A VELOCITY OF IMPACT
by Charles G. Thompson
A trilling wail wormed its way into Kasper Zigismond’s inner ear, shoving the topsy-turvy narrative of the dream he dreamt aside before budding into a frail, ethereal reality. His hearing was still sharp at age ninety-nine. He slid his feet into slippers, donned an age-old robe, and stood at the bedroom windows. There, twenty-three stories to the ground, out on the Kennedy Expressway, red and blue lights orbed in the snow-shadowed half-light. A three-car pileup blocked progress. He grabbed high-powered binoculars off a bedside table and examined the destruction. In a spiral-bound notebook, he listed the cars involved—a Mazda Miata, a Ford Focus, and a Chevy Silverado—and their license plate numbers. He watched two Illinois State Police officers and several paramedics revolve through the accident scene as they documented and determined facts, assessed, and aided the injured—two fatalities from what Kasper could tell. He wouldn’t know for certain until the next day when he would watch the news. He climbed back into bed and tried to sleep.
Dull, weighted snow clouds pushed down on the city the next morning. More snow ached to dump its white wetness. Kasper, first cup of instant coffee gulped, scanned the roadway below from living room windows—bigger than those in the bedroom, glassier surface area. The accident from the prior night was not evident. A dark-colored object distracted his attention. He refocused to bring it into view: a decapitated dog’s head lay against the retaining wall of the fast lane opposite where the accident had happened. At first glance, he took it for the Wolf of Chicago revisiting him. A factual being, not an urban legend like everyone said. Could it be? Now headless and dead? He focused in on the eyes; no, not the wolf, these eyes were brown, not yellow and blue. Then recognition: a Doberman pinscher—docked ears, Hershey-colored coat, tongue lolling listlessly, its open eyes staring out, questioning. Kasper lowered and raised the binoculars—still there, not a figment, it looked directly at him. Lopped off at the shoulders, the muscle and sinew and veins exposed, honey-tinted neck bones protruded, dried blood pooled around it. He kept the magnified lenses to his eyes and searched for the rest of the animal: its four legs, torso, and docked tail, all of which were not evident.
Automobiles, Kasper’s preferred word—he understood how they worked. An internal combustion engine sets off explosions of gas and electrical sparks hundreds of times a minute, the resulting energy propelling the machine forward or backward at horridly high speeds. All his research informed him it was a bad idea. The average auto weighed a little south of four thousand pounds. The standard rate for freeway driving was seventy miles per hour. His research was based on instinct versus any type of formal learning. He understood the laws of physics. Anyone with a brain would and should, he often said.
A velocity of impact, metal against flesh, between a car and a human, the car would likely win the contest. He watched it happen over and over. From the apartment building he lived in near downtown Chicago, he could easily see the multilane Kennedy Expressway. Daily, he perched on a kitchen chair with a worn-out, flattened pillow under his bony ass and watched the animals come and go on the busy roadway below. Binoculars aided his vision and allowed up-close examinations of the so-called drivers in their cars, speeding, or driving too slowly, the accidents, one after the other, the constant police chases, and the endless amounts of spilled cargo.
The Doberman held its position out on the expressway while Kasper sat at his kitchen table, a Formica dining set with a faux woodgrain pattern his wife bought at Sears fifty-two years ago. The stacks of file folders and binders surrounding him, full of notepaper and newspaper and magazine clippings, threatened to tumble to the floor. The information contained in thousands of pages, if ever animated, would roar, and rumble, and speed, and pop and backfire, and screech, and metallically crunch to ear-piercing levels. All of it had to do with the automobile: facts, figures, statistics, percentages, reports, charts, and graphs, makes, and models.
At a most recent count, 260 million registered automobiles drove U.S. roadways. In which case, Kasper worried: How many unregistered drivers illegally drove the nation’s roads? Thirty-five thousand Americans died in a motor vehicle–caused death last year—a 10.5% increase over the prior year. Automobiles knocked 5,323 pedestrians out of their shoes and into the next world. Year-to-year reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration established the safest cars on the road. Metal, glass, steel, and plastic put through such crash tests as side barrier, side pole, rollover resistance, small overlap frontal, side testing, roof strength, and head restraint. The safest-deemed machine was still a four thousand-pound murderous menace out on the roads of America.
(1.) The State of Illinois. Traffic Accident Report
Friday, February 12, 1955, at 11:30 p.m. City: Chicago. County: Cook. Injured: 1. Kasper’s left leg was broken in two places. He hobbled around on crutches for three months, missing Ida, a hole in his heart. Killed: 1. Ida Zigismond, Kasper’s wife, died on impact. He felt her yanked away, going, leaving him. He reached for her; nothing, gone, good-bye. Location: Augusta Street at the intersection with Keystone Avenue. A wolf crossed in front of the car. It looked at Kasper; animal eyes—one blue, the other yellow—met his. Kasper saw them in his headlights. He hard stepped on the brakes. Night, snow, freezing temperatures, icy conditions, the car slid and slammed into a brick wall. Party 1/Driver’s License #: C111-6754-8721. State: Illinois. Class: D. Name: Kasper Borys Zigismond. Address: 1624 W. Randolph St., Chicago, Illinois, 60176. Sex: Male. Hair: Lt. Brown. Eyes: (dark pools of) Brown. Height: 5’10”. Weight: 172. Birth Date: February 2, 1918. Kasper was thirty-six the night the wolf stole his wife away. Ida was twenty-nine. Three children left behind, motherless. Phone: 312-252-8980. Vehicle Year: 1952. Make/Model/Color: Hudson/Hornet/Powder Blue. License Number: 4366 290. State: Illinois. Kasper bought the car used from a cousin for $2,200. He’d only owned it, his first automobile, for six months before the accident. A V6 engine with 145 horsepower; it was moving, killing metal on tires.
Kasper and his relatives, the Zigismonds on his father’s side and the Marszaleks on his mother’s, experienced an infection of automobile accidents the year of 1955.
(2.) The State of Illinois. Traffic Accident Report
Friday, March 19, 1955, at 2:30 p.m. City: Chicago. County: Cook. Injured: 0. Killed: 1. Kasper’s eldest son, Theodore, everyone called him Teddy, age ten-and-a-half, missing both his lower canine teeth—he constantly pulled on his lower lip to show off the vacancies where enamel once resided—was killed by a hit-and-run driver. It had only been a month since his mother had run off with the wolf as his father liked to say. Location: W. Charleston Street, 23 feet north of N. Leavitt Street. On his way home from school, Teddy jaywalked from the north side of Charleston to the south side. He was halfway across when a car tore around the corner, driving too fast like it was being chased. It knocked Teddy flat; his books flew into the air and banged down on the hood and roof of the car. Teddy’s body rolled over to the gutter, where he breathed last raspy breaths. The driver stopped for less than five seconds and sped off. Teddy died of massive internal injuries. One tooth, a bicuspid, knocked out by the impact, remained in the street after they took his body away. Party 1/Driver’s License #: Unknown. State: Undetermined. Witnesses said the car had Illinois license plates, but they were unable to recall the numbers. Class: Unknown. Name: Unknown. Address: Unknown. Sex: Male. Witnesses claimed a man drove. Hair: Black, maybe? Eyes: Unknown. Height: Unknown. Weight: Unknown. Birth Date: Unknown. Phone: Unknown. Vehicle Year: Unknown. Make/Model/Color: Ford/Crestline/Cream White. A woman returning from grocery shopping said she saw the word Crestline on the side of the car. She told police officers the car was cream white same as the color of Cream of Wheat. License Number: Unknown. State: Illinois.
The accident infection continued, God not yet finished removing Zigismonds or Marszaleks despite Kasper’s pleading prayers, supplications, votive lighting, yelled demands, streamed tears, and loud arguments with Father Dombroski at St. John Cantius over whether God actually existed or not.
(3.) The State of Illinois. Traffic Accident Report
Tuesday, June 29, 1955, at 5:30 p.m. City: Chicago. County: Cook. Injured: 0. Killed: 2. Augustyna Zigismond (neé Marszalek), Kasper’s mother, and her younger sister, Róża Marszalek, perished in an automobile accident. Location: Congress Expressway. Mile Marker 12. Augustyna and Róża were returning from the lake via the Congress Expressway, a brand-new freeway completed in December of that year. Róża, an inexperienced driver, unfamiliar with freeway speeds, drove. The car swerved out of control and flipped over twice. Both women were pronounced dead at the scene. A man in the car directly behind theirs reported seeing a dog or some kind of wild animal, possibly a wolf, run across the roadway just before the car crashed. Kasper called his aunt “St. Róża”—never married, timid, a tiny speck of a woman—she was the most religious of all the women in the family. In his eyes, so divine, so devout, she attended mass two times a day, every day, three times on the Holy Days. Kasper clutched at his chest, trying to reach inside it, to his rhythmic heart, and howled and wailed for a solid week. His mother, no words had he; she compared to the Blessed Virgin only—she was, simply, that godly. Party 1/Driver’s License #: G778-9210-4123. State: Illinois. Class: D. Name: Róża Marszalek. Address: 370 N. Leavitt St., Chicago, Illinois, 60612. Sex: Female. Hair: (always pulled back into a bun) Brunette. Eyes: (dazzling, light-filled) Hazel. Height: 5’0”. Weight: 106. Birth Date: September 8, 1924. Phone: None. Vehicle Year: 1948. Make/Model/Color: Chevrolet/Fleetline Aerosedan/Mist Green. License Number: 9015 347. State: Illinois. The car belonged to Kasper’s father, Emeryk. The family car, it was used by everyone.
Directly after the joint burials of Augustyna and Róża, Kasper vowed to never ride in an automobile ever, ever again, and he stuck to his avowal of self-combusting, as he liked to call walking, for the last sixty-two years.
A cuckoo clock announced the ninth hour of the morning of this last day of Kasper’s ninety-ninth year. The wooden projectile bird popped forward and backward, cuckooing the requisite number of times. He hated the clock, a wedding gift he and his wife had received from a homeland relative. He couldn’t part with it now since Ida was dead and gone. It was her most prized possession. She loved it like it was her own flesh and blood. Nine o’clock, eight more hours until his great-grandson picked him up, eight hours of watching the expressway, eight hours to call his children and grandchildren, and tell them he wasn’t coming. He pushed to standing, away from the kitchen table. His research on the three cars involved in the previous night’s smashup finalized. From his deductions, the Silverado—from size and weight alone—should have triumphed over the Miata and the Focus. Clearly, it had not. The truck’s bed had sheared off from the cab. Speed, the only possible factor, provided this result. None of the three automobiles had stellar NHTSA crash test ratings. Killing machines all, they should never have been allowed on the road.
Kaspar grabbed a light jacket off a coat rack by the front door, wrapped a thin knit scarf around his neck, but wore no gloves, not needing additional protection against the purported outside temperature of 24 degrees Fahrenheit. The Chicago climate mirrored Warsaw’s, and ever since coming from Poland at age four, he’d casually weathered all seasons. He looked out the windows via the binoculars before leaving. A blithe snow fell; the Doberman's black snout stuck out of the whiteness, patches of its fur also not yet covered. One thing still troubled Kasper: Where did the dog come from? Tied into the bed of the pickup? In one of the other cars? Not related at all to the accident? He replaced the binoculars on the windowsill. In front of his building, he turned left to walk the five blocks to Nowak’s Butcher & Deli, the place he worked his entire butchering career from age sixteen to eighty-three.
The walk to and from was faithfully the same every day except Sunday. A daily homecoming, those young and old, employees, customers, too, greeted him when he crossed the threshold. A brown paper–wrapped package awaited him on top of the counter—inside, a ten-ounce New York strip steak. Reserved for him, a small round table and chair in the rear of the shop, out of the way of customers, where he’d sit. A current Mrs. Nowak—one he wasn’t sure where or how she fits into the family—always appeared over the counter asking, “Czarna kawa?” A nod of assent and a few moments later, she placed an espresso in front of him. He stayed, gossiping, catching up on neighborhood news, and drinking three more coffees until 11:00 a.m. precisely. At high noon, back inside his apartment, he turned the gas stove on, slid a cast iron frying pan over the flame, tossed a slab of butter in, and cooked the steak three minutes on each side. He liked his meat bloody, rare.
In the afternoon, post-lunch cleanup, Kasper napped—another precise quotidian ritual. He waited for the cuckoo to chime the one o’clock hour, placed his gray head on his pillow, and slept until three thirty—the third single half-hour cuckoo rousing him from slumber. Today, the Wolf of Chicago revisited him. He’d seen the Canis lupus, or gray wolf, several times over the years. The first was the night Ida died, and again ten years ago. One late summer night, he went to the kitchen for a drink of water. Before returning to bed, he looked outside. A full moon yellowed the view. Out on the expressway, an animal trotted along in the middle lane. He raised his binoculars. It turned his way and looked right at him: one eye blue, the other yellow before disappearing down an embankment. It wasn’t until the next morning when he remembered the freeway was void of automobiles. There hadn’t been a single car driving in either direction. The wolf had been alone out on the expanse of cement.
The Wolf of Chicago was rumored to run the streets of the city, chasing children, hunting domestic pets, and filling adults with terror. In all reported sightings, the animal had one blue eye and one yellow. In today’s afternoon dreams, Kasper rode the wolf, seated on its back, into leaden slate-gray skies. They high-speed sped out to the edge of light, at the border of darkness, where they floated and bobbed weightlessly. The animal spoke no words, but Kasper heard its canine existence—magnified aural eruptions of growls, yips, a heartbeat, blood flowing, lungs inhaling and exhaling, gut gurgles of digestion, eyes blinking: click-click. Kasper closed and opened his own eyes, click-click, and Ida floated before him, her hand outstretched. He gasped and reached, and before he could touch her fingers, the wolf flew him with a celerity back to his bed. He awoke with a whump, disoriented, a bubbling sorrow.
That night, Kasper attended his hundredth birthday celebration, which he hadn’t canceled after all. He didn’t call his children and grandchildren to tell them he wasn’t coming as he’d considered. When Jimmy, his great-grandson, picked him up, it was the first time he rode in an automobile since his mother and his aunt Róża had passed. Out on the Kennedy, heading out of town, Kasper placed both hands on the Audi A4’s dashboard, and pushed his feet hard into the floorboards but never told Jimmy to drive slower. Other cars whizzed and blurred by at super high speeds—a constant whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
The modern machine so comfortable, it felt like sitting in the lobby of a fancy hotel. Easy to forget how menacing all this metal and plastic indeed was. Kasper had changed his mind and decided to climb back into an automobile because 1.) It had been long enough now 2.) How much longer would he live? 3.) His daughter, Sonia, who was hosting the party, lived over an hour away in the suburbs, and it was too far to walk. On the drive out, he swore he saw the wolf on more than one occasion running alongside, keeping pace with the car. He didn’t say anything and nodded when the beast looked his way.
On the return trip home—after midnight so all the relatives, a good one hundred or more, could truly celebrate his centennial—Kasper dozed in the front passenger seat. The car passed through snow-covered farmland. The skies cloudless, a first-quarter moon cast pale light across the landscape. A warbling wail wormed its way into Kasper’s inner ear; it turned into a shrill, startling, and blaring car horn waking him. A wolf ran in front of the car, Jimmy tried to brake, and the vehicle slid sideways through a barbed-wire fence and across a frozen field. The sedan tipped sideways and flipped over twice, landing upside down. Miraculously, Kasper thought, he stood outside the car looking at the wreck. The Audi brand consistently earned high NHTSA crash test ratings.
Dazed, he remembered Jimmy, and fearing the worst, assuming he’d be dead, he looked inside the driver’s side window. The boy wasn’t there. Where could he have gone? A voice now reached him, someone speaking: “Grampa Kasper, Grampa Kasper,” a tone of desperation and fear. Kasper turned toward the field. The wolf sat waiting for him, one eye yellow, the other blue blinking—click-click, click-click. Ida stood next to it, her hand outstretched. He walked toward them, and this time his hand met hers. Ready to go now, Kasper was—his worries over the velocity of impact over. They turned, together, all three; the wolf, Ida, and Kasper, and walked into the shadows. Kasper heard Jimmy talking, probably on one of those modernized cellular telephones: “It’s Grampa Kasper. There was an accident. He’s dead.”
Charles G. Thompson, a Pushcart Prize nominee, lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes fiction, nonfiction, plays, and memoir. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Maine Review, STORGY Magazine, Writers Resist, Five:2:One, Cowboy Jamboree, Full Grown People, The Offbeat, Printers Row Journal, Reunion: The Dallas Review. His work also appears in the anthologies Made in L.A., Vol. 2 and Writers Resist: The Anthology 2018. Four of his short stories were included in the 2017 New Short Fiction Series. He was named a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s 2015 Fiction Contest. His short play “Cherry” won two playwriting awards. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert. He is the founder of Pen and Paper Writing Workshops, an online writing school.