“A guy just rolled his truck and I’m pretty sure he’s dead.”
I gave the voice my location and waited many minutes in desperate and eerie silence. I walked part ways toward the truck before reconsidering. I didn’t want to look in the cab. I knew the human psyche can come unglued by the sight of dissembled bodies. I chose not to be imprinted with the gruesome visuals.
I called my wife.
“Hi. Listen, I'm going to explain this quickly, but I can't talk long. I need you to pick up that take-out you ordered. And also walk the dogs later. A guy just crashed his truck and I think he's dead. I’m the only one here. I called 911, and they need me to wait here. I’m freaking out a little. Sorry. Yeah, I’m OK. I'll call you back as soon as I can”
A middle-aged woman in a Subaru pulled up behind me. She was on her phone to the police. We got out of our cars and stood beside each other, shaking. Several other cars had come along, but seeing us with smartphones in hand, figured we had it under control, so they weren’t obliged to stop. Or maybe it was clear this was a fatal crash, and there was nothing they could do except slowly rubberneck past.
The sun had just set behind dirty clouds and the sky was a bright nickel color. A cold breeze crept in from the foothills. “He’s gotta be dead,” said the woman. We agreed there was nothing to do except wait for the police, but I wondered if we were cowards justifying our moral inertia. “Did you see the three-wheeler?” The woman asked. “This was a road rage thing. The truck was chasing the bike all the way from the King Soopers over on Sheridan. All kinds of cars were run off the road. I’ve been following them for miles.” She explained that she and her husband are big bikers. “I called 911 to report the chase. The cops told me not to follow, but I did anyway. Bikers look out for each other.” She described the truck’s driver as shirtless, bald and covered with tattoos. The biker, by contrast, was small and dark skinned, possibly black or Hispanic. I immediately wondered what sort of biases were bubbling in her narrative. But who was I to say? She had witnessed the rage. I, its conclusion.
More minutes crawled by. Still no emergency responders. I went to sit in my car. I replayed the crash in my mind. One detail that kept presenting itself was how quiet it had been. No squealing tires or horns. Just a sort of soft crunching as the truck rolled through dirt and grass, then skidded to a stop on it's roof.
Finally the parade of whirling lights and sirens descended upon the intersection. Cops sealed off the ramps and firefighters cautiously explored the wreck. A too-young-looking officer came up to my car. “Mister Howell? You are our only witness to the crash. We need you to be patient and work with us. You probably realize this was a fatality. Several people are going to want to talk to you. I don’t want to mislead you, we’ll be here awhile. Are you willing to help us put the story together?” A strange choice of words, I thought. “You mean like Humpty Dumpty?” I wanted to ask.
What I said instead was, “Where’s your jacket? Aren’t you freezing?” He was not. “Exactly what happened?” he asked. I pointed to the little Y where the two off ramps merged. The concrete curb around the point where they came together was shattered in chunks all over the pavement. “The guy was merging behind me on my right, but swerved to miss me and ended up on my left, tumbling along beside me. The truck was probably going 70 when he hit that ramp. He actually passed me rolling.” Just then the thought entered my head that the driver had died trying to avoid me. It wasn’t my fault, but he was dead because I was in his way. I said this to the cop, who seemed unfazed. He was trained to tease the facts from wobbly, personal narratives. “You’re not responsible for any of this,” he said, “in fact, you are fortunate. If you had been a second slower he would have t-boned you at highway speed.” This was meant to get my head out of the spiral I was in; to make me feel lucky, I guessed. My shivering increased and my voice was shaky and unfamiliar to me. “Yeah, I suppose,” I said. The young cop nervously clicked his pen. “Why don’t you go sit in your car and warm up.”
In my side mirror I could see they had pulled the body from the wreck. It was zipped into some sort of bright white vinyl bag and lying on the gravel shoulder. The Ambulance had tuned off it’s lights. I noted that the officer had quizzed me with my back to the scene. Good technique, I thought. In a few moments he came over again to my window with a police report for me to fill out. “We need you to write as exact a description of what happened as you can, Mister Howell. Please feel free to use both sides of the page if you need.” I hadn’t been offered both sides of a page since grade school, and it struck me as generous in that insignificant way. I didn’t need both sides. I left out the dirty sunset and the eerie stillness. Also the way it seemed to happen in slow motion. And I left out the cold. The story was the worst kind. A blunt and ugly accounting of speed, position and direction. “Perfect’” said the cop.
Next I was asked to hang on just a while longer for the State Highway Patrol Investigator to come interview me. The fresh-faced cop and I tried some small talk while we waited. I knew he was assigned to me, and that one of his duties was to make sure I remained on the scene. We watched as the ambulance hauled its sad cargo up onto the ramp and pulled away without fanfare. A lone female officer in black uniform photographed the smashed truck from multiple angles. “Look how the truck lights are still on,” I said. “Don’t you turn them off?” “Why would we?” the officer wondered. “This is just weird,” I said. “I mean you look at that truck, and you think somebody is probably waiting at home for that guy, but he’s on his way to the morgue instead.” The cop advised me to stop feeling sorry for the driver, that he probably “wasn’t a very good guy.” I wondered how he could be so sure. “Alright,” he said. “You didn’t hear this from me, but he is an exact match to the description of a man who assaulted a woman in Denver a couple of hours ago. We know this is our guy. He’s been raging for hours. This is just the last in a series of bad decisions he made today,” said the officer. “But you didn’t hear that from me. The investigation’s ongoing.”
The young policeman held up one finger and disappeared into a different conversation. It used to be that if a cop had an incoming call, you’d hear the crackle and hiss of the other voice on a two-way radio. Nowadays they wear an earpiece, so when a call comes in, you never know if they’re talking to you or to somebody else. “Not a problem. Great. We’ll thank him for his help,” the officer said into the air. And just like that I was free to go home. It turned out the Highway Patrol Investigator thought my written report was good enough and he didn’t need to interview me. “Just one more thing,” said the cop. “Our Victims Advocacy Department offers crisis counseling. It’s free. You should probably talk to them. They can be here in a few minutes. We recommend you talk to them tonight.” And so I waited for one last public employee to attend to me. I liked that it was free, though I wasn’t expecting much of the visit. The cop then thanked me for my good citizenship and stuck out his hand. He suddenly seemed like a kid trying out a big word. “Citizenship” wasn’t something I was feeling, but I knew what he meant. I thanked him for his service as well. Shaking hands at a fatal crash site was memorably awkward, but we needed some sort of concluding gesture. It’s what people do.
The woman from the Subaru was back at my window with a lot to say. We had been separated by the police for our interviews, so we wouldn’t influence each other's stories. Now it was over. “Listen, they just let me go so I’m gonna get out of here. I’ve really gotta pee. This whole thing sucks. They told you he died on impact, right? I mean, he was obviously an asshole, but you gotta have some pity, right? I just said a little prayer to God to have mercy on his soul. Maybe you should too. You seem like a nice man. Are you OK to drive?”
It had gotten dark and quite chilly. Nearly three hours had passed. I had to pee too. The Subaru drove off and I settled in into the ugly, unsolvable existential implications of the crash. What causes a man to come so undone with rage? A day of bad decisions, or a whole lifetime? Was mental illness a factor? Unmitigated traumas of his own? Chemical dependency? It was impossible to know, and not my responsibility to unravel, I knew this. Yet I also knew that not colliding with me was the last decision this man made, and for me, it was a good one. So I said the prayer the woman had urged me to say. There was no feeling in it. Feelings were swirling contradictions at that point. The words would have to suffice. The cop was right. I was fortunate. So I tried to make myself feel lucky, or thankful. But it was hard to know how to direct that thankfulness. To God? Blind luck? To the “Universe?” A lot of my friends use that sort of language. It’s like having a god without the challenge of things like worship, specific beliefs or obligations. Regardless, the problem for me isn’t what to call it. It’s how this power can involve itself in human lives in such an abstruse manner, and the seemingly capricious way certain people are spared tragedy, while others are not. To what end? I wondered. If God is Love, as I was taught, then it’s an incomprehensible and maddening love, for sure. I had just watched the silhouette of a man as his life was snuffed out, and in that same moment I was spared. What was I to do with that? It was absurd, but tempting to imagine a move had just been made in some cosmic chess game. The big picture was utterly impossible to apprehend. I wanted to throw my hands in the air. Instead I looked down at them, heavy and inert in my lap, and decided the dramatic relief wouldn't be worth the effort. My brain was awash in the chemistry of shock. I knew this. I remembered something about wrapping myself in a blanket, and maybe elevating my feet, or drinking electrolytes, or some such things. Instead I sat quietly and willed myself back into my body. The thought gently haunted me that whatever happened next, the decision was mine to make. And wasn’t I genuinely thankful for that?
Two women walked up the ramp toward my car. Both wore official looking IDs on lanyards that indicated they belonged behind the ropes at a tragedy. The older one, my age, was bundled up against the cold. The younger one, my daughter’s age, wore no coat, and shuffled up to the car with her arms wrapped tight around her sides. “Where is your coat?” I asked. At my age, I have earned the right to demand that of young people. “I’m OK,” the girl said. The older woman did most of the talking. She concentrated on the “next steps” after witnessing a violent death. Like how I would be preoccupied with searching for "meanings." It was natural, she said. I was informed that the accident would replay repeatedly in my waking imagination and in my dreams, at least at for a while. And that fear might catch me by surprise. Like at intersections that resemble this one, or when big pickup trucks come up behind me quickly. All of this was a normal part of coping with the experience, she said, “unless you get stuck and find you can’t move past the memory.” There was a sort of scripted flow to her advice. The younger woman said “Yeah” and nodded her head a lot at what the older woman said. They encouraged me to talk about my experience, but it was clear they were looking for clues as to whether I was safe to drive myself home. The younger one offered me a mental health services brochure. I thanked her, and as they walked away I tossed it on the passenger side floor of my car, where it remains still. It’s there if I need it.
All of the police and emergency vehicles were gone now except for one at the base of the ramp guarding the barricade. The truck was still on its roof with its lights on. I was light-headed with relief but exhausted from the emotional effort of coping with all of this. I laughed a little, finally, at my good fortune, but there was a bitter sadness tinting all my senses that would last for days. I thought I knew complex emotions, but this was something new. It was time for those next steps. Time to rejoin the living. So with all the intentionality and focus of a kid taking his first driving test, I put my hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, took a deep breath, and headed down the ramp, past the barricade, and into Tuesday evening traffic. Homeward.