Mr. Hill’s death is posted on YouTube. You can’t actually see him. Just the back of his sunflower yellow convertible, top up, cruising along a two lane road. The fifty-second clip, taken from a dash cam in a following car, seems rather ordinary at first, and you might think you were watching a typical drive through a wooded countryside. That is if the clip weren’t titled “Tragic Car Wreck.”
Emily Williams, a stack of notecards cupped in her right hand, slouches in front of a whiteboard presenting her end-of-term Tone Project.
“Tragic, an adjective,” says Emily, sounding mildly uncertain.
The Tone Project is Mr. Hill’s way of giving his eleventh grade English students one last chance to boost their grades and review key terms prior to the final exam. Mr. Hill sits at a chair-desk combo in the back of the room grading the presentations. He’s not dead yet.
“Pertaining to tragedy.” Emily glances at her notecards then looks at Nate and Janet and Mr. Hill, making eye-contact with each one, just like Mr. Hill taught her. “Associated with death and great sorrow.”
“Acceptable,” Mr. Hill writes in the definition block of the grading rubric. Emily’s definition is accurate, but Mr. Hill had hoped for more depth, more insight. “May not fully understand tragedy,” he writes.
Emily pulls a strand of blonde hair back behind her shoulder, clears her throat, and reads a passage from Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Emily puts down her notecards and walks around the classroom displaying a diorama she made of a decapitation scene from Cut to a Scream, a recent horror film she highly recommends.
“These things have a tragic tone,” says Emily, returning to the front of the classroom. “People suffer and die and that is tragedy.”
What makes someone’s story a tragedy? Mr. Hill wrote an essay on tragedy his senior year in college. The paper earned him an “A,” and he has considered himself an expert on tragedy ever since.
Mr. Hill leans toward the classical definition. Tragic hero. Noble stature. Hubris. Self-knowledge. Reversal of fortune. All the ingredients from Aristotle’s Poetics.
According to Aristotle, and Mr. Hill, the tragic hero must be of noble stature. Mr. Hill has given that some thought, and sometimes wonders if he is noble enough to be a tragic hero. He’s a teacher, certainly an important profession, but not noble by the classical standard. He’s not a king. Not the principal. Not even one of the assistant principals. He’s been working at Meritville High School for eight years and hasn’t even made English department head yet.
Sure, he might rise to the level of Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman if you’re inclined to go with the more modern interpretation of the tragic hero. But he’s no Macbeth. Not even a Jay Gatsby. Mr. Hill doesn’t come close to the classical standard by a long shot, and he knows that.
Emily ends her presentation with a video clip of a yellow convertible driving down a road.
“Is that your car, Mr. Hill?” asks Jessie.
“I don’t own the only yellow convertible in the world,” says Mr. Hill.
“I’m getting a car like that,” says Janet. She’s sending a text and thinks Mr. Hill hasn’t noticed. Janet, like many of Mr. Hill’s students, has recently earned her driver’s license. She tends to send texts to her friends during class offering to take them home after school.
The class watches the convertible with anticipation until it fishtails to the left and then to the right, then swerves off the road, smashing into a tree, transforming into a yellow smear of crushed metal which quickly disappears off the right side of the screen.
“Cool,” says Nate.
But it’s not cool. Not cool at all. Mr. Hill has just watched a car, and presumably its driver, get ripped to shreds.
“Go back,” says Janet, putting away her cell phone. “I didn’t see it.”
“Once is enough,” says Mr. Hill. “More than enough.” The class moans in disappointment.
“And that is my presentation of ‘tragic,’ ” says Emily.
“Well, I guess that’s tragic in a sense,” says Mr. Hill, standing up.
“In a sense?” says Nate. “The guy hit a tree going at least sixty.”
Seizing the opportunity to teach, Mr. Hill strides to the front of the room as Emily steps back and tries to blend in with the whiteboard. “Tragedy is more complicated than that,” says Mr. Hill. “It’s more than just someone hitting a tree.”
“I bet you wouldn’t say that if you were in that car,” says Nate.
After Mr. Hill dismisses his last class for the day at three o’clock, he sits down at his computer and enters the grades for the tone presentations. As he closes the grading program and turns away from his computer, he sees something flash on his desktop. He’s not quite sure what he saw. Just a flash. A flicker. He hopes there’s nothing wrong with his computer. He hates dealing with tech support. He studies his computer screen and it looks alright. Then he notices something he hadn’t seen before. There on his desktop is an icon labeled “Tragic Car Wreck.” Mr. Hill wasn’t even aware Emily had loaded the file onto his computer. He thought she had played it off her flash drive, but there it is on his desktop.
Mr. Hill takes his mouse, clicks on the video clip, and watches it again, stopping the video just before the car smashes into the tree. He watches the video clip over and over again. Not the last ten seconds. But he watches the convertible roll down the road, and he thinks about what Jessie said. The car does look a lot like his. Right color. Right model. No bumper stickers. No visible dents. Mr. Hill pauses the video and zooms in, trying to make out the rear license plate. The letters and numbers seem to be the right color and size, but they’re no more than an indecipherable blur.
According to Aristotle, and Mr. Hill, the tragic hero’s tragic flaw is usually hubris or pride.
When he wrote his essay in college, Mr. Hill wondered what his tragic flaw would be. He didn’t think it was pride. He figured if he had a tragic flaw it would probably be obsession. The need to fixate on one thing to the exclusion of all others. Once it was Faulkner novels. Once it was a girl named Cindy. Once it was jogging. Now it is a video clip of a car wreck.
Mr. Hill leans in close to the screen as he watches the clip. He can’t stop watching it, can’t stop thinking about it, can’t get those last ten seconds out of his head. He can’t unsee what he has seen.
Mr. Hill closes the video file and leans back in his chair. Logically, he knows the convertible isn’t his car. How could it be? But now, as the other teachers filter out of the school, he has no desire to get in his car and drive home. He finally packs some ungraded assignments into his back-pack and shuffles out to the parking lot. He looks his car over carefully, hoping to spot some feature that would distinguish it from the car in the video, but he doesn’t find one.
Once he’s on the freeway, headed north, he drives cautiously in the right lane, looking repeatedly into his rearview mirror, making sure no one gets too close. A truck in front of him slows, and he hits his brakes hard, startling himself. When he finally takes the cut-off home, he creeps along, driving like the people he has always complained about, thinking of the accident in that damned video clip.
As the term draws to a close and the winter break nears, Mr. Hill’s students finish their tone presentations. Mr. Hill grades Nate’s “accusatory,” Janet’s “haughty,” Jamie’s “jovial,” and Sara’s “sardonic.” Nothing he sees, however, sticks with him like Emily’s “tragic.”
Every afternoon, Mr. Hill enters the scores for the students’ presentations for the day. Then he clicks on Emily’s video and watches it. He now watches the entire thing. All fifty seconds. Half a dozen times every day. And as he watches the video he wonders if he will ever be able to get the image of the sports car slamming into the tree out of his head.
On the first Saturday of the winter break, Mr. Hill drives to Dusty’s Auto World on Main Street, haggles with Dusty himself for half an hour, and trades in his sunflower convertible for a black, four-door sedan.
Mr. Hill spends the winter break at home putting together his unit plan for the next term. He decides to start off the year by teaching Macbeth, so he reads the play again and reviews some of his study notes from college. He rereads Aristotle’s Poetics and thinks deeply about tragedy and how to help his students really understand what makes something tragic. What he doesn’t think about anymore is the yellow convertible hitting the tree.
In early January, Mr. Hill’s first class of the new term wanders in, grumbling about having to come back to school. Mr. Hill lets the students talk while he hands out paperback copies of Macbeth. When he gets to Emily’s desk, she holds up her cell phone.
“Look familiar?” she asks, showing Mr. Hill a picture of her standing beside a yellow convertible at Dusty’s Auto World.
“That’s my car,” says Mr. Hill.
“Not anymore,” says Nate. “She bought it.”
“Her dad bought it for her,” says Janet.
“I love your car, Mr. Hill.” Emily smiles, looking younger than Mr. Hill thought she ever could.
During his lunch break, Mr. Hill sits in his classroom all alone eating a turkey sandwich and watching “Tragic Car Wreck” over and over. But this time he is looking for something different. He hadn’t been able to identify the driver before, but now he is trying to see if he can tell if the driver is male or female. All he needs is one quick glimpse of the back of the driver’s head. All he needs is one single flash of sunlight off of blonde hair. There is no flash. There is no glimpse. There is no clue.
Mr. Hill closes the file, deletes it off his desktop, and walks to the restroom down the hall to wash his hands. When he returns, the file is back on his desktop. He changes the name of the file to “Fuzzy Kittens” to get the words “Tragic Car Wreck” off his desktop. After a few seconds, the name changes back. Mr. Hill right clicks on the desktop icon and checks the file properties. Everything seems normal enough except for the creation date of the file. It’s dated this year, but February 2—a month from today.
According to Aristotle, and Mr. Hill, the tragic hero must gain self-knowledge. Mr. Hill does learn something important about himself. He learns he is an asshole. He also believes now, with an unsettling certainty, that the car is his. No, not his. The car is Emily’s.
He had stopped thinking about the car after he traded it in. Now, he sits back in his chair staring at the words “Tragic Car Wreck” on his desktop. He knows that he won’t die in that car. He solved that problem when he sold it. He won’t be in it when it hits the tree. But somebody will. And he thinks he knows who.
Macbeth’s future is foretold by three witches. Mr. Hill’s is foretold by a video clip off of YouTube.
Mr. Hill isn’t sure how much time he has left. According to the file, the video will be downloaded off of YouTube in less than a month. He’s not quite sure how it will be downloaded or who will do it, but he knows it will happen. He also knows he doesn’t have much time left.
After school, Mr. Hill goes home, eats a burger, and chases it down with a dark ale. Then he drives to Emily’s house.
“Everything okay?” asks Mr. Williams opening the front door.
Mr. Hill had met Mr. Williams at a parent/teacher conference at the beginning of the school year. He was a large, soft-spoken man who talked about how important it was to him that Emily learn to read and write well. He had such hopes for her and wanted her to get into a good college.
“Everything is fine,” says Mr. Hill. “Emily is doing wonderfully in class,” he adds, following Mr. Williams into the living room.
“You know, I helped her on that project,” says Mr. Williams. “I helped her picked the passage from Macbeth. That’s okay, isn’t it?”
“That’s fine,” says Mr. Hill.
“So, what brings you here?” asks Mr. Williams.
It takes Mr. Hill a while to convince Emily’s father to sell him the car. Mr. Hill explains that he hadn’t realized how much the car meant to him when he sold it. He tells Mr. Williams that he was short on cash, but had come into some money recently. He tells him the car is as important to him as life itself.
Mr. Williams nods in understanding and finally calls Emily into the room.
“Mr. Hill would like his car back,” says Emily’s father.
“Really?” says Emily, her voice not much more than a whisper.
“Afraid so,” says her father.
“But he sold it,” says Emily. “He didn’t want it anymore. I do.”
“It would mean a lot to me,” says Mr. Hill.
“Mr. Hill.” She is pleading now. “I love that car.”
“I understand,” says Mr. Hill. “I didn’t realize what I was doing when I sold it. I didn’t realize the mistake I was making.”
Mr. Hill looks at Emily and looks at her hard, studying her blonde hair and soft features, picturing her lying dead in the wreckage of a yellow sports car, her face mangled, her hair bloody. No, he can’t stop Emily from dying. She is going to die. She is going to die someday. But he doesn’t want any part of it. It can’t be his fault. “Emily,” he says, “I made a mistake. A big mistake.”
Mr. Hill ends up paying more for the car then he got for it when he traded it in. It doesn’t matter though. He has enough in the bank to cover the cost, and he doesn’t think he will be needing much money in the future.
Mr. Hill doesn’t die for another two weeks. During those two weeks Emily’s class is pretty difficult.
When he starts class one morning by asking everyone to think about what is really important to them in life, Emily responds, “My car.”
The next day, Mr. Hill asks Nate what he is going to do after high school. He says he is going to get a job so he can earn enough money to buy a car. Then he is going to hide it from Mr. Hill.
“A yellow convertible,” becomes the standard answer to every question Mr. Hill asks.
One afternoon on Mr. Hill’s way home, there is a wreck on the highway. Traffic backs up, so he gets off and takes a detour home. As long as he has lived here, he doesn’t think he has taken this road more than a couple of times. But it now seems very familiar to him. It seems as if he has driven it a hundred times. It is the road in the video clip. Mr. Hill looks in his rearview mirror and sees a car following him. He can’t tell if it has a dash cam, but he’s guessing it does. He should slow down. He knows that. But he doesn’t. He just hits the gas and drives faster and faster.
There’s not much question on the reversal of fortune part. Macbeth dies. Jay Gatsby dies. Willy Loman dies. Mr. Hill dies.
Most of Mr. Hill’s students come to his funeral. They file into Plot 841 in Solemn Nights Cemetery where Mr. Hill’s casket is perched over his open grave. It is a closed casket ceremony.
Janet is crying. Nate, for once, is silent. Emily is there with her father.
“Did you see the clip?” asks Sara. “I heard it was on YouTube.”
Emily shakes her head. “I don’t want to see it,” she says. “It’s just such a tragedy.”
Mr. Hill would say, “No it isn’t.” He would say that he isn’t Macbeth or Jay Gatsby or Willie Loman. It doesn’t really matter though. All that’s left of Mr. Hill is a fifty second drive he takes hundreds of times every day, always wondering how he got there, sometimes alone, sometimes with Aristotle sitting beside him, but always ending up the same way.