By Mickey Fisher
I worked the morning shifts at my town’s only gas station in November of 2012, during a break from courses in my senior year at the University of New Hampshire. Nobody else seemed to want that shift, and I didn’t mind sleepwalking through the opening routines: turning on the lights, starting the pumps, making the coffee – one of our biggest sellers in the mornings. I had to brew six different flavors, and I usually sold the first cup before the last carafe was full.
It was on one of those mornings that a semi-regular came in. I never got his name, but I’ll call him Dutch, due to his hair – the color of hay – which fell over his head in a Dutch-boy cut. He hid his eyes behind big aviator glasses and hid the rest of his face behind a robust, well-kept beard. An old hippie, maybe. He was in his late forties, maybe early fifties. He came in every once in a while in the mornings; today it was for coffee and scratch tickets.
“World’s gonna end next month,” he said, as I rung him up. “Mayans predicted it.” I didn’t know what he was looking for from me, so I stayed noncommittal. The way he said it made something go wrong in my gut, though. It was either the surety with which he spoke, like it was something that had already happened, a box score from last week’s game. Or maybe I was thrown because there was a kind of wistfulness in his voice. Like he couldn’t wait to see how it would all go down.
“As I got closer, I noticed that the passenger’s window – now pointing towards the sky – was shattered, little teeth of glass ringing its lip.”
I left the gas station job in December to go back to courses and a work-study position in UNH’s library, which I worked every Monday. I was on my way to one of those shifts, going north along NH 43 towards Durham, doing at least 50. It was a highway in the loosest sense of the term: a rough two-laner with gray guardrails thrown up wherever the land dipped down enough to justify their existence. The pavement was almost free of ice, and the snow on either side of the road was just starting to think about melting. It was 35 degrees, and by rights, the patch of black ice that was in front of the big white Colonial coming up on my left shouldn’t have existed.
My Volvo started drifting left when I hit the ice, carrying me into the oncoming lane. Someone reached into my guts and started tugging around as I watched the end of one of those guardrails approach the front of my car, like the blunt face of a hammer. It was about a hundred feet away from me, but that distance was closing at brutal speed.
I slid into the dirt driveway of the old Colonial and got some traction back, spraying cold clods over a sedan that was parked near the front door, but I didn’t get enough traction to avoid hitting the blue plastic newspaper mailbox. Its thin metal pole smacked against my door. Compact newspaper bundles, bound with rubber bands, flew up and out. I managed to straighten the car out and stopped about twenty feet short of the guardrail.
I let myself breathe and let go of the steering wheel. My hands were shaking. I sat there for a moment, thinking about how likely death would have been had someone been driving towards me in the oncoming lane as I lost control. Seemed likely. I made a cognizant effort to check both lanes – made absolutely sure that no one was coming – before slowly pulling back onto the road and to the opposite side’s shoulder, where I pulled over and parked. I got out of the car and headed back towards the house. Apologizing to the owners would give me some more time to let my hands shake from the cold instead of from my nerves.
The ice threatened to undo me again as I crossed the road; I had to walk slower than I would have preferred to, being on a highway and all. When I got to the driveway, I noticed the set of furrows that my tires had dug into the dirt, plus a set of tracks older than mine. I wasn’t the first one undone by the ice.
I picked the scattered newspapers up off the ground, darting around to catch the advertising flyers that had come loose from their pages before the wind blew them away. Once I collected the news, I went up to the front door, which was made of old wood and painted forest green, and knocked. My knuckles stung a bit from the impact. Silence. I hoped no one would answer. No one did. I laid the newspapers on the stone front step and started walking back to my car.
As I crossed Route 43 again, I noticed that my front driver’s side tire was going flat; it’d probably been punctured by the metal pole of the newspaper mailbox. I started to open my door so I could sit and give my parents a call, see if I could get a ride. As I did, though, I heard a motor growling. I couldn’t see it yet, but the car was coming from behind me, going the same direction I’d been going.
I closed the door and saw the car – a pickup, actually – coming down the road towards me. I started waving my hands above my head. There was no real way for me to warn the driver of what was coming, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Not that it mattered.
He was a good distance away from me when he hit the ice. The truck swerved around, its back end swinging in an arc from left to right, before it flipped over sideways and landed, driver’s side down, on the lawn of the Colonial.
“Holy shit,” I said.
No one else was coming, so I started to half-jog, half-slide towards the pickup, crossing the highway yet again. As I got closer, I noticed that the passenger’s window – now pointing towards the sky – was shattered, little teeth of glass ringing its lip. A man poked his head up and out of the cab through the space where the window used to be. He looked like a gopher sticking its head out of its hidey hole, seeing if the coast was clear. I recognized him immediately. Dutch looked unharmed.
“You ok?” I asked him.
“Wow,” he said, and he brought his hands up to the lip of the window to try to pull himself out of the cab.
“Just stay there, man, I don’t want you to cut your hands,” I told him. “I’m calling 911.”
The local fire department was not five minutes away, and I stayed with him until they got there. I kept having to tell Dutch to stay in the cab, because he kept trying to pull himself out. An ambulance and a fire truck arrived, and firemen helped Dutch out of his pickup. By this time, the elderly couple who lived in the house had come outside in their bathrobes, finally awoken by the truck beached on their frozen lawn. Dutch’s only wound was a little cut on the side of his palm. I don’t think he even needed stitches.
He puzzles me still. For as little as I knew the man (besides his claims regarding the world’s end), he never struck me as suicidal, or even like he was welcoming death. So I think that he was happy to have survived the accident on that December morning. But I sometimes wonder why. Had his perspective on the end of the world changed since he spoke to me about the Mayans? Was he now optimistic about the future? Or did he still believe that the end was coming at that point, and was he glad that he’d avoided missing out on the big show, scheduled for the 21st? What kind of weight did the accident carry for him, what kind of relief?
I saw Dutch a year or so after the accident at a Walmart. He didn’t recognize me.
Mickey Fisher is a graduate of The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.