December 1, 2014


J. Michael Dashiell lives in central Indiana. He’s had ten short stories published that appeared in Down in the Dirt, Bending the Curve Anthology, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Defenestration, Word Riot, Projected Letters, Thieves Jargon, The Circle Magazine, The Blue Review & The New England Writers’ Network Magazine. 

3 Seconds

      My friend’s car laid mangled, a 1990 Pontiac Bonneville, beige colored, four-door model, with its left back end completely crushed, its back bumper twisted into a malicious grin, and what I supposed was the specter of gasoline dripping from its tank. Yet I suffered no injury, not even a broken bone or bleeding wound, just what would later manifest itself as minor whiplash I suppose, without even a visible scratch or bruise to provide evidence of this mishap. The car was in effect destroyed for all practical use, yet I arose from it mysteriously renewed.

      It’s curious that during this romantic period in my life my mind moved similar to a train, forcefully and relentlessly, that could only crash with a high velocity against obstacles rather than pause or evade them. This caused me much frustration and difficulty. My thoughts charged forward on a focused, railed type track, dividing the world from side to side, forcing the world to waft against my trajectory in a billowy blur, acting much as a train engine’s cowcatcher would. Propelled by my obsession with Irene, I made not one for levity or chat. Neither could my undivided attention elsewhere yield any humor or smiles. That’s why I didn’t make an attentive driver and cordial traveling companion for my friend, Kurt. That’s why it’s uncanny to recall this incident in which my state of mind experienced the impact of what it resembled in life.

     I began my minor employment for Kurt after he lost his license for one year for drunk driving. I did it as a favor more than as a means of income, quite paltry compared to the inconvenience it posed. He needed my service desperately at risk of losing his rather lucrative employment as a GM assembler at the Anderson plant about twenty miles from his home in Noblesville. Kurt had just purchased a house, had two daughters in college, and a wife at least partially dependent on him, employed as a morning clerk at a Marsh Supermarket. Thus a loss or interruption of dependable employment would wreck his life as surely as it greatly inconvenienced my own to provide him this type of rescue and security, recognizing it was caused by his recklessness rather than by misfortune.

     Since I worked the evening shift in the X-ray department at a local hospital, I technically had my mornings free though I didn’t particularly fancy rising at 6AM everyday to provide Kurt’s trip to work. Other than that, I was working on a curio cabinet for my girlfriend with crystal glass doors, and exotic Amazon rosewood I was sure would thrill her, and give her a stunning showcase to display her beloved collectibles. I wanted Irene to see the time and devotion I exerted to make it pristine, and planned to present it to her on her birthday about three weeks away at this time. My free time was important to me in order to devote myself to this project, an ingredient of my obsession, I was sure would reward me with an engagement to marriage, perhaps too hopeful and naive, yet worth the attempt. This accounted for my intensity and resentment. Irene’s emotional elusiveness, her serene distant beauty, created a desperation in me to secure our relationship into a more genuine one. This assistance to Kurt had me feel imprisoned. It prevented me from devoting ample time to my endeavor. Usually I needed to take a late morning nap after I returned home, thus limiting, even constricting the necessary time I needed to work on Irene’s cabinet, where the time constraint oppressed me with a need to rush, not a conducive situation to produce a quality product. There seemed no feasible way out of it, however, the wreck at the nose of a CSX freight engine provided an extreme solution to my predicament, a really ludicrous case of overkill, certain in its finality.

      On that day, after I dropped Kurt off at the employee plant entrance, my eyes searched the street ahead to view the traffic at the distant stoplight to find out whether I would need to pause at this intersection or enjoy a green light of passage. I didn’t notice the silent blinking red light of the railroad signal aside the street, hardly noticeable, at least by me with my focus elsewhere. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed. It amounted to only a post in the ground with an X sign to declare its message. For all the trips I made past this point I never recognized the reality of this warning signal I now in afterthought, find too feeble to have attracted my attention or even any other driver’s notice as well. It needed at least the sound of a clanging bell or a crossing gate falling into place to block my progress forward, but when I reached the railroad track I was only diverted from my absorption by the blaring of the freight engine’s monstrous horn. I turned my head askance to see this bullhead charging from about fifty feet away in a concentrated capsule of fortitude and steel that struck with a deep, dead sound. Kurt’s car only amounted to a child’s plaything it tossed aside with ease, whirling me around a couple of times, where the car landed on the other side of the track, and came to an abrupt halt, its backside facing the disruption of oncoming traffic.

     I immediately unstrapped my seatbelt and attempted to open the driver’s side door, but it was twisted and compacted to the point it wouldn’t open after a few desperate attempts. Instead I tried the passenger’s side door stuck as well, and managed to exit the shattered window threshold as a NASCAR driver would. I looked about to see the halted traffic. A concerned lady told me she’d call for help on her cellphone. A malicious looking young man complained, “Bet you were playin’ chicken with the train, weren’t ya?” and turned off towards the side street, attempting an alternate route; the train completely blocked this main thoroughfare. Most other drivers sat smugly in their vehicles, looking at me with either wonder or concern. I began to pick tiny shreds of glass from the pinna of both my ears, and walked about in a dazed manner when the unimpressive CSX train engineer wearing plain gray clothing approached me to ask if I was all right. He seemed equally as dazed or shaken. It surprised me when a railroad emergency representative soon pulled up in his station wagon, and asked me if I needed a trip to the hospital. I shook my head. From a printed form, he asked me a few liability questions, but I refused to sign it though I didn’t claim the railroad at fault. We heard an approaching squad car that was blocked from behind the other side of the train. “We’ll have to separate it” the engineer said and headed back to the engine to begin this involved process, frustrating the stalled traffic even further that now extended as far as I could see. I did experience some guilt for causing this problem. The squad-car lights swirled and reflected on the boxcars and GM plant walls, helpless to take any action. I continued to walk about and wonder how Kurt would react to this catastrophe.                

     Within another few minutes I heard the wheels of the boxcars turn with a squealing sound, and with this slow, heavy separation, the police car immediately drove through the opening. The officer was a rather no nonsense looking woman who had me sit with her inside the police car as she asked a few standard questions. Her severe attitude didn’t help my distress. She handed me a summons to appear in court together with a tentative $90 traffic ticket, the maximum allowed by law, for ignoring a traffic signal. I signed her paper acknowledging I understood the charge, and affirmed I didn’t request an ambulance. A couple of other officers in two separate squad cars arrived and set a block before the traffic. They held out their open palms to signal a continued halt until the train had completely reconnected and moved safely out of the area. I gathered there was still a danger the boxcars could roll and crash back together. I overheard a motorist ask the female officer how long this would take to clear because he needed to be at work within a few minutes. A few other motorists exited their vehicles to voice their complaints or to discuss the accident. I became the target of a couple of dirty looks, and became very sorry for the inadvertent trouble I’d caused. However, most drivers appeared patient recognizing the gravity of the problem.

      A coworker of Kurt’s must have cried out something similar to “Kurt, your driver just got hit by a train!” because within a few of minutes after the accident he stood before the wreck of his vehicle, appearing stunned. “It’s junk” he said, and looked over at me on this fittingly cold, overcast morning, then added in his typically selfish manner, “Neil, you’ll need to find your own way back to Noblesville. I need to get back to work. You can use the front office phone if you want.” I said “okay” and commenced to follow him. I didn’t think the police or rail crew needed anything further of me. Soon enough, my retired grandfather arrived to take me home. The train had already reconnected and moved on. Kurt’s car had been towed away, any debris either picked or swept up such that the street was clean. Traffic flow became normal. Any sign of this incident had disappeared.

Sometimes a fleeting moment yields enough space to allow a crucial decision to be reached, even if time needs a little stretching. When I arrived on the brown tarnished tracks at the railroad crossing, I became alarmed by the train engine about to make impact with me in Kurt’s car. The catalytic moment generated the lucidity and presence of mind I needed to recognize that if I pushed the gas pedal with maximum force, I’d likely propel the car forward enough to cause the approaching terror to strike the rear end rather than me inside the driver’s side door. Though some survivors recall in afterthought that their momentary ordeal seemed to occur in slow motion, my perception of time remained normal. I judged the moment from when I noticed the rapid approach of danger until the moment of the terrible collision as lasting about 3 seconds. Within this instant I solved the simple equation that saved my life, a reduction of an ominous problem to its lowest terms. No dazzling insight, no epiphany or message from God participated in this decision. It felt too dispassionate or reflexive for that. It only amounted to a simple act of reason, more dependable than inspiration, more immediate than enlightenment. It amounted to the same ordinary ability that established the world, maintained its operation, and made mankind the prevailing species. It created an interstice, a suspension of crisis, an eye of the storm that prevented my imminent death or critical injury, nothing hallowed or sublime. The actual impact happened exactly where I had it set to happen, on the back end fender that only spun my car around twice in mid-air thus forcing me out of harm’s way. With this I escaped further damage or complication when the car landed away from the track and squarely upon the pavement of the street, as the engine passed and attempted a desperate halt.                        
      Within this moment I solved three problems: I saved my life, created a supreme reason to excuse myself from further service to Kurt, and even my obsession with Irene vanished as though I abruptly woke from an oppressive dream. I realized I wasn’t in love with Irene but only suffered a type of hysteria. I knew that if I ever did secure her in marriage I’d soon lose interest. She wasn’t a woman to be loved, but a butterfly to be caught, a trophy to win and show to the world, only of temporary relevance. This obsession was the result of a weakness in my character rather than a genuine affection of my heart. I likewise recognized Irene didn’t love me. This collision disheveled my adamant mind-set enough to reveal this. It was as though I emerged from a closet or prison cell, and wandered into a forest of diverse images where my tunnel vision expanded into a more panoramic view.
      As I rode home with my grandfather relating this incident, I found it even comic, laughing and joking about it, sandpapering its edges, smoothing it out with a wood-plane of humor that amazed my grandfather and delighted me. Oddly enough, I managed to relax for the first time in months. Besides exposing me to terrible danger, this event made an uncanny rescue. This disruption of my focus, this upsetting of my balance, this arrest of my momentum because it spared my life, and left me unscathed, it purged me of burdens that now proved frivolous.            

 ~J. Michael Dashiell

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