About ten miles from my job, thereâ€™s a park where I like to visit when, upon lunch time, I have nowhere else to go. My job, a manufacturing plant, has a cafeteria struck dead by austerity: white rectangular tables with plastic blue borders seem superfluous in the wake of headcount reductions; vending machines offer the remaining employees candy, chips, sandwiches and bottled drinks; a microwave–source of a god-awful smell, the aromatic warfare from zapped leftovers and Lean Cuisines–no one likes to clean, explaining its greasy door handle and permanent orange splatters along its walls. I have to leave, even when I have nowhere else to go, even when, alone in my car, the smoking and the pondering starts; the incessant voice in my head hitches itself to a daisy chain of nicotine clouds huff-puffing from my driver side window. So to the park I go.
I used to go with a Moleskine and pen–writerly tools hidden in my pockets to delineate pay-work from business–and gawk at the lake, a man-made puddle approximately one-half mile wide. In this notebook, I wrote about my past, wrote about my stories, my dreams, hopes too, on occasion. Iâ€™ve since stopped bringing the Moleskine with me. Now writing during most of my downtime, I found I needed a place, a sliver of space, where prose and publishing can lie gagged and bound in my trunk for forty-five minutes: me time, I think people call it.
The park itself is scenic, though meager. From the graveled parking lot, looking past the port-a-potties with trash strewn around their feet, ducks march in parsed cliques while a beige and green playground set appears abandoned like a crashed spaceship: swings toss in the wind; pollen gathers on the gunmetal slide; branches are snagged in between the monkey bars. The pine trees behind my car lose and regain their needles as the seconds count down, as I sit and smoke and ponder and watch the clock, knowing.
On this day, a change of pace: I bring my iPad to read Philip Rothâ€™s Nemesis. South Jerseyâ€™s wintry gloaming parts for the first vestiges of Spring sun. I am not alone; other cars–four in total–are parked in silence, their owners munching on hoagies or smoking squares while shifting gears in their personal lives, sifting through divorce proceedings or affairs or promotions to find, God help us, motivation to finish out the day, all our days. As for me, Iâ€™m reading: polio strikes Rothâ€™s Newark, NJ. The writing hasnâ€™t grabbed me yet–the book and I are in that feel-out, courtship phase: I figure out the bookâ€™s sound and rhythm; the book whispers its subtext, its subconscious secrets, wondering if Iâ€™ll find all of the easter eggs. My head jerks up.
A forest green car–a Honda, I believe–putters in a ditch, its left side crumpled. And, in the air, a white car twirls. Iâ€™m watching this while losing my sense of reality. One car hits another–an accident–but there must be another reason why the white car helicopters twenty feet from the road, spinning. The white car–a Toyota–hits the electric pole and, as if a boy pulled on his kite string, the vehicle ceases its flight and plummets to the road, flipping over twice before resting on its blown tires.
I run from a polio-stricken Newark; I run alongside a burly stranger who bolts from his pickup truck. A couple stumbles out of the green Honda. The black woman leans her weight against the car while the black man paces in the middle of the road, his hands to God–a cigarette in his right, a lighter in his left–looking temporarily dispatched via calamity back to his past: the things he didnâ€™t do, the things he wished he never did. Back to the present, he sits on a curb, lit cigarette in mouth, head clutched in hands. Blood and gasoline pours from the white Toyota. Iâ€™m there now, a few feet from the driverâ€™s door. Spider-webbed glass and a sickening shadow casted from the Spring sun makes it hard to see inside. A woman–Asian, I think–is slumped to her right, the seat belt preventing her from tumbling into the passenger seat. I reach for my phone–I look around–four other people send 911 signals through the skies, their pocket computers pressed to their ears. Police cars and fire engines wail from afar, their cacophonous cries to other cars–get the fuck out of the way–slowly becomes louder.
I feel like a fool as I stand beside my own car, watching the authorities authorize and dispense heroism; I should be doing something beside smoking and staring, I think; I remember this isnâ€™t television and the real superheroes are on the scene. Officers talk to the black couple; from my vantage point, I see the black man diagraming the accident with his hands. Meanwhile, the others work to open the Toyota; I hear something about jaws of life although, it seems, they find a way to pry off the door themselves. To my left, up above, I notice a helicopter. It looks to head west and away from us–until it banks right, soars over the park and begins its descent over my car. Iâ€™m inside now: the black American steel surrounding my car shudders; my ears ring; the helicopterâ€™s shadow slides over my car as the machine nudges itself to the field, its violent blades crying to the ducks, get the fuck out of the way.
Paramedics tend to the black couple as the helicopter lands: two men in blue jumpsuits saunter from its cockpit, orange bags in hand. Their walk seems too leisurely to me, but what do I know? Iâ€™m the guy still smoking, still cooling down from the impromptu sprint, looking and peeking to piece together the scene, playing detective from a court-side view in my sports car. Anyway, they finally remove the woman from the white Toyota; they open its backseat door; a small dog bolts from the Toyota, running in circles, then a straight line to the lake. Its long brown fur is a blur. Its bark rattles the ducks who, like us in the parking lot, are unsure of themselves–do we stay or fly away?–and they flap their wings to let the dog past, then return to the earth, quacking and beefing between themselves over bread and mallard politics.
My lunch hour is up; the others arrive at the same conclusion. One by one, cars exit the parking lot. My engine is on, my hands are on the wheel, but Iâ€™m waiting. I should scan the area for a lasting image, something to use to end the piece Iâ€™ll undoubtedly write. I do see duck feathers and the whimpering dog; I do see the black couple swaddled in blankets beside the ambulance; the womanâ€™s head is strapped to a board as the pilots prepare to take her to our townâ€™s trauma center; Iâ€™m looking for the abiding image–some scene, any scene, to tie my future story up neatly, nicely. I shift my car into Drive, drop the parking brake, and sigh–