Paul A. Toth's work has been published in Anthem, The Blue Moon Review, Anthem, Artisan and other magazines.
is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments,
please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All materials copyright 1996-1998 by their respective
creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be
posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).
by Paul A. Toth
Before the crash, I was a reporter. I have a good memory. I remember almost everything about that night.
I can see my car weaving through the curves around Lake Fenton, the roads wet from an earlier rain. The tar looked like black onyx. Clouds blotted out the moon.
Look up, I thought: I am seen. I have been located. The game's up.
No, think again; just the ordinary regrets and sorrows -- I often have dreams about airplanes crashing. Hoping for bad news is an occupational weakness. It's not unnatural.
The trees were bushy and dark. They swelled and shivered in the headlights, distracting me. The windows steamed up. I could smell my skin. The wind tugged and tore and pulled. I couldn't hold the car still between the yellow lines. Ghosts from my mind moved about. The headlights revealed their fluorescent stick figures running in the fields. Some of them shot through the air like tracers. I rubbed my eyes.
Bad things happened on this road. There isn't such a thing as an evil road, I told myself, but there are good roads and bad roads, better made and worse made roads, lucky and unlucky roads, statistically safe and dangerous roads. It's based on numbers and if you're good with numbers, everything adds up. Otherwise it's a mystery and you can believe anything you want, like the Bermuda Triangle.
Not long to go now, ten minutes and I was home. The big curve was coming up. If I handled it right, I'd get a momentary sensation of floating.
I pushed the accelerator down. The tires gave a little, spitting mud and rocks, then took hold again, and then lifted. For a moment we floated, the car and I, sailing the space of a raindrop over the tar, through the slim expanse of a second. The colors traced past, spraying fiery light like sparklers (the ghosts of everyone who had been killed on this road -- impossible).
We moved toward another field of light, decelerating, the interior of the car illuminated, the dust of cigarette ashes covering the steering wheel and instrument panel. The spectrum of colors rushed towards a central point, then exploded with the sound of snapping, twisting, popping, smashing glass, metal and plastic.
I think I smelled gasoline.
Then it was dark and there was an interlude, silent and empty, motionless.
I suppose, though I cannot remember, that the strings were tuning, the reeds trilling the scales. Disorder permeated the air, but forms stirred. Consciousness, though muted for now, would soon intrude, drunken, seized with some unfathomable motive.
My Nerves Burn.
Push Back, with Your Hands on the Wheel. It's Crumpled.
The Air Is Aflame. If the Sun Was up the Road Would Seem to Bend in the Heat, but the Sun Is --
It's Dark. I'm Blind.
Turn Your Foot Toward the Door. It's Already Almost Open. Kick it. Your Shoulder Is Burned, Slide the Seatbelt Strap off. Good, Now Your Body Is Free. Excellent. You've Got Guts.
See Those Lights, What Are They? I Remember Them -- Missiles, I Think. This must Be a War. My Head Is Bandaged. This Is a Supply Road. I'm Trying to Make My Way along it to the Red Cross Tent. Those "Ghosts" Are Explainable. Anyway, I'm Hallucinating. I Can't Trust Myself. It Could Be Any Year, Any Time and I Could Make up Any Sort of Story Involving Lights. It Doesn't Mean a Thing. The Bermuda Triangle.
Sure, That's What You Think. Watch out for Oncoming Traffic. The Helicopters Are Coming. The Wind from Their Blades May Sweep Away the Lights but They'll Come Back. This Is One Hell of a News Story, the Dead along the Roadside, Coming to Visit Their Biographer, Flaunting Their Bright Colors, Saying, "Thought I Was Black Ink on Newsprint, Then Maybe a Paycheck, and Then a Drink, a Videotape, a Pack of Cigarettes. You Asked for Our Deaths and Now We're Asking for Yours. Come Along, over Here, in the Grass."
I'm Going off the Road Now but Because There Is Something Not Far from Here, a Lake, and I'm Thirsty. My Throat Is Dry. Dry with Blood from a Wound. I Wonder Where the Wound Is -- above My Mouth, I Know That Much.
That Blood Was Squeezed out of Your Articles.
Now That's Just Plain Stupid. I've Got to Watch My Footing. Those Blades of Grass Are over 300 Feet Tall.
The Blood's Running down Your Face. If You'd Stop a Moment and Look at Yourself, You'd See That.
Blood from of My Articles, Huh? I Didn't Cause Those Accidents, I Only Recorded Them. I Want
A Boat. I Think If I Got into a Boat and Sailed Away, I'd Be Safe. I've Got to Get to a Boat.
There Is a Whole Population of People in the Same State of Mind, Right Now. You're in an Earthly Purgatory. But Don't Believe Me. Go Find Your Boat! But I'm Telling You, Those Ghosts Can Swim. They're Land, Sea and Air Ghosts.
That Cave, Between Those Trees: it must Be a Tunnel out of Here. It Probably Goes Underneath the Trees All the Way to the Nearest Water. In it Fish Swim at Your Feet. In That Water I Will Forget Everything and Start All over Again.
Presumptuous, as Usual. An Easy Way out of Everything.
Who Is Talking to Me? Do Lights Have the Ability to Force Sound out? I Didn't Think So. And Now, There's the Tunnel. This Didn't Even Happen, Once I'm There. So Whoever's Talking Can Forget about Me.
"There he is."
"You stay with the pickup and call for backup. I'll go get this guy."
New Voices -- the Game's up. They'll Find My Tunnel like in the Great Escape. It Doesn't Look Too Good. I Gotta Move. Follow the Owl.
"Hey, wait there."
Wait? Okay. I'll Wait. I'm Stupid. I'll Let You Trap Me. Throw a Net over My Head. Take Me to the Kommandant.
"Hold up. I'm with the township. Let me take a look at you."
So Look. There's the Entrance. I'm Going with the Cold Quiet Fish.
"I've got you. Take it easy. Let's get you back to the road."
"Sixty-two. Located second victim."
I'm in Your Arms, Now. You're Leading Me Away. You're Going to Save My Life and Send Me Home Early. I Thought I'd Escaped. I Almost Made it.
When I came to the next day, someone prodded me with a rolled up newspaper.
"Open your eyes slowly."
I looked and saw Dave Kukla, the assistant editor. "Front page." He held up the newspaper. "I wrote it."
The headline read: "Accident Kills One -- 'Miracle' Spares Weekly's Tom Hamilton."
"I'll read it later."
"Let me read it to you."
"Okay, later. But I have a present for you. Sergeant Alistair gave me this."
I held out my hand. He placed a dictation tape in my palm.
"From the other car?" I asked.
"For your collection."
"I don't know that I want to know."
"Do you remember anything?"
"I'm sorry. I thought you'd want it."
I placed the tape on the nightstand. "I'll probably want it later. Thanks."
"Sure. I can't stay. But," he said, dropping the paper at my side, "thank God you're all right, Tom. That's how we all feel."
I'd reported a lot of accidents. Along the way I developed a hobby: local paramedics and cops gave me the cassette tapes from the car stereos of crash victims. Or sometimes I went to the junkyard and got the tapes out myself. The stereo had to be old so the cassette wouldn't flip over automatically. That way I could be sure which song was playing as the car collided.
I kept a box of these tapes at home. I catalogued the name of the song with the article I wrote for the newspaper. "Two Men Die in Collision" (September 2, 1986 issue) went with "Rocket Man," for example.
These songs became intimately connected with the victims. A trip to any local store, restaurant or elevator, where many of the songs were likely to be playing, was like having a specific, geographical location of my brain probed by a surgeon. It began to seem as though I was walking in the land of the dead, their cars perpetually spinning out of collisions, faces repeatedly slamming into car windshields, while I watched, keeping the list of the names, maintaining my archive. I can't explain how this preoccupation first took hold, except that during the Christmas rush a cashier's dreams are invaded by coins, bills, the clicking of numbers.
I have come to think of that time just before the accident as preshock. It was going to happen and I was lingering on the cusp of its occurrence. Like a war correspondent, I had wanted to be wounded so that I wasn't merely a voyeur. Now that I held the tape in my hand, which I had been told was taken from the dictaphone that lay at the victim's feet, I wondered if I wanted to know any particularities at all about the man I had killed.
Because I caused that accident to occur. I was a murderer and everything about the crime except my motive had already been solved.
I took the tape and a portable stereo to my back porch. It was raining again, but harder than it had in quite a while. I set the stereo on the yellow wire lawn table and sat in the chair beside it.
The week of the accident had been slow for news. I dreamed of burning airliners every night. I took that curve too fast. As the car went airborne I turned my brights on, lighting everything up, blinding the oncoming driver. That was my retirement plan. One last story, then I was gone, joining the procession that for all I know marched down that long road every night, an invisible marching band blaring silent horns while cars ran over their shadows. I suppose they came in red, yellow and green, unrestricted by speed limits.
That's how I knew something was about to happen. No mystery there.
Now I had to hear the end of the story. I made it happen, Kukla wrote the words, all except the last passage. I pushed the play button and rested my hands behind my head, staring into the trees behind the fence. This time the victim would have the last word.
"Are you listening to yourself talk? Yeah, I'm listening. [Laughter] No, really, I'm making this tape so that I can listen to it at the end of the night and know that this is what I feel and think. This is evidence that I must then destroy. It's only purpose is to strengthen my will.
"For some time I -- you -- I have been unable to conceive a single declarative sentence. Every action is in doubt. If I pick up a fork, it might be a murder weapon. I've done a lot of reading. It gets me nowhere. Maybe I'm sick, a brain tumor. I have lost my opinion. I do not have opinions. I do not lift off, descend, arrive, crash, I circle the airport, waiting for directions home.
"I do not love or hate my wife, I love, hate and feel nothing about her.
"As they say, I'm on the fence, a mugwump, worse than evil, nothing, blank, zero, stagnate, unredeemable. I am, in short, a ghost. I'm not an angel or a devil. I am undefined. I am a word that does not signify. My name is goo-ga. Goo-ga the Lost.
"So then what does a man who does not want, want? To want and need again. To become addicted so that I know exactly what I want and need.
"I want to be tyrannized. I wish I were a dissident. I'd have these choices forced upon me. I would become a martyr. I would die happy. I want to be deprived of food, water and oxygen. I want to be dragged across the pavement. I want my hands raked across glass. I want to be interrogated. I want to be kicked, robbed, bludgeoned. I want prostitutes to laugh at me and spit in my face. I want my wife to cut my arms and legs off.
"I'm not deserving of Hell. As my last friend, as yourself, I am begging you to listen to these words, to appraise the situation, to calculate the only solution, and to execute orders. Any time will do. The sinless are waiting for me. They're getting impatient. I can hear their voices. They are moaning in the trees. Wait, only some of them are calling me. There, where it's bright. There -- [Horn blaring]"
The voices are confusing, yes. They were coming from the trees behind my house. They were saying many things; each had a unique perspective. They never left the roadside. They hesitated, hanging on, hoisting their opinions like flags in the mud there
It is incoherent in that place, out of key, dissonant. They had abandoned one form and not yet assumed another. The best they could hope for was that a few stories would be told of their lives at the funerals and a respectable obituary. But nothing new about them would be reported again.
How the rain fell that night. I wished them all a peaceful night. I knew that they would soon disappear, one by one, and that they would be replaced by others. I wondered how long it took them to finally fall asleep and be taken into the larger dream.
The rain came down harder. Maybe it would flood. Flood away! I trusted the storyteller now that I knew he wasn't me.