You Can Never Step in the Same River Twice
Victor Berg stood by the coffin of his deceased wife feeling nothing. He wore a charcoal suit that hung perfectly from his lanky frame. Silver flecks in his silk tie mirrored the streaks that had begun to invade his dark, curly hair. The sweetness of the funeral flowers hung in the air while piped-in organ music droned in the background. He felt like an actor in a bad movie playing a role that he didn't have the stomach for.
A stream of mourners flowed past him. Victor accepted the handshakes, hugs, occasional kisses and offers of condolence from a polite distance. The appearance of his neighbor from across the street, Brenda Hailey, who had recently lost her husband to a backyard heart attack, lightened his mood. She hugged him so tightly that he could feel her breasts. Her hair smelled clean as she stood on her toes to whisper in his ear, “If there's anything I can do let me know... anything.”
When the room finally emptied, Victor asked the funeral director for a few minutes alone with his wife.
“Of course, Mr.Berg, take all the time you need,” he said—glancing at his Rolex.
The body lying in the satin and metal capsule was merely a chrysalis shed by a beautiful stranger. Victor reached into the inner pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a yellowed paper. He was sure that Gayle had left it at the bottom of her jewelry box so he would discover it after her death. The paper contained results from a gynecological procedure performed by a Dr. Eckstein one year before Victor and Gayle met.
DIAGNOSIS: SEVERE ENDOMETRIOSIS
Victor refolded the paper and placed it under one of Gayle's waxy hands. He twisted his wedding ring down his finger, tossed it into the coffin and closed the lid.
* * *
Sitting in his father's garage was the one extravagance that Richard Berg had allowed himself. He'd heard his father rattle off the car's credentials so many times that they were singed into his memory—a 1959 Porsche 356 speedster with a Carrera GT engine—very rare always punctuated the description. The car actually looked better than he thought it would as he peeled back the cover. He wet his finger and ran it down the fender bringing a swatch of dulled paint back to life for a moment. It was the color of drying blood.
The image of his father pulling into the driveway for the first time was still vivid.
“Hop in,” his father had said. “Let's take her for a spin.”
As Richard Berg` put the car through its paces, Victor saw a side of his father that was unfamiliar. He looked like a bird that had escaped its cage and was finally able to fly.
The first and last time that Victor drove the car bubbled up into his memory. As he was getting ready to leave for his bachelor party, his father tossed the Porsche keys to him.
“Thought you might want to enjoy your last night of freedom,” his father said.
“Thanks,” Victor said—staring at the keys in disbelief.
“Don't look so surprised. I haven't gone soft in the head, yet. You still have 24 hours to change your mind. Enjoy the ride.”
“I have no choice, Father,” Victor said.
“We always have choices, son. Sometimes they're just hard to see.”
A blue reflective sign flashed by as Victor hit high gear. In the headlights, he caught a glimpse of a girl wearing a varsity jacket with leather sleeves holding her thumb out. He hit the brakes impulsively as he passed her and screeched to a stop. He watched her walk toward the car bathed in the red glow of the taillights.
“Where you heading?” she asked when she reached the car.
“Just back to town. How about you?”
“I'm going to the rest area down the road a ways.”
“Hop in,” he said.
She took him literally and slid into the convertible without opening the door and wiggled to get comfortable in the bucket seat.
When the rest area sign appeared, she pointed toward the exit.
“Pull in here,” she said.
Victor started toward a parking space next to a rusted pickup with a camper top but the girl said, “No... park all the way down the end.”
“Well, here we are,” he said bringing the car to a stop.
“Here we are,” she said.
“Were you meeting someone out here?” he asked.
“I met you didn't I?”
“I'm getting married tomorrow,” he said—nervously. It was the only response he could think of.
She fell back into her seat, laughed and clapped her hands together. “So, that's what I caught in my web. A bridegroom.”
“I don't get it,” he said.
“No, bridegroom you wouldn't get it. Driving a car like this, with your looks. You probably have cheerleaders waiting in line to lift their little skirts for you.”
“Yeah, I wish.”
The girl stared into his eyes. “My point here is that you've never had to pay for it.
A smile crept onto Victor's face. “Now I get it you're a ...”
“Don't say it,” she said pointing at him. “I'm a purveyor of pleasure—a trucker's dream date. Hell, I'm Mary fuckin' Magdalene.”
She switched on the radio and turned the knob until a blues song oozed from the speaker. “Umm, the blues,” she closed her eyes and swayed to the backbeat. “I do my best work to the blues.”
Victor glanced at his watch, “It's getting late I really have to...”
“First, I'm going to give you a wedding present, bridegroom, that you will never forget.”
Before he could protest, there was an undulating mass of red hair in his lap.
They sat and talked for hours. The girl told him stories about her experiences that brought tears of laughter to his eyes. She lit a Marlboro and exhaled perfect smoke rings putting her finger into one before it escaped into the night air.
“So why are you getting married anyhow?”
Victor turned away. “Gayle told me over spring break that she had missed her period. I guess I'm doing the honorable thing.”
She let out a giggle. “My God, bridegroom, you fell for the oldest trick in the book. That’s too bad. If you ever want a repeat performance you know where to find me.”
She leaned toward him and kissed him goodbye. Her mouth was warm and wet and endless.
“I don't even know your name,” he called after her as she walked away.
“I told you...” she said lighting another smoke. “It's Mary Magdalene.”
As the Porsche crawled down the entrance ramp to the interstate, he watched the girl grow smaller in the rearview mirror all the while fighting the urge to hit the brake and begin backing up. He tromped the accelerator instead and roared onto the highway.
He glanced into the rearview mirror and noticed two pinpoints of light rapidly growing larger.
Instinctively, he let off the petal and began to slow down. “Probably a trooper,” he thought. “That's how they get you.”
But, as the car approached, he realized that the headlights were too close together to be a police car. In fact, they looked like they could belong to a Porsche. Within seconds, the car was close enough to identify. It was, in fact, a Porsche--same year, same model, same color—even had the top down. When it was alongside he looked over and saw something that he would tell no living person about for thirty years.
* * *
After the tow truck pulled away, Victor found a note in his father's handwriting in the glove box that read:
I'm hoping that you are reading this note after having taken possession of the Porsche. This is an extraordinary automobile and should be treated as such. It has taken me places I would never have gone if I didn't own it. It will do the same for you if you release yourself.
That night Victor got under the Porsche and inspected it. His father had kept the car in original condition and Victor knew it had to remain that way for his plan to succeed.
After weeks of late nights, the Porsche was nearly ready to hit the highway again. Victor was tightening the bolts on an exhaust that had been shipped directly from Germany, when he heard the garage door open then close. He recognized the pair of female legs that walked around the car.
“Brenda,” he said, pushing himself out from under the car.
“Brought some refreshment,” she said holding up a six pack of Sam Adams.
“So, what do you think?” he asked, nodding toward the Porsche.
She ran her hand along the fender just as she had run her hands down the muscles in his back the first time they made love. “So, this is the competition. She's quite lovely.”
Victor popped the caps off of two Sammies and handed one to Brenda. “To renewal,” he said clinking their bottles.
“To renewal,” she said with less enthusiasm. “So, when's the maiden voyage?”
“Tomorrow night. That why I've been spending so much time out here. I needed to get it done in time.”
“In time for what?”
“Tomorrow night is the thirtieth anniversary of my bachelor party.”
He recounted the events of that night then took a deep breath before he finished. “It was me driving the other car, Brenda. But it was the now me. The way I look now.”
“How could that be? Maybe it was just a coincidence.”
“I always felt that night was a lost opportunity,” Victor drained his beer. “Besides, there are no coincidences.”
Brenda hesitated--fighting back tears, “I think I fell in love with you from across the street.”
“This has nothing to do with you, Brenda. If I don't go, I'll never forgive myself.”
* * *
As Victor pulled onto the highway, he could see two red blips in the distance. He hit high gear, floored it and was upon his younger self in seconds. When the two cars were side by side, his younger self turned and Victor could see the look of horror on his face. Just before the other driver hit the brake, Victor steered into him. When the two cars touched there was a brilliant flash of light as they merged into one.
Victor coasted to a stop in front of an old Buick parked on the shoulder that had its hazard lights flashing and the hood up. He hopped out of the Porsche and approached a young girl in a varsity jacket with leather sleeves standing by the car.
“Anything I can do?” he asked.
“I hope so,” she said. “That explosion or whatever it was shook my car and then it just stopped running.”
Victor leaned in and looked under the hood. She leaned in as well and he could smell her hair. It smelled clean. “Ah, there's your problem.” he said—replacing a wire that had popped off of the distributor. “Give it a try now,” he said.
After several tries, the engine turned over then came to life. Victor closed the hood. The girl stuck her head out of the window, “Thank you so much,” she said. “Where are you headed?”
Victor hesitated. “Nowhere really. Just out for a ride.”
“Listen, I bartend at a blues club a couple miles from here. Why don't you meet me there and I'll buy you a beer for being a good Samaritan.”
“Sure,” Victor said. “I don't have anywhere to be.”
She smiled. “What's your name?”
“Brenda,” she said—shifting the Buick into gear. “Follow me.”