I wasn’t drunk. It had been several hours since I’d had two coke-and-bourbons before leaving my Alabama dorm to start the long drive home to western Pennsylvania. I don’t think I was distracted—just inattentive and on automatic pilot, lulled by air conditioning and radio jazz. Nevertheless, I was speeding on the little back road I’d taken to avoid the monotony of the interstate, doing about fifty in a thirty-five zone. Too bad there wasn’t a cop in Masontown to pull me over and change the course of what happened.
Impact was too strong a word for the hit. But it became an apt description in my memory afterwards. It was so quick—a gray blur, a soft thud. Were those flying hooves or flapping arms? Were those eyes I saw flashing? I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw nothing. Outside it was dark and desolate.
I kept going.
I told myself I must have grazed a deer or some other animal. “I think I hit a Bambi,” I explained to the mechanic back home who wiped off the sienna smear and brown speckles, fixed the shattered parking light cover, and popped out the small dent. Any other possibilities I kept to myself.
In the months that followed, I was haunted by what had happened. The thud of the impact reverberated in the slam of car doors and a newspaper hitting the porch floor in the morning. It broke into my dreams. I managed to go on with my life—sort of. I moved for an okay job, met a man, lost him to another woman, got a better man, and left him for the Ohio job. I dated but refused live-in relationships. Such arrangements felt too close for comfort. Being single, living alone, made it easier not to have to hide the obsession that was growing in me. I spent my free time searching the library for anything to do with Masontown. Nothing. It was as though the place was some sort of twisted Twilight Zone Brigadoon.
I had to go back to Masontown.
When I returned the first time, I stopped for gas and wandered up and down the aisles inside the station, pretending to look for something on the shelves. I was searching for a person who bore signs of past injuries. The woman with the bag of Cheetos and the two old men jawing with the proprietor seemed fine. After registering at the Buena Vista motel, I drove the 27.9 miles past the spot of the impact, slowed down, and turned around. I did this repeatedly. I knew full well the absurdity of it all and also knew I would continue.
It took another trip to Masontown a year later to go into the Set’m Up. The bar was bleak, with a scrim of smoke and an atmosphere of suspicion toward me tempered by curiosity. I sat down on a vinyl barstool, ordered a beer, and swapped glances with the guys playing pool. A tattooed man two barstools down nodded. I forced a smile. After my “just passing through” and his “been here all my life” intros, I pointed to the stuffed deer head hanging on the wall and made a joke about it being road kill. He chuckled and told me he ain’t never seen no deer hit that hadn’t totaled what hit it. He added that he had a buddy who damn near died after smashing into one of them mothas. When I asked if he’d heard of a deer hit out there on the main road—the place where I’d had the impact—he thought a moment and said no. I badly wanted to ask about human fatalities, but just couldn’t. Then I froze.
A young woman in cut-off shorts and tube top limped out of the restroom. She made her way over to the man and took the seat between us. Clearly she didn’t like me talking to him. When he was called over for the next pool game, I attempted to engage her in conversation and got little more than monosyllabic grunts. So much for that year’s investigation.
However, the young woman’s limp fueled my fixation. The next year in Masontown I found her in the discount shop, sorting through a pile of T-shirts, and I greeted her as a friend. She eyed me warily and cut me short, limped to the counter, said something to the elderly cashier, and left. On the pretext of looking at the costume jewelry under the glass countertop, I began a conversation with the old woman. I told her I’d met the girl with the limp a year ago but I’d forgotten her name. The cashier gave it to me, and as she took my money for some plastic beads, I asked her more about the limp. It was the result of being hit by a car, she said. The floor rolled beneath me. I felt nauseated and made a quick exit.
Back in Ohio, I thought of little else. I had to go to Masontown more often now—two days every fourth month, which used up a lot of my vacation time. As I sought out the elusive woman, some people began to recognize me. The gas station owner welcomed me when I paid for gas. As soon as I sat down in the bar, the bartender uncapped my brand of beer. I made up an alias and a bio: I was a travelling pharmaceutical rep, always on the road.
I was worried I’d be thought a stalker, so I tried to scope out places where the young woman might be without outright asking for her by name. Sometimes my impatience made me less cautious. Once I bought a box of detergent and some clothes at the discount store, and I carried them into the Wash ‘n Go. When I didn’t find her there, I tried to chat up another woman—she had just landed in Masontown a few weeks previously, knew who I was asking about by the limp, not the name. That was it for that trip. At least I learned my quarry was still around. On further trips I carried a bag of laundry in my suitcase.
Eventually I found the young woman loading a washing machine at the Wash ‘n Go. The coin machine was out of quarters, and I offered her some. She actually smiled a little. When I introduced myself, I nearly dropped my detergent when she said she knew who I was. She called me the drug pusher and snickered. I was so relieved that my laugh came out rather shrill. We went across to the Set’m Up for a drink while our loads ran. I had a beer, but she started with a vodka shot and beer chaser. When she realized I was paying, she had two more as we made small talk. Eventually I told her I was sorry to hear about her accident. There was a silence so long I became frightened. Then she shrugged and took a long pull on the bottle.
It wasn’t that a car had hit her, she said. She had thrown herself into a car’s path. Son-of-a-bitch boyfriend had dumped her three months pregnant. She had gotten wasted at the bar until the place closed, then staggered down the road. She saw headlights and began to run towards them, hoping to off herself. At the last minute she chickened out, but the car clipped her thigh, skimmed her across a roadside empty lot. Her back was cracked. Her knee shattered. The driver never stopped, never came back. It took until dawn before she was spotted, but what the hell, it got rid of the kid.
I had dry heaves in the john. I threw handfuls of cold water on my face, which kept me from screaming. This was exactly the story I had anticipated and feared from the moment I first saw her. My mind raced: Should I go back out there and tell her I was the driver who hit her? I’d have to make it up to her—send her monthly checks or even take her home with me, find her a job, give her a better life.
Trembling, I headed back to the bar. She was gone. I collared the bartender, who said that some kid had come in and told her to get her clothes out of the washing machine. I raced across the road. She had put both our clothes into dryers and needed quarters. We sat together and thumbed through magazines while they dried, and after we folded them, she asked if I’d be back on the road now that my laundry was done. I took a deep breath, weakly nodded, and almost began my confession.
Maybe I was hoping for a last minute reprieve because I paused to ask when she had been hit by the car. It was both the right year and season. I asked about the tattooed man in the bar, the one I had seen her with the first time. Was he the one who had rejected her? She frowned and looked puzzled, then snorted—hell no, she had left that man’s sorry ass back in Idaho. As soon as her months of physical rehab were over, she had thumbed rides, rode with a Little Debbie delivery truck driver, and ended up in Masontown.
Looking thoughtful, the woman said she often wished she knew who had hit her back in Idaho so she could sue for big bucks—although she guessed that wouldn’t work since she was the one who had caused it. I felt myself turn red when she added that any half-assed human being would never have left her on the road like that.
I hadn’t hit this woman. Nor, it seemed, had I hit anyone. Those were the answers Masontown gave me. Yet my obsession did not lessen. Clearly my psyche had received a fatal blow by my leaving the scene of the accident. It was to therapy and Prozac I finally turned. The therapist diagnosed my suffering as scrupulosity. To overcome it, I was made to think of the hit every day, twice a day for twenty minutes. If thoughts of it came up at other intervals, I was to put them off until the allotted times. Eventually, either out of acceptance of reality or exhaustion, I gave up thinking of the scene almost entirely. The therapist and I never uncovered why I got stuck in the first place. Prozac made that discovery less necessary, and the dream abated. That was enough for me.
Only that wasn’t the whole story.
Almost forty years later, I came home to my mother’s bedside. She was remarkably lucid despite the morphine, and for weeks we had the sort of feel-good time only people with a shared history can have. To keep it going we took out her old metal telephone pad and went through it. Some of the people listed were dead, several we couldn’t remember, most we could. I got to a Lillian Peterson. I smiled and said I remembered that crazy lady who had crumpled her garbage can with her big old Cadillac.
Mother said that she couldn’t imagine why she had kept that hideous woman’s name in her register. She proceeded to tell me about Lillian Peterson: The woman was a heavy drinker and chain smoker, and she was shunned not only by my mother but by all the women on our block in New Jersey. Mother remembered the tragedy as being the summer between my first and second grades, so I was about six or seven. She haughtily exclaimed that it was no wonder that Mr. Peterson left his wife after she backed out of their drive, no doubt on her way to the liquor store, and fatally hit their three-year-old son. “And kept on going!” she added.
A group of us children playing in the front yard had seen the whole thing. Mother said she and my father thought my reaction had been a bit odd. I had gone mute for a couple of days and refused to leave the house. When I finally did venture forth, all I ever asked was if the Petersons had replaced that garbage can that Mrs. Peterson had hit with her Cadillac. They didn’t correct me—they thought it best to let me remember the event however I needed.
The night after Mother told me about this, I dreamt again that I was driving back to Masontown. This time I drove straight through.