By Jo Salas
Published in Prima Materia, November 2005
This year Janie’s road was given a name for the first time. Before that it was just marked “Private Road”—a bumpy, dusty lane with eight houses scattered along it. Janie’s is the third, a small ranch house with tangled forsythia bushes in the front yard. 3 Linden Lane. All the unnamed dirt roads were given names, all the unnumbered houses given numbers, when the whole area hooked into the 911 system. Before that people just called the local emergency number if they needed help. Everyone had a little sticker on their phone with the number printed in red. If they’d made the change two years earlier Janie wouldn’t be the person she is today, someone who sits silently in the dark and wonders if she can let herself live until morning.
Janie got the job as a dispatcher through her brother-in-law Dennis, a police officer. They had always gotten along well, even after she divorced his brother. Dennis was like a less attractive version of Frank—stockier, Frank’s ingratiating features irregularly placed on Dennis’s round face. But he was a decent man. Dennis knew about Frank’s drinking and probably suspected the punching and cursing that sometimes went with it.
“You did the right thing, Janie,” he’d said after she’d finally told Frank to leave and their bitter last words had soaked into the ground like battery acid. Stunned and ashamed, Janie had come by Dennis’s office the next day to tell him what had happened. “You put up with him a lot longer than I would’ve.”
Janie wasn’t so certain she’d done the right thing. She missed him and worried about him. When they’d first met, Frank was working as a mechanic but dreamed of becoming an actor. People told him he looked like Clint Eastwood, though shorter. He auditioned for roles in the local community theatre and was sometimes cast as the shiftless nephew or the criminal who got killed in the first act.
Janie worked in her uncle’s hardware store. She liked helping people find exactly the right shelf bracket or joint compound, enjoying their surprise at how knowledgeable she was about the basics of plumbing and construction. Sometimes she carried a heavy box of paint cans to a customer’s car to show them how strong a thin young woman could be. She planned to quit once she and Frank started a family. She’d looked forward to being a mother as long as she could remember. Holding baby Eric in her arms, his wispy reddish hair brushing her cheek, was the purest happiness she’d ever had. The last thing she could have imagined was raising him alone.
After Frank took off Janie went back to work at the hardware store. Eric was ten, not really old enough to be by himself at home after school. But she needed the money. Frank didn’t send anything. Janie didn’t even know where he was. Dennis tried to track him down but he never found him, or at least that’s what he reported to Janie.
When Dennis told her about the dispatching job a couple of years later, Janie took it immediately. The pay wasn’t much better but she could do it from home if she wanted. They could route the calls to her house. She’d always be there when Eric came home from school. If her son was only going to have one parent instead of two Janie wanted to be the best mother she could possibly be.
Eric was twelve by then. Janie loved him with the same fierce, secret ardor she’d felt when he was an infant. He had freckles like her own and red-brown hair that was soft under her hand. He did well enough in school. His teachers told her that he liked to help other students in class. He was helpful at home, too, hauling out the garbage on Tuesday mornings or washing dishes with her while they sang silly kids’ songs. “Fish and chips and vinegar, vinegar, vinegar,” they sang, waltzing around the kitchen with dish towels over their shoulders.
Eric’s best friend Matt lived nearby, on the main road. Eric liked to hang out with Matt and his older brothers, playing video games and sometimes going to the mall ten miles away in Greenville. Janie wasn’t sure she should let Eric ride in the older boys’ car. But Winslow didn’t have much going on for kids—nor for grownups, for that matter. It was not much more than a couple of blocks with a few stores, the police station, a diner, and a new-ish café run by one of the city couples who’d been buying the old farmhouses as the orchard farmers died or gave up the struggle against cheaper fruit from the west coast.
Janie liked being a dispatcher. She enjoyed the new responsibility of dealing with occasional fires, accidents, and health emergencies. There was virtually no crime to speak of. The worst crime that she could remember—until hers—was when two teenagers knocked on Mrs. Broad’s door and threatened her with a toy gun that looked like an assault weapon. She yelled at them and grabbed an axe, and they ran away. She called the emergency number and Janie called the police. They found the kids at the end of her road arguing over the gun. One of them wanted to get rid of it but the other wanted to keep it. He’d only had it a week. The shock had given Mrs. Broad a mild heart attack. But Janie had also called the ambulance, so she got to the hospital quickly and she was fine. After she came home she brought Janie a bag of her homegrown tomatoes.
Most of the time the job consisted of making sure she was near enough to hear the phone if it rang. She did whatever else she wanted to do. One evening a week she went to a computer class and during the day she studied the manual while she waited for the phone to ring. She wasn’t expecting to be a dispatcher forever.
She’d had the job for two years when Eric began, almost overnight, to become an obnoxious teenager, even though he was still only fourteen. He was bigger by then, tall and bulky. He spoke rudely to her. He bleached his hair, ignoring her objections. He wore black T-shirts decorated with the faces of the frightening-looking musicians whose music he played at deafening volume in his room. She had to beg him to turn it down so that she wouldn’t miss a call. Janie blamed his behavior on Matt and his older brothers. She was afraid they were getting involved in serious stuff—drugs, perhaps stealing. Once they were all arrested for vandalizing a playground. Eric got off with a warning, with Dennis’s help. Janie thanked him but she wished Eric had had to face a court appearance just to learn his lesson.
It was hopeless trying to steer Eric away from Matt. Eric would listen with a little smile on his face, then do exactly what he wanted. He knew his mother couldn’t leave the house. She had to stay for the phone.
One January morning Janie woke up early to a cold house. There’d been snow and sleet during the night. “Roads are icy. All schools on a one-hour delay,” announced the radio. She let Eric sleep the extra hour. Janie stayed up, warming herself with a pot of coffee and the radio on low. She wasn’t on duty until eight but she prided herself on being available earlier if needed.
At eight twenty Eric still hadn’t appeared. Janie didn’t want him to miss the bus. She couldn’t drive him to school in case the phone rang. She knocked on his door.
“Get lost, Mom,” came Eric’s voice, thick with sleep.
Janie threw the door open. “Don’t you talk to me like that. And get up!”
Eric lumbered out of bed. He was wearing his clothes from yesterday. He stood over her. For the first time ever Janie felt a spike of fear.
“I’ll get up when I want to. Get it? Don’t even try to tell me what to do.”
The room smelt of dirty socks overlaid with cigarette smoke. Janie thought she could smell pot too. She stood for a moment, seeing the chaotic room, the slob of a boy. Her son. This is it, she thought. This is what I thought I’d never do, raise a kid like this. I did it all wrong. I couldn’t even give him a decent father.
She turned away and closed the door behind her. Eric’s horrible music rose like a tortured spirit.
Janie sat down at the kitchen table again and turned on the TV, just the screen, no sound. Men and women with perfect hair mouthed clever things to each other. Laughing families rode in their SUVs. A mother spoke to her teenage son long-distance, tears in her eyes, but tears of happiness, unlike Janie’s. She heard the school bus roar up the main road to the end of the lane, slow down, and then go on its way when the driver saw that Eric wasn’t there.
At nine thirty Eric burst into the kitchen. He didn’t look at Janie. He filled a bowl with cereal and ate it fast, glancing out the window. A car bumped up the lane, slithering on ice-filled potholes. Eric slammed down his bowl and grabbed his jacket. Janie watched him tumble into a carful of boys. He hadn’t said a word.
She reached for the phone, her own line, not the dispatch line. She had to call the school office to tell them Eric would be late, though she didn’t know what she was going to say. At that moment the other phone rang.
“I’m calling to report an accident,” said a man’s voice. Instantly Janie turned away from her miserable thoughts about Eric. The man told her what had happened: he’d been driving to work along Route 34, a two-lane road winding through farmland. The surface was slick with ice and he’d been driving slowly. The car in front of him skidded and lost control, sliding right off the road and toward a nearby frozen pond, coming to rest half-submerged. The caller had stopped immediately to call the emergency number on his cell phone. “As soon as I hang up I’ll go see if I can help the poor guy.”
It took Janie less than 25 seconds to alert the police and ambulance. Dennis was on duty, as it happened. He called ten minutes later, knowing she’d be concerned, to tell her that they’d got the driver safely out of the water. Janie’s adrenaline backed off. Eric loomed in her mind again. All she could do was pray that the boy who was driving knew enough to be careful on this freezing morning.
Then came the other call.
“I just saw a terrible accident.” It was a woman this time. Her voice was panicky. She’d seen the same thing, a car sliding off the ice and into a pond. “Just a few minutes ago, on Airy Road. It’s like a skating rink here. The car crashed into the pond and completely disappeared. I couldn’t do a thing to help so I stopped at my friend’s house down the road. Please get someone there fast.”
Janie reassured her that someone had alerted her earlier and that help was already there. The woman was dubious. “But it only just happened, a few minutes ago at the most.” Janie told her the other driver had a cell phone. She thanked her for calling. The woman hung up.
But the woman was right and Janie was wrong. Airy Road was not Route 34, though they were similar and not far apart, small roads with fields on each side and occasional small ponds that the farmers used for irrigation in dry summers.
This is what Janie sees every day, every night, behind her eyelids and projected onto the sky. It’s morning, a cold winter morning. Paul Walsh is getting ready for his daily commute to the school where he teaches fifth grade. The snow delay has given him a little extra time to linger with his wife Suzanne and their twin four-year-olds. He’s in his thirties, with fair hair and glasses. “I wish I could come with you, honey,” he says to Suzanne. She’s five months pregnant, and today she has an appointment for a check-up. She’s a teacher too, but she hasn’t taught since the twins were born and they moved to an old farmhouse in the country. Suzanne rumples Paul’s hair. He’s topping up his coffee with hot water, since Suzanne always makes it strong enough for a Paris cab driver, as he says. “You can’t come, so don’t think about it. I’ll be fine,” says Suzanne. “I’m going to drop the twins at Nina’s.” She helps him get ready to leave. “Please don’t rush, Paul, the roads are slippery,” she tells him. He kisses her, and the twins, Clara and Lucy, who are winding around his legs like kittens.
It takes Suzanne an hour to get ready, gathering everything that two preschoolers might need for a morning with a friend. Mittens, hats, scarves, coats, boots, toys, extra pants and socks, snacks, books. She even remembers a doll that Maisie, Nina’s daughter, left last time she came to play with the twins. The baby in Suzanne’s belly is active as though it is excited, as the twins are, about the outing. Suzanne and Paul are hoping it’s a boy.
At last they’re ready. Clara and Lucy are strapped into their car seats, their bright eyes peering out under furry hoods.
“OK, kiddlies?” Suzanne twists around to smile at them and fastens her own seat belt carefully over her round belly. She edges out of the drive and tests the brakes to see how icy it is. Not too bad. She puts a tape into the deck, a collection of children’s songs. The children join in with their surprisingly tuneful voices.
Suzanne turns onto Airy Road. It’s more exposed here. Snow can drift across treacherously. She slows down.
A squirrel darts across the road in front of her. Reflexively Suzanne brakes to avoid it. The car fishtails. She tries to steer into the skid, clenching her teeth. The car slides to the other side of the road. Momentum carries it right over the ice-covered verge and toward the frozen pond. “No!” screams Suzanne. “My god!” The little ones scream too, frightened by their mother’s fear. The car crashes through the thin ice. Suzanne fumbles desperately at the door handle. The car sinks. It’s dark. She forces the door open. Black, freezing water pours in. Gasping and choking, she twists around to free the babies. Her hands are clumsy with shock and cold. She can’t see. She can’t breathe. The water envelopes them, fills their mouths and noses and eyes.
The pond’s surface grows coldly tranquil, disturbed only by bubbles.
Paul calls home during the day to ask about the appointment. There’s no answer. He imagines her and the children at Nina’s, lingering over a noisy but companionable lunch. “She’d call me if there was anything wrong at the doctor’s,” he tells himself. When he gets home in the late afternoon the house is dark. Afraid, he calls her name as he comes in, knowing she’s not there. There are three messages on the machine, in addition to the one he’d left. One is from the doctor’s office, wondering why she hasn’t appeared for her ten o’clock appointment. The other two are from Nina, puzzled and worried. Paul is terrified. He telephones the police. No, they have no record of an accident involving his wife. He calls Nina and goes to her house. They call the police again. The police are kind but unhelpful. Could she have gone to see another friend? Her parents? Was she upset about something? Pregnant women sometimes have moods, you know. Was there, um, any trouble between the two of you, sir? Paul hangs up. He is in an unbearable nightmare.
The nightmare—this first phase of it, because the rest of his life will be a nightmare—lasts two more days, until a sharp-eyed person notices a child’s red mitten frozen into the ice on top of the Airy Road pond. The pond is small: once they start looking, it takes no time to find the car and three bodies. Four, if you count the unborn child. Janie does.
There was an inquiry. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened. It was Janie’s mistake. It simply didn’t occur to her that there could have been two similar accidents within a few minutes of each other. If she hadn’t been so upset about Eric she would surely have realized that the two callers were talking about different roads. Suzanne would have lived, and her twins, and the new baby. Paul would not be broken like a tree split by lightning.
Janie was exonerated. Just a terrible thing, they said, one of those terrible things that can happen. A tragedy. Even if she had summoned help it might not have arrived in time to save them. The medical expert couldn’t say for certain. Everyone was very kind to her, though Paul would not speak to her or look at her. Janie thinks the others were too kind, too forgiving. She has no forgiveness for herself. There has to be atonement, she thinks. She agonizes about what she can do. She would like to die to make up for the lives she destroyed. The thought of Eric stops her. She doesn’t want to ruin his life as well, more than it has already been ruined.
Sometimes she thinks about people’s life stories, how they can be about one thing and then suddenly something completely different. Once her story was about living happily ever after with a man who looked like Clint Eastwood and their perfect little baby. Then it turned into a story about being a single mother and raising her son as well as she possibly could. Now it’s about killing another woman and her children through negligence and stupidity. Paul Walsh never expected his story would be about unspeakable grief and loneliness instead of the long building of a family. And Eric’s story—Janie doesn’t know how to imagine Eric’s story. He’s quiet these days. He stays home a lot and he’s not doing well in school. He’s nicer to his mother than he was back then, or at least polite. Sometimes Janie wishes he’d go hang out with Matt.
Janie quit the dispatcher job before they fired her, as she was certain they would. She finally mastered the computer enough to do data entry for an accountant in Greenville. The program she uses adds up the figures effortlessly and without error. The balance is not her responsibility.