Around six o’clock in the evening, he could finally call Alice. Wonderful news. At least he was hoping to. He couldn’t change it anymore anyhow, so what. The end of April ninety-nine. A big day, because it may mean the ultimate cross-roads.
Their vehicle Crown Victoria turned out to be a friendly and reliable companion. Lots of folks have a spider-web of cracks on their front windshield, and misaligned wheels also aren’t a big deal, once a person gets used to it. The breaks need to be replaced; everything in time. The car drives well and now even happier.
Alice works in the nursing home until six o’clock. He’ll wait another two minutes, then turn on the cell. Thanks to their cell-phones they didn’t feel too far apart; they were constantly in touch and knew about each other’s every move.
“Alice? I’m coming back now.”
“So? How do you feel? I was thinking about you all day. Spill it, David!”
“People were walking out throughout, giving up.”
“But not you!”
“What do you think? From the beginning to the end I sat there, like a nail in a beam. We were all in a large hall, everyone alone at a small desk, together about twenty of us.” He now easily focused on driving, even across the endless flat prairie.
“At the beginning. Then the crowd thinned down. The questions were printed and I was always supposed to choose one of five possible answers. We had about fifty seconds per question,” David was shouting excitedly. He had been looking forward to letting the stress fall off him, regardless of the result. “…so we were there from eight in the morning till five. A break at noon and then again in the afternoon. Eh! It took a while to even get through each question. They were up to five lines long….”
“…and did you know it?”
“Whatever was medical, yes I think so. But then they also asked who first spearheaded health insurance in different Canadian regions, or what would happen to a doctor who steps over his budget. Those kinds of questions, I was simply guessing. How a physician is supposed to react if his female patient asks him to take her home, whether he’s allowed to drive her or not. Those types of questions I didn’t know….”
“…I know you’d take her, on a trip even.”
“Of course! But that wouldn’t be the right answer. I’m glad it’s over, Alice. It was something! Then they gave us a few electrocardiograms to read – that was a piece of cake – and then a few photos of skin disorders, eyes, a few X-ray shots, and that was it. The worst part were the legal questions and psychiatry. I don’t feel too good about those, but we’ll see.”
“Take a little break and grab a bite to eat on the way. When will you arrive, you think?”
“I’m hungry, that’s true. Maybe in about six hours, if I step on it a little, maybe around midnight; it’s been a long day. I’ll come to you and if you’re still up, I’ll say hi, and maybe you could drive me to Superb? Then you can keep the car. I’ll tell you, Alice, what a day.”
“Drive carefully, then. I look forward to seeing you.”
“She’s asleep, all good, in the morning you can call her before I drop her off at school.”
David said bye, folded his phone and gazed into the distance of the road ahead of him. The sun was low, directly in front of him, on that bright spring day. He pulled down the windshield shade and set cruise control to sixty-five miles.
His mind wandered off into a beautiful vision, where the curtain lifts and they enter a well-deserved, sunny period. He’ll deliver to Kačenka and Alice what he’d promised them.
The drive was smooth, kilometer after kilometer, the road reflecting the red rays in front of him. Shortly the sky saturated with a darker shade of blue, then dimmed entirely. David was steering their vessel, the Crown Victoria, and was smiling. He felt good. The headlights shone onto the empty road far ahead of him, the left a little more than the right.
Quarter to ten. Maybe he should try calling Alice again, but what if she’s gone to bed already. Oh no, she hasn’t. It must have been telepathy; the phone next to him rang.
“Yes, I’m listening,” he said in Czech, smiling. But the response was a man’s voice. At first, David didn’t know who was calling. He didn’t want it to be someone soliciting money again. He’d like to help, but couldn’t stand the constant harassment. Their family also wasn’t in a situation to help just about anyone who calls. Irritated, David asked who was calling, ready to end the conversation.
“Supervisor from the dorm, John Ferrell. I’d like to know if you will be arriving tonight, and what time.”
“Yes, of course. Did something happen?”
“Nothing happened, but I need to speak with you. Do you have a moment?”
“I’m driving and it’s a long-distance call on my cell. Is everything alright? Something in my room?”
“No, that’s not it, everything is fine. This concerns our contract agreement.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Can I talk to you then?”
“I’m driving right now, and it’s my cell,” David repeated grumpily, “Can it wait after I return?”
“Yes. It can. Stop by when you get back.”
“But it will be after midnight, Mr. Ferrell, and I’m also quite tired, I’d like to…”
“…that’s alright, I have the night shift, I’m awake anyway.” Říha understood that there’s no need to let his mood be ruined. He’ll stop by and knock on Ferrell’s door around twelve thirty if he likes. He’ll give him five minutes, no more, because in the morning David will be getting up early for work at the warehouse.
“Alright, I’ll be there between midnight and one a.m.” Not waiting for the affirmation, David hung up the phone. Only then did he realize that he’d probably missed the gas station, which would’ve been the last chance to take gas. He turned around, but saw only darkness and two reflectors somewhere in the distance behind him. David felt a burst of anxiety when he imagined running out of gas here, in the middle of the silent prairie at night. Ferrell! He still had about hundred and ninety kilometers left, and the marker showed less than a quarter of a tank. He knew well the mysterious rule that pushes the meter’s hand closer to zero faster than when the tank is full. He can slow down. He could’ve grabbed something to eat, too, at least a chocolate bar and a coffee. None of that worked out.
Ten past eleven. Now David met with the occasional truck headed for one of the surrounding farms, but no gas stations. From the shallow ditches along the road he sometimes caught a glimpse of a coyote’s eyes; maybe he’ll make it. David willed the hand on the gas meter to be higher, and tried to convince himself that he would make it. All because of Ferrell!
David knew that, as long as the hand doesn’t touch the very bottom, he’s still got fuel. Now he also wasn’t sure if he hadn’t taken a wrong turn. But how could he and where?
“Take it easy, easy,” he talked himself down, “It’ll work out.” He tried to keep the speed steady, though it was tempting to speed up.
On the horizon he could see the glow now. David was getting closer, it’s not far now, he’ll make it. He reduced his speed, his eyes fixed on the distant city lights. Soon he’ll be able to make out the downtown skyscrapers; maybe he will even find an open gas station.
The hand dropped to the end and climbed up again, then settled in its resting spot.
The Crown Victoria was leaving the asphalt road behind and like a magnet let itself be drawn to the nearing city. Would it help if he put it in neutral for a while? He didn’t want to tinker with the ailing transmission with unusual gears.
The suburbs and dimmed residential areas absorbed David’s vehicle and let him flow deeper into the city. The tachometer hand did not indicate any effort to move any further; it was speaking clearly. About five kilometers left. Only a few drops, hopefully they’re there. Nothing but fumes.
“Here!” David yelled out loud. A gas station. An open gas station. He was in the streets now, the highway was now called ‘avenue’ and crisscrossed with numbered ‘streets’. He turned to the right and towards the gas station. The engine coughed, the car jolted and stopped. The engine fell silent. Approximately ten, maybe twelve steps in front of his front bumper stood the closest pump. David opened his door, got out, and happily padded the wide hood of his perched machine. And now he put it in neutral and leaned on the front door frame. The heavy vehicle slowly moved. Like a mute witness and participant in the drama, he pushed it to the pump, letting the nurturing liquid gush fully into the tank.
Twelve minutes after midnight.
‘So I’m lucky. That’s a good sign, and good to know’, thought Říha. ‘That confirms that I’m lucky’. He smiled and shortly the dried up ignition engaged.
“We’re lucky!” he said to himself out loud. Several minutes later, David pulled up in front of Mrs. James’ house.
Alice’s light was on. Before he even got out of the car, she appeared outside.
“I think that everything will be fine, Alice,” were his first words, “I can feel it.”
“I know, fools are often lucky.” She was smiling, “I baked an apple strudel. Take it with you, and if you want, we’ll get going right away so that you can get some sleep. Here: oranges, juice, and the strudel.”
“I’ll just take a quick look at Kačenka,” not waiting for agreement, David quickly ran into the house. He was careful not to wake up Rosita, the student from the Philippines, who slept immediately behind the drywall. He softly touched Kačenka’s hair, kissed her on the head, and quietly left the room.
David didn’t want to stall Alice any longer, so he said his goodbye outside of Superb Accommodation dormitory. Whatever Ferrell wanted, he didn’t need to share it with Alice right now.
David was frustrated that Ferrell was incapable of spelling or pronouncing his name at all. That’s why he beat him to it.
“So what’s going on, Mr. Ferrell?”
“I’ll get right to it. We can no longer keep you here like a social charity case. You’ve been here since February, and it’s the end of April now. You have a job, and there’s no reason why you couldn’t pay rent starting on the first.”
“My salary isn’t high enough to pay rent. That’s why I am here in the shelter.”
“Maybe, but there are rules. You have to understand. We can offer urgent care to the needy. But not to people like you. You have a family, and both of you have an income. You have to take care of yourself. If you’re paying for some sort of schooling, request a loan, I’m not a bank.”
“And how much would the rent be?”
“Seven-hundred for the room. Extra for phone, laundry and TV privileges in the common room.” Ferrell was on a roll. He continued in his harsh tally, “so you have another three days for free, and then you have to pay. Like everywhere else.”
David ran the calculation in his head. They’re trying to save aside some money for their down-payment for a house, at least a small one. Without a down-payment – the first large sum – they can’t buy anything. He was looking at Ferrell and didn’t have to think for long.
“I’m moving out. Three more days, then you can use the room for someone else.” Now Ferrell looked stumped.
But the decision had been made.
Doctor David Říha would leave the dormitory.