The Nonessentials

1. On a clear day, not today

My morning's been one shitty chain reaction after another, and I can't for the life of me get back on track. It started with me sleeping through my alarm, resulting in a frantic, no-shower, no-brushing, no-breakfast, no-caffeine run out the door late for work, and now I'm miles from my clinic, surrounded by clotted traffic. I need a zap of light to calm my nerves or I'm going to fucking lose it. I try to keep my thumper to a simmer by reminding myself to breathe, Max, you're safe inside the Beast.

The car beside me honks an SOS distress signal. I turn to see what's the dilemma—it's merely a horn-happy boomer dressed in a navy pinstripe suit, sipping a white coffee cup inside his cream 550 SL. He's trying to break into my lane. Our eyes lock, I shrug, then he gives me the middle finger, mouthing obscenities too wicked for me to repeat.

As if that's how to get your way? I hate to break it to you, Mr. Pinstripe, but it's bumper to-bumper traffic, so do us all a favor, lay off the bean juice and fucking relax.

Mr. Pinstripe doesn't chill. His road rage persists and spreads throughout the auto grid faster than a summer wildfire in strong wind. People shout, honk, and try to weave in and out of backed-up lanes. The noise becomes as hair-curling painful as an off-off-Broadway opera. I swear on my mother's soul that white cup will be the death of me.

My nerves settle when the gridlock eases, allowing me to merge for an upcoming turn. The Beast inches into the next lane but stops short when a speeding Bronco zooms past, missing her beefy bumper by less than a hair, then smashes—BAM!— into the rear of a Whatcom County bus.

The Bronco is sideways on its driver's-side door, and soon both vehicles are on fire; dozens of screaming passengers spill into the streets.

What the fucko is wrong with that Bronco?

And it's not only civilians driving like maniacs this morning. Get this—moments earlier, pre-gridlock, I'm driving the Beast down Alabama Hill when I catch my mail carrier Tanya moving at highway speeds. She cuts me off then swerves around a Volvo. Her mail truck's tires smoke as she skids sideways, missing a head-on collision with a church van stuffed with blue haired believers, and fishtails once, twice—


She takes out a multi-residential mailbox. The letter boxes explode into shrapnel, leaving a mushroom cloud of junk mail like New Year's confetti. I'm burning up, sweating, watching from the comforts of my—


I almost forgot … the Beast. How could I be so inconsiderate as to not give her the proper introduction that she deserves?

I purchased my black Chevrolet Suburban eight years ago at a state auction for a ridiculous price because her electronics are fried, she's missing her back seats, and she's got nine hundred thousand miles clocked on her odometer. Plus, as much as I hate to say it, the Beast isn't easy on the eyes; she has a crapload of dents and scrapes.

Why bother with a beat-up car with close to a million miles, you ask?

I crunched the numbers. It's a hell of a lot cheaper and environmentally greener to take care of the vehicle you own instead of replacing it with something glittery-new. But the main reason is that the Beast, pound per dollar, is my best bet for surviving an accident. Go ahead and snicker all you want, but the fact is that last year alone, 2.7 million people in the US were injured or killed in an auto accident.

That's how I lost my father. He was only thirty-two when he got T-boned in his lime-green Chevy Chevette by a chickenshit hit-and-run driver. It happened late on some bumfuck nowhere road.

The Beast is worth it for my peace of mind. She's burly and she keeps me at ease. I've kept up with her maintenance and her V8 is solid. I love the Beast, but if I'm going to be honest with you, the single issue I have with her is that she's a thirsty girl, six miles per gallon going downhill thirsty. Right now, her stomach is growling, near empty.


As if being an asshole were contagious, another dickhead driver beside me lays down hard on his horn. After several nerve-shredding moments, I look toward the prick with my hands up, shrugging as if to say: What the hell do you want?

His honking doesn't stop, but that's okay because beyond the noisy prick, I've spotted my freedom, my escape out of this hell.

There's an alleyway kitty-corner from me, and if my memory serves me, this non-Google-mapped passage will guide me to a gas station where I can fill her up for cheap, as long as I pay with cash. I draw my wallet from the ass pocket of my jeans and peek behind my driver's license. Bingo. There's my emergency Benjamin, right where I left him.

The logjam loosens and there's a traffic gap. I punch through it then beeline toward the best-priced gas station in town. Unfortunately, when I arrive there's a line of motorists wrapped around the pump, spewing into the street. If I stick around, I'll be late for work and most likely run out of fuel waiting in line, so I nix the gas idea. I can coast down the remaining blocks if I can make it to Holly.

The Beast shakes but doesn't die as we climb up to Holly Street and turn. From the road's peak, you can see a chunk of the eighty-thousand-plus Bellingham residents' homes, the cool steel blue of Bellingham Bay, the majestic San Juan Islands, and the historic buildings that make up most of downtown.

On a clear day, not today, you can see an old brick building nestled close to the docks. That's me—my salvation, my clinic Brighter Days, on the ground floor in a south-facing unit.

I shift the Beast into neutral to coast down Holly, and I realize unlike uptown, downtown Bellingham is vacant and pin-drop quiet. There aren't any buses, cyclists, cars, or pedestrians in any direction, and the sudden contrast sticks me with a sickening feeling that I can't shake.

This morning's commute has me bent out of shape. I'm a fucking wreck and my gut aches, as empty as the Beast. A gnawing hunger overwhelms me, clouding out all reason.

I glance down at the dashboard clock and it's eleven minutes before noon. I have time for a treat. Hell, I deserve a treat. Fortunately for me, Larry's Donut Shop is just up ahead. But when I pull up to the curb, I discover that the shop's windows are boarded up with plywood. Red paint across the boards announces: CLOSED.

Closed on Friday before noon?

I study the streets for anything open, but all the storefronts are dark except one. At the bottom of Holly, I spot a twinkle of hope—the familiar glow of an orange marquee belonging to the Horseshoe, Bellingham's famous twenty-four-hour diner, the best late-night spot for food and gossip.

I shift the Beast into drive and step on her accelerator; screw the gas. Once I'm close, I stuff her gear into park, jump out, and jog toward the doors. My glands salivate as I daydream of fluffy flapjacks piled high with whipped cream on top. Those hopes deflate when I notice that the Horseshoe's doors are padlocked shut. A message across the window reads: SAVE YOURSELVES.

I shove my face against the glass door. Inside, the lights are off, but I can still see that the tables are flipped over and there's broken dishes flung across the diner's floor. The place has been ransacked. What the hell?

"You there!" shouts a rough voice.

A pack of gutter punks is across the street. They've concealed their faces with hoods and masks, and they're clothed in black leather and denim like some Mad Max gang ready for battle, swinging chains above their heads, spiked wooden bats resting on their shoulders.

The tallest punk in the pack points his leather-gloved finger at me, his other hand tugging a bandana down from his mouth. He yells, "Get your ass over here!"

I mimic his gesture, pointing my finger at my chest as I ask in a falsetto voice, "Who, me?"

He nods, but I don't comply. Time slows. I count the heartbeats inside my chest. Two, three, four, heartbeats later, the pack races at me like wild animals on the Discovery channel. My muscles tense and I freeze, staring at the stampede running in slow motion with their fists pumping, boots stomping, and one purple-haired banshee screeching at the top of her lungs.

I count five, six, seven heartbeats, then a voice inside my head screams: RUN!

Now moving in real-time, I book it toward the Beast, running as fast as humanly possible toward safety. I make it inside the cab and lock her up, but I can't take off—the punks swarm the Beast like bees on summer tea. They begin beating her with chains, bats, and fists.

"Get off her, you bastards!" I scream. I slump into my worn leather seat, paralyzed as they rock my ride back and forth, as psychotic as soccer fans after the World Cup. All around me are horrid sounds of scraping metal and heels thumping against glass. I'd piss myself if my bladder were full. The voice screams again: DRIVE!

I slam the pedal to metal. The Beast's knobby tires run over boot-covered feet as she surges into the street, and I check my rearview mirror until the punks are nothing but specks of dust in the reflection. What the fuck is going on around here? All I know is that it's minutes before noon and if I hurry, I'll have time for a quick fix.