An Accidental Memoir: How I Killed Someone and Other Stories

May 20, 2013

“An Accidental Memoir: How I Killed Someone and Other Essays and Stories”
Author: Wendy Reed
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Pages: 208
Price: $24.95 (Cloth)

Wendy Reed is a familiar and respected member of the Alabama literary community, having co- edited two books on Southern women and spirituality for the University of Alabama Press, and been a prize-winning producer/writer on “Discovering Alabama,” not to mention the literary interview show “Bookmark.”

“An Accidental Memoir” is, however, her debut volume of prose, and it is unusual, odd, offbeat.

To begin with, it is a mixed genre volume.  Reed begins with a gathering of short essays, some of them op-ed pieces.

The Introduction to this section begins: “People are buried every day. Death happens.”

The subjects range from memories of her deceased father to ruminations on the chemistry of the brain, especially the secretions like serotonin which involve pleasure and lust and their consequences. A companion piece examines depression and despair, leading to a botched suicide attempt.

These essays are personal, short and strong.

Reed, who has the MA in creative writing from UAB, next presents three short stories, and they might be my favorite part, quirky and richly imagined.

In “Harold Washburn” the protagonist, Harold, is a worker in a crematorium. He becomes gently enamored of Rebecca Ann Walker, a cadaver he is to burn. He courts her, in his way, and finally dances a slow dance with Mrs. Walker before he puts her in the flames.

In “Aubade,” the husband, Martin, has promised his dying wife, Lilly, that he and no other will embalm her, prepare her for burial.

He takes a course in mortuary science.

In “Sweet Sweet Tea,” the widow and the mistress of a recently deceased man meet and get along surprisingly well. They drink tea and divide up his ashes.

You will have noticed there is a pattern here. The stories are about death, yes, but are also touching, humorous, redeemed from gloominess by the varieties of love, however strange, that run among the characters.

The long title piece that ends the volume, “An Accidental Memoir,” is powerful and honest, some might say too much so, and the pain, guilt and anxiety are not lightened by humor.

On a rainy Tuesday morning in 1996 Reed and her young son, on the way to the dentist, were merging into traffic on the interstate. Her car suddenly hydroplaned across three lanes, and the median, and was struck by an oncoming car. Reed and her son were not hurt. The driver of the other car, herself on the way to work on a rainy Tuesday morning, was killed.

What Reed relates is what she remembers, how she felt: the initial shock, the relief that her son was all right, the horror of the other driver’s death and then the guilt that had to be endured along with the stress that the potentially ruinous Wrongful Death lawsuit launched by the dead woman’s family put upon Reed’s family and marriage.

The style sometimes mirrors her state of mind at the time, fragmented, confused, groping, uncertain. What happened? How does one remember accurately? What are the sensory memories such as shape or coloring, that are needed for narrative?

“It is possible this story begins when my vehicle stopped spinning. Her Camry was blue. Or when I pressed the car seat lever. The lever was square.”

Although it all happened in a few terrible seconds, the accident changed several lives forever. Reed’s writings are so intimate some readers will be made uneasy. But those who read this deeply personal account won’t easily forget it.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”