I’m waiting in line outside the school, in a line of three Subarus.
Ahead is an Ascent. That’s the Subaru SUV.
Behind me is a Forester.
My Subaru is a Forester.
They’re good cars!
It’s been 3:30 and 3:31. Now it’s 3:32.
It’s the passage of time, baby. I don’t make the rules.
My Subaru clock is not wrong. I’ve cross-referenced it with the clock on my phone.
I can see the head of the woman in the lead Subaru as she swivels it from her phone to the school building. I know she’s thinking what I’m thinking: where the hell are the kids?
Or she’s probably wondering where her kid is. I doubt the other kids are so much on her mind.
I don’t even have a kid. I’m here because my neighbor called at 3:20, thirteen minutes ago, and begged me to pick up his son.
He was on his way home from work when he called. There was traffic. A Chevrolet had flipped on the highway, killing everyone inside, a man and his four children. My neighbor wouldn’t make it to the school on time, there was no way. Could I please help?
A Subaru may have fared better in the crash than the Chevy—but maybe not. When it’s your time to go, nothing will save you.
We are the playthings of a cruel universe, and because death came for that family on the highway my neighbor couldn’t get his son from school. If someone didn’t get him, they’d hold him in the office and he would get scared, might even cry.
So could I please pick him up? It was nice out, the neighbor said. I could wait with him outside their house for his father to get home. It would not take long.
How could I say no? My neighbor sells me weed. I rely on that stuff to fall asleep at night. I can’t fuck that up.
So here I am, in this line of cars. The kids were supposed to come out at 3:30.
The bus kids aren’t even climbing onto buses. I can see the buses lined up at the other school entrance. Maybe the bus riders get out at 3:35.
The woman in front of me is making a phone call. I can see she’s holding the phone to her face. She must be calling the school.
That seems like the responsible thing to do. Should I do it?
No. I’m a good citizen for not calling. If I were calling, I’d tie up the line.
I know. I’ll do even better than the woman in the Ascent with the ponytail. I’ll do what I see a different woman doing, one with bangs on her forehead. I’ll get out of my car and walk to the door where I imagine the kids are supposed to have come out by now.
Why not do that? We’re right here in the parking lot. Holy shit.
My car is in park, the ignition is off, and I’m making my way to the building. I hear car doors slam as moms and dads do what I’m doing.
“Hey,” I hear someone say. “Excuse me? Monsieur?”
It’s the woman in the Ascent. She’s calling out her window to me.
I look in and she’s pretty: Roman nose, dark eyes, black hair pulled back. Nice chin.
I never see them coming, women who look this good.
“Do you know what’s going on?” she says. “Where are the kids?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s hot out. Maybe they’re keeping them in the air conditioning?”
“No,” she says, shutting me down hard. “We’re here to get them. They’re supposed to come out. I was looking at the sign—what does it mean?”
She points to the announcement sign at the entrance to the school, where they post upcoming days off and other things. It has today’s date on it beside the word MAULER.
“Who is Mauler?” she asks.
I say, “I don’t know.”
She looks away, at her phone.
“Am I that boring?” I say.
She looks up. “What?”
“It’s just—we were talking.” I point to her phone.
“Oh,” she says. “I’m checking the daily email. To see if there’s something about this in there?”
“Right,” I say. “The daily email.”
“There is something about it,” the mom says. “It says there’ll be an assembly, and they’ll get a visit from the Mauler. That’s all.”
I’m looking at my phone, now, too, but I’m on Facebook, pretending to do something useful.
I say, “It’s got to be, like, a frisbee-throwing team. Right? If it’s an assembly?”
“Yeah,” I say, “it’s like the day my neighbor’s son came home and said someone at an assembly showed them basketball and talked about striving. And I found out from his dad later it was Scotty Pippen.”
“Huh,” says my new friend, the mom. “You think the Mauler is a frisbee team?”
“Maybe not.” I shrug. “I still don’t know how they got Scotty Pippen.”
I know. I’ll google the Mauler. That should help.
I google it.
My phone tries to sell me a kitchen utensil it calls the mauler. It looks like a mallet. I don’t know what the fuck I’d use it for. I don’t smash food.
There’s a horror movie from the seventies called The Mauler, but they’re definitely not showing a movie in there. Not that movie.
I take a moment to put The Mauler on my Netflix queue before moving on, because it looks badass. Robert Englund is in it.
A scroll o’ the thumb later and I think I’ve found what I’m looking for.
“Hold on,” I tell the mom, and I read aloud from a sad-looking page that looks like it was designed in 1998: “‘The Mauler,’” I read, “‘is a machine biologique, an enfant terrible, the monster du jour. It will come to school and choose who it mauls and who is spared. In its maw lies the answer to life’s tensions.
“‘The Mauler is finely crafted. She makes all things finite.
“‘She is merciless. She is Fate Number Three, the cutter of cloth who decides when it is time to die and who will die.’
“So, okay. Not a frisbee team.” I shake my head. “I really was wrong about that one, Madame. Apologies.”
We watch the parents at the entrance, now, where some of them have gathered. They’re talking with a secretary, who stands in front of the door, which they can’t get into because they’d need an ID to do that.
It’s a safe school. It has a reputation for safety. No one’s ever even tried to shoot the kids in it with a rifle. If they had, I bet I would have heard about it.
“What could they be doing in there, with this Mauler thing?” the mom asks. “If that’s even what’s holding them up.”
I don’t answer. I look around.
“Hey,” she says. “Are you hot? You want to get in? I’ve got the AC going.”
She moves her purse from the passenger seat. I walk around the car and climb in beside her. As she rolls her window up I hear another mom call across the parking lot, “Ten minutes! They said ten more minutes!”
There’s more shouting, but I can barely hear it. It’s like another world inside that car, all noise shut out. It’s frigid. This woman likes to be cold.
“I’m Beverly,” says my new driver. “Beverly Hollish.”
She has on yoga pants and a tank top. She’s looking me up and down and she’s not trying to hide it.
“Nice to meet you,” I say. “I’m Greg Cavendish.”
“Monsieur Greg,” she says and nods. “Unbutton your shorts.”
“The windows are tinted. No one can see in. Come on, dude.”
“I don’t know. What about the Mauler thing?”
“The frisbee team?”
I unbutton my shorts, looking around.
“They can’t see in,” she says again, and her hand is down my boxer-briefs.
She can feel I’m hard already. She pulls me out.
She says, “Mm,” bends down, and brings me into her mouth.
She’s stroking me, now.
“Aren’t you worried?” I say, breathing hard.
“That we’ll get seen?” she says, not lifting her head.
“About the kids.”
Still stroking, she shakes her head, lifts it, licks my ear. “People worry about kids too much,” she whispers, and I moan. “They act like kids don’t contain whole worlds inside them. Kids are strong, they’ll be okay.”
I nod. This feels good. And I recognize what she says as the hard-won wisdom of a mother who does yoga and has a water bottle with a tribal symbol on it. It’s in her cup holder. I recognize it as the tribal symbol for hard-won wisdom.
The water bottle is beautiful. It has an price tag on it from REI—the outdoor store, not the steakhouse.
Mme. Hollish strips off her tank top and sports bra. She lowers her yoga pants, straddles me, pulls the lever beside me so my seat falls back. I know where that lever is—it’s in the same place in my Subaru.
She lowers herself and I’m inside her. Sweaty breasts are in my face—hers. All two of them.
She grinds on me. I shovel into her with my penis. It’s like I’m digging for gold in her vagina. All I’m coming up with is her cervix.
You can’t sell that on the black market. But it feels good. I want more.
It’s so hardcore. My goodness.
All this time, as a single man in his late thirties, I thought I hadn’t missed out on a damn thing by not having children.
I mean, seriously. What did I miss? Worry? College funds? Daycare bills, extra health insurance, frantic calls to neighbors I sell weed to, so I can beg them to pick up my child?
No one told me about wild fucking in cold Subarus.
Mme. Hollish must have just worked out. I can smell her, and she smells good. Her sweat smells good. I’m licking her breasts like it’s my job.
I don’t have job-job, like an actual job. I work from home, on a contract basis, for different companies that operate out of central Africa. It’s all on the computer. It involves a lot of bitcoin.
I’m like a TaskRabbit, essentially, but for blood diamonds. It doesn’t pay as well as it sounds like it would.
Mme. Hollish moans, and I wonder if I should start thinking of her as something more familiar. Like Beverly, rather than Mme. Hollish. That sounds so formal, given the way she’s dripping on me, with sweat and other moisture.
She cries out. She has a huge orgasm, the biggest one anyone’s had in that Subaru, there is no doubt in my mind.
Now it’s my turn to cry out. The Orgasm Fairy dings me with her magic wand, and it’s like Mme. Hollish and I competing to see who can come the hardest.
I win. I empty myself into her. My semen pours out like Pepsi flowing from a fountain machine into a Burger King cup at Burger King.
I actually hope she gets pregnant from this—the sex is that good.
She’s off me now and I’m buttoning up. She’s straightening her hair in the mirror, yoga pants up, top on.
“I like having sex a lot,” I say.
She says, “Sex is the gateway to ecstasy. It’s something I learned in my yoga class.”
“There’s so much wisdom in the world,” I say as I open the door and step out of the car.
I feel lost.
What am I doing here? Not just in this school parking lot, fucking a mom I just met. I mean with life in general.
I walk around to Beverly’s window again. She rolls it down again.
“What’s up now?” she says, putting on lipstick.
“It’s just—I don’t know.”
“Spit it out,” she says.
“Sometimes, after I have sex, I ask big questions. Existential issues. The heavy shit.”
“Honey, please,” she says. “Existentialism can’t hurt you. Monsieur Camus has been dead since 1960. In deep time, that’s hundreds of years ago.”
“That’s not really what I mean,” I say.
I’ve lost interest in this woman.
I didn’t realize she had done so much yoga that she lived outside of time, spent her days in warrior pose and downward dog not knowing what year it was or how long it had been since M. Camus left this world.
She’s one of those. And now that I knew that, I was done with her.
“There’s my girl!” she shouts.
She doesn’t mean me. She means her kid.
Her kid and some other kids have emerged from the building, like burger patties emerging from the machine that heats burger patties at Burger King, rolling them slowly on a metal roller thing, onto buns.
Am I hungry?
Yes! That’s my problem.
Of course it is. I’m always the last to know.
Wait a minute. The neighbor kid has walked out of the school, too. He’s stepping tentatively into the parking lot, looking for his deadbeat dad, that loser who can’t even pick up his son on time.
“Hey!” I call to him, and wave.
He doesn’t look.
Shit. This is awkward. I can’t remember the kid’s name.
I think it’s Brent.
“Hey Brent!” I cry, but he doesn’t look. It’s the wrong name.
I march forward and shout, “Hey, you! Yeah! You!”
He freezes on the sidewalk.
“I’m your neighbor,” I cry. “Your dad called. I’m supposed to take you home. Get in my car.”
He looks up at me. He looks weird.
“What’s wrong with you?” I say.
“I’m scared,” he says.
“Scared of what? Camus has been dead for sixty years.”
“The Mauler came.”
I lower my arm. I was waving it when I mentioned the death of Camus.
It was a car that got Camus. An accident—if there really is such a thing.
I say, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Spit it out, kid. I’m hungry. What is the Mauler?”
He tells me, at last, about the Mauler. He says it’s a machine that travels from school to school, across the country, smashing kids.
“Smashing them?” I say.
“Like, it crushes them mentally? Breaks their will, like Bobby Fischer did to his chess opponents?”
“No. They stand in it. It presses down on them.”
“Well. That’s kind of what Bobby Fischer did, when he got that rook moving. But he was an anti-Semite. A lot of people don’t know that.”
“But does the Mauler use, like, hydraulics? Look at me, boy. Do you not know what hydraulics are?”
He shakes his head.
“What the fuck do they teach you in there?”
“Math,” he says.
Parents have gathered by the door, and someone has emerged wearing glasses. He must be the assistant principal. He stands in the sun, his glasses crooked and glinting. He looks like he’s just had rough sex, but I’m the one who’s had rough sex.
Okay, fine. It wasn’t that rough.
“Come with me, fuck-o,” I tell the neighbor kid, and together we walk up to find out what this asshole has to say.
He’s reassuring the other parents. He says, “Folks, everybody, listen. People, okay, I can address this problem. Everyone, I know, this is hard time for all of us.”
He hasn’t really said anything yet.
“Get to the point!” I shout.
Everyone looks at me. I feel alone, for a second, though I’m surrounded by people.
It gets like that sometimes.
“What is the Mauler?” I say.
“Where are our kids?” shouts a dad.
“Your children are fine,” says the assistant principal, or whatever. “This wasn’t a visit from the Mauler, it was a Mauler drill.”
“A drill?” I say. “How is that not worse?”
“It’s just—did you take the kids on a journey to the center of the Earth? What did they find there? Lava?”
“He doesn’t mean that kind of drill,” says a mom.
“That’s insane,” I say.
The assistant principal says, “If this had been a real visit from the Mauler, believe me, you would have gotten more than an email.”
“What would we have gotten?” I ask.
He looks at me. Can he tell I’m an impostor?
“The kids would have taken a test,” he says. “We’d have sent forms home to help decide what children are mauled. It’s an involved process, lots of data involved. You have to know for sure which children you don’t need before the Mauler comes to town, unless you want a real bloodbath on your hands. Right?”
He looks around and the other parents nod. This is old news for them.
“Of course,” I say, wanting to fit in.
“Where are our kids, then?” asks a mom.
“They’re taking their ablutions,” says the principal. “The drill is realistic. Very realistic. The ones who bring the Mauler to us try hard for realism. They’re like Raymond Carver, they’re so all about realism.”
“I don’t know,” says a dad. “Isn’t the Mauler more like gritty realism? Like Jayne Anne Phillips?”
He nods. “I can see that. But she’s not nearly so—I don’t know—mechanical as this?”
“But she wrote Machine Dreams,” protests a mother.
“Anyway,” says the principal. “The real Mauler, as I’m sure you all know, doesn’t even operate in this country. It’s a stress test we’re doing here, a trial run, to see how the kids will handle the Mauler when it comes for them.”
“What children?” I say. “Where do they use this thing?”
A dad turns and answers. “Not many countries,” he says, counting on his fingers. “Venezuela. Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. The DRC, I think.”
“And Puerto Rico,” says a woman.
“Anyway,” the dad says, “it’s not many countries, and it’s only the ones where they’ve got excess people.”
“If we could please stay focused,” says the assistant principal.
But he doesn’t have a chance to focus. He’s interrupted.
The missing children come running out the door behind him, screaming with glee. They’re freshly washed, with wet hair. Still they smell like kids, though. It’s disgusting. It’s like that last scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where the kids come running and shouting. Everybody wins, except the ones who have to pay those kids’ tuition.
“Thank goodness they haven’t died,” a mom says.
“God be praised!” shouts a dad.
“Please!” shouts the assistant principal. “No praying on school grounds.”
“Well,” I say to my neighbor’s son, “tell me about your day.”
We go to my car, and he tells me about it. He seems shaken. He says they didn’t say the Mauler’s visit was only a drill. They didn’t know.
All those kids that came running out all wet? The neighbor kid saw them get crushed in the Mauler, smashed to death in its hydraulic press. There must have been a trap door. They didn’t really die.
“That’s not how I would do it,” I say. “But I’m sure they have their reasons.”
I don’t have a car seat for this kid to sit in, but I let him sit up front, where it’s safer.
I’m glad I didn’t have sex in my Subaru. Something about fucking in a car and then having a kid climb into the same car rubs me the wrong way.
I guess Mme. Hollish doesn’t feel that way.
She’s a freak. And I pray we meet again, but apparently not while I’m at the school. They hate praying.
“Where’s my dad?” the kid asks me.
“I don’t know,” I say. “At your house, maybe? Watching them load the bodies into an ambulance? Do you like Burger King?”
“Come on. I’m hungry. I’ll buy you a milkshake.”
That was easy.
Sometimes my neighbor complains about being a dad. About how much he gave up, how much he misses out on, how he can’t travel or spend money on himself.
I’m not even a real dad, though, and I’m dealing with this kid like a fucking boss.
I catch a glimpse of Mme. Hollish as she pulls her car out of the lot.
Maybe she really is pregnant. Maybe this life I’ve been living for twenty-five minutes could be mine.
I could quit my job, which isn’t really even a job. I could be a technical writer.
Mme. Hollish could divorce her husband. We could do yoga together. To woo her, I could buy a Peloton bike.
Our kids could play with this dumb neighbor kid, if he’s not too old for them by then.
Maybe there is hope in the world. Maybe, like Albert Camus liked to tell his students, with a twinkle in his eye and a cigarette in his hand, in their classroom at the University of Marseilles, miracles truly do happen. Maybe dreams really do come true.
Robert Long Foreman‘s most recent books are WEIRD PIG and I AM HERE TO MAKE FRIENDS. He lives in Kansas City?
image: MM Kaufman