THE DEVIL’S ELBOW - SCOTT DINGLEY
The way it starts, the fragment of memory that forms the shadow of my rebirth, is hurt. I keep coming back to that; call it ground zero. A searing sort of pain, not the fleeting kind, the kind that puts unexpected tears in a grown man’s eyes and makes him smile quickly, embarrassed. Nor the kind that gets his blood up and sends a shock to his heart that he—that I—actually get a kick out of.
No—just a monotonous, quarter million-year-old pain with a sly little smirk on its red little face. When I hear the slurred words elbow their way through the hurt I see a dim movie show flickering in the shadows of my shaken skull. I’m watching an old Driver’s Ed film I last saw one time in High School, stomach dancing with squeamishness and adolescent nerves again: a buzz-cut Midwesterner in a plaid shirt, late 1950s, flip-flopping gently in the front seat of a crushed Edsel; jaw crushed in too, agonal respiration, nervous system on auto. Signal 30. The narrator, a State Highway Patrolman in mirror aviators I like to think, speaks with authority, each word coming with less echo distortion. Comforting in the absence of anything not slick with blood or oil:
‘Are you tired, Josh? We can stop. You need rest; you’ve come a long way.’
I’m reborn and the pain is all but gone. I’m dressed in a hospital gown and when my fingers reach up to explore the band of tightness around my head they find an eye patch over my right eye and, beneath it, the rough, inflamed tracks of scarring all down my cheek. If I pushed my finger against the soft fabric of the patch, the whole thing would sink inwards into the empty socket. I can’t get used to it. I think only how much I must look like a commandant in a war movie, and then my remaining eye darts back to the little glass sphere resting on the bedside table, watching me right back—a lonely glass eye with a sad, blue iris. I click my Zippo lighter open and shut in my other hand because the brassy coldness and the solid clicking are reassuring. The Highway Patrolman, who is actually a Doctor (I know he’s a doctor because there’s a stethoscope hanging over the collar of his white coat, see), says ‘You know you can’t smoke in here, Josh?’ and I snap back at him...
‘The sound ... Something about it helps me remember.’
I remember. I have my own two eyes, thank God, at the wheel of my lust red soft top roadster on the Campo Road stretch of State Route 94. Lucy is alongside me, wrestling with a road map, wearing red John Lennon glasses and behind her, luggage is crammed in with my Spanish guitar. My arm is rested on the door frame soaking up the sun and the radio hums gently. Blissful. My blue eyes (which Lucy adores) flick up to the rear-view mirror to study the road behind intensely, and it shimmers there in the glass, wide and sleepy. Lucy grows bored of the unwieldy map and its confusing circuitry of interwoven roads, and she holds it outside the car where the real road zooms past and lets the whole thing disappear, whisked back behind us to take flight then tumble along the empty asphalt. ‘To hell with it,’ she says with a giggle and instead puts her bare feet up onto the dash and lets the wind catch strands of her hair. We both break into laughter and the speedometer slowly creeps up as if in measure of my contentment. The Doctor speaks again and I’m back in the hospital, half-blind. Not contented.
‘Wake up Josh ... You’re alive.’
‘Lucy?’ I ask faintly, as I reach up and feel the rough gauze of the bandages which cover half of my face. A nurse dressed in white, a fleshy out of focus blob as she peers at me, steps to my side and gently eases my arm back down, whispering reassuring hush words, and all I can do is groan the word ‘Hurts,’ as the stale air escapes my lungs. I hear the Doctor say, ‘Give him another shot,’ as if he’s underwater. I settle. You’re alive?
The medical light box flickers on and reveals the blue-grey horror of my x-rays: skull, ribcage, leg bone. The Doc sits opposite me and I can tell my incessant clicking on the Zippo lighter bugs him more than ever. He hands me a photograph, black & white, and I struggle to judge the distance with one eye, missing my reach by inches. Adjusting, I seize the photograph and see that it—and the others like it on the little coffee table below—are of the scene of the road accident.
‘They’ve withheld the more graphic ones,’ he says, and it’s almost as if he’s trying to make me snap.
‘Can I see my fiancée?’
‘That won’t be possible.’
‘I don’t remember the ... impact. Just ... whiteness ... a blank—like I short-circuited.’
‘They moved what was left of the car from the pound to a junkyard. Sporty little thing,’ the Doc tells me. ‘You’re lucky to be alive, Josh, try to remember that.’
‘I want to see her body,’ I say.
‘No you don’t, Josh.’
I look at the images of twisted metal and black stains on blacktop and I break down, bowing my head and blubbing like a tired kid.
I prefer to sit up, awake, do stuff. I get nightmares at night. When I lie in bed I stare up at the ceiling and I hear screeching brakes and tyres, shattering glass, twisting metal; the kind of sounds that cut me up.
I’m pleased when the Doc comes around, closer to getting out. My good eye is fixed to the TV mounted on the wall on which a Coup de Ville has just swerved, speeded up, through a barrier and off a San Fernando hillside. It rolls and explodes, disintegrating. I’m sitting on the edge of my hospital bed and the Doc, oblivious to the clumsy entertainment in the background, is cutting and peeling off my bandages with the kind of scissors that jut up at the ends so he doesn’t stab me in my already tattered face, which I guess is kind of thoughtful of him. ‘Apart from your eye, the physical injuries were minimal. Bruising mostly. The medication kept you under...’
Not content, I ask, ‘Did you really have to take my eye, doc?’
‘The accident did it for us,’ he tells me. ‘You’ll adapt to using just one, adjusting your sense of perspective.’
‘When can I speak to the police?’ I ask him.
I can see the Doc frowning. He ignores me. ‘Any flashbacks yet? Nightmares? Weird déjà vu feelings?’
I think back a little before I say, ‘I sold up and hit the open road with my future wife. We were driving cross country. There was an accident, now she’s dead. I’m just filling in gaps.’
‘Give it time,’ he reassures me.
‘I had a fifty-year marriage ahead of me.’
He removes the last of the bandaging and lets it drop to the floor, a tad too disgusted for my liking. He examines my face close-up—what I can only imagine to be the black, empty socket of my squished-by-blunt-trauma right eye.
‘We can give you an artificial eye, the glass kind. Match it right up to your real colouring.
Until then, you might like to wear this...’
I take the black eye patch he’s offered me but I don’t thank him.
I put on my dressing gown and the eye patch too, then I head out to the payphone and call the police. A bandaged, wheelchair-bound patient rolls past me, others ambling zombie-like along the corridor. I quickly get agitated as I try to make a case: ‘Just put me through to a detective. I was involved in a road accident... My wife ... my fiancée ... was killed three or four weeks ago. I’ve been out cold in a hospital bed. The wiring of my brain is out of whack.’
I plead with them but I get nowhere. Forget it. After I slam the receiver down I take out the bottle of pills the Doc gave me and swallow a few dry.
When I sleep I dream of the road and the sun is shining so brightly it makes my eyes water. Lucy is bored and looking through a cheap souvenir slide viewer—the kind shaped like a tiny TV set and which houses banal picture postcard images, faded and thirty years old. The clicking bugs me. She stops and notices a chip in the windscreen caused by a stone kicked up from the road. She touches the fine crack in the glass.
When I wake the Doc asks me, ‘Ready to try the new eye?’
I stall, nervous and more than a touch queasy at the thought. ‘What if it rolls around backwards and I don’t notice?’
‘Then you’ll scare little kids in the street and you won’t win any beauty pageants.’
Wise ass. ‘I think I’ll need a cigarette first.’
‘Twenty-a-day man, are you Josh?’ he asks me and, strangely, I can’t quite recall. I search for even the most fleeting of memory, but they don’t seem to be there. Not when I’m awake at least.
‘I have nightmares ... about Lucy,’ I tell him. ‘In the crash, her head is taken clean off. Is that true, doc?’
He tilts his own head, firmly attached to his neck, and shrugs giving me a grim feeling that makes me glad I don’t remember more.
I do remember one thing, at least. ‘There was another car that night, tried to overtake but ran us off the road. It wasn’t my fault, Doc.’
‘There was no other vehicle, Josh. This is natural—you’re shifting feelings of guilt to a figment of your imagination, a phantom. Face the reality and heal.’
I shake my head. ‘No.’
‘The police report concluded that the glare of the sun had made you swerve off the road. Others have perished there too—it’s known as the Devil’s Elbow, damn dead man’s curve. The police won’t take it further.’
‘But they must...’
‘I mean they won’t charge you, Josh.’
I stare him down as best I can, outrage in my single wide eye. The Doc hands me a small cutting from a newspaper, which I take and read, holding it closer to my face to compensate for the lack of vision. The newspaper print headline reads, "BLINDED BY THE SUN: ROAD TRIP COUPLE IN WRECK, ONE DEAD"
‘Face the reality,’ he whispers.
I read their choice of words again bitterly: Blinded. I gather my thoughts, try to be practical. ‘When’s the funeral, Doc?’
‘You were unconscious.’
‘Why wasn’t it me?’ I wonder out loud.
‘It was her time.’
It’s not at all bad. Maybe a chilly stillness to it if you stared too long; a certain deadness, but ... Hell, what do you expect.
The reflection of my face stares back at me with two eyes and I tilt my head back and forth, up and down, to test the glass eye. I’m on the road to recovery, maybe off-road. Enough to get out of bed though, to pull my own trousers on and zip my jacket over a green hospital scrub top. Too cocky, I remove the eye and look at it in the palm of my hand as if it’s a weird sea urchin I’ve caught in a rock pool. I blink first. I glance momentarily up at the reflection again and when I see the empty blackness of my socket it disturbs the crap out of me and damned if I don’t drop the puppy dog eye on the floor. It rolls across the room and I have to chase it, thankful it’s harder to break than the original.
On the bed, I lay out the things they salvaged from the wreck. Holiday photographs, some burned around the edges. There’s a small old suitcase made of leather with stickers on it, the trendy kind, and Lucy’s glasses, their lenses shattered. I cradle the broken glasses in my hand gently and take care not to drop them like I did my stupid eyeball.
I checked myself out of the hospital and I’m heading south, thumbing a ride by the side of the road, flinching every time a truck roars past.
The suitcase feels heavy and impractical and I hope someone picks me up soon. When a guy stops I eyeball him apprehensively, then climb in and sit quietly, staring out of the passenger window and daydreaming while the guy watches the road, equally silent. He takes me only part of the way and the rest I walk. I get lost a few times, take a few wrong turns, but eventually I find the place. It’s a pretty little rural cemetery with rows of graves, patches of colour from floral tributes here and there. I walk slowly through the maze, plot serial numbers counting down as I search for one particular grave—Lucy’s. 145... 146... 147... I stop at 148. Lucy.
Beats me what I do now, I hadn’t planned that. I stare at it for a long moment, a simple wooden marker over a mound of fresh earth. I don’t have any words or thoughts so I light up a cigarette with the brass Zippo, cough violently, then open the suitcase and take out the holiday photographs. Leafing through the snapshots I see Lucy carefree, relaxed, young and beautiful; happy images of her in the sun, clowning around and posing with the guitar. One photograph of Lucy is burned, the emulsion melted and blistered.
When I look back to the grave I have some words. ‘I didn’t kill you.’
I leave the photograph propped on the grave and hitch-hike away from there; another vehicle, another reticent journey. I almost climb out as I lean through the side window, hair blowing in the breeze, face directed up at the vast pale blue sky. Spots of rain begin to patter on the bodywork of the car and that’s the only reason I don’t jump.
By the time I get to the junkyard the rain is lashing down, wet and warm, hitting the junked vehicles stacked six high in sharp white sheets. It splashes off twisted spare parts, cubed cars, bald tyres and flows down a wall covered with hubcaps. Along a miry aisle I pass twisted metal frames in rust brown and charred black. I see the wrecked sports car on my left, sandwiched between two other write-offs. I see the crushed bodywork, scorch marks and flaked red paintwork, jagged broken headlights, and spider web patterns on the windscreen.
I stare at the wreckage for a long time before stepping in closer to examine the damage. Without thought, my hand runs along the once-smooth fender and I peer in through the letter-boxed driver’s window. I see blood on the windscreen, a single blonde hair glued to it despite the best efforts of the rain.
I wave off the driver of my third ride and I’m left alone, the road winding along behind and ahead of me. A flat patch of red and grey fur lies at my feet, old roadkill. The sun is setting and the sky is a candyfloss mix of yellow, orange, pink and deep black. Beside me, flowers have been left under a rusting road sign and they’ve since died themselves and turned brown. The sign above reads: ‘LAST YEAR: 59 ACCIDENTS, 12 DEATHS.’
The surface of the crooked road carries thick black tyre skid marks cutting across from the middle of the lane and the yellow thermoplastic stripes, off the side of the road and continuing as double tracks of churned-up scrub and earth. I look over my shoulder nervously before following the tracks to the edge of a steep verge and, looking down, I see exactly where we came to rest. I struggle down to the foot of the bank and then look around me.
This is where she died: ground zero, off the Devil’s Elbow.
I slip the cigarette lighter from my pocket and begin clicking the lid, anxiously. Happy, I suppose, that the Doc isn’t here to bitch about it at least. Wandering around the scrubland below the road, searching the grass with my foot, I see a small patch of red hidden in the grass. Hesitant at first, I crouch and pick it up and see that it is Lucy’s little red TV-shaped slide viewer.
The light is fading and the rain has passed. I stumble farther from the main road, between tall trees, swing the suitcase and throw it into the undergrowth, thinking Screw it. I fall to my knees, get back up and walk a little more, steadying myself against a tree trunk which feels cold and damp. I have to hold my head in pain before taking out the pills the Doc gave me and swallowing several, spilling the rest to the forest floor. The fleshless lips on the little red face peel back into a wicked smile, mocking my torture.
‘That maniac took everything from me, stole my future...’ I mumble in despair.
I dream of hypnotic sunlight on the windscreen. Lucy speaks to me, ‘Are you tired, Josh? We can stop. You need rest; you’ve come a long way.’
When I look up at the rear-view mirror, the road behind me is empty, except for a bouncing blur which resembles a jelly fish under water, trailing tendrils of blonde and pink hair: a severed head tumbling across the hot road, splashing scarlet.
I wake up half-dead as well as half-blind, on the forest floor with my back against a tree. My glass eye has been open the whole time, keeping watch. Aching and groggy, I get to my feet. Minutes later I’m hitch-hiking again, not fancying my chances with my clothes and hair in such disarray, but a truck pulls up for me nevertheless. The driver leans across in his cab to look me up and down, then flips down the sun visor on his glasses, saying helpfully, ‘You look like you got hit by a car, buddy.’
We stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and I remember that we stopped there before. Lucy got out to stretch her legs and buy a soda from the vending machine, while I pumped the gas. She popped the cap with the machine’s bottle opener, drained it and spun the bottle in the gravel, watching it make four or five revolutions amid a little dust cloud. When the bottle had slowed to a halt and the dust had settled, she saw that the neck was pointing back where we’d come from. A disappointed look appeared on her face and she headed back to me.
The truck pulls into the gas station and we open its two doors simultaneously like flapping elephant ears. I climb down from one side, the trucker from the other, and just as Lucy had done, I stretch my stiff legs, kicking around at the ground as I wander over to the vending machine. When I look into the glass front I catch a brief, imaginary reflection of her face there, before I turn back to the truck, where the trucker is checking his rig.
Idly I watch a man fill the petrol tank of his car. I crouch down beside the front bumper and stroke my fingertips over chips of red paint scraped there after some prang. The owner at the pump looks at me, frowning, until I back away. I find Lucy’s glass bottle, still there in the dirt, pointing just where Lucy had left it. Back.
A kid on a bicycle is in front of me, staring. I stare right back, then lift my hand to my right eye, fumble with it for a second and hold out the fake to show the boy. He yelps and pedals away in terror.
‘Keep your eye on the road!’ I call out after him, and when he’s gone I put the glass eye back and look down at the bottle again.
The trucker mounts up and I hear the engine cough to life. Back on the road, I silently take out Lucy’s slide viewer, hold it up to the light and look through it, clicking the lever. My lips twitch into a faint, bitter smile and I lower the viewer and clench it in my fist as I did her glasses.
I remember looking over at her and smiling and I am wearing those John Lennon spectacles myself which give everything a vivid red tint. Lucy is bathed in lust red. She holds the viewer up for me to see before returning it to her own eye: a beautiful Mexican sunset over the ocean and a white sand beach. I smile some more. She lights up a cigarette with her brass Zippo lighter before she reaches across and takes the rose-tinted sunglasses from my eyes and puts them on herself. The dying, orange sun shines right into the windscreen, all dazzling bright white and flare.
The trucker holds a packet of cigarettes towards me, offering me one, and I think about it, even taking out the brass lighter. Eventually, I tell him, ‘I don’t smoke. She did.’
He shrugs, thinking maybe I am crazy after all.
In my hand, brought out from my pocket with the lighter, is the Doc’s newspaper cutting. As I read it, I think of his police photographs of mechanised death:
‘Blinded by the Sun: Road Trip Couple in Wreck, One Dead ... A police spokesman reported that the tourists’ vehicle left the road, ploughed down a steep bank and settled upside down, where the engine caught fire. The driver, who suffered facial injuries and has been hospitalised, crawled free of the wreckage, while the passenger—thought to be his fiancée—was killed instantly. Police refused to comment on suggestions that she had been found decapitated at the scene.’
I remember oil and blood dripping in the heat haze; Lucy’s blood-matted hair against a metal backdrop. I am in a Driver’s Ed film as I lie face down in the scrub, lifting my head slowly as it glistens with blood, my right eye gone. Its oozing, egg-like fluid gazes uselessly into the grass nearby and its unharmed twin sees Lucy’s TV-shaped slide viewer. My head drops back down and I am unconscious.
I hold the newspaper cutting out of a narrow opening in the passenger window. The paper flutters wildly in the wind, before I release it. The cutting vanishes immediately. The sun is low; the day’s time has come.
‘To hell with it...’