When accidents happen, there’s a hesitation before the impact, like a syncopation in music. The heart hesitates, the pulse is disturbed, something moves in to take the place of the ordinary downbeat, and then—crash. On a late afternoon in early May, Sylvia was driving south on Mullen Street. On her right was the Cathedral of the Blessed Ascension. On her left, a large wooden house that had been painted the color of poppies and canaries like something out of a carnival. She had just arrived at a four-way intersection, and her mind leapt forward to Whitney Avenue where she was headed, and the second story apartment where her three year old son played. It was her day off. She could have been with Jeremy the whole afternoon except she’d felt the pull of her mother and father at the Cold Springs Nursing Home.
Sylvia arrives at the intersection, with the cathedral behind her. She presses the brake pedal, and the car comes to an almost full stop. The wheels are still revolving slightly before she takes her foot off the brake and slides it to the accelerator. She’s in a hurry to see her son.
She starts across the intersection.
This afternoon, she’s been at the nursing home trying to mediate what appears to be her parents’ final battle. Mr. and Ms. Naugler had moved into the home just after Christmas, taken a double room, and seemed at first relieved to have contracted themselves down to this one space where they could keep an eye on each other. All his life, Sylvia’s father had been a wanderer, traveling from coast to coast on business, his eye straying in lonesome cities; but this had all come to an end when a stroke severed his ability to speak and left him prone to fall. Around the same time, Sylvia’s mother had begun to straggle into the wilderness of her own mind.
The two of them had lived at the home peacefully enough until Ms. Naugler had taken to bed-hopping. The social worker called it nymphomania. In a plaintive, indignant note to his daughter, Mr. N. called it monstrous. Each morning after breakfast, according to index cards collected on the floor around her father’s chair, Sylvia’s mother put on powder and bright red lipstick, and took off down the hall. She was still a physically strong woman at eighty-two. Indefatigable, it was appearing. She visited a bouquet of older gentlemen every day. Her favorite was Mr. Linscetti, a diminutive elder with wispy swirls of white hair, warm, childlike eyes, and his mind shot full of holes.
Sylvia had found her mother that afternoon in his room, tipped off by her father who’d been sitting alone by the window of his room in a pool of rage. When Sylvia appeared in the doorway, her mother and Mr. Linscetti were snuggling in bed. Her mother looked up and said, Hello darling. Have you ever been introduced to my boyfriend?
She told her mother they’d met. She noticed a smear of lipstick on Mr. Linscetti’s temple and another on his chin. If she accomplished nothing else this afternoon, she hoped to make off with the tubes of lipstick. The social worker traced her mother’s movements through the facility the way a hiker follows trail blazes.
Ma, I need to talk to you, she said. Can you come with me to the lounge?
Not now, sweetheart. I’m busy.
I need to talk to you. I came all the way out here to talk with you.
Not now! her mother barked. Mr. Linscetti winced and held his white hands up to his face. Look what you’ve done, her mother said.
Sylvia returned to her father, who was scribbling on paper. You have no idea, the words said, what it’s like watching your mother make a fool of herself day after day. His chin, never unshaven that Sylvia could remember, was raspy with white stubble. I don’t care if we’ve been married for sixty-one years, he wrote. If she won’t stop, I want a separation and you can transfer me to another place.
I’m sorry, Dad, it’s a bitch.
Don’t call your mother that, he scrawled.
Not her, the situation. I’ll come back tomorrow night after work, and we can talk again. She picked up a few of the cards he’d scattered on the floor and stuffed them into her purse. He nodded gloomily and lifted his face for a kiss, a face which bore no trace of lipstick.
Sylvia is now at the intersection. Quickly looking both ways, she begins across. To her right, traveling westbound, a car is coming toward her. It will stop. Cars always do. But it doesn’t. It keeps on, and this is when she feels that disturbance. To Sylvia, the color of the car appears gunmetal grey, but she has no time to look at it directly. It seems that the car is filled with men, that chest hair is rolling out the necks of their shirts. It keeps coming. She knows she’ll be hit no matter what she does. She waits for the crash, and then it comes.
The car had appeared to be traveling quite slowly, but the crash was hefty, cool, indifferent to her, almost casual in its ugliness. Sylvia almost never cried, but she felt an immediate urge to let loose. She moved her neck and realized it was wrenched. The whole of her felt singed, as though she could lift a hand to her head and feel shreds of black carbon where her hair had been.
She wanted to feel searing anger, to get out of her car and walk toward the other car—which was low-slung, olive green, lizard-like, rust on its underbelly and creeping up the sides—and yell at the driver with her hands on her hips, her feet planted wide, and tell him just how goddamn stupid he was. But as a child, Sylvia had never heard spirited cursing, and what would have come out of her mouth were names like dodo-brain or poo-poo head, things her three year old would say. And she wasn’t even angry, only filled with a sense of her own immense breakability and an unexpected feeling of shame.
Sylvia opened her door and walked toward the other car. She saw no chest hair, and only two men. The passenger had a baseball cap lettered in green. It might have said Celtics. It could have said Hooligan for all she cared. The driver was hatless, and his hair was thin and uncombed. He was still hanging onto the steering wheel, all knuckles. Commotion was coming from the open windows, from the passenger yelling at the driver. You fucker, he said, I told you, you’re a fuckin’ lousy driver, and now look at this fuckin’ mess. You’re going to lose your fuckin’ license. The passenger opened his door, got out of the car, and slammed it behind him. Adjusting his cap, he said, See you around, fuckface. The former passenger, that snake, edged around a fire escape and disappeared between two brick buildings.
You had to wonder about a man who’d need to keep a friend like that. Sylvia searched out the face of the driver, who looked like thousands of others—the chin small and starved, the eyes stale with what life had dished out. He reached toward the passenger’s door and opened it for Sylvia. There was something almost ceremonial in his gesture.
You okay? she asked, leaning in.
I think we’re supposed to exchange information, she said. Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do? She dug around in her purse for paper, pulled out one of her father’s index cards, and read, 8:25 Westbound. It referred to her mother, traveling in the direction of the setting sun. She turned the card over, wrote down her name and phone number, and laid it on the ripped seat.
The driver gestured vaguely with his right hand while he gripped the steering wheel with the left. Have a seat, the motion said. Sylvia imagined him gesturing like this to a girlfriend. He’d idle at a curb in front of her apartment building, rev the pathetic old engine under the hood, blow the excess noise out the exhaust, honk two, three bleats, and finally lay his elbow over the horn and lean long and insistent until she came out muttering, Jeez hold your fucking pants on. He’d let her open the door, and then he’d make that same quick, almost hopeless gesture that said, Sid-down.
Sylvia sat down in the passenger’s seat, and he glanced quickly toward her and said he was sorry he’d hit her car. Shit, he mumbled, staring at his hands on the wheel, I don’t know. I saw you all right. I just didn’t stop. Sylvia was about to say it was o.k., but it wasn’t.
Then, as though the driver had two tracks in his brain, one repentant, the other anything but, he revved the engine, jerked ahead through the intersection, and careened left. Sylvia grabbed the door shut before it hit a mailbox.
What the hell are you doing? she asked.
Checkin’ out the car. See if it still works. I gotta get to work tonight. He turned up the radio, and the bass guitar pumped through the dashboard. A male singer shrieked falsetto. YAAAAAH! Right now! I want you! Baby! I need you! Baby Baby!
They shot past the cathedral and the carnival-colored house up the hill to Congress Street, then rocketed left past the Longfellow Laundromat, and back down the hill toward the interstate. If they got that far, he could take her anywhere.
Look, she said, I don’t care about pressing charges. Just let me out, and that will be the end of it. I have to pick up my little boy.
His fingers were wrapped tight around the wheel. He wove through red lights, traveling fast but with a certain dignity.
Listen, she said again, not expecting him to.
Anything could happen. She’d known someone who’d worked at the American Embassy in Paris, a well-mannered man with close-cropped blond hair and a stunning flash of a smile—like a flare, it was that quick and bright—who drank too much. He was a big, powerful man, and when he was drunk, he tried to hurl himself through walls. After Sylvia left France, an acquaintance told her that he’d come back for a vacation in the States and taken his wife for a camping trip in the Adirondacks. The two of them were a beautiful, physically attractive couple. And then he’d axed her to death in the middle of the night. Sylvia had seen her once at an Embassy party. Wearing silk, smiling. Anything could happen. Listen, Sylvia said gently, just let me out, and I’ll never press charges.
He drove intently now, looking dead ahead. At the bottom of the hill was a traffic light. If it was green, he could get onto the interstate and take her wherever he wanted. Red, and she might be able to jump out. He slowed down to about twenty-five, slow enough that he’d catch the green light without stopping, fast enough that she couldn’t get out.
But just before he came to the light, he plunged down a street to the left, accelerated through the parking lot of the junior high school, stormed over the grass that scraggled toward the concrete foundation, and then he was back onto the street, left again past the School for the Blind (please, dear god, keep them out of his way) and then a screaming right back up Mullen Street toward the cathedral. A police car flashed at the intersection, and the driver slowed and crept back toward the scene of the collision.
For the first time, Sylvia looked at the damage on her own car. A big punch in the door like the mark of a fist. And there was the driver meekly heading toward the police cruiser like a large primate she’d read about who’d rampaged out of his cage and gone hiding in Palo Alto for a day and a half. When he was tired of running, this young ape had walked back into the arms of his keeper, nuzzling the familiar-smelling neck and picking through his jailer’s hair for nits.
The driver slid to a stop. The name’s Jimmy, he said to Sylvia, sticking out his hand. A shy smile. Jimmy Doherty. She took the hand he offered, warm and calloused, thinking she was expected to say, Glad to meet you, but instead just saying, Yes. As though she’d known his name all along. The policeman was already yelling when they got out of the car. Didn’t they know they weren’t supposed to leave the scene of an accident?
All her life, Sylvia had had a reflexive urge to lie when people yelled at her. I’m sorry, she said. I needed to call my son’s babysitter, and I was too shaken to drive. I left my phone home today by mistake, so Mr. Doherty took me to find a phone in his own car. Jimmy Doherty poked his shoe at the pavement and jingled the change in his pocket. With men who are to be reckoned with, this sound says power. The sound of Jimmy’s money was just pathetic.
There’s a phone right over there, said the policeman in a tone that said, You dummy. Sergeant Phelps, the badge said. In that little variety store right there, gesturing with his head while his hand was hooked in the belt loop above his holster.
I’m sorry, said Sylvia again. I wasn’t thinking. Now, because she’d lied, she wouldn’t be able to get word to her sitter at all; but suddenly remembering the phone could have been busy, she told the officer that she hadn’t gotten through the first time. Do you suppose I could go and try again? I’ll be right back.
Jimmy, who’d been looking at his feet, pulled his hand out of his pocket, and with it a half-eaten pack of butterscotch lifesavers. Want one? he asked, pushing it toward Sylvia.
Sure, she said. Thanks a lot. She smiled into his face and took the lifesaver off the top of the pack. It was sticky and warm from Jimmy’s pocket and had lint on it. She put it in her own pocket and left Sergeant Phelps talking with Jimmy.
Jimmy, that dinosaur of a man who’d given her a lifesaver from his pocket. He wasn’t a carnivore but one of the small dinosaurs that were always getting drowned in bogs or dying off. When she returned, things had gone pretty far. Jimmy was sitting in the back of the police cruiser. She imagined that on top of everything he probably had no insurance. Maybe not even a current license, although his faithless friend had said he’d lose it. It was clear from the way the officer treated her when she came back—solicitous, kind—that she was entirely blameless in his mind.
Only she wasn’t. She’d lied. She hadn’t come to a full stop. She’d been distracted at the intersection, her mind whirling past the four-way stop to her mother and father and son. She hadn’t given any thought at all to her driving. Yes, her seat belt happened to have been on, but her mind had been rushing backwards and forwards across town.
Sergeant Phelps gave her a map of an intersection marked north, south, east, west and asked her to draw what had happened. Jimmy Doherty, barreling in from the east, had hit her with that wreck of an olive green car. She’d have to draw that. Would she mention the fact that there’d been a passenger? No, let it go.
Shaky, Sylvia left the intersection with Jimmy still sitting in the back of the flashing police cruiser. Misera me, the curve of his back said. I’ve gone and done it now.
Driving toward the babysitter’s, she felt trajectories of cars fly at her from every direction. Sylvia hadn’t known until she set out how jumpy she was. She crawled along the right curb. Anything could happen. This river of cars that normally flowed smoothly, seemed full of rocks, snags, hidden debris. She turned onto Whitney Avenue, stopped in front of the house and pulled up the emergency brake. Was it her imagination, or was the car rolling? She pulled a little harder and turned the wheel in toward the curb.
Upstairs on the second floor, her son Jeremy was beginning a snack, his chin already covered with graham cracker crumbs. He saw his mother and rushed to her. He smelled good. Sylvia scooped him up, put on his jacket, and headed home.
Everywhere, cars were still trying to plow through her. Her knuckles tightened around the steering wheel. At home, she’d find Larry, her husband, a labor organizer, who wouldn’t know how to calm her.
Jonathan’s a poo-poo head, said Jeremy from the back seat.
Why, what did he do? And while she asked, she was thinking about the reckless courage of her mother’s lipstick, colliding here and there with the cheeks, temples, lips, ears, the god-knows-what-else’s of old men who were living out their rust bucket days with her as their final pleasure.
He hit my head with a block, said Jeremy.
What did you do?
Hit him with my sandwich.
Sylvia imagined the scene—the block, the peanut butter sandwich—and glanced in his direction. I’m sorry you had all that trouble, she said.
It’s o.k., Mom.
There was this truth about matter striking matter that reduced everything to its essence. Once, on an upper floor of an office building where she worked, framed in the center of three huge windows, Sylvia had seen the imprint of a large bird. The beak, the eye sockets, the tilt of the upturned wings, the feet like landing gear, the suggestion of hollow bone under feather. All there in grease and dust. A grave rubbing. Horrifying, that remnant of a collision, but at the same time, she’d never seen anything more beautiful. The most perfect essence of bird, all air and feathers.
She pulled into the driveway. Looks as though Daddy’s home already, she said.
Yep, home already.
Larry was in the kitchen chopping tomatoes by one dim light. It was typical of him that he hadn’t noticed that the sun had gone down. He was already surrounded by tomatoes: he cooked in large quantities the way he organized labor. For Sylvia’s birthday two weeks ago, He’d made three sour cherry pies, and lit one with brandy. It turned out he’d never pitted the cherries though. All that glitz and hoopla and the pits baked into the pies, ready to break a hundred teeth.
Sylvia set Jeremy on the floor, gave him a banana, and told Larry she’d been in an accident. She said it almost casually as though it had happened to someone else. He didn’t seem to have heard her, but she couldn’t blame him because she was telling it so it would sound unimportant. She didn’t know why. Larry took the wooden cutting board in his left hand and swept the cut tomatoes into a glass bowl with his right. He was getting lettuce out of the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator when she said, I’m o.k., though. My neck’s wrenched, and there’a bruise on my knee. My ankle doesn’t feel quite right, either.
He stopped. What happened? Who hit you? He crossed the kitchen to her.
And then she was telling him. Mullen Street. The olive green car. The crash. The passenger with the baseball cap. You fucker. You’re going to lose your fuckin’ license. The slam of the door, the passenger’s retreating back. She felt an urge to cry. The driver’s in a lot of trouble, I think.
The bastard, said Larry. Serve him right.
Why did Larry have to say that? Serve him right. His anger silted over everything—ambiguity, fear, pity, the soft centers of things. Jimmy Doherty didn’t know why he’d hit her. Shit, I don’t know, he’d mumbled, looking at his knuckles. I saw you all right. Sylvia thought of the lifesaver and reached into her pocket. There it was, butter-colored, warm, covered with lint. She went to the sink, washed it off, and put it in her mouth, where the sweetness spread from the hole in the center.
I was on my way back from seeing Mom and Dad when it all happened, she told Larry. Mom’s still cruising the halls. I don’t know what to do. Dad’s beside himself. They can’t go on like that. She glanced at Larry, wondering, How will we end up?
You’re right, Larry said, you can’t let her go on like that. Don’t they have restraints?
Restraints? You’re not suggesting my mother should be tied to a chair all day. Tell me you’re not saying that.
I don’t know, he said, looking embarrassed. I didn’t know what else to suggest. He started shredding the lettuce. Of course he was just trying to be helpful. Trying to save her from her parents’ sorrows and infirmities. Sylvia thought of a time she’d come home from junior high school and called, Mom? Mom? The house had echoed with emptiness, and finally there’d been a small, barely audible sound from the kitchen, dim and terrifying, like steam escaping from a fissure in a rock. Sylvia had thought of running over to a neighbor’s house to call the police, but how could she admit to being frightened of such a tiny noise? She hung around the front door, listening. And then there was something stifled, guttural, human. She went to the kitchen, and found her mother sitting on the floor of the pantry, her fist in her mouth, trying to hold her crying in.
I guess I’m a little blue today, she said, as she pulled herself together and hugged Sylvia. A little blue. Sylvia had never asked what had made her a little blue—her father’s indiscretions, chasms of loneliness? It never happened again.
She saw her mother’s face as she’d seen it today, turned fondly toward the door, and imagined how Mr. Linscetti, his face blank and breakable as a window, had lifted his chin to receive her mother’s imprint. A red kiss: life’s blood.
For years, her mother had washed dishes in a round aluminum dishpan, her hands hidden under the suds of Joy. Sylvia recalled the clank of metal silverware against the sides of the pan. One night, she’d heard her mother say to the dishwater, I’ve been here too long. She tipped the gray water into the sink, walked out the door and down the street. It was a good idea then, and her mother had the right idea now. All they needed to do was stand back and let her go. Let her go as kindly as a pale yellow lifesaver dissolves on the tongue.