Contretemps

Gene Fieldwell squinted into the setting sun as he steered his gray Oldsmobile along the cracked blacktop. The whine of the tires on the aged road seemed out of place in the hazy twilight stillness. In his mirrors, the cool night closed in.

A pothole bounced his work from Temporality, Inc, across the passenger seat and onto the floor. Glancing back to the road, Gene noticed a low form ahead on the gravel shoulder. His brow creased. It wasn’t a deer. As he neared, it shifted, then flipped over twice, rolling onto the asphalt. He had no time to swerve.

A lurid pang clutched his chest and his eyes shot to the rear view mirror. The car jolted as the far wheels impacted, and in the mirror a twisted body spun erect like a haunted marionette and slammed into the back of the speeding car.

And then Gene was scudding through the gravel shoulder, clutching the steering wheel, the brakes locked. The car grated to a stop with a clatter of stones on the underbody, and a cloud of white dust enveloped the vehicle. His heart ached dully. He knew that through some inhuman, inescapable event he had just taken a life. His eyes were fixed on the side mirror. Slowly, the dust drifted.

Far behind him was an old man dressed in black leather, shuffling backwards across the road. No one else was in sight.

He cautiously turned his car around on the deserted stretch, his heart pounding. Carjacking stories from the news crowded his mind, stories of helpful motorists vanishing after stopping to help at faked accidents. But he had surely killed a man, and it would be a hit-and-run if he did not go back. He wished he carried a weapon in the car. He parked a safe distance from the stooped, shuffling man and turned on the emergency flashers. Taking a breath, he opened the car door.

“Can I help you?” Gene shouted, hesitating. The man was looking towards him, silent, his features inscrutable in the orange glow of the setting sun. Gene searched the surrounding fields and ditches. He could see no one else.

“Does anyone need help? Is someone hurt?” The man mumbled something in response. Gene stepped from the protection of the car door and walked toward the man. The man raised his hand and waved incongruously. Gene stopped.

“Can you hear me?” he asked, gesturing to his ear.

“Aib doog,” the man finally responded, holding his wrist.

Gene stepped toward him again, glancing around. “Can you understand me? English, do you speak English?”

The man smiled at him, and bent to touch something on the ground. Gene followed the man’s finger. There was a watch on the pavement. The man straightened, smiled again, and ceremoniously held his hand out over the watch. It flipped over, bounced, then leaped into the air. His waiting fingers caught it, and he held it out, waiting. Gene stepped closer and examined its face. It was an ordinary Rolex, ticking, working. But the hands were moving backwards.

Gene drew back, unsure. The man continued to hold the watch at arm’s length for a while, then withdrew it and awkwardly strapped it to his wrist.

Gene’s mind reeled, trying to comprehend. He needed to tell the old man about the accident. Maybe everything could be changed. He hoped he could undo the events.

The elderly man made a hiccupping laugh sound, and made a double thumbs-up, smiling broadly.

“Ooyd nats r dnuh eed eh r lah eeah,” the man said, his wrinkled features still in a grin.

“I need to warn you of something,” Gene enunciated loudly.

“Eaykoh z tih.”

“We can’t understand each other this way,” Gene tried again. “I need...”

Suddenly an idea hit him. He took his memo pad and pen from his suit pocket and held a blank page out to see. Then he slowly wrote in block letters across the page:

I AM GOING TO HIT YOU WITH MY CAR. WAIT TO CROSS THE ROAD.

Gene pointed emphatically to the notepad and studied the old man. His face was somehow familiar, and he seemed to show comprehension. But the look vanished, and he looked shortly at Gene, then blankly back at the pad.

Gene put the note away in despair. Sliding the pen into his pocket, he paused.

“Wait a second…you did understand after all, didn’t you!” He laughed out loud with the realization, and wanted to shake the old man’s hand, but stopped himself. Instead he smiled broadly and gave him a thumbs-up. The man dropped his eyes to the pavement and slowly backed away. Gene hung back for a while, then turned and walked to his car. Making a careful three-point turn, he drove off into the last glimmer of red sun.

—§—

Gene Fieldwell stood at the highway’s edge and watched the car go in reverse, then swing around backwards to its left into a gathering cloud of gravel dust on the opposite shoulder. It backed crazily along the edge, gaining speed as the cloud was sucked under it, then leaped smoothly onto the blacktop and accelerated with a screeching noise. It passed him, quiet except for the high whine of the tires on the aged road, which seemed out of place in the hazy daybreak stillness. The driver of the gray Oldsmobile glanced at him as the car receded into the distance, no sign of recognition on the younger face.

Gene broke into a laugh once more, the rising sun warming his wrinkled old features. He now knew why he had no memory of this happening. More importantly, he understood that it was never meant to be. He could live with the consequences of the meltdown.

“Not that I’ll ever receive workman’s comp,” he chuckled, and crossed the blacktop, the glow of the morning sun bathing him from the west.

Ω

Jay Brown grew up in Brazil and the US. He and his fiancée, Maria, now reside in China, where they spend their time learning Mandarin and being stared at.