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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Paper

CLOSE TO HOME

Crash, explosion, panic
A neighborhood accident is more than a wake-up call


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I was self-conscious when the 911 dispatcher picked up, and not because I was standing in the middle of the street in the middle of the night in my underwear. These are calls that sometimes get played back on the local news. What a lame, vain concern, given the emergency. But it somehow sharpened my focus.

Five minutes before, we were fast asleep. At least as fast asleep as parents of a teen driver out on a Saturday night can get. One eye closed, one eye on the bedstand cell phone. That's why the phone was an easy grab after the noises, the sort of noises that always change whatever happens next.

A wail of tires on pavement was followed by a crash. A hot, white strobe lit our room up like an X-ray. Then, an explosion. "Turn on the lights!" Peggy shouted. No lights. I looked out the window down to the corner. It was dark. No street lamps.

Peggy, in her pajamas, beat me out the door. I watched her disappear into the shadows down the street. "There was a crash!" I told the dispatcher after I gave her our location. "Where's the car?" she asked. "And an explosion!" I continued. "What's the make of the car?" 911 asked. I looked up and down. The streets were empty black ribbons. "There is no car," I said.

The night was a black hole. "Is anybody there?" I heard Peggy call out in the darkness. The dispatcher's voice lost urgency after learning there was no car. Police were on the way, she said, and we hung up. I looked down at my freezing feet and headed back in the house for shoes. And pants.

In the next minute a car was found. It was hard to see because it had situated itself, as though lowered by a crane, into a small patch of front yard just four doors from our house. A utility pole that usually emits energy absorbed energy when the car missed the sharp curve in the road, kissed the pole, and snapped it in two like a pretzel stick.

Neighbors, appearing from the darkness one after the next, formed a group across the street from the accident. We looked like extras outfitted for a cheesy holiday comedy. Nightgowns and winter boots. Bathrobes and stocking caps.

The car was a corpse, revealed in a patrol car's headlights. The crash had folded the front end completely under the windshield, which was itself shattered, crystallized into tiny, busted bits.

Police officers never use the word "car." Always "vehicle." There was a lot of use of this word, both to onlookers and as muttered into two-way radios. Their hungry flashlight beams darted across the scene. Inside the car, a white frosting coated the empty front seats. Airbags gone limp.

Versions of reality are like puzzle pieces. Jane was awake when the crash happened, updating her husband on the status of animal noises in the walls. She encountered the two drunk, limping occupants of the car. "Don't call the cops!" one of the boys was heard to say. They staggered away up the hill and disappeared into the night.

Our little circle stood whispering in the dark, comparing what we knew about the confusion around us. Someone mentioned that it was the first time we were all together since the Memorial Day potluck, and it occurs to me that our lives are gifts we continue to open together. Birthdays, anniversaries, Fourth of July picnics and retirements. Graduations, funerals and holiday parties. Even this strange moment. Presence is the greatest present.

One by one, we turned and headed back to our homes. When I got inside I could hear the generators from the electric trucks. I took a final look out our bedroom window and for a few moments watched the people who are paid to turn an emergency scene back into a normal one. The voices of gruff workers doing gruff work in the cold. I lay down.

Spiraling yellow light found the walls of our room, one at a time. Around and around. I wondered where the fortunate occupants of that car were. Our 17-year-old son had returned home before the accident even happened. Somehow he tossed and turned through all the commotion, half awake, completely safe, right across the hall.u

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