Issue Twenty-Eight - Summer 2016

Might As Well Live

By Mary Black

I relax as my car slides under the edge of the large truck. Huge double tires rush toward my windshield. Screech. The car swerves in a circle. Bang. The air bag slams into my chest. A giant hand seems to push me violently back in the seat. Immediately the bag deflates, and I slump forward. The car bangs into the median and stops with a lurch. Something drips into my left eye. I lift a shaky hand to rub it. I look down at the red smear on my fingers as I lean back against the headrest.

“I get to die.”

Seconds tick by. Silence surrounds me. My left knee stings with pain while my heart drums in my aching chest. My ragged breath burns in my throat, but I keep breathing.

The passenger door squeaks open when a large, bearded man shoves his head into the car. “Ma’am, you need to get out of the car. The engine is on fire.”

A loud bang sounds from the front of the car. He urgently reaches out and drags me across the gear shift. “That’s the tires exploding from the heat.” My body protests the sudden movement.

“Stop,” I yell. I clutch the back of the passenger seat. He squats down by the car, but he doesn’t turn loose of my elbow. His weathered face under his ragged baseball cap stares at me. He frowns and starts to speak, but I move away from him.

“Ma’am, you’re going to die if you don’t get out of the car right now.” As if to emphasize his words, the hood flies up. Flames shoot out from under it. I would choose death for me. I can’t choose it for him.

I allow myself to move forward. He puts his arm around my shoulders, and he pulls me out of the seat. I take a faltering step forward. My legs collapse like Jell-O under me, and I fall onto the pavement. The asphalt digs into my bloody knees.

He leans down and gently lifts me up. “We’re both going to get the hell out of here now. Do you hear me?” I weakly nod in agreement.

He marches me away from the car. The force of his movement drags me along with him, and I can feel his hands digging into my shattered ribs. The car explodes behind us. The heat blasts across our backs. We stumble faster down the hot pavement until we stop by a semi-truck that he says is his. He sits me with a thud on the footboard.

Sirens blare and come closer. I lean forward and look at the blazing remains of my car. The ambulance and police car arrive with flashing lights and an avalanche of sound. Doors fly open. Men in uniforms surround me.

A police officer looks at me. “Who was in the car?” I tell him it was me. “You walked out of it?”

I point at the silent trucker. He tells them he got me out of the car.

The paramedics push the stretcher up to me, and one of them clasps a stiff brace around my neck. Within seconds I find myself lying on the hard plastic of the gurney. Straps cinch tightly across my chest and ankles. I watch the soft blue sky above me move as they roll me down the highway.

Inside the ambulance a young man in a starched, pale-green shirt climbs in. His muscled arms bulge from beneath the tight sleeves. In a flurry of movement, he takes my blood pressure, bandages my head, and cuts off my shirt and pants. He wraps me in a heated blanket and kneels by me. “Who do you want me to call?”

“No one.” I flinch as he pumps up the contraption to take my blood pressure. “My husband Dwayne died six months ago. There is no one to call.”
“I’m Sean and I’m going to take good care of you. You start thinking of all of the friends and people who love you.” He lays a large, gentle hand on my forehead.

The ambulance rocks beneath us as it speeds to the emergency room. Sean and the driver lift the gurney out as soon as we arrive. They roll me through the automatic doors, which slap shut behind us.

Doctors and nurses slide me onto a starched, white-sheeted hospital bed. Thermometers pop into and out of my mouth. Blood pressure cuffs pump and down with a hiss, and soft wet gauze washes away dried blood. Finally, my arms fall into a backless gown.

Finally I am scrubbed, examined, and tucked tightly into the bed. One of the doctors perches on the side of a chair by the bed and tells me his name is Dr. Sullivan. He reaches over the bed rail and shakes my limp hand. “You know how lucky you are?”

“Am I?” He raises his eyebrows at my answer. He explains that it was a miracle that I survived the crash and that the truck driver arrived to get me out. I nod in agreement as expected.

Silence fills the small room. The hushed sound of people and equipment moving up and down the hall can be heard outside the door. Somewhere a baby’s loud cry rises and falls.

“I need a phone,” I suddenly tell him. He hands me his iPhone without question. He leaves the room to give me some privacy.

I take a deep breath. Then I call my daughter Stephanie in Washington, DC, to tell her about the accident. After I attempt to describe the accident, she says through her tears that she can’t lose me the way she has Dwayne.

Dr. Sullivan returns and interrupts our tearful conversation to tell me he’s sending me downstairs for an MRI and tests to determine if there have been any internal injuries.

He cups my elbow with his hand as I sit up and swing my legs over the side of the bed. I stand for the first time in hours and feel my legs shake beneath me. The room tilts around me. I feel a wheelchair bump against the back of my knees, so I flop into it. I am rolled into the bowels of the hospital basement.

Strangers lift me onto a flat surface sticking like a tongue out of the massive stainless-steel mouth of a machine. A soft voice tells me to close my eyes if I don’t like closed spaces. Of course, I open my eyes. Only cold steel and darkness surround me. I tightly close my eyes again and imagine an Arizona road at sunset with my Harley rumbling beneath me. Dwayne rides on my right. His cancer has not invaded our lives.

When I return to my room later, I find my friend Gina from work waiting for me. At my look of surprise, she takes my hand. “That’s what friends do.” She sits by me as my cuts are stitched. Twenty-eight in the left knee. Seventeen in the left hand.

Dr. Sullivan arrives with a clipboard in hand. His green scrub coat flutters behind him. He frowns at me as he stands by my bed.

I look up at him. “I’m not going home, am I?”

He shakes his head no and takes a deep breath. “Your tests were negative for any internal damage from the wreck.” He moves to the bed and pulls my gown away from my shoulder. He points to the deep-purple bruises covering my chest and tells me they’re from the seat belt. He assures me they will heal in a few weeks.

He tucks my gown back on my shoulder. “We found a large mass in your right ovary. Do you know what that may mean?” He adds there is a small chance it may be malignant.

I nod numbly since I understand all too well what a cancer diagnosis means. Tears brim in my eyes. I choke out that I have lost both my husband and my mother to pancreatic cancer.

Our halted conversation hangs in the air. I wait in silence. Finally, he tells me there will be extensive tests in the next few hours, but I shouldn’t worry until the tests are done. He leaves, and the door hisses shut behind him.

I tell Gina to go home because I want to face the tests and the outcome on my own. I watch her leave the room. I am alone again.

One agonizingly painful test after another follows each other through the night. In a dark room at midnight, I lie on a cold, metal table with my head down and my legs up at a 90-degree angle. Someone thrusts an icy, slick object into me. I cry out in pain. A disembodied voice tells me to be brave.

The ordeal ends at 3 a.m. I push the lone chair to face the window, and I sit wrapped in a blanket on the smooth, cool vinyl chair. The shadowy trees outside wave back and forth in a gentle wind. I press my hand against the cool glass, and the darkness outlines my pale fingers. The halo from the lamp over the bed glows in the background. I have spent six months longing for death. I wake each morning to the disappointment of a beating heart.

A flood of memories of past surgery and chemo and pain fill me. Dwayne’s pale face as he lay dying in a hospital room like this. The rosary beads of remembering our life together slip through my mind.

Dr. Sullivan arrives early the next morning, and he clutches a stack of papers in one hand. He grabs the clipboard from the foot of the bed and clicks it open with a snap. He shoves his papers in it.

Then he stands beside the bed as he flips through the pages to tell me the results of the tests. I have a fibroid tumor. It is not cancer.

He sticks his hand out toward me. I hesitate but raise my hand from the bed. He covers it with his as he shakes it gently. “You’re mighty lucky, Mrs. Black. You’ve cheated death twice in twenty-four hours.”

I whisper softly to myself, “Death cheated me twice in one day.”

Dr. Sullivan watches me, and he leans forward to listen. I shake my head back and forth and tell him the lie that it’s not important. I am dismissed and sent home to heal.

Two days later Gina takes me for a follow-up appointment with the doctor. The check-up only lasts a short time, and then she drives me back to my house. As she helps me out of the car, she looks at Dwayne’s truck, still sitting in the driveway six months after his death. “Are you going to drive the truck now?”

I lean against the car door and stare at the dusty white Chevy truck. It hasn’t been moved since he parked it on a Saturday night after buying a lottery ticket. His last one. He died three days later. “I honestly don’t know if I can drive it.”

Gina walks with me to the front door. “Have you ever bought a car by yourself?”

I swing open the door and shake my head. “No. Dwayne was the car expert.” I tell her I am on my own now.

The next week is Thanksgiving, and I limp on a plane to fly to Washington, DC. I share turkey and pie with Stephanie and her boyfriend, Ben. I take a shuttle home from the airport.

Then, early Monday morning, I push the button by the back door. The garage door rolls up with a squawk. The truck waits for me in the driveway. I clutch the keys in my right hand. I had found them where he left them on top of the refrigerator. His daily habit when he got home.

I click the remote, and the lights blink on followed by the locks clicking open. I push my purse strap up on my shoulder. I take a deep breath and walk slowly to the driver’s door. I wrap my fingers around the handle. I pull it gently open.

The stale air of the truck cab tickles my nose. His Modesto Harley hat sits crumpled on the front seat. Beside it the lottery ticket, in its plastic envelope, curls from last summer’s heat. On the floor several discarded empty bottles of Starbucks frappucino lie scattered. His last obsession.

I slam the door shut with one hand gripping the handle. I press my forehead against the chilly glass in the weak November sunshine.

“I cannot fucking do this.” I focus on breathing. In and out. In and out.

After a few minutes I open the door again. I quickly step up on the running board and slide onto the cold plastic-covered seat. I throw the cap and the lottery ticket into the backseat. I stick the key in the ignition and turn it. The engine roars to life.

Music blares out of the speakers. Louis Prima and Keely Smith. “Jump, Jive, and Wail.” I remember him holding me tightly as we dance in the kitchen to Louis Prima. I hit the eject button, and the CD pops out. I throw it over my shoulder to join the other stuff in the back seat.

I reverse out of the driveway with a lurch. The empty bottles rattle against each other as they roll around on the floor. I drive to work and sit in the garage with my head on the steering wheel for a long time. Eventually I wipe my eyes and blow my nose. I push myself through the daily routines of work. The rest of the week passes in a blur.

On Saturday morning I drive to the nearest Chevy dealer. A smiling salesman rushes out of the building. “Can I help you, ma’am?”

“Yes, you can. I need a car.” I hand him the truck keys and the insurance check I got in the mail. “Whatever I can get with the truck as a trade-in and the check, I will buy.”

He looks down at the keys clutched in his hand and the check fluttering in the wind. “I have a Malibu I think you’ll like.”

I turn away from him to scan the cars on the lot. “Let’s go look at it.”

I drive home an hour later in my new car. In my rearview mirror I watch them drive his truck into the used car garage to be prepped for selling. In a brown paper bag by me on the passenger seat are all of his belongings from the truck. I reach in the bag and pull out the Prima CD. I push it into the stereo. Louis sings me home.

Copyright Black 2016