Having bought a Sunday paper, I stood sipping coffee in our village store, absently staring through the plate glass window onto the street. I was conscious of the affable buzz of my neighbors’ palaver all around me. I couldn’t catch specifics of any conversation but I didn’t really try.
As I age, I crave such brief and peaceful moments, when somehow little seems of great importance. I savor the flow of the ordinary. That day I even felt content with the weather, which was scarcely the stuff of postcards or calendars: late winter’s gray, the mud-soiled dregs of old snow melting along the ditches into paltry runoff.
I wouldn’t have guessed it, but our little byway had kept a very few widespread patches of ice. Fate intruded, if that’s what you’d call it, and a stranger decided to touch her brakes precisely on one of those slicks and slued into the one tree anywhere nearby. A yard farther on and she’d have been safe.
You know how it is after shock. You can’t quite size things up right away. It’s like touching a strand of fence-wire that you hadn’t known was electrified. I stood unmoving a long, long time before going out to my truck and heading home the long way. From my house a mile uphill, I heard shrieks from ambulance and cruiser sirens.
Later, we’d learn the driver had died before reaching the clinic. I’d seen just her head as she lay against her window, almost as if she were napping. Or rather I glimpsed it before I looked away. A bird’s-foot bloodstain on her scalp would lodge itself in my brain, but not the driver’s features, so briefly had I looked on. I picture the ditchwater more clearly, dark as bock beer. What an odd image to retain.
To be sure, I felt sick, and felt my damnable helplessness, but although that crash happened years ago, I also recall a strange nostalgia as I drove away, an unaccountable memory completely unrelated to the horror I’d witnessed. What prompted it? I have no idea.
What could it mean that the memory arrived immediately after they hauled the victim off? I’ll never know. With each passing year, I’m further resigned to what an ocean of things I’ll never know. In the times I fetched back, bloodshed at worst meant knees scraped raw if we fell off our bikes. No one we cared about had died yet.
And we knew some wonders: our dad had restored a Model T Ford, which he shifted with pedals.
All of us children would clamor for drives as soon as the weather turned mild. For whatever reason, I found myself in that Ford again, along with my brothers and sisters and my father, still so gentle, so young, so alive.
Undying, they seemed, those springtime Sundays, June’s pastorale unscrolling itself, each tree we passed spring-laden with leaves, a few lush clouds above, a murder of crows flapping lazily by, hay still standing in emerald fields, white clusters of clover on either side of the road.