Tuesday, February 22, 2011


A new one. It's been awhile.


The hard gray wall of winter had set in, with the flush of Christmas and New Year’s long past, the sugar fueled rush of Valentine’s Day still weeks away. Toby’s morning was typically harried, with his wife late for work and in the shower, his eldest daughter glumly searching the dresser drawers and clothes baskets for something to wear to school, his youngest home sick, huddled under a blanket on the couch watching old She-Ra cartoons, sniffling and sneezing, coughing with the violent shudder of a car backfiring. The doctor had told them both repeatedly not to bother with over-the-counter cough medicines, they did no good, chicken soup was just as effective, but how could you help yourself, how could you not try something, try anything, with the bark of each cough blasting through the brainstem like a guilt-ridden jolt of electricity.

When his wife was out of the shower and keeping half an eye on the girls, he made his way out to the car to make a run to the drugstore for cough medicine. The cold hit him like a rock to the chest. The trees and power lines were covered in ice, the sky was cloudless, a perfect blue. The sun hung low in the sky, shining directly down the center of the street as if it were Stonehenge at solstice, and Toby had to walk with a halting, old man’s gait, careful of the slick patches of ice amid the piles of snow. The car door was frozen in place, but flew open with a loud crack when he threw all his weight into the act. The report reminded him of his daughter’s cough. He started up the car, got out and scraped the ice off the windows, the fin of thrown crystals dazzling as stars in the sunlight. The car was reasonably warm by the time he was done, the heated seats doing their job and seeming not at all the luxury he had pegged them as when he and his wife had bought the car two years ago. He turned on the radio and eased out of his parking spot.

The first stop sign at the end of the block showed him in certain terms how slick the streets were when he hit the brakes and the car floated dreamily past the stop sign and into the cross street, barely even slowing. Toby sat at the wheel rigid with adrenaline and fear, a spectator. Luckily, the street was deserted. He drove to the drugstore at a crawl, feeling like that same halting old man who had walked to the car minutes ago but unwilling to speed up to gain a few relatively unimportant minutes. There was a traffic light at the busy intersection just before the store; he had to began pumping the brake pedal twenty yards before the lights to get the car to stop in time. The sun, now directly behind him, cast the low shadow of his car into the junction before him.

A rumpled young man and woman shivered at the entrance, hands out, eyes down. The car in the lot directly behind them was a swaddle of clothes, fast food wrappers, wrappers, sleeping bags; it appeared to be a makeshift home. Toby spotted what may have been a child’s booster seat peering from the back seats, started to look closer and decided he didn’t want to know. He reached into his pocket, held out a dollar midway between the two of them, not even noticing which one of them had taken the money as he hurried past them toward sliding doors.

It was warm inside the store, soft jazz playing, employees regarding him with half-awake smiles. Toby stood before the rack of bottles and pills, lozenges and inhalers, and finally picked the bottle directly in front of him because it was cheap and large and filled with brightly colored liquid, and because if they didn’t do any good anyway why did it matter which one he picked? He paid for the medicine, pulled his coat tightly around him, and walked out into the cold. The couple at the door were gone, but a sweep of the eye found them trudging down the icy sidewalk to the liquor store. Toby felt a momentary disappointment, but it didn’t last. He hadn’t told them how to spend the money. They hadn’t offered. You did what you did, Toby thought. You put your actions into the world and hoped for the best but it was out of your hands the second you let go of it, out of your hands and into the world.

He hoped that hadn’t been a child’s booster seat in the back of their car.

He got back in his own car, now cold but still so much warmer than the outside air, cranked up the engine, and rolled slowly out of the parking lot. When he turned onto the main thoroughfare he was greeted with a bright blast of sun from the vanishing point well beyond the end of the street, straight into the windshield and bouncing off the glass, the ice, the snow, the polished metal of the hood. Stonehenge at solstice. He was blinded by sunlight.

The traffic light hanging above the intersection was still visible as a vague dark shape, and he thought it was green but couldn’t be sure. He looked to the sides but was met with a featureless glare; no way to tell if anyone was coming, from the left or right. Or, if they were coming, whether they saw him. Or, if they saw him, were able to stop in time. No way to know. All he knew was that the intersection lay between him and his home, where his life was, where he was needed. He looked up, tried one more time to get a read on the state of the traffic light and failed, looked to the left and the right and saw nothing but the couple from the drugstore, standing patiently in the cold for the doors to open. The liquor store didn’t open for another two hours. It was going to be a very cold two hours. Out of your hands and into the world, he thought, easing up on the brake pedal and ever so gently pressing on the gas, bracing for calamity as he entered the junction as blind and vulnerable as a newborn, he on one side of the street and the whole wide world on the other, waiting.


Laurita said...

I really love the mood you created with this. Such a great piece of writing. I'll be thinking about it for a while. The ending was superb.

Clowncar said...

Thank you for the kind words, and for taking the time to read it, Laurita. It's kinda long for a blog post, but it has been awhile since I wrote anything of note.

Fresca said...

Nice. I love the central issue of acting in the face of helplessness.
You know Andre Dubus (pere), I assume? It was he who introduced me to the idea that it's not a bad idea to do something rather than nothing. He said he learned it in the Marines.
No wonder I'd never heard of it.

I think it was Teddy Roosevelt who said the best thing to do is the right thing, the second best thing to do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing to do is nothing.

I feel mixed about this, as of course it can lead to the sort of imperialism Teddy was so fond of but I'm not.
Still, there's a lot to it. Very Capt. Kirk... but also simply human. You see someone suffering and you want to do something, like give them a dollar or cough medicine (many kinds of cough medicine are mostly alcohol... was that a conscious link?)

After our mother died, my sister said love was necessary but not enough. That's a hard lesson.

Is this part of your novel?

Btw, when you post writing like this, how much/what kind of feedback do you want?

Clowncar said...

Well, everyone likes praise, and I'm no exception. But beyond that I'm interested in mechanics, what works and what doesn't work, what's unclear, what's clunky.

This one was, to me, about the possibility of calamity, how it can arrive at any time, unseen, unbidden, and how you can't let yourself become paralyzed by that possibility.

It's solstice, not equinox, though equinox would have worked logistically just as well as solstice. Things are not in balance, but pushed to one extreme.