The Collision Therapist
Friday. A morning light that makes sense to the rational mind. And then a rush of the early chill that most people sleep through. The fuse must’ve blown again, because there’s no electricity in the bedroom. The yard is always sopped with rain, though I never see it fall. March has come already. So this is how the years move.
A bird, a very red bird, is sitting on the lampshade, swallowing something. Its head bobs and twitches, and it blinks its hard, round, little eyes at me, and I decide it is a cardinal. With its bright feathers and black mask, the cardinal looks like a party guest or a strange burglar. I don’t want to disturb the bird, so we watch each other for a while, and I wonder how it got in.
The bathroom is dark and crowded with the close echoes of my movement. I splash my face with water, feel the tile under my feet, and allow myself to worry about blood pressure before I wander downstairs. The cardinal just wants to be warm, and flits to the opposite corners of rooms as I walk through. One of the two guppies is missing from the bowl in the downstairs hall. At the sight of the bird, the remaining fish dashes, frantically silver, discovering glass again and again. The air is very cold.
When I turn the corner into the living room, there is a car parked at the coffee table, between the love seat and the recliner.
Plaster and splintered wood and shattered glass are scattered across the rust-colored carpet. Dust and powder film the room, and the north wall is gouged wide and collapsing. Instead of the maple bookcase and standing mirror, I see the sudden landscape of my lawn, and beyond it, the road, and the church at the end of the block. Another bird, a plainer one, flies in from outside.
The car is large and quiet in the closed, earthy maple of the living room, and the hood is cool. ‘66 Chevy Caprice, navy, hardtop, and the driver-side door is open. I must have slept through the impact.
Tiptoeing outside in my felt slippers, I can see the long, muddy grooves in the grass, starting at the corner of my neighbor’s curb then diagonally across my lawn. The crumpled splinters of pine where the fence between us had been. In my early years as a claims adjuster, I studied enough photographs to know by these tracks that the axle was fine and the tires hadn’t blown. I turn back to my house, to the car inside of it, and bend down to confirm that the car is standing straight up; the tires are firm, aligned, and still appear well-inflated. There is a good deal of lateral crumpling around the front two wheels, but all in all, the car is in considerably fair shape for having slammed into a house.
Sliding ridges in the mud prove the brakes had been used, at least slightly, so it was probably a steering problem. Likely alcohol related. Bob Kaiser, the neighbor, is smoking a cigarette and surveying the damage from his driveway, through the ragged gap in the fence. I assume Bob was just about to rush over to see if I was alright.
“Some drunken teenager there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Bob says, smirking with his moustache as I stumble out to join him. He is ruggedly bald and wearing a red-flannel robe. I have seen my neighbor’s white chest through the laundry room window, his thick, short-nailed hands holding the babysitter by the ankles. From the privacy of my desk, I have seen him in local chat rooms, cooing at junior varsity creatures that end their names with an I. Lynn, Bob’s wife, is tall, trim, and plain, and smiles a lot to hide her partial-deafness.
Bob and I have a healthy neighbor-dynamic. Sometimes I see Bob readjust his sprinkler to catch my rose bushes. We borrow batteries from each other, and sometimes Bob brings me leftovers after holidays. He talks loudly about high school football and punches my arm harder than he should. Perfect neighbors: he, deviant in his love of the body, and I, the same in my love of the mind. I used to chase strays out of Bob’s yard. Yell loud enough and a neighbor will look outside and notice your civic kindness.
Last month, I found the pressure pump Bob uses to spray his aluminum siding on my porch to borrow. A note saying I didn’t owe Bob anything. I walked over to Bob’s yard, stepped in the manicured grass. There were no dogs, but I yelled and shook my fists. I picked up a large stick and waved it over my head and dashed it on the ground like Moses. Bob came, mug in hand, to the window, saw the marked direction of my anger, assumed the canine threat had been fended off again, and admired the fidelity of neighbors.
“Didn’t even hear it happen, Henry. Guess he hopped my curb on the turn,” Bob says now, turning and pointing out the obvious with his cigarette. “He plowed straight through the damn fence and hydrangeas there, and then bingo.” He frowns at the broken fence on the ground. Construction boots keep his feet dry.
“I told you we should have thrown in for brick.”
I scramble to understand what he means, realize he’s referring to a discussion we had held about the fence last winter.
“But I understand,” he blows smoke. The skin above his eyes furrows in the anatomy of polite concern. “Things have been kind of tight for you since—you know—that thing with Helen.” I assume he means my divorce a year and a half ago. “What was he—an airline… something…?”
“A pilot. Helen said he was a pilot.”
“Ah.” The brow cannot cease its concern. There is an uncomfortable pause, and I try to digest the whole situation, the two worlds of the thing, my home bleeding out into the neighborhood, the neighborhood, undammed, tumbling in across my living room.
The rear bumper and taillights of the car have begun to catch the morning light. A large chunk of plaster falls on the trunk, and the car jostles on its shocks. It looks heavy and determined, a bear pillaging an empty campsite. I notice Bob studying the wreck with new interest.
Looking back, I finally notice it. Blood rivets through my shoulders. The license plate. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it as soon as I came around the car; the white metal glows across the morning lawn, like a candle in the window that used to be there:
I read it five, six, seven times, convinced I can’t be reading it correctly. RAPIST.
I want to dive in front of Bob, not let him see it, but I can’t, and he probably already has. I stand nakedly, cold. I realize I’m staring and that my mouth is open. I can’t understand the bed-wetting kind of shame I’m feeling. I’ve done nothing wrong.
My feet tremor, trying to walk me casually in front of him, but I can’t move. Is this what happens? Really? What time is it? How sure am I that I’m even awake? It kills me to stand there, to feel the seconds glister by. Move, go, just walk, just two steps. Why can’t I do it? I can’t tell if he has seen it. RAPIST. I wait.
“Well,” Bob says, laughing around his cigarette, his eyes tracing and retracing the hole punched in the face of my house. His eyes are red with hangover. It is as though he can see through the hole and into everything that had ever happened in there. I stand in my place in the mud. Certainly he can read the license plate. RAPIST. I make a conscious effort to keep myself from looking back at it. “That’s a hell of a thing to happen, neighbor. We’ll probably have to take the whole fence down before it’s all over.” He nods at his own domestic wisdom. “You should probably go make sure your breakers are off. Looks to be even the studs are too mildewed to burn, but better safe than sorry.” He puts one hand in the pocket of his robe and the other stays at his mouth, dragging on yellow smoke. He is chuckling, shaking his head, the red eyes sliding over the wreck again and again.
The dogs haven’t been around for months, and I suspect they were finally disposed of by the city. But I will chase them away again, the next time I need to return a favor.
I am trained for this, I think. Licensed and certified by the state, at least. Calm down, zoom out, and apply. Five even breaths. Five more.
Collision therapy, step one: normalize the trauma. It is important for the patient to feel as though others suffer comparable feelings, from comparable experiences.
(This city is full of people bent on paved paths to point B. Sometimes, the verge or pace of these paths disturbs our exclusive orbits, compelling the worlds of different people to come into contact with one another.
In a violent, splintering collision.
I happen to know there are several support groups where people just like you call each other by their first names; sometimes they have cake raffles. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to. Your progress is dictated solely by your own comfort. Of course, to direct you, we will need to meet every other week, on an individual basis. And if you are experiencing any soft-tissue discomfort, even the slightest stiffness of the neck, I recommend Dr. Thorn across the street at Gabriel Medical. His wife is one of the leading prosecutors in the county; make sure to tell him I sent you.)
Step two: juggle oranges for eight to ten months; maintain a profitable but believable therapist/patient rhythm. Tease the patient with progress, and then crumple in stern disappointment. Every other week.
(Until next we meet, try to concentrate on the little things that shape your mood. An automobile accident can be many things to any person. See it as an opportunity to adapt. Take up painting. Stop or start smoking. Join a church. Get more involved. Get less involved. Get the skates out of the closet. Make an obscene gesture at an infant when no one is looking. Stop eating white foods altogether. Find your place; you have survived. You are the captain of your own destruction.)
Step three: Et cetera. Be creative. At some point, evaluate the patient’s quantifiable damages and nominate some resulting mental ailment for the insurance claim that sent them into your office in the first place. Remember, mental anguish is neither testable nor scalable, and its diagnosis from a specialist is virtually beyond tasteful suspicion. Anguish is the goldmine, the soft-tissue damage of our field. And that’s about the whole idea. Here’s your license, certification. No one is looking.
It is uncomfortable to drive without a license plate. Everywhere, the stagnant movement of automobiles. Since the divorce, I do not own a car; I am not registered; I am not insured. No life, health, auto, homeowners. Nothing. Only seventeen-hundred left in the checking account. I cannot afford to get pulled; I cannot afford to be noticed. Get through the lights, park the car in storage, take a bus back. I’m surprised the Caprice moves at all. The car must feel it has more to do in this world.
The corner of Jupiter and Garden. I turn left. The wheels creak in their wells.
Two minutes ago, I found a handgun in the glove box, mostly loaded, with the serial number filed down. It’s still in there because I wouldn’t touch it. Too late now. The moment I rattled down the road away from my house, I’d eliminated the option of ending all of this legally.
The gun bothers me. I should probably get rid of it. I’ll think of that later, with the car safely in storage. McDonald’s bags in the floorboard, scattered change and receipts, a mangled atlas. Nothing, however, to hint at the identity of the owner.
I’m no longer insured. Once I was; and as recently as two months ago I had even worked for them. But two months ago is a wide mile from this morning.
So, I got a screwdriver out of the kitchen and removed the license plate. RAPIST. I didn’t want to put my skin against it. Simple white metal, no logo, no state, probably some sick novelty plate. I don’t even know where you would go to get a thing like that made, or what kind of person would put it on their car. I quickly tossed it in the trunk, and piled on top of it the rubble from my broken living room. As I was doing this, Bob backed out the driveway next door, on his way to work. He rolled down the window and asked when the police were coming to look at the fence. I tried to look unoccupied and fed him some vague lie; he’d be at work until six and would know no better. After he was gone and when the trunk was full, I crammed the back seat with the rest of the broken spars, shattered glass, and clumps of plaster. There was a stiff, dark red stain, about the size of a dinner plate, in the back seat. I looked at it for a full second and then just covered it. The sun was almost all the way up by then, and I didn’t have time to worry about it. I drove out across the lawn.
The car has a smell that is strange to imagine someone else may’ve been used to.
Get the car to storage. Small roads. I approach Prather Avenue and turn left, straight into dead traffic.
Uniform acceleration. Round peg for a round hole. It would take a hive mind. But anything is possible on computers. I’m nine, maybe ten, cars behind. With the green arrow, I’ll creep up maybe four car-lengths. If everyone would calm down and think, we could make it better for ourselves:
Ten cars dead-stop in a line behind each other. Ten different feet hit their respective accelerators at the exact same second with the exact same pounds-per-square-inch pressure, flushing identical fuel through identical fuel injectors in identically crafted engines. All ten cars begin to roll at the same moment on identically diametered tires, with the same comfortable, steady, premeditated acceleration. Not even the slightest collision. With seconds to spare, all ten cars could pull past the green arrow and drive away toward other places.
Uniform acceleration. Ants have tried to show us for years. Computers can make it possible. I’d love to smile and lean on my horn. But I must not be noticed. Just once maybe? A single indulgence, then, just to cool the rage. To brake, to crumble anonymously, to laugh, hopeless, with those dreaming in grids.
Now a waiting period. For what, I’m uncertain, maybe some viable course of action. An opportunity I can stomach. I am not sure what compels me to feel it coming, but a sense is eerily and undeniably present. I have nailed three tarps across the hole in the face of my house. When I am in bed, the foundation makes grave sounds, dull, threatening creaks. I lie awake and listen with cool blood, like a reptile in a shrub, waiting out the night. In the day I bake a few things and I take to the long overdue process of organizing my office. I turned off the power for the living room, but switched the rest of the breakers back on. I never stop thinking about the car.
Bob has come over twice so far, to establish a plan for fixing the fence, no doubt. He’s getting impatient. I stand still in my hallway, in the shadow of the grandfather clock, and he peeks through the folds of the tarps, calling my name for a while before he swears and walks away. Late last night, an unfamiliar silver SUV dropped him off at the curb. Foreign model, maybe Korean. The headlights were off as they pulled up. A woman with long brown hair was driving. How dare he peek in here. I want to cave him in with an axe.
My office: a guest bedroom that Helen and I had talked of turning into a nursery in a few years. Four months’ suspension and two months’ unemployment. It has been half a year since life has touched the room. I rifle through the drawers whose keys I find, and through accordion files, stacked boxes. Rummaging through countless patients’ case files, I can’t rationalize a single one of them being responsible for the car. My claims record is far from spotless; I failed more than a dozen slighted victims in their goal of collision compensation, but to no degree of insult or ignorance that would warrant this kind of retaliation. Especially now, many months or years since.
I find my old Pentax camera from grad school and stow it aside. Every once in a while, I unearth some miscellaneous gift from Helen, a sculpted coffee mug, a paper-plate monthiversary card. On Sunday mornings, she used to walk down to McKellan’s and pick up donuts and two New York Times, so we could eat breakfast and race each other on the crossword. When she won, she would run in here and tape her accomplishment to the file cabinet.
The trash bags belch onto the floor and I gather and tie them, heap them on the curb while Bob is away. I find myself sitting in the lightless living room for hours at a time. I grow a preference for showering in the dark. The heater remains on at all times, unable to regulate the cold creeping in.
Ex-wives are difficult to confront, even in dreams. Maybe this happens to a man like you because of a misdirection of blame. Maybe you see the dreams in black and white, too:
Your house, one summer evening with Helen. She can’t just sit on the bed—like she wishes she were on the ceiling or outside running away from there—but she does. The dreams sometimes curdle into the real details, and it might as well be happening again. She twists and seethes like a viper.
Or would it be easier the other way? Before mutual knowledge. The way it was, when you would come home early and hear your wife’s sex through the thin and ugly wall between your kitchen and the bedroom. You would leave and come back hours later.
She couldn’t imagine anything worth doing well. She couldn’t understand how seriously you take your job. Even her infidelity grew lazy, uninspired. She had a red radish garden and you were always crawling around the edges, copying the gestures from memory. You have to be on the right side; you have to be alert. Guard the mouth of the cave. It was not always that way.
She used to buy your favorite coffee and she used to water the plants above the sink. She used to ask what you were reading in bed, and she would run her fingers up the hair on the back of your neck. She looked at you more, back then.
You can’t be sure exactly when it started; grocery lists replaced innuendo when she called you at work. Then began the silent morning routines, me-time, the evening jogs, the dishes that nobody felt like washing, the discovery of virgin dresses, shoes, and jewelry still in their boxes. Receipts and mail began to disappear, weird bank statements.
And then finally there was that evening: you knew and she knew, and she sat on the edge of the bed and looked like she wanted to jump out the window, and then there were screams and domestic marginalia shattering on walls, and then a suitcase and the diminishing squeal of wheels on wet pavement, first down the driveway and then down the road, and the next week there were papers to sign and a house to continue to live in. Or fix it up enough to sell. It seems to happen so fast, but maybe that is because you held on for so long after it was dead. Like you slept through it all and woke to find the damage.
Concentrate. There is a ghost in the dreams sometimes. You can never be sure through the shrouds. It wisps and wanders with a ghost-wind and moves books from their shelves. It takes you seriously. It is very cold and cannot move in ways that men move.
Sometimes when it comes at night, there is a light with it—and it will take a long time to rub the image from your lids after it is gone. The ghost takes a candle to the furniture, and the wood burns flash-fast, spreads, curling and strangling like hair. The ghost raises its arms and seizes you, and you are more elsewhere than you’ve ever been.
Then you are back. Back in a conventional, color-assigned world, back to your world, where hunger is very real, motorists obey signals of light, and it takes a thief to catch a thief. You’re back.
I’m back. Wednesday. I’m back and the rest fades. Or maybe Thursday. Forget the dream as it fades away. I will forget it as it fades. I will feel much better, fit to return to bed. I will not think of Helen or the ghost.
I can always stumble in here and feel the tile under my feet in the sharp morning hours. I can always come here and make this simple, sober connection with you, through the reflective glass that hides an empty box of band-aids, two-year old cough medicine and other drugs.
Thursday. Sometimes I go to the zoo to soothe my humanity. There is concrete and Plexiglas to divide me from the exotic danger of the animal kingdom. Everything primal is efficiently and copasetically neutralized. Nothing can possibly go wrong. The birdhouse is a transcendent experience.
There is an intricate wrought-iron gate. Foggy sheets of semi-clear plastic are fastened to the bars with industrial twist-ties. A plaque beside the door explains that the zoo has received several awards for advancing the captive husbandry techniques of pigeons and doves. I can walk inside with the birds. Once inside the birdhouse, patrons of the zoo will please stay within the designated path, keeping to the right. No loitering, no littering, do not feed the birds.
The air inside is cool and misty and there are ferns and vines and fronds, trees with trunks that twist into natural caves. Small, unspectacular birds poke around on the circular dirt path that winds out and around and back. From the shrubbery, from all directions, perched everywhere along the curling branches of every tree, there bubbles up the tittering peeps of small-minded, kernel-eyed little bodies.
Why would someone put that on their car? The handgun in the glove box. The stain on the back seat, looking like the remnant of an over-tipped plate of spaghetti. That strange and indescribable smell.
Less and less, I have been able to cope with the idea that whoever put these things in their places has been inside my house.
Perhaps only briefly. Perhaps he stumbled out the driver’s side door and over the wreckage into the lawn immediately after the crash. But perhaps not. Maybe he lingered behind, looking at the pictures above the hearth, studying the people-shapes ground into the upholstery of the couch. Maybe he crept to my refrigerator and helped himself to the milk. Or maybe the collision hadn’t thrown the breakers at all; maybe he had thrown them himself, right there in the kitchen, on his way to find me. Maybe he was on the top stair when he heard me washing my face that morning; maybe only then did he panic and flee. Why not? That person had been in my house. He had only to take the hallway to the stairs, the stairs to the landing, and the landing to my bedroom, where he would have found me sleeping. After all, even the cardinal had done that much.
Inside the birdhouse they all watch me, as they always do, with wet, black, head-cocked eyes. They hop and bob on the path near my shoes or onto branches near my face; they cock their brown or red or grey or white tails or rustle their wings and issue breathless streams of language that they seem to think I should know. Something urgent.
I believe deep down that the crash had been an accident. I can’t imagine that anyone would intentionally ram a house in a plan to creep in and kill someone in their sleep. It was probably some criminal or junkie of some kind, belting around the bend of the road too fast. Most probably there was a brief, early-morning while, as the dust and plaster settled, when he and I both calmly slept under my roof. When he came to, he would have been mortified—one with this much to hide would live apprehensively—and fled.
None of the birds are listening to each other, so they must be saying the same thing. Every visitor must be something novel and fearsome all over again. I wonder if this song might be a prayer or a plea.
I try to assign comfortable scales to the song, but it becomes louder and closer. I can’t distinguish bird from bird, and I try to find some simple sequence of notes, but the chattering just garbles and it grows and swells like something feeding. I feel I have inhaled a bramble of wheat or hair. It’s something, something urgent. I try to calm my mind, I try to breathe. Zoom out and apply. The crash was definitely accidental. Absolutely accidental. I had surveyed the scene. Even the tracks in the mud had proved the brakes had been used. The sliding ridges in the mud.
And then a thought hits me—hits me hard—as hard as the license plate had hit me when it caught the morning sun. A weird choke of surprise escapes me, and it is a sound that does not belong in the birdhouse.
Something, a wind, forces against my neck and chest, trying to sweep me back. A handful of birds somewhere to my left explodes into flight, and in a second, everywhere around me is sweeping with bodies, wings, and voices. I am plunged in waterless rapids.
I hurry down the path, shielding my eyes, pressing through the feathery river of voices. They thump and prick into my arms and sides. One tangles in my hair and I slap it away. I run back through the doors, out into the shade and sun, and the world stops moving me with it. I keep walking, straight and firm and brisk, like a man with a briefcase. Peripherally I catch a few younger people pointing toward me and laughing. I used to draw some sense of peaceful validation in the birdhouse.
I hadn’t noticed the license plate immediately. I have been conditioned to look for the chronology of accidents, perhaps too much so to notice the other things. But I had stared at the mud—I remember that—studied the mud, the traction of the tires. The lawn was a soggy mulch from the rain. It hadn’t occurred to me then to look for footprints. I can’t imagine not noticing them. I hadn’t noticed the license plate immediately. But I had noticed it.
I would have noticed footprints. I don’t believe there were any there. It probably doesn’t mean anything.
Outside and across a paved courtyard, the trumpeting swans sound like foreign traffic. Beside the swan pool, a sheet of fastened plastic protects the zoo’s informational poster in the event of rain: “Trumpeter swans choose a mate for life.”
I brush the down off my shoulders and sleeves; I pick it out of my hair. I try to think of the one mind guiding all those terrible, shouting, panicking birds. How hard would it be to sing in two voices? In twenty? In twenty thousand? It is nearing dusk, and I exit the zoo gates with heavy iron bones, thinking about mud.
It chills me to imagine it. He had to come all the way across the living room, through my kitchen, my breakfast room, my laundry room and out onto my patio before following the steps down into the mud behind my house. Most of the prints have been washed away with the seasonal rain, but there is one brutally deep crater in the softest mud, just off the back steps, in the shape of a short-heeled boot. The impression is larger than my foot and filled with rain water. The rest of the partial tracks, or what appear to be tracks, lead off into the woods.
He probably went this way to avoid being seen from the road. It doesn’t matter much now; I will almost definitely never know who it was. But that he came all the way through my house just proves to me that he wasn’t bothered by who he might have met along the way.
The mauve Camry in Bob’s driveway tells me the babysitter is back this evening. He staples a note to my tarp:
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS VERY SOON. BOB.
Jesus. It’s. Just. A. Fence. And some sod, and some sod. Give me a hammer and a shovel and I’ll fix the damn thing. But Bob wants that insurance check. My god, my god, I’ll wreck him. Mulling over my neighbor, I’ve allowed myself a small variety of capture/torture fantasies, always in the smallest hours of darkness, always forgotten or ridiculous by dawn. But the tug is there, set in, like teeth and tongue in lust for meat. We pretend, but he doesn’t really know me.
Saturday. A party is not a place to sell your ideas. There is punch and there are chips and small disposable things. People from the office, mostly strangers, and they want to hold their drinks at their waists and laugh at social insights. I am not ashamed to admit that I come in hope of meeting a prospective client; I come to give the illusion that I am still on the payroll. Probably no one notices.
There are women more beautiful than my ex-wife, wearing dark dresses and wide smiles and expensive necklaces. Their hair is treated, pulled slick-back, stretching the scalp across the bone. Their laughter comes in mathematically predictable increments. They would all make excellent dancers, but no one is dancing.
Nobody wants to hear about a perpetually fluid traffic matrix, magnetically-navigated GPS autopilot systems, anti-collision guardrail microchips. A party is not a place to sell your ideas.
There are coaster-less martinis on the piano, and two gowned women from the claims department are trying to play a duet. I sip and listen to their carrying on. One woman is very blonde, and her teeth are very clean and white. She looks expensive. The other is not as pretty, but younger, looking happy to be here. The eyes are lovely with concentration. The women jumble on the tune and fall against each other’s bodies with laughter. The straps are long and thin, and it is hard work to find a freckle.
“Oh God, I think we totaled it,” the very blond one says, “what kind of collision package do we offer on Baby Grands?” Company joke, but the women laugh like roommates.
“Officer, I tried to hit the brake,” I say, stepping in, “but it just got louder,” and they notice me with polite but darkening eyes. I’m smiling back, but nobody’s saying anything. “You know, the damper pedal, like a brake, I guess.”
And the other says, “Ohh, Pam, like a brake, yeah, like a pedal—well it is a pedal, I guess.” Clinking of glassware is the party’s soundtrack to human connections. The sound twinkles from all sides and behind, a sound that people only notice in quiet lulls. I question my sexual ability to satisfy both of these women at once. I am relieved at the improbability.
When they ask my field and I tell them, the one named Pam is baffled by the idea of collision therapy. She works in auto insurance and has never heard of it.
I ask them what they think about the idea of multi-level highways. The very blond woman pulls her strap closer to her neck and blinks a few times, laughing. But business should be left at the office. A party is not a place to sell your ideas.
American men are supposed to protect their wives. They provide for their wives. It is the decent thing, as I understand.
A couple years ago, I brought a new SUV home from the lot, not unlike the brunette’s, but forest green, and parked it in the driveway as some sort of nonverbal testament to Helen. Before the American car industry hemorrhaged. The SUV was fashioned with driver, passenger, and side airbags, carefully engineered, bowing crumpling zones. In case of collision, the bucket seats were mounted on flexible rails to absorb shock and give with the vector of impact, and the insulated gas tank disconnected from the fuel intake to prevent explosion. Someone in Detroit pulled a star from heaven, the technology of an armored Panzer, priced for the middle class. It would shred the polymer bodies of Japanese sedans like a mortar through wet origami.
Helen took to it immediately, adopted it as her own. It carriaged her to and from the harmless outlets and throttled her through the downtown five-o-clock superclog. It was fine with me; as long as she was enjoying what I could provide, there was a certain nobility for a man of my profession to bike or bus to work.
Eventually, the SUV chugged her to her lover’s duplex, or remained vigilant in our own driveway, backed in and parked, as she wrapped around him in our bedroom. And that one night, when she left for good, it thundered her out over the edge of the curb, shredding the sod, and tore down the street. The Doppler Effect is never so awing or so tragically hilarious as when it fades in the raw shape of sudden marital failure. I say sudden, but it took me eight months to wake myself to it. I laughed then, the night the sound of the engine carried her away, and it took me a week and a half to stop altogether. I just wanted to protect her. It was just security. But somewhere along the way, the satisfaction of her needs bred baser hunger.
“‘Bread-baster hunger’? I don’t get it.” The younger blonde creature is hugging her elbows, eyes glassed, wide. My God, I’ve been talking the whole time. This is why I shouldn’t drink in public.
“I mean,” but what the hell do I mean? “The sport utility… utilized… her sport.” Gross.
“Forget it, it’s not funny.”
Bob is here.
I see my neighbor through a pane of glass that separates the parlor and the dining room. He is propped near the far wall, in a dark blue suit. Seeing Bob de-flannelled, making appearances, is strange. A beetle in a canopy bed. I can’t understand why he would be here—Bob works for some textile union in the downtown area, and his wife is a bank teller. He is sharing visceral grins with three other blue-suited men and eating something spread on crackers. Lynn, Bob’s wife, is nowhere to be seen.
I excuse myself from the quiet glances of the two women at the piano, and sit on an ottoman, watching Bob. I don’t believe he has seen me, but he must have guessed I would be here. I have nearly finished my drink when a slinky brunette walks in.
Someone, somewhere, touches a switch and the lights dim. Momentarily, I suspect a brown-out, but then I recognize it as an atmosphere for intimacy. More interesting things come from darker places. The ottoman is upholstered in suede, and I am too comfortable to move.
A young banana tree tangles in the corner to my right. The broad leaves stamp elephant-eared shadows on the wall. There is dried mud on the front of my shoes.
When the brunette walks in, the voices divert for a few moments, bouncing off the wall of her entry. I can see her through the pane. The woman is Helen to me for a long moment—but I finally see the soft curve of a foreign smile. She shrugs out of a long blue coat and hands it to an abashed door-jockey. Her shoulders make me feel seventeen.
She is still new to me. I do not know her—from the office or anywhere but Bob’s curb. In her white, strappy gown, she is all tied-down and shining, like a new sailboat. The dress bends with the luff of her steps, and she sets her easy course to the eastern wall. Where she parts the crowd, conversation withers and chokes, suddenly grey in her light. The men speaking to Bob are crimson-drunk, their age sagging over their collars, and they fluster and clog as the woman glides up and slips her arm into the bend of Bob’s elbow. He rocks back on his heels and gloats, as cool as a lizard. The twinkle of glassware slowly ebbs back into the room.
Monday. The sun is actually out for a while and Lynn takes the sad opportunity to go into her husband’s backyard and water the garden. It is about three in the afternoon and the silver SUV rolls up to my curb not ten minutes later.
I watch through the tarp as the long brunette steps out into the sun, shuts her door, and engages the alarm. She looks at my house for a second, and I wonder if she sees me. But then she walks primly across my yard, through the hole in the fence, and into Bob’s yard. I go to the kitchen and open the blinds. She steps up to his porch and knocks. Lynn is uncoiling the hose which is tangled around a dogwood; she has a straw hat on and she is not in a hurry and not looking up.
A minute later I hear Bob’s front door clap shut, and the woman is walking back to her car, pulling the tails of her jacket down. There is a small bird on the hood, and she says something to it before she gets in. The bird hops twice and takes to its wings.
Bob’s wife makes no sign of noticing the sound of the engine starting or driving away.
As of this morning, my neighbor has started using a different voice to call me through the tarp, and he walks around and looks in my windows, shouting. As I feared, he now expects my fictional insurance check to pay for his lawn and curb as well as the fence. I sit in the sink and watch his house through the slats of the blinds and I try to plan. I’m not sure what it is I’m planning; nothing solidifies. I can’t seem to roll out of this spin. The Caprice’s key-ring leaves marks around my index finger. I never disposed of the handgun, already filed, sheared, and sanded down to barest anonymity. Another note, stapled to the tarp, now a wad on the kitchen floor:
COME TALK TO ME BY THIS WEDNESDAY OR I’M CALLING THE FUCKING COPS. BOB.
Tuesday, now mid-March, and the clouds above tumble over and gush down. I witness it raining for the first time in ages. Down on me. The shrubs near people’s front doors tremble with its falling. It collects in the gutters and seeps into my soles as I try to make my way down Givens Street. It is deep night, and only people with equally dark secrets see me walking.
I had parked the foul-smelling Caprice in the church parking lot down the street from my home and waited well after sunset. Shortly after my neighbor’s bedroom light went out, the silver SUV rolled up. I followed them at a distance all the way past the Riverend duplexes in the Heights, to the Southwest verge of town. Roads I’ve never been on, old brick-faced mills and businesses I’ve never heard of. On seven occasions, Bob changed lanes or turned without using his blinker. And when they parked and rushed into the lobby of the Santa Fe Motel, I circled back and parked half a mile back at a Waffle House. It was beginning to rain when I locked the door and stepped away from the curb.
Now it pours. Taillights murk past me, going faster than I am, and I have a feeling of time warping around my body somehow. The camera cradled in my coat, the handgun jammed in my belt. Maybe I am in the ‘30s. Maybe I am in the now, but simply more alert than anyone else. Maybe it is the deepest of human night, only I have roused and will not rest.
I cut down Verdi Avenue, keeping the camera hooded in the dry, warm air beneath my coat. The rain sheets down. I step around the halogen street-lamp halos like a thing unholy. The biographies of the city pass around and outside of me; I pass on, blackly, as better people sleep. I know it, and there is no use in pretending otherwise. A devil drives now.
And at last, the Santa Fe Motel, two blocks down. She must be putting on a smile for him right about now. A fish, weighted and frozen under plastic. Even through the downpour, I see the silver smile of the SUV’s bumper, jutting out into the emergency lane.
I can hear an obnoxious game show blaring in the employee lounge when I enter the lobby. Smells like sandalwood candles. The desk clerk seems to have wandered off, so I help myself to the guest book. I am disappointed in Bob’s effort. An alias would at least have been challenging, something to tell my grandchildren someday. I must remember to fabricate one for him. Helen was never good at the creative side of it either.
I pull up my hood as the lobby door bangs shut on my way out. My legs almost refuse to move and yet I will them to. Uniform acceleration. Round peg for a round hole, step, step, step, step, and it works. They move and I am almost marching behind them. Room 214, then.
I stand on the lower walkway, just underneath the railing. It all happens so fast, I don’t adapt to the pace of it all. The room sits back in a dark corner of the interior courtyard, and there is no one around.
They have left the curtains open, perhaps for the romance of the rain. A Coke machine on the landing pours strange light in onto their bed, so what I can make out is murk-red through a runny sheen of glass and rain. No part of me is dry now. I am death-cold and ruined. If it were the ‘30s, DNA wouldn’t matter.
At the party she had been a thing of virginal awe. The way she had swept around the floor. All the straps and the white of her gown. As lovely as it is with Helen sometimes, in the greener, calmest dreams. Now, there is no gown, and my neighbor grinds against her like a pillowcase surging with meat.
I check the Pentax and the pistol, shake them of their dampness and pat them down with the inner armpit of my coat. A few blocks away, someone locks their brakes and slides, squealing down wet pavement, and I automatically sidestep behind the cover of stairs and ivy, though there is no clear view of the road from the courtyard. The unseen vehicle slides and drags on and on, a rubber scream on rain and road; I clench my hand around a rail, sure the punctuating impact will come. But there is no bristling crunch, and when the engine reengages, slides around some wet corner and begins to fade, I unhitch, settle back into my breath, and step free from the vines.
The murk-red cadence in the room has changed. His flesh no longer gyrates in rhythm, but is jerking, twisting unnaturally. I see a white leg kick out at a random angle, and something hard, a book, an alarm clock maybe, racks against the window and bounces away. The figures shift violently, and I can make out her ribs, the straining muscles of her shoulders.
She has him on his stomach, a knee planted in the middle of his spine, the bed sheet twisted around Bob’s throat, and she arches her body up and against it like a person trying to uproot a sapling. Bob’s head pries up and twists over until the wide pink bulbs of his eyes shout silently at the open window. There is nothing erotic in the bulged face, nothing but purpling horror and rage. He looks right at me, but there is no glimmer of recognition, and I doubt he can make me out through everything.
She just doesn’t have enough. Her torso starts to twitch and then to give, and she tries for a better grip on the sheet, but Bob lurches hard and bucks her completely. And then, the red shapes have moved out of view from the window, and I can hear blows and muffled screaming.
This doesn’t really change anything. Lynn, his wife, all mailbox and lunch sack grins in her partial deafness. The unwitting ranks of babysitters and barflies that have slithered under his fingertips over the years. I think of my ex-wife’s eyes; I imagine her voice, which I can only remember as brimming with anger or gasping through the kitchen wall; I imagine RAPIST and the unpunished men that have invaded my home, how the house moans at night with suffering. I think of my neighbor and his lover, and of the cold water on my neck and in my hair, sponging from my wet-lung shoes. How way has led on to way, as it does, to shape our momentum between collisions. To cast us here, on these fifteen feet of all the Earth, this night of any and all nights in our mostly separate histories. Sudden, geographical simultaneity is the leading cause of death and serious injury in our world.
I stand there, below the window in the dark and the rain. There is nothing, nothing that would ever turn out to be the hand of God for me, unless the RAPIST Caprice was really meant for, or driven by, my neighbor.
What is just must be carved with bleak tools. Grab for the wheel and steer into the skid like there’s something living in here. My eyes lock on their doorknob, my feet hit the steps, and there is no real plan, just the tug, the vector of impact. Bodies already long in motion, hurtling from the forces that have sent them, and predictably destined.
There is thunder, and the rain leaks into my eyes and mouth. I am a private citizen, holding a camera and a handgun. The storm could disguise anything.
Read more fiction in our current issue