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Stress Test Ch. 11

The Book of Miles

By Alan GoldPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 9 min read

Sandy slipped the car into park and turned off the engine. She took the red spiral notebook from the glove compartment and logged the date and odometer reading. She broke down the day's miles into those traveled to work and to the day care center. The trip to the pet shop fell under entertainment.

The black pen ran dry before she finished. She scribbled an invisible tornado on a scrap of paper, but the thing was dead. She found another pen in her purse and completed the entry before she noticed its ink was blue. She stared at the abrupt color change in the middle of the line and wondered if that mattered, if she would have to copy the whole damn book over in blue ink.

"Can we go in, mom?" Saury asked.

"In a minute." She frowned, then shook her head. "I'm sorry. Just a minute, Saury."

Stephen X took a hard line on keeping proper records. Once she'd mistaken a seven for a two in her checkbook and wound up with five dollars more than she expected at the end of the month. That made him furious. He'd ripped open her purse and pulled out ten dollars.

"Five makes it even," he said, rubbing the first bill against her nose until she turned her head as if the money stank, "and five for a penalty. Just you remember, most lessons don't come that cheap."

He made a living in some murky realm of finance or accounting but she was never able to figure out exactly what he did. It seemed to involve long hours with businessmen and bourbon. She couldn't imagine what qualifications he had, unless the job description called for humorless self-importance. Yet somehow he made money—lots of it—although the first sign she saw of it was on the sheaf of tax papers he slid across the table at breakfast one day in April.

"It's just a formality," he said, his eyes daring her to look through the papers. "The IRS says you have to sign it, too."

She couldn't help but see the staggering figures on the top form. Where had all that money come from? Where had it gone?

A tiny fraction had gone for a car phone for Stephen X. "Friend of mine gave me a great deal," he said, fingering the handset. "With the tax deduction, I'll be getting it for a quarter of market."

At least when he was happy, he was only insufferable. It was almost safe to ignore him.

Saturday morning, Stephen X sprang from bed and began flashing the lights on and off. "Rise and shine!" he bellowed. "Wake up, sleepyhead! Grab that kid of yours and let's go for a ride!"

"Where?" Sandy rubbed her knuckles into her eyes.

"Who cares where? Let's just pack up and go."

They drove for mile after aimless mile, as Sandy tried to contain Saury in her arms and Stephen X hooked his wrist over the spoke of the steering wheel. He let his other hand dance across the phone.

"Look at that!" he cried. Sandy looked out the window and immediately felt foolish for thinking there was something to see. "I can call the weather number while I'm out in the weather! Is this a great country or what?"

He rang TrafficWatch, Dial-a-Smile, GardenTips, movie listings and the ScoreLine while they cruised the city streets.

He raved on, but his noise faded into the background, like the sound of jets to someone who lives by the airport. For the first time, Sandy saw what Westmore Avenue really looked like. "No wonder I blot this out every day," she thought, as the tackiness and commercial squalor closed in on her. She saw vicious, snarling dogs herd used cars behind cyclone fences. The sun had not yet cleared the tattered billboards that hawked cigarettes and sex, cheap booze and good deals. A breeze lifted yesterday's newspapers from the pavement and wrapped them around telephone poles and stop signs. She pulled Saury tight against her bosom and prayed that he would go back to sleep. She wondered where this world ever came from. Who had asked for it to be like this?

"The time is six fifty-one," Stephen X parroted. "The temperature is sixty-three degrees."

"Why don't you call a human being?" Sandy asked.

"It's Saturday morning," he shrugged. "Nobody's up yet."

He dumped a deck of business cards in her lap, trying not to veer into the curb. "You should have brought the phone book. For my birthday, you can get me one of those little Rolodexes that fits right on the console."

Before the scream could leave Sandy's throat, Stephen X heard the dull thud, like someone had used his car as a bass drum. He smashed the brake pedal to the floorboard and looked around.

"You almost hit that kid," Sandy said as soon as her breath worked again.

Stephen X saw the boy, in shorts and a sweat-stained tee shirt, jogging along the curb, scowling over his own shoulder. He saw a challenge in the kid's twisted, red face. He threw the car in reverse, jolted to a stop, and rolled down the window on Sandy's side.

"You got a problem?" Stephen X asked, leaning over so that his head crowded Saury in Sandy's lap.

"Why don't you watch the hell where you're going, man?" The boy gulped more air than his running required.

"Did you hit my car?"

"Why not? It just about hit me."

"Do your parents know where you are?"


"What's their number? We can clear this up right now." Stephen X reached for his new car phone.

Sandy stared far beyond the windshield and shook her head ever so slightly. The boy picked up the cue and began to edge away.

"You're nuts, mister."

"Come back here. I don't appreciate that."

Stephen X puffed his chest and peeled rubber as the boy began to jog again. "See that?" he said. "Little prick even had snot on his face. Thinks he owns the road."

He punched Roscoe's number and waited a long time.

"Hey, what're you doing, big brother?" he said at last. "We're driving around trying out my new car phone. Why don't you and Linda grab little Johnny Cakes and meet us down at Mama M's for breakfast?"

He listened and frowned, making an unpremeditated right turn at the stop sign.

"You know Mama M's on Finley Road. Sure, Mama's open all night." Stephen X didn't like what he was hearing. "It's easy from your place. Just go east on Washington - or Lincoln—whatever it is. Turn left at Jefferson. There's a Shell station on the corner . . ."

He continued to zig-zag down random streets while giving directions to Roscoe.

"Then it's just two, three blocks on the left. Next to the U-Haul place. Okay. See you there." Stephen X replaced the handset and looked around. He slowed down and studied the road. "Sandy?"


"Where are we?"

She put one hand beneath her and pushed herself up a little against the seat belt. She craned her neck around to study the landscape. "I don't know, Stephen X," she said, letting her voice sound faintly like his secretary, Lucille. "I didn't notice what that last intersection was."

In the months that followed, she wondered how long it would take him to make a useful call on his new toy. Weeks passed before he got the idea of phoning her from the car. As soon as she lifted the receiver, she heard the static, rising and falling like electronic surf.

"Honey, I'll be home late tonight. Don't worry about me."

The caricature of Stephen X's voice might have drifted down from the moon for all its familiarity and warmth. Even the tinny words were someone else's.

"Where are you calling from?" she asked, but she was really just thinking out loud.


"Where are you? I can hardly hear you."

"I'm with a client. We're driving down Delancey. I'll grab a bite on the way home, Honey."

The conversation reminded her of those movies he always dragged her to, where some alien life form invades people's bodies and tries to pass for human—but the way they talk or stare is always a dead give away.

The car phone's only benefit to her was that it meant she didn't have to talk to him much anymore. She played deaf whenever she heard the telltale crackle and hiss of static on the line. "Hello? Is anybody there?" she shouted. "We must have a bad line. If you can hear me, try again later."

She couldn't imagine that he needed the phone for work, like he said. What client would put up with shouting and straining to hear? It made her wonder more than ever what kind of a job he had.

"I pop bubbles," he had told her, not long after they met, but she sensed even then that the answer had been rehearsed. The following years bore out her suspicion. "I show them where they're wasting good money. They never want to hear it, but I've got the numbers on my side."

Stephen X carved cold, granite numbers to fit his purposes. He pored over spreadsheets, marshaling time and events into stark columns and rows. He took comfort in the razor edge of precision.

Sandy made her living with numbers, too, but hers shimmered in the moonlight of uncertainty. She swept the hopes, dreams, and habits of the common man into grand, parabolic curves. Her figures sprang like quicksilver into a thousand shapes.

For Stephen X, the numbers were predictable, obedient. They pacified him, so she knew better than to quit filling in the miles in the little red book. She kept it up year after year, even after what had happened when she presented the completed log to him on January 1, the first year they were married.

"Here's the mileage record," she said.

He'd looked up from a bologna sandwich and thumbed through the notebook. "What is this?" he asked, studying a page.

"The miles I drove last year. Where I went. How far it was, like you showed me to do."

Stephen X had nodded slowly. "Yes," he said. "Thanks."

"Mom, can we go in now?" Saury asked again.

She looked at the house's dark windows and smiled. "Sure. Let's go."


Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.

Read the next chapter.


Complete novel is available on


About the Creator

Alan Gold

Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.

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