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Mortality Tales

A short story
by Gary Greenberg

    I remember my mom being a nervous wreck when I got home from school that afternoon. She was trying to get ready for her dinner party and I made sure not to leave my books on the hall table, and I raised the toilet seat in the powder room before taking a leak. Of course, she still found a reason to yell at me, for whistling. Somehow that made her jumpy enough to drop one of her precious wine glasses.

    When she got done yelling, she told me I had to go pick up Gladys because the guys who run the buses and subways were on strike, and although she’d broken her neck getting everything ready on her own, my mom definitely needed Gladys to serve the food at the party and wash the dishes and do other maidly kind of stuff.

    Because my dad had the Firebird, I had to take the Jaguar, which I don’t like driving on account of it making me feel like a spoiled little rich kid, which I guess I am in a way. My dad bought the Jag off the showroom floor last January. It was really expensive, but my parents have been having marriage problems I’m not supposed to know about, and I think the car was some kind of peace offering. My mom likes flashy cars like that even though she herself is a fairly quiet type of person when she isn’t yelling at me or Dad.

    So I went into the garage, glanced at the Jag’s front grill and, as always, had a little chuckle thinking about the dead bird. You see, one Saturday when my parents were in New York, Marc Alexander and I were cruising around in the Jag and everyone we passed kept pointing to its front end. I pulled over to check it out and saw that my mom must have hit a bird because there was a big, black one stuck to the right side of the grill.

    The bird was fried dry, but I didn’t try to pull it off because I have kind of a weak stomach for dead things, especially if you can see their guts, which I could. Besides, even though it was kind of gross, the bird looked pretty funny and made the car seem a little less stuck-up to me. So we just left it there and kept cruising, and wherever we went, people pointed at the car and laughed. Except this one old lady. We were stuck at the light by Diamond’s Market and she was crossing the street but stopped to stare at the bird. She must have looked at it from a dozen different angles, then looked at Marc and said, “What kind is it?”

    Marc’s pretty much of a wiseass and said, “It’s a dead bird, Lady.” She started to say something else, but then the light changed and she had to hurry to get the rest of the way across the street. She couldn’t really run, so she kind of waddled like a penguin.

    So after a chuckle thinking about the bird, I hit the electric garage door switch, climbed behind the wheel and headed downtown to pick up Gladys, who lives in a pretty lousy section of Philadelphia. Actually, if I didn’t have to drive the Jag, I wouldn’t have minded having to go there. My friends like to cruise around Rydal and look at the estates and mansions, but I’d just as soon ride around North Philly looking at the slums. There’s something about the way they’re worn and rundown and covered with graffiti that makes them look interesting. And there are always old ladies sitting on porches and kids playing hopscotch and jump rope and stuff on the sidewalks. The mansions in Rydal always look like no one lives in them.

    I passed the tennis courts at St. Anthony’s just in time to see a fat kid hit a ball over the fence, then drove by the State Store where my parents buy their booze. That made me think of their last party, when my mom asked me to be the bartender. I did a pretty good job at first, but I kept tasting all the drinks I was making and wound up throwing up all over the powder room, then passing out on the living room sofa. My parents got royally pissed cause I really embarrassed them. But even while they were yelling at me, I knew it was the kind of thing everyone would probably laugh about in five or ten years.

    I made a left onto York Road and saw a big truck loaded with new cars outside Kane Pontiac, where my dad bought the Firebird. I would have rather taken that to pick up Gladys because it’s more of a normal car than the Jag. Usually my dad rides to work with Uncle Fred, but Uncle Fred just had some kind of operation on his hemorrhoids and took the week off. I don’t even know what hemorrhoids are exactly, but they sound painful and embarrassing because they’re located on your butt. If you had to have your arm or leg or even gall bladder operated on, it wouldn’t be so bad. But have your butt operated on and everybody is bound to kid you about it. Uncle Fred said the operation hurt like hell. Then again, I remember this picnic we went on when Uncle Fred got stung by a bee and he said that hurt like hell, too.

    Traffic on York Road was pretty bad so I took the Fifth Street shortcut. The radio was on – I actually put it on as soon as I got in the car – and the one good thing you can say about Jags is that they got excellent sound. That Bruce Springsteen song, Glory Days, came on. You don’t hear it much anymore, but I always liked it. In the video, Bruce pitches to a kid on a high school baseball field, like my dad used to do with me and John. My dad taught me how to hit and field and throw and a lot of other things like swim and do a flip off a diving board and ski and drive a car and really is a pretty good guy when he isn’t arguing with Mom. He really wants me to go to college and become a doctor or lawyer or at least get an MBA like John is doing. I told him I wanted to take a year off and go out to Colorado and become a ski bum, but he said that between the rising cost of college and the current real estate slump, I better go to college now while he can still afford it.

    I got stuck at that long light next to Hanson’s funeral parlor, which looks like it would be a nice place to live if you didn’t know what they had inside. A blue Chevy was in front of me and it had a Penn State sticker on the back window. Penn State is one of the schools where I got accepted. I really wanted to go to the University of Vermont because they got a good ski team, but I got rejected there. I think I screwed up the application. For example, there was this one question: “What are the three most significant books you’ve read outside of school in the last six months?” I answered Carrie, Love Story and The Hunt for Red October because they were the only books I read outside of school in the last six months, or maybe even a year. Marc laughed when I told him about it that and rattled off a bunch of other books that would have been better answers, like Bonfire of the Vanities, The Satanic Verses or just about anything written by somebody who’s already dead. I doubt Marc read any of those books, but I guess it’s better to lie than to say you think something like Love Story is a significant book, even though I have to admit it made me cry at the end.

    The light finally turned and I drove on for a while but can’t remember thinking about anything in particular. Then I passed a shop where you can rent tuxedos. They had a denim one in the window and I thought that would be cool to wear to the senior prom, if I went. I wasn’t sure if I’d go or not because I didn’t have a date. I didn’t have a date because I don’t have a girlfriend, and I don’t have a girlfriend because the girls I’m attracted to generally aren’t attracted to me and vice-versa.

    Girls and me never did get along too good. I think it’s because I’m short and the kind of girls I want to go out with like tall guys. Another reason is that I’ve got one brother and no sisters and therefore never felt comfortable talking to girls.

    I was thinking about asking JoAnn Davis to the prom, who is shorter than me and really pretty, even though she’s a little flat-chested and bottom-heavy. But I wasn’t sure she’d go with me. I took her out a couple of weeks ago, or maybe a couple of months, and she got dressed up real nice and seemed to have a better figure than she had in school. I wanted to go see the new Indiana Jones movie, but she said she didn’t want to on account of it having Sean Connery in it. She said she didn’t like him because everyone is always saying that he’s a better James Bond than Roger Moore, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. But I didn’t make a big deal out of it. She wanted to see Die Harder, but I’d already seen it and it wasn’t the kind of movie you want to see twice.

    So we went to see Total Recall, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a futuristic guy who goes on a vacation to Mars. You never know if he’s really there or the whole thing is happening in his mind. At least I never knew because JoAnn kept talking through the whole thing so much that I missed a lot of what was going on. When Arnold started making out with this tough chick, I leaned over to kiss JoAnn. She turned her face towards me, and I felt something catch in the sleeve of my sweater. It turned out to be one of her earrings. She jerked her head away and nearly pulled the earring right out of her ear. It was mostly her fault, but I apologized. She bitched about it for the rest of the movie anyway, and I didn’t even try to kiss her after that.

    So it wasn’t the best date in the world, and even if JoAnn agreed to go to the prom with me, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to rent a tuxedo and buy a corsage and pose for pictures just to go to the prom with a girl I hadn’t even gotten to first base with, then stand around and listen to a bunch of guys who think they’re grown up because they have dates with cleavage and tuxes and rubbers in their wallets that they might actually get a chance to use for a change. Besides that, I don’t even like to dance.

    The traffic was pretty heavy when I got to Broad Street. Most of the cars were regular Fords and Chevys and Hondas and all, and here I am driving a fifty-thousand dollar Jag. A guy in an old gray Toyota pulled up next to me at a light, and I thought about asking him to trade cars. He was brushing his hair in the rearview mirror and looked like the kind of guy who’d like a Jag, and I certainly would have felt more comfortable in a beat-up old Toyota. But can you imagine what my parents would have said? I could, so I just smiled when the guy looked over at me. Still, I remember wishing I could do whatever I wanted sometimes, even if it was something crazy like trading a Jag for a Toyota.

    I passed by Marc’s father’s office. Marc always thought it was cool to ride around in the Jag. He has tons of girlfriends because he’s tall, needs to shave almost every day and is a very good liar. His father is a lawyer and so is his sister Eileen and about four uncles and several cousins. He got accepted early admissions to George Washington University and plans to major in political science and become a lawyer, too.

    I forgot to mention that when I first got to York Road, I flipped down the visor and a lawyer’s business card fell into my lap. Jason Somebody. I wondered what my mom would want with a lawyer and why she wouldn’t just ask Mr. Alexander, who would probably give her a discount on account of Marc and me being best friends since fourth grade. Of course, now I know it’s because they’re just waiting until I go away to college to get a divorce. They still haven’t told me, but I overheard them arguing about it last week.

    Everything bad is always a big secret in my family, like when my brother stole a Penthouse magazine from the drugstore a few years ago. They didn’t even yell at him for it, but just kind of pretended the whole thing never happened until the druggist told Mrs. Harper, who blabbed it all over the neighborhood, embarrassing my parents no end.

    After passing Mr. Alexander’s office, I drove by Speedy’s car wash and stopped at a yellow light I probably would have run if I hadn’t gotten a warning from a cop for doing the same thing a few weeks earlier. The guy in the old Toyota pulled up next to me again. He started looking at me like he was wondering what a high school kid was doing driving a car like a Jag. That made me feel kind of uneasy, so when the light turned green, I floored it for a few seconds and was just easing up on the gas to keep under the speed limit when I saw the girl up ahead.

    She darted out from an alley between two buildings and started running up the sidewalk. A couple seconds later, a big yellow dog came flying out of the alley and ran after her. He was barking, but I could tell her wasn’t going to bite her from the way his tail was wagging in circles. The girl was about my age, and even though I didn’t get a good look at her face, I could tell she was pretty by the graceful way she ran, with her long blond braid swaying across her back. There was a row of cars parallel-parked along the curb, and I never thought for a moment she would run out from between them. But she did.

    Well, I guess she did. The next thing I really remember is chasing that big yellow dog away when he started licking the blood off of her face, and cutting my finger when I brushed some broken glass off my sweater. There were a lot of people standing around all of a sudden, but no one wanted to get too close to her, except this one guy with a moustache. He brushed aside the bloody braid and put his hand on her neck, and that was about the time I started throwing up.

    The police came and everyone told them it wasn’t my fault, that she just ran out in front of the car. But I don’t know. Maybe I was switching the radio station and not really paying attention, or looking in the rearview mirror for the Toyota or a cop or something.

    Well, that’s it. I told Dr. Johnstone that writing all this stuff down wouldn’t help any more than hypnotizing me did. But he said it might, so I did and it didn’t. I’m supposed to keep writing anyway, but I don’t even know what to say anymore. Dr. Johnstone probably isn’t any better than Dr. Winston, except for the fact that he doesn’t make me call him Ed. Dr. Winston says not remembering something is a defense mechanism meant to protect your sanity. He wanted to work on some other problems I didn’t know I had, figuring if I got the rest of my mind straight, the nightmares would go away on their own. But Dr. Johnstone says you can’t forget something terrible unless you remember it first, which sounds stupid but kind of makes sense if you think about it.

    But I don’t know. Deep down, I guess I hope I never remember actually hitting that girl, even if I don’t sleep a wink for a year. I guess that’s my problem in a nutshell. I just don’t want to remember. But I remember other things I’d like to forget, like reading that report on Yosemite National Park to the class and calling it “Yose-mite,” and laughing so hard in the cafeteria one day that milk came out of my nose, right in front of Kimberly Waxman, who could probably be a Playmate of the Month if she wanted.

    The girl I hit was named Kimberly, too. Kimberly Francis Wells. They had her high school yearbook picture in the paper, and she looked as pretty as Kimberly Waxman, in a less buxom way.

    I just can’t understand it. The cars at the curb were parked so close together that she couldn’t have run between them. She couldn’t have, and yet, she was just lying there in the street, her arms spread, her neck bent at a weird angle, blood covering her face, except for around one open, glassy eye.

    I keep seeing her run up that sidewalk, her long blond braid swaying across the back of her denim jacket with each stride. The dog was closing the gap, barking like crazy. It scared a bird that took off and flew right in front of my windshield. I remember watching it, then looking over at the girl and wishing I could take her to the prom.

    Then there was broken glass in the street, glittering like diamonds. A few pieces were stuck on her face. Blood was all over the place. And that one glassy eye, blue as the sky. A big silver earring was resting on the collar of her jacket. The guy with the mustache knocked it aside when felt her neck, then closed her eyes and wiped his bloody fingertips on the shoulder of her jacket. I felt hot all over and started throwing up.

    Well, that’s all I remember for sure, and my hand is cramping like crazy now. It’s getting to the point where I can barely read my own writing. But I guess I made a little progress after all. I mean, this is the first time I remember the bird flying in front of my windshield. It was one of those black ones like we get on the birdfeeder in our backyard. They have kind of a purple tint when the sunlight hits them. This one flew out from the long shadow of a tree and seemed to almost glow purple as it passed my windshield. I looked over at the girl and imagined what she would have looked like in a white prom dress. The dog was right on her heels and something fell from the pocket of her jean jacket. A paperback book.
It was lying in the gutter. I sat down on the curb next to it after I got done puking. It was Love Story. I was crying like a baby, wishing over and over that it was all a bad dream. But it was real and the bad dreams were just about to start. I never remember them but just wake up screaming and sweating and freaking out my parents.

    To tell the truth, I kind of wish I died in the accident, too. That way, I wouldn’t be a problem to anyone. And I’d get to be with Kimberly. She was so beautiful. I saw her running and was going to pull over at the first open spot and rescue her from the dog, and maybe even ask her out. Just when I was thinking that, she glanced back over her shoulder and something glinted. It was one of her earrings. It glinted again like it was trying to get my attention as she turned sideways and skipped between the parked cars and

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