From "The Essentials of Acceleration"
This story previously appeared in the Missouri Review
I am the neighbor you don't know. The neighbor who doesn't do anything wrong, but for some reason you just don't like her very much. Maybe it's the way she treats her elderly father. You think she could be nicer. You've lived down the street ten, fifteen years and know her no better than you did the day you moved in. You've asked her for favors: Bring in the mail while we're away? Water the garden? But she's never asked you for a favor in return. Maybe you have a smattering of memories, mostly visual: watching her haul her Christmas tree home, shovel her car out of the snow, drive a wreath of pink roses somewhere every spring. Is it every spring? No, more often than that, surely, but you can't quite remember.
Neighbor must be one of the most flexible words in the language. And by that I mean you can say "she's my neighbor" and people will think you mean she's your friend. But if something goes wrong, you can say, "Oh, I don't really know her. She's just my neighbor," and everyone still knows what you mean.
Janeen told the police she didn't think I had a drinking problem. "Then again," she said, "I don't really know her. She's just my neighbor."
A witness said the boy was never really all that close to the car.
In the paper it became "Daughter Transporting Mother's Roadside Memorial Has Traffic Accident," which is strange for two reasons. First, there was no "traffic." I missed the boy and hit the parked silver Lexus of the wealthy college student living in the house her parents bought her. I did this intentionally. It was either the Lexus or Mr. Braden's prize yellow butterfly bush and I like him better. No other cars were involved and the boy was unhurt. Second, I wasn't "transporting" the wreath. I didn't even know it was in the trunk. I was supposed to pick it up in the morning.
I was going too fast, however, that much is true. The two beers and a small dinner meant my judgment was impaired, no question, though my blood alcohol level was not over the legal limit. The officer was young and apologetic.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I have to ticket you, but I don't really think you're a threat."
I thanked him and thought it best to say nothing more. I wasn't sure he was right. Sometimes I think I know a few big things about me and my family more than I know one single true sentence.
You can't spend a lot of time driving, as I do, and not think about the dangers. The skill of driving defensively is seeing danger everywhere. Over the years an archive of accidents, a mental flip-book of tragedy, has stuck in my head. My mother, of course. The woman who was crossing the street in front of her church in Washington, hit so hard by a car her head was severed from her body and flew a hundred feet. The preschooler waiting in her car seat one morning while her aunt dug out after a snowstorm. The aunt turned the car on to keep the girl warm, but the exhaust pipe was in the snowbank and she died of carbon monoxide poisoning before the driveway was clear. Through the window, the aunt saw the little girl fall asleep and thought she was just tired. The pastor who left his baby in the car while he went in to work one day last summer. He was supposed to take her to the day-care center but forgot. He found her late in the afternoon, dead from heat stroke. What is that man supposed to do? Find God? He was already a pastor. Who will he talk to now?
The local school crossing guard tells me she is not allowed to touch anyone crossing the street, not even the little old ladies who stand on the curb and flutter their elbows like wings for assistance. If something were to happen, the liability for the city is too great. We hurl ourselves around in cars at astonishing speeds, but we're not allowed to touch each other crossing the street? It's an absurd arrangement, and by that I mean when you lose someone, you see ironies everywhere that the world does not allow you to talk about even half as much as you'd like.
Jessica Francis Kane. "The Essentials of Acceleration," from This Close. Copyright 2013 by Jessica Francis Kane. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.