I left San Antonio behind me on November 14, 2003, without a solid home for the first time in 7 years. I drove my aging black Volvo north into an icy gray mid-west winter. Kansas City held a friend of mine and he had a room I could use. I departed at sunset and drove through the night, cars and hulking semi’s fading in and out of my headlights as silent anonymous companions. A rented trailer swayed in the interstate winds, bouncing behind my aging Volvo.
Only two of my friends saw me off, made awkward by the absence of many others. The division of goods from the split had gone her way heavily, both in material and social accounts. I knew that staying would become a mess of awkward moments between all those that had taken opposing sides.
We lived together 7 years. We fused together, then cracked and then became an exercise in acting. We had known things were over for a year but time and routine make a comfortable unseen box. We rehearsed the break up hundreds of times in harsh arguments, and when it did finally end, it felt routine. Now, I was as happily single as she was, and there was no animosity between us. Well, aside from the fact I got the nice microwave. But she got the TV.
Rolling north I had time to think and there was a lot of it to do. I had no job, good savings and my car. The job wasn’t a concern; I have always found work when needed. What I thought about on that surreal drive was the totality of what I left and the empty place I was traveling to. I had no idea what I would be doing in one year or five years. My old plans, built to support two people, felt one-sided now, leaning against my thoughts with a weighty need for balance.
As a military brat I’ve moved a lot so settling in comes naturally. I’d have all the basic things I needed; food, shelter, car and internet access. This was the bare minimum of course. An empty future barely visible beyond the beams of my headlights brought a sense of floating. The sheer amount cut free hounded my attention. Friends, places and expectations all wiped away leaving a slate so blank I fumbled to find anything that wouldn’t fit. Limitations help guide our choices, whether limits of money, social needs or current situation. They provide something to push against and overcome. I was rolling north pushing against nothing and picking up speed.
I was in Kansas City for two months. I dropped into a local social group and things went well. I had enough cash to coast for a year or more and for the first time in my life I tried to relax and not worry about it. With all my free time I was online more, writing more and I had finished off several overdue commissions for small sculptures and prop replicas I build. I had few bills and even less responsibilities. I lost large chunks of time as days flowed together. I worried about it but couldn’t see any reason to change. I was optimistic and worried in equal parts. It made no sense.
In early December Sam called me. We are more brothers than friends, having known each other since ’90. He lived in Pennsylvania and his father lived near me in Kansas. Sam wanted him to come up to Pennsylvania for Christmas but his father wasn’t up to driving that far and flying was to pricey. I agreed to drive up with his dad and we headed out December 17.
Sam’s father was a heavy man who had served in Vietnam and was now suffering through a slow breakdown of his legs. We would learn later this was the onset of Diabetes, an affliction that would eventually kill him. He was quiet and the first half of the trip was awkward but passable, rolling up through the mid-west into the hills of Pennsylvania. I drove straight through. We reached State College in 18 hours, not easy considering the condition of the battered old van and the winter storms.
The visit was pleasant but strange. Sam and I picked up where we last left off without missing a beat. The apartment was warm, made more comfortable by the bitter ice outside. Christmas presents were exchanged and I sat back watching. This place felt stable, but it was a borrowed idea. I was seeing what a solid home looked like again but it wasn’t mine. I spent two weeks up there and before leaving I had two job interviews and was on my way to deciding to move again, to a location with some sense of place. Sam and his wife had just bought a house, and while they would not be living in it for two months, I could stay in it while re-flooring it and fixing it up. I realized the raw departure from Texas still bothered me, and it would be ridiculous to expect it not to. I was concerned that I was making a mistake in moving again. The idea of continuous motion after so long in one place felt cowardly but I had a solid job offered in a week. It was a time of waiting.
On the ride back down out of Pennsylvania Sam’s father was in greatly improved spirits. He had changed from Mr. Smith to Lonnie, and we talked about life, the universe, and everything. We were discussing movies and I mentioned a film about Vietnam. He looked over at me and I remembered his reluctance to discuss this topic as he was a veteran of that messy war, but he took a drag on his cigarette and seemed to decided we could talk. He recounted that he had been at the battle from the very movie I had spoken of and was very angry at how higher ups were portrayed as heroic despite the fact they lied when asked if they knew what they were getting into.
“They wanted a sharp early fight that would show folks we were doing something and that’s why they didn’t airlift us out immediately after the damn thing,.” he spoke steadily and then sighed. There was a long pause but I didn’t want to interrupt his thoughts.
He shook his head and spoke. “I’ll tell you something, all this crap…” he vaguely gestured out the ice streaked window at the passing repetitive fast food places and billboards jutting from the gray snow. “It don’t mean shit. Nothing. What you get in life is what you can stick to and survive. And then you know what’s important.”
I nodded as he went quiet. I felt I had to say something. “Yes sir.”
He snorted and looked over with a tired grin. “Don’t call me sir, I ain’t an officer, I work for a living.” I smiled.
It was near Kingdom City, Missouri that it happened. We were riding in silence and getting close to the end of the trip. The roads were windswept but clear of snow and ice. I was in the left lane passing slower vehicles and still processing the last few weeks, and then the last few months.
Suddenly a black minivan driving in front of us swerved hard right into the slow lane. I hadn’t been following closely and Lonnie looked up as I hit the brakes.
The minivan turned too hard against the swerve and whipped left back across I-70 in front of us shedding rubber from its blown tire up into the gray-white sky like a shower of black stones. The van shot across the icy median and into the panicked swerving line of oncoming traffic heading the other way. It swerved hard again turning back toward our side of the interstate, somehow missing the braking and sliding eastbound cars. The arcs of the minivan’s weaving corrections were getting longer and less stable. I was still standing on the brake, our beat up car shimmying as the rocking minivan bounced up out of the rough median and back onto our side of the road. It was instantly hit broadside, T-boned by the thick nose of a semi desperately trying to stop in the right lane. The sound of the crushing impact could be heard over the engine of our vehicle, a singular metallic crack surrounded by the by a hissing spray of glass and plastic.
We were 3 car lengths from the impact, just 25 to 30 feet away. The van scraped over onto its side and started rolling, spraying glass and mirrors in a cloud of blue-white diamonds. It tumbled over completely and almost back onto its wheels then fell back toward us, falling onto its passenger side like a dead animal. Its crumpled roof stared at me as I slid to a stop. I looked up to my rear view mirror only to see a semi behind me sliding and shaking as its tires dug in with a chatting squeal, finally lurching to a stop only 10 feet behind us.
William had his phone out and looked at me. “Get up there!” he yelled reaching for his cane, but I was already half out the door and running forward.
That’s when I saw her. A dark haired girl in a pink windbreaker laying with her back on the black wet asphalt, the van’s serrated roof line crushed across her waist where she was thrown from the van’s window as it rolled over. A man yelling he was a nurse was running up behind me. By the time I got there I could hear a woman screaming inside the van over another younger female voice crying somewhere in the crushed vehicle.
The girl couldn’t have been more than fifteen and she turned her head awkwardly to look up at me. She was pale and her gray eyes locked onto mine as I slid to a stop and just stared dumbly, instantly knowing I could do nothing to stop what was about to happen. The nurse slid to a stop beside me and said, “Fuck” under his breath as if to keep her from hearing him. She looked at me, a mask of innocent young fear on her clean face and said, “I’m scared” in a small voice and died.
I just stared back and the nurse started cussing as the spreading pool under her painted the wet asphalt red. I staggered back to the van to find Lonnie standing close by holding his phone limp in his hand at his hip.
“Don’t think about it.” he said calmly. “Just let it go.” He knew I couldn’t but he said it anyway.
We waited for the police to arrive sitting in our van. The nurse had covered the girl with his jacket and others had pulled the mother, and I assume younger sister, out of the van via the windshield. I felt numb and cold but my mind was clear in the worst possible way. There was no room for anything beyond the staggeringly powerful moment that had happened, it had no reason and it was final. I have never been able to rationalize the loose “these things happen for a reason.” answer that comfort some, and now I sat looking at the nurse’s blue jacket resting on the asphalt with its edges stained dark.
After a conversation with the state troopers we drove on. There should have been more procedure, more doing something. But we just drove on. After half an hour I suddenly pulled over into the emergency lane, turned on our flashers and just sat staring along the whirling white expanse of the interstate, cars hissing by us mechanically without any knowledge of why yet another car was sitting on the side of the road. Lonnie was quiet, he just smoked and waited. Trite as it was, it seemed unfair above all else. After a pause that could have been minutes or hours he spoke.
“You won’t forget this, so don’t try.” he took another drag on his cigarette and his voice seemed to come from another time. “It don’t mean a thing. It’s just death. You just keep on keepin’ on.”
I knew what he meant even as I frowned, of course it meant something. A little girl had died. But she was dead and it was just that, she was dead. This wasn’t a sign of evil or good or anything. Dwelling on it was useless. The understanding of it helped little, but I got it eventually. I had to just keep on, keeping on.
I spent a few weeks packing and saying goodbye to my friends in Kansas City and there was a small crowd to see my battered black Volvo off. I still see those folks once or twice a year and will be always grateful for the room when I needed it. I left feeling nervous but without a doubt as to the reasons why I was once again towing everything in a wobbling trailer through a snow storm.
In Pennsylvania I had a house to refurbish and plans for work as well as some ideas about returning to school, although that obviously did not come till later. Much later. I can’t forget the accident or the conversations over hiss of tires along the icy interstate, and I don’t try.