I wrote this story in 2 sittings by hand while I was in the sleep study. I was in the middle of reading Short Cuts by Raymond Carver. I tried to mimic him some. The only editor on this one has been me, so…
My car radio didn’t work. I was thinking about how my parents would both be dead one day. First one then the other. It was getting late. I was tired. Not tired, exhausted. I still had a ways to go.
The heater didn’t work either. I had on my ugly green coat, my gloves and hat. My hands were hot, but the steering wheel was freezing. Without the radio and the heater it was almost silent, except when I went over 10 mph. After that a little buzz kicked up. It would have been easy to ignore with a radio or heater. It came from the back of the car, and stayed the same pitch. Sometimes I harmonize with it, but I was too tired. I was almost there.
I was wondering who would handle it better, me or my sister. I didn’t know if it would make us closer or push us apart. I didn’t know what it would do to her or to me. If we would grow up or down. It was so quiet and dark. My lights were the only things around. Even the high snow banks along the road were dark. As if there was no snow it would be easier to see. The snow was everywhere, except on the road in front of me. I could see my breath hitting the windshield. I was thinking about my sister and what kind of stuff she might keep locked up in her house in Michigan, and blowing my breath onto the glass. I was just thinking and slam.
I saw it coming just before it happened. His headlights were off and his car was black but I saw it. Before his left headlight hit mine, when they were just millimeters away, everything stopped for a second. The two cars dried in time like glue, and then released. My seatbelt caught, I barely moved. Steam was rising up and dissolving from under his hood. I stepped out first. He had to crawl through to the passenger’s side, and he came out saying “Oh jeeze, Oh jeeze. Oh man.”
I pulled my hat down so it covered my earlobes. It crept back up. I walked around to assess the damage. I was better off. My heater and radio and headlight were all busted. My fender was scratched down to the raw white underneath. That’s all. It was ok.
“Oh jeeze, I’m so sorry. Are you alright? Oh crud.”
“I’m fine. You?” We looked at his car, crumpled like a paper cup. It seemed impossible. I had been going so slowly.
“Me? I’m fine. Oh jeeze, but look at this.” He pulled on the fender and part of it came off. “Jeeze. Dang it.”
I thought about calling the police, but decided against it. The man seemed to feel the same way. We exchanged information. He wrote his down on the back of a business card from some Chinese restaurant in a town I’ve never heard of. His name was Hank.
Hank took off his hat and smoothed his thinning hair. “Well jeeze. What do we do?”
“Can you drive it?”
Hank got back in his car, crawling across the seats again. In the light from my remaining headlight he looked like a child. When he turned the key the engine didn’t make a sound. All I could hear was the hissing of the steam, which was waning. We pushed his car to the side of the road. He was clearly in my lane, but we didn’t mention it. We didn’t need to. Hank steered while I pushed.
“You have a cell phone?”
“No.” I don’t know why I lied. Hank laid his head back and looked up at the blank sky. He clapped his bare hands together.
“I can give you a ride somewhere.” My engine was still running.
“Aw jeeze, I would hate to trouble you. I already hit ya.”
“No, no.” I said.
“I don’t live far. 15 miles. On Addison. Do you know it?”
“You can show me.
We didn’t talk much on the way there. I told him I was from Hollis. He said he knew a pastor there. Then he was quiet for a long time. I was driving so slowly. I didn’t want to hear the buzz. He tapped the window twice with his fingers. Then he looked through the glass hard like he saw something in the field.
We were getting close. My phone started to vibrate in my pocket. You could hear it. Its buzz was dissonant with the one coming from the back of the car. Hank said, “You just turn here.” That was all he said.
His house was small. We went in the back door. He made a path through the snow. I stepped in his foot prints, but my feet were just a little bigger. Our prints on top of each other looked like sedimentary rock. He opened the door, and suddenly I didn’t want to go inside. I wanted to stay out in the yard, in the wind and snow. It had gotten colder. I followed him in, shut the door behind me.
We went through a musty mudroom. It was close quarters, me and Hank in there taking off our boots. For a second it felt like I might fall on him. The cold air was sneaking in under the crack and biting our Achilles tendons. Hank let me in the house, then shut the door to the mud room quickly. He kicked a purple towel back against the crack to keep out the cold.
The interior of the house was 1952. It was all wood paneling and brown carpet. It was all bulk furniture and yellow lights. We were standing in the living room. The enormous wood framed TV with a small screen, just like the one my parents had in their bedroom, was on softly. I couldn’t make out the picture but it was playing some old tinny song that I recognized. An ancient woman was sitting on the couch looking towards the television. She didn’t turn to look at us. I wondered if she was deaf.
“She’s in here,” Hank said. He wanted his wife to meet me. Meet the nice young man who gave him a lift. Hank led me towards the kitchen. We walked between the woman and the television, but she didn’t move an inch. She looked like a wax figure, melting slightly in the glow of the screen. As we walked by we screwed up the reception, the TV screen buzzed and distorted, first for Hank, then for me.
She was in the kitchen wearing a pink nightgown and holding a red mixing bowl in her arms like a baby. She was short and almost perfectly round. The nightgown came up above her knees, and loops of fat hung down from her thighs like a hound dog’s face. I didn’t want to notice that, but I did.
“Hank? Oh, you brought company. Hello! Who’s this, Hank?” She pointed her face at her husband and looked at me out of the corner of her eye. She began mixing whatever was in the bowl again with the fork she was holding. It went click-click-click-click-click.
“This is Ray…mond.”
“Hello, Ray!” she said. She was so cheerful. It seemed to me to be too late to be cooking something, but maybe I was wrong. It occurred to me that I had no idea what time it was. It felt very late, but maybe I was just tired.
“I have some bad news, honey. We got into an accident. Me and Raymond here. Completely my fault.”
She turned her head to the side like a sparrow. “Oh, no. Is everyone all right?”
“Yes, we’re fine. It was my fault. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Well at least you’re all right! That’s the most important thing. And you’re all right, Ray?”
“Yeah I’m fine.”
Someone was moving around upstairs. Hank and his wife looked at each other.
“Would you like some coffee, Ray?” She gestured with her elbow at the coffee machine on the counter while still beating furiously at whatever was in the bowl.
“No, thanks. I need to get going. I still have a ways to go.”
She looked disappointed.
“You know,” Hank said, “I think might finally get me a cell phone. If I’d’ve had a cell phone tonight, Raymond wouldn’t have to had come so far out of his way.”
“We weren’t far,” I said to his wife. “Just down the road. Fifteen minutes.”
“Jeeze, Marla. You should see the car. I busted it up good.”
“Well, I’m just glad everyone’s all right!”
The person moved around upstairs. It sounded like they were right on top of us. Marla set down the bowl on the drain board and wiped her thumbs across her forehead. She left behind a streak of something black. The person moved upstairs again, the floor creaking under their weight. We all looked at the ceiling. I wondered if they had kids.
“I had better get going.”
“Alright. Let me know if anything happens to your car, Raymond. You know, problems can show up later after these sorts of things.”
“Will do,” I said. I turned to Marla, who was making her way to sit at the table. “Nice to meet you.”
“Be careful,” was all she said as she dragged a chair out from the table and fell into it.
I crossed back through the living room. The old woman was still sitting and staring. She hadn’t moved an inch. I walked behind her this time. I stopped. I leaned forward to look at her, to get into her line of vision. I looked at her hands. They were folded on her lap, small and wrinkled. I left her sitting there. I looked up the stairs just before I stepped into the mudroom. It was completely dark up there.
I passed Hank’s car again and drove for about a mile. Then I turned around and pulled over by the place where we had made contact. I crossed the road. My breath was rushing out of me in a huge cloud. I watched it go up above my head and then dissolve. There was no sound except for the drag of my shoes on the pavement, then crunching through the snow as I approached Hanks car. I opened up the passenger’s side of the car and crawled through. It seemed somehow colder in his car than outside. Everything was so damn still, nothing was moving. I watched my breath smash against the windshield over and over. “Let’s go, let’s go.” I said. “Step on it.”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket. I was hoping whoever had called at left a message, but there was no message, no number.