Vonnegut and a Crushed Car

It was monsoon season in Milwaukee.  You wouldn’t think the Midwest had monsoons, but the summer of 2008 was so rainy that cabs weren’t even running.  It was wretched.

I had made it downtown somehow, and was hanging out in a bar and waiting for the rain to stop.  Suddenly my phone vibrated.  My coworker Katie was calling.  “Whaddup,” I answered.

“Hey,” she said.  “I just went past your house, and there’s a tree that fell into the street.  It landed on a red car that is parked right across from your place.”

“Damn!  How did it fall?”

“I don’t know, I’m guessing the lightning or something.  I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.  I’ve been downtown since about six.”  I paused and thought for a second.  “Hey, Katie, what color was the car?”

“It was hard to see through the rain.  Maybe orange or red?”

“Damn.  My roommate has a red car.  Hope it’s not hers,” I said.  “Well, thanks for calling.  I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”

Moments after hanging up with Katie, my phone started vibrating.  Another friend had seen the tree by my house and wanted to let me know.  I began wondering about the size of the tree.  It certainly was drawing a lot of attention.

Again, my phone vibrated.  It was Natalie, a friend of my roommate.  “Hey,” I said.  “I’m guessing you saw the tree?”

“Yeah, did someone call you,” she said.

“Uh huh.”

“Did you know it fell on Meagan’s car?”

“Shit.  I knew it fell on a reddish car.  I was hoping it wasn’t hers.”

“Do you think I should call her and let her know?”  Natalie asked.

Earlier that afternoon, I’d seen Meagan getting ready to go out.  She had out of town visitors and was taking them to a baseball game.  That meant she’d be drinking in epic Milwaukee tailgating fashion.

“Don’t tell her.  Not while she’s at the Brewer’s game,” I said.  “There’s nothing she can do about it now anyway.”

“Yeah, okay,” Natalie agreed.

Then, she changed her mind about telling Meagan.  While driving past the tree-crushed car, she’d also seen Meagan’s cat running around outside.  So she called Meagan and informed her of her totaled car and pet on the loose.

Meagan freaked out.

She made it home with her visitors, and somehow tore open the back door without a key.  To this day, I don’t know how a 115 pound girl turned into a blonde tornado, but she successfully ripped open a wooden door, freeing the deadbolt from its location in the doorframe.

She found her cat, and saw her car.  She had happened to park beside a seventy year old oak tree that had gone from tilted to uprooted during the storm.

A city worker knocked on our door that morning.  “We’re cutting the tree off of your car,” he told Meagan.  “And then you’ll have to move it.”

“Move it?  How?  It’s totaled!”

“Well, I know.  But if you don’t get it off of the street by Friday you’re going to get fined.”

Several city workers drove their big machines around the car, cutting away at the tree.  As soon as the branches had been removed, we could properly assess the damage.  The hood of her car was fine, and the trunk was okay too.  However, the roof of her car had flattened under the force of the falling tree.  From the side, her car looked like a convertible.  From the front, it looked like it had chubbed up for the holidays and had love handles sticking out from its middle.

We pushed our way through the curious bystanders that morning.  They had their cell phones out and were taking pictures of the wreck.  “Can you believe this?”  They said loudly.

“Um, no I really can’t,” said Meagan.  “That’s my car.”  And everyone looked at her with pity.

One guy said, “Well, are you insured?”

“No.  I’m not.  I didn’t really expect a tree to fall on my car.”

And then everyone looked at her with magnified pity.

As the neighbors finished gawking and left, Meagan and I circled her car.  There was a car seat in the back.  It was covered with broken glass, twigs, and puddles of rain water.  “Well, looks like I’m the worst nanny ever,” she said.  “I’ll have to call up that family and say, ‘sorry your car seat got destroyed.’  I’ll probably just buy them a new car seat for their kid.”

I stood near the passenger side, marveling at how the tree had caused major sidewalk erosion when it tipped over.  Then I noticed how oddly the windshield had broken.  It had shattered, but still clung together in a wavy sheet draping across the dashboard.  Sticking out beneath the cracked glass was a book.  Its spine was hyper extended, and its pages were puffy from wetness.  And the pages had blue ink across them.  That looks like my handwriting, I thought.  Meagan’s writing was loopy, and mine was jagged and uneven.  I reached through the place where a windshield had been and grabbed the book.  It was mine.

Now, since childhood, I’ve loved books.  I love the weight of them, the smell of the pages and the stories inside.  I love books so much, that I never ever wrote in my books or dog-eared the pages.  I respected them too much.

I was 22 when I read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.”  And I loved the adventures of Billy Pilgrim so much, that I broke my own rules and started writing in my book.  At first it was just a small star here, a sentence or two underlined there, but the more I read, the more I got into marking up my book.

In the end, I wound up respecting my book more in its marked-up state than I had when it was fresh and crisp.

And here it was in my hand, officially destroyed.

I sighed and looked at Meagan.  I hadn’t even known she had borrowed my book, but roommates are like sisters sometimes.  Things would disappear from my room and turn up somewhere else.  I just hadn’t expected to find my book in the wake of a tree-crushing-disaster.

Part of me wanted to point out to Meagan that my sentimentally valuable book was trashed.  But as she shook her head, looking at her car and wondering what to do, I knew I couldn’t bring up the case of a destroyed book.

I carried the book with me as we crossed the street back to our house.  I dropped it into a garbage can on my way inside.  “I know it’s early,” I said to her, “but maybe we should have a cocktail.”

(written in 2011)


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