Susan Taylor Chehak
Susan Taylor Chehak
Susan Taylor Chehak is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of five novels, including Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Oxford Magazine, Folio, Folly, Word Riot, Coe Review, Guernica Magazine, L.A. Under The Influence, Sisters in Crime 5, and The Chariton Review. She has taught fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, the University of Southern California, and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. Susan grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, spends as much time as possible in Colorado, and at present divides her time between Los Angeles and Toronto. Her website is: stchehak.com
If you were above it all somehow, at a window, say, and high enough over the street to be able to see what happened, but not so far that the details would be blurred. Many floors, or maybe just a few. Six, say. If you were in a room on the sixth floor of a ten-story hotel and you were at the window, having a smoke, say. In a nonsmoking room. With your morning coffee and the newspaper waiting. The bed still warm. The sheets a mess. Your hair a mess too. His shirt on your back. No, not his shirt, because he was already gone by then; that's why you were at the window, not for the smoke, you don't smoke, not anymore, not since you watched your mother gasp her last.
You were at the window so you could watch him go. You were wondering if he might look up and see you there. He was at the crosswalk; he was waiting for the light, and it was early by some standards. By your standards. The street was full of cars, and the sidewalk was full of people, considering that this was not a big city. This was not New York, and downtown hadn't been the same since the flood three years ago that rose up to the middle of the first floor of the buildings around here and left a fish in the lobby of the hotel and ruined the public library, washed away police records and evidence rooms, made a mess of the little houses in the pocket closest to the river, where you used to live, where you grew up.
Still, this was his hometown, and he kept his downtown office, determined to move back in and get back to normal as soon as possible. He had the place cleaned up and set to rights in record time. Hardly missed a day of work, because he loved his job, at least the concept of it if not the actual content. Which was insurance. And there's an irony in that, I know.
So he was at the crosswalk waiting for the light, and maybe you were disappointed that he didn't happen to look up to see you watching, to see you admiring him—the square of his shoulders, that open circle of bare scalp at the back of his head, gleaming because it was warm and he was hatless. Someone next to him—a younger man he might have known—said something to him, and he replied, and the light changed, and he began to cross toward those who had begun to cross toward him from the other side.
A split second, as you described it for us. Only one step, two at the most. When from out of nowhere, someone else said—because isn't that what they always say?—from out of nowhere, suddenly, there was a car. Except it wasn't from out of nowhere at all, it was from out of somewhere; it was from out of the far side of the crosswalk. And it wasn't just a car, it was also a driver, a kid at the wheel, a young man who had miscalculated. He was not drunk. He was not high. He was in a hurry and he didn't think. He was impatient, so he slipped around into the right turn lane, and he gunned it, misjudging by only a fraction of a second how much time he had, by only a few feet how much space, just that much but enough that rather than fly through and on, instead he slammed into the first pedestrian off the curb.
You were at the window, which was closed, so you didn't hear the sound except in your head—a bang that shook you just as he was hit and thrown up off his feet and over the hood, where he hovered for a moment as the car and its driver passed beneath him, before he fell and landed with another sound that you could not hear but only see. Softer, slower, it was graceful in a way. His coat spread around him and his arms outflung. Face to the sky, as if he might have been looking back at you now, at last.
The driver must have known what had happened, he must have been aware of what he'd done, but he didn't slow and he didn't speed up either; he just kept going, down to the end of the next block, through a green light this time, and on, until you lost him, beyond the buildings that rose up to block your line of sight. There was the blue sky. And the warm sun on your arms. And your own face reflected back at you, in the window glass. You did what anyone would do. You reached for the phone.
Below, the scene had changed. Another woman was kneeling next to him first; then she was sitting in the street, cross-legged, close. She was leaning over him, she was caressing his hair, and she was talking to him, quietly consoling him. Later people would tell me about this, as if I might find some comfort in hearing how she didn't hesitate, she didn't question, she just emerged and went to him. She was a nurse, maybe, or a doctor even, or she was a minister, a woman of God in some way. Or a mother. She was someone who thought of him and waited with him, while the others all stood back and gawked, hand on mouth, or they turned away, sickened by the blood, the ruin of his face, and the tangle of his limbs, bent all wrong. One man took it upon himself to give chase, and he ran after the car for a couple of blocks, but it had already turned the corner and was gone.
2010 Ford Escort, white, sunroof. You called 911. Yours was the first report. At the trial nine months later, they played it back to us, and we heard your precise description of that car. There could be no mistake.
By the time the ambulance arrived, my husband was dead.
When we were first married, we had a small house consisting of two small bedrooms at the back, a bathroom, living room, breakfast nook, and kitchen. That was all. I loved the kitchen and the nook. Especially the glass doors on the cabinets with all our new china and crystal gleaming on the shelves behind them.
I got stoned on Saturday mornings and cleaned the house. My father-in-law dropped by after his store closed at noon. He sold surgical supplies. Catheters and bedpans. Calipers, wheelchairs, pillows, scales. Artificial breasts that you could cradle in the palm of your hand. Our conversations wandered. He came to think of me as vague, insubstantial, smoky, but he didn't know the half of it.
His wife, my mother-in-law, did not like me much. She favored my husband's former girlfriend, who was from someplace out west but had come to visit once and had charmed them all with her presence. She was beautiful, all right, and she had a body that everyone talked about after she'd left. That was the summer before I met him. When I was living out in California with a boyfriend of my own.
Many years later my mother-in-law fell down in her garden, and after that she couldn't talk, so I would go over to her house and wheel her around and talk and talk, and she would not be able to answer me back. Except to say, "I wonder." Or, "Oh my."
There was a coldness that came over me almost the day after our wedding. I didn't want him to touch me. His breath shivered at my throat or in my ear and made the hair on my arms stand up. I pushed him away before I could think what I was doing, and then I was sorry that I'd hurt his feelings, but there was nothing to do about it; that was just the way it was. After all those months we'd spent together the summer after the one with the girlfriend's visit, when we camped across the country and we were in our tent together every night, now we had a house and a new brass bed all our own. He stayed up late into the night, watching television and lighting matches, setting small fires in the ashtrays for me to find the next morning. Charred pages from the TV Guide went up in flames while I slept, deeply dreaming in our brass bed. Dreams so vivid and complex that I remembered them for years afterward, and they still come back to me again in the middle of the day sometimes, like a kind of déjà vu.
I was still in school then. He had a job he went to every day.
One night I told him, I said, "You know, if it weren't you, it would be somebody else."
Once when I was stoned and cleaning the house, before my father-in-law came by, I heard a voice behind or within or on top of the vacuum cleaner's noise, and I couldn't tell if it was in my head or if it was real, just that over the hum there was a sound like a radio announcer, that voice going on and on, flat vowels like a sportscaster, rising and falling, but I couldn't exactly make out the words. This went on all day, in the background of whatever else I was hearing, and then after that it came and went until one morning I was driving to class in a snowstorm and I couldn't see, so I had to pull over and wait for the snow to lighten up. I was under an overpass, and suddenly the voice was gone, and it was so quiet and cold that I wondered if I'd died or something and then after that I missed the voice in a way, but it never came back, and I stopped smoking pot then, which made my Saturday afternoon conversations with my father-in-law so much less interesting that after a while he quit coming by at all.
I wanted to paint our bathroom midnight blue, but I used oil paint on latex, or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, it wouldn't stick and I painted it over and over again, but I didn't understand what was happening or what I was doing wrong. I didn't figure this out until many years later, when we were living in a much bigger house, with kids and dogs and cats and all that, and the painter who was working on our new addition told me about the difference between latex and oil, and I remembered, but at the time I know I thought it was in some way my fault.
The windowsill in our little bedroom in that first small house was rotted, and my husband started to pick at it, making it worse and worse until he had no choice but to take the window out altogether. He meant to replace it, but it was not a standard size, so he cut away the wall and made the window into a door instead, which then was a door that went nowhere, so he built a deck out there and invited his parents over for a barbecue when it was done. I used the good china, and his mother broke the last of our crystal glasses. She dropped it in the sink, but she didn't apologize. After they left we made love out on the deck, under the stars, early in April, too early really to be eating outside. It was cold and that's why his folks left early, not because of anything I said and not because of the broken glass. He and I sat out there anyway, and we smoked a joint and then I was on him, licking his throat. We were good from then on. Like we'd worked something out somehow.
If you hadn't called, someone else would have, and others did too, but you were the first to report the accident, and so you were the one they wanted to talk to, and you were the one who identified the car, so it was your description along with the license plate observed by someone else that led to the arrest of the kid who had been behind the wheel. He probably would have turned himself in anyway. Or so he said. He knew he'd made a mistake—a terrible mistake—a bunch of terrible mistakes—one on top of the other—and once he was clear of the scene, he could see that he was not going to be able to hide or run. He was only in high school, he was just a kid, where could he go? Except home to his parents to wait for the police to catch up, which they did. A couple of hours is all it took, and so by lunchtime he was in jail.
While I was at the morgue, you were answering questions up there in the hotel room, because the police wanted to hear what you had seen, and they wanted to see how it must have looked to you. Your description of the car and the accident itself. Just before and then the moment of, and afterward. And when they saw how upset you were—telling it over and over again, one moment to the next just as I have already described it myself, and as I have heard it from you too, when you had to tell it all again in court—when your strength weakened and you began to falter, you paled and started to break down, come apart, only then did they think to ask: Did you know him? And then you fell, as if from the great height of your remove, your overview, your omniscience, to the floor of the affair. And then you couldn't speak, but only nodded. Yes.
We moved to the bigger house, on the other side of town, in a better neighborhood. He had a good job and I was working too, and we had enough money then to do just about anything we wanted to do, pretty much. The bedroom in that house was called a master suite, and it had a chair by the window that looked out over the backyard, to the fence and the alley and the back sides of the houses beyond, where music drifted to us from an open window. This was in the summertime.
He was asleep in the bed on the other side of the room. His hands on his chest. Sleeping on his back like that, he would be snoring soon. The television was on, the volume low. The colors poured over his face.
I fixed myself another gin and tonic and sat in the chair, with my back to him. The music from somewhere else had stopped, and I missed it. The alleyway was still. The rain was soft at first, a drizzle that quickly picked up and thickened to a full downpour. A back door opened, spilling light onto the grass, and that created a shimmer in the wall of falling rain. A young man stepped out. He was shirtless, barefoot, in jeans. He dropped down from the porch to the grass and loped along the walkway to his car. He climbed in and rolled the windows up, then ducked through the rain, back to the shelter of the porch. He stopped there, just under the overhang where it was dry. His skin gleamed in the light. His hair was dark, cut short on top and in the front, left to grow out longer in the back as was the style then. He lit a cigarette and folded his arms across his chest and smoked and watched the rain, until he flicked the butt out into it, then turned and melted into the shadows of his house.
I knew who he was, in passing. I'd seen him go to his car in the mornings. He waved sometimes. Said hi now and then. He talked to my husband once, about a carburetor. Said he was twenty and still in school, studying anthropology or somesuch. This was when I was forty. I worked out the dates and counted back to when I figured he was born, when I was twenty and still in school myself and dating the former boyfriend, who didn't want to think about the future, who had other plans, who didn't want to be tied down, and who gave me three hundred dollars to do what needed to be done.
You were the witness. You saw it all. For how many years had you been watching us from afar? How much did he tell you? About me. About us. Or did you talk of something else? On the nights when the two of you met, in one hotel or another, when he told me he would be elsewhere and with others, traveling on business, meeting clients, making a sale. Did he complain about me?
The kid behind the wheel was in his senior year of high school, with plans to go to college. A scholar. An athlete. His mother's favorite son. His father's promise. They asked for leniency because of all that. They tried to make me see. One life already ended, why ruin another? A mistake in judgment, the light first and then that he had kept on going after. But he was young. He was a kid, and who of us has not made a bad choice now and then, along the way? Did I have children? they wanted to know. Could I understand that part of it, at least?
In the newspapers and on the news, the whole story. The sympathies went to you, who loved him, who had to be the witness, who saw it all, from above, from afar, where there was nothing you could do but make the phone call, summon help, and then testify that yes, that was the car.
Someone looked at you and, having heard the story, was surprised to find that you aren't beautiful. You're not even young. And they wondered out loud, What did he see in her?
But time passes. Attention moves on. The story of the day is soon forgotten.
We bury him. We prosecute the boy. And then someone writes a check, payable to me.
The wind has been blowing in the canyon tonight, and it is fierce. Sometime around three a.m. the power goes out. I have the dog, so although I'm alone I feel safe, and when she stands at the door, I let her out. The city below this house, the canyon and the hills around, everything is dark.
I try to keep an eye on the dog, but she's black and I can't see her in the tangle of the back garden, the ferns and palms and jade. I have a flashlight, and I recently replaced the batteries, because there's been talk of earthquakes, what with the wind and the heat and the woman on the news telling us that chances are good that one will hit us soon. One month, a year, ten. Depends on what you mean by soon.
I step outside. There is no sound. I look up to see a plane passing overhead. I watch it for a second and then I run the flashlight over the yard, and there is the dog, also looking up and watching that plane on its way to somewhere else.
If this were a film, I think, just at this moment, just as we are here, the dog and I, and we are watching that plane, it would explode. This would be the beginning of the disaster, catastrophe, apocalypse, or whatever is the story, and a piece of the plane would fall and fall and hit me and knock me down dead. My husband, the main character in the film, the star of it, the hero, he would hear the terrible sound of that and the dog barking, going nuts, echoing across the darkened canyon, and he would quickly find me, in the garden, on the ground. That would be the beginning of the plot. I don't know what happens next.
This isn't how it goes, though. Not this time anyway. The plane just keeps on going toward its intended destination, safe and sound. I bring the dog inside. The power comes back and with it the lights. I fix myself a cup of coffee. The day dawns as usual. I get the newspaper and go back upstairs to bed, but he's still not here.
I wonder, I think. And, Oh my.