Terror Destroys a Small Town

‘Salem’s Lot

By Stephen King

Ever wonder what Bram Stoker would make of the industry that has sprung from his groundbreaking 1897 Dracula? Though not the first vampire novel, it proved to be the one that launched hundreds of sharp-fanged anti-heroes. It’s an industry and a character writers, film studios, and television have worked practically to death. Yet, we never seem to tire of the Count and his brethren.

Which brings us to Stephen King, the writer most will acknowledge as the modern master among masters of horror and the macabre. For his second outing, he chose vampires in a small Maine town, and readers, even now, are the luckier for it. You can say this about most of King’s early works, Carrie, The Shining, and The Stand (first half): it’s a masterwork of terror.

What makes ‘Salem’s Lot, as well as these others so appealing, appealing enough to read a second time years after your first reading? It boils down to small town life, ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, clear writing, terrific pacing (at least in these early novels), and powerful, literal descriptions. King puts you in the situation and the action and because his characters are much like his readers, you can easily project yourself onto the pages. In short, he’s completely relatable.

You’ll find no better work among his pile of writing illustrating King’s strengths. Could there be a more representative American small town than the Lot? Don’t many small towns have a sinister house occupied, or once home to, the town curmudgeon (not a killer, for sure, but scary, especially in the eyes of children). The Lot has a rhythm to it, a way of living that stretches back years, a dull sameness that locals like and set their emotional clock by. Like any town, though, it’s not perfect bliss, or even close to blissful. It’s relatively poor. It’s filled with its share of misfits. It even has a town dump that many who grew up in small towns will recognize. Above all, everybody knows everybody else, maybe a virtue but which contributes to its succumbing to evil.

Even Ben Mears is a small town boy. He’s published a couple of books, true, but hasn’t achieved any kind of fame and no fortune. He returns to his roots to face a fear that has haunted him, and to get a really good book out of the experience. That fear resides in the old, abandoned Marsten House stilling atop a hill overlooking the Lot. Horrible things happened there long ago, long before when Ben was a boy.

Ben gets more than he bargained for. He gets his greatest fear multiplied a hundredfold in the form of Barlow, an ancient vampire come to establish residence in the Lot coincidental with Ben’s arrival. Poor Ben loses so much: a new love in the form of tragic Susan, new friends in the forms of Matt the high school teacher and Jim the doctor, the new novel he’s written deeply into, and most of all, any comfort and joy in living. Yet, with young Mark at his side, he does gain a new and pretty meaningful purpose in life as one who now can see behind the curtain of quotidian life, like that that the Lot enjoyed before Barlow’s arrival.

There’s one other characteristic of King’s writing that unfortunately ‘Salem’s Lot doesn’t have: stunningly memorable characters, among them religious lunatic Margaret White, rabid fan Annie Wilkes, pyromaniac “Trashcan Man,” the list is long. Vampire master Barlow could have been such a character, ancient, big, nasty, egotistical, and above all, wonderfully bombastic. It isn’t often said about novels, but ‘Salem’s Lot would have benefited immensely from deep background on Barlow. Nonetheless, ‘Salem’s Lot is still a heck of a powerful horror yarn. w/c

Wishing to Be Somebody Else

Homesick for Another World

Ottessa Moshfegh

Let’s face it. Nobody can be happy with their life, and even life in general, every minute of every day. You have permission to be unhappy, to have periods of melancholia. Wish you were somewhere else, or somebody else when you fall into a funk. Nothing wrong or unhealthy with any of this. But, divorce yourself from the present, obsess on what might have been, what your life really should be as opposed to what it is, carry it to the most extreme conclusion, as the characters in the final story, “A Better Place,” in Moshfegh’s collection do, and my friend, you have a serious problem. You might be a candidate for this collection of stories about dissatisfied people yearning for another world, a world, unfortunately, that doesn’t exist. If you consider yourself among the normal, you might find peeking into these fourteen lives and situations interesting. For, really, how weird can people be? Mighty weird in Moshfegh’s imagination.

The writing here can be riveting. The descriptions of ugliness and ugly features prove as fascinating as they are off putting. And as individual stories taken one or two at a time over time, they certainly can be intriguing and thoughtful. However, when gathered into a collection, they suffer from a sameness and dreariness, all sounding like the other, losing the uniqueness they probably did have when presented individually in the various publications in which they appeared previously. So, to enhance your enjoyment, or maybe to yank any pleasure from these stories, you might do best to read them at a pace of one or two a week. And prepare yourself to face up to not so much the dark side of life but its disappointment reduced down into a bunch of bitter drops, not so much seasoning, more like poison against the human spirit. w/c

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 5: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY (Part 1 and 2)

1

I am frantic. I am a mad woman. I am a basket case. I need a therapist. But I have no time for one. I am planning a christening party in our backyard to which we have invited one hundred guests, many business associates of Richard.

It’s not the party that has me frenzied. I’ve been disturbed, agitated, wild, and a few states I can’t label, since Samantha’s birth. And Richard hasn’t been much help. He’s regional manager for his pharmaceutical company and he’s rarely home. He travels frequently for business, not far, always in the Mid-Atlantic area, usually within a day of our home. Worse are the late hours. Early on when I bemoaned his absences, he informed me his workday extended into evening, what with reviewing the day’s sales calls with his representatives, or treating key accounts—not people, but ledger entries—to dinner. I’d hoped he’d cut back when I became pregnant, and when he did not I confronted him. He was contrite. He admitted he might be putting too much into his work and maybe he should cut back and lend me a bit more support … but business was too competitive, the raw recruits weren’t as sharp he required. He wanted to be with me. After all, he married me to be with me all the time. But business was demanding.

And business was what made our lifestyle possible … what made Samantha possible. Richard would repeat whenever I pleaded for more of his time, more of his help. Babe, you love the house? It was always the same type of question. I always admitted I loved the house, the extra car. You love the baby? I did and I didn’t need to answer. Well, Babe, we can’t keep the house. We couldn’t support Samantha. Sure, I could get another job. But it wouldn’t pay like my drug lord job. Sometimes, when it suits his purpose, he likes to joke about what he does. These hearings concluded in the same way, with Richard throwing up his hands to signal, case closed. He knew I couldn’t give up the house, couldn’t resist providing Samantha every opportunity at a wonderful, fulfilling life.

Of course, when I desperately need him, Richard is away. He will not return until the eve of the party. I am charging around furious at him. He knew the date of the party, knew how big an event it would be—huge entirely to satisfy him. Yet, he continued scheduling trips. When I began planning the party, I asked him to save time for me. He ignored me. After his first trip, when I was writing invitations, I begged him not to schedule travel within two weeks of the party, and certainly not within a few days of it; I would need him most then to run errands, pick up food, help with the tables.

Here it is three days before the party and he is off somewhere in the state; he couldn’t even reform his neglectful practice of failing to supply me with his itinerary.

2

I am in our kitchen, in the large eat-in area. Though the weather is blistering, summer temperatures in May, I’m downing a cup of hot tea. I am staring though mullion windows at our back yard, pondering the size of the tent, whether yellow and white striping is too brassy, how I will arrange the tables, and where I will have the caterer set up the buffet.

Samantha elects to wake from her nap as I am in the throes of questioning my choices. I swear under my breath. I have never been a vulgar person. I scarcely even thought vulgar words, until Samantha arrived. But my new approach to problems and crises isn’t her fault. It is Richard’s.

I go to Samantha, who is in her bedroom upstairs. I lift her from her crib, cradle her, and coo at her. Her face is red from exertion. I rock her and walk her around the room. Neither helps for long, for she resumes her vigorous crying. She’s dry; I assume she is hungry. I carry her downstairs, warm a bottle, and settle in with her at the table.

Samantha is the product of my union with Richard. I want to say she is the result of our love, and I really hate myself for even thinking she is a product. Richard classifies everything as products. Products are meant to be sold. And he is a seller. His conversations—his because I can’t be sure he is talking to me or simply at me, as if I am just another member of his sales crew—always revolve around products and selling. He seems to have no interests—except, hurtfully, one—beyond his work. I’ve tried often to discuss items I’ve read in the newspaper or seen on television. I’ve attempted bantering about our neighborhood and our neighbors. Nothing interests him but his work. I’ve suggested he lighten up a bit or he might burnout. Ridiculous, he’s said. He demands one hundred and twenty percent from his people—a reference that horrifies me, and reduces his employees to automatons—and one hundred and fifty percent from himself. I don’t appreciate that these expectations seem to exempt him from behaving like a human being.

Richard’s excessive drive to succeed distresses me. He professes to love Samantha and me. He claims sadness at having to be away from home as much as he is; he laments he will miss the formative years of Samantha’s life. I don’t believe him, not entirely. I recall the Rider library and the Howard Johnson’s, the anguish of betrayal, and then the counsel of Margaret Johnson. Worse his real mistress that boards with us: Success, measured by money and status, is what obsesses him.

The bottle soothes Samantha. She giggles through her nursing. I am delighted, but I also wonder if she enjoys her bottle too much. Will she enjoy solid food as much, or more, and in the future, when she is a young woman, will her infant appetite turn rebel on her and torment her, or, more truthfully, cause others to torment her? Everything seems to worry me, even things that have not happened, but might, but probably never will. I don’t feel in touch with myself, not like when I was a girl, before I married Richard.

Samantha is content and drifts into sleep. I examine her intently. Her skin is flushed. She squishes down her eyelids; unnaturally I fret, as if she may be having a nightmare. Her nostrils flare with each breath; the wings vibrate powerfully. Her lips part; they glisten. No, she’s sleeping peacefully. There’s nothing to be concerned about as I return her to her crib.

Richard is ambitious. In college, he promised he would be a great success and now he works mightily at fulfilling his pledge. We moved here to New Jersey because Richard took a job selling pharmaceuticals. It wasn’t long before he was top salesman. Richard is a star; he earned his promotions to district and regional manager within two years of joining his company.

Richard is not capable of modulating his life; extremes rule him. Shortly after becoming district manager, he decided I deserved a larger house. I told him I was happy with our small house in Trenton. We could easily have a child and still be comfortable in it. It was located in town and I could walk to a small market, the cleaners, and other shops. He would hear nothing of it. He insisted I was sacrificing for him and should be rewarded just as he was. Time passed. We did not contact a real estate agent and never searched for a new home. I assumed Richard forgot about the new house. But he hadn’t. He’d been busy looking with an agent. Suddenly, he surprised me by driving me to the new house—to our new home, as he called it. He said nothing during the drive, until we stood on the front walk of a lovely and large white colonial in Cranbury.

I was furious with him, astounded he went ahead without a word to me, against my wishes, and found a house. He immediately defended himself, exclaiming anybody else would be delighted with a new, beautiful, big home. His implication was clear: I lacked a domestic component that seemed to elevate others to perfection, or at least superior to me. His complaint raised guilt in me. The house was magnificent, larger and lovelier than I could have imagined. The town of Cranbury was charming. It boasted a delightful colonial inn, as picturesque as anything New England offered. I knew I couldn’t win with Richard. Besides, he hadn’t done something horrible. In fact, it was thoughtful and not a little touching. I apologized and acted grateful. I asked with a mix of awe and concern if we could afford the house. He laughed, restored to his old self. He said it should not be my worry. I should enjoy it, should turn it into our love nest and a home for our child. He toured me around the house. We finished in the master bedroom, where he embraced me and urged me to make love, and afterwards, dressing, proclaimed the house christened. Leaving the bedroom, I admit, I felt more like a dog who had marked its territory.

Two things resulted from his episode in the house I now roam, where my daughter sleeps: We conceived Samantha; I am sure of it. And I began to feel I might not love Richard, that I might despise him.

Cheating with Christ

Today Will Be Different

By Maria Semple

The midlife crisis, isn’t wonderful fodder for screenwriters and novelists? Treatment can be hilarious or serious, or, as in Maria Semple’s new outing, a blending of both. Eleanor Flood Wallace is about to turn 50. She’s enjoyed a career as an animation director on a successful television show. She’s a woman of many opinions all of which come at the reader regularly, usually coated in humor.

She also has a very precocious little boy named Timby (credit autocorrect for it); he may be the funniest character in the novel. She has a wacky toy pooch, Yo-Yo (which describes Eleanor quite nicely). And she’s married to a very successful hand surgeon, Joe, who, among other things, is on contract with the Seattle Seahawks, and he’s a saint. And, oh yes, she lives in Seattle. Sounds ideal, but there wouldn’t be much of a novel if it were.

When she discovers that Joe’s staff thinks the family is off on vacation, she wonders if Joe’s throwing her over for another woman. Roll out the self-deprecation. Her search for an answer serves as the propulsive drive of the novel, mean to get you from A to B in a zig zag line that wends you through her life. Turns out it was an eventful one, filled with bad parenting, a stage mother, a beautiful sister whom she has a falling out with over the sister’s controlling socialite New Orleans husband, and her own feelings of insecurity and her general daffiness.

All this entertains for the first hundred pages or so, until it turns to tedium and Eleanor’s humorous wackiness disintegrates into something you want to escape. Really, you get tired of her. You think, Good for Joe. Who could deal with this daily?

If you persevere, however, you stagger into a clever ending, for dear Joe is having an affair, of sorts. But it’s with someone and a philosophy both rejected in their youth, and which is one shared thing among many differences. That’s got to, and does, hurt, just like getting there does. w/c

The Zen of Dry Cleaning

Finding Comfort in the Mundane

In a world fraught with big problems, most of which we have little influence, not to mention control, a person might find a bit of peace and self-affirmation in the small stuff of daily life.

And, really, aren’t the little things in life what have the potential to really amaze you? We mean, who would ever find joy in and rhapsodize about something as prosaic as dry cleaning? Well … er … we guess we would.

Shortly after moving to our new place, we did what everybody does; we searched for services. You know, the typical things: doctors, dentists, and the like. And a dry cleaners, of course, for who can live without a good dry cleaner?

One day in the gym, because where else is the best place to learn about your locale than the gym, we found Mike, the dry cleaner vice president, which was after we had commented on Mike the pharmacist’s starched shirt, stiff like in the “old day” when your mother would haul in the wash from hanging outside on a January day. A Cleaner World, informed Pharma Mike. And wouldn’t you know it, dry cleaner Mike was VP of A Cleaner World. So, off I went to A Cleaner World with a pile of clothing.

Why even mention your dry cleaner? Let’s see. You bring your stuff in in the morning—even late morning that’s a whisper away from noo—and they e-mail you at four that your order is ready for pick up. If you happen to be a very busy person, you can simply fill your blue laundry bag and drop it in the slot on your way to work. Their standard is same-day service everyday. They accomplish this little feat by performing all services on premise, as opposed to shipping your stuff off to a central cleaning plant or contracted cleaner. Your stuff comes back in any form you want it, folded and boxed or on hangers. Instead of the typical plastic covering, which they do use, many items, as a matter of course, come back to you in smart plastic bags with snap closures, sweaters especially, with vents to allow the dry cleaning chemicals to dissipate. Sport coats and suits, these come back with forms on the hangers to help jackets keep their shape. In short, they surprise and delight you with the unexpected. Nice.

Dry cleaning is a commodity service, with one provider like the next provider. Proximity usually determines who you use. But in a mobile society, read autos, it’s easy to go an extra mile for a service, if that service is superior. And that’s A Cleaner World’s niche.

Now, this isn’t a plug for them, unless you live in North Carolina or southern Virginia. But they do illustrate the old adage that if you build a better mousetrap, etc. (Incidentally, if you are interested in improving your own washing skills, check out the helpful hints section on their website. Small stuff, sure, but don’t you hate a wrinkled collar fresh from the wash? No, you don’t? And you call yourself an American, wow.) w/c

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 15)

15

It is morning. I don’t remember getting into bed next to Richard, but obviously I did. He stirs when I do. I slip from the covers carefully to avoid waking him. It’s not consideration; I don’t want to confront him.

I dress and attend to my morning chores. As I’m preparing Samantha’s lunch, Richard saunters into the kitchen. He’s cheery and wishes me good morning. He looks around.” Got an early meeting. No time for breakfast,” he says, leaving. Just as well, I think, as I’ve made nothing for him

I walk Samantha to the bus stop with minutes to spare. Later, I drive Emily to her preschool and we set a record for earliness. I’m more efficient than ever this morning, and I know why.

At home, I prepare my tea and carry it into the living room, along with my cell phone. On the coffee table next to my Limoges I place the note. I stare at the phone number. I really don’t need the paper. I can see the number etched on the backs of my eyelids. Even with my eyes averted from the note, directed out the window to admire the morning, the phone number is visible, dominate, obscuring my view.

I would never call the number. Never. I would imagine, yes, but never.

I call the number. It rings twice, and on the third a woman answers.

“Yes?”

The lithe of her voice arrests me, its freshness, its pleasing equanimity, as if I could converse with the voice about the most distasteful events, and it would remain calm, clear, bright, almost musical. What must be connected to this magnificent voice?

“Can I help you?” she prompts.

Now the voice registers impatience, but mildly. I’m displeased with myself for trying the woman’s patience. How can I be so inconsiderate? By the tone, she impresses me as nice, maybe someone who could easily become a friend. But, she isn’t the least bit nice, or considerate, or respectful. Yet, she might not be aware of Richard’s situation, another victim.

“I’m Richard’s wife,” I say.

The woman is silent.

My chest tightens. I’m afraid she’ll hang up and I don’t want her to.

Finally, she says, “He told me about you.” The lithe has vanished, replaced by sharpness tinged with anger, and a dash of wariness.

“Oh,” I say. I don’t know how else to answer. I’m howling inside. You’re Richard’s girlfriend, mistress, a little something on the side. Richard is cheating on me. Not a surprise, not the least bit shocking; he’s done it before; you’re not the first. But, still, I am flabbergasted. More, I am hurt, wounded mortally. Richard has talked about me with another woman he may prefer, a substitute for me, perhaps a replacement. What has he said? That’s what I want to ask: What has he said about me?

“Oh,” she repeats.”yes. He calls you the ‘silent bitch.'” She laughs. Why? My misery amuses her? She finds the idea funny? She thinks Richard is a wit; silent bitch is sharp phrasing?

“I don’t understand,” I falter.

“Look, you’ve got to be pissed right now. Hell, I’m pissed at him now, all the time. I don’t like sharing him with anybody, especially not his mousy wife, some little frou-frou thing who couldn’t tell somebody to go fuck herself if her life depended on it.”

“What are you talking about?” I am insensible, dizzy, nauseated by her assault, knowing Richard finds her, finds this alluring. This cannot be real. People don’t behave this way.

“You. I’m talking about you. Mrs. Goody Two-Shoes.”

“He called me—“

“No, he called you a frump. Mrs. Goody Two-Shoes, that’s mine.”

“You are—“

“Cruel, I know. I’m the regular run of the mill bitch.”

“He’s talked to you about me?” I shouldn’t announce I’m an enfeebled mess. But I can’t stop myself.

“What else would we talk about? You’re the most interesting subject between us. He loves telling me the dumb shit you do. I love to listen to him tell me.” She pauses. “And I give him his little rewards for the stories. He loves them, like a dog loves his treats.”

If I wasn’t sitting, I would collapse. I know Richard cheats. He’s circumspect. He rarely criticizes me directly about my appearance, my conversation, my cooking, or child rearing . . . nothing. However, I have no illusions he is not entirely pleased with any of these. What strikes me with the force of a highballing truck is this woman. More, that Richard would discuss me with her. Still more, that he would reveal his true feelings about me to her, to her and not me.

And she herself shocks me. Is she what Richard wants, wishes me to be? Intentionally abrasive, brash, crude, filthy, and completely open to a total stranger. Though, on reflection, maybe she figures she knows me well enough, confidentially, like a girlfriend, companion, concubine in Richard’s harem.

I must have drifted for a long time, because she says, “Cat got your tongue? Hello? You still there?”

“We should meet,” I say. I don’t know why. I don’t want to see her, where she lives, where Richard goes. I don’t.

“Why?”

I am searching, grasping, examining, and discarding reasons. I settle on, “I want to know what he likes.”

“What? You’re crazy!”

“Yes, I am,” I say, “crazy with jealousy.”

“Jealous? What? Of me?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” she hesitates. “Well, I guess it’s okay.”

“Good,” I say.” Thank you. What’s your address?”

I am not violent but I must admit I have murder in my heart. The conundrum, however, is who should be the object of my vengeance? Richard? The woman? Maybe both.

The address is nearby, on the route to Emily’s preschool, right under my nose, in my back yard practically. Checking the clock, it’s all I can do to contain my rage. I have nearly two hours before release time.

She lives near Hightstown, in a row house in Twin Rivers. I find her place easily and am ringing her doorbell within a half-hour of our phone conversation.

She greets me in a housecoat, blue chenille, a little ratty, an embarrassment really, nothing I would wear; certainly nothing I would meet anyone in, anyone. She’s slapping around in flip-flops. She has a mop of bright red hair, the real thing that looks fabricated.

“The wife,” she says. “Welcome.”

She steps aside and I enter into her living room. It is blue: carpeting, walls, furniture, monochromatic in its single-mindedness.

I wait for her to invite me to sit, and then I take a chair near the window. She sits on the sofa facing me.

“You want something? Coffee, maybe?”

I shake my head. “I’m fine, thank you.”

“You’re a little different,” she says.

“Different?”

“Richard calls you a mouse. Mousy all over. Hair, face, plain Jane. So?”

“I wanted to meet you.”

She scrutinizes me. Her gaze is like an x-ray, penetrating and exposing. “What do you think?”

I glance around the room. I notice photos on the parsons table behind the sofa. She’s in one with a man and two children.

“You’re married,” I say, my surprise undisguised.

She swivels, acknowledges the photos, and turns back. “What did you think?”

“I don’t know. The way you acted . . . I don’t know.”

She harrumphs, as if her behavior should have been obvious. “His name’s Mike. He’s okay. One of those good guys everybody talks about. One of those good guys woman claim they want. You like the good ones?”

I nod. “I thought Richard was one.”

She regards me skeptically. “Sure.”

“No, in the beginning—“

“Please, Richard’s bad. They don’t get as bad as he is overnight.” Her eyes flit over me head to toe. “And don’t credit herself. You might be exactly what Richard says you are. Doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with him being bad. It’s who he is.”

I’m ranging over Richard’s friendship with Bobby and his mentor episode with Julie in the Rider University library basement, my incessant fretting about the women under him on the second floor of Olsen A, the episode in the Howard Johnson’s.

“You with me?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say, distant, as if comatose. “I guess you’re right.”

“No guessing about it. Takes bad to know bad and I’ve been a bad girl all my life. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Doesn’t bother me a bit. I was the school slut. Not the only one, but the most popular. Richard was probably banging somebody like me at that high school of yours.”

“Creek Falls.”

“Yeah, good old C. F. He has fond memories of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“He had a good time is what I mean. The same kind of good time he has with me. That’s the way these guys are. Not like true blue Mike. Mike has plenty of good times with me. And it’s enough for him.” She pauses to rub her hands on her robe. “I’m dying here for a cigarette. Gave them up in January for the family. They want me to live to ninety. But, Christ, my lungs are sweating for a smoke.”

“I don’t smoke,” I say.

“I didn’t think you did. Oh well, the suffering mom,” she says. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy with Mike. In fact, I couldn’t be happy with any other kind of husband, not with what I know.” She smiles and it appears sincere. “I think you’re probably the kind of wife Mike deserves. Luck of the draw, I guess.”

“I guess,” I say.

“What else do you want to know? Some of the gory details maybe. How we met, what we do, where, that sort of stuff?” She softens. “But you’re not the type.”

It’s enough, I think, as I stand. “Thank you.”

She’s up and at the door ahead of me.” Anything for Richard’s wife,” she says.

I’m outside when she touches my arm.

“I’m not really a horrible person.”

“No,” I say, “not everybody is.”

I pull out of the row house parking area and drive around the corner. I stop and idle while I cry. Richard has deceived me for years, since high school. I wonder who it was, who he was seeing besides me in Creek Falls. I wish I had Angie and Rosemary in the car with me. Three speculating heads are better than one. I laugh hard at my idiocy and the tears roll into my mouth, hot and bitter. I know some of the others. Julie in college, and maybe another. The woman at the Howard Johnson’s. A sales associate who had long been a suspect, who he transferred to California, to San Francisco. I wonder how far it is from San Diego and make a mental note to check a map. And this woman in Twin Rivers. What’s her name? I didn’t ask and she didn’t volunteer. The wife of Mike, the nice guy. Wife and mother like me. I don’t know what to make of my situation, whether to confront Richard, have it out, tell him I know everything, demand he shape up, reform, or I’m walking with the girls. We’ll move back to Creek Falls. I’ll find something to do. I’m capable. Really, I am.

The dash clock tells me I have fifteen minutes before Emily’s release time. I turn onto Twin Rivers Drive and take it to Route 33, where I stop behind a yellow Volkswagen waiting for the traffic light. I cringe at the sight of the car, shudder, replaying how Richard tormented me with it, comparing me, claiming it was a joke, that I couldn’t take a joke after he had hurt me, after he was sure I was suffering. It was his way on those occasions when he wanted to be cruel, to strike at me with words, looks, inferences. Never anything physical, but always as painful, perhaps more.

To avoid the Volkswagen, I raise my eyes and look beyond it, across 33 to where Twin Rivers Drive picks up again. Sitting there at the light is a blue car, sky blue, a shade to bright, absolutely wrong for a car; appropriate for the sky, but not for transportation, ugly; and I raise my eyes to the traffic light.

I tend to anticipate the changing of a traffic light. I watch the light signaling in the opposite direction. If I can’t see the light, I can usually see the color reflected in its shade. I never jump the light; nor do I charge ahead the instant the light changes. I just like to know when the light will change, to be ready, to not hold up those behind me.

So I am prepared for the light when it changes, as is the driver of the Volkswagen, who immediately darts into the intersection.

Unfortunately, yellow now means step on the gas, which is what the tractor-trailer driver racing through the light is doing, sounding his air horn frantically.

I clench the steering wheel and shout senselessly at the windshield for the Volkswagen to watch out, watch out, the truck is running the light. In an instant, the Volkswagen vanishes. Billows of black smoke flare behind the truck as the driver applies the brakes. The trailer reacts by jackknifing. But the driver is able to regain control and bring the truck to a stop two, maybe three hundred yards down 33.

Already weepy from my encounter with Richard’s latest girlfriend, I am crying uncontrollably. I’m sure I’ve just witnessed someone’s death.

But have I? Through the film of tears, warped and hazy, I see the Volkswagen. Miraculously, it is intact, for the most part, at least distinguishable as a Volkswagen. The rear end is sheared off. It’s nowhere in sight, probably crushed under the carriage of the truck cab. A man climbs out of the front portion of the Volkswagen, the door opening and he exiting almost as if nothing has happened, as if he’d just pulled into a parking slot at Target. Out, standing, though wobbly, he surveys the damage to his car. Then, as if overwhelmed by the sight, he slumps to the pavement.

Automatically, I’m climbing out of my car clutching my cell phone. I charge into the intersection, heedless of danger, intent on helping him. As I trot, I punch 911. The dispatcher comes on as I arrive at the side of the prostrate diver. And it is then I see that the blue car is moving rapidly, straight at us.

In a panic, I yell into my phone, “Help! He’s heading right for us!  Help!”

Of course, the dispatcher can’t help. She can send somebody to pick up the pieces, but miles away, there is nothing she can do to aid us. She calmly asks for my location.

I wish I could be as calm, but I’m facing two thousand pounds of savage blue metal seconds from launching me into the hereafter.

I drop the phone on the collapsed man and lurch left, away from the man and his Volkswagen. As I jog, I regret it and think I should have lunged behind the Volkswagen. Maybe it would protect—I’m thinking as the blue car strikes me. My legs snap, loud, like the crack of a timbering tree. But it doesn’t out decibel my scream, which strikes me as magnitudes higher than had been the screeching brakes of the truck. I slide up the hood and smash against the windshield, breaking it, decorating the glass with spider web cracks. Through them I see the driver. It is a man dressed in blue, including a blue fedora. The blue matches the car and as I slide up the windshield and onto the roof and along it, and bounce on the trunk lid, and land on the blacktop, I laugh, inside, at the oddity, the coincidence, the bizarreness of the blues; he is wearing exactly the blue his car is painted.

I lay still. I cannot move. I should be in agony, but here I lie immobile and pain free, comfortable if pressed to describe the sensation, as if lounging in my bed or reclining on my beloved sofa affording me my wonderful view of our front yard, the trees, our street, the delightfully almost colonial neighborhood in Cranbury. But, no, I am not entirely without discomfort. My throat is raw, dry like I’ve been in a desert for weeks. My arms are sore, heavy and punctured, like maybe I’ve been stung by wasps. But all in all, considering what has just befallen me, I feel remarkably well.

I’m lying and waiting for someone to help. I think someone, perhaps a team of people, is approaching. I hear shuffling, muted, softened as if they are treading on carpet. I hear voices, low, mumbling, with an occasional piercing bark, but subdued, as if what they are saying is secret, only for their ears.

I close my eyes. I should be at peace. But I am not. Dread overwhelms me, until there is nothing.

A Book Speaking to Today

Brave New World (1931)

By Aldous Huxley

If ever there was a timeless bit of speculative fiction, or science fiction, or prescient fiction, call it what you will, Brave New World fills the bill. Set aside all the whiz-bang, of which there is considerable amounts, the genetics, which will horrify most, the caste system, yet more to abhor, and you’ll see that Huxley goes to the core issue bedeviling humankind for ages, and certainly front and center this minute in this time; that is, our collective desire for unity, happiness, and, perhaps above all because it makes the first two possible, stability. Many would be willing to forfeit anything for stability to reap the rewards it seems to offer. But, friends, beware; you may find the price dearer than you ever imagined, and almost impossible to reverse or extricate yourself from. Offered as an example, Huxley’s Brave New World, where the synthetic reigns supreme.

Huxley’s Foreword written for the 1946 reissue and appearing in this, and probably other successive editions, deserves your attention. For here, the author acknowledges the single thing he might change, if he were to rewrite the book. Readers will see that he provides the Savage with only two choices, both extreme, and both bad. Either live in the insane and artificial world of lifetime happiness, stability, and voluntary submissiveness; or chose the equally insane, though for different reasons, primitive world. A rewrite might give the Savage a more moderate choice, perhaps like that given to Helmholtz Watson (gladly accepted) and Bernard Marx (greatly feared). However, you might argue and find ready agreement, drawing the starkest contrast illuminates the point more clearly and vividly. Therein lies the beauty of dystopian literature like this. Reasonable alternatives just muddy things, a point World Controller Mustapha Mond certainly would endorse.

It’s interesting to think that Huxley lived nearly half his life, including his last years (he died on November 22, 1963, a most unpropitious date, for certain) in the United States. In other words, he lived during an American period that aspired to and in some ways achieved some of the things he foresaw in Brave New World, in particular the stifling demand for conformity and something of an enforced (by manufacturing and marketing) brand of imposed happiness. You can bet many of those Fifties souls (particularly women and minorities) would have loved a daily ration of soma, which the CIA might have gladly provided in the form of LSD. But, of course, the stuff leaked into society, with folks like Huxley advocating it, not for escapism, a decidedly brave new world pursuit, but for consciousness raising. However, we digress.

Not too far afield, however, as Watson and Marx shared a problem that made it uncomfortable in what the majority felt the perfect world. They, Alpha-Pluses, discovered they were individuals. And therein you have the scariest part of Brave New World: utter conformity, crushing blandness, and a total disconnection from anything resembling real life. So, even today, more than eighty-five years after its first printing, the novel serves as a potent cautionary. w/c