Even though Bryan’s day was just getting started Sandy’s was coming to a close. Having worked third shift for almost two years Bryan usually got up around eight o’clock at night and went to bed around noon. Three days a week Sandy started her day by teaching a group fitness class at Taugeco Fratinoj and Mondays was one of those three. Sandy didn’t have a set work schedule and she was as likely to still be awake at five in the morning as she was to be getting out of bed. Still, she’d have to be up by six to get to her seven o’clock and if she wanted to get any real sleep she’d have to get to bed soon.
“I’m really glad you called and even though our conversation has been sad talking to you makes me feel better; happy even. Strange, huh? Are you sure that you’re not going to get in trouble for being on the phone all this time?” she asked with concern in her voice.
“No, no. No problem. I usually listen to music or an audio book while I work. One of the reasons that I like this job is that my brain is free to wander while my hands do their thing caring for the animals. Really, it’s no problem. I’m here till the sun’s barely a light in the sky so it’s up to you when you need to say goodnight,” Bryan replied as he moved a load of Cedar Walk Pets’ laundry into the industrial clothes dryer. “I can talk all night, so long as I get my work done.”
“I’d love to keep you company but I’m going to have to go in a few minutes. I found out about George’s death just a few hours after he crashed his car,” she said quietly.
“How did it happen?” he asked, throwing another load of dirty towels into the big washing machine.
“Well, the police said he was driving too fast, way too fast for Miller Road especially with weather conditions, lost control of his car, went airborne and flew into the ditch. Thank God he was alone and ran off the road on the right side. Nobody else got hurt; at least not physically,” she trailed off at the end.
“Yeah, no scars anybody else can see,” he answered gently, folding and separating the clean, warm linens by size and stowing them in their storage areas.
“Uhm, I think I know where George died,” Bryan continued. “Even though I didn’t know him my mom told me about his death over the phone. She had been pretty involved with our Venture Crew and she knew Mr. Carter from OPTAS too, so it really hit her hard when she learned about George. I remember her calling me and telling me about it one day in January of thirteen on one of our daily calls. Me and Trevor and Collin were down around Mobile in a little town called Semmes and when she called I could tell she was pretty busted up about something. She called me to tell me about his crash because she’d just learned about it a few days earlier and then when she was driving on Miller Road coming home from the bank she actually saw the spot in the ditch where his car must have hit.
“She was always trying to get me to slow down and be more careful when I drove and seeing the spot where he’d hit reminded her of it and got her worrying about me. At the time I thought that her call that was a little funny, because she was the one who was always driving too fast, not me. Not that George’s death was funny, of course, just her telling me to slow down when I didn’t even have access to a car anymore was,” he added, worrying that his explanation had been very insensitive as he had said George’s death was “funny.”
“I got you. You’re Mom worked at OPTAS? I worked there for years. What was her name?”
“Kerry Tiernan. Dad was Patrick Tiernan. She worked there fifteen years. Did you know her?”
“Her name doesn’t sound familiar, but OPTAS is a pretty big place. Did she work at the main campus or down on C Street?”
“Up north on 42nd. Street,” Bryan answered.
“Nope, nothing. Sorry,” she replied.
“Actually I’m kind of glad; that would be too weird.”
“Yeah, maybe so. We do seem to have enough strings tying us together.”
“That’s for sure. Rapida Cedro is certainly a small town, as my dad used to say.”
“What did he do?”
“School teacher. He taught fifth grade. He loved working with kids. Uhm, when I asked how it happened I meant how did you find out? Phone call, on the news, what? If you don’t want to talk about it it’s okay, I was just curious because of how weird it was the way I learned.”
“No, I can talk about it. At least I can to you. And over the phone. I still can’t talk about George’s death face to face, that’s one of the reasons that I quit OPTAS. People were nice but I couldn’t stand being around so many people who knew. I quit, I split with Jon and started over with a new house and a new job as a realtor. I used to live in Vilagon.”
“No kidding? I was just down Council Street. Well, my parents were. I kind of moved around a lot after I turned twenty. Here, Ames, hitchhiking, different places around the metroplex. I got the apartment in Aiionwatha after I sold the house and stuff. I wanted to start over. Got off Facebook and all the other crap. Got a new phone number and just removed myself from most of my friends. About the only people I talk to at all are the Hiltons, Trevor’s folks, and even them not very much.”
“So, starting over meant assuming the fetal position? Rolling into a ball and escaping? I’m not judging,” Sandy added softly. “I did pretty much the same thing but maybe not so much as you. Mostly all I do is work, workout and keep to myself. Don’t see my old girlfriends much and family only on holidays. I interact with people a lot as a realtor and I like to, but I don’t see people who know very often. Too many pitying looks, too much baggage. I hold George in my heart but I can’t let his death be all that I am. I’m moving forward.”
“Well, I haven’t, at least not yet. I work, go to the library, ride and run and surf the net. Maybe we can help each other to stretch our boundaries.”
“You already did. Tonight was my first date since Jon and I split.”
“You’re kidding? Not much of a date, huh? I went out a few times with friends but it was the same thing, everybody pitied me, or wanted money. Or both. They thought I was rich with my inheritance and that we should spend it on fun but the last thing I wanted was fun. That’s one of the reasons that I became a recluse.”
“I don’t know about this not being much of a date,” Sandy said lightly. “I’m counting our phone conversation as part of it and this has been one of the most intense dates I’ve ever had. Cathartic. Pardon me for asking such an indelicate question-“
“Gee, Sandy, I thought that’s what we were doing here tonight,” he replied laughingly, “being indelicate.”
“Seems like, huh? What do you do for money? It can’t pay much working at Cedar Walk Pets and you said you have to save up to go to the doctor’s or dentist. Are you okay?”
“I’m okay that way. I had my parents’ house and then later their old car to sell along with some odds and ends like extra furniture. It wasn’t a lot of money when all is said and done, not really, though it’s a lot more than I ever had before, but I have a cushion if I need. I get some money from Dad’s IPERS account every month and I have Mom’s 401k for when I get old. The IPERS plus work pays the bills.”
“Teacher stuff. Iowa government stuff, really. Iowa public employee retirement something? It pays the rent and Cedar Walk pays the bills. I still have most of the money I got from Mom and Dad.”
“Good for you. A lot of ki-, a lot of people would have blown it.”
“Nothing that really interests me. At least not right now. Hey, are you ever going to answer my question?”
“What question? Oh! How did I find out. You know it was like in the movies. I was already home from work. The weather was terrible, even for Iowa; ice, wind, driving rain, thunder-snow. I was glad to be home safe and sound and was looking forward to spending Christmas break with George and Jon when a patrol car pulls up with its lights on but no siren. I knew, I knew right away-” Sandy sobs.
“I’m sorry,” she continues after a moment. “I thought I could tell this without crying! I knew why they were there and before I answered the door I remember saying a prayer, ‘Let it be Jon, God, let it be Jon.’ I didn’t hate Jon, I still don’t hate Jon, he’s a good man but if it had to be one or the other I didn’t want it to be George. I felt terrible as soon as I said it but it was still true.
“Anyway a State Patrol Officer was there, woman that I actually knew, and she looked at me with one of those looks of partial recognition, I’m just one woman of thousands that she probably sees but how many women do you know personally that are sometimes dressed in a State Trooper’s uniform? Anyway, she asks if she can come in and I say yes but before she does another car pulls into the driveway. Jon’s car and I literally emit a sound that I didn’t know I was capable of. A scream? A sob? A screech? All of the above and more. I knew, I knew.
“Her car is in the driveway blocking the garage and Jon gets out of his car, sees us on the front stoop and runs up to us. He knows that something terrible has happened. Whether by my face or just the fact that a Trooper is at our house but he knows, and he comes and he scoops me into his arms and tries so hard to give me strength but all I feel is, ‘Why George? Why?! Why not Jon, why not the man who is trying so hard to love me?’ And I know I would trade ten of him for our son.
“I vomited right there in our vestibule, it was just too much. And the Trooper, a woman named Skaggs, insists on calling an ambulance and they take me to Mercy Hospital and after I’m given a sedative and we’re alone in my hospital room Jon tells me what I already know, George is dead. Dead. And so am I, really. Or at least I have been until yesterday. You’re bringing me back to life, you, a kid, not much older than George would be and I can’t tell you how grateful and scared I am for that.”
The silence that followed was longer than had been any of the previous. After a long pause Bryan asks, “Sandy? Sandy, are you there?”
“Yes, Bryan, I’m here. I’m sorry,” she whispers.
“Don’t be sorry, for God’s sake, don’t be sorry,” he sobs. “I know how you feel, sort of. Not the same, but the empty, the anger, the what the fuck does it matter? Listening to you helped me. I hope it helped you, too.”
“More than I can say. It’s late, after midnight and I have to be up at six. I’d better go. Thanks for the date,” she adds with a little laugh.
“You’re welcome. Let’s do it again, soon. And in person. Can I call you in the morning?”
“I have my class to teach. I’ll call you after that.”
“No, I’ll be your wake-up call, if that’s okay?”
“I think you already are. Call me at six, okay?”
“Will do. Goodnight, Sandy.”
“Goodnight, Bryan. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Bryan was alone with his work and the pets that needed him, just like usual but he felt something he hadn’t felt in a long time; he felt connected.