“…it is a custom of souls to take butterfly-shape in order to announce the fact of their final departure from the body.” –Lafcadio Hearn
It kills me when I drive my jeep over them. People beneath the jeep’s wheels where lungs burst under tire pressure. Sickly-sweet smells, motor-oil and rot. A long route I’ve been bumping along for years. I don’t want to work here anymore in this jeep, but I’m taking each highway in kind. Rolling along. The road comes fat, black asphalt split-center by yellow lines, thin in the distance. Sides: Spanish moss and trash. Behind: bodies and blood and bone. Ahead stand people, and I’m going to run them over. No end of the line, they’re all lined up, some a step apart, some a mile. I’m going to run them over.
And then my trainee, who’s a smiler, says from the passenger seat: “We should name them.”
A bone snaps under us.
I say, “You want to name the ones ahead?”
My trainee’s feet are out the window, red-painted nails, and she’s leaning back in her seat. Sunglasses. “We should name them.”
“Wouldn’t that make this harder?”
Every bone snap sounds different.
“We have big tires,” she says. “This is a jeep.”
“We do have big tires.”
“Yes, big tires.”
“Is this a good idea? Grab the rulebook from the glovebox. Just pop it open there … hand it here.” Knee-steering, I flip through the contents, find the rules page, read aloud: “#1: Just do your job. #2: You can’t quit. #3: You’re either alive in the jeep or you’re dead on the road.” I set the book on my lap. “The rules make sense.”
My trainee nods ahead. We’re coming upon a mustachioed gentleman in a button-up. “I’m going to name this one Leo.”
“Why Leo?” I say.
“He can’t hear you.”
“Why did you name him Leo?”
“Just looks like a Leo.”
And then I run him over. It’s not pleasant.
We play this game for several hours. New names. Larry, Louis, Louise, Lyle, Lyla, Layla, Lola, Lisa, Lynelle, Lamont, Lamar, Lanny—a lot of L’s, I’m aware. We’re not going alphabetically or anything—it’s just fun finding L names. Fun finding them with her.
It’s late-afternoon when we find Levon. He wears a headband: a jogger. I slam the brakes. We hit him and he goes flying.
I say, “We can’t keep doing this. Ahead are thousands and millions of people to run over.”
She turns to me, green eyes, hand on my knee. Butterflies, born in my belly, grow in my throat and flap from my eyes, out the window, wild; in the rearview mirror, I follow them flying fast away. She says, “We can reuse names.”
It makes so much sense to me, but I can’t help feeling it’s wrong. I tell her so.
She gives me one of those looks. Like I’m the crazy one.
I say, “Darling, you’re gaslighting me.”
“You’re acting crazy. We’ve got a job to do. Gas it.”
“I’m not gassing it. We can’t recycle names—that would be wrong.”
“What do you know about wrong?”
Someone’s ahead. The evening’s turned dark; a night where runners look past their shoulders every seven steps. Curled spines and craned necks. I switch on the headlights. An old man with a white beard. We’re stopped here, and he looks a little scared.
I say to my trainee, “How’d you like it if we gave away your name?”
“You don’t even know my name.”
I’m sure I do. “You told me. You must have.”
“No way, José.”
“Don’t call me that. It’s not my name.”
The old man ahead crouches. It’s not easy for him. He’s got a hand on his back and an expression of this isn’t easy for me.
She says, “Why shouldn’t we name them?”
“Give me the rulebook again.” She does, and I flip through it. It doesn’t say.
“So, let’s run him over.”
I say, “Emotionally, is this a good idea? Don’t want to get too attached, you know?”
Ahead, a man in a panama-hat. “Lucas,” she says.
I run over Lucas. In the rearview mirror, his panama-hat faintly floats like a butterfly flapping, coasting in the wind. The hat lands on a dismembered leg.
She says, “How’d that feel? Emotionally.”
We exhaust the L’s then the M-N-O-P’s before dawn (now it is alphabetical). I can barely see the rising sun through the bloody windshield. Wipers don’t help: streaks, and we’re out of wiper-fluid. The jeep can barely roll there’s so many bones caught in the wheelwells. I need a new job.
“So, quit,” she says.
“I’m not going to quit, damn it—that’s against the rules. What do you think would happen if I quit? What do you think would happen? I just want to know—”
I swerve—something in the road. The jeep skids, barrels over and over. Thank god there’s roll-bars.
We land right side up in the muck on the side of the road. Catch breaths. Rearrange sunglasses.
I check her. She’s not hurt.
She checks me, “You’re not hurt.”
I search the road. An opossum scurries away. Red eyes, wet mouth. Alive.
She says, “I quit. You nearly killed me over an opossum.”
I turn the key: the engine bubbles a breath, drowns and stalls. That sinking feeling inside me.
She slaps me hard across the face. And again. I catch her wrist en route to the third slap. She tears off her sunglasses. Green-eyed rage. I let go. She kicks open her door. Climbs out. Turns away. I watch her with wonder—wonder if she remembers the rules.
I’ll teach her.
She looks beyond me, wonder glazing over her green eyes. I see it too: on the road behind us, butterflies hover above the bodies. Thousands and millions.
I turn the key. The engine rumbles to life. Whip a U-turn.
“Lily. Get in.”
She does. Smiles and sunglasses on.