By JJ Rushmore
I never liked automobiles. My parents’ car was a noisy, smelly machine, rumbling down the tarmac as it spewed out choking, noxious fumes. I invariably got carsick whenever they piled Tommy and me into the back seat and took us off somewhere I didn’t want to visit in the first place.
Two-lane highways petrified me. Leaning against the backseat window I’d watch in horror as the oncoming traffic whizzed past only inches from my face. The whole concept of a two-ton bullet steered by ordinary Joes and Janes seemed like a bad idea. It would only take a twitch of the steering wheel from a sneeze or a bee sting to cause terrifying disaster.
Two vehicles in a head-on collision each going seventy miles an hour is like one car hitting a brick wall doing a hundred and forty. No safety belt, air bag, or crumple zone could save the front seat passengers from instant death.
Which is what happened to my folks. One day they were there until they met a semi truck going the other way, and the next my brother and I were attending a double funeral. I never saw so many people dressed in black.
Aunt Sandy became our guardian and moved in with us, which allowed us to stay in our house. The life insurance proceeds were enough so that we didn’t hurt for money.
Tommy was two years older and graduated first. I didn’t blame him when he went off to join the army and left me with Aunt Sandy. She was okay, but a bit resentful for having parenthood foisted upon her. I got the feeling that after raising us she was done with the whole parenting thing.
I never got my driver’s license. In fact, I never learned to drive. Our town was small enough so I could walk most everywhere I needed. If I couldn’t walk there, I didn’t go there.
At school I became a computer whiz. My only after-school activities were computer lab and chess club. Which is where I met Kathy.
Actually, I knew Kathy before chess club. After all, she did live right next door. But she had always been a scrawny girl with a bully for a brother, and for years I avoided both her and him.
By the time we met in chess club she was no longer scrawny. Plus, she played a mean chess game and smiled at me. It wasn’t too long before we dated. We walked everywhere, even to prom.
After graduation we married, Kathy moved in, and Aunt Sandy moved out. Sandy shed lots of tears and promised to visit, but it never happened.
I worked from home designing websites, and Kathy worked at the local bank. We were happy except for friction over my fear of riding in automobiles, which my psychiatrist called amaxophobia.
Kathy yearned for a more normal life; one she couldn’t have while being married to an avowed pedestrian. Our options for dining out on foot were limited and it was too far to walk to the movie theater.
The only exception I made was for therapy sessions. My doctor didn’t make house calls, and the not-driving thing wasn’t my only issue.
I was a white-knuckle passenger when Kathy drove me to the therapist’s office. I broke into a cold sweat, my stomach tied itself in knots, and I slammed my foot on an imaginary brake pedal every few hundred feet.
We stopped at a red light on one of these trips when a semi truck careened into a Miata convertible stalled in the intersection. We watched in horror as the truck’s cab rode right up over the tiny sports car and crushed the car and its occupants. Incredulously, it backed up off the wreckage, and peeled away, tires smoking, leaving the remains of the smashed vehicle and the grisly carnage of its occupants. There were car parts and body parts and blood everywhere.
At first the scene froze in an eerie diorama. Then horns blared and drivers slowly inched their cars through the intersection and around the wreckage. Our car was one of them.
“What are you doing?” I screamed. “We have to stop!”
“I can’t, Michael! Everyone is forcing me to move!”
Other cars nudged and bumped us as Kathy struggled to maneuver our car through the traffic snarl. She succeeded to clear the tie-up, turn the corner, and pulled into a parking lot and stopped.
My whole body was shaking.
“Did you see that? That truck just ran over those poor people!” I started blubbering. “Omigod! Omigod! Omigod!”
Kathy stared dully out the windshield. “I don’t think they made it,” she said.
“Make it? They were smeared all over the road!” I shivered. “Wait! I saw the license plate! The truck’s license plate! I think I remember it.” I rummaged in the center console and came up with a pen, but no paper.
I growled in frustration. I squeezed my eyes closed and tried to picture the plate. I started humming the plate’s number to the tune of an old Wilson Picket song. H-1-1-T-1-5-A. H-1-1-T-1-5-A. —that’s my number— H-1-1-T-1-5-A. Over and over again.
“Michael? Michael, are you all right?” Kathy’s voice oozed concern. She placed a hand on my arm. “Are you having an attack or something?”
“No. No, I’ve got it. But I need some paper. Before I forget. Don’t you have any paper in the car?”
“I don’t think…” she said, “Wait! The manual. Use the car manual. In the glove compartment.”
I pulled out the instruction manual and found a blank page and began to write.
H-1-1-T… Was that 1-7, or 1-5? I know it ended with an A. Maybe it was 1-7. But wasn’t there a 5? Am I missing a digit? H-1-1-T-1-7-5-A? H-1-1-T-1-7-A? I repeatedly scribbled different combinations of numbers and letters.
I called the 9-1-1 dispatcher to say I was a witness to the accident and wanted to make a statement. She took my name and number and said someone would call me.
I was too upset for therapy. Kathy cancelled the appointment and took me home.
I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up all night, filling a loose-leaf notebook with various permutations of numbers and letters until my writing was an illegible scrawl. Nothing seemed to fit my memory.
I felt compelled to remember. I needed to see the truck driver brought to justice. I needed to stop the daily bloodshed on the highways. I needed to exact vengeance for my parents’ death. The vehicle that hit them was a semi truck.
Kathy worried about me. I ate little, slept not at all, and stopped working. I obsessed over my notebooks to the exclusion of all else.
The morning the paper carried an interview with another witness. The woman stated categorically the license plate number was H-I-1-T-1-7-A, and the truck company’s name was 5-Star Freight.
According to her, I was altogether wrong. The second character was an “I”, not a “1.” There was no “5” in the license plate; that came from the trucking company name. I wasn’t sure.
After three more sleepless nights and six more scribbled notebooks and no word from the police, I called them. I told the lieutenant I witnessed the so-called Miata Murders, as the press had dubbed them, and had important information.
“Yessir. What’ve you got for me?” The man sounded weary.
“I saw that Mack truck run over the Miata on Monday in Arlington.”
“Are you sure it was a Mack truck, sir?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know what I saw.”
“But you called it a Mack truck. Mack is a truck brand like Ford and Chevy are car brands. There are others like Peterbilt and Kenworth. Are you sure you saw a Mack?”
“I don’t know the brand of the truck. I thought a Mack truck was a type of truck. Anyway, that doesn’t matter! I saw the license plate!”
“Did you write the number down?”
“Yes—sort of. I can’t remember it exactly, but it began with H, ended with A, and had a T in the middle.”
He thanked me and said that was consistent with other information they had from cell phone and CCTV videos at the scene. He wouldn’t tell me the exact license number. He said they had found the truck, and arrested the driver.
If they had all that, they didn’t need me, but I couldn’t let it go. I still couldn’t sleep, and I filled up more notebooks.
Five days following the accident, on Saturday, a friend picked Kathy up to go to their book club meeting.
I entered the garage, closed the doors, and opened the car windows. I sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine. Falling asleep wouldn’t take long, nor would the rest.
I left Kathy a note. She would be relieved. The note said to put H-I-1-T-1-7-A on my headstone. That way I couldn’t forget.
And I’d never have to ride in a car again.
Writers’ workshop and writing group