The Slow Dance of Shadows | Joshua Baker

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Miles pass without words, the vaguely shifting horizon the only beacon.

After briefly gnashing and wheezing like a man with a pulmonary disorder, the old pickup’s transmission dies on a minor highway, twenty miles from a town. Mountains twice the size of anything seen before loom in all directions, the details of their snow decked upper ridges losing resolution as light slips behind.  A thousand miles from home, paw through the truck to stuff a backpack with essential belongings.  Clothes, toiletries, books, what else? The treasured photo, carefully sealed in plastic.

Soon striding toward waning sun, backpack strapped over one shoulder, stop when the knee ache flares, find a roadside rock and lean against it, thumb prepared, while the sun’s heat dissipates in the air. Wait.

Finally an old soft top Jeep skids to a stop just past, music vibrating windows: ZZ Top.  That could go different ways.  Dust swirls into the twilight air.  Driver resembles a new age Walt Whitman who smells of pot.  Consider refusing the ride.  The moment passes, as so many such moments do.  In.

“Helluva limp, kid.  That fresh?” he asks as he scratches at a scab on his arm.

“What?  Oh, no. Accident a couple years ago.”

“Huh.  Not a football story, huh?” The beard asks.

“Not really the football type.  In a way, I suppose that’s why I’m here.” Wondering if he’ll blink, press for more.

“Why you’re here? Shit, am I supposed to have a reason to be here?” He lets out a great guffaw.  “I reckon I’m here ‘cause I had to keep in front of all the damn Mexicans pricing me out of construction jobs!  They don’t come up in the mountains much.  Beef jerky?”  He offers a stick as he accelerates.  Thus begins the second longest night of a moderately tumultuous life.

Sit quietly, backpack a security blanket in his lap.  The driver talks for two, divulging even more clearly his bitterness toward migrant workers, believing fervently they make it harder for him to keep jobs, thinking they get free services from the government, are all criminals, contribute nothing, forgetting his own Polish grandfather on the boat.

Suggest that some actually pay taxes and can’t get returns.  Beard doesn’t buy it.  Tension rises.  No talking for a few minutes.  It is almost ugly.

Out of nowhere, explain about the accident, jail, family problems.  Voices soften and politics fall away.   He suggests a softer stance on the kid’s Dad.  He is sober at heart if not in blood or attitude.  His voice trails away, a question.

The vehicle slashes through the hills at fifty plus, wending into a canyon lined by shadowy sentinels, steep drop offs to one side and sandstone crags on the other. So tired; sleep calls.  Exhausted, lose track of sporadic comments.  A momentary skunky smell on the breeze.  The sound of brakes squealing and tires skittering through gravel bring reality closer to full waking, closer to bones, teeth, a cursing mouth.

What is sensed next, a violent tumble, physical orientation skewed, a sequence ended with a seemingly unbearable weight on chest.  The wet sticky warmth of blood.  Everything slowly covered by a wash of agony, fear.   All views are shortened.  Cannot decipher what is seen.  Perhaps no view worth mentioning.  All is darkness, shadow.  Is this existence?  A twisted Cartesian riddle.  As eyes adjust, they glimpse the post between spiderwebbed glass of a windshield and window of a vehicle.  Passenger side.  Upside down.   An accident, this time a passenger.  Curse and bless the fates at once.  Again.

After the pressure, after a sense of place, the inevitable pain manifests, pain whose locations no pinpointing with any degree of certainty.   Something like ribs, shoulders, face, arms, hips.  More.   No moving the limbs in any perceptible way, although happy to sense minor motion in toes and fingers.  Darkness surrounds even as the tentacles of perception open further, flicker, neurotransmitters firing furiously, if not at optimal efficiency.

Movement hurts.  Peripheral vision hints at someone beside.  His beard.  No more.  A short stab of pain.  Immobile.  Voice seems weak as well.  A cursory “hey” stretches ability.  There is no response. Know not what words fit the occasion.  Why why why?  As though existence is a newly unearthed Beckett novel, scraping way into a world without commercial edges or colors, a vast and mundane tundra of personal struggle.  Memory inches along like a slug of the sort to pour salt on when a scrawny boy, curious to see rapid destruction.   Enjoyed playing God.   A more recent incident, an accident comes to mind.  And questions anew.  Is God this cruel?  Who plays with human fate?

Recollection remains dim.  It was late at night after a college graduation.  Family and friends—nothing too wild.  So damn proud.  Still, drinking.  The designated driver role invoked of the least intoxicated.

Declared sobriety, believed it.  The future as pictured vanished in quick connected series of mistakes.  A forgotten blinker, a blind spot unchecked, glance away as a phone rang, a delayed reaction, the overcorrection.  It blurs.  World views changed in moments with errors of coordination, timing, the crash into another car, erasing a human life.  Heatsoulspiritmind, suddenly sensitive, overwhelmed with guilt, rage, fear, sadness.  The one who might have soothed and comforted, the fiancé, compounded issues by leaving in the darkest moments, as the trial neared.  Welcome to the jungle.  Now a return.

 Here, now, upside down, head throbbing, everything become strewn jigsaw puzzle pieces in memory and sensations.  Must assemble pieces without looking at the box top; there is no box top.  Simplicity is the craving.  Now it comes fast and hard as a bullet.

“Man,” Beard says, his voice cracking, as if squeezed under pressure. “You okay?”

“I think.  You?” How does a person respond to disaster?   Complain?  Chit chat about politics or the weather?

“Think I’m screwed.”  The voice now thin, ragged, full of fear.

Remembrance moves slowly.  Inspiration and impetus blur.  This trip already a trap only pointing toward escape, or clarification of the past, a past longed to outgrow, shed.  A family history of alcoholism and lobster rolls on Thanksgiving.  A history of successful mediocrity and denial of consequences—until a judge announced the sentence.   24 months. Ended up doing 20.

Forget all.  Swim in darkness.  Even upside down, know this is no dream, but a debacle of the sort where someone else’s disaster becomes one’s own.  How arrive here?  A photograph and a need to escape.  That is all.  Now, discomfort the number one stimulus, the periphery of all thought patterns.  Soft curses.  Little else.  Pain overwhelms abstract thought.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Still, despite injuries, vague inklings of poor decisions.  Breathe.  Feel the pull of gravity.  Breathe.  Despite getting in this bloody truck.   Breathe.  Cold.

Odd thoughts.  When moisture becomes frost, does it warn the roads?  Whether positive or negative, do quick trigger decisions carry as much weight with St. Peter at the gates as decisions planned over the long haul?

Gasping and gurgling.  The man beside.   Surprised to realize, it is not a frightening sound.  A sound like a baby blowing bubbles through snot, through mucus throat.  The reality a touch more malignant.  Blood in the lungs?  Gash to what?  What is crushed?  Is there air in the pleural space?

“Hey.”  Try now to turn, barely see his face, a Jackson Pollock splattered of blood and dirt and tears.

“Enh,” he replies with more articulation than I’d imagine.

“What hurts?”

“Broncos losing.”  It takes him two seconds to utter the phrase.   Gone the stoned conservative ranter.  Gone the contradictions.  Pain winnows impurity.

Ask, “Can you…move?”

“Neh….”  His response came between gurgling breaths.

A final swerve of stoned avoidance, a skid, and vehicle roll on a hillside scribbles the final substantial lines of the driver’s life story.  Or is it still awaiting punctuation, editing, for once, hoping for mistakes of substance?  Rewrite.  Change this change this change this.  Should have listened more closely to his arguments.  Didn’t feel like getting analytical with a stranger.  And now…

Try harder to move, cannot.  Cannot help self, so cannot help him.  Mutter lame encouragement to the anguished sound of his breathing.  There is always hope.

Blink away the trickling blood as well as possible to maximize dark view of shattered glass and crumpled metal, wait further.  Look again to the side, see a bit more of the driver, speak a bit more.  Now nothing.  Death again greets someone in a metal box.  Wonder if he knows.  Strange to feel no emotional attachment.  There is no fear, nor remorse.  Jail can do that to a man.  Even an Ivy League wimp.  Just wonder.  Without offering the thumbed ride, the man might have lived.  Perhaps.  Could be wrong about a lot.  In fact, wrong about a lot.  Have been.   Judgment sometimes vanishes at crucial moments.  Here, another moment.  Self-evaluation time.  Try to rectify track record with a journey.  Planning has gone awry.   How?  Why?  Perhaps this man will survive.  Maybe…. No.  Who can tell about choices, chances, the odds of imminent disaster or ecstasy at any moment?

When eyes adjust to the faintest haze of light extant from headlights, see a slice of a rocky slope and sky through a spiderwebbed windshield.  At some point after vision clears a smidge, color manifests.  An American Flag sticker on the dashboard.   A curious wet claustrophobia coating.  Blink.  Headache.  Cannot bear eyes open.  Blink.  Dirt and sky.   Stars.   Dust and grit.  Blood.  Blink.  Whence the light?

A voice.  Muffled.  Above?  Spatial orientation is off.  A desire to spit manifests.  How much time has passed, no venturing.  Time falls apart in such collisions.

Then a face, a shadowy smooth-skinned man, whose eyes reflect fear, shock, anguish, disgust.  Who knows?  Suddenly a hand on shoulder.  Soft, yet a harbinger of pain.

“I call 911.”

Grunt at him, try to tilt head to the side, indicate the driver.

The man vanishes, a ghost.  Hear footfalls in dirt, gravel, scrambling feet.  Noise on the other side of the cab.  Look.  The driver is barely there, gurgles.  Still, his eyes light up, head turns a little.

“Go figure.  A b-beaner.”  The irony is not lost.  A sense of humor in dying.

The Latino man’s face appears in front again.  Upside down.  His rightside up.  Violence is always slanted one way or another.  Feel hair doing that flopping-out-when- gravity-pulls-it thing.  Arms reach in.  Something tied around arms, chest.  A sling?  A bandage?   Cannot tell.  Cannot say.

Muscles seem to tear from tendons, ligaments twisted the wrong way around bones that are broken, nerves torn asunder.  Pain builds to a surging heat everywhere.  Sweat.  Entire life is pain save the efforts of this man.  He holds an arm, a tender action.  Loving, one might say.

Ask, “How’s he?”

The man shakes his head, shrugs.  “No bueno.” There seems to be no sounds of breathing.  Death awaits all and pounces when least expected.  Again.

We sit in silence for a while as he presses down on arm.  A flesh wound undifferentiated from broken bones, bruises, internal injuries.   “You okay,” he says, looking around him, up at the road. “I go.”

“Why”

He sighs.  “Hard explaining.”  But it is not hard at all.

“What’s your name?”

“Salvador.”

“Gracias, Salvador.” Say in high school Spanish accent.

“Por nada.”  He softly pats arm, vanishes.  Brain scrambles, confused.  Flex a finger, the blood rushes… A motor revs, tires spin on gravel.  Silence briefly.  Then sirens.

Pain increases, then ebbs.  Light.  Motors.  Voices.  Music.  Return to pain, the fabric of a world.  Picture his face, cockeyed, sheepish. Just cognizant enough through the pain to understand why he left.   Nothing to gain, so much to lose.   At least the beard had a moment of recognition.

In the protracted chaos of the scene, long to return to a fetal position, to forget everything, to press a cosmic rewind button like a child who dropped and broke his mother’s favorite bourbon glass.  No more lying. No more running.

Noises.  Awake.  Shadows waver across brown vinyl.  Impromptu sundial cast by the mirror in the headlight and emergency lighting as rescuers come. Unless they are going to get the guy next to me.  He may be dead.  They speak of colors.  Yellow, red, black.  In confusion, focus on the outline of the beard.

Wait and watch shadows slowdance.

Rescue workers in bulky outfits crack open the truck like a sardine tin with hydraulic tools.  Tugged, spun onto a backboard, strapped down, bandaged, toted up the steep hill with ropes, bodies.  Ten, fifteen minutes of this.  Now fluent in a dialect of pain.

A firefighter in heavy turnout gear and helmet asks unanswerable questions.  Another face asks more, indistinguishable from the first, physical pain and confusion coloring all.  Poke in the arm. Drugs.

The emotional detachment boggles even now, years later, merging with the element of pain, accept it as personal savior.  Heart stripped of soul. Pain correlates with pulse.  Life.  With a father a faded memory, a redemptive journey cut short.  All for a memory, a black and white photo of mountains and farmland, a weather beaten Irish immigrant in the Rockies.  Great grandfather.  A homestead long sought.  What seemed good and pure still after misjudgments and sins accrue to a breaking point.

Contemplate accidents piled on accidents. Is it possible that this is exactly what God wants?

Muscle and brain conspire in an opiate shower, push to act.  Find the photo.  Pull.  Push, pry, squeeze.  Pull.  Don’t slip.   More.  Mountains. Darkness easing.

A face hovers over mine, talks to someone else.  What I want is within grasp.  Shhh.  Sleep.  Wonder.

There is no sure thing.  Right, Dad?  Eyeballs point toward those not looking.  All effort into fingers, front jeans pocket, the photo. Visualize the scene.  Mountains, barn, sky.  Millimeter by millimeter, the fingers move.  Beneath restraints of some kind, movement. The sound of velcro tearing.  Fingers slide under cloth.

Close eyes to eliminate possible sensory distraction. Remember home.  Where?   No, focus.  One task.  Touch the photo’s edge.  Caress its smooth two-dimensional tangibility.

Pinch.  Pull slowly.  It slips.  Steady.  Refocus.  Re-grab. Then another hand’s weight.  Open eyes to harsh white light.

“I’ll get it.”  Fingers release.   Fear it will be lost, but fate approaches regardless.  Release.

Words grunted, the voice of another leaving the asylum of throat.  Gloved hands stow photo, eyes pour concern.  What blood and bones?  Muscles and sweat and hope.

In the ambulance, a glint of the photo in the paramedic’s breast pocket.  The photo returns.  Now rest.  Contemplate the death of someone who did a favor, who also had transgressions to overcome.  Every human flawed.  Fatigue ridges hard, carrying a new weight, an alien warmth.  Drugs?  Close eyes, ready for the journey ahead, this new transmigration.  Curious, having a photo as a destination.  Fall into an opiate net, watch the pain lines soften again.

Sleep. There is time for amends. Or there isn’t. Clocks continue to tick.

Joshua Baker’s writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Plazm, Adirondack Review, Eye Rhyme, and Perceptions. Some of his poems won a Vancouver wine bar’s coaster contest in 2012.  He has taught middle school English, fought wildland fires, and done far too much SEO writing. 

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