The car flew through the air and landed on its side and slid for twenty feet or so until it hit the divider and flipped upright. It was rolling slowly back toward the intersection as I was running toward it, but it stopped when it bumped again into the divider. The driver was a young blonde woman. Her eyes were closed and she was twisted around as if she were trying to cover her collar with her neck because someone was coldly pouring water onto her head. She had on black slacks and a tattered grey hoodie. I opened the door and put a hand on her shoulder and told her she was OK, just breathe. She moaned a little before she opened her eyes.
‘It’s OK.’ I turned to the man that had come up behind me and asked if he was calling 911 and he was.
‘Do you have any water in your car?’ another man asked. He was little with a beard and baseball hat and his question was ignored.
She asked what happened. ‘Did I run a red light?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It kind of looked like it.’ But I couldn’t be sure, we’d been stopped at the light on the far side of the intersection, my wife and daughter and I. I’d heard something like a rushing sound before I heard the crash, as if I were waking from a dream and I was aware before I was actually awake. My wife was driving because I’d been getting testy and unbearable whenever I drove in the city any more, and she didn’t want our expedition to sell some books at the used bookstore to be a trial. When I first saw it, the car was upside down in the air. My wife was looking down in her lap with her eyes closed. She later told me that she couldn’t look because she didn’t want to see someone die. I looked in the back seat at my daughter and she was startled but OK. Then I was out of the car, running. I didn’t know why. I wasn’t trained or qualified but I was willing. The worst kind, I thought. But when I saw the car rolling backward I thought good now I can stop it from rolling back into the intersection and be of some use. Later I thought how wrong it had been to leave my family alone in the car. They were safe, though. Nobody could hit them and traffic had stopped. They were fine.
‘Where are my glasses? I need my glasses,’ the woman said.
I thought, the less you see right now the better. Her pants looked like restaurant slacks and the sweatshirt could have been covering a white dress shirt. Beads of water sat on top of her thick, blonde hair and I thought maybe she dyes it. She looked like she worked in a hotel. The inside of her car looked like the car of someone that worked in a hotel. I know this because I’ve worked in hotels, too.
‘I’ll help you look,’ I said, and went around to the passenger side. The doors were shoved in so far that I didn’t even want to try the handle but I did anyway and they didn’t open. She was out of the car now. Other people were there, more young men, no women.
‘You should stay in your car,’ I said. ‘There’s nothing to be done. Just stay where you are.’
‘Are you hurt?’ the baseball hat asked.
‘No,’ she said. ‘This can’t be happening.’
I came back around the car and tried to corral her so she would sit back down but she wasn’t having it. Her shoes were hotel shoes; black, comfortable, chunky: shoes that had delivered brimming bus tubs to me while I was in the dish-pit. She was probably late for work, talking on the phone, speeding. She might lose her job. People in hotels always have excuses.
‘Who hit me?’
‘That Audi over there,’ I said. The Audi was a coupe and it was crumpled but far from ruined. They’d backed it out of the intersection where it was when I first saw it as I was running, or maybe they’d pushed it. There was no way the airbags had gone off and it was still drivable. I hadn’t really looked over there, though. This was my side of the accident. The northbound people could deal with the Audi. I was with the east/westers. This side seemed much more urgent. This car had flown through the air.
A small, athletic man and a woman, both in their forties, appeared on the sidewalk. There was no blood on them or glass or tattered clothing, but if you knew what to look for, like right then I did, you’d be able to tell they’d been in a wreck.
I looked in the hotel woman’s car and her phone was broken face-up on the floor. The back seat was filled with clothes and trash, just a mess. She’d have to go to the junkyard where they towed it and get all her stuff. She was standing next to me looking across the street at the man and the woman like she knew them, and she did; they’d just been introduced. It was remarkable that the glass didn’t break in the passenger doors. When I looked up again she was wandering off to meet the people who hit her. The baseball hat and another man were guiding her through the traffic to the safety of the sidewalk. I turned to go back to my car and a man in a pickup said, ‘She should sit down.’
‘I told her,’ I said. ‘She wouldn’t listen.’
Back in the car, I told my wife that the woman was OK. She was probably in shock but she was OK. I could smell the wreck on me, almost like gunpowder, like I’d been shooting, but a hint of motor oil too. Ten minutes later my wife asked if it was our car that stunk because the change the oil light had started blinking last week and of course I had ignored it. I thought great now I have this to contend with, and had her pull into a 7-Eleven and I checked the oil and it was coffee-brown but on the level. Three thousand miles between oil changes is bullshit. The smell was coming from my hands, from when I’d touched the crushed car doors. I couldn’t stop smelling my fingers.
‘Some real gems in here,’ the woman sorting through our books had said.
‘Tired of packing that shit around,’ I said. As if I didn’t know what I was selling. It took over an hour, our whole trunk had been full of books, and by the time we had our money my mood had soured. I don’t like parting with books, even the embarrassing ones.
On our way home I drove back the way we came. No trace of the accident remained at the intersection, but when we stopped at the light my daughter, who’d been laughing moments before, began to cry even though we were facing a different direction.
I was chasing trash that had been blown from the table by the wind. We’d stopped to have lunch at a city park on the banks of the Llano River on our way to see my buddy Will, who lives down the road. It was me and my wife and daughter, a beautiful sunny day in January. There were predictions of a cold front coming down from the north but there was nothing to indicate a change was coming. Except for the wind that blew the lunch trash from the picnic table.
I made my own wedding ring from a pipe clamp, the pipe section, and I don’t know if I was dehydrated or losing beer fat since I quit drinking a few months back or what but it’d been slipping lately and when I reached for the container the ring slipped from my finger. I felt it fall off but I still wanted to catch the trash so I kept running until I did. When I came back for the ring I couldn’t find it. The grass had been mowed in the park but it was winter so it was dormant and mostly brown, but where I lost the ring was near some boulders and the mower hadn’t gotten over there so it was in the weeds. Dry leaves were on top and if you dug down there were aromatic ground-cover plants and at the bottom there were spiny seeds like goat heads. I held up the container to show my wife and she was laughing because of the fool I’d made of myself sprinting across the park and my daughter was saying poppa poppa and her eyes were loving too. We were enjoying the day. It was the best day we’d had in a while. I held up my naked ring finger and my wife mouthed oh no and came over and helped me search. She told me to go and throw the trash away because she was really good at finding things. As I was walking toward the trash can I said, ‘Yeah, me. You found me.’ I don’t think she heard me, and I’d found her first anyway. I’d been the pursuer. It didn’t make any sense me saying that except that we were having such a nice day. I expected the ring to be found by the time I got back from the trash can but it wasn’t.
I started as far out as I thought was possible for where I might’ve dropped it and used the dry leaves to mark where’d I’d searched. I would kick a swath and the wind would blow the leaves away where I’d kicked. I was like a farmer or a kid mowing the lawn. I had a pattern. My daughter started crying and it was hot in the sun and wind is always so sneaky in the way it tires you out. Sometimes it can be worse than hot or cold weather because it just pushes on you, on your senses, and wears you down. My wife decided to take my daughter to the playground and the dog was still tied to the table where we’d been eating so it needed to be set free or as free as it could be in an on-leash-only park in Llano.
The little spines from the stickers in the weeds were stuck in my fingers and I was thinking I’d just make another ring. It would take an afternoon. But then again I was married with this ring and I’ve looked at this ring in times of insecurity and gratitude alike. My ring means something to me and that counts more than money, more than time. So I kept looking, and I was thinking: I’m gonna call Will and see if he has a metal detector or a magnet or at least a fucking spring rake because ten minutes with a rake I’m sure I’d find the goddamn thing. My head was baking and I broke my sunglasses last week pulling them out of the neat little pocket that Carhartt’s have so my eyes were weepy and itching.
When I looked up a guy with a metal detector was walking toward me. He had on a button-up short-sleeve shirt, shorts, black athletic shoes and a camo baseball hat. His wraparound sunglasses looked like they’d come from a gas station, much like the ones I’d broken last week.
‘What’d you lose?’ he asked.
‘Wedding ring.’ I showed him my finger, careful not to give him the bird, but it still felt a little insulting.
‘I knew it. We were over there watching you kick around and we said I bet he lost his ring.’
I didn’t see any we. The park was empty.
He pushed a button on his detector and it beeped to life. ‘Where’d you lose it?’
‘Between these two trees. I was running –’
‘Yeah, we saw that too. We were laughing. You caught yours but your wife didn’t. Hers blew acrossed the parking lot and almost went in our car.’
He had a stunned way about him like he might be a bit drunk, or had been for a long time previously and had recently gotten sober. Behind his dark glasses I imagined the eyes of a salmon after it was cracked perfectly by the gaff. Lights on. In any case he’d been taking it easy, having some lunch and laughing at the people chasing trash. I thanked him for helping.
‘We came down here to do this.’ He held up the metal detector, green, sun-faded; it was beeping but it looked like non-functional yard sale shit to me. ‘We just got it,’ he said, ‘and I don’t have the book so I don’t know how to set it. I got it set as shallow as it goes.’
‘It’s picking up something.’ I was down on my hands and knees getting more spines in my fingertips raking them through the weeds. ‘With those boulders there,’ I said, ‘this part of the park is probably all backfill. Who knows what’s in that shit, right? They could’ve loaded in a bunch of busted concrete with the rebar still in it. I’ve seen them do it before.’
‘People lose coins and earrings and keys,’ he said. ‘The dirt covers it up.’
He was thinking treasure and I was thinking trash. We didn’t say much after that, he worked the detector and when it beeped I dropped and dug in the weeds like a tweaker chasing rocks in shag carpet.
A woman arrived, maybe fifty, white sweater, shorts, too old to be anybody’s girlfriend but that’s what she was. ‘I just got that back from my son,’ she said, talking about the metal detector. ‘What’d you lose?’
‘Wedding ring,’ the man said.
‘I knew it,’ she said. ‘We seen you chasing the trash. That wind blew my potato chips off my plate.’
Before I could answer, my wife returned with my daughter and said hi to everyone and asked if we’d had any luck.
‘No, not yet,’ I said.
‘We were laughing at you,’ the detector man said to my wife. ‘You were running.’
‘I couldn’t catch it,’ my wife said, smiling. ‘I didn’t want to run out into the road.’
‘You guys are from out of state, right?’ the woman asked, not rudely.
My wife explained that we’d recently moved to Austin, that I’d bought a house when I was going to school at UT.
‘We’re Aggies,’ she said. ‘It don’t matter. Not really. Both of my sons went there, one’s a chemist and the other –’
I didn’t hear the rest. I was digging in the weeds at the feet of a man I didn’t know, his strangely hairless legs.
‘I knew it before I even seen your license plate,’ the woman said.
‘We knew you weren’t from here,’ the man said to me at his feet.
I nodded without looking up at him and thought, because we were chasing trash. No self-respecting Texan would chase trash. Look at all the trash in this park, stuck in the rocks and in the weeds, floating in the water, and I could count six trash cans within a hundred yards of us.
Whenever I hear someone do their best Davy Crockett and say, You can all go to hell, I’m going to Texas, I think: six of one, half-dozen of the other. I’m always hot and cold with this place. Driving out on 29 it was just a bunch of sprawled, shitty how-do-they-do-it-and-why-do-they-bother businesses – 4Ever Fitness, Tie-dye T’s, Kat’s Korner Antiques and More; Dollar Generals, as ubiquitous to Texas as mesquite – but later when we’d gotten into the hills, all of that fell away. The road pleasantly gained and lost elevation, flood gauges in dry washes and scraggy hilltops, corners that begged for two wheels not four. We followed the signs to Ink’s Lake and the park was nearly empty. We hiked above the swimming area and played on the rocks and in the cold water and my daughter had her diaper off and was naked in the sun pitching pebbles into the stream that cascaded six feet or so into the clear water of the pool below and then further down the black rocks easily into another equally clear and inviting pool where a couple fingerling bass were swimming. This was the end of January and it was 75 degrees, couldn’t ask for a nicer day. It felt like we’d gone back in time and I forgot all about the sprawl and the bullets-are-cheap-and-life-is-long deathsuck of the lone star highways and interstates.
My wife took my daughter back to the table to get her water and while they were gone the woman left to retrieve what she called magnets on a stick and a spring rake from her house. They only lived a few miles away, her boyfriend said.
‘She shouldn’t have gone,’ I said. ‘She didn’t have to.’
‘We’re not doing anything else.’
We kept looking and the man told me where to find arrowheads north of town, said they were thick but he’d never found any. When his girlfriend came back I thanked the couple again because I was sure that we’d be leaving soon, my wife was giving me a look that said, my daughter is tired and we need to get going to make the hour-and-a-half drive back home. She gave me the we-still-need-to-figure-out-dinner look and I thought that’s pretty neat, she has a look for that and I understand it.
‘It’s probably already four o’clock,’ she said.
The man took out his phone and looked at the time and affirmed that it was ten till. Then he passed me the metal detector because he was ready for a break. We’d been at it for a while now. My wife shook her head and smiled at me because she knew that I’d been thinking that if I were running that thing I’d have found my ring an hour ago. Because that’s the way I am, even though experience has taught me time and again that I’m usually wrong.
The two helpers had the magnets on sticks and I was working the metal detector and any minute now we’d find the ring or we were leaving. I just needed to figure out how to tell these people that we were leaving and maybe give them my phone number in case they found the ring later. At this point I was searching out of an unspoken obligation to strangers. If she hadn’t driven home to get the magnets on a stick we could just walk away but they’d invested in this work more than I had. They’d brought tools.
When I’d called my buddy Will earlier to see if he had a metal detector, he said he was sick, ‘Feel like a hammered turd’, and didn’t have a metal detector. I told him we’d stop by when we were done.
‘Your kinfolk?’ the metal detector man said when I got off the phone.
‘My buddy that lives here.’ I’d had to ask him twice to understand what he’d said when he said your kinfolk. Will was just my buddy but he was kinfolk too. His wife had recently been killed in a car wreck. She was an emergency room nurse and back in the old days when me and Will were often out drinking, riding motorcycles, I’d take note of what county we were in and be a little more careful when we got near the Llano line so as not to end up in Kelly’s ER, because that just wouldn’t be fair. Nurses and doctors always seem like they’ll outlast the rest of us. When I’d gotten the news about her death it made me put the hard eyes to my own life, and since then whenever I was feeling weak and put upon, I’d think of the first conversation I had with Will after Kelly died, and how it was just rip-your-heart-out sad and I promised myself then to try and be better, try and be nicer and most of all never abandon my little girl, because there’re all kinds of parents – good and bad and worse – but first of all and most importantly, you have to show up. You have to be there.
I heard the clink or I thought later that I heard it and when I turned the man was holding up his magnet on a stick and there was a bunch of grass stuck to it and my ring was there too.
‘Here you go,’ he said, and with effort pried it lose and gave it to me. I’d walked all over the place where he’d found it and I was sure we’d taken the detector over there at least once. I put the ring on my finger and my wife and I were thanking them and they were saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it,’ and we asked them, ‘Who takes an hour, maybe closer to two hours out of their day to help a family of trash-chasing Idahoans find their worthless steel wedding ring?’ and they said, ‘Texans. We did it because we’re Texans.’ They introduced themselves and I felt shameful for not introducing myself sooner and we all shook hands and I patted the guy on the back but I didn’t hear their names. My name is the same as the woman’s son’s name and it was the son that had just yesterday returned the metal detector to them that got them out here poking around for whatever.
‘After we ate lunch we were going to the car wash to look for change,’ the woman said. ‘I have an antique shop up the road but we’ve been broken into a few times and last time they made off with four thousand dollars worth of stuff so we’re trying to make ends meet.’ Her eyes were watery and I didn’t know if it was the wind or what but I took a twenty out of my wallet to give her but the man said, ‘No, we can’t take that. If somebody came and helped me like this, if I lost something, I wouldn’t think I owed them nothing and we didn’t have nothing to do anyhow, like I said.’
‘It’s not like you asked us for help,’ the woman said. ‘We had it to offer. God bless. We’re glad we could do it.’
I put the money away and we continued walking together toward our cars. I had the dog on the leash and my wife had my daughter in her arms. The woman told us her son, the one that had returned the metal detector, was a chemist who just bought his first house. ‘Two thousand seven hundred and forty square feet, all the way up past Sherman.’
‘Four and a half hours away,’ the man said.
‘More like five and a half,’ the woman said. ‘He’s got a heat pump and it doesn’t work and we got a heat pump it doesn’t work either.’
‘I don’t know much about heat pumps,’ I said, but it wasn’t that I didn’t know much, it’s that I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t pick out a heat pump from a line-up of regular pumps. ‘Home ownership is a lot of work,’ I said. ‘You can’t call anybody but yourself.’
‘We’re really thankful that you helped us,’ my wife said. My daughter was tired and her cheeks were red and chapped-looking. We promised to stop by their store and see them next time we were in Llano.
‘God bless,’ they said. ‘God watch over you on your drive.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, because it is a dangerous stretch of road and the closer you get to Austin the worse it gets.
We got everybody loaded up and strapped in and waved goodbye and left them working their magnets on a stick over the edge of the sidewalks near the park restrooms.
I called Will and told him we weren’t coming by, it was too late and we were tired. ‘I understand why you like Llano,’ I told him. ‘People are nice here. Found my ring for me. I would’ve quit.’
‘I lost mine before,’ he said. ‘Pain in the ass. I’m on my second one.’ The silence went on like it did when he was reminded that Kelly was dead, not that he could forget or at this point even wanted to. He wears her ring on his pinky and he got the tattoos that she had tattooed on himself. I told him we’d catch him next time we came through. ‘Get some rest.’
‘OK, brother. We’ll see ya.’
Driving out of town, Highway 71 was being widened so there were construction cones and equipment but it was Sunday so nobody was working. The traffic was eerily light. I told my wife I’d never seen it like that. She remarked that 71 is prettier than 29 but I reminded her how nice it’d been near Ink’s Lake. We talked about Madeleine throwing the pebbles into the stream.
When we saw the trooper waving us over we merged right. They had cones set up so eastbound traffic drove on the shoulder. Westbound traffic was backed up for a mile or so because the tow trucks and ambulance and a fire truck were still getting in there and moving things around. One of the wrecked cars was covered with a red tarp and I knew that wasn’t a good sign. There were two other cars involved, trucks actually, the pieces of a camper shell were scattered across the road and into the field. People were crying and hugging on the side of the highway. A few miles later we passed another cop car speeding toward the wreck.
‘Is there another one?’ my wife asked.
‘No, there couldn’t be. It’s just the one but it was bad.’ I thought maybe they needed another car to haul people home and to the hospital or wherever.
We stopped downtown to get groceries. The city already smelled like summer and people were smiling. Near our house we stopped at a light and across the street was a man sleeping, I hoped he was sleeping, in his wheelchair where it had come to rest halfway off the sidewalk, twenty feet from the railroad tracks. The light changed and I turned left, thinking enough, that’s enough. Open your eyes. But he didn’t, so I slowed and looked for a place to turn around and while I was looking I heard the sirens and then I saw the lights so I pulled over and waited. I watched as the ambulance made its way through the traffic behind us but instead of crossing the tracks and passing by, it stopped for the man in the wheelchair. I turned off my blinker and kept driving.
‘They came for him,’ my wife said. ‘Somebody must’ve called.’
On the news that night we learned that a sixty-one-year-old man was killed and three others seriously injured in the wreck on 71 and that it had happened around a quarter after four. I hear the rushing sound before I hear the actual sound and I know it’s coming but I wait and it doesn’t come.
Photograph courtesy of pKstudiophotos