It started with the wrecks. There were—I don’t know—a lot. They took place in my backyard. Since my divorce, I’d lived in a modest, ranch-style home on the outskirts of town and nothing like this had ever occurred before. What exactly was happening? Hard to say. That first morning I awoke and found a mangled piece of metal glistening in my lush yard. From afar, it looked like a lost piece of jewelry. I was standing at the sink, having just pressed brew on my coffeepot. It took a while for me to register what I was looking at. Not until all the coffee was made did I finally fetch my jacket and inspect things.
I was never a car guy, but I knew this was a nice one, an Audi. Glass glistened everywhere, an ersatz boodle. The back axel was snapped. The smashed grill looked like a smarmy smile. The license plate read, “Z00M.” On the hillside adjacent to my yard, I saw the long path the car had scrapped through the trees. Jittery birds chirped from a nearby bush. I sipped my coffee.
I called 911. The police arrived lackadaisically, the way they do. As a wrecker removed the mess from my yard, an officer asked me if I’d heard anything in the night—anything at all. At first I said, “No, nothing.” But he asked again, and then once more. (Later, I learned that the car had been stolen by a young man with a long rap-sheet; though I doubt they knew this at the time.) Regardless, the officer seemed unconvinced that I’d slept through such a violent wreck. I had a technique when people kept pestering me like this. I’d give them a windy, rambling reply in the hopes they’d mistake me for just another doddering geriatric and thus leave me the hell alone.
“Well, you know,” I said. “I think I did wake up around three or four in the morning. But only briefly. I didn’t get up. Usually, I get up once or twice when nature calls, but not last night. I sleep on my right ear because I hear better out of that one. So if I sleep on it, I wake up less. Good idea, right? I can’t hear out of this one at all.” I pointed to my left ear. “A gun went off by that one,” I said.
“A gun?” the officer said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It was at a racetrack. The starting pistol went off right by my ear. God’s honest truth. I once had a gambling problem. But that’s neither here nor there.”
The officer nodded as though this made all the sense in the world. He jotted some notes. I tried to imagine what they were: deaf, gunshot (?), left ear. He didn’t ask any more questions and I knew my trick had worked. He left for the station to stuff my little lie into a big envelope where it would be promptly forgotten.
The second wreck involved a woman. This one happened in the middle of the day, shortly after the first. I was hosing off my driveway when that horrifying yelp of screeching tires tore through the afternoon like a birdcall. The car careened down the hill and landed upside-down in my yard. The woman was thrown clean and landed near my birdbath looking like she’d been wrung out and thrown away by a huge pair of hands. I saw no blood, which, for some reason, worried me more. She was swelling fast, her skin turning blue. I checked for a pulse and thought I felt a few paltry pumps but it was hard to tell since my own heart was pounding. I tried CPR, remembering all the times on TV when some beautiful woman, once seemingly dead, got brought back to life, her breath and radiance returning to her in one fateful gasp. But the woman never sat upright. Her eyes never flickered, face never flushed. I felt the lightness of death in her.
The paramedics took her away as the firefighters hosed down the car even though there were no flames, only smoke, which billowed out stubbornly for an hour. Then the news crews arrived. A reporter knocked on my door, a young woman in a pencil skirt. A thick poof of heavily moussed hair jostled atop her head as she spoke. It was magnificent, that hair, like a sculpture. She wanted an interview. I said no. All the people I saw on the news never failed to look like anything but imbeciles, even if they were being asked simple questions. I was no different. Put me in front of a camera and my IQ dropped a hundred points. No question.
Nevertheless, I watched the local news that evening and saw the front of my house—the empty flowerbeds, the canted light post at the end of the drive. It excited me for some reason. When I parted the blinds and peered out the bay window, though, the road out front was empty and the sun was setting. The light out there didn’t match the light on TV. They’d recorded everything earlier in the day, and had moved onto the next tragedy.
The rest of the day felt like one of those nightmares where nothing happens yet it is still frightening.
My landline rang one afternoon not long after the woman’s horrific accident. Naturally, I’d dozed off and was irked by the disturbance, though I really had no right to be, considering the hour. Problem was: the only people who called my home phone were telemarketers and automated services asking if I wanted to renew the warranty on a car I’d not owned in decades.
“Yes, is this Mr. Barry Moore?” a pleasant voice asked.
“That’s me,” I said.
“Good news, Mr. Moore, you’ve won!”
“An all-inclusive trip to a paradise of your choice and thousand dollars in cash!”
“But I didn’t sign up for any of that.”
“That’s the best part,” the voice said. “The winner is drawn from a pool of random nonparticipants. May I ask a few questions pertinent to your redemption of this prize?”
“No,” I said. “Pick the next person.”
On the night of the third wreck, I was shaving. I liked to shave at night. Don’t ask me why. I was working the first pass across my cheek when I heard that hellish sound, now all too familiar. By this time, the state had put up a warning on the highway and a guardrail along the shoulder that abutted my property. This was high atop the hill with all its ropy trees and stubborn weeds holding the dirt in place. The plants had already erased any sign of the first skid mark left by the stolen car and they were doing work on the second one, slowly growing over the black streak of upturned earth left by the woman’s fatal crash a few months prior.
But the third car rolled right between the other two and opened up a new swath on my hillside, another morbid tally mark.
When I heard the wreck, I rushed out of my sliding-glass door, the shaving cream still on my face. There, a man stood not far from the wreckage, his hands on his knees.
I shouted from my deck, “Hey!”
He looked up. As if we were old acquaintances, he said, “Oh, hey.”
I walked through the yard in my bathrobe.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I think so,” the man said.
“Let me call an ambulance,” I said.
He stood up off his knees. He did not seem to be in pain.
“I think I’m okay. I just need a glass of water.”
“Sure,” I said.
I smelled the alcohol immediately. We were in my kitchen now. Shakily, I fetched him a glass of water. I seemed to be more spooked than him.
“Wow,” he said. “That’s a big hill.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I think I fell asleep,” the man said.
I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “It happens.”
He took the water with both hands. His knuckles were cut up, but they were just tiny scabs now, no bigger than fingernail clippings. They were from something other than the wreck—his job or his misfortunes or both.
“I think we should call an ambulance,” I said. “You could be injured and not know it.”
He shook his head.
“My girlfriend can pick me up,” he said.
I was starting to see his angle. He didn’t want police involved since he’d been drinking. He stared into nothing, holding the glass, and I began worrying about my own wellbeing. What was this guy capable of?
“Sit down for a minute,” I said. “Relax.”
I led him to my Lay-Z-Boy and he sat hesitantly, looking about, sizing up my house, the outdated carpet, the crooked blinds.
“Nice place,” he said.
The man took a drink. The TV was on, but it was muted, or rather, it was connected to the headset that I wore while watching TV, due to my bad ear. The station was airing a commercial for a prescription sleep aid, one I’d seen a thousand times.
“I was asleep,” the man reiterated. “I must have been out like a light. One minute I was driving down the highway and the next minute I was staring at my car laying out there in a heap. Holy shit. Wow. Just… Wow.”
I got the feeling that, wreck or no wreck, this was how he lived his life. He moved from one destroyed thing to the next, always half awake. Now here he was, in my home. I stood over him in the TV’s throbbing light, deciding what to do next. This man had committed a crime and I was helping him. This was partially on me now. I didn’t know what to do. There was a gun in my nightstand, loaded, ready. But it was a long ways away.
“I used to have a problem,” I said to the man. “Mine was gambling.”
The man looked at me with an expression that said, “Who gives a shit?”
I said, “What I mean is, there are places you can go. For help.”
“Help with what? I just need to get home.”
“Let me call someone,” I said.
“I can do it, okay?” There was an annoyance in his voice now. My attempted lecture had peeved him. He dug into his pocket to find his phone. Once he realized it wasn’t there, he began thrashing about, searching all his pockets, then digging between the chair’s plushy cushions. “My phone,” he said. “What the hell did you do with my phone?”
“The car,” I said quietly.
He looked out into the night. The sliding glass door was still open and he ran through it, disappearing into the dark. I felt the cool air on my ankles, watching him. Slowly, I slid the door shut and turned the lock. In my room, I dug my gun out of the nightstand and got into bed.
I woke up the next morning with the shaving cream caked to my face and the pistol on my chest.
The police interviewed me again. I played my part: the doddering old fool who heard nothing. I covered for the drunk. More importantly, I covered for myself. I didn’t have the guts to tell them he was in my home, that I gave him a glass of tap water and sent him on his way. I never learned what happened to him. I never wanted to.
By this time, the wreckers had worn two deep ruts along the western edge of my yard, having followed the same path every time. The dirt was so compacted that I knew I’d have no luck seeding. I shook my head at the sight of it, then went back inside.
My phone was ringing.
“Is this Mr. Moore?”
“It is,” I said
At one of my first Gamblers Anonymous meetings, I met a man named Clarence, a landscaper. He never skipped, and often headed them up, asking people to introduce themselves, tell their stories. That is, until one day he got a phone call out of the blue saying he’d won a boat. It was a big deal. He talked about it for weeks. All of us began to sort of loathe him for it. The meetings lost their focus and Clarence was virtually intolerable. Then, when he went to redeem his prize, the police arrested him in a hotel conference room. It was a sting. He’d had a warrant out on him for years. He embezzled thousands from the bank where he worked to pay for his habits. The gambling had stopped long ago, but he’d kept dipping into the bank’s coffers—a sort of gambling in its own right.
Conversely, there was Roy, a barrel-chested man with a pocked face and a pension for slot machines.
“My family says I gamble too much. But maybe I just haven’t gambled enough.”
Roy once uttered this at a meeting. Two weeks later he won a million dollars off a one-armed bandit and moved to an island in the Philippines where the cost of living was virtually nil and there were only cockfights to bet on.
They started calling my cellphone. That first time, I looked at the screen, expecting to see a familiar name. Instead, there was a long jumble of numbers.
“Hello?” I said
“Mr. Moore?” that voice said.
“Look, stop calling me, okay?”
I was really on edge now.
“This stuff isn’t good for a guy like me. Just take me off your list and leave me alone! I used to have a problem, you know.”
I snapped the phone shut and threw it down. Then I retrieved it and tried to figure out how to block a number, to little avail.
The sound of the fourth wreck was an explosion, a transformative, full-body experience that turned me into a sick and yowling animal. I saw the whole thing, as if in slow-motion. I was washing dishes at my sink, looking out the back window when the white, Chevy Suburban crested the hill like a great bear. How it rolled, end for end, pieces flying off it with every flip—the bumpers, the mirrors, the hood even. Glass everywhere (a new theme in my life). The trees hung onto it like adoring fans pawing at a celebrity. It seemed like it would never stop rolling, as though it would pass my house and continue through the cornfield across the road, tumbling end for end until it was nothing. But like all the wrecks, it came to a halt right in the center of my backyard, a hissing tangle of metal.
The worst part: I knew these people. I recognized the man immediately. Bruce Hoffmeister was his name. I’d spoken to him countless times at the hardware store, the coffee shop, gas stations. You name it. He was hanging out the window, motionless and silent. Then there was Mattie, his daughter who’d tested out of seventh grade; she was twisted up, half her body crushed beneath the roof. And Danny, an infant still in his car seat, his face was blue with streaks of pallid skin striping it. A vital bone was broken inside him. The mother, though, she was in the worst shape. Her airbag had not deployed and her face was nothing but pulp, having met the dashboard head on.
I called 911, but I can’t be sure if I said words. As I was on the line, I watched Bruce come to and try rising up from the destroyed mess. He crawled through the grass and I went to him, dropping the phone and rushing out. He spat out a mouthful of bloody glass before collapsing again. I put a hand on his muscular back.
But he died later in the ICU.
They would all die.
They all died.
The whole town seemed to be at the funeral. The priest read a short passage from the Bible, then gave a sermon. In it, he said that life, really, was a matter of standing in line. God had done nothing but put us in a long procession and disguised this fact with all the comings and goings of our harried lives. “But,” he said. “There’s no way around it. And we should consider the Hoffmeister family lucky, because unlike most of us they were all standing in that line together.”
I found the thought pleasant at first. It reminded me of my ex-wife’s favorite painting. She’d volunteered as a docent for many years at a local art museum and she loved the work of Evelyn Williams. We had a number of prints in my house, back when she lived with me. One was of a long line of people winding up a hillside passage. Above them: the moon. Everything was the same shade of white: the people, the hills, the moon, but they were limned in tea-stain shadows. I admired it often, reading the title, over and over, “By Moonlight.”
I smiled at the thought, but just as soon as I did, I pictured myself in that long line. Four spots had just opened up ahead, and the woman earlier in the year, she made five. So where did that put me?
I stopped off at the dog track. I didn’t know what else to do. I liked watching the handlers walk the dogs to the starting gate. The rangy greyhounds trotted past on their ballerina legs, their noses muzzled into sharp points. The old adage said to bet on the one that shat, and one of them always shat, breaking from the ranks to arch its back into a question mark, its whole body shivering as though ashamed. Then a girl dressed like a zookeeper jogged out and hastily cleaned the mess. This was the ritual before every race, and there was a sort of comfort in it, a consistency that the rest of my life lacked. I indeed loved this build-up, but the race was my religion. They lasted all of two minutes: the thwack of the mechanical hare, the trill of the starting bell, low murmurs swelling to yells as the dogs bounded towards the homestretch, a thick patch of them, indiscernible and moving with the swiftness of a cloud shadow. They ran so fast you could hardly read the numbers on their jackets, and only after the race was over did you ever really know the results. This was how I used to lose my paychecks in two-minute increments—a trifecta here, a “pick six” there, and the dreaded exacta bet, that hypodermic rush of nailing the win and show for a 4:1 payout. Not anymore, though. I didn’t bring one dollar with me, no credit card, no checkbook. These were my Golden Years, the irony being that they did not involve a lot of gold.
“Mr. Moore?” the voice asked.
“Good news, Mr. Moore, you’ve won an all-inclusive trip to a paradise of your choice, plus a thousand dollars in cash.”
“Great,” I said.
The voice seemed surprised.
“Well, I just have a few questions pertinent to your—.”
“Yeah yeah,” I said. “I don’t have all day.”
The voice then asked for my full name, date of birth, address, all of which I gave over. Next: my mother’s maiden name, any pets I may have, my father’s middle name, the street I grew up on, my first kiss, my gross income, my net worth, allergies. I divulged these things too.
“Now I’ll just need your driver’s license number.”
I gave it over.
“Your credit card number as well.”
I gave it too.
I rattled off the numbers without hesitation.
“Perfect!” the voice said.“Within a few days, you’ll be receiving a very important piece of mail. In it, you’ll find a list of destinations to choose from along with forms regarding any special needs, dietary restrictions, that sort of stuff. Make sure you fill out everything thoroughly and mail it back, okay Mr. Moore?”
“Look,” I said. “I don’t care where I go. Choose a place. Send a car to pick me up. It doesn’t matter. I’ll be waiting.”
The voice seemed unsure what to do. I was put on hold for a moment. Tinny music struggled through the static. Then the voice came back, chipper as ever.
“Very well, Mr. Moore. We’ll have everything lined up by the end of the month and you’ll be on your way. Are you excited?”
I hung up and walked to the backdoor where I stared for a time at the torn up hillside, the high wispy clouds, the windblown trees like giant fists shaking dice.
The car came a few days later. It was jet-black, had just been detailed. Water droplets on the body glistened in sunlight like sequins. The driver was affable. He got out and opened the door for me.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Moore.”
He wasn’t surprised by my lack of luggage.
We both knew the score.
I wouldn’t need much where I was going.
Nick Bertelson’s chapbook Harvest Widows (NDSU Press 2019) was the winner of the 2019 Poetry of the Prairie and Plains Prize. His other writing has appeared in Southampton Review, Coe Review, Prairie Fire, and North American Review, as a James Hearst Poetry Prize finalist. He’s currently a fiction screener for New England Review.