The Slippery Slope

00Path thru the woods 1The community college instructor was closing the classroom door. I slithered past him and slipped the strap of my book bag off my shoulder before sliding into the nearest empty desk. I stifled desperate gasps for air as I stuffed the oversize denim bag between the backs of my nylon covered legs and the cold metal desk. A quick toss of my head swirled my dark hair into a wavy column behind my shoulders.

The last to arrive, I was late again. There was always something. Satisfied with my apologetic cringe, Mr. Mackey frowned in my direction before he turned to introduce Dean Bryant. At the ripe old age of twenty four, the guest speaker was only four years older than I. Already, he was a famous news photographer. He emigrated to our small, rural northwest community soon after graduation from college and brought with him several prestigious awards in his field.

Mr. Mackey’s class studied Mr. Bryant’s work, but never had we seen his picture. As are many photographers, Dean Bryant was camera shy. Always behind the camera, he saw much without being seen. If it surprised me to learn he was so young, I was in absolute shock when I found him handsome. Tall, lean and tanned, light brownish colored hair, eyes of green with brown and amber flecks, and a broad, if somewhat hesitant, smile that made my heart beat faster than its steady one-beat-per-second rhythm.

Mr. Bryant brought with him several shoe boxes of news photos. He shared them with his eager audience. Each box contained a single subject. I remember one box had pictures of animals in various stages of distress. You know, the hissing cat stranded up a tree, and the hilarious dog caught in a hole in the fence. There was one box half full of photos of terrible auto accidents. After a peek inside, I slapped the lid back on and quickly passed it to the next viewer.

I watched Dean Bryant’s presentation with awe and adoration, but to this day, I don’t remember a thing he said. I do remember lots of eye contact. Also, I remember walking together down the steep hill to the parking lot and agreeing to a date for the following evening.

And so it began. Over the next few months, our tenuous acquaintance grew into a solid friendship which began to blossom into romance.

One rainy Friday evening in late fall, Dean escorted me to the historic St. Peter’s restaurant for dinner. A converted house on the old road, St. Peter’s dated back to the time of the blackouts during World War II. The unique dining room was on the second floor with a stellar westward view through a stand of redwood trees and out over the bay.

When we arrived at the restaurant, Dean checked in with the paper’s dispatcher. (This happened many years ago, before personal computers and cellphones.)

A romantic sunset highlighted our dinner. The sun appeared, bright red between the clouds and the rural cityscape. Wet with rain, the entire area was bathed for a brief while in glistening golds and reds. I’ll never forget how Dean reached across the table and covered my hand with his. I don’t know if he was in love at that moment, but I was.

On the way to my parents’ house, we stopped by Dean’s place to view some new photos. After he checked in with the paper, we sat together on the sofa and allowed our hormones to communicate. When we neared the point of no return, our activities became too warm for me. I called a halt.

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m sorry. I cannot do this.”

“Well, maybe after a time . . .”

“No, Dean. I mean I can’t do it at all before marriage. I guess I’m old fashioned.”

“Or slow.”

“That, too, is possible.”

“Well, I guess that’s it, then.” Dean didn’t explain his remark.

He turned away from me, and leaning his elbows on his knees, directed his attention to spreading the pictures out on the coffee table surface. They all were shots of a horrific auto wreck. As my vision slid over each one, I reached out and turned it face down.

“Hey! Don’t do that,” he said. “I’m not done looking at them.”

“I know they are all good photos, but I can’t bear such tragedy. I don’t even look at them when they’re in the paper.”

“Well, this is my job. I’ve got to decide which ones are best to print. I’ll take them with me and stop by the paper after I take you home.”

The phone rang. Dean answered and after a brief, staccato conversation, hung up.  He stuffed photos and negatives back into their envelopes, stood and grabbed his jacket and camera bag.

“Gotta go to work,” he said. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

Dean’s souped-up aqua colored Chevvy skidded to a stop in front of my parents’ place. He reached across me to open my door. Then, he all but pushed me out of the car and sped away.

“Thanks, again, for the lovely dinner,” I said into the exhaust fumes that lingered.

South of town near the end of the winding road past the dump, a fire raged. Speeding through the rainy night toward the fire, Dean Bryant and his Chevvy became the front page story for Saturday’s newspaper. Graphic photographs included. Through tear-blurred vision, I saw his name in the headline. I neither looked at the pictures nor read the story.

Dean was gone. Forever. My emotions exploded. I was shocked and confused, sad and sorry. I was angry at him, at myself. I was guilty. I should have protected him. It should have been me and not him.

His parents came to town. They took what was left of their son home to the city where they had a private service for him.

In the throes of their final marital dispute, my own parents had neither time nor energy to spare for others.

A deep depression settled around my head and my heart. It took hold and held fast. For the next few weeks, I did everything on autopilot. I went to work. Performed all my tasks. Came home. Ate a little. Slept. On weekends, I slept or walked about in a stupor. Unable to find closure on an important part of my life, I slithered to the bottom of a black pit.

In the dead of winter on a Friday, I left work at my usual time and got into my ancient blue Plymouth. Without a thought as to destination, I drove. By the time my route along the crooked road passed the dump, it was nearly dark. I continued driving with my eyesight focused on the road ahead.

A few miles farther, a glance to my right showed the blackened hulk of a burned out barn. Quickly, I averted my eyes and drove on a little faster than before.

Three more miles brought me to the end of the road. I skidded the car to a muddy stop at the highest edge of the sloped parking area atop Table Bluff. The bumper pushed against a narrow, grass covered berm, the final barrier between the car and the hundred foot drop to rocks and the Pacific Ocean below. With the car in gear, the abrupt stop killed the engine. I turned the key and set the handbrake to keep from rolling backward. I turned off the lights.

Except for the tick, tick, tick of some engine part cooling, it was quiet inside the car. I don’t know how long it was until I noticed the ticking noise had stopped.

I touched the window and detected moisture on the inside of the glass. A wave of deep sadness and hopelessness welled up from my gut and pushed great sobs out into the air. I rolled the window down a couple of inches. The soft hissing sound of rain and the deep thunderous rhythm of the sea accompanied my aria of misery. Passion spent, I must have dozed a little.

I woke with a start and knew what I must do. I started the car, and with left and right feet pressed down on clutch and brake, I disengaged the handbrake. When the car slid backward a little, I pressed harder on the brake pedal. I shifted the car into low, and as I had seen my father do a thousand times, I quickly switched my right foot to the throttle while lifting my left off the clutch pedal.

While my father’s timing was perfection, mine left a lot to be desired. The Plymouth bucked wildly and then its engine died. The car gained speed as it slid backward downhill toward the road. By the time I got my feet sorted out, the back wheels were on the road. One of the front wheels hit a rock and the car did a backward jackknife and put its left rear wheel in a muddy ditch on the far side of the road. I ended up headed back toward town with the left rear wheel in the ditch.

I sat there until I stopped shaking, and then tried several times to drive the car. The ditch hung onto its newfound treasure. Unable to drive away, I resigned myself to the fact that I might have to wait quite a while before help came along. I had plenty of time to think about the finality of the method I chose to solve my problems, and to be thankful I screwed it up.

My last sentiments were echoed by the middle aged policeman who came along a couple of hours later. Muddy tire prints had not washed off the roadway when he walked the tracks back to the berm. He guessed correctly what had happened. After a severe lecture and my promise to call his office on the following Monday, he pulled the Plymouth out of the ditch and followed me to my front door. After a toot and a wave, he went on about his business. And, I kept my promise.



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