The old men talk about blood donation.
“So I asked the lady if I could designate my blood to someone in particular,” the larger man says. “And she said, ‘Well, no.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d like to designate this blood to a returning soldier.’ And she said, ‘Well, we just can’t do that.’”
He looks at his mug. His breath sounds mucus-filtered. “So I just stopped going.”
And now the old man is staring at her across the café—she’d turned around too quickly. He’s halfway to sipping. The owner keeps this mug in the shop for him. She’s seen him grab it off the shelf these past three days.
She picks imaginary lint off her shoulder and turns back to her newspaper. Christmas recipes in the Food Section too soon.
“Anyway,” he says a little louder. “I guess she said it had something to do with the blood hardening before they move it.”
“I guess that makes some sense,” the thinner man says.
She could take out her laptop and pretend to work.
“But it just got me to thinking,” the fat man says. “All these years, and my blood could be keeping criminals alive. All those times you hear about, you know, when they keep the wrong person alive?”
“I guess you never think of it that way.”
“What if it was a little girl?” she says. They must be turned around looking at her, but her peripheral was never that good. She wishes the table were made of wood instead of white plastic, wishes the fat old man didn’t lean so far back in his chair that his chin bubbled over his collar.
The thinner man could suppose other things. Criminals could be proven innocent. They could at least be reformed.
It hadn’t been a little girl.
Tonight she’ll show her husband a recipe she found for peppermint cookies. He’ll see she bought the paper. He’ll know everything went fine, was fine. The last quarter of her coffee is cold but steady.
And the thin man could suppose what a returning soldier is capable of. But these old men must be veterans.
And they’ve moved on to the location of the mayoral debate. There is no wheelchair ramp to the high school auditorium for the thinner man’s wife.
She pulls her sleeve up over her palm then resists. This is one of the last shirts still intact. Her husband still turns her wrists over to find the thumbholes she pokes through her sleeves. But he never has much to say when he finds the holes. He doesn’t want to look at her hand any more than she does. She has no plans for summer.
“All I know,” the thin man says, “is that I want to be close to the door when I get there,” making the owner laugh into the pastry display.
These men have all day to suppose now. They should be better at supposing.
But it had not been a little girl, not even a child. It had been a man.
It had not been late at night, but just sneaking toward dusk. The streetlights just beginning to come on, the light still visible and only beginning to weigh on her eyelids.
She had not been drunk or drinking or short of sleep or stressed.
She’s been told what it looked like. It’s been conjectured that she fell asleep and drifted into the other lane. It’s been testified that the man tried to steer away from her, the other man yelling through the closed window, that they made it all the way to the shoulder of the road until they were pinned to it by her still advancing car. It has been testified that, in a panic, the driver did not think to honk.
“It doesn’t make sense,” her husband still says. “Why wouldn’t they honk? Why wouldn’t they hit the brakes to let you pass them? If they took all those other steps?”
She remembers almost nothing from the four hours surrounding the crash. The jury will decide months from now. Certainly no license ever, but no DUI so maybe no jail? Maybe a lot of money?
Well, fair enough.
Now, time off of work. It’s good, her family says. You love to bake. You wanted to learn so many things like gardening. You wanted to read. You have all those personal days built up, her bosses said. Take them and we’ll figure it out.
All her responses bubbled liquid in her throat. “Okay” came out so much cleaner.
She worms her thumb into her sleeve again, fabric stretched around her square thumbnail. She knows how much pressure it takes, and it’s less than you think.
The old men are coffee slurpers, every single sip. The owner must tune out all wet sounds. A drop of coffee soaks up and expands in her napkin.
Because it’s impossible to avoid forever, especially in the suburbs. Her husband still has work. Her children, school. The bus doesn’t run this far out of the city.
It was coffee that convinced her husband to look the other way. She’d been sweet, used her other hand. Once a day, she promised, just getting out of the house once a day, just to that little tea shop, the one with the good coffee and terrible doily décor. It’s only a mile away, the one with the big parking lot.
Soon enough it will be Christmas, and he’ll have all that time off and she’ll have all that goddamn baking to do, more red fruit with more white sugar sprinkled on top, a passenger in his car instead of a driver in their For Emergencies sedan.
“I wouldn’t go unless I had my gun,” the thin man says.
They have to put down their mugs. They are belly laughing so hard. The thin man has a scar on his saggy forearm, yellowed skin moving its way around purple veins.
It’s mid-fall outside, only a few leaves hanging on, only the brown ones. After Christmas, winter hides people in this town. Even daily trips to the café cease. And maybe the old men will have their licenses taken away by children who care enough. Passenger was her lawyer’s word. Survivor, the newspaper’s.
They must assume she has keys in her purse. But no one stops to assume this. And there are two memories from those four hours. She is standing outside of her car, a normal silver car on the driver’s side but the passenger’s indented. She thinks, ball of paper. There is a man on the side of the road. His clothes fit just right. His shape makes her think runner, makes her think of a younger time. He is grabbing repeatedly at the green car, at the inverted driver’s side door, but he can’t open it. He makes his hand a visor over the window. He looks at her and stumbles once. She sees the blood on his forehead and nose, realizes she has a warm wet in her hair.
“I can feel my teeth moving inside my head,” he says to her, and she balances against the car.
“I’m sorry,” she yells. “I always do this.”
But how could they be so sure, her husband asked. They’d badgered this admission out of her while she was suffering from obvious head trauma and memory loss and shock.
“Take my blood.” She remembers hyper-extending her arm, searching her remaining summer tan for a vein.
“Honey, we need to work on putting some back in,” the nurse said wheeling the IV and the red bag toward her.
Her car is parked well in the big parking lot. In her two months without driving, she has not forgotten. She stayed at exactly the speed limit the entire mile and a half.
She takes a cold sip, but it’s too chalky on the bottom. The old men crumple the wax paper from their Danishes. She’s seen this pattern these last three days. The men will be gone in the next five minutes. The wax paper balls immediately expand on the table.
How else can you spend your days when you have nothing to spend them on? This was a question she only asked herself. At the end of September, the end of her personal days with no telecommuting in sight, she’d brewed a full pot of coffee when she’d only wanted a cup. She hadn’t even realized it until she was holding the whole pot in her hand.
And this was all she was good at. Packing the wrong lunches, replying all to the wrong emails, backing into telephone poles and parked cars, and never telling her husband.
The heat was waving off the pot in her hand, and she set her mug back on the counter. She flipped the top of the pot open and could see the overhead light orange and purple in the black coffee. She leaned over to find her own reflection, wavy or silhouetted, but her face only blocked out the little ripples of light.
She thought she could grab something at the bottom, and when she dunked her hand in she felt she almost did.
But her body didn’t let her. Her hand released on its own, the other letting go, the pot crashing against the floor and splashing up on her jeans. There’s still a blister of a scar on her shin, which is easily covered. But her hand is the real proof, fingers discolored with webby skin. Her palm is red liquid that is somehow dry to the touch.
What would happen if she tried to garden and the tomatoes came up brown? What would happen if they were perfect but splattered to the ground because she forgot them? Her thumb breaks through her sleeve with a hollow sound that turns no one’s head.
And her hand is on the fat man’s shoulder. It is not dough, like she thought. There is a hard bone poking through, and the skin is somewhere lower. His neck bunches as he turns to her.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
His eyes twitch back and forth.
“I was in a car accident,” she says. “It was my fault. I can’t drive anymore.”
The thin man has self-tinting glasses, and she cannot see his eyes.
“I need a ride,” she says. “I live a few blocks away.”
She releases the squeeze, and the fat man releases a held breath.
The thin man slaps him on the shoulder. “Just get him a refill, darlin’. You’ll have to get one of those To Go cups you hate, Frank.”
“Hear they keep the coffee warmer, anyway,” Frank says. He twinkles at her. “If you don’t mind my terrible driving, Miss, I’d be happy to.”
“Decaf is fine.”
She walks to the counter.
Her husband will be nervous when he sees the car still missing in the driveway. He’ll have to walk to get it. But it’s mild for November, some green still in the grass. It’s a beautiful walk.
Christy Crutchfield writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts. Her works have appeared in Mississippi Review online, Salt Hill Journal, the Collagist, wigleaf, and others. She blogs about writing and other monsters at the hopeless monster.