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  • 38. Beneath All that Bone

    By Jess Walter

    “I cannot recommend strongly enough the work of Jess Walter,” Richard Russo recently told Amazon.com. “If you want to understand post 9/11 America, he’s your guy.” If you want to read the “don’t-skip-must-read of the Fall,”* pick up Jess’s new novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, landing this week. If you want a taste of the shrewd, bittersweet, human storytelling you’re in for, read this new story, exclusive to Fifty-Two Stories.


    It was a minute before either of them spoke. “So what would you do . . . if you only had one day left?”

    He stared at the ceiling, still panting. “I guess . . . that.”

    They’d made it just nine miles after the accident before deciding to get off the freeway and find a room—first hotel they saw, a thirty-year-old converted Travelodge with a working lounge—Tracy stroking his arm lightly as he paid so that Nate expected the sex to be tender and safe. He began that way once they were inside the room, brushing the hair from her temple, but almost immediately they were clinging and grabbing, noises coming from their throats. He fell off as soon as it was done and they lay quietly, staring at different spots on the ceiling, their breathing returning to pace.

    Tracy reached over and brushed his shoulder. “Really. What would you do? If you were dying tomorrow?”

    “I think it’s clear what I’d do. Isn’t that why we stopped? It’s evolutionary, innate. We probably don’t even have any say in it.”

    “I’d eat.”

    “Eat what?”

    “Everything. If I had just one day I’d go from restaurant to restaurant, order the best thing on the menu, take a couple of bites and go to the next place.”

    “Maybe you think you’d do that, but you wouldn’t.”

    “No, I would. I’d get crab cakes first. I’d eat all day, but I’d do it like one giant meal . . . appetizers in five restaurants, salads in five more. Main courses in ten. Desserts in seven. I’d start at noon and finish at midnight. Crab cakes at noon and pecan pie at midnight.”

    He laughed. “No you wouldn’t.”

    “I don’t think you know how much I like to eat.”

    “That’s scary.”

    “Yeah, probably not the best thing to say on our first weekend together.”

    His throat constricted at the word together. “No, I didn’t mean—”

    “But I could never get fat,” she said. “I’m too vain.”

    The sweat was drying and with the air conditioner on in the room, Nate shivered and reached for the blanket. The whole time he’d watched the paramedic work at the accident, Nate was trying to recall how much time it took the brain to die. He’d read it somewhere. And for some reason, it came to him now. Ten minutes. In ten minutes brain cells without oxygen have popped like packing plastic. Ten minutes. No time at all. He kept imagining that paramedic driving his hands into that woman’s chest for, what, at least ten minutes.

    “I’d call my sister, too. Just to talk. Would you call anyone?”

    He laughed uncomfortably. “What do you mean?”

    “Wouldn’t you call anyone? If you had one day left?”

    “I don’t really want to talk about this.”

    “Sure. I’m sorry.”

    She drummed her stomach, her wonderful flat, tiny stomach. Suddenly, he wanted her again—rough, like it had been after the accident.

    “I’m hungry now,” Tracy said.

    Nate stood up. “Then I’m going to get you some crab cakes.” He reached for his pants.

    She smiled and propped herself up on one arm, displaying one of those lovely, round breasts. “Really?”

    “Yep. And a whole pecan pie.”


    The paramedic drove his crossed hands into the woman’s chest; beat after beat rising and falling for her, rising and falling. Nate was surprised at how deeply the man had to push—but of course, the heart lies beneath all that bone. The paramedic would have to nearly flatten the woman to cause her heart to beat, to push blood out to all of those distant points. It would be like working a bellows beneath that casing of bone. And yet it seemed too violent, too rough, this thing he was doing to save the woman—

    A horn honked. Nate turned back and resumed his pointing, gesturing cars off the freeway and onto the exit ramp and the siding road. He stood just forty feet from the wrecked cars, entwined like a DNA strand. The older couple was standing in a field off the shoulder, unhurt, but too far away somehow, as if they had been fooled into believing they could distance themselves from the accident. They weren’t hugging or holding hands—what Nate supposed an old couple would do after walking away from a crash like that. They were just . . . standing, looking on while the paramedics tried to save the only other person in the crash, the woman in the little white car.

    Nate looked over his shoulder again. The paramedic rose and fell in mechanized rhythm, like an oil derrick. He had been doing this at least five minutes. How long would this continue? Nate recalled reading something once about the amount of time it took without oxygen before brain death occurred—was it five minutes or ten, maybe fifteen—he couldn’t recall. Why was it that so much of what he read was dependent upon one detail like that—a detail he never seemed to retain? Really, why recall that there was an amount of time without oxygen that led the brain to die if you couldn’t recall the amount of time? Still, the paramedics worked. The one just kept pounding while his partner administered oxygen and fiddled around near her head and checked her eyes. There was no look of fear on the paramedics’ faces, no frustration or empathy or even fatigue. But they didn’t look bored either. One was older, hard-edged, with a severe kind of face, and the younger guy was thick, with down-turned eyes. But mostly they just looked . . . benevolent, matter-of-fact . . . angels on overtime. The paramedics must have been coincidentally passing by because they seemed to arrive almost immediately after the cars became entangled and crashed.

    A few yards away, in the gap between the shoulder and the exit, Tracy was waving to him from the passenger seat of the car. Nate kept pointing cars off the freeway as he walked toward Tracy. He watched the drivers’ faces in the car windows as they exited, craning their necks to see. Rubberneckers. That’s what they were called. Everyone wanted to see a disaster, maybe to ward it off, or to feel safe in their own unbroken lives. And yet it didn’t seem profane to Nate. You’d want to know. That’s all. You would want to see the paramedics doing everything they could to save that woman. You would want to see what it looked like, someone leaving the world like that. And the paramedics trying to bring her back.

    “Hey,” Nate said when he’d walked closer to his car. “You doin’ okay?”

    Tracy nodded, sat up and spoke out the top of the open window. “When do you think we can go?”

    He could hear sirens, hopefully state patrol troopers coming to take over the traffic duties. “I don’t know. Pretty soon.”

    “It’s awful. Is she going to die?” Tracy asked, her voice fluttering.

    Nate looked back over his shoulder and watched the paramedic rise and fall, rise and fall.


    The waitress cocked her head. “I’m sure.”

    “With the nautical theme, I just thought you’d have crab cakes.”

    She had red hair cut in a punky bob, longer in front than in back. She pointed vaguely toward the menu in his hands. “We have fish and chips. You want fish and chips?”

    “You can’t ask the chef for crab cakes?”

    She didn’t even answer this.

    “Do you know where the closest place with crab cakes might be?”


    He laughed, charmed by her dismissive scorn, even if it was aimed at him. “You win. I’ll have the fish and chips.”

    “Yippee,” she said, and tore the ticket away, wandered off toward the kitchen.

    He stepped away from the hostess’s stand and looked around the lounge, which had been decorated, probably decades earlier, with pilings and ropes separating the sections and a large fish tank between the tables and the bar. The place was mostly empty, a family of men in tractor ballcaps at one table and an elderly couple at another. He peered around the fish tank and saw the bar was mostly empty too, except for two uniformed men sitting on barstools deep in conversation. The paramedics.

    Nate walked around the fish tank and approached the two men. It was surprising how different they looked here. The older one was maybe forty-five, with the severe, square jaw; the other guy was maybe thirty, the one who had pounded on the girl’s chest, wore glasses and had a plunging chin that made him seem vaguely depressed. Both men had shots of whiskey in front of them. As he approached, Nate heard the end of a conversation between the two, the younger one in midsentence: “I called Wanda at her mother’s . . .”

    “Hey,” Nate said. “How you guys doin’?”

    The one in glasses nodded slightly and said “Good,” but the other one just stared at him.

    “I was . . . I came across the accident first. I was in the gray BMW? . . . I diverted traffic until the state troopers showed up?”

    “Oh,” said the one with glasses, the sad one.

    Nate felt a need to fill the hole in the conversation. “Yeah, it was awful. It was like slow motion. The cars were going around the corner—” Nate’s hands rose like a shadow puppet of a swooping bird “—and they just got tangled and then it seemed to take forever, they were sliding and spinning and grinding. Is the girl—”

    He let it hang there, but they didn’t answer. The one with red eyes drank his whiskey.

    “You know, did she . . . is she . . .?”

    “She was transported to the hospital at Ellensburg. You’d have to check there on her condition,” the square-jawed one said.

    “I know there’s an amount of time at which the brain starts dying without oxygen.” Nate said. “Like ten minutes, right?”

    The paramedics stared at him.

    “I mean,” Nate stared at the young one, “you were doing CPR for a long time there. I just wondered if . . .”

    “She was transported to the hospital. You’d have to call there to check her condition,” the square-jaw said. The young, sad one refused to meet Nate’s eyes.

    “Sure. I didn’t mean to . . . you know.” Nate called out to the bartender. “Hey, I want to buy these guys’ next round.”

    “That’s not necessary,” said the older, square jaw.

    “I insist,” Nate said. “After watching you guys—”

    “Can you just leave us alone?” the young one asked finally. “Please? I don’t mean to be rude, but we were talking—”

    Nate was dumbstruck. “Sure,” he said. “You know, I’m sorry. I was . . . I’m sorry.” He backed away.


    “I’ve always liked older men. I kept having to remind myself that my professors were off-limits.” Tracy sipped at her iced latte. “I suppose I should talk about this with my therapist, but he’s just so damned cute.”

    Nate came up on the little white car again, and pulled up to where he could almost see the driver. Just as he was about to pass it, the little white car sped off again.

    “Am I the oldest guy you’ve ever seen?”

    “Seen? Or fucked?”

    It shouldn’t always turn him on, that word. But it did. Coming from a woman’s mouth, a girl’s mouth, it had always made him helpless. “The latter.”

    “No. You’re not the oldest guy I’ve ever lattered.”

    He looked over at her. And he knew. They crested the hill. Two hundred yards ahead he saw the little white Nissan that kept yo-yoing ahead of him. The white car was passing a Jeep Cherokee on a corner, both cars sweeping around the bank. And then the cars seemed to join. And swerve.

    Her hand found his arm. “Oh my God, Nate!”

    The white car and the Jeep parted, and then rejoined—as if deciding there was nowhere else to go—scraped and bucked in a kind of slow-motion, metal screaming, cars locked together in that horrible momentum, which kept them from spinning individually, and sent them into the median, which they hit with a lurch. Nate jacked on his brakes and skidded onto the shoulder, as ahead of him the cars were ground into the concrete wall, the white one pinned on the inside. Finally, they were done, just as Nate’s own car spun and straightened and finally stopped, just this side of the accident and past a freeway exit.

    There was an awful grinding scream that Nate had taken to be the sound of the accident, but he knew now had been Tracy. “Shh,” Nate said, patting her arm. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Stay here.”

    A man in a pickup truck had pulled over, too. Nate was glad to have company as he and the pickup driver walked through glass and plastic and radiator fluid toward the steaming wreck. The old couple was already out of the passenger door of the Cherokee, and Nate felt a brief flash of relief, but he could see the little white Nissan was in far worse shape.

    “Are you okay?” he asked the old couple.

    “Yes,” said the old man, who helped his wife off the shoulder and into a field next to the freeway. Nate turned back to the white car, which looked too old to have airbags. They could only see through the back window, but the young woman appeared to be pressed up against the steering wheel and dashboard, which had been pushed back into her when the front end of the car crumpled. He couldn’t see the woman’s face, but she had short dark hair and wore a hooded sweatshirt. God, he thought, only young people wear hooded sweatshirts.

    “We shouldn’t move her,” the pickup man said, a ludicrous thing to say—as if Nate had any plans to do that—but at least the pickup man had thought of something to say. Nate just stood there. And, thankfully, before they could do anything more or not do anything more, they heard the siren behind them and they turned to see an EMS truck barreling down the hill toward them. “Jesus, thank you,” said the pickup man. “I got some flares. We should go take care of traffic.”

    “Okay,” Nate said and he began backing away, his hands shaking. The paramedics rushed past them both without even meeting their eyes. There were two, a big one with red eyes, and an older guy with a severe, square jaw.


    The thrum of traffic was steady, even though the freeway was blocked from the hotel by the exit ramp and a grove of shade trees. Just on the other side of the trees, people were hurtling toward Seattle, or away from it, believing whatever they told themselves to make them drive on—that they were going somewhere important, that their job mattered or that they could arrive somewhere and be happier than they were. It was a bracing thing to admit to oneself and Nate felt foolish to have been convinced for so long by the banalities of his own life and to be so jarred at their dissolution. And then . . . he thought of Tracy’s question: Who would you call?

    He could smell the fish and chips in his hand. A spatter of grease was spreading out on the bottom of the paper bag. And almost without thinking, Nate’s cell phone was out of his pocket and in his hand.

    Amy picked up. “Hi, Daddy. Are you in Idaho?”

    He started to answer, but Amy said, “Here’s Mommy,” and Meredith was there.

    “The cable guy says it’s not our splitter. He thinks the cable is being blown against the roof of the garage. You’d think they’d just tighten the cable but they want to put some kind of spacer in.”

    His voice was rusty. “Oh, well, as long as they fix it.”

    “How’s the conference?”

    “It’s good. You know. Work.”

    “And how’s Coeur d’Alene?”

    Nate looked around at the grim freeway hotel. “Pretty.”

    “Elsa and Mike talk about that part of Idaho like it’s heaven.”

    “You know, we’re mostly inside so far.” Nate looked down at the bag of fish and French fries in his hand. “Seminars and classes and stuff.”

    “You should get out and play golf.”

    “I didn’t bring my clubs.”

    “I’ll bet David brought his.”


    “And how’s the chirpy new sales assistant? Is she still bothering you?”

    “No. She’s okay.”

    “You really shouldn’t be such an old fart. You need to be nice to people.”


    “What’s her name again?”

    Behind those trees, the cars flew. Her name. Nate felt a soreness in his chest, from bracing during the accident. “Look, I gotta go. I just wanted to tell you I love you.”

    She sounded surprised, silly, giddy. “I love you, too. What prompted that?”

    “There was an accident on the way here this morning.”

    “Oh, are you—”

    “I’m fine. But it was bad. This girl . . . the paramedics were trying to save her . . . anyway, I guess being on the road, it got me to thinking about us and how we don’t always say what we should, I mean—”

    “Oh,” she said, and Nate could hear Meredith say to their daughter, Just a second, honey. He could hear her footsteps and the bathroom door closed. “Oh, Nathan,” she said. “I was thinking about that when you were packing, how you might still get insecure when you leave town . . .”

    “No,” he started to say, “it’s that’s not—”

    But she spoke louder, perhaps emboldened by his calling. “I sometimes forget—”

    Again, he interrupted. “No, Meredith—”

    But she pressed on, as if this were something she’d been meaning to say. “Maybe you can never trust me again, I don’t know . . . I’m not blaming it on anything, the post-partum, whatever . . . but it’s almost like I was a different person back then. Do you know?”

    He was too quiet to answer.

    “It’s like there was this other Meredith, who could do something like that and then . . . there’s me. And I would never do anything to hurt you like that, Nathan. I don’t expect you to know that as surely as I do . . . but I know it.”

    He set the bag of fish and chips down and went into a crouch, his arm over his head, chest aching. “Oh.”

    “I think about how I almost screwed everything up and I can’t forgive myself—”

    “Please, Meredith,” he said, and just saying her name was almost more than he could bear. “It’s okay.”

    “You sure?”


    “I’m more in love with you than when we got married—”

    He felt as if he were choking. “Me too.”

    Meredith took a deep breath. “And is she okay?”

    “What? Who?”

    He wondered: is this the moment in which I decide that it’s over? Or have I known for a while and just now realize it? He felt unable to track the progression of his own thoughts, of what he’d known and when he’d known it. Then he saw that it didn’t matter, of course, that we cling to order because we believe in the rationalization of cause-and-effect, even though we know it to be false, that every instance has to exist at once, like points on a line, that he was always going to do this, had always done it, would always do it.

    “The girl in the accident. Did she make it?”


    “Who was he?”

    “Her boss. Real estate guy.” Nate switched lanes, passing a pickup with stock racks. “It was weird. Looking back I had this sensation that I’d known the minute I met him what would happen. Just the way he looked at Meredith. I imagined the whole thing before it happened . . . it was almost like I willed it.”

    “That’s a trick of the subconscious,” Stacy said.

    “No. It was more like I wanted her to do it. Pushed her toward it. I traveled so much . . . and even when I was there, I wasn’t really there. You know?” He struggled to get his mind around it. He smiled. “It all gets twisted around.”

    “And do you think she knows about us?”

    It caused a tightening in his throat, her using the word us that way. So far, us had been a couple of gropings in an empty conference room, and some phone conversations about what they would do. This phony business trip was their first opportunity to do more than that.

    “No. No, I don’t think so.” Nate looked over at her, dark eyes beneath those arched brows. “I hope not.” Nate stared ahead at the road. Meredith has insisted on telling him that she’d only slept with her old boss once . . . lots of buildup and flirtation and then the one betrayal, which he’d found out about. He had no idea why that mattered to her, that it was only one time. But it mattered.

    “You don’t think she suspects anything? You’re telling me that you pushed her to stray and yet you don’t think there’s some part of you that wants her to know, to hurt her back? You know, subconsciously or something?”

    “That’s the second time you mentioned the subconscious,” he said. “I don’t know if I believe in that.”

    “How can you not believe in the subconscious? That’s like not believing in blood.”

    “No. I mean, of course I believe in the subconscious, but people act like it’s this magical realm, like our dreams tell us what to do or something. And I think people use that word to excuse their behavior, to pretend they don’t want what they want.”

    “And you don’t do that?”

    “When I’m awake, I’m awake. What I want I want. My actions are my own.”

    “That doesn’t leave a lot of room for mistakes,” She stared out her window. “Me, I majored in mistakes.”

    He laughed. “By which you mean—old married men like me?”

    “I’ve always liked older men. I kept having to remind myself that my professors were off-limits.” Tracy sipped at her iced latte. “I suppose I should talk about this with my therapist, but he’s just so damned cute.”

    Nate glanced over at her. He knew then that he had to end this before it went any further. He took a deep breath. He came up on the little white car again, and pulled up to where he could almost see the driver. But just as he was about to pass it, the white car sped off again, pulling away, like a thought he couldn’t quite catch up with, or like a memory he hadn’t had yet, zooming ahead now, toward the hill, overlooking the river.


    “Beneath All that Bone” © Jess Walter. Used by permission of the author.

    Read more about Jess’s new novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, here…

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