I can still see him rising to meet me in the headlights. I can’t see his face. He sits with his back to me. He’s trying to get up. Of course, there’s no time. He has nowhere to go in the split-second before I roll over him. And then he’s gone. The car rises as if traversing a small stack of logs, and I feel him pummeled and beaten to death by a cold, indifferent machine, a machine that I am operating.
But this is my memory, imperfect and nebulous. It’s been said that each time we take a trip down memory lane, it’s our last recollection we remember, not the actual event. If that’s the case, then how inaccurate can this memory be? I’ve seen this play out in my mind thousands of times since that night over forty years ago. Has it altered so much that I can’t even find the reality anymore? Maybe. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can still see him in my headlights, rising up to try and turn and beg me not to kill him.
It was the disco days. I was young, the lead singer in a popular nightclub band and the night was winding down. We had finished our show for the evening. There was no need to pack up equipment, as we were doing a six-night gig, so I grabbed my light jacket, said goodnight to the boys, and headed for the door with my girlfriend Linda. She was a strong, slim woman, a little older than me, sexy, with an imperfect, country girl beauty.
The night was balmy and the streets were crowded with late-night revelers. We had taken her car that night, a Toyota Celica, and I was driving. We navigated our way through the tangled side streets until we reached the freeway. I turned onto the onramp, pushing the gas pedal hard to get up to speed and merge with the heavy traffic. I moved over to the left lane, traffic bumper-to-bumper but moving at a high speed. A minute later we would merge into the 880 freeway, which caused a confluence of six lanes of traffic, a nightmare in the best traffic conditions, but entirely chaotic at two in the morning with a bunch of tired, partying travelers.
As we reached the junction of the two major freeways, cars started weaving across lane after lane, drivers trying to get to the next exit, some with five lanes to cross, jetting through traffic, suddenly in front of me, then as quickly cutting in front of the car next to me. Very few turn signals were visible to indicate what move the drivers would make next, leaving me to divine what was in their minds. The car in front of me suddenly lurched to the right, and there he was. In my headlights. And there was nothing I could do. A second passed and he was under the car. And then he was gone.
Shock. Pure shock for a second or two.
“Was that a man?” Linda asked. “That was a man!” she screamed.
I had to think, to focus. What to do? Cars were now pulling over at the right side of the freeway. Linda was shrieking hysterically. I moved over carefully, joining the procession of vehicles stopping on the shoulder. There were cars in front of us, in back of us, still pulling over, so many automobiles. I tried to calm Linda, but I don’t think she could even hear my voice. She was temporarily lost to me. I just sat there in the car seat, stunned and disbelieving, trying to reach Linda. The din of screams was paralyzing.
I am not certain of this part of my story. My memory is full of holes. I think someone tapped on the window. She must have asked if we were alright. I think she said she was a nurse. I got out of the car and followed her back to the accident. A small group of people was gathered around the man. She knelt by him. I couldn’t move any further. I didn’t see a man. I saw a bundle of wet, greasy clothes lying in the dark. I saw no human shape. She must have said there was nothing to be done, that he was dead. Somehow I found my way back to the car and Linda. She was alternately crying and screaming. She couldn’t stop. We waited. The California Highway Patrol arrived. An officer asked me questions, told me to wait while he interviewed other witnesses. I don’t remember Linda having ever stopped screaming, but she must have by that time. But not the crying. The crying didn’t stop.
Eventually, the officer returned. He explained to me that it appeared the victim was trying to push an old car off the road. He had an old mid-fifties wagon that had died in the middle of the freeway. I imagine him getting out of his car in traffic. I picture him slowly pushing the heavy wagon, trying to steer with his right hand as he walks along the left side of the car with the driver’s door open wide. That’s just my nightmare image. I couldn’t possibly know that. What I do remember is the car was found about half a mile up the road on the left side of the freeway, having rolled all that distance after it was hit from behind. It then makes sense that he was thrown into the lane of traffic in which I was driving. The car in front of me saw him in time and veered, leaving me in line for disaster. Other cars then followed. I don’t know how many cars were involved, how many times he was hit. But I believe I struck the deadly blow. I guess it’s easier to believe that than to think of him feeling each blow from every driver that came after me.
I took Linda to my apartment. I lived with my cousin, but Linda stayed with me much of the time. Mike was a huge help. Linda was still semi-delirious, exhausted from crying and screaming. I calmed her as much as I could before getting her to sleep. I told my cousin what had happened. He may have a clearer memory of this than I do. At least he may remember what I told him. I do know that sometime the next morning Mike cleaned the car. The front end was a grisly reminder of that poor man’s last moment, and Mike took care of it. By the time I saw the car, there was no more blood, no more hair caught in the license plate or grille. Mike wasn’t too fond of Linda, but he took care of her that morning. I love my cousin still. As for Linda, I got her car repaired and we drifted apart over the next year. I miss her sometimes. But there were a lot of girls. After all, it was the disco days.
A year or so after that night, I received a letter notifying me of a lawsuit filed by the family of the man I had hit. I was named as a defendant with approximately twenty-five other drivers. Now twenty-five drivers had to live with this death, all accused by his family’s lawyers. I wanted to tell his family how sorry I was, how much I wish it hadn’t happened, how much I wish I had stayed behind and lingered at the club just ten minutes longer. But I never met the family. We never went to court. Because how can you blame anyone for such a terrible accident? I’m sure each of us who was there that night has suffered long for what we couldn’t help, for what we couldn’t change.
I believe we may have multiple forms of memory. We have our obvious mental memories, but what of muscle memory and emotional memory? We can feel pain related to old injuries that have long since healed. Now as I sit at my desk and stare at the darkening city night, I feel the weight of the emotional memory of that night so long ago. It’s still a heavy burden. Sometimes when I tear up or start to cry for no explicable reason, I think that it’s these old emotional memories rearing their ugly heads. As I reach the final phase of my life, I acknowledge that maybe this is the price I must pay for the wrongs or rights that have scarred me. For forty years I have seen him in my headlights. Get me on a dark road at night and I look for him. Maybe that’s part of the reason I don’t like driving anymore.