(remixed from Antiseptic Six-Pack: Six Fragments from Dead Horse Bay, originally published in Underwater New York)
“Oh, God,” I say, pressing the button to lower the car window. “I feel like I’m traveling with a toddler.”
“A toddler with a very advanced vocabulary,” he says, keeping both hands perched on the wheel, elbows up, as though performing some showy parody of driving. The green car lurching behind us this past mile now shifts into the passing lane and speeds away.
“Wol-ver-ine,” he whispers, mock-seductively.
I wave one arm and then the other at the stream of traffic funneling past us. “Don’t you think we should try to get out from behind this truck?”
“What’s your hurry?” he shrugs. “Quarantine,” he adds, pleased with himself.
I grasp for a note of authority. “Augustine.” But I know that’s not how you say it. “Longfellow’s Evangeline.”
He just shakes his head.
“You’re following too close.” I hear my voice rising with irritation. “How can you even see the road?”
“Okay, okay. There. I’m hanging back.”
“Crystalline. Peregrine. Sistine,” I rhyme off. I can’t help it. The words are coming to me now unbidden, speeding, revving, careening through my mind. Tangerine. He already said that one, but it’s a song too. If I sang the word, would it count as a something different? “Calamine. Valvoline. Listerine.”
The brakes squeal. My body jerks forward, my right shoulder, chest and hipbones slam against the seatbelt, then drop back against the seat. My skin’s clammy. Heart pounding hot and hard in my ears.
I see now the truck is a mere yard from us, its dusty steel cargo doors rising high over the headlights of our car, like a towering concrete wall.
I turn to him and he looks at me.
“No,” he says. “There have to be rules to this. Proprietary names don’t count.”