I threw my telephone into the change well as I entered the highway. I had just left a message for someone, and decided not to answer if he returned the call. I heard my father-in-law’s voice in my head, something he said several years ago. “Get behind the wheel of your car. Make a call. Drive for ten minutes, talking on the phone. Then pull over, and try to recall what you’ve seen as you drove.” I tried it; I could not remember a thing. I recently remembered that conversation and have taken it to heart. Often. Usually. More and more.
My car had crested a hill and begun the descent when I noticed a billow of smoke rising before me. I hit the brakes, watching the traffic, wondering if I would hit anyone, hoping I could stop. I’m not a photographer; I’m not a journalist; so when my eyes found the source of the smoke I did not reach for my cell phone’s camera. I instinctively crossed myself. Mother of God.
The smoke flowed from the smashed front of a charred vehicle facing the wrong way. I swerved to avoid the debris in the roadway as my eyes raked the scene. A man lay sprawled on the shoulder, half-cradled by another person, a woman, I thought. He flailed arms clad in a red T-shirt; thin, long legs encased in blue jeans jerked and writhed. My weak eyes could not discern the features of his face; he seemed impossibly young.
I saw no emergency vehicles. Another car lay half in the ditch. Four or five more had stopped on the shoulder. White smoke rose from the smashed car. I heard an urgent sound, low, then rising, louder, higher, frantic. I thought sirens heralded the approach of help but then I realized: The woman had begun to sob, to wail, her cry torn from her, urgent, endless, pleading. My stomach heaved as I struggled to keep my coffee down and my car on the road. As I drove by, scanning the side of the highway to be sure I could not help, all I could think was:
There, but for the grace of God, go I.