Grand Prize Winner, 2007 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award: When the Brakes Went by Stephen L. Schaurer
From Syracuse, New York, Stephen Schaurer is a 1971 graduate of Cornell University’s independent major program (writing, cinema, and psychology). Following 30 years in association management and a stint in customer relations / disaster consulting, Schaurer returned to "his true love of wording." In his words, "I'm at work and play on two novels, A Sympathetic Ear and The Canard Factory, along with related tales, featuring their incidental characters. My fiction is a lace of humors and horrors, spiked with real characters. "When the Brakes Went" began on a steep downhill drop of a local country road. The Vietnam references may have emanated from the guilt of a high lottery number, that saved many of us from fighting in a deluded war against cultures whose languages we did not speak, while friends returned in cerecloths, where in the end we told ourselves that, at least, a lesson had been learned.” The editors of Writecorner Press are pleased to nominate Schaurer's story for the Pushcart Award.
When the Brakes Went
Stephen L. Schaurer
When the brakes went, wheezed dry like a hoary last breath, Alden Freed was driving home the way most folks do, maneuvering more by instinct and years of dull experience than through any conscious act of operating an explosion-powered machine.
Alden had just crested the highest hill in the county, just sparked that gap between when his foot fired the rust-crusted Ford up the steep grade, and when he let go, his work boot hovering over the brake, ready to command the heavy truck’s descent. In that feeble instant Alden floated in a consummate calm, the final surge of the uphill coast, suspension, weightlessness, his soul propelled into a lurch, one with God. Alden Freed was drunk.
When the brakes went, when the pedal scraped the floor, a county fair grin of nostalgic expectation surprised itself onto his formica face, a memory of leaning over the bar atop the roller coaster’s highest peak, perched to plummet into a rumbling jangling excitement where he’d yell and scream and hold on for dear life. Except that roller coasters run on tracks, and when the brakes went, you just thundered up another hill and rolled back again, like rocking in a rattling cradle.
When the brakes went, Alden pumped bangety bang, as if adrenalin could resuscitate control, but the pedal was limp, like his buddy Ben’s left arm after his shoulder adopted that bullet on a steamy Sunday stroll near Qui Nhon.
As the creaking truck began to shake and pick up speed, Alden jerked the parking brake, heard the pop of the cable. He yanked the shift into reverse, to the snapping of worn and weary gear teeth, at first a hopeful grinding and bucking, slowing the truck, yes, yes, thataway, he shouted, but then the tranny just banged apart, firing bolts into the tarvia, conceding the bout, releasing its load.
Alden zigzagged across the stone-tarred road, tires skidding into the gravel on its sides, his shoulders yanking the steering wheel in a mean polka to keep from toppling into the ditches, deeper by a truck height than the shallow sandy trenches he had once shot other boys from, across which the cornstalks grew like bamboo shoots, as high as marble monuments. He was relieved no one was coming up the hill toward him; and then he wished there was, a car he could head-on, only minor injuries, thanks for your trouble.
Alden needed precious time to think, that was the way his mind worked, and his brain landed in junior high science class, where Mr. Burger was talking to the blackboard about acceleration, while Alden and his friends Tinker and Bob held magnifying lenses above their heads to catch the sun’s rays pulsing through the rear wall of windows. The boys aimed the sunbeams like a laser onto the teacher’s back, and the class snickered as Mr. Burger reached back to scratch the hot spot on his starched blue shirt. Alden wondered if any of those chalk marks explaining about acceleration might be helpful right now.
He calculated the odds in his head, like the time he was mugged with a gun to his face, whether to surrender his wallet or to pull the knife from his belt. That time was easy; no credit cards, a revoked driver's license, and he was almost broke. But today the odds were whether he had a greater chance staying alive leaping into the ditch at forty miles per, or riding straight past that stop sign a mile down the hill into a field of oblivion.
Right back then, a moment’s thought ago, he decided fifty feet too late, was when he should have jumped, should have super-manned his body into the musty ditch of rocks, like he wished he’d've done years before, onto that grenade. His shoulders see-sawed side-to-side and his knuckles turned rabbit-tail white as he fought the jumping wheel, exploiting each stone-spitting skid to slow the truck, hoping for a blowout as he carved the wheels into the asphalt, peeling rubber like he used to rub out bad answers with his pencil eraser.
Suffocating spasms sparked through Alden’s chest, so he ran the truck half off the road, the bald tires on the driver’s side slipping on the hot tarvia, the passenger tires spitting stones into the corn, like in his gravel driveway at home, where you can hear the crackling of company coming, so you don’t get taken by surprise, except for the lost folks just turning around. Being lost would be better now than experiencing Mr. Burger’s rules of gravity and momentum, where even half-riding the rough edge was more Herculean than Aldenian, so he started a wide weave, free wheeling faster and faster into the valley of farm-dotted pastures and waving corn that watered his eyes with afternoon sunlight, until even that effort sucked him dry, and the best he could do was to follow the middle stripe, and just hold on.
Alden Freed had run out of every slow-it-down measure he could think his mind to, and he wondered if when he raced through that stop sign, if no one was passing by just then, if his rust bucket of a truck would leap over the country moat on the other side and toboggan through the cornfield. Or if its makeshift wood beam bumper would wedge into the bank, rocket him through the windshield, thunk him into the ground like a kernel from a tractor-pulled corn planter, saving everybody the trouble of a formal burial. But he knew the fools in town would dig him up just to bury him someplace else.
When the brakes went, Alden suddenly felt so close to his best girl Leann that he shot his eyes off the road to see if it was she in a beige summer dress sitting next to him, or just the hammock in its cardboard box from the hardware store, propped across the seat with a blue ribbon around it. Today was Leann’s birthday, and in switcheroo fashion she was celebrating by preparing him his favorite dinner – “It will be a surprise,” she said. Whatever it was, if it was his favorite, he knew it would go well with a couple of beers.
The first time his Leann had come to his house, she stood in the gravel drive and struck a pose like she was at an art gallery and “Alden’s House” was a painting by some famous artist.
“This reminds me of the house built by that architect,” she told Alden.
“Right,” Alden said.
“Yes, Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright.” She gave him a look of redemption, renewed respect, of possibility.
“Except that instead of Fallingwater, what you have here is Fallinghouse. Wright’s home is a scape of protruding rock ledges and sandstone trays; you have warped stone gray clapboard siding, and a bent rusted flagpole. Instead of cascading water, your features are plunging shutters and paint chips and the gush of a leaking faucet. This is Falling Down House, Alden. This is a house of a different harmony.
“Now, if we just had a pitchfork and a camera.” She invited her artist friend R. B. Morris to muster an image on canvas. The artist sat in front of Alden’s house for a week. His painting was a maze of color; he saw the house of collapsing gray as a square balloon festival. But Alden just wished the artist had actually painted the place, not crayoned an abstract of it.
The truck caught air past the yellow “BUMP” sign and Alden wished he had another chance to tell the boys at Buck’s Tavern he’d been wrong when he’d said how terrifying it would be to be a passenger in a flying machine in trouble, unable to grab the wheel and take charge, everything depending on the anonymous pilot and crew, praying they were ace enough to land the thing alive. Now he wanted not to know how fast the end was coming, now he wanted hope, another pair of expert brains to believe in, up front finessing the controls to save his sorry ass.
When the brakes went, Alden knew that even if he did survive, he would be a hero only to himself and his buddies at Buck’s, that the whole ride would just be the start of more trouble, as if things could get any worse. Even if it wasn’t his damned fault. Even if everybody should be feeling sorry for him, instead of upset and suspicious. Even if he had an excuse as good as going out to get his Leann a birthday present. Almost excuse enough to be driving without a license, to be driving an uninsured, uninspected vehicle, with an open bottle of beer between his legs, the last one left in the chilled six-pack from the Seven-Eleven, where they don’t do background checks on alcoholics like they do when you’re buying guns. But a third DWI in as many years wouldn’t go over well. A third DWI and the empty six-pack next to the hammock would just cloud over everybody’s minds, make it that much harder to see that this was a calamity, a tragedy happening onto poor old Alden Freed.
What Alden wanted now was to jam his world into reverse, to play it backwards, back to before the brakes went, before if only, before life got rolling so fast there wasn’t any going back or slowing down. Back so far he could dive onto that grenade as it bounced into the trench by his buddies.
He wondered if Leann would be upset when she read his Last Will and Testimony folded up in the mayo jar in the kitchen cupboard, where they had agreed to record their final wishes in sealed envelopes. “What if some day you get yourself into an Alden-Ender?” Leann had ribbed him. “We need to record our last words and wants, honey, just in case.”
Despicable as he felt it was, he had always secretly hoped she would die first, so he could see what she wrote. He wondered if she would be upset by his final request, to be cremated in his Army uniform. He didn’t know she had found the faded cloth in his trunk and burned it, so his last wish was already half-baked.
The stop sign at the bottom of the hill came at him like a wild pitch. He stopped his remembering, his calling up the past. Now he was doing new thinking, which took more time.
Alden Freed decided he was ready. Bad brakes were a universal condition. “Do not ask for whom the brakes went,” he thought. “They went for you.”
He wrung the sweat from his hands onto the plastic steering wheel and hung on for the end of the ride, hung on and wished he had time to strap on the frayed seat belt. But he knew he couldn’t deal with the buckle and hold the truck straight, so Alden Freed did the next best, most daring delicious thing left in his life. He took a last swig of the beer from between his legs, and flung the brown bottle to the floor.
“Lord Allah, sweet Jesus, I’ll never drink again!” he shouted. “Just save my godforsaken ass!”
When the brakes went, the very last thing Alden Freed expected was to end his thrill ride sitting in the front seat of his truck, snickering in his pew in six pack potent awe, with bruises, scratches and the stink of fresh crap and cheap yeasty beer, but not one broken bone. Through his windshield he watched the boys from the local fire department fooling with the jaws of life as they struggled to extricate a limp doll from the station wagon he had struck in its rear end, compacting the car into the canal as the impact hurled his truck into the air, landing in a backwards slide, his head cracking the glass window behind him instead of flying out the windshield in front, as the truck plowed up the field and came to rest in a cloud of corn.
Alden Freed sat in the dust amazed to be alive, incredulous at how the angles and speeds of that station wagon and his pickup truck would have been an A plus answer to some question old Mr. Burger could have asked, deflections and refractions and perfect timing that doesn’t hardly ever happen in real life, just on tests.
A surge of adrenaline pounded his chest and fibrillated his heart, started him panting and choking on the dust while the other people’s tragedy unfolded in the haze before him like an action thriller at a drive-in cornfield movie. Wishing he had another cold six-pack to endure it with, Alden breathed in a final gasp as his screen went black.
* * * * *
Alden woke without opening his eyes, so it was just his brain that was waking, lying in a bed that wasn’t his own. Too soft for the bench at the drunk tank, too firm for the sagaways at his relatives, too much like a real mattress to be in a muddy bloody ditch. He held his eyes squint-slit shut so they wouldn’t make anyone’s acquaintance without his instruction. Then he felt the tape on his arm, the cylinder that needled inside him, the sparks of his nerves turning on like slow tubes in an old television.
“I think he’s conscious. You can try to speak with him now.”
A guttural hacking above his head, a male clearing of throat.
“Glad to see you’re back with us, here, Mister Freed. How are you feeling?”
Alden mumbled, by instinct, like a prisoner of war.
“Looks like you’re coming along real well,” the officer paragraphed on.
The nurse cut in. “Your heart as much as stopped, Mr. Freed. The EMTs got it revved up again. You’re a very lucky man.”
“Do you remember the accident?” the deep voice asked. “Can you tell us what happened, Mr. Freed?”
Don’t go off improvising a crime scene, his lawyer told him once, or was it his lieutenant. Keep your mouth shut until you’ve rehearsed it with counsel. Alden worked his head slowly left and right on the pillow. He grimaced. It ached to move; he didn’t need to pretend.
“The car you hit,” said the voice, “was carrying a family, a mother and father and four children in the back.” The officer let that news sink in, like the car had sunk into the water-filled ditch, and Alden writhed into it.
“Mr. Freed, I’m afraid you’ve killed a family of migrant workers.”
“Thank God,” Alden gasped, the words slurring out of him.
“Oh God, God no,” Alden said.
He squinted and bit his tongue to force the wet in his eyes out as tears, relieved that if there were deaths he would have to deal with, at least they weren’t local, anybody he might have run into at the grocery store, or applauded during a high school touchdown run.
* * * * *
It was weeks after his heart went, after the nurse had pulled out his tubes, after the bruises faded patriotic blue into brown, after Leann had stopped shaking her head at him, when the thwarted trial lawyers couldn’t find any big bucks attached to him, or anyone to split it with, when the jury stared at him slumped up there on the stand, when all he wanted was to amble over close enough for that chosen panel to hear him breathe, see his fingers wringing the rail, meeting 'em eye to eye, on the level, up close, telling 'em how it was.
When it was all over but the wait for sentencing, Alden sat on a leather bar stool in a dim-lit tavern three blocks from the AA meeting the judge had required him to attend, sharing his words with a square-faced bartender whose eyes hadn’t adjusted to the pretense of compassion on the afternoon shift.
“When the brakes went,” Alden said, “I told God I’d give up drinking forever, if he’d just save my ass. Me me me. Just save my ass.”
The bartender set the two beers Alden had ordered on the bar.
“So what does God do? He keeps His word, that’s what. He does exactly what crazy old Alden asked him to. Perform a miracle. Just like up in Quang Tri, when I yelled for Him to save me from that onslaught, and my two buddies here get blown to bits. God listens to me, and lets all these other people do the suffering.”
Alden lined up the beers in front of the adjoining bar stools. “Remember how your mom used to send you brownies, man, with twenty dollar bills baked inside of them?” Alden grinned at the memory of his pal’s head-nodding smile. “‘Cause we weren’t allowed to have any States money in Nam, had to use the government-issued scrip?
“And when there was so much counterfeit scrip out there, that the USA recalled it all, to issue us a new kind… and Buddy had us buy eight Monopoly games from the commissary, and then he flew us to Saigon before any of ‘em down there knew what the new money looked like. Whoooa, what a weekend that was!
“Wait, wait, I’d like to introduce you to my buddies,” Alden said, but the bartender nodded to another customer, and moved down the bar.
“I’d like to introduce you,” Alden said, “but they didn’t make it.
“Drink up, boys,” he saluted the stools and their foaming beers, his glass of ice water lifted high. “Let’s remember the good times. I came by to toast you, to say thanks. To say I’m sorry. To say…”
Alden finished his water, slid off the stool, tossed a Hamilton onto the bar, passed his hand across their backs, and shuffled through the darkness, squinting his eyes, into the brilliance of another unforgiving day.