You never forget your first car accident. It stays with you, jammed in the wet ditch of your subconscious, even if your first car was a push/pedal car.
Though of course, in an accident, every car is little more than a push/pedal car.
- - -
A cloudless morning in spring, golden blush of first light. Last night there was the briefest tumultuous rain; you lay awake and listened to that sudden bedlam and it sounded as if all of summer itself was pouring down -- rowdy and hard as seedcorn kernels -- planting itself, as if to come up in the morning. And sure enough. You are only seven, and it is only earliest morning, just hours since that hasty downpour, but you can smell summer now in this pregnancy, heavy as the smell of lime on the barn floor. The gravel is the color of clay unless you scrape that layer away with your tattered sneaker. The world is rinsed. No bustle of dust follows the occasional car crawling by on the distant dirt roadway that delineates the north boundary of Papa's acreage -- sheep pasture, cow pasture, horse hold and hay fields.
Out near the hay ring where the older cows are feeding, you can see a few rambunctious calves dancing wildly like children in and out of the crowd, struck with the wet infectious freshness of the day. Their loose heads and hindquarters call springtoys to mind. You are too young to know why this affects you so. It is impossible to know that you will forever recall them when the first rains come: They are joy itself, discombobulated, free. A celebration of the season's change.
- - -
You are being a big girl. You are waiting for Papa, just as he told you to do, against the grey brick wall of the barn, and it is pleasant to wait here, in the shifting patterns of the elm shadows cast by the early sun, which has only now just begun to pull clear of the crowns of the elms in the thin woods that separates Papa's farm from Grandpa Rivers's farm (which still has horses on it and a foal he promises you'll ride this year). The trees are on fire, and you can't possibly be patient enough to recognize it but as the sun rises the shadows of the elm branches are pulling down around you like skeins of dark wool.
It's the kind of day that makes you want to cross your heart even though you've made no promises. It's the kind of day that makes you want to drag all your dolls from the toy bin in the basement and out into the yard where not just a tea party but a whole day-long picnic seems in order. It's the kind of day that makes you want to go up into the mouldy mow above the barn and sing at the top of your lungs some bright song about summer coming. (You can pedal your push/pedal car all the way up the barn approach now, at least you almost could last year before your car got hung for winter. You are a whole winter older now and you are eager to try it again.)
And when, this morning in the machine shed with Papa you watched him with a cant hook raise your push/pedal car from its hang-nail along the rafter beams at last and lower it to the old iron forge table in the corner and there squirt a little oil into the wheels and the joints from a push-can and then set it right-side-up on the dirt floor and wipe the dust off the seat with a rag -- all this seemed to take forever -- and the first thing you did was get into the seat (smaller than you remember and edged with rust from the time you left it out in the rain last year) and grip the little steering ring in your fists and tell Mandy to take a picture (which was a thing he did with his hands making a box in front of his face and a sound he made with his tongue against his teeth: click!) ... you could never in a million years have explained the thrill in quite this way, but you were taking the wheel of summer itself.
You are a big girl, out with Papa this morning, waiting for Papa and Mandy to bring the tractor around. A big girl, that's what Mama said before she left to work an early shift at the hospital today. You are going to be a big girl for Mama today. It's so pleasant you have even set the bumper of your push/pedal car and even your very heels against the cool wall, so that your whole body is right (the word is exactly) in the place where Papa told you to be.
Like a weed. That's what Papa says about your brother Mandy, who is nine and too big already to fit in your push/pedal car, that he's "flying up like a weed," and now you too, small as you are, are waiting where the weeds will grow (later, later this summer) along the barn wall, and feeling just about as tall as the elm woods on fire.
And here they come. Papa in his old wool coat, high in the seat of the old orange Allis Chalmers and Mandy riding along behind, standing on the hitch and holding to the back of Papa's seat, both of them waving -- and you wave back.
So proud a thing to be just exactly where you ought to be.
- - -
And the tractor takes a turn again to clear some fence, and disappears a moment more behind the milkhouse and reappears on the other side of the gravel pile where Mandy played last fall with his diggers. The contours of the system of roads he made in the pile are still just barely visible.
Here they come! The tractor rumbles out of the pasture and off the grass and onto the driveway now, and Papa is turning it around, positioning it so that he can reverse to hitch up the disc, which lies crooked alongside the garage.
This summer Papa says Mandy can help hitch.
You are a big girl. Now maybe it is time for you to help too.
And so you see you are not thinking anymore about being where you ought to be, where Papa told you to stay. You have already done that part and proved yourself. You are already in the seat of your push/pedal car, churning your feet against those pedals, tearing across the driveway to help.
Exhilaration. The sun is risen clear of the trees now and you are burning forward into it, squinting, and now begins the reason the memory of this morning is burned forever into the black box of your brain like a picture the world has taken of a time and a place where you were never supposed to be -- a place you will never fully leave behind.
- - -
What you will always remember is their backs to you. Papa twisted the other way in his seat, backing the tractor slowly, aligning its hitch with the waiting arm of the sprayer, and Mandy turned away from you too, both of them watching as the gap decreases like a slow iron handshake.
What you will always remember is the raised herringbone chocolate-bar tread of the tractor tire bearing down.
What you will always remember is how you had the presence of mind to stop and pull your thin legs out from under the tin hood so that you were squatting in the seat and safe when the tire came down and crushed the front of your push/pedal car like nothing. The tire was inches from your nose and smelled of manure and dew, and the crushing action lifted the rear of your car and you fell backwards over the rear bumper into the dirt.
And that was where you were when Mandy saw you. Papa was still backing up, slowing even further, and turning -- so that one of the tractor's wide front wheels was curving towards you now.
Mandy swung round and hollered and hauled on the collar of Papa's wool coat to make him stop just before the hitches came together.
Lucky thing. Because you couldn't have moved if you'd wanted to. Panic was on you like a great wide clamp. You felt your size. Little sister. You felt your own age and the illusion you'd been under. A mess beneath men who knew better.
The short hss of hydraulics. A flock of crows falls from the elm woods and collapses overhead, and it is okay. Nothing is crushed but your car and your pride. As it turns out, you have nothing to do with where you are, and you are a foolish, foolish little girl, and you will never be allowed to ride Grandpa's foal, and summer seems somehow suddenly still winters and winters away.
- - -
But the real hitch is how that story recurs, like a mistake you are doomed to repeat.
All your life you will hear it, how Papa jumped down and hauled you out of there and hollered at you, and how he kept grabbing up and down your legs, checking you, almost choked with disbelief that you weren't in pieces like porcelain. Mandy remembers that day all the rest of his life, and for years Mama goes tsk! and grabs her head at each bit whenever they retell it, the distinct salt-terror of the story never fully out of her mouth.
And every time they tell it, you are transported back to the unsubstantial smallness of your little-girlhood, jammed into that half-rusted circle, gripping that ridiculous steering ring in your tiny fists. Take a picture.
The story is not That time Tracy pulled her legs out from under, just in time ... Told that way, it might reveal a certain presence of mind you flatter yourself you've always possessed.
The story is about how independent -- how headstrong you were, are, always have been. A certified Rivers Family Story, persistent as an heirloom recipe. The story has become the mantra that's raised whenever the subject of your character comes up, and it is bigger by far than any tractor wheel. The story has become That time Tracy got in her little push/pedal car when Papa told her to wait beside the barn... and from it, you cannot pull away so much as a finger. You are beneath it entire, for the duration of its telling at family gathering after family gathering. Repeated so often, it is a stupid, simple story; nonetheless it pins you fast against the ungiving hard-pack fact of yourself, and no one who loves you will raise a hand to stop it. Why should they? It is an entertainment now, like a movie on a reel tracking forward and back to play and play again. Sometimes it seems you are destined to die under there, all grown up, this Rivers part of you marked to the grave with the herringbone tread-pattern of this single reckless incident.
Gleefully. Wistfully, even. How the three of them share the seat and blamelessly shift that old Allis into forward and reverse, forward and reverse. Backing over you again and again.
About the author:
Todd Boss is a poet and playwright living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is working on a collection of short stories called Nine Novel Suicides.