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Small Miracles

We were sick of struggling. Burt used to put bumpers on Chevrolets and Pontiacs for forty dollars an hour and retire-with-class benefits, but these days spooned leathery meat into tortillas while his pothead coworkers grab-assed. Me, I buffed floors midnights at the high school where fifteen years ago I was voted most likely to host NPR. With only one car between us, I took the bus to the apartment we’d been sharing going on two years now, a grungy little place where the cockroaches and mice had somehow learned to live in harmony.

But tonight I was smiling. Which seemed to creep out the bus driver judging by his stink-eye in the rearview.

“Good night at work?” he said.

“Something like that,” I said, fingering the lump in my pocket.

Although Burt’s shift ended before mine he took a good hour to wind down from serving drive-thru nachos to belligerent drunks. He did so by laboring over his train set, one of his few possessions salvaged from the divorce. When I walked in about 2 a.m. he was hunched over the tiny feed store with a pair of tweezers, statute-still, as if in a trance. Hands down, Burt was the most intensely serious person I knew, laser-focused on the things that really mattered to him: his train (which took up the bulk of our living room), his role as the union secretary-treasurer (little good that had done him), his Frisbee football league (don’t ask) and, regrettably, his ex.

You’d expect a man who learns of his wife’s years-long infidelity to exhibit a healthy dose of hatred, maybe even venture out to the bars and clubs of greater Lansing and exact his revenge. But not Burt. He believed Sheila was simply scratching a seven-year itch and would wise up and return to him with open arms. Meanwhile, he worked his nine or ten hours a day and then came home and jet-sprayed the grease out of his pores, cracked a can of vegetable juice and played with his train. He never complained and not once, to my knowledge, missed a day at the Taco King.

So I was genuinely surprised when he agreed to my proposition. When I pulled out the wad of cash and told him I had nailed the four-digit and goddammit, Burt, we deserve a vacation so let’s head up to the Mackinac for a long weekend. Life’s too short, I was ready to argue. The Taco King can survive without you. But before I had the chance he placed the tweezers on the table and turned to face me.

“Let’s do it,” he said, and I could see the exhaustion in his unshaven face, sense the frustration in his sagging posture.

Twenty minutes later we were headed north in his rusted Malibu, two cans of energy drink laced with whiskey sitting between us. Burt insisted I drive and I did so with my arm out the window, collecting the warm mist of a summer night. The cruise was set at seventy-four, Seger’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man was on the radio, and Burt and I were bobbing our heads and discussing the Tigers, who were in second place with a bullet, and then Marcia, my latest fling, and her blessed screeching.

“I almost broke in yesterday with the first aid kit,” said Burt, deadpan as usual.

He came from buttoned-up Catholic stock. And I drove him crazy, I knew. The son of long-divorced hippies, I considered marriage a flawed institution, religion a sham and corporate America the enemy. I had quit my job at the daily newspaper after they neutered my stories for fear of the almighty advertiser. (“Watchdog my ass!” I shouted on my way out the door.) These days I wrote an occasional column for the alternative weekly and worked on the next great American novel, which for months had been stuck on three chapters of disjointed narrative.

Eventually I steered the conversation to Sheila. I was getting drunk and feeling energized about my ongoing mission to help Burt see the light, painful though it may be.

“I hear she’s seeing a firefighter,” I said. And a cop, and a plumber …

“News to me,” Burt said evenly. “Sheila’s a grown woman.”

She’s a wench, I wanted to say. Instead: “What do you think? I predict we’ll meet some comely Yoopers within two hours of arrival.”

“Comely Yoopers? There’s an oxymoron for you.” But as he spoke I saw that he was crying. There was no histrionics involved, just the parade of tears down his flushed cheeks. I looked away, embarrassed for my friend, and tried to think of the words.

“Listen, man …”

But Burt had jumped out of the car.

I stood on the brakes, the Malibu fishtailing down the slick highway, Burt’s door swinging shut with the momentum. A hundred yards later I came to a stop and jumped out to a blaring horn—several tons of metal roaring by a foot from my face. It was a jacked-up pickup with jumbo tires, which made sense seeing as how we were in northern Michigan, just north of Clare. Brake lights flashed as the monster truck pulled to the side of the road.

I ran. It was a dark, starless night. The right-of-way through here was a grassy decline, the kind that could cushion a blow. As my shoes slapped the pavement I tried to think positively, but the truth is I had caught a glimpse of Burt going headfirst out of the car, the blur of the highway swallowing his fetal form. The resulting impact in that position, at that speed, was surely catastrophic.

“Burt!” I called. “Burt!”

I heard the truck doors slam behind me, then voices. No other vehicles were on the road at this hour. The mist had turned to a steady drizzle.


A weird groaning noise just ahead. I turned into the ditch but misjudged the distance and tripped over his body, going face-first into the soggy weeds. Rolled over and wiped the grit from my eyes. It took a few moments to focus on the form directly in front of me.

Burt was sitting up and humming. Not groaning: humming. Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.

I crawled forward. He was flexing the fingers of his right hand but otherwise seemed unscathed. He turned to me and smiled lazily. It was the kind of smile I might wear, but not Burt. Not Mr. Intense.

“Remember that time we went camping?”

I told him I did. It was five or six years ago, the first time Sheila came on to me. I’d like to say I resisted.

“So peaceful,” he said. “So green.”

He lay back in the ferns. The beam from a flashlight played over the scene. “You boys all right?” The owner of the deep voice was a bearded man wearing a John Deere gimme cap. Standing next to him was a slight, attractive brunette.

“Concussion,” I said.

“Concussion my ass,” said Burt from his position in the ferns.

The brunette took the flashlight and climbed down into the ditch. “My sister’s a nurse,” the bearded man said by way of explanation. She bent over Burt and shined the light into each of his eyes, then ran her hands gently over his scalp, searching for wounds. She was even more attractive up close, and no ring that I could see.

“So what’s your name?” she said.

“Burt Christoff.”

“How old are you, Burt Christoff?”


“Who’s the president of the United States?”

“Clint Eastwood,” he said without missing a beat, and she huffed and shook her head.

“Well, Clint, it’s a wonder you’re not comatose.”

“Thank goodness for small miracles,” said Burt. And then, completely uncharacteristically: “And now a question for you: Any plans for breakfast?”

“I do,” she said, “but not with people who jump from moving cars.”

The nurse stood and made her way out of the ditch. Burt watched her go, that weird smile still plastered across his face. “Nurse Angel,” he whispered to her backside, and I don’t know if she heard him, but I knew, for the first time in a long time, that everything would be fine.


Andy Henion’s fiction has appeared, online and in print, in Hobart, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon, Ink Pot, Spork, Monkeybicycle and many other pubs. He lives in Michigan and flies occasionally out of Detroit Metro Airport. He will not watch your bags.

Read more stories by Andy Henion


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