John thought of the sound as a soft, in-drawn breath, a breath that was always taken in that last single second before the other sounds came. He heard it right before the shriek of tires pulling sideways against their tread. John would hear the police use the word “yaw” for the striated mark left behind on the pavement, and he’d start building it into his own descriptions almost immediately. “When you see yaw, you know they were going too fast.” Just like that.
The tires made a shriek followed by the boxy thump of the car fetching up solid, side-on, in a crumpling great pile in the ditch.
Then, the horn — and often, screaming.
The mailbox at the end of the driveway had his last name, Eckers, in precisely placed stick-on block letters. It was John and Mary’s second mailbox this year. Along the front of the property he could still see the places where he had planted a regimented row of seven maples. Only one of the original trees remained, its leaves in late autumn blaze, and it was the tree down at the very edge of the property. The rest had been sheared off by a red Suzuki Sidekick, three teenagers and the unforgiving shallow turn in the road just at the end of the driveway.
“Three times?” other people would ask at parties, disbelief making their voices rise high at the ends of their sentences. “Cars have crashed three times right in front of your house?”
“Third time unlucky,” John would say wryly, as if the sentence had just occurred to him, as if it was a bitter turn of phrase that had sprung just then from quick personal reflection, and then he’d start talking about the sounds, the smells.
He had spent two days planting the trees — staking out the straight line, digging the holes, preparing the wet clay with buckets of topsoil so the trees would have at least a chance to get started and eventually grow into a stately line. He imagined the trees as much more than saplings, imagined Mary looking out the big front windows on the front of their bungalow, watching for the bright yellow of the school bus through the tightly woven leaves, waiting for it to pull to a stop. Every time, he imagined she had a dishcloth in her hands, imagined she was working the damp fabric around something as she stared out through the glass. The house was well back from the road, a small three-bedroom ranch, just one of dozens like it along the narrow highway.
No kids yet, but they were hoping. It was a hope that he almost had trouble figuring out. It was, he thought, as if he and Mary needed some particular completion that they just couldn’t find otherwise; that they felt there was something missing, something they kept looking for, and that they had loosely decided must rest in starting a family.
In an offhand way, he thought it was like the trees. Other people had trees, big, tall, dignified trees like footnotes to their complete and satisfied lives. It’s what you get when you’re diligent and careful and you plan ahead. Like children — and then grandchildren. Get kids, and then you get grandchildren too. He’d tried to explain that to Mary as if it was all a given, but she didn’t seem to get it at all.
Sometimes, he imagined himself as an old man, raking up the fallen leaves around maple trunks as thick as a man’s waist. He had planted the trees far enough apart to take that into consideration, and he had researched how much space a mature maple needs, reading up on different tree species before making his final choice. He imagined kids running around too, kids who could safely be packed up at the end of the day and sent home.
The Suzuki ended any chance of that. Late on a Friday night, the car spent its last few seconds in the air, completing a shallow but complex barrel roll to the right. John found out later it was three clean, tight and acrobatic rotations, while inside the metal box everything flew around along its own personal imperative, physics moving scores of things in hundreds of directions. A dozen beer on the back seat didn’t manage to escape the cardboard confines of their box, but every single bottle broke its neck hitting the roof of the car, a roof that was now sharply lower after the touchdown on the first spin. A carton of paperback books in the back, taped and Magic Markered and designated for a church sale, burst their bounds and the books battered around inside the back of the car, fluttering wildly. All the floor mats leapt up an inch or two and then settled topographically back into ridges and valleys, the dips catching the diamonds of safety glass from the broken side windows.
John would find the spare tire the next morning, almost up to the side of the house, long after the wrecker had dragged away all the other pieces.
One of the teens left the car too, winding up spreadeagled on the lawn, but it was the firefighters who found him. John didn’t even realize the teen was there until they’d put the boy on a gurney and brought him down the driveway.
The crash was, John decided, the most gruesome thing he had ever seen. He and Mary had been in the living room, watching television, when the Suzuki first left the road. For just an instant, Mary had reached across and set her hand on his wrist, but John was up off the couch in a moment, looking out at the black silhouette in the yard, backlit by the street lights, the car’s headlights still pooling on the grass.
When he was out the door and standing next to the wreck, his pulse hammered quickly in a not unpleasant way, and he could feel it tripping hard in his ears.
Mary stayed in the house.
To be continued…