Wild, Wild Horses
“Put it in gear,” Paul yelled from the rear of the car.
“I’m trying,” Missy called back, over the noisy rattle of the engine. Her hands began to sweat; she could feel the gears resisting, grinding slightly as she pressed the gearshift into what she thought was reverse. Paul’s ’65 Mustang shuddered beneath her and she wiped her palms, one at a time, on her pants.
“Just push it,” Paul yelled. “Hard!”
So she did. And it sounded like two cats in the midst of a brawl being sprayed with buckshot. “Shit,” she said under her breath as the gearshift popped back out. She hated helping Paul with his restoration projects, and she had shed more blood over this vehicle than she cared to admit. Like the time she scraped her knuckles nearly to the bone holding onto the rear convertible lift while Paul hit the button up front and called out, “Don’t let go, whatever you do.” She hadn’t. Even when her skin did.
“Christ, just slide over. I’ll get it up there myself,” Paul said, suddenly beside her.
Slide over, a difficult thing to do with front bucket seats, but she scrambled past the gearshift to sit in the passenger’s side, feeling as if she had failed some crucial wifeliness test. But then working with Paul always made her feel that way, as if she should know, instinctively, the appearance and use of a strap wrench. As if she should study up, in her spare time, in order to be the perfect automotive scrub nurse to his grease-monkey surgeon.
The car bucked up the garage incline, then lurched to a stop just short of the back wall.
“I don’t know how you make it stop just right,” Missy said. “I’m always sure I’ll send it shooting back through the wall and into the living room.”
“No big deal,” Paul said, appeased by her praise. “It’s like riding a horse. You feel it underneath you. It responds. You respond to it. Piece of cake,” he said, clapping her on the shoulder, buddy-like.
“Sure,” she said. “Piece of cake. What’re you working on?”
“Got to get the rear wheels off and take out the coil springs, then put in the heavy-duty ones from the junkyard. I’ll jack it up and put a stand under each axle. Poor man’s lift.”
“Can you do that all by yourself?”
“Sure. No problem. Won’t take any time at all.”
“All right. Well, I should go in.” She glanced at the watch on her wrist. “The girls are probably done with their tape. I left Hannah in the walker with an ear of corn-on-the-cob.” She opened the car door and looked back. “Teething,” she added, to answer Paul’s questioning look.
“Okay, sure,” said Paul. “Thanks, hon.”
She stepped into the house in time to see the Little Mermaid kissing Eric happily-ever-after. King Triton swept up on a wave of his own making to get a kiss from Ariel, too, and Missy’s throat constricted with emotion. Stupid Disney movies. She could always be counted on to tear up at all the right places. Conditioned, she was, just like Pavlov’s dogs.
Two-year-old Jessica sat on her knees before the TV, much too close to the screen, bouncing slightly. Her fine brown hair had an ugly snarl in the back that Missy hadn’t noticed this morning. There was always so much to stay on top of as a parent — long dirty fingernails, tangled hair, sugary teeth, potty breaks, car seats, hot things, hungry stomachs, electrical outlets. The list was endless, and the vigilance exhausting.
“You need to go potty?” Missy asked.
“Uh-huh,” Jessica said, jumping up and running towards the bathroom. Missy noted the wet spot in the middle of Jessica’s pink, ruffled shorts and felt the carpet where she had been sitting. Wet. She retrieved a towel from the linen closet and dropped it down then stepped on it with her full weight to encourage sopping.
Ten-month-old Hannah slept in her walker, shoulders and head slumped over sideways, her upper gums propped on the ear of corn, her mouth slack and drooling.
“I went potty, Mommy,” said Jessica as she re-entered the room, elastic shorts cranked sideways around her middle.
“Did you flush?”
“And wash?” Missy asked, leaning over to readjust the shorts.
“Let me smell.”
Jessica held her arms out, fingers clenched. Missy sniffed, then said, “Go wash Jessie,” swatting her bottom with the tips of her fingers as Jessie squealed toward the bathroom. “You can help me cook when you’re done,” Missy called out, then heard the water running in the sink, accompanied by Jessie’s personal hand-washing song.
The little details of her children’s lives — that was what Missy was sure she’d have the hardest time recalling years from now. Simple things like the hand-washing song. Some days it seemed so important to savor them, write them down, preserve them on something solid that wouldn’t get consumed in the daily grind of life. In tenth grade that same desire had led her to declare herself bound for a career in journalism. Her mom laughed, but Missy became editor of the school paper, the Blue Ridge Chronicle. She led the yearbook staff, and even came in second in the state forensics competition. She got voted Most Likely to Succeed in the senior superlatives election.
Shortly after placing that page in the yearbook mock-up, she’d met Paul. He’d taken her for a ride on his Harley, whipped her hair into a thousand knots, and caused this swirling tornado in her heart that had changed everything.
Jessie returned and pushed a dining room chair toward the stove, skittering it along the floor with a loud screeching sound. Across the room, Hannah jerked upright in her walker and began to cry. Missy knew she should have put her in her crib, but she was always loathe to move a sleeping child.
“Just wait,” she said, putting her palm out to stop Jessica. “Let me get your sister.”
Jessie continued to drag the chair toward the stove.
“Just wait, I said. It’s hot, honey.” Hannah began crying in earnest, holding her head at an awkward angle. “Okay, Hannah Banana, it’s all right. I’ve got you,” said Missy as she lifted her out of the walker. “You stiff, baby? I know. Mommy should have moved you. I’m sorry. Bad Mommy.” She propped Hannah on one hip, returned to the stove, and handed her a long wooden spoon. Hannah took the spoon straight to her mouth, handle end first, and began to furiously gum it.
“Where’s Daddy?” Jessica asked, climbing into the chair and cocking her head to one side like a bird.
“In the garage.”
“Working on that mustache, again,” said Jessie with a heavy sigh and a hand on her hip.
Missy recognized her own exasperated voice coming out of her daughter’s mouth, and she tried not to laugh. “It’s Mustang, honey. Not mustache.”
Paul had bought the shell of a Mustang, sight unseen, from a man in Kentucky, a week before they got married. She drove the whole way with him from southwest Virginia and back, pulling the brick-red primed hull home on a rickety fishtailing trailer that he’d had to barter for at the last minute. That and the engine block he purchased three days later had eaten up all of their premarriage savings, but Paul said it was a classic car and would only increase in value, so it was really an investment for their future.
“Why’s he not here to help?” Jessie asked.
Missy gave her daughter an appraising look. A sponge, that’s what Jessie was, soaking up everything. And a nagging wifely tone was what Missy was passing along to her daughter.
“Oh, Jessie, he has to keep the Mustang running. He can’t take his motorcycle everywhere. And if the Subaru breaks down again we need a backup car.”
If she added them up, Missy figured the hours she’d spent defending her husband, explaining away his actions, making excuses for his lack of attentiveness would now be measured in days of her life. It wasn’t as if Paul were a bad man. He wasn’t. He just liked to do his own thing, and he expected everyone else to like it, too. He had wanted kids as much as Missy, but once they were here, he resented the intrusion, as well as the time Missy spent attending to their needs. He wanted her to wean them before she was ready, to get babysitters early and often. He wanted them out of their bed, when it was easier for Missy to nurse at night if they were right beside her.
“Still,” Jessie insisted, reaching up and pulling the spoon from Hannah’s grasp, eliciting a shriek.
“Daddy loves us,” Missy said. “He’s just really, really busy.” She took the spoon back from Jessie and handed it to Hannah, then gave Jessie a pink-handled plastic spoon. “Here,” she said. “This one matches your shorts.”
Jessie, still young enough to be appeased in such a manner, smiled as she stirred the pot of beans bubbling on the nearest burner.
“Careful,” said Missy. “Stir slowly, or they’ll pop on you.”
Missy guided Jessie’s hand for several rotations then tapped the spoon on the side of the pot. “Ready to make cornbread?”
“Yum!” said Jessie, wiggling like a puppy. “Corn bed.”
As Missy lifted the cast-iron skillet, a tremendous, loud, crashing sound came from the garage. The floor shook with it, and Missy stood for a moment, transfixed by morbid images. Then she rushed down the hall towards the garage door, bouncing Hannah on her hip as she ran. Hannah stared at her mother, clinging to her shirt with a tiny fist, head bobbing, spoon arm waving free.
Missy threw open the door and saw the Mustang listing off to one side, rear fender still sliding slowly down the gouged Sheetrock wall, leaving a fresh, jagged smudge.
“Paul?” she called. “Paul?” Hannah continued to stare at her, big-eyed and silent.
A wheezy groan came from the other side of the car, from where it tipped downward. She noticed Paul’s steel-toed work boots sticking out towards her, jerking slightly, as if he were trying to dance while lying down.
“Oh my God,” she said, and looked around wildly. Where to put the baby? “Paul? Are you all right?”
“Shit, shit, shit, shit.” She opened the door to the house and slipped Hannah just inside the door, then shut it quickly. The wailing began immediately. “Just a minute, baby,” she called over her shoulder as she ran to Paul. “Mommy’ll be right there!”
When she rounded the front bumper, she saw his face. The rear fender of the Mustang rested just below his armpit, settling into a concave depression in his chest. He seemed to be looking at her, yet not seeing her, eyes wide and expressionless. “Shit, Paul. What do I do? Oh my God.”
Paul’s left arm was extended towards her feet, his fingers moved slightly, not offering any helpful direction. He couldn’t talk — didn’t even seem to be able to breathe. His face was reddish purple and straining, eyes bulging, like the face of a person hanging upside down.
“Don’t die,” she said. “Oh my God, don’t die.” From the other side of the door came the sounds of Hannah throwing herself bodily against it, screaming Maaamaaa with long wails that pulled up at the end into high-pitched shrieks. “Just a minute, Hannah,” she called, looking around desperately for anything that might help. Rags, bucket, tool box, tools. Just under the running board she saw the orange feet of the jack stand lying on its side. She pulled it out then positioned the top of the stand under the solid part of the wheel well, beside Paul’s compressed chest. The stand wouldn’t lift at all, though. It only held up a car that had already been jacked.
“Don’t die, Paul,” she said, chanting. “Don’t die. I’ll get it off you, baby, just don’t die.”
She pushed with all her weight to try and shove the stand underneath, but only succeeded in making the Mustang slide farther forwards, towards the center of Paul’s chest. His eyes rolled around in their sockets.
A creak sounded, as the door to the house opened and Hannah’s wails increased in volume. Jessie’s voice was quiet and timid, barely discernible. “Mommy? Where are you?”
“Stay inside, Jessie,” Missy said, in her best drill sergeant voice, popping up just enough to look over the trunk of the car. “Take Hannah, too.” Missy removed the stand and looked under the car. Just behind a cinder block, she saw the floor jack. A pan of brackish oil slid off when she jerked the cinder block towards her. It splashed onto the cement floor, rolling in shiny black lines toward the sunlight of the open garage door.
Missy moved the cinder block to one side and rolled the floor jack closer. She put it under the axle, then stood and pumped the handle. Over by the door, Jessie pulled a shrieking Hannah into the house by the collar of her onesie. The door slammed.
Paul closed his eyes.
She pumped the jack handle furiously. “No. No. No. No. No,” she grunted with each push. With a creak the Mustang began to lift, easing off Paul’s body slightly. She ran back around to Paul’s free side and began to pull him out by his clothes. A loud ripping sound told her that his shirt had given way, but he was free.
She squeezed his cheeks and grabbed his shoulders. “Paul,” she said. “Paul.” She put her fingers in his hair and tugged, blew in his face, then held his nose and blew into his mouth. His lips felt dry and papery under hers and a hiss of air escaped the joining of their lips.
Paul jerked twice, then coughed and sputtered. His eyes fluttered, then opened.
“Oh, thank you, Paul. Thank you,” Missy said. She rested her head on his chest, but he winced in pain and she sat up. “Can you breathe?”
Paul nodded slightly. She smiled, then laughed with relief. “Thank God. You’re okay.”
Paul lifted his head off the cement floor then fell back. “My chest,” he whispered.
“Okay, okay. I know. I’ll drive you to Montgomery Regional. They’ll check you out. Wait here. Thank God you’re okay.” Missy ran into the house, turned off the stove, lifted up a sobbing Hannah, pulled Jessie along by the hand, then slung her pocketbook crossways over her shoulder and lifted Jessie, too. She rushed out to the car, a child in each arm. “Daddy’s hurt. He has to see the doctor. We’re going now.”
“Now?” asked Jessie.
“Uh-huh,” said Missy, simultaneously pulling the shoulder straps over Baby Hannah’s head and pushing her rear back up into the car seat while Hannah arched her back and howled.
“Hannah’s sad,” said Jessie.
“Uh-huh,” said Missy and pulled the buckle across Jessie’s car seat.
“She’s scared bout Daddy.”
“Uh-huh,” said Missy. She slammed the back door, started up the Subaru and ran back to Paul.
“Come on, Honey, I’ll help.” She placed a hand under his armpit and helped him stand, then crossed the yard, and sat in the front seat. When she started to buckle his seatbelt he waved her off and croaked out the word, “Go.”
Missy drove the back roads faster than she had ever driven before. She honked and passed recklessly. Living in a small, rural town was lovely, until you had to get to a hospital fast. The local Rescue Squad — all volunteer, and poorly funded — wasn’t worth calling. The members were old as Methuselah and could barely lift a stretcher to save their own lives, let alone someone else’s. Missy felt sure she could get Paul there faster — and cheaper, which heaven knows was a consideration these days. Paul had hauled only three loads last month, and none, so far, this month. As an independent trucker he couldn’t haul if he didn’t have the contracts, so he’d been working on the Mustang instead. But that was frustrating, too, when what little money they had got shuttled to the junkyard or the auto parts store. Missy had been stretching Hannah’s diaper changes to the saggy yellow limit, trying to make them last until Paul’s next paycheck, and now they had a trip to the emergency room to cover. How would they afford that?
She took a sharp curve too fast and Paul moaned and reached for the dashboard.
“Sorry,” she said, but kept her speed.
“Is Daddy going to die?” Jessie asked from the backseat.
“No, Honey. No,” said Missy. “Daddy’s going to be fine.”
In the emergency room, the doctor told her how lucky she was, that Paul’s blunt trauma impact was just inches from hitting the breastbone and stopping his heart. As it was, several ribs were broken, and he had a slight lung bruise, but nothing that wouldn’t heal with rest.
“But the truly amazing thing,” the doctor said, “is that you got the car off of him all by yourself.”
“I guess so,” she said. “I just did everything I could think to.”
“Well, perhaps you don’t know your own strength, Mrs. Connor. Stranger things have been known to happen when adrenaline is flowing.”
“He really could have died?”
“From your description, I’d say he had already begun to asphyxiate.”
While the doctor taped Paul’s ribs, Missy took the girls to the snack machine and used the last of her change for a makeshift dinner. They returned to the waiting room and Jessie smacked loudly while eating her treats. Beside her, Missy nursed Hannah, who promptly fell asleep. Missy laid Hannah on the yellow couch, bolstered in by her purse, then stood with Jessie and rocked her body back and forth. Jessie fell asleep in the middle of chewing a gummy something. When Missy laid her on the couch, her mouth oozed a slippery purple slime. Missy lifted her head and slid one of Hannah’s diapers under her cheek.
After what felt like an eternity of viewing the same news headlines on the overhead TV, the hospital released Paul to Missy with a bottle of painkillers and the admonition to take it easy.
Missy stepped outside to bring the car around for Paul and the girls. The darkness of the night gave her a strange disconnected feeling since she had entered in a panic in daylight; she had no sense of how much time had elapsed. It could have been minutes. Or it could have been days and days.
The night was cool, and the stars were out. Missy took a deep breath for the first time in hours, and felt her chest expand with the fullness of air, then finally relax. The small hairs of her arm rose up in the night breeze, and before she realized it, she had walked past the car.
She stood at the far edge of the parking lot watching fat June bugs circle the light at the top of a tall column. She could see the uneven black horizon of the Blue Ridge Mountains against the lighter hues of the night sky. A stoplight in the distance turned from green to yellow, then to red and back again, and a pair of taillights turned a corner and disappeared. The car, the hospital, her family in the darkness behind her, all felt as if they were light-years away.
She took another deep, cool breath and looked straight up into the night sky. Far away the tiny white lights of an airplane moved through the stars. She tracked the movement of people flying somewhere, anywhere else, until the darkness swallowed them and she could no longer make out the lights. She turned and headed back to the car. She climbed in, started the engine, and pulled around to the emergency room door.
The 30-minute drive home was filled with the soft snoring of three people asleep in the car. She admired that ability to sleep through anything. She was envious, actually. Missy used to sleep like that — not a care in the world. But that was before Paul, and before children.
In the headlights, she saw a pothole, too late to dodge it, and the passenger tire hit with a loud, tooth-rattling whunk; Paul squirmed and frowned, but didn’t wake.
When they arrived home, it was after midnight. She carried in Baby Hannah first, her little fat cheek slack against Missy’s shoulder, making a warm, wet spot of drool. Missy held her head and tipped her carefully into the crib, but she was out, arms and legs spread-eagled, lips pursed. Missy had taken the baby in first ever since her momma told her a story about a mother who left her baby in the car alone with the door open and came back out, only a few minutes later, to find a raccoon eating its brain, the baby still strapped in the car seat. That one had haunted Missy for a good long while. Her momma loved disaster stories, especially those involving maniacal killers, rabid animals, and bad mothers.
Missy carried Jessie in next, and took her to the bathroom in her sleep, or she’d pee in the bed by morning. Jessie’s eyes flew open and rolled around wildly, settling on Missy and then focusing. She fixed her with a dazzling smile, said, “I love you, Mommy,” in the sweetest voice, then closed her eyes, peed, kicked off her underwear and stumbled to bed without wiping.
Next Missy went to the car to help Paul, but when she got there the passenger seat was empty. She looked around and saw that he was standing by the Mustang, in the semidarkness, staring at the fender with a look of hurt and accusation.
“After all we’ve been through,” he told it.
He turned and fixed her with a wild gaze, his hair askew. “I hurt,” he said.
“I know.” Missy held his hand and led him away from the damage. “You can take another painkiller,” she said, and he did, then groaned as he lay back in bed. “You need an extra pillow? Anything?”
He mumbled something that Missy thought sounded like “a new life,” then fell asleep.
Missy walked back out to the kitchen, which was a mess; the pot of beans still sitting on the stove, a brown skin puckering the surface of the liquid. She put on the lid and walked away. The towel, still on the floor, smelled of sour urine. Toys covered the living room floor, too, but she was exhausted. She picked up the half-chewed ear of corn from the walker and lobbed it into the trash then returned to the bedroom, crawled under the covers and sighed.
But Missy couldn’t sleep. Her head roiled with strange thoughts. Beside her, Paul groaned in his sleep. She propped up on one elbow and studied his face. He was defenseless and broken this night, but he slept the sleep of the charmed. She mentally mapped the contours of him, marking the angles and lines in her brain.
She got out of bed then, and headed to the garage. Its wide door sat open to the night, the front end of the Mustang leering upward into space where the door would normally descend. At the sound of her footsteps some small night creature that had been exploring the garage skittered off into the darkness.
Some days Missy believed she hardly knew her husband. What did Paul want from his life? What made him feel free and alive? What were his regrets? His dreams? She didn’t know. And what was worse, she didn’t want to know. She should care, but she didn’t.
It wasn’t Paul’s fault she felt trapped. Missy knew that. She married him of her own free will. She was there when the children were made. But she couldn’t help feeling angry.
Angry for having given up the things that she wanted from life, angry for being saddled with two young children, angry for having had to lift the car — the car she never wanted to own — off his chest, the car that would have crushed his heart if she’d left it there a moment longer.