Crash


You'll be driving along a familiar highway before it happens. Your eyes will be on the grey blacktop, the faded yellow stripe, the light blue trunk of an old Chevy. Sparrows will soar against a cloudless sky, and a breeze will blow honeysuckles to the shoulder of the road, and you'll feel cocooned inside your car, safe from the life you temporarily fled.

It's almost like when you were seven and days after your sister's funeral, you snuck out the kitchen door, through the yard and the gate to escape a house of deafening quiet. You didn't know back then where you were going. It was just the feel of each foot slamming against the pavement of your road. Then you were on the dirt path, and a floor of crackling, dead leaves inside the autumn woods. You were moving through a forest which was so altered in your absence it could no longer be the obstacle course you and your sister had played in with your friends just a week before. Lush summer green had been painted over with reds and oranges and yellows, and then dropped like a blanket to cover everything once recognizable. And somehow this made the quiet feel safe, as if nothing could exist here as complicated as an empty pink room, or the choking sound your father made behind the basement door, or the disbelieving way your mother sat and stared at that broken step just off the deck, where you were no longer allowed to go. Keep moving, is what you thought to do then, even after the trail disappeared and you had to maneuver around bushes and under branches. You would have kept running, but for the voices calling out to you, muffled from the distance, but distinctively first your mother's, and then your father's. Each time you heard them you found yourself being pulled back, slowed to a jog, until you were standing still looking out at the trees before you that never seemed to end.

Now as your car glides effortlessly over asphalt, and your hands, larger and weathered, steer you away, you'll feel the same sort of peace you felt moving through those trees. Worry, for a brief stretch of time, will be left to smolder somewhere in the recesses of your mind. Until it finally rears its head, like a squirrel poking its nose benignly from behind a tree's trunk, before scurrying up and reminding you of your son, already in his car heading over to your house.

He'll seem so big in his car, in your mind. He'll have become so big that it'll be hard to believe that you once cleaned grains of sand out of his skinned knee or inflated the little Alphabet People for his preschool class. But there he'll be: driving too close to the curb, speeding up to pass through a yellow light, propelled by a sense of urgency that you will not yet agree exists.

He'll let himself into your house, sift though your mail. You'll think of him standing at your kitchen counter by the microwave, because that's where the stack of mail always is. But today it may not be. Today it may have been kicked to the side of the door as you made your way out. And the dishes, are they cleaned and placed into the drying rack or piled up in the sink with remnants of tuna fish and egg salad and tomato seeds clinging to them? You won't be able to remember for sure, because lately when you are sure, you're wrong. So he might see mail on the floor and dirty dishes in the sink, but he'll take your absence as a good sign, a reason that you haven't returned his calls, validation that the car he'll have bought you is doing the trick. Though you're probably just at the store, it'll still be a good sign, because, as he's complained, you never leave the house much anymore. He'll think of calling you in the car, but then decide against it. He'll check his watch and busy himself with yesterday's paper lying on the table over your place mat. You won't be long, he'll decide, licking his thumb, separating the pages.

You'll think that if you just drive a little longer he'll get impatient and leave. You'll pass exit after exit, wanting only to turn off, turn around, make your way back to your mail and your dishes, to the way your house felt, not that morning, but a week before, when your son will have called frantic and probing.

"Are you all right?" he'll ask, "Thank God, we didn't know what happened to you."

"What do you mean?" you'll wonder aloud.

"You missed the whole thing," he'll say.

"What thing?" you'll ask. But just as the words catapult out of your mouth you'll wish you had stayed quiet, because he'll shout, exasperated, "Your granddaughter's birthday party!"

"Oh," will be all that you can say.

"We spoke about it two days ago," he'll say, accentuating the "two" so that it'll echo in your mind. "You were supposed to bring her a Pokemon."

It'll come back to you in a slow haze, something about it will come back to you and you'll say, "Yes," and then fidget with your wife's "To Do" pad magnet on the fridge that you never had the heart to take down. While your son drones on, you'll take the old pen still connected umbilically to the pad and shake it to life so that you can draw circles on the yellow paper, until the tip dries and you have to shake it again to continue your artistic rendering of grapes. "We thought that wreck of yours had broken down again," he'll say. "We thought...I don't even want to discuss what we thought."

You'll want to tell him that it's not a wreck, that it's just old, that being old doesn't make it a wreck. But you won't want to argue about it with him anymore, so you'll just listen to his hyperventilated breaths until he composes himself and calmly reports, "Okay, you're okay. Everything is okay." Then he'll ask, "Do you want to speak to her? To apologize," and your mind will be forced to imagine the little girl staring up at you, her birthday hat sitting in between her pigtail braids. You'll get sad and say, "Maybe later. I'll call back later." You'll hang up the phone, and replace the pen. You'll leave your PB&J and Times crossword on the kitchen counter and go to your bedroom, shiver into the cool sheets and fall asleep.

The next afternoon as you are once again sitting down to take a whack at #44 across, you'll swear you heard your wife say, "Pokeman," and as you turn around to see her, that's when the Lincoln will pull up onto your driveway.

You'll spy it through the kitchen blinds, and then through the eyehole, and when you make it outside, your son will be standing next to the shiny tan machine, flicking a speck of dust off the hood. He'll be too big for the tennis shorts he's wearing -- his hips will be crying out for just a little more material. When you move closer and he guides you to your gift, you'll notice his tan-in-a-bottle skin and the line near where his hair starts and the orange abruptly stops. You'll be motivated by parental pride to drag him inside and scrub it off his face. You'll reach out to do just that, then stop, realizing that you're not allowed to do things like that anymore, haven't been for decades.

There will be another man with him, the dealer, he'll be skinny and bald. He'll be smiling. He'll be introduced as the "Certified Sales Consultant" and he'll be the one who points out all the amenities in your gleaming new car. He'll show you how to use your hands-free phone (already programmed with your son's number), and the heated seats. He'll show you your satellite navigation system (already programmed to lead you to your son's house) and the special button above your head to push for emergency roadside assistance. You'll nod at each new discovery in a vague, mildly interested sort of way and then get out of the car and look to the one parked next to it, your rust spotted Buick, and say, "But I have a perfectly good car." Now your son will stop smiling and throw up his hands and say, "Why can't you just be appreciative? Huh?" You won't answer him. You won't remind him that you didn't ask for this, didn't want it, but you'll think for a split second as he motions with his bloated hands, that his parents shouldn't have let him eat so many snacks as a child.

When the tow truck appears, your son will whine and pout and keep his arms crossed until you sign the title. Then the man with his stomach hanging over his low riding, grease-stained jeans will haul it clanking down the street and it'll be gone. You won't yell or protest or concede, you won't say anything at all. You'll just go into the house and shut the door and leave your son to complain about your ungraciousness to the compassionate consultant. Not long afterwards, an envelope will be dropped through your mail slot and your son will get into his car with the salesman and drive off. You won't open the envelope, you won't even retrieve it, you'll just let it lay there and go to your bedroom and you will sleep.

In the morning as you are nuzzling into your pillow the phone will ring and as you try to answer it you'll notice that your tongue is numb. 'Hello' will come out 'eho,' and when the telemarketer starts her pitch, you'll try to say 'no' and it'll come out 'o'. And she'll say, "Yes, exactly, it's really a great deal." You'll hang up quickly and won't pick it up the next time it rings, and your son will be forced to leave a message asking if you're still being difficult.

You'll pinch your tongue, you'll move it around with your fingers. You will feel nothing. You'll sit up in bed and try to speak to the pictures on the wall. Not your son's or your wife's, but a picture of yourself taken too many years ago to remember exactly how old you were. You'll give yourself things to say, test the words to see if any come out right. You'll try to say apple, and boy, and potato. You'll do this for a while and then give up and stare at the imperfections on the wall that you were supposed to fix when your wife was alive but haven't thought about since. You'll think about her too, not in a longing painful way, but in a distant way like an acquaintance.

You'll consider the hospital emergency room, the tiring tests they'll want to perform on you in a cold bright room and decide that you can do them yourself. You'll walk a straight line, do a couple of jumping jacks, tap your knee with a spoon and stick your foot with a fork. You'll make a muscle with your left arm and wiggle your toes. In the end when you are satisfied that it is just your tongue, you'll throw your blanket into the dryer for a spin and then try to fall back asleep while it's still warm.

It will be three days later, your son will have called for the ninth time. He'll shout into the answering machine that he is going to call the police and come over, because he's convinced you've slipped in the shower, or fallen asleep in the tub with the toaster. You haven't called him back and so you must be dead. You'll pick up the phone to call him and then realize that he'll hear your mangled attempt at speech if you do and then come right over anyway and so you'll decide to take this drive instead.

The car will be tricky at first, they'll be alarms to disarm and brakes to release, but you'll have to appreciate the heated seats. After testing it around your block a few laps, you'll cruise through your neighborhood and out onto the service road to the highway. You won't be thinking of any place to go, but will take a left when the computer suggests a right would take you to your son's house. Once on the highway, the road will seem to be moving like water under a sailboat on a calm sunny day. You'll be trying to remember what your hands used to look like, and try to sit up straighter. At some point when you aren't paying attention you'll pass the last exit off the highway. Then the highway itself will become a winding two lane road that you won't recall. You'll be eyeing a place to pull over and turn around when it happens.

It will be a sudden thing, this car hitting yours. It will be shocking at first, but then feel like something you knew was coming and purposely forgot. There will have been a clue, a detail, something you denied, passed over, brushed off. But then it won't have made any difference if you faced it, not really. It will be upon you whether you deny or accept, or dismiss, it'll happen anyway. Then you'll think, "Now I'm through," and in your mind you'll see your father shake his head as he surveys the damage, as you pull over to survey it yourself and see the broken headlight and scraped paint along the side. You'll picture your son's swollen palm outstretched waiting for you to give over the keys to the car you didn't really want in the first place and then you will be stranded. So you'll decide that he can't know about this. You'll fix it somehow so he'll never know.

You'll see the car you've collided with stop about 300 feet back in the other direction. You'll see its hazards go on and a girl emerge, look both ways before crossing the highway and run towards you. She'll be thin, too thin, she'll look like the right wind could blow her away, and a part of you will wish that it would, that she hadn't stopped, because then it wouldn't be so bad, then it would just be you and the car.

She'll seem shaken when she reaches you. She'll ask, "Are you all right?"

"My light," you'll try to make out.

"Your life?" she'll exclaim confused.

"My light, my light," you'll try to say, and she'll shake her head saying, "I don't understand." Then she'll repeat, "I DON'T UNDERSTAND YOU," as if you are deaf and have to read her lips. You'll stare at her in amazement before shaking your head, grabbing her tiny wrist and leading her to the broken light. You'll point at it again and again, until she says, "Oh, your light," and breathes a sigh of relief.

She'll say, "We should call the police, file a report," and you'll get scared and try to say, "No, don't," but it will come out "'o, own."

And she'll say, "Oh, that's okay, I have one in the car. I'll go call, be back in a sec." She'll look anxious to get away from you, and this will surprise you, pierce something inside of you that you only then realize still exists. You'll stand there like that for a while. You'll stand there as she speed walks back down the road and crosses the street. You won't wonder why her parents didn't feed her more, you won't care. All that you'll be thinking about is getting away. You'll stare at the girl's leg hanging out of her open car door while she presumably calls the police and maybe her father to confess that she was driving too fast, or more likely to deny it. It won't be until you think that she is getting back out of her car that you'll snap out of your daze and get into your own car and drive away. You'll see her in the rear view. You'll see her outstretched leg, the whole of her as she jumps out startled, and then as a speck, as she stands and stares at you becoming a spec.

You'll be driving fast now, though you won't realize how fast you're coming at the world, the air, until one fork and then another, scares you down to a crawl. Passing these small neat houses set back from the road, you'll long for the lived in warmth of your own, your bed and kitchen chair, your comfortable monotony, the window that you sat and looked out of. Because you'll be on the outside, and as if you were right in front of your house looking in, you'll replay the memory of your son perched on your living room couch leaning over one of those brochures for "Special Senior Care Residences" he's always bringing over, reading aloud from each glossy page with practiced enthusiasm, as if he were telling you a bedtime story from a child's picture book. You'll want the months younger version of yourself to get up off that couch, drag him to the door and push him right out, lock the deadbolts so he can't get back in. But really, even if you had propped your furniture up against all the openings, how long would that have bought you? This is what you'll be asking yourself when your son finally calls, the ring piercing the quiet, "Home calling" flashing across your dashboard, an invasion of sound so acute you'll slam on the breaks and throw open your door to get away from it.

Instead, from the middle of the road, you'll be staring at the houses, wishing that this whole scene was taking place so far away that your son could never find you. That you could pull into the driveway of a house like one of these, park, go inside, plant yourself in front of a bay window and resume your life from there.

The ringing will continue, stopping and starting again, while the warning for the open car door will chime, and drivers who have impatiently lined up behind you will begin to honk their horns, poke their heads out of their windows, call to you to move along.

But you won't, not even as they pull around you and gawk. You won't even motion to close the door until the last one has passed and the ringing briefly stops.

You'll close your eyes and lean back wearily in the seat, and think of how it will only be a matter of time if you stay here, only a matter of time before you're drawn back to a place that doesn't feel so much like your place anymore. Then you'll think of being on a bus somewhere crossing over a bridge, with grey-blue water below, and then walls of rock giving way to rolling greens and farms, and a little house on a hill set back within the trees. You'll think of a letter to your son, written on the cover of the car guide and left on the dashboard with the keys.

When the ringing picks up again, you'll turn back to study the flashing word "home" and with each passing pulse both learn and forget its meaning, until it simply becomes four letters grouped together without reason and you can finally do it, just turn off the engine and watch them disappear.




As originally published in Carve Magazine.