The Jane Austen Incident

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Every Friday I head down to the bookstore to read and enjoy a cup of coffee.  There is something rather cathartic about a hot cup of caffeine and the escape of a really good book. A corner table flanking the main aisle serves as my favorite place to sit.  I’m always happy to find it empty as if everyone knows that’s my spot.  Without fail I arrive at around six o’clock and leave by seven-thirty.  This little ritual may seem pretty boring, but sometimes the extraordinary realm of fate chooses to reveal itself in the most mundane of places.

One evening, I sat at my table with my customary coffee and a copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.  In the midst of escaping to Fanny Price’s world of English propriety, my mind began to wander to a conversation I had with a friend about a book he had just finished reading: Villette by Charlotte Brontë.  The memory was so intense it was difficult to pay attention to Fanny’s burgeoning fascination with Edmund Bertram.  I struggled to focus for another chapter, but a growing need began to occupy my every thought.  I had to find a copy of Villette.  Not in the next day or two, but right at that moment.

When I looked at the time, seven-thirty was a mere five minutes away.  I packed up my stuff and headed towards the “B’s” in the fiction section.  Sure enough, there was a lone copy of Brontë’s enormous novel.  It should have been a simple spot and grab sort of purchase, but when I look for one book I inevitably look for more.  I wandered over to the classic literature display and perused books by D.H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, and Dante.  For some reason, I decided I couldn’t live without a compilation of Anton Chekov’s short stories.

At the cash wrap, the girl took one look at my books and told me I should go get a third.  As it turned out, classics were on sale: Buy two, get one free.  So, like any savvy shopper, I went back to look a for free book.  For a normal person, this would be easy, but for a bibliophile the “books I want” list is immeasurably long.  At first I thought of grabbing another Brontë book or indulging in my newfound love of Eastern European writers, but none of them satisfied the need that still burned in the back of my brain.

Jane Austen.  It was so obvious I felt like an idiot for not thinking of it sooner.  The only book missing in my collection of her works was Northanger Abbey.  I snatched it off the shelf and hurried back to the cash wrap.  It was getting late.

By the time I got to my car, I was running a very uncharacteristic fifteen minutes late.  Nothing seemed amiss when I drove to the main road and entered the on-ramp to the freeway.  I figured I’d be home in no time, until the car in front of me came to a sudden halt.  All four lanes of the freeway were at a virtual standstill and I was stuck in the middle of it.  Inch by inch, traffic merged into the emergency lane.  Only a really bad accident would warrant such extreme measures.  Still, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

Sprawled across the width of the freeway were six mangled cars.  Three were crushed so severely it was impossible to tell the make and model.  The shock of it caught my breath as I fought back the tears.  There was no question in my mind that at least one life had ended, for one car had been ripped into two pieces.

It took a moment to realize the police were still setting up a perimeter, the on ramp had not yet been closed, and the first ambulance was just arriving.  The accident was only minutes old.  Perhaps, the same few minutes it took for me to go back and find Jane Austen.

c.b. 2011