Fiction May 2011

Herman Wouk Is Still Alive

Special Report: How Genius Works Brenda should be happy. The kids are quiet, the road stretches ahead of her like an airport runway, she's behind the wheel of a brand-new van. The speedometer reads 70. Nonetheless, that grayness has begun to creep over her again. The van isn't hers, after all. She'll have to give it back. A foolish expense, really, because what's at the far end of this trip, up in Mars Hill? She looks at her old friend. Jasmine is looking back at her. The van, now doing almost a hundred miles an hour, begins to drift. Jasmine gives a small nod. Brenda nods back. Then she pushes down harder with her foot, trying to find the van's carpeted floor.
V. BRENDA SEES A HORN OF PLENTY SPILLING ROTTEN FRUIT.

Yes, she thinks, that’s just about right. Thanksgiving for fools.

Freddy will go for a soldier and fight in foreign lands, the way Jasmine’s brother Tommy did. Jasmine’s boys, Eddie and Truth, will do the same. They’ll own muscle cars when and if they come home, and if gas is still available twenty years from now. And the girls? They’ll go with boys. They’ll give up their virginity while game shows play on TV. They’ll have babies and fry meat in skillets and put on weight, same as she and Jasmine did. They’ll smoke a little dope and eat a lot of ice cream—the cheap stuff from Walmart. Maybe not Rosellen, though. Something is wrong with Rosellen. She’ll need to go to the special-ed classes. She’ll still have drool on her sharp little chin when she’s in the eighth grade, same as now. The seven kids will beget seventeen, and the seventeen will beget seventy, and the seventy will beget two hundred. She can see a ragged fool’s parade marching into the future, some wearing jeans that show the ass of their underwear, some wearing heavy-metal T-shirts, some wearing gravy-spotted waitress uniforms, some wearing stretch pants from Kmart that have little MADE IN PARAGUAY tags sewn into the seams of the roomy seats. She can see the mountain of Fisher-Price toys they will own and that will later be sold at yard sales (which was where most were bought in the first place). They will buy the products they see on TV and go in debt to the credit-card companies, as she did … and will again, because the Pick-4 was a fluke and she knows it. Worse than a fluke, really: a tease. Life is basically a rusty hubcap lying in a ditch at the side of the road, and life goes on. She will never again feel like she’s sitting in the cockpit of a jet fighter. This is as good as it gets. Her ship will not come in. There are no boats for nobody, and no camera is filming her life. This is reality, not a reality show.

Shrek is over and all the kids are asleep, even Eddie. Rosellen’s head is once more on Eddie’s shoulder. She’s snoring like an old woman. She has red marks on her arms, because sometimes she can’t stop scratching herself.

Jasmine screws the cap on the bottle of Allen’s and drops it back into the baby seat in the footwell. In a low voice she says, “When I was five, I believed in unicorns.”

“So did I,” Brenda says. She looks at Jasmine. “I wonder how fast this thing goes.”

Jasmine looks at the road ahead. They flash past a blue sign that says REST AREA 1 MI. She sees no traffic northbound; both lanes are entirely theirs. “Let’s find out,” Jasmine says.

The numbers on the speedometer rise from 80 to 85. Then 87. There’s still some room left between the accelerator pedal and the floor. All the kids are sleeping.

Here is the rest area, coming up fast. Brenda sees only one car in the parking lot. It looks like a fancy one, a Lincoln or maybe a Cadillac. I could have rented one of those, she thinks. I had enough money but too many kids. Couldn’t fit them all in. Story of her life, really.

She looks away from the road. She looks at her old friend from high school, who ended up living just one town away. Jasmine is looking back at her. The van, now doing almost a hundred miles an hour, begins to drift.

Jasmine gives a small nod and then lifts Dee, cradling the baby against her big breasts. Dee’s still got her comfort-finger in her mouth.

Brenda nods back. Then she pushes down harder with her foot, trying to find the van’s carpeted floor. It’s there, and she lays the accelerator pedal softly against it.

VI. “STOP, PAULIE, STOP.”

He reaches out and grabs her shoulder with his bony hand, startling her. She looks up from his poem and sees him staring at the turnpike. His mouth is open and behind his glasses his eyes appear to be bulging out almost far enough to touch the lenses. She follows his gaze in time to see a red van slide smoothly from the travel lane into the breakdown lane and from the breakdown lane across the rest-area entrance ramp. It doesn’t turn in. It’s going far too fast to turn in. It crosses, doing at least ninety miles an hour, and plows onto the slope just below them, where it hits a tree. She hears a loud, toneless bang and the sound of breaking glass. The windshield disintegrates; glass pebbles sparkle for a moment in the sun and she thinks—blasphemously—beautiful.

The tree shears the van into two ragged pieces. Something—Phil Henreid can’t bear to believe it’s a child—is flung high into the air and comes down in the grass. Then the van’s gas tank begins to burn, and Pauline screams.

He gets to his feet and runs down the slope, vaulting over the shakepole fence like the young man he once was. These days his failing heart is seldom far from his mind, but as he runs down to the burning pieces of the van, he never even thinks of it.

Cloud-shadows roll across the field, then across the woods beyond. Wildflowers nod their heads.

He stops twenty yards from the gasoline funeral pyre, the heat baking his face. He sees what he knew he would see—no survivors—but he never imagined so many non-survivors. He sees blood on the grass. He sees a shatter of taillight glass like a patch of strawberries. He sees a severed arm caught in a bush. In the flames he sees a melting baby seat. He sees shoes.

Pauline comes up beside him. She’s gasping for breath. The only thing wilder than her hair are her eyes.

“Don’t look,” he says.

“What’s that smell? Phil, what’s that smell?”

“Burning gas and rubber,” he says, although that’s probably not the smell she’s talking about. “Don’t look. Go back and—do you have your cell phone?”

“Yes, of course I have it—”

“Go back and call 911. Don’t look at this. You don’t want to see this.”

He doesn’t want to see it either, but cannot look away. How many? He can see the bodies of at least three children and one adult—probably a woman, but he can’t be sure. Yet so many shoes … and all the clothes … he can see a DVD package …

“What if I can’t get through?” she asks.

He points to the smoke. Then to the three or four cars that are already pulling over. “Getting through won’t matter,” he says, “but try.”

She starts to go, then turns back. She’s crying. “Phil … how many?”

“I don’t know. A lot. Go on, Paulie. Some of them might still be alive.”

“You know better,” she says through her sobs. “Damn thing was going too fast.”

She begins trudging back up the hill. Halfway to the rest-area parking lot (more cars are pulling in now), a terrible idea crosses her mind and she looks back, sure she will see her old friend and lover lying in the grass himself, perhaps clutching his chest, perhaps unconscious. But he’s on his feet, cautiously circling the blazing left half of the van. As she watches, he takes off his natty sport jacket with the patches on the elbows. He kneels and covers something with it. Either a person or a part of a person. Then he goes on.

Climbing the hill, she thinks that all their efforts to make beauty out of words is an illusion. Or a joke played on children who have selfishly refused to grow up. Yes, probably that. Children like that, she thinks, deserve to be pranked.

As she reaches the parking lot, still gasping for breath, she sees the Times Arts section flipping lazily through the grass on the breath of a light breeze and thinks, Never mind. Herman Wouk is still alive and writing a book about God’s language. Herman Wouk believes that the body weakens, but the words never do. So that’s all right, isn’t it?

A man and a woman rush up. The woman raises her own cell phone and takes a picture with it. Pauline Enslin observes this without much surprise. She supposes the woman will show it to friends later. Then they will have drinks and a meal and talk about the grace of God. God’s grace looks intact every time it’s not you.

“What happened?” the man shouts into her face.

Down below them a skinny old poet is happening. He’s now naked to the waist. He has taken off his shirt to cover one of the other bodies. His ribs are a stack outlined against white skin. He kneels and spreads the shirt. He raises his arms into the sky, then lowers them and wraps them around his head.

Pauline is also a poet, and as such feels capable of answering the man in the language God speaks.

“What the fuck does it look like?” she says.

For Owen King

Stephen King is the author of more than 50 books. His most recent include Full Dark, No Stars, Under the Dome, Just After Sunset, and Lisey’s Story. His next is a novel, 11/22/63, which will appear in November. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, the novelist Tabitha King.
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