Robert McGuill

May 27, 2022


He’d watched the accident from half a mile away, from the concession window of the What-a-Burger. When the vehicles collided the chocolate shake he was passing through the window leapt from his hand, splattering on the ground near the old man’s feet.

It was his second summer working at the burger stand, and up until that night he had been an easy-going seventeen-year-old. Unconcerned with the rest of the world. Always ready to pull back whenever the future tried to tug him away from the place he felt safest.

“What’s your hurry?” he’d say to Barbra-Ann when she came on some crazy notion to run wild. She’d grin, open her eyes as if finding her way out of a long deep kiss, and say, “I like fast. I like the way it feels, getting there first.”

The sound of the crash never left him. Neither did the twisted wreck of memories that had piled up behind it. Even now, thirty-four years after the wreckage itself turned to rust, the images still come crashing along, bright and jagged, whenever he passes through that lonely country crossroads.

The guys in the machine shop like to rag him about the way he flinches at certain noises. The clang-bang of iron unloaded from a forklift. The anguished whine of a press brake crushing a steel plate. But it’s good-natured ribbing, no harm meant, and he goes along with it like you would a friendly punch in the arm.

The car Barbra-Ann was driving that day, a little red MG, had been a birthday present from her dad, Willie. Willie had kept it under a tarp up at the ski resort outside Salida where he worked, and delivered it to her that morning before school, the words “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” written in soap on the window.

Jimmy never knew about the car because Barbra-Ann had kept it secret all day. She figured to pull in under the drive-in’s neon canopy that night, blast the horn like she was there to pick up an order of fries, and give Jimmy a teasing little smile when he looked out the service window and saw her sitting there behind the wheel.

Anyway, he hadn't known that it was she who was racing toward the crossroads that warm summer night because he’d never seen the car before. He didn't discover the names of the dead until the following morning as he lay in bed half awake listening to the news crackle in over the transistor radio on his nightstand.

The particulars of the tragedy still haunt him. He’ll lie in bed at night and close his eyes and see the zipper of dust ripping down the road, the little red ragtop humming along out in front of it. He’ll remember the faraway blare of the radio. The tasseled cornstalks in the fields. The black sedan in the oncoming lane as it drifts dangerously close to the gravel shoulder, then overcorrects with a jerk of the wheel and lurches headlong into Barbara-Ann’s path.

Barbra-Ann’s dad, Willie, was up at the lodge tuning skis that night, working ahead of the big winter to come. Willie was a stickler for getting stuff right. Spotting a bad edge before it blew out. A bad base before it split open. It was one of the things that made him such a good ski instructor, his attention to detail. Yet for reasons passing understanding, Willie’s gift for spotting trouble had deserted him the day he allowed his wild young daughter to get behind the wheel of a wild little sports car.

He was mending a pair of Rosignols when the state patrolman appeared at the shop door. He looked up, and when he saw the trooper pull off his hat and turn it in his hands, searching for the right moment to unpack the words he’d brought along, Willie laid aside the diamond file, and with lips trembling said, “Don’t just stand there, for fuck’s sake. You got something to say, say it.”

He raced down the mountain that night with tears streaming into his beard. The tires of his truck chattered on the broken tarmac. On a switchback in Bighorn Sheep Canyon he struck a patch of diesel oil and slid off the shoulder, shredding the pickup’s front tire on some shards of a fallen rock.

He had no spare with him, no patch kit, and he might well have spent the night alone out there in the dark had it not been for a trucker coming up from Texas who saw him flailing his arms, crazy-dancing on the shoulder of the road. The trucker stopped and offered him a lift. It was the last bit of good luck Willie would ever know.

“Trust me, Jimmy,” Willie once said, clapping the boy on the shoulder as he waited for Barbra-Ann to finish dressing and come downstairs, “a father knows things. You pay for everything in this life, son. Everything.”

Jimmy blew the words off, figuring them to be the ramblings of an overprotective father. A not-so-subtle way of saying, look boy, you make the mistake of getting my baby PG, I swear I’ll have your hide. There was no shortage of adults with fuzzy memories ready to make declarations about young love and the temptations it stirred. But it wasn’t until Jimmy had a daughter of his own that he felt the thrum of truth in those words. “The dearer the prize,” Willie had said, “the heavier the price tag.”

It’s five-thirty Friday morning, still dark, the last of the stars still cleaving to the heavens. But Jimmy can’t get back to sleep. He’s got too much on his mind. Too many thoughts to rake through, to make peace with, if he can.

Far away on the other side of town, Willie Rose has already risen to meet the day. He’s standing over his kitchen sink drinking a cup of cold coffee braced with sour mash. Staring out the window into the wooded lot behind his house, he thinks the same thing Jimmy’s thinking: today would’ve been Barbra-Ann’s fiftieth birthday.

Willie peers at the dark shapes on the hillside he knows to be maple trees, while away at the other end of town Jimmy flattens his pillow with his hand and ponders the face of his sleeping wife.

Willie remembers the little red MG, and how Barbra-Ann’s eyes had lit up when she saw the words “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” scrawled on the window. Jimmy remembers nothing about car, except that it made off like a thief with his girlfriend’s life. What Jimmy does remember — what he remembers quite clearly, in fact — is the walnut music box he was going to give Barbra-Ann after he got off work that night. It played her favorite song, “Lara’s Theme.” He’d wrapped it in tissue and hidden it in the glove box of his truck, and there it had stayed for the rest of the summer, until he couldn’t bear to look at it any longer.

He remembers how he drove out to the crossroads that fall to rid himself of the infernal thing, and how when he pitched it into the cornfield the lid popped open and music tinkled up from the dark.

Willie’s shoulders shake. His lips begin to tremble, and he lowers his head and shrouds his eyes with his wrinkled old hands. On the other side of town, Jimmy rolls onto his back and stares at the ceiling, grieving in a way he’s never grieved before, wondering how it was that Barbra-Ann had been able to take so much of him with her when she made her mad dash from this life into the next.

Willie clears his throat and drags his sleeve across his eyes. “Sixteen,” Jimmy whispers. “Sweet little sixteen.”

Willie goes to the back porch, walks outside into the dreary morning air as the screen door clatters shut behind him. He stands fixed, eyes bloodshot and empty, then makes his way across the yard with a pint bottle in his back pocket. A braid of rope coiled in his hand.

The day after the accident that claimed young Barbra-Ann’s life, Jimmy got a call from his buddy Mooch Munson at the What-a-Burger. Mooch had just been promoted to shift manager, and Mr. Storch, the stand’s owner, had jumped all over him for giving Jimmy time off.

“We’re shorthanded here,” the fat man bellowed when he learned what Mooch had done. “Did I promote the wrong guy to manage this bitch? Huh?” His face was red, almost purple. “You want to keep your job, Mooch, you’d better get on the horn and get that kid back here! Pronto! Tomorrow’s Friday, for Christ’s sake. You want us going into the weekend with our thumbs up our asses!”

Mooch waited for Mr. Storch to drive off before calling Jimmy. He wanted to handle it his own way. “Sorry about bothering you, bud,” he said, moving the phone from one ear to the other when Jimmy picked up. “I really am—”

“It’s all right,” Jimmy said.

The phone fell silent. “Look,” Mooch said, “any chance you want to come back to work tonight? We’ve been having a hard time getting guys to fill in and—”

Jimmy cut him off, sharply. “No,” he said. “I don’t want to come back to work tonight.”

“I just thought—”

“What the hell are you doing even asking me a question like that, Mooch?” Jimmy couldn’t stop himself. The anger that was coiled up inside broke loose, and ran away on him. “You can go to hell, all right? And on your way there, tell old man Storch to stick his head in a bucket.”

“I’m sorry,” Mooch said. “You’re right.”

“Jesus, Mooch, I thought you were my friend.”

“I am, Jimmy.”

Jimmy ceased his rant but stayed on the line.

Mooch pressed the phone to his ear. He heard Jimmy’s breathing on the other end, and it filled him with a deep, hollow sadness. “I know it’s only snow cones and tater tots,” he said, lamely. “I know it’s not Barbra-Ann, but—”

“But what?”

Mooch searched for the words.

“But what!”

“I didn’t ask you to come in because old man Storch said I should. I asked you because I thought it might be good for you. You know, having something to do.” He let this sit. “I thought you might feel better having something small and easy to pass the time,” he said. “Something’s better than nothing, right?”

When Jimmy walks into the metal shop this morning he sees the guys gathered in the break room, listening to the Bearcat.

“I don’t get it,” one of them says, dragging his feet out of the way as Jimmy walks up to punch his time card. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Jimmy punches his card, and walks to his locker while another man gets up and plugs a dime into the coffee machine.

The guy who’s spouting off is Carl Shilling, an apprentice tinsmith six months out of trade school. He’s young and ignorant, and always working his jaw. Especially over things he knows nothing about. Most of the old-timers in the shop have learned to ignore Carl, but even without an audience he can’t seem to keep a lid on it.

“Working at a fancy resort,” he says, gesturing with a grandiose sweep of his hand, “hanging around on the slopes all day. Teaching pretty young girls how to ski?” He squeezes a pair of imaginary breasts. “Shit. What’s so rough about that?”

Jimmy sets his lunch bucket on top of his locker, doing his best to ignore the kid. But when he overhears one of the other guys mention Willie Rose by name, he stops and slips a glance their way.

“Man,” the apprentice huffs, pulling his work gloves from his back pocket and turning them in his hands. “Tell you what. I’d trade my life for his anytime.”

The scanner crackles and a disembodied voice rides out on the static. Jimmy looks over as the men lean in and listen. The dispatcher’s tone is monotonous but to the point, and when she breaks off and the chatter dies the workers turn their eyes on the young apprentice, who now has nothing to say.

One of the welders stands and hikes up his pants. “Yeah, well,” he grumbles, directing his chin at young Shilling. “Looks like you’re a little late — dumbass.”

“Amen,” one of the other guys mutters, getting up slowly from his seat.

They rise, one by one, crush out their cigarettes, toss away their coffee cups, and wander to their workstations.

The iron machines vroom to life in a rumbling chorus, but for a time Jimmy stays where he is, at his locker. He shuts his eyes, looking for a speck of reason in what’s happened here. But it doesn’t do any good. He only sees more clearly the horrible thing that Willie Rose has done.

Pressing the locker door shut, he listens to the latch drop with a thunk, the finality of the sound hitting him where he lives, reminding him just how lasting the everlasting truly is.

Willie Rose knew things, all right, Jimmy thinks. He knew things that went so far beyond what a father ought to know, it was more a sin than a shame to admit it. A mortal sin, really, because Willie wasn’t any good at moving on, or getting out in front of things the way Barbra-Ann was. He was a simple man with a simple soul who did his best to outrun the heartache that tormented him. He just didn’t have the legs for it.

Jimmy walks over to his die press and stands before its hulking jaws, eyes on the pallet of sheet metal waiting to be cut and stamped before day’s end.

Mooch Munson didn’t breathe a word the night Jimmy had changed his mind and shown up at the hamburger stand all those summers ago. Somehow, the boy knew better. He left Jimmy to his job and attended to his own, and they passed the evening in silence, measuring out the long, lonely hours in snow cones and tater tots.

Customers came and went. Cars came and went.

It wasn’t much, but Mooch was right. It was something.

Robert McGuill’s work has appeared in Narrative, the Southwest Review, Louisiana Literature, American Fiction, and other publications. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize on five occasions, and shortlisted for awards by, among others, Glimmer Train, the New Guard, and Sequestrum Art & Literature.