At dawn on the last day of the year, my husband and I were walking along a rural highway in South Carolina, following a trail of broken things. I had left my pocketbook on top of the car at a gas station late the previous night, something we didn't realize till we got to my mother-in-law's house about 45 minutes later.

It was too dark to search then, but all night I fretted. Had it fallen off right in the gas station lot, and was someone even now using my Visa card to order a vintage Corvette? Was some fan using the cell phone to leave long messages on Ricky Martin's answering machine? How would I ever replace all those little plastic cards, when I couldn't even remember what half of them were for? I pictured myself spending all afternoon at the DMV, glumly waiting to pose for a new license.

Why was the sight of an exploded pocketbook so gratifying? It seemed a sudden opportunity to be free from all these nattering things that pin us down.

There was something even worse. I didn't tell Gary this. My list of Internet passwords was in that pocketbook. The card I'd been scribbling them on for years had gotten so bent and dingy that I thought I'd make a fresh one during the long car trip. So much for that idea. Not only could I not remember all those passwords, to speedily change them, I couldn't even remember all the sites on the list.

All night, these tiny windows of vulnerability kept opening in my dreams. I felt like I was being shot at with miniature arrows. We set the alarm for an hour before sunrise and soon were back in the car, gliding along and scanning the other side of the highway.

"There are a lot more black clumps on the road than you'd think," Gary said, as we passed another unidentifiable object. There were also plenty of flattened dogs. I'd never looked so intently at asphalt before. Behind us, the skyline shifted from oyster gray to misty pink, while up ahead the high tips of trees burned with sudden gold.

And there it was. A quick U-turn, and we were upon it. Picture a black leather pocketbook, about the size of a small shoebox, run over. Its long braided strap, snapped, tailed out in a curl on the gray pavement.

We parked and walked up for a closer look. The purse was still zipped, but had been popped open and exploded. Everything was smashed. The little blue-backed mirror was in fragments, reflecting the pearly sky, and the plastic shards of red and blue ballpoint pens and a pink nail file were scattered around it like confetti. The crushed highlighter splayed its yellow fibers, fanned out into a brush. The fuchsia lipstick was only bent, but the red one was good and smashed, and lumps and streaks of red were scribbled throughout the scene.

It was strangely festive. I found I was kind of enjoying this. I kept walking up the road. I came upon the little case I keep business cards in. It had been banged on top as by a hammer, a single decisive blow. I liked picturing someone being exactly that mad at my business-card case. There was the coin purse, its mouth bent into a grin, nickels spilling out like broken teeth. Then I found the wallet. All its contents were present but not, technically speaking, intact. Cracks ran through both the Visa and ATM cards. Those were the two I'd been most afraid of losing, but as I looked at them broken, I felt strangely freed.

I unzipped the pocketbook and poured out a half-cup of rubble: plastic splinters, broken key chain, smashed mints and aspirins. And this: my good ol' Timex, still shiny, still ticking, absolutely unscathed. I had been just a kid when the "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking!" ads were on TV. This was like finding out there really is

a tooth fairy. I strolled on, impressed.

Then I came upon the cell phone. This was best of all. It had been a large, clunky old phone, and it made an impressive spill that ran 20 feet or more. It was kind of exhilarating. I walked along in the chill, recognizing pieces here and there: the keypad, the batteries, the antenna and little plastic window, shiny fragments of this and that. There is nothing like the sight of a well-run-over cell phone to really cheer you up, early in the South Carolina dawn.

As I got to the end of the broken-phone trail, I looked up the road toward the pale pink horizon. For one crazy moment, I thought, I could just go on walking.

Then I thought a little more. I could just go on walking, and in a few hours all I'd get to would be Ravenel. I had driven through Ravenel many times, and I didn't think it would be improved by walking.

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