Graveyard Shift


April 3, 2013 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

100_0667You can move into some situations faster than you can move out of them.

In February my car hit a patch of black ice at 50 mph.  It spun around, hit a guardrail, ricocheted like a pinball into the opposite guardrail. This took maybe fifteen seconds.

I got out of the car. The passenger side door was bashed in; the only corner of the car not previously crunched now matched the rest.  The grill was gone, one headlight was out.  My tongue was bleeding.

The safety patrol pulled up, lights flashing. “Did I hit anyone?”

“No,” he said. “Get back in the car, before someone hits you.”

When the police arrive, I realize the radio is still on.

I had peeled out to an episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge – “The Twisted Worlds of Phillip K. Dick.” A public radio voice tells me “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I turn the damn thing off.

I was able to drive home.  But in the morning the passenger side door was still bashed in; all four corners of the car were crunched. The grill was gone, one headlight was out, a turn signal hung limp from red and black wires, twisted together like licorice. I winched up the front bumper with a cargo strap.

I couldn’t afford repairs. I couldn’t afford a new car.  I tried disbelieving this. It did not go away.

But something else appeared. A white 1993 Toyota Tercel, free, from my friend John Berquist.  “It’s rusty, and it’s not good for long trips – but as a tool-about town car, it’d be just fine.” Only one problem. It’s a manual transmission.   “Relax,” he says. “I can teach you in half an hour.”

Which he does. Though a half hour isn’t really long enough to get good. The car is  twenty years old. The shift knob has been palmed so much that the diagram showing where the gears are has rotated 90 degrees.

“You do it by feel anyway,” John says.

What I feel a lot is the car, stalling.

Especially in stop-start traffic.  Nor can I always get it into reverse. That’s how I end up, one drizzly Saturday in March,  at the Lakewood Cemetery.  Plenty of roads, very little traffic, no one I can kill, they’re already dead.  Great place to practice.

I pass the Garden of Memories Sundial, the Mars Mausoleum, the Eustis Obelisk. Pay my respects to the Andersons and the Gundersons and the Lobergs and the Carlsons and the Atwoods, stopping at each monument,  then starting up again.  I roll my window down and smell old snow and wet earth. Nobody rolls their eyes when I stall. No eyes to roll. The dead can afford to be generous.

You can move into some situations faster than you can move out of them.

Coming up over a hill, I realize too late that a graveside service is in progress below. Cars with funeral flags are double parked along the road.  The hearse is in front, dark and dignified. I spot a BMW, a Lexus, an Escalade. Everyone at this funeral has a tastefully appointed, appropriately mournful, expensive new car. And now my rusty little white refrigerator on wheels is stuck among them.

The One Percent stand under golf umbrellas, and pay a minister to say comforting words so they can plant their dead in the ground and leave. “I am the Resurrection and the Life; He who believes in me will never die.” My engine stalls.  I feel stupid, and embarrassed, conspicuous, and inordinately resentful of the rich. If I get flustered and screw up this funeral procession, it will be their fault.

After about twenty minutes people finally start heading to their cars.

I try not to meet any eyes. At last we begin crawling down the hill. I stop and start and stop again, each SUV a family monument.

One person is left at the graveside, a young woman with a red nose and blotchy face. She is wearing a ridiculous orange coat; her black high heels have pinned her into the muck; the rest of her hovers above ground. She stares right through me; I’m not even there at all. That’s when I see how small a casket it is – what a pale, pearly, rose-petal pink.

You can move into some situations a lot faster than you can move out of them.  And some, sweet Jesus – rich or poor, believer or no – you cannot move out of at all.

100_0683[Told at Story SlamMN (Theme: “Move”), Kieran’s Irish Pub, April 2013, and at the Moth Story Slam (Theme: “Envy”) in May.]



16 thoughts on “Graveyard Shift

  1. […] if you’d like to read the story that qualified me for The Moth Grand Slam, it’s right here. Also, in addition to the video for Jenna, I’ve now added the story Leif Wallin told for […]


  2. Diane says:

    Seeing that small casket would put it all into perspective, wouldn’t it? Nicely written, Paula.


  3. Lisa Reiter says:

    Wow.. Popped by after Diane tweeted ‘worth a read’. Gosh, does get it all in perspective. Beautifully written Paula.


  4. Thanks, Lisa. You’d think having written it, I would easily remember to keep that perspective, but it’s a continual struggle.


  5. fireflyphil says:

    A wrecked car. A shabby replacement car. The death of a baby girl.
    No contest, is there?


  6. How masterfully you bring us along into this story never suspecting what you didn’t suspect either–the perspective of your woes versus that of what lies in the casket. I held my breath as you spun on ice, laughed, I felt your indignation and embarrassment, and I cried. What a story-teller you are!


  7. Wonderful story a great combination of humour and sadness


  8. […] Graveyard Shift via prnancarrow. Everything I want to say about this post will give away spoilers. Sometimes stories work better if you go into them without any clue what they might be about, and I think this is one of them. […]


  9. […] and three panels of judges. Because I won the monthly Twin Cities Slam once last year, for another story, I qualified for the Grand Slam championship, which meant telling at a larger, high-profile venue […]


  10. […] mighty mighty 1993 Toyota Tercel – the car I learned to drive stick shift on in the Lakewood Cemetery, at the ripe old age of Never You Mind. There had been warnings – the […]


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