When the accident occurred, George Wissone was returning from an errand. Among the things he'd bought was a plastic container of paper clips that flew open when he slammed on the brake. Paper clips fell from his hair as he opened the door to see what damage he'd done to the car he'd rear-ended. He winced and avoided looking at the front fender of his own rental car. Most of all, he wished no one to be hurt. He was surprised to see blood between his thumb and first finger, though he had felt the key's serrated edge as he'd pulled it clumsily from the ignition. Unlike him to do things clumsily, but there would be plenty of time to introspect later. The woman did, indeed, seem to be hurt.
Being hit from behind at a red light was the last thing she needed, so she had dropped her head to her hands, which tightly clutched the top of the wheel. She was late for work, and the day before her son had called from England to say that he would not be coming home for Christmas. So much for her excuse not to work both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the nursing home. She finally met his eyes, but only for a second, after deciding he was not really injured. She was a round-faced woman with broad shoulders and a nervous-seeming overbite. Cars were swerving around them. Soon -- when he got to know Charlottesville (to the extent that he got to know any place) -- he would curse the unmannerly drivers of rush hour like everyone else.
He should not have taken a double dose of Contac and then operated "heavy machinery" -- such as a Geo Metro could be dignified as representing "heavy machinery." She sat there, jaw set, not opening the door tostep out. He looked back at his car and saw that he had left the door ajar. It was in danger of being sideswiped by irritated motorists, one of whom had the nerve to hit the horn as he -- make that she -- blared past.
"Wouldn't you know it," the woman muttered. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm awfully sorry," he said. "I wasn't thinking."
"Beer for lunch?" she said. "Did you think about domestic, or no: you'd go for imported, right?"
The next car that swerved toward them was a police car. He saw a German shepherd in the back. A dog he'd never liked, along with Dobermans. Of course, he didn't like pit bulls, either. He had been driving west. The sun, which gave no heat, burned his eyes. He tried to wince it away, fixing his gaze on the police car's blue light as it pulled in behind his car. Did German shepherds have blue eyes? As a boy he'd had a mutt that was part shepherd: a dog with one blue-flecked eye, the other brown.
He had not had beer at lunch. He had not had a drink of any sort for more than four years. Another car with a dog inside passed. The dog eyed the scene, moving in the backseat.
"My job." The woman had finally left her car to talk to the policeman. Apparently she had the habit of loudly articulating the last words of sentences. "Doesn't he have a business card, so we can talk about this later?" she said, as if he couldn't answer for himself. "He plowed into me when I was stopped for the light." She was holding her business card between two fingers, as if it were usually clipped there. The cop reached out and took it. She said, "I think this man has been drinking."
"That hand okay?" the cop said, looking at the smear of blood on his jacket pocket. He had said something to the woman, first, but George hadn't heard it. Even she might not have understood, the wind had come up so strong. In a big tree, someone had hung wind chimes. Metal tinkled like toy swords.
"People overreact to blood," the woman said. "Blood, and tears. If it's a new mother, she overreacts to shit."
The cop turned his full attention to the woman, taking one step forward with a quizzical expression.
The cop was holding both of their licenses. He seemed to take George's word for the fact that he was driving a rental car, that the registration was in the glove compartment. George supposed you could tell a car was a rental from the license, though it had been so long since he'd rented a car, he wasn't sure about that. In any case, the cop obviously had no intention of seeing whether he could walk a straight line. "I don't want to make more of this than necessary," the cop said to the woman. "No need to waste time we don't got."
He watched silently as the cop returned the woman's registration and license. Her insurance company would talk to his insurance company. Surely he had an insurance company, though that would be a bit of trivia he'd never know. There were many things it was pleasant not to have to think about. On the other hand, it would have been nice to have some input about what rental car had been reserved for him.
The cop unwrapped some gum and folded it over, placing it in his mouth. He looked at both of them. It was obvious he knew neither would like a stick.
The driver of the other car was Nancy Gregerson -- Gregerson having been her married name. Her maiden name, not resumed after the divorce, was Shifflett. The town was full of Shiffletts, so why add to their ranks? She had been divorced for twenty years, and her last name no longer reminded her of Edward Gregerson. A couple of Beatles songs did, and the way the corners of her son's mouth tightened sometimes brought his face to mind, but his last name? Not at all.
She had driven away saying, "Late to work," and she realized she was being obnoxious, but couldn't help herself. She put in a full shift at Dolly Madison House without taking a break (Jenny, the nurses' aide, was six months pregnant; she let her have the time). By the time an hour had passed, she felt slightly chagrined that she'd been so unkind to the man who'd hit her. Her instincts about who'd been drinking and who hadn't weren't always right; she tended to overestimate how many people were alcohol dependent. They made the staff watch so many films about drunks and smokers -- how could she think otherwise? One recent film had been a very unfunny cartoon, and an equally humorless visiting cardiologist had pointed a laser pen at a drunken elephant on the screen as if he were making rounds with his interns and an elephant just happened to be sprawled in the bed, like any other patient.
She punched out, sorry that her son wouldn't be home for Christmas. He was an unhappy young man who expected too much from his ability to draw recognizable figures. He had been painting in London for almost two years. For a while he had lived with two other would-be painters, but as often happened in his life, they decamped and went elsewhere. One had moved to a room in someone's house. The other moved in with his girlfriend. Was that it? In any case, Nicky was there, stuck with the rent. When he'd flown in to Dulles the year before, he'd stayed only three days, and he'd spent the entire time brooding about his former girlfriend, who'd moved to Lexington. Should he visit her? Should he not? Sitting in Nancy's favorite chair, his big feet in his Doc Martens dirtying her little needlepoint footstool as he mentally plucked the anxiety daisy.
Though she alternated among several routes home, this evening she decided to take the same road on which she'd been involved in the accident earlier. There was a spritz of ice in the wind: enough to scrabble at the glass for a second before it melted. The road curved, and she realized she'd been following a van too closely. Icy road, tailgating...she might plow into somebody herself, and wouldn't that be ironic. An SUV sat at the curb, and just past it a tree, lit by a floodlight above it. She turned in to a driveway and walked back to where she'd been. She saw something glinting in the street, but since she'd inspected her own car carefully, she didn't much care what had broken on his. She remembered it as a crummy little car, and thought that was about right: that was what he'd be driving. She bent to see what sparkled on the asphalt, and saw paper clips scattered there. She picked up one but left the others; they would not be a clue for her insurance company. In fact, they seemed so ordinary that she felt even sorrier that she had been so unkind to him. She'd come to believe that everywhere in the world, a little something was out of place, all the time. Like one of the old ladies on floor three: you'd find a glove pulled onto one of their feet, their shoe somewhere across the room. The poinsettia's red leaves on the floor, as if a cat had attacked a cardinal. At lunch, you might see a lipstick tube dropped on their plate, shiny among the vegetables, relinquished, at last, from their fist, or even a snapshot, disguised in the folds of a skirt, pulled out and placed on the food like a trump card.
She stopped at a convenience store for Taster's Choice and milk. A young man in front of her reminded her of her son: slouched into his own body, big black motorcycle boots, ugly tattoo of some bird that couldn't become extinct soon enough etched on his forearm. He looked through her as he pocketed his change and walked past. He was someone's son -- one who either would or would not be going home for Christmas.
Copyright © 2005 by Irony and Pity, Inc.