It was the First One that Saved UsBy Simon Smithson
March 13, 2011
Tall Mac was driving, and that was the problem. There’s no doubt in my mind that if it had been Fat Mac instead, we would have been safe. Not that Fat Mac, eighteen as well and just as awash with testosterone as the rest of us, was any more immune to the lure of flooring the accelerator along Chandler Highway, or revving his engine at a stop light, just to hear it growl – far from it – but when it came to the road, Fat Mac had a natural affinity that none of us shared. Driving was something that lived in his bones. His nervous system came into focus at the turning of the ignition; he could no more come to harm behind the wheel than Mozart behind a piano.
More than that, Fat Mac’s car was his kingdom, a cherry-red ‘99 Nissan Skyline his parents had given him for his 18th birthday. He never would have been so careless as to put it in danger. While in person he left a trail of food scraps, cigarette butts, and crumpled litter in his wake, when it came to his car he was endlessly vigilant. He waxed and buffed its panels to a gleam every Saturday and immediately replaced anything that showed even the slightest hint of wear or scuff, be it a seat cover, a carburettor, or a dash needle.
But Fat Mac was elsewhere, and Tall Mac was driving. Tall Mac wasn’t one of us, and never would be one of us, but he’d appeared on the fringes of the group and done his best to fit in, with ready conversation and a willingness to join any activity. The effort was something we could appreciate, especially when coupled with his natural friendliness. It was no surprise when Lucy announced she was dating him, as we’d suspected she was the reason he was working so hard to get us on side. I doubt his pleasantries were a conscious choice on his part. Tall Mac simply, in his open, smiling way, wanted to be friends with the people who were friends with Lucy. Dean was in his second year with Crazy Adie at the time, and, at the time, Crazy Adie was Lucy’s best friend.
Crazy Adie was not nearly as energetic as her name may suggest. She was a pale, giggling girl who operated on a timed pressure valve; at parties and dinners she would inevitably enter a closed descent from an initial conversational high, talking less and smiling more and eventually quietly drifting away to the bathroom to lock herself away from crowds and loud noises. After a short while, always and without fail, she would emerge to explode in sound and fury at Dean, with little respect for the situation at hand. In public, in front of people’s parents, she would finally break down into loud, wracking sobs, inconsolable except by his attention. And then she would abruptly be fine. Her normalcy was so sudden and complete, every time, that it somehow erased our memories of her meltdowns, until the next time it happened, and Dean would have to deal with it once more.
It was a Friday night in summer, after a day that had been brutally hot. We’d finished high school, once and for all, six weeks before. Tall Mac was driving, and Lucy rode shotgun, and Crazy Adie sat between Dean and I in the back. The mood was quiet and tense, and only Tall Mac was satisfied, as he’d recovered the wallet he’d forgotten at work.
Our original plan for the night had been to pick up some beer and head to Dean’s place, to drink by the pool and enjoy a night that promised hours of heat, but Tall Mac had talked us into coming with him to pick up his wallet from a workmate, with a promise in exchange he would be our designated driver for the night. That we would be chauffeured in the splendour of Tall Mac’s father’s BMW only sweetened the offer. So we rode with Tall Mac to take care of his errand, only to find that Dean had already met the workmate, and the workmate’s friends, a month before, when they’d shown up uninvited at Crazy Adie’s holiday house and made themselves at home.
All of us, me and Dean and Crazy Adie, Lucy and Paul and James and Fiona and Rebecca, and the friends we had, and the friends they had, had gone to the beach for a week, a score of us divided across three houses we’d either rented together or begged the use of from family. That’s where Tall Mac, a friend of friends, had met Lucy for the first time. And Tall Mac by himself was a welcome presence. But the workmate and his friends, too far-removed and too presumptuous, with too much dirt in their white-boy dreadlocks and too much that was ratlike in their snaggled teeth, were not. They had somehow heard about the lack of a parental authority and decided to install themselves at Crazy Adie’s holiday house without knowing anyone there. I wasn’t staying at Crazy Adie’s, but I heard about how they showed up unannounced, helped themselves to food and alcohol, and made the girls uncomfortable with too-long stares and muffled, snickering comments. Almost immediately, they became persona non grata, and Dean had demanded they go.
And so we found ourselves, Dean and Crazy Adie and I, a platoon of three in hostile territory, sitting awkwardly around the black-painted backyard studio apartment of this workmate and his friends, waiting for Tall Mac to finish with his pleasantries and his introducing of Lucy, to get his wallet back and stand up so we could leave this ugly, grim little place of people who we didn’t like and who didn’t like us, and just be away. Korn’s first album, full of adolescent angst and arrested development was playing on the stereo. The floor and the walls were stained, and rough. I had no idea at the time that these were the people Dean had ejected. I simply knew there was an unspoken tension in the air, a tension that grew when Tall Mac went inside to get his wallet. The three of us sat in a huddled knot inside a circle of five, six guys, my ignored attempts at conversation simply highlighting the fact that no one here was our friend.
Tall Mac reappeared, Lucy in tow, and asked if we wanted to hang around. We instantly said no, and we left. The sun had gone down while we waited, and I reminded myself to talk to Dean about the raw unpleasantness of what we’d just sat through when I had the chance. But in the interim, the car was quiet, and maybe Tall Mac, though unaware that his workmates disliked us and the feeling was mutual, recognised that the best idea was to get us to Dean’s as quickly as possible. And so we picked up speed as we cut through back streets, gradually building from five to ten to twenty kilometres an hour faster than we should have been going.
The streets we drove through, as most in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne are, were dark, and leafy. What illumination the lights overhead gave was shattered and shrouded by full, thick branches and overhanging limbs. My window was wound down, and the heat of the day radiated from off the tarmac; the air was soaked in it. Tall Mac coasted down a hill, and accelerated as he climbed the next, and I looked out the window, the rear left passenger side, to see a wooden sign, huge and brown, reading ‘Road Ends.’
Instantly, time slowed. Instantly, I recognised that Tall Mac couldn’t have seen the sign, or he wouldn’t be driving so fast. I turned to call out, or tried to. As soon as I did, I felt heavy, and leaden, surrounded by an unyielding thickness that left me weighed down – far too weighed down to ever respond in time.
In slow motion, I started to open my mouth as my brain coldly, instantaneously, and without verbalised thought, acknowledged that the car I was in was going too fast and the road ahead was going to end and beyond that was unknown danger, and then we hit the lip of the road and launched into the air.
It was hitting the first tree that saved us. One moment we were airborne, and flying straight ahead. The front corner of Tall Mac’s car clipped the tree and a giant, invisible hand swatted us to the right. I snapped back into real time as it happened, with the same sudden speed of flicking a switch. Dean threw his arm between the two front seats, a solid bar of muscle and bone blocking Crazy Adie from flying forward.
We hit the second tree like a thrown baseball, and stopped dead in a second. Crazy Adie began to scream, and Lucy began to cry, and Tall Mac and Dean and I unclipped our seat belts and opened our doors. The five of us went running back up through the park we’d flown into, away from a car that looked like a mouthguard, a tree trunk a foot and a half across embedded in its hood.
We ran back up to the road, where people were starting to come out of their houses. Tall Mac held Lucy’s hand and called his father. Dean wrapped his arms around Crazy Adie, who shook and sobbed over something tangible, for once. I lit a cigarette, and smoked it, and lit another as soon as the first was done.
The various neighbours brought us glasses of water and talked about how prone the road was to accidents. They breathed sighs of relief over our unbroken, unbruised skin. They told us about the deep ditch at the end of the park, the one we would have crashed into had we not hit the first tree and gone pinballing into the second. And when we were left alone again, Tall Mac whispered to us, ‘Guys, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have had those shots when I was inside picking up my wallet.’
Tall Mac’s parents arrived, to give us a ride back to Dean’s, to deal with insurance claims, and to take Tall Mac and Lucy home. Dean’s mother listened to our story while making us hot, buttered toast. We shook our heads over our good fortune; I was struck by the fact that inside this familiar house, four solid walls surrounding me, the memory of Tall Mac’s father’s car wrapped around a tree seemed entirely unreal.
I was halfway through a slice of toast when Dean’s mother started to talk to me, and I realised that between one moment and another I had lost my ability to understand what she was saying. Furthermore, I suddenly knew there was no way I could swallow the chewed mouthful of bread in my mouth; it had become humanly impossible for me to do so. Somehow I decided no one could know this, so I nodded and smiled and chewed, while my throat closed up, while Dean’s mother’s lips moved and unintelligible sounds came from between them.
I had a vision of myself standing there in the kitchen, jaw clenched tight and moving robotically, my eyes wide and staring, and I mumbled something into my closed hand and went to the bathroom. I stealthily spat the mush of toast into the toilet bowl, and splashed cold water from the tap onto my face.
At the push of the toilet flush, my legs went out from under me; I have no idea of how long I was unconscious but I came to with the back of my head drumming on the white porcelain of the toilet. Slowly, I stopped shaking. I stared up at the roof and had no idea of who I was, or where.
Something drifted into my head about maybe I was at my grandmother’s, followed by the thought no, I’m at Dean’s. And I returned to myself, splashed some more water on my face, and calmly went to find my cigarettes.
Jesus, man. Thank God you were all okay.
Have you read THE NIGHT COUNTRY by Stewart O’Nan? Great great book. This reminded me of it, topically.
Great piece, Simon.
Thanks, amigo. It was kind of amazing that there wasn’t a scratch on us. I later tested with a sharp piece of paper to see if I’d Shyamalaned my way into unbreakableness, but, no, that paper cut was all too real, and stung like a bitch.
I have not read it – another one for the list!
And thanks for the kind words.
I wish you hadn’t hit any tree at all but I’m so glad you managed to walk away. A world without Simon Smithson is not even worth thinking about. I love the way you tell this, bringing in characters, weaving the stories about them effortlessly. It works very well and as a reader, you are hooked in from the first sentence. Nicely done, brew.
And I loved Fat Mac. I knew a Fat Mac once – I always felt safe driving with him because he so adored his Ford Escort. Boys that treat their cars like treasure are the ones to hitch a lift with.
Great piece. Lovely writing.
Damn straight. What a cold and fanged world that would be.
Oh, thanks for the compliments on the writing of the piece itself, brew!
I too am glad I managed to walk away. Honestly, if Fat Mac had been driving, there wouldn’t have been even the hint of danger. The gods of the road just loved that man (and he them).
You evocatively capture how in split-second crisis, we are both riveted to what’s occurring and, also, divorced from it. And we’ve all known a Crazy Adie in our lives. Echoing Greg’s point, I enjoyed this, Simon, and am so glad you and your friends survived.
It was the strangest thing. That adrenalin-rush slowness, when the mind accelerates to superhuman levels to assess and solve the situation at hand, and the body just can’t react in time.
The late fantasy author Robert Jordan tells a story about how he slipped into that state once in Vietnam, as a grenade was hurtling towards him through the air. He took aim, and fired, and shot it out of the air with his rifle.
Oh, poor Crazy Adie. She was wound so freaking tight.
Glad you enjoyed the piece.
Good writing, Simon.
(You do realize now that you should have told someone you were injured, right?)
Well, you know. On cold nights, sometimes, the aches begin, and all that can make them stop is being sent packages full of money by my loyal internet readers…
You wrote that action scene with the car in the air and the slow motion and then snapping back into real time (etc) better than most other action scenes I ever read. Normally I can’t follow them on the first read through, but this one was pitch perfect. I mean, really really excellent.
This whole piece is great writing, Simon.
I’m really glad you didn’t die and that no one was hurt.
I agree with Irene, though. You probably shoulda mentioned to someone that you were in shock. Hindsight, and all that.
Oh, thanks Gloria! High praise indeed. Maybe the accident shook something loose that I’m drawing on now.
I’m also really glad I didn’t get iced, and nor did anyone else.
The moment of shock was in itself quite shocking. I had no idea I was about to go into a spasmodic fit, and as soon as I was fine, I was fine. I think it was just my body and mind calling the adrenalin debt due (of course, I’m not exactly a doctor…)
Simon, that you are here to tell this story (and tell it so well) is an astonishing feat of survival, which has to make that one of the most beautiful words in the dictionary.
As always, I am so glad to find you here.
We were hugely lucky, especially Tall Mac and Lucy. I’m told they found God after the incident, which wasn’t something I’d known prior to publishing this piece.
We (our group entire) have actually been amazingly fortunate throughout high school, university, career and beyond, as we’ve been relatively untouched by death or serious injury (touch wood).
And as always, Ms. Antalek, the pleasure is all mine.
A build-up of fine characterizations and then wham! You got me! I didn’t see that coming. And like others have said, that strange detachment in a crisis and the action itself is so well described. Also I’m likewise very glad you made it out unscathed, but I can’t tell you what a disappointment it is to hear that you are not, alas, unbreakable. Unless … unless maybe paper is your weakness the way water was Willis’. Yes.
Speaking of characterizations, would you believe I watched Citizen Kane for the first time ever yesterday? Man. That Welles knew what he was doing.
But I digress, and there is no comparison between myself and Orson.
For a start, I’m taller.
But thank you, Cynthia F. Hawkins. It was a very strange moment to be in, and one I’m glad didn’t take any lasting bites out of me.
And the fact I’m not unbreakable is a daily disappointment. Oh, the irony. If paper was my one weakness, and I’d chosen to be a writer.
This is a fine piece of storytelling. As you discuss the tension within the story, a secondary tension builds up nicely and even though I knew there was a tree arriving soon, you still brought it into the story with force. I was preparing for it to appear a lot further into the story and I was most certainly not prepared for the airborne assault you took.
I’m happy the world didn’t lose its greatest Pimp that day. I would be one aimless motherfucker if that had happened, never fully understanding why.
As always, sir, thanks for the reading, but thank you even more for the ten tons of pimping that surrounds you in all directions. It never fails to elevate my mood, like an El Dorado with solid gold hydraulics.
And believe me, none of us were prepared for that airborne assault.
HA! I think the phrase ‘one aimless motherfucker’ just became my favourite of all time.
Ye gods, man, what a scary story. So fucking real. Don’t do that to me! I felt like I was actually in a car crash. Thanks. Just what I needed.
You better have insurance.
C’mon, man. In all due fairness. In the past you’ve left me at the mercy of ghosts, aeroplane crashes, and dog farms.
But also, thank you.
You know, now I think about it I actually gave you a car crash as well… albeit a lame one that involved a wild boar and no real possibility of death or harm to me (although the boar got messed up).
Anyway, thanks again for writing a pant-shittingly good tale.
Thanks again for saying so, and I’m very sorry about your pants.
Oh, that poor boar. I remember the story in question. Man. Man vs. Wild indeed.
That was excellent, Simon. Your descriptions are so vivid. Besides the accident itself, were there any repercussions for Tall Mac for having had those shots while picking up his wallet? That’s a huge reveal that you subtly slip in there.
Thank you for reading, Gregory, and leaving such a kind comment.
Not a one. While it may have been different if anyone had been injured, as it was, we banded together like glue. As far as I know, no adult ever learned of Tall Mac’s lapse in judgment. The police weren’t called to the scene, and so there was no mandatory breath test administered, as there would have been if they were on the scene.
Stories like this reveal that time is an illusion. Your experience as the car launched then finally landed is a great example. Shock has its place on the continuum, too. It is no doubt a miracle you all walked away.
When I was nineteen, I was almost hit by a train. It was in the evening at a railroad crossing, one I passed often. Trains rarely ran that late. I had the radio on, but it wasn’t so loud that I couldn’t have heard a train whistle. For whatever reason, the signal to lower the rails failed, and the engineer didn’t blow the whistle–which is required near every intersection. I looked up just in time to slam on my brakes before the track. It was going fast, faster than usual, as if someone at the engine wasn’t paying attention to the fact the machine was going through a stretch of the city.
You mentioned a giant, invisible hand knocking the car in another direction. I often wonder what prompted me to look up. Maybe a barely perceptible tremor in the ground, or my long-dead great-grandfather, who worked the railroads his entire adult life.
Perception is a truly bizarre thing. I had an English teacher in high school who told us the story of when she’d hit a patch of ice while driving the Swiss Alps and lost control of the car. There was no guard rail to speak of, just an inch on either side of the lanes and a drop to death.
She said that every speck of colour drained from her vision and she saw the world in black and white for as long as it took for her to swerve back and forth across the road, from one side to the other, frantically trying to get the car back under her control.
I am truly thankful you didn’t meet your end under a train, Miss Ronlyn.
Why is it when we grow up
we know so few people
Why are there no more
Tall & Fat Macs?
And car crashes where
everyone comes out OK?
This was kinda different
I loved the language
& the tone.
Thanks, amigo. I’m truly glad to hear so.
I saw Buck 65, the Canadian MC, play a concert over here a few years back (I went with Dean), and during an interval, he handed out nicknames.
‘That girl there? Oval. It’s written all over her face. That dude? Torque. And when you say Torque… you gotta go like this.’ (and he mimed revving a motorcycle).
Do cyber nicknames count, Rev?
Wow. I love the ending… the way you explain yourself in active rather than emotional terms.
I like the characters… Steinbeck names with Kerouac velocity.
Good read, Simon, as always.
Thanks, LRC! And ‘Steinbeck names with Kerouac velocity’ is possibly my favourite thing to have heard all day.
It’s a big compliment. I think you can handle it.
“And when we were left alone again, Tall Mac whispered to us, ‘Guys, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have had those shots when I was inside picking up my wallet.'”
I would have decked him, right then & there, for saying that. Asshole.
I think I dated Crazie Adie.
I think, looking back, it was only with time that it sank in just how completely and utterly responsible Tall Mac was. Very shortly afterwards Dean and Crazy Adie broke up (maybe that’s when you dated her?) and Tall Mac disappeared from our consciousness, so I never had the chance to say anything to him about it.
oh. reno likey. all gears. great names. this read like nothing i’ve read from you before. am i wrong? hmm. anyhow, glad you survived. sorry so late reading this. this was really good rockstar. thanks, amigo.
Thanks amigo. And I think you are right; I haven’t sat down consciously to write anything similar before. I’m glad I survived, and glad you enjoyed it. As always, you’re welcome.
I really, really, really like the car that looked like a mouthguard. Brilliant, Simon.
Thanks, Erika Rae! And it resembled nothing so much; the way it was curved around that tree. Uncanny, really, that the motor and chassis could crumple so easily.
Haunting stuff. Echoing others, so glad you were all okay.
Really strong writing here. Such momentum to this piece, and I love the details you chose to impart.
Thanks Kristen! For your comments on both the piece and the fact that I’m still around to write it.
Yeah, momentum was kind of a theme; of that night in particular, and who we all were at the time.
first off, sorry i’m so late to this. secondly, this is a really excellent piece, simon.
the accident scene and aftermath of course are great (well, greatly written, not great for you), but what i particularly loved were the very controlled tangents – Crazy Addie, the gross co-workers. they were skillfully handled and didn’t go on and on (as I have a tendency to do).
and i adore the names. Tall Mac, Fat Mac! and for some reason the hot buttered toast was just right.
Not a problem, Angela. And thanks for the kind words!
The response to this piece has been really great, which is immensely gratifying. It seems like I accomplished what I set out to do, and people liked it, so hey! Winning!