Prose: Stephanie Manuzak


She was pretty sure everything on the left was broken. The angles of her arms and legs were odd, as if she were a Barbie that someone had tried to position looking natural in a dollhouse chair. She knew there would be pain. It was contained, for now, in a bubble of electricity and light high up under her sternum. She supposed it would burst when they got her out of the car, but for now, she knew of the pain only intellectually. She was breathing rapidly. She supposed that she was in shock.

For now, Julie watched the woman in the purple suit who was standing outside the open window of Julie’s tilted car. How vivid the purple was against the bright weedy green of the ditch. Emerald and amethyst. What month were those birthstones? The woman was well-intentioned, intelligent, but panicky.

The ambulance is on its way, she told Julie, and asked her if she was hurt.

“I think so,” Julie said.

But then the woman did not know what more to say or do. She tergiversated about, now watching the highway for the ambulance, now looking back at her own parked car, now looking at Julie.

Julie was looking at her right hand, because to the left there was blood, and she didn’t like the sight of blood. Her right hand was reassuring. It was too bad she needed to stay still, because she wanted to check her hair. She wondered if it looked okay. She had been running early that morning, ready to leave the house at twenty of eight. Why not trim her bangs, she’d decided, since she had a few extra minutes? When she was finished she was satisfied with the way they framed her face. Not as good as the salon could do, but almost. She turned off the lights and left the house. She got into her car.

Was that what put her on the interstate at the exact split-second when whatever happened had happened, the trimming of her bangs? Or was it one part of that, just the last glance in the mirror, perhaps?

There was also a light that she sped up to make as it turned from green to yellow. There was also her choice to take accounting in her freshman year of college, which is why she went into finance as well as business, which influenced where she worked and when she drove on the highway. Those were some straightforward answers, but the cause could be altogether more complex.

For instance: last night an elderly couple went to dinner at an upscale Chinese restaurant. The man had gotten the General Tso’s chicken instead of his usual favorite, pork lo mein. His order used up the last of the chicken they had cut up in the kitchen, so the man who chopped things—what was that job called?—had to prepare more, and was late finishing his shift. The worker had promised his roommate, who worked at a convenience store, a ride home. The roommate, after waiting for his ride for fifteen minutes, called from his cell phone outside the store. A woman pumping gas decided she also wanted a pack of gum. On her way into and out of the store the man’s foreign, frustrated tones made her nervous, and she walked extra-quickly past him, even though she knew such things shouldn’t make her nervous, so she resolved to chill out, already. As a result the woman let herself be a little late for work the next morning, and this was the driver who had veered into Julie from a lane on the left.

But the chain of causality was still incomplete. Did the elderly man switch his order from pork to chicken merely on a whim of appetite, or did he just find out he had high cholesterol? Why did the woman at the gas station go in to get gum? What one thing, what one particular thing, gives rise to any other, and what powers of logic and deduction, what mysticism would it take to reveal the formula?

You could say the universe was random, chaos theory and all of that, but even so you had to admit that most of what happens comes as part of very long lines of cause and effect. Therefore it could be figured out, and she had nothing but time to do it in. What was she going do anyway? Move her arms and legs? Ha ha. She smiled.

The woman in the purple suit frowned.

Are you doing all right? Hold on, they’ll be here soon.

I’m fine, Julie said.

Perhaps it was the brown shoes that she was wearing—the left one was probably bloody, she wondered if it would come out. Months ago, she had gone to the mall to buy a last-minute birthday gift for her niece, saw the shoes in the window, and loved them. What if they made her drive slightly faster or slower than when she wears, say, the black flats? And her sister happened to do it with her boyfriend on some particular day in late spring seven years ago, which caused Ashleigh to be born on February 11th, which was why Julie ended up buying the brown shoes. Driving in the brown shoes, perhaps she ended up at mile marker 26 on the highway a few seconds before or after when she would have been there if she had been wearing the black flats, and ended up unseen in the path of someone’s lane change. Though unseen why, or why seen too late, was part of the whole puzzle.

She had named several possible pieces. There were thousands more. She would go through them, one by one. She thought of a cloister, built of ancient stone, where hermits dwelt in silence and pondered such questions. Sometimes going mad over them. Isn’t that what people have always done, knowing there must be some way of turning lead to gold, trying to figure out the what and the why of it, for eons now?

There were moths in the cloister, giving movement to the quiet air in their quest for food, water, light. The moths were ages, accumulated wisdom. Their soft wings brushed against her hair; ages landed on the back of her right hand and rested there, opening and closing their wings. Julie and her mind and the wisdom of the ages and her right hand—don’t look at the left—were cloistered here in the tilted car. Her mind had never been so clear. If there was ever a time for Julie Steadman to glimpse the workings of the universe, to figure it out, this was it.

The ages that had landed, mothlike, on the back of her hand trembled and flew away. There was a sound, a shrill siren, that crumbled the silence of the cloister air. It frightened them off. She was left lonely and (she knew now only intellectually) afraid, in fading light. The sound was getting louder, rising fiercely like the pressure of the bubble in her chest. As the ambulance door opened and a pair of black boots charged down towards her through the weeds of the ditch, Julie knew that she would never figure it out. She would never know what did it or probably, after this, even give it more serious consideration. Help was on its way.