Sunday, July 17, 2005


In Which It All Happens By Accident...

So the family is home.

FYI, I'm ruined on being home alone now. After the first 24 hours of peace and quiet, I long for the noise, the pounding of little feet, the excited galumphing of the dog (who, after our night of drama, had spent the rest of the week by the door, moping and whining. This behavior was interrupted only at night, when he wandered upstairs to sniff the kids' empty rooms and woof piteously, before coming into my room to give me one of those where-are-they looks and then we'd end up in each other's arms for the rest of the evening.)

Imagine, then, the excitement when the van pulled into the driveway late the other night. Imagine the ecstatic whimpering, the jumping, the wet nose pressed up against the glass (Oh, and the dog was pretty excited too, although he restricted himself to running in circles and barking). The kids were wide awake and they raced into the house, where a gang hug--dog included--resulted in much rolling around the floor.

Then my son said, "Wow, did we have fun! Especially when the van in front of us started spinning out and Mom drove off the road!"

And all the color drained from my face. Hell, my body.

Whenever my family is on the road without me, I have to constantly shunt aside images of trouble happening just because I'm not there to prevent it with my vast psychic powers. Truck drivers driven berserk by road rage. Hitchhikers at darkened rest areas who won't take no for an answer. Sudden blowouts or pile-ups or vehicles flipping like auditioners for an automotive version of Cirque de Soleil. Shunting such images aside was an especially hard job this week, what with poor Joseph K's recent accident, not to mention Sharfa’s fender bender with the brand-new Sharfamobile a short while back. And now it happened to my own family--

Well, except that nothing happened, as I learned when we were joined by Her Lovely Self a moment later. A van two car lengths in front of my wife and kids DID suffer a sudden blowout, causing it to do two complete spins in the middle of the road, on a highway in heavy summer traffic. Had Her Lovely Self jammed on the brakes, which would have been my first reaction, she would almost certainly have been rear-ended by the semi right behind her. Instead, with superior presence of mind, she simply took her foot off the gas and veered into the breakdown lane, piloting her vehicle wide of the spin-out and giving the semi just enough room to brake. Miraculously, no one was hurt, no accident resulted. The van with the blowout was able to limp to the side of the road and traffic resumed. A miracle.

But of course, it's all about me, isn't it, and once I recovered from news of this accident-that-wasn't-quite, I thought about the worst accident of my life. Which, oddly enough, was also the best.

This was in Chicago. Long gone was my shit-brown Chevette, lost in, well, yes, lost in an accident (as recounted here). Now I was driving my Chevy Spectrum, a handsome grey hatchback. It was the first new car I'd ever owned (only 6 miles on the odometer when I got it) and I just loved it. It had a great, race-car style steering wheel, plus a very cool instrument and control panel set-up. For example, the headlight and windshield wiper controls were arrayed in a row of button situated on the dashboard just behind the steering wheel. This was wonderfully ergonomic as they could be reached by your fingertips without ever having to take your hands off the wheel. Where was I?

Oh, so--it was October. I was about three months into my job at a trade magazine during the phase of my working life that I've come to think of as Magazine Man: Year One (coming soon to a random anecdote near you). I didn't have much of a social life then, mostly because I had no money. As soon as I had graduated from grad school back in June, all my student loans accrued as an undergrad had immediately come out of academic deferment so I was suddenly saddled with about $240 a month in loan payments. Plus I was paying $185 a month on my car. Rent on my single apartment was just under $500 a month (thank God it included utilities). Because I was literally penniless, I had done two things to secure the apartment: sold my collection of mint condition football cards from the late 60s (including several Gale Sayers and Mike Ditka cards, plus three Brian Piccolo rookie cards, which commanded a high premium in Chicago). That covered my security deposit but I still needed to come up with first month's rent in advance, so I was forced to take a (gasp) cash advance on my credit card. Despite my not using it at all, the debt on that thing had a way of growing every month. I had only received about six paychecks from my job at that point, and was finally getting a leg under me, which meant that at the end of the week I sometimes had 10 or even 20 bucks to spend on myself.

I was just sitting around my apartment early one Thursday night (Thursday was payday at my company), wondering what to do with this bounty, when the phone rang. It was my pal Matt. I'd first met Matt when I lived in London and we were both students at different schools. Now we were both in Chicago--he was a photographer for the Tribune papers and sometimes went with me on freelance assignments (having both photos and a story to offer editors could be a very lucrative gig indeed).

"Live music at the Abbey, man. See you there," he said, then hung up. Matt was a man of few words, and had a way of talking to you that made you automatically do whatever he suggested. Go down to the South Side at midnight to get ribs from Leroy's? Sure! Wander around Cabrini Green to get candid shots of gang-bangers for the Trib? Why not? Compared to that, hanging out at our favorite Irish pub listening to live music (often, one or two of the Drovers would show up for an impromptu jam session) sounded positively tame.

So I hopped in the car and got on the expressway. I lived at the edge of the city, off the Harlem Street exit. Depending on traffic, it was a fairly quick jaunt up to Addison Street. This time of night, rush hour had just ended, but it being Chicago, the four lanes of the expressway were still jammed with speeding cars.

Just as I got to Irving Park, traffic in the middle lanes slowed a bit. A couple of dump trucks were lumbering up the slight incline here. Traffic veered around them at breakneck speed. I was just an exit away from where I wanted to be, so I simply got into the far right lane, preparing to exit at Addison.

I was going about 60 and the dump truck in the lane next to me was going maybe 50 or so, so I zipped right by it. But at that moment, the driver suddenly accelerated and as he did his truck edged slightly into my lane, just enough for his right front tire to graze my left rear tire as I passed.

It didn't feel or sound like a graze. There was an enormous BANG! inside the car and my little hatchback shook violently. Next thing I knew, there was a sickening jolt as if I'd been shoved from behind, and suddenly my car was turning sideways, skidding into the path of the accelerating dump truck.

There was another wrenching BANG! accompanied by the awful nails-on-blackboard screech of metal as the massive truck broadsided me. And then an amazing thing happened.

Time slowed. I'm not kidding. Everything became very sluggish and dreamlike. Cars slowly passed before my windshield--at the wrong angle--their headlights leaving dazzling streaks of light as they went. Beyond them, I could see faces in the windows of the El train that was just now passing on the track that ran in the median between the expressway lanes. Sparks lazily arced up from the wheels as it slid by.

I turned to my left, looking out the driver's-side window. There in front of me was the front grille of the truck, a silver cage filling the view from the window almost completely. Slightly above me, but still close enough that I could have reached out and touched it, was the gleaming silver hood ornament of the familiar Mack truck dog. I stared at it for what seemed like hours.

Then, ever so slowly, my side of the car began to rise as the momentum of the truck started lifting me off the road. As I tilted up, I could see the face of the driver, looking ashen, his teeth gritted. He was up out of his seat, literally standing on his brakes.

A single thought went through my head just then, a thought so stunning in its clarity, it felt like it came from some other head besides my own.

So THIS is how I die.

It was like learning the answer to a question I'd been asking all my life (I just hadn't realized I'd been asking it), and now that I knew it, everything seemed all right somehow. A stunning and quite uncharacteristic serenity settled over me like a blanket. I took a deep breath--what I thought must surely be my last--and settled back in my seat. I had sometimes wondered if I would see my death coming and wasn't at all sure whether I wanted to or not. Now I felt a certain gratitude that I had recognized my end for what it was and would be fully aware when it happened. That sort of knowledge doesn't sound especially comforting, but I was comforted by it nonetheless.

The car continued to rise. I was a moment away from rolling and being crushed by the truck. I had enough time to think of my mom and dad. I hope they tell them it was quick, that I didn't feel a thing, I thought. I certainly wasn't suffering.

Then suddenly, and quite to my surprise, an image filled my head. A gorgeous young woman, standing on a balcony in a skirt, looking down at me, a hand on one hip, her full, luscious lips pursed, her hazel eyes gazing down at me in a kind of expectant way. Her Lovely Self. Oh, now that IS a shame, I thought.

An impossibly loud roaring noise filled my head and everything began to accelerate again. A stunning light filled my field of vision, blinding me. Involuntarily, I closed my eyes and felt the world begin to spin. My last coherent thought was a fragment, I never told her how--.

And then the multiple impacts came, hard and fast, and I couldn't think of anything...

So did you survive?
When I was about six, we stayed at a little hotel on Singer Island in Florida.
I was in the pool, paddling around on a styrofoam surfboard.
In the deep end.
I flipped the board over and lost my grip on it. I remember sinking, opening my eyes underwater and thinking: "Death is liquid and blue, now I know."

You continue to inspire MM.

So much for,"My God, it will be an orgy of slovenly behavior: two unwashed, hairy, drooling males lolling on the couch snarfing treats straight out of the box and watching really bad TV. I can't wait."

I can picture the lonely boys wondering from room to room...moping and whining, sniffing pillows to catch a whiff of the Brownie...consoling each other in your misery. What a pair.

You really know how to put the reader in the car with you! Now hurry up and get our hero out of the air will ya!
Another wonderful long story.

Must have a deadline approaching.
Glad to hear the family is back. So much for reliving those bachelor days. Can't wait to hear the rest of this story. How is the ankle btw?
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