A Bitter plow
A fierce desert wind whips and swirls sand across the two-lane desert highway. Sudden and violent wind gusts shudder my car and push it frighteningly toward the soft gravel shoulder, forcing me to correct the wheel and reactively pump the brake pedal unnecessarily.
I am driving nervously; my back stiff and upright, my hands tight on the wheel and my chin jutted forward as I navigate through this windstorm. The setting sun is at that spot where the car’s sun visor is useless, so periodically I release the wheel with one hand and hold my palm up to help shield the near blinding light of the soon to be gone sun.
There are only a few cars on the road this late Sunday summer afternoon. I’m heading back to L.A from Phoenix after visiting my aging father. As I was leaving, he tells me this might be the last time we see each other, an idea that knocks me slightly unsteady, but I don’t, or can’t, show him that the comment has an effect, and I wonder whose fault that is, his or mind. Instead, I remind him that he’d said the same thing about a car he bought a few years ago, “you said ‘this is the last car I’ll buy’ when you bought the Buick. Now you have the Cadillac. I think you say that about a lot of things, I think you said it about the condo in Flagstaff you bought and then sold to buy this one. You’ve probably said it about this place too.” I grin at him, like now I’m the parent, I’m the one who knows better. It gives me a weird sense of power, something that I’ve never felt around him, but I also feel melancholy because he could be right, this could be the last time we see each other. I am sad at that thought, but I wonder if I’m sad because I don’t know if I really care like I should care; I just don’t know how much I am supposed to miss him when he’s gone.
“I liked that Buick,” he says, “shoulda never sold it, Cadillac is a piece of crap, gotta replace the battery every 6 months.”
The shrieking sound of tires locking on asphalt from behind my car shakes me out of the memory, and the sound causes a jolt of fear to race through my body. I look in the rear view and see a car sliding nearly sideways and out of control, and it’s coming quickly to my right and I’m sure it’s about to hit me, but instead it hits the soft shoulder where it’s forcibly sucked into the desert, and away from me, as though invisible hands yanked it into this serious Mojave Desert.
Sand and dirt and rocks and pieces of what I think is tire splatter against my side windows, the sound reminding me, for some reason, of the way my ex-wife’s mother coughs. I jam my brakes hard and my teeth clench, but I know I’m safe. I know that any immediate peril has passed for me, so I turn and watch the other car, a tan compact like a Honda or small Chevy, as it hits the soft shoulder and then the soft packed dirt and the slippery sand of the always dry desert. I’d guess the car was doing a sideways fifty miles per hour into the desert, and a storm of dirt and dust explodes around it. I watch as the two wheels closest to me come off the ground. I’m turning sideways too, but only slightly, and upright, and quickly coming to a stop. The other car is now flipping over, I watch as it rolls once and then rolls again and on this second time I see someone, a woman, or a girl, and she’s rag-dolled halfway through the driver’s side window with her long dark hair flowing straight upward. I see that she’s wearing jeans and a red shirt, and then a silver necklace catches the failing light of the setting sun, and a gleam from the last
of this sun’s light shines off metal, and in retrospect, it shines just for me because there is no one else around. Then she disappears as the car rolls once again and lands on its roof and settles there with a rocking, smoky viciousness.
It is an incredibly harsh and violent the way the car has crashed, and it’s this violence that does not belong here because it is so out of place in the otherwise serenity of the desert. But because it is so sudden and brutal and so effortless, maybe it should be there, maybe it always is there but we can’t always see it, and then when it happens, when we see it, it does not fall in the order of things, because maybe it is the order of things, as if the real mistake is the tranquility of the windy desert, and the peaceful orange of the setting sun.
So, I can’t help but think that this carnage, this car crash is the true order, the violence is the true nature of all things. It is the helm of this ship and it steers lives and hopes and dreams by one single action like what I’m witnessing. And it all happens in a slow-motion time warping flash, a moment like so many other moments, except this one is pealed back and stretched. It is the same moment of time that ticks off on a watch in one quick glance. And yet in this tick of time, in this flash of time, I am a witness now, and I will never forget a girl’s flowing hair and the sharp glimmer of a sun-washed necklace.
My car comes to a sliding stop in an open area off the highway and about fifty feet from the wrecked car. The wind funnels sand in small whirlwinds that whip brush and trash around. The sun is falling away and only the top half of it now remains. Smoke and steam hiss from the upside-down wrecked car. All the widows are smashed and the two tires I can see are shredded. I don’t see the girl. There’s a pair of large round sunglasses and plastic bottle of water on the ground and a blue scarf, all of which I believe came from the car. I believe this because they look, not like trash, but like something misplaced the same way seeing real money on a dirty sidewalk looks misplaced
I get out of my car slowly. I don’t, well, I can’t go over to the wreak. It’s not just fear that holds me back, it’s some other emotion also. A hesitation to see what I might see, which would be something that would haunt me for a long time, I’m sure. There is also a feeling that I don’t want to be a part of this, that this, all of it, is something I don’t want in my life right now, or ever for the matter, and I’m feeling this the strongest. It’s not that I lack empathy necessarily, although that plays a role, it’s something more. It’s something about me, something in me that just does not want to be here now, to be witness to this, to have to understand this, to struggle with whatever it is that just happened, to make sense of something that I really don’t want to make sense of because this is not mine, I do not own this at all, none of this except ill timing has to do with me. Yet here I am, and I can’t leave regardless how bad I want to, and the thought of leaving and the thought of staying both take my breath and make it difficult to breath the thin desert air.
I should call someone. I should call for help. This thought makes sense to me and offers relief as well; I can do something easy, like a phone call, and the relief that this is something to do without really doing anything helps me catch a full breath. As I reach into my car for my phone another car races up behind me and comes to a sliding quick stop. A woman jumps out of the driver’s side and hurries toward the wreak. I yell to her as she runs past me that I’m calling someone for help now. The words sound anemic and I’m sure I’m not fooling her, but she doesn’t even indicate that she heard me.
I watch after the woman as she hurries to the wreak. She’s middle-aged, her hair graying and her ass a little wide. She is moving quickly, and she gets to the car and bends down and looks into the car’s smashed windows. She then straightens and hurries to the other side of the wreak and out of my sight. I try to imagine what she has found, and then I quickly try not to.
I make the call and 911 tells me someone has already informed them of the accident and help is on the way. The wind seems to have picked up with the setting of the sun. It is blowing from the other side of the highway and pushing everything deep into the desert. Smoke and steam still come from the wreak and rise slightly before getting wedged in the steady wind. A For Sale sign, a red and white one like the kind you put in a car window, blows toward me and stops on the front wheel of my car. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know if it came from the wreaked car. There’s a phone number on it only, no price and nothing filled in regarding the year and type of vehicle. I bend to pick it up and it’s in my hand when the woman comes back. She’s walking toward me, holding her hair down with her right hand, her body is slightly contorted from fighting against the wind.
“They’re coming,” I yell to her. “They already knew, someone called them already.” I realize that this info is not important, but to me it seems odd that someone had called 911, and I suspect it was someone passing by but didn’t stop. I think about that person and feel anger toward them, but also envy. “Did you find the girl? Was there anyone else? is she okay?” I’m speaking loudly, not quite yelling, into the blowing wind. Suddenly the fragile For Sale sign is blown from my hand by a sharp gust, and I watch it sail away, rolling awkwardly along the jagged desert floor.
A coyote with cloudy eyes surveys his low horizon wearingly. The animal’s coat is the same color as the dirt colored sand and the brown, brittle vegetation. Above him, and not as ugly as their reputation or endeavors, vultures imperturbably circle a recent roadkill, the same one the coyote contemplates.
Tumble weeds are pushed in the wind, and a small wind funnel suddenly appears on the highway and then vanishes just as quickly. The gray highway weaves and rises and drops, doing this nauseously and repeatedly. It is forever there, the yellow lines and white signs. A bouldering desert, stiff and repellant, with a road looking for a fast way to and from places of possible respite.
Cities in the desert don’t sprout and spread back like those by water, they grow from spotty wooden structures spread sparingly across the flat dry land. Wooden buildings, some now shuttered and, ostensibly, never mourned, become more and more prevalent, building like a wave, which crests into the large town or city only to quickly fade to sparse broken dwellings littered with the past; old trucks and boats and tractors and long tangled wind chimes that sporadically offer inharmonious recollections.
The motel light flashes blue and green and then white. Pear Blossom Motor Inn, the sign says, first flashing Pear Blossom in blue before the words Motor Inn light up in green and then they all light up in white. And then it starts over. It’s hypnotic and I’m watching the sign while leaning on the hood of my car. The events of the day are floating around in a surreal memory in my head. I can’t really piece it all together, it all seems like a fading dream daring at the clutches of my active mind, so all I can do is count the
seconds between the sign changing colors. It’s one second, and then stays white for two seconds and over and over again. It makes sense, in fact it makes perfect sense, the sign and the flashing and the colors, they have an order and it’s comforting.
I’m disappointed in my reaction. I’m disappointed about the way I handled everything. The way the woman, her name Alice, ran to the wreak as I should have but didn’t. The way my knees weakened when I was told that the driver, a girl of only 22, was dead. And when I was told that the girl had been speeding, in fact moments before the crash she had dangerously passed Alice, I said in my head that perhaps the girl got what she deserved. Something I could never say out loud, but that doesn’t make the thought any less vile.
“I have a daughter her age,” Alice says. I’m watching the flashing lights but turn to her when she speaks. I want to know about her daughter, now. I want to know what it’s like to have a 22-year-old daughter, and what it could be like if she died in a car wreck? I, of course, can’t ask her such things, but she changes the subject anyway and asks, “Does it snow here?” it’s a random question and perhaps it’s asked to shake the thought of her daughter away, or asked to shake away any questions about her daughter I might have.
“I think, like sometimes, like rarely but yes…why do ask?”
“There’s a snowplow,” she points to the left of the motel and to the California Highway Patrol Station she just came from, the same place I had gone to offer my witness report. The florescent reality of death and all the paperwork that comes with it felt cold and sterile as I sat there offering any information I could. The bored and stone-faced officer taking my report will surely one day suffer this indignity of dying on someone’s watch, and will also have the paper files of their lives shuffled on the top of metal desks like an awkward over-sized deck of cards in the fat hands of the emotionless and gauche.
I was asked questions that I could not answer. Questions about speed and road conditions and other nearby cars, and it made me feel useless and angry that I had no real or helpful answers, I had only speculations and conjectures regarding anything that would help his investigation. I told him that the girl, as I was told, had passed another at a high rate of speed, but he knew that already. I considered asking him if he thought this might be the girl’s own fault, but I didn’t, and I’m glad that I didn’t, because I felt very much out of place, and to ask such a stupid question would only contribute to my brooding alienation.
I follow Alice’s finger toward where she’s pointing, and indeed it looks to be a snowplow, the outline of it clear in the early evening and silhouetted in the reckless illumination of a public owned building. I stand and walk closer in curiosity, the idea that it could snow enough in this area that a plow would be needed offers a distracting intrigue. Alice follows me, and I sense her presence beside me, and I feel as though I’ve known her for a long time without knowing her at all, which must happen when strangers share a tragedy.
As we near the plow, it occurs to me that it could be just another thing that ended up here simply because there was nowhere else for it to go. I’m understanding, even in my short time here, that this is the case for many things, and no doubt many people.
It is a snowplow. The strike of the plow is still yellow but pitted and rusted in many spots. The pitted areas are scabbed with flaky rusted metal, and stains of rusty water long
ago dried drool like tears down the faded yellow strike. Pools of rusty water have also dried to a cooper stain on the ground along the bottom black bladed edge. The stain rivers in thin veins for a few feet toward the street only to be stop abruptly by a newer patch of asphalt.
“It seems sad,” Alice says at my side.
“Angry,” I say this harshly, although I really couldn’t picture an emotion on it, and I’m sure I’m just projecting my own current sentiments. “Maybe something in-between,” I quickly add apologetically, because I answered what I considered inappropriately harsh, and I really don’t want to offend this woman.
“Bitter?’ she suggests, and I nod in agreement. Bitter wears the desert well, I think. Bitter comes here for the winter and stays forever amongst the forgotten and the ignored.
“Bitter seems to be an emotion that blows around in this wind,” I say out loud.
“You think so?” Alice asks me, her posture is that of curious, her head tilts toward me as though she really wanted an answer to her question, and why I might feel this way. I’m stumped a little, and I really can’t answer her, I think maybe my comment was said just for something to say, and I’m sure the only thing bitter right now is me.
“I really don’t know,” I say. “I wish that things that happened today didn’t, or maybe that they happened without me…us involved.” Once those words have left my mouth, I think that maybe I have confirmed my comment about the desert wind and bitterness.
I realize that I haven’t given much thought to how Alice might feel, and how this has affected her. But I tell myself that our relationship, the foundation of it, doesn’t leave much room for that type of movement. Our connection to one another is based on a somber reality, and we are, at least I am, forced to move within that confine. I am interested in her slightly. I would like to know more about her. This woman offered an envious act of courage in the face of a catastrophe. I would like to know if this is truly who she is, if she is a woman of courage, or was it a fluke, a momentary strength in judgment, accepting that strength be the opposite of lapse. Of course, I would have to defend my own actions, which I don’t think I could. I acted selfishly and fearfully. I would tell Alice that this is not who I am, I am not so much this person as I am something more. But to try and defend who I am to a stranger, a stranger who has not so much as even questioned my actions, courage, or lack thereof, or even cast so much as a wary eye my way, is clearly an act of idiocy and I am happy that at the least I realize this much.
About the Author
Drew Fine is originally from New England. He attended Santa Monica Collegeand UCLA. He has won several awardsfor his poetry. He is finishing his 4thnovel, True Dreams Of Hollywood. Drew’sfirst novel, Joe Baby, has been adapted for the screen by Todd Samovitz, and iscurrently being developed for a motion picture by several Los Angeles and New Yorkbased production companies. Drew livesin Thousand Oaks, CA . with his daughter.