Mile Marker 232
While Greg was eating burgers at McNamara’s Pub with his wife, Marcy, he got a call to haul a wrecked car off I-40.
“Can’t someone else do it?” he asked his dispatch. The answer was no. There was no time to take his wife home, so she rode along, babbling about how exciting it all was. She often asked about his job, about the cars he pulled off the road, how the accident happened, did anyone die. He hated that she asked. Her interest, gruesome. He stopped telling her he when hauled an accident so they wouldn’t have to talk about it. It was one of the few things he didn’t like about Marcy, his second wife. She was eleven years younger, thirty-three. He had decided he would do better with this marriage. He was certain he could do better.
“How about just staying here,” he said when they found the accident. There were two vehicles on the scene, both with hoods turned into accordions, a head-on collision. One, a silver pickup. The other, a blue sedan. The grass was damp. The tire tracks from the blue sedan a muddy slice across the median, heavy rain surely causing the crash. It was on I-40 near the Wilson County retail outlet shops, a smorgasbord of cheap dresses, plastic luggage, smelly candles.
“I could go shopping instead,” she joked. She loved to shop. She spent too much money, but he was proud of his wife’s looks, trim and sort of fashionable. Her color choices were loud with a lot of big patterns, but she looked better than his friends’ wives, who swelled and sagged a little more each passing year.
“Just stay there, please,” he said, then joined the troopers who were waiting for him. Any victims had already been taken to the hospital. The troopers had no business telling Greg about the casualties, but they always did, as if they needed to talk to someone about what they had just been through.
“A family of four,” a big-bellied trooper said. “Two young girls. One got taken by LifeFlight.” The trooper leaned forward and whispered, “If you ask me, she ain’t gonna make it.”
“That is so sad,” Marcy said, surprising Greg by showing up next to him.
“Marcy,” he said, “you really shouldn’t be out here.”
“You’re overreacting,” she said. “Isn’t he, Officer?”
“Just don’t go near the wreckage, ma’am,” the trooper said. Marcy put her hand on her back pocket and pulled her phone out slowly as the trooper walked away.
“Maybe a couple pictures,” she said and started toward the crumpled blue sedan in the grass median. Greg grabbed her arm, yanking her back, and she yelped and jumped away from him, indignant. He had never grabbed her before in two years of marriage, not with force. She huffed and laid her hand where his had been.
“Go back,” he said. Then added, “Please.”
“I’m not doing anything,” she said. “Look, I won’t go any closer.”
She turned her back to the wreckage and held up her phone for a selfie.
“Marcy, disgusting,” he said, getting angrier. He didn’t like this side of her at all; he just couldn’t understand it. He was trying his best to be patient. Patience, one of the important parts of a marriage. He knew this now.
“I’m disgusting?” she asked.
Greg knew better than to say yes, and yet, the answer was yes.
“No, not you.” He pointed at the phone. “That.”
Marcy chewed her lip, then held up her camera as if she would take a picture of him. He put his hands up to block himself, but they were standing close, and he bumped the phone, knocking it from her hand. It fell to the dirt with a thump that he heard despite the cars rolling by.
“Are you going to hit me?” she asked.
“What? No,” he said, hurt. She should know him better than that, which upset him in a way that he didn’t want to hit her, though maybe shove her away, a little. Get some space. He breathed deeply.
“Someone may have died tonight, Marcy.”
She got closer to him, and he couldn’t keep his breathing steady. He didn’t want to be near her, and this scared him. Something about how she moved was foreign, new.
“You look like you want to hit me,” she said, like she was examining him, which made him feel worse, as if she didn’t know how hard he worked for her. She was too close now, and there it was, this urge to choke her, to sink his fingers into that curve where neck became shoulder, his favorite part of her body. To see a tendon straining under the skin was more erotic to him than even her breasts or thighs. He pressed his hands against his legs to keep them contained.
“I need to do my job,” he said, though it was harder to talk. There was a fury.
“Could you?” she asked.
“Could I what.”
“Could you hit me?”
He knew better. He knew better.
“Yes,” he said.
She scowled at him, picked up her phone off the dirt, and stomped back to the truck. He finished the job, pulling the blue sedan onto the bed. He needed to drop the sedan at Wilson Tire where it would be examined and declared totaled.
She fiddled with the hem of her shorts as they drove. He didn’t say sorry. He hadn’t done anything wrong; he’d only told the truth. She asked a question, and he wouldn’t lie to her. He made a promise to himself that in his new marriage, he would not lie about anything. He squeezed the steering wheel, his knuckles aching.
They pulled into Wilson Tire, and he sat there a moment, watching her scroll through her phone.
“I didn’t hit you,” he said.
She looked out her window at the darkened storefront of Wilson Tire. It was too late for business, nine o’clock. He knew she would not let him hold her tonight, which was something he had worked hard to do. He liked space in a bed. He wanted to starfish on the mattress with no sheet or shirt, just bared open to a fan stirring air across his skin. She spooned with a pillow, fetal position, and wanted him to cradle her from behind, but for someone who was cold all the time, she turned into an oven at night, her skin so hot it made him nervous.
He once tried to wake her early one morning, afraid she was in a fever and unconscious, but she just mumbled something at him, bad breath rising to his face. Sometimes, he pressed his lips to her forehead, lightly, like his mother did to check his temperature.
“I wouldn’t hit you,” he said.
She whirled toward him, slapping her hands onto the vinyl, pushing herself forward a little.
“You said you would.”
“I said I could.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Intention,” he said, as if this was obvious. Intention was everything. The fact that he could hit her was just a mark on his character, not a threat. He knew he was capable, which was bad enough. He hit his last wife, Allison. Once. Allison claimed he tried to run her over with the car, too, but that was totally untrue. She ran out behind his car when he was peeling out, fleeing from himself, keeping himself from hurting her again. She jumped out of the way just as he hit the brakes.
Marcy leaned over in the cab and punched a fist into Greg’s gut, which made him shudder with a cough.
“I intended to do that,” she said.
She got out of the truck, walking toward the closed shop, and he clutched his stomach, tendrils of pain fizzling. She wasn’t very strong, but the ghost of her knuckles lingered.
Marcy sat on the steps of the storefront, again scrolling through her phone, so Greg went about his business lowering the sedan off the bed. He left it on the edge of the parking lot assuming someone would take care of it in the morning. Its front end was crushed, the windshield completely shattered and gone. There had been a family in there, lives that assumed they would be tucked in their own beds that night. He didn’t want to feel like life could change that quickly, as if you didn’t get to decide anything really, that it was all just happening to you. Maybe that was true, but Greg needed to believe he could decide things, if only about himself.
He ran his hand over metal above the front wheelbase, which was scrunched like aluminum foil. He peered in through the gaping hole of the missing windshield and saw colored pencils scattered across the seats. On the backseat, there was a sketchpad with a zebra-print cover and a bright pink heart in the middle. The trooper had told him there were two girls, one who might not make it, and Greg found himself hoping this belonged to the one who survived. Maybe she could get it back. Of course, these thoughts were only to make him feel better about what happened, as if he needed to be consoled. He’d hauled many wrecked cars, and he tried not to think about who had been inside, but here he was looking from sketchpad to colored pencils to a water bottle in the floorboard, half-full, and a granola bar in the back dash, half-eaten.
Greg yanked open the drivers’ side door and looked at Marcy, who glanced up from her phone. He jerked his head, an invitation, and she came over slowly.
“Are you a freak now, too?” she asked.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Look inside.”
She peered in, but she shrank from the steering wheel where Greg saw smeared blood across its top.
“It smells like sweat,” she said.
“It was raining earlier,” Greg said. “I bet it’s just damp.”
“No,” she said, leaning in a littler further. “I smell them.”
And for a moment, Greg did, too and he didn’t want to feel this. He wanted to do his job and go home and watch the Dodgers game, starting at 7 in LA, so he had to stay up late.
“Ok,” he said, knocking on the outside of the car. “That’s enough.”
He went back to the truck, hoping she would follow. When he turned to get into the cab, he was relieved to see her coming, too. He got a little scared of her like that.
Marcy got in the cab of the truck with her purse in her lap, the top open and bulging with corners of papers, a hairbrush, the side of her wallet. He once encouraged her to get a bigger purse only to discover she filled it to capacity, too. The size of the purse didn’t matter. Something in Marcy wanted to have as much with her as her purse would carry, never getting rid of crushed pieces of gum or filthy, green pennies. They rattled around in there as she walked and left a trail of receipt crumbs behind her.
She was again lost in her phone, swiping up, swiping down.
“What’s so interesting on there?” he asked.
“Stuff,” she said, shrugging. Greg didn’t have one of those fancy phones. He preferred the old flip phone. Up meant on. Down meant off. You talked into it, or you didn’t. That made sense to him, but she was young enough to be another generation. This both turned him on and made him feel insecure. He didn’t want to look like her father. He didn’t want to look like anyone’s father, something else Allison changed her mind about after five years in. She wanted a family he had never promised. Their fight, when he hit her, was after he discovered Allison tearing apart the bathroom. She’d had a miscarriage, though he didn’t know she was pregnant. She quit taking her birth control pills without telling him. She screamed at him that the miscarriage was his fault, that she wouldn’t have miscarried if she didn’t have to hide it. She made him feel like a murderer.
He got a vasectomy before marrying Marcy, who said she didn’t want kids anyway. She preferred to go shopping than to pay for daycare. Her friends with kids complained to her one too many times, and Marcy got the memo.
Greg slid his hand to Marcy’s thigh, testing their status, and when she didn’t pull away, he slid his fingers to her waistband.
“Not here,” she said, but he grabbed the waistband of her shorts and yanked her toward him, scooting her an inch or two, and she laughed. He loved that laugh. More like a honk. It was funny and real.
“Anywhere I want, woman,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” she asked. He saw the tendon under her neck, straining, as she tilted her head, studying him.
“Drive,” she said, dropping her phone into her bulging purse top, a good sign.
He pulled the truck away from the wrecked car, forgetting the family who had been in it, now a group of bodies lying in beds somewhere, maybe still breathing. His chest felt tight, his own breathing faster as he hardened beneath his zipper.
She had her hand on his thigh now, as he drove, and she crept it further to the inside. He wiggled in his seat, adjusted, allowed himself more room to expand inside his pant leg. This is something Allison would never do. When Marcy slid her fingers under his boxers, he gasped.
“Don’t kill us,” she said, her mouth on his ear.
“I’m trying not to,” he said.
The rain had come again, though it was light, and Greg kept fiddling with the wipers, not sure if he needed them or not. His face, neck, everything grew warm as Marcy touched him. His friends, all three of them, said they didn’t know how he got a girl like Marcy. Outkicked his coverage, they said. He didn’t like that, but he laughed along, knowing he should.
When he drifted a little too far into the left lane and yanked the wheel back straight, he was ready to ask Marcy to stop, but her phone rang. She stopped immediately and bent for the phone, yet another generational sign, like a robot in response to a robot.
She dug through her purse, pulling hair ties and tissues out onto her lap.
“Oh, yuck,” Marcy said, silencing her phone when she found it.
“Who is it?” Greg asked.
“Literally, no one,” she said. “Telemarketer, probably.”
Greg saw the crap from her purse piled on her legs, including a perfume bottle, a sunglasses case though the sunglasses were long missing, and a sketchpad. Greg went cold. It was the same sketchpad with a zebra-print cover complete with a pink heart. Greg slammed his foot on the brake, almost pulling over to the side of the road, then thought better of it and swerved back into his lane.
“What the fuck, Greg?” Marcy screamed.
He accelerated faster. She grabbed the handle above her head with one hand, the other pushing down on the vinyl seat.
“You’re gonna kill us,” she said.
“You can take pictures,” he said.
“That doesn’t make any sense!”
He accelerated and swerved around cars as quickly as the big truck could do. It wasn’t a sports car; it didn’t exactly handle, but he’d driven this Dodge Ram, or one like it, for thirteen years. He knew its limits. Unlike Marcy.
“Do you want to kill us?” she asked. No answer came to mind, just fury flooding his skull. All he knew is that everyone was so set on making him the bad guy. It made him want to drive off the edge of something.
The rain dropped open, like water from a bucket. Red lights bloomed all around him, and he tapped the brakes, squinting through the downpour as the wipers could barely swipe any water away. He needed to slow down, but instead he jerked the truck onto the shoulder of the road, passing crawling cars. She was moaning now, like prayer, as they bumped along. He’d never seen her pray, and though she wasn’t exactly praying, it was something like it, that same desperation, and he felt powerful to reduce her to this.
“Please, stop,” she said, so low he almost couldn’t hear.
She wasn’t the type to beg, so driving her to this quiet was enough to snap him out of it. He slammed to a stop, skidding the truck on the gravel and mud of the shoulder. She rattled the door handle, but he reached over and slammed the door lock down. She pressed against the seat, away from his arm, as if it was on fire and would burn her. When he cut the engine, under the sounds of the pounding rain and her panting, he could smell her, all bubblegum and bacterial like fear. Cars passed by them on the left, slowly, guarded, each one with its hazards going like it was the only one in this mess.
After a minute, she yanked the door lock up and flung herself out of the cab. The battery was still on so the lights blazed in front of them. She ran out into the flood of them, in front of the truck. In front of him.
“Go ahead!” she screamed. “This is how you treat your wives.”
He rolled his window down and leaned out. The rain had turned the world around them into a symphony of sound. The maraca noise of the water pounding the highway. The snare drum pitch of rain on the truck hood. The passing shhhh, shhhh of the car tires on the wet asphalt. They had no other choice but to yell at each other.
“I didn’t run her over.”
“But you wanted to,” Marcy said.
A semi-truck blew its terrible horn as it passed.
Greg grabbed the sketchpad from her seat and got out of the truck, moving into the lights with her, getting drenched.
“What is this?” he asked.
“This?” she asked, taking it from him. “You’re angry about this? They would have thrown it away, you know that?”
“So you’re going to keep it?”
“Maybe,” she said, though it was soaking in rainwater. She shoved it under her shirt and held her arms across her belly to keep it there.
“Why?” he asked. It came out as if he was begging for the reason that someone would torture him.
“I don’t know!” she screamed. “Why can’t people look away from train wrecks, Greg? It’s that. It’s just that.”
“I can,” he said.
“You can what?”
“I can look away.”
A semi-truck roared past spraying them with water, and she screamed and bent over, shielding the sketchpad under her shirt, her back rounded away from him, the way Allison looked, after he hit her. It was a clumsy knock upside the head, not so much a punch or smack as just a fumbled clunk to her temple. He pulled that hand back with his other hand as if the one had lost its own mind. As if it had a mind that wasn’t his.
He grabbed Marcy gently and pulled her back to the truck. After they got in, he held out his hand.
“Let me see it.”
Marcy pulled it out from under her shirt and opened it carefully, spattered wet and floppy, to a page filled with butterflies, all the same butterfly silhouette but various sizes and colors. On another page, there was a huge eye. It was brown, but the girl, whichever one, had penciled in green and gold, clearly studying a real brown eye closely. Allison’s eyes had been brown like that but with just enough black that they turned to mud when she cried.
Marcy wasn’t crying. She wasn’t the type. She was angry, her skin pink with heat. She opened to the cover of the book. On the inside, there was a name, each letter written with a different color like a rainbow: Charlie Todd.
“She has a boy’s name,” Marcy said. “The one that might die.”
“How do you know it’s hers?”
Marcy closed the cover and rubbed her hand over the front of it. Then pulled it up to her chest and cradled it as if it was a token from her childhood that she had been parted with but now was found.
“I just know not to have them,” she said. “I’m not strong enough.”
Greg saw her mouth turn down slightly. He put his hand out, felt for her thigh, squeezed.
“I know what you mean,” he said.
When the coast was clear, he got the truck back onto the highway. The rain had lightened up a bit, but a stray crack of thunder boomed and Greg jumped, making Marcy burst with that laugh of hers, its own thunderclap. Allison never laughed like that, like Marcy, who leaned back, flashing her teeth and tongue to the world. It sounded like a series of goose honks, and it made other people laugh at her, though she thought people were laughing with her, which made her laugh even harder.
Greg never laughed at her. He needed that sound, that assurance he was doing something right. If Marcy was laughing, she was happy. And that made Greg happy. Even as her goose honks got louder and weirder, Greg found himself moved to the point of tears, laughing along with her every time.