Charles Rafferty ~ The Light Made Everything Harder to See

Tommy was on his way to the 7-Eleven to buy con­doms. He had offered to use Saran Wrap and a rub­ber band, but Sheila wasn’t game. They had just met and they had both been drink­ing, but appar­ent­ly not enough. Tommy felt relieved when she sug­gest­ed the errand. It would give him time to think, to fig­ure out what he would say to Melissa, his girl­friend of two years, when he saw her the fol­low­ing day.

It was warm out­side, and the deep snow was turn­ing rapid­ly to fog, ris­ing up to where Tommy thought the moon should be. He had put the porch light on as Sheila hand­ed him direc­tions, but by the time he got to the end of her long dirt dri­ve­way, the fog had swal­lowed it — or maybe, he thought, Sheila had clicked it off. The moun­tain roads made Tommy feel like he had wak­ened in a dark hotel room and couldn’t find the door. He turned off the radio to keep his focus. When one of Sheila’s rights could only be a left, he began to under­stand.

A yel­low incan­des­cence filled the air ahead of him. It was three road flares, lead­ing to a car parked along a bend, its haz­ards flash­ing. A woman mate­ri­al­ized, wav­ing him to a stop.

A car went over the side here,” she said. “Do you have a phone?”

I don’t,” said Tommy, pat­ting his pock­ets even though he didn’t own one. He got out of the car, and the woman backed away.

You saw it hap­pen?” he asked. He walked up to where the car had smashed through a wall of plowed snow and peered over the edge. The woman stood behind him, and Tommy won­dered if she could smell the wine.

I was fol­low­ing their tail­lights,” the woman said. She looked up and down the road again as if more help were on the way, but it was after two in the morn­ing. “I prac­ti­cal­ly fol­lowed them right over.”

As Tommy scanned the dark­ness, the woman kept chew­ing at a wad of gum. He thought she might be a lit­tle drunk her­self.

I could hear some­one down there,” she said. “But now it’s stopped.”

Tommy turned to her. He didn’t like the idea of find­ing a car full of bro­ken peo­ple. It remind­ed him of a ter­ri­ble acci­dent in high school, in which a base­ball play­er had been decap­i­tat­ed, and the girl who was with him crawled halfway across a field of ready corn to die in the moon­lit rows. Everyone said that they’d been drink­ing, that the head­less boy had his pants around his ankles. Tommy and the girl had been dat­ing at the time. He believed he loved her and attempt­ed to sep­a­rate his out­rage from his grief. For many days after, Tommy would not talk or lis­ten to music. He pre­ferred an iron silence.

What’s your name?” he asked. But the woman only hand­ed him a flash­light, as if to say he was the man and he’d be going over the cliff to check on things now. Tommy clicked it on, but with so much fog, the light made every­thing hard­er to see.

Tommy turned, fac­ing the dark­ness again, and called out to what­ev­er might be down there. Something tiny came back to him. He couldn’t say if it was a radio or a per­son, or just some melt­ed snow head­ed for the sea.

How fast were they going?” he asked, kick­ing at a bit of sheered brush and not­ing a bro­ken tree.

Not real fast,” she said. She took a pair of gloves from her coat pock­et and put them on. “Maybe forty.”

Tommy picked up one of the flares and placed it on the lip of the cliff so he’d have some­thing to come back to. He knew he’d nev­er make it to the 7-Eleven at this point, and the way back to Sheila’s seemed impos­si­ble to trace. He imag­ined her fin­ish­ing the wine and pass­ing out, her body naked and untouched on the liv­ing room couch. Then he stepped over the edge, three-limb­ing it into the deep snow. He head­ed off in the direc­tion he fig­ured a slow mov­ing car would take over a cliff like this, the height of which he had no way of judg­ing. Behind him, the woman shift­ed her car into gear and pulled away.

After a cou­ple of min­utes, Tommy’s shoes were soaked and the ground began to lev­el. He looked up and could see the faint glow­ing of the flare. He called out again, wait­ed, and heard noth­ing. He thought of Sheila’s porch light and how it had dis­ap­peared. He thought of his old girl­friend crawl­ing through the corn.

Tommy found anoth­er bro­ken tree, then a hub­cap lying on the snow like a din­ner plate. A smudge of moon showed itself high in the fog above him. His feet were get­ting cold now. Somewhere up ahead, and very close, he caught the music of a dead girl, singing.

~

Charles Rafferty’s eleventh col­lec­tion of poems is The Smoke of Horses (forth­com­ing from BOA Editions). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and are forth­com­ing in Ploughshares. His sto­ries have appeared in The Southern Review and Per Contra, and his sto­ry col­lec­tion is called Saturday Night at Magellan’s. Currently, he directs the MFA pro­gram at Albertus Magnus College.