Paul Schimmelpfennig, Waterville, VT
Driving home from work at Johnson's Auto Parts, Jim Duffy took it slow and easy on the winding Hogback Road. Andy Whitelaw was with him. He was complaining about his wife's cooking, just getting around to her salads in fact, when a motorcycle roared past them, right where the road curved around a bend of the Lamoille River.
"Wow, you see that ?" Andy said.
"Jesus, right on a curve."
"And you know what," Andy said, "We would've been right in on the smash-up. Anyway, like I was saying, you wouldn't believe all the weird stuff she's been putting in salads ever since she's been watching those food shows. Big blobs of goat cheese, warm goat cheese, then black sesame seeds all over."
"Doesn't sound all that bad," Jim said.
"Okay, how 'bout when she throws in these caper berries, these big-headed capers with stems, look like freaking tad-poles. Sends away for 'em. All the way from Michigan. I were you, Jim, I wouldn't get satellite, not worth it, 'cept for ball games."
"Too late," Jim said, "Sally"s already signed us up, even bought a new tv, one of those flat screen ones, been on a buying spree ever since her mom died, tv, new leather couch, new kitchen set and quilts. Just loves quilts. I get home and all I see are these vintage quilts hanging on the walls, I tell you the place is kind of closing in on me, zigzag patterns everywhere, turkey tracks, drunkard's path, flying geese, makes me dizzy just walking around."
"Whoa watch it," Andy said, pointing to a cow in the middle of the road.. "That's one of Roger Mann's I bet. Always getting away from him. Yep, That's him, running toward us, Jesus he runs as funny as a cow."
"Damn thing's not budging," Jim said, honking the horn. "Lucky he didn't get run over."
"Now he's moving. Now's your chance."
Jim honked again as he drove past the cow and the farmer coming up the side of the road. "I don't feel like saying hello," he said, "things we got to put up with, damn cow in the road."
"Doesn't Roger hay your meadow?"
"Nope. Sally called him off, told him we gotta keep the grass high, 'til August anyway."
"Hell," Andy said, "that's two months away."
"On account of that bird only nests in the grass, that bobolink."
"Ain't that the bird looks kinda like a skunk?"
"Yep and it's got the weirdest damn song, like a broken banjo, plink plank plunk. All the time. And now we can't mow, can't spray 'til it's finished nesting, Sally says. I always kept it cut nice for her mother and now we got weeds coming in like you wouldn't believe."
"Lot of folks into birds, these days," Andy said.
"That ain't the worst of it," Jim continued, "twice a week she goes into Burlington for this lecture series 'How Philosophy Consoles.'"
"Consoles. O boy. Like more than a new tv?"
"Goes into Burlington, picks up these notions and runs with them. Last week it was all about anger and frustration. Jim, she says, with life always playing these little tricks on us we gotta try to be cool, real cool, like stoic. This guy Seneca had it all figured out, she says. Seneca. Ever heard of him?"
"Guess he was some Greek philosopher. Anyway, know what she said after that car jack box fell on my foot? She said, you know Jim, it's not like that box INTENDED to hurt you."
"Well," Andy said, "the way you hammered away at it, maybe you did think that box had it in for you. Hey, maybe you should go along. Learn something."
"Yeah really," Jim said, slowing to a stop at the intersection with route 109. "Anything coming?" he asked.
"Nope," Andy said, "no cows, no cars, nothing."
"I don't know," Jim said, as he swung out onto the highway, "it's just that, according to her now, things can never get so bad that you can't think your way out of them, got answers for everything, every damn situation."
"Especially if you got some old zen fart backing up you," Andy said, "you can let me off at the post office, do me good to walk home."
"Post office it is," Jim said., "coming right up."
A man was running towards them waving his arms.
"Now what?" Andy said, rolling down his window.
"Godawful accident...just happened...cyclist plowed right into her...it's awful. Right up ahead."
Jim leaned over. "You called 911?"
"Yeah, she called, I mean she was too shook up, I called, She kept saying she couldn't see him past her furniture load.....oh shit here comes another car." He motioned to stop with outstretched arms.
"Andy, you get those flares out, I'll see what's going on."
Around the corner Jim saw a grey-haired woman sitting on the side of the road just sitting there, head in her hands. He saw skid marks zigzagging toward a red pickup in the middle of the road. Its load of furniture had spilled, a tricycle, chairs, cracked hall mirror, boxes of books strewn about, a love-seat with yellow and blue daisy pattern teetered on the edge of the truck bed. The cyclist was pinned underneath the truck. He lay on his side his arm embracing the twisted wheel of the motorcycle, forefinger extended as if trying to dial a bent spoke. His helmet was wrenched around his face, half covering his mouth and he was trying to breathe, he was making a slurping gurgling sound. Pushing debris aside, a small tv, old medicinal brown bottles, a toilet seat, Jim knelt to the cyclist. Rivulets of blood were running from the cyclist's legs pooling around the edges of a dented lamp shade. "Yeah, that's it," Jim said, "give me another breath, one more breath, you can do it. Gotta get the damn helmet off so you can breath, gotta get all this shit off you and pull ya out, can you hear me," he said pulling at the chin strap. He heard a voice behind him.
"What the hell you doing? Don't you know anything?" A man, a round-faced man, bald except for a ring of curly hair, was yelling at him. "You start moving anything, you could paralyze him, you could kill him, don't you touch nothing here! Its Willy, Willy Jacobs. I know him. He'd rather be dead than paralyzed. Here, move aside, give me some room."
"We don't do something quick, we'll lose him, He's bleeding something bad."
"We ain't doing nothing til the medics come. Can you hear me Willy? It's me Johnny Allen, medics are coming Willy, can you hear me." He turned to Jim. "I don't want you moving anything, that's the first rule, I know about these things." He held his arms out over the cyclist.
"Okay, okay. he's all yours," Jim said. As he got up, his head banged into the love-seat. "Jesus Christ," the round-faced man said, "watch it."
In the crowd that had formed, Jim didn't see Andy anywhere. A man was putting a blanket around the woman at the side of the road. Another woman was holding her hand. Jim turned. Someway was asking him a question. Something about blood. Somebody was telling him he should move his truck. In the distance he heard the wail of a siren. He walked back to his truck, got in, sat there a few seconds, got out, got back in, then drove off, eased past the accident, past others running to the scene, didn't even pull over for the oncoming ambulance, the sheriff's car, a fire truck, just sped on home, spitting gravel up his driveway, shuddering to a stop in front of the house and open meadow.
He stayed in the truck, reclined the seat, settled back, closed his eyes. What should he have done? had to get out of there, just couldn't stick around, watch people do nothing but gawk. Andy's probably wondering why he took off. Should have resisted the bald guy, should have tried to pull the cyclist out. Do something more. Maybe not though. Maybe the bald guy was right. All that blood. And that sound, that gurgle in the man's throat, same sound that deer made, the one Andy had shot, and all that blood, all that stuff everywhere. We really are at the mercy of things, he thought. Everything catches up with us.
There was a tap on the window, Sally, giving him a naughty boy look. "Jim what are you doing in there? Listening to a ball game or something? Aren't you coming in? I've been trying to decide about dinner."
He pulled up the seat, rolled down the window. "Didn't you hear the sirens? There was an accident, a bad one, Andy and I, we were....we were first ones there."
"For god's sake, you're alright aren't you? What in the world happened?"
"Cyclist racked up, it was awful, didn't you hear the sirens?"
She opened the door. "No ... but come inside, don't just sit there."
"Poor bastard skidded into a pickup full of furniture, pulled him right under, probably going too fast. Maybe it wasn't his fault though. Maybe it was. I tried to help. I don't know. Maybe he'll make it. No I don't think so."
She knelt down, reached for his hand "Jim, don't you want to come inside?"
"Not quite yet."
"Not quite yet? All right," she said, getting to her feet. "All right. I'll be inside. You sure?"
He nodded. And she touched his shoulder, turned, walked with folded arms back to the house, slowly went up the stairs, stopped, looked back, then went inside.
After a few minutes Jim got out of the car. His foot ached. Blood, there was blood on the cuff of his pants. He steadied himself on the fender. He didn't want to go inside. She'd want to talk, of course she'd want to talk. They should talk. They had to talk. But there was something about what he had just gone through, something in all its pure raw awfulness he didn't want to give up right away, didn't want to share, didn't want diluted by talk. She'll say there was nothing he could have done and she'd be right. Then again she'd be wrong. Should have stayed, should have stayed , he thought. Might have been a man's last moments. And she was waiting inside with answers, ancient answers. He stood there listening for the sound of a siren going back. But all he heard was a scratching noise in the leaves and birds calling, birds singing, chickadee chatter, a rhythmic teacher/teacher see-saw song nearby, in the distance the trailing melody of a thrush, clear as a flute, and now, as he moved away from the car, the call of a bobolink, that crazy, chaotic jumble of notes, all bubble and gurgle and twang, my kind of song, Jim thought, as he watched it flutter and quiver in circles over the overgrown grasses of his meadow.