My son turned three the next day.
“The ‘Shake Shake Bridge,” my mother said. “That’s what he needs to have. Can you go get that for me? I’ll watch the boys.”
And like that, I was in my car, alone, trekking to Wal-Mart, where I bought the Thomas the Train Bridge as yet another one of Johnny’s birthday presents. On my way, I passed the make-shift markers, a wooden cross, a bundle of flowers, on the intersection where my friend’s mother died four months ago, her car trampled over by a construction vehicle. I made the sign of the cross with my hand hovering over my forehead, heart or shoulders, as though it could bring her peace.
Wal-Mart’s parking lot was next to the scene of the accident, where my friend’s mother gained peace despite the revving engines, soaring plastic bags, rolling carts. In my rearview, I saw a panoramic view of my boys’ empty car seats, the line of blazing autumn trees, and the disappearing road.
At the discount store that sprawled its aisles far past its boundaries, it was the treacherous beginning to lay-away season, the clearance of Halloween paraphernalia, and the early welcome of Christmas trees. It was more chaotic than being at home with my son, and less enjoyable. To survive in such commotion, I zoomed in on singular objects directly in front of me, keeping a precise target. The stockings on the girl in front of me were cute black netting in a herringbone pattern, and I had the same pair. The girl was my former student.
In a college town, those things happen. I felt I knew most people, but couldn’t place them all. Often, I would walk by a mother pushing a cart, and my son would point to the child inside, and say, “Look, there’s Maddox,” or another kid from his old daycare. Us mothers would smile at each other, and rarely spoke, though we might become Facebook friends some day. I think of random people I haven’t seen in years, and wonder how they are rounding up at night, in the routine of baths, of birthdays, of storytelling.
At the self-checkout line, I scanned my son’s toy, and also a bag of gummy bears on impulse. He would press them between his tongue and roof of his mouth where they would release their taste in shocks of color. “The dirt,” he said one time, “smells like green.” I rang myself up, and though anyone could do it, I prided myself on being especially efficient, having sold textbooks to students when I was in college. I stood behind those registers and rang student after student, parents, and instructors, those people who piled one behind another in lines for hours.
That night we were celebrating Johnny’s birthday at my mother’s with cake and presents. It was 2:30, the first day of Daylight Savings Time. My car clock still read 3:30 pm. We were supposed to eat before my brothers and sisters arrived for cake. I traveled down the back road, wondering if my mother had started the prime rib yet, hoping I hadn’t taken too long at the store.
I slowed, as I can only imagine I would have, and checked an empty State Street in front of me, decelerating the way my father taught me more than ten years before. The November sun was surprisingly warm, and maybe glared through my windshield, I didn’t know. I pushed on my blinker to signal left.
There was a smack, a loud crunch that released aggression, bludgeoned front end to front end. The man I saw out my passenger’s side window was one of those people I rarely thought about, but had remembered sometime the week before. A college student in the eighties, immobilized in a drunk-driving crash, he returned when I was in college, around 2001. In a jam-packed auditorium on campus, in broken sentences that struggled for coherence, he pleaded for college students not to drink and drive. I wondered about him the week before the accident— where he had been, if he had graduated, if he absorbed all that knowledge from the textbooks I sold him.
I saw him then, through two window panes, wide-eyed, grimacing, and I shook to my bones. Where had he been?
College students gathered on their porches, and I hoped none were my students. Neighbors watched from their battered wooden porches as we both, that man and I, struggled in our own ways to say we were okay, that the metal around us had done its job.
The Wal-Mart bags had fallen down on the floor of my car. Thomas the Train was tucked safely in his box, and Johnny’s car seat flopped diagonally against the upholstery.