August 12, 2014
End of summer, 1986. That was the September that I became an angel and went to Alabama. It had been a miserable summer, hot, full of vapid small town people I’d known my entire life. There was no escaping the sameness of it all, except to get a job, save money and leave. I’d found the most boring job possible for a teenager, working at the only movie theatre in town selling old candy at the concession stand. My middle-aged boss was adept at torturing his ragtag staff of adolescent girls, standing too close as we counted every single box of candy and penny at closing. Since I had dyslexia, this took hours, and he used this opportunity to occasionally put his hand on my inner thigh. Summer passed, sticky and in slow motion, and moved into September, which didn’t feel much different.
One night after work, my boss invited me to go to a party with him. Since there was nothing else to do, I went and then soon left with my first grown up date of my own choosing: a real College Boy, chiseled and tall, all of twenty-two. He had a tiny mustard yellow Fiat Spider convertible with red racing stripes, and we drove it out into the countryside, through fields and night noises. The smell of tomatoes and rotting melons: the end of summer in the valley.
As we drove we attempted small talk, but no matter the topic, College Boy steered it back to himself and his good looks. He further annoyed me by groping blindly at my chest, and I wondered why I had agreed to go on a drive with him at all.
College Boy took out a joint and began to light up as he drove out onto the flatlands, on roads only described by numbers. Road 98. Road 102. Road 74. We argued about which way to turn and stopped on a little bridge, pulled over to the side, sitting in angry misunderstood silence.
The night was dark and creeping, silent except for College Boy’s smacking lips on his joint and the gnats which buzzed with impertinent insistence in my ears, nose, and mouth.
Then suddenly, a loud noise came from nearby, a roar, the loudest sound I’d ever heard. A clattering, a crash, a spider web of metal sounds.We looked at each other and didn’t know what to do. College Boy was breathing hard. My own heart beat felt like it had stopped and my hand automatically unbuttoned my blouse, searching for it.
Suddenly, a small voice came out of the dark, pulling at us. It wasn’t words, more an inhuman sound that pushed into my chest and out again. We leaned into one another, not talking. The Fiat started up again and we drove slowly towards where we’d heard the sound. The little convertible seemed small in this thick blackness, only its headlights weakly lighting the road. Dying flashlights. Almost blind.
Then we saw a bundle in the road just ahead.
We stopped ten feet from it and stood up in the Fiat, to see what it was. A movie set, a still-life. A man, lying face down in the road, his head half buried. He looked like he’d dived into the pavement and forgotten his shoes. His white sport socks glowed pristine, the round yellowed light cast by the Fiat lighting them up like beacons.
Near his body, twisted metal sculptures, two cars bent awkwardly around one another, a last embrace. They had hit one another head-on, becoming one. A game of chicken where both cars had stayed on track. Bodies all over the road, spread out like a shaft of arrows.
Bodies that had flown out of the windshield, shoeless, airborne. Each body face down, marked by two perfect white socks, like newborn snowy egrets in a nest of asphalt and shattered windshield glass.
College Boy had stopped the car and now started it again.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said. He looked small, hunkered over in the tiny seat of the Fiat. “I need to go wash this blood off my car.”
“We can’t just drive away and leave them here,” I replied. “There might be someone here who needs help.”
Stoned and blurry, he began to cry. “I’m scared,” he whispered. I was scared too, but I felt matter-of-fact about it. “Recite your multiplication tables,” I told him. “Do whatever you need to do to keep it together.” My body was rubber, loose and unwieldy, but I commanded it to get out the car, to walk, to touch, to look.
The moon had hid itself from the scene, and the country road lapped up all the light from the Fiat’s headlights greedily, turning the landscape into a void. Here and there, the glint of Pabst beer cans, barely glinting gold. Bodies which lost their clothes on their flight into the air, lost their skin, now wearing crowns of jagged black baked tar. I carefully bent down over each still warm body, touching them all over, wishing. But they didn’t move, there was no heartbeat.
The inhuman voice came at me at again, an outline, a murmur, faltering, then quiet. I rushed towards it as College Boy sat on the hood of Fiat, sobbing multiplication tables.
“Two times two is four. Four times four is sixteen. Two times three is six…” he trailed off, his voice unsteady.
Getting on my hands and knees, I crawled along the edge of the road, my arms branching out into the irrigation ditch, searching for the source of the voice. Palms quickly studded with glass and rock, I felt something ahead, a mound. Reaching out I touched a head, arms, legs, back, torso. Just not in the places you’d expect those parts to be.
“Are you an angel?” the parts whispered.
My mouth was dry and my voiced cracked as I said, “Yes, I’m an angel.” Leaning over, I groped along the body in the darkness, until I found a hand, a mix of slippery bones. I held it and said, “Everything is going to be fine.”
It wasn’t. Minutes later, the hand softened and let go. I groped around in the dark to find it again, found instead a head of melted flesh, which I cradled like a baby. This stranger, this body bent and broken, was the first being to see me as I really was. An angel. Above this life I had been living. Above counting stale candy in a worn movie theatre in a do-nothing town. Above the pawing of my boss and College Boy. Chosen.
I closed my eyes and floated above the road, flying, lifting that body up into the night, taking it home.
The night air pushed us upwards quickly, higher and higher until I could no longer see the glow of the Fiat lights. Everything extending and ending, all at the same time. My mind was showered in fuzzy Polaroid photos of images from my childhood. A rocking chair. The peach tree in my grandmother’s backyard. Swinging on the monkey bars in the rain.
College Boy called out, his anguish pulling me down quickly. The body came down with me, lighter, emptied, a casing. I set it down as I found it, jumbled awkward limbs folded over one another, and crawled back to the Fiat. Hand over hand, knee over knee.
College Boy sobbed into my bloody clothes as we sat perched on the hood of the Fiat, holding one another. Who were these people? Why had they chosen to die? Had they been like us, strangers with nothing in common until now? Had they been expecting us?
Fifteen minutes went by. Thirty minutes. An hour. No one drove out on these empty country roads except to get to somewhere else. No one came, and so we waited, huddled together, surrounded by flightless birds now extinct. A man finally drove up, a farmer, in an oversized truck. He wore big boots and he stood with authority on the road, pulverizing the glass and standing in a pool of blood as he talked on his cb radio. The police came and took our statements and sent us home. We drove with our bodies pressed next to one another, my head on his shoulder, tears blending.
The next day, I went to work feeling like bubbled plastic, uneven. As I rang up Raisinets and Red Vines, College Boy came by, asking me if I wanted to go on a road trip. My boss eyed him grimly, and I pondered my choices: another year counting candy with him or the unknown.
We had nothing in common but the horrors we had witnessed the night before, and yet, that was something. I felt he was the only person who understood me at that moment. I did not feel I could let another hour slide by without being near him.
It wasn’t hard to decide. Getting into the Fiat, I noticed the backseat was loaded: guitar, duffel bag, lava lamp.
“Where to?” I asked.
“Anywhere,” he said, already starting the motor.
We went to my house and I packed a bag. I threw things into it quickly, without thinking. Blank. We stopped off at a 7-Eleven for road trip snacks, but we left with only bottles of Peach Schnapps.
Driving across fields, plains, highways, we drove without any purpose or sense of where we wanted to go. Nevada. Utah. Colorado. Texas. Oklahoma. The Fiat had to be pushed a few times up hills, but we drove on, headed towards something. When we were tired we slept in the car, convertible top down, open and vulnerable, but not caring.
We talked about that accident day and night for days. Our conversations were about God and the afterlife. We wondered if suffering made people holy. The accident made us feel that we were not like other people. We spoke in a secret language, in our minds, without moving our mouths.
One day we looked down at our legs and shoes and saw they had streaks of dried blood on them. Standing in a rest stop bathroom, we washed each other down, dark red watercolors running rivulets, splashing on the white tile floor. Somehow, when we washed that blood away, we washed our bond away too. College Boy looked different to me now: simple, fumbling, thick.
Our drive became silent, awkward, aching.
College Boy dropped me off in Alabama. I never heard from him again.
AMY GIGI ALEXANDER writes memoir, fiction, and tales about place. Her work can be seen in World Hum, AlterNet, New American Press/Mayday, STIR, Too Young to Wed, and BBC Travel. Some of her stories will be included in Lonely Planet’s literary anthology An Innocent Abroad, and The Best Travel Writing. She’s working on two memoirs, one about living and working with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity on Calcutta and a second book about life with the Ngabe people in Panama. Find her at www.amygigialexander.com or on Twitter @amyggalexander