John Kilgore

It takes about three seconds. I am in the passenger’s seat, searching through the campground guide to find a place to park our 30-foot pull-behind camper, when something — a swaying of my seat perhaps, a quick intake of breath — makes me look up. In a queer, high voice my wife says, “I can’t believe this is happening!”

For an instant I don’t see what the fuss is about. Our tow vehicle, a 1997 Chevy Suburban, has drifted rather badly over the center line, but a rig like ours will drift. It’s just a matter of easing back into our lane — though this must be done gently, gingerly, quickly, for the road is a bad stretch, a long left-curving downgrade between two ridges of the Ozarks, with the usual concrete bridge spanning a culvert at the bottom. Then the Chevy whipsaws beneath me, an impossible sudden shimmy of the rear end, and every synapse I own comes online.

“Keep your foot off the brake!” I shout, twice, unable to think of anything else.

“My foot isn’t ON the brake!” my wife shouts right back.

Well, of course: no one knows better than Dollie that you don’t stand on your brakes coming down a hill in front of a big trailer. My wife practically grew up behind the wheel. Long before she was legal she would take over when her mom and stepdad got too drunk to drive. She bought her first car, with her own money, by the time she was sixteen. After high school she drove in Demolition Derbies, and when our kids were little she drove a school bus. Eight years, no wrecks, no tickets.

But this makes our present situation truly puzzling, for now we are dipping, rocking, fishtailing. The landscape ahead — rolling hills with white limestone outcroppings, trees and brush still pale in the fine May sunlight — slides back and forth across the windshield. The embankments on each side steepen and here comes the bridge and the dark gash of the gulley.

I am not wearing my seatbelt.

A blowout? Something we ran over? No matter: the name of the exercise is Ease It Back, and there is still time, time to correct and calm this insane swaying. I grab the oh-shit handle and wait for Dollie to apply the needed gentle touches. But thirty or forty feet from the bridge, she throws the wheel to the right — hard right. Insanely hard right. Why did she do that?

It's a puzzle I have no time to work on as we hurtle towards the wall, and, yes, we are unquestionably going to hit it. At freeway speeds, at this angle, with no seatbelt, the ending looks so certain that the thought comes with an odd lightness: Well — okay. This has been a bleak, hard spring for me: one friend dead of suicide, another of liver cancer, a brother who’s weathered a bad prostate cancer scare. It has been in my mind that we all must do this thing sometime.
But life is not done surprising me. The bumper hits, but with a strange mushy blow, nowhere near strong enough to fling me through the windshield, though it slams my right hip hard against the dash. The handle is torn from my hand and somehow I am down under the dash, blind, grabbing at the console, the arm rest, the seat back, whirled around like a sock in a dryer. We must be tumbling up and over the wall, down into the ravine. I wait for the neck-breaking, back-breaking blows that will come when we hit, followed perhaps by the quietus of the four-ton camper slamming down on top of us.

What comes instead is unaccountable: a long series of pillowy thuds and jolts, accompanied by a deafening screeeeeee. I am thrown back and forth, but none of it amounts to much on the scale of mayhem I am expecting. Can the trees in the gulley be catching us so gently?

The shriek stops, and I drop like a sack of stones onto my wife, then scramble into the back seat to get off her.

“Are you all right?” we shout, virtually in chorus.

“I’m okay!”

Resting on its left side, the Suburban is a strange, dreamy world in which I cannot get my bearings. I have lost my glasses and hearing aid. Dollie instantly remembers to turn the engine off, but the bizarre new angle causes her to fumble. We stand on the doorposts, imperfectly separated by the two sideways captain chairs, as if in adjoining booths. More quickly than seems possible, there are voices above us.

“You folks all right in there?” The passenger side front door opens like a hatch. I give Dollie a boost and she climbs on out, fussing at the man above: “No, you can’t lift me, I’m too heavy!” As I get ready to follow her I step, stupidly, on the driver’s window. Having survived the crash itself, the safety glass now shatters into a hundred tiny cubes.

Prairie-dogging up out of the truck, I find myself six feet in the air, momentarily aloft in the fine weather, the silence. I twist and shinny back down to the pavement, avoiding hot pipes on the truck’s undercarriage. I make what I can of the shapes swirling around in my uncorrected myopia. The Chevy lies blocking the right lane; the camper, also on its left side, barricades the passing lane. The two are still connected by the safety chains and swaybar, but the Class 3 hitch, a rectangular steel bar two inches thick, has snapped like a twig. We are not in the gulley at all, but fifty or sixty yards on down the road. I have no idea how this could be, though clearly it means everything: decelerating in fifty yards rather than five feet is the difference between leaving on foot or in bags.

My grin is shaky but persistent, and Dollie sits shoeless on the guard rail and positively crows, for a while anyway. Someone asks her if she is all right, is she sure she’s all right, and she says, “Yes, we’re both fine, and I’m sure — I’m an RN!”

Her blouse is spattered with coffee from my extra-large cup that was riding in the holder till it went airborne in the tumbling truck. She has lost her sunglasses but her hair, thick and still brown without much help from the bottle, is neatly pulled back. I put my arm around her and we sit there for a moment, bruised and disoriented but alive, breathing, weirdly the center of attention for all these scurrying people. We keep telling each other the same thing: you might be hurt without knowing it, check, make sure. My side is bothering me (tomorrow there will be a purple bruise the size of a dinner plate) and she has scraped a knee: nothing worse.

A bystander calls a question and Dollie responds with a shrug and a goofy grin. “Yeah, it got away from me, I guess. Had to lay it down.” I don’t know what to make of her explanation. What was that hard-right jerk on the wheel all about?
Traffic quickly backs up all the way to the horizon, and our accident transforms this little bit of freeway into an oddly sociable space. People mill around like picnickers, in shorts and sandals, carrying water bottles and sodas and cell phones. They marvel at the great upended hulks of the truck and camper, whistle, shake their heads, trade spooked grins and exclamations. One man has a map for some reason; a portly woman holds the hand of a little girl with milk-blonde hair. Half a mile back the drivers will be scowling, clueless, drumming the heels of their hands on their steering wheels, but all these folks had front-row seats, have seen something they will be recounting to friends and family for years. It is worth a little delay.
Our routine on trips has always had me doing nearly all the driving, for reasons of temperament: I get bored, otherwise. But today, eight hours into the trip, I handed over the wheel without a second thought, not even reflecting that, for all her competence, she had never pulled the new camper before and a hilly freeway in Missouri might not be the place to start.

Someone hands me a cell phone and I call my insurance. The office is closed and I leave a message, making a first attempt to put it into words, this thing that has happened. It comes to me that I do not have collision insurance on the Suburban: a minor concern at the moment.

As soon as I can, I go back into the truck, retrieve a pair of sandals for Dollie, a spare set of glasses for me. My world refocuses. I take her the shoes but find her in tears this time, talking on her cell phone to her sister-in-law.

“God, I don’t know what happened,” she wails, in misery as acute as her triumph was ten minutes ago. “I just lost it. They’re both wrecked.” I put a hand on her shoulder, mutter, “It’s not your fault.”

Paramedics arrive, and we sign forms saying that we don’t need to go to the hospital. Then the trooper, after perhaps twenty minutes, picking his way along the shoulder, getting other cars to move this way and that so his cruiser can squeeze through. He gets out, walks around, asks a very few questions, seems oddly pleased by something. “I’ve called someone I think you’ll like,” he tells me, mysteriously, then walks back along the road we have so completely blocked. Later, he will tell us that he found no skid marks, a piece of information that sounds vaguely wrong.

Soon the truck from Rick’s Towing arrives, charging up a steep embankment to outflank the traffic. Rick gets out, a wiry man in a sleeveless T-shirt, and proceeds to work his magic. Two cables snake out from the truck to the undercarriage of the camper, then pull it up and over and back upright, and then he repeats the stunt with the Suburban, both vehicles smashing down on their wheels so heavily I can’t believe the axles don’t snap. A trickle of longsuffering traffic begins easing around on the shoulder. A second truck arrives, a flatbed driven by Rick’s wife Tracy, a tiny young woman in jeans and a new-looking sweatshirt, with earrings and a necklace dangling a big cross. “Honey, I can’t hardly reach the pedals!” she drawls, laughing and breathless. Rick comes over, attaches another cable, pushes levers, tilts the bed. The crumpled SUV slides up onto the flatbed. The trailer is hitched to the other truck, and before we know it we are in a caravan to the wrecking yard, a few miles off the highway.

In the wake of terror comes euphoria — that adrenaline rush that makes junkies of sky-divers, dirt-bikers, mountain climbers — but then you crash, and a grim accounting comes due. Your psyche gets taken over by a pitiless board of inquiry that requires you to go back over the disaster, step by step, image by image, until you can make it come out differently in your head: nature’s drill-sergeant insisting on a rehearsal of lessons learned. You are to go over it till you get it right.

So for the next few days, those three seconds become the center of our lives, the black hole around which our galaxy revolves. Supernaturally dense, they seem to pack in whole lifetimes of sensation and action. Going over and over them, we keep finding new tidbits, fascinating little memories still waiting to be recovered. In the end there are so many that no one version, no single truth of what happened, can quite contain them all. We resist shrinking the larger thing down to any dry little set of causes and effects; and others offer their theories with a respectful air of suspended judgment.

At one point Rick tells us, “When there’s been a wreck you can always go back and say I should of done this or that. But you’re never going to know, and there’s just no point. Just thank the Lord for looking out for you, and go on.” Wrecking-yard philosophy, gleaned from mangled metal and shattered glass. The wise-ass in me wants to ask why the Lord couldn’t look out for the camper as well, or at least the uninsured Suburban, but of course I say no such thing.

The worst of the after-crash comes at the hotel, the drab overpriced Days Inn where we cool our heels and nurse our bruises all Sunday, waiting for a rental truck to be available on Monday. Ozark, Missouri, a town not even in my atlas, a place we would never have thought to visit, becomes our world for a day. We are there with no vehicle and almost no luggage — just essentials like underwear and medicine, hurriedly salvaged from the godawful mess inside the camper — and nothing to do but wait and watch TV. Our room is dim, cramped, awkward. Drawers stick, there are not enough towels or places to hang them, the plastic cups are absurdly small and flimsy. Lysol hangs in the air, ready to erase our presence as it has that of countless others.

We go out in the late morning and find ourselves in some of the least walkable terrain in the universe: all parking lots and drive-thru restaurants on a shoulderless frontage road, that unearthly American landscape so dedicated to the automobile that to be without one is to feel maimed. An evil impulse takes us to a nearby car dealership, closed of course, where we window-shop the stickers and confirm that new Suburbans are impossibly expensive. In this day’s depression our temporary status as pedestrians seems fraught with overtones. The crash has transformed us: one moment cocky, mildly prosperous vacationers, whirling past place after place at freeway speeds; the next needy refugees, dodging warily through traffic to reach a convenience store across an overpass, in an ugly town we cannot leave.

All day Dollie is sad, quiet, and a little weepy. She keeps shaking her head, saying, “I don’t understand,” muttering that she may never drive again, at least not with passengers. She apologizes for the wrecked rig, the wrecked vacation, our Thirtieth Anniversary Tour as we had cheerfully called it. I tell her that this is nonsense, that she did nothing wrong; but neither of us has ever been any good with speeches. We say it in other ways, keeping the coffee poured, the bills paid, the chores done. Hanging around for thirty years, plus the two we lived together before that.

“Well, I’m the one who dropped the insurance on the truck,” I offer.

“Which wouldn’t matter a bit if I hadn’t wrecked it,” she retorts. From the narrowing of her eyes I can tell she is reliving it again: the wheel in her hand gone suddenly useless, the road twisting underneath. We drop the discussion, feeling silly, two characters on TV.

We find a Shoney’s near the motel, walk over for a late buffet lunch. We have no more than sat down when our son calls from Chicago, talks to Dollie for a little while, then wants me. I have to take the phone outside, to have any chance of hearing him without my hearing aid. He wants to know what happened and I try to tell him, try to convey that any version is just a version. “How’s Mom doing?” he wants to know.

“We’re both okay,” I tell him. “Fine, really. Only she keeps blaming herself.”

“You mean — really?” he says, one of those tight-lipped family questions that is full of history. Dollie will sometimes lay claim to unlikely emotions, for the sake of making some kind of point or hiding her true feelings, which she keeps close, like the card player she is.

“No, really,” I tell him. “She thinks — well, she may have oversteered a little. It doesn’t matter, nothing could matter less, but she doesn’t see it that way.”

“Maybe you better keep telling her,” says Jay. Our son, the manager, the ambassador.

Back inside, Dollie has yet to touch her food. She looks like she needs a cigarette, though we both quit more than a decade ago. I sit down and give her the phone back. She picks up her fork, puts it down, stares straight ahead. “Oh, shit. It was that close. I mean that close. I could have killed you.”

I have to say something. “Honey, it’s just a mistake — at worst a small mistake. Most people have done something ten times worse in a car. I had that wreck back in high school, the girl was hurt. You can just never tell.” Absurdly, I am the one who is starting to tear up. Two nondescript old people blubbering over their lunches in the middle of Shoney’s is a bad idea. Dollie reaches over, pats my hand. We sit there blinking at our salads for a while.

Of course we still can’t leave it alone. There is no subject so full of life and interest and surprise, and we get back to it with the coffee. On this retelling, I hear something new: “I didn’t want us to go down into the gulley on the left, because I thought there might be water down there. So I put us into the wall on the right, then jerked us back to the left and hit that wall.”

This had made no sense before, because from my vantage in the passenger seat, the danger was all from the wall and the ravine on the right. But now I begin to picture it differently. “Do you mean the trailer was already coming around on the left, and going to drag us down sideways?”

“Yup,” she says.

“And is that why you jerked us so hard to the right?”

“Sure: right, then left.”

The trouble does not go out of her face, but at this point my day begins to lighten. I put myself mentally in the driver’s seat and see how it must have been: the trailer swinging around broadside in the mirror, already out of control, crashing a foregone conclusion. And now it makes good sense — I think it does — to haul hard to the right, even at the cost of hitting the wall on that side, because the real trouble is behind us. It is the jackknifing of the trailer that makes us hit the wall with that odd softness I remember, and which then pulls us back and over onto our left side when I am expecting to go up and over and down. But this way, we stay on the road. We live.

So for the last half of the three seconds, she knew exactly what she was doing. And now I think I understand her odd jubilation there on the roadside. She had thought we were goners, then managed to thread the needle, done what she intended. The doubts came later, as she stared at the wreckage and began to wonder how she lost control in the first place.

I would pay a lot of good money to see what the drivers just behind us saw.

Monday is better than Sunday. I get the rental truck and we rejoin the ranks of respectable wheeled Americans. Back at Rick and Tracy’s place, we conduct with reasonable cheer the grim business of salvaging our belongings from the camper. We marvel at the sheared-off hitch, the bent frame, the refrigerator inside that has broken from its mountings and crashed into the dinette. I worm my way into the back and retrieve the Thirtieth Anniversary Tour poster our daughter, the artist, made to stick in the back window. The Suburban has massive dents on all four fenders, each of which Dollie can account for: one for the abutment on the right, one for the one on the left, one each for the camper jackknifing around till it hit the rear fender, then snapped back all the way around to the other side. The driver’s door and much of that side are sanded down to bare metal from our long life-saving slide along the highway. Sharing the shed with our trailer is a sedan whose front end looks not just crumpled but melted, like a used candle. Following my gaze, Rick says, “Yeah, that was a double fatality.”

We get back on the road, then off again to buy some cheap furniture at a factory outlet — a sort of consolation prize for the lost vacation — then back on again, headed east, the sun behind us. About thirty miles along, still years away from being tired of the subject, we start to go over it yet again, less shyly now, more calmly and critically. Just for the sake of argument, I suggest, would braking have helped after all?

“No way,” Dollie says. “Every time I tapped the brakes . . .” She stops, gasps. Her eyes get big. “Oh my God. That camper never had any brakes coming down that hill!”

“That plug,” I say. “Of course!”

Suddenly we are both talking at once. Dollie’s face is a study of pure relief. The brakes, the brakes: how on earth could we fail to think of it? The camper brakes are wired through the same nine-way plug that controls the rear lights and turn signals and running lights. Not four hours before the wreck we stopped to fool with it, having lost the lights on the right side. We got the lights back, and as I drove I kept flipping the headlights on to make sure, in the mirror, that the trailer’s running lights came on too. But I never thought of the brakes; never even glanced at the indicator light on the brake controller, right there next to the steering column. Nor did I feel any problem when I stepped on the pedal, because we were on flat ground and the truck’s brakes alone could stop us smoothly.

Rather, I felt something — and misunderstood. About twenty minutes before we switched drivers, I noticed that the trailer was yawing more than usual — and blithely remarked to my wife that the wind was picking up. Most likely the brake connection failed right then; if not, it was surely gone when we came to the crest of that long curving hill. And that is why her first tap on the brakes brought a bizarre over-reaction from the camper, and the second sent it out of control entirely, and the trooper found no skid marks.

Now and forever, this will be our story of the three seconds, the only adequate version. I don’t even care that this new understanding puts so much more of the responsibility on me. An adequate explanation, vaguely undesirable yesterday, seems like the very thing needed today. One day was long enough to live in a world of mystery, where dark forces could rise up so suddenly to attack; today we much prefer a world of prosaic causes and effects, where you don’t expect to live forever but can at least learn from your mistakes. The deeper moral to be drawn from the experience is: “Check your brake controller.” We roll on towards home in our rented van, already beginning to discuss what kind of truck and camper we might want next, if one day we have the money.

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