With the second crash — dry, clear roads, right in the middle of a sunny Sunday afternoon — John felt he’d gotten better at grasping the important details. At cataloguing them more carefully. This time it was a pickup truck with a load of freshly cut fir logs. It didn’t so much leave the road as trundle in a straight line off hard into the ditch, the truck stopping faster than its load of wood did.
The top layer of logs slid through the window behind the driver, with one log, slightly more than a foot in diameter, striking the driver right at the base of the skull before smashing out through the windshield and coming to a stop on the hood. John stared through the side window at the driver for ages, amazed at the fact that the man’s dead hands were still holding on to the wheel, waiting fruitlessly for a signal to let go.
The passenger, a man in his fifties, was turned in his seat, caught as if looking at the driver, staring across “stone dead,” John would say later, as if killed by the tableau of sheer horror sitting next to him.
When the ambulance crew arrived a handful of minutes later, they yanked the passenger out of the truck roughly and spread him flat on his back on the ground, surrounded by John’s freshly cut grass, futilely pushing on the man’s chest and pumping air into his lungs with a ribbed plastic bag. John watched across the hood of the truck, smelling both the crisp smell of the fir sap and the brassy sharp tang of the fresh blood. He watched as the fire crew unloaded their gear, cut the roof away with the tools and lifted the log off the mangled driver.
This time, he had a better idea about everything the firefighters were doing, and when the police arrived, he realized that their investigation was more involved than he had given them credit for the first time. The whole process was quick, sure, but more calculated than he had realized with the Suzuki. They measured the short skid that lipped over the white line at the edge of the road and down into the gravel shoulder, and one policeman took photographs from every conceivable angle, stopping the firefighters at one point so that he could record the pattern left in the glass where the logs had marked and sprung through the back window. They unrolled a long yellow measuring tape and measured from the back wheels of the truck to where the skid started, and one officer climbed the tailgate and photographed the logs, too.
It wasn’t just the investigation that was more involved. John thought all the colours were brighter too, and the sounds more distinct — the reds and greens, the leaves and the oozing bark, and the way everyone moved quietly, voices low, as if the seriousness demanded silence. There was the way the sun caught at the scattered glass that had burst out onto the hood, the way the spiderweb of cracks in the glass worked their way ever wider apart as they moved from the point where the log had come out through the windshield. John recognized the sharp smell of the diesel exhaust of the fire trucks, and the sound of the grumble of the big engine in the ambulance, idling. He could smell gasoline from somewhere under the truck, and the heavy, more involved scent of motor oil too, and he was still staring when the driver’s son arrived in his own car, leaping out and running to the pickup until the firefighters got in his way and pushed him back to where the police were taking notes.
John watched as the man sat in the back of the police cruiser, thunking his head rhythmically against the Plexiglas divider between the front and back seats. And all at once John thought he had to start gathering every piece he could, as if there were a great importance hidden in every scrap of it. He was keenly aware how hard it was to catch all the small things; there was just so much going on. There was a green deodorant tree hanging on a thin string from the rear-view mirror of the truck. You couldn’t make that kind of irony up, he thought, the driver obviously trying to import the smell of evergreens right into the cab. And then he’d managed to do exactly that.
The paramedics had cut the shirt away from the passenger’s stomach and chest, and his arms and legs were stretched out like he was trying to catch something huge falling out of the sky — and the front of the man’s pants were soaking wet.
Maybe, John thought, it would help if I took my own photographs.
Whenever they went out socially, the topic of the accidents always seemed to come up. What was it like to have people regularly dying at the end of your driveway?
John surprised even himself: he started talking about the crashes almost every time he and Mary went out, and he was always amazed by the way strangers would circle tight around him as the stories got more detailed. It brought a sudden importance to the room, an obvious and almost respectful hush. John learned as he went along that it was better if he didn’t tell the whole story in one go, but instead kept things back, parcelling details out piece by piece, always making the careful effort to keep his face earnest, sincere, almost shaken. Better still if he could make it seem as if he didn’t really want to have to talk about it — as if others were dragging the gruesome details out of him against his will. Almost as if he were suggesting throughout that it was their own fault — “You wanted to hear this” — while at the same time the stories were beginning to fall into a carefully practised pattern, a kind of rote. Trying to remember if he was talking to people who’d heard the stories before.
Working on the highs and the lows, the beginnings, midpoints and ends — the careful pacing.
John learned when to pause seriously and look down, letting the words fall out of his mouth like they were too heavy to hold in — “they were both dead” — and when he should stare intently at one of the listeners and make his eyes as large as he could, as if astounded by the sheer wonders of car-crash physics and geometry.
“Not a mark on him,” he’d say about the passenger in the pickup. “Not a mark.”
Then he’d wait, wait and force his audience to make him tell them about the horror of the driver, about what it looked like when the top logs in the pile barrelled into the back of his head and shoulders through the flat glass of the pickup’s back window.
It was, he thought, a lot like fishing: you could feel the listeners coming closer and closer to the hook, nipping, swirling, and all the time he’d be waiting for his opportunity to strike it home and watch them flinch, watch their eyes dart away because they couldn’t take it after all.
He’d be discouraged, sometimes, when the listeners suddenly lost interest and turned away, or if they didn’t ask the right question so that he could say something to well and truly crush their curiosity. But he learned more every time, with every telling of the story.
Once, at an anniversary party for a couple they’d never see socially again, he had been in full flight, describing the familiar flattened mailbox and the way it had been mowed over twice — and then the teenager who had lost both his eye and his life — when he glimpsed Mary, just close enough to hear him at the edge of the circle of listeners, her face mapped hard with disgust. The hosts had already fled into the kitchen, the door swinging shut behind them, looking for more hors d’oeuvres that no one was going to want to eat.
That night, in their bedroom, she was furious with him. He couldn’t see her, all the lights out and the curtains pulled tight, but her words in the darkness were so sharp that he imagined they had to come from someone else.
“I hate it,” Mary hissed at him, and John could imagine the words hanging in the air, white block capitals against the dark, disconnected from anything else. “Every time, everywhere we go, it’s the same damn stories. And you always look so smug, like you’re cashing in on someone else’s misfortune. I wish you could see yourself. You’ve turned into a vulture.” Then, in smaller letters that hung in the air for even longer: “Sometimes I don’t even like you anymore, John.”
He imagined the words fading away in the air, their edges dissolving.
But he didn’t answer, caught up in just part of what she had said.
Smug, he thought. Now that stung.
So when he was shaving, he practised making the right kind of face. It had to be a combination of serious and resigned, he thought, moving his eyebrows up and down but failing to find just the pattern he was looking for. He was reaching for dignified, with a touch of something like respect for the fallen thrown in. As far away from smug as he could make it.
To be continued…