Better Than Six

By Kerri Pierce

10:00 a.m. The sky is ominous. Bruised. Like a scraped-up leg. (Like that time she flew off the bike and he came running.) A hidden sun stains the low-lying clouds: green, black, blue, gray, reddish-yellow in places. The sky looks grotesque. (“Your leg might need stitches,” the doctor said.) She’s got to stop for gas. The fuel gauge is nearing empty. The gas station’s a block away. Might as well be a mile. Both directions, bumper-to-bumper. (At the sight of it, she’d cried. For the beat up leg as much as the pain.) The road here in downtown is red brick, not asphalt. Orange, white, and purple flowers wilt in planters that’ve been placed at intervals along the sidewalk. The shopping center to her right currently caters to people with high end tastes in pet food, antiques, and garden gnomes. The businesses there rotate in and out. Twenty years back, she remembers, it housed a record store, a travel agency, and a dry cleaners. All that’s left is the Corner Diner Café. Its one-story façade is more or less unchanged. The cracked shutters are blue. There are flowers on the sill. The Corner Diner Café has outlasted economic up- and downturns, not to mention the recent trend in gentrifi-beautification. It’s been fifteen years since she was here last.

10:05. Beneath the bruised sky, everything appears deserted. Somewhere up ahead, just a mile or two away, a funeral is about to happen. Right now, it’s hard to believe anything can happen. At the moment, on the storm’s edge, everything appears suspended: the lights brighter, the outlines starker. This whole traffic-jammed-up world: weightier. The gas station’s green-and-white sign—Guzzle n’ Go!—glows eerily against the blue-black clouds. Guzzle n’ Go, she thinks. An ironic name. Traffic is at a standstill. All guzzle, no go. A pre-storm pause. Right before all hell breaks loose. If traffic doesn’t move, she might miss the funeral, which starts in twenty-three minutes.

10:07. She glances at the sky and allows it to remind her of the time she flew off the bike and he came running. Her eyes shift from the dramatic sky to the folded up newspaper in the passenger’s seat. His obituary. It arrived several days ago. She was surprised to find her name listed among his survivors. Amon Grant, dearly departed, is survived by his loving wife Heidi and his three children, Brandon, Ashley, and Grace. There’s quite a bit of history that that sentence decks over. Quite a bit of turbulent water beneath the rickety bridge and Grace. In fact, she’s not quite sure the conjunctive structure will hold much longer. Long enough for a funeral? Perhaps.

10:12. The world seems suspended. The only thing moving is the traffic light up ahead. Despite the standstill, it dutifully rotates through its signals: golight, green; slowlight, yellow; stoplight, red. Neither lane has moved in twelve minutes.

10:15. She’s still stuck. The first drops of rain are falling. She can’t get it out of her head now: that time she flew off her bike and he came running. Ever since she got the call – Grace, it’s Heidi, your step-mom. I know we’ve never met. I’m so sorry, your father wanted to reach out to you, he just didn’t know how. Now it’s too late. I’m so sorry to tell you your father’s passed on—scraps of memory have fluttered to the surface. Like the news of his death caused a wind to sweep through the void his absence left, stirring up twenty-year-old debris, driving the detritus of memory with it. Trying to seize those pieces is like trying to catch wind-tossed paper scraps. Is there enough there to reconstruct a whole man? Probably not. She was six years old when he left. She hasn’t seen him since.

10:21. Yes, that’s all she has of him—scraps. Nonetheless, his death is an imperative. It forces her to go back and try to piece him together. Sitting in her stalled car, looking at the storm’s bruised beginnings, she can’t help but remember her scraped-up leg from the time she flew off her bike. And he came running. Raindrops splotch up the windshield now, making red round sparkles of brake lights. The sky is darker than before. She supposes she should look for a weather report. Her hand on the steering wheel stays put. Amon Grant . . . dearly departed . . . survived by. Read right, that statement is accurate enough. Amon Grant departed her life twenty years ago. The price for his absence was dear. Most importantly, she survived him.

10:23. The rain is picking up. So is the wind. It jostles the car. People are abandoning their vehicles and heading for the only two things open: the diner and the gas station. The ones without umbrellas run hunched over. She stays put. The banged up sky entrances her. All those colors—green, yellow, black, blue, red. It’s surreal. Like the memory of her leg twenty years ago. What a stupid thought. She can’t get it out of her head. She stared at her calf as it discolored with blood below the skin (bruise) and blood upon the skin (deep cut) . . .

10:24. Spellbound, she watches drops of rain rhythmically explode the green golight across her windshield—splat—wiper time: again, and again and again and . . . The wipers can’t keep up. The rain’s a torrent. She shuts them off. Across her windshield: a green mess of yellow mess of red mess of light . . . Thunder peals overhead. Wind violently shakes the car. Seen through the rain, the gas station’s green-and-white Guzzle n’ Go sign seems to drizzle down her windows endlessly. A wicked-witch style (her mother’s style) meltdown. More people are emerging from of their cars. She imagines the crowds gathering inside the diner and the gas station. Bumper-to-bumper without, elbow-to-elbow within. Wait. Suddenly, it occurs to her—a tornado might be coming. If so, the car is the last place she should be. She considers getting out. She stays put.

10:25. A scrap of memory, just within reach—Her leg! It needed five stitches! How could she have forgotten? She was petrified. She’d never been to the hospital, never needed one stitch, much less five. Her father had taken her hand and said, “Better than six.” Then he’d smiled, so she’d smiled. He’d laughed, so she’d laughed. And shortly thereafter, just two days later, he’d left. Those two days were the pre-storm pause, right before hell (which, yes, hath no fury like her mother’s) broke loose.

10:27. The traffic light quits mid-rotation. The Guzzle n’ Go sign dims. Must be a blackout. A power outage. The world darkens. It drowns. Five minutes to go. Better than six! Is that where that stupid phrase comes from? Ever since she can remember, she’s said “better than six” to mean “could’ve been worse.” She’d never considered its origins. It had always just been a reflexive phrase, like the bless you that follows up a sneeze, but . . . is it possible?

10:30. The funeral is now. “He would’ve wanted you there,” Heidi had tearfully said in her call. “He wanted to reach out . . . So proud of you for going to med school . . . “Guess the bastard kept tabs. The wind howls, the rain pours, the thunder drowns. The sky’s a mess. The car’s in shadow. The lights on the dashboard are eerily bright. All she can see are outlines. All she can think are scraps. His hand on hers. His eyes. Green flecked with brown. Reflexively, she glances in the rearview mirror. She can’t see a thing. Hail strikes the roof, the windshield. Ping, ping—crack! Fuck! Suddenly, she’s screaming. It’s ridiculous, why, why is she screaming. The lightning begins in earnest. Bolts illuminate her eyes locked on the rearview mirror; his eyes her eyes in rearview; scraps; a hand on hers; her leg all beat up; the Corner Diner Café, order whatever you want, my brave girl; the wind, the sky, the storm; the sad parade of father figures who rotated in and out: Randy, Enrique, Dale . . . ; none survived her mother long enough to be called Dad; she’d called him Dad; Dad kept tabs; no, Amon kept tabs; Amon, Randy, Enrique, Dale . . . She pounds the steering wheel, sobs, tries to scream, can’t, as the wind-hail-rain-lightning-storm shakes the car like a mad thing. The storm’s in full swing—wait! What if a tornado really is coming? For the first time since the storm began, she’s afraid. Should she get out? Too late. The storm is too intense. She’ll have to ride it out. The clock says 10:50. Guess she’s missed the funeral . . .

Eventually, the wind subsides. The hail stops. The rain becomes a drizzle. The sky is no longer scraped and bruised. People trickle back to their cars. Her windshield is cracked in two places. No doubt her car is all dents and dings. She can’t afford to fix it. Unless—“He left you something, dear,” Heidi told her. She smiles. If it’s money, she’ll take it. If not—at least there was no tornado.

***

Kerri Pierce is a writer, translator, and mother living in Rochester, NY. She has translated works from seven different languages spanning several genres. Her short translations have appeared in places such as Fiction and The New Yorker, and her longer translations include novels and works of philosophy. She also holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Penn State.

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