Kyle had a can of white paint in his left hand, a can of red barn paint in his right, brushes under his left armpit, a step ladder under his right armpit. He had on his monogrammed work coveralls. Kyle walked out past his garage and past his pasture that just had broken-down cars and no horses. They’d sold the horses and couldn’t sell the cars if they’d tried. He walked through the rusted gate, past the slumping fence, around the leaking slough, all the way to the edge of the highway where there stood a professionally painted sign, the only advertisement that Kyle’s small business had ever had. Emblazoned with an angled script, the sign read “Kyle’s Towing, 24HRS, AAA Approved,” plus his phone number, and on the bottom left, “Kyle’ll treat you fair.”
Kyle opened the can of white paint with a nail that he found at the foot of the sign. He stepped up three rungs of his ladder, rested the paint on the top step, dipped his brush in, and started slopping paint over the wavy flaking plywood board. He whitewashed the company name, whitewashed the information. The only thing he left unpainted was his name in the bottom left corner. He put a second coat on the sign and after an hour and a half of morning work, he stepped back to adore his whitewashed masterpiece.
After a coffee break in the house, Kyle took out the bucket of red barn paint and his second paint brush. He took care with his six-inch horsehair brush, like he was painting the Sistine Chapel or like he was being paid a million dollars to stay within the lines that existed only in his head. He painted and moved his ladder, painted and moved his ladder, so that the fifteen-foot-long sign was covered in red letters flanked by two stars. On the bottom right corner, he painted a birthday cake which looked like a birthday cake but just slightly more than it looked like a coal-fired power plant complete with smokestacks and smoke. What a thoughtful gift, Kyle thought to himself.
* * *
Jen sat in the driver’s seat of the Ford Aerostar family van in the J&L Insurance Brokers parking lot, hands gripping the steering wheel at ten and two, teeth clenched. “One more time, just one more time and I’ll punch that Jerry square in the teeth.” She knew she’d never do it. He was her boss. Though she and every other woman in the office, and several men for different reasons, would come to understand the truest meaning of the word “joy” if she slugged him. This time Jerry hadn’t even done anything to Jen. But poor Lucy. Sweetheart.
Jerry opened the door of his lipstick-red Mazda Miata convertible parked next to Jen’s van, pushed the button that mechanically put the soft-top down, waved his big dumb hand at Jen with his chin pushed out like he was waving at his dog on the driveway. Jen thought about getting out of her van and grabbing one of the decorative landscaping bricks with two hands. “This is for the time I asked for a raise and you told me that I was getting paid enough for a woman.” She’d drop it right in the middle of the hood so it rolled down and scraped the chrome M hood ornament.
Jerry would sit there frozen in fear. He’d push the button to close the soft top. Jen looked through the van’s passenger window. Jerry was still waving; he honked, and then drove away.
* * *
Jen took off down the 55 with a slightly loosened grip. She was listening to Beyoncé loud enough for her ears to hurt and passing cars to hear, so her jaw had eventually allowed her teeth to separate, and now her hands were relaxed at nine and three. Queen B. All hail. She’d told Kyle she’d be there by 6:30. They were to go for dinner at Kyle’s favourite restaurant, Grumpy’s Steakhouse and Grill, for her 39th birthday that she didn’t much feel like celebrating.
Kyle sat at home during the day watching game shows from the seventies, waiting for customers to call his tow truck company, but no one ever called because his only advertisement was a crumbling hand-painted sign on the highway and a small decal on the Aerostar. Not even a phonebook ad. The three times a month he did get a call were from the payphone at Grumpy’s when vehicles broke down within ten miles of his sign, because, like he’d somehow planned it, there was no cell reception and no other tow truck signs for ten miles in either direction. Or he’d get calls from the payphone at Grumpy’s when someone drove off in their Chevrolet Tahoe, pissed up after happy hour, and didn’t make it past the first set of lights before flattening a tire on the median.
They first met when Kyle worked at Jerry’s Auto Body, and Jen started at Jerry’s new insurance office. Kyle would call the office often to report claims, and eventually he took each claim in by hand, and eventually he got Jen to go for a drink, and eventually there was a pregnancy scare, and eventually they were together for ten years.
Kyle was fine. Except for the times he drank at parties. Or the times he patted her on the ass in public. Or most times during sex. Or the time he’d found her photos.
“Jen, what the hell are these?” he’d shouted from the computer room.
“What are what?” Jen was at the kitchen sink, scrubbing potatoes with a glove made specifically for scrubbing potatoes that he’d got her for Christmas the year before.
“These – these photos. Your nudes! What the hell? There’s like ten of them!” Jen panicked and then remembered that the photos he was talking about were likely tame ones, and were sent years before they’d ever accidentally hooked up. Kyle came out of the computer room, having printed out one of the colour photos on a full piece of paper for some reason.
“They’re old. Before we were even together.”
“But you sent them. To who?” Kyle put the photo on top of the unwashed potatoes. Jen crumpled it up.
“I don’t remember. They’re old, Kyle, and they’re just photos, for God’s sake.”
“Just photos? That’s my – that’s your body. These are probably all over the internet by now. The guys at Jerry’s have probably seen all these and talk about them when I’m not around.” Later that week, Kyle quit at Jerry’s and, a year later, started Kyle’s Towing. “You know what kinda girl sends out nudes? Girls like Lucy, at the office. The new one who’s always after Jerry.”
“Oh shit, Kyle, she’s not after Jerry, he’s always looking down her shirt and acting like he’s not forty-five years older than her and not her boss and not a creep.” The argument continued for several hours or possibly days, Kyle spending the whole time in the computer room trying to see if her photos were on any websites, simultaneously looking at nudes of other girls he went to high school with.
* * *
“We should have kids now that we’re ready. Before you’re too old to,” he’d told her when he finally started talking to her again the week after. Jen said she wasn’t sure, but the next day he had already traded in her small truck for a 1991 Ford Aerostar without asking. The truck had been in great shape and the Aerostar had what Kyle called “minor transmission problems.”
But really, Kyle was fine. He was relatively clean, said please and thank you, remembered her birthday.
Jen realized that she’d been driving for sixty-six minutes when Beyoncé shouted about passionate drunk sex for the second time on the drive. Jen snapped out of her restorative Beyoncé meditation and looked up to see the pro-life billboards that she passed every day that made her think of Kyle and made her feel nothing. Right after a series of those godforsaken signs, and a few beer ads with chesty women holding pints as though they were delicious organs, was the one and only advertisement for Kyle’s Towing. Today the sign looked different. Jen lifted her sunglasses from her eyes, squinted to see a sloppy, hand-painted sign that read HAPPY 40TH JEN. ♥ KYLE, with the KYLE part leftover from the original design. On the bottom was what might have been a birthday cake or an iron maiden. Jen checked the date and year on her phone. She did the math again in her head. She was turning thirty-nine. He confused her age for his own.
Jen signalled to exit off the highway to their acreage, shoulder-checked, and a red convertible blasted past her van in the other lane. Top down, there was Jerry waving and smiling as if he hadn’t stopped doing so since he left the parking lot. Jerry hit the gas and zoomed on by. Jen saw Lucy at her computer at the office.
“Lucy, sweetheart, look here.” He pointed at the computer screen and leaned over her shoulder, obviously smelling her hair. He put his hairy knuckles on her hand on top of the mouse, moved the pointer without hurrying to some figure on the screen. He inhaled deeply through his nose. “See, thaaaat’s what we were talking about. The Accounts Payable, right?” He put his hand on her shoulder and Jen squirmed while she helped her customer. “Good on ya, Lu. Come to my office any time you have any other questions.”
Jen pushed on the gas pedal as hard as she could. She adjusted the seat so she could push it to the floor. The family van howled and chased the convertible down the 55, passing cars and coughing smoke. The turnoff to Jen and Kyle’s acreage flew by, the turnoff to Grumpy’s Steakhouse and Grill flew by, the next exit off the freeway flew by. Jen kept the gas pinned. She would catch him and bop him a good one in the nose. She wouldn’t even need everyone to be there to see it. She would take his convertible keys and throw them in the bog. She’d push him over and slowly, but deliberately and repeatedly, step on his face. She’d do all this when she caught up with the Mazda Miata, but it had already turned into little more than a tiny red ant biting the horizon.
Jen clenched the steering wheel at ten and two. Her foot kept the gas pedal pinned to the rubber mat until the van began to chug and groan. She let the gas off slowly but held the steering wheel. She gave it gas and the engine didn’t respond. The van dash lights dimmed, the Beyoncé CD ejected itself, the power steering died. Jen guided it to the side of the road and clicked on the blinkers, which happened to be broken also. Jen got out of the van, put her hand to her forehead to see if she could make out the red convertible, but it had turned the corner towards the golden horizon some time ago. She thought maybe Jerry would check his phone messages just at the same time there was a train crossing on the freeway. Jerry would get T-boned, obliterating his red convertible, sparing his life, but forever taking away his sense of smell and gift of speech. Jen checked her phone. There were two bars. She called Kyle’s Towing.
* * *
Kyle’s truck pulled up and he parked it in front of the van. He got out wearing his monogrammed coveralls that had red paint stains, and his embroidered business ball cap.
“What happened? I bet it was the tranny,” Kyle said when he first pulled up. Jen just shrugged and looked at the tires of the van, then the horizon.
“What are you doing out here anyway? You passed the turn off nearly ten miles back. We’re gonna miss our dinner reservation,” Kyle exclaimed. “That’s alright, I’m just glad you’re ok. The van, however…” Kyle bent down, dipped his fingers in the fluid that poured out the bottom, smelled it.
“Yeah, that’s tranny fluid. Remember, I told you to keep this thing below sixty. You remember how I explained the transmission? It’s like bike gears on that old granny bike of yours. Anyway, that’s alright, we’ll get Jerry to look at it.” Kyle gave Jen a half hug, patted her on the ass, told her to get in the truck while he loaded up the van. Kyle hooked up the van, shook his head a few times and smiled to himself. He made sure the chains were secure and got in the truck. He looked at Jen and smiled. “All done.”
They drove back towards the turnoff to the restaurant in silence. Kyle’s hand tapped the steering wheel impatiently. He smiled and couldn’t help himself from asking. “Hey hon, did you see my sign?”
Kyle turned off the freeway towards Grumpy’s Steakhouse and Grill. They ate steaks and drank wine and Kyle got the servers and cooks to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jen with a free piece of brownie and sparklers after their meals.
Later that week, Jen took the van into Jerry’s Auto Body. Jerry’s intact Mazda Miata was parked out front. It looked waxed. As she walked in to pick up the van, she noticed someone had keyed “Sweetheart” in angry angled letters into the driver’s side door with an arrow that pointed up to the face of Jerry, who sat in his car frowning while talking on his cellphone. Jen felt light on her feet and then remembered that she’d likely have to file his insurance claim Monday morning.
The mechanic at Jerry’s told her that it was actually the radiator hose that blew, and coincidentally a fan belt snapped and the CD player just happened to become nauseous. A spark plug was fried and the tires were low. Several fuses were out. The engine light was on and actually needed maintenance. But the transmission was in top working shape.