Witness

The boy’s body hit the hood of the Toyota, slammed off the windshield, and then slid, falling out of sight from where Marie stood. She thought it might have been a performance, it happened so quickly, but there was no mistaking the terrible, high-whistle screeching of hot rubber on asphalt, the dull thud as the kid’s body hit the street. His bike crumpled under the front wheels as though it was fake, made of foil. People flooded the street, retail workers from the stores, good Samaritans pulling over in their cars to help, but Marie was frozen, waiting for someone to tell her it was just a joke.

The kid hadn’t even had time to scream, but a woman driving by wailed through her open window. At first Marie thought the woman knew the kid, her cry had been so heartbreaking. But then she began to think of it as a transfer of sound, as if the screams that the boy himself was unable to release had been conveyed through the air and into the woman in the car, who was able, finally, to let them out. Marie whispered, “Dear God,” and pinched the inside of her wrist, something she’d done since she was a child.

They went to the boy, hovering over him in a circle, everyone afraid to touch him. He was obviously dead. It was the man behind the wheel of the car whom Marie noticed. He couldn’t have seen the boy coming with all the cars parked along the side of the street. The kid probably hadn’t even looked, had darted out into traffic just before the light turned, and the driver, probably trying to beat the yellow light, could not have stopped in time.

When Marie walked over, the man was still sitting in his car, staring straight ahead at the mass of people. She thought he was hurt, but when she tapped on the glass with her knuckle, he looked over at her, blinked a few times, and then fumbled for the door. He must’ve been Marie’s dad’s age, in his sixties, his brown hair thinning on top, and Marie felt a stab through her heart when she met his eyes. Clear blue, the color of a glassy sky. She saw the shine of panic in them.

“Are you okay, Sir?”

He didn’t answer, just struggled to get out of the car. He was tall, his legs long and thin. He placed his hands against his hips to stop them from shaking, making a deep sound in his throat. He bent over at the waist, his head resting against the trunk of his car.

Then he retched, his body convulsing, and he vomited on his back tire and the street. Marie turned away, embarrassed to witness something so private, intimate, raw. When he stood up again, wiping his mouth, she had the urge to pull him from the scene before anyone came. He turned to her, met her eyes, and said, “Thank you,” his bottom lip trembling. “Thank you.”

But before she could say anything to him, the first police car arrived, its siren wailing loudly in the cold street. The noise drowned out any words Marie might have said and then people pushed between them, jostling her to the sidewalk, and she forgot what she would’ve said anyway.

**

Bud was in the kitchen when she got home, whistling while he made a salami sandwich. He didn’t look up when she entered. She stood in the doorway watching him slap pieces of salami on the bread. She knew before he did it that he would squeeze the mustard out in a perfect spiral on the bread.

“Take a load off,” Bud said without turning around.

Marie walked behind him and rested her head on his back, smelling his shampoo. This, her kitchen—the hum of the refrigerator, the broken clock above the sink, the plants that needed watering—was familiar and safe. She brushed her finger over a crack in the counter. Bud moved away from her, putting the mustard back in the refrigerator, and she almost lost her balance.

“I saw an accident,” she said. “It was really bad.”

He looked at her then and raised his eyebrows. “Where?” His eyes flicked over her and then at the counter, where he gestured with his hand before she could answer. “Can you hand me those pickles?”

“Someone died. A little boy.” She shuddered, still in her coat. Her voice sounded too loud and shaky.

“That’s terrible.” He looked concerned now, her silence making him stop. “Are you okay?”

Instead of answering, she walked into the living room. Bud followed, watching as she removed her shoes, tucked her feet into the cushions of the couch and switched on the television. “We have to watch the news.”

It was the lead story. On the television, the reporter’s face took up most of the screen, ambulances and fire trucks over his shoulder. They didn’t show the man Marie had helped, but the reporter said his name was Raymond Balcham.

“Raymond Balcham,” Marie repeated softly, thrilled that she’d learned something more about him. He was from Old Forge, the town she had grown up in.

“I feel bad for that man,” she said, pulling her coat around her. “He looked so sad. It was awful. To hit a child. I can’t imagine.”

“He was probably drunk or something. I don’t know how you can miss a kid on a bike, for Christ’s sake,” Bud said, chewing on his sandwich. He sat back on the couch, tugging on his jeans.

“He wasn’t drunk, Bud. I was there with him. Why do you have to be so negative all the time?”

She switched off the television. He looked at her. “Hey, I was watching that. Don’t be mean.”

Marie took his crumpled napkin into the kitchen and tossed it in the trash. She swept the bread crumbs off the counter and into the garbage and put away the dishes on the drying rack. How many years now had she been cleaning up for Bud? Over and over again, the same routine. Make the bed in the morning, clean up after his food trail, bring his shoes upstairs to the closet. She opened the refrigerator and slammed it.

Outside, the wind whistled. It had started to snow. It was funny how her house, which minutes before had seemed quiet and safe, now seemed like a prison. She wanted to scream now—for the boy, for the old man, for herself. How quickly things could change.

**

A few days later, driving home from work in a light freezing rain, Marie gripped the steering wheel, afraid she was going to slide. The highway was crowded with cars going home for the day. After leaning on her brakes for the tenth time, Marie pulled off the highway on a stretch just before the expressway, behind a series of restaurants downtown where, as a teenager, she’d smoked cigarettes with friends.

She picked up the newspaper she’d bought at the convenience store near her office. She wanted to read about the accident alone, before she went home. In the past few days, there had been several stories on the little boy – full-page spreads in which they interviewed his family, his teachers. But what interested Marie were the reports on Balcham. It looked as though they were going to charge him for manslaughter, but his lawyers argued it was an accident and that no one was to blame. That morning Marie had looked up his name in the phone book. Only three Balchams were listed—Raymond F. was between Julie C. and Thomas P, and his address on South Franklin Street was only a few blocks from her parents’ house in Old Forge.

That day there was no mention of the accident in the newspaper. Disappointed and restless, Marie got out of her car, walked to the edge of the highway. The rain had let up a little and cars passed in a blur, shaking the ground. Alongside the road, trash collected, pressed flat from the tires or caked in mud. Marie could make out a bottle of Budweiser, plastic cups, a piece of a garbage bag. She had the urge to pick them up, take them to a trash can. She wandered slowly up the road, wondering what she was doing. The mist hit her in the face, coated her hair in a fine film. Above her, a sign for the interstate, New York City, pointed towards an exit half a mile down the road.

Heart pounding, Marie turned and faced the road. She extended her arm and thumb in the cold, watching as several cars passed, the drivers not even glancing at her. This is absurd, she thought. She felt very thin, almost transparent, could feel her breath like cold, cold peppermint running down her throat and into her belly.

A large, gray pick-up truck slowed as it approached and the driver waved at her, a man around her age, his baseball cap pressed tightly atop his mop of curly hair. He grinned as he passed her, the right side of his mouth turned upward in a way that reminded her of someone, although she couldn’t think who. The truck was rusting on the sides, like paint splashes around the door, and Marie could smell burning oil. The driver tapped his horn and slowed, his tires kicking up gravel as he pulled to the side of the road.

She thought about it for a moment, staring at the stopped truck, its right blinker flashing. The man was watching her in his rear view mirror. She could almost feel the cold vinyl passenger seat of his truck through her thin dress pants, hear the static radio she imagined was playing. Just like that.

Then she pulled her coat around her and ran, back where she’d come from, back to her car. She was laughing, her hair curling up around her neck. She’d never tried to hitchhike before. By the time she got back inside her car, rubbing her hands in front of the vents, she was out of breath, gasping for air, her cheeks red and raw.

**

One week after the accident, Marie’s mother turned 57 and she and Bud drove to her parents’ house in Old Forge after church to celebrate. Marie made a red velvet cake, her mother’s favorite, which she balanced on her lap as Bud drove. The volume of the radio was loud so they couldn’t talk.

Her mother greeted her with a kiss. She smelled of roses, her makeup thick. “Happy Birthday, Rhonda,” Bud said awkwardly, standing in the doorway as Marie’s mother exclaimed about the cake.

They sat down at the table, passed around spaghetti and meatballs, salad, bread, making polite comments about the food. Marie kept looking out the window to see if it had started snowing like the weather service had predicted.

“So what’s new?” Marie’s mom asked her, breaking the silence.

Marie wiped her mouth with her napkin. “You know that accident with the little boy last week? The one on Wyoming Avenue? I saw that. I was there when it happened. The man who hit him, he lives on South Franklin Street near the bakery.”

Bud looked up from his plate, shrugged at Marie’s dad. “She’s been talking about this all week. It really upset her.”

“That’s awful,” her mother said. “How old was he?”

“He was around Dad’s age, maybe sixty?” Marie said.

Her mother frowned. “Not that guy, the little boy!”

Her father looked up from his plate, picking up the last bits of pasta with his fingers and placing them on his fork to eat. “This is great uplifting conversation to be having on your mother’s birthday. You know she’s getting up there in years.”

“Well, anyway, I was questioned by the police and everything. As a witness. It was scary.” Marie pulled her hair away from her face, her cheeks hot. “I felt really awful for the man who hit that kid. He was so shaken.”
No one answered. Bud took another plateful of spaghetti. Marie put her fork down and stared at the top of her husband’s head.

“I saw him throw up, all over the road and his car. I was the only one who saw it.”

“Marie! Not when we’re eating.” Her mother took a drink of her iced tea, fanned her face.

“This is how it’s been all week, Rhonda,” Bud said. “I told her it was unhealthy.”

“Could you not talk about me like I’m not sitting right here in front of you?”

“Marie…”

“No. I don’t understand why everyone is treating me like I need therapy. It was something that happened and it’s been on my mind, okay? That’s all.” She stood up. Her mother put her hand on her arm.

“Finish dinner, Marie.”
“I am finished. It’s warm in here. I need to go for a walk.” She got up from the table, tucking her napkin beside her plate.

“But it’s freezing outside. And we’re about to have cake,” her mother said.

“You’ll catch pneumonia,” her father added, but he trailed off as she pulled her coat on.

“I’ll be right back.”

For a Sunday, the streets were nearly deserted. The cold had driven people inside. Marie had forgotten to bring gloves and thrust her hands far in her pockets. She knew the neighborhood well, knew exactly where to go. South Franklin Street was on a hill, and the houses looked like they were baked into the side of it, tilted like steps. His house was in the middle of the street, an ordinary looking white two-story with black shutters. She had half expected it to be dark, rundown, covered in gloom—a dark cloud hanging over it, she realized with a smile, but it looked like every other house on the street.

There were no signs of life except a children’s red plastic snow shovel lying on the ground in the neighbor’s yard. After Marie got to the end of the street, she turned back, walking up the hill, and that’s when she saw the car parked in front of Raymond Balcham’s house with its headlights on. It was like a sign.

She examined the car as she approached, but no one was inside. It wasn’t the same car he’d been driving when he killed the little boy, but perhaps that one was still impounded for evidence. Perhaps this was a rental car, and he’d left the lights on by accident, distracted. She went to his porch, rang his doorbell, and waited. She would say what it was she hadn’t been able to tell him that day on the street. She would tell him that she understood what he was going through, that she didn’t think he was a bad person. That people made mistakes, had to live with the consequences of them every day.

Her head nearly touched the low, overhanging roof of his porch. The damp outdoor carpet smelled like mold and had only a small plastic table with a pot of dying flowers for decoration. Something shifted inside the house, she heard a noise like someone coming, and she had the urge to run.

The heavy door opened with a creak and then, as his face appeared, he let out a peal of laughter so loud that she jumped back, her hand flying to her chest. The face that had been in such shock when she first met him now grinned and his eyes sparkled. He looked at her, puzzled. “Could you hold a minute, Gracie?” he said into his phone, turning the receiver from his mouth. “Can I help you?”

Marie opened her mouth, then closed it. Balcham peered at her through the screen, his eyes dark and unreadable. They had been so clear, so blue, out on the street that day. She shifted her handbag and opened her mouth to try again.

“Miss, I’m sorry. I’m not interested in whatever it is you’re trying to sell.”

“I – no! I’m not selling anything. I just wanted to tell you, your car. You left the lights on.”

He peered out past her, bending down to see below the awning. She pointed, her finger drooping. She knew what he was going to say before he said it. “That’s not my car, ma’am. I don’t know whose car that is. Thank you.”

He closed the door, hard. She heard him talking loudly, retreating deeper into his house. Her anger was fierce, hot and red. She got halfway down the street before letting it out in loud, gulping sobs, crying like she hadn’t in a long time, her gasps echoing in the empty street. She didn’t care if anyone saw her. She kept hearing Raymond’s laugh, loud and sudden, like a slap.

It grew dark as she made her way back to the house. On the kitchen table, the red velvet cake she’d made had been sliced into—dirty plates were in the sink. The three of them sat in the living room, watching football, her mother completing a crossword puzzle. She looked up as Marie walked in.

“Honey? There’s cake there on the table.”

“I know, Mom. You guys didn’t wait?” Her voice sounded on the edge of hysteria. She could see her mother examining her face, the puffiness, and knew she wouldn’t ask her what was wrong.

“Well, your father—We didn’t think you’d mind. There’s still plenty left.”

“It’s ok. I’m not hungry. I want to go home, Bud.”

He looked up from the television at the sound of his name and nodded. “In a minute, Marie.”

She waited in the car for him, and a few minutes later Bud came out, carrying a wrapped plate of leftovers to the car. He set it at her feet in the front seat, not saying a word. It had begun to snow, wet flakes that melted as they touched the windshield.

Bud was quiet for the first half of the ride home. He kept glancing over at her. She shifted in her seat, pulling her knee to her chest.

Bud squeezed her leg, his touch tentative. “You know, I’ve been thinking. About us.”

She closed her eyes, rested her head. The heater blew air at her face, making her skin feel raw. She wanted a cold washcloth to press under her eyes.

“This whole accident thing has really upset you, and well, I want you to know that, if you want, we could try.” He broke off.

She opened her eyes. “Try?”

He glanced over at her, scratched beneath his ear. “Yeah. I mean, I know we’d said that we didn’t really want kids, but if you changed your mind, you know, I don’t think it’s too late yet.”

Her eyes widened. She laughed, a burst of noise — a cackle, really, echoing the old man, she realized. He tensed beside her. She caught her reflection in the rear view mirror, her cheeks red and shiny, puffed like some kind of animal. Bud was staring at her, his eyes searching hers for something, probably recognition. He must think she was crazy. She turned away from him.

“Oh God, Bud!” Her breath sucked back in a gasp. The car in front of them had stopped short at the red light, and Bud was going to slam right into the back of it. Bud reacted before Marie could brace herself, and she was thrown forward as he braked, his tires squealing as he tried to swerve to the right to avoid the car. Her seatbelt cut into her chest like she’d been punched.

They stopped inches from the car. Marie fell back against her seat, gasping for air. She closed her eyes. “It’s over,” she said.

“Yes, Marie. I’m sorry. It’s ok, we’re fine,” Bud was saying, his hand heavy on her arm. She was thinking of the boy, the way he flew through the air like it was a circus act, so light, like he weighed only as much as a sheet of paper. She was thinking how quickly it had happened; how in only one second you could change someone’s life forever. And suddenly, she knew why she sympathized with Raymond Balcham so deeply. She knew why she wanted to see him, why she kept thinking of him. It was because she was going to do the same thing he’d done. She, too, was going to kill, destroy, rip someone apart, and it was nearly impossible to avoid it.

She opened her eyes, and looked at Bud through her tears. He looked like he was ready to crumble with worry, his eyes large and focused, this man that she’d promised so much to a long time ago when they were both different people. “No, Bud. I mean it’s really over,” she said, and waited for the impact to register.

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