THURSDAY: Out of the Frying Pan…?

BY KEITH NEWTON

Copyright is held by the author.

THE SNOW was thick and heavy and the roads were slippery, their edges indistinct. He passed safely through the village and cautiously took the winding riverside road. No guardrail. Go slow. It’s a big drop, a few trees, then the river. But he’d entered the curve too fast and felt the car slide sideways towards the edge of the road. Neither steering nor a tentative touch on the brake did anything to help. There was no time to be scared. He just hung tightly to the wheel, his face between his forearms, as the car rolled gently over the edge. A loud crash and the car rolled over once, then again, then end-over-end to smash head-on, right side up, into a sturdy tree. Silence.

Dazed and bewildered, he struggled to take in what had happened. It had all been so fast. Just a few seconds of rolls and cartwheels and earsplitting crashes, his body wrenched in various directions, restrained only by the seatbelt. Through the hole where the windshield had been he had a close-up of tree bark.

Think. Think. Check. Move. He gingerly unclasped his hands from the steering wheel and sat back. Come on idiot, take stock. His head felt like hell but he found that he could move his neck, his arms too. What the……Jesus ….what the hell happ… But his other voice managed to cut in again. Think. Think. Get..a…fucking…grip. Legs?

He couldn’t move them at first but then felt oddly reassured by the pressure on his knees. He said a silent prayer to the designer of the Beetle: he had an empty trunk wrapped around a tree rather than an engine in his lap. He squirmed and his legs budged; pulled up his knees in a sitting position. Nothing broken.

OK, now what? Get out you silly bugger. He unlatched the seatbelt, mouthing another silent prayer of thanks. Why am I getting so religious all of a sudden? Get out. Get out. Easier said than done. Bloody door jammed fast. He squirmed to the other. Same thing. Through the window, then. Mind the glass. He carefully removed splinters and crystals of glass from his clothing, knelt on the seat and pushed himself through the hole. With his belly on the doorframe he shoved against the seat with his feet and landed in the snow. Hurting all over, bewildered and disoriented, he seemed to be alive.

Slowly, painfully, he got to his feet and surveyed the scene. The word “surreal” (one which he usually disliked) flashed into his mind in a millisecond, took hold and clung on ferociously — (a ghostly presence that would continue to irritate him). The car’s path down the precipice was clearly visible. Tracks where it had slid ended abruptly where it must have bumped and become airborne; then further tracks, then the tree.

Dotted in the snow, from a point about half way down, to the beginning of the car’s final slide, were the entire contents of the vehicle. Everything had flown out including, incredibly, the rear floormats. He stood transfixed, his back to the thin strip of trees between himself and the river. The light was grey, the snow fell steadily and there was an eerie silence. His upward gaze took in the various items scattered down the steep slope and, to his relief, he was able to make out the briefcase, half-covered, at the end of its own little track in the snow. Then, through the snow and the dim light, he saw it: the hockey stick, vertical, silhouetted starkly against the grey-white background. Not a cross, exactly, just that angled blade, but strangely symbolic. It took his breath away. The whole scene was ethereal, sepulchral.

No time for bloody poetry. Get your ass in gear. He forced himself into action. This can’t be real. This isn’t happening. He felt himself all over (a mere pinch didn’t seem enough) to reconfirm: yes, alive; nothing broken. Now get going. Get the hell out of here. Was there anything in the glovebox? Screw it. Get it later. Go, for God’ sakes! He retrieved the hockey stick. It was virtually useless as an aid in the snow but it had a comforting feel to it as he made his clumsy way over the rough snow-covered ground to the base of the cliff. Pausing to pick up his briefcase he slung it over his shoulder by its long leather strap. With one free hand and a little help from the stick in the other, he began the daunting climb.

He slipped often, cursing, half-blinded by tears, snow and a trickle of blood. Near exhaustion, he managed to get his elbows hooked onto what he hoped was the lip of the precipice with the more or less flat verge beyond. He gathered himself for one last heave and pushed hard with his legs. Most of his body was then close to what he judged to be the roadside. Having crawled forward a little he crumpled and lay panting, spent.

Shit, I made it. Now what? There won’t be much traffic along here in this bloody blizzard. Gotta try to stop someone, though. Must. He had barely got to his knees when he heard it: a vehicle of some sort. He shuffled on hands and knees, briefcase trailing, stick useless. The sound of the motor grew louder and he could see the pick-up looming through the curtain of snow. Raising himself he waved the hockey stick. Once again a silent prayer: I hope to Christ he doesn’t skid like I did or I’m a goner for sure. The truck came to a halt, sliding a bit, but safe.

“Get in” came a gruff voice and a powerful wave of beery fumes.

18 comments

  1. Charles Pinch

    This is a good story, Keith. The evenness of tone, the steady voice and low key description are handled confidently—not the usual for people beginning to write fiction (or even some who’ve been writing for a while). Quirky observations—like the ‘engine in his lap’ and the ‘hockey stick looking like a cross’ lift the quality of this narrative above the norm. We don’t need to know where he was going or why—you convincingly establish a strong ‘in media res’. My only criticism—and it isn’t one really—is the ending felt rather like a beginning: I think you could take this story somewhere. Congratulations and keep writing.

  2. JAZZ

    Keith, an excellent story. I agree with Charles on the quality of your writing; your ‘voice’ absolutely belies your experience. I would say you are well on your way to claim the title of writer. The ending was clever — having escaped injury, perhaps death, he is picked up by a beer-swilling driver. The reader is left with the strong suspicion that our poor protagonist’s fate is going from the frying pan into the fire.

  3. Mary Steer

    Very evocative — I was there with him. Nicely done. I did get hung up on some details, like — was this an old/original Beetle, or do the new ones not have airbags either? How did everything get flung out, instead of bouncing around inside and hurting the driver? How did the windshield disappear entirely? (having heard that windshield glass doesn’t shatter but sort of “webs” – though this could be an old vs new Beetle thing?) But man, I just loved the ending. How do you say “no” to a scary potential saviour who might wind up killing you anyway?! “Oh, thanks for stopping, but I only just remembered I haven’t had my exercise yet today — I think I’ll walk back to that village I just passed through….”

  4. JAZZ

    Mary,
    Why get hung up, as you admit, on details. Try just suspending your disbelief and enjoy this fine story.

  5. Frank Sikora

    Jazz: I am afraid I must disagree with you on your point regarding details. They do matter, particularly in short fiction where every action and thought and observation and detail matters more than in long-form fiction. If the reader questions the logic, even slightly, the fictional universe is broken. I love absurdity in writing, but even a story taking place in an absurd reality will be believable if the details, the logic, and the structure don’t feel/seem false. The reader wants to suspend disbelief so he or she can find the truth or the heart of the story. A false detail is a lie, small that it may be but a lie nonetheless.

  6. Charles Pinch

    I write short fiction myself so I agree with the comments regarding ‘internal logic’ and paying attention to details. At the same time, I think it’s also a matter of perspective. Both of these issues can be corrected easily enough and there are lots of stories where both are in place and the writing is dead. What editors (good editors) and literary agents look for—I’m quoting a former one of mine—is ‘voice’. That can’t be taught or corrected. You either have it or you don’t and for me that is what you build on as a writer. Whatever else its faults, ‘Out of the Frying Pan…?’ has it and you don’t find that very often on a first or second try. Keep writing, Mr. Newton.

  7. Sookkyung Park

    This story has a strong pulling power.
    And while I read it, I can give play to imagination like to drawing a picture.
    Great! Keith~~???

  8. JAZZ

    Frank: I fully understand the necessary structure of the short story. I also agree with your point of honouring the reader with both truth and logic. However, if a good story touches me in anyway, I will gladly forgive this new author for a few white lies as I have with many published writers I have read these past years.

    JAZZ

  9. Frank Sikora

    Jazz. You make a good point, which I had rudely dismissed. I apologize. If a story wins my heart, I will forgive or most likely overlook any flaws. I love many of Heinlein’s early novels, especially the YAs, and they are riddled with logical inconsistencies.

  10. Mary Steer

    My comment was valid, and kindly phrased. As writers we all need to be prepared to learn from the reactions of our readers. As readers we must ensure that any criticism we may have for a piece is offered constructively, and not in a mean or unkind spirit. We should all feel welcome here.

  11. Keith Newton

    Many thanks to those who kindly commented—and commented kindly—on my little story. I hope to learn from the erudite exchange among some of the commentators, and remain encouraged.

  12. Mary Steer

    I would posit that only a safe, welcoming environment could nurture creativity. See Margaret Atwood, Survival: position four, that of the creative non-victim, is the only one in which, as Wikipedia distills it, “creativity of all kinds is fully possible.” (Been a long time since I read Survival, had to use the resources at my fingertips!)

    Or read Brian Henry’s tips for critiquing, which he hands out at the beginning of every class. The prime points (I’m sure he will forgive me quoting him verbatim) are these: “Keep your fellow writer’s well being foremost in your mind. Your objective is to help the person you’re critiquing. Respect the writer’s intention. Base your comments on the kind of story it is or on what the writer seems to be up to. Begin by looking for what’s good about the piece. Look for opportunities to make it better. What’s missing in the piece or what would you like more of?”
    I heard from a fellow writer today that Brian has also said that critiquing is just as hard as writing. This comment stream is not simply for critiquing, nor should it be used as such; but if anyone has a comment they genuinely believe could help a writer, it should be fine to post it. However, if commentators here are about helping writers, then they will not post anything slighting or rude. No one here is a paid media critic whose job is to entertain his or her public with amusing reviews that may come at the expense of the one being reviewed. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all? Not a bit of it. But if you can’t say anything NICELY, don’t say anything at all. Make the world a better place for your having been here, not a worse.

  13. JAZZ

    Mary: many artists did not have a safe environment in which to express their creativity but did so nevertheless and we are all better for it. For instance: William Blake, Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, Johannes Vermeer and Stephen Foster who died with 38 cents in his pocket.

  14. Michele

    Van Gogh the person was not better for it. He lived a horrible, tortured life. We may have benefited from his art, but he himself certainly did not. And who is to say what he would have accomplished, had he lived a different life?

    Every writer must have a safe environment to work in, and I’m amazed that anyone would argue differently. Maybe some prefer to work in a war zone, but it’s unhealthy and it hurts the soul. Certainly no one would choose such an environment. I would argue that had Van Gogh not taken a bullet to the head, he would have had years more of productivity.

    Keeping writers or artists unhappy and in misery so they can create is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

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