"Driven To Extremes" by Kathryn Atwood
© 2011 Kathryn Atwood
"Pleeeease release me, let me go . . ."
“Will you please turn that down?” They were the first words the large woman in the back seat had spoken since the trip had begun. The singer was so surprised that he stopped immediately. He caught her eye through the vanity mirror in front of him. She jerked her head back to where it had been, facing the side window. Then she pulled down her shiny pink sweater, which was rather too small, yanked out her lipstick case and swabbed its bright red contents quickly over her full lips.
“Sure Dolores, sure.” The singer turned around to face her. “But did you know that I’ve probably sung the first verse of this song at a hundred different weddings? It’s a joke we wedding singers always used to pull out at the end of the reception! Pretty funny, huh?”
The woman didn’t respond. He turned back around, closed his eyes and continued to sing, slightly off-key, along with the radio: “To waste our lives would be a sin. So . . .“
The driver switched off the radio.
“Hey, why did you do that?” the singer asked.
The driver stared straight ahead and said nothing.
“I asked you a question.”
“The lady asked you to stop.”
“Actually, she asked me to turn it down, not off. If you only knew . . . ah, well . . .” He raised his soft hand aimlessly into the air as if he was going to use it to punctuate some kind of complaint but the words never came. He sighed, folded his hands in his lap, and looked out the window.
A slight woman, who was also sitting in the back seat, suddenly clasped her thin hands together over her skirt and said brightly, “Well, I’ve always found the songs of Engelbert Humperdinck to be absolutely, um . . . what’s the word I’m searching for, Fred?”
“Fantastic?” said the singer, as he whirled around in his seat to face her. “Stunning?”
“No, I think the word I’m looking for is riveting. Engelbert Humperdinck was absolutely riveting! Why, when my girlfriends and I went to see him perform we couldn’t take our eyes off of him. His singing was like a knife that cut right through you and you, (the listener I mean), became soft as butter under his spell. Soft as but-ter! He was absolutely riv-e-ting.” She repeated the word slowly as if she liked the feel of it in her mouth. Then, shyly turning to the woman sitting next to her she added, “don’t you think so Dolores?”
Dolores didn’t move.
“What did you think of Tom Jones” asked Fred, oblivious to the last attempted interchange.
“Oh, I adored him too, but I’m a little embarrassed to talk about it,” she giggled. “I mean he was so much of a man, almost too much! I went to one of his concerts once and the women were responding to his, er, manliness in the most embarrassing way. I mean, I thought they were going to storm the stage and rip his clothes off!” She giggled, blushed and put her head down.
Fred, not noticing Alice’s pink cheeks, continued: “I always liked his It’s Not Unusual the best; that is, before it got played to death on his television show” said Fred. He began to sing the song loudly and slightly off-key.
The driver glanced at the large woman in the back seat who was passing her hand over her eyes. He slammed on the brakes. Fred’s head nearly collided with the windshield. Alice almost hit the floor and Dolores was pressed against the back of Fred’s seat.
“You almost killed us!” said Fred, panting with fear, pushing himself away from the windshield and wiping the sweat from his face with a monogrammed handkerchief.
“The lady didn’t like your singing,” the driver said quietly. He slowly accelerated the car.
“Well, I believe one of them did.” Fred turned around and tried to wink at Alice, who was still trying to re-situate herself, but he looked more like someone attempting to adjust a wayward contact lense rather than a 60-ish man trying to flirt. He turned to the driver. “Honestly Clyde,” he said, “I used to be real good. Sang at hundreds of weddings. And did you know that once I came close to opening for –“
The driver stopped the car again. He stared straight ahead for a few silent moments, as if to gain control of himself. He turned to Fred. Clyde’s eyes were so squinty they almost looked like they weren’t open and yet Fred felt that he had never been looked at quite so intently. In a quiet voice which sent shivers through his passengers Clyde said, “Listen, I don’t care who you are or who you think you almost were. I only care about what happens in my car right now. I don’t like your singing. Dolores doesn’t like your singing. So no more singing, understood?”
He did. A thick silence reigned in the car for the next hour, all the way to the rest stop, where the passengers got out one by one. Dolores was the first. She was large but her legs were long and she moved very quickly, straight for the restroom.
With an awkward gesture which resembled an attempt to regain some long lost balance, Fred invited a slightly pink-faced Alice to accompany him to a picnic table.
“Clyde is a very quiet person,” offered Alice after a few awkward moments of silence. “Do you know anything about him, Fred?”
“Well, Clyde’s been doing these long-distance trips for a while. Someone I used to sing with got a ride with him once – that’s how I found out about him. I think he might have been a western sort at one time, maybe a rodeo worker or something like that.”
Alice smiled. “If that is true, it would certainly explain the blue jeans and the cowboy boots, wouldn’t it? Now that you mention it, his skin does have that leathery look to it, as if it’s seen more sun than most people’s.”
“You know, come to think of it,” continued Fred, “Clyde may have also had a scrape with the law and maybe even done some jail time but no one knows for sure. My singing buddy said Clyde was out of commission for a long time.” He suddenly stopped and laughed: “Ha! Ha! A driver out of commission! Get it? Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Alice smiled uncertainly while Fred’s laughter gradually subsided. It took a while. When he was finally finished, he wiped his mouth with a handkerchief and continued, “Oh my, where was I? Oh yes, he was out of commission (hee, hee, hee) and then poof! He suddenly reappears looking for passengers.”
Alice’s eyes were wide. “Oh dear, I didn’t know about that. Do you think he’s safe? I mean, he almost killed us back there. You don’t think he did time for anything like mur-“
“Oh Clyde is alright,” Fred said, as he tried to wave away Alice’s fears with his handkerchief. He folded it carefully and put it back into his pocket. “He’s just a little touchy. Plenty mysterious but only slightly touchy! And anyway, you usually get life for murder, but he’s obviously not behind bars now! So if he did time for killing somebody, it would have only been for manslaughter, not murder. See? We’re perfectly safe!”
Alice smiled weakly and glanced nervously back towards the car.
“One thing’s for certain though,” said Fred with a pointed smile, as he leaned his face close to Alice. “He certainly doesn’t seem to have a taste for good music.”
Alice was too absorbed in listening to the details of Fred’s long-ago brush with musical fame to worry much more about Clyde’s past or to notice that Dolores had walked past them to the car. Her eyes were red and puffy and she put her lipstick case back in her purse and pulled her sweater as she sat down in the back seat. She stared out the window at some flies buzzing around an overflowing garbage can.
Clyde glanced at her through the rearview mirror, honked the horn for the others and then waited in silence. He honked the horn again. No response. He got out of the car and strode towards the couple on the picnic bench. Fred was standing up and singing with stiff gestures vaguely reminiscent of an aging Elvis impersonator. Alice was listening, nodding and smiling, her hands tapping along to the uncertain beat. Neither one of them noticed Clyde until he was directly behind them.
“Next time, listen for the horn or I’m not waiting.”
Alice gasped and whirled her head around. Fred almost fell off the table. Clyde turned back to the car so suddenly, it seemed as if he meant to leave them right there if they couldn’t keep up.
“Do you mind if I turn on the radio?” asked Fred after a few minutes back on the highway.
“Yes” answered Clyde.
They drove on in relative quiet for another hour until Clyde suddenly slowed the car down. Fred, who had dozed off, sat up, ran an absentminded hand through his thin hair, looked around vaguely and murmured “are we there already?” Alice who had been alternating between vain attempts to engage Dolores in conversation and staring at the oncoming road, suddenly put her hand to her cheek.
“Why, it looks . . . just like . . . a wedding cake!” she said. “What in the world is a wedding cake doing in the middle of the road? Dolores, do you see?”
She saw. She was straining her neck to see. It was indeed a wedding cake: huge in three layers, its white frosting splattered with dirt, the top two layers sliding down towards the pavement. They all stared as Clyde drove slowly past the collapsing mess.
“Somebody obviously had second thoughts,” said Fred, turning around and smiling at a giggling Alice. Dolores emitted a quiet groan that no one heard but Clyde. He watched her through the rearview mirror as he began to accelerate.
“Guess somebody got stood up and left with one e-nor-mous cake,” Fred continued, stretching out his arms as wide as the space would allow, almost hitting Clyde in the head. Clyde clenched his teeth. He continued to accelerate.
“I’ve seen lots of wedding cakes and plenty of road kill but that’s the first time I’ve seen a combination of the two,” said Fred.. An electric smile suddenly spread across his face and he began to sing, in a very loud voice, “I don’t think that I can take it, cause it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe agAAAAAAn! Oh nOOOOOO!”
Alice began to laugh so hard that she couldn’t breathe. She banged her head repeatedly into the back of Clyde’s seat. Clyde’s hands tightened on the steering wheel until his knuckles went white. He began to turn towards Fred with a look to kill when he caught a glimpse of Dolores’s face in the rearview mirror. It had gone completely white and her hand was pulled across her mouth so tightly it looked as if it were forcing the pools of tears that were now pouring from her eyes. She met Clyde’s eyes for a moment in the mirror, then she gripped the door handle and was gone. Alice screamed. Clyde slammed on the brakes. Fred’s head hit the windshield and he passed out
“You stay here and help him,” Clyde said to Alice, tossing her the key . “There’s a first aid kit in the trunk.”
He ran to the crumpled form of Dolores. She was inching her way to the cake, moaning quietly, blood dripping from her arm.
“Dolores,” he said. She didn’t answer. She kept crawling towards the cake.
“Dolores,” he said, louder this time, walking slowly beside her and reaching out his hand. “You’re hurt. Let me help you.”
She still said nothing. They had both reached the cake. She knelt beside it for a moment. Then she spread her arms open and threw herself into it, wailing and moaning and writhing in the white and grey frosting.
“Why didn’t you come, Joe?” she screamed, “Why didn’t you come?” She sobbed and screamed the name over and over, writhing in the cake until it was utterly smashed on the road, a mess of white and grey and red. Exhausted, she finally lay still but for the slight rise and fall of her breathing.
Clyde was kneeling beside her, watching, waiting. When she was finally quiet, he reached out his hand and lifted her from the cake and into a sitting position. He pulled out a plain handkerchief from his jeans pocket and gently wiped the frosting and smeared lipstick from her face.
Without looking at him she said, “Leave me. I want to stay here.”
“No.” He pushed up the sleeve of her sweater and placed another handkerchief on her oozing wound. “Do you think you can walk back to the car?”
“No. I told you, I want to stay.”
He put one of his arms behind her and with his other hand he gently pulled her sweater down to cover her exposed middle. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird . . .” Clyde sang softly as he lifted her off the ground. “And if that mockingbird won’t sing, Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring . . .” Dolores looked directly into his eyes for a long moment. Then she buried her face in his shoulder and began to sob quietly. He began walking toward the car. “And if that diamond ring turns brass, Papa’s gonna buy you a looking glass. And if that looking glass gets broke . . .”
Alice and Fred didn’t hear Clyde and Dolores approach the car. Alice was in the front seat, listening to Fred’s attempts at Moon River – which he kept interrupting to explain why of the song’s 500 different recordings, Andy William’s was positively the best -- while she finished placing the bandage on his head. Clyde laid Dolores in the back seat. Alice stopped listening and Fred stopped singing. They both looked at Clyde with questions on their face. Clyde wasn’t going to answer any questions.
“Alice, you’re staying up here with us.”
“Oh, that will be wonderful,” said Fred. “I want to be as close as possible to my own personal Florence Nightingale. Clyde, did you know that Alice was a nurse in the Korean War? Just like Hotlips Houlihan! Oh Alice, did you ever see “M.A.S.H.”? (I mean the movie, not the T.V. show). Not waiting for an answer, he continued, “Do you remember that crazy theme song, the one about suicide being painl--”
He stopped mid-syllable.. Alice was urgently nodding her head towards the back seat. Clyde was staring at him with a mixture of intense anger and incredulity. Fred grimaced, leaned back and covered his eyes with his hand. It was understood: no more singing and perhaps no more talking. Clyde started the car and they drove away as Dolores’s quiet sobs were replaced by her snores.
* * * * *
“Pleeeease release me, let me go . . .” Fred winked at Alice who was sitting at a table in front of him, her eager smile suddenly fading as she nodded in the direction of the dancing couple. Oblivious, Fred lifted up his microphone with an exaggerated gesture and continued: “for I don’t love you anymore.”
Clyde had stopped dancing and was turned towards Fred with murder in his eyes. His partner grabbed his arm. “Never mind Clyde,” she said. “It’s a joke. They do it all the time at wedding receptions, remember? I don’t mind at all, not this time.” She turned his face towards hers and kissed him hard. She laughed, “Now you’ve got my lipstick all over your mouth.”
“I don’t care, Dolores. Give me more.” He pulled her close and kissed her.
“Ow! You’re hurting my arm again!” she said, beaming and straightening her tight, white sweater.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” he said, stroking her arm gently. He gestured back towards Fred and asked with a smile, “you sure you don’t want me to kill him?”
Dolores laughed. “‘Wedding Singer Killed by Groom.’ How would that look on tomorrow’s front page? Anyway, if it wasn’t for Fred and his stupid singing--”
“Wait a minute! I thought it was my singing.”
Dolores laughed. “Of course it was, but still, Fred had something to do with it. And it was awfully sweet of him and Alice to join us, don’t you think?”
“Well, it wasn’t much out of their way. But, O.K., I won’t kill him if . . .”
He looked deeply into her eyes and smiled. “If you give me just one more kiss.”
“Release me, and let me love again.”
Clyde and Dolores didn’t hear the last line. They didn’t hear Alice’s clapping or Fred’s well-wishes to the new couple. They didn’t hear Alice ask them if they wanted a piece of the cake and they didn’t see Fred wink as Clyde carried Dolores up the stairs to their room. And they didn’t hear Fred singing It’s Now or Never to a scarlet-faced Alice as the door clicked shut.
All work is copyrighted property of Kathryn Atwood.
© 2011 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved