Authors: Carol Anshaw
Tags: #Literary, #Fiction, #Family Life, #General
Alice said, “The big problem is there’s a kid, a girl, I think. We hit her. She’s outside somewhere.” Then to Maude, “I know this isn’t great, but I’m going to have to step on you a little to pull myself through the window.”
“S’okay,” Maude said, but groaned as Alice stood on her arm.
Once she hoisted herself out, Alice reached in and slipped her hands under Maude’s arms, pulled her to where she could boost herself up the rest of the way. In the front seat, the satin and polyester of Nick’s and Olivia’s costumes shushed against each other. Alice looked inside, and tried to rally them.
“What about you guys? Can you get yourselves out? There’s a little kid out here somewhere.”
“I didn’t see her, and then she was just hitting the car. I thought maybe she was an angel.” Olivia’s voice was coy and whispery. Like Marilyn Monroe’s. Given the circumstances, this voice was extremely annoying.
Nick turned from where he had settled, nearly behind the steering wheel, crushing Olivia, and looked up at Alice, smiling sheepishly,
reaching a hand up toward her in a sort of semi-wave. She saw he was trying to approximate sociability. As though that was what was being asked of him.
“They’re useless,” Alice turned to tell Maude, then looked at Maude’s ankle, which was only minorly cut, but quite swollen. “Can you walk on that?”
Maude took a few test steps, inhaling sharply with each one, but said, “Let’s go. Let’s find her.”
This wasn’t difficult. The girl lay maybe thirty feet behind the car, in the ditch that bordered the gravel shoulder of the road. She looked to be about nine or ten, although she had the adult features of kids from rougher places. She was quite beautiful, with a mop of hair bleached white by half a summer, green eyes staring at absolutely nothing. She was wearing denim cutoffs and a plaid madras shirt, a crosshatch of pinks and greens. Indian moccasins patterned with colored beads. Her clothes were blackened by the earth she had fallen onto, skidded through. There was very little blood, just scrapes here and there. She could be napping but for the position of her body, which looked something like an extremely advanced yoga pose, limbs bent in unlikely ways. Also, beneath the skin of her forearm, a bone poked out midway between her elbow and her wrist.
When she noticed this, Alice turned aside quickly to throw up.
Maude knelt and pressed her ear to the girl’s chest. She listened for a heartbeat, held her fingers to the girl’s neck.
“I don’t know,” she said to Alice, who was still doubled over. “I’m feeling something, but it’s so faint, like an echo. I’ll try CPR; you go for help. Do you know where we are?”
Alice straightened, wiped her sour mouth with the back of her hand. She looked up and down the sign-less road into the woods lining a summer night mild and still as some interior place, a vast, darkened room without walls. The trees seemed to end a ways off toward the east, replaced by fields. But whose fields? Did they already pass the turnoff to the town? What bend in the road was this? Which of the
many ancient oaks that were as common out here as pennies in a jar? Making out in the backseat with Maude had obscured both time and distance. They might be quite far from the farm by now. She shook her head. “I wasn’t paying attention. Of course I wasn’t. So now I don’t know. We’re between somewhere and somewhere else. But either way I walk, I’ll come across a house eventually.” Maude was already at work, pressing the girl’s chest, listening for returning breath.
Tom Ferris lurched toward them like a zombie, still holding the side of his head, bound up with Maude’s scarf, soaked with blood, which appeared black in the sharp moonlight.
“Tom,” Alice said, looking up from the girl, “it’s bad.”
But he was already folding onto his knees next to her. He was crying, sobbing really. His shoulders heaved. But although this was the saddest moment imaginable, something about his tears, the ease with which he accessed them, seemed false. Alice was brought up short by this, but had no time to think it through. When she stood to go for help, Tom said, “I’d better come along.”
Nick understood something had gone wrong. He had seen the girl dancing onto the road. He thought she was magical, but now it was definitely beginning to appear she was real. He looked over at Olivia. Maybe she could offer some clue, a prompt about what happened, what to do. But she was only staring up at him with curiosity, as if he was the one with the answer. She had a dark, serious bulge on her forehead.
With some effort, she wrestled her tapestry bag from between them, pulled out a Baggie, plucked from it a couple of pills, and extended her hand toward him. “Take one of these. We’re probably going to need something for whatever happens next.”
Despite the late hour, when Tom and Alice finally came to a house, all the lights were on inside. Bad Company poured out through screenless windows.
“This must be the Hell’s Angels place,” Alice said. The front yard was full of choppers. Before she could go farther, Tom put a hand on her shoulder to make her stop and turn around. “The thing is, I was wondering if you’d mind me sort of disappearing here. I’m just going to hitch a ride back to the city.”
For the first time, she noticed that his guitar case was slung over his shoulder. He’d had the presence of mind to get it out of the car.
“It’s just a professional consideration. The negative publicity. You know. And really, you guys don’t need me from here on. I was asleep. I basically missed the whole thing.”
“Hey. You need to stop. You’re not leaving now. Nobody’s leaving now.” What she held back from saying was that his celebrity was too small to worry about ruining. All she could do in this moment was try to summon up her sister’s voice. Carmen was very good at keeping people from their worst behavior.
The bikers turned out to be tequila drinkers, bandana wearers, snake keepers. The whole place smelled like the inside of a very bad shoe, a shoe with a piece of cheese in it. In the clutch, though, these guys proved to be surprisingly model citizens. One of them offered up his bandana to replace Tom’s blood-caked scarf-bandage. Alice used their phone to call the cops. The Angels offered to go out to the accident scene, but they only had their bikes, no way to transport the girl. And so they hid their hookah and then everyone just waited. Alice and Tom sat, sunk in papasan chairs, watching the snakes writhe around on the coffee table. Eventually, an ambulance sped by, siren wailing, followed by a highway patrol car. Another pulled up the dirt drive to the house, and picked up Tom and Alice. They sat in the backseat in silence, looking out in opposite directions.
When they got back to the accident, the scene had gone static. Maude appeared to have run out to the end of her nursing skills. Now she just sat next to the girl, holding one of her hands flat between her own. She had rearranged the girl’s limbs into more reasonable
positions, as though there was some element of modesty to consider.
Alice glanced over at Nick and Olivia, who sat on the other side of the road, silent and serious, a little too serious. High as kites, kites impersonating heavy stones. They nodded at her, solemn as judges. She wanted to bang their heads together, like coconuts.
The cops and the medics took over and began dismantling the tragedy. The girl went off in the ambulance, no siren. Maude stood in the sharp moonlight and the waving beams of flashlights, watching the ambulance go. Her bad ankle was swollen and dark.
“Hey,” Alice said, putting a hand to her arm to establish contact. “You did everything you could.”
Maude didn’t reply, didn’t even turn to acknowledge that Alice had said anything. She shrugged a little, maybe to shake off Alice’s hand.
One of the cops peered into the open trunk of the Dodge.
“We’ve got a little mail problem here,” he said.
The other cop had found Olivia’s tapestry bag on the ground, and was fishing out various Baggies filled with grass and hash and pills; also cellophane envelopes, amber prescription bottles.
Olivia hiked herself onto her wounded car, then sat smoking on the upended fender, white patent leather boots planted on the side of the tire. Graciously, she told the cops, “Please. Help yourself.”
“Looks like you’ll be riding with us,” one of the troopers said. He pressed the back of her head down and folded her into the backseat of one of the cruisers. As the car pulled away, she turned so she could look out the rear window. She appeared confused, unclear why she was being singled out.
The girl’s name was Casey Redman. She was ten years old. One of the ER nurses identified her immediately; her son was in the girl’s fifth-grade class. Her family lived very near where she had been hit, on the stretch of highway between Black Earth and Cross Plains. The parents were stunned, of course, that she had been killed, but also just
that she had been outside at night by herself. No one knew what she might have been doing there. She’d been sleeping over at a friend’s. She was on her way home for some ten-year-old’s reason. Her father was headed to the station now.
They got this information piecemeal from one side of phone calls taken and made by the young deputy who typed their statements very slowly, with two fingers. They had little to offer him in the way of details. They were all sorry, of course. Their sorrow was huge. But they were, variously, asleep, distracted, to be honest, a little drunk. No one offered anything to lift any of the blame from Olivia, who had been taken into custody—a place that existed somewhere beyond a pale-green metal door inset with a small, thick, wire-meshed window. Except for Nick, they didn’t even know her. She was driving; she was stoned. Laying the accident at her feet turned out to be a small, nearly synchronized motion.
The girl’s father—Terry Redman—came through the front door of the police station. He did this by kicking it open. He was small, but wiry, as if he had been forged, sparks flying off him, rather than born. The first thing he did was yank Nick off the plastic chair where he had nodded off. He pulled him up by the lace front of his wedding dress and proceeded to smash Nick’s nose with a single punch to the center of his face.
They all watched him go down. Everyone was tacitly deferring to some universal law that, while his daughter lay in the hospital morgue, a father was allowed to punch out the guy lounging around in the wedding dress.
When all the statements had been taken, all the forms filled in, then whited-out here and there, then filled in again, the cops took Maude and Tom and Nick off to the hospital to get their injuries looked after. Alice asked Maude if she wanted her to come along, a suggestion that elicited a stare as blank as paper.
It was morning by now. Alice stepped out the front door of the police station and started down the road alone.
Alice walked the last block home to cool down. She was quickly chilled, having worn only shorts and a T-shirt. The morning she had just run through would turn into a warm spring day. The air was still sharp, but the bottom had fallen out of winter. Inside the loft, she went looking for cigarettes. She was a smoking runner these days. She hoped these activities canceled out each other, leaving her about even in terms of health.
She had been back living in Chicago a couple of years, since right after the accident. She had needed to get back to the real world, provide herself with urban distractions. She’d found a huge, moldering loft, half of one floor in what used to be an industrial laundry. Nick put in a shower and sink and toilet, helped her sand the floors, scrub the walls, then paint them titanium white, like gesso on a fresh canvas.
She painted here every day she could afford. To support herself, she pushed out illustrations for low-end newspaper ads. Flank steaks and buckets of tripe for Moo & Oink, the South Side grocery. Mattresses and recliner chairs for Goldblatt’s, a budget department store. She also had a volunteer gig through the park district—two workshops at a
senior center. One in crafts, another in painting. The most popular project was laminating grandchild photos onto vinyl tote bags. Two women were becoming adept at making stuffed terrycloth picture frames. In the painting class, although some of the students had a deft hand, their subject matter veered into a kind of contemporary religious area. Angels working as school crossing guards. Jesus mediating peace with world leaders. Helping her students make art that was hideous but meaningful to them was a small torment Alice had devised for herself.
She was left with a couple of days a week to work on her own paintings. She inhabited a hardscrabble world with friends who, like her, rose and fell on the inhale/exhale of reviews and group shows and sales to collectors. Some had MFAs and adjunct teaching positions, but no one made a decent living. All of Alice’s friends struggled along in musty lofts like hers, or in apartments that smelled sour with roach spray and still had tons of roaches. They worked as costumed waitresses in theme restaurants, night doormen in Gold Coast buildings, bike messengers in the Loop. They belonged to food co-ops and had refrigerators filled with many heads of lettuce and industrial blocks of cheddar. They drank Louis Glunz wine ($3 a bottle), Red White & Blue beer ($1.49 a six-pack).
Today she painted all the way through into night, then cleaned brushes and sorted out the studio, made a cheese sandwich and fell into bed around one in her painting clothes. The buzzer woke her. She looked at the clock; the numbers were flipping from 3:23 to 3:24. This happened occasionally; there were two rowdy bars on her block. She didn’t answer, but the buzzing continued. She got up and went to the window, pushed her shoulders through the frame so she could look down. Standing in the shadows between streetlights was a tall blonde who, as she looked up, revealed herself to be Maude.
Alice got stuck for a moment, then went to buzz her in. This was a completely surprising event. Since the accident Alice had only seen her
once, at the baptism of Carmen and Matt’s baby, Gabriel. They gave each other a wide berth. Now here she was in some agitated state, in jeans and a sweatshirt turned inside out. Ten feet tall. Hair a tangle, expression feverish, smelling like lilac and biscuits. If Alice believed in a God she would have asked him: Please give me this.