Dead End (black ice)
All four wheels lost contact with the Earth outside of Clines Corners New Mexico at 6:37 am in the dark and light of a blazing snowstorm going 45 miles per hour. My daughter asleep in the back seat, my new love beside me, we drifted left, right, left again, sideways, right again. I had seen the truckers all lined up and paused beside the onramp (10 or so) lights on, idling, waiting for sunrise or some safety announcements reserved for truckers. We had Death Cab for Cutie playing as we held our breath in some suspended animation of the wreck and fire that was going to take our lives.
In the small Japanese bubble of death were the two most important people in the world. A collision of my past and my future lost in the bravado of my confidence in the “off road” setting and my winter driving skills. But as our contact points turned fluid, the headlights guiding us toward the median ditch and then the deeper ravine on the right side of the once-useful freeway.
“Never touch your brakes,” I had told both of them, the day before when the driving snow had almost prevented us from making it up the winding white trail to the D.H. Lawrence memorial ranch. I had not used the off-road setting before but noticed how the grip firmed up, each wheel locking in and pulling as one. I joked about showing them the “drift” capabilities. We marveled at the thick whispy snow puffs falling and the virgin path we were cutting through the dense forest of ancient pines. The caretaker and the cat, Goldie, were there to greet us after we’d taken our “snowing” selfie together. We reverently walked up the winding path to the small chapel containing the “exhumed” remains of one of my favorite writers. A young couple had arrived and were talking to the docent as we returned, two Engish majors and grad students. “Sometimes as many as ten visitors per week,” the 28-year veteran of the compound explained.
In the tilt-awhirl drift of death, the cuties continued chanting
And you can’t find nothing at all
If there was nothing there all along
No, you can’t find nothing at all
If there was nothing there all along
We tilted and spun as in a dark ballet. I held confidence that the tires, all slipping in the same motion, would come back to Earth if I could just keep us out of the ditch.
You’re so cute when you’re slurring your speech
But they’re closing the bar and they want us to leave
I corrected and over-corrected and recentered and kept my foot off the brakes as the car continued fishtailing into our future or non-future.
We would laugh about the moment, the loss, the panic, and the scenes of airbags and crushed cars we passed. The flashing lights on the other side of the highway ahead sparkled in the falling snow and shut down all progress with a twisted 18-wheeler jackknifed across both lanes. We passed, more slowly now, through a wonderland of misadventure. Smashed and upside down cars and trucks on our side of the highway as we slipped our four tires in the proper direction. I turned off the Death Cab and we breathed.
Behind us, I could see the tiny flashing lights of a distant ambulance following our direction to Santa Rosa. Everything was in slow motion, passing through a jackknifed scene of broken plastic farm troughs scattered across our side of the highway, leaving only a thin path, in a scene out of some war classic. The only thing missing was dead bodies and flames. The ambulance behind was gaining on us. I imagined the sad journey inside, the driver/patient strapped to the gurney, euphoric drugs obscuring the fear and pain of loss and chaos. I could not stop. I kept my foot off the brakes. And we progressed at 20 miles per hour, as the sun began to burn up the horizon. The ambulance passed us in slow motion. I kept my eyes on the road and had to imagine the scene inside.
My girlfriend pulled her hand out of my death grip of love. I could barely breathe. The sun began to illuminate the surrounding desert, waking up. Cars and trucks on the other side headed blindly into the clogged artery of the crash ahead against all winter advisory notices flashing on our car’s navigation system and phones. We pulled off at the next town for gas, hugs, and a biobreak.
“We’ll find a Starbucks down the road in Texas,” I said, as we got back in the car.
Read more Short-Short Stories from John.