My advice: don’t lay your head—your complicated brain, bony skull, thin flesh and silken hair—on that hard spot of dirty asphalt near the faded yellow center line of a two-way road curving through the Oregon wilderness. Highway 18 runs like a commuter corridor between work and play, from the salt-water taffy coast to the striving of Portland.
For most of a two-hour trip that road may feel cinematically desolate. Your cell reception will break up. If you need a pay phone, you’re out of luck. You’ll see abandoned motels. Unmarked footpaths disappear into the woods, blackberry vines tear down old road signs, and a stalled-out, weathered truck with curved fenders wears ivy through it’s busted windshield—all the markers of a forgotten dream. Maybe you’d like to lie down and watch clouds move across a blue sky. You’d like to linger in the road where the trees are parted, so there’s more sky to see.
But log trucks barrel around blind corners. Families zip to and from the beach, singing along to the Frozen soundtrack, singing to iPods, iPhones and sometimes the car radio. Parents pass snacks to the backseat, talking about things like screen time and how much sugar is okay in a day, and overall everybody’s distracted.
My husband and I were making our way home from our ten-year anniversary trip with our nine-year-old daughter in the backseat. She was reading her new Archie and Veronica comic, a flashback to my own childhood. We’d come from a Pig ‘n Pancake breakfast, an Oregon classic, and were comfortably high on sugar, sated with strawberries, whipped cream and crepes, and in some ways it could’ve been any summer in my life, but in other ways it was this particular moment. Our briny car was littered with sand, sticks, rocks, and shells, those free charms and trinkets that come from loving the details in our corner of the world, the mystery of the color in a shell, a stone. We were rich in rocks and twigs.
I let my eyes narrow, relaxed as a cat in the sun.
My husband, driving, saw the man lying in the road first. It was a body, splayed and naked except for a pair of long, lemon-yellow shorts. The man’s eyes were closed. His rib bones pressed against his chest from the inside like they wanted out and his scarred skin was mottled pink and white. He looked like he was in his twenties. He was limp, flat against the curve of the earth.
My husband whispered, “Oh, no.” He caught our child’s gaze in the rearview mirror and said, “Don’t look. Look out at the trees. Look at that bird.” He pointed to hills covered in wild grass and purple foxglove. He slowed then stopped, next to the body. Our car would alert and block other cars. Maybe the man had already been hit.
I reached for my phone, held it higher, then to one side, until I found a flicker of signal. My husband rolled down his window. I craned my neck, scanned the body for injuries. My fingers found the phone’s touch screen. Before I could dial 911, though, the man’s nearly shaved head popped up like a smiling Jack-in-the-Box. His shoulders and the rest of him stayed flat against the road. It was amazing, how he lifted his head without moving his shoulders, like some kind of Pilates move, muscles working in isolation. His lips peeled back into a grin. He hollered, “Paaar-teee!” showing rugged teeth, and laughed out loud.
It was like seeing a dead body reanimate.
My husband started to roll up his window. At the same time, a truck sailed around the corner from the other direction. I said, “Look away, look away!” in a fast, trembling voice, almost like I was now singing some forgotten riff to the Frozen soundtrack that still filled our car, but really I was praying, urging our girl not to watch this man’s head splattered by the force of the oncoming truck full of felled trees, all steel and wood, hauling full speed. I clutched the phone, held it high to keep the connection, and pushed one foot into the floor as though to find an invisible brake and make everything stop. There wasn’t enough time for a truck to stop though, or enough room to stay the course.
When you hit an animal, it spills an impossible amount of blood. Hit a deer and particles of blood come in through the car’s ventilation system. You taste blood, sometimes smell the nightmare of it for days. I braced myself, covered my mouth. On the phone, still calling 911, a tiny, recorded voice told me to stay on the line but the connection was breaking up and the truck bore down.
That nearly naked Jack-in-the-Box conjured up an agility fueled by speedy drugs, got to his feet, and made his body thinner than possible. The truck blared its horn. The forest shook in the wake of the log truck, and the man in the road jumped onto the hood of our Subaru, making our car drop and bounce.
I’d bought that Subaru Outback new, signed a major loan deal, because it was the safest car I could afford. That’s what I wanted for my family: safety. It had airbags all the way around on every side. They explained in the showroom how the airbags were calibrated via sensors to the weight of each passenger. Those airbags didn’t matter now.
Everything darkened when the man’s body blocked the sun. He turned outward, like a hood ornament. His knobby spine ran the length of our windshield. I saw a dark mole on his white skin near his right shoulder. He brought one fist up and back hard enough to crack the glass on the passenger’s side, my side, in front of where I sat. When his fist hit, the sound was loud as a gunshot. He was a child throwing a tantrum with the strength of a man. A moment before I’d ached to help what I thought was a dying man. Now I wanted to get the hell away, whatever it took.
Our daughter, big-eyed and calm, had put down her comic book. We were alone in the woods, outside our city, outside of a town called Otis, in the middle of nowhere. I looked at that lush world now through a broken window, a stranger’s back, his flexing arm in my way. I said, “Hit the gas.”
In a slow motion moment, I flipped the single button to lock all our doors. Why hadn’t we done that sooner? But just moments before, we were at peace. My husband didn’t move the car. He checked his mirrors. I yelled, “Go! Drive!”
If I’d been in charge, I might’ve floored it. I can’t say for sure. I only know that I didn’t want that violent stranger so close that I could see the size of his pores. The broken windshield showed there was no real barrier between us.
It’s always the doe protecting a fawn in the woods that stomps a passerby to death.
The man raised his hand, smacked it in front of my face against the already broken glass. Cars came around the curve, skidded, slowed, and stopped just in time, then started to pile up.
If my husband was scared, he didn’t let it show, only stayed quiet, moved slowly. He waited out that stretch of forever. My pounding heart said it was all time compressed into no time left.
My hands shook. I found a signal, dialed 911 again.
My husband has his faults—he doesn’t like to spend money if he can help it, and we often have opposite ideas about parenting. He writes difficult, language-driven novels, then broods about readership. He can have a bleak worldview. I’d say he drinks more than he should, but not as much as Hemingway or Faulkner, so it’s all a question of where you set your compass, but in that moment he did what needed to happen: as little as possible. He stayed calm. When he held the car still, he refused to engage. After awhile, maybe inspired by the lack of any violent reward, the hopped-up stranger rolled off our hood of his own volition. He hollered and brought a hand down to dent the hood in a loud crack.
He wanted someone to kill him. He wanted us to collaborate in his drama of danger. My husband is nobody’s collaborator.
Far back, a horn honked. You’d never guess how many people travel that quiet old highway until you see cars accumulating, stopped in both directions. We were a captive audience. The man strutted toward the car behind us, his broad shoulders slung back, fists clenched. He yanked open that car’s driver-side door, exposing a man, the driver, who was burly as a logger.
I could tell you about raised voices, harsh words, a conversation made out of slams and slurs. Our man was out to provoke. But the stronger side of the drama was in the restraint. The driver of that second car, strong enough to strangle most any man, used one thick arm only to get his door closed again. A whole string of strangers showed an overlooked, divine level of patience for flawed humanity, and let that self-destructive man stay alive. We set the pace and expectation for each other. I’d guess there was a gun or two around. This was the Oregon woods. If there was a gun, we never saw it.
A 911 operator came on the line, our connection to the world beyond the woods. I said, “There’s a man in the road attacking cars, blocking traffic.” He’d put lives in danger.
The police were on the way.
Once we heard help was coming, my husband pressed his foot to the gas. The car rolled, we eased back to the business of our own lives. I could see the stranger still, and watched him thrash, in the side mirror. He was small and scrawny, next to the towering trees behind us. He was younger than me, older than our girl. Where were his people, friends or parents? Somebody needed to reign him in.
We drove country roads lined with fern, forests and blackberry vines, a world that has always been mine, and been my solace. As long as that rich country existed, mostly I could feel okay. Everything was verdant and damp, full of possibility and peace. The sky was wide open, blue. I tried to breathe in that blue sky, to drink it like water, like wine, until it calmed my heart, but I couldn’t stop running through the details. I was grateful it hadn’t been worse, that our daughter hadn’t seen worse. To lie down on both sides of the small curving road is a death wish, public suicide, a way to perhaps kill and be killed. Our daughter only said, “Can we put Frozen back on, please?”
I didn’t realize I’d snapped the soundtrack off.
She blinked, and reached for a bag of goldfish. Her comic was balanced on her lap. Because I was grateful for everything, I played that song that’s driving parents of the nation mad with repetition, and was fully aware of what a luxury it is to suffer such simple irritations together. Let it go! The music filled our family car, a Disneyfied bubble of safety and peace. That’s what Disney does best: block out, obliterate and reshape the real world.
I tried to let the adrenaline and cortisol of fight-or-flight go, even as I ran my finger over the crack on the windshield. The thing is, as much as I wanted to put distance between that crazy tweaker and our family, in my heart I didn’t see that man on the side of the road as crazy and foreign. I’ve known people with more than their share of struggles. In my twenties I could easily be at loose ends, running wild, unsupported.
I hope he lives long enough to be grateful for being alive.
Shells rattled in the divot of the molded plastic that made the door handle, each shell a tiny tribute to our attachment to our world.
I put a hand on my husband’s shoulder, and choked up with the relief that comes through survival and escape, when the body lets its own chemicals flood its system. Survival is always collaborative. We’re making this world, together. I picked up a stone that lay my feet and felt its water-worn smoothness and soothing heft. Around us, while the natural world was painfully lush. Humans were struggling. But in the confines of our car, for the moment, we moved forward together as a family, sailing through time and space, navigating our fragile lives as though we could believe we were and would be safe forever.
Rumpus original art by Justin Limoges.