Fiction · 05/30/2012

South of Hartford

They’re stopped in traffic, just south of Hartford. Jenny, driving, is complaining about her mother’s vacuum cleaner. Dirk wants to listen to the World Cup pre-game show, buzzing in the car’s tinny speakers.

Maybe, he thinks, I can ask her, very nicely, to be quiet.

Something huge explodes into the back of their little car. For Dirk, it’s like splashing into hot water. “Wow,” he says. Their car shoots into the sky like a rocket, then bounces behind a large truck. “Hold on,” Jenny says, jerking the steering wheel. They miss the truck. They fishtail into the service lane, then screech to a stop.

Dirk lies on his back on his broken seat, looking up at the sky through the cracked windshield. Something behind him makes a funny noise.

“Everybody okay?” Jenny asks softly.

Dirk listens to the children’s voices, little peeps, somewhere behind him: “okay, mommy.” Jenny finds her cell phone and calls 911. Dirk’s door won’t open. He climbs out his window, onto the guardrail. Two men run up.

“You okay?” they ask.

Dirk sticks his head back into the car. The interior is completely reconfigured — the back seat is strangely up above the front seats. He reaches in for the kids. Nine and Four pop right out, but seven is pinned under his seat. Her seatbelt latch is squeezed underneath her and the headrest of Dirk’s broken seat is resting under her chin. Dirk pries the broken chair up and pulls her out.

Seven’s upset, clutching her doll. “Mollie lost her glasses!”

Dirk climbs back in and gropes around. He finds them under the seat, buried in shattered glass.

+

On the other side of the guardrail, the air is hot and milky. Jenny and Dirk inspect the kids; not a scratch. Jenny gets on the phone with the insurance company. Dirk returns to the car. He reaches through the shattered rear window to retrieve a cooler with bottled water. He struggles to understand what’s wrong, visually, with the car. It is bent up, like an L. The rear axle, wheels, transmission and gas tank are stuffed up under the passenger seat, bulging up between the seat cushions and the backrest.

Other people appear, collecting items they found strewn down the highway: Magic Tree House books, a stuffed moose. “When I saw it happen, I said, people are going to be dead,” one man says to Dirk. “And when I saw your car skidding past, with kids’ things flying out the back, I thought…” the man shakes his head and walks away. Firetrucks, then state troopers, then ambulances arrive. Paramedics want to take the kids in for observation. Jenny waves them off. “That will only make things worse.”

+

The collision truck drops them in front of a closed repair shop in East Hartford. “Nobody here, I guess,” the driver says. He unlatches their car and drives off. Jenny gets a cab to go find a rental car. Dirk sits in a small spot of shade with the kids. He tells them stories that he thinks are funny — about when he was young and free and would hitchhike to odd places and get himself stranded. The last minutes of the World Cup final blares in Spanish, from televisions in paint-scraped boarding houses. Cheers burst from behind curtains.

Why are they cheering, Dad?” Nine asks.

“Spain scored,” Dirk guesses.

“How do you know?”

“If it was the Dutch, they wouldn’t be cheering.”

Another tow truck arrives, pulling a huge SUV with a crunched nose. It’s the car, Dirk realizes, that rear-ended them. A red-faced woman squats with her belongings next to her wreck, trying to call someone with her cell phone. Dirk watches her for a minute, then picks a water from the cooler bag, and walks up to her. “Here,” he says. “You should drink this.”

“Everybody okay?” she asks the kids, trying to sound cheerful. They shake their heads yes. Then she turns to Dirk.

“I wasn’t on my cell phone, I swear,” she says, and bursts into tears. “I just never saw your car. I was just driving up the freeway at 65 miles an hour, and the next thing I knew, my face was in my airbag.”

“It’s okay,” Dirk says. “Nobody got hurt.”

“I swear,” she sobs.

Another taxi comes for her, and she waves to the kids. The kids wave back, and she drives away. Dirk is alone again with the children and the two destroyed cars. The SUV has a crumpled engine block; the hood is cracked slightly open and the grill is punched in. Next to it, the back of their little shattered wagon looks like an exploded cigar. Dirk unloads their luggage, brushing out broken glass.

“Don’t touch anything,” he says to Nine. “There’s glass.”

“I won’t.”

Jenny arrives with the rental car. “Her insurance company is going to screw us,” she says. “They just broke it to me that our car isn’t worth anything. But I got them to pay for the rental and a hotel room for the night. We’re staying in Hartford,” she says. “At the most expensive hotel we can find.”

“She was just here,” Dirk says, nodding back at her truck.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing. I gave her a water.”

If I was here,” Jenny says, “I would have slit her throat.”

+

“You folks here for the festival?”

The concierge explains that the Hartford River Festival is underway. Fireworks will be shooting outside their hotel window at nine o’clock. Like any of a hundred other families, they take their bags up, then cross the street to a restaurant. The kids stare out the picture window at street performers in ninja uniforms, air-battling in fountains and planters. Back in the hotel room they listen to music rising from the festival, and lie in bed, watching the fireworks blow through the shades.

Just before Jenny turns the lights out, Four, barefoot, steps on a splinter of impact glass that they hadn’t found when they cleaned out the bags. Dirk holds him while Jenny finds a band-aid. While they clean the cut, he cries his only protest of the day: “I wish we were never in a car crash.” He falls asleep between Dirk and Jenny, in their arms. The girls clutch their dolls in the next bed.

In the air conditioned darkness, Dirk stares at the television. Spain’s goal is replayed again, and again, and again. Dirk starts sweating. He can’t figure out how Jenny steered their flying car, with no rear axle or transmission, dragging its back half, into the service lane. He thinks of Seven, pinned beneath his seat. “Holy cow,” Dirk mumbles, again and again.

Then he looks over at the back of Jenny’s head. She really took care of everything — the band aid, the car, the hotel, the insurance company. She miraculously steered us through the fifteen most harrowing seconds of our lives, and the before, and the after. Dirk tries to picture what would have happened if they had flipped or hit the guardrail. He stops himself. What’s important was that things got taken care of. Jenny took care of everything, he realizes. She took care of all this. She will take care of her mother’s vacuum cleaner. I’m just… detached, Dirk thinks. I’m just a passenger. I need to take care of things too. I need to wake up.

Then, almost instantly, Dirk falls asleep.

He dreams it all happens again. But this time, Jenny’s not in the car. And when Dirk reaches through the window to pull the kids out, they are sleeping. A team of emergency personnel stands behind him, instructing him to put them into suitcases pulled from the trunk. The suitcases are packed with crushed ice. “This is right,” voices tell him. “This is what you need to do.” As they zip each child up, the ice melts into impact glass. The emergency personnel become insurance people, in suits, with cell phones and briefcases; they zip up the suitcases and take them away.

Then Dirk wakes up, and opens his eyes.

And they are still there.

+++

With this story, Frank Haberle won the 2011 Pen Parentis fellowship his other stories have appeared in numerous print and web-based magazines including the Adirondack Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Melic Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and an earlier edition of Necessary Fiction. Frank is a Board member and volunteer workshop leader for the NY Writers Coalition, a nonprofit group providing community writing opportunities in low-income neighborhoods.