Twelve Seconds

In the past month, he has come across thirteen advertisements for tires. More than half of them – eight, to be exact – were found in the weekend newspapers he buys only for the crossword. Some were antique in design and proclaimed half a dozen separate deals, segmented by a dotted line as if anybody still clips coupons. Others were more modern, focusing not on the price per set, but on the individual engineering of a given brand and model. Two were on television, sandwiched between the action of a crime drama and a football game, respectively. The remaining three were divided evenly between radio, internet, and billboard advertising. Thirteen times he had felt slightly guilty at the condition of his tires, but now there is only a small sadness for the one which had failed.

Even through his smudged glasses, his vision is sharp – unimpeded by the darkness, weather, or distractions. The noise of the calamity is not what he would expect and includes none of the screeching or melodramatic overtures of the movies. No horns blare in outrage as he crosses the center line, and there are no witnesses to offer their pitiful screams of horror. The ball of his foot feels powerful and well centered on the brake pedal, and he is impressed with its performance in spite of the hopelessness of the chore.

The railing is approaching, squat and dishwater gray in its duty. There are streaks along its body from previous near misses with hurtling vehicles. One is long and bright, a gangrenous looking wound he imagines to be from a low slung sports car. Another – yellow and industrial – looks to be from a taxi or perhaps the budget moving trucks for rent at several lots around the city. None of these impacts seems to have punctured the corrugated metal of the railing – that faithful barrier thanklessly separating the road from the abyss. Their angle of impact must have been slight, barely more than ten to fifteen degrees from the norm. This offers precious little hope to a man living a perpendicular life.

At impact, an unexpected silicate rain begins to fall, shimmering in the headlights like tiny stars or the lights he hangs from his gutters the day after Thanksgiving. Small cubes of glass bounce from his face and hands, leaving pinprick kisses marked with vivid red lipstick. There is a brief stillness as the engine caves in and his hood turns to rumpled silk, then the barrier breaks and he feels untethered flight for the first time in his life. He wonders if he will be spared the fate of Icarus – if his battered chariot will be allowed to continue its flight across the continent and toward the sun. Children would look to the sky and see the silver sedan pass overhead, its shredded tire still spinning wildly in the ecstasy of flight. The talented among them would grow to be artists – painters and musicians and storytellers – and share with the world the story of his ravaged journey through the sky. If he was a better man, perhaps he would have been spared.

He returns to Earth, but it has changed. The steady plane on which he has lived his life is now frantic and spinning. Gravity pulls at him, first through his feet, then through his head, then through his spleen and other left-hand organs. With each rotation, space begins to seep out of the vehicle as it molds ever closer to his soft body. His shins snap under the embrace of the front end. His head launches against the steering wheel and stays there, cradled by the thin padding of the headliner and its rigid outer shell. The small carnation blooms of blood on his arms are joined by rich, red, rivers that cannot decide in which direction to flow. He holds his breath, reluctant to take in the chaos. Finally, it is still and he exhales.

His senses hum with the final expenditure of his life’s energy. The acrid smell of mechanical wreckage is dulled by the prehistoric happiness of upturned soil. The engine is silent, but it clicks and steams with heat. Trapped in the aluminum crush, he makes a list of all he has left unfinished. Three unclaimed scratch lottery tickets in the glove compartment, totaling seventeen dollars. A bottle of wine aging for a special occasion. Two books – one dull and half-read, one thrilling and unopened. His laundry which remains unfolded but smells of lilacs and gentle chemicals. Milk which would expire, calls which would go unanswered, itches left unscratched, and grass left to grow unchecked. He becomes greedy for the wet air filling his lungs; deep breaths are followed by deeper breaths, until they are not.

With his consent, the world regains its speed.

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