***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by April Wilder
This Is Not an Accident
Each week the driver who’d made the least amount of progress took home the Decelerator Award. The thing itself was an actual gas pedal removed from the instructor’s late-model Tacoma, a pedal she believed to be not only faulty but the true cause of her multiple citations for unnecessary acceleration. “As it happened,” she told the class, “Toyota recalled these pedals for that very reason, among others.”
Kat raised her hand. “Among other reasons or among other pedals?”
Everyone laughed, though Kat wasn’t sure why. She wondered, too, why an accelerator was being used to denote deceleration, but the one question was enough to let everyone know she was awake.
The instructor backed up, half-sitting on the lip of the desk and crossing her short sturdy legs. She was an all-business blonde who worked for a bail bondsman and claimed to be related to Houdini (a fact the class wise guy, Roger, had pounced on: “Yeah? I’ll bet he coulda got himself out of those acceleration tickets”). Behind her on the whiteboard was this week’s Thinking Point:
passenger ≠ hostage
“So how did it go for everyone this week?” she asked.
A girl in braces raised her hand and said it hadn’t gone well. She’d forgotten to close the door of the car before backing out of the driveway and an elm ripped it clean off. Yes, she whispered, the driver’s side. People said Aw supportively as the girl sat blinking like someone in front of a cake who can’t think of a wish.
Next the guy with the multiple ripped-apart-heart tattoos said he’d caught himself driving too fast four times.
“All right,” the instructor said, “OK. Who can help us with that?”
A shy kid raised his hand, his skull cap pulled down level with the eyelids. “Should he try and leave earlier?”
Encouraged, he added, “That way he wouldn’t have to speed because he’d have more time to get where he was going.”
“Excellent. Thank you.”
The offender said, “But I wasn’t really going anywhere so I don’t see how it’d help to leave earlier. So I mean, leave earlier for what?”
The instructor looked puzzled. “I guess we’re wondering why you would need the use of your vehicle in that instance.”
“Just cruising, trying to cool down when everyone’s done pissing me off.” He looked around for allies, flipping an obvious hand over.
“OK,” the instructor said. “This raises a good point—let’s all pull out our workbooks and turn to page ninety-seven.”
There was the pulling out of the workbooks and the locating of page 97, which had a self-evaluation form that began: I drive best when ______________. Kat couldn’t think of a time she drove best or even better so she wrote “N/A” in the blank, and then, over in the margin, drew a picture of herself driving. Kat was not all there today. She’d slept in her car three nights in a row and could honestly say the only thing she wanted in the world was to make it home after class instead of driving the two-hundred-plus miles to Iowa, sleeping in her car again, driving home, then possibly, if it happened again (whatever it was that happened between the times Kat wasn’t-then-was driving to Iowa yet again) turning around and repeating the whole horrible awful awfulness. It didn’t seem like much to ask, to know where she was going when she got in her car. To have some basic say in the matter of her whereabouts.
Across the table, Roger said, “Your face looks better this week.” He was smoothing down the legs of his mustache, while their third tablemate, a man with a recent-looking brain-surgery scar, nodded along. It didn’t help to ignore Roger, on whose constantly sunburned face was the smug, slightly obscene expression of a man who’s dodged every major responsibility in life. Halfway through the first class, he’d yawned and asked when the movies were going to begin. “Red Asphalt, anyone? That’s a classic.”
In front of the room now, the instructor was clapping and hollering: “Everyone! In front, please! I’m seeing a lot of erasing and I’m wondering why that’s happening. This is a self-evaluation, people. Your self is supposed to evaluate itself, OK?” She looked from face to face, settling on the Spanish couple who huddled over their Safer U Safer Me workbook like they were picking out patio furniture. “Comprehen-day- vous?”
The couple nodded.
In forty-six minutes class would end. Half an hour before that, Kat would start to panic. In the goals box she sketched a map of streets between the Technical Institute and her apartment a mile and a half away, darkening in the quickest route home, mouthing the mantra she’d adopted from (the entirety of ) page 7:
ALWAYS BE COGNIZANT:
It was set in boldface, in some maniacal font—36? 48?—and though it looked true, even axiomatic, controlling your vehicle was really just the goal, the hope.
Kat was not an obsessive person. Which was what made it so disheartening to run out for coffee only to find herself—just this morning this was, and yesterday morning, too—shooting past the corner café, past two Starbucks and a Pete’s and the Octopus Car Wash, then seeing signs for the Beltline and thinking she should turn around; noting a few miles later, I did not turn around. It was hard to say when she fully understood she was headed back to Iowa City. Maybe at the Wisconsin–Iowa border. Definitely by Verona she knew. Absolutely by Dodgeville.
Copies of that week’s News Clipping were passed around the room while her tablemates complained about how difficult it was to get to class—Roger because he had “people to take care of,” while the other guy just sort of vaguely didn’t like the time class started. They made Kat think of her sister’s stream of boyfriends. It’s not enough to just walk around not drooling, Angel would tell the men, reach for more—a line she and Kat laughed uproariously at because Angel was a forty-two-year old mermaid who considered overdraft protection a source of income.
BEAUTY QUEENS DIE IN HEAD-ON CRASH.
The assignment was to read the article and fill in a “Could This Incident Have Been Prevented?” form, but they never got that far when there was a photograph with the article.
A girl at the next table said, “If that’s her jaw, there then what’s that supposed to be?”
“Her elbow?” Kat was trying to figure out which paper would even print a picture so graphic and ghoulish. Roger made a game-show-buzzer sound. “That would be the steering wheel, ladies.”
Both drivers had been local beauty queens, a fact that made the accident seem less than accidental to Kat, or at least not random. Kat had no opinion on beauty but trusted that things of seemingly infinite complexity would be the worse for any substitution on any level: the cashier in the joke who threatens to staple the duck’s feet to the floor must be driven to do so by refusing the duck grapes, grapes exactly. The idea of the duck wanting instead a doughnut or a roll of film disorients Kat profoundly. She ekes a living out of a syndicated gag cartoon called The End Times, so she thinks a lot about what’s funny and not funny. Probably a third of her own cartoons, the most popular ones, she doesn’t entirely get herself.
“One lesson to gleam here,” the instructor said, “if you think it’s just idiots and drunks getting killed, stop and ask yourself whose vehicles those idiots and drunks are running into. Yours and my’s vehicles, that’s whose.”
“Another lesson to gleam,” said Roger, “is that even hot people die.”
Could this incident have been prevented? Kat often asked herself this question. Months back, before all of this started—and despite her status as the worst driver anyone she knew knew—Kat’s record had been clean. Mysteriously clean. The kind of clean that made her wonder if the cops were really paying attention, if they cared the way they used to. Then her answer came in the form of two speeding tickets in one night.
She was racing to meet a man from a dating site whose username was ONE&ONLY99; he seemed relaxed and educated enough for her to ignore his constant referencing of the ex-wife, or the many pictures he’d posted of himself standing beside or seated in the cockpit of a helicopter he apparently couldn’t fly. (Helicopter? one&only99 replied, Oh that, yeah, there was a story there but I forgot.) Kat’s free trial on the site was ending and this was going to be her well-intentioned honest last stab before she quit men forever (then waited a day and quietly joined a new site). “Maybe if he was local,” Angel had said, scrolling through the guy’s profile on Kat’s laptop. “But you can’t drive to Iowa for this hairline.”
Kat swiveled the screen on the bar so she could see. “We’re not young. Men lose their hair.”
“I give him two years before he goes clown top,” Angel said. She tipped her head, looking deeply into Kat’s life. “Did you not date a thirty-year-old albino with, as I recall, full dentures? What is your attraction, do you think, to people who are missing things? Appropriate pigmentation, couth?”
Kat frowned. “At this point I’m more interested in, you know, is he sober and does he have a job.”
“Yeah?” Angel said. “Owns his own business, does he? That’s probably what his helicopter is for.” She glanced down the bar, eyeballing the regulars’ glasses, then came forward on her palms, her gray-spoked green eyes intent, her chlorine-fried hair bristling. “It’s all guys like that have left—the power to stand up people like you.”
“And what is ‘people like me’?” Kat asked.
Angel sighed to indicate the summoning of her limited patience. “People willing to drive three hours to meet a total doofus. Listen, if you don’t want doofuses standing you up, then you have to be a person doofuses wouldn’t stand up. And that’s not me talking, that’s science.”
Kat said, “Fix your clams.” Angel retracted and glanced down at her clam-shell bustier, which was more cute than denigrating when it was on straight, but when one or both clams were tilted it was like watching someone grope her right in front of you.
It’d been a rough week for Angel, too, as she and the Castaway’s other career-term mermaid, V, had been pressing Stan for new equipment for a year or years, then earlier in the week V comes waltzing in with a top-of-the-line Atlantis monofin. “This thing’s got fucking scales,” one of the bartenders, Mitch, had said.
Now they were watching V in the tank, and there was something legitimately fishier in her locomotion. Covetously, Angel said, “You know the price tag on an Atlantis?”
Down on his permanent stool Jerry said, “So blow Stan and get an Atlantis for yourself.”
“Do it for the nutritional value,” the disbarred attorney said.
Angel said, “The only way I’m blowing Stan is if I need gas and he’s got some in his”—here shifting into a don’t-wake-the-kids whisper—“penis.”
Angel was always right about Kat and men. She did herself no favors, but if Angel was right, wouldn’t one&only99 have to be waiting at the bar to know Kat had shown up so he could stand her up as a punishment for showing up? And if one&only99 were there waiting, then (it seemed to Kat) he hadn’t stood her up. But maybe only the kind of person Angel was talking about—the kind that got stood up for being a person who got stood up—would try and think this through. The other kind would just know not to go. She went home and shaved her legs and tried to decide which kind of person she was. It was a long drive to Iowa, after all, one she didn’t want to make if she were the kind of person she suspected, the kind who got stood up more or less because her much cooler sister predicted she would. By the time she Googled directions it was too late to drive to Iowa City safely, anyway.
So she drove there the other way.
The first cop pulled her over in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. He fingered a hearing aid made of beige rubber and said, “Didn’t you see me? I thought you saw me but then you sped up.” Kat apologized and said she had to go to the bathroom. He said she’d just sped past five gas stations, all with bathrooms. Kat said yeah but that she had to go too bad to stop. He chewed on that, then removed his hearing aid and wrote her up for twelve over. She’d need a police escort to make the date now, but she figured she’d try since no one got two speeding tickets in one night.
The second cop nabbed her forty miles outside Iowa City. He shook his head and said he couldn’t see risking lives for an online date. “You hear those things work out with the younger crowd, but I don’t know that that technology suits people of a certain age.” He glanced up from her license, clipped to his mini-clipboard. “I’m not sure we can handle the power.”
“But we invented the power.”
He reached his hand forward into Kat’s space, and said, “I ac- cept all major credit cards.”
By the time she made it to the Hayseed one&only99 was gone. Or had never come. Gone, Kat decided. Come and gone. She couldn’t think Angel was right and he’d stood her up. She couldn’t think it. She drank as much as she needed until every guy in the bar looked like the one she’d come to meet, then she bought cheap champagne in the Conoco next to the Motel motel, which was all she could afford after $300 in speeding fines. In a not-hot bath she drank the stuff warm; drunk, dripping and out of towels, she then dried her face on the bathmat.
Then she was in her car alive and in daylight, tearing home. She needed Gatorade and water and coffee and more water and orange juice and french fries, immediately, all of it, and but she kept her eyes fixed on the hood of the car and she drove. The main thing was that she’d made it through a night that was over now and could never happen again, unless the doctrine of eternal return was right, which was unthinkable when the ultimate aim was to somehow trust that the worst thing you could think of wasn’t always about to happen just as a matter of course. She had to make room for an average day.
An hour outside Iowa City the itching started. Mildly at first, the itch from a too-light caress. On her temple. One on her cheek. Then it spread. She scratched harder and deeper, stopping in the middle of scratching one itch to jump and emergency-scratch another, then back to the first rekindling itch. By the time she reached Wisconsin her face was an anthill-craze of sensation. The worse the itch, the faster she drove. She pulled into the Walk-In Center in a skid.
The doctor said, “Seems to me we’re dealing with athlete’s foot here.”
“But on my face?”
“Let’s not worry about what it’s called. Let’s be glad it’s not the kind that stinks.”
“I’ll definitely tell people that,” Kat said.
He took a scraping and left her on the butcher paper with orders to sit on her hands and not scratch. She looked back on the rush of images—the men in the Hayseed, the one who hadn’t come, the warm beery champagne—and with a long hollowing inside like hunger, she realized she couldn’t remember the actual drive home. She remembered staring down the creased hood of her car, feeling miserable and thinking about feeling miserable, but she couldn’t picture the road or a single landmark—not the scenery or billboards or pulling off.
Had she pulled off ?
When the doctor returned she was sad and anxious and sick. “Apply this sparingly,” he said, handing her a prescription. “Maybe it would help to think of itching as your skin laughing.”
At home she applied the cream sparingly but several times, figuring the only risk in overdoing a topical would be in healing faster than the recommended pace. Whatever you do, the doctor had said, don’t scratch. So she lay in bed with oven mitts on, her cheeks itching on the outside and the inside and whatever was between the inside and outside, itching. In the mad physical buzz she couldn’t think anything through: she thought the phone rang, but maybe it hadn’t. She called her doctor but while she was on hold she forgot who she’d called and hung up.
A week later Kat started traffic school. During introductions, one guy claimed to have racked up nineteen tickets with no license. Someone asked how these tickets were even processed; he shrugged and said, “They don’t tell me and I don’t ask. I don’t use blinkers neither, because it’s nobody’s business where I’m going.”
The immigrant couple introduced themselves elaborately, with great joy, and possibly some confusion between the DMV and INS. “Citizenship can be wonderful,” the instructor had said, “but probably the greatest thing about America is the American interstate highway systems and even those plain vanilla back roads that get us to the drugstore.”
“Aren’t those the roads that got us to traffic school?” This from Roger.
“You go to another country,” the instructor continued, “you’ll see what I mean. I honeymooned in Tijuana so I can tell you first-hand: you’re safer driving through napalm than you are on foreign roadways.”
Roger found a seat across from Kat with the air of a man checking to secure an escape route. When he got good and comfortable, he took a long look at Kat and asked, “What happened to your face?”
Everyone turned to look at Kat’s face while Kat sat and had her face looked at. Her rash (as she was calling it) had calmed down, but the healing was ugly. Makeup made it worse: scales, she saw, when she looked in the mirror.
The instructor asked Roger to introduce himself and tell them why he was there.
“Depends how you look at it—my attorney and I don’t quite agree.” He shrugged, and said nonchalantly, “I guess he knows the law, I know women.” He winked at Kat and again she felt the hollowing, followed now by a supernatural sense, before Roger was two sentences deep, where his story was going. “The facts are these,” he began. He was driving an RV on a two-lane road. A woman he somehow didn’t see was driving toward him, then passing him, and in passing nicked the tail end of his RV, sending her blue compact spinning off the road, where it rolled down an embankment into a tree. She died instantly. “But you don’t know,” Roger told the class, “that’s just what they tell you to not be dicks.”
He said it had been windy out, so his back end would jag from time to time and that was normal and why he didn’t feel her car hit him. He didn’t even see her approaching. The first and last he saw of her was in his rearview mirror, when he glanced up and saw the blue car tipping off the road “like off the side of a ship.” He wasn’t even sure he saw what he saw until he pulled over to check.
During break Roger edged up to Kat at the vending machine he had just been banging around. “I was hoping to score those Combos, but free’s free, right?”
She wasn’t at all sure, but it seemed possible he thought he was flirting. She asked, “So she drove right past you and you didn’t see her? Or feel anything? Not a noise or anything? Even later now when you think back? If you don’t mind my asking?”
Spitting pretzel bits, Roger said, “Nope.” Kat saw that that was going to be all he said, then he softened. “You know, I’m driving much higher up, like yay-high and there’s that rumbling nothingness in the middle of the day, and this flat-ass road that goes for-fucking-ever, and you just fall into it. My attorney says Do anything that looks good before trial, like I’m the bad guy. She should be the one in there with those boneheads—” he motioned at their classmates, who were gathered around studying the microwave like archeologists who’d just pulled it out of the ground. He shook his head. “You know why it’s me here instead of her?”
Kat stood blinking.
“Because she’s dead, that’s why.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that.”
“Yeah? Well there you go, Little Miss Face.” He made explosive sounds in his cheeks, accompanied by crazy titillating fingers going over his supposedly exploding head. “Ka-blam,” he said, or “Ka-blowie.” Kat felt like she had known him all her life.
The Woman in the Blue Compact.
Reaching for a dial middle of the day and sunny and no one around but Roger, who doesn’t even notice hitting you, killing you.
It could be so loud inside a car. The inside of your head could get so loud, stupifying.
Of her drive home from Iowa that morning, Kat remembered nothing. It had been like a full-blast waterfall in the far recesses of her head’s interior. And Kat’s car made a lot of noise. It was a hand-me-down from her uncle, an old FBI-style car you’d win in a poker game but never buy yourself.
How could you know you hadn’t hit someone, was the question—know like you knew it was Tuesday?
The grinding brake pads.
The never-checked fluids in her car.
And it had been so loud in her car that morning, with the itching and the pressure, and were there cornfields or was that something she’d imported from Roger’s story into her own? Because beneath it all, all the time she was thinking deeply about Roger and why she seemed to think he could unknowingly hit someone but she couldn’t—as though there were things that could happen to a Roger that couldn’t happen to her. Finally she couldn’t think about Roger without thinking about her car.
It was still dark the first night of class—four a.m.? five a.m.?— when she kicked off the sheets. Out under the carport she ate an apple and circled her car looking for dents, for scratches, for . . . she hoped she would know when she saw it. She turned the engine over and checked the instrument panel for warning lights, but it’d been over a week since the drive to Iowa and there was a light or two on before, for a few years now.
She didn’t make an active, conscious decision as far as she could recall. One minute she was looking, deciding which warning light to worry about, then she was steering herself past the corner market and the Starbucks and the Pete’s and a while later she was crossing into Iowa, scanning the roadside for crosses, a single upside-down shoe. She didn’t know. She thought of Roger sitting up high in his machine, of the champagne in the Motel motel, of one&only99. She had the sensation of not being able to see what she was looking at, like an eyeball trying to see itself. It seemed like she could turn around any time she wanted, which made it hard to explain why she wasn’t turning around and didn’t until she reached the Hayseed three-plus hours later, parked, stretched, then drove all the way home; or why, instead of going immediately to bed when she did at last reach home, she sat in the idling car seemingly trying to access a photographically complete and accurate mental picture of the entire two-hundred-plus miles of roadway she’d driven that night; and finally why, when she couldn’t do that, she let herself decide she might have hit someone this time, while she was distracted looking for the body she might have hit last time, and she watched in resigned horror as the car was shifted into reverse by herself and steered out of the parking lot, past the corner market, and on its predetermined path to Iowa again.
In the next four days she drove at least three thousand miles. She wasn’t ready to see a pattern until she’d made the trip enough times, and knew the road well enough, to consider it from the perspective of laps, with everything repeating as regularly as wallpaper: the fruit stand and burned-out barn, the tractor with the upside-down rake at the wheel. She drove and drove, scanning the roadside for glass, for torn-up gravel and grass. She ran over the same rubber strip again and again, twice while eating the same microwavable hamburger bought at the same Shell station. A waitress in an IHOP in Dubuque began filling her coffee on her westbound drive, setting the cup aside, then refilling it on her return east. She called everybody sweetheart in a way that made you feel like Kat imagined people coming out of confession felt. She was beginning to lose herself, trawling the roadside for a detached hand or arm. In place of thinking there was the sound of the road in her head, with every now and then a dull pang reminding her of the deadlines she was missing and had to miss because there was no way to work when she was driving to Iowa, which she usually was. Last time she checked her e-mail, an editor at the Chippewa Herald had written, We wonder if the line between funny and terrifying is as thin as you would make it out to be? This in response to a cartoon where, in a therapist’s waiting room, Princess Di shares a loveseat with an emaciated beggar, his head orbited by flies. At the very least, the editor had written, remove the flies.
Kat wrote back: Remove them how? They’re not real flies. They’re made of INK. Then, crying, she’d gotten back in her car and driven to Iowa again.
In the IHOP toward the end of the week, Kat sat next to a kissyface couple who tried to drive her away with whispering and canoodling and hostile looks. There were open seats all up and down the counter and Kat guessed she could’ve moved. Instead she flipped her paper over and said, “Just pretend I’m not here. That’s what I do.”
The woman picked her head off her man’s neck, looked at Kat, and barked a loud surprised laugh. Then she tried to start a conversation, but Kat was bothered by the exchange, a feeling it had all happened before—which, she soon realized, it had: in one of her first cartoons. That cartoon had come from a whole shit-show she’d choreographed for herself where this man Ralph acted wild about her while standing her up time and again, at restaurants and bars, at the Cineplex and the man’s own house—yes, his own home— and even at the green Octopus Car Wash, through which they’d planned to race (passively, seated in their cars). To complicate matters, string her along, Ralph did make every third date or so, but Kat would just spend the whole time preoccupied he wouldn’t come back from the bathroom. When she tried to break it off six weeks and countless stand-ups later, Ralph yelled, “That’s bullshit! I’m coming over right now! Do. Not. Move.” She waited three hours, then got in bed and cried and sobbed and called everyone she knew and no one was ever home and that was her fault for never answering her phone or calling anyone back and she cried more and decided she would start calling everyone regularly, and she thought about how much time it would take making all those calls, and when that got depressing she looked at the work she’d brought home (she illustrated greeting cards then), romantic scenes with, for instance, a couple riding bikes through a park and only the apples in color in the woman’s bike basket. She normally didn’t bother with the copy, but on this day she wrote inside:
Apparently you’re the best I can do right now.
She loved that. It wasn’t even that funny but she laughed her head off and tore into the other cards she’d brought home, filling them with lukewarm and passive-aggressive sentiments in flowing flowery fonts. She didn’t leave her apartment for days. The cards were taped to her windows and fridge, lined on the mantel and sills, knowing this new work—wherever it came from—was finer than anything she’d done before.
No one liked the mean greeting cards except Angel, but Kat kept at it, come what may, and in a manner so obvious as to seem predetermined, the mean cards turned into cartoons, and Kat found her calling. Her cartoons were picked up first by the Green Bay Gazette, then a slew of tribunes and registers and so on..A couple of years later she quit her day job and Angel took her to celebrate in Chicago, where they ate like drug lords and danced in a club they were much too old for, and in the cab at the end of the night Angel said, “You know you’ve always done this. Cartoons, I mean.” She elaborated, “You make some horrible thing happen to you, then right before you go insane you find some way to amuse yourself with it.”
“You’re saying I do this?”
“I’m saying it’s the only thing you do, and all you have ever done.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I assumed you would notice the only thing you’ve ever done. Also, it’s kind of amazing to watch, when it’s not too scary.” Angel wanted to know if and how it could possibly be worth it, the cartoons and generally how Kat processed the world, if it meant living the way Kat lived to do it. It was an uncanny question, really, because Kat didn’t think anyone (even, frequently, herself ) could trace one of her cartoons back to its real-world elements—which would be like hearing a doorbell in a dream and knowing, even as you went on dreaming, that that doorbell was actually a honk out in the street you’d imported into your dream so as to continue dreaming—then in Angel’s case, hearing that doorbell in another person’s dream. “I mean,” said Angel, “There must be a better way.”
Kat thought hard, then let out a diabolical laugh. “I don’t think there is!”
Angel said, “Holy ant balls, Batman.”
Kat was unable now to access the feelings she must’ve felt that night that had made it possible for her to have answered like this, but she had; she had come out and said it was worth it, the horrible awfulness that seemingly had to happen for a cartoon to take root and grow, which is how she knew that if no one stopped her, she could be driving to Iowa and back for the rest of her life. She needed someone else in the car. Period. And another set of eyes.
“So that’s not ever going to happen,” Angel said. “When I think of all the things that would happen before that would happen”— she raised her eyebrows for effect—“wow. That is a long list.” Around Angel’s eyes the skin gathered, a look similar to the one she got when Kat explained how someone had wronged her, and Angel would cut her off and say, “OK, wait a minute: so you seem to be proceeding under the assumption that other people are telling the truth. Is that right? Is that your plan for getting through life?” And Kat would be left making minnowy gaping motions with her mouth.
Now Kat said, “I’ve got, like, car bedsores.”
Angel pumped a martini shaker over her shoulder. “Explain this to me again: you did or did not hit someone?”
Kat said, “No, that’s not the problem.”
“So you didn’t hit anyone?”
“My rational mind says there’s no way.”
Angel looked at Kat appraisingly. “Why do you look disappointed when you say that? Why is that your look?”
Kat tried to explain she didn’t really “believe-believe” she’d hit anyone; it was more like how you don’t need a locked door to sleep, you only need to have checked the lock.
“All right, then,” Angel said, “if this has nothing to do with your actual car or an actual dead body, then drive to Iowa on that stool there.”
“I don’t even know I’m going to do it,” Kat said. “I’m just suddenly on the other side of town, then I’m in Iowa, then everything goes to hell.”
Angel lined up three shot glasses on the rubber and free-poured Jägermeister for three drunk Canadians at the end of the bar. They’d been making noise about the empty tank and the missing mermaid and now one of them climbed on the rungs of his stool, threw back his shot, and yelled, “We drove three hours to see the she-fish!”
“Seriously, if you know it’s not real,” Angel said, returning, “then I don’t see why you need me.” She speared a mug on the cleaning brush, and for a second Kat thought Angel might be privately reassessing some aspect of her sister, which Kat forgot could even happen between them.
A second Canadian stood now, ripping his pearl-snapped shirt apart with his pals clapping and egging him on. People jumped in the tank all the time when a mermaid called in sick, which Stan’s insurance man didn’t like one bit (though when he was there to see it, he understood how hard it was to stop). One happy hour a woman in her fifties, a divorced secretary, swam head-on into the glass and knocked herself unconscious. Stan had to scramble upstairs and fish her out with the hook, with everyone on the floor hooting and cheering like they were watching an animal-rescue show, the woman’s skin-colored bra and panties all bagged out.
Angel started for the stairs. Kat listened to her footsteps on the catwalk, Angel’s lifting sort of walk. One thing Angel somewhat weirdly didn’t remember was this show they’d watched as kids called Man from Atlantis about a guy with webbed feet powering himself around the ocean with this same motion of Angel’s— which was the only way you could swim with a full-zip fin on, pumping from the hips, your legs joined and beating as one. Kat could very clearly see Angel as they watched the show, balancing herself seesaw-wise over a bamboo ottoman, her stomach acting as fulcrum while she mimicked the man from Atlantis’s smooth, continuous kick. Kat thought the show’s premise might’ve been that this man was the last surviving member of his species.
The Canadian who’d started to strip was seated again with his shirt tied on his head, and the three of them watched the wall of aquarium glass while Mitch distributed another round.
“To mermaids!” the lead Canadian shouted.
They threw back the shots just as Angel dropped through the water in her signature pike, bubbles streaming from her nose.
“And one for the lady,” a Canadian said. They were staring down the bar at Kat now. She caught Mitch’s eye and shook her head no, and the Canadians got uglier then.
“Just a sip,” the one said.
“Wet your whistler.”
Behind Mitch, Angel pulled up to the glass, heaving her fin around and sitting back in the water, her hands scooping out tiny circles, as her hair levitated in all directions. Angel was one of the only people Kat knew who could do a thing ironically and straight-forwardly at the same time, which is what made her actually interesting to watch, in costume, in motion. One man used to fly up from Georgia a couple of times a year to watch her swim. Kat tried to remember when he’d stopped coming.
Angel corkscrewed by as the Canadians persisted. “Don’t have us driving home disappointed.”
Kat turned on them then. “You’re not even watching.” She was off her stool and vaguely off balance, swatting at the air. “You made her get in there and now you’re not even watching.”
She was outside before she could think, stepping into her car and sliding over the bumpy powder-blue leather. She watched her hand come up with the car key, then her vehicle was backing up and moving forward, rushing out of the parking lot and through the streets, past every avenue home.
In the parking garage the last night of traffic school, Kat nearly rammed Roger’s lima-bean-green Impala as it came squirreling around a column aiming for the exit ramp. She braked hard to avoid him and he, overcorrecting, skid into the circular cement wall.
“Listen,” he said, inspecting his bumper, their hazards clicking, out of their cars, “this isn’t exactly my car, so let’s call it a draw.”
Kat said, “But I didn’t hit you. You did that yourself.”
He was, Kat realized, actually cleaning his ear with his car key. “Don’t wet your maxi pad,” he said. “I said I’d take care of it.”
“But why wouldn’t you take care of it? I didn’t do anything.”
“Whatever you need to tell yourself,” he said.
She looked at him. She listened to what he’d said again. She swallowed. All she had to do was actually hit someone. Not hit to kill. She only needed to make contact, feel the impact. Once she knew what it felt like to hit someone, she’d know what it felt like not to hit someone, and she would be cured. If she weren’t cured, she would at least have a new and probably bigger problem, which was a form of being cured. And if there was a man to hit and a car to hit that man in, this was the man, the car, and the hour to do it. It was all laid out, how things were going to need to go.
Roger’s machine burped into gear, its tail end tipping up as he coasted down the spiraling exit ramp. Kat followed him out of the parking lot into rainy vacant streets. They headed west, winding around the capital and through the bushy, run-down part of town where people looked like they’d be slow to notice or report an accident. Before Kat could think how to hit him—logistically, how this was done—they were veering onto I-90. Roger veering, Kat veering in kind. It was loud in the car. Her wipers yo-yoed back and forth while two car lengths ahead, Roger drove with his arm slung over the seat like God had given him a promotion. Just very loud conditions for driving. She began to realize how awkward it would be to ram a car moving in the same direction, at the same speed, from behind. Briefly she considered gunning up and around him, then slamming on the brakes, but that would cause him to hit her, which was a different scenario entirely.
They drove out of the rain and back into it.
They drove to Albion.
To judge from her gas gauge, Kat had to make her move before Janesville. If she pulled off for gas, Roger would keep going and she’d lose him and her adrenaline and before she knew it she’d be on the road—to—
She eased down on the accelerator. The engine still seemed to have plenty of give, but she couldn’t tell if she’d be able to reach collision speed. She’d never sharply accelerated in these conditions, topping seventy with rain spitting from their tires, rain striking the headlight-lit pavement like jacks beneath Roger’s tires. She changed lanes on faith. They were shooting along, their wide beachy cars half lifting off so it almost seemed like it’d be safer to hit him, have the impact to organize their velocities around—she got within a yard and yelled You alone control your vehicle! and she opened the thing up.
Roger was at her window shouting to see if she were OK. She had hydroplaned across both lanes and into a soft rainy field, where she halted facing the opposite direction and the car sank in the mud, the left tire, then the right, like something taking its first steps.
“Help me out of here!” she yelled.
“I’m trying, you ape,” Roger yelled back. He managed to heave the door eight or ten inches open before it foundered in the mud, then he was maneuvering her head (Kat actually had to say, “Please be careful, that’s my head”) through the opening like one might a bowl of potato salad. Over the rain Roger shouted, “You almost hit me again. And what’re you following me for? You freaky chicks.”
What Kat discovered mid-180 was a stillness so perfect, there in the hands of physics, where whatever was going to happen had, in a sense, happened, and she understood that everything that had ever happened was always still happening, and she felt an overwhelming peace spread through her.
They were arguing on the shoulder when the cop pulled up— his siren chirping, then his high beams lighting the side of Roger’s face, who said, “Showtime. How do you want to play this?”
“Play what?” Kat said.
The cop stepped out of the cruiser and started toward them, his poncho snapping with rain. Roger said, “Can you see if he’s got dogs in there?”
“Why would they send dogs for an accident?”
He turned to her and said, “Read my lips. This is not an accident.”
The cop, crouching and moving his flashlight’s beam over the Impala, said, “I don’t see anything to indicate contact. The way you were driving, I’d guess you just lost traction, which can feel jarring.”
Roger said, “I apologize, officer. We’re both currently enrolled in traffic school and we should have recognized the roads were slick.”
The cop rose, leveled his flashlight on Kat’s face, then swiveled it back around on to Roger’s, light-saber style. He said, “You two know each other?”
“Just from school, officer. We’re pupils at the Technical Institute. Or I guess co-pupils, I should say.”
“OK. Everybody in the car,” the cop said, “Let’s move.”
In the cruiser they waited on backup and a tow truck while the cop ate a soggy sandwich off the dashboard and Roger appeared to be trying to name-drop people he knew in local law enforcement. “Not even Ed Crowley? I thought everyone knew the Crow. Great guy.” When he couldn’t interest the cop in mutual acquaintances, or in racing or real estate, Roger told him, “Our friend back there is a famous artist, did you know?”
Between bites the cop said, “Yeah? My kid likes to draw.” “I’m a cartoonist,” Kat said, “and I’m not famous.”
The cop said he had one for her, free of charge. She got this a lot, when they found out what she did, people donating material. She no longer nodded or acted entertained; she just waited for the punch line and then, later, asked Angel if it was funny.
“So then after the ambulance wrecks,” the cop said, “the cop says, ‘Now step on it!’ ” He dropped his sandwich-holding hand in his lap and shook his head, amused to the point of disgust.
Kat waited until Roger’s accompanying but much longer-lasting laughter died down and said, “That’s really more of a joke.”
“Thanks,” the cop said.
“I mean, a cartoon shouldn’t just be a joke with pictures. They should work together.”
He appeared to think about that in the rearview mirror, then told another joke, this time describing pictures to go along with it—a couple, a flat tire, the husband in a full-body cast. “So you make the guy say, ‘At least now it can’t get worse,’ then you make the lady say, ‘Would you quit saying that?’ ”
Roger turned his whole torso to face the laughing officer, clapping and egging him on: “You have some bold material there, you know that?”
Kat rolled her eyes and addressed the back of the cop’s head. “Is there some way you cannot give me the driving-too-fast-for- conditions ticket and the speeding ticket? Because those seem like the same thing.”
In the rearview the cop, looking suddenly drawn, said, “Would you quit saying that?” His transposed face again broke into laughter.
Beside him Roger said, “Touché, Touché indeed.”
“It seems like the reckless driving ticket’s implied in those as well,” Kat continued. “What if you just gave me the failing-to-signal-a-lane-change one, or the—” she tried but failed to read the fifth in-fraction. “The thing is, I’ve already got two tickets pending, and I’m already in traffic school.”
The cop dabbed his eyes and said he wished he could help, he really did, but the tickets were already in the system. “Maybe you could get some of them dropped.” He unhitched his CB, spiraled it in front of the rearview mirror. She wasn’t sure she understood the caste system there in the cruiser; how Roger ended up in the front or why the cop would only address Kat’s reflection. “Maybe the judge is in a good mood,” his single transposed eye said to hers, “maybe he likes your looks.”
The courthouse in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, was a double-wide trailer with four parking spots and a wooden plank you had to walk to get to the front door, which was suctioned shut like a thermos. Outside on a step ladder was the cop with the hearing aid—the first cop who’d pulled her over during that first abject night she drove to Iowa against everyone’s (including even her own for the most part) better judgment—cleaning the windows with a squeegee, which was apparently part of his job. Inside were rows of unfolded metal chairs and a standard Costco-bought banquet table serving as the judge’s bench, with three flags intended for a larger and grander building, looking in this trailer exotic in the manner of those hypothetical living rooms they set up in furniture stores, with plastic ice cubes in the cocktail glasses. Kat took her seat among the ten or twelve defendants. A handful seemed to know one another from the court circuit in the way scalpers and bookies do, with equal parts intimacy and indifference. “I mean it,” Angel had said, “Blue Mounds and back. Do not cross state lines in my car.” With Kat’s own car still in the shop she hadn’t driven in a week, and talking Angel out of hers had been touch and go. Honestly, though, she felt accomplished just being there, having made her turnoff instead of bearing down, whizzing past the exit for Blue Mounds, and continuing on her hellish circuit. It did seem anticlimactic coming here now with all the new tickets piled on top of the first one, but she had to start somewhere. The lawyer she’d called said point-blank that what she needed was a bus pass, not legal advice.
Just after five a tall, listing woman pushed through the door with the air of someone coming downstairs for their first cup of morning joe. She slipped into what looked like a supply closet and slipped out ninety seconds later in a judge’s robe, calling the court to order three minutes after she’d parked her car.
They were given a few minutes to remember or decide whether they were guilty, then each in turn was called to face the judge, solemnly intense with the Dr. Seuss–tall flags behind her, and the bailiff (window-cleaner from moments ago) standing bow-backed as a queen’s guardsman—all of it was starting to work on Kat’s mood, folding into and building on the events of the last six weeks.
When she was called Kat pled no contest, which seemed to mean something like no comment, which is what the others were doing. It seemed like the judge, if she had to take all of Kat’s offenses in front of her into account, would be forced to revoke her license, even impound her car and make her volunteer at a trauma unit somewhere. Her mind, absorbing the revoked-license idea, took to it like it was a microphone she could sing into if she wanted.
The judge moved some papers around in a file. “How can you help me here?” You could practically hear through her skull the sound of the onions she was thinking about dicing when she got home to go with the roast.
Kat repeated what everyone else had said (First I’ d like to say . . . and this is my first . . .) but she was having trouble with the conundrum of fighting for her license with that road out there waiting for her—that rubber strip—the counter at that IHOP (Hi, Sweet- heart)—and why wasn’t the smart thing to take what she had coming and donate her car to charity, or the FBI?
“Are you OK?” the judge asked. “Do you need a glass of water?”
At which point Kat more stated than asked, “You’re not going to take my license, are you.”
The judge again glanced down at the file, “For twelve over? A first offense . . . ?” As she spoke, the sun dropped suddenly, illum nating the window behind the judge’s bent head, a light so intense it was as if the sun inched up right next to the window.
The judge said, “You look disappointed.”
Kat could feel that she looked disappointed but in fact her face was stuck, enraptured by the blazing glass.
The judge asked, with a nudge of a nod toward the others, “Would you like to ask your colleagues what they’re doing?”
Behind Kat’s ear a voice came in low and fast, like an auctioneer’s. “First you’ll appeal to have the charges lessened—say you’ll pay the fee but you don’t want the points because of your insurance.” When Kat closed her eyes now she could see the window in her mind, its afterimage, only inverted—a dark rectangle with light ballooning out all around it. The voice continued, “She’ll say she’s not comfortable doing that, then she’ll change her mind and do it for you anyway.”
Kat felt herself nod while inside the blazing rectangle in her mind, the judge appeared and said, What can I do? Every time I throw the book at you, I miss. Or no, that was dumb but it could be someone standing there saying, What do I have to do for you to remove me from the road?—that was awful, too. but for a few days it would all be stupid, until Kat got to the good stuff. She was looking around for something to write with because if she lost any of it now, she could lose all of it, and the only utensil in sight was a pencil sitting by the judge’s hand, or perhaps technically the judge was semi-holding the pencil in her hand, so that Kat had to both apologize and, she felt, bow to Her Honor as she stepped forward and very gently removed the pencil from Her Honor’s hand, apologizing and explaining she needed to take a note down for her attor—
“Are you—are you drawing there?” the judge said, raising a robed arm. “With the pencil that you removed from my hand, are you drawing a picture?”
Kat drew a stick-woman judge sitting in a high-backed chair, the picture plane aslant to the window and the bailiff, chest out, in earplugs; and the table angled so you could see the judge’s tailfin protruding from under the table (there were never mermaids in Kat’s final cartoons but she often started with one).
It could be Roger, brought before a mermaid court.
A repeat offender of some kind.
Roger as the man from Atlantis.
Roger: the last surviving merman.
With Roger in the frame now, the good feeling was starting and Kat knew things were going to be good and would stay good because right at that moment Kat had months of material if she could get out of there and get to it in time, because this is how it came to her:
all at once, only once.
“Thank you,” Kat said. “I’m very sorry.” She stepped humbly forward with the pencil outstretched and a firm intention to return it to the judge in the now-stupefied silence when she heard in a chamber of her mind the voice of the last cop saying Now step on it! and she stopped and drew back, quickly taking that down, then attempting to step forward humbly a second time and return the pencil.
Into the silence the judge said, “No, please, take your time. I’m enjoying this.”
“Incredible,” said a woman in back somewhere.
Kat bowed like an old-fashioned Chinese man, apologized again, delivered the pencil to Your Honor, returned to her place, and delivered her lines about the fine, the points, the insurance. She was back on top and she was going to stay on top this time. The new Kat: on top and in control—that actually made her (in the process of trying not to laugh) sort of snort, a snort that was perhaps closer to an oink.
The judge sat back, resting her cheek on her propped-up fist. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable charging you with something you didn’t do.”
“I understand,” Kat said.
She would never let this happen again. Angel was right that she didn’t have to live like this, that surely there was a better way.
The judge was flipping through a code book reading off lesser offenses that she seemed to be offering Kat instead of the speeding— throwing a banana peel out of the window; something about the bike lane.
“Could you read that last one again?” Kat asked. “What would I have to have done to get that?”
The judge looked over to her bailiff for an answer.
The bailiff said, “It’d be like growing a lilac bush so it covers a stop sign.”
Kat considered the lilac. She considered the bus, and the only problem with the bus, the only place she couldn’t get to was the Castaway, to see Angel. She could manage fine otherwise, but there was just that one thing, that one place. She could take cabs, she guessed, but that would get expensive given how often she was there—days she passed, at times, sitting at the bar doodling and running lines by Angel, who would off-the-cuff shout out the line Kat needed to think of the right line. When Kat explained the night of the ordeal with Roger, that the cop said she hadn’t hit him, Angel (pre-echoing the judge) had said, “So why do you look disappointed? Why is that your look?” Before Kat could answer, Angel had ducked under the hinged flap on the bar, moving through to the customer side and lifting Kat off her stool by the armpits—No no no, Kat resisted, I hate swimming. You know that. “That’s because you don’t swim,” Angel fired back, “All you do is try and not drown.” A few times a year Kat would give in, and they would swim together after closing in what seemed like, with all the lights in the place out but the pool’s, moonlit water. At first Kat wouldn’t be able to stop giggling, a laugh like from aggressive tickling, when you look like you’re enjoying it but actually you’re trying to say stop. Normally what Kat didn’t like about swimming was the feeling, when she was submerged, of being the place in the water that wasn’t water, of being, herself, the negative space in the element, which is how the man from Atlantis had to feel out there, pumping his sad solitary conjoined legs, waiting for the sight of any other being at all like himself. That was the one place the bus wouldn’t go.
“Let’s do that with the lilacs. I like lilacs.”
The judge laughed, Kat didn’t know why.