It was a Wednesday or Thursday, I’m not sure which. Either way, it was an afternoon full of low, dark clouds.
I was heading to my ex-wife’s place to take my son to his T-ball game, late as usual. The sitter was waiting with him and my younger daughter. My ex-wife had a work meeting, then dinner with clients. I’d just gotten on the freeway where the 405 meets the 101, and there it was: stalled L.A. traffic for as far as I could see.
I fiddled with the radio until I picked up a traffic report: a multivehicle pileup near White Oak. I sat back as the traffic crawled along, rolled down my window and swore. It was unusually hot and humid for May, and I felt a film of sweat along my receding hairline.
I set the radio buttons to three stations of talk: sports, advice and commentary, and switched between them at commercials. I didn’t care about any of the banter. I just hoped my son would remember to run down the first baseline rather than the third, and that the ice cream truck would come along for my daughter. I wanted them to be happy when I brought them home. I’d buy them dinner after the game at a place where a clown tied balloons into shapes. But without minimal success at the ballpark and the ice cream man, their report to their mother would potentially be less than substantial.
I knew my ex- would probably meet girlfriends for drinks after her client dinner. That was OK as long as the kids were happy. We were involved in a custody dispute, and their report needed to be full and good. A trip down the correct base path and an orange Creamsicle would have legs in that direction.
Traffic inched along in the hot, mottled sun. Trucks ground their gears in tepid starts. A mother and her young son stood next to their car on the freeway’s shoulder, parallel to me. Their back driver-side tire was flat. I watched her try unsuccessfully to raise the rear frame of her car with a jack. Each time it would begin to rise, the jack would tip over because the car was parked on an incline. But she continued to try, squatting in the gravel with a line of perspiration running down the back of her blouse while her son chased a butterfly with a stick.
It wasn’t until I was past them and watching in the rear-view mirror that I recognized her as the waitress who brought my breakfast each morning at the diner where I ate. Her name was Gail. I looked at my watch. I was about a half-mile from the pileup. If I could somehow get clear of it in 10 minutes, I might still get my son to his game near its starting time. I couldn’t stop. Anyway, I was in the fast lane, and no one would have let me over to park. I watched her twisting the jack handle, her son scratching his stick in the gravel next to her.
When I finally got to my ex-wife’s place, there was a note on the door from the sitter saying that they’d already walked over to the park. I was relieved and gave her an extra five dollars when I got there. My son hadn’t even batted yet. He waved at me, and I hugged my daughter as she curled up in my lap. Later, he ran down the first baseline, and the ice cream man came. So, everything worked out fine.
My ex- returned about 10:00, a little looped; she had that grin. We talked about this and that for a few minutes at the door. The conversation dwindled, and we watched the next-door neighbor leave to walk his dog.
“Well,” my ex- said. “So, anyway …”
We glanced briefly at each other. I watched her sigh and push a loose strand of hair behind her ear, a gesture I’d watched many times before.
I said goodnight and drove to my apartment in Canoga Park. There were still clouds in the sky, but it had never rained.
The next morning at the diner, the owner was behind the counter instead of Gail. As I was finishing my eggs, an old lady at the end of the counter asked him why Gail wasn’t there. He told her that she was at the hospital, that her son had been hit by a car on the freeway where they’d stopped to change a flat tire.
I put my coffee cup down. The old lady asked if the boy was all right.
“Just a broken collarbone,” the owner told her, “and some bruises. I guess traffic had just started moving after an accident cleared up ahead, so the car that hit him hadn’t been going very fast.”
I put money on the counter and walked out to the parking lot. I felt bad, but why hadn’t she kept the boy inside the car anyway? The side of the freeway is no place for a child, even with no moving traffic. I shook my head and looked up at the cloudless sky.
I thought about my own children, who would be telling their mother about our evening together: the ballgame, the ice cream man, the balloons at dinner. Every positive bit would help at our next mediation date; gaining an extra night or two a month with the kids meant that much less in child support. I’d forgotten to tell the sitter and the kids to stay mum about my being late, but maybe that would never come up.
Of course, morning rush hour had the freeway in its usual snarled mess. I flipped through the talk stations. A man in the car next to me was shaving with a cordless electric razor. A woman in another was peering into a compact, applying blush. I sighed and thought about how full of ourselves we all are.
*This piece originally appeared in The Legendary (December, 2010).
William Cass has had more than 95 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies, such as december, Briar Cliff Review and Conium Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short-fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He is a former resident of Los Angeles who now lives in San Diego.