February 29th

February 29th

Second Place Winner, 2014 Bethesda Magazine Adult Short Story Contest

| Published:

On the 29th of February, a Wednesday, a day of such little importance it only comes around once every four years, I found myself face down in the street and unable to move. The black, uneven pavement in the crosswalk was pressed up against my right cheek. But it's not really black, is it?  Up close as I was, it was more like the night sky, a dark canvas flecked with swirls of white and gray, a random patchwork of stone, sand, and gravel.

The pickup truck that hit me had proceeded to slam into a parked SUV down the block. The driver was shaken, but unhurt. Based on the looks of concern on the faces of the growing number of people congregating around me, I hadn't been so lucky.

My legs were heavy and warm, a weight was pressing down on them. Something definitely wasn't right. That said, despite the realization that I was lying prostrate in the middle of a busy intersection during rush hour, I was more or less comfortable. The sun was low on the horizon and strong.  It was another in a string of unseasonably warm days, the warmest winter on record since the Hoover Administration, a meteorological anomaly much debated among layman and experts alike.  It felt good to be outside.

"My God, don't move!" someone shouted.  Was he talking to me?  Don't worry– I'm not going anywhere.

Of more concern at the moment was all the attention I was drawing from my fellow pedestrians. Given my current predicament, I preferred to be left alone, away from their watchful eyes. Under normal circumstances we would all but ignore each other, heads down, eyes averted, ear buds firmly inserted.  But these were not normal circumstances.

"Please move along, I'm a private man."  This is what I wanted to say, if only I could have mustered the strength.

The soft wail of an ambulance siren off in the distance gave me hope that someone was coming for me, that someone would take me away to a secluded place all my own, a place with a bed and drawn shades.

"I think he's trying to say something," a man above me said.  "Take it easy, Buddy. Help is on the way.”

I closed my eyes and thought of my wife. At this moment she probably believed her husband of thirty years was on the train, navigating the long slog home from downtown to the suburbs. Most likely, she was preparing dinner, a high-fiber, low-calorie affair of organic, locally-sourced produce designed to prolong our lives beyond their natural span.  But none of that would help me now. Nor would the endless hours of exercise on the treadmill to nowhere, or the Lipitor I dutifully took every day to keep my cholesterol in check. It was below 200, and I was so proud. 

I pictured my wife in the kitchen chopping vegetables to the sounds of NPR, a glass of white wine by her side, surrounded by stainless steel and granite countertops, and it made me sad. I wondered if she was happy when she heard me pull the car into the driveway. When I turned the key in the lock? When I opened the door?  After thirty years how did she feel at the sound of my footsteps–anticipation, despair, nothing?

And my son, twenty years old and safely housed in his college dorm, wired to the teeth and ready to pounce, connected to the outside world by cables and routers and 4G networks.  When he hears the news his fingers will start to fly, the data ingested. A blog will start, a tweet released, 140 characters rocketing beneath the earth and across the cold, green sea. Man down, condition serious. The word will spread. First to relatives and friends, then out into the periphery, former colleagues and old schoolmates, the margins of my life, past and present, and eventually to strangers.

If only I hadn't stopped to use the restroom before leaving the office. Without the self-inflicted delay is it fair to say I would have safely crossed the street minutes earlier, an intersection I had successfully navigated for twenty-six years without incident?  And would the young driver who hit me, would he have run the red light unimpeded and been on his merry way, instead of now dealing with the inevitable consequences and legal challenges of plowing over a middle-aged man with two tons of American-Built -Ford-Tough steel and glass?

The activity around me was beginning to intensify.  A paramedic was shouting instructions.

I wondered who would clean out my desk when the time came. I mean, had I even remembered to wash out my coffee mug today?  Think, man, think!  The truth is the remains of this morning’s coffee had probably hardened, forming a thin, black veneer, left for someone else to clean.

As they placed me on the stretcher, a sharp pain shot up my back and I let out soft grunt, “Ooof.”

And what about the seldom-used gym clothes stored in the bottom of my filing cabinet, or the family photos on my desk from vacations past?  Christ, someone would have to collect all my personal things and put them in a box!  But before any of that could happen there would be a company-wide email with the subject line: Sad News.  A collective gasp would be heard from cubicle to cubicle.  Then a collection would be taken up, flowers and sympathies sent, and after a brief period of disbelief and awkwardness, the work would go on.

The stretcher slid onto the back of the ambulance and the door slammed shut behind me.   There was light, and muffled voices, and a million hands poking and prodding. It was so cold.

I wished I’d cleaned that damn coffee mug.

Ken Drexler is a reference librarian at the Library of Congress and a short story writer.  

In the mid-90s he had a brief prolific period and won second place in the Potomac Review’s short story contest. Recently inspired by the stories of George Saunders, he is now writing again on a regular basis. He lives with his wife and two sons in Potomac, where he spends most of his free time driving his kids to soccer and playing in a folk-rock band, Tower Green.

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