It was 7:15 a.m., Monday, August 20th. I was home in Reliant, Iowa. “This is the first day of my forty-third and final year of teaching,” I reminded myself.
I opened the door from the kitchen to the garage, revealing the brilliant red rear bumper of my classic 1994 Nissan 300ZX. I pressed the garage door opener on the wall and walked to the driver’s side. On the way I patted car’s trunk like the flank of a trusted hound, “Hello Hank.” I threw my backpack onto the passenger side, and then stiffly folded my six-foot-four-inch frame into the driver’s seat.
I hesitated and took a deep breath before I put the key in the ignition. Hank responded with a throaty growl. “Ready for another school year?” I asked him. I knew I wasn’t.
I rested my hands on the black leather-bound steering wheel and exhaled. I leaned back and closed my eyes. “Ready for one last school year before retirement?” I asked myself as I sank deeper into the seat. “Frankly, I’m just not.”
I reached up to the visor and pushed the button. The garage door creaked back down. Hank and I were alone in the dark, his engine idling.
I didn’t want to think about the new school year, or about the empty house I’d stepped out of, or my impending retirement next June. And I certainly didn’t want to think about last Saturday’s disastrous date with the children’s choir director from church, or my skyrocketing blood sugars, or the disturbing email I’d gotten last night from my daughter living in Kuwait.
Exhaust fumes began to fill the garage.
To regulate my breathing and quiet my rising panic, I slowly counted. “One…, two…, three…, four…, five…, six…, seven . . ..” I wondered how many numbers would I count before I couldn’t count any more. I took deeper breaths.
I was on “sixty-seven” when my cell phone rang. I didn’t answer it. Only one person called this early in the morning. “Sixty-eight…, sixty-nine…, seventy ....” The phone kept ringing, long after voice mail should have picked up. Reluctantly I answered.
“Greetings,” I said brightly.
“What the hell are you doing?” It was Charlotte, of course. She was my third ex-wife and the mother of my two children. She was the only ex-wife who kept in touch. Which was ironic….
“You know what I’m doing, I’m going to school.”
“You’ll get there faster if you open the garage door.” Charlotte was always the practical one.
“I wasn’t ready to leave yet.”
My mind was a little hazy. I struggled to remember why I’d closed the door in the first place. It had something to do with Charlotte. She and I separated three-and-a-half years ago. She’d seemed happier after that, but I couldn’t get past the divorce.
“What would your mother think? She’d be scandalized to read about it in the newspapers.”
“Mother died over a decade ago on my fifty-fourth birthday.”
“That doesn’t mean she doesn’t still have an opinion.” Charlotte had a point. Dead or alive Mother had a way of grabbing a person by the balls and not letting go. “Go to work, Joe. I’ll help you though the year.”
This wasn’t the first time Charlotte and I talked about suicide—first hers or now potentially mine. These conversations had gotten more frequent since she’d drowned herself in the bathtub last year on the day after Christmas.
Sometimes she came to me in dreams, but her preferred method of communication was her beloved iPhone. I didn’t know the details of her calling plan, or who her service provider was in the afterlife, but the line was always clear, and she never worried about the number of texts sent or the data usage. We’d talked more since the divorce than we ever had when we were married.
“Open the garage door, Joe. Go to school. We can discuss this tonight over pizza.”
I laughed at that. She knew me so well. Every school night I ordered a medium sausage and onion pizza from Pizza Haven.
Through the haze I reached up and pushed the garage door opener. The door lifted. When the exhaust cleared, I put the sports car in gear.
“And don’t text while you’re driving,” she scolded. “You’ll get yourself killed.” Charlotte disconnected before I could tell her I still loved her.
It was 7:23 a.m., Monday, August 20th. “This is the first day of my forty-third and last year of teaching.” That was my baseline. “I live in Reliant, Iowa. I have one-hundred-and-eighty-three work days before I can retire.”
The garage door closed as I maneuvered the Z-car into the street. On the Bose cassette tape player, Stevie Ray Vaughn belted out “Can’t Stop the Weather.” I patted Hank’s dashboard and told him, “I’m praying for snow days.”