Monday, February 2, 2015

#157: "Minor Offenses" by Paula Whyman

~This story was previously published in The Delmarva Review (2008).

I heard them as if through cotton, the short nurse whose wide bottom was turned toward me and the black man who filled the doorway.  He was asking if I could talk now, saying it was important that he talk to me, and the nurse was nodding, the hairs on the back of her neck pulled so tightly into her cap that I thought if she nodded again I’d hear the twang of them all breaking loose, and maybe even a tiny dot of blood would appear on her white skin where a follicle was torn clean out.  I could turn my head, now that they’d taken that thing off, what did they call it?  A halo.  I didn’t need it after all.
They said I was lucky, because my head didn’t go into the steering wheel.  The air bag opened like it was supposed to, cracked a few of my ribs, chucked me on the chin, broke my nose somehow.  It was the angle of the seat that determined it, in relation to the height and tilt of the steering column.  I was positioned a little too low behind the wheel.  I’d finally get that nose job I always wanted.  The worst part, according to the doctor, was my leg; part of my left leg was crushed on impact.  They put pins in it, metal pins that stuck out the sides of my tibia.  Every few days, they said, they would tighten the screws.  I couldn’t wait for that.  I was a big voodoo doll.
Was he from the insurance company?  I’d already talked to them, hadn’t I?  Everything was dreamy.  They told me the morphine would do that.  I was completely out of it the first day.  The police couldn’t even get my statement.  Ah, that’s who the guy was, a policeman.  He showed me his badge, as if I’d know a fake one. 
Officer Towns, he said.  Call me Leonard. 
Plainclothes.  I liked that better.  The first guy they sent, the traffic cop with the shaved and waxed head and Mountie hat and glossy boots, he looked like something out of a movie.  Get down and give me twenty.  I could imagine him saying that. 
Officer Towns pulled up a chair and sat by my bed.  “Let’s talk about what happened.”  That was the same thing the woman from psych said to me a few hours earlier.  To her, I said, “Okay.  What happened?” 
After a few minutes of that, she’d smiled at me sympathetically and said, “I’ll come back tomorrow.”  Then she whispered to the doctor, “Maybe tomorrow she’ll feel like sharing.”  I really heard her use that word, “sharing.”  Didn’t they know there was nothing wrong with my ears?  Did they think I was catatonic?
Actually, Officer Towns said, “Can you tell me what happened on Monday?” 
The blonde nurse pursed her pudgy lips and checked my blood pressure.  She wasn’t about to leave and miss the good part.

I liked Officer Towns.  He looked like a big bear.  He stood up and took off his trenchcoat, hung it over the back of his chair.  There was a splash stain on the bottom of it, even though it hadn’t rained in weeks.  I wondered what it was from.  He leaned forward and clasped his huge hands together between his knees.  The short part of his tie stuck out from behind the long part, and the whole business swung aside to reveal the stomach-strained buttons on his green shirt.  He wore large, rectangular glasses that were supported by his cheeks, the ear pieces embedded in the folds of skin above his ears.  His eyes were mild.  That was probably a trick they taught you at police school, looking kind when necessary.  Or, he saw the woman from psych do it.  I wondered if I should have a lawyer present, but John had driven to Maine.  I wondered if anyone had called him.  Had I called him?
“I had a bad accident,” I told Officer Towns.
“You sure did.”  I wondered if he’d write anything down like they do on television, but he didn’t reach for a pen, he just kept staring at me.  I adjusted the drape of my hospital gown, pulled it up to my collarbone with my right hand.  The left one was sprained.  “How’d it happen?” he asked.
I will have my day in court.  Never say, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to speed, Officer.  Never admit anything they might not be able to prove.  “I guess I was driving too fast.”  Why did I say that?
“Maybe I hit a notch in the road, and that caused me to lose control of the car.” 
“A ‘notch’?”
“You know, an uneven spot, a pothole, a crack.”  They used the jaws of life to get me out.  Just think of the metaphor potential there, the jaws of life snatching me from the jaws of death.  There had been a very loud metallic squealing, a grating sound.  I felt like a coffee bean inside a grinder, waiting to be pulverized.
He stared at me some more.  “Was anyone following you?”
“I don’t think so.”
            “Were you following anyone?  Trying to keep up?”
“No.”  Where was he going with this?
“Where were you headed?”
Headed?  What if I said Portland?  “Portland.”
“No, Maine.  My husband’s up there.  Near there.” 
He nodded.  “You got kinda turned around, then, didn’t you?”
“Am I charged with something?  Do I need a lawyer?  I didn’t hit anyone.”
He sat back in his chair and tilted his head sideways, sticking out his bottom lip.  I was wondering what I looked like.  I knew I had raccoon eyes in so many shades of purple.  I wanted to wash my hair. 
“There’s reckless driving, but aside from that, grand theft auto, that’s a felony, and destruction of property.”
“What property?”
“The car.  It’s a total loss.”
“My total loss.  It was my car.”
“Actually, the car belongs to your husband, doesn’t it?”
I could’ve sworn the nurse was smiling.  Didn’t she have other patients?
“We don’t really want to charge you with the felony.  Seems like a situation that could be worked out between you and your husband, a private, family situation.  Maybe you can talk to your husband, and he’ll drop the charge.  Then we wouldn’t have to be involved.”   He sighed and smiled without teeth showing.  “We have witnesses who say you were weaving in and out of traffic at a high rate of speed.  When you left your house Monday morning, were you upset?  Did you think you might go out and blow off some steam in your husband’s car?”
He stared with his kindly eyes, waiting, but I didn’t speak“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said.  “I don’t guess you’ll be going anywhere.”  The chair wheezed as he lifted himself out of it. 
Tomorrow, the psych lady came back first.  I was a little disappointed.  She said, “It would be good if we talked, you know.”
She folded her hands in her lap.  I noticed she wore no ring.  “I’d like to understand your state of mind.” 
 Suddenly everyone wanted to listen to me, but I had nothing to say.  Before, when it felt important, there was no one I could talk to, not even John who would’ve been patient but would not have understood.  I shrugged, to the extent that I could with three broken ribs.
“Do you feel like hurting yourself right now?”  She had a sense of humor. 
“Has anyone called my husband?”
She hesitated.  “He spoke with us, yes.”
Who was ‘us’?  How about with me?  “Can he speak with me?”
“He has a lot of anger right now.”
He told her that?  A stranger?  He must’ve been really worked up.  John left for Maine a few days ago; the girls would be away for a few more weeks.  John and I saw them off to the airport together.  We pretended everything was fine.  Everything was fine. That evening, when we got home from the airport, he told me he knew.  He knew, and he was already packed, and he was going to Maine alone, where we had planned to go together.  When he came back he wanted me to be gone.  He couldn’t look at me without squinting and sneering and wrinkling his nose all at once, as if there were a really bad smell in the room, as if someone had farted and he had just figured out it was me.
So John wouldn’t come back from Maine.  He wouldn’t come to see me.  Had I thought he’d return because of this? 
“Your husband explained to us that things have been difficult lately, that there were some problems.  Maybe it would help you to talk about it?”
My leg was starting to ache.  I pressed the button that would get me more drugs.  The nurse asked me if I wanted help going to the bathroom.  I couldn’t do crutches because of the ribs, and I couldn’t put any weight on my left ankle yet, so I had to lean on someone the whole way.  “No thanks.  I’m not ready.”  And when I was ready, she wouldn’t be there asking me.  So it goes.
“Would you like to share your feelings about John leaving?” the psych lady asked.  There was that word again.  “Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger, isn’t it?  I’m not going to judge you.  Everyone has reasons for what they do.  Tell me what’s on your mind.” 
I was feeling nauseated.  The medicine would do that.  “John is angry because I slept with someone who wasn’t him,” I said, sucking on ice chips.
She nodded like she already knew.  “And how do you feel about that?”
“It didn’t mean anything.  The sleeping with.”
A quick twitch of the brow.  “Okay, then.  Do you think your husband’s overreacting?”
She was pretending not to judge me.  “I did it to find out if it meant anything.”  My tongue felt too thick in my mouth. 

They were working on the electrical wires on my street, and the power went out.  I was in the middle of a practice test for my real estate license on the computer, and it shut down, so I couldn’t finish it.  No air conditioning of course.  There was nothing I could do.  I went out on the porch and watched them.  I sat on a chaise, the one with the floral chintz cushions, and sipped chardonnay.  I’d never done that in the daytime before.  Why not? 
There were four of them; wasn’t that too many?  Couldn’t three men do this job?  At least one of them always seemed to be standing around, waiting.  The one in the cherry-picker, he was the busiest.  I stared at him long enough that he started to look familiar.  After a while, he came down and they all had a serious discussion about something, probably baseball, while they pretended to look at some charts.  My power was still out, but I had ice.  I took them a pitcher of water.  That’s what you were supposed to do.  When I was growing up, you did that for the boy who cut the grass.  Now there were teams of illegal Salvadoran men with mowers they could stand on, so your lawn was done in five minutes, no time for water. 
The utility workers looked happy.  You always hear about them having a high incidence of depression, but they all looked happy; they had a purpose, a problem to solve.  They were big and thick men, dressed too warm in work pants, sweat trickling down their damp, sunburned faces.  They smiled at me, the one from the cherry-picker smiling broadest.  Did I know him?  Weren’t they supposed to wear those shirts with the names sewn on?  
I must have fallen asleep, because I awoke to a tapping on the porch door.  It was Cherry-Picker (ha, I know, I know; let’s call him Joe Blow, shall we?)  He wondered if he might use the bathroom.  He wouldn’t normally ask, but since I was outside.  Okay, but there’s no light, I said.  He pointed to the flashlight on his tool belt and smiled sheepishly.  If there was a reason why I shouldn’t let him use the bathroom, I didn’t think of it.  I walked through the house to show him where it was.  On the way, he flipped off all the light switches we passed.  You should turn everything off, he told me, or when the power comes back on you could have a power surge.  I thanked him, although I wasn’t sure that sounded like a bad thing to have. 
The guest bathroom was outside the first floor bedroom, the one where John’s mother used to stay before she died.  She was in our house for fifteen months, up to the end.  A year had passed since, and the room still smelled like Vicks VapoRub.  I brought her everything she needed, even cleaned her up when she messed.  John appreciated it.  He thanked me every day for taking care of her while he went to work.  He said I was a gem, what I would tell a good housekeeper.  The girls were away at school.  What else did I have to do?  The last time we had sex was before his mother moved into the house.  Now, I was supposed to be learning real estate.  That’s what all the women did after they stopped helping with homework, they helped other people who were just starting to help with homework find a place to do it.  I stood in the room smelling the Vicks and listening to Joe pee loudly next door.  Boy, he must have held it for awhile. 
I didn’t hear the toilet flush or the sink; I only heard his voice behind me, “Thanks, ma’am.”  He stood in the doorway of the darkened room, slipping his flashlight back into a loop on his belt.  “Have we met before?”  He really asked me that.  Some operator.  I don’t think so, I said.  We did it in the Vicks-smelling room, on top of the bedspread.  Afterward I washed the sheets, even though we hadn’t touched them, and put the same ones back on the bed.  We didn’t even take all our clothes off.  I hadn’t done it that way since the time behind the bleachers in high school.  With John, of course.  My whole life, there was only one other man besides John.  This man with the flashlight.  I guess that’s why I didn’t think it counted.  It was something I should have done before, but I hadn’t.  I just needed to know.  And now John was gone.
The psych woman was nodding at me again.  She was starting to look like one of those bobble-head dogs people put on the shelf in the back window of a car.  She was a spaniel, with shaggy hair resting on her shoulders.  The nurse looked startled, her plump cheeks splotched with red, and for once she forgot to pretend to do something.  She was a pit bull.  I thought that story had stayed in my head, but I guess not.  See what I mean about the drugs?  
“How did he find out?” asked the psych woman.  Was that a professional question?  Now she sounded like one of my girlfriends.
“He found a wrapper,” I said.
“You left it there?” asked the nurse sharply.  We both looked at her.
“I searched all around, I vacuumed.  I never found it.  He flushed the other thing.  I heard him flush.  When I couldn’t find it, I thought he flushed that, too.”
I watched him walk out to his truck.  I looked through a window where they couldn’t see me.  There were a few high fives.  One guy grabbed his crotch.  Joe shook his head, smirked.  Then they all climbed into the truck and drove off, and the power came back on. 
“Do you see yourself doing something like that again?”  asked the psych.
“I didn’t see myself doing it then,” I said.
John’s mother used to tell me a story about a time in first grade when the teacher wouldn’t give John a pass to go to the bathroom.  He had to go so badly he finally wet his pants.  The teacher sent him home for the day.  All the children stared at him silently as he shuffled down the hallway, his shoes squishing against the linoleum.  When he arrived home, soaking wet and humiliated, his mother helped him change his clothes, gave him ice cream, told him someday soon he’d forget all about it, and so would the kids at school. 
But when she got to the end of the story, she told me, “I lied.  No one ever forgets that.  John still thinks of himself as the kid who peed his pants.  Now I pee and crap myself every day, but what do I care?  That’s what it’s like being an old lady.  The only good part about it is my nose doesn’t work anymore.” 
She must’ve told me that story a hundred times, and she knew that.  So why?  Did she want me to know that she saw John as the boy who peed himself?
The psychologist nodded, made a sound in her throat.  “That’s not unusual.”
“That’s why he left me,” I said.  “Because when he found out what I did, it was the same humiliation as before.”  I imagined the puddle growing around his feet.
“Is that so,” said the psychologist.  “It seems like he left you because you cheated on him.”  Hey, wasn’t she supposed to be on my side?  “And we’re not here about John.  He didn’t crash the car.” 
John never told me I betrayed him.  Silly for me to feel that I needed to hear him say it.  He never did anything bad to me.  He’d been a good husband; already I was thinking in past tense.  He never asked why.  I blame him a little for that, even though I know he’s utterly blameless, and if this were a movie, the whole audience would see it his way.  I blame him a little because before any of it happened, he never asked me what I was thinking about.  He never turned to me, covered in darkness, inside the silence fractured by my hair scuffing the pillow and our breathing still jagged, but slowing.  He never whispered my name from across the table, moving the salt shaker to take my hand.  He never placed his hand on mine, suddenly, as I held the remote control and, pressing the mute button, asked me to speak.  He never tried to sniff out the obscured meaning of my actions, like a filmgoer deciphering poorly translated subtitles.  I will always blame him, even if he didn’t ask because he thought he already knew, or even if I suspect he didn’t ask because he was afraid my thoughts would turn out to be as disturbing as the ones he hid from me.
Lora, our youngest, was in love.  She wanted to go to the state university so she could be with her boyfriend, instead of the better, private one she’d been admitted to.  Before she left for Spain with her sisters, I had a talk with her.  I said, If you love something, set it free; if it comes back—No, I’m only kidding.  But I did say, Time is the test of love; distance is the test of devotion.  Or some such bullshit.  If you really love him, nine months apart each year will be like nothing compared with the lifetime you’ll spend together if it’s meant to be.  I really said that.  And John and I worked it out that I would say that; that was our strategy.  Because I knew, we both knew, it was a lie.  (When John put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You’ll talk to her?” I felt a little electric thrill.)  If they went to the same college, odds were good they’d stay together; if they were separated for college, odds were good they’d meet other people and forget about each other.  That was our fond hope.  And now it occurred to me, wasn’t it our way of saying that we both wished someone had done that to us?
Officer Towns seemed no less patient at his next visit, or the next.  Sometimes he came and said, “Do you have anything to say to me today?” and when I said “no” or shook my head, he’d wait a minute for me to change my mind, and then he’d leave.  Lately, he’d stick his head through the doorway, nod once and continue on his way without saying anything.  I’m sure he had plenty of more important cases to deal with, real crimes.  One day toward the end of the week, when the doctor was phasing out the heavier drugs and I was finally lucid, Towns did this again--leaned in the doorway, nodded at me, and continued down the hall.  I heard his heavy footsteps, pah-tum pah-tum, on the linoleum, going away from me.  There was a tickle at the back of my mind that said, Why does he keep coming here, anyway?  What does he want with me?  My voice sounded hoarse, as if I hadn’t used it in awhile, and maybe I hadn’t:  “Officer Towns?  Officer?”  The footsteps stopped, and then I heard them move back in my direction.
This time he came all the way in, stood with his arms folded and didn’t say a word.  In sales, you learn this, that the first person who talks, loses. 

The morning of the accident, I awoke alone in the house for the third day in a row.  John had gone away on business many times, but this time wasn’t business, of course, and the house was full of his absence.  I didn’t even know how to reach the girls; I didn’t want to tell them what was happening yet, anyway.  I slept on my side of the bed.  I made my usual breakfast.  The girls’ rooms were neat as a pin, frozen in time.  I stood in Lora’s room, and thought of John tossing that damned blue wrapper onto the dinner table between us, and not saying a word, but piercing me with as much hate as he could manufacture.  “I’m so sorry,” I had said, but it sounded awful and small, and that’s when he got up and tossed his dish the same way into the sink, chipping the edge (and I knew it had chipped without even looking because of the sound it made), cursed, and strode from the room.  I had stared numbly at the wrapper that was in front of my plate and wondered, with black clarity, whether the proper placement of a condom wrapper should be above the knife or above the fork, and would it be different if the wrapper were not yet empty?
Anyway, the scene with John came to me again and again as I stood in Lora’s room staring at the posters of rock bands she didn’t like anymore, and the bald Barbie doll on her bookshelf.  And a moment later, I was running down the stairs and shouting words that I had thought of many times, but hadn’t said aloud since our oldest daughter turned two and repeated one of them to the pediatrician.  I got in the car knowing that I would drive to Portland and that I would give John what for, because I had right on my side.  How could he automatically suspect me?  How could he so easily think such a thing of his wife of twenty-five years, a woman who’d never ever given him a moment’s grief or cause for distrust?  Who did he think he was?  After I’d nursed his mother, alienated our daughters, after I’d done all the dirty work in the household—His favorite refrain, “You’ll talk to her?” to which I never said ‘no.’  So I drove up the interstate at, yes, a high rate of speed, weaving in and out of traffic with the near-miss luck of the insane, protected for a time by some benevolent deity.  Somewhere I went west instead of north, because I hadn’t seen the sign.  Who knows how far I went in the wrong direction, but I’m guessing the sign was above my head when I was looking down at the open ashtray where there was no ashtray because they didn’t put them in a Mercedes if you didn’t want one, and John didn’t want one, only a little box where you could plug things in.  I was physically sick looking at it, looking at the wrapper inside that little box.  I stared alternately at the open box and at the sky, because the sky was bright blue ahead of me, just like the wrapper.  And the whole time, I was leaning into the steering wheel, as if that could make me go faster, and I was looking down and looking up, so that sometime after I missed the sign that told me I was now headed west, I also missed seeing where the Jersey barriers began on the left, narrowing the road until I was plowing into them at such an angle, what transportation safety officials call an offset crash, that my car spun around to face the traffic.  The squealing tires and reflexive honking of the oncoming cars seemed far away, something I could hear but not see, like the out-of-sync school marching band that brought up the rear of a small-town parade. 

Sometimes John would sit in the Vicks-smelling room, on the awful velour chair across from the foot of the bed.  Or maybe he didn’t sit in the chair, not at first; maybe he actually lay down on the bed in the darkened room and closed his eyes.  The last time he sat in the chair he must have seen something gleam in the dusky shadow the bedspread made where it hung almost touching the floor.  I could see him peering at it.  What the hell? he would’ve thought, and he would’ve knelt down to pick it up, that blue wrapper the color of the sky.
You see, I told Officer Towns, who by now was seated in his original position, tie resting on stomach, with his bottom lip pushed out thoughtfully, two chins gathered below the main one and resting on his collar.  You see, I really was going to see John.  There’s no crime in that.  Reckless driving, okay; I’m willing to pay the fine, take the points, whatever you need to do, but there was no intent to destroy, no intent to harm.  You see, Officer Towns, John was wrong, and that’s what I was going to tell him. 
Towns’ head lifted and all but one chin disappeared.  His eyes didn’t change. 
The morning of the accident, I was standing in Lora’s room, thinking about John and the wrapper on the dinner table, staring at Lora’s pink comforter with the veins of gold running through it, the one she didn’t want to take to college because it was too childish, when it dawned on me.  I had a vision of myself reclining on the bedspread in the Vicks-smelling room, in the dark, and Joe Blow’s flashlight was on the bed next to me, making a spotlight on the blank wall behind us.  What an interesting shadow puppet we must have made, he slipping my dress up to my hips and shoving his briefs down, us falling back on the bed together.  And then he stood for a moment, shifted the flashlight so it was no longer in my eyes, which I thought was very considerate, and found what he was looking for in his tool belt, which he had removed but kept within easy reach.  I saw the glossy exterior of the thing as it passed through the beam of light, and then he tore it open and I saw it no more, but there was no mistaking that the wrapper was the color of those silken threads in Lora’s comforter.  The wrapper was gold. 
The blue one John found was not mine; it was Lora’s. 
Now, hearing myself explain this, albeit in sketchier detail, to Officer Towns, I realized how flimsy it all sounded, but that was it.  And I had been sure that I could convince John of my innocence, my ignorance of the blue condom wrapper.  That was all that seemed to matter when I got into the car:  I was falsely accused.  I was no felon, and I was no blue-wrapper cheat.
Officer Towns nodded slowly.  He took off his glasses.  His face had that naked and empty look that I associate with seeing someone without his glasses for the first time.
“Don’t worry about the felony charges.  They’re dropped,” he said.  He rubbed his eyes. 
“That’s great,” I said.  I was thinking the psychologist must have convinced John to do it. 
“There’s no real case anymore,” he said.   
The nurse came in.  I felt a rush of warmth toward her and toward Officer Towns.  I wanted to jump up and hug them both.  I was starting to like the nurse, especially now that I could go to the bathroom without her help.  I just held onto the IV stand and shuffled across the room, trying not to breathe too hard.  I had a special shoe for my bad leg that insulated it and helped me drag it along.
“Where’s Dr. Novick?” Towns asked the nurse.
“Vacation,” she said.  “McCall’s filling in.”  It occurred to me then that I hadn’t seen the psychologist for awhile. 
Towns seemed to consider that information.  The nurse fiddled with my IV.  Towns tapped his foot, like he was waiting for something.  Like he was waiting for her to leave, but she didn’t.  I loved her deeply for her predictability.
“Dr. Novick hasn’t talked to you about your husband?” Towns asked.
“Not since—I don’t know.”
He sighed and made as if to straighten his tie, but didn’t.  “We got a call from the Portland precinct Wednesday afternoon.  Seems that there’s been” (and here he paused) “another accident.  Your husband was found dead in his house by a neighbor.  He hung himself, Mrs. M--.  I’m sorry.”
Hung himself?  Which would require tying a very good knot in something.  Unfair.  Just like John, in his quiet way, to have the last word.  I’d never get to tell him.  I was free (dare to think it, dare), but I was not released.  Knot.  “Where?” I asked.
Towns cocked his head as if he needed to look at me from another angle, like I was one of those abstract sculptures museums keep around just to make people feel stupid.  His lips opened for too long before he spoke.  “In the bedroom,” he said, “there was a ceiling fixture…”
And a knotted sheet, and a chair kicked away, and no one had to tell me anything else because I could already see the limp body dangling, the face even paler than usual behind the blond mustache, the neck red and chafed, the trousers stained with urine.  The eyes open, accusing.  And I could see all this without imagining it at all, because it was I who found his mother in that precise posture a little more than a year before, and what I’d wondered then was, where did she find the strength to climb onto that ugly velour chair and tie the sheet around the light?  How did she do it? 

After Lora left home for the elite private college, I decided to redecorate.  The Vicks room would come first.  I sat in the chair at the foot of the bed and tried to imagine what the decorator had described:  sheer, floor skimming linen curtains replacing the green balloon valances, an antique brass bed instead of the heavy mahogany one.  A new bedspread, a duvet, she had called it, and a matching sham or two.  I limped over to the window and opened a shade to see the room in natural light.  Had the shades really been drawn ever since John’s mother died?  That couldn’t be true.  When I yanked on it, the tasseled pull came off in my hand, and the shade flew up too fast, slapping around its roller.  I squinted at the afternoon light that streamed in.  When my eyes adjusted I stared at the dark green bedspread and wondered if I could throw it away, just like that.  As soon as I thought, you know I could, I really could throw it all away--the spread, the blessedly ugly chair, the end table, the curtains, every last bit--it was then that something caught my eye from underneath the edge of the bed, something frozen in the light, something glossy, something battered, something gold.

Many years ago, when my kids were still little, we were traveling north on I-95 for a holiday weekend at the beach. All four of us were in the car, and my husband was driving, when we were hit by an 18-wheeler that changed lanes without looking. By some miracle and due to my husband’s presence of mind, steering the car in the direction of the skid—an instruction from driver’s ed that I will never forget—we managed to pull a 360. We traversed the lanes of I-95 without being hit again and came to a stop on the median, faced in the right direction. The entire right side of the car was stove in—the side where I and my older son were sitting. We were shaken, but the kids were fine; both were still young enough to be tucked into child safety seats. I remember turning to look at them as we veered across 95 and seeing my then-toddler laughing, as if we were on some crazy carnival ride (and yes, he still has a dangerous sense of humor).
We later learned that the car was totaled. For a while after that, we were afraid of being too close to trucks, and I didn’t want to drive on I-95 ever again. By any accounting, we were lucky. Still, I couldn’t forget that feeling of flying across the highway, our car spinning around, the other cars on the road barreling toward us. I knew that at some point I’d use the experience in a story.
I started with the idea that someone had had a similar accident but was badly injured. Then I thought, what if the driver didn’t quite remember all of it? Or what if she only claimed she didn’t remember? I made the story up as I went, for better or worse.
Although I can see certain aspects of my current work developing in this story—the humor, for instance, and the (pre?)occupation with sex—I realize the story has problems, problems I can see now more clearly than I could years ago when I wrote it. As a result, I was hesitant about reprinting it. I discussed it with Percival Everett, the idea of putting something out there that one believes is deeply flawed.
He said, “It’s all flawed; let it go. It all deserves to be seen.”
So, here it is.

Paula Whyman's short stories were published in seven literary journals in 2014, including McSweeney's Quarterly, Ploughshares, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Her recent work can also be found online in Five Chapters ( and Burrow Press Review ( In the past few years, she was awarded residencies by The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and The Studios of Key West. She was named a 2014 Tennessee Williams Scholar in Fiction by the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Paula has taught at The Studios of Key West, and she continues to serve as a visiting writer for writers-in-schools programs in Harlem, NY, through The Hudson Review, and in Washington, DC, through the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. She was recently appointed Regional Liaison to The MacDowell Colony Fellows Executive Committee. She lives in a suburb of Washington, DC, where she is working on a novel. For more:

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