

She frowned at him, then said, "What's wrong with your tongue?"

He stared at her. "Did I say something wrong?" He turned to the window and stuck out his tongue. The red fissure was plainly visible. The man driving the car next to them shot him a disgusted look. The kids in the back stuck out their tongues at him.

Alcie was saying something to him. "I don't know. It just up and quit. My husband always used to fix it for me, but he's gone." Kentucky? He looked at her hand. No wedding ring.

The album was open on his lap. There were the three couples drinking sake before the ceremony. "That's my wife," he said. "My ex-wife."

"She looks drunk," said the girl.

Then there was the picture of them all kneeling, no shoes on. "It started late," he said to her, feeling a sudden serenity sweep over him. "I told my friends to come at least an hour late, but they came on time." And had to sit there and sweat, the poor bastards.

Then there were the pictures of the Regent striking the gong, pictures of his wife offering the Regent a cup of tea, pictures of her bowing, hands together, before the Regent, while the Regent watched her, head inclined, peering up at her from under his eyebrows. At that time the Regent had been plump. Now he was much thinner.

The baby gurgled. She turned him over and patted him mechanically, blankly watching while he slowly turned the pages of the album. After a while, she spoke to him. "Does that mean that you're a Buddhist too?"

He shook his head. "No."

"An interfaith marriage," said Michael, a dismissive note in her voice.

"Not really," he replied. "I don't have any faith at all."

Alcie looked at him obliquely. "Well, one thing I know for a fact is that faithless marriages don't work either."

He couldn't disagree and didn't want to explain. The car windows were steamy and the air seemed unbearably close. He closed the album and stared out the window. The car sailed on through the wet gloom.

The two women in the front seat exchanged a few soft words, and MaryJo briefly consulted a map. They all sat that way, in rich, exhausted silence, until the car nosed toward an exit. "Here we are," Michael said, as the car came to a stop next to a tilting dumpster. He got out, stretched, and headed toward the office, leaving the album behind.

"Say," called Alice. "You forgot something." He ignored her and kept on walking, pushing his tongue against his teeth to feel the sore place.

Eric Skjei ( is a senior writer at Autodesk in Marin County, California. He lives in Stinson Beach with his laptop and his kayak.

InterText stories written by Eric Skjei: "Sooner or Later" (v3n6), "Motherless Child" (v4n2), "Bright Time, Dark Time" (v4n3).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Eric Skjei.