Death in the Open


I asked her one day, “Were you a dancer?”

I was ten years old the first time I saw a real car accident and its aftermath. It was a humid summer evening. My father and I were closing our service station when the township siren sounded. A cop car screamed through town. Then the phone rang. My father took the call, listened a few seconds, nodded and hung up. He pointed me toward the door and said, We have to go.

Half a mile out of town a fire truck was already on the scene, along with the cop car, their headlights trained on a station wagon flipped on its top in the middle of an intersection. Another car was nose-down in a ditch, its engine still running, tail lights on, a turn signal still flashing. I stayed in the car while my father got out and talked to the constable. Sitting on the pavement next to the overturned car was a large man, naked to the waist and barefoot. His legs were crossed in front of him. He was bleeding from the head; more blood was running down his chest and stomach. Every so often he lowered a hand to the ground to steady himself. I learned later that the driver of the other car was trapped in the car and deceased.

We rushed back to town for our wrecker and then returned to the accident, where we righted the overturned car and winched the other car out of the ditch. At some point, my father handed me a shop broom. I swept up broken glass, listening to the crackle and tinny voices coming the cop car radio, avoiding the spot on the road where the bleeding man had been made to lie down. Eventually in the distance, there was another siren, as an ambulance bore down on us and came to take the injured men away.

We towed both cars into town, leaving them at one of the car dealers. My father patted my leg and asked if I was all right.

“You saw something tonight,” he said.

“I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?” He patted my leg again and said he thought if I had trouble sleeping, I should try to sleep in the next day.

I think of this experience, even to this day, whenever I see car parts at the side the road, on the shoulder, in the median, at the edge of a ditch. It’s a common sight these days. You see the shiny decorative crosshatching of a grill, fender liners, smooth black plastic splash guards, whole bumpers, sometimes an entire front end module. It’s a new kind of litter, all this lightweight wreckage left behind (I don’t recall ever seeing a heavy, shiny chrome bumper along the road when I was a kid). Even more striking is the sight of a smashed car on a truck bed that passes you on the road. Suddenly the perfunctory mortal danger of your commute to work or your trip to the grocery store or to Home Depot becomes apparent. There’s death out there. In Lives of the Cell, Lewis Thomas speaks of “death in the open,” how unnatural it is to see an animal’s remains along the road. “It is always a queer shock,” he writes, “part a sudden upwelling of grief, part unaccountable amazement…The outrage is more than just the location; it is the impropriety of such visible death, anywhere.”

Must we be reminded?

On the other hand, what if we want to be reminded?


This woman named Lenore worked out at the facility where my wife and I go. She was tall and thin, well into her seventies, I would say. She kept her brown hair cut in a bob and had about her a natural elegance and athleticism. Three days a week we would see her, reading while walking the treadmill, working muscle groups on the machines with her eyes closed in concentration.

I asked her one day, “Were you a dancer?”

She blushed. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s your hands,” I said, “the way you hold them when you bend.”

She said yes, she had studied dance, a long time ago.

I was afraid I had embarrassed her and tried not to watch her on our days after that, but there was something so poised and collected and unself-conscious about her movement, I wanted to look.

Then she missed a few days. She told my wife she wasn’t sleeping well. Then she missed a few more days. And then she stopped coming altogether. She died in just a few months, without having visitors, without returning telephone calls.

Thomas takes the long view, noting that all 3 billion of us on earth today are on “the same schedule…All of that immense mass of flesh and bone and consciousness will disappear by absorption into the earth, without recognition by the transient survivors.” I know this, and accept it. What are the options? Nevertheless, every so often I find myself standing by the side of the road, a transient survivor, shocked and diminished, grasping for hands that are not there.

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