Varieties of Accident
from Vol. 45.4 - of memory, Summer 2018
They lurk, waiting to happen in their many varieties: boating, mining, surfing; accidents of birth, of ancestry, of timing; road accidents and even knitting accidents (you’ll see).
The Internet offers Synonyms: crack-up, stack-up, wrack-up; but not every accident’s a mis-hap, so why do blessing and good fortune appear only under Antonyms? I want to give those cheerful words a better chance. I want a rogue lawn sprinkler to douse me by surprise in the heat of an August afternoon. I want a sideswipe of love at an intersection. I want to entertain a
I’ve come across a photograph of a woman’s naked back, and it delights me. A scattering of moles—let’s call them beauty spots—form a pattern on her skin. Someone’s drawn fine lines in black to connect the dots, outlining the shape of Ursa Minor. I fed happy accident into the mouth at the top of my browser and this woman’s dorsal little dipper was an early hit. Steeped far back in memory is a moment when my mother led her four girls along the road and past the streetlights to the edge of town, across the road from Nickel’s pasture, and shone her flashlight at the pointer stars in Ursa Major. We followed the beam to Polaris in the tail of Ursa Minor. A way to get your bearings. In memory it seems a hopeful moment. Now here’s Polaris again, in case I need her.
Now a friend asks, “Why the search? Why go looking? Don’t you have a happy accident you can call your own?”
Inherited wisdom has it that when a question proves too tough, one useful strategy is to circle past it for the moment. Come back later, take another run at it once you’ve found your feet. Moving on, then, to a
drunken driving accident
This one happened long ago and far away, the century before last, in Wisconsin farming country. An ancestor on my father’s side, in his cups, hitched up his team one night and climbed onto his wagon to drive home from a celebration. Some distance into the journey he stopped paying attention; probably he passed out. The horses carried on, pulling the wagon along a road that wound round the side of a hill. The track narrowed until there was room for the horses but not the rig, which tipped, spilling my ancestor over the side. Come morning, a passerby discovered the stalled horses, still hitched, their master dead on the slope below. It doesn’t surprise me that someone in my father’s line tumbled to his death in a drunken driving accident even before the days of the horseless carriage. Fell right off the wagon. Sober up and steer, I’d say to him, exercise control those times you can, because you don’t know when you might be overtaken by an
accident of timing
February, minus forty in a Prairie city and exactly my due date. The telephone was in pieces on the hall table and the repairman was in the alley, up the pole, his orange overalls a burn against a cold blue sky. I’d spoken with my mother the evening before (the phone still working, then). “If that baby doesn’t come tomorrow,” she said, “I want you to get down on the floor and scrub the tiles. That’ll bring it, surely.”
As I stood watching the repairman out the kitchen window, my water broke. Water can’t break, of course, but a membrane can; what the water does is seep, trickle, stream until it puddles on the floor. I looked down at my water to assess its nature, as I’d been taught to do in birthing class. I concluded it was—as they’d warned it might be—impure. Meconium-stained liquor is the term the nurses used. This meant it would be dangerous to move about unless said movement was to drop to my hands and knees, the unborn babe slung safe inside the hammock of my belly.
I waited where I was, still standing. I hadn’t the power to speed the pace of the telephone repair, but I could command my muscles. Except for breath and heartbeat and the occasional blink, I stood there in the kitchen still as a fridge and almost as large, warm seepage turning cold along my calves. Finally, the man in orange climbed down the pole and walked around to the front door, whereon he knocked. “Come in,” I said, my back to the door, for I didn’t dare turn. “I need the phone. I’m having this baby.”
“Two minutes, ma’am,” but in hardly thirty seconds he’d snapped the bits of the phone together and gotten out of there, choosing his rigid, frigid truck over anything to do with the hot, sliding mess of new life. I minced toward the reassembled receiver and called my husband. Then I dropped to all fours.
The baby born that day is grown now. He’s healthy, happy and funny. Yesterday I said to him, “I’m thinking about accidents.”
“Anyway, name for me a few sorts.”
“Let’s see,” he said, “there’s surfing, mining, skateboarding. There’s knitting.”
I said, “What’s a
Is it anything like a running-with-scissors mishap? A stumble, a fall, a lance-like needle piercing a gut.
“Explain,” I said to my son, and he did.
Up until early 2008, if you had searched the phrase died in a knitting accident, you’d have turned up only seven hits. That reckoning’s bizarre enough to begin with. Then a cartoon artist undertook a small project: he typed in nine separate searches, each a variation on the phrase died in a —— accident. He slotted words like elevator, surfing, camping, skydiving, and (why not?) knitting into the blank and plotted the hits on a bar graph he called Dangers. Shortly after he posted his results, the phrase died in a knitting accident began to replicate itself on the Web. The day I searched, I scored over eight hundred hits, most referring back in one way or another to the cartoonist and his graph.
I doubt that anyone’s ever died in a knitting accident. Words do have a way of circling round on themselves, though, referring forth and back and sideways all at once. This gives me hope that maybe a little reckless writing while running will cause the occasional
happy accident (second approach)
Artists love a happy accident, or we ought to: a drip of paint that takes a wonderfully wonky path, a flukey mix of hues. But me, I discipline my colours, each to its separate cup in the egg carton. If they mingle it’s because I made them. Working in clay, I build with care, spend time on surfaces, none of that sinewy slopping around. Drawing, I mark my paper off in thirds, preoccupied with proportion out of all proportion. When I write, I shave my sentences; and I’m overly fond of the precise hesitation forced by the semicolon.
On the wall above my desk hangs a kitschy sign from a discount store, a single underlined word cut from a piece of tin: Dare. Before I pounded the two nails to hang it, I fetched a spirit level and balanced the bubble. I measured, marked, and double-checked, refusing the message before it was even (evenly) in place. Two penciled x’s on the wall in precise alignment. This was only natural, or so I’ve been told—for the child of a drinker, what’s more important than order?
We human beings amount to so much more than the facts of our childhoods; we do. Still, the hesitations we learn early on are bound to hobble mojo down the years.
Ironic distance, there’s another tendency of a drinker’s child. She might make of childbirth an anecdote to do with timing and telephone fritz rather than mention fear, exhaustion, a babe half-turned, lodged midway along the birth canal, the doctor shouting for the surgeon to scrub, the chance the child might die or suffer lasting damage. A drinker’s child might speak about herself in the third person. She might knit up strange digressions as a way to skirt her fears—of sentimentality or exposure or, oh, emotional honesty. She might invent all manner of strategies to delay writing about a
Those three teen girls in a truck at night, you know the ones. Blame the wind, the truck’s high chassis, the swath of loose gravel at the shoulder of the road. I don’t recall if Debra screamed, don’t recall if any of us in the vehicle screamed. A slam, a crunch, the smell of grass. The things I’d rather remember are not from the night she died but from the days and nights she lived: the wide smile of her coral-tinted lips; her thin hair, its blonde shine, its uneven lengths, how static would hold a wisp against her mottled cheek and she’d pull it free with nail-bitten fingers; the way we would remind each other weekly, There’s life after here, this isn’t all of it, we just have to make it through here. The way she’d grab, two-handed, the sturdy metal pole in front of the shut-down café on Main Street and swing herself around, feet lifting off, as if to launch herself from here to some more promising there.
What would I say to her now if I could call her up, if someone dressed in orange overalls could snap together a metaphysical phone and hand me the receiver? I might say it took me years to recognize her exceptional qualities: a teenage girl who, without appearing to have dwelt on the question, had embraced honesty as the way in to almost anything and generosity as the way out. How rare, and me not seeing the depth of that until later. I’m not caught up with you yet, Debra, you in your blonde youth, so far ahead of me.
I might say those things, but also I might say, Be careful, Debra, buckle in, hold on tight. Walk don’t run. Because I fear; and there are things we can’t control.
A drop in the wind that summer night, a sharper slant of moonlight, an inch this way or that in the gravel, and it might have been a
narrowly averted accident
Dad and I on a backroad in the blue-green Buick Skylark on the way to pick up Mom from her secretarial job at the mine. The Skylark swerved, carved a wild S in the loose gravel, met the ditch on two wheels, lurched to a hard-won stop. Dad rested his forehead on the steering wheel for just a moment, then he straightened and looked over at me.
“Your old dad’s sorry,” he said. “Really, really sorry.”
He drove up and out of the ditch on a long angle. Alcohol was not involved. He didn’t drink and drive, so far as I know. He did have accidents, though, small ones. They happened in poor light on the way home from work, a long drive into the setting sun. Twice he collided with deer, another time a cow. His hunting accidents, we called these, as if they were
I’ve laboured by now over three separate endings for this experiment, this essay—a word which, taken literally, means try. Three thought-out summings-up, each with its own precious wordplay, its own rhythm and balance, its tiny, shiny insights. But oh, I’ve laced them up so tight they’ve all been strangled.
Chrissakes let loose slacken that white-knuckle grip let the punctuation falter the farthest you’ll fall is from chair to floor no one’s ever died in a happy accident type whatever comes to mind begin with yesterday when I searched happy accident and tripped over an article that argued the female orgasm has naught to do with reproduction it’s just a happy accident of evolution.
Stop. The child of a drinker might wax lax on punctuation but she will not lose so much control as to speak of sex in public.
Absurd, the idea of trying to will an accident into life. I can’t just blather on until magic breaks on the page. Here then, how about you do the finishing for me? Please. Allow my small attempt at giving over the reins. You’ll make your own meaning from what I’ve said without my say-so anyway. And may what you discover be at least half happy accident.
I leave my desk and walk outside into wind and light. Now that I’ve stopped thinking, a sideways thought blows in. I meant to make an orderly tour through several sorts of accident, pleasant, quirky, tragic. Follow the words round hairpin turns and home again. But look—I’ve let the man’s drinking spill out into print. What’s more, I’ve confessed to all the levees I’ve raised against it over the years, emotion-dams to stop the flood. The child of a drinker rarely loses so much control as to leave such things on record. Whether that’s an accident, and whether I’d call it happy, I’m not sure, but it does mean I’ve relaxed my grip.
Here. The reins, now.