By Richard Fifield
Someone else is driving your car. He thinks this road is a video game, accelerates to sixty on the straightaways, slows for the sudden plunges, and your car rollercoasters and dips past reedy bogs. You step on an imaginary brake pedal. You are no tourist, you were born and raised here, you hate these roads.
This road is notorious, chiseled through mountains. On your left, a steep plummet to the Yaak River. To your right, ridges rise out of sight, emerge from a mighty ditch that is a dumping ground for road kill. Not just unlucky animals, white plastic crosses are riveted to stanchions, the Montana American Legion honors every highway fatality. One million acres of national forest, this northwest corner an eruption on a topographical map. Your birthplace has been christened by drunks and geniuses: Burnt Dutch, Red Top Cyclone, Pete Creek, Lick Mountain, Devil’s Washboard. You are thankful your mother gave you a normal name.
Jacob is driving, and you think you can trust him. There is no cell service here, eighteen miles from Canada, thirty from the Idaho border. This land is a secret to most people, primitive, unpredictable, occasionally vicious. This is why you left.
Today is the eighth day of the eighth month of the year, and numbers are important. You started counting ten years ago, when you got sober. Jacob has seventy-nine days, and in the backseat, Carl has four years. Your drinking days were a house on fire, left you with nothing. Some days, numbers are all you have.
You agreed to this camping trip, even though this place is bad luck. Your father was killed in a logging accident a few miles away, and last fall, your mother fell down an embankment and broke her leg. Shot a grouse from her truck window, slipped when she got out to claim the pile of feathers and gore. Your mother thinks she is a bird dog.
You are twenty years older than Jacob and Carl, and you tolerate the rap music and the reckless driving and the photographs at every tourist trap. They need proof they are alive and sober, need to document joy, capture it like an elusive beast. Now, Jacob parks your car at the Yaak Falls. They pose for your camera, perching on the very edge of the cliff, daredevils. The river behind them is frothy emerald and shocking white; this year’s premature summer has created an unusually ferocious tumult of water dashing against jagged shelves of rock, around sun-bleached boulders. These boys in your camera lens are just as unstoppable, determined.
Back in the car, the speed and the roads are making you sick to your stomach, and you distract yourself with your camera. You wish you could edit your life like this, apply a filter, crop out the tourist.
When Jacob swears, you look up. The curve ahead has disappeared, the road obscured by a thick plume rising up and blooming in the blue sky. Your first thought is wildfire. Jacob slows the car from sixty and your car penetrates the curtain, a storm of dust undulates as it rushes over. Now you are thinking rock slide. Jacob pounds the brakes, swerves to find the shoulder of the road, snaps the hazard lights to flashing.
Sheets of swirling earth settle and alight, revealing the highway once more. The collective breath in the car is caught, released. Waves of dirt and smoke to your left, the boughs of pines shudder. You fumble at your seatbelt; you dash from your car. The asphalt is like the surface of the moon, as your feet kick up powdery grey clouds. At the edge of the embankment, you stare down at a crash landing, a path flattened and torn through the brush. It is a twenty-foot drop, and as the veil of smoke lifts, it takes you a moment to see the pickup truck, tipped over on one side, groaning as it settles and comes to rest. You could swear the tires are still revolving.
Last night, you slept next to the river, but summer had turned. By midnight, your bedding was wet with deliquescence, dew. The temperature crashed, the stars glittered sharply in the cold. You asked yourself why you came back, why you returned here. Once you were a spectacle, a specimen. You did not belong, but here you are, a boomerang. Despite your expensive sleeping bag, you sought refuge in the bunkhouse. You dreamed you were back in high school. You woke up with a knuckle in your mouth.
The engine of the truck is ticking, and in books, something will soon explode. You follow Jacob and Carl, skidding down the bank, feet seeking purchase in the slide of shale, the knots of knapweed. You read enough non-fiction to know that this is an emergency. The boys are already at the truck, and they are shouting, but your eye is caught by something in the bushes. He rests in a copse of white pines, the smaller trees bending, crushed with his weight. Facedown, he floats inches off the ground, the brush has bent but not snapped. He is eleven, maybe twelve feet away from the truck. Distances are not your thing.
He moans. His shirt is yanked up beneath his armpits. He is overweight. The white collar bunches flat against the back of his head. His exposed back is raked with a field of thinly bleeding scratches. His stomach spills out on both sides of his blue jeans. You see a trembling there, respiration.
You speak to him. You speak in dialogue you have learned from books. Everything is going to be okay. Hold on. Don’t move, Sir. Help is on the way.
You have read this before. Sir. They always say Sir.
You leave the man, and step over broken glass. You are wearing flip flops, inappropriate shoes for a first responder. At the truck, the windshield is gone, remnants of safety glass intricate as lace, but the filigree has frayed. Loose ends of string catch the light. You peer closer. It is human hair.
There is a man in the driver’s seat, hung in the air, eye level. He is sideways, and his seatbelt strains as it keeps him from crashing down. Suspended, he stares through you.
Jacob scrambles up the embankment to flag down any passing cars, to send someone to find a landline, a phone to call 911. Carl’s face is blank, and you watch as he crashes through trees, traces the perimeter of the accident. He is looking for more bodies, but that is something you cannot say out loud.
The driver wears the same white button down, and you repeat dialogue someone else has written: Sir, help is on the way. You can feel the quotation marks coming out of your mouth.
The driver blinks, belches green vomit. Dazed, he tugs at the seatbelt, the vomit sliding down the corner of his mouth. Gravity pulls it to earth. You watch his hand fumble for the clasp, and you hear yourself screaming Don’t do it, don’t do it, but he bursts free, crashes down the length of the cab, comes to rest in the passenger seat, face mashed against the window. There was another passenger, but he performed a magic trick, a disappearing act.
Spray of gravel, as an expensive SUV brakes on the shoulder. You can see Jacob speaking to a woman on the passenger side, and you do not have time for small talk. Find a fucking phone. Imperious, this is your crime scene. You grew up with a police scanner, and it was another member of your family, squawking and squelching twenty-four hours a day, chatter from logging truck and semi trucks. Your mother was a volunteer dispatcher, and you know it could take another twenty minutes for a phone to be found, and another half an hour for help to arrive.
The man in the trees moans as you return, the low keening of an animal in misery. His body shudders, the white flesh shakes. Everything is going to be okay. Hold on, Sir. Don’t move. Your mind disassociates, takes nervous, frantic flight. You think about character development, you realize that you are not a sympathetic narrator. You recalibrate, and focus on your ankles, welted from the whip of tall grasses, scratched from low scrub brush. This is manly. But then you stare down at your painted toenails, in your cheap flip flops from Old Navy. Even your toenails are gay, and you are not cut out for a rescue. Your hummingbird mind flies.
You lower yourself, your bare knees rest in a patch of red clover. You crane your neck until you are nearly touching his shoulder. You wait for sounds of breathing, or wheezing, or another moan. But you are distracted by his jowls, puffing out from his face, fleshy, red, carpeted with white stubble. You can smell beer sweat, urine. You know this odor well. The seat of his blue jeans is soaked, his belt loops empty. An overweight man should always wear a belt.
You can’t seem to stay here. Your hummingbird mind flutters rapidly, you wish to remain in air. You do not want to light on reality. Times like this, you wish your life is just a rough draft.
Before your tenth birthday, you learned where to hide. You found safety in words, you crawled inside trashy novels and stayed there. You learned to see your small town as fiction, a terrifying book that was happening to somebody else. Now, you write novels for a living. But no matter how much you pretend, there is no story when it happens to you.
You hear another vehicle above, Jacob shouting, but you will not take your eyes of this man. You feel that it would be more bad luck. Doors heave open, and the air disquiets with a ding ding ding from the car’s interior. Behind you, a small avalanche as two women negotiate the cruel slope of the embankment. Voices. They heard it on the police scanner, help is coming, and don’t I know you from high school? This is all noise. If you keep watch, this man will be fine. The woman stands near you, explains who she is, and why you should remember. You do not acknowledge her, remain crouched. You are a dog who refuses to leave his master. Eventually, she joins the chorus fretting over the driver, and it seems they all have the same pages.
Blue jeans. You study his blue jeans. The back pocket barely contains a wallet, the folds reveal edges of dollars or receipts or Moneyball tickets. Leather, at least an inch thick. How do straight men sit on such things? You count to one hundred. Your mind wanders before you get to twenty, and you hear chickadees, meadowlarks, starlings. You prop your elbows in a pile of dried needles. You listen.
You think there is a sigh. A quiet exhalation.
Here is the tourist you cropped from the picture, shaking your shoulder. The women cry out, declare it a miracle. He is a doctor. Handsome. This is a plot contrivance in the second act, but you will take it. You rise to your feet. The doctor in still wearing his swimsuit, and he asks you questions you cannot answer. Checks vitals, requests items from his black duffel bag. Thankfully, Carl is there, trustworthy Carl, and he helps the doctor roll the man on his back. Now you see his face, and it is the face of every man from your small town.
The words finally leave your mouth, but the doctor has plugged his ears with a stethoscope. He was moaning. He was moaning. You wring your hands, fully inhabit your character: Panicked Gay #1. The doctor is moving too slowly. This is foreshadowing.
The doctor stands, his shorts still wet from the river. He hangs the stethoscope around his neck. He stares at you, steady. This must be his bedside manner. The doctor believes this man is your relative.
He’s gone. Another line from another book. He speaks to you evenly, and you nod to let him know that you understand.
You back away from the man in the trees. Now he is the body.
Minutes ago, he’d served as the subject of a sentence. Now he is just an object on which to hang adjectives. You know you must take notes, because you always take notes. Red badge on his white shirt, sewed on, threads frayed, one corner of the embroidered cross peels away. VFW. The t-shirt underneath is yellowed. He looks like the man who bats twelfth on your softball team. He is older than 50, and younger than 80. This is a man who spent money on his grandchildren, and not on his teeth. The pores on his nose are enormous, his eyes amber in the corners. Cheeks are red with broken blood vessels, ears downy with white hairs. There is no blood on his face.
Someone in the chorus shouts about helicopters. More cars arrive, none with sirens. The body is missing a shoe. At the end of a chapter, a sad-faced cop will eventually find the other cheap sneaker in the weeds.
The truck is surrounded by people, but twelve feet away from them, you are alone with the body. Twelve feet that might as well be a mile. You crouch, and you are apologizing to the dead man. I’m so sorry. Your mother raised you with manners.
You stare into his eyes, and you want him to be staring skyward, but death has left him wall-eyed. He is looking many places at once. This will not do. You want to slide his eyelids down, be the character of the priest. You stop yourself, because you don’t want anybody to catch you being a weirdo.
Twelve feet away, orders are barked, trees snapped by bare hands to facilitate a rescue. Things erupt all at once, all for the survivor. Highway Patrol, two volunteer ambulances. The bystanders are ordered to make room, and you hate them all. There is a crowd now, thirsty for action, collecting around the crust of the asphalt. Perhaps they do not have satellite television. Something exciting has finally happened in the Yaak. The most exciting thing since the last car accident, probably a week ago.
Twelve feet from the dramatic rescue, and you and the body are ignored. Your fists clench. You stand with a dead body, but both of you are ghosts.
There were days when you thought this place would kill you. There were days when you thought you should just kill yourself. Some people whispered behind your back, but in a small town, most people just came right out and said it. When you finally got out, you found another kind of isolation in the bottle. Towards the end, you drank by yourself in a trailer house because no one else could stand you. You could not stand yourself. In the last ten years, you found something beyond fight or flight. You found surrender. The real world is made of moveable parts that you cannot control, and it is far easier to let somebody else drive your car.
Here is his hairy stomach, the pelt of a white rabbit. White shirt, white hair, no external injuries. He died, rattled from the inside, bones and organs displaced, a snow globe shaken. What was knit together inside him now floats, confetti. Standing there, your hummingbird mind determines that this would be a really dramatic photograph.
More sirens, and you watch his body tremble as the leviathan vehicles rumble in, smelling of diesel. Capable men who deserve capable descriptions break through the line of rednecks, but there is no applause. In the book, this is the denouement. Next comes the extraction scene, cutters and spreaders, the Jaws of Life.
You have become a secondary character. But you will not leave, you will among the white pines and mountain ash, slender aspens that might as well be props. A dead body and a traumatized gay man—somehow the scene has been stolen from both of you. Heat rises on your neck, hives burst to life across your chest, and your cheeks blaze in fury. The bystanders do not deserve to gawk, and you angle yourself in front of his feet, but blocking the body is impossible. The crowd has spread as far as the mile marker sign. Number Seventeen.
The sun dips lower, hovering over the high shelf of mountains in the west; summer nights begin to abbreviate in the month of August, and on a quieter night, you might think about what is coming, the weather just ahead.
Heavy equipment shrieks to life, hydraulic scissors, sparks. The capable men don welder’s masks, attack with crowbars and sledge hammers. The truck is cut apart. Jacob and Carl chatter with volunteer firemen, and you know this has become an adventure for them, another story to tell.
The dead man and his white shirt glow as the light in the sky changes, the strange saturation of dusk. The very last words the man heard were spoken by you. Your voice is high pitched and irritating, feminine, and you fear that you may have ruined his remaining thoughts on earth.
Now a volunteer from the ambulance brushes past. You have time to look at your watch. An hour has passed. The volunteer is a woman, thick and strong as her crew cut. Under her arm a white bundle, and she shakes it open, snaps and flicks until the corners are square, as if this is laundry day. The white sheet billows in the air and sinks into place, drapes over the curves of the body. You can no longer see his eyes.
Crew Cut grasps both of your forearms, and pulls you away. You twist your neck to get one last look.
As you crest the embankment, Crew Cut offers you orange juice, a blanket. You know you are shaking, but you refuse. You can’t feel your feet as you cross the highway and find the only refuge, behind an ambulance. You need to sit down, but it turns into a collapse, and the gravel cuts your hands. Finally, there is blood.
For the first time in years, you want a drink.
During the last hour, you forgot you were a smoker. Now, you fish for the crushed pack and a lighter, and you chain smoke and you pray. These are things you learned in recovery. The helicopter approaches, and sparks fly from your third cigarette. You don’t care about the dry forests. You don’t care about a forest fire. You cup the cigarette with one hand and pray for the man under the sheet.
The helicopter lands on the highway, and the rotors pick up the dust that blankets the road, the pieces of earth dislodged in the rollover. You lose time, close your eyes until the helicopter is aloft, and the survivor takes a flight of his own.
You think about the man that landed so far away. Twelve feet, but the kind of distance that can never be measured.
Now, he is a story.
There is an ending.
Richard Fifield is the author of The Flood Girls, from Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, OutWords, Cedilla, The Global City Review, and Teacup. His story “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was shortlisted for The Bristol Prize, and published in their anthology. He currently lives in Missoula, Montana, where he teaches creative writing at the university and in the community. Web links: www.richardfifield.com and www.simonandschuster.com.