YOU NEVER KNOW
“Thank God for small blessings,” the woman in the seat next to me repeats. “All I can say is thank God. You never know, do you? You just never know.”
“Here’s your complimentary club soda, sir, and your peanuts. That will be seven dollars for the Jack Daniels.” I hand a five and two ones to the stewardess, reaching over my seatmate, who’s absorbed in the story she’s telling me and doesn’t seem to notice.
She’s stagy-looking, with heavy mascara and an oversized purple scarf flung over her left shoulder. In her forties maybe, made up to look younger, wearing an ample black dress designed to camouflage her weight. I wonder if she’s a small-time actress. She’s flirtatious, not my type at all. She’s drinking a Bloody Mary out of a plastic cup and has been talking for twenty minutes.
“The train I missed was the one that crashed,” she says in a hushed voice. “I could have died. I mean it could have been me on that train. I could have been one of the ones who died, you know? Or one of the survivors who lived to tell the tale, like right now, sitting next to you on this plane.”
I nod politely and sip my scotch and soda. I’m having trouble opening the packet of peanuts. There’s a slit on the top but I can’t seem to tear it, and then I do, and the peanuts rain onto the tray table in front of me.
“It was close. I took a train just three days before the one that crashed. It was the morning train and not the afternoon one, but still, close enough, you know. I mean it makes you think. It would make anyone think. Did you see it on the news? All those people wandering around shell-shocked in the debris and smoke. Paramedics rushing around with stretchers. I was almost there. It just gives me the shivers.”
She puts her hand up to her throat and shakes her head. Her nails are manicured and painted dark maroon.
“But you weren’t there.” I’m sure I could tell a story with more point than hers. It’s annoying, all her dramatics over nothing. She reminds me of my first wife, who was always emoting.
“Close enough. It’s like I could feel the wings of the angel of death brushing me. Have you ever had that feeling?”
“As a matter of fact I have.”
“Really?” She puts down her drink and turns to inspect me.
“It was in a car, not a train.”
She’s nodding, like she knows what I’m going to say.
“I was driving on Route 80 late at night. It was snowing. You could see flurries in the headlights, maybe three feet in front of the car, but that’s all. Otherwise it was pitch dark. Not a soul in the universe, just me in the car. Or that’s the way it felt.”
There are flecks of mascara on the pancake makeup under her eyes. Her face can’t be more than a foot away from mine.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, or why. Generally I’m a listener, not a storyteller. And I’d describe myself as honest to a fault. I lie once in a while to my wife, but they’re white lies, to preserve domestic harmony. “This is only my second drink.” “No, those jeans don’t make you look fat.” “I missed you too. It’s hell, having to travel so much.” The same lies everyone tells when there’s no point in telling the truth.
I take a long sip of my drink.
“This was a long time ago. I was driving this old beater and the tires were pretty worn. I was worried about sliding off the road, and I was playing the accelerator, trying to keep my foot off the brake. I can’t remember where I was. Ohio maybe. It was a long stretch with no human beings in sight. No buildings. No lights. That’s all I remember.”
“I’m from Southern California. Would you believe I’ve never once driven in snow? I would’ve just died.” She puts her hand on her chest as if to calm her fluttering heart. “You know a friend of mine was in a ten-car pileup near Tahoe. She said …”
I interrupt. “It was a challenge all right, and I think I’m a pretty good driver, always in control. I would have stopped, but there was nowhere to stop. I remember the windshield wipers were going, and I was just creeping along, trying to see. What I wouldn’t have done for an all-night diner, or a motel. I was looking for a motel, I remember that.”
I can see the windshield fogging up, the heavy white clumps of snow pushed aside as the windshield wipers moved rhythmically back and forth, feel my foot hovering over the gas pedal.
“I thought about pulling over to see if the snow would let up, but it was too cold to turn the engine off, and I knew I’d run out of gas if I left it running. So I was stuck, inching along, this kid whining in the seat next to me.”
Her eyes widen. “So you weren’t alone?”
“I guess not.” I don’t know where this detail came from. Once you start lying you don’t know what’s going to come out.
“She just wouldn’t shut up, and I was trying to see the road, keep us from landing in the ditch.”
“Was it your daughter?”
“No, my wife and I don’t have kids. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. She was wearing a pink snowsuit, and she was probably a lot warmer than I was. It was an old car, and the heater wasn’t so great. ‘Where are we going?’ she kept asking me, and I told her to shut her face.”
My seatmate stares at me.
“Maybe I hit her, just a light smack,” I add without thinking.
She flinches, then busies herself putting up her tray table and wedging her empty plastic glass into the seat pocket in front of her.
“I know her whining was driving me nuts,” I explain. “It was hard enough concentrating on the road. Each time I tapped the accelerator we slid a little to the right. I was steering into the skid like you’re supposed to. It was hard to say where the edge of the road was at that point. I was afraid I might drive right off it by mistake.”
The green seatbelt sign comes on. “We should be landing soon,” the woman murmurs. She brushes crumbs off her lap, adjusts her scarf, angles her legs away from me, toward the aisle. We’re both still wearing our seatbelts.
“Next thing you know the kid’s pulling on the handle to the door, trying to get out.”
“So she’s in the front seat?” The woman looks like she’s reluctant to ask questions, but can’t help herself.
“The passenger seat, right next to me. And I’m grabbing at her, and she’s saying ‘I’m going to tell my Mommy and Daddy.’ I’m getting really pissed off. ‘You aren’t going to tell your Mommy and Daddy anything,’ I say to her, and pull her back by her hair.”
The woman looks alarmed, and I decide to wind up. The captain’s just announced that we’re landing in Burbank in ten minutes and that it’s 70 degrees. I’m almost surprised it’s not snowing.
“Long story short, I was grabbing at her, we were arguing, the car went into a spin, and we skidded sideways into a telephone pole. It felt like slow motion, but there was nothing I could do. That’s what made me think of the angel of death when you said that. My brush with the angel of death.”
“What happened? Were you both okay?”
“Right as rain, just shaken up. We walked a mile to a gas station, and waited out the storm. Got the car towed, Avis brought a new one, and we were on our way the next morning.”
She doesn’t look convinced.
I’m still in the scene. Was it an old beater, or was it an Avis rental car? Was it Ohio? It was flat, and a long time ago. I can’t remember the last time I was in Ohio for business. I remember getting out of the car and hauling the blonde-haired little girl with me, but we weren’t walking along the highway to a gas station, we were stumbling in deep snow through a field, walking away from the highway. I was yanking at her arm and she was bawling. I was cold and wet and afraid somebody was going to see us.
The woman’s looking at me and I give a reassuring laugh.
“I’m just kidding,” I say. “Maybe it was spring and there was no snow. No little girl. I skidded on an oil slick and hit a telephone pole. Or I would have if I’d gone on a different highway three days later, but I didn’t. It could be something I read in the newspaper.”
She’s already unbuckling her seat belt and hauling an enormous silver bag from under the seat in front of her, leaning with her whole weight on the armrest by the aisle as she stands up. She breathes heavily and adjusts her purple scarf again.
“I hope you have a good trip,” I say, extending my arm for a handshake. “What’s your name, by the way?”
“Beryl,” she says after a moment. She doesn’t look me in the eye as we shake hands.
I’m Herbert,” I say, though that’s not my name.
My driver’s license says Timothy. My wife calls me Tim. I can barely remember what my name was before that.
Jacqueline Doyle has work in South Dakota Review, Confrontation, South Loop Review, Front Porch Journal, Apalachee Review, and Southern Indiana Review, among others. A recent Pushcart nominee, she also has a “Notable Essay” listed in Best American Essays 2013. She lives with her husband and son in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.