Philip Kobylarz is a teacher and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist and film critic for newspapers in Memphis, TN. His work appears in such publications as Paris Review, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry series. The author of a book of poems concerning life in the south of France, he has a collection of short fiction and a book-length essay forthcoming.
So there I was. Piece of shit freeway between the crummy town I lived in running to the even worse town in which I worked. The sun was burning bright, so bright it was blinding and maybe that was the reason no one was slowing down. Waving my arms like a madman, ok, maybe not the best way to solicit help, but when you’re in a state of emergency, what else to you do? I felt like jumping out in front of an oncoming truck. There weren’t any. And there weren’t. There weren’t. There wasn’t anything.
Or, there were long periods of silence, broken by only the sound of a car coming– passing– departing– and an echo of my own gagging voice in full fledged curse. Screw all motorists! Where’s their sense of fidelity, where’s their feeling of brotherhood? That’s what cars do to us, little coffins on wheels. They take us faster to the end.
The sun was burning bright. Real, real bright. Made brighter by surrounding fields of snow. Gullies frozen solid with ice. The freeway was white, with breezy drifts of snow, and dried up marshes where trucks dumped crystal loads of salt. Everything was white but nothing looked cold.
There I was. Should have known better than to go to work on a day that the high temperature was expected to be negative 20 even without the hedge of the wind chill thrown in. As a rule, you shouldn’t be expected to DO anything on a day that the friggin sun isn’t even working, a day that can’t even get warm enough to get your blood pumping, your lungs up and popping, your brain stewed to the degree of coherent thought.
What a wonderful day it was to pick the scenic route to work– highway numero 12– cutting through beautiful loping hills of farmland and stands of poplars near the bridge where the river cut through and barren stretches of grazing land for horses and cows (who weren’t stupid enough to be out) and rustic old farm houses and barns way off the highway looking like children’s toys in the distance at the ends of frozen dirt roads with those dusty squirrels’ tails extending from them to a mailbox and a name painted in big black letters.
I should have known that the rental car I was driving, no more no less than a 1981 Ford Escort, would break down the day the insurance company procured it for me. And what an escort it was: metallic blue with a red interior, the heat barely worked especially on a day like this, the radio picked up only religious stations and farm reports, there were no interior dash lights to speak of illuminating the drivers thought at night, and the biggest insult was the cigarette lighter that wasn’t there but mocked you by providing in its absence a tiny cylindrical glowing cavern leading nowhere. Lighting nothing. I couldn’t make a boy scout fire to keep my hands warm.
The car was majorly dead. A cracked crankcase or something big. It just lost power and coasted to its bitter, as in bitterly cold, end. It looked like a dead turtle on the beach of the highway’s shoulder. I left it for death a half mile down the road.
It was so cold I could taste my breath, and it wasn’t a flavor I would recommend. There are just those days when it’s so bone chilling that all you can think is god it is cold and there are those days that start off so bad you can taste how much worse they will get on the back of your tongue and you can smell the awfulness of the oncoming day at the very back of your nostrils, almost underneath your eyes, and this is why some people drink liquor straight up– not because they like it like that, because it erases the misery that inhabits the air, your body, your hair, and all those musty spaces within and in between.
I knew that the bed and I should have not interrupted our platonic love affair.
But there I was, waving my hands at the relatively few cars on the desolate highway on a desolate winter’s day and I could not believe that the seven, count ’em, 7, that drove on by me drove on by! I felt like an idiot ground crew member on an aircraft carrier on waters so rough the planes couldn’t land, endlessly aborting. Whizz– another passes by as the cloud of my breath freezes in front of my face, for a moment. I would have begun crying at about rejection number four, but I knew the tears would only freeze and cause me sad clown tears of frostbite. At number six, I kicked my own foot. Didn’t feel it.
Number seven I attempted to hit with a rock encrusted with ice and only lost my mitten.
Car number eight appeared to show the recognition of emphathy by slowing down. The driver inside, wearing a ski mask, seemed to have made, or at least attempted, eye contact. He passed me and I let out a load and squelchy F- Y O U, and then saw his brake light blink on an illusory color of red I could barely see shining under the whiteness of snow and sun.
I shuffled up to the stopped vehicle, my joints barely functioning in the cold, its tailpipe coughing up water and threading out a stream of condensation. It was a family-sized vehicle, a sedan. The silhouette of a person inside was gesturing APPROACH from inside of a scraped off circle of frost and three day ice on the window. It appeared that the person was piloting his ship from four evenly sized portholes.
Outside the passenger’s door I heard what I thought was a muffled “Get in!” I raised my mitt to the car door and distinctly heard, ” . . . in back!”
The door opened to a pile of things, some being a balled up afghan, various half-folded up road maps, a small broom, a thermos with its lid unscrewed, a pair of nice dress shoes, some pink and yellow pieces of paper that looked like airplane tickets shorn of their protective folder.
“No one would stop for you?” the driver asked from behind a ski mask. It was a man’s voice.
“Not a soul,” I replied “you were the first to even think of slowing down.”
“Unbelievable,” he said “in this weather. You could have frozen to death.”
“I know, I know. The car– it isn’t even mine. It’s a rental. A piece of crap.”
“They all are this time of year. Where you going?”
“Anywhere in town, you can drop me off at the first intersection. That’d be fine.”
“No problem, it’s o.k. I’m just running errands, I can take you where you need to go, just let me know.”
“Great, the car place is on Washington.”
“Where’s that?” he asked.
“On the way into downtown, past the Holiday Inn, not far.”
“That’s on my way, anyway.” He seemed to be happy to offer a hand. He gripped the steering wheel with one hand and with the other tore off the navy blue wool ski mask. A long mane of light brown hair sparked in static electricity. He turned his head to me, in the back seat, smiled a sweaty smile.
“Hey man, you saved my life.” I offered.
“It’s nothing man, I do shit like that everyday.”
I realized that I was sitting in the middle of his backseat, the only place made available by the pile of what every long distance traveler accumulates on the long boring highways of the country. My inadvertent position was made even more apparent by my bad habit of scanning a face caught in the unacknowledged portraiture of a rearview and his right eye catching me and winking me away. I looked down, in front of me, in the passenger’s seat, and saw another bundle of stuff.
Under the bundle of stuff, which I took to be an outgrown winter’s coat folded among yesterdays paper and a fast food lunch, was a baby seat. In the baby seat was a baby sleeping. On the floor of the passenger’s side was more assorted junk, one of those coffee cup holders you hook onto the window, an ice scraper, and a casual collection of those tiny little liquor bottles you get on airplane trips. They had their tops off. They were empty.
The micro-climate of the car’s interior didn’t smell like booze though. And his eyes weren’t glazed over. He stared intently on the sun brightened freeway, as if he were counting each yellow dash and accumulating this numerology for some reason in the depth of his mind, switching his view every so often only to glance at me in the back, and smile.
“So, you’re from around these parts, huh?”
“Yep. I was just on my way to work. At least the car didn’t die on me after a long day.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that” he assured me.
“Is that yours?” I motioned to the sleeping child with my head. Stupid question.
“Yeah, yeah. She’s seven months. Apple of my eye. I’m from Denton. Know where that is?”
“Nope, never heard of it.” I hadn’t, or at least, had never cared to.
“Oh, it’s about two and a half hours south of here, along the river. Not much of a place. But it provides me with a job, so I can’t complain.
“Yeah,” I said, “doing what?”
He looked out from behind the windshield, scanning the horizon as if he were expecting something. As a matter of rote, he checked all three rearviews, then sucked something through his teeth. “Paramedic.”
The kid in the plastic seat began to squirm a little and make noises like a pig suckling. Like it was eating something or wanted to.
He pulled the blanket from its face, probably to keep it warm, and tucked it under its chin. Couldn’t tell if it was a girl or boy, but there was no mistaking its resemblance to him.
“So I’m taking you downtown, right?” he asked? “Hey, you like music?”
“Yeah, sure.” I was almost warm enough in the car for me to remove my gloves.
“What kind of music?”
“Oh, all kinds, you know rock, jazz . . .” I didn’t want to divulge that maybe I wasn’t a country-western fan.
He put the radio on to a jazz station. “Yeah, I dig jazz too. As long as it’s classic jazz. Don’t like this crappy elevator music stuff they call jazz, or smooth jazz, or whatever. There is no such thing.”
“Amen to that.” I added.
The nothingness that was empty farmfields and stretches of cropland with every so often a mechanic’s shop in a quonset hut passed by quickly while we were trying to find things to say to each other. We passed a place that manufactured tombstones.
“Bet that place has a jumping showroom.”
The funny thing is that I couldn’t help myself from peering over the front seats’ edge and looking at the baby all calm and quiet, wearing a little red winter cap with a big poofy white ball on it, just lying there not knowing what was going on. Not caring about cars, or jobs, or the winter, or problems, or life for that matter.
There were fifteen miles to go to get to the city. Only problem was that the road was iced-over in parts, so the going was slow. The radio was barely audible. He wasn’t asking me what I did for work. Wasn’t much to say. Gratefulness often recedes into silence.
“Yeah, I save people’s lives all the time. I mean, it’s my job and all. It’s not like I can kick back and slack and let a few go, you know.”
“I imagine not.”
“I mean, I do it all the time. Do it so much that it even starts to get boring. Sometimes. I mean, it’s all a matter of a pinprick, really. One second the blood’s flowing, the lungs are pumping, heart’s beating away in the dark cave of your chest, eyes are wet and moving, and in a pinprick, I’m talking a little teeny weeny sewing needle here, it can be shut off. Dead. Nothing. You’d hardly even notice it. Not at first anyway. Not until all the fluids settle. Not until the body starts getting rigid. It’s like a clock. We’re like clocks, just ticking away. If even any one of those vital gears or switches fail– hey, no more time.”
The baby in the front seat writhed a little. I thought it strange that a man like he was, a paramedic, would put a kid in the front seat. But I didn’t say anything.
“So do you see a lot of–”
He looked back at me.
“Death?” you mean.
“Yeah,” I said, ” . . . a lot of stopped clocks?”
We were slowly making our way into town. Gas stations, more than any city of twenty thousand ever needed, began clogging up the view from the steamed windows. People were running into the stations and then windsprinting back into their cars because it was so damn cold. People running in snow boots is a sight to see.
“You wouldn’t believe the shit I see, I mean, for a small town.”
“I mean, it’d surprise you.”
“O.k., such as?” I asked because he seemed to be pursuing the topic.
” . . . well, of course there’s a lot of kids with arms mangled by farm machinery, you know around here, even legs nearly chopped off, dangling by threads. There’s the every so often gunshot wound or knife slash do to a ‘misunderstanding’ at a local watering hole. There’s the every odd naked woman found in a drift of snow with no foul play or motive to indicate homicide. “Happens at least once every two years . . .”
“And, you know, there’s the car crashes, the drunk drivers with their skulls cracked open, missing so much brain that there ain’t nothing we can do. And there’s burn victims, sometimes even profs at the university in the chemistry department who mix some kind of concoction and end up burning the whites out of their eyes . . .”
“No way . . .”
“But the weirdest, the strangest of all, is, well– can you guess?”
“Crimes of passion? Hits? Haven’t heard of any maniac killers in the papers of recent,” I was guessing.
He said it again, this time nodding his head in a type of assurance, or knowledge, only he possessed.
He smoothed back the hair on his deep-in-sleep child’s head and flicked the turn signal on, entering town. There were hardly any cars on the streets. No one was going to risk it.
For a minute, I had nothing to say. Dread of those penny-ante procedures I would have to go through shortly to get myself out of this situation drained me of all inspiration. Yet I thought, out loud, “Why would a paramedic be called to a suicide scene?”
“‘Cause,” he said an air of superiority that came with a position in the life/death industry, “sometimes they don’t get the job done. You see, there’s always the chance that we can revive them, then . . .,” he chuckled “. . . prosecute them for breaking the law.”
“Suicide’s a crime in these parts, you know.”
The car stopped. We were at the intersection where I needed, or thought I did, to be dropped off. From there, I could see the river frozen over and small, step-shaped drifts of snow, resembling waves, or some kind of one dimensional staircase leading out to bare pools of black ice. For all that it’d be worth, all the sunshine of the day, it would be night by four thirty p.m.
The baby, sensing a lack of movement, began to fidget in its seat. And make a gurgling noise.
“There was this one guy . . .” he shook his head to himself and continued “. . .who did it by rigging up an elaborate yet home-made contraption: he soldered wires from his fillings, do you hear me, his fillings in his mouth, strung that into an electrical cord, like he cut it from a lamp or something, and plugged his face in the wall. Imagine the toothache!”
“You’re shitting me.”
“No way man, I was there. I won’t go into the gory details, but, you should have smelled it in there.”
I could, but didn’t, imagine.
“Then there was this lady, and we don’t know, the cops don’t know, her family don’t know, don’t anyone know why she took this hedge clipper thing, you know one of those big saws, the kind that look like the nose of a saw fish, and she put it in her, if you know what I mean and she turned it on and she put it most of the way in her and those things are long, like real long– what?– about a foot and a half and when we got there I don’t know why they even bothered to call us ’cause the pool of blood turned almost completely all of the white shag in that room into a brown carpeted room and you know what the forensic experts said, at least what the rumors were around the office the next week . . .?”
“No, I . . . can’t even . . . imagine–”
That she died in a state of ecstasy. The best orgasm she had ever had.
The baby started an all out cry.
I put my hand on the window and it felt like dry ice. I motioned towards the door and thanked him for the lift. I noticed that under his legs, on the driver’s side floor, he had amassed a pile of pulled off rubber gloves. He noticed me noticing them and said, “Keep your hands real warm, here- want a pair?”
I said, “No, uh, no, can’t stand they way rubber smells. Or feels.”
“Thanks anyway, for everything.”
The baby’s crying picked up volume. It wanted to get humming on the road again, back into its thought-womb. Tears began to trickle down its pale face, leaving little warm trails of red and wetness.
“Yeah, just be careful out there, it’s real cold. Driving a crummy car like yours on a day like today ain’t real smart buddy.”
“I know, I know, probably will have to go back and get it later, or tomorrow.”
“Some might even say that driving out there in the middle of nowhere like that on a day like today is even a bit, well, death defying.”
“Yeah.” I pretended to laugh.
Last thing I heard was the sound of the baby gulping down its own tears and sniffling as I shut the door and he drove off, smiling and nodding his head. He waved to me again, and I wondered, I truly wondered, what was that beautiful child’s name.