Artwork © 1999 William Eldred
I was keenly aware, that day, of lines, shapes, and geometry.
I had not slept the night before. I had spent the afternoon filming a documentary about diners. Just before I left, I took some still shots of telephone poles, wires and clouds aligned against the clean exterior lines of the diner. They seemed to zig, zag, and fluff.
Curious weather, that day, clear and blue, the sun hotter than the air, feeling more like fall than Memorial Day weekend. My work done, I head home: south along State Route 206 in building holiday traffic, thence east on I-78 toward New York, across the part of New Jersey that still looks like country. I pass the exit to my parents house where I might have gotten off, but don't. I feel attuned to the road, like a race car driver. I grasp the steering wheel tightly and push myself back into the seat, arms locked. I am tired, but don't feel it.
I muse at my reflection in the rear view mirror. I look military: khaki shirt, reflector sunglasses, erect posture. I relax my arms and slide forward as I crest the Watchung Mountain. New York City comes into view, a backdrop to the sprawl of urban Jersey. The highway descends steeply here to its merger with State Route 24, where I join six lanes of east bound traffic.
The certainty of recollection ends here.
Up ahead, just ahead, over the crest of a hill, smoke rises, rises straight up, up from the right lane ahead. There has been an accident in the express lanes. A car is burning like an igniting match. The heat drives the black smoke up fast, not like lazy chimney smoke. The incident is fresh, I can feel the wake of the release of a terrible energy. Objects once in motion now rest. The order of the highway is absent. I am drawn to this spectacle and pull to a stop.
The rear of the car is crushed. The gasoline tank has ruptured and is burning. The windows and the doors are closed. The windows are blackened, but translucent. Inside the car there is a flicker of orange and white. People are watching from the opposite shoulder. They look frozen.
I take my eyes off the burning car. I look ahead, through my windshield, at the traffic slowing to gawk. I remove my sunglasses, take the keys out of the ignition, and step out of the car. I feel heat and motion around me. There are voices and the smell of petrochemicals. I know that tools are needed to smash and pry. I avoid the burning car. I watch my feet on white cement. I open the trunk and look for a tire iron. From behind me, I hear a man yell for a fire extinguisher. I am afraid he thinks I might have one. For a moment I hope I will discover one, but I know I won't.
The voice of a woman yells, " is she still in there ?." A voice returns: "one got out." I close the trunk, tire iron in-hand. I look again at the burning car. It is the same, maybe worse. I feel a blunt and hollow question: now what ?.
Just then some men, Hispanics, come from nowhere with a long steel rod. They maneuver through the on-lookers and parked vehicles in battering ram configuration. They joust the rod straight into the windshield of the burning car. The pole makes contact with the glass. I look away. I fix on a black man sitting childlike on the shoulder. He looks in shock, aggrieved, maybe drunk.
My eyes pan back to the burning car. A female voice: it's her friend ! Combustion roils from the hole in the windshield. Inside, I can see a silhouette of something - the front seat - perhaps. The Hispanic men flank over to my right and ready for another run at the burning car. Another female voice: she's in there ! I could see nothing inside the burning car.
My eyes fall to the pavement. I ponder the white lines of demarcation. I feel uneasy standing in the fast lane, then the irony of the moment's safety. A car with a dented fender crosses my field of vision. This is the other car in the accident, the lucky car. The black man still sits idly with his legs sticking out like he's just finished a push-up. He is the culprit.
The Hispanic men are suddenly in motion again with the steel rod, aiming toward the window on the drivers side. A male voice: yo ! that's where her head is ! For a moment, I compare the pain of immolation to that of laceration. The rod disintegrates the window. There is nothing inside but fire.
I move toward the car, then, for some reason. I watch the window as I creep along, staying low to avoid the heat. The temperature seems to double with each step. I draw close enough to pull at the door handle. I hope it is locked and dread the consequences of opening it. My arm extended, flip the handle with my fingertips. The door is locked. But the handle, oddly, is cool.
I had come as far as I could or would, and retreat a few feet back. I stand there. I knew the calculus of the moth near flame. I felt the impossibility of reaching inside the window to unlock the door. I remove my suede jacket. I consider offering it as a shield to one more purposeful.
I watch to dance of combustion inside the window. I wanted the flames to exonerate my cowardice. I wanted to believe that death had come to this person upon impact, or from the inhalation of toxins, or from the heat of the fire itself. I made myself certain that she was extinct.
But she wasn't.
Inside the window, an arm is visible, moving toward the door lock. I see a woman's hand: long-boned and jeweled. I moves slowly. It moves wistfully: a casual gesture, detached from its surroundings. The hand is intact, unblemished, still beautiful, like that of a soul in Purgatory, inured to flame. Then it disappeared.
I step back a few more feet. I am part of a circle of would-be rescuers in retreat. The highway is an arena of helpless disbelief. A male voice yells "stand back, the bumpers will blow, bumpers' under pressure from the heat." Men of authority have materialized with walkie-talkies. I can hear emergency vehicles approaching in the distance. The walkie-talkie men are shouting " hey, yo, - this your car ? ... move that car... make some room ! ."
The men were talking to me. I hasten to leave. But I realize I don't have my tire iron. I see it lying ten feet in front of the burning car. I dart into the now empty zone of danger, grab it, and dart back out. I get into the my car and toss the tire iron onto the passenger seat. I take another look at the burning car, the flames now ebbing, and drive off.
There are the facts, or might have been the facts.
A mile east of the accident I begin to doubt my recollection. I am serene, detached from the incident. Had it happened ? Everything around me contradicted the emergency. Before me there is open road. The car radio babbles about clear weather and heading to the shore for the weekend. The day has returned to its holiday status.
Yet, I feel as if I am ascending - like shot from a cannon - gaining speed. Going somewhere.
I begin to think forensically, looking for clues, confirmation. Yes a tire iron sits on the passenger seat. Yes, the highway is blocked, there is no traffic. I turn the radio to an all news station, hoping for a traffic report. I look at my face in the rear view mirror. My right cheek is red and a little swollen. I remember the position of my body when I approached the car. I felt the heat again. It came from my right, definitely. But I am red from sunburn, I think, not thermal energy. I smell chemicals. I sniff my sleeve, yes it's there - definitely - the odor is coming from me.
"The east-bound lanes
of I-78 are closed near the Parkway interchange,"
I had expected more from the radio. Was a car not on fire ? Were there no injuries, the possibility of injuries ? Did the spectacle itself not warrant a reference, a statement that authorities were clearing an accident ? The victim had a life. The woman attached to the hand had an identity. Perhaps I knew her.
Again I saw the undamaged front of the burning car. It was late model, kind or sporty - make and model unknown. It blended in: the everyman car of the prosperous suburbs. I saw the license plates. They were old Jersey plates. I wanted to see the numbers but I couldn't. I wanted to check them against the numbers of every car I had ever known. I wanted to be sure that I had never seen the car or the woman inside. But no evidence of recollection could exclude that possibility.
I mentally listed all Jersey acquaintances, friends, and family. Who might be traveling now ?
Suffice it to say that I thought in these circles for the duration of the trip home. For each accounting, there was an equal and opposite discounting. For each unit of detachment, I felt and an equal and opposite unit of absorption.
Before I slept that night I told eleven people: two waitresses I hardly knew; four tourists from Detroit who overheard what I had told the waitresses and wanted to hear it again; two friends who called me about something else who really didn't wand know about it; a friend I called to tell about it; my mother whom I called to ask to save the newspaper clippings; and Pru, who came to visit.
Or to pick-up her car keys, really.
By the time Pru came over I was...well...a little drunk. Three beers worth, at least, on no sleep at all. As soon as she saw me, she said, "you look awful." "Thank you," I said, as I sat on the couch. "What's wrong," she asked in the plaintive tone of hers. She took up a position at the far end of the living room, for some reason, and sat in the big wicker chair in front of the windows. She crossed her legs at the ankles, and folded her hands on her lap. She sat there as a psychiatrist might, or an inquisitor.
I told her what happened. I told the story for the eleventh time, distilled to the facts that I recited to her mechanically, matter of factly. I listened to myself carefully as I watched her watching me from across the room.
"It must have been horrible," she said.
"Not that horrible," I said.
"It takes awhile to absorb a thing like that," she said.
"Not that long," I said.
Then there was silence. I looked at Pru, sitting there in the glare of the window. She seemed remote and distant. Then - for an instant - I felt that both of us knew that something was left out of the story. Whatever it was - the missing part - was there in the room with us. But it didn't take the form of thought.
I began to speak again - or babble - about the heroic instinct in a man; about the need to fight or take flight; about why choices are made at some times but not at others; about death wishes; about whether motivations are ever pure; about why certain things happen when they do, etc.
As I spoke, I was aware on my self-aggrandizing tendency to place myself at the center of dramatic, swirling events; the boorish tone I heard growing in my voice; my belief that god himself had intended me to see what I had seen.
And then I remembered something:
"And Pru, Pru, I began...there is this dream, a recurrent dream, a dream that I've had since I was a kid, a dream of a plane crashing...I am there, I see it...it's often at the same place - in the woods behind my parents' house - there's a plane flying low...like it's about to land but there's no airport...and it's so odd to see that plane there out of context...it's powerful and full of wonder to see it there at home in the backyard...but then all of a sudden there is the feeling that something is terribly wrong...and the plane hits the tree tops and cartwheels and breaks apart and there is a ball of fire...but there is never any sound...and I there as a child - always a child - and I watch... and I like what I see - it's like a movie or something but I know that still something is very wrong ! "
What I said to Pru was new to that moment, but the dream was a staple of memory. I could remember remembering the dream but never when or why. It was as familiar as my reflection in the mirror, the feel of my skin. Yet the dream was indecipherable.
"What happens next," Pru asked.
"I don't know," I said, that's when I wake up."
© 2000 William Eldred
© 2000 Richard H. Fox