The Number Three

From Light Lifting.

The single fried egg might be life’s loneliest meal. He listens to the sizzle of unfertilized yolk and waits another second before lifting away from the heat. The timing is important. He wants the skin starting to harden but everything else still shaky and runny inside. It quivers on his spatula before sliding onto the plate slimy and wet, like a living thing. Half a shake of salt, a full shake of pepper and good to go. This is supper. The toaster pops and he looks over. Watches the filament cooling, turning black again. He butters and dips and mops. The room is almost silent. Only the occasional gurgling coming from deep inside the fridge. A single fried egg, he thinks: enough food for one person, as long as they aren’t hungry.

He checks the cordless telephone again but there is no change. The phone is a smug little bird that refuses to sing. Words on its tiny screen say No new messages. There is a button for Talk and a button for End. Redial and Flash and Clear and Mute. Nothing from it all day. He looks at the calendar. One day until the day. Already one year. It goes and comes so fast. Only these hours left. You better call. He says it out loud. You better know what you need to do.

The house is too big for him now. He feels like the marble in one of those tilting wooden labyrinths and he has to try not to bang off the walls or fall through the holes. The space is crowded with things that should have disappeared, a thousand items that should have been wiped away and deleted, all at the exact same moment, while the body was flying through the air. Instead, they stayed and registered nothing.

When it gets like this, the kitchen is worse than the bedroom. More intimate. Always something else waiting behind a cupboard or rolling loose in a drawer. The World’s Greatest Mom mug – a last-minute gift from a lazy kid – hanging on its hook. And stuck behind a magnet is the reminder card for a dentist’s appointment they never made it to. The secretary from that office left messages for a month, trying to reschedule a semi-annual cleaning. The boy’s favourite deep cereal bowl and her preferred paring knife, the only one that stays sharp.

Scattered clothes and mismatched socks. Filthy T-shirts he washed only eight months later when the last of the smell was gone. The bristles of their toothbrushes, fanned by his thumb. Her half-completed plan for renovating the basement. Magazines flopping through the slot every two weeks. Style at Home and Canadian Living. His son’s password-protected laptop. He knows there are messages in there.

His daughter, the one who wasn’t there, the one still left, says he needs to get out. Find something smaller, something more manageable. Maybe a condo downtown. A place where no one has lived before. Walking distance to everything from there. Think how much better that would be.

When it was all over and they finally let him out of the hospital, she took a semester off from her school in Kitchener. They tried to fill in the blanks and get their rhythm back, tried to live as close to the original pattern as possible, but even while it was happening, he knew it couldn’t last. A girl, a woman in her early twenties, must go back to what she is. Things have to be done when they need to be done and the somewhere-else schedule will not wait. Friends and paper deadlines, she says. Assignments and exams. Picking up extra shifts at the restaurant. Been very, very busy these last few days.

She calls twice a week now. Usually Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons. Usually on her cellphone. How are you, Dad? He hears other voices in the background. Are you in a car? he asks. Are you driving? Don’t talk to me while you’re driving. I’m hanging up right now. Pull over and stop and talk to me then. Not driving she says. God. Just a bad signal. Sitting in a restaurant. Poor reception. Then five dutiful minutes of their voices passing each other on a satellite network. I have to go, she says. Love you.

He picks up the receiver and hits Talk. They say it works both ways, but this is different. He would go with her if she came to pick him up. He would make an exception for her. Tomorrow will always be a different day. The dial tone comes through steady and clear and he puts the sound up on the speaker. If you listen carefully you hear a clacking in the background, behind the tone, something like a train. He puts his ear toward it, straining. Feels like he is getting close to something before a quick ring cuts in. A ring inside the dial tone. A message from the phone itself. A stranger’s voice, a man who seems official. He says: If you would like to make a call, please dial a number. If you need help, please hang up and dial your operator. The voice starts to say it again, but the phone cuts him off. The phone cuts itself off. The phone is frustrated with this situation and cannot allow it to continue. A high pitched squealing rises. Like talking to a fax machine. Then a hard, extra loud busy signal. Bomp bomp bomp bomp. He hangs up. Pushes Off.

Anniversary, he thinks. It makes him so angry. Parents and their kids, nothing can be done. Connected and separated, different ages at different times. They can never really live together. By the time they are who they are going to be, they’re gone. He thinks about the fundamental difference between remembering and being reminded. The next time they talk, she will say something about how she lost track of time, how she was in the middle of it, squeezed up against an immediate pressure that blotted out everything else and she simply forgot. She will likely cry and she will be so, so sorry, but it already makes him feel sick. Jesus Christ. A person should know where they need to be and when they need to be there.

He listens to the forecast, takes out his map of the county and studies the Number Three. An inch here is equal to two miles there. He measures with a ruler, estimates distance, and considers the problem of travel. How to pull it off. Probably close to thirty miles, definitely more than twenty-five. It will take some doing, but if she doesn’t call by tonight, then that is it. He will go by himself.

*

It felt like rescue in the beginning. Ninety days in and a chance at safety for the rest of their lives. A guaranteed spot on the seniority list as long as he kept up his end of the deal. Collective bargaining, the way work works. It meant everything for them. Getting in and hooking up for the steady ride and a reliable flow. Pure blind luck. He was hired off the street, plucked away from the rest of the world and delivered from what other people have to do to make a living.

We can go for another now, can’t we? She whispered it in his ear. It was the night of the ninetieth day. Their girl just three years old, still sleeping in a toddler bed. Yes, he said. Her hand moving under the sheets. Tingling in her voice. His eyes on the ceiling before he rolled his knee against her thigh. Yes, he said. It was the night of the ninetieth day. I think we’re going to be okay.

Around here, nineteen-eighty-three is the year that counts and that is where the line should go if they ever write a history of this place. This was long before he started, years before they got in, but nineteen-eighty-three matters for everybody. The way it came along and shook up the whole domestic side of the business. Lee Iaccoca taking a risk. The famous picture. His not-so-confident smile as he stands there at the Auto Show in front of the first generation. The paint they used to have. That in-between shade of maroon and a strip of Woodgrain paneling running down the side. It was the last of the real game-changers and they decided to build it here. Somebody’s arm got twisted on that, a face was pushed up against a wall. He knows that, thinks about it sometimes, the question of origins. Why it is where it is. The first one, the one in the picture, it’s in the Smithsonian now.

It goes by different names. The Magic Wagon or the Grand Caravan. The Voyager or the Town and Country. Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth. The customer picks the model and the trim package. A hood ornament that holds the eye. Chrysler looks like a star that lives inside your house. His daughter used to say that. His son drew pictures of the long-horned sheep. A Dodge is Ram Tough and always red. Plymouth is more mysterious: a silver ship with wind in its sails. What is that supposed to be exactly? The Mayflower, he thinks. The Mayflower landing on Plymouth Rock. A car for pilgrims. Word associations that don’t quite hook up. None of it matters. The company will sell it any way you like, but it is always the same underneath. You do not fool around with a machine that works.

He has seen enough of them to know that there is no secret behind the Grand Caravan. It is exactly what it appears to be, an object designed to fulfill a basic need for a reasonable price. In the beginning, the sliding door was its signature. The way the whole side of the car could detach and roll along its track to give you such a large opening, even with only six inches of clearance on the side. A big door that wouldn’t bang against all the other doors in the mall parking lot and enough room inside for seven people and all their stuff. Those were the original brute facts, the Caravan’s simplest truths. Parents and kids piling in and out all the time – the soccer mom, yes, the soccer mom – but a seat for the visitor, too. A place for grandma when she has to be picked up at the airport. The driver and passenger up front and two benches in the back. You click down and the rows pop out. No points for style, but versatility has always mattered for this segment of the market. You take out the seats and there’s enough space back there for a 4×8 sheet of plywood. A plan for all the standard dimensions. He knows nothing fits together like that by accident.

People in the city feel the car in different ways. The Caravan goes past the men and women who work in the plant, beyond Chrysler and the CAW and Local 444. It moves over his family to reach everybody else. The guy who sells carpeting or the orthopaedic surgeon or the lady who teaches grade two French immersion. They all know. They can tell when things are going well and when they aren’t. They understand the way it sits on every bottom line.

It was the number-one selling minivan all by itself for more than a decade. The number-one selling vehicle for the whole country. Took years before the Asians caught up. Millions rolling away from this spot. They build it on the S-platform, then the AS, then the NS, then the RS and the RT. It started with a piece of crap 2.2 litre in-line 4 with barely 85 hp and that weakling would whine and complain and shake like you were re-entering the earth’s atmosphere every time you pulled into the passing lane. Now you go for the optional 4-litre turbo-charged V6 with 251 hp and that monster can pull your whole crew and all their bikes and your little hard-top camper up a mountain in the middle of July. He liked to watch the temperature gauge whenever he took theirs out on a long trip. The way it never budged and always stayed straight up, right in the middle, balanced between the red hot H and the cool blue C. He used to think that was all a person could ask from a car. An engine that was ready when you called.

The way it comes together is something to see and he has never taken it for granted. The interconnecting lines of yellow and orange conveyors, bodies and chasses moving separately before they mate. The bright white lights in paint, the orange robots swivelling in for their welds. The flash and the flash again. He used to think you could count the individual sparks and always arrive at the same number.

People outside think people inside must hate the machines, but it’s not like that. The Local has to fight for every job, but precision is precision and a person working on something likes to see it done right. When he watched those hydraulic shoulders rotating, lifting 1,300 pounds and holding it perfectly still, always within the same range of a hundredth of a millimetre, he felt something, but it wasn’t hatred; it was more like confusion or a stab of deep-down uncertainty. It gets confusing after awhile if you have to watch a robot work and you watch it and you watch it again. The repeating sequences start to blur and it seems like time stops and there is only this one task left in the whole world, this one job, separated from everything else, and it has to be done again and again, forever. The robot sees a hundred divisions in a millimetre and it always hits the same spot. The same weld. The same number of sparks.

A standard dash assembly comes as a single unit. It moves on a hydraulic but has to be guided into its spot by hand. You need to feel it in. An engineer told him once that they were decades away from creating a robot that could mimic the instinctive muscular adjustments of the human wrist. The engineer swivelled his hand around a couple of times. Think about this thing, he said. The wrist. You can’t imagine the number of interrelated calculations. The way it pulls together force and angle and time, the way it cross-references. Makes it look easy, but never the same way twice. Can’t replicate intuition. A bolt. An infinity of bolts tightened just enough. Not too far and not not far enough. A car is held together, fastened more than assembled.

They think of everything. The big stuff and small stuff, it all matters. Subtle cosmetic redesigns for the interior and complete retoolings. Power windows and locks. ABS. The new transmission. The second sliding door. Keyless entry and remote starter. The new suspension. Standard air bags – multistage and curtain – even in the base model. Five-star safety. Side impact beams. Always tweaking the engines to find a little extra. Before the gas got crazy, 20 miles a gallon in the city wasn’t so bad. Stow n’ Go seats rolling straight into the floor. Swivel n’ Go seats spinning around. A built-in card table. Two different DVD players for the kids showing two different movies. Everybody gets their own headphones. Nine cupholders. Chrome accents. They move the shifter off the column. They fix the clock. Put in the MP3. The GPS. Every small change in the finished product is a bigger change on his end.

He liked to ride along sometimes as the next one rolled off the line and into the world. He liked to be the first person to read the cooing odometers with all their 0’s in a line. A fully loaded special edition Town and Country with the windows that go down in the back to let the fresh air get in. One minute in there and you know. They flick the wipers, honk the horn two times and flash the brights just before it leaves. When it passes the last inspection, it gets the all clear and begins its life. He liked moving inside his work and feeling it moving around him. He liked understanding the interconnected parts and being the first to look through a clean windshield and see everything from this point of view. You cannot beat a brand new minivan. Ask around. Ask anybody. A person appreciates being up high when they’re driving.

There are gaps built into the process. A couple of extra seconds before this one goes and the next one comes. Sometimes, in that space where nothing is supposed to happen, he used to take off his glove and press his palm flat against the glass or the body. Then he’d pull away quickly and watch the print flash up clear and detailed. A perfect outline of his hand visible for one second against the new paint or the dark tint, even the individual grooves of his thumb coming through. Whenever he did that, he used to imagine a detective. A smart person, somewhere far away, working with a magnifying glass and a light and a fine brush, dusting for clues. He used to imagine a person who could trace this car all the way back to him, back to this spot and this moment. A detective who could follow the chain of material evidence and find all the linkages and establish an incontrovertible proof.

The pay and the benefits are all that anybody else ever talks about and most of what they say is wrong. Massive inflation in all their numbers. Anti-union spin. He has done the real comparisons, added everything up and come out slightly ahead. To make the real money, you need to understand the complexity of the system and you need to think about taxes and shifting brackets. You need to figure out how to live with the overtime and how to get in there for the stat holidays. When the kids were small, he used to scramble for the possibility of a double-time shift or for the perfect conditions that came around twice a year on Good Friday or Christmas.

It is more difficult to calculate the value of the benefits. The kids’ braces and top-of-the-line Green Shield for their prescriptions. The education fund. He marched for those things. They walked arm in arm carrying the banner. Campaigned for the need to make progress, to look out for working families, to stand up against the big guys. Ken and Buzz and Bob making their speeches. A union puts you inside of something larger. Tickets for Tiger games and a rented bus. Tickets to the Wings and the Spitfires. Everyone sitting in the same section. All the good money his daughter picked up working TPT – Temporary Part-Time – in the summer. The card tournaments. The Christmas party and the Christmas bonus. The employee incentive plan. It was impossible to say no to the deal they gave you if you just bought what you built. Straight out of Henry Ford and the original Model T. Make enough to drive what you make. Four in a row. They went through four different vans before the last one. Hundreds of thousands of miles piled up. The kids grew up riding back there. It was their sole means of transportation.

*

He remembers turning around and telling the boy to shut up. The only clear part left. Hand on the wheel, craning his neck around. Looking at him closely. Wife sleeping in the passenger seat. Daughter already away at school.

His son. The teenage slacker called up from central casting. Lying down sideways in the back seat, high-tops up against the window. Head on the armrest. Game Boy. Ear phones. Distortion coming out of his head. Tight jeans. Black hooded sweatshirt. Hair in his eyes.

What a kid can do to a parent. A wave of disappointment washing through him as he drives. Bitterness, like the taste of ammonia, coursing through his mouth and his entire bloodstream. He feels it in his feet. It has been nothing but continuous argument for months. The boy talking even though he can’t hear his own voice through the music. How it all sucks. His parents are hypocrites. They say one thing and do another. Smart teenager with bad grades and stupid friends. Comes home one day with an idiot tattoo on his shoulder blade. A tide of complaint that will not stop. How he doesn‘t want to be here. How this is stupid. How he’s going to run away. How he’s going to move out the minute, the minute, he turns sixteen. You think you own me. You don’t own me.

They cannot make him understand why it is important for a family to do the same thing every year. Why you have to hold on to your little traditions. It’s only one day, his mother says. A trip to the county in the fall. Follow the Number Three and go to Ruthven. Joe Colosanti’s Tropical Garden and then Jack Miner’s Bird Sanctuary. Plants and birds. Muck and Cluck, his wife used to call it. Maybe this weekend we’ll go for the muck and cluck. What do you say?

At Colosanti’s Tropical Garden they will sell you a miniature cactus in its own clay pot for two dollars. Get the one with the purple head. It can live on nothing. Push your finger against the needles for fun. There is no threat from a Colosanti’s cactus. It is what the kids will remember. The greenhouses. The turtles and a little alligator swimming in its pond. The humidity and the baby animals wandering around, goats and chickens. They will remember that you have to keep your palm flat when you feed an apple to a pony.

Then on to Miner’s. Every year the same thing. Canadian Geese by the thousands returning to Crazy Jack. A hundred years of banding and tracing routes and charting schedules. A warmer fall means a later departure. It doesn’t take long. You drive by and it’s over. You hear and you smell. The sound and the stink: incessant honking and acres of bird shit. That is what you get from a visit to Jack Miner’s.

But there is something else, too. Something a person has to see at least once. The way an entire field can take off at the same time. The land deciding to become the sky. Everything lifting at once. Tight formations and instinctive patterns. That V writing itself on the clouds. You look at that and you don’t forget you saw it. It can make you believe in order if you are the kind of person who wants to believe in order.

He remembers turning around and telling the boy to shut up. Last words. I’m getting so sick of your bullshit. Watch, he said. You watch. A couple of years down the road, you’ll be thanking us for this.

Turning back, he catches a glimpse of his face as it passes the rear-view. The sneer. An angry man caught in a bit of glass. The red glint of the breaklight comes through first, starts in the corner of his eye, then straight ahead. The back end of the flatbed. Too close. Already there. No chance to slow down. He tries to swerve, but they hit full tilt. Then rolling. They are strapped inside a rolling metal object. The V6 with 251 hp – a fire burning in the middle of a metal cube – the new fuel injection system. The driver’s side airbag explodes out of the steering wheel, knocking him back against his chair. The back of his head slams into the rest. Bad twist in his neck. Sharp pain and an instant numbness in his legs. Powder burning in his eyes. His vision blurs. It happens fast but he sees it slowly before the total black comes down. Two seconds worth of action is more than enough to fill in all the rest of the time that follows.

The airbags on her side do not deploy. The bags on the whole right-hand side of the vehicle do not deploy. They do not do what they are meant to do. Instead, they sit patient and useless, like a pile of neatly folded white towels in a linen closet.

Almost no visible change in her body. She is sleeping before her head goes against the window frame. Too hard. He knows it. The unnatural angle of her neck. The end of his wife. The way her ear moves too far to the side and her chin hangs too far down. One beat later, something flying past, about the size of a black hockey bag, thrown through the side window. He watches it move, following a smooth trajectory, an arc in the sky. That movement is the last thing he sees. It can’t be processed. Elegant, he thinks, or something like that. The curve in the air.

*

Two days later he wakes up in the hospital. Can’t feel his legs. His daughter holding his hand. She looks thin. His first thought. You need to eat more. Take better care of yourself.

There are six airbags in the Dodge Grand Caravan. Standard equipment, even on the base model. Safety sells. Front, side, and rear impact zones. They were the first to make it to market with protection like that. Went from design to production in an eighteen-month turnaround and caught everyone by surprise. Brought a little momentum back into sales. The car met or exceeded all standards set by the National Highway Transportation Safety Association. New sensors woven into the bumpers and the panels and the doors. Scored above average on all the tests. You watch the crash test videos and see what you see. Those are the standard factory models.

In the videos it all works. Everything and every time. The bumper touches the test obstacle – the same immovable cube for all vehicles – and the bags deploy. Long before structural damage. Long before the crumpling of the frame dissipates and redirects the force of the impact. The dummies inside get tossed around. Sturdy back coils of spring in their necks wobble back and forth. Their fibreglass arms and legs extend, but you can tell they are going to be okay. If they were alive they would be okay. Everything behaves as it should. The touch on the bumper, the explosion of compressed gas inside the cabin. No hard surfaces left. No space at all. Nowhere to move. The vehicle becomes a solid mass. A wrecked exterior with a safe place at its core.

An electrical short, he figures. One circuit. A single wire that did not carry current the way it is supposed to. Failure of design or manufacture or installation. Everything is possible. Corrosion, perhaps. Not enough consideration made for the deteriorating affects of road salt. The back of the flatbed too high. Again, not standard. Higher than the test cube. The boy’s unbuckled seatbelt. Nothing anybody could have done about that. A flaw outside of everything else. Mentioned in all the reports. Passengers are rarely thrown from a moving vehicle when seatbelts are used properly. Cops and their cameras. Images of everything. Pictures you shouldn’t be allowed to take. A stranger’s finger pushing down on a button. Numbered evidence. Accident recreation teams. Investigations. Measuring tapes. Insurance people with their duplicate sets of forms. The length of skid marks. Indexed to tread wear. The angle of impact. Angle the car left the road. They work backwards with their calculations. Crumple zones. Vectors. Radius of broken glass. Distance from the car to the body in the field.

Twelve weeks in the hospital. Then twenty weeks of physio after that. The benefits covered everything and an officer at the Local made sure the paperwork moved along and the claims were filed on time. He had to learn to walk again, how to wiggle his toes, make his bowels churn on command. He lost almost half his weight and his hands callused against the railings. Messages sent from his brain and only slowly received. Twitching toes, half-bent knees, hips that took months before they remembered how to work right.

There was a moment to choose. An opening that wouldn’t last long they said. Everybody talking about the same things. The Big Three going down. For real this time. Bankrupt and bailed out. Negotiations and concessions. The new deal and its different terms. Never going to be like it was before. Peak oil. Calculations that depended on the shifting value of a Mexican peso. Rising interest rates. The Environmental Protection Agency. Californian emission targets. Household debt levels. Burning wells in the Middle East. Security for a pipeline in Nigeria. Drilling in the arctic. What the average person in India does in their spare time. They said it all mattered.

He wasn’t sure how it fit together, but when Essex Engine went down and the Foundry disappeared, he’d paid attention. When the fire in the Foundry went out for good – after burning for sixty years or whatever – that was important news. Ford guys told him that when they pulled the plug on the Foundry, even when they cut it off, the smelter burned hot for another week all by itself, with no external source of power, like a star, like the sun, generating its own heat and living on its own internal explosions. Then they went in with the heavy artillery and tore the whole thing down. You go to the Foundry now and it’s gone.

A visitor sitting in the chair in his hospital room said, If they could get rid of us all and start again, that’s what they’d do. You know that, right? That’s what I’d do anyway. If I was in their shoes? I’d blow up the whole goddamn operation and blank slate it. Get all younger people to come in for less and do more. A fucking mess is what it is. Big fucking mess.

He signed as quickly as he could. Scribbled his name on the line and wrote the date like it was yesterday. You wait till it happens to you and see which way you go. Only an idiot says no to a buyout. Need to consider the facts. The numbers the company will put down to make you go away. This much to come to work tomorrow and tomorrow like usual. Or this much to stay home. You add in the pension, the best in the business, the RRSP’s, the insurance, and the value of a big empty house. You get a figure. He read the statements, the digits and the commas spreading out beside his name. Couldn’t quite catch the full meaning. Everything, everywhere in the world is falling apart, but he is okay. It will be like the depression they say, 30 percent unemployment and food rations, but it never comes. He has more than enough, more than he will ever need. Money like a foreign language he used to know but doesn’t understand anymore.

*

After they cut his body out of the wreckage and lifted him away, he never touched the car again. The insurance company wrote the thing off as a totalled vehicle and he wondered what that meant. The total seemed like a raw number completely added up, the figure they reach for when they need to make something go away. He imagined the end of the van’s life. Thought about those compacted cubes of metal he’d seen on TV and about the conveyors and the cranes and the incinerators at Zalev Brothers. He’d looked through the fence there once and watched the smokestacks and the bulldozers moving their mountains of ore. An unmaking as systematic as manufacture. It scared him. Metal turned back into a ferrous dust and smoke. The remains of 12 million Magic Wagons absorbed into the ground, secreted into the river, or floating in the sky to become a microscopic coating of ash inside your lungs.

The same transformations for us, he thinks. A person is one thing and one thing and one thing. Then he is something else. There is a pivot, a before and an after, a shifting. The day he decided to take the buyout. That was it for him. Not the accident. Not the day he left the hospital or the week when his daughter went back to her own life. Not even today, the day she forgot. Everything else is second to the moment when he decided to really walk away, to move exclusively under his own power. Walk and never drive again. Walk and not even allow himself to be carried in another car or taxi or bus. This was the one connection he needed to break. His life fused to the internal combustion engine, almost since the beginning. He wanted them not to touch anymore.

It has been almost a year now and he thinks he has managed it well enough. The groceries and the doctor’s appointments and the bank. He leaves himself plenty of time and is never late. Follows a regular routine. A network of well-worn paths through his contracted orbit and a different way of understanding the city. He has his short cuts and his tangents, places he doesn’t go anymore. It has been doable so far, but this will be something different. The map says it is thirty miles.

Before he goes to bed, he packs his bag. A raincoat, just in case, and different layers for the way the temperature shifts during the day. A stack of six sandwiches and a water bottle. He sets the alarm for 5:30 and puts his head against the pillow. Then he gets up again and goes down to the kitchen. Digs out a flashlight and some extra batteries. It is going to be dark, he reminds himself. It will be dark at the beginning and the end.

University to Huron Church. Huron Church all the way out to the fork where the 401 begins and the Number Three branches off. Then follow the Number Three to the spot. He will know it when he gets there. The way is simple, a long diagonal cut. University to Huron Church to the Number Three. He repeats it as he falls asleep. It will take all day. Even if he starts early, it will take the full day, but he will get there. He will be where he needs to be.

In the morning, he wakes ahead of the alarm. Gets up and eats another egg and even washes the pan and his plate. He pulls on a toque and a pair of gloves, and shrugs a backpack over his shoulders before reaching for the doorknob. Outside, his breath fogs against the darkness and he turns and squeezes a note into the space between the door and the frame. If she checks, she will know where to find him. He turns the key and slips it into his pocket.

In the early stages, it goes faster than he expected. The longer distance he has to cover makes his normal routes seem shorter. The left leg is worse than the right – he cannot bend it enough to ride a bike – but the humidity is not bad and once he warms up, he finds a regular stride and moves steadily. University passes quickly before he makes the turn onto Huron Church. The spire of Assumption and the old buildings of the school stand on his left across from the massive concrete foundations of the bridge on his right. There is only one block left meant for people and even that is fading as everything clears out to make way for the second span. This is the issue of the day. A second bridge and where it will go and what it will mean and what it will cost and who will pay. Politicians and businessmen arguing on both sides of the border. They say the traffic demands a second span and that it must go here or it must go there. The single most important crossing on the continent, the lifeline of two economies. Delays that must be stopped. The flow of goods over the line. Free Trade and the Autopact. They repeat and repeat. The traffic demands a second span. The traffic demands a second span, as though traffic sets its own course free of human interference. He thinks of the twisted arms and the faces pushed up against the wall and the backroom payouts. Boarded-up houses on Indian road where his kids’ friends used to live. All of them gone now, purposely flooded and left to rot until demolition is the only option. It is hard for him to even look at it. Almost like the other side, he thinks. Almost as bad as Detroit itself.

He moves on and the Caravan follows him everywhere. Parked along the curb and sleeping in driveways and overnight lots, idling at the McDonald’s pick-up window and blinking in the left-turn lane. It is always close by, bumper humming just six inches from his repaired knee as he passes inside the crosswalk. Every make and model. Some twelve or fifteen years old, rumbling by, exhaling exhaust and pulling in the air. He can see what the drivers don’t know. Those struts are done, my friend. All the ninety-eights had the same problem. And that hint of rust around the wheel well? Looks like nothing right now, but wait one year. Should have sprung for the metallic paint. The telltale wobbles. The bad alignments and the burning oil. The faulty ignitions and the squealing timing belts. Bald tires and bad brakes. He remembers the big radiator recall.

After Wyandotte, after he passes beneath the bridge, the American-bound transports take over. A person walking in this place takes matters into his own hands. The toll plaza and the duty free. The University Stadium, the High School. Two different malls. The strip bar and the fast food. The motels and the fruit stands. They all rise in front and he walks them down. Six lanes running on his right. Trucks backed up and waiting. Petunias planted in the middle of a median strip.

He takes a break at the cloverleaf where Huron Church passes under the Expressway. Four lanes running full tilt on the ground and four more running perpendicular over his head. A place that makes its own air currents. He sits on the hill, eats a sandwich and feels good about his progress. Watches the newspapers and plastic bags swirling always in the same pattern. Sucked upwards and sideways. After the expressway, there are houses with neat hedges set back from the road and then Saint Clair College and the outlet centres and cemeteries lined up on the right. Heavenly Rest waits near the junction where the 401 begins and ends and the Number Three branches off. His wife and his son are in there and it has all been paid for, but he has never seen the graves and cannot stop now to check. The daylight needs to be preserved.

As he moves along the Number Three, he thinks about all the other times he came this way before the accident. There are only two lanes and he remembers how the slower drivers used to frustrate him. It was always easy enough to blow by one of them, but impossible if you ever got stuck behind two or three in a row, especially at night. The way he used to stare at the speedometer and announce the pace. Sixty-three kilometres an hour, he’d say. Sixty-three. Are they all going to church? And he’d gesture through the windshield and calculate the risk of a sudden passing attempt. How fast he’d have to go and how long he’d have to spend on the wrong side of a busy road. He usually took his shot because he trusted the guts of the van. How surprisingly nimble it could be if he had to pick it up for a short burst. He’d hit the signal and drive his foot to the floor and swerve out over the dotted line to take down four stragglers in one go before cutting back to avoid a head-on collision. Whenever they were out there on the wrong side, his wife used to put her hand out and touch his chest and tell him to go back. Stop it, she’d say. Stop it. You know I don’t like this. You’re going to get us all killed for nothing.

As he walks along the shoulder, he faces the traffic and tries to make eye-contact with each driver. He thinks about all the other kinds of accidents. The big hundred-car pileup that shut down the whole 401 for a week. That wasn’t far from here. A diesel fire that burned so hot it melted the road down to the bare earth and welded all the cars together. And all the little side-swipes and fender-benders and the rigs that end up wrapped around hydro poles or flipped on their backs with their wheels spinning in the air. You can count on a car accident. The next one and the next one and the next one. Steady and reliable and always arriving on schedule and in the same places. Rush hour and the dark drunk interval between one and four in the morning. The night after the prom. The poorly engineered curve and the bad intersection and the nasty stretch between Chatham and the Bridge. Ask a 9-1-1 operator, ask the person who dispatches the cops and the ambulance. She will tell you. Nothing surprising ever happens on her regular shift.

He can’t walk twenty minutes on the Number Three without seeing another homemade memorial. The white wooden crosses – three feet high and hung with faded artificial flowers – are almost as frequent as kilometre markers. He pulls himself in and out of the ditches and reads every one. Dates and ages scribbled in black. Some are impossible and faded and some are twenty-years-old and still bright. He thinks of the hand coming back to re-paint and re-write the same words every spring and fall. People holding on to their rituals. There are vases and ragged teddy bears and laminated photographs and small piles of rocks that can’t be random.

After the high heat of the afternoon, his head begins to feel fuzzy and a sunburn cracks his lips. The last of his water is gone and he knows he must be a little dehydrated, but he recognizes the spot immediately. It is impossible to make a mistake when you approach this gradually. The traces of tread are still there and they point the way, directing him back. He steps clearly into what passed so quickly the first time and everything is as it was. He thinks he can almost see the space he opened in last year’s corn. He goes in, parts the stalks like coats on a rack. From the road, the field looks scattered, but inside everything is straight and the rows are evenly planted. It is all the space he needs.

Good, he says. Good enough. He lies down with them. Palms flat on the ground and his cheek turned. This is what he came to do. The shadow from a cloud passes over and a tide of deep fatigue rises. Dizziness and a regular throbbing in his legs now that he has stopped. There is no next move. He rests his head on the backpack and closes his eyes. One quiet hour here with them. A bit of time spent together and then he will head back. Maybe he will get a motel on the way home.

His body rests in the cornfield and a crowd of stalks stands over him. Waning sunlight, green warmth, insects and silence. An ant crawling on the back of his hand. Mosquitoes and then a single Monarch butterfly. Almost time for you to go, he thinks. He remembers a visit to Point Pelee, something the guide said about their incredible migration. The amount of time it takes to make it down to Mexico every year, their repeating cycles and the long distances and short lifespans. Four rounds before they get through. Whole generations born and giving out while still en route.

There is a whirring when he opens his eyes. He hears the road but can’t see it. It is dark and cold and he is stiff. His watch says 8:30 but the night is already full black. More than four hours of sleep and he is still exhausted. He tries to stand but his joints feel calcified and arthritic. A swollen knee and puffy fluid he can squeeze through his jeans. Tough going from here . Need to be careful and take it easy. He limps out of the field and up the ditch. Grabs at a tangle of grass to get some leverage. There is a pain in his foot when he pushes off and something wrong with his breathing, a soreness behind his ear. He emerges onto the shoulder and crosses over.

A single ray of light cuts the dark and comes down on him fast. He hears a high-pitched drone and watches the light approach. There is nothing reflective on his body and the kid is almost on top of him before he sees and makes his adjustment. There is a quick cut away from the side and a fading waaaaaaaaah. He catches only the first syllable of the boy swearing at him. Ninety miles an hour, he thinks, at least. Wearing only a billowing T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Skinny arms and bare elbows and his legs wrapped around the engine of a purple Kawasaki. A yellow helmet with a fire decal, streak of colour in the night. Maybe a hundred, he reconsiders. That kid might be moving a hundred miles an hour.

He keeps the flashlight pointed at his feet and walks with one foot on the asphalt and one foot on the gravel. There is a white line that separates the road from everything else and he tries to follow it, but the pavement crumbles in spots and comes apart. He turns his back and pushes his palm against his eyes whenever a car approaches. Needs to keep his pupils from dilating if he wants to hold his night vision. There are no stars in the sky and he remembers a smog warning from the forecast, high rates of particulate matter in the air.

He is not certain if this is the right direction anymore. Could be mixed-up and turned around and moving out instead of back. There is wetness in his socks and dryness in his mouth. He thinks there must be one sandwich left, but it isn’t in the bag. Should have brought more water. He feels himself weaving across the line, but can’t adjust in time and comes back too far, rolls his ankle, and falls into a swampy culvert. People with their high beams on and the slipstream from every passing vehicle. Always this wind knocking him around. The biggest trucks create a vacuum that takes everything away, even the air. He has no idea how long he has been out here.

It would be easier to stop and take three steps to the left. He knows this. No one would be surprised. Just time it right and close his eyes and move laterally and open his arms. He could wait for the next Plymouth Voyager. Select the one he wants, identify its approaching headlights and press himself against the oncoming grill. He could feel the sails of the ship and sink all the way through. Penetrate directly to the core and meld with the moving parts. The option is always there.

Another pair of lights rises up, but they seem different and more threatening. The beams aim and come directly and the horn wails from too far out. He covers his eyes and turns his back. Hears the tires as they hit the gravel. He makes himself small. Crouches. Feels the skidding up through the ground. There is a hot smell of exhaust and burning rubber. He puts his chin on his knees and waits for the blow, but it doesn’t come. A door opens and slams shut. He hears footsteps and sees a darkness in front of the light. Then a hand sweeping his face, fingers on his cheek. The voice from the telephone. A weak connection, but the signal coming through. I’m here, she says.

Fresh water pouring over his head. She puts the bottle to his mouth. You need to drink. Drink this.

His eyes adjust. She is coming back and, at first, he is not sure if this is real. It could be a stranger, just another person in a car. Perhaps he is making himself see something. It takes a second before he knows. She is there and it is true. He puts both his hands on her shoulders, tests it, and then transfers some of his weight over.

Where have you been? she yells at him. There is no apology in her voice. The forgotten phone call happened years ago. Her eyes are bright and scared and she is spitting the words.

I’ve been going back and forth on this road for hours. You know that? Just looking and looking and hoping I’d find you before something happened. Driving past that same spot again and again. I didn’t know what you’d do out here by yourself. I almost called the police, Dad. You almost made me call the police.

She pulls her hands through her hair and looks far off to the side. The cars roar by and each one makes her wince. She seems exhausted. Older than he remembers from the last time.

She leads him over to her car, engine still running.

Get in, she says, and she opens the door. We need to go home. We need to get you into a bed.

She waves her hand into the space at the passenger’s side but he will not enter. He is standing in the mouth of the car, the V between the open door and the interior, and he tells her no. Tells her he won’t.

A motel, he says. How much farther? The idea is there, but the words slur a little. A motel in Essex. I need to get there. Just for tonight. Then we see.

She shakes her head, no. No. We need to stop this right now, okay? I’ve been out here for hours and I want to go home. Please stop this. Just get in. Please get in. Please.

He hears a hint of alarm in her voice and knows she is trying to cover it up. She likely thinks he isn’t right in the head anymore. Her hand goes to his shoulder and she pushes him down, tries to lower his body onto the seat.

He resists, feels his feet set hard on the ground. A sense of clarity returning and some strength. The shock of water helping. Everything is coming back to him now. Her hand on his shoulder. The right place at the right time and they are here together. This has always been the plan.

I am going to a motel tonight, he says. And you can come or you can go. Just tell me how much farther.

I don’t know, she screams. How am I supposed to know? Why are you doing this? Maybe a couple of miles that way. Her hand waves in the dark. Let me bring you at least. It will take us five minutes.

The still moment of confrontation. They stand one foot apart on the side of the road. He sways from the ankles and she looks at his hair and his clothes and his feet. Streaks of filth running behind his ears and down his neck. She shakes her head, stares at the space between his eyes and then looks away. He can see it when she turns. A tremor moving through, the crack in this hard performance. Her cheeks flush and he watches the anger and frustration mix with something else he can recognize. There are things we must allow each other that have nothing to do with kindness.

This doesn’t change anything, she says and she spreads both her arms wide as if to absorb the whole scene. A muscle ripples in her cheek. You know that, right? This won’t change what you did.

She pushes the heels of her hands hard against her eye sockets and then she shakes her head again and leans over to kiss him on the cheek. She walks back to the car, puts it in gear, checks over her shoulder, and sweeps through a U-turn. When she pulls up beside him, she hits the hazards and he looks to her through the window. She flicks her wrist and waves him ahead and he nods and starts to walk. She follows with her tires rotating to match his pace, a half-turn at a time. The four-ways flash and her headlights shine up on his back. He walks on the shoulder, then on the side, then in the middle of the lane and his shadow stretches out in front, the outline of a human body cast down onto the pavement, but still moving. Other cars come up from behind, slow down and almost crawl. There is a moment of confusion, a pause. A string of red tail lights extends back into the darkness and the whole strange parade inches forward.

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One Response to The Number Three

  1. Gillian says:

    “The single fried egg might be life’s loneliest meal.” Reminiscent of Stan Dragland’s “Fried egg sandwich at one am on plain white storebought bread”. Fantastic story. Thanks.

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