An Essay by
What I remember most about senior prom is the smell of mud and the taste of burning. That day, Spencer picked me up in his father’s Porsche convertible.
“Get in,” he said, “I’ve got it for the whole day.”
It was not our first drive in that powerful car. We had sneaked it out a handful of times for speedy little drives in the country, then returning it before his folks ever caught us. Inside the Porsche, I knew it was all wrong; what people said about fast cars being compensation for anatomical shortcomings. No, people drive Porsches to compensate for the slowness of life.
And today was prom. It was special. Spencer’s dad had given him permission to take the Porsche. With permission, we had nothing to worry about. Spencer and I hit the road about two o’clock that afternoon. We stopped at the rental shop to get our tuxedoes. We had pretty dates lined up for later that evening and were giddy for the dance and party afterward.
After setting the black tuxedo bags and bags of shoes in the car’s backseat, we drove the long way back to Spencer’s house. We detoured down long stretches of rural roads, those two-lane country highways with speed limits of fifty-five miles per hour. The roads were mostly empty. Spencer looked at me, as if asking permission to go faster.
“Do it,” I said.
We craved speed. We needed it to survive Oshkosh—our flat, dull town where people pretended that ice-fishing and the Green Bay Packers were enough to make life worthwhile. So, Spencer drove me in the Porsche, and I bullied him to drive faster and faster because speed eased the suffering. It might be hard to imagine the suffering of two boys in a Porsche. But Spencer felt trapped. He was the oldest son, burdened to take over his family’s company—a door factory that had claimed his own father’s future, and his father’s before him. Spencer would become them, and it terrified him.
While I had not been burdened with a family business, I dealt with my older brother’s ghost. He had been killed, three years before, when his own car collided with a semi. My parents held onto his button-down shirts and a pair of Sorel boots that retained the form of his foot. The idea of him not existing enraged me. I often fantasized violent escape.
But today was prom. The top was down and the sun shined on us. For some reason, we played Meatloaf’s Greatest Hits on the stereo. We passed farmers’ fields, freshly plowed. Spencer steered with one hand on the wheel, letting the car hug curves in the road.
“Open it up,” I said.
He drove the pedal down and the wind swept his thick black hair. As we passed Lee’s Egg Farm, his eyes sparkled. I watched as the needle on the speedometer passed 126 miles per hour. We had more than doubled the limit, but the Porsche still had more.
“Go for it, Spencer.”
We passed the Circle R campground at 135 miles per hour, but still we wanted more. The lines of those freshly plowed fields began to blur. My neck ached from being pressed to the headrest. The needle climbed further.
At 148 miles per hour, as we approached the top of the hill in the road.
At the hilltop we saw a tractor.
We should have accounted for that. Those country highways were made, after all, for tractors. It ambled toward us from the opposite direction. The big wheels grabbed too much pavement from our lane. I watched it taking more and more space and braced myself. We weren’t going to fit. Spencer’s hands grew confused on the stick and steering wheel. The Porsche slid across the road.
His legs stomped at the pedals. The brakes screamed. Gravel ripped under the chassis. Grass, mud, and objects whipped overhead. The sky shifted. I didn’t know if we were flipping or spinning, or if we were dead already.
I had only one train of thought: Even if we make it through, this car will be ruined. There’s no way we’re going to prom.
That was it. My last thought would not have been of love or family but of prom.
But we did not die. Nor did we flip or roll the car. It turns out that Porsches are engineered not to flip at such speeds. Spencer—thanks to German engineering, or a guardian angel—righted the car in time to avoid collision. The Porsche never even stopped. He steered the drifting car from the field to the shoulder and back onto the road. At the next junction, he made a complete stop, and drove the speed limit back to his parents’ house. If we spoke the rest of that ride, I don’t know what either of us said. What could be said?
We parked in his parents’ garage, as if nothing had happened. My hand trembled, and I struggled with the latch on the door. We inspected the car. There wasn’t a nick, dent or scratch on it. The only evidence was the smell of scorched brakes, so strong you could taste it.
We later bragged to our friends that we had cheated the Reaper, but I felt uneasy about that. Though I could not articulate it then, what I was feeling was not bravado but guilt. We had cheated Spencer’s parents. We had cheated my parents whose eyes clung to me every time I left the house; who told me umpteen times to wear my coat, my seatbelt. We had cheated the farmer who might have been killed, because that day might have ended very differently: some patrolman with a shovel, scraping our organs off the pavement; a coroner covering us with a sheet. But things don’t always happen as they should. Sometimes we are lucky whether or not we deserve it.
Safely in the garage, we lifted our tuxedo bags from the tiny backseat—I couldn’t help but notice how they resembled the body bags I had seen on Law & Order: SVU. Spencer picked up the dress shoes he had rented. But when I looked for my own, they weren’t there. Mine had vanished inexplicably—or not so inexplicably.
We got into Spencer’s Jeep and drove back to that patch of highway where we’d crossed paths with the tractor. We spotted it easily: black arks streaked on the pavement and gashes in the soil beyond the shoulder of the road. There, maybe fifteen feet from the shoulder, was the bag containing my rented shoes. I leaped down from the Jeep and ran to my shoes there. It was an eerie, sinking feeling.
As I stood there in the mud, I felt like weeping.
Ted Wesenberg grew up in rural Wisconsin. He is a military veteran, who writes fiction. He studied creative writing at Northwestern University, and his work has appeared in magazines such as Midwestern Gothic and Superstition Review. He lives with his wife and dog in California, where he’s at work on a novel.