Dedicated to J. G. Ballard
I have seen some pretty wild things out on the road over the years. In Nevada, my wife and I came a across a U-haul truck that had lost control and gone off the highway into a deep ditch. Furniture and packed boxes had literally exploded out the roof of the vehicle, strewing the golden desert sand with torn books, snapped chairs, and shattered dishes. Both Tim and I saw a bicyclist who’d been hit by a drunk driver. One of her shoes had lodged in bush thirty feet from the point of impact. I’ve seen tires blow, vehicles burn, motorcycle riders flung to the street. An aged Chevy jumped the curb and plowed into the side of a house right before my eyes. But when I saw this accident, or rather its aftermath, last autumn, I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at.
I first learned to drive in a small town in Illinois. Many times since I have been grateful for that fact. In addition to learning the ropes in light traffic populated by courteous drivers, I also learned to drive in weather. This is not something your average Southern Californian ever learns. We get accidents every time it rains, even just a little. Water soaks into the freeway concrete. Eight or nine months worth of accumulated motor oil floats and rises, coating the road surface with a layer slick, invisible ooze. Turn too sharply or break too abruptly, and your vehicle becomes a gliding weight, unsteerable, unstoppable, the plaything of physics, destined for impact.
This is surely what happened to the big-rig that veered suddenly out of the number two lane of the 805 South just shy of the 43rd Street off-ramp, slewed through the fast lane without touching any of the smaller traffic, and slammed into the support pillar of an overpass. It hit so hard that chunks of concrete flew into northbound traffic, smashing the wing mirrors and shattering the windshields of early commuters.
Of course, I saw none of this. All I knew was that southbound traffic was crawling along at an hour of the morning that usually assured clear sailing, and that I was crawling with it. It hadn’t been raining when I left the house, but I had seen the wet pavement. Stupidly, I had not gone back inside and checked the Caltrans website. Equally stupidly, I decided not to take any of several alternate routes, believing that things would clear up shortly.
More than twenty minutes later, the source of the congestion still nowhere in sight, I began to seriously regret this decision. The jazz album in the cassette deck cycled back to the beginning as I scanned the cup holders for something I might be able to piss in. Finally, one of those giant Cal Trans arrows closed off the fast lane. Several minutes later, another closed a second lane, the one immediately to my left. Traffic merged again, angry horns sounding while the Andrews Sisters sang to me about the lures of Trinidad.
The sight of empty, sunlit highway to my left was wrong, eerie, post-apocalyptic. Something bad, something two lanes worth of bad, had happened up ahead, and in a minute or two I would have a front row seat. I wanted to see. No, I didn’t want to see, but I knew that I would look with wide-open eyes when I got there. I rode the brake and watched the car in front of me. I hoped nobody had died.
The dump truck parked beneath an overpass came as something of an anticlimax. I didn’t know it, but it blocked the view of the support pillar’s shattered base. I wondered, briefly, if this was some ill-timed construction project. Then I noticed the dust winding along the tarmac in the light breeze, half construction grit, half glittering chips of metal and paint. The concrete of the median wall was scraped and scared for yards, the remainder of the accident zone a surprisingly long distance from its origin.
A wad of metal sat in the number two lane. That is the only way to describe it. It looked exactly like ball of crumpled paper, except that it was made of red-painted metal, and was nearly the size of my car. There were no windows, no doors, not a single machined curve, nothing that even remotely suggested that this was once a motor vehicle. For a few stunned seconds my mind utterly failed to understand. Then it did, and almost immediately, a more horrible realization followed. No blood was visible, but somewhere inside that shapeless heap of scrap were the remains of a human being.
A few yards beyond, a smaller wad straddled the number one and two lanes. Further on, CHP officers supervised the loading of a third onto a flatbed tow-truck. All three were the same red color, the same smashed and shredded steel. As I passed by the second piece, I recognized what must have been the cowling over a front tire, though the tire itself and even the wheel were nowhere in evidence. It was not until I read a news account of the accident later on that I learned that what I had seen had been a truck. The remains of the trailer, which had been the only recognizable piece of debris, had been hauled away before I passed by.
When I finally got clear of the blockage, I could not resist the urge to speed. Given what I had just seen, it was monumentally foolish, illogical, and somehow necessary. I pushed my little car until the chassis shook, balding tires skimming along the slick concrete, finally free.