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Short Story

Last Mile

Noah only notices the faded yellow Mercedes in front of him because the driver is dry shaving with a disposable razor. Walter—Noah learns the name later—is in his early seventies, with heavy shoulders and a head of rippling, gray-white hair that brings the word pomade to mind. The stubble on Walter’s cheeks, chin, and throat receives no such tenderness; the strokes of the razor are quick and merciless.

The Mercedes’ windows are rolled down on account of the heat, the car sending out what sounds like mariachi music. Noah slides his A/C to full, then puts the air on recycle to staunch the Mercedes’ diesel exhaust. The light changes and the Mercedes makes an aggressive left. Noah follows a half minute later, and when he catches up, Walter is plucking hairs from his eyebrows and ears, his meaty hands yanking the errant growth with terrific and comic speed. He flicks his fingers to let unloved hairs fall. Curious, Noah feels his own eyebrows for a hair and pulls, but without success.

Noah nears his turn for the freeway on-ramp and his commute home. It feels like an exercise of free will to drive past the on-ramp and instead follow Walter. Except for that time in Santa Monica when Noah followed a woman he thought was Scarlett Johansson (she wasn’t), Noah has never trailed anyone.

He begins posing questions. Who dry shaves in the car? Who plucks his eyebrows with his bare fingers, and so harshly? Who is this man and why isn’t he doing these things in the privacy of his bathroom? The Mercedes offers few clues. It’s an old 300D but looks to have spent its most recent years outdoors, making Walter a likely apartment dweller. There’s a crushed box of tissues behind the broad rear window that’s as wide as the car and invites voyeurism. There isn’t a faded AAA emblem by the straight wink of lights, no bumper stickers for political candidates or more natural attractions, no dealer medallion indicating the car was originally purchased out of state. Not much to go on.

Walter spits on a comb and runs it through his hair. The Mercedes drifts and is reprimanded by the honk of a passing car. Noah continues to follow, speeding through the silent click between a yellow and red light to keep up.

Perhaps Walter has just become a grandfather or great-grandfather and is en route to the hospital. Or maybe he’s just been released from prison—no, he wouldn’t have a car. Maybe it’s a stolen car and he’s headed out now for revenge after serving fifteen and change. But why shave, then? The courts. Noah bets that’s what it is. Walter is late for a court appearance where he’s a witness. Except courts don’t convene at the end of the day.

Coming out of his thoughts, Noah finds himself in unfamiliar surroundings, the median of trees and pomegranate shrubs giving way to intersections of poverty and rag piles of homelessness. After a few blocks, familiar store names and restaurant chains reemerge, making everything feel familiar and foreign at the same time.

His inattention to Walter gets Noah stuck at a light while the Mercedes continues on without him. Noah questions himself. Should he keep following until Walter pulls in somewhere: a courthouse, a flower shop, a hospital, an apartment block? He’s come this far, after all. Even though he knows it’s a sunk-cost fallacy, Noah feels ensnared. Perhaps following Walter isn’t an exercise of free will after all. He felt this way trailing the not-Scarlett Johansson, too. It was a relief when the woman stopped to cross a street and he saw, clearly, that she wasn’t anyone famous.

Noah catches up to Walter at the next light, pulling to a stop a couple of cars behind the Mercedes. He decides to make a U-turn when the light changes; he’s taken this curiosity far enough. Shaving in a car is strange, but perhaps not as strange as following someone shaving in a car. Noah moves his attention to the high school students crossing the street and to the people in the cars around him. The other drivers are doing nothing at all. Not shaving, not plucking hairs, simply waiting, listening.

The Mercedes heads out quickly as the light changes. Materializing from swathes of glare, a large white pickup punches the Mercedes in the side, sending it spinning. The intersection is showered with glass and unidentifiable bits of metal and plastic, some of which bounces off of Noah’s windshield. He pisses himself just a little.

The car ahead of Noah edges forward and out of the way, and Noah follows slowly over the crackle of debris. He finds himself facing Walter in the Mercedes. The windshield is cracked, but clear. The hood is sheared off revealing a mangle beneath. And then there’s Walter, trying to open his jammed door. He doesn’t appear hurt as much as furious, a caged beast who has somewhere to be, but with plans nullified by someone in an even greater rush. And then Walter simply slumps forward. The sound of the Mercedes’ horn blares for a moment, then gives way to the sound that’s been playing the whole time from within Walter’s car: alpine music with accordions and yodeling singers. Noah makes his U-turn, passing the pickup truck whose driver is hidden behind squirming airbags. Noah pulls to the side and calls in the accident. Men have emerged from their idling cars and are trying the Mercedes’ doors. Real men, Noah thinks, as he stands at the curb with a huddle of teenagers who snicker at the music coming from Walter’s car. One of the men makes it into the car through a back door and turns off the stereo.

After the ambulance has pulled away and the road flares are nearly spent, after having watched the dimensions of the accident measured and his own statement noted, Noah drives back the way he came. It’s nearly dark out now but Noah begins to recognize familiar territory. And though he still has the freeway portion of his commute ahead, a rich sense of homecoming fills him as he takes the on-ramp. For the first time, he’s relieved by the traffic and its slow crawl; he feels a part of a larger community. Spurts of giddiness fill him, as though he holds all the luck in the world. He recognizes that this might be how Walter felt on his final mile, unaware that his luck had already chosen an exit, that all the grooming in the world couldn’t convince it to stay.

For the hell of it, Noah pulls up some yodeling music on his phone and plays it through the car stereo. Confronted with the music’s manic glee, he realizes quickly that it’s music for the depressed, an auditory shock of forced happiness, the saddest music he’s ever heard. He doesn’t turn it off.

“Last Mile” first appeared in The Westchester Review.

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