The red light had lasted so long snow was starting to stick on the hood of David’s car and the aging defrost struggled to keep the windshield clear. He was mentally cursing a motorcyclist who was trying to skip ahead of the line of cars by zipping down the bike lane on the right shoulder.
What an idiot, David said aloud.
The motorcyclist looked left, checking if it was clear to make a right turn. The light turned green. The double trailer semi in front of David lurched forward, both trailers shuddering as it picked up speed. David witnessed what happened next as if he was seeing every second just before it actually occurred. The truck swung right, its second trailer beginning to cut the corner. The motorcyclist saw the trailer coming and tried to pull tight against the curb. Then the twin set of tires hit the back of the motorcycle and sucked in the man’s leg like a vacuum latching onto a stray sock. The motorcyclist was swept into the wheels, his body spinning nearly a full circle before being thrown to the ground, his body as limp as a rag doll.
David retched as he watched the accident unfold. He had just eaten lunch and the contents of his stomach begged to free themselves. The truck finished making its turn and parked in the median of the four-lane road. The motorcyclist lay on the sidewalk, unmoving.
I just watched a man die, David thought.
He shut off the car and jumped out, blocking a growing line of vehicles behind him. People likely trying to get back to work following their lunch hour. The motorcyclist was moving and David exhaled for what seemed like the first time in ages. The man pulled off his helmet, which was scuffed in streaks along one side. He tried to sit up and David told him not to move. Two more people were standing over the man now. No one had their phones out so David retrieved his and called 911.
I just watched a man get hit by a semi-truck, David told the operator. It sounded even more horrific to say out loud.
The truck driver had joined the growing throng of onlookers, staying on the periphery, a slack-jawed shock on his face. His eyes were black and darting around with uncertainty, he had one hand on top of his bald head. The motorcyclist was still trying to stand up and the crowd urged him to stay on the ground. David bent down and told him an ambulance was on the way.
I don’t need an ambulance, the man said.
David noticed the man’s leg now. His black jeans were torn open and his calf was filleted, the skin peeled wide. Blood was beginning to stain the snow, spreading quickly. David lost himself in the way the particles of white so easily changed color.
Then there were sirens. Two police cars and an ambulance. The EMTs cleared room and carefully sat the man up. One of the police officers approached David. Had he been the one to call? David nodded. He apologized for holding up traffic and the officer said it was okay, that he could park in the lot for the tire place around the corner. Now sitting up, the motorcyclist was still trying to deny help.
The police officer stopped traffic and guided David through the intersection. David looped into the parking lot and walked back toward the scene. His phone buzzed in his pocket. It was his mother calling. He ignored the call. A different officer met him halfway. David related the story with as much detail as he could conjure, short of saying what song had been playing in his car. The officer jotted notes in a pocket-sized pad, just like in a tv show. He asked David for his name and contact information. David repeated his story instead.
There’s no way the truck driver could have seen the motorcycle, he said. Not down there next to the front of his truck.
The officer nodded and asked again for David’s information. David took a moment to recall his phone number. Had it been so long since he’d had to recite it or was he in shock, too? His brain was on a loop, repeating the scene and his own narration of the events. His phone buzzed again and again he ignored the call. This time his sister.
That man’s got a hole in his leg, a homeless man shouted. David and the officer ignored him.
Our lead detective will give you a call if he has any more questions, the officer said.
David recounted his story a third time. The officer nodded patiently.
I don’t want to keep you, the officer said. We’ll give you a call if we need anything else.
David retreated to his car. He sat in the front seat and looked back toward the corner. The paramedics were still surrounding the motorcyclist. The truck driver was talking to another of the officers. He looked on the verge of collapse, his face melting, aging in real time. David’s mother called again. He answered.
I just watched a man get hit by a truck, David said. A semi.
Your father is dead.
David paused, his brain still slogging its way through everything other than the cycling instant replay. If his mother was saying more words they were being swallowed and made incoherent by her sobbing.
What do you mean?
She sniffled twice loudly in David’s ear.
He hung himself, she said.
With what? David asked.
As if it mattered. As if it could have any bearing on how David handled the situation, how his grief would manifest. His mother broke out crying again.
I’m on my way, David said and hung up.
His parents’ house was only ten minutes away and when David arrived his sister was standing outside the house, pulled like a turtle into her jacket, two fingers extending from a sleeve once in a while to remove the cigarette from her lips. Her eyes were red and puffy. The smoke of her cigarette and the steam of her breath mixed and disappeared into the snow. David’s mom was visible through the living room window. She was pacing.
Did you call 911?
Ambulance is on its way.
David nodded and headed for the front door. His sister didn’t follow.
It’s not pretty, she said.
A clip of the motorcyclist being sucked into the wheels of the semi played in David’s brain. He opened the door and stepped into the house. His mother looked up, her face wet. She pointed toward the garage. David tracked snow and mud across the living room. The door to the garage was open. As soon as he walked in he saw his father. He was still hanging from the track of the garage door. The orange crabbing rope was bright against his father’s pale skin.
You didn’t cut him down.
We couldn’t, his mother said, speaking loudly so she wouldn’t have to come any closer. We didn’t want him to fall.
David looked around the garage for something to cut the rope. He sorted through the numerous plastic crates and the piles of odds and ends on the metal shelves against the back wall. All he could find was a rusted machete, but he grabbed it anyway. He held his father around the waist and reached up with one hand to hack at the rope. It felt urgent even though his father was already gone. It was personal, something that should be done by family. David had to feel the weight of his father, had have something to hold on to. Sirens blared through the neighborhood. David hacked at the rope again and again until finally it broke and his father’s body slumped into his arms, nearly knocking him down. The paramedics entered then. Everything went quiet as they pulled David’s father from his arms.
A police officer was in the living room speaking with David’s mother and when he turned around David saw it was the one who had directed him through the intersection what seemed like mere moments before.
This is my son, David’s mother said.
The officer extended his hand, then paused.
Hey, weren’t you just at the… he stopped. Shit, man.
David didn’t know how to respond so he said nothing. The paramedics had opened the garage and David watched them wheel his father out on a gurney, covered in a white sheet. He seemed to disappear into the snow. David’s sister was turned toward the house now, her back to their father. The cherry of her latest cigarette seemed to be the only warmth around.
As the paramedics and police left everything slowed down, the last couple hours catching up. David’s legs were weak. His stomach turned again and he went to the bathroom and threw up. For a while he sat on the floor, dizzy with the horror of life’s fragility, a second wave understanding of mortality. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He didn’t recognize the number and was about to ignore it when he remembered someone from the police department might call. He answered. It was a detective. He asked David for his account of the accident and David recited it again, going moment by moment from the time the motorcycle passed him in the bike lane to the man being ripped into the wheels and thrown to the ground.
That’s intense, the detective said. I wish there was video.
David knew the scene would never stop playing in his mind. That he would think about it in his car and when he saw motorcycles or semis and when he was lying in bed at night trying to fall asleep. His father would be there, too, his bluing skin and the feel of his body releasing into David’s arms.
No you don’t, he said.
The detective asked him what percentage of blame he would ascribe to each party and David told him no blame could be placed on the trucker. That the motorcyclist had been driving illegally in the bike lane, that there was no way the trucker could have seen him.
I wish it was no one’s fault, he said.
David grew more impassioned, standing from the floor and staring at himself in the mirror as he spoke. His eyes were bloodshot, his cheeks red.
I feel bad for them both, he said. But the guy was being an idiot.
David began to re-tell the story, but stopped himself. The detective thanked him for his help and told him to have a good night.
My father is dead, David said.
Oh, I’m sorry.
He hung himself.
There was quiet. The detective cleared his throat.
My condolences, he said. To your family as well.
The detective hung up and David left the bathroom. His mother and sister were sitting on the couch, neither of them speaking, just holding each other and staring into the void that had been left in the house.
The next day David woke to his alarm like it was any other day. It had taken hours to fall asleep, but now, for a few seconds, before the fog of sleep receded he remembered nothing of the day before. But the memories raged back in the shower and he vomited again. He tried not to watch it slide down the drain. He put his face into the stream of water. He’d had a concussion once and his brain felt similar now. Blank, slow, deficient. But the images and feelings that stuck with him were vibrant. He could feel his father’s weight, could see the motorcyclist’s leg wound. The blood spreading through the snow, and his father disappearing into the whiteness of the storm.
David needed a way to stop feeling or to replace the feelings. He thought about skipping work—no one would have expected him anyway if he told them his father had passed away—and going to the coast, sit in sand and watch the waves. But in the afternoon he had to meet his mother and sister to talk to the funeral home and a lawyer.
Maybe if he did something good, something for other people, he could fill the blackness, the tar, that was enveloping his brain. He could bring lunch to the homeless people that panhandled on 4th Avenue all day. Or volunteer somewhere. But he knew he wouldn’t do any of these things. Instead he would get dressed and he would go to work because it was what he knew. It was still a way to be outside of himself, to not be alone.
He got in his car and turned on the stereo. He hadn’t unhooked his iPod when he got home and music thundered from the speakers. The same song that had been on at the intersection. The accident played through David’s head again. Again he hacked at the rope that held his father’s body. The chorus soared with piano bursts and the singer’s deep vocals.
David let off the brake and pulled out of the driveway. He made the same left turn out of his neighborhood that he made every day. When the chorus arrived for the second time David began to sing along, quietly at first—a whisper—then louder until he was nearly drowning out the song. His voice cracked. His guts knotted up. The traffic light ahead turned green. David pushed on the gas and kept singing.
*originally published in F(r)iction