John had approached the car gingerly, as if there were some need to treat the overturned vehicle gently. He could hear the exhaust system ticking as the metal cooled, the pace of the ticks slowing.
One of the teenagers left inside the car had been thrown upwards in virtually the same arc as the beer case. The stem of the rear-view mirror had taken out his left eye, but it didn’t matter. His neck was broken along the same angle as all the bottles.
The driver, meanwhile, met the steering wheel with his chest, the roof with his shoulder and the inside of the door with the ribs of his left side — except for his left arm, which flicked out through the broken window as if signalling a turn and then snapped as the car rolled smoothly over it. A Kleenex box and a dozen CDs had flown through the air, striking things and flying again. With the last thump, the glove compartment had burst open, vomiting paper and a windshield scraper and a spare house key that everyone in the owner’s family had been trying to find for months.
The first thing John noticed as he came down the driveway was how cleanly the tumbling vehicle had sheared off six of his seven maples. The mailbox post was snapped off at ground level. The mailbox itself, crushed, turned up underneath the car once it was finally moved.
In the minutes before the emergency crews arrived — Mary had called 911, standing in the front window like a black cut-out of herself — John decided both of the teenagers in the car had to be dead. He was wrong. The driver survived, as did the passenger from the back seat, the passenger who had popped out through the back window after the glass burst away and who had flown, wingless, to crumple in the grass.
John stood rooted in one spot when the fire trucks arrived, stunned by the lights and the noise and the rapid, clipped motion of the firefighters. He was still standing in the same place when the police, finished with their brief investigation, their measurements and photographs, stopped traffic in both directions so the wrecker, parked square across the road, could stand the vehicle back on its wheels, drag it back onto the road and haul the wreck away.
It seemed like it was over in minutes, but Mary told him he had been outdoors for more than an hour and a half. That was all she said. After that, she didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
John couldn’t understand why. He tried to talk to Mary about it, about the long gouge in the grass and the way the mailbox was carried along by the car and then pancaked flat, about the teenagers and the way they’d looked and the fact he hadn’t even realized one of them was launched clear and had been lying on the grass of the front yard like he was having a nap.
Mary listened for a few minutes, but as soon as she heard that one of the teenagers had died, she abruptly told him that she had no interest in hearing any more about it.
He found that somehow discouraging.
Mary was a small woman, and the two of them made an incongruous pair. Some couples look like each other, but John and Mary didn’t. He was tall and thin, with dark, straight hair, his face too sharp for his own liking. Once, upon inspection in the mirror, he had decided his eyes were too close together. Mary, on the other hand, was small and doll-like and perfectly balanced, with big eyes that always seemed to be perched on the verge of surprise. The difference between them actually made him uncomfortable. People, he thought, might look at them and find it hard to believe they belonged together, especially when they heard Mary talk, heard the way her words came out tiny and precise and high, like a child’s.
Although John never told her, he found hearing her thin, small voice when they made love both thrilling and somehow illicit, the same kind of forbidden pleasure, he imagined, as the idea of seducing a teen babysitter.
Maybe people just get used to looking at their families, he thought, and end up predisposed to liking someone else whose face falls into familiar lines and expressions. It wasn’t that way with Mary, so sometimes he found himself holding her hand desperately, or throwing an arm across her shoulders at a party, just to prove how made for each other they really were. Sometimes he just held her arm, his hand tight, oblivious to the fact that she wanted to shake free and couldn’t.
He took her out to dinner the night after the accident. And then he found himself talking about it all evening, words spilling out of him all at once. John felt the occasional stab of guilt for keeping her pinned in the chair, unable to just get up and leave because they were in public. But he kept talking anyway, and part of him enjoyed the way he could make her flinch with the more graphic details. Later that night he reached for her in bed, but she rolled away from him, curling in on herself, and before he fell asleep, he thought for a short, distracted moment that she might be crying.
To be continued…