by Jim Ruland
If we had known, we would have left the rancho earlier. We could have stayed in our beds, lingered over our coffee. We could have wiped away the breadcrumbs and washed the cups and set the chairs under the table. We wouldn’t have been in such a hurry. If we had known what was out there, we would have moved out to the porch for a cigarette and waited for the sun to warm our faces. We might have watched it seep into the valley, burning off the fog that made the grapes grow, until it was too hot to stay and we had no choice but to go. If only we’d listened to what they said about it not being safe to drive late at night or early in the morning, we never would have risked using the old road. We wouldn’t have tried to skirt the tolls. We would have paid our share and we would have been happy to do so. If only we had known. We wouldn’t have come to this valley where our brother was murdered and our daughter was married, so much happiness mixed with sadness. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Add this to the list of things we’ll never know. Like your name. Yours and those who left you there. What they did to turn your white shirt red and why, as if there could be answers that make the asking reasonable. How long you’d been lying there before we came along and ran over you with the truck. Whether it could have been avoided with a second cup of coffee or last minute trip to the bathroom to wet the comb and run the bristles through our bed-tangled hair. These things would be helpful to know. We came around the bend in the road and saw what little of the road the lights and the fog would allow. The wrongness of your being there an overwhelming fact we were going to have to get used to. The awful sound. The panicky jolt. The pieces of you we took with us. Flesh on the undercarriage, blood on the wheels, bright matter on shiny steel. A miracle we didn’t get stopped at the crossing. We didn’t stop for anything. Not for you. Not for the truck. Not even for a cigarette. We kept going until we were on the other side. And we wondered why it was so hard to get out of bed, so difficult to greet the darkness outside the window. How it felt like someone wanted us to stay. A premonition, we agreed over coffee, a warning. We shut the driveway gate and ran hot water in the buckets and sprayed the vehicle down. The sun refracted in the spray of the water, colors of the rainbow made visible in the air, and after everything was finished and put away, the rags arranged on the clothesline in dingy semaphore, we lit a candle and placed it on the altar as a reminder to keep silent, knowing you’d understand.
Jim Ruland is the author of the short story collection Big Lonesome and the curator of the reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its eight year. He is the recipient of a literature fellowship from the NEA, a scholarship from Bread Loaf, and a PEN In the Community Residency. He works at an Indian casino in San Diego and teaches at San Diego Writers, Ink. He lives with his wife, the visual artist Nuvia Crisol Guerra. Check out www.vermin.blogs.com/bl and www.artecrisol.com.