The latest crash was, without a doubt, the best story yet. John could tell the first time he told it. He could tell by the way his listeners’ faces fell, everyone standing in a small circle holding their drinks while the last barbecue of the year heated and smoked behind them, steaks forgotten. It was late in the year, the evenings already sharp and suddenly cold, the sky grey with impending sleet. There was always someone, John thought, who just couldn’t let go, who had to keep the summer going. So there were steaks and burgers, sweaters and jackets pulled around tight, and blue smoke blowing sideways away from the barbecue while John held a beer and talked gravely about the latest accident.
“So he cut the wheel back — and that was the right thing to do, cut the wheel back, and get out of the skid — but he went too far with it, and there was this dump truck,” John said, listening to himself as he talked.
Tone it down, he told himself, pull back — not so preachy.
“Not survivable,” saying it like a judge delivering a verdict. “I could tell that right away. You didn’t even have to run — nothing anyone could have done anyway.
“Crushed them right there where they were sitting, even the kid in the back seat. Hard to even tell what parts belonged to which body.”
John hadn’t even seen the bodies — the police had come and taped off the scene after the firefighter had pushed him back, closing the road and holding up tarpaulins when the firefighters started cutting the car into pieces — but nobody knew that.
John thought about throwing in a resigned shrug, then thought better of it. He caught a glimpse of Mary’s eyes, and they looked sharp and beady and black like a crow’s.
Afterwards, when they’d left for home in the car, she started talking, her voice low, her face fixed and straight ahead so that she was talking to him without ever looking at him. “You enjoy it too much,” she said. “All these horrible things that happened to other people.” Her hands were working in her lap as if desperately trying to find something to do, he thought, or as if she was afraid he might hit her.
“Don’t be foolish,” he said sharply. “I don’t enjoy anything about it.”
She didn’t answer.
“Really, how could I enjoy it? Do you think I like it, having to go down there again and again? The kind of things I’ve seen, Mary — you have no idea.” John could feel the roundness of the words filling him up and spilling out, their order rhythmic and patterned and familiar, knowing when to carefully let his voice fall and crumble a bit at the end of the sentence.
She hadn’t come out of the house, he thought, not even once, so she had no right to lecture him at all.
Mary watched his face out of the corner of her eye, recognizing the practised ease of his expressions flowing from one into another, an actor reprising his role.
“How could I like it?” John went on. “Do you think I like dragging some dead guy out of his truck to do CPR on him on the lawn? Having to go out in my own yard and find some teenager out there like a rag-doll roadkill or something? How could I like that, Mary?”
He loved that last little bit of alliteration — rag-doll roadkill — liked it so much that he’d used it every single time since the first time the tough-sounding words had accidentally tumbled out when he’d been
searching for the right description.
He was only pausing for effect, for breath, but she cut him off. “You’ve never done CPR on anyone,” Mary said quietly. “And you don’t have to do this with me.” She paused, but before he could say anything else, her thin, small voice said, “John — I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
The words were fine and distinct and set down formally in place like dishes on a dining room table, forks and knives in order, napkins square. Planned.
John stopped talking then and held the steering wheel tightly with both hands, telling himself that if anyone knew how important it was to stay focused when you were driving, it had to be him. After they’d driven a bit farther, he tried to reach across for her hand, but he couldn’t find it in the dark of the front seat. When his fingers grazed her wrist, Mary snatched her arm away.
Home, and the freezing rain that had been threatening finally arrived. The sleet was travelling through the lights outside the house in ragged sheets, and the last scraps of fall were being torn down from the trees and thrown around the yard by the wind. Sitting in the living room in the dark, John could hear the change in the tone of the raindrops, could hear the glassy flexing of the iced power lines moving in the wind. No salt trucks yet — they always get out slowly on a Saturday night, he thought. Bound to be slippery out there, and the turn is always sharper than it seems.
He quietly moved the muscles in his arms and legs, flexing and relaxing them, imagining each group of muscles getting ready to run. Mary washing her face in the bathroom, turning off the light, closing the bedroom door with what John thought had to be an accusing click.
He heard the wet tires of every passing car, imagining that he heard them spin and grip, and spin and grip again. And every time, as every car came closer, he drew in one long and quiet breath and held it, the way a sigh might sound in reverse. Waiting. Ready for when he’d be called upon.
After every car passed, he’d breathe again.