by Zinta Aistars
Admit it. You don’t really think it will ever be you. Not you. Not me. Not ever our turn to be called, our number up, our unlucky moment of surprise. We pretend to accept that someday it will be our turn, but deep down we are convinced … it will never be us. Always the other guy.
What a delicious sense of freedom when The Boss says, two hours early: go! Be free! It’s holiday, and this is the gravy. I lock up my office and nearly sprint to the parking lot, feeling the next four days unfolding bright before me, all sweet invitation. Thanksgiving is easily one of my favorite holidays. The gift of the day is to be among friends and family, enjoying a meal together and the warmth of community and love. Nice. Perfect day for counting blessings.
But Thanksgiving is tomorrow. I’m not counting yet. I’m on the highway, speeding over the 55 miles home, my audio book on the car stereo amusing me, my thoughts occasionally wandering to consider my trip to Chicago at the break of dawn tomorrow. It does not occur to me that Someone might be flicking numbers Upstairs, considering: this one today? That one? Some ingrate perhaps?
I only notice, with some slight annoyance, that the white Buick ahead of me is slowing, effectively hogging the passing lane. Cars to the right, cars behind me, and this Buick ahead of me, blocking my way. I confess, I have been in the speeding mood today, eager to eat up the miles and be home to sink fully into the buttery sweetness of holiday. How good it will be to get home early … but not when I am stuck behind this road hog.
He slows even more. My eye traveling along his side, I notice then that his front, driver’s side tire is wobbling badly. Maybe that is why he is slowing? He senses something awry, pulls into the lane to the right, and in the next instant, when we are almost exactly side by side, all I suddenly see is a shower of fire-red sparks spray across my windshield, a loose tire rolling and bouncing in front of me, the grate of metal on pavement, shimmying machines, a looming car in my rearview mirror, an eighteen-wheeler closing in on the white Buick, the sharp descent of the shoulder to my left, no place to go, no escape from this trap, and the red and orange sparks spraying like flowering fireworks … there is no time to think, even as the mind switches its own gears into wise reflex, absorbing data faster than my conscious mind can process it. Sparks, metal, spinning machines, eighteen-wheeler, bouncing tire, objects in the mirror are closer than you would hope …
I’ve been making this daily commute of 110 miles round trip between work and home for nearly a year and a half. Through changing seasons, at all hours, many of those hours pitch black, and at various stages of fatigue. In the winter, white-knuckling through long stretches of white-out, lake effect snow blowing over the Interstate from Lake Michigan to the west, I’ve counted as many as 17 accidents on just one side of the highway. Why shouldn’t I be one of them? In this past year, I have had several near misses, and been the target of road rage where I had to call 911 on my cell to finally get the SUV chasing me at 110 miles per hour to back off. I sense that this commute has an expiration date on it and every drive is a nibbling away at the odds.
Today? My reflexes operate of their own volition. I swerve toward the hobbled white Buick even as it veers toward me, avoiding the bouncing tire. The tire past, I swerve back, losing minimal speed so as to keep the vehicle behind me from becoming too intimate a friend. I can hear the wheeze of air brakes as the eighteen-wheeler groans to slow and avoid the crippled car. There’s a lot of praying going on. A lot of cursing, too, I suppose, among our ballet of vehicles, but my own heart hammers a call upward, one that has no words, only the shape of hope and a blind reliance on protection.
And we are heard. The white Buick slows, slows more, and finally pulls into the far shoulder, grinding its naked axle and the remaining rotor until the spray of sparks is but a spit. By now, we have all slowed, as one machine. We are all … spared. I watch in my rearview mirror as one vehicle pulls over to help the man in the white Buick. The semi, too, slows. The tire lies somewhere in the grassy median on its side.
My pulse has quickened to a flutter, and my heart is a hard thud in my chest. Not today. No, not today my number. What then do I say of this blessing a day before we are to count them? A reminder that we can never count on tomorrow. That every day is a holiday. That the best work I’ve done this day was to tell my sister and my daughter in Chicago that I am most eager to see them tomorrow, to spend a moment in time in that nurturing shared space: a meal, a clatter of dishes, a rousing of toasts, a shimmer of laughter.
There is nothing else.